Tag Archives: British literature

Footsucker by Geoff Nicholson

I’m not demanding the full-blown romantic love thing, but in general I don’t think you can love a person just for their feet, much less for their shoes.”

Another entry in my Year of Geoff Nicholson, and this brings me to Footsucker, a novel, which I freely admit, is not for everyone. But first let me say that I knew a footsucker–the correct term being Foot Fetishist, I believe. Yes, it’s true, I knew a man who appeared to be perfectly normal in every way, and yet he managed to get himself arrested for frenziedly sucking women’s toes. In public. Without their permission. Was I shocked or surprised? Well yes, sort of. I’d noticed that he really paid a lot of attention to the feet of women passing by. He always noted painted nails and well-tended feet while I tended to be oblivious. After his arrest, I considered why he hadn’t been able to find a consenting partner, and asked myself if the illicit nature of his obsession was part of the fun. I suppose that knowing that man led me to be very interested in Geoff Nicholson’s novel, Footsucker–because the author really seems to get his facts right, and he could have been writing about the foot fetishist I knew. Not that I’m an expert or anything.

FootsuckerI’ve mentioned before, that Nicholson seems to find obsessives interesting subject matter–curious really as obsessives in real life can be rather boring people–always rabbiting on about the same thing. In Footsucker, the narrator is a man who’s obsessed with women’s feet. When the novel begins, he has organized a nice little scam (again not unlike the true case I just mentioned). He hangs about on the street, looking respectable in a suit and a tie, and pretending to be “attached to a fashion PR company,” he carries a clipboard that is just a prop for the ‘market research’ he professes to gather. In reality, this is a way to stop women, ask them about their shoes, and if he’s lucky, snap a few photos he can drool over later. He often hangs about outside of shoe shops, and most women go along with his little scam until he starts asking whether or not they wear shoes during sex. That question is usually the deal breaker. Then one Friday, he meets Catherine, a tall, attractive American woman wearing an unusual pair of shoes, “spike-heeled, zebra-skins“:

I approached her. She stopped willingly enough and when I asked how many pairs of shoes she had, she said about two hundred and fifty. No doubt my eyes lit up, and I hoped I wasn’t drooling. I asked her what the shoes were like. She said, and I took it down word for word, ‘High heels, peep-toes, ankle straps, a lot of red and black leather, some very soft suede, one or two in silk, some fur mules, some ankle boots, some thigh boots, lots of weird animal skins; you know, your basic set of slut’s shoes.’

I felt like all my Christmases had come at once. When I asked if I could photograph her from the ankles down she was delighted. I squatted down on the pavement and started shooting the zebra-skin shoes. She moved her feet for me, arching them, turning her ankles this way and that, displaying them for me to admire. She really seemed to be getting into it.

This is the beginning of the relationship between the narrator and Catherine, so here we have a foot fetishist and a woman who’s happy to go along with her new boyfriend’s tastes. To the narrator, his wildest fantasies are now fulfilled, and he can finally indulge his sexual preferences with a consenting partner–a woman who happens to have perfect feet. All those scrap books, his video collection, and his own private shoe collection–all hidden from the world up to this point–can finally be shared, appreciated and understood. The narrator even has the great good fortune to meet a shoemaker with a “dark edge to his work”  who specializes in making FM (Fuck-Me) shoes, and this peculiar, grimy, desperate little man, is the second person to become obsessed with Catherine’s feet….

Something strange always happens when sexual fantasies are fulfilled: perhaps a wrinkle is created in the Cosmos as moral boundaries, often invisible until we know we’ve crossed them, shift into unexplored and sometimes uncomfortable territory. While Footsucker is the story of one man’s very specific sexual obsession, there’s an underlying thread which addresses the testing of boundaries and morality and comfort levels. The story is also full of foot trivia as the narrator confides his thoughts to the reader, so we read about various foot shots in many films, the narrator’s views of the deficiency of men’s magazines,  as well as some foot fetishist terminology. Ultimately, however, the story turns out to be a bit of a who-dun-it. But be prepared, there are lots of sex scenes in the book, so you can’t say you haven’t been warned.

One aspect of the novel, and we see this in the title, is that foot fetishists seem to be on the lower end of the totem pole in the fetish world. The narrator doesn’t think that his ‘interest’ is taken seriously, and given the response evoked from a few of the characters in the book, it would seem that the narrator is onto something. His attempts to confide in people usually end in humiliation of one sort or another, and a great part of the book seems to be the narrator’s attempts to claim understanding and acceptance–a paradox as, after all, fetishes are normally kept private. And here’s one response from an uncaring member of the British police force:

I’ve heard it all. And I’ve seen most of it. And as long as no one gets hurt and as long as kids and drugs and animals aren’t involved, then who really cares? Some people want to drink each other’s piss, some want to shove their fists up each other’s backsides. There are blokes out there who like to have their foreskins nailed to the floorboards. Now you and I might think they’re sick, filthy sods who should be taken outside and given a good kicking, but anyway, it’s a free country, isn’t it?

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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 Trumpet-Major by Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy’s novel, The Trumpet-Major, published in 1880, is a great favourite. It’s certainly not one of his masterpiece tragedies (Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure), but neither is the book as light as his rural humorous romance Under The Greenwood Tree. The Trumpet-Major is a curious novel for the manner in which Hardy slips the lives of his characters into historic events–he includes the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson, and the ship the Victory in this story. This puts a date on the action, but for the rest of the novel, we are on fairly familiar ground as Hardy explores that ever fertile yet oddly complicated territory surrounding the choices and motivations of women. Hardy sets the romance and courtship of a young Wessex woman against the upheaval and uncertainty of impending war.

The woman under scrutiny here is Anne Garland, the only daughter of an impoverished widow. Anne’s father was a respected, local artist, but his death led to a downturn in circumstances, and mother and daughter now occupy one half of Overcombe Millhouse with the miller occupying the other side. While there’s a partition constructed to separate the two dwellings, there are also invisible class divisions between the two households. This creates some awkwardness. After all, materially the miller is better off than the widowed Mrs Garland, but she is, socially speaking, considered more “genteel” than the man she pays rent to. The Miller Loveday handles the awkward situation delicately. He brings his tenants a few items now and again and his employee does the gardening for both households.

Miller Loveday has designs on the Widow Garland. Everyone seems to know this–although it’s not openly discussed, but while romance is in the air, the heroine of the tale is young Anne Garland. Anne is not one of Hardy’s magnificent heroines (Tess, Bathsheba, or even Eustacia). In The Trumpet-Major, Anne, like Far From the Madding Crowd‘s Bathsheba must choose between three suitors. Unlike Bathsheba,  Anne is not a particularly flawed woman, and she’s not the sort who will drive men to madness. In many ways, Anne is reminiscent of an Austen heroine.

Anne’s three suitors are: Festus Derriman–a bombastic, sexually aggressive man, “red-haired and of florid complexion,” who is expected to inherit his uncle’s estate, and the two sons of Miller Loveday, sailor Bob, and trumpet-major John. For material and social reasons, Festus is Anne’s mother’s choice, and for most of the novel, and sometimes with great comic results, Festus pursues Anne at every opportunity, and repeatedly tries to corner her when she’s alone in a no-holds barred fashion that even raises the threat of rape:

Some of the guests then spoke of Fess Derriman as not such a bad young man if you took him right and humoured him; others said that he was nobody’s enemy but his own; and the elder ladies mentioned in a tone of interest that he was likely to come into a deal of money at his uncle’s death. The person who did not praise was the one who knew him the best, who had known him as a boy years ago, when he lived nearer to Overcombe than he did at present. This unappreciative person was the trumpet-major.

The main dilemma, then, occurs between Bob and John Loveday, and concerns exactly who Anne will choose. Anne has had a long-standing affection for Bob, but Bob is thoughtless, fickle and shallow. John Loveday, however, the trumpet-major of the title, is the opposite of his brother. He’s reliable, quiet, thoughtful, and deeply in love with Anne.

The novel begins with the sudden arrival in the countryside of a great army. The villagers expect an imminent French invasion (Hardy’s grandmother told tales of the “invasion scare“), and the bivouacking of soldiers close to the miller’s home only endorses these rumours. As the soldiers make camp, an air of excitement reigns:

Though nobody seemed to be looking on but the few at the window and in the village street, there were, as a matter of fact, many eyes converging on that military arrival in its high and conspicuous position, not to mention the glances of birds and other wild creatures. Men in distant gardens, women in orchards and at cottage-doors, shepherds on remote hills, turnip-hoers in blue-green enclosures miles away, captains with spy-glasses out at sea, were regarding the picture keenly. Those three or four thousand men of one machine-like movement, some of them swashbucklers by nature; others, doubtless, of a quiet shop-keeping position who had inadvertently got into uniform–all of them had arrived from nobody knew where, and hence were a matter of great curiosity. They seemed to the mere eye to belong to a different order of beings from those who inhabited the valleys below.

 Bonaparte and the French army are expected to invade any day, so the locals are in a continuous fever pitch which is occasionally ignited by rumors that the French, ready to pillage, have actually landed. Hardy uses this with comic results that are reminiscent of the thrills anticipated by the spinsters of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford.

Hardy moves his lovers around like chess pieces as various situations take place just before and after The Battle of Trafalgar Square. Many of the complications which arise are due to both Bob and John stepping out-of-the-way for his sibling, and other complications arise from misunderstandings. Hardy seems entranced with Anne’s choice–a choice which really defies any logic, and instead must be chalked up to the mysteries of the heart. While it’s easy to dismiss this as one of Hardy’s lesser novels, The Trumpet-Major is more complex than it first appears. This bittersweet story may seem lighthearted in comparison to other Hardy masterpieces, but the story is laced with the tragedies that will occur off the page and after the book’s conclusion. While the characters live and mingle in fairly happy even amusing circumstances, Hardy peppers the tale with hints of the fate that awaits some of the military men. This future darkness runs throughout the story:

It was just the time of year when cherries are ripe, and hang in clusters under their dark leaves. While the troopers loitered on their horses, and chatted to the miller across the stream, he gathered bunches of the fruit, and held them up over the garden hedge for the acceptance of anybody who would have them; whereupon the soldiers rode into the water to where it had washed holes in the garden bank, and, reining their horses there, caught the cherries in their forage caps, or received bunches of them on the ends of their switches, with the dignified laugh that became martial men when stooping to slightly boyish amusement. It was a cheerful, careless, unpremeditated half-hour, which returned like the scent of a flower to the memories of some of those who enjoyed it, even at a distance of many years after, when they lay wounded and weak in foreign lands.

The comic scenes of the drunken flirtatious, egotistical Festus Derriman are set in wonderful juxtaposition to the seriousness of the events beyond Wessex. The ugliness of the Press Gang is one clear incidence of the outside world’s invasion into the Wessex countryside, and yet not every man has to be press-ganged into servitude. Many enlist of their own free will, drawn by the perceived thrill of battle, promise of ‘adventure,’  and the ignominy of staying at home while war is waged by others on foreign shores. There’s the sense that while the Napoleonic Wars unsettle the green, rich fields of Wessex, things may never quite return to the innocence of the summer of that pre-war period.

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A Tale Told by Moonlight by Leonard Woolf

“But who ever felt the sun set or rise in London or Torquay either? It doesn’t: you just turn on or off the electric light.”

Yes, a collection of shorts by Leonard Woolf aka Mr Virginia Woolf, the man with the famous missus. A Tale Told by Moonlight is one of those delicious little gems from Hesperus Press–3 short stories and two extracts from Woolf’s memoir Growing: An Autobiography of the Years 1904-1911. Woolf (1880-1969) was a civil servant in Ceylon during this time, so the extracts of the memoir along with the stories are bundled together appropriately and are Conradian in tone. This volume also includes an excellent foreword from Victoria Glendinning. Glendinning’s name added to the attraction of this slim volume. She’s an excellent biographer (she’s written bios on Leonard Woolf and Anthony Trollope amongst others), and she’s also written a number of novels including the very, very funny Grown-Ups).

The three short stories are: A Tale Told by Moonlight, Pearls and Swine, and The Two Brahmans. The first two are superior, I think, but I prefer Pearl and Swine.

A Tale Told by Moonlight begins with a group of middle-aged and elderly men who are gathered at the home of a novelist called Alderton. Mrs. Alderton is not at home, so it’s an evening of men, for men:

It was a piping hot June day, and we strolled out after dinner in the cool moonlight down the great fields which lead to the river. It was very cool, very beautiful, very romantic lying there on the grass above the river bank, watching the great trees in the moonlight and the silver water slipping along so musically to the sea. We grew silent and sentimental–at least I know I did.

As the men sit in the cool of the evening, two lovers walk by, and their presence sparks a discussion on the subject of love. This is then, a tale within a tale. There’s the narrator who recalls an evening spent in the company of other men, and then the narrator relates a tale told by one of the men– Jessop, a man “many people did not like.”

 The conversation turns to first loves as the men “looked back with regret, with yearning to our youth and to love.” The men discussed “love, the great passion, the real thing which had just passed us by so closely in the moonlight.” Jessop, however, is initially silent, but is provoked to speak when it seems he can stand the talk of romance no longer. Jessop insists that real love is rare:

It’s you novelists who’re responsible, you know. You’ve made a world in which everyone is always falling in love–but it’s not this world. Here it’s the flicker of the body.

I don’t say there isn’t such a thing. There is. I’ve seen it, but it’s rare, as rare as-as-a perfect horse, an Arab once said to me.

According to Jessop, he’s only seen two cases of “real love.” He argues:

It’s only when we don’t pay for it that we call it romance and love, and the most we would ever pay is a 5 pound note.

A singular view indeed. But Jessop then rewards his listeners with the story of one of the two cases of “real love” and it isn’t pretty. He recalls knowing a man he calls Reynolds–a man he’d known in school:

There seemed to be in him something in him somewhere, some power of feeling under nervousness and shyness. I can’t say it ever came out, but he interested me.

After the two men left school, Reynolds became the successful author of a number of romantic novels, and Reynolds and Jessop kept in touch. One day Reynolds arrives in the Ceylon and Jessop takes him under his wing and commits to giving him a taste of life in the East. Inevitably they visit a brothel and Reynolds becomes obsessed with one of the young girls there.

A Tale Told by Moonlight is a tale within a tale, and it seems to be the complex story of love in which the tale teller, Jessop, claims a story of ‘real love” without really understanding what he’s talking about. This is a tragic tale which echoes shades of Pechorin’s love affair with Bela–the relationship and clashes between two cultures with the dominant culture (British in the case of Reynolds and Jessop) labouring under the tragic illusion that only a so-called ‘superior’ culture is capable of finer feelings.

Pearls and Swine has a similar sort of set-up–a room full of men harping on about their favourite subject. In this story, the narrator is on a week’s holiday in a “large gaudy uncomfortably comfortable hotel” in Torquay. It’s evening, and the male guests have gathered in the “smoking rooms” and are drinking before going to bed. The subject at hand is colonialism, “Indian unrest” and how the colonies should be ‘managed.’ Each man has his own theory of what should be done, and pomposity, ignorance, and hypocrisy are thick in the air that night, until finally a man who’s lived in Ceylon for years weighs in. He tells a horrific story of pearl harvesting:

Well, we rule India and the sea, so the sea belongs to us, and the oysters are in the sea and the pearls are in the oysters. Therefore the pearls belong to us.

The man describes the pearl harvesting operation which involves the British government taking 2/3 of the oysters hauled up and leaving 1/3 to the men who takes all the risks bringing the oysters up from the sea. The man describes how a young British man named Robson–a man with “views” is sent out to manage the oyster farming camp:

Yes, he had views; he used to explain them to me when he first arrived. He got some new ones I think before he got out of that camp. You’d say he only saw details, things happen, facts, data. Well, he did that too. He saw men die–he hadn’t seen that in his Board School–die of plague or cholera, like flies, all over the place, under the trees, in the boats, outside the little door of his own little hut. And he saw flies, too, millions, billions of them all day long buzzing, crawling over everything, his hands, his little fresh face, his food. And he smelt the smell of millions of decaying oysters all day long and all night long for six long weeks.

The man who tells this dire tale relates what happened one horrible, unforgettable night, and through this tale he hopes to illustrate that “views” fall apart when faced with the ugly reality of colonial life in the East.

In the foreword, Victoria Glendinning writes that Leonard Woolf’s literary works are eclipsed by his wife’s accomplishments. He published his two novels A Village in the Jungle and The Wise Virgins before Virginia’s first novel was published. Glendinning states that Leonard’s friend Lytton Strachey did not think that Leonard was “cut out to write fiction.” And for this reason, combined with the need for money and “recognition of his wife’s gift,” Leonard Woolf stuck with “political books” along with journalism and some editing. These gems in this slim edition hint at an untapped talent.

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The Well-Beloved by Thomas Hardy

I was long overdue for a Hardy Novel, but I couldn’t decide which one to select. Finally I choose The Well-Beloved. This is not my favourite Hardy–although it’s close, but it is one I think about quite often. It’s an unusual novel, and it’s certainly not perfect. I suspect that the novel that was an attempt  by the author to expurgate some issue or ghost in his life, and in the Introduction, it’s explained that the novel was influenced by Shelley and his pursuit of the Platonic Idea.

The novel’s two dominant themes are the search for the “perfection of womanhood” and aging– “the effects of the passage of time.” Originally published in serial form under the title The Pursuit of the Well-Beloved in 1892, this work followed just one year after Tess of the D’Urbervilles. The Well-Beloved includes some excellent descriptions of the landscape, but ultimately, I am fond of this novel for its depiction of the unchanging aspects of human nature.

The human nature under scrutiny in the novel is that of Jocelyn Pierston. When the novel begins he’s a young man of 20 with dreams of becoming a famous sculptor. The novel doesn’t follow Jocelyn for every moment in his life, but instead focuses on three critical periods. These episodes occur at twenty year intervals and involve romantic relationships with three generations of women from the same family.

In the first episode, “budding sculptor” Jocelyn has been away from home for over three years. He returns to the “isle” which is really a peninsula, the “Gibraltar of Wessex” to visit his father. My battered old Oxford Classics version contains several useful maps of Hardy’s Wessex, and these maps help to illustrate the isolation of Jocelyn’s native region. This is important as the issue of  intermarriage  between “island” families rears its head later in the novel.

When Jocelyn returns, he meets Avice Caro, a sweet-natured young woman who lives in a nearby cottage. She was a child for their last meeting years before.  Jocelyn is immediately taken with Avice, or should I say immediately intoxicated and obsessed. Jocelyn’s problem, and I’m going to call it that since it does plague Jocelyn throughout his life, is that he suffers from a “migratory, elusive idealization he called his Love.” For as long as Jocelyn can remember this emotion, this feeling “had flitted from human shell to human shell an indefinite number of times.” We know there are going to be problems when we read the list of women Jocelyn considered The One–only to discover that feeling rapidly vaporise. And that’s exactly what happens with poor Avice Caro. She falls in love and commits herself to Jocelyn, but she’s disappointed in love when his transitory idealization moves on all too swiftly to another woman.

Each of the three critical periods in Jocelyn’s life is a period of crisis as he thinks that he’s finally found the ideal woman. That’s not to say, however, that these are the sole occasions that he imagines he’s finally found his ideal as this obsession is an on-going non-stop problem. But at these twenty year intervals we as readers see how Jocelyn is faring in his “pursuit of the Well-Beloved.”

To his Well-Beloved he had always been faithful; but she had had many embodiments. Each individuality known as Lucy, Jane, Flora, Evangeline or whatnot, had been merely a transient condition of her. He did not recognize this as an excuse or a defence, but as a fact simply. Essentially she was perhaps no tangible substance; a spirit, a dream, a frenzy, a conception, an aroma, an epitomized sex, a light of the eye, a parting of the lips. God only knew what she really was; Pierston did not. She was indescribable.

Jocelyn is not initially a particularly sympathetic character. He sees the damage he causes, the human debris he leaves behind as his attention flits like a butterfly from one woman to another, and in spite of the fact he recognizes that he has a problem, he makes no effort to curb this flaw. He fails to grasp the lasting consequences of his actions although he breaks hearts and alters lives while he moves on unscathed.  In later years, however, when he ages and the tide turns, Jocelyn becomes much more sympathetic for his shifting obsessions which deny him true involvement with life, companionship, passion and at least a shot at happiness.

One of the considerations here must be Jocelyn the Artist. Is part of his desire to seek eternal perfection in Woman connected to his sculpting? Does he seek the physical embodiment of the artist’s muse? He objectifies the women he attracts even as he minimises the results of his actions.

As I mentioned earlier, The Well-Beloved is not a perfect novel. There are times when the author discusses Jocelyn’s search for the perfect woman in very awkward terms. For foreign readers, the dialect that makes Hardy at times rather difficult, is at a minimum here.  

In some ways this is a novel about contrasting attitudes to love and this is seen best contrasted through the friendship of Jocelyn and the painter, Somers–a man who states:

“You will be caught some day, my friend,” Somers would occasionally observe to him. “I don’t mean to say entangled in anything discreditable, for I admit that you are in practice as ideal as in theory. I mean the process will be reversed. Some woman, whose Well-Beloved flits about as yours does now, will catch your eye, and you’ll stick to her like a limpet, while she follows her Phantom and leaves you to ache as you will.”

“You may be right; but I think you are wrong,’ said Pierston. “As flesh she dies daily like the Apostle’s corporeal self; because when I grapple with the reality she’s no longer in it, so that I cannot stick to one incarnation if I would.”

“Wait till you are older,” said Somers.

Perhaps one of the saddest aspects of this tale is that Jocelyn ages, but the image of his “Well-Beloved“stays the same. Thus she becomes more and more elusive as Jocelyn leaves youth behind and refuses to compromise in his quest.

Although I have a paperback copy, this novel is also available FREE on the Kindle.

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The Man Who was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton

Beware the agent provocateur….

The Man Who was Thursday sat on my shelf for years, and then I recently read about the doings of the Hairies and the infiltration of an anti-fascist organisation by an undercover policeman who subsequently lost his moral bearings. Well it all reminded me of G.K. Chesterton’s novel. So I pulled my copy from the shelf deciding that it was high time I read it.

For those who have not yet heard of the Hairies, this is a term given to the  Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) members of Special Branch who go undercover as operatives. Known as Hairies because they no longer meet police regulations about their hair, these operatives assume different identities and lives for years, and then they report back on the inner workings on the group or groups they are spying on.

But I digress…back to G.K. Chesterton. The Man Who Was Thursday begins on a London evening with a red-haired poet called Lucian Gregory delivering a lecture on anarchism. He’s challenged by another poet named Gabriel Syme. A battle of words commences and results in Gregory declaring that he will show Syme just how serious his beliefs are. Swearing the rival poet to secrecy, Gregory takes Syme into a cleverly hidden underground passage and from there to a meeting of the Central Anarchist Council. The council is composed of seven men–each one named after a day of the week. But the death of one of the council members has led to a vacancy, and Gregory fully expects to be the next Thursday. His speech, all prepared for the occasion, starts off well:

“Comrades,” began Gregory, in a low but penetrating voice, “it is not necessary for me to tell you what is my policy, for it is your policy also. Our belief has been slandered, it has been disfigured, it has been utterly confused and concealed, but it has never been altered. Those who talk about anarchism and its dangers go everywhere and nowhere to get their information, except to us, except to the fountain head. They learn about anarchists from sixpenny novels; they learn about anarchists from tradesmen’s newspapers; they learn about anarchists from Ally Sloper’s Half-Holiday and the Sporting Times. They never learn about anarchists from anarchists.”

And that’s a very sensible observation. Unfortunately, Gregory’s speech goes downhill from there and rapidly devolves into bizarre comparisons between anarchists and catholics. This sort of talk is hardly going to endear Gregory to a No Gods, No Masters crowd, but it’s Gregory’s assertion that anarchists are “meek” which seals his failed candidacy. What is so surprising is that Syme, who’s revealed himself to Gregory as an undercover police detective, makes a stirring speech to the anarchist council and is promptly elected as the next Thursday.

Oh the irony…But then again how appropos. Here’s Syme to Gregory after revealing that he’s really an undercover policeman–a quote that should give the novel’s sense of absurdity:

“Don’t you see that we’ve checkmated each other?” cried Syme. “I can’t tell the police you are an anarchist. You can’t tell the anarchists I’m a policeman. I can only watch you, knowing what you are; you can only watch me, knowing what I am. In short, it’s a lonely intellectual duel, my head against yours. I’m a policeman deprived of the help of the police. You, my poor fellow, are an anarchist deprived of the help of that law and organization which is so essential to anarchy. The one solitary difference is in your favour. You are not surrounded by inquisitive policeman; I am surrounded by inquisitive anarchists. I cannot betray you, but I might betray myself. Come, come: wait and see me betray myself. I shall do it so nicely.”

The Man Who Was Thursday, according to Kingsley Amis in his introduction is  “not quite a political bad dream, nor a metaphysical thriller, nor a cosmic joke in the form of a spy novel, but it has something of all three.” I don’t know what I expected.  A mystery perhaps, but Chesterton’s novel, published in 1908, grows increasingly more absurd and is actually very funny in spots. I can see why Kingsley Amis claimed it as one of his all-time favourite novels, but it’s a strange hodge-podge which even includes strains of the occult. Chesterton, apparently, had to address questions regarding the novel’s religious symbolism (which he argued against), and while the religious symbolism is rife throughout the novel, this adds to the absurdity.

The book’s full title is The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare and that seems a fairly apt description. No one is who they seem, everyone is lying and as the story continues it does take on a nightmarish almost phantasmagorical element. There seems to be a monstrous plot afoot to take over… exactly nothing. But whose devilish brain is at the core of the plot? Who is providing the dynamite? Who are the good guys? And who are the baddies?

Interestingly Chesterton does not seem to be, in theory at least, opposed to anarchism. Rather the novel seems to imply that anarchism and anarchists are elusive by their very nature and perhaps those who scream their beliefs from the rooftops are …well… nothing but Hairies (or Annas). The Anarchist Council is portrayed as an extremely ineffective, comic bunch and yet there remains a sinister undercurrent. The source of that undercurrent is the heart of this novel.

“But this absurd!” cried the policeman, clasping his hands with an excitement uncommon in persons of his figure and costume, “but this is intolerable! I don’t know what you’re doing, but you’re wasting your life. You must, you shall, join our special army against anarchy. Their armies are on our frontiers. Their bolt is ready to fall. A moment more, and you may lose the glory of working with us, perhaps the glory of dying with the last heroes of the world.”

“It is a chance not to be missed, certainly,” assented Syme, “but still I do not quite understand. I know as well as anybody that the modern world is full of lawless little men and mad little movements. But, beastly as they are, they generally have the one merit of disagreeing with each other. How can you talk of their leading one army or hurling one bolt. What is this anarchy?” 

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The Merry-Go-Round by W. Somerset Maugham

“As if hell were needed when every sin brings along with it its own bitter punishment.”

The Merry-Go-Round, an early and largely forgotten novel from W. Somerset Maugham is not considered his best, but it’s one of my favourites. The Merry-Go-Round was written in 1904 following Mrs Craddock (another great favourite) in 1902. The main character in Mrs Craddock is Bertha Ley, and she’s the niece of Miss Mary Ley, the main character in The Merry-Go-Round.

Set in Edwardian England, The Merry-Go-Round concerns the troubled relationships between several people. The central character is Miss Ley, a fifty-seven-year-old spinster who inherits a comfortable sum of money from a cantankerous elderly aunt. Independent and strong-willed in her youth, in middle-age Miss Ley has very definite ideas about male-female relationships.  As a keen observer of people, her sardonic, practical view of the foibles and vanities of human nature establish Miss Ley as a witty hostess. Soon her friends become involved in various relationships and mesalliances that put Miss Ley’s theories about life, love and marriage to the test. Miss Ley rather unexpectedly finds herself becoming a confidant, an advisor and also “a censor of morals.”

Shortly after the novel begins, Miss Ley invites a handful of acquaintances to dinner, and this event introduces the main characters and kickstarts their stories, dramas and tragedies. Guests for the evening include: Mrs. Castillyon (whose husband is a member of parliament), Basil Kent, Dr. Frank Hurrell, Reggie Bassett and his overbearing mother Mrs. Barlow-Bassett, the attractive widow Mrs. Murray, Miss Ley’s cousin, Algernon Langton, Dean of Tercanbury and his middle-aged daughter Bella.

Over the course of the book, these characters plunge into love affairs and marriages for a variety of reasons and with a range of results. Barrister Basil Kent, a promising writer, although attracted to Mrs Murray, decides to do the honourable thing and offer marriage to the beautiful barmaid Jenny. Dr Frank Hurrell, a man whose “passions were of the mind rather than of the body” chafes at his career in Harley Street and longs for something unknown. Mrs. Castillyon, bored with her marriage, abandons herself in a destructive affair with Reggie Bassett, and Bella Langton at age forty falls in love with a twenty-year-old bank clerk named Herbert Field.

Maugham explores the relationships between unequals in his masterpiece Of Human Bondage. It’s obviously a theme that fascinated Maugham and in The Merry-Go-Round, there are three  such inequitable relationships (one I shan’t mention due to spoilers). Bella Langton marries Herbert Field–a man considered her social ‘inferior’ and Basil marries Jenny against Miss Ley’s advice. The marriages have different results, and while Bella and Herbert love each other, there are additional factors which impact their relationship. Basil imagines a Pygmalion scenario–with himself, naturally, as the purveyor of culture and education, and Jenny as the eager, lowly and grateful pupil. After marriage, however, Jenny’s charms are lost on Basil and he quickly finds himself bored with his wife and ashamed to introduce her to his friends. He stashes her at home and then attends his social functions alone. Jenny of course, hasn’t essentially changed since Basil first cast eyes on her; Basil’s infatuation simply dies, and with his sexual enthrallment satiated, he loses interest. In doing the so-called honourable thing, and meeting the moral obligations he feels are demanded of him, Basil becomes unintentionally cruel and tragedy results.

It’s been more than 100 years since Basil’s creation, but many of us will still identify with his decision to ‘do the right thing.’ But just what is the ‘right thing’ is a question for some debate. Miss Ley is vehemently opposed to the match and she expresses her feelings unreservedly. In her view, Basil has already caused Jenny considerable damage which will only be compounded by marriage–an act she feels is motivated from “selfishness and cowardice.” Here’s Miss Ley giving Basil her opinion:

“Are you sure you don’t admire a little too much your heroic attitude?” she asked, and in her voice was a stinging coldness at which Basil winced. “Nowadays self-sacrifice is a luxury which few have the strength to deny themselves; people took to it when they left off sugar because it was fattening, and they sacrifice themselves wantonly, from sheer love of it, however worthless the object. In fact, the object scarcely concerns them; they don’t care how much they harm it so long as they can gratify their passion.”

In Basil’s case, Miss Ley sees the misguided passion as Basil’s drive to “sacrifice” himself by marrying Jenny. Basil is motivated by the desire to not seem like his mother, the one-time notorious Lady Vizard whose affairs (Basil imagines) scandalized society–when in fact prissy Basil was the only person outraged. Basil tends to place impossibly high standards of behaviour on people and is perhaps destined to be disappointed in his relationships:

“Basil had not the amiable gift of taking people as they are, asking no more from them than they can give: but rather sought to mould after his own ideas the persons with whom he came into contact.”

The relationship between Reggie Bassett and Mrs Castillyon remains, for me at least, the most fascinating relationship in the novel. While the vast social differences in Basil and Jenny’s marriage are certain to leave bitter recrimination, it’s uncertain just who is going to be the casualty in the twisted relationship between the shallow, spoiled, selfish, petulant Reggie, and the bored superficial Mrs Castillyon. Socially, Reggie is used to prostitutes and at first can’t believe his luck at discovering a ‘loose’ woman of his own class (a woman, he assumes, who will pay her own way). Reggie fails to understand that Mrs Castillyon is mainly a tease and initially has no intention of becoming his mistress. The scenes detailing the first steps in the affair between Reggie and Grace Castillyon are especially delightful. Invitations to tea and to the theatre mask elaborate games in which Reggie and Grace test and exploit each other’s boundaries.

Miss Ley doles out advice when asked and sometimes when she isn’t asked, and throughout the novel, she is also an observer of the silliness and hypocrisy of others. Lady Vizard’s compulsion to drop the occasional French word into conversation provides just the right degree of snobbery and pretension to the upper class set, and this develops into scorn when she discovers Basil’s marriage to Jenny. Some of the narrative is stiff, and the novel seems a little unkind to most of the working class characters who either steal (Jimmy Bush), get drunk (Bridger) or get “into trouble” (Fanny Bridger, Jenny Bush). On the other hand, the upper classes suffer from priggishness (Castillyon, Basil) and selfishness induced by boredom (Grace Castillyon, Reggie).

The first time I read The Merry-Go-Round many years ago, I thought that Maugham’s novel preached virulently against marriages between different classes. Now, however, I find myself moving away from that opinion. While Basil’s marriage to Jenny is disastrous, the third, completely unexpected, marriage that takes place between two characters may or may not be successful. Miss Ley seems to think that the marriage could well be the making of the weaker, shallow character–in spite of the class differences between the newlyweds. Perhaps it is safer to say that a marriage that begins as a “favour” to the other person or as a “sacrifice” is doomed to failure, and that at the very least, respect, if not affection must be present in order for the union to have a chance of success.

Maugham’s characters share a great capacity to make themselves unhappy, and Miss Ley realizes that most of this stems from humans’ failure to understand their deepest motivations. So much unhappiness could have been spared these characters if they’d only understood themselves a little better. Here’s Basil blaming his mistakes on society:

“In this world we’re made to act and think things because others have thought them good; we never have a chance of going our own way; we’re bound down by the prejudices and the morals of all and sundry….The world held up an ideal, and I thought they meant one to act up to it; it never occurred to me that they would only sneer.”

I don’t buy Basil’s theory that his actions were dictated by society–in his case it was rather the opposite. Everyone advised him not to marry Jenny. But it is that vast dichotomy that exists in most of us–the gap between who we think we are and who we really are–that trips up Basil. He thinks he can marry Jenny and make the best of it when in reality he patronizes her, is deeply ashamed of her and imagines that she “drags him down” to her level.

So at the end of the novel, The Merry-Go-Round has stopped. Some characters alight and some continue with their delusions. Some fortunate characters get a second chance at life, and some…do not.

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The Belton Estate by Anthony Trollope

“I think it would be well if all single women were strangled by the time they are thirty.”

Years ago, a very dear friend recommended periodic reading of Trollope as a tonic against modern life, so recently I picked up The Belton Estate, one of Anthony Trollope’s comic novels.  It isn’t his best, and it’s not his funniest by any means, but it is a lesser-known Trollope that I hadn’t read before. The Trollope Society categorises Trollope’s novels into the following divisions: The Barset Novels, The Palliser Novels, The Irish Novels, The Overseas Novels, The Dramatic Novels, The Comic Novels, The Short Stories, and The Non-Fiction Books. Whether you are a Trollope devotee or you’re thinking of reading (more) Trollope, the Trollope Society site is extremely informative.

In 1865, The Belton Estate appeared in serialised form in the new magazine, Fortnightly Review. Trollope, who was one of the magazine’s founders, eventually featured three novels in this publication: The Belton Estate, Lady Anna, and The Eustace DiamondsThe Belton Estate was published in book form in December 1865.

The novel–a comedy of manners–examines the question of entailment and the disastrous consequences to women through Trollope’s lively cast of characters. Other  examples of literary examinations of entailment  can be found in Austen’s novel: Pride and Prejudice and to a lesser degree Persuasion. In one part of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet is pressured by her mother to agree to marry her cousin, Mr Collins. With 5 daughters and no male heir, the Bennets know that the entailed family estate of Longbourn will pass to Mr Collins upon the death of their father, and this unpleasant fact makes Mr Collins both an eligible and a convenient match. And while Mr Collins wants a wife, he feels free to pick from his five cousins–feeling at once an assurance that he will be accepted and at the same time a moral obligation to solve, so very sensibly, a situation that may become embarrassingly difficult in the future. The same issues of entailment–a female left with no means of support, and a marriage that would appear to solve the more unpleasant aspects of entailment–appear in The Belton Estate. In this novel, Trollope clearly shows his sensitivity towards women through the issue of inheritance, scandal and divorce.

In Trollope’s The Belton Estate there is, or rather was a male heir to the property, but his untimely death has thrown the fortunes of the family–and in particular his unmarried sister, Clara–into total disarray. The Belton estate is owned by the Amedroz family, and when son and heir Charles, runs up a substantial amount  of debt he is bailed out by his father, Bernard Amedroz, at the expense of whatever dowry sister Clara might have expected. But Charles continues to gamble, gets into even more debt and then commits suicide. It’s at this point that the novel opens, with the recent death of Charles leaving a pall of grief and depression over the Belton household.

The death of Charles is mourned, but as the loss of the heir sinks in, it’s clear that the “remnants of the Amedroz family” –father Bernard and daughter twenty-five-year-old Clara face a signficant problem. With the death of the male heir, the entailed Belton estate–the house (rather grandiosely called Belton Castle) and its surrounding lands will pass out of the Amedroz family and revert back to the next living male heir–Will Belton, a cousin and a gentleman farmer who owns Plaistow Manor in Norfolk. This will leave Clara homeless and without a penny to her name. Mr. Amedroz, however, hopes that Clara will become the recipient of another will; this time it’s the will of a Mrs Winterfield. Mrs Winterfield is known to Clara as an ‘aunt,’ but in truth, she is a relative by marriage only and is “the sister of a gentleman who had married Clara’s aunt.” Since Mrs Winterfield will die without issue, and since she’s hinted at leaving Clara a substantial amount of money, it’s hoped that Clara will inherit from Mrs Winterfield. At the same time, it seems likely that the wealthy widow will leave her house, Perivale to her nephew, Frederick Alymer.

With these prospects facing the Amedroz family, cousin Will Belton arrives at Belton Castle to visit his estranged uncle. The visit begins awkwardly with Mr. Amedroz feeling that Will is a buzzard eyeing his inheritance and impatiently wishing he could move in and take over. But Will isn’t at all what is expected. He’s kind, thoughtful, and more importantly, a good manager. Clara’s only friend, Mrs. Askerton, teases Clara that Will is there to “make matters right” through a proposal of marriage that would effectively smooth over any future difficulties. So when Will does indeed propose, Clara is not flattered or pleased. She sees the offer of marriage as a just a matter of convenience and herself as little more than a piece of furniture that comes with the estate. Will’s proposal is doomed to failure as Clara nurses secret feelings for Captain Frederick Alymer.

When Mrs Winterfield dies, she leaves her house and all her money to Frederick, but on her deathbed, she extracts a promise from her nephew that he will marry Clara. Frederick, the second son of the Alymer family, and a consummate politician does exactly what is expected of him and precipitously proposes to Clara. Both the proposal and Frederick’s courtship, however, leave a great deal to be desired.

Clara finds herself in the difficult–albeit interesting situation of being courted by both Will Belton and Frederick Alymer. In matters of love, Will is impetuous and passionate while Frederick is studied and cold. Both situations have their drawbacks–although Clara loves Frederick, his formidable, bombastic mother tests the limits of her future daughter-in-law’s patience. On the other hand, Clara suspects that Will proposed not out of love but out of a sense of obligation. After all if Will marries Clara, he won’t be forced to turf her out of the house when he inherits.  But when it’s exposed that Frederick’s proposal is founded in a death-bed promise, it appears that he too is pressured to wed Clara. Chafing against the lot of an impoverished single female, Clara find herself in an impossible situation in which she is supposed to agree to marriage as there are no other alternatives:

“Was she therefore bound to sacrifice herself? Could it be the duty of any woman t0 give herself to a man simply because a man wanted her?”

Trollope sensitively follows the courtship of Clara by these two very different men. Over time, Clara’s feeling shift, and this shift is due partly to social situations in which the characters are cast. Clara, for example, goes to Aylmer Park and is exposed to Frederick’s impossible family, and she also meets Will’s devoted, invalid sister. Relationships with these individuals cause Clara to reexamine her suitors, but it’s perhaps Clara’s relationship with a certain Mrs. Askerton that influences her final choice. Mrs Askerton is a woman with a secret past; condemned by society, she has spent a lifetime paying for the sins and neglect of a male.

As always, the delight to be discovered in a Trollope novel is in its characterisations. The very best scenes in the book occur at Aylmer Park where we see Frederick Alymer in the family nest, and it’s here Clara is introduced to her fiance’s insufferable and suffocating family. The obnoxious Lady Alymer puts Clara to the test in a struggle for independence, will and domination while her hen-pecked husband hides out elsewhere in the house. Insincere, shallow Frederick Alymer is a man who has a promising political career ahead of him. Every decision Alymer makes is coloured by his mother and his desire to succeed in politics. Consequently, there is little that is actually Frederick, and he runs his life rather like politicians run their lives today–through opinion polls. Alymer is so very hollow, he no doubt has a stellar career in front of him and is destined to rise to–let’s say the dizzying heights of Prime Minister:

“It must be understood that Captain Alymer was member for Perivale on the low church interest, and that, therefore, when at Perivale he was decidedly a Low Churchman. I am not aware that the peculiarity stuck to him very closely at Aylmer castle, In Yorkshire, or among his friends in London; but there was no hypocrisy in this, as the world goes. Women in such matters are absolutely false if they be not sincere; but men, with political views, and with much of their future prospects in jeopardy also, are allowed to dress themselves differently for different scenes. Whatever be the peculiar interest on which a man goes into Parliament of course, he has to live up to that in his own borough. Whether malt, the franchise, or teetotalism be his rallying point, of course he is full of it when among his constituents. But it is not desirable that he should be full of it also at his club.”  

When I first read novels in Trollope’s comic category, I expected something as funny as Barchester Towers. Now I approach the majority of the comic novels as studies in the folly of human behaviour. And Trollope, such a marvelous, forgiving observer of human nature, is a wonderful writer, and one of the greatest recorders of our deepest foibles and vanities.

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My Lady Ludlow by Elizabeth Gaskell

“Like a piece of sea-wreck, I have drifted away from those days: quiet, happy, eventless days.”

As a Jane Austen fan, I read and loved the coziness of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford. This led me to the 2007 BBC film version of the novel, and this was, as I later found out, based on three Gaskell novels–Cranford, Mr. Harrison’s Confessions, and My Lady Ludlow. Since the melancholy Lady Ludlow (played with elegant coolness by Francesca Annis) was one of my favourite characters in the film version of Cranford, I picked up a copy of the book with the intention of reading more about the life of this fascinating character.

My Lady Ludlow is a delight. The story is told by the now elderly Margaret Dawson, who, as a young woman was sent to live with Lady Ludlow, a distant relative. Margaret is one of several young women who live at Hanbury Court, Lady Ludlow’s estate. These young women occupy their days with needlework and the occasional carriage ride out into the countryside accompanying Lady Ludlow on various visits. Over time, Margaret, who becomes crippled in her youth, becomes privy to certain incidents in the life of Lady Ludlow. Margaret loves Lady Ludlow and is loyal to her in spite of the fact that she realizes that Lady Ludlow is not always correct in her opinions.

Lady Ludlow is an extraordinary woman of contrasts. She’s the highest-ranking woman in the neighbourhood, and so she holds a position of immense respect–in other words her word is law. She gave birth to 9 children and when the novel begins, all but one are dead. Her life has brought her great sorrow, but she always conducts herself with decorum, subdued feeling, and a sense of her position of responsibility. Unfortunately, as a firm believer in the absolute superiority of the upper classes, Lady Ludlow has very strong opinions on the matter of education of the masses, and sees any sort of educational improvement as a threat to society. She insists on employing only illiterate servants, and there are several scenes when she makes her position perfectly clear with anger. Indeed, she blames the French Revolution on the fact that the peasants were educated, and predicts the same fate for England if the ‘lower’ classes are educated:

“I believe–nay, the experience of a pretty long life has convinced me–that education is a bad thing, if given indiscriminately. It unfits the lower orders for their duties.”

To Lady Ludlow, without the necessary accoutrements of “hereditary principles and honourable training” the education of the poor leads to disaster, and over this issue, she clashes with the local clergyman, the tenacious, principled Mr. Gray.

In the film version, Lady Ludlow, while graceful and elegant, also possesses an almost other worldly quality. Not quite ethereal, nonetheless her emotions may not be controlled as much as just drained from a life spent largely mourning and missing those she so loved. She is a good person, with no flaw of selfishness, but her character trips on her horror of education for the ‘lower’ classes and her belief in her own aristocracy and hence her absolute authority. These flaws trip her several times in the novel, as she surges ahead with the strength of her own opinion and power. Yet these opinions, at several junctures clash with that social change. Over the course of the novel, not only is she forced to confront and revise her opinion on education, but she also wrestles with her conscience on the matter of socializing with the merchant class and entertaining an illegitimate young woman.

All these issues seem silly these days, but to Lady Ludlow, these events signaled the decline of societal values. The book begins with Lady Ludlow dividing the world into boldly black and white categories of morality, but by the end of the novel, she has accepted that everything is not that simple. My Lady Ludlow is set at the dawn of the 19th century, and so Lady Ludlow in many ways represents the ‘old values.’ Although firmly against “new-fangled notions” a number of people and events cause her to undergo a sea change, and just how the armour of her firm opinions is pierced is the substance of the novel.

My Lady Ludlow includes a very long, painful episode involving the French Revolution and some French émigrés sheltered by Lady Ludlow. This section represents a substantial portion of the book, but was entirely absent in the film version of Cranford. This episode in Lady Ludlow’s life explains her personal experiences with the horror of the French Revolution, and catalogues even more grief.

After finishing My Lady Ludlow, I found myself wondering just why Gaskell novels are so very reassuring. After all, there’s a substantial amount of illness, tragedy and dying in these pages. I decided that perhaps one of the reasons Gaskell novels appeal is the idea of continuity of human existence. Margaret Dawson, for example begins the novel with a lament of how the world has changed (basically going downhill) with a litany of rueful acknowledgments about the shift in society. No doubt this comment would reflect exactly how Lady Ludlow felt about things had she ever felt like confiding her innermost thoughts. Anyone who lives a long life can certainly mark the changes (and declines) in society. Lady Ludlow did so, and many years later, Margaret Dawson finds herself doing the exact same thing in the book’s opening paragraph:

“I am an old woman now, and things are very different to what they were in my youth. Then we, who traveled, traveled in coaches, carrying six inside, and making a two day’s journey out of what people now go over in a couple of hours with a whiz and a flash, and a screaming whistle, enough to deafen one. The letters came in but three times a week: indeed in some places in Scotland where I stayed when I was a girl, the post came in but once a month;–but letters were letters then; and we made great prizes of them, and read them and studied them like books. Now the post comes rattling in twice a day, bringing short jerky notes, some without beginning or end, but just a little sharp sentence, which well-bred folks would think too abrupt to be spoken. Well, well! They may all be improvements, –I dare say they are; but you will never meet with a Lady Ludlow in these days.”

Parts of this paragraph could well be written today–a lament regarding the cryptic nature of e-mails for example. How many of us receive e-mails that are so terse, so brief, we have NO IDEA what the author is referring to?

Another reassuring aspect of Gaskell’s novels is the scope for forgiveness and personal growth. Gaskell’s characters are flawed, but they all muck along in this life, in their little village worlds–unlike Dickens’s characters who are often at each other’s throats. The parson Mr. Gray, for example, could well have taken to the pulpit to deliver a tirade against Lady Ludlow and her stubborn refusal to allow the village children to be educated, but instead Gray determinedly and doggedly persists wrestling with lady Ludlow’s conscience until she melts and consents to the establishment of a village school. Gaskell’s characters have relationships with one another–sometimes turbulent–but the relationships are there, and problems are worked through by discourse.
And finally, I want to add how moving Gaskell can be–yes, she’s quaint at times, and yes, she’s unarguably twee, but damn it, at times she hits passages that resonate with this reader, and here’s just one of these gems:

“I have often wondered which one misses most when they are dead and gone,–the bright creatures full of life, who are hither and thither and everywhere, so that no one can reckon upon their coming and going, with whom stillness and the long quiet of the grave, seems utterly irreconcilable, so full are they of vivid motion and passion,–or the slow, serious people, whose movements–nay, whose very words, seem to go by clockwork; who never appear much to affect the course of our life while they are with us, but whose methodical ways show themselves, when they are gone, to have been intertwined with our very roots of existence. I think I miss these last the most, although I may have loved the former best.”

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A Month in the Country by J.L.Carr

“Nothing’s so secret as what’s between man and wife.”

In A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr, Tom Birkin arrives in the remote country village of Oxgodby to restore a medieval mural that has been discovered in a local church. Birkin is still recovering from WWI and suffers from nightmares about the trenches. He bears a permanent, hideous facial disfigurement, but his wounds are far deeper than this. Coming to Oxgodby is really a chance for Birkin to recoup some peace of mind. He also has domestic troubles in his past, and so the solitary workday spent restoring the mural becomes a healing process for Birkin. His intention is to work on the mural, maintain a solitary existence, and eek out the pittance he is paid for several months. And in one glorious summer, Birkin comes to terms with the horrors of his past.

The curiosity of the villagers soon pulls Birkin into the quaintness of village family life. Male companionship, in the form of the archeologist, Moon–a fellow WWI survivor offers a rare chance for Birkin to enjoy an equal intellect, but the company of the vicar’s wife, Alice Keach proves to be at once the greatest distraction and the sweetest consolation. Mrs Keach is the second surprising treasure Birkin uncovers in Oxgodby.

The book is full of marvelous characters. I particularly enjoyed the precocious, wise-beyond-her-years, Kathy Ellerbeck. Even the sour Vicar, Keach, who appears dull at first, becomes interesting after Birkin visits the vicar and his wife at their bleak, vast dwelling (it doesn’t qualify as a home). I enjoyed this book immensely–it’s one of the very best books I’ve read this year and one I shall most definitely reread. A Month in the Country is a bittersweet tale of compromise, regret, acceptance, and the consolations that are necessary for survival. Above all, Birkin understands that “the bright belief that there will be another marvelous thing around the corner fades. It is now or never; we must snatch at happiness as it flies.”

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