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Showing posts from April, 2016

Sensational Novelist -The mysterious mastery of Wilkie Collins

Wilkie Collins was quite literally a colorful character. His doctor described his attire at dinner as sometimes featuring “a light camel hair or tweed suit, with a broad pink or blue striped shirt, and perhaps a red tie." On another occasion he appeared wearing a low-cut shirt "dashed with great, gory squares" with a bright blue jacket and a rakishly-tied spotted neckerchief of the kind popularized by James Belcher, the bare-knuckle boxing champion.

His physique was as incongruous as his wardrobe. Five-foot-six, with a large head, acute myopia, and a weak chin (later masked with a bushy beard) he was apt when sitting to jiggle his knees nervously, "as if soothing invisible babies." He liked to party. Rebelling against the stolid English diet of gravy soup, mutton, and cabinet pudding as he rebelled against other stolid English conventions, he liked to indulge in Parisian pleasures: pints of champagne, paté de foie gras, garlic sauces, and sauciness.

Charles Dick…

Why Spinoza still matters

In July 1656, the 23-year-old Bento de Spinoza was excommunicated from the Portuguese-Jewish congregation of Amsterdam. It was the harshest punishment of herem (ban) ever issued by that community. The extant document, a lengthy and vitriolic diatribe, refers to the young man’s ‘abominable heresies’ and ‘monstrous deeds’. The leaders of the community, having consulted with the rabbis and using Spinoza’s Hebrew name, proclaim that they hereby ‘expel, excommunicate, curse, and damn Baruch de Spinoza’. He is to be ‘cast out from all the tribes of Israel’ and his name is to be ‘blotted out from under heaven’.

Over the centuries, there have been periodic calls for the herem against Spinoza to be lifted. Even David Ben-Gurion, when he was prime minister of Israel, issued a public plea for ‘amending the injustice’ done to Spinoza by the Amsterdam Portuguese community. It was not until early 2012, however, that the Amsterdam congregation, at the insistence of one of its members, formally took u…

Sweet sensation - Mary Elizabeth Braddon

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Together with Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon dominated the market for what came to be known as "the novel of sensation" during the 1860s. Designed to unsettle, the genre caused moral alarm among critics. Not only did it revel in the dubious subject matter of murder, bigamy, illegitimacy and madness, it seemed to pathologise the very act of reading itself, since its narrative method - which fore shadows that of modern detective fiction - turned readers into addicts, titillating them with a series of withheld secrets and startling revelations.

Rereading Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret gave me an odd twinge of sympathy with the kill-joys of the Victorian age - not so much with their moral outrage, but with their recognition that these novels do make you read them in a peculiar way. I'd had the same experience with Collins's The Woman in White a few years ago. In both cases, I was almost affronted to find that I remembered almost none of the detail of their…

Is Jane Austen a “Romance Novelist”?

I feel as if I should begin with a disclaimer: this post is just a preliminary attempt to sort something out for myself that I am sure has been discussed a lot already! I know it’s not a new question, but it is a new one for me to be thinking carefully about — and that’s what my blog is for, not for presenting absolutely finished position papers but for exploration. So don’t jump on me if, for you, this is old news or already a settled question! Instead, tell me what you think, since one thing I’m hoping will come from writing a little about this question here is that I’ll get some leads and ideas for how to think about it better, or where to read more about it.

I’m puzzling over whether Austen is a “romance novelist” (and I’m going to keep the scare quotes, for reasons that I’ll get to in a bit) because I’ve begun doing research in preparation for the romance unit in next year’s Pulp Fiction class (another disclaimer: it’s just a first-year writing class organized around a fairly impr…

Dorothy M. Richardson: the forgotten revolutionary

Most people today have not heard of Dorothy M. Richardson. In her day, however, she was famous for revolutionising the modern novel. She was the first writer to be labelled “stream of consciousness”, before Virginia Woolf and before James Joyce, and she was generally credited with the invention of a “method” of writing that was modern, innovative and unsettling. 

Richardson’s 13-volume novel Pilgrimage was described by one critic as “the best history yet written of the slow progression from the Victorian period to the modern age”. Miriam Henderson, the character through whose consciousness Pilgrimage is narrated, is engaged in a quest for independence: her father has invested unwisely and her middle-class home is threatened. She does not marry, like her sisters, but leaves home to become a student teacher in Germany, a governess, a live-in teacher in North London and a dental secretary on Harley Street. She gets involved in the political and intellectual life of fin de siècle London. …

“For the sake of the right”: Wilkie Collins, No Name

The first book I thought of when I read Ana’s announcement of Long-Awaited Reads Month was Wilkie Collins’s No Name, which has been sitting on my shelf at work for several years. I acquired it in a fit of professional diligence: I include examples of Victorian sensation fiction regularly in my 19th-century fiction classes and I have several times offered a seminar specifically on sensation fiction — yet (shh!) the list of sensation novels I’ve read (as opposed to read about) is actually very short: Lady Audley’s Secret, Aurora Floyd, The Woman in White, East Lynne, The Moonstone … and that’s about it. I admit my enthusiasm for reading more sensation novels has been constrained by my finding that a couple of these most canonical titles in the genre are really quite bad, though they are also very interesting. Few of us have the courage of Miriam Burstein when it comes to powering through truly terrible fiction in the interests of scholarship.

I do thoroughly enjoy both The Woman and Whit…

George Eliot’s Ugly Beauty

If George Eliot’s Wikipedia entry has received an unusually high number of views this week, the responsibility lies with Lena Dunham, who tweeted a couple of days ago that the Victorian novelist’s page was “the soapiest most scandalous thing you’ll read this month. Thesis: she was ugly AND horny!”

Alas, for the prurient-minded, Eliot’s wiki-biography is rather more elliptical in its characterization of the Victorian author. It does say that “she was considered to have an ill-favoured appearance, and she formed a number of embarrassing, unreciprocated emotional attachments.” Of course, that’s only a fraction of what it says about her. The Wikipedia contributors also give a capsule account of her remarkable transformation from provincial girl—she was born Mary Ann Evans, the daughter of a land agent, in Coventry in 1819—to one of the preëminent intellectuals of the nineteenth century, and the author of “Middlemarch,” widely considered the greatest novel in the English language. (Dunham t…

Portrait of a lady - Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett

It is one of the most famous courtships of the 19th century. Robert Browning, then a struggling young poet, writes a fan letter to the much better-known Elizabeth Barrett, a housebound invalid. He begins a passionate correspondence with her, marries her secretly, against the wishes of her tyrannical father, and elopes with her to Italy. Until Elizabeth's death in 1861 they enjoy a life of married bliss and increasing professional success as expatriate celebrities. After Elizabeth's funeral (there were obituary notices in newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic), her heartbroken widower returns to England to become one of the most lionised and popular poets of his age. It's a touching story of poetic and personal virtue rewarded. Or not? When Henry James met Browning in the 1870s, he was perplexed and not a little horrified at the apparent difference between Browning's personality and the sophisticated, finely tuned sensibility he'd been led to expect from the poet…

Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Sonnets from the Portuguese 14: If thou must love me, let it be for nought

If thou must love me, let it be for nought  Except for love's sake only. Do not say  I love her for her smile ... her look ... her way  Of speaking gently, ... for a trick of thought  That falls in well with mine, and certes brought  A sense of pleasant ease on such a day'—  For these things in themselves, Belovèd, may  Be changed, or change for thee,—and love, so wrought,  May be unwrought so. Neither love me for  Thine own dear pity's wiping my cheeks dry,—  A creature might forget to weep, who bore  Thy comfort long, and lose thy love thereby!  But love me for love's sake, that evermore  Thou may'st love on, through love's eternity.

Robert Browning: Porphyria's Lover

The rain set early in to-night,         The sullen wind was soon awake,  It tore the elm-tops down for spite,         And did its worst to vex the lake:         I listened with heart fit to break.  When glided in Porphyria; straight         She shut the cold out and the storm,  And kneeled and made the cheerless grate         Blaze up, and all the cottage warm;         Which done, she rose, and from her form  Withdrew the dripping cloak and shawl,         And laid her soiled gloves by, untied  Her hat and let the damp hair fall,         And, last, she sat down by my side         And called me. When no voice replied,  She put my arm about her waist,         And made her smooth white shoulder bare,  And all her yellow hair displaced,         And, stooping, made my cheek lie there,         And spread, o'er all, her yellow hair,  Murmuring how she loved me — she         Too weak, for all her heart's endeavour,  To set its struggling passion free         From pride, and vainer ties dissever,

The Formidable Friendship of Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt

In the new film “Hannah Arendt,” the political theorist’s friendship with the novelist and critic Mary McCarthy gets its first cinematic treatment. The results are not good. McCarthy, played by Janet McTeer, is blowsily silly—and though she could be wicked and subversively funny, McCarthy was far from silly. Nearly every exchange between the two women is about men and love. It is symptomatic of a trend, I think. We are in a moment of unprecedented popular interest in the matter of female friendship, and this has been greeted as a triumph for feminism. But what we get, for all that, is rather flat portraiture: women giggling about crushes before finding real fulfillment in heterosexual romance and the grail of marriage. It’s a shame, because many women hunger for models of intellectual self-confidence, and female friendships can be rich soil for them. McCarthy and Arendt’s “love affair”—as their friends described it—was a union of ferocious minds, but it was hardly unusual. Women talk …