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.

 

The origins of Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. 1818 edition

Shelley

Engraving in a Victorian edition of the poetical works of Shelley from a portrait by Alfred Clint, now in the National Portrait Gallery.

1816 was ‘the year without a summer’. The previous year volcano Mt Tambora, in Indonesia, erupted, an event a thousand times more powerful than the recent Icelandic eruption that grounded aircraft across much of the world. The cloud of ash and dust still darkened the skies of the northern hemisphere the following year, adversely affecting the weather. [See this account at the Guardian]

In June 1816 the poet Percy Shelley, at the age of 23, accompanied by the 18-year-old Mary Godwin, daughter of radical philosopher and author William Godwin and the proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft – she and Shelley didn’t marry until late 1816, after his first wife Harriet had committed suicide [see below] – were

MaryWollstonecraft

MaryWollstonecraft, portrait at the Tate Britain gallery

travelling through Europe. Mary had already experienced the trauma and grief of losing their baby daughter soon after her birth in 1815; they took their six-month-old second child William, named after her father, with them on this trip to Switzerland in 1819, by which time she had lost three very young children.

The Shelleys stayed at Cologny by the shores of Lake Geneva, but spent much time in the nearby Villa Diodati, where Byron (then aged 28) was staying, brooding over the dire weather that exacerbated his mood. He had been obliged to go into exile after the scandal of his profligate behaviour (including rumours of incest with his half-sister Augusta) that culminated in his separation from his wife of just over a year, Annabella (they’d had a daughter, Ada, later famous as Ada Lovelace, the pioneer of computer science). Annabella had left Byron, and initiated proceedings for a legal separation. England had become too hot even for him to stand.

Claire Clairmont

Claire Clairmont (1798-1879) by Amelia Curran, portrait now at Byron’s home of Newstead Abbey

Shelley’s group included Mary’s precocious, slightly younger step-sister Claire Clairmont. Her competitive relationship with Mary may have been what led her, like her two (half or step) sisters, to have entered into sexual relations with Shelley; possibly rebuffed by him, she turned her passionate attention to Byron, who she eventually succeeded in seducing (it’s hard to believe he put up much of a fight).

He soon tired of her, however, and made it clear they had no future together. She seems to have insisted Mary and Shelley take this trip to pursue Byron, but he made it clear that although he enjoyed the company of the rest of her party at his lakeside villa, she was not welcome, and they had no future together. She would have known by then that she was carrying his child. Their daughter Allegra was effectively abandoned by him, despite his having agreed to care for her, and she died of fever at the age of five in an Italian convent. The atmosphere in this romantically complicated group must have been electric.

[I posted back in 2015 about this tangled web of intrigue and passion around Claire and its depiction after the event in Henry James’s novella the Aspern Papers].

Unable to get out much because of the weather, the party (Byron was accompanied by his physician, Dr Polidori) passed the time in earnest discussion of the fashionably radical topics of ‘natural sciences’ and ‘natural philosophy’ – that is, what we currently think of as ‘science’ but mixed with more arcane, semi-mystical, even supernatural topics. They would discuss the mysteries of the ‘life principle’, the nature of man as ‘instrument’: the origins of life and nature of death and what follows it. The work of scientists like Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, and his precursor in theorising evolution, Humphry Davy’s experiments with anaesthetic and other gases, and the use of Italian physicist Galvani’s electrical devices on corpses of humans and animals (to apparently reanimate them) – such semi-theatrical ‘demonstrations’, like post-mortem anatomical dissections, were held in public and attracted rapt audiences – would also have figured in their discussions. What they were often dabbling in was the dangerous and controversial ‘vitalist controversy’, with on the one hand adherents to the conventional teachings of Christianity on such matters, and on the other the new, radical scientific thinking of the likes of Shelley’s one-time physician and surgeon friend William Lawrence, who (like this group of radical Romantics) hotly opposed those establishment, theologically-based views.

Mary Shelley

Portrait of Mary Shelley by Reginald Easton in 1820

One night in mid-June 1816, at Byron’s villa, they agreed upon a competition: each was to compose a ghost story. According to Mary’s preface to the third, 1831 edition of the novel, her mind was hyperactive after these discussions, and she had a nightmare that inspired the short story she offered the party next day. It told a horrific tale of a transgressive experiment that resulted in the production of a living creature out of dead body parts. She continued drafting it until the novel it grew into was finally published in England in 1818.

The emotional turbulence she had experienced and witnessed throughout her young life: multiple bereavements, the controversial, sometimes suicidal and often scandalous behaviour of those near to her, and this seething atmosphere of dangerous, radical theorising about highly volatile topics, from genetics to the origins of species, of life itself, and the consequences of death, would have provided a febrile set of themes, characters and motifs for her to plunder for her narrative. The alpine scenery she had recently toured would provide the perfect Gothic setting for much of it; the rest she had read about in the fashionable books of exploration and discovery of the period (as had Coleridge, who supplied some key allusions and details in the novel; the other major literary influence was Milton, whose Paradise Lost provided its epigraph, and much of its narrative material and tone).

While Mary was working on her draft of her novel in England she experienced yet more catastrophe: her half-sister Fanny Imlay (Mary Wollstonecraft’s daughter from a relationship before she met Godwin), who may also have been romantically involved with Percy Shelley, committed suicide in October 1816, having lived an unhappy life, torn between loyalties to the various involved factions of siblings and relatives. She may also have inherited her mother’s depressive tendencies; Mary Wollstonecraft attempted suicide twice during her troubled relationship with Fanny’s father. As noted above, Shelley’s first wife Harriet drowned herself in the Serpentine in London at the age of 21, after he left her for Mary, and having become pregnant by a new lover.

Lord Byron in Albanian dress

Byron in Albanian dress, painted by Thomas Phillips in 1813 (all images in this post in the Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Percy Shelley was to die aged 29 in a boating accident in Italy just four years after this first edition of Frankenstein was published. Keats had died at the age of 25 the previous year. Byron died in Greece, where he was supporting the independence movement, two years later, aged 36. Mary Shelley lived on until 1851, when she was in her 54th year. Claire Clairmont didn’t die until 1879, in Florence, at the age of 81. Make of all that what you will.

I felt it necessary to provide some context to the origins of Frankenstein, though I acknowledge it’s all pretty well known. I’ve tried to keep it brief, but it’s a complicated web of relationships and influences out of which the novel arose in Mary Shelley’s imagination. Next time I’ll explore the text.

The secret of delight. J.R. Ackerley, We Think the World of You

J.R. Ackerley, We Think the World of You. NYRB Classics, 2000. First published 1960

I came close to disliking Frank, and therefore this novel in which he’s the selfish and biased first-person narrator. His dashingly handsome but clueless ex-sailor lover, Johnny, jailed for a year for his inefficient housebreaking, is as careless and dilatory with his correspondence as are his family with their conveying of messages between Frank and Johnny. His snobbery towards these ‘ordinary’ (read working-class) people becomes irksome: he confides in us his derision at their unhygienic lifestyle and inarticulate ways of talking and writing letters, especially their clichéd catchphrase that gives the novel its title. He’s like the pompously irascible and perpetually grumpy hack writer Ed Reardon in the Radio 4 comedy, and like him expects us, his readers – presumably he thinks we’re of the same literate, educated class as himself – to share his patronising disdain for such people.

Ackerley WTTWOY coverBut that’s not his only trait. He seems genuinely fond of Johnny’s good-hearted mother, Millie. They have a real ‘bond’, he feels – though it isn’t often evident in their scenes together, and is largely due to the unaccountable devotion to the feckless Johnny that Frank also feels.

His scorn is aimed largely at Millie’s idle, brutal fourth husband, Tom, and at Johnny’s slatternly, fertile wife Megan. Why does he so hate them? It’s clear to us, though not at first to Frank, that he’s as jealous of them because of their close relationship with Johnny as they are of him.

Frank is a professional man with a flat in the smart London area of Barnes; he has a river view, so he’s clearly well off. In fact he frequently lavishes his money on these people he so despises in a misguided attempt to buy the favours with Johnny that he so longs for. And that’s his problem: he doesn’t understand how contemptible this makes him in their eyes – and in those of his readers. He sometimes glimpses this harsh reality – that he uses money to help ‘bind’ Johnny to him: ‘Happiness had to be paid for.’ When Johnny is released and visits him, bringing with him his beautiful German shepherd bitch Evie, Frank watches from his balcony, willing him to look up expectantly –

…but he did not look up, and I recollected then that he never looked back at parting either; it was as though I existed for him only at the point of contact.

But Evie remembers the place Frank had shown her a taste of freedom and love; ‘She remembers.’

What redeems the novel is the love he learns to feel for Evie (the name is as symbolic as her role in the novel), whose unhappiness at being cooped up in the back yard of Millie and Tom’s grim house while Johnny is incarcerated touches his otherwise cold heart. He comes to acknowledge that by paying to help keep Johnny and his family, he’s shamelessly exploiting their poverty and powerlessness. He also comes to realise that his cash handouts are purely self-serving.

Frank finally sees, after that long-desired first prison visit with Johnny, that

Say what one might against these people, their foolish frames could not bear the weight of iniquity I had piled upon them; they were, in fact, perfectly ordinary people behaving in a perfectly ordinary way, and practically all the information about themselves and each other had been true, had been real, and not romance, or prevarication, or the senseless antics of some incomprehensible insect, which were the alternating lights in which, since it had not happened to suit me, I had preferred to regard it…Their problems…had been real problems, and the worlds they so frequently said they thought of each other apparently seemed less flimsy to them than they had appeared to me when I tried to sweep them all away. It was difficult to escape the conclusion, indeed, that, on the whole, I had been a tiresome and troublesome fellow who, for one reason or another, had acted in a manner so intemperate that he might truly be said to have lost his head…

The fastidious syntax and vocabulary of this extract is telling, for this apparently contrite, confession continues:

…but if this sober reflection had upon me any effect at all, it produced no feeling that could remotely be called repentance, but only a kind of listlessness as though some prop that had supported me hitherto had been withdrawn.

Not quite an epiphany after all, then. But when he explores Johnny’s true nature for the first time:

Beneath such a general smear of mild good nature, I asked myself, could any true values survive? Where everything mattered nothing mattered, and I recollected that it had passed through my mind while I spoke to him that if the eyes that looked into mine took me in at all, they seemed to take me for granted.

Even at this moment of apparent revelation there’s a powerful undercurrent of self-pity.

It’s the scenes with Evie that for me prevent the novel from becoming a tedious fictional autobiography of a selfish curmudgeon. I don’t see much of the ‘wonderfully funny’ or ‘hilarious’ moments that some reviewers perceived, but there’s a refreshing warmth in Frank’s evident love for this pretty dog, whose own jealousy ends up more destructive  than Johnny’s or his family’s. Here’s a typical scene: Frank has finally managed to spring Evie from the prison conditions in which Millie and Tom keep her in their stuffy, confined East End house, and has taken her out for her first ever extended free run outdoors (this was the visit Evie remembered in the extract above):

The daylight hours we spent mostly in the open air. Evie saw to that. And it was borne in upon me that, without perceiving it, I had grown old and dull, I had forgotten that life itself was an adventure. She corrected this. She held the key to what I had lost, the secret of delight.

The plainness of the language now has none of that mandarin fussiness noted in Frank’s near-revelation above. Here the lucidity and openness of the style indicates that this is Frank’s true epiphany, and it’s Evie who brings it about in a way no human is capable of:

[Delight] was a word I often used, but what did I know of the quality itself, I thought, as I watched her inextinguishable high spirits, her insatiable appetite, not for food, in which she seemed scarcely interested, but for fun, the way she welcomed life like a lover?…She was childish, she was charming, and to me it seemed both strange and touching that anyone should find the world so wonderful.

The many passages like this make the novel ultimately life-affirming.

 

 

 

TS Eliot on the Metaphysical poets

The first extract in bold below was the title of one of my first essays as an undergraduate: imagine, I’d never read the metaphysicals, and there I was, having to grapple with Eliot’s modernist, post-symbolist take on the subject. The second is a central topic in literary thinking about poetry. Here’s the extract from Eliot’s piece; he retrieves Donne and the rest from the dustbin they’d been confined to by Johnson and the Victorians, but in a backhanded way. Was he right?

From T. S. Eliot, review of Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century: Donne to Butler. Selected and edited, with an Essay, by Herbert J. C. Grierson (Oxford: Clarendon Press. London; Milford) in the Times Literary Supplement, October 1921.

…The difference is not a simple difference of degree between poets. It is something which had happened to the mind of England between the time of Donne or Lord Herbert of Cherbury and the time of Tennyson and Browning; it is the difference between the intellectual poet and the reflective poet. Tennyson and Browning are poets, and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.

John Donne:

John Donne: via Wikimedia Commons

We may express the difference by the following theory: The poets of the seventeenth century, the successors of the dramatists of the sixteenth, possessed a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience. They are simple, artificial, difficult, or fantastic, as their predecessors were; no less nor more than Dante, Guido Cavalcanti, Guinizelli, or Cino. In the seventeenth century a dissociation of sensibility set in, from which we have never recovered; and this dissociation, as is natural, was aggravated by the influence of the two most powerful poets of the century, Milton and Dryden. Each of these men performed certain poetic functions so magnificently well that the magnitude of the effect concealed the absence of others. The language went on and in some respects improved; the best verse of Collins, Gray, Johnson, and even Goldsmith satisfies some of our fastidious demands better than that of Donne or Marvell or King. But while the language became more refined, the feeling became more crude. The feeling, the sensibility, expressed in the Country Churchyard (to say nothing of Tennyson and Browning) is cruder than that in the Coy Mistress.

After this brief exposition of a theory–too brief, perhaps, to carry conviction–we may ask, what would have been the fate of the “metaphysical” had the current of poetry descended in a direct line from them, as it descended in a direct line to them? They would not, certainly, be classified as metaphysical. The possible interests of a poet are unlimited; the more intelligent he is the better; the more intelligent he is the more likely that he will have interests: our only condition is that he turn them into poetry, and not merely meditate on them poetically. A philosophical theory which has entered into poetry is established, for its truth or falsity in one sense ceases to matter, and its truth in another sense is proved. The poets in question have, like other poets, various faults. But they were, at best, engaged in the task of trying to find the verbal equivalent for states of mind and feeling. And this means both that they are more mature, and that they wear better, than later poets of certainly not less literary ability.

Robert Louis Stevenson Day

13 November is the birthday of Robert Louis Stevenson, I learned from a post today by Karen at Kaggsysbookishramblings. He was born in Edinburgh in 1850 and died in the Samoan Islands, where he has gone for the sake of his ailing health, in 1894.

Portrait of Stevenson

Photo c. 1880 of RLS from the ‘Knox series’ via Wikimedia Commons

At Karen’s suggestion I’d like to celebrate this fine author’s work with an extract from one of the first of his books I read (some years ago): Travels in the Cevennes with a Donkey. It was one of his first works of literature, an account of his 12-day journey in 1878 over some 200 km in this region of south-central rural France. It was published the following year.

This extract is from the chapter ‘In the valley of the Tarn’. He’s been hiking and camping most days – a practice which baffles the local peasants – sleeping without a tent in an early, rather heavy, cumbersome sleeping bag which requires a recalcitrant and headstrong donkey named Modestine to carry it:

Sleep for a long time fled my eyelids; and just as I was beginning to feel quiet stealing over my limbs, and settling densely on my mind, a noise at my head startled me broad awake again, and, I will frankly confess it, brought my heart into my mouth.

It was such a noise as a person would make scratching loudly with a finger-nail; it came from under the knapsack which served me for a pillow, and it was thrice repeated before I had time to sit up and turn about. Nothing was to be seen, nothing more was to be heard, but a few of these mysterious rustlings far and near, and the ceaseless accompaniment of the river and the frogs. I learned next day that the chestnut gardens are infested by rats; rustling, chirping, and scraping were probably all due to these; but the puzzle, for the moment, was insoluble, and I had to compose myself for sleep, as best I could, in wondering uncertainty about my neighbours.

I was wakened in the grey of the morning (Monday, 30th September) by the sound of foot-steps not far off upon the stones, and opening my eyes, I beheld a peasant going by among the chestnuts by a footpath that I had not hitherto observed. He turned his head neither to the right nor to the left, and disappeared in a few strides among the foliage. Here was an escape! But it was plainly more than time to be moving. The peasantry were abroad; scarce less terrible to me in my nondescript position than the soldiers of Captain Poul to an undaunted Camisard. I fed Modestine with what haste I could; but as I was returning to my sack, I saw a man and a boy come down the hillside in a direction crossing mine. They unintelligibly hailed me, and I replied with inarticulate but cheerful sounds, and hurried forward to get into my gaiters.

OWC edition of Travels with a Donkey

My Oxford World’s Classics edition, ed. and Introduction by Emma Letley (1992)

The Camisards were 18C Protestants who rebelled against the French government; even after their revolt was crushed, the tradition of Protestantism remained strong in the region. Stevenson was fascinated by them, for they reminded him of the Scots Covenanters from the previous century. The reference to Captain Poul concerns a ‘soldier of fortune’ who, Stevenson had written a few pages earlier, captured and killed a renowned Camisard named Séguier (I’m indebted to the notes and Introduction of my OWC edition for these details).