Tag Archives: 19th Century

Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth

You know how it is with some books. You’ve been meaning to read them for years, but somehow you always pass them by. Perhaps part of that comes from the idea that you think you know what the book’s about, and there’s a familiarity to it since it’s been sitting on the shelf for decades. This is exactly the case with Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent. I’d always meant to read it, but I passed by my old hardback edition–even the college library threw it away which is how I came to own it. For some reason that I cannot adequately explain I had the impression that Castle Rackrent was a gothic novel–perhaps because I’d seen it linked with Ann Radcliffe’s works, so I was very surprised to find myself laughing at this very funny short book narrated by the old, faithful family retainer, Thady. Thady manages to outlive generations of dissolute owners of Castle Rackrent in the book that he presents as a “Memoir of the Rackrent Family.” The cover of the Oxford Classics edition says it all:

castle rackrentBut first a note on Maria Edgeworth… the introduction to my copy states that she was born on January 1, 1767 and died on May 22, 1849. At this point in time, Wikipedia gives her birth year as 1768. She was born in Oxfordshire as the result of the marriage between her father Richard Lovell Edgeworth and the first of four wives. My copy states that Maria was the first child of 19–Wikipedia places her as the second of 22. Right away of course, whichever version is the correct one, we know that there’s an interesting dynamic at work–especially with a quote from Maria’s father regarding his four wives:

I have had four wives. The second and third were sisters, and I was in love with the second in the lifetime of the first.

So whether we are talking about 19 children or twenty-two, this had to be an energetic and chaotic household. Maria Edgeworth lived with her aunts until her mother’s death and then her father remarried and relocated the family to his Irish estates. She returned to England for her education  during the illness of her first stepmother, Honora Sneyd, but after her death, and Mr Edgeworth’s remarriage to Honora’s sister (my intro says that this was Honora’s dying request), Maria shortly returned to Ireland yet again. So no small amount of impermanence and upheaval until Maria’s teen years. At this point she became involved in her father’s business and estates.

Castle Rackrent was published in 1800, initially without the author’s name, but this was added for the second edition. This is an unusual novel for its time as it is narrated by a servant, Old Thady Quirk, and if this story were told by the successive gentry owners of the estate, it would be a very different story indeed. As it is, Thady ‘s disingenuousness may be a construct to not speak ill of his various ‘masters,’–a habit from a lifetime of obsequiousness, or it may be his way of telling this shameful history while still appearing ‘loyal’ to the dissolute members of the family. Nonetheless, it’s the spaces between Thady’s naïve narrative and the actual events that creates so much humour. And this is how it begins:

Having, out of friendship for the family, upon whose estate, praised be heaven! I and mine have lived rent-free time out of mind, voluntarily undertaken to publish the MEMOIRS OF THE RACKRENT FAMILY, I think it my duty to say a few words, in the first place, concerning myself. My real name is Thady Quirk, though in the family I have always been known by no other than “Honest Thady.”

The insertion of Honest Thady let’s us know that the version we are about to hear is suspect, and as the tales unfold from Honest Thady of a dissolute bunch of owners, we have every reason to suspect his version of events.

Castle Rackrent was originally owned by Sir Tallyhoo Rackrent who came to a bad end, so the estate passed to Sir Patrick O’Shaughlin with the stipulation that he take the “surname and arms of Rackrent.” The litigious Sir Patrick, “who used to boast that he had a lawsuit for every letter in the alphabet,” according to Thady, “gave the finest entertainment” in which “not a man could stand after supper but Sir Patrick himself.” Here’s an example of Thady’s fond recollection of a Rackrent:

I remember when I was a little boy, the first bumper of claret he gave me after dinner, how he praised me for carrying it to my mouth.

Probably a good thing that the male Rackrents seem to die early and without issue–and that brings me to my very favourite member of the family, Sir Kit, who brings over his new bride who is, as we learn later, a very dark-complexioned Jewish woman, the “grandest heiress in England,”  who’s been married for her fortune.  The poor woman has no idea of what’s in store for her:

“Is the large room damp, Thady?” said his honour.

“Oh, damp, your honour! how should it be but as dry as a bone,” says I, “after all the fires we have kept in it day and night? It’s the barrack-room your honour’s talking on.”

“And what is a barrack-room, pray, my dear?” were the first words I ever heard out of my lady’s lips.

“No matter, my dear,” said he, and went on talking to me ashamed-like I should witness her ignorance. To be sure, to hear her talk one might have taken her for an innocent, for it was, “What’s this, Sir Kit?” and “What’s that, Sir Kit? all the way we went. To be sure, Sir Kit had enough to do to answer her.

“And what do you call that, Sir Kit?” said she; “that–that looks like a pile of black bricks, pray, Sir Kit?’

“My turf-stack, my dear,” said my master, and bit his lip.

Where have you lived, my lady, all your life, not to know a turf-stack when you see it? thought I; but I said nothing. Then, by-and-by, she takes out her glass, and begins spying over the country.

“And what’s all that black swamp out yonder, Sir Kit?” says she.

“My bog, my dear,” says he and went on whistling.

“It’s a very ugly prospect, my dear,” says she.

“You don’t see it, my dear,” says he; “for we’ve planted it out; when the trees grow up in summertime—” says he.

“Where are the trees,” said she, “my dear?” still looking through her glass.

“You are blind, my dear,” says he: “what are thee under your eyes?”

“These shrubs?” said she.

“Trees,” said he.

“May be they are what you call trees in Ireland, my dear,” said she; “but they are not a yard high, are they?”

“They were planted out but last year, my lady,” says I, to soften matters between them, for I saw she was going to make his honour mad with her: “they are very well grown for their age, and you’ll not see the bog of Allyballycarricko’shaughlin at-all-at-all through the screen, when once the leaves come out. But, my lady, you must not quarrel with any part or parcel of Allyballycarricko’shaughlin, for you don’t know how many hundred years that same bit of bog has been in the family; we would not part with the bog of Allyballycarricko’shaughlin upon no account at all; it cost the late Sir Murtagh two hundred good pounds to defend his title to it and boundaries against the O’Learys, who cut a road through it.”

Now one would have thought this would have been hint enough for my lady, but she fell to laughing like one out of their right mind, and made me say the name of the bog over, for her to get it by heart, a dozen times; then she must ask me how to spell it, and what was the meaning of it in English–Sir Kit standing by whistling all the while.

According to Thady “she laid the corner-stone of all her future misfortunes” this very first day, and if you want to know the fate of this particular Lady Rackrent (none of them exactly fare well), then you’ll have to read the book. Thady relates her history in this deadpan style–as if what happened to the poor woman was 1) deserved and 2) normal, but then the term ‘normal’ doesn’t apply to the Rackrents–an atrocious bunch of Anglo-Irish riffraff, a family of boozers, bounders and debtors, and the very worst sort of landowners.

There’s also an extensive glossary that accompanies the text, and written in an authoritarian style, this adds another level of irony to the humorous tale. Finally the topic of the Irish Roof emerged in Great Granny Webster, and the subject appears again here–the windows are broken and the roof leaks, but there’s too many debts and too little money to fix anything as the various heirs to the castle run the place into the ground.

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Madame Firmiani by Balzac

Balzac’s short story Madame Firmiani isn’t one of his best, but I enjoyed it nonetheless not for what it says about the characters, but for what it says about Balzac. It begins with a rambling preface and leads up to a discussion of the character of a certain Madame Firmiani, a woman who’s the subject of a great deal of speculation and gossip. Perhaps part of the interest is due to the fact that there seems to be no Monsieur Firmiani, or if he exists, he’s conveniently absent. Balzac spends some time discussing the sort of things said about this mysterious woman, and while the various versions of Madame Firmiani are interesting, Balzac shows us that it’s not so much what is said that’s interesting, but that the gossip can be captured and qualified by the type of person who makes the comments. Balzac, that great observer and chronicler of human nature, breaks down the “genus Parisian” into “various species.”  So while “the species Practical” analyses Madame Firmiani according to her worldly goods, the “species Lounger” snobbily discusses her parties and the quality of her tea.

“Oh, Madame Firmiani, my dear fellow! She is one of those adorable women who serve as Nature’s excuse for all the ugly ones she creates. Madame Firmiani is enchanting, and so kind! I wish I were in power and possessed millions that I might_” (here a whisper). “Shall I present you?” The speaker is a youth of the Student species, known for his boldness among men and his timidity in a boudoir.

“Madame Firmiani?” cries another, twirling his cane. “I’ll tell you what I think of her; she is a woman between thirty and thirty-five; faded complexion, handsome eyes, flat figure, contralto voice worn out, much dressed, rather rouged, charming manners; in short, my dear fellow, the remains of a pretty woman who is still worth the trouble of a passion.” This remark is from the species Fop, who has just breakfasted, doesn’t weigh his words, and is about to mount his horse. At that particular moment Fops are pitiless.

The speculation about Madame Firmiani’s character and circumstances is at the heart of this story. It’s 1824, and Monsieur de Bourbonne has traveled to Paris from his country estate in Touraine “to satisfy his curiosity” about the woman who’s somehow or another entangled his nephew and heir, Octave de Camps, in a relationship. Octave “without consulting his uncle had lately sold an estate belonging to him to the Black Band.” Following this alarming incident, a relative, possibly a relative jealous of Octave’s position as sole heir “informed” Monsieur de Bourbonne that Octave who has “wasted his means on a certain Madame Firmiani” is teaching mathematics for a living and waiting for his uncle to die so that he can loot the estate and waste it. Irate, the old man travels to Paris to discover the truth…..

There’s a note that The Black Band–otherwise known as the Bande Noirewas a mysterious association of speculators, whose object was to buy in landed estates, cut them up, and sell them off in small parcels to the peasantry or others.” Reminds me of  Gone-with-the Wind carpetbagging.

The story also showcases Balzac’s love for the female sex. Madame Firmiani is a veritable goddess here–a woman who inspires …well … read the story and you’ll see.

Translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley

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The Claverings by Anthony Trollope

It was time for another Anthony Trollope, and while I can’t explain why I decided to read The Claverings, this selection, as it turns out, is a good companion novel for the recently read Can You Forgive Her? While Can You Forgive Her? concerns a woman who vacillates back and forth between two suitors, The Claverings is the tale of a young man who can’t choose between two women.

The novel begins by landing us into the action as the very beautiful Julia Brabazon drops, finally, forever and rather cruelly, the love of her youth, Harry Clavering in favour of an advantageous match with the very wealthy and much older, “debauched” Lord Ongar, a repulsive man who wears an “elaborately dressed jet black wig.” Harry accuses Julia of being a “jilt,” and while she doesn’t deny that, she attempts to mollify Harry’s accusations with arguments of practicality. Trollope gives us some wonderful numbers to play with here (I’ve been obsessed with the cost of living in the 19th century since reading George Gissing’s novel, New Grub Street). We learn that Julia has 200 pounds a year to live on but owes 600. Lord Ongar lives on “perhaps” 60,000 a year. Harry Clavering’s father, Reverend Clavering earns 800 pounds a year, but that income is “nearly doubled” by his wife’s fortune.  On that income and with a curate to do most of his work, Reverend Clavering hinges on Country Gentleman status. In fact, he used to be a “hunting parson” until Bishop Proudie “lectured” him about the appropriateness of the activity. Now Reverend Clavering reads poetry and novels to the exclusion of everything else. 

Harry doesn’t want a career in the church despite his father’s encouragement and obvious easy lifestyle. Instead he plans to make his own way in the world and after Julia dumps him, Harry goes to Stratton to become an apprentice civil engineer living at the home of the Burtons. There he falls in love with the last daughter of the house (all the other daughters have also married previous apprentices), Miss Florence Burton. Now Florence isn’t as majestically beautiful as Julia, but she is the better person. Harry has the niggling feeling that somehow he’s been hooked by the Burton family into falling in love with their daughter. Of course, part of this feeling can be explained by the fact that Harry has simply followed in the footsteps of all the previous apprentices who lived at the Burton home. This repeated pattern of behaviour suggests that Harry isn’t particularly unique, and then again, the Burtons are a step down in the social stratosphere.

Harry, eager to wed, presses for an early marriage, and Florence opposes him on this issue. She argues that they should wait until Harry’s career is well established as she thinks that Harry would not cope well with poverty. The issue of money again rears its head–Florence will have a 100 pounds a year from her father, and Harry will earn 150 pounds annually in his new profession. He thinks this is plenty to live on, but Florence disagrees. The subject of sex also lurks under the surface of this pressure, and the disagreement over the issue of whether they should wait to marry quickly or delay the wedding day leads to the first rift between the engaged couple. Also around this time, the now widowed Julia Ongar returns to England under a cloud of scandal….

Harry Clavering, engaged to Florence Burton, finds himself championing Lady Julia Ongar, and he becomes a frequent visitor to her London home. Confused and bewitched, he no longer understands his own heart. Harry isn’t much of a hero as he’s young, plastic and weak.

Since the title of the novel is The Claverings, naturally the plot concerns other family members apart from Harry. Harry has two sisters, Mary and Fanny. While Mary marries Reverend Fielding, an appropriate match, in a minor aside Fanny is courted with persistence by the very serious and impoverished curate Mr. Saul–a man who earns a mere 70 pounds a year. Of course all these doings focus on the parsonage, but there’s another branch of the family at the ‘great house’ – Now to look at the family tree: Reverend Henry Clavering is the uncle of  Sir Hugh Clavering of Clavering Park. Baronet Sir Hugh is married to Hermione née Brabazon, the older sister of Julia Brabazon, and we learn that they live on 7,000-8,000 a year. In spite of the close relationship between the families at the parsonage and at Clavering Park, there’s no love lost between the two sets of relations. Henry Clavering considers it his duty to remain on good terms with those who live at Clavering Park but he really can’t stand Sir Hugh. One scene in the novel includes an uncomfortable evening at Clavering with a very unpleasant Sir Hugh who acts rudely and does not bother to hide his boredom.

In this novel, Trollope addresses the restrictions placed on the decisions women face. Underneath all the talk of love and marriage lurks the idea of the lack of choices for women. Early in the novel, Julia tells Harry:

If you could only know how infinitely I should prefer your lot to mine! Oh, Harry, I envy you! I do envy you! You have got the ball at your feet, and the world before you, and can win everything for yourself.

and

You can choose, as I say; but I have had no choice,- no choice but to be married well, or to go out like a snuff of a candle. I don’t like the snuff of a candle, and therefore, I am going to be married well.  

While men may choose their careers, for women, their careers are marriage, and Trollope boldly addresses this reality. He tells us that Julia, who chooses to become a Countess was “mercenary” but adds, with generosity:

Were not all men and women mercenary upon whom devolved the necessity of earning their bread?

Of course we see where these ambitious marriages lead. Julia’s sister Hermione loves her husband, mean-spirited Hugh Clavering rather as an abused dog loves its human. Hermione is so desperate for love and attention that she opens herself up to scorn and derision from her heartless, mean-spirited spouse. Julia lives to regret her marriage and realises that she sold herself for worldly gain and made a very bad bargain in the process.

Bad characters always seem to be a great deal more fun to read about than good characters, and that is certainly true in The Claverings. Sir Hugh is a curious character–not a monster by any means, but there are important emotional components missing. He treats his wife appallingly, but then he’s not much better with anyone else in his circle. He barely tolerates his brother, Archie, loathes his uncle, and seems to dislike society on principle.

The Claverings is called One of the “three faultless” Trollope novels, but I’m not sure why that is. While I enjoyed the novel immensely (it is, after all, Trollope), I was never entirely convinced of Julia’s feelings for Harry Clavering. However, that niggling argument aside, some of the novel’s second tier characters are unforgettable. When Julia returns from Florence, she brings along the sneaky, opportunistic “Franco-Pole” Sophie Gordeloup, who may or may not be a Russian spy. Madame Gordeloup’s brother, Count Pateroff, one of Lord Ongar’s friends, is in hot pursuit of Julia as he regards her as his prize. Count Pateroff and his peculiar sister seem to be beings from another planet, and they are treated as such by the other characters in the novel who are at a loss to know quite how to deal with this pair. At one point Julia tells Harry to seek out the Count, and in spite of knowing the Count’s address, Harry can’t track his quarry down for weeks. When they finally meet for dinner, the topic of conversation (the digestion and the refusal to discuss the consumption of horsemeat in a “besieged city,“) is steered firmly by the worldly, savvy Count much to Harry’s frustration.

While the Count sees the widowed Julia as his rightful property, that sort of fortune floating around gets attention, and Sir Hugh Clavering, who has no time for his sister-in-law Julia since scandal attached to her name, decides that she’s the perfect match for his brother, Archie. Archie consults his friend Captain Boodle on the matter of exactly how to lay siege to the beautiful wealthy widow, and the scenes between Archie and Boodle are hilarious. Boodle, incidentally is mentioned in a minor aside in the Vicar of Bullhampton. While Boodle’s extremely funny strategy for laying siege to the wealthy widow includes the advice to treat her like a horse, this section of the novel really takes off when Sophie Gordeloup becomes involved in the intrigue. Throughout the novel, Sophie behaves appallingly, and yet no one seems to know quite how to stop her. She’s rude, pushy, grasping, and duplicitous–in essence, she’s in a class of her own. Archie thinks she’s insane while Captain Boodle can’t help but admire her.

Sophie certainly makes short work of all the men who sniff around the widow. Here she is in a scene at Julia Ongar’s home after getting rid of Captain Archie Clavering:

“He was come for one admirer,” said Sophie, as soon as the door was closed.

“An admirer of whom?”

“Not of me; oh no; I was not in danger at all.”

“Of me? Captain Clavering! Sophie, you get your head full of the strangest nonsense.”

“Ah; very well. You see. What will you give me if I am right? Will you bet? Why had he got on his new gloves, and had his head all smelling with stuff from de hairdresser? Does he come always perfumed like that? Does he wear shiny little boots to walk about in de morning, and make an eye always? Perhaps yes.”

“I never saw his boots or his eyes.”

“But I see them. I see many things. He come to have Ongere Park for his own. I tell you, yes. Ten thousand will come to have Ongere Park. Why not? To have Ongere Park and all de money a man will make himself smell a great deal.”

“You think much more about all that than is necessary.”

“Do I , my dear? Very well. There are three already. There is Edouard [Count Pateroff], and there is this Clavering who goes with his nose in the air, and who thinks himself a clever fellow because he learned his lesson at school and did not get himself whipped. He will be whipped yet some day,-perhaps.”

It’s through this scene that we see that the secret to the limited success of the Count and his sister Sophie Gordeloup, two people who expect to make their fortunes in England is to be found in the fact that they bend the boundaries of polite behaviour. Julia is clearly sending a message to Sophie that she considers it impolite to discuss the subject, but Sophie simply doesn’t care.

Anyway, another wonderful Trollope novel. A word on my copy. I read the Dover issue with original illustrations and a foreword by Normal Donaldson. The Claverings was originally published in serial form in 16 parts in The Cornhill Magazine 1866-1867.

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New Grub Street by George Gissing

“A year after I have published my last book, I shall be practically forgotten; ten years later, I shall be as absolutely forgotten as one of those novelists of the early part of this century, whose names one doesn’t even recognise. What fatuous posing!”

George Gissing’s novel New Grub Street, published in 1891, is essentially the story of two young men, Jasper Milvain and George Reardon who take vastly different approaches to their literary careers. George Orwell was a great admirer of George Gissing and called New Grub Street, one of the few Gissing novels still in print,  Gissing’s masterpiece. Orwell defined New Grub Street as a “protest against the form of self-torture that goes by the name of respectability.” Orwell argues that Gissing showed the “horrors” of late Victorian London for those who teetered on the fringes of ‘good’ society.

The grime, the stupidity, the ugliness, the sex-starvation, the furtive debauchery, the vulgarity, the bad manners, the censoriousness — these things were unnecessary, since the puritanism of which they were a relic no longer upheld the structure of society. People who might, without becoming less efficient, have been reasonably happy chose instead to be miserable, inventing senseless taboos with which to terrify themselves. Money was a nuisance not merely because without it you starved; what was more important was that unless you had quite a lot of it — £300 a year, say — society would not allow you to live gracefully or even peacefully. Women were a nuisance because even more than men they were the believers in taboos, still enslaved to respectability even when they had offended against it. Money and women were therefore the two instruments through which society avenged itself on the courageous and the intelligent.

That marvellous quote from Orwell should give you a good idea about the book–this is a serious, sometimes depressing critique of late Victorian society–a society in which talent is crushed by need, deprivation, and the desire to keep up ‘appearances.’

 In New Grub Street, writing has been reduced to a commodity, and this is exemplified by the two main male characters, Jasper Milvain and Edwin Reardon. We are introduced first to Jasper, an intense, vital young man who lives in London but is visiting his mother and two sisters, Maud and Dora in the town of Wattleborough. Jasper is busy making connections in the London literary world, and in order to keep up appearances and maintain the necessary social contacts, he siphons off money from his widowed mother’s tiny annuity. Anything given to Jasper necessitates sacrifices on the part of his mother and sisters. While his sisters despair of Jasper ever earning a living, for his part, he sees the money as an investment in all their futures.

The novel opens with a scene over the Milvain breakfast table and Jasper regaling his country sisters with the insider’s view of the London literary world. He holds up his friend, Edwin Reardon, a writer who’s managed to publish a few excellent novels that have sunk without a trace, as a prime example of how not to do things and predicts that “he is just the kind of fellow to end by poisoning or shooting himself.”

Jasper lacks the talent to write novels, but if he could he admits that he “would produce novels out-trashing the trashiest that ever sold fifty thousand copies.”  Instead his aim is to become a figure in the literary world through one of London’s influential literary review magazines that are effectively the gatekeepers of fame and fortune for writers, so his time is spent in London cultivating the right people and making the connections that will pay off for his future career.

While New Grub Street is ostensibly about the rise and fall of the two main characters, Jasper Milvain and Edwin Reardon set against the backdrop of the London literary world, in true Victorian fashion, the novel includes a host of other characters and various sub-plots-all of which are connected to the literary world in one form or another. We are introduced to the various branches of the Yule family: John Yule, in poor health who has a sizeable estate and has nothing to do with his brothers or their families, writer Alfred Yule and his daughter, Marian, and the widow and two children of the youngest brother Edmund Yule. Although John Yule does not make an appearance in these pages, his estate and the promise of possible inheritance for his relatives is a sizeable concern and plays a tremendous role in the drama that unfolds.

One of the most interesting aspects of this hugely enjoyable novel is the depiction of working life for the various characters. Edwin Reardon, after scoring a few modest publication successes and selling a novel for 100 pounds has made the mistake of marrying a girl of good family, Amy Yule, the daughter of the late Edmund Yule. Amy has certain expectations, and these expectations have resulted in the Reardons living beyond their means. Jasper predicts disaster and says that Edwin should have married “either a work-girl or an heiress.”   Indeed, as the book develops, just who a writer should marry becomes one of the book’s major themes. If a writer marries a lower class woman, then it’s likely that he will have a wife that accepts living in poverty, while a wife from a middle-class or an upper class background will have expectations that her husband will not be able to provide. This is most certainly the case with the Reardons. Amy cannot cope with poverty and rather than make stringent economies, she pushes her husband to write a novel as speedily as possible, and heavily influenced by Milvain, she agrees that “art  must be practised as a trade.” Meanwhile, Edwin, who would rather be writing obscure scholarly articles, is having difficulty writing a three-volume novel (a popular format of the day) he hopes will sell but it’s a work that he despises. Amy has no sympathy whatsoever, and she sees his inability to write a bestseller as a character flaw, a weakness:

But don’t you feel it’s rather unmanly, this state of things? You say you love me, and I try to believe it. But whilst you are saying so, you let me get nearer and nearer to miserable, hateful poverty. What is to become of me–of us? Shall you sit here day after day until our last shilling is spent?

With the rent due and the money running out, Amy becomes more and more frustrated while Reardon becomes less and less capable of completing his novel. The introduction to my edition, written by Bernard Bergonzi, makes the point that the situation between Reardon and his wife Amy reflects Gissing’s beliefs and experiences with marriage, the writing life and poverty, so perhaps it’s not too surprising that the theme of just who writers can marry pops up repeatedly in the novel. Gissing shows that there’s no easy answer, and the men who marry ‘beneath’ them live to regret it and make their wives pay for their discontent–Alfred Rule, for example, married a shop girl  who was willing to share the garret he lived in, and he treats her little better than an unpaid servant. One chapter begins with the discussion of the marital states of a number of writers  and how the lowly social positions of these spouses have supposedly ruined any chance for success in the literary world. Then again, couldn’t a poor marriage and an inability to move in prominent social circles also act as a smokescreen for a writer of mediocre talent?

Of the acquaintances Yule had retained from his earlier years several were in the well-defined category of men with unpresentable wives. There was Hinks, for instance, whom, though in anger he spoke of him as a bore, Alfred held in some genuine regard.  Hinks made perhaps a hundred a year out of a kind of writing which only certain publishers can get rid of, and of this income he spent about a third on books. His wife was the daughter of a laundress, in whose house he had lodged thirty years ago, when new to London but already long-acquainted with hunger; they lived in complete harmony, but Mrs Hinks, who was four years the elder, still spoke the laundress tongue, unmitigated and unmitigable.

Hinks is just one of the writers in Alfred Yule’s circle of friends. There’s also Christopherson who “worked casually at irresponsible journalism.” Mrs Christopherson is the daughter of a butcher and “disagreeable stories were whispered” about her past. The writers in Yule’s circle do not include their wives in their literary evenings.

These men were capable of better things than they had done or would ever do; in each case their failure to fulfil youthful promise was largely explained by the unpresentable wife. They should have waited; they might have married a social equal at something between fifty and sixty.

Jasper Milvain would agree–a literary man needs a wife who can hold her own in soirées and it’s even better if she can pay for them! Amongst these married men who regret their alliances there are also a number of desperate bachelors–including Whelpdale who proposes to every woman he meets and the immortal, tragic Biffen (no wonder Orwell loved this novel) who longs for the sort of wife that Edwin Reardon has but can’t afford to keep.

The introduction makes the point that while New Grub Street criticises late Victorian society, it offers no solutions. Jasper Milvain is not as great a scoundrel as Maupassant’s Georges Duroy, but there’s a link there, nonetheless. He states early in this 500 page plus novel : “ All my plans and efforts will have money in view–all. I shan’t allow anything to come in the way of my material advancement.” Jasper’s pledge is sorely tested when he finds himself attracted to Marian Yule, a very sincere and talented young woman who works as a ghost writer for her father.

In  spite of the fact that New Grub Street is a critique of late Victorian society, some of the book is surprisingly prescient. Good novels sink and rubbishy ones get rave reviews in all the right literary magazines in the London Circle Jerk of Critical Praise. As the very intelligent and principled Marian observes:

When  already there was more good literature in the world than any mortal could cope with in his lifetime, here she was exhausting herself in the manufacture of printed stuff which no one even pretended to be more than a commodity for the day’s market

New Grub Street is available FREE for the kindle.

Part II: Running the numbers and the triple-decker book ….

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The Vicar of Bullhampton by Anthony Trollope

At just over 500 pages Anthony Trollope’s The Vicar of Bullhampton is a vast, multi-plot Victorian novel in which a lot of things happen. While there’s a brutal murder, and a subsequent hunt for the murderers takes place, for the most part the action revolves around the flawed decisions–some petty and others of a much larger scale–that are made by various characters. As the title suggests, the main character is the vicar of Bullhampton, Frank Fenwick. His role in the novel isn’t at first immediately apparent, for when the novel begins, the story appears to centre on the courtship of Mrs. Fenwick’s friend and house guest, Mary Lowther, by another very close and dear friend of the Fenwicks, Harry Gilmore. Mr Gilmore is in hot pursuit of Mary, but in return, she’s not that keen to marry Mr. Gilmore. She doesn’t love Gilmore, and she has this notion that she wants to marry a man she loves. Unfortunately, there’s no small amount of pressure from the Fenwicks–particularly Mrs. Fenwick who argues that if Mary marries Gilmore, love will follow. Since Mary is practically penniless and Mr Gilmore is the affluent owner of the handsome nearby estate, Hampton Privets, Mary’s refusal to accept Gilmore is rather interestingly interpreted as an act of perversity rather than evidence of integrity.

Another sub-plot concerns the Miller Brattle and his large family originally of “some twelve or fourteen children,” and now with “six still living.” Two of Brattle’s children have gone astray–Carry Brattle, the family beauty has fallen into prostitution while Sam Brattle hangs out with a disreputable crowd and comes and goes at the mill. Miller Brattle, a man who tends to brood over and nurse his grievances, blames the vicar for Sam’s lack of discipline. Miller Brattle isn’t a bad man, but he judges everyone by his own standards of morality and behaviour: 

He was a man with an unlimited love of justice; but the justice which he loved best was justice to himself. He brooded over injuries done to him, -injuries real or fancied,–till he taught himself to wish that all who hurt him might be crucified for the hurt they did him. If any prayer came from him, it was a prayer that his own heart might be hardened that when vengeance came in his way he might take it without stint against the trespasser of the moment. And yet he was not a cruel man. He would almost despise himself, because when the moment for vengeance did come, he would abstain from vengeance. He would dismiss a disobedient servant with curses which would make one’s hair stand on end, and would hope within his heart of hearts that before the end of the next week the man with his wife and children might be in the poorhouse. When the end of the next week came, he would send the wife meat, and would give the children bread, and would despise himself for doing so. In matters of religion, he was an old Pagan, going to no place of worship, saying no prayer, believing in no creed,–with some vague idea that a superior power would bring him right at last, if he worked hard, robbed no one, fed his wife and children, and paid his way. To pay his way was the pride of his heart; to be paid on his way was its joy.

When the novel begins, Harry Gilmore’s proposal to Mary is a month old, and she still cannot give her answer. The Fenwicks are of one mind on the matter

Both she and her husband were painfully anxious that Harry might succeed. Fenwick had loved the man dearly for many years, and Janet Fenwick had loved him since she had known him as her husband’s friend. They both felt that he was showing more of manhood than they had expected of him in the persistency of his love, and that he deserved his reward. And they both believed also that for Mary herself it would be a prosperous and a happy marriage. And then where is the married woman who does not wish that the maiden friend who comes to stay with her should find a husband in her house? The parson and his wife were altogether of one mind in this matter, and thought that Mary Lowther ought to be made to give herself to Harry Gilmore.

A large part of the novel concerns Mary’s dilemma: should she or shouldn’t she marry a man she doesn’t love?

Another major sub-plot concerns a feud that erupts between the Marquis of Trowbridge and the Vicar over the matter of Sam’s involvement in the murder that takes place in Bullhampton. The Vicar, a man of staunch principles, but possessing scant diplomacy at times, offends the Marquis by speaking to him as an equal. As a result, the horribly offended Marquis, nearly apoplectic over the vicar’s insolence, uses the local dissenters led by Mr. Puddleham to exact his petty revenge against his arch-enemy, the well-meaning vicar of Bullhampton. Meanwhile the poor vicar is kept busy trying to ‘save’ both Carry and Sam Brattle and getting very little help from the rest of the Brattle family.

In some ways The Vicar of Bullhampton is a great companion novel to Can You Forgive Her? In that novel, the first of the Palliser series, Alice Vavasour is engaged to the eminently respectable Mr Grey, but she breaks the engagement only to become re-engaged to her disreputable cousin, George Vavasour.  Alice is unaware that she’s rather smoothly manipulated into this position by her best friend, George’s sister, Kate. And in The Vicar of Bullhampton, we see pressure delicately applied with steely determination by Janet Fenwick, Mr Gilmore and by Mary’s aunt. Indeed by the end of the novel, Mr Gilmore’s determination to wed Mary borders on the unhealthy. Is this obsession or simply a man who wants something that, for once, he can’t get? That’s for the reader to decide.

The other major female character in The Vicar of Bullhampton is Carry Brattle–the former family favourite who once turned to prostitution becomes the family pariah. She’s not as fully developed as Mary Lowther, and she remains more of a “type,” and that “type” is the fallen woman–or as Trollope calls her in the preface “a castaway.” While Trollope makes it clear that Carry has made bad choices which had a cumulative result, he shows that Carry’s hard-hearted, self-righteous relatives are largely a smug, unpleasant lot, and through this theme posits the argument that heartlessness and a lack of forgiveness are greater sins than a sexual indiscretion that led to abandonment and a life of prostitution. In The Vicar of Bullhampton Trollope exposes the folly of human behaviour, and through the Marquis of Trowbridge’s feud with the vicar we see class snobbery, while through the extended Brattle family, we see moral snobbery. Both forms of snobbery lead to the notion of superiority and a lack of accountability, and through his characters Trollope argues that we are not perfect and that none of us are above accountability to our fellow-man.

The Vicar of Bullhampton is simply a delightful novel. Yes, there are a couple of true villains here, but for the most part Trollope has created flawed human beings who act as they think best, and sometimes they learn to revise those decisions whether they want to or not. The vicar of Bullhampton must learn to forgive his enemy in spite of the fact that his deepest and most insulting grievances are not addressed, and the inflexible Miller Brattle battles an internal struggle over conflicting moral beliefs. Trollope’s impeccable presentation of these events ensures a lasting fondness for his all-too human characters.

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Jury selection in Anthony Trollope’s The Vicar of Bullhampton

I’ll post a review of Anthony Trollope’s novel The Vicar of Bullhampton this month, but ever since I finished this marvellous novel, I’ve found myself thinking about a passage that concerns jury selection. A murder takes place early in the novel, and here towards the end of our story, jury selection begins. I was rather surprised by this passage:

At that moment the court was occupied in deciding whether a certain tradesman, living at Devizes, should or should not be on the jury. The man himself objected that, being a butcher, he was, by reason of the second nature acquired in his business, too cruel, and too bloody-minded to be entrusted with an affair of life and death. To a proposition in itself so reasonable no direct answer was made; but it was argued with great power on behalf of the crown, which seemed to think at the time that the whole case depended on getting this one particular man into the jury box, that the recalcitrant juryman was not in truth a butcher, that he was only a dealer in meat, and that though the stain of blood descended the cruelty did not.

I found this small aside, set within a 500 page plus novel, fascinating. The man’s objections were not dismissed out of hand–rather his livelihood was defined as ‘not to be cruel’ since he just sold the meat and was not a butcher after all.

In Upton Sinclair’s 1906 book The Jungle, the workers in an abattoir are desensitized to violence, and as a consequence rapes, murders and brawls occur. Strange to connect Trollope and Sinclair together, but the connection is there–even in just a small aside.

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Humiliated and Insulted by Dostoevsky

“There’s a peculiar gratification to be derived from the sudden tearing-down of a mask, from the cynicism of not deigning to betray any sense of shame in suddenly exposing oneself to another indecently.”

I wanted to read Dostoevsky’s novel Humiliated and Insulted after watching a Russian biopic television series about this incredible writer. Apparently this novel, first published in 1861 in the magazine Vermya, isn’t read much these days, and after finishing it, I can see why. The novel lacks the lively humour and craziness of Notes from Underground, and it also lacks the magnificent sense of impending doom found in Demons. In fact, I’d have to say that more than anything else, Humilated and Insulted reminded me of Dickens –a St Petersburg version, of course, but the Dickens influence seems present nonetheless. Dostoevsky was an admirer of Dickens and read David Copperfield and The Old Curiosity Shop during his time at a penal colony in Siberia.  Dostoevsky travelled to London in 1862 and there’s some speculation whether he met Dickens during his eight day stay in England.

But what of Humiliated and Insulted? This is a new translation by Ignat Avsey and this edition from Oneworld Classics comes with a number of pictures of the important people in the author’s life along with a couple of the book’s original illustrations.   

The novel is narrated by a writer, Vanya (Ivan Petrovich), and the story begins with Vanya looking for lodgings in the cheaper areas of St Petersburg. Needless to say the writer is very poor, but he’s also feeling ill when he spots a skinny old man followed by an equally skinny old dog. The writer is intrigued by the sight of such abject misery and follows the decrepit pair, dog and owner, into a coffee house. Later he follows the man into the street and witnesses his death. It seems fated that Vanya will rent the room now left unoccupied by the old man. There’s a great deal of mystery about the circumstances the old man lived in, but his death seems to be the end of the thread. It isn’t, of course.

The book starts off very strongly indeed with Vanya and the last mysterious words of the old man, and then we discover that Vanya is in love with Natasha (Natalya Nikolayevna) the only daughter of a minor landowner named Ikhmenev. Vanya, who was orphaned, was unofficially adopted by Ikhmenev, and so naturally Vanya and Natasha grew up with a close bond but they were separated when Vanya went off to boarding school. Since we’re told that Ikhmenev took in Vanya, we know that he’s a good man, but he’s also had a troubled past:

Nikolai Sergeich Ikhmenev came of a good family which had long since been reduced to poverty. However, after his parents’ death he came into possession of a sizeable piece of property with some hundred and fifty souls. At about the age of twenty he decided to enlist in the Hussars. Everything went well until one disastrous evening in the sixth year of his commission when he gambled away his whole fortune at cards. He didn’t sleep that night. The next evening he again turned up at the gaming table and staked his horse–his last possession–on one card. He won, then a second time, then a third, and half an hour later he had recouped one of his hamlets, Ikhmenevka, an estate which at the last census had numbered some fifty souls.

Apparently Ikhmenev knew to stop while he was ahead, so he resigned from the Hussars and retired to his small country estate. He never gambled again. Ikhmenev married a “dowryless” woman and carefully tended his estate. His reputation as an excellent manager grew to the extent that the visiting owner of the adjoining estate, Vasilevskoye “which numbered nine hundred souls,” a certain prince Pyotr Alexandrovich Valkovsky begins to cultivate a friendship with Ikhmenev and his wife. Although the Prince has a nasty reputation, Ikhmenev and his wife, Anna find him charming, and this is partly due to the fact that Valkovsky appears to single them out for attention. Then Valkovsky fires his German steward and offers the job to Ikhmenev, and he unfortunately accepts….

One of the book’s themes is the inability of good, honest people (the humiliated and insulted) to cope with truly evil characters, and this is apparent through several relationships in the book. Valkovsky is an evil man, and just how evil becomes apparent as the plot plays out.

Most of the plot gravitates around two situations: Vanya takes Nelly, a filthy epileptic orphan girl under his wing and saves her from being pimped to a pedophile, and part of the plot concerns the mystery of her background. Another huge chunk of the plot concerns Natasha, the daughter of Ikhmenev and her love affair with an emotionally immature nobleman, Alyosha. 

Dostoevsky’s narrator has a problematic role. He’s a bystander for a huge chunk of the plot, and so he sees and relates the events that take place. There are many scenes of Vanya running over to see Natasha who’s in tears (again) thanks to the latest neglect from her lover. Then the lover appears and dashes off again only to disappear for another 4 days or so.  This cycle is repeated several times. A large chunk of the book appears to have very little forward motion as it hovers on Natasha’s stagnant love affair. Another fault can be found in the fact that Vanya is a bit slow to catch on to the true story behind the orphan’s mysterious past, and as a narrator, he isn’t particularly savvy.

But this is still Dostoevsky, and in my book, he’s untouchable. It’s not his best of course, but still well worth reading. One of the interesting aspects of the book is its look at sexual depravity:

There used to be a mentally sick clerk in Paris–he was confined to an asylum after he was finally pronounced unbalanced. Well then, during his bouts of madness this is how he used to amuse himself: he’d undress at home, stark-naked as the day he was born, down to his shoes, throw a large, ankle-length cloak over his shoulders, wrap himself up in it and, affecting a grand and self-important air, step out into the  street. To look at he was just like anyone else. A man in a large cloak strolling for his pleasure. But no sooner would he see some lone passer-by ahead with no one else about than he’d walk straight towards him, with the most serious and profound expression on his face, stop in front of him suddenly, fling his cloak open and expose himself in all his… glory. He’d stand for about a minute in silence, then cover himself up again and, keeping a straight face and with perfect composure, glide past the thunderstruck observer regally, like the ghost in Hamlet. He’d do that to everybody–men, women, children–and that’s all he needed to keep him happy.

While there are some shady and flawed characters, the Prince, who is unleashed in the final section, is the nastiest and also the most interesting character in the book. He’s a supreme pervie, and Dostoevsky’s frank approach to these sexual matters was refreshing for the 19th century:

Ideals I have none and have no wish to have any, never having missed them anyway. One can survive in this world so comfortably, so nicely without them…

The poverty and vice connection combined with the condemnation of a flawed social system that allows evils to thrive reminded me strongly of Dickens, and Dostoevsky’s novel also contains the sort of sentimentality found in Dickens through its two female victims, the orphan and Natasha. Here’s a speech made to Nelly  from a woman who sells children to wealthy pedophiles:

“Oh you damned bloodsucker, you louse, you!” The woman screamed, letting out an unpuncuated stream of abuse, gasping but not pausing for breath, “so this is how you repay me for all my care, you shaggy wretch! I send her off for some gherkins and off she sneaks! I knew it in my heart when I sent her she’d slope off. I felt it in me bones, I did! Last night I practically scalped her for it and today she’s up to the same old trick! Where’ve you been, you strumpet, where? Who could you go running to, you damned freak, you poisonous wretch, who? Tell me, you bog-trotting vermin, or I’ll strangle you on the spot!” 

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At the Sign of the Cat and Racket by Balzac

“This is what comes of sight-seeing,” exclaimed Monsieur Guillaume, “a headache.”

When I saw the title At the Sign of the Cat and Racket,  my first thought was that this Balzac novel concerned a pub. No, the sign of the title is actually an old painting which serves as a trade indicator on the outside of a draper’s shop in 19th century Paris. In this story, Balzac examines how class differences impact male-female relationships, and he also asks the question ‘does it take a particular kind of  woman to live with a man of genius?’  I’d hazard a guess that the question is self-reflective, and that question pales next to the issue of class differences between the characters. Furthermore the behaviour of the fictional ‘man of genius’ in the story, Theodore de Sommervieux, isn’t entirely motivated by his intelligence.

The novella opens on the Rue Saint-Denis with a description of a very old house “which enable[s] historians to reconstruct old Paris by analogy.” The house which is also a business is a “relic of the civic life of the sixteenth century.”  The house, Balzac tells us, “had been encrusted with as many coats of different paint as there are of rouge on an old duchess’ cheek,” and the ancient painting of a cat  is weather-worn and faded. Opposite the house, a young man stands in the pouring rain. He stares at the house … waiting, and of course, it’s easy to guess that he’s waiting for the glimpse of a young girl.

The young man is  Theodore de Sommervieux, artist and scion of a wealthy family. He’s there to catch a glance of a young woman who’s caught his eye, 18-year-old Augustine Guillaume, the youngest daughter of the shopkeeper and master draper, Monsieur Guillaume. The worthy Guillaume has two daughters, and he has a plan to marry the eldest 28-year-old Mademoiselle Virginie, to his long-standing apprentice and chief assistant, the orphaned Joseph Lebas. Guillaume’s plan is that Lebas, who’s like a son to him, will make the legal move to become his son-in-law by marrying Virginie. Then Lebas and Virginie will eventually take over the business and Guillaume and his wife will retire. Well that’s the plan anyway.

 The Guillaume family lead a simple but good life. As daughters of a tradesman, the education of the daughters is sadly limited:

Brought up to a commercial life, accustomed to hear nothing but dreary arguments and calculations about trade, having studied nothing but grammar, book-keeping, a little bible-history, and the history of France in Le Ragois, and never reading any book but what their mother would sanction, their ideas had not acquired much scope. They knew perfectly how to keep house; they were familiar with the prices of things; they understood the difficulty of amassing money; they were economical, and had a great respect for the qualities that make a man of business.

But there’s trouble on the horizon. Virginie and Augustine have been brought up to marry tradesmen, but Augustine may long for something more:

It is possible that two romances discovered by Augustine in the cupboard of a cook Madame Guillaume had lately discharged– Hippolyte Comte de Douglas and Le Comte de Comminges–may have contributed to develop the ideas of the young girl, who had devoured them in secret, during the long nights of the past winter.

Those blasted romances always cause trouble!

Imagine how Augustine feels, then, when she attends the Paris Salon and sees a portrait of her on display. All those romantic thoughts must have rushed through her head. She’s infused with “rapture,” a “chaos of sensations,” and she almost faints.

So it would appear that Balzac has written a fairly simple love story. Apprentice Joseph Lebas is in love with Augustine;  Augustine is in love with Theodore de Sommervieux, and Virginie is in love with Joseph. Will Guillaume, who believes firmly in marrying within one’s class, allow his daughter Augustine to marry Sommervieux? Will Sommervieux marry Augustine? What of Virginie and Lebas? There’s a “crazy mania” for “commerce and finance” to marry into the nobility, but this goes against Guillaume’s staunch principles.

This is the delightful element of this Balzac story–we think we can predict its twists and turns, but Balzac has a few surprises in store.

Balzac has some marvellous comments to make on the subject of trade. The Guillaumes engage in a laborious period of stock-taking during which they called out stock items and their value which were “spouted over the counters like verses of modern poetry, quoted by romantic spirits, to excite each other’s enthusiasm for one of their poets.” And here’s Balzac’s take on the Guillaumes:

In the evening, Guillaume, shut up with his assistant and his wife balanced his accounts, carried on the balance, wrote to debtors in arrears, and made out bills. All three were busy over this enormous labor, of which the result could be stated on a sheet of foolscap, proving to the head of the house that there was so much to the good in hard cash, so much in goods, so much in bills and notes; that he did not owe a sou; that a hundred or two hundred thousand francs were owing to him; that the capital had been increased; that the farmlands, the houses, or the investments were extended, or repaired, or doubled. Whence it became necessary to begin again with increased ardor, to accumulate more crown-pieces, without its ever entering the brain of these laborious ants to ask–”To what end?”

Yet at the same time, Balzac finds a great deal that’s admirable about Guillaume and his life. He’s a good man, a moral man. He lacks imagination, and is too parsimonious, but then his talents lie elsewhere.  Balzac’s biggest beef about their lifestyle seems to be ‘when are these people going to start enjoying themselves?‘ The annual stock-taking is rewarded by a rare “debauch,” a trip to the theatre.

Translated by Clara Bell

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Happy Xmas to Emma: A Virtual Gift Exchange

Some weeks ago, Emma from Book Around the Corner and I decided to have a virtual gift exchange for Xmas. This sprang from admiration for Caroline & Lizzy‘s joint venture: German Literature month 11/12. For various reasons, Emma and I scaled down our joint project, and this brings me to the virtual gift exchange.

Here are the rules:

1)We each select 4 books for each other

2) We announce the selection on Xmas day

3) We read and review them.

I chewed over a lot of possibilities for Emma. Dilemma: should I select books that are sure bets (Thomas Hardy)? Or should I take a chance? When we select gifts for people, do we buy things they’d buy for themselves or do we stretch in our choices?

So here’s the line-up

1) Washington Square by Henry James (free on kindle)

I’m sure Emma would love Portrait of a Lady, but I selected Washington Square as it’s not mammoth, but it’s a tight well-drawn story of one woman’s narrow life. Emma read What Maisie Knew earlier this year, and I think Washington Square will give another, better view of James.

 2) Miss Mackenzie by Anthony Trollope (free on kindle)

I’m sure that Emma will enjoy the droll humour of Trollope, but I don’t want to stick her with an 800+pages. This made my choice a bit more difficult (as the natural choice would be Barchester Towers), but I finally landed a novel of reasonable size, and I think Miss Mackenzie, a sleeper Trollope novel, is the perfect introduction. The novel isn’t talked about much, but it’s marvellous. It’s the story of a woman considered an ‘old maid’  who inherits a little bit of money, and suddenly she has several suitors. With his customary wit, Trollope shows just how money changes this woman’s life. Trollope was, btw, interested in women’s rights and how they got shafted on the issue of inheritance.

3) Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

I love this book. It’s my favourite Hitchcock film, but the book’s considerably darker than the film. I think Emma will enjoy the novel’s dark, twisted psychological aspects, and the emphasis is not on violence but on personality.

4) An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge

Of the four novels I selected this was the most difficult due to the fact I wanted to pick something modern, and that left a huge range for selection. This novel is set in 1950s Liverpool and is the story of a young girl named Stella who joins a seedy repertory company as a sort of go-fer, and Stella is unleashed into the adult world. This is one of Bainbridge’s best. Funny, poignant, and vicious all at the same time.

Anyway, Happy Xmas Emma. Thanks for your friendship, and I hope you enjoy these books. And if you get bored, 3 of the 4 are available as film versions.

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Lenz by George Büchner

I admit that I’d never heard of Lenz–Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz (1751-1792) until this review copy from Archipelago Books . Wikipedia identifies Lenz as a Baltic German writer of the Sturm und Drang movement. Here comes a slight digression….what is it with these artists who slotted into significant literary movements? Did they feel as though they had to live the very essence of the movement they were part of? Take the Sturm und Drang movement, for example. Lenz is one of those authors who fall under the movement’s umbrella, and his life appears to be an embodiment of the movement. Of course, this sets the mind off thinking about Oscar Wilde and the Decadents, Charles Bukowski and Transgressive Fiction, Byron and the Romantics etc… There’s a lot here to chew on, but back to Lenz.

Lenz is composed of the 1839 novella Lenz by Georg Büchner, Mr. L ... by Johann Friedrich Oberlin, and an excerpt concerning Lenz from Goethe’s Poetry and Truth. According to translator Richard Sieburth, Büchner’s Lenz is “an experiment in speculative biography.” Lenz, the son of a minister, rejected the study of theology and instead turned to literature. He then left his studies to become a “tutor” to the two young barons von Kleist and followed them to a number of garrisons. Later, he made friends with Goethe and became part of a group of young writers. A period of some literary success followed, but Lenz’s relationship with Goethe turned sour, and at Goethe’s instigation, Lenz was thrown out of the Weimar court. The translator’s afterword goes into some detail about the incidents that took place, but to give a hint: the trouble erupts over a woman.

Lenz begins with our main character, Lenz, wandering on the mountains. A simple walk turns into a monumental, epic journey, and we are privy to Lenz’s increasingly fragmented thoughts. It’s not immediately apparent, but becomes so as the story plays out, that Lenz is on the fringes of a total mental meltdown:

Everything seemed so small, so near, so wet, he would have liked to set the earth down behind an oven, he could not grasp why it took so much time to clamber down a slope, to reach a distant point; he was convinced he could cover it all with a pair of strides. Only sometimes when the storm tossed the clouds into the valleys and they floated upwards through the woods and voices awakened on the rocks, like far-echoing thunder at first and the approaching in strong gusts, sounding as if they wanted to chant the praises of the earth in their wild rejoicing, and the clouds galloped by like the wild whinnying horses and the sunshine shot through them and emerged and drew its glinting sword on the snowfields so that a bright blinding light knifed over the peaks into the valleys; or sometimes when the storms drove the clouds downwards and tore a light-blue lake into them and the sound of the wind died away and then like the murmur of a lullaby or pealing bells rose up again from the depths of ravines and tips of fir trees and a faint reddishness climbed into the deep blue and small clouds drifted by on silver wings and all the mountain peaks, sharp and firm, glinted and gleamed far across the countryside, he would feel something tearing at his chest, he would stand there, gasping, body bent forward, eyes and mouth open wide, he was convinced he could draw the storm into himself, he stretched out and lay over the earth, he burrowed into the universe, it was a pleasure that gave him pain

That passage captures the beauty of nature–its violence and its peace, and through the sentence structure we also see Lenz’s erratic state of mind. But this scene is nothing compared to what awaits. An Alsatian pastor takes Lenz in to his home, and it’s there that Lenz unravels. The novella is a fictionalised account of the three weeks Lenz spent with Oberlin.

The second part of this volume, Mr. L  is an extract from the diary written by Johann Friedrich Oberlin, the pastor who took on more than he planned when he took Lenz into his home. Oberlin chronicles three weeks of hell with Lenz throwing himself out of the window, trying to drown himself and getting way too familiar with a pair of scissors.

The third section’s matter-of-factness, written by Goethe, is in stark contrast to Lenz’s wildly irrational behaviour:

One is aware of that species of self-torture which, in the absence of any external or social constraints, was then the order of the dat, afflicting precisely those possessed of the most exceptional minds. Things that torment ordinary people only in passing and which, because unengaged in self-contemplation, they seek to banish from their thoughts, were instead acutely registered and observed by the better sort, and set down in books and diaries.

….

Of all the full- or half-time idlers intent on digging into their inmost depths, Lenz excelled in cultivating and perpetuating this state of conflict, and thus he suffered in general from that tendency of the age to which the depiction of Werther was meant to put a stop; but he was cut from a different cloth, which set him apart from all the others, whom one had to admit were throughly open, decent creatures. He, by contrast, had a decided propensity for intrigue, indeed, for intrigue pure and simple, without any particular goal in view, be it reasonable, personal, or attainable; on the contrary, he was always concocting some twisted scheme, whose very contortions were enough to keep him wholly entertained. In this way, throughout his life his fancies played him for a rascal, his loves were as imaginary as his hates, he juggled his ideas and feelings at whim, so that he would always have something to do. By these topsy-turvy means, he would attempt to impart reality to his sympathies and antipathies, and then would himself destroy this creation again; and so he was never of use to anybody he loved, nor did he ever do harm to anybody he hated, and in general he seemed only to sin in order to punish himself, only to intrigue in order to graft some new fiction onto an old one.

Obviously when Goethe wrote this, he was long out of patience with a man he once considered his friend–or at least someone you could safely invite into your home.  This volume gives us three very different views of Lenz–all of them unhappy, all of them tortured. Lenz seems to be a truly damaged individual–although Goethe indicates that at least some of the drama was fabricated. Lenz ended up in Russia, and he died there in 1792, aged 41, homeless on a Moscow street.

A few words on this edition… In terms of quality, the book reminds me of those excellent little high-quality pocket-sized editions from Pushkin Press. The cover is made of heavy card with flaps for both front and back covers. This is a dual German-English edition which is rather wasted on me as my two years of German stagnated after the discovery of the word “vater.” But really, this volume is a gem for anyone interested in German Literature (even if, like me, you can’t speak the language).

Special thanks to Amy at The Black Sheep Dances for arranging this review copy.

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