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.

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

Snow Wuthering Heights

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.

wordsworthclassics-1912

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?

wuthering heights

 

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

wordsworthclassics-1912

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.’

Kirkby Moorside.jpg

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.

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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.

 

The Anti-Heroine

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I have often thought, on and off, what a shame it is how few anti-heroines there are in both traditionally published and self published fiction.

Anti -heroes suffer from overpopulation in the fiction world- particularly in romance – but their female equivalents seem thin on the ground.

This anyway, is my experience, but maybe I am looking in the wrong places (anxiously picks up some stones in the garden).

Maybe I haven’t come across them because I don’t read much fantasy and all its sub sections, and possibly that is the genre in which they are most often to be found, with all those katana waving, leather clad female warriors.  With all the newly published works on the internet, there must surely be many of these outrageous lead females I have missed. But if so, I keep on missing them, as with the 65 bus when I used to live in South Ealing.

There are, however, some excellent classic ones. I have to start off by saying that to my shame, I have yet to read ‘Madame Bovary’ and ‘Anna Karenina’ whom I believe count as anti-heroines.

However, I have read ‘Vanity Fair’ twice. The selfish, cold, manipulative  Becky Sharp is certainly an anti-heroine. I dislike her, because she has almost no warmth of feeling , and is prepared to destroy her only friend Amelia’s happiness and future security for her own gain. This also is  part of a mean spirited revenge she takes on Amelia’s fiancé George Osborn, who earlier has prevented her marriage to Amelia’s foolish half-brother Joss.

During the vain George’s honeymoon in Brighton with Amelia, she and  her now husband Rawdon Crawley turn up, and while Rawdon Crawley assiduously strives to relieve George of his small inheritance from his mother, Becky flirts with him and soon succeeds in making him infatuated with her, careless on how wretched this will make Amelia, who was the only person who championed her at school.

As, through George’s interference to prevent the Jos engagement, she is still free later to marry the baronet’s son Rawdon Crawley and aim higher up the social ladder, one might think that she would be philosophical about George’s earlier snobbish interference; but it seems that she is not.

In some ways she is carelessly drawn, I suppose as a result of WM Thackeray’s self –conscious masculine inability to see inside the heads of women. For instance, Becky at the beginning of the story is rebellious and resentful. She alarms Amelia by throwing away the dictionary given her by the school as a parting present, and shouts ‘Vive Bonoparte! Vive l’Empereur!’

I rather liked her for this frank defiance, but she soon changes into a sly flaterer. Within hours of going to stay with the Sedley family in Russell Square, she is suddenly expert at hiding her real feelings, and can draw in the fat and foolish Jos.

Vanity Fair is, of course, one of the greatest novels written about the Battle of Waterloo. That is the way in which it has lingered in my imagination, and not through any great interest in its two dimensional anti-heroine. However, Thackeray deserves all credit for creating one, however clumsily.

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I have to make another shamed confession here; I never finished reading Jane Austen’s ‘Lady Susan’. Jane Austen wrote it when she was very young, and not easily able to handle the subject matter, which is fascinating, being about a widow with a ‘dubious’ character scheming to marry one of a group of eligible young men. I think this is probably why I stopped reading.

I must read it through soon. In Jane Austen’s time, when a novel was abominated unless the author paraded its moral worth, an anti-heroine like the heartless Lady Susan was a theme only the boldest writer would attempt. Perhaps this is why she did not return to it, as she did to the early versions of ‘Sense and Sensibility’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice’.

Another anti-heroine is, of course, Cathy in ‘Wuthering Heights’. She dies ‘not with a bang but a whimper’ fading away after she finds that she cannot have both Edgar Linton and Healthcliff. However surprisngly tame the end of life in this world for Cathy is, she is a highly effective ghost.

Her relationship with the Heathcliff is certainly bizarre. Contrary to what so many readers seem to believe, I would argue that she does not appear to have romantic feelings feelings towards him, though they do seem to have some confusion of identiy.  It is difficult to work out what sort of feelings Heathcliff has for Cathy. From some of his comments, he seems to have less divided feelings about his passion for her than she has over hers for him.

In that era, it was, I believe, illegal for a person to marry a foster sibling (there was no formal adoption) whether there was any blood relationship or not, so I am puzzled about why Cathy even mentions marrying Heathcliff in her famous speech about degradation. There’s a good discussion of that, and the incest theme in ‘Wuthering Heights’ here 

Apart from her dependency relationship with Heathliff,  we really don’t know that much about Cathy. She is wilful and selfish and when in her early teens, loves running about on the moors in all weathers and soon develops a normal amount of teenage vanity.

In these characteristics, she does make a refreshing change from most mid Victorian heroines. However, she is not, for all her wild passions and temper tantrums, a fully realised character. For all her apparent ‘large ego’ if set aside from her torn feelings for both Edgar Linton and Heathcliff,  for all her undeniable egotism, she hardly seems to exist at all. Again, I found this disappointing.

I have more I want to write about anti-heroines, including the mid-twentieth century depictions of two in the Hélène in Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘The Blood of Others’ and Scarlett O’Hara, but for now I had better finsih this post with the request  that I hope someone reading it can recommend a modern anti-heroine to me.

 

 

 

 

Some Popular Victorian Reading: ‘Jack Sheppard: A Romance ‘ by Harrison Ainsworth.

CRIME/JACK SHEPPARD

These last few days, I have been reading Harrison Ainsworth’s ‘Jack Sheppard.’  I knew little about this writer before, save that he wrote sensationalist literature at about the same time as Charles Dickens, including a novel called ‘Rookswood’ which reputedly featured a highly glamorised version of Dick Turpin.

It seems that he was at one time massively popular with the Victorian reading public for his ‘neck and axe’ adventure novels. ‘Jack Sheppard’ was his third novel, and ran concurrently in serialised form in one of the Victorian literary magazines, ‘Bentley’s Miscellany’, with Charles Dickens’ ‘ ‘Oliver Twist’.  It seemed that there was a controversy between the two men over the subject of ‘Newgate Novels’. Though Dickens left the magazine as a result, he was the eventual victor, for while the public greedily devoured Ainsworth’s melodramatic blood-and-thunder novels, he was despised by critics, and never came to equal Dicken’s stature as a writer. His fame barely outlasted his lifetime. These days he is largely forgotten.

One critic even wrote of him: ‘ Let us start with an opinion fearlessly expressed as it is earnestly felt, that the existence of this writer is an event to be deplored.’  I think this criticism is undeservedly harsh, though of course, this was written around 1875, before Charles Garvice’s romantic melodramas showed critics what successful bad writing truly is.

I can see from the half of the novel that I have read so far that Ainsworth’s prose is often turgid, and he has a passion for the lurid and melodramatic. However, in an age when novels moved along at a snail’s pace, his tales are comparatively eventful and fast moving: I found it difficult as a modern reader not to find this a great relief. His stories are gripping and the action is vividly portrayed.  While Thackeray and Dickens wished to stimalate thought, and often, indignation in the reader, Ainsworth is obviously less out to point a moral than to give the reader an exciting tale.

Not only that, but if Ainsworth’s prose is turgid, his research immediately struck me as impressive. I know how exacting and time consuming research can be, even with the internet to hand. Ainsworth knew all about the topography of  London, the sort of buildings extant in 1703 in  The Mint, the ‘rookery’ where Jack Sheppard was born, and the architecture of the first London Bridge. He could depict the dress and manners of all classes of society in that era, and also, bring to life the famous (or infamous) characters who featured in Jack Sheppard’s tragic history; for instance, the dreaded informer and thief catcher Jonathon Wilde, and the ruffianly Bueskin.

This industrious research is not a quality one associates these days with a poor to mediocre author, and it is intriguing that while Harrison Ainsworth acquired a name as a purveyor of sensationalist tales that tickled popular taste in the Victorian era, Dickens – whose writing also has very strong senstationalist themes – is seen as the writer of a grander form of literature, the ‘social protest novel’.

Well, I promise I won’t rant here about the lurid popular view of the French Revolution, all rolling heads and snapping guillotines, that began with Dickens.

Certainly,  it is true that Dickens was the writer of the Victorian age who set to work to expose social injustice, who attacked hypocrisy and who had a wonderful sense of the ludicrous.

Still, Dicken’s writing also comes with a great supply of  faults – for instance, the infamous sentimentality and male and female leads so dull I wonder that he could bear to  write about them at all.

And I have to say that if you compare Ainsworth’s style with that of various other generally far more respected writers – and the earlier Samuel Richardson and Fanny Burney immediately comes to mind – this novel at least comes out as a good deal less lurid and improbable.

Of course, the tragically short life of the anti-hero  of the story, the eponymous Jack Sheppard, in itself reads like something made up by a writer of ‘Penny Dreadfuls’.  A renegade London apprentice carpenter turned thief, he soon became famous – or infamous, depending on the point of view – for his escapes from prison.

His career was short but brief, for he made an enemy of the hated thief taker and informer Jonathan Wild, who schemed to destroy anyone who would not work for him.

At last chained to the stone flooring of his cell, the young man managed to escape again, but was captured when blind drunk.  In gaol in chains and a secure inner cell, he was painted by the king’s painter James Thornhill. The gaolers charged high society figures four shillings a time to view him. There were petitions for leniancy from various well known figures, but these were rejected.

Stealing a sum valued at above five shillings in those days meant a death sentence.  Jack Sheppard was offered a reduced sentence if he informed on his associates, but refused, and huge, admiring crowds turned out to follow the procession to Tyburn on 15 November 1724.

He had planned to cut himself down from the gallows with a penknife, but unluckily the guard found it.   Failing that, he had hoped to be revived following his official death by the gruesome process of hanging by a short drop, and perhaps that is why the crowd did not surge forward to give him a quick death by swinging on his legs, or perhaps the platform was too well guarded for this to be possible. His slow death is not mentioned in the novel, but is in other accounts, and makes a grim end to a likable villain. However, there seems to be some disagreement as to whether or not people who are being hanged are conscious after about twenty seconds, as they usually die of strangling (cutting off the blood to the brain) rather than oxygen strvation (cutting off blood to the lungs) although the body still makes spasmodic movements until brain death, so hopefully he did not suffer as much as the crowd imagined.

To our own age, to hang a man of of such obvious talents and wit at the age of 22 seems an absurd waste.

Harrison Ainsworth, writing 120  years after Jack Sheppard’s death, was hardly the first to recount the dramatic story of his life. Within weeks of his hanging a pantomime was performed about him, and he influenced the depiction of Macheath in  John Gay’s ‘The Beggars’ Opera’ and other dramas.

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I knew well enough that the eighteenth century was a brutal and violent age, but even so, the amount of beatings that this anti-hero endures in the course of one day at the grand old age of twelve is astounding. He is beaten for idling by the master carpenter to whom he is apprenticed, knocked down by the master’s stepson Thames for saying he wants a kiss from that master’s daughter, then slapped in the face by the girl herself (whom he is inclined to worship, as he does Thames himself), slapped much harder by the master’s wife, who resents his being in the house at all, and finally beaten by the constables in Wild’s pay. However, he is still apparently not too stiff to be able to break free from custody.

Such treatment would surely be enough to make a rebel out of anyone, even in an age when thrashings were the general form of chastisment, and in the story it is the slap in the face from his master’s wife which finally tips the balance and makes Jack decide on a life of crime.

Whether this depiction of so much corporal punishment in a day is a matter of sloppy editing on Ainsworth’s part, or was put in by him to indicate the harshness of life among the London poor, it certainly makes the latter point vividly.

Here are a couple of  typical samples of Ainsworth’s writing in ‘Jack Sheppard’, showing both his excellent background information and his lively style.

Here is Jack making his first prison break:

‘As Jack concluded his ditty, the door flew open with a crash, and Thames sprang through the aperture. This manoeuvre was so suddenly executed that it took Abraham completely by surprise. He was standing at the moment close to the hatch, with his ear at the keyhole, and received a severe blow in the face. He staggered back a few paces; and, before he could recover himself, Thames tripped up his heels, and, placing the point of the spike at his throat, threatened to stab him if he attempted to stir, or cry out. Nor had Jack been idle all this time. Clearing the recess the instant after his companion, he flew to the door of the he flew to the door of the inner room, and, locking it, took out the key. The policy of this step was immediately apparent. Alarmed by the noise of the scuffle, Quilt and Sharples rushed to the assistance of their comrade. But they were too late. The entrance was barred against them; and they had the additional mortification of hearing Sheppard’s loud laughter at their discomfiture. “I told you the prison wasn’t built that could hold me,” cried Jack.’

And here is a depiction of his mother’s house:

‘The room in which this interview took place had a sordid and miserable look. Rotten, and covered with a thick coat of dirt, the boards of the floor presented a very insecure footing; the bare walls were scored all over with grotesque designs, the chief of which represented the punishment of Nebuchadnezzar. The rest were hieroglyphic characters, executed in red chalk and charcoal. The ceiling had, in many places, given way; the laths had been removed; and, where any plaster remained, it was either mapped and blistered with damps, or festooned withdusty cobwebs. Over an old crazy bedstead was thrown a squalid, patchwork counterpane…’

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Whatever the criticisms that the critics may have levelled at Ainsworth, he tells an engaging story, and I am puzzled that this book has disappeared so completely from view. In that, of course, it shares the fate of another robber novel,  Christian Auguste Vulpius’ ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini’ (1798).

 

Formulaic Writing: Romantic Melodrama and Charles Garvice, ‘The Great Bad Novelist’.

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I have written before on this blog about the terrible allure of bad writing, both good bad writing, that is, writing that is so bad it’s good – like ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini: Captain of Bandetti’  and frankly terrible writing.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reading another late Victorian best seller by that writer of melodramatic romances, Charles Garvice. The very title reveals how bad the subject matter is going to be:  ‘Leslie’s Loyalty:  Or His Love So True’.

Dreadful stuff; and horribly compelling.

I would like to add that this isn’t the only reading material I have been getting through in these last couple of weeks. I have also reading a science fiction novel by an indie author which is fascinating, but heavy going, intellectually.  In fact, to appreciate it, I find that I can only read about five per cent at a time. I am also getting to the end of E P Thompson’s  wonderfully insightful masterpiece on the suppressed history of working class radical organisation in the UK from the 1790’s on ‘The Making of the English Working Class’.

But to ask what might seem a glaringly obvious question: why is it so easy to read escapist nonsense– whereas challenging novels are not by definition an easy read?  Of course, it is partly that the latter may be introducing unfamiliar concepts, or a whole new way of looking at the world, which can be stimulating but tiring to read about. But it goes beyond that, and  beyond the fairly simple sentence structure and vocabulary that usually go with light reading –though these are important.

I suppose it is also that in formulaic, escapist writing no demands are made on the imagination either – because the reader knows with these stories where things are going. We know that there is going to be a happy ending, however improbable it may be. The hero may have fallen off a cliff  (this does in fact happen to the hero in one of his within the first two chapters) or been seemingly shot dead in front of the heroine’s eyes, but all will be well.

In her article on Charles Garvice, Laura Sewell Matter puts the lure of Garvice’s novels succinctly: ‘I had found something amazingly, almost unbelievably, bad…This was melodrama..The outcome was never in doubt… The characters were caricatures…the plot…was ludicrously improbable. I wanted confirmation that I had correctly inferred what would happen…I wanted both the expected outcome and surprise.’

She, of course, came across Garvice’s writing in a singular way, thorough picking up some water drenched pages on a beach in Iceland. It became to her a challenge to discover from what book of yesteryear this incredibly bad piece of writing came (she eventually was able to track it to the Iclandic translation of ‘The Verdict of the Heart’).

She sums up there the appeal of all formulaic writers who make a huge success of writing recognisably the same story over and again. The appeal of this sort of writer is that the reader knows where s/he is.

Garvice’s stories are always about young, wild, aristocratic young men. The extent of this wildness varies between novels and according to the requirements of the plot. The hero of ‘Only One Love Or Who Was the Heir’ is still welcome in society despite his brawling and gambling proclivities, but the male lead of ‘The Outcast of the Family’ , through drinking before breakfast, fighting in music halls and dressing as a costermonger has made himself an outcast from society as well as the family in question (I borrowed these and other qualities for my anti-hero in ‘The Villainous Viscount  Or the Curse of the Venns’).

Often these young men have gambled away a fortune. They have usually have, or recently had, ‘a disreputable connection’ with one or more dancers or music hall singers, but they are immediately ashamed of these the minute they find true love with the innocent flower of a heroine and break things off.

Quite often another women  is in love with the handsome hero, but he cannot return her passion, although she is a desired by all other men and has a fortune.

Very often a Conniving Cousin is introduced into the mix. He also falls in love with the heroine and/or covets the hero’s title or his being heir to a title, or has some other motive for conspiring against the hero getting together with heroine. Sometimes, he conspires with the scorned ex-mistress, though not inevitably. Sometimes, he conspires with both she and the love stricken society belle.

The hero is framed for various wrongdoings ranging from faithlessness to seduction of innocents to bigamy and fraud and occasionally murder, and the heroine is broken hearted. However, after a few months or weeks, a series of co-incidences result in the villains and villainesses being unmasked (sometimes they have committed suicide or been killed off even before that). Then  all ends happily, with the hero and heroine brought together.

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Interestingly, when I began to read ‘Leslie’s Loyalty: Or His Love So True’ it didn’t seem to compare in badness to ‘The Outcast of the Family’ , ‘The Marquis, ‘A Life’s Mistake’ or other favourites of mine.  The writing style was mediocre rather than appalling. There were even an astute couple of remarks, and there were also some flashes of the humour ususally singularly lacking in Garvice’s books, in the description of the dreadful art work done by the heroine’s father, who considers himself a neglected genius (as I also wrote about a similarly deluded individual in ‘Alex Sager’s Demon’ I appreciated this).

I need not have worried; this was a glitch. Very soon the purple prose, the stereotypical behaviour and the hectoring authorial style reasserted themselves; wildly improbable co-incidences were happening; faces became taut with passion; plots were hatched between baddies, and it all turned into a typical Charles Garvice novel.

Laura Sewell Matter comments: ‘It is hard to imagine how a writer could be so prolific and widely read less than a hundred years ago, and totally forgotten today…The critics who found his work so risible that they would rather rend the pages from the spine and toss them into the drink have had their way in the end.’

I do find that one Charles Garvice style novel every few months is enough for me.

Even if I had the good fortune to be apolitical, and therefore could read such works without thinking about the ‘reactionary function’ which they must have played with regard to social class and women’s role, they are anyway rather like ready meals; it might be possible to get by on them, but it must be highly unsatisfactory. There is something intolerably bland about them; there’s nothing to get your teeth into.

So, it’s back to that science fiction novel for me…

But I will leave the last words to Laura Sewell Matter:

‘The formula that Garvice so successfully exploited – virtuous heroine overcoming numerous obstacles to attain happiness – is a predictable one, which any author might employ. His readers are now dead, and their Garvices – if they exist at all – moulder in the attics of the Western world where books like them, by authors who have learnt the same lessons and applied the same patterns to their fiction, are being read on the beach today.’

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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.

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now Mary resolves to save him from the gallows…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Those Necessary Sympathetic, Rounded Characters: A Classic Novel Without Them

220px-Milky_Way_Night_Sky_Black_Rock_Desert_NevadaIn my last two posts, I discussed the dismal topic of getting really scathing reviews, and how a novice writer friend of mine had her confidence knocked through being on the receiving end of a particularly savage one.

On that, I’d like to add that perhaps that  is better than the lukewarm reaction over my latest I got from an associate the other day: – ‘I’ve been reading your book.  It’s all right; but nothing like as good as the first. Maybe I’m just tired of Gothic. I’m glad you’re doing something different with your next.’

I see.  Thanks for that.

Now, in a way, isn’t that indifference almost worse than having someone write a rant instead of a review of your book?

Anyway, I was wtiting about whether or not it is necessary to have sympathetic characters in order to like or become fascinated by a book, and how far this depends upon genre.

Then – wait for it, regular readers – I mentioned how in fact, I didn’t really care for any of the characters in Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’.

I might as well add at once, that I found it hard to sympathize with the active whaling community depicted in the book. I tried, by doing that act of  historical distancing which allowed me to see that while they were decimating the whale population, they couldn’t see it, or that it was wrong. For all that, the descriptions of the battles which the Specksioneer (Chief Harpooner) Charley Kinraid and the heroine’s ex-whaler father have with the whales may have impressed Victorians as heroic, but struck me as downright barbaric and pitiful.

I have written before of how unsympathetic I find the two flawed heroes, the lovers (in the old fashioned sense) of the heroine Sylvia Robson: Charley Kinraid and Philip Hepburn.

The romantic interest, Charley Kinraid, ‘the boldest Specksioneer on the Greenland Seas’, is dark and handsome, hearty, fearless, a brilliant raconteur, able to drink endlessly without showing it, the life and soul of the party, irresistible to women and admired by men. In short, he is an early example of the  ‘Black Hole Marty Stu’ described by a blogger:

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MartyStu

‘His gravity is so great, he draws all the attention and causes other characters (and, often, reality itself) to bend and contort in order to accommodate him and elevate him above all other characters. Characters don’t act naturally around him – guys wish to emulate him and all the girls flock to him regardless of circumstances. They serve as plot enablers for him to display his powers or abilities… He dominates every scene he is in, with most scenes without him serving only to give the characters a chance to “talk freely” about him…’

220px-BH_LMC

This, basically, is why Charley Kinraid, though overwhelming, isn’t convincing. As Graham Handley observes, he ‘comes but fitfully to life’.  He is a walking macho stereotype. Such a man would never suffer form sea sickness, or fall flat on his face.

Philip Hepburn has the misfortune to be the polar opposite of a Black Hole Marty Stu. He is the indoors type with a sallow complexion, quiet, humourless,  and influenced by his grim quasi stepmother Alice Rose into the belief that any form of fun is sinful. Nobody admires him but Alice’s daughter. As an early critic observed, his whole personality seems to revolve around his obsession with Sylvia.

This might be interesting, for a short infatuation; but his drags on during years of indifference from Sylvia, who makes it painfully obvious that she worships his rival. This makes him a dismal character to read about.

Generally, then, to me, both flawed heroes seem curiously one dimensional and incomplete, as if they need to merge into each other to form one three dimensional character. As if in some bizarre way they are aware of this, they seem to be more interested in their rivalry towards each other than they do in the heroine Sylvia Robson.

At first I sympathised with Sylvia in her longing to have adventures at sea herself. However, as this is impossible for a respectable Victorian girl, she can only realise this wish by transforming it into a longing to have the man who personifies those adventures.

Unfortunately, then Sylvia Robson suffers the fate of any female character who falls for a Black Hole Marty Stu – she remains trapped forever in his event horizon, seemingly frozen in time and seemingly static, though she has in fact, vanished. In other words, she ceases to have an independent existence of her own.

Part of this dissolution of her personality is bound up in her tragic fate. She believes that Charley Kinraid is dead, but in fact, he has been taken by the press gang, and though Philip Hepburn knows, he keeps quiet about it so that he can marry her himself. Naturally, Kinraid returns, imagining that they are still troth plighted.  Sylvia swears never to forgive Hepburn. In the end, after Kinraid has humiliated her through an astonishingly speedy marriage to an heiress, and Hepburn has heroically saved both Kinraid and her daughter, she does.

Most of the time for the second two volumes, the once high spirited and rosy Sylvia is depicted as pale and suffering, mourning Kinraid’s loss almost obsessively. As the critic T J Winnifrith remarks, ‘Kinraid is finally shown to be a shallow character; but the depiction of him is always so superficial that this makes it difficult to understand the depths of Sylvia Robson’s love for him.’

The melodramatic tone and improbable co-incidences in the last part of this novel are notorious.  However, I thought that the problems started far earlier, in the strange interdependence of the characters. Just as Hepburn seems to have no passion in life except in being Sylvia’s lover, so Sylvia very soon comes to have none except in worshipping and then mourning the loss of, Charley Kinraid. This fate – far more usual in a female than in a male lead – finally makes them both dismal.

Of course, one of the things that Elizabeth Gaskell was attempting to explore in this novel was how wrong (in her eyes, blasphemous) it is to ‘make an idol’ out of any other human being. She was also, as her daughter had recently gone through the disillusioning experience of having to break off  an engagement to a charming man with a questionable past – one Captain Charles Hill –  exploring the painful consequences of ‘ill advised’ love.

In fact, when I came to sum up the novel in a sentence, here is what I came up with: –

‘Philip Hepburn worships Sylvia Robson, and finds dishonour; Sylvia Robson worships Charley Kinraid, and finds disillusionment; Charley Kinraid worships himself, and  finds a wife who agrees with him and a career in the Royal Navy.’

But, as I said, for all the unsatisfactory nature of the characters – for all that  they aren’t markedly sympathetic, I have been intrigued by this novel since I first read it in 2002.

True, I found Sylvia’s extended mourning of Kinraid tedious; I found Hepburn’s destructive pursuit of Sylvia frankly distasteful, and I found Kinraid to be about as rounded a character as a cardboard cut out. Also, I am disgusted by whaling and how we decimated the whale population in the Greenland Seas. Yet, still it remains one of my favourite novels.

It can’t be ‘comfort reading’ as there is scarcely any worldly comfort to be found in it, but clearly, there are elements in the depictions – perhaps, the vivid descriptions of life in the late eighteenth century sea faring community of Whitby (called Monkshaven in the novel), which have made me unable to dismiss it.

…And the same is true for me of ‘Vanity Fair’.  There, again, I don’t exactly like any of the characters – though I do feel sorry for Amelia – and yet, that is a novel I have read three times. True, it contains some unsurpassed passages on the battles of Quartre-Bras and Waterloo – but that is in the middle;  much of the later part is taken up with the society career of the vain, unfeeling Becky.  I suppose this book is also remarkable, in having in Becky Sharp what falls only a little short of a Black Hole villainess (a Mary Sue she most certainly is not).

Therefore, perhaps when advice to novice writers on how to draw in readers includes the invariable: ‘To draw readers in, you must create sympathetic, fully rounded, convincing,  developing characters’ – then the exceptions from classic novels which continue to be read but which have signally failed to do that just might noted?

Finally, for anyone interested, here is my link for my article on ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ published a few years ago on the F Word website: here