Saturday, 20 December 2014

Invitation to a Beheading

Anthony Powell, in wise-facetious mood, once quoted an English publisher on how to write “a good Jewish novel”: write a good novel, then change all the names to Jewish ones. The joke came to mind while I was reading Hilary Mantel’s “Bring Up the Bodies” (Holt). Both this new book and its predecessor, “Wolf Hall,” are mysteriously successful historical novels, a somewhat gimcrack genre not exactly jammed with greatness. One of the reasons for this literary success is that Mantel seems to have written a very good modern novel, then changed all her fictional names to English historical figures of the fifteen-twenties and thirties.

Where much historical fiction gets entangled in the simulation of historical authenticity, Mantel bypasses those knots of concoction, and proceeds as if authenticity were magic rather than a science. She knows that what gives fiction its vitality is not the accurate detail but the animate one, and that novelists are creators, not coroners, of the human case. In effect, she proceeds as if the past five hundred years were a relatively trivial interval in the annals of human motivation. Here, for instance, is Thomas Cromwell, the protagonist of both “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies,” reflecting on Gregory, his son. The date is September, 1535, and the location London:
Gregory is a good boy, though all the Latin he has learned, all the sonorous periods of the great authors, have rolled through his head and out again, like stones. Still, you think of Thomas More’s boy: offspring of a scholar all Europe admired, and poor young John can barely stumble through his Pater Noster. Gregory is a fine archer, a fine horseman, a shining star in the tilt yard, and his manners cannot be faulted. He speaks reverently to his superiors, not scuffling his feet or standing on one leg, and he is mild and polite with those below him. He knows how to bow to foreign diplomats in the manner of their own countries, sits at table without fidgeting or feeding spaniels, can neatly carve and joint any fowl if requested to serve his elders. He doesn’t slouch around with his jacket off one shoulder, or look in windows to admire himself, or stare around in church, or interrupt old men, or finish their stories for them. If anyone sneezes, he says, “Christ help you!”
The historical details in that passage—Thomas More, Pater Noster, the European diplomats, and so on—are not central to its liveliness. Instead, it is girded by a cunning universalism, whereby Thomas Cromwell becomes any parent competitively comparing his son with someone else’s; the list of a boy’s possible failings (staring around in church, interrupting old men, feeding spaniels at the table), while delightfully specific, seems similarly timeless. By the same token, when a historical fact is central to a novelistic detail, Mantel uses it in a way so novelistically intelligent that the historical fact seems to have been secretly transposed into a fictional one:
This season young men carry their effects in soft pale leather bags, in imitation of the agents for the Fugger bank, who travel all over Europe and set the fashion. The bags are heart-shaped and so to him it always looks as if they are going wooing, but they swear they are not. Nephew Richard Cromwell sits down and gives the bags a sardonic glance.
Do you know if Mantel has manufactured or borrowed from the record this information about the fashionable Fugger bag? In some sense, it doesn’t matter, because the writer has made a third category of the reality, the plausibly hypothetical. It’s what Aristotle claimed was the difference between the historian and the poet: the former describes what happened, and the latter what might happen.

If you want to know what novelistic intelligence is, you might compare a page or two of Hilary Mantel’s work with worthy historical fiction by contemporary writers such as Peter Ackroyd or Susan Sontag. They are intelligent, but they are not novelistically intelligent. They copy the motions but rarely inhabit the movement of vitality. Mantel knows what to select, how to make her scenes vivid, how to kindle her characters. She seems almost incapable of abstraction or fraudulence; she instinctively grabs for the reachably real. Her two most recent novels concern famous historical events—Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, his marriage to Anne Boleyn, her execution at the King’s orders, the English split from the Roman Church and the authority of the Pope—but they make the stories fragile again, with everything at suspenseful risk.

In short, this novelist has the maddeningly unteachable gift of being interesting. Quite a few readers would be prepared to yawn at a novelistic scene set in 1530, featuring Thomas Cromwell, then one of Henry VIII’s privy councillors, and Thomas Cranmer, the Anglican theologian who gained renown as the author of the Book of Common Prayer. Hasn’t this material been worked over—in descending order of quality—by Ford Madox Ford, by Robert Bolt, and by the TV series “The Tudors”? Yet such a scene in “Wolf Hall” exhibits Mantel’s stealthy dynamics. There is nothing dutifully “historical” about this encounter. Instead, all is alive, silvery, alert, rapid with insight. The two personages size each other up. Cranmer is a modest gentleman’s son, a careful and pious academic from the tiny village of Aslockton, near Nottingham. He is also a Cambridge man, a Fellow of Jesus College, and a little dry and prim. He is two years from being plucked by Henry as the Archbishop of Canterbury. Cromwell is the robust, working-class son of a blacksmith, from Putney, on the Thames, now a member of Parliament—enormously astute, but not schooled like Cranmer, who would seem to have the social advantage here. Yet Cranmer appears a timid provincial alongside Cromwell, who spent years in France and Italy, and who often longs for a southern sun. Cromwell compares his childhood with the cloistered Cambridge academic’s, and his reflections open like an estuary:
He thinks, if you were born in Putney, you saw the river every day, and imagined it widening out to the sea. Even if you had never seen the ocean you had a picture of it in your head from what you had been told by foreign people who sometimes came upriver. You knew that one day you would go out into a world of marble pavements and peacocks, of hillsides buzzing with heat, the fragrance of crushed herbs rising around you as you walked. You planned for what your journeys would bring you: the touch of warm terra-cotta, the night sky of another climate, alien flowers, the stone-eyed gaze of other people’s saints. But if you were born in Aslockton, in flat fields under a wide sky, you might just be able to imagine Cambridge: no farther.
There is hardly anything in that wonderful passage of prose to identify its content as time-sensitive; it could almost be thought today.

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The blaming of Leonard Woolf

{Tavistock Square, 1939} Leonard, Virginia & Sally
It is for her beauty, her psychic pain, and the odd and tragic circumstances of her life as much as for the quality of her work that Virginia Woolf has attracted a certain type of critical attention; as one sharp commentator noted, she is the Marilyn Monroe of the intellectual world, “genius transformed into icon and industry.” While Woolf’s diaries and letters demonstrate that she could be cruel and vulnerable in equal parts, her popular image has come to elevate the vulnerabilities to the point of obscuring the tough, self-protective streak that sustained her and kept her alive and productive for a lifetime of nearly sixty years. An idealized and essentially misleading picture of Woolf as female victim of patriarchal oppression has become the dominant one, and countless stupid and condescending books and articles have supported it, the newest and stupidest being Who’s Afraid of Leonard Woolf by the Australian author Irene Coates.[1]
Although Coates presents herself as a bold individualist who daringly trespasses on hallowed ground by suggesting that the Woolfs’ marriage was less than idyllic and that Virginia was not really “mad” at all, her diatribe contains nothing new; it’s merely the last in a long and not very distinguished line of psychostudies of the perennially fascinating writer. As long ago as 1977, Jean Love, in Virginia Woolf: Sources of Madness and Art, was referring to Woolf’s “so-called madness,” a tag Coates uses repeatedly. In 1978, Roger Poole’s widely read book The Unknown Virginia Woolfestablished an entire school of anti-Leonard critical studies and advanced exactly the same theses that Coates insists upon: Leonard was a reductive, left-brained rationalist, constitutionally incapable of understanding or handling the sensitive artist he married, and Virginia’s madness was no madness at all but an avenue of escape and creative independence. (Coates blithely ignores Poole’s book, presumably because its existence negates her right to be considered an original thinker; his name does not appear in her text or bibliography.) Finally, in 1981 Stephen Trombley published All That Summer She Was Mad: Virginia Woolf, Female Victim of Male Medicine, another serious claim, and taken seriously by the academic community, that Virginia Woolf was sane.
Now there is some (very slight) excuse for Love, Poole, and Trombley: they wrote their studies before the publication of the plethora of information on manic-depressive illness that has recently become available to the general reader. In light of current knowledge, it has been widely accepted that Virginia Woolf, like many writers and creative artists, suffered from manic-depression, or bipolar disorder as it is also called. Hers was an almost textbook case, with onset occurring early in life and proceeding in periodic bouts broken up by long stretches of sanity and good health. Bipolar disorder is a hereditary condition, and several members of Woolf’s family, the Stephens, also suffered from affective disorders. Virginia’s father, Sir Leslie Stephen, and her brother Adrian both had a mild form of manic-depression bearing the clinical name of cyclothymia, while her other full siblings, Thoby and Vanessa, underwent periodic episodes of depression; one of their first cousins was a manic-depressive, and their half-sister Laura Stephen was either retarded or disturbed in some unidentified way— possibly she was autistic—and spent her life in an asylum.
To posthumously diagnose Virginia Woolf as a manic-depressive is not to go very far out on a limb. Yet many of Woolf’s academic worshippers have passionately resisted the diagnosis, especially feminist scholars who have a great deal invested in the image of Woolf as a victim of patriarchal oppression, and who have fashioned an up-to-date Foucaultian model of Woolf’s madness and femaleness as a form of transgression and “otherness.” Another and more reasonable objection was the persistent use of the terms “mad” and “madness”—words used by Woolf herself—which are not at all useful in describing manic-depressive illness. Unlike, for example, schizophrenics, manic-depressives are normal most of the time, and suffer from their disease only periodically; literal-minded scholars—and so many Woolf scholars have been painfully literal—cannot accept that a woman who was clearly sane for much of the time can have had anything much the matter with her.
Other scholars and Woolf fans resisted the idea of manic-depression because they found it reductive to boil Woolf’s genius down to pathology, as though it were the disease writing and not the woman. This is simply to misunderstand the nature of the illness, which does not flatten out the personality of the sufferer but if anything makes it more distinctly his or her own, intensifying and crystallizing the individual vision. Woolf, like Byron, Shelley, Robert Lowell, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and other sufferers from bipolar disorder, found rich material for her art in her periods of illness. “As an experience,” Woolf wrote, “madness is terrific I can assure you, and not to be sniffed at; and in its lava I still find most of the things I write about. It shoots out of one everything shaped, final, not in mere driblets, as sanity does. And the six months … that I lay in bed taught me a good deal about what is called onesself.” It cannot be a coincidence that such a high proportion of writers have been manic-depressives: medical studies have indicated that creative artists suffer from eight to ten times the rate of major depressive illness, ten to forty times the rate of manic-depressive illness, and up to eighteen times the rate of suicide of the general population.
If Irene Coates had spent a tiny fraction of the time reading about manic-depressive illness that she devoted to wallowing in Bloomsburiana, she might have sensed the thinness of her theory. (To take an example at random: she characterizes mania as “uncontrollable rage,” when it is nothing of the sort.) There is not a single book on mental illness included in her bibliography, and this in spite of the fact that recent years have seen several first-class popularizations of the subject, notably Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison’sTouched By Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, which contains a chapter on Virginia Woolf and the Stephen family. Also strangely absent from Coates’s bibliography is Thomas Caramagno’s prize-winning The Flight of the Mind: Virginia Woolf’s Art and Manic-Depressive Illness (1992), one of the few truly respectable and revealing books on Woolf’s psychological history and its relation to her work to appear.
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Friday, 19 December 2014

Virginia Woolf: The Niece of an Earl (English Fiction)

The Common Reader. Second Series.

There is an aspect of fiction of so delicate a nature that less has been said about it than its importance deserves. One is supposed to pass over class distinctions in silence; one person is supposed to be as well born as another; and yet English fiction is so steeped in the ups and downs of social rank that without them it would be unrecognizable. When Meredith, in The Case of General Ople and Lady Camper, remarks, “He sent word that he would wait on Lady Camper immediately, and betook himself forthwith to his toilette. She was the niece of an Earl”, all of British blood accept the statement unhesitatingly, and know that Meredith is right. A General in those circumstances would certainly have given his coat an extra brush. For though the General might have been, we are given to understand that he was not, Lady Camper’s social equal. He received the shock of her rank upon a naked surface. No earldom, baronetage, or knighthood protected him. He was an English gentleman merely, and a poor one at that. Therefore, to British readers even now it seems unquestionably fitting that he should “betake himself to his toilette” before appearing in the lady’s presence.

It is useless to suppose that social distinctions have vanished. Each may pretend that he knows no such restrictions, and that the compartment in which he lives allows him the run of the world. But it is an illusion. The idlest stroller down summer streets may see for himself the charwoman’s shawl shouldering its way among the silk wraps of the successful; he sees shop-girls pressing their noses against the plate glass of motor-cars; he sees radiant youth and august age waiting their summons within to be admitted to the presence of King George. There is no animosity, perhaps, but there is no communication. We are enclosed, and separate, and cut off. Directly we see ourselves in the looking-glass of fiction we know that this is so. The novelist, and the English novelist in particular, knows and delights, it seems, to know that Society is a nest of glass boxes one separate from another, each housing a group with special habits and qualities of its own. He knows that there are Earls and that Earls have nieces; he knows that there are Generals and that Generals brush their coats before they visit the nieces of Earls. But this is only the ABC of what he knows. For in a few short pages, Meredith makes us aware not only that Earls have nieces, but that Generals have cousins; that the cousins have friends; that the friends have cooks; that the cooks have husbands, and that the husbands of the cooks of the friends of the cousins of the Generals are carpenters. Each of these people lives in a glass box of his own, and has peculiarities of which the novelist must take account. What appears superficially to be the vast equality of the middle classes is, in truth, nothing of the sort. All through the social mass run curious veins and streakings separating man from man and woman from woman; mysterious prerogatives and disabilities too ethereal to be distinguished by anything so crude as a title impede and disorder the great business of human intercourse. And when we have threaded our way carefully through all these grades from the niece of the Earl to the friend of the cousin of the General, we are still faced with an abyss; a gulf yawns before us; on the other side are the working classes. The writer of perfect judgement and taste, like Jane Austen, does no more than glance across the gulf; she restricts herself to her own special class and finds infinite shades within it. But for the brisk, inquisitive, combative writer like Meredith, the temptation to explore is irresistible. He runs up and down the social scale; he chimes one note against another; he insists that the Earl and the cook, the General and the farmer shall speak up for themselves and play their part in the extremely complicated comedy of English civilized life.

It was natural that he should attempt it. A writer touched by the comic spirit relishes these distinctions keenly; they give him something to take hold of; something to make play with. English fiction without the nieces of Earls and the cousins of Generals would be an arid waste. It would resemble Russian fiction. It would have to fall back upon the immensity of the soul and upon the brotherhood of man. Like Russian fiction, it would lack comedy. But while we realize the immense debt that we owe the Earl’s niece and the General’s cousin, we doubt sometimes whether the pleasure we get from the play of satire on these broken edges is altogether worth the price we pay. For the price is a high one. The strain upon a novelist is tremendous. In two short stories Meredith gallantly attempts to bridge all gulfs, and to take half a dozen different levels in his stride. Now he speaks as an Earl’s niece; now as a carpenter’s wife. It cannot be said that his daring is altogether successful. One has a feeling (perhaps it is unfounded) that the blood of the niece of an Earl is not quite so tart and sharp as he would have it. Aristocracy is not, perhaps, so consistently high and brusque and eccentric as, from his angle, he would represent it. Yet his great people are more successful than his humble. His cooks are too ripe and rotund; his farmers too ruddy and earthy. He overdoes the pith and the sap; the fist-shaking and the thigh-slapping. He has got too far from them to write of them with ease.

It seems, therefore, that the novelist, and the English novelist in particular, suffers from a disability which affects no other artist to the same extent. His work is influenced by his birth. He is fated to know intimately, and so to describe with understanding, only those who are of his own social rank. He cannot escape from the box in which he has been bred. 

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Lytton Strachey's elegant, energetic character assassinations destroyed for ever the pretensions of the Victorian age to moral supremacy

Vanessa Bell, "Lytton Strachey" (1911).

It is important not to allow infatuation with the style to prejudice judgement about the substance. Eminent Victorians is written in irresistibly elegant prose. But its place in the pantheon of English literature depends on how much the author was justified in diminishing, perhaps even destroying, the reputations of four 19th-century paragons of virtue. It is therefore something of a paradox that Continuum's "definitive edition" of Strachey's "most famous and influential work" - published "to commemorate" the 70th anniversary of the author's death - should add to each of the essays an "afterword" which questions his intellectual integrity.

In the afterword that follows "Cardinal Manning", David Newsome describes that biographical essay as "the odd man out". Unlike the portraits of Florence Nightingale and Matthew Arnold and "The End of General Gordon", it was based on a previously published biography. The distinction is important to Newsome because the work on which Strachey relied was written by a man with a grudge against Manning. But the implication that the other three essays are all of a piece is wrong.

Strachey thought Dr Arnold of Rugby "a self-righteous blockhead" but he also acknowledged that the inspiration of the Victorian public schools system was a man of "unhasting, unresting diligence". Cardinal Manning, on the other hand, is unremittingly excoriated. Florence Nightingale is depicted as a woman who is in many ways admirable but, in many more, intolerable. But General Gordon is mercilessly ridiculed. Although they are all united by Strachey's wish to undermine both their reputations and the values of the society by which they were sanctified, each of them is assaulted in a different way. The only constant theme is Strachey's hatred of what Frances Partridge (the last survivor of Bloomsbury) calls, in her foreword, the hypocrisy of the age.

Michael Holroyd, Strachey's biographer, said that Eminent Victorians began "without a thesis but acquired a theme" because of the First World War. The original idea was to write 12 Victorian silhouettes - including Ellen Terry, the Duke of Devonshire, Charles Darwin, Benjamin Jowett and John Stuart Mill. Had Strachey's initial intention been fulfilled, the work could not have had the same effect. For the final choice enabled him to focus his fire on what he believed to be the inherent vices of Victorian England - the humbug and the hypocrisy that come from organised religion. These were qualities which, he believed, imbued the men who led Europe into the First World War, and they were certainly the attributes of 19th-century "morality" against which the world turned after 1918. That is the year in which Eminent Victorians was published. The timing made it an overnight sensation.

It was "The End of General Gordon" which made the most compelling case against the attitudes and attributes that Strachey so despised. The indictment is easily described. Colonel Hicks, a retired British officer at the head of an army of 10,000 locally recruited soldiers, was sent to the Sudan to put down a rebellion of religious fanatics. The expedition failed and Hicks was murdered. The British public, stimulated by the British press, demanded that something be done, but neither press nor public were sure of what the something should be. Gladstone was dangerously detached from what he regarded as a pointless colonial adventure. Someone suggested that Gordon go to the Sudan "and report on the situation". Gradually, the purpose of the mission changed. Gordon left London with instructions to supervise an evacuation.

Strachey suggests that some of the enthusiasts for the appointment anticipated that, once Gordon arrived in Khartoum, he would feel no obligation to carry out orders with which he disagreed. The inevitable sequence of events that would follow - attempts to reinforce rather than evacuate the garrison - would then result in a permanent British occupation of both the Sudan and Egypt. If that is so, the imperialists picked the right man to guarantee their hopes would be fulfilled. Gordon would not withdraw until he could not withdraw. Perhaps he did not share the expansionist ambitions of the men who cynically expected him to ignore the terms of his appointment. But he did begin to feel a Christian soldier's obligation to stay in the Sudan until the Mahdi, an upstart fanatic, was beaten.

In pursuit of that duty, he remained in the Sudan in the mistaken belief that Gladstone would send an invasion force to rescue him and destroy the Mahdi. But Gladstone would not yield until it was too late. Gordon was killed and the whole episode ended in muddle and mismanagement so humiliating that Gladstone's government fell. A decade later, the British government sent General Kitchener to the Sudan to re-establish the Old Country's reputation. So, wrote Strachey, "it all ended very happily in the glorious slaughter of 20,000 Arabs [at Omdurman] and a step in the peerage for Sir Evelyn Baring", then consul general in Cairo.

In his afterword, John Pollock complains that Strachey was handicapped in his study of Gordon because he was "a vigorous agnostic, little removed from atheism". He then insists that Strachey overstated the general's weakness for drink. "Brandy was the normal social and medical drink in hot countries in his day." But none of his refutations, great or small, denies the general thrust of Strachey's argument. Gordon did plot and plan to achieve an outcome to his Sudanese adventure which was categorically different from that set out in his orders. And he was motivated in his disobedience by his mystical Christianity.

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Elizabeth Bowen's 'Heart' Doesn't Miss a Beat

Elizabeth Bowen turned painful childhood experience into one of the great novels of the 20th century. Born in Ireland in 1899 to a respectable family of the Anglo-Irish gentry, she suffered childhood losses that eventually led her to two powerful convictions: Innocence inevitably must confront and be vanquished by experience, and physical objects, things, provide stability and continuity amid the uncertainties and disruptions of life.

Bowen returned to these themes over and over again in the many splendid books she wrote during her subsequent literary career, almost always with interesting and affecting results, but never with greater success than in what is widely regarded as her masterpiece. "The Death of the Heart," published in 1938, was received at once with near-universal enthusiasm bordering on awe. Its reputation has not faded over three-quarters of a century: "The Death of the Heart" will be found on almost any required-reading list of 20th-century fiction, and anecdotal evidence suggests that it is a popular choice of reading-club members.

I first read it in the 1950s, when I was a teenager, far too young and callow to appreciate it, much less understand it. I read it because it was one of my mother's favorite books, and my mother shaped my reading tastes more than anyone then or since. She had a great love of 19th-century British fiction, which she passed on to me, and she was receptive to 20th-century fiction and poetry of almost any stripe; it was from her that I learned to love the fiction of Eudora Welty and John Cheever, the poetry of e.e. cummings (her favorite) and Ogden Nash. But with "The Death of the Heart" she lost me; Bowen's leisurely, measured, Jamesian prose was too dense for me, her irony and wit were too subtle. I was out of my depth.

Rereading the novel now, five full decades later, is like entering a new and wholly unexpected place, full of wonders and surprises. "The Death of the Heart," like so much of Bowen's fiction, is about a child, but it is a book for adults. A certain measure of experience, of exposure to life's cruelties and compromises, is necessary for a full grasp of it. The destination for 16-year-old Portia Quayne is inevitable from the beginning, yet the path along which Bowen leads her to it is full of unexpected nuances and pleasures. It is a book to be read slowly, to be savored, skills only rarely bestowed upon teenage readers. I realized only a few pages into this second reading that, like the innumerable people who complain about being force-fed Faulkner in high school or college, when they simply weren't ready for him, for me in the 1950s, "The Death of the Heart" was too much, too soon.

Undoubtedly the novel was shaped to a significant degree by people and events of Bowen's own youth, though one should always be skeptical about looking for autobiography in fiction when it is just part of the story. She was the only child of Henry and Florence Bowen, and grew up at Bowen's Court, the handsome if somewhat down-at-the-heels family mansion in the Irish countryside. Her family was of the gentry but scarcely wealthy. Her father, a lawyer, had to work, and when a mysterious mental illness forced him into an institution, 6-year-old Bitha and her mother came upon hard times. Eventually he recovered, but just as he did, in 1912, Florence Bowen died of cancer, leaving her devoted daughter utterly bereft. She was 13 years old.
She was strong, though, and soldiered on. By the age of 20 she was writing, by 25 she was married to Alan Cameron and had published her first book of stories, "Encounters." She had, according to Victoria Glendinning's fine biography, "Elizabeth Bowen" (1978), an "almost vulgar gypsy romanticism which was just as much a part of her as her perfect, ladylike demeanor and beautiful manners," a romanticism that is especially strong in her early work. Her marriage, which lasted until Cameron's death in 1952, was happy and mutually fulfilling but apparently passionless; from time to time she found lovers, but "she was a writer before she was a woman." A contemporary of Evelyn Waugh and Cyril Connolly, a friend of Virginia Wolff, she led a lively social life but sought solitude. Her personal characteristics included "stylishness, vanity, discipline, energy, lack of cant, independence, courage," which enabled her to struggle against the financial difficulties that bedeviled her right up to her death from lung cancer (like most in literary circles of her day, she was a heavy smoker) in 1973.

The sense of being orphaned that Bowen surely felt after her mother's death clearly informs "The Death of the Heart." Portia has lost first her father and now her mother, with whom she had moved rather merrily through a succession of cut-rate European hotels. Bereft and lost, she is shipped off to the handsome house on Regent's Park in London of her half brother and his wife, Anna. Thomas Quayne, two decades older than she, the child of their father's first marriage, is a successful advertising man whom Bowen captures perfectly in just a few words:

"His head and forehead were rather grandly constructed, but at thirty-six his amiable, mobile face hung already loosish over the bony frame. His mouth and eyes expressed something, but not the whole, of him; they seemed to be cut off from the central part of himself. He had the cloudy, at some moments imperious look of someone fulfilling his destiny imperfectly; he looked not unlike one of the lesser Emperors."

The house in which Thomas and Anna live is indeed handsome, but it is "all mirrors and polish," offering "no place where shadows lodged, no point where feeling could thicken." It is a house where "people said what they did not mean, and did not say what they meant." Thomas is vaguely well-intentioned, but distracted and distant. Anna is beautiful but cold and devious. Soon it becomes the house where Portia "has learnt to be lonely," her only friend the housekeeper Matchett, reticent and terse but kindly inclined.

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Thursday, 18 December 2014

Virginia Woolf: Geraldine and Jane

Portrait of Jane Welsh Carlyle by Samuel Laurence, circa 1852.
Geraldine Jewsbury would certainly not have expected anybody at this time of day to bother themselves about her novels. If she had caught one pulling them down from the shelf in some library she would have expostulated. “They’re such nonsense, my dear”, she would have said. And then one likes to fancy that she would have burst out in that irresponsible, unconventional way of hers against libraries and literature and love and life and all the rest of it with a “Damn it all!” or a “Confound it!” for Geraldine was fond of swearing.
The odd thing about Geraldine Jewsbury, indeed, was the way in which she combined oaths and endearments, sense and effervescence, daring and gush: “ . . . defenceless and tender on the one hand, and strong enough to cleave the very rocks on the other”— that is how Mrs. Ireland, her biographer, puts it; or again: “Intellectually she was a man, but the heart within her was as womanly as ever daughter of Eve could boast”. Even to look at there was, it would seem, something incongruous, queer, provocative about her. She was very small and yet boyish; very ugly yet attractive. She dressed very well, wore her reddish hair in a net, and ear-rings made in the form of miniature parrots swung in her ears as she talked. There, in the only portrait we have of her, she sits reading, with her face half-turned away, defenceless and tender at the moment rather than cleaving the very rocks.
But what had happened to her before she sat at the photographer’s table reading her book it is impossible to say. Until she was twenty-nine we know nothing of her except that she was born in the year 1812, was the daughter of a merchant, and lived in Manchester, or near it. In the first part of the nineteenth century a woman of twenty-nine was no longer young; she had lived her life or she had missed it. And though Geraldine, with her unconventional ways, was an exception, still it cannot be doubted that something very tremendous had happened in those dim years before we know her. Something had happened in Manchester. An obscure male figure looms in the background — a faithless but fascinating creature who had taught her that life is treacherous, life is hard, life is the very devil for a woman. A dark pool of experience had formed in the back of her mind into which she would dip for the consolation or for the instruction of others. “Oh! it is too frightful to talk about. For two years I lived only in short respites from this blackness of darkness”, she exclaimed from time to time. There had been seasons “like dreary, calm November days when there is but one cloud, but that one covers the whole heaven”. She had struggled, “but struggling is no use”. She had read Cudworth through. She had written an essay upon materialism before giving way. For, though the prey to so many emotions, she was also oddly detached and speculative. She liked to puzzle her head with questions about “matter and spirit and the nature of life” even while her heart was bleeding. Upstairs there was a box full of extracts, abstracts, and conclusions. Yet what conclusion could a woman come to? Did anything avail a woman when love had deserted her, when her lover had played her false? No. It was useless to struggle; one had better let the wave engulf one, the cloud close over one’s head. So she meditated, lying often on a sofa with a piece of knitting in her hands and a green shade over her eyes. For she suffered from a variety of ailments — sore eyes, colds, nameless exhaustion; and Greenheys, the suburb outside Manchester, where she kept house for her brother, was very damp. “Dirty, half-melted snow and fog, a swampy meadow, set off by a creeping cold damp”— that was the view from her window. Often she could hardly drag herself across the room. And then there were incessant interruptions: somebody had come unexpectedly for dinner; she had to jump up and run into the kitchen and cook a fowl with her own hands. That done, she would put on her green shade and peer at her book again, for she was a great reader. She read metaphysics, she read travels, she read old books and new books — and especially the wonderful books of Mr. Carlyle.
Early in the year 1841 she came to London and secured an introduction to the great man whose works she so much admired. She met Mrs. Carlyle. They must have become intimate with great rapidity. In a few weeks Mrs. Carlyle was “dearest Jane”. They must have discussed everything. They must have talked about life and the past and the present, and certain “individuals” who were sentimentally interested or were not sentimentally interested in Geraldine. Mrs. Carlyle, so metropolitan, so brilliant, so deeply versed in life and scornful of its humbugs, must have captivated the young woman from Manchester completely, for directly Geraldine returned to Manchester she began writing long letters to Jane which echo and continue the intimate conversations of Cheyne Row. “A man who has had le plus grand succès among women, and who was the most passionate and poetically refined lover in his manners and conversation you would wish to find, once said to me . . . ” So she would begin. Or she would reflect:
It may be that we women are made as we are in order that they may in some sort fertilise the world. We shall go on loving, they [the men] will go on struggling and toiling, and we are all alike mercifully allowed to die — after a while. I don’t know whether you will agree to this, and I cannot see to argue, for my eyes are very bad and painful.
Probably Jane agreed to very little of all this. For Jane was eleven years the elder. Jane was not given to abstract reflections upon the nature of life. Jane was the most caustic, the most concrete, the most clear-sighted of women. But it is perhaps worth noting that when she first fell in with Geraldine she was beginning to feel those premonitions of jealousy, that uneasy sense that old relationships had shifted and that new ones were forming themselves, which had come to pass with the establishment of her husband’s fame. No doubt, in the course of those long talks in Cheyne Row, Geraldine had received certain confidences, heard certain complaints, and drawn certain conclusions. For besides being a mass of emotion and sensibility, Geraldine was a clever, witty woman who thought for herself and hated what she called “respectability” as much as Mrs. Carlyle hated what she called “humbug”. In addition, Geraldine had from the first the strangest feelings about Mrs. Carlyle. She felt “vague undefined yearnings to be yours in some way”. “You will let me be yours and think of me as such, will you not?” she urged again and again. “I think of you as Catholics think of their saints”, she said: “ . . . you will laugh, but I feel towards you much more like a lover than a female friend!” No doubt Mrs. Carlyle did laugh, but also she could scarcely fail to be touched by the little creature’s adoration.
Thus when Carlyle himself early in 1843 suggested unexpectedly that they should ask Geraldine to stay with them, Mrs. Carlyle, after debating the question with her usual candour, agreed. She reflected that a little of Geraldine would be “very enlivening”, but, on the other hand, much of Geraldine would be very exhausting. Geraldine dropped hot tears on to one’s hands; she watched one; she fussed one; she was always in a state of emotion. Then “with all her good and great qualities” Geraldine had in her “a born spirit of intrigue” which might make mischief between husband and wife, though not in the usual way, for, Mrs. Carlyle reflected, her husband “had the habit” of preferring her to other women, “and habits are much stronger in him than passions”. On the other hand, she herself was getting lazy intellectually; Geraldine loved talk and clever talk; with all her aspirations and enthusiasms it would be a kindness to let the young woman marooned in Manchester come to Chelsea; and so she came.
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Charles Lamb: New Year’s Eve

Every man hath two birth-days: two days, at least, in every year, which set him upon revolving the lapse of time, as it affects his mortal duration. The one is that which in an especial manner he termeth his. In the gradual desuetude of old observances, this custom of solemnizing our proper birth-day hath nearly passed away, or is left to children, who reflect nothing at all about the matter, nor understand any thing in it beyond cake and orange. But the birth of a New Year is of an interest too wide to be pretermitted by king or cobbler. No one ever regarded the First of January with indifference. It is that from which all date their time, and count upon what is left. It is the nativity of our common Adam.

Of all sounds of all bells —(bells, the music nighest bordering upon heaven)— most solemn and touching is the peal which rings out the Old Year. I never hear it without a gathering-up of my mind to a concentration of all the images that have been diffused over the past twelvemonth; all I have done or suffered, performed or neglected — in that regretted time. I begin to know its worth, as when a person dies. It takes a personal colour; nor was it a poetical flight in a contemporary, when he exclaimed

I saw the skirts of the departing Year.

It is no more than what in sober sadness every one of us seems to be conscious of, in that awful leave-taking. I am sure I felt it, and all felt it with me, last night; though some of my companions affected rather to manifest an exhilaration at the birth of the coming year, than any very tender regrets for the decease of its predecessor. But I am none of those who —
Welcome the coming, speed the parting guest.

I am naturally, beforehand, shy of novelties; new books, new faces, new years — from some mental twist which makes it difficult in me to face the prospective. I have almost ceased to hope; and am sanguine only in the prospects of other (former) years. I plunge into foregone visions and conclusions. I encounter pell-mell with past disappointments. I am armour-proof against old discouragements. I forgive, or overcome in fancy, old adversaries. I play over again for love, as the gamesters phrase it, games, for which I once paid so dear. I would scarce now have any of those untoward accidents and events of my life reversed. I would no more alter them than the incidents of some well-contrived novel. Methinks, it is better that I should have pined away seven of my goldenest years, when I was thrall to the fair hair, and fairer eyes, of Alice W——n, than that so passionate a love-adventure should be lost. It was better that our family should have missed that legacy, which old Dorrell cheated us of, than that I should have at this moment two thousand pounds in banco, and be without the idea of that specious old rogue.

In a degree beneath manhood, it is my infirmity to look back upon those early days. Do I advance a paradox, when I say, that, skipping over the intervention of forty years, a man may have leave to love himself, without the imputation of self-love?

If I know aught of myself, no one whose mind is introspective — and mine is painfully so — can have a less respect for his present identity, than I have for the man Elia. I know him to be light, and vain, and humorsome; a notorious ***; addicted to ****: averse from counsel, neither taking it, nor offering it; —*** besides; a stammering buffoon; what you will; lay it on, and spare not; I subscribe to it all, and much more, than thou canst be willing to lay at his door — but for the child Elia — that “other me,” there, in the back-ground — I must take leave to cherish the remembrance of that young master — with as little reference, I protest, to this stupid changeling of five-and-forty, as if it had been a child of some other house, and not of my parents. I can cry over its patient small-pox at five, and rougher medicaments I can lay its poor fevered head upon the sick pillow at Christ’s and wake with it in surprise at the gentle posture of maternal tenderness hanging over it, that unknown had watched its sleep. I know how it shrank from any the least colour of falsehood. — God help thee, Elia, how art thou changed! Thou art sophisticated. — I know how honest, how courageous (for a weakling) it was — how religious, how imaginative, how hopeful! From what have I not fallen, if the child I remember was indeed myself — and not some dissembling guardian presenting a false identity, to give the rule to my unpractised steps, and regulate the tone of my moral being!  

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