Sunday, February 23, 2014

I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith

"Time takes the ugliness and horror out of death and turns it into beauty."

 -- from I Capture the Castle, p. 102

 I borrowed a copy of this back when I was attending a Post-Jane Austen Book Club (started out as Austen, but then branched off when we ran out of books). I'd thought I would miss the meeting, so I didn't read it; when my plans changed, I showed up for the discussion after all, and afterwards, a friend lent me her edition. So, spoilers be damned, I already knew much of what happened, plot-wise, like the incident with the fur coat, and the locking-in-the-tower incident. Not that there's all that much plot to contend with.

This was a strange read for me, because while much of the prose is beautifully written, and there are descriptive passages I just wanted to roll around in, in the end, I found it kind of a slog. I've been on a kick with books in which love and marriage are major subjects, but in this one, once the romantic element kicked in, I felt like Mr. Beebe in A Room With a View, of whom that novel's heroine said "He will never forgive us -- I mean, he will never be interested in us again."

The novel is written in the form of a journal by teenaged Cassandra, who lives an isolated existed with her family in an ancient, rundown castle: a setting which allows for much romanticism, but punctured by the realities of its cold and dank, as well as the family's poverty.

Their fortunes look up when, in a self-consciously Austen-like turn, the local estate gets a new heir from America, who will be their new landlord. Simon Cotton and his brother, Neil, are more than willing to indulge them with free hams, and take notice of the spirited Cassandra and her beautiful older sister Rose, leading to those romantic shenanigans which somehow made it all less interesting to me.
As with Boswell's Journal, I was continually struck with the dramatically different way of life on display from what we could expect in modern times. For example, the idea of being three years behind on the rent, without anyone caring. But that must have been a pretty specialized situation even at that time, and is probably more a byproduct of the father's reputation as an eccentric genius than its setting in the 1930s (but published in 1949).

Unfortunately, that whole plot thread just irritated me. I lack patience with the idea of the coddled artiste. If the narrator's father can't write another book, maybe he could do something else to contribute in any way to his household, rather than forcing his cold and hungry children to take care of him: not only figuring out sources of income, but then doing all the practical work. Maybe the father could have helped boil the water for the freaking tea, instead of expecting them all to be his servants? When he says "God knows what's to become of you girls" (p. 52), I bristled, thinking: yeah, it's not like you have any responsibility whatsoever for your children.

Some of his shiftlessness rubs off some on Rose as well, who's rightfully angry with her father's behavior, and is willing to throw herself at a man she doesn't love to marry her way out of poverty. But at the same time, she makes sure she "isn't good at things like gardening and housework," (p. 27) leaving as much of the drudgery as possible to her sister, along with one unpaid servant, and Topaz, her long-suffering stepmother.

Topaz, a beautiful and once-famous artists' model, is a complete enabler of her husband, but balances that out as a character with her humorous pretentiousness, and a willingness to darn and scrub. It's always delightful when she's on the novel's stage. One of the funnier moments occurs right off the bat, when Rose declares that "for some time now, I've been considering selling myself. If necessary, I shall go on the streets," and Topaz replies that "you're the last girl to lead a hard-working immoral life." (p. 12, 13)

For almost everyone, though, the main draw of the novel is in Cassandra's narrative voice. She's full of introspection and wryly amusing observations -- for a random example, here she is on the joy of basking in the bathtub, which her father has compared to drinking: "The last stage of a bath, when the water is cooling, and there is nothing to look forward to, can be pretty disillusioning. I expect alcohol works much the same way. This time I spent my basking in thinking about the family and it is a tribute to hot water that I could think about them and still bask." (p. 61)

Author Dodie Smith, a playwright now most famous for having written The Hundred and One Dalmations, depicts the interior life and feelings of a girl just growing out of childish things and into adult life with great insight. Along the way, the reader can, well, bask in vivid pictures of life in the crumbling castle, the nearby village, and the beautiful countryside. Since I enjoyed the style of the book so much, I really wish the main story hadn't left me feeling kind of "meh."

Smith, Dodie. I Capture the Castle. London: Red Fox, 2003.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Boswell's London Journal 1762 -1763, by James Boswell

"I think there is a blossom about me of something more distinguished than the generality of mankind. But I am much afraid that this blossom will never swell into fruit, but will be nipped and destroyed by many a blighting heat and chilling frost."
-- James Boswell (p. 161)

In one of Arthur Machen's beautiful memoirs, which I don't seem to have handy, he describes leaving rural Wales to move to London in the 1880s. He visits famous taverns and coffeehouses he's read about,  where he half-expects to meet the literary idols of the day and fall into their company ... then realizes what he's looking for is the society from a hundred years earlier.

Which makes me think of my experience in the late 1980s, lonely and broke, like Machen, reading at a Hardee's off an Interstate overpass because there was nowhere else I could afford to go, with absolutely no idea how to meet another writer, much less be mentored by one.

This passage doesn't seem to be in Machen's Far Off Things, the only one of the memoirs currently available through Project Gutenberg. However, he does talk there about how "I am often made quite envious when I see and hear how a young man, fresh on the town, drops so easily, so pleasantly, so delightfully into a quite distinguished place in literature before he is twenty-five. He enters the world of letters as a perfectly well-bred man enters a room full of a great and distinguished company, knowing exactly what to say, and how to say it; everyone is charmed to see him; he is at home at once; and almost a classic in a year or two."

Machen did, over time, join some London clubs, make good friends, and become a noted literary host in his own right. But the life he imagined as a young man, and the example of a literary career he described, was clearly much like the one led in reality by Samuel Johnson's future biographer, James Boswell, in 1762 - 1763 (and doesn't that sound like a school year?)

In rebellion against his father, a Scottish lord pressuring him into a legal career, the 22-year-old Boswell went to London in search of a commission in the Army (there's a lengthy introduction, but thank goodness to Jane Austen for giving me at least a vague background on the need to buy your way in). He's made friends with a few people who have connections, and while he waits for that to get off the ground, he goes to the theater, publishes a pamphlet lampooning a playwright, gets gonorrhea, and dines out like crazy.

Again, thinking of the young writer moving to a strange city in contemporary times: on almost every page, someone is inviting him for dinner, or for breakfast, or tea -- sometimes extending open invitations to drop in any time. Wouldn't THAT have been handy? When I start to feel mildly envious, I have to remember that, as a woman, the same doors wouldn't have been open in the same way, even in similar circumstances, and besides, odds are I wouldn't have been the one getting the dinner, but the one cleaning up afterwards.

Anyway, I wouldn't have wanted the gonorrhea.

It must be said: it amazed me how often, and frankly, he talks about prostitutes, and sex in general. Maybe it was reading two novels in a row about women in the 1860s, putting me in a relatively prim mindset, but a hundred years earlier, things seemed a lot more relaxed. Even new to high society, Boswell is pretty sure of his chances with even some of the noblewomen in his circle, although a seduction there is more of a long-term strategy, compared to picking up a strange woman in the park and taking her to a random alleyway. One of his later notes to self hilariously vows "Swear to have no more rogering before you leave England except Mrs. ____ in chambers ..." (p. 304)

According to the introductory material in the book, while this journal was a key literary preparation for Boswell to the writing of his magnus opus on Samuel Johnson, the racier material helped keep it out of print until 1950, as it was first squirreled away, and then forgotten, by his embarrassed family.

The book has a surprising element of narrative for reports of daily life, as Boswell gives up the idea of joining the Guards and eventually meets Samuel Johnson, which will change the course of his life for good. Along the way, although naturally "addicted to low jocularity" (p. 321), he attempts to remake himself in a mode that will be taken more seriously, and relates a lot of other great period detail that makes me want to get in a time machine and go to one of those dinners. For example, he buys "a genteel violet-coloured frock suit" (p. 53), which sounds awesome.

Department of Nihil Novum (nothing new under the sun):

He quotes a friend musing that "nothing will make me either happy or the reverse above a day. It is hard ... that we tire of everything" (p. 74), proving once again that times change but human nature doesn't. 

"The pleasure of gratifying whim is very great." (p. 80)

"Mrs. Sheridan said that this age was (as Henry Fielding styled it) a trifling age." (p. 91)

"I have thought a good deal upon education. I see so many difficulties that I despair of a good method. I take this state of being to be a jest." (p. 103)

He gets advice about friends who are fun but untrustworthy: "go to his house often, just as you would to a play." (p. 148)

"I returned ... in that sort of humour that made me consider writing as a dangerous thing and wish that I had never wrote and I think I would not write again." (p. 151)

That one's certainly eternal!

In the Preface, a scholar is quoted saying that Boswell's "chosen lifework" was "defeating the forces of oblivion." (p. xviii). If nothing else, that makes him a Friend to the Skull and Book Library.

Boswell, James. Boswell's London Journal, 1762 - 1763. Second Edition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

It Does Not Die, by Maitreyi Devi

"Life is beautiful; so is my sorrow." (p. 130, It Does Not Die)

Mircea Eliade's novel Bengal Nights was written with some degree of distance from its events, long enough for the narrator to revisit journals "written with the very blood from my veins," only to find them embarrassingly "cold and banal." (Bengal Nights, p. 150). But it still reads very much as a cri de coeur from a young man with a freshly-broken heart.

In contrast, the perspective of It Does Not Die, the book written by Maitreyi Devi in response to it (published in 1974, and translated by her into English), is more reflective, with memories of a long-ago love coming back to a mature person, who's had a full life and a happy marriage to a different man. As such, its subject is more Devi's whole life, including philosophy, her poetry, and her upbringing in a then-modern family that was breaking with convention, but not enough, than it is her ill-fated first romance.

When she's visited by a student of "Mircea Euclid," she's spent the years thinking of him as a coward: "If he really was so much in love, why did he run away at one snubbing from my father? Had he no duty towards me? Have you ever known of such cowardice?" (p. 14) He didn't listen to her about the obstacles in their way, and then, when faced with them, he left, never responding to her letters "He should be contacting me and sorting it out -- instead he runs off to the Himalayas! Fat lot of good will come of it!" (p. 130)

Then, of course, she feels slandered by the sexual material in his novel, saying "I am ready to accept the truth, but why should I accept the burden of a lie?" (p. 42) Euclid's student says "he took shelter in the world of fantasy" (p. 14), which is no excuse,  but Devi gets the last word in a confrontation scene when her former lover can't bring himself to look at her. "Why do you speak of putting me beyond time and space? Have I become a ghost? ... I belong to this real world. I am the Amrita of flesh and blood standing in your study -- this is the truth ... Fantasy is beautiful and truth is more beautiful, but half-truth is terrible ... I was no enigma. The mystery is your creation." (p. 253, 255)

I'm reminded of Kate Winslet's speech in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: "Too many guys think I'm a concept, or I complete them, or I'm gonna make them alive. But I'm just a fucked-up girl who's lookin' for my own peace of mind."

Apart from sex, the narrator (and it's hard not to assume Devi by association) is clearly stung that people think of her as a tragic teenage Juliet, who life was "spoilt" by her father's prejudice. "I was astonished ... Who can spoil my life? My life is rich." (p. 14) She admits her life would have been different if she and her first love had been able to stay together, and the memory still has the power to move her, but she isn't defined by any experience she's moved on from.

As in Eliade's book, Devi's emotional reactions and conflicts are vividly described: "To whom was I praying? Only to myself. Oh, save me, save me from myself! Yet I did not want to run away." (p. 65) And: "I know what he wants -- the curtain is moving slowly and I am getting a glimpse of of the unknown mysterious world ... I am certain there is no sin in this. If there was, I would have surely known." (p. 66)

Later, she adds, "My body is so frail -- I have no power to exert my will -- the perfume of his hair has filled my breath ... I also want him -- if he again draws me to him, I certainly will yield." (p. 94) Her awareness of the passage of time is memorably poignant as well: "Who am I? I am also the same me. Indestructible is her sixteen-year old mind. You could seek her even now." (p. 252)

The novel contains an interesting thread about everyday life in India during the time of Gandhi, with the characters reading about events in the newspaper, but not being really involved in it. "What a myth we had created -- that the whole nation rose against the British." (p. 33) And I was amused by her complete obliviousness to the British: "We are not even aware of their presence in the country." (p. 87)

Indian literary icon Rabindranath Tagore, a mentor to Devi in real life, casts a long shadow over both books; in both of them, it's clear that the Eliade character is jealous of him, and thinks she must have romantic feelings for the older man. She shows some irritation that even the man she loves has regressive views on women: he thinks her parents wouldn't allow them to spend time together unless they were willing for them to hook up, and she fumes "to allow two people to catalogue together (in her father's library) is not to permit their betrothal; what was wrong in letting me mix with him?" (p. 84) Even though in case something romantic does develop, I still sympathize!

To finish where we started in Bengal Nights, with Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, this book is more clearly related to the film than is Eliade's. The incident with the peppers takes place on pages 101 - 102, although burning oneself with them is treated more seriously. It also contains a version of what will become a major part of the film: the husband who helps reunite his unwilling wife with her true love appears in a story Amrita's husband tells her (p. 170), which makes her understand that "if his friend was like this, certainly he also would be the same. No need to go into the past any more. I will never be able to hurt my husband." (p. 171)

Here's a musical clip of dramatic stuff that is totally not in the novel, but emotionally has the same effect.

Devi, Maitreyi. It Does Not Die: A Romance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Bengal Nights, by Mircea Eliade

"The sin was not in allowing our bodies to explore more and more of each other but in putting a limit on our physical love." -- Mircea Eliade, from Bengal Nights

You never know how one thing will lead to another. There was some chit-chat on Facebook about the movie Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (usually called Straight from the Heart in the US) -- much of it unhappy with the depiction of gender roles. Which I said just highlighted how shallow I really am, since my main opinion is that it's star Ajay Devgan at his yummiest. In the course of that, someone mentioned that the story was based on a real-life experience of anthropologist Mircea Eliade, famous for bringing shamanism to the attention of the Western world. He had lived with an Indian family as a young man, and he and the daughter had fallen in love, which ended about as well as the romance does in the film.

The best part of this information: he and the girl, respected Bengali poet Maitreyi Devi, eventually wrote his-and-hers roman-a-clefs about their love affair, Bengal Nights and It Does Not Die, which have been published in matching volumes by the University of Chicago Press.

Interestingly, in each book, the author changes his or own name, but gives the love object the name of the real person. So in Mircea's book, the lovers are Alain and Maitreyi; in Maitreyi's, they're Mircea and Amrita.

Devi's novel was written in direct response to Eliade's, in a mode of setting the record straight, and a mood of deep offense that in his fictionalized version, she was sneaking down to his room for a full-on sexual relationship. If it hadn't been so clear that the novel was based on real-life events, down to using her real name, none of this would be so problematic, but it is, and it is.

Which is very unfortunate, because as a novel depicting the contradictions of first love, and the devastating effect of first heartbreak, it's really good. A character in It Does Not Die will say "His suffering, his agony fall through that book like droplets of blood" (p. 13), and that's an apt description.

Bengal Nights (originally published in French, 1950), begins in 1929, when the narrator, a young European engineer, gets taken under the wing of his Indian boss, who invites him to live in his house, to help him "learn to love India." (p. 21) He's treated like a member of the family, and has a great deal of freedom to associate with Maitreyi, already an accomplished poet with a "rebelliously expressive" face. (p. 53). The two grow close, with a whole series of teasings, arguments, and misunderstandings between them before their attraction is openly addressed. Then, for a time, they revel in their secret relationship, until a chance mishap exposes them. (How that plays out, by the way, is very different from the film).

In the beginning, I was put off by the narrator's blithe arrogance and assumption of superiority, and he says some awful things, for example, about how Maitreyi's skin color is "unfeminine" (p. 2). He admits that "for a long time, I was to flatter myself by thinking of our relationship as that of civilized man and barbarian." (p. 32) However, he is contrasted from the start with the more open racism of the Anglo-Indians he parties with. He isn't alone in his ignorance, and his initial callowness is that of someone who's going to have to learn better.

Eventually, in an emotional moment of "heat and sincerity," he will proclaim "the white world is a dead world. I have finished with it," (p. 103) and ultimately, "The youth ... who had arrived in India believing he was bringing civilization with him, had long since died. All that seemed useless now, illusory and useless." (p. 158)

But let's get to those "droplets of blood." Here's a few examples:

"I had suddenly woken up alone in a cemetery, with no one to hear my woes or comfort me. I had been broken into a thousand pieces, my body nothing but a gaping wound, my soul destroyed." (p. 135)

"The apparent reality of my body, stretched out on the bed, the cigarettes I was smoking, seemed to me absurd -- because I was going to die, because I had to die." (p. 140)

"I could not accept that I was no different from the wretched thousands who love and who forget." (p. 170)

After their inevitable separation, the ficional Alain accuses Maitreyi of "mythologizing" him: her letters call him her "air" and "flowers," and "my sun, my life!" (p. 160) Let's keep that in mind when we continue our discussion, only focused on Devi's book.

Until then, here's my review of the Hindi film Raat Aur Din, to explain why I cheered when the narrator mentions how we wants "to stop off at Firpo's on the way back and listen to its jazz with a cocktail in my hand." (p. 21)

 Eliade, Mircea. Bengal Nights: A Novel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Book Lottery

I'm going to try this exercise from the Classics Club -- they call it a Spin.  You make a list of 20 books from what you're planning to read, and then they assign a number, and you read that number and blog about it. "For example, you could list five Classics Club books you are dreading/hesitant to read, five you can’t WAIT to read, five you are neutral about, and five free choice (favorite author, rereads, ancients — whatever you choose)."
Somewhat trepidation:
1. Samuel Richardson: Pamela
2. James Thomson: The Speedy Extinction of Evil and Misery
3. Tales of the Elders of Ireland
4. Francis Godwin: The Man in the Moone
5. Thomas Browne: Pseudodoxia Epidemica

Looking forward to:
6. J.B. Priestley, Benighted
7. Anne Fuller: The Convent
8. George Gissing: New Grub Street
9. Eliza Haywood: The Adventures of Eovaii
10. Arthur Machen: The White People and Other Stories

Most outside my usual genres:
11. Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird
12. Amos Tutuola: My Life in the Bush of Ghosts
13. Herman Melville: Bartleby the Scrivener
14. Tang Xianxu: The Peony Pavilion
15. Petronius: The Satyricon

16. Thorstein Veblen: The Theory of the Leisure Class
17. The Letters of Abelard and Heloise
18.  Anna Murphy Jameson: Shakespeare's Heroines, or Characteristics of Women
19. Tacitus: Agricola and Germania
20. A. E. Waite: The Holy Grail

So I'll find out the lucky winner next Monday!

UPDATE: And the winner is: A. E. Waite, The Holy Grail. So I'd better get Interlibrary Loaning.

I am currently reading The Buccaneers, by Edith Wharton, at home, and I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith, on my lunch breaks. With some breaks for Chester Hines.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

East Lynne, by Ellen Wood

"You will have the whole room gaping at you."
"I don't mind. I'll bring you word all about it. Let them gape."
-- Lord Mount Severn and his daughter, Lady Isabel, from East Lynne, p. 76

I'd heard of this book as the source of a popular, even archetypal Victorian stage melodrama, so it was one of the first "always wanted to read but never got around to it" selections for my Classics Club list. I swear to god, I had no idea that it features another nobleman dying deep in debt, leaving a daughter penniless and mostly alone in the world. Clearly this idea was really floating around in the late 19th-century zeitgeist. (See J. Sheridan Le Fanu's Willing to Die for the variation on the theme).

East Lynne (1860 - 1861) is a classic "triple-decker" novel, 624 pages of quick read, of the sort I'd describe as "hothouse" fiction: overflowing with repressed emotion. And while I would normally point out the "spoilers," the main one is the very first sentence in the blurb on the back of the Oxford University Press edition, so I'm throwing caution to the winds.

Like Wilkie Collins' Basil and Elizabeth Inchbald's A Simple Story, it takes us through a courtship and into the depths of the marriage that follows, exposing the damage that social conventions  and gender roles can do to a relationship. (Wood's reads as the most conservative of the lot ... but it can be hard to read the intention). The sinner is a sympathetic third-person-limited point-of-view character, more so AFTER her transgression than before.

The story kicks off when well-to-do lawyer Archibald Carlyle buys East Lynne, the impoverished Earl of Mount Severn's country estate (it's the only thing the Earl has that's not subject to the entail, always a point of interest to Downton Abbey fans). Along the way, Carlyle becomes acquainted and enamored with the Earl's beautiful, innocent daughter Isabel, completely oblivious to the fact that his lifelong friend, the also lovely Barbara Hare, is crazy in love with him. Barbara has bigger problems, though: her brother is a fugitive, the only suspect in the murder of a local flirt's father. (Significantly, the girl, Afy -- short for Aphrodite -- put on airs after being raised "above her station.") He swears to innocence, claiming the deed was done by a mysterious, aristocratic rival, whose description, the text makes clear early on, sounds just like the charismatic Captain Levinson who's been busy turning Isabel's head.

When her father dies, the creditors swarm, and poor Isabel is packed off to live with the new Earl, whose wife (who "carried her flirtations to the very verge of propriety," p. 112) bitterly resents having someone in the house who's the fairer in the land. Isabel's misery emboldens the smitten Carlyle to propose, throwing all their friends and relations into a tizzy: he's below her in status, and she's well below in material prosperity. Refreshingly, the bride-to-be tells her suitor upfront that "it has come upon me by surprise ... I like you very much; I esteem and respect you; but I do not yet love you," and his response is quite sensible: "I should wonder if you did." (p. 122)

But they make a go of it. Isabel has to endure the perpetual carping of her husband's miserly sister, who raised him like him a son, and occasional doubts about her husband's close friendship with Miss Hare, but otherwise they live a picture of wedded bliss, with three children, his thriving career, and general domestic harmony.

Eventually, of course, she's going to run into Captain Levinson again, but his presence isn't the primary cause of the turn in her life that's going to lead to tragedy and despair. I mean, their relationship is going to lead to all those things, but it's not like he just shows up one day and starts in on seducing her. She crosses paths with him because she's become obscurely unhappy in her seemingly perfect life, suffering what Betty Friedan dubbed "the problem that has no name," and has been sent off on an extended vacation from her family for her health. She'd been exhausted for no apparent reason, incapable of "rousing herself" (p. 197), which everyone thinks she could do if she'd just make an effort. Her attraction to Levinson isn't what causes her to feel dissatisfied with her life, but instead comes across as a symptom of her depression -- it perks her up to feel young and desired again, away from the sameness of her domestic life and the wearing sensation of never being good enough.

The story seems pretty conservative in many ways, with a woman being punished by fate for breaking the rules, but it does point out that those rules are often pretty impossible to follow. "Suffer in silence" isn't really much of an option. One social norm is made much of, that women are never supposed to declare their love, and even beyond that, "A woman may almost as well lose herself, as suffer herself to love unsought." (p. 181) So falling in love at all is disreputable from the start, unless it's in reaction to an honorable proposal. It was Carlyle himself, the love object, who had said the above, but the narrator will be more philosophical: "Love never yet came for the trying: it is a capricious passion, and generally comes without the knowledge and against the will." (p. 199)

Water-muddying also occurs in that Carlyle brought this up when trying to reassure his wife, to whom it's perfectly obvious that Barbara is in love with her husband. Nonetheless, he knows for a fact that Isabel is correct about that, following a dramatic outburst of candor on her rival's part. "There are moments in a woman's life when she is betrayed into forgetting the ordinary rules of conduct and propriety; when she is betrayed into making a scene ... A little self-control and Barbara would not have uttered words that must remain on her mind hereafter like an incubus, dyeing her cheeks red whenever she recalled them." (p. 163) She admits her love and expresses her pain at being thrown over for Lady Isabel, which leaves Carlyle "feeling extremely vexed and annoyed." (p. 164)

After this, Barbara, previously known as one who "displayed her own will" (p. 30), is softened and ennobled by her silent suffering, until she's finally deemed a fit wife for Carlyle after all. He tells his sister, "She has not angled after me: had she done so, she would probably never have been Mrs. Carlyle. Whatever passing fancy she may have entertained for me in earlier days, she has shown no symptoms of it of late years ... others have angled after me too palpably, but Barbara has not." (p. 373) So it's only because she repressed any sign of her love for him that he's willing to declare his love to her. Ohh-kay. That sounds like the basis for a healthy relationship.

Isabel, too, had in her innocence (and the unconscious confidence of being to the manor born) been prone to her own willfulness (as in "let them gape"). This tends to happen in contexts where we're bound to admire her for it, and empathize with her high spirits and good intentions. The narrator also reminds us that her upbringing has left her "little more than a child, and as a child she reasoned," (p. 120) making clear that she's not to blame for the naivete resulting from her sheltered state. But the novel still has to remind us that the world won't allow her to get away with that sort of thing.

At the same time, it's no surprise that the wicked seducer uses the rhetoric of uncontainable emotion: "There are moments when our dearest feelings break through the rules of life, and betray themselves, in spite of our sober judgment." (p. 216) This reminds me of Percy Shelley's romances, where the sinister libertines and the idealistic heroes use similar lines about how their love is beyond all social conventions -- so it's hard for a girl to know what to think.

In the end, the narrator's final judgment seems to be that "Let people talk as they will, it is impossible to drive out human passions from the human heart. You may suppress them, deaden them, keep them in subjection, but you cannot root them out." (p. 590)

The murder plot is mostly a time-filler; it's not boring, per se, but it wouldn't be enough in itself to make me want to read the book. The most important thing about it is as a pretext to throw Carlyle and Barbara together. It does allow for some humorous byways, though, like how Barbara's unjustly accused brother "was not over-burdened with what the world calls brains. Brains he certainly had, but they were not sharp ones." (p. 50) The girl he'd been courting is also delightfully described, as someone who's "gay and giddy and very pretty, and would do nothing all day but read books." (p. 156)

There's also an elderly relative who mocks her granddaughter for pretentiously dropping French phrases in conversation: "I'd rather stick a printed label on my forehead, for my part, 'I speak French,' and let the world know it that way." (p. 14) So it's not all seriousness about marriage, or over-the-top melodrama.

Wood, Ellen. East Lynne. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.