Friday, April 29, 2016

Quick updates

Next week I want to review what must be my favourite read so far this year, Anthony Trollope's Last Chronicle of Barset. I also want to share some more about the research and writing process for Outremer, but for now, I'm just going to make some quick updates.


I started reading Umberto Eco's Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages last night, and just one chapter in I'm thoroughly fascinated by his explanation of the radical integration of the medieval worldview. Unlike the modernist worldview, the medievals didn't put things in hermetically sealed categories: they would not have thought of any strict division between the natural and the supernatural, for instance; rather, what we today think of as the natural was a cloak worn by the deeper metaphysical realities beneath. I already comprehended some of this. The point that really surprised me was Eco's observation that the medievals had two words referring to beauty - pulchrum and aptum or honestum - the beauty of form and the beauty of usefulness - and they were never quite able to distinguish between them. To them, moral goodness (aptum) was inextricably bound up with aesthetic goodness (pulchrum). 
This was encouraging because I've always felt very strongly that I cannot not evaluate books on grounds of truth and goodness as well as beauty. To refuse to evaluate a work of art on grounds of moral value is to dis-integrate faith from life, something that I refuse to do. It's good to know that the medievals, who made some of the most glorious art civilisation has ever produced, felt the same way.

I've been reading and thoroughly enjoying The Last Chronicle of Barset, which is about middle-aged Victorian clergymen, and I also enjoyed my most recent Crusader-history-read, The New Knighthood, which is a formidably detailed and scholarly account of the Templars. At the same time, I've also been reading Throne of Glass, a young-adult bestseller featuring assassins, a deathmatch, and an eldritch abomination that murders people by night. One of the above is a bland and boring snoozefest that makes me want to weep in frustration. Hint: It's not the Templar history.


Over summer, I realised that my youngest sister had never seen Star Wars and didn't know the first thing about it, so I sniffed out some DVDs and we watched the Original Trilogy together as a family. This was even more entertaining because my mother had never seen it either. I remain confirmed in my belief that The Empire Strikes Back is one of the best films I've ever seen--a film where almost everything went beautifully right. After that high-water-mark, Star Wars went sharply downhill, and after having seen The Force Awakens more recently, I can't say I think things look like getting much better. 

Count me among those who thought the new main character, Rey, was a flagrant Mary Sue. I was then surprised to find that this is a very controversial thing to say, and I think this is a great example of how pulchrum and aptum, orthodoxy and beauty, intersect; or, in other words, it's a great example of how an aggressively feminist story decision ("we'll make the whole story about a girl who needs a man, and the skills and strengths of a man, like a fish needs a bicycle") will actually destroy the impact and aesthetic quality of an artwork. As John C Wright demonstrates in his review of The Force Awakens, this was a terrible artistic decision to make for a film trying to feature an ensemble story.

Ever heard of Claude Goudimel? He was the Huguenot composer who pioneered syncopation and soprano melody in the sixteenth century while making large contributions to the Genevan Psalter. Some of Goudimel's arrangements and harmonisations are still familiar today--chances are that if you sing the psalms, you've come across tunes with names like Old Hundredth or Old Ninety-Fifth. These were tunes from the Genevan psalter, and once you get past Old Hundredth you'll find that they feature rich harmonies and rhythms so exciting that Elizabeth I apparently referred to them as "Geneva jigs". Brother Down's Old Paths New Feet album is a perennial favourite, translating these funky old tunes into the style of modern folk rock, but if you want to learn them in a worship-appropriate setting, I highly recommend Michael Owens's site, The Genevan Psalter, where you can find voice recordings, sheet music, and midi files.


I am now wrapping up the month's work on OUTREMER. Not counting January, this is my sixth consecutive month writing 50,000 words per month, which means I recently passed the 300,000-word mark (so, about as long as Middlemarch, and creeping up on Anna Karenina). I anticipate that it will take another 100,000 to get through the rest of the plot, which means another two months' work--but I don't plan to do that right away. Although I hate to take a moment away from a story that I continue to be enormously excited about, I need the rest. So in May, I'm going to take a break to rewrite Never Send to Know, my next fairytale novella, hopefully aiming for publication toward the end of the year. Which is also enormously exciting!

Also, I think I'm going to change the title, to Death Be Not Proud. Help me out, readers! Which one do you prefer?

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Rose-Garden Husband by Margaret Widdemer

I had a toughish week last week. Nothing particularly bad: just a frantic weekend leading to a week of feeling sleep-deprived and creatively drained at the same time that I needed to get about eleventy thousand things done. You know the kind.

At the time I didn't particularly feel in need of a literary confection since I'm reading Anthony Trollope's Last Chronicle of Barset and it's pretty much making my year. All the same, the amiable Ness Kingsley had recommended it, and it seemed like a sweet read, so I dashed off and downloaded Margaret Widdemer's 1915 novel The Rose-Garden Husband from Project Gutenberg.

Meet Phyllis Braithwaite! Orphaned and alone in the world, Phyllis enjoys her job working with children at the city library--but despite her cheerful outlook, she can't help knowing that she's lonely, overworked, and just one serious illness away from losing her only source of livelihood. After a chance meeting with a girl from her hometown, Phyllis wishes impulsively to have a wealthy husband and a rose-garden. Little does she expect to see her wish come true in the shape of a very peculiar job offer.

Wealthy Mrs Harrington knows she is dying, but worries that her son--invalided years ago in a terrible motoring accident--won't be taken care of when she's gone. Accordingly, she asks Phyllis to marry him and nurse him after her death. Phyllis agrees because she knows she needs the rest and the money. But she never expects to fall right into a sweet old-fashioned romance with her new patient.

Naturally, this book is kind of low on realism, from the preposterous premise to the oh-so-perfect ending, and the plot and themes have the substance of fairy floss. It is a vintage romance, after all, and I knew what I was getting into. That said, I can't begin to tell you what a delightful time I had reading it. It was half-an-hour curled up in a patch of winter sunshine. It was a very small kitten having a nap on your lap. It was a nice hot cup of tea with a dash of honey.

It was a few brief moments of grace in the middle of a hard and frantic week.

Part of the book's appeal was its very wholesome tone. Margaret Widdemer's story is uncomplicated and light, but it had a right-way-up view of the world. I liked how honest the story was about how hard it is to have a life when you're working fulltime, and how unsatisfying that can be--for a domestically-inclined woman especially.

Then, part of the book's appeal was simply the romantic wish-fulfilment. And no matter how wholesome they might be, I've never been a big consumer of fluffy romance novels. I think of them as the confections of a literary diet, and try to balance them out with a steady diet of nutritious books, non-fiction as well as fiction. And if I'd read The Rose-Garden Husband any other week of the year, you probably wouldn't be hearing about it today. But here's the thing.

Hard work is an important part of the Christian life. But so is rest and celebration. You can work yourself too hard. You can heap too much on your plate. You can fail to take Sabbaths. You can develop a soul so ascetic and high-minded and austere that you lose all contact with the humility of grace.

To all things there is a season. Even, every now and then, a season for fluffy comfort reads.

Find The Rose-Garden Husband at Amazon, The Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Mary Marston by George MacDonald

George MacDonald was a staple of my childhood and teens. I read his fantasies for children with much enjoyment, and we also collected a number of the Bethany House editions of his adult novels, of which my favourites were The Fisherman's Lady and its sequel, The Marquis' Secret. I didn't realise until later that these editions had been abridged from their originals, and a few years ago the wonderful Margaret (of 3margarets) actually sent me copies of Sir Gibbie (the original of The Baronet's Song) and Mary Marston (edited to become A Daughter's Devotion). I haven't dug into them since I received them, but they've been a comforting presence on my shelf, waiting for me to dip in (though I revisited Phantastes, The Princess and the Goblin, and The Lost Princess first). What actually gave me the push to start Mary Marston was the fact that I'd been reading a number of second-rate contemporary bestsellers and felt the need for a palate cleanser.

So I came to this book looking for a bit of spiritual nourishment, a tale (like Austen's or Trollope's) that knew right from wrong, in which the sin or virtue of everyday actions determines the course of lives and fortunes. I have to admit, however, that I approached the book with some trepidation. After all, I'd never read any of George MacDonald's unedited adult fiction! What if it was extremely dense and intimidating?

No, on hindsight I can't believe I thought that either. As a friend remarked on Goodreads, "anyone who can read unabridged Sir Walter Scott will laugh their way through an unabridged MacDonald." And I can certainly bear out the truth of that. Mary Marston was not a sensational work of gothic splendour (as I remember The Fisherman's Lady--original title Malcolm--being), but it had an undeniable quiet suspense sustained throughout its nearly 500 pages. 

The plot follows the fortunes of several different characters. Our heroine, of course, is Mary Marston, a shop-girl in a draper's shop in the little town of Testbridge, and the plot follows her connections with two families of the local gentry. At Thornwick, Mary's best friend Letty, a poor cousin of the proud and dignified Geoffrey Wardour, is being pursued by local good-for-nothing Tom Helmer, unaware that Geoffrey is in love with her. At Durnmelling, the equally haughty Hesper Mortimer, facing a marriage of convenience with a man she detests, turns for help to her mysterious and scheming cousin Sepia Yolland. After her father dies, Mary sees a chance of doing good both to Letty and to Hesper, and becomes inextricably entwined in their lives.

The plot wanders through too many twists and turns to further explain, although I can assure you that there are tragic lovers, sensational crimes, and fainting-fits involved. There's even a goodish bit of humour: at one stage, the humble and easygoing Mary arrives to be a sort of companion in a wealthy house while the lady of the house is away, and is mistaken for a new maid by the socially self-conscious servants, and put firmly into the pecking-order (right at the bottom) before it's discovered that she is a personal friend of the lady of the house. It's oddly satisfying to read, and the satire of social rank loses nothing by taking place not in high society but in the servant's hall.

In fact, if the book has an overarching theme, it would be the theme of nobility and rank. Mary Marston is basically a tract on not thinking higher of oneself than one ought: passionately, MacDonald argues that Christian virtue and humility, not money or birth, defines gentility. Many of the book's characters, gentle or common, yearn to better their standing in life while simultaneously despising and belitting those below them. Meanwhile Mary herself, the humble shop-girl, is the only real lady among the lot of them.

Mary is a pretty static character throughout the book, as befits the yardstick of Christian gentility, but she has enough faults and quirks not to become tiresome. Meanwhile, MacDonald breaks another common rule of storytelling by constantly preaching to the reader about his characters and their shortcomings. I assume that these segments are the ones edited out in the Bethany House editions, but if so, I can't bring myself to thank them. I think I once read a quote from CS Lewis explaining that nobody does preachiness half so well as MacDonald, and after reading Mary Marston, I have to agree with him. MacDonald's commentary on his characters and their actions are frequent, but I never found them dull or frustrating; I thought they enhanced the story.

Much is made of George MacDonald's Universalism these days, real or supposed, and so I should make a quick note that I'm not a MacDonald expert myself; but a friend of mine who is says that there's little evidence he wholeheartedly espoused it; rather, he once said he found it hard to believe that God would send anyone to hell, but was willing to accept that he could be wrong, and that there was some wonderful aspect of this plan that he (MacDonald) was failing to grasp. In any case, often an author's perspective will change over the course of years: certainly, in Mary Marston, there's repeated discussion of hell and eternal punishment.

What I was uncomfortable with, however, was a not-so-subtle critique of mainline churches and any brand of Christianity that insists on doctrine or law-keeping. While the character embodying this kind of view is indefensibly--but not inconceivably--legalistic, I would have liked a more positive depiction of church life and ministry, or reliance on the Word, to balance this out.

All this aside, I found this book a profoundly satisfying and refreshing read. It was hard to put down, and I'm very much looking forward to dipping into some more of MacDonald's non-fantasy adult fiction!

Find Mary Marston on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Chronicles of the Crusades by Joinville and Villehardouin

It took a significant exertion of willpower to commit to writing OUTREMER. The main reason for this was the truly daunting quantity of research I knew I needed to do, since I'd never before studied the Crusades in any depth. As it turns out, while there was definitely a hump to get over--a time when I felt I was drowning in facts and figures--I've actually begun to enjoy myself hugely.

And when you're having to read someone as charming and informative as John de Joinville, well, difficulty doesn't enter into it.

Chronicles of the Crusades is a Penguin Classics book collecting two medieval chronicles. The first is Geoffroy de Villehardouin's Conquest of Constantinople, a major source on the disastrous Fourth Crusade that, despite the best of intentions, went badly astray and wound up sacking Constantinople in 1204. The second is John de Joinville's Life of Saint Louis, which takes us on the Seventh Crusade in 1248 under Louis IX. Though neither of these are events I cover in my novel, I was in the market for details on thirteenth-century Outremer, and this book had been sitting on our shelves for years. I dug in.

The Conquest of Constantinople

Geoffroy de Villehardouin's account of the Fourth Crusade is a rather weird read, but that's to be expected--the Fourth Crusade was a rather weird affair. (So, as a matter of fact, was the Sixth). I don't know if you're familiar with the history, but it's a tragic monument to the shortsightedness of well-meaning people. The expedition's original destination was Egypt; and the organisers sent their envoys to Venice to order a large fleet to take the crusaders there. One of these envoys--and therefore one of the men indirectly responsible for the whole fiasco--was Villehardouin himself. When the date came for the crusaders to set out from Venice, it was found that the envoys had significantly overestimated their expected numbers: there were not enough men to fill the fleet, nor enough money to pay for it. After a couple of other attempts to make up the money, the son of a deposed Byzantine emperor (no, really!) appeared and offered the crusaders funds beyond their wildest dreams, as well as help in their mission, if they would help him overthrow his evil uncle and restore him to his father's throne. With no other options, the crusaders and the Venetians went off to Constantinople and restored the deposed emperor.

At which stage the young prince discovered that a) there wasn't enough money in the city to pay what he'd promised to the Crusaders, and b) that his people were pretty mad at him for making such wild promises. When the Greeks revolted and chose a new emperor, who promptly had the optimistic prince executed, the crusade felt they had no choice but to attack the city (its ruler having seized it by treachery) and recover the funds promised them from its ghastly, smoking ruins. Having done so, they elected one of themselves emperor and thus began a precarious 60-year Frankish regime in Byzantium.

The sack of Byzantium is commonly referred to in school-level textbooks as the crowning absurdity of the Crusades. To study it in a little more detail is to come to appreciate the fact that the Fourth Crusade was only gradually derailed from its nobler objectives, that this did not happen without strong dissent from many participants and critics (at one stage the entire expedition was excommunicated by the same Pope who called it; so--) and that it's actually really difficult to pinpoint any single person as a villain. At the same time, the Fourth Crusade basically destroyed a city of staggering antiquity and value, and its sack was accompanied by unspeakable atrocities and blasphemies. Without the Fourth Crusade, Byzantium might have lasted hundreds of years longer than it did; it's possible that Hagia Sophia might still be a Christian church today.

Given this extremely complicated historical context, I was fascinated to see what Villehardouin would say about the expedition of which he was such a prominent member. I ended up even more confused about the Fourth Crusade than I had been. How did Enrico Dandolo, the possibly scheming Doge of Venice, so firmly win the respect of a man like Villehardouin? Was the sudden influx of battle-hardened Frankish warriors actually a good thing for an empire being viciously attacked by Hungarians?

But most of all, I was intrigued by Villehardouin himself.

Villehardouin's most challenging trait is his steady, unquestioning--and by no means uninformed or unreasonable--belief that the actions of the crusade were just. That was what made the book such a weird experience for me: did he never wonder if they were wrong? I think they were, but I have the benefit of 800 years' worth of hindsight. As a historian, he is detached, terse, and sparse in his details; though he takes care to let us know where he approves or disapproves of people. And he is a very difficult man to disrespect: his sober tone, his matter-of-fact voice, and his apparent bravery and experience as a soldier (he began life as the marshal of Champagne, and ended it as the marshal of the Frankish-ruled Empire) makes him worth taking seriously. This is not the propaganda of a romanticist, but the history of a soldier.

I came away from Villehardouin with more questions than answers. But it would have been hard to find a more radically different personality than the biographer of Louis IX.

The Life of Saint Louis

John of Joinville shares little in common with Villehardouin beyond noble rank and physical courage. Turning the page to his chronicle was like being buttonholed by a garrulous but witty conversationalist. In theory, Joinville wants to give you an inspiring and edifying hagiography of a man he clearly knew, loved, and deeply revered--but he keeps getting sidetracked, mostly with artlessly self-satisfied reminiscences of that time he sent the Empress of Byzantium a new dress when she hadn't a thing else to wear, so that all the other nobles said he'd outdone them in courtesy, or that time he bravely leapt from his ship into the surf to attack an Egyptian beach, or that time King Louis took his advice instead of everyone else's, or the advice he used to give to young knights, or the way he defended the bridge near Damietta, or the pranks played on him in camp.
I must tell you here of some amusing tricks the Comte d'Eu played on us. I had made a sort of house for myself in which my knights and I used to eat, sitting so as to get the light from the door, which, as it happened, faced the Comte d'Eu's quarters. The count, who was a very ingenious fellow, had rigged up a miniature ballistic machine with which he could throw stones into my tent. He would watch us as we were having our meal, adjust his machine to suit the length of our table, and then let fly at us, breaking our pots and glasses.
Joinville, in other words, is immense fun to read, and since he constantly runs off on tangents and anecdotes, he provides a wealth of invaluable historical detail to the starving novelist (squirrel fur, he sent the Empress).

While it deals with various aspects of Louis IX's rule at home, the bulk of Joinville's book is taken up by his eyewitness account of the Seventh Crusade. Following the loss of Jerusalem to Saladin in 1187, Christendom had been galvanised into action in the Third Crusade, which was dominated by the personality of Richard I of England. Richard's participation in the Third Crusade passed into legend, not just in England but also in Outremer itself. One of the greatest generals of his age (it took some skill to stop Saladin), Richard had started a march to recover Jerusalem, but turned back in sorrow when he realised the inland city could not practically be defended from the Franks' limited holdings on the coast. Like Jerusalem's King Amalric thirty years before him, Richard realised that the holy city would only be secure once Egypt was in Christian hands.

From that time on it was an axiom of crusading that you focused on Egypt. Egypt had been the intended destination of the Fourth Crusade, and the theatre of the Fifth. The Sixth wasn't much, succeeding in little more than sparking off a civil war between the Holy Roman Emperor and a faction of Outremer noblemen. The Seventh tried again, but like the Fifth, ultimately fell afoul of the Nile's unpredictable habit of playing with the landscape. It ended with the ignominious capture of the whole Christian army; nevertheless, its leader, Saint Louis, was so revered both as a knight and as a Christian that when he had arranged his ransom and arrived in Acre, he was able to remain for several years, fortifying various strongholds and more or less ruling Outremer by simple merit.

All of this history is brought to life in Joinville's book. Though he never misses an opportunity to describe his own feats of arms, Joinville is no more a romantic or a propagandist than Villehardouin. He is telling war stories, and he has a raconteur's taste for humour and drama, but he emerges from his own stories as a very ordinary man, anxious to please, devout when it occurs to him, and no more immune to fear than he is to conceit: as witness this episode from the time of his captivity by the Saracens:
A good thirty of the Saracens now boarded our ship, with drawn swords in their hands, and Danish axes hanging at their necks. I asked Baudouin d'Ibelin, who was well acquainted with their language, what these men were saying. He told me they were saying that they had come to cut off our heads. At once a great number of people crowded round to confess their sins to a monk of the Holy Trinity...

So I crossed myself, and as I knelt at the feet of one of the Saracens who was holding a Danish axe such as carpenters use, I said to myself 'thus Saint Agnes died.' Guy d'Ibelin, Constable of Cyprus, knelt down beside me, and confessed himself to me. 'I absolve you,' I said to him, 'with such power as God has granted me.' However, when I rose to my feet, I could not remember a word of what he had told me.
The whole period of the crusaders' captivity was intensely interesting to me. Actually, one of the entertaining things about the Crusades as a whole was how shocked the Saracens always were by the freedom and authority enjoyed by Frankish women. There's a minor example of this when the Saracens come to ask King Louis how much he will pay for his ransom:
The king had replied that if the sultan was willing to accept a reasonable sum he would send and advise the queen to pay that amount for their ransom. 'How is it,' they had asked, 'that you won't tell us definitely whether you'll do this?' The king had answered that he did not know whether or not the queen would consent, since, as his consort, she was mistress of her actions.
It's a common misconception these days that rights for women sprang fully-formed from Gloria Steinem's forehead sometime in the 1960s, and it's equally commonly assumed that the entire period of world history up till then had Victorian-style gender roles or worse. This results in popular stories set in the medieval era which assume noblewomen had nothing to do with their lives but embroider. I happen to believe textile work is highly underrated, but the fact is that when medieval noblewomen weren't creating cultural masterpieces with their needles, they were usually enjoying significant privileges and discharging significant responsibilities, which could include but were not limited to diplomacy, building projects, and siege warfare.

All this aside, have I mentioned yet what fun Joinville's chronicle is to read? One almost wonders why anyone bothers with modern history books when the originals are so much more interesting--and give you so much better an idea of the people and personalities of the times. Original sources are undoubtedly the most colourful, helpful, and entertaining resources I use; and Chronicles of the Crusades was a favourite.

 Find Chronicles of the Crusades on Amazon or the Book Depository. I read the translation by MRB Shaw.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Happy Poetry Month!

First of all: I'm a bit late letting you know about this, but the fact is that over on Instagram (and Twitter) this month I'm sharing a favourite commonplace book quote every day. You're warmly welcomed to participate as well! Here's the challenge I made, and be sure to tag your contributions with #commonplacebookchallenge so I can see it!

In other news, a lovely blog called The Edge of the Precipice is hosting a celebration for National Poetry Month, which happens to be April. This poetry tag is part of that party, and because I love poetry, I'm going to spend some time filling it out.

What are some poems you like?
As regular readers of this blog know, I love poems of almost every description. I particularly love a good epic poem: Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered, Beowulf, and The Song of Roland are among my favourite epics.

If you want just one excellent non-epic recommendation, I recently made the acquaintance of Milton's Hymn on the Morning of Christ's Nativity and it was unbelievably good.

What are some poems you dislike?
I don't like Wordsworth's daffodil poem and poems of that sort generally (so, I'm not a huge fan of the Romantics. I know!). I find TS Eliot's and other people's free verse very difficult to like. And if I'm never asked to read another piece of inspirational doggerel in public it'll be too soon.

Are there any poets whose work you especially enjoy? If so, who are they?

My favourite poets are undeniably GK Chesterton, James McAuley, and Christina Rossetti. I also enjoy Tolkien's poetry, CS Lewis's poetry, and Dorothy Sayers's poetry.

Do you write poetry?
I've been known to! (See some of my older efforts here and here). Normally I don't, unless inspiration strikes. The last bit of poetry I wrote was a stanza for Pendragon's Heir (at the end of chapter 6), where inspiration was very much lacking. I used GK Chesterton's The Crusader Returns from Captivity as a template for the scheme of rhythm, rhyme, and alliteration; and beat the thing till it sort-of fit.

Have you ever memorized a poem? 

 Yes--GK Chesterton's The Last Hero was definitely one, though there have been others. Most recently, James McAuley's almost haiku-like Late Winter is one I delight to remember.

Do you prefer poetry that rhymes and had a strict meter, or free verse?  Or do you like both?

Generally I much prefer rhyming or blank verse to free verse, especially as the latter tends to be either bad or comprehensible only after great effort. But I did once stumble across a couple of poems by a woman named Vera Pavlova, which I loved:
I am in love, hence free to live
by heart, to improvise caresses.
A soul is light when full,
heavy when vacuous.
My soul is light. She is not afraid
to dance the agony alone,
for I was born wearing your shirt,
will come from the dead with that shirt on.
Do you have any particular poetry movements you're fond of? (Beat poets, Romanticism, Fireside poets, etc?)
I've usually enjoyed the Metaphysical Poets (John Donne, George Herbert, Andrew Marvell), and it's a safe bet that if any of the Inklings or their associates or forefathers wrote poetry, I love it.

What about you? Who are your favourite poets? Who've I missed?

Friday, April 1, 2016

For the Term of His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke

I have a vague childhood memory of trying to read For the Term of His Natural Life. First I read the Prologue. Then I read the Epilogue. Then I decided the rest of it would have to be just too depressing to bother with, and the thought didn't cross my mind again till very recently, when a fellow writer asked me to recommend some resources on Australian history. Since For the Term of His Natural Life is the classic Australian convict novel, I found myself recommending it--and then becoming curious about reading it myself, particularly since Wikipedia informed me it was the foundational work of a small genre known as Tasmanian Gothic.

And I do like a good gothic novel. So For the Term of His Natural Life went on my list, and I recently got around to reading it.
"So, madam," said Sir Richard, in the high-strung accents which in cries of great mental agony are common to the most self-restrained of us, "you have been for twenty years a living lie!"
Thus For the Term of His Natural Life begins: with a scene of high Victorian melodramatic splendour, in which Lady Devine confesses that her son is illegitimate. Outraged, nouveau riche shipping magnate Sir Richard cuts the young man off without a shilling and throws him out of the house, vowing to expose his mother's shameful past if young Richard dares to show his face again. Thereupon, Sir Richard storms off to alter his will in favour of his nephew Maurice Frere, but drops dead of a stroke, leaving young Richard the unchallenged heir to all his fortunes. But too late! Young Richard, storming from the house, has already stumbled across the murdered corpse of his real father, Lord Somebody-or-Other, just in time to be taken up by the police and transported to Australia under the name of Rufus Dawes, since he dare not claim his real name for fear of seeing his mother's name dragged through the dirt.

While Rufus Dawes is locked belowdecks, a motley supporting cast mingle abovedecks: humane Captain Vickers, going to take up a post as governor at the feared penal colony at Macquarie Harbour on Tasmania's barren West Coast; his golden-haired child Sylvia; Sarah Purfoy, a glamorous lady's-maid with a dark secret; John Rex, a wily convict with dreams of freedom; and Maurice Frere, who having lost his claim to the Devine fortune, is determined to claw his way into his own brutal ascendancy in the prison colonies of Australia.

That's where this sensational tale begins, but it would be difficult to give you any more of an idea of it's progression, except to say that it ends twenty maddening and melodramatic years later among roughly the same characters, and only once we're well and truly ready for someone to put poor Rufus Dawes finally out of his misery.

The book was written as a newspaper serial (like many others of its time), which, for this story, seems to mean that plot is optional. In its finished state, it comes in four Books rather like loosely-linked novellas, but the ending is weak and disappointing given what all the characters are forced to suffer. Then there are the other shortcomings. Marcus Clarke states in his foreword that instead of just focusing on the beginning or the end of a prison term, his book wants to examine the whole course of one; but prison life just isn't very interesting, and we never do really get to spend much time with Rufus Dawes, or get to know him as a character; the supporting cast gets much more of the spotlight. Finally, as befits a good gothic novel, Clarke sets up a whole lot of deliciously melodramatic situations--but without ever quite following through with a good dramatic payoff. This was what kept me reading (smouldering Byronic hero! tormented, yet evil villain! innocent, but fatally amnesiac heroine! Miscarriages of justice! Mutiny! Maroonings! More miscarriages of justice! Escapes! Floggings! Forbidden love! Storms at sea!)--but sadly, despite Clarke's best efforts, too much of his plot goes out with a fizzle and not with a bang: when the whole book keeps us reading because we want to know what will happen when the heroine finally regains her memory, it's disappointing to have it happen so late, with so little result.

That said, I was originally quite skeptical about how well the gothic genre would work in a fairly young country like Australia, that has so little legend woven around it. Clarke did a really good job of weaving the correct atmosphere, however: part of it is the heavy melodrama of the plot and characters, but he gets excellent mileage out of the gloomy and rugged landscape in which his story takes place. In one chapter, it even veers over into something pretty close to horror--Book III, Chapter 27, must be the most disturbing thing I've ever read in a Victorian novel.

Despite its sensationalist tendencies, For the Term of His Natural Life takes itself pretty seriously as a work of social criticism. When it was published in 1874, Port Arthur, Australia's most notorious penal colony, was still in operation, and Clarke is clearly writing to attack what he saw as current evils. By the same token, a surprising number of the characters and incidents in the book are fictionalised versions of actual occurrences--from mutinies onboard convict ships to cannibal escapees and brutal prison wardens. Its depiction of convict life as unremittingly bleak and violent, backed up by a heartless and powerless form of Christianity that only hardens the men it preaches to, is passionate--and seems to have been both reasonably accurate, and pretty effective in shaping the national imagination.

Thematically, I found myself confused about Clarke's views on religion. There are two clergyman characters, one a totally unsympathetic butt of satire and the other a thoroughly confused individual (angst! smoulder!) apparently teetering on the brink of atheism--and yet by the ending, though he's fallen himself, he forms the stepping-stone upon which other characters rise into something like true nobility. Clarke's message is not totally dire: he ends on a note of hope, a moment of grace in the midst of a whole lot of pain. Whether that is enough to redeem the tragic darkness (to say nothing of intermittent silliness) of the rest of the plot is another question.

I should also add that I was surprised to find one of the characters stating that "the woman who possesses masculine force of intellect is abnormal." This is the kind of thing they tell us those benighted Victorians believed, but this was the first time I've seen an actual Victorian say it. It's an isolated instance in the book, and it's said by a very morally grey character concerning another very morally grey character without a hint of authorial commentary, so I haven't a clue whether Clarke actually meant it or not.

In the end, For the Term of His Natural Life was an uneven and frustrating read which nevertheless kept me hooked. It's only about halfway to being a decent gothic melodrama--but it's a must-read if you're interested in Australian literature or convict history.

Find For the Term of His Natural Life on Amazon, The Book Depository, the University of Adelaide or Librivox.


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