Friday, 31 March 2017

Chapters XXXV - XXXVII of The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens.

Just over a year ago today I post a summary of the first instalment of The Pickwick Papers! It has been great fun reading a year in the life of Samuel Pickwick and his friends, but of course it's not over - this is the thirteenth instalment, and we still have seven to go.

180 years ago Britain was still in the middle of winter weather: from 1st March 1837 to 31st May 1837, the average temperature was 5.63 °C. It was an unusually cold winter and spring, and still today 1837's spring is the coldest spring on record (the coldest March, incidentally, was in 1674) with continuing blizzards and snow still covering the Campsie and Kilpatrick Hills around Glasgow. Today, however, it's all sun and mist here, though there is a touch of snow on top of the hills around the Scottish Borders, but really barely a dusting. But, enough of the weather, let's return to Mr. Pickwick and see how he's faring after being found liable to pay Mrs. Bardell in damages to the sum of £750.

Chapter XXXV
In Which Mr. Pickwick Thinks He Had Better Go To Bath; And Goes Accordingly

In the last chapter we saw Mr. Pickwick adamant he was not going to pay damages, and in Chapter 35 he's sticking to his guns: "‘Not one halfpenny,’ said Mr. Pickwick firmly; ‘not one halfpenny.’". So, instead, he goes to Bath in Somerset, and on the way, at White Horse Cellar (presumably Old White Horse Cellar, also known as Hatchetts White Horse Cellar in Piccadilly), he meets Captain Dowler, a rather "fierce gentleman", and through him Angelo Cyrus Bantam, the master of ceremonies at a hotel to which Bantam invites the Pickwickians. They attend a ball, which we can agree is somewhat pretentious, and Mr. Bantam points out some of the guests:
‘My dear Sir, I am highly honoured. Ba—ath is favoured. Mrs. Dowler, you embellish the rooms. I congratulate you on your feathers. Re-markable!’
‘Anybody here?’ inquired Dowler suspiciously.
‘Anybody! The elite of Ba—ath. Mr. Pickwick, do you see the old lady in the gauze turban?’
‘The fat old lady?’ inquired Mr. Pickwick innocently.
‘Hush, my dear sir—nobody’s fat or old in Ba—ath. That’s the Dowager Lady Snuphanuph.’
‘Is it, indeed?’ said Mr. Pickwick.
‘No less a person, I assure you,’ said the Master of the Ceremonies. ‘Hush. Draw a little nearer, Mr. Pickwick. You see the splendidly-dressed young man coming this way?’
‘The one with the long hair, and the particularly small forehead?’ inquired Mr. Pickwick.
‘The same. The richest young man in Ba—ath at this moment. Young Lord Mutanhed.’
‘You don’t say so?’ said Mr. Pickwick.
‘Yes. You’ll hear his voice in a moment, Mr. Pickwick. He’ll speak to me. The other gentleman with him, in the red under-waistcoat and dark moustache, is the Honourable Mr. Crushton, his bosom friend. How do you do, my Lord?’
‘Veway hot, Bantam,’ said his Lordship.
‘It is very warm, my Lord,’ replied the M.C.
‘Confounded,’ assented the Honourable Mr. Crushton.
‘Have you seen his Lordship’s mail-cart, Bantam?’ inquired the Honourable Mr. Crushton, after a short pause, during which young Lord Mutanhed had been endeavouring to stare Mr. Pickwick out of countenance, and Mr. Crushton had been reflecting what subject his Lordship could talk about best.
‘Dear me, no,’ replied the M.C. ‘A mail-cart! What an excellent idea. Re-markable!’
‘Gwacious heavens!’ said his Lordship, ‘I thought evewebody had seen the new mail-cart; it’s the neatest, pwettiest, gwacefullest thing that ever wan upon wheels. Painted wed, with a cweam piebald.’
‘With a real box for the letters, and all complete,’ said the Honourable Mr. Crushton.
‘And a little seat in fwont, with an iwon wail, for the dwiver,’ added his Lordship. ‘I dwove it over to Bwistol the other morning, in a cwimson coat, with two servants widing a quarter of a mile behind; and confound me if the people didn’t wush out of their cottages, and awest my pwogwess, to know if I wasn’t the post. Glorwious—glorwious!’
At this anecdote his Lordship laughed very heartily, as did the listeners, of course. Then, drawing his arm through that of the obsequious Mr. Crushton, Lord Mutanhed walked away.
‘Delightful young man, his Lordship,’ said the Master of the Ceremonies.
‘So I should think,’ rejoined Mr. Pickwick drily.
Pickwick plays whist with a group of rather intimidating ladies, loses, and goes off to bed.

Chapter XXXVI
The Chief Features of which will be Found to be an Authentic Version of the Legend of Prince Bladud, and a Most Extraordinary Calamity that Befell Mr. Winkle

Pickwick decides upon a two or so months stay at Bath and it's arranged he will stay with the Dowlers. Much mineral water is consumed:
... Mr. Pickwick began to drink the waters with the utmost assiduity. Mr. Pickwick took them systematically. He drank a quarter of a pint before breakfast, and then walked up a hill; and another quarter of a pint after breakfast, and then walked down a hill; and, after every fresh quarter of a pint, Mr. Pickwick declared, in the most solemn and emphatic terms, that he felt a great deal better; whereat his friends were very much delighted, though they had not been previously aware that there was anything the matter with him.
One evening he reads 'The True Legend of Prince Bladud', a legendary king of the Britons first mentioned in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, though there is no evidence for his existence. The story begins,
‘For many hundred years before that time, there had been handed down, from age to age, an old legend, that the illustrious prince being afflicted with leprosy, on his return from reaping a rich harvest of knowledge in Athens, shunned the court of his royal father, and consorted moodily with husbandman and pigs. Among the herd (so said the legend) was a pig of grave and solemn countenance, with whom the prince had a fellow-feeling—for he too was wise—a pig of thoughtful and reserved demeanour; an animal superior to his fellows, whose grunt was terrible, and whose bite was sharp. The young prince sighed deeply as he looked upon the countenance of the majestic swine; he thought of his royal father, and his eyes were bedewed with tears.
‘This sagacious pig was fond of bathing in rich, moist mud. Not in summer, as common pigs do now, to cool themselves, and did even in those distant ages (which is a proof that the light of civilisation had already begun to dawn, though feebly), but in the cold, sharp days of winter. His coat was ever so sleek, and his complexion so clear, that the prince resolved to essay the purifying qualities of the same water that his friend resorted to. He made the trial. Beneath that black mud, bubbled the hot springs of Bath. He washed, and was cured. Hastening to his father’s court, he paid his best respects, and returning quickly hither, founded this city and its famous baths.
The story goes on to tell of how his father King Lud arranged a marriage for him, however he was in love with a woman in Athens. To punish him King Lud imprisons him but Bladud escapes, and he learns the woman he loves has married another. Heartbroken he flees the kingdom and ends up in Bath: it is his tears that are the source of the healing waters of the city:
‘“Oh!” said the unhappy Bladud, clasping his hands, and mournfully raising his eyes towards the sky, “would that my wanderings might end here! Would that these grateful tears with which I now mourn hope misplaced, and love despised, might flow in peace for ever!”
‘The wish was heard. It was in the time of the heathen deities, who used occasionally to take people at their words, with a promptness, in some cases, extremely awkward. The ground opened beneath the prince’s feet; he sank into the chasm; and instantaneously it closed upon his head for ever, save where his hot tears welled up through the earth, and where they have continued to gush forth ever since.
‘It is observable that, to this day, large numbers of elderly ladies and gentlemen who have been disappointed in procuring partners, and almost as many young ones who are anxious to obtain them, repair annually to Bath to drink the waters, from which they derive much strength and comfort. This is most complimentary to the virtue of Prince Bladud’s tears, and strongly corroborative of the veracity of this legend.’
Pickwick, after the story, retires and Mr. Dowler is left alone waiting up for his wife. When she arrives in the coach, the coachman bangs on the door and... it's all rather awkward, as the hammering wakens Mr. Winkle:
At length Mr. Winkle began to dream that he was at a club, and that the members being very refractory, the chairman was obliged to hammer the table a good deal to preserve order; then he had a confused notion of an auction room where there were no bidders, and the auctioneer was buying everything in; and ultimately he began to think it just within the bounds of possibility that somebody might be knocking at the street door. To make quite certain, however, he remained quiet in bed for ten minutes or so, and listened; and when he had counted two or three-and-thirty knocks, he felt quite satisfied, and gave himself a great deal of credit for being so wakeful.
‘Rap rap-rap rap-rap rap-ra, ra, ra, ra, ra, rap!’ went the knocker.
Mr. Winkle jumped out of bed, wondering very much what could possibly be the matter, and hastily putting on his stockings and slippers, folded his dressing-gown round him, lighted a flat candle from the rush-light that was burning in the fireplace, and hurried downstairs.
Dowler follows to let his wife in, and Mr. Winkle panics at the thought of being seen with Mrs. Dowler at such a late hour, and so runs and hides:
‘Watchman,’ shouted Dowler furiously, ‘stop him—hold him—keep him tight—shut him in, till I come down. I’ll cut his throat—give me a knife—from ear to ear, Mrs. Craddock—I will!’ And breaking from the shrieking landlady, and from Mr. Pickwick, the indignant husband seized a small supper-knife, and tore into the street.
But Mr. Winkle didn’t wait for him. He no sooner heard the horrible threat of the valorous Dowler, than he bounced out of the sedan, quite as quickly as he had bounced in, and throwing off his slippers into the road, took to his heels and tore round the crescent, hotly pursued by Dowler and the watchman. He kept ahead; the door was open as he came round the second time; he rushed in, slammed it in Dowler’s face, mounted to his bedroom, locked the door, piled a wash-hand-stand, chest of drawers, and a table against it, and packed up a few necessaries ready for flight with the first ray of morning.
Dowler came up to the outside of the door; avowed, through the keyhole, his steadfast determination of cutting Mr. Winkle’s throat next day; and, after a great confusion of voices in the drawing-room, amidst which that of Mr. Pickwick was distinctly heard endeavouring to make peace, the inmates dispersed to their several bed-chambers, and all was quiet once more.
It is not unlikely that the inquiry may be made, where Mr. Weller was, all this time? We will state where he was, in the next chapter.
Chapter XXXVII
Honourably Accounts for Mr. Weller’s Absence, by Describing a Soiree to which He Was Invited and Went; also Relates how He was Entrusted by Mr. Pickwick with a Private Mission of Delicacy and Importance.

Sam Weller, as it has been noted, has been absent a while, and we learn he was invited to a soiree by Mr. Bantam's footman John Smauker. The footmen, as Dickens described, have a rather inflated sense of importance, which Weller pokes gentle fun at, and the crowd enjoy their evening. On Weller's return, as the chapter title promises, Pickwick gives Weller a mission: we learn that Mr. Winkle has escaped the wrath of Dowler to Bristol:
‘... He must be found, Sam. Found and brought back to me.’
And s’pose he won’t come back, Sir?’ said Sam.
‘He must be made, Sam,’ said Mr. Pickwick.
‘Who’s to do it, Sir?’ inquired Sam, with a smile.
‘You,’ replied Mr. Pickwick.
‘Wery good, Sir.’
Pickwick completes his orders, and this thirteenth instalment ends with the words:
Sam gave a nod of intelligence, and withdrawing his head from the door, set forth on his pilgrimage with a light heart.
We must wait until April (happily only a day away!) to find out what happens in Bristol! 

Monday, 27 March 2017

The Decay of Essay-writing by Virginia Woolf.

Virginia Woolf by Lady Ottoline Morrell (1917).
The Decay of Essay-writing is an early Virginia Woolf essay, first published in Academy and Literature on 25th February 1905 when she was Virginia Stephen. It begins,
The spread of education and the necessity which haunts us to impart what we have acquired have led, and will lead still further, to some startling results. We read of the over-burdened British Museum - how even its appetite for printed matter flags, and the monster pleads that it can swallow no more. This public crisis has long been familiar in private houses. One member of the household is almost officially deputed to stand at the hall door with flaming sword and do battle with the invading armies. Tracts, pamphlets, advertisements, gratuitous copies of magazines, and the literary productions of friends come by post, by van, by messenger - come at all hours of the day and fall into the night, so that the morning breakfast-table is fairly snowed up with them.
Woolf goes on to elaborate on this idea of a saturated market, saying "This age has painted itself more faithfully than any other in a myriad of clever and conscientious though not supremely great works of fiction", yet somehow the appetite or market is still very much there, and to cater to it one must come up with new ideas to feed the "monster".
So we confine ourselves to no one literary medium; we try to be new by being old; we review mystery plays and affect archaic accent; we deck ourselves in the fine raiment of an embroidered style; we cast of all our clothing and disport ourselves nakedly. In short, there is no end to our devices, and at this very moment probably some ingenious youth is concocting a fresh one which, be it ever so new, will grow stale in its turn.
One such invention, she suggests, is the essay. She does, it must be noted, mention Montaigne, author of Essais (1580) and pioneer of the essay, "but we may count him the first of the moderns". Furthermore, 
[The essay] has been used with considerable frequency since his day, but its popularity with us is so immense and so peculiar that we are justified in looking upon it as something of our own - typical, characteristic, a sign of the times which will strike the eye of our great-great-grandchildren.
Despite this, "no one has approached the essays of Elia [Essays of Elia by Charles Lamb, 1823-33]". Essays, she continues, in the Victorian and Edwardian Age have a tendency to be almost "egotistical" in that they are thoughts peculiar to the writer (opinion pieces, in short):
The essay, then, owes its popularity to the fact that under the decent veil of print one can indulge one's egoism to the full. You need know nothing of music, art, or literature to have a certain interest in their productions, and the greatest burden of modern criticism is simply the expression of such individual likes, and dislikes - the amiable garrulity of the tea-table - cast into the form of essays. If men and women must write, let them leave the great mysteries of art and literature unassailed; if they told us frankly not of the books that we can read and the pictures which hang for us all to see, but of that single book to which they alone have the key and of that solitary picture whose face is shrouded to all but one gaze - if they would write about themselves - such writing would have its own permanent value.
This is easier said than done: "Confronted with the terrible spectre of themselves, the bravest are inclined to run away or shade their eyes". For this so many essays fail for they lack both bravery and sincerity. Those who are brave and sincere, however, lack humility and write on things that they simply have no experience in, yet are arrogant enough to proffer their opinion.

This was a rather odd essay to read. Woolf herself noted that Academy and Literature had edited it so much it was only half its size and this may account for it feeling slightly disjointed. On that note it's no surprise her best essays were those she published herself. Nevertheless it's very interesting, and not only because it's early Woolf (she would have been 23 when she wrote this). I do like the essays she describes, the 'opinion pieces', the personal, the autobiographical; they're more a pleasure to read than the polemics we see in the newspapers (though they have their place, I'm not saying I could do without them!). This essay is not Woolf's finest by any stretch, and if you haven't read a Woolf essay yet I'd really leave this one alone for now. But for the Woolf fan, it's a great read and I think reading it and seeing the slightly unpolished Woolf makes me appreciate her talent all the more.

And that was my 13th essay for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week: The Lion and the Unicorn by George Orwell.

Friday, 24 March 2017

The Revenger's Tragedy by Thomas Middleton and The Atheist's Tragedy by Cyril Tourneur.

Since the end of January I've been reading Four Revenge Tragedies published by Oxford University Press (1995). It consists of:
  • The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd, which I wrote about in February.
  • The Revenger's Tragedy by Thomas Middleton.
  • The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois by George Chapman - this I didn't read at all as it's a sequel to Bussy D'Ambois, which I've not managed to get a hold of yet.
  • The Atheist's Tragedy by Cyril Tourneur.
With The Revenger's Tragedy and The Atheist's Tragedy I must say I had some bad luck: I actually think these are my least favourite plays of all time and I had the misfortune of reading them back to back! Nevertheless, if only to 'anchor' them into my brain a little I'll try and say a few words.

The Revenger's Tragedy

This play, which to be fair I preferred to The Atheist's Tragedy, was believed to have been written by Cyril Tourneur, the author of The Atheist's Tragedy, however it turns out it was actually written by Thomas Middleton (who collaborated with William Shakespeare in writing Timon of Athens, 1605-06). The Revenger's Tragedy was written around the same time as Timon of Athens in 1606 and was published in 1607. It begins with a prologue by Vindice, our revenger:
Duke, royal lecher, go, grey-hair'd adultery;
And thou his son, as impious steep'd as he;
And thou his bastard, true-begot in evil;
And thou his duchess that will do with the devil:
Four ex'lent characters. Oh, that marrowless age
Would stuff the hollow bones with damn'd desires,
And stead of heat kindle infernal fires
Within the spendthrift veins of a dry duke,
A parch'd and juiceless luxur! Oh God, one
That has scarce blood enough to live upon!
And he to riot it like a son and heir?
Oh, the thought of that
Turns my abused heartstrings into fret!
Thou sallow picture of my poisoned love,
My study's ornament, thou shell of death,
Once the bright face of my betrothed lady,
When life and beauty naturally fill'd out
These ragged imperfections,
When two heaven-pointed diamonds were set
In those unsightly rings: then 'twas a face
So far beyond the artificial shine
Of any woman's bought complexion
That the uprightest man, if such there be,
That sin but seven times a day, broke custom
And made up eight with looking after her.
Oh, she was able to ha' made a usurer's son
Melt all his patrimony in a kiss,
And what his father fifty years told
To have consum'd, and yet his suit been cold!
But oh, accursed palace!
Thee, when thou wert apparel'd in thy flesh,
The old duke poison'd,
Because thy purer part would not consent
Unto his palsy-lust, for old men lustful
Do show like young men angry, eager-violent,
Outbid like their limited performances.
Oh, 'ware an old man hot and vicious!
"Age, as in gold, in lust is covetous."
Vengeance, thou murder's quit-rent, and whereby
Thou shouldst thyself tenant to tragedy,
Oh, keep thy day, hour, minute, I beseech,
For those thou hast determin'd! Hum: whoe'er knew
Murder unpaid? Faith, give revenge her due:
Sh'as kept touch hitherto. Be merry, merry;
Advance thee, O thou terror to fat folks,
To have their costly three-pil'd flesh worn of
As bare as this: for banquets, ease, and laughter
Can make great men, as greatness goes by clay,
But wise men little are more great than they.
As he explains the Duke poisoned his sweetheart "Because thy purer part would not consent / Unto his palsy-lust". We also learn that the Duke's son Junior raped the wife of Antonio, a lord who does not like the Duke. Vindice and his brother Hippolito vow revenge. Vindice disguises himself as Piato and works for Lussurioso, another son of the Duke. In their plans to kill the Duke, Vindice and Hippolito also discover that Lussurioso wishes to sleep with Castiza, and, not realising Castiza is the sister of Vindice and Hippolito, asks them to help him with his scheming. Now the two brothers intend to kill him too, as well as the Duke and Junior. This is complicated yet more by the Duke's families own plots of revenge and assassinations. Eventually Vindice and Hippolito's plans come into fruition, but they themselves play with their lives for their endeavours.

I found it an extraordinarily complicated play, and (I may well be wrong here) but I don't recall this level of complication outside a Ancient or Renaissance comedy! Whatever the case I'm afraid it left me rather cold, and I would venture to say it might have been a tad overdone. I'll be interested, nevertheless, to read another revenge play by Middleton - The Maiden's Tragedy - over the weekend.

The Atheist's Tragedy

Following The Revenger's Tragedy is The Atheist's Tragedy or the Honest Man's Revenge, written by Cyril Tourneur and published in 1611. It's the only work by Tourneur scholars can agree what actually written by him. Another play by Tourneur, incidentally, was The Nobleman and it was accidentally destroyed by Betsy Baker, the cook of Robert Warburton. Warburton collected manuscripts and had a habit of leaving them lying around, including in the kitchen, and Betsy had a habit of using them as baking tin liners and kindling (Betsy also destroyed many of Philip Massinger's plays, Marlowe's The Maiden's Holiday, for which I cannot forgive her, two of Shakespeare's plays - Duke Humphrey and Henry I, and a great many others). But as I say The Atheist's Tragedy survived, and I would happily trade it for The Maiden's Holiday.

In this play Tourneur tells the story of D'Amville, the atheist of the play, and his nephew Charlemont, the honest play of the title. D'Amville is a truly heinous character who seeks power and murders those who get in his way (including Charlemont's father). When Charlemont returns he finds that he has been declared dead, and his fiance Castabella has been married to his cousin Rousard, D'Amville's son. He argues with his uncle and ends up duelling his other cousin Sebastian, but spares his life, and when Charlemont is imprisoned Sebastian actually bails him out. Meanwhile D'Amville, having attempted to rape Castabella, plans to murder Charlemont. Fortunately for Charlemont he defeats his assassin, however D'Amville then accuses him and Castabella of adultery for which they are imprisoned and sentenced to death. As this plays out, however, D'Amville's own ambitions of a dynasty are scuppered and members of his family die, either violently or because of illness whilst his wife Levidulchia has many affairs, resulting in the death of his son Sebastian.

Oddly enough this play has a happy ending, though not, as the title suggests, for the atheist D'Amville. Good triumphs over evil, D'Amville confesses his crimes, and Castabella and Charlemont are free at last to marry one another. As with The Revenger's Tragedy we see characters on a lower social standing to their targets: both D'Amville and the Duke are powerful men, far more powerful than Charlemont, Vindice, and Hippolito yet the revengers are to an extent successful. Both sets achieve their goal, though for Charlemont the result is far happier. In that sense they're interesting, but I've no desire to ever re-read them.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Thérèse Raquin by Émile Zola.

Thérèse Raquin is Émile Zola's most famous novel outside of the Rougon Macquart series. It was first published in 1867, four years before the first of the Rougon Macquarts - The Fortune of the Rougons, though, as with Zola's very first novel Claude's Confession (1865) one can see very clearly the themes that would dominate his later works.

In the preface to the second edition (1868) Zola wrote this rather barbed comment:
I was simple enough to suppose that this novel could do without a preface. Being accustomed to express my thoughts quite clearly and to stress even the minutest details of what I write, I hoped to be understood and judged without preliminary explanations. It seems I was mistaken.
He goes on to write a defence against the "churlish and horrified outcry", stating,
In Thérèse Raquin my aim has been to study temperaments and not characters. That is the whole point of the book. I have chosen people completely dominated by their nerves and blood, without free will, drawn into each action of their lives by the inexorable laws of their physical nature. Thérèse and Laurent are human animals, nothing more.
It's hard not to notice the parallels of this and the preface of The Fortune of the Rougons
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. 
Now I've read Thérèse Raquin a second time, having read the majority of Zola's novels (of his novels, I only have Les Mystères de MarseilleMadeleine Férat, and Les Quatre Évangiles left) this idea of Thérèse Raquin being a study of temperament is very obvious and the novel is in that sense (and most others!) classic Zola. But when I first read it in 2012 the only other Zola I'd read was Germinal (1885) and I knew nothing about Émile Zola or his aims, and I don't think they actually are that obvious. One can forgive the first audience for their disgust and well understand the French writer Louis Ulbach describing Thérèse Raquin as "putrid literature".

Whether one is aware of the aims or not, Thérèse Raquin is a shocking novel. The main character Thérèse lives with her aunt, Madame Raquin, and Madame Raquin's son Camille, a spoilt and sickly boy about the same age as Thérèse. At the age of 21 the two marry, a match set up by Madame Raquin, and they move to Paris so that Camille may pursue a career at the Orléans Railway Company. This brings to mind Zola's later novel La Bête Humaine (1890) in which the railway represented both modernity and the unnatural and dangerous. The similarities continue in Thérèse Raquin: when she and Camille's friend Laurent begin a passionate affair they decide that they will kill Camille, but after his murder (they drown him), they are driven completely mad by guilt.

In terms of plot alone, I enjoyed Thérèse Raquin. It's a dark, even Gothic novel along the lines of Edgar Allan Poe. The setting is bleak, the crime horrific, and the consequences nightmarish. It's a psychological drama, the couple are haunted by hallucinations of Camille's ghost, and they cannot live with what they've done, let alone live happily with one another. But, Thérèse Raquin is much more than that, as Zola rather caustically points out in the preface. Thérèse is of Algerian descent, a short hand of these old books to suggest a 'hot', passionate temperament (like that of, say, Othello in Shakespeare's play). Her father is a sea captain, suggesting an adventurous and energetic streak, yet this aspect of Thérèse's character, which is inherited from her mother and father, as with all the Rougons and Macquarts of Zola's later novels, is suppressed and she is left a deeply repressed character who becomes very nervous and high strung (reminding me a little of the Rougon Macquart matriarch Adélaïde Rougon). By way of contrast, her lover Laurent is self-indulgent and overtly sexual and Camille asexual (his own temperament is explained too by his over-bearing mother). These three temperaments collide, leading to tragedy, and we see in the novel not only the manifestation of these temperaments before a crisis but also after, and how both Laurent and Thérèse deal with their guilt. In a sense, they are a victim of both heredity, temperament, and circumstance, something Zola explored further in the context of the Second French Empire in the Rougon Macquart novels. Like Jacques Lantier of La Bête Humaine, they are unrefined animals, thinking selfishly and reacting to their desires with little thought of the consequences. But what separates us from animals, so they say, is guilt, which turns into paranoia (seen in their treatment of the family cat François) and hysteria. However their guilt is more primeval: their treatment of Madame Raquin, Camille's mother, following her stroke does not suggest a genuine need or attempt at redemption, it is a terror of punishment be it divine, supernatural, or judicial. The idea of free will is very much in question, not something I necessarily agree with but a popular question in the 19th Century.

I do love Thérèse Raquin, yet I can easily see why someone would hate it or not wish to read it. It is a very disturbing novel and goes beyond the Gothic novels of the time. It's very clever, but does lack subtlety, not something I particularly mind but others may.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell.

Ruth is Elizabeth Gaskell's second novel first published in 1853, following Mary Barton (1848) and preceding North and South (1855). One of the reasons I love reading Gaskell's works is the social aspect: Charles Kingsley, the novelist and social reformer, said of Mary Barton, "Do they want to know why poor men, kind and sympathising as women to each other, learn to hate law and order, Queen, Lords and Commons, country-party, and corn-law-leaguer, all alike—to hate the rich, in short? Then let them read Mary Barton." North and South addressed the "Condition of England Question" on social unrest, poverty, and inequality, and in Ruth an exploration of motherhood out of wedlock and the values of Victorian society.

I dare say it would be hard to overestimate how shocking Ruth would have been when it was published in the early 1850s. It tells the story of an orphan, Ruth Hilton, brought up without the motherly love every child ought to have, working as a seamstress for Mrs. Mason. She meets Henry Bellingham, an aristocrat and cad. They run away together to London and she imagines herself as his wife, no longer a poor orphan working in dreadful conditions, but a lady, but instead she ends up a fallen woman, like Esther Barton in Mary Barton, or indeed Tess of Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles. What's more, she's pregnant, and following a short illness Henry's mother persuades him to abandon her, which he does. She attempts suicide but is saved by Thurstan Benson, an English Dissenter, and he and his sister Faith take her in, making up a story that she is a widow named Mrs. Denbigh. She has her son, Leonard, and becomes a governess, however her secret cannot remain a secret forever, and Mr. Benson cannot protect her from the indignation and disgust of Victorian society.

It is a very striking novel which, as I said, was met with some revulsion at the time. Gaskell Blog has put together some of the contemporary review, such as Blackwood's Edinburgh magazine who wrote, "the mistake lies in choosing such a heroine at all" or The Christian Observer who wrote, "Mrs. Gaskell …is a writer of lively invention, passion, power …But her taste is by no means refined; and the moral influence of her writing is, to say the least, very doubtful …in “Ruth,” she instructs us, that a woman who has violated the laws of purity is entitled to occupy precisely the same position in society as one who has never thus offended.", however the reviews were not altogether damning. The Gentleman's Magazine, for example, wrote "That some, and those among very true lovers of their kind —very excellent, admirable people, by no means overstrained in their general views of moral questions— should recoil from both the subject and Mrs. Gaskell’s way of treating it, does not surprise us; but we think their view somewhat narrow and oppressive." Ruth is a very moving story, though it does divide readers, some finding Ruth a somewhat irritating martyr. I didn't so much, I was struck by the tragedy of it all, this poor young girl as a social pariah, her sin of being misguided (I think) pales in comparison to Henry Bellingham, his mother, and the unforgiving society that drove her to her tragic end. It's a very strong novel indeed.

Monday, 20 March 2017

My Country Right or Left by George Orwell.

My Country Right or Left is an essay by George Orwell, first published a year after the outbreak of the Second World War in the autumn 1940 edition of Folios of New Writing, a periodical founded in 1936 (it ceased in 1950).

The first sentence made me smile, I must say:
Contrary to popular belief, the past was not more eventful than the present. If seems so it is because when you look backward things that happened years apart are telescoped together, and because very few of your memories come to you genuinely virgin. It is largely because of the books, films and reminiscences that have come between that the war of 1914-18 is now supposed to have had some tremendous, epic quality that the present one lacks.
Oh, for the days when the present seemed uneventful. But, I'm deviating. To continue: he goes on to remember the First World War, and writes on this kind of 'collective memory', meaning that memories of the time, of the actual moment, may have faded and have effectively been 'boosted' by other people's reminisces. He then admits that, of his childhood days (he was eleven when the First World War began), the most vivid and shocking memory of that period was in fact the sinking of the Titanic (1912, when Orwell was nine). Nevertheless he recalls certain memories of the war, finishing with the rather startling confession that his memories of the latter days of the war were primarily of margarine:
As for the final period, if you ask me to say truthfully what is my chief memory, I must answer simply — margarine. It is an instance of the horrible selfishness of children that by 1917 the war had almost ceased to affect us, except through our stomachs. In the school library a huge map of the Western Front was pinned on an easel, with a red silk thread running across on a zig-zag of drawing-pins. Occasionally the thread moved half an inch this way or that, each movement meaning a pyramid of corpses. I paid no attention. I was at school among boys who were above the average level of intelligence, and yet I do not remember that a single major event of the time appeared to us in its true significance. The Russian Revolution, for instance, made no impression, except on the few whose parents happened to have money invested in Russia. Among the very young the pacifist reaction had set in long before the war ended. To be as slack as you dared on O.T.C. parades, and to take no interest in the war was considered a mark of enlightenment. The young officers who had come back, hardened by their terrible experience and disgusted by the attitude of the younger generation to whom this experience meant just nothing, used to lecture us for our softness. Of course they could produce no argument that we were capable of understanding. They could only bark at you that war was ‘a good thing’, it ‘made you tough’, ‘kept you fit’, etc. etc. We merely sniggered at them. Ours was the one-eyed pacifism that is peculiar to sheltered countries with strong navies. For years after the war, to have any knowledge of or interest in military matters, even to know which end of a gun the bullet comes out of, was suspect in ‘enlightened’ circles. 1914-18 was written off as a meaningless slaughter, and even the men who had been slaughtered were held to be in some way to blame. I have often laughed to think of that recruiting poster, ‘What did you do in the Great War, daddy?’ (a child is asking this question of its shame-stricken father), and of all the men who must have been lured into the army by just that poster and afterwards despised by their children for not being Conscientious Objectors.
Poster created by the War Office (1914-15).
Despite this, the war had an enormous impact on shaping the youth, those "just too young" to have fought but where nonetheless prepared: "Most of the English middle class are trained for war from the cradle onwards, not technically but morally", perhaps, he suggests, explaining his generation's fascination with the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), which Orwell joined in 1937 (see Homage to Catalonia by Orwell, 1938). This he describes as "a bad copy of 1914-18". As for the Second World War, he recalls the period before when it was increasingly clear there would be another war:
For several years the coming war was nightmare to me, and at times I even made speeches and wrote pamphlets against it. But the night before the Russo-German pact was announced I dreamed that the war had started. It was one of those dreams which, whatever Freudian inner meaning they may have, do sometimes reveal to you the real state of your feelings. It taught me two things, first, that I should be simply relieved when the long-dreaded war started, secondly, that I was patriotic at heart, would not sabotage or act against my own side, would support the war, would fight in it if possible.
This is a crucial moment: Orwell the socialist, Orwell the pacifist, stating quite clearly he would support the war. What's more, despite this, he believes it is perfectly defensible from his left-wing point of view. He offers some of his defence, for example "There is no real alternative between resisting Hitler and surrendering to him, and from a Socialist point of view I should say that it is better to resist". The most interesting part, for me, is this sentence: "Patriotism has nothing to do with conservatism.". Orwell still holds fast to his belief that "Only revolution can save England", and that revolution he believes may begin with the Second World War. He concludes his essay,
I grew up in an atmosphere tinged with militarism, and afterwards I spent five boring years within the sound of bugles. To this day it gives me a faint feeling of sacrilege not to stand to attention during ‘God save the King’. That is childish, of course, but I would sooner have had that kind of upbringing than be like the left-wing intellectuals who are so ‘enlightened’ that they cannot understand the most ordinary emotions. It is exactly the people whose hearts have never leapt at the sight of a Union Jack who will flinch from revolution when the moment comes. 
This essay is fascinating to me, particularly on its theme of patriotism. Patriotism has been overtly and covertly a subject of great importance in the past year. The word patriotism simply means pride in one's country or love of one's country, yet the word, like the flag, is co-opted by the hard right wingers and, in those terms, is not just a love of England but a hatred of other countries. The old, if not ancient, question of immigration, for the hard right, it is a matter of national pride to refuse entry to migrants or refugees. It is a focus on the country at the expense of others, and it is a pride in doing so. How many times I've heard from people in the UK and USA "charity begins at home", an argument to refuse any kind of help for those suffering in other countries, from those who have very suddenly taken a keen interest in talking of helping the nation's homeless (just talking, I must add). This has meant that those left-wingers, right-wingers, those of the centre ground, and those who voted to remain in the European Union are unpatriotic. Take this headline from the Daily Mail for example: "Whingeing. Contemptuous. Unpatriotic. Damn the Bremoaners and their plot to subvert the will of the British people".To simply love one's country and do or hope for the very best for one's country is no longer enough: it must be done the right way (pun intended!). Because of this, it seems now that to describe oneself as a patriot is a somewhat risky business with the association of the hard or extreme right wing views we see in the likes of UKIP, Britain First, the BNP, or Donald Trump. The supporters of these parties or people deny the patriotism of other people from the left wing, through the centre, to the soft or moderate right but as Orwell reminds us very starkly: "Patriotism has nothing to do with conservatism." To 'want to get the best deal' (as we hear daily with regards to Brexit) and to want to help others is far from being unpatriotic. I'm grateful to Orwell for the reminder. My Country Right or Left is a brilliant essay.

And that was my 12th essay for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week: The Decay of Essay-writing by Virginia Woolf.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov.

The Cherry Orchard was Anton Chekhov's final play, first performed in January 1904, six months before Chekhov's death. The cherry orchard at the centre of the play is said to be inspired by Chekhov's own cherry orchard at his home in Melikhovo (forty miles south of Moscow): during Chekhov's childhood Alexander II's economic policies of development lead to the clearances of many a cherry orchard, including Chekhov's own at his childhood home of Taganrog. Chekhov then planted another orchard in Melikhovo, which was also cleared after the estate was sold. In The Cherry Orchard we see Madame Lyubov Andreievna Ranevskaya return to her estate one day in May with a view to selling it to may the mortgage, an action that will result in the clearance of the orchard.

The play begins with this rather lovely description of the setting:
[A room which used to be the children's bedroom and is still referred to as the 'nursery'. There are several doors: one of them leads into Ania's room. It is early morning: the sun is just coming up. The windows of the room are shut, but through them the cherry trees can be seen in blossom. It is May, but in the orchard there is morning frost...]
In the room we see Lopakhin, a rich business man and friend of the family, and Dooniasha, a maid, where they await Ranevskaya who will arrive with her brother Gayev and daughter Ania along with their servants. When they are reunited the conversation is on both the cherry orchard and of Paris, where Ranevskaya has been staying. Lopakhin outlines his plans of saving the estate, which we learn is where he grew up as the son of a serf, suggesting that it be leased over the summer to those living in the cities who wish to spend their summers in the countryside. It is an unpopular suggestion as it would entail felling the orchard. As the play moves forward with the discussions of the estate and the cherry orchard we learn more about each character: Ranevskaya's young son Grisha accidentally drowned, which is why she moved to France where she lived with a lover, Lopakhin is in love with Varya, Ranevskaya's adopted daughter (she too is a descendant of a serf), and Ania is in love with a student, Trofimov. Furthermore we learn more of the cherry orchard and the meaning it has to the characters, particularly Ania.

Anton Chekhov's later plays are generally categorised as modernist, and I can see similarities with the likes of Virginia Woolf, who praised Chekhov in her The Common Reader (1925-32). Woolf wrote of feeling a sense of "bewilderment". She goes on, "What is the point of it, and why does he make a story out of this? we ask as we read story after story." That is how I feel about The Cherry Orchard: it is beautiful, and I see, as in Woolf, themes of memory and the past, and lingering resentment and pain, and its impact on present life. The point of The Cherry Orchard is not self-evident the way it may be in, say, a Victorian novel that is neatly sown up at the end. It is a snapshot, a moment or a short period of a group of people's lives, the centre of which is the cherry orchard, but it is more than what does and does not happen. We see relationships, people's past, their memory of the past, how it has affected their sense of self, and how, on this bridge from one era to the next, the characters deal with the shifts in circumstance. Who moves forward, who moves back, and who remains as they always were. I do like reading Chekhov, but I do find him particularly difficult.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite by Anthony Trollope.

1871 edition.
The last Anthony Trollope novel I read was in December - The Duke's Children, the final book of the Palliser series which was for me an absolute disaster. Thus it was not without some trepidation that I approached Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite, first published in 1871 between Phineas Finn (1869), which I hated, and The Eustace Diamonds (1873), which I loved. My worry was that, being as I am quite a big Trollope fan, it was all over and I no longer loved him. 

The first thing to say is that I did enjoy Sir Harry. I didn't love it, but I have a reason why that is external to Trollope: I read it in rather strange circumstances. I started it one night last week I think and was really into it, and the next day (I do believe it was a Saturday) I took it out when we went shopping as I always have a fear of being stuck somewhere and having nothing to read and lo, I ended up being stuck somewhere: outside Screwfix (a DIY shop) for 90 minutes. Thus I can't say I was 100% focused on Sir Harry, which is rather shame. Nevertheless yes, I enjoyed it.

Trollope's Sir Harry Hotspur is of course a reference to Sir Henry Percy, known also as Sir Harry Hotspur, and was a key rebel during the War of the Roses (in literature, see Shakespeare's Henry IV Part I). Harry Hotspur possibly also, oddly enough, gave his name to Tottenham Hotspur F.C., but there I digress. Trollope's Sir Harry is by the start of the novel an old man with a wife and daughter Emily. His son, before the start of the novel, had died and so Sir Harry hopes that Emily will marry well and her husband would take her name, and he could be the heir of the Hotspur estate. Emily's distant cousin George Hotspur has designs on her and her fortune and hopes to her marry her. Despite his well-deserved reputation as a gambler, swindler, and schemer she does in fact fall in love with him and hopes her love will save him from moral ruin, though, quite understandably, Sir Harry has some deep reservations on the match.

For me Sir Harry Hotspur of Humbletwaite is classic Trollope. The themes - complicated love matches, marriage, and inheritance are familiar (I'm specifically thinking of Lady Anna, 1874, Is He Popenjoy?, 1878, and Cousin Henry, 1879 here), as are Trollope's excellently drawn characters, though don't make the mistake of thinking the ending is predictable. It's a short novel (my edition was 246 pages which by Trollope's standards is practically flash fiction, and as it happens it did read more like a short story), and I think it might have done a little better were it a bit longer and more developed. Even so it was a good novel to put my awful experience with the Pallisers well and truly behind me. 

Thursday, 16 March 2017

The Divine Comedy Cantica II: Purgatory by Dante.

Dante con in mano la Divina Commedia (Dante and His Poem) by Domenico di Michelino (1465).
Hell is depicted on the left of the painting, Purgatory behind, and Paradise in the sky.

It's been five months since I decided to revisit Dante's Divine Comedy (Divina Commedia; 1308-21), reading the first portion of the poem Hell or The Inferno at it is also known back in October. Next comes Purgatory (Purgatorio) in which Dante, guided by Virgil, climbs up the mountain of Purgatory in the Southern Hemisphere of Oceans. The poem begins,
To run on better water now, the boat
Of my invention hoists its sails and leaves
Away to stern that cruel stretch of sea;
And I will sing if this second kingdom
In which the human spirit cures itself
And becomes fit to leap up into heaven.
But here dead poetry rises again,
O holy Muses, since I am your own,
And here let Calliope rise a little,
Following my song with that sound from which
The pitiful Magpies felt so sharp a blow
That they despaired of ever being pardoned.
Sweet colour of oriental sapphire,
Which gathered in the clear face of the sky,
Right to the very edge of the first circle,
Restored to my eyes the touch of pleasure,
As soon as I issued from the dead air
Which had saddened my eyes and my heart...
Dante is on the shores of the island of Purgatory, and he encounters an old man who questions how it is he has escaped Hell. Virgil explains, and then identifies the man as Cato the Younger (95 - 46 B.C.), a Stoic and Roman statesman. Cato allows them to pass and they prepare for their journey through the Seven Terraces of Suffering, each associated with the Seven Deadly Sins: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth.

The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things [Death of the Sinner, Judgment, Hell and Glory] by Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1500). 

They meet an angel who is guiding souls over the sea to the island, and they are singing In exitu Israel de Aegypto (During the departure of Israel from Egypt; from Psalm 114). Here Dante meets Casella, an Italian composer who died in 1299, and Casella explains how he has waited for some time before being picked by the Angel to cross over from Ostia to Purgatory. Next they meet Manfred, who tells them of how, though on his death he repented, he was excommunicated by Pope Clement IV and thus has to wait before he may climb the mountain.

Finally, Dante and Virgil begin to climb the mountain.

Ante-Purgatory (Cantos I - IX)

This part may divided into three: the first is the shore of the Island, which I've briefly written about above, the second deals with the Excommunicate, and the third the Late-Repentant.

As Dante and Virgil begin to climb the mountain they soon are in need of a rest. They find themselves surrounded by naked men and women lying against a great boulder. Here Dante meets Belacqua (most likely Duccio di Bonavia, another musician). Like Manfred he must wait for thirty years before he may enter into Purgatory and relies on the prayers of living people to speed up the process. Dante and Virgil continue and reach what is called the 'second spur', which are made up by people who died before receiving their last rites. Here they meet Buonconte da Montefeltro who died during the battle of Campaldino (between the Guelphs and Ghibellines, 1289). He did not receive his rites nor a proper burial.

Later they encounter Sordello (Sordello da Goito, another composer) who, once night has passed, guides them to the path to enter Purgatory. They pass by many monarchs (known as the Valley of Rulers) before finally crossing the gate into the First Terrace.

The First Terrace: Pride (Cantos X - XII)

Vanity by Frank Cadogan Cowper (1907).
From crossing the gate they follow a rocky and difficult path. Dante notices there is another path so beautiful it's almost overwhelming. There are sculptures of the Angel Gabriel and religious paintings so real Dante can hear the choirs singing from one of them. He then sees other images, including one of the Emperor Trajan (98 - 117 A.D.). As they continue they see lost souls bearing heavy weights as their penance, and in doing so they continue to praise God. One man, Omberto (the son of Guiglielmo Aldobrandesco) explains that he took an excessive pride in his family. He then describes the sinful pride of artists and army generals. Onward Virgil and Dante go and see more sculptures of the proud: Mars, Pallas, Niobe and others, and they next see an Angel who guides them into the next terrace.

The Second Terrace: Envy (Cantos XIII - XIV)

The poets enter the Second Terrace, inhabited by the envious. There we learn that the opposite of envy is love, and the souls cry out to the Virgin Mary and others. They wear cilices or hairshirts as part of their repentance, and their eyelids are sewn together rendering them blind. Dante talks to some of them, for example Guido del Duca and Rinieri da Calboli, and they also see Aglaulus, daughter of Cecrops, who was turned to stone (this story is told in Book II of Ovid's Metamorphoses) and she is there to remind the envious to continue to repent or else suffer her fate.

The Third Terrace: Wrath (Cantos XV - XVII)

As the poets leave the second terrace for the third they are almost blinded by bright light, meaning they are drawing closer to the heavens. They are guided towards to the third terrace and in this time Dante sees visions of the Virgin Mary and Jesus. They continue to walk and suddenly the light disappears, and they find themselves surrounded by black smoke. Here is where the wrathful must purge themselves of their anger, and Dante meets a man, Marco, who explains that sin and free will were intertwined, and without free will sinners could not be punished, and goes on to lament the union of the state and the church. On leaving, Dante recalls Procne, whose story is told in Book V of Ovid's Metamorphoses, Chaucer's The Legend of Good Women, and Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus and various wrathful sinners in history and literature.

The Fourth Terrace: Sloth (Cantos XVII - XVIII)

Having talked a while on the nature of love, Dante and Virgil enter the fourth terrace where the slothful are repenting their sins and being productive to right their wrongs. This is a short part of them poem, the idea being that the former-slothful ones are now too busy to talk to Dante.

The Fifth Terrace: Avarice (Cantos XIX - XXI)

The Siren by John William Waterhouse (1900).
The poets head for the fifth terrace, and Dante has more visions, this time of a siren, and she represents excessive love: avarice, gluttony, and lust. Suddenly Dante is repulsed by her and awakens. The two continue their journey and find the sinners of the fifth terrace face down crying. Dante meets Pope Adrian V, who tells the poet he was too focused on worldly things to worship God. He leaves the Pope and sees the other sinners (such as Hugh the Great, Duke of the Franks and Count of Paris) who are praising their opposites, for example Fabricius, a Roman consul who refused bribes, and Saint Nicholas. They then talk of King Midas and other avaricious figures of history and literature, and finally meet Statius, author of The Thebaid. Statius is to accompany them to the next terrace.

The Sixth Terrace: Gluttony (Cantos XXII - XXIV)

Here the gluttonous sinners are punished for forever having food out of reach. As this goes on they hear voices lecturing them on the virtue of temperance, using examples such as that of John the Baptist. There Dante is reunited with his old friend Donati Forese who re-enforces the necessity to pray for the dead.

The Seventh Terrace: Lust (Cantos XXV - XXVII)

This section begins with a (Medieval) scientific explanation of sex and how a soul is created. They go on to this final terrace where they see the sinners walking through a great wall of fire, which transfixes Dante. The sinners then talk of unnatural lusts, using as one example Sodom and Gomorrah. Towards the end they meet the Angel of Chastity, who tells Dante in order to pass through the seventh terrace he must pass through the fire. Only the promise of Beatrice waiting on the other side convinces him, and he suffers the flames.

The Earthly Paradise (Cantos XXIX - XXXIII)

Dante and Matilda (formerly called "Dante and Beatrice") by
John William Waterhouse (1914-17).
Having now passed through the seven terraces Dante enters the Early Paradise where he meets Matilda, a beautiful woman who explains to him that though man may avoid all the sins we have seen from the pit of hell to the seventh terrace, he is still born with original sin.

The Earthly Paradise is a Garden of Eden and is a place of innocence and great beauty. Dante feels anger towards Eve who essentially stole it with her arrogance from mankind. The poets see brilliant candles, and behind them the twenty-four elders along with four animals and a chariot drawn by a griffin. The chariot stops beside him and lo, it is Beatrice, Dante's great love. She berates him for his sins and takes him to the River Lethe where his memories of his past sins are erased, then later to the River Eunoe where his memories of his good deeds will be restored. Now cleansed, Dante may enter Paradise with Beatrice. Cantica II ends,
I came back from that most sacred of streams,
Made afresh, as new trees are renewed
With their new foliage, as so I was
Clear and ready to go up to the stars.
The descriptions of the Earthly Paradise are so breathtakingly beautiful I'm planning on starting the final cantica, Paradiso, this evening. I'll save any conclusions until I write my final post, but for now I'll say again - The Divine Comedy is my favourite poem.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

The Two Noble Kinsmen by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher.

About seven years ago now I read one of those "Top 100 must-read" lists and on it was Shakespeare's complete works which I duly read but my Shakespeare's Complete Works was based on the First Folio list with the added Pericles, however there was no Two Noble Kinsmen, which has not until relatively recently been agreed that Shakespeare did write at least half of it, the other half being generally agreed to have been written by John Fletcher. It has taken me this long to finally read it!

The play is based on a tale from Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales (1384-96) - 'The Knight's Tale', in which two knights, Palamon and Arcite (cousins), are captured and imprisoned by Theseus, the Duke of Athens, where they both fall in love with the Duke's sister-in-law Emily. It is a dramatic tale of friendship and love, and what happens when the two conflict.

The Two Noble Kinsmen begins with three queens who have arrived in Athens to beg Theseus to avenge their husbands' deaths at the hands of Creon, the wicked king of Thebes (Creon is depicted many times in ancient Greek literature, for example Sophocles' 'Theban Plays' and Euripides' The Suppliants and The Pheonician Women), and to ensure their proper burial that Creon is denying them. Theseus consents and wages war on Thebes, the home of Palamon and Arcite. They, being knights, are bound by their honour to fight for Creon against Theseus, however they lose the battle and are taken as Theseus' prisoners. They are then imprisoned in Athens where they see, from their prison window, Emilia. Palamon and Arcite's close friendship then turns into rivalry as they fall in love with her. When Arcite (but not Palamon) is released from prison he disguises himself to get closer to her, managing to become her bodyguard. Meanwhile Palamon's jailer's daughter falls in love with him and, to win his love, she sets him free. He, however, still loves Emilia and she is left trying to track him down across the countryside. It is Arcite who finds him, and it is agreed that once Palamon is well again the two will fight to win Emilia. Theseus however discovers them and wishes to execute them but his wife Hippolyta and Emilia intervene. When Emilia tells them she cannot decide between the two Theseus declares that the two must duel, and the winner will marry Emilia. Before the tournament begins the three pray: Arcite prays to Mars that he will win the battle, Palamon to Venus that he will win Emilia, and Emilia to Diana that she will marry the knight most worthy of her love. Each prayer is answered: Arcite wins the battle but dies of his wounds, leaving Palamon free to marry Emilia.

The Knight's Tale is my favourite tale from The Canterbury Tales so it was wonderful to revisit it. Though a little different I do think Shakespeare and Fletcher did Chaucer justice. The Two Noble Kinsmen was most likely Shakespeare's final play (first performed around 1613-14) and I would say it was one of his best comedies.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Night Walks by Charles Dickens.

"Some years ago, a temporary inability to sleep, referable to a distressing impression, caused me to walk about the streets all night, for a series of several nights. The disorder might have taken a long time to conquer, if it had been faintly experimented on in bed; but, it was soon defeated by the brisk treatment of getting up directly after lying down, and going out, and coming home tired at sunrise."
So begins Night Walks by Charles Dickens, the thirteenth chapter of The Uncommercial Traveller, which is a collection of essays and sketches written in the late 1850s, around the time he was writing Great Expectations. Quite what this "distressing impression" was that caused Dickens' insomnia I'm unsure, but it's been said this was perhaps related to the breakdown of his marriage and his relationship with his mistress Ellen Ternan. Whatever the case, Night Walks is a fascinating essay on London nightlife. 

Walking around London in the middle of the night would have been both very interesting and very dangerous for, as Dickens shows, though there were less people on the streets they were by no means unoccupied. He begins with the homeless, or "houselessness" as it is referred to. 
The month was March, and the weather damp, cloudy, and cold. The sun not rising before half-past five, the night perspective looked sufficiently long at half-past twelve: which was about my time for confronting it.
At this time the public houses were turning out their lamps and tossing "the last brawling drunkards into the street", a form of entertainment for the 'houseless'. The odd brawl may take place and the police may be called, providing a brief extension of entertainment, but as Dickens' notes "the peace was seldom violently broken". A coach may rattle along, a drunk man perhaps would be joined by another drunk man "to fraternise or fight", and Dickens and the other night walkers devised a classification system:
... the thin-armed, puff-faced, leaden-lipped gin-drinker, and encountered a rarer specimen of a more decent appearance, fifty to one but that specimen was dressed in soiled mourning.
Eventually though, after fits of "tumbles and tosses before it can get to sleep", London did sleep and there was little else to do but walk.
Walking the streets under the pattering rain, Houselessness would walk and walk and walk, seeing nothing but the interminable tangle of streets, save at a corner, here and there, two policemen in conversation, or the sergeant or inspector looking after his men. Now and then in the night--but rarely--Houselessness would become aware of a furtive head peering out of a doorway a few yards before him, and, coming up with the head, would find a man standing bolt upright to keep within the doorway`s shadow, and evidently intent upon no particular service to society.
Dickens describes the atmosphere -
... in a ghostly silence suitable to the time, Houselessness and this gentleman would eye one another from head to foot, and so, without exchange of speech, part, mutually suspicious. Drip, drip, drip, from ledge and coping, splash from pipes and water-spouts, and by-and-by the houseless shadow would fall upon the stones that pave the way to Waterloo-bridge...
'The Silent Highway Man' from Punch magazine (July 1858).
His thoughts turn very dark, there's talk of a murdered man, and he writes of the bridge and the Thames:
But the river had an awful look, the buildings on the banks were muffled in black shrouds, and the reflected lights seemed to originate deep in the water, as if the spectres of suicides were holding them to show where they went down. The wild moon and clouds were as restless as an evil conscience in a tumbled bed, and the very shadow of the immensity of London seemed to lie oppressively upon the river.
Time moves forward, and Dickens writes of the empty theatres standing alone at 4 o' clock.
With a dim lantern in my hand, I groped my well-known way to the stage and looked over the orchestra--which was like a great grave dug for a time of pestilence--into the void beyond. A dismal cavern of an immense aspect, with the chandelier gone dead like everything else, and nothing visible through mist and fog and space, but tiers of winding-sheets. The ground at my feet where, when last there, I had seen the peasantry of Naples dancing among the vines, reckless of the burning mountain which threatened to overwhelm them, was now in possession of a strong serpent of engine-hose, watchfully lying in wait for the serpent Fire, and ready to fly at it if it showed its forked tongue. A ghost of a watchman, carrying a faint corpse candle, haunted the distant upper gallery and flitted away.
And from the theatres, past Newgate Prison (featured in a number of Dickens' novels, and indeed Chaucer's The Cook's Tale from The Canterbury Tales and Defoe's Moll Flanders), the bank of the Thames, and on to Billingsgate market, then King's Bench Prison where he considers the case of Dry Rot in men. From there to Bethlehem Hospital, Westminster, Covent Garden Market, and then finally the railway, where the essay ends:
Now, too, the conscious gas began to grow pale with the knowledge that daylight was coming, and straggling workpeople were already in the streets, and, as waking life had become extinguished with the last pieman`s sparks, so it began to be rekindled with the fires of the first street-corner breakfast-sellers. And so by faster and faster degrees, until the last degrees were very fast, the day came, and I was tired and could sleep.
And it is not, as I used to think, going home at such times, the least wonderful thing in London, that in the real desert region of the night, the houseless wanderer is alone there. I knew well enough where to find Vice and Misfortune of all kinds, if I had chosen; but they were put out of sight, and my houselessness had many miles upon miles of streets in which it could, and did, have its own solitary way.
It is a remarkable essay, haunting in fact, and an insightful and valuable depiction of London late at night. Times certainly have changed in the cities; they say New York is the city that never sleeps but I imagine it's true of London and a great many other major cities across the world. I do love Dickens, and this essay is one of the many reasons why.

Night Walks was my 11th essay for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week: My Country Right or Left by George Orwell.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

The Paradise of Cats by Émile Zola.

Le Rendez-vous des Chats by Edouard Manet (1868).
Émile Zola was such an animal lover it's really of no surprise that there is an animal fable amongst his works. The Paradie of Cats (Le Paradis des Chats), which was first published in Contes à Ninon (1864), is the story of an Angora cat, told in it's own words, and it's not the only example of a cat having an important part in one of his stories: in Thérèse Raquin (1867), which by coincidence I read last week and will be reviewing later this week, there is a cat, François, who plays an integral role in the novel. The Paradise of Cats begins,
My aunt bequeathed me an Angora cat, which is certainly the most stupid animal I know of. This is what my cat related to me, one winter night, before the warm embers.
What follows is a very short story, just five pages long and divided into six chapters, on how this cat yearned to be outside on the rooftops, and what happened when he escaped. The cat describes himself as two years old, fat, simple, and spoiled. He spends his time looking out the window and one day sees four cats on the rooftops fighting, lying around, and generally enjoying the sun. Soon after, he discovers a window to be open and nips out:
How beautiful the roofs were! They were bordered by broad gutters exhaling delicious odours. I followed those gutters in raptures of delight, my feet sinking into the fine mud, which was deliciously warm and soft. I fancied I was walking on velvet...
The other cats approach him and his delight is mixed with anguish, for which they tease him, but he is more or less accepted into the gang and even meets a beautiful "she-cat". However our poor fat cat struggles after an hour with no access to food. When he sees some meat on someone's kitchen table he attempts to steal it but gets a thoroughly hard whack for his efforts, and is told by one of the other cats that he must not do that again and should wait until nightfall before he can eat. When night comes, bringing with it the cold and rain, he finds he misses his blanket. In an effort to find food another cat is almost killed by a man, and our cat laments how his situation means he cannot eat but may be "roasted" by a human. It is too much, and he wants to go back home, and his friend the tom cat anticipated as such and remembered where he lived, and so accompanies him. Our cat, once home, invites him to live with him in comfort, but the tom is having none of it;
"Hold your tongue," he said sharply, "you are a simpleton. Your effeminate existence would kill me. Your life of plenty is good for bastard cats. Free cats would never purchase your cat's meat and feather pillow at the price of a prison. Good bye."
And off he goes, and our cat receives his punishment at the hands of the aunt. The story ends,
You see - concluded my cat, stretching itself out in front of the embers - real happiness, paradise, my dear master consists in being shut up and beaten in a room where there is meat.  
I am speaking from the point of view of cats.
This is a great little tale! The most obvious thing to say on it is that it is one of those "the grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence" tales, not unlike Aesop's The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse from Aesop's Fables (7th Century B.C.). And staying with Aesop a moment, there's also The Domesticated Dog and the Wolf in which the dog leads a comfortable and easy life but is still imprisoned. As the wolf observes,
"Farewell, my friend," said the wolf, "You're welcome to your dainties, but for me, a dry crust with liberty will always be worth more than all the luxury a king with a chain could ever provide"
A direct echo of the tom cat in Zola's tale. There is another interesting and less obvious analogy: The Paradise of Cats has some slight and subtle similarities with Zola's later novel The Belly of Paris (1873). Our angora cat is fat, and in The Belly of Paris this was equated with leading a bourgeois existence. That novel contrasted the moral and social lives of the fat and the thin (hence one of its alternative titles The Fat and the Thin), the thin being those who the fat ought to be suspicious of and vice versa. In The Paradise of Cats the fat is the unnatural one, imprisoned by his comforts as the fat of The Belly of Paris, who are mentally imprisoned too by the Second Empire. The thin ones are the free ones, as in The Paradise of Cats, but still they do suffer for their freedom at the hands of the bourgeois, who beat them if they dare steal the food they need to survive. 

Angora Cat (c. 1874).

Friday, 10 March 2017

The Comedies of William Congreve.

William Congreve (1670 - 1729) is a Restoration poet and playwright and known for writing some of the earlier 'comedy of manners' plays. Yet in his whole life he in fact only wrote five plays: the tragedy The Mourning Bride (1697), and four comedies: The Old Bachelor (1693), The Double Dealer (1694), Love for Love (1695), and The Way of the World (1700). Over the past fortnight I read these comedies, but I'm afraid I didn't get on too well with any of them, so I'm taking a bit of a risk even attempting this post, but it would be helpful (if only to me) to try and bring together as it were what I've read.

The Old Bachelor

The Old Bachelor, or The Old Batchelor as it was then known, largely centres around Sylvia. The old bachelor of the play is Heartwell, described as "a surly old Batchelor" who is in love with Sylvia, little realising she is the forsaken mistress of Vainlove (with whom Araminta is in love). He remains unaware until after their marriage when his friends tease and make sly comments about her. However, the parson who married them, Bellmour (himself in love with Belinda who returns his love) is not a parson and so their marriage is not in fact a marriage. The old bachelor remains an old bachelor, and a young and foolish knight, Sir Joseph Wittol, is able to pursue and marry Sylvia. The only problem with that is that he thinks she is Araminta. This was Congreve's first play: it's an amusing one, full of confusion, witty remarks, and rather lusty characters!

Mr. Thomas Betterton, who originally played
the part of Heartwell in The Old Bachelor,
Maskwell in The Double Dealer, Valentine in
Love for Love, and Fainall in The Way of the
. Painting by Godfrey Kneller (1723).
The Double Dealer

In this we meet Mellefont, the heir and nephew of Lord Touchwood, on the point of marrying his cousin Cynthia with whom he is in love. However her mother Lady Touchwood is also in love with Mellefont, however he rejects her advances. In revenge she asks her lover the villainous Maskwell to ruin the marriage. He, who is also in love with Cynthia, does so, leading Cynthia's father (not Lord Touchwood but Sir Paul Plyant) to suspect an affair between  Lady Plyant and Mellefont and leading Lord Touchwood to suspect an affair between Lady Touchwood and Mellefont. In disgrace poor Mellefont is sent away and Cynthia is to marry Maskwell, owing to Lady Touchwood's jealous of Maskwell marrying Cynthia, all is finally revealed and ends happily.

Love for Love

In Congreve's third comedy Valentine is the disgraced son of Sir Sampson Legend on account of his extravagant spending habits. As the debtors pursue him his father offers him enough money to pay off his debts if he agrees to forgo his right to inherit his father's estate and let it pass to his younger brother. Valentine agrees, and continues to attempt to woo Angelica, the rich niece of Mr. Foresight, a man who claims to be a fortune teller. His daughter Prue is to be married to Ben, the soon to be heir of the Legend estate, however he is still away at sea. Valentine regrets his decision to move aside for Ben, and so tries a variety of ways to convince his father to change his mind, including being mad and thus unable to sign the necessary papers. It is Angelica who saves the day, first by getting Sir Sampson to propose to her, thus gaining access to the bond Valentine has signed, and then professing her love for Valentine and tearing up said bond.

The Way of the World

The Way of the World is Congreve's final comedy and perhaps his best known. Before the play begins we learn that Mirabell, a young man with little fortune, has had an affair with Mrs. Fainall (a widow), the daughter of Lady Wishfort. To avoid embarrassment (she gets pregnant) he arranges a marriage for her to Mr. Fainall, who is having an affair himself with Mrs. Marwood. Mirabell then falls for the niece of Lady Wishfort, Millamant, though for very obvious reasons she opposes the match and wishes Millamant to marry Sir Wilfull, her nephew. As Lady Wishfort controls half of Millamant's fortune, she does have a say in who Millamant may marry. To win the woman he loves he must resort to trickery, so he asks his valet Waitwell to woo Lady Wishfort (though Waitwell intends to marry Foible, Lady Wishfort's maid) and then Mirabell would rescue Lady Wishfort from an unsuitable marriage, thus putting her in his debt. However Mrs. Marwood hears of the scheme and of her husband's affair, and with Mr. Fainall plans to undo all of Mirabell's plans. Mirabell however makes it all work in his favour.

These four plays are fun, tricky at times to follow (not unlike Shakespeare's comedy in that respect), but nonetheless enjoyable to read on the whole. They are the first Restoration comedies I've read and I appreciated their wit, spirit, and the business-like approach to love, but still couldn't bring myself to love them. I do believe Oscar Wilde is the master of comedies of manners plays, but it was good to read the early versions! I'm glad to have read them, but doubt very much I'll revisit them. All that said, I do very much want to read Congreve's tragedy The Mourning Bride.

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