Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope.

The Chonicles of Barsetshire ~
The Warden Barchester Towers Doctor Thorne Framley Parsonage 

"Wars about trifles," said he, "are always bitter, 
especially among neighbours."

Barchester Towers is the second of the Chronicles of Barsetshire series by Anthony Trollope, which I'm reading as part of Amanda and Melissa's read-along. It was published in 1857 and follows The Warden (1855).

It was, strangely enough, largely composed on train journeys. Trollope wrote in his autobiography (An Autobiography, 1883):
It was while I was engaged on Barchester Towers that I adopted a system of writing which, for some years afterwards, I found to be very serviceable to me. My time was greatly occupied in travelling, and the nature of my travelling was now changed. I could not any longer do it on horseback. Railroads afforded me my means of conveyance, and I found that I passed in railway-carriages very many hours of my existence... I made for myself therefore a little tablet, and found after a few days' exercise that I could write as quickly in a railway-carriage as I could at my desk. I worked with a pencil, and what I wrote my wife copied afterwards. In this way was composed the greater part of Barchester Towers and of the novel which succeeded it, and much also of others subsequent to them. 
First page of Barchester Towers.
The story begins with the death of Bishop Grantly, the father of Archdeacon Grantly, who is Mr. Harding's son-in-law (Mr. Harding, we remember, was the main character of The Warden). It is generally assumed that his son, Dr. Theophilus Grantly, will be his successor. However, the influence of a new Prime Minister means that Bishop Proudie 'gains the see' and is the new Bishop of Barchester. This is but the first conflict in Barchester Towers. Another: Bishop and Archdeacon Grantly represent the 'High Church' Anglicans, generally conservative (with a small "c"), whereas Bishop Proudie represents the 'Low Church', a derogatory term for the faction of the Anglican church that placed less emphasis on ritual, tradition and formality. As Trollope writes in Barchester Towers,
It appeared clear that High Church principles, as they are called, were no longer to be surest claims to promotion with at any rate one section of statesmen, and Dr. Proudie was one among those who early in life adapted himself to the views held by the Whigs on most theological and religious subjects. He bore with the idolatry of Rome, tolerated even the infidelity of Socinianism, and was hand and glove with the Presbyterian Synods of Scotland and Ulster.
It's worth noting, at this point, that Trollope appeared not to have sympathy with either, writing later in the novel of Bishop Proudie and Archdeacon Grantly,
Both men are eager, much too eager, to support and increase the power of their order. Both are anxious that the world should be priest-governed, though they have probably never confessed so much, even to themselves. Both begrudge any other kind of dominion held by man over man.
Nevertheless, the 'High Church' / 'Low Church' was a significant conflict among Anglicans in the mid-19th Century and Trollope writes on it in his own Trollope-style: witty, intelligent, sharp, and, my favourite thing about Trollope's novels, informal, which for me makes it all the more engaging. I'm reading Proust still, and whilst I'm enjoying it, I don't feel a part of it as much as I do with Trollope. Through Proust's vivid prose I can picture the details he shares, but with Trollope it feels like a real conversation, and a remarkable pleasant one at that. His characters are so well-drawn. I said in The Warden review that Septimus Harding was one of my most favourite characters in literature. It is impossible to say that Olivia Proudie or Obadiah Slope, two central characters of Barchester Towers could ever be favourites because, frankly, they're obnoxious, however they will stay with me along with Septimus.

Obadiah Slope. His name is a reference
to Mr. Slop in Tristram Shandy.
Mr Slope (who was played by Alan Rickman in the 1982 BBC dramatisation) is a chaplain who exerts much influence over Bishop Proudie. Trollope describes him as "tall, and not ill-made" - 
His feet and hands are large, as has ever been the case with all his family, but he has a broad chest and wide shoulders to carry off these excrescences, and on the whole his figure is good. His countenance, however, is not specially prepossessing. His hair is lank and of a dull pale reddish hue. It is always formed into three straight, lumpy masses, each brushed with admirable precision and cemented with much grease; two of them adhere closely to the sides of his face, and the other lies at right angles above them. He wears no whiskers, and is always punctiliously shaven. His face is nearly of the same colour as his hair, though perhaps a little redder: it is not unlike beef–beef, however, one would say, of a bad quality. His forehead is capacious and high, but square and heavy and unpleasantly shining. His mouth is large, though his lips are thin and bloodless; and his big, prominent, pale-brown eyes inspire anything but confidence. His nose, however, is his redeeming feature: it is pronounced, straight and well-formed; though I myself should have liked it better did it not possess a somewhat spongy, porous appearance, as though it had been cleverly formed out of a red-coloured cork.
Mrs.Proudie, by George Housman
Thomas (from The Last Chronicle
of Barset, 1867)
He is central to quite a number of conflicts within Barchester Towers: in the question of who will be the new warden, Slope pushes for Mr. Quiverful, however, on finding that Eleanor, Harding's widowed daughter, is wealthy, he pushes for Harding to resume the wardenship in order to gain Eleanor's favour (all the while being fascinated with Signora Madeline Vesey Neroni, Dr. Stanhope's daughter) . Mrs. Proudie, on the other hand, remains firm in her desire to appoint Mr. Quiverful (you'll find that Bishop Proudie rarely gets a say in anything). As Trollope writes,
It is not my intention to breathe a word against the character of Mrs. Proudie, but still I cannot think that with all her virtues she adds much to her husband's happiness. The truth is that in matters domestic she rules supreme over her titular lord, and rules with a rod of iron. Nor is this all. Things domestic Dr. Proudie might have abandoned to her, if not voluntarily, yet willingly. But Mrs. Proudie is not satisfied with such home dominion, and stretches her power over all his movements, and will not even abstain from things spiritual. In fact, the bishop is hen-pecked.
Like Mr. Slope, Mrs. Proudie causes great disharmony in Barset, and Mr. Harding, Eleanor Bold (Harding's daughter), and others get caught up. If George Eliot wrote of the webs of rural England, Trollope wrote the webs of clerics. It is, after all, about the society: the fact that these men and women have some association with the church could almost be incidental. There is, as ever, many important elements that I haven't included: this is a complex novel, I suppose in a way like Middlemarch,  it's a story of a time, a social group, men and women, their relationships and conflicts with each other, their church, their society, and wider society. George Eliot once wrote, 
We ought to respect our influence. We know by our own experience how very much others affect our lives, and we must remember that we in turn must have the same effect upon others.
This novel is an example of this sentiment. And it is not a difficult read, despite what I may appear to be suggesting. Far from it, I very much enjoyed it. I have to confess, I did on the whole prefer The Warden, but I would still recommend this book. 

So, that's Barchester Towers! I'm really looking forward to starting Doctor Thorne in May, and, although they're awful, I hope to see more of Mr. Slope and Mrs. Proudie.

Further Reading

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Swann's Way, by Marcel Proust.

À la recherche du temps perdu.
This is going to be a two-part post: in the first part I'd like to write a little about 'reading the hard stuff' and tackling Swanns Way, and in the second part I'll share my thoughts on the novel itself.

Apologies, by the way, for this being so long: I have a lot of thoughts and it is useful to write these things down when tackling something as large as this.

Part I: On Reading the 'Hard Stuff'.

I was thinking about the Chronicles of Barsetshire yesterday, which as you may know is a six book series by Anthony Trollope. This series contains, approximately, 1 291 165 words. In Search of Lost Time is believed to contain around 1 267 069 words, which is 24 096 less (I added up the word count of the Chronicles of Barsetshire using Feedbooks, and Wikipedia has a word count of In Search of Lost Time). So, the Chronicles of Barsetshire is significantly longer, and yet significantly less intimidating. Furthermore, I happily read through Émile Zola's Rougon Macquart series (20 books), yet I, along with everyone, fear Marcel Proust's seven (though these seven books are, in fact, one novel). Why? The answer of course: In Search of Lost Time is modernist literature. It is experimental, it's strange, it's out of my comofrt zone however hard I try to familiarise myself with it. ("Make it new" said Ezra Pound, and they did: even now, one hundred years on, it feels new, and it takes time to feel at ease with it (if, indeed, anyone ever does).

There are some books that demand more effort, and whilst these books may differ from person to person, I think In Search of Lost Time is one of these novels that everyone agrees is hard. This novel has companions, maps, 'field guides';  there is a book (which looks great) just about the art in In Search of Lost Time: so much is written, and it's easy to feel that in order to read Proust, one ought to read these. 

I do think they're beneficial. I would like one. But I also believe that there's a danger in feeling that one is not good enough for Proust. As I was writing about the first three sections of Swann's Way in Part III of this post, I consulted a wealth of material (little of it used in this post) and tied myself in knots. I have to ask - why do I feel the need to do this?

When I write reviews, I usually pick one or two aspects of a novel and write about that. People who have read the books I've reviewed know too well that I don't do, or try to do, an in depth analysis of the entire novel, novella, poem, or play. I don't look for that in other bloggers either: blogging is personal thing, and I like to read about what struck people about a piece of writing, and this is what I try to do myself. 

So why not do this with Proust? This is going to be my approach to Proust: my standard approach. What I hope to write in the coming months are my thoughts on each part of In Search of Lost Time and it will be, as with all my other posts, imperfect, biased (possibly), and incomplete. It is by doing this that I come to reach an understanding of a book. I don't want to feel intimidated by Proust, nor about writing about it, and I don't want to attempt to present an academic-style essay when I am not an academic. In short: I don't want to make this an impossible task and sap out the enjoyment! 

Part II: The Review of Swann's Way.

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unus'd to flow,
For precious friends hid in death's dateless night,
And weep afresh love's long since cancell'd woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish'd sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor'd and sorrows end.
William Shakespeare, Sonnet XXX.

The title of À la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past, or, In Search of Lost Time) derives from Shakespeare's Sonnet XXX quoted above - "When to the sessions of sweet silent thought  / I summon up remembrance of things past", and Swann's Way (originally titled Du côté de chez Swann, first published in November 1913), the first part of the novel refers to a path where Marcel would walk:
For there were, in the environs of Combray, two 'ways' which we used to take for our walks, and so diametrically opposed that we would actually leave the house by a different door, according to the way we had chosen: the way towards Méséglise-la-Vineuse, which we called also 'Swann's way,' because, to get there, one had to pass along the boundary of M. Swann's estate, and the 'Guermantes way.' [The Guermantes Way (Le Côté de Guermantes) is the title of the third book, published in 1920 - 1921]
It is divided into four chapters: the 'Overture', also known as 'Combray I', Combray, also known as 'Combray II', 'Swann in Love', and 'Place Names: The Name'. There are two stories: one about the narrator, Marcel, who dominates the 'Overture', 'Combray', and 'Place Names: The Name', and Swann, who Marcel writes about in 'Swann in Love', the action of which takes place around fifteen years earlier. I'll look at each section, but I must say: I know the quotes I share are very long. Proust's quotes are very long, and I feel as though I'm butchering them by making them shorter: in attempting to find the 'essence', I in fact lose it!

~ Overture ~
Pages 3 - 51
For a long time I used to go to bed early. Sometimes, when I had put out my candle, my eyes would close so quickly that I had not even time to say "I'm going to sleep." And half an hour later the thought that it was time to go to sleep would awaken me; I would try to put away the book which, I imagined, was still in my hands, and to blow out the light; I had been thinking all the time, while I was asleep, of what I had just been reading, but my thoughts had run into a channel of their own, until I myself seemed actually to have become the subject of my book: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between François I and Charles V. This impression would persist for some moments after I was awake; it did not disturb my mind, but it lay like scales upon my eyes and prevented them from registering the fact that the candle was no longer burning. Then it would begin to seem unintelligible, as the thoughts of a former existence must be to a reincarnate spirit; the subject of my book would separate itself from me, leaving me free to choose whether I would form part of it or no; and at the same time my sight would return and I would be astonished to find myself in a state of darkness, pleasant and restful enough for the eyes, and even more, perhaps, for my mind, to which it appeared incomprehensible, without a cause, a matter dark indeed.
Proust is frequently criticised by those who cannot get past the Overture that he has described an inconsequential character who cannot sleep, and taken up fifty pages in doing so. Obviously, it is much more than that: whilst not sleeping, Marcel muses on time and space, mortality, childhood, reality and fiction, and the descriptions are beautiful, both vivid and dreamlike.

The opening to Swann's Way, and, indeed, In Search of Lost Time, sets the tone for this dreamy part of the novel where the narrator, who we come to learn is Marcel, tells of his difficulties of getting to sleep. It is not the dark he fears so much as losing his sense of time, feeling at mercy to the "confused gusts of memory". He tells of falling asleep, "where the moonlight striking upon the half-opened shutters would throw down to the foot of my bed its enchanted ladder". He reminisces, thinking of his childhood days at his grandparents at Combray when insomnia tormented and depressed him. He longed so deeply for the comfort of his mother expressed in a goodnight kiss that, when it was denied him, he would plot and contrive to make her come to his room. Most often, it is when M. Swann would visit, a friend of Marcel's grandfather (and "the unconscious author of my sufferings"), who, unbeknown to them, was
... one of the smartest members of the Jockey Club, a particular friend of the Comte de Paris and of the Prince of Wales, and one of the men most sought after in the aristocratic world of the Faubourg Saint-Germain.
But Monsieur Charles Swann is secondary to Marcel in the Overture, who describes most poignantly the desire to see his mother, yet, on this desire being satisfied, experiences terrific guilt at troubling her, as though by "winning" her one evening when his father tells her it would be best if she slept with him that night, he "traced a first wrinkle upon her soul and brought out a first white hair on her head."

The battle over, and mother "won", Marcel concluded, saying that thoughts of those days at Combray barely entered his mind, until one winter's day all the memories come flooding back in surely what is the most famous passage of the novel:
Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called 'petites madeleines,' which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim's shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it?

Combray ~
Pages 52 - 204
For there were, in the environs of Combray, two 'ways' which we used to take for our walks, and so diametrically opposed that we would actually leave the house by a different door, according to the way we had chosen: the way towards Méséglise-la-Vineuse, which we called also 'Swann's way,' because, to get there, one had to pass along the boundary of M. Swann's estate, and the 'Guermantes way.'
Hawthorn blossom.
In this section Proust describes Combray, a small village in the centre of France. Before In Search of Lost Time, the village was known as Illiers, but in honour of Proust the name was changed to Illiers-Combray in 1971 to celebrate the centenary of Proust's birth.

In this section we meet Aunt Léonie who, following the death of her husband, develops acute hypochondria. Marcel describes her in a humorous though somewhat unforgiving passage - 
I would often hear her saying to herself: "I must not forget that I never slept a wink"—for "never sleeping a wink" was her great claim to distinction, and one admitted and respected in our household vocabulary; in the morning Françoise would not 'call' her, but would simply 'come to' her; during the day, when my aunt wished to take a nap, we used to say just that she wished to 'be quiet' or to 'rest'; and when in conversation she so far forgot herself as to say "what made me wake up," or "I dreamed that," she would flush and at once correct herself.
We also meet Françoise, Léonie's servant, M. Legrandin (an engineer and poet), Uncle Adolphe, and his friend Bloch, who introduces him to the writer Bergotte (to name but a few of the characters).

There are a great many references to Hawthorn and Hawthorn blossom in 'Combray', Marcel (the narrator) describes himself as in love with them, and later writes, 
But it was in vain that I lingered before the hawthorns, to breathe in, to marshal before my mind (which knew not what to make of it), to lose in order to rediscover their invisible and unchanging odour, to absorb myself in the rhythm which disposed their flowers here and there with the light-heartedness of youth, and at intervals as unexpected as certain intervals of music; they offered me an indefinite continuation of the same charm, in an inexhaustible profusion, but without letting me delve into it any more deeply, like those melodies which one can play over a hundred times in succession without coming any nearer to their secret. I turned away from them for a moment so as to be able to return to them with renewed strength.
Hawthorns, according to Celtic mythology, are associated with balance and duality: the hawthorn is full of contradictions - the beauty of the flowers and the dangers of the thorns. But these are not the only flowers in Swann's Way, of course.

Proust's love of music shows in In Search of Lost Time, and particularly Swann's Way. There are the obvious examples, the use of words associated with music, but this is my favourite part - the 'symphony of flies' - 
It was hardly light enough for me to read, and my feeling of the day's brightness and splendour was derived solely from the blows struck down below, in the Rue de la Curé, by Camus (whom Françoise had assured that my aunt was not 'resting' and that he might therefore make a noise), upon some old packing-cases from which nothing would really be sent flying but the dust, though the din of them, in the resonant atmosphere that accompanies hot weather, seemed to scatter broadcast a rain of blood-red stars; and from the flies who performed for my benefit, in their small concert, as it might be the chamber music of summer; evoking heat and light quite differently from an air of human music which, if you happen to have heard it during a fine summer, will always bring that summer back to your mind, the flies' music is bound to the season by a closer, a more vital tie—born of sunny days, and not to be reborn but with them, containing something of their essential nature, it not merely calls up their image in our memory, but gives us a guarantee that they do really exist, that they are close around us, immediately accessible.
Also in 'Combray', when Marcel decides to become a novelist, he writes about literature (which, as I love this part, I'll quote at length):
Next to this central belief, which, while I was reading, would be constantly a motion from my inner self to the outer world, towards the discovery of Truth, came the emotions aroused in me by the action in which I would be taking part, for these afternoons were crammed with more dramatic and sensational events than occur, often, in a whole lifetime. These were the events which took place in the book I was reading. It is true that the people concerned in them were not what Françoise would have called 'real people.' But none of the feelings which the joys or misfortunes of a 'real' person awaken in us can be awakened except through a mental picture of those joys or misfortunes; and the ingenuity of the first novelist lay in his understanding that, as the picture was the one essential element in the complicated structure of our emotions, so that simplification of it which consisted in the suppression, pure and simple, of 'real' people would be a decided improvement. A 'real' person, profoundly as we may sympathise with him, is in a great measure perceptible only through our senses, that is to say, he remains opaque, offers a dead weight which our sensibilities have not the strength to lift. If some misfortune comes to him, it is only in one small section of the complete idea we have of him that we are capable of feeling any emotion; indeed it is only in one small section of the complete idea he has of himself that he is capable of feeling any emotion either. The novelist's happy discovery was to think of substituting for those opaque sections, impenetrable by the human spirit, their equivalent in immaterial sections, things, that is, which the spirit can assimilate to itself. After which it matters not that the actions, the feelings of this new order of creatures appear to us in the guise of truth, since we have made them our own, since it is in ourselves that they are happening, that they are holding in thrall, while we turn over, feverishly, the pages of the book, our quickened breath and staring eyes. And once the novelist has brought us to that state, in which, as in all purely mental states, every emotion is multiplied ten-fold, into which his book comes to disturb us as might a dream, but a dream more lucid, and of a more lasting impression than those which come to us in sleep; why, then, for the space of an hour he sets free within us all the joys and sorrows in the world, a few of which, only, we should have to spend years of our actual life in getting to know, and the keenest, the most intense of which would never have been revealed to us because the slow course of their development stops our perception of them. It is the same in life; the heart changes, and that is our worst misfortune; but we learn of it only from reading or by imagination; for in reality its alteration, like that of certain natural phenomena, is so gradual that, even if we are able to distinguish, successively, each of its different states, we are still spared the actual sensation of change. 
Next to, but distinctly less intimate a part of myself than this human element, would come the view, more or less projected before my eyes, of the country in which the action of the story was taking place, which made a far stronger impression on my mind than the other, the actual landscape which would meet my eyes when I raised them from my book. In this way, for two consecutive summers I used to sit in the heat of our Combray garden, sick with a longing inspired by the book I was then reading for a land of mountains and rivers, where I could see an endless vista of sawmills, where beneath the limpid currents fragments of wood lay mouldering in beds of watercress; and nearby, rambling and clustering along low walls, purple flowers and red. And since there was always lurking in my mind the dream of a woman who would enrich me with her love, that dream in those two summers used to be quickened with the freshness and coolness of running water; and whoever she might be, the woman whose image I called to mind, purple flowers and red would at once spring up on either side of her like complementary colours. 
This was not only because an image of which we dream remains for ever distinguished, is adorned and enriched by the association of colours not its own which may happen to surround it in our mental picture; for the scenes in the books I read were to me not merely scenery more vividly portrayed by my imagination than any which Combray could spread before my eyes but otherwise of the same kind. Because of the selection that the author had made of them, because of the spirit of faith in which my mind would exceed and anticipate his printed word, as it might be interpreting a revelation, these scenes used to give me the impression—one which I hardly ever derived from any place in which I might happen to be, and never from our garden, that undistinguished product of the strictly conventional fantasy of the gardener whom my grandmother so despised—of their being actually part of Nature herself, and worthy to be studied and explored.
It is in this section that Marcel first meets Gilberte, Swann's daughter, who he falls in love with.

~ Swann in Love ~
Pages 205 - 415

This part, Un Amour de Swann, is almost a novella in its own right and has been published in a volume of it's own. Marcel tells the story of Charles Swann who is in love with the vulgar, superficial, self-obsessed Odette de Crécy, who was once a prostitute. Proust writes of Swann's obsession that followed from his realisation that Odette looks like Botticelli's 'Zipporah' - 
He no longer based his estimate of the merit of Odette's face on the more or less good quality of her cheeks, and the softness and sweetness—as of carnation-petals—which, he supposed, would greet his lips there, should he ever hazard an embrace, but regarded it rather as a skein of subtle and lovely silken threads, which his gazing eyes collected and wound together, following the curving line from the skein to the ball, where he mingled the cadence of her neck with the spring of her hair and the droop of her eyelids, as though from a portrait of herself, in which her type was made clearly intelligible.

Left: Botticelli's Trial of Moses.
Right: Detail showing Zipporah, Jethro's daughter.
Swann is entirely consumed from then on in with Odette and his jealousy sends him around Paris looking for her, spying on her; wanting to know her movements. He becomes detached from the real world and suffers a nightmare of humiliations: she is, of course, unfaithful to him, but he believes he loves her, yet at times her wishes she would die. Ultimately he comes to his senses, and Odette ceases to be Botticelli's Zipporah-
Odette's pallid complexion, her too thin cheeks, her drawn features, her tired eyes, all the things which—in the course of those successive bursts of affection which had made of his enduring love for Odette a long oblivion of the first impression that he had formed of her—he had ceased to observe after the first few days of their intimacy, days to which, doubtless, while he slept, his memory had returned to seek the exact sensation of those things.... "To think that I've wasted years of my life, that I've longed to die, that I've experienced my greatest love, for a woman who didn't appeal to me, who wasn't even my type!"
'Swann in Love' is a desperately sad episode, and very moving: probably something many of us can identify with. 

~ Place Names: The Name ~ 
Pages 416 - 462

Cynical as this may sound (and I don't wish it to sound cynical), by this stage a chapter of less than fifty pages becomes very manageable. It is but a short chapter that returns to Marcel and describes his falling in love with Gilberte, which has parallels with Swann's love of Odette (Marcel, for example believes Gilberte's dark eyes are really blue). Marcel becomes fascinated with the Swanns, and at one point even tries to look like Charles Swann:
As for Swann, in my attempts to resemble him, I spent the whole time, when I was at table, in drawing my finger along my nose and in rubbing my eyes. My father would exclaim: "The child's a perfect idiot, he's becoming quite impossible." More than all else I should have liked to be as bald as Swann. He appeared to me to be a creature so extraordinary that I found it impossible to believe that people whom I knew and often saw knew him also, and that in the course of the day anyone might run against him. And once my mother, while she was telling us, as she did every evening at dinner, where she had been and what she had done that afternoon, merely by the words: "By the way, guess whom I saw at the Trois Quartiers—at the umbrella counter—Swann!" caused to burst open in the midst of her narrative (an arid desert to me) a mystic blossom.
'Place Names' also contains a beautiful description of synæsthesia (definition: "A condition in which one type of stimulation evokes the sensation of another, as when the hearing of a sound produces the visualization of a colour.") - 
... Bayeux, so lofty in its noble coronet of rusty lace, whose highest point caught the light of the old gold of its second syllable; Vitré, whose acute accent barred its ancient glass with wooden lozenges; gentle Lamballe, whose whiteness ranged from egg-shell yellow to a pearly grey; Coutances, a Norman Cathedral, which its final consonants, rich and yellowing, crowned with a tower of butter; Lannion with the rumble and buzz, in the silence of its village street, of the fly on the wheel of the coach; Questambert, Pontorson, ridiculously silly and simple, white feathers and yellow beaks strewn along the road to those well-watered and poetic spots; Benodet, a name scarcely moored that seemed to be striving to draw the river down into the tangle of its seaweeds; Pont-Aven, the snowy, rosy flight of the wing of a lightly poised coif, tremulously reflected in the greenish waters of a canal; Quimperlé, more firmly attached, this, and since the Middle Ages, among the rivulets with which it babbled, threading their pearls upon a grey background, like the pattern made, through the cobwebs upon a window, by rays of sunlight changed into blunt points of tarnished silver?


Memory, time, and perception are the main themes of Swann's Way, that time is not an absolute entity and there are no universal truths, just understandings pertinent to an individual's emotions and experiences. As Proust concludes at the end of Swann's Way
The places that we have known belong now only to the little world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. None of them was ever more than a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; remembrance of a particular form is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.


Saturday, 26 April 2014

Dewey's Readathon.

Today is the day! I do love a readathon! This is, I think, my fifth Dewey's Readathon: the first two or three I managed a full 24 hours, but the past few I've not gone much beyond 15. Today, as tomorrow and the next few days are quite busy, I'm aiming for a mere 12. But 12 hours of reading is very welcome. And who knows, perhaps I'll surprise myself.

Today is ideal weather for reading: grey, misty, and on and off rain. It's cold here, and not at all like spring. I'm very much looking forward to sitting in front of the fire and reading my books.  

On my radar are:

I do not, of course, aim to read them all! I do want to finish Swann's Way by Proust (I'm on the last chapter, so around 60 pages away from the end), and I do want to read Émile Zola's The Attack on the Mill. After which... I'm rather drawn to Balzac's Cousin Bette, but George Eliot's Adam Bede is also a strong possibility. And, should I manage to finish one of these, I dare say I'll read the first part of Parade's End, although I do rather like the look of Bouvard and Pécuchet

We shall see... 

I have been reading all morning (which I do tend to do on a Saturday), and my morning has been spent reading 'Swann in Love' (the third chapter of Swann's Way). I think, when we start in the next five minutes, I shall go for Zola, then pick up Proust later in the day.

Have fun to all those who are joining in! I'll update this post in a few hours. For now, I need to put the fire on, sort out one or two things I really ought to have done by now (find a phone charger - that's one of the mundane tasks), make a cup of coffee, and settle down with Monsieur Zola. A perfect start to the readathon.

Update #1: So far, so good. I've read The Attack on the Mill (a short story), and ⅓ through Cousin Bette.

The Attack on the Mill was wonderful - for those who have read and enjoyed The Debacle by Zola, I suggest you check this one out.

Cousin Bette - well, I'm happy enough reading it, but I don't feel so engaged. I'm going to stick with it, then finish Swann's Way.

Hope everyone's having fun!

Update #2: I've finished Cousin Bette. It is a book I've tried over and over again to read for a few years now, and yes, at last, I've finally read it. Problem was I didn't actually like it. But it was useful to read, and I see, objectively, that it was good, and I am glad to have read it.

Next - I'm going to bed and I'm going to finish Swann's Way, after which I shall update once more, then... I don't know what I'll read next!

Update #3: I finished Swann's Way, and now to bed (the chickens will not understand my need for a lie in tomorrow, I'm afraid!). I'm going to read a little of Within a Budding Grove (second of In Search of Lost Time) and drift off to sleep. Good luck to everyone who is still going! 

Friday, 25 April 2014

The Flood, by Émile Zola.

In June 1875 following rapidly melting snow and heavy rainfall, the valley of Garonne in Toulouse, France,  was flooded. The Spectator, who reported that near 3 000 lives were lost, wrote - 
Within six hours of the first alarm of an unusual rise in the water, the Garonne had swept away every bridge of Toulouse except one, the old stone bridge of St. John, and flowing in an unbroken rush into St. Cyprien, rose above the streets so rapidly that the terrified inhabitants were compelled to take refuge in the upper stories. Scores of persons appear to have been strangled by the flood—all the slaughterers in the great abattoir, for example, being killed at once —but the great loss of life arose from another cause, which recalled the idea of earthquake to the wretched people. The rushing water felled the weaker houses as giant shells would have done, and under- mined the foundations of the stronger, till through one entire night, houses were toppling as in an earthquake, and the awful scenes at and around Cucuta, in New Granada, on May 18, when 16,000 persons perished at once by earthquake, were repeated in Languedoc. Escape, if the houses once shook, was, of course, hopeless. There were the walls above and the water below, and a stream outside in which a boat could scarcely live. Nearly 1,000 persons are known to have been killed in St. Cyprien alone by the falling houses, trees, and monuments, or to have been drowned in escaping from upper stories, or capsized in boats which put out into the streets to rescue the sufferers,—sometimes, to the credit of human nature be it spoken, if not of human reason, with a priest on board to give absolution to the dying as they swept past. The flood seems, in fact, like war, to have brought out the strongest feelings of those attacked, and French papers are full of stories of acts of heroism performed by individuals, and of explosions of class dislike—the workmen stoning the gentry who went to see the scene—and of instances of mania produced by fear.
The front page of The Spectator concerning 
the flood in Garonne, 3rd July, 1875.
It is this event that inspired Émile Zola's 1880 novella L'Inondation (The Flood), set in the village of Saint-Jory. Zola tells the story of Louis Roubien, a seventy year old farmer who lives with his family: his children, grandchildren, and his brother and sister. After a long period of struggling, the Roubiens finally are prosperous, and Louis Roubien is the richest farmer in the parish. May, when the story begins, is their best year so far, and Roubien says, "Our house seemed blessed, happiness reigned there. The sun was our brother, and I cannot recall a bad crop." But this is not to last:
Little by little the sky paled; the village became more drowsy. It was the evening of a beautiful day; and I thought that all our good fortune—the big harvests, the happy house, the betrothal of Veronique—came to us from above in the purity of the dying light. A benediction spread over us with the farewell of the evening.
Meanwhile I had returned to the center of the room. The girls were chattering. We listened to them, smiling. Suddenly, across the serenity of the country, a terrible cry sounded, a cry of distress and death:
"The Garonne! The Garonne!"
What follows is a disturbing account of flooding of the valley of Garonne. We see Zola the journalist and Zola the novelist at once in a tale almost reminiscent of both Germinal (1885) and The Earth (1887): Zola gives names and faces to those who died in June 1875; he gives them a story, and he portrays the senselessness of this act of God, this natural disaster.

To read The Flood with Zola's Rougon Macquart novels in mind makes it all the more pessimistic. With most of his Rougon Macquart novels, an anti-Imperial satire which, at the heart of them describe the laws of man and the poison of the Second Empire where humanity is at the mercy not only of themselves (the idea of heredity) but also those who govern the society, there is indeed a sense of hopelessness, that destiny is much stronger than will. However, at least in theory, one can hope that with the shackles thrown off, liberty and equality may be possible, and humankind may perhaps be happier. There is not this hope in The Flood. Farmers may prosper (as Roubien did within the Second Empire) and happiness may be attained, however the world remains fragile, humanity remains at the mercy of nature. For this, it is one of the grimmest of Zola's tales. Free Will, it seems, is but a myth.

All that said, there was an interesting point in The Spectator that perhaps suggest otherwise. The writer claims, "We abuse our climate habitually" - could this have been one of the early warnings of climate change? This is a debate that has raged for two hundred years now, for example Joseph Fourier is credited with discovering the greenhouse effect in the 1820s, and he suspected that this may be affected by human activities. I don't know if Zola was familiar with the debate and if it is feasible to suggest that The Flood is another attack on the destructive Second Empire. It's hard to say: I really don't know the answer to it. It could be. It may not be.

Either way, this is a disturbing read, but then Zola is not an author to while away the gentle hours. The Flood is very short: I class it as a novella, but it may correctly be classed as a short story. It is truly Zola, whatever it is! The cry of "The Garonne! The Garonne!" shatters the peace, and Zola builds a portrait of desperation and fear. It is bleak, yet it shows, to quote The Spectator once more, the "acts of heroism performed by individuals". There is hope for mankind in that respect, yet ultimately, what does it matter?

The Flood is a must for Zola fans, and perhaps a good introduction to those who want to familiarise themselves with him. It's also an interesting read for those, like me, who know Zola as the author of the Rougon Macquart novels but little else. After all, Zola is much much more than these and Thérèse Raquin. For a while I've been meaning to re-read the RM novels and write about them for my (still not published) Zola website, but The Flood has made me decide to put this on hold for a while. I have a fair collection of short stories, and I am ready to read the Three Cities trilogy and the Four Gospels novels. I want to move forward with Zola and explore these other works. There is much to be read, far more than I ever realised. 

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Of Human Bondage, by William Somerset Maugham.

Over two years ago I put Of Human Bondage on my Classics Club list, and last week I finally began to read it (it was, incidentally, the 161st book I've read from my list). I knew I'd like it - the blurb on the back describes "the bohemian life of a Parisian art student", which is very appealing, especially to someone who enjoyed Émile Zola's The Masterpiece so much. And there is a sense of Zola in this, Somerset Maugham's eighth novel (published in 1915). 

Of Human Bondage is a bildungsroman: a story of the childhood and young adulthood of Philip Carey, orphaned at nine years old, and who struggles with a club foot. Maugham writes of Philip's young life: his progression and development through the many changes of circumstance, his upbringing in a vicarage by his aunt and uncle, his schooling, life in Germany, Paris, and London, careers as an artist and then a doctor, and the women along the way: Norah, Fanny, Mildred, and Sally. As the title suggests, the predominate theme is that of freedom: Philip's, and humanity's.

Maugham originally intended the title to be 'Beauty from the Ashes', however he chose Of Human Bondage from Part IV of Spinoza's Ethics, titled 'Of Human Bondage, or the Strength of the Emotions' (1677). Spinoza wrote,
Human infirmity in moderating and checking the emotions I name bondage: for, when a man is a prey to his emotions, he is not his own master, but lies at the mercy of fortune: so much so, that he is often compelled, while seeing that which is better for him, to follow that which is worse.
He goes on to discuss perfection, good, and evil, and how humans strive to seek pleasure and shun pain, yet their emotions can, when ungoverned, produce the opposite effects. Philip could be this "human" brought to life, a character who seeks himself and happiness, and tries to overcome the obstacles not only of society's but those of his own making, and these characteristics that are, whilst a part of him, also appear to be independent of him at times: the "infirmity" Spinoza referred to, perhaps.

Bette Davis as Mildred in the 1934 film
directed by John Cromwell. . 
The most striking of these "infirmities" that is his obsession with Mildred, one of the most loathsome characters in English literature (though too well drawn to be completely vile). Their relationship could have been penned by Leopold Sacher-Masoch, the Austrian author of Venus in Furs (1870): the kinder he is to her, the viler she is in return (Maugham was familiar with Sacher-Masoch's work, writing in A Writer's Notebook, 1949, that he understood the work to be a sexual desire in a man to be subjected to physical and mental mistreatment by the woman he loves, and yet be unable to break away from his bondage). I think all readers of Of Human Bondage come to dread Mildred's appearance. She is toxic, sucking the life, pleasure, happiness, and health out of Philip, and every environment she comes in contact with. Yet he persists, even though it is clear she has the potential to ruin him, costing him not only his money but his chosen path to self-discovery and fulfilment; his "freeing of spirit" as it were. Mildred is, in short, a major part of Philips' Bondage. His club foot, whilst a part of the bondage, really is ultimately the least of it.

I said there is a little of Zola in Of Human Bondage. The obvious comparison is The Masterpiece (1886) with the descriptions of Philip as a struggling artist in Paris, but there is also a little of L'Assommoir (1877) with the failing, doomed and unhealthy relationships and the feelings of inevitability at times. The style, too, it has a touch of Zola's ease with a grim realism, though, as with Gervaise Macquart of L'Assommoir, we do hope. Maugham is not Zola, after all.

In short, this is a wonderful novel! There is so much going on in it - I've only written about one part. Each episode of Philip's life is beautifully drawn, and there's a real 'completeness' about it. It's a philosophical novel, as I've said, drawn on the works of Spinoza, but this isn't a novel that seeks to overwhelm or trip up its reader (as Zola did not intend to confuse his readers with the events in the Second Empire: he sought to communicate, as Maugham has done). It's the second novel of Maugham that I've read (the first was The Magician, which I also loved) and I'm looking forward to reading The Moon and Sixpence next. Maugham is, I do believe, one of my more exciting discoveries!

Further reading
Spinoza, Baruch - 'Of Human Bondage, or the Strength of the Emotions' from Ethics.

Sunday, 20 April 2014


To all those who celebrate it - a happy Easter to you! Here's a picture of the hens - in both Charlotte is on the left and Anne on the right. It's a beautiful day here - sunny and warm with a deliciously cool breeze. I do love spring.

Left to right: Oliver, Trotwood, and
Myshkin. The owl is to stop them
going to that corner. It doesn't work.
We're having a quiet day today: Trotwood had a traumatic day yesterday: all three budgies were in the aviary and a sparrow hawk tried to get in (the same sparrow hawk as last time? I don't know). There was certainly no way it could get in as all the doors were locked, but it crashed off the roof and then the sides. In their panic the budgies flew to the side and clung to the wire, and as I went out the sparrow hawk and Trotwood came head to head (albeit Trotwood was on one side of the wire and the hawk on the other). Trot fell down, and remained lying on his stomach with his wings spread out (I think he was playing dead, and he did look dead, which was awful), but then he looked up. I got them all in, the hens (who by this time, 7 o' clock, were also locked away) were fine, they stood and watched it. Obviously Trot was terrified, and he has a small cut across his face, and for an hour or so he sat on my hand, making himself very thin. Thankfully he's recovered, and the cut has healed remarkably fast. Though I know the hawk cannot physically get in, I'm going to do a little work to deter the hawk before I let them out again. The worry is when they panic they fly to the sides, and had the hawk cut Trot's stomach he might not have fared so well. So, the hens are in the bottom half of the garden (secure from aerial attack) and the budgies are flying about in their room. All is peaceful, Trotwood is his usual self, as are Myshkin and Oliver, and the hens are lying in the shade under their seat.

The three volumes of Proust.
So, today I'm mainly reading and writing and eating Easter eggs! If you follow me on Goodreads or Twitter you'll know I've started reading In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. I have read it before, but I read it more to say that I had read it. Now I can say that but I can say little else, which is a shame, so I'm re-reading it at a much slower pace. I've finished the Overture and written a little paragraph on that (I'll publish it when I've finished Swann's Way, the first book), and for the next few days I'll reading the second part, 'Combray'. My basic plan is simply to read each section, write a few words, then when I've finished each book I'll write a review. I'm not structuring this or making plans. In the past I wanted to read each chapter in one go, but the chapter lengths are phenomenally long (hundreds of pages, some of them), so I'm just stopping at places I find appropriate. I'm enjoying it, and not too intimidated because I'm not looking at this as an overall project! Even so, wish me luck!

Today I'm also hoping to finish my review on Of Human Bondage, and I think if I don't finish it I should do on Monday. I read The Wasteland by T. S. Eliot yesterday and I may have a few words to say about that, and, meanwhile, I'm reading Barchester Towers for Amanda and Melissa's Chronicles of Barsetshire read-along, and I am loving it the second time around! Looking forward to May when we read Doctor Thorne, which I've not yet read. 

Finally, because I've not played on my Tumblr for days, I may update that later, too!

So it is a quiet weekend, a lovely warm and quiet spring weekend! I hope everyone's having a good weekend as well: tell me if you have any exciting reading plans!

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Sons and Lovers, by D. H. Lawrence.

Nearly two years ago I read D. H. Lawrence's Women in Love, and still to this day I believe it is the worst classic in the Western Canon. Unsurprisingly, I regretted having The Rainbow and Sons and Lovers on my Classic Club list, and until this week I've been unable to even contemplate reading them. Fortunately, Charlotte mentioned that she was thinking about reading Sons and Lovers, and we decided that this week we would have a little read-along. So we did, and we both have finished it. I have Charlotte to thank for two things: one - for getting me to read it, and two - for the fact that I enjoyed it (more on that later). Before I go on: here is Charlotte's review.

It's D. H. Lawrence's third novel, published in 1913, and is described by Lawrence himself (in a letter to his editor Edward Garnett) as being about, 
... a woman of character and refinement goes into the lower class, and has no satisfaction in her own life. She has had a passion for her husband, so her children are born of passion, and have heaps of vitality. But as her sons grow up she selects them as lovers — first the eldest, then the second. These sons are urged into life by their reciprocal love of their mother — urged on and on. But when they come to manhood, they can't love, because their mother is the strongest power in their lives, and holds them.
It is too easy, at this point, to bring up Sigmund Freud, who, by the time Sons and Lovers had been published, had began writing about the Oedipus complex. In Freud's words (from The Ego and the Id, 1923):
The sexual wishes in regard to the mother become more intense and the father is perceived as an obstacle to the; this gives rise to the Oedipus complex.
David Herbert Lawrence.
It is for this reason some regard Sons and Lovers as one of the first (if not the first) English Freudian novel. Yet Lawrence (in 1913), denies having read Freud and his interest in him did not come until a few years later when he, Lawrence, wrote Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious (1921) and Fantasia of the Unconscious (1922). His reaction to the Freudian psychoanalysis of Sons and Lovers by Alfred Booth Kuttner (1916) was one of anger:
I hated the Psychoanalysis Review of Sons and Lovers. . . . My poor book: it was, as art, a fairly complete truth: so they carve a half lie out of it, and say ‘Voilà.’ Swine!
To say, therefore, that Sons and Lovers is to be understood in a Freudian framework does not do it service and, clearly, it annoys Lawrence! So for this reason, this will be all I have to say on Freud, though it did have to be mentioned.

Earlier this week I also finished Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage (1915), and I'm in the middle of a review. A little reading around brought me to this quote from Maugham:
Few misfortunes can befall a boy which bring worse consequences than to have a really affectionate mother.
The setting for the Morrel's home in
Eastwood, Nottingham
It has been an absolute coincidence, but I have to say reading Sons and Lovers with Of Human Bondage in mind (and vice versa) has been quite illuminating. This quote from Maugham could happily be applied to Sons and Lovers, and the work of the two authors have at least partly been inspired by their relationship with their mothers: Lawrence was very close to his mother Lydia (like Paul Morel of Sons and Lovers), and Maugham was traumatized by the early death of his mother Edith (as was Philip Carey of Of Human Bondage). A psychoanalysis of the two works would be a fascinating read, but I have to wonder exactly how illuminating it would be to analyse literature in such a rigid framework? Freud is clearly a consideration, so too is some basic biographical information on D. H. Lawrence, but still neither allows me to get to the essence.

Sons and Lovers is a rich, dark, and beautiful book. At first, however, I did not like the beginning, and it's a credit to Charlotte that I persevered. It begins by describing the mother, Gertrude Morrel, and the cottage where she, her husband Walter, and their children William, Paul, and Annie live. Lawrence writes,
"The Bottoms" succeeded to "Hell Row". Hell Row was a block of thatched, bulging cottages that stood by the brookside on Greenhill Lane. There lived the colliers who worked in the little gin-pits two fields away. The brook ran under the alder trees, scarcely soiled by these small mines, whose coal was drawn to the surface by donkeys that plodded wearily in a circle round a gin. And all over the countryside were these same pits, some of which had been worked in the time of Charles II, the few colliers and the donkeys burrowing down like ants into the earth, making queer mounds and little black places among the corn-fields and the meadows. And the cottages of these coal-miners, in blocks and pairs here and there, together with odd farms and homes of the stockingers, straying over the parish, formed the village of Bestwood.
I have to be honest, I couldn't get past the first sentence. "Hell Row" lacks subtlety to the extent that it pained me, still scarred as I was from Women in Love. I read the first chapter, then, with some irritation. Fortunately, Charlotte posted about the first part, saying that she had fallen for it; I wanted to see what she saw, and furthermore, I don't believe I've ever disagreed with her about a book (given how peculiar one's taste in literature can be, this really is quite something). So I restarted it, forgive the first sentence, and remembered that many of my favourite authors can, at times, be like bulls in a china shop. And I felt it more, that haunting quality it has, this darkness in the beautiful Nottingham countryside that Lawrence describes so well. 

First edition of Sons and Lovers.
Following the death of her elder son, Gertrude effectively transfers her love and affection for him on to Paul, the second son. This may sound as though I'm undermining it: I criticised Romeo Montague for doing precisely the same thing, moving his obsession from Rosaline to Juliet in an afternoon, however 'transference', another term from psychoanalysis, is an important part of Sons and Lovers, however distasteful Lawrence found it when applied to his work. Romeo was a passionate young man, but the relationship between Gertrude and her sons is unhealthy. Paul and Gertrude are close, excessively close; she is described at times like his "sweetheart". This leads to a wealth of contradictions: he loves her, and he does not, he is happy, he is not, he wants to please, and he wants to rebel, but from what, it seems, he is not sure. This confusion and his ultimate desire to please and satisfy his mother leads to a series of painful and disastrous relationships. Paul does not simply change into a lover when he is with his own "sweetheart", he remains too a "son", and the boundaries of "sons and lovers" are hopelessly and catastrophically blurred.

It does not matter what we think, what we would do, or what we hope Paul will do. I think many of us know the pains of wanting to please our parent or parents even in our adulthood; disappointing a parent may cause us sadness, however willing we are to do so, or we may have a fear, a great fear: there are some of us still who will avoid doing so at all costs. Paul is one such person. Disappointing or causing any kind of sadness to his mother doesn't make him sad, it causes him a great anxiety that he cannot shake off. No one wants to live a life that pulls us from one awful extreme to the other, no one wants to hurt, so I don't think it does any good to wish that Paul would "get over it". Sons and Lovers, therefore, has a horrible inevitability. We watch and hope, but like a Hardy novel there are other forces at work. They are internal though: this is not fate, this is not the hands of the gods, it is Paul himself. His instinct is confused and broken, and Lawrence chronicles this. He is hurt, and he hurts others along the way. 

It is, as I say, an unhealthy novel, but like Nabokov's Lolita it manages somehow to be alluring and beguiling. Lawrence writes of a working class family living in a perfectly ordinary end of terrace house, but the interior lives are far from ordinary. I was fascinated by this novel, and to those who have only read Women in Love, I urge you not to be put off reading Sons and Lovers.


Saturday, 12 April 2014

Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare.

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whose misadventur'd piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,
And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but their children's end, naught could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend. 
[Act I, scene I]

So begins William Shakespeare's Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, one of his earlier plays written around 1595 and published in 1597. It was inspired by The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brooke in 1562 (front-piece pictured on the right), and the prose version Palace of Pleasure by William Painter (1567), but the tale is much older than that. In 1496 Masuccio Salernitano wrote Mariotto and Gianozza (very similar to Romeo and Juliet), and older still, in Canto VI of Purgatorio Dante writes, "Come see the Capulets and Montagues": Purgatorio was written in the early part of the 14th Century, over two hundred years before Romeo and Juliet, Romeus and Juliet, and Palace of Pleasure. There is evidence to suggest that these versions may have origin in 'Pyramus and Thisbe' from Ovid's Metamorphoses - they too were "a pair of star-cross'd lovers" whose end is comparable to Romeo and Juliet's.

Romeo and Juliet, by Frank Bernard
Dicksee (1884)
In my mind, Romeo and Juliet is an excellent example of a classic that should be read with no preconceptions. Like Wuthering Heights, we've been prepared for an epic love story, a great romance that has survived through the centuries. Romeo has become an idealised lover: the Oxford English Dictionary defines "a Romeo" as "An attractive, passionate male seducer or lover", and Romeo and Juliet's love for each other is so intense that they're prepared not only to leave their families, but ultimately die. But is this the case? This is not a romance and this is not love: Romeo and Juliet is a frightening tale of obsession and lust. I don't say this to devalue it, far from it: as a tale of an intense crush, it is more powerful and moving than many of its kind. I loved Romeo and Juliet.

In the beginning, we see Romeo in love not with Juliet but Rosaline, the niece of Juliet's father Capulet (from the first scene of the first act we know the Montagues and Capulets are at war; they have hated each other for generations), and she has chosen to be celibate ("She hath forsworn to love"), and so we meet Romeo in a very dark, depressed state. He is, as he was with Juliet, full of violent and passionate declarations of love: "One fairer that my love! The all-seeing sun / Ne'er saw her match since first the world begun." His family are concerned - Benvolio tells Lady Montague he has seen Romeo pining "underneath the grove of sycamore" (a sycamore can represent eternity, though in Ancient Egypt it stood on the threshold between life and death: as with Hamlet, the symbolism of flowers and trees are an important part of Shakespeare's poetry and plays). She urges Benvolio to speak with Romeo, and it is in this scene where he reveals his love for Rosaline. Benvolio tells him to forget her and find another ("Examine other beauties"), which, as we know, he does.

Juliet and her nurse, by John Roddam Spencer
Stanhope, 1863.
Seeing Juliet for the first time, Romeo says,
O she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear -
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows,
As yonder lady o'er her fellows shows.
The measure done, I'll watch her place of stand,
Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight!
For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night.
On discovering Juliet is a Capulet, he exclaims, "O dear account! My life is my foe's debt". Rosaline (a Capulet) and her "exquisite" beauty have disappeared from his mind, all within an afternoon. The following events are yet faster: it's easy to forget that within less than a week of meeting, Romeo and Juliet would be dead. Later that evening after their first kiss (and words exchanged, so full of religious significance) they decide to get married, which they do the next day. The following day, having learned of her betrothal to Count Paris, Juliet plans with the Friar to take a drug that will make her appear to be dead:
Take thou this vial, being then in bed,
And this distilléd liquor drink thou off,
When presently through all thy veins shall run
A cold and drowsy humour, for no pulse
Shall keep his native progress, but surcease;
No warmth, no breath, shall testify thou livest...
Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, 1996.
She takes the potion that evening, and the next morning is found apparently dead. Romeo, who is banished for killing Juliet's cousin Tybalt, hears she is dead but has not received the message from the Friar. He buys poison to kill himself, and the next day, the final day, Romeo sees her in the crypt. He drinks the poison, Juliet wakes up finding him dead and, like Thisbe, stabs herself with her lover's sword.

This is a tragedy, there is no doubt of that. They were star-crossed lovers, and the portents of doom were seen early with references to stars ("Then I defy you, stars!", "I fear, too early: for my mind misgives / Some consequence yet hanging in the stars", and " O, here / Will I set up my everlasting rest, / And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars / From this world-wearied flesh"), as well as words such as "fatal", and "fortune's fool". Also, Mercutio's mention of Dido, Cleopatra, Hero, and Thisbe too: in the Aeneid, Dido killed herself after she was deserted by Aeneas; Cleopatra allowed herself to be bitten by a poisonous snake after Anthony, who has stabbed himself, believing her to be dead; Hero drowned herself after her lover drowned, and Thisbe, as I've said, stabbed herself on finding her lover had killed himself.

As for love, this I do question. A five day old love, and a man (we can guess he's in his mid to late teens; Juliet "hath not seen the change of fourteen years") whose all-consuming eternal love for one shifted within the space of a few hours to another. It was too short to be enduring, and too quick to be deep. It was lust, as I said, and obsession. It is the crush of two teenagers that would result in their death, and the death of Mercutio, Tybalt, Paris, and Lady Montague. If it is love, then it is a destructive love. Furthermore, I do not see it as The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, only the tragedy of Juliet. Romeo is too mercurial, it is too obvious that had they have lived, he would have been lusting after the next "pretty piece of flesh" soon after. This is perhaps unkind of me: he was young and passionate, and as much a victim of it as Juliet was, but as I pitied Hamlet's Ophelia, so too I pity Romeo's Juliet.

I'm glad to have re-read this play. When I first read it many years ago I was full of preconceptions and ideas of how I thought it played out, and I missed what a whirlwind of events it was. It is exceptionally high-paced, and truly it is so very beautiful. I think in revisiting Shakespeare I may be warming to him a little more!

Further Reading

Popular Posts of the Year