Tag Archives: 19th century British literature

Cometh Up As a Flower Part II

Rhoda Broughton’s book Cometh Up As a Flower was much more romantic than I expected, but nonetheless, parts of it were wonderful. Nell Le Strange, the narrator of this ultimately tragic novel makes an interesting yet at times, frustrating, heroine. Pressured by her sister, and with her family in desperate circumstances, she bows to convention, and marries a man she doesn’t love. She compares herself on her wedding day to “the poor lamb [whose] throat was about to be cut” and “the female martyr.

Then comes one of Broughton’s evocative passages on the day of Nell’s wedding:

The air is full of snow; flakes are sailing crookedly down to join the other flakes lying already on tree, and hedgerow, and field. There seems no horizon to-day, no definite boundary to the prospect–sky and earth are mixed and jumbled up together; it is freezing and thawing, freezing and thawing every five minutes.

Broughton doesn’t make Nell’s husband a villain; he’s a nice man, but nonetheless, the implications of sex with a man Nell doesn’t love are there. At one point she admits that she “wished he would transfer his amities to some other person, even if it were the cook.” Shockingly frank for its day, I’d think, and certainly Margaret Oliphant found the book shocking when she exclaimed that “Nell’s ‘flippancy … revolts the reader'” (from the intro by Fionn O’Toole).

In one scene, prior to Nell’s marriage, the butcher arrives to try to collect on a long unpaid bill which has amassed to thirty-five pounds, five shillings and 4 1/2 pence. One site calculates that in today’s money that would be a bill of around 2,725 pounds!

Nell is ruminating on the family’s poverty when there’s a knock at the door. She knows that it must be the cook/housekeeper “come with one fell object, namely, to get money for some of the numerous tradesmen who were kind enough to throng our doors.” The sympathy which had been gathering for Nell vanished with this scene for we see that she expects good and services to continue even though those who provide them go unpaid. She still complains that the butcher has the gall to send poor cuts of meat when really she’s lucky he’s sending anything at all.

“I wish he and his bill were at Jericho.” responded I, tartly.

“He says that this is the ninth time he has brought it in, and he wants to have it paid.

“Want must be his master,” said I briefly.

“But he says he must have it paid; that he’s got a very ‘eavy engagement to meet next week, and he cannot do without the money.”

“They always say that,” replied I, surveying ruefully a yawning chasm in the heel of my stocking.

“Indeed, ‘m, I think they do; but , if you please, what am I to tell him? he’s waiting.”

“Tell him that I shall be most happy to pay his bill if he’ll only show me how; that I cannot coin money; and I haven’t a farthing in the world, except the crooked sixpence on my chain, which he is most welcome to, if he likes to take it.”

Nell sees the butcher’s claim as a YP not a MP. Who remembers that wonderful scene at the recording studio in the film  Boogie Nights? The characters Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) and Reed (John C. Reilly) decide to become rock stars (hey, why not?) and make demo tapes at a recording studio. But they don’t have the money to pay the studio’s owner and tell him that they have to have the tapes first and then they can pay him later when they become rich and famous. Makes sense to them. But the studio owner says, in one of the great lines in the history of cinema, that the lack of money is a “YP not a MP.” But back to Nell … that’s one of her problems, she doesn’t grasp the realties of life: she lives in poverty with her father and sister but still expects food to miraculously land on her doorstep. It’s not the butcher’s problem–it’s her problem. Her options are running out, and then her sister Dolly fiendishly intervenes in Nell’s fate…

Boogie Nights

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Cometh Up As a Flower by Rhoda Broughton Part I

When I began Rhoda Broughton’s novel Cometh Up As a Flower, I thought I’d end up loving it. I didn’t, as it turns out, I only liked it. Parts of it were wonderful, but parts of it were too romantic, too wilty for my tastes. But those complaints aside, while Cometh Up As a Flower left me more appreciative than ever of M.E. Braddon’s masterful plotting skills, Broughton’s book does have a lot going for it.  The book opens very strongly indeed with our tragic heroine, Nell Le Strange, the youngest daughter of an impoverished, once wealthy, noble family sitting alone in the local churchyard:

Ours was a churchyard that it would have been a real luxury to be buried in. It inspired one with no horrible, hardly even melancholy ideas. One never thought of skulls or cross-bones, or greedy worms, while looking at those turfy mounds sloping so softly; those mounds that the westering sun always gave his last good-night kiss to before he went to bed behind the craggy purple hill. Were one really dead, stowed away in one’s appointed oak box, it would concern one, no doubt, not a whit whether one were huddled with other oak boxes into some ghastly pit, among the dark benettled grass of some city charnel, or laid down reverently in the fragrant earth, shadowed by some peaceable little gray church tower, such as ours was. But while one is yet alive and one’s oak box is as yet not a box at all, but the trunk of some branchy tree, one cannot realize this. Unconsciously we fancy that we shall smell the odorous mignonette and carnations that are reveling in the summer sunshine above our heads, that we shall hear the birds preaching our funeral sermons, and singing their own epithalamiums when spring comes back, that we shall shiver in the snow, and be chilled by the wintry rains.

A flawed, yet still beautiful passage (too many ‘ones’–read this quote using first person and it’s much better) that gives a sense of the novel’s main character, Nell. I immediately liked her, but at the same time knew that she was destined, with all that romanticism, for some painful lessons. Nell is the youngest of two daughters who live with their widowed father. Dolly, the eldest sister, the much more conventional of the two, was engaged to be married to a wealthy young man who inconveniently died right before the wedding. The marriage would have solved some of the family’s problems, but now Dolly’s value on the marriage market isn’t so great:

“life in an old barrack, with no present income, and with no future prospects, hardly seems to me a theme for Hallelujah; for weeping and gnashing of teeth rather.”

“I would not gnash my teeth if I were you, Dolly!” say I, with sarcasm, which is a weapon I but seldom use, as it mostly cuts my own fingers when I lay hold of it, “or you may break them, and that would seriously diminish your prospects in the market.”

“Market, indeed!” echoes Dolly, interrupting herself in the perusal of a toilette de promenade. “This little pig does not go to market, and very sorry she is for it too, she might have all her teeth drawn and knocked out, or gnashed out, and nobody would be the wiser. Alas! alas! there are no pig dealers in this Sahara.”

A very bold passage for its times, and one which reveals that Dolly is all too aware of a woman’s fate should she remain unmarried.

cometh up as a flowerNell falls in love with a man who can’t salvage the family fortunes, and so she finds herself marrying a man she doesn’t love. She’s so young, so full of life, we can almost hear the joy being squeezed out of her as she’s married off feeling only “huge loathing” and “infinite despair.” The skullduggery in the plot seems relatively tame after other Sensation novels I’ve read, and the crime involved is a moral crime more than anything else. While in Lady Audley’s Secret, M. E. Braddon creates a pathological female who will do whatever is necessary to get ahead, the wicked woman here is Nell’s sister, Dolly, who in many ways, at least externally, embodies the Victorian ideal woman.

The intro to my Pocket Classics edition, written by Fionn O’Toole acknowledges that the novel, written in 1862-3 and finally published anonymously in 1867 is “sentimental and melodramatic in parts.” Cometh Up As a Flower, a best seller in its day, tackles sexual attraction, a loveless marriage, and strongly critical of a woman’s choices, “strip[s] away the facades and veneers of a respectable woman’s life and mock the society in which she is trapped.”

Rhoda Broughton, the niece of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu enjoyed a long writing career, but when Broughton died in 1920, her popularity was in decline. Born in Wales in 1840, Rhoda Broughton’s first novel Not Wisely But Too Well was serialized in Le Fanu’s Dublin University magazine, and while Broughton is categorized as a Sensation author, publisher Victorian Secrets argues that her work is “risqué rather than sensational.” Cometh Up As a Flower is an entirely different animal from other Sensation novels I’ve read so far. While the Sensation novel owed a debt to both the Gothic and the Romantic, Cometh Up As a Flower seems to have grown from the latter.

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Aurora Floyd by M. E Braddon Part II

Continuing from part I

Talbot Bulstrode is looking for a suitable wife who’ll provide him with heirs “who should do honour to the name of Bulstrode.” He has a vision of the ‘ideal’ woman, but so far no one has met his impossible expectations. Then he meets Aurora Floyd, the only daughter of a wealthy banker. At first he’s struck by her beauty:

A divinity! imperiously beautiful in white and scarlet, painfully dazzling to look upon, intoxicatingly brilliant to behold. Captain Bulstrode had served in India, and had once tasted a horrible spirit called bang, which made men who drank it half mad; and he could not help fancying that the beauty of this woman was like the strength of that alcoholic preparation; barbarous, intoxicating, dangerous and maddening.

but then she opens her mouth…

Good heavens! what a horrible woman,” is the stuffy Talbot Bulstrode’s response to the first words Aurora Floyd speaks. Up to the point she asked the question, “Do you know if Thunderbolt won the leger?” Bulstrode had viewed Aurora as a “Cleopatra in crinoline.” That first impression is rapidly abandoned as Aurora launches into a discussion of horse-racing:

She looked at him rather contemptuously. ‘Cheops wasn’t much,’ she said: ‘he won the Liverpool Autumn Cup in Blink Bonny’s year, but most people said it was a fluke.’

Talbot Bulstrode shuddered afresh; but a feeling of pity mingled with his horror. ‘If I had a sister,’ he thought, ‘I would get her to talk to this miserable girl, and bring her to a sense of her iniquity.’

Once Bulstrode reveals that he knows nothing about horse-racing, the brief conversation is over. Aurora looks bored and moves on. Bulstrode is stunned; part of his reaction stems from Aurora’s inappropriate conversation which revealed a blatant “taste for horseflesh,” but there’s no small amount of ego involved here. Aurora didn’t flirt or simper; in fact she seemed disinterested in the Bulstrode name and fortune, and so begins Bulstrode’s fascination with Aurora. She’s far from his “ideal,” but pride is the key to Bulstrode’s character, so he’s spurred on by Aurora’s lack on interest.

Talbot Bulstrode’s ideal woman was some gentle and feminine creature crowned with an aureole of pale auburn hair; some timid soul with downcast eyes, fringed with gold-tinted lashes; some shrinking being, as pale and prim as the mediaeval saints in his pre-Raphaelite engravings, spotless as her own white robes, excelling in all womanly graces and accomplishments, but only exhibiting them in the narrow circle of a home.

Bulstrode’s ideal woman exists: she’s Aurora’s gentle cousin Lucy, but Bulstrode hardly notices Lucy; he’s much more interested in the “goddess,” Aurora. Lucy, who’s naturally retiring anyway, sinks into the background whenever her glamorous cousin is in the room. From the moment Aurora shows complete disinterest in Bulstrode, his  fascination begins, and when Aurora and Lucy travel to Brighton with Mr Floyd to enjoy the sea air, guess who shows up? Yes, Bulstrode, but soon there’s a rival on the scene; a good humoured Yorkshireman, John Mellish.

This is a tale of blackmail, bigamy (the horror!), and murder. I’m not going to give away much more of the plot as to do so would spoil the fun. Secrets from Aurora’s past emerge, in typical Braddon fashion, but there’s a lot here apart from scandal. Braddon also takes a subtle look at love through her four main characters: John Mellish, Talbot Bulstrode (the two men are friends) and Aurora and her gentler cousin, Lucy. Just as you expect the novel to go in one direction, Braddon introduces some complications for her lovers while exploring the idea that we are all too-often attracted to people who are unsuitable for our natures.

Braddon puts some distance between herself and her main character, Aurora. Initially our heroine is not particularly likeable, but this image melts and she becomes more sympathetic as the novel continues. She’s an ardent animal lover, even taking a horse whip to a man (a servant, naturally) who’s cruel to her elderly, crippled Newfoundland (which seems to be Braddon’s breed of choice). We know there’s some dark secret in Aurora’s past gnawing away at her daily. We also know that the secret is somehow connected to her life in Paris, and we also know, because Braddon laces the novel with dire warnings, platitudes, and some glorious, highly dramatic breast-beating, that this dark secret will OUT.

But Braddon is a trickster of the first order. She shamelessly pinched the idea for The Doctors’ Wife from Flaubert giving the excuse: “The idea of The Doctor’s Wife is founded on ‘Madame Bovary,’ the style of which struck me immensely in spite of its hideous immorality.” Blatant marketing there, and I don’t believe for a moment that Braddon thought Madame Bovary was immoral at all. She knew a good idea when she saw it and simply capitalized on it. An example of Braddon’s trickery (well there are loads of examples in the plot) also occurs in the presentation of Bulstrode’s Ideal. Bulstrode’s Ideal woman is clearly not the sort of woman Braddon prefers or admires. Braddon gives us scenes of Lucy, a veritable angel, but nonetheless annoying. She acts as a mirror for the man she loves; he just has to say something, or give an opinion in order for Lucy to reflect back male glory:

 It was part of her nature to love in a reverential attitude, and she had no wish to approach nearer her idol. To sit at her sultan’s feet and replenish his chibouque; to watch him while he slept, and wave the punkah above his seraphic head; to love and pray for him, –made up the sum of her heart’s desire.

Nauseating. But again, Braddon takes on a subtle stand on this character. She shows Lucy as annoying & uninteresting–even though she meets all the qualifications of a so-called female Ideal.

Aurora Floyd is a delight to read, and once again, I am impressed with Braddon’s incredible ability to plot. As the saying goes: this woman could write her way out of a paper bag. Braddon creates some wonderful detective characters, and in this novel we have Mr. Grimstone from Scotland Yard. Most of the novels revolve around the upper classes, and the glimpses we get of Braddon’s detectives are frustratingly short. They appear, solve things, and then disappear like vapour.

aurora floyd

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Aurora Floyd by M. E. Braddon Part I

Continuing my fascination with Victorian Sensation fiction, it was time for another M. E. Braddon, and since she wrote over 90 novels, there were plenty to choose from. Lady Audley’s Secret is the favourite so far, followed by The Doctor’s Wife, and I’d place Aurora Floyd above the story of stolen identity: Henry Dunbar.

Bigamy, blackmail, deceit, and murder. Yes these things all plague the life of Aurora Floyd, a beautiful yet troubled heiress, the only child of an extremely wealthy banker. We’re told that her father, Mr.  Archibald Floyd, led the staid, boring life of the confirmed bachelor until a visit to Manchester caused him to leap off the deep end and into a scandalous, hasty, short marriage to a penniless actress, the daughter of a certain Captain Prodder. The actress, Eliza, died after producing her only child, Aurora, so she’s in the frame and out again before she can put the malicious gossip from the neighbors to rest. Naturally Aurora, in the absence of a mother, and brought up by her aging, grieving father at his estate in Kent, grows up spoiled rotten & willful….

aurora floydFast forward to 1857, and Aurora returns from an exclusive girls’ boarding school in Paris, but there’s something a bit fishy about this period in Aurora’s life, and that is confirmed in hints. She returns “loth to talk” about the school, she “slept badly, was nervous and hysterical,”  and it’s clear that she’s distracted and bothered about something. Aurora’s cousin, Lucy, a sweet, intelligent young woman with a sunny disposition arrives to visit, and decides Aurora’s dark mood must be due to her dislike of Paris.

Mr Floyd organizes a ball in honour of Aurora’s 19th birthday, and it’s here that Talbot Bulstrode, the proud, inflexible heir to a Cornish baronetcy meets Aurora Floyd. Bulstrode, at 32, has very definite ideas about the sort of woman he wants to marry, and so far, he’s never met “a woman whose stainless purity of soul fitted her in his eyes to become the mother of a noble race, and to rear sons who would do honour to the name of Bulstrode.”

He looked for more than ordinary every-day virtue in the woman of his choice; he demanded those grand and queenly qualities which are rarest in womankind. Fearless truth, a sense of honour keen as his own, loyalty of purpose, unselfishness, a soul untainted by the petty baseness of daily life–all these he sought in the being he loved; and at first warning thrill of emotion caused by a pair of beautiful eyes, he grew critical and captious about their owner, and began looking for infinitesimal stains upon the shining robe of her virginity. He would have married a beggar’s daughter if she had reached his almost impossible standard; he would have rejected the descendant of a race of kings if she had fallen one decimal part of an inch below it. Women feared Talbot Bulstrode: manoeuvring mothers shrank abashed from the cold light of those watchful grey eyes; daughters to marry blushed and trembled, and felt their pretty affectations, their ball-room properties, drop away from them under the quiet gaze of the young officer; till, from fearing him, the lovely flutterers grew to shun and dislike him, and to leave Bulstrode Castle and the Bulstrode fortune untangled for in the great matrimonial fisheries.

Bulstrode definitely seems to be channeling Austen’s Darcy. Personally I didn’t buy the argument that Bulstrode would marry a “beggar’s daughter” if she met his exacting standards, but no matter. There’s the subtle idea here that no one is good enough for Bulstrode–he really wants to marry himself. As we see later in the novel, he does the next best thing.

So Bulstrode attends the ball, and he’s already making snarky comments about the heiress, Aurora, he’s yet to meet. In his insufferably egotistical way, Bulstrode expects that Aurora will have already investigated his background and his wealth, so he fully expects her to simper and flirt, but the meeting subverts his stuffy expectations. Firstly, Aurora is dressed simply, yet magnificently, with a garland of scarlet berries wrapped in her blue-black hair. The other young ladies dress alike, sporting pinks, pale blues and yellows, and too many jewels & flowers.  Aurora doesn’t flirt with Bulstrode; she barely acknowledges his presence; he’s reeling from the stunning effects of her appearance when she opens her mouth and launches into a discussion about horse racing. Bulstrode is horrified and speechless.

It’s a wonderful scene–one of the best in an entertaining and extremely well plotted book, but it’s also through this scene that Braddon starts playing with her readers as she draws us in to the central mystery which surrounds Aurora Floyd. We have every reason to suppose that Bulstrode is the romantic hero of the piece, and we have every reason to expect that he’ll fall in love with Aurora in spite of his instincts to run like hell.

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The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy (Part II)

Following from Part 1

The Lorimer sisters forced to earn their own living or accept the charity of relatives opt for the former and open their photography shop with painfully high hopes.

Think of all the dull ways by which women, ladies, are generally reduced to earning their living! But a business–that is so different. It is progressive; a creature capable of growth; the very qualities in which women’s work is dreadfully lacking.

This speech is made by Gertrude to her sister, Lucy, and at this point the photography shop is still in the planning stages. We could say that Gertrude is optimistic, but with Lucy and Phyllis , there’s a more romanticized view which becomes contagious:

“And I,” cried Phyllis, her great eyes shining, “I would walk up and down outside, like that man in the High Street, who tells me every day what a beautiful picture I should make!”

“Our photographs would be so good and our manners so charming that our fame would travel from one end of the earth to the other!” added Lucy, with a sudden abandonment of her grave and didactic manner.

“We would take afternoon tea in the studio on Sunday, to which everybody would flock; duchesses, cabinet ministers, and Mr. Irving. We should become the fashion, make colossal fortunes, and ultimately marry dukes!” finished off Gertrude.

The Romance of a Shop is faulted for its ending–the wrap-up of the fates of our 4 sisters. Would I fault the novel?… Yes, but I’m not the only one, and this criticism is addressed in the intro which includes a comment from author Deborah Epstein Nord (Walking the Victorian Streets: Women, Representation, and the City) who argues that the last chapters revert to “a shoddy Pride and Prejudice with all four sisters searching for an appropriate mate.” Also quoted is Deborah Parsons’ argument  (Streetwalking the Metropolis; Women, the City and Modernity) that “Levy backs down from the implied female radicalism” with a conventional conclusion for the sisters. The author of the Broadview edition, Susan David Bernstein addresses those criticisms with her interpretation of the conclusion.

The Romance of a shopI was initially disappointed by the novel’s conclusion as the plot slid into romance, new and old as well adding the looming threat of a slippery seducer. Still, I think that Levy might well be adding realism here by creating characters who opt for marriage as the practical choice, and in the quote above, we see that clearly marriage is in the minds of these sisters. Levy planted the seed for the reader to see very early in the novel, so should we be so surprised when that is what occurs?  There’s another later moment when Gertrude, left to her own melancholy thoughts, admits that in all likelihood, at least a couple of her sisters will marry and move on. We could even argue, as noted in the earlier quote, that the sisters see their photography business as paving the way for an introduction into the best of society and a way of making them more desirable and eligible.  For this reader, a far worse flaw than the conventional ending was the drama involving Lucy. It seemed contrived solely for the element of suspense.

The Broadview edition clocks in at 278 pages, but the novel itself is about half that. This is an instance when I would have preferred one of those Victorian triple-deckers as The Romance of a Shop is thin on character development. Sister Fanny, for example, is barely glimpsed except as a housekeeping figure, and added scenes of the sisters actually at work, instead of the recounted details, would have enhanced the plot.  Gertrude is the most interesting sister, and the scenes that yield her thoughts, and the scenes involving Gertrude and Mr. Darrell are the most interesting in the book. Mr. Darrell wants Phyllis to sit as a model for a painting. He dislikes Gertrude and sees her as a frumpy “dragon-sister to be got round.”  Here’s a stunning moment between Gertrude and Darrell:

She glanced up as she spoke, and met, almost with open defiance, the heavy grey eyes of the man opposite. From these she perceived the irony to have faded; she read nothing there but a cold dislike.

It was an old, old story the fierce yet silent opposition between these two people; an inevitable antipathy; a strife of type and type, of class and class, rather than of individuals: the strife of a woman who demands respect, with the man who refuses to grant it.

Amy Levy “modeled the Lorimers on her friends the Black sisters,“(Clementina Black was a suffragette, author and a trade union organizer who fought for equal pay for women). At one point, Levy slips in the statement that customers “seemed to think the sex of the photographers a ground for greater cheapness in the photographs.” There’s an authenticity here in the attention paid to detail to the lodgings, and the glimpse of the professional woman’s perspective in London of the times is unique.

Another fascinating aspect of the novel is the vulnerability of these sisters now that they are running a shop. Most of their old friends drop them, and Aunt Caroline is scandalized by their behaviour. Their work forces them out into the world; they have to mingle, and sometimes go alone to studios owned and operated by men.

We have taken life up from a different standpoint, begun it on different bases. We are poor people, and we are learning to find out the pleasures of the poor, to approach happiness from another side. We have none of the conventional social opportunities for instance, but are we therefore to sacrifice all social enjoyment? … we have our living to earn, no less than our lives to live, and in neither case can we afford to be the slaves of custom. Our friends must trust us or leave us; must rely on our self-respect and your judgment. Convention apart, are not judgment and self-respect what we most rely on in our relations with people, under any circumstances whatever?

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The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy (Part I)

The Romance of a Shop … this wonderful title accompanied by a beautiful cover and an intriguing synopsis persuaded me to buy this book written by Amy Levy (1861-1889), an author I’d never heard of before. I read a marvelous Broadview edition which includes a short bio of the author who committed suicide at age 27, various collected articles on several aspects of Victorian society, poetry and a short story by Levy and 19th century reviews ofThe Romance of a Shop. This is a book about the “New Woman,” a topic also covered in George Gissing’s splendid novel, The Odd Women, a simply fantastic novel that made my best-of list in 2013. Amy Levy’s novel won’t be making the 2014 list for reasons I’ll explain, but this was an interesting book which convinced me to read the author’s other novel Rueben Sachs.

The Romance of a shopGissing’s The Odd Women concerns six sisters left destitute following the death of their father. We see how they are forced into menial employment as governesses of families just above their social sphere, and in these positions, they’re overworked and underpaid. One sister works in a shop and it’s a work-till-you-drop sort of situation which she bails from at the first opportunity. She lands in a miserable marriage that’s just another type of drudgery–even if it is gilded around the edges. The Odd Women is a bold novel which addresses sexual desire, the disparity between male and female sexual freedom, the practicality of ‘free unions’  in a society rife with gender inequality, and the power balance in marriage. The book questions whether or not women can thrive as wives, or if a career as a single woman is a preferable and healthier choice. As a result, the female characters in Gissing’s masterpiece are faced with tough choices. Amy Levy’s The Romance of a Shop isn’t as bold or as subversive a novel as The Odd Women. The informative introduction from Susan David Bernstein describes Levy’s novel as important: “borderland fiction, inscribing a space between traditional and progressive representations of women.”

There are four Lorimer sisters in The Romance of a Shop, and the novel opens following the death of their father, a London photographer.  With all bills settled, and the furniture sold, they are left with just 500 pounds between them. Fanny, the eldest daughter at thirty, is the result of Mr. Lorimer’s first marriage, and thanks to a legacy from her mother she has just 50 pounds a year to live on which she is happy to share with her 3 half sisters. In Gissing’s novel, New Grub Street, fifty pounds  a year bought a life in a garret for Edwin Reardon.

Relatives propose breaking up the four girls and sending two of them out to live with an uncle in India while the remaining two have been offered a home with the family friends, the Devonshires.  The four young women want to remain together and 23-year-old Gertrude, the most interesting of the sisters, and by no coincidence, the most intelligent, proposes that they move and open their own photography studio. It’s a bold plan, and while Lucy is solidly behind the plan, Fanny, who is the dullest of the bunch is appalled. Here’s Gertrude making her argument:

“No, I have another plan to propose to you all. There is one thing, at least, that we can all do.”

“We can all make photographs, except Fan,” said Phyllis, in a doubtful voice.

“Exactly!” cried Gertrude, growing excited, and walking across to the middle of the room: “we can make photographs! We have had this studio, with every proper arrangement for light and other things, so that we are not mere amateurs. Why not turn to account the only thing we can do, and start as professional photographers? We should all keep together. It would be a risk, but if we failed we should be very little worse off than before. I know what Lucy thinks of it, already. What have you others to say to it?”

“Oh, Gertrude, need it come to that–to open a shop?” cried Fanny aghast.

Levy positions her argument of ideals vs reality by creating the wonderfully ironic title. There’s nothing romantic at all about running a shop, but there are lots of grim realities–bill-paying, attracting customers, competition, long hours, and above all, a future that, if one is successful, brings only more of the same. Is there romance here? Yes, the first whiff of romance is seen in the sisters’ collective imagination of becoming pioneers, independent women pursuing careers instead of marriage. Fanny, the oldest and the most conventional sister is, according to Lucy, “behind the age.” And this is true in more ways than one–not only is Fanny appalled by the behaviour of her sisters who have decided to be independent career women, but she’s also left behind in the terms of her own life. Years before, Fanny had a suitor but he had no money and sailed off to Australia to make his fortune. Gertrude and Lucy are the pragmatists, and 17 year-old Phyllis, the family beauty, is impractical, frivolous and romantic. There’s lots of flurry and excitement as the sisters make their plans, and the fact that this is a decision made from necessity and desperation is shoved aside until the business opens…..

More in part II 

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Lady Anna by Anthony Trollope

Time to pull another Trollope novel randomly from the shelf. This time it was Lady Anna, and on the back cover of my Penguin edition there’s a snippet: “Trollope pronounced Lady Anna (1874) ‘The best novel I ever wrote.’ ” And after finishing it, I cannot understand that statement at all–what about his beloved Barchester Towers (1857) or my personal favourite to date The Claverings (1867)? It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Lady Anna, and it certainly had its merits, but at just over 500 pages, Trollope stretches out a dilemma until it’s thinner than two-week old chewing gum.

Lady AnnaLady Anna revolves on a legal case, certainly not an unfamiliar backdrop for Victorian novels, but here instead of fusty old legalities, there’s more than a touch of scandal and a heavy dollop of debauchery. The case involves a woman known as Josephine Murray who married Earl Lovel, and from the small parish church the 24-year-old bride was taken to Lovel Grange, an “ill-omened looking place.”  Trollope tells us that she did not love her much-older husband and that she married for ambition; “she wanted to be the wife of a lord.”  Thus he sets the stage for us to have some, but not too much, sympathy for this character.

Unfortunately Josephine Murray made a very bad choice. While the Earl is an extremely wealthy man, he’s also rumoured to be quite mad. That’s as good a term as any for the Earl’s strange, antisocial behaviour

He had so lived as to teach himself that those men who devote themselves to their wives, as a wife devotes herself to her husband, are the poor lubberly clods of creation, who had lacked the power to reach the only purpose of living which would make life worth having. Women had been to him a prey, as the fox is a prey to the huntsman and the salmon to the angler. But he had acquired great skill in his sport, and could pursue his game with all the craft which experience will give. He could look at a woman as though he saw all heaven in her eyes, and could listen to her as though the music of the spheres was to be heard in her voice. Then he would whisper words which, to many women, were as the music of the spheres, and he would persevere, abandoning all other pleasures, devoting himself to the one wickedness with a perseverance which almost made success certain.

So the wicked Earl is a seducer of women, but this time, with Josephine, his best efforts fail, and he “could be successful on no other terms than those which enabled her to walk out of the church with him as Countess Lovel.”  With a lecher for a husband, you’d expect Josephine to be unhappy, but her misery goes far deeper. Six months after the marriage, the Earl announced that he committed bigamy when he married Josephine as he had a wife still living (who has since died) in Italy. He refuses to remarry Josephine and tells her that he’s back off to Italy and that she can chum along as his mistress. The Earl, now supposedly a widower, departs for Italy … alone.

Josephine, with debts mounting, lives in precarious circumstances and the only person who offers to help her is a humble tailor named Thwaite. He takes Josephine and her daughter, Anna into his home, devoting his time and money towards Josephine’s restoration as the Countess of Lovel. It’s acknowledged that the Earl went through a marriage ceremony with Josephine, but the big unknown is whether or not the Earl is lying when he belatedly revealed himself to be a bigamist. There’s some evidence that points to the fact that the woman was already dead when the Earl married Josephine, but the Earl, who’s buggered off to Italy, argues otherwise and proof, one way or another is sketchy. It doesn’t help matters that some Italian woman, alive and well, claims to be the Earl’s first wife, but she may be the sister of the deceased first Countess, simply after money.  

Josephine now has a dilemma: should she choose to pursue prosecution and win the case against the Earl for bigamy, she will, in reality, publicly acknowledge that she was the man’s mistress and that her daughter is illegitimate. Both Thwaite and Josephine expect the case to fail, but it’s the necessary first step in proving her likely-legitimate claim to the earl’s title and fortune.  The Earl (in absentia) is acquitted of bigamy and then the case is slowly fought to establish Josephine’s claim.  Decades pass, and the death of the Earl throws the issue of inheritance back to the fore. Suddenly it’s Josephine’s claim to the estate vs the claim of the new young handsome Earl ….

Lady Anna reminded me of Is He Popenjoy?–another novel about illegitimacy and a mysterious marriage that may or may not have taken place in Italy. The characters in Lady Anna were not as satisfying however, and our hero, Daniel Thwaite, the son of the noble tailor, and Anna, Josephine’s daughter are not particularly interesting characters. Daniel, a capable serious young man, seems a little on the self-righteous side while Anna is entirely overshadowed by her mother, Josephine–a far more interesting, damaged, character.

Josephine is a woman obsessed. She married a blackguard for money and position and she’s spent her life to its pursuit–all in the name of her daughter, but this devotion becomes questionable as the novel wears on and we see that Josephine loves her daughter in as much as Anna can fulfill all the latent longing for titles and social position–even though these things have proven to be useless, empty ambitions. Josephine nurses her grudges against those who refused to help her when she was abandoned by her husband, and while that’s certainly understandable, she also, in a manner which shows her true nature, turns her back on the Thwaites. It’s one thing to remember your enemies, but it’s another thing to forget your friends

While there’s romance here, one of the underlying theme is legal vs. moral justice. Josephine seeks legal justice against her husband and yet when she finally gains that, she’s not too interested in moral justice–she ascribes her own desire for money and position to Daniel Thwaite when he seeks to marry Anna, but he’s challenged by the new Earl. Who will win Anna’s hand?

Lady Anna drags on past its due date, and events could have been wound up much sooner, but even so this is a Trollope novel, and he always has some wonderful observations to make about human nature. Here’s Daniel a radical who longs for the eradication of nobility;

Measuring himself by his own standard, regarding that man to be most manly who could be most useful in the world, he did think himself to be infinitely superior to the Earl. He was the working bee, whereas the Earl was the drone. And he was one who used to the best of his abilities the mental faculties which had been given to him; whereas the Earl,–so he believed,–was himself hardly conscious of having had mental faculties bestowed upon him. The Earl was, to his thinking, as were all Earls, an excrescence upon society, which had been produced by the evil habits and tendencies of mankind; a thing to be got rid of before any near approach could be made to that social perfection of which he fully believed.   

In Lady Anna, Trollope creates some subversive situations in his observations of class distinctions. Daniel believes that nobility is an antiquated fetish of the society in which he lives, and we see, through Trollope’s characters, that Daniel is right. Josephine is twisted by her dreams of regaining the long-elusive title, and through her daughter, she plots, along with the two opposing legal teams, to reestablish the status quo of titled society.

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Henry Dunbar by M.E. Braddon

M.E. Braddon’s Victorian Sensation novel Henry Dunbar followed enthusiastic readings of Lady Audley’s Secret and The Doctor’s Wife, and while Henry Dunbar shares some characteristics with Lady Audley’s Secret, it’s not as good. Both novels hinge on the question of identity, but Lady Audley’s Secret throws in some other elements too which add greatly to the novel’s pacing. For this reader, Henry Dunbar started very promisingly indeed but then became caught in a repetitive loop until the novel’s best character was introduced towards the conclusion.

henry dunbarBut first the plot…

Henry Dunbar is about to return to England from India after a thirty-five year absence. Following the deaths of his uncle and father, he is the sole heir to the fortune of Dunbar, Dunbar, and Balderby, East India bankers, one of the oldest and richest firms in London. In his youth, Henry Dunbar was a bad boy. He was a dashing young officer with mounting debts when he persuaded the very young and very impressionable Joseph Wilmot, an underling at the company, Dunbar, Dunbar and Balderby, to cover his debts with a short-sighted forgery scheme. The forgeries were revealed. Wilmot was sacked from his job with no references and young Henry Dunbar was packed off to India. In the 35 years that followed, Henry Dunbar has worked hard in India, married, fathered a child, and become a widower.

That which would have been called a crime in a poorer man was only considered an error in the dashing young cornet of dragoons, who had lost money upon the turf.

When the novel opens, Sampson Wilmot, the younger brother of the forger Joseph Wilmot, is the only person present at Dunbar, Dunbar and Balderby who knew the young Henry Dunbar. Sampson tells the story of the scandal involving Henry Dunbar and Joseph Wilmot to Mr Balderby (who owns 1/4 of the company), and this story sets the scene for the drama that follows. Joseph Wilmot paid dearly for the forgery while Henry Dunbar was not ruined. He was simply put on ice–as many young scoundrels were in the days of the British Empire–by sending him out to India where presumably, he would ‘learn his lesson.’ Joseph, on the other hand, with no references, went from “bad to worse,” and was eventually transported to Australia for life for forgery crimes. Mr Balderby listens to the story and shows sympathy for Joseph who acted solely under pressure Henry Dunbar’s influence. Balderby notes that as a wealthy man, Dunbar “has had a long immunity from his sins. I should scarcely think it likely he would ever be called upon to atone for them.” Sampson doesn’t agree:

“I don’t know, Sir,” the old clerk answered. “I know that I’ve seen retribution come very late, very late; when the man who committed the sin had well night forgotten it. Evil trees bear evil fruit, Mr. Balderby.”

This first chapter, full of foreboding, is very well done, and Braddon ratchets up the suspense so much so that I actually felt the story possibilities being narrowed down dramatically. In this well-crafted beginning, we learn very early on that no one knows what Henry Dunbar looks like. He sent his infant daughter, Laura and step-daughter back to England years before, and all of Dunbar’s other relatives are dead. No one except old and frail Sampson Wilmot can identify Dunbar. There was at one point a portrait of Dunbar commissioned by his family, but that went mysteriously missing. Now Dunbar is about to arrive back in England after a 35-year-long absence and old Sampson Wilmot is being sent to meet him. Braddon seems to relish in dropping hints about the story to come. We’re told that “Laura Dunbar might pass her father in the street without recognizing him,” and that “no portrait of Henry Dunbar exists.” Dunbar was originally accompanied by a valet but he became ill and was left at Malta. Henry Dunbar will arrive alone in England.

In the next chapter, we meet a bitter shadowy character who calls himself James Wentworth and his saintly daughter, Margaret, who puts food on the table with her meagre earnings as a piano teacher. This domestic scene gives a strong sense of James Wentworth’s character, for he’s unable to appreciate his daughter’s love due to the bitterness of early experience and hatred of society. He tells Margaret how he was “brand[ed] by society” and “transported for life,” and for all of his life’s woes, he blames Henry Dunbar who, according to Wentworth “never suffered” for what happened.

Fate, darkly brooding over these two men throughout half a long lifetime, had held them asunder for five-and-thirty years, to fling them mysteriously together now.

Yes the two men meet and what occurs takes up the rest of the story.

We can chew over some of the story elements and draw our own conclusions. We are told, for example, that Joseph Wilmot was a good person before being corrupted into a life of crime by Henry Dunbar, and yet Joseph Wilmot’s actions throughout the course of the book would argue otherwise. He’s a crap human being, criminal past or no criminal past. He’s a horrible father and brother and seems to think of no one else except himself.

The prevailing idea in the novel is the idea of justice for the rich vs. justice for the poor. Of course, there’s the 35-year-old forgery case in which Dunbar was sent off to India to stew while Joseph Wilmot was sacked without references. Dunbar recovered without tarnish from the event. Joseph Wilmot, who already had a lowly position in life, never recovered and was hammered lower and lower until all he could do was commit crimes in order to survive. But while that’s all history, when the novel begins, Braddon shows us a repeat lesson that there is one law for the rich and one for the poor. The question of murder arises and Braddon rather cleverly shows that a millionaire is above the law.

Money is a very powerful agent, and can buy almost anything. It is rarely that a man with almost unlimited wealth at his command, finds himself compelled to commit an act of violence.

Some characters seem to be created to little purpose. Henry Dunbar has a step-daughter, but she’s always off in the sidelines and isn’t developed. Margaret Dunbar is so saintly that her choices grate at times. She’s determined to martyr herself on her principles, and that of course, spurs on her lover, Clement Austin to finally hire a detective to solve the mystery at the novel’s core. This clever, relentless detective, Mr. Carter is the best character in the book:

little by little, I put my questions, and keep on putting ‘em till every bit of information upon this particular subject is picked clean away as the meat that’s torn off a bone by a hungry dog.

Lady Audley’s Secret is also centred on the question of identity–a question that was drawn out by missed encounters and slippery opportunities. Braddon uses the same plot elements here but to weaker results as the characters in Henry Dunbar are not as well drawn. Braddon, however, keeps us guessing–although we are given plenty of clues along the way.

The origins of Detective Fiction can be found in Sensation fiction, and here we see crime rooted in the domestic lives of Braddon’s characters. Happy couples in love cannot marry, cannot begin family life until a crime is solved. The police remain a nebulous ineffective bunch who make a fatal error, and it takes Clement Austin and his love for Margaret to cast caution to the winds and pursue the case–no matter the consequences. Gambling all, Clement employs the wily detective Mr. Carter to solve the case, and Carter approaches the case with fresh, unprejudiced eyes.  In the book, The Literary Lives of M.E. Braddon, author Jennifer Carnell argues that “nearly all of Braddon novels contain an element of crime and detection,” and that “of all the sensation novelists Braddon was the one most associated with crime and criminal life.”  In The Doctor’s Wife, Braddon’s take on Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, a murder sneaks into the narrative–almost as though Braddon can’t resist adding it. The element of crime which appears in Braddon’s novels adds a subversive level to the tales. In Henry Dunbar, for example, we see one law for the rich and one for the poor. Henry is given multiple chances while Joseph Wilmot is not. “The laws of society are inflexible,” yet crime usurps social order so social order dictates the punishment or lack thereof.

** I read Henry Dunbar on the kindle. The edition shown is the Victorian Secrets edition. Unfortunately I did not know that there was a recently re-issued edition when I began reading the book.

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Victorian Secrets: Publisher

No, I’m not talking about lingerie, so keep your smutty thoughts to yourself.  I’m talking about a publisher I recently came across and I wanted to spread the word:

VICTORIAN SECRETS

A small, independent UK based company obviously going against the flow, and for that reason alone, they deserve some support. My regular readers know that I read, reviewed and thoroughly enjoyed two novels by George Gissing: New Grub Street and The Odd Women.   I was lucky enough to have long-ago purchased print copies of these books on my shelf. Yes, if you have a kindle, Gissing is available FREE, and while there’s a lot to be said for e-versions, these new Victorian Secrets critical editions have their advantages too. Some of us like to read those 19th century multi-plot Victorians in a print version with introductions and notes.

Victorian Secrets have several other Gissings in print:

Demosdemos

Thyrza

ThyrzaWorkers in the Dawn

workers in the dawnVictorian Secrets has some interesting non-Gissing titles too, so I encourage all you 19th century fanatics to take a look. Some of their titles are pleasantly and tantalizingly obscure. And here’s their latest release:

Not wisely but too well

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The Doctor’s Wife by M. E. Braddon Part II

Carrying on from part I, there’s an important quote from one of the novel’s great characters, sensation author Sigsimund Smith. Sigismund, who appears to be a fictional stand in for Braddon, after all, earns a living from writing exactly the sort of books that have led to Isabel’s skewed vision of life. It seems ridiculous to presume that either Sigismund or Braddon would ever preach against novels, yet Isabel’s problematic world view has been formed by reading. According to Braddon, Sigismund Smith “sold his imagination, and Isabel lived upon hers.” As Sigismund tells his smitten friend, Gilbert, Isabel is beautiful but “she reads too many novels.”

“Don’t suppose that I want to depreciate the value of the article. A novel’s a splendid thing after a hard day’s work, a sharp practical tussle with the real world, a healthy race on the barren moorland of life, a hearty wrestling-match in the universal ring. Sit down then and read Ernest Maltravers, or Eugene Aram, or the Bride of Lammermoor, and the sweet romance lulls your tired soul to rest, like the cradle-song that soothes a child. No wise man or woman was ever the worse for reading novels. Novels are only dangerous for those foolish girls who read nothing else, and think their lives are to be paraphrases of their favourite books. That girl yonder wouldn’t look at a decent young fellow in a Government office, with three hundred a year and a chance of advancement,” said Mr. Smith, pointing to Isabel Sleaford with a backward jerk of his thumb. “She’s waiting for a melancholy creature with murder on his mind.”

The Doctor's wifeIndeed, Isabel doesn’t dream of a happy-ever-after; her dream is of tragic doomed love. She idolizes Ernest Maltravers, Henry Esmond and Steerforth, and “sighed to sit at the feet of a Byron, grand and gloomy and discontented, baring his white brow to the midnight blast, and raving against the baseness and ingratitude of mankind.” Sometimes she dreams of dying young of tuberculosis–a painful death, but one to her which is infused with tragic glamour.  A glimpse of Isabel’s character can be seen through her employment as a nursery governess for two orphaned children under the guardianship of Mr. Charles Raymond. She loves playing with the children and teaching them her romanticized version of history:

she gave them plenty of Anne Boleyn and Mary Queen of Scots, –fair princess Mary, Queen of France and wife of Thomas Brandon,–Marie Antoinette and Charlotte Corday.

The children only said ‘Lor!’ when they heard of Mademoiselle Corday’s heroic adventure: but they were very much interested in the fate of the young princes of the House of York, and amused themselves by a representation of the smothering business with the pillows on the school-room sofa.

Mr. Raymond understands that Isabel’s approach to education is flawed, but he considers that she possesses a “decent moral region.” And that’s a rather important distinction as it turns out.

I don’t think I’m giving anything away to say that Isabel marries Gilbert. She doesn’t love him, but this marriage is an opportunity for a different life, and momentarily even Isabel is caught up in the romance of courtship. What follows is a drab, budget honeymoon with Isabel, who so wanted to look like Florence Dombey on her wedding day, dressed in a brown silk dress, not of her choosing, but purchased by Gilbert for its “homely merit of usefulness.” On her wedding day, she acknowledges “her life had never been her own yet, and never was to be her own.”  She makes one attempt to glamorize her home and then when that fails, she returns to the solace of her books. Rejected by her peers who tediously discuss “the last popular memoir of some departed Evangelical curate,” Isabel withdraws even more. Gilbert who choose Isabel because she was so different from all the other young women he knew, wishes to “smooth her into the most ordinary semblance of everyday womanhood, by means of that moral flat-iron called common-sense.” Life goes on. Isabel is “content with a life in which she had ample leisure to dream of a different existence.”

Some time later, through Isabel’s former employer, Mr. Raymond, Isabel makes the acquaintance of a very wealthy man, Roland Lansdell, a local landowner who is also an author of a volume of poems An Alien’s Dream, one of Isabel’s favourite volumes. Roland Lansdell is flattered by Isabel’s very evident worship, and worship can be a very powerful aphrodisiac. Lansdell isn’t a great poet, and somewhere deep down, he knows this, but to Isabel, who trembles in his presence, he’s one of her idols–a hero stepped out from one of her books: wealthy, troubled, difficult, handsome, & restless. In fact, Roland and Isabel have a lot in common and when it comes to temperament, they rather dangerously share some character traits, a passion for books, and a yearning for doomed, impossible romance.

In Madame Bovary, the novel that inspired The Doctor’s Wife, we see Emma Bovary at the end of the line. Unleashed she destroys herself. The Doctor’s Wife is Braddon’s take on the tale, and there’s a very different moral element at play here concerning the “affair” and its consequences. For this reader, The Doctor’s Wife is a delightful read, and particularly for the growth of the characters. Even though Braddon intended to create a more literary novel which is mostly achieved here by literary allusion, there some elements of Sensation Fiction–coincidences that defy plausibility and even a murder.

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