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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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.

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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Characters’ First Names: How Do Authors Choose Them?

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

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 ‘Lodovico’ 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…

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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.

Hi 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…

 

Celebrated Writers Whose Names Have Become Synonymous with the Fictional Depiction of an Age: Part Two: Georgette Heyer’s Depiction of the Regency UK and ‘Life in London’ by Pierce Egan: ‘Corinthian Tom’ and his ‘Coz Jerry’ as the Original Source of Heyer’s Regency World and Sporting Heroes

 

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In my last post, I wrote about the influence of Mary Renault, whose fictional interpretation of Ancient Greece has become so famous.  I commented on how the writer’s particular treatment of Bronze Age Greece and of the rise of patriarchy, which necessarily reflected the views of her own age, sixty years ago, have been incorporated into popular understanding of that era.

However novel and stimulating Renault’s depiction may have been to the publishing world and to readers in the late 1950’s, it is now an almost stultifying influence. As I commented last week, it has reached the point where it is impossible for any author to write anything about Bronze Age Greece, the ancient matriarchies or the Theseus legend, without being compared – usually invidiously – with Renault.

The same is true of the depiction of the UK of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century by Georgette Heyer.

Apart from being  writers of historical novels with a passion for detailed research, who were in real life fairly mannish women with a rather dismissive attitudes towards other women, they have little in common but their names becoming synonymous with an historical era.

The point I want to make here is is what they do have in common was a massive influence on popular understanding of the age about which they choose to write.  Heyer continues to be seen as ‘having made the Regency era her own’ just as Renault’s depiction of the Bronze Age is seen as definitive.

I have touched on this previously in an article published on Public Books last December. here However, as the articles on this site have to be under 1,500 words, I had to write a terse one, concentrating mainly on how Heyer’s  High Tory view of the UK’s history has had the effect of making an  ‘Artificial Golden Age’ out of an era which was in fact one of violent social change and upheaval, and my dismay that a fair number of readers seem to confuse that enticing, but artififical version with the historical reality of that time.

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Certainly, it has had the effect of  giving it a name for frivolity.  This fact was made by the late writer and historian M M Bennets, so brilliantly in this article here,  that I am going to quote large parts of it wholesale:

‘ I rate her (Georgette Heyer’s) work alongside that of P.G. Wodehouse in that they both created a bright comedic fictional world entirely of their own. However, I also feel that Heyer’s work has done an immense disservice to our understanding of the early nineteenth century.  Because by calling that world the Regency, this period of extra-ordinary political and social change and international upheaval of the most catastrophic nature has been trivialised, ‘frivolised’ and demoted to ‘unworthy of consideration by serious writers and thinkers’.

‘(Curiously, no one ever mistakes Wodehouse’s fictional world of Blandings Castle and the Drones Club for reality.)

‘…With the exception of An Infamous Army, the whole of her work is one-faceted and is set firmly within the boundaries of this fictional romantic comedy world she created.  Thus, what a shock to realise that Mary Webb’s Precious Bane, for example, is set at the same period and included much talk of the terrible harvests, the effect of that on the countryside and the introduction of the Corn Laws.’

M M Bennett’s goes on, in  the comments section, to remark: –

‘I’ve not stopped thinking about this question since I raised it a few days ago, in some effort to pin down what it is about Heyer I find most maddening. Tolstoy includes many party scenes, many domestic issues, in War and Peace, yet no one would accuse him of frivolity or trivialising history, I think.

‘Perhaps it’s Heyer’s relentless emphasis on female clothing and her stereotypical males which frequently are little better than caricatures? I know she based a lot of her work about young men and their pursuits on the Cruikshank “Tom and Jerry” cartoons of the 1820s. Equally, it must be said that with few exceptions, there are few mentions of soldiers, officers or naval officers in her works–yet Britain was most certainly a country at war, from 1792-1815, with only the briefest peace between 1802-3. (We’d think a book set in 1943 in London very peculiar if there were no soldiers to be seen, wouldn’t we?)

‘Perhaps it’s not her work that I find maddening, it’s the subsequent assumption that the Regency was as she presented it, and that her work is used as a kind of yardstick for anything written about the period. Which is perhaps just my way of saying, yes, that was popular literary taste then (when she was writing); this is now–can we not move on from there? Please?’

This  concisely sums up my own attitude.

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I was interested in this reference to these ‘Tom and Jerry’ cartoons of the 1820’s. I followed it up, tracing it to Pierce Egan’s 1821  ‘Life in London Or the Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn, Esq, And His Elegant Friend Corinthian Tom in Their Rambles and Sprees Through the Metropolis’ (they liked a long title in those days).

Then Someone Lovely bought me a copy last Christmas.

I only had to read a page to realise three things.

One was that here was the author of ‘Boxiana’, a book on the history of prize fighting which I had read years since. It has the same florid, wordy style and excessive use of the sporting slang of the era. For this modern reader at least, it made for an excrutiating read.

The second was that Georgette Heyer did indeed rely on this book as a source on which she based her heroes and the fashionable world of Regency London, the venues, sights, sporting activities, slang, you name it.

The third is the explanation as to why Heyer’s males are often so puzzlingly lacking in  emotional depth. This is because they were literally borrowed from a series of cartoon sketches.  In fact, Pierce Egan’s macho cartoon heroes are more emotionally responsive than Heyer’s; though libertines, they are in some form of love with their mistresses. Corinthian Tom writes romantic doggerel to ‘Corinthian Kate’s‘ eyes: Jerry Hawthorn is besotted with two of his mistresses in quick succession, ‘Lady Wanton’ and Kate’s friend Sue.

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‘Corinthian Tom’ is depicted as a leader of fashion, but ‘handy with his dives’, having taken boxing lessons from the prize fighting champion himself, and ‘no dandy’ (ie, effete). He is handsome, cynical, blasé, a fine pugilist and swordsman, a famed ‘whip’  in his Sunday drives in the park,  wears a greatcoat with many cloaks and top boots,  has an acquiine profile, and has a roving eye for female beauty – whether it is paying compliments to the women of the elite at Almacks, or treating the ‘barques of frailty’ at the Opera to gin, or chucking the pretty chin of the beggar chit Polly in her rags in a ‘boozing ken’ full of  women like ‘Leaky Sal’.  His ‘Dear Coz’ Jerry is less clever, but full of mischief and ‘game till he’s floored’, with a physical presence that draws the eye of many women.

In fact, I am puzzled how few  of Georgette Heyer’s admirers seem  to know of this book. They constantly discuss Austen as her inspiration.  I have only seen about three references to ‘Life in London’ as one of Heyer’s sources online, besides that by the late M M Bennetts. I don’t know if M M Bennetts had got round to reading it before her sadly early death, though she was clearly an avid researcher on the early nineteenth century.

So far as I can judge, only a couple of these writers on Georgette Heyer have actually read ‘Life in London’ (this is only for the brave; the turgid prose makes for heavy going; but  – coughs modestly – I was not to be deterred from my research. After all, I was able to plough through all of Richardson’s ‘Clarissa’, through ‘Pamela’ and ‘Pamela in Her Exalted Condition’, ‘Moby Dick’ and ‘War and Peace’ ).

Of course, I am not accusing Heyer of plagiarism in borrowing from this book; you can’t plagiarise an idea, copywrite didn’t exist in the days of ‘Life in London’ – there were any number of imitations published in Pierce Egan’s time – and if even if copywrite had existed, it would long have expired by the twentieth century.

It was a brilliant stroke of Heyer’s to create characters appealing to a female readership out of a book intended for a male one, and her comic world has its escapist allure for many. But I share in MM Bennetts’ wish that the whole Regency era should not be seen as the domain of one comic writer whose emphasis was generally on the ‘fashionable world’ of the upper class.

The origin of Heyer’s heroines certainly cannot be found in Pierce Egan: there are no ‘respectable’ women depicted in any but the most superficial detail in ‘Life in London’. There, Jane Austen was the main influence for Heyer. Her heroines are updated, highly secular versions of Austen’s,  with a large part of the Bright Young Things of Heyer’s own youth thrown in.

Cardboard Characters, Lovable, Rounded Characters, Larger Than Life Characters,and Mere Ciphers: How Sympathetic Must a Character Be to Keep You Reading?

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Well, every Austen reader knows what scene this depicts. ‘She is tolerable,but not handsome enough to tempt me…’

My PC – which groaned and collapsed –  is finally working again (looks about nervously, scared to tempt fate). Someone has even offered me  an unwanted laptop. Incredibly, I’ve never had one, and I am terrified by the look of those Ipads.

Anyway, in my last post, I was talking about my new fledged writer friend being upset at the savagery of a one star review (though she felt a bit better when I showed some of the fine specimens I have come by). Readers of this blog might remember that the main criticism was that her book was ‘Boring!!!’

The second front was opened over the issue of the characters, who according to this reviewer, were both unsympathetic and unbelievable, in fact, so like a lot of walking cardboard cut outs, that it was impossible for the reader to care what became of the lot of ‘em.

While the image of a lot of cardboard cut out characters stalking through the pages of a story is intriguing material for a fantasy story – I must give one on those lines a go, sometime – those concluding side swipes obviously cut my notice writer colleague to the quick.

This is clearly the last thing that a writer – who has probably spent hours making notes on background details on the past life of those characters, to fill them out in her/his mind – wants to hear. Well, everyone’s idea of a sympathetic or believable character is different – some people even find Heathcliff sympathetic and believable (well, so do I, having the psychiatric treatment he so clearly needs)  but it did make me mull over how far it is necessary to like the characters in a story, in order to enjoy it.

Obviously, and unfortunately, if a reader both thinks the plot is dull and the characters  uninteresting, then there isn’t very much to hold the attention. Yet, as I said last week, and as I pointed out to the writer in question (just call me Polyanna) that as the reviewer  also maintained that she kept reading to the bitter end, something obviously did hold her attention, even if it was how much she hated the characters and the plot, so all was not lost. As I said in my first post, if someone keeps on reading, however much s/he hates what you’ve written, then I count that as a victory.

How much sympathetic characters matter depends a lot, obviously,  on genre. If you are writing some traditional type murder story where you are going to bump off a lot of the characters, then it’s probably best for the reader’s peace of mind if s/he doesn’t get too fond of them. Perhaps that is why most of the characters in traditional, ‘country house murder’ Agatha Christie type detective stories are like a lot of walking stereotypes, often deliberately made hateful.

If, as Colonel Blimp is holding forth about Young People Today and Hanging and Flogging from the depths of his armchair in his club, his face a fine shade of puce, and  all his captive audience suddenly see him snatch at this throat and gargle, dropping his glass of vintage port, nobody is going to feel much outrage.

All the interest lies in the intellectual puzzle: was it his Estranged Wife who poisoned the port? Was it his nephew, the Dastardly Young Heir (entailed property, you see), who is rumoured to have Anarchistic Tendencies? Or was it the Colonel’s daughter, who has been kept at home in dowdy clothes and quietly besotted by her cousin these ten years?  Or was it the Waitress, whose mother he Ruined thirty years ago? I just wrote that off the top of my head, and no prizes for guessing that of course it was the last.

On mystery and detective stories, the Sherlock Holmes stories are, of course, notoriously well written. But the secondary characters are necessarily, just a series of ciphers. There isn’t space for anything more  in a short story, even if the Victorian short story was generally far longer than one for a magazine today. There is the Spirited Governess, the Unimaginative Shopkeeper, the Dastardly Stepfather, the Haughty Unbending Aristocrat, and one of the nicest characters – the Gallant, Dashing Gentleman Sailor –in ‘The Adventure of the Abbey Grange’, my favourite.  I do like a love story as part of an adventure or mystery story – but I am wandering from the point.

Conan Doyle sometimes called Sherlock Holmes ‘a reasoning machine’. This is not doing justice to the subtlety of his creation. In ‘A Study in Scarlet’ when Watson and Holmes first start sharing rooms, Watson does create a list of the areas of Holmes’ supposed areas of knowledge and others where he supposedly shows a startling lack of it. For instance,  he claims not to know that the earth revolves round the sun, which I think we may assume was a joke at the expense of the sometimes credulous Watson. Later on, Conan Doyle ignored – or possibly, even forgot about – this list, much as he forgot about the location of Watson’s wound by the time of, ‘The Sign of the Four’.

Thus, while Holmes’ knowledge of literature is supposedly nil, he sometimes makes remarks on quite abstruse literary figures, for instance, his cynical (and  unfortunately, true, at least for women as sex roles stand) quote at the end of  ‘A Case of Identity’: ‘“There is danger for him who taketh a tiger cub, and danger also in whoso snatches a delusion from a woman.” There is as much sense in Hafiz as in Horace, and as much knowledge of the world.’

Then again, nobody seems to expect the characters in macho war stories to be anything but stereotypes. If they developed scruples about killing the enemy  or something stupid like that, it would spoil everything for the readership, so none of that.

220px-Dracula_Book_Cover_1916
Dracula climbing down the wall of his castle, from a 1916 edition of the work.

Then again, as another writer friend of mine pointed out, in ‘Dracula’ (I think that was Mari Biella) while Count Dracula and his adversary Van Helsing are strongly drawn characters, the supporting cast comprising Mina and Jonathan Harker and her ex-pupil Lucy and her three admirers are very thinly drawn. However,  this doesn’t detract from the readers enjoyment of the story. The two main opponents have so much personality that there is no need for the others to need more than a few strokes of the pen.

That modern readers we require sophisticated and consistent characterisation from authors at all, shows how far our study, or perhaps, our introversion regarding human character has progressed since, say, the Bronze Age ‘Iliad’ or even the Mediaeval Arthurian Legends, when the characters often behave wholly inconsistently.

I suppose, though, it must be conceded that while most of the characters in these lasting stories (as distinct from the indistinguishable war hero types) are ciphers, they are carried by the strongly drawn main ones much like an outstanding actor supporting a while cast of mediocrities.

It is also certainly true that there are genres where characterisation is all important. This is true of most so-called ‘women’s fiction’ and is certainly true of psychological thrillers  and has to be true of love stories.

Even with love stories, though (I’m distinguishing these from ‘romance’ which is a separate genre, with set expectations of an inevitable Happy Ever After Etc from the reader) it is still possible to enjoy the story, if you find just one of the main pair appealing. That is rather similar to how it is when a friend sets her heart on someone who you think is as dismal a choice as she could make. You still want her to win through, even if you know disillusionment lurks round the corner.

I would appear to be one of the few readers of Jane Austen who doesn’t like, or admire, Mr Darcy. In fact, I thought he was a priggish so-and-so, and I delighted in Jo Baker’s less than flattering picture of him in her brilliant novel ‘Longbourn . ’ I never could imagine how Elizabeth Bennett could be happy with a man with whom she couldn’t share a laugh, and I still can’t.

However, I did like Elizabeth Bennett. So if she had the poor taste to want the boring fellow (and no, no, I’m honestly not saying anything about the  Freudian implications of her joke about the sight of the grounds of Pemberley swaying her choice) , I wanted her to be able to win him, so I stayed interested until the end.

I mentioned dashing sailors earlier, and on this, and good or bad love choices, and on how it is still possible to fnd a book fascinating while not liking any of the main characters, I can think of at least one classic novel which has long intrigued me where I didn’t particularly like any of the main characters. In one, I actively disliked the two rival flawed heroes and wasn’t especially fond of the heroine. Yes, it’s – wait for it  – ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ by Elizabeth Gaskell, about which I have often written before.

But this post is getting too long.  So more of that next time.