Having a Laugh: Ridiculous Names in Novels…

Bertie Wooster cover

I have always revelled in silly names, particularly in novels: Gussie Fink-Nottle and Cyril Bassington-Bassington, anybody?

While writing my latest, I was delighted to find out that there was such a surname as ‘Swindle’, and I have used it for the real name of one of the characters, though that isn’t revealed until near the end, when he is revealed as the eighteenth century conman that he is.

This is a return to the tradition recently regarded as naive, with the use of characters’ names to indicate their place in the scheme of things, their morals, etc. 

This tradition held for a long while; in the days before novels,the greatest of writers ever, one William Shakespeare, went in for it. He named some of his characters merely to raise a laugh.  For instance, there is the broad comedy of  ‘Pompey Bum’, the clown in ‘Measure for Measure’. 

Henry Fielding wrote in the mid eighteenth century, with characters so named,  ie, the supposedly wholly admireable (to my mind, often priggish) Squire Allworthy in ‘Tom Jones’. Sometimes, the name is clearly an ironical comment, as in Sophia Weston’s untrustworthy lady’s maid being called Mistress Honour.

 The tradition lasted a long time.  Robert Tressell’s novel ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ was published in 1914,  using the same approach. The inadmirable characters – they don ‘t have enough stature to be proper vlllains – have ludicrous names, ie, Crass, the insensitive foreman, Slyme, the devoutly religious seducer (presumably pronounced ‘slime’ rather than ‘slim’), the hypocritical and flatulent cleric the Reverend Belcher, a Mrs. Starvem, an ineffectual do-gooder called ‘MT Head’ and so on.

Thackeray also delighted in comical or satirical names and titles. For instance, there is the Countess of Bareacres, the debauched Marquis of Steyne (presumably we are meant to think of blotches on family trees), I believe one of his titles is someting on the lines of The Order of the Royal Bed Pan. Such facts are related by the shadowy presence of one Tapeworm, who is seems also featured in ‘The Book of Snobs’. Sir Pitt Crawley’s first name is presumably meant to bring to mind a cesspit or perhaps infernal regions. There are the Ensigns Stubble and Spooney, who worship George Osborne, and Glorvina O’Dowd of the absurd first name, sister of the tyrannical Peggy O’Dowd.

Even admirable characters have absurd names in this book, ie, William Dobbin, though the nearest thing to a hero in the book, has the name of a carthorse, while Lady Jane, the rake Rawdon Crawley’s sister-in-law who wins him over to wish to reform, has the maiden name ‘Sheepshanks’.

As with many classic comic novels, the servants are given ridiculous names. There is Mrs Blenkinsop the Sedley’s housekeeper, Miss Crawley’s butler Bowls, Pitt Crawley’s butler and fellow toper Horrocks and his daughter Betsy Horrocks, a girl who accepts Pitt Crawley’s rebarbative embraces, and whom Becky Sharp thinks of as ‘the Ribbons’.

Another manservant with an unfortunate name I can call to mind are the inappropriately called Strutt in the ghost story ‘The Magic Saucepan’, written around 1927. As befits a ‘well trained valet’ is entirely servile and devoted to his master, calling him ‘sir’ at very fifth word and giving him an ‘alcohol rub’ (whatever that is) when he is suffering from the ghostly effects of the eponymous magic saucepan.

Then there is the manservant of Lord Fayne in Charles Garvice’s ‘The Outcast of the Family’ (1894) who shares the unfortunate name of Stubbles with Thackeray’s ensign. Another well trained valet, he remains wooden faced as he brings his master a whisky and soda first thing in the morning, following orders to ‘look sharp about it’ .

The last we see of him is when Lord Fayne plans to reform, which involves catching a train out of London and earning his living by wandering about the country playing the violin as a sort of rural busker. Stubbles is thrown some money and told to await his return, but we never hear of him again, so perhaps he is still waiting, complete with wooden expression, at the end of the story.

When I was writing ‘Ravensdale’, I was delighted to come across the surname ‘Toothilll (which means ‘dung heap’) and used it for a Reynaud Ravensdale’s first love Georgiana’s tiresome family.

Another wonderfully silly name is ‘Tupper’ which may have had an obscene meaning and been based on the activities of the ram when used as the ‘tup’ or stud. I used that for Rudolph Tupper, a New Age guru who falls foul of the anti-hero of Alex Sager’s novel, who arrives in this dimension determined on revenge. His fellow guru is Claribelle Johnson, which I couldn’t resist as a risible combination of the ornate and the prosaic.

In ‘The Villainous Viscount’ the anti-hero, plagued by a family curse, consults a Professor of Magic, Markmanship, Swordsmanship, Languages and Subtle Influences’. His name is Ludovico Sharman…

Another name I really must use is ‘Toplady which certainly has an obscene meaning, as does Toplass.

I am hoping that nobody reading this has one of those names…

Drama and Melodrama in Some Classic Victorian Novels

 

A Tale of Two Cities
Sidney Carton looks seedy and jealous in this depiction of the back garden of Dr Manette’s house in the then leafy and breezy Soho.

     When writing tales of terror, it can be difficult to keep balanced along the thin line between the terrifying and the ludicrous – as I have commented in a previous post ‘The Thin Line Between the Gothic and the Absurd’.

     It is nearly as difficult at times to maintain that balance between drama and melodrama. Perhaps much of that relies upon sufficient psychological motivation in moments of dramatic tension within a novel.   

     This seems particularly true when one is reading novels reflecting and appealing to the tastes of another age – or anyway, popular taste, as there are always exceptions.  

     Dickens’ bursts of sentimentality are of course notorious, and presumably the general readership of his time found his emotive scenes genuinely touching. For instance, there is the life and death of the son of Charles Darney and Lucie Mannette in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’.

     This paragon would make Little Lord Fauntleroy seem realistic. Presumably, he is meant to reflect the qualities of his parents, as ideal a coupling of a pefect pair as you are likely to come across in a novel.

     This is his deathbed scene: – 

    ‘Even when there were sounds of sorrow among the rest, they were not harsh nor cruel. Even when golden hair, like her own, lay in a halo on a pillow round the worn face of a little boy, and he said, with a radiant smile, “Dear papa and mamma, I am very sorry to leave you both, and to leave my pretty sister; but I am called, and I must go!” Those were not tears all of agony that wetted his young mother’s cheek, as the spirit departed from her embrace that had been entrusted to it.’

     This is all the more extraordinary, as Dickens surely knew small children well, having ten of his own by his wife Catherine (oddly enough, and off topic, he held her solely accountable for having so many children, as if she had been guilty of a form of parthenogenesis).

     Presumably only Lucie Manette, who is depicted as an extreme of the domestic angel type Dickens so revered, could produce such a son as the one depicted here, and the one whom Sidney Carton sees in a vision before the guillotine.

   When this anti-hero finally rises to the role of hero and sacrifices himself for Charles Darnay by substituting himself in the cell for him, as he awaits his death he has a sublime vision, both of what will happen to France of the future, and of what will happen to the Darney family.

     As is so often the case with Dickens, the writing here in uneven, the sentimentality of the previous paragraph about the death of the Darnay son vying with the strong and evocative. That being so, I shall quote it extensively: – 

     ‘I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.
     ‘ I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy, in that England which I shall see no more. I see Her with a child upon her bosom, who bears my name. I see her father, aged and bent, but otherwise restored, and faithful to all men in his healing office, and at peace. I see the good old man, so long their friend, in ten years’ time enriching them with all he has, and passing tranquilly to his reward.
     ‘I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. I see her, an old woman, weeping for me on the anniversary of this day. I see her and her husband, their course done, lying side by side in their last earthly bed, and I know that each was not more honoured and held sacred in the other’s soul, than I was in the souls of both.
     “I see that child who lay upon her bosom and who bore my name, a man winning his way up in that path of life which once was mine. I see him winning it so well, that my name is made illustrious there by the light of his. I see the blots I threw upon it, faded away. I see him, fore-most of just judges and honoured men, bringing a boy of my name, with a forehead that I know and golden hair, to this place—then fair to look upon, with not a trace of this day’s disfigurement—and I hear him tell the child my story, with a tender and a faltering voice.
     ‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

         Sidney Carton’s career has often been ignoble, but his unrequited love for Lucie Manette is depicted as transforming his sordid life, making him as much the founder of an honoured dynasty as his alter ego Charles Darnay. This notion worked very well for the mid nineteenth century readers, while modern audiences are certainly more likely to question the likelihood of such an unrequited love inspiring nobility in a bitter, disillusioned drunkard such as Sidney Carton. Stlll, then as now, many readers are caught up in the idea.

     When I read ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ myself, I thought that the whole treatment of Sidney Carton might be more convincing if the explanation for his bitterness and hopelessness was ever given, but it is not. He is just depicted as being that way, and to be pitied for it.

     Because of this shadowy depiction of this melancholy doppelganger of the romantically successful Charles Darnay, and the sentimental effusions which form part of the first parts of this peroration, it don’t work for me at least. Interestingly, the renowned last sentence does. We don’t really have to relate strongly to Sidney Carton to feel the strength of that.

     Perhaps this shallow portrayal of a seemingly complex character is to some extent typical of the psychological understanding of that age. Certainly, in Victorian literature generally, ignoble characters sometimes seem to be inspired by the influence of supposedly exemplary ones to behave with startling self abnegation.
220px-cc_no_06_a_tale_of_two_cities

     For instance, in George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’ the heroine, Dorothea, comes across her by then devoted admirer Will Ladislaw and the married Rosamond Lydgate in what to that age would appear to be a ‘clandestine meeting’. She leaves, visibly upset. Will Ladislaw then reveals his passion for Dorothea, and instead of being offended (she had considered him an admirer of her own) Rosamond Lydgate says that she will make all right with her. She is seemingly so affected by Dortothea’s noble character that she is drawn out of her own vanity and self-centredness.

     I have to say that for me, this seems wildly improbable. The critic Quentin Anderson says that Rosamond, on finding that Ladislaw ‘thinks her of no account’ is ‘temporarily awed into a generosity which brings Ladislaw and Dorothea together.’

     This makes no sense to me; given that Rosamond thinks of Ladislaw as sophisticated in that he knows the world outside Middlemarch, why should the fact that he takes so dim a view of her inspire her to right things for him with Dorothea? Would she not be more likely to feel slighted by his outburst? It is not even as if he is an admirable character himself.  After all, he has no occupation or means of supporting himself, relying on inheriting from a man he professes to despise; this hardly puts him in the position to despise Rosamond Lydgate.

Middlemarch image

      On the question of a Victorian novel failing to hit the right note in a scene of dramatic tension, I can’t help use as a final example the confrontation between the former Sylvia Robson, her returned former lover Charley Kinraid and her husband Phillip Hepburn in Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’.

     Hepburn has concealed that he knew all along that Kinraid has been taken by the press gang, not drowned, as the rest of the community believe, has not passed on Kinraid’s message for her that he will return, and has married Sylvia himself, hoping that Kinraid is in fact, dead at sea.

     Both of the cheated lovers are of course, outraged. In this confrontation, the speeches of Sylvia and ‘the wretched guilty man’ are realistic. Those of Charley Kinraid, however, are not. The perceptive critic Graham Handley pinpoints the problem, which is that ‘Kinraid comes alive but fitfully’. Elizabeth Gaskell’s portrayal of him is always  uperficial.

    That is never so obvious as here. The critic goes on: ‘We have noted that Mrs Gaskell does not give him depth…but she does give him a number of trite phrases which would do well in the mouth of a straight adventure-story sailor. Here they ring false. “Oh, thou false heart!” “Leave that damned fellow to repent the trick he played an honest sailor” “I have frightened my poor love” – all these convey the feelings, but without the truth of expression that makes them real.’

     He asks Sylvia to leave with him, showing a naive (or possibly, professed) belief in his admiral’s ability to obtain her a divorce from Hepburn. ‘Your marriage shall be set aside, and we’ll be married again, all square and above board.’  Just then, as if on cue, the Hepburn’s baby cries, reminding Sylvia of someone she loves be#tter than her old lover.

     Kinraid, never normally reluctant to express himself or take the limelight, falls into complete silence while Sylvia gives a speech that involves her vow: – ‘I’ll never forgive yon man, or live with him as his wife again. All that’s done and ended.’ It finishes with her, ‘Kiss me once more. God help me, he’s gone!’

     This end to the scene is described by Graham HIndley as losing the vivid and believable quality of the earlier exchanges: – ‘Sylvia, in histrionic isolation, runs from the present to the past and back to the present again , while Kinraid utters no word of remonstrance to deflect her course. ..The effect is, like that of Kinraid’s words quoted earlier, a failure of truth.’



Some Thoughts on the Careers of Agnes Grey and Becky Sharp as Early Nineteenth Century Governesses

 

Vanity Fair Amelia and Becky
Amelia and Becky as girls

In my last post, I wrote about the realistic – and fairly dismal – depiction of a governess’ life in the England of the first part of the nineteenth century to be found in Anne Bronte’s ‘Agnes Grey’ , and contrasted her dismal life with the wild and harrowing adventures that are Jane Eyre’s improbable lot.
Both stories end happily because the man with whom they have fallen in love wants to marry them. Well, I suppose it is only fair to point out that both are in a position of comparative independence when they receive these proposals. Agnes is a respected teacher working in her mother’s school by the time that the former curate, now rector Mr Weston proposes to her, whereas Jane Eyre has inherited a fortune by the time she returns to visit the temporarily blinded Mr Rochester.
There was, of course, another famous author who wrote about the adventures of a governess – WM Thackeray in ‘Vanity Fair’ describes the lurid adventures of the heartless and manipulative Becky Sharp. She of course, has been at boarding school with Amelia. On the death of her alcoholic painter father, the proprietor Miss Pinkerton has taken her on to teach French to her pupils.
At this time, Becky shows her ill nature, and her only friend is the good natured Amelia Sedley, a rich merchant’s daughter loved by everybody. Now Amelia is leaving to be a young lady waiting for marriage to the son of another rich merchant, George Osborne. Becky longs to escape Miss Pinkerton’s academy , even if it means she must be a governess. First, however, she is to stay for ten days with Amelia’s family at Russell Square. Here she tries to draw in Aurelia’s absurdly vain brother Jos into proposing to her, but when the snobbish George Osborne sabotages her plans, she has to go on to her post at the uncultured, mean Sir Pitt Crawley in Hampshire.
It is interesting that Mr Weston remarks to Agnes that another type of woman in her position as governess might have made sure that she received far better treatment than that which Agnes has accepted.

This puts one in mind of Becky Sharp. Through unscrupulous manipulation, through making herself useful to the insensitive old baronet (she does his accounts), by flattering the family members, pursuing her own advantage at all times and spending almost no time teaching her two girl pupils, who are left to their own devices, she soon acquires some influence in the household.

At first, Becky is treated with no consideration. On the way to Queen’s Crawley in Hampshire, she is made to travel outside, on top of the coach. But soon, through honing her skills of flattery and manipulation – she stops being outspoken and rebellious as she was at Miss Pinkerton’s – she makes herself indispensable in the household.
In this, of course, she is helped by the fact that the second Lady Crawley is in ill health and of no account in the household, and that Sir Pitt is lecherously fascinated by her, and she is obviously able to keep him at arms’ length very cleverly; then she is able to draw his stupid guardsman son Rawdon Crawley into marriage by refusing his own lecherous advances.
Perhaps Agnes Grey might have made her lot rather more comfortable by the use of some judicious flattery and the odd piece of flirtation, by taking her duties as a governess less seriously, by in fact, not adhering to moral principle.
Becky, by contrast, never allows scruples of any sort to get in the way of her pursuit of money and social advantage. She shows how entirely callous she can be in Brussels. Here she encourages the foolish and vain George Osborne to become wildly infatuated with her, so that he is eager to visit the Crawleys in ther rooms. Here Rawdon Crawley cheats George at cards out of very small fortune he has left to him after his father has disowned him. This leaves Amelia virtually destitute. Becky is completely indifferent to her fate, or how wretchedly jealous she makes Amelia.
Just as Agnes Grey would not be herself if she ever compromised on the issue of moral principle. neither would Becky Sharp be herself if she had any moral principles greater than self interest.
Yet it is not quite true that in the fictional world, nice guys finish last. They might, from the point of view of material wealth. But nevertheless, Agnes Grey marries for true love and lives modestly but comfortably with the man she loves.

By contrast, the fate of her vain and frivolous pupil Rosalie Murray, who like Becky, is manipulative and heartless, is a dismal one. She marries the debauched and unattractive Sir Thomas Ashby because she coverts a title. She soon comes to hate him when angered by her carrying on a flirtation with her old admirer Harry Meltham, he forces her to live in the country. Not only that, but unhappiness does away with her blooming complexion and female curves, and she faces a dismal future.

George and Amelia's letters
George Osborn

 

 

Anne Brontë’s ‘Agnes Grey’: A Melancholy Story with a Happy Ending

Agnes Grey page

I first read Anne Brontë’s ‘Agnes Grey’ a long time ago – in my early twenties – about the time that I first read ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’.

I believe a fair number of people consider it her masterpiece in its brevity and tight plotting. I can see it has those features, but I can’t agree that it is the better story . I infinitely prefer the excitement and Gothic drama of ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ – but then, as a writer of Gothic myself, ‘I would say that, wouldn’t I?’

There are arguably faults in the structure of ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’;  I don’t know if the ‘story within a story structure’ used in it – also famously used by Emily Brontė in ‘Wuthering Heights’ – is the best method of revealing Helen Huntingdon’s former history.  I personally think a series of shorter flashbacks might be more engrossing – but there are valid objections to two parralel stories as more confusing. It is a problem I know from my own experience when writing ‘Ravensdale’.  There are also notorious faults in character portrayal in ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ and other weaknesses.

Overall, thoughy,  I found ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ to be a gripping story in the way that the quiet tale of the dismal existence of the unfortunate early Victorian governess is not. Probably, then, it is a matter of taste.

After all, defenders of the story would say that the quiet tone is the point. The story was written to highlight the miserable position of the governess in the UK of the mid nienteenth century, and could not by its very nature be exciting. Agnes Grey’s lonely existence as a governess contains precious little excitement, pleasure or even peace.

In her position as a social inferior to the family, while also not part of the domestic staff,  she has nobody on her side, and no-one to talk to. She has no social life, and anyway, her wretched salary – £25 a year – is too low for her to be able to socialise, even if she could find a respectable escort to chaperone her.  The families for whom she works don’t even assume that as a young girl she might actually want a little fun. In fact, her feelings are not considered at all.

She has a foreshadowing of this when she arrives at her first post after a long, cold journey: ‘The cold wind had swelled and reddened my hands, entangled and uncurled my hair, and dyed my face a of a pale purple. ..(Mrs Bloomfield) led me into the dining-room where the family luncheon  had been laid out. Some beefsteaks and half cold potatoes were set before me, and while I dined upon these, she sat opposite, watching me (as I thought) and endeavouring to sustain something like a conversation. ..In fact, my attention was almost wholly absorbed I my dinner; not from ravenous appetite, but from distress at the toughness of the beefsteaks, and the numbness of  my hands, almost palsied by their five hours exposure to the bitter windWith a feeble attempt at a laugh, I said, ‘My hands are so benumbed with the cold that I an scarcely handle my knife and fork.’ ‘I dare say you would find it cold,’ replied she with a cool, immutable gravity that did not serve to re-assure me.’

Unfortunately for Agnes, the husband is even less approachable and often downright rude, while the children are  not only completely undisciplined and unmanageable, but impossible to teach. The parents will not back up any of Agnes’ attempts to get them to learn their lessons. Meanwhile they constantly complain of their offsprings’ apparently learning nothing.

Not only that, but some of the family members encourage the obnoxious ‘Master Tom’ in his cruelty to animals, culminating in the notorious scene where Agnes immediately kills a brood of nestlings rather than leave them to his torments.

Agnes Grey image

Her next post is not quite as exhausting. Her charges are older, while the two unruly boys are sent off to boarding school after some months. Still, the vain Rosalie and the hoydenish Matilda Murray make life anything but easy for Agnes, and the constant snubs that were a governess’ daily lot are a source of great unhappiness to the sensitive Agnes:

‘…(As) none of the afore-mentioned gentlemen and ladies ever noticed me, it was disagreeable to walk beside them, as if listening to what they said, or wishing to be thought one of them, while they talked over me or across, and if their eyes, in speaking, chanced to fall on me, it seemed as if they looked on vacancy – as if they either did not see me, or were very desirous to make it appear so.

If the Bloomfields – who are portrayed as nouveau riche – are ill mannered in their treatment of a dependant, it seems extraordinary that more established families would not have been taught more gracious manners.

Finally, Agnes does find love and happiness. This is after a sub-plot involving the heartless predatory flirtatiousness of Rosalie, who having humiliated the arrogant Rector, moves on to other potential victims.

On the characters in the novel, some of these are excellently done, though it is a shame that so few of them are more likable. In fact, Agnes comments on this dearth of congenial minds about her.  No doub it is based on the author’s own experience in the posts she occupied as governess,  as critics have often noted how both of Agnes’ employer’s families are based on the two for which she worked as govenress.

My own impression is that while the ending is a happy  one, it is so muted in tone that the pervasive melancholy of the novel is what struck me in this reading as much as last time. There is too little happiness in it, coming in at the very end.  Unlike Victorian readers, I find ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ far less distressing. The humour there is more robust, and so is the temperament of the heroine.

Many other governesses in fiction have a less dismal time of it.  Charlotte Brontë’s Jayne Eyre, is plunged into Gothic adventures despite her lowly position as governess, but this is solely dependent on the whims of her master Mr Rochester, who is obliging enough to fall in love with her. I have to admit that I enjoyed that Gothic story, too, far more than the low key and realistic ‘Agnes Grey’.

A story that I didn’t enjoy – though full of wild and improbable adventure involving a governess – is the 1895 one by Charles Garvice that I have reviewed elsewhere on this blog, ‘The Marquis’.

This novel, which ranks as literature rather lower than that of the Brontė  sisters, revolves around the said Marquis falling in love with his governess. He has been decidedly wicked, but he repents very soon after meeting the noble Constance , governess to his annoying   Little Lord Fauntleroy-esque annoying nephew. She has been forced to earn her living as a governess after her father becomes insane after discovering a formula which rivals that of the Alchemists.

Though the Marquis eyes have to flash and Constance has to turn from red to white (but never blue) innumberable times during the improbable happenings that follow, the happy ending is naturally a foregone conclusion. Written as appalingly as only Charles Garvice can, this heroine of this piece of nonsense is so unsympathetic that for my own part, I felt far more anxiety about the fate of Matilda Murray’s  terrier, sold to the cruel local rat catcher, but finally rescued by the hero.

Characters’ Names: Some Thoughts from a Names Geek.

Three_daughters_of_King_Lear_by_Gustav_Pope
The spirituality of Cordelia, and the earthy sensuality of Goneril and Regan, are wonderfuly depicted here.

My PC has just  eaten a longish post I write all about research for historical novels, and the changing nature of the understanding of what are taken for granted as ‘historical facts. Ah, well: my own fault for not being super careful with an ailing PC, and I will have to re-write it another time.

For now, here is a post I wrote a while ago re-blogged…

I am a fully paid up, card holding name’s geek.

I have been, since my sister bought me a book on first names and their meanings when I was thirteen (more years ago than I care to admit). It was a little Collins’ Gem Dictionary, with a red leather cover. I found it fascinating. I have more up to date names books – for instance, ‘The Oxford Dictionary of First Names’, but this was my first.

I still have it, though the pages are falling out, I suppose from over use. I have a book on surnames too, though I am less fascinated by those, I suppose partly because of the patriarchal aspect. In general, you can’t get away from having a man’s second name in our society; even if you take your mother’s, that’s still your grandfather’s surname, and if you take your grandmother’s, well,that is her father’ s surname in turn, and so it goes on…

I know all sorts of obscure things about names. For instance, on the name ‘Elsa’ (my daughter’s third name): people use it as a short form of Elizabeth, and that’s the way my modern names book interprets it, but the old Collins gem dictionary, which I think is in some ways better researched, has it down as from old German meaning ‘noble one’.

I always enjoy naming characters of my own, and examining the names other writers give to their characters.

I love Italian names. The dash that added ‘o’ or ‘I’ or ‘a’ or adds on to a name, otherwise quite prosaic. ‘Eduardo’ for instance. What a wonderfully over-the-top name ‘Ludovico’ is – whereas ‘Ludovic’ just rings pretentious to me as a ‘learned’ form of ‘Louis’…

‘Rinaldo Rindaldini’ wouldn’t be the same without that last letter to his name. Even the bad translation of the title, ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini: Captain of Bandetti’ can’t detract from the ring of that. Well, I’m assuming it’s a bad translation: I don’t know more than a few words in Italian. Wouldn’t ‘Robber Chief’ or ‘Chief of Brigands’ be better? ‘Captain’ makes it sound bathetic as a title, like an Angela Brazil type story about ‘Hilary Smith: Captain of the First Eleven’ or some such.

To English speakers, a foreign name somehow adds an element of the out of the ordinary, the mysterious. For instance, ‘A Day in the Life of John Dennison’ doesn’t quite have the ring of ‘A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch’.

I love Scandinavian names too: ‘Gustav’ and ‘Erland’ ‘Sigmund’ , ‘Ingvar’, ‘Ulf’ ‘Eyof’ and ‘Olaf’ are names I am definitely going to use at some point. Likewise, Marna, Gudrun (as in ‘Women in Love’), Sigrid, Marta and others (well, I’ve already used ‘Marta’ once). I also have a liking for Germanic names, some of which were of course, used by Anglo Saxon s – ‘Reinwald’, Lothar’, ‘Brigitta’, ‘Liesel’ among others.

And then there are so many French and Welsh names I like, and Irish, and…But this list is getting too long.

One of the problems about writing historical fiction is that you must use the names in use in that period, and subsequent to the twentieth century, this was quite limited, which I assume is why Jane Austen, for instance, uses such a limited stock of names. Elizabeth, Anne, Jane, Mary and so on are constantly distributed among heroines and less attractive characters (come to think of it, unless I’m being forgetful, she showed a very human streak in that I don’t think she gave ‘Jane’ to a baddy). Of course, very few people would impose the name of the heroine of ‘Mansfield Park’ ,‘Fanny’ on a female protagonist these days; coarse in the US, it is obscene in the UK. Hmm – how about a broad beamed male philanderer, though, as a nickname?

Samuel Richardson, among others, got round this limited supply of names by using ones that were then very unusual for his heroines – ‘Pamela’ ( that is from Sir Philip Sidney, I think; and before the twentieth century the emphasis was on the second syllable) and ‘Clarissa’ – a mediaeval name. Well, for some reason he used the down- to- earth ‘Harriet’ for the heroine of ‘Sir Charles Grandison’. His male characters have less fanciful ones. I don’t remember the first name of ‘Squire B’ – I don’t think it was ever given, though I may be wrong – but the villain and main male character of ‘Clarissa’ is called Robert, known affectionately as ‘Cousin Bobby’ by those naïve female cousins who haven’t aroused his bizarre Machiavellian sexual urges.

Shakespeare, naturally, besides inventing words, made various names up, ie, Cordelia in King Lear. Well, he changed that from an earlier, far inferior play with a heroine called Cordeilla, and that was originally a Cornish or Welsh name, Cordula. The legend of ‘King Leir’ is an ancient legend, of course…

Jehan-Georges_Vibert_-_Polonius_behind_the_curtain
Polonius snooping again, and about to get his from Halmet, through the arras…

Then there is the rather incongruously called Ophelia in the Danish court in Hamlet. Perhaps Polonius went in for Classical names, with her brother being named Laertes. Polonius being a pedantic, self-consciously learned sort of fellow, that might fit. But what of his own name? I have never gone into that before.

The ever useful Wickipedia says: –

‘The first quarto of Hamlet, Polonius is named “Corambis“. It has been suggested that this derives from “crambe” or “crambo”, derived from a Latin phrase meaning “reheated cabbage”, implying “a boring old man” who spouts trite rehashed ideas.

However, before the 20th century, Polonius was played differently, more as an opportunist courtier with Machiavellian propensities than as a spouting fool; after all, he instructs his servant to spy on his own son Laertes.

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A lovely depiction of the deranged Ophelia’s end.

Another Shakespearean name that I love is ‘Perdita’- from ‘The Winter’s Tale’ taken from the Latin for ‘lost’ .

Then, there are the names taken from the opposite end of the literary spectrum. For instance, Charles Garvice.

He tends to give his heroines quite simple names, ones fashionable in late Victorian and Edwardian times – Eva, Edna, Nora, Esther, Una, Stella, Constance and so on, occasionally branching out into the more exotic – Maida, Kyra and Esmerelda. His heroes tend to be called surnames, like Tempest or Heriot or Blair. Sometimes, they are called down-to-earth names like Jack. One thing is certain; we know the villains from their names: Stannard Marshbank, the slippery name of the Conniving Cousin villain of ‘The Outcast of the Family’ is a typical one.

Why writers choose particular names for their characters has always intrigued me. I know that Magaret Mitchell was going to call her heroine Pansy O’Hara. In those politically incorrect times, the editors objected, not, naturally, to the appalling racism in the book, but to that being the pejorative name for ‘effeminate men’ during that time. Thus, the author had to use one of the heroine’s family names, her heroine’s Irish grandmother being called Katie Scarlett.

Rhett and Ashley were of course, surnames. Any number of the names that were used in that massively successful book have since become fairly popular.

I was interested to read that Ian Fleming called the hero of his male fantasy nonsense James Bond because he thought that was the most boring name that he could possibly imagine. It seemed at the time he intended to make him a colourless character ‘to whom things happen’. The women, when not being described as ‘the girl’ are called things like Vesper and Honeychile and Domino.

Yet, the Countess Theresa, who truly steals Bond’s heart, though, is known by the wholly prosaic name of Tracy.

On the names of women in the 007 stories, we must never forget, of course, the lesbian whom Bond makes straight, the unforgettably dubbed ‘Pussy Galore’ (word fail me!) .

Incidentally, the author gives Bond’s explanation for what he sees as the increase in lesbianism since the Second World War as the shocking habit of women in taking to wearing trousers.

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The problem with films, as a critic commented, is that after seeing them, you can’t imagine a character looking any other way. Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara.

Hmm. By inverting the same argument, it is a shame, then, that Bond, who is after all meant to be a Scotsman, didn’t take to wearing a kilt. Then Fleming could have started a Gay Spy genre back in the 1950’s.

Elizabeth Gaskell not only called her female protagonist a dull name – Mary Barton – but made this the name of her novel. Well, it isn’t quite as dull as ‘Tom Jones’.

Should anyone be intersted, when it comes to naming my own characters, as most of my own novels have been set in the late eighteenth century (with one in the Regency proper and only one modern one) that has limited the choice. Still, having French characters – or ones of French descent, has widened it a bit.

Émile was originally the villain of an earlier version of the story – and in naming him, I just thought lazily, ‘What French name shall I use? Let me see – what was Zola’s first name? Ah yes…’

Intriguingly, the second name I gave him, which he uses in his persona as an outlaw, ‘Monsieur Gilles’ has got strong connections with Provence, as has his third, ‘Gaston’ . I certainly didn’t consciously know this when I chose them off the top of my head. Very likely, though, as a true names geek, I had read that before and it was still at the back of my mind.

As for the name of his true love, Sophie, I have always liked it, and knew it was popular in the eighteenth century. The same with Isabella. Besides, there’s the play on Rousseau’s use of those two names together.

His cousin, the male lead of ‘Ravensdale’, Reynaud Ravensdale’s name is a pun on ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini’’s own name, ‘Reynaud’ having the same root. ‘Ravensdale’ was partly written as a spoof of the traditional robber novels, such as this and Pushkin’s ‘Dubrovsky’, besides the clichés of historical romances featuring highwaymen.

‘Clarinda’ I used for my female lead in ‘The Villainous Viscount’ because I came across it in Elizabeth Gaskell, and took to it. It seemed fun to give that wholly practical and unornamental female lead a fancy name.

I don’t know how many other writers are names geeks. I have to say, if I really dislike a protagonist’s name, it actually detracts from the pleasure of the story for me. That is a bit extreme, but for instance, among others, I can’t stand the names Wendy (that, by the way, comes from a little girl calling James Barrie ‘Friendy Wendy’) and Tammy (though not Tamara or Tamsin), Max, and Peter (though not Pierre, Pedro, or Pyotr). I hope nobody reading this blog is called one of those.

That brings back a ludicrous memory to me. I remember as a kid disliking a serial in a girl’s comic where the goody-goody heroine, the form captain, whose name I have forgotten, though I don’t think it was Wendy, was plagued by ‘The jealous vice captain’ (who had my real name) and her toady, who was called Doris (my mother’s name, and for decades past a favourite for generally unattractive characters, though back in the late nineteenth century Garvice used it for some of his heroines). Well, the character with my real name at least made malicious witticisms: Doris had no wit, and only tittered at them…

Film Versions of Classic Novels and ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.’

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I tend to find film versions of books disappointing. By their very nature, they have to be truncated and dramaticised, and that to my mind does away with various subtleties and nuances. Two characters are often joined into one, others written out of the script. Various events are transposed. Quite often things are simplified.

For instance, to take a trivial example,  in the book version of ‘Pride and Prejudice’, Mary Bennett is not meant to be noticably bad at singing and playing the piano. She is in fact described as being better than Elizabeth at both; it is her affected style that draws derision from Miss Bingley and her sister.

 Obviously, film makers (anyway in the versions I have seen) think that is one of the subtleties which should be done away with in the interests of clarity – and comedy. Poor Mary is made to sing ‘Ombra mai fu’ wholly out of tune (for those interested, it is a wonderful aria from Handel’s  1738 opera’ Xerses’ and I use it as a sort of signature tune in ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’ ).   

For all that, I did think the film versions of both ‘The Remains of the Day’ and ‘Pascali’s Island’  were as good as the books.  I’m not quite sure why that was. Perhaps they were better suited somehow for  dramatic adaption than such classics as ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Vanity Fair’?  

Anyway, one of my favourite novels being ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, and having never got round to seeing the television series, I was pleased to be given the 1990’S DVD for Christmas.

I have just seen it. I enjoyed it, and the acting was very good. Toby Stephens made a sympathetic Gilbert Markham, with a Yorkshire accent to show his social inferiority as a farmer to Helen Huntingdon. Rupert Graves made a suitably caddish and lively Arthur Huntingdon, and Tara Fitzgerald made an appropriately strong-minded Helen.

 Still, overall, I felt it could not compare to the book. To my mind, the spiritual message in the novel – and in particular, the discussion of Helen Huntingdon’s (and Anne Brontë’s) belief in Universal Salvation, was wholly left out. Due to the need for dramatic structure, many events were conflated or treated in a different sequence than in the novel. Some of the characters were deleted, or two were combined into one, or their role was slightly different.  

Certainly, it is true that the complicated structure of the book – a tale within a tale – makes for difficlties in filming, as with ‘Wuthering Heights’.  There is, in the book, a prolonged flashback when Gilbert reads Helen’s diary. The book as an early Victorian novel makes for slow reading for the modern reader.

I felt that Helen’s early high-spirited playfulness was neglected (as Elizabeth Bennett’s in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ never is). One of the tragedies of the novel is how these high spirits are crushed by her embittering existence as the neglected wife of a selfish man slipping into habitual drunkeness.

 Likewise, the message about her youthful hubris seemed to me not to be given sufficient emphasis. To me, besides the theme of wrongdoing and forgiveness, the tale of Helen’s youthful presumption was also central.

She blithely assumes that despite her youth and inexperience and complete lack of equality of power as a wife in the England of the 1820’s,  she will be able to use her influence  to reform a rake ten years her senior. She is confident of this, even though she must see that he is not exactly determined upon that reform himself.

One of the intriguing things about the plot is that Arthur Huntingdon is too emotionally superficial for Helen’s dreams of changing him to stand any chance of success. Not only do his passions for his mistresses never last, but his passion for his wife is not much deeper.

In the typical romance, the debauched male lead’s feelings for the heroine are different from those he has had for women before, and too intense for him to resist his impetus to change. –  By contrast, in ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ Helen tragically assumes that Arthur’s feelings for her are deeper than they are.   

A fault of the book, I thought, was the fact that Helen goes from slightly disillusioned with Arthur to wearily so within too short a space of text.

In her theme of a youthful, spirited heroine who dismally fails to reform a wicked libertine, Anne Brontė wrote a story which is a polar opposite to a favourite theme of historical romances that remains extremely popular today, where an innocent girl reforms a seemingly incorrigible libertine merely by becoming his love object.  This is another aspect that has always made the story particularly fascinating to me.I would say that the producer did try to bring this theme out, but I have to say if I hadn’t read the book, I would have been less aware of it.

I would certainly have been puzzled by some of the developments of the plot if I hadn’t read the book.

Perhaps it was in line with the ‘anti romantic’ theme that the costumes struck me as unnecessarily dowdy – with an early Victorian, rather than a late Regency or late Georgian flavour. In having Helen Huntingdon dress quietly, the producers were following the author. But I cannot imagine why Annabella Wilmot, later Lady Loughborough and Arthur Huntingdon’s mistress, would dress anything but flauntingly.

An odd problem was caused by the fact whoever did the casting chose a cast largely of dark haired actors, to the point where the heroine’s brother and her husband so resembled each other in poor light that I would have mixed them up at times if I hadn’t read the book. In fact, given that Gilbert is also played by a dark haired actor, I might at one time have wondered if her brother was attacked by his own doppleganger: a gothic scene indeed…

Still, for all my carping, overall I thought it was very well done, and here’s a scene.

 

 

New Year Resolutions: How Original…

On environmental issues, a few centuries ago, the age and significance of Stonehenge was wholly unappreciated and it thad been neglected for thousands of years. it was assumed to date from slightly before the Romans came…

It being the first of January 2020 today, it is of course, the time for New Year’s resolutions.

In the western sphere, it seems that the custom dates back at least  to the Roman’s, who made promises to the god Janus, who was the god to which the month of January was sacred.

With the coming of Christianity, it seems that many Christians prepare for the new year by making resolutions at ‘watchnights’ ( Slightly off topic, now I have found out about that, the disapproval of the Quacker Rose household in Elizabeth Gaskell’s  ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’  of  Philip Hepburn neglecting ‘the watchnight’ to take his cousin Sylvia to a party is made clearer to me). 

There is an interesting list on Wickipedia about the most common resolutions. I have made many myself in the past – and broken them more often than I should.

Here they are:

·  Promise to donate to charities more often

·  Try to become more assertive

·  Strive to be more environmentally responsible.

·  Improve physical well-being: eat healthy food, lose weight, exercise more, eat better, drink less alcohol, quit smoking, stop biting nails, get rid of old bad habits

·  Improve mental well-being: think positive, laugh more often, enjoy life

·  Improve finances: get out of debt, save money, make small investments

·  Improve career: perform better at current job, get a better job, establish own business

·  Improve education: improve grades, get a better education, learn something new (such as a foreign language or music), study often, read more books, improve talents

·  Improve self: become more organized, reduce stress, be less grumpy, manage time, be more independent, perhaps watch less television, play fewer sitting-down video games

·  Take a trip

·  Volunteer to help others, practice life skills, use civic virtue, give to charity, volunteer to work part-time in a charity organization

·  Get along better with people, improve social skills, enhance social intelligence

·  Make new friends

·  Spend quality time with family members

·  Settle down, get engaged/get married, have kids

·  Pray more, be more spiritual

·  Be more involved in sports or different activities

·  Spend less time on social media (such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr etc.)

·  Spend more time listening to different or conflicting points of view

On the resolving ‘to be more environmentally responsible’, I can pull a self-righteous face while recalling that I did attempt to raise awareness about the dangers of overuse of plastic back in the 1990’s, and nobody seemed to believe me. I pointed out the absurdity of the use of plastic cutlery, only used once, in cafes and elsewhere. And on that, I was really delighted to see when visiting Stonehenge last summer, that recyclable cardboard based cutlery is used in the café in the visitor’s centre.  But it is also true, that I should have put a lot more effort into it, so I doubt I deserve to put a self righteous mask on.

I recently tried to find cleaning produces not packaged in plastic in my local area – and found none except for a form of bleach still sold in glass bottles. After that, I wrote to the local supermarkets, asking for their plans about reducing plastic use in packaging. Needless to say, I received ambiguous – and self-righteous – responses about their plans to reduce ‘one use plastic’ by such-and-such an amount by the year so-and-so andso, and their ‘new policy of encouraging customers to bring in their own containers at the delicatessen and elsewhere.’   

Given the growing (no pun intended) obesity crisis, it would seem that number four should be a priority for most people  in the western sphere. 

The penultimate resolution on the list is a modern problem that seems to lead to a great deal of wasted time and energy. I would probably waste a good deal more time on it myself if I was more adapt at using social media sites. As it is, I waste time reading material from various websites which I am not going to use for anything myself.   

On wasted time and energy, here in the UK the last three-and-a-half years a degree of polarisation over the issue of leaving the EU has developed which has to some extent threatened traditional political alliances.

However, I would argue that these would have been challenged anyway, for various reasons bound up with political economy. Also, in the midst of the controversy, a large proportion of the population are, like me, fairly cynical about the vaunted benefits of either leaving or of staying in the EU.  Still, in the current atmosphere, for politicians and journalists at least,  to ‘spend more time listening to different or contradictory points of view’ sounds like a good idea. For a long time now, it has been impossible to turn on a programme dealing with current affairs without having a panel of politicians,writers or other pundits trying to shout each other down, so that it is impossible to make out what any of them are saying at all. Sometimes even the presenters shout a guest down during an interview, which seems rather startling to me when they are supposed to maintain at least the appearance of neutrality.

It would also be a good idea for me to make that resolution myself, being as opinionated as anyone on various issues, particularly to do with novels and writers and genres. Hopefully, I do try and emphasize that I don’t imagine my opinions are facts (though I wish that they were). However, perhaps I should not only emphasize this more strongly, but also try to relate more to alternative points of view.

The ‘being more organized’ strikes home particularly about writing. I keep on meaning to write a Christmas ghost story: I have been saying that I would for the last three or four years, and have never managed it. I keep on resolving to write a Halloween story, as well, and I have never got round to that.

 But worse, I keep on saying that I will write a plan for my next novel. I have never got round to that. I have muddled on, knowing the beginning and the end but never the middle. I may share this approach with Stephen King, but for all that, it is a highly inefficient method. It was this that led to my discarding 40,000 words of my latest a few weeks ago, and was one of the main reasons why I probably won’t be able to have it ready for publication for another six months or so.

‘I resolve to draft out a plan to my next novel’ must be another.

On reading, I resolved last year to read more of Shakespeare’s plays. I love Shakespeare’s plays, so it is not as if it is a wearisome task for me (like reading Richardson’s ‘Pamela’ or the 1970’s bodice ripper,  ‘The Flame and the Flower’  proved to be, for instance: and yes, apropos both of those, I know there are many who love them, who do not detest the rapist  male leads and who do not find them as dismally reactionary about sex and class roles as I did).

With regard to Shakespeare, it is more a lack of time than inclination, but there must be a way I can stop wasting that time in other areas to use it on something far more enjoyable: not wasting time writing 20,000 or 40,000 unusable words might be a start. I did read four of Shakespeare’s plays I hadn’t read before last year, and I did a re-read of ‘Hamlet’, which I hadn’t gone back to since I did it for ‘A’ level.

Unfortunately, Wickipedia suggests: ‘In a 2014 report, 35% of participants who failed their New Year’s Resolutions admitted they had unrealistic goals, 33% of participants didn’t keep track of their progress, and 23% forgot about them; about one in 10 respondents claimed they made too many resolutions.’

Does that mean that the remaining 9% remembered and kept to their resolutions?

Christmas Ghost Stories: ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ by Marjorie Bowen: A Classic Ghost Story as Comedy

Sophie de Courcy and More

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I have already wished everyone Season’s Greetings, but will do it again.

I wanted to add a post about a ghost story at Christmas. Well, I am about to read the new selection by Mari Biella, and expect to revel in those. Last year, I recommended her ‘Wintergreen’ as a Christmas mystery with spooky undertones.  That’s a  fine Christmas read, available  here.

But which Christmas ghost story to choose this year?

Readers of this blog over the last year or so will have endured my diatribes on the  debilitating nature of an addiction to escapist romances and happy never after alternative views of history. Fear not: this isn’t another…

I am in fact recomending – again, but now as Christmas reading – a  ghost story that is about as…

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More on ‘Wuthering Heights’ : The Notorious Absence of a Wholly Sympathetic Character and a Moral Compass.

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I am still reading  that fascinating book by Marianne Thormëhelen, ‘The Brontës and Religion’, and it raises a point that had vaguely occurred to me, but which the author brings into sharp focus.

There is no character in ‘Wuthering Heights’ with whom the reader is meant to identify, who is depicted as generally sympathetic – even if flawed  –  and who provides a moral compass from which to view the events.  I believe this is the main reason why I experienced a sense of incompleteness about the story, and found it  vaguely dissatisfying.  This may well be the reasons why so many readers are left with a confused and disturbed feeling on finishing the story.

Marianne Thormëhelen  says:

‘‘Wuthering Heights’ has no such moral focus (as that provided by the heroines of ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘The Tenant of Wildfeld Hall’ )  which  might have imparted authority to any ethical standpoint associated with the dramatis personae themselves.  As generations of ‘Wuthering Heights’ readers have observed, with varying degrees of fascination and irritation, none of the persons in the novel is entirely likable; the natural wish to sympathize with a lead character is thwarted at every turn. Attempts to make Nelly Dean the villain of the piece may seem fanciful; but her loyalties are inconstant and her complacency unjustified.  Edgar is surely right to upbraid her for delaying the recognition of Catherine’s illness , and that is only one of her grave mistakes. Convinced of the goodness of her intentions, she shows no sign of ethical development involving recognition of her faults.  Nor does anybody else in the book, with the possible and partial exception of young Cathy.  Hareton is guided towards his happy ending by nature (decent genes in combination with love) not be principle; and Edgar Linton is a gentleman and devoted husband and father, but he does not possess enough force of character to provide a moral centre of gravity in a tale which contains such varied and vehement passions. ‘

The man who thinks that he is a moral authority , the Calvanist serving man Joseph, is in fact, a figure of fun.   Intolerably convinced of his  own spiritual superiority, superstitious and wholly uncharitable,  he provides black humour among the grim melodrama and savage brutality played out between the other characters.

It is also one of the few books I can think of which has been an outstanding success without any firm  moral basis . Of course, there are books with anti-heroes and flawed narrators, and ‘Wuthering Heights’  certainly  does have an anti-hero in Heathcliff, and unreliable narrators in Nelly Dean and Lockwood; but most books which have these do generally have some sort of moral focus provided b y at least one admirable character. While I think that Marianne Thormëhelen is rather harsh in her judgement of Nelly,   In ‘Wuthering Heights’ the reader is left to make his or her own way among a group of characters often behaving unsympathetically,   with generally little in the way of ethical insight.

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Perhaps that is even a source of its continuing fascination for generations of readers.

This makes me  think,  once again, that the  earlyVictorian writers were lucky as regards breaking certain rules in novel writing. They may have faced strict  censorship  regarding the then  rigid notions regarding sexual morality and propriety, but they were perhaps allowed to break rules which today are regarded by most people in  the publishing world as incontrovertible.

Received wisdom today is that if  a book doesn’t have sufficiently sympathetic characters, readers will lose interest and soon enough  stop  reading. This blog featuring writing advice is surely fairly typical

https://blog.nathanbransford.com/2011/07/what-makes-characters-sympathetic-and

Yet, ‘Wuthering Heights’  continues to engage readers, and only a portion of these are convinced that Heathcliff  is a romantic hero.  For myself,   I am sorry to say that I was uncharitable enough to hope that Heathcliff  was forced in some way to repent of his evil actions, and to my disappointment, he never did…

…I first read it many years ago, of course; long before I learnt that the author was fascinated in the concept of the fate of the unrepentant Gothic wrongdoer.

As for what motivates other readers who are not partisan regarding Heathcliff  or the older Cathy  into continuing to read the story, I am not sure.  The vivid writing, larger than life characters and Gothic happenings must surely play a part.  Perhaps, they might let me know?

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Heathcliff – No Romantic Hero: Vengeance and Forgiveness in ‘Wuthering Heights’.

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I have recently been reading Marianne Thormählen’s fascinating book ‘The Brontës and Religion’ (Cambridge University Press 1999).

I shouldn’t be. Really, I should be doing more research into the social background of the UK in the early Georgian era for my latest – but I couldn’t resist it.

I came across it through its mention in the notes of the 1994 Wordsworth Classic Edition of ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ as containing a good discussion of Anne Brontë’s belief in universal salvation. Having as usual glanced ahead at certain portions, I expect it to provide the key to certain puzzles and ambiguities in the depiction of evil and the development of character in the Brontë sister’s novels.

For instance, as I have said in blog posts elsewhere, I have always been surprised at the widespread and I think, wholly mistaken view that Heathcliff is meant to be a romantic figure (for all his depiction in many films).

Once, in an energetic mood, some years ago, I even entered into a discussion about this on Goodreads. There. a startling number of readers coming to ‘Wuthering Heights’ for the first time, assured me that I was entirely mistaken, and that I ought to read the book yet again, confident that I would immediately see that Heathcliff is a misunderstood romantic hero.

I know that Emily Brontë reflected in her poems an interest in the final fate of the unrepentant evil doer, and it may well be that her depiction of Heathcliff is influenced by that. He goes wholly unrepentant to his grave. Notoriously, when Nelly Dean advises him to send for a clergyman, comes this exchange: –

  ‘You are aware, Mr. Heathcliff,’ I said, ‘that from the time you were thirteen years old you have lived a selfish, unchristian life; and probably hardly had a Bible in your hands during all that period.   You must have forgotten the contents of the book, and you may not have space to search it now.   Could it be hurtful to send for some one— some minister of any denomination, it does not matter which— to explain it, and show you how very far you have erred from its precepts; and how unfit you will be for its heaven, unless a change takes place before you die?’

‘I’m rather obliged than angry, Nelly,’ he said, ‘for you remind me of the manner in which I desire to be buried.   It is to be carried to the churchyard in the evening.   You and Hareton may, if you please, accompany me: and mind, particularly, to notice that the sexton obeys my directions concerning the two coffins!   No minister need come; nor need anything be said over me.— I tell you I have nearly attained my heaven; and that of others is altogether unvalued and uncoveted by me.’

Snow Wuthering Heights

In the same exchange, he refuses to accept that he has treated anyone unjustly, even seemingly, the younger Catherine: ‘As to repenting of my injustices, I’ve done no injustice, and I repent of nothing.’

This annoying refusal to accept responsibility for his wrongdoing is of course, very human. Nevertheless, the author takes care to sprinkle the book with many references to his seemingly demonically inspired behaviour.

As Thormähelen notes, he spits out the words that summarise Christian virtues with contempt: ‘duty’, ‘humanity’ ‘charity’ an d ‘pity’. Although he worships the first Catherine, he does not feel this sort of tenderness towards her, and his savage treatment of her when she is dying in fact hastens her death. This parting, of course, he appreciates will leave him in a sort of hell on earth, as he regards her as his ‘soul’.

The more metaphysically inclined reader wonders at the fate of these two barbaric lovers in the next world. Are they joined in death, perhaps in a form of purgatorial existence, or separated until they can love in a slightly more spiritual way, or condemned to walk the earth together until they can abandon their unholy alliance?

Joseph, that caricature of a Calvinist, has no doubt as to the final destination of Heathcliff or Catherine:

‘‘Th’ divil’s harried off his soul,’ he cried, ‘and he may hev’ his carcass into t’ bargin, for aught I care!   Ech! what a wicked ’un he looks, girning at death!’ and the old sinner grinned in mockery.   I thought he intended to cut a caper round the bed; but suddenly composing himself, he fell on his knees, and raised his hands, and returned thanks that the lawful master and the ancient stock were restored to their rights.’

The country folk would certainly talk about ghosts anyway; but the hint that the two godless lovers do indeed walk, is shown by the famous encounter between the down to earth Nelly and a little shepherd boy on the moor one twilght:

 ‘I encountered a little boy with a sheep and two lambs before him; he was crying terribly; and I supposed the lambs were skittish, and would not be guided. ‘What is the matter, my little man?’ I asked.

 ‘There’s Heathcliff and a woman yonder, under t’ nab,’ he blubbered, ‘un’ I darnut pass ’em.’

 I saw nothing; but neither the sheep nor he would go on so I bid him take the road lower down.’

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As Charlotte Brontë has observed, if it wasn’t for his very occasional flashes of humanity in his mild affection for Nelly Dean and Hareton, it would be difficult to think of Heathcliff as having any human emotions at all, for as she says, the attachment he shares  with Cathy is a terrible and relentless (though intriguingly asexual) obsession, not any form of true love.

Hareton, in fact, is an interesting pointer about the author’s attitude towards the problem of dealing with evil.

This is not done by conscious design on the far from cerebral Hareton’s part. But he is naturally fearless, and not only does he not only feel none of that dread and fear that most people feel for Heathcliff, but he is even fond of the man who led his real father to his ruin and usurped Hareton’s own rights, regarding him as a sort of stepfather.

Therefore, as Thormähelen astutely observes, Hareton is not corrupted. He is, in fact, able to remain essentially untouched by Heathcliff’s scheme to degrade him as Hindley’s heir. He may be able to make him illiterate and seemingly brutish, but he cannot make him mean spirited. Heathcliff himself sees Hareton’s intrinsic worth, particularly compared to his own son, Linton, who was almost certainly conceived in hatred, and very probably through rape. Catherine, of course, comes at last comes to see how she has misjudged him and they fall in love and history comes full circle. This time, however, there is a happy outcome, for Hareton and the young Cathy have all the capacity for human affection lacking in original lovers.

The author also notes, about Heathcliff and his life devoted to revenge, a thing that I have noticed myself. Adopted and spoilt by the ailing Mr Earnshaw, his degradation to the place of a servant by Hindley after the older Earnshaw’s death, leading to his rejection by Cathy, is:

‘The basis for Heathcliff’s revenge,and compared to the crimes and sufferings that prompted his Elizabethan and Jacobean predecessors to take up arms against an assortment of evildoers, it is not a very impressive one. All the wrongs he sets out to avenge are wrongs directed against himself. Nobody has murdered a parent or child of his, and his loved one, as he recognises, in effect murders herself.’

In other words, there is something rather ridiculous and self-pitying about Heathcliff’s refusal to get over his childhood wrongs at the hands of Hindley for twenty years. By the standards of a rough age, they were not excessive when compared to many. Still, Heathcliff dedicates his life to hatred.

Even his speech towards the end, when he sees in Hareton as he sits with the younger Catherine ‘The ghost of my immortal love; of my wild endeavours to hold my right; my degradation, my pride, my happiness, and my anguish’ cannot in all its dramatic effect make this decidedly ignoble basis for his grand scheme of vengeance anything but mean spirited.

Hareton, as the author points out, escapes largely undamaged from his upbringing in the terrible atmosphere of Wuthering Heights precisely because he does not hate his enemy. Presumably sensing Heathcliff’s grudging admiration and affection, he cannot really accept that he is an enemy.

And as Emily Brontë  was, for all her apparent heterodoxy, a parson’s daughter, and as the Christian response to a sinner is to hate the sin but love the sinner, this is highly appropriate.

Partly because he cannot properly degrade Hareton, Heathcliff’s elaborate plans for revenge fail. For now, haunted by his vision of Cathy, he has lost interest in that vengeance, as reflected in his famous speech to Nelly.

‘‘It is a poor conclusion, is it not?’ he observed, having brooded awhile on the scene he had just witnessed: ‘an absurd termination to my violent exertions?   I get levers and mattocks to demolish the two houses, and train myself to be capable of working like Hercules, and when everything is ready and in my power, I find the will to lift a slate off either roof has vanished!   My old enemies have not beaten me; now would be the precise time to revenge myself on their representatives: I could do it; and none could hinder me.   But where is the use?   I don’t care for striking: I can’t take the trouble to raise my hand!   That sounds as if I had been labouring the whole time only to exhibit a fine trait of magnanimity.   It is far from being the case: I have lost the faculty of enjoying their destruction, and I am too idle to destroy for nothing.’

Heathcliff’s going unrepentant to his death may strike some readers as romantic, but his end, completely lacking in insight as it is, strikes me as bleak.  It is, of course, impossible for a healthy man in his prime to starve to death in a few days, and his death, whatever it is caused by, is certainly not caused  by his refusing to eat for that length of time.

He is mourned by nobody save Hareton, and all the evil he has devoted two decades towards accomplishing is undone by the coming together of the two young lovers.  Yet, though love triumphs over hate at the end of the story, it is, as Marianne Thormähelen observes,  about as unsentimental a depiction of the power of good over evil as can be imagined.

Haworth Parsonage.jpg

Thormähelen considers that neither vengeance nor forgiveness is allowed a decisive victory in the world of ‘Wuthering Heights’. Here, I would disagree: I think that after all the horror of inhumanity, forgiveness does triumph in the world of the novel: but only just.