Colm Tóibín, Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know

Colm Tóibín, Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce. Viking, 2018

Mrs TD bought me this stimulating collection of four essays (she also got me a lovely Japanese Namiki fountain pen – maybe more on that another time). In an interview with Colm Tóibín by Mariella Frostrup on the BBC Radio 4 programme Open Book in August (it begins around 8 mins 20 secs, link HERE) the author explains its origins and his intentions. I draw upon that interview in my general comments here.

Toibin Mad Bad coverInvited to deliver a series of lectures at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of Richard Ellmann, who’d written biographies of Wilde and Joyce and ‘a very good book on Yeats’, Colm Tóibín concluded that there was no point in expounding directly on these Irish authors, because Ellman had done that. The mothers, he goes on, were ‘a problem’ in two of the instances, because they ‘left no record’. But the fathers, in all three cases, were ‘very lively, interesting characters’ who’d left a legacy, in letters or other forms, and in the various other influences they’d had on the writings of their famous sons.

While I was reading this book during my Norway trip a couple of weeks ago I was troubled by the scarcity of reference to the three mothers. The author explains in this interview that not only, as stated above, was there a paucity of documentation about them, but also he’d already written a book (published in 2006) on Mothers and Sons; the explanation seems a little flimsy, but I suppose it’ll do.

It’s a lively and entertaining book, as you would expect from such a fine writer. The opening chapter is an impressionistic essay in which Tóibín recreates a walk through the familiar streets of Dublin, some of which are filled with a ‘peculiar intensity’ of ‘memories and associations’. He reflects on the buildings and places, including the General Post Office, HQ for the 1916 rebellion, Finn’s Hotel, or St Stephen’s Green, ‘the heart of the city’, full of ‘a secret energy’, and ‘Yeats territory’ – though it features importantly of course in Joyce’s work; Stephen Dedalus refers to it as ‘my Green’. His walk takes him past sites redolent of Dublin’s and Ireland’s turbulent history and rich culture, and their key personalities, from Cuchulain to Hopkins and Newman, to these three writers. He’s drawn particularly to those buildings that housed the families of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce. It’s the close proximity of all these places that’s so apparent in this essay: Dublin is in that sense a small city. Tóibín’s narrator is haunted by these presences.

All three ‘prodigal fathers’ were deeply flawed. Sir William Wilde was a polymath: travel writer, historian, biographer, antiquarian and statistician with an expert knowledge of the history and language of Ireland. He was also an internationally renowned eye and ear doctor. The most interesting aspect of the essay about him and his son is the way that Tóibín brings out the strange congruence between the notorious libel case about a sex scandal Sir William was involved in (he had an inappropriate relationship with a vulnerable young woman he’d treated: Mary Travers) and the libel trial which was the ruin of his son decades later involving the Marquess of Queensbury.

Despite his caveat mentioned above, I’d have liked to hear Tóibín’s views on Wilde’s extraordinary, dramatic mother, ‘Speranza’. He quotes Yeats as saying that any understanding of who Oscar Wilde became had to take into account

the mixture of formidable intelligence and unmoored strangeness exuded by his parents.

Unlike poor Oscar, who was imprisoned in Reading Gaol, which ruined his health, shortened his life and destroyed his reputation, Sir William wasn’t ostracised from society and the scandal didn’t have too detrimental an effect on his family’s life. On the contrary, Tóibín speculates that the glittering soirées in the Wilde’s house in Merrion Square where he was raised exposed him to the brilliant conversation and unconventional morality that flourished there. This may well have ‘nourished’ his later dramatical work —

but it did not help him once he had to stand in an English witness box when he, unlike his parents, was facing an actual prison sentence.

The essay on John B. Yeats, the one who Tóibín says he probably admires most out of the three fathers, reveals a feckless man who showed scant interest in providing for his family materially, and spent many of his later years alone in New York. Tóibín makes a powerful case, however, for the profound influence he exerted on his children, especially the sons Jack, one of the most gifted Irish artists of his generation, and the Nobel Prize-winning poet William. Through his talk when he lived with them, and later when he wrote them scintillating letters, he instilled in them his views on the salience of the spiritual, non-material world, and of the perils of beliefs that are too dogmatically, inflexibly held. Interesting parallels are drawn in this essay with the relationship between Henry James and his brother William with their father.

The deficiencies of John Stanislaus Joyce are too well known to repeat here. Tóibín is most interested in the literary representations James made of him throughout his fiction. He traces with enthusiastic precision, especially in Ulysses, the generosity of forgiveness with which the son portrays his indigent, drunken, violent, volatile father. I’m not entirely convinced that his being a fine tenor and bar-room raconteur altogether redeems him (he was, after all, ‘a bully and a monster’), but that’s not the point. We learn a great deal about the making of James Joyce as an artist and how he used this unpromising upbringing to fertilise his prose fiction. Tóibín concludes, in characteristically elegant style:

Because Joyce found the space between what he knew about John Stanislaus and what he felt about him so haunting and captivating, he forged a style that was capable of evoking its shivering ambiguities, combining the need to be generous with the need to be true to what it had been like in all its variety and fullness, and indeed its pain and misery.

 

Maupassant, Mademoiselle Fifi and other stories

Guy de Maupassant (1850-93), Mademoiselle Fifi and other stories. Oxford World’s Classics, 1993. Translated by David Coward.

Photo of Guy de Maupassant

Photo by Nadar, from Gallica Digital Library and is available under the digital ID btv1b53155773n, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w /index.php?curid=1250918

Born near Dieppe, Normandy in 1850, Maupassant lived from the age of eleven with his mother at Étretat, on the Normandy coast, after she obtained a legal separation from her abusive husband. This setting and background may well have influenced the largely cruel stories in this collection, notable for their unrelieved cynicism, misanthropy and depiction of shabby, mendacious, sensual Norman peasants and bourgeoisie as grasping, venal, cunning, violent and selfish.

Two years later he was placed at a school in Rouen, and hated it (I started reading this collection on the train back from my recent visit to Rouen and Normandy). This school became the basis for the characteristically bleak story here, ‘The Question of Latin’. At seventeen he met Flaubert, who as I posted recently was born in Rouen (they both attended the Lycée Corneille there, at different times), and was to become a mentor to the younger man when his writing career began, and through him was introduced to other literary figures like Zola and Turgenev, who also influenced his style and themes.

Soon after graduating in 1870 the Franco-Prussian War broke out; several of the stories in this collection are set during or soon after this traumatic time for the humiliated, defeated French. Although he enlisted in the military, Maupassant saw no action personally. But as David Coward points out in his introduction to this edition of selected stories, Maupassant would have seen first-hand examples of the arrogance of the conquerors – a feature of the war and post-war stories here – and the ‘spineless collaboration of local bourgeois notables.’

This misanthropic tendency is seen in most of the stories here. His view of humanity is that we’re a pretty hapless, grotesque lot, driven by implacable lusts and forces beyond our control, while religion is a fantasy to disguise the futility of existence. Morality and higher feelings are an illusion. Coward concludes that Maupassant’s bleak and cynical view of the human condition is that it’s a ‘ghastly comic farce’.

The opening story sets the tone. An apparently fanatically zealous, but deeply hypocritical priest is so outraged by the carnality of his flock – a tendency which he secretly shares – that he murders a young couple he finds fornicating in a shepherd’s wheeled hut by pushing it over a high cliff with them inside it. He’d earlier kicked a whelping bitch to death because a group of curious village children were watching this shameful scene with interest.

The ‘Fifi’ of the title story is the nickname of one of the stereotypically boorish occupying Prussian officers during the war. Despite his effeminate ways, he’s the most outrageously boastful, violently destructive and arrogant of the lot of them. His favourite pastime is gratuitously to destroy or vandalise the priceless artefacts the owners of the château in which they’re billeted had left behind. When he hires a group of girls from the local brothel to a debauched ‘party’ to entertain himself and his bored fellow officers, he goads and degrades one of the girls too far, with horrifying murderous consequences. But the girl’s desperate act of patriotism isn’t portrayed as entirely noble.

Several of the stories remind me of Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’; ‘Call it Madness?’ is narrated as a first-person rant by a madman who insists repeatedly that his murderous, irrationality isn’t mad…’ In Who Can Tell?’ the narrator believes he’s seen his furniture leaving his house one night as if animated. When it later reappears, as if by magic, in an antique shop, his precarious hold on reality finally gives way.

‘Two Friends’ appears to set up a tale destined to be less nasty as two drunken city chums set out behind enemy lines to enjoy some peaceful fishing at their favourite pitch on a river. It doesn’t end well for them.

Maupassant Fifi and Henry James lit crit coverOne of the longest and best stories is ‘Miss Harriet’. Henry James even found a vestige of ‘tenderness’ in it (it doesn’t last). She’s an ageing English spinster who catches the eye at a farmhouse inn of a philandering young artist. When he realises this religiously fanatical, virginal spinster is falling in love with him he behaves less than chivalrously, and her suffering destroys her.

So it goes on. Vengeful violence is exacted on Prussians by some French patriots, goaded out of their passivity by grief or the arrogance of their oppressors. A pretty artist’s model becomes the subject of local gossip at a holiday haunt as the story of her having to use a wheelchair reveals a sordid secret.

Women generally fare even worse than the flawed men in these tales. They are scheming and devious, intent on snaring any man foolish enough to fall for their tawdry charms, or too stupid or besotted to perceive their duplicitous greed.

‘Monsieur Parent’ is the longest and probably the nastiest in this selection. Henry James refers to its ‘triumphant ugliness’. He characterised Maupassant’s ‘most general quality’ as ‘hardness’, and the stories, which he acknowledges as ‘masterpieces’, are filled with ‘pessimism’ and are ‘extremely brutal’:

His vision of the world is for the most part a vision of ugliness…[with] a certain absence of love, a sort of bird’s-eye-view contempt.

Maupassant’s literary method involves little attempt at psychological exploration; his characters act on instinct, unreflectingly, as they feel impelled to, and that’s it. He was at pains not to reveal motivation – beyond the usual greed and cruelty. He pokes the teeming antheap of his world with his authorial stick and describes the ensuing furious turmoil – which is ‘mean, narrow and sordid’, a ‘picture of unmitigated suffering’ (James again).

Sex and death in Venice: post 1

I started this post intending to discuss the three books about La Serenissima [see my picture] by Brodsky (thanks to Karen of Kaggsysbookishramblings blog for the recommendation), Marías and Morris. I became sidetracked – hence this is now an Aside-type post.

Venice has been so often painted, written and sung about, filmed and celebrated that I felt before my first visit there last week with Mrs TD (for her birthday) that I already knew the city; I was prepared to be disappointed. I wasn’t: it’s breathtaking.

For centuries it’s been associated with decadence, sin, dishonesty and deception, ruthless capitalism, danger, sickness and death. From The Merchant of Venice and Othello, Moor of Venice to Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice (and the lush 1971 Visconti film with Dirk Bogarde) and Nicholas Roeg’s Du Maurier-derived 1973 film Don’t Look Now, it’s been the setting for all of the above. Don’t pursue the diminutive figure in a red cape beckoning you down a canalside alley cul-de-sac…

A few years ago, in a sequence of posts about Henry James, I wrote this on his 1888 novella The Aspern Papers, one of several by him with a Venetian setting.

Twitterfolk recommended some more Venice-set reading to prime us for our holiday; I posted back in December 2018 on Wilkie Collins’ so-so ghost story ‘The Haunted Hotel’

Photo from the 1880s by Carlo Naya, ‘Panorama da San Giorgio e gondola’; the Doge’s palace and the Campanile (which a few years later fell down) in the background.

Last month it was Hemingway’s rather unpleasant late novel Across the River and into the Seaduck-shooting and execrably written gondola sex with the 50-year-old protagonist-narrator and his fantasy teenage lover. This seems to take place under cover of the ‘felze’ – the curtained or solid canopy-cabin that used to be common on gondolas to maintain the privacy of the passengers. Gondolas today all seem to be open, like punts, with no such concealment.

This is where I start to digress. Hemingway’s Colonel’s gondola tryst with his seductive young Contessa reminded me of Byron, one of Venice’s greatest advocates (perhaps because he indulged in such unbridled debauchery there; Hemingway namechecks the poet in the narrative with approbation about his popularity in ‘this town’).

Soon after his wife Annabella finally left him, taking their newborn baby Augusta Ada (later Ada Lovelace, the pioneer mathematician to whom the notion of the computer is often ascribed) with her. He thought it expedient to leave England in 1816. He never returned.

I’ve written previously about the first parts of his trip, including the stay at the Villa Diodati with the Shelleys (her stepsister Claire Clairmont had thrown herself at him by this time. She was soon to be abandoned, as was their ill-fated daughter Allegra, who died aged five – a familiar pattern emerges). He travelled on to Milan, arriving in Venice in autumn 1816.

Byron's visit to San Lazzaro by Ivan Aivazovsky (1899)

Byron’s visit to San Lazzaro by Ivan Aivazovsky (1899). Gondola with ‘felze’ clearly seen

He was immediately smitten. He also threw himself vigorously into sexual profligacy. When not debauching, swimming or riding, he took to visiting the Mechitarist order of Armenian monks on the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, where he redeemed himself somewhat by learning (or trying to learn) Armenian, helping translate several of the order’s texts into English, and with the compilation of an Armenian grammar guide and Armenian-English dictionary. Unfortunately I didn’t get time to visit the exhibition at San Lazzaro on this aspect of his contribution to Venetian culture during my stay; maybe next time. [Jan Morris has a lovely account of this island monastery and the Byron connection at pp. 272 ff.; more on her book in a later post.]

After several passing references in earlier poems to Venetian matters, he wrote a Venice section in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1817) – where he informs us that unlike in the time of Goethe’s visit in 1786, the gondoliers no longer sang the words of Tasso and Ariosto to tunes of their own composing.

Beppo (1818) is set during the Venice carnevale; the garrulous narrator describes with gleeful ribaldry the potential for decadent sensuality during a gondola ride:

Didst ever see a Gondola? For fear

You should not, I’ll describe it you exactly:

‘Tis a long cover’d boat that’s common here,

Carved at the prow, built lightly but compactly,

Row’d by two rowers, each called Gondolier,

It glides along the water looking blackly,

Just like a coffin clapt in a canoe,

Where none can make out what you say or do.

 

And up and down the long canals they go,
And under the Rialto shoot along,
By night and day, all paces, swift or slow,
And round the theatres, a sable throng,
They wait in their dusk livery of woe, –
But not to them do woeful things belong,
For sometimes they contain a deal of fun,
Like mourning coaches when the funeral’s done.

He celebrates in this poem the looser, more pragmatic morals of the Italians, especially in their liberal attitude towards adultery, which he compared favourably with the more hypocritically puritanical (as Byron saw it) English. He gave prominence in this poem to the figure of the cicisbeo or cavalier servente: a gentleman who’d escort and protect a married lady in society, with the collusion of her husband. This ‘escorting’ might also include a sexual element – the part that Byron found particularly exhilarating: here’s his account of Laura’s response when her husband goes missing on a voyage, feared dead:

And Laura waited long, and wept a little,
And thought of wearing weeds, as well she might;
She almost lost all appetite for victual,
And could not sleep with ease along at night;
She deem’d the window-frames and shutters brittle
Against a daring housebreaker or sprite,
And so she thought it prudent to connect her.
With a vice-husband, chiefly to protect her.

In June 1818 he moved into the Palazzo Mocenigo, beside the Grand Canal (the length of which he liked to swim, when he wasn’t doing so off the Lido).

Palazzo Mocenigo Casa Nuova (Wikipedia image, public domain)

Palazzo Mocenigo Casa Nuova (Wikipedia image, public domain)

I thought I’d taken a picture of this grand palazzo from a vaporetto, but on checking online I found I’d mistakenly framed the building next door. His ménage included fourteen servants, a menagerie including several dogs, monkeys and a fox. In his letters he loved to present a raffish image, claiming he’d bedded over 200 women and spent a fortune – such services didn’t come cheap in a city where sex was widely for sale. Shelley’s account of his friend’s amorous activities is less poetic; he claimed Byron made extensive use not of elegant courtesans but of the lowliest women in the city. Like John Addington Symonds and Frederick ‘Baron’ Rolfe in later years, he appears to have indulged in a squalid kind of sexual imperialism, not romantic trysts.

Here’s how he presented, with mock sobriety and restraint, in a famous letter of 1819 to his friend Douglas Kinnaird, what happened during this sojourn in the palazzo [link to online source, which contains the hyperlinks]:

I have been faithful in my honest liaison with Countess Guiccioli — and can assure you that She has never cost me directly or indirectly a sixpence — indeed the circumstances of herself and family render this no merit.  — I never offered her but one present — a broach of brilliants — and she sent it back to me with her own hair in it (I shall not say of what part but that is an Italian custom) and a note to say she was not in the habit of receiving presents of that value — but hoped I would not consider her sending it back as an affront — nor the value diminished by the enclosure. — I have not had a whore this half-year — confining myself to the strictest adultery.

The nineteen-year-old Contessa Teresa Guiccioli had only been married a year to a count in his late fifties (how Byron would have loved reading that Hemingway Venice novel with its similar liaison). She and Byron were to spend the next four years together in various Italian cities.

He composed the first cantos of his ‘Epic Satire’ Don Juan in Venice’s stimulating environment. When the first cantos (unsurprisingly) provoked as much opprobrium for their immorality and bawdiness as praise for their comic genius, he defended himself with characteristic flamboyance that same Kinnaird letter:

As to “Don Juan” — confess — confess — you dog and be candid that it is the sublime of that there sort of writing — it may be bawdy — but is it not good English?  It may be profligate — but is it not life, is it not the thing?  — Could any man have written it — who has not lived in the world? — and tooled in a post-chaise? in a hackney coach? in a gondola? [my emphasis] against a wall? in a court carriage? in a vis a vis? — on a table? — and under it?

Venice gondola BL 16CToday in my Twitter feed I came upon this lovely image from the British Library: what appears to be a double-prowed Venetian gondola in an image from a 1588 ‘friendship album’, publicising a free exhibition at the BL, Friendship Before Facebook, that’s running until May 12. Click the link to (hopefully) access the BL’s gif in which the felze cabin covering is cheekily removed to reveal the seduction taking place inside.

Clearly it would have been easy to conduct illicit dalliances in such a vessel. Like Madame Bovary in her curtained carriage – but on the canal waters with an indulgent gondolier turning a blind eye – and deaf ear – to what was going on inside the felze. (I’m indebted to Jan Morris’s fascinating account of gondolas for the Venetian terminology).

More on Venice next time.

One of my first posts here was about some lines from Beppo cited by TS Eliot (dining on ‘becaficas’) and Byron’s ingenious, audacious rhyming practices.

Previous posts on Don Juan here (where that notorious Kinnaird letter is again quoted) and here

Posts about Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, the visit with Byron by the Shelleys and Byron’s physician Polidori at the Villa Diodate (before Byron reached Venice), and related matters here

[All images in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

The origins of Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’

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

Shelley

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

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

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

MaryWollstonecraft

MaryWollstonecraft, portrait at the Tate Britain gallery

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

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

Claire Clairmont

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

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

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

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

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

Mary Shelley

Portrait of Mary Shelley by Reginald Easton in 1820

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

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

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

Lord Byron in Albanian dress

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

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

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

A Divorce Novel: Edith Wharton, The Children (1928)

‘The incurable simplicity of the corrupt’: Edith Wharton (1862-1937), The Children

Edith Wharton’s nineteenth novel The Children, published in 1928, is less impressive than the others by her that I’ve posted about here recently: The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence. It’s still interesting, and highly unusual in its central theme – the attraction an older man feels for a girl who at the time they meet is not yet fifteen.

Martin Boyne is a globe-trotting engineer who takes on projects in exotic places.
Wharton carefully presents him from the start as a ‘critical, cautious man… whom nobody could possibly associate with the romantic or the unexpected.’

This complacent timidity is about to be sorely tested when a troupe of seven children with their nanny boards his ship and he first sees the eldest child, Judith, who acts as surrogate mother to her siblings and ‘steps’, as the offspring of her feckless parents’ numerous other marriages and acquired stepchildren are known.

“Jove – if a fellow was younger!”
Men of forty-six do not gasp as frequently at the sight of a charming face as they did at twenty; but when the sight strikes them it hits harder…it rather disturbed [Boyne] to be put off his quest by anything so out of his present way as excessive youth and a rather pathetic grace.

My Virago Modern Classics edition

My Virago Modern Classics edition

Wharton is often unfavourably compared to her friend and mentor, Henry James, and at times she did indeed imitate his sophisticated psychological probings of his characters’ subtly described thoughts and actions, and he too was to explore the girl-woman type in a corrupt adult world in stories like ‘What Maisie Knew’. As the above extract shows, however, she writes here in a plain, even colloquial style, and makes little attempt to explore her male protagonist’s musings; they are simply presented to us as free indirect discourse, with no narrative comment. Neither does she enter into Judith’s mind: we’re simply told frequently how ‘charming’ she is, and are given her animated, precocious but often immature dialogue.

This sets up the central feature of the novel: Boyne’s vacillating motives and impulses are largely a mystery even to himself, and it is this that gives the novel its most compelling aspect.

Boyne quickly learns that these are the children of Cliffe Wheater and his wife, whom he remembers as ‘rather aimlessly abundant’ – an apt description, we later learn – both of whom he had known at Harvard and subsequently in ‘the old social dance of New York’. Wheater had since become ‘one of the showiest of New York millionaires’ whose only interests since his marriage had been in ‘Ritz Hotels and powerful motor-cars’ – and a ‘steam-yacht’.

It’s the depiction of this egregiously selfish, idle and shallow rich set that’s another of the most interesting and successful features of this uneven novel. They pass their time trying to stave off boredom by following each other from one fashionable Mediterranean watering hole to another, indulging in ‘wasteful luxury’ on the quest for pleasure, while flirting, divorcing and sleeping with each other and neglecting their children. This is very much a Divorce Novel, dealing with ‘the compromises and promiscuities of modern life.’

Their children are allowed to run wild, largely untutored. Judith, we learn, is barely literate, and one of her closest friends had killed herself while her drug-addled mother and Judith’s were ‘heaven knows where’.

Boyne is shocked to learn, early on, that one of the Wheater children, Blanca, had been engaged ‘to the lift-boy at Biarritz’ when at the time of meeting her she’s ‘barely eleven’. Judith blithely points out that she’d been engaged to ‘a page at a skating-rink’ at about the same age. The guidance that their corrupt parents should have provided is non-existent, and they have become superficially sophisticated, but profoundly morally adrift – like their parents.

Not surprisingly the Wheater children and their antics dominate the novel. The trouble is I didn’t find them at all amusing or charming. There is some distasteful national stereotyping about the two who have an Italian parent – they are lazily presented therefore as volatile and passionate (‘”don’t be foreign”’, their nurse admonishes one of them at one point – I don’t find this as funny as Wharton seems to expect me to). The ones with circus-performer parents are forever engaging in acrobatics. They are consistently depicted with just their one identifying characteristic. Blanca is obsessed with ‘chic’ couture dresses; her twin, Terry, is studious and sickly. Zinnie, whose mother is a glamorous movie-star, is vain, sly and selfish.

Their dialogue is set out with toe-curling whimsy: the first example of many occurs when Martin offers the children oranges as an incentive to visit a cultural site and this exchange ensues:

“An’masses of zoranges?” Zinnie stipulated, with a calculating air…and Bun…turn[ed] handsprings on the deck, [and] shrieked out: “Noranges! Noranges! NORANGES!”

Although like Martin we feel sympathy for their plight, left to fend for themselves as their fickle and crassly materialistic parents pursue their hedonistic and amorous adventures – they are aptly called ‘hotel children’ – their histrionic antics become tediously repetitive, their attitude importunate, manipulative and greedy, as cartoonish as their parents’ .

The plot is driven by Judith’s fierce maternal devotion to her little brood, and her passionate attempts to keep them together, while their various parents change partners and threaten to take back the offspring who originally belonged to them.

When Judith and her wild bunch of siblings burst into Boyne’s tranquil, adult world, he loses all sense of decorum and judgement, and takes on the role of guardian, apparently unaware of the probable true motive for his doing so: his sexual desire for adolescent Judith. Here he is as early as p. 35, when his attempt to cultivate in her a love of art and culture by visiting an Italian cathedral has ended in failure – she’s both bored and bemused by it:

…he was disappointed, for he was already busy at the masculine task of endowing the woman of the moment with every quality which made life interesting to himself.

“Woman – but she’s not a woman! She’s a child.” His thinking of her as anything else was the crowning absurdity of the whole business.

Here Wharton’s narrator offers a rare incisive comment on Boyne’s moral confusion, though even here it can be seen as his own self-castigating thoughts.

Even Rose points out to him that he’s in love with Judith, but he refuses to entertain the possibility. The portrayal of this pretty but vacuous girl is troubling: she’s too naïve and ingenuous to convince us that Boyne is attracted to her mind; she’s innocently childish and ignorant, despite her premature exposure to corrupt, amoral adult behaviour and decadence. Neither is she a Gigi type who will blossom under his tutelage. She has a certain impulsive charm, but Boyne’s real motive is clouded in his own mind.

One of the most peculiar scenes, which arouses in me a certain disquiet, is the one in which Judith turns to Boyne in a crisis and he plies her with two cocktails and a cigarette, and then realises this may have been ill-advised. What was he thinking?

Even worse is when Rose’s 60-year-old lawyer visits and Boyne watches him watching Judith as she sleeps during a country picnic, projecting his own desire jealously on to the slightly older man. The narrative as usual gives us his thoughts, which begin with his reflection that the girl ‘looks almost grown up – she looks kissable’. Then he turns his gaze on lawyer Dobree, the other man:

…it was manifest that Dobree’s thoughts were racing; and Boyne knew they were the same thoughts as his own. The discovery shocked him indescribably.

This duplicity is compounded when, that evening, Boyne tells Rose his suspicions:

“Dobree looks at her like a dog licking his jaws over a bone.”
“Martin — !”
“Sorry. I never could stand your elderly men who look at little girls.”

After this adolescent outburst Boyne goes on to ask sarcastically why Dobree doesn’t ask Judith to marry him if he’s so ‘dotty’ about the girl. He’s dumbfounded when Rose tells him Dobree has just proposed to her. The ‘tumult of his own veins’ turns to confusion at this announcement, and he laughs:

[but] his laugh had simply mocked his own power of self-deception, and uttered his relief at finding himself so deceived.

Rose goes on to tell him that Dobree said to her that he thought Boyne was in love with Judith; Boyne is furious:

“Shows what kind of a mind he must have. Thinking that way about a child – a mere child – and about any man, and decent man…as if I might take advantage of my opportunities to – to fall in love with a child in the schoolroom!”

Even Boyne at this point realises he’s protesting too much, as that little hesitation so tellingly indicates, and he sinks into a chair, ‘hot, angry, ashamed’.

Although the hedonistic selfishness of the parents’ circle is portrayed with venomous narrative power, none of the characters is rounded or fully convincing – they are types, not individuals. Only Boyne, who focalises the story throughout, comes across with any kind of complexity. But ultimately his self-evasions, emotional timidity and sexual murkiness are more annoying than sympathy-evoking.

That this worldly, middle-aged man should ditch a sophisticated and beautiful woman his own age, with whom we are often told he’s been in love most of his adult life, in favour of a callow child with a mildly pretty face and no depth of character, is a situation that’s presented with inconsistent success, as I hope my quotations reveal. Judith is no Maisie.

There is some excellent writing, however, and the novel is worth reading. For example when Judith escapes with her brood in search of Boyne’s protection, he and Rose are incredulous at the circumstances the girl describes that led her to adopt such an extreme course; she sums these up with the precocious perception of which she’s capable when examining the amorality of her parents’ circle:

“If children don’t look after each other, who’s going to do it for them? You can’t expect parents to, when they don’t know how to look after themselves.”

There’s poignancy in this child’s premature wisdom, expressed with such heartbreaking lucidity.

I’ll finish with one passage that is worthy of the earlier, more satisfying novels of Wharton’s that I’ve read. Here is Boyne about to meet Rose in the flesh after the interval of five years during which he’d travelled and worked, and she’d been widowed:

He could never think of her [Rose] as having been really young, immaturely young, like this girl about whom they were exchanging humorous letters, and who, in certain other ways, had a precocity of experience so far beyond Mrs. Sellars’s. But the question of a woman’s age was almost always beside the point. When a man loved a woman she was always the age he wanted her to be; when he had ceased to, she was either too old for witchery or too young for technique.

That aphorism with its symmetrically patterned syntax is a rare moment of an omniscient, observing narrative voice commenting with almost Wildean wit on Boyne’s psycho-sexual ambivalence, and it shrewdly shows him as both clever and perceptive while blind to his own defects of character: he goes on to admit to ‘a faint return of the apprehension he always felt when he thought of his next meeting with Mrs. Sellars.’ Maybe he was never really going to commit to her, and the dalliance with pert, pretty little Judith was more of an excuse to run away, and to resume his melancholy, solitary existence far away from messy human entanglements.

These are my thoughts. I’d be interested to hear if any of you had a different reaction.

Others to write about this novel include heavenali here, and Tom’s blog Wuthering Expectations discusses Wharton’s short stories in several perceptive posts here.

He had missed the flower of life: Edith Wharton, ‘The Age of Innocence’

The names of the characters aren’t exactly subtle in this vitriolic portrait of upper-class New York City society in the 1870s (though the novel, Edith Wharton’s twelfth, was first published in 1920): the protagonist’s is the doubly Jamesian Newland Archer, while his pretty but vacuous fiancée is May Welland (may well land) – tellingly described as a ‘young girl who knew nothing and expected everything’.

Virago Modern Classics edition

The cover of my Virago Modern Classics paperback edition

The plot is equally straightforward: the upright (almost smugly so) Archer, from one of that small, intermarrying set of wealthy socialite families to which May also belongs, has his complacently mapped-out life upset when the beautiful, troubled Countess Olenska comes back into his circle. He had known her before her marriage to a dashing but morally corrupt Polish count collapsed, amid stories of her husband’s brutality and serial infidelity. She escaped back to the city of her birth, where she believed her family and former friends would support her. Instead they treat her as a pariah, as if she is the guilty one; in their world it is not done for wives to desert their philandering husbands – they’re supposed to endure everything with a sweet smile and pretend all is well.

It’s a more plot-driven novel than The House of Mirth, about which I wrote recently. The style is less aphoristic and adorned, too; this makes its tone of moral outrage more powerful. Ultimately, however, I found the heroic stoicism and indomitable sense of honour of Newland Archer a little hard to take. He professes to be disgusted by the hypocrisy of his male peers, and therefore finds it impossible to compromise the honour of the woman he truly loves, or his own sense of duty. Here’s an early narrative comment about him that hints at this thinly concealed arrogance:

In matters intellectual and artistic Newland Archer felt himself distinctly the superior of these chosen specimens of old New York gentility…Singly they betrayed their inferiority; but grouped together they represented “New York”, and the habit of masculine solidarity made him accept their doctrine in all the issues called moral.

That he continues to live in this corrupt world of venal indulgence makes his honourable stance seem less noble. It’s not so much that he can’t act as immorally as everyone else – he seems almost to lack any kind of truly moral agency.

It’s an interesting and largely rewarding read, however. There are still some wonderfully witty and penetrating comments on American mores and society, like this on the very first page; the privileged rich are leaving the opera house, which they frequent largely to see what the rest of their set are up to, and to be seen and gossip about the latest peccadillos. The narrator points out that it’s better to catch a ‘Brown coupé’ after the performance than to wait for one’s own coachman –

It was one of the great livery-stableman’s most masterly intuitions to have discovered that Americans want to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it.

Newland is swayed by generous thoughts about the lack of freedom enjoyed by women in his social circle, but

Such verbal generosities were in fact only a humbugging disguise of the inexorable conventions that tied things together and bound people down to the old pattern.

 He can readily foresee that his marriage would become

What most of the other marriages about him were: a dull association of material and social interests held together by ignorance on the one side and hypocrisy on the other.

 And so it turns out: his and May’s marital existence is one of ‘deadly monotony’, in which appearance was everything, and Newland is unable to break free from what’s expected of him –

It was less trouble to conform with the tradition and treat May exactly as all his friends treated their wives than to try to put into practice the theories with which his untrammelled bachelorhood had dallied. There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free…

It’s a mad world they live in, and there seems no impulse to do anything to change it:

In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs…

 More echoes of the Master there (also, weirdly, of Saussure). Maybe Edith Wharton was too angry with that dull group of the tediously wealthy in which she’d moved (until she could stand it no more and decamped to France for the latter part of her life, ditching her good-for-nothing husband on the way) to come closer to emulating the penetrating gaze and measured psychological insight of her friend Henry James.

The ending is shocking, and aptly rounds off this withering indictment of the New York social set that would soon be even more tellingly portrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby.

 

Edith Wharton, ‘The House of Mirth’

Edith Wharton (1862-1937), The House of Mirth (1905): Virago Modern Classics edition

The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth (Ecclesiastes, 7:4)

House of M coverIt’s fitting that I sit down to start writing this piece on the anniversary of Edith Wharton’s birth – Jan. 24, 1862. She was born into that ‘aristocracy of wealth and tradition’ that Leon Edel describes in his Life of Henry James, whose influence on Wharton’s writing was immense (they first met in 1903, when she was in her fortieth year and he was 60; he found her refined but ‘a little dry’). She never needed to work for a living, having inherited a large fortune. But her circumscribed world of wealthy cosmopolitan socialites was beginning to succumb to the arrivistes who are represented in this novel by the sinister entrepreneur Rosedale – a Jewish stockbroker/speculator whose depiction as a social climber is tainted by the anti-Semitism considered acceptable at the time.

The privileged, luxurious Manhattan world – ‘this crowded, selfish world of pleasure’– was imbued with a hypocritical sense of traditional decencies, strict social codes based on superficial appearances and good manners whilst murkily compromised deeper down.

At the time of their first meeting in 1903, James was working on The Golden Bowl, his intense and complex psychological portrait of a flawed aristocratic marriage, and its impact on a naïve young woman who learns and grows in maturity as a consequence of her husband’s venality. It’s interesting that Wharton’s House of Mirth, published a year after James’s novel, though set in New York, not England (where James had settled, and where his novel was set), has a plot and themes in some ways similar, but different in important ways. Even her title derives from the same book of the Old Testament.

Portrait of Lily Bart (via WikiCommons, public domain)

Portrait of Lily Bart (via WikiCommons, public domain)

As I have written in earlier posts, James was interested in the restricted, frustratingly limited prospects of the ‘American girl’ in a society that demanded of her little more than ornamental charms with which she would be expected to snare a wealthy husband, and which deplored any kind of independence of spirit – this would have been considered subversive. The ‘flatness and futility’ of fashionable New York was what Edith Wharton knew intimately; she, like James, opted for the woman’s view of it, but with a unique insight that he could only imagine. She had struggled for moral and artistic independence in a society in which women were more at the mercy of convention than men; she was able to depict a woman who was born to be an ‘artistic object’:

A frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys. Its tragic implications lie in its power of debasing people and ideals. The answer, in short, was my heroine, Lily Bart (quoted by Nina Bawden, in the Introduction to the VMC edition).

The novel opens when Lily is 29 and still unmarried. Her father had foolishly lost his fortune and both he and her mother are dead. She lives with her unloving aunt in New York, who distributes to her niece sufficient to get by, but which is never enough for extravagant Lily, who had been spoiled as a girl, and who naturally assumed that her beauty deserved luxury and indulgence. As a consequence she is ‘horribly poor – and very expensive. I must have a great deal of money’, as she confesses to Lawrence Selden in the opening chapter. She was ‘not made for mean and shabby surroundings, for the squalid compromises of poverty’, and has a ‘naturally lively taste for splendour’, she reflects later. Selden is the novel’s cowardly hero, and Lily makes the fatal error of believing that his self-satisfied, sanctimonious lectures on the vulgarity and venality of the society they both circulate arise from his truly virtuous moral rigour. What she fails to perceive is that this supercilious attitude is a pose; at heart he hypocritically enjoys the social life he outwardly scorns. They share a mutual attraction, but she considers him unsuitable marriage material because he works for a living (as a lawyer), and isn’t rich enough for her needs. When she needs him most he lets her down cravenly.

She confides in him, in this early and ill-advised tête-à-tête (to visit a bachelor unchaperoned in his rooms, smoke his cigarettes and chat intimately like this would be considered ill-bred, ‘fast’ and morally compromising) that her only hope, as her financial situation reaches crisis-point – she has amassed huge gambling debts on top of her usual extravagances with jewellery and clothing – is to ‘calculate and contrive’ to marry a rich man. But her looks are beginning to fade, and her plight is becoming desperate.

That she has failed to catch a rich husband so far is a result of her impetuous nature and naïve habit of pursuing immediate gratification, over-confident that something better will always turn up. Consequently she has let go several big, wealthy fish at the last minute in order to indulge a fleetingly more enticing whim. This childish recklessness is tempered by an intermittent but genuine moral sense of the ‘great gilt cage in which they were all huddled for the mob to gape at’, with its ‘vacuous routine’ of trivial parties and rancid gossip. Lily would love to have that freedom which Seldon calls ‘the republic of the spirit’, but as a woman this is not accessible to her.

There are several estimable reviews of this novel online (links at the end), which summarise plot and characters thoroughly. I shall restrict my remarks now to the style of the writing, which in my view is the novel’s strength. The plot, skilfully constructed and pacy, with dramatic reversals and a colourful cast of wealthy, leering men and scheming, treacherous women, is perhaps at times a little contrived and strained: poor Lily’s ‘hateful fate’ is made clear from the start. As Jonathan Franzen suggests in his piece (see below), we read on largely because we sympathise with her, despite her often exasperating selfishness and childish impetuosity, her contradictory blend of an ingenuous naturalness (‘sylvan freedom’, Selden considers it) and shimmering artificiality. There’s a lot of Becky Sharp about her: she uses her charm and beauty to attract a rich man, but lacks the ruthlessness of the other women in her social circle which would provide her with the security she craves. Even in extremity there’s a courageous spirit in her:

Misfortune had made Lily supple instead of hardening her, and a pliable substance is less easy to break than a stiff one.

 Even though she has the means with which to blackmail her way out of her ultimate crisis, she refuses to stoop to such behaviour – her own destruction is the outcome. When she’s betrayed and cruelly shunned by society, and staring into the abyss, Lily shows a heroic, noble spirit, even when confronting ‘the shifts, the expedients, the humiliations’ of the poverty she has no resources to cope with. As one of her circle, Mrs Fisher, says of Lily’s fluctuating fortunes:

‘Sometimes…I think it’s just flightiness – and sometimes I think it’s because, at heart, she despises the things she’s trying for.’

I’d like to finish with a look at some of the  barbed, epigrammatic narrative comments. This is an early description of Lily about to stalk her prey – a shy wealthy dullard called Percy Gryce:

She had the art of giving self-confidence to the embarrassed, but she was not equally sure of being able to embarrass the self-confident.

Such parallel structures can seem trite, but the chiasmus here is wittily shrewd.

Character portraits are often Wildean in their acerbity: this is the socialite Mrs George Dorset:

…she was like a disembodied spirit who took up a great deal of room.

 Finally, a passage which caustically reveals the moral lesson Lily begins to learn at the novel’s midway stage, as her plans go awry and her reputation suffers:

She was realising for the first time that a woman’s dignity may cost more to keep up than her carriage; and that the maintenance of a moral attribute should be dependent on dollars and cents made the world appear a more sordid place than she had conceived it.

 

There are numerous reviews online; I’d recommend Trevor Berrett’s post at the Mookse and Gripes website, and Jonathan Franzen’s New Yorker article. I’ve just read JacquiWine’s post and find I’ve quoted several of the same passages! Hers is a judicious reading of this classic novel.

 

 

 

 

 

Ivy Compton-Burnett, ‘A Family and a Fortune’

Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novel A Family and a Fortune, published in 1939, is the only one of her twenty novels that I have read so far, but from what I have gleaned from other reviews and articles about her, they are all mordantly witty, surgical explorations, written almost entirely in the form of elegantly expressed dialogue, of the painful vicissitudes of comfortably well-off country gentry at a late Victorian-early Edwardian period of English history. Hilary Mantel, for example, refers to each one as ‘a gavotte on needles’.

The plot is complicated and eventful. It concerns the dramatic impact on the Gaveston family (and their circle) of a large inheritance; there are several deaths, a broken engagement, and various other twists and narrative turns.

In ‘A conversation between Margaret Jourdain and ICB’ in the Turtle Point Press ‘Traveltainted’ online literary magazine here (MJ was ICB’s housemate-companion for much of her adult life; she died in 1951), Compton-Burnett cheerfully agrees that she has very little interest in ‘exposition and description’, and prefers to hear her characters’ voices. Authorial comments or free indirect discourse are sparse; much of the wickedly pleasurable experience of reading this novel derives from the brilliantly orchestrated, extended sequences of internecine warfare conducted through acerbically epigrammatic drawing-room or dining-room family conversations in the Gavestons’ large country house.

Unfortunately for me, this makes it almost impossible to demonstrate the exquisite skill shown by the writer, for each speech depends on the whole context of the entire conversation, for each one is intricately woven into the whole sequence of discourse; to quote a short extract out of context would not do the longer sections justice.

Often it is difficult to determine who is speaking to whom, for the characters tend to converse in fairly large family groups, without the author ascribing a name to the speaker, or making it clear which of the group they are addressing. This means one has to read closely and attentively, and often, I found, re-read – but it’s an effort that I recommend you make, for the dialogue has some of the wit of Wilde, the insight and wisdom of Austen, and the technical dexterity and psychological subtlety of Henry James – with a touch of the bleakness and darkness found in later masters of suggestive, elliptical dialogue such as Pinter and, weirdly, Beckett himself.

What I can do is to quote a few sections in an attempt to illustrate some of the other rewarding aspects of what second son (of three) Mark Gaveston calls ‘our family drama’ (the Freudian note is apposite). His late-middle-aged father, Edgar Gaveston, is married to Blanche, whose sister Matilda (Matty), two years her senior, comes to live, along with her elderly father, Oliver, and her much-put-upon companion, Miss Griffin, in the Lodge House on the Gaveston estate, having come down in the world and grudgingly sought charitable refuge. Far from showing gratitude for Blanche and her family’s generosity, Matty displays nothing but venomous selfishness and resentful self-pity for her straitened circumstances, and she verbally skewers each of the Gavestons remorselessly, while bullying the unfortunate Miss Griffin, and anyone else who has the misfortune to enter into her sight. The Gaveston family is completed by the presence with them for much of his adult life of Edgar’s kindly, slightly younger bachelor brother, Dudley, whose inheritance of a large fortune precipitates the action of the novel.

The cover of my beautifully designed PMC edition of 1962

The cover of my beautifully designed PMC edition of 1962

Character description is one of the only occasions when the author ventures into authorial comment of any kind. When Matty first appears at the Gaveston house, this is what we are told about her:

 A fall from a horse had rendered her an invalid, or rather obliged her to walk with a stick, but her energy seemed to accumulate, and to work itself out at the cost of some havoc within her…She had never met a man [ie potential marriage material] whom she saw as her equal, as her conception of herself was above any human standard. She may also have had some feeling that a family would take her attention and that of others from herself. [This portrait is frequently shown to be accurate in Matty’s conversation later, for example:]‘Dear, dear, it is a funny thing, a family. I can’t help feeling glad sometimes that I have had no part in making one.’

Dialogue is not always unnaturally poised, literary and stylised, as most critics have complained – although it is often baroque and deviously allusive; here’s Matty, talking to the assembled characters around her, when Dudley’s huge inheritance has been revealed:

‘I too might have been left a fortune…Well, a man was in love with me or said he was; and I could see it for myself, so I cannot leave it out; and I refused him – well, we won’t dwell on that; and when we got that behind, he wanted to leave me all he had. And I would not let him, and we came to words, as you would say, and the end of it was that we did not meet again. And a few days afterwards he was thrown from his horse and killed. And the money went to his family, and I was glad that it should be so, as I had given him nothing, and I could not take and not give. But what do you say to that, as a narrow escape from a fortune?’

This speech could hardly be simpler in structure or vocabulary, with its multiple paratactic ‘ands’ and ‘buts’, those colloquial largely monosyllabic expressions and the repeated discourse marker ‘well’. This shows how the author’s skill resides not just in the beautifully wrought, subtly nuanced prose conversations, but in her ability to reveal character indirectly like this in passages of realistically, apparently straightforwardly ingenuous, dialogue. But Matty’s bitter irony at the end of this speech is breathtaking. Whether she intends to reveal so much of her sordid nastiness, or realises she’s doing so, is part of the ambiguous effect. Did she even have such an experience, or is she just making up a story about another horse accident victim to highlight her own devious self-depiction as a worse sufferer, who persists in projecting a monstrously distorted image of herself as a martyr, a long-suffering saint?  And Compton-Burnett herself acknowledges in the interview cited earlier that wrong-doing in a novel is more ‘spectacular’ and attracts more sympathy from a reader than virtue, and makes a ‘more definite picture or event’; the villain tends to ‘usurp the hero’s place’. Egocentric Matty seeks revenge on the whole world for what she perceives as the injustices life has meted out to her.

Money – a central theme and topic of conversation – is also a device for revealing characters’ flaws, defects and occasional merits (Edgar’s daughter Justine’s stern moral probity and her little brother Aubrey’s adolescent but precocious wit, for example), as Dudley’s inheritance is disbursed to then withdrawn from the other Gavestons with the plot’s rollercoaster swoops; this is Dudley, on announcing he’s to give his brother’s rancid sister-in-law, Matty, a small allowance out of his inheritance – but a generous sum nonetheless:

‘Two hundred a year is a tenth of two thousand, and it must be mean to offer anyone a tenth of what you have. It sounds as if I were keeping nine times as much for myself. I hope Matty will not hear before she goes. People don’t resent having nothing nearly as much as too little. I have only just found that out. I am getting the knowledge of the rich as well as their ways. And of course anyone would resent being given a tenth.’

‘Riches are a test of character and I am exposed’, he says soon after, when Matty writes him an unctuously ambiguous note to thank him. He is one of the few characters to emerge with much dignity. All the others reveal more or less unflattering aspects of themselves as they respond to the fluctuations of their fortunes in the light of Dudley’s (and hence their own) changes of circumstance. Watching this process unfold is fascinating and often darkly, deliciously humorous.

The dialogue distributes ambiguities, multi-faceted, hinted-at underlying meanings and innuendo, lurking insidiously below the apparently innocent surface remarks; these in turn often lead to discussion and metapragmatic debate as to what the speaker might really have meant, and how their words could or should be interpreted. It’s a heady mix.

An example of this: Dudley has announced his departure to arrange some legal matters, and his thirty-year-old niece, Edgar’s only daughter Justine – a wonderfully drawn, outspoken character, who has some stirring verbal duels with formidable Aunt Matty – has asked for one of the menfolk to take her aunt’s arm to help the self-proclaimed invalid; Matty snaps,

‘I think I may stay here, dear. I am not so able-bodied as to keep running away on any pretext…’

‘I think it would be better to forget your office [senior woman of the household at that point] for once. Too duenna-like a course is less kind than it sounds.’

‘It did not sound kind, dear. And the words are not in place. There is nothing duenna-like about me. I have no practice in such things. I have been a person rather to need them from other people.’

 As always she wrings every last drop of self-pity out of a speech intended for once by Justine to be attentive to her aunt’s needs, and a dramatic situation in which her family – even the perennially exasperated Justine – are trying to be helpful.

‘Yes, I daresay, Aunt Matty [Justine replies]. I did not mean the word to be a barbed one.

Oh, I think you probably did, Justine, and doesn’t Matty let you know it!

After one of the final critical plot developments, Dudley is stung into an uncharacteristically critical and heartfelt outburst against his brother Edgar, who has unapologetically and shamelessly stolen Dudley’s fiancée Maria Sloane from him to replace his deceased wife, and Maria is forced to contemplate the awkward position she now occupies, in another rare moment of authorial comment; this is Dudley to Edgar:

‘You may be glad to be left with your wife, and I shall be glad to leave you. I shall be glad, Edgar. I have always been alone in your house, always in my heart. You had nothing to give. You have nothing. There is nothing in your nature. You did not care for Blanche. You do not care for your children. You have not cared for me. You have not even cared for yourself, and that has blinded us. May Maria deal with you as you are, and not as I have done.’

Maria stood apart, feeling she had nothing to do with the scene, that she must grope for its cause in a depth where different beings moved and breathed in a different air. The present seemed a surface scene, acted over a seething life, which had been calmed but never dead. She saw herself treading with care lest the surface break and release the hidden flood, felt that she learned at that moment how to do it, and would ever afterwards know…

This may not be a novel to rank with Austen or James, but it’s not far off, in my view. But I think for many it will be an acquired taste. I’d be interested to hear what others who’ve read it think.

 

 

 

 

The tenacity of disreputable avenues

The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick (NYRB Classics, paperback, 2010)

It’s a new academic term and I’m teaching several new courses. They all need researching and preparation, so my time for blogging is even more constrained than usual. My posts will probably be sporadic for a while. But I’d like to keep some sort of record going of highlights of what I’ve been reading and doing now that autumn is here.

I mentioned recently that I’d not enjoyed Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter as much as other things of his that I’ve read. Then I had a negative experience with William Gerhardie’s Of Mortal Love.

Since then I’ve whizzed rapidly through the new William Boyd novel, Sweet Caress, but considered it, like the Gale, too plot-centred and episodic. Like Any Human Heart it traces the whole life experience of its central character – a photographer named Amory Clay, but unlike the story of Logan Mountstuart (who is said to have been based on Gerhardie) this novel failed to engage me. The reviewer in the Guardian was much more impressed: link here.

E Hardwick NY StoriesNext I read The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick, a typically handsome edition by the reliable NYRB Classics people. In Feb. last year I wrote about her autobiographical novel, Sleepless Nights, a fragmentary, structurally audacious work that was both challenging and rewarding (they reminded me of Renata Adler’s Speedboat, published just three years earlier). These stories are also well written: the quality and style is varied, but on the whole I enjoyed them immensely.

There’s an informative and interesting Introduction by Darryl Pinckney, who points out that Hardwick (1916-2007) struggled to produce long forms of fiction, and published very few shorter works – partly because of her obsessive perfectionism in her language (the Flaubertian insistence on the ‘mot juste’), and a tendency to feel that she was better suited to non-fiction. The stories originally appeared in prestigious publications like The New Yorker and Partisan Review.

The earliest stories, dating from 1946-56, reflect the themes of exile and flight from her small-town Kentucky youth from which she came to feel alienated (she writes of ‘the family demons’ and the brutal ‘hostilities’ of the familial in the story ‘Evenings At Home’), and of escape to the big city – where I sense she also never felt fully at ease or at home. Nevertheless she is intrigued by the buzz and dynamic energy of metropolitan life, and portrays it in shrewdly observant, often sensuously textured prose that is poetic in its cadences, but tends towards a detachment that can sometimes chill.

Later stories begin to show the avant-garde style and narrative fluidity that I posted about in my piece on Sleepless Nights. They often concern women whose lives’ central concerns were the men with whom they became romantically involved, and who generally disappointed them or caused as much emotional turmoil as fulfilment. Maybe this is at least partially a consequence of her turbulent marriage (1949-72) to the mercurial Robert Lowell. There’s this wonderfully witty aphorism in the story ‘Yes And No’:

Nothing so easily unbalances the sense of proportion in a woman of artistic ambitions as the dazed love and respect of an ordinary man.

At the story’s end she reflects caustically on the man who is eternally ‘not quite good enough’.

Later pieces become more impressionistic and start to adopt a skewed first-person narrative voice, offering verbal portraits of people in the urban setting that she inhabits and shares with them, but which she anatomises at times with clinical scrupulousness and curiosity, but with with an artist’s perception. There are frequent flashes of deceptively unflashy wit and weird obliqueness that are reminiscent of some of Robert Walser’s work (like his sketches in Berlin Stories, also published by NYRB).

Let me try to give a flavour of Hardwick through some quotations from across the collection: I’d be interested to hear what your thoughts were if you’ve read it.

There are some deftly Jamesian touches, for example, in ‘The Classless Society’: the character called Dodo had hunted for an aristocratic English husband in Florence, where she’d lived ‘in an inexpensive pensione’ for several years without finding a suitable candidate, or even ‘an attractive, penniless Italian of noble birth.’ As the literary-academic characters around her vie with each other to appear witty and intellectual, Dodo struggles:

“Who are you?” Dodo suddenly said to [Clarence]. “Are you terribly brilliant, and all that?”

 “Yes, I must confess I am,” Clarence replied, with an elaborate flourish of self-mockery. “I am very frightening with my great brilliance.”

 Dodo did not laugh. She was as free of irony as a doll. A mind like that, Clarence thought giddily, lives by sheer superstition.

 I like the subtle shifts of register and viewpoint here: it’s a technique (focalization) handled almost as skilfully here as anything in Austen. There’s the omniscient narrator’s presentation for us of the slightly dim, ingenuous Dodo, but it’s the cruel arrogance of Clarence that Hardwick is more interested in, hence the shift to free indirect thought, but all is tempered by the narrator’s deft insertion of the stiletto-like adverb ‘giddily’.

That passage also has a characteristically acerbic simile that reveals and dissects the character; here are two more – one slightly cliched, the other working harder, in ‘The Purchase’: Frazier is a young Turk ‘action’ painter, trying to goad an older, more conservative but also more established artist called Palmer, whose star is fading, into buying one of his canvases.

“So?” Thomas Frazier said, with a negligent, burly composure that neither assented nor disagreed. A profound and bullying impudence emanated from Frazier, like steam escaping from a hot valve…Whatever the merit of the two men’s work, they faced each other in a condition of tribal hostility, like the appropriate antagonism of the Army and Navy teams on the football field.

These extracts so far indicate the largely conventional narrative technique in Hardwick’s stories. Here are some examples of the later, more innovative style.

This, from ‘The Bookseller’, is what I’d call transitional – the first person narrator shows an inclination to veer off into omniscient mode, and stranger imagery:

Roger does not drink, but he eats quite a lot of apples, pizzas, and hamburgers, and makes many cups of coffee in his electric pot…He is one of those brought up by well-to-do parents sent to good schools, to France for a summer – who, on their own, show no more memory of physical comforts than a prairie dog.

Soon after there’s this about Roger the bookseller:

No matter – the patrician in him is not entirely erased and lingers on in an amiable displacement, remaining in his contentment to keep pace with just where he is…

Shades again, perhaps, of mid-to-late period Henry James (as well, perhaps, as a hint once more of Austen’s ironically percipient narrators; ‘an amiable displacement’ is perfect).

‘Back Issues’ is one of the later, more impressionistic pieces; here’s a delightful and typically multifaceted passage from it (which loses much of its impact by being detached from the equally well crafted sentences that precede and follow it):

And the cafeterias with chopped liver, tuna fish and egg salad brought in at dawn from some sinister kitchen? Yes, the tenacity of disreputable avenues; and yet all is possible and the necessary conditions may arrive and bottles and pencils, hats and condoms will go to their grave.

 Here can be seen Hardwick’s audacious, polyphonic blending of ostensibly mundane lists of concrete things which are transformed into something transcendent by that mysterious interrogative punctuation and gear-shift from concrete noun monosyllables to polysyllabic abstraction. Like jazz improvisation, it startles and delights with those jarring juxtapositions and contrasts of register (‘the tenacity of disreputable avenues’ is beautifully highlighted by the brash banality of the inventory either side of it). That rising, confident, poetic tone of finality and stately certainty is brilliantly counterpointed by the expression of the theme of mutability (the bathetic ‘hats and condoms’) at the close. This is prose as densely packed and meticulously modulated as an Imagist or pre-1923 TS Eliot poem (what exactly might those ‘necessary conditions’ be, and why is there uncertainty about their ‘arrival’?)

And there I’d better stop.

 

 

Betrayed by her singer: Henry James, ‘The Aspern Papers’

This first appeared in slightly different form at The Mookse and the Gripes site on July 15th.

The Aspern Papers – more a novella than short story – was published in 1888, soon after “Louisa Pallant”, which I wrote about here and again here recently. It therefore seemed logical to tackle this one next, but I very nearly didn’t write about it — it just didn’t at first satisfy as much as the others I’ve written about here and at the Mookse. I thought I’d explore why this might be.

I find it necessary to talk about the ending as I go along, so if you haven’t read the story yet you might want to do so and (I hope) return here afterwards.

Like so many of his ‘tales’, James based this one on an anecdote he was told, as recorded in his Notebooks, during his stay with friends in Florence in 1887. It concerned a ‘curious adventure’ that befell Edward Silsbee, ‘the Boston art-critic and Shelley worshipper’ or ‘Shelley fanatic’:

Miss Claremont [more usually spelt Clairmont], Byron’s ci-devant mistress (the mother of Allegra) was living, until lately, here in Florence, at a great age, 80 or thereabouts, and with her lived her niece, a younger Miss Claremont – of about 50. Silsbee knew that they had interesting papers – letters of Shelley’s and Byron’s – he had known it for a long time and cherished the idea of getting hold of them. To this end he laid the plan of going to lodge with the Misses Claremont – hoping that the old lady, in view of her great age and failing condition would die while he was there, so that he might then put his hand on the documents, which she hugged close in life.

His scheme is initially successful: ‘the old woman did die’, having spent the last nine years of her life in Florence, where she died in 1879;

and then he approached the younger one – the old maid of 50 – on the subject of his desires. Her answer was – “I will give you all the letters if you marry me!

He adds wryly that his informant said that Silsbee was still running.

From this scanty ‘essence’ James developed his novella, delighting, as he puts it in the Preface to the New York edition (1907-09), in ‘a palpable imaginable visitable past’ in which the ‘divine poet’ is connected with James’s own modern world.

Edition used: Everyman Collected Stories, vol. 1 (ed. J. Bayley, 1999), pp. 815-910

Edition used: Everyman Collected Stories, vol. 1 (ed. J. Bayley, 1999), pp. 815-910

He changes quite a few of the details of the anecdote he had heard. The English Miss Clairmont becomes the American Juliana Bordereau, while the younger woman is either her niece or grand-niece, Tita (renamed Tina in the New York edition). The location is shifted to Venice. Shelley (with elements of Byron) becomes the New York poet Jeffrey Aspern: in this same Preface James makes several references not just to Shelley but also to Byron; he postulates ‘an American Byron to match an American Miss Clairmont’. This too is significant, as we shall see.

The end of his Notebook entry adds that a Countess Gamba, who married a nephew of Byron’s last mistress, had inspired the telling of the anecdote, for her family was in possession of ‘a lot of Byron’s letters of which they are rather illiberal and dangerous guardians’. They refused to publish any of these papers, scorning attempts to persuade them that it was in the literary public’s interests to let them at least be seen. Their contents he describes as ‘discreditable to Byron’, and the Countess admitted that ‘she had burned one of them’.

These details are found in The Aspern Papers; our unnamed narrator’s ungallant response, at the end of the story, in rejecting Miss Tita’s offer of the papers in return for his marrying her, is brutal, and her reaction is to tell him next day that she had ‘done the great thing’ and burnt the papers, ‘one by one, in the kitchen.’

This is surely fair enough, for James makes us privy, as he does throughout the story through the device of free indirect discourse, to the narrator’s cruelly unpleasant thoughts when she proposes her humiliating, ‘embarrassing’ (for both of them) offer of her hand:

That was the price – that was the price! And did she think I wanted it, poor, deluded, infatuated, extravagant lady?

His rationalizations conveniently excuse his rejection:

I could not pay the price. I could not accept. I could not, for a bundle of tattered papers, marry a ridiculous, pathetic, provincial old woman.

He bemoans having succumbed to ‘that most fatal of human follies, our not having known when to stop’.

Like Silsbee, he runs for it. This first ungentlemanly reaction is succeeded by shame; he blushes, hiding his face from the gondolier who is rowing him to cowardly safety away from the dilapidated palazzo. He wrestles feebly with his jaded, guilty conscience. When he does finally consider the possibility that ‘her delusion, her infatuation’ might have been his own ‘reckless work’, that he had made love to her, just to get the papers, he tells himself –

I had not, I had not; I repeated that over to myself for an hour, for two hours, till I was wearied if not convinced.

Back on land, bewildered, it exhausts him to think that he ‘had been so much at fault’, had ‘unwittingly but none the less deplorably trifled.’ This uncharacteristic but fleeting shameful thought is brusquely quashed:

But I had not given her cause – distinctly I had not. I had said to Mrs Prest [a friend who had first given him the idea to lodge at the palazzo in order to have a chance at the papers] that I would make love to her; but it had been a joke without consequences and I had never said it to Tita Bordereau. I had been as kind as possible, because I really liked her; but since when had that become a crime where a woman of such an age and such an appearance was concerned?

His capacity for self-delusion and –justification is ugly but horribly convincing, so artful is James’s narrative technique. Consider how, when his resolve falters next day – ‘Was I still in time to save my goods?’ – and he returns to the decaying palazzo, having restored his ‘passionate appreciation’ of the papers, he has changed his viewpoint: ‘I would not unite myself and yet I would have them’ – though he has been unable to devise an alternative stratagem for persuading Tita to part with them.

It is a typical feature of a James story that much of the interest in the narrative resides in his presentation of the protagonist’s point of view. For an apparently scholarly, intelligent literary biographer our narrator knows himself (and others) very imperfectly; shortly after Juliana’s death had left Tita feeling isolated and vulnerable, and before the marriage offer she decided would provide her lifeline, he’d weighed up his options (in a manner reminiscent of the equally unattractive narrator in “The Pension Beaurepas” who also briefly considered behaving like the hero in a romance and whisking Aurora away to her beloved America – a point I discussed in my recent post on that story):

I certainly was not prepared to say that I would take charge of her. I was cautious, not ignobly, I think, for I felt that her knowledge of life was so small that in her unsophisticated vision there would be no reason why – since I seemed to pity her – I should not look after her.

He had earlier thought he might have killed Juliana by allowing her to catch him on the point of rifling through the desk in which he believed she had secreted Aspern’s papers: ‘Ah, you publishing scoundrel!’ she’d cried. When she fell in a dead faint he bolted, touring Italy for twelve days, with the rankling feelings that her accusation had some foundation, grudgingly admitting to himself that he ‘had not been very delicate’, while indecisive whether to do the decent thing and stay away, or return to see how things stood with Tita. Of course he can’t resist returning to have another go at the papers.

Very soon after this return his selfish, misogynistic callousness re-emerges in his thoughts: ‘I could not linger there to act as guardian to a piece of middle-aged female helplessness.’

I think my initially lukewarm response to this story was indicative of my superficial reading. I’d seen it as a too-neatly constructed narrative in which the two climaxes – Juliana’s swoon and Tita’s humiliation – were melodramatic and contrived. Now I’ve looked at the story more closely I appreciate its subtleties. As I’ve gone on at too great length already let me end by pointing out a few more of these qualities to add to what I hope has become apparent in what I’ve said and quoted so far.

First there’s the ingenious double plot: the cat-and-mouse game of ‘watchings and waitings’ (James’s words in the Notebook) played by the narrator as he heartlessly schemes to acquire the Aspern papers is matched by Juliana’s own predatory stratagems, in a way he only dimly perceives (‘Do you think she has some suspicions of me?’ he asks Tita early on, for he soon reveals his plans to her, hoping to enlist her support in his plans). He toys with the notion in chapter 5 that there is ‘a trap laid for [him]’ and his putative wealth, that he had presented himself to Juliana ‘in the light of a victim’, and several times refers to her as an ‘old witch’, a ‘terrible relic’, her room when he enters it is likened to that of ‘an old actress’, she is ‘very cunning’ and ‘a sarcastic, profane, cynical old woman’; yet he unwisely prides himself on his superior duplicity, and he is the one at the end left filled with ‘chagrin’ at his ‘intolerable’ loss. Meanwhile the reader is alerted to what he fails to perceive in Juliana. This is largely done through the frequent, suggestively ambiguous narrative references to darkness and light, clarity or obscurity of vision, and to eyes.

Juliana habitually wears a ‘horrible green shade’ that covers her eyes, making her face resemble a ‘mask’. This means the narrator can’t really see what she’s thinking, but the implication is rendered clear to the reader: she sees through him from the start. He dimly, dimwittedly realises that the mask means that she can ‘scrutinise’ him ‘without being scrutinised herself.’ At the same time it

increased the presumption that there was a ghastly death’s-head lurking behind it. The divine Juliana as a grinning skull – the vision hung there until it passed.

 He’s so greedily intent on his literary spoils that he allows this perception to turn into a speculation that her appearance simply confirms that she must be at death’s door – ‘then [he] could seize her papers.’

When Juliana catches him about to rifle her desk he sees for the first time ‘her extraordinary eyes’ that make him ‘horribly ashamed’.

My final thought concerns the possibility that some critics have entertained that Tita is in fact Juliana’s daughter, not her niece. I can find no evidence in the text to support this theory, but it is odd that Tita seems to have spent her entire life at the palazzo in sequestered ‘seclusion’ (‘We have no life,’ she frankly, sadly tells the narrator; ‘[t]here’s no pleasure in this house’.) The narrator sees the two ladies as ‘like hunted creatures feigning death’; they receive no visitors, there’s no ‘comfort’ in their ‘darkened rooms’, or contact with the outside world.

Is this a sign of the old lady’s guilt, her shame once her infatuation with Aspern had died out, leaving her with an illegitimate daughter that she shields from the world’s view? It’s true that she demands an extortionate rent from the over-eager biographer as a kind of dowry for Tita; the younger woman tells him frankly ‘the money is for me’, yet this unromantic ‘pecuniary question’ simply convinces him that Juliana is too greedy to see that he intends to ‘take an advantage of her’.

This raises the question about the narrator’s extraordinarily obsessive desire (his ‘eccentric private errand’ he calls it euphemistically) to obtain the papers. He justifies this with the airily aesthetic justification that his quest is part of his ‘mystic companionship’ with other Aspern scholars, that ‘moral fraternity’ who he sees himself as part of ‘in the service of art’:

They had worked for beauty, for a devotion; and what else was I doing? That element was in everything that Jeffrey Aspern had written and I was only bringing it to the light.

What could be in the letters that hasn’t already been written about Aspern? The narrator tells us that the god-like Aspern returned to Italy for Juliana’s sake when she was just twenty and beautiful, that there was something ‘positively clandestine in their relations’, and that he’d written some of his most sublime verses about his love for her, ‘works immortal through their beauty’. The narrator’s view as early as chapter 1 is that his early death was the only ‘dark spot in his life’ – ‘unless the papers in Miss Bordereau’s hands should perversely bring out others’:

There had been an impression about 1825 that he had ‘treated her badly’, just as there had been an impression that he had ‘served’, as the London populace says, several other ladies in the same way.

He had always been able to find evidence, however, to acquit Aspern, in those previous cases, of ‘shabby behaviour’. The Bordereau case is still unresolved, hence his desire to acquire the papers for some answers.

Statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni by Verrochio, in Venice

Statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni by Verrochio, in Venice

‘By what passions had she been ravaged? By what sufferings had she been blanched?’ the narrator wonders in chapter 4; there is a ‘perfume of reckless passion’ about her and he has ‘an intimation that she had not been exactly as the respectable young person in general.’ Was this a sign that her ‘singer had betrayed her’? That her ‘fair fame’ had suffered some obscure ‘imputation’? Did the letters Juliana hoards ‘affect her reputation’, he asks Tita at one point, to which she gives him a ‘singular look’, a ‘kind of confession of helplessness’; “Do you mean she did something bad?” she eventually replies. Is this an allusion to Juliana’s being her mother?

In chapter 7 the old lady asks him if ‘it’s right to rake up the past’, batting away his defence that he likes the ‘discoveries’ made by questing critics by retorting that they’re ‘mostly lies.’ When he defends them as often being the truth, she responds that the truth ‘is God’s, it isn’t man’s’.

In chapter 5 the narrator considers the women are ‘worse off than Carmelite nuns in their cells’; he later learns that Juliana was Catholic. This accords with the fact that Claire Clairmont converted to Catholicism in later life. She had thrown herself at the tender age of eighteen at the rakish Byron, first by bombarding him with increasingly frank letters, and borne his daughter after what may well have been their one sexual encounter. He rapidly tired of her (he described her as ‘that odd-headed girl’, a ‘fiend’). When Allegra was barely one she was persuaded by the Shelleys to hand her over to the father’s unwilling custody; Byron was by then living in – no surprises here – Venice. When the child was just three he broke his promise to care for her personally and placed Allegra in a convent, where she died two years later, breaking Claire’s heart a second time. She continued to send Byron importunate, melancholy, obsessive letters. Maybe it’s inflammatory correspondence of this kind that Juliana has kept so carefully guarded.

Or maybe they were part of a cache of her voluminous correspondence with others in the Shelley circle. One critic has suggested that Claire was less attracted to Byron (and possibly Shelley) than she was to Shelley’s eventual second wife, her step-sister Mary (and it’s also possible to detect a homoerotic element in the narrator’s reverential hero-worship of Aspern; it can be seen as a story of wished-for and undesired, past and future, fruitful but disastrous consummations, while our narrator is ultimately hopelessly impotent as a literary or romantic ravisher). Claire wrote to Mary often (and to her poet husband, with whom many believe she not only had an affair but another illegitimate child), despite Mary’s finding her increasingly tiresome and wilfully wild. Although I find this a little speculative, it might also explain some of the hints alluded to above about the dark secrets that might lie in the Aspern papers, and our narrator’s obsession: rather than being a ‘rich dim Shelley drama’, as James calls it in his Preface, perhaps it’s a sordid, scandalous Byronic one. Whatever the case, I think you’ll enjoy the teasing, mysterious, densely textured story that James managed to concoct out of this titbit of Romantic gossip. It’s pertinent that James, that most private of writers, who guarded his detachment from sexual entanglements fiercely, and burned many of his own letters, encouraging his correspondents to do the same with the ones he had written them, should dramatize this duplicitous invasion of privacy with its anomalous role allotted to snooping literary biographers, and its paper-burning at the end.

Although it’s dangerous to indulge in the ‘biographical fallacy’, it’s tempting to see traces in the story of James’s own growing unease in his relations with his emotionally needy Venice-based friend Constance Fenimore Woolson – maybe she owned incriminating letters from him that he’d rather were burnt, Edel speculates in his biography. Certainly his portrayal of the once-beautiful Juliana is dominated by the delineation of her manipulative cunning that is more than a match for our narrator’s, so that we are left with a typically Jamesian bleak view of the appeal of romantic attachments, the female psyche, and the mutable shallowness (and danger to men) of feminine beauty and attractiveness.

We can’t even know for sure whether Juliana ever actually possessed any papers – the narrator never sees them, and has only witnesses as unreliable as himself to vouch for their existence. These are the moral, ethical ambiguities, paradoxes and complexities that I failed to detect initially, and which provide much of the story’s satisfying richness.