Tuesday, 31 January 2017

No Name by Wilkie Collins.

No Name is a novel by Wilkie Collins, his fifth novel I believe, which was first published in 1862, two years after The Woman in White. Collins is of course a sensational novelist who peaked with The Woman in White and The Moonstone (1868); his novels are thrilling, shocking, and full of suspense and drama. No Name is no different.

The title No Name refers to the legal state of two sisters, Magdalen and Norah Vanstone. They live with their mother and father and their governess Miss Garth in Combe-Raven (Somerset). Their life is calm, peaceful, and pleasant, and it would appear that Magdalen will marry Frank Clare, the son of their neighbour and close friend of their father. However, shortly into the novel, Mr. Vanstone is killed in a train crash. Though I knew he was going to die (simply by the description on the back), remarkably Collins talent still makes it a shock. A stranger appears at the door, and:
“I am sent here on a very serious errand.”
“Serious to me?”
“Serious to all in this house.”
Miss Garth took one step nearer to him—took one steady look at his face. She turned cold in the summer heat. “Stop!” she said, with a sudden distrust, and glanced aside anxiously at the door of the morning-room. It was safely closed. “Tell me the worst; and don’t speak loud. There has been an accident. Where?”
“On the railway. Close to Grailsea Station.”
“The up-train to London?”
“No: the down-train at one-fifty—”
“God Almighty help us! The train Mr. Vanstone travelled by to Grailsea?”
“The same. I was sent here by the up-train; the line was just cleared in time for it. They wouldn’t write—they said I must see ‘Miss Garth,’ and tell her. There are seven passengers badly hurt; and two—”
The next word failed on his lips; he raised his hand in the dead silence. With eyes that opened wide in horror, he raised his hand and pointed over Miss Garth’s shoulder.
She turned a little, and looked back.
Face to face with her, on the threshold of the study door, stood the mistress of the house. She held her old music-book clutched fast mechanically in both hands. She stood, the specter of herself. With a dreadful vacancy in her eyes, with a dreadful stillness in her voice, she repeated the man’s last words:
“Seven passengers badly hurt; and two—”
Her tortured fingers relaxed their hold; the book dropped from them; she sank forward heavily. Miss Garth caught her before she fell—caught her, and turned upon the man, with the wife’s swooning body in her arms, to hear the husband’s fate.
“The harm is done,” she said; “you may speak out. Is he wounded, or dead?”
The chapter ends there, and as this novel was first serialised in Dickens' magazine All the Year Round I would bet good money the instalment ended there! But, to continue, following the death of Mr. Vanstone, Mrs. Vanstone dies a little later in childbirth. Norah and Magdalen at this point should inherit the Vanstone estate however the shocking truth was that Mr. and Mrs. Vanstone were actually unmarried. When they did marry, Mr. Vanstone's will was invalidated and his sudden death prevented him from updating it. Norah and Magdalen Vanstone are thus illegitimate and the estate is inherited by Vanstone's cruel uncle, Michael Vanstone. As the lawyer, Mr. Pendril explains to Miss Garth,
“... No, Miss Garth, we must look facts as they are resolutely in the face. Mr. Vanstone’s daughters are Nobody’s Children; and the law leaves them helpless at their uncle’s mercy.”
“A cruel law, Mr. Pendril—a cruel law in a Christian country.”
“Cruel as it is, Miss Garth, it stands excused by a shocking peculiarity in this case. I am far from defending the law of England as it affects illegitimate offspring. On the contrary, I think it a disgrace to the nation. It visits the sins of the parents on the children; it encourages vice by depriving fathers and mothers of the strongest of all motives for making the atonement of marriage; and it claims to produce these two abominable results in the names of morality and religion. But it has no extraordinary oppression to answer for in the case of these unhappy girls. The more merciful and Christian law of other countries, which allows the marriage of the parents to make the children legitimate, has no mercy on these children. The accident of their father having been married, when he first met with their mother, has made them the outcasts of the whole social community; it has placed them out of the pale of the Civil Law of Europe. I tell you the hard truth—it is useless to disguise it. There is no hope, if we look back at the past: there may be hope, if we look on to the future. The best service which I can now render you is to shorten the period of your suspense. In less than an hour I shall be on my way back to London. Immediately on my arrival, I will ascertain the speediest means of communicating with Mr. Michael Vanstone; and will let you know the result. Sad as the position of the two sisters now is, we must look at it on its best side; we must not lose hope.”
This novel is so full of twists and turns it's best to end there with this synopsis. In short, Magdalen has proved herself to be a very talented actress and whilst Norah remains with Miss Garth and essentially tries to make the best of the situation, Magdalen leaves and uses her talent to attempt to regain her inheritance, all with the help of the dastardly Captain Wragge.

Above all else, No Name is a very entertaining novel. It completely lacks subtlety and is frequently improbable, but that doesn't matter as what it may lack in realism (and it was never supposed to be a realistic novel), it makes up for in sheer excitement; it is a true page-turner. But there is another very interesting element of No Name; women, inheritance and the law in Victorian England. It was not improbable that the two sisters lost their inheritance. Their status, through no fault of their own, abruptly changed to little better than a servant's. They were at the mercy of the law which abandoned them, leaving them to become either servants, governesses, or, with luck and understanding on behalf of a suitor, someone's wife. For this reason, Magdalen Vanstone is a controversial character in her independence and refusal to be beaten down by the law, using the few tools she could lay her hands on to build herself some kind of life. By doing so she no longer conforms to the ideal of the Victorian woman, she is disgraced, and Collins does give a neat little presentation of a fallen Victorian woman and the effect it has on her own sense of self and worth. It's a great novel, not as fine as The Woman in White or The Moonstone but nonetheless enjoyable and eye-opening. Naturally, it's highly complex but I don't believe I got lost too many times. I do love Wilkie Collins and I'm looking forward already to Armadale, the next Collins novel on my TBR.

Further Reading

Monday, 30 January 2017

Old Maids and Bachelors by Oliver Goldsmith.

Oliver Goldsmith, by Sir Joshua Reynolds.
Old Maids and Bachelors is a very short essay / letter by Oliver Goldsmith. It was first published in The Public Ledger in 1760, the year the magazine was founded (it still runs today, making it the world's oldest magazine). The essays Goldsmith wrote for The Public Ledger were under the title The Citizen of the World in which Goldsmith purported to be a Chinese visitor to London, recording his observations as though he were impartial (not unlike Persian Letters by Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu, 1721). Old Maids and Bachelors was the 27th essay of the series.

It begins,
Lately in company with my friend in black, whose conversation is now both my amusement and instruction, I could not avoid observing the great numbers of old bachelors and maiden ladies with which this city seems to be over-run. "Sure marriage," said I, "is not sufficiently encouraged, or we should never behold such crowds of battered beaux and decayed coquettes still attempting to drive a trade they have been so long unfit for, and swarming upon the gaiety of the age. I behold an old bachelor in the most contemptible light, as an animal that lives upon the common stock, without contributing his share; he is a beast of prey, and the laws should make use of as many stratagems, and as much force to drive the reluctant savage into the toils, as the Indians when they hunt the rhinoceros. The mob should be permitted to halloo after him, boys might play tricks on him with impunity, every well-bred company should laugh at him, and if, when he turned sixty, he offered to make love, his mistress might spit in his face, or, what would perhaps be a greater punishment, should fairly grant the favour.
As for old maids, he goes on to write more sympathetically: "they should not be treated with so much severity, because I suppose none would be so if they could". It's tempting, I suppose, for a modern reader to raise an eyebrow at that, but a read of some of Jane Austen's novels, Pride in Prejudice (1813) immediately springs to mind, show an understandable urgency to marry and thus be financially secure. Goldsmith goes on to write on the status of 'old maids':
No lady in her senses would choose to make a subordinate figure at christenings and lyings-in, when she might be the principal herself; nor curry favour with a sister-in-law, when she might command an husband; nor toil in preparing custards, when she might lie a-bed and give directions how they ought to be made; nor stifle all her sensations in demure formality, when she might with matrimonial freedom shake her acquaintance by the hand, and wink at a double entendre. No lady could be so very silly as to live single, if she could help it. 
His friend disagrees, telling him it is not circumstance but "pride or avarice" that has led her to reject many suitors. These rejections, he add, is a source of pride for the cruel lady. On this basis, every old maid he sees he "tacitly accuse her of either pride, avarice, coquetry, or affectation". To back his point, he goes on to give four examples: Miss Jenny Tinderbox, Miss Squeeze, Lady Betty Tempest, who was essentially undone by reading romance novels, and finally Sophronia:
... how shall I mention her? She was taught to love Greek, and hate the men from her very infancy: she has rejected fine gentleman because they were not pedants, and pedants because they were not fine gentlemen; her exquisite sensibility has taught her to discover every fault in every lover, and her inflexible justice has prevented her pardoning them: thus she rejected several offers, till the wrinkles of age had overtaken her; and now, without one good feature in her face, she talks incessantly of the beauties of the mind.
There the essay ends.

Often, in novels I've read of the 18th and 19th Century, the story line concerning women is marriage: either a love match gone awry, but all is well in the end, or even a fear of never falling in love or getting married but with the happy ending of the right man showing up at the right time. It's not often old maids are really discussed, if they're there at all they are just sort of there, or else they serve a warning to our heroine not to be too picky. Here, however, Goldsmith presents a brief discussion which, yes, may well be there to spark fear in the hearts of fussy maidens, but it is nonetheless interesting to see the debate! A worthy essay: I always assumed The Vicar of Wakefield would be my first Goldsmith but oddly enough it was this. A positive introduction, I feel.

And that was my fifth essay for the Deal Me In Challenge. It's also the last essay of January and strangely four out of the five essays I've read have all been from the diamonds. My list is in no order whatsoever so it's hardly noticeable really! Next week, finally one from the clubs, How a Gallant Should Behave by Thomas Dekker.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Big Garden Birdwatch.

This weekend is the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch: the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) has invited people to participate by signing up and then, for an hour, counting the birds in their garden and sending the results in. Here's the video by the RSPB:

This is the first time I've participated in the Big Garden Bird Watch and I thought I'd share my results!

Before I start, two things: firstly, all these photos are poor quality: I was hiding away in the utility room taking these pictures, so it's all through glass that is rather dirty after all the January rain! Secondly, my mother and I tried doing this yesterday but the freezing cold, rain, residual snow, and very heavy mist kept the birds away. In fact, pretty much all we saw was a lonely little chaffinch:

Happily, today was a few degrees warmer and the mist had lifted! Here are my results - 13 species!

This is my best handwriting, unfortunately.
I didn't take many pictures, mainly because any movement sends them all flying off, and also of course because I was trying to count them, but here are a few of the chaffinches and long-tailed tits:

What I didn't see in the hour:
  • The Sparrowhawk (which is a good thing as it would have been the only thing recorded on my results!)
  • The Jays: the most I've seen in one go is three, but they're rather shy birds.
  • Buzzards: I've seen them flying over, but it's very rare to see them here.
  • The Heron: it flies over the house most evenings, and sometimes I can see it from upstairs flying along the river.
I do have some old pictures from last year (sadly not of the Jays) from the summer (possibly spring) of three of the collared doves, a baby Woodpecker being fed, and of the dreaded sparrowhawk:

So there you have it! It was great fun, and it'll be interesting to see the entire results when the RSPB publish them. Until now, if you're on Twitter, people are posting their results and pictures with the hashtag #BigGardenBirdwatch.

Friday, 27 January 2017

The Histories by Herodotus.

Relief of Herodotus 
by Jean-Guillaume Moitte (1806).
Herodotus (Ἡρόδοτος) is an Ancient Greek writer and he is regarded by some as the Father of History. His Histories (Ἱστορίαι), written around 440 B.C. is his only known surviving work, and in it he explores the history of Greece, Western Asia (or Eurasia), and Northern Africa. Herodotus is also known as the Father of Lies, with many critics pointing to apparent bias. Whatever the case, The Histories is one of the earliest examples of a history book we have.

It begins,
Herodotus of Halicarnassus, his researches are here set down to preserve the memory of the past by putting on record the astonishing achievements both of our own and of other peoples; and more particularly, to show how they came into conflict.
It's divided into nine books (the division was by Alexandrian scholars), and each book is named after one of the Nine Muses.

  • Book I: Clio (Muse of History)
  • Book II: Euterpe (Muse of Music, Song, and Lyrical Poetry)
  • Book III: Thalia (Muse of Comedy)
  • Book IV: Melpomene (Muse of Tragedy)
  • Book V: Terpsichore (Muse of Dance)
  • Book VI: Erato (Muse of Love Poetry)
  • Book VII: Polyhymnia (Muse of Hymns)
  • Book VIII; Urania (Muse of Astronomy)
  • Book IX: Calliope (Muse of Epic Poetry)

In Book I Herodotus writes on the events leading up to the Trojan War, which, he writes, can be dated to about 1250 B.C., beginning with Medea, Europa, and Io's abductions and rapes, and how the Greeks retaliated by abducting Helen, sparking the war, but noting he could neither verify nor falsify the myths. From here he goes on to write about the divisions and conflicts that led to the Greco-Persian Wars, and we see the rise and fall of the surrounding empires, Egypt for example, and the clashes of the different countries' ideals. 

Throughout The Histories Herodotus weaves together fact, politics, philosophy, and myth. There are descriptions of countries, their boundaries, and their rulers and politics, and the clashes of the various leaders. We also see the impact of the pagan religion on the Greeks: there are many stories of the gods and how the leaders were influenced by their beliefs. We also learn of the scientific thought of the time, especially in some of Herodotus' deviations. It is an immensely complicated book that describes not only the Greco-Persian Wars, but also the culture of the time and how events may be translated and given meaning. For this, I'd say it was valuable, however as to whether or not is reliable is another matter!

I did enjoy reading The Histories but it was very overwhelming. Had I have been sensible I'd have joined in with Cleo's long term plan on reading it! But time was against me; I read it, enjoyed it, was confused by it, and didn't take from it nearly as much as I would like to. If I had one piece of advice for reading The Histories it would be to do so with a pencil and notepad!

Further Reading

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane.

I've been meaning to read Effi Briest for such a long time I actually can't believe I've finally read it. I found it a few years ago now in Barter Books and it was the comparison with Madame Bovary on that back cover that first attracted me. It was written by the German author Theodor Fontane and first published in 1896, and it is based (and this is not meant to be unkind) on a tried-and-tested model: an unsuitable marriage that results in adultery and ends in tragedy, like Madame Bovary, and also Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (1878) or George Sand's Indiana (1832) to name a few.

'Tried-and-tested' the model may be, but I'd say Fontane really makes this his own. He tells the story of Effi Briest, a young woman (aged seventeen) marries a man over twenty years her senior - Baron Geert von Innstetten, a marriage which will greatly improve her social status. Like Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, and Indiana Delmare before her, it is a doomed marriage: she has great energy, enthusiasm, and a wild imagination not suited to be left for long periods as she is whilst her husband works (he is a politician). Largely isolated, her imagination runs wild and she begins to believe the house his haunted by a Chinese man who died having had an affair; Innstetten does little to reassure her. After the birth of their daughter Annie, an associate of Innstetten, Major Crampas, comes into the picture. He has the reputation of being a womaniser, yet despite this and indeed what can be described as a dark omen in a conversation with her lady's maid Roswitha as well as the ghost, Effi has an affair. She almost gets away with it too, but ultimately she is found out and becomes a complete outcast.

It's a very moving story in which we learn not only what happens when marriage goes wrong in 19th Century Germany, but also on an ideal marriage, what it ought to be, and the sacrifices young Effi is supposed to make. Innstetten is not a bad man, he is like Bovary, kind, hardworking, but not passionate enough for a young woman like Effi. The two of them seem to lack any real choice, duty dictates to both of them and in a way they are victims of the stifling society that expects too much from too little. But, as one would expect from this era, it is the woman, it is Effi, who is the real victim of this drama.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Ivanov by Anton Chekhov.

Ivanov: A Drama in Four Acts (Иванов: драма в четырёх действиях) is a play by Anton Chekhov, first performed in 19th November 1887. It's been a while since I read Chekhov: the last play I read was Three Sisters (1901) back in 2015, and since then I've been meaning to read the other plays of Chekhov I own: Ivanov, The Seagull, The Cherry Orchard, and Uncle Vania. So, consider this a happy return!

Ivanov refers to the main character of the play, Nikolai Ivanov, an upper class government official whose life seems almost to be ebbing away from him. He has recently (within the last few years) married a Jewish woman who converted to Russian Orthodox, Anna Petrovna, who suffers from Tuberculosis. Her conversion made her an outcast, and Ivanov is in considerable debt, which means that he is no longer the shining star of his circle. To help his wife recover he is advised to take her to Crimea (on the northern coast of the Black Sea; their home is in a province of Central Russia) by Doctor Lvov, however Ivanov has neither the funds nor the inclination to make such a trip. As a result he is bad tempered and the situation exacerbates what appears to be his depression.

The debt, the bad temper towards Anna Petrovna, and his 'fall' are discussed by his peers: he is a topic of conversation and gossip. When he kisses Sasha, a woman very much in love with him, he is swiftly found out by his wife. Everything quickly unravels for Ivanov with debts being called in and his betrayal of Anna being discovered. This is not the end, though: one final and shocking act remains...

Ivanov is a uncomfortable psychological drama. Ivanov is depressed yet that is never truly confronted in the play, more implied. His suffering is fodder for gossips, and his suffering makes him do horrible things and say horrible things. Nikolai Ivanov is not a hero, he is not a misunderstood saint drowning in a black sea, he is a man, an upper class man, who is flawed, someone who hurts people, and someone who is depressed: his actions are a result of and a cause of his depression, and he is surrounded by people who are largely very unhelpful in the matter. It's a tragedy, similar in a way to Shakespeare's Hamlet (1603). It's a good play, one I keep thinking about since I read it, but I wouldn't say it was the finest play ever written. That said there's something about Ivanov: I think Chekhov's plays will get better and better.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Chapters XXX - XXXII of The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens.

The winter of 1836-7 continued with snow, gales, and frost, and despite that avalanche in December 1836 the weather still had not reached peak. The readers of Pickwick Papers were of course blissfully unaware of this, and the fact that their king, William IV, would die in just five months. For now as they began what is now the second volume of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club William IV still reigned and William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne continued to be Prime Minister, and would until his resignation in 1841.

Chapter XXX
How the Pickwickians Made qnd Cultivated the Acquaintance of a Couple of Nice Young Men Belonging to one of the Liberal Professions; How they Disported Themselves on the Ice; and How Their Visit Came to Conclusion

Mr. Pickwick Slides by Phiz.
We left the Pickwickians in December at Mr. Wardle's home of Dingley Dell and there we find them now. A month has passed since Christmas Eve for us, but for them it is now Christmas Day. Chapter XXX opens with Mr. Pickwick and Sam getting ready for breakfast, and Sam tells him of the men downstairs:
‘I shall be down in a quarter of an hour, Sam,’ said Mr. Pickwick, untying his nightcap.
‘Wery good, sir,’ replied Sam. ‘There’s a couple o’ sawbones downstairs.’
‘A couple of what!’ exclaimed Mr. Pickwick, sitting up in bed.
‘A couple o’ sawbones,’ said Sam.
‘What’s a sawbones?’ inquired Mr. Pickwick, not quite certain whether it was a live animal, or something to eat.
‘What! Don’t you know what a sawbones is, sir?’ inquired Mr. Weller. ‘I thought everybody know’d as a sawbones was a surgeon.’
‘Oh, a surgeon, eh?’ said Mr. Pickwick, with a smile.
‘Just that, sir,’ replied Sam. ‘These here ones as is below, though, ain’t reg’lar thoroughbred sawbones; they’re only in trainin’.’
In other words they’re medical students, I suppose?’ said Mr. Pickwick.
Sam Weller nodded assent.
The medical students, Ben Allen and Bob Sawyer, are indeed medical students and are full of high spirits and full of talk of dissecting legs. We learn that Mr. Winkle's sweetheart Arabella is the sister of Ben, who expresses some degree of hostility to Winkle; having been to church the group then go ice skating where Winkle tries to get in Ben's good books. Winkle, unsurprisingly, takes a tumble and the two students express a keen desire to bleed him, then all are distracted however when poor Mr. Pickwick falls through the ice:
The sport was at its height, the sliding was at the quickest, the laughter was at the loudest, when a sharp smart crack was heard. There was a quick rush towards the bank, a wild scream from the ladies, and a shout from Mr. Tupman. A large mass of ice disappeared; the water bubbled up over it; Mr. Pickwick’s hat, gloves, and handkerchief were floating on the surface; and this was all of Mr. Pickwick that anybody could see.
Dismay and anguish were depicted on every countenance; the males turned pale, and the females fainted; Mr. Snodgrass and Mr. Winkle grasped each other by the hand, and gazed at the spot where their leader had gone down, with frenzied eagerness; while Mr. Tupman, by way of rendering the promptest assistance, and at the same time conveying to any persons who might be within hearing, the clearest possible notion of the catastrophe, ran off across the country at his utmost speed, screaming ‘Fire!’ with all his might.
Happily he is found, pulled out, and returned to bed where he drinks a large quantity of punch. The next morning the "jovial party" breaks up and plans are made to return to London. Bob Sawyer invites Pickwick to a party, and off they go.

Chapter XXXI
Which is All About The Law, and Sundry Great Authorities Learned Therein

The First Interview with Mr. Serjeant Snubbin
by Phiz.
On to more serious matters now: Christmas is over and we're into January, ten days to a fortnight after the Pickwickians left Dingley Dell. We meet Mr. Jackson, a clerk at the now dreaded Dodson and Fogg, on his way to Pickwick's apartment. In he goes, saying
‘I have called from Dodson and Fogg’s,’ said Mr. Jackson, in an explanatory tone.
Mr. Pickwick roused at the name. ‘I refer you to my attorney, Sir; Mr. Perker, of Gray’s Inn,’ said he. ‘Waiter, show this gentleman out.’
Mr. Jackson however is not one to give up and he informs Pickwick of the date of the trial:
‘It’s only a subpoena in Bardell and Pickwick on behalf of the plaintiff,’ replied Jackson, singling out one of the slips of paper, and producing a shilling from his waistcoat pocket. ‘It’ll come on, in the settens after Term: fourteenth of Febooary, we expect; we’ve marked it a special jury cause, and it’s only ten down the paper. That’s yours, Mr. Snodgrass.’ As Jackson said this, he presented the parchment before the eyes of Mr. Snodgrass, and slipped the paper and the shilling into his hand.
And it's not just Snodgrass who is subpoenaed: Tupman, Winkle, and even Sam are to appear as witnesses for the prosecution. Pickwick then consults his lawyer Mr. Perker who is far from reassuring;
‘I don’t think they could,’ said Mr. Pickwick, smiling, despite his vexation, at the idea of Sam’s appearance as a witness. ‘What course do we pursue?’
‘We have only one to adopt, my dear Sir,’ replied Perker; ‘cross-examine the witnesses; trust to Snubbin’s eloquence; throw dust in the eyes of the judge; throw ourselves on the jury.’
‘And suppose the verdict is against me?’ said Mr. Pickwick.
Mr. Perker smiled, took a very long pinch of snuff, stirred the fire, shrugged his shoulders, and remained expressively silent.
‘You mean that in that case I must pay the damages?’ said Mr. Pickwick, who had watched this telegraphic answer with considerable sternness.
Perker gave the fire another very unnecessary poke, and said, ‘I am afraid so.’
From there to his courtroom attorney, Serjeant Snubbin:
Mr. Serjeant Snubbins was a lantern-faced, sallow-complexioned man, of about five-and-forty, or—as the novels say—he might be fifty. He had that dull-looking, boiled eye which is often to be seen in the heads of people who have applied themselves during many years to a weary and laborious course of study; and which would have been sufficient, without the additional eyeglass which dangled from a broad black riband round his neck, to warn a stranger that he was very near-sighted. His hair was thin and weak, which was partly attributable to his having never devoted much time to its arrangement, and partly to his having worn for five-and-twenty years the forensic wig which hung on a block beside him. The marks of hairpowder on his coat-collar, and the ill-washed and worse tied white neckerchief round his throat, showed that he had not found leisure since he left the court to make any alteration in his dress; while the slovenly style of the remainder of his costume warranted the inference that his personal appearance would not have been very much improved if he had. Books of practice, heaps of papers, and opened letters, were scattered over the table, without any attempt at order or arrangement; the furniture of the room was old and rickety; the doors of the book-case were rotting in their hinges; the dust flew out from the carpet in little clouds at every step; the blinds were yellow with age and dirt; the state of everything in the room showed, with a clearness not to be mistaken, that Mr. Serjeant Snubbin was far too much occupied with his professional pursuits to take any great heed or regard of his personal comforts.
Mr. Snubbin also fails to reassure, and so Pickwick leaves in frustration.

Chapter XXXII
Describes, Far More Fully Than The Court Newsman Ever Did, A Bachelor’s Party, Given By Mr. Bob Sawyer At His Lodgings In The Borough

From Mr. Snubbin's office to the home of Bob Sawyer on Lant Street (Southwark, south London) on the evening of his party. The Pickwickians arrive (after we learn of the fury of Sawyer's landlady Mrs. Raddle, still waiting for rent to be paid) and meet the various guests of the party. As parties go, I don't believe I've been to a worse one: first there's Hopkins, who arrives late:
‘You’re late, Jack?’ said Mr. Benjamin Allen.
‘Been detained at Bartholomew’s,’ replied Hopkins.
‘Anything new?’
‘No, nothing particular. Rather a good accident brought into the casualty ward.’
‘What was that, sir?’ inquired Mr. Pickwick.
‘Only a man fallen out of a four pair of stairs’ window; but it’s a very fair case indeed.’
‘Do you mean that the patient is in a fair way to recover?’ inquired Mr. Pickwick.
‘No,’ replied Mr. Hopkins carelessly. ‘No, I should rather say he wouldn’t. There must be a splendid operation, though, to-morrow—magnificent sight if Slasher does it.’
‘You consider Mr. Slasher a good operator?’ said Mr. Pickwick.
‘Best alive,’ replied Hopkins. ‘Took a boy’s leg out of the socket last week—boy ate five apples and a gingerbread cake—exactly two minutes after it was all over, boy said he wouldn’t lie there to be made game of, and he’d tell his mother if they didn’t begin.’
He goes on to tell of another story in which a child swallows a necklace, then arrives some guests. When dinner time comes they find their lazy girl has fallen asleep, making the dinner somewhat of a disaster, there's no hot water for drinks afterwards, an argument breaks out, and finally Mrs. Raddle bursts in and breaks the party up. Mr. Pickwick, as with the others, is unceremoniously sent packing:
‘They’re only looking for their hats, Mrs. Raddle,’ said Bob; ‘they are going directly.’
‘Going!’ said Mrs. Raddle, thrusting her nightcap over the banisters just as Mr. Pickwick, followed by Mr. Tupman, emerged from the sitting-room. ‘Going! what did they ever come for?’
‘My dear ma’am,’ remonstrated Mr. Pickwick, looking up.
‘Get along with you, old wretch!’ replied Mrs. Raddle, hastily withdrawing the nightcap. ‘Old enough to be his grandfather, you willin! You’re worse than any of ‘em.’
Mr. Pickwick found it in vain to protest his innocence, so hurried downstairs into the street, whither he was closely followed by Mr. Tupman, Mr. Winkle, and Mr. Snodgrass. Mr. Ben Allen, who was dismally depressed with spirits and agitation, accompanied them as far as London Bridge, and in the course of the walk confided to Mr. Winkle, as an especially eligible person to intrust the secret to, that he was resolved to cut the throat of any gentleman, except Mr. Bob Sawyer, who should aspire to the affections of his sister Arabella. Having expressed his determination to perform this painful duty of a brother with proper firmness, he burst into tears, knocked his hat over his eyes, and, making the best of his way back, knocked double knocks at the door of the Borough Market office, and took short naps on the steps alternately, until daybreak, under the firm impression that he lived there, and had forgotten the key.
The visitors having all departed, in compliance with the rather pressing request of Mrs. Raddle, the luckless Mr. Bob Sawyer was left alone, to meditate on the probable events of to-morrow, and the pleasures of the evening.
And there ends the eleventh instalment of The Pickwick PapersDon't forget: February's instalment only has two chapters to it: 33-34.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool by George Orwell.

William Shakespeare by an unknown artist (1609).
In 1909, a year before his death, Leo Tolstoy's Shakespeare and the Drama was published. It was a response to another article, Shakespeare's Attitude Toward the Working Classes by Ernest Crosby (1903), and Tolstoy in his article proved, to put it mildly, he was no fan of our William Shakespeare. In one of the first paragraphs he wrote,
I remember the astonishment I felt when I first read Shakespeare. I expected to receive a powerful aesthetic pleasure, but having read, one after the other, works regarded as his best: "King Lear," "Romeo and Juliet," "Hamlet" and "Macbeth," not only did I feel no delight, but I felt an irresistible repulsion and tedium, and doubted as to whether I was senseless in feeling works regarded as the summit of perfection by the whole of the civilized world to be trivial and positively bad, or whether the significance which this civilized world attributes to the works of Shakespeare was itself senseless. My consternation was increased by the fact that I always keenly felt the beauties of poetry in every form; then why should artistic works recognized by the whole world as those of a genius,—the works of Shakespeare,—not only fail to please me, but be disagreeable to me? For a long time I could not believe in myself, and during fifty years, in order to test myself, I several times recommenced reading Shakespeare in every possible form, in Russian, in English, in German and in Schlegel's translation, as I was advised. Several times I read the dramas and the comedies and historical plays, and I invariably underwent the same feelings: repulsion, weariness, and bewilderment. At the present time, before writing this preface, being desirous once more to test myself, I have, as an old man of seventy-five, again read the whole of Shakespeare, including the historical plays, the "Henrys," "Troilus and Cressida," the "Tempest," "Cymbeline," and I have felt, with even greater force, the same feelings,—this time, however, not of bewilderment, but of firm, indubitable conviction that the unquestionable glory of a great genius which Shakespeare enjoys, and which compels writers of our time to imitate him and readers and spectators to discover in him non-existent merits,—thereby distorting their esthetic and ethical understanding,—is a great evil, as is every untruth. [the article can be read in full here]
Some thirty-eight years later George Orwell (in Polemic) wrote his response to Tolstoy's essay, Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool (1947). It begins with a summary; as Orwell notes, Tolstoy's essay "is not even an easy document to get hold of, at any rate in an English translation." He goes on to write,
Shakespeare, Tolstoy adds, is not merely no genius, but is not even ‘an average author’, and in order to demonstrate this fact he will examine King Lear, which, as he is able to show by quotations from Hazlitt, Brandes and others, has been extravagantly praised and can be taken as an example of Shakespeare's best work.
Tolstoy then makes a sort of exposition of the plot of King Lear, finding it at every step to be stupid, verbose, unnatural, unintelligible, bombastic, vulgar, tedious and full of incredible events, ‘wild ravings’, ‘mirthless jokes’, anachronisms, irrelevaricies, obscenities, worn-out stage conventions and other faults both moral and aesthetic. Lear is, in any case, a plagiarism of an earlier and much better play, King Leir, by an unknown author, which Shakespeare stole and then ruined. It is worth quoting a specimen paragraph to illustrate the manner in which Tolstoy goes to work. Act III, Scene 2 (in which Lear, Kent and the Fool are together in the storm) is summarized thus:
Lear walks about the heath and says word which are meant to express his despair: he desires that the winds should blow so hard that they (the winds) should crack their cheeks and that the rain should fiood everything, that lightning should singe his white bead, and the thunder flatten the world and destroy all germs ‘that make ungrateful man’! The fool keeps uttering still more senseless words. Enter Kent: Lear says that for some reason during this storm all criminals shall be found out and convicted. Kent, still unrecognized by Lear, endeavours to persuade him to take refuge in a hovel. At this point the fool utters a prophecy in no wise related to the situation and they all depart.”
Tolstoy's final verdict on Lear is that no unhypnotized observer, if such an observer existed, could read it to the end with any feeling except ‘aversion and weariness’. And exactly the same is true of ‘all the other extolled dramas of Shakespeare, not to mention the senseless dramatized tales, Pericles, Twelfth Night, The Tempest, Cymbeline, Troilus and Cressida.’
Leo Tolstoy.
Rather that concentrate on Shakespeare's complete works, or indeed the above mentioned Pericles, Twelfth Night, The Tempest, Cymbeline, and Troilus and Cressida, Orwell chooses to keep his focus on Shakespeare's 1606 tragedy King Lear. Tolstoy had referred to King Lear, mentioning "the pompous, characterless language of King Lear, the same in which all Shakespeare's Kings speak", it's "strife... quite arbitrarily established by the author, and therefore can not produce on the reader the illusion which represents the essential condition of art", and the very damning "instead of feeling fear and pity, one is tempted rather to laugh." Orwell first points out that Shakespeare is so well-loved and enjoyed by so many, one must ask; is Shakespeare a good writer (who some may not enjoy) or was there "a sort of mass hypnosis, or ‘epidemic suggestion’." Tolstoy had suggested this himself, referring to the Dreyfus Case of 1894 - 1906:
A striking example of such mutual influence of the public and the press was the excitement in the case of Dreyfus, which lately caught hold of the whole world.
As Orwell points out this, in the grand scheme of things, was short-lived. At the time of publication, Tolstoy's essay was over 300 years older than King Lear. Tolstoy went on to suggest that it was the Germans who glorified Shakespeare in the 18th Century, dissatisfied with their own drama and the French's "pseudo-classical drama" (a quote from Tolstoy's essay), and ultimately, says Tolstoy, Shakespeare was a bad writer.

But Orwell cannot let that one pass by;
One's first feeling is that in describing Shakespeare as a bad writer he is saying something demonstrably untrue. But this is not the case. In reality there is no kind of evidence or argument by which one can show that Shakespeare, or any other writer, is ‘good’. Nor is there any way of definitely proving that — for instance — Warwick Beeping is ‘bad’. Ultimately there is no test of literary merit except survival, which is itself an index to majority opinion. Artistic theories such as Tolstoy's are quite worthless, because they not only start out with arbitrary assumptions, but depend on vague terms (‘sincere’, ‘important’ and so forth) which can be interpreted in any way one chooses. Properly speaking one cannot answer Tolstoy's attack. The interesting question is: why did he make it? But it should be noticed in passing that he uses many weak or dishonest arguments. Some of these are worth pointing out, not because they invalidate his main charge but because they are, so to speak, evidence of malice.
Next, he addresses Tolstoy's so-called impartiality, claiming that Tolstoy's essay is "a prolonged exercise in misrepresentation" and pointing to Tolstoy's summary of the play, calling it unnecessarily complicated and wilfully misunderstanding certain elements. Why Tolstoy has done this is a question that must be asked.
... why did Tolstoy, with thirty or more plays to choose from, pick out King Lear as his especial target? True, Lear is so well known and has beeen so much praised that it could justly be taken as representative of Shakespeare's best work; still, for the purpose of a hostile analysis Tolstoy would probably choose the play he-disliked most. Is it not possible that he bore an especial enmity towards this particular play because he was aware, consciously or unconsciously, of the resemblance between Lear's story and his own? But it is better to approach this clue from the opposite direction — that is, by examining Lear itself, and the qualities in it that Tolstoy fails to mention.
Orwell first suggests the language barrier, drawing attention to the beauty of Shakespeare's language that may be unappreciated by someone who is not a native speaker. From here he writes on the Fool of the play, which, Orwell writes, is an integral part, serving the purpose of the Chorus we see in the Ancient Greek plays:
His jokes, riddles and scraps of rhyme, and his endless digs at Lear's high-minded folly, ranging from mere derision to a sort of melancholy poetry (‘All thy other titles thou hast given away, that thou wast born with’), are like a trickle of sanity running through the play, a reminder that somewhere or other in spite of the injustices, cruelties, intrigues, deceptions and misunderstandings that are being enacted here, life is going on much as usual. In Tolstoy's impatience with the Fool one gets a glimpse of his deeper quarrel with Shakespeare.
George Orwell.
This raises the difference in Tolstoy's art from Shakespeare's, and, furthermore, represents "the quarrel between the religious and the humanist attitudes towards life." Shakespeare was more holistic in his approach to writing and Tolstoy more austere. And then there is the plot: Orwell notes, "though Tolstoy could not foresee it when he wrote his essay on Shakespeare, even the ending of his life — the sudden unplanned flight across country, accompanied only by a faithful daughter, the death in a cottage in a strange village — seems to have in it a sort of phantom reminiscence of Lear." For this King Lear may be especially disturbing and even distressing to Tolstoy than the average reader.

In short, there are, as Orwell points out, some problems with Tolstoy's analysis (some of which I've mentioned, there are more in Orwell's interesting and rather complex essay: it can be read in full here), but the upshot is Orwell objects not only to Tolstoy's words but his bias which is used (and denied) in order to essentially ruin Shakespeare for everyone else:
If we are to believe what he says in his pamphlet, Tolstoy has never been able to see any merit in Shakespeare, and was always astonished to find that his fellow-writers, Turgenev, Fet and others thought differently. We may be sure that in his unregenerate days Tolstoy's conclusion would have been: ‘You like Shakespeare — I don't. Let's leave it at that.’ Later, when his perception that it takes all ‘sorts to make a world had deserted him, he came to think of Shakespeare's writings as something dangerous to himself. The more pleasure people took in Shakespeare, the less they would listen to Tolstoy. Therefore nobody must be allowed to enjoy Shakespeare, just as nobody must be allowed to drink alcohol or smoke tobacco. True, Tolstoy would not prevent them by force. He is not demanding that the police shall impound every copy of Shakespeare's works. But he will do dirt on Shakespeare, if he can. He will try to get inside the mind of every lover of Shakespeare and kill his enjoyment by every trick he can think of, including — as I have shown in my summary of his pamphlet — arguments which are self-contradictory or even doubtfully honest.
The effect of Tolstoy's essay however was minimal: as the essay concludes,
He turned all his powers of denunciation against Shakespeare, like all the guns of a battleship roaring simultaneously. And with what result? Forty years later Shakespeare is still there completely unaffected, and of the attempt to demolish him nothing remains except the yellowing pages of a pamphlet which hardly anyone has read, and which would be forgotten altogether if Tolstoy had not also been the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina.
This is a very forceful essay: I saw Tolstoy's essay on Shakespeare referred to as the 'clash of the Titans', and throwing Orwell into the equation makes it all the more so. Orwell, as ever, is very accessible and one can always see with Orwell he writes to be understood, not to mystify. There is something rather intimidating about it: Tolstoy writing on Shakespeare and in turn being written about by Orwell. Unlike Tolstoy's essay, which I've skimmed through, Orwell provokes discussion and though he may argue forcefully it's not unkind. Tolstoy on the other hand: one feels one would dare not engage with the essay; one would simply read it and try to forget about it, which was I suppose one of Orwell's points!

And that was my fourth title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week: Old Maids and Bachelors by Oliver Goldsmith.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Ichneutai and Other Fragments of Sophocles.

I have so much affection for Sophocles and I remember not so long ago finishing his surviving works and being disappointed it was all over, so you can imagine my excitement when I found Ichneutai and some other fragments (I read them in Three Dramas of Old Age published by Everyman, 2000)!

I'll begin with Ichneutai (Ἰχνευταί), which is also known as Searchers, Trackers, or Tracking Satyrs. These fragments were discovered in Egypt in 1912. It's a satyr play: the only complete satyr play to have survived is Euripides' Cyclops (408 B.C.); Ichneutai is the second best preserved ancient satyr play. It would appear that it is based on one of the poems in the Homeric Hymns, a poem to Hermes (Hymn IV) in which the author (these poems, from the 7th and 6th Century B.C. were wrongly attributed to Homer) describes how Hermes stole Apollo's cattle. Sophocles' play begins (with six lines missing),
To all the gods and all mankind I, Loxias,
proclaim that I will give a fine reward
to anyone who's seen my cattle near or far;
it's terrible, it wounds my soul
that someone had abducted all my cows
and calves and herds of heifers.
All are lost. I'm following their tracks
in vain; they've simply vanished from my stables, just
as if a god had taken them! I never would have thought
that any of the gods or mortal men
would even dare to try to do this deed.
As soon as I found out, distracted by my care
I go, I search, and broadcast out aloud
to gods and mortal men so all may know;
... I hunt in mad pursuit,
I visited the tribe of Thrakia, to see which
solider could...
From here many lines are missing but it picks up again with the entry of Silenos who assures Apollo "I'll bring back your cows - if you make good your gift". The prize will be "Freedom for you and all your sons", so Silenos and the satyrs depart in search of the cattle, following their tracks to a cave on Mount Kyllini (in modern-day Corinthia) where they hear music. There they meet Cyllene (or Kyllene), a mountain nymph who is caring for the young Hermes. They talk of the music (it is Hermes playing his newly invented lyre) and, of course, the cattle, but the play cuts off. From the remaining surviving lines it appears that Apollo appears, rewarded the satyrs, and Hermes gave him is lyre.

Mt. Kyllini.
The remaining fragments are just snatches. First, Aias the Lokrian, which is set during the sack of Troy. Aias the Lokrian has raped Kassandra in the temple of Athena, as well as pulling down the statue of Athena, then took refuge at her altar to escape punishment. What has survived is a speech from Athena rebuking the Greeks. 

Next, Aleus' Sons, from which only a speech has survived (the speaker is unknown):
Wealth finds men friends, and privileges,
and then finally the throne on high
of royal power, the nearest to the gods.
No one was ever born an enemy
to wealth - or if they are, they will not say.
For riches have a terrifying power to creep
in everywhere, even to sacred sites, and places where
a poor man, even if inside, could not obtain what he desires.
Wealth makes an ugly person beautiful,
an incoherent speaker clever with his tongue;
alone, wealth knows how to find joy even in
a sick-bed, and conceal its miseries.
Eurypylos follows, in which the death of Eurypylos is described; then, a short speech from Kreousa, a speech from a messenger from Laokoon, speeches from unknown speakers from Nauplios and Men of Skyros, and then several fragments from Niobe; by the time the surviving fragments have begun Apollo has killed Niobe's seven sons and six daughters of whom she was so proud, and her husband (Ovid tells this story in Book VI of Metamorphoses). Only one of her daughters, Chloris, is alive during this scene:
Wᴏᴍᴇɴ: ...
... she's gone mad ....
Nɪᴏʙᴇ: Phoibos and his sister have destroyed me!
Why drive me from my home? Why don't you aim
1 Wᴏᴍᴀɴ: .... woman of many sorrows.
Should I try to waft her steps this way?
Nɪᴏʙᴇ: I am destroyed. My children have all gone
to the caverns of Tartaros. Where shall I hide?
Cʜʟᴏʀɪs: (inside the skene) I beg you, lady Artemis, don't shoot me; don't kill me.
1 Wᴏᴍᴀɴ: ... unhappy girl....
Following Niobe, a speech by Agamemnon from Polyxena, the chours of Roof-Cutters (related to the Medea myth), three speeches from Terus and two from Teukros including the speech by Oileus in attempt to comfort Telamon after the suicide of Ajax:
You might well see the greatest and wisest men
being just like Oileus is now, attemping to
bring comfort to someone who's suffering.
But when the daimon of a man who once was fortunate
swings back the balance of his life, most of
their sayings, good though they may be, just disappear.
After Teukros, two speeched from Thyestes, one from Tyro, then two from two unknown tragedies. One is spoken by Menelaos:
My fate revolves on Fortune's
swiftly circling wheel, and changes shape,
just as the moon's appearance cannot stay
two nights in the same form.
First it emerges from invisible to new,
then makes its face more beautiful and full,
and then - as soon as it has reached its loveliest -
it flows away again and goes to nothingness.
And following the unknown tragedies, three fragments of satyr plays: Achilleus' Lovers, Inachos, and Oineus.

I don't want to sound like I'm overdoing this, but reading these fragments was a surprisingly emotional experience, not something I expected at all. These were very distant echoes I was trying so hard to hear, and some, particularly Niobe (I know this story from Ovid) I felt I was really straining, but there is so much lost that no matter how hard we may try to hear Sophocles he is just too far away to capture. It was very sad and frustrating wanting to read more of one my favourite authors and only having these bits and pieces here and there, but at the same time I am of course very grateful for what remains and I loved what I read, particularly those bits I quoted in full, so I'll keep an eye out for any more fragments that may be dotted around in the backs of books as these were.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

The Pillars of Society by Henrik Ibsen.

Ms. Betzonick as Lona Hessel.
1890 edition.
The Pillars of Society (Samfundets støtter; also known as The Pillars of the Community) is a play by Henrik Ibsen and was written in 1877. It's a play in four acts and it tells the story of the hypocrisies of those who are highly respected and appear to be upstanding members of the community but are in fact anything but.

The pillar of society is Karsten Bernick, essentially a big fish in a little pond: a wealthy business man and owner of a shipyard. He is revered by his fellow townsmen (this play is based in a small town on the Norwegian coast), and he has plans to sink his money into a railway building scheme that will link his town to the main line. We learn, however, that his marriage to Betty (they have a son together: Olaf) nearly didn't take place: he was in fact to marry Lona Hessel, Betty's elder half-sister, however he jilted her in favour of Betty's more generous inheritance. Furthermore, during his engagement to Betty he had a mistress and was even caught in bed with her. To save face, Bernick managed to put the blame on to Johan Tønnesen, Betty's younger brother, who was due to emigrate to America, and what's more, Bernick also spread a rumour that Tønnesen had stolen a large sum of money from the business to excuse the fact that it was failing. Once Tønnesen was in America Bernick was essentially able to carry on his life and indeed lies and become this pillar of society. However, unexpectedly, Tønnesen returns along with Lona.

From here Bernick's moral failings begin to come to light: not only his lies about Tønnesen and his jilting of Lona, but other important factors relating to his business, showing that he is far from trustworthy and deserving of public reverence. I wouldn't go as far to say this is Ibsen's finest (my favourites so far are A Doll's House, which I'm planning on re-reading soon, and Hedda Gabler), but it is a great play and a great character study on a man who has managed to get away with so much and yet has managed to almost delude himself that he is worthy of his high position. Ibsen presents a very keen character study of such a man, as well as criticising social morals and the lies behind public life, and even industrial ethics. I haven't read a great deal of Ibsen but I have a lot planned for this year, and from The Pillars of Society I have a feeling I'm in for some truly outstanding reads and, unlike quite a few recent plays I've read of late, I do think it's possible to read and enjoy The Pillars of Society.

'Pillars of Society'. Act II as played in New York 1910.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Claude's Confession by Émile Zola.

Claude's Confession (La Confession de Claude) is Émile Zola's first novel, first published in 1865 (Zola's first published work was Contes à Ninon, a short story collection published in 1864), six years before The Fortune of the Rougons (1871), his first Rougon Macquart novel. The novel is semi-autobiographical as it describes his relationship with Berthe (her surname is unknown), his first love with whom he lived in the winter of 1860-61 on the Rue Soufflot before he met and married Alexandrine (the date of their marriage is uncertain, but it would seem they were certainly living together in 1865).

The first thing that struck me when reading Claude's Confession is that it's written in the first person. So far, out of the 37 or so works by Zola I've read, the only other story of Zola's to be written in the first person (that I've come across) is Big Michu (1870). The novel begins,
Winter is here: the air in the morning becomes fresher, and Paris puts on her mantle of fog. This is the season of social soirées. Chilly lips search for kisses; lovers, driven from the country, take refuge beneath the mansards, and, huddling together before the hearth, enjoy, amid the noise of the rain, their eternal spring.
As for me, I love in sadness: I have the winter without the spring, without a sweetheart. My garret, away up a damp staircase, is large and irregular; the corners lose themselves in the gloom, the bare and slanting walls make of the chamber a sort of corridor which stretches out in the form of a bier. The wretched furniture, the narrow planks, ill fitted and painted a horrible red colour, crack funereally when they are touched. Shreds of faded damask hang from the canopy of the bed, and the curtainless window opens upon a huge black wall, never changing and always repulsive.
Portrait of Emlie Zola by Edouard Manet (1868).
There is, as I think can be seen here, an element of the melodramatic which we do see in Zola's Rougon Macquart novels, but this is a novel not only on the poverty he begins to show in these opening paragraphs, but also on the pain of love. The novel reads like a long letter (whereas Zola's later novels have a sort of journalistic quality to them): as Zola explains in the preface, which is addressed to Paul Cézanne and Baptistin Baille (these two along with Zola were known in their childhood as "les trois inséparables" or "the three inseparables"):
You knew, my friends, the wretched youth whose letters I now publish. The youth is no more. He wished to become a man amid the wreck and oblivion of his early days.
In the novel 'Claude' explains how he came to meet Laurence, a prostitute (as Berthe was) who is ill and he is there simply to care for her in the absence of anyone else. His feelings for her in this first meeting are deeply contradictory; sexual attraction and repulsion are suggested in the line where he describes seeing her lying half-naked: "I was ashamed for the young woman, I felt my virginity fly away in my glance". Laurence recovers, and when she is evicted from her room she takes up residence with Claude where, after some frustration he accepts her and means to reform her; instead, he falls in love with her. He finds himself dragged further into the degradation of poverty, and he learns the hard truth that Laurence is irredeemable.

I did wonder if I would like Claude's Confession, and I wanted to read it simply for curiosity's sake, but this is a great novel. It's not the immediately recognisable Zola, more Zola meets Goethe (I'm thinking of The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1774). It is, as I've already said, semi-autobiographical but it's also a character study of a young man in love with a woman who does not return his love, yet it is more of the Romantic than the Realist. Even so there is still a strong element of of poverty and similar social concerns (to be blunt, it's as bleak and miserable as many of his Rougon Macquart novels), and I recognise in this work some of Zola's later (and sharper) descriptions in, for example, L'Assommoir (1877). It is a very dark work, and Zola manages to drag his reader down with Claude almost. It's very effective, very impressive, and so unlike anything I've ever come across before. Had Zola have remained in this Romantic / Realist frame I do think he could have been successful. As it is, he left both for Naturalism, and it's interesting to see the development by looking at his earliest novel. It was a novel he was nearly taken to court for; it would seem the Minister of Justice was contemplating whether it constituted "an outrage to public and religious morals". It never got to that stage but Hachette, a publishing firm where Zola worked as a clerk, expressed its disapproval and Zola left to pursue a career in journalism. Claude's Confession did indeed mark a king of rite of passage, both for its narrator and for its author.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

The Brontës by Juliet Barker.

The Brontës is my first great (perfect, even) read of 2017. It's a biography by Juliet Barker, first published in 1994 then revised and updated in 2010 (which is the edition I read). It's magnificent, and I do think it's the best biography I've ever read. As the title suggests Barker writes on the lives of the Brontës, but it begins not with the birth of Charlotte, arguably the most famous sister, but with the twenty-five year old Patrick Brontë entering St. John's College, Cambridge, and it ends with his death in 1861. 

BBC's To Walk Invisible (2016).
This biography is on my Classics Club list, but it was the recent BBC drama To Walk Invisible (Sally Wainwright, 2016) that gave me the push (that today happens to be Anne Brontë's birthday is actually a coincidence). I expected, before even picking it up, there might be the temptation when I began it to not so much skim the early part, but to have to put some effort to 'get through it' before what I thought was the most interesting bit - the mid to late 1840s when the Brontë sisters' novels were being written then published. It hadn't occurred to me at that point that Barker would start with the early adulthood of Patrick Brontë but, though I love the sisters and though I can hardly say Patrick Brontë is on my radar, it really worked for me. In the first 100 pages or so Barker writes on Patrick, the Brontë name, ancestry, Patrick's university days, entering the clergy, and meeting and marrying Maria Brontë, née Branwell. From there, the births of the eldest sisters, Maria (1814 - 1825), Elizabeth (1815 - 1825), and Charlotte (1816 - 1855), the only son Patrick Branwell (1817 - 1848), and then Emily Jane (1818 - 1848) and Anne (1820 - 1849). We learn of their childhood, education, the deaths of Maria and Elizabeth, their imaginary worlds of Angria and Gondal, and how all of this impacted on their novels. Barker goes on to write of Charlotte's and Emily's journey to Brussels, where Charlotte met and fell in love with the married Monsieur Heger, their return, the publication and reception of their poetry, and then the publication of their novels:

The Professor by
Charlotte Brontë
(first written novel,
published 1857).
Jane Eyre by
Charlotte Brontë

Shirley by
Charlotte Brontë

Villette by
Charlotte Brontë

Agnes Grey by
Anne Brontë (1847).
The Tenant of Wildfell
 by Anne Brontë
Wuthering Heights by
Emily Brontë
And from there, what is surely the darkest period of the Brontë history: the death of Branwell on 24th September 1848, Emily's death three months later on 19th December 1848, then five months after that the death of Anne on 28th May 1849. Barker writes of these deaths of course, and one of the more interesting questions (I think): why Anne Brontë was not buried with her sisters and mother in the Brontë family crypt, but in Scarborough.

Anne, Emily, and Charlotte by Branwell Brontë
(who removed himself from the portrait).
These eight months had, it goes without saying, an enormous impact on Charlotte's health, outlook, and even her writing, but Barker also goes into the practicalities; the question of publishing, of republishing her sisters' works after they had been savaged by some critics. We learn, for example, of how Charlotte prevented the reissue of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, writing,
'Wildfell Hall' it hardly appears to me desirable to preserve. The choice of subject in that work is a mistake - it was too little consonant with the character - tastes and ideals of the gentle, retiring, inexperienced writer.
This is one of the major reasons why Anne was never as celebrated as Emily and Charlotte, and it's also an element of what can be called 'the Brontë myth', an idea, or defence rather, originating from Charlotte, suggested they were brought up in near isolation away from mainstream society, innocent and naïve, not fully aware of just how shocking their novels were. After Charlotte's death, when she had not quite reached 39 and had only been married to Arthur Bell Nicholls nine months, Elizabeth Gaskell immortalised this myth in her biography The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857). Barker describes Gaskell's rather dubious methods of gaining information, for example Charlotte's best friend Ellen Nussey, who was jealous of Charlotte's marriage and rather unfairly took against Arthur, led Gaskell to conclude that he was oppressive. A rather disastrous stay with the Brontës in September 1853 led her to think the same of Patrick, and, following Charlotte's death, Gaskell returned to Haworth unexpectedly and left with materials it would appear Arthur and Patrick would rather she have left there. From the research to the publication, and then the aftermath: Barker goes on to write on how Arthur and Patrick (and Ellen too) dealt with the impact of the biography, both personally and the subsequent attacks on their reputation. The biography ends, as I've said, with the death of Patrick Brontë, who was essentially the first Brontë owing to the change in name, and he was certainly the last.

This is an outstanding biography. It's fascinating in itself, learning about the lives of the three sisters, and, what really makes this a great achievement, the delving into the myth of the Brontës. Barker questions everything and seems to leave no stone unturned. We think of the Brontë sisters living outside of Haworth on the wild moors, but in fact the Brontë parsonage was less than 500 ft from The Back Bull, a pub which Branwell frequented, a minute's walk or less from the church, and (in today's terms), a ten minute walk from the centre. Haworth was not a tiny village; incredibly, by 1821, there were some 4668 inhabitants. Charlotte, who has often been portrayed as rather saintly, was in fact a little domineering and bossy (I would not say she was a bad person, however) and Emily, who appeared to be deeply sympathetic, was absorbed by her own private world. Anne remains somewhat shadowy, sadly, but there is much to be learned about her. I love Anne Brontë, she is as I've said many times my favourite sister, and Barker treats her with the respect she deserves, not a footnote or written about simply in terms of Charlotte. She is her own person in this biography, and that along with debunking the Brontë myth are my favourite elements of this extraordinary work. There is so much I've learned from this, and I would urge everyone to read it!

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