Paltry things: Elizabeth Taylor, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

Elizabeth Taylor, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (Virago Modern Classics, 1982) First published 1971

Elizabeth Taylor’s approach in Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont seems austere and economical in comparison with Rebecca West’s baroque and intricate portrayal of an upper middle class family in decline (The Fountain Overflows), which I wrote about yesterday, who revels in the eccentricity of her adult characters and the almost feral preciousness of the children.

I’ve come to Elizabeth Taylor later than most, it seems. This novel has been so widely reviewed and discussed (list of links at the end of this post) I shall limit myself mostly to just one character in order to show some of the subtlety and unsentimental sympathy the author shows towards characters who she might, given her leftist leanings, have found uncongenial, even repulsive. This is the generosity of spirit of a truly humane artist.

Mrs Palfrey cover

My VMC edition was a Christmas present from Mrs TD

When Laura Palfrey arrives at the unprepossessing hotel to spend her declining years (she and her only daughter don’t get on), she feels like a prisoner when first confined to her cell. From her window all she can see is

a white brick wall down which dirty rain slithered.

The weather and slowly, inexorably passing seasons feature largely in creating mood, as here. The pathetic fallacy doesn’t grate, because it’s clearly refracted through the depressed sensibility of the protagonist. The artist’s own distinctive stylistic touch is seen in that artfully delayed verb, with its connotations of disgust.

Mrs Palfrey’s loneliness is reflected in the jaded residents she meets there. Status is measured by the number of visitors they receive – for all have become adrift from life, mostly forgotten by family and friends (it’s ‘a genteel antechamber to oblivion’ as Robert McCrum memorably calls it in his piece on the novel in his 100 Best Novels column in the Guardian).

The first resident she meets is the scary, cantankerous Mrs Arbuthnot, ‘bent with arthritis and walking with two sticks.’ Asking if is she’s coming to watch ‘the serial’ on tv, this woman ‘looked as if she might have smiled if she had not been in so much pain.’ So immediately we see the reason for her rude abruptness, and although it’s hard to condone, it’s possible to understand it.

Mrs Palfrey got up quickly, and she blushed a little as if she were a new girl at school addressed for the first time by a prefect.

Not a prison, now, but an infantilising, faction ridden school-like institution, with only one escape route (‘The Claremont was rather like a reduced and desiccated world of school’). Taylor in this encounter shows how the dynamics of relationships develop, and how characters’ foibles and inner nature are revealed throughout the novel – with subtle perception and minimal exposition.

Although she realises this woman is a bully, Mrs Palfrey’s insight, conveyed so ambivalently, shows her pathetic gratitude, tempered by humiliation.

A few days later Mrs Arbuthnot condoles spitefully with Mrs Palfrey when her vaunted grandson, the only relative who might visit her and prove she’s not abandoned like the rest of them, fails to materialise. Mrs Arbuthnot clearly doubts he exists, and fails to buy Mrs Palfrey’s excuses for her lack of visitors, gazing at her malevolently. Mrs Palfrey’s inner response is telling:

They were such very pale blue eyes as to make Mrs Palfrey uneasy. She thought that blue eyes get paler and madder as the years go by. But brown eyes remain steady, she decided, with a little pride.

Once again she shows a measure of spirit in the face of malice – but does not condemn her tormenter.

Later, when her new friend Ludo comes to dinner with her at the hotel and flinches under Mrs Arbuthnot’s artless probing – she rightly suspects he’s not really Mrs Palfrey’s grandson, with the instinctive rancour of a disappointed outcast who recognises another (Mrs Palfrey) when she sees one – he exclaims what ‘wicked old eyes’ Mrs Arbuthnot has. Mrs Palfrey says: ‘She is often in great pain.’

Her refusal to judge is rare in this infernal hotel, and redolent of the humanity with which Taylor portrays these sad, abandoned characters.

At bedtime after this encounter, Mrs Palfrey ‘slept well all night, and her lips were level, as if she were ready to smile.’ But the narrator follows Mrs Arbuthnot into her lonely bedroom. She’s in too much pain to sleep, her ‘rigid limbs’ a ‘torture’ to her.

Her interior monologue shows how desperately anxious and depressed she is. Her husband, like those of all these faded women, would have assertively complained to management about their shabby quarters. With ‘ghastly clarity’ she realises her constant complaining is directed ‘only to underlings like herself, who could do nothing.’ Whereas her husband would go ‘straight to the fountain-head’, she is afraid of it. Her raw, fearful vulnerability is painful to witness.

Her dejection is exacerbated by her growing realisation that she will soon be too ill to be allowed to remain at the hotel. ‘We are not allowed to die here’, Mrs Palfrey tells Ludo in one of the most memorable lines in the novel (and which he gleefully steals for the title of the novel he’s writing about the place).

Mrs Arbuthnot foresees her future: her incapacity will inevitably mean a nursing home or geriatric ward (and soon her incontinence brings this about.) ‘Or going to stay with one of her sisters, who did not want her.’

‘Can’t die here,’ she thought, in the middle of the night…One might go on and on, hopelessly being a nuisance to other people; in the end, lowering standards because of rising prices…Down the ladder she would have to go.

She reflects jealously on how happy Mrs Palfrey looked at dinner with Ludo, ‘their eyes on one another’s faces, like lovers’. She’d eavesdropped on them with ‘ears sharpened by malice’.

Mrs Palfrey is a dark horse, she thought. At this unintended little pun in her mind, she tipped her head back against the pillow and grimaced, by way of smiling.

Her ‘casual cruelty’ (as Paul Bailey says in his tender homage in the Introduction) serves to protect her from the ‘not always casual cruelty of others.’ Even a vindictive woman like Mrs Arbuthnot is shown as vulnerable and human – and sharing in humanity’s suffering.

An aged man is a paltry thing, said Yeats, a tattered coat upon a stick. It’s not so often we see such a sympathetic, clear-eyed portrayal of women growing old in literature. Ageing deprives these characters of dignity and, most of them, of hope. It’s to Elizabeth Taylor’s immense credit that she’s able to show an element of both in some of their bleak lives.

It’s not as sad or grim a read as these notes might suggest. There’s humour. Geriatric, unredeeming gallows humour, perhaps, but it’s there. That Palfrey pun adds pathos to Mrs Arbuthnot’s twisted, painful animosity.

Max at Pechorin’s Journal gives his customarily perceptive account, followed by a list of links to other blogs. I’d highlight the following, who’ve written about numerous other Taylor works (so far I’ve only posted here on the Complete Stories):

Jacqui Wine’s blog

Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings

Ali at Heavenali

Caroline at Bookword.

Simon at Stuck in a Book

Glory and littleness: Robert Walser’s ‘Jakob von Gunten’

On all these paths Walser has been my constant companion…the unmistakeable figure of the solitary walker just pausing to take in the surroundings. W. G. Sebald, A Place in the Country (2013), reviewed by me here.

Here is a section from my post on Sebald’s posthumously published collection of essays that dealt with Walser:

The essay on the isolated ‘outsider’ Walser is a poignant mini-masterpiece.  This ‘most unattached of all solitary poets’ is portrayed with delicate, loving sensitivity; we see the ‘precariousness’ of Walser’s existence, his loneliness and ‘virginal innocence’.  At the core of this ‘ragged soul’ was an ‘absence’ that was the source of his ‘unique strangeness’.   Although he was always ‘beset by shadows’, his writings are ‘illumined…with the most genial light’, striving towards ‘weightless[ness]’ in an attempt to ‘obliterate himself’.  He ‘almost always wrote the same thing and yet never repeated himself’, he was ‘a clairvoyant of the small’, his thoughts were ‘honed on the tiniest details’ but they became increasingly incomprehensible as his sanity faded, and he tended to ‘get lost in the clouds’ and dissolve into the ‘ephemeral’, into ‘thin air’, heading for the darkness of insanity and a solitary death in the snow one Christmas Day.

 

Robert Walser (1878-1956) grew up in the Swiss border town of Biel. His work was admired by Kafka, Musil, Hesse and Walter Benjamin – a group of artists who no doubt found similar themes to their own in his existentially anguished ‘outsider’ narratives, concealed under a deceptively slight, charming and eccentrically naïve exterior.

Jakob v G Walser cover Jakob von Gunten (first published in German in 1909, translated in 1969 and with an introduction by Christopher Middleton, reissued by NYRB Classics in 1999) seems inspired by Walser’s own experience. It tells the story of a seventeen-year-old boy who runs away from what he feels is a stifling bourgeois home to join a training academy in Berlin for aspiring servants, the Benjamenta Institute, named after its principal, Herr Benjamenta. Walser had attended a similar school in Berlin in 1905, followed by a period of employment as a butler in a castle in Silesia.

The teaching is mostly conducted by the principal’s sister, Lisa. There’s only one class, and the teaching consists largely of rote-learning from a tract called ‘How Should a Boy Behave’; ‘we are not taught anything’, Jakob explains with bland transparency. There appear to be other teaching staff, but they are either absent or asleep – a typically enigmatic situation: it’s difficult to tell throughout this hazy narrative how much is fantasy, dream or some kind of intuited reality as perceived by the eponymous first-person narrator; he writes in an early journal entry:

Sometimes my whole stay here seems like an incomprehensible dream

There’s little in the way of plot. The novel is constructed as a journal, with short, disconnected entries in which Jakob puts down his thoughts, dreams, reflections on the mundane events of the day with his classmates, several of whom recur in different situations. He forms intensely close and bizarrely fluctuating relationships with them (and with everyone else), at times speaking of them as if they were adored intimates, at others with arrogant disdain. Paradoxically, Jakob claims to admire the compliance of the other boys with this unconventional school regime, while at the same time exhibiting tendencies of rebellion and feelings of scornful superiority. By the end, however, he expresses gratitude to the school for transforming him into ‘an ordinary person’, happy to become ‘lost and forgotten somewhere else in life’, a cipher: ‘I don’t want to think of anything.’ Later he says: ‘You’ve no idea what bliss, what grandeur there is in yearning, in waiting.’

He develops a schoolboy crush on Fräulein Lisa, which doesn’t end well, while her brother the principal appears to fall heavily for Jakob. The school’s pupils gradually leave, and there is a sense of inevitable closure by the end of the novel, and we’re left unsure whether the protagonist is set to embark on a life-enhancing adventure with his partner. Or else it’s like Don Quixote riding off into the Mancha with Sancho Panza, a deluded escape from a crushingly banal life of servitude – or a flight into madness.

This is a strange and challenging novel. It can become so superficially inconsequential that I was tempted to put it aside, and then something arresting and strange happens (often inside Jakob’s head, as far as I can tell), and I carried on reading. It gets under the skin despite the apparently inconsequential surface. As Christopher Middleton says poetically in his introduction:

The stylistic invention ranges between maximum abruptness and beautifully timed arabesque dottiness.

With his obsessive narrative accumulations of fantastic mingled with quotidian minuscule details, Walser as a writer resembles the ‘primitive’ style of that other psychically troubled artist, Richard Dadd, rather more than Douanier Rousseau, with whom he is more usually compared. ‘Is this a morgue, or is it a celestial house of joy?’, Jakob muses at one point, in a typically polar opposition.

I’ll finish with an extract to try to illustrate the novel’s unique quality. It will have to be quite long in order to demonstrate these curious qualities in the prose:

What singular oddities we are. Our hair is always neatly and smoothly combed and brushed, and everyone has to cut his own parting up there in the world on his head…That’s how it should be. Partings are also in the rule-book. And because we all look so charmingly barbered and parted, we all look alike, which would be a huge joke for any writer, for example, if he came on a visit to study us in our glory and littleness. This writer had better stay at home. Writers are just windbags who only want to study, make pictures and observations. To live is what matters, then the observation happens of its own accord. Our Fräulein Benjamenta would in any case let fly at such a wandering writer, blown in upon us by rain or snow, with such force that he would fall to the floor at the unfriendliness of the welcome. Then the instructress, who loves to be an autocrat, would say to us, perhaps, “Boys, help the gentleman to pick himself up.” And then we pupils of the Benjamenta Institute would show the uninvited guest the whereabouts of the door. And the morsel of inquisitive authordom would disappear again. No, these are just imaginings. Our visitors are gentlemen who want to engage us boys in their service, not people with quills behind their ears.

Robert Walser

Walser in 1890 (via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1929 Walser had some kind of mental breakdown (he attempted suicide maybe more than once) and entered the first of the psychiatric clinics in which he was to spend the rest of his life. When he was placed in the Herisau sanatorium in 1933, he stopped writing and spent most of his time on solitary walks.

 

Vignettes: Liz Taylor, Fred Titmus

A whimsical departure from my usual book-based posts today. I find myself on dog-sitting duties while visitors and spouse are out and I came across some vignettes in an old notebook that I wanted to pass on, to pass the time. Please give this a miss if you want serious literary analysis this time. There are taboo terms, too (advance warning).

On 23 March 2011 (the date of my notebook entry) the film star Elizabeth Taylor died at the age of 79.

Fred Titmus in 1962

Fred Titmus in 1962

So too did Fred Titmus, the former Middlesex and England off-spinner (b. 1932, so he was one year younger than Taylor; one wonders if they ever met); this will mean little, I presume, to some readers, but he was a hero of mine in my youthful cricketing days. His career was curtailed when he lost four toes in an accident (while on tour with the England team in the West Indies) involving an encounter with a speedboat’s propellors when he was swimming .

The indie band Half Man Half Biscuit (from NW England) have a song called ‘Fuckin’ ‘ell, It’s Fred Titmus’ (link to a YouTube recording here), from their 1985 album Back in the DHSS – this was the British government department which was responsible for Social Security, including unemployment benefits (colloquially known as the dole). The song has interesting lyrics:

Oh I was walking round my local store

Searching for the ten pence off Lenor

When suddenly I bumped into this guy

On seeing who it was I gave a cry…(title refrain)

In subsequent verses the narrator encounters the bowler in a park and at a railway station. Lenor is the proprietary name of a brand of fabric conditioner here in the UK.

Statue of Larkin in Hull

Statue of Larkin in Hull

Trains tend to play a significant part in the band’s lyrics; they have a song called ‘Time Flies When You’re the Driver of a Train’. The video for ‘National Shite Day’ includes footage shot from a train pulling out of (or into) Hull station, in the NE of England. This is not a fashionable city – though Philip Larkin was librarian at its university library, and Andrew Marvell was born near there.

I rather like their songs; they delight in satiric references to minor celebrities and pop culture (such as the facile pun on Stevie Nicks’ name in the Titmus song), and the slow tedium of life on the dole. Another track on the DHSS album rejoices in the title ‘Sealclubbing’, which could also be seen as a pun of sorts, but probably isn’t. A character in this song tries fruitlessly to commit suicide by taking an overdose of Haliborange – a brand of harmless vitamin pills for children.

National Shite Day includes a reference to a character called Stringy Bob (who’s ‘still on suicide watch’; life on the dole is grim) finding a dead wading bird while beachcombing on the Dee Estuary (I used to live in Bagillt, a desolate village on the opposite shore of the estuary from Birkenhead-Wirral, where HMHB hail from). Bob parcels the bird up and posts it with a note reading:

‘Is this your sanderling?’

A sanderling (with leg tag)

A sanderling (with leg tag)

Surely the only pop song to namecheck this particular wader.

 

 

 

Obsessive reading and podcasts

Summer has finally arrived in Cornwall, and I’ve finished teaching for a few months; consequently I can write about a wider range of matters than usual.

My last post about obsessive, even addictive behaviour among book acquirers and readers elicited a number of comments, most of them from avid readers who recognised the traits I described. Claire (of the Word by Word book blog), however, provided a corrective: addiction is perhaps an inappropriate term to have used. I was picking up on Belinda’s use (in her Bii’s Books blog) of the term ‘sugar addict at the end of Lent’ to refer to a book-buying splurge she indulged in after her #TBR20 project ended. No offence was intended when I likened bookish obsessions to addiction; I should have been more circumspect with my imagery.

Today I’d like to depart in another direction from my usual run of thoughts about what I’ve been reading. I’ve been leafing through an old notebook – one of my obsessions also noted in my previous post: stockpiling and writing random findings about books and culture in these notebooks; I suppose they’re my equivalent of those 18th and 19th century ‘commonplace books’.

I tend to keep a record in these notebooks of peripheral literary/cultural material: newspaper reviews, online articles and so on. I also listen to a lot of podcasts on such matters, especially when walking to work – just over half an hour is perfect for most podcasts. I looked up what I’d written in this one from three years ago. Here’s what I found in this notebook’s entries from June 2012.

Eleanor Wachtel: Wikipedia image

Eleanor Wachtel: Wikipedia image

One of my favourite literary podcasts is this one by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC): Writers & Company, hosted with intelligent warmth by Eleanor Wachtel (link to its website HERE). The focus is on good writing from all over the world. Recent episodes (all available from the website) include interviews with Irishman Donal Ryan, André Aciman (Francophone Egyptian-Turkish-American), and a series entitled ‘Reimagining the Balkans’: writers, film-makers and others who are expressing what’s happened since the terrible wars of the nineties. Three years ago this is what I’d single out from my notes on what I’d been listening to from this podcast:

Edward St Aubyn (broadcast 25 March 2012), the Melrose novels. Why listen to such podcasts? They throw light on what one has already read, enriching that experience, through Ms Wachtel’s deceptively soft-toned but incisive, probing interviews with authors of books. They also provide recommendations for what to read in the future. It took me over a year to get around to reading these astonishingly raw, witty, viscerally disturbing novels, but they were a searing, brilliant read.

Edith Wharton photographed in 1915: image via WikiCommons

Edith Wharton photographed in 1915: image via WikiCommons

A broadcast of 22 April 2012 featured an interview with Hermione Lee on the subject of Edith Wharton, about whom she’d written a biography a few years earlier (there’s an excellent review of it by Hilary Spurling in the Guardian HERE). I found this podcast interesting because of my passion for the work of Henry James, with whom the scary New York socialite had an intriguingly weird relationship.

Next I’d written about the BBC Radio 4 podcast of its long-running cultural programme ‘In Our Time’. There’s a link to its homepage HERE, where its complete archive can be accessed; this can be broken down into categories: Culture (including literature), Philosophy, Religion, Science. Recent topics covered range from Prester John to Utilitarianism; the Lancashire cotton famine during the American Civil War to the poetry of Tagore and the fiction of Fanny Burney.

The item I’d listened to in June 2012 was broadcast on 14 Oct. 2010; it was on the topic of ‘Sturm und Drang’: the short-lived German proto-Romantic aesthetic movement of the late 18th century initiated by Klinger and adopted by Herder, Goethe (his ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’, which I’d recently read in June 2012), Lessing, etc. It raised some curious points about masculinity and suicide, among others.

The host, Melvyn Bragg, is sometimes lampooned in the British media for his implausibly luxuriant hair and adenoidal northern English accent. This probably says more about the snobbish prejudices of the English media than it does about Lord Bragg.

Another time I’ll try to recommend some other book-based podcasts that I’ve found rewarding to listen to. They’re the audio equivalent of book blogs, I suppose. When they feature author interviews, however, they often provide insights unavailable to those of us who simply write about our own responses to what we read.

I’ve dug out these notebook-archived pieces deliberately because they still resonate with me when I re-read them now, and attest to the quality of content in these programmes that persists today. I’d urge you to investigate and subscribe to the podcasts mentioned here. They’re all free.

 

 

Henry James, ‘Daisy Miller: A Study’

The donnée for ‘Daisy Miller’ was an anecdote told to Henry James (1843-1916) by his friend Alice Bartlett in Italy a year or so before its first publication in 1878. James transformed this wisp of narrative into a vividly realised comedy of social manners which ends with a delicately sketched scene of pathos and loss. He subtly evoked the tourist haunts of Vevey in Switzerland, where the story opens one June, and Rome, where it ends the following January, having spent several years of his life in these places that were so fashionable with the new waves of moneyed Americans dutifully following their Baedeker guides to the tourist honeypots of old Europe.

John Singer Sargent's portrait of James (1913), National Portrait Gallery website

John Singer Sargent’s portrait of James (1913), National Portrait Gallery website

James knew that recently-appeared type: the ‘American girl’ from Schenectady (home of the newly self-made rich, not of those with ‘old money’) disembarking from her transatlantic liner full of brash confidence, in the ‘tournure of a princess’. With their air of regal independence such ‘stylish young girls’ are ‘not the least embarrassed’ to find themselves unchaperoned in the company of strange young men. When Daisy encounters the story’s protagonist, the wealthy Frederick Winterbourne, a twenty-seven year old dilettante, on the terrace of the Trois Couronnes hotel, noted for its air of ‘luxury and of maturity’, on the shores of Lake Geneva, ‘she was evidently neither offended nor fluttered’ to be engaged with in familiar conversation by this suave stranger to whom she had not been formally introduced, and without the protection of her unvigilant mother.

Winterbourne is visiting his formidably proper aunt, Mrs Costello. He is said to be ‘studying’ in Geneva, that ‘little metropolis of Calvinism’, though it is apparent he expends very little effort on academic pursuits: he is in reality ‘extremely devoted to a lady who lived there – a foreign lady – a person older than himself’, about whom ‘some singular stories’ were told. Our omniscient narrator hints that he is having some kind of illicit dalliance, distinctly at odds with Calvinistic puritanism. Therefore when he is clearly attracted to this ‘beautiful young lady’ on the terrace, the description of her as ‘strikingly, admirably pretty’ is evidently filtered through his consciousness:

‘How pretty they are!’ thought Winterbourne…

He is thinking approvingly of the ‘type’ just noted. Her name is Annie P. Miller – a pointedly artisanal surname – but is known as Daisy. If Winterbourne’s name is redolent of his frigidly Europeanised nature (though he is not averse to clandestine affairs), then hers signifies her spring-like, blooming freshness.

In buttoned-up Geneva, he reflects, ‘a young man was not at liberty to speak to a young unmarried lady except under certain rarely-occurring conditions’. But here at Vevey the ‘pretty American girl’ shows no signs of constraint. On the contrary, her glance towards him is ‘direct and unshrinking’, though ‘not immodest’ – her eyes, he notes admiringly, are ‘singularly honest and fresh’, and ‘wonderfully pretty’; the word ‘pretty’ is used a remarkable 38 times in the story, most of them with reference to Daisy or her ‘type’ (she is described as ‘beautiful’ three times).

Winterbourne is ‘addicted to observing and analysing’ feminine beauty: that is to be his problem. Like so many of James’s detached, observing male protagonists, he is incapable of committed action or decision-making. He is from the start enchanted but also puzzled by the liberties taken by this young charmer. Like Eveline in the Dubliners story which I wrote about here recently, it’s indecision and inability to discriminate morally and emotionally that’s at the heart of this story.

He notes, on this first encounter, with candidly critical perspicuity, that her face is ‘not exactly expressive’, with ‘a want of finish’. She showed bland ignorance of the culture and history of the place, and he thinks it very possible she is a ‘coquette’. Although she is coltishly spirited, he also observes, with another telling string of derogatory adjectives and negatives, that ‘in her bright, superficial little visage there was no mockery, no irony.’

Her equally precocious little brother Randolph tells him their father is a rich businessman from Schenectady. She ‘chattered’ expansively and unselfconsciously. He ‘found it very pleasant’, but our taciturn narrator conveys a simultaneous sense that she is hardly articulate and certainly uneducated, with her frequent low idioms (as the fastidious Jamesian narrator would say) such as ‘I guess’ and ‘ever so many’.

The narrative voice is then distinctively Jamesian: detached and ironic, it notes at this point Winterbourne’s mixed reaction to all this superficial flirtatiousness: he ‘was amused, perplexed, and decidedly charmed,’ but had never seen anything like this without sensing ‘laxity of deportment’.

He goes on to wonder whether he had spent so long in Europe he had become ‘dishabituated to the American tone’: maybe it would be wrong to accuse Daisy of what passed in Geneva as ‘actual or potential inconduite’. In a revealing passage of narrated thought he weighs up the possibility that ‘they were all like that’, the pretty girls of New York: or ‘was she also a designing, an audacious, an unscrupulous young person?’ His ‘instinct’, along with his ‘reason’, had deserted him (as Eveline’s were to). She ‘looked extremely innocent’, and he’d heard both that ‘American girls were exceedingly innocent’, and that they were not. ‘Innocent’ appears twelve times in the story, nine times in relation to Daisy (twice, interestingly, to Winterbourne himself; he is perhaps the truly innocent party in this tale, in the sense that he doesn’t fully know himself as Daisy does herself); ‘innocence’ appears in relation to Daisy six times.

He was inclined to think that she was just ‘a pretty American flirt,’an ‘unsophisticated’ girl: ‘she was only a pretty American flirt.’ His repetitive, looping, inconclusive internal monologue over, he wonders (ungallantly) how far he can proceed with this new, ingenous kind of coquette.

His flirtation is not approved of by his aunt; she held great social ‘sway’ in New York, and admitted that she was ‘very exclusive’ (another recurring term in the story, one that Daisy predictably scorns). Mrs Costello was, to Winterbourne’s mind, almost ‘oppressively’ adept at negotiating the ‘minutely hierarchical constitution’ of that city’s society. He realises that she adheres to similar proprieties in the expatriate community in Europe. Her view of Daisy was that her ‘place in the social scale was low.’ One does not ‘accept’ such ‘common’ girls, she advises him, no matter how pretty or charming, or how perfectly they dress: ‘I can’t think where they get their taste’, she remarks acerbically. She disapproves of Daisy’s democratic familiarity with the family’s courier, and her mother is no more socially discerning or proper, and she lets her children do as they please. They lack the discrimination, taste or social awareness to be able to distinguish an outward appearance of gentlemanliness from that of the real thing. Winterbourne later realises Daisy and her mother lacked the ‘culture’ to rise to the idea of ‘catching’ an aristocratic husband for her; they were ‘intellectually incapable of that conception.’

She thinks Daisy is not respectable; her nephew agrees that she is ‘rather wild’ and ‘uncultivated’ – but ‘wonderfully pretty.’

 ‘What a dreadful girl! [Mrs Costello exclaims:] You had better not meddle with little American girls that are uncultivated…You have lived too long out of the country. You will be sure to make some great mistake. You are too innocent.’

When he denies this, she retorts with delicious paradoxical wit: ‘You are too guilty, then!’

She’s not just being snobbishly malicious: he’s revealing himself, she means, with shrewd insight, as hypocritical: attracted to Daisy, while aware of her genuinely vulnerable, bourgeois innocence.

The stage is set. If Daisy exceeded even the ‘liberal licence’ of his aunt’s granddaughters then ‘anything might be expected of her’. Unaware of the unflattering sexual ambiguity of such a notion, he realises he is impatient to see her again, and yet, more to his credit, ‘vexed with himself that, by instinct, he should not appreciate her justly.’ This is the lesson he is to learn by the end.

I have given this detailed outline of the story’s early expositional stage to indicate that it is really as much a narrative of Winterbourne’s slow-growing awareness as of Daisy’s, who hardly changes. A typically ambivalent James protagonist, he feels attracted to this beautiful figure with her ‘delicate grace’, but simultaneously repelled by what he perceives as her ‘commonness’, vulgarity and duplicity. This renders him emotionally, culpably impotent. She’s the ‘unprotected daughter’ of a wilfully indulgent mother and absentee father, and this makes him painfully aware of being tempted by what could be perceived as cynically selfish exploitation of her ‘habitual sense of freedom’. She simply doesn’t realise that ‘nice girls’ don’t flirt with their couriers, imperiously demand unquestioning devotion and attention from every new man they meet with ‘frank persiflage’ and coquettish chaffing, or flaunt their innocent conquests in public.

The denouement shows Daisy’s subsequent, inevitable disgrace in Rome. Winterbourne’s glacially sophisticated American friend there, Mrs Walker, tells him with horrified disapproval that Daisy had been ‘going about’ alone with foreigners and had ‘picked up half-a-dozen of the regular Roman fortune-hunters’.  She and her mother were ‘dreadful people’ for behaving with such ill-mannered licence (Mrs Miller is equally reprehensible for failing to control her daughter, in the eyes of this morally corrupt world where being seen to do the ‘right thing’ is more important than actually behaving with moral probity). Winterbourne feebly defends them, calling them ‘very ignorant – very innocent only’, but Mrs Walker is unforgiving in her condemnation: ‘They are hopelessly vulgar’, she insists.

When Daisy insists on introducing her ‘lovely’ avvocato with the charming manner and beautiful moustache to her compatriots’ salons she refuses to accept that she is violating not only European codes, but also those of upper-class Americans who lived there. She delights in having handsome Romans dance attendance on her; Giovanelli (whose name signifies the generic young man he represents) for his part can’t believe his luck, failing initially to understand her flirtatious nature.

Her outrageously licentious behaviour, in the eyes of American-Roman society, culminates in her unchaperoned walk in the Pincio gardens with Giovanelli. Mrs Walker’s attempt to rescue Daisy from public scandal fails:

‘I never heard anything so stiff! [a favourite expression of Daisy’s; she laughs at Winterbourne for being ‘stiff as an umbrella’] If this is improper, Mrs Walker,’ she pursued, ‘then I am all improper, and you must give me up.’

Mrs Walker duly snubs the girl when she turns up later at her salon, writing her off as ‘naturally indelicate’. Daisy is undaunted, and continues to disport herself as she pleases with the foppish young gold-digger.

In a scene that echoes his interview with the disapproving aunt, he defends Daisy as just ‘very innocent’ when Mrs Walker expresses how appalled she is that Daisy has been recklessly exposing herself to all the world with her beau and ‘running absolutely wild’. ‘She’s very crazy!’ is her riposte. She warns him to cease flirting with Daisy, and to stop her making a ‘scandal’, but he persists, confused and besotted.

Yet Daisy had defiantly rebutted Winterbourne’s earlier polite attempt to stop her flouting convention by having a public assignation with her Italian:

‘I have never allowed a gentleman to dictate to me, or to interfere with anything I do.’

He sees this as lacking ‘standards’ or a moral code because she has never been given or taught any, but it’s also the typical American girl’s expression of uninhibited independence, the spirit of Huck Finn, arising from a dangerously permissive upbringing as James saw it of the newly rising, over-indulged generations. When snubbed by Mrs Walker Daisy can’t understand why she should behave differently in Rome from how she was accustomed to in New York; ‘I don’t see why I should change my habits for them’, she cries when Winterbourne remonstrates with her about her display in the Pincio, and how it offends ‘the custom of the place’. They are ‘those of a flirt’, he points out.

Of course they are,’ she cried, giving him her little smiling stare again. ‘I’m a fearful, frightful flirt! Did you ever hear of a nice girl that was not? But I suppose you will tell me now that I am not a nice girl.’

He cannot decide, when she talks so brazenly, whether she is innocently honest or depraved and spoilt; our narrator presents this with repeated, self-cancelling negativity once again – she lacks ‘indispensable delicacy’, she’s ‘childish’, ‘too provincial’, has ‘an inscrutable combination of audacity and innocence’ or ‘puerility’ – ‘inscrutable’ here signifying his inability to scrutinise with clear perception. These ‘little American flirts were the queerest creatures in the world’, he concludes, his ability to see clouded again. Yet he also wonders whether she has ‘in her elegant and irresponsible little organism a defiant, passionate, perfectly observant consciousness of the impression she produced,’ and whether her ‘defiance came from the consciousness of innocence’ or from her sense of belonging to ‘the reckless class.’ Too late he begins to realise hers is a rebellion against class prejudice, and we realise this is not just another ‘international’ James tale of the familiar collision of naive American democracy with corrupt European decadence. It’s more nuanced than that.

We saw earlier that Winterbourne had engaged in amorous liaisons with high-class older local women. Our narrator points out towards the end of the story that he is nevertheless ‘literally afraid’ of such women; ‘He had a pleasant sense that he should never be afraid of Daisy Miller.’

Colosseum: photo by Dillif, Wikimedia Commons

Colosseum: photo by Dillif, Wikimedia Commons

Winterbourne’s eyes are unsealed too late. Her demise, dying of the ‘Roman fever’ – malaria – by exposing herself to the miasma of the evening air in the Colosseum in one of her flightily dangerous romantic excursions, would be seen by society as just desserts. He has not treated her judiciously, he finally discerns.

He’s chastened when the Italian dandy, at Daisy’s graveside, pronounces her truly ‘innocent’ – he ultimately knew she had no intention of marrying him. Sadly Winterbourne tells his aunt that he had done Daisy an injustice. From her deathbed she had sent him a message saying that she ‘would have appreciated [his] esteem’. But he was ‘booked to make a mistake’, as his aunt had warned him. But not in the way she meant: ‘I have lived too long in foreign parts,’ he adds, acknowledging perhaps that it was he who had been tainted by class and European notions of propriety, and had failed to appreciate Daisy for the free spirit she was. When the narrator concludes by telling us drily that he had returned to Geneva and to was ‘studying hard’ and ‘was very much interested in a clever foreign lady’, the ambiguity is poignant.

Has he learnt a lesson, or has he simply reverted to ‘the custom of the country’? Is he sadder and wiser? Or counting himself lucky at a narrow escape from commitment to Daisy’s recklessly independent individuality? The conflicted responses of his protagonist here raise this story above the apparent ‘flatness’ that caused James to add the phrase ‘a study’ to this story that was immensely popular with a reading public which perhaps relished the superficial charms of Miss Daisy more than it divined the darker impulses in her ambivalent, superficially more cultivated admirer.

Henry James, ‘Daisy Miller: A Study’. From Collected Stories, vol. 1 (1866-91), selected and edited by John Bayley, Everyman’s Library, Alfred A. Knopf (New York, Toronto) no. 244, 1999, pp. 305-64. First published in Cornhill magazine, London, 1878.

 

Update: an excavated fragment

Today’s brief post is a departure from the usual literary criticism/book review I’ve found myself writing this year. I realise I had stopped posting the occasional ‘random’ piece, to use a term favoured by my students, and which I’d usually gleaned from old notebooks.

I recently read on Jonathan Gibbs’s excellent Tiny Camels blog a post he called an ‘excavated fragment’. While searching for something among the files on his computer he came across a piece called ‘Sex and Death’, dated 2003. He had no idea what it was intended for. I liked his conclusion:

Memory is obsessive-selective self-narration. The rest is work for archaeologists.

In a similar spirit, then, here’s a piece – sort of a found poem, I suppose – that I came across in an old notebook that I keep by what I believe is called in the US my nightstand. It’s dated Feb. 2013.

I have no recollection of writing it, but quite like the notion of a dialogue with one’s computer. There’s the strangled syntax and dismaying jargon of the disembodied. It was written before I’d read reviews of a recent Spike Jonze film in which the protagonist falls in love with the Siri-type operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) of his computer. This excavated fragment of mine (maybe I should call it a ‘random gleaning’) appears to represent a more fractious relationship. Here it is.

Update

An update is available to your software.

                Continue?

[What happens if I don’t?]

The update will resolve some contradictions

in the social system

and reduce battery usage.

                [Continue]

Here are 2 pp of T&C.

                [Accept]

Well done. Your social system will update

within 24 hours.

Your software is updating

and will take 3 minutes.

You will need to restart.

Restart now?

[What happens if I don’t? Had I stopped?]

You will be held responsible

for all the contradictions in your system.

                [Restart]

Anything else today?

                [Return]

Werewolves and fleas: Gerald of Wales, ‘Topographia Hiberniae’, part 2

Two Connaught men in a boat; a rider, f. 29 of the BL Royal MS 13. BVIII, f. 29

Two Connaught men in a boat; a rider, BL Royal MS 13. BVIII, f. 29

Last time I introduced Gerald of Wales (c. 1146-1223) and his Topographia Hiberniae, a Latin guide to twelfth-century Ireland, in the invasion and settlement of which the Norman branch of his family had played a prominent part.  I described some of the material found in the first of the three parts of the text, which focused on flora and fauna.  Here I shall turn my attention to part 2: Wonders & Miracles.  Translation from the Latin into English is by John J. O’Meara in the Penguin Classics edition, published as The History and Topography of Ireland.  Images are from the detailed record for BL Royal MS 13 B.VIII in the Catalogue of Illuminated MSS held in the British Library.

Man killed with axe, f. 28

Man killed with axe, f. 28

O’Meara points out that this section of the book consists largely of tall tales which would have been told to Gerald during his visits to the island, but he also made use of written Irish sources (themselves probably arising from an older oral tradition; see O’Meara, n. 15, p. 130).  As we saw last time, he makes use of the familiar hagiographic topos of insisting on the truth of his stories:

I am aware that I shall describe some things that will seem to the reader to be either impossible or ridiculous.  But I protest solemnly that I have put down nothing in this book the truth of which I have not found out either by the testimony of my own eyes, or that of reliable men found worthy of credence and coming from the districts in which the events took place (p. 57)

The fish with golden teeth, f. 16v

The fish with golden teeth, f. 16v (and a deer)

After relating the miraculous qualities of various natural phenomena such as wells and islands, he tells of the fish from Ulster ‘with three gold teeth’.   Strangely, this creature ‘seemed to prefigure the imminent conquest of the country’ – but Gerald neglects to explain how.

Royal 13.B.viii,  f. 17v. detailIn section 52 comes my favourite story in the book: the ‘wolf that talked with a priest’.  While travelling from Ulster to Meath this priest spent the night in a wood.  As he sat by the fire a wolf came up to him and said: ‘Do not be afraid!’  Naturally he and the small boy who was with him were terrified.  When the wolf spoke of God in a ‘reasonable’ manner the priest adjured him not to harm them, and to explain himself.

The wolf’s story was that he was a native of Ossory, where every seven years, because of the imprecation of abbot Natalis, a man and a woman are compelled to go into exile from their territory in the form of wolves.  If they survive seven years they will then be replaced by another couple, and restored to their former status.  The wolf’s companion, he went on, was lying nearby, close to death.  He begged the priest to perform the last rites for her.

The wolf led the priest to a tree in the hollow of which lay a she-wolf ‘groaning and grieving like a human being’.  He performed the last rites, but did not give the viaticum, insisting that he did not have with him the elements of communion.  The wolf pointed out, however, that he knew the wallet hanging from the priest’s neck contained consecrated hosts, and begged him not to deny his partner the ‘gift and help of God’.  Thereupon he pulled the skin off the she-wolf from the head to the navel, ‘folding it back with his paw as if it were a hand.’  He thus revealed the the torso of an old woman.  The priest, terrified once more, administered the sacrament and the skin resumed its former place.

Royal 13 B.VIII, f.18

Royal 13 B.VIII, f.18

The wolf spent the rest of the night with the priest by his fire, chatting amiably, and in the morning directed him the best route onward.  As they parted he thanked the priest.

Gerald says that two years later when passing near Meath his advice on this matter was sought, for the priest had passed on his version of these extraordinary events.  As a result the priest was sent to the Pope ‘with his documents in which was given an account of the affair and the priest’s confession’.  Sadly we never hear whether the wolf ever made it back to human shape.

I may return, in a future blog, to the subject of werewolves in medieval literature.

Bearded woman and man-ox of Wicklow, f. 19

Bearded woman and man-ox of Wicklow, f. 19

Other stories follow, mostly illustrated in the BL MS.  There’s the bearded woman with a mane on her back ‘like a one-year-old foal’.  She is no centaur, however, and followed the court of Duvenaldus, king of Limerick, ‘wherever it went, provoking laughs as well as wonder.’  Gerald seems to approve of her wearing the beard long, for such is the custom of her country (albeit among the men, not women).  Other hybrid creatures appear, and some less salubrious tales of bestiality.

St Kevin and his blackbird, f. 20

St Kevin and his blackbird, f. 20

Then comes the most famous story of all: St Kevin and his blackbird.  When taking eremitical refuge in a remote cabin he put his hand out of the window, as was his custom, and prayed.  A blackbird settled there, nested,  and laid its eggs.  St Kevin was so patient and sympathetic that he waited in that same posture ‘until the young were completely hatched out’.

The rats of Fernegigan, wandering bell of Mactalewus, f. 21v

The rats of Fernegigan, wandering bell of Mactalewus, f. 21v

St Colman’s teal, the fleas banished by St Nannan, the rats expelled from Ferneginan by St Yvor, the tame falcon of Kildare and other wonders follow, some involving bells, miraculous fires and books.

Part 3 deals with the history of Ireland, but even Gerald is sceptical about the veracity of some of these old legends.  It seems, for example, that the Basques were early settlers there.  He goes on to describe the contemporary condition of the Irish in fairly unflattering terms.  They are, he says, barbarous: ‘wild and inhospitable’, primitive, hirsute, lazy, ‘deplorable’, ‘wallowing in vice’, and largely heathen, despite the best efforts of saints such as Patrick and Bridget. All

St Colman's ducks, f. 21

St Colman’s ducks, f. 21

Irish saints are confessors; there were no Irish martyrs, he asserts.

As my surname attests, I’m of Irish ancestry myself, but it’s hard to find Gerald’s criticisms of my ancestors too offensive.  He writes in the medieval spirit of recounting tales collected from various sources, attested and unattested.  Notions of credibility were different from ours.  As the frequent Christian morals attached to the stories indicate, God is considered capable of all kinds of wonder, and it is therefore to be expected that miraculous events and objects abound in His world. Everything is a lesson to be interpreted by the cleric.

The Kildare Gospels falcon, f. 22

The Kildare Gospels and falcon, f. 22

As the Viking exhibition opens at the British Museum, I’m more inclined to marvel at the artistic skill and psychogeographic acumen of early medieval travellers.

 

 

 

Dérive part II: birds, beasts, explorers in Africa

Busy couple of weeks, hence the  posting hiatus.  My last post was about the wonderful collection of digital images made available by the British Library, via their Digital Scholarship Blog.  I came across a wonderful illustrated Portuguese book: Expedição portugueza ao Muatiânvua. Descripção da viagem á Mussumba do Muatiânvua … Edição illustrada por H. Casanova. [With plates, including portraits and maps.] vol. 1-3
Author: DIAS DE CARVALHO, Henrique Augusto (Lisboa, 1890); there’s an online facsimile edition available online at the Internet Archive site.

I focused on images of birds.  Today I shall finish with a few more lovely bird pictures, then move on to animals, people and places.

Let’s start with a few more birds whose images appealed:

 

Online edition p. 277

Online edition p. 277

First is Coracias Spatulata, or the Racket-tailed Roller.  Largely found in Angola, but also in other southern and central African countries.

There are some lovely public domain photographs of this bird:

The Secretary Bird, Sagittarius serpentarius, has a raptor’s body rather like an eagle’s, but with crane-like legs:

Called 'Secretario' in the 1890 book illustration

Called ‘Secretario’ in the 1890 book illustration

 

 

 

 

A Wikimedia Commons photo provides a slightly less dishevelled-looking portrait:

300px-Sagittarius_serpentarius_Sekretär wikiIt’s an unusual predator, in that it hunts terrestrially: it walks about the sub-Saharan savannah, flushing its prey out with its stamping.  Previously thought to subsist largely on snakes, hence the Latin name, it’s now known to eat all kinds of small mammals, reptiles and invertebrates.

Aca I’ve selected just a couple of animals, largely on the grounds that they resembled nothing I’d ever seen (in the 1890 illustrations): this is called ‘Aca’ in the book, but looks like a pangolin (or scaly pangolin) to me.  Named from a Malay word meaning ‘something that rolls up’ (in a ball, not arrives unexpectedly) – they’re found in tropical Africa and Asia – they have sharp claws for digging up termite nests.

Cavallo-marinho p26 The text calls this next creature ‘cavallo-marinho’.

No idea what this is.

Here it is on the online edition p. 400:

 

 

Here’s an image, from p. 671, of a lizard (or maybe a chameleon) eating an insect:

p671 lizard eats fly

 

 

 

 

 

 

And something called a Pelumba in Carvalho’s text, but all I can find is that’s the name of a place in Moxico region, Angola; this little chap looks like some kind of sloth to me.

Pelumba

 

 

 

 

 

Dias de Carvalho, photo from the BN de Portugal album

Dias de Carvalho, photo from the BN de Portugal album

These engravings can be compared with the extraordinary photos in an online album found here, taken from his expedition 1884-88, from the collection of the Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal. Here is Carvalho himself (1843-1909), who explored extensively in Africa, ending up in Lunda in 1895, where he ended up as governor.

 

 

 

I’ll finish this second part of the dérive with three typical portraits from BL site, compared with one from the online edition of the book:

Cacuata Tambu

Cacuata Tambu

 

 

'Major', from p. 291

‘Major’, from p. 291

O chefe p 475 online

O chefe p 475 online edition

O sub-chefe p89

O sub-chefe p89

A virtual dérive

This will be a virtual derive:

Theory of the Dérive, by Guy Debord: Les Lèvres Nues #9 (November 1956)
reprinted in Internationale Situationniste #2 (December 1958)

Translated by Ken Knabb (link here)

ONE OF THE BASIC situationist practices is the dérive [literally: “drifting”], a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances. Dérives involve playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll.

In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.

But the dérive includes both this letting-go and its necessary contradiction: the domination of psychogeographical variations by the knowledge and calculation of their possibilities. In this latter regard, ecological science — despite the narrow social space to which it limits itself — provides psychogeography with abundant data.

The average duration of a dérive is one day, considered as the time between two periods of sleep. The starting and ending times have no necessary relation to the solar day, but it should be noted that the last hours of the night are generally unsuitable for dérives.

 

My drifting, however, was initiated this morning when I came across this link to the British Library’s blog, The Mechanical Curator: Randomly selected small illustrations and ornamentations, posted on the hour.   Rediscovered artwork from the pages of 17th, 18th and 19th Century books.  I browsed the links and followed this one:

Exped cover pg online edExpedição portugueza ao Muatiânvua. Descripção da viagem á Mussumba do Muatiânvua … Edição illustrada por H. Casanova. [With plates, including portraits and maps.] vol. 1-3
Author: DIAS DE CARVALHO, Henrique Augusto (Lisboa, 1890)

The image which first caught my eye, from the hundreds of thumbnails on offer at this site, was this one of an egregiously sulky-looking bird:

Sulky bird(Helotarsus ecaudatus)

aka ‘jester’, or Gaukler in German; I found this out from this site, which has been translated with customary inattention to idiomatic English, by

Bing (which gave up, evidently, on many words, and left them untranslated):

‘A beautiful matte black, head, neck, back and the whole bottom engaging, stands by that, Graulich Brown on the internal flag is made white, decorated with a wide, black end edge last four hand – and the consummation scapulars lively off from the bright chestnut coat, the similarly-colored tail, slightly thinner lower back, as well as a broad wing bandage, in opposition to the deep black first flight. The deck spring of the primaries are black, the arm swings brown-black with Brown Endsaume, the other upper deck feather wings dark brown, lighter margins who know under deck spring wing. The eye is nice and Brown…’

The bird is also called Short-tailed eagle (or kite), Bataleur (or Bateleur) eagle (‘tumbler’, or ‘tightrope walker’ in French), the name given by the ornithologist François Le Vaillant.  Born in Surinam in 1753, he studied in Metz (where I once lived – a nice situationist coincidence).  I found this about him at Wikipedia:

As a traveller in Africa, Le Vaillant tended to describe the African people without prejudice. He shared Rousseau’s idea of the “Noble savage” and condemnation of civilization. He described the beauty of Narina, Khoekhoe woman in Gonaqua named after a flower in terms that were not to be found later in the colonial period.[3] He was infatuated with Narina, and she stopped painting her body with ochre and charcoal and lived with Le Vaillant for many days. When he left, he gave her many presents but she was said to have sunk into deep melancholia.

Le Vaillant parrot by Jacques BarrabandThere’s this lovely image on the same site of this parrot from Le Vaillant’s Histoire naturelle des perroquets, 2 vols, 1801-05, illustrated by Jacques Barraband.

I wondered how accurate an image of the Bateleur eagle the one above was, so did some online searching…Bateleur Eagle (NY Public Library, image ID: 820528)

Bateleur Eagle (NY Public Library, image ID: 820528): from Gustav Mützel (1839-93), ‘The Royal natural history’, Warne 1894-96.

This bookplate doesn’t look much like the Portuguese one: nobler, less grumpy.  Digging deeper I came upon this alternative name for the bird:

Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia, s.n. mountebank,  n. 3: The short-tailed African kite, Helotarsus ecaudatus: so called from its aërial tumbling. (via Finedictionary.com).

The online images at the NYPL led me on to this plate of a collection of Accipitres (diurnal birds of prey):

Bateleur eagle is no. 6

Bateleur eagle is no. 6

 

 

 

Next was a bird called ‘bucorax’ (or Cazovo, I think the text in the caption to Carvalho’s image reads; it’s not very clear.)

Here it is: Bucorax p384 online edn

 

 

 

 

 

This is from an online edition of the book found via Google booksearch.   Mützel has a clearer image (also at the NYPL site, Image ID: 820820) where it’s called Hornrabe, Bucorax Abyssincus Bodd. It’s also called the Ground Hornbill, I discovered.Bucorax Mutzel

And now I’ve run out of time.  I’ll continue this post next time, with more images of birds, animals, people, places.

 

Ernest Hemingway, ‘Cat in the Rain’ critique Pt II

Part Two, continued: for pt one of this critique, click here

The ‘American wife’’s prattling, repetitive list of wants now becomes a reiterated ‘want a cat’, culminating in a foot-stamping, petulant ‘ now’.  Then the maid knocks and enters their hotel room holding ‘a big tortoiseshell cat’ against her body.  She announces, in the last line of the story, that the padrone had asked her to ‘bring this for the Signora’.

So what’s the hidden part of this iceberg of a story?  It’s been suggested that the woman’s childlike mantra of repetitions about how much she wants a ‘kitty’ to pet and care for is an indication, as I’ve suggested in the first part of this critique, that she longs to have a child, or may even be pregnant already.

Gertrude Stein with John 'Bumby' Hemingway in Paris, 1924, soon after this story was written

Gertrude Stein with John ‘Bumby’ Hemingway in Paris, 1924, soon after this story was written

This is certainly the way Paula McLain relates a similar scene in her novelised version of Hadley’s life with Ernest, The Paris Wife, which I reviewed here.  (Its title could be seen as derived indirectly from this story’s ‘the American wife’.  Hemingway’s favourite nickname for Hadley was ‘Cat’ or ‘Kitty’.)

Her much-repeated insistence that she wants a cat and other things can be seen then as an indirect, even symbolic representation of her longing for a baby, stated obliquely perhaps because she fears her husband’s response will be as brutish and insensitive as McLain depicts it was in the Hemingways’ real life.  Unfortunately this causes her to sound like a spoilt little girl, thereby increasing George’s heedless, selfish absorption in his own world of books.  The fact that the cat brought in by the maid sounds like a different one from the ‘little kitty’ seen earlier by the wife further reinforces the notion that this ‘girl’ is to be indulged only so far, and certainly not by a husband who is reluctant to engage with her at any but the most superficial emotional level.  He likes her looks, maybe even desires her, but he doesn’t seem to want to make any other commitment to her than a limited and sexual one.

In The Paris Wife McLain imagines a scene in which, on holiday together in Chamby, near Lake Geneva (he had initially gone to Switzerland to cover a Peace Conference for a newspaper), shortly before they left for Rapallo, Hemingway is incensed to discover that Hadley had forgotten to bring her prophylactic diaphragm.

Hemingways with Bumby, Shruns, Austria, 1925

Hemingways with Bumby, Shruns, Austria, 1925. JFK Library

He tracks her monthly fertility cycle meticulously in a notebook so they ‘could have unprotected intercourse as often as possible.’  He knew better than Hadley which days were ‘safe’, and we are clearly meant to infer that he takes these steps for the benefit of his own sexual gratification and terror of Hadley’s becoming pregnant.  They have a sex code which involves his asking if she has made ‘the necessary arrangements’ to which Hadley is expected to reply, “Yes, sir” as if she were ‘his secretary’.  When on this occasion in Chamby she confesses she’s left the diaphragm in Paris his reaction is fierce: ‘Your timing stinks’, he spits, red-faced and ‘very angry’.  He demands to know what else she’s been keeping from him.  When she admits that she would like a baby he’s furious.  He says they’d ‘agreed’ to wait until his writing career had taken off: ‘Do you really want to ruin it for me?’   Bitterly she points out that at thirty-one she ‘doesn’t have all the time in the world’.  Neither does he, is his selfish, challenging riposte.  The time isn’t right, he tells his ‘little cat’.

When they reach Rapallo, McLain tells us, Hadley was charmed by the town; ‘Ernest disliked it on sight.’  But it’s also his writer’s block that’s causing his irascible behaviour.  His frustration is perhaps reflected in George’s gruff manner with his wife.  In The Paris Wife there’s a scene that’s surely based on ‘Cat in the Rain’.  Hadley stands gazing out of the hotel window looking at the rain, worrying about the growing tension in the marriage; she ponders the moral laxity in their artistic set in Paris and talks about it with Ernest, who lies reading on his bed, barely looking up at her.  He speaks airily about marital infidelity and sexual promiscuity (their friend Pound openly had an affair and made no attempt to conceal it from his wife or anyone else), and claims not to think it ‘means anything’.

Pound photographed by A.L. Coburn in 1913

Pound photographed by A.L. Coburn in 1913

She’s shocked, and wonders if it means something when ‘everyone finally gets smashed to bits’ – prophetic words, given that their marriage lasted only three more years, when her friend Pauline Pfeiffer stole him away from her and became the second Mrs Hemingway.

Soon afterwards she tells him she’s pregnant.  His reaction is once again angry – he feels trapped, tricked and creatively thwarted.  Their quarrel simmers for days, until she asks him if he thinks she’s ‘done this on purpose’.  ‘What, lost the manuscripts?’ he replies.  She feels like he’s slapped her.  Later she’s mortified to realise he’s ‘tangling up the lost manuscripts with the coming baby in his mind’, and partly believes she’s ‘sabotaged’ his work doubly: first when she lost the valise containing all his manuscripts on the train en route to Switzerland, then by falling pregnant:

Broken trust could rarely be repaired, I knew, particularly for Ernest.  Once you were tarnished for him, he could never see you any other way.

He had fallen in love with Hadley because she was so unworldly, even a little dull – but she provided the undivided attention and loyal, adoring support he needed.  From this point their marriage is doomed.  Maybe she lost the manuscripts and became pregnant out of more than carelessness, he suspects; maybe she wanted to sabotage his literary career out of jealousy, a desire to keep him all to herself.

‘Cat in the Rain’ can be seen, perhaps, as his half-conscious recognition of a relationship that was foundering.  It’s interesting to consider how well he realised the portrayal of George was so unflattering to him, if George is meant to be some kind of representation of himself.  Even though he portrays neither character as capable of showing much empathy to the other, it’s hard to believe that he would knowingly place the anguish of ‘the American wife’ centre stage and make George appear so totally self-centred.  Unless, of course, a part of him was feeling guilty already about his ungenerous treatment of the woman who’d given up pretty much all she knew back home to tend to his needs and immense ego as his ‘Paris wife’. It’s also possible, I suppose, that his portrayal of the ‘American wife’ in this story was intended to show her as annoyingly whimsical, immature and egotistical, and that George’s breezy insularity was totally understandable.  If that was his intention it surely doesn’t entirely succeed.

For a link to my review of The Paris Wife click HERE

Note: all photographs are from WikiCommons and are in the public domain.