Saturday, 23 March 2013

Turn of Century Salon: School of Naturalism

From 1880-1930 there emerged several distinct schools of literature. Which existed before then, but they became more prominent now. Important literature before then tended to concentrate on literary fiction, which wasn't pure literary fiction proper, but a mixture of several genres. In fact distinct genres are a relatively modern invention. In the late 19th century you had the School of Naturalism, which was basically the intellectual literary fiction of that era. Of course you had that in the earlier Victorians (think George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Dickens etc) but the naturalistic school's purpose was to show that people's actions are influenced by their environment. They were influenced by Darwinism which was a hot thing then (and remains a hot thing now). Then you had other schools of fiction, the gothic, the adventure (which I like to classify as steampunk. Think Jules Verne, HG Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle and Bram Stoker. Also Robert Louis Stevenson.) You also had detective fiction (though it wasn't the Golden Age) by Conan Coyle and EW Hornung (author of Raffles, Gentleman-Thief). Adventure novels by H Rider Haggard was tremendously popular, a genre he and Conan Doyle shared. British adventurers go to South America/Africa and have exciting adventures. Perhaps find a treasure or a missing civilisation or something. Now these are not literary fiction proper and yet they have lasted well, far better than most literary fiction of that era. I mean how many George Gissings are read nowadays? Or George Meredith? And how many actually know about them? You also had another category of literary fiction, the family bildungsroman, which may be a subclass within naturalism itself. Think of Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy, etc. at the turn of the century. But I am rambling and have neglected to talk about naturalism proper. Famous proponents of this school include Emile Zola and Thomas Hardy. (Also a number of French novelists who were basically the masters of that school but Zola is the best-known). Personally I call this the School of Misery. Because it's about how miserable conditions make the characters' life miserable and life is a long, long uninterrupted misery with no conceivable plot.

I read Zola's The Ladies Paradise (Oxford World's Classics edition). It's about this girl Denise Baudu, an orphan, who comes to Paris with her brother to live with their uncle and get jobs. Unfortunately the uncle's shop is doing badly due to the big departmental store's great selections and slashed prices belonging to Monsieur Mouret, a ruthless capitalist. So are all the other shops in great trouble. In the meantime, perspective switches to several people in the departmental store. There isn't really much of a plot, as in dramatic unity, but it can be roughly summarised as: Denise gets a job at Mouret's store. She can't fit in as she's plain, starved and unsophisticated. Only one girl there is nice to her, Pauline.  Denise gets sacked after being mistakenly accused of having an affair with a colleague, gets a job elsewhere, is in poverty, gets a job at Mouret's again. Also, the salesgirls' lewd immorality is shown (they sleep around quite openly, a number with the boss himself). Eventually Denise's fortunes improve, she gets promoted and Mouret makes a proposition. She refuses. He tries and fails. In the meantime she introduces to him ideas on how to improve working conditions, making everything better for the staff. In the end Mouret asks her to marry him. She has loved him all the while (though this wasn't portrayed properly) and agrees to do so. Her uncle has been ruined, his daughter has died of heartbreak (her fiancé who was to take over the uncle's business was having an affair with one of Mouret's employees). So Denise gets her uncle a job at Mouret's store. This seems pretty succinct for a long novel.
Mouret's shop, from the BBC series
Sounds fairly straightforward doesn't it? It's far from so, with many digressions of the doings and descriptions of the various customers who are swindled by Mouret's marketing tactics. I think Zola has a talent for conjuring pure, stark realism: you can see the sorrow, the hunger, the misery and the immorality in 19th century commercialism. The crowds are perfectly real, so are the worries and the unhappiness of it all. Denise's good fortune was too good to be true but perhaps he was conforming to 19th century expectations of a happy ending. Pauline, Denise's friend who is kind to her and yet rather loose morally is one of the better pieces - not being either purely good or bad. Denise comes across as innocent and endearing, but what frustrated me was that Zola hardly gave her a voice. Insipid heroines can have a personality and a realistic one too, but Zola failed to do this. Denise is only interesting when she suffers from starvation, sacking and unkind supervisors - or being generally martyrlike, otherwise there is nothing in her. I do admire her resistance to Mouret's attempts to seduce her, but there was no power, no passion or intensity in it - only weariness that the book would end, seduction or no seduction. (Even that boring novel Pamela did this resistance far better). The Ladies' Paradise is more a documentary than a novel: it faithfully describes the setting of Paris and the difficulties of trade, and the life of a drudging young saleswoman, all true to "life", if by life you mean the bare, factual social issues we must be privy to. As a novel it is a failure. There is no internal depth in the characters, though I am sure you will know many of the characters in real life. There is always a Mouret, a struggling tradesman, a scoundrel brother, a worn-out girl, etc. that we have all heard of. But that is merely their surface identities - their positions in society. What of their internal depths and motivations? What of plot and character development?  Denise's passion for Mouret is never fully explained or gone into - we never hear of her agonies because she loves him and yet he will not make an honest woman out of her till the end.
Denise Baudu, in the BBC series
I did recognise some of the characters as some real life counterparts I have met, but a mere superficial view it was - the view you get of an annoying colleague or peer, and a more negative view of them too. There is no real sympathy for the annoying people in the story, or any attempt to make them human and well-rounded. All villains should have human motivations and feelings. The characters seem to do nothing but suffer, except the rich ones who scheme and discuss how they enjoy shopping at Mouret's store. In other words if they didn't suffer they wouldn't exist as characters. There are no gleams of sunshine, except the kind old eccentric who offers Denise a home (perhaps one of the better characters in the book) and even he faces problems in his business because of Mouret's aggressive tactics. And yet realising that Mouret is the cause of misery Denise falls in love with him. This is not to say that Mouret is really an evil man. He is not. But he seems to be an ideal she aspires to. She even defends his actions to his victims! Despite suffering at his hands. I suppose it may be symbolic of the union between hard-headed rationality in business (Mouret) and humane concern for workers' welfare (Denise). Their marriage signifies the union of rich and poor, worldly and innocent (it's implied Mouret was attracted to Denise's innocence, and unlike the other girls she refuses to sleep with him), capitalist and socialist, master and worker. (Reminiscent of Thornton's and Higgins' friendship in North and South).

All very well if you like that sort of thing - realism, naturalism, and harsh realities of 19th century Paris. We do get insights into what people do on weekends and how horrible dormitories were. But I would rather read a history book or a nonfictional piece to know this. Not a novel. There is a LOT of description, so you can see it with mind's eye, feel the busy pavements of Paris, which is what is the novel's chief redeeming feature. It does have vividness and power (in a social, nonfictional sense).

A novelist who fares rather better in my estimation would be Thomas Hardy, though he is nothing like Zola. Though in his lifetime many compared him to Zola, to his annoyance. Zola is more regular, in my opinion, and leaves fewer harsh facts out, but Hardy is imbued with that spiritual feeling so remarkably absent in The Ladies' Paradise. Contemporary reviewers complained that Zola was too dry and scientific. Well-known for his Wessex novels, which described the lives of people living in the fictional district of Wessex (somewhere in Dorset, Hardy's hometown), Hardy has been known for being somewhat of a Romantic - his novels are full of rural imagery, and a genuine love of nature. His trees are always trees, glorious though they be, never a portent of Mother Nature, the hills are not manifestations of Nature, and the skies are not wild thunderous forebodings. (Though he does tend to foreshadow a lot). Unlike the Brontës who tend to use the pathetic fallacy method, and will worship a tree, which is a very Romantic-spirited thing. But merely talking about scenery is not what defines Naturalism - in fact it is anomalous to naturalism, because it is too beautiful and not miserable enough. Hardy was influenced by Darwin, and made a careful study of The Origin of Species. There is a lot of sexual tension in his novels and it is probable that he was acquainted with the theory of sexual selection.

Zola focuses on genetic determinism, whereas Hardy likes to focus on the environment affecting the chances of one's survival in the world (though what you are inside of course affects how you survive). A typical naturalistic Hardy would be Tess of the d'Urbervilles or Jude the Obscure. Since the latter is underrated I will speak on it more.  Jude Fawley is a working-class village boy whose parents were separated and are now dead. He lives with his aunt. At the beginning of the novel his favourite teacher Mr Phillotson is leaving the village school to pursue his studies at university. He wants to become a clergyman and you could only do that with a degree. Jude wants to improve his Latin and anyway Phillotson sends him a Latin book and they lose contact. In the meantime, Jude grows up. We see some scenes where he likes to look at a photograph of his cousin Sue on the mantelpiece and his aunt cautions him against meeting her. She thinks that cousins shouldn't marry, as his and Sue's parents were separated.
Jude Fawley portrayed by Christopher Eccleston

He gets attracted to a slutty girl called Arabella, who pretends to be pregnant to make him marry her. She isn't pregnant but anyway he is unhappy in his marriage to her, and shortly after she leaves him. Jude is a stone-mason and unhappy in his trade. His ambition is to become a clergyman by attending university at Christminster. He moves to Christminster and writes to Biblioll College expressing his intention to attend university. Unfortunately they reply saying his education isn't good enough (being a working man) though he knows more Latin than the other working-men. But he does catch a glimpse of his cousin Sue Bridehead but is too scared to speak to her because he realises he is attracted to her. Shortly before he is about to leave Sue approaches him and wants to know him better. They become good friends and intellectual comrades. Sue is an interesting enigma. She is training to become a teacher and she is very liberated. She was condemned for buying classical nude statues and she once lived with a man. (No, not in that way!) There was once an undergraduate who fell in love with her and they had intellectual discussions. He asked her to live with him and she agreed thinking it was platonic. To her horror he wanted her to become his mistress and she wasn't in love with him.  She said she would only live with him on condition that it was purely platonic. So they lived together platonically and he died of a broken heart. It seems Sue is unable to feel sexual passion, and is mainly attracted to men for intellectual reasons. Because of her causing scandal her father broke off with her. While Sue and Jude get along well when he wants to be even closer she likes to withdraw away, which makes her very enigmatic and coy like many of Hardy's women.  (You have to admit that even though Zola's women are all soulless they at least look different on the outside). What's surprising is that Phillotson is in Christminster! He meets the cousins and it turns out he hasn't become a clergymen and hasn't gone to university. He is now a schoolteacher and decides to take Sue, who is a good teacher, under his wing. Jude is in love with Sue but can't marry her because he is still married to Arabella (divorce laws were bad in those days). She seems confiding at times, unattainable most of the time. Unfortunately Phillotson is also in love with her, but she is not in love with him. As Jude is already married she withdraws from him. Philotson marries Sue and they set up a school. But she is dissatisfied with her marriage, feeling chained and even quotes JS Mill to him(!!!) Sue is far more intellectual than Phillotson and he realises it, and she is seeing more of Jude. She seems to be in love with him. Part of the reason why the Phillotsons' marriage is failing is that Sue is frigid and refuses to sleep with her husband.  So Sue runs away with Jude, causes a scandal, which is part of the arrangement to get a divorce. Those days a couple could only divorce if the wife committed adultery. Phillotson kindly agrees to this to release her, and I can't help liking him. But the lovers' relationship hasn't been consummated. Sue refuses to do so, and is too scared to remarry Jude because of their parents' unhappy marriages.
Sue Bridehead portrayed by Kate Winslet

Then Jude encounters Arabella. It seems she gave birth to their son (unknown to him) when she ran away from him, and is now bigamously married to another man. So they divorce so Arabella can remarry her second "husband".  What annoys Sue is that Arabella being fleshy and sensual seduces Jude in an inn, so Sue reluctantly allows Jude to consummate their relationship after that. They live together but never stay long as their unmarried status causes them to be discriminated against. They eventually have several children but they are unhappy as Jude has trouble getting work. Oh, and it seems Sue is the one behind Jude's surrender of his theological studies. She is liberated and free-thinking, and after speaking to her he can no longer see the thrall of theology. Sue thinks theology is dry and dusty, which may be a reference to Oxford, which was chiefly concerned with those studies.  They live in poverty. One day Jude's son by Arabella, Father Time, asks why Sue is pregnant and she says she can't help it, which upsets him. She goes out, and when she returns home all the children are dead. Jude and Arabella's son killed all of them and hanged himself "because we are too menny." Sue miscarries her child out of shock.

She is convinced they have sinned and insists on returning to her former husband, and persuades the unhappy Jude to return to Arabella. Jude bursts out with passion, claiming she never loved him as he loved her - there was nothing of the sensual in her. Indeed Hardy privately wrote to a friend that Sue hated sex, and hardly had it with Jude. When they did it she had to tolerate it. Jude returns to Arabella and dies. Sue in the meantime forces herself to consummate a repulsive union with Phillotson, having become a religious fanatic. Now this part of the story makes no sense. Is it likely that having lost her to a younger man, and his divorced status caused him to lose his job, he would want to remarry Sue? And having lost his soulmate, is it likely Jude would remarry Arabella? After Jude dies, Sue goes mad, and Arabella seduces the doctor. Arabella concludes Sue will never be happy till she's in Jude's arms again, hence ending the novel.

So what makes it a great Naturalistic novel? There is a great deal of Darwinism in it. The unpractical, high-minded Jude and Sue do not survive in this harsh world, and descend to poverty. The unpractical and principled Phillotson loses his job and his wife to a better-looking younger man. But the less intelligent but shrewd and conniving (not to mention promiscuous and adulterous) Arabella survives to beget more husbands and live in relative prosperity. She would not hesitate to use others for her own security as well as insatiable sex-drive.  Like most Hardy novels, the good and high-minded live miserably, and the wicked prosper. Naturalism means how environment affects the way characters develop, and we see the initially enthusiastic Jude, because he is poor and working-class and unable to go to university, become disillusioned with his intellectual ambitions. He is not adapted to survive, whereas Arabella, the toughest, is. Neurotic intellectual Sue goes mad, Arabella is unintellectual but sane and conniving, and she survives. Phillotson fares badly, but on the whole still better than Jude and Sue. He has fewer intellectual thoughts and ambitions, having given them up long ago when he couldn't go to university, and had a relatively tolerable job as schoolmaster compared to the instability of Jude and Sue. It is as if Hardy is saying that intellect and sensitivity will result in doom (Sue and Jude) and shallow thoughts thrive (Arabella). On giving up his ambitions Phillotson seems to have done all right for himself, though he is not a bad person. He is less neurotic and more mentally stable, hence he survives on the whole, though he doesn't have any children. His sex drive being less promiscuous than that of Arabella, he would be lower on the Darwinian scale of survival of the fittest. Because Darwin wrote about Sexual Selection - sexually attractive people tend to survive and have more offspring. Phillotson in a sense is sterile, and Jude and Sue's children all die. Arabella, though in the end, childless (since Father Time committed suicide) can still get more lovers. This reflects Hardy's bitterness - he always felt depressed and uncomfortable in life, and he seems to have been tormented by unrequited love (for Mrs Henniker), his wife's oddities and her barrenness. Perhaps her inability to bear him children made him think of this. None of his siblings married or had children, so his race died with his generation.

Why, despite Zola's more faithful allegiance to nature (almost everything in Zola is believable, whereas Jude the Obscure has some fairytale like qualities, though admittedly a gruesome one) I think Hardy is the greater novelist: Hardy has got a plot. We see everything through the hero's eyes: his growing-up, ambitions, disappointments, loves and hates. We know what sort of person Jude is. So do we from Zola's characters (he is after all the great naturalist novelist) but we do not feel so much with the latter. We see Zola's characters as representatives of classes in society, but take away their class and position from the text, and what are they? Nothing. A ruthless businessmen, several crude workers and an innocent girl, but each character plays up to a stereotype, which is why they can never be fully-rounded human beings. Their characters are only meant to reflect a position or class, not an individual (except the angelic unrealistic Denise Baudu). Sue is the most complex character in Jude the Obscure - fickle-minded, intellectual, neurotic and sexless. She likes flirting and having attention but hates sex. Yet why does she give in to Jude and not Phillotson? Why did she marry Phillotson and not Jude? I can only suppose she was in love with Jude but not Phillotson. She married him for security, as many Victorian women did. This being a naturalistic Darwinian novel, Hardy would have wanted to emphasise the precariousness of her position as a schoolteacher without much money. Hence the marriage to Phillotson, which makes this event more to show Hardy's ideologies than Sue's actual psychology. Because the marriage does not convince me at all. But if she is in love with Jude why did she refuse to consummate their relationship until he does it with Arabella? I suppose though she loved him, it was emotionally and not sexually. It is a common assumption that romantic love is sexual, and while both go often hand in hand together in rare cases people can feel romantic love without being sexually attracted. Sue is one of those. This is supposed to be high-minded by Victorian standards, because in the early Victorian novels heroines tended to be loving but sexless. To us modernists this is ludicrous but the Victorians had ideals - they worshipped the asexuals. Hardy didn't - he was sexually repressed and wanted to have an affair with a married woman. Intense sexual yearning in characters tend to be more common among the naturalists than the early Victorians. Zola has lots of extramarital sex, and yet there is nothing passionate in it - Jude is always in love with Sue and vice versa. There is feeling, not mindless sex you get in the Ladies' Paradise. (Sex scenes are not described, but they are alluded to).

Apparently Sue is based on Florence Henniker, who refused to have an affair with Hardy though they were close friends, and could confide many things to each other. Her ambivalence is reflected in Sue. German reviewers praised Sue's character, saying she reflected the New Woman. But her childlikeness and sexlessness is very old-fashioned, and so is her reversion to extreme religiosity. Sue is described ironically: from emancipated New Woman, she turns out to be really old-fashioned. Her character is not suited for the modern world and so she goes mad. Jude the Obscure, despite all its cynicism is full of feeling and more Romantic than Zola's practical reality, and that is why the characters in the former will win our hearts more readily than the latter's.

Even within intellectual fields, economics from JS Mill (Sue's reading) is more practical than the crabbed Latin and theology of Jude. Hardy liked Mill's On Liberty and took note of Liberty of the Individual. I have read the book two years ago, and Mill was on about the tyranny of the majority. I don't see how exactly that fits in, but you could argue that vulgar herd who are the majority are adapted to the environment. Jude and Sue are the minority and they don't fit in, and yet their sufferings are acute, which means the environment is discriminating against them, these high-minded, principled people. Hardy's Darwinism is always personal.

The relationships are also better explored in Hardy. We feel Jude's pains with Sue, Phillotson's nobility, etc. the way we do not feel Denise's sufferings or Mouret's passions. They are paradoxical, and that is what makes them real. Hardy does not present to us a documentary, though he does write a pretty teary melodrama.

But naturalism has its drawbacks. Characters tend to be less well-drawn than the early Victorian novels. Even Jude and Sue at times seem to be more representatives of a doomed minority whose main purpose is to suffer, rather than well-rounded characters. I got tired of all the events that piled on that only made them suffer, as if they were meant to suffer. I suppose sensitive temperaments tend to fare badly in the world - still, events weren't always of their own making. It was too clumsy and obvious. There was no sense at all of a community - it was always about Jude or Sue or Phillotson. Zola has multiple viewpoints, but it is still not a proper novelistic community as each character is not well-rounded. Jude and Sue are always friendless, and Denise Baudu has no close friends. We never see how her few friendships develop. This contrasts with the more rural community you see in earlier Victorian novels e.g. Mrs Gaskell, George Eliot etc.  Cities tend to be lonelier it is true, but still this state of friendlessness in Naturalistic novels would indicate that every protagonist in a Naturalistic novel has a mental disorder. Charlotte Bronte's heroines tend to be friendless too, but that is an integral part of their character. In Hardy this friendlessness is to demonstrate the cruelty and isolation of a harsh world, but this is not realistic. Even unlucky people tormented by fate do have a circle or community. Charlotte Bronte's friendless heroines are so because of their temperament and character, not so much because it is to show how harsh the world is. Even her friendless heroines end up with a larger circle of friends or acquaintances than Hardy's more "normal" and charismatic protagonists.

The truth is, the late 19th century had degraded into "photographic" fiction, according to a critic, Frederic Harrison, writing in 1895.
This photographic realism of conversation is common enough now: but it has too often the defects of photography; it is bleared, coarse, and ill-favoured. As we all know, in the new realism a young woman and her lover talk thus: "Old gal! why so glum?" said he—"It's my luck!" says she, and flings her straw hat on the floor. That is the new photographic style, but it does not please us of an older generation.
Sounds familiar? Very familiar with our contemporary fiction. Naturalism tends to reproduce the glum details of every scene, though it does little to further our understanding of plot, background or character. That is Zola's chief fault, which Hardy manages to avoid more often. The famous fiction of the late 19th century is the adventure genre of Sherlock Holmes, Jules Verne, HG Wells, RL Stevenson, Bram Stoker, H Rider Haggard etc because they were entertaining and you could really escape into their world.  Realistic novels were past their heyday in the early and mid-Victorian era, according to Mr Harrison. Famous fiction from those eras tended to be written in the realism mode rather than Gothic or adventure (except Wilkie Collins). And yet the late 19th century was churning out more realism-style fiction, that was glum and pessimistic and paid attention to poverty and unemployment. Fewer happy endings too. But the price for realistic settings and fates was to sacrifice character-drawing. Characters should be shown both happy and sad to be real, as is natural.