Thursday, August 23, 2012

Bachelors Anonymous by PG Wodehouse

 PG Wodehouse wrote many books, and I've yet to stumble upon a dud. Bachelors Anonymous is not his greatest work, but it's perfectly enjoyable and (written two years before his death in 1975) shows the usual Wodehouseian consistency of form. It's the last in a group of books featuring Ivor Llewellyn, mega-motion-picture magnate, who Wodehouse fans will remember from the Monty Bodkin books. Ivor Llewellyn, though strong-minded and fabulously wealthy, has one fatal weakness: he turns into a jelly in the presence of women. He can't make conversation, and by the time he's exhausted the subject of the weather, he's driven in desperation to the only other conversational gambit he knows, one that won't fail to get the fair hearer's attention: a proposal of marriage.

Bachelors Anonymous opens with Llewellyn setting off to England after his fifth divorce, farewelled by his trusty lawyer Ephraim Trout. Trout, worried about Llewellyn's future, discloses a secret: he is a member of a society of bachelors who are determined to kick the marriage habit...and to prevent any young man they meet from contracting it, by any means necessary. On Trout's advice, Llewellyn agrees to hire a bodyguard to protect him from Vera Dalrymple, the autocratic actress who's trying to lure him to a romantic candlelit restaurant. He picks the down-and-out young playwright Joe Pickering, who has just fallen catastrophically in love with Sally Fitch, a reporter who's just inherited a fortune on the condition that she not smoke for two years. And, to complicate matters, there's the genteel lady detective hired to keep an eye on Sally, plus the latter's despicable ex-fiance, Sir Jaklyn Warner. Mr Trout soon arrives in London to keep an eye on Llewellyn personally, and the two of them decide to scotch the burgeoning Pickering-Fitch romance for the causes of bachelorhood. An imbroglio, of course, ensues, complete with comical misunderstandings and even a confirmed bachelor meeting his Waterloo.

Though not up to the standard of his best novels (such as Leave it to Psmith, Right Ho Jeeves, and The Code of the Woosters), Bachelors Anonymous is a happy, absurd little thing with plenty to like about it. In Wodehouse's later years, he sometimes let himself slip so far as to actually express an opinion occasionally, and I came across this little gem on page 35:
"What do you think I ought to do? What would you do if you were me? About Charlie?"
"You can't go by what I'd do," said Sally. "I'm the meek, yielding type. I'd tell myself I had promised to honour and obey the poor fish, so why not get started. I suppose a lot depends on the man. Is Charlie one of those tough domineering characters who thump the desk and shout 'Listen to me. Once and for all...'?"
"Oh, no, he's not a bit like that. He says, 'Anything that will make me happy'."
"But he wants you to chuck your job?"
"Then chuck it, honey, chuck it. A man like that is worth making a sacrifice for."
A late Wodehouse I've always had a fondness for, I recommend Bachelors Anonymous to Wodehouse fans, though not necessarily as an introduction to his work.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Another of the well-known novels I've somehow failed to read till now is Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South, despite it being recommended to me at regular intervals over the last few years.

And I'm so glad I finally made the plunge, because it was lots of fun. It's a tale of the clash between the agrarian South of England and the manufacturing North at the time of the Industrial Revolution, respectively embodied in Margaret Hale, the seemingly haughty young heroine, and John Thornton, a young entrepreneur and manufacturer. The Hale family (minus Margaret's brother, Frederick, who is living abroad to escape a court-martial and certain death for his role in a naval mutiny) move to the manufacturing town of Milton when Mr Hale, previously a clergyman of the Church of England, finds himself no longer able conscientiously able to support all the doctrines of that church. Through a likeminded friend, Mr Bell, they are referred to Mr Thornton, one of the great cotton-manufacturers of Milton. Mr Thornton becomes a pupil of Mr Hale's and his closest friend in the strange, dirty new town. But Margaret instantly dislikes Mr Thornton--his humble origins, his high-handed treatment and cool exploitation of his workers, and his very status as a heartless money-grubbing member of Milton's elite all cause her to shrink from him.

Meanwhile she makes the acquaintance of some of the Milton workers: young Bessy Higgins, dying of the cotton fluff that she breathed in while working at one of the mills; her father Nicholas Higgins, a simpleminded labourer at the head of the workers' union; Boucher, their neighbour, who begins to find the union a worse tyrant than the masters themselves. As the "war" between the workers (who are starving) and the masters (who are stuggling to stay in business) intensifies, the workers begin to threaten a strike. Mrs Hale falls ill. And of course Mr Thornton finds himself struggling with a growing attraction to Margaret.

There was a lot to enjoy about North and South. On the most superficial level, it was as sensational and melodramatic as anyone might wish--or, indeed, more so than one might wish. Like Wives and Daughters, North and South soon reaches an almost unbearable emotional intensity and never lets go till the last page. Margaret gets three proposals of marriage. No fewer than six characters die. Mr Thornton spends most of the book being quietly tormented. Mrs Gaskell never omits a chance to complicate the relationship by making Margaret say exactly the wrong thing at moments that she doesn't realise Mr Thornton is behind her (I felt myself longing to advise her to check behind the sofa before saying anything she wouldn't want him to hear). In short, no opportunity was missed to extract maximum sensation from this plotline.

While I do have a weakness for melodrama and loved North and South for just that reason, that same melodrama became a flaw. Thinking it over now, the thing that I disliked about Wives and Daughters was the way the emotional tension remained at such a high pitch, unresolved, for the whole book. The same flaw is evident in North and South. While Wives and Daughters is unfinished, North and South does have a resolution. But because the intensity of the plot is mostly unrelieved, very little in the way of a climax is possible: there is nowhere else for the book to go beyond one final turn of the screw and then everything resolving on the last page. For this reason, one actually enjoys the book more halfway through than five minutes after finishing it; which is unusual. Quite different to the novels of GK Chesterton, for example, which tend to be a bewildering puzzle unlocked by the final chapter.

While, having only just read this book for the first time, I don't feel competent to fully unpack the worldview presented herein, I do have some observations. Mrs Gaskell herself was, as we all know, Unitarian, and I think one of the best ways to learn about an alien worldview is to study how it emerges from the stories told by its adherents. Of course, nobody reading North and South should feel compelled to turn Unitarian. While Mr Hale retires from the Church of England for conscience's sake, the exact doctrinal points are not mentioned. But a couple of clues are left in the text. For example, Mr Hale is called a "dissenter"- a term usually used in the 1800s to refer to "Rational Dissenters" - Unitarians. In addition, when Mr Hale turns dissenter he is helped by his sympathetic friend Mr Bell, who introduces him to Mr Thornton, who is mentioned to have religious differences with the C-of-E Margaret. Quite likely, all three--Hale, Bell, and Thornton--are intended to be Unitarian characters, as as we'll see, Margaret herself behaves rather like a Unitarian throughout the book.

That aside, we should expect to see certain Unitarian influences and themes in a book by a Unitarian author. I found an interesting article--The Concept of Unity in Elizabeth Gaskell's "North and South".
A key insight into Mr. Hale’s reasoning is found during his discussion with Margaret and Higgins, when he states that “your Union in itself would be beautiful, glorious, —it would be Christianity in itself—if it were but for an end which affected the good of all, instead of that of merely one class as opposed to another”. This statement directly mirrors the sentiment of Unitarian theology of the 19th century as primarily defined by 18th century scientist and philosopher Joseph Priestley, who famously described the Trinity as foremost of the corruptions of Christianity.
The author goes on to claim that "The implication of equality despite class and doctrinal differences is a clear refutation of the Trinity as perceived by Unitarian theologians." Throughout the novel, the solution to the turmoil between the classes, the sexes, and the sects is presented in terms of either standing aloof or bringing both together in unity and harmony. Throughout the book, conflict itself is the enemy.

If you read North and South trying to decide which side you are intended to be on, as I did, you will end up confused as to what the author is trying to say. The book came out in 1855, with the revolutions of 1848 still fresh in the memories of its readers. These had birthed the Communist Manifesto, and Marx and Engels were both hard at work - Engels financing his anti-capitalist war and his friend Marx with the proceeds of his own capitalist factory. Various characters in Milton describe class relations as a "war" between the masters and the men. As the Hale family interacts with first the master and then the men, they see injustices, grievances, and misunderstandings on both sides. If the masters are harsh, the men are unreasonable. While the rhetoric of the Milton residents sounds almost Communist in its vocabulary of class struggle and warfare, this is not the view that triumphs in the end.

Meanwhile the conflict between Margaret and Thornton, South and North, is the conflict between a traditional, hierarchical, agrarian way of life in the South (Margaret, bursting with noblesse oblige, is surprised when her offer to visit the Higgins family like a good aristocratic Lady Bountiful is met with disdain) and the modernist, self-made, industrial life of the North (where a draper's assistant--a shopman, a man in trade, can be part of the elite). But neither view is accepted. As the heroine who facilitates most of the peacemaking that occurs in the novel, Margaret's more caring attitude to the workers is compared favourably to Mr Thornton's coolness. Yet the South is not Mrs Gaskell's ideal society either. To begin with, it is too dependant on hierarchy and social standing: Margaret's oblige is praised, but her noblesse is not. Neither the ancien regime of covenantal, Trinitarian Christendom nor the new world of belligerent class conflict and base money-grubbing is affirmed in this novel.

Most readers would come away from the novel thinking that Mrs Gaskell has simply tried to paint a fair picture of both masters and men, North and South. But even to avoid taking sides is to state an ideological position. Throughout North and South, peace is brought when people set aside their differences for the sake of unity. The fault lies in taking sides at all; resolution comes in pursuit of unity as the ultimate principle--a unity for unity's sake; a unity of tolerance and mutual respect, a unity that repudiates the hierarchy of master and men and even, to some extent, that of parents and children. This is a can't-we-all-just-get-along faith, similar but counterfeit to the Christian doctrine that calls us to love friends and enemies both, but never to confuse the two.

This said--and if you have read this far, I want to thank you for having patience while I dug a bit deeper into the worldview ramifications of Mrs Gaskell's Unitarianism--the book is by no means a tract for that heresy; it is simply, unavoidably, influenced by it. All that aside, I loved North and South--an exciting, melodramatic tale from one of the great nineteenth-century novelists.

Gutenberg etext
Librivox recording (take care--they spoil the whole plot at the top of the page!)
The Concept of Unity in Elizabeth Gaskell's "North and South" - essay

I have seen the 2004 BBC miniseries of North and South. Compared to some, this is a fairly loose adaptation of the source material--the same characters enact the same basic plot, but many of the events occur quite differently than in the book. Many of my literary friends prefer the miniseries, but I found many of the changes unnecessary, while diluting the (admittedly overdone) melodrama of the book. Still, it's perfectly enjoyable on its own terms.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

I picked up a lovely omnibus edition of all the Bronte sisters' novels yesterday, so now might be an excellent moment to briefly review an old favourite--Jane Eyre.

Jane Eyre is an orphan girl who undergoes a terribly difficult childhood. After a series of unpleasant episodes, her unloving aunt gets rid of her to the horrific Lowood School. Here, however, Jane eventually finds a place as it comes into better hands, and here she grows into a quiet, plain young woman with great strength of character. Soon, however, she decides to leave her post of teacher to find a position as a governess, and is...well, you know the story...hired by the mysterious Mr Rochester to teach his frivolous little ward, Adele. Mysteries cluster around Mr Rochester and his rambling old mansion: where does the ghostly laughter come from? Who sets Mr Rochester's room on fire during the night? Where did little Adele come from? Yet despite all these questions, Jane finds herself falling in love with her employer, and heading straight toward a ghastly collision with his awful secret!

Jane Eyre is, in genre, a gothic romance, with some kin to horror: you've got the similar elements of a dark and mysterious house, a dark and mysterious man, a dark and mysterious secret, a heroine struggling against terrifying dangers she doesn't fully understand. As a gothic romance, with all the melodramatic sensationalism that involves, it's a corking read.

It also includes some things I'm not so keen about. I find it difficult to imagine any man behaving like Mr Rochester; certainly not an honest man (although to be sure, if he were an honest man the plot would not exist); certainly Jane was unwise in trusting him to the extent she did. Miss Bronte milks the romance for all it's worth: Jane Eyre was one of the most sensational novels of its day. In some ways, Jane Eyre falls on the guilty end of the pleasure scale.

And yet I feel that this book is an important part of any girl's education. At the shattering moment when Jane finally learns Mr Rochester's guilty secret, she is forced to choose between following the laws of God, or breaking those laws to satisfy her consuming passion for Mr Rochester. And, because of Charlotte Bronte's excellent writing skills, you're right there with her. You know that this is the love of Jane's life, that doing the right thing will kill her, that her choice could not possibly be more brutal. And she chooses the right thing.
The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.  I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man.  I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad—as I am now.  Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be.  If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth?  They have a worth—so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane—quite insane: with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs.  Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot.
This is a message worth its weight in gold, especially in a culture that seriously considers "If it feels so good, how can it be wrong" a good argument against Christian laws of morality. Jane Eyre acknowledges the fact that something can feel right, and be wrong.

It also underlines the truth about Christian morality, which is that it exists for protection; especially for the woman's protection. Jane's choice--to leave Mr Rochester--is largely driven by a sense of vulnerability: she has no family to protect her from men like him. It is her responsibility to protect herself; it's her self-respect as a child of God that drives her to do the right thing. This, again, is a potent demonstration that Christianity and its "patriarchal" requirement of chastity is in reality the best protection of a woman's worth and self-respect.

My readers will probably want to know something about the religion and worldview evident in Jane Eyre. It's a book with Christians of every stripe in it--from hypocrites like Mr Brocklehurst, to blockheads like St John Rivers, to the really sincere devotion of Jane herself and many of the other characters. Before the happy ending occurs--and yes, there is a happy ending--even Mr Rochester undergoes sincere repentance (something TV and movie adaptations normally omit). It may be a somewhat wispy Christianity; a Christianity somewhat vague and spiritual, that the sincere characters demonstrate, but nothing really objectionable.

I have always enjoyed Jane Eyre, and after reading it various times during my formative years, I've finally come to the conclusion that it's an enjoyable, well-written book which, despite some sensationalism, carries a profound and worthwhile message.

Gutenberg etext
Librivox recording

I have seen three of the many, many filmed adaptations of Jane Eyre. The 2006 miniseries starring Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens was the one I liked least; it is difficult for any man to play Mr Rochester without sounding ridiculous, and Mr Stephens sounded ridiculous. I have reviewed the 2011 movie starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender here--I quite liked it, though it changed the tone of the book somewhat. Finally there is the 1983 miniseries with Zelah Clarke and Timothy Dalton, which I think is the best so far. Timothy Dalton gives up any idea of playing Mr Rochester like a real person and eats scenery quite voraciously, which is fun; it's the longest adaptation, and the closest to the tone of the original book.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Misunderstanding Mr Darcy

"And your defect is to hate everybody."
"And yours," he replied with a smile, "is willfully to misunderstand them." 
 I was toying with the idea of doing a feature week on The Most Misunderstood Literary Characters of All Time recently when I realised that most of these (like Romeo and Juliet, and Kate and Petruchio) were Shakespeare characters, and it would be more fun just to focus on Shakespeare for a while. But there's one literary character so thoroughly misunderstood that I must talk about him for a moment. This is, of course, Jane Austen's Mr Darcy.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

I have never been a great Dickens fan. I remember him mainly as the author of the only book—Oliver Twist—which I disliked when it was read to me as a child. After that, I tended to avoid him, though I did always intend to get around to A Tale of Two Cities. I can always be talked into trying a particular book, however, and over the last couple of years I have been talked into trying this one, starting with how often the title came up while I was studying Equity, and moving on to acquiring increasingly large numbers of friends who all recommended it. 

The intricately-plotted tome follows the life of Esther Summerson, who is the essence of Victorian heroines. Born of mysterious (strongly hinted to be illegitimate) parentage, brought up by a stern and unloving godmother, rescued by a philanthropic guardian, and fervently loved by all her friends, relations, and chance acquaintances, Esther remains modest, conscious of her own shortcomings, and conscientiously dutiful. Her guardian, John Jarndyce, is a party in the never-ending Chancery case Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which he calls “the family curse”—he knows that once in Chancery, no-one ever gets out; that the constant expectations and hopes, constantly dashed, which such a suit raises are of a type to destroy the firmest character. Consequently, when he brings Esther to stay with him in order to act as a companion to Ada and her cousin Richard—two wards of court in the Jarndyce case—he warns the three of them never to hope that the case will ever be settled.

Meanwhile a young man (of the name of Guppy) has become smitten with Esther and sets out to discover her parentage. Lady Dedlock, the exquisitely bored young wife of old Sir Leicester Dedlock, accidentally betrays the existence of the secret she has dedicated her life to keeping, and the family lawyer Mr Tulkinghorn inexorably hunts her down. The loathsome, geriatric Mr Smallweed tries to force an old soldier into betraying the whereabouts of a creditor. A poverty-stricken clerk known only as Nemo and befriended only by a young crossing-sweeper is found dead of an opium overdose; after his burial, the grave is visited by a mysterious woman. Ada and Rick fall in love, but Rick’s inability to settle down to any profession and his certainty that Jarndyce and Jarndyce will make him rich threatens to part them. And Miss Flyte, a mad old lady who haunts Chancery waiting for a judgment in some long-forgotten matter keeps caged birds which will be released when she is.

Despite being such a long book (935 pages in my Penguin Classics edition), Bleak House was never dull and I keenly enjoyed the ride. The narration, I hear, is much admired: it switches between the first-person-past-tense narration of Esther Summerson and a third-person-present-tense narrator who sees all and is pretty opinionated (in a satirical, humourous way) about it.

In some ways the book lived up to my expectations. I have read widely, if not in Dickens, and I found (as I expected) a long book full of pungent character studies and Victorian sentimentalism. Impossible and violently evocative names like Guppy, Dedlock, Skimpole, Turveydrop and Snagsby are matched with equally impossible and whimsical characters, each with a specific character trait (to say nothing of Boodle, Coodle, Doodle, Foodle, Goodle, Hoodle, Joodle, Moodle, Noodle, Poodle, Quoodle, and their opponents Buffy, Cuffy, Duffy &c ad infinitum)--so much so that I was able to pinpoint Esther’s love interest in his very first appearance, because his name and character were not grotesquely whimsical. One the one hand, that glowingly benevolent estimation of the human character known to the world ever since the author’s day as “Dickensian”. On the other hand, a foggy, rainy, depressed view of human society and its poverty-stricken meanness which I remember all too well from Oliver Twist

In other ways, the book surprised me. I had not expected to enjoy so keenly the bleak satire of human folly and wickedness that I knew I’d find: even at his most trenchant, Dickens is hilarious, which is what makes him readable. But the book is not entirely disapproving; of course not—there are just as many pleasant characters as unpleasant ones (my favourites may be the delightful Bagnet family—“Discipline must be maintained!”). 

The plot itself was the thing that surprised me most. First, it had after all very little to do with the Court of Chancery or the law of equity. It savagely criticises the institution, focusing on the larger social ramifications of such a system, but has little to do with the institution itself, and gives no suggestions for its improvement. I would further note that while Dickens was writing the novel, the stratified system was just beginning the process of reform which eventually abolished the court of Chancery altogether. I found Anthony Trollope’s satire of the legal profession in The Warden rather more to the point.

Second, the multitude of subplots eventually resolves into two major plots. There are no last-minute plot twists here, and most surprisingly of all, no resolution that ties the two loose ends neatly together. Both end almost independently; so independently that at first I was left wondering what the book was all about. 


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