Tuesday, August 20, 2013

St Elmo, by Augusta Jane Evans

I couldn't resist Lady Bibliophile's description of Augusta Jane Evans's hugely popular 1866 melodrama as "Elsie Dinsmore meets Jane Eyre." I had the opportunity of reading it lately, and indeed there was plenty of guilty fun in this novel.
Our heroine is named Edna Earl. I had better admit that the average Australian will never take anyone named "Edna" seriously again, so that's unfortunate. (Not that I know much about Dame Edna, mark you--I think Australians just come from the womb associating the name with purple wigs. Where was I?)

As a girl in a small Tennessee town, pure, sweet Edna is traumatised first by witnessing a duel and then by the sudden death of her grandfather. Orphaned, Edna decides to go the city for an education, but after a tragic train wreck she is taken in by the stern, worldly, and wealthy Mrs Murray. Meanwhile Mrs Murray's only son, St Elmo, immediately antagonises Edna with his sneering cynicism, snappishness, and bad character. Edna grows into a devout and beautiful young woman, pursues her dreams of becoming a world-famous novelist, and trips over the sighing suitors piled up at her feet, but her life is not all sunshine. Long nights at the writing-desk begin to destroy her health, but worst of all is the wicked fascination which St Elmo holds for her. Before you can say "brooding bad boy" Edna is suffering from the pangs of love, very much against her will! But even if he returned her feelings, surely St Elmo's dark and troubled past would tear them apart? Now read on...

Yes, you guessed it--this is a sentimental Victorian novel, apparently inspired by Charlotte Bronte's vastly superior Jane Eyre. Generally, it was lots of fun. I enjoyed the melodrama, found the peek into the author's times and opinions very interesting, and thought that the her handling of the inevitable reform of her wickedly fascinating hero was more believable than most. But there are three things in particular that I'd like to discuss in this review.


Feminism

I get itchy when feminism crops up in my nice novels. It's like going on holiday and finding yourself coming out in a mysterious rash. Where did this come from? And did it have to happen now?

Edna Earl, our heroine, is determined to get an education and make a name for herself in letters. She spends some time at first arguing for the mental equality of the sexes, and her author spills a good deal of ink bemoaning the limited opportunities for women to succeed in writing. I had a vague feeling, like an impending itch. But then, lo, as the book unfolds and our heroine becomes a literary celebrity (at the age of eighteen), swaying the hearts of women across the Nation, she raises her voice in protest of female suffrage:
"I think, sir, that the noble and true women of this continent earnestly believe that the day which invests them with the elective franchise would be the blackest in the annals of humanity, would ring the death-knell of modern civilization, of national prosperity, social morality, and domestic happiness! and would consign the race to a night of degradation and horror infinitely more appalling than a return to primeval barbarism."
Nor is it just suffrage that causes Edna's concern: "Latitudinarianism in dress and conversation was rapidly reducing the sexes to an equality, dangerous to morals and subversive of all chivalric respect for woman," the narrator tells us.

Augusta Jane Evans is, I'm glad to say, too much of a traditionalist to be a feminist. And in the light of some reading I was doing last week, her remonstrances about the mental equality of the sexes seems perfectly reasonable given her times. While we live in the age of rampant feminism, it's easy to forget that men have done some raw work of their own in the past. The Enlightenment reduced women to charming but ultimately useless ornaments, seeing them as creatures of impulse and emotion rather than reason and logic, sweeping them into the same irrelevance as religion. While Christians should resist the urge to egalitarianism, we should emphatically not aim to return to a nineteenth-century view of women as ornamental and emotional, incapable of logic.

Modern feminists may, however, applaud Edna's ambition, her insistence to carve out a career for herself. She turns a deaf ear to the entreaties, nay, to the tears of all who love her best--foster mother, suitor, teacher, and editor--to rest from her labours, insisting that although she may kill herself with overwork, she has a Divine Mission to write masterpieces. I honestly thought it rather dishonest of Mrs Evans to reward this stubbornness (verging on heartlessness) with unabated literary success and celebrity. A word to the young readers of St Elmo: if you are the only person in the world who sees God's calling on your life, and your godly counsellors all think you're cuckoo...pay attention to them. God put them there for a purpose.

To be fair, I thought Edna's ambition was included in the book to do duty as a Fatal Character Flaw. If so, it would have been nice to see her ambition reach a crisis followed by repentance. Instead, it faded out of significance at the end, dealt with in an offhand line.

Pedantry

Somehow, with a fairly average classical education under my belt, I still found St Elmo regularly incomprehensible. Someone allegedly once said that "the trouble with the heroine of St. Elmo was that she swallowed an unabridged dictionary." Indeed, she seems to have got the whole Encyclopaedia Britannica off by heart.

I could talk about how the characters quote lengthy passages of poetry and prose at each other on the slightest provocation; about the heroine's hilarious aptitude, by the age of seventeen, in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Chaldee, French, and goodness knows what other languages; about the unnecessarily huge vocabulary, or the constant John Stuart Mill references. St Elmo's family motto is Nemo me impune lacessit (barefacedly pinched from the Order of the Thistle). To crown it all, a friend of Edna's tells a rejected suitor who proposes to get a good enough education to spark her respect: "Do you suppose she could wed a mere walking encyclopaedia?"

The overwhelming pedantry of the writing style ceased to be a joke, however, when our authoress heroine makes a sermon on it:
"Will my readers [...] thank me for my high opinion of their culture, in assuming that it will be quite as plain to them as to me? If there should accidentally be an allusion to classical or scientific literature, which they do not understand at the first hasty, careless, novel-reading glance, will they inform themselves, and then appreciate my reason for employing it, and thank me for the hint; or will they attempt to ridicule my pedantry? When will they begin to suspect that what they may imagine sounds 'learned' in my writings, merely appears so to them because they have not climbed high enough to see how vast, how infinite is the sphere of human learning? No, no, dear reader, shivering with learning-phobia, I am not learned. You are only a little, a very little more ignorant."
I am, as I have said, the recipient of  a fairly average education, an education which I have learned would probably have looked a lot like ignorance to the learned folks of Augusta Evans's day. So I hope that I am not despising really first-rate education when I say that St Elmo is Too Much.

There is a wide gulf between using classical or scientific allusions to illustrate; and going out of one's way to stuff one's work with as much learning as the poor beast can bear. One is easy, natural, and illuminating; the other is forced, artificial, and obscures rather than reveals meaning. No really great author--I am trying to think of one--not Shakespeare, or Spenser, or Augustine, or Charlotte Bronte herself stuffed half so much puffery and pedantry into a book.

The author of St Elmo raises pedantry beyond foolishness into vice. It almost makes one wish that Purgatory existed, so that one could imagine Augusta Evans locked into a room for millenia with nothing but the starkest, barest, manliest Icelandic epics to read, until all the purple prose is wrung out of her.

Romance

Finally, let's talk about the novel's romantic plot. While I'm glad to give Augusta Evans a clean bill of health as far as feminism goes, there were one or two things to disagree with.

Edna, spurning the first of many unhappy suitors, says: "No woman should marry a man whose affection and society are not absolutely essential to her peace of mind and heart." Later on she alludes to "the sinful mockery of a marriage--for such I hold a loveless union." Now, I am all for marrying for love. But to say that marrying a man you don't love is a sin, or that a man should be absolutely essential to one before one agrees to marry him, is going too far. One has a duty to love the man one marries, and of course it's wise to begin by marrying a man one loves. However, the world is piled high with the witticisms of those who have found how rarely love survives the first few years of marriage. Edna's romanticism reduces marriage to emotion. Of course Augusta Evans would have been horrified to see it, but this kind of reasoning has led to no-fault divorce and the high-moral-ground reasoning that it would be wrong (wrong, I tell you!) to remain married to a man one has ceased to love. But marriage is a covenant, which does not depend on emotional infatuation, the terms of which demand love as a service and duty between the parties.

The other thing I found disturbing in the romance was the idea that woman's proper work is the reformation of man. This is if anything, the major theme of the whole novel, since it is the aim both of Edna's romance and of her writing. For a large part of the book she becomes the governess and companion of a spoilt little boy, whom she proceeds to wind around her little finger.
From that hour her influence over the boy strengthened so rapidly that before she had been a month in the house he yielded implicit obedience to her wishes, and could not bear for her to leave him, even for a moment. 
"I never look at you without trying to be a better boy," the child tells her. If I was a parent I would find this kind of influence over a child very disturbing, but the other unsettling implication is that in the same way Edna transforms the spoiled little cripple boy from a petulant brat into a saintly martyr, so she transforms the novel's hero St Elmo. While I think that many men could be improved by a good woman, I find it hard to have any respect for men who are simply clay in a woman's hands.

I think I know why. At one point Edna quotes a then-current poet on the subject of Woman:
His house she enters, there to be a light
Shining within when all without is night;
A guardian angel o'er his life presiding,
Doubling his pleasures and his cares dividing;
Winning him back, when mingling in the throng
From a vain world we love, Alas! too long,
To fireside happiness and hours of ease.
This is all very sweet, but so wrong. It tells men that their fruitful work, taking dominion and building culture, is a waste of time. That they should be swaddled up in front of the fire frittering away hours of ease. I can imagine few things more destructive to a man's self-respect or piety than to make him choose between them like this.

It would be a little frightening to meet a real-life Edna Earl, always busy improving and domesticating her men; she reminds one of the woman CS Lewis spoke of, at one time in verse:
Erected by her sorrowing brothers
In memory of Martha Clay.
Here lies one who lived for others;
Now she has peace. And so have they.
I have spent so much time discussing the shortcomings of this rather fun and silly novel that perhaps an explanation is needed. Make no doubt, St Elmo is a fun and silly novel, but it wears a veneer of self-importance that practically begs for deflation. Also be aware that this and other Victorian novels, though a delightful step away from the deranged perversions of our own times, comes liberally sprinkled with its own faults and failures. Enjoy them discerningly, with a healthy dose of humour.
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2 comments:

  1. I love your line about how you "get itchy when feminism crops up" in the books you're reading. It made me laugh and nod vigorously. Still, some of the feminist writers were really good, like Helen Hull whom I just reviewed on my blog this week. So I read their work because it's so good and resolve not to let the feminism get to me. Thanks for the review of St. Elmo! I'm eager to read it, despite its shortcomings, because I do love Victorian literature!

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  2. Oh, brilliant review. :) I loved every word; you nailed it all, and I'm glad I wasn't the only one who thought Edna's scholarliness a bit much. It was highly irritating, until I got to one really ridiculous conversation and burst out laughing, because no human 18-year-old could be that smart.

    Good evaluation of Edna's writing, too; that's much the opinion I got from it. I understand a strong love of writing; I have the disease myself. But when it's against all precautions of those around you, it teaches the audience that young people can decide for themselves without a mentor figure, which isn't at all the way God designed life.

    In the end, there's one character quality Edna lacks most glaringly, but she acts so virtuous that I never noticed it until now. I don't think you'd find a spark of humility in her. Stubborn virtue, yes, but from beginning to end of the book she never defers to anyone else's opinion when it differs from her own. And in the end, that's a very dangerous attitude to hold.

    Great fun, this book (though I still like Mr. Rochester better as a hero) but not perfect by any stretch.

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