Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Tess of the D'Urbervilles

My Mrs. Tim fandom does not preclude my reareading the gloomy Tess of the D'urbervilles. I am now on my fourth copy of Tess because I have given away three: two to charity sales and one to a friend who recommended it to her daughters, only to be informed they only read Harry Potter and Gossip Girls.

It is autumn; the first freeze has occurred; we ate the last of our green tomatoes (hard as rocks) in an onion sauce which usually softens them nicely. One cannot read Tess in the summer. Now the garden is gone; our freezer is full of bags of beans, peppers, and tomatoes. Often I turn to gloomy books this time of year.

Tess, though far from my favorite Hardy, shows Hardy at the height of his powers. His solemn style is effortlessly elegant, his descriptions of nature (the heath particularly) create or reflect moods, his outlook, though pessimistic, is leavened by occasional flashes of humor, and the structures architecturally symmetrical, resembling figures of speech, which fly, loop, rearrange themselves, and then fall to fate, and reflect Hardy’s training as an architect and classical reader.

Hardy sets up Tess's story as follows: A beautiful, intelligent girl, Tess is educated to be a schoolmistress, but the death of a horse when she falls asleep in a cart on the way to market stymies her ambition. (The death of the horse is needlessly graphic: pierced by a mail cart in the dark and buried by the family. Tess only drove the horse because her father was too drunk.) Believing she is responsible for her family's poverty, Tess goes to work on a farm for a branch of the D’urbervilles, to which her family apparently belonged at one time. (Durbeyfield is a corruption of D'urberville.)

Mrs. D'urberville is blind; Alec, the moustache-twirling son, seduces Tess. Pregnant, Tess goes home.

Hardy can be heavy-handed (particularly in his last two novels, Tess and Jude the Obscure, which shocked his readers).

Iinsecure about his working-class roots, he sometimes burdens his prose with odd references to Thomas Malthus, Praxitelean creation, and "Thermidorean." His dialect, however, is perfect: one of the best features of his books.

Pregnancy out of wedlock ("getting into trouble") was unacceptable even twenty years ago. In the 2000s we hardly bat an eye at it. (Sarah Palin's teenager is pregnant.) But the question was problematic to a Victorian audience: unmarried women with children were routinely ostracized or declassed. Elizabeth Gaskell, in her didactic novel, Ruth, a predecessor of Tess, defended such women. Hardy treats the same problem of the ostracization of unmarried pregnant women. Although sympathetic fellow writers, Mrs. Humphrey Ward, Edmund Gosse, and Walter Besant, considered Tess a masterpiece, Tess was trashed in the Saturday Review and The Spectator as “immoral.” (One critic concocted the witticism, “Tessamism.”) Hardy, always too sensitive to reviews, was prevented from confrontng the reviewers when friends told him it was undignified; finally he was buoyed by the realization that condemnations of Tess's “sensuality” and "immorality" boosted sales.Yet in the preface to the fifth edition Hardy could not resist the opportunity to rebut reviewers (which goes on for two pages).

Hardy stopped writing novels after Tess and Jude the Obscure. A pity.

Friday, October 24, 2008

D. E. Stevenson and Mrs. Tim

D. E. Stevenson wrote her Mrs. Tim Christie books, a quartet of interwar novels written in the form of witty diary entries , after a friend read her amusing diary and suggested she “pep it up” and publish it as a novel. The four resulting novels, Mrs. Tim Christie (originally Mrs. Tim of the Regiment), Mrs. Tim Carries On, Mrs. Tim Gets a Job, and Mrs. Tim Flies Home, resemble E. M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady series, though Stevenson's are less telegraphic (and Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle is possibly influenced by both). The diary genre was popular in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and perhaps the short entries made the domestic comedy seem more appealing and realistic because they fit the staccato routines of daily life.

Mrs. Tim, though a British officer’s wife, is not in the least military: rather, she is a tactful, often secretly mirthful, popular figure among the soldiers and their wives: her husband, Tim, has a dry sense of humor, though, like all husbands, he is obtuse about fashion and wonders why she can't keep wearing the same dress; their Tom-Sawyer-like son is away at a prep school; and their rambunctious daughter asks embarrassing questions when the meddling colonel's wife drops in to tea.

The entries, subtly hilarious, consist of a vivid, first-person narrative (if only we could all write diaries like this!). For instance on April 12 in Mrs. Tim Christie (published in the 1930s):

“Sit down after dinner feeling very tired. Tim points out that I have done nothing all day to make me tired (which is true, in a way). He continues that I have no business to be tired. I have not got a crowd of half-boiled soldiers to plague my life out from morning to night. Am surprised at this statement (as Tim has been very keen on his territorilals up to now), but conclude that something must have occurred to upset him, and resign myslef to listen and sympathize instead of starting Sheila Kaye Smith’s latest novel, which I have just procured with vast trouble from the librfary.”

Compare this to an entry of Diary of a Provincial Lady Dec. 9 (published in 1931, a bit earlier than the Mrs. Tim books:

“Rose staying here two days before going on to London. Says All American houses are Always Warm, which annoys Robert. He says in return that All American houses are Grossly Overheated and Entirely Airless. Impossible not to feel taht this would carry more weight if Robert had ever been to America."

Stevenson and Delafield write gentle satires of family life, but I prefer D. E. Stevensons more expansive (and less snobbish) entries.

The Christie family adjusts to frequent moves, and much of the book is set in Scotland. Mrs. Tim and the Provincial Lady both have to cope with the servant problem, which few of us have had to contend with these days, but the British in novels have difficulties with governesses, cooks, etc. (And of course Monica Dickens, in One Pair of Hands, quits her cook job, because the employers are so unreasonable, so that's another way of looking at it) .

These are great winter books. Very addictive.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights, which I last read in the hospital, is one of those novels I reread every few years. I am perusing it again this fall: it is my desert island book. At a slumber party long ago, while Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band crooned on the stero, a friend declared that Wuthering Heights was the best book ever written. So, at 3 a.m. I read it. Charlotte is perhaps a better writer, but one reads Emily Bronte for her passionate weirdness and powerful poetic effects, for her genius at matching mood to landscape (moors and parks), for her Byronic hero, Heathcliff, an interloper at Wuthering Heights, and for the quasi-feral passion between Heathcliff and Catherine, the imaginative yet disappointingly practical daughter of Wuthering Heights who chooses money and security over love.

The most famous passage of all time might be (after Catherine Earnshaw has a dream about heaven):

“This is nothing,’, cried she: ‘I was only going to say that heaven did not seem to be my home; and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth, and the angels were so angry that they flung me out into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights, where I woke sobbing for joy. That will do to explain my secret, as well as the other. I’ve no more business to marry Edgar Linton than I have to be in heaven; and if the wicked man in there had not brought Heathcliff so low, I shouldn’t have thought of it. It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him: and that, not because he’s so handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.”

And heaven is not her home, by the way.

The frame story is less appealing, concerned with, yes, property rights and death . Heathcliff, who has become wealthy and acquired property, rents the Grange (the Lintons’ former home) to .Lockwood, the narrator. This voyeuristic tenant hears the story of two generations of Earnshaws, Heathcliffs, and Lintons from the housekeeper, Nelly, a fairly well-educated, faithful employee who has occasionally interfered horribly for what she considers the good of the interwoven families and has become exasperated by all of them. (She is a genius at explaining their complex network of relationships.) Mr. Lockwood can listen, and he can write, but Linton-like, he lives in the Linton house and cannot act. Or is it Nelly writing and telling the story? Emily is so perverse that we can’t know what she really meant.

Monday, October 13, 2008

East Lynne

Glutted by the history of Henry VIII, I have abandoned Ford Madox Ford’s historical novel,The Fifth Queen, a strange, stilted, literary pageant which revolves around Katherine Howard. (if it’s not the Boleyns, I have to consult Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII.)

So I have returned to the Victorian age, and am very much enjoying Ellen Wood's East Lynne. Her work was introduced to me by The Virago Book of Ghost Stories, and thus I am now reading East Lynne, her most popular novel,

Considered a sensation novel, it emphasizes sexual jealousy among women and the resulting smoldering triangles, of which Archibald Carlyle, at the apex, seems amazingly oblivious. Lady Isabel, the main character, marries Archibald Carlyle only after the gorgeous Captain Levison rejects her; Barbara Hare, who had expected Archibald to marry her, is furous that the insipid, beautiful Iabel has usurped her place; and Isabel is also jealous of Barbara, who is consulting Archibald "on business" at every opportunity. Exhausted by childbirth and what sounds like post-partum depression, Isabel loses her sparkle and goes abroad to recover. Captain Levison appears on the scene, idly flirting with her, bent on the destruction of her marriage.

Isabel becomes far less insipid as the novel goes on, and when she needs to support herself, she demonstrates remarkable intelligence and self-reliance. But I don't want to give away the plot.

Wood writes plainly and well, and the story is so compelling that I was able to read half at one sitting.. There are flaws and awkward transitions, but it races along. She asks questions about adultery and women: Who supports women when the marriage fails? How can women support themselves unless they marry? What happens to adulteresses?

This novel is also being discussed at:

  • Trollope Discussion Group listserv
  • Monday, October 06, 2008

    Six Wives in the Vegetable World

    I have lately been ruled by the vegetable world: tomatoes, endless tomatoes, tomato sauce for dinner every night, simmering on the stove while I absently read the newspaper. Baked eggplants, doomed never to be eaten. (We have quite a few scooped eggplants in the refrigerator, but no tahini so we never make our dip. When asked what tahini is, I always vaguely say, "They sell it at the health food store." If I remember correctly, it's like peanut butter. So can I just use Skippy?) I'm also harvesting hot peppers so horrifyingly spicy one dares use only a sliver in cooking . It is one big vegetable world, in fact.

    So the other day, bored with the vegetable world, I visited a bookstore, and while browsing in the "If You Like This, You'll Like This" section, I discovered Alison Weir's beautifully written and thoroughly researched history, The Six Wives of Henry VIII.

    Between Alison Weir's scholarship and Philippa Gregory's historical novel,The Other Boleyn Girl (yes, I enjoy this racy interpretation of the facts), I am taking a crash course in Boleyns and rapidly filling in the gaps. The clarity and organization of Weir's work is especially impressive.. I can dip into it and learn quickly about the period. (I'm using it as a reference book.) She explains confidently (and not in the subjunctive) her various sources and different historians' interpretations. The basics are necessary to understand the elusive quality of Jane Boleyn and to appreciate Fox's ambitiious biog (which occasionly seemed hazy to me) .

    So I've moved beyond my first intro to Henry: "I'm 'Enery the Eighth I am...Enery the Eighth I am I am...I got married to the woman next door...she's been married seven times before...And everyone was a 'Enery..." Something like that.

    Thursday, October 02, 2008

    Jane Boleyn and the Subjunctive

    I am deliciously settled into Julia Fox's delectable biography, Jane Boleyn: The True Story of the Infamous Lady Rochford. Have a glass of milk and curl up: it's a bit like reading a novel. i'm unfamiliar with contemporary biographies, and, honestly, this revisionist history reminds me a bit of Lytton Strachey's narratives. Jane was bad, bad, bad: a traitor and a gossip. So we've heard. But Julia Fox has written the case for Jane: she has researched every document or oblique reference to Jane, as is evident from the detailed notes and bibliography My only problem is that she is too quick to admit what she doesn't know . No one seems to have bothered much about Jane except Fox, and it seems that little has been documented. Nonetheless, she has read depositions, biographies, Henry's letters to Anne, wordings and proceedings of the marriage ceremony, manuscripts at the Nathional Archives: this research must have taken years.

    Fox frequently uses the subjunctive, however, and this makes me distrust her. There are quite a few "may haves" and "might haves" as Fox struggles to put together the puzzle. The biography would be (subjunctive again) more plausible if she used direct or indirect statements.

    Page 246: "We do not know the precise date of Jane's appointment as a lady of the privy chamber but once installed she was likely to come across several of her friends and acquaintances. Her mother's sister, Katherine, recentlyw widowed by the death of Sir Piers Edgecombe, would be there, and so would young Katherine Carey, Mary Stafford's daughter."

    There's also a lot of: "Jane may well have been included in one of those ceremonies."

    So my question is: how much do we really know about Jane Boleyn? Thus far, the convincing passages center on Anne, about whom so much more is known. Less subjunctive would help here. So perhaps the title should be: The Conflict of Anne and Jane, etc.

    I'll keep reading. I'm only halfway through.