Sunday 31 August 2014

Review: The Marriage of Elinor, Margaret Oliphant (1892)

A Victorian wedding

My second foray into Mrs Oliphant has been to read the 1892 The Marriage of Elinor – a full-length novel about a woman who marries the wrong man. The wilful Elinor marries notorious gambler Philip Compton against the advice of all who love her, particularly her long-suffering mother and ever loyal (and ever ignored) distant cousin John, with the novel tracing the course of her marriage, from engagement to wedding to estrangement and reconciliation. 

For general readers: In the realistic world of Oliphant, inconvenient spouses don’t tend to die in time for the closing chapter and moral choices aren’t always clean cut so expect a novel which feels closer to life than fiction and is painstakingly concerned with the minutiae of human motivations. Elinor’s trials are entirely relatable, both as a love-struck young woman and as a mother in her forties terrified about the reaction of her teenage son to finding out his father is still living. But what really makes the novel is the strength of the characters on the periphery of her story – Elinor’s mother Mrs Dennistoun and her cousin John Tatham.

Both these characters have a rough time of it – both love Elinor and see her suffer, while Mrs Dennistoun fears being viewed as an interfering mother and mother-in-law and is left lonely at the marriage of her only daughter, and John represses his romantic feelings for his cousin and faces losing her and her son all over again as it were with the reappearance of the errant husband. And, compellingly, both never express their feelings to Elinor, giving the novel at times a real pathos and poignancy.

The familial themes the novel deals with and humanity of its characters make the novel feel highly relevant (even if marrying the wrong man today can be more easily remedied!) and what The Marriage of Elinor lacks in specific dramatic incident, it more than makes up for in terms of human interest. 

For students: There’s obviously a lot here for students looking at marital breakdown in the nineteenth century and its implications – social and financial. But there’s much more besides. Elinor’s pregnancy - another pregnancy not made all that apparent to readers until after the fact - is a key factor in the crisis of her marriage, and is worthy of closer attention.

Meanwhile Elinor’s appearance as a witness in a court case displays many of the tropes covered off in Women in the Witness Box series, with Elinor’s ability to speak an untruth truthfully skewing the trial, having a drastic impact on her domestic life at two important junctures in her life and providing the context for the final lines of the novel, when she asks John if she has done the ‘right’ thing.

Elinor’s son is also an interesting character – with references to his grammar schooling sitting neatly with the kind of educational environments described in Charlotte Yonge’s The Daisy Chain, which I reviewed earlier in the year.

Any student studying Victorian attitudes to marriage would do well to include The Marriage of Elinor as a lesser-known example.

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

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 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 or by tweeting @SVictorianist! And did you know you can also keep up-to-date with all things Victorian over on Pinterest?