Thursday, December 31, 2015

Shamela, by Henry Fielding

"A Fig for my Conscience, said I, when shall I meet you again in the Garden?"
-- Shamela, from Shamela, p. 270

This was so short, I feel guilty even counting it. But since it's always described as Henry Fielding's first novel, I guess I can take credit for it.

Like Anti-Pamela, this was an almost immediate reaction to Samuel Richardson's Pamela; they were both published a year later, in 1741. Fielding's version is the more famous, which makes sense, since Fielding is much more well-known than Eliza Haywood, who never came up in any of my Brit Lit courses, and I had to discover on the street (literarily speaking). Haywood responded to the Pamela phenomenon by creating a character who would encounter similar situations, but react to them with naked self-interest (the pun just sprang up, so I'm keeping it), using the window of opportunity for advancement given to her by her good looks and her unconcern with morals. Fielding took a different approach, writing a direct parody of Richardson -- almost MAD magazine-like. In his scenario, the "real-life" story of Pamela's elevation was turned into the popular fiction, and made a moral exemplar, but now the "truth" is being revealed in the letters of the "real" Shamela, who already had "a small One" out of wedlock before she ever met Lord B (244).

Also unlike Haywood, Fielding openly mocks the prose style of Pamela, most famously the breathless narration in the first-person present tense: "he is in bed between us ... he steals his Hand into my Bosom" (247).

Fielding questions the morality of Pamela, but I find the conclusions questionable myself. He was clearly bothered by the racy scenes in Pamela. They were a titillating selling point for the book, by excused by the ultimate reward of virtue, thus being, potentially at least, hypocritical in its moralizing. That's a fair point. However, some of his other conclusions are problematic, like "Young Gentlemen are here taught, that to marry their Mother's Chambermaids, and to indulge the Passion of Lust, at the Expence of Reason and Common Sense, is an Act of Religion" (275) My footnote: "Worse than indulging it without marriage?"

In his mind, probably yes ... which again, makes me more sympathetic to his deceitful protagonist, who candidly declares "I believe I shall buy every thing I see ... it would be hard indeed that a Woman who marries a Man only for his money should be debarred from spending it." (p. 266, 267)

There's definitely some humor to be had, as when her "Master" says "I have a great Mind to kick your A---. you, kiss -----, says I" (245), proving that not all the vernacular has changed so much. Then, on the next page, there's reference to "giving his Hand a Liberty" (246). Which was not footnoted, but I think the meaning was probably the same as in our time. And when I finally get to Pamela, I'll know to be on the look for Parson Williams, with his preaching on how we should "Be not Righteous over-much" (253).

Oddball literary connections:

This has been two books in a row (after Cranford) that talk about "Paduasoy" (266). Which is a "luxurious strong corded or grosgrain silk fabric," according to the ubiquitous Wikipedia.

Among Shamela's books, along with works about moral improvement, is found one Venus in the Cloyster: Or, the Nun in her Smock (262). Somewhere along the line I read this passage, and it always cracked me up. I've finally got it on order, and plan to review it here, although the edition I can get translates it as "The Nun in Her Chemise." Possibly more accurate, but that word just isn't as funny as "smock." Alas.

Fielding, Henry. Anti-Pamela and Shamela. P. 229 - 276. Edited by Catherine Ingrassia. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2004.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Type-Writer Girl, by Grant Allen

" 'If only we could have lived in those days!' people say. I answer: 'You are living in them.' It is not the days, not the places, not the things that change, but we who see them otherwise."
-- the wisdom of the eponymous Type-Writer Girl, p. 25

Grant Allen's 1897 novel, written under the female pseudonym "Olive Pratt Raynor" (a nice reversal of the expected), is a light and sprightly look at what, in other hands, could be a "problem novel" of social conditions. It deals with a relatively serious subject, that of genteel young women forced to make their own livings, unsupported in a real man's world. Narrator Juliet Appleton, however, never thinks of herself as helpless, but paints her adventures as a typist in dreary offices as a mythic adventure, comparing herself to the classic Odysseus and the operatic Carmen.

 "Adventures are to the adventurous," she insists. "Go through the world in search of Calypo, and you will surely find her. Be modern, and you will find only Willesen Junction. That may suffice for you. I live in 'those days' as all lovers of the mystical have always lived in them" (25). And also: "Misfortunes are nothing if one takes them in the spirit of camping out. Hardships cease to be hardships when you talk of them as roughing it. After all, it is only what we voluntarily do at a picnic up the river" (37).

Orphaned and alone in the world, Juliet is armed with both a solid classical education and the newest technology, since not only her (apparently massive) type-writer, but even more so, her bicycle, are key elements in the novel. She asks, "When man first set woman on two wheels with a pair of pedals, did he know, I wonder, that he had rent the veil of the harem in twain? ... A woman on a bicycle has all the world before her where to choose; she can go where she will, no man hindering" (42-43).

She means that, too, briefly leaving London behind and running off to an anarchist commune in the country, a very funny and well-observed episode which could easily be updated to any latter-day communes, ending with her declaration that "I find myself too individual, too anarchic for the anarchists!" (58)

Eventually, an accidental love triangle develops, and while romance is treated as something that adds spice to a young woman's life, in this case, her happiness ultimately doesn't depend on the success or failure of a particular love affair, and neither does the novel.

Allen is clearly on Juliet's side in all her doings, and if her story isn't necessarily realistic, her ability to take care of herself, and her sheer enjoyment of life, make her great company for the short time it'll take you to read the book.

Allen, Grant. The Type-Writer Girl. Edited by Clarissa J. Suranyi. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2004.

Cranford, by Elizabeth Gaskell

"She would have despised the modern idea of women being equal to men. Equal, indeed! She knew they were superior."
-- from Cranford, p. 13

In between vixens, and needing a break from literary angst over the place of women in society, I meant to read Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South (which probably would just have switched up the angst a little). Instead, I took a scenic byway to her Cranford, a village ruled by a group of women "of very moderate means" (4), who "each has her own individuality, not to say eccentricity, pretty strongly developed" (2).

Gaskell's novel, published in 1853, must be the spiritual ancestor of Miss Read, of Mapp and Lucia, and all the cozy series (book and television) about life in quaint British villages, with or without a constant stream of murders. An air of melancholy lurks in the background, as aging spinsters remember lost loves and long-ago family tragedies, but in the forefront is the amusement to be had watching a straight-laced, insular, and even, we'd say today, passive-aggressive community facing the upheavals of life, from new fashions, traveling magicians to -- gasp! -- widows remarrying. Even in the time period of the novel, the village is old-fashioned: "things that many would despise, and actions which it seemed scarcely worth while to perform, were all attended to in Cranford" (17), and yet, at the end of the year 2015, that quiet concern with tradition is part of what makes it a charming read.

Although the subject matter is consciously quaint, the style seems strikingly modern for a novel written in 1853, the same year Bleak House was finished. No one would mistake a work by contemporaries like Dickens, or the Brontes, for a novel of the 20th century. But really, if I didn't know, I might not guess that this was written substantially earlier than, say, E.F. Benson's works in the 1920s - 1930s, or someone like Nancy Mitford or Evelyn Waugh in the '40s or later. Not that Dickens or the Brontes are old-fangled or anything, but Cranford certainly seems less of its time. It bypasses the expansive mode so favored by the Victorians, with Gaskell willing to leave the novel short and sweet, putting a microscope on a single place and time, rather than connecting it to the larger world, either through plot or narrative moralizing.

Another thing that gives that modern feel is the device of a self-effacing first-person narrator, witness and minor participant in events, who's retelling them with ironic amusement and great affection for the foibles of her friends. We'll see this again in Mitford's novels -- not to mention The Great Gatsby. In this case, the narrator is the generically-named Mary Smith, a former resident and frequent family visitor, about whom we know barely anything until late in the book.

A few literary connections: the novel begins when Dickens' Pickwick Papers were first being published, which pushes the novel's time period back to 1836.

Miss Matty's obsession with the unhealthiness of green tea (see pages 133 and 160) is of interest to any Gothic fans who've read J. Sheridan Le Fanu's awesome short story "Green Tea," published in 1872. I don't know off-hand if this was a common concern, so for the moment, for fun, I can enjoy the belief that he was tipping his hat to Gaskell.

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Cranford. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 2005.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Anti-Pamela, by Eliza Haywood

"This they call a sober regular life -- my Stars! defend me from such formal ways."
-- Anti-Pamela, p. 59

Eliza Haywood's Anti-Pamela; or, Feign'd Innocence Detected (1741) represents Phase One of my attempt to conquer Pamela, Samuel Richardson's 1740 novel about a servant girl who holds onto her virtue so resolutely that it wins her a wealthy husband and a life far beyond her means. Now, I'm such a Richardson fan that, back when I planned to go on to a Ph.D., I intended to write it on his follow-up Clarissa. And, like a crazy person, I've read the 1,647-page Sir Charles Grandison in its entirety. Pamela, though, has always bugged me, and I've never been able to finish it.

An openly comic satire of Pamela can be found in Henry Fielding's Shamela, which is my Phase Two (hopefully culminating in a successful reading of the original), but this play on Richardson's work is a fairly serious one -- interesting, and worth reading, but without a lot of levity.

For a while, despite my love for her other books (especially The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless), I was a little put off by Haywood's lack of sympathy for her protagonist, Syrena Tricksy, who starts out poor, beautiful, and understandably eager to avoid a life of drudgery as a dress-maker or a ladies' maid. At a few points, Haywood pauses to excuse the gentlemen she encounters, whose actions would be pretty reprehensible if Syrena were what she appeared to be. Since she's a con artist out to fleece them, though, they get a pass, and that rubbed me the wrong way.

By the end, though, I thought the judgment was landing on the social norms, which trained women to use their wiles to get rich husbands, and then blamed them for their deceptiveness, and which allowed men to condemn women they'd had sex with, for things like coming to their lodgings: an impropriety and "Impudence" (149). Similarly, the double standard against Syrena for enjoying sex (so much so that she has her own affairs, apart from her desire for financial gain), when it's taken for granted that that's all the men in the novel want from her, is obviously unfair, and that comes across just from its being depicted. When several of her schemes go awry, and after casual, described-in-passing descriptions of an abortion and a bout with gonorrhea, Syrena begins to worry that she's lost her bloom and freshness, and that her chances have passed her by. The narrator notes then that she was "not yet seventeen," and it's hard not to see some poignancy.

I had to agree with Syrena's own belief, that her luck in earning a decent settlement as somebody's mistress might have been better if she'd been allowed to be herself, "sawcy" and with "an air of Insolence" (151), rather than perpetually pretending, at her mother's advice, to an overblown and hypocritical virtue, constantly drawn into situations where she "gave herself up entirely ... without seeming to know what she did" (155). When she thinks she's finally snared a husband, her response cries out through the ages: "How I shall indulge every Wish -- enjoy every Pleasure, and despise all Restraint" (190). Her means are dodgy, and it's fair for her deceptions to be punished, but I can't say her motives aren't understandable, and I liked her a lot more than I've ever liked Pamela.

The excellent Broadview edition contains both Anti-Pamela and Shamela, along with introductory critical material and numerous supporting texts (including an excerpt from something called Conjugal Lewdness, by Daniel Defoe -- and why does no one ever talk about that book, for pete's sake?)

Haywood, Eliza. Anti-Pamela and Shamela, by Henry Fielding. Edited by Catherine Ingrassia. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2004.

Dombey and Son, by Charles Dickens

"I make so bold as to believe that the faculty (or the habit) of correctly observing the characters of men, is a rare one. I have not even found, within my experience, that the faculty (or the habit) of correctly observing so much as the faces of men, is a general one by any means."
-- Charles Dickens, "Preface of 1867" to Dombey and Son

"The ones who love us least are the ones we'll die to please.
If it's any consolation, I can't begin to understand."
-- The Replacements, "Bastards of Young"

In this novel (published serially from1846-1848), Dombey, a successful shipping magnate, pins all his hopes for posterity, and the future of the business that gives the novel its title, on his frail, sensitive son Paul, while ignoring and neglecting his firstborn, daughter Florence, who idolizes him. The gulf between the affectionate children and their distant father grows even wider with tragedy, and when the long-widowed Dombey marries a beautiful, much younger woman, the hidden stresses will eventually come out into the open.

Now, I avoided Dickens for years -- decades -- despite his being one of the biggest names right smack dab in the middle of my time period. Although I did finish and enjoy Bleak House, that was read with a professor who made everything interesting, and even that did suffer a bit from what I considered the two big turn-offs in Dickens' work: caricature and sentimentality, two things I've never been fond of. I was aware of this more from an early attempt on Nicholas Nickleby, a TV movie of Oliver Twist, and, of course, A Christmas Carol, with that whole Tiny Tim business, and the thought of reading more Dickens made me go "Ugh."

When I decided to give him a fair and earnest try, I picked The Pickwick Papers as something that, talked about as lighter and sprightlier, more an extension of his nonfiction sketches than his later work. And I loved it. I followed his first novel with his last finished one -- Our Mutual Friend -- and started working my way through, willy nilly.

What I've started to believe is that the poles of caricature and sentimentality work as a yin and yang of imaginative exaggeration, which surround closely-observed real-life detail about human behavior. So that quote, at the end of my edition of Dombey and Son, struck me forcibly. It is unusual to see so clearly, and be able to describe people so accurately, that even with minor characters you lose track of in a complicated story, when they pop up, you never mistake them for anyone else.

Frankly, I'm not even sure if Dombey contains less caricature than Bleak House (from which I vividly recall the Jellybys, and Guppy, and the "Shake-Me-Up Judy" guy), or if I'm no longer reading it as caricature per se, because I'm viewing it as grounded in things people do, and the ways they are, just focused on in a particular way. The sour Mrs. Pipchin, the Blimbers (who run a school cramming children with the classics), and the blustery Major Bagstock all have the Dickens caricature thing going on. But they're so differentiated as exaggerated individuals-- not stereotypes, or stock characters, which is often what we're talking about with caricature -- and contain grains of truth about what some people are like, that they come out the other side and become weirdly realistic.

There are many, many people in the world of Dickens. His books are as crowded as the streets of London. When we meet many of these people, we never get to know them beyond the superficial qualities they express to the world. Just like in real Some people are so embittered that they're perpetually in a bad mood, even when it goes against their interests; some people are so oblivious that they barely seem to see other people; and, getting to the sentimental part of the spectrum, some people are self-sacrificing, and they do love people who don't love them back.

It's easy to look at sentimentality as particularly a part of the Victorian age, but in ours, billions of dollars are spent on TV commercials that manipulate their audiences by plucking on the same heartstrings, even more shamelessly. Just because we like to think we're more sophisticated, doesn't mean we are. Dennis Walder says in his introduction that "Florence's passivity and infinite loyalty under duress have led to much critical impatience" (xxi),  but maybe that's partly because too many people are as embarrassed by open emotions as her fictional father is.

Florence is particularly worth looking at because, of the Dickens novels I've read so far, this one is the most explicitly concerned about the places for women in society. Before the all-important son is born, Dombey is described as being a man who "had had no issue. -- To speak of; none worth mentioning. There had been a girl some six years before ..." (3). Not long after that, the outspoken servant Miss Nipper will make the famous statement that "girls are thrown away in this house" (28).

While Florence is indeed a little over-the-top in her sweetness and goodness and unconditional love (as her father recognizes, unchanging), and I could easily roll my eyes at the way so many of the novel's other characters exalt her for it, this is in the service of expressing a general truth about life, which is that many people aren't appreciated by the very people who are most in a position to recognize their worth. And significantly, these judgments can be colored by prejudice.

In this case, Dombey immediately wrote off his daughter as having no value to him, by virtue of her gender, and treating his son as the only important thing in his life, by virtue of his, long before either of them had a formed character, or had given him any inkling of their personalities or their intrinsic value.

The introduction of Edith, Dombey's proud second wife, emphasizes the theme of women's limited options, and the way their lives are warped by what people expect from them. She has a mirror image in the novel, Alice, a once-beautiful former convict who lurks in the background, seeking revenge on the lover who refused to help her in a time of need. Although Edith lives in high society and Alice in the dirtiest slums, they were both brought up by mothers who had one goal: to sell their daughters' beauty to the highest bidder, however they could, for their own benefit. And both daughters are gloriously angry about the results.

Edith's self-awareness about her position in life leads to some articulate, stinging attacks, which reflect upon the whole of Victorian society; for example: "Grown too indifferent for any opposition but indifference ... knowing that my marriage would at least prevent their hawking of me up and down; I suffered myself to be sold, as infamously as any woman with a halter round her neck is sold in any market-place. You know that" (802).

Later, when Edith says "I do not repent of what I have done -- not yet -- for if it were to do again to-morrow, I should do it" (917), I wanted to cheer. She's saying "screw you" not only to the awful man who married her for status, but to the whole game.

The downside for Edith and Alice is that they're still stuck inside the confines of the world they were born into. Their justified resentment of the situation can't help them, and in fact, it hurts them. Again, this may not be right, but it's certainly realistic. Florence's refusal to hate the man (and the parent) who wronged her is contrasted to the way they revel in hating the men and parents who wronged them, in that it's more beneficial to Florence to forgive. Edith and Alice are both shown being rude to others, out of their ingrained cynicism and free-floating rage, and for most of their lives have no allies on their sides, other than the mothers they despise, and who "corrupted" them in the first place. Florence, on the other hand, makes friends wherever she goes.

It's not all sentiment and proto-feminism, since various parts in the both have a decidedly Gothic feel, which is always a nice mode for Dickens. For example, "The wind was blowing drearily. The lamps looked pale, and shook as if they were cold. There was a distant glimmer of something that was not quite darkness, rather than of light, in the sky; and foreboding night was shivering and restless, as the dying are who make a troubled end" (644). Ahhhh. I should have started reading Dickens YEARS ago.

Dickens, Charles. Dombey and Son. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Essays in Idleness, by Yoshido Kenko

"If our life did not fade and vanish like the dews of Adashino's graves or the drifting smoke from Toribe's burning grounds, but lingered on forever, how little the world would move us. It is the ephemeral nature of things that make them wonderful." 
-- Essays in Idleness, p. 23 - 24

Proof that there's always more to learn: I honestly didn't know that urbane but contemplative memoirs by medieval Japanese monks was even a genre!

These "essays," written around 1330, are made up of 243 short prose pieces, some only a few lines long, and a few as long as three pages, with a wide variety of tones and subjects. There are platitudes, snippets of memoir, historical anecdotes, and lots of discussion on proper court etiquette, which seems a little odd for a monk, but what the heck.

One thing that intrigued me, as someone with a sideline of interest in the varieties of religious experience, is Kenko's advice that, if one feels drawn toward a spiritual life, one should drop everything and follow it. If you stop to think, or decide to deal with something else first, then ordinary daily life will start to reassert itself, and you'll never get around to it.

"Those who feel the impulse to pursue the path of enlightenment should immediately take the step, and not defer it while they attend to all the other things on their mind " (50), he says, along with: "If you plan to turn your thoughts to the Buddhist Way after you have fulfilled all your desires, you will find that those desires are endless" (139). Everything changes in the ephemeral wheel of time but human nature. I'm reminded of those New Testament stories about Jesus telling people to just leave right now and follow him, forgetting about their families, and Kenko provides a fairly practical perspective on why he'd encourage such a thing.

My Penguin edition includes reclusive monk Kamo no Chomei's much shorter Hojoki, written in 1212. A brief meditation on transience, it describes how he moved to a tiny hut in the country to live in seclusion. So basically it's what I wanted Walden to be when I tried to read it all those years ago. "Take it for all in all," he says, "this world is a hard place to live, and both we and our dwellings are fragile and impermanent" (11). Which makes me glad that these works, at least, are still in print.

Kenko and Chomei. Essays in Idleness and Hojoki. Translated by Meredith McKinney. London; Penguin, 2013.

The Bucccaneers, by Edith Wharton

"All that London could give, in rank, in honours, in social glory, was, to Mrs. St. George, a knife to stab New York with -- and that weapon she clutched with feverish glee."
-- The Buccaneers, p. 342

Sometimes you just have to embrace being a cliche, so yes, I did read The Buccaneers because of Downton Abbey. The character of Cora is well-known for being in the mold of the novel's Nan, an American heiress making a social triumph in England. It's amusing to note that, in the novel, the reason they go abroad in the first place is because New York society is too snobby to accept them. At home, they were just gauche and nouveau riche, but in London, they're a novelty and a breath of fresh air.

This soap opera of high society, left unfinished at Edith Wharton's death in 1937,  is written with a penetrating perceptiveness about human behavior, and an ability to render inner thoughts and feelings in a natural way, as characters get in various romantic and/or marital entanglements.

In particular, Nan's sensitive inner feelings are finely delineated -- for a quick random example, when she's chastised for a moment of fancy, "an iron gate seemed to clang shut in her; the gate that was so often slammed by careless hands" (239).  Along with the clear, flowing prose style, that quality is what I expect from Wharton's work. But this is much wittier than I remember her being. Age of Innocence: bleak; House of Mirth: bleaker; Ethan Frome: the second-most despressing thing I've ever read, after Hans Christian Andersen's "Fir-Tree".

Much of the humor comes from the contrast between the British and the Americans. Such as:

From the father of conflicted hero (Guy Thwarte, whose name struck me as a bit on-the-nose -- even Dickensian): "You know how I hate the whole spitting tobacco-chewing crew, the dressed-up pushing women dragging their reluctant backwoodsmen after him ... Marry an American! There won't be a family left in England without that poison in their veins" (234).

From a Lady (with a capital L), puzzled by the new arrivals: "I don't see how they can tell each other apart, all herded together, without any titles or distinctions ... Their ways are so odd, you know ... And they speak so fast -- I can't understand them -- They toss about so -- they're never still. And they don't know how to carry themselves" (220). These are still pretty fair stereotypes of American behavior! As is the description of their "their forth-coming manner. their surface-gush, as some might call it," which can sometimes hide an "odd reticence" (354).

And I've never forgotten this advice on how to fit in with the English upper crust: "Behave as if you'd never combed your own hair or rummaged for your stockings" (242).

The edition I read includes Wharton's first novel, a piece of self-assured juvenilia called Fast and Loose, completed when she was 14 years old. A bit too much incident may be crammed into the end, where it has that we-need-to-wrap-this-up feel to it, but otherwise, it reads as quite publishable! See, that's what literarily inclined teenage girls did in the years before YA novels were marketed to them: they wrote adult novels to pass the time!

Wharton, Edith. Fast and Loose & The Buccaneers. Edited by Viola Hopkins Winner. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1993.