Monday, 24 December 2012

Silly novels by lady novelists revisited

George Eliot, "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists"

In the Victorian era, George Eliot wrote a well-known article called Silly Novels by Lady Novelists, which seems to contain the traits still seen in today's modern novels. I shall dissect her article and see how it applies to contemporary literature.

Her eyes and her wit are both dazzling; her nose and her morals are alike free from any tendency to irregularity; she has a superb contralto and a superb intellect; she is perfectly well-dressed and perfectly religious; she dances like a sylph, and reads the Bible in the original tongues.
This is so true. Bella Swan is supposedly a top student who never has to struggle with anything, and she reads Wuthering Heights and all the classics just to squeeze every drop of soppy romance. 

 Or it may be that the heroine is not an heiress–that rank and wealth are the only things in which she is deficient; but she infallibly gets into high society, she has the triumph of refusing many matches and securing the best,
Although she hasn't got much money, Bella is desired by all the popular girls and guys, and she refuses to date all her admirers except Edward Cullen.

The men play a very subordinate part by her side....the final cause of their existence is that they may accompany the heroine on her "starring" expedition through life. They see her at a ball, and are dazzled; at a flower-show, and they are fascinated; on a riding excursion, and they are witched by her noble horsemanship; at church, and they are awed by the sweet solemnity of her demeanour. 
This could apply to Mike Newton and all the guys in Twilight who isn't a vampire or a werewolf.

We may remark, by the way, that we have been relieved from a serious scruple by discovering that silly novels by lady novelists rarely introduce us into any other than very lofty and fashionable society.
Since America doesn't have an aristocracy, you could always associate the wealthy Cullens with aristocracy, because they have such a lavish lifestyle and wonderful cars and wear designer clothes. Oh, and they won't be friendly to anyone except Bella for some reason.

 The fair writers have evidently never talked to a tradesman except from a carriage window; they have no notion of the working-classes except as "dependents;" they think five hundred a-year a miserable pittance; Belgravia and "baronial halls" are their primary truths; and they have no idea of feeling interest in any man who is not at least a great landed proprietor, if not a prime minister. 
Jacob is definitely working-class, and Bella sees him as a useful tool to get over Edward. But guess who she chooses in the end? The aristocratic-like vampire, or course. 

There are few women, we suppose, who have not seen something of children under five years of age, yet in "Compensation," a recent novel of the mind-and-millinery species, which calls itself a "story of real life," we have a child of four and a half years old talking in this Ossianic fashion--
"'Oh, I am so happy, dear gran'mamma;–I have seen,–I have seen such a delightful person: he is like everything beautiful,–like the smell of sweet flowers, and the view from Ben Lomond;–or no, better than that–he is like what I think of and see when I am very, very happy; and he is really like mamma, too, when she sings; and his forehead is like that distant sea,' she continued, pointing to the blue Mediterranean; 'there seems no end–no end; or like the clusters of stars I like best to look at on a warm fine night…… Don't look so….. your forehead is like Loch Lomond, when the wind is blowing and the sun is gone in; I like the sunshine best when the lake is smooth…… So now–I like it better than ever….. it is more beautiful still from the dark cloud that has gone over it, when the sun suddenly lights up all the colours of the forests and shining purple rocks, and it is all reflected in the waters below.'"
This stinks of Renesmee, who though a BABY, can make intelligent conversation. 

This lover, we read, though "wonderfully similar" to her "in powers and capacity," was "infinitely superior to her in faith and development," and she saw in him the "'Agape'–so rare to find –of which she had read and admired the meaning in her Greek Testament; having, from her great facility in learning languages, read the Scriptures in their original tongues."
Oh yes. Hero-worshipping the hero's numerous talents, aren't we? How many languages does Edward speak? Plus the fact he plays the piano (debussy no less) and is devoted to Bella. That is supposed to be TRUE LOVE.

In "Laura Gay," another novel of the same school, the heroine seems less at home in Greek and Hebrew, but she makes up for the deficiency by a quite playful familiarity with the Latin classics– with the "dear old Virgil," "the graceful Horace, the humane Cicero, and the pleasant Livy;" indeed, it is such a matter of course with her to quote Latin, that she does it at a pic-nic in a very mixed company of ladies and gentlemen
Did I mention the numerous allusions to Wthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, the Merchant of Venice, Midsummer Night's Dream, etc etc in Twilight? All squeezed out for the romance subplots and none of their depths or powers. Thus Bella is rendered "intellectual." Similarly in Fifty Shades Ana is fond of Thomas Hardy (or rather an idealised version of Alec d'Urberville).

"Rank and Beauty" is a more frothy and less religious variety of the mind-and-millinery species. The heroine, we are told, "if she inherited her father's pride of birth and her mother's beauty of person, had in herself a tone of enthusiastic feeling that perhaps belongs to her age even in the lowly born, but which is refined into the high spirit of wild romance only in the far descended, who feel that it is their best inheritance." This enthusiastic young lady, by dint of reading the newspaper to her father, falls in love with the prime minister, who, through the medium of leading articles and "the resumé of the debates," shines upon her imagination as a bright particular star, which has no parallax for her, living in the country as simple Miss Wyndham. But she forthwith becomes Baroness Umfraville in her own right, astonishes the world with her beauty and accomplishments when she bursts upon it from her mansion in Spring Gardens, and, as you foresee, will presently come into contact with the unseen objet aimé. Perhaps the words "prime minister" suggest to you a wrinkled or obese sexagenarian; but pray dismiss the image. Lord Rupert Conway has been "called while still almost a youth to the first situation which a subject can hold in the universe," and even leading articles and a resumé of the debates have not conjured up a dream that surpasses the fact.
Oh yes. The guy all girls ogle, Edward Cullen, chooses the lowly Bella Swan. They marry while teenagers. And Edward, though an old seasoned vampire cannot look old. Being stuck in a 17-year-old body. Better still, Christian Grey is only 27 and a BILLIONAIRE. Yet he chooses the boring Ana Steele, much to the chagrin of many lustful females.

Writers of the mind-and-millinery school are remarkably unanimous in their choice of diction. In their novels, there is usually a lady or gentleman who is more or less of a upas tree: the lover has a manly breast; minds are redolent of various things; hearts are hollow; events are utilized; friends are consigned to the tomb; infancy is an engaging period; the sun is a luminary that goes to his western couch, or gathers the rain-drops into his refulgent bosom; life is a melancholy boon; Albion and Scotia are conversational epithets.
Oh ho ho, Stephanie Meyer. What's this about "chagrin," Edward's "bronze hair," or eyes in a thousand shades of colours, and his marble beauty? And for Fifty Shades, the ripping apart of foil packets?

The most pitiable of all silly novels by lady novelists are what we may call the oracular species–novels intended to expound the writer's religious, philosophical, or moral theories.
... You will rarely meet with a lady novelist of the oracular class who is diffident of her ability to decide on theological questions,–who has any suspicion that she is not capable of discriminating with the nicest accuracy between the good and evil in all church parties,–who does not see precisely how it is that men have gone wrong hitherto,–and pity philosophers in general that they have not had the opportunity of consulting her. Great writers, who have modestly contented themselves with putting their experience into fiction, and have thought it quite a sufficient task to exhibit men and things as they are, she sighs over as deplorably deficient in the application of their powers. "They have solved no great questions"–and she is ready to remedy their omission by setting before you a complete theory of life and manual of divinity, in a love story, where ladies and gentlemen of good family go through genteel vicissitudes, to the utter confusion of Deists, Puseyites, and ultra-Protestants, and to the perfect establishment of that particular view of Christianity which either condenses itself into a sentence of small caps, or explodes into a cluster of stars on the three hundred and thirtieth page.
Everyone knows that Twilight is meant to be a Mormonist propaganda. Like the forbidden fruit, no sex before marriage (symbolised by no blood-sucking. Even Bram Stoker did it better). 

The epithet "silly" may seem impertinent, applied to a novel which indicates so much reading and intellectual activity as "The Enigma;" but we use this epithet advisedly. If, as the world has long agreed, a very great amount of instruction will not make a wise man, still less will a very mediocre amount of instruction make a wise woman.
Bella and Edward may be top students, but then what kind of kid runs away from home without telling her worried father? And what seasoned man runs off to Italy to kill himself, with no word to his family?

A more numerous class of silly novels than the oracular, (which are generally inspired by some form of High Church, or transcendental Christianity,) is what we may call the white neck-cloth species, which represent the tone of thought and feeling in the Evangelical party. This species is a kind of genteel tract on a large scale, intended as a sort of medicinal sweetmeat for Low Church young ladies; an Evangelical substitute for the fashionable novel, as the May Meetings are a substitute for the Opera. Even Quaker children, one would think, can hardly have been denied the indulgence of a doll; but it must be a doll dressed in a drab gown and a coal-scuttle bonnet–not a wordly doll, in gauze and spangles. And there are no young ladies, we imagine, –unless they belong to the Church of the United Brethren, in which people are married without any love-making–who can dispense with love stories. Thus, for Evangelical young ladies there are Evangelical love stories, in which the vicissitudes of the tender passion are sanctified by saving views of Regeneration and the Atonement. These novels differ from the oracular ones, as a Low Churchwoman often differs from a High Churchwoman: they are a little less supercilious, and a great deal more ignorant, a little less correct in their syntax, and a great deal more vulgar.
The Orlando of Evangelical literature is the young curate, looked at from the point of view of the middle class, where cambric bands are understood to have as thrilling an effect on the hearts of young ladies as epaulettes have in the classes above and below it. In the ordinary type of these novels, the hero is almost sure to be a young curate, frowned upon, perhaps, by worldly mammas, but carrying captive the hearts of their daughters, who can "never forget that sermon;" tender glances are seized from the pulpit stairs instead of the opera-box; tête-à-têtes are seasoned with quotations from Scripture, instead of quotations from the poets; and questions as to the state of the heroine's affections are mingled with anxieties as to the state of her soul. The young curate always has a background of well-dressed and wealthy, if not fashionable society;–for Evangelical silliness is as snobbish as any other kind of silliness; and the Evangelical lady novelist, while she explains to you the type of the scapegoat on one page, is ambitious on another to represent the manners and conversation of aristocratic people. Her pictures of fashionable society are often curious studies considered as efforts of the Evangelical imagination; but in one particular the novels of the White Neck-cloth School are meritoriously realistic,–their favourite hero, the Evangelical young curate is always rather an insipid personage.
I would argue that Edward might be considered insipid. Some sneer at his inability to deflower Bella before marriage - not that that's a bad thing, but usually the best reason not to deflower your girlfriend is because you respect her. Yet he doesn't show this respect in other ways: peeping at her sleeping, for starters. Not to mention disconnecting her engine.

But, perhaps, the least readable of silly women's novels, are the modern-antique species, which unfold to us the domestic life of Jannes and Jambres, the private love affairs of Sennacherib, or the mental struggles and ultimate conversion of Demetrius the silversmith. ...
Admitting that genius which has familiarized itself with all the relics of an ancient period can sometimes, by the force of its sympathetic divination, restore the missing notes in the "music of humanity," and reconstruct the fragments into a whole which will really bring the remote past nearer to us, and interpret it to our duller apprehension,–this form of imaginative power must always be among the very rarest, because it demands as much accurate and minute knowledge as creative vigour. Yet we find ladies constantly choosing to make their mental mediocrity more conspicuous, by clothing it in a masquerade of ancient names; by putting their feeble sentimentality into the mouths of Roman vestals or Egyptian princesses, and attributing their rhetorical arguments to Jewish high-priests and Greek philosophers.
I'm looking at you, Philippa Gregory.  Oversexing historical fiction and putting modernisms into characters' mouths is not convincing. 

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