“Everything came to that”: Finishing The Old Wives’ Tale

penguin-bennettWhat affected her was that he had once been young, and that he had grown old, and was now dead. That was all. Youth and vigour had come to that. Youth and vigour always came to that. Everything came to that.

The final volume of The Old Wives’ Tale is called “What Life Is.” Its final two chapters are called “The End of Sophia” and “The End of Constance.” In other words, what life is, is death.

If I say that this predictable – because inevitable – end, both to the novel and to Constance and Sophia, made sense of the rest of the novel for me, I might be overstating the case somewhat, but that’s definitely some of what I felt when I turned the last page. It’s not that nothing that happens to them along the way matters (to them, or thematically) but that the whole purpose of the novel (as clearly stated by Bennett himself in his Preface) is to get us through their lives, and especially through the transformation from youth to age. Recall:

there is an extreme pathos in the mere fact that every stout ageing woman was once a young girl with the unique charm of youth in her form and movements and in her mind. And the fact that the change from the young girl to the stout ageing woman is made up of an infinite number of infinitesimal changes, each unperceived by her, only intensifies the pathos.

This novel was never going to be about epiphanies, or even about growth: it is not a dual Bildungsroman. Despite the long but temporary divergence in their paths, Constance and Sophia don’t change much, or learn much, or even do much. I think this accounts for some of my confusion as I read the middle sections. Unlike most of the fictional heroines I’m familiar with (Anne Elliot, Maggie Tulliver, Margaret Hale, Jane Eyre, or Rhoda Nunn, for example) they weren’t even trying to do much. Even Tess Durbeyfield has a vision of her future, and when it’s demolished, she really struggles to reshape it anew. Constance and Sophia, in contrast, just keep on living. There are decisions, incidents, developments – but these have the scattershot quality of reality, rather than the direction and unity of fiction.

BennettThis is not a condemnation of The Old Wives’ Tale, though. One of the challenges for me all along has been figuring out what kind of book it is, so that I could figure out what I was reading it for, or, how to read it well. There are lots of specific aspects of it that I think would reward sustained analysis – especially the relationship between the sisters’ “tale” and the story the novel tells of the Five Towns. But for me anyway, what the final chapters really did was complete the pattern I hadn’t quite been able to make out. It is just the pattern of life, with its beginning, middle, and end. That’s at once not much (for a novel) and everything (for all of us). The result is at once weirdly dull and dissatisfying (is that really all?!) and immeasurably poignant (yes – yes, it is all).

The closest we get to an epiphany is Sophia’s meditation by the deathbed of Gerald Scales. I loved the way Bennett brought her and us to this moment of (mis)recognition. Sophia is so wonderfully shocked that he is old, which is both about the way he has, in her memory, been preserved in the past and about her own (our own?) difficulty understanding – or maybe it’s believing in – her own aging. How can it be, and what does it mean, that no matter what else happens, death is always going to be the end of our stories? This is “the riddle of life” Sophia confronts as she looks at Gerald’s corpse:

He and she had once loved and burned and quarrelled in the glittering and scornful pride of youth. But time had worn them out. “Yet a little while,” she thought, ” and I shall be lying on a bed like that! And what shall I have lived for? What is the meaning of it?” The riddle of life itself was killing her, and she seemed to drown in a sea of inexpressible sorrow.

There really isn’t anywhere else for her to go after this: her literal death felt like a bit of an afterthought, a more important event for Constance than for Sophia herself.

whistlerAnd then it’s Constance’s turn. There’s an extra level of pathos in her being left alone to play out her last act. Like all the death scenes in the novel, hers is blunt, unsentimental, clinical (“It was not rheumatism but a supervening pericarditis that in a few days killed her”). Again, there are lots of specifics we could discuss: of course Cyril wasn’t there, and his career as a “dilettante” is its own form of stasis – but he did do a good job on Sophia’s funeral! and those of you hailing Fossette as the greatest character are of course being hyperbolic (or maybe I think so because I’m not much for dogs) and yet it’s true that she is more charismatic, ultimately, than either of the sisters! But at this point in my thinking about the novel it’s big picture stuff that’s preoccupying me, and so the passage that resonated most with me as I reached the novel’s conclusion was this one:

Old people said to one another: “Have you heard that Mrs. Povey is dead? Eh, dear me! There’ll be no one left soon.” These old people were bad prophets. Her friends genuinely regretted her, and forgot the tediousness of her sciatica. They tried, in their sympathetic grief, to picture to themselves all that she had been through in her life. Possibly they imagined that they succeeded in this imaginative attempt. But they did not succeed. No one but Constance could realize all that Constance had been through, and all that life had meant to her.

First of all, “her friends genuinely regretted her” is not a bad epitaph: I think I’d be happy with it! But the other thing is that it’s not just Constance who knows what she went through and what her life meant to her. It’s also us: we were there. We know. That attention, that knowledge, this novel, is Bennett’s tribute to “the sort of woman who would pass unnoticed in a crowd.”

I admit I finished The Old Wives’ Tale unconvinced that it is a great novel, though it has some great moments. Is it particularly well written, for instance? (I know, I know: how to define or measure that quality? I think I know it when I encounter it, but that’s hardly a reliable test.) Does it go very deep? I’m really glad I read it, though. I know that I am going to keep thinking about it. v-woolf

What about you? How did the ending affect your ideas about what went before? Did you finish the novel with new (or renewed) appreciation for Bennett as a novelist? Do we want to have a go at Woolf’s complaint that he is a “materialist” – or do we want to leave her out of this?

“They wept, they dreamed”: Hallie Rubenhold, The Five

the-fiveThey are worth more to us than the empty human shells we have taken them for; they were children who cried for their mothers, they were young women who fell in love; they endured childbirth, the death of parents; they laughed, and they celebrated Christmas. They argued with their siblings, they wept, they dreamed, they hurt, they enjoyed small triumphs.

Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five admirably fulfill’s Rubenhold’s stated ambition for it: to restore “their dignity” to five women whose individual life stories have been subsumed by the horror of their deaths and the horrifyingly glamourous mythology of their murderer. These women, the “canonical five” victims of Jack the Ripper, have long been cast as bit players in his drama, in parts that, Rubenhold shows, reduce or misrepresent who they actually were.

I’m not going to reiterate the life stories Rubenhold has (somewhat astonishingly) managed to reconstruct in The Five, partly because it’s the sheer accumulation of detail that matters to the book’s effectiveness. At times I did wonder if we really need so much detail—Rubenhold risks bogging us down in minutiae, and I admit that sometimes I found myself starting to skim, looking to reconnect with a storyline, to regain some forward momentum. But even as I did that, I was aware that I was going against the grain of the book, which is by design anti-narrative.

What I mean by that (and of course this is just my theory about Rubenhold’s approach) is that we already know something crucial about each woman: we already know how their stories end. For too long that one thing has been considered enough to know about them, or at least the most important thing to know about them, and it has been used to make assumptions about what came before—and about who these women were. In order to undo that ending, to refuse it as the defining moment in their lives, Rubenhold has to repress it almost completely, even as each step of each of her five biographies takes its subject closer and closer to it. It’s a really interesting conceptual challenge.

the-case-of-the-murderous-dr-creamShe is also committed to undoing the sensationalism around her subjects’ lives and deaths: I think that’s another explanation for the way she writes the book. She avoids all the obvious kinds of narrative manipulation: she creates no suspense, she does not set a foreboding tone, use foreshadowing, or create melodramatic scenarios or dramatic climaxes. This is one way The Five differs from Dean Jobb’s The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream: although I did not find his treatment of this murderer’s victims exploitive, Jobb does enjoy dramatic irony and foreshadowing, and overall he  tells a more melodramatic and grisly tale. He also, obviously, focuses on the killer, whereas Rubenhold refuses to give Jack the Ripper any more attention than is absolutely necessary. (For instance, there is no speculation at all in The Five about who he was.)

This is not to say that The Five is a dull, plodding, or wearily studious book, though it is very much a work of social history. It gets its considerable energy from Rubenhold’s frankly feminist perspective on her subjects’ lives, deaths, and posthumous treatment. “The courses their lives took,” she says early on, “mirrored that of so many other women of the Victorian age.” The book is really one long quietly furious riposte to the still too-common victim-blaming question about women who are assaulted: “what was she doing there in the first place?” She answers that question five times, recounting how one by one these women were worn down by social constraints, by economic struggles, by lack of education, by lack of employment options, by their inability to control their fertility; she shows families broken by disease, by poverty, by alcoholism, and especially by the lack of support and resources to recover from any of these problems. The women she tells us about were not helpless victims of circumstance, but their world was hard, hostile, and often dangerous—and profoundly misogynistic. They ended up in vulnerable situations, not because they made uniquely bad decisions or were in any way “looking for it,” but because they had run out of other options.

fiveAnd no matter how they came to be “sleeping rough,” they didn’t invite or deserve their horrendous deaths. The idea that any version of their life stories should mitigate our distress at the violence done to them—that in any way their murders open them up to that kind of judgment of their characters—is precisely what Rubenhold is crusading against. The epigraph for her conclusion comes from the judge at the trial of the so-called “Suffolk Strangler” in 2008: “You may view with some distaste the lifestyles of those involved,” he says, but “no-one is entitled to do these women any harm, let alone kill them.” Since the first inquests into their deaths, Rubenhold shows, her five have been dismissed as “only prostitutes,” perpetuating the familiar Madonna / whore dichotomy that “suggests there is an acceptable standard of female behavior, and those who deviate from it are fit to be punished.” She rightly points out how persistent this view is, to this day:

When a woman steps out of line and contravenes accepted norms of feminine behavior, whether on social media or on the Victorian street, there is a tacit understanding that someone must put her back in her place.

Never having read any “Ripperology,” I was shocked at the examples she gives of writers (recent ones!) about Jack the Ripper who casually degrade his victims and “elevate the murderer to celebrity status.” “Our culture’s obsession with the mythology,” she convincingly argues, “serves only to normalize its particular brand of misogyny.” Women shouldn’t have to be nice, good, perfect to be safe; men shouldn’t be able to use anything about women’s lives as justifications for violence against them. It might seem like a stretch when Rubenhold declares that by accepting the “Ripper legend” we not only perpetuate the specific injustice done to her subjects but “condone the basest forms of violence”—but if we understand them, as she wants us to, as representative rather than unique, as important because they are ordinary, not because they are outliers, then she is exactly right, and in that respect The Five is very much a book about the present as well as the past, and it is not just sad but infuriating.

#OldWivesTale21 Update

I realize belatedly that I should have posted about this here before rather than assuming a Twitter update was enough. Dorian is on vacation (check out his Twitter feed for pictures!) and so we’ve adjusted our reading and posting schedule so that he doesn’t have to worry about any of it until he gets back. Here’s the revised plan:

Revised Bennett Schedule

As you can see, it brings our read-along project to a close just a bit later than originally planned. We’re excited to pick up again with our discussion – and to find out how the novel ends!

“Some Real-Life Dr. Jekyll”: Dean Jobb, The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream


Scotland Yard finally recalled Jarvis in mid-September. He walked down the gangway of the Allan Line steamer Mongolian in Liverpool on September 28, after more than three months of “exhausting enquiry,” as he put it. His interviews and discoveries told the story of a promising young Canadian physician who, like some real-life Dr. Jekyll, had been transformed into a monster. He was an abortionist. A blackmailer. A devious poisoner. A cold-blooded killer.

True crime isn’t usually my genre of choice, but Dean Jobb’s The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream: The Hunt for a Victorian Era Serial Killer sounded too good to resist. Full disclosure: though we don’t know each other well personally, Dean and I are colleagues at the University of King’s College. On this basis I actually turned down an invitation to do a “proper” review of this book, as it seemed like a conflict of interest. Also, how awkward it might have made faculty meetings if I didn’t like it and had to declare as much publicly! But I did like it, and that makes me glad I have my own space where I can now go ahead and say so.

The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream overlaps with a range of my own teaching and research interests, especially the Victorian period and the history of detective fiction, including some attention to the history of policing. While a lot of the book’s general context was thus familiar, I enjoyed the vivid details, especially Jobb’s evocative descriptions of settings from the seedy streets of Lambeth to the grim cells of Illinois’s Joliet Prison. Jobb makes the most of Cream’s Sherlock Holmes connections, too—not just as a model for the police officers who end up on Cream’s trail, but through the real life connection between Cream and Arthur Conan Doyle’s mentor, Dr. Joseph Bell, who was one of Cream’s examiners at the College of Surgeons in Edinburgh. “Not even Joseph Bell,” Jobb comments, “for all his superhuman ability to observe and deduce, sensed the evil lurking within Thomas Neill Cream.”

Dr-CreamAnd Cream really was evil. For all Cream’s notoriety, both in the 1890s and among aficionados of serial killers in general and Jack the Ripper in particular, I knew nothing about him before reading this book. A lot of the fun (if that’s the right word!) of The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream is following the trail of his known and suspected killings, as well as the twists and turns of various efforts over decades to prove his guilt definitively—so I won’t go into detail about all that here. Jobb’s research is extensive and meticulous: he explains in a note on his sources that “every scene is based on a contemporary description of what occurred and where events unfolded; all quotations and dialogue are presented as they were recorded in newspaper reports, memoirs, police reports, and transcripts of court proceedings.” The result is a remarkably specific and vivid account that gives a really complete picture of everything except what is perhaps the most baffling and disturbing aspect of the case: why Cream did what he did. Jobb notes that the concept of “serial killer” was not around at the time of Cream’s murders, and neither was “psychopath.” An attempt was made after his (last) trial to argue that he was legally insane, but it did not prevail. All that could really be said about him was that he was a monster.

the-fiveThe story Jobb tells about Cream is gripping; it is also pretty grim, and for me the very appeal of reading about such horrors always raises anxiety about prurience, about turning suffering—such as the agonies experienced by Cream’s many victims—into consumable spectacle. I didn’t think the book itself treated the victims sensationally or disrespectfully, and Jobb never invites us to root for Cream, which is a risk when portraying cat and mouse games between criminals and crime fighters. There’s nothing sympathetic about Cream at all. Still, I did appreciate Jobb’s epilogue, in which he puts the case into its broader political and ideological contexts:

Nine of Cream’s ten known or suspected victims were women. The sexism and hypocrisy of the late nineteenth century served as his unseen accomplices, driving the vulnerable and the desperate into his clutches . . . The pervasive sexism and inequality of the times isolated the prostitutes and pregnant, unwed women alike, relegating them to the margins of society. Women came to Cream seeking an illegal abortion, or medicine to induce a miscarriage in order to escape the stigma, or “the living death,” of having a child out of wedlock. Poverty, unemployment, and the limited opportunities available for unmarried women drove or lured other women into prostitution . . . The “degradation and defenceless condition” of Cream’s Lambeth victims, the South London Chronicle noted with a tinge of guilty conscience, “appealed in vain for protection.” Little was offered.

Jobb draws a number of comparisons to Jack the Ripper and his victims, who were similarly marginalized and unprotected. (He also addresses the theory that Dr. Cream was Jack the Ripper—untenable, it turns out, as for those murders Cream actually “had an iron-clad alibi.”) He cites Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five several times, and while that book too sounds fascinating and atmospheric as well as important as a counter-narrative to other perspectives on its even more infamous murderer, I am not sure I want to spend more time in this grisly territory! If this is the sort of thing you like, though, The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream is definitely for you.

Illusions Regarding the Literary Life

brittainAs part of my current research on issues related to gender, genre, and the ‘novel of purpose’ (about which more eventually, when it takes on a clearer shape!) I asked our indefatigable Document Delivery staff to bring in a copy of Vera Brittain’s On Becoming a Writer (1947). It turns out to be in large part advice for aspiring authors, and I’ve been amused, reading it, by how familiar a lot of it sounds as well as how practical and discouraging Brittain is. I thought you might be amused as well, so here’s her list of “nine widely-held illusions regarding the literary life,” in her own words, along with some of her blunt recommendations for overcoming these “phantasies.”

#1: writing is easy because the materials are readily accessible

“This, the first illusion, probably leads more aspirants astray than all the rest put together,” Brittain notes; writing’s “very deceptive facility confronts the beginner with pitfalls which require practice and experience to be recognisable as such, and are therefore the more difficult to overcome.”

#2: because writing is so easy, it can be done successfully, without any special training or preparation, in odd minutes during the day

She acknowledges that “some remarkable books have been produced in this way, particularly by women, whose right to regard their literary work as a full-time job, free from those domestic trivia with which no male writer is expected to concern himself, still offers a fruitful topic for social and domestic controversy.” As a general rule, though, she advises writers with other jobs to “work out a careful time-table” that is both “regularand regularly respected” even though “it may involve defying plaintive accusations of unsociability” as well as giving up “hiking, boating, golf, or tennis.”

#3: books and articles can only be written when the author is “in the mood”

“An author who waits for the right ‘mood’ will soon find that ‘moods’ get fewer and fewer until they cease altogether,” she notes; with Trollope-like pragmatism, she explains that “the only way to write is to write” and recommends (again) a firm schedule as well as taking every precaution to remove and guard against interruptions and distractions. When you do have to stop, do it “at some point where it is easy to begin again tomorrow.” “I have found myself,” she confesses, “almost unconsciously doing ‘little jobs’ for an hour or two in order to postpone the bad moment of beginning again”—something too many of us can probably sympathize with—but this trick can help you pick up again “with enthusiasm.”

#4: the “artistic temperament,” and its external expression in terms of peculiar manners, eccentric clothes, and literary “haunts,” are part of the essential make-up of a writer

Brittain has no time for cultivated eccentricity. She goes through a pretty funny roster of writers who “are seldom identifiable as authors at all”: H. G. Wells, for instance, “looked like a genial but peppery bank clerk,” while “for years I myself have resembled any and every shorthand typist.” It doesn’t do the aspiring writer any good to go without haircuts or lead “the literary life”: “there is only one way of becoming a first-rate writer, and that is by hard, persistent, and mainly solitary work.” (Sigh.)

#5: the conviction of many authors that each one’s extreme sensitiveness and the pain it causes is peculiar to himself

She also has no patience for special snowflakes. Sensitivity is indeed, she says, “very frequent amongst authors,” but “the sooner a would-be writer stops being sorry for himself because he is sensitive, the quicker will his work and personality develop those robust qualities upon which achievement so largely depends.”

#6: the belief that sponsorship by some well-known author is a short cut to success

Sorry: it’s still the writing itself that matters. “The most that an author-sponsor can do is to bring the book to the notice of the public,” but if it’s no good, “the introduction is valueless.” What can be valuable is the kind of “frank, uncompromising” feedback she was fortunate enough to receive from “an established and much-respected author” (whom we know from Testament of Youth was Rose Macaulay): “I did not enjoy receiving her sometimes derisive criticisms,” she admits, “but I had enough common sense to accept them.”

#7: that a manuscript by an unknown author will be disregarded unless he is introduced by somebody to whom the publisher dare not be indifferent

Sorry: a publisher’s indifference (including failure to read the whole manuscript) is, once again, about the writing, not your connections: “influence alone, in spite of the widespread illusion to the contrary, has never yet placed a manuscript for anyone.” (Do we really think this is true now, never mind whether it was true then? Books do get published that seem extremely niche to have survived past the initial pitch, but they come out of visible literary coterieswhich then pay lots of attention to them.)

#8: the belief that the sales of his book will largely depend on the extent to which the publisher can be persuaded to advertise it

Brittain has quite a lot to say at the outset of this book about things like paper prices and book distribution in the post-war era, as well as about the effects of war-time circumstances on literary journalism and reviewing. Her conclusions about the value of advertising come from this context: books sold just as well “almost without advertising” during the war which she argues proves that “advertising is seldom, if ever, the reason for a large sale.” She goes on to cite Authors and the Book Trade by one Frank Swinnerton, in which apparently the case is also made that advertising is not worth much but that “talki.e. personal recommendation, discussion, and controversy” is “what really sells a book.” (That’s certainly true for a lot of us on Twitter!)

#9: that, with the publication of his first book, the author will leap—or has leapt—to fame and reputation

Not likely! In her own case, she notes that “the supposition that Testament of Youth was my first book has been voiced again and again. Actually it was my sixth”and, she later clarifies, she means her sixth published book, while it was the 20th book she’d written. Once again, it’s all about the hard, solitary work. Further, the author who believes his first book has “made his name” is, in most cases, deluded by selection bias, as for a while he is primarily engaging with “only those people … and those critics who are familiar with his work,” forgetting that to the vast majority he remains completely unknown. Especially if his debut was praised, this sets him up for disappointment over the reception of his second book!

woman-writing-1934Having cleared away these sad illusions, Brittain moves on in the next chapter (“First Essentials”) to offer some positive suggestions, though not without one more chastening reminder that your “desire for fame, wealth, and distinguished acquaintances does not in itself constitute a claim to literary success.” There really is something bracing about her Eeyore-like insistence that, while writing may well be worth the effort, it almost certainly won’t be fun, that it’s more likely than not that you aren’t very special or talented, and that the way forward is mostly drudgery. Would a book, not of this type (there are many such) but with this tone get published today? So farI haven’t read to the end yetit is certainly the antithesis of Elizabeth Gilbert’s irritating paean to half-assed creativity Big Magic, and a striking contrast to every other recent “how to write” book I’ve ever dipped into, which seem much more about inspiration than perspiration.

“This Rash, Mad Sophia”: More of The Old Wives’ Tale

Supremely and finally, the delicious torture of the clutch of terror at her heart as she moved by Gerald’s side through the impossible adventure! Who was this rash, mad Sophia? Surely not herself!

The first three chapters of Book 3 are easily the most exciting of The Old Wives’ Tale so far. It’s not exactly that a lot more happens than in the Constance chapters, which were pretty eventful, in their own way. It’s not even, or not just, that the main event in this instalment is a public execution (about which more in a minute): after all, one of the main events in Book 2 was a murder, also followed by an execution. But we weren’t present for either of those events, and their high melodrama is kind of muffled by the discourse around them. Overall, just generally, Constance’s life is lived in a lower key, as is life in the Five Towns where she has stayed put. 

Sophia, in contrast, ran away, leaving the Five Towns behind her literally and figuratively–although one interesting thing about her journey to Paris and the awkward outing to Auxerre is how she discovers she carries its values with her, as when she finds herself “preaching moderation” to her spendthrift husband:

In the Square she was understood to be quite without common sense, hopelessly imprudent; yet here, a spring of sagacity seemed to be welling up in her all the time, a continual antidote against the general madness in which she found herself. With extraordinary rapidity she had formed a habit of preaching moderation to Gerald. She hated to see ‘money thrown away,’ and her notion of the boundary line between throwing money away and judiciously spending it was still the notion of the Square.

There’s lots to discuss about these three chapters (which went by so fast that I was sorely tempted to read on into Dorian’s portion for next week!) but before I get into some particulars I want to comment on how this turn to Sophia’s story has affected my thinking both about Constance’s story and about the structure of the novel as a whole. We have noticed and wondered about Bennett’s choice not to cut back and forth between the sisters. It’s easy to imagine that novel; alternating the point of view is a pretty common approach to a novel with dual protagonists, and it is an obvious and effective way to create both balance and contrast. Several times reading Book 2 I thought that it would be easier to understand the larger point of what’s going on with Constance if her life in the Five Towns were being regularly juxtaposed against Sophia’s life away from there.

But that’s not what Bennett has done, and now that we have left Constance behind for a while I think the effects (and thus perhaps the logic) of his strategy seem a bit clearer to me. We have travelled with Constance through several phases of her life: we have left her youth far behind and gone through marriage, motherhood, widowhood, and into middle age. Early decisions have had their results, many of them ultimately disappointing. We haven’t seen her whole life yet, but at this point I think we are very conscious that there’s probably not much of it left, and that what remains is probably not going to be very exciting. Of course, I may be wrong about this! But Bennett’s Preface sets up these low expectation, sets us up to feel the pathos of Constance’s condition: “there is an extreme pathos,” he says,

in the mere fact that every stout aging woman was once a young girl with the unique charm of youth in her form and movements and in her mind. And the fact that the change from the young girl to the stout aging woman is made up of an infinite number of infinitesimal changes, each unperceived by her, only intensifies the pathos.

That’s what we’ve now been through with Constance: a tally of the “infinitesimal changes” that have turned the young girl into the aging woman.

For me, this made turning back time to Sophia’s youth feel very different than it might have if we hadn’t already seen how things were turning out for her sister. For a while I had the weird sense that she had been frozen in time while her sister grew older and was just now coming out, as if from under a spell. Her freshness, her baby face which is so remarked, her innocence, her ignorance: these all seemed suddenly both precious and fragile. I felt some impatience with her stupid choices, of course. Gerald, as Dorian notes, is obviously a bounder of the first order! He’s a crude version of Wickham; hasn’t Sophia read her Jane Austen? How could she possibly fall for him, for his lies and blandishments, “the classic device of the seducer”? But I also felt hope for her because, having followed Constance’s uninspiring path already, I wanted a different story for Sophia and at least she had the boldness to get away. I don’t think I would have had quite the same reactions if Sophia’s story had unfolded in tandem with her sister’s. Maybe Bennett knows what he’s doing after all! 😄

Some things I was particularly struck by in these chapters:

Sophia showed more strength of character than I expected – not all the time, but at least some of the time. I respected her determination not to just turn around and go back to the Five Towns when she thinks Gerald will not marry her after all; unlike Lydia she at least had the wherewithal to refuse to play along when he tried to lure her further away without marriage; and she becomes (albeit belatedly) very clear eyed about Gerald, who is, as she discovers, “an imbecile.”

One way we know we aren’t in Austen’s world is the degree of sexual frankness here.  Constance’s married experience is treated a bit more indirectly, but we are told explicitly that Sophia is “no longer a virgin”; there’s also the intimate description of her waking Gerald up by leaning her “nude bosom” over him (“this method of being brought back to consciousness did not displease him”). I wonder why these details are so much more specific than Constance’s musing on the wonder of having taken over her parents’ marriage bed: both sexual relationships are married ones, but maybe he wants us to see Sophia and Gerald’s as still somewhat improper and so highlights its erotic (if that’s the right word?) aspects.

Speaking of awakenings after marriage, this passage is really reminiscent of Dorothea’s honeymoon in Rome in Chapter XX of Middlemarch:

Sophia, thrust suddenly into a strange civilization perfectly frank in its sensuality and its sensuousness, under the guidance of a young man to whom her half-formed intelligence was a most diverting toy—Sophia felt mysteriously uncomfortable, disturbed by sinister, flitting phantoms of ideas which she only dimly apprehended.

Here’s an excerpt of that section of Middlemarch:

The weight of unintelligible Rome might lie easily on bright nymphs to whom it formed a background for the brilliant picnic of Anglo-foreign society; but Dorothea had no such defence against deep impressions . . . all this vast wreck of ambitious ideals, sensuous and spiritual, mixed confusedly with the signs of breathing forgetfulness and degradation, at first jarred her as with an electric shock, and then urged themselves on her with that ache belonging to a glut of confused ideas which check the flow of emotion. Forms both pale and glowing took possession of her young sense, and fixed themselves in her memory even when she was not thinking of them, preparing strange associations which remained through her after-years. Our moods are apt to bring with them images which succeed each other like the magic-lantern pictures of a doze; and in certain states of dull forlornness Dorothea all her life continued to see the vastness of St. Peter’s, the huge bronze canopy, the excited intention in the attitudes and garments of the prophets and evangelists in the mosaics above, and the red drapery which was being hung for Christmas spreading itself everywhere like a disease of the retina.

Maybe it was not a good idea to juxtapose the two quotations: there’s not a single moment in The Old Wives’ Tale so far that bears comparison with Eliot’s brilliant set piece, culminating in that unforgettable image! But both writers are interested in the shock of exposure to a world in which experiences and feelings that were forbidden to their provincial heroines are given full rein.

And that brings us to the execution. Once again, Bennett surprised me. I knew in a general way that this scene was coming, but I didn’t know how or why we would get there. I did not expect it to be so voluntary: maybe they’ll happen across the guillotine on the street and be unable to get away, I thought. But they go looking for it, or Gerald (a.k.a. “the amateur of severed heads”) does. Though his prurience was creepy (I enjoyed the narrator’s jabs at him—”the great ambition of Gerald’s life was at last satisfied”), I didn’t think it was shown as making him monstrous: since he’s “an imbecile,” he doesn’t really understand what he’s so eagerly pursuing, and he gets his come-uppance when he’s sickened and devastated by what he actually sees. The more significant aspect of this whole episode is the blood lust in the crowd:

She dozed, under the sheets, and was awakened by a tremendous shrieking, growling, and yelling: a phenomenon of human bestiality that far surpassed Sophia’s narrow experiences . . . the mad fury of that crowd, balked at the inlets to the square, thrilled and intimidated her. It sounded as if they would be capable of tearing the very horses to pieces.

Mob scenes like this one have a long pedigree in 19th-century novels including A Tale of Two Cities and North and South, and most spectacularly in Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution. I was interested in where Bennett positioned Sophia, both literally—sheltering from the worst of “this obscene spectacle” inside the hotel—and also morally, distancing herself from “this strange, incomprehensible town, foreign and inimical to her.”

I don’t know where Sophia’s going next, but I’m glad she’s got some of Gerald’s money secreted away. Sure, it was a bit dishonest, the way she got it, but I figure he owes her. She’s still young enough—and, I think, smart and spirited enough—to do better, not just romantically but in general. The shadow of Constance’s dull aging looms over this hope, though.

A small question: What’s the regional pronunciation of Sophia’s name – So-FEE-ya or So-FI -ya?


“A Condition I Try to Perfect”: Jhumpa Lahiri, Whereabouts

lahiriSolitude: it’s become my trade. As it requires a certain discipline, it’s a condition I try to perfect. And yet it plagues me, it weighs on me, in spite of my knowing it so well. It’s probably my mother’s influence. She’s always been afraid of being alone and now her life as an old woman torments her, so much that when I call to ask how she’s doing, she just says, I’m very alone.

Almost nothing happens in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts. Its unnamed protagonist goes for walks in her neighborhood, visits friends, goes to a gallery or historic site or supermarket or to the seaside. As she meanders, so does her narrative, not in an elaborate internal monologue or an artful stream of consciousness but in a quiet unfolding of seemingly transparent observations and reflections. In her favorite museum, for example, she sits on a bench in a room with “a garden painted onto the walls, teeming with trees, flowers, citrus plants, animals.” As she sits, another woman—”about my age,” “she looks like a foreigner”—sits down, tired and seemingly listless, then “stretches out on the bench”:

That’s how she manages to fully inhabit and possess this room, crossing a certain threshold I’ve always respected.

The narrator is neither annoyed nor impressed by the tourist’s behaviour; she just notices it. The moment brings no epiphany, but it highlights something characteristic about her: even as she moves around, the narrator is closed up, reticent, cautious of boundaries. As she later points out, “when all is said and done the setting doesn’t matter.” We are both always moving and always in some sense at rest, because we are contained within ourselves; as the cliché has it, wherever you go, there you still are.

lahiri3I thought Whereabouts really beautifully captured the paradox that isolation is not, or at least not only, about being alone. “If I tell my mother that I’m grateful to be on my own,” says the narrator,

to be in charge of my space and my time—this in spite of the silence, in spite of the lights I never switch off when I leave the house, along with the radio I always keep playing—she’d look at me, unconvinced. She’d say solitude was a lack and nothing more. There’s no point discussing it given that she’s blind to the small pleasures my solitude affords me. In spite of how she’s clung to me over the years my point of view doesn’t interest her, and this gulf between us has taught me what solitude really means.

Lonely people know that company can make you feel worse, not better. The encounters she has throughout the book often bring her happiness in the moment, or in memory, but almost as often they leave her sad or depleted, or just remind her of the fundamental gap even between individuals who love each other. This separation is not presented as tragic, but it creates an undertow of melancholy beneath the novel’s surface, which is so calm you could almost mistake it for placidity if it weren’t for the occasional hint of yearning or eruption of resistance—as when an importunate guest, married to an old friend, pulls a book from her shelf and asks to borrow it. “I can’t lend my book to this man, I just can’t,” she says, and we can tell why even before she realizes his small daughter has “drawn a thin errant line” on her white leather sofa that he has to have noticed and yet “he’d said nothing to the little girl, nothing to me.”

lahiri2A lot of emotion is submerged in Whereabouts. I didn’t love Lahiri’s Lowland because I found it too understated; I felt kept at too much of an emotional distance. As I began Whereabouts I wondered if I would feel the same way about it. I’ve been testy recently, too, about novelists whose critically acclaimed “spare” prose reads to me like an outline of a novel, more a conceptual exercise than a fulfilled promise. But I ended up feeling that there was a lovely congruence in Whereabouts between its form and its interests. Its small pieces all have their own quiet unity, like microfictions, and they accumulate to give a strong sense of the narrator’s experience of being herself in the world. We are not led to any big revelation: Lahiri toys with the possibility of self-discovery as her narrator’s trajectory, but in the end I think she sets that aside as too certain, too definitive, a result—not just for fiction but perhaps also for life. We aren’t ultimately going somewhere, the book suggests; we’re just, as the narrator says, “moving through.”

Canada (Day) Reads: Richard Wagamese, Indian Horse

wagameseLike many Canadians, I decided that the best way to mark Canada Day this year was to reflect rather than celebrate. I have remarked here before on the shock of realizing my own ignorance about residential schools; the recent heartbreaking stories of unmarked graves has (finally, belatedly) prompted a wider recognition of the need for non-Indigenous Canadians to learn more and do better. One part of that work is listening, and one way to hear more Indigenous voices and stories is to read Indigenous authors. With that in mind, I chose Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse as my Canada Day reading.

In many ways it proved to be a good choice. I’m not sure it’s old enough yet to count as a “classic,” but Indian Horse is an award-winning, highly regarded, widely read (and, I’ve learned, frequently assigned) novel, and a ‘Canada Reads’ contender: on these grounds, reading it at last is a way of catching up with a book that has more than proven its significance. It is painfully topical, and its portrayal of Saul’s time at Saint Jerome’s (St. Germ’s, as the children call it) is graphic, upsetting, and memorable. Wagamese strategically highlights just a few horrific examples of abuse and trauma, leaving it to his readers to multiply them by the number of children forced into these institutions; the rising tally of graves now being acknowledged (‘discovered’ seems like the wrong word as so many knew they were there but were ignored) makes that grim math anything but theoretical.

horse2Wagamese writes vividly about the landscape and the Ojibway traditions that shape Saul’s identity and the pain of being forced away from them and from his family. He also writes really well about hockey: as someone who has never been at all interested in hockey (or any sport), I was surprised how beautiful and exciting some of these sequences were to read. Hockey’s centrality to (many people’s idea of) Canadian identity makes Saul’s story of finding freedom on the ice and then having that joy and his spirit broken by racism an effective way of saying something broader about Canada’s rifts and failures as a nation. The road Saul takes from that breaking point back to some kind of peace, with himself and with hockey, is a hopeful version of a story that both the novel and the news tell us doesn’t always end that way.

horse3Memorable, readable, topical – and yet I also found Indian Horse a bit dissatisfying, a reaction I might have avoided if I had approached it as a young adult novel, which it turns out to be … maybe? I didn’t think it was when I ordered it, but as I was reading it and thinking that, for all its difficult subject matter, it seemed stylistically unsophisticated and often quite heavy-handed, it occurred to me that it felt like YA fiction and I looked it up and found that it won an award for YA fiction. Aha! That explained it! Or does it? Because I looked around some more and could not confirm that Indian Horse was written or marketed as YA fiction. That left me wondering if or how that question should matter to my judgment of how good a novel Indian Horse is. I don’t look down on fiction written for young(er) readers. I cherish and have written enthusiastically about some of my own favorite YA novels! But they are written differently than adult novels (or what’s the point of the category?) and in my experience one distinction is a certain simplification, of style and often of theme. Indian Horse deals with tough topics but it does so in pretty blunt and uncomplicated sentences; it makes its points in what sometimes seemed awkwardly obvious ways, without subtlety (“I couldn’t take it. I couldn’t run the risk of someone knowing me, because I couldn’t take the risk of knowing myself”). I felt this flatness particularly reading the last third of the novel, which at times seemed almost perfunctory, as if Wagamese was just pushing through some necessary steps to get to the ending. But then the very final part felt fresh again.

Indian Horse definitely tells an important story; I’m glad I read it. I’ve been thinking a lot lately for my research about the challenge of writing fiction that aims to inform or reform and how to balance that social or political goal with artistic design – how to make the two goals one. Indian Horse is not exactly a didactic novel, but it is a novel ‘with a purpose,’ so in addition to what it adds to my understanding of the specific stories and contexts it addresses, it gives me another example of that perpetual problem to ponder.

Servants, Chasms, and Signboards: More of The Old Wives’ Tale

ModernLibraryWhat with servants, chasms, and signboards, Constance considered that her life as a married woman would not be deficient in excitement.

This will probably be a somewhat disjointed post, which reflects my experience of The Old Wives’ Tale to this point. Maybe it’s because we are reading the novel in fairly short segments that it feels herky-jerky to me, more an assemblage of incidents than a unfolding design. Bennett keeps introducing new elements which create their own small-scale dramatic arcs, rising to a climax or crisis and then being replaced by something else. It’s not that these incidents aren’t individually engaging: I’m just finding the novel as a whole somewhat disorienting. I’m enjoying it—it reads easily—but if (as is often remarked) novels teach us how to read them well, I seem to be finding the learning curve a bit steep here!

That said, as I made my way through these first chapters of Book II I did start to think that the unity I was looking for might be arising precisely from the accumulation of these vignettes. The Old Wives’ Tale is very much a novel about the passage of time, and thus about the accumulation of events, in particular lives (in this section, particularly Constance’s). That is kind of what life is like, right? Things just keep happening. Maybe Bennett is letting that accumulation in itself be the meaning: maybe it’s a novel about the process of living.

macke woman readingIt is certainly striking already how much Constance’s life has changed since we first met her. In these four chapters she has: gotten married and moved into her parents’ bed; hired a new servant; acquired a dog; been astonished by her husband’s installation of a signboard for the shop; discovered that her husband is a smoker; hosted her first family Christmas; had a baby (and been through a number of parenting crises); and lost her mother. Bennett’s choice of things to highlight confuses me: too much attention goes to what seem like the wrong things, unimportant things (the bed, the dog, the smoking, the signboard). But maybe it only seems this way because I don’t quite get what Bennett is doing with them. There’s such a long section about the bed, for example. In a way, it is a nice set piece: it effectively conveys the disorientation and poignancy of growing up, of realizing that your place in the cycle of life has changed. The description of Constance lying in bed waiting for her husband is also quite sensual:

To see her there in the bed, framed in mahogany and tassels, lying on her side, with her young glowing cheeks, and honest but not artless gaze, and the rich curve of her hip lifting the counterpane, one would have said that she had never heard of aught but love.

It’s explicitly a sexual maturation that has taken place; her new consciousness of what marriage involves seems to lie behind her distaste at the prospect of Maggie’s marriage to Hollins (“Her vague, instinctive revolt against such a usage of matrimony centered round the idea of a strong, eternal smell of fish”). I like the bit about the bed quite a lot, on its own. I just find it odd which details of Constance’s life Bennett decides to linger over.

victorian-breastfeedingProbably the part of this instalment that surprised me the most, in that respect, was the lengthy section from infant Cyril’s point of view. Dorian’s post focused our attention on really interesting questions about narrative voice in the novel. I posited in the comments that maybe Bennett is just not very good at controlling this, or else (and perfectly reasonably) he is not particularly concerned about it: maybe, as a writer, he is thinking about other things. He shifts our attention around a fair amount in these chapters too, sometimes again within a single paragraph—but I remain uncertain that it matters a great deal that or how he does this. I mean, obviously it is of legitimate interest to us as a matter of technique, and it also matters in terms of attributing comments to the characters or to the narrator, but is Bennett doing this in an especially artful or thematically purposeful way? I’m not convinced. However, I do think he is quite good at capturing different perspectives, and the ‘how it looks to a baby’ part was pretty convincing: “The whole mass of Fan upheaved and vanished from his view, and was instantly forgotten by him”; “terrific operations went on over his head. Giants moved to and fro.” It’s fun, hilarious, experimental. But why include it? Why do we need it, for the goals of this specific novel? That’s the question a number of incidents raised for me. I like the parts: I’m just struggling to fit them together.

A few other things of note from these chapters:

Constance is pretty offensive about Maggie (“the dehumanized drudge”?!). These remarks are definitely places where it matters whether we hold the character or the narrator responsible: I wasn’t always sure (“A woman was definitely emerging from the drudge”?).

The narrator is pretty offensive about Constance’s weight (“fat and lumpy”?! her radiant face “atoned for the figure”?!). Bennett’s fixation on a woman’s weight as a “tragic” measure of her aging and decline is set out right in the Preface, of course:

I reflected concerning the grotesque diner: The woman was once young, slim, perhaps beautiful . . . there is an extreme pathos in the mere fact that every stout aging woman was once a young girl with the unique charm of youth in her form and movements and in her mind.

I wonder if Sophia will age in the same way or retain her “form.”

I was interested in the nuances of class that emerge between Constance and her husband around the issue of his paper collars, and in their mutual awareness of the ‘chasm’ that more attention to them might create between them.

I was startled at how graphic the description of Constance’s labor was. Bennett gives us Constance’s point of view here, which puts us right in the midst of the “cataclysm.”

Cyril’s birthday party was great. I mean, it’s awful, but it’s brilliantly rendered, especially Cyril’s rage at someone else eating his cake.

What do you think we should make of Cyril’s thieving? It seemed to me mostly a device for creating conflict between his parents, and for setting Mr. Povey up as more of a patriarchal figure (literally but also figuratively, politically) than he had been before.

Finally, something I’m still really appreciating is Bennett’s humor. Just for instance,

One day the headmaster called at the shop. Now, to see a headmaster walking about the town during school-hours is a startling spectacle, and is apt to give you the same uncanny sensation as when, alone in a room, you think you see something which ought not to move.

I wonder if that’s how my students feel when they run into me in the grocery store. 🙂

How are you doing with the novel at this point? I’m sure people are responding differently to it than I am, or responding to different aspects of it. I look forward to finding out! 

“Inhabited by my subjects”: Nell Stevens, The Victorian and the Romantic

StevensPerhaps, after all, this Ph.D. is not worth my while . . . The world inhabited by my subjects still seems bright and seductive, and the subjects themselves—the Brownings and Harriet Hosmer and William Story and, above all, Mrs. Gaskell—are still alive to me. The more I know of them, the more I love them. But I couldn’t be further from them, here at my desk in the British Library . . . My research is laborious and rewarding: I am clawing at an enormous cliff face, hoping to tunnel through it, but the rock is unbreakable . . . The enormity of the task ahead—writing 100,000 words of pure, never-before-known knowledge—is off-putting, impossible, preferably avoidable.

Anyone who has read my blog posts on academia and criticism over the years will understand how much I sympathized with Nell Stevens’s frustration at the lifelessness of her academic research—though while I definitely felt this way intermittently during my Ph.D. years, it wasn’t until I was much further along in my academic career that I both reached a crisis point about that and had the professional security to do anything about it. What to do, though: that was and in many ways still is the question!

One of the first things I did to try to figure it out (besides starting this blog, which I didn’t realize at the time was related) was look at what other kinds of writing people did about literature for non-academic audiences and purposes. I explored a lot of “books about books” during this phase and have continued to keep an eye on them, and to ponder how I might someday contribute to that genre. As far as I’ve been able to tell, there are three main ways to “pitch” a general-interest book about books, one of which is not an option and two of which are unappealing: one is to have a “name” that already sells (James Wood, Michael Dirda, Zadie Smith, etc.); another is to package your reading as some form of “self-help” (life lessons from Jane Austen etc.); and the other is to combine book talk with autobiography—the “bibliomemoir,” as in Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch (sorry the formatting is messed up at that link – I will try to get into the archive and fix it!) or Nell Stevens’s The Victorian and the Romantic, which I just read as part of this ongoing market research.

Stevens2I don’t actually have a lot to say about Stevens’s book in particular. I more or less enjoyed it: it’s fine, if you’re into memoirs, which I am generally not. Stevens’s particular take on autobiography in this book strikes me as remarkably niche, which makes me wonder even more about how publishing works. How big can the audience be for a book about a (relatively obscure? I’d say so?) young person’s love life and academic difficulties and preoccupation with Elizabeth Gaskell?  Perhaps it was Stevens’s first book (which I haven’t read) that sold this second one? Another way to put my puzzlement might be: how has Stevens earned this kind of interest (a publishable level of interest) in this very odd combination of topics? The book itself does not (to me, anyway) self-evidently answer that question. I came to it already strongly interested in Victorian literature and the relationship between academic and other kinds of writing, and I was not blown away. Or maybe I knew too much and would have found it more revelatory if her topics were new to me? Perhaps I am not just the right audience but precisely the wrong audience for the book. All I really learned is that for Stevens, this odd generic hybrid of intimate memoir and fictionalized biography turns out to be the kind of book she wanted to write. It’s certainly not the kind of book I would ever want to write—which is not a knock against it, though it may be another blow for my own aspirations.