Tag Archives: literary ancestors

A fine study of hysteria and ambiguity?–“The Marquise of O–” by Heinrich von Kleist

Today, I’m going to risk an admission which will perhaps annoy, shock, dismay, or plain confuse those readers who’ve known me long enough to know what a good feminist I try to be and how much I want to observe correct sexual politics:  I really like Heinrich von Kleist’s story (from the German Romantic period) entitled “The Marquise of O–,” in which a widow with children, living at home with her parents in a secluded and quiet fashion, somehow finds herself pregnant with another child, and without knowing who the father is or when the conception occurred.

When male writers remark upon this story, it’s usually with the remark that it is a fine study in hysteria and ambiguity and an excellent portrait of the additional Electra-like relationship which the Marquise has with her father, Colonel G–, the Commandant of the citadel of M–, clearly throwing their hats in the ring as Freudian interpreters who excuse the story for its perhaps dated notion that a woman could fall in love with someone who had impregnated her on the sly.  The key word in the whole story, however, which was discoursed upon at length by my excellent Comparative Literature professor in my undergraduate days, the much-beloved Professor Holdheim of Cornell University, was the word “circumstances.”  Everything hinges upon this word, and in fact Professor Holdheim even re-translated some parts of the story for us in which in German the German word for “circumstances” had been left out or altered by our textual translator, Martin Greenberg:  circumstances are that important in the story.

Here are the basic circumstances:  In the northern Italian town of M–, where the widowed Marquise of O– lives with her father and mother (and the marquise is said to be “a lady of unblemished reputation and the mother of several well-bred children”), the Marquise has published in the newspapers that though she is in the dark as to how this has happened, she is “in the family way” (the literal expression is “in other circumstances,” a euphemism), and that she would like for the father of the engendered child to present himself, as “out of family considerations” (family being another important “circumstance” in the story) she considers herself bound to marry him.  She had left her own estate of V– to live with her parents after the death of her husband, until the — War filled the locality with the troops “of nearly all the powers, including those of Russia.”  Her father was ordered to defend the fortress, but before the ladies could be sent to safety, the citadel was attacked and the women were forced to flee.  In the confusion, the Marquise was seized upon by some rowdy Russian troops, who certainly had the intent to rape her, but before they could carry out their intention, she was rescued by a gallant Russian officer who greeted her in French, punished the attackers vigorously, and “who seemed [to the Marquise] a very angel from heaven.”  He led her to the other wing of the castle which had not yet caught fire, “where she fainted dead away.”  A short time later, her waiting women appeared and he told them to call a doctor, said the Marquise would soon recover, and went back to the battle.

While doing his duty as a Russian soldier, the young Russian officer who had rescued the Marquise, Count F–, also helped put out the fire of the attack and other such deeds of generous heroism, and had allowed her father safe passage, acting in accord with all the more charitable duties of a conqueror.  As is remarked upon in the text, when he is praised for his gallantry to the Marquise by his own general, who wants to have the men who had “dishonored the Czar’s name” shot if the Count will identify them, he blushes furiously, gives a “confused reply” that he couldn’t identify them in the dark, and looks “embarrassed,” but someone else identifies them and they are shot.  “[T]he Count made his way through the crowd of hurrying soldiers to the Commandant [the Marquise’s father] and said how very sorry he was, but under the circumstances [italics mine] he could only send his warmest regards to the Marquise….”

The next news the family of the Marquise receives of their hero is that he has been killed in another skirmish elsewhere, and though this monopolizes their attention for a while, soon they have other problems, viz., the strange illness which is afflicting the Marquise.  The illness at first passes, and the Marquise jokes with her mother that if another lady told her of the condition (or “circumstance”) that she would think the lady pregnant.  But the Marquise recovers a few days later and the illness is forgotten.  Not long after, they have another piece of astounding news:  a servant comes in and announces that Count F–, the Russian officer whom they had thought dead, is there and is seeking an audience.  The officer “turned, with an expression of great tenderness on his face, to the daughter; and the very first thing he asked her was, how did she feel?”  It comes out that the Marquise has been ill, but when the Marquise expresses a confidence that nothing else will come of it, he agrees that he thinks so too, and asks her if she will marry him.  They put him off and delay and question why he is so emphatic, but he continues to press his suit vigorously, saying that it’s necessary for “his soul’s peace.”

The family explains courteously that the Marquise had determined never to marry again after the death of her husband, but that since Count F– has been so genteel and has “laid so great an obligation” of gratitude on her that she will take some time to consider his proposal.  Again and again, he urges his suit, again and again they ask him to wait, and to carry out his duties to go to Naples as ordered.  They say that then he may come and be a guest at their dwelling while their daughter and they consider the matter and get to know him.  With rare alacrity, the young man cancels his trip and asks to stay right away.  The family actually begins to fear for his future professionally, sure that he will get into trouble with his superiors.  Finally, they agree to tell him that until his return from Naples, the lady will not “enter into any other engagement.”  He is overjoyed and agrees to go to Naples, while having letters of report sent to them from his own family and superiors proclaiming his character.  When he takes leave he again says that he loves the Marquise and wants very much to marry her.  The family is totally perplexed, but leaves the matter aside until his return.

They receive all good reports of him from his superiors and his family, but in the meantime, the Marquise’s mysterious illness returns.  After consulting with her doctor and the midwife both, it becomes obvious that she is in fact pregnant, and her parents throw her out of the house to return to her own estate of V–.  “The midwife, as she probed the Marquise, gabbled about young blood and the cunning of the world; when she finished, she said she had had to do with similar cases in the past; all the young widows who found themselves in her predicament would absolutely have it that they had been living on a desert island; at the same time she spoke soothingly to the Marquise and promised her that the light-hearted buccaneer who had landed in the night would soon come back to her.  When the Marquise heard this, she fainted dead away.”  As is obvious, the literary convention of having women faint a lot from various kinds of psychological shock is tested to the utmost against reality, in which we are asked to believe that the Marquise actually does go into fainting fits a lot.  Her mother writes a note about “the existing circumstances” when her parents ask her to leave, and so she does, taking her children with her.

“Her reason, which had been strong enough not to crack under the strain of her uncanny situation, now bowed before the great, holy and inscrutable scheme of things.  She saw the impossibility of persuading her family of her innocence,” and in short decides to “lavish all her mother love on the third [child] that God had made her a gift of.”  She restores and makes repairs to disused parts of her estate and begins to make small garments for her potential new arrival.  At this point, she determines to put her notice in the newspaper to ask the father of the child, whoever he might be, to make his appearance and marry her.  In the meantime, Count F– returns from Naples to her parents’ home, and her parents and brother are shocked to find that the Count still wants to marry their daughter, insisting that he himself believes in her innocence.  He makes his way to her estate at V– and obtains an interview with her.  His vehement courtship attempts fail, however, even his attempt to tell her some secret or other which he feels will sway her will.

There seems to be no hope for his cause.  Then, the Marquise’s brother tells him about her advertisement in the newspapers, and the Count says that he knows now what he has to do.  Again in the meantime, her mother visits her and by a ruse determines that the Marquise, however definitely pregnant, also definitely has no notion as to who has put her “in those circumstances.”  The daughter is forgiven, and taken home to her parents’ house, and now comes the strange Freudian scene between the Marquise and her father.  Her mother seems oddly clueless when she sees it, but even pre-Freudians must’ve found something a bit peculiar about this scene:  the Commandant allows his daughter to sit on his lap, which he has never done before.  After peering through the keyhole, “[the mother] opened the door and peered in–and her heart leaped for joy:  her daughter lay motionless in her father’s arms, her head thrown back and her eyes closed, while he sat in the armchair, with tear-choked, glistening eyes, and pressed long, warm and avid kisses on her mouth:  just as if he were her lover!  Her daughter did not speak, her husband did not speak; he hung over her as if she were his first love and held her mouth and kissed it.  The mother’s delight was indescribable; standing unobserved behind the chair, she hesitated to disturb the joy of reconciliation that had come to her home.  At last she moved nearer and, peering around one side of the chair, she saw her husband again take his daughter’s face between his hands and with unspeakable delight bend down and press his lips against her mouth.  On catching sight of her, the Commandant looked away with a frown and was about to say something; but calling out, ‘Oh, what a face!’ she kissed him in her turn so that his frown went away, and with a joke dispelled the intense emotion filling the hushed room.  She invited them both to supper, and they followed her to the table like a pair of newlyweds….”  This is not to suggest, be it said, that the Commandant is the father of his own grandchild, only that there is some strong element of hysteria in the family and in the era as well (as I mentioned, the period was the German Romantic period); this hysteria seems foreign and psychologically suspect to us now, with the fact that both the mother and the daughter have fainting fits, and the father is weirdly affectionate in an overly compelling way with his own daughter.

Near the end of the story, Count F– places himself before the Marquise and her parents and confesses by gesture and implication that he is the man she advertized for.  She runs from the room in confusion, calling him the devil, and sprinkling them all with holy water.  The parents agree on their daughter’s behalf that they will marry the next day.  The daughter goes into a fever, tries to refuse, says that she can’t marry, “especially not him,” but her father insists that she must keep her word.  “He also submitted a marriage contract to the Count in which the latter renounced all his rights as a husband, at the same time that he agreed to do anything and everything that might be required of him.”  The pair are married, but the new Countess refuses to look at, touch, or have anything to do with her husband for a long time.  He lives in a separate dwelling in M–, while the Countess continues to stay with her parents.  “Thanks only to the delicate, honorable, and exemplary way he behaved whenever he encountered the family, he was invited, after the Countess was duly delivered of a son, to the latter’s baptism.”  He puts a gift of 20,000 rubles in the baby’s cradle and a will making the mother his heiress in the event of his death.  “When his feelings told him that everybody, seeing what an imperfect place the world in general was [literally “for the sake of the fragile constitution of the world,” which speaks to the constitutions of the characters as well], had pardoned him, he began to court his wife the Countess anew.”  They are remarried a year later, and the whole family moves to V–, where the young people beget “[a] whole line of young Russians.”  The story concludes with this indirect “moral”:  “[W]hen the Count once asked his wife, in a happy moment, why…when she seemed ready to accept any villain of a fellow that came along, she had fled from him as if from the Devil, she threw her arms around his neck and said:  he wouldn’t have looked like a devil to her then if he had not seemed like an angel to her at his first appearance.”

So now, we have four “balls” of literary interpretation with which to juggle the meaning of this story:  ambiguity, Freudian gestures including both hysterical ones and sexual ones, and the devil/angel study in contrasts.  Still, I wonder if that’s quite enough:  perhaps feminist politics do have a place herein, or at least a feminist questioning of the Marquise’s situation.  She is a woman rooted in family, at a time when family and social status considerations were paramount.  She has lived in a protected family grouping even though she has lost her own mate, and has accepted her father’s role as the arbiter of rules and regulations, and her mother’s role as persuader of the sometimes tyrannical sway he practices.  Her “circumstances,” in fact, are such that when she is “in other circumstances,” otherwise a happy time, she must count her own family not among her advocates but among her animosities.  And who presents himself?  A man whom she was greatly and favorably impressed by in his role of gentle conqueror, at a time when men in society were viewed as conquerors of women’s minds, hearts, and souls anyway, a blurring of lines which she must’ve found confusing.  She could of course have been killed, or gang-raped by the several original attackers from whom he took her, but he protected her from the worst ravages of war.  This is not to excuse him.  But there is in my mind a vague memory of seeing a movie version of this story in which, after he saves her and she is lying fainted-away on the straw or something, he sees her as a beautiful sleeping image of a woman, and then of course the camera cuts away to other scenes.  This transition from warfare to quiet solitude and from multiple images of distress and despair to her with her clothing in a bit of disarray and him standing over her looking admiringly down is the movie-maker’s explanation of the situation the Count finds himself in.  And if the woman accepts her apparent fate as his new wife, can we really scorn her choice, given the pressure of her society and her parents, and the unlikelihood of her ever otherwise finding respectability again in a society which prizes it highly?  If you feel the story is uncomfortable, I think that perhaps von Kleist, being the complex man he was in all of his writings, probably meant for it to be so, despite the glossing of “happy ending” with which the story ends:  after all, some people to be happy fight constantly as he himself did, with Goethe and others, to be accepted.  Others fight only so long, and then accept that their “circumstances” are bigger than themselves.  One can surmise that the Marquise of O– was just such a one, who found her own ways of coping with what must’ve been a shock, a misfortune, and finally a conditioned (or circumstantial) happiness.  What do you think?



Filed under Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments

An old friend with a new face–“The Complete Prose Tales of Alexandr Sergeyevitch Pushkin”

Just yesterday, I was musing nostalgically over all the things I “learned” when I was an undergraduate, including the many authors I came to be acquainted with in my Comparative Literature courses, authors whose works covered many different areas of world literature.  True, the acquaintance didn’t run very deep and was instead broad; still, it was an instructive “placement” issue in relation to stories, novels, and tales all around the world and my place-to-be in relation to them.  One of my favorite authors was Pushkin, and the book of his we read from front to back was a Norton publication called The Complete Prose Tales of Alexandr Sergeyevitch Pushkin, translated by Gillon R. Aitken.  I checked and verified that it is indeed still in print, though of course the cover or “face” is different.  The book is available from Amazon.com (just in case any of you are looking to make Pushkin’s acquaintance in translation).  Accordingly, here is an excerpt from the Introduction, and a short précis of one of my favorite (though quizzical) Pushkin tales:

“Pushkin holds the supreme position in Russian literature.  It was his genius, in his prose as well as in his verse, which created, in the fullest sense, a national literature, and which laid the foundations upon which that national literature could subsequently be built.  Until his emergence, writing in Russia, with the exception of a handful of works, had been mainly imitative, pursuing pseudo-classical principles, and reflecting closely the trends of various Western European cultures–French, in particular.  The lyrical simplicity and the absolute precision of Pushkin’s poetry, the natural, straightforward grace of his prose perfectly expressed the Russian mood; and, in that expression, Pushkin gave to Russia for the first time in her history a literature whose inspiration came from herself, and which succeeded in setting the tone for successive generations of Russian writers.  But, of course, his achievements were more than national:  his universality of vision, his ablity [sic] to transmute what he saw and what he understood into language of the utmost purity and point have created for him a permanent place in the literature of the world.”

To sketch a brief biography of Pushkin, he was born in 1799, to a boyar-descended father and a mother whose descent was from an Abyssinian prince, and whose ancestry is reflected in one of Pushkin’s unfinished novels entitled The Moor of Peter the Great.  Pushkin’s father and uncle were both inclined to literary pursuits, but this had a less direct influence on him than the tales of Russian folklore told by his nurse, Anna Rodionovna.  His reading and writing both started early, and were at first in French.  When he was twelve, Pushkin was sent away to school, where he started to compose poetry for perhaps the first time.  By 1814, he was already in print, and by the time he left school in 1817, he was already seen as a new young literary spirit.  He released his first important long poem, Ruslan and Ludmilla, in 1820, which “established his reputation beyond question.”  Pushkin’s life wasn’t without its travails and hardships–he was exiled to a minor officialship in Southern Russia by Tsar Alexander I because of his role as a liberal.  Still, he was able to make good use of this time as a literary force, and blossomed in his literary work.  It was during this time that he first read Byron, who made a strong impression on him.  It was between 1820 and 1826 that he wrote a number of long poems, lyrics, ballads, plays, and a novel.  Two of the things he wrote, a play called Boris Godunov and “the masterpiece for which he is best known,” Eugene Onegin, a novel in verse, have both since been made into powerful and resonant operas of which there are Russian film versions available.  In 1829, Pushkin got engaged to Natalya Goncharova, and this had a gradual influence on the tenor of his work:  before, he had been a passionate liberal spirit; after his marriage in 1831, he became more of a serious conformist, and incidentally also more of a prose writer.  “In 1836, Pushkin received an anonymous letter suggesting that his wife was having a love affair with a Baron d’Anthès.  He was persuaded to withdraw his challenge to [the baron] to a pistol duel.  Fresh insinuations made a duel inevitable, however.  It took place on January 27th, 1837…[and the baron was only a bit injured].”  Pushkin, however, received his death shot, and died at the relatively young age of thirty-seven.  The odd and interesting thing is that the story I am going to comment upon today, “The Shot,” a story of a strange duel, rather non-duel or quasi-duel, was written in the years before Pushkin himself ever had a reason to fight, and was published in 1831.

At the beginning of the story “The Shot,” we become acquainted with the perspective of a young army officer stationed in a small town, whose social opportunities are small and restricted largely to his fellow soldiers and a mysterious former soldier named Silvio, who also lives in the small town.  Much of the story is devoted to establishing Silvio’s eccentricities and quirks, such as his seeming to avoid any serious cause for quarrel with anyone.  The young officer from whose perspective the story is narrated has what would appear to be a typical young fire-eater’s view of things, which is that however small the slight to one’s honor, it must be avenged.  He relates how, after a possibly drunken lieutenant insults Silvio over a game of cards, Silvio, instead of challenging him to a duel as would be his right, “contented himself with a very slight apology and made peace with the lieutenant.”

This lukewarm attention to honor affects the narrator’s respect for Silvio, the older man who up until now has obviously been his hero.  It also for a while lessens his following among the other young men, although this doesn’t last.  But for the narrator, it is a serious matter.  He becomes cold toward Silvio, which fact the older man notes, and after a few attempts to befriend him again, gives up what had been their private talks together.  This continues until one day a message arrives for Silvio, and he calls all the young men together to announce that he must depart, and wants them all to attend him for one final dinner.  After the party is over, he asks the young narrator to remain behind; apparently, he has a tale to tell, and it is a strange and provocative one.

It seems that when Silvio himself was a young soldier, he was brilliant and rakish and all hellfire and was followed and admired eagerly by all others in his unit until suddenly a young man still more brilliant in his prospects and qualities entered the regiment.  The two could have been friends, and indeed the new recruit tried to make friends with Silvio, but Silvio resisted, eaten up with envy of the other’s qualities.  Matters accelerated until Silvio insulted the opponent, who by the traditions of the time challenged him to a duel.  When they fought, the opponent drew the winning lot for first shot, and placed a shot squarely through Silvio’s cap.  Silvio, however, determined to have a thorough revenge, said that he would reserve his shot until another time, and refused to draw on the young aristocrat.  As Silvio tells the young officer in the story’s present tense scenario, he has to go now because the time has come when he can properly get even with his enemy:  as he says, “We will see whether he regards death with the same indifference on the eve of his wedding….”

There is a passage of some time, and the young officer finds himself in another small town again.  It is a tiny and boring village, and has nothing to recommend itself in the way of social activity.  For a while, the soldier’s housekeeper tells him tales, for a while he reads all the books he can lay his hands on, and he is quite frustrated and is afraid of becoming an alcoholic because there is so little else to do other than to drink.  Then, however, he hears that a short distance away from him, there is a rich estate of a Count and Countess, and that they are coming to visit it in the summer.  He determines to make their acquaintance as a humble visitor, and in fact does so.  The conversation passes to how good each is with a pistol because of a couple of shots that the young visitor sees and asks about which have penetrated a landscape of Switzerland hanging on the wall.  As they compare notes on the best marksmen they have known, it turns out that Silvio, the hero of the young officer in the recent past, is known to the Count.  In fact, the Count is the same young aristocrat whom Silvio reserved his duel shot against years before.

Now it is the Count’s turn to tell a tale.  He relates how Silvio, soon after the Count’s marriage, turned up during the honeymoon to take his long-delayed revenge.  Silvio, however, had distaste for the thought of firing on an unarmed man, and so invited the Count to fire first, and when they drew lots, this is how it in fact turned out.  The Count hit a landscape picture on the wall.  Silvio took aim, but just at that point, the Countess rushed in, shrieking and throwing herself on the Count.  He told her they were joking to calm her, but Silvio responded, “‘He is always joking, Countess….[H]e once struck me in the face for a joke, he shot through my cap for a joke, and just now he missed his aim for a joke; now it’s my turn to feel in the mood for a joke….'”  He takes aim again, and the Count in frustration challenges him to fire and to quit making fun “of an unfortunate woman.”  Silvio, however, says that he has had his revenge in seeing their “alarm” and “confusion,” and says further:  “I forced you to shoot at me, and that is enough.  You will remember me.  I commit you to your conscience.”  On his way out, hardly even looking, he puts a second shot through the landscape picture.  The original narrator, the young officer who has just heard the Count’s story, understands that now he has finally heard the last of Silvio, and the tail-end of his story.  The story ends thus:  “I never met its hero again.  It is said that Silvio commanded a detachment of Hetairists at the time of the revolt of Alexander Ypsilanti, and was killed at the battle of Skulyani.”

A few points about this story:  first of all, the “shot” is in fact fired, because not only is Silvio’s revenge complete, but the landscape, a symbol of peace, tranquility, wealth, and privilege, is what he breaks into by deloping and firing at it.  Also, the “shot” is fired because he has attained his revenge at the end.  Another note on the story:  it is a complex and satisfying story to read, but except for Pushkin’s clarity and smoothness of relation could be a bit confusing because of the complicated story-within-a-story structure which occurs first when the young narrator tells of Silvio, relates the first part of the interior story from Silvio’s point of view, goes back to telling of himself and his own presence in a second small village, and then ends by giving the rest of the interior story (this time from the Count’s point of view) and reveals at the very last what happened to Silvio.  Making one final complication, the tale “The Shot,” along with four other tales, is published under the overall title “The Tales of the late Ivan Petrovitch Belkin,” an alter ego for Pushkin, and he even inserts an Editor’s preface to them which contains a short “biography” of Belkin supposedly written by a neighbor.  The lives of the real author, Pushkin, and the alter ego, Belkin, are mainly alike only in one respect:  both of them have heard many tales from a housekeeper.  Thus, Pushkin was giving credit of a sort to one of his own sources.

This tale is one of the shorter stories in the volume, but even so it packs quite a punch literarily speaking; it is my hope that if you have not yet had the chance to make the acquaintance of this particular Russian literary master, that you will be intrigued enough to take the opportunity to read him.  To make a bad pun with a Pushkin title, his works don’t “Boris” and are certainly “Godunov”!


Filed under Articles/reviews

“A [Halloween] Ghost Story of Long Ago–The Sutor of Selkirk”

“Once upon a time there lived in Selkirk a shoemaker, by name Rabbie Heckspeckle, who was celebrated both for dexterity in his trade and for some other qualifications of a less profitable nature….In short, he was the Paul Pry of the town.  Not an old wife in the parish could buy a new scarlet rokelay without Rabbie knowing within a groat of the cost; the doctor could not dine with the minister but Rabbie could tell whether sheep’s-head or haggis formed the staple commodity of the repast; and it was even said that he was acquainted with the grunt of every sow, and the cackle of every individual hen in his neighborhood; but this wants confirmation.”

From this curious beginning continues an “old wives’ tale” from Selkirk, which I found published with no other author given in an old book from London called The Evening Standard Second Book of Strange Stories, which also has no copyright date.  It seems that even though Rabbie’s wife Bridget tried her best to restrain Rabbie’s constant curiosity, “her interference met with exactly that degree of attention which husbands usually bestow on the advice tendered by their better halves–that is to say, Rabbie informed her that she knew nothing of the matter, that her understanding required stretching, and finally, that if she presumed to meddle in his affairs, he would be under the disagreeable necessity of giving her a top-dressing.”  (I’m not entirely sure exactly what a “top-dressing” is, but as I suspect that Rabbie was of the sort who made himself “disagreeable” to anyone who interfered with him, I think this was likely to be a wife-beating threat, which in such an old tale was often treated as a matter for raucous comedy rather than as the serious thing we now think it to be.)

Because Rabbie had much work as a shoemaker to do in addition to his not-so-neighborly “researches” into the lives of others, he usually rose early, “long before the dawn,” and was one morning putting the final bits on a pair of shoes for the exciseman (tax collector), when a rather unusual customer came into his shop.  The customer was “a tall figure, enveloped in a large black cloak, and with a broad-rimmed hat drawn over his brows.”  Rabbie was perplexed to have a customer so early, and moreover one who was a stranger in the town, and yet one he’d never had knowledge of.  Rabbie tried his best to make leading conversation, but the figure ignored him, and instead picked up the exciseman’s prospective shoe and tried it on, taking a turn around the room to make sure the shoe fit.

Though Rabbie was caught up in watching the mysterious figure, his other senses were working overtime as well:  “‘He smells awfully,’ muttered Rabbie to himself; ‘ane would be ready to swear he had just cam frae the ploughtail.'”  But Rabbie had no time to think of this, because the stranger motioned for the other shoe, and pulled out a purse to pay for the pair.  Once again, Rabbie noticed something odd:  the purse was “spotted with a kind of earthy mould.”  “‘Gudesake,’ thought Rabbie, ‘this queer man maun hae howkit that purse out o’ the ground.  Some folks say there are bags o’ siller buried near this town.'”

But imagine Rabbie’s surprise when out of the open purse fell a toad, a beetle, and a large worm, which wound itself around the stranger’s finger!  Still, the tall figure in the black clothes held out a gold piece, and indicated in dumb show that he wished to buy the pair of shoes.  But Rabbie, being a hard-minded, some would say eminently practical man, responded that “‘It’s a thing morally impossible,…I hae as good as sworn to the exciseman to hae them ready by daylight,…and better, I tell you, to affront the king himself than the exciseman.'”

The stranger stamped his foot, shod in the new shoe, in anger, but Rabbie stuck to his point, nevertheless being conciliatory in his own terms by offering to make another pair for the strange visitor within a day’s time, which finally the figure had to accept.  So, he sat down on the three-legged measuring stool and held out his foot to the sutor, who measured it, all the while trying to find out something about his mysterious visitor through friendly conversation.  But the figure was largely silent.  When the measuring was done, Rabbie tried to insist on delivering the shoes himself, in order to find out something at least about where his visitor lived to satisfy his own curiosity, but the stranger replied, “‘I will called for them myself before cock-crowing,’…in a very uncommon and indescribable tone of voice.”

“‘Hout, sir,’ quoth Rabbie, ‘I canna let you hae the trouble o’ coming for them yoursel’; it will just be a pleasure for me to call with them at your house.’  ‘I have my doubts of that,’ replied the stranger, in the same peculiar manner; ‘and at all events, my house would not hold us both.'”  Rabbie continued to try to insist on dropping in on his visitor at the latter’s home, but the stranger instead gave Rabbie a kick in the seat of the pants that knocked him down, and walked out.  Mystified but determined to be satisfied, Rabbie ran out the door behind the mysterious visitor in his red night-cap as a cock called for dawn, and reached the churchyard at the end of the street before he gave up, not finding his recent customer anywhere.  “‘Weel,’ he muttered, as he retraced his steps homewards, ‘he has warred me this time, but sorrow take me if I’m not up wi’ him in the morn.'”

With diligence which surprised his wife Bridget, Rabbie spent the whole of the day on his three-legged stool working on the pair of new shoes, and astonished all the neighbors by this as well, who all agreed “that it predicted some prodigy:  but whether it was to take the shape of a comet, which would deluge them all with its fiery tail, or whether they were to be swallowed up by an earthquake, could by no means be settled” to their satisfaction.  Moreover, Rabbie resisted every outside attempt to get him interested in local gossip, and instead worked steadily on the pair of new shoes.

Late at night, he had finished the shoes, and placed them beside his bed for the dawn.  Suddenly, startling Rabbie with his presence, the stranger appeared, asking for his shoes.  “‘Here, sir,'” said Rabbie, quite transported with joy; ‘here they are, right and tight, and mickle joy may ye hae in wearing them, for it’s better to wear shoon than sheets, as the auld saying gangs.’  ‘Perhaps I may wear both,’ answered the stranger.  ‘Gude save us,’ quoth Rabbie, ‘do ye sleep in your shoon?'”  Not answering, the stranger put gold on the table and took the shoes and left the house.

Not to be outdone by the visitor’s reticence, Rabbie slipped out the door after him to follow and find where he went.  Imagine his astonishment when the stranger went into the churchyard!  Rabbie said to himself, “”Odsake, where can he be gaun?’…'[H]e’s making to that grave in the corner; now he’s standing still; now he’s sitting down.  Gudesake!  what’s come o’ him?'”  And though Rabbie looked all around him and rubbed his eyes, he couldn’t see the stranger anywhere!  This struck Rabbie as “uncanny,” but his curiosity being still stronger than his fear, he thrust his awl into the grave so he could find the place again, marking it for further investigations.

By the time the sun went down that day, the news was all over town, and it was decided to go and open the grave “which was suspected as being suspicious.”  When the grave was opened and the lid forced from the coffin, a corpse was found, dressed in all its tomb clothing, but with a pair of perfectly new shoes on!  With this, everyone else fled in all directions in horror, but Rabbie and a few braver souls stayed to “arrange” things more to their own satisfaction with the corpse.  They agreed to nail the coffin and place it deeper in the earth, but Rabbie took the shoes back first, saying that the corpse had “no more need for them than a cart had for three wheels.”  After re-burying the corpse as proposed, Rabbie and his friends went home, not at first thinking any more about the matter.

It’s true, Rabbie did have some “qualms of conscience” about keeping the stranger’s money and depriving him of the shoes he’d paid for, corpse or no corpse; but thinking that it would be a black mark against his family name to have made a pair of shoes for a corpse, and knowing that there was no court of appeal for the corpse, Rabbie soon put the matter out of his mind.  “Next morning, according to custom, he rose long before the day, and fell to his work, shouting the old songs of the “Sutors of Selkirk” at the very top of his voice.  A short time, however, before the dawn his wife, who was in bed in the back room, remarked that in the very middle of his favorite verse his voice fell into a quaver, then broke out into a yell of terror; and then she heard a noise, as of persons struggling; and then all was quiet as the grave.”  When she went into the shop, the stool was all broken up, bristles all over the floor, and the door off its hinges.  There was no Rabbie.  There were, however, footprints, which she found to her horror led straight to the churchyard, to the grave of Rabbie’s former customer!  The ground was disturbed, and several locks of Rabbie’s lank black hair were on the surface of the grass, whereupon Bridget ran to acquaint everyone in town with what she guessed.

The grave was re-opened, “the lid of the coffin was once more torn off; and there lay its ghastly tenant, with his shoes replaced on his feet, and Rabbie’s red night-cap clutched in his right hand!  The people, in consternation, fled from the churchyard; and nothing further has ever transpired to throw any additional light upon the melancholy fate of the Sutor of Selkirk.”

I hope you’ve enjoyed this second Halloween post, a very old story from the British traditional corpus (or should I make a pun, and say “corpse”?); just remember, if an unearthly figure makes its appearance and requests your services, stick strictly by the letter of the law, and keep your curiosity in check, or you may wind up “Gude” knows where, like the Sutor of Selkirk.

1 Comment

Filed under A prose flourish

And now for something completely diabolical–The year without a summer (1816) and its monsters….

For the second time this summer, a reader and/or writing colleague has written something that struck a chord and gave me the subject for a post.  This time, it was my friend DJ (the writer of some fine fantasy/science fiction/historical stories), who is also a frequent contributor to my “comments” collection.  He implied that he didn’t see the attraction of vampires.  Now, I don’t know that I do either, but when I was a lot younger, Barnabas Collins on the television show “Dark Shadows” certainly had me going.  But Barnabas was what we regard now as a “typical” vampire, a sort of middle-aged, mysterious, tall, pale, and thin brunette with a forbidding manner and a compelling, hypnotic way with the ladies all the same.  He wasn’t a neophyte teenager or young adult with bulging muscles and sex, sex, sex oozing out of his every faithful word.  In other words, he wasn’t in any way related to Edward of “Twilight” fame.

But at one point, even that aristocratic middle-aged vampire was news, hard though it may be to believe.  And he had his genesis in an odd summer shared by some famous poets and their hangers-on during “the year without a summer,” 1816, when the weather in parts of Europe and North America was violently stormy, full of crop failures and famine, and ripe for tales of monsters and demons to be born.  The entire tale of that summer is longer, and you can find it elsewhere, for example in the background history of the tale of Frankenstein:  or, the Modern Prometheus, which had its genesis in the same famous group of writers.  Let me set the scene….

It’s 1816, at the Villa Diodati, on the wind-tossed, thundery, and lightning-struck shores of Lake Geneva.  Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley has accompanied her new husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Claire Clairmont (Mary’s step-sister, who is pregnant with Lord Byron’s daughter Allegra) to visit Lord Byron (currently at work on “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”) and his personal physician John Polidori.  They are isolated by the weather and decide after reading some ghost stories (including William Beckford’s fantastic Oriental tale “Vathek”) to write ghost stories of their own.  When during this time Lord Byron reads aloud from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s scare-fest of a poem “Christabel,” the poet Shelley becomes so frightened and disorganized in his thinking as a result that he needs to rush from the room, and they find him in a near-hysterical state.  They go off separately to write.

Though the Frankenstein tradition (author:  Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley) is the most famous to come out of this group reading, both Lord Byron and John Polidori elect to write about vampires, with Polidori’s completed story being inspired by Lord Byron’s “Fragment of a Novel,” never completed.   Several important things happen as a result of this collaboration.   First, the vampire, which was merely a form of monster in European and pre-European folklore, something like the werewolf, begins to have human characteristics and traits, and a standard personality.  In his “Introduction,” Polidori attributes the legend to the Arabians and the Greeks originally, possibly a reason that the vampire’s “death” (and subsequent return to life) take place when a young friend, at first perplexed and then appalled by sensing that a former friend is a vampire, and the erstwhile noble friend–or should that be “fiend”?– are travelling in the East.  In both Byron’s unfinished story and Polidori’s “The Vampyre,” the seemingly cynical and yet dying nobleman makes the request of his young friend (in Polidori’s case, swears him to keep an oath) that he will not reveal the death for a certain amount of time.  In both stories, this is evidently intended to be a way of allowing the nobleman to come back to life and find a place in society again unimpeded, though that is only implied in Byron’s story and not written out.  In Polidori’s story as opposed to Byron’s, also, the connection of the vampire with night (and even with the moon, more traditionally associated with werewolves) is evident, as the nobleman asks to have his corpse exposed to the rays of the moon.  Both of the literarily famous vampires have strange burial requests, moreover, something that is carried over in the by now hackneyed notion of the vampire’s necessary tie to his coffin.  Even the name of one of the two original vampires owes something to other parts of literary history:  Lady Caroline Lamb, a former lover of Lord Byron’s, wrote the Gothic romance Glenarvon.  In it, she chose to put a Byronic figure named Lord Ruthven.  When Byron’s and Polidori’s stories were published, both were originally attributed to Byron, because not only was the author’s name of Polidori’s manuscript given as “Lord Ruthven,” but even the vampire in the tale was named “Lord Ruthven”!

So much for the background.  Do you know an aristocratic, cynical, not yet old but seemingly eternally young man or woman who frequents high life without seeming to gain much actual pleasure from party-going, though all the women (or men) in his or her life seem to be drawn thitherwards without being able to stop themselves?  Does this person go around at night a lot more than in the day?  In fact, when’s the last time you saw them during the day?  Do the victims of the opposite sex seem to wither away and die, and have strange marks on their necks that no one can account for?  (But they do look like bites, don’t they?  No, you’re being overly imaginative.)

If you’re the young hero, here’s what you’ve of course told yourself when you doubted your friend the nobleman, à la Byron from “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”:  “Yet must I think less wildly–I have thought/Too long and darkly, till my brain became,/In its own eddy boiling and o’erwrought,/A whirling gulf of phantasy and flame:/And thus, untaught in youth my heart to tame,/My springs of life were poisoned.  ‘Tis too late!/Yet am I changed; though still enough the same/In strength to bear what time can not abate,/And feed on bitter fruits without accusing Fate.”

And I think that could the “vampyre” speak from the heart, he would utter another stanza from that long poem, to explain his fall from grace:  “I have not loved the world, nor the world me;/I have not flattered its rank breath, nor bowed/To its idolatries a patient knee–/Nor coined my cheek to smiles–nor cried aloud/In worship of an echo; in the crowd/They could not deem me one of such; I stood/Among them, but not of them; in a shroud/Of thoughts which were not their thoughts, and still could/Had I not filed my mind, which thus itself subdued.”  (Standing “among them, but not of them” is in fact exactly how Polidori first paints the picture of his “vampyre,” one who is in an earlier poet’s words both “daungerous” and “digne,” that is “high and mighty” and “overly proud.”)

Finally, the fact that Byron was also working on “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” when he experimented with his vampirish “ghost story” is perhaps even indicated by a sort of cross-fertilization of topic and theme here.  For, unlike the proud nobleman, who continues the fatal course of holding himself apart from his fellows in a high-handed way, Byron in the very next stanza continues speaking of his character-narrator’s frame of mind:  “I have not loved the world, nor the world me–/But let us part fair foes/ I do believe,/Though I have found them not, that there may be/Words which are things,/hopes which will not deceive,/And virtues which are merciful nor weave/Snares for the failing:  I would also deem/O’er others’ griefs that some sincerely grieve;/That two, or one, are almost what they seem–/That goodness is no name, and happiness no dream.”  Perhaps having this in mind was what kept Byron himself from turning into a metaphorical “Lord Ruthven,” and certainly he went on in his next long poem “Don Juan” to parody the picture of the proud and distant Byronic hero who slays women’s hearts with a glance (never mind a bite), a sure sign of emotional health:  after all, when have you ever heard of a vampire making fun of himself?  (If Edward does it, be sure it’s only because he’s in his first reincarnation and still has time to get old and bitter–maybe we should look to Anne Rice for that chuckly innovation!)


Filed under Articles/reviews, Full of literary ambitions!, Literary puzzles and arguments

“On the pleasant banks of the Garonne, in the province of Gascony, stood, in the year 1584, the chateau of Monsieur St. Aubert….”–Ann Ward Radcliffe

From not having said much of any real help for my readers about George Sand in my last post, I go now to Ann (Ward) Radcliffe, about whom I could say much more had I “time and space,” as Chaucer has it.  First, a dab at biography, just to allow you to get yourself situated.  And it will have to be a dab, because Radcliffe was something of a congenial recluse and nothing much is known about her life.  In fact, when Christina Rossetti attempted to write her biography in later years, she had to stop for lack of factual information (and this was in an era when fanciful notions and apocryphal stories about authors were still able to pass as currency).  Ann Ward was born into a merchant family which had professional connections with medical practice, in 1764.  In 1787, she married William Radcliffe, and shared a childless but happy marriage with him until she died in 1823, of a serious asthma attack.  They were companionable, as was evinced by the fact that she started her writings as a way of occupying her time while he was out late, and reading her compositions to him when he came home at night.  She kept an exceedingly private life, and despite her many travel descriptions in her books, did not travel extensively herself, but took her descriptions from art works and others’ accounts.  Most readers, however, find them convincing and properly detailed, full of the Romantic love of scenery which was current at the time, particularly love of the more dramatic and wilder aspects of nature, varied with a love of the simple pastoral as well.

Though originally, I had planned to read several novels of Radcliffe’s for purposes of comparison, I still retain a fond memory of The Mysteries of Udolpho, and as it is 676 pages long of tiny, close type and has moreover been described by several commentators not only as the archetypal Gothic novel but as the best one, which was imitated by many other writers, I decided to write my article on it alone, and leave the reader to perhaps pursue The Romance of the Forest, The Italian, and Radcliffe’s other works.  This one work alone, however, made Gothic romance more acceptable to a larger audience, which might have dismissed genuine supernaturalism.  As well, the book advocates female sufferage, and the triumph of the mind over the more fantastic of the emotions.  The book is parodied by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey, whose heroine Catherine Morland has read Radcliffe and been superstitiously affected.  In her writings, Radcliffe practiced what she referred to as “terror” instead of the “horror” (terror with a mixture of the gross, reviled, or repugnant) espoused by other such writers as “Monk” Lewis, and she tried to exemplify this not only in her last novel, The Italian, but in an essay as well (which was published after her death by her husband).

The Mysteries of Udolpho begins with the heroine Emily St. Aubert in the bosom of her small family (death is ever present in her life; her two young brothers die as infants, and first her mother passes away when Emily is a young woman, and then her father dies when he and Emily are travelling afterwards).  Lest you be concerned that you won’t have enough plot tangles, twists, and mysteries to keep you busy, however, the book even from the beginning is bejeweled with smaller mysteries throughout, beginning with a mysterious unseen lute player and a poem with Emily’s name in it written on a wall of a fishing-house she and her parents frequent, as well as a miniature picture Emily sees her father kissing after her mother’s death (and which is not, needless to say, a portrait of her mother).  This early history takes place in a pastoral setting much celebrated in the classic “novel of sentiment.”  To give you just a taste of the lovely prose which is so much better than that in the average Gothic novel or novel of sentiment, I will quote from a couple of passages in the book relating to Emily’s father:  “M. St. Aubert loved to wander, with his wife and daughter, on the margin of the Garonne, and to listen to the music that floated on its waves.  He had known life in other forms than those of pastoral simplicity, having mingled in the gay and in the busy scenes of the world; but the flattering portrait of mankind, which his heart had delineated in early youth, his experience had too sorrowfully corrected.  Yet, amidst the changing visions of life, his principles remained unshaken, his benevolence unchilled; and he retired from the multitude ‘more in pity than in anger,’ to scenes of simple nature, to the pure delights of literature, and to the exercise of domestic virtues….To [his small estate in Gascony] he had been attached from his infancy.  He had often made excursions to it when a boy, and the impressions of delight given to his mind by the homely kindness of the grey-headed peasant, to whom it was intrusted, and whose fruit and cream never failed, had not been obliterated by succeeding circumstances.  The green pastures along which he had so often bounded in the exultation of health, and youthful freedom–the woods, under whose refreshing shade he had first indulged that pensive melancholy which afterwards made a strong feature of his character–the wild walks of the mountains, the river, on whose waves he had floated, and the distant plains, which seemed boundless as his early hopes–were never after remembered by St. Aubert but with enthusiasm and regret.  At length he disengaged himself from the world, and retired hither, to realize the wishes of many years.”

Madame St. Aubert is an equally admirable character, who participates fully in her husband’s and daughter’s enthusiasms for nature, and often roams with them.  As to Emily herself, we are given an interesting insight into her character which later may cause us to question her insights (and thus have those delicious doubts of the main character’s state of mind which Gothic readers revel in).  We are told:  “She had discovered in her early years uncommon delicacy of mind, warm affections, and ready benevolence; but with these was observable a degree of susceptibility too exquisite to admit of lasting peace.  As she advanced in youth, this sensibility gave a pensive tone to her spirits, and a softness to her manner, which added grace to beauty and rendered her a very interesting object to persons of a congenial disposition.”  We are told, however, that her father attempts to correct her “susceptibility” and “strengthen her mind,” to teach her “habits of self-command; to teach her to reject the first impulse of her feelings, and to look, with cool examination, upon the disappointments he sometimes threw in her way.”

After her mother dies and Emily and her father begin to travel, they first meet the man who is destined to become the romantic hero, Valancourt.  His consideration for her now ill father impresses Emily’s mind, heart, and sensibilities (and at the end it will turn out that he fortuitously lives only 20 miles from their old home).  It is at this point that her father tells her that he is ruined and that they are in danger of losing their home.  Some time after this, Emily’s father dies due to illness as well.  Emily now has to be protected by her aunt Madame Cheron, who marries an Italian brigand (the owner of the castle Udolpho).  He in turn imprisons Emily there, trying to force her to marry a fellow countryman of his own, and Emily wonders if she will ever see Valancourt again.  The tale twists and turns with all the tortuous (and torturous) windings of high mountain passes, and many more characters are introduced.  At this point, I cease my retelling not so much to avoid a spoiler (though there is that) but as much to observe some reasonable measure in the length of my post, which simply cannot be allowed to be long enough to tell all the gritty details.

A few more remarks about the book are in order, however.  While the long essays at poetry supposedly written by Emily are a trifle tedious (and the quotes from famous poets a bit short), the prose is not only moving and suspenseful, but often full of high sentiment as well.  As I said before, there is much incident and plot complication to keep readers occupied, and for once this standard Gothic series of devices works quite well.  What works less well for modern sensibilities and ethnic beliefs is the manner in which the main negative characters are often Italian and Catholic, which speaks of a frequent prejudice of the English Gothic novel of the period:  they were suspicious of the Catholic Church and of a stricter society, and often relied on cultural stereotypes.  It must also be remarked, however, in all fairness, that some of the main negative characters are Emily’s own aunts and uncles, so I suppose this in a way redresses the balance.  The combination of lovely descriptive travel and landscape prose as well as the overwhelming characteristics of Gothic mystery (the latter of which always turn out to have a realistic explanation, however, which added to Radcliffe’s renown and stature) make this book one that you should read if you read no other classic Gothic romance.  After all, if so notable a literary light as Jane Austen felt she needed to parody the book, can we do less than investigate what aroused her ironic tendency and set her pen a-writing?  I submit that The Mysteries of Udolpho is not only a good Gothic novel, in fact the best I’ve read so far, but just a plain all around virtuoso performance by a woman who preferred to appear only as an author, and keep her private life as mysterious as Udolpho itself, if not as wicked!


Filed under Articles/reviews

When “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” is a useless remark….or, George Sand and me….

Well, I’ve waited long enough to spring my no doubt invalid responses to George Sand on the world, and after exchanging a few remarks with my friend DJ in the comments to my last post have decided to cut the crap and get down to it.  I don’t care for George Sand.  Now, this would not be such a disappointment had I not already slotted her in as one of the luminary lights in my pantheon of important female forebears (also spelled forbears, I’ve been told), and did I not have personal reasons for being predisposed in her favor sight unseen, and wanting to like her.  Many years ago, when I was younger and a lot more foolish (we’ll hope) than I am now, a pompous, overbearing, full-of-himself slightly older literary twit with whom I happened to be under the illusion that I was in love dismissed George Sand with a facetious condemnatory remark about her socialism and her feminism and said she was a bad writer.  It gave me a bad impression of him, because I knew she was loved by feminists everywhere, and when I recovered from my own fixations with him à la Sand, I resolved to read her as soon as possible (which doesn’t explain why it took me nearly twenty-five years to do so–but then we all have to forgive ourselves for some derelictions of this sort).  So you can imagine my disgust and chagrin to find, over the course of the last month or so, that though her shorter works are passable, her novel Indiana, the first novel she published under the name George Sand, was so unreadable that I actually must simply disappoint you and tell you that I was unable to finish it for this post (I did valiantly soldier through 166 of 272 pages, but just decided that I had better things to do and more valid and important chores than listening to her dither on about every emotional qualm and quirk and in and out–though there were amazingly few “ins and outs” of a sexual nature for a novel supposedly about love and lust–of some tepid love affairs which her narrator kept telling me were hot stuff, without being able one whit to convince me.  In this case, she could’ve made do with a little more “showing” and a lot less “telling”!).

But to be fair to you my readers, I should begin at the intended beginning of my post and give you the good parts that I can reproduce (from Wikipedia) about her life, because her life was apparently far more interesting than her works, just to judge by what I’ve seen (and I’m going to refer you to Wikipedia for a fuller biography as well, because I don’t want to tax your patience here by retailing absolutely every detail).  George Sand was born Amantine (or Amandine) Lucile Aurore Dupin, to an aristocratic father and a petit bourgeoise mother, and was raised largely by her paternal grandmother on the family estate of Nohant at Berry.  She was born in 1804 and died in 1876, thus living through several changes of government in France.  She became a French novelist and memoirist of world fame.  Aurore (as she was often known to friends) had two children, Maurice and Solange, with her legal husband, Casimir Dudevant, before a separation finally was agreed upon by the two of them.  She had numerous affairs with famous men, among them Prosper Mérimée, Alfred de Musset, and Frédéric Chopin.  Franz Liszt and Gustave Flaubert were close friends, Flaubert having started out as a “pen pal,” and George Sand was much admired by Honoré de Balzac.  There was also some hint in her letters and in her life of a lesbian affair with the actress Marie Norval.  Sand’s literary debut was the result of a liaison with the writer Jules Sandeau, whose name she partially borrowed for her own nom de plumeIndiana was her first complete novel under her new pen name.  Sand also was the author of some literary criticism and political texts as a socialist.  Some of her less significant but more startling and apparently memorable characteristics to people at large were that she often dressed in men’s clothes and smoked in public, not usually permitted to women at that time.

The first novella of Sand’s that I read was passingly interesting, inasmuch as it reversed a formula for writing with a lot of both male and female writers even now, in which the woman is the object of a man’s attentions and desires.  In this novella, entitled The Marquise, a French noblewoman falls in love not with her socially accepted actual lover, the Vicount de Larrieux, but with a somewhat seedy actor named Lélio, who enchants her by the nobility, grandeur, and passion which he assumes in his roles on the stage.  She is the subject and he is the object, and he falls in love with her too, but the ending is not what you might suppose it to be (no, you’ll have to read it for yourself, but it’s more interesting than Indiana, and it’s shorter, too.  It also comes in a volume with another novella by Sand, Pauline, both ably translated by two collaborators from the Academy Chicago Publishers, Sylvie Charron and Sue Huseman).  As one of the two commentators remarks, “Sand deconstructs the myth of the seducer (Don Juan) by reversing roles….”

As to Pauline, the second of the two novellas I recently read of Sand’s, it’s centered rather more on the relationship between two women than on any romantic relationship featuring a woman and a man, though there is a relationship between one of the two women and a man which is of secondary plot interest.  What I mean is this:  the two young women, Pauline and Laurence, have diametrically opposed lives and interests.  They part when young, but meet up again before they are old.  Pauline has spent years taking care of her mother while Laurence, while living with her own mother and two younger sisters, has had a successful career on the stage (at a time when the theatre was still a somewhat scandalous career for a woman).  Pauline goes to live with Laurence, and meets a male friend of hers who is not trustworthy, but whom Laurence does not at first suspect to be out to wreck the peace of the household.  Montgenays, the male “friend,” wants to be a lover of Laurence’s, but tries to achieve his objective of making her jealous by making up to the more naive Pauline, who falls in love with him.  Laurence figures the schemer’s motives out and tries to prevent Pauline from ruining her life over him, but Pauline is jealous of her and suspects her motives to be interested.  Again, I’m not going to give a spoiler, because this one is good enough to read for yourself.  The novel Indiana is a different matter.

With every intent to be fair (Sand wrote Indiana not long after she had started out as a writer), I can’t like this book.  But I will tell you a bit about it, so that if you are interested by the topic, you can read it yourself in spite of me and perhaps have something more vital to say about it than I do.  It has plenty of promise, dealing with the topics (which are potentially titillating enough for everyone) of “adultery, social constraint, unfulfilled longing for romantic love,…[the] exploration of nineteenth century female desire” complicated “by class constraints and by social codes about infidelity,” and by the question of “women’s equality in France…[u]nder the Napoleonic code.”  No one could claim that this book doesn’t go by the old saw “all drama is conflict.”  After all, when people want to share passion and everyone and everything around them frustrates them (note the restraints mentioned just above), that’s conflict!  In addition, there’s historical interest (possibly) in the picture of the “subordination of the colonies to the French empire.”

The story concerns Indiana Delmare, an aristocratic Creole from the French colony of Bourbon (now called Réunion), married to a much older husband, Colonel Delmare, and living in the small family circle of him, herself, and her British cousin Rodolphe (Ralph) Brown.  Noun, a less aristocratic Creole, her “milk sister”–the literal translation for “foster sister,” i.e., a baby who was fed by the same nurse’s breasts, and who becomes a companion or servant to the primary character–meets a young aristocrat named Raymon de Ramière, and becomes his sexual victim, while he is really in love with Indiana and wants to be her lover instead.  Noun becomes pregnant by Raymon and when she finds out that he loves Indiana, drowns herself.  After this, this book promptly becomes less and less interesting.  Noun is really the most interesting character in it, for the short time she is there.  This is because, I think, of something else that Wikipedia generously offers up, in its wisdom:  the book is full of the “conventions of romanticism, realism, and idealism.”  That’s a lot of isms in one novel to be dealing with, back and forth, back and forth.  First, the characters are saying ridiculously romantic things to each other, then the narrator is putting the reader at least firmly back on his or her feet by realistically focusing on what the characters actually hope to gain (psychoanalyzing them, pre-Freud, that is).  Finally, the characters (particularly Indiana and her cousin Ralph, with whom I’ve been told by Wikipedia that she actually ends up living on a farm in the colonies–sorry, no way to avoid this spoiler) are idealized versions of people.  It’s hard to imagine even the two most noble characters trying out life together on a farm such as the kinds that were often resorted to in the Romantic period and later by idealistic poets and writers:  so there’s the idealism.  I want to emphasize, though, that even the idealism is tempered by investigation of motives:  even Ralph, who is said to seem boring and phlegmatic to all the other characters because they don’t understand him, and who has possibly even better motives than Indiana herself, is examined in depth in some parts of the novel.  As Sand says of Raymon and Indiana, respectively, one was mind, the other was heart:  in retelling their stories, she is both mind and heart, and is to be commended for having both, even though I find her terribly tedious in this book.  I did like the two novellas, and might even like other books of hers, who knows?

It’s only fair, after panning Indiana so thoroughly, to tell you what its commentator says:  “Filled with autobiographical allusions, psychological undertones, brilliantly drawn characters, and the well-reasoned attack on male domination of women that so frightened its [original] reviewers, Indiana remains a mesmerizing classic and a wonderful introduction to one of the greatest women authors of all time.”  In an odd way, the drawbacks of the book are at the same time its virtues.  While it painstakingly examines the characters, their motives, and their causes, and does so with an energy and knowingness that proclaims its writer’s inner knowledge of that of which she speaks, it does go on and on, and there’s a point at which so many twists and turns of the emotions could only be interesting to the people involved (you know, when you hear lovers arguing intensely about something, or overhear a woman or man trying to describe a lover’s quarrel to a best friend, how you sometimes get the feeling that you “just had to be there”?).  Well, even though I’ve been there, I find it painful rather than enlightening to go over so many old conundrums and riddles of the heart and mind so intricately dealt with, at least as Sand does it, and since I know you don’t want me either to “go on and on,” I leave you with this thought, expressed better than I can say it by another expert on love, also with the first name George (Gordon, Lord Byron):

“So, we’ll go no more a-roving/So late into the night,/Though the heart be still as loving,/And the moon be still as bright./For the sword outwears its sheath,/And the soul wears out the breast,/And the heart must pause to breathe,/And love itself have rest./Though the night was made for loving,/And the day returns too soon,/Yet we’ll go no more a-roving/By the light of the moon.”


Filed under Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments

“Her novels offer a detailed portrait of the lives of many strata of society, including the very poor, and are of interest to social historians as well as lovers of literature.”–Wikipedia quote

Though of Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell’s works I had originally intended to read and post on both the volume I picked up entitled The Cranford Chronicles and the very long novel (incomplete at the time of the author’s death) Wives and Daughters, because it took such an unconscionably long time to read The Cranford Chronicles (which is in fact composed not only of the novel Cranford but also of two related novellas), I have decided to post on the first only and to leave Wives and Daughters as a project for another time.  When I looked up Mrs. Gaskell’s works, I was surprised to learn that Mr. Harrison’s Confessions and My Lady Ludlow, which bookend the novel Cranford in the volume The Cranford Chronicles, are in fact novellas usually published separately, so I can only imagine that the unnamed editor/collector at Vintage Books saw some connection amongst the three works, perhaps that of similar fictional locale, since they all three take place in sedate, small villages.  It’s true, of course, that these three novels are not among the novels largely and ostensibly about the industrial North of England, which Mrs. Gaskell is so noted by social historians for having written about; nevertheless, she makes her points about the changes which came to England at the time and their effects upon the poor by showing the changes as they had their impact upon the small family seats and villages [I refuse to say “impacted”–that’s not a correct verbal usage].

First for a bit of background about Elizabeth Gaskell, née Stevenson, courtesy of Wikipedia, the rapid poster’s friend.  Her father was a Unitarian minister who gave up his orders for conscientious reasons and was finally appointed Keeper of the Treasury Records.  Her mother, who produced eight children–only two of whom survived to adulthood–died when Elizabeth was thirteen months old, which her father felt left him no recourse but to send the infant to her mother’s sister, one Hannah Lumb, for raising.  Elizabeth led a life with an uncertain future, but was a “permanent guest” at her aunt’s and at her grandparents’ house.  Her father remarried but Elizabeth did not see her father’s new family for many years.  Her older brother John, however, visited her and her aunt regularly before he went missing (he was a sailor with the East India Company on an exploration to India).

Leaving school at the age of sixteen after having been taught the usual basic skills, lessons, and accomplishments of a young lady of her time, Elizabeth spent some time in London, Newcastle upon Tyne, and Edinburgh with various cousins and friends.  When she was almost twenty-two, she married a Unitarian minister named William Gaskell.  They settled in the northern city of Manchester.  Her married life was apparently checkered with some heartbreak.  The subjects, though not the steadfastness of her tone in her fiction, seem to show it:  her first two children died.  The other four, however, survived.  In 1835, she began a diary on family events and her opinions, which probably put her in the frame of mind to continue to express herself through writing.  The next year, she and her husband co-authored a cycle of poems which were published in Blackwood’s Magazine.  She continued to write for the magazines under various pseudonyms, penning her first novel, Mary Barton, in 1848.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s friends and visitors included Charles Dickens, John Ruskin, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Charles Eliot Norton, Charlotte Bronte, and Charles Hallé.  Her novel Cranford (her best-known work) was published in Dickens’s journal Household Words.  She continued to write novels for the rest of her life, some of which required travel.  Elizabeth Gaskell died in 1865 of a heart attack while looking at a house she had purchased.  Her last novel, Wives and Daughters, though unfinished when she died, was the one she thought her best.  In 2010 there was a memorial for Elizabeth Gaskell placed in Poet’s Corner, in Westminster Abbey.

Now for my own opinion of the three works of hers which I read in the omnibus The Cranford Chronicles, an opinion perhaps not as humble as it ought to be, given that Mrs. Gaskell was such a prolific and talented writer, and occupied and still holds such an important place in English literary history, especially since the revision of the literary canon has been going on.  Her work drags.  I suppose I had been led to expect, by the snippets and fragments of “Cranford” which I managed to catch on the BBC production featured on American PBS programs a few years back, that I would be meeting up with a character as coyly dimpled in the delivery of her lines as Dame Judi Dench, or a railway martinet as sure of his own beliefs as the character whom all the ladies went in dread of on that show.  But as I came to find, the railway scenes from the BBC were a total fabrication when it came to the three works I was actually reading, which Alex, in her recent comments on her own site when she wrote her talented post about Cranford, had warned about.  As she noted, the television mini-series seems to have been a compilation of Mrs. Gaskell’s works.  But to blame Mrs. Gaskell for not having written a BBC mini-series attuned to modern tastes would be a real case of unfairness, wouldn’t it, as well as an unpardonable anachronism?  So instead of saying what’s wrong (the slow pacing) and what’s not there, let’s look on the bright side (now that the task is accomplished) and say what was good about it, or charming, or thought-provoking.

In the first part of The Cranford Chronicles, Mr. Harrison’s Confessions, I was pleased to watch Mrs. Gaskell leave the safe and well-known (to her) ground of the female character and venture into the more hazardous waters of the male mentality.  Hazardous because of course Mrs. Gaskell, though clearly understanding men quite as well as women, excels in her portraits of women in different walks of life.  It was a sheer delight, after the basic comedic “givens” of the situation were set up, however, to watch Mr. Harrison (a new doctor) try to follow the sometimes self-contradictory dictates of his older and authoritarian colleague all the while also trying not to get himself married off to the wrong woman (which in this case multiplied itself into “women,” as every single woman within the tiny village of Duncombe who wasn’t absolutely ancient seemed to have an interest other than medical in trying to monopolize the young doctor’s attention).  This shortest of the three works was my clear favorite, not because it was short in this case, but because Mrs. Gaskell managed so much in so short a compass (that is, not because of the shortness, but in spite of it).  Though it’s clear that the novella will have some sort of happy ending, the tensions are handled excellently, and when I finished reading it, I was wanting more.

Cranford itself, occupying the middle position in this volume, has a very slowly emerging main character, Miss Matty, whose gallant modesty itself seems to constitute the nature of the whole volume.  Which is to say, though this was not my favorite of the three works, I can clearly see that it’s in contention for the position of “the best” (it’s priceless in its portrait of what’s often referred to derogatorially as “decaying gentlewomen,” but contends with My Lady Ludlow, the third work, for first place in the category of comprehensive portraits of society.  As most of the main characters in Cranford are “gentle,” their society is thoroughly painted, but the characters in My Lady Ludlow supply more of a range of different societal positions, and thus have a different kind of interest and variety).  Miss Matty’s and the other ladies’ even more recessive biographer, a person who until almost three-fourths of the way through the book is unnamed, focuses all her discussion on the minor and (as it turns out) not so minor fortunes and misadventures of these ladies, not omitting their foibles and vanities, but encouraging us to appreciate their individuality while particularly and gradually concentrating more and more attention on Miss Matty herself.  It’s rather as if the commonly named narrator Miss Mary Smith is a foil in her constant focusing of attention on the most genuinely humble of the ladies and in her own refusal to say much about herself (and I mean “common” only in the most inoffensive way, i.e., a “frequently occurring” name, as goodness knows, it would not flatter me myself to refer to the name “Mary Smith” as “common” in any rude way, having both Marys and Smiths in my own family tree!)  After quite a lot of rueful comedy is generated by the way in which the ladies gossip and are motivated by silly though human questions of precedence and correct behavior, we see them draw together and operate as a supportive group, disregarding their differences, when Miss Matty has a stroke of ill fortune.  There is an equally modest happy ending which ties up all loose ends, and though the main characters have often been figures of fun, they have humanized their readers, perhaps, by their very lack of major vices and their jumping at the shadows of even small hints of vices.  Though the atmosphere is rather claustrophobic for my tastes with so many maiden ladies and widows and so few men in the mix, yet they are strong and determined women, and thus Mrs. Gaskell has given feminism its due though in the way of her time and taste.

As to the last of the three works I’m considering today, My Lady Ludlow, it’s a rather rambling work which takes place at Hanbury, the family seat of the widowed Lady Ludlow.  A character named Margaret Dawson is the narrator, and here again we have a portrait not only of a main character, Lady Ludlow, but also of those who surround her and constitute her daily society.  In this case, however, the characters run the gamut from Lady Ludlow’s aristocratic relatives to the lowest of the characters on the totem pole, the poachers and tinkers whom Lady Ludlow herself, at the opening of the fiction when Margaret Dawson first meets her, would never think would have contact with the more fortunately placed characters.  Nearly as long as Cranford, this novella describes the gradual (very gradual) relaxing of Lady Ludlow’s strict upper-class beliefs about religion, society, business, in short, upon all areas of life which impinge upon her.  Time after time, some aspect of progress which is usually for the benefit of the poorer characters meet up with opposition from Lady Ludlow.  It’s not that she’s unkind, but she is quite adherent to the preferences of the upper classes to give charitably to those who are under their thumbs rather than to increase the privileges, rights, and capabilities of the lower-class characters by changing the way society operates.  For the longest time, she stubbornly though politely opposes her own steward and the village rector who both have in mind improvements, and it’s a mark of how much she is respected that all but a very few characters follow her absolutely and unquestioningly (until such time as she gives way and changes her mind).  It in fact takes most of the length of the novella for her to change the staunchest of her opinions and procedures, and it is only after a deep personal loss that she eventually brings herself to do so.  It is in fact while she is sad and in mourning that she seems the most to reach out to those to whom she has in the past opposed, and they are more than ready to accept her olive branch.  Once again, the requisite happy ending is in order, in which all parties seem to relax their former standards slightly and to strive to get along as a group.  Mrs. Gaskell is nothing if not supportive of the basic structure of society in these three works, however society may need change from time to time or come to be refigured.

All in all, I am quite glad I read Mrs. Gaskell.  She will never win a prize for the rapidly occurring “hook” at the beginnings of her works, for it takes her some time to build up steam and provide a basic conflict or drama for her characters to participate in.  Her works instead excel in character portraits, to judge only from these three-in-one, and as such the action is secondary.  She is not one of whom Henry James’s dictum that plot is character and character plot is very convincing, because while for James this is true and he shows a tight and firm connection between the two, she by contrast often seems to have very little in the way of plot for long stretches of at least the two later works here, and this disjoins the two elements of structure which for James were so intimately connected.    Of course, she wrote so much that I am quite prepared to be contradicted by others who may have read more of her works.  I would also advise anyone having trouble with characterizations in particular to observe her techniques, her pacing being of less significance in that regard.  She is a highly talented verbal portrait painter, and though she is capable of capturing a significant incident with a few lines, these incidents are quite often moments indicative of interior states of mind or of character analysis going forward.

So, during this long, seemingly never-ending summer, when you’re looking for a book to spend time with and really get in the midst of, you could do worse than to spend time with Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell and to watch her cause characters to materialize right before your eyes.  If nothing else, start with Mr. Harrison’s Confessions, full of gentle though sometimes quite pointed humor, and expect to step back in time with a Victorian chuckle rather than a contemporary guffaw (because, you know, the true ladies and gentlemen in Mrs. Gaskell’s worlds don’t guffaw!).

1 Comment

Filed under Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

Catching up with Aphra Behn–More than 324 years later….

Who was Aphra Behn?  The name has passed by me in literary period histories numerous times, and I’ve always thought, “Oh, yes, research for a more convenient time.  I’ll have to look her up some day.  Important and groundbreaking woman writer, you say?  (What an unusual name!).  Yes, I guess I’ll have to read her sooner or later.”  Perhaps the best brief information which I can supply that simultaneously informs and tantalizes the reader comes from Wikipedia sources, for all the blurb on the book says is that she was “a Restoration poet, novelist, playwright, feminist and spy, considered by many to be the first English professional female writer.”  And as the reader may or may not know, she wrote the first epistolary novel, Love-Letters Between A Nobleman and His Sister, decades before Samuel Richardson first wrote (and got first credit for) his three epistolary novels.  To quote some tidbits from Wikipedia for convenience’s sake:  Aphra Behn was a contributor largely to the “amatory fiction genre of British literature.”  She and two other writers even less famous by name (Delarivier Manley and Eliza Haywood) were referred to as “the fair triumvirate of wit.”  But all of Behn’s fame, such as it is, is constituted around her adult life:  her early life is more or less a mystery, and features parents of the names of Cooper, or Johnson, or Amis, or Johnston.  One certain fact is that she had some relation to Francis, Lord Willoughby, who was responsible for her real or imagined family trip to Surinam, which trip provoked her most famous work, a novel, Oroonoko:  or, The Royal Slave.  In 1664, she had a short-lived marriage to Johann Behn, a man of German or Dutch extraction.  She may or may not have been Catholic (she said at one point that she was meant to be a nun), but she was definitely a Stuart monarchist and Tory supporter when the parties Tory and Whig emerged.  A bit later, she was drafted as a spy for Charles II to Antwerp, her code name being Astraea, which she also published under afterwards.  Charles, however, didn’t pay his spy, and she was forced to borrow money to return home, where she was placed in a debtor’s prison until an unidentified benefactor in 1669 bailed her out.  After this, she wrote as a scribe for the King’s Company, and from 1670-1689 crafted plays, novels, poems, pamphlets, and one translation of a French popular astronomy guide.  She died on April 16, 1689 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.  Though her writings were disdained as improper during the Victorian era, during the 20th century and since, she has been seen as an important feminist influence and writer upon such issues as slavery, race, gender roles, and sexual desire (sometimes including same-sex groupings and a staple of her own time, transvestitism on the stage).  Now to qualify and expand these remarks with some of my own and others’, based upon three different genres of her writing which I myself read.

Lest you run away with the idea that she is easy to read, be warned:  her writing is full of errors of various kinds, not excluding errors of fact regarding racial and ethnic issues and misspellings and words capitalized for emphasis which we no longer treat so in modern English.  In fact, the modern reader would probably find Shakepeare, an earlier writer, easier to read because he has been so modernized in most versions in print.  Nevertheless, I chose to read “The Unfortunate Happy Lady:  A True History” (a sort of early short story before the form existed formally, in which the paradox in the title is carried out in the fiction); “The Younger Brother; or The Amorous Jilt” (a Restoration comic play, one of her best known, played for the first time posthumously); and her novel Oroonoko:  or, The Royal Slave.  The three different forms, though each example has its faults of writing, show the width of her life experience and sources of reference, and the ease with which she was able to enter into others’ experiences.  I will deal with each briefly here, just to give the reader whose curiosity has been whetted by this strange writer a taste of what she could do.

In “The Unfortunate Happy Lady,” Behn writes a story with a happy ending (I’m not giving you much of a spoiler here, since she herself prevaricates with one in her title).  This concerns a daughter of a family who, her fortunes being left in the care of her dishonest brother, finds herself put by this brother in a bawdy house where she is deprived of her share of the family fortune and left to work out her own compromise with the powers that be.  That’s the unfortunate part of her “history,” though many people might take leave to doubt, by the time they finish the storybook ending, that it’s actually a “true history.”  The lady has good luck, however, because the very first of her intended seducers is a gentleman (and this bit requires that one imagine a gentleman to be a single gentle man who yet might visit a bawdy house and still be a good person, not I suppose the absolute widest stretch of the imagination).  He chases her around the room for a bit but then condescends to hear her story, whereupon he becomes less inflamed with passion and more inflamed with moral outrage that her brother could treat her so (this provides an interesting psychological link, for those concerned to follow it up where it leads, between moral outrage and envy at someone else’s moral freedom from restraint, a link which Freud must surely have mentioned in conjunction with judges and Pharisees somewhere in his works!).  I found this story mildly enjoyable, and it was certainly the shortest work of the three, and supplied the fewest stops and halts for the reading eye trying to penetrate anachronisms in language.

The second piece I read (and I’m persuaded that had I seen a production of it it would have fared better in my judgement) was the play, “The Younger Brother; or, The Amorous Jilt.”  This piece exasperated my patience, but not perhaps by its own fault.  I simply have read too many other and better bits of Restoration playwrighting which are easier and less exhausting to read.  In this piece on nearly every page there is an aside by one character or another, first of all.  Then, there is a proliferation of characters in disguise so eagerly thrown off repeatedly that it’s hard to take up the readers’ “willing suspension of disbelief” and agree to the fiction that others on stage didn’t know who they were when they were in others’ clothes.  Finally, the characters one and all seem to be visited with a kind of casual attitude towards standards of faith and piety of various kinds, not just the “amorous jilt” Mirtilla, but all, even the parent who repeatedly tries to run one son through with a sword and at one point or other wants to disinherit both sons.  It’s a fine excursion into the staples and set pieces and stereotypical actions of Restoration comedy, but it has rather the nature of an imitation of too many plays watched in too rapid succession one after the other, and none of them very original.  It’s again mildly amusing.

Where Behn has her greatest success among the three works I examined is with the novel Oroonoko:  or, The Royal Slave (and I note that these were the only three I had time for in my review of famous women precursors, which I took up a week or so ago with Colette, and which I will continue with Mrs. Gaskell next).  I would first caution the reader of my post to be aware that fashions in political awareness and humanity, like fashions of any kind, age and date, and Aphra Behn was for her time a relatively keen enthusiast of a movement to end slavery.  Her sympathy was many times expressed outright, and moreover the entire slant of her novel was bent toward showing the outrageously unfair and inhumane treatment of one slave in particular.  Nevertheless, in the book the nobility of this slave in character terms was tied to his being royal in lineage terms, a caste preference, and she several times seems to be siding with the white colonists in their fear of their black slaves and the native Americans with whom they also have dealings.  The Africans and native Americans are judged to be beautiful or the reverse often according to how close they come to white standards of beautiful limbs and features, though Behn often comments on the attractiveness of these peoples, “except for” whatever characteristic she finds objectionable.  This is per the writings of her times by other commentators as well, and I suppose that it’s possible that the Africans and native Americans were thinking similar thoughts in reverse, that is, finding the white colonists appealing or the opposite according to native standards of beauty.  The ending is tragic, as of course it had to be, for she was seemingly unable to concede a victory against the white colonists by a slave revolt, though some revolts in history were successful at establishing black colonies elsewhere that were independent of the white colonists and their control.  That is to say, the only way to control white sympathy for her main black character, the prince Oroonoko, was at the time to have him die heroically in vastly outnumbered conditions, in a brutal and repugnant sacrifice of the prince at the stake which, if it is true, is as horrific if not more so than many lynchings in the later established American South.  My best advice for the reader who wants to penetrate this book to its depths is to get a copy of the Norton Critical Edition, edited by Joanna Lipking; this edition has numerous essays and fragments of accounts of the time which add to the experience of the fiction itself, a short novel of only about sixty-five pages.

And this concludes my perhaps too brief and first encounter and my introduction for you of Aphra Behn, a remarkable woman in anyone’s terms, more than 324 years after she herself passed out of this world.  While I cannot say I liked her without reservation, I can without restriction say that it has enriched my knowledge of people and of literature to have read her.  I hope you will cast among her works for some that suit you (and there are many) and be equally surprised and provoked to thought.


Filed under Articles/reviews

Filling in blanks in a literary education via early feminists and women writers….

Recently, it occurred to me (the more especially when I read about Colette on Wikipedia) that I had for too long now neglected several important writers who happened to be female and part of the history of the world novel.  Oh, I’d read Mrs. Ann Ward Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho in a Gothic literatures class, but I’d not followed up on the lead provided into the world of famous female writers, who often were the inspiration for later male writers, a thankless task which in fact often received little thanks and credit from the male writers who followed them, or at least none from the male literary establishment (I’m thinking now of the fact that Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela is usually talked about as the first epistolary novel, a startling innovation for the time (1740), and his further novels Clarissa (1748) and Sir Charles Grandison (1753) continued the tradition, but the actual initiator of the epistolary novel was the feminist writer Aphra Behn, with her novel Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister, which was written in 1683).  I also consider the fact that Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette’s Claudine series, her first published works, were published under her first husband Henry Gauthier-Villar’s pen name “Willy,” and that she had to go through extensive legal contortions to get them back in her own name, with the proof being in her original manuscripts.  As well (and on a milder note, though still discouraging to female writers), Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, Baronesse Dudevant (alias George Sand) first published her own collaborative works through a liaison she had with the writer Jules Sandeau, under the pseudonym “Jules Sand.”  The name “George Sand” continued to be her pen name for the rest of her life.

At any rate, it seemed good to give some time and space to several female writers selected from amongst the many early female writers at random, and I’ve determined to write posts on some of their many works in turn (though not necessarily in chronological order).  the writers I’ve selected are Mrs. Radcliffe, Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell, Aphra Behn, Colette, and George Sand.  I’ve felt no commitment to unearth their most popular books or their most scandalous (in some cases, the two were one).  I thought that today I would start with a few novellas and a novel I found by Sidonie Colette which just happened to be the first ones that came in at the library when I was ready to work on them.

There’s first of all a distinct difference in the two volumes by Colette which came to hand.  The one I picked up initially was the set of three novellas in one volume, Gigi, Julie de Carneilhan, and Chance Acquaintances.  While mildly evocative of a scandalous mode of life, the book had no listed translator, there was no foreword or introduction about Colette, in short, the book was an old-fashioned attempt to have one’s cake and eat it too, by publishing three slightly naughty stories by a noted female libertine without proper framework and introduction being offered.  The stories fall well within the range of Colette’s true topic, which as far as I can see without reading everything thing she wrote but by reading these three novellas and a widely different novel, The Pure and the Impure, is not sex and sensuality of various kinds per se, but is instead the topic of sexual politics as it affects everyone, whether straight, gay, or one of the many shades of in-between which Colette’s almost visionary world allows.

Most people have seen either the screen or the stage version of Gigi, have read the book, or know the story by hearsay.  The story is that of a young woman born into the demimonde and struggling innocently against the restraints and liberties practiced and the understood rules followed by her own female relatives, all of whom seem to have been rich men’s mistresses and public performers at some point, the latter of whom historically speaking were always “loose” women however inwardly respectable their instincts because that was the life forced on them by public understandings of their role.  The story is a charming one with a happy ending, and doesn’t at all prepare one for the bittersweet tale of repeated divorces and romantic misadventures contained in the second novella in the same volume, Julie de Carneilhan, which is about the daily life of an impoverished divorced woman in Paris whose days are often haunted by the spectre of hunger and worn-out clothing.  This is grim, to be sure, but even Julie makes her escape, in her case back to the past with her brother, in the end of the tale.  The third tale, Chance Acquaintances, takes a more autobiographical tone, is narrated in the first person, and in it the speaker is addressed as “Madame Colette.”  This is a tale drawn (however exaggeratedly or truly) from the days in Colette’s life when she herself was on the music hall stage, and when it was beginning to be fashionable for people in a higher walk of life (not just the men, but the women also) to be on first-name terms with music hall performers.  The perspective is the one taken of a conventional marriage from the point of view of Colette, who is drawn into its sexual politics willy-nilly and takes a hand in keeping the seamy underside of the marriage from one of its participants.  “Chance acquaintances” being the topic, we are drawn sympathetically close to the speaker, who does not spare her casual friends from our stricter views of them, and whose most devoted friend seems to be her cat, who travels everywhere with her.  As she is packing to leave the resort where she met the man and wife who occupy center stage in her tale, she says of the cat, who is “helping” her pack by getting amongst the suitcases, “I think she had understood it all, and that she was appealing to me yet once more to extricate both of us from chance acquaintances and from bitter disappointments–the full horror of which I had been hiding from myself–from fortuitious towns and strange rooms and all the rest of it.  She was imploring me to blaze a trail just wide enough for my feet and for hers, a trail that would be obliterated behind us as we went.”

By contrast with the three novellas, Colette’s novel The Pure and the Impure is more direct (though since in this case we are provided with a translator’s name, Herma Briffault, and an introduction by Janet Flanner, we can also wonder if it just wasn’t translated more honestly).  It starts out with a chapter taking place in a residence which serves as a casual opium den and dosshouse for sexual liaisons of an “irregular” nature, whether between two unmarried heterosexuals or cheating spouses, two women, two men, or some other variant on a theme.  The first chapter concentrates a lot of attention on the subject of Charlotte, a woman “of a certain age” who flatters her younger lover by “singing” like a nightingale when he gives her pleasure.  The suggestion is that her faking it is a generous act of love rather than the impiety and hypocrisy which our own time insists on seeing it as.  The very suggestion that the faking is a part of the true love act itself when it occurs (and it seems that she derives pleasure from the confidence and assurance she gives the younger man) is a real eye-opener from a twentieth-century stick-to-the-truth point of view.  The hypocrisy is still troubling, but Colette writes with such complexity of the love act and the politics of loving between whomever that she at least introduces some doubt into the equation of “duplicity equals lack of love.”

The second chapter of The Pure and the Impure focuses on an aging Don Juan-like character and his attitudes towards his conquests.  Colette writes as herself doing something like interviewing him, only for her own benefit instead of for a news station.  She compares and contrasts his attitudes about sex and sensuality with what she imagines were the perspectives of the great legendary Don Juan, and comes up with some surprising conclusions.  The most unusual thing about her way of considering his views is that she often sides with what would seem to a woman of our time to be sexist politics aimed at making women less secure and comfortable in their love.  She reiterates often, though, that this man is not a lover of her own, but a friend to whom she is talking, and thus more or less excuses herself from challenging him except in a friendly way.

As if brought on or excused or justified by the combination of the previous two chapters (one in which a woman feels bound to fake or at least exaggerate orgasms and the next in which a man articulates a seemingly unfeeling and predatory attitude towards women), and always assuming that anyone thinks such life choices have to be justified, the rest of the book is predominantly about gay relationships, first among women, then among the famous two “ladies of Llangollen,” then among men.  She provides then a short chapter focusing on how and why a jealous quarrel over a man is in reality a strong and vital relationship between the two women fighting over him.  Finally, the question of what is pure in love is mooted, and Colette’s last remark in the book is:  “The word ‘pure’ has never revealed an intelligible meaning to me.  I can only use the word to quench an optical thirst for purity in the transparencies that evoke it–in bubbles, in a volume of water, and in the imaginary latitudes entrenched, beyond reach, at the very center of a dense crystal.”  Thus, for Colette, there is presumably no “white light” in love, but only a collection of various shades and hues.

If I didn’t know better, I might almost think the two volumes by Colette were written by two different people.  The book of novellas is terse and sometimes cynical, but not outspoken in the usual sense of the word–it is allusive and elusive both.  Sexual pleasure is rather an arrangement two people come to for the predominant pleasure of one over the other, with one party clearly losing out.  The novel, by contrast, though there are opportunistic relationships like this spoken of also, is mainly about consensual sexual and romantic relationships, however unusual or improvised, which give pleasure to both people.  Colette is only one writer, of course, and only one person, and her views are those of her own experience and lifestyle.  But I’d like to think that regardless of what particular “team” one “plays for,” to quote a much-overused sexual metaphor of our own time, Colette in her quest for emotional, sensual, and sexual freedom and the supremacy and sanctity of the love relationship in our makeup speaks for us all, and that we can all learn something from reading her sometimes sad, often quizzical, but also frank and open “essays” on the art of love.

(My remarks on the other writers I’ve mentioned in this post will follow in days to come.)


Filed under Articles/reviews, Full of literary ambitions!, Literary puzzles and arguments

The Shakespearean sonnet and the past, present and future of love of a friend….

Shakespeare wrote many a sonnet about the love of friends and friendship, and though we have commentators and historians to tell us that some of his sexual loves were female and others male, the friendship component of many of the sonnets is a free-standing element of them, which could lead one to read those particular sonnets aloud to friends of a more Platonic nature and mean it just as literally.  Today, I would like to illustrate this point with a comparison of three of them, representing a sort of past, present and future in the conceptual history of a friendship.

First, the past:  “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought/I summon up remembrance of things past,/I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,/And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:/Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,/For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,/And weep afresh love’s long since canceled woe,/And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:/Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,/And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er/The sad account of fore-bemoanéd moan,/Which I new pay as if not paid before./But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,/All losses are restored and sorrows end.”  Here, the past is the main emphasis of the poet’s conception, yet he thinks of the “dear friend” and ceases to mourn, though there is no sure sign that the friend is still alive in the present tense except possibly for the direct address in the word “thee” (which is still temporally ambiguous to a certain extent).

Then, the present:  “When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,/I all alone beweep my outcast state,/And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,/And look upon myself, and curse my fate,/Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,/Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,/Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,/With what I most enjoy contented least;/Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,/Haply I think on thee–and then my state,/Like to the lark at break of day arising/From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;/For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings/That then I scorn to change my state with kings.”  In this sonnet, though the poet does speak of “thy sweet love remembered,” almost as if the love were in the past, the main gist of the poem casts the experience of the poet in the present:  he is even despairing of “deaf heaven” at the beginning of the poem, yet by the end he forsakes the considerations of “sullen earth” and his “state” transitions into something like a “lark” which “sings hymns at heaven’s gate.”  Thus, the change is not so much within heaven as within the poet’s experience and attitude toward heaven, and the poem is the moment of transition contained in an awareness of the present.

Finally, the future:  “Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,/So do our minutes hasten to their end;/Each changing place with that which goes before,/In sequent toil all forwards do contend./Nativity, once in the main of light,/Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crowned,/Crooked eclipses ‘gainst his glory fight,/And time that gave now doth his gift confound./Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth/And delves the parallels in beauty’s brow,/Feeds on the rarities of nature’s truth,/And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow./And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand,/Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.”  In this poem, which looks at the entire span of human life as a gradual hopeless fight of the pebbles against the sucking sea, of youth against gradual aging, of “the flourish set on youth” against the wrinkles, “the parallels set in beauty’s brow,” there is yet that promise for the future and future humans and ages which occurs in more than one Shakespearean sonnet:  “And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand,/Praising thy worth….”  The poet has thus secured a future existence not only for himself, but for his friend who inspires him to write as well.

Thus, for the perfection of a form united with a concept, for the developing view of past, present, and future as they impinge upon a great poet’s awareness, and for deservedly famous tributes to love and friendship, these three sonnets by Shakespeare that I have reproduced here and commented on in passing are ideal:  if you enjoyed them, why not read them aloud with a friend, to a friend, when occasion presents itself?  Even better, commit them to memory or do some art work to accompany the words on parchment paper as a special gift for a friend who’s down in the dumps.  Even if your friend is not an expert with Shakepearean English, the meanings are fairly clear if you read with the punctuation, and worth sharing.


Filed under Articles/reviews, What is literature for?