Sunday, 18 August 2013

Classics Club August Meme

Do you read forewords/notes that precede many classics?  Does it help you or hurt you in your enjoyment/understanding of the work?

This is for the August meme of the Classics Club book spin.  I normally am a stickler for the introductions of classic novels, and my particular favourite would be the 1974 Penguin English Library Edition of Shirley by Charlotte Bronte, introduction by Andrew and Judith Hook. I like this intro better as they go into the historical relevance of the setting to the story and characters. 



Provincial manners may be more attractive than outwardly sophisticated airs and graces, but they are nonetheless inhospitable to the world of imaginative feeling and sympathy. The values of that world reside in individuals, not in society or any part of it. 

 The radical Mr Yorke, a proud Yorkshireman to the core, is honest and respects both heroines - always a good sign of character. He despises proud Cockneys who think they are superior to Northerners, and affirms a Yorkshire burr is more wholesome than a pseudo-refined Cockney. Though educated and able to speak with a pure accent, he choose to speak Yorkshire dialect. And yet despite his honesty, he is bigoted. He cannot bear those above him, and is good only to his equals and social inferiors. He is also a blunt, practical merchant, whose family cares nothing for poetry. He is cultured: he speaks French and Italian, and is well-read, but there is more than a hint of insularity in him, which opposes imagination and poetry. He will look on the practical side of things - he is intellectual and cultivated rather than sensitive and imaginative, unlike the less-educated Caroline, who cares for Chenier's poetry La Jeune Captive. 

She is a comparative novice in the French language, but is able to critique French literature with sincerity and feeling. But she is not part of society: before Shirley comes, she has no close friends her age living in the district. She is very much a solitary individual, with strange and enlightened thoughts. She longs for an occupation because she is bored and lonely, and she wants to put good use of her abilities. Unlike most people. she and Shirley are capable of appreciating poetry for sincere feeling, and scorn elevated poetry meant to exhibit intellect rather than pure emotion. Caroline dislikes the classical dramatists, Corneille and Racine, in favour of Chenier, the proto-Romantic, and Shakespeare's accurate delineation of character, irregular naturalism and intense feeling, finds more favour with her than the classicists of the 18th century. True emotional depth and feeling belong not to artificial society, but neither does it belong to honest and wholesome people like Mr Yorke. Many good characters in the novel are incapable of appreciating heightened emotion the way the heroines do, like Mr Helstone, Mrs Pryor, Mr Yorke and Mr Hall. The gentlemen are very much provincial Yorkshiremen but they cannot be said to be sympathetic to the fine arts. The better cultured on the other hand are insincere and flashy. Hence Shirley is very much about the individual Romantic, which suits the Romantic era setting.

The Hooks also make the important point that the ending of the novel is not a conventionally happy one. Instead it is ambiguous: despite the heroines' marriages, Robert Moore decides to enclose Briarfield Common and rent them out to farmers, to Caroline's distress, for nature will be destroyed. He makes the valid point that with his new money he will be able to employ more workers, pay them better and thus contribute the society. There is no solution: this is Charlotte Brontë's realism sinking in. Unlike Mrs Gaskell she is not unrealistically optimistic or forgiving. With the development in the North, the scenery is gone, to be replaced by ugly mills and factories. There are no more fairies, a symbol of nature and imagination. Society has become materialistic and commercial, at the expense of solitude and imagination. This is the world the Brontë children dreamed of, especially Charlotte and Emily, the Romantic era in which they were born in, and which faded away in their adulthood. They used that in their novels and poetry, and resisted many wider questions in their works (though aware of them).

The movement of history is seen as embracing both continuity and change. The new industrial society that Robert Moore looks forward to in 1812 has indeed come into being. But a price has been paid. The natural beauty of the Hollow has been swept away by the stone, brick and ashes of the new industrialism. The fading folk-memory of the “fairish,” last seen in Fieldhead Hollow further back in the pre-industrial past, hints even at the imagination’s inability to survive in the context of such a brave new world. But there is no such imaginative failure in Shirley itself.

I cannot recommend this edition highly enough.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Book list

Meant to join the Classics Club Book Spin but had no time, since this is final year. I did manage to read a number of books though, and here is the list of books I want to read and books I have read:

Books I want to read
1. Dante's Inferno translated by Henry Cary (have done 22 cantoes so far, which is about 2/3)
2. Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
3. Sylvia's Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell (read part of it)
4. Wordsworth biography by Juliet Barker
5. Dorothy Wordsworth's Grasmere Journal (read part of it)
6. Percy Shelley's biography by Richard Holmes (read until before the part he leaves for Switzerland with Mary Shelley)
7. The Bleak Age by JL and Barbara Hammond (done 1/3) It's about socio-economic life in the early 19th century.
8. Romance of the Three Kingdoms, translated by someone called Joly
9. Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge

Books I have read

Classics
1. Shirley by Charlotte Brontë
2. Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett
(It has not been a bumper year for classics)

Minor works of the 18th and 19th centuries
1. Secresy, or Ruin on the Rock by Eliza Fenwick (Gothic novel)
2. The Year of the Jubilee by George Gissing

Fantasy
1. Jingo by Terry Pratchett
2. Soul Music by Terry Pratchett
3. The Power of Three by Diana Wynne Jones
4. The Pinhoe Egg by Diana Wynne Jones
5. Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers (I think ... though it might have been the previous term)

Modern fiction
1. The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng
2. The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
(I actually want to be the next Tan Twan Eng, only more Bildungsromany.)

Biographies and nonfiction
1. Coleridge: Early Visions by Richard Holmes
2. Coleridge: Darker Reflections by Richard Holmes
3. The English Opium Eater (biography of Thomas de Quincey) by Robert Morrison
4. Reminiscences of the English Lake Poets by Thomas de Quincey (well, most of it. I skipped the boring sections and read all to do with the Poets).
5. Some Victorian gay biography about two gay men who cross dressed
6. The Passionate Sisterhood (about the wives and daughters of the Romantic poets) by Kathleen Jones
7. Romantics at School by Morris Marples (about Romantic poets)
8. Keats' biography by Nicholas Roe
9. Something about the history of the lake district
10. A book about Charlotte Brontë by Frederika Macdonald
11. The Three Brontës by May Sinclair

Enid Blyton
1. All 15 books in the Five Find-Outers Mystery series
2. The Rockingdown Mystery
3. The Rilloby Fair Mystery

This is not a complete list, but I really don't remember all the book I've read. This year hasn't been a wonderful year for reading due to final year exams.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Mansfield Park and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

It is strange that there are so many similarities between Mansfield Park and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Anne Brontë, rationalist and least romantic of the famous trio, has been compared to Jane Austen, and yet her stern, middle-class outlook is different from the gregarious gentry in Austenland. But Mansfield Park is different: it has a loser-girl for a heroine. Fanny Price does not get her way most of the time: she's poor, sickly, introverted and uncharming. She has one point in her favour: she's well-read and thoughtful and appreciates the Romantic poets, just as Anne Elliott does in Persuasion. She is also honest and principled, though unfairly condemned for being priggish. You can rarely have strong principles without priggishness. And yet Tenant is praised to the skies, and Mansfield Park roundly condemned. In one point are they condemned: priggish heroine. Anyway here are the similarities.

Both have a rakish suitor who pursue a moralistic heroine. In Tenant, Arthur Huntingdon pursues the naïve Helen Lawrence. After their marriage her moralistic strain comes out; she condemns her husband soundly for drinking, swearing, adultering, and raising their son wrongly. In MP, the rakish Henry Crawford pursues innocent Fanny Price, a prim moralistic girl. Both men, note it, are well-off; both girls do not have fortunes. Crawford flirts with Maria Bertram, and after her mercenary marriage to Mr Rushworth, commits adultery with her, and runs away with her, leaving Fanny Price. Unlike Helen, Fanny refuses Crawford's marriage proposal. Edmund and Fanny marry, after Edmund gets over his first love and Fanny refuses Crawford. Helen and Gilbert marry, after Huntingdon dies and Gilbert gets over his infatuation for Eliza Millward.

But it is startlingly similar. Huntingdon's mistress, Lady Lowborough was the former Miss Arabella Wilmot, who after his marriage to Helen, marries Lord Lowborough, a reformed drunk and rake. He reforms after his marriage to please his wife. Arabella married Lowborough for his money and title, just as Maria married Rushworth. Arabella had trouble getting married early because she was a big flirt. Maria is not old when she marries but it is likely Huntingdon married prudish Helen because he knew Helen would be faithful and look after the children well, and he may have thought Arabella an easy lay to sleep with - someone you don't have a long-term relationship with. He may have thought her unfaithful, as she proves to be with her husband. This may be why Crawford doesn't propose to Maria, which leads her to accept Rushworth. She is a flirt; he doesn't want to commit, he may think she's an easy lay, unlike virtuous Fanny, unattainable and trustworthy. (Also, there were no other girls to flirt with when Fanny's around). Still, he could easily flirt with Fanny without proposing to her. Either Austen made a mistake in his psychology, but Miss Sneyd of Mansfield Park blog says that it is significant Crawford is a plain man. Perhaps he has an inferiority complex with regards to flirtatious women, who may cheat on him. Though he is charming. He knows he will get the second bite of the cherry, so to speak, and the fact Fanny is an unplucked cherry may be a further incentive to pursue her. (Little does he know she is pining away for Edmund). He may be a beta male with alpha charm (a high beta though) and steals women easily. But he is a fun-lover and he likes fun-lovers, and he realises that these fun-loving women may cheat on him or lose interest due to his plain looks. They are experienced and and easily bored and will move on easily. Fanny has strong attachments, she is honest and virtuous and lacks experience, and will never cheat on a man.  This may be a hard pill to swallow but those days even rakish men actually liked to marry virtuous women. (Nowadays it is a stigma to be constant to one lover). Maria marries Rushworth when she realises Crawford will never marry her, whereas Fanny, despite knowing she has no chance with Edmund, sticks steadfastly to her love for him and refuses Crawford.

MP is more complex than Tenant, in that Huntingdon is almost pure evil: he drinks, philanders, abuses, etc. etc. He also has no learning. His only virtue is his charm and good looks (and money). Crawford truly appreciates Shakespeare, which makes Fanny respect (but not) love him - she is intellectually attracted but physically and morally repulsed. Helen is physically attracted to Huntingdon - perhaps socially. Nothing more. Fanny is lucky to be nearly sexless, in a sense, that attractive Crawford repulses her. Crawford is also capable of (partially) appreciating Fanny for her goodness, her virtue, and her cleverness. He will talk gossip and flashy plays to Maria, but solid Shakespeare to Fanny. Huntingdon has no use for his wife's intelligence. Arabella Wilmot is a terrible flirt and a manipulative bitch, and so is Maria, but we do see Maria's agony at not getting Crawford. Arabella is more obviously slutty than Maria too. So it's ultra-bastard and ultra-bitch. The villains of MP are more subtle and true. We also have the likeable Mary Crawford, not the real villain like Maria, but is Fanny's rival for Edmund's affections. I like Mary, but she is shallow, selfish and thoughtless. She is witty and friendly - she is not adulterous - she has qualms about hugging men in public, unlike Maria - but she accepts this in others. Edmund is disgusted by this attitude in her in the end, when she accepts adultery between her brother and his sister. She also likes Fanny, which makes her better than Maria, and is capable of seeing her goodness, but that is because there is no other genteel young lady in the area. She settles for Fanny for company and for a listening ear - she does not love Fanny for herself. Sure, she praises her, but we know Fanny is not her bosom buddy. I happen to know a few Mary Crawfords, and friends know several, and they are likeable people but not our best friends.

But Fanny and Helen, though moralistic and virtuous, develop differently. Fanny does not appear to develop, because she is always right. But she does - she realises that Crawford has good points in his Bardolatry, and yet resists him. She develops as a person when Edmund forsakes her for Mary. Her refusal of the eligible Crawford despite the fact Edmund loves Mary, not her, is all the more courageous, because she has no hope, and yet she clings on to principle.  The fact Edmund jilts Mary is a lucky fluke that happens later in the story. She develops when she moves back home for a few weeks and realises despite its faults, Mansfield Park is superior to Portsmouth because it is well-ordered and cultivated, and not vulgar. It may have immoral people like Maria and gang, but at least it was there she learnt her lessons from Edmund and saw worldly creatures like the Crawfords. She knows now that she is superior to Portsmouth and her former life with her parents. The fact she is passive is due to her shy, poor, uncharismatic nature. She cannot be otherwise because no one will support her. Her one active deed is to refuse Crawford and even so she is brave. Helen more noticeably develops because she realises her husband is cruel and sordid till she runs away from him with their son. She meets a goody-goody man and marries him when her husband is dead. Fanny has loved a good man from the start - and Mr Right. Helen went from Wrong to Right. People appreciate Helen more because she has made a mistake, but Helen is luckier because she is beautiful, she is accomplished and connected and she has friends. Fanny is friendless outside her family, who torment her. Helen has a brother who gives her a rent-free home and money for her paintings, which he purchases (I think). Fanny has similarities to Molly Gibson of Wives and Daughters fame, but people like Molly better. Molly is luckier and her stepsister's charisma is less shown that Mary Crawford's. The fact Helen does a daring thing like run away from her husband rouses everyone's sympathy and admiration. Fanny's passivity invoke our scorn and resentment. But is it not more daring for a poor uncharismatic heroine to assert her defiance than a beautiful charismatic one? Gentlemen do seek the heart of Helen after all, unlike poor Fanny. Gilbert the goody-goody wants Helen, but Edmund doesn't want Fanny until much later. Fanny's brother can't help her much, unlike Helen's brother Frederick Lawrence.

Helen was more refined and dignified than Eliza; so it is natural for Gilbert to fall for her. It was easy. Fanny had to suffer because Edmund loved Mary more than her, and he was deeply infatuated by the latter's charms. He eventually loves Fanny, but it is a steady, settling-down kind of love. Fanny is also inferior in accomplishments, class and attractions, whereas Helen is superior to Eliza. So Fanny suffers more in the course of true love.

We should forgive Helen for being silly to marry Huntingdon in the first place, what with his scandalous reputation. But is it not commendatory that Fanny resists the charms of an attractive wealthy young man in favour of a poorer and duller man who doesn't love her? Does it not show the depth of character insight in her? Does it not show that her reason is not dulled by her romanticism?

We get the impression Helen marries Gilbert isn't just his goodness, it's because there is a lack of good men in her life, and perhaps she is a bit desperate. They don't even get to bond the way Fanny does with Edmund.  Fanny's refusal of Crawford indicates that desperation does not influence her choice of man, but love and familiarity. I also like the fact Edmund helped to develop Fanny's intellect and keen appreciation of nature. Gilbert does not; Helen appears to be smarter than him.  Edmund and Fanny appreciate each other's goodness, principles and intelligence; we do not feel the same with Gilbert and Helen. Gilbert seems to be struck by her beauty, refinement and higher class; whereas she, tired of a Regency rake, is longing for an honest country swain to take her into his arms.

But because the morality is better-marked in Tenant, it is more powerful, and then it has the power of description. Anne Brontë describes the larches and the gloomy aspect of the scene, something Jane Austen never does. She puts them into Fanny's mouth instead. Fanny is a fan of Walter Scott and Cowper, and Helen likes poetry, but Helen does not quote poetry the way Fanny does. Fanny's emotions are more highly stirred by poetry. You see the landscape in Tenant the way you do not in MP.

To this end I left the more frequented regions, the wooded valleys, the corn-fields, and the meadow-lands, and proceeded to mount the steep acclivity of Wildfell, the wildest and the loftiest eminence in our neighbourhood, where, as you ascend, the hedges, as well as the trees, become scanty and stunted, the former, at length, giving place to rough stone fences, partly greened over with ivy and moss, the latter to larches and Scotch fir-trees, or isolated blackthorns. The fields, being rough and stony, and wholly unfit for the plough, were mostly devoted to the posturing of sheep and cattle; the soil was thin and poor: bits of grey rock here and there peeped out from the grassy hillocks; bilberry-plants and heather - relics of more savage wildness - grew under the walls; and in many of the enclosures, ragweeds and rushes usurped supremacy over the scanty herbage; but these were not my property. (From Tenant of Wildfell Hall)
Tenant is about doing the wrong thing and getting punished for it; MP is about doing the right thing and getting persecuted for it (but it all ends happily, because it is a Jane Austen novel). Not that I disliked Tenant; the wild cruel scenes held a power of their own, and I enjoyed it, because Anne Brontë was a good author, but it did not emotionally affect me so deeply as Mansfield Park, the more realistic and complex novel.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Fans, sane and insane

In this week alone, 2 people have commented on my parody rants of Fifty Shades, written more than a year ago.  I can't be bothered to link the posts here, so if you want to read them, just look for the Fifty Shades tag. What surprised me was, the commentors were saying along the lines of "I'm so glad you posted about this! I'm really looking forward to watching the movie!" or "I love Anastasia Steele!" You get the gist. I suspect these spammers are being PAID to comment on the series and spread the word around. They obviously didn't read my posts, else they would have been offended by my snarky tone.

Anyway, I checked my Brontë poll on the blog. The most popular novels are as follows:
Jane Eyre: 29 votes
Wuthering Heights: 15 votes
Villette: 15 votes
Tenant of Wildfell Hall: 5 votes
Agnes Grey: 2 votes
Shirley: 1 vote
Total: 67 votes

I'm pleasantly surprised that Villette is now equal to Wuthering Heights in terms of votes, because that is an underrated novel. Though this is probably because my blog is Villette-mad, and fans of that book will be directed to my blog. I am also glad some people have the taste and diligence to admire Agnes Grey, a pleasing book, and that the unpopular Shirley has finally garnered one vote. Anne Brontë was a more balanced and structured writer, but Charlotte was emotionally more complex.

Which reminds me of the time i went to this bookshop in Haworth called Datchard's I think. The owner was showing me a 1922 edition of Shirley and we were discussing our favourite literary sisters. She said she liked Anne, and she doesn't get why teenage girls all go wild for Heathcliff. I pleaded guilty to loving Charlotte, but added I preferred Villette and Shirley to Jane Eyre. Which seemed to please her. She said she liked Shirley too, which surprised me because it is a little-known book. Not as great as Middlemarch but the characters are more original and less stereotypical. I bought a few old copies of the Brontë Society Transactions and the 1922 Shirley, which was awesome illustrations. It is my fond hope that it will fetch hundreds or thousands some day so I can sell it at an auction. I doubt it though because it was £15. I saw a first edition of  Enid Blyton's Five Find-Outers book but it was 60 and I didn't feel like spending that much on a book that wasn't even my favourite (the first 9 in the series are the best). They cost more than Famous Five which is weird because FF is more popular than FFO - FFO is highly underrated I think, and in some ways superior to some of Agatha Christie's novels. There is a stronger sense of psychological realism, a fidelity to nature, and language true to life. Agatha Christie is too melodramatic  - Dorothy Sayers is better, though still a bit far-fetched at times. I used to love both mystery authors, because I love solving mysteries, but re-reading the books I loved as a child brings more pleasure than all the best works of the Golden Age of Detective Stories. Enid Blyton is evergreen. George Kirrin in FF is well-drawn, and so is little Bets Hilton of the FFO.


Saturday, 3 August 2013

Fanny Price and Dorothy Wordsworth

I’ve been meaning to explore the nature of Fanny Price’s intelligence and cultivation. In Mansfield Park, Fanny is less accomplished than her cousins and Miss Crawford; she plays no music, and doesn’t seem to be fluent in French. But she is well-read on philosophy, due to Edmund’s discriminating taste, and is acquainted with the old English classics as well as modern poetry by Cowper and Walter Scott. (Modern by their standards; both poets are from the Romantic era).
So despite being less quick and accomplished, what makes Fanny Price more intelligent in a sense, and therefore superior to the Misses Bertram?  
To use an analogy, I will put forth Dorothy Wordsworth as an example. In Thomas de Quincey’s Reminiscences of the Lake Poets, he writes:
"Her manner was warm and even ardent; her sensibility seemed constitutionally deep; and some subtle fire of impassioned intellect apparently burned within her, which, being alternately pushed forward into a conspicuous expression by the irrepressible instincts of her temperament, and then immediately checked, in obedience to the decorum of her sex and age, and her maidenly condition, gave to her whole demeanour, an to her conversation, an air of embarrassment, and even of self-conflict, that was almost distressing to witness …whereas the intellect of Wordsworth was, by its original tendency, too stern, too austere, too much enamoured of an ascetic harsh sublimity, she it was … that first couched his eye to the sense of beauty, humanised him by the gentler charities, and engrafted with her delicate female touch, those graces upon the ruder growths of his nature which have since clothed the forest of his genius … She did not cultivate the graces which preside over the person and its carriage. But on the other hand she was a person of very remarkable endowments intellectually; and in addition to the other great services which she rendered to her brother … the exceeding sympathy, always ready and always profound, by which she made all that one could tell her … reverberate … to one’s own feelings, by the manifest impression it made upon hers … Her knowledge of literature of irregular, and thoroughly unsystematic, She was content to be ignorant of many things; but what she knew and had really mastered lay where it could not be disturbed - in the temple of her own most fervid heart."
Dorothy Wordsworth in old age

Like Miss Wordsworth, Fanny is ignorant of many talents and accomplishments, but she is full of feeling for nature and virtue and the past. She is horrified that Mr Rushworth is pulling down the old architecture of his house in favour of new renovations. She quotes Cowper and Scott, and she feels Shakespeare most profoundly. Her religion is not accomplishment but feeling. Mrs Wordsworth was less exposed to high society and the world, but fit in better than Dorothy, because of her temperament, calm in contrast to Dorothy’s fire. Susan Price, more active and likeable and confident, fits in easily though she is less accomplished and intelligent than Fanny, who has seen some high life unlike Susan. 
Now to go deeper. Coleridge married Sarah Fricker, an accomplished young woman who was the daughter of a well-to-do merchant who became bankrupt. She went to a good school and dressed well. She read Mary Wollstonecraft and professed liberal principles, which may be why Coleridge married her. Mrs Coleridge taught her daughter and nieces French and Italian and mathematics, and she was good at these. Her daughter was a prodigy under her tutelage. And yet Coleridge found his wife deficient in intelligence. He wrote to her saying she was less intelligent and accomplished than him. This is true (Coleridge was a genius) but it does not explain why he so admired the intellect of Dorothy Wordsworth, who was certainly less accomplished in languages and mathematics than Mrs Coleridge, and was less sophisticated than the city-born Mrs Coleridge.
Sarah Fricker, wife of Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The trouble was, Mrs Coleridge did not care for, or understand, Coleridge’s poetry, whereas Dorothy contributed to her brother’s and Coleridge’s poetry by her descriptions of natural scenes. She was a good critic and highly sensitive and emotional, unlike good practical Mrs Coleridge. Mrs Coleridge was accomplished but not sensitive and soulful; Miss Wordsworth was less accomplished but felt and understood poetry - a sort of natural intelligence based on feeling rather than reasoned thought - the pinnacle of Romanticism. (In reality Mrs Coleridge was generous, fun, warm-hearted and well-loved; Miss Wordsworth was liked by her brother’s friends but could be selfish and unsympathetic of others’ troubles. But that is another story.)
Mrs Coleridge’s intelligence is external and perceptible; Dorothy’s more internal and requires an intelligent person to discern her qualities. Just as Fanny Price’s values are less perceptible than the accomplishments of Miss Crawford and her cousins. Fanny’s learning actually means something to her, whereas the rest see it as accomplishments you should have to shine in the world, to look genteel and fetch a rich husband.