Sunday, 24 August 2014

A Victorian Alphabet: U is for 'Ulysses' and You

Alfred, Lord  Tennyson probably wasn’t thinking of the ageing head of a British intelligence service giving evidence at a government inquiry when he wrote the closing lines of the 1833 poem ‘Ulysses’, any more than Homer was when he wrote the epic which featured this same title character.

Yet there’s something about Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ which gives it a universal resonance – a resonance which Sam Mendes taps into in the 23rd Bond film Skyfall - despite the foreignness of the names and places the speaker mentions (‘the rainy Hyades’, ‘windy Troy’, ‘Telemachos’, ‘the great Achilles’) and the exceptional nature of Ulysses’s experiences.

This identification between speaker and reader is as a result of several factors. The dramatic monologue form which the poem exemplifies is all about eliciting sympathy for the speaker from the reader. As our sympathy increases here, so Tennyson’s language becomes less specific, allowing us not just to feel with, but to feel ourselves aligned to, the speaker. In the closing section, which Judi Dench’s M quotes from, individualised classical place names are replaced by a desire to ‘sail beyond the sunset’ and ‘seek a newer world’, while Ulysses’s final words are addressed to the suitably vague, yet emotive, ‘my friends’.

The other reason of course that so many see themselves in ‘Ulysses’, is that the poem is ultimately about the contemplation of mortality – something unmistakeably universal. The claim ‘that which we are, we are’ is as firm and absolute an assertion, as it is a generic one, while the famous ambiguity of the final line, suggesting defeat by ending on the word ‘yield’ even as it declares the opposite, combines two of societies fantasies about death and how the old meet it – either with acceptance or defiance.

Yet what makes ‘Ulysses’ an even more appropriate choice of poem for M, than for you or me, is the poem’s commentary on (specifically British) empire. Tennyson’s poem has often been read with an eye to colonialism, as Ulysses longs to conquer new worlds, despite reduced strength, and fuelled by desire to live up to former glory. In a changing world, M argues that individual valour, ambition and camaraderie are still relevant. And these are the qualities which Western literature’s first great individual hero – and James Bond! – exemplify.

What should be ‘V’ in my Victorian Alphabet? Let me know here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist! And you can check out A-T here!

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Review: The Immoralist, André Gide (1902)

André Gide

I’m cheating a little bit here, as The Immoralist takes us two years into the twentieth century and is by a writer who, while born in 1869, lived well into the next century, being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1947. Yet reading and writing about Gide seemed a natural next step after reviewing some Flaubert and Huysmans recently, and, in terms of literary interest and personal life (including a relationship with Oscar Wilde), Gide has a foot firmly in each century. 

The Immoralist is the story of Michel (an erstwhile scholar of History), his life subsequent to his father’s death, his marriage to Marceline and his travels around Europe and Africa. The novel charts the development of Michel’s moral philosophy, his increasing prioritisation of sensation and pleasure and his exploration of his own sexuality – from admiring the ‘health’ of an Arab boy’s ‘little body’ which ‘was a beautiful thing’ (the first stirrings of his pederastic impulses) to apparently enjoying an MMF threesome, as his devoted wife lies dying in the novel’s final pages. 

For general readers: The Immoralist isn’t a novel which makes it easy for you to know what to think or how to judge its protagonist. Michel’s worst crimes – potential paedophilia and disregard for his wife – are difficult to pin down precisely. His apparently candid narrative stops short of telling us the exact nature of his relationships with the many boys and young men he comes into contact with (including the Arab boy Bachir, his steward’s son Charles and the child Ali he lives with at the end), although what he does admit to is increasingly physical and suggestive of sexual consummation. And Marceline’s consumptive illness cannot be blamed on Michel, even if his own tuberculosis and insistence on continual travel are certainly contributory factors in her ill health.

The lack of narrative certainty and conclusion can be unsettling. This is deliberate and reflected in the frame narrative, where Michel’s friend, who has listened to the ‘confession’, says: 

We did not speak either, for we each of us had a strange feeling of uneasiness. We felt, alas, that by telling us his story, Michel had made his action more legitimate. Our not having known at what point to condemn it in the course of his long explanation seemed almost to make us his accomplices. We felt, as it were, involved. 

The use of Michel’s voice makes this feeling of involvement inevitable. Without the guiding light of a third person narrator we feel closer to Michel than any of the other characters – even Marceline – and so sympathetic towards his selfishness. This means this is a novel which makes you think and allows you to judge for yourself at which point, if any, Michel crosses a line, and to make a call about the value of conventional morality. 

For students: Gide’s lack of narrative commentary and concentration on the development of an individual’s consciousness, where other characters are almost incidental, is very reminiscent of Flaubert and the two styles, particularly in passages where the protagonist elucidates their current ideological position in dialogue with other characters, are worthy of more detailed comparison.

Michel’s Nietzschean philosophy could also be of interest, as could Gide’s treatment of same sex desire, but there is most here perhaps for those investigating colonialism in the period and the novel’s African context is difficult to overlook. Sexual power is of course a large part of this – and Michel’s status as a white man in Africa is in some ways similar to the dominion he enjoys over workers on his country estate in Normandy – but it is Michel’s first trip to Africa, after the intense emotions surrounding his father’s death, and lack of emotion at his own wedding, which is the catalyst for the selfish, destructive and dominant behaviours he goes on to exhibit in all areas of his life: 

Tunis surprised me greatly. At the touch of new sensation, certain portions of me awoke – certain sleeping faculties, which, from not having as yet been used, had kept all their mysterious freshness. 

The Immoralist then is a wonderful study for those looking at the effects of colonialism on those who colonise and at Africa as shorthand for exoticism and permissiveness in the later nineteenth-/early twentieth-century novel.

Which novel should the Secret Victorianist review next? Let me know here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist! And did you know you can also keep up-to-date with all things Victorian over on Pinterest?

Saturday, 26 July 2014

A Victorian Alphabet: T is for Text, Time (and Trains)

A few days ago, I watched Richard Curtis’ About Time (2013) – a film which deals with time travel but through a romantic and domestic lens. The movie struck me in two ways – one, in its concentration on only one character who could travel through time (meaning we could still trace his development chronologically) and two, in its message that time must progress (people grow up, move on, die) even if somebody could magically have the power to warp it. In these two points, the film’s play with time seemed analogous to many Victorian novels and particularly to a novel I’ve been reading recently – Thomas Hardy’s 1871 Desperate Remedies.

“I’m not the text” Miss Aldclyffe tells Cytherea Graye curtly, when the young companion questions her employer in Hardy’s Desperate Remedies, as to why she never married. She is right. Important as Miss Aldclyffe (also named Cytherea) is to Hardy’s first published novel, and central as ‘reading’ her and her secrets is to the unravelling of the plot, the characters which give shape and structure to the story are the young lovers – Cytherea Graye and Edward Springrove. It is not only Miss Aldclyffe who tells us so. Hardy’s very first sentence lays out for his readers who we should be concentrating on:

‘In the long and intricately inwrought chain of circumstance which renders worthy of record some experiences of Cytherea Graye, Edward Springrove, and others, the first event directly influencing the issue was a Christmas visit.’

Immediately after this line we are confused by the introduction of another Graye (Ambrose, not Cytherea) and another Cytherea (Bradleigh, not Graye), while no Springrove appears at all. Yet, Hardy’s opener is a stake in the ground, alerting us to who this text will centre on and indicating that what will be related about these two characters – Ambrose Graye and Cytherea Bradleigh – is purely prefatory.

There is something else, of course, which alerts us to this. Hardy starts each section by indicating the timeframe it will take place within. This means we know this first section is to cover off ‘The Events of Thirty Years’. As the novel progresses, events become more concentrated in a period of time. In this first section, Hardy can cover off thirty years in one fell swoop, while the longest periods dealt with after this are ‘The Events of Ten Months’, the shortest ‘The Events of Three Hours’. The historical date (1835) and length of period covered, along with the knowledge that the characters named are not the main protagonists, helps readers label this section as introductory and signposts from the off our reading experience.

Why does this matter? A novelist has almost entirely free rein when it comes to time, with readers accepting the pace unquestioningly so Hardy’s headings could almost be seen as unnecessary. What they do do however is draw our attention to this strange power of the novelist (the time bending and omnipresent narrator) making us hyper-conscious of how the text can speed up or slow at important moments.

Nowhere is this more noticeable than in the passage describing the burning of the Three Tranters Inn. A burning heap of coach-grass sets fire to the nearby building, and Hardy traces the slow process which led to the catastrophe, repeatedly drawing our attention to shortening values of time.
The area behind the house has been a wasteland for ‘many years’, the uprooted coach-grass has been left, over a period of time, to ‘wither in the sun’, then ‘kindled three days previous’ to the events of tonight. Mr Springrove, the owner of the inn, checks on the fire ‘two or three times’ the first night, ‘the next morning’ and again at ‘bedtime’.  For the ‘whole of the third day’, the pile smoulders without change, then, after a cursory glance at it, Mr Springrove goes to bed at ‘half past ten o’clock’.  He is careless and misses the ‘quivering of the air around the heap’ which indicates the slowly rising temperature. ‘By eleven’ all are asleep. ‘At a quarter past eleven’ there is a crackle. Then ‘at twenty past eleven’ a piece of ignited fern is carried towards the building; ‘five minutes later’ the same happens to a second piece; ‘a minute later’ another piece lands on a heap of thatch.  When the building is finally set alight we are told:

‘The hurdles and straw roof of the frail erection became ignited in their turn , and, abutting as the shed did on the back of the inn, flamed up to the eaves of the main roof in less than thirty seconds’ [emphasis mine].

This whole passage is masterfully done, building suspense and making us acutely aware of the novelist’s ability to ration time, while the series of events leading to the fire are like something from a Final Destination death sequence. And it isn’t just natural developments (fire, breeze, the fluttering of a fern) – the human plot also relies on timings and often train timetables, which Hardy describes in minute detail on the night of Cytherea’s wedding. Catastrophe can, and often does, come down to missing a train, misreading a timetable, intercepting a letter carried on a mail-train.

Hardy and Hollywood may not seem natural bedfellows but the narratives of both the film and the novel which were on my mind this week are united by an obsession with time, what this means for character, and how it affects the crafting of a text.

What should be ‘U’ in my Victorian Alphabet? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Why Studying English will Ruin Your Life...

You may have heard that being a literature grad is a sure fire way to win worldly success - just consider the resulting parental pride, transferable employment skills, and high esteem of Tory politicians. But sadly, you were wrong – take it from the Secret Victorianist. Studying English will in fact destroy your life one area at a time…

1. Greetings Cards: The sentimental poem in the birthday card from your nan, a token of affection from a friend overseas - every missive designed to bring a tear to the eye and warmth to your heart is officially ruined for you. Some say it’s the thought which counts, but the lack of scansion and the clichéd sentiments will make you want to run a mile.

2. Shop signs: Which English grad doesn’t know the horror of the misplaced apostrophe? This obsession may be becoming a problem…

3. Your own writing: Remember as a child how you used to ‘make books’ and write stories? Not anymore! You can’t write a line without suffering extreme anxiety, serious writer’s block, and an overwhelming sense of inadequacy. 

4. Alcohol: Three years at uni and suddenly you find that far too many of your heroes were depressive alcoholics with dysfunctional relationships. Still feeling hopeful about how that ‘quiet drink’ tonight is going to go? I thought not. 

5. Love: A mutually destructive but passionate love affair with a fellow writer may have its downsides as well as perks, but the truth is most lovers just won’t be able to measure up to historical examples or fictional flings. My advice? Head to bed with a book – here’s some brief suggestions if you’re after a quick rebound!

How has studying English destroyed YOUR life? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+, or, as always, by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Review: The Black Robe, Wilkie Collins (1881)

Wilkie Collins’s 1881 The Black Robe tells the story of the misadventures of Lewis Romayne in a novel which deals with depression, madness, a fatal duel, marital breakdown, capture by South American ‘natives’, ill-motivated religious conversion, bigamy and disinheritance. The somewhat mad premise is that scheming Jesuit Father Branwell is out to win back a monastery seized by Henry VIII from the Church and the novel is best-known for its anti-Catholic prejudice but there are many other reasons why this Collins novel is well worth reading. 

For general readers: Romayne is a deeply egotistical and irritating protagonist and, while his wife Stella is realistic and rounded, if cultivating deep sympathies with characters is what’s most important to you, you may be a little disappointed. Father Branwell, on the other hand is a wonderful villain, worthy of comparison with Count Fosco in the much more widely-read The Woman in White (1859). We are acquainted with his plotting to such an extent, through the inclusion of his written correspondence, that we almost begin to sympathise with him, making for an interesting reading experience. At times the novel feels a little uneven, especially in its pacing and use of split narration - this is a novel which reads like it could have gone in several ways and not one in which Collins demonstrates the very best of his skill in multiple narration. But the moments of wonderfully human insight, Collins’s nuanced understanding of relationships and the sensational drama of some of the novel’s incidents more than make up for it. 

For students: The Black Robe is obviously extremely useful in terms of understanding nineteenth-century suspicions of Catholicism but the text is perhaps most well-suited to an analysis of marriage. Henry VIII isn’t just the pretence for the plot centred on Romayne’s property but a model for the debates which follow on what constitutes a ‘true’ union. The novel sees the sensation novelist’s usual preoccupation with the legalities of marriage set alongside religious considerations (the first time I’ve seen this), while Collins also details a breakdown in communication between husband and wife in a way which recalls his The Law and the Lady (1875) and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Hostages to Fortune (1871), giving a wonderful insight into the pressures of Victorian domesticity. There is also, as usual, much material here for students working on madness, along with a wedding day very similar to Jane and Rochester’s interrupted nuptials in Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 Jane Eyre.

Which lesser-known nineteenth-century novel should the Secret Victorianist review next? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.