Thursday, 29 March 2012

The Belgium of The Professor

Instead of going on to Villette, I've decided to go straight with the first-written but last-published novel by Charlotte Brontë. Rejected many times in her lifetime, even after the sccess of Jane Eyre, Charlotte said it is like her idiot child, and that she thought it deeper and more real than Jane Eyre. Though ill-expressed, the content of The Professor when read carefully shows depths you wouldn't expect in this love story. To me, it is better than Dinah Maria Mulock's novels, which were critically acclaimed in her lifetime. (Miss Mulock, by the way, was a best-selling Victorian novelist, who is now unknown to most but Victorian enthusiasts and scholars.)

The protagonist is a harsh, cynical, unlikable young man called William Crimsworth, an orphan whose parents families were against each other. His father was a manufacturer and his mother a lady of high birth. His mother's family thought she married beneath her. Anyway after their parents' deaths and failure in business, he and his brother were adopted by their maternal relatives and sent to Eton. Over there he was unhappy and made only one friend, whom he has lost touch with. This is all expressed in a letter to his friend who is now in a colony, emphasising Crimsworth's isolation. Crimsworth rejects his maternal relations' offers to help him become a clergyman (he is not suited for it) and to marry his plain cousin, as his brother who has succeeded in trade has urged him not to submit to them.

After that he goes to work for his cruel, tyrannous brother who works him to death and refuses to treat him as an equal. Now this is set in an industrial town, possibly Yorkshire or Lancashire, which is quite important as it represents trade, detestable to Crimsworth. He eventually meets at a party Mr Hunsden, who has transacted business with his brother. Hunsden is crass but sympathetic, trying to bring out William who rebuffs him, thinking he is patronising him. Hunsden is from an old family in the district which has lost money, and he is a tradesman so that he can restore the family fortunes. I feel sorry for Hunsden as Crimsworth is cold and cynical though Hunsden can be tactless and blatant.

Now for the setting. This is set in the early 19th century presumably (since The Professor was written in 1846 and Crimsworth's son is 10, the scene of action predates 1836).  At that time an industrial revolution was undergoing in Britain, especially in the North. While in the Regency the aristocrats and the gentry were those with power and influence, there came a new power: wealth and trade. The aristocrats' lifestyle lost them a great deal of money, but the prudence and hard-work of the middle classes helped them gain a more secure footing. People from nowhere, workers and tradesman, invested in mills and factories to make cloth and other things. Charlotte Brontë, being from Yorkshire would have known about all this. Her friend's father, Mr Taylor was a cloth merchant. While the aristocrats used to marry within themselves it became more common in the 19th century for the less well-off among them to marry the sons and daughters of wealthy manufacturers, whom they had once thought vulgar. That's why Mrs Crimsworth was forsaken by her family for marrying the manufacturer. But her act later became more acceptable with time. It is curious that Eton-educated boys eventually entered trade (the Crimsworth sons) which resulted in the paternal relations forsaking them but it shows a change in time and attitude. Edward also marries the daughter of a manufacturer instead of a born lady. Though being wealthy she would have been educated and indulged in a proper lifestyle. But Charlotte, being influenced by the unworldly Romantics, portrays trade in a realistic and not very emotional way. I think her being unworldly made her see them as Titans - admired but repellent in some way.

After William is sacked by his brother after Hunsden exposes the latter's ill-treatment of his brother, Hunsden helps William find a job as a teacher in Belgium. He gets his friend Mr Brown to help William, something William resents as he hates being in debt. I think William is rather mean and snarky - he ought to see Hunsden as a potential friend, and be glad he has someone to be grateful too. Still you must admire his independence, a virtue upheld by the Victorian middle classes. So he goes to Brussels and secures a job as English teacher in the school of Monsieur Pelet who is French. Belgium is described as unromantic and the characters are decidedly less formal than the British middle classes. Madame Pelet, Pelet's mother, walks around the house in her undergarments (19th century undergarments were actually well-covered) to his surprise. She seems slovenly. This would not have been the case in Britain where they were stiffer. Pelet is described as a genial, intelligent Frenchman who is too fond of committing adultery with people's wives.  This was a stereotype used by the English in the Victorian era, which may have had some basis of truth (modern french novels were full of adultery, unlike English literary fiction which was squeaky clean).
"Belgium! name unromantic and unpoetic, yet name that whenever uttered has in my ear a sound, in my heart an echo, such as no other assemblage of syllables, however sweet or classic, can produce."
The place is green and well-furnished, clean and glittering, and seems quite comfortable. William has found a refuge temporarily.

The Belgian schoolmistress, Mademoiselle Zoraide Reuter, is depicted as shrewd but seems willing to be cordial, and dumpy and yet attractive. She seems to be in her mid to late twenties, older than Crimsworth, but he falls for her. She employs him in her school, and this is where he makes his observations. The Belgians are depicted as shallow prying people (Mdelle Reuter does that all the time) with a lax education system. They, the Germans and the Spanish pupils are unruly and indisciplined in class, unwilling to work, unable to pronounce English well, and aim to flirt with Crimsworth. This is based on Charlotte's own experience at the Pensionnat Heger in Belgium, where she taught. I agree the foreigners are depicted too badly but I believe it, as the English were reputably very cold and reserved in that era, and it is not too hard for them to think foreigners to be very uncouth. Here he has a dig at the Catholics: the girls are not permitted to form close friendships and while the priest is unfazed when they confess to lying, they are stricter when it comes to missing lessons or doing something undisciplined. It is form, not substance, Charlotte is saying, that characterises Catholicism. The English in Belgium are aloof and mingle among their own kind, but they dress badly compared to the neat, trim, elegant Belgians. Crimsworth's only favourite pupil among the real pupils is Sylvie, quiet, intelligent and ugly. However, he laments that Catholicism has made her think that he is a heretic (he is Protestant), and when he tries to be kind to her by patting her head, she shrinks from him. The scene is that of isolation amid a noisy crowd, the only sober person amid a bunch of boisterous spirits.

There's quite a bit on phrenology: reading people's character by looking at the bumps on the skull. Surprsingly it was popular among the Victorians, much as tarot reading is now, and the most famous British phrenologist was George Combe, who read Charlotte's skull as a woman of genius. Overall the Belgians fare badly as narrow, unthinking, unfeeling and unintellectual. Frances Henri's head is however interesting. Crimsworth reads M. Vandenhuten as benevolent and calm but less nervous and intelligent.

But it's internal setting that matters too. The schoolroom is not always a madhouse: at least when Mademoiselle Henri, the sewing teacher is present. Small, quiet and insignificant, she nevertheless gets his attention when Mdelle Reuter allows her to attend Crimsworth's English classes. Among all the students she writes out the best essays and pronounces nearly as well as a well-educated English lady in Essex or Middlesex.  She is not very fluent, however, still he is attracted to her prowess and diligence at mastering the English language. It turns out her mother was from England, and her father is Swiss. She too is Protestant, and feels a heretic in Catholic Belgium.  After his new attraction to Frances Henri, Mdelle Reuter sacks her and she is forced to live in poverty.

A lucky chance brings Crimsworth to Frances, after weeks of searching for her. She is in the graveyard: her aunt has died. Her lodgings are described as sparse but neat, which pleases him more than a well-furnished place would. It is cold, and yet it is described with great affection. Old English crockery, brought over by her English mother, is used to serve them tea. In this respect there is much more nostalgia and realism than in Jane Eyre, more perhaps even in certain parts of Villette. All the crockery is described as old-fashioned,
A china tea-equipage, whose pattern, shape and size denoted a remote antiquity; a little, old-fashioned silver spoon was deposited in each saucer; and a pair of silver tongs, equally old-fashioned, were laid on the sugar-basin, from the cupboard too was produced a tiny silver cream-ewer, not larger than an egg-shell.
Charming, isn't it? Rather like a doll-house, methinks. Frances asks William, "Is this like England, monsieur?" "Like the England of a hundred years ago," he replies. In Belgium you see a mini-England of days gone by, as everything is at least 100 years old. Crimsworth says "If I had a home in England, I believe it would recall it." Strange, perhaps to place a half-English girl in Belgium, but then Charlotte shows her own preferences for familiarity with her home country. While there she only befriended a few English people, and William is just like that. Why should a realistic novelist (she aimed to be so) create a tiny fantasy-space of Olde England? Apart from purposes of narrative it makes a home for William, and it is also an escape into a place he never had. In home he was unhappy because he was isolated and unworldly in an industrial landscape, in Frances' lodgings he gets to experience the nostalgia he has never had, things of 100 years ago. I suspect he is old-fashioned, and this antiquity is a longing for old, less industrial times. Charlotte was fond of Walter Scott's novels and didn't really like Victorian novels so you see the point. It represents a Romantic ideal in a bleak city. Even in Frances' rooms you are brought into an inner world (sadly inaccessible to most of us unused to classical English literature) of Milton and Sir Walter Scott. These are epics of grand passions, unexpected in a little room in Brussels. I can almost hear Charlotte trying to tell us, it is not great people of great spheres who are the heroes, it is great-minded people of small spheres who matter in her story.

It is also in Frances' lodgings that Crimsworth is resolved to marry her: indeed, it is where he proposes to her. Fans of romantic stories, listen. Their master-pupil relationship develops, William taking the stern lead as master (if you are a feminist, you won't like this). He visits her a second time, and overhears her reciting poetry by Walter Scott, and then a French poem. The poem itself conjures impressionistic images. It is about this girl called Jane, the student of an unnamed teacher. The teacher is sympathetic towards her, letting her take a break when she is pale with overwork, and yet she loves the sound of his voice. She works hard to win the school prize, becoming his favourite. Eventually she has to leave and he is dismayed at being parted. In today's context this would be paedophilia but the clean Victorians wouldn't have found this much scandalous. Courting was much chaster then. Anyway Jane is probably in her late teens. I swear I could see shaded trees and grass, 19th century buildings and hedges, in my mind's eye, as I read this. It was startlingly vivid, without using many words. This school setting is the basis of Frances' idea of a relationship: a master teaching his pupil, as William teaches her (she is 19 though), and as Charlotte envisioned her lessons with Monsieur Heger, her French teacher in Brussels. It is not all dominance though : Crimsworth advises Frances to retire from work, as he can earn enough money for them, but she insists on teaching, as it will allow her independence, instead of sitting at home doing nothing but housework. Charlotte was adamant on professions for single women to employ their faculties, and this stance by Frances is a radical one, as those days a married woman who could afford it would not work. It is the prelude to Charlotte's more independent heroines later on, more subtle, perhaps less moving but still striking.
Mesdames Reuter and Pelet taking tea together

I have omitted to mention another important thing. Crimsworth says that a small income goes a long way in Brussels, where prudence is valued, and there is no need to be ostentatious and have a wonderful lifestyle, unlike England, where people were more superficial. The Victorians, being a new superpower especially in trade has the typical nouveau riche who would buy things and indulge themselves for no good reason. They were prudent compared to us now, but for their era they were considered ostentatious. Being a cold, reserved country which paid attention to superficialities contrasts with the warmer, less formal Belgium where Crimsworth finds himself and his true love. But Frances wishes to go to England to work, because she admires it as a superpower. Again Charlotte compares both countries. England is shown to be tyrannous  to the working classes, a factory super-power clouded with smoke and soot.

They marry and start a successful school, and after that return to England, where they reside near Hunsden in a gentlemanly existence.  Here Charlotte shows her longing to be practical instead of romantic (something that never worked out): Hunsden is leagued with the practical manufacturers rather than the French political theorists and intellectuals. He lives in his old manor house, retired from trade, as he has enough money. This is another feature of the Victorians: those of old families would not work in trade if they had the money. Among the younger sons professions were chosen but trade wasn't really the most gentlemanly pursuit. This time, however, England is portrayed in a favourable light.

Could The Professor have been written had it been set in England? I don't think so.  Charlotte's juvenilia had been set in an imaginary country, Angria, with English characters, but as The Professor aimed for realism, she had to write what she knew, or else not do it convincingly. She lacked inspiration for plot, and it was only after Wuthering Heights' publication that Jane Eyre was written. Unlike Emily, Charlotte was not a full-fledged Gothic melodramatist. The novel is remarkable for analysis rather than plot, and a sojourn overseas is still a plot, something she couldn't have managed in an English setting. The foreignness of the Belgians would not be there, even the disdain for Catholicism would be absent. Much as I deplore the anti-Catholicism in her books it is integral to her position as a writer. It explains her sense of foreignness and solitude in Belgium: it is her way of explaining why, try as she might, she could never fit in. So she had to push the others into a group - in this case, the Catholics. I don't know if you've noticed, but she had a tendency to group people, into the fashionable set, the idle classes, the Catholics, the unthinking and unfeeling populace, whether they are upper, middle or lower class. The middle class on the whole fare the best in her estimation, the upper classes deemed proud and wasteful and the lower classes insolent and unthinking. Charlotte Bronte is essentially a middle-class writer for the Romantic figure, an interesting play because traditionally Romantic figures were upper-class or a noble labourer.

It is a brave attempt to compare two countries she lived in. Much as I prefer Villette and Jane Eyre, there is a slight power in The Professor - a realistic description, a socio-commentary that shows the young Charlotte Brontë's concerns with the wider world - something she had problems with in her later literary ventures, which has caused readers to think she was somewhat unaware of contemporary events.

You may find the illustrations by Edmund Dulac here

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Age of Nostalgia and Revolution: the setting in Shirley

This post is for the March Classics Challenge. The Theme is Setting, and I couldn't resist the opportunity to write about my favourite author Charlotte Brontë.
from an 1870's edition of Shirley

Since Shirley was published before Villette, I'll talk about that first. Shirley has the curious anomaly of being published in 1849 and set in 1811.   Charlotte Brontë wrote it on pressure from the publishers to write something more contemporary with social issues. Now in 1848 there was a Chartist riot, which involved working-class men demanding for their rights. But why 1811? 1811 was also an eventful time. It is the Napoleonic Wars, and apart from that there was great industrial revolution. Manufacturers produced more and more goods, and the factory workers who were worked to the bone revolted. The Luddites (a working-class movement) wrote threatening letters demanding better treatment. It was basically better wages, better working conditions rather than votes I believe. Now you see the parallel? The 1840's too was a capitalist machine era, with child workers being hired to work as many as 10 hours, even more, a day. Probably more. Elizabeth Gaskell wrote Mary Barton in response to this issue. But why not 1848? you ask. Charlotte Brontë's writings are steeped in the past. If you look at her juvenilia it is set in a Regency era-like upper-class setting. She was an admirer of Byron and Wordsworth and Cowper, Romantic poets, which is the era Shirley is set in. To write, Charlotte had to escape, and it was the Romantic era that her imagination embraced. After all, she was very fond of Sir walter Scott's poetry, as well as Wordsworth. She even wrote to the Poet Laureate Robert Southey (a friend of Wordsworth or Coleridge) as a young woman seeking literary advice.  I often think Charlotte was more a romantic than Victorian: Jane Eyre and Villette are Gothic-inspired fiction.

In 1811, Robert Moore, a manufacturer, is besieged by unsold goods in Yorkshire. He owns a mill and works hard, but gets little in return. His workers too demand better pay, but he cannot afford it as he is in debt.  On the whole Charlotte is sympathetic to Moore, but certain good workers, William Farren for example, is put out of a job because of this. Moore does get him another job elsewhere as a gardener though. Because of his debts Moore cannot marry the girl he loves, Caroline (whose name is my pen-name).  I don't believe in over-reading but Charlotte could have been saying that industrialisation erodes the great Romantic values - money over sentiment, reason over feeling. Which is what Robert does, by proposing to his landlord-heiress in desperation, thinking she is in love with him (which she is not). And why is this relevant? In an age of industrialisation (Victorian), Charlotte would have retreated to an earlier era where the gentleman-scholar was more common, the artist a visionary ruled by emotion rather than the more political and rational overtones of Victorian poetry.  Robert's love of poetry is a hint at the gentleman-scholar types they had back then - employment was scarce among the upper-classes, and the middle classes who could afford it would retire early and sometimes indulge in serious reading. If you stretch your fancy, Robert might even appear somewhat Byronic - he is good-looking and brooding, though unlike Byron, an honourable man essentially.
William Wordsworth, Romantic poet 
The Luddites here start a riot, breaking machines and trying to murder manufacturers and the middle classes of Conservative tendencies. In fact they try to attack Helstone's house, only to give up on realising he has guns and might shoot them. In the end the army is asked to dissipate the rioters, as they didn't have the Police Force then.

The book is scattered with references to literature - Shakespeare, Corneille, Racine and Cowper.  This is quite important, as Romantic poetry was a very key influence on the adult Charlotte Brontë. In particular one poem helps to cement the friendship between the heiress Shirley Keeldar and Caroline, The Castaway by William Cowper.
OBSCUREST night involved the sky,
  The Atlantic billows roared,
When such a destined wretch as I,
  Washed headlong from on board,
Of friends, of hope, of all bereft,        5
His floating home for ever left.
This is very Romantic and dark - reminiscent of Coleridge. It goes even further than that

No voice divine the storm allayed,
  No light propitious shone,
When, snatched from all effectual aid,
  We perished, each alone:
But I beneath a rougher sea,        65
And whelmed in deeper gulfs than he.
Caroline argues that one could never have loved Cowper had one known him, for he was not meant to be loved. This is the Romantic ideal of the tragic, isolated figure. This is akin to Hamlet of whom Hazlitt wrote about at length. Even though Hamlet isn't mentioned, it is a great figure of tragic proportions Charlotte would have been interested in. Before Cowper is even mentioned the novel seems Victorian rather than Regency in tone, but Cowper sets the mood of the time the novel is set. There's also some playful dialogue on mermaids and seals, also exotic things associated with Romanticism. Wordsworth's influence is also here, for not only was he a Romantic who championed the French Revolution in his youth, he was a realist and pastoral poet, who liked to write about ordinary rural people and their surroundings, which is what Charlotte aimed to do. This is why the book is a curious mix of social issues and emotional individuals.
Shirley and Caroline

To jump on to individuals. Shirley Keeldar is typical of the country gentry - of good family, but not aristocratic. She would have been accustomed to good society and living but still not at the level of lords and ladies. Her ancestral hall, Fieldhead, is part of her respectability. She represents old money and aristocracy, and it is she who helps to bail out her tenant, Robert Moore. Shirley is an anomaly as she has masculine notions of running her own estate and a masculine first name (Shirley was a boy's name then). Shirley, due to her status, is expected to marry someone rich with good connections, and because she refuses to, scandalises her family. She instead prefers the poor tutor of her cousin Henry. Now this is part of the setting as it reflects social restrictions much more relaxed in the Victorian era. Someone of good blood had to marry their own kind or at least someone wealthy. The Victorians were more liberal as to birth, so long as the gentry involved married an educated well-to-do professional or a wealthy merchant. There is a distinction. 
An old house in Birstall, the inspiration for Fieldhead
Caroline Helstone is from the comfortable middle class. She is not wealthy though her uncle has a good income as a rector of Briarfield.  They are not at the level of lords and ladies though they can associate with Miss Keeldar, who isn't snobbish. Caroline longs to go out and be free and thinks of being a governess. she is dissuaded however, as it would reflect badly on her uncle.  Robert Moore represents the rising middle classes who became prominent in the Victorian era. In the romantic era they were already rising though not as powerful yet, as they had not got voting rights.  Mrs Pryor is a middle-class woman, an educated governess with no fortune. Governesses were paid badly then and in the Victorian era.  So the middle-classes are represented quite well here. Charlotte couldn't stop writing about the ills of the governessing institution. You also have to consider the Yorkes, middle-middle class merchants doing comfortably but far from rich, who have been in the area for hundreds of years. This length of stay would give them respectability.
The upper middle class considered compatible with Shirley would be the Wynnes, wealthy though not aristocratic, and the Sykes, well-to-do merchants. I think the subtle distinctions within the middle classes are important, as they were to Charlotte, as her position was precarious. Her father was educated but poor, which would make them middle-class, but their income would place them lower. As Charlotte always longed for the society and conversation of clever people, you can see why being in her position made her feel inferior, and she has vented this into the novel. 

The working classes are sadly given less precedence, but they too are shown as suffering individuals especially the respectable, kind-hearted william Farren, who cares very much for his wife and children. Mind that he does not represent the majority of the working classes of that era. He is meant to be a tragic noble labourer, and is obviously a better sort of person, who gets along well with Caroline (they talk about plants together). The not so good working class persons include Moses Barraclough, a fanatical Methodist preacher who aims to convert the labourers, and gets drunk on the money they send him as subscriptions. He is also violent and unscrupulous. Moses Barraclough represents the realities of working class life which is even now timeless. Note that Charlotte chose to depict a Methodist badly, because she was a devout Anglican. The Methodists were notoriously strict unlike the more liberal Anglicans, and were chiefly a working class movement. They sought to make model hardworking families free from drink and waste. But they could be very narrow-minded and prejudiced. 

Old Mr Helstone the Rector remarks on his curate's drunkenness and dissipation, and says that is why the flock have gone over to the Methodists, who are more inspiring and can empathise with the working classes. His curate, Mr Malone, is proud and insolent, and turns them off. This is historically relevant, reflecting on the demise of Anglicanism in some quarters, and the rise of other sects, e.g. Newman's Catholic movement, a threat to the Anglicans. Charlotte Brontë notoriously hated Catholicism, though Catholicism as a movement was in the 1830's. The rise of Methodism in the early 19th century is like a precursor or a reflection of the later Catholic movement. Feeling deeply about religion she had to write about it, but being unable to write about Catholics in the time of her novel she had to target another sect. I hope this doesn't offend Catholic readers. I have nothing against Catholics myself (I'm in fact an atheist) but I still love Charlotte Brontë, though she didn't like atheists either. 

Among her novels, these feature the most number of people she knew from her parish or nearby, and it set in Yorkshire, her hometown. It is what gave away her identity (she used a pseudonym of Currer Bell). Because of this Yorkshiremen eagerly bought and borrowed the books.

As for Caroline the individual, this is the crux of the matter. No matter how much Charlotte tried to talk about social issues she couldn't stop thinking of the individual protagonist. Caroline is an individual out of water in Briarfield Parish, because she doesn't fit in. She is not lively or fashionable to associate with the upper middle class ladies, nor in a position to be friendly with the working classes (except William Farren, but he is an exception and even so, they are not equal). She longs to be with Robert Moore, whom she loves beyond distraction. This relative social immobility in the Napoleonic era contrasts with the Victorians. However you could say this reflects Charlotte's own situation: poor and obscure but educated. Caroline in a way represents the uncertainty of class in an industrial era. She cannot move up and is at risk of moving down because the only men who seem to want to marry her are two curates who are not well-paid and not at all cultured, Donne and Malone. This is somewhat akin to natural selection or sexual selection (though Charlotte didn't have this in mind, this being before the age of Darwinism). The whole idea of survival is here, as it bugged Charlotte during her life. This is during the age of Romanticism, when the individual was idealised. But do you see that Caroline the individual is a weak thing compared to the community and society set in that era? It is a fight between the individual and the world. She even thinks she is unfit for the world. Compared to the worshipped Moore she is less idealised as a character and far more complex. And how does this fit in with setting? Charlotte is speaking of an era she idealised turning into the more industrial, society-based Victorian era. She wanted to write of a time she loved and imagined, but at the same time her sense of reality told her she could not make it a briar of roses - no, she must describe the difficulties of existence, and the impending transition to an era she lived in during her adult life. It is a study of how times change, and yet how things remain the same.

The Yorke family, based on Charlotte's friends the Taylors, consist of Hiram Yorke, cloth manufacturer, his wife and young family. Charlotte wrote them with obvious nostalgia and affection, but their purpose in the novel is less defined. Indeed, GH Lewes, the Victorian critic said the novel was ill-plotted, and consisted of scenes rather than a defined plot. So what is the importance of the Yorkes? We know that despite writing about the upper classes as a teenager, Charlotte Brontë chose to depict the down-to-earth middle classes in Shirley i.e. the Yorkes, in great detail. It reflects the changing times - the rise of the manufacturing middle classes. Instead of upholding the aristocrat as Romantic ideal, it is the ordinary family as Wordsworth executed who is described. Interestingly, Mr Yorke is a good friend of Shirley Keeldar. I suppose his position as owner of an old house in the district helps, but still he is a tradesman beneath her socially. Apart from the fact it eases the plot it shows a more democratic lady of the manor, a prelude to the democratic Victorians. The Nunnelys, family of a baronet, are mentioned, but in less detail.  So are the Sympsons, members of the gentry.  Shirley, the titular character, is more middle-class than gentry in many ways. Though she is at ease with her class she much prefers the company of Caroline, the vicars and Mr Yorke. The Moores, Hortense and Robert, too, are realistically written as persons with real issues, with satire and affection.

Hortense does not go out to society except pay calls on fellow old maids as unfashionable as she is, and you begin to wonder what is the point. The Old Maid Question occupied Charlotte, being an old maid most of her life, and she has put this Victorian question in the Napoleonic era. What will become of old maids? Caroline wonders too, thinking she will never marry and will have to work as a governess. Critics have said that the novel discusses the Woman Question more than anything else. As old maids, their position is precarious. They cannot rise, but at the same time the cannot marry beneath them unless they wish to descend socially. Which brings us to something closer to Charlotte's heart: can we afford to marry for love? She rejected the advances of a well-to-do manager, James Taylor, because she froze in his presence and because "he is not a gentleman". Note that marrying for love was considered a modern thing then: in the Regency era and before you married for money or connections more often. This marrying for love was also a motif in Romanticism - great feelings rather than reason ruled that artistic period. The Romantics influenced the Victorians a great deal though the Victorians considered them scandalous and heathen - Romantic poetry  was long after read - even Wordsworth, who wrote his best works in the Romantic era, was made Poet Laureate in the Victorian era. Tennyson was influenced by Shelley and Keats. In this way the Victorians were actually more romantic than their predecessors. Shirley's and Caroline's marrying for love may seem too good to be true, but it is Charlotte's personal stance: do not marry without respect or love.

Here is the link to the illustrations.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Recipe for Fish

Salsa haddock

Salsa salmon

In between blogging, studying and watching Allo Allo, I cook snacks. Yup, it's easy to make. I call it my breadcrumbed salsa fish with potato wedges. There was an offer on fresh salsa, so I got two boxes and smothered the fish in it.

Here is the recipe:
Fish (haddock or salmon)
Fresh salsa
Garlic powder

Marinate fish in salt, parpika and garlic powder and then salsa. Scatter breadcumbs on top and put some oil so it's nice and crispy. Sprinkle some oregano for smell. Grill it for about 20 minutes (I use thin pieces) at 250 degrees Celsius. Serve with potato wedges.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

The Kraken by Alfred Tennyson

Decided to post up another Tennyson poem. It's about this giant octopus that lives in the sea. It's a mythological creature in Norse folklore, and its existence was actually believed in that Carl Linnaeus classified it in his taxonomy studies! (Reminds you of the Loch Ness Monster doesn't it?) It inspired Jules Vernes' Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. This poem was published in 1830, when Tennyson was only 21, which shows you how much lyrical promise he had. Typically poets improve with age until they're old and less quick, but this is one of his better ones. It is generally agreed that Tennyson's most lyrical and innovative poems were written when he was young - in his twenties. It is an example of his wanderings into the realms of fantasy, and when Tennyson lives in his mind, it is when he excels.

In Greek Mythology, Perseus rescues Andromeda from a sea monster (usually depicted as a dragon) but in a recent adaptation in a movie I think the monster was a Kraken.

Below the thunders of the upper deep,
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides; above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumbered and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages, and will lie
Battening upon huge sea worms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.
Oh, and apparently the Kraken may well have existed, according to fossil reports.  

Monday, 19 March 2012

Miss Austen Regrets

Just finished watching Miss Austen Regrets - a film about Jane Austen's personal life, that is, romances. The scene opens when Mr Harris Biggs proposes to Jane and she accepts. Later on, in a carriage, she wonders whether she has made the right decision.

Fast forward to years later. Jane is now about 40 and still a spinster. Her sister Cassandra had persuaded her not to marry Biggs as she didn't love him. We see Jane having a warm and gossipy relationship with her niece, Fanny Knight, and shares her ideas of love with her. Jane is now a successful novelist and people like to praise her novels.

Fanny has a suitor called Mr Plumtree who is rich. She is determined to marry him if he asks, but Jane warns her don't, if she doesn't love him. Fanny is indignant, because she genuinely seems to enjoy being with him. Whether she really loves him is another matter. She and Jane discuss Jane's love life, and it turned out years ago she was in love with Tom Lefroy. They couldn't marry as they both had no money, so he married an heiress.

Her brother Edward (Fanny's father) hopes for the match, as he has 12 children and a lawsuit against his estate. He asks Jane to encourage it but Jane refuses. I must say I admire Jane Austen, though I don't love her novels, for her refusal to marry for money or even to make others do so.

Jane visits her brother Henry, who is a banker, and supports her. her mother and sister. He falls ill and she runs to get a doctor, John Haden. Mr Haden is an amiable witty man and she gradually grows attached to him. But nothing comes out of it and she is sad. This is however untrue: Jane was never in love with Mr Haden. Filmmakers I think try to sex things up.  Still, this added plot you could argue adds some depth - it shows Jane as a weak, vulnerable woman in love, even though we know there is no real relationship between her and Mr Haden. It is also ambiguous, because we see Jane as one who will not lose her head for love and distrusts feelings of passion. She seems more human that way, and being an old spinster, it isn't hard to see why a dashing man would stir her a bit, after all she's lonely.

Fanny in the meantime is angry with Jane for persuading her not to marry Plumtree because he never proposed. She had seen him through Jane's eyes, and Plumtree had known Jane didn't admire him. He has married someone else.

Another scene. Henry has become bankrupt and his brother had guaranteed his estate.  Jane's mother Mrs Austen rages at her for not marrying rich Mr Biggs, otherwise they would have been comfortable.

"Would you have wanted me to sell myself?" shouts Jane.
"Yes!" shouts back Mrs Austen. What a horrible cow, to blame your daughter for NOT selling herself.

Jane in the end is shown as being lonely and unhappy. She claims she's happy, writing novels, which she never could had she been married, but you can see she longs for affection. One of these minimalistic dramas with little conversation and few characters taking part in the main action.  She falls ill and dies, but we don't see the death scene.

Fanny marries and has a celebration. But Cassandra, Jane's close sister, is sitting by the fire by herself, burning Jane's letters. Fanny tells her not to burn them but she does so anyway.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy

This fairly little-known work was I believe the 3rd novel written by Hardy in the 1870's. He wrote it while he courted Emma Gifford, whom he had met in the countryside while on architectural business. They had fallen in love but her father disapproved as Hardy had no money. Here he idealises the happy times they had together (adding more plot of course. Emma's life was far less eventful than the heroine's). Surprisingly it was well-received in its time, as it was sweet and pure and lacks the darkness that is always present in a Hardy novel. And the smut. I think all Hardy's novels, unusually for a major novelist of that era, is rather smutty. He does manage to make it sensuous often but often it is smutty, much as I like Hardy. I am reading an old Penguin version which probably isn't sold anymore. (Update: Just checked Amazon and they do have it! The introduction is by Roger Ebbatson). I do miss those old versions, where they stick to the point and afford interesting facts on the history of the novel, instead of hammering into our minds weird analyses on postmodernist thought.

Elfride Swancourt lives in the countryside vicarage with her father the vicar. They are poor but of noble stock and lead a quiet life, as the aristocracy look down on them and they being genteel cannot be too close to the rest of the community. This is quite true in the Victorian era. Class distinctions still exist, though in a different way (but I won't go into that). Elfride is described as a girl with splendid blue eyes.
 These eyes were blue; blue as autumn distance--blue as the blue we see between the retreating mouldings of hills and woody slopes on a sunny September morning. A misty and shady blue, that had no beginning or surface, and was looked into rather than at.
They both await the arrival of Stephen Smith, a young architect from London. He is to stay at their residence while he sketches pictures of the old buildings in their parish. At first Elfride is nervous anticipating the visitor: she is socially inexperienced and only nineteen. Eventually Stephen arrives, and Elfride is delighted to find he is pretty and feminine-looking and handsome. She feels at ease with him and seeks to impress him. Mr Swancourt too welcomes him cordially. Stephen is enchanted by Elfride, who admittedly is too blatant in her showing off, though her chess-playing and piano-playing isn't wonderful in particular. But we see some strange hints: Stephen doesn't play chess well and handles the pieces strangely. Even Elfride who keeps on beating him lets him win once to please him, to his distress. While the two men discuss Latin classics (it was the thing for educated men then to know Latin and Greek classics) Mr Swancourt observes that Stephen pronounces his Latin differently from the norm. It turns out he didn't learn Latin at school but was instructed by correspondence with his Oxford-educated friend, Henry Knight whom he looks up to. Still everything seems idyllic. Stephen and Elfride spend many happy hours together riding, and they are besotted with each other. I found it amusing that Elfride went all out to impress him with her superiority and attractions but oh well. While outdoors they have their first kiss and Stephen asks her to marry him. She accepts.

In the meantime we discover that Stephen was originally born in this parish but went to school in another town. His father is a master-mason who works for Lord Luxellian (a distant relation of Mr Swancourt) and his mother a former dairy-maid.  Lord Luxellian thinks highly of Mr Smith's skills anyway. He conceals this from the Swancourts until his father is injured one day and he says he must leave them to look at him. At once Mr Swancourt grows cold and refuses to be on cordial terms with him. Since they haven't told Mr Swancourt about their engagement Elfride does it. Mr Swancourt refuses saying it's a childish infatuation and that Stephen is beneath her. But the two lovers promise to be secretly engaged. Here are some illustrations for the serial novel by James Abbott Pasquier.

Stephen and Elfride arrange to elope and get married. One day when  Mr Swancourt goes away Elfride runs away from home, pretending to take a long ride to marry Stephen. But Stephen has made a mistake: his marriage license is only applicable in the parish where he bought it and so they cannot marry at once. They have to go to London by train. Unfortunately a scary woman sees Elfride. She hates Elfride because she thinks she caused the death of her only son by breaking his heart. Anyway Elfride goes by train and arrives in London, only to feel it is indecent. So she takes the train back home. By now it is the next day. It would be an overnight train and you know young men and young ladies travelling together throughout the night unchaperoned could ruin the girl's reputation.

Stephen goes off to work in India where he will be paid well and there are more opportunities. When he returns home he will earn money enough to impress even Mr Swancourt. Elfride promises to wait for him.
But in the meantime after the failed elopement Elfride returns home where her absence isn't noticed by her father. He has been away longer than expected, and he comes home with his new wife. Apparently there was a rich widow who recently moved to the neighbourhood and Mr Swancourt married her for her money so Elfride could be brought out into society and marry well, which was the thing Victorian ladies aspired to do. In the first edition Mrs Swancourt was 20 years older than her husband, in the 2nd Hardy reduced it to 12 (it was too scandalous) and in the final 6 years older.

In the meantime, Elfride has written a novel and admitted as such to Mrs Swancourt. It is set in the Middle Ages because she knows little of modern (that is, victorian) life - a typical romance common in the Victorian era. Just as we now like novels set in the Regency era, the Victorians liked to escape into the Middle Ages, where there were stories about tournaments and pages and whatnot. She thinks it is not good enough to publish but Mrs Swancourt encourages her to publish, and indeed she does, under the pseudonym of Ernest Field. By the way it was relatively common for female authors to use masculine pen-names, though a number published under their real names e.g. Elizabeth Gaskell, Dinah Mulock, Mrs Oliphant.

Somewhere Elfride discovers that her novel has received a bad review in a paper, to her dismay, and she decides to write to the critic via the paper justifying her faults. At the same time, Mrs Swancourt has invited her distant relation, Henry Knight (yup, Stephen's ex-tutor) to stay with them. It turns out that he is the critic. Elfride is nervous at first of Knight's crustiness but soon is intrigued by him. I like the way Hardy describes the chemistry between them. Knight doesn't think very highly of Elfride at first, but he finds her cute and charming (and no, he doesn't flirt or speak warmly, he is dry and cynical). The part where Knight is making notes in his journal for his reviews, and Elfride asking if he will show it to her, is especially sweet. I don't know why.  It isn't romantic or sentimental, but you see the vision of a naive young girl trying to get attention from an elder companion, and somehow it is nostalgic, it reminds you of innocence.  Elfride and Knight are surprisingly frank to each other in their questions and opinions, which Knight tends to triumph over, making Elfride sound small.  She gradually loses interest in Stephen but forces herself to read his letters. While she had let Stephen win chess on purpose she now finds she cannot beat Knight.

Knight I admit can be rather insensitive but I do find myself agreeing with him on many things despite being a feminist. He says that it is rare to find women who genuinely love music compared to jewellery. I do think this has relevance in modern society: even most intelligent women do not have the inner nerd in them.  They can make perfectly intelligent conversation but intellectual stuff isn't the core of their soul, even in today's day and age. Elfride then pretends she would choose excellent music over pretty jewellery, and Knight goes Really? until he makes her admit she prefers the earrings.  Poor Elfride. Shallowish as her tastes might be her conversation is deep for her age.

Anyway Knight leaves, thinking he won't visit them again. But when he is no longer with her he falls in love with Elfride's ideal.  He is an inexperienced lover and wants to please her by getting her earrings. He doesn't know whether it is proper to do so if they are not engaged, but anywhere he does get her a pair and then returns to  see the Swancourts.  He gives it to Elfride, who refuses it (thinking she should be loyal to Stephen) but he makes the excuse it was an apology for saying she is shallow.

Elfride is harrowed by her new love for Knight because she has pledged to be true to Stephen. She tries to avoid him to hide her feelings, and he is miserable because she doesn't talk to him so much. He thinks she is being coy and naive, whereas it is because she is experienced in love. I do feel sorry for Knight here. Elfride isn't really nice not breaking up with Stephen but even Hardy portrays her sympathetically.  One day they go walking together, and Knight points out  a ship sailing in the distance - Stephen's ship home - and he is blown to the edge of the cliff. He grasps it, hanging for dear life - that's why the term cliffhanger comes from. The description of this scene is pretty good - it shows his thoughts on life and evolution. Hardy was actually influenced by Darwin, as a matter of fact, something you can see in his later novels.  Because there is nothing to save Knight, Elfride takes off her clothes and pulls out her petticoats. She then puts on her dress. She makes a rope out of her petticoats and steers Knight to land. At that moment they embrace. unable to conceal each other's feelings any longer. A very moving scene, I might add.

Knight and Elfride become engaged. Stephen returns to find Elfride doesn't meet him as she promised to his disappointment. Then he accidentally encounters Knight embracing her and knows the truth. He is upset. By now he has done well for himself and is designing a building opened by a Mayor or something. We see Stephen's magnanimity and social tact when he pretends to Knight (whom he meets with Elfride) that he doesn't know her. Knight hasn't got those qualities though Hardy makes it clear he is deeper and intellectually superior. Despite modern readers hating Knight I actually like him: even the readers of that time liked him. I suppose I have this empathy with a Victorian audience.

Mrs Jethway, the widow who hates Elfride, threatens to tell Knight she eloped with Stephen. Elfride is terrified as she wants Knight to love her: he loves her because he thinks she is innocent, like him. His kiss with her was his first and he is 32. He doesn't really fit in with society, though he is an educated gentleman. He is crusty and introverted. Lest you vilify Mr Knight let me point out that innocence in young ladies were expected at the time - at least more innocent than men.

Knight eventually asks Elfride whether he is her first kiss, and she admits no - she has been engaged before. But she evades and denies until he wrangles it out of her. Now while Knight is harsh I think she ought to have been honest. If he doesn't like her for her experience then they don't suit. But at least be honest.  Yet Hardy makes her a sympathetic figure.  Knight is disturbed by this, because he hates the idea of her having been someone else's sweetheart but still he doesn't break off. Elfride has written to Mrs Jethway telling her not to divulge her elopement with Stephen. But Knight receives a letter from Mrs Jethway warning her against Elfride. Mrs Jethway is killed by a falling tower and Knight somehow comes across Elfride's letter. He now breaks off, because her returning home the next day after running away means she has spent the night with Stephen, and therefore she is a ruined woman (she may not be a virgin). (Actually she is. Stephen was gentlemanly and she would think a small thing indecent). Elfride is heartbroken but he will not give in.

He returns to his home in London, only to find Elfride at his door. She has run away unable to bear being without him.  Later in comes Mr Swancourt angry with Knight for leading on his daughter. Knight dares not tell why he broke off because this would ruin Elfride's reputation. He goes on working for some time, unhappy and unfulfilled. I feel sorry for him becaue you know he was faithful to Elfride's memory, not seeking another woman. Though he is socially incompetent to do so.

Stephen has prospered and meets Knight. They are no longer so friendly, but they end up talking. While Stephen is sketching Knight notices the figure is Elfride's face and questions him. Stephen admits he was engaged to Elfride, and they had done nothing improper, to Knight's relief. He feels guilty for not letting Elfride tell him the whole story. But they both pretend to each other they have lost interest in her. Actually they are planning to go to her to propose to her.  They end up taking the same train, and arrive in Endelstow only to find a coffin borne with Mr Swancourt as a mourner. It is Elfride's coffin, and she had married Lord Luxellian.

Knight says she was false, but they both go to see Unity, Elfride's former maid. She tells them after Knight left the house she grew unhappy and her parents weren't nice to her she longed to be free. Lord Luxellian, a widower with two daughters, came more often for company after his first wife died quite recently. The little girls who loved Elfride asked him whether she could come and live with them and he courted Elfride with the children around.  Elfride still harboured feelings for Knight but married Luxellian to escape her unhappy home. She fell from a horse and miscarried - and died.

Knight ends by concluding she was weak and torn by circumstances, and therefore wasn't really bad after all. They leave Lord Luxellian to mourn at the death of his second wife.

Notes: Smith indicates a common origin, and knight someone higher up the ladder. A Lord of course is highest of all.  I don't know whether Hardy intended this to be Darwinian, but while he makes Elfride vulnerable (out of the natural selection pool) he also makes her more viable than Knight, a perpetual virgin and introvert. Elfride gets higher-positioned men with time, which indicates that her beauty is sexually selected. Knight is not handsome or amiable. Stephen earns a better living and Lord Luxellian is handsome, which puts poor Knight in a tragic place. I think he is meant to be the tragic figure. Overall a decent production, which gave me more pleasure than Hardy's deeper novels, Tess and Jude the Obscure. The startling freshness and innocence makes it far more readable, less haunting, than the animalistic seductions of the latter novels.

I notice Hardy likes to make his heroes faithful, his heroines fickle. I wonder why? It doesn't reflect very well on female fidelity though it is more realistic. Still, entirely loyal heroes aren't that realistic.

In the end, Hardy married Emma Gifford. Their marriage, I am afraid to say, was unhappy, which probably influenced his latter novels. A Pair of Blue Eyes was written at a time of ambition, hope and love, which is why it is much happier. It was when Hardy decided to give up architecture for writing, encouraged by Emma, who couldn't have liked to wait for an impoverished suitor.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Mariana in the South by Tennyson

This poem is a sort of continuation to Mariana, and it features the same character. While Mariana seems to be set in England, Mariana in the South has a more foreign air. Mariana is praying to Madonna because her heart is broken by her cruel lover. Oh, and apparently the poplar is symbolic for a jilted promise. 
With one black shadow at its feet,
         The house thro' all the level shines,
Close-latticed to the brooding heat,
         And silent in its dusty vines:
A faint-blue ridge upon the right,
         An empty river-bed before,
         And shallows on a distant shore,
In glaring sand and inlets bright.
                But "Aye Mary," made she moan,
                        And "Aye Mary," night and morn,
                And "Ah," she sang, "to be all alone,
                        To live forgotten, and love forlorn."
 It's not as lyrical or as powerful as Mariana, but Tennyson I think wanted to make it more thoughtful and allegorical, which was popular in the Victorian era. 

Here's the rest. 

by Frank Cadogan Cowper
by Waterhouse

Mariana by Tennyson

I've loved this poem since reading it 7 years ago in P.G. Wodehouse. I managed to discover it again at a book sale. Shelley and Tennyson were on sale, so I grabbed them, along with a number of classics. In fact I owe my reading of the classics to the fact they were much cheaper than contemporary fiction where I come from. Say, 1/3 the price.

Mariana is based on Measure for Measure by Shakespeare. I don't recall the plot, but it involves a girl called Mariana (a side character I think) who was jilted by her fiance after her dowry was lost in the sea. Tennyson writes from her perspective. She bemoans the fact that he will not come.
Mariana by John Everett Millais

WITH blackest moss the flower-plots 
  Were thickly crusted, one and all: 
The rusted nails fell from the knots 
  That held the pear to the gable-wall. 
The broken sheds look'd sad and strange:         5
  Unlifted was the clinking latch; 
  Weeded and worn the ancient thatch 
Upon the lonely moated grange. 
    She only said, 'My life is dreary, 
      He cometh not,' she said;  10
    She said, 'I am aweary, aweary, 
      I would that I were dead!'
You can find the rest here.

As for the paintings, the poem inspired the Pre-Raphaelites, who were all about feeling and passion and sentiment. I don't know if you've noticed the lyrical ones with a story were those emulated by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood? 

Tennyson also wrote another poem called Mariana in the South. 

The Lady of Shalott by Tennyson

I've been reading a bit of poetry nowadays, more than novels, so I thought I'd bring in Tennyson. Considered a successor to Keats and Shelley, critics decried his work as mere sentimentality, as it often is, but his pure lyricism compensates for this defect. He is deemed to be a Romantic in the Victorian era, because he looks to the past, thinks up fantasy tales and relies on inward emotions to express himself. 

It was popular for sentimental Victorians to dream of the Mediaeval era. While we modern readers look to the Regency romance or the Victorian fantasy, they wrote of jousts and tournaments and romances in the Middle Ages. (Note: in Thomas Hardy's A Pair of Blue Eyes, the heroine writes a novel set in the Middle Ages. By the way a romance in the Victorian era means an adventure or story removed from the usual realities of life, not heartsy stuff. It could be fantasy, it could be an adventure in some exotic place, it could be just a series of improbable events with lots of emotion. The whole point was imagination.) 

The Lady of Shalott is based on Mediaeval legend of King Arthur and Guinevere and Sir Lancelot. Sir Lancelot is committing adultery with the Queen Guinevere, and has returned from a battle somewhere. (I never know why people like Guinevere, adultery is still adultery, and anyway her love for him wasn't so great as the other neglected girl of the story. And I don't get why Lancelot was so in love with her. Probably she was more experienced, worldly, and self-assured.) He went to to the house of Bernard of Astolat, a lord, and was entertained and given shelter there. Bernard's daughter, a sweet innocent girl called Elaine of Astolat fell in love with Sir Lancelot. But Lancelot isn't in love with her. According to the original he leaves the house without saying goodbye to Elaine so she falls into a despair and dies. The reason he doesn't is Bernard thought that Lancelot's courtesy made Elaine love him so if he was rude she might fall out of love. So Lancelot did that thinking Elaine would forget him. She didn't. On her deathbed she has her father and brothers write a letter. She is to be put into a boat with that letter and sailed to the King's castle for them to read. On seeing her body everyone is so touched, the Queen reproaches Lancelot for being unkind (since it made Elaine die) and the King has her buried in full honours. Lancelot is self-reproachful because she loved him so well, greater than the Queen, who alternately dumps him and sleeps with him out of guilt. Seriously. This story wouldn't have gone down well had it been written in the Victorian age by a Victorian  novelist. But  they accepted it in a Mediaeval legend. 

In Tennyson's version, he adds something. Elaine can look at her surroundings only through her enchanted mirror. If she looks out of the window she is cursed. "I am half sick of shadows," she says while she weaves. 

by William Maw Egley
"I am half-sick of shadows," by Waterhouse
by Sidney Meteyard

A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.

And moving through a mirror clear
That hangs before her all the year, 
Shadows of the world appear. 
by Waterhouse
by Emma Harrison

One day she sees Lancelot through the mirror and goes to her window to look at him. The mirror cracks - she is cursed. 
She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces through the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She look'd down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack'd from side to side;
"The curse is come upon me," cried
The Lady of Shalott.
She finds a boat, creeps into it and sails to Camelot, singing. It eerily reminds me of Ophelia who dies drowning after singing and picking flowers. She dies singing. 

by Waterhouse

Heard a carol, mournful, holy,
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darkened wholly,
Turn'd to tower'd Camelot.
For ere she reach'd upon the tide
The first house by the water-side,
Singing in her song she died,
The Lady of Shalott.
By John Atkinson Grimshaw

by Grimshaw

Lancelot sees her dead body and muses 
"She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott."
Touching isn't it? 
It inspired the Pre-Raphaelites' paintings too, though Tennyson complained they hadn't got the essence right. But a poem inspiring art is something. If only we had that sort of touching narrative poem nowadays.

by Henry Darvall

Sunday, 11 March 2012

The Suicide Club by Robert Louis Stevenson

Written in 1877, the Suicide Club is really a collection of 3 short stories, featuring The Young Man with the Cream Tarts, the Physician and the Saratoga Trunk and the Adventure of the Hansom Cabs. The main players of the story are really only portrayed as the protagonists in the Cream Tarts.

In the Young Man with the Cream Tarts, Prince Florizel of Bohemia and Colonel Geraldine go around London having a jolly good time. They go in disguise probably so their respectable reputation aren't affected (a Colonel would be from the gentry or upper-middle classes), calling themselves Mr Godall and Major Hammersmith. While on their wild time, they encounter a young man  offering them a dish of cream tarts. They accept on condition he dines with them. The young man reveals that he has wasted his money and is a member of the suicide Club. Florizel and Geraldine are curious and attend the Club's meeting. There are a number of young man, bored with life, methinks and hence they join.

The most sinister part of the Club is that they draw lots as to who is supposed to die that week. But that's not all. The victim does not die by his own hand, but by another member's. The 2 adventurers are outraged and wish to stop the President from his vile deeds. There are a few funny snippets, a nod to the Victorian era's issues. One man wishes to die because Darwin said that we are descended from apes. Not long after that, a Mr Malthus introduces the new members to the club rules. I find that most ironic, because Darwin was inspired by Malthus, who wrote that population grows exponentially, and this leads to worldwide starvation. Malthus was keen on late marriage so that people wouldn't over-populate the place, which was really a sound idea.Well, Darwinian natural selection is competition which leads to death, and you see the connection? Each victim is selected for his own death. Of course I might be over-reading but it is still humorous, nevertheless. Shortly afterwards Malthus dies in an "accident".

Florizel and Geraldine must recourse to a duel to kill the President, and select Geraldine's young brother to eliminate him.

And then we go on to the next 2 stories which involve their attempts to seek justice. Overall, a fairly diverting read, not profound, but typical of the late Victorian and early Edwardian short adventure stories you see in Arthur Conan Doyle, GK Chesterton among others. There is an elegant charm in them you don't see now in thrillers, and the heroes were perfect gentleman. Nowadays it is the thing to have moody, unkind, antisocial heroes (not realistically portrayed either). I recommend reading this on a light mind on a calm Sunday afternoon.