Monday, 31 August 2015

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen.

Mansfield Park is Jane Austen's third published novel (following Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice) and was published in 1814. Even when I couldn't get into Jane Austen I always liked this novel. It's not a typical Austen novel: Sense and Sensibility has the strong relationship of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood; everybody knows the great and wonderful Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice; whatever you may think of Emma Wodehouse of Emma (1815) she is unforgettable and not one to be trifled with; nor, for that matter is Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey (1817); and Anne Eliot of Persuasion (1817), though quiet, is steadfast and as admirable as any of them. Fanny Price of Mansfield Park, on the other hand, is remarkable precisely for being on the whole unremarkable. A very strange heroine indeed, more reminiscent of Samuel Richardson in fact, than Austen (I'll note Richardson was one of her favourite authors so there's no surprise there). But, speaking of Richardson, though I do love his works I have to admit he has his fair share of slightly irritating heroines - Clarissa Harlowe of Clarissa (1748) is so virtuous it's frankly beyond comprehension, and Pamela Andrews (Pamela, 1740), again virtuous but so much so it's almost beyond admiration. Nevertheless Pamela is still a good novel, and Clarissa is one of my all-time favourites. A strong and defiant heroine is not necessarily the main ingredients to an outstanding novel.

Which, to bring this back to Mansfield Park, is fortunate. In this novel Austen tells the story of Fanny Price who, at a young age, is sent to live with her uncle and aunt Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram in Mansfield Park, Northamptonshire. She is the 'poor relation', and she is made to feel it. Her cousins are not good companions - Maria and Julia are superficial and Tom is a drunken hedonist. The fourth cousin, however, Edmund (who aspires to be a clergyman) does prove to be somewhat of an ally.

When Sir Thomas leaves Mansfield Park for the West Indies (where he owns plantations), Mansfield Park sees the arrival of siblings Henry and Mary Crawford; Henry is a flirt, and Mary, though she abhors the idea of marrying a clergyman, begins to fall for Edmund, who Fanny herself has come to love. From here, Mansfield Park becomes very complicated, and the play they wish to act about half-way through the book becomes an appropriate metaphor: the whole novel sees characters acting and manipulating, and it is only really Fanny, always the outsider, who is not drawn in by all of these games. Though lacking in confidence, shy and timid, one cannot call Fanny Price weak.

It is a great novel, and one of my favourites by Jane Austen, and it's tapestry contains many an interesting threads: that Sir Thomas owns plantations, and so slaves, and Mansfield Park itself was built on its profits. Money, for this set, is a corrupting force. The more wealthy characters of this novel are prone to be superficial, relying on charm more than substance (when they choose to be pleasing, that is, which is not always), and quite frequently showing themselves to be completely immoral. The poor relation, Fanny, though timid and often "alarmed" is real and true, and for that I like her very much. She's an interesting heroine, more, as I say, of the Richardson tradition than the more 19th Century heroines like Austen's, and also the Brontës, Trollope, and the like, but she is no less worthy.

To finish this brief post, illustrations from C. E. Brock, my new favourite illustrator of Austen novels. These are from the 1908 edition published by J. M. Dent & co.


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Further Reading
Jane Austen's Mansfield Park (1814) | About Education

♔ Jane Austen's Major Works ♔
 Sense and Sensibility (1811) | Pride and Prejudice (1813) | Mansfield Park (1814)
Emma (1815) | Northanger Abbey (1817) | Persuasion (1817)

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Essays by Francis Bacon.

This week for the Deal Me In Challenge I drew the Jack of Spades: Of Revenge by Francis Bacon, and not only is the essay very small indeed but it's also very good indeed and so I ended up reading the whole volume: Essayes: Religious Meditations. Places of Perswasion and Disswasion. Seene and Allowed. There are 58 essays in total; the first set was published in 1597, the second set published in 1612 was revised and with more essays, and finally, the third set published in 1625 had yet more essays, revisions and enlargement of existing essays. 

The essays, which Bacon considered "but as recreation of my other studies", cover a wide range of subjects - love, death, health, and friendship; unity in religion, atheism, and superstition; goodness, and the goodness of nature, truth, cunning, wisdom (or lack of), and fortune; marriage, parenthood, and friendship; travel, health, buildings, and gardens - so much, in fact.

In many of the essays, there is a timeless wisdom and beauty, which at times offers some great clarity. For this post, I thought I'd share a few of my favourite passages.

Of Revenge (Essay IV, the essay I drew for the Deal Me In Challenge):
Revenge is a kind of wild justice; which the more man's nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out. For as for the first wrong, it doth but offend the law; but the revenge of that wrong, putteth the law out of office. 
Of Adversity (Essay V):
Certainly virtue is like precious odours, most fragrant when they are incensed, or crushed: for prosperity doth best discover vice, but adversity doth best discover virtue.
Of Envy (Essay IX):
For he that cannot possibly mend his own case, will do what he can, to impair another's...
Of Goodness and Goodness of Nature (Essay XIII)
The desire of power in excess, caused the angels to fall; the desire of knowledge in excess, caused man to fall: but in charity there is no excess; neither can angel, nor man, come in danger by it. The inclination to goodness, is imprinted deeply in the nature of man; insomuch, that if it issue not towards men, it will take unto other living creatures... 
Of Wisdom for a Man's Self (Essay XXIII):
Divide with reason; between self-love and society; and be so true to thyself, as thou be not false to others; specially to thy king and country. 
Of Expense (Essay XXVIII):
Riches are for spending, and spending for honour and good actions.
Of Regiment Of Health (Essay XXX):
Examine thy customs of diet, sleep, exercise, apparel, and the like; and try, in any thing thou shalt judge hurtful, to discontinue it, by little and little; but so, as if thou dost find any inconvenience by the change, thou come back to it again: for it is hard to distinguish that which is generally held good and wholesome, from that which is good particularly, and fit for thine own body. To be free-minded and cheerfully disposed, at hours of meat, and of sleep, and of exercise, is one of the best precepts of long lasting. As for the passions, and studies of the mind; avoid envy, anxious fears; anger fretting inwards; subtle and knotty inquisitions; joys and exhilarations in excess; sadness not communicated. Entertain hopes; mirth rather than joy; variety of delights, rather than surfeit of them; wonder and admiration, and therefore novelties; studies that fill the mind with splendid and illustrious objects, as histories, fables, and contemplations of nature.
Of Suspicion (Essay XXXI):
Suspicions amongst thoughts, are like bats amongst birds, they ever fly by twilight. Certainly they are to be repressed, or at least well guarded: for they cloud the mind; they leese friends; and they check with business, whereby business cannot go on currently and constantly. They dispose kings to tyranny, husbands to jealousy, wise men to irresolution and melancholy.
Of Riches (Essay XXXIV):
Of great riches there is no real use, except it be in the distribution; the rest is but conceit. So saith Solomon, Where much is, there are many to consume it; and what hath the owner, but the sight of it with his eyes?
Of Gardens (Essay XLVI):
For December, and January, and the latter part of November, you must take such things as are green all winter: holly; ivy; bays; juniper; cypress-trees; yew; pine-apple-trees; fir-trees; rosemary; lavender; periwinkle, the white, the purple, and the blue; germander; flags; orange-trees; lemon-trees; and myrtles, if they be stoved; and sweet marjoram, warm set. There followeth, for the latter part of January and February, the mezereon-tree, which then blossoms; crocus vernus, both the yellow and the grey; primroses, anemones; the early tulippa; hyacinthus orientalis; chamairis; fritellaria. For March, there come violets, specially the single blue, which are the earliest; the yellow daffodil; the daisy; the almond-tree in blossom; the peach-tree in blossom; the cornelian-tree in blossom; sweet-briar. In April follow the double white violet; the wallflower; the stock-gilliflower; the cowslip; flowerdelices, and lilies of all natures; rosemary-flowers; the tulippa; the double peony; the pale daffodil; the French honeysuckle; the cherry-tree in blossom; the damson and plum-trees in blossom; the white thorn in leaf; the lilac-tree. In May and June come pinks of all sorts, specially the blushpink; roses of all kinds, except the musk, which comes later; honeysuckles; strawberries; bugloss; columbine; the French marigold, flos Africanus; cherry-tree in fruit; ribes; figs in fruit; rasps; vineflowers; lavender in flowers; the sweet satyrian, with the white flower; herba muscaria; lilium convallium; the apple-tree in blossom. In July come gilliflowers of all varieties; musk-roses; the lime-tree in blossom; early pears and plums in fruit; jennetings, codlins. In August come plums of all sorts in fruit; pears; apricocks; berberries; filberds; musk-melons; monks-hoods, of all colors. In September come grapes; apples; poppies of all colors; peaches; melocotones; nectarines; cornelians; wardens; quinces. In October and the beginning of November come services; medlars; bullaces; roses cut or removed to come late; hollyhocks; and such like. These particulars are for the climate of London; but my meaning is perceived, that you may have ver perpetuum, as the place affords.
Of Studies (Essay L):
Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention... Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.
Of Ceremonies (Essay LII):
A wise man will make more opportunities, than he finds. 
Of Anger (Essay LVII):
Be angry, but sin not.
This was such an interesting read. Though I haven't read a great deal of Michel de Montaigne, I dare say it's quite similar. Some essays were rather of their time, which in itself is enlightening, but some as I say are timeless. I was surprised at how many parts I already recognised, most notable the famous "If the hill will not come to Mahomet, Mahomet will go to the hill" (Essay XII: Of Boldness), a phrase credited to Bacon. I think, in the spirit of Francis Bacon, this is a book to be read once greedily, then read a second time very slowly. And I do look forward to my second read!

Friday, 28 August 2015

The Clerk's Prologue and Tale from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.

Fragment IV of The Canterbury Tales begins with The Clerk, described in the General Prologue as a student of Oxford studying theology and philosophy; very serious, very thin, and very well-read:
For hym was levere have at his beddes heed
Twenty bookes, clad in blak or reed,
Of Aristotle and his philosophie,
Than robes riche, or fithele, or gay sautrie. 
The Prologue of the Clerk is quite short - just 56 lines. It begins with the Host noticing how quiet and serious is, and he asks the Clerk for a cheerful tale: "Tell us some merry tale, by your faith". The Clerk replies he will a tale, one he learned from Petrarch. But merry? No. No, the Clerk tells one of the most miserable stories there is from Boccaccio's Decameron (the tenth tale of the tenth day, which in my mind is the second most depressing tale of the lot). Petrarch claimed he believed he had heard this tale long before reading it in Boccaccio, and then later retold it in Latin, which is no doubt what the Clerk read.

The Tale is in six parts over about 1176 lines. He begins in Part I by describing a marquis, Walter, living on "the west syde of Ytaille [Italy], / Doun at the roote of Vesulus", young, handsome, and strong who loved to hunt and hawk - "As for to hauke and hunte on every syde". He loves too his freedom and lives very much for the moment, and so he is reluctant to marry. One day the lords of the kingdom approach him and beg him to reconsider and to think of the future, saying,
"Boweth youre nekke under that blisful yok
Of soveraynetee, noght of servyse,
Which that men clepe spousaille or wedlok
And later, "And taak a wyf, for hye Goddes sake", lest he dies without an heir. He agrees and says he will choose his wife:
"Lat me allone in chesynge of my wyf --
That charge upon my bak I wole endure.
But I yow preye, and charge upon youre lyf,
What wyf that I take, ye me assure
To worshipe hire, whil that hir lyf may dure,
In word and werk, bothe heere and everywheere,
As she an emperoures doghter weere.
He leaves it to the lords to chose a wedding day, and Part I closes with the wedding preparations. 

Warwick Goble's first illustration for
The Clerk's Tale.
In Part II Griselda is described along with her father Janicula - a poor man:
Amonges thise povre folk ther dwelte a man
Which that was holden povrest of hem alle;
But hye God somtyme senden kan
His grace into a litel oxes stalle;
Janicula men of that throop hym calle.
A doghter hadde he, fair ynogh to sighte,
And Grisildis this yonge mayden highte.
She is beautiful and sensible, and she works hard:
But for to speke of vertuous beautee,
Thanne was she oon the faireste under sonne;
For povreliche yfostred up was she,
No likerous lust was thurgh hire herte yronne.
Wel ofter of the welle than of the tonne
She drank, and for she wolde vertu plese,
She knew wel labour but noon ydel ese.
Walter determines to marry her: "Upon Grisilde, this povre creature, / Ful ofte sithe this markys sette his ye". On the morning of the wedding, Griselda still doesn't know Walter intends to marry her, though he even has her dress prepared. She stands with her friends hoping to catch a glimpse of his wife-to-be. He calls her over, asks to speak to her father, then asks him for his daughter's hand:
"Janicula, I neither may ne kan
Lenger the plesance of myn herte hyde.
If that thou vouche sauf, what so bityde,
Thy doghter wol I take, er that I wende,
As for my wyf, unto hir lyves ende."
Walter then asks her, will she obey in every circumstance?
"I seye this: be ye redy with good herte
To al my lust, and that I frely may,
As me best thynketh, do yow laughe or smerte,
And nevere ye to grucche it, nyght ne day?
And eek whan I sey `ye,' ne sey nat `nay,'
Neither by word ne frownyng contenance?
Swere this, and heere I swere oure alliance."
She agreed, and Walter announces the news to the people - "This is my wyf," quod he, "that standeth heere." Griselda is dressed, and so transformed:
For though that evere vertuous was she,
She was encressed in swich excellence
Of thewes goode, yset in heigh bountee,
And so discreet and fair of eloquence,
So benigne and so digne of reverence,
And koude so the peples herte embrace,
That ech hire lovede that looked on hir face.
Warwick Goble's second illustration for The Clerk's Tale.
They are married, and Griselda proves to be an excellent wife, and the two have a child - a daughter. But this is not a happily ever after - there are still four parts remaining.

In Part III, Walter has an urge, a "merveillous desir" [strange desire] to test his wife and to frighten her: "Nedelees, God woot, he thoghte hire for t'affraye." He reminds her of her lowly beginnings, and then soon after arranges for her child to be taken away by an officer of the law. The man arrives and rather apologetically tells her he must obey the marquis. Then,
"This child I am comanded for to take" -
And spak namoore, but out the child he hente
Despitously, and gan a cheere make
As though he wolde han slayn it er he wente.
Grisildis moot al suffre and al consente,
And as a lamb she sitteth meke and stille,
And leet this crueel sergeant doon his wille.
Poor Griselda has already promised to obey her husband, and remarkably "she neither weep ne syked [sighed]" but simply bends to his will though she believes the child will be killed. Walter then privately gives orders that the child must be looked after, but no one must know she, the daughter, is alive.

W. Heath Robinson's illustration for
Janet Harvey Kelman’s Stories from Chaucer.
Part IV begins four years later, and Griselda gives birth to a son. Walter is struck once more with a need to test her:
This markys caughte yet another lest
To tempte his wyf yet ofter, if he may.
O nedelees was she tempted in assay!
But wedded men ne knowe no mesure,
Whan that they fynde a pacient creature.
So he tells her she must give up her son, and the same sergeant comes to take him. Walter however is not satisfied at this and the Clerk observes,
What koude a sturdy housbonde moore devyse
To preeve hir wyfhod and hir stedefastnesse,
And he continuynge evere in sturdinesse?
He goes on to talk of Walter's obsession, that he is compelled to keep testing her:
But ther been folk of swich condicion
That whan they have a certein purpos take,
They kan nat stynte of hire entencion,
But, right as they were bounden to that stake,
They wol nat of that firste purpos slake.
Right so this markys fulliche hath purposed
To tempte his wyf as he was first disposed.
So Walter forges a decree that he might leave Griselda and remarry (we are now twelve years from the start of this tale), and he plans a sham marriage whilst ordering that his son and daughter (living with his sister) be returned. In Part V he cruelly tells her of his plans to remarry - "My newe wyf is comynge by the weye." He then tells her to return to her father: "Retourneth to youre fadres hous". She of course obeys, "Unto my fader gladly wol I wende, / And with hym dwelle unto my lyves ende." And she wishes him every happiness (at which point I could not help but think of the Wife of Bath and what she would have to say at such treatment - she is a complete opposite recommending wives have sovereignty over their husbands, not the other way around as in this story). She prepares to leave, asking only to return with her dress, not to be forced to leave naked. He consents - 
"The smok," quod he, "that thou hast on thy bak,
Lat it be stille, and bere it forth with thee."
Part V concludes with the Clerk recalling the sufferings of Job:
Men speke of Job, and moost for his humblesse,
As clerkes, whan hem list, konne wel endite,
Namely of men, but as in soothfastnesse,
Though clerkes preise wommen but a lite,
Ther kan no man in humblesse hym acquite
As womman kan, ne kan been half so trewe
As wommen been, but it be falle of newe.
In Part VI, the final part, the latest humiliation of Griselda is that she must help the marquis' new wife-to-be prepare for the wedding, not realising that the girl is actually her daughter (now twelve years of age). Walter asks Griselda what she thinks of his new wife:
"Grisilde," quod he, as it were in his pley,
"How liketh thee my wyf and hire beautee?"
"Right wel," quod she, "my lord; for, in good fey,
A fairer saugh I nevere noon than she.
I prey to God yeve hire prosperitee;
And so hope I that he wol to yow sende
Plesance ynogh unto youre lyves ende.
But, she is not finished - she adds a warning not to treat his new wife as he treated her:
"O thyng biseke I yow, and warne also,
That ye ne prikke with no tormentynge
This tendre mayden, as ye han doon mo;
For she is fostred in hire norissynge
Moore tendrely, and, to my supposynge,
She koude nat adversitee endure
As koude a povre fostred creature." 
Walter, at last, sees her patience, her loyalty and steadfastness and he reveals that this was but another test:
"This is ynogh, Grisilde myn," quod he;
"Be now namoore agast ne yvele apayed.
I have thy feith and thy benyngnytee,
As wel as evere womman was, assayed,
In greet estaat and povreliche arrayed.
Now knowe I, dere wyf, thy stedfastnesse"
And hire in armes took and gan hire kesse.
He tells her the girl he was to marry is his daughter, and her son too is still alive. Griselda is overjoyed, and once more she is the wife of the marquis - "And ther she was honured as hire oghte." They live out the rest of their days happily and peacefully. The Clerk concludes that this tale was not told to recommend that wives should be tested by their husbands, but that everyone should be constant and steadfast as Griselda was in times of adversity:
This storie is seyd nat for that wyves sholde
Folwen Grisilde as in humylitee,
For it were inportable, though they wolde,
But for that every wight, in his degree,
Sholde be constant in adversitee
As was Grisilde; therfore Petrak writeth
This storie, which with heigh stile he enditeth.
Chaucer (the author rather than the pilgrim) speaks and warns that no man should test their wife as Walter did:
No wedded man so hardy be t'assaille
His wyves pacience in trust to fynde
Grisildis, for in certein he shal faille. 
And there ends The Clerk's Tale: horrible, but compelling and excellently told.

The Marquis of Saluce Marries Griselda by Charles West Cope (1852).
← Previously: The Friar's Prologue and Tale & The Summoner's Prologue and Tale

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Money by Émile Zola.

I've been reading a lot of Zola this month - Money is the fourth since the end of July, and I think for me it's one of the hardest Zolas to get through. It's not that I didn't think it a good novel, but it was a struggle. 

Money (L'Argent) was first published in 1891 and is the eighteenth of the Rougon Macquart series: only La Débâcle (1892), and Doctor Pascal (1893) follow, but though two books remain it does feel as though Zola is beginning to wrap the series up with the hints of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) that signified fall of the Second Empire that Zola had studied in his Rougon Macquart novels (hints of the war to come are also found in La Bête Humaine, 1890). In it, we see the return of Aristide Saccard, a Rougon, and central to Zola's The Kill (1872). He is the brother of the government minister Eugène (His Excellency Eugène Rougon, 1876) and the doctor Pascal Rougon (Doctor Pascal, 1893), the son of Pierre and Félicité Rougon (The Fortune of the Rougons, 1871), and the grandson of the neurotic, obsessive compulsive Adélaïde Rougon (also featured in The Fortune of the Rougons and later Doctor Pascal). Adélaïde is the root of the Rougon Macquart dynasty and as Zola was aiming partly to write of heredity it is always important to keep her in mind when considering each character of the Rougon Macquart family. From her, Astride inherits his obsessive behaviour which, within the Second Empire, manifests in the obsession with accumulating money. 

In The Kill (set ten years earlier), Astride invested in property, but we see in the beginning of Money that his enterprises have failed and he is bankrupt. But, like any 'good' Rougon he doesn't let that stop him! In this novel he seeks to establish the Banque Universelle (Universal Bank) which, he envisages, will help fund roads and railways and make him an absolute fortune. However, as he is bankrupt and his brother Eugène refuses to help him unless he leaves France he struggles to find financiers. he must scheme, manipulate, and even succumb to illegal practices to achieve his goals. And in this lies one of my major problems with Money - this world of finance and bankers and their practices is a mystery to me. There is in Money the use of a "straw man" and I simply cannot explain it. It is illegal, that I know, and suggests that his bank is doomed to fail despite best efforts - despite investors, and despite even buying newspaper companies to give the illusion of success and attack his brother (the latter of which struck a chord: we all know newspapers have their own political agenda, but I can never forget the shock of The Independent, a supposedly 'unbiased' newspaper that very clearly has always had left-wing biases endorsing a Conservative-Liberal Democrat government; shortly after one of their very despondent journalists tweeted "oh god did we just endorse the coalition? fml"). So for this reason, Money is interesting but more complicated for me perhaps than others: it was very hard for me to get really involved with it. But these methods of accumulation that I don't understand are not the only part of Money thankfully. We know Astride is corrupt, and he's even doomed by his own genes, but he is still loved by his mistress Caroline Hamelin. She is no fool, and she knows of all of Saccard's flaws, even his illegitimate child Victor (who shares many similarities with Jacques Macquart of La Bête Humaine as well as Adélaïde Rougon). So she too invests in the bank, but for her money is a means to an end - she sees potential for good, not for growth as Saccard does, nor simply just to have as his son Maxime does. 

"Northern Rocky" by Andy Davies (2009).
And, unsurprisingly, the Universal Bank fails and sends shock waves through the whole of France and the rest of the world, and in 2015 this will no doubt remind people of the collapse of Northern Rock in September 2007 and the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers (2008) which marked the early days of the Global Financial Crisis. In Money Zola explores the corruption and subsequent failure, and its effects. Another element is the anti-Semitism of Saccard, whose rivals are the Jewish banks (Zola notes, "Ah, the Jews! Saccard had that ancient racial resentment of the Jews that is found especially in the south of France"). This makes for an uncomfortable read but we know from Zola's involvement in the Dreyfuss Affair that in Money he is drawing attention to anti-Semitism, not agreeing or identifying with it.

It is, as I say, a difficult book and I was interested to read that Zola had not enjoyed writing it. He told a friend (Cérad), "Money is decidedly a thankless subject, stock market business I mean" and he too found the subject matter "difficult to grasp" (as he told Jacques van Santen Kolff) and was rather "exhausted" by it. Nevertheless it is another excellent novel. About half way through Caroline Hamelin thinks, 
Ah! Money! Money to corrupter, the poisoner, shrivelling souls, driving out all goodness, affection and love for others. Money alone was the great culprit, the promoter of all human cruelty and filth.
Yet through her Zola provides another perspective: I think it's a mistake to assume Money is anti-money. Money is about greed and corruption, but money can bring good to the world if used properly. 

And there another chapter of the Rougon Macquart series is closed. I was surprised to see that this is my tenth review, which means I'm half-way through re-reading. I am very tempted to pick another one up - perhaps His Excellency (I'm put off by the translation, though), or the new translation of The Conquest of Plassans (1874). I haven't read this new translation yet (another Oxford University Press, 2014), and whilst I am still in my Zola-phase it would be good to read another... Normally I need a break between Zola novels, but I seem to be on a bit of a Zola-roll. 

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Further Reading

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Authors in Context: Geoffrey Chaucer by Peter Brown.

'Authors in Context' is a series by Oxford University Press which examines the works of various writers related to their own time and society, and also to the present day. Earlier in the year I read Virginia Woolf by Michael Whitworth (2005) from this series and enjoyed it so much I decided to read the Geoffrey Chaucer book. This one is by Peter Brown and was first published in 2011.

Like Virginia Woolf, this book is divided into seven chapters:
  1. The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer
  2. The Social Body
  3. The Literary Scene
  4. Society and Politics
  5. Intellectual Ideas
  6. Science and Technology
  7. New Contexts
I'll start by saying this was an excellent read, but there was much to take in: this is only the second biography of Chaucer's I've read (the first was Chaucer by Peter Ackroyd, 2004) so there was a lot of new information!

It begins with the task of writing Geoffrey Chaucer's life: Brown suggests he was born around 1340 (some others think it was nearer to 1343), and he was probably born in London around the north side of the Thames. We know he came from a family of wine merchants, his father was John Chaucer, a freeman of London and "sometime deputy to the king's chief butler", and his mother was Agnes Copton, a property owner in her own right. He perhaps attended the charity school at St. Paul's, and some believed he went on to attend the Law Courts, which was an unofficial university. This, Brown notes, is unproven. In fact, the first record of Chaucer appears in 1357 where he is identified as a page in the household of Elizabeth, Countess of Ulster. He then entered the service of Lionel, Earl of Ulster, the second son of King Edward III and brother of Edward of Woodstock - the Black Prince, and Chaucer accompanied Lionel to France during the Hundred Years' War (1337 - 1453) where he was captured and ransomed for £16. In his early twenties he married Philippa Roet, sister of Katherine Swynford, the third wife of John of Gaunt, and in 1374 Chaucer was granted a life annuity from Gaunt. 

Chaucer's tomb, now in Poet's Corner in
Westminster Abbey.
Brown goes on to write known and probable details of Chaucer's life - that he lived in Aldgate (London) in his thirties and worked as a customs controller, then in 1385 he was Justice of Peace in Kent, and by 1386 he was knight of the shire of Kent. He had three children - Thomas, Lewis, and Alice, and it is believed he died on 25th October 1400. He was buried in Westminster Abbey for his work as a royal official. A body believed to be Chaucer's was exhumed in 1889: Chaucer, it was found, was 5' 6''. 

There, then, is the 'official' Chaucer. But there are no letters or diaries,and we don't know how or why Chaucer became interested in writing. So Brown turns to Chaucer's works in which there are a few portraits of the author, perhaps most notably in The Canterbury Tales (Chaucer writes that the Host, a large man, describes Chaucer "in the waast is shape as wel as I" (The Prologue of Sir Thopas). We know from his works that he was also well read, with Ovid, Boccaccio, Jerome, Titus, and a great many others serving as inspiration. Probably his first work was his translation of The Romaunt of the Rose (1361-67) by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun (who added to the poem thirty or so years later), showing that Chaucer was fluent not only in Latin but French too. But, as Brown notes, building a biography from works of fiction is very problematic. Nonetheless, however difficult it is to answer the question "what was Chaucer really like?", Brown provides a brief and fascinating biography of Chaucer in the first chapter of this book. 

In the second chapter Brown goes on to write about 14th Century society, beginning with a particularly interesting analogy:
Today, the phrase 'fabric of society' is commonly used to describe the complexity of social relations. it is a turn of phrase that calls attention to the notion of fabrication, and suggests that society is an artificial concept, man-made. 'Fabric' in the sense of 'building' evokes a capacious structure of interdependent parts (in need of maintenance, prone to ruin) of which each section of society is a component. Alternatively, we might think of society as a woven fabric, each thread or social group contributing its sense and distinctive colour to the over-all product, which is both ornamental and useful (though vulnerable to wear and tear). However, 'fabric of society' is not a figure of speech found in fourteenth century England. Instead, a metaphor often used is that of the human body - and the difference is telling. Its implication is that human society is a natural state of affairs, something given by God, over which human agency has little control. The metaphor of the body also suggests society is living, organic, a whole comprising of interdependent parts which have no choice in their respective functions and no opportunity for change. It is also an explicitly hierarchical notion of social organisation, with the 'head' controlling its 'members'.
From here Brown goes on to write about the tumultuous 14th Century - the war with France, the mid-century plague, and the criticisms of the church by John Wyclif. I was particularly struck by the rules of fashion and food in social groups:
'Those who work' are regarded as being of the 'estate of a groom', a category also covering carters, ploughmen, and herders of sheep, oxen, cows, and swine and others whose goods and chattels do not exceed forty shillings in value. They must not wear anything but coarse cloth ('blanket' and russet) and secure their clothing with girdles made of linen. Grooms are also classed with servants, whether of lords at one end of the social spectrum, or craftsmen at the other, for the statute intends to prevent the insubordination of servants as a group by setting limits to what they can east or wear. They must not eat fish or flesh more than once a day, or wear anything of gold or silk, embroidered or enamelled. Yeoman and craftsmen are given a little more latitude. The material from which their clothes are made can be worth up to forty shillings, but they are forbidden accessories made of precious materials and fur except that of lamb, rabbit, cat, or fox (furs themselves having their own hierarchy). The restrictions ease further as the social level advances. 
This outline of food and fashion Brown further expands, and it makes for a very interesting read and sheds new light on the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales which includes descriptions of the clothes many of the pilgrims wore.

I could go on and on with this post, but because there's so much to write about I think what I'll be doing is referring to it an awful lot with subsequent Chaucer posts rather than attempt to summarise a book I haven't firmly got a grip on. But it is a fascinating book and, as with Whitworth's Virginia Woolf, I love reading about Chaucer in these various contexts - learning about his literary contemporaries, 14th Century history (which I knew virtually nothing about until I began with Chaucer, and the scientific and technological advancements of the time as well as the dominant intellectual ideas. It is an excellent book, and one, as I say, to be re-read. When I come to the end of reading Chaucer's works I'll be re-reading this for sure. It's an absolute must-read, I think!

And speaking of Chaucer's works - I'm not so far off finishing. So far I've read:
Of The Canterbury Tales, which I'm re-reading, I've read 
This leaves the rest of it - Fragments IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, and X - and Chaucer's shorter poems. So it looks like I'll be finishing probably by the end of the year.

It's a challenge I've probably enjoyed the most out of all challenges I've done! And this book by Peter Brown is an essential companion - I do wish I had have read it sooner, but to be fair, I may complete Chaucer's works in December, but I'll never truly finish, and nor will I wish to!

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Lamia by John Keats.

Illustrated by Robert Anning Bell (1897).

Lamia was written by John Keats in 1819 and published in 1820 along with Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, Hyperion, To Autumn (one of my absolute favourites) and other poems. It's about 708 lines and is divided into two parts, and it is based on the Greek myth of Lamia, the mistress of Zeus who his wife Hera detests, and she kills all of Lamia's children and turns her into a monster that hunts and kills the children of others. In the 19th Century this myth was changed somewhat and Lamia was essentially a monster who would hunt and devour men.

1888 edition.
Part I begins,
Upon a time, before the faery broods
Drove Nymph and Satyr from the prosperous woods,
Before King Oberon’s bright diadem,
Sceptre, and mantle, clasp’d with dewy gem,
Frighted away the Dryads and the Fauns
From rushes green, and brakes, and cowslip’d lawns,
The ever-smitten Hermes empty left
His golden throne, bent warm on amorous theft:
From high Olympus had he stolen light,
On this side of Jove’s clouds, to escape the sight
Of his great summoner, and made retreat
Into a forest on the shores of Crete.
In Crete there is a nymph - 
A nymph, to whom all hoofed Satyrs knelt;
At whose white feet the languid Tritons poured  
Pearls, while on land they wither’d and adored.
Fast by the springs where she to bathe was wont,
And in those meads where sometime she might haunt,
Were strewn rich gifts, unknown to any Muse,
Though Fancy’s casket were unlock’d to choose.    
Ah, what a world of love was at her feet!
So Hermes thought...
So Hermes tries to find this nymph but cannot, but soon he comes across a serpent:
She was a gordian shape of dazzling hue,
Vermilion-spotted, golden, green, and blue;
Striped like a zebra, freckled like a pard,
Eyed like a peacock, and all crimson barr’d;         
And full of silver moons, that, as she breathed,
Dissolv’d, or brighter shone, or interwreathed
Their lustres with the gloomier tapestries—
So rainbow-sided, touch’d with miseries,
She seem’d, at once, some penanced lady elf,        
Some demon’s mistress, or the demon’s self.
Upon her crest she wore a wannish fire
Sprinkled with stars, like Ariadne’s tiar:
Her head was serpent, but ah, bitter-sweet!
She had a woman’s mouth with all its pearls complete:      
And for her eyes: what could such eyes do there
But weep, and weep, that they were born so fair?
As Proserpine still weeps for her Sicilian air.
Her throat was serpent, but the words she spake
Came, as through bubbling honey, for Love’s sake,        
And thus; while Hermes on his pinions lay,
Like a stoop’d falcon ere he takes his prey.
First illustration of Lamia
by Robert Anning Bell (1897)
.
This serpent is a woman changed into a snake, and she tells Hermes she will reveal the invisible nymph if he will change her back into a woman. He agrees, and the serpent is changed: it is Lamia, and she quickly flees in search of Lycius, a young man from Corinth.  When she finds him he falls in love,
And soon his eyes had drunk her beauty up, Leaving no drop in the bewildering cup, And still the cup was full,—while he afraid Lest she should vanish ere his lip had paid Due adoration, thus began to adore...
He takes her to Corinth where they live together, "Shut from the busy world of more incredulous".

In Part II, Keats begins by writing their love is "a doubtful tale from faery land". Lycius wishes to marry her, and she eventually consents on the condition that his friend Apollonius, the philosopher, is not invited to the wedding. However Apollonius does come, uninvited, and Lycius lets him join the wedding party:
Lycius blush’d, and led The old man through the inner doors broad-spread;
With reconciling words and courteous mien Turning into sweet milk the sophist’s spleen.
This philosopher is not taken in by Lamia's charms - " Do not all charms fly / At the mere touch of cold philosophy?". Keats writes,
... The bald-head philosopher    
Had fix'd his eye, without a twinkle or stir Full on the alarmed beauty of the bride, Brow-beating her fair form, and troubling her sweet pride. Lycius then press’d her hand, with devout touch, As pale it lay upon the rosy couch:    
'Twas icy, and the cold ran through his veins; Then sudden it grew hot, and all the pains Of an unnatural heat shot to his heart. "Lamia, what means this? Wherefore dost thou start? Know’st thou that man?" Poor Lamia answer’d not.
Second illustration of Lamia by Robert Anning Bell (1897).
He continues to stare at her, and Lamia is increasingly nervous. Lycius panics and tells Apollonius to stop staring - "Shut, shut those juggling eyes, thou ruthless man!". He answers, "Fool", and
"Fool! Fool!" repeated he, while his eyes still  
Relented not, nor mov'd; "from every ill
Of life have I preserv’d thee to this day, And shall I see thee made a serpent’s prey?"
Then Lamia breath’d death breath; the sophist's eye, Like a sharp spear, went through her utterly,      
Keen, cruel, perceant, stinging: she, as well
As her weak hand could any meaning tell,
Motion’d him to be silent; vainly so, He look’d and look’d again a level—No!
"A Serpent!" echoed he; no sooner said,
Than with a frightful scream she vanished:
And Lycius' arms were empty of delight...
Lycius, on the very moment she vanishes dies, "no pulse, or breath they found", and there the poem ends.

Lamia is throughout manipulative, deceptive, and at times callous - a perfect snake, in short, but she is not completely hateful, not completely a 'belle dame sans merci', another poem by Keats that reminded me of Lamia. It seems to be a poem (I write cautiously because I'm not so good on the Romantics) about the destructiveness on love based on image; a passionate but ultimately superficial love. As ever, I'm enthralled by Keats' language and descriptions, but still it is not an easy read however enjoyable. I think I'm the superficial reader that Keats would hate - I love the beauty of it but struggle with the deeper meanings! Something to work on.

To finish, two beautiful paintings by John William Waterhouse inspired by Keats' poem.

Lamia by John William Waterhouse (1905).

Lamia by John William Waterhouse (1909).

Saturday, 22 August 2015

The Classics Club Spin.

I am rejoicing - there's a Classics Club Spin and I love the spin! Last time I got The Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen [Virginia Woolf's father] by Frederic W. Maitland and I enjoyed that even though I thought it would be rather dull (and it was a little dull, but oddly enough I didn't mind so much). 

For this I've picked twenty books that I'm not so much dreading (though there are a few there that I am) but these just aren't on my radar at present and I might need a little encouragement to read them! So I picked them, randomized them, and now I await my number... 
  1. Sterne, Laurence - A Sentimental Journey
  2. Hugo, Victor - The Toilers of the Sea
  3. Eliot, George - Romola
  4. Tolstoy, Leo - Tales of Army Life
  5. Boswell, James - The Life of Samuel Johnson
  6. Bazán, Emilia Pardo - The House of Ulloa
  7. Bruyère, Jean de la - Characters
  8. Lafayette, Madame de - The Princess de Cleves
  9. Sand, George - Indiana
  10. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
  11. Moore, George - Esther Waters
  12. Collins, Wilkie - No Name
  13. Škvorecký, Josef - The Cowards
  14. Burke, Edmund - Reflections on the Revolution in France
  15. Lewis, Wyndham - Tarr
  16. Steinbeck, John - A Russian Journal
  17. Stendhal - The Red and the Black
  18. Steinbeck, John - The Winter of Our Discontent
  19. Sévigné, Madame de - Selected Letters
  20. Tolstoy, Leo - Resurrection
I think I may be a little intimidated by Burke and Boswell, but aside from that....

Friday, 21 August 2015

The Friar's Prologue and Tale & The Summoner's Prologue and Tale from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.

The Friar by Arthur Szyk.
Following The Wife of Bath is The Friar, who was described in the General Prologue as "wantowne and merye". He lives by begging, and is well-liked as he gives 'an easy confession and penance' in return for money, but ignores other beggars and those who cannot further his lavish lifestyle. His prologue is short, only about 35 lines, in which he tells the Wife he enjoyed her tale but she must leave authority to the clergy and learned men. He goes on to warn the group he has a tale about a summoner, and there is no doubt at all this is designed to irritate The Summoner, whose prologue and tale follow. The Host intervenes, and says 'let the Summoner be', but the Summoner says,
Nay... lat hym seye to me
What so hym list: whan it comth to my lot,
By God, I shal hym quiten every grot.
And so the Friar begins his tale, which, as with the Wife's, involves meeting a dubious character in the forest.  He tells, as he promises, of a summoner who is sly, devious, and always on the lookout for money:
A slyer boye nas noon in Engelond;
For subtilly he hadde his espiaille,
That taughte hym wel wher that hym myghte availle.
After a brief objection from our Summoner, the Friar reinforces his message: "This false theef, this somonour" and goes on to describe how he extorts monet, describing him yet again as a thief and a pimp: "A theef, and eek a somnour, and a baude". He would seduce young women and bribe prostitutes to tell him the secrets of their clients.

One day he meets a yeoman and pretends to be a bailiff, knowing that profession is actually despised less than his own - "He dorste nat, for verray filthe and shame/ Seye that he was a somonour, for the name." The two quickly (very quickly) swear their brotherhood to each other and the summoner asks him to tell him all the tricks of the trade so that he may get yet more money. He tells the yeoman he takes all he can from people, unless it be too heavy or hot to carry ("But if it be to hevy or to hoot"). The yeoman smiles and tells the summoner he is in fact a demon ("feend"):
"Brother," quod he, "wiltow that I thee telle?
I am a feend; my dwellyng is in helle,
And heere I ryde aboute my purchasyng,
To wite wher men wol yeve me any thyng.
My purchas is th'effect of al my rente.
Looke how thou rydest for the same entente,
To wynne good, thou rekkest nevere how;
Right so fare I, for ryde wolde I now
Unto the worldes ende for a preye."
The summoner is unperturbed largely, and takes his newly pledged allegiance to the devil more seriously than he does his allegiance to God and the two travel on together - "they ryden forth hir wey" and inflict their villainy on whoever comes their way, then finally descend into hell together. The Friar concludes that he could have told more were it not for the Summoner being present, and dramatically entreats the company to remain faithful to Jesus:
Lordynges, I koude han toold yow, quod this Frere,
 Hadde I had leyser for this Somnour heere,
After the text of Crist, Poul, and John,
And of oure othere doctours many oon,
Swiche peynes that youre hertes myghte agryse,
Al be it so no tonge may it devyse,
Thogh that I myghte a thousand wynter telle
The peynes of thilke cursed hous of helle.
But for to kepe us fro that cursed place,
Waketh and preyeth Jhesu for his grace
So kepe us fro the temptour Sathanas.
Herketh this word! Beth war, as in this cas:
"The leoun sit in his awayt alway
To sle the innocent, if that he may."
Disposeth ay youre hertes to withstonde
The feend, that yow wolde make thral and bonde.
He may nat tempte yow over youre myght,
For Crist wol be youre champion and knyght.
And prayeth that thise somonours hem repente
Of hir mysdedes, er that the feend hem hente!
The Summoner.
Needless to say the Summoner does not enjoy the Friar's tale, and the prologue begins with his fury:
This Somonour in his styropes hye stood;
Upon this Frere his herte was so wood
That lyk an aspen leef he quook for ire.
He says, no wonder the Friar was so knowledgeable about the devil - "Freres and feendes been but lyte asonder" and he launches a tirade on the numerous tales of friars being carried off to hell. His prologue ends with, "God save yow alle, save this cursed Frere!" He goes on to tell his tale, set incidentally in Holderness, Yorkshire.

He tells of a friar much like our Friar who lives by begging and basically tricking folk out of their food and money until, "Whan folk in chirche had yeve him what hem leste, / He wente his wey; no lenger wolde he reste". Our Friar is of course quick to object, ""Nay, ther thou lixt, thou Somonour!" quod the Frere" but once again the Host intervenes and tells him to let the Summoner get on.

And so he does, and describes how the friar visits an old friend who he finds very ill. He talks to his wife, who tells him how ill the friend, Thomas, is, and he then asks to be left with him and the wife complies but not before telling the friar she has recently lost a child - 
"Now, sire," quod she, "but o word er I go.
My child is deed withinne thise wykes two,
Soone after that ye wente out of this toun."
He sympathises but claims he already knew - "His deeth saugh I by revelacioun" and that the child had gone to heaven. He then adds it is his and his fellow friars' poverty that allows them to be closer to God in this respect, and though he suffers greatly he is glad. It is, he goes on, people such as Thomas and his wife who are effectively gluttons who do not come close to Christ, and he goes on to deliver a long sermon about the evils of money, anger, and drunkenness. He then concludes by asking for money:
"Yif me thanne of thy gold, to make oure cloystre,"
Quod he, "for many a muscle and many an oystre,
Whan othere men han ben ful wel at eyse,
Hath been oure foode, our cloystre for to reyse.
And yet, God woot, unnethe the fundement
Parfourned is, ne of our pavement
Nys nat a tyle yet withinne oure wones.
By God, we owen fourty pound for stones.
This blatant hypocrisy of course annoys Thomas greatly:
This sike man wax wel ny wood for ire;
He wolde that the frere had been on-fire
With his false dissymulacioun.
He agrees to give the friar something, and tells him he has something very special for him between his buttocks:
"Now thanne, put in thyn hand doun by my bak,"
Seyde this man, "and grope wel bihynde.
Bynethe my buttok there shaltow fynde
A thyng that I have hyd in pryvetee."
The friar reaches for it....
And whan this sike man felte this frere
Aboute his tuwel grope there and heere,
Amydde his hand he leet the frere a fart;
Ther nys no capul, drawynge in a cart,
That myghte have lete a fart of swich a soun.
Yes, Chaucer writes that Thomas farts like a horse. I couldn't help but laugh! The friar is enraged and having been chased out of the house he tells everyone what happened, lamenting that a fart cannot be divided amongst the others at the convent. But there is no sympathy for the friar.

So there ends Fragment III of The Canterbury Tales with both the Friar and Summoner not coming out terribly well in their argument with each other and both apparently full of 'hot air' as it were. The tales are laden with hate and hypocrisy, but nevertheless, however childish, they are great fun.

Next week on to Fragment IV, which begins with The Clerk's Prologue and Tale.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

La Bête Humaine by Émile Zola.

'Zola sur une locomotive', for L'Illustration,
8th March 1890.
La Bête Humaine (more commonly known in English as The Beast Within) is the seventeenth novel of Émile Zola's 'Les Rougon Macquart' series (following The Dream, 1888) and was published in 1890. I read The Beast Within translated by Leonard Tancock (published by Penguin, 1977) a year or so ago and didn't get on too well with it, but last week I read La Bête Humaine translated into English by Roger Pearson (published by Oxford World Classics, 1996) and I got so much more out of it. 

The setting for La Bête Humaine is the railway between Paris and Le Havre (north western France) and the main character is Jacques Lantier of the Macquart side of the family tree: son of Gervaise (L'Assommoir, 1877), brother of Étienne (Germinal, 1885) and Claude (The Masterpiece, 1886), and half-brother of Nana (Nana, 1880), yet this is his first appearance in the Rougon Macquart novels: it was Étienne who was to be in La Bête Humaine, but as his character developed in Germinal Zola decided to quite simply 'invent' Jacques, who really ought to appear in L'Assommoir, but instead, Zola writes early on, he was left in Plassans when Gervaise went to Paris with her children Étienne and Claude and her lover Lantier. But, for those who have already read La Bête Humaine, we know that is the very least of Jacques problems. Zola told his plans to Edmondo de Amicis, who in turn wrote that the novel
will have a railway network as its setting; there will be a large station in which ten separate lines converge, with each line having its own plot and all of them linked to the main station; and the whole novel will be imbued with the colour of the locale, and you will be able to hear, like background music, the rattle and roll of this hectic life, and witness love on a train, a tunnel accident, the toil of the locomotive, collisions both head on and behind, disasters, fleeing passengers, the whole dark, smoke-filled, noisy world which he [Zola] has been mentally inhabiting for so long.
Railways don't always fare too well in 19th Century literature. For Mr. Dombey of Dombey and Son (1848) Charles Dickens wrote,
The very speed at which the train was whirled along, mocked the swift course of the young life that had been borne away so steadily and so inexorably to its foredoomed end. The power that forced itself upon its iron way—its own—defiant of all paths and roads, piercing through the heart of every obstacle, and dragging living creatures of all classes, ages, and degrees behind it, was a type of the triumphant monster, Death.
In The Signal Man (1866) Dickens, most likely inspired by the Clayton Tunnel rail crash (which killed 23 people and injured 176 in 1861), writes of a ghost warning of railway accidents. George Eliot in Middlemarch (1871 - 1872) writes that the subject of railways was as exciting to some residents of Middlemarch as "the imminent horrors of Cholera", and we know of trains and Anna Karenina (Tolstoy, 1878). But whilst trains and railways may represent death and doom, they are also a symbol of modernity. In Hardy's Jude the Obscure (1895), Sue Bridehead remarks that railway stations are "centre of the town life now. The cathedral has had its day", to which Jude replies, "How modern you are!". Mr. Deane remarks to Tom Tulliver in Eliot's The Mill on the Floss (1860) that the world is much faster paced: "It's this steam, you see, that has made the difference; it drives on every wheel double pace, and the wheel of fortune along with 'em..." In Zola's La Bête Humaine, he combines the two philosophies - that railway represents modernity, but it is also unnatural and dangerous.

The Monomaniac by Émile Zola:an English
translation of La Bête Humaine by
Ernest Alfred Vizetelly (1901). 
'La Lison', Jacques Lantier's train, is a kind of metaphor for Jacques himself, in this respect. 'La Lison' is at once modern and primeval; she is dangerous, she is strong, fast, and exciting, and she may be harnessed. She will do the bidding of the driver, but she may also veer out of control. She is potentially a killer. This is true of Jacques who may, in more ways than one, go "off the rails" at any given point.

La Bête Humaine begins with a murder, not committed by Jacques however but Roubaud, who learns that his wife Séverine had an affair with one of the directors of the rail company he works for, M. Grandmorin. Inspired by what was known as the Poinsot affair, in which a senior judge was shot dead in a first-class compartment aboard a train, Roubaud murders Grandmorin with the help of Séverine. By chance, Jacques witnesses the murder:
First Jacques saw the dark mouth of the tunnel light up, like a gaping furnace filled with blazing firewood. Then, accompanied by its own cacophonous din, the engine burst forth, dazzling the darkness with its great big round eye, as the front headlamp bore into the black countryside and illuminated the oncoming rails with a double line of flame. But the apparition vanished like lightning: all at once the coaches followed, one after another, the small square windows in the doors passing in fitful flashes of light, revealing each compartment filled with passengers in such vertiginously rapid succession that the eye was left to doubt the reality of these images so fleetingly glimpsed. And in that split second Jacques very distinctly saw, in the flaming light of a coupé window, a man pinning another man down on the seat and planting a knife in his throat, while a dark shape, perhaps a third person, perhaps some tumbling luggage, was bearing down with all its weight on the flailing legs of the victim. Already the train was gone, disappearing into the distance in the direction of La Croix-de-Maufras, and all that could be seen in the darkness were its three rear lights, the red triangle.
Photograph by Émile Zola.
Moments later he is told a body has just been found on the line and he goes to see it, "Never before had he been gripped by such an urgent passion to see something, to know".

For Jacques who fantasises about murder, this is the turning point, the very event that will push him over the edge no matter how he struggles to control 'the beast within'. Zola explores, as ever, the idea of inherited characteristics, but not simply those from his immediate family, Adélaïde Rougon, Macquart, Antoine and Joséphine Macquart, and Gervaise Coupeau his mother, but further back to his ancestors, the primitive, the primordial. This is what is known as Atavism - "the tendency to revert to ancestral type" (there's a Wikipedia article on it here). Also under attack, not only modernity represented by the railways, but the justice system that struggles to prosecute the murderers. Zola's criminological investigation, attempting to answer the question "Is a criminal born or made?", was, as with all of his novels, thorough in its research producing some 677 pages of notes (7 of which contained a list of 130 possible titles). Zola had an opportunity to observe trains - a railway ran along the bottom of his garden in his home in Médan. He also collected a great many newspaper cuttings on all various train-related crimes and accidents (other events in the novel are based on real events, listing them however would rather spoil the novel for those who haven't read it yet!). He also talked to Pol Lefèvre, who had worked for the Compagnie de l'Ouest and written books about railways and technology, visited the Gare Saint-Lazare and talked to many railway workers, and even travelled on a train up front alongside the driver and fireman (I believe the first illustration in this post is of that event), and finally he visited the Palais de Justice.

Zola's home in Médan. Photograph by Émile Zola.
La Bête Humaine is a very difficult and complex novel. Sir Edwin Arnold wrote of it for The North American Review (1892),
The whole volume seems to be written in blood, so full are its red pages of the shadow of evil passions, assassinations, envies, hatreds, malice, and all uncharitableness.
It is gruesome in its violence, and I felt very much alone with it: Zola is almost entirely absent; characters speak for themselves and events are relayed. The portrayal of Jacques could almost be sympathetic - it is not so much his desire to kill but the beast within him, that ancient creature he is for some reason unable to subdue. The novel borders on the sensational with its murders, adultery, and sexual abuse, and for that it is a difficult read but nonetheless so very compelling. When I first read it with the older translation I think it took a while, but this time I couldn't put it down. It is a very fine novel indeed, and it's very hard to do it justice.


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Further Reading

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