Friday, 30 January 2015

Authors in Context: Virginia Woolf by Michael Whitworth.

Virginia Woolf by Michael Whitworth (2005) is a part of the 'Authors in Context' series published by Oxford World Classics. It is essentially a biography but what makes this biography such a fascinating read is that Whitworth writes about Virginia Woolf's life and works in the context of her times. This is not one of those biographies that write about an author with historical, social, and literary events on the periphery but one that locates her in the centre of it all. It's an excellent portrait of Virginia Woolf. 

The book is divided into seven parts:
  1. The Life of Virginia Woolf
  2. The Fabric of Society: Nation and Identity
  3. The Literary Scene
  4. Philosophical Questions
  5. Society, Individuals, and Choices
  6. Scientific and Medical Contexts
  7. Recontextualizing and Reconstructing Woolf
Virginia Woof's bedroom at Monk House.
In the first, Whitworth writes on the key events in Woolf's personal life - her birth on 25th January 1882 and her early years at 22 Hyde Park Gate, Kensington, a brief account of the lives of her parents, Leslie and Julia Stephen, their deaths and the effect it had on the family, moving with Vanessa to 46 Gordon Square, then to 29 Fitzroy Square (once the home of George Bernard Shaw) with Adrian after Vanessa's marriage, and then meeting Leonard Woolf and their subsequent marriage. Virginia Woolf lead a very interesting life: it's hard not to find a fascinating biography, in fact (though there are some rather dry ones about). And, despite the fact I've read numerous biographies now. Whitworth has found interesting facts I wasn't aware of: I was quite taken, for example, by the description of her bedroom:
Her ground-floor bedroom, separate from that of her husband, Leonard, is attached to the main house, but accessible only through an outside door. 'I used to think how inconvinient it must be to have to go out in the rain to go to bed,' recalled their cook Louie Mayer. An uninformed visitor might conjecture that there had been an 'estrangement' between husband and wide, but that term is quite inadequate to the close and supportive relationship they formed: they were rarely apart. Nevertheless, the structure of the house suggests Virginia's need for privacy and independence. Moreover, it suggests that the story of her life is not simply the story of the composition of her books, nor of her friendships and family relationships, but also of the places she lived in and how she shaped them to herself.
Henry Campbell-Bannerman, 1908.
The Right Honourable Margaret
Bondfield, MP for Wallsend
(Tyne and Wear).
Following this short (29 pages) chapter Whitworth goes on to write about the "identity of the nation" and the changes in Virginia Woolf's life. As we know, she born in 1882 and her family were almost the archetypical intellectual Victorian family. When she died in 1941 she had lived through World War I and was in the early years of World War II. This period was a key time for Britain: the British Empire, for example, was the largest empire in the world, but this was to decline following The Boer War of 1899 - 1902, and then the First World War (1914 - 1918). The early 20th Century also saw the rise of the Labour Party which was created in 1900 and first came into government in 1924 (the first Labour Prime Minister was Ramsay MacDonald) and again in 1929 (which included the first female cabinet minister - Margaret Bondfield). Prior to this, the Liberal Party (which, in 1988, was to merge with the Social Democrats and become the Liberal Democrats we know today) elected in 1906 (the Prime Minister was Henry Campbell-Bannerman) introduced legislation that was to change the path of politics forever, focusing on Protectionism, reforming the Poor Law, and improving employment and employment conditions, all of which were of great interest to Woolf and all of which found their way in her novels: The Voyage Out (1915), Night and Day (1919), Jacob's Room (1922), and Mrs. Dalloway (1925). Women's Suffrage features heavily, too, in Night and Day. All of these political events, in fact, had a great impact on the understandings of gender, class, and race, and Whitworth shows how they were all reflected in her novels.

The Wise Virgins
by Leonard Woolf
Following this chapter "The Fabric of Society: Nation and Identity" comes "The Literary Scene" in which Whitworth explores "literature in the Marketplace", other key texts of the time, the themes and subjects they explored, and, most importantly, how Woolf's own work fitted in (or not) with them. Whitworth also writes about the authors and publishers who were prosecuted at the time in a discussion of censorship (Henry Vizetelly's fines and imprisonment are mentioned for his translation of Émile Zola's La Terre, 1888 and again in 1889). Leonard Woolf's own novel, The Wise Virgins (1914) was also criticised at the time and his publishers demanded he made thirty-six revisions. Virginia Woolf, however, managed to escape censorship. 

Next, "Philosophical Questions", in which Whitworth writes of the more abstract themes in Woolf's works: time, for example, in Mrs. Dalloway and Orlando (1928), perception and reality in To The Lighthouse (1927), and the idea of "multiple selves" in Mrs. Dalloway and The Waves (1931). In the fifth chapter, "Society, Individuals, and Choices" he discusses power in the context of authoritarianism and individualism in Mrs. Dalloway, a question that was raised following the Boer War on the extent to which the state should and ought to exercise its authority over an individual (Mrs. Dalloway, as the wife of Richard Dalloway MP, facilitates the workings of political society yet has no political power herself). Whitworth also looks at career choices with reference to Three Guineas (1938) and Night and Day, then finally 'Militarism, Discipline, and Education' within The Waves (1931).

In the penultimate chapter, the attention turns to scientific and medical advances and how the theories and impacts found their way into Woolf's novels. The medical understandings and treatments for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder come under criticism in Mrs. Dalloway in the treatment of Septimus Warren Smith, a former soldier suffering from shell-shock, as well as the notions of masculinity and mental illness. In The Years (1937) there are references to and thoughts shared on atoms; then, the possible impact of Schrödinger's Equation (defined by Wikipedia as "a partial differential equation that describes how the quantum state of a physical system changes with time.") on her novel The Waves; then, the developments in astronomy and Woolf's translation in her novels, especially Night and Day. It's something I've picked up on - there are many references to stars in Woolf's writing:
"There was a star riding through clouds one night, & I said to the star, 'Consume me'." (The Waves)  
"When you consider things like the stars, our affairs don't seem to matter very much, do they?" (Night and Day)  
"I see you everywhere, in the stars, in the river; to me you're everything that exists, the reality of everything" (Night and Day)  
"She stood there: she listened. She heard the names of the stars" (Mrs. Dalloway)  
"She blazed. She kindled. Out of the night she burnt like a white star." (Slater's Pins Have No Point)  
"Her eyes are pure stars" (Orlando)
"It overwhelms one walking home beneath the stars and makes the silent world more real than the world of speech" (A Room of One's Own)
Finally, the last chapter "Recontextualizing and Reconstructing Woolf", Whitworth highlights the interpretations of Virginia Woolf and her novels: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee (1962), and the film in 1966), To the Lighthouse (1983), Orlando (1992), and Mrs. Dalloway (1997), The Hours (2002), and various other stage adaptations. Whitworth critiques various works and how they influence our understanding of Woolf, and I particularly liked what he had to say on The Hours, first a novel by Michael Cunningham (1998) and then a film (starring Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, and Julianne Moore in 2002). He writes,
The first section recontextualizes Mrs Dalloway within a biographical frame. That frame itself interprets Woolf's life in the light of her death: by beginning the novel with Woolf's death, Cunningham makes her a suicide first, and a writer second. All biographies must necessarily reduce lives to themes and to coherent narratives, but the structure that Cunningham creates is potentially very reductive: it encourages the reader to see every detail of Woolf's life as prefiguring her death.
This is a danger that Woolf's art is not only understood only in terms of her death (depression, whilst important to her biography, is not so much to her writing), but that there may even be clues to her suicide in novels such as Mrs. Dalloway. It ought to go without saying that Woolf did not know that she would commit suicide in 1941, and furthermore had she have even had an inkling her life would surely have been almost unbearable with stress and fear. This was not so: there is more to Virginia Woolf than her depression. 

Michael Whitworth's biography has instantly become one of my favourites and I wholly recommend it to those exploring Woolf's works. It offers the nearest to a "whole" biography as is possible, it's long enough to be informative and short and well-written enough to be greatly inspiring: there is much to learn, so much more. This is an excellent introduction to Virginia Woolf's writings. 

Novels by Virginia Woolf


Thursday, 29 January 2015

Death by Advertising by Émile Zola.

Front cover of L'Illustration,
17th November 1866
Death by Advertising (Une Victime de la Réclame) is a short story by Émile Zola and was first published in L'Illustration on the 17th November 1866, five years prior to The Fortune of the Rougons (1871), the first of the Rougon Macquart novels, and one year before Thérèse Raquin (1867).

It's French title, Une Victime de la Réclame, literally means "victim of the claims", which is what Pierre Landry the character of this four page story is. He is left an inheritance and effectively squanders it, buying only things recommended in adverts, which he follows blindly:
And to think that these benefactors of mankind even take the trouble to draw our attention to all these wonderful things, great and small, tell us where to find them, and even how much we'll have to pay for them! Some of them we really ought to thank on bended knees for being willing even to lose money on our behalf, and others quite satisfied merely to cover their expenses. They're working purely in the service of mankind, so that we can live richer, peaceful lives.
A corset advert from the mid-19th Century.
The story of Pierre is as tragic as it is melodramatic, and is about as subtle as a punch in the face (as, no doubt, were the advertisements of earlier times!). But it's a great story filled to the brim with Zola's irritation with the Second Empire, and this irritation, as we know, boils over in his Rougon Macquart novels (particularly, in this case, in Au Bonheur des Dames, 1883). Under attack in Death by Advertising is consumerism: those who exploit the consumers, those who manipulate and effectively cheat individuals out of their money, making the consumer worse off than ever, and even those who buy into it in the first place. In this ironic, oddly humorous (for those with a black sense of humour), and sad little tale, Paris again faces Zola's critique. As for Pierre - we may laugh at his naïve rhapsodies, but just how much more sophisticated can we say we as consumers are? That is the question the 21st Century reader of Death by Advertising must ask.

I wholly recommend this short story to Zola fans, but perhaps not those looking for an introduction to Zola. And, it must be said: this tale has an ending far grimmer than the spectacularly grim beginning of The Fortune of the Rougons.

Further Reading
Death By Advertising | Adbusters

I read this for the fifth week of the Deal Me In Challenge: next week - The Wasps by Aristophanes.

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser.

Theodore Dreiser.
1917 edition published by Boni and Liveright.
Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser was first published in 1900 by Doubleday, Page, & co, who were themselves pressured to do so by Frank Norris, one of their editors. Yet Frank Doubleday disliked the novel because of its supposed vulgarity and immorality, so, because Dreiser forced them to abide by their contract they did go ahead and published it, however made little effort to promote it, so the process was effectively held up until 1912. Dreiser's first commercial success was not until 1925 with the publication of An American Tragedy.

Dreiser began writing it in 1899, encouraged by his friend Arthur Henry: that it was written during the reign of Queen Victoria is astonishing to me, it's style and substance is so far ahead of Victorian writers, even Thomas Hardy and Émile Zola (both of whom have had their works substantially altered for publication because of their perceived immorality), that I felt as though I was reading something much later: I'd say it almost had a 1940s / 1950s feel to it. It is no surprise to me that Dreiser had a great impact on F. Scott Fitzgerald - this is, I think, the crux of Sister Carrie - a critique of the American Dream. The protagonist, Caroline, or Carrie Meeber, arrives in Chicago with very little money and very big dreams. The novel opens,
When Caroline Meeber boarded the afternoon train for Chicago, her total outfit consisted of a small trunk, a cheap imitation alligator-skin satchel, a small lunch in a paper box, and a yellow leather snap purse, containing her ticket, a scrap of paper with her sister's address in Van Buren Street, and four dollars in money. It was in August, 1889. She was eighteen years of age, bright, timid, and full of the illusions of ignorance and youth. 
He goes on,
When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse. Of an intermediate balance, under the circumstances, there is no possibility. The city has its cunning wiles, no less than the infinitely smaller and more human tempter. There are large forces which allure with all the soulfulness of expression possible in the most cultured human. The gleam of a thousand lights is often as effective as the persuasive light in a wooing and fascinating eye. Half the undoing of the unsophisticated and natural mind is accomplished by forces wholly superhuman. A blare of sound, a roar of life, a vast array of human hives, appeal to the astonished senses in equivocal terms. Without a counsellor at hand to whisper cautious interpretations, what falsehoods may not these things breathe into the unguarded ear! Unrecognised for what they are, their beauty, like music, too often relaxes, then weakens, then perverts the simpler human perceptions.
On the train to Chicago she meets a man, Charles Drouet, who is attracted to her for her beauty and simple ways, and he remains in her mind as she moves in with her sister and her husband and finds work as a machinist, all the while yearning for something more exciting and better paid. She meets with Drouet again and becomes his mistress, finding that he will pay for the lifestyle she craves. Ultimately discontented, she begins a relationship with their friend George Hurstwood, and during this period begins to take an interest in acting. Carrie and Drouet separate, and, though she discovers Hurstwood is married, having been lured away, they move in together in New York where Carrie begins her career as a chorus girl on Broadway. Her subsequent financial success is contrasted throughout not only with the ruin of Hurstwood, but Carrie's own dissatisfaction and alienation from herself. One is left questioning the desirability of the reality of the great American Dream.

The edge of the book is one of disappointment and chagrin with vague feelings of anxiety building up, but for Carrie the great climax is never reached. It just keeps plodding on and on relentlessly, and Carrie passively plods on with the saddest of beats despite all outward appearances radically changing. The Daily Express wrote that Sister Carrie was "a cruel, merciless story, intensely clever in its realism, and one that will remain impressed in the memory of the reader for many a long day" (quoted from The Guardian). It is merciless, but so too is the alienation that grows within a person in a capitalist society when satisfying one's need is done simply by buying things. Dreiser's novel is bleak because society is bleak, and he mirrors that: in fact, Dreiser has a slight feeling of Zola to him. It is a great book, and though it has been criticised for its style, I can't say I found that a problem particularly. The message is powerful and unforgettable, and I look forward to reading more Dreiser: next, I think, I'll go for An American Tragedy. A big thank you to Care who hosted this read-along, my first of 2015!

Further reading

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

The Ballad of Reading Gaol by C. 3. 3. (Oscar Wilde).

In 1898 Leonard Smithers of London published The Ballad of Reading Gaol by "C. 3. 3." with the dedication,
In Memoriam 
C. T. W.
Sometime Trooper of the Royal Horse Guards.
Obiit H. M. Prison, Reading, Berkshire,
July 7th, 1896.
The poem, which consists of 109 stanzas, was generally well received and deemed a commercial success, with seven editions printed within two years. It was not until the seventh edition in June 1899 that the name of the author was formally revealed: Oscar Wilde. 

By this point, Oscar Wilde had published many plays, poems, essays, short stories, and a novel: The Picture of Dorian Gray in 1890, The Happy Prince and Other Stories (1888), Lady Windermere's Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), Salomé: A Tragedy in One Act, (1894), and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) are but a few examples. He was associated with themes of beauty, decadence, and aestheticism, all with razor sharp wit and a satirist's eye.

Marquess of Queensberry's
calling card.
The year 1895 marked the downfall of Wilde: John Douglas, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry (the father of Lord Alfred Douglas, the lover of Oscar Wilde in the 1890s), publicly accused him of homosexuality by leaving his, John Douglas', calling card with the inscription "For Oscar Wilde posing Somdomite" (meaning "Sodomite"). In Oscar Wilde's lifetime, "Sodomy" (as was the legal term) was punishable by death, although the last execution for sodomy was in 1835. However, by the time Wilde reached adulthood it was no longer subject to the death penalty, but in 1885 the Labouchere Amendment made it so "gross indecency" between males (Victorians were too prude to strictly define what this actually entailed, so it was generally deemed to refer to all homosexual acts) was punishable by two years in prison and time on the pillory (the definition of pillory: "a wooden framework with holes for the head and hands, in which offenders were formerly imprisoned and exposed to public abuse"). It was not until 1967 that homosexuality became decriminalised in England and Wales (1980 for Scotland, 1982 for Northern Ireland, 1983 for Guernsey, 1990 for Jersey in 1990, and finally 1992 for the Isle of Man). This was however sixty-seven years too late for Oscar Wilde, who died of meningitis in 1900 (not of syphilis, as is sometimes believed).

Alfred Douglas and Oscar Wilde.
When the Marquess of Queensberry left this calling card, Wilde, against the advice of his friends, sued him for libel however he lost the case and was bankrupted by the court costs. On leaving the court he was arrested for sodomy and gross indecency and was again, in the same year, back in court and it was during this trial, when asked what was meant by "the love that dare not speak its name" (a line from a poem by Lord Alfred Douglas) Wilde said,
The love that dare not speak its name" in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art, like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as "the love that dare not speak its name," and on that account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an older and a younger man, when the older man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it, and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.
Above: Reading Gaol from The Real
Oscar Wilde
 by Robert H. Sherard, 1917.
Below: Reading Gaol, or Reading Prison as
it is now known, taken in the year of its
closure, 2013.
Eventually, after a complex trial, Wilde was found guilty and sentenced to two years, sent first to HMP (His Majesty's Prison) Pentonville (Islington, London), then HMP Wandsworth (Wandsworth, London), and finally HMP Reading, known then as Reading Gaol, in Reading, Berkshire. It was here that he was known as Prisoner C. 3. 3. (Cell Block 3, landing 3, cell 3), and it was this period that inspired the poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol. 

1905 edition of De Profundis.
Whilst in prison Wilde wrote De Profundis, (he did not write The Ballad of Reading Gaol until his relased and exile in France) and during this time fellow prisoner Charles Thomas Wooldridge (the "CTW" of the dedication), a trooper of the House Guards, was hanged for the murder of his wife, Laura Ellen Wooldride on 7th July 1896. Although Wilde never met him, he was able to see him from time to time during exercise periods in the prison yard (known as the "Fool's Parade"). In the poem, Wilde writes of Wooldridge, beginning with the lines,
He did not wear his scarlet coat,
For blood and wine are red,
And blood and wine were on his hands
When they found him with the dead,
The poor dead woman whom he loved,
and murdered in her bed.
He goes on to write of the prisoner's life on death row, the final days leading to his death, then finally his death, cremation, and burial of his ashes. He writes of the prisoner sympathetically, commenting on his apparent calm: "But I never saw a man who looked / So wistfully at the day", and he writes that all prisoners are sinners somehow: with a reference to Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice (1600) Bassanio asks "Do all men kill the things they do not love?", Wilde writes, "For each man kills the thing he loves".

Wilde's fear in prison and the effect of Wooldridge's pending execution is palpable in the fourth and fifth stanzas:
I walked, with other souls in pain,
Within another ring,
And was wondering if the man had done
A great or little thing,
When a voice behind me whispered low,
'That fellow's got to swing.
Dear Christ! the very prison walls
Suddenly seemed to reel,
And the sky above my head became
Like a casque of scorching steel;
And, though I was a soul in pain,
My pain I could not feel.
1904 edition.
He goes on to describe the dehumanising cruelty in prison with a relentless rhythm grinding the prisoners down:
We tore the tarry rope to shreds
With blunt and bleeding nails;
We rubbed the doors, and scrubbed the floors,
And cleaned the shining rails:
And, rank by rank, we soaped the plank,
And clattered with the pails. 
We sewed the sacks, we broke the stones,
We turned the dusty drill:
We banged the tins, and bawled the hymns,
And sweated on the mill:
But in the heart of every man
Terror was lying still.
He concludes that all men are sinners, but not all men escape the punishment of prison:

And all men kill the thing they love,
By all let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!
The Ballad of Reading Gaol is an intensely powerful poem that repeats time and again that all men sin, that it is inevitable, and that it must be forgiven. Punishment in a Victorian prison was inhuman, and Wilde asked his reader to sympathise and show compassion. Charles Thomas Wooldridge murdered his wife in the street (not her bed as Wilde suggested) because she was unfaithful - it is hard to forgive and not to condemn, despite knowing that Wooldridge showed great remorse. But what is tragic about this poem is that Wilde was imprisoned alongside him and that his "crime" rendered him in such a place, and that Wilde died so shortly after his release (two years). Wilde essentially writes that crimes are complex, and Wooldridge's crimes may have had extenuating circumstances, that all crimes may have, but above all else the prison system is essentially a hypocrisy - that it, too, kills men whether it be symbolically or literally.

Finally, some illustrations: these are by Latimer J. Wilson and are from the F. M. Buckles 1907 edition. Each page is illustrated, so I've only selected a few of my favourites.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Sybil, or The Two Nations by Benjamin Disraeli.

Benjamin Disrael
by Spy (1869).
'Well, society may be in its infancy,' said Egremont, slightly smiling; 'but, say what you like, our Queen reigns over the greatest nation that ever existed.'
'Which nation?' asked the younger stranger, 'for she reigns over two.'
The stranger paused; Egremont was silent, but looked inquiringly.
'Yes,' resumed the young stranger after a moment's interval. 'Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.'
'You speak of -' said Egremont, hesitatingly.
'Tʜᴇ Rɪᴄʜ ᴀɴᴅ ᴛʜᴇ Pᴏᴏʀ.'
Sybil, or The Two Nations is a roman à thèse written by Benjamin Disraeli (1845), who twice served as a Conservative Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (1868 and 1874-80). In the early 1840s he served as an MP for Shrewsbury (in the county of Shropshire) and was a loyal supporter of Robert Peel, Prime Minister of that time (Peel, incidentally, established the Metropolitan Police Force of Greater London, thus creating the modern Police Force, whilst acting as Home Secretary in 1829). Disraeli was also noted for his support of Chartism, a working class political movement, and in Sybil one of the characters, Gerard, is a leader of this movement.

The Great Chartist Meeting on Kennington Common, London in 1848 by William Edward Kilburn.
For simplicity's sake, to explain Disraeli's motivation for writing this novel I'm going to jump forward a moment to the present time. In 2010 Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, said in an interview with the Telegraph,
I'm a one-nation Tory. There is a duty on the part of the rich to the poor and to the needy, but you are not going to help people express that duty and satisfy it if you punish them fiscally so viciously that they leave this city and this country. I want London to be a competitive, dynamic place to come to work.
The "one-nation" refers to Sybil and you can read more of that on Egremont, the official blog of the Tory Reform Group which takes its title from a character from Sybil, Charles Egremont. The basic belief is that society is naturally hierarchical and it is the duty of those at the top to look after those at the bottom. In Sybil, Disraeli argues that industrialisation had effectively created two nations "between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy" (see the opening quote of this post) whereby the natural hierarchy was effectively disturbed. One-Nation Conservatism would remedy this and it's philosophy was put into practice by some subsequent Conservative Prime Ministers. It was deemed to be a failure by Margaret Thatcher (Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990), however the current Prime Minister David Cameron claims to have picked it back up, saying in 2009 (before coming into power), 
I am a one nation, relatively liberal Conservative... I am a huge admirer of Margaret Thatcher and what she achieved, particularly given the terrible state of the country when she took over. But the Conservative Party should both revere her inheritance and what she did, and also move on and draw on some of the history of Conservatism, which is about society as well as the economy, and which does have this One Nation tradition of wanting to bring the country together at its heart. [source: BBC]
David Cameron speaking on the Andrew Marr Show,
BBC1, 2010
On the Andrew Marr Show in 2010, a few days before he came into office, Cameron invoked the One Nation spirit again, saying,
But what I want to explain to people is that in making these decisions, I want to, if I'm elected, take the whole country with me. I don't want to leave anyone behind. The test of a good society is you look after the elderly, the frail, the vulnerable, the poorest in our society. And that test is even more important in difficult times, when difficult decisions have to be taken, than it is in better times. [source: BBC]
To give a hundred or so points as to why one might raise an eyebrow at this claim, or to share some thoughts on to what Disraeli himself would make of how Mr. Cameron's government has put this philosophy into practice is not for this post: those more politically minded would do a better job, I feel. So, returning to Sybil: there is the crux, the basic argument and motivation for writing the novel: it was, in short, politically motivated. 

So, at last, to begin at the beginning: Sybil is set in the very early period of Queen Victoria's reign, beginning with the death of William IV, at the time when the Chartists began their campaign for:
1. A vote for every man 21 years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for crime.
2. Secret ballots.
3. No property qualification for Members of Parliament.
4. Payment of MPs.
5. Equal size constituencies.
6. Annual parliaments. [source: Chartist Ancestors]
One leader of this movement is Gerard, the father of Sybil Gerard, the heroine of the book, who herself is portrayed as an angel of near impossible to attain standards. Charles Egremont, an MP, has travelled to the north of England (the heart, in those times, of industrialisation) to investigate the conditions of the working classes (the condition of the poor, or the 'Condition of England question' to quote Thomas Carlyle, author of Chartism, 1840). During his time in Mowbray, where the novel is largely set (I dare say this is in Leicester, but I could be wrong) he becomes interested in Gerard and his associate Morley's political philosophy and stays whilst Parliament is in recess to learn more. Whilst he learns more about the condition of the poor and Chartism he falls in love with Sybil. So too does Morley. The novel flies forth between Morley and Egremont's rivalry, and the change in Egremont from a naive young man fresh from Eton to a Tory MP. 

Ed Miliband, 2012.
Sybil was Disraeli's fourteenth novel, and it's one I've been trying to read since 2013. I don't think it's unfair to say that the plot isn't what is interesting about this novel - as I said early it's a roman à thèse ('a thesis novel'), and it reads more like a political tract, so much so that the plot seems weaker than it possibly is. I found it, I can't lie, exceptionally hard to read. It's fascinating and raises crucial questions, and Disraeli wrote so well at times on political matters it was exciting, but it was a very arduous and demanding read. But I've learned a lot and the plot and the characters had nothing at all to do with that - I'd say I read this novel in spite of the plot. But I recommend it nonetheless because it sheds a great deal of light on early Victorian England, and the politics of today and the previous few decades. As I said, Margaret Thatcher rejected One-Nation Toryism, which says a lot about her, and David Cameron claims to have picked it back up (which rather says a lot about him), and furthermore Ed Miliband, the Labour leader and Leader of the Opposition. has also picked up on the "One Nation" theme - in 2012 in a speech to the Labour Party Conference he argued that Britain could not go on
... as two nations, not one, the bankers and the rest of the country... We must have a one-nation banking system as part of a one-nation economy. [source: BBC]
He cited Disraeli as his inspiration.

So, then, like it or not, it is for this reason that Disraeli must be read in 2015, to learn about our own times as much as Victorian England. And as Victorian novels go, this isn't desperately long: my edition (Oxford University Press) was 422 pages. I'm happy I've finally read this very important novel.

Further Reading

Friday, 23 January 2015

The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare.

The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare is believed to have been written between 1590 and 1591 and first published in about 1594. It is his second play and his second comedy following The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1589-92).

Be warned: I discuss the ending in this post. I don't feel I can do anything but!

It's one of Shakespeare's play-within-a-plays: it opens with a prank - a local 'tinker' (the definition of which is "a person who makes a living by travelling from place to place mending pans and other metal utensils") named Christopher Spy is found intoxicated by a Lord. He and his men convince Spy that he too is a Lord, and has wrongly believed himself to be a tinker for many years. They put on a play for his amusement, and the play is, of course, The Taming of the Shrew.

It is one of Shakespeare's bleaker comedies. It's set in Padua, Italy, and tells the story of sisters Katherina (the 'shrew') and Bianca and their suitors Lucentio, Gremio and Hortensio (Bianca's) and Petruchio (Katherina's). Their names give an indication of their personalities: Katherina is derived from Katherine, which, among other things, may derive from the goddess Hecate (the name of one of the three witches in Macbeth, 1606), and also from the Greek word "αικια" meaning "torture". Tellingly, 'Katherine' may also come from the Greek 'Hekaterine' (‘Εκατερινη'), itself derived from 'hekateros' ('εκατερος') meaning "each of the two". Bianca, meanwhile, is a derivative of the name 'Blanche' meaning "white" and "fair".

Elizabeth Taylor as Katherina, 1967.
Baptista Minola, the father of Katherina and Bianca, has declared that no one may court Bianca,  the younger sister, until Katherina is married. The rub is that Katherina is virtually unmarriageable  owing to her vicious temper and sharp tongue. Lucentio, Gremio and Hortensio attempt to overcome to situation by disguising themselves to get close to her, and other general trickery, but they realise that they must get Katherina married off in order to solve their problems. Enter Petruchio, an old friend of Hortensio, who wishes to marry a rich woman. They decide Petruchio must marry Katherina, and he sets out to "tame the shrew". 

In Elizabethan times a common and much enjoyed sport was hunting with falcons. The way to tame falcons was particularly cruel: one would deny them sleep (this is one of the kinder methods), starve them, and engage in a 'battle of wits' which, if successful, will subdue and tame the falcon. This was Petruchio's method of subduing Katherina:

My falcon now is sharp and passing empty.
And till she stoop she must not be full-gorg'd,
For then she never looks upon her lure.
Another way I have to man my haggard,
To make her come, and know her keeper's call,
That is, to watch her, as we watch these kites
That bate and beat, and will not be obedient.
She eat no meat to-day, nor none shall eat;
Last night she slept not, nor to-night she shall not;
As with the meat, some undeserved fault
I'll find about the making of the bed;
And here I'll fling the pillow, there the bolster,
This way the coverlet, another way the sheets;
Ay, and amid this hurly I intend
That all is done in reverend care of her-
And, in conclusion, she shall watch all night;
And if she chance to nod I'll rail and brawl
And with the clamour keep her still awake.
This is a way to kill a wife with kindness,
And thus I'll curb her mad and headstrong humour.
He that knows better how to tame a shrew,
Now let him speak; 'tis charity to show.
Latham's Falconry by Simon Latham (1615).
Easy to discern Petruchio's character from this vile speech. And he is successful: he wears Katherina down and the play, in my eyes, climaxes in the disappointing stage direction of Act V Scene II:
She obeys.
And thus marks the death of Katherina's fighting spirit.

The Shrew Katherina by Edward Robert Hughes (1898).
It's a well-written play, and has some of the finest comic speeches and exchanges and for that I enjoyed it. But with my modern eyes it's an uncomfortable play. Katherina is highly spirited and exceptionally witty, a sharp and able equal to Petruchio in the war of words. But how much more fun would it have been if Petruchio had have been defeated! That said, there are interpretations that suggest Katherina's speech about the importance of submission is meant ironically - if so, how good it would be to see a sequel to The Taming of the Shrew! Is it meant ironically? Could Katherina ever truly be tamed? Ah, that is the question.

In short (and there is much more to discuss than what I've written about here) it's an awkward play beginning with a rather harsh joke on Christopher Spy and ending with Katherina's submission and Petruchio getting patted on the back for his success. Humiliation, whether it be the joke played on Spy or the treatment of Katherina drives this play on. And yet I recommend it - it's one of William Shakespeare's major works, for a start, and the themes of the role of women, marriage, and money make for a fascinating read. I hope one day I'll see it performed - I'll at least try to get a hold of the 1967 film starring Elizabeth Taylor as Katherina and Richard Burton as Petruchio.

Finally, some illustrations. These are by Byam Shaw and were published in 1902 by G. Bell.

I read this for the fourth week of the Deal Me in Challenge: next week - Émile Zola's Death by Advertising.

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