Victorian Sexuality and Prudery: Some Victorian Novels

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The following article follows a line that has become more popular in recent years. This suggests that the previous view, that Victorian’s were repressed regarding sexuality, and prudish to the point of hiding the legs of tables by long tablecloths, was at the least, exaggerated. It argues that in fact, sexuality was widely discussed in the UK – and by implication various other countries –of Victorian times.

Here is the link:

https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/victorian-sexualities.

It is an interesting article, but I find it odd that the writer insists that:

‘These stereotypes of high prudery were famously critiqued by Michel Foucault as the ‘repressive hypothesis’: the idea that the Victorians could not mention sex. Foucault pointed out that, far from being silenced, sex was spoken everywhere in the 19th century in a wide range of contexts including the law, medicine, religion, education. Much academic and popular work since has considered the many ways in which Victorians did experience and speak of desire. ‘

The author goes on to state that for instance, Queen Victoria made her desire for Prince Albert obvious in the following quote: –

‘ Albert really is quite charming, and so excessively handsome, such beautiful blue eyes, an exquisite nose, and such a pretty mouth with delicate moustachios and slight but very slight whiskers; a beautiful figure, broad in the shoulders and a fine waist.’

Certainly, it is a commonplace that Queen Victoria was in love with her husband and no doubt enjoyed their physical relationship. But I think applying modern awareness to a nineteenth century girl’s admiration of a man’s appearance is hazardous. There will, of course, be a great deal of unconscious sexual desire in the admiration – but how far this is any way recognized consciously or whether an overt expression of desire is intended  is a completely different matter. It was all swept under the carpet as not to be mentioned in public.

No doubt many men did indeed write about sexuality – for a male readership.  The author of the article does acknowledge how great a role the indoctrination of women as ‘angel of the house’ and asexual played in their repression in the UK of the Victorian age. As always, of course, there would be individual exceptions.

The writings of the German born Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)  is the most outstanding example of an outspoken Victorian man – and the bawdy writing of the French novelist Ėmile Zola  -who perhaps was part of the reason why ‘French novels’ were synonymous with indecency  – another.

What was considered suitable reading material for a man was very different from what was  seen as suitable reading for females. The double standard, already well established regarding sexual morality, became applied to sexual knowledge itself by this era.

In ‘Pamela’ the priggish heroine is fully aware exactly what it is that her caddish master wishes to do to her. Descriptions of his frustrated attempts and his thrusting his hand in her bososm abound. This all changes in later novels.

And in the case of Freud, he did indeed write at length about sexual desire, but the reaction of horror and disgust of many of his contemporaries to his giving a prime place in the psyche to sexuality surely indicates how problematic writing about sexuality was, particularly that of women.

One only need read Victorian novels by, or for, woman, or written ‘for family entertainment’  to see this. I shall use as examples several I know well.

For instance,  Elizabeth Gaskell, writing in the mid rather than the  late Victorian era – the decades traditionally regarded as less prudish – got into all sorts of difficulties, precisely because of the sexual reticence which she brought to her writing.

This made it impossible for her to reveal in her novel ‘Ruth’ the exact circumstances of Ruth’s seduction at the hands of her admirer Mr Bellingham. We leave Ruth being urged by him to go away with him, and when we next meet them, they are openly living together outside wedlock on a prolonged visit to North Wales. Mrs Gaskell felt herself unable to write about what had happened in the interval. She indicates that Ruth in her innocence does not know that she is ‘living in sin’ until a remark repeated by a child reveals it to her.

‘Fancying’ together with  a heroine who is ‘no prude’ and courted by a physically appealing man and a far less attractive one are dealt with in her later historical novel ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ (1863), about which I just might have written before. It is assumed by various critics that Elizabeth Gaskell was depicting a heroine with a strong sexual urge, and that she found this less disturbing in a heroine who is an illiterate country girl at home with tending animals.

I think this is questionable. Just as ‘lovers’ had a different meaning in Victorian times,  meaning only ‘romantic admirers’ so, almost certainly, did ‘fancy’, which possibly meant only ‘romantic admiration and liking’.

Because of Elizabeth Gaskell’s reticence, as I have said in my article in ‘The F Word’ on this novel, it is impossible to distinguish if Sylvia is supposed to find her persistent admirer Hepburn physically unattractive or to be indifferent to him. It may even have been that the author saw the heroine as indifferent to the sexual act with all men, even her hero Charley Kinraid. She is shown as having a ‘virginal fierceness’.

Certainly, the handsomeness of the one, and the plainness of the other is emphasized; the modern reader is left with the impression that Sylvia is sexually frustrated in a marriage loveless on her side, but given that her age had imposed such reticence on the author, we cannot be certain of this.

George Elliot, whose writing Elizabeth Gaskell admired, but whose unmarried status she abhorred, was equally circumspect in ‘Adam Bede’.  She makes no  mention of how Hetty’s pregnancy has escaped the hero’s notice, and everyone else’s – as she is surely at least seven months pregnant when she runs  away from home, one would think her expanding girth was obvious by that time, tight lacing or not.

Dickens’ hero Charles Darnay and his heroine Lucie Manette in Dicken’s 1859 novel, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ are depicted vividly as falling in love in opposite sides of the courtroom, when the former is on trial for treason against the British crown. No doubt the hero’s facing the possibility of being hanged, drawn and quartered adds fuel to their developing passion as Lucie is obliged to act as an unwilling witness for the prosecution.

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However, this pair unfortunately thereafter degenerate into a typical asexual Dicken’s couple. Their children are lay saints, possibly as a result. On their honeymoon Darnay is depicted – the sensualist! – as standing with his ‘hand on Lucie’s heart’. However, she is clearly unaroused by this corporal act. She calmly lectures him on  how he must be kind to the man who cynically saved his life in the treason trial – his double Sidney Carton.

I think it is difficult to find an age which considered it ‘indecent’ to mention a man’s trousers – seriously! – as anything but one which was dominated by prurience and a fair degree of hypocrisy.  At the end of the nineteenth century, we have the writer of romantic melodramas for the mass market, Charles Garvice, describing the  outfit of the anti hero of ‘The Outcast of the Family’ . He describes in detail the costermonger’s outfit he wears as a sign of rebellion – his ‘absurdly short coat’  ‘vulgar cap’ and ‘red kerchief’, even the pearl buttons  on his gaiters-  but makes – Good Heavens no! – no mention of his trousers, or should I say, his ‘unmentionables’.

The heroine agrees to marry the slippery baddy, appropriately named ‘Stannard Marshank’. She certainly spends a lot of time shuddering at the touch of his lips on her hand, etc, and ‘white faced’ at the thought of their coming marriage.  Whether this is meant to be moral horror at intimacy with another man than the one she loves, or physical repugnance, is hard to say.

And I can’t resist adding another couple of books. In ‘Mrs Humphrey Ward’s’  ‘Marcella’ the hero breaks off his engagement with the heroine when he learns that the heroine has (unwillingly) been kissed on the lips by another man.

Then, in ‘Dracula’, Mina Harker acknowledges that in walking down the street on her husband’s arm, she is actually breaking the rules of good conduct she taught as a mistress at a select boarding school for young ladies. This contrasts with the Regency age, when a woman was actually allowed to be ‘handed up into a carriage’ or ‘taken into dinner’ (rather as if she couldn’t move on her own voilition) by any man of her acquaintance. Promiscuity indeed…

The case of the seduced innocent seems to be an obvious case of the mistaken nature of the assumption that regarding sexual matters, it was easy for naïve Victorian women to ‘read between the lines’. We belong to an enlightened age. We know what authors are hinting at, and chaperones, too, in their veiled warnings of ‘man’s nature’ and hints at sin. We know the physical acts that lie behind  these veiled allusions . Sheltered Victorian women too often did not.

Even in a later age, women often did not associate admiring a man’s physical attractions with sexual feelings and their expression. Barbara Cartland was by her own admission so disgusted in the 1920’s  when the mystery of human procreation was rather belatedly explained to her, that she broke off her first engagement.

These few examples – and I could quote dozens more – make me think that the reputation Victorians had for a prurient sex obsession was fully deserved, if later exaggerated for humourous purposes.

In the next age, by contrast, the ‘elephant in the room’  became death, a topic about which the Victorians were extremely open. In fact, a Victorian novel without a death bed scene was hardly worth opening. The Victorian emphasis on death, which, in the absence of effective hygiene and medical treatment, could come at any time, even to the young and healthy, was seen in the twentieth century as morbid.

I don’t think that it was. I  personally would argue that they were right, to embrace its inevitability, and later ages are wrong to behave as if it is an indecent, ‘not quite nice’ topic.

But then I have been accused of being morbid myself, what with  my affection for walking in graveyards.

 

 

 

 

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Character Development: Some Classic Best Sellers Without Much of It…

 

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No giant insect visible….

A couple of years ago, the latest thing in discussing novels online  or leaving reviews seemed to be a lot of talk about ‘character development’. I haven’t heard so much about it of late- maybe I haven’t been looking – but back then it seemed as if you couldn’t read a single review without that dreaded ‘character development’ coming into it , and no, it didn’t mean the hero’s chest and waist measurement.

Authors got paranoid about it. ‘Does my character develop enough’ was becoming the greatest fear. I saw reviews from that time where bestselling authors were slated because their characters didn’t undergo an obvious change by chapter two.

In a way, all this seems the more unfair, when one considers how many classical authors wholly neglected this aspect of writing.

Well, Kafka at least would have been all right regarding an early depiction of character development in his 1915 novel ‘ Metamorphoses’, as Gregor Samsa undergoes a rather ‘life changing’ alteration in the first sentence. After that, though, he doesn’t seem to do a whole lot else except be ill treated and fed on rotten food for the rest of the novel.

Interestingly, and I’ve touched on this before – there are any number of classic books where the characters remain static. Dickens didn’t bother about it generally for his heroes and heroines. In ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ Lucie Manette and Charles Darnay at the end are just the same as they were at the beginning, only a bit older.

With regard to the secondary characters, Sidney Carton the inert cynic, falls passionately in love with Lucie, and remains hopelessly in love with her for about ten years, and it is that which leads him to replace Charles Darnay as he awaits execution at the end, but that is about all the changing he does. He starts off a hopeless drunken loser and remains one. Does Dr Manette undergo any particular changes during the novel? Not so you’d notice; he gets addicted to making shoes in his long stint in gaol, so perhaps that counts a bit.

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There are exceptions in Dickens, to be fair. There are those characters who undergo a massive moral reformation, like Ebenezer Scrooge, or less dramatically, Pip in ‘Great Expectations’. Still, overall, good old character development wasn’t Dickens’ forte, and his sales were never seemingly affected by the lack of it. Maybe readers of the mid Victorian era didn’t like it very much. In fact, a good many of Dicken’s minor character characters, traditionally celebrated as ‘great characters’ are in fact stereotypes.

Of course, the whole issue of how far secondary characters are to be depicted as changing in a novel, and how much attention is to be devoted to this, and how much space is to be devoted to them anyway, is all highly debatable to this day. More on that in my next post.

P G Wodehouse- of course – made a fortune in writing about stereoptypes and static characters. We leave Bertie Wooster and Jeeves (does anyone know his first name? Does he know it himself?) exactly as they were when we met them. Bingham Little gets married, of course, to the romance writer Rosie M Banks, but that doesn’t seem to change his lifestyle much.

I was about twelve when I first read those, and I hoped that Bertie Wooster would end up getting married himself, but no such thing. In fact, in one story, one of his friends or relatives remarks that Jeeves will never allow that, and I never enjoyed the stories so much after that: it made Jeeves seem positively sinister. Perhaps he is a control freak? A Freudian study of that relationship might prove most rewarding.

I have to say, I never noticed any particular alterations in the characters of the heroines or the heroes of the couple of the 1950’s Mary Stewart novels I read, either. I personally don’t enjoy her writing, but she is highly regarded as the inventor of romantic suspense and a fine writer besides.  Still, it was a long time ago that I did read them, and I may have missed something.

Going back a good bit, there’s the question of how much character development there is in Jane Austen. Obviously, her most famous novel, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is centred about  a couple who do change throughout the course of the novel, and we know which qualities they are going to change from the title, but how about the other characters?
They are wholly believable, but they all – Mr and Mrs Bennett, Jane, Bingley, Lydia, Wickham, Mr Collins and so on, seem to leave the novel pretty much as they entered it.

They were well drawn and convincing at the beginning, and they are well drawn and convincing at the end, but they seem to remain static. Well, come to think of it, maybe Mary and Kitty do develop a bit. Mary is happier, because we learn that she is no longer mortified by being compared to her prettiest sisters, while Kitty, we read, becomes ‘less insipid’.

Quite often in love stories, in fact, all the transformation that seems to be required of a character is for him or her to transfer his or her love from one character to another – that would appear to be all the change that Edmund Bertram undergoes in ‘Mansfield Park’. The heroine Fanny Bertram does develop; she changes from a shy girl into a poised and efficient parson’s wife for Edmund, but she remains, I am sorry to say, priggish and humourless from beginning to end of the story.

Marianne Dashwood in ‘Sense and Sensibility’, of course, does indeed have an alteration in character. I have often said that I found the subduing of her passionate and rebellious spirit one of the most depressing parts of Jane Austen’s writing.

To my shame, I must admit that I have only read two of Thackeray’s novels, ‘Vanity Fair’ and ‘The Luck of Barry Lyndon’. He troubled about this modern bugbear of character development not at all. The villainous Barry Lyndon’s luck may change, but he remains the same faithless, fickle scoundrel at the end of his memoirs, save he is now living (attended by his mother, and in a good deal of comfort) in a debtor’s prison.

The same is nearly as true of another con-artist in classical literature, Becky Sharp in ‘Vanity Fair’. This enduringly successful novel has very little in the way of changing characters, a bit of moral repentance from secondary characters aside, and Becky is too villainous to go into any of that.

She is shown as becoming more conniving, it is true. At the beginning of the story she is openly rebellious. When the carriage she shares with Amelia Sedley leaves the boarding school where she has been employed as a drudge she shouts, ‘Vive Boneparte.’
At first, her lying and scheming is a bit blatant – she makes the mistake of claiming to love children to Amelia Sedley, and even the often undiscerning Amelia could not fail to see how much she had disliked the small girls at school. Within a chapter or so, however, she becomes a consummate hypocrite, and an arch manipulator, and stays that way from then on.

The character of Rawdon Crawley, Becky’s husband and for years her dupe and partner in crime, does have a moral reformation, apparently caused by fatherhood, though we are not given any access to his mental processes. His admiration for his sister-in-law Lady Jane appears to play a part in this.

He is even shown as feeling some shame about having cheated George Osborne out of his inheritance at gambling – when he meets the old Mr Sedley and he mentions him, Thackeray says Rawdon ‘flushes up red’ – and ‘blackleg’ (ie, card cheat in Regency slang) and Becky’s dupe though he has been, he is outraged when he learns that he is viewed as a ‘complacent husband’. He knocks down Lord Steyne when he finds him alone with Becky, and wishes to challange him to a duel, but he aging libertine sneaks out of it.

Amelia Sedley doesn’t change, but is of those characters whose love is transferred from one character to another. She ceases to worship the memory of the late George Osborne, apparently believing all Becky’s harsh words about him – and begins to worship the dull but worthy Dobbin, giant feet and all.

So, we may well envy those earlier writers for the easy time they had regarding depiction of character.

Still,now there is a wealth of online advice for authors about how to pursue character development on line. Here, for instance, are just two of many excellent articles.
here
and

here

That is actually by the Reader’s Digest – not the sort of publication I like to recommend – but it is very good.
here

Perhaps, if Fanny Burney had read these, she might have thought, ‘Hmm. It might be better if in my novel, there is just one person who doesn’t admire or envy Evelina…’

Maybe Charles Dickens might even have thought: ‘I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to make Charles Darnay a little more interesting…’

Review of ‘The Time Machine’ by H G Wells: the First Time Travel Novel

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Here, Weena is more as I imagined her than in the film versions.

I first read HG Well’s ‘The Time Machine’  in my early twenties, more years ago than I care to admit.

My impression of it then was that it was an intriguing but dated curiosity. Recently, reading a review of a Goodreads friend of mine, who was dismayed by the relationship between ‘The Time Traveller’ and the futuristic childish Weena, I thought that I would re-read it to see what I thought of it now.

That bit of the story did turn out to trouble me too, now, but more of that shortly.

H G Wells was, of course, a lifelong socialist, and this is reflected in his writings. He was also seemingly a supporter of the mild feminism encapsulated in ‘The New Woman’ of the late nineteenth century, one of his novels, ‘Ann Veronica’ (1909)  being about  aspects of female oppression in his era.  I read the first few paragraphs when I was working in public libraries years ago, but  for some reason which I have forgotten, stopped reading. I will have to try it again.

Anyway, he wrote ‘The Time Machine’ in 1895, at a time when he was very hard up, in broken health following a sports accident, and struggling to make ends meet through his writing. He determined on writing a commercially appealing novel, and decided to rework a theme he had approached as a student in a series called ‘The Chronic Argonauts’.

The story begins in  the house of a scientific invent tor known only as ‘The Time Traveller’, who seems very comfortably off, living in a house with various servants. He has a lengthy discussion after dinner with a group of male guests on the possibility of time travel, gives them a demonstration with a practice model, and then shows them his own machine.

This discussion, of course, is founded on the scientific boundaries accepted before Einstein published his work on the theory of relativity. In keeping with his own age, Wells’s  time machine is mechanical, whereas one in our age would presumably be seen  as electronic if it was described at all, though I must admit I have read few modern time travel stories.

The Time Traveller then invites them back to dinner the next week. He turns up late himself, dishevelled and disturbed, shoeless, and with bleeding feet, and eager to eat meat. Then he tells them that he has travelled to the year 802,701, and relates his adventures there.

The Time Traveller himself is barely described. His ‘queer broad head’ is commented on by one of the guests who serves as the narrator, so perhaps Wells shared Conan-Doyle’s view that a large brain needs a large head. We are told he has a pale face and grey eyes.

He appears to have a playful aspect to his character, as one of the guests comments on a practical joke involving a ghost he played on them last Christmas, and that, and the determination and courage he shows when stranded in the future and the condescending tenderness he feels for Weena, is more or less all that we know about him.   When recounting his experiences in the future, he describes himself as ‘no longer young’.

In this distant future, the human race has divided into two. The Eloi, who have, though indolence, deteriorated into frail, four foot, intellectually deficient  fairylke creatures, who spend all their time playing. They have even forgotten how to read or write or make fire, representing the old upper class, who live above ground in a rural landscape of decayed mansions.

The former industrial working class have degenerated into the Morlocks, sloth like creatures who dread the light of day, who have been forced to live underground among the machines that still support the idle lifestyle of the leisured classes who live above.

However, these oppressed toilers underground have had a revolution which has led to another terrible society. Possessing the strength lacking in their former oppressors, they have deteriorated into cannibals. To his horror, the Time Traveller finds out that they keep the Eloi as a form of cattle to eat.  For some reason, all domestic, and most wild animals have become extinct, and that  is their only way to obtain meat. The Eloi themselves live on fruit.

This would not appear so far fetched to late Victorian readers: many UK factory workers of that era, slaving for long hours in appalling conditions and wretched wages, rarely saw the light of day and had virtually no leisure time.

The fruit eating Eloi seem to have lost most of their capacity for strong emotional attachments. There is  little difference in appearance between either the sexes, or between adults or children. Family ties seem to have broken down, but no babies are mentioned and there seems little difference either in stature or mental development between the children and adults.

Perhaps, in writing for a Victorian audience, Wells thought it best to avoid discussion of whether general promiscuity goes on. He remarks that the Eloi spend all their time either in play, courtship or swimming in the river (the climate in Surrey, England, appears to be much warmer than in either Wells’ age or our own).

Swimming being so excellent for developing muscles, I am surprised that people who spend hours every day at it could be weak and not even be proficient swimmers, but this seems to have been Wells’ view.

When one of their number is swept away by the tide, the others make no effort to save her, giving it up as hopeless without any effort. The Time Traveller does. As a result, the woman, who has the ridiculous name of Weena, becomes devoted to him.

And here we get to the part of the story I found distasteful on this reading, the relationship between the ‘no longer young’ Time Traveller and this worshipping, four foot high child woman whom he carries about.

The Victorian ideal of womanhood was indeed a child woman – as for instance, the love object of the protagonist in Wilkie Colin’s ‘The Woman in White’, Laura Fairilie. Paedophilia was recognised as a perversion in Victorian times, but was little known, and for a man to be attracted to an extremely childlike girl was generally seen as normal.

One would have thought that Wells, as a supporter of women’s rights, must have been critical of such an ideal. He may be depicting it critically, though the text gives no sign of this. It may even be that in his depiction of the relationship, the intellectual discrepancy, the gap in power in the relationship between Weena and her adored Time Traveller are meant to be an ironic comment on how women might become, if the feminine ideal of the Victorian era was to be taken to its logical extreme.

It is the underlying factor of the massive difference in intellect, in emotional maturity, in size (surely the relationship could not have been consummated?) that led me to find the relationship between the protagonist and Weena unpleasant.

The first time I read this, I seem to have missed that the relationship between  the two was meant to be a love relationship – the idea seemed to be ridiculous, and I assumed that the fact that it is depicted that way in films was to add a romantic element lacking in the original story. In the films, Weena is shown as a full sized woman – in some, she is positively Amazonian looking.

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An Amazonian Weena, while the Time Traveller is both young and lacking in his ‘oddly shaped braod head’.

 

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The less than fascinating original cover.

However, on re-reading this, I do find quotes that indicate that there is, indeed, meant to be a love story between them. ‘She was exactly like a child. She wanted to be with me always. ..I thought it was mere childish affection that made her cling to me…Nor until it was too late did I understand what she was to me.’

He always refers to her as ‘little Weena’. As all her people are little – he doesn’t seem to distinguish between one or the other of the rest of them, and we don’t even know if she has any relatives – so this constant emphasis on her ‘littleness’ struck me as demeaning. As she is, like all the Eloi, illiterate, he says: ‘The bare idea of writing had never entered her head. She always seemed to me, I fancy, more human than she was, perhaps because her affection was so human.’

It seems odd to equate literacy with humanity –  reading and writing are just useful skills, like making fire.  I believe various studies of isolated tribes of people have shown that  a culture without writing doesn’t necessarily preclude the absence of the capacity for abstract thought. However, this is a subject about which I know little, and is wandering from the point.

Overall, then, this time the relationship between The Time Traveller and Weena struck me as bordering on the creepy, and this did taint the novel for me. As I say above, perhaps it is intended to be an ironic comment on the ultimate ‘feminine’ helpless woman.

The Time Traveller’s machine has been stolen by the Morlocks. He strives to get it back, and to take Weena back with him to the nineteenth century (what he would do with her there doesn’t seem to cross is mind).  He loses her, however, in a forest fire, and it is ambiguous whether or not she has been taken by the Morlocks or killed otherwise.

Then he  fights it out with the Morlocks, using the box of matches he has found in the remains of the museum. Somehow, unlike the matches I buy to light candles, that brand haven’t stopped working in thousands of years instad of weeks or months. Well, he  gains his time machine and takes off to look on other times. Finally he arrives home.

The story ends with The Time Traveller returning with some strange flowers given him by Weena, with which he will not part. His friends are still sceptical, and he goes on another journey. Perhaps he has gone back to see what became of Weena. The narrator, however, imagines him as going back to prehistoric times. We are told that after three years he has not returned.

Overall, this was an intriguing story, and a great achievement as the first novella on time travel.   However, for me, the characters were drawn very sketchily. Perhaps that is in keeping with its Jules Verne adventure story aspect.

I didn’t like the Time Traveller – even apart from the Weena  relationship.  Of course, above all, he is something of a caricature of a dedicated man of science. He is unmarried, though ‘no longer young’, and seems to have no relationships close enough to torment him when he is kept from the nineteenth century for a week.

He is depicted as brave and resourceful, but out of touch with his emotions generally to an almost absurd extent.  He comments on the beginnings of his ‘friendship’ with Weena, ‘Perhaps I had been feeling bereft’ . That is, at being separated from his own time for thousands of years, ‘perhaps’ he feels bereft after his original hysteria on finding that the Morlocks have stolen his machine.  On my first reading, I seemed to get  a stronger impression of the loneliness which might explain such a relationship as he had with Weena.

Perhaps it is a shame that Wells never got round to expanding on this story. He was eager to get it published, for his landlady banged on his door, asking him not to squander candles by writing into the night…

Johnson’s Criticism of Shakespeare’s ‘Cymbeline’ and the Problematic Nature of Dark Comedy

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‘To remark on the folly of the fiction, the absurdity of the conduct, the confusion of the names, and manners of different times, and the impossibility of events in any system of life, were to waste criticism upon unresisting imbicility…’

That is not an attack of a piece of work by some hack writer churning out pot boilers. It is  part of a review of William Shakespeare’s ‘Cymbeline’.

It’s by Samuel Johnson, an opinionated writer by any standards. (I should know, being opinionated myself). Part of the problem, as I see it, is that he is applying the standards of the so-called Age of Reason – Johnson was writing in the eighteenth century UK, which prided itself on its ‘enlightenment’ – to a fairy story/dark comedy, which verges on the surreal.

But even taking Johnson’s view – that he represented The Age of Reason in his attack on the play  and its fantastic notions – there is something biased and absurd about a critic saying this of Shakespeare, when he had praised to the skies that  deeply flawed sentimental novel ‘Evelina’ by Fanny Burney. That is meant to be realistic, with believable characters. Any modern reader who has ploughed through it will have noted the absurd co-incidences in it, and also, the wholly unbelievable behaviour of the characters.

It is of course, possible that characters whose behaviour is plausible to one century might seem to have the strangest motivations to readers two centuries later; an intriguing thought.

Johnson, whose approach in literary criticism often seems unimaginative, approached a fantasy story looking for realism in the plot, and was bitterly disappointed.

The way I see it –  and there are many interpretations of ‘Cymbeline’ with critics arguing about what exactly Shakespeare was getting at – is that Shakespeare was experimenting with a new, darker form of comedy. He did this several times later in his career after the much simpler comedies such as ‘A Comedy of Errors’ and ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ and most people believe that ‘A Winter’s Tale’ is a far superior play to ‘Cymebline’ which is, if our ideas about the timing of his plays is correct, one that followed his great tragedies.

Well, ‘King Lear’ is a pretty hard act to follow…

Anyway, this play seems to follow on from ‘All’s Well That End’s Well’ in that it combines traditional fairy tale themes and stereotypical characters from such legends with a contrasting realism in their presentation, which can confuse the reader. The events in the stories are quite dark: however, I don’t believe they are meant to be taken wholly seriously.

In ‘All’s Well That Ends’ Well’ Helena, a ‘low born’ but admirable physician’s daughter cures the king of a supposedly incurable malady. Naturally, he asks her what she might want, as he’ll give it to her. What she wants is to marry her guardian’s son, the Count of Rossillion, and this is an interesting twist. In fairy stories, it is usually the enterprising miller’s son or some such who wins the hand of the king’s daughter, and she is assumed to find being given away as a prize quite acceptable.

By contrast, in ‘All’s Well That Ends  Well’ (which is based on a story by Boccaccio) the Count throws a tantrum, goes through with the marriage, but announces that he will never consummate it. He leaves her a note stating impossible conditions for her to fulfil in order for him to accept her as his wife, and runs off to join the army, egged on by a cowardly braggart toady called Parolles.

So, this brings a new, realistic twist to the fairy tale theme. Helena now has to fulfil these impossible conditions – that is of course, a fairy tale convention – and so bring about a happy ending.

‘Cymbeline’ is actually named after a king of Ancient Britain, whom we don’t see much. Unlike that other defective ruler, King Lear, this king is a shadowy presence in the play named for him. He has fallen under the evil counsel of his second wife, who is also a Wicked Witch and Evil Stepmother to the king’s daughter from his first marriage, Imogen, who has secretly married her comparatively low born childhood playmate Posthumus Leonatus. She is, unusually for these times, also the heir,  as his two sons were kidnapped by an estranged courtier (they all reappear at the end of the play). Accordingly, the king is furious with her for making such a marriage, and banishes Posthumus, and puts pressure on her to renounce him and marry the Wicked Queen’s son, who is a portrayed as a buffoon.

Meanwhile, Posthumus has gone about boasting about how Imogen would never be unfaithful to him, and even enters into a bet with an idle fellow called Iachmo, who insists that he could seduce any woman. He travels to the court to  hide in a trunk and have himself carried into Imogen’s bedroom, where emerges in the night, and leering at her naked, takes back the news to Posthumus that she has a mole on her breast.

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Instead of wondering if Iachmo has found this out through trickery, Posthumous immediately takes his word and having run off in a rage, returns to address the audience in a wild rant where he says that all women are sex obsessed, and incapable of fidelity: –

Me of my lawful pleasure she restrain’d,

And prayed me oft forbearance…O, all the devils!

This yellow Iachmo, in an hour, was’t not?

Or less; at first? Perhchance he spake not, but

Like a full acorn’d boar, a German one,

Cried ‘O’ and mounted…’

This is very ridiculous (I assume the said ‘German boar’ wouldn’t have said ‘O’ and the actor makes a  bestial grunting noise), and I found it grimly funny.However, it is worth noting that  when on the ‘Goodreads’  ‘Shakespeare Fans Group’ we discussed the play recently, a lot of people said they could see no humour in the play at all.

Later, however, Posthumus orders his servant to kill Imogen. Naturally, the man doesn’t, and Imogen and Posthumous are eventually reconciled. He does repent, even suggesting that being unfaithful to him was a comparatively small fault compared to his own enormous one in ordering her murder ( one wonders: why one earth did he think it fair to order his servant to do his dirty work?).

This, an unusual admission for the times, made me wonder if Shakespeare was here attacking the notion that a woman’s worth was equivalent to her so called chastity – the word ‘honour’ was used of both of women, though not of men. If so, he was well ahead of his time. More than two centuries later, the puritanical Samuel Richardson was writing in ‘Pamela’ as if physical virginity and mental virtue were the same for his heroines, and the astoundingly repressive view of women and sexuality being mutually exclusive so common in Victorian times is a commonplace.

That, however, is to wander off the topic, which I really meant to be, that experimenting in comedy was a tricky matter many centuries ago, and it remains as tricky a form of writing to do today. Humour is so individual a thing, even in individuals within a culture.

After all, sarcasm and irony, historically so much a part of the British character, aren’t invariably part of it. I have met Brits who wouldn’t know an ironic quip if they met it in the road, and these people aren’t in any way intellectually deficient. It is more that their brains seem to be connected in a different way to those who have a  keen sense of the absurd.  No doubt the same applied in Shakespeare’s time. Presumably, there were many in the audience at the Globe who would assume that Postumus, being the hero of the play, is expressing his creator’s own views, even if he is acting rather dramatically…

I have said before that the line between horror and the ridiculous is perilously thin. Sometimes, it seems easier to write unintentional comedy than it is to write it intentionally…

But for instance, one wonders about much of the melodrama in  various Victorian novels. ‘Wuthering Heights’, for example. The scene, for instance, where Cathy lies on the sofa ‘grinding her teeth as if she would turn them to splinters’. Is that meant to be as absurd as I find it? Or Heathcliffe’s hissed remark when Nelly rebukes him for his ill treatment of his bride:  ‘Let the worms writhe! I have no pity!’ seems to me so melodramatic as to be ludicrous.

And that is one of the good things about dark comedy. The two sides of that thin line between horror and humour, comedy and tragedy, meet and combine. I believe that was what Shakespeare, in his darker comedies, was exploring, in ‘Alls Well That End’s Well’ ‘Cymbeline’, ‘The Winter’s Tale’ and others.

Germinal: Émile Zola’s Masterpiece

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Germinal is Émile Zola’s masterpiece, and I am fairly typical in thinking (and I have only read it in translation) that it contains his most brilliant writing, with exceptionally evocative passages of lyrical strength, and brilliant word pictures. It depicts a miner’s strike – with unsparing realism and remarkable sympathy.

When  my daughter asked me to recommend some of the most strongly written books that I had read, this was one.

I wrote in my last post that Zola had a fear of the untrammelled power of the working people. In this novel, however, his sympathies are entirely with them.  With unsparing honesty, he depicts the starvation, despair, and resulting violence that follows from the miners’ attempts to gain a living wage.

Zola was always meticulous in carrying out research. For this novel he went to northern France in 1884, where he witnessed a miners’ strike in Anzin, while at Denain he went underground to view working conditions. He always defended his depiction as realistic, aganinst the attacks by indignant critics, who accused him of exaggerating the horrors of the pit workers’ conditions for dramatic effect.

Incredibly, the novel was written in only eight months. The title, incidentally, is taken from the eighth month of the revolutionary calendar, and is meant to evoke an image of germination, of budding new growth, and of hope for the future. This is, in fact, the note on which the book ends. For all the distressing scenes that are depicted, the story ends in the spring, on a note of regeneration.

Over to Wickipedia for an excellent concise summary of the plot: –

The novel’s central character is Étienne Lantier, previously seen in L’Assommoir (1877), and originally to have been the central character in Zola’s “murder on the trains” thriller La Bête humaine (1890) before the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Germinal persuaded him otherwise. The young migrant worker arrives at the forbidding coal mining town of Montsou in the bleak area of the far north of France to earn a living as a miner. Sacked from his previous job on the railways for assaulting a superior, Étienne befriends the veteran miner Maheu, who finds him somewhere to stay and gets him a job pushing the carts down the pit.

Étienne is portrayed as a hard-working idealist but also a naïve youth; Zola’s genetic theories come into play as Étienne is presumed to have inherited his Macquart ancestors’ traits of hotheaded impulsiveness and an addictive personality capable of exploding into rage under the influence of drink or strong passions. Zola keeps his theorizing in the background and Étienne’s motivations are much more natural as a result. He embraces socialist principles, reading large amounts of working class movement literature and fraternizing with Souvarine, a Russian anarchist and political émigré who has also come to Montsou to seek a living in the pits. Étienne’s simplistic understanding of socialist politics and their rousing effect on him are very reminiscent of the rebel Silvère in the first novel in the cycle, La Fortune des Rougon (1871).

While this is going on, Étienne also falls for Maheu’s daughter Catherine, also employed pushing carts in the mines, and he is drawn into the relationship between her and her brutish lover Chaval, a prototype for the character of Buteau in Zola’s later novel La Terre (1887). The complex tangle of the miners’ lives is played out against a backdrop of severe poverty and oppression, as their working and living conditions continue to worsen throughout the novel; eventually, pushed to breaking point, the miners decide to strike and Étienne, now a respected member of the community and recognized as a political idealist, becomes the leader of the movement. While the anarchist Souvarine preaches violent action, the miners and their families hold back, their poverty becoming ever more disastrous, until they are sparked into a ferocious riot, the violence of which is described in explicit terms by Zola, as well as providing some of the novelist’s best and most evocative crowd scenes. The rioters are eventually confronted by police and the army that repress the revolt in a violent and unforgettable episode. Disillusioned, the miners go back to work, blaming Étienne for the failure of the strike; then, Souvarine sabotages the entrance shaft of one of the Montsou pits, trapping Étienne, Catherine and Chaval at the bottom. The ensuing drama and the long wait for rescue are among some of Zola’s best scenes, and the novel draws to a dramatic close. Étienne is eventually rescued and fired but he goes on to live in Paris with Pluchart.

MV5BNzdiYjhjOGMtNjQ1Zi00NGViLThlN2UtOTllYjk3NDY2MTAzXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMzk4OTI2MjM@._V1_There are many vivid characters in this novel, and perhaps the one who overshadows them all is inanimate: Le Voreux, the dread consumer of huaman flesh, the pit  in which the local miners and cart pushers labour for their lives.

Perhaps the most  horrific scene – and one of the most grotesque in all of Zola’s novels, which include a great deal in the way of horror and of the grotesque – is depicted in the scene where the rioting and starving locals attack the local grocer’s shop. The grocer falls to his death trying to escape via the roof, and the women, whom he has sexually abused in exchange for credit, enact a terrible revenge on his corpse: –

‘And then, with her old, withered hands, La Brúlé parted his naked thighs and seized hold of his now defunct manhood. She grabbed the whole thing in one hand and pulled, her bony spine tense with the effort, her long arms cracking. When the flabby skin refused to give, she had to pull even harder, but finally it came away, a lump of bleeding, hairy flesh, which she proceeded to brandish in triumph…’

By contrast, one of the most moving – indeed, near transcedent – moments in the novel is  when the cynical engineer Paul Négrel, the nephew of the owner of the mine, who is quite happy to deceive his uncle by carrying on an affair with his aunt by marriage,  who has been the bitter enemy of the militant Étienne, comes together with him in huamnity. After the collapse of the pit, he labours tirelessly and devotedly, night and day to ensure that Étienne, Chaval and Catherine are rescued from their underground prison.

When at last he is rewarded by finding them: –

‘These two men who despised each other, the rebellious worker and the sceptical boss, threw their arms around each other and sobbed their hearts out, both of them shaken to the very core of their humanity. ..’

As I said in my last post, while readers generally may not be attracted to reading the twenty novels in the series of Les Rougon-Macquart  , to neglect reading Germinal is to miss out on a true work of genius.

I have to say that I found Étienne’s love interest Catherine, insipid. While it might be argued that this was after all typical of a Victorian novel, and that her background is such that it is impossible for her to have developed much independence of thought or as an older daughter who had both to work in the pit and to labour in the house, had the leisure even to have much individuality, she still comes across as dull compared to Zola’s other female characters from humble and hard working bacgrounds, ie, the heroine of La Terre.  

This does seem to me a weakness in the structure of the novel. I certainly take the point that Cahterine is intended to be a victim, seduced by Chaval before her delayed puberty has come about. But Étienne’s  fascination with her is unconvincing, and so the desperate hatred between himself and Chaval is too.

Compared to all the admirable features in this book, though, this, and a certain tendency at times, ever present in Zola, to overdramaticise, are hardly very important. Catherine, with her passive surrender to abuse from a man she does not really love in Chaval, is not a female lead that a modern female reader can find appealling., however truly pathetic she might find her.  But in such characters as Catherine’s own mother and  the independent minded Mochette,  there is a good deal of feminine indpendence depicted throughout the story.

Zola was rightly proud of  his achievement.  It caused a senasation on its appearance and remains widely read to this day, having inspired several films, and being regarded as one of the most signicicant of all French novels.

 

 

Émile Zola’s series on ‘Les Rougon-Macquart’: a Fascinating Exploration of Excess in France of the Second Empire.

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I remember I was nineteen when I began reading books by Émile Zola (1840-1902). Nana was the first, which I came on by accident.

My sister had a paperback copy from somewhere, and admiring the cover – a lovely nude by Renoir – I began reading the blurb, and then the novel. Nana (1880) is a lurid, and highly improbable, account of the career of the rise to fame, or anyway, notoriety, of a vulgar courtesan and talentless actress.

Reading in the forward that Nana is the daughter of the main couple in the earlier novel L’Assommoir and that this was just one of a whole series of Les RougonMacquart which Zola had written, and fascinated by its lurid account appeal, I read many more of the books.

I want to emphasize that while the titles are French – largely because they don’t translate well into English – my own French isn’t up to reading anything more than the simplest novel, and I read them all in the English translations.

Wickipedia puts Zola’s literary framework in creating this series so well that I’ll b e lazy and quote wholesale: –

More than half of Zola’s novels were part of a set of 20 collectively known as Les Rougon-Macquart. Unlike Balzac, who in the midst of his literary career resynthesized his work into La Comédie Humaine, Zola from the start, at the age of 28, had thought of the complete layout of the series. Set in France’s Second Empire, the series traces the “environmental” influences of violence, alcohol, and prostitution which became more prevalent during the second wave of the Industrial Revolution. The series examines two branches of a family—the respectable (that is, legitimate) Rougons and the disreputable (illegitimate) Macquarts—for five generations.

The series is not only an exploration of Zola’s ideas about how hereditary and environment interacted to shape an individual’s fate, but a condemnation of the empty decadence of the French Second Republic (1852-1870). Convinced that drunkenness and insanity were an hereditary taint which would go on for generations, he depicted his Macquarts as having their lives shaped by this as much as their environments.

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I was both fascinated and repelled by the books. They contain brilliantly strong writing, with vivid, inspired passages combined with frankly purple prose. There are often scenes of wonderfully bawdy humour which appalled Victorians.

They obviously lose a lot in translation; for instance, L’Assommoir is one of the novels written in the slangy French of the working people of Zola’s day, and English translations can read as stilted.

Among other criticisms, I disliked Zola’s attitude towards women (comparatively liberal towards women though it was for his age), and thought his view of ‘human nature’ warped. There is indeed, little balance in his depiction of characters. In his work, people are largely selfish opportunists, almost monstrous depictions of base passions,  fools, or selfless martyrs who might be dubbed lay  saints. There are few of the people who in most people’s experience form the majority of mankind in our current state – those in between these extremes.

For all his cynicism about human nature, Zola was politically to the left; while he took an alarmist and unfairly biased view against the uprising which led to the Paris Commune of 1871, his sympathies are generally with the exploited working people of his era.

However, unlike Dickens, his portrayal of the oppressed was never sentimental and asexual. Intriguingly for a pre-Freduian writer, he wholly acknowledged the massive power of both the sex drives and the death drives in the psyche.

In fact, when late Victorian Britons mentioned ‘French novels’ in tones of horror as to be kept from sheltered young maidens at all costs, I suppose they must have had Zola in mind. When in 1888, a publisher  Henry Richard Vizetelly, brought out La Terre in English, the sexual and violent themes led to his being charged with obscentiy.

At the time when I was reading these, the first novel of the series, La Fortune des Rougon, written in 1871, which starts off the cycle, was out of print. In fact, I can’t imagine why I didn’t try and get a copy from the British Library. I had to pick up the relations between the vast cast of characters as I went along. However, all of these novels can basically be read as ‘stand alone’ novels, being fairly self-contained in theme.

Zola deals with various aspects of the corrupt France of the era ending in the Franco Prussian war of 1870-1871, and its immediate aftermath. He travelled about and did exhaustive research.

Son Excellence Eugène Rougon (1876) is about high political skullduggery and the close associates of Napoleon III. The unscrupulous, cold Eugène Rougon, a son of the legitimate and ostensibly bourgeois and respectable branch of the family, is obsessed by obtaining high political power and was active in making Napoleon III Emperor in the coup of 1851. Temporarily out of favour with his master, his fall takes down his group of opportunist supporters.

Zola describes the ‘hereditary taint’ of addictive behaviours from his grandmother, which comes out in Rougon as a form of monomania, tellingly: –
‘With him it was love of power for sheer power’s sake, a love, what is more, untrammelled by any craving for personal glory or wealth or honours. Shockingly ignorant and terribly mediocre in all but the management of other men, it was only by his need to dominate others that he really rose to any height. He loved the mere effort of it, and worshipped his own ability.’

Rougon falls too for the voluptuous and attractive Clorinde Balbi, who helps him regain political influence. After the assassination attempt of 1858, he is made Minister of the Interior, with powers to maintain ‘peace and security’ at any cost. He rewards his long time supporters. Now, however, he refuses to marry Clorinde as a move not furthering his political ambitions. Instead, he arranges passionless marriages of convenience for both of them.

In a pivotal part of the plot, the generally icily controlled Rougon, overcome with lust, tries to force himself on her. She snatches a whip and keeps him off by cutting at him with it, maddening him further. In a romantic novel, this would be the turnaround part of the plot where the hero is won over by the heroine’s spirit, spurring him on finally to propose, but in this less romantic tale, Clorinde gives herself instead to the Emperor, who promotes her husband.

Meanwhile, Rougon has lost the support of his followers, who decide that he failed to reward them sufficiently for their support, though in fact, he granted their original requests, and is finally tricked into resigning from his all powerful post.

La Ventre de Paris (1873) deals with the area about the great Paris market Les Halles, and recounts with the fate of Florent, an escaped political prisoner mistakenly arrested in 1851, who comes to live with his brother Quenu and his unimaginative, status obsessed wife, Lisa – who is a sister of Jean Macquart from La Terre. He begins on an impractical and idealistic scheme to plan an uprising, much to the disapproval of his sister-in-law.

She eventually betrays him to the authorities, only to find out that half her neighbours have beaten her to it. One of her relatives, Claude Lantier, later to feature in the art world of the era in L’œuvre, provides an objective commentary on the actions of the characters. After Florent is arrested, he comments with disgust words to the effect of: ‘How abominable respectable people are!” I believe that was the last sentence in the novel.

L’Assommoir (1877) depicts the life of Gervaise Macquart, also a siser of Jean, who having run away from their native Provence with her heartless, handsome lover Lantier, now lives in Montmartre, then a poor area of Paris. Lantier abandons her with two small sons (one, Jacques, has been left in Provence). However, the roofer Coupeau falls in love with her, they marry and she is able to open her own laundry.

To bring about Gervaise’s downfall into alcoholism and living in a sordid threesome with Coupeau and the returned Lantier, Zola has to make the kind hearted and hard working Coupeau have a complete personality change after he breaks his leg falling from a roof. He becomes a layabout, takes to drink and when he hears of Lantier’s return to the area, is won over by him into accepting him as a ‘lodger’ who never pays his rent.

All this is improbable, given Coupeau’s original character as a open hearted working man, and while Gervaise is assumed by Zola to have an hereditary weakness for drunkenness – which is somehow supposed to be reflected in her having been born with a limp – Coupeau has no such hereditary.

Gervaise has to support both men and their daughter Nana, her three sons, Claude, Jacques and Étienne Lantier having now grown up (they are the subsequent protagonists of L’œuvre (1886), La Bête humaine (1890) and Germinal (1885) ).

Finally ,when Coupeau becomes abusive, her daughter Nana runs away to become a street walker and Lantier deserts Gervaise for a more prosperous rival , Gervaise takes to drink herself, and sinks into total degradation.

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La Terre (1887) deals with the peasants, who it seems were generally idealised by the French in this era. In Zola’s sensationalist account of the grasping nature of the residents of a singularly godless village in the Beauce, where the residents are too mean to keep a priest, this illusion was stripped away. Promiscuity, brutality, incest, rape and murder all feature.

One of the main components of the plot consists of the story of the old farmer Fuon, who through living too long when dependant on his offspring, suffers a peasant’s version of the fate of King Lear. The story features Zola’s most appalling villain, Butteau, and one of his nicest heroines, Françoise. The protagonist is in fact, a wholly reasonable, balanced and well meaning member of the Macquart’s, Jean, who seems to have inherited none of the ‘hereditary taint’ of mental imbalance which Zola depicts in the other family members.

La Bête humaine (1890) is a sort of psychological thriller based about the Le Havre to Paris railway. Jacques Lantier, an engine driver, has all his life had a sexual longing to murder women. He controls this, however, partly through his almost sexual relationship with his engine, La Lison. When by chance he catches a glimpse of the station master Roubaud murdering one of the railway directors (having discovered that he had previously been his wife’s lover), Lantier keeps quiet because Roubaud’s wife buys his silence by starting a love affair with him.

Because of her connection with a murder, Lantier finds that at first he can control his desire to kill a woman as part of the sexual act with Séverine, but later it comes back and he kills her. In the last scene, hostility between Lantier and his fireman flares into bloodlust and they fall off the engine in a deathly embrace. The driverless train hurtles on through the night, full of happy, singing, drunken recruits for the war with Prussia. It is a symbol of the fate of France.

These are just a few of the novels from this series which I read, the ones which interested me most. Germinal, Zola’s masterpiece, deserves a separate blog post.

The one which I thoroughly disliked is Le Docteur Pascal. This depicts the work of the eponymous doctor, the grandson of the original source of all the family malaise, Adelaide Forque, through her Rougon marriage. He has invented a serum that he hopes will cure mental and hereditary diseases. He has kept a chart of the lives of the thirty descendants of Adelaide Forque, and made a lifelong study of hereditary and madness. He lives with his mother and niece, Clothilde.

Gradually, he wins his niece over to his views and also to his atheism (Zola was a passionate atheist). Finally, and this is the bit that will probably disgust many people as much as it did me – the sixty-year-old uncle becomes his young niece’s lover. No mention was made of incest in the novel, and I was startled to learn that a relationship between an uncle and a niece was not regarded as incest in France.

Eventually, the couple conceive a baby, but Pascal dies of a heart attack before the birth. His mother destroys his documentary evidence of genetic mental illness as exemplified in his family history records, and Clothilde is left nursing the baby, the hope of the future for the family, as are Jean Macquart’s children by his second marriage.

This is the last of the novels in the series. Zola had now taken a younger mistress, who had two children by him. His depiction of the downright creepy relationship between the aging doctor and his nubile niece is permeated by Zola’s own atttitude towards his relationship with this very young woman.  One also supposes he felt a need to justify his actions, to himself, at least. He also seems to have believed in some way that the birth of two children regularised it.  His wife maintained, when she found out, that she could have given him children herself. If he refused to let her have any, only to have a family with a younger woman, then that was callous indeed. No wonder she was outraged.

It is impossible to do justice to this complex and varying series in one blog post, but certainly, Zola was an original and exceptionally talented writer who often rose to greatness. If the modern reader only feels that she has time to read one of his novels, I would urge her to make that one Germinal – his epic depiction of the conditions in the mining community in the mid nineteenth century, and the terrible consequences of a failed strike by the miners.

But more on that, in my next post…

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Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Mary Barton’: A Harrowing Depiction of Poverty in the UK of the Early Industrial Revolution.

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I have recently been re-reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Mary Barton’. I thought I had long since written a review of it; it seems not.

This is, of course, Elizabeth Gaskell’s first novel, published in 1847. It established her reputation as a writer who sympathized with the poor and oppressed, the workers in industrial Lancashire who were voiceless in the government of the country, and who suffered hideously during the times of economic depression.

In this, she resembled Charles Dickens. He was in fact her later publisher when she wrote for his magazine ‘All The Year Round’. Like him, too, she had a great dread of the rampant mob, and shares the almost morbid fear of trade unions which he showed in ‘Hard Times’. In the novel Gaskell depicts trade unionists with unintentional comedy, as having a conspiratorial aspect almost akin to a lot of Gunpower Plotters.

This, no doubt, was partly due to the fact that she was writing the novel in the era of  the Chartist protests, which co-incided with the outbreak of revolution throughout much of Europe.  The Chartist leadership was strongly divided over those who espoused peaceful methods and those who considered that they must win power by ‘Reason if we may,  by force if we must’.  Elizabeth Gaskell was a devout Christian who recoiled from violence and was shocked by the mutual antagonism of the mill owners and their nameless ‘hands’ who comprised their workforce.

The original protagonist of the novel was not Mary Barton, but her father John Barton, and this probably explains why he in fact comes across as a more fully realised character than his daughter’s love interest, Jem Wilson. Jem is accused of the murder that John himself has committed of the mill owner’s son, the caddish and handsome Harry Carson.

He has been angling to make Mary his mistress, though in her naivety, she thinks that he is interested in marriage. Eventually, in fact, when he realises that she won’t become his mistress he does make her an offer of marriage, which she scornfully rejects (no doubt Richardson’s Pamela would be astonished by that). By then, she realises her folly in rejecting Jem, who following his own failed proposal, is assiduously keeping away from her.

Jem is warned about Mary’s danger from Harry Carson by Mary’s Aunt Esther, who subsequently deserted by her lover, had taken to prostituion to support their child, and after her death, become a drunkard.  She has been keeping a covert watch on the Barton household, and wishes at all costs to keep Mary from suffering the same fate as herself.

Jem confronts Harry Carson, and they come to blows, but a policeman separates them. When he is later murdered, Jem is the natural suspect.

Now Mary resolves to save him from the gallows…

There are some harrowing descriptions of poverty and misery in the book, and the author leaves the reader in no doubt of her moral outrage that such conditions should be allowed: –

‘Never was the old Edinburgh description of gardez-l’eau more necessary than in this street. As they passed, women at the doors tossed out slops of every description into the gutter; they ran and overflowed into the next pool, which overflowed and stagnated…our friends were not dainty, but they picked their way till they got to some steps leading down into a small area..You went down one step into the cellar…It was very dark inside. The window panes of many of them were broken and stuffed with rags…

…After the account I have given of the state of the street, no one can  be surprised that on going into the cellar inhabited by Davenport, the smell was so foetid as almost to knock the two men down…They began to penetrate the thick darkness, and of the place, and to see three or four little children rolling on the damp, nay, wet, floor…They clustered round Barton, and tore from him the food he had brought with him..’

In fact, the mill owners of Manchester were offended at what they saw as Elizabeth Gaskell’s unfair portrayal of their indifference to the sufferings of the mill workers. They were better pleased with her later novel, ‘North and South’ where their viewpoint is depicted more sympathetically.

In this novel, certainly, Mr Carson, whose son is ritually assassinated as a sort of ‘legitimate target’  in a piece of terrorism by John Barton – who despairs of anything short of this moving the obdurate mill owners – is a highly unappealing character, who only arouses the reader’s pity after the death of his prized son. His wife, though thinly skethed, is another. Once a mill worker herself, having produced upwards of four children, has taken to indulging her ill health and treats her servants as her natural inferiors.

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Harry Carson is also thinly sketched,  which as he is to some extent the antagonist, is a shame. Had he been given a sronger role, the extent of Jem’s victory, over both his own jealousy towards Carson, and Carson’s attractions as a rival  love object for Mary, would be more striking.

The trade union leader is depicted as a wily opportunist, rather on the lines of Plutard (I think that was his name; I’m being too lazy to look it up) in Zola’s ‘Germinal’.  Perhaps he is depicted that way as a counter to the unsympathetic bourgoise in the novel, but one gets the impression that Elizabeth Gaskell could  not credit that anyone could be a dedicated trade unionist and Chartist without being either fanatical or self seeking…

Jem Wilson is depicted as a wholly admirable working man, capable of selfless devotion, and handsome ‘save for the marks of smallpox’, with dark curling hair and a stalwart build. Outstandingly brave, he rescues his father and another workmate from a blazing mill. It is typical of him that he should oppose women working, but one has to remember that his mother’s experience of work has left her disabled as a result of an accident with unguarded machinery.

Mary Barton, very pretty, well meaning and often wilfully opposed to her own best interests, is a good characterisation of a young girl of sense with some silly notions. Her realisation that she loves Jem, only after she has turned down his proposal, is vividly recounted.

John Barton, demoted from his place as protagonist as he may have been,  is the character who makes the greatest impression on the reader. His personal tragedies – he has lost a son through poverty and loses his wife in childbirth – a death he blames on the shock she sustains when her sister runs off with an army officer – embitter him. Still,  he never loses his devotion to the working people and his determination to relieve their suffring.  In the scene described above, where he helps the Davenport family, he sells his last possessions of value to buy them food and medicine.  When the petition on the condition of the workers he delivers to parliament is contemptuously rejected and the recession worsens and want increases, he becomes desperate. Unemployed and black listed as a trade unionist, he turns to violent methods to change the minds of the masters.

John  Barton, then, is a believable flawed tragic hero, and the ending when the older Carson is able to forgive him makes a moving conclusion to the story.

Mary’s fight to prove Jem’s innocence is well told. Her admitting in court that she loves Jem would have been astoundingly indpendent behaviour in a Victorian heroine. Many critics disagree with Raymond Williams objection, that the story’s change in theme from the political to the domestic entails a weakening of its theme.

It is worth noting that in this first novel, the character of the sailor as a dashing racounteur is depicted in Will Wilson, Jem’s cousin. This character, no doubt partly based on fond memories of her own lost brother,  was a type Elizabeth Gaskell was to develop in Frederick Hale in ‘North and South’ and Charley Kinraid in ‘Sylvi’a’s Lovers’.

Will Wilson is a straightforward version, a touching combination of the boastful and the modest, who falls  in love with the dowdy and virtuous Margaret Leigh when  he heards her sing.  He lacks either the sophistication of Frederick Hale, or the moral dubiousness of Charley Kinraid.

Jem, for his part, is depicted as – despite his aversion to women working – a wholly more attractive rival to the dashing Harry Carson than the melancholy Philip Hepburn is to Charley Kinraid in ‘Sylvias Lovers’ . ‘Mary Barton’ is a novel which ends  happily for the two sets of young lovers, Mary and Jem, Will and Margaret, in complete opposition to the tragic conclusion to that later novel.

The ending is a good deal less happy for John Barton, of course, who must face the consequences of his crime. As a matter of fact, parents usually fare badly in Gaskell’s novels. ..

That this happy ending for the young people has to take place in Canada, not the UK, is in itself  a dismal comment on the prospects for workers in what was then the ‘workshop of the world’.

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