21 December 2009

Jude the Obscure

Is a really miserable novel, but it's bringing into focus for me how excited the nineteenth-century British novel got about marriage. If the eighteenth century was about how patriarchal family authority will kill you, the nineteenth is about how legally proscribed heterosexuality will probably kill you. (The early nineteenth century, meanwhile—which I'm representing with Waverley and Persuasion—is about the individual negotiating between family and marriage.) There are a lot of economic facts, a lot of details about how to live and where and when, and a sort of grudging acknowledgment that, in the end, getting married and having babies is probably the better option (even though you'll end up hating your spouse and not having enough money for the babies), because single you'll die of loneliness or starvation or being manipulated by more powerful people. So David Copperfield has a terrible first marriage (his wife spends most of their time together dying), Cranford is about how difficult it is for single women to support themselves, Villette is about how Lucy Snowe only wants to marry so she can be a widow, Barchester Tower has a whole catalogue of henpecked husbands and wicked wives (although the Stanhope children might offer a more cheerful non-heteronormative model of adult sexuality, the novel doesn't like them at all), few of the couples in Middlemarch have anyone's idea of a happy marriage (except Will and Dorothea at the end, I guess, and Fred and Mary, except it takes them all a long time and a lot of pain to get there), and Jude—well, Jude is just about misery. By Jude, too, the novel has gotten much more explicit about how terrible the idea of marriage is, how it'll ruin everyone's life, how heterosexuality is dreadful, and how it's also necessary because single women are absolutely fucked. What Maisie Knew is very much anti-marriage, too—the only relationships that novel likes are the completely non-heteronormative ones (Masie's love for her step-parents, her governess's love for her, and for her step-father).

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is my only nineteenth-century British novel that isn't explicitly about marriage, unless Jekyll/Hyde were a sort of queered marriage—in which case it does work as a novel about marriage because, just like the century's other anti-marriage novels, the pair start by making each other miserable and end in a double murder/suicide. Which is essentially, says Hardy, what getting married is about in the first place.

(Helpfully for my theory, The House of the Seven Gables doesn't have much to say about marriage, making it distinctly un-British. Its sense of threat is located around 18th-century-style family-paranoia issues—although it gets over these in the end by making the last descendants of Maule and Pyncheon marry each other—which is nice, I guess? It's a very hopeful novel, anyway.)

02 December 2009


Here's a list of novels I've been reading that are interested in talking about enslavement:

1) Robinson Crusoe—Crusoe is a slave in North Africa for a while (where he's in charge of catching fish for his master, but then he runs away). He makes his original £200 trading in slaves, then runs his own sugar plantation in Brazil for a while. Even on his deserted island, sugar follows him—he's delighted to find some of it, and some flour, in the last store of provisions he takes off the deserted boat before it breaks up and sinks.

2) The Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph—At the end, Sidney's mystery cousin, the one who comes back pretending to be poor and needing charity so he can find which relative is worthy to bestow his fortune on, is fantastically wealthy because he's returned from the Caribbean. One can only assume that what he's been doing there to make so much money is selling and buying sugar and slaves.

3) The Sentimental Journey—Sterne is both more oblique and more obvious. The overt context of the little caged starling that was trained to say "I can't get out! I can't get out!" is to get Yorick to realize that he doesn't really want to be shut up in the Bastille for coming to France from hostile England without a passport. But it's the sentimental 1760's, so the image of the caged starling asking for its freedom is also an image of enslaved people (the caged bird that sings, I guess). The fact that ship's captains keep trading and buying and selling the starling before it's finally returned to Dover and set free emphasize that the starling's a sentimental commodity.

4) Villette—M. Paul Charles David Emmanuel disappears off to the Caribbean at the end to take care of his dead fiance's family's estates there. He dies in a shipwreck, because in Bronte colonial ventures leave people dead or crazy or soon-to-die. (Or he doesn't die in a shipwreck—comes home to Belgium and marries Lucy and they're fantastically unhappy together because they both really just want to be alone and she doesn't seem attracted to him at all, and that's why the period before he's set to sail back is the happiest of her life. But I'm an optimist, so I choose to believe that he dies.) She refers to herself as a Quaker sometimes—because of the plainness of her dresses—but this doesn't seem to get her to think much about Emmanuel's role as colonial hegemon.

5)The Heart of Darkness—Sure, he's about the ivory trade instead of the sugar trade, but Conrad's still deeply interested in racist colonialism, and he gets as much mileage out of the contrast between the moral darkness of what white people are doing to dark-skinned Africans and the white Ivory (and the white linen shirts that that one weird guy at the Inner Station gets his unwilling servant woman to iron for him—Marlowe narrates something like "she didn't want to do it, but she did it) they're doing it for, that eighteenth-century British abolitionists got out of black people being enslaved to produce white sugar. (Did anyone ever connect dental cavities to the slave trade? Because THAT would have been awesome and amazingly overdone...)

5) A High Wind in Jamaica—Slavery's lately been abolished at the beginning of the novel; all the slave's huts are falling down hardly any sugar's being produced. There's that fantastically racist anecdote about the two old white women who're murdered in their beds and eaten (or something, says the narrator) by their former house-slaves. The novel seems to be being ironic about this, but it does it in that 1920's way where it still thinks it's really funny, because it's really interested in it as an image of the pathos of the British Empire going to hell. (Once you shut down slave labor in Jamaica, apparently, nice little English girls will start murdering Dutch sea captains while captive on board pirate ships, and then lie about it later in court in London.)

6) Flush—Elizabeth Barrett's family made their money in the sugar trade in Jamaica. Sterne-like, Woolf ties Flush's captivity in Miss Barrett's room, and Miss Barrett's captivity in her father's house, to the captive labor that made the Barretts' money. Not explicitly—but it's certainly there. Sugar is such a loaded concept in the English novel.

30 November 2009

Paul Hunter, Before Novels

Before Novels is making me ANGRY. It's early in the morning, I've been doing way too much reading lately and too little talking to people, and so I've decided that I Hate New Historicism And Everything It Stands For. And I really like ahistoricist formalism, except that I sort of hate everyone who does it. So.

On the other hand, John Dunton sounds like a delightful man, and I hope to get to read some of him next spring.

28 November 2009

Clara Reeve's The Progress of Romance

She may be dull, but she knows what she's talking about:

Hortensius. I rejoice that you do not defend Circulating libraries,—if yon [sp] had, I would have fought against them with more success, than I have met with hitherto, when I have been your opponent.
Euphrasia. I am entirely of your opinion, they are one source of the vices and follies of our present times; and we shall have occasion to say more of them when we come to draw inferences from the effects of novel-reading upon the manners.
Hort. They have been well ridiculed in Mr. Colman's farce called Polly Honeycombe.
Euph. In some respects, but the Satire would have been much stronger and the moral more commendable, if he had not exhibited the parents as objects of Ridicule; which spoils the effect, and puts it upon a footing with too many other Dramatic pieces upon the same plan.
Sophronia. I am delighted with your remark, and have often been offended with this dramatic error: it is so general that most of the plays seem calculated to teach our youth, that they are wiser than their parents, and that they may safely deceive and ridicule them.
Hort. You say true, there is hardly a play where one does not meet with these absolute children and undutiful parents, and the poets always take care to punish the latter, and reward the former.
Euph. This likewise is one of the evils of our times; but we will not enlarge upon it here, as it is foreign to our present subject.
Soph. I beg your pardon!—undutiful parents and arbitrary children are as frequently found in Novels as upon the Stage, and the remark is equally proper upon both kinds of writing.
Euph. I cannot deny it.—But I shall neither applaud, nor recommend any that have a tendency to weaken the respect due to parents; for upon that depends in a great measure, the education of youth, their introduction into life, and indeed all the social and domestic virtues.
Hort. It was I that led you into this useful observation:—I do not repent it, nor will I reckon the time as lost.
(from The Progress of Romance, through Times, Countries, and Manners; with Remarks on the Good and Bad Effects of It, on them Respectively; in a Course of Evening Conversations. Vol. II, Evening IX, pp.7-11[9].)
Conflicts between parents and children—whose roles Sophronia cleverly switches—are totally the plot of all the 18th-c novels I've read so far. Her thesis that children were behaving badly because they'd read Richardson and Fielding needs a little re-consideration—LMWM notes that reading Clarissa (pub.1748) in the late 1750's painfully reminded her of her of her own courtship in the early 1710's—but when Reeve pins responsibility for children's bad behavior on the novel, she gives fiction a whole lot of social power, and this is interesting.

27 November 2009

26 November 2009

Samuel Pepys and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Personal prose is boring. I know that it's supposed to be boring, but it still bothers me. Pepys writes about very ordinary things, and he writes it all to himself but maybe with the hope that people would find it among all the papers he left to Magdalen, and read it again. So I read his 1666 diary, which is the one where London mostly recovers from the plague but then burns half down in September. In the midst of this, there's a lot of gossip and bitching—what rumor was circulating at court about Charles' favorite mistress's childhood masturbatory habits, how bad Sir William Penn's poop smelled in April, when he emptied his chamberpot while Sam and Elizabeth were hanging out on their roof next door and had to go in because of the smell, what the Queen's doctor said about the membranes of her aborted fetus's corpse (from the membranes, she was just as healthy as any other woman with a lot of babies). Elizabeth never had babies; Sam had a lot of mistresses, some of whom did have babies, although it's not clear whether the babies were his. (He would have written it in his diary, if he thought so.) He's worried about his testicles; Elizabeth is worried about her teeth. Their house doesn't burn down, but they lose some money. At the end of the year, though, they have more plate than they've ever had before.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu did write for an audience—for her best friend and her husband and her sister and her daughter and her other friends, including Alexander Pope and women she'd grown up with and the man she fell in love with when she was fifty, and the exiled Jacobite who became her substitute child, along with his wife, for like a decade when they were all in Italy. She has the advantage over Pepys that she actually went places and saw stuff, too—made fun of the relics in a Catholic church in Austria, made fun of the preacher's hat at a Calvinist church in Holland, visited the late Sultan's favorite mistress outside Constantinople, flirted with lords in Venice, visited a lady's bath in Constantinople (if English ladies went around in public naked, she says, they'd make less fuss about faces—she'd had smallpox already at this point, and was a little sensitive about her face, I guess). When she got old, she retired to a country house she'd bought between Lake Iseo and Milan, where she read a lot of novels her daughter sent her. She liked Smollett, liked some H. Fielding, thought S. Fielding was stupid (the Fieldings were both her first cousins), and resented Richardson for being annoying and compelling at the same time. A lot of her letters are tedious as hell. They're interesting though for showing how she's a different subject for different audiences, which is something that very little of the epistolary fiction I've read has been interested in, I'm not sure why.

Richard Steele and Joseph Addison, excerpts from The Spectator

Then I read some of The Spectator, parts where they wrote about taste and imagination and making things up and why Chinese gardens are prettier than English ones (it's because English gardens are obviously fake, and so can't be imagined as much) and also on how Locke says that everything you see is just your brain making it up anyway because you don't really see with your eyes but with your brain. They do this after they spend four or five very boring essays writing about Paradise Lost, which they discuss in terms of character and passion and other things that were boring. In retrospect, though, the PL stuff is a good case-study for the taste/imagination stuff—because what they like about Milton is his tendency to make you see things that can't exist or were never there or are too big to be really contemplated by a single viewpoint. The point is that you're putting together the fall of the rebel angels and the war between Hell and Heaven and whatever only in your brain, and the poem's ability to make you do that is what makes it so special.
They seem to be boosting Paradise Lost because it's in English—it may not be better than The Aeneid, but it's more accessible. But more accessible to whom? In the taste and imagination stuff, they leave bits of Greek untranslated, as though their general readership should be able to figure that out. But in the Milton stuff, they mention "English readers" as readers of the English language exclusively, not as readers who happen to live in England. I didn't know that The Spectator was aiming at people who couldn't read Latin—and, by aiming at them, sort of tacitly admitting that it's okay that they can't. I wasn't expecting to find that from Mr. Spectator.

Erich Auerbach on Mimesis

Mimesis was big. Enormous. I've been reading it for far too long. It's about realism, whatever the fuck that is, and Auerbach wants to get at it in two ways—by talking about Jesus, and by talking about class. The religion and the Marxism are actually tied up together because Jesus permits realism by introducing poor people as important people. Unlike Euryclea in The Odyssey (well, really more like the maids), poor people in the New Testament of the Bible are a very real and necessary part of the action. And talking about poor people practically guarantees realism because poor people do stuff—their lives interact with objects and teem with events that are real and boring and very ordinary. (Rich people just fantasize about courtly romance; poor people poop. In Auerbach's reckoning, rich people never poop and poor people never have ridiculous fantasies.)
He's also a goddamned structuralist, and wants to talk about how sentences and verses and things are constructed, so that he can show you that the realism is there in the very grammar and meter of the things he's quoting. Eh—sort of, but why is it so important to demonstrate that even the conjunctions care about realism? That god-is-in-the-details kind of reading is starting to feel untrustworthily glib.

Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer

She Stoops to Conquer is about people who feel more like people than I was expecting to find on the late-eighteenth-century stage. It's a courtship plot and a practical joke, and it reads a lot more like Tom Jones or The Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph or The Fool of Quality or even Clarissa than I was ready to deal with. (It's about a sloppy son, on one hand, and a daughter whose father doesn't like her fiance on the other.) None of it really needs to be on stage, except that it gets some mileage out of the daughter's changing her outfit to look like a barmaid. And the staging is available to make the mistake about the house/inn more concrete. But otherwise it could be a novel, which seems surprising. Have I read any novels that could be plays? I don't think so.

Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness

Has almost no plot. Has almost no people. It's a horror novel, of a kind—the point is to be really creeped out, at the end, and to understand that Conrad wants you to know that racism is the worst thing that there is in the whole wide world. Also some other stuff. Colonialism will kill you. Capitalism will make you a whore. Heterosexuality is probably bad, too. In fact, all kinds of desire are terrible and will only induce misery. There's a boat. There are some things about how humans might actually be like the most machine-like of animals (like viruses? like worms?), and all our attempts at civilization are a very silly attempt to cover that. Okay, fine. But what's the point of that kind of writing?