Tag Archives: 19th century British literature

Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite: Anthony Trollope

70-year-old Sir Harry Hotspur is a man with 20,000 pounds a year and considerable property in Cumberland and Durham. His wife, Lady Elizabeth, a gentle, kind woman, is 20 years younger. They had 2 children: a son and heir and a daughter, Emily. When the novel opens, Sir Harry’s son is dead, and this loss, a terrible blow for his parents, also presents a dilemma regarding inheritance. Sir Harry is proud of his name, his title and his property. He takes his role of landowner seriously and feels a responsibility to uphold the property and the family name. While he is free to leave the property to his daughter, the title must fall to the nearest male relative, and that happens to be George, the son of a cousin. The cousin, now deceased, had never been in Sir Harry’s good books, and there are tales about George’s bad behaviour. Sir Harry, ever driven by a sense of duty, invites George to Humblethwaite. Sir Harry has the hope that a marriage might be possible between Emily and George, and if that were to occur, then the property and title (in the family for centuries) would remain together.

George has a great deal of charm, and as we shall see his charms work better on the females of his acquaintance.

Poor Lady Elizabeth had not a chance with Cousin George. She succumbed to him at once, not knowing why, but feeling that she herself became bright, amusing, and happy when talking to him.

After George’s visit, Sir Harry draws up a new will leaving everything to his daughter with the stipulation that if she marries, her husband should take the name Hotspur. The one visit from George is enough to convince Sir Harry that his daughter should marry another. She is, after all, beautiful and a great heiress, so her ‘prospects’ are excellent. Sir Harry also gifts 5,000 pounds as a sort of consolation prize to George, who acknowledged some debts. Now that George is known to be a less-than-decent prospect, it’s arranged that another, much more suitable young man should visit Humblethwaite, but Emily shows no interest. In the spring, the Hotspurs travel to London for the season, and it’s there that Emily sees George again. …

This is a tragic tale. George is a complete bounder–a card sharp, a gambler, a forger, a man who lives on his mistress’s earnings. Over time, it becomes clear that George’s actions go beyond the scope of a young man who lives beyond his means; he is a criminal. Sir Harry discovers terrible things about George, but there’s a dilemma–Emily, only 20, is a delicately nurtured girl who now loves George. Should she be told the details of George’s sins?

For this reader, Emily was not a satisfactory heroine. There was a smell of burning martyr, and she constantly reverts to the idea that religion is all about forgiving people, and shouldn’t they, as a family, devote their lives to reforming George? If he’s a “black sheep” then surely, he can be “washed white.” Emily begs her father to reconsider his refusal to consent to her marriage to George. Sir Harry vacillates on the subject of George which only brings this rascal into Emily’s orbit again and again. Better a clean (early) break.

The book centres on moral dilemmas: Should Sir Harry allow his daughter to marry this man? Is it worse for Emily to marry George and no doubt be miserable or lose George and be bitterly unhappy? There are times when Sir Harry tells himself that George can’t be that bad, and that the marriage would, after all, allow the title to remain with the property.

In his courtship of Emily, George is aided and abetted by Lady Altringham, the wife of a friend. She has no skin in the game and is free to nurture his unscrupulous designs. While Lord Altringham (also a tad on the unscrupulous side) is happy to invite George to his parties, he would never consent to lending him money, but George knows how to play, and play to, the ladies, and so he moves in the best society:

In spite of all his faults, this man enjoyed a certain social popularity for which many a rich man would have given a third of his income. Dukes and duchesses were fond of him; amd certain persons standing very high in the world, did not think certain parties were perfect without him. He knew how to talk enough, and yet not talk too much. No one could say of him that he was witty, well-read, or given to much thinking; but he knew just what was wanted at this point of time or at that, and could give it. He could put himself forward, and he could keep himself in the background. He could shoot well without wanting to shoot best. He could fetch and carry, but still do it always with an air of manly independence. He could subserve without an air of cringing. And he looked like a gentleman.

George juggles his debts desperately while trying to nail down his engagement, and he is guided by Lady Altringham who understands Sir Harry’s primary concerns and motivations. When Sir Harry invites George to his home (repeatedly) I winced… after all Emily, up there in Cumberland, has only ever seen a few single men. George is dashing, and he knows how to please the ladies. Emily is sheltered and cannot possibly understand how moral depravity is a statement about character. The created situation with its subsequent moral dilemmas is gripping. Emily reminded me of Helen Graham from Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. George certainly has no interest in changing his way of life even though he is all too happy to give lip service to the promises he has no intention of keeping. There’s a marvelous scene towards the end of the book in which Sir Harry sets up conditions, a type of probation for George:

Only pay my debts and set me up with ready money, and I’ll go along as slick as grease!’ Thus would Cousin George have answered the question had he spoken his mind freely. But he knew he must not be so explicit. He must promise much; but, of course, in making his promise he must arrange about his debts.

‘I’ll do almost anything you like. Only try me. Of course it would be so much easier if those debts were paid off. I’ll give up the races altogether, if you mean that, Sir Harry. Indeed, I’m ready to give up anything.’

‘Will you give up London?’

‘London!’ In simple truth, George did not quite understand the proposition.

‘Yes; will you leave London? Will you go and live at Scarrowby [Durham property], and learn to look after the farm and the place?’

George’s face fell,–his face being less used to lying than his tongue; but his tongue lied at once; ‘Oh yes, certainly if you wish it. I would rather like a life of that sort. For how long would it be?’


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An Old Man’s Love: Anthony Trollope (1884)

The old man in the title of Anthony Trollope’s novel, An Old Man’s Love, is William Whittlestaff who is 50. This was a re-read for me, but the ‘old’ leaped out at me again. Apparently in 1885, 45 was the average life expectancy. Yikes! Trollope establishes immediately that William Whittlestaff, a country gentleman who leads a quiet life and is a creature of habit, was disappointed in love decades earlier when he was jilted by his fiancée. The emotional wounds are buried but not healed when Whittlestaff decides to take in Mary, a young woman, the daughter of a friend who is left without means. Whittlestaff’s housekeeper, the indominable, opinionated Mrs. Baggett sniffs trouble on the horizon and she is right.

In time, Whittlestaff falls in love with Mary and eventually proposes. Mary takes a “full disclosure” stance and tells Whittlestaff that she was once in love with John Gordon, a young penniless man. He was dismissed by Mary’s stepmother and although words of love never were spoken between John and Mary, she continues to think of him and loves him still years later. Whittlestaff is concerned about the news that Mary loved another but presses his suit anyway. Mary is penniless and feels grateful and obligated to Whittlestaff, but does gratitude and obligation justify a trip to the altar? The fact that Whittlestaff even proposed has created a monumental dilemma; Mary can accept the offer of marriage and stay or refuse and then, due to the awkwardness of the situation combined with propriety, Mary would find it impossible to remain. Mary’s eventual acceptance is fraught and tainted with pressure from both the housekeeper and Mr. Whittlestaff. Mrs Baggett is an old family servant. She doesn’t want to be replaced by Whittlestaff’s young wife, but she also takes umbrage at the idea that Mary may refuse the offer of marriage:

“Here’s a gentleman as you owe everything to. If he wanted your head from your shoulders, you shouldn’t make any scruple. What are you, that you shouldn’t let a gentleman like him have his own way?”

So Mary accepts Whittlestaff’s offer of marriage, and the day after Whittlestaff proposes who should return from the diamond mines… but John Gordon and so the drama commences.

An Old Man’s Love centres on the subsequent behavior of Whittlestaff and Mary. The novel isn’t one of Trollope’s best, and for this reader Whittlestaff is the most interesting character since his belief that Mary must/should keep her promise to him drives the action. The attitudes in the novel to the diamond mines are interesting. Trollope doesn’t detail conditions there but we get the idea that it is hellish and a den of vice. The idea that Gordon has spent time in the mines is to Whittlestaff distasteful. On one hand he sees Gordon as a moneygrubber but also as depraved. Gordon’s idiotic friend, The Rev. Montagu Blake, a man who about to get married, stirs the pot with his gossip and insensitivity. We get glimpses of Blake’s fiancée Kattie Forrester, and she seems quite aware that she is marrying an idiot. While Blake looks forward to married bliss, it’s clear to the reader that Kattie will rule the roost. But considering how stupid Montagu Blake is, perhaps that’s just as well.

Marriage isn’t exactly portrayed positively here. Mrs Baggett rues the day she married her sailor husband, who is now a one-legged drunk. If Montagu Blake maintains his level of idiocy he may continue to think he’s a lucky man snagging Kattie Forrester for a bride, but there’s the implicit idea that life in the Blake household won’t be much fun.

Trollope gently juxtaposes two possible worlds here: the safe world of the ‘elderly’ bridegroom and the potent brawn and sexuality of adventurer John Gordon. Once Gordon appears on the scene, Whittlestaff creates a number of moral arguments for keeping Mary to her promise of becoming his wife even stating that Mary can be “a young man’s slave” versus “an old man’s darling.” Whittlestaff takes a patriarchal approach towards Mary and declares that he is the safer, better choice. According to the Trollope Society, An Old Man’s Love is categorized as one of his Comic novels, and I can’t see that at all. I suppose Montagu Blake and Mrs. Baggett’s reprobate husband provide some comic relief but IMO not enough to make this a comic novel.


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Mrs Zant and the Ghost: Wilkie Collins

In Mrs. Zant and the Ghost, a novella from Wilkie Collins, a widower in his 40s becomes involved with a woman he meets in Kensington Gardens, and this casual meeting becomes a pivotal moment in both of these characters’ lives. The widower, Mr Rayburn, devotes his life to his small daughter, Lucy, but one day in the park, she slips out of his sight and returns frightened. The reason for her fright is, it turns out, due to the behaviour of a young woman who appears to be mad. Mr. Rayburn talks to the woman, Mrs Zant, and, concerned about her health, follows her to her lodgings. Eventually Mrs Zant tells her story of great love and loss. She was widowed shortly after her marriage.

Mr. Rayburn feels morally involved, and concerned with Mrs. Zant’s well being, he approaches her brother-in-law, John Zant.

His personal appearance was in harmony with his magnificent voice. He was a tall, finely made man, of dark complexion with big, brilliant black eyes, and a noble curling beard which hid the whole lower part of his face. Having bowed with a happy mingling of dignity and politeness, the conventional side of this gentleman’s character suddenly vanished and a crazy side, to all appearance, took its place.

Rayburn has a very unfavorable impression of Zant and he begins to suspect Zant’s motives towards his sister-in-law. Zant has a very polished exterior, yet there is something slimy about this man.

Mrs Zant and the Ghost is an excellent ghost story. It’s fleshed out by Rayburn’s gradual involvement in Mrs Zant’s affairs. Mrs Zant believes that her husband’s ghost meets her in Kensington Gardens, and that the ghost of her dead husband watches over her. Rayburn isn’t sure if Mrs. Zant is mad or just grieving, but either way, he feels a desire to protect her. I listened to this as an audio version, and it was beautifully read by Gillian Anderson.


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A Rogue’s Life: Wilkie Collins (1856)

A Rogue’s Life from Wilkie Collins is a lighthearted, picaresque tale which follows the career of Frank Softly, the ne’er-do-well son of a mediocre London doctor. Frank is the grandson of Lady Malkinshaw, and so Frank’s father, rather than have a little country practice, must live in a “fashionable square” and keep up a pretense of affluence. Frank’s maternal uncle tainted the family by going into business and Frank refers to him as “that inhuman person committed an outrage on his family by making a fortune in the soap and candle trade.” Frank’s father is determined to raise his son in the shadow of his noble grandmother, and spares no expense on his education. Frank’s school years are mostly peppered with scrapes, and the idea of university is abandoned when his father “lost a lawsuit just in the nick of time.” Frank has to chose a profession.

While Frank favours the glamour of army life, there’s no money for a commission. Law is too tedious a goal, and it seems as though Frank is destined to follow in his father’s footsteps as a medical man. But bored, Frank begins selling caricatures as a “source of profit and pocket money.” This hobby comes to the horrified attention of Lady Malkinshaw, and following a quarrel with his father, Frank leaves home.

Frank’s fate is tied to the life of the ancient Lady Malkinshaw. Frank’s uncle, the candle maker, left 3,000 pounds in his will to Frank’s sister Arabella “in the shape of a contingent reversion […] payable upon the death of Lady Malkinshaw, provided” Frank survives his grandmother. So it falls upon Frank’s sister, and more importantly, Frank’s brother-in-law, Mr. Batterbury to ensure that Frank lives. When Frank falls into one scrape after another, he knows that his reliable brother-in-law will bail him out. This leads to some of the stories most amusing sections. Frank has a brief career as a creator of caricatures. This leads to a more lucrative, albeit an equally brief career as a forger. But then Frank falls in love, but even this leads to a life of crime.

As Frank sinks into a life of debt, prison and crime, Lady Malkinshaw has a series of near-death experiences.

“Her ladyship’s sight having been defective of late years, occasions her some difficulty in calculating distances. Three days ago, her ladyship went to look out of the window, and, miscalculating the distance–” Here the butler, with a fine dramatic feeling for telling a story, stopped just before the climax of the narrative, and looked me in the face with an expression of the deepest sympathy.

“And miscalculating the distance?” I repeated impatiently.

Put her head through a pan of glass,” said the butler in a soft voice suited to the pathetic nature of the communication. “By great good fortune her ladyship had been dressed for the day, and had got her turban on. This saved her ladyship’s head. But her ladyship’s neck, sir, had a very narrow escape.”

Frank Softly is a rogue so he survives by his wits, exploiting his connections, and he makes a marvelously entertaining, irreverent narrator. The tale begins with a superb intro from Wilkie Collins who explains that he always meant to return to the tale, but never did. He adds that the story was written during one of the happiest times of his life when he was living in Paris and met frequently with Charles Dickens. This lighthearted tale is a joyous romp, and far different indeed from the much-more famous Lady in White and The Moonstone.

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Mr Wortle’s School: Anthony Trollope (1880)

Anthony Trollope likes to present his readers with moral dilemmas, and Mr.Wortle’s School is no exception. A case of bigamy raises moral questions for the characters, but interestingly, the two people who are in the bigamous marriage, have settled all moral questions to their satisfaction. Their decisions, however, send shock waves through the small, quiet village community in which they live. Here’s the plot: Dr Wortle, who is a Reverend, runs an extremely successful school for boys. Wortle, the Rector of Bowick, is a strong-willed man who knows his own mind and has quarreled with many people in the past. Some people think he shouldn’t be running a school at all, and others think that the 200 pounds a year he charges for each of the 30 boys under his care, is not enough:

It may be said of him that he knew his own [mind] so well as to justify him in repudiating counsel from others. There are very different ideas of what “a fortune” may be supposed to consist. It will not be necessary to give Dr. Wortle’s exact idea. No doubt it changed with him, increasing as his money increased. But he was supposed to be a comfortable man. He paid ready money and high prices. He liked that people under him should thrive,—and he liked them to know that they throve by his means. He liked to be master, and always was. He was just, and liked his justice to be recognised. He was generous also, and liked that, too, to be known. He kept a carriage for his wife, who had been the daughter of a poor clergyman at Windsor, and was proud to see her as well dressed as the wife of any county squire. But he was a domineering husband. As his wife worshipped him, and regarded him as a Jupiter on earth from whose nod there could be and should be no appeal, but little harm came from this. If a tyrant, he was an affectionate tyrant. His wife felt him to be so. His servants, his parish, and his school all felt him to be so. They obeyed him, loved him, and believed in him.

Dr Wortle’s life can be seen as a series of battles: his employment at Eton, his Bishop, the parents of his pupils; he could “bear censure from no human being.” The latest battle involves the Honourable Mrs. Stantiloup, an unpleasant woman, whose son became ill with influenza while attending Wortle’s school. Mrs Staniloup, who already expected a discount from the school, is outraged by the bills for her son’s care. Following this incident, she withdrew her son from the school and became Dr Wortle’s mortal enemy.

In his exhaustive efforts to run the school, Wortle decides to employ a married man as a resident assistant-master and his wife as matron. In this small, gossipy community, many discuss Dr. Wortle’s search for the perfect employees and think he has set himself an impossible quest: what gentleman employed as an assistant head-master would want his wife to work??? But things always seem to go Wortle’s way and he employs The Peacockes who recently returned from America. Mr Peacocke already carries a slight taint– After all, he left a brilliant career at Oxford to seek his fortune in America. That decision alone makes the man slightly suspect. Further, Mr. Peacocke stresses that he will perform no clerical duties for Wortle, but after a short passage of time, he backs off from that decision and “preached a sermon.”

There’s a bit of a mystery about the Peacockes. They refuse to socialise, and the truth is that they harbour a dark secret. Mrs Peacocke’s first marriage was to Colonel Ferdinand Lefroy, a man from an affluent family, ruined by the civil war, who then, along with his brother, turned to a life of crime. He abandoned his wife in poverty, and she later heard he was dead. Peacocke confirmed the fact; they were married and then her first husband showed up very much alive. Then he disappeared again and so the Peacockes fled to England. Peacocke reasoned that he could not abandon his wife and so they chose to stay in a bigamous marriage.

Should they part? There is no one who reads this but will say that they should have parted. Every day passed together as man and wife must be a falsehood and a sin. There would be absolute misery for both in parting;—but there is no law from God or man entitling a man to escape from misery at the expense of falsehood and sin. Though their hearts might have burst in the doing of it, they should have parted. Though she would have been friendless, alone, and utterly despicable in the eyes of the world, abandoning the name which she cherished, as not her own, and going back to that which she utterly abhorred, still she should have done it. And he, resolving, as no doubt he would have done under any circumstances, that he must quit the city of his adoption,—he should have left her with such material sustenance as her spirit would have enabled her to accept, should have gone his widowed way, and endured as best he might the idea that he had left the woman whom he loved behind, in the desert, all alone! That he had not done so the reader is aware. That he had lived a life of sin,—that he and she had continued in one great falsehood,—is manifest enough. 

Peacocke has just decided to tell Dr Wortle the whole story when Robert Lefroy, the ne-er-do well brother- in-law to Mrs. Peacocke, turns up, claiming to bring “tidings” and demanding money.

The novel’s structure is interesting. The bigamous couple are not torn with moral quandary; they made their peace with their moral decisions long ago, but soon the entire community is buzzing with the salacious news of the Peacockes. Everyone expects Dr. Wortle to kick the Peacockes to the curb, but he advises Peacocke to go to America and ascertain whether or not Ferdinand Lefroy is really dead. And in the meantime, Wortle insists that Mrs. Peacocke should remain at the residence under his protection.

Dr Wortle’s decision whether or not to support the Peacockes becomes a moral battleground, so Wortle is the hero here. Wortle faces his own ruin in the face of the Peacocke debacle. One subplot is a growing romance involving Wortle’s daughter, a romance that may very well be ruined by the Peacocke scandal. Another subplot follows Peacocke into the wilds of America. Meanwhile back at the ranch, the scandal involving the Peacockes has become ammunition for Wortle’s enemies, and Mrs Stantiloup wastes no time as she tries to engineer the collapse of the school. Throughout the story, Wortle listens to (does not necessarily take) the advice of one man–another clergyman, Mr. Puddicombe. Dr Wortle’s School examines the idea of personal morality superseding religious doctrine and law. There are a few America bashing sections (“Perhaps they don’t care about those things over there as we do here,”) which are quite funny. Dr Wortle’s School is one of Trollope’s Dramatic Novels.

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Dead Love Has Chains: Mary Elizabeth Braddon

“Is that your idea of girls? That they ought to know nothing of the sorrow and shame that some women have to suffer?”

Lady Audley’s Secret is a favourite novel, and it was also my introduction to the considerable work of Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Dead Love Has Chains, the story of a mother’s dilemma, is a far less complex tale, and it did not match the excellence of Lady Audley’s Secret.

Lady Mary Harling, accompanied by Daisy Meredith, a poor relation who is also her companion, is on a ship bound for home from Ceylon when she meets a young woman who has a mysterious secret. It’s a long voyage and there is a great deal of idle time. Lady Mary’s cabin is next to that of a girl who says her name is Jane Brown. Jane, who stays in her cabin and does not go on the deck, is accompanied by a dour, unpleasant maid. Lady Mary hears the girl sobbing at night, and feeling concern, begins to make approaches to her lonely, unhappy fellow traveler.

The girl eventually tells Lady Mary her story: without a mother, and with a careless female relative in charge, she was pursued and seduced by a man in India. He suddenly claims he is “not free” to marry as he is already engaged to an American heiress. “Jane” is ruined, and she sent by her father to stay in Ireland. Jane, after confiding in Lady Mary, regrets her rash confidence. She can see that Lady Mary is horrified and Jane makes her swear to keep her secret.

Lady Mary has an only son, Conrad, who falls in love with an innkeeper’s daughter. When she runs off with another man, Conrad goes mad. Conrad eventually recovers and Lady Mary is more protective than ever. She begins to see Conrad drawing close to Daisy, and considers the match vastly unsuitable. But there are worse options. …

Dead Love Has Chains presents a moral dilemma: how much should Lady Mary interfere in her son’s life? If he chooses an unsuitable woman, is there cause or reason to intervene? If the match is unsuitable due to class or fortune, does that matter when weighed against Conrad’s fragile psyche? But what if Lady Mary considers the match unsuitable due to the bride’s past? If a very young girl is seduced, does this implicate moral failing? And is this indicative of future moral failings? This is not an extravagantly dramatic tale; rather it is maternal and domestic in tone. The characters are subordinate to the dilemma, so not much character development here.


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The Lawyer’s Secret: Mary Elizabeth Braddon

“In the practical world we don’t talk about happiness and unhappiness; our phrases are failure and success.”

Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s novella, The Lawyer’s Secret, is a lackluster tale heavy on dramatic hysteria and low on common sense. The story started well enough. Orphan Ellinor Arden meets with solicitor, Horace Margrave to discuss the details of Ellinor’s recently deceased uncle’s will. While the good news is that Ellinor is the sole heiress to her uncle’s estate, the bad news is that she only gets the loot and the family estate if she marries, Henry Dalton. Dalton is a barrister, and the son of an apothecary (swoon). There’s a bit of a back story here: Ellinor never met the uncle as she lived in a remote area of Scotland, and then she was sent to Paris for 10 years after her father’s death. Squire Arden died unmarried, but his protégé was Henry Dalton, the son of a woman Squire Arden once loved and lost.

Ellinor has never met Henry, and her first reaction to the demands of the will is to reject Henry immediately. She wants to marry for love! But Horace Margrave, as her guardian, advises her to marry Henry and not “throw away three thousand a year.” Without her uncle’s money, Ellinor will have just 100 pounds a year to live on from her late mother’s estate. Ellinor, somewhat petulantly, agrees to meet Henry.

As readers, it’s easy to tell that there’s something afoot–indeed the title tells us that that lawyer is hiding something…

Ellinor marries Henry. Everyone knows it is a marriage of convenience, and Ellinor is bitterly unhappy. She has to ask for every penny, and then Ellinor agrees to give an old family retainer a pension which Henry promptly cuts in half. Henry then sells Arden Hall. Ellinor seeks help from Horace and learns that there is no marriage settlement. She does not have a penny to her name. Of course this is odd. Horace is supposed to be attending to Ellinor’s interests, and to place all of the Arden money in Henry’s hands is egregious. Ellinor trusted, respected and loved Horace. Now she feels betrayed. …

An unhappy wife, a lawyer who is keeping secrets and a husband estranged from his wife. Put these into the pressure cooker and there’s an explosion: the truth is finally revealed. In this sensation fiction novella, Ellinor is not an appealing character and Henry is a stuffed shirt. The entire set up is one of those frustrating scenarios in which one stupid shameful secret ruins everyone’s lives. I can understand why Horace didn’t want the truth to come out, but Ellinor and Henry paid far too much along the way. Horace did something stupid and that sent the train of disaster in motion. Fair enough, but what Horace did after that is really the unforgivable part. Henry should have smacked Horace over the head, and Ellinor should have kicked him in the bottom. Then everyone would have got over it. 5 minutes of shame and pain or years of silent suffering in this storm in a teacup.

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Carmilla: J. Sheridan Lefanu (1872)

But dreams come through stone walls, light up dark rooms, or darken light ones, and their persons make their exits and their entrances as they please, and laugh at locksmiths.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is the book that comes to mind when I think about vampyr novels, but J. Sheridan Lefanu’s Carmilla predates Dracula by over 2 decades. I really didn’t expect much when I picked up Carmilla, but I found myself drawn into this intense gothic tale. The prologue establishes that the story comes from the notebook of a Dr. Hesselius, but the body of the tale is told by Laura, whose English father, upon retirement from the Austrian service, purchased a remote castle located on the edge of a forest. The gothic castle comes complete with a drawbridge and moat. The remoteness of the castle is established immediately, but it’s more than just remote: it’s creepy. The forest is large, extending 15 miles to the right of the castle and 12 miles to the left. General Spielsdorf’s schloss is 20 miles away. 3 miles to the west is an abandoned village with an equally abandoned chateau that was once owned by the now vanished, noble Karnstein family.

When the story opens, Laura is 19. She lives with her father and two older women who are companions. Laura stresses that she is lonely and isolated. This is a dull life for a young girl, and her isolation contributes to the events that take place. But there’s change and excitement in the air with the expected arrival of General Spielsdorf and his niece/ward Bertha Rheinfeldt. But excitement fades to sadness and disappointment when Laura’s father receives a letter from the General informing him the visit is cancelled as Bertha is dead. The letter also contains some cryptic information, which is ascribed to the general’s grief, that he is now tracking a “monster” who is responsible for Bertha’s death.

Just as Laura and her father absorb the news, a carriage accident takes place literally outside of their drawbridge. The carriage contains two women: a mother and daughter. The daughter, Carmilla, appears to be stunned by the accident and the mother, who is on a mysterious emergency mission and will be gone for 3 months, cannot take her daughter with her. Laura’s father gallantly offers to let Carmilla stay with them. Big mistake. …

Now let’s back up a bit. Laura had a disturbing dream when she was 6 years old. In the dream a beautiful woman visited her bedside, and guess what, Carmilla is the mirror image of the woman in the dream. Carmilla befriends Laura. A great deal of the suspense comes from us knowing that this is a vampyr story, and we can guess who the vampyr is. Carmilla has strange habits which no one questions. She must sleep alone, she sleeps with her door locked and she avoids prayers (dead giveaway.) Since it’s not hard to guess who the vampyr is here, the suspense comes from Carmilla’s behaviour, her seduction of Laura, and the question of whether this castle of innocents will guess that they harbour a blood-hungry vampyr in their midst? :

Dearest, your little heart is wounded; think me not cruel because I obey the irresistible law of my strength and weakness; if your dear heart is wounded, my wild heart bleeds with yours. In the rapture of my enormous humiliation I live in your warm life, and you shall die–die, sweetly die–into mine. I cannot help it; as I draw near to you, you, in your turn, will draw near to others, and learn the rapture of that cruelty, which yet is love; so, for a while, seek to know no more of me and mine, but trust me with all your loving spirit.

I enjoyed this far more than I expected to. The setting was deliciously creepy, and Lefanu creates a wonderful back drop for this Gothic story. Dracula is depicted, in film at least, as a seducer of women–always sneaking into off-limit bedrooms in the middle of the night. Some readings of Carmilla argue that this is a lesbian vampyr tale. Well young women are afflicted all over the region and are soon dropping like flies.

But to die as lovers may – to die together, so that they may live together. Girls are caterpillars when they live in the world, to be finally butterflies when the summer comes; but in the meantime there are grubs and larvae, don’t you see – each with their peculiar propensities, necessities and structures.


Filed under Fiction, J Sheridan Lefanu

The Last Chronicle of Barset: Anthony Trollope (part II)

One of Trollope’s greatest female characters is Signora Neroni who appears in Barchester Towers. The daughter of the Reverend Stanhope, Madeline Neroni went off the rails in Italy when she ran away with a penniless Italian with “oily manners.” Things went horribly wrong and Madeline Neroni returned to her father’s house crippled. Many women would have returned shame-faced, but not Madeline who capitalizes on her handicap. What a woman! She has a way of fascinating men–think a cobra–and in Barchester Towers she seduces the scourge of Barchester, the nasty, slimy Obadiah Slope, the bishop’s chaplain, to behave inappropriately in public and make a declaration of love. Of course, once Madeline has captured Slope’s heart, she shows him how worthless it is. It was with great regret that I said farewell to Signora Neroni.

When I arrived at The Last Chronicle of Barset, it was then with sheer delight to discover some other femme fatales–bad women who behave badly. The painter Conway Dalrymple has a dalliance with a married woman, Mrs Dobbs Broughton. Dalrymple and Mrs Dobbs Broughton spend a little too much time together alone, and her husband doesn’t like it. She decides nobly to “give up” Dalrymple and introduces him to the wealthy Miss Van Siever, a potential bride. Mrs Dobbs Broughton brings Miss Van Siever and Dalrymple together frequently under the auspices of portrait painting, and in her mind she creates a romantic drama in which she stars as the tragic heroine. Mrs Dobbs Broughton “used to tell herself, as she did so, that she was like Isaac, piling the fagots for her own sacrifice.” Mrs Dobbs Broughton is slated to have her own moment of tragedy, but that drama doesn’t involve love.

Johnny Eames, who has had bad luck with women (The Small House at Allington) runs into Madalina Demolines a woman who is on the hunt for a husband, and who doesn’t play by the rules. The painter Conway Dalrymple, who has his own problems with women, warns Johnny about Madalina:

“If you don’t take care, young man,” said his friend, “you will find yourself in a scrape with your Madalina.”

“What sort of scrape?”

“As you walk away from Porchester Terrace some fine day, you will have to congratulate yourself on having made a successful overture towards matrimony.”

“You don’t think I am such a fool as that comes to?”

“Other men as wise as you have done the same sort of thing. Miss Demolines is very clever, and I daresay you find it amusing.”

John knows that Madalina likes “playful intrigue,” as she drops dark hints about various women, but he never sees Madalina’s actions as potentially harmful or dangerous. John, as we know from The Small House at Allington, befriends women, enjoys their amusing company, but then finds himself much closer to the path of matrimony than he intended. There’s not much of a learning curve for John when it comes to women.

The moth who flutters around the light knows that he is being burned, and yet he cannot fly away from it. When Madalina had begun to talk to him about women in general, and then about herself,–even one so liable to the disturbance of violent emotions,–might yet be as true and honest as the sun, he knew he that he ought to get up and make his escape. he did not exactly know how the catastrophe would come, but he was quite sure that if he remained there he would be called upon in some way for a declaration of his sentiments.

Poor John is outgunned when it comes to women. Trollope explores the idea of men being trapped into making declarations of marriage, and many of his novels include proud bachelors who have steered clear of the iceberg of matrimony. Madalina can’t match Signora Neroni for wit, strategy and malicious humour, but Madalina’s role in the novel added a great deal of unexpected humour.


Filed under Fiction, posts, Trollope, Anthony

Bleak House: Charles Dickens

Bleak House, my favourite Dickens novel (of the ones I’ve read), was a re-read. I’m not exactly sure what drew me back to it, but possibly, my return was generated as a result of all the Trollope I’ve read lately. In some ways, Bleak House was better than I remembered, but more of that later. While the book’s main plot concerns a long-running lawsuit, Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, involving conflicting wills, the tale includes illegitimacy, murder, death by opium, blackmail, domestic violence, child abuse, skullduggery and even …. spontaneous combustion. The legendary lawsuit is known as Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, and it has lasted for decades.

The heroine of the novel is gentle, kind Esther Summerson, a girl who is raised by the inflexible Miss Barbary, who makes reference to Esther’s mother’s ‘disgrace,’ which is, in the eyes of Miss Barbary, an inherited condition. After Miss Barbary’s death, Esther is sent to boarding school by her guardian, Mr. John Jarndyce of Bleak House. One day he sends for Esther and she learns that she is be the companion of another ward, Ada Clare. Mr. Jarndyce also is the guardian of Richard Carstone, and both Ada and Richard, as well as Mr. Jarndyce are all beneficiaries to the Jarndyce will–but that depends on which version will eventually be validated. Esther narrates part of the story and the rest is delivered by omniscient narrator.

The novel follows Esther’s life with Ada. Ada falls in love with her cousin Richard and Mr. Jarndyce encourages Richard to get a career so that he can support a wife. The novel has many mysteries: who is Esther’s mother? Who was her father? Several murders take place in the novel and those crimes of course generate their own mysteries: who is the killer (or killers?). What are the motives for these crimes?

The marvellous character, Lady Honoria Dedlock, appears early in the novel. Lord Dedlock is considerably older than Lady Dedlock, and this may explain her perpetual, languid boredom from which she is rarely aroused. Lord Dedlock married for love, and the marriage, though childless, is a success.

My Lady Dedlock, having conquered her world, fell not into the melting, but rather into the freezing, mood. An exhausted composure, a worn-out placidity an equanimity of fatigue not to be ruffled by interest or satisfaction, are the trophies of her victories. If she could be translated to heaven tomorrow, she might be expected to ascend without any rapture.

The impeccable Lady Dedlock is also a possible beneficiary in the Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce case, but she isn’t exactly waiting on the edge of her seat for an outcome. For one thing, she’s incredibly rich. The Deadlocks’ cunning lawyer, Mr. Tulkinghorn notes Lady Deadlock’s emotional reaction to some handwriting she sees on an affidavit from the Jarndyce vs Jarndyce case. Tulkinghorn decides to get to the bottom of this mystery and this decision opens up a world of unsavoury characters.

That’s about as much of the plot as I intend to uncover. For this reading, the idea of responsibility leapt out at me. Many characters can be divided into those who take responsibility for their actions and decisions and those who do not.

So on one side, there are the hyper-responsible: Mr John Jarndyce, for example, takes on responsibilities that are NOT his: Esther is one example, but then there’s also Ada Clare and Richard Carstone. Later, Jarndyce steps in when some children are orphaned. Jarndyce performs direct acts of charity. Some of these direct acts are admirable and produce good results, but one of the recipients of Jarndyce’s charity is most unworthy.

That takes me to the other end of the responsibility chain: Harold Skimpole is an amoral bloodsucker who sponges off everyone who will give him the time of day. Perhaps Jarndyce can afford to throw a few pounds Skimpole’s way, but Skimpole, who excuses himself as a “child” when it comes to money, is a parasite even on those who cannot afford it. Skimpole simply doesn’t care who he takes money from. He doesn’t work and has no income;

He was very fond of reading the papers, very fond of making fancy sketches a pencil, very fond of nature, very fond of art. All he asked of society was to let him live. That wasn’t much. His wants were few. Give him the papers, conversation, music, mutton, coffee, landscape, fruit in the season, a few sheets of Bristol-baord, and a little claret, and he asked no more.

Esther is naive and can’t quite grasp how weasley Skimpole is. She’s never met his sort before:

He was quite enchanting. If I felt at all confused at that early time in endeavouring to reconcile anything he said with anything I had thought about duties and accountabilities of life (which I am far from sure of), I was confused by not exactly understanding why he was free of them.

Skimpole refuses to be grateful, stating: “I don’t feel any vulgar gratitude to you. I almost feel as if you ought to be grateful to ME for giving you the opportunity of enjoying the luxury of generosity.” That’s an interesting observation as it burrows into the foundations of charity.

Another character who shirks responsibility is Mrs. Jellyby, a London based woman who, with “telescopic philanthropy” ignores her own family with her obsessive charitable interest in Africa. The Jellyby children are dirty, neglected and subject to the physical hazards of being completely unsupervised. Mrs Jellyby has the “curious habit of seeming to look a long way off, as if ” she could “see nothing nearer than Africa.” Another irresponsible character is Mr Turveydrop–a man who works his nearest and dearest to the bone “to maintain him in those expenses which were indispensable to his position.” And what is his ‘position; you many well ask? Well apparently, his position is to be “a model of deportment.” So in other words, he stands there, snuff box, rings, eye glass and lace, and looks pretty. Sadly… even Lady Dedlock has shifted responsibility onto another–no spoilers here but you know what I’m talking about if you’ve read the book. We see repeatedly how those who shirk responsibility must rely on the hyper responsible to pick up the slack–economically and socially. Some of the shirkers are completely amoral (Turveydrop, Skimpole) but Lady Dedlock is a dreadfully unhappy woman who feels the deep wounds of her past decisions.

The Jarndyce vs, Jarndyce lawsuit encourages Richard Carstone to avoid his adult responsibilities. Through this character (and a couple of others) we see how the promise of a legacy ruins lives. These characters are always waiting for the big win and not planning a life in the eventuality of not winning. Dickens shows that kindness, even seemingly small acts of kindness, go a long way. Mr. Jarndyce and Esther are both hyper responsible and very kind people. Open the pages of this marvellous book, and you step into an incredible world of unforgettable characters: some malicious and conniving, others prey to circumstance. For this reading, I admired how Dickens juxtaposed the tragic with the light. I laughed out loud when Mrs Guppy, the mother of Esther’s self-interested, would-be suitor, tries to throw Mr. Jarndyce out of his own house.

Finally, at the end of the novel, I asked myself if I would rather be in a Dickens or a Trollope novel? The winner, hands-down: Trollope. It’s not an entirely fair question. Bleak House contains some evil characters (and banal opportunists), and while these types do occasionally pop up in Trollope, Trollope defangs the bad. Dickens was concerned with social ills/evils, and he shows, brilliantly, how easy is it to fall from the narrow plank of subsistence living, and, then how once off that plank, various human piranha move in for the kill.


Filed under Dickens Charles, Fiction, posts