Monday, 29 February 2016

King Lear by William Shakespeare.

King Leir and his Daughters from the Chronica Majora (13th Century).
King Lear is a tragedy by William Shakespeare and was written 1605 - 1606 and is based on the legend of King Leir, or Leir of Britain. Shakespeare's main source was The Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande by Raphael Holinshed (1587), which in turn found information in The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth (1136), which I actually just finished reading this weekend, and in which Leir's story is first told. Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote that King Leir was a direct descendant of King Brutus, supposed to be the first king of Britain (12th Century B.C.) and reigned in the 8th Century B.C. having succeeded his father Bladud (who, like Daedalus and Icarus) tried to fly with artificial wings. Lier was the last male descendant of Brutus and he had three daughters, Gonerill (the eldest; also spelled 'Goneril'), Regan, and Cordelia (the youngest, who would become Cordelia of Britain after her father's death). Leir had reigned for sixty years when he decided to marry off his daughters, and divide the country into three for each sister. Gonerill and Regan both flattered their father, so Gonerill was married to the Duke of Albany (the title was actually established in 1398) and Regan to the Duke of Cornwall (the present Duke of Cornwall is the Prince of Wales; title established in 1337). Cordelia, her father's favourite, refused to flatter him and so she was not given any land and she was married to King Aganippus of France. Consequently Gonerill and Regan were given half of King Leir's land (that's a quarter of the land each) with the intention of bequeathing it all after his death. However Gonerill and Regan rebel and force Leir to flee to France and beg Cordelia's forgiveness. Cordelia and King Aganippus then invaded Britain and overthrew the sisters, and King Leir reigned for a further three years before his death. Cordelia was then queen of Britain for five years, however the sons of Gonerill and Regan, Marganus and Cunedagius, rebelled against her and imprisoned her. She killed herself in prison; Marganus went on to become king of the north of Britain (Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote, "That region which extends beyond the Humber in the direction of Caithness), and Cunedagius ruled the south. Ultimately Cunedagius killed Marganus and he became king of Britain.

King Lear: Cordelia's Farewell by Edwin Austin Abbey (1898).
Shakespeare's version of the legend of King Leir is for the most part very similar, however their are a few points of departure. As in Geoffrey of Monmouth's version, King Lear wishes to divide his country into three to share between each daughter. He says,
Tell me, my daughters,
Since now we will divest us both of rule.
Interest of territory, cares of state,
Which of you shall we say doth love us most,
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge.
The Three Daughters of King Lear (Las tres hijas del rey Lear)
by Gustav Pope (1875-6).
Both Gonerill and Regan grossly flatter him, however Cordelia, King Lear's favourite, refuses to do so:
Cᴏʀᴅᴇʟɪᴀ: Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth. I love your majesty
According to my bond, no more nor less.
Lᴇᴀʀ: How, how, Cordelia! Mend your speech a little
Lest you may mar your fortunes.
Cᴏʀᴅᴇʟɪᴀ: Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, loved me.
I return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty.
Sure I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.
Lᴇᴀʀ: But goes thy heart with this?
Cᴏʀᴅᴇʟɪᴀ: Ay, my good lord.
Lᴇᴀʀ: So young and so untender?
Cᴏʀᴅᴇʟɪᴀ: So young, my lord, and true.
Lear then disinherits her, and marries her off without a dowry. But Cordelia is the sister who proves her love for her father - Gonerill and Regan confess to each other their declarations were false.

King Lear and the Fool in the Storm by William Dyce (1851).
Lear then divides his time between the two sisters, attended by his 'Fool' and his servant Caius (who is actually the banished Earl of Kent in disguise) along with one hundred knights. Gonerill, who is unnerved by the presence of the knights, instructs him to dismiss half of them, or else he and all the knights must leave. Leave he does, however Regan is equally unsympathetic and she and Gonerill plot between them, wishing Lear to dismiss seventy-five knights. Here Lear shows his descent into madness: he leaves Regan's home for the heath where he stays during a violent storm. 

Meanwhile, the Earl of Gloucester suffers his own family problems. His illegitimate son Edmund is attempting to convince everyone around him that Gloucester's legitimate son Edgar is plotting to kill him. Edgar fears for his life so he adopts the disguise of 'Poor Tom' or 'Tom o' Bedlam'. In this disguise Edgar encounters Lear on the heath, and here the two stories collide. The group go to Dover and they discover a French invasion is planned by Cordelia and her husband to reinstate Lear to the throne. This plan however is unsuccessful - both Lear and Cordelia are imprisoned. At the same time, both Regan and Goneril have become entangled with Edmund. Goneril's husband Albany demands that Edmund and Goneril both be imprisoned for treason, however Edgar arrives and a duel takes place: Edgar kills Edmund. Shortly after Regan dies, having been poisoned by Goneril who later kills herself. As Edmund dies he reveals he has instructed Cordelia and Lear to be executed; Cordelia is hung, but Lear is saved though he dies of a broken heart. It is a very bleak and bloody ending.

King Lear is a very complex play on power, betrayal, and family. The plot is very complicated: I've been exceptionally simplistic in this review! It was interesting to read straight after Geoffrey of Monmouth's account in The History of the Kings of Britain - I would say I preferred the latter account on the whole, but nevertheless Shakespeare's King Lear is an exciting and energetic work. Certainly one of his finest plays.

Cordelia in the Court of King Lear by Sir John Gilbert (1873).
That was my ninth title for the Deal Me In Challenge: next week, The White Bull by Voltaire.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Books VII & VIII of Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Continuing the read-along of Ovid's Metamorphoses and reaching the half-way point!

Book VII

Medea and Jason | The Rejuvenation of Aeson | The Punishment of Pelias | Medea's Flight
Theseus and Aegeus | Minos and Aeacus | The Plague at Aegina 
The Birth of the Myrmidons | Cephalus and Procris

Medea and Jason

Jason Swearing Eternal Affection to Medea by Jean-François de Troy (1742 - 1743). 
In this Ovid tells the first part of the Medea myth, in which Medea helps Jason capture the Golden Fleece (a ram with a golden fleece). Aeëtes consents to give Jason the fleece if he completes three tasks, but before we learn of the tasks Medea is introduced: she is deeply in love with Jason, and she worries about these tasks, and it is she who reveals them as she plans to assist him:
But unless I assist him, those fire-breathing bulls will blast him to ashes;
the warriors sprung from the seeds which he sows in the earth will fight
and destroy him; or else the greedy dragon will make him its prey.
As she goes to the shrine of Hecate she encounters Jason who asks for her help. She tells him she will help him on condition that he marries her. He agrees, and with the spells she has learned from Hecate she helps him fulfil his challenges and capture the fleece. They leave for Iólcos' harbour. 

The Rejuvenation of Aeson

La Métamorphose d'Aeson by Domenicus van Wynen (17th Century).
Old Aeson → Young Aeson

When Jason, Medea, and the fleet arrive home Jason finds his father Aeson dying. He begs Medea to intervene and with dark witchcraft: a lengthy spell and potions she rejuvenates him, making him appear forty years younger.

The Punishment of Pelias

Medea by Frederick Sandys (1868).
Old sheep → Lamb

This section simply opens with "Black treachery next": in this Medea seeks revenge against Pelias (Jason's uncle) who (N.B. Ovid doesn't tell the story) has tricked Jason into giving him the Golden Fleece in exchange for his kingdom. And so Medea arrives, pretending she is estranged from her husband, and she tells the daughters of Pelias how she rejuvenated Aeson, even showing them her spell with an old sheep. She then teaches the daughters the trick to revive their aged father, and it is the daughters who cut the throat of their father as Medea had cut the throat of Aeson, however her potion is nothing but water and herbs, and so Pelias is killed.

Medea's Flight

Dragon Chariot of Medea (4th Century B.C.)
Medea escapes, and as she flies in her chariot she passes over lands where many transformations have occurred:

  • Bullock → Stag (by Bacchus to conceal his thieving)
  • Maera → Dog
  • Women of Cos → Cows
  • Ctesýlla → Dove
  • Cycnus → Swan
  • Hyrië → Pool of Tears
  • Combe (grew wings to escape attack)
  • Cephíus → seal
When she returns to Jason she finds he has remarried, and so she kills their children, leaves again in her chariot, and goes to King Aégeus.

Theseus and Aegeus

In this Medea's murderous streak continues: she attempts to kill Theseus by tricking Aegeus into giving him a cup of poison. As Aegeus realises at the last second that Theseus is his son he swipes the cup out of his hand. Theseus lives and the kingdom celebrates as Medea is once again forced to flee.

Minos and Aeacus

Arne → Jackdaw

As the festival celebrating the return of Theseus takes place King Minos announces his intention to wage war on Athens for revenge against the Athenians for killing his son Androgeos. He asks Aegeus and the Aeginetans to break their treaty with Athens however they refuse. As Minos threatens that their refusal will dearly cost them Cephalus, an Athenian nobleman, returns with Clytus and Butes, the latter of whom was the son of Pallas.

The Plague at Aegina

Aegina Awaiting the Arrival of Zeus by Ferdinand Bol (17th Century).
In this Ovid describes the plague sent by Juno out of revenge against the people of Aegina; the namesake of this city, Aegina, was a nymph whom Jupiter had abducted. As people died of the plague the city became lawless.

The Birth of the Myrmidons

Ants → Humans

In this, Ovid tells of how Aeacus, the son of Jupiter and Aegina, is distraught about the city and so prays to Jupiter, "either restore me my people or send me to my grave!". A flash of lightening - a sign from Jupiter, is seen and Aeacus observes ants on the oak tree where he stands. That night he dreams the ants then transform into humans; he awakes, and discovers they have. He calls this new race the 'Myrmidons'. 

Cephalus and Procris

Procris and Cephalus by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope (1872).

The final tale of Book VII is about the lance of Cephalus: this lance never misses it's target, and furthermore it always returns to he who threw it. When asked to tell the tale of its origin Cephalus bursts into tears and tells of how Cephalus was once abducted by Aurora however he refused ehr advances, saying he loved his wife Procris. Aurora implies she has been unfaithful, so, with Aurora's help he disguises himself and tries to seduce Procris. One day it appears she may submit to this stranger and Cephalus reveals himself and curses her. She runs away but returns when he apologises, and they go on to live happily. However Procris begins to suspect her husband and hides, watching him. Mistaking her for a hidden boar he throws his spear and strikes her. She dies. Book VII ends,
The hero had ended. His audience, like him, was in tears. Then Aeacus
came on the scene with a pair of his sons and a party of fresh-raised
soldiers. Cephalus quickly took charge of the armed contingent.


Scylla and Minos | The Minotaur and Ariadne | Daedalus and Icarus | Daedalus and Perdix
Meleager and the Calydonian Boar | Achelous, the Naids and Perimele
Philemon and Baucis | Erysichthon

Scylla and Minos

Scylla et Glaucus by Rubens (1636).
Ninus → Hawk
Scylla → Hawk

As Cephalus departs to Athens King Minos continues to plan his war against Greece; at this stage there is a war in Megara, but the king of Megara, Nisus, is protected by his lock of purple hair and Minos is unable to advance. However Scylla, the daughter of Nisus, falls in love with Minos and to win his affection she cuts this purple tuft from his head and presents it to Minos. He is horrified and rejects her in no uncertain terms, and Scylla reacts by hurling insults at him. As she attacks Minos' boat Nisus, who has metamorphosed into a hawk, arrives and turns her into a hawk also.

The Minotaur and Ariadne

Ariadne by John William Waterhouse (1898).
Ariadne → Corona Borealis

One of Scylla's insults to Minos was that he was not the offspring of Jupiter disguised as a bull (see the story of Europa, Book II) but merely a bull, and furthermore his wife Pasiphae had also slept with a bull producing a half-human half-bull - the Minotaur. He hides the Minotaur in a maze designed by Daedalus and every nine years it is fed on the children of Athens. The third time one of the Athenian youths sent to be eaten by the Minotaur is Theseus, however he is helped by Ariadne, Minos' daughter. She gives him a thread so that he may find is way back out of the maze. She is in love with him, but despite helping him he abandons her. She weeps, heartbroken, but Bacchus arrives and transforms her into a constellation: the Corona Borealis. Ariadne's story is also told by Chaucer in his Legend of Good Women (1386-88).

Hercules and Corona Borealis by Sidney Hall (1825).
Daedalus and Icarus

The Fall of Icarus by Rubens (1636).
This is the sad story of Icarus: his father Daedalus (whose name James Joyce uses for his character Stephen Dedalus in Stephen HeroA Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses) wishes to escape Crete where Minos is holding him prisoner so he fashions wings made of feathers and wax, and uses them for him and his son to fly away. Despite his father's warning Icarus flies too close to the sun; the wax melts and he crashes into the sea where he drowns. Daedalus buries him in a place now known as Icária (a Greek island in the Aegean Sea).

Daedalus and Perdix

Perdix → Partridge

As he buries his son Daedalus encounters a partridge, seemingly pleased. It transpires that this partridge was once the nephew of Daedalus entrusted to his care by his sister, however Daedalus was jealous of the boy's talents as a craftsman and hurled him off a cliff. Athena intervened and turned him into a partridge to save him, and from then on the partridge is a bird who always stays close to the ground.

Meleager and the Calydonian Boar

The Calydonian Boar Hunt by Rubens (1641).
Meleager's sisters → Guinea-fowl

As the celebrations for Theseus' defeat of the Minotaur go on the goddess Diana, in fury that King Oenus had not paid tribute to her, releases a wild boar which runs rampant through the city. A group of the strongest men, including Meleager, are sent to kill it, and they are joined by Atlanta, a huntress. She strikes it, but ultimately it is Meleager who kills it, though he wishes to share the honour with Atlanta. This enrages his uncles Plexippus and Toxeus; they argue, and Meleager kills them too. His mother mourns the death of her brothers, but remembers a prophecy from the Eumenides - as long as a certain log burns Meleager will live. She throws the log into the fire and as it turns to ash Meleager dies. His sisters mourn and Diana turns them into guinea-fowl: a turkey, or 'meleagris' (μελεαγρίς), meaning a female relative of Meleager.

Achelous, the Naids and Perimele

The Banquet of Achelous by Rubens (1614).
Naiads → Islands
Princess → Island

In this short tale Ovid tells of how the Echínades (a group of islands) came to be: five sea nymphs (Naiads) did not incite Achelous to a banquet so in revenge he turned them into an island. Then, Achelous goes on, the island was owned by a princess with whom, he says, he was in love. He raped her and her father punished her by throwing her off a cliff. Achelous prayed to Neptune for help and he turned the princess into an island too.

Philemon and Baucis

Old Philemon and Old Baucis by Arthur Rackham (1922).
Philemon and Baucis → Oak and Linden trees

One of the company, Pirithous ("a young tearaway") expresses his doubt that gods can be so powerful, so Lelex tells him the story of Philemon and Baucis: one day Jupiter and Mercury visited the village in Phrygia, both disguised, and all the residents except Philemon and Baucis turned them away. They soon realise that their guests are in fact Jupiter and Mercury, who then lead them away from the village before turning it into a swamp, with the exception of the couple's house which is turned into a marble temple. The gods then grant Philemon and Baucis' request: that they may live as priests in the temple and then never have to see the other die. And so, at the end of their lives, Philemon and Baucis are turned into oak and linden trees.


Theseus is in wonder at all the strength of the gods and asks Achelous to tell more stories. He obliges, telling of a few metamorphoses before he turns to the subject of Erysichthon who once ordered the sacred oak tree of Ceres to be chopped down, even beheading one of the men who refused. The forest nymphs (the Dryads) tell Ceres who curses him with hunger - no matter how much he ate he was constantly hungry (he gives his name to Erysichthon syndrome - insatiable hunger). Eventually he eats his own flesh. At the same time Achelous tells of Erysichthon's daughter who is able to shape-shift at will. Achelous then reveals he too has this gift, and here Book VIII ends.

Books V & VI

Further Reading

Thursday, 25 February 2016

The Misanthrope by Molière.

I've been meaning to read the French dramatist Molière for years now, and finally I've read what is regarded as one of his finest places - The Misanthrope (Le Misanthrope ou l'Atrabilaire amoureux), first performed in 1666. 

In this the 'misanthrope' is Alceste who, at the beginning of the play, tells his friend Philinte he is tired of society's falseness and it's sycophantic and pretentious ways. As he explains,
You [speaking to Alceste] ought to be mortally ashamed of yourself. What you did was beyond all possible excuse, absolutely shocking to any honourable man. I see you loading a fellow with every mark of affection, professing the tenderest concern for his welfare, overwhelming him with assurances, protestations, and offers of service and when he's gone and I ask you who he is - you can scarcely tell me his name! Your enthusiasm dies with your parting. Once we are alone you show that you care nothing about him. Gad! What a base, degrading, infamous thing it is to stoop to betraying one's integrity like that. If ever I had had the misfortune to do such a thing I'd go and hang myself on the spot in sheer self-disgust.
Front cover of the 1877 edition.
During this conversation a French marquis, Oronte, arrives and asks for an appraisal of his poem. As Philinte lavishly praises it Alceste is aghast; when Oronte asks for Alceste asks for his candid opinion Alceste delivers, and as Philinte observes, "A nice awkward business" has arisen.

After that confrontation, Alceste decides to confront Célimène, the woman with whom he is in love, about her equally false and flattering behaviour. She is unwilling to change her ways and proves it when they are joined by Acaste and Clitandre, along with Philinte and Eliante. Much to Alceste's horror they all begin gossiping; this episode is abruptly ended with the arrival of Basque who directs him to an officer regarding his squabble with Oronte requiring him to appear before the Marshals of France. Meanwhile, poor Alceste will learn just how false Célimène truly is...

This is a great play on the hypocrisies of society and the consequences of not conforming, as well as a good snapshot of high society in France in the mid-17th Century. It's also a tale on unrequited love (and on just how irrational love can be) and having the strength and courage of mind not to change oneself for one's love interest. 

I am, in short, so pleased I've finally read Molière!.I have four other plays by him which I'm looking forward to read in 2016: The Sicilian, Tartuffe, A Doctor In Spite of Himself, and The Imaginary Invalid. Until then, here are two illustrations from the 1909 edition published by Little, Brown &co. Unfortunately I don't know who the illustrator is.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

The Suppliants by Aeschylus.

The Danaides by John William Waterhouse (1903).
The Suppliants (Ἱκέτιδες) is a play by Aeschylus first performed in the 470s B.C. For some reason I found this the toughest play of his so far (and I only have one more to go - The Persians). It took two reads before I dared to write about it, and even then I'm not wildly confident on what I'm about to write!

In The Suppliants Aeschylus writes on the Danaïdes: the fifty daughters of Daunus (the founder of Argos and a descendent of Io, whose story is told in this play and also Book I of Ovid's Metamorphoses) who flee to Egypt to avoid being married to the fifty sons of Aegyptus, Daunus' twin brother. They ask for protection from King Pelasgus and eventually he consents after the Argives express their agreement. When the sons of Aegyptus arrive to take the Danaïdes away they are driven away and the Danaïdes remain within the walls of the city where they praise the gods.

It's an interesting story on both democracy and on refugees. The Danaïdes are fleeing from forced marriage, not something the contemporary audience would have necessarily sympathised with, and King Pelasgus would have known that once the Danaïdes were given refuge in Argos the sons of Pelasgus were sure to invade. Yet he still bowed to the will of his people and hopes that Zeus will protect his country. The Danaïdes are sympathetic characters, more so for women, and it makes for an interesting read in 2016: the Danaïdes are frightened that the people of Argos will not allow them to take refuge, and there are sadly many today who would prefer to refuse refugees, citing reasons that are sometimes misinformed, sometimes ridiculous, and sometimes simply callous. The Suppliants is one I found difficult, but nevertheless very worthwhile.

On a final note, The Suppliants were a part of a trilogy. The Egyptians was the second play (now lost) in which war was declared between Argos and Egypt; King Pelasgus was to die, Danaus to reign, and the Danaïdes to be forced to marry the brothers as part of a peace settlement. Danaus would then order the Danaïdes to murder their husbands as Danaus believed one would usurp him. The Danaids (the final play, also lost) would see the Danaïdes murder their husbands with the exception of Hypermnestra who helps her husband Lynceus, who, when he returns, kills Danaus and he and Hypermnestra come to rule Argos thus fulfilling the prophecy.

Further Reading
The Suppliant Maidens by Aeschylus | Classical Carousel

♔ Surviving Plays of Aeschylus ♔
Prometheus Bound The Suppliants The Persians | Seven Against Thebes
The Oresteia (458 B.C.)
 Agamemnon The Libation Bearers | The Eumenides

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

The Conquest of Plassans by Émile Zola.

The Conquest of Plassans (La Conquête de Plassans) is the fourth of Émile Zola's Les Rougon-Macquart novels and was first published in 1874. The novel is based in the fictional Plassans (based on Aix-en-Provence where Zola grew up), as was the first novel of the series, Fortune of the Rougons (1870).

Whenever I write a post on one of Zola's Les Rougon-Macquart I always hark back to a quote in the preface of Fortune of the Rougons, but it is an important one so here it is again in which Zola explains his intentions for his series:
My aim is to explain how a family, a small group of human beings, behaves in a given society after blossoming forth and giving birth to ten or twenty individuals who, though they may seem at first glance totally dissimilar from each other, are, as analysis shows, linked together in the most profound ways. Heredity, like gravity, has its laws. 
By solving the dual problem of temperament and environment, I shall attempt to discover and trace the thread that leads mathematically from one person to another. When I am in possession of every thread, and hold in my hands an entire social group, I shall describe the behaviour of this group as it plays its part in an historical period; I shall show it in action, with all its varied energies; and I shall analyse the aims and ambitions of its individual members along with the general tendency of the whole.
(I've quoted this so much I practically know this by heart now!)

When reading this series, there are generally two important strands of a Rougon-Macquart novel: 
  1. Character: in which Zola writes of one or several of the members of the Rougons and / or the Macquarts and, among other things, explores the idea of inherited characteristics.
  2. Setting: in which Zola describes the environment of the character, and how it impacts on that character. All of his novels, even in a small way, are focused on the Second French Empire (1852 - 1870; I wrote about that in The Fortune of the Rougons).
The family, the Rougons and the Macquarts, are united by Adélaïde Rougon, the matriarch, who married Rougon but had an affair with Macquart. Children were produced by both unions. In The Conquest of Plassans the families unite again with the marriage between François Mouret, the son of Ursule Mouret née Macquart (daughter of Adélaïde) and François's half-cousin Marthe Mouret née Rougon, the daughter of Pierre (son of Adélaïde) and Félicité Rougon (their story is told in The Fortune of the Rougons). Adélaïde Rougon is described in The Fortune of the Rougons as "quite mad", suffering various nervous disorders. Macquart and Rougon have various undesirable traits, also explored in The Fortune of the Rougons, and in The Conquest of Plassans we see how these have manifested in the half-cousins François and Marthe. 

'Plan de Plassans': Zola's drawing of the map of Plassans.
The setting, as I said, is Plassans as Zola thought it best to return to Plassans having written The Kill (1872) and The Belly of Paris (1873), both set in Paris (Zola would not return to Plassans however until the final novel of the series, Doctor Pascal, 1893). Here François and Marthe live a quiet life with their three children Désirée, Octave (featured in Pot-Luck, 1882, and The Ladies Paradise, 1883) and Serge (featured in The Sin of Abbé Mouret, 1875, the next novel). The couple have retired after some twenty years in the wine trade and have decided rent one of their rooms to a priest, Abbé Faujas, and his mother. This essentially shatters their quiet existence and their neuroses - Pierre's somewhat compulsive behaviour and Marthe's nervous illness - begin to show. Abbé Faujas's interests are more political than spiritual: Plassans had elected an opposition party to Napoleon III and the Second Empire (which relied on the priesthood's support) and Abbé Faujas was sent to subdue the people and ensure a more favourable (i.e. Royalist) future result. His attempt at his 'conquest of Plassans' is subtle - Machiavellian in fact. He quietly manipulates those around him, and eventually the Mouret family begin to unravel with dramatic and tragic consequences. Zola thus explores two ideas - the idea of inherited illness shown in the reaction of François and Marthe to Abbé Faujas' methods, and the idea of the Second Empire using the priesthood to gain support by any means necessary.

The Conquest of Plassans is a dark tale - the bleakest and most unnerving of the early Zola novels. He has explored the idea of unscrupulous priests in his short stories, for example in Priests and Sinners (published a little later in 1878), and madness in The Story of a Mad Man (1868), the latter of which was an early prototype for this novel, but his portrayal of the descent of François and Marthe into their already existing neuroses is intense and very unsettling and disturbing, and it is his finest out of the first four of the Rougon Macquart novels. I do think The Conquest of Plassans isn't appreciated as much as it ought to be. 

To finish, the illustrations from the 1887 edition published by Vizetelly & co.

Monday, 22 February 2016

A Rural Tyrant by Samuel Johnson.

'A Rural Tyrant', or 'An account of squire Bluster' as it was also known, is an article in Samuel Johnson's The Rambler, which was his own periodical (all his work; no other authors contributed to it) that ran from 1750 to 1752 when Johnson was working on A Dictionary of the English Language. 'A Rural Tyrant' was published on Saturday, 27th July 1751.

Reading it, it feels more like an anecdote: Johnson describes how he accepted an invitation to visit the country estate of 'Eugenio' - and I'm afraid I don't know who Eugenio is, though I do know there was a poem of that title by Thomas Beech who slit his throat shortly after its publication. There's a puzzle. Anyway, onwards: he describes how he enjoyed the journey, studying every natural phenomenon that came his way, and arrived at the destination without fatigue. After a week or so of the visit, in which he is kept busy and, he notes, without solitude, he sees a house "of unusual magnificence". He enquires of his friend Eugenio who tells him,
... that the seat which I so much admired, was commonly called in the country the haunted house, and that no visits were paid there by any of the gentlemen whom I had yet seen. As the haunts of incorporeal beings are generally ruinous, neglected, and desolate, I easily conceived that there was something to be explained, and told him that I supposed it only fairy ground, on which we might venture by day-light without danger. The danger, says he, is indeed only that of appearing to solicit the acquaintance of a man, with whom it is not possible to converse without infamy, and who has driven from him, by his insolence or malignity, every human being who can live without him.
He soon learns that the inhabitant is Squire Bluster, of whom Johnson gives a short biography:
Squire Bluster is descended of an ancient family. The estate which his ancestors had immemorially possessed was much augmented by captain Bluster, who served under Drake in the reign of Elizabeth; and the Blusters, who were before only petty gentlemen, have from that time frequently represented the shire in parliament, been chosen to present addresses, and given laws at hunting-matches and races. They were eminently hospitable and popular, till the father of this gentleman died of an election. His lady went to the grave soon after him, and left the heir, then only ten years old, to the care of his grandmother, who would not suffer him to be controlled, because she could not bear to hear him cry; and never sent him to school, because she was not able to live without his company. She taught him however very early to inspect the steward’s accounts, to dog the butler from the cellar, and to catch the servants at a junket; so that he was at the age of eighteen a complete master of all the lower arts of domestick policy, had often on the road detected combinations between the coachman and the ostler, and procured the discharge of nineteen maids for illicit correspondence with cottagers and charwomen.
Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds (1756 - 1757).
Squire Bluster became the richest man in the country, yet he is an unpleasant man. "Money, in whatever hands, will confer power," Johnson writes, and Bluster became somewhat of a despot, lending familes, for example, more money than they can possibly repay. Johnson adds,
The only visits that he makes are to these houses of misfortune, where he enters with the insolence of absolute command, enjoys the terrours of the family, exacts their obedience, riots at their charge, and in the height of his joy insults the father with menaces, and the daughters with obscenity.
The man is callous and arbitrary, sometimes kinder to some more than others:
It is his rule to suffer his tenants to owe him rent, because by this indulgence he secures to himself the power of seizure whenever he has an inclination to amuse himself with calamity, and feast his ears with entreaties and lamentations. Yet as he is sometimes capriciously liberal to those whom he happens to adopt as favourites, and lets his lands at a cheap rate, his farms are never long unoccupied; and when one is ruined by oppression, the possibility of better fortune quickly lures another to supply his place.
And Johnson concludes,
He is wealthy without followers; he is magnificent without witnesses; he has birth without alliance, and influence without dignity. His neighbours scorn him as a brute; his dependants dread him as an oppressor; and he has only the gloomy comfort of reflecting, that if he is hated, he is likewise feared. 
There ends this short and entertaining portrait of Squire Bluster. In my edition it was only a few pages and can be read online here

Such short and random writings can only be a result of a Deal Me In title! This was my eighth title: next week - King Lear by William Shakespeare.

Friday, 19 February 2016

Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Bede.

I've been meaning to read Bede for quite a few years now but I've been shamefully putting it off. As I couldn't bring myself to read Thucydides for February's "Book I am dreading" (12 Month Classic Challenge) Bede was a very good second option. Happy I loved it! 

And so I read Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum) by Venerable Bede (Bǣda), which was completed in 731 A.D. When Bede was writing there were seven kingdoms within England (the Heptarchy): East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria, Wessex, Essex, Kent, and Sussex. Bede was from Northumbria, the largest of the kingdoms, in Jarrow (which is now County Durham: the monastery there was at the time a renowned place of learning) and during his lifetime (672 or 673 - 26 May 735) there were seven kings of Northumbria: Ecgfrith, Aldfrith, Eadwulf, Osred I, Coenred, Osric, and Ceolwulf. Ecclesiastical History of the English People was dedicated to Ceolwulf (who, having been deposed then reimposed, abdicated to become a monk): in the preface Bede writes.
Some while ago, at Your Majesty's request, I gladly sent you the history of the English Church and People which I had recently completed, in order that you might read it and give it your approval. I now send it once again to be transcribed, so that Your Majesty may consider it at greater leisure. I warmly welcome the diligent zeal and sincerity with which you study the worlds of Holy Scripture and your eager desire to know something of the doings and sayings of men of the past, and of famous men of your own nation in particular. For if history records good things of good men, the thoughtful hearer is encouraged to imitate what is good: or if it records evil of wicked men, the devout, religious listener or reader is encouraged to avoid all that is sinful and perverse and to follow what he knows to be good and pleasing to God. Your Majesty is well aware of this; and since you feel so deeply responsible for the general good of those over whom divine Providence has set you, you wish that this history may be made better known both to yourself and to your people.
The book then divides into five parts in which Bede covers the history of England from the time of Julius Caesar's invasion in 55 B.C., including some information on the kingdoms within England, the kings and their sayings, before going on to describe how Christianity came to England with Augustine of Canterbury (the first Archbishop of Canterbury) and, some years earlier, the first British Christian martyr Saint Alban. From here he writes on the progression of Christianity thorughout England from Kent up to Northumbria, including the murder of the Christian Edwin of Northumbria (586 - 632 or 633) by Penda of Mercia, a pagan king of Mercia, and throughout the other kingdoms.

As ever, when one reads a book almost entirely full of new (to me) information it is hard to go on and write about it! There is so much to learn, but I did love reading this book and I would like to go on to read more about England in this period. There was, it is agreed, somewhat of a bias to Northumbria: I think whilst that should be kept in mind that doesn't make the book any less of a great work. I am from Northumberland, which is no doubt why I enjoyed the bias, but so often when it comes to history books there is a great bias to the south, particularly London. This was rather refreshing, and exciting too for a Northumbrian! Ecclesiastical History of the English People is a fascinating work, and it has inspired me to read more works from this period.

Before I end this post I think it would be remiss not to mention Bede's World. By sheer coincidence as I began to read Ecclesiastical History of the English People it was announced that Bede's World, a museum in Jarrow dedicated to Bede and his times, has closed. The Venerable Bede is a very important figure in Northumberland, he is the only Englishman to be made a Doctor of the Church, and he is regarded as the father of English history. This closure is yet another closure of a museum in the north of England, and to close a museum dedicated to Bede truly is a travesty. There is a petition to South Tyneside Council to save the museum, a crowd-funder page to raise funds to fund a re-opening, and a Twitter page to keep track of the progress of this campaign. Also, here's an interesting article from The Independent: Melvyn Bragg attacks North-South divide as Jarrow museum closes.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

The Life and Death of King Richard II by William Shakespeare.

Richard II is one of William Shakespeare's earlier plays, written around 1595 - 1596, and it actually was written after Henry VI (Parts I, II, and III, 1590 - 1592) and Richard III (1592 - 1593). But, in terms of the chronology of the action, Richard II follows King John (1596 - 1597) and Edward III (perhaps written with Thomas Kyd, 1592 - 1593), and it precedes Henry IV Part I (1598) and Henry IV Part II (1600).

Portrait of Richard II,
dated 1390s.
Richard II, the final king of the House of Plantagenet, reigned from 21st June 1377 (following Edward III) to 30th September 1399 when he was deposed (removed) and Henry IV came to the throne. Because he was only ten years old when he was crowned he was aided by a series of continual councils. There was a fear that his uncle John of Gaunt (the first Duke of Lancaster, to whom Geoffrey Chaucer dedicated The Book of the Duchess on the death of Gaunt's wife Blanche) would attempt to seize the throne, so John of Gaunt was exiled from the councils however was still very influential despite this. During Richard II's reign there was the Peasants' Revolt (1381) which, it is thought, was handled well by Richard: he, at the young age of thirteen, met with one of the leaders of the Revolt, Wat Tyler and spoke to him. Richard II's men then murdered Tyler after a skirmish (his head was displayed on London Bridge), and Richard then went to speak with Tyler's army, making promises (which he ultimately broke), thus placating them. What is remarkable about this is that Richard II addressed Tyler and his men in English: previously kings following the Conquest (1066) spoke French (it's thought Richard's first language would have been French). Despite this initial success however there was concern of his dependence on the continual councils. In 1387 a group of nobles took control of the government - the Lords Appellant: they originally consisted of Thomas of Woodstock (the Duke of Gloucester, Richard's uncle),  Richard FitzAlan (the Earl of Arundel and of Surrey); and Thomas de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick. They were later joined by Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby (John of Gaunt's son, who would become Henry IV) and Thomas de Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham. In 1389, when Richard was twenty-two, he took control, and ten years later he began to take revenge on the Lords Appellant by executing or exiling the nobles. It is this period, Richard II's final two years as king, that Shakespeare writers about in Richard II

John of Gaunt
Portrait commissioned by Sir Edward Hoby (1593).
The play begins with a dispute between Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas de Mowbray: Bolingbroke accuses de Mowbray of stealing money from the crown and plotting the death of his father the Duke of Gloucester. Attempts at reconciliation fails, so Richard orders a duel between the two however at the last moment changes his mind: he exiles Mowbray from England forever, and Bolingbroke for ten years, but again he changes his mind and imposes six years (this is apparently all very arbitrary). John of Gaunt, Bolingbroke's father who believes as others did that Richard II was responsible for the death of the Duke of Gloucester, dies shortly after warning Richard, "A thousand flatterers sit within thy crown".  When he dies Richard seizes his land and assets and leaves to deal with Ireland. On his return he finds many in support of the exiled Henry Bolingbroke, concerned with Richard II's incompetence and inconsistency. Bolingbroke and his army return from France and challenge Richard. He is forced to abdicate, Bolingbroke becomes King Henry IV, Richard is imprisoned in Pomfret Castle before he is executed by Sir Piers of Exton (it is thought that Richard II actually starved to death). 

Though Richard II essentially became a tyrant there was something very sad and poignant about his imprisonment in Pomfret Castle. Here he soliloquises about his fall from grace:
Richard II in prison at Pomfret Castle by J. Coghlan.
I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world:
And for because the world is populous
And here is not a creature but myself,
I cannot do it; yet I'll hammer it out.
My brain I'll prove the female to my soul,
My soul the father; and these two beget
A generation of still-breeding thoughts,
And these same thoughts people this little world,
In humours like the people of this world,
For no thought is contented. The better sort,
As thoughts of things divine, are intermix'd
With scruples and do set the word itself
Against the word:
As thus, 'Come, little ones,' and then again,
'It is as hard to come as for a camel
To thread the postern of a small needle's eye.'
Thoughts tending to ambition, they do plot
Unlikely wonders; how these vain weak nails
May tear a passage through the flinty ribs
Of this hard world, my ragged prison walls,
And, for they cannot, die in their own pride.
Thoughts tending to content flatter themselves
That they are not the first of fortune's slaves,
Nor shall not be the last; like silly beggars
Who sitting in the stocks refuge their shame,
That many have and others must sit there;
And in this thought they find a kind of ease,
Bearing their own misfortunes on the back
Of such as have before endured the like.
Thus play I in one person many people,
And none contented: sometimes am I king;
Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar,
And so I am: then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king;
Then am I king'd again: and by and by
Think that I am unking'd by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing: but whate'er I be,
Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing. Music do I hear?
Ha, ha! keep time: how sour sweet music is,
When time is broke and no proportion kept!
So is it in the music of men's lives.
And here have I the daintiness of ear
To cheque time broke in a disorder'd string;
But for the concord of my state and time
Had not an ear to hear my true time broke.
I wasted time, and now doth time waste me;
For now hath time made me his numbering clock:
My thoughts are minutes; and with sighs they jar
Their watches on unto mine eyes, the outward watch,
Whereto my finger, like a dial's point,
Is pointing still, in cleansing them from tears.
Now sir, the sound that tells what hour it is
Are clamorous groans, which strike upon my heart,
Which is the bell: so sighs and tears and groans
Show minutes, times, and hours: but my time
Runs posting on in Bolingbroke's proud joy,
While I stand fooling here, his Jack o' the clock.
This music mads me; let it sound no more;
For though it have holp madmen to their wits,
In me it seems it will make wise men mad.
Yet blessing on his heart that gives it me!
For 'tis a sign of love; and love to Richard
Is a strange brooch in this all-hating world.
It is in his downfall that we truly see the two Richards: the King of England, by the grace of God (Dei Gratia), and a mortal man beset with sins and flaws. No longer surrounded by "a thousand flatterers" Richard attains self-knowledge. For this it is a very moving play.

Illustration from the 1901 edition of King Richard II.
Further Reading

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus.

Prometheus by Gustave Moreau (1868).
I've been looking forward to reading Prometheus Bound (Προμηθεὺς Δεσμώτης) since reading about Prometheus in Hesiod's Theogony (8th Century). The play is ascribed to Aeschylus however there's doubt as to who the true author is. Furthermore none are certain of the date, and estimates range between the 480s B.C. to the 410s B.C.

In Hesiod's Theogony Prometheus is presented as the son of Iapetos (a Titan) and Klymene (an Oceanid), and his siblings are Atlas, Menoitios, and Epimetheus. Atlas and Prometheus were punished by Zeus at the beginning of Zeus' reign of the Olympians for challenging his authority - Atlas was forced to hold up the sky, Prometheus was bound in chains. There was a sense in Hesiod's work that Prometheus rather deserved the punishment however Aeschylus (I'll stick with convention and name him as the author) gives a rather different picture.

In Prometheus Bound Aeschylus describes how Prometheus is chained to a rock in the Caucasus mountains by Zeus' servants Strength (Kratos), Violence (Bia), and Hephaestus (the god of metal and fire, among other things). Strength speaks first,
Now have we journeyed to a spot of earth
Remote-the Scythian wild, a waste untrod.
And now, Hephaestus, thou must execute
The task our father laid on thee, and fetter
This malefactor to the jagged rocks
In adamantine bonds infrangible;
For thine own blossom of all forging fire
He stole and gave to mortals; trespass grave
For which the Gods have called him to account,
That he may learn to bear Zeus' tyranny
And cease to play the lover of mankind.
Hephaestus however feels pity for Prometheus, however he knows he must be the one to chain Prometheus to the rock, and Strength encourages him to do so. And so Prometheus is chained and left, and he calls on Mother Earth to observe his humiliation:
O divine air Breezes on swift bird-wings,
Ye river fountains, and of ocean-waves
The multitudinous laughter Mother Earth!
And thou all-seeing circle of the sun,
Behold what I, a God, from Gods endure!
Look down upon my shame,
The cruel wrong that racks my frame,
The grinding anguish that shall waste my strength,
Till time's ten thousand years have measured out their length!
He hath devised these chains,
The new throned potentate who reigns,
Chief of the chieftains of the Blest. Ah me! ...
He is overheard by the Oceanids who all express their sorrow at Prometheus' fate, talking of the new order (referring to the defeat of the Titans by the Olympians), and Prometheus describes how he stood in the way of Zeus and his plans to destroy humanity by giving them both hope and fire. Oceanus, the father of the Oceanids and one of the twelve Titans, joins them and he tells Prometheus he will talk to Zeus, however Prometheus refuses his help. He goes on to talk to the Chorus, telling them of what he gave humanity -
Senseless as beasts I gave men sense, possessed them
Of mind. I speak not in contempt of man;
I do but tell of good gifts I conferred.
In the beginning, seeing they saw amiss,
And hearing heard not, but, like phantoms huddled
In dreams, the perplexed story of their days
Confounded; knowing neither timber-work
Nor brick-built dwellings basking in the light,
But dug for themselves holes, wherein like ants,
That hardly may contend against a breath,
They dwelt in burrows of their unsunned caves.
Neither of winter's cold had they fixed sign,
Nor of the spring when she comes decked with flowers,
Nor yet of summer's heat with melting fruits
Sure token: but utterly without knowledge
Moiled, until I the rising of the stars
Showed them, and when they set, though much obscure.
Moreover, number, the most excellent
Of all inventions, I for them devised,
And gave them writing that retaineth all,
The serviceable mother of the Muse.
I was the first that yoked unmanaged beasts,
To serve as slaves with collar and with pack,
And take upon themselves, to man's relief,
The heaviest labour of his hands: and
Tamed to the rein and drove in wheeled cars
The horse, of sumptuous pride the ornament.
And those sea-wanderers with the wings of cloth,
The shipman's waggons, none but I contrived.
These manifold inventions for mankind
I perfected, who, out upon't, have none-
No, not one shift-to rid me of this shame.
And - 
What arts, what aids I cleverly evolved.
The chiefest that, if any man fell sick,
There was no help for him, comestible,
Lotion or potion; but for lack of drugs
They dwindled quite away; until I taught them
To compound draughts and mixtures sanative,
Wherewith they now are armed against disease.
I staked the winding path of divination
And was the first distinguisher of dreams,
The true from false; and voices ominous
Of meaning dark interpreted; and tokens
Seen when men take the road; and augury
By flight of all the greater crook-clawed birds
With nice discrimination I defined;
These by their nature fair and favourable,
Those, flattered with fair name. And of each sort
The habits I described; their mutual feuds
And friendships and the assemblages they hold.
And of the plumpness of the inward parts
What colour is acceptable to the Gods,
The well-streaked liver-lobe and gall-bladder.
Also by roasting limbs well wrapped in fat
And the long chine, I led men on the road
Of dark and riddling knowledge; and I purged
The glancing eye of fire, dim before,
And made its meaning plain. These are my works.
Then, things beneath the earth, aids hid from man,
Brass, iron, silver, gold, who dares to say
He was before me in discovering?
None, I wot well, unless he loves to babble.
And in a single word to sum the whole-
All manner of arts men from Prometheus learned.
And then poor Io arrives tormented by a gadfly: Ovid described in Book I of Metamorphoses how Io was turned into a "snow-white heifer" by Juno (Hera) after Io was raped by Zeus and Juno suspected an affair (she was transformed back again). In Prometheus Bound Io tells of how she was turned into a cow and how her father was murdered. Prometheus prophesises that Io is doomed to wander the earth however one of her descendent will one day be King of Argos. 

This prophecy is the second of Prometheus' - the first was that one day Zeus would be usurped by his son. Throughout the play he keeps this secret however, angered by the suffering of Io he tells the chorus. Zeus, however, has a great many offspring, so Hermes arrives and demands to know the mother of the son that will defeat Zeus. He refuses and he and Hermes argue before Hermes leaves, threatening him:
... First,
This rocky chasm shall the Father split
With earthquake thunder and his burning bolt,
And he shall hide thy form, and thou shalt hang
Bolt upright, dandled in the rock's rude arms.
Nor till thou hast completed thy long term
Shalt thou come back into the light; and then
The hound of Zeus, the tawny eagle,
Shall violently fall upon thy flesh
And rend it as 'twere rags; and every day
And all day long shall thine unbidden guest
Sit at thy table, feasting on thy liver
Till he hath gnawn it black. Look for no term
To such an agony till there stand forth
Among the Gods one who shall take upon him
Thy sufferings and consent to enter hell
Far from the light of Sun, yea, the deep pit
And mirk of Tartarus, for thee. Be advised;
This is not stuffed speech framed to frighten the
But woeful truth. For Zeus knows not to lie.
Prometheus is unyielding, Hermes departs, and once again Prometheus is left mourning his fate to Mother Earth - 
See, see,
Earth, awful Mother! Air,
That shedd'st from the revolving sky
On all the light they see thee by,
What bitter wrongs I bear!
There the play ends. It is perhaps my favourite Aeschylus play so far - very poignant, and a great critique of the tyranny not just of Zeus and the Olympians but of other cruel hierarchies. It was in fact a triology, followed by Prometheus Unbound and Prometheus the Fire-Bringer, however these plays did not survive in their entirety. It is thought that in the second play Heracles would have saved Prometheus, and in the third Prometheus would have revealed the mother of the son who would usurp Zeus was Thetis (an Oceanid). She, after the revelation, married Peleus and their son was Achilles. Zeus was grateful to Prometheus and the two reconcile. Percy Bysshe Shelley also wrote on Prometheus in his 1820 play Prometheus Unbound which I am hoping to read very soon.

For now, to finish, three paintings by Christian Griepenkerl (1839-1916) on the Prometheus myth:

Prometheus Bound.

Theft of fire.

Prometheus freed by Heracles.
♔ Surviving Plays of Aeschylus ♔
Prometheus Bound The Suppliants The Persians | Seven Against Thebes
The Oresteia (458 B.C.)

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown by Virginia Woolf | The Old Wives' Tale by Arnold Bennett.

In 1908 when The Old Wives' Tale by Arnold Bennett was first published Virginia Woolf's first novel The Voyage Out was still eight years away: not a terribly long time, but then times were changing fast. Arnold Bennett, born in 1867 (just 15 years earlier than Woolf) was an adult in the Victorian Age; Woolf was just a few days away from being nineteen in 1901 when Queen Victoria died, Bennett was thirty-four. In terms of 'eras' or 'epochs' this, I feel, made a difference. Bennett was an Edwardian writer, and his novel The Old Wives' Tale was set during the Victorian age, an age he knew well. For me the Edwardian period was like a bridge between the old, the Victorian, and the new: modernism. Virginia Woolf was a modernist, Bennett had not left the Victorian era behind whilst Virginia Woolf was very explicit in moving forward, moving beyond, and at times rejecting some of its norms and its writing methods. For that alone, for a new writer looking to carve a niche, Arnold Bennett was a good writer to strike out against, and this is what she did in her essay 'Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown', published first in the Nation and Athenaeum in 1923 then revised and re-published in the Criterion in July 1924.

In the essay she describes an incident on a train on her journey from Richmond to Waterloo. It appears there is an argument between two passengers, the man she calls Mr. Smith, the woman Mrs. Brown. Mr. Smith is the dominant party, Mrs. Brown is vulnerable, poor, and above all else immensely intriguing. Woolf talks of writing a novel about her (indeed her 'An Unwritten Novel', 1920, was inspired by the incident) and has previously Arnold Bennett in saying,
The foundation of good fiction is character-creating and nothing else... Style counts; plot counts; originality of outlook counts. But none of these counts anything like so much as the convincingness of the characters. If the characters are real the novel will have a chance; if they are not, oblivion will be its portion... [from 'Is the novel decaying?' in Cassell's Weekly, 28th March 1923. Online here]
Virginia Woolf with Julian Bell, 1910.
Woolf imagines how Mrs. Brown would be treated by novelists:
The English writer would make the old lady into a 'character'; he would bring out her oddities and mannerisms; her buttons and wrinkles; her ribbons and warts. Her personality would dominate the book. A French writer would rub out all that; he would sacrifice the individual to give a more general view of human nature; to make a more abstract, proportioned, and harmonious whole. The Russian would pierce through the flesh; would reveal the soul - the soul alone, wandering out into the Waterloo Road, asking of life some tremendous question which would sound on and on in our ears after the book was finishing.
Woolf agrees with in terms of great characters, however she goes on to reject his claim that the novel was truly decaying. She refers to him and his contemporaries as Edwardian, herself and her contemporaries as Georgian (referring to the reign of King George V, who reigned from 1910 - 1936). Bennett was attacking the Georgians in his claims that these 'new' writers could create a decent character. Woolf reacted with force, arguing that there was no good novelist of the Edwardian age from which the Georgian writer could learn from:
Mr. Conrad is a Pole; which sets him apart, and makes him, however admirable, not very helpful. Mr Hardy has written no novel since 1895. The most prominent and successful novelists in the year 1910 were, I suppose, Mr Wells, Mr Bennett, and Mr Galsworthy. Now it seems to me that to go to these men and ask them to teach you how to write a novel - how to create characters that are real - is precisely like going to a bootmaker and asking him to teach you how to make a watch.
She does add, I should say, that she has enjoyed their books and does find them to be valuable. However, she goes on to remark that they are odd.
Sometimes I wonder if we are right to call them books at all. For they leave one with so strange a feeling of incompleteness and dissatisfaction. In order to complete them it seems necessary to do something - to join a society, or more desperately, to write a cheque. That done, the restlessness is laid, the book is finished; it can be put upon the shelf, and need never be read again.
Virginia Woolf by Lady Ottoline Morrell.
On Bennett, she writes that he would take in every detail of the aforementioned Mrs Brown and her setting. Referring to Bennett's Hilda Lessways (1911) she describes his attention to detail exhausting:
... we can only hear Mr Bennett's voice telling us facts about rents and free-holds and copyholds and fines. What can Mr Bennett be about? I have formed my own opinion of what Mr Bennett is about - he is trying to make us imagine for him; he is trying to hypnotize us into the belief that, because he has made a house, there must be a person living there. With all his powers of observation, which are marvellous, with all his sympathy and humanity, which are great, Mr Bennett has never once looked at Mrs Brown in her corner.
By accepting the Edwardian styles, as Woolf argues E. M. Forster and D. H. Lawrence had done, they had "spoilt" their early works, though she concedes "our Georgian writers... do not pour out three immortal masterpieces with Victorian regularity every autumn"! Nevertheless these Georgians do wish to strike out, and do so by any means necessary (it should be noted that here she takes a swipe at James Joyce and T. S. Eliot). "Failures and fragments", Woolf writes, will occur, however she concludes,
But do not expect just at present a complete and satisfactory presentment of her [Mrs Brown]. Tolerate the spasmodic, the obscure, the fragmentary, the failure. Your help is invoked in a good cause. For I will make one final and surpassingly rash prediction - we are trembling on the verge of one of the great ages of English literature. But it can only be reached if we are determined never, never to desert Mrs Brown.
Woolf certainly was right there, but I have to say this is one of the more mean-spirited essays by Woolf that I have come across (perhaps understandable as Bennett described her Jacob's Room, 1923, as being very clever, but "obsessed with details of originality and cleverness"). and for all that I love Virginia Woolf's writing, she, I think, must take at least partial responsibility for one disservice to literature: her treatment of Arnold Bennett, and the possibility that she is partly the reason he is not read as widely as he might be. Even if that is a hard assessment, I can blame her wholeheartedly for putting me off reading Bennett in the first place. Yes, that is stupid, stupid to allow oneself to pre-judge an author on someone else's defensive essay, but it is what it is. Plenty of authors have been less than flattering about their predecessors: Flaubert wrote of Sand that she was "A great cow full of ink," Waugh on Proust, "I am reading Proust for the first time. Very poor stuff. I think he was mentally defective", Faulkner on Hemingway, "He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary", and Hemingway on Faulkner "Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?" 

And so it goes on. However, I finally decided last week to stop putting off reading Arnold Bennett, so I read The Old Wives' Tale, published, as I said earlier, in 1908. It is, as The Independent describes it, a "book of a lifetime": Bennett describes the lives of two sisters, Constance and Sophia Baines beginning with their adolescent in their parents' draper's shop in Staffordshire (West Midlands) and following their lives to old age. Constance, quite literally "constant", remains in the drapery shop and lives her life not unlike her mother's. She marries Samuel Povey and they live an essentially quiet life in the small town. Sophia on the other hand elopes to London with Gerald Scales (note that this part of the book is set in 1866) and they go on to Paris. Gerald ditches her after a few years of marriage and she is left there alone, unwilling to return to Staffordshire but unsure as to her next steps.

On the face of it, it ought to be Sophia's story that is the most interesting; mid-19th Century Parisian life under the Second Empire, and not without references to the Franco-Prussian War (1870 - 1871): there are a few comparisons to be made with Émile Zola. But Constance's life in England is also compelling - Bennett's attention to detail may have frustrated Virginia Woolf but for me the whole novel was alive, whether it be with the hustle and bustle of Paris or the comings and goings of the locals Constance grew up and grew old with. 

Arnold Bennett.
Arnold Bennett had for this novel his own "Mrs Brown", which he describes in the preface as an old woman in a Paris restaurant on the Rue de Clichy,
This woman was once young, slim, perhaps beautiful; certainly free from these ridiculous mannerisms. Very probably she is unconscious of her singularities. Her case is a tragedy. One ought to be able to make a heartrending novel out of the history of a woman such as she." Every stout, ageing woman is not grotesque—far from it!—but there is an extreme pathos in the mere fact that every stout ageing woman was once a young girl with the unique charm of youth in her form and movements and in her mind. And the fact that the change from the young girl to the stout ageing woman is made up of an infinite number of infinitesimal changes, each unperceived by her, only intensifies the pathos.
This sympathy and the scope of The Old Wives' Tale gives the novel a certain beauty, despite the almost stillness of Staffordshire and despite the upheavals and stress of Paris. Bennett has taken the two sisters, described their lives, the contrasts and the symmetry, and produced more than the "house" as Woolf puts it - he produced Paris and England, two different countries, two societies, two different lives, unities and divisions, suffering, happiness found despite that, and above all else an epoch. We think of Old Wives' Tales as nonsense, superstitions, but Bennett made these two old wives, Sophia and Constance, really matter: The Old Wives' Tale is a great achievement, and for that, despite Woolf, I mean to read more of Mr. Bennett.

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