Tag Archives: marriage

Lady Anna by Anthony Trollope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On the Edge by Markus Werner

“I’m talking about the marriage ladder, where you climb down from desire to liking, to pleasant habit, to listlessness, all the way to aversion and possibly hatred. Then comes the hour of professional or non-professional counselors, and maybe a see-through negligee or a desperate tanga provides a last few sparks, and then it’s the lawyer’s turn.”

on the edgeOn the Edge, a novel from German author Markus Werner  is told by 35 year-old bachelor, Clarin. He’s travelled to his small vacation home in Agra with the plan to work on an article for a professional law journal. The subject is “marriage law,” and Clarin has a self-confessed interest in the subject–especially from the historical perspective. Clarin, who in his work has seen the very worst of human nature, has very definite ideas about marriage, but then again as a divorce lawyer, he probably can’t escape an attitude that’s squarely against the institution of marriage. Stopping at the Hotel Bellevue, the place Clarin contemplated exactly how to dump his mistress Valerie with the least trauma to himself, he meets a man in his 50s named Loos, and there’s something about the man–some elusive quality that he finds intriguing

Most people you can classify in a basic way after fifteen minutes, even if they don’t say a word; you can at least rank them as sympathetic or unsympathetic. But with him I couldn’t determine even this much. I only knew that he interested me. He made me think of Valerie, her opaqueness, which fascinated me at the beginning, but ended up putting me off.

Over a meal, the two men strike up a conversation with Clarin working hard at first to engage his moody dinner companion in conversation. Eventually Clarin learns that Loos has lost his wife, and the subjects of marriage and divorce emerge:

“…it must be very disillusioning for you to be constantly confronted with divorce cases. Doesn’t it tempt you to regard marriage as impracticable?”

Tempt, I said, wasn’t the word; the right one was convince. I was positively compelled by the constant torment I saw couples in to regard marriage as a mistake, or at least a simple overburdening of human nature, which seems too wayward to allow itself to be permanently tamed or to be able to accept the few rules that might make marriage possible, if they were followed. It defied all description, I said, what couples did to each other once they got divorced, whether by continuing to act the same way they acted during the marriage or by denigrating their former happiness. But the craziest thing was that people couldn’t keep from marrying, despite the fact that one of every two marriages already ended in divorce, and it was even crazier that more than twenty percent of divorced couples get remarried.

Loos who had listened so attentively that I would gladly have gone into more detail, interrupted me  and said, “You’re a bachelor, then.”

That passage occurs very early in the novel, and it’s at this point, I knew I was in for a grand read. There was something so intriguing about the set-up. Here are these two very different men at different phases of their lives–one, melancholy and missing the love of his life, a much cherished wife, and the other, a man who will not contemplate marriage as he sees it as largely an impossible institution that asks too much of the average human nature. Put these two men in the same table, and lively discussions will ensue, and that’s exactly what happens.

“For me it was home.” I tried to catch his eye, but he was looking across the valley. “What was?” I asked. “Marriage,” he said. “Was?” He nodded. “Are you widowed?” He drank. “You know,” he said, “I’m not unfamiliar with your statistics. I even know that there are two million dust mites rioting in every marriage bed, and I’ve learned from an even more disturbing study that after six years of marriage German couples speak to each other an average of nine minutes a day, and Americans four point two.”

“Exactly, exactly,” I said.

“And now I ask you,” he continued,”whether this finding permits conclusions about human nature or perhaps not rather about the nightly TV ritual, among other things.”

“Both presumably,” I said, “for if we accept that couples’ increasing reticence depends on increasing TV consumption, the question remains why the TV screen is preferred to an hour of conversation. It isn’t true–I hear this as a lawyer–that people don’t talk because they’re watching television. No, people talk television because there’s nothing more to talk about, at least nothing new or interesting. ‘It’s gone dead’–that’s the expression I hear most often; and from that I conclude that human nature craves diversion and colour, and can’t really get used to habit.”

“You’re all too right to be right,” Loos said, “and, as I said, my experience was different. Your health!”

The men meet twice, and each seems to be intrigued with the other. While they don’t set out to change the other’s opinion, nonetheless they are both prepared to argue their cases and that means the sharing of experiences. Loos, a teacher of “dead languages” is disillusioned and uncomfortable with modern life, but he’s a believer in love and marriage. He appears to be at the hotel for sentimental reasons–his wife was a patient at a local health spa after recovering from the removal of a brain tumor. A great deal of the discussion spins around the question of why some marriage partners appear to need novelty or change, while for others, deep-rooted routines are cherished. This isn’t exactly an unanswerable question since it addresses the differences between some natures vs others, belief systems, opportunity etc. (just to cover a few reasons), but nonetheless there is no one definitive answer: some people probably should do the world a favour and never marry or produce children if they are more suited to bachelor life. This idea certainly emerges through the conversations between Loos and Clarin; they are very different types of men, and while Clarin loves lightly and moves on, Loos does not.

He asked how it happened that people sat happily in front of the TV, evening after evening, craving the same thing over and over, their series for example, their quiz shows and so forth, whose popularity obviously consisted in their constant and unremitting repetition of the familiar. How did it happen that hundreds of thousands of people were fixated on a moderator’s or talkshow host’s moustache and that a howl would sweep through the nation when he suddenly appeared without it? How could it be explained that the desire for the most inane uniformity was felt only in front of the television screen and not in the rest of everyday married life? But no sooner did people get up from their chairs than they started thinking about divorce, just because their partners were brushing their teeth and gargling the same way they did the day before. “What Mr Clarin, is our nature really after?”

I’m adding these rather long quotes to give a sense of the novel. A great deal of the plot is composed of these encounters between the two men and the discussions they have, but I also want to convey the philosophical nature of the content. There were many points at which I put the book down and mulled over my own opinions as if I were at silent third at the discussions between Loos and Clarin. Of course, apart from these lively debates, there’s a story, a love affair in all of its various stages: the initial throes of passion all the way to boredom and the desire to escape told by Clarin, and it’s this tale that forms the mystery at the heart of the tale. I really enjoyed the book–not just for its two main characters who are perfectly drawn opposites–one man who appears to be the marrying type, and the other a permanent bachelor, but also for its rather bleak look at marriage and the questions raised about its sustainability given the mercurial aspects of human nature, the inexplicable nature of attraction and the selfishness of desire.

Translated by  Robert E Goodwin. Review copy.

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The Gate by Natsume Soseki

“He happened to glance up beyond the eaves and noticed the bamboo leaves gathered densely atop the bamboo stalks, like the stubble on a monk’s close-cropped head. As the leaves luxuriated in the autumn sunlight they drooped down heavily in silent clusters, not a single one stirring.”

When Tony announced Japanese Literature reading month, January in Japan, I decided to join in. I think I’ve read one Japanese novel in my lifetime, which, when I thought about it started to feel pathetic. So now I’ve read two. And even though that now with one move I’ve doubled my Japanese reading bank, somehow it doesn’t feel as though I’ve made much of a leap. My unfamiliarity with Japanese literature came back to haunt me on just about every page of my chosen book, The Gate by Natsume Soseki: the history, the customs, the terms, but one thing was constant. Yes, the universality of bad human behavior. Hey, I’ve read Balzac; I know when people are being bad.

the gateThe Gate written by Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) is a very simple story, and it’s beautifully written with a very calm style that matches the novel’s content. Published in 1910, The Gate is the story of Sosuke and his wife Oyone, a Tokyo couple who live in modest circumstances. Sosuke and Oyone are childless, and we’re not far into the novel when we learn that Sosuke must assume care of his younger brother, Koroku. While a great deal of the novel is spent on the day-to-day routines of life, underneath the calm conversations, there’s a matter of contention between Sosuke and his aunt. Sosuke’s father died leaving a house, his possessions, and some antiques. Since Sosuke was not living in Tokyo at the time, he turned over all financial matters to his uncle–a man known for his financial fecklessness….

The very helpful introduction from Pico Iyer goes a long way in explaining Japanese customs. For example, “the individual’s job in public Japan is to keep his private concerns and feelings to himself and to present a surface that gives little away.” It’s all about “conflict avoidance,” and we see that repeatedly in the novel. With my western sensibility, I’ll admit to a certain frustration to this approach. I couldn’t understand why on earth, anyone in their right mind would turn over any financial responsibilities to an uncle who has a history of business disasters, and then I also felt frustration about Sosuke’s failure to confront his relatives about his remaining inheritance. I kept hoping that Sosuke would go over to his aunt and uncle’s house and kick some bottoms But Sosuke is a study in avoidance, and apparently his skill at adroitly finding excuses not to confront his relatives even annoys his brother:

Koroku was privately of the opinion that all this dithering stemmed from an inborn flaw in his brother’s character.

Poor Koruku. He depends on the inheritance if he wants to attend university. So with that quote in mind, while I know that Japanese life is all about “conflict avoidance” it would seem that Sosuke has taken this to  whole new level: subject avoidance.

The issue of a missing or misspent inheritance is not the only incident that troubles the tranquility of Sosuke and Oyone’s life. There’s also a robbery committed against their landlord–a remote figure at first who turns out to be a very colourful character, an antique screen that may or may not be valuable, and there’s also an ex-husband who may awkwardly reappear. But all of these issues are mere ripples on the surface of life–no drama, no hysteria, no arguments or fights, and instead the emphasis is on the daily routine, trips to the bathhouse  accompanied by Sunday liberation. I loved these scenes of Tokyo life that show Sosuke spends his Sundays as he tries to pack in so much into just a few precious hours of freedom:

Realizing that both this Sunday and the fine weather that accompanied it had drawn to a close, a certain mood came over him: a sense that such things did not last for long, and that this was a great pity. From tomorrow he would again, as always, be busy at work–the thought brought on pangs of regret for the good life he had tasted for this one afternoon. The mindless activity that filled the other six days of the week seemed utterly dreary. Even now, as he walked along, he could see before his eyes nothing but the outlines of the large but windowless office that the sun scarcely penetrated, the faces of his colleagues sitting beside him, the figure of his superior summoning him with a “nonaka-san, over here, please….”

We see the sights and colours of the city through Sosuke’s eyes, and there’s a sense of wonderment marred by the realities of economics and a rather pleasant lack of materialism:

That time in his life when he could not pass a bookstore without wanting to go in, and once inside to buy something, now belonged to the distant past. True, one English-language volume in the center of the window with a particularly fine binding and entitles History of Gambling fairly leaped out at him with its disctinctiveness, but that was all. Smiling to himself, he hurried across the street, where he stopped for a second time, to peek inside a watchmaker’s. On display were numerous gold watches, watch chains, and the like, which again he regarded as so many pretty-coloured, well-formed objects without the slightest desire to make any purchase. Nevertheless, he examined all the price tags dangling there from silk threads, comparing this item and that, and came away surprised at how cheap the gold watches were.

The introduction makes the point that this author’s protagonists are the “masters of doing nothing at all. They abhor action and decision as scrupulously as Bartleby the Scrivener.” This is definitely true of Sosuke–a man who finds that he may have to face a past that he’s studiously avoided. Translated by William F Sibley.

Review copy

 Finally a question for readers and Tony: can anyone recommend any Japanese CRIME novels?

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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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Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

“He talked non-stop about my beauty, as all men do. If a woman were hump-backed, and had only one eye, they wouldn’t be ashamed to tell her she was a Venus.”

I have a backlog of reviews–something I’m never that happy about–but this does grant room for choice, and I decided to make a Trollope review my first post of the year. Can You Forgive Her?, the first of six Palliser novels, stands at 830 pages in my Penguin Classics edition (a different edition from the one pictured below). I read just a few pages at night, and what a delightful read this is. It’s not often you go to sleep chuckling at the foibles of human nature, and this is one of those novels I was sad to see end.

Can You Forgive Her? was originally published in monthly parts, so in typical Victorian multi-plot fashion, this is a huge rambling tale with a vast cast of characters and various sub-plots set against a glittering society of 19th century England. This is a complex world and Trollope hints that the world of marriage and the world of politics have a great deal in common.  To some readers, that description alone is enough to reject the book, but for this reader, Can You Forgive Her? was a leisurely excursion into the trials and tribulations of three women–specifically on the issue of marriage. These are the days in which wealthy women, when married, were stuck with the behaviour of their husbands. Marriage was a serious, permanent choice, and women were under tremendous pressure to make ‘suitable’ alliances. This issue is at the core of Trollope’s novel, and through the labyrinth plot, we see the struggles of three women as they make–or live with–the choices they make. These women live in an age of not exactly ‘arranged’ marriages, but let us say it’s the age of ‘organised’ marriage–and this is, as Trollope shows us, rather a fine line.

The novel’s main heroine is 24-year-old Alice Vavasour, and she’s the one–as the title suggests–is in need of forgiveness. It’s true that Alice makes some horrible mistakes in the course of the story, and the underlying explanation of her actions isn’t entirely successful, but more of that later.  When the story begins, Alice, the only child of a London bureaucrat is engaged to be married to John Grey–a handsome, good-natured gentleman of substance. Grey adores Alice, but for her part Alice has reservations. She keeps delaying the wedding day and while her relatives approve of Mr. Grey–who’s literally a paragon, there’s an edge of discontent nagging away inside Alice. She knows that she loves Mr. Grey but can’t quite see herself  living as Mrs. Grey bundled off to his country estate near Cambridge. Trollope tells us that part of Alice’s problem is that she would like to be married to a ‘great man,’–perhaps someone in politics, and this isn’t Mr. Grey’s bag.

Another problem Alice must deal with is that she’s been engaged before to her cousin, the wastrel George Vavasour, the brother of her best friend, Kate. We don’t know quite what went wrong but we can speculate that it was something scandalous enough for her to brook family criticism when she broke this first engagement. According to the elderly Lady Macleod, “the fact was, Alice, that George Vavasour’s mode of life was such that an engagement with him would have been absolute madness.”

When the book begins, we can believe that George’s largest fault lies in the fact he has no money, but as the plot plays out, George’s more unsavoury characteristics are revealed, and in any other continent or class we’d call him an adventurer, but in the upper echelons of British society, George’s true nature is largely concealed, and this is due in so small part to the fact that he actively compartmentalises his true nature.

But back to the plot. The book begins with Alice engaged to Mr. Grey and beginning various delaying tactics to postpone the wedding. One of those tactics is to take a European holiday with Kate and George, and several of Alice’s relatives are alarmed by this action due to Alice’s prior history with George. Alice’s travels seal her decision to jilt Mr. Grey, and Alice calls off her engagement to Mr. Grey claiming that she finds him too perfect, and then she becomes re-engaged to George. A mess ensues with Alice not really being able to make her mind up while her relatives, with the exception of Kate, becoming extremely frustrated with her ever-changing choice of fiancés.

Ok so that’s more-or-less the plot, but obviously there’s a lot more to the book than that. Two other plots run parallel to Alice’s dilemma, and the characters involved serve to enervate her argument against marrying Mr. Grey. While Alice shies away from marriage to Mr. Grey (even though she says she loves him), she argues that she wants a public life. At one point in the novel, she goes to stay with Lady Glencora Palliser at Matching Priory, and while this should be an opportunity for Alice to enjoy politically important company, instead she is intimidated by the heavily-nuanced society in which she feels uncomfortable.

Lady Glencora, one of the greatest heiresses in the country, once loved her cousin, the impoverished Burgo Fitzgerald, and she was steered away from Burgo and into the arms of the eminently respectable, but overly staid Plantagenet Palliser–a promising young politician and the heir of the Duke of Omnium. Alice goes to visit Lady Glencora, and there’s some history here as Alice refused to participate in secret assignations between Glencora and Burgo before her marriage to Palliser. Lady Glencora invites Alice to visit her, and while the primary idea is that Lady Glencora will set Alice straight by example, instead Glencora confesses that she is still madly in love with Burgo and bored and unhappy with Palliser. Alice becomes a bystander to Glencora’s unhappiness:

If he [Palliser] was dull as a statesman he was more dull in private life, and it may be imagined that such a woman as his wife would find some difficulty in making his society the source of her happiness. Their marriage, in a point of view regarding business, had been a complete success, –and a success, too, when on the other side, that of Lady Glencora, there had been terrible dangers of shipwreck, and when on his side also there had been some little fears of a mishap. As regards her it has been told how near she went to throwing herself, with all her vast wealth, into the arms of a young man, whom no father, no guardian could have regarded as a well-chosen husband for any girl; –one who as yet had shown no good qualities, who had been a spendthrift, unprincipled, and debauched. Alas, she had loved him! It is possible that her love and her wealth might have turned him from evil to good. But who would have ventured to risk her, –and I will not say her and her vast inheritance, –on such a chance? That evil, however, had been prevented, and those about her had managed to marry her to a young man, very steady by nature, with worldly prospects as brilliant as her own, and with a station than which the world offers nothing higher.

But while disaster seems to have been averted by Glencora’s marriage to Palliser, this is not a formula for Glencora’s happiness. She’s bored and extremely unhappy. Her situation isn’t helped by the fact that she’s monitored by two of Palliser’s toadies, and she’s under constant surveillance by the sanctimonious Mrs Marsham, and the loathsome Mr. Bott. Trollope shows us that the upper echelons of British society protects its assets but with little provision for personal happiness.

The third subplot concerns Alice and Kate’s widowed Aunt Greenow (Arabella Vavasour)– a woman whose state of wealthy widowhood allows her more freedom than any other female in the novel. As an old maid, she was a burden to her relatives who dismissed her as an “old flirt,” when suddenly and unexpectedly she landed a wealthy, elderly husband in ill health. After Arabella became Mrs. Greenow, her currency increased measurably within the family. Now she’s a widow, and unfettered by matrimony and fueled with money, Aunt Greenow is out to enjoy life, and she does so with gusto–taking Kate along for the ride. It’s through this character that Trollope’s humour shines. At Yarmouth, Aunt Greenow is pursued by no less than two suitors–the impecunious Captain Bellfield and Mr Cheesacre–a gentleman farmer of Oileymead who’s known as Cheesy. Both Bellfield and Cheesy desperately court Aunt Greenow while she plays fast and loose, claiming mourning (and an ever-shifting time period since the death of her dear Mr. Greenow) as an excuse against making a commitment. Bellfield and Cheesacre–rivals in adversity–are driven to extreme lengths in their amorous siege of the stubborn widow. They are rather like dogs fighting for possession of a bone, and at one point, Cheesacre decides to invite Bellfield to the country thinking this will allow unfettered access to the widow Greenow:

Driven to despair, he at last resolved to ask Bellfield to come to Oileymead for a month. That drilling at Norwich, or the part of it which was supposed to be profitable, was wearing itself out. Funds were low with the Captain, –as he did not scruple to tell his friend Cheesacre, and he accepted the invitation. “I’ll mount you with the harriers, old fellow,” Cheesacre had said, “and give you a little shooting. Only I won’t have you go out when I’m not with you.” Bellfield agreed. Each of them understood the nature of the bargain; though Bellfield, I think, had somewhat the clearer understanding in the matter. He would not be so near the widow as he had been at Norwich, but he would not be less near than his kind host. And his host would no doubt watch him closely;– but then he also could watch his host. There was a railway station not two miles from Oileymead and the journey thence into Norwich was one of half an hour. Mr Cheesacre would doubtless be very jealous of such journeys, but with all his jealousy he could not prevent them. And then, in regard to this arrangement, Mr Cheesacre paid the piper, whereas Captain Bellfield paid nothing. Would it not be sweet to him if he could carry off his friend’s prize from under the very eaves of his friend’s house?

So Trollope shows us penniless men: Burgo Fitzgerald, George Vavasour, and Captain Bellfield and unleashes them on the women who have the means to provide for the lifestyles they crave. But even while I put these three men in the same bag, they are different and perhaps they don’t deserve to be lumped together. Burgo and Bellfield are good-natured men; Burgo has been brought up into life of privilege without the means to sustain this abundance, and poor Captain Bellfield lives off the meagre pocket money given to him by his sister. Of course there’s a great irony here as the women with money (with the exception of Arabella Greenow) are subjected to tremendous social pressure to conform–look at the tremendous wealth of Glencora, for example, who still couldn’t do as she pleased. Lest I give the wrong impression, I should add that some of the women in the tale come off as badly as the men–Lady Monk leaps to mind. She’s a woman who “had succeeded in marrying her daughter to the greatest fool in the peerage.” And what of Alice–I’d argue that Alice’s root problem is fear of sex and not all those other excuses she dreams up.

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Elective Affinities by Goethe

For German literature month, co-hosted by Caroline and Lizzy, I decided to read Goethe’s Elective Affinities. After all, I already had a copy on my shelf, and I watched the film version of the book some time ago. Can’t say I was crazy about the film, and I much preferred the book. That said, I could really see that Goethe and I would never get along, and actually, I probably wouldn’t have been able to stand him in the flesh.  I’ve already made two posts regarding some of the reactions I had to this novel, and while I found myself disagreeing with Goethe on many issues, the novel itself is rather engaging in spite of its idealised characters and brazen snobbery (yes I know it’s the 19th C and hardly enlightened times). Anyway, a great read, and certainly one that did not induce indifference.

My Penguin version, translated by R.J. Hollingdale, includes a marvellous introduction which details just a portion of Goethe’s life. It’s Goethe in middle age, and this biographical information has direct relevance to Elective Affinities. Hollingdale states that Goethe lived with Christiane Vulpius for over 18 years, and they had five children together when Goethe married her in 1806. He was 57 and she was 41. Hollingdale explains that the marriage appeared to be a gesture of gratitude towards Christiane as she had bravely faced down Napoleon’s marauding army just 5 days before.  Marriage appeared to change Goethe:

But now that he was a married man, he discovered that he had all along harboured very stern moral principles with regard to the marriage tie, and he became an emphatic critic of the laxity displayed by the society in which he lived.

These ‘principles’ were sorely tested when Goethe fell in love with the eighteen year old Minna Herzlieb in 1807. Elective Affinities which began as a short story was written in 1808, but was then converted into the novel in 1809. Goethe’s “affair” with Minna was, according to Hollingdale, the “first of the affairs of his later life with women far younger than he.” How then did Goethe, in love with a teenage girl, and yet now married juggle those “stern moral principles” with his feelings & behaviour? For the answer to that question, read the novel.

Elective Affinities is a strange read. It feels as though it’s an ‘idea’ novel–and by that I mean the book is full of ideas that are then superimposed onto its characters. The result is not a character-driven book, but rather a book which explores ideas through the imagined actions and reactions of characters. For this reason, Goethe’s characters, at times do not appear human at all–not flesh and blood humans who rage, lust and fight. Instead we see idealised humans, and at times impossibly idealised humans. In some ways, Elective Affinities reminded me of Therese Raquin and Zola’s Scientific Determinism. That may seem to be a strange connection as there are no idealised humans in Therese Raquin, of course, but it is an ‘idea’ novel. Tancock, in his translation of Therese Raquin notes that Zola used a formula of sorts, and it’s exactly this formula that reminds me of Elective Affinities:

The formula is to arrange some temperaments, add some medical or neurological jargon, deliberately omit the interplay of character and all purely psychological reactions, and call the mixture ‘fatality.’

Elective Affinities begins on the large estate of Eduard and Charlotte, a middle-aged couple who were separated and married off to others in their youth. Eduard married a much older wealthy woman who was considerate enough to kick off and allow Eduard to return to his former sweetheart, now a widow. Charlotte and Eduard live alone, and Charlotte’s only daughter Luciane lives at boarding school. Charlotte also has a ward, Ottilie, the daughter of a deceased best friend. There’s the sense that Eduard and Charlotte have tried to create a perfect world on their estate and they are now engaged in non-stop renovations and property improvements. It’s an idyllic life, and one they’ve carefully crafted, but at the same time there’s a creeping sense of boredom. After all, just how many moss huts can you construct on your property before you start wishing for some action?

Action, or at least change, appears in the form of two individuals who arrive, by invitation, at the estate. Ottilie returns from boarding school, and the Captain, an old friend of Eduard’s, a man who’s fallen on hard times, is invited to stay. Charlotte isn’t particularly thrilled by the intrusion of the Captain, and she seems to have some sense of foreboding:

Remember that our pleasures too were intended to a certain extent to depend on our being alone together.

Charlotte argues that this is   “the first truly happy summer of my life,” and she’s sure that the addition of other people will shatter their private Eden. Eduard disagrees. He thinks that the “Captain’s presence will disturb nothing, but rather expedite and enliven everything.” Well at least Charlotte saw it coming, and as it turns out, Charlotte is correct. Nothing is ever the same again, and in essence, everyone’s lives are shattered.

The book is ostensibly about the actions of a handful of characters who struggle between societal conventions and the call of passion, but it is rife with Goethe’s philosophy. Hollingdale tells us that the story is about “Goethe’s idea of marriage, the currently accepted idea of it, and the passions with which neither idea seems able to cope.” But it doesn’t stop there. We also get notions of death, memory, and social criticism. It’s all good, but at times it does get heavy-handed. Instead of realistic characters, the action bends to philosophical soliloquy, and perhaps one of the best examples of that occurs when Goethe’s characters discuss chemistry (Goethe was interested in the subject). This is a reflection of what happens in the book and where the ‘elective affinities’ come in:

“Provided it does not seem pedantic,” the Captain said, “I think I can briefly sum up in the language of signs. Imagine an A intimately united with a B, so that no force is able to sunder them; imagine a C likewise related to a D; now bring the two couples into contact; A will throw itself at D, C at B, without our being able to say which first deserted its partner, which first embraces the other’s partner.”

“Now then!” Eduard interposed: “until we see all this with our own eyes, let us look on this formula as a metaphor from which we can extract a lesson we can apply immediately to ourselves. You, Charlotte, represent the A, and I represent your B; for in fact I do depend altogether on you and follow you as A follows B. The C is quite obviously the Captain, who for the moment is to some extent drawing me away from you. Now it is only fair that, if you are not to vanish into limitless air, you must be provided with a D, and this D is unquestionably the charming little lady Ottilie, whose approaching presence you may no longer resist.”

Of course, things don’t quite work out the way Eduard predicted.

Goethe’s depiction of Ottilie and Charlotte are both impossibly idealised, but the characterisation of Ottilie is the worst offender here. She’s the youngest character of the 4 (Eduard, Charlotte, the Captain and Ottilie), and she’s the wisest becoming more and more saintly and nauseating as the novel wears on until she’s ultimately cast as the virgin Mary in a tableau. I much preferred Goethe’s secondary characters, and it’s here that the author seems to let go of worrying about ideas and concentrates on character. There’s Mettler, a rather shady character who goes around ‘fixing’ divorces, and Charlotte’s horrible daughter, Luciane. She enters the novel rather late in the picture–like a whirlwind. Goethe calls her a “flaming comet.” She’s beautiful, selfish, vain, shallow, nasty and engaged to a nobleman who’s unfortunately ready to indulge every whim. As Goethe throws Luciane in the action, he seems to really get into her rotten nature. She’s a foil, of course, for Ottilie, and the two young girls are polar opposites. Nothing in-between for Goethe:

In general you might have thought she had made it her principle to expose herself to an equal measure of praise and blame, affection and disaffection. If she tried in a dozen ways to win people over, she usually managed to alienate them again through the sharpness of her tongue, which spared nobody. They never paid a visit in the neighbourhood, she and her companions were never hospitably received in some house or mansion, without she made it clear on the way home in the most uninhibited way how  inclined she was to find all human affairs merely ridiculous. Here there were three brothers who had politely waited for one to be the first to get married while old age overtook them; here there was a little young wife with a big old husband; there, contrariwise, a cheerful little husband and a clumsy giantess. In one house you could not move a step without treading on children, another she thought empty-looking even when crowded because there were no children in it. Certain elderly husbands ought to get themselves buried as soon as possible so that, since there were no legal heirs, someone could for once have a good laugh in the house again. Certain married couples ought to travel because they were in no way fitted to keep house. And as she criticized the people, so did she criticize their goods, their homes, their furniture, their crockery. Wall decorations of any kind especially excited her mockery. From the most ancient wall-carpets to the latest wallpaper, from the most venerable family portraits to the most frivolous copperplates, all had to go through it, she pulled them all to pieces, so that you had to marvel that anything for five miles around continued to exist.

Goethe grants that “there may not perhaps have been any malice” in Luciane’s rude, obnoxious behaviour, but she’s somehow rather refreshing after Ottilie’s impending sainthood, the faint whiff of Charlotte as burning martyr, and Eduard’s noble sacrifice to passion.

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The Physiology of Marriage by Balzac

“A man ought not to marry without having studied anatomy, and dissected at least one woman.”

Although I’m a Balzac fan, I’m going to admit that I didn’t find The Physiology of Marriage an easy read, but that said, it’s an important and interesting book. It shows a young Balzac in embryo–still in the process of becoming the great writer who created Cousin Bette and The Black Sheep. The book also shows Balzac’s fascination with human behaviour–particularly the behaviour of women–even as he plays with and organises some of his major themes and ideas.

The Physiology of Marriage, published in 1829, is not a novel. Instead it’s a hodge podge of lectures, aphorisms, stories and observations on the institution and power dynamics of marriage. The basic theme is that marriage is not “an institution of Nature” but is an arrangement fraught with difficulties. There were times when Balzac seemed to lurch into Masters and Johnson territory–especially when he started working the numbers and calculating just how many French wives commit adultery. At the end of the book, a Duchess rather appropriately calls Balzac a “doctor of conjugal arts and sciences.” If he earns this title, it should certainly accompany the disclaimer that Balzac’s science is the science  of observation.

Balzac seems to explore every possible category under the heading of marriage. Here’s Balzac on women and headaches:

Now headache is an affection which affords infinite resources to a woman. This malady, which is the easiest of all to feign, for it is destitute of any apparent symptom, merely obliges her to say: “I have a headache.” A woman trifles with you and there is no one in the world who can contradict her skull, whose impenetrable bones defy touch or ocular test. Moreover, the headache is, in our opinion, the queen of maladies, the pleasantest and the most terrible weapon employed by wives against husbands. There are some coarse and violent men who have been taught the tricks of women by their mistresses, in the happy hours of their celibacy, and so flatter themselves that they are never to be caught by this vulgar trap. But all their efforts, all their arguments end by being vanquished before the magic of these words: “I have a headache.” If a husband complains , or ventures on a reproach, if he tries to resist the power of this Il buondo cani of marriage, he is lost.

And there’s more. Balzac paints a scenario of a young  woman “lying voluptuously on a divan” while her husband paces around the room. Although the word ‘sex’ does not appear, Balzac’s inclusion of the word “voluptuously” sneaks in the idea that sex (a lack thereof and the subsequent frustrations felt by the husband) is at the root of the headache problem. What’s more, Balzac accuses the medical profession of being in cahoots with the headache sufferers. Freud would call this hysterical illness no doubt. The passages on the problems of headaches within marriage reminded me of a professor who peppered his lectures on Victorian literature with salacious slices of information about his married life. He too held forth on the subject of headaches. The professor advised all men to keep a bottle of aspirin on hand, and then, when a wife complained of a headache at bedtime, the husband could toss her the bottle and tell her to swallow a couple before proceeding on with the business at hand.

Ah, the delicacy of marital politics….

Balzac arrives at the somewhat obvious conclusion (obvious these days, that is) that most marriages are unhappy, and that adultery is the natural result. Here he is discussing what percentage of the married female population commit adultery:

Adultery does not establish itself in the heart of a married woman with the promptness of a pistol-shot. Even when sympathy with another rouses feelings on first sight, a struggle always takes place, whose duration discounts the total sum of conjugal infidelities. It would be an insult to French modesty not to admit the duration of this struggle in a country so naturally combative, without referring to at least a twentieth in the total of married women: but then we will suppose that there are certain sickly women who preserve their lovers while they are using soothing draughts, and that there are certain wives whose confinement makes sarcastic celibates smile. In this way we shall vindicate the modesty of those who enter upon the struggle from motives of virtue. For the same reason we should not venture to believe that a woman forsaken by her lover will find a new one on the spot; but this discount being much more uncertain than the preceding one, we will estimate it at one-fortieth.

Balzac is saying that women don’t intend to commit adultery, but that it happens after a period of inner struggle and with cause (spousal mistreatment which is also discussed). After crunching the numbers, he lands on the figure that approx. 800,000 French women commit adultery. Dostoevsky would not agree with Balzac’s idea that women don’t have serial lovers. In The Eternal Husband, Natalya Vasilyevna cuckolds both a husband and a lover when a new man arrives on the scene. Natalya has to get rid of her old, boring lover, Velchaninov, in order to conduct an affair with a newcomer.

In Prometheus: The Life of Balzac, author Andre Maurois states that Balzac, a bachelor at the time the book was written, was privy to the confidences of many women, including the Duchesse d’Abrantès, Fortunée Hamelin, and Sophie Gay. Maurois argues that Balzac sees marriage as “a civil war requiring weapons and strategy in which victory (meaning personal liberty) goes to the better general,” and he further argues that Balzac is on the side of the wife. While I think Balzac was a remarkably enlightened man for his time, from a 21st century perspective, I don’t agree that The Physiology of Marriage places Balzac wholeheartedly on the side of the wife. The book was extremely popular with women at the time of its publication and no doubt it seemed revolutionary then. There are certainly many pro-wife statements but the book could well amount to a handbook of strategy for husbands. The Maurois bio, by the way, was written in 1965, and societal attitudes towards women have undergone a sizeable shift.

Given how the bikini-clad Helen Mirren has suddenly become a sex object at the age of 66, I’d say that this is no longer true:

The average age at which women are married is twenty years and at forty they cease to belong to the world of love.

But, according to Balzac, men enjoy a longer shelf life, and here’s a powerful observation:

On the other hand, a man at fifty-two is more formidable than at any other age. It is at this fair epoch of life that he enjoys an experience dearly bought, and probably all the fortune that he will ever acquire. The passions by which his course is directed being the last under whose scourge he will move, he is unpitying and determined, like the man carried away by the current who snatches at a green and pliant branch of willow, the young nursling of the year.

Can’t argue with that….

The Physiology of Marriage is available FREE for the Kindle, on the internet and at Project Gutenberg.

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The Doctor’s Wife by Brian Moore

“It’s books, of course, that you got all your notions from. Not from real life. All those novels and trash that’s up there in your room at home. I wonder sometimes if some if these authors who write that stuff shouldn’t be prosecuted. or maybe we should hand out prescriptions for books the way we do for drugs. Not to be taken by mouth. Not for people who can’t read right from wrong. Yes. Because you’re not the heroine of some bloody book.”

It’s probably a big mistake to return to the same city, the same hotel and the same suite you spent your honeymoon in 16 years earlier. If you agree with that statement, you should also agree with the idea that it’s downright careless, stupid, insensitive or cruel to send the wife off on what amounts to a  second honeymoon alone. But that’s just what happens in Brian Moore’s novel The Doctor’s Wife.

Attractive 37 -year-old Sheila Redden arrives in Paris from Belfast. The plan is that she’s to spend the night with Peg, an old friend from university, and then fly on alone to Villefranche where her husband, Kevin, is to join her the next day. In Paris, Sheila meets Peg’s new boyfriend, Ivo and a young American named Tom Lowry. There’s an immediate attraction between Sheila and Tom, and then circumstances lead to them spending a few pleasant hours together.  

Later that evening, a phone call between Kevin and Sheila reveals the underlying pathology of the Reddens’ marriage. Kevin announces, without a shred of regret but with a large dose of self-righteousness, that he’s volunteered to work for the next few days and that Sheila must spend at least the first part of their holiday alone.  He says he’ll join her in a few days:

“But why? They take advantage of you, time and time again. You’re always the one who works extra days. Surely just this once, they’ll have the decency to let you get away in peace.”

“Look, nobody forced me, it was my idea. And besides, it’s just for two more days.”

“But this is our holiday! We’ve been looking forward to it for ages.”

“You have,”  he said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means, will you stop nagging me. I’ll be in Villefranche on Friday. Just enjoy yourself and lie out in the sun. You don’t need me for that.”

“So you won’t be coming before Friday, is that it?”

“Let’s say Friday night. I’ll give you a ring.”

“Why bother?”

“What do you mean?”

“If you don’t want to come on this holiday, then don’t. You’ll be far happier sitting at home, stuck into the telly.”

“Oh balls.” He was shouting now. “We can’t all live like you, ignoring the facts of life, dancing in the dark.”

It was his oldest jibe. Dancing in the dark. “Suit yourself,” she said.

“I’ll be there on Friday night. Look I’m sorry it turned out like this.”

“You’re not one bit sorry,” she said and hung up.

With the conversation still ringing in her ears, Sheila asks herself  “what did he think a woman did alone in the South of France.” And that, of course becomes the crux of the story. Sheila leaves Paris with some regret and flies to Villefranche. Tom follows her and so begins a passionate affair….

While this is a story of an affair, the backdrop is the story of a marriage–although that doesn’t become apparent until later. I wasn’t sure what I was going to get when I started The Doctor’s Wife--a book I came to courtesy of Asylum and John Self’s Moore-a-thon. I reasoned that if this blogger went to the trouble of reviewing 8 books by Brian Moore, then I might be missing out if I didn’t try this author. So I went looking for Moore’s books. Most of them are out-of-print and in the fading-out-of-view phase. New York Review Books, however, recently republished The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne reviewed here. After reading that Graham Greene claimed Moore as his “favourite living novelist,” no slight recommendation there, I decided this was more positive press for Moore, but then again both writers had that catholic thing going.  When I read the synopsis of The Doctor’s Wife, I winced at the possibilities of adultery, sin and guilt and hoped that I wasn’t about to step into a book that wheeled in a priest to solve the protagonist’s dilemma. I shouldn’t have troubled myself about Moore’s abilities. The Doctor’s Wife is written with incredible sensitivity towards its main character, Sheila Redden.

As the title suggests Sheila Redden is largely seen as an appendage to her husband, and just who or what she is remains tantalizingly and deliberately vague. This is a woman who never used her university education and whose husband views her with no small degree of contempt.  In a flashback of a particularly painful domestic scene Kevin accuses her of flirtations with their male friend, Brian, and Kevin tells Sheila that when it comes to men  “you make an absolute fool of yourself”  It escalates:

Kevin kept after her, mimicking her, mimicking Brian’s English accent, showing how she got excited when Brian talked about books, and then Kevin started to sing ‘Dancing in the Dark,’ making fun of her, and it was the most awful, hateful, hurtful row, malicious he was, he wouldn’t stop.

Subtly, unobtrusively, The Doctor’s Wife examines the politics of marriage: the power plays, the avoidance, the corrosive rot and decay of years of petty comments between two people who were never compatible in the first place and who are now divided by a chasm of dislike and resentment.

Catholicism does enter the tale but without an absolutist presence. A priest is wheeled in but he somewhat disconcertingly quotes Sartre instead of quoting god.

One of the strongest points that the novel makes is in its connections between the past, the present, and an unknown shadowy future. Stella makes inevitable, solitary comparisons between the original honeymoon and the bitter present.  The differences between the two periods in Stella’s life are striking, and she is left with the sad, yet angry acknowledgement that Kevin would rather find excuses to work than spend a week with his wife in Nice. But this is a comparison of the past and the present. In one passage Sheila calls home and as the phone rings, she conjures up the vision of her home–her life but without her in it:

She heard the phone ringing at home and thought of the black receiver sitting on the worn whorled top of the monk’s bench in the hall below the carved elephant tusks, which held an old brass dinner gong once owned by Kevin’s grandfather. The phone rang and rang. But she knew they were there, sitting in the den at the back, stuck in with the damned telly. 

 The plot addresses the idea that in the past people tolerated miserable mortal life because they expected a payoff after death. Along with this notion of heaven as a payoff for good behaviour, of course goes the idea that sin brings the price of damnation. This idea of the tradeoffs between lives (mortal and immortal) is complemented by Sheila’s belief that another sort of life might be possible.  Sheila’s brother, Owen Deane, who wrestles with his own domestic troubles, wobbles on the arguments of sin, and he realises that while these arguments may have worked in the past, somehow they now seem redundant. To Owen, Sheila voices the thought that:

People escape from their lives . Did you ever read those newspaper stories about the man who walks out of his house saying he’s going down to the corner to buy cigarettes? And he’s never heard from again.

The Doctor’s Wife is a stunning book, a lean, understated tale, full of gray areas of ambiguity that address notions of conformity and habit within the context of an unhappy marriage. I found the book impossible to put down.

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The Watch Tower by Elizabeth Harrower

The Watch Tower, from Australian novelist Elizabeth Harrower is set in the years surrounding WWII. The story begins when sisters Laura and Clare are withdrawn from private boarding school by their self-focused mother, a British woman who’s never really adjusted to life in Australia. Stella Vaizey’s lack of adjustment probably isn’t made easier by the fact that she feels a bit let down by her husband. Dr. Vaizey died unexpectedly, and his death which seems the final proof  that he was “unreliable” has left his widow and two daughters in financial hardship. Both Laura and Clare must give up their ambitions for university, and after their large home is sold, they move to Manly, a suburb of Sydney. Here’s Stella Vaizey:

“I want you and Clare to take over from tomorrow morning, Miss Muffet.” Stella Vaizey lay back in bed and extended one small, beringed and manicured hand in a final relinquishing gesture. Propped against two pillows, smoking an Abdulla cigarette, she looked tolerantly at Clare, who sat on the dressing-table stool, leaning on her knees, plaits hanging, one navy-blue ribbon untied; and at Laura, who stood, back to the windows, assessing the strange bedroom and its furnishings with quick little glances. Laura hated that ‘Miss Muffet.’ It wasn’t well intended.

“You’re fixed up at your business college; Clare’s enrolled at her school, and they’re both within walking distance. You know where the shops are, and the beach is at the bottom of the hill, so you’ve got nothing to complain about, have you?”

She was crossing them off her list!

“And now that everything’s settled, I’m going to expect you both to take some responsibility. I’m very tired. I’ve had a busy, upsetting time with that oaf of a solicitor bungling everything and selling the house. It’s been a great-” her eyes filled with tears. She sneezed, and sneezed again, and groaned luxuriously as if to say, ‘There! You can see for yourselves how ill-treated I’ve been.’

Laura finishes business school and then gets a job at a company owned by industrious bachelor Felix Shaw. With WWII gathering momentum, Stella Vaizey longs to return to her old crowd in England, and it seems nothing less than fortuitous when Felix proposes to Laura. He even buys a large, impressive house and agrees to take in Clare too. This is the liberation Stella has been waiting for, and gently, subtly, Laura is eased into marriage.

But Felix Shaw isn’t quite what he seems, and as his business interests fluctuate, both Laura and Clare pay the penalties for his erratic decisions. Gradually Felix’s dark side emerges….

The Felix Shaws of this world have an innate ability to identify and capture the vulnerable women who have the misfortune to enter their sphere of acquaintance. At first The Watch Tower seems to be Laura’s story, but as the plot develops, the story is Clare’s. Clare has the choice of remaining with Laura as a powerless witness of a hellish marriage or she can break free and abandon her sister.

The Watch Tower does an excellent job of creating its three main characters and gradually building the details of the domestic tyranny endured by Laura and Clare. Domestic abusers and marital tyrants are skilled at creating false worlds and then imprisoning their victims within those invisible walls. So true to form, Felix remains well-respected by others while at home he’s a monster. There are hints of Felix’s repressed homosexuality, and certainly he values his relationships with other males while his relationship with Laura and Clare is infused with hatred and loathing. Often Felix appears to bait Laura and Clare:

“Months ago they had learned that there was no defence but silence, and that was no defence. He did so enjoy cajoling them into speech, but he had been known to be provoked to the very edge of violence by the sound of an answering voice. Not that he minded being brought to the edge of violence.”

 All these details are well-developed and believable, and Felix’s gradual transformation occurs as he isolates the sisters first from the world and then from each other.

On a personal level, I find it difficult to read novels in which characters are acted upon–endlessly. I wanted someone to do something in this novel, so I became frustrated with the female characters as they continued to soak up Felix’s behaviour and escaling violence. That criticism voiced, I realise that that is the whole point of the story. These women take it because a) they have few other choices and b) it becomes ‘normal.’

In spite of the novel’s painful subject matter–the destruction of one human being by another, the plot does not wallow in emotion, and much of the drama remains delicately understated. There’s not a great deal of introspection here as people carry on and pretend everything is perfectly normal even when it’s quite clear that it’s not.  For its exploration of the relationship between sisters, the sacrifices of 1940s women who are forced by circumstance to drop dreams of education for the terrors of becoming one man’s cooks, cleaners, and general factotums, then this could be a classic feminist text along with titles such as Mrs. Caliban (Rachel Ingalls) and Housekeeping (Marilynne Robinson).

The brief bio notes at the front of the book state that Harrower was born in 1928 in Sydney, lived in London in the 50s, and then returned to Australia. The Watch Tower was published in 1966. It’s a somewhat unfortunate title as a search yields a lot of religious material.

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Mrs. Craddock by W. Somerset Maugham

“Irony is a gift of the gods, the most subtle of all the modes of speech. It is an armour and a weapon; it is a philosophy and a perpetual entertainment; it is food for the hungry of wit and drink to those thirsting for laughter. How much more elegant is it to slay your foe with the roses of irony than to massacre him with the axes of sarcasm or to belabour him with the bludgeons of invective.”

Mrs. Craddock begins with a love story between Bertha Ley, a fairly affluent young heiress, owner of Ley Court and Craddock, and a burly, handsome young farmer. Bertha, who’s orphaned and lives with her aunt Polly, falls in love with twenty-seven-year old Edward Craddock, a local tenant farmer who works part of the Ley land. Against all advice from her aunt and acquaintances, Bertha insists on marrying Craddock. Craddock is seen by Bertha’s acquaintances as a fortune hunter, and everyone predicts disaster. But Bertha, headstrong and obstinate, marries Craddock, and the Craddocks settle down to married life.

The opening line of the novel states “this book could be called the Triumph of Love,” and Maugham’s ironic meaning becomes apparent only when the novel has concluded. In some ways the novel is a tragedy–not on the grand scale of things–but on the everyday level through the gradual wearing down of hopes and dreams. This is the story of a marriage–a relationship that begins with hope and devoted, passionate love that fizzles with time, disillusionment and familiarity.

Because of the vast differences in class between Craddock and Bertha, everyone disapproves of the match, but it’s total incompatibility that spells trouble for the pair, and this glaring fact escapes Bertha during the tumultuous, brief courtship phase. This vast incompatibility and its predictable consequences do not escape the attention of sagacious Aunt Polly, one of Maugham’s great characters. As an observer of human nature, Aunt Polly is fascinated by Bertha’s relationship, but she is also well aware that the marriage that will end in great unhappiness. Miss Ley, a consummate spinster who believes that “marriage is always a hopeless idiocy for a woman who has enough of her own to live on” chooses to see everything in life as a “source of amusement.”

Divided by class and education, one of the biggest divides between the Craddocks is Edward’s insensitivity and complete lack of imagination. And this is best seen in Edward’s philosophy on the treatment of women:

“Women are like chickens,” he told a friend. “Give ‘em a good run, properly closed in with stout wire setting so that they can’t get into mischief, and when they cluck and cackle just sit tight and take no notice.”

A handful of significant incidents hammer home the depth of Craddock’s insensitivity, and while Bertha becomes increasingly unhappy with her marriage, her neighbours come to respect and admire Edward as a manager and as a husband. Craddock is not a bad person by any means, and the Craddocks’ marital woes are more an issue of incompatibility than anything else. Craddock thoroughly enjoys the role of country squire, but as he becomes a respected member of the country community, he simultaneously sinks in Bertha’s eyes. Love turns to hate, then boredom and then indifference….

Maugham tackles the subject of class differences in other novels (Of Human Bondage, The Merry Go Round), but Mrs. Craddock–a deceptively simple tale, is one of my all-time favourites. This is not a grand tale with exotic locations, but this is a tale that most of us can relate to–the death of love. The novel charts Bertha’s relationship in its first throes of excited passion, her idealization of the love object, and her denial of their very basic incompatibility. Once Bertha and Edward are married the novel explores the metamorphosis of Bertha’s delight in aspects of Edward’s personality. Then as disillusionment sets in, these same characteristics that attracted and delighted her pall, and her mundane relationship drives her to depression. And, ironically, as Bertha grows more and more unhappy and withdrawn, Edward flourishes and decides that marriage is quite a perfect state–and so it is, for him at least. Trapped in a loveless marriage, Bertha has few options, and these options only grant a temporary respite from the endless days that stretch before her. Tempted by the distractive qualities of a younger lover, Bertha finally comes to terms with her marriage in the most unexpected manner.

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