Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Edna O'Brien: 'A writer's imaginative life commences in childhood'



Fifty years after leaving County Clare for London, the doyenne of Irish fiction Edna O'Brien is still preoccupied with the land of her birth. Starting with her sensational 1960 debut, The Country Girls, her novels about sex and religion quickly brought fame and notoriety. On the eve of a new short-story collection, she talks about love, exile – and why, at 80, she's still a party girl

I cannot speak for custom, and its effect on her variety, but I will say this for Edna O'Brien: age cannot wither her. Last summer, I was invited to a book party at the somewhat unlikely venue of Mahiki, the Sloane nightclub much frequented by Prince Harry, Kate Middleton et al. All around me were the usual suspects: novelists, publishing people, lots of journalists. It was fun, but noisy, and crowded, and you had to move carefully in order not to spill your cocktail. It was just as I was embarking on a dangerous manoeuvre from bar to banquette that I caught sight of her: the woman who, when I was 13, was my favourite writer (I was in love with the heroines of The Country Girls, Baba and Kate: their rebellion spoke to something in me just as, years before, it had spoken to something in my mother, whose copy of the novel I had nicked). I stopped dead in my tracks. Wow. What a sight. Standing straight-backed at the edge of the room, O'Brien, queenly and beautiful, brought to mind nothing so much as a glorious boat, coming slowly in to port: the elegant prow of her nose, the blown sails of her hair, the leaden anchor of her evening bag, hanging over a crooked arm. Her skin was pale and almost completely unlined, and she wore an expression of purest interest, as if to say: is this where they launch books now? When I got home, I looked her up on the internet. According to what I read, she would turn 80 in just a few months' time.

Today, at home in Knightsbridge, she is just as mesmerising. It's as if she has cast a spell on me. Partly, it's her house, which has a dark, fairytale quality. O'Brien has lived here for many years: far longer, I'm guessing, than her neighbours, with the result that her home now stands in striking contrast to their boring Farrow & Balled places. It has a hunkered look, forced to play its game of odd one out, and a strange exterior passage – like the entries you get between Yorkshire terraces – that takes you to the front door. Inside, the blood-red stairs are so gloomy and narrow, and the rooms so crammed with books, that it seems almost to pulsate, like an artery. As for O'Brien herself, she is resplendent in velvet, fur at her cuffs, her face immaculately made up, the powder and paint working as a perfect foil for her preternaturally shiny eyes (which are not, as people tend to assume, green, but dark grey; I suppose this mistake is down to the fact that The Country Girls's sequel was called Girl With Green Eyes). But it's the way she speaks that is really extraordinary. Although she left Ireland more than half a century ago, apparently, it never left her. Her voice is deep and sibilant, and it makes you think of the rills and the rivers of Clare, the county where she grew up.
O'Brien is about to publish Saints and Sinners, a collection of short stories that is her 21st work of fiction (she is also the author of three works of non-fiction and five plays. It's a shimmering book – lyric, but highly controlled – and it will perhaps confound some of those critics (her thin-skinned countrymen, mostly) who think she is obsessed with an Ireland that no longer exists. Yes, there are drinkers here, and homesick men who must make their living digging London roads, and a released Republican prisoner. But there is also a pungent whiff of the harsh, money-obsessed Ireland that grew up in the years before the crash – the Ireland where, as she puts it, 'people took their helicopter to lunch only four miles away'. When she started writing, Ireland's deepest and darkest passions were obscured from view by its airless relationship with the Catholic church. No longer. The question now is: with the church so disgraced, and so abandoned, what will fill the space it leaves behind?

"Someone said to me in Dublin: masses are down, confessions are down, but funerals are up!" She laughs. "Religion. You see, I rebelled against the coercive and stifling religion into which I was born and bred. It was very frightening, and all pervasive. I'm glad it has gone. But when you remove spirituality, or the quest for it, from people's lives, you remove something very precious. Ireland is more secular, but it went to their heads: a kind of hedonism. They're free, yes, but questions come with freedom. What about conscience? Conscience is an essential thing." She didn't see the crash coming, but she knew no good could come of the boom. "It generated an ethos of envy. I'll never forget walking along by St Stephen's Green [Dublin]. There was a big hoarding with an advert on it for a motor car. 'Enjoy the begrudgery,' said the slogan. It was very cynical, but very true. Not a healthy sign."

But why is her pre-eminent subject still, after all these years, Ireland, when she does not live there, and once could not wait to escape it? She has the skill to write about anything. 'Flannery O'Connor said: if you're going to write, you'd better come from somewhere. I feel that. A writer's imaginative life commences in childhood; all one's associations and feelings are steeped in it. When you're young, everything is seen in wonder and detail. I don't see it as a limitation. So long as the words and the story spring from a true place, that's all that counts.' Besides, she still visits often, for all that she no longer has a house there (the place in Donegal that her architect son, Sasha, built for her proved to be inimical to writing. 'I couldn't write a line there. It was beautiful, but as I said to him: these rooms are too big to write in'). Ireland is a country of ghost settlements, these days, she says. 'All those buildings that went up like mushrooms in the damp and the rain. Now they're sitting empty, their windows chalked up.' Nevertheless, she is glad of it. You might even say that she needs it. 'Yes, I'm very thankful for Ireland,' she says, pressing a hand to her breast bone. 'It stirs things up in me. It gives me so much.'

Edna O'Brien was born in the village of Tuamgraney, in County Clare, and she grew up a serious little girl: anxious and sensitive. 'It was the situation,' she says. 'Money troubles, drink troubles, all sorts of troubles.' Her father was a gambler and a drinker: violent, unpredictable and thwarted. The family had once had money but now, thanks to him, it was gone. 'There were the relics of riches. It was a life full of contradictions. We had an avenue, but it was full of potholes; there was a gatehouse, but another couple lived there; we had lots of fields, but they weren't all stocked or tilled. I remember fields high with ragwort. I remember my father giving them to other people. There was a prodigality, which I regret to tell you I have inherited.' The atmosphere was further complicated by her mother, who had been to America, and returned with a little 'Yank style'. In her mother's wardrobe hung a green georgette dress, a mournful reminder of happier times (it takes a starring role in one of the new stories). But were her parents unhappy with each other, or were they each unhappy in their own separate ways? 'I hate talking about it,' she says with a sudden shudder, childlike for a moment. 'But it wasn't happy, no. People's lives were so hard. My mother worked like a demon: feeding animals, carrying buckets.'

In newspaper profile after newspaper profile, O'Brien's infamous break with her parents, and with Ireland itself, has been portrayed as the work of a moment: a point of high drama, after which there was no going back. But it was not like this, of course. 'I think my rebellion was slowly accruing. I saw so many things that I was hurt by. It wasn't just my father; many of the fathers were drinking. It wasn't as simple as carrying a placard. It was more an acorn lodged inside me.' Then again, she went into the marriage that was the cause of this estrangement somewhat unthinkingly. Was she in love with her new husband, or was he merely a means of escape? 'To tell the truth, neither. It was very hurried, and I didn't know the man very long, and it was really hastened by the fact that my family were against it. I just did that thing that Victorian novels remind us of: I went from them, to him; from one house of control, to another.'

The man – she carefully avoids using his name – was Ernest Gébler, the novelist. She met him in Dublin, where she was working as a pharmacist. She was just 18. He was nearly twice her age. Was it scary? 'Yes, very scary. It was like jumping off a moving bus. And afterwards, I had cut myself off. We were living in a very lonely place in the country.' Did she miss her family? 'I thought about them every day. But let me say this: I was also afraid of them, so I was quite glad that I'd bolted. The trouble was, I was also quite afraid of the person I'd gone to. He was older, and quite stern, and very complicated, and also a writer: as Chekhov said, writers shouldn't marry other writers.' When she thinks about the girl she was, how does she feel? 'I cry. People will say I'm being totally sentimental, but I'm not. I didn't have much armour.'

She and Ernest moved to London, and had two sons, Sasha and Carlo (now a novelist). 'It was so lonely. We lived in SW20. Sub-urb-ia. When I came 'up London' as I called it, I thought it was heaven: all sorts of shoes in the windows. I passed the Cafe Royal, and I thought: Oscar Wilde was in there. But I didn't, you know, find my feet.' Through Gébler, she met publishing people. 'The first literary party I went to, I thought: my God, this is the big time. But I couldn't really fit in. I didn't know the language, the moves.'

Two things changed this. First, she bought a book about James Joyce, with an introduction by TS Eliot, for fourpence and, learning that A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was an autobiographical story, realised where she might turn, should she want to write herself: 'Unhappy houses are a very good incubation for stories.' Second, she started work as a reader for Hutchinson where, solely on the basis of her reports, she was commissioned, for the grand sum of £25, to write a novel. It took her just three weeks to write The Country Girls. Published in 1960, it was a huge hit in London and New York. Everyone adored her dreamy, feisty convent girls. But not in Ireland. The Irish censor was so appalled by the book that he banned it (and the same fate awaited her next six novels) – a decision that only increased the shame of her parents, who loathed it. The story goes that four copies unaccountably turned up in a shop in Limerick. One is supposed to have induc ed a seizure in a woman reader. The other three were bought by the O'Brien parish priest, who took them back to Tuamgraney, where they were publicly burned.

A decade into her marriage, O'Brien finally left Gébler. This was a risk: it took her a long time to win custody of her sons. 'I was separated from them for some years. It was terrifying. I didn't want to take them from their father utterly, I did not. That's the truth. But I wanted them with me.' Life as a single mother was hard. 'But I was able to do it. I seemed to have endless energy at the time: I could cook and clean, and write.' Nor was it easy to have relationships, not with her sons around. 'They had been through enough traumas without – knowing my taste – some new putative monster around.'

But did she fall in love? Though O'Brien has never remarried, there has always been gossip in the press about her supposed affairs. There was a period when she found it difficult to write; the reason, it was suggested, was that she was involved with a high-profile politician (she was head over heels, but it ended badly). 'I suppose I have been in love,' she says. 'Not often, but most definitely deeply. Somehow, though, it never culminated in living together. When I was younger, I used to weep over it, but now I'm not so sure. I don't think I could have written so much if I were living with someone. I would have felt guilty about neglecting that person. There is a quotation – I think I got it from Yeats – that goes: 'Oh Lord, grant me an asylum for my affections.' Asylum: that's a place where one is a lunatic. Let's face it, some people – and I would include Edna O'Brien among them – have a predilection, when they fall in love, for life to be... very heightened. There's a lunacy within it...'

Wasn't she chased? O'Brien was – is – a famous beauty. 'No, and that's the truth. I don't think a man ever brought me to the pictures in my life. I never had courtships. I had one or two affairs, but they were clandestine. There are women in the world who have an ability, not to say a genius, to be given things: houses, jewellery, holidays. And there are other women who seem to be eternally the givers. I don't want to sound totally defeatist, but I would think I am in the second category. They are more clever at negotiating the dance of their lives. I'm not clever. I have intelligence, but that's quite a different thing.' O'Brien is writing her memoirs, something she always insisted she would never do. Is she going to name names? She flinches. 'Oh my God. I'm finding it hard [to write]. No, I don't want to drag in people's names. The point is not whether it was Tom, Dick or Harry. The point is the journey. It [her memoir] will be about extraordinary things, not every self-serving little detail.'

She won't be short of material. Her life has been extraordinary. In the 60s, for instance, she was a patient of RD Laing, the famous but controversial psychiatrist. "I met him socially, with Sean Connery," she says, almost casually. "I felt disturbed for lots of reasons, and I thought he might be able to help me. He couldn't do that – he was too mad himself – but he opened doors." Is it true that, at his urging, she took LSD? "Yes. It was terrifying. I couldn't come back."

She was also a friend of JD Salinger (Jerry, to her). 'I used to have some lovely letters from him, but I gave them to Ian Hamilton [Salinger's biographer] and never got them back.' Their first meeting took place at around the time that, as she puts it, she was 'emerging from the dungeons'; a friend used to take her to the White Elephant in London's Curzon Street, where she dined with Anthony Quinn and Sidney Poitier and all sorts of other 'glamorous' people. Someone from this set knew that O'Brien loved The Catcher in the Rye, and introduced them. 'We went on the wheel at Battersea fun fair, and we had lots of dinners together. I was very naive. I gave him an Irish linen tablecloth – that's how naive. But he was terribly pleased with it. I liked him very much. He was quite suspicious of people, even then; he had a kind of test – he wouldn't tell you what it was – but you had to pass it. But he was very funny, very alive. We only lost touch when he started to withdraw completely.'

Perhaps, too, she will write about Irish politics. As part of the research for her 1994 novel House of Splendid Isolation, which is about a terrorist who goes on the run, she visited Dominic 'Mad Dog' McGlinchey, an IRA man who claimed to have shot 30 people, in prison; she also wrote a warm profile of Gerry Adams for the New York Times and, in 1996, attended the Sinn Féin conference (predictably, an entirely baseless rumour circulated that she had romantic feelings for both these men). Unsurprisingly, these activities did not win her many friends, particularly in Ireland, where it was felt that her nationalism was naive. "Yes, I got a lot of stick," she says. "The Irish were furious with me." But she found McGlinchey, who was shot dead in 1994, to be a "grave and reflective man", and Adams to be "thoughtful about things, not bloodthirsty; I met him at a point when he was trying to rein in his army", and she was determined to say so. When Labour came to power, she contacted Blair and, later, Brown, both of whom invited her to Downing Street. What did she tell them? "Only what I felt, which is that on this side of the sea, there was only one enemy, the IRA, whereas on the other side, there were several: not just the terrorists, but the police, too, and the machinery of government. In opposition, Blair was a Pontius Pilate over Ireland; he never took it up. But what he did as prime minister was remarkable, a huge thing."

House of Splendid Isolation marked a new phase in O'Brien's career, when she turned away from women, and from love, and began writing state-of-the-nation novels. Down by the River (1996) was inspired by the 'Miss X case', in which an underage rape victim sought an abortion in England, and In the Forest (2002) by the case of Brendan O'Donnell, a disturbed young man who abducted and murdered a woman, her three-year-old son, and a priest. All three books, but particularly In the Forest, were well-received in Britain and the US, but turned her critics in Ireland apoplectic.

'They're always the worst,' she says. 'They're jealous. I don't think it's anything else. Fintan O'Toole [the Irish Times columnist] said [about In the Forest] that I was morally criminal. Of course, it would have been all right if it was a man who'd written that novel, if I had been Sebastian Barry, or Roddy Doyle, or John Banville. There are still certain no-go areas for women writers. I'm always surprised to incur such wrath. Why would someone be so savage? I suppose it is that a certain kind of writing gets under the skin.' Does it hurt her? 'If someone tries to lacerate your heart, it is very hurtful. But if I were to be struck down by what people say, I'd be a weakling, wouldn't I?' ...

Read more in Guardian

Arthur Schopenhauer: On the Sufferings of the World

Arthur Schopenhauer

UNLESS suffering is the direct and immediate object of life, our existence must entirely fail of its aim. It is absurd to look upon the enormous amount of pain that abounds everywhere in the world, and originates in needs and necessities inseparable from life itself, as serving no purpose at all and the result of mere chance. Each separate misfortune, as it comes, seems, no doubt, to be something exceptional; but misfortune in general is the rule.

I know of no greater absurdity than that propounded by most systems of philosophy in declaring evil to be negative in its character. Evil is just what is positive; it makes its own existence felt. Leibnitz is particularly concerned to defend this absurdity; and he seeks to strengthen his position by using a palpable and paltry sophism.1 It is the good which is negative; in other words, happiness and satisfaction always imply some desire fulfilled, some state of pain brought to an end.

This explains the fact that we generally find pleasure to be not nearly so pleasant as we expected, and pain very much more painful.

The pleasure in this world, it has been said, outweighs the pain; or, at any rate, there is an even balance between the two. If the reader wishes to see shortly whether this statement is true, let him compare the respective feelings of two animals, one of which is engaged in eating the other.

The best consolation in misfortune or affliction of any kind will be the thought of other people who are in a still worse plight than yourself; and this is a form of consolation open to every one. But what an awful fate this means for mankind as a whole!

We are like lambs in a field, disporting themselves under the eye of the butcher, who chooses out first one and then another for his prey. So it is that in our good days we are all unconscious of the evil Fate may have presently in store for us -- sickness, poverty, mutilation, loss of sight or reason.

No little part of the torment of existence lies in this, that Time is continually pressing upon us, never letting us take breath, but always coming after us, like a taskmaster with a whip. If at any moment Time stays his hand, it is only when we are delivered over to the misery of boredom.

But misfortune has its uses; for, as our bodily frame would burst asunder if the pressure of the atmosphere were removed, so, if the lives of man were relieved of all need, hardship and adversity; if everything they took in hand were successful, they would be so swollen with arrogance that, though they might not burst, they would present the spectacle of unbridled folly -- nay, they would go mad. And I may say, further, that a certain amount of care or pain or trouble is necessary for every man at all times. A ship without ballast is unstable and will not go straight.

Certain it is that work, worry, labour and trouble, form the lot of almost all men their whole life long. But if all wishes were fulfilled as soon as they arose, how would men occupy their lives? what would they do with their time? If the world were a paradise of luxury and ease, a land flowing with milk and honey, where every Jack obtained his Jill at once and without any difficulty, men would either die of boredom or hang themselves; or there would be wars, massacres, and murders; so that in the end mankind would inflict more suffering on itself than it has now to accept at the hands of Nature.

In early youth, as we contemplate our coming life, we are like children in a theatre before the curtain is raised, sitting there in high spirits and eagerly waiting for the play to begin. It is a blessing that we do not know what is really going to happen. Could we foresee it, there are times when children might seem like innocent prisoners, condemned, not to death, but to life, and as yet all unconscious of what their sentence means. Nevertheless, every man desires to reach old age; in other words, a state of life of which it may be said: "It is bad to-day, and it will be worse to-morrow; and so on till the worst of all."

If you try to imagine, as nearly as you can, what an amount of misery, pain and suffering of every kind the sun shines upon in its course, you will admit that it would be much better if on the earth as little as on the moon the sun were able to call forth the phenomena of life; and if, here as there, the surface were still in a crystalline state.

Again, you may look upon life as an unprofitable episode, disturbing the blessed calm of non-existence. And, in any case, even though things have gone with you tolerably well, the longer you live the more clearly you will feel that, on the whole, life is a disappointment, nay, a cheat.

If two men who were friends in their youth meet again when they are old, after being separated for a life-time, the chief feeling they will have at the sight of each other will be one of complete disappointment at life as a whole; because their thoughts will be carried back to that earlier time when life seemed so fair as it lay spread out before them in the rosy light of dawn, promised so much -- and then performed so little. This feeling will so completely predominate over every other that they will not even consider it necessary to give it words; but on either side it will be silently assumed, and form the ground-work of all they have to talk about.

He who lives to see two or three generations is like a man who sits some time in the conjurer's booth at a fair, and witnesses the performance twice or thrice in succession. The tricks were meant to be seen only once; and when they are no longer a novelty and cease to deceive, their effect is gone.

While no man is much to be envied for his lot, there are countless numbers whose fate is to be deplored.

Life is a task to be done. It is a fine thing to say defunctus est; it means that the man has done his task.

If children were brought into the world by an act of pure reason alone, would the human race continue to exist? Would not a man rather have so much sympathy with the coming generation, as to spare it the burden of existence? or at any rate not take it upon himself to impose that burden upon it in cold blood.

I shall be told, I suppose, that my philosophy is comfortless -- because I speak the truth; and people prefer to be assured that everything the Lord has made is good. Go to the priests, then, and leave philosophers in peace! At any rate, do not ask us to accommodate our doctrines to the lessons you have been taught. That is what those rascals of sham philosophers will do for you. Ask them for any doctrine you please, and you will get it. Your University professors are bound to preach optimism; and it is an easy and agreeable task to upset their theories.

I have reminded the reader that every state of welfare, every feeling of satisfaction, is negative in its character; that is to say, it consists in freedom from pain, which is the positive element of existence. It follows, therefore, that the happiness of any given life is to be measured, not by its joys and pleasures, but by the extent to which it has been free from suffering -- from positive evil. If this is the true standpoint, the lower animals appear to enjoy a happier destiny than man. Let us examine the matter a little more closely.

However varied the forms that human happiness and misery may take, leading a man to seek the one and shun the other, the material basis of it all is bodily pleasure or bodily pain. This basis is very restricted: it is simply health, food, protection from wet and cold, the satisfaction of the sexual instinct; or else the absence of these things. Consequently, as far as real physical pleasure is concerned, the man is not better off than the brute, except in so far as the higher possibilities of his nervous system make him more sensitive to every kind of pleasure, but also, it must be remembered, to every kind of pain. But then compared with the brute, how much stronger are the passions aroused in him! what an immeasurable difference there is in the depth and vehemence of his emotions! -- and yet, in the one case, as in the other, all to produce the same result in the end: namely, health, food, clothing, and so on.

The chief source of all this passion is that thought for what is absent and future, which, with man, exercises such a powerful influence upon all he does. It is this that is the real origin of his cares, his hopes, his fears -- emotions which affect him much more deeply than could ever be the case with those present joys and sufferings to which the brute is confined. In his powers of reflection, memory and foresight, man possesses, as it were, a machine for condensing and storing up his pleasures and his sorrows. But the brute has nothing of the kind; whenever it is in pain, it is as though it were suffering for the first time, even though the same thing should have previously happened to it times out of number. It has no power of summing up its feelings. Hence its careless and placid temper: how much it is to be envied. But in man reflection comes in, with all the emotions to which it gives rise; and taking up the same elements of pleasure and pain which are common to him and the brute, it develops his susceptibility to happiness and misery to such a degree that, at one moment the man is brought in an instant to a state of delight that may even prove fatal, at another to the depths of despair and suicide.

If we carry our analysis a stop farther, we shall find that, in order to increase his pleasures, man has intentionally added to the number and pressure of his needs, which in their original state were not much more difficult to satisfy than those of the brute. Hence luxury in all its forms; delicate food, the use of tobacco and opium, spirituous liquors, fine clothes and the thousand and one things that he considers necessary to his existence.

SELECTED AND TRANSLATED BY T. BAILEY SAUNDERS, M.A.

Studies in Pessimism by Arthur Schopenhauer

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Jonathan Swift: On the Death of Esther Johnson [Stella]


THIS day, being Sunday, January 28, 1727–8, about eight o’clock at night, a servant brought me a note, with an account of the death of the truest, most virtuous, and valuable friend, that I, or perhaps any other person, ever was blessed with. She expired about six in the evening of this day; and as soon as I am left alone, which is about eleven at night, I resolve, for my own satisfaction, to say something of her life and character. 1
She was born at Richmond, in Surrey, on the thirteenth day of March, in the year 1681. Her father was a younger brother of a good family in Nottinghamshire, her mother of a lower degree; and indeed she had little to boast of her birth. I knew her from six years old, and had some share in her education, by directing what books she should read, and perpetually instructing her in the principles of honour and virtue; from which she never swerved in any one action or moment of her life. She was sickly from her childhood until about the age of fifteen; but then grew into perfect health, and was looked upon as one of the most beautiful, graceful, and agreeable young women in London, only a little too fat. Her hair was blacker than a raven, and every feature of her face in perfection. She lived generally in the country, with a family, where she contracted an intimate friendship with another lady of more advanced years. I was then (to my mortification) settled in Ireland; and about a year after, going to visit my friends in England I found she was a little uneasy upon the death of a person on whom she had some dependance. Her fortune, at that time, was in all not above fifteen hundred pounds, the interest of which was but a scanty maintenance, in so dear a country, for one of her spirit. Upon this consideration, and indeed very much for my own satisfaction, who had few friends or acquaintance in Ireland, I prevailed with her and her dear friend and companion, the other lady, to draw what money they had into Ireland, a great part of their fortune being in annuities upon funds. Money was then ten per cent. In Ireland, besides the advantage of turning it, and all necessaries of life at half the price. They complied with my advice, and soon after came over; but, I happening to continue some time longer in England, they were much discouraged to live in Dublin, where they were wholly strangers. She was at that time about nineteen years old, and her person was soon distinguished. But the adventure looked so like a frolic, the censure held for some time, as if there were a secret history in such a removal; which, however, soon blew off by her excellent conduct. She came over with her friend on the ——— in the year 170–; and they both lived together until this day, when death removed her from us. For some years past, she had been visited with continual ill health; and several times, within these two years, her life was despaired of. But, for this twelvemonth past, she never had a day’s health; and, properly speaking, she hath been dying six months, but kept alive, almost against nature, by the generous kindness of two physicians, and the care of her friends. Thus far I writ the same night between eleven and twelve.
Never was any of her sex born with better gifts of the mind, or more improved them by reading and conversation. Yet her memory was not of the best, and was impaired in the latter years of her life. But I cannot call to mind that I ever once heard her make a wrong judgment of persons, books, or affairs. Her advice was always the best, and with the greatest freedom, mixed with the greatest decency. She had a gracefulness, somewhat more than human, in every motion, word, and action. Never was so happy a conjunction of civility, freedom, easiness, and sincerity. There seemed to be a combination among all that knew her, to treat her with a dignity much beyond her rank; yet people of all sorts were never more easy than in her company. Mr. Addison, when he was in Ireland, being introduced to her, immediately found her out; and, if he had not soon after left the kingdom, assured me he would have used all endeavours to cultivate her friendship. A rude or conceited coxcomb passed his time very ill, upon the least breach of respect; for in such a case she had no mercy, but was sure to expose him to the contempt of the standers-by; yet in such a manner as he was ashamed to complain, and durst not resent. All of us who had the happiness of her friendship, agreed unanimously, that, in an afternoon or evening’s conversation, she never failed, before we parted, of delivering the best thing that was said in the company. Some of us have written down several of her sayings, or what the French call bons mots, wherein she excelled almost beyond belief. She never mistook the understanding of others; nor ever said a severe word, but where a much severer was deserved. ...

English Essays: Sidney to Macaulay. The Harvard Classics

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Katherine Anne Porter: "Old Mortality" - Forces at work in “Old Mortality”

“The past dies, but is not dead; the present generation moves on, then retreats to the past, moves on, [and] retreats again” (Stout 503). Stout words bring an interesting point: through time there is inconsistency with respect to peoples’ memories about world events. Thus how do you know that the facts you learned from previous generations are really the truth and not something that came from someone’s imagination? The answer to this question is illustrated by Katherine Anne Porter in her short story “Old Mortality.” In the story the author suggests that the only way to know what is real is through a person’s experiences. Porter developed a character that lived in a perfect world filled with romanticism and unrealistic events; she first created Miranda with the innocence of a child, the admiration for elders and love for romantic and poetic dreams. Through her short story “Old Mortality” Porter molded Miranda’s character. Porter describes human development through Miranda’s growth as person. Miranda’s first step toward development begins with doubts about her family’s history which at the end lead her to the rejection of her roots, and her growth as an individual. By rejecting her roots Miranda is able to form a clear view of herself, her goals, and her future. Porter used a special technique for the development of her characters. During Porter’s short stories she used the “narrative space” to form her character’s identity through their experiences. Fornataro-Neil describes Porter’s characters as “silent characters”, according to him, “[silent characters] allowed [Porter] a greater opportunity to comment on the construction of identity and to critique the notion of objective truth” (349). Porter’s technique was effective and it brought forth the real issues she wanted to address without the unnecessary in-between material. The technique allowed her to go straight to the point. According with Fornataro-Neil, Porter depicts how history and identity are constructed. Miranda’s identity is constructed by rejecting her past, and as Fornataro-Neil explains “we all write and rewrite our own stories and histories based on our circumstances, agendas, pains, and individual narrative purposes” (352). With this sentence the author shows how each person creates their own identities based on their own point of view. We create our own fictitious stories of events in our lives; in “Old Mortality” Porter’s “repeated use of the words story, legend, narrative, and tale underscores the fictive nature of the family’s reconstruction of the past” (349). This was Porter’s way of letting the reader know that the family’s recollection of events is a creation of their romantic creativity. For Miranda observation and recognition were her first steps toward her personal growth. It is unclear whether Miranda’s herself knew that she was about to embark on her life journey. Porter introduces Miranda as an innocent child full of life that in the course of the story grows to an independent woman. Since her childhood, Miranda questioned the stories told by her elders. Miranda and her sister would look at a picture of their deceased Aunt Amy and “[they] wonder why every older person who looked at the picture said, “How lovely”; and why everyone who had known her thought her so beautiful and charming” (Porter 3). Miranda could not see the beauty in the picture, yet she could not completely ignore the stereotype imposed by others. Miranda understood her family’s tradition of romantic legends filled with ideal settings, not just the accurate recollection of events. Using her own judgment against what others described as the truth she was able to view and understand the world with what she could trust, her instincts and her common sense. She knew that her elders would often use romantic language in order to make the lives of relatives more interesting. Miranda wondered how much of what she learned about her background was true. ...

Friday, 16 September 2011

George Eliot: Middlemarch


The duties of her married life, contemplated as so great beforehand, seemed to be shrinking with the furniture and the white vapor-walled landscape. The clear heights where she expected to walk in full communion had become difficult to see even in her imagination; the delicious repose of the soul on a complete superior had been shaken into uneasy effort and alarmed with dim presentiment. When would the days begin of that active wifely devotion which was to strengthen her husband’s life and exalt her own? Never perhaps, as she had preconceived them; but somehow — still somehow. In this solemnly pledged union of her life, duty would present itself in some new form of inspiration and give a new meaning to wifely love. Meanwhile there was the snow and the low arch of dun vapor — there was the stifling oppression of that gentlewoman’s world, where everything was done for her and none asked for her aid — where the sense of connection with a manifold pregnant existence had to be kept up painfully as an inward vision, instead of coming from without in claims that would have shaped her energies.— “What shall I do?” “Whatever you please, my dear: “that had been her brief history since she had left off learning morning lessons and practising silly rhythms on the hated piano. Marriage, which was to bring guidance into worthy and imperative occupation, had not yet freed her from the gentlewoman’s oppressive liberty: it had not even filled her leisure with the ruminant joy of unchecked tenderness. Her blooming full-pulsed youth stood there in a moral imprisonment which made itself one with the chill, colorless, narrowed landscape, with the shrunken furniture, the never-read books, and the ghostly stag in a pale fantastic world that seemed to be vanishing from the daylight. In the first minutes when Dorothea looked out she felt nothing but the dreary oppression; then came a keen remembrance, and turning away from the window she walked round the room. The ideas and hopes which were living in her mind when she first saw this room nearly three months before were present now only as memories: she judged them as we judge transient and departed things. All existence seemed to beat with a lower pulse than her own, and her religious faith was a solitary cry, the struggle out of a nightmare in which every object was withering and shrinking away from her. Each remembered thing in the room was disenchanted, was deadened as an unlit transparency, till her wandering gaze came to the group of miniatures, and there at last she saw something which had gathered new breath and meaning: it was the miniature of Mr. Casaubon’s aunt Julia, who had made the unfortunate marriage — of Will Ladislaw’s grandmother. Dorothea could fancy that it was alive now — the delicate woman’s face which yet had a headstrong look, a peculiarity difficult to interpret. Was it only her friends who thought her marriage unfortunate? or did she herself find it out to be a mistake, and taste the salt bitterness of her tears in the merciful silence of the night? What breadths of experience Dorothea seemed to have passed over since she first looked at this miniature! She felt a new companionship with it, as if it had an ear for her and could see how she was looking at it. Here was a woman who had known some difficulty about marriage. Chapter 28

Duke Humphrey's Library, Bodleian

Duke Humphrey's Library, Bodleian