“Nothing without a woman or a girl”

I personally don’t like to disagree with the godfather of soul, but Thackeray’s Vanity Fair seems to challenge one of his more famous maxims. (Or, at the very least, subvert it.) Vanity fair is most certainly not a man’s world: the men in it do little more than play games–whether with billiards, cards, or swords. They hold money, but are ruled by their wives (or, at the very least, their mistresses or desired mistresses) in its management.

Yet, despite that, the vast majority of the men are relatively happy. They play their games, have friends, and enjoy life. There are exceptions, to be sure (the Sir Pitts, Dobbin, and the Marquis), who will dealt with shortly, but for now it’s enough to note that the majority of the men spend their time pleasurably in pursuit of sport.They sit in their clubs and barracks telling the same stories and jokes for fifteen or thirty years, red-faced and “laugh[ing] quite easily” (355). When women gather, on the other hand, there are no laughs. At best, there are polite overtures of friendship which hide their territorial combats. At worst, they openly “cut” each other in public.  “Those who know a really good woman are aware that she is not in a hurry to forgive, and that the humiliation of an enemy is a triumph to her soul” (327).

This seemed odd to me, at first. In Victorian England, we are constantly reminded, women were expected to remain at home as the angel of the house. They were responsible for the moral fiber of the Empire and manage their affairs in order to support their menfolk’s efforts at politics or business. This is manifestly not the case in the Vanity Fair, and we have to wonder why?

I don’t believe that answer is merely Becky Sharp, but rather that Vanity Fair is simply not a  man’s world. Men can serve in politics–if as blessed as the Sir Pitts of the Marquis–or with distinction in the army, if blessed with a war. As a last resort, they have the colonies. But, in a time of peace, England has little need for its men. The nation of shopkeepers is a domestic nation, and women naturally reign supreme. The social sphere is theirs to rule; men have no place in Vanity Fair. Consider young George Osborne: he “grew up delicate, sensitive, imperious, woman-bred…He ruled all the rest of the little world around him” (320). Perhaps then the reason this novel has no hero is that all the men have gone.

This reading, of course, casts a fairly negative light on Thackeray’s understanding of gender. Are women incapable, in his mind, of creating non-competitive, mutually beneficial relationships?  Are men such as Col. Rawdon, ex-soldiers reduced to uselessness at peace time, to blame for the state of Vanity Fair? At times, Thackeray’s narrator seems to say, “No.” “What a mercy it is that these women do not exercise their powers oftener! We can’t resist them if they do” (25). At others, of course, the narrator defends women, particularly Becky, arguing that they simply have to do what they do to survive and thrive in their society.

Because the narrator is so notoriously difficult to pin down, it is difficult to say definitively what is being satirized. I suspect such an effort is a Rorschach test, but would like to suggest that the most important question in reading is whether you agree with Locke or Hobbes. A Lockean scholar could read Vanity Fair as critical of a wicked society that has forced its men and women to pursue vanities, a Hobbit could argue that Vanity Fair is critical of wicked men and women that have created a shallow society. In both cases the result is negative, but where Thackeray places sin is significantly different and allows varying levels of sympathy for his characters.

“Some people are so touchy!”

Before I go any further, I must express my joy at finding an author who shares my concern for the plight of “those hapless creatures who suffer under the misfortune of good looks” (86).  I am pleased to observe that there are, through all the ages of mankind, men willing to–with pity in their hearts and compassion on their brows–attentively look to the needs of the unfortunate beauties of the world.

That said, I find myself wondering more about the men of Thackeray’s novel than the women. When Becky Sharp chooses to dream about a soldier, I applaud her bold and frank pursuit of marriage (56). “I don’t think, ladies, we have any right to blame her; for though the task of husband-hunting is generally…entrusted by young persons to their mammas, recollect that Miss Sharp had no kind parent to arrange these delicate matters for her” (19). For a woman like Becky Sharp to snag a man, she has to know what she wants. Indeed, this sort of aggression is necessary even for women with mammas. Amelia’s blissfully demure pursuit of Lt. George Osborne very nearly lost her the catch.

I wonder, however, how much of that blame is hers and how much Lt. Osborne’s. It is very easy to say that George is entirely unfair is his mistreatment of Amelia, but “don’t girls like a rake better than a milksop?” (96). It was these adventures that allowed George to become, “famous in field-sports, famous at a song, famous on parade….adored by the men…He could spar better than Knuckles; and was the best batter and bowler, out and out, of the regimental club. He rode his own horse…and won the Garrison cup at Quebec races” (93). He may not have been an especially attentive lover, but at least he was interesting. He was cruel, to be sure, but was this very cruelty not encouraged by Amelia who allowed George to see “a slave before him in that simple yielding faithful creature, and his soul within him thrilled secretly somehow at the knowledge of his power” (154).

Now, to be sure, I don’t want to defend the Lieutenant. He’s absolutely a scoundrel, but I’d like to know why he’s a scoundrel. His willingness to discard Amelia due to her lack of wealth is problematic, but no more than Becky Sharp’s willingness to wed Jos–a man who has no redeeming qualities aside from his wealth. And then, of course, his willingness to disobey his father in order wed Amelia surely must count in his favor.

Similarly, what makes Osborne any different from Captain Crawley? Crawley gambles (though he wins),  drinks, races, and is generally a rake. His wife even refers to his characters flaws affectionately, referring to him as a “naughty good-for-nothing man” (122). Of course, once he’s married he settles down: “that veteran rake, Rawdon Crawley, found himself converted into a very happy and submissive married man” (134). What do we make of this difference? Is Crawley a scoundrel reformed through the virtues of his wife? This is problematic as a.) it buys into a dangerous willingness to place responsibility firmly on women and b.) Becky Sharp may not be the most virtuous of influences.

So I don’t know what to do with Lt. Osborne. He’s absolutely a jerk, but I don’t see why he should be any worse than the rest of the characters. I think this may be Thackery’s true genius: the sympathetic characters are sympathetic because he makes them appear so, not because they truly are and vice versa. We are only told one side of the story, and different sides often tell entirely different stories–especially when dealing with love.

Team Edward and Fifty Shades of Jane

I was tempted to write about Jane Eyre’s startlingly deferential attitude towards Mr. Edward Rochester, her “dear master,” but have since thought better of it (306). If she prefers “grimaces…a pinch on the arm…and a severe tweak of the ear” to tender caresses and kisses, that’s her business. She is a consenting adult whose “nature [is] to feel pleasure in  yielding to an authority,” who is kind of flattered and excited that her lover explicitly threatens violence if reason fails,  and who blesses him after the threat of murder and rape (243; 212; 222). I’m not especially into that kind of thing, but that’s no reason that Jane can’t be. The brooding and abusive lover is an immensely popular archetype, and it’s not my place to challenge it. If dark, brooding, gothic Thornfield with its dark, brooding, gothic master is exciting, then so be it.

My question, however, is why offer anything that isn’t Thornfield? The red room with Mrs. Reed is interesting and helps establish that Jane Eyre has certain psychological foibles, but it is not necessary for her to have this sort of Aunt. Jane could very easily be an orphan–the existence of family is needed only for the artificial inheritance that, late in the novel, undermines Jane’s efforts at independence. Lowton is important since it establishes Jane as a governess and introduces the faith/passion divide for young Miss Eyre, but it is clumsily handled in relation to the rest of the novel. Lowton was dismissed as an episode, rather than accepted as a valuable setting.

Moor’s Head could be entirely done without. Jane must have St. John–or is it Jacob?–to contrast with Edward (as an aside, it must say something culturally that she picks the brutish/hairy monster over the pale, marble, perfect marble that Bella chooses), but there is no reason that St. John could have been more naturally incorporated into Thornfield. If the mansion is to be the center, than let it remain the center. Let the other characters flow through it, let leaving be more significant than hopping from set piece to set piece. As it is, the time not spent at Thornfield feels largely wasted.

Plain Jane Speaks Out!

I find myself not knowing quite how to react to Jane Eyre. It seems full of ugliness that I am unable to fully process. This is most evident early on in the novel, when Jane is physically abused by her cousin, banished to the red-room by her aunt, and then slandered in front of her prospective schoolmaster. These scenes of hardship–continued at her school–are fairly standard genre trappings for a Victorian novel (consider Great Expectations), in which the hero or heroine must have something or someone to triumph over (as well as the audience something to reform). Even with this understanding, however, I am not clear how the reader is expected to respond when our heroine speaks so saucily to her aunt. Rebutting Mrs. Reed’s accusation that she is a deceiver, Jane feels that her “soul began to expand, to exult, with the strangest sense of freedom, of triumph, [she] had ever felt” (23). Our we to feel our soul expand in the same way?

I confess, that if my soul exulted, my stomach turned. I was reminded of this scene from Donnie Darko (WARNING: Slight Language). Donnie speaks against  Jim Cunningham, a cheesy Joel Olsteen-esque motivational speaker, at a school assembly and is applauded for it. This scene has always repulsed me, but it wasn’t until discussions with a good friend that I was able to place why: It places Donnie as the smart kid who can see above the other students/suburban clones, but he in no way acts as smart kids actually act. It instead plays like the fantasy of a kid who has never escaped high school, wishing he’d been clever enough to understand and say things when he was in high school. Jane’s speech to her aunt feels the same way; it feels like a fantasized rebellion speech that has zero grounding in reality and does little but present Jane as a shrew with an over-inflated sense of self-worth (yes, I would say the same thing about a male in this position, in fact, I just did about Donnie Darko).

This scene is fortunately countered by the remarkable Helen Burns, who advises Jane to behave with Christian grace and mercy, but it is unfortunately repeated when Jane burns the “slattern” note and, worse, authorized when Miss Temple encourages Jane to defend herself against accusations of deceit. This latter scene is an improvement, as at least Jane is encouraged to avoid letting her bitterness influence her account. This is not to say that I disagree Jane’s intentions, she was undoubtedly mistreated at home and school as she portrays it, and something absolutely needed to change. I simply do not understand why the novel portrays it so black and white–Helen is sweet, but brainless while Jane is intelligent, if caustic. Now, I recognize that I am unfairly simplifying the story. But, ultimately, I am frustrated by the implication that one can be smart or pretty (Jane vs. Georgiana), but not both, and smart or sweet (Jane vs Helen), but not both. I suspect Jane will learn sweetness through suffering, and I wish it were not so, but this novel does not seem to offer a significant amount of middle ground.

Walking the walk

Charles Reade’s It is Never Too Late to Mend is rather obviously a didactic novel, just it is rather obviously a bad novel. However, despite these glaring flaws the novel was able to launch Reade to literary superstardom (Poovey 434-435). While these too positions appear to be  in opposition, I’d like to argue instead that they are intrinsically linked. The link is not because the public likes bad books, but rather because critics have missed the point entirely in their critique of Reade. It is popular to praise or dismiss Reade for his excess of details, but the plain fact is that Reade’s greatest flaw is his lack of details. His vague and nebulous sketches do not allow for either an Ideal or Realistic approach to truth, but instead leave reader’s stuck in his muddy prose.

The probably is most clearly demonstrated by Reade’s own admittance that Robinson’s backstory cannot be introduced: “Unfortunately, we cannot afford so late in our story to make any retrograde step. The ‘Autobiography of a Thief’ must therefore be thrust in my Appendix or printed elsewhere” (location 5666). The details of Robinson’s history are of supreme importance for a realistic novel, and yet they are dismissed due to shoddy narrative structure and introduced only briefly (and artificially) through a letter to George at the end of the novel. Although the title insists that it is never too late to mend, that rule evidently does’t apply to text due for publication.

This might be acceptable if the novel were truly a moral tract, attempting to convey a lesson more important than the character of Robinson. Indeed, it often seems that this is the intent of the book. Yet this cannot be, for what is the lesson? If it is to emphasize the redemptive effects of labor, it is a flaw that George’s farming fails and that his Gold prospecting succeeds. If it is to argue that forgiveness leads to redemption, why are Black Will and mephistopheles allowed to die? (Although I do admire the almost Pauline touch of Levi in Meadow’s repentance) Perhaps the book intends to argue against otherness, but then why do Jacky, Robinson, Evans, Merton, Wil, and even George constantly make like Bonnie Tyler?

In short, the book is too realistic to be merely didactic and too didactic to be realistic. It lacks internal consistency, leaping from subplot to subplot and inexpertly weaving them together at an altar (though you have to admire George’s professions). This is precisely the commercial appeal of the novel. If Stephanie Meyer has taught us anything, it is that generic heroes set in standard plots against fantastic settings are incredibly popular. The appeal of Eden’s legal attack on Hawes (brilliantly parodied by the Judge Lynch scene) is not its facts, but rather the sense of self-righteousness that we are able to partake in. It is not the thrill justice of justice, but of victory. The whole scene is a sham–it would never stand in a court of law–but it fills us with a sense of moral superiority. We thunder along with Mr. Eden as he cries, “To your knees, MAN-slayer!” This is why one reads Read, and it’s the same reason one tweets #KONY2012 or argues for gun control for two weeks after a school shooting, because it’s nice to feel like a hero, as long as it doesn’t cost anything.


Filibusters, Philistines, and Fielding

I’m sure by now that you’ve all heard the exciting political news of the day. Don’t worry, I won’t bore you with my analysis–you’ve picked the wrong Rasmussen for that sort of talk and my old man’s on a plane. It does, however, provide an interesting tool for attempting to understand Charles Reade’s It is Never Too Late to Mend. A filibuster like Rand Paul’s is interesting news precisely because it is not interesting news; its great meaning stems precisely from its meaninglessness. Let me explain.

A filibuster exists as a piece of a non-sense designed to interrupt and disrupt a flow of thought or action. It is a long, rambling aside designed to cool heads and/or heels and to foster a new tenor of political discourse. In this particular case, Paul is attempting to block John Brennan’s nomination to the CIA until questions of drone warfare are discussed. Because they could not be discussed in any other format before the nomination, he felt the need to filibuster. With this understanding, I wonder if Charles Reade is filibustering his audience.

The story is, ostensibly, about George Fielding’s efforts to woo his lovely cousin. Towards this end, he heads to Australia in order to make his fortune so that he may provide for the lovely Susanna. What then is the significance of Isaac Levi and his enmity with Mr. Meadows? Narratively, the fact that Mr. Meadows wishes to court Fielding’s girl is enough to set him up as a villain. Is it necessary for Levi to proclaim him a Philistine? (loc 141).

A more troubling interlude involves Robinson’s (if that be his name) adventures at Newgate. What function does this interlude serve? I freely grant that it supports Mr. Hill’s objections to aimless punishments in the prison system, but I do not see what that argument has to do with Fielding’s romantic desires (Dickens 242-243). My best theory is that Reade is filibustering; delaying the narrative in order allow us to reflect on it before proceeding. Like the very best of filibusters, however, this interlude is not entirely meaningless to that which comes before or after. Instead, the prison interlude functions as an extended look at the grace and mercy (or lack thereof) that seems to be the central theme of the novel. The grace which the prisoners need to receive from Mr. Jones is mirrored by the grace which Susanna must receive from Mr. Eden, which the poor must receive from Susanna, which Fielding must receive from Mr. Merton, and which Levi must receive from Mr. Meadows.

This is why it is important the Mr. Meadows is a Philistine; the pun works doubly against his grace. Biblically, the Philistines were allied against God’s people and were thus destroyed. Culturally, Philistines became understood as those who were ignorant or unenlightened (the equation of God and culture/reason cannot be over-stressed). Meadow’s then is resisting both the Church and the World is his refusal to extend grace. For this reason, we may expect him to himself need grace by the end of the novel.

In short, Reade, for his readers, filibusters between Fielder and the Philistine in order for them to piously ponder proper petitions to Providence.That he does so inexpertly is to be expected; reader’s ought to be thankful that he has not written from a phone book.

The One in Which Two Points are Made

Although I know that it is best not to overwrite for a blog, I fear that I am forced to make two arguments this week as a result of separate conversations with two worthy ladies on the matter of Dracula. I beg your forgiveness for my self-indulgence and can offer only the assurance that will be moderately unique arguments in return.

My first point comes from a discussion with Lindsay Fenton on the roles of the lady vampires in Dracula. While discussing their hyper-sexualization, she coined the term “Draculatrix.” Although the term was meant as a joke, I do think it opens up an interesting line of discussion. Stephen D. Arta writes that “Late-Victorian fiction in particular is saturated with the sense that the entire nation – as a race of people, as a political and imperial force, as a social and cultural power – was in irretrievable decline,” and argues that Dracula is a direct expression of reverse colonization, a fear that decline was contracted like a disease amongst primitive natives (622). He argues that these concerns are primarily a result of guilt and fear, but one of his phrases triggers an interesting alternative. Arta refers to this imaginations as “fantasies of reverse colonization,” and I believe that it here that the Draculatrix term may be of some service (623). Although Arta’s article moves on to discuss race, this idea of fantasy–particular in its modern connotation–deserves to be dwelt upon. I would like to suggest that the English fantasy of “reverse colonization” is very much a sexual fantasy that draws upon an attraction to the inherent “power exchange in sexuality.” If this sort of kink is viewed as corruption, as it so often is, it may be appropriate to remember that power corrupts. In aphorism, power corrupts for unspecified reasons, but I’d like to argue here that it corrupts because of boredom. The absolute power of the British Empire had grown boring, and Royal had either to find pleasure in conquering or in being conquered. A solider may prefer to conquer, but a clerk like Jonathan Harker may well prefer to be conquered.

While this sort of argument has undoubtedly been made before, I do think that it offers a much needed fresh look at discussions of gender in Dracula. Yes, clearly the book is ragingly misanthropic, (no scene is worse than the staking of Vampire Lucy which involves a man pushing a hard rod into for the first time and against her will pain and bleeding, before she finally slips into docile bliss. This idea is, unfortunately, still prevalent today) but looking at the debate as between “how one loves” rather than “who one loves” may be beneficial (Marie qtd. in Haber 1). To put it another way, the problem is that sexual abuse by people in power has been tacitly condoned for years. The fact that it is primarily men in power is a problem, but the problem of abuse is separate (if undoubtedly related).

My second argument emerges from a deep desire to offer something relatively original that would greatly improve, or at least alter, the reading the book. My answer is surprisingly simple: Van Helsing must be a Vampire.

I know that such a claim is surprising, but, fortunately, Nicole Bouchard has already done a good deal of the research for me. Read her post and observe the striking similarities between Dr. Van Helsing and the good Count. The consider the following:

1.) Van Helsing never looks in a mirror
2.) Both have no interest in youth or sunshine (Dracula 14, Van Helsing 134)
3.) Both are referred to as Master (Dracula throughout, Van Helsing 180)
4.) While we observe that the cross has power, Van Helsing mentions that it only effects young vampires (114)
5.) The only proof that the Host is the Host in Van Helsing’s word
6.) The only proof for much of what Van Helsing claims about vampires is Van Helsing’s word
7.) Van Helsing’s vampire lore  strongly implies that he he has encountered them before, but he makes no mention of these encounters
8.) Despite Van Helsing’s unwillingness to engage in combat due to his old age and supposed infirmity, he is absolutely prepared to (and apparently capable of) break down Mina’s door (158)
8b.) He also travels constantly and forgoes sleep and still has apparently limitless energy.
9.) Mina holds his hand and her heart goes cold (134)
10.) Reinfeld recognizes him (137)
11.) Vampires are made by receiving vampiric blood as much as giving and yet Lucy does not appear to receive Dracula’s blood. She does, however, receive Van Helsing’s.
12.) We never see Van Helsing eat (and I don’t know if they cannot or if Dracula simply doesn’t like to)
13.) Although Vampires are weakened in the day, we in fact see Dracula walk in daylight a number of times.

I could go on, but I trust my point is made. Dracula is undoubtedly a vampire, but it’s hard to know that Van Helsing isn’t. Given the Victorian concerns of knowing, this may be a fruitful way to explore the novel. I confess that I don’t believe this is true, but, then again, I don’t think that anything in the novel is true. Van Helsing’s exertion of will through the bodies of his “crew of light” is, in many ways, just as dominating or domineering as Dracula’s exertion of will through his gypsies. This is a connection worth exploring. The fact that we don’t and blindly accept Van Helsing’s word on account of his “proofs” is troubling.

acCounting for Dracula

Pardon the pun, but it had to be made.

It’s hard to talk about Dracula, because it seems that everything worth saying has already been said. Scholars have exhaustively dealt with its themes of sexuality and power, and Dr. Seward and Van Helsing’s Enlightened encounter with the unknowable has been more popularly portrayed through other heroes. Still, although there is nothing new to be said, perhaps some things can be said in new ways. One of the cornerstone quotations of the text comes from the good Count himself: “We are in Transylvania; and Transylvania is not England. Our ways are not your ways, and there shall be to you many strange things” (12). This quotation is particularly striking, because, while it is uttered with grave force by the Count, it is completely undermined by the actions of the native Transylvanians. They flock to Jonathon Harker, offering gifts “of the crucifix, of the garlic, of the wild rose, of the mountain ash” (16). Though Harker does not understand them, they relate to him and act with a universal humany towards him. This universal humanity is set in opposition to Dracula; the divide is between human and vampire, not English and Transylvanian.

Dracula does not see the divide in this light, however, because he seems to believe that he is the incarnation of Transylvania, speaking as “we” when referring to any deeds of that country or its ancestors (16). In that sense, Dracula can potentially be seen as a freedom fighter seeking to combat the universalizing British Empire which knocked down national borders and treated all men as Englishmen. It is significant, for this view, that Van Helsing refers to Dracula as a “disease” (65).

This reading is potentially troubling, because it brings us to one of the key divisions between the Enlightenment and Post-Modernity. An Enlightenment reader can regard Dracula as evil because his culture does not draw from natural law. A Post-Modern reader, who does not believe in natural law, can do no such thing.  It is possible to accept a weak sort of natural law, that frowns upon one will seeking to impose it’s will upon another. This would effectively allow a reader to categorize Dracula as evil, but it also opens up a potential legitimacy for Dracula’s evil. Dracula is forced to learn English, to speak it as a native, in order to pass about the modern world (12). His castle, perfectly suited to his needs, is an antique as is the new house he seeks to buy. He does this as, “A house cannot be made habitable in a day, and after all, how few days go to make up a century” (14).

Similarly, while it may seem right to fault Dracula’s brides for their attempted rape–or murder–of Jonathan Harker, it is hard to do so while simultaneously lauding Jonathan’s own mastery of Mina. Consider how she openly mocks and disdains New Women, precisely for their agenda to grant women agency and a voice (51). New women explicitly “espoused greater freedom for women,” and often, rightly, linked their gendered critiques to critiques of Imperialism (Brantlinger 65-66).

Now I certainly don’t want to equate rape with marriage proposals, nor murder with feminism (there’s a sentence I never thought I’d have to write). I do, however, think that it’s worth reanalyzing the novel and trying to lend a sympathetic ear to our villains. Why does Dracula move? Because he has no choice, the world has moved on from boyars to London solicitors. Is it wrong for him to strike back at this world that has so rudely forced its progress onto his land? Yes, certainly. But what should he have done? It is not surprising that one who has such disdain for his own death should have a similar reaction to that of his cultures. Kipling wrote, “Take up the White Man’s burden – / Ye dare not stoop to less – / Nor call too loud on Freedom / To cloak your weariness.” Freedom is indeed something to be sought, but it seems fair to say that England has as much right to be free of the Count as he has to be free of them.


Style > Turtles

When reading of poor Gwendolen‘s dull bore of a life, it is impossible not to recall Oscar Wilde’s famous Preface to Dorian Gray, particularly the conclusion: “The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.” Both Wilde and Elliot seem to be wrestling with the apparent meaningless of life. Beauty, marriage, pleasure, purpose–these things all stem from man made constructions. They have no substance; they are founded on nothing except themselves. It is turtles all the way down. This is why, when asked what she would like to do with her life, Gwendolen has no answer. “Oh, I don’t know!-go to the North Pole, or ride steeple-chases, or go to be a queen in the East like Lady Hester Stanhope” (43). Her answer is nonsense, because it doesn’t matter. She will, presumably, marry for fortune and privilege  She is told that such is her duty, in no uncertain terms (86). It is perhaps not surprising that, in a fit of weakness, she “cried out sobbingly, ‘Oh, momma, what can become my life? there is nothing worth living for!” (51).

When we compare this existential despair to other characters, such as the musician Herr Klesmer (with “his mane of hair” and “chimney-pot hat”) or the cleric Mr. Gasciogne, we find that she is unique (62). Klesmer does not have time for despair, because he is devoted to something beyond himself (music). Similarly, Mr. Gasciogne is devoted to his paternal and conjugal duties as well as, presumably, the duties of his faith. Mr. Grandcourt, he of the subtle name, does not have external duties and, thus, appears similarly bored. He does command a certain amount of respect for having the audacity of opening his courting of an archer with the phrase, “I used to think archery was a great bore” (66), which he follows up with the brilliant pick up line, “One must do something”(67). Still, the lack of attention to others is startling and–had he picked any other target–would seem quit repulsive. To talk of boredom is only to talk of self, but, fortunately for Mr. Grandcourt, Gwendolen is particularly attracted to those who speak of themselves. She tells us early on that she would like to meet Daniel Deronda because, “He looked bored.” To this observation she adds, “Another reason why I should like to know him. I am always bored” (9). It is not surprising, therefore, that Rex’s proclamations of love “made her curl up and harden like a sea-anemone” (50).

The unfortunate fact of the matter is that Gwendolen has no foundation for her world. She has no apparent faith, no sense of duty, nor of love, friendship, or other virtues. She needs something to break her out of herself, and yet the danger remains that that something may very easily be worse. I have no doubt that she will, as Mary Barton, taught virtue by suffering. As the wise cleric says, “Life is full of [disappointment]. We have all got to be broken in” (46). I only hope that the breaking is gentle, that Gwen can move past her youthful, self-centered philosophy and learn to love others with relatively little cost to herself.

Works Cited

Elliot, George. Daniel Deronda. 2011. Kindle.

Flirting with Death: Slut-Shaming and Kill Joys in Mary Barton

I have earlier, in these very pages, pitied a young man for being young, handsome, educated, and rich. Had I known better, I would have saved my tears. His fate was a hard one, to be sure, but it doesn’t even begin to compare to that of young Mary Barton herself. The poor girl was cursed with good looks, social graces, admirers, friends, and a love of pleasure. It is truly miraculous that she was able to repent from her heavy sins and wed a good, steady, man who could lead her to virtue.

I know that many will think I exaggerate her list of sins, but I’m afraid that, if anything, I underrate them. The list is black indeed and must be shown. “She knew she was very pretty…trust a girl of sixteen for knowing it well if she is pretty” (Gaskell 17-18). This is a very great sin. To be pretty is bad enough, but to know it is far worse. If one knows that one is pretty, one must be expected to do outrageous things like enjoy being told so. Indeed, the power of being pretty is a dangerous temptation that friends do well to avoid. Margaret, that saint of a singer who earns her bread by praising the Lord, “had no sympathy with the temptations to which loveliness, vanity, ambition, or the desire of being admired, exposes so many; no sympathy with flirting girls” (165). Indeed, while idle flirting may seem to be no more than harmless youth enjoying itself, we are told in no uncertain terms that fun is a sinful trap: “Good natured, generous, jolly, full of fun; there are a number of other names for the good qualities the devil leaves his children” (183).

Prettiness does not only imperil the soul of the pretty creature, but also ensnare others. It is her good looks which charm Charlie into aiding her Liverpool chase (189) and which win her the right to stay up late before the trial (206). This witchcraft can easily lead to a darker purpose, asserts Job (and Mrs. Wilson and the law clerks): murder (164, 151, 198). What’s more, when men act as she wills it is not their fault, but hers! It is only logical that, after Mary rejects Jem’s marriage proposal, she is responsible for his becoming a thief, a drunkard, or a murderer. “Remember! when all are speaking ill of me, you will have no right to blame me, for it’s your cruelty that will have made me what I feel I shall become” (87). Job, the wise scientist, casually asserts that he does not blame Jem for murdering Carson over a pretty woman (164). Jem plays his part, as she plays her game. Women are far crueler, forgiving nothing. “That’s what I call regular jilting…And he lying cold and bloody in his coffin now!” (145). Because of her prettiness, and her audacity in enjoying it, Mary is a hussy (118, 149, 150). She’s “a bad one” because  “it’s the bad ones as have the broken hearts” (206).

Fortunately, the brave soul is repentant: She would “wait for years” for Jem Wilson, “as a penance for her giddy flirting” (88). In the trial, which peculiarly judges her conduct more than the actual murder (for, remember, Jem is only acting as her beauty forced him), she confesses that she “was giddy and vain, and ready to listen to any praise of my good looks” (214). This repentance, coupled with being “utterly cast down” and “bear[ing] the bitter, bitter grief in [her] crushed heart” allowed Mary Barton to “[submit] to be taught by suffering” (206, 255).

I do not know if it is jealousy (expressed perfectly at 7:40-7:45 or in any of the recent A-Rod stories) or priggishness that leads to such a miserable lesson, but in either situation I have little patience for it. Harry Carson’s biggest sin, we’re repeatedly told, is that he is arrogant because he enjoyed the attention of beautiful women. This is Mary Barton’s as well, but I have a hard time seeing it as a sin. Enjoying the attention of a lover is not a fault, and, while it may be carried to excess, the problem is not that she wants to have fun, it’s the dishonesty. As I said last week, there is an idea that tragedy is the higher art, that comedy is a low art form. Against I have only a single point: the Fall was tragedy, but the end of the story is a Divine Comedy. Felix culpa, maybe. But felix ascension certainly. There is no sin in being “Good natured, generous, jolly, full of fun.”

In Defense of Henry Carson

In reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, I found myself inexplicably rooting for Henry Carson, the ostensible villain of the piece. He was, the poor lad, cursed by the author as a “gay, handsome young man,” rich, well read, and relatively charming (when he had a mind to be so) (117). It is apparent from the listing of his virtues that he must die.  He was not a steady man, such as Jem Wilson, nor a plain working man. This is his sin, from which there is no salvation.

Now, to be sure, I make my point a little two strongly. Carson does have serious flaws–his arrogance is repulsive, his treatment of the working class is abhorrent, and his treatment of Mary Barton herself is extremely unchivalrous. However, I might hope that this sins are treated as the sins of youth and responded to with grace, rather that murder. Gallagher’s Causality versus Conscience: The Problem of Form in Mary Barton provides an excellent reading of the novel that accounts for the tragedy of John Barton, the poor worker who, by means of a system beyond his control and that he rails against, finds his life destroyed and worn down endlessly. Gallagher sees his tragedy as a touch of realism, fighting against the “sentimentality of Esther and Mary and the farce of Sally Leadbitter and Harry Carson.” She continues, “His interpretation, of course, immediately undercuts all the story’s romance…makes it merely a part of a larger social tragedy” (70). The reader naturally sympathizes with the tragic hero of John Barton, and who could not? He is a hard worker who, through forces beyond his control, loses his wife, his income, and his health. And yet, despite this, it is still his choice to turn to murder. The system broke him down, but it did not turn him to murder. But we forgive him this fault, because his poor, ugly, and downtrodden.  We do not forgive Carson his faults, though they be far less.

Carson’s damning moment is his caricature of the working class representatives, in which he “wrote a hasty quotation from the fat knight’s well-known speech in Henry IV” (123). The speech, claims Gallagher, comes from Act IV, Scene II, and is summed up by Falstaff’s claim that his men, scrawny, pale soldiers, are “good enough to toss; food for powder, food / for powder; they’ll fill a pit as well as better.” The Falstaff connection is strong. That is certainly one of the fat knight’s worse moment, just as it is Harry Carson’s. But it is impossibly to recall that speech without recalling an earlier,“If sack and sugar be a fault, /
God help the wicked! if to be old and merry be a / sin, then many an old host that I know is damned: if / to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh’s lean kine / are to be loved… banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.”

For Henry to be truly villainous, I would like to see him offered Grace–perhaps in the form of marriage to Mary Barton–and reject it. Were he to offer her the life of a mistress, and she reply that they should instead wed he would have the chance to grow in wisdom, love, and humanity. In rejecting that choice, and turning only into himself (the sin of Gomorrah), we would see his true evil: a sinful narcissism, an idolatry of self beyond mere youthful ego-centrism. Instead, he is killed for being young, handsome, and rich–as much a victim of the system as John Barton–and he dies unmourned. Jem is right when he realizes that “a man’s a man,” but he fails to see that this category moves both ways (118). He very much has the right to talk to Henry Carson and Henry Carson very much has the right to live and repent. Gaskell’s novel offers free will only to the heroes. Its villains are, unfortunately, damned.

Gallagher, Catherine. “Causality versus Conscience: The Problem of Form in Mary Barton.”The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction: Social Discourse and Narrative Forom : 1832-1867. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1985. 62-87. Print

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton. 2011. Kindle