This Week In My Classes: The Comforts of Cranford

We’ve started our discussions of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford in 19th-Century Fiction, and like last week’s reading, it has special resonance in these turbulent times, but not because it is a call to action: more because it provides a refuge. This is not to say that it’s “escapist” in the pejorative way that term is often applied, or that it is all (metaphorically) rainbows and lollipops. Actually, rereading the first few chapters I’ve been particularly struck this time by how melancholy they are, despite the wonderful touches of comedy. There are so many deaths — not nearly as many as in Valdez Is Coming, of course, but whereas in that novel most deaths leave little emotional mark, each of the losses in Cranford is deeply felt. There’s little drama (well, Captain Brown’s is pretty startling) but much tenderness. I love the delicacy with which we are brought to understand the depths of Miss Matty’s grief after Mr. Holbrook dies:

Miss Matty made a strong effort to conceal her feelings–a concealment she practised even with me, for she has never alluded to Mr. Holbrook again, although the book he gave her lies with her Bible on the little table by her bedside. She did not think I heard her when she asked the little milliner of Cranford to make her caps something like the Honourable Mrs. Jamieson’s, or that I noticed the reply–

“But she wears widows’ caps, ma’am?”

“Oh! I only meant something in that style; not widows’ of course, but rather like Mrs. Jamieson’s.”

This effort at concealment was the beginning of the tremulous motion of head and hands which I have seen ever since in Miss Matty.

One thing I want to talk about with my class is the structure of the novel, which seems especially loose and episodic coming right after the elaborate vastness and intricate patterning of Bleak House. Though there is a bit of a through-line, Cranford is really built around vignettes; it’s heard even to identify a central protagonist. This makes sense for a novel named after a town, and before long I think we realize that the town itself has a personality, and that’s what the novel is about. And what characterizes Cranford above all is the way it operates as a community. In it, people go to all sorts of trouble–mostly but not only on a very small scale–to help everybody else along. Here too there are comic elements, such as the amiable pretense not to know that the hostess “who now sat in state, pretending not to know what cakes were sent up,” had been busily baking them all morning: “she knew, and we knew, and she knew that we knew, and we knew that she knew that we knew,” as Mary Smith explains. It’s not just about keeping up appearances, though. “But, to be sure,” says Miss Jessie,

“what a town Cranford is for kindness! I don’t suppose any one has a better dinner than usual cooked, but the best part of all comes in a little covered basin for my sister. The poor people will leave their earliest vegetables at our door for her. They speak short and gruff, as if they were ashamed of it; but I am sure it often goes to my heart to see their thoughtfulness.”

When Miss Matty opens her tea shop, even her competitor “repeatedly sent customers to her, saying that the teas he kept were of a common kind, but that Miss Jenkyns had all the choice sorts”– and there are so many other examples of similar small acts of kindness, forgiveness, and generosity that even when it makes you cry, Cranford also makes you hopeful.

It definitely also makes you laugh, though, and I hope that my students can appreciate its humor, that it won’t seem too quiet and twee after the flamboyance of Dickens’s comedy. One of my favorite bits in this week’s chapters is the “great event” of Miss Jenkyns’s new carpet, and the great struggle to protect it from the unruly sun:

Oh the busy work Miss Matty and I had in chasing the sunbeams, as they fell in an afternoon right down on this carpet through the blindless windows! We spread newspapers over the places, and sat down to our book or our work; and, lo! in a quarter of an hour the sun had moved, and was blazing away on a fresh spot; and down again we went on our knees to alter the position of the newspapers. We were very busy, too, one whole morning, before Miss Jenkyns gave her party, in following her directions, and in cutting out and stitching together pieces of newspaper, so as to form little paths to every chair, set for the expected visitors, lest their shoes might dirty or defile the purity of the carpet. Do you make paper paths for every guest to walk upon in London?

Not in Halifax we don’t, no–but we do pull the living room drapes to protect floor and furniture from the afternoon sun, which may be why this amuses me so much. We’ve also had the furtive orange-eating, the difficult peas, and (particularly funny because Cranford was published in Household Words) the great Boz vs. Dr. Johnson dispute. What a nice place Cranford is to be for a while!

“If You Can Get It”: David Lodge, Nice Work

nicework

“Maybe the universities are inefficient, in some ways. Maybe we do waste a lot of time arguing on committees because nobody has absolute power. But that’s preferable to a system in which everybody is afraid of the person on the next rung of the ladder above them, where everybody is out for themselves, and fiddling their expenses or vandalizing the lavatories, because they know if it suited the company they could be made redundant tomorrow and nobody would give a damn. Give me the university, with all its faults, any day.”

“Well,” said Vic, “it’s nice work if you can get it.”

Thinking about Elizabeth Gaskell this past week reminded me of David Lodge’s 1988 re-telling of North and SouthNice Work, which I hadn’t reread in many years. Rereading it this time, it lived up to my recollection that it is (as you’d expect from Lodge) a smart and often very funny book. Like North and South, it is also very much a product of and a commentary on its times: it is a ‘condition of England’ novel about Thatcher’s England, and also a ‘condition of the academy’ novel — about the state of universities in general but more particularly about the state of English departments and literary theory in the 1980s.

Lodge’s protagonists are Vic Wilcox, the managing director of Pringle & Sons Casting and General Engineering, and Robyn Penrose, Lecturer in English Literature at Rummidge University, where she specializes (for maximum metafictional effect) in the industrial novel. Lodge has fun setting Robyn up as exemplary of the convictions and contradictions of her academic moment:

According to Robyn (or, more precisely, according to the writers who have influenced her thinking on these matters), there is no such thing as the ‘self’ on which capitalism and the classic novel are founded — that is to say, a finite, unique soul or essence that constitutes a person’s identity; there is only a subject position in an infinite web of discourses — the discourses of power, sex, family, science, religion, poetry, etc. And by the same token, there is no such thing as an author, that is to say, one who originates a work of fiction ab nihilo. Every text is a product of intertextuality, a tissue of allusions to and citations of other texts; and in the famous words of Jacques Derrida (famous to people like Roby, anyway), “il ny’a pas de hors-texte“, there is nothing outside the text. . . . But in practice this doesn’t seem to affect her behaviour very noticeably — she seems to have ordinary human feelings, ambitions, desires, to suffer anxieties, frustrations, fears, like anyone else in this imperfect world, and to have a natural inclination to try and make it a better place. I shall therefore take the liberty of treating her as a character, not utterly different in kind, though of course belonging to a very different social species, from Vic Wilcox.

nicework-1As that excerpt shows, Lodge enjoys the opportunity to have his post-structuralist cake and eat it too. And his novel overall is built around the difference between theory and practice as embodied in the inconsistency between Robyn’s theoretical beliefs and her insistent engagement with the world as if it is made up of individuals acting out of their own agency — something Vic Wilcox eventually points out to her: “If you don’t believe in lofve, why do you take such care over your students? . . . You care about them because they’re individuals.”

Lodge’s device for bringing Vic and Robyn together from their different worlds is the “Industry Year Shadow Scheme,” a plan cooked up by administrators hoping to cultivate better understanding between the university and local business. At first, it goes about as well as you’d expect: Robyn is horrified at conditions at Pringle’s, from the pin-up girls on the walls to the physical demands and numbing repetitiveness of the working conditions in the foundry, while to Vic Robyn’s work has neither meaning nor value, a discovery that disturbs her own complacent belief that it’s the most important work there is. “You know,” she muses to her sort-of boyfriend,

“there are millions of people out there who haven’t the slightest interest in what we do. . . . even if one tried to explain it to them they wouldn’t understand, and even if they understood what we were doing they wouldn’t understand why we were doing it, or why anybody should pay us to do it.”

“So much the worse for them,” said Charles.

“But doesn’t it bother you at all?” Robyn said. “That the things we care so passionately about — for instance, whether Derrida’s critique of metaphysics lets idealism in by the back door, or whether Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory is phallogocentric, or whether Foucault’s theory of the episteme is reconcilable with dialectical materialism — things like that, which we argue about and read about and write about endlessly — doesn’t it worry you that ninety-nine point nine per cent of the population couldn’t give a monkey’s?”

(Derrida, Foucault, Lacan — did I mention Nice Work is from the late 80s? That little speech gives me unpleasant flashbacks to my graduate course work, reminding me both why I found it so excruciating and why I enjoyed this novel so much when I first read it, probably around 1991.) True to its own intertextual influences, Nice Work follows them both through a process of mutual re-education: Robyn gains some appreciation for the challenges of business — which often reveal her own self-righteous criticism to be shallow or unrealistic — while Vic picks up both some habits of social critique and some appreciation for Victorian literature.

nicework3It’s an entertaining story, and like Gaskell Lodge does a good job exposing both the pride and the prejudices of his main characters without condemning them: both have simply taken their own insular worlds for granted, and both benefit from having someone challenge their starting premises as well as their daily practices. Unlike Austen or Gaskell, however, Lodge does not carry them (or us) forward to a happy resolution of the conflicts that initially divide them: the allusive thread he lets go of is the romance plot (Vic and Robyn do have sex, but that, as Robyn vehemently insists, is not at all the same thing as love). I think this is not just consistent with the cynical tone of Nice Work (which, like all of Lodge’s academic novels, is primarily satirical) but also a sign of a broader rejection of the hope that personal transformation makes much difference in a world riven by systemic injustices. That’s one way, then, in which Nice Work moves on, or away, from North and South. More generally — and this is only partly a function of the novel’s genre, I’d say — Lodge has little of Gaskell’s compassion for his characters, which means his fiction also does not radiate any warmth outwards towards his readers. His is too modern a sensibility for that, which you might think means Nice Work has more to say to us than North and South. For me, though, the effect is the opposite: Lodge’s lack of faith in any transcendent values or virtues made Nice Work actually seem more dated to me than North and South ever does. To put it another way, North and South can be updated precisely because there’s something lasting about its central commitments (to learning, to changing, to caring), whereas Nice Work itself, while clever and amusing, is a literary dead end.

This Week In My Classes: Mercy and Tenderness in “Lizzie Leigh”

gif-eg-lizzieOur reading for today in The Victorian ‘Woman Question’ was Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1850 short story “Lizzie Leigh.” We’re reading it at the end of a cluster of other works that deal with ‘fallen women,’ including Aurora Leigh, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Jenny,” Augusta Webster’s “A Castaway,” and Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” (which, we agreed, is certainly about women and sexual temptation in some way, even though it is as frustrating as it is fun to try to figure out exactly which way).

“Lizzie Leigh” is certainly the most heavy-handed of these texts. Gaskell wants you to forgive poor Lizzie, who was “led astray” then dismissed by her hard-hearted employer “as soon as he had heard of her condition — and she not seventeen!” as her grieving mother Anne laments. Driven to the streets (“whatten kind o’ work would be open to her … and her baby to keep?”), Lizzie has abandoned her child, dropping her into the arms of kind, virtuous young Susan, who raises her with all the loving tenderness her mother could wish for. Despite her own desperate straits, Lizzie still provides what she can for her daughter: “Every now and then,” Susan tells Anne, “a little packet is thrust in under our door . . . I’ve often thought the poor mother feels near to God when she brings this money.” The story is built around Anne’s search for her lost daughter, but her courage and love is not enough to save Lizzie from one final tragedy.

marybartonGaskell’s most obvious literary device in the story is pathos. Oscar Wilde not withstanding, the Victorians knew the potential social and political power of a tearjerker, and Gaskell had already used heartfelt emotion and personal tragedy to effect reconciliation across the classes in her first novel, Mary Barton:

He was my sunshine, and now it is night! Oh, my God! comfort me, comfort me!” cried the old man aloud.

The eyes of John Barton grew dim with tears.

Rich and poor, masters and men, were then brothers in the deep suffering of the heart; for was not this the very anguish he had felt for little Tom, in years so long gone by, that they seemed like another life!

The mourner before him was no longer the employer; a being of another race, eternally placed in antagonistic attitude; going through the world glittering like gold, with a stony heart within, which knew no sorrow but through the accidents of Trade; no longer the enemy, the oppressor, but a very poor and desolate old man.

I understand why a jaded modern reader (never mind a superior Modernist one) might snicker at a moment like this — and there’s no doubt, either, that Gaskell’s analysis of class conflict, not to mention her solution to it, could be accused of a certain naivete. There’s still something very humanly touching, though, about this picture of two old men brought low by loss and then brought together by hard-won mutual recognition and sympathy. There are moments in “Lizzie Leigh” that work this way too, particularly when Lizzie is once more in her mother’s arms, finding long-denied comfort:

“Oh woe! Oh woe!” She shook with exceeding sorrow.

In her earnestness of speech she had uncovered her face, and tried to read Mrs Leigh’s thoughts through her looks. And when she saw those aged eyes brimming full of tears, and marked the quivering lips, she threw her arms round the faithful mother’s neck, and wept there as she had done in many a childish sorrow; but with a deeper, a more wretched grief.

Her mother hushed her on her breast; and lulled her as if she were a baby; and she grew still and quiet.

Their embrace reminds me of the reflections on mortality in Chapter 42 of Middlemarch:

When the commonplace ‘We must die’ transforms itself suddenly into the acute consciousness ‘I must die–and soon,’ then death grapples us, and his fingers are cruel; afterwards, he may come to fold us in his arms as our mother did, and our last moment of dim earthly discerning may be like the first.

Lizzie does not die (one way in which Gaskell breaks with the literary rules for fallen women), but she has been “as one dead” to her family, and now her mother’s tenderness restores her to life once again.

gaskellGaskell was a minister’s wife and “Lizzie Leigh” casts its story of forgiveness in explicitly Christian terms. Susan “is not one to judge and scorn the sinner,” Anne insists to her son Will, for instance (soothing his horror that she has shared Lizzie’s story with one he sees as “downright holy”); “She’s too deep read in her New Testament for that.” What I think is so powerful about the story is the way Gaskell pits Anne’s (and Susan’s) definition of Christian virtue against the “hard, stern, and inflexible” judgments, first of Anne’s husband James (who had forbidden her to seek out “her poor, sinning child”) and then of Will, who has inherited his father’s patriarchal role and with it his rigid righteousness. Anne grows into her own authority as the story progresses, eventually confronting Will directly:

“I’m not afeard of you now, and I must speak, and you must listen. I am your mother, and I dare to command you, because I know I am in the right, and that God is on my side. . . .

She stood, no longer, as the meek, imploring, gentle mother, but firm and dignified, as if the interpreter of God’s will.

Susan, in turn, criticizes Will for saying that Lizzie “deserved” her sufferings, “every jot”:

Will Leigh! I have thought so well of you; don’t go and make me think you cruel and hard. Goodness is not goodness unless there is mercy and tenderness with it.

Between them, Anne and Susan (and, eventually, Lizzie) create a community of women united in their service to others, whose definition of virtue does not depend on righteous indignation or stern judgment but on the practice of that “mercy and tenderness.” Their power arises, as Gaskell tells it, not so much in defiance of masculine authority (not at first, anyway) but through the gradual assertion of their female authority — through their maternal roles and the moral authority this brings — as well as through their independent claim to interpret God’s laws.

wivesanddaughtersoxfordThere are definitely things about “Lizzie Leigh” that are hard to take, including the fate of “the little, unconscious sacrifice, whose early calling-home had reclaimed her poor, wandering mother” as well as the extreme seclusion that is Lizzie’s fate after her reclamation. She’s not (like Hetty, or Little Emily) sent entirely out of her world, but Gaskell can’t quite imagine a place for her fully in it either. What I love about “Lizzie Leigh,” though, is the same thing I love about Mary BartonNorth and South, and Wives and Daughters: there’s just something so humane about Gaskell’s vision of the good. She wants us all to be kinder to each other, to understand each other better, to define virtue as something we have to practice, not just a quality we can passively exhibit. For her, these are religious imperatives, but they needn’t be; George Eliot’s Silas Marner urges us to much the same conclusions, as does Middlemarch. I think for both writers, it matters much less why you make sympathy a guiding principle than that you do it: ultimately, for both of them, it’s small human acts of grace that give us all a chance at redemption.

Clear Conscience, Brave Heart, Can’t Lose! Elizabeth Gaskell, Wives and Daughters

Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Invalid_-_Louis_Lang_-_overallA good friend of mine has been making a long, difficult recovery from not one but two concussions. You hear about these injuries all the time — or you do, at least, in a country as hockey-obsessed as Canada — but (perhaps because hockey players are rashly determined to get back on the ice a.s.a.p.?) I had never fully understood how debilitating, not to mention depressing, they can be. So I have learned a lot from my poor friend’s experience, though mostly from a distance, because one of the keys to her rehabilitation has been near-total isolation.

She recently published a superb little essay that describes her suffering in terms sure to resonate with those of us who live a lot in our heads. “My brain is not my home anymore,” she explains;

When you feel angry or sad, you might retreat to a space you know well and take for granted – a space comfortably furnished, where things are in their places. It’s as though my home has been vandalized, the furniture thrown around and the walls defaced. An alarm system rings and rings and cannot be shut off. But I have nowhere else to go. There is no shelter from this, no comfort.

She was put on the kind of “rest cure” most of us have only read about in “The Yellow Wallpaper” (which, ironically, she had not read until she was confined to her room and climbing the walls herself): she was “ordered to retreat to a cone of silence and darkness – no music, no talk, no light, no reading, no computer.” No reading! The horror. But eventually she was at least allowed to listen to books, and she credits Victorian fiction in particular with saving her: in it she “found a world not unlike my own – inhabited by invalids in dark sick rooms.”

She’s moving gradually back into the outside world and so I had the pleasure of running into her recently at work, where I complimented her on her returning health and on her essay. But, I had to ask, which Victorian novels had she been reading that were so full of invalids? I could think of plenty of characters who get ill, but I somehow couldn’t recall a novel that kept us for long in the kind of sickbed environment she described. “Well, Wives and Daughters, for one,” she replied — and that made me realize how long it had been since I’d read Gaskell’s final work. It seemed about time, plus these grim winter days I too could use some “lessons of endurance, patience in suffering and of the deep consolation of human companionship.” So I loaded it up on my trusty Sony Reader from Project Gutenberg (how can it be that I don’t own a hard copy?) and settled in — and it proved just what I needed to read this week.

wivesanddaughtersoxford If I were a publicist, I’d probably pitch Wives and Daughters as “Jane Austen meets Anthony Trollope, with a dash of George Eliot”: it has Austen’s minute attention to social behavior, and something of her stinging satirical wit, too, but it’s paced like a Trollope novel and dwells with Eliot-like interest on moral quandaries and their repercussions. Yet to package Gaskell as a composite of other writers is to do her an injustice by implying that there isn’t a voice or quality that’s distinctly her own. What is it exactly, though? Here’s what the editor of the Cornhill Magazine had to say in the “Concluding Remarks” added in lieu of a conclusion to the novel, which was unfinished at Gaskell’s death in 1865:

While you read any one of the last three books we have named [Sylvia’s LoversCousin Phyllis, and Wives and Daughters], you feel yourself caught out of an abominable wicked world, crawling with selfishness and reeking with base passions, into one where there is much weakness, many mistakes, sufferings long and bitter, but where it is possible for people to live calm and wholesome lives; and, what is more, you feel that this is at least as real a world as the other. The kindly spirit which thinks no ill looks out of her pages irradiate; and while we read them, we breathe the purer intelligence which prefers to deal with emotions and passions which have a living root in minds within the pale of salvation, and not with those which rot without it.

I barely remember Sylvia’s Lovers and have never read Cousin Phyllis, but this is certainly a good description of the world and the tone of Wives and Daughters. The novel is hardly full of exemplary people: there’s a great deal of pettiness, jealousy, spite, even coercion. But they are concentrated primarily in a few people less pleasant than the rest, and while the other characters have plenty of flaws and make plenty of mistakes, they are, by and large, trying to do their best to live honest, kind, “wholesome” lives, even when circumstances (personal or even historical) conspire against them.

There’s a wonderful fairy-tale quality to the novel’s opening line:

To begin with the old rigmarole of childhood. In a country there was a shire, and in that shire there was a town, and in that town there was a house, and in that house there was a room, and in that room there was a bed, and in that bed there lay a little girl . . .

The rest of the novel follows this little girl, Molly Gibson, to adulthood. Molly is an extremely likable heroine. She’s honest, intelligent, sincere, loyal, and conscientious. She speaks her mind, but she couldn’t be less like sassy Elizabeth Bennet; she stands up for herself, but there’s no trace of Jane Eyre in her. In other words, she’s not in any way a rebel: rather than fighting against injustices or making demands for herself, she stands by or fights for the people she loves. She’s a strong feminine character, you could say (rather than the trendy “strong female character) which means she is a close cousin (unsurprisingly) to Margaret Hale in North and South, who also seeks to maximize the strengths she has as a woman — though Margaret presses harder than Molly against the ways her sex limits her actions.

Molly’s path is occasionally thorny, especially after her widowed father (with the best intentions) marries again. She doesn’t exactly get an evil step-mother, but the second Mrs. Gibson is passive-aggressive in ways that are mostly comical but also sometimes borderline sociopathic. Gaskell is particularly snarky about her self-serving pretensions about her relationship with the aristocratic family where she was once the governess: after one visit from Lady Harriet, “all the rest of that day her conversation had an aristocratic perfume hanging about it.” Mr. Gibson’s remarriage also brings his daughter a step-sister, Cynthia, whose vivacity and lightness of character make her a perfect foil to earnest Molly.

Wives and Daughters is another in the great catalog of what I think of, following Anita Brookner, as “tortoise literature”. “In my books,” Brookner notes,

 it is the mouse-like unassuming girl who gets the hero. . . . The tortoise wins every time. This is a lie, of course. . . . In real life, of course, it is the hare who wins. . . . Aesop was writing for the tortoise market. Axiomatically, . . . hares have no time to read. They are too busy winning the game. The propaganda goes all the other way, but only because it is the tortoise who is in need of consolation.

Cynthia is every bit the hare, but Wives and Daughters is Molly’s book from start to finish. Because reticence is one of her virtues, at times it is as painful as Persuasion as she keeps her own feelings to herself while becoming the faithful confidante of pretty much everyone else. Early on, in fact, she is troubled by the moral pressure she feels to suppress herself:

Thinking more of others’ happiness than of her own was very fine; but did it not mean giving up her very individuality, quenching all the warm love, the true desires, that made her herself? Yet in this deadness lay her only comfort; or so it seemed.

This quandary puts her in good literary company, but it’s more likely in Gaskell’s world than in Eliot’s that patient altruism will be rewarded eventually, so the overall atmosphere is less fraught. Still, Molly needs plenty of stoicism. She faces loss and even scandal:

Every one was civil to her, but no one was cordial; there was a very perceptible film of difference in their behaviour to her from what it was formerly; nothing that had outlines and could be defined. But Molly, for all her clear conscience and her brave heart, felt acutely that she was only tolerated, not welcomed. She caught the buzzing whispers of the two Miss Oakes’s, who, when they first met the heroine of the prevailing scandal, looked at her askance . . .

There’s not much suspense in following Molly’s progress towards the inevitable happy ending, but there’s a great deal of satisfaction in watching her make her steadfast way along and knowing that she will finally earn the recognition and love she deserves.

Wives and Daughters seems to me a very accomplished novel. The various family and romantic entanglements of the plot are deftly handled, and there’s plenty of humor and pathos in them. There’s also plenty of interest in the novel’s historical setting, and in the way the characters embody different forces of social change or stasis — the Hamley brothers, for instance, with one a languidly ailing aristocrat and the other a rugged scientist who earns, rather than inherits, his place in the world. Though in this way it is at least implicitly political, Wives and Daughters is a much subtler book than North and South, one that takes more time just to enjoy the scenery:

It was one of those still and lovely autumn days when the red and yellow leaves are hanging-pegs to dewy, brilliant gossamer-webs; when the hedges are full of trailing brambles, loaded with ripe blackberries; when the air is full of the farewell whistles and pipes of birds, clear and short—not the long full-throated warbles of spring; when the whirr of the partridge’s wings is heard in the stubble-fields, as the sharp hoof-blows fall on the paved lanes; when here and there a leaf floats and flutters down to the ground, although there is not a single breath of wind.

Oh, and there are indeed lots of invalids in Wives and Daughters. From kind Mrs. Hamley to crusty Lady Cumnor — and even, on occasion, Molly herself — my friend had plenty of fellow sufferers. I’m so glad that she found at least this comfort during her darkest days — and I hope her recovery continues!

“This extraordinary colloquy”: Sylvia Townsend Warner, Summer Will Show

warnerI picked up Summer Will Show on my trip to Boston a couple of years ago. It caught my eye then because not long before we had run a good essay on Sylvia Townsend Warner in Open Letters. I’ve read most of the books from that trip but until now, not Summer Will Show. I think I put it off because I was expecting (its being historical fiction and all) something both dense and intense, like A Place of Greater Safety, say, or The Children’s Book (though obviously it’s much shorter — which should have been a clue). I was prompted to get to it at long last by notice that Anne Fernald was giving a talk about it at the New York Public Library.

I wanted to attend the talk even before I read Summer Will Show, because I know Anne to be someone well worth listening to (see, for instance, her essays and reviews for Open Letters). Now that I’ve read the novel, I wish even more that I could have been there, because the novel seemed so strange to me that I could tell I needed some tips, some guidance about how it works, how it makes sense on its own terms. I actually enjoy that feeling of interpretive disorientation provided the book causing it feels interestingly confusing, not just blundering or messy. Vera Brittain’s The Dark Tide, for example, or anything I’ve read by Margaret Kennedy, would fall into that first category — and I wonder if it’s not coincidental that Summer Will Show is roughly contemporary with these novels and shares with them the property of being (for want of any other literary-historical label) “not modernist.” Not that I’m any kind of expert on reading modernism, but as far as I know there isn’t a handy set of terms or frameworks for making sense of the more miscellaneous fiction from the early decades of the 20th century. I read a number of very interesting books on topics like The Feminine Middlebrow Novel for the Somerville seminar, but Warner isn’t someone who came up — though her absence from my notes doesn’t mean that she isn’t actually mentioned in those sources, just that I wasn’t interested in her in that context. So even there I got no particular help. It may be best read along with other political fiction from the time (Orwell, maybe?), but I don’t know much about that context. All I can really offer, then, are some provisional first impressions.

My strongest initial impression is that Summer Will Show (again like The Dark Tide) is not an especially good novel, but that it’s bad in interesting ways. Duly acknowledging that “but is it any good?” is a fraught question, I’ll point out as weaknesses that neither of the main characters seemed quite three-dimensional to me: both were the literary equivalents of vivid but jerky puppets going through the motions of a story designed to lead to encounters and crises that, in their turn, were designed to bring about a conclusion more intellectual and ideological than human and dramatic. The story itself is at once simple and unexpected: aristocratic Sophia Willoughby travels to Paris in 1848 after the death of her children determined to find her straying husband and get pregnant again to make up for her loss; she finds him, as she intends, but instead of staking her claim, she falls in love with his theatrical Jewish mistress, Minna Lemuel, and as a result of their relationship is drawn into revolutionary fervor and ends up literally fighting on the barricades.

Sophia is a supremely unappealing character — not just at the start (when her haughty prejudices are at their most dominant and unrepentant) but throughout. What Minna ever sees in her was one of my major stumbling blocks, while what she sees in Minna was another: their relationship comes from nothing and is never explained or described in any way that really motivates it. There’s another of the problems I had with the novel: it is jumpy and episodic, skipping over transitions where exposition would have been welcome and then becoming fulsome in contexts where great detail seemed gratuitous and digressive.

And yet the section of the novel that I found most compelling could be seen as a digression: Minna is a storyteller by profession, and our (and Sophia’s) first introduction to her is her gripping account of surviving a pogrom in her childhood:

I was just coming across the yard from the outhouse, where I had gone to carry our goats their feed, when I heard footsteps, a man running and staggering along the frozen path. The running man was my father. He had torn off his mittens as though their weight would encumber him, I saw his red hands flapping against the dusky white of the snow. His mouth was open, he fetched his breath with groaning. He fell down on the icy track, and was up again, and came running on with his face bloodied. He did not see me where I stood motionless in the dusk of the yard, but ran past me and burst open the house door and staggered in. Before he had spoken I heard my mother cry out, a wild despairing cry that yet seemed to have a note of exultation in it, as though it were recognizing and embracing some terror long foreseen. I went in after him, very slowly and quietly, as though in this sweep of terror I must move as noiselessly as possible. He was leaning over the table, his hands clenching it, and trembling. He trembled, his back heaved up and down with his struggles for breath, with every gasp he groaned with the anguish of breathing. Mixed in with his groans were words. Always the same words. “They’re coming!” he said. “They’re coming!”

The breathless rhythm of the sentences, the vivid tactile details, the repetitions, all add to the combination of urgency and predictability that makes the story so chilling: this is a catastrophe that has been long expected, even as its coming is painfully, hopelessly sudden. “No need, at this last door, to cry that the Christians were coming,” Minna says of her own frantic attempts to notify their neighbors.

Summer Will Show earned my interest precisely because the writing is, generally, that good: I was captivated and impressed by Warner’s style even as the structure of the book frustrated me and the characterization disappointed. A book this well written can’t be simply careless, it isn’t inept: the awkwardness and the didacticism both felt purposeful. But what might that purpose be? According to the publicity notice, Anne’s talk focused on the novel as an exploration of “what might make a middle-aged person change her mind and her life–the very problem at the heart of politics. . . .what it might take to transform an imperious aristocratic wife into a communist.”  In that context, I can see that Minna’s storytelling is important, not just because it sets up her individual identity, but because it draws our attention to the importance of the stories we tell about our experiences and those of others: changing your mind means changing your story, perhaps accepting someone else’s or incorporating it to create a more complex, multi-faceted narrative. I thought Sophia’s conversion from conservative to radical was too abrupt, and too idiosyncratically motivated by her passion for Minna, to be much of a model, but maybe it’s not her initial move into Minna’s life that really counts so much as her transformation at the very end of the novel, when her own experience of violent confrontation and its bloody consequences prompts a much deeper change. Certainly her speech before the firing squad is utterly and convincingly unlike anything the Sophia of the first chapters could ever say — and the Sophia who reflects with such pride on her meeting with the Duke of Wellington as the novel begins hardly seems the same person who concludes the novel reading The Communist Manifesto.

But that’s where my dissatisfaction with the novel as a novel makes trouble for me again: the ending is a bit too pat. It felt as if the elements of the novel had been manipulated to ensure we ended up there, with the specter haunting Europe, rather than discovering the need for Marx as we read. Elizabeth Gaskell is a much more politically conservative thinker than Warner, but Mary Barton explains a lot more about socialism as a response to economic conditions than Summer Will Show — and no wonder, of course, since she was observing Manchester in the 1840s just as Engels was when he wrote The Condition of the Working Class in England.

This Week In My Classes: Cranford and The Road

roadThe honeymoon is over. At the beginning of every term things putter along easily enough while I wonder why I felt so stressed out at the end of the previous term … and then marking starts to come in, and the new assignment sequences dreamed up over the break loom on the horizon and require planning and handouts and Blackboard drop-boxes, and forms for the letters of reference I forgot I still needed to do appear in my inbox, and the thesis material I made my students promise to have ready duly shows up. And that’s about where I am now, staying on top of things but with effort. It doesn’t help that it’s winter (when has winter ever helped with anything?). It takes more energy to do everything in the winter, from driving away in the morning (bundling up, scraping, clearing) to just staying warm (even my LL Bean fleece slipper socks are just not enough this year, down in my basement office with the cold, cold floor).

So that’s how things are going, in a general way. It’s a good busy, mostly, especially the class prep for the novels that are new for me this term: I enjoy figuring out what I want to do with them and trying out my ideas in the classroom. I’m out of time for Cranford now: next time, I think I’ll allow more than four classes, because it feels like our work on it ended too abruptly. But then, I don’t typically have more than six classes on any but the longest novels! I’m going to miss its subtle good humor, which has been a good antidote to the relentless gloom of The Road in my intro class. One of my favorite bits on this read was the Great Pea-Eating Challenge:

When the ducks and green peas came, we looked at each other in dismay; we had only two-pronged, black-handled forks. It is true the steel was as bright as silver; but what were we to do? Miss Matty picked up her peas, one by one, on the point of the prongs, much as Amine ate her grains of rice after her previous feast with the Ghoul. Miss Pole sighed over her delicate young peas as she left them on one side of her plate untasted, for they would drop between the prongs. I looked at my host: the peas were going wholesale into his capacious mouth, shovelled up by his large round-ended knife. I saw, I imitated, I survived! My friends, in spite of my precedent, could not muster up courage enough to do an ungenteel thing; and, if Mr Holbrook had not been so heartily hungry, he would probably have seen that the good peas went away almost untouched.

I’ve always found peas quite inconvenient myself — and not particularly tasty, though I do occasionally serve them now that I’m All Grown Up (my parents could testify that this is a sign of maturity beyond what they would have predicted, given my childhood aversion to most green vegetables). Next up in this class is The Mill on the Floss. It’s not cheerful (well, the first part is pretty funny, but after that … ) but I’m really looking forward to it, especially after having worked up my essay on it for this month’s Open Letters.

In Intro to Lit, we had our first general class discussion of The Road today, and the students seemed quite engaged with it. We warmed up by talking about things like the title (I always start there with novels!) — why “the” road, why not any road in particular (especially considering they have a map), why just “the man” and “the boy,” what seems to have happened, what matters to them now, what is their relationship like, and so on. There’s lots more to talk about, but for Wednesday I want us to focus on the language of the novel for a while. I am aware that admiration of McCarthy’s style is not universal, and I’m not altogether convinced about some aspects of it myself, for all that I find the novel both gripping and moving. It’s a conspicuous style: there’s no illusion of transparency and there are a lot of what could be considered affectations, from the eccentric punctuation (argh! the apostrophes!) to the use of obscure words (obscure to me, anyway — words I had to look up for today’s installment included “rachitic,” “gryke,” and “kerfs”). Most sentences are very short, and indeed many are fragments, but some are longer and more elaborate, even florid. Because the novel is quite suspenseful, it’s easy to read along quickly and not fret the details (I didn’t look up any of these words on my first reading), but that’s obviously not good enough. I think we might try an exercise on “found poetry” in The Road. I think that this would focus our attention very closely on details of wording, including not just meaning but also sound, placement, and relationships to major themes. It would also probably prompt some useful discussion about what we think makes prose “poetic.” So! A handout for a group activity along these lines goes on the to-do list for tomorrow.

This Week In My Classes: The Importance of Being Earnest

The thing is, though Wilde means it ironically and makes it seem very funny, I think it is important to be earnest–not all the time, maybe, but in essence, and certainly about important things. And the move from Gaskell’s Mary Barton to Wilde’s play in my survey class this week really made me feel that preference on my reading pulses. We spent Monday on the conclusion of Mary Barton. It’s heavy-handed, sentimental, didactic, and politically compromised, but for all its faults, it’s a rousing rejoinder to Wilde’s quip that “there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book: books are well written or badly written, that is all.” That is not all.  Mary Barton really means what it says, and that sincerity makes it worth my time and argument–that, and its commitment to making people’s lives better by helping them understand each other better. It also finds beauty in acts of common human love and decency, and conveys the richness and variety of human lives even in the face of the most unrelenting circumstances. Wilde may have enjoyed the idea that you need a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing, but I am wholly susceptible to scenes such as this one:

Barton grew worse; he had fallen across the bed, and his breathing seemed almost stopped; in vain did Mary strive to raise him, her sorrow and exhaustion had rendered her too weak.

So, on hearing some one enter the house-place below, she cried out for Jem to come to her assistance.

A step, which was not Jem’s, came up the stairs.

Mr Carson stood in the door-way. In one instant he comprehended the case.

He raised up the powerless frame; and the departing soul looked out of the eyes with gratitude. He held the dying man propped in his arms. John Barton folded his hands, as if in prayer.

“Pray for us,” said Mary, sinking on her knees, and forgetting in that solemn hour all that had divided her father and Mr Carson.

No other words would suggest themselves than some of those he had read only a few hours before:

“God be merciful to us sinners. – Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us.”

And when the words were said, John Barton lay a corpse in Mr Carson’s arms.

So ended the tragedy of a poor man’s life. (from the Gaskell Web etext)

Gaskell really wants her writing to be a force for good in the world. That’s not every artist’s goal, and it is a risky one. But despite everything, I am moved by this tableau of the murderer dying in the arms of his victim’s father, both desperate to salvage their humanity from the wrecks of their lives. And in fact, maybe I am moved, not despite everything, but because of everything Gaskell has done to prepare us for this moment. As some parts of Mary Barton show, and as is still better demonstrated by her later novels, Gaskell is capable of much greater restraint, which is what we often take as a key element of ‘artistry,’ but at this moment she  throws that kind of aesthetic caution to the winds: it’s all about the pathos, the regret, the forgiveness. You’re in or you’re out, at this point in the novel. Me, I’m in.

With The Importance of Being Earnest, in contrast, I tend to side with Shaw, who reviewed it in the Saturday Review in 1895:

I cannot say that I greatly cared for The Importance of Being Earnest. It amused me, of course; but unless comedy touches me as well as amuses me, it leaves me with a sense of having wasted my evening. I go to the theatre to be moved to laughter, not to be tickled or bustled into it; and that is why, though I laugh as much as anybody at a farcical comedy, I am out of spirits before the end of the second act, and out of temper before the end of the third . . .

Still, despite resenting my amusement just a little, I did enjoy (and I think the class enjoyed), the clips from the brilliant film starring Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell, who delivers this famous line better than anybody: