Men do kill women. Vita Sackville-West, All Passion Spent

Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962), All Passion Spent. Virago Modern Classics 2010; first published 1931

Henry Lyulph Holland, first Earl of Slane, had existed for so long that the public had begun to regard him as immortal. The public, as a whole, finds reassurance in longevity, and, after the necessary interlude of reaction, is disposed to recognise extreme old age as a sign of excellence.

VSW All P Spent coverSo begins, eloquently and wittily, Vita (short for Victoria) Sackville-West’s ninth novel. Lord Slane had led a life of eminence as politician (rising to Prime Minister, then in later years he sat – when it suited him – in the House of Lords) and diplomat (ultimately as Viceroy of India). When he dies aged 94 his six children and ‘their two wives and a husband bringing the number up to nine’, a ‘sufficiently formidable family gathering’ – all in their sixties – gather like ‘old black ravens’ – or vultures – to determine the fate of his widow, their mother, Lady Slane, who is 88.

There’s a sort of inverted or subverted King Lear plot; led by the domineering Herbert, the eldest, they assume that she will spend a portion of the year in each of their houses in turn; they will ‘divide mother between them’. Each of them has their own venal, selfish motives for such an arrangement. She must, they assume, ‘be allowed to break down, and then, after that was over, be stowed away,’ or ‘cleared up’, like her late husband’s desk. They privately believe their mother ‘was rather a simpleton’ with ‘no grasp on the world as it was’, therefore malleable:

Mother had no will of her own; all her life long, gracious and gentle, she had been wholly submissive – an appendage. It was assumed that she had not brain enough to be self-assertive…That she might have ideas which she kept to herself never entered into their estimate…She would be grateful to them for arranging her few remaining years.

This patronising assessment (shared by most who know or knew her) is proved inaccurate; for Lady Slane, who ‘had spent a great deal of her life listening, without making much comment’, and who ‘all her life had been accustomed to have her comings and goings and stayings arranged for her’, obediently doing what was expected of her as the trophy wife of a public male figure, amazes the vulture offspring by announcing that she has no intention of complying with their decision: she is to rent a house for herself and her equally elderly French maid Genoux in Hampstead where she will live alone. Visitors will be banned, except for her children; anyone younger she deems too trying.

They assume she ‘must be mad.’ This stereotypically passive, submissive woman, always ‘reserved in speech, withholding her opinion’, never revealing what she was thinking, had clearly fooled them all along. This was a mask she wore involuntarily. Now she is free.

Only Edith, the unmarried youngest child, ‘always flustered’ and inclined to say the wrong thing, and who the rest of the family dismiss as scatterbrained and ‘a half-wit’ (pretty much like her mother, then), has any emotional intelligence, is ‘surprisingly shrewd’, and perceives her mother’s true nature, just as she sees through the hypocrisy, greed and bullying of her siblings – except for her equally unprepossessing brother Kay, a bachelor whose collection of compasses and astrolabes was all that interested him and kept him happy.

What follows is a revealing portrait of a woman asserting her right to be herself – Vita habitually denied she was a feminist, but a believer in human rights. As a member of the bohemian, ostensibly free-thinking Bloomsbury set, and Virginia Woolf’s lover (along with Violet Trefusis and others), Vita was intent on showing how society oppressed and constrained women and their individuality, and how the institution of marriage precluded most women from expressing their true selves. Lady Slane had longed to be an artist, but marriage to Henry meant that she never once painted. She had a role to play as his decorative ‘appendage’, his obedient wife – this is the only life for which women like her were ‘formed, dressed, bedizened, educated…safeguarded, kept in the dark, hinted at, segregated, repressed, all that at a given moment they may be delivered, or may deliver their daughters over, to Minister to a Man’.

Victoria Glendinning, in an astute and intelligent Introduction, considers the weaknesses in this portrayal. Why make Lady Slane so intellectually dim, so feminine? Her argument is compelling.

The newly liberated old woman’s life in Hampstead is amusingly told, with some engagingly eccentric characters – including a long-forgotten old flame who turns up unexpectedly, reminding her of what she once glimpsed but foreswore in her radiant, unquestioning youth – and some lively, sparkling prose. It’s hard to believe that home-educated Vita saw herself, like Lady Slane, as a rather stupid and limited writer beside the glittering Virginia Woolf.

Take this, for example: Lady Slane’s landlord, the delightfully strange Mr Bucktrout, has taken a liking to her – he’s refused to rent out his house for decades, but recognises in her a kindred spirit; he’s even taken to giving her little presents, and is one of the few people she’ll allow to visit. She thinks of his small, thoughtful gestures of attentiveness, comparing them favourably with the empty manners of polite society:

Courtesy ceased to be blankly artificial, when prompted by real esteem; it became, simply, one of the decent, veiling graces; a formula by which a profounder feeling might be conveyed.

She remembers a flock of yellow and white butterflies that once accompanied her and her husband as they crossed the Persian desert together, in a passage too long to quote here, but which is a beautiful, fragile image of the life she glimpsed but was unable to enter into. As the man says who once locked eyes and souls with her in India, and then left her life:

Face it, Lady Slane. Your children, your husband, your splendour, were nothing but obstacles that kept you from yourself. They were what you chose to substitute for your real vocation. You were too young, I suppose, to know any better, but when you chose that life you sinned against the light.

Men do kill women, he concludes. Henry had ‘cheated her of her chosen life’, she reflects on another occasion, but had offered her another, an ‘ample life’, but one ‘pressed up close against her own nursery’. He’d substituted his life and interests, or their children’s, for her own. ‘It had never occurred to him that she might prefer simply to be herself.’

Vita can write (ok, maybe not sustained over every page), and needn’t have felt inadequate when compared with the better fiction of her famous lover; I’d have liked to quote more examples to support my case, and realise I’ve focused here on the novel’s themes and moral, rather than on the style. I’d be interested to know if I’m alone in admiring it – despite its unevenness. She is indeed a lesser talent, less serious, ambitious and experimental, less important in the annals of literature, perhaps, than the author of Orlando, whose protagonist is based on Vita; but there’s some fine writing in this heartfelt novel, even though it flags about halfway through.

What fell purpose: JR Ackerley, My Dog Tulip

JR Ackerley, My Dog Tulip. New York Review Books Classics, 2010. First published 1956

Last December I posted on JR Ackerley’s autobiographical semi-novel We Think the World of You, and was put off by the snobbish arrogance and petulance of the central character. The dog was ok.

My dog tulip coverMy Dog Tulip continues the story, with a change of the dog’s real name, Queenie. It tells how the narrator learns to cope with this boisterous, loving animal in a small London flat. The first book showed in graphic detail the unpleasantly confined conditions in which the German shepherd bitch had been kept for the first year or so of her life; she was rarely taken for walks, and regularly mistreated or beaten. Not surprising then that she was a handful to bring up when the narrator rescued her, with no previous experience of owning or training a dog (not that he makes much effort to train Tulip).

I’m afraid I found the same problem with this novel. The owner is cantankerous and aggressive towards anyone who has the temerity to question his methods. One of the early chapters deals in more detail than we need with the dog’s excretory habits. When Tulip defecates outside a grocery store, the narrator becomes belligerent when the grocer remonstrates with him. A passing cyclist yells at him to stop Tulip crapping on the pavement; again JR retorts with abuse.

He seems genuinely not to understand (or care) when people are dismayed with his besotted insouciance as far as Tulip’s animal behaviour is concerned. I was a dog owner myself; my dog Bronte was also ‘beautiful’, as JR frequently tells us Tulip was, and not always well behaved – but I hope I had the grace to acknowledge when she overstepped the mark of canine propriety. Ackerley insists that Tulip ‘knows where to draw the line’, but I feel that it’s his line, and it’s a pretty flexible one as far as Tulip’s misbehaviour goes.

He also tells us in doting detail how he tries to ‘marry’ Tulip to a male dog. Mostly he avoids such cringe-making anthropomorphism, but that’s more than twee. He’s trying to encourage her to mate and have puppies. Leave it at that. Spare us the gynaecological detail. Only a dog’s owner is interested.

When Tulip does whelp, our narrator’s first thought is to drown the female puppies, on the grounds that he ‘had gleaned that bitches were more difficult to get rid of than dogs’. He also intends to ‘liquidate’ (his word) these bitch puppies without Tulip’s knowledge. His excuse is that he’d read that animals ‘cannot count’. He waits for a call of nature to distract her, but she seems to detect his ‘fell purpose’ in his eyes – his ‘guilty conscience’ – and ‘let fly from both orifices simultaneously’ over his Chinese carpet. Good for her. He had it coming. And he decides to give the puppies away. This he does, but soon gets impatient and pays little heed to the likelihood of their new owners being fit for purpose.

He’s also not averse to corporal punishment, often hitting Tulip, and her new puppies:

 

They were charming whimsical little creatures, they were also positively maddening, and exasperated me to such an extent that I sometimes gave them a cuff for disobedience and made them squeak, which was both an unkind and useless thing to do, for they could not know what obedience was.

More to the point, they wouldn’t know why they were being struck.

Ok, so it’s 1948, and people didn’t clean up after their dogs as we do today, and expectations of their behaviour were different. Mrs TD tells me than when she was a little girl her mother’s dog Sweep was allowed to roam the area freely all day; he only came back in the evening when he was hungry.

There are some touching moments that show the mutual devotion of Tulip and her flatmate (‘owner’ doesn’t seem appropriate), and I’m glad he was able to enjoy her loving company for over 16 years (two more than my Bronte). But I fail to understand how this book has been praised so highly by the likes of EM Forster – a friendly correspondent of Ackerley’s.

The Introduction is by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, a dog behaviour expert – but surely not one on literature, for she gushes that the story is ‘so delicate, so sensitive, so clearly understood, and so purely and delightfully composed as to rival an Elizabethan sonnet.’ Really. Take another look at the brief extracts I’ve quoted above. Ackerley is no Philip Sidney.

For a less negative view of the book I’d recommend John Self’s post at Asylum. I usually find his taste impeccable, but we disagree on Tulip.

An animated film of the book by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger was released in 2009.

 

 

 

 

A woman of no interest: Barbara Pym, Quartet in Autumn

Rohan Maitzen, an academic at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, who specialises in Victorian literature, wrote in her entertaining personal blog yesterday a piece about what she’s doing when ‘posting’ about rather than ‘reviewing’ books in her blog:

Here, in contrast, I can write whatever I want, no matter how inadequate my understanding might be. My blog posts are narratives of my own reading experience, and so I’m answerable only for being honest and thoughtful about that.

I feel much the same. Most of my posts about books are musings or personal responses rather than reviews.

Of late, when I’ve been obliged to spend quite a bit of time in bed trying to recover from a recurring heavy cold/cough, I’ve got through quite a few books, so today’s post will be a quick response to Barbara Pym’s 1977 novel Quartet in Autumn (links to my previous posts on BP at the end of this piece). A thoughtful introduction at the sadly now defunct Open Letters Monthly (one of Ms Maitzen’s former haunts) by Michael Adams in 2011 is a good place to start if you’re new to Pym’s quietly stated but profoundly moving fiction; he cites admirers such as those who rediscovered her in the 70s when she’d become neglected and unpublished, Larkin and Lord David Cecil, then slightly later advocates like John Updike and Shirley Hazard.

Pym Quartet cover

Cover of my Picador Classic edition (2015)

For several thoughtful, academic essays on this novel (and many other matters Pymian) I’d recommend the Barbara Pym Society website, which introduces Quartet as follows:

Quartet in Autumn, shortlisted for the Booker Prize when it was published in 1977, is one of Barbara Pym’s most unsentimental books, about four English office workers who face aging in different ways. Edwin, Letty, Marcia and Norman have little in common except that they have worked in the same office for many years.  They are each eccentric and difficult in their own way, and resist connections with each other. Letty is a spinster who doesn’t know why life seems to have passed her by. Marcia is an anti-social eccentric, whose quirks and paranoia are becoming more pronounced since her mastectomy. Edwin is a widower obsessed with church-going. And Norman is a ‘strange little man’ with a sarcastic sense of humor and more than a touch of misanthropy.
   In typical Pym fashion, these four characters dance around each other, unable to commit to truly knowing one another. They know each other’s habits and eccentricities, but they don’t really know each other. And when one of them goes into a decline, the other three notice, and try to move into action, but ultimately can do little to help.  This may not be an uplifting book, but it is certainly sharply funny, observant, sad and true. I always enjoy Pym’s clear-eyed observations about her fellow humans – while she shows her characters with warts and all, she does not judge them. They are real people, worthy of her respect. [Link here]

The link to the Society’s conference monograph papers includes several fascinating pieces on Quartet – and on her other novels and related topics. Well worth exploring. I’d recommend this essay by Tim Burnett on the social background to the novel: it very much reflects the dying world of shabby genteel gentlewomen about which Pym had previously written, but which by 1977 was changing rapidly – there are timely references to the welfare state, particularly the NHS (Marcia’s mastectomy – an operation that Pym herself underwent, would have been free at the point of service, the basic principle of Britain’s health service – but then, as even more so now, under severe financial strain), immigration (some slightly uncomplimentary references to a Nigerian landlord, racist anti-Asian graffiti, etc.) and other signs that the post-war world in which she’d grown up was transforming out of recognition. Even the ‘churchy’ elements that dominated her previous novels is much reduced; only Edwin, with his mania for attending obscure saints’ day ceremonies at a range of his favourite churches, and tendency to look up new priests’ details in Crockford’s directory in the public library (another aspect of the welfare state that’s so prominent in the novel), maintains that tradition.

Burnett also considers the theme of nutrition in this novel: Marcia hoards tinned food (among other things – milk bottles, plastic bags), and we are often told what the office quartet are having for lunch or supper – usually as an index of their social status and mental state (Marcia slips quietly into a kind of anorexia, subsisting largely on tea and the occasional biscuit).

The other Pym Society essay I found informative is this one by Raina Lipsitz on the characters’ varying degrees of ‘failure to connect’. Poor Letty, for example, perhaps the most sympathetically portrayed, and who we see most of, is shown resisting the overtures of a fellow diner at the cheap restaurant she lunches at – yet there’s a part of her that yearns for the human contact she instinctively, paradoxically, shies away from.

The writing shows Pym’s superb ability to convey depth and nuance in apparently effortless, transparent prose. Here she is early on, describing the quartet’s (separate, not collective) visits to the local library:

Of the four only Letty used the library for her own pleasure and possible edification. She had always been an unashamed reader of novels, but if she hoped to find one which reflected her own sort of life she had come to realize that the position of an unmarried, unattached, ageing woman is of no interest whatever to the writer of modern fiction.

This is a deeply felt, poignant novel about that process of nearing and reaching retirement age in a world where you’re not noticed; when Marcia and Letty are given a low-key retirement send-off at their office, it’s done at lunchtime to keep the costs down, and no one in charge is clear exactly what any of these four colleagues actually do. They won’t be replaced – for they have no value to the organisation (which significantly is never identified, neither is the work they do: filing and clerical, it’s hinted, but they don’t often seem to do much work) – or, by implication, to society.

Pym’s is the voice of the vulnerable, marginalised, atrophied remnants of a bygone, dying era. As with Willie Loman, attention should be paid to them, no matter how unattractive or superficially flawed or redundant they seem.

Previous posts on Barbara Pym novels:

Excellent Women

No Fond Return of Love

Crampton Hodnett

Jane and Prudence

A Glass of Blessings

Some perfection that you missed: May Sinclair, The Life and Death of Harriett Frean

May Sinclair, The Life and Death of Harriett Frean VMC 2009; first published 1922

Sinclair Frean cover

May Sinclair was born in 1863, and as the introduction to this VMC edition points out (the title page attributes it to Jean Radford, but DJ Taylor’s name appears afterwards on p. xi), she published her first novel in the reign of Victoria, and her final collection of stories ‘a few years short of George V’s Silver Jubilee’. That would be The Intercessor, and other stories (1931; the Jubilee was 1935). The point is that she has an impressive range of subjects and themes across her writing career, reflecting her experience of the socio-cultural and historical shifts in that span of time, from the height of British imperialism (she was an active suffragist on the home front) through WWI and its aftermath.

May Sinclair is perhaps best known as an early Modernist writer, the one who is said to have coined the term ‘stream of consciousness’ to describe the narrative technique of Dorothy Richardson when reviewing the first volumes of her Pilgrimage sequence of novels in 1918. I see traces of that style in this novel, though for the most part it’s a fairly conventional narrative voice – just the odd moment signals her slightly more modernist tendencies. I’ll try to quote below to illustrate this.

In this impressive short novel, not much more than 100 pp of text, she manages to compress the significant aspects of the long life of the titular protagonist. Hatty Frean is born into a bourgeois household, but her father (like Sinclair’s own) lost everything as a result of his reckless monetary speculations; we’re alerted to this erratic element in his character early on, in a passage that also shows why Hatty develops such a passionate attachment to her much-loved, more dependable (in her eyes) mother:

Her mother had some secret: some happy sense of God that she gave to you and you took from her as you took food and clothing, but not quite knowing what it was, feeling that there was something more in it, some hidden gladness, some perfection that you missed.

Her father had his secret too. She felt that it was harder, somehow, darker and dangerous. He read dangerous books: Darwin, and Huxley, and Herbert Spencer. Sometimes he talked about them.

The voice here (like James Joyce’s in the early pages of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) takes on some of the naïve tones of the young Hatty, as she considers her parents with the partially formed, excessively admiring appraisal that cause her to over-invest in the Victorian moral certainties of both parents, while failing to discern the defects and underlying hypocrisy. It’s a subtle technique, for her narrating perception here is unreliable; yes, the father does ruin the family with his reckless gambling on the markets, but a few paragraphs later Hatty concludes that ‘His thinking was just a dangerous game he played.’ Events prove her sadly wrong. Although her blind faith in her father is shaken, she never stops thinking of him as a paragon, or to remind her friends that she is Hilton Frean’s daughter, as if this in some way endorses her arrogant air of superiority. She never stops to consider that other people’s lack of respect for such assertions has anything to do with the faults in her family – or in her own perception.

The tragedy of this sad figure, then, is that she accepts unquestioningly the values of selflessness and self-effacement that she was taught to esteem. As the years pass she becomes ever less able to understand why she’s so unfulfilled or fails to inspire the respect and devotion in others that she feels for her parents, and for their ‘idea of moral beauty’. By denying herself, as they have taught her, the happiness that comes her way, she condemns herself to a life of loneliness and increasing despair.

It’s not a depressing read, however. Sinclair’s mastery of that style I mentioned ensures that Hatty is shown feeling dim traces of the terrible fate those parents have consigned her to, but is too far gone to amend her behaviour, as this random example shows: ‘I was brought up not to think of myself before other people’, she proudly tells a person who’s just suggested her course of self-sacrifice has ‘made three people miserable just for that’, and that she insulted the woman she thought she was elevating above herself:

Harriet sat a long time, her hands folded on her lap, her eyes staring into the room, trying to see the truth…Was it true that this idea had been all wrong?…’I I don’t care. If it was to be done again to-morrow I’d do it.’

But the beauty of that unique act no longer appeared to her as it once was, uplifting, consoling, incorruptible.

For that’s the point, isn’t it? Her belief that she’s ‘not thinking of herself before other people’ is in reality an act of pride and arrogance, a sin against the laws of nature.

There’s a May Sinclair Society whose site is worth a look.

I owe this literary find to Dr Oliver Tearle, who warmly recommended Harriett Frean at his always entertaining site Interesting Literature back in January.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crows, maggots and oysters: Dickens, Bleak House

I’ve been teaching Dickens this term. I don’t find much to say about Hard Times, with its skewering of Utilitarian selfishness and ‘fact’ displacing ‘fancy’. These strong points are weakened for me by the unpleasant hatchet job on trade unionism. Dickens rightly fulminates against the oppression of the ‘Hands’ by their greedy, bullying, heartless ‘masters’, and the injustices in the social system of the time (it was finished in 1854). His depiction of a union organiser as a windbag rabble-rouser, on the other hand, leads to the distressing conclusion that the workers will be ok provided they have imaginative outlets: principally circuses.

There’s too much sentimentality, too, a trait Dickens found hard to tone down.

Bleak House is another matter. Here we find much more nuanced social criticism, and the huge canvas and cast of characters is deployed with panache. Let me close this short post with a fairly random quotation that illustrates what he’s capable of when he resists the temptation to sentimentalise. This is from Book 1, ch. 10: ‘The Law Writer’, which introduces yet another apparently minor character and his circle, but a person who, like all the other secondary figures, plays an important part in the plotting and thematic coherence of the novel:

The day is closing in and the gas is lighted, but is not yet fully effective, for it is not quite dark. Mr. Snagsby standing at his shop-door looking up at the clouds sees a crow who is out late skim westward over the slice of sky belonging to Cook’s Court. The crow flies straight across Chancery Lane and Lincoln’s Inn Garden into Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

 

Here, in a large house, formerly a house of state, lives Mr. Tulkinghorn. It is let off in sets of chambers now, and in those shrunken fragments of its greatness, lawyers lie like maggots in nuts. But its roomy staircases, passages, and antechambers still remain; and even its painted ceilings, where Allegory, in Roman helmet and celestial linen, sprawls among balustrades and pillars, flowers, clouds, and big-legged boys, and makes the head ache–as would seem to be Allegory’s object always, more or less. Here, among his many boxes labelled with transcendent names, lives Mr. Tulkinghorn, when not speechlessly at home in country-houses where the great ones of the earth are bored to death. Here he is to-day, quiet at his table. An oyster of the old school whom nobody can open.

That motif of the crow recurs throughout the narrative, serving as a device to connect the contrasting locations, from the lowly law stationer in his shady, dank court, to the grand ‘house of state’ of the pompous, corrupt lawyer Tulkinghorn. In Bleak House Dickens brilliantly links the high and the low (even street crossing sweeper Jo, effectively a beggar, who ‘knows nothink’, plays a key role in the puzzle. Everyone knows something, but what they don’t know is usually more important. There are secrets everywhere. Even the painted Allegory on the ceiling signifies more than its surface reveals.

That simile of the lawyers lying ‘like maggots in nuts’ is crude but it works. To move on to ‘an oyster of the old school’ mixes the image improbably, but Dickens is in such fine form here he gets away with it: Tulkinghorn, like Allegory, can be two things simultaneously – maggoty in his insidious law-scheming, and oystery in his clammed-up secret-guarding.

This is a far stronger, richer novel than Hard Times: the moral outrage isn’t negated by dodgy political prejudices and myopia.

He’s still not very convincing in his women characters, though.

Bleak House title page

Title page of the first edition (1853) illustrated by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne) via Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Jackson Mitford: holiday reading

Mick Jackson, The Underground Man. Picador paperback, 1998; first published 1997.

Nancy Mitford, Don’t Tell Alfred. Penguin paperback 2015 reissue, first published in 1960.

Jackson Mitford coversOne of my first blog posts was about Mick Jackson’s charming ursine caper Bears of England. I didn’t find The Underground Man as satisfying, but it is a more ambitious, complex and serious novel.

Perhaps that’s why. Despite his capacity for quirky humour, Jackson indulges his penchant for digressions and eccentric excursions and disquisitions too much, making this is an occasionally lacklustre read. Its protagonist is a wealthy landowning aristocrat in Nottinghamshire in the high Victorian period. ‘His Grace’, as his large, not entirely sympathetic staff address him, is based on the eccentric Duke of Portland.

An old man when the narrative begins, he’s bald, losing his faculties (including his sanity) and valetudinarian, like Emma’s father in the Austen novel. He has a tendency to become fixated on trivia, such as the objects he finds in the attic, and on maps, clothes – and tunnels. His huge country house already had some medieval tunnels constructed by the monks who once owned it. These were to enable them to escape when Catholics in England were persecuted.

Mick Jackson, The Underground Man coverThe duke employs engineers to build a larger network of such tunnels, wide and high enough to allow him to ride in his carriage along them. They serve no practical purpose, but amuse him enormously. This self-indulgent childishness is offset by the genuine care and fondness he shows for his estate workers and their families.

The problem is, that’s the plot. The 261 pages are filled with the minutiae of his daily existence, which is rarely more than mildly interesting. The chief interest of the novel is its depiction of a troubled soul and mind slowly deteriorating into a kind of paranoia.

The fragmentary structure doesn’t add to the coherence of the narrative, though the multiple voices that complement the main diary entries of the duke do provide occasional insights into the responses of those around him to the duke’s increasingly bizarre behaviour and erratic obsessions.

My other main holiday read was slightly more engaging: Nancy Mitford’s Don’t Tell Alfred. 

I took it to Spain with me not realising it’s a sequel to The Pursuit of Love, published in 1945, which I read a while back but never posted about here. I don’t find much to say about either novel, except they’re very funny in parts, moderately amusing much of the time, but frothy and ultimately insubstantial. I know it’s shallow of me but I find it hard to care much about characters like Fanny, the protagonist, when they’re given to saying things like this about a luncheon date with her errant son in London:

Never possessing a London house of my own I have always found the Ritz useful when up for the day or a couple of nights; a place where one could meet people, leave parcels, write letters, or run into out of the rain.

Linda’s mother is known as the Bolter, because of her fondness for running off with new partners when married to others. Here’s a sample of the arch humour that the novel is shot through with; eccentric, irascible but supposedly loveable Uncle Matthew, now an old man, is discussing her mother with Fanny:

‘How many husbands has the Bolter had now?’

‘The papers said six –‘

‘Yes, but that’s absurd. They left out the African ones – it’s eight or nine at least. Davey [Fanny’s uncle, another extreme hypochondriac] and I were trying to count up. Your father and his best man and the best man’s friend, three. That takes us to Kenya and all the hot stuff there – the horsewhipping and the aeroplane and the Frenchman who won her in a lottery. Davey’s not sure she ever married him, but give her the benefit of the doubt: four. Rawl and Plugge five and six, Gewan [Spaniard Juan who was introduced in The Pursuit – Matthew has no time for foreigners and wilfully mispronounces the name] seven…[etc.]

 

OK, that kind of thing is pretty funny at times, but some of the jokes and slang are just plain silly. The plot is full of abrupt reversals and revelations, and there’s a large cast of eccentric, mostly louche, lazy and rich characters (most of them have titles or don’t really need to work for a living) who are selfish or stupid or both. Some are said to be very clever or astute. Many of them have a stylishly epigrammatic turn of phrase – one of the pleasures the novel offers.

The approach of the ‘swinging sixties’ is surprisingly prominent in that one of Fanny’s less appealing sons (the other is a tiresome beatnik-bearded, parasitic fake Buddhist) Basil has become a dodgy tourist agent, mercilessly ripping off package holidaymakers. He speaks in a weird hybrid of Cockney, ‘beatnik’ and upper class toff jargon, dismissing his hapless clients as ignorant, bovine victims. Americans’ fondness for psychotherapy (here of a very dubious nature) is wickedly sent up. The other harbinger of the emerging teen/pop era is a rock n roll star with the unlikely name of Yanky Fonzy.

Nancy Mitford, Don't Tell Alfred coverI don’t think Nancy M really ‘gets’ pop culture, the hoi-polloi, or the nascent sixties – or wants to.

The Alfred of the title is Fanny’s Oxford don husband, who accepts a prestigious diplomatic post early on, thus sparking off the novel’s numerous divagations and complications, some of which are quite entertaining, but many are duds.

No doubt I should be more charitable, and accept that it’s all tongue-in-cheek and ironic and not to be taken too seriously. But I found the snobbery and occasional casual racism distasteful – though the novel in its best moments is very funny, and there’s a surprisingly racy sexiness about it.

Being and nothingness: Graham Greene, A Burnt-out Case

Graham Greene, A Burnt-Out Case. Vintage Classics 2004. First published 1960

The cabin-passenger wrote in his diary a parody of Descartes: ‘I feel discomfort, therefore I am alive’.

Graham Greene’s novel opens with a reference to two themes that will dominate this novel: a character has lost his capacity to feel anything but the most basic physical discomfort. And he’s writing about it.

The passenger, who is the protagonist, Querry, is at the end of his spiritual and vocational tether. Like the masterless samurai who entrusts his choice of route to the fates by spinning his sword in the air and taking the fork in the road down which it points when it falls, Querry has boarded a plane going to the most random and remote destination on the departure board: central Africa.

This is why he is chugging up a tributary of the Congo on a battered paddle-steamer that recalls the one in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ – in fact Giles Foden, in an interesting Introduction to this Vintage Classics edition, points out a number of links with this and other post-colonial Conrad novels.

Another parallel, in terms of Querry’s existential angst, is Camus. There’s a lot of Meursault in Querry. Unfortunately Querry is a much less interesting character, and his angst fails to engage my sympathy. Unlike Meursault, Querry is a lapsed Catholic who unconsciously strives for a kind of salvation. Not necessarily in the Christian sense. He’s more a nihilist or apatheist than an existentialist.

Words or phrases signifying ‘nothing(ness)’ or an ‘end’ are frequently employed; here’s the first, on p. 8; the Superior, who’s also the ferry captain, has talked about not suffering from prickly heat, and Querry finds himself unable to remain uncommunicative any longer, and says

‘Nor I. I suffer from nothing. I no longer know what suffering is. I have come to an end of all that, too.’

‘Too?’

‘Like all the rest. To the end of everything.’

The Superior turned away from him without curiosity. He said, ‘Oh well, you know, suffering is something which will always be provided when it is required.’

He’s even taken this ferry trip to the last stop on its route: it goes no further.

But in this exchange what should be an intriguing opportunity to explore and portray Querry’s tortured soul, I feel instead we get a peevish gripe and a complacent priestly aphorism in reply. This sets the tone for the whole novel.

Cover of G. Greene, A Burnt-out CaseMaybe I shouldn’t have read this novel over Christmas. I found it depressing (the main setting is a leproserie, and many of the secondary characters are mutilated lepers or their doctors and priests) and turgid, and the theological soul-searching and debates, like that small fragment I just quoted, which Greene indulges frequently and at length, largely specious.

Querry’s disillusionment with worldly things is largely ascribed in the narrative to his coming to an end with sex. He’s decided his serial affairs with married women, whom he always leaves before any commitment might be required, ends inevitably with the last in the sequence killing herself. But his flight is not, our narrative insists, due to guilt. It’s all about Querry and his emptied masculine soul, his atrophied, once-noble emotions. If anything her death is an affront to him, in some obscure way.

‘I thought you said you had no interest in anything,’ says the Superior to Querry at a later point. He replies: ‘I haven’t. I’ve come through to the other side, to nothing. All the same, I don’t like looking back.’ No, that would require a conscience. And the last letter from his final mistress, now dead, rustles accusingly in his pocket, her words ‘toute à toi’ ringing in his mind; briefly he’d just reflected that ‘one could still feel the reflection of another’s pain when one had ceased to feel one’s own.’ But he keeps the letter in his pocket in a way that a hermit or a monk wears a painful, searing belt or garment to mortify the flesh. This is guilt transformed into self-aggrandisement, distorted by his egotism into just another station of his own route to his cross. The woman’s fate or state is ultimately of less concern than his own desire to end a pain I just called conscience, but which he continues to deny exists any more for him. A nihilist, misanthrope, misogynist. The cosmic scale is all illusion, his own narrative.

Doctor Colin, a rather more engaging character, had ‘long ago, before he had come to this continent of misery and heat, lost faith in any god that a priest would have recognised.’ His spiritual aridity and void seems a product of his close acquaintance with the human suffering and pain of others; Querry’s is largely a result of his own sense of the innate malevolence of the universe towards him personally. He dislikes people, like the ones who enter and admire the buildings, or who worship vacuously in the churches, he’d designed: ‘I wasn’t concerned with the people who occupied my space – only with the space’, Querry declares proudly, unconscious or careless of the arrogance and misanthropy.

It’s Colin who diagnoses Querry as a ‘burnt-out case’ – the rather callous term for lepers whose disease has run its course and they’d lost all the digits and body parts that it was fated to take from them. Their ‘cure’ is a terrible one. That it becomes a running metaphor for Querry’s condition I find bordering on the distasteful and disrespectful.

In his dedication to the novel before the narrative opens Greene explains that it’s not a roman à clef,

…but an attempt to give dramatic expression to various types of belief, half-belief, and non-belief, in the kind of setting, removed from world-politics and household-preoccupations, where such differences are felt acutely and find expression. This Congo is a region of the mind…

And that’s where my problem with the novel starts. There’s very little of a dramatic nature in the novel until the signposted ending. The alternative types of belief the novel acknowledges are largely dismissed lightly, like the fetishes and spirit-worship of the natives.

The claim that Luc, the nearest town to the leproserie, is ‘removed’ from politics is contradicted in the narrative, let alone in common sense. There are references to riots and disturbances in the capital; Sharpville and other shameful post-colonial atrocities are mentioned in passing – inconsequential to these self-obsessed characters, perhaps, but not to the indigenous inhabitants. The very presence of Belgian Catholic priests and entrepreneurs in this part of Africa, who represent to cast of characters of this politically anaesthetised novel, is a salutary reminder of Europe’s shameful role in the former colonies.

This ‘removal’ of Querry’s spiritual dilemma to a kind of socio-political vacuum is to tip the scales of the artistic-moral balance (to paraphrase an essay by DH Lawrence) in the worst way.

As the dedication goes on, his dedicatee, Dr Lechat,

…will know how far I have failed in what I attempted. A doctor is not immune from ‘the long despair of doing nothing well’, the cafard [cockroach?] that hangs round a writer’s life.’

That ‘unworthiness topos’ beloved of the medieval Christian writers is glaringly, ironically apposite here. I think Greene has failed. And I’m not too sure what he’s attempted in terms of novel-writing. It would perhaps have been better as a theological paper.

I’ve gone on too long, and written too hurriedly and imprecisely. I’d have liked to consider the unsuccessful, spurious metafictional touches that draw further attention to the novel’s shortcomings. ‘You’re not a writer, are you? There’s no room for a writer here’ (Colin addressing Querry when they first meet); ‘A writer doesn’t write for his readers, does he? Yet he has to take elementary precautions all the same to make them comfortable…The subject of a novel is not the plot.’ And explained more clearly my objections to Querry’s spurious dilemma.

I don’t think Greene is guilty of not making his reader ‘comfortable’; it’s of making this one feel a mix of ennui and annoyance.

 

 

 

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein – final post

I started assembling examples of the florid, over-written style Mary Shelley adopts in Frankenstein, but that way led to madness, so I’ll start afresh. Here’s just one random example; the Creature’s threat to Victor if he refuses to comply with its request that he make it a female companion is intended to be blood-curdling; instead it’s just…curdled prose:

‘I will glut the maw of death, until it is satiated with the blood of your remaining friends.’

The symmetries in the novel are one of its more pleasing aspects; there’s the doppleganger effect of Walton being another potential Frankenstein (and a strong homoerotic tone to his passionate outbursts about his new friend); this is mirrored in Victor’s relationship with Clerval. Even the Creature and Victor share many traits, some violent and vengeful, some noble and grand.

But these are far too heavily laboured and repeated in the text. A quick search for the word ‘miserable’ in the online text yields well over 50 results. There are too many shouty encounters between these two antogonists where they simply try to outdo each other as to which is either suffering more or more entitled to feel wronged.

Why did Mary Shelley subtitle the novel ‘the Modern Prometheus’? First, this classical mythological character was often equated in literary texts with Adam in Genesis; just as Prometheus breathed life (or fire) into inanimate clay to make human beings, so Adam was given life by God in the biblical text. Mary Shelley, as I have shown in previous posts on this novel, frequently alludes to Milton’s account of the Eden story in Paradise Lost; its epigraph is from that poem –

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay

To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee

From darkness to promote me? (X.743-45)

This provides the novel with its central theme, which is dramatized by the tension and conflict between the scientist-creator, who offends the laws of nature with ‘the spark which [he] so negligently bestowed’ on inanimate tissue, and his innocent, potentially loving and good, creature.

In the Romantic period Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods, was a popular subject for literary and artistic treatment, for he symbolised for artists of the time the spirit of rebellion against tyrannical, cruel power (Percy Shelley was working on his lyrical drama ‘Prometheus Unbound’ around the time of the publication of Frankenstein; it was published in 1820.) He was associated with the spirit of the French Revolution, with Christ and (Milton’s) Adam and Satan – we saw in my previous post how the Creature identified with both Adam and the ‘fallen angel’ – and with the divinely inspired artist or writer. Mary Shelley’s novel indicates that Victor explored the ‘bold question’ of the ‘principle of life’ at his own and his family’s peril; it was all very well for him to warn Walton ‘how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge’, but he didn’t heed it himself, with dire consequences for all concerned. Like Prometheus, he is tortured for the rest of his life – but so is his creature.

For modern readers this resonates particularly because of recent and current debates about GM crops and other scientific developments in biology, genetics and related fields, as well as in AI. The issues of sentient beings created by humans and of bioethics are raised and problematized in the novel in ways that Mary Shelley couldn’t have dreamed would resound as they do in later years.

Victor is shown to become ‘the slave of [his] creature’, and urged by it when they meet in the Alps to honour his ‘duties’ to it. ‘You are my creator, but I am your master. Obey!’ it commands him (with typical rhetorical bombast).The creature wanted Victor to make it a female companion (as mentioned above), with which it promised to go into voluntary exile and become a harmless recluse, away from civilization. Victor fails to do so, and terrible retribution follows. His reason: he finally realised that he was in danger of creating a ‘demoniacal enemy’ of humankind, the ‘hideous progeny’ as Mary Shelley described it in her preface to the revised 1831 edition of the novel. That was also why he refused to divulge the exact nature of his secret of creation: as he says to Walton, who had importuned him to reveal it:

‘Are you mad, my friend?’ said he, or whither does your senseless curiosity lead you?…to what do your questions tend?’

Punch cartoon 1882

Punch cartoon from 1882 representing the ‘Irish Question’ as another manifestation of Victor’s monstrous creation: public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Be careful what you strive for, seems to be the moral for scientists and artists alike. The word ‘Frankenstein’ has become a modern cliché adjective for any questionable, potentially lethal scientific clone or product of genetic engineering – or even cultural-political development, as the cartoon indicates.

Later the Creature itself describes Victor as ‘my tyrant and tormentor’. So there develop some interesting and challenging shifts in the concept of Prometheus as the narrative proceeds and becomes more complex. Whether Mary Shelley is fully conscious of or in control of all of these mirror-images, doublings and shifts is as unclear as her often turgid prose.

Despite the tiresome repetitiveness and Gothic melodrama in the narrative, then, and the waywardness of the plotting and characterisation (and too many intrusive, tedious and laboured digressions, like the Justine and Safie episodes), there remain elements in the novel that explain why it still has such significance for us today.

Frankenstein OWC cover

My Oxford World’s Classics edition, which has an excellent introduction by Marilyn Butler

I’ll end this sequence of rather rambling posts with a couple of links.

Richard Holmes recently reviewed in NYRB a couple of new scholarly versions of the texts – well worth reading.

So is the excellent Wordsworth Trust blog, which has this fascinating essay on Claire Clairmont, Mary Shelley’s stepsister, described as ‘the archetypal Romantic woman’ by its author, Lesley McDowell.

 

 

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein pt 3

Victor Frankenstein’s account continues (see previous post): he relates how he researched obsessively into genetics and anatomy at Ingolstadt. His words are recorded by the equally obsessive explorer, Walton, who’d rescued him from the polar ice. My commentary is partly taken from the Romantic Circles website, which has useful commentary on key phrases in the hyperlinks embedded in the online text of the novel; the Pennsylvania electronic edition edited by Stuart Curran is equally useful (and has a comprehensive index of links to further critical accounts).

Frankenstein title page

Title page of the 1818 first edition; Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ll try to avoid spoilers, but assume most readers will know at least the basis of the plot (which differs considerably from the representations in film and popular culture).

This is still vol. I, ch. 3:

Remember, I am not recording the vision of a madman. The sun does not more certainly shine in the heavens, than that which I now affirm is true. Some miracle might have produced it, yet the stages of the discovery were distinct and probable. After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.

Victor’s insistence on his not being mad (or a liar) immediately raises doubts about his sanity. Presumably Mary Shelley is using the adjective ‘probable’ here in its now obsolete technical sense of ‘able to be proved’ [OED online definition 3].

Victor’s shrill insistence reminds me of the demented first-person narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s gruesome horror story ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ (publ. 1843): ‘Why, then, will you say that I am mad?’ [well, you murdered an old man because of his vulture eye, dismembered his body and buried the parts under the floorboards, where you gloated over your prowess to the detectives investigating!].

Victor’s hubristic boasting about his ‘miraculous’ discovery reminds us of his earlier enthusiasm for occult works of mysticism and alchemy; he’d mentioned the quest for the ‘elixir of life’. He hasn’t located that exactly, but feels he’s done the next best thing. Note the return to a dominant, emphatic first-person voice, to highlight the arrogance and egotism of his God-like achievement, of which he’s misguidedly proud.

The astonishment which I had at first experienced on this discovery soon gave place to delight and rapture. After so much time spent in painful labour, to arrive at once at the summit of my desires, was the most gratifying consummation of my toils. But this discovery was so great and overwhelming, that all the steps by which I had been progressively led to it were obliterated, and I beheld only the result. What had been the study and desire of the wisest men since the creation of the world, was now within my grasp…[passage omitted]

Victor’s language here takes on a decidedly erotic-sexual tone. ‘Labour’ is an obvious pun on the term for the birth pangs of a mother – yet his ‘child’ is the product of a perverse, ‘unhallowed’ [a frequent adjective in the novel] form of parthenogenesis.

‘Consummation’ is used (usually in a sense used by Hamlet in his famous soliloquy) four more times in the novel [the wonders of searchable e-texts] in various forms. On each occasion the sexual-erotic connotations are as clear as they are here, but at times associated with the apogee (or inverse) of sex: death.

In II.6, in the interlude where the exiled Creature observes the rural family and the arrival of the exotic ‘Arabian’ Safie, he hears the story of how young Felix De Lacey was promised marriage to her by her father as reward for his rescuing father and daughter from the Turks; this would be, he thinks, ‘the consummation of his happiness.’ Literally and figuratively.

In III.5, after receiving his cousin and fiancée Elizabeth’s loving letter, Victor’s joy is erased by the recollection of his Creature’s threat to visit them on their wedding night to ‘consummate his crimes by my [Victor’s] death’. Their sexual consummation, that is, would be prevented by his fiendish, murderous climactic act of malignant vengeance (for being rejected by Victor). Instead of producing another new life, another (this time, natural) birth, their union would result in unnatural death. The conventionally accepted ideals of motherhood are subverted by Victor’s ‘miraculous’ act of creation which violated the laws of nature and science, followed by his equally unnatural expulsion of his Creature because of its revolting appearance (and the over-reaching scientist-creator’s incipient guilt about and revulsion at what he’s done).

The Creature speaks in III.7 – in Walton’s epistolary “continuation” — after another death: ‘my crimes are consummated’ – a similar image to the previous one. A few paragraphs later he says, indicating Victor, and alluding to his own ‘agony and remorse’, ‘he suffered not more in the consummation of the deed’ – meaning the Creature’s act of murder – or could he be referring to Victor’s creation of this ‘monster’ – returning to the erotic-procreative sense of the word?

Finally, a couple of pages later, in his closing speech, the Creature (or ‘monster’ in Walton’s narrative) vows he’ll do no more ‘mischief’; his work is ‘nearly complete’:

Neither yours nor any man’s death is needed to consummate the series of my being, and accomplish that which must be done.

In a novel full of paradox, oxymorons and polar oppositions, Victor’s ‘bestowing animation on lifeless matter’ – a monstrous act of generation rather than birth – reaches its inevitable ‘consummation’ in the destruction of that being. The Creature had said earlier that he’s been ‘fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy’, and sought ‘the love of virtue, the feelings of happiness and affection with which [his] whole being overflowed’, his ‘thoughts were once filled with sublime and transcendant visions of the beauty and the majesty of goodness’, but he found himself ‘barred’ from those very virtues and feelings by Victor’s act of rejection. This is what inspired instead his murderous, obsessive desire for vengeance and retribution, causing him to be likened to a monster or ‘vampire’ by those who can’t see past his outward hideousness.

He was created like Adam in Eden; in II.7, where he learnt to read by studying texts including the novel’s paradigm, Paradise Lost, Milton’s epic poem about the creation and expulsion from Eden of the first humans on earth, the Creature develops an extended analogy between himself and Milton’s Adam – and Satan – in his own narrative of this period of his life:

“Like Adam, I was created apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but his state was far different from mine in every other respect. He had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator…but I was wretched, helpless, and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition; for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me…I am solitary and detested.”

Later, he says simply, ‘”I required kindness and sympathy.”

In the closing section of the novel he explains again (for Walton’s benefit this time) how he became full of malicious envy and hatred – taught by his creator, the ironically and inappropriately named Victor:

…the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil. Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation; I am quite alone.

Far from being simply the Gothic-monstrous Satanic villain of the novel that most Hollywood versions of the story have opted for, the Creature’s closing words reveal in his involuntary solitude and subsequent ‘misery’ that his nobility and capacity for good were perverted by the greater villainy of being ‘spurned’ by his creator, and other humans who encountered him. I’m reminded in his elegiac final words, as he prepares for self-immolation in flames on the ice (a kind of widowed sati, for Victor is both ‘mother’ and ‘spouse’ to him) of replicant antihero Roy’s famous death speech in ‘Blade Runner’. When the Creature first experienced the beauties of Nature in the world (Paradise to him) ‘”they were all to me”’, he says (though he’s misremembering when he makes this claim; he was actually created in ‘dreary’ November, was expelled an outcast into the cold and wet by Victor, and he wept; the following claim, then, is perhaps poetic licence, for it enhances his natural nobility with its rhythmic Miltonic cadences):

“I should have wept to die; now it is my only consolation. Polluted by crimes, and torn by the bitterest remorse, where can I find rest but in death?”

Here too, the Creature is both ‘monster’ and fallen angel, and it was Victor who created and was responsible for both aspects of his being, providing ‘the spark of existence’ that he ‘so wantonly disposed’ in his ‘workshop of filthy creation’, then turning him into a ‘wretch’ and exile by rejecting him. Victor is surely the true monster in the novel.

Stevenson was to revisit this drama of reversals in his Jekyll and Hyde characters.

Maybe one more post to come on Frankenstein.

 

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein: the text explored

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus: 1818 edn. 

In my previous post I wrote about the tortuous gestation of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. It was written initially, when she was just 18, as a short ghost story at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva on a stormy night during the dark volcanic summer of 1816. With some input from Percy Shelley she redrafted the tale into a three-volume novel, pubished in 1818.

In the first of a couple of posts I’ll look at a key passage. This is the moment (vol. I, ch. 3) when the young student Victor Frankenstein, adding modern sciences taught by his tutors at Ingoldstadt University in Germany to the earlier mystical texts that had previously enthused him, becomes obsessed with the current notions of ‘the life principle’ and creation itself.

Here this narrative is recorded by Walton, on whose ship Victor is recuperating after being picked up exhausted as he pursues his Creature across the ice. I’ve used the online text at the Romantic Circles site HERE, which is useful for its numerous hyperlinks embedded in the text to scholarly glosses and background. I’ve removed these here and blended their content with other material that I hope adds context and clarity to what’s going in if you’ve not yet read the novel.

One of the phænomena which had peculiarly attracted my attention was the structure of the human frame, and, indeed, any animal endued with life. Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed? It was a bold question, and one which has ever been considered as a mystery; yet with how many things are we upon the brink of becoming acquainted, if cowardice or carelessness did not restrain our inquiries.

Mary Shelley

Portrait of Mary Shelley by Reginald Easton in 1820

Victor’s studies in anatomy would have been encouraged at Ingolstadt – its medical school was renowned. Mary Shelley would have gleaned much of her background material for his experiments and research from her reading (inspired by Percy Shelley) of the likes of Erasmus Darwin. It was a ‘bold question’, of course, because the ‘principle of life’ was a key concept in the vitalist controversy that I mentioned in my previous post. As I suggested there, the novel dramatises this debate. Victor’s note of arrogance and pride emerges at the end of that section; he implies that lesser mortals have baulked at the imaginative-scientific leap he believed himself to be making. He portrays himself as the opposite of cowardly or careless – or restrained. Already he’s showing unconsciously that his lack of ethical code is problematic, and that he is challenging divine retribution for his blasphemous career.

I revolved these circumstances in my mind, and determined thenceforth to apply myself more particularly to those branches of natural philosophy which relate to physiology. Unless I had been animated by an almost supernatural enthusiasm, my application to this study would have been irksome, and almost intolerable. To examine the causes of life, we must first have recourse to death.

His self-aggrandising tone becomes more marked here; the ‘almost supernatural’ nature of his ‘enthusiasm’ instils an element of the magical into his endeavours – possibly reflecting his earlier enthusiasm for the alchemy, mysticism and weirdness of the likes of Cornelius Agrippa, the Illuminati and Albertus Magnus, as noted last time. The symmetrical sentence at the end suggests a complacency, even pride, in his rejection of a moral code. His use of the grandiose ‘we’ distances himself from culpability or accountability, and positions opponents as lesser beings. Its epigrammatic tone of certitude has the stamp of authoritarianism, arrogance and overweening pride.

I became acquainted with the science of anatomy: but this was not sufficient; I must also observe the natural decay and corruption of the human body. In my education my father had taken the greatest precautions that my mind should be impressed with no supernatural horrors. I do not ever remember to have trembled at a tale of superstition, or to have feared the apparition of a spirit. Darkness had no effect upon my fancy; and a churchyard was to me merely the receptacle of bodies deprived of life, which, from being the seat of beauty and strength, had become food for the worm. Now I was led to examine the cause and progress of this decay, and forced to spend days and nights in vaults and charnel houses. My attention was fixed upon every object the most insupportable to the delicacy of the human feelings. I saw how the fine form of man was degraded and wasted; I beheld the corruption of death succeed to the blooming cheek of life; I saw how the worm inherited the wonders of the eye and brain. I paused, examining and analysing all the minutiae of causation, as exemplified in the change from life to death, and death to life, until from the midst of this darkness a sudden light broke in upon me—a light so brilliant and wondrous, yet so simple, that while I became dizzy with the immensity of the prospect which it illustrated, I was surprised that among so many men of genius, who had directed their inquiries towards the same science, that I alone should be reserved to discover so astonishing a secret.

Frankenstein OWC cover

My Oxford World’s Classics edition, which has an excellent introduction by Marilyn Butler

Interesting that Victor insists that what he was engaged in doing in his researches was the opposite of supernatural; rhetorically, of course (Mary Shelley’s style is highly rhetorical, like her models, from Paradise Lost and the Bible to ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’) by insisting on what he was not scared of he imbues his work with those very qualities. The catalogue of Gothic and gruesome detail that follows reinforces this effect. His use of passive verbs (‘I was led to…’; ‘and forced to…’; ‘My attention was fixed’) indicates that he believes his progress was the result of some force greater than himself, not his own volition. He’s also trying to impress such a view on his silent interlocutor, Walton. His egotism (‘I alone’) emerges strongly at the end here; his discovery surpasses all previous scientists’ work; they could have discovered his ‘astonishing’ secret if only they’d had his genius. The ‘light’ imagery emphasises proudly his ‘enlightened’ approach, aligning himself with the great discoveries and concepts of the previous century. The ‘dizziness’ he felt once more indicates his intoxication with his work in his ‘filthy workshop of creation’. Another passive voice here (‘should be reserved’) continues the effect noted above. He’s removing agency from himself. In a tragedy this would represent hubris in Victor.

Next time I’ll look at the continuation of this passage, and more.