Extracted by torment: Elizabeth von Arnim, Vera

Elizabeth von Arnim (1866-1941), Vera. Hesperus Press, 2015; first published 1921

John Middleton Murry, husband of Elizabeth von Arnim’s cousin Katherine Mansfield, consoled the author after Vera had attracted some bad reviews, by saying the reviewers had failed to understand a tragi-comedy that read like Wuthering Heights as written by Jane Austen. This dark, disturbing novel also presages a later novel about a woman who’d died in mysterious circumstances before the events in the novel take place: Rebecca.

My Hesperus Press paperback edition of Elizabeth von Arnim, VeraVera is about a naïve young woman who ‘was engulfed’ by the apparent grief-stricken affection of a man named Everard Wemyss. His wife Vera had recently died – in a way that increasingly suggests his pathological egotism and what we now call coercive control had led to her suicide. He comes upon young Lucy, grieving for her father who’d just died at their Cornwall holiday cottage, and she is smitten by what seems his tender empathy and sensitive soul. He takes advantage of her damaged emotional state and vulnerability.

She rapidly discovers that she’s made a terrible mistake. His domineering control of her and his household once they’re married is so obsessive as to become a nightmare for poor Lucy. Despite the best efforts of her caring Aunt Dot, Wemyss is able to dismiss all who try to mitigate his insistence on complete servitude in his young wife.

Like Torvald in A Doll’s House, he’s created a gilded cage for his little bird; like Nora’s patronising husband he repeatedly infantilises Lucy, calling her his ‘little girl’, his ‘baby’, while scolding her and criticising her for showing the least sign of spirit or rebellion. It becomes increasingly difficult to read such stuff – but it holds the attention like a slowly unfolding car-crash.

It’s not just his gaslighting, chauvinistic narcissism and cruel oppression that’s so disturbing. He seems to derive pleasure from her immature appearance and demeanour:

He adored her bobbed hair that gave her the appearance of a child or a very young boy…all he asked in a woman was devotion.

This is the spine-chilling moment, narrated from his sickening point of view, when he looks at Lucy entering the registry office where they are to be married and she is to become his latest trophy:

If only she would take off her hat, thought Wemyss, bursting with pride, so that the registrar could see how young she looked with her short hair – why perhaps the old boy might think she was too young to be married and start asking searching questions! What fun that would be.

There are moments of humour, as when Aunt Dot contemplates Wemyss’s tepid style of courting Lucy at her aunt’s house in London, and the only word she can find to describe his mode of ‘love-making’ (in the old fashioned sense) is ‘vegetarian’. He’s dismissive of Lucy’s family’s bohemian, spontaneous, cultivated and artistic ways: he’s a cold-blooded philistine and a prig. He’s a veritable Casaubon to Lucy’s Dorothea – but far more sinister.

It seems von Arnim wrote Vera in response to her own disastrous second marriage to Frank, second Earl Russell (brother of philosopher Bertrand). Her first husband was a domineering, typically Prussian Junker aristocrat, Graf von Arnim-Schlagentin. Among the tutors they employed for their children were EM Forster and Hugh Walpole: she moved in exalted circles, but showed less discernment in her choice of lovers – including, perhaps, the three years (1910-13) she spent as a mistress of HG Wells.

Rebecca West was understandably impressed by this novel; there’s a deeply felt awkwardness and growing sense of menacing claustrophobia, being stifled and threatened by this monstrous husband that Lucy experiences. Elizabeth von Arnim wrote to her daughter about Vera:

I’ll never write anything so good again. I daresay more popular…but not so really good. It was extracted from me by torment, so that I do not want to write so well again – not at such a price.

 

 

 

William Trevor, Felicia’s Journey

William Trevor (1928-2016), Felicia’s Journey. Viking, 1964

Last autumn I posted about William Trevor’s 1965 novel The Boarding House. Thirty years later Felicia’s Journey also takes as its central theme the preying upon lonely and desolate souls by sinister, duplicitous monsters with secrets in the murky basements of their souls. In the earlier novel, however, Trevor’s predators are motivated mostly by mediocre, secular avarice and envy; here he ramps up the psychomachy – mortal, not venial sinfulness.

William Trevor, Felicia's Journey: coverFelicia is an innocent (but not entirely naïve) young woman from a sheltered, conservative small town in Ireland, made pregnant by a predatory chancer named Johnny who abandons her with a transparently fictitious account of his leaving for a job in a factory in the industrial English midlands. She sets out on a hapless quest to find her errant lover – who she only half believes is a decent man. Her journey slowly reveals itself, largely without her fully realising it, to be a struggle for her very survival.

She falls into the path of Mr Hilditch, an obese catering manager at another anonymous midland factory. We know from his first offer to help this ingenuous waif, adrift in the heartless wastelands of post-Thatcher England, that he is not motivated by kindness.

The present-tense, third-person narrative draws us inexorably into the fiendishness of Hilditch’s plan: he cunningly restrains himself from showing his hand too soon, knowing when to back off and leave fragile, needy Felicia to flounder in a heedless world, and to turn in her desperation to his apparent beneficence.

What makes the novel almost unbearable to read is the tension and dread that build as Felicia falls more inescapably into his clutches as he circles round her faltering, impaired waif’s downward progress.

Signed title page of Felicia's Journey

I bought my hardback first edition in a craft sale in Penwith, Cornwall. It’s signed by the author – which clinched the sale for me!

Trevor is too subtle a writer and too astute and precise a psychologist to reveal too soon Hilditch’s capacity for duplicity and evil. One desperately wants to cry out a warning to Felicia as she reluctantly enters deeper into his lair and her danger becomes more apparent. The narrator gives us access, dimly but increasingly clearly delineated, to the cruelty that he’s been capable of the past, and is meticulously preparing for again. Felicia, whose name is so ironically inappropriate for her sad, unfortunate life, is suspicious but friendless, and desperately unprotected.

Trevor’s other player in this struggle for a floundering soul is the unlikely figure of Miss Calligary, a member of a bizarre Christian evangelical group who doorstep homeowners to try to ‘gather’ them to the Lord, promising a paradisal new life for ‘one who dies’. Hilditch writes them off as ‘nutters’. It’s a typical Trevor feat, to manage grim, sardonic humour in a plot that begins with such gothic premises. For these evangelists appear to long for death, albeit symbolically, in order to be reborn; Mr Hilditch offers the real thing, with no spiritual intent at all – his menacing mission arises out of his own damaged psychopathy. (The narrative gradually reveals, through flashbacks in his memory, the probable traumatic causes for his affectless depravity – even he has a certain redeeming pain).

With narrative deftness, Trevor causes Miss Calligary’s mission inadvertently to intrude upon Hilditch’s, with devastating consequences.

As in Trevor’s other fiction, his sympathy is with the lost and marginalised, those deemed by society – and maybe themselves – to be superfluous (homeless people feature with increasing significance in this novel), those who render themselves attractive to life’s predators by their human frailty and a profound but unfulfilled need for love that disables their defence mechanisms. Somehow they usually stumble into redemption, or their world reveals itself capable of a grim, oblique kind of grace.

A lesser writer would have failed to create such nuanced characters who could have been portrayed as simply monsters and victims. Trevor imbues them with complexities and unexpected depths of humanity that take this novel into heights (and depths) undreamt of by the anonymous authors of the medieval allegories.

 

 

 

Lissa Evans, Crooked Heart

Lissa Evans, Crooked Heart (Black Swan paperback. First published 2014)

After a rather slow start this novel becomes a highly enjoyable, touching comedy-drama. Mrs TD, who normally finds my taste in fiction too depressing, also liked it.

I first heard about it on the Radio 4 book programme, A Good Read – I posted on this with a bit of background on the author here.

What’s so heartwarming about the novel, as the contributors to the programme said, was the developing relationship between the mismatched central characters: scrawny ten-year-old orphan Noel, a vulnerable and lonely evacuee from Blitz-torn London (this is early WWII), and Vera Sedge, 36, who takes him into her scruffy home in St Albans, some twenty miles north of the metropolis, only because of the allowances he’ll generate from the state. At first she has no interest in him as a person, and even less intention of passing on to him the rations she’ll claim on his behalf.

Lissa Evans, Crooked Heart coverInstead she indulges and dotes on her no-good, overweight sponger son, Donald, who has scams of his own going on, while tolerating her dotty, aged mother-in-law – both of these housemates are a burden to her, contributing nothing financially. Much of her time is spent, when not devising hare-brained and illegal schemes to raise funds, evading the rent collector. She’s always broke and in debt – so Noel is for her an economic godsend.

He is a nerdy, reclusive child, made even more introspective by the recent death of his surrogate mother, the ex-suffragette Mattie, an eccentric, educated and seemingly quite wealthy middle-class woman who finally succumbed to the dementia from which she’d been increasingly suffering – a tragic Prologue shows the terrible disintegration of this formidably intelligent, independent woman. She’d raised Noel in her rambling Hampstead home as if he were another adult and radical free-thinker. As a result his naturally precocity has matured him well beyond his years – but it takes Vee a long time to recognise this.

When he first arrives she can’t make him out at all, but slowly starts to perceive his deeper qualities, as here when he’s unexpectedly revealed his extensive vocabulary (including some impressively adult slang) – Mattie used to pay him a penny a synonym for random words she selected from the thesaurus:

Vee shook her head. She was beginning to relish Noel’s oddness; it was like talking to someone who’d been raised on the moon.

Like Donald’s, her own illegal, ill-conceived money-making schemes fail – everyone around her, it seems, is a spiv, gangster or thief. The evocation of this seedy side of wartime Britain is entertainingly and colourfully done. Then Noel teams up with her and this odd couple, from such different worlds, starts to thrive – he tweaks Vee’s scams using his superior insight, intellect and research skills. Vee is shrewd enough to let him.

The plot moves along at a lively pace, with plenty of unexpected twists and developments that arise as much out of the characters and their relationships as from the wartime events and exigencies.

Lissa Evans’ background in TV drama serves her well in this respect: Noel and Vee in particular come across as warm-blooded, three-dimensional human beings, flawed but destined to find a kind of redemption and fulfilment in each other, but there are some vividly drawn secondary characters, too.

Unscrupulous Vee, for all her superficially worldly cunning, comes to realise she has far more to learn about humanity, morality and the social system with all its inequities (there’s some deeply moving and sympathetic stuff about the suffragette struggle) than the gifted, unprepossessing, ill-mannered and damaged little boy she’s ostensibly caring for. Their need for each other, meanwhile, deepens into something closer to love than either of them had known previously, and which neither could have foreseen.

 

 

 

George Gissing, The Odd Women

George Gissing’s novel The Odd Women, published in 1893, evinces an ambivalent and sometimes distinctly odd attitude to the hot topic of the time: the ‘woman question’, and more particularly that of female emancipation from the cloying paternalism of late Victorian society. On the one hand he takes seriously the desperate economic plight of women of the lower classes who, if they don’t inherit enough to live on, are condemned to a life of ‘barrenness and bitterness’. In this novel such women are represented by the three Madden sisters, who almost starve as low-skilled teachers, companions or governesses, or else work in slave-like conditions for little pay in a London shop.

If they fail to make a ‘good marriage’ – that key theme in so much Victorian fiction – there is little prospect of their ever living much above the bread line. The youngest sister, Monica, escapes into a loveless marriage with a much older wealthy man (ominously named Widdowson), who takes the Ruskinian view of women (domesticity, motherhood, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually weak and stunted) and becomes violently jealous of any contact she has with other people.

This plot intertwines with dramatic consequences on the other in the narrative.

My two editions: Oxford World's Classics on the left, and Penguin

My two editions: Oxford World’s Classics on the left, and Penguin

This involves the titular ‘odd’ women – Mary Barfoot and Rhoda Nunn – so called because they are among the half million women who are unmarried – ‘no making a pair with them’, explains Miss Nunn:

“The pessimists call them useless, lost, futile lives. I, naturally – being one of them myself – take another view. I look upon them as a great reserve.”

She and Miss Barfoot have set up a kind of training academy for young unmarried women to ‘make [them] hard-hearted’ as Miss Nunn puts it – hence that curious military metaphor. This takes the form of clerical-secretarial work – so still not exactly intellectually or spiritually rewarding, but less stultifying than the kind of low-paid drudgery noted earlier. When young Monica protests at this brutal formula, saying that ‘married women are not idle’, Miss Nunn retorts contemptuously:

“Not all of them. Some cook and rock cradles.”

She has become a radical, militant feminist, fiercely opposed in principle to marriage as a desirable goal for women. Gissing doesn’t portray her in a flattering light – she’s unsympathetic to a young protégée named Bella who leaves the academy to live with a married man; when she repents and asks to come back to them, Rhoda is adamantly opposed: she’ll set a bad example to the others. Once girls like Bella have ‘fallen in love’ – an expression she considers sentimental claptrap – they’re irredeemable. Her hard-heartedness doesn’t waver when the poor girl later kills herself – to the horror of her softer friend, Miss Barfoot.

When Miss Nunn (the names aren’t particularly subtle in this novel) is first introduced aged 15, visiting the Madden sisters in Clevedon, Somerset, she’s described thus:

Tall, thin, eager-looking, but with a promise of bodily vigour…[full of] nervous restlessness, and in her manner of speaking, childish at times in the hustling of inconsequent thoughts, yet striving to imitate the talk of her seniors. She had a good head, in both senses of the phrase; might or might not develop a certain beauty, but would assuredly put forth the fruits of intellect.

A budding bluestocking, then. She’s said to treat the younger girls ‘condescendingly’, favouring ‘intellectual talk’ (how unwomanly!), and speaking of gaining an education in order to earn her own living, speaking with ‘frankness peculiar to her, indicative of pride.’

Gissing’s hostile attitude towards her is clear from the start: she has only a ‘certain beauty’ to look forward to. Career aspirations in a person like her indicate not strength of character but ‘pride’.

This unflattering portrait is vitiated when the narrator goes on to tell us that she’s ‘fallen in love with’ a local widower called Smithson, 35 and with a consumptive daughter. Remember how sardonically (and hypocritically) she later dismissed that sentiment when told of the fate of Bella.

Young Rhoda is impressed by Smithson’s ‘aggressively radical’ views and parrots them proudly, such as the belief that women should be allowed to sit in Parliament. Dr Madden – father of the sisters – dismisses such views as unfortunate signs of the influence of her ‘objectionable friend’.

Rhoda Nunn next appears a few chapters and several years later, in the scene mentioned above, as Monica Madden pays her a call for the first time since that Clevedon scene, and Rhoda quizzes her about the hideous conditions in which she has to work in a London shop. Although she sympathises, she disapproves of her having succumbed to social pressure, rather than making a stand and precipitating reform:

“I wish it were harder [she says, when Monica had said how hard it was for a girl to find work]. I wish girls fell down and died of hunger in the streets, instead of creeping to their garrets and the hospitals. I should like to see their dead bodies collected together in some open place, for the crowd to stare at.”…Tolerance was not one of the virtues expressed in her physiognomy.

Her apparently unrequited love for the radical Smithson when she was younger has hardened her. Gissing is often considered a supporter of women’s rights, and it’s true that he does show sympathy with this cause in this novel. But it’s a highly ambivalent support. Miss Nunn is shown here and in the rest of the narrative as intolerant, little short of a fanatic.

She has little sympathy with the lowest classes (a trait Gissing tended to share). She tells a lady philanthropist that she has no interest in working for the reform of girls from ‘the lower classes’. These ‘uneducated people’ and ‘servant girls’ are beyond redemption in her view – they’re literally incomprehensible.

Where Gissing problematizes his position on feminism is in his portrayal of the potential love interest for Rhoda. Her unflagging commitment to asceticism and celibacy and her scorn for love (“a sickening sameness of vulgarity” she dismisses it as to Mary Barfoot), the ‘sexual instinct’ and marriage are tested by the profligate, idle Edmund Barfoot, Mary’s playboy cousin. Although he admires Rhoda’s strength of character and intellect, he ultimately wants to subjugate her, and is excited by the prospect of ‘taming’ this shrew. His thoughtless rejection of a working-class girl who he’d made pregnant – because in his view she deserved her fate, having thrown herself at him – reveals his amoral selfishness. Generally (like Gissing) he finds women ‘barbarous’. His tepid support for his cousin’s cause is largely because he feels educating women will benefit men.

So where ultimately does Gissing stand in this novel of shifting, oscillating sympathies? He seems to favour a sort of ‘soft’ feminism of the more ‘human’, less ‘fervid’ kind shown by Mary Barfoot – that stops short of fanaticism. “Your zeal is eating you up,” she says accusingly to Rhoda when they fall out over Bella. “Don’t enrage yourself.”

Yet Gissing portrays several kinds of masculine supremacy over women as reprehensible. Meanwhile he deprecates the ‘evils of celibacy’, and describes several marriages as disastrous for the husbands because of the stupidity of the wives. There’s much debate and discussion of what is connoted by the terms ‘womanly’ and ‘manly’, and some tilts in the direction of free love as an alternative to the social trap of conventional marriage.

And a rousing speech to her trainees by Mary Barfoot on the theme of Woman as an Invader (of the male sphere).

It’s not the role of the novelist to answer the difficult questions posed in novels that dramatise these complex issues. That Gissing poses them in such interesting – sometimes infuriating – ways is much to his credit. That Rhoda emerges from her encounters with Edmund a better and wiser woman is perhaps the main message.

A martyr and a ruler: Ivy Compton-Burnett, A House and its Head

Ivy Compton-Burnett, A House and its Head (1935)

Ivy Compton-Burnett has possibly the most idiosyncratic and instantly recognisable literary method and prose style of any modern writer. I’ve written about her technique extensively in my previous two posts about her:

The Present and the Past – several posts

A Family and a Fortune

In A House and Its Head she sticks to the formula that works so well for her: a forensic portrayal of a deeply dysfunctional upper middle-class family – the Edgeworths – living in a large country house in the 1880s. The villagers with whom they come into contact are mostly hypocritical, outwardly pious, virtuous types in the vein of Dickens’s ‘telescopic philanthropist’, Mrs Jellyby, or just malicious gossips.

Ivy Compton-Burnett, A House and its Head - coverDuncan Edgeworth is the most interesting character in a novel full of them. He’s a monster – straight out of her usual pool of Jacobean revenge-tragedy nasties. “He behaved like a god,” one of his daughters says at one point, part in awe, part rancorously. “He is always a martyr and a ruler,” is another description of him near the end.

In the opening chapter he starts in a minor way to show his tyrannical, oppressive control of his family: of his downtrodden wife Ellen, two spirited daughters who rebel as far as they dare, but ultimately succumb to his bullying, and of his more courageous and rebellious nephew, Grant, who for a while looks like he’ll be the one to refuse to be constrained by Duncan, but turns out to be just a self-serving, shallow hedonist.

First, he berates innocent, timorous Ellen for the tardiness in coming down to breakfast of the younger generation – as if it’s her fault. When they finally appear, his sarcasm is vicious. It’s Christmas day, and they open their presents. Grant’s is a book ‘inimical to the faith of the day’ that Duncan disapproves of: ‘on every page there is poison’. Presumably it’s Darwin. Duncan places it on the fire to burn. When elder daughter Nance mildly objects (‘Oh, Father, really!’), this is his characteristically venomous response:

“Really? Yes, really, Nance. I shall really do my best to guide you – to force you, if it must be, into the way you must go. I would not face the consequences of doing otherwise.”

“Would not the consequences be more widely distributed?”

“I shall really do what I can to achieve it,” went on Duncan, as if he had not heard, “and I trust it will not be impossible. I do not do it in my own strength.”

His coercive control here is revealed as a combination of patriarchal laying down of the law (i.e. his), personal attack on what he sees as heinous moral turpitude in those around him, and ridiculing of the linguistic-semantic shortcomings, as he pedantically represents them, of his victims’ attempts verbally to resist his strictures and oppressive behaviour.

As always, it’s the brilliantly contrived dialogue that’s the main vehicle for ICB’s mordant, witty take on the corrosive nature of this privileged, borderline deranged cast of characters. She makes little attempt at the usual novelistic technique of presenting what’s meant to be naturalistic dialogue (it never is, even in writers noted for their “realistic” dialogue; it’s always a literary contrivance), and this heightens the sense of artificiality, pomposity and egotism in the characters who deliver the dialogue.

Here’s Duncan still being cruel to Nance near the end of the novel, when her friend Cassie has called to announce the death of her mother:

“Nance, here is Cassie, out of sorts and out of heart. So listen to her, and let her talk herself out. She hasn’t come to you, for you to be of no good to her. See you are of some use as a woman, as you can be of none as anything else.”

So accustomed (and cowed) are the others in his house to this kind of casual unpleasantness that his comment receives no response.

The plot enables ICB to show the nastiness and defects in her characters in full flow: there are many deaths, an infanticide, incest and adultery – plenty for the salacious gossips in the village to indulge in. See what I mean about Jacobean tragedy? Oh, and there’s an insulting marriage proposal that Trollope would have been proud of (“you and I would be a charming couple”, the young woman is told by her would-be husband, whereas if he married her sister, who had just turned him down, they would have made “such an awkward pair”. How could anyone resist this charmer?)

It’s never easy to read a Compton-Burnett novel: the style is arch and dense, and it’s necessary for the reader to keep alert as multiple characters converse with minimal identification of who says what. But she’s well worth the effort.

Scott at his Minor Moderns blog wrote a perceptive, more detailed account of this novel (I liked his summary of it as a modernist Gothic comedy), with a useful biographical portrait of the author.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger

Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger. Penguin paperback. First published 1987

An old lady – Claudia – lies dying in a hospital bed, appearing out of it most of the time, but we are privy in this novel’s first-person sections in a multi-voiced narrative to her still functioning, brilliant mind as it savours memories.

‘“Was she someone?” enquires the nurse’, who patronises her and fails to acknowledge the humanity and intelligence of this impetuous, spirited woman: to the nurse she’s just a delirious, rather querulous and troublesome patient, who needs placating and humouring.

But the doctor, reading her notes, confirms what Claudia’s thoughts had alerted us to a few lines earlier: ‘”Yes, she does seem to have been someone’ – and he recites her history as recorded there:

…”evidently she’s written books and newspaper articles and … um…been in the Middle East at one time…typhoid, malaria…unmarried (one miscarriage, one child, but he does not say)…” [ellipses in the original text]

Penelope Lively Moon Tiger coverMoon Tiger, Penelope Lively’s tenth novel, won the 1987 Booker Prize, and it’s easy to see why: it’s a moving account of Claudia’s tempestuous, richly textured life in the context of the history of the world in which she lived. That terse list of her achievements – of the scars life left on her and the legacy she left – is brought dramatically to life in this novel. Claudia lives on in the reader’s memory long after finishing it – a difficult, prickly, assertive woman who scared many who knew her with her uncompromising confidence and glamorous good looks: ‘sometimes she squashes people,’ is one comment about her from someone who loved her.

The novel opens with Claudia saying that she’s writing a history of the world, ‘And, in the process, my own’:

fact and fiction, myth and evidence, images and documents.

The raw material of the historian and journalist that she had been. In writing this personal and universal history in her head, however, she is attempting to make ‘real history’, her story. ‘Everything and nothing’ is her method, a refrain that recurs throughout the narrative.

Coming to this novel after WG Sebald’s The Emigrants was illuminating. Like Sebald, she’s concerned not just with events, evidence, data, but with something more profound and important, more elusive.

She recalls a trip with Gordon, the dying brother with whom she had an intense, even sexual, love-hate relationship. As usual he has challenged her, deprecating her kind of history writing. She vehemently refutes his suggestion that she disdains theory, preferring to write popular histories that appeal to less discerning readers, about ‘action’ and the big names: Tito, Napoleon –

“That’s not real history. History is grey stuff. Products. Systems of government. Climates of opinion. It moves slowly. That’s why you get impatient with it. You look for spectacle…[and this] may mislead. What’s really happening may be going on elsewhere.”

“Oh, come on,” cries Claudia. “You’d tell the prisoner on the guillotine that the action is really somewhere else?”

Yet in that opening hospital scene Claudia had reflected on the nature of her history:

The voice of history, of course, is composite. Many voices; all the voices that have managed to get themselves heard. Some louder than others, naturally. My story is tangled with the stories of others…their voices must be heard also, thus shall I abide by the conventions of history. I shall respect the laws of evidence. But truth is tied to words, to print, to the testimony of the page. Moments shower away; the days of our lives vanish utterly, more insubstantial than if they had been invented. Fiction can seem more enduring than reality…History unravels; circumstances, following their natural inclination, prefer to remain ravelled.

The novel’s longest and most vivid section – an evocation of the central and most important episode in her ‘composite’ life when she was a war correspondent in Egypt in the 1940s, and met the love of her life – reveals the cause for this philosophy of Claudia’s. She sits trying to file copy in her room while worrying about her soldier lover’s fate. There are the statistics of retreats and advances, tanks and aircraft lost, men taken prisoner:

Figures dance on bits of paper, tenuously related to machines, to flesh and blood. There is out there, where these things or something like them are supposedly happening, and back here where ice clinks in glasses at six and hoses play on the gardens of Gezira.

Like Sebald, she reflects on the ‘disorder’ that follows war, its ‘aftermath’:

The aftermath of war should, correctly, be another war; it usually is. But the conventional aftermath is the struggle to set straight that which is awry; the taking stock, the counting of the living and the dead, the drift of the dispossessed back to their homelands, the apportioning of blame, the extraction of penalties and, at last, the writing of history. Once it is all written down we know what really happened.

Like him, she attempts to articulate a response to reading the entries in a loved one’s diary at the end of the novel. It’s more poignant and revealing than any accumulation of evidence:

I cannot analyse and dissect it, draw conclusions, construct arguments. You tell me about gazelles and dead men, guns and stars, a boy who is afraid; it is all clearer to me than any chronicle of events but I cannot make sense of it, perhaps because there is none to be made. It might be easier if I believed in God, but I don’t. All I can think, when I hear your voice, is that the past is true, which both appals and uplifts me.

She needs these memories:

And I can only explain this need by extravagance: my history and the world’s. Because unless I am a part of everything I am nothing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wilkie Collins tries another thriller

Collins Miss Mrs coverThe third in this OWC trilogy of Wilkie Collins novellas is The Guilty River. It first appeared in Bristol publisher JW Arrowsmith’s Christmas Annual, 1886, three years before Collins’ death, and subsequently in their ‘Bristol Library’ series.

Arrowsmith’s annual festive volume had become a big success, tapping into the contemporary taste for seasonal sensation-thrillers and ghost stories. They’d enjoyed best-seller status with the first of three such one-volume ‘shilling shockers’ (as they were known when published in book form, cheap ‘railway reading’ to rival the cumbersome and more expensive triple-deckers) by Bristolian Frederick John Fargus, writing as Hugh Conway. His first was in 1883, Called Back. When Fargus died in 1885, Arrowsmith turned to the ageing Collins to replicate his success.

But Collins’ health was failing, opium was taking its toll as well, and he fell behind schedule. He produced his final copy in a rush, working long hours to meet the deadline. This shows in the creakiness of the plot in The Guilty River. He also unashamedly adopts many of the plot features of his predecessor, such as a love-triangle, one of whom is a man with sensory deprivation (blindness), and a complicated, fast-paced plot (once it got going) designed to maximise thrills and horrors.

The Guilty River starts quite strongly, with an interesting account of the 22-year-old protagonist, Gerard Roylake, engaged in hunting moths – a pursuit he prefers to the trivial company of his frivolous, social butterfly (pardon the pun) of a stepmother, who he’s just met for the first time. He catches the insects with a process he calls ‘sugaring the trees’ with ‘a mixture or rum and treacle’. This ‘treacherous mixture’ allured and ‘stupefied’ the creatures.

The wood is dark and dreary – it’s a scene of typical Gothic gloom and death. It becomes weirder when Roylake’s familiar flying ‘enemies’ appear.

As I stretched out my hand to take [the moth], the apparition of a flying shadow passed, swift and noiseless, between me and the tree. In less than an instant the insect was snatched away, when my fingers were within an inch of it. The bat had begun his supper, and the man and the mixture had provided it for him.

This strange and stirring moth-hunting scene foreshadows much of the sporadically thrilling plot that follows – and many of its devices. It involves a love triangle: first, a deranged Deaf Lodger who insists on being called The Cur, because of the misery of his condition as a lonely outsider, cut off from society by his disability. Only a year earlier he’d been a beautiful, loving, good young man. Because of the discovery of dark family secrets on his father’s side, and the fear that he has a ‘family taint’ caused by the African slave blood of his grandmother, exacerbated by his ‘deaf man’s isolation’, his mind has broken.

Insanely infatuated with Cristel, the beautiful daughter of the devious miller, Roylake’s tenant, and obsessively jealous of the young landlord, who also falls for the buxom charms of Cristel, he attempts first to murder his hated rival, then, when that is narrowly thwarted, to abduct the young woman.

There are some interesting plot features like the doppelganger theme: the lodger is seen as a dark counterpart to Roylake – the Mr Hyde to his Jekyll. But modern readers will not find congenial the assumption that character was adversely influenced by the lodger’s being of ‘mixed breed’, or that the criminality of his paternal ancestors’ blood flowed in his veins. The benign influence of his much-loved mother’s genes is weaker than that of these malignant forebears – a dramatic struggle of heredity shared to a less extreme extent by Roylake, whose gentle, loving mother was cruelly treated by his father. His jealousy of his innocent wife’s past also caused him to banish his equally long-suffering son to exile on the continent of Europe when his ‘martyr’ of a mother died.

There’s the usual Gothic-sensational complexity of structure, with multiple secondary narratives. One of these, the lodger’s ‘Memoirs of a Miserable Man’, has two further embedded narratives within it, and there are numerous other letters, reports, etc. to spice up the mix – with limited success. That staple feature of so many Victorian novels (Trollope’s in particular) of class-based objections to socially mismatched love-matches is handled in a cumbersome manner.

As in The Haunted Hotel there are overt comparisons of the events in the narrative with a theatrical melodrama: ‘like a scene in a play, isn’t it?’ says Roylake to Cristel after summarising for her the Cur’s ‘Memoirs’. Not a good play.

It’s not surprising, then, that Collins’ attempt to do a Fargus was a failure. Sales came nowhere near those of ‘Hugh Conway’. After its fairly stirring start the plot falters and loses coherence. The ending is a bit of a mess. Too often the narrative tries too crudely to heighten tension by asking ‘How will it end?’, or speculating on how different choices at key moments might have, surprise surprise, resulted in less torturous outcomes.

So: thanks, Twitter folks, for the recommendation of Collins’ Venice-set novella, but I’m afraid this trilogy as a whole isn’t a great success for me.

 

 

Wilkie Collins, The Haunted Hotel

The Haunted Hotel is the second novella or long short story in the trilogy by Wilkie Collins (1824-89) published by Oxford World’s Classics; I posted yesterday on the first one, Miss or Mrs? 

Collins Miss Mrs cover

The rather handsome image on the cover of the OWC paperback is a detail from a watercolour by James Holland, ‘The Steps of the Palazzo Foscari'(1844)

The Haunted Hotel was first published in six monthly instalments, June-November, 1878, in Belgravia: An Illustrated London Magazine. This was a popular journal initially edited by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, author of the best-selling sensation novel Lady Audley’s Secret (serialised in 1861; first book form 1862) and established by her lover, the publisher John Maxwell, to provide an outlet for her copious fictional production. It was sold to Chatto and Windus in 1876, when its huge sales had already started to dwindle.

Hardy’s novel The Return of the Native appeared in serial form in the same magazine in the same year as The Haunted Hotel. That’s where the connection ends. Collins’s novella is nowhere near in the same class as Hardy’s sixth published novel.

Like Miss or Mrs? it is highly melodramatic and plot-driven. It differs in that it is has more in common with the gothic romance wing of sensation fiction, as its title suggests. Its first major player is the mysterious Countess Narona – whose very name resembles that of the equally demonic (and dangerously foreign) Count Murano in Radcliffe’s seminal gothic romance, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). The eponymous Venetian hotel, like the castles in that predecessor, is decaying, putrid and full of dark, spectral secrets – including a lab-workshop in the cellar that would have pleased Victor Frankenstein.

Although once again Collins keeps his plot rattling along at a good pace, ending every few chapters (presumably these were the final pages of each monthly instalment) with a cliffhanger. But these aren’t sufficient to hold the modern reader’s attention. The narrative only fully arrives in Venice at ch. 17, almost half-way through the story. Collins attempts to build suspense leading up to this point with a variety of familiar gothic-sensational devices, from letters and legal reports to oral narratives delivered by marginal characters.

The single unifying principle, on which the author stakes his whole supposedly terrifying mystery, is the probability that the room in which a character died under suspicious circumstances has lingered in ghost form and appears to his family members when they come to stay in the rambling, ruinous palazzo he’d rented during his stay in Venice, and which has subsequently converted by developers into a fashionable hotel.

Unfortunately, although there is a certain frisson when the ghastly truth arrives, it has taken far too long to arrive, and the  clichéd plot, full of stereotypical characters and implausible coincidences and developments, once again weaken the story. Collins tweaks that ending to leave a slight possibility of doubt whether the supernatural element really does have a more mundane explanation – but that’s not enough to rescue the novella from mediocrity.

Interest perks up slightly when it takes a surprising metafictional turn in the Venice section: the evil Countess suggests to a theatrical entrepreneur that he produce a play she’ll write called ‘The Haunted Hotel’, involving, guess what, a Venetian palazzo with a terrifying ghost, a plot contrasting credulous superstition with more rational villainy, and some twisty secrets. This too soon palls and becomes yet another creaky implausibility. As in Miss or Mrs? there’s some nasty casual racism and sexism.

Nevertheless I also found this second dose of sensational Collins – this time with a gothic flavour – entertaining enough for the post-Christmas torpor. It was this novella in the OWC volume that was recommended to me by the literary folk on Twitter when I put out a request for Venice-set literature to prepare me for a planned short break there with Mrs TD next spring.

Collins had visited the city several times, including one stay with his collaborator-friend Dickens and their mutual friend, the genre artist Augustus Egg, and most recently in 1877 while on a tour to alleviate the symptoms of gout in the eyes – for which he also turned to opium for relief. This first-hand knowledge doesn’t show itself in the story, however. I thought the detail about the setting could have been arrived at by any half-decent writer of potboilers armed with a tourist guide and a few poems by Byron.

Wilkie Collins, Miss or Mrs?

Not much time for reading over the Christmas period, but visitors have now gone, and I can at least post about the first of three long short stories by Wilkie Collins (1824-89) in one OWC volume (2008). The first, Miss or Mrs? (1871) is 80-odd pages long. The middle one, The Haunted House, about which more next time, is probably better described as a novella at 160 pp. The Guilty River is 110 pp.

Collins Miss Mrs coverNorman Page and Toru Sasaki point out in their Introduction that these shorter-form works of fiction were well favoured by many Victorian novelists, from Dickens (a friend of and collaborator with Collins) to Stevenson, Henry James to Conrad, and of course with later writers like Thomas Mann and DH Lawrence. Although he wrote more than twenty novels between 1850 and 1890 (Blind Love was published posthumously), and produced his most popular work in the 1860s –The Woman in White (1860) to The Moonstone (1868) – Collins was happy to meet the demand from publishers and the reading public for shorter fiction, mostly published originally in magazine form. Two of them were later republished in book form, thus reaching a new market, and generating a new income stream for author and publisher.

Miss or Mrs? first appeared in the Christmas edition of The Graphic, an ‘illustrated London newspaper’, which sold 200,000 copies. Its typically lurid and melodramatic plot reflects Collins’ knowledge of the law (he’d been intended for a legal career by his father, and was called to the bar in 1851, but soon turned to writing as a profession).

I have a soft spot for these Victorian ‘sensational’ works of fiction. They rely on intricacy of plot and outlandish developments, larger-than-life characters, implausible coincidences and murky secrets to drive the narrative at a cracking pace. Not so much energy or interest is invested in characterisation or psychological verisimilitude.

Readers today might not find it so easy to warm to the two central romantic figures. Natalie Graybrooke is only fifteen. Her weak-willed, money-loving father is easily persuaded by his shady middle-aged and clearly villainous friend Turlington (with some nasty secrets in his history) to consent to their marrying, unaware that the shady ‘Levant trader’ has got seriously into debt and needs the money that her father has promised as a dowry to get him out of his difficulties.

Her secret lover has the implausibly Tennysonian name Launcelot Linzie. He’s not so much older than Natalie, but her cousin – neither her age nor their familial connection seem to cause much of a problem in Victorian times.

The convoluted plot involves a heartless abandonment of a man at sea (in the past), a dastardly murder plot that nearly succeeds (in the present), a blackmail plot, and the lovers’ secret wedding in a dodgy part of London (to avoid the gentry who know her family from finding out about Natalie and Launcelot’s marriage). Because she’s underage – presumably this is why the author makes his heroine so young, otherwise the plot collapses – they can’t elope, as under Victorian law of the time this would open the groom to the charge of abduction (if she’d been sixteen she’s described by him as being ‘ripe for elopement’! – some of the social and gender attitudes are pretty grim). So she has to remain, secretly wed, in her father’s household, subjected to the creepy advances of her would-be husband, Turlington.

It might be a plot device to make Natalie only fifteen, but Collins repeatedly describes her as sexually mature, alluring and nubile. Her physical and emotional precocity is accounted for in further dubious plotting – she’s another of those Victorian plot staples, an outsider: her mother had been born in the West Indies, and it’s thought she has ‘a mixture of Negro blood and French blood’. Both would have been considered sufficient to explain her sexually advanced development (Rochester’s wife in Jane Eyre belongs in this category; Heathcliff, too, in his own way, perhaps). This racial and gender stereotyping is difficult to countenance now, and the love scenes between Natalie and Launcelot are a little disturbing.

It’s good fun finding out how all these tangled threads of plot are tied up by the end, but it’s far from a work of high literary seriousness. Entertaining reading for the holidays, though.

Maybe the plot owes something to Collins’ well-known unconventional personal views on marital relations. From 1858 he lived with a lower-class widow and her daughter. Although she wanted to marry him, he disapproved of the institution of marriage. She left him for a time in the early 1860s and even married someone else, but returned to him and they continued their ménage. In 1868 he met Martha Rudd, then 19, and they began a separate household together and they had three children. He divided his time between the two families. He’d also become an opium addict, having taken the drug initially to treat the painful symptoms of gout.

It’s not surprising really that his stories have such outlandish and sensational plots.

Ardour and shyness: Virginia Woolf’s essays on women in The Common Reader vol. 2

Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader vol. 2: cover

My Vintage Books paperback edition of 2003

When she turns her attention to female writers in The Common Reader vol. 2, Virginia Woolf’s tone become more fervent than in those essays that discuss male figures. More indignant, too. Not surprising, really, as this collection was published just three years after A Room of One’s Own.

Here she is, in her essay on the Letters of Dorothy Osborne, (1627-95), most of them written in the years of clandestine courtship to the man she married in 1654, Sir William Temple. ‘Material conditions’ that made it difficult for non-aristocratic men to become writers at that time were worse for women:

the woman was impeded also by her belief that writing was an act unbefitting her sex.

The odd ‘great lady’ might write and print her writings and be grudgingly tolerated, protected by her rank: ‘But the act was offensive to a woman of lower rank.’ Dorothy wrote as much herself when the Duchess of Newcastle published one of her books, exclaiming that she could never stoop to such unbecoming lack of decorum.

Yet she was a woman with a ‘great literary gift’, Woolf adds. Had she born 200 years later she’d have been a fine novelist. As it was, the only form of expression open to her was letters – and these allow us a rare example of the voice of men and women ‘talking together over the fire.’ Despite the stylistic (and social-domestic) constraints of the time for women of her station, Lady Temple took pains over her compositions, and produced a literature of her own,

a record of life, gravely yet playfully, formally and yet with intimacy, to a public of one, but to a fastidious public, as the novelist can never give it, or the historian either.

Jonathan Swift secured a position in the late 1680s as secretary to Sir William. ‘Mild Dorothea, peaceful, wise and great,’ is his description of her in her final years. He failed to perceive the passionate, spirited woman who is glimpsed in those letters to her forbidden lover, and whose voice has otherwise been muted or ignored, along with most of the other women who lived in those days, and for many years afterwards.

The sketch of Mary Wollstonecraft also glows with suppressed empathetic anger. Mary’s violent father’s profligacy forced her into that hated role of so many women of her class, governess: ‘she had never known what happiness was.’ All she knew was ‘the sordid misery of real human life’ – and yet she forged an identity and a philosophy all her own:

The staple of her doctrine was that nothing mattered save independence…not grace or charm, but energy and courage and the power to put her will into effect, were the necessary qualities.

Revolution was in her blood:

She had been in revolt all her life – against tyranny, against law, against convention. The reformer’s love of humanity, which has so much of hatred in it as well as love, fermented within her.

Only rarely does this fiery tone emerge in Woolf’s essays on male writers.

She’s more sober in the piece on the quiet, unassuming devotion of Dorothy Wordsworth to her brother, as revealed in her journals and letters. But even she is allowed some force and fervour, as here in an account of her writing about a waterfall:

She searched out all its character, she noted its resemblances, she defined its differences, with all the ardour of a discoverer, with all the exactness of a naturalist, with all the rapture of a lover.

Woolf notes how Dorothy effectively created the conditions in which her ‘beloved’ William could become a poet, not just domestically, but emotionally, artistically, even linguistically:

It was a strange love, profound, almost dumb, as if brother and sister had grown together and shared not the speech but the mood, so that they hardly knew which felt, which spoke, which saw the daffodils or the sleeping city; only Dorothy stored the mood in prose, and later William came and bathed in it and made it into poetry. But one could not act without the other.

A more sober account, then, but the language, imagery and style of that passage show the emotion tempered by intellect of the Metaphysicals, the graceful expressive symmetry of the Augustans. The brother ‘bathes’ in the life-giving spring waters of his sister’s self-effacing generosity and art.

Dorothy may have lacked the fiercely passionate nature and agency of Mary Wollstonecraft, but Woolf convinces us that Dorothy’s role in English literary history is just as significant – not just in acting as midwife to much of her illustrious brother’s work, but in her own surviving written work. There was a different type of passionate blood flowing in her veins, a different order of self-expression, and Virginia Woolf has the clear-eyed sympathy to perceive them, as she sums up a typical journal entry by Dorothy:

Her pen sometimes stammers with the intensity of the emotion that she controlled, as De Quincey said that her tongue stammered with the conflict between her ardour and her shyness as she spoke.

Yet ‘still she must control’ her impulsive nature, ‘still she must repress, or she would fail in her task – she would cease to see.’

As Nora says in A Doll’s House when her controlling, patronising husband talks about a man’s pride: millions of women have to swallow theirs, every day.