August 01, 2010

Germinal, Emile Zola

The difficulty I have with realist fiction is that it's so depressing. Here we are in the coal country of France, among the miners who starve under the new regime as well as under the old; with horses who live in the mine, never seeing daylight, and families that live and die there. The bourgeois are not producing anything lovely with the excess capital, the land is bitter with coal-dust, family relations break down under starvation, and neither the plotting revolutionaries nor the final outraged mob improve anything much.

Lots of great detail, though. I was happy to learn what the 'white sand and red sand' that used to be sold in the streets was for; after scrubbing down a (mostly stone) house, one threw sand everywhere and swept it out to dry the house.

The strike of the Montsou colliers, born of the industrial crisis which had been growing worse for two years, had increased it and precipitated the downfall. To the other causes of suffering--the stoppage of orders from America, and hte engorgement of invested capital in excessive production--was now added the unforeseen lack of coal for the few furnaces which were still kept up; and this was the supreme agony, this engine bread which the pits no longer furnished.

Find in a Library: Germinal. (My copy was translated by Havelock Ellis, known between the wars for his attention to the gritty sexual side of life.)

So wrote clew.

July 29, 2010

Theresa Marchmont, Mrs. Gore

Has all the apparatus of a Gothic, short-circuited by one character being honest and virtuous.

Project Gutenberg file #9387, Theresa Marchmont

So wrote clew.

The Odd Women, George Gissing

The odd women are economically excess. Some want to change the rules (get jobs); others don't, particularly, but would like not to starve to death.

In the cases when sympathy must be divided, Gissing's sympathy is for the women. The New Woman who will not play Enid to Erec is sad, because they almost love each other, but justified, because he wanted to dominate her and that doesn't work (anymore?). The woman who marries for security and wrecks her husband is not admired, but nor is he; her weakness is not examined as much as his is. In the end, that marriage leaves its participants much worse off, but two or three people much better off. Maybe Gissing is a utilitarian. Even the title-hunting sister-in-law turns out to be practical and kind.

Remarkably little is said about actual employment; everyone knows that it's best to have capital, after that a pen-and-ink job, very bad to be a governess/companion/nanny/teacher. The admirable activist is drawing women from 'the overstocked profession of teaching'; someone else defends the 'solidarity of ladies and servant girls' on Christian grounds.

There's one good marriage, after decades of scraping and hoping and waiting... perhaps the difference is that husband and wife are economically equal, as well as equal in love.

Project Gutenberg file 4313, The Odd Women

So wrote clew.

June 28, 2010

Many Cargoes, W. W. Jacobs

These cargoes come with what we call baggage. The stories are all set in the minor merchant marine, mostly up and down the Thames and sometimes across the channel, and most of them are about minor romantic entanglements or contests of pride among the sailors.

The details of living aboard would probably be interesting, but they're mostly taken for granted instead of described.

At Project Gutenberg: Many Cargoes

So wrote clew.

Jack Harkaway's Boy Tinker Among the Turks, Bracebridge Hemyng

I think these boys' adventures are where Nick Harkaway got half his nom de plume, but man, the one I found online was dull and annoying. It seems to be a middle volume, but still. Jeez.

Bracebridge Hemyng is an even better name.

In Project Gutenberg, two Jack Harkaway novels.

So wrote clew.

Three surprises in old books

Endymion is more plain fun to read than I expected, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea a lot less fun. It's extra surprising how much they reminded me of each other in their settings.

John Keats' poem was a thumping failure when published, and isn't thought much better of now; it's about the shepherd Endymion who loves the moon, and how many travails he has to go through for them to live together. It's poetry, yo, it rhymes, there are classical allusions, and yet, stuff happens; there's even character development and conversation. It's a fair criticism that the imagery and plot has at least as much to do with 19th c. England as with antique Greece, but that's poetic now too; has much of the same charm that the beautiful set dressing derived from 20,000 Leagues under the Sea has. There's a whole section in a curse-maintained undersea cavern, which was strangely like the whole interesting part of Jules Verne's bafflingly uninteresting adventure novel.

Why is the Verne so famous? Is all the good stuff in the the sequels? It's written from the perspective of the single least interesting character, who is too single-minded to find out anything about his smarter, braver, more interesting host Captain Nemo, let alone his smarter, braver, funnier, more interesting servant Conseil. Nice imaginings of the undersea world, but hey, we have undersea webcams now.

John Keats, Endymion

Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

So wrote clew.

January 16, 2010

The Fat and the Thin, Emile Zola

While the fat character in a modern novel is usually being reprimanded for being unable to live up to the expectations of bourgeois society, the fat characters in this novel are being reprimanded for living up to the expectations of bourgeois society.

I was hoping for more details of how nineteenth-c. Paris was provisioned, since the story is set in the food markets (with little idyllic bits in the nearby truck farms). There are a lot of details, I suppose; vast semi-public cellars of cheese, butter, fowl, everything; but so much of it is taken for granted... Food seems to be very efficiently used, as in Farmers of Forty Centuries, and for the same reason: so many people are poor that every scrap and broken meat can be sold for some tiny, scrabbling sum. Also, good wives and daughters spend a lot of time making leftovers edible.

Project Gutenberg file#5744, The Fat and the Thin; originally, Ventre de Paris

So wrote clew.

The Doomswoman, Gertrude Atherton

It's not unusual for succesful hegemons (or colonialists or whatever) to get romantic and swoony about the people they've replaced. Indeed, it often seems like the final mark of conquest. This is a Californian novel about how the last Spanish-Californians in the country were very good at the 'good life' but not practical or, you know, thrusting; so that the best of their young men looks forward to becoming part of the States. There are lots of scenic picnics and dances and flashing eyes on the way.

Gertrude Atherton eloped with the man who developed Atherton, but most of her life was a career writing novels modern, scandalous, fantastical or all three; she was an allegory of the development of California, herself.

Project Gutenberg file #12270, The Doomswoman

So wrote clew.

Pink and White Tyranny, Harriet Beecher Stowe

Here's an early feminist argument against legal divorce: it would be unfair to the weaker sisters, who would find themselves abandoned and go to the bad.

Beecher Stowe loads the dice; the frivolous and greedy wife doesn't go completely to the bad while married, and her husband and daughter become only better in character for meeting the burden laid on them, and the woman the husband should have married isn't destroyed wihtout him, etc. God, Beecher Stowe argues, tempers the wind to the shorn lamb, who benefits from the bracing exposure.

Project Gutenberg file #12354, Pink and White Tyranny

So wrote clew.

August 26, 2009

The Ladies' Paradise, Émile Zola, trans. Brian Nelson

Properly Au Bonheur des Dames; one of Zola's net of novels about the development of modernity in France. I alternated surprise at how modern it was with surprise at how French.

Modernity in this is the development of the department store; which depended on the expansion of credit, on zoning deals, on the aggravation of consumerism, and on quantites of clerking to make any of us grateful to the nearest DBA:

Some opened the letters, others read them, sitting at both sides of the same table; still others sorted them, giving each one a serial number which was repeated on a pigeon-hole; then, when the letters had been distributed to the different deprtments and the departments had sent up the articles, the articles were put into the pigeon-holes according to the serial number.

This careful accounting allows new pay-scale incentives:

Then came yet another office, the clearing-house: there six young men, bent over black desks, with piles of registers behing them, drew up accounts of the salemen's commissions by collating the sales bills. This section, which was quite new, was not running well. [...] Mouret, without reprimanding them, explained the system of the small bonus he had thought of paying them for every eror they discovered in the sales bills; and when had left the clerks, no longer laughing, and with a cowed air, set to work with a vengeance, hunting for mistakes.

and error-tracking:

'why were six pairs of sheets which a lady bought yesterday at two o'clock not delivered in the evening?' [...] Finally, Campion discovered the error: the cash-desk had given a wrong number, and the parcel had come back.

I was also astonished at the explicit connections Zola makes between consumerism, and the objectification of women, and shoplifting -- the department store advertises more and more effectively and to poorer people than old shops had, and makes every scrap of female beauty a commodity; it is selling women back to themselves. It's hard to believe female beauty could be more for sale than it was in eighteenth century France, but maybe the sale here is applying to all classes? And Zola cites someone else for evidence that shoplifting, even by women with money, is partly the attempt to steal back the taken body. This is practically Barbara Kruger.

The Frenchness of it all is partly in the materials -- lengths of silk, velvets of so many kinds, details of soap and lace... but mostly in the relations between the sexes. It really doesn't strike me as a commonplace that two men will make better business deals if they share a mistress. And the young woman who is triumphantly Good is so for reasons of bourgeois prudence, not religious or social obedience, let alone any shyness of the flesh. (That's modern now, but I'm counting it as particularly French then.)

Find in a Library: The Ladies' Paradise

So wrote clew.

March 01, 2009

Under the Storm, Charlotte Mary Yonge

More Yonge being pro-Papist, despite her presumed Protestantism, because she's writing a book set in the civil war and the Roundheads are far too anti-establishment for her. I think. My grasp of the theological issues is nonexistent, so what I read was a novel about the dangers of extremism, the difficulty of civil war, the art to know well to die, and -- possibly what really attracts me -- the skilled heavy labor and complex social backup needed for even `subsistence' living, in most of history.

It's sort of a Boxcar Children novel; children orphaned and made houseless by disease and ill-controlled soldiers move into a collapsed hermit's hut in the woods, make mostly good. But: neighbors would have taken them in, taking all their surviving goods in exchange; leaving the land would have broken the ?feudal? right to it, which they keep despite their poverty because the lady of the manor can't afford to rebuild their house (she owes them housing if they owe her labor); and they only survive because they can act in the market, in a small way, for instance to get a spinning-wheel and salt in exchange for their butter.

Minor oddity; referring casually to the `slime' of the Bristol channel. I suppose it was silting up already in the 17th. c.

Project Gutenberg file #6006, Under the Storm

So wrote clew.

September 03, 2008

The Country House, John Galsworthy

A family that is very bad at effectively loving each other, but considerably better at loving their country house, fumble through several linked emotional crises.

What, indeed, could be more delightful than this country-house life of Mr. Pendyce; its perfect cleanliness, its busy leisure, its combination of fresh air and scented warmth, its complete intellectual repose, its essential and professional aloofness from suffering of any kind, and its soup--emblematically and above all, its soup--made from the rich remains of pampered beasts?

Galsworthy is fairly straightforward about their merely human follies, but very, very slightly sarcastic about the follies of their class, so I could enjoy the real-estate fantasy without feeling like a total creep. (Ivy Compton-Burnett is a better author, but I feel like a horrible member of a horrible species after reading her books. Possibly she's enough better that I act like a slightly better person, but I don't think the effect is significant.)

Historical oddities; an landholder calling himself a "Tory Communist" because he quite consciously wants a conservative nanny state; "there were liberals [in the village] now that they were beginning to believe that the ballot was really secret"; "The Rector blushed. He hated tale-bearing--that is, of course, in the case of a man; the case of a woman was different--and just as, when he went to Bellew he had been careful not to give George away, so now he was still more on his guard."

Project Gutenberg etext 2772

So wrote clew.

June 04, 2005

Gryll Grange, Thomas Love Peacock

This is an even more straightforward country-house romance than Crotchet Castle, with even more occasions for remarkably comfortable men to sniff at the foolish changes made by 'improvers', principally the idea of advancement by examination; they do huff very effectively at the idea that passing an exam in Greek makes a good engineer, but they rather pass over the system, if any, previously used to promote engineers. On the other hand, it maps so perfectly to the same kind of political argument now that it was still a bit funny.

There's a sort of Bunthorpe who is so in love with the abstract ideal of Womanhood that his household is run by seven well-educated but working-class sisters, who have half the building to themselves and do all the work in pairs to avert cruel gossip. They all marry local rustic suitors, in a ninefold wedding with the two gentry couples. Perhaps this was meant to provide comic relief or a choral effect, but they hardly get to speak.

One delightful bit of material history:

Twelfth-night was the night of the ball. [...] The carpets had been taken up, and the floors were painted with forms in chalk by skillful artists...

And Peacock footnotes that with a quotation from Wordsworth using the metaphor "like Forms with chalk/Painted on rich men's floors". Slippery to dance on, I wonder, or like rosin? How much would it cut into varnish? Hmmm...

Peacock, Thomas Love. Gryll Grange. London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1896.

So wrote clew.

April 24, 2005

Maid Marian and Crotchet Castle, Thomas Love Peacock

Some of the ladies screamed, but none of them fainted; for fainting was not so much the fashion in those days, when the ladies breakfasted on brawn and ale at sunrise, as in our more refined age of green tea and muffins at noon.

The prose is varied and light, especially in Crotchet Castle; reminds me of light George Meredith. Thomas Love Peacock was a satirist of his day, which probably makes his stuff more readable than otherwise; some of his targets still exist, and others are innately funny to the modern taste.

Robin Hood is king of the forest both by dignity of birth and by virtue of his standing army: to say nothing of the free choice of his people, which he has indeed, but I pass it by as an illegitimate basis of power.

I didn't need so much humor about friars falling down; they are not infrequent in the story and wildly overrepresented in the illustrations. Peacock Marian and fallen friar

Maid Marian is only nice if you really like Maid Marian stories; I was more than a little charmed by the energy and martial skill attributed to Marian;

'She can fence,' said the little friar, 'and draw the longbow, and play at single-stick and quarter-staff.'
'Yet, mark you,' said Brother Michael, 'not like a virago or a hoyden, or one that would crack a serving-man's head for spilling gravy on her ruff, but with such womanly grace and temperate self-command as if those manly exercises belonged to her only, and were become for her sake feminine.'

Which sounds as though she's going to be a little dainty and useless, but actually she holds off Richard Lionheart when he meets her standing guard in the woods. She would have lost eventually, but that seems more than fair. Also, there is a valorous cottage-wife with no training but Amazonian strength wielding a spit as a spear. (That same scene uses the phrase 'beaten into mummy'; anachronistic, probably; very odd thing, the Victorian view of mummy.) Also, a remarkably simple explanation of why Maid Marian; not even Robin and Marian think outlawry in the forest is a safe condition for maternity, and there's some theological question about how married they are.

Crotchet Castle is both a satire of country-house romances and finally a straight-up example of the genre. The romances get the field in the end; until then the stock characters make fools of themselves like street-show puppets.

...he could not become, like a true-born English squire, part and parcel of the barley-giving earth; he could not find in game-bagging, poacher-shooting, trespasser-pounding, footpath-stopping, common-enclosing, rack-renting, and all the other liberal pursuits and pastimes which make a country gentleman an ornament to the world, and a blessing to the poor...

I wonder who was expected to be reading this. Jokes regularly appear that are based on puns in the Greek transliteration of some name; they are usually translated in the footnotes, though. Perhaps for the better-educated clerkly class of what they thought of as small means and we think of as liberal tendencies?

Illustrations by one F. H. Townsend in the 1890s.

January 07, 2005

The Claverings, Anthony Trollope

If you liked Jo Walton's Tooth and Claw and feel like starting in on Trollope in some parallel novel, try The Claverings. It isn't a perfect parallel, but consider:

"You know her to be treacherous, false, vulgar, covetous, unprincipled. You cannot like her. You say she is a dragon."
"A dragon to you, I said. [...] How am I better than her, and why should I not associate with her?"
"Better than her! As women you are poles asunder."
"But as dragons," she said, smiling, "we come together."

Fortuitous turn of phrase aside, two of the other Tooth and Claw tropes appear: this novel does not allow the maiden once besmirched (though legally) to find love and happiness with Another; and the inheritance of power is pretty grim. There isn't any hungry looming round the deathbed, but the charming hero is very like his unpleasant forbears, it's just that he's charming enough that no-one notices for long. He marries a sweet sprig of the industrial class; maybe she improves their children. Well, also, he is different in having meant to join the industrious before he inherited; he just wasn't reliable at showing up for work.

There doesn't seem to be an online version.

ISBN: 0486234649

December 02, 2004

The Parent's Assistant, Maria Edgeworth

I liked the stories in Tales and Novels, vol. II better; I wonder if these were written earlier or for younger children.

The introduction might be the most interesting part, because it's a defense of her theories of what stories will make children good. If I recall correctly this was a radical idea in her day, that children were not born good or bad, that reason could lead to virtue in all the classes. The Edgeworths were early in the attempts to make childrearing a science:

Indeed, in all sciences the grand difficulty has been to ascertain facts--a difficulty which, in the science of education, peculiar circumstances conspire to increase. Here the objects of every experiment are so interesting that we cannot hold our minds indifferent to the result. Nor is it to be expected that many registers of experiments, successful and unsuccessful, should be kept, much less should be published, when we consider that the combined powers of affection and vanity, of partiality to his child and to his theory, will act upon the mind of a parent, in opposition to the abstract love of justice, and the general desire to increase the wisdom and happiness of mankind.

The idea of making childrearing a science sends my mind, at least, towards John Dewey and social engineering and Brave New World. Maria Edgeworth had to appeal to comfortable English phlegm in the face of the then-recent experiments of the French Revolution, but I suspect her of sympathy with, at least, greater social mobility than her society had:

The question, whether society could exist without the distinction of ranks, is a question involving a variety of complicated discussions, which we leave to the politician and the legislator. At present it is necessary that the education of different ranks should, in some respects, be different. They have few ideas, few habits in common; their peculiar vices and virtues do not arise from the same causes, and their ambition is to be directed to different objects. But justice, truth, and humanity are confined to no particular rank, and should be enforced with equal care and energy upon the minds of young people of every station[...] In a commercial nation it is especially necessary to separate, as much as possible, the spirit of industry and avarice; and to beware lest we introduce Vice under the form of Virtue.

And finally she deals with some questions still current in arguments over suitable children's entertainment; should we scare them with evil, tempt them with unreasonably happy endings, what?

Were young people, either in public schools, or in private families, absolutely free from bad examples, it would not be advisable to introduce despicable and vicious characters in books intended for their improvement. But in real life they MUST see vice, and it is best that they should be early shocked with the representation of what they are to avoid. There is a great deal of difference between innocence and ignorance.
To prevent the precepts of morality from tiring the ear and the mind, it was necessary to make the stories in which they are introduced in some measure dramatic; to keep alive hope and fear and curiosity, by some degree of intricacy. At the same time, care has been taken to avoid inflaming the imagination, or exciting a restless spirit of adventure, by exhibiting false views of life, and creating hopes which, in the ordinary course of things, cannot be realized.

None of the actual stories are as lively as "Lame Jervas" and his continent-crossing, social-justice engineering career. There are a couple of school stories, including one about the foolish introduction of party or faction spirit into a private school; not Slytherin vs. etc., but maybe a faint forerunner. My favorite was "The Little Merchants", which is about the commercial ventures of Neapolitan children; Edgeworth makes survival by scrap-picking seem rather cheerful, and her hero finally makes good by asking to have a carpenter's rule explained to him and eventually becoming an architectural illustrator hired by the rich English who come to see the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Project Gutenberg etext #3655

November 18, 2004

Swann's Way, Marcel Proust

Alas; Proust's narrator bored me silly and I didn't like him or any of the people he admired, and although I plowed through this volume of one translation, I am not going to get any farther.

All these people are unpleasant to anyone they can get away with being unpleasant to, and if anyone but the housekeeper and cook do anything productive I don't remember it, and although I think much of the writing is supposed to be introspective or even insightful I didn't see it at all. I could see a costume-drama charm, because the rich here are so rich and so well-dressed and so unconcerned that anything worse than moving slightly down the scale among their rich peers will happen to them.

Maybe something happens another megabyte in.

There's a stunningly pretty graphic-novel version of The Remembrance of Things Past coming out volume by slim volume; my flippings-through have suggested that still not much happens, but the costumes and backgrounds get their proper spotlight.

Project Gutenberg text #7178

Lorna Doone, R. D. Blackmoore

There aren't any shortbread cookies in this novel. There is excellent butter, but no cookies, and the eponymous heroine isn't much of a cook. She is Scots by inheritance, but she doesn't grow up there; her childhood nurse is Italian and she's actually brought up by a gang of noble robbers in Exmoor. The cookie name is completely a shallow marketing ploy.

However, John Ridd the wonderful hero is awake to the chance of using a shallow marketing ploy to sell his butter, so in an accidental way it's a fine memorial. It would be a more accurate memorial with better butter and a couple gallons of beer.

John Ridd boasts about everything and is likeable anyway. He boasts about his strength, honesty, flirtatousness, commercial cunning, and modesty; you'd think the last would be a hard boast to carry, but no. Lorna Doone is a fluttery drip, but Ridd's narration is completely steady, although the author throws just everything into it; fantasias on the sublimity of Nature, lots and lots of food, wrestling, a battle-scene, a devil-and-saint fairy tale, considerable fondness for horses.

Between the farming and the horses this avoids Diana Wynne Jones' Toughguide errors. It isn't technically a fantasy novel, it's rather a historical adventure in the late 17th century (the battle is the end of Monmouth's invasion), but the structure is a lot like fantasy novels. Local boy grows up to put down the evil horde, meets the King, etc.

The evil horde lives in one of my favorite clichés of tripe fiction: a beautiful, completely enclosed river valley, reached only through natural tunnels in the rock and other geological extravagances. The hero can sneak in and out, as in fact can servant-women who exchange news, not that anyone pays attention to the serving-women when discussing the impregnable hideaway. Casual Web lookups suggest that there are boggy, complicated valleys all over Exmoor, many of them now named after this novel and catering to the tourist trade. Actually, it sounds like a wonderful place for a holiday if you like rain (and butter); they advertise roadless areas for riding, where John Ridd remarked that wheels had not yet come to Exmoor because the roads were so muddy they required sledges.

(One of the Walter Farley series had an even better hideaway, a Caribbean island that looked like a waterless rock from the sea but had a green valley sustaining an entire herd of horses inside.)

Project Gutenberg etext #840

September 13, 2004

The Wanderer, Fanny Burney

Subtitle: or, Female Difficulties

During the dire reign of the terrific Robespierre, and in the dead of night, braving the cold, the darkness and the damps of December, some English passengers, in a small vessel, were preparing to glide silently from the coast of France, when a voice of keen distress resounded from the shore, imploring, in the French language, pity and admission.

Despite the grand drama of this opening, I can't recommend this novel as a pastime; by modern standards the story is too prolonged, the heroine too stuffy, the language too unintentionally funny. It is interesting for its compromises, between admiration for the early principles of the new French republic and horror at its violence; between the didactic novel and the thriller; between the Romantic document and the argument for self-control. Fanny Burney d'Arblay steered some narrow compromises in her own life.

The best thing in her story is the counter-heroine Miss Elinor Joddrell, who isn't actually a Villainess but like villainesses gets to act towards her own positive ends; those ends, alas, lead her to attempt suicide to prove her rigorous belief in romantic love and atheism. The second-best characters are a string of gruff older men with conscientously avuncular feelings toward the heroine; they make a set of English eccentrics. The third best thing is a trot through evocative parts of the English countryside, including an excellent scene at Stonehenge and some frightening nights in the forest.

The most annoying thing, alas, is the heroine's extremely negative virtue; she won't sing for money, she won't accept money from a stranger, she won't keep her mouth shut to keep a position as companion to a shrew. These acts are variously attributed to her unbowed honesty, her aristocratic pride, or her sense of the traps laid for any unprotected woman; given the subtitle I will assume that everything but her leaving the shrew was required to preserve her virtue, and therefore her person. It is repeatedly her difficulty that a solitary woman with money is assumed to have earned it immorally, and a poor woman with no family is considered anyone's prey.

I can't give a URL because I can't find a copy of this online, although I downloaded it from somewhere... I would serve up my copy of the text, but what if the cold hand of copyright law is reaching forward from 1814? On the other hand, it has been reprinted with scholarly apparatus, ISBN: 0192837583.

An Old-Fashioned Girl, Lousia May Alcott

Such things are great fun when you get used to them; besides, contriving sharpens your wits, and makes you feel as if you had more hands than most people.

The beginning and end of the story are conventional, if not old-fashioned for their own day; Polly, who is as virtuous as a child with living parents and no consumptive disease could imaginably be, teaches her rich relations about love and self-reliance. In the end she marries her boyish cousin rather than a sophisticated, kind, older suitor.

The first virtue the book has in itself is Alcott's characteristic view of family life. Everyone has flaws, even Polly, and everyone's flaws are a little funny and fixable, especially Polly's. It would work as a sitcom. (Alcott was writing for a living, of course, and probably on a regular schedule.) The second virtue is Polly's career between childhood and marriage; she and all her friends are single girls determined to make their own livings. They lever the rhetoric of the virtuous, sensitive, artistic nineteenth-c. woman nearly as far as it can go in the service of getting that woman out of the house and into employment. Even this is not too preachy or defensive in the novel; it reads like a plausible account of the justifications these women would have used, in friendly company, at the time.

Alcott forestalls the sisters-until-marriage issue:

"When are you and Becky going to dissolve partnership?" asked Polly, eager for news of all.
"Never! George knows he can't have one without the other, and has not suggested such a thing as parting us. There is always room in my house for Becky, and she lets me do as she would if she was in my place," answered Bess, with a look which her friend answered by a smile.
"The lover won't separate this pair of friends, you see," whispered Polly to Fan. "Bess is to be married in the spring, and Becky is to live with her."

I should think they won't be separated; they're Bostonians, and were introduced so:

One stood before a great clay figure, in a corner. This one was tall, with a strong face, keen eyes, short, curly hair, and a fine head. Fanny was struck at once by this face and figure, though the one was not handsome, and the other half hidden by a great pinafore covered with clay. At a table where the light was clearest, sat a frail-looking girl, with a thin face, big eyes, and pale hair, a dreamy, absorbed little person, who bent over a block, skillfully wielding her tools.

I did notice that Alcott's virtuous women spend a lot of their effort picking up after men; for instance, in Polly's case, doing her brother's mending while working to pay his tuition. I hope he at least chopped her firewood, because he doesn't send her to Vienna to study when he's working. He would clearly take care of her if he needed to, if he noticed, which he might but isn't expected to do. The rhetoric of selfless virtue won't get you better than a distant second place in this world.

Project Gutenberg etext #2787

June 17, 2004

The Lion and the Unicorn, Richard Harding Davis

These short stories aren't as good as Davis' novel Soldiers of Fortune; they'd be better if read separately, but together they're too predictable. They're like early or tepid Rudyard Kipling.

Fever dreamAccordingly, the best stories are the ones that depend for substance and effect on the horrors of war; On the Fever Ship and The Man With One Talent.

Reproach at the dinner tableThe latter is mildy educational or corroborative or depressing given international politics. A man who knows how awful conditions in Cuba are thinks he's convinced a powerful, eloquent Senator to visit Cuba and make its plight understood. The Senator's financial backers convince him not to go; they invite the man to a luxurious dinner to break the news gently; he reproaches them. When he dies mutilated in Cuba, they take it as evidence that their views were sensible.

The Spanish-American War was even more confusing than that, of course; it was supported by USians who thought it would be good for trade, led to the invasion of the Phillippines against the will of the Filipinos, and was politically or psychologically useful in the US partly because the nationalism it inspired papered over the North-South tensions left from our Civil War.

Although these illustrations are very Gibson-like, they're by Howard Chandler Christy. Christy looks like an example of the practicality of art as a get-out-of-Hicksville career a hundred years ago, when there weren't as many entries into the urban middle class as there are now. I have puzzled friends, and quite fairly, by referring to art as a plausible careerist path, and the Civil War to WWI era is what I was thinking of. I would guess, in a randomly-informed way, that business was a proportionally worse bet when more businesses were privately held and family managed, leaving fewer rungs from clerkship to management. Artists and engineers with no connections might have had a better chance of eventual independence. Dunno. Cf. New Grub Street and, for the predictable Anthony Trollope reference, The Three Clerks.

I'm clearly going in circles enough to make mine a small world: from The Vagrant,

"I should have felt [grateful] that way toward Mrs. Ewing more than anyone else."
"I know, 'Jackanapes,'" remarked Collier, shortly; "a brutal assault upon the feelings, I say."

I've read Jackanapes and it's startling to see it compared, is it is here, to Lewis Carroll. Fame comes and goes.

Project Gutenberg etext #1620

June 14, 2004

Soldiers of Fortune, Richard Harding Davis

One of my grandfathers was an engineer (civil, geophysical) who knocked around Central America and the Middle East, mostly, going in without maps and leaving roads and wells behind him. He and my grandmother eloped from her finishing school on midnight of her eighteenth birthday, were married the next morning in the next state, and went off to put sweat equity into a ranch in Colombia. Their stories got more dramatic from there.

All these tales of my grandparents ought to be taken with a lot of salt, as they were told me long after the fact, the art of the raconteur was an art my grandparents cherished, and I was a romanticizing little kid. But this is how I remember it.

They gave the impression that this was the sort of thing anyone did in the '30s, certainly anyone with nerve. Of course, all the expats they met had had wild lives, by definition, so I can see why they thought so after the fact. I have just been struck by how likely it is that they had read Richard Harding Davis' novels and been seduced into the belief that everyone had such a life before they chose to follow it. I haven't, to my massive relief, yet recognized a specific anecdote my grandfather told, but I'm pretty sure he used some of the jokes. And the physical copy I picked up for 25¢ is part of a 1907 Collected Edition, glazed cloth, six greyscale illustrations by C. D. Gibson himself; all this strongly suggests that libraries and uncles and used bookstores made Davis available to any plucky boy in 1925, when my grandfather was fourteen.

This particular novel is about three Soldiers of Fortune in a Ruritania-class South American republic. Only one is a professional soldier; he left some British regiment under clouded circumstances and is the head of the guard of the modestly-corrupt President. The other two are engineers, one a US orphan the other probably a US citizen but of Scottish extraction. The orphan Clay, especially, is a sharp-shooting natural leader of men, cunning and courageous, who does the work of twenty and loves with a pure heart. It's not a subtle novel.

It ameliorates the flaws of its kind. The worst is the unthinking racism of the whole plot; the Americans, soi-disant white men (Irish are still navvies with the Negroes), don't just build a mine and railroad but oversee the successful resistance to a dastardly coup. The mitigation is that all this exists to provide the heroes with noble work, not to let the reader delight in spite and cruelty. Bolivar is clearly a great hero to Clay, whose father died trying to free Cuba; he knows the local citizens want to defend their constitutional Republic, he just thinks they need leadership (and a call to the Great White Fleet) to do it.

The other plot is the Romance, which was much more surprising. The perfect débutante we meet on the first page, who has never quite been satisfied with the rich and titled men who offer for her, whose newsmagazine picture Clay has been carrying long before he met her—she doesn't marry him. He becomes gently disillusioned. He falls in love with her excellent little sister, who is informed about and fascinated by engineering. Little sister gets to rescue the hero, carriage-horses at the gallop, gunshots flying around her! The older sister has been ruined by social conformity, see. This is sort of delightful, and unconvincingly suggestive of Watch and Ward, and extremely suggestive of the upcoming Woman Question; their daughter is going to grow up knocking around the world with two competent parents, and it's no wonder she'll go back home and demand college degrees and the Vote.

On the other hand, the near-coup has been financed by a freelance professional insurgency-profiteer, Clay's evil twin. He loses this round, but the second engineer didn't get the girl (he's Scottish) and therefore must go off and become a revolutionary, sort of Locksley Hall. He starts with big theories about how grand it will be to free many oppressed little nations, but we know he's working with the conscienceless profiteer.

Clay says, as though everyone knows it, takes two thousand bullets to kill a man in European warfare.... Contemporaneous supply-train knowlege? Useful explanation of how almost everyone survives the battle-scenes?

Dead comrade, Gibson The pictures are odd. The women are a bit out of drawing, although they are as sumptuous and languid as we expect from Charles Dana Gibson. The men are as noble and clean of limb as Arrow shirt advertisements, but they have tiny heads and hands and feet. This probably suggested their natural aristocracy, but it looks funny now.

Davis also wrote a bunch of stories about New York/London stylish high life, all valets and footlights and Delmonico's; I haven't liked those at all.

Project Gutenberg text #403. PG has lots and lots of Richard Harding Davis.

April 06, 2004

New Grub Street, George Gissing

A whole novel about authors with no sample of their writing in it. I doubt Gissing was avoiding the challenge; his aspiring London authors aren't especially aesthetic, they talk about the shocking or saleable content of their work, not its style. Gissing's own prose is plain, the conversations conventionally novelistic.

The other convention is that those who have money, or are ruthless enough to fake it, win success; the others starve, die of consumption, or commit suicide. I was continually struck by their assumptions about the labor opportunities in London. It's not surprising that writing was the only chance at independence for women, but it was surprising that the possible incomes for men were so discontinuous. Clerks could support themselves, but couldn't afford weekly clean linen for a wife; and it was widely assumed (by the characters) that once a woman had descended to the unwashed, she was no longer respectable, and therefore she and her husband couldn't expect to rise again. One of the nicer characters assumes that he will never, not possibly, be able to marry, because he will never earn enough money to support a wife, much less children.

I don't know whether this all-or-nothing labor market was the actual case, or whether Gissing's contemporaneous readers would have seen it as self-defeating stupidity in the unworldly characters, or what. I think it was mostly the case, though. It fits Donald J. Olsen's description of Victorian London as a giant class-sorting machine, and goodness knows people who preached about contentment in the class to which God has called you had a great excuse to combine against pay raises for the less blessed.

Another convention in novels of the era was that big new money came from the manufacturing towns. See North and South, for instance. There was manufacture in London too, but provincial society had less strength to shut out new men. Someone must have sifted thousands of wills and worked out how much this was really true; To Find. Probably combined with theories of center vs. periphery. The center is not where everything is made, but where everything is made into money; or as Making Light says, of the New New New Grub Street, Your agent lives in New York so that you don't have to.

It was surprising (back to New Grub Street) that the successful writers made so much money; newly cheap and popular printing, or editorships subsidized by rich patrons or wives. Dickens and Scott did earn themselves handsome incomes.

Project Gutenberg #1709

March 05, 2004

London Pride, M. E. Braddon

It starts with an air of Cavaliers and convents; then the plot suggests a more Victorian sensation novel of moral taint and repentance. In the end, the Restoration England setting bears only a little on anyone's actions, and the conclusion was a fairly realistic compromise. It's a lot like a Joanna Trollope story.

Project Gutenberg etext #9377. The eight-bit version handles the French names and babbling better than plain seven-bit.

February 28, 2004

Dora Deane, Mary J. Holmes

Subtitle: or, the East India Uncle.

Dora is too virtuous to really do anything, even when repeatedly and obviously wronged; so most of the interest in the book comes from the villainess. Unfortunately for us, the villainess isn't very effective, and indeed could hardly have squashed anyone stronger than Dora.

In two senses I wrong Dora in saying that she doesn't 'do anything' - she works like a drayhorse and studies like a young Lincoln and is kind to everyone around her. It would, from inside, be a very tiring life. Yet all her virtue never directly moves the story, though everyone who wrongs or helps her is moved by her virtue. In another sense, Dora isn't stupid, and something has to have been going on in her psyche to make her so obedient in such circumstances - I find it very unlikely that she couldn't have known how her cousin was wronging her; a novel of soliloquy might have told us that she wouldn't know the painful truth. But, still, not the novel actually here.

There's something particularly American-seeming about the plot's resolution. When the villainess is found out, the virtuous scheme to make her humiliation most complete.They don't write to tell her 'All is discovered', or go to meet her in the armor of righteousness. Instead they lead her on to make more of a petty fool of herself. One of them even travels and introduces himself to her incognito, to give her more rope. It doesn't seem gentlemanly to me. It's not that she deserved better treatment, but that they shouldn't have delighted in tormenting anyone.

Project Gutenberg EBook #6352

Aurora Floyd, M. E. Braddon

Aurora Floyd the heroine is black-eyed and reckless; there her fascination of the reader stops, as she never says anything eloquent. It's good to find a reckless heroine in Vic lit, though. She does get to do something, and then some more foolish things to fix the first one. One might well ask, Can You Forgive Her?, and Braddon's answer is Yes, and in more than one possible way.

Aurora has two virtuous suitors, one proud and intellectual, one unthinking but greathearted. Not only does she marry the right one, but the other - they were schoolboy friends - helps pull Aurora out of her preposterous difficulty. My favorite thing was the undemonstrative friendship between their very different characters.

The only grit to my modern sensibility was that their friendship and kinship didn't make the courts suspicious, when they discover evidence to exonerate Aurora. All her witnesses are relations, and two-thirds of them are landed gentry, and it would have been a perfect frame-up of the villain... Oh, well; Wilkie Collins might by a stretch have written that novel; M.E. Braddon didn't. (You or I could, since the public domain really is public. At the moment, anyway.)


February 10, 2004

Seraphita, Honoré de Balzac

I'm not going to finish this. Swedenborgism has failed to grip me, no matter how many semiprecious stones and loving angels are in its description. I'd rather read Swinburne.

It's Balzac's contribution to SF, though. The mysticism is very like what fantasy authors often try to convey, jewelled cities and all. If regarded literally, the spirits are as hard to explain as any incomprehensible aliens. Even Sweden itself seems to have been completely unfamiliar to Balzac or his expected audience: he describes skis and fjords - "skees" and "fiords" in this venerable translation - as though no reader could possibly have heard of so strange an environment.

The person whom Minna had addressed as Seraphitus threw his weight upon his right heel, arresting the plank--six and a half feet long and narrow as the foot of a child--which was fastened to his boot by a double thong of leather. This plank, two inches thick, was covered with reindeer skin, which bristled against the snow when the foot was raised, and served to stop the wearer. Seraphitus drew in his left foot, furnished with another "skee," which was only two feet long...

Translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley.

URI: Project Gutenberg etext #1432

The Amateur Gentleman, Jeffery Farnol

One web-interview says that Jack Vance has cited Farnol as an influence. If Vance got atmosphere and plotting out of this novel, he squeezed the turnip harder than I could. It's an okay tale of an (improbably fortunate) young man making his way into and out of Regency London high society, and he makes friends in all walks of life. The language isn't anything very particular - neither George Meredith nor Georgette Heyer, to bracket it by high taste and low. The heroine speaks in hyphens, and tick-tocks between unthinking hauteur and melting idiocy.

Florence King sums up that particular romance-novel tic in two words I can't remember; "suddenly/swooningly"? Very dull feature of plot, since it happens instead of anything one might call 'character development'. Virginia Woolf somewhere refers to the high song, the high note, something, of the romantic effect of Tennyson's Maud. I think Woolf is thinking of the (subtly done) version of the same game. All that's left for my ear is the high whine of a mosquito.

URI: Gutenberg Ebook #9879

January 30, 2004

Democracy, Henry Adams

It is notable in a novel on American Democracy to find no character who is not rich, or politically powerful, or both; and without the manners of riches, the secondary characters are figures of fun. All right, this was written in the 1870s and The Education of Henry Adams was not strong for the simple nobility of toil. He makes just as much fun of rich faineants and toadies. Another quarter of the charm is a story suitable to Henry James or Edith Wharton - widow seeks right use of powers, is nearly seduced by worldly evil. A full half of the charm is the epigrammmatic, affectionate style in which Adams lays out and lays into his characters; he is neither as theoretical as James nor as theatrical as Wharton.

The meat of the plot is corruption in the US Government, and how much that corruption is tolerable or forgivable; and of course this provides quotations reusable today:

"I do much regret that I have not yet one hundred years to live. [...]the United States will them be more corrupt than Rome under Caligula; more corrupt than the Church under Leo X.; more corrupt than France under the Regent!"

It's money that turns out to drive corruption, but the first attempt at justification is always given as party strength; the Civil War, and the faction and desperation of its beginnings, is usually in the background of appeals to the importance of party.

As he wisely said, the issue now involved was not one of principle but of power. The fate of that noble party to which they all belonged, and which had a record that could never be forgotten, depended on their letting principle alone. Their principle must be the want of principles.
"At the time this affair occurred, I was a Senator of the United States. I was also a trusted member of a great political party which I looked upon as identical with the nation."

The main character is a little like Isabel Archer but, fortunately for her sake, a lot more like Madame Max Goesler; she's looking for something good to do with her strength and money, which makes her susceptible to a clever plotter in (re Adams) a particularly feminine way:

She could not be induced to love Ratcliffe, but she might be deluded into sacrificing herself for him. [...]She had a woman's natural tendency towards asceticism, self-extinction, self-abnegation. All through life she had made painful efforts to understand and follow out her duty.

For the sake of illustrated frontispieces (none in my copy, alas), the crisis of decision begins at a tremendously fancy diplomatic ball, at which every one [...] hastened to show this august couple the respect which all republicans who have a large income derived from business, feel for English royalty. That is, a great deal of respect, signified by clothes even more costly than one would wear for the President of the U.S.

Mrs. Lee held this kind of court-service in contempt [...] her only serious complaint of the President and his wife was that they undertook to have a court and to ape monarchy.

Some of the nicest character drawing is in the heroine's kind, conventional sister, who realizes that something is wrong and badgers cleverer people until they overcome their principles, trade some facts, and straighten out. Nor is this done to browbeat the intellectual for their foolishness. I thought it was a good picture of family and friends helping one another.

URI: Gutenberg file #2815

Adams, Henry. Democracy.. New York: Farrar, Straus and Young, Inc.

January 26, 2004

Daddy Darwin's Dovecot, Juliana Horatio Ewing

...Dovecot was the story I liked the best from the collection Jackanapes, Daddy Darwin's Dovecot and Other Stories. It has absolutely nothing to do with the Darwin of Beagle fame, although that Darwin considered pigeon-fanciers' results when describing the force of selective breeding. Pigeon-fanciers not only developed all sorts of funny-looking pigeons, but ones with characteristic peculiar flight:

some Air Tumbler pigeons were turning somersaults on their homeward way, at such short and regular intervals that they seemed to be tying knots in their lines of flight.

The story begins with the news that a young man out of the workhouse is now the owner of "Daddy Darwin's Dovecot"; readers would probably know that pigeon-breeding was an old, usually respectable amusement, complete with protective laws from the days of James I and expensive gambling in the nineteenth century. A framing character is surprised to hear that a workhouse boy (not a real local - now, how could they know that? not an acknowledged local, anyway) is the owner of such a place. And the rest of the story is a standard, pleasant tale of someone making good by hard work and virtue. I notice that one of the virtues is one thought of as modern; the unknown child and the inheritor of the dovecot are, in the end, family, by action love and choice, not by default. And the old argot can adopt the idea:

setting a wild graff on an old standard

Other good dialect words: steek, here to 'fasten tight'; I know it from Knitting in the Old Way, where it describes a dense stitch in the underarms where a round sweater-body is going to be split for the sleeves. I don't know what at t'last feather of the shuttle means - is it a pigeon term, used by the fancier character; or a weaving term, from the author, or a weaving term when it wasn't gendered quite as much as it is now (Silas Marner)? Badminton's possible, but odd when asking for the last sacrament.

First three paragraphs of the next story, very tidy:

There was once an old man whom Fortune (whose own eyes are bandaged) had deprived of his sight. She had taken his hearing also, so that he was deaf. Poor he had always been, and as Time had stolen his youth and strength from him, they had only left a light burden for Death to carry when he should come the old man's way.
But Love (who is blind also) had given the Blind Man a Dog, who led him out in the morning to a seat in the sun under the crab-tree, and held his hat for wayside alms, and brought him safely home at sunset.
The Dog was wise and faithful--as dogs often are--but the wonder of him was that he could talk. In which will be seen the difference between dogs and men, most of whom can talk; whilst it is a matter for admiration if they are wise and faithful.

You can read the first story, "Jackanapes", with the original Caldecott illustrations - that would be the Caldecott of book-award fame.

URI: Gutenberg EBook #7865

January 21, 2004

Tales and Novels, vol. II, Maria Edgeworth

I think I now see; Maria Edgeworth wrote the moral tales of the new English middle class. Certainly the morals in this volume are practical and prudent: "Out of Debt out of Danger", "To-Morrow" against procrastination (even for romantical geniuses), "The Lottery" suggesting not only that lottery-tickets were a bad bet, but that the imprudent habits that lead to lottery-buying would waste a prize anyway. "Murad the Unlucky" argues that no-one is lucky or unlucky, but habits make them so. "Lame Jervas", my favorite, is an early technocratic bildungsroman. (There can't be many earlier ones in English...)

The painful parts: her kindly slaveowner who doesn't free the slaves; complete scorn of Jews. (Who we see only solitary - no Jewish firms, let alone Jewish families or neighborhoods. One could replace every reference with "miser", I think, and lose no part of the story.)

Unexpectedly egalitarian: her defense of Irish persons, however unformed their commercial habits were; the defense of most other races - as in "Lame Jervas":

these poor creatures! who, say what we will, have as much sensibility, perhaps more, than we have ourselves.

It is not only proper but common that women work for money if they aren't occupied raising children; one spinning for her husband's manufactury, one working in an upholsterer's shop, without late-Victorian palpitations about delicate feminine spheres. One farmer's daughter is competent enough on horseback to gallop six miles.

Another contrast with late-Victorian moral tales; hardly anyone dies. Or rather, they do not die because of their moral state, as they might in Charlotte M. Yonge or even Bret Harte stories.

Gratitude is a central virtue for her, but it isn't slavish or dependent. It isn't exactly based on a lesser being praising a greater one, although there is so clear a social hierarchy that most of the occasions for gratitude go up the ladder of power. Some of its force, I think, is from the small-scale, personal nature of the society she describes: governments, mines, manufacturies are small enough for their owners to be directly known. Gratitude might be the sweet perfume of sacrifice that leaves the meat for men, or it might be a humanization that makes the arrangement more comfortable for the people at both ends. Edgeworth's good characters don't go bad, so no-one has had the problem of expressing gratitude for a virtue their benefactor has now lost.

Gutenberg etext 8720; URI:

January 13, 2004

Marmion, Sir Walter Scott

It's a commodus vicus of recirculation that puts pre-1923 books on my PDA, so that I am continually reading the books that my grandparents thought of as foundational, cliché, or passé, depending on their tastes for the past. Occasionally I recognize something that I first read on vacation at my grandparent's in a turn-of-the-century prize book - that is, a collection of uplifting literature in a nicer binding than children usually got, printed expressly to be a reward for school achievement. I think these survived on the upper shelves for two reasons. One, they were probably chosen for their appeal to teachers' theoretical tastes. The children who got them didn't haul them around and read them. On the other hand, they are pretty, and they were trophies. Parent and child and grown child protected them. I recognized three or four quotations from Marmion.

As an amusement in itself, as something I would recommend to a modern reader, Marmion does well. First, it has a fine plot, in broad strokes: the manly, courageous villain; the suffering hero; two lovely maidens, one something of a Villainess, one a Damsel in Distress. Battles! visions! tournament in a fairy ring! and it has great visual scene-setting.

Second, although it is entirely in verse, it's easy to read. It bangs along in simple rhyming, with a comma or stop falling naturally at the end of each line. This is unsubtle to the ear, but no barrier to comprehension.

Third, there are those several bits good enough to be still repeated out of context. One is the little song "Lochinvar", also satisfactory in plot:

For a laggard in love and a dastard in war
Was to wed the fair Ellen of brave Lochinvar.

Another is in the eulogy to Admiral Nelson:

To him, as to the burning levin,
  Short, bright, resistless course was given.
Where'er his country's foes were found
Was heard the fated thunder's sound,
Till burst the bolt on yonder shore,
Roll'd, blazed, destroy'd—and was no more.

And finally, there's the bit that can be used in domestic travail, and therefore made into common quotation; I'm pretty sure Anthony Trollope's characters use it. It's completely unfair to the character it seems to describe, who is shown with none of the faults but all these virtues:

O woman! in our hours of ease
Uncertain, coy, and hard to please,
And variable as the shade
By the light quivering aspen made;
When pain and anguish wring the brow,
A ministering angel thou!

As a historical object, Marmion isn't bad. Scott was in the wave of popularizing romantic Scotland, just as it was safely conquered¹. He commits roll-calls of the outlandish names of picturesque Scottish places. The villain is English and virile. The costume-party medieval setting, with Gothic(k) gloom, was similarly collecting its head of steam to power Victorian sentimentality and lithography.

The political introductions and the six interspersed dedications to his friends are also modestly interesting as types of early-nineteenth-century manly ideal.

The one historical fact you might want in advance is that the battle of Flodden was tremendously damaging, maybe decisively weakening, for Scotland against England. One of the editors of the poem points out that Scott was in a cavalry troop himself, and his description of the tactical stupidity of the King of Scotland is that of someone who could imagine being in that kind of battle. (Sir Winston Churchill also fought on horseback, if I remember correctly, so Scott is not the last survival.)


¹ Less of this, for instance:

On active steed, with lance and blade,
The light-arm'd pricker plied his trade,--
Let nobles fight for fame;
Let vassals follow where they lead,
Burghers, to guard their townships, bleed,
But war's the Borderer's game.
Their gain, their glory, their delight,
To sleep the day, maraud the night,
O'er mountain, moss, and moor;
Joyful to fight they took their way,
Scarce caring who might win the day,
Their booty was secure.

January 08, 2004

Tales and Novels, vol. I, Maria Edgeworth

I don't know why I enjoyed these moralizing tales so much, although there is a Rational Toy-shop, which is a great name. She lays into a couple of specimen young persons for their Romantic twaddle, and it's newfangled twaddle to her, not a stage all young persons go through.

The greatest weakness, as stories, is that one knows on introduction who is going to be Good, once educated, and who Bad. No-one changes.

The oddity of the education is that none of the children are being principally educated by their own mothers. Most of them are motherless; two mothers have given over their children to governesses (one Good, one Bad). The lucky mother may be educated by her governess, so maybe she's an exception to the rule of fixed natures. The Good Governess has escaped from the French Terror, which may well be connected to Romantic politics, now that I think of it. Certainly Edgeworth is suspicious of the French.

My favorite tale was the last, "The Knapsack", which is actually a play about the return home of a Swedish regiment. I like it because it's a good format for uncomplicatedly good characters, like the perky-peasant operas. There are even songs:

There's the courtier, who watches the nod of the great;
Who thinks much of his pension, and nought of the state:
When for ribands and titles his honour he sells--
What is he, my friends, but a fool without bells?
There's the gamester, who stakes on the turn of a die
His house and his acres, the devil knows why:
His acres he loses, his forests he sells--
What is he, my friends, but a fool without bells?
There's the student so crabbed and wonderful wise,
With his plus and his minus, his x's and y's:
Pale at midnight he pores o'er his magical spells--
What is he, my friends, but a fool without bells?

I can imagine the home-theatricals of the virtuous performing it; there's one foolishly self-centered woman, and no villain at all.


December 26, 2003

Tooth and Claw, Jo Walton

I admire the sinuous mind that can enjoy Anthony Trollope's novels but decide that they aren't really about humans - women, especially, being misrepresented - but about dragons. Tooth and Claw is a cross-section of major Trollopian themes, in a society of dragons with explicit biological reflections of Victorian landed morals. For instance: inheritances include the right to feast on the dead, and lordship the right to feast on the weak; a maiden is covered with an unmistakable blush when a suitor gets too close to her, and a blushing maiden is either engaged or ruined. Parsons aren't supposed to fly, much less hunt, and have crises of faith when confronted with the Old beliefs.

I recognize the Victorian novel in all this, and some sentences are outright Trollopian. I enjoyed it greatly. It was a romp. The oddity, though, is that the accusation is particularly unfair to Trollope. I really don't think he believed that women were innately what Victorian mores expected them to be; in Can You Forgive Her?, for instance, it seems to me that by expectation you can't, but by Trollope's leading you can. I also remember him being startlingly more accepting of "Boston marriages" than, for instance, Henry James' The Bostonians, although to my embarassment I can't remember which Trollope novel I'm thinking of... Trollope certainly thought people would be happier if they could conform themselves to society, but he didn't think everyone could, he sympathizes with some characters who can't, and he's always conscious of the enormous pressures brought to bear on everyone in society to keep them all mutually sociable. This is one reason his novels are so gloriously long.¹

However, Walton's argument is a fair attack on Charlotte M. Yonge². Yonge was pinned into a narrow ecclesiastical taste; her good women accordingly must renounce their own gifts; villainesses are interesting but far too rare.

¹All of which can be argued over at nearly equal length, and regularly is.

²Pushing a little harder, it's effective mockery of such evo-socio-biologists as reliably find that our nature and development fit us just exactly to a society in which those who are now rich and powerful will continue to be so. I doubt it's what Walton meant, I don't remember anything that seemed a commentary on modern life or even from a modern perspective. But writing about dragons who have to act so cruel, or starve, points up the free will we, or the Victorians, had in most of those acts of cruelty. ...And now that I think about it, even her dragons might not need to be so cruel, they just find it hard to resist the comparative advantage from being so. There is an emancipation movement, little detailed.

ISBN: 0-765-30264-0

October 16, 2003

The Daisy Chain, Charlotte M. Yonge

And its sequel, The Trial.

A Victorian family saga, with tragic but no really shocking occurrences. The shifting weight of duty between siblings and their surviving parent, and God, is the main subject; there are eleven siblings and some nearly-sibling friends, so there are lots of examples to work out the theme in.

The most central character is a academically brilliant daughter Etheldred who gives up every personal ambition - including a probable good, in all senses, marriage - because a woman has to stay home and look after her father. She knows she's neither the most homebody of the daughters, nor will she ever have a hearth of her own to be central to, so it's a fairly effective novel of renunciation.¹

Tropes and clichés illustrated in these two novels:

The fancywork bazaar. There are penwipers, and watchguards, and the pretty young things of acceptable social class who sell the doodahs wear matching flattering hats and costumes. Most incomprehensible fancywork: glass vases or bottles filled with calico and flour. Like the sand bottles from the Painted Desert? What's the calico doing?

US vs. Great Britain. Young US women have too much freedom, but are also much safer with it than they would have been in England; even honors, if each nationality could be smugly content with the comparison. On the other hand, in the early 1860s this American comment was premature: 'If you could go to sleep for a couple of years, you would wake up to find yourself in a city such as I would not fear to compare with any in Europe. Your exhausted civilization is not as energetic as ours, I calculate.'

Young Women Nowadays! they're so sensible and clear-headed, till they have grown hard. They have been taught to despise little fears and illusions, and it is not becoming. The ear-catching phrase of condemnation, of course, is that a girl is so nineteenth-century. (Surely a rumbustious Georgian girl would be even less to their taste. Maybe only wives and widows were actually rumbustious, despite the convent-skipping precedents in Aphra Behn.)

URI: The Daisy Chain

URI: The Trial

¹This does not reconcile me at all; I have accordingly made up a third volume in which she does get a life of her own. Flora is widowed and comes back home, Etheldred goes out to combine missionary work with philology in the South Seas. Possibly she marries Leonard, though I wouldn't insist on more than a deep spiritual friendship.

October 09, 2003

Ayala's Angel, Anthony Trollope

How can a story with no villain be interesting? By falling into the (probably earlier and larger) category of gossip, as most love-stories and stories of manners do. It is obvious on introduction that Ayala and her sister will overcome their orphan state and probably marry well and gain a moral victory over their relatives; but then, Pride and Prejudice has few plot surprises either. (At least the Dormers don't conveniently fall in love with their landed swains.)

I like Trollope best when he's being wry and broadminded both at once - as when he pities and mocks Tom Tringle for being such a tacky lubber, but also shows us why a tacky lubber is heroic when steadfast in his accordingly hopeless love. The heroine Ayala is also largely a silly widgeon, and would not have come out so well if she weren't irresistibly pretty and charming. Well, there are silly widgeons on all sides - there are at least six marriages in the course of the story, and the best-matched couples are not the least silly. For that matter, the Victorian mechanics of marrying for money make almost all of the young people seem immature, since so few of them expect anyone to earn a living. The men who do earn their livings probably don't get much stage time since they aren't silly enough to hold the pace.

Excellent novel if you have the 'flu, in short.

Added much later, and tangentially: see Juan Martinez' autobiographical musing on being a hobbledehoy, as Trollope called his tacky lubbers.

ISBN: 0-19-281747-7


September 19, 2003

Twenty Years After, Alexandre Dumas

'Your Majesty will remember having seen, when playing in Fontainebleu Park or in the courtyards of Versailles Palace, the sky suddenly overclouded, and having heard the sound of thunder?'
'Yes, certainly.'
'Well, that thunder-clap, however much your Majesty wished to go on playing, said to you, "Go indoors, Sire; you must."'
'Certainly, Monsieur; but then I have been told that the thunder is the voice of God.'
'Well, Sire;' said d'Artagnan; 'listen to the clamour of the people, and you will see that it is very much like the noise of the thunder.'

Dumas' political sympathies in his novels are, as David Coward the editor of this edition details, incoherent, esp. compared to his political sympathies in real life. Actually, they are consistent with always being For the side with the best costumes.

ISBN: 0-19-283074-0

August 19, 2003

"As moonlight unto sunlight, and as water unto wine"

From Matilde's comment on Invisible Adjunct, I was led to a history and summary of the algorithm used to match residents to hospital slots. Nice to have these things clear - or "Clearing", as the UK system for getting into college seems to call it. The algorithm is easy to understand; the old and basic example is stated in terms of boys proposing to girls who keep an eye out for better engagements. Still, startling to find so blunt a summary of old-fashioned sexual mores and politics:

Gale and Shapley also showed that the match achieved in this manner has a remarkable property: It is "boy-optimal" and "girlpessimal," meaning that each boy is matched to the best girl he can get in any stable matching, while each girl ends up with the worst possible guy. (I leave this as an easy exercise for the reader's morning commute.) Of course, the corresponding algorithm that has the girls proposing achieves the opposite, prompting some reflection on real-life dating conventions.

Another exercise is to show that it's possible for those on the side that's not proposing to "game the system." By lying about her preferences, a girl can do better in the male-proposing algorithm than she would otherwise.

I need to tidy up whatever is preventing this blog from having several categories for one post, because it's not all that often I can categorize something at once as math and 19th c. fiction.

Locksley Hall gave me my title.

June 17, 2003

Three Men on the Bummel, Jerome K. Jerome

In which the characters of Three Men in a Boat, older but not much more sensible, take a bicycle tour of Germany.

It's less funny than its predecessor, partly because the clerks are a trifle older and more sensible; partly because more of it is a real travelogue describing German customs and personalities. It can't often be as unconsciously revealing¹ as ...Boat was for the English middle classes.

No surprising observations; gentle mockery of the German love for order, with the semi-respectful stipulation that the German character he describes doesn't just expect other citizens to be controlled, but does scrupulously follow the laws himself.

"The German can rule others, and be ruled by others, but he cannot rule himself. The cure would appear to be to train every German for an officer, and then put him under himself....

[Duty] is a fine ideal for any people; but before buckling to it, one would wish to have a clear understanding as to what his 'duty' is."(p. 341)

Just after that, and probably as important to a pre-WWI reader, a comparison of the German and English commercial character: in which he says the Germans are less competitive because their classes are not so fiercely marked; no-one not born into the German aristocracy can get into it, and everyone else is on a standing of more or less bourgeois comfort and mutual respect. By his description, this led to less luxury than English social climbing, but a great deal more independence.

¹ I don't assume that Jerome was unconscious, no.

ISBN: 0-14-043750-9

April 03, 2003

Four more by Yonge

Friarswood Post Office, Charlotte M. Yonge

This is of a genre reduced in frequency: How to Die Well, also how to accept a good death. There must have been an even more heartrending genre about having a beloved die outside the state of grace. especially in any theology that requires specific acts from a consecrated hand. I can't think of any examples, though.

Yonge tends cautiously against the novelistic convention of virtue belonging to the gently-born. The characters most virtuous under duress in this story are petty village shopkeepers and a foundling.


The Lances of Lynnwood, Charlotte M. Yonge

Medieval adventure, suitable for youths and gently nurtured females to read. I liked it much better than The Little Duke, because the eventual success of the fatherless hero depends on his virtue and cleverness and that of his friends, not on his virtue and the unvirtuous cleverness of his friends.

It's a little interesting to see what set a 'medieval' scene for Victorians. Horses don't interest them much: horses were still normal to them, as were peasants, I suppose. Windows without glass or curtains come up in Yonge a lot; so do unrefined table manners. I would expect the details of religious observance to be more titillating. but Yonge doesn't describe them with anything like the detail in Friarswood Post Office. Maybe she would then have been walking the fencerails between being too fond of ceremony, and therefore Papist, or too scornful of them and therefore Non-establishment.


Abbeychurch: or, Self-Conceit and Self-Control, Charlotte M. Yonge

Ah-a; he first novel in which I could guess why a friend of mine is a Yonge fiend. It's roughly equivalent to Little Women. Most of its charm is in the affectionate mutual pestering of sibs & cousins, one of whom is clearly our Authoress in youth. They are startlingly fond of telling over historical precedents to each other, especially those of virtuous knights, and in the original language. I see that Yonge's medieval romances may have been written for girls, not boys.

The morals of self conceit and self control are still usable, allthough the boundaries one tries to keep one's self in have changed. I couldn't enter in to the view of obedience to authority as a higher virtue than any other: it clearly made it too easy for those with the authority to make of their errors and internal contradictions into other people's problems.

Even on a more frivolous level, I don't understand Younge's theology. There is one scene with an unacceptable embroidered cushion which horrified all the well brought up characters but made no sense to me. I couldn't tell if St. Augustine was wrong, or cross stitch was unacceptably not Early English, or if sitting on an image of a saint was wrong, or what. I wonder what it meant to Yonge's original readers.


The Young Step-Mother: or, A Chronicle of Mistakes , Charlotte M. Yonge

Lots of vicars, who are a genre of their own in Vic. lit.

My ability to swim along in the mores of a different time did not survive a clear description of an abusive marriage without any belief that the sufferer's family should or could help her:

'Does her affection hold out, do you think?'

'Oh, yes, the spaniel and walnut-tree love, which is in us all, and doubly in the very woman. It is very beautiful. She is so proud of him and of her gilded slavery, and so unconsciously submissive and patient; but it is a harder life, I guess, than we can see. I am sure it must be, for every bit of personal vanity and levity is worn out of her; she only goes out to satisfy him; dresses to please his eye, and talks, with her eye seeking round for him, in dread of being rebuked for mistakes or bad French.

The reference is, "A women, a spaniel, a walnut-tree: the more you beat them, the better they be."


So wrote clew.

March 18, 2003

Hearts-ease, or, Brother's Wife, Charlotte M. Yonge

In summary, a sweet young girl named Violet, married at sixteen into a rich cold family, slowly teaches all of them affection patience and Christian virtue by her own exercise of the same. She is much inspired by reminiscences of a dead fiancée of tremendous serene grace: as in Pre-Raphaelite paintings, women can be good, happy, beautiful or alive, but not all at once. Violet loses her beauty to repeated childbirth, made worse by unkindness & fiscal ineptitude on the part of her husband & the rest of his family.

The erring women of the piece are most interesting - one who has grown headstrong through isolation, two who become manipulative for or with money, a fourth who runs her reputation way too near the edge & eventually falls off. They're interesting because, unlike Violet, they make plans and carry them out despite setbacks and opposition - sometimes they change their minds. The men make plans, but have relatively simple lives (as presented by Yonge, who doesn't show us politics or economics), since they don't have the double-standard minefield a respectable woman faced. Violet is wounded when her husband does immoral or unkind things, but must be too sweet and soft to tell him so in any way; mostly she nearly dies in childbirth, & while he's flattened by grief one of the more forceful characters gives him the what-for. This reminds me unpleasantly of The Little Duke; Yonge makes much of her characters' self-denying virtue but then has to bring in an unvirtuous rescuer.


So wrote clew.

March 10, 2003

The Little Duke, Charlotte M. Yonge

In summary, our little Norman Duke is orphaned as a child and overcomes the oppressive French King by remembering the Christian admonition his father gave him to forgive; also because his unChristianized Norse-man cousins send a military force by longboats in his support. Yonge has explanatory footnotes in the original from her old French sources, and may be dull because she hewed as far as possible to the known history.

I've read that forged paintings often pass for a generation, after which it becomes obvious that they're forged, because they're dated by their appeal to the fashions of their actual day. similarly, despite the tough Norman upbringing of our tender Duke, the novel is sugary and dull in a specially Victorian-kid-lit way; he drops a tear but never argues with himself or his teachers, much less attempts to rebel against them. Pity, since internal debate is my favorite thing in Victorian adult literature.


So wrote clew.

The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins

A comic butler and delusions about opium delusions; oh, and mysterious Indian gentleman jugglers, and what may be the original of the Jewel Stolen from the Head of a Foreign Idol cliché. Collins is a headwater.

And, of course, it's available for free through the good graces of Project Gutenberg:


So wrote clew.

March 04, 2003

In Times of Peril, G. A. Henty

Completely politically incorrect novel, by modern standards, and sadly unsteady by its own. I have been reading Henty because Neal Stephenson's characters' defence of Victorian principles in Diamond Age seems thin to me, but relevant because the Victorians are so not dead to us - still the parents against which modernism clumsily rebels - and, of, course, there is the daily possibility of my own nation acquiring an empire in a fit of deniability of mind.

Two things were interesting about the political incorrectness; one appealing, one less so. This is a tale of two preposterously courageous young English brothers Warrener, in their early teens in the Indian Mutiny in 1857; they reconnoiter in and out of the losses, seiges, reliefs, sallies, sappings, and reconquests of about a dozen towns and cities, among them the massacred retreat from Cawnpore, the long defense of the residency at Lucknow, Oudh, and Delhi. From what I remember of trying-to-be-unbiased histories of the East India Company and the Mutiny & sequelae, some of the mutiny at Cawnpore really was disgusting by the standards of all the civilizations involved - throwing babies' bodies into a city well - and many, though not all, of the mutinous troops behaved so badly to the peasantry as to make British rule look better. Points, as it were, for the righteous anger of the surviving English, if one can forget why they were there in the first place. One can't; Henty clearly comments that a large cause of the uprising was the British (Crown or Company? I can't tell) casually breaking treaties with adopted heirs of deceased rulers, on the grounds that adoption doesn't count, which was done with no warning - ungentlemanly by Henty's standards - and with scant reason, as adopted heirs were not worse rulers than born ones, and was a total strategic error, since all the other rulers who were adopted or had adopted heirs suddenly worried a lot about the value of their treaties.

As represented by Henty - who was probably whitewashing, but I like to see the moral standards of the age in question - the soldiers who broke oaths are not worth any treaty or quarter; soldiers of neighboring states who fight against the English, and even the kings who command them to do so, have to be conquered but deserve quarter and fair treatment (respectively, their cities are not fired, and their jewels but not their women are fair plunder). Another semi-moral and semi-tactical repeated theme is that people who know they will be killed if they surrender are very hard to defeat, even if it's inevitable that they will be. Finally, there are plenty of loyal troops - the pattern seems to me to have much to do with likely internal wars if the mutiny succeeds, but natives are distinguishable only by height to Henty; no discussion of what a Musselman is likely to think of a Sikh or v.v.. Damn-all consideration given to exactly what loyalty consists of.

I don't think there's even enough consideration given to loyalty among the English; I was flobbersmacked when the brother's father, seeing the budding romance between his sons and two girls who have survived the siege at Lucknow, sums up his opinion as "It would not be a bad thing, for Hargreaves was, I know, a very wealthy man, and there are only these two girls." Never mind romance; let's have at the inheritances.

Then the real mercantilism of the family comes up. They know they're going to take part in the conquest of the palace of the King of Oude; the contents of the palace will be lawful booty; and in the conquest of Delhi, the troops got a lot of jewels & so forth, but sold them for a drinks' worth apiece in the flurry. The Warreners cannily take as much of their pay in gold coinage as they can, so that they can buy up loot at the famously optimal - "blood running in the streets" - time. Now, this is not the chivalry that issues a dying flame in Beau Geste; much more Company than Crown. What really bothers me as a failure of internal standards is that they are knowingly outsmarting their own troops, as well as their brother officers. This especially bugs me because one of the brothers is an accidentally-detached navy man, and the navy was supposed to award even the lowest seaman a small but clearly defined share of all prizes. Do they have a moral qualm? yes; but it consists entirely of how they are to divide the enormous profits among the three of them. And finally, after a dashing last battle around, into, up, & on top of a huge domed tomb, one son is wounded badly enough to have to leave the service; but all possible family problems are averted when the father marries the widowed mother of the Lucknow girls, and the girls marry the brothers, so all the money stays in the family, see, and they retire to a pleasant square in London. At least Henty didn't wound one son in the thigh to avert arguments about primogeniture, but maybe his audience was too young to understand.

I wouldn't be dismayed by historical people mustering out and surviving on loot; it was a ungenerous society and a hard service. I'm amazed that the pop fiction of the time, the images of what a young lad was to grow up & sublimate, was so cheerfully open about ranking money above inconvenient national service as soon as the immediate peril was past. I wonder if that led more to the rise or the fall of the Empire.

But, as a final guilty pleasure, I really recommend the escape in the bear's skin and the fakir's hair. It still isn't Kim - the whole novel shows how Kipling was a better writer & a stouter moralist and a shock to the comfortable sensibilities of his age, however unregenerate he is to ours.

ISBN: none on this copy, an 1895 edition from the public library, now in storage but checked out every year or so (dated slips left between the pages). It is probably still in print for sale.


So wrote clew.

February 15, 2003

In the Heart of the Rockies, G. A. Henty

Coincidentally, one of the easy books up for first-round proofing when I joined Distributed Proofreading was by G. A. Henty, who had also floated to the top of my library hold list. Henty is on that list because of something ambivalent A.S. Byatt wrote about him - my notes suggest that I expected it to be a guilty pleasure - and so it is. It's very Boy's Own literature; in this particular one a plucky young lad leaves his sisters in [England] to seek his fortune hunting gold with his uncle in the Rockies. Rough but kindly persons take care of him the whole way, including a saloon-keeper who congratulates him on the wisdom of avoiding drink; he learns outdoor skills, goes across country, meets up with Indian warriors and his uncle, builds a winter cabin & defensible revetments, fights off bears, finds gold... It's perfect hammock reading; something keeps happening, but you can put it down at any moment, he'll be fine when you get back.

Worst parts; the descriptions of the Indians. I think the author meant us to respect the courage and skill of his (sketched-in) Indian characters; his European characters certainly do, and also remark that the most unpleasant Indians have become so after interactions with sleazy cheating whites. There was contemporaneous fiction a lot more racist than that. But it's obvious that no amount of non-market virtue is going to save them; when "the chief" refuses his share of gold, on the grounds that it could not buy him anything he wants, his reasons are probably admirable; the Europeans may have been right to admire him for it; but they should have known enough to invest it in San Francisco, so his children would have something when the next treaty was broken. I am *such* a revisionist.

Henty is still enormously in print, with more of his books available on Amazon than at Project Gutenberg.

ISBN: 1890623083

So wrote clew.

January 14, 2003

Clever Victorian women

John Marchmont's Legacy, Mary Elizabeth Braddon
The Clever Woman of the Family, Charlotte Yonge

Braddon's book is tremendous fun because she has a really wonderful villainess. One of the great pleasures I get from Victorian and Edwardian novels is a particular degree of character development, comfortably between playing out the social 'station to which God was pleased to call' a character, and playing out the completely internal but equally deterministic torments of the psychological worldviews after Freud. Trollope's Cousin Henry makes me perfectly happy in this regard.

John Marchmont's legacy doesn't directly affect Olivia, a woman fit for greatness but consigned to a tiny life. By the time something interesting happens, she's cripplingly cramped by having tried to be good in a way she wasn't good at, but she remains so balanced between her worse instincts and her better intentions that she's a lot more interesting than either the romantic leads or the undiluted villain. Also, she gets a lot of riproaring purple prose:

When this girl and I are equals - when she, like me, stands alone upon a barren rock, far out amid the waste of waters, with not one memory to hold her to the past, with not one hope to lure her onward to the future, with nothing but the black sky above and the black waters around -- then we may grow fond of each other.

The rest of the plot is inheritance-and-true-love melodrama, not totally unlike East Lynne, though not quite as sensationalist.

The Clever Woman of the Family has a much more realistic plot, but recognizes some of the same difficulties for intelligent Victorian women too well-brought-up to do anything with their talents. Yonge expects that a successful upbringing will always put a stronger male mind in charge of the flailing female one, but the novel doesn't seem to believe that this is likely or easy. Not Middlemarch, but not just polemic.

So wrote clew.

November 07, 2002

Mysterious Victorian women

The Law and the Lady, Wilkie Collins
The Leavenworth Case, Anna Catherine Green
The Disastrous Mrs. Weldon, Brian Thompson

The biography of Mrs. Weldon has more vivid and unlikely events than the Wilkie Collins novel, and that's a high standard. Collins' Lady is the actor in her own life, both making mistakes and ferreting out the truth, which seems fresh and lively enough for its day; but the truly disastrous Mrs. Weldon had as much vigor and more tragic, real-life flaws. She was important in the reframing of British laws on lunacy and women's rights; she argued many cases herself partly because she was, in fact, talented, and very often because she overestimated her own talents. She never believed she was wrong, and she hardly ever believed she would lose, and she got away with rather more than the strict facts of her life would seem to justify. If looking for something pleasantly scandalous to read on a train, and your own diary won't do, consider that - since he does not write for Household Words - Thompson can be a bit more specific about parts of Weldon's private life than Collins could be about anyone's. Mrs. Weldon's private life involved Gounod and a lengthy lesbian affair and orphans and madhouses, and was documented pretty well, since she was generally in either the courts or the newspapers and also wrote an enormously long autobiography to justify herself.

Green was a bestseller in her day and respected for her fiction's grasp of law, but it's a stiff novel, and even the hero's description of the heroine is not moving. Elizabeth Peters recommends Green's The Affair Next Door, which I will keep looking for.

So wrote clew.

August 16, 2002

Tales of Magistrate Bao and his Valiant Lieutenants, Susan Blader, ed.

A little background for a low taste in Hong Kong historical action flicks here. (If you want a lot of background, try F. W. Mote's Imperial China 900-1800. Furry hats, evil eunuchs of the east chamber, scholar-heroes, the peasant who founded an empire; all real.)

Back to the Tales, which are about incorruptible magistrate Bao, the heroes and gallants who do his legwork, and the scandals Imperial and petty that they unravel. I can't think of a European analogy offhand; they're too rapscalliony to be like the main Arthurian tales, and overtly too accepting that anything Bao and the gallants do is right to be exactly like picaresque collections. In the name of justice and ?gentility?, the heroes hide evidence, commit torture, steal from innocent fishermen and beat them up for complaining; if it reminded me of anything Western, it was of Don Quixote, except that the Don looked deluded when attacking innocents. Bao and the gallants are assumed to be right in their judgements even when they're sneaky in their ends.

Given that, and a stiff effort to not think "That's no way to run a justice system" on every other page, it's as fun as stories full of violence, betrayal and death can be. (Loyal servants dash their brains out to prevent giving up information. If torture for evidence is common, I guess this is more likely. Still: eurgh. Also: with my hands tied together, on the ground floor, and under armed guard, could I possibly get up enough momentum to dash my brains out? I have the awful suspicion that there're plenty of historical examples.)

There are peasant feasts, scholarly love affairs complicated by over-helpful servants getting in each other's way, beautiful imperial courtesans (Good and Bad, a matched set), a lost heir; I don't remember any actual ghosts, but I probably just forgot.

So wrote clew.

May 29, 2002

North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell

One of my recurring conceits or motives—in the literary senses only, to be sure—is that the Victorian Age never really ended; that we are still in the long indecisive Edwardian twilight, looking at modernity. This novel about the social and moral implications of industrialization has evidence both ways. I don't think the sleepy rural village it starts in exists anywhere in England or the US any more, but the moral problems the vicar's daughter finds when they have to move to an ugly manufacturing town are familiar still:

Is there really social mobility for everyone, or is there a class that inherits all the chances of success, even if it isn't guaranteed? How bad can the penalties of poverty be before we're essentially punishing the innocent? Can we afford anything better?

The manufacturers in this town, in the 1850s, threaten to break strikes by moving production to poorer countries; failing that, they bring people in from those countries. The more-or-less enlightened owner explains that his factory has efficient furnaces, so is both cost-effective and less polluting; he also says that had he not built this before the 1847 parliamentary act requiring clean combustion, he would not have done it at all, because not being ordered around is worth more to him than the plain economic advantage. Hmmmm.

The unionizing workers have similarly familiar problems; is it worth the risk to strike, have they the money to feed their poorest families while they do, is it worse to leave unreliable people out of the union or to let them in a loose cannon; can they get the newspapers to report on a strike sympathetically. Can they bear to not strike, if that means they bend the neck? (The 'granite' of these Northern people is important to the novel, usually compared to a more turfish or oxlike durability on the part of the Southerners.)

However, this is a Gaskell novel, so it's basically personal. Vicar's daughter; terrifying mother of 'self-made' man; fat jolly Oxbridge drone; dieaway mother (literally, of course); all here as types & as personalities. It was written for serialization in Dickens' Household Words, which makes it the middlebrow equivalent of maybe a Masterpiece Theater series, or a Jane Smiley novel. (Excellence is possible, but will occur in a comfortable framework.)

You would not, I think, be surprised by an outline of the plot. I was surprised by the topicality of the economic problems, and finally by the statement that is probably the philosophy of the book:

'I have arrived at the conviction that no mere institutions, however wise, and however much thought may have been required to organize and arrange them, can attach class to class as they should be attached, unless the working out of such institutions bring the individuals of the different classes into actual personal contact. Such intercourse is the very breath of life. A working man can hardly be made to feel and know how much his employer may have labored in his study at plans for the benefit of his workpeople. A complete plan emerges like a piece of machinery, apparently fitted for every emergency. But the hands accept it as they do machinery, without understanding the intense mental labour and forethought required to bring it to such perfection. But I would take an idea, the working out of which would necesitate personal intercourse; it might not go well at first, but at every hitch interest would be felt by an increasing number of men, and at last its success in working come to be desired by all, as all had borne a part in the formation of the plan; and even then I am sure that it would lose its vitality, cease to be living, as soon as it was no longer carried on by that sort of common interest which invariably makes people find means and ways of seeing each other, and becoming acquainted with each others' characters and persons, and even tricks of temper and modes of speech. We should understand each other better, and I'll venture to say we should like each other more.'
'And you think they may prevent the recurrence of strikes?'
'Not at all...'
Which is, I find, remarkably suggestive of the anyone-can-stop-the-line production system that Fukuyama describes in Trust; one that accepts feedback from anyone doing the work, and led to much better production, when there was enough trust.

I doubt that a good hand in 185x thought of a piece of machinery as something not tinkered with by human intent; and I can't believe that any hand ever has thought of the machinery as 'fitted for every emergency'.

Project Gutenberg etext #4276

So wrote clew.