Mr. Darcy, Mr. Knightley, Captain Wentworth…Mr. Delamere?

One detail of Loraine Fletcher’s introduction to Emmeline stood out to me more than any other: Emmeline “delighted” and influenced a young Jane Austen (9, 35). After reading this, I began to see Austen nearly everywhere in Smith’s novel—nearly everywhere, that is, except for in Smith’s cast of male characters.

If Austen is well-known for her plucky and admirable female heroines (something she acquired from reading Smith?), she is perhaps just as famous for penning leading men who deserve such ladies. It seems doubtful, however (at least thus far in my reading), that this is also something she learned from Smith: while Smith writes virtuous and engaging female characters (Emmeline herself, Mrs. Stafford, Augusta Delamere, and even to an extent Lady Adelina), nearly all the men who have made an appearance in Emmeline are rakes (Mr. Stafford, Mr. Trelawny), wimps (Mr. Elkerton), of questionable character (Fitz-Edward), or just downright unlikable (Mr. Rochely, the three Crofts men). Emmeline might as well be subtitled something like “Good Women and the Men Who Don’t Deserve Them By a Long Shot.” In fact, the only two men who seem worthy at all of the beautiful and virtuous women they marry are scarcely mentioned and are never even allowed to speak: Lord Westhaven, who marries Augusta Delamere (211), and Lord Clancarryl, who marries Lady Adelina’s older sister (217, 224).

There is undoubtedly a crisis of male virtue in Smith’s novel, which is evidenced by a brief exploration of any of the aforementioned men (with the exception of the last two). However, this portrayal of unworthy, vicious, and ridiculous men becomes somewhat complicated as we become more acquainted with Fitz-Edward and Mr. Delamere. Mr. Fitz-Edward, though at his initial introduction the narrator assures us that “his heart was not originally bad” (68) comes across as a rather slimy and ingratiating character, easily willing to be two-faced if necessary for his own purposes (99-100, 132) and too pleased with his own ability to be pleasing to be truly sincere (87). The account of his adulterous involvement with Lady Adelina (225-231) confirms any suspicion about his character not being wholly virtuous. And yet, the remorse he feels for his part in the affair (243-45), his willingness to atone for it by delivering himself to her brother, whom he does not doubt with act harshly though with perfect justice towards him (245-46), and the plans to provide for his illegitimate child as well as the joy with which he receives his son (245, 286) seem somewhat to redeem him. Whether this redemption of character will be of a permanent nature is yet to be discovered.

Mr. Delamere, on the other hand, seems to be regressing rather than progressing in virtue. Introduced as spoiled, impulsive, passionate, and quick-tempered (68), he is nevertheless the closest thing the novel has to a “hero” for much of the story. Moreover, his sudden and unassailable attachment to Emmeline (whose virtue, beauty, and understanding make her admirable) seems to be evidence of his good taste—as does his disdain for his mother’s excessive pride (117, 170) and for the scheming of the Crofts (117). Once I was assured that Delamere’s love for Emmeline is indeed sincere, I wanted to believe that he could grow to deserve her.  But affront after affront (intrusion into her bedroom while at the castle, 71; tracking her to Swansea, 83, and then to Mrs. Ashwood’s, 121; most of all his abduction of her from Mrs. Ashwood’s, 167), though made in the name of his passionate love for Emmeline, represent chance after chance he has had to reform and fails to do so. The brief time he spends under a false identity raised my hopes that, being under necessity of assuming a new identity, he might reflect on his “old self” and change his behavior. He even makes the decision to reform following the advice of Emmeline (184-85), yet repeatedly finds himself “unable to adhere to the good resolutions he had made” (188; also 257). This, indeed, seems to be his reigning vice: an inability to master his passions and execute the resolutions he makes while in a more reasonable frame of mind. One can only hope that for the sake of our heroine, he finds the strength to reign in his temper and his imagination, or that he eventually realizes he can no longer abide by his resolution to marry her.   

In Which a Reader Discusses Arabella’s Fondness of the Language of Romance

Everyone who converses with Lady Arabella agrees that there’s something rather strange about her, but though various explanations are proposed, none seem to get quite at the heart of the problem.

Early in the novel, the “insolent Unknown” (18) Mr. Hervey, after suffering humiliating and ungrounded accusations that he intended to abduct Bella, “concluded her Fears of him were occasioned by her Simplicity” (21), she having lived mostly in the retirement of the country and being seldom in the company of others. Later, Mr. Glanville puzzles over whether he ought “to resent as an affront” Bella’s taking offense at his declaration of love or whether it “was designed as a Jest” (33), but can do no better than tell himself, “One would swear this dear Girl’s Head is turned…if she had not more Wit than her whole Sex besides” (41). Even Arabella’s own father is “uneasy” and cannot account for her “ridiculous Objections,” blaming “Obstinacy” and disobedience (42)—though he himself acknowledges that she has never before disobeyed him (41) and that such contrariness would be outside “the natural Sweetness of her Temper” (42-3). Mrs. Morris, the servant of Miss Groves, is astonished at a lady of Arabella’s rank displaying manners “quite contrary to the Laws of Good-breeding” in asking her to relate her mistress’ “History” (69); likewise, Miss Groves herself “imputed her [Arabella’s] impertinent Curiosity to her Country Ignorance, and ill-Breeding” (78). Even Miss Glanville interprets what is “unintelligible” (83) to her in Arabella’s conversation as proceeding from malice or envy (89, 91).

Each of these explanations is inadequate in some way, the characters themselves often feeling misgivings about their attempts to make sense of some peculiarity in Arabella’s speech. Even when a given character decides on what appears a plausible explanation, he or she finds him or herself not able to entirely assent to reasoning that is inconsistent with some other well-established part of Arabella’s character.  The Marquis tries to reconcile these perceived contradictions between his daughter’s character and her behavior and speech by threatening what he sees as their cause—her beloved romances: “The Marquis…was resolved to cure Arabella of her Whims, by burning the Books that had put them into her Head” (56). When Glanville intercedes on Arabella’s behalf and saves the books in hope of winning her favor, his intervention is revealed to be even wiser than he intended: his preservation of what she treasures allows him a further glimpse into her thoughts and the reality she has constructed for herself from these romances—something no other character quite comprehends. Through several uncomfortable experiences of Arabella’s silly attachment to these books (50-52, 61, 64, 86, 102, 115), he comes to realize what the reader also is coming to realize: Arabella has so ingrained her romances into her reality that no physical separation of lady and book would have the effect the Marquis desired.  

Because of her intimacy with her romances, Arabella has so thoroughly appropriated the language peculiar to them that she speaks in a way that finds her largely misunderstood and leaves her interlocutors puzzling out explanations for why she converses so strangely. The danger that faces her by continued exposure to her romances is a linguistic one: Arabella is very often in a position to be heard and to be listened to, but she will run the risk of muting herself if she cannot make herself understood. Her challenge is, as Mr. Glanville insightfully identifies, to “Speak in [her] own language” (116) before she is reduced to a mere echo of fictional heroines’ flowery prose.

Humor for “publick sale”

In light of our interest in authorial prefaces to help make sense of these early novels and to assess what the authors themselves believed they were doing, I resolved to remember to pay attention when I began my reading to Sterne’s preface to Tristram Shandy. However, I found nothing like a statement about how art ought to be both diverting and instructive (as in Robinson Crusoe), or an attempt (by means of a preface in the form of a letter from the author to a friend and patron) to defend his novel from (anticipated) charges of being morally offensive and to assert that on the contrary, he intended his story to be morally enriching (as in Tom Jones). Instead, Sterne’s brief preface, a letter like Fielding’s, hints that he sees his novel as having somewhat of a different purpose.

His first paragraph indicates that that he himself is in a rather pitiable condition, removed from society (“in a bye-corner of the kingdom…in a retired thatch’d house”) and plagued by “ill health” (3). His one consolation, he implies, is humor: “being firmly persuaded that every time a man smiles,—but much more so, when he laughs, that it adds something to this Fragment of Life” (3). Sterne then offers the same consolation to “the Right Honourable Mr. Pitt,” to whom he has dedicated his work: “if I am ever told, it [Tristram Shandy] has made you smile, or can conceive that it has beguiled you of one moment’s pain” then the author should be very happy (3). This is as close as Sterne comes to a prefatory defense of his novel or a declaration of its purpose as he sees it, that is, it exists to make people laugh and forget their troubles.

This is a satisfactory purpose for a text, and in beginning to read the novel itself, I felt that Sterne was certainly going to make good on his intent to make me laugh. However, he complicates things only a few pages into the work by having his narrator first write a mock dedication (15) and in the next chapter, insist that the dedication has not “yet been hawk’d about or offered publickly or privately, directly or indirectly, to any one person or personage, great or small” (15) so that he may not be censured for “putting it [the dedication written in the previous chapter] up fairly to publick sale” (16). This, for me, raises further questions about the novel’s purpose: In allowing the narrator to mock dedications in general, does Sterne also mock his own? And if so, does this mockery invalidate what he said in his dedication?

Also clouding the question of the purpose of Tristram Shandy are the narrator’s own assertions of his purpose, primarily in Chapter X of the first volume: “[M]y purpose,” he claims, “is to do exact justice to every creature brought upon the stage of this dramatic work” (18). In clearing up the story of the parson’s horse, the narrator introduces his explanation by saying, “But the truth of the story was as follows” (20). Finally, in the same chapter, the narrator declares, “But this is not the moral of my story” (21)—continuing to explain what the moral actually was. Justice, truth, a moral—in the course of three pages, the narrator offers three different and noble purposes for a novel—none of which are mentioned in Sterne’s own preface. Perhaps for Sterne, humor was a way of getting at all three?         

Or, perhaps, we should simply take the narrator’s word that he simply wants to make money

by selling a dedication. 


Fielding’s Narrator: “Gratifying their Palates” or Enforcing Tastes?

Fielding’s rather extraordinary narrator opens the very first lines of Tom Jones with an extended culinary analogy that compares an author not with a gentleman giving a private banquet, where “the entertainer provides what fare he pleases” (29), but rather as “the master of an ordinary” (29). The menu of such a one is open to all who can pay his fare—and thus he must concern himself with “gratifying” the tastes of all who render the fee, or suffer the displeasure and “abuse” (29) of these same people. This image would seem to place the author at the mercy of his readers—a slave to their whims and appetites. Yet while there is surely in Fielding’s comparison an element of an author’s need to cater to the tastes of an ever-expanding reading and purchasing public, there seems to be a deeper meaning in the meal and menu analogy that our narrator provides: author and reader form equal sides of a partnership. Author provides the “menu” for the literary work; reader pays the fee if he finds the menu to his liking. If after consuming what has been offered the reader is displeased, he has the “right,” by virtue of having paid the fee, to complain and to “censure.” Nevertheless, the author can feel “honest and well-meaning” (29) despite such complaints because he has communicated at the outset of his endeavor what he is to serve his reader.

Another and rather more snide comment about pleasing the expectations of readers occurs some pages into Book I. Our narrator, having made some “deep observation” about Miss Bridget Allworthy’s character, remarks, “Very few readers can be supposed capable of making [such an observation] themselves, so I have thought it proper to lend them my assistance; but this is a favour rarely to be expected in the course of my work. Indeed, I shall seldom or never so indulge him” (40, emphasis mine). So much for the author as slave to the tastes of his reader or the hints of an equal partnership in the first image—this sounds downright condescending and places the author quite in a position of power over the reader. If our narrator were to continue his comparison of literature to cuisine, he might say that the insight he provided for the reader was the equivalent of a “master of an ordinary” providing his paying guests with some savory delicacy that was never listed on the menu.

Perhaps the most shocking contradiction of the expressions of author inferiority and author-reader equality in that first banquet image, however, occurs at the beginning of Book II. In explaining why his “history” will leave out large chunks of time if nothing of note happens, our narrator demands the understanding of his reader and declares that he will conform to no “court of critical jurisdiction” (68). Then, out of nowhere at all, he releases a torrent of statements claiming his right to do so—all rife with strangely imperialist language. Gone is any hint (as at first) that the author is slave to the demands of his readers’ tastes; now our narrator asserts that “I am…the founder of a new province of writing…I am at liberty to make what laws I please” (68). Now readers are “subjects” who are obliged to “obey” and “cheerfully comply” rather than to be “indulged.” Now our narrator must hasten to assure us that though these subjects “will unanimously concur in supporting my dignity, and in rendering me all the honour I shall deserve or desire” (69), yet he “principally regard[s] their ease and advantage” (68). Now he must defend himself against anticipated accusations that he is a “jure divino tyrant” (69, emphasis in original) and that readers are not regarded as “my slaves or my commodity” (69).

I don’t think that was on the menu, Mr. Fielding.   

“Meer Fate or Fault”

Robinson Crusoe can’t quite decide what’s going on: is he in charge or isn’t he?

For a guy who begins his career by defying his father and can’t quite let himself forget it, he seems all too eager to rid himself of blame.  “[T]here seem’d to be something fatal in that Propension of Nature tending directly to the Life of Misery which was to befal me.” (47) Fatal, Propension, Nature, Befall—that practically spells out, “It’s not my fault!” Curiously enough, it is this very statement in which Crusoe attempts to exonerate himself from guilt that prefaces his account of choosing against the wishes of his father. Aboard a ship for the first time, terrified as it is tossed on a stormy sea, Crusoe castigates himself “for my wicked leaving my Father’s House, and abandoning my Duty” (51).  

Like his resolutions to return home a prodigal son, however, Crusoe’s willingness to assume blame does not last long. He makes another statement in favor of a worldview that would excuse him from the guilt of defying his father, this one even stronger than the first. “I had no Power to [return home]…it is a secret over ruling Decree that hurries us on to be the Instruments of our own Destruction…Certainly nothing but some decreed unavoidable Misery…could have  push’d me forward” (57). His fellow seafarer has a different way of reading the situation: Crusoe, by refusing the wishes of his father and leaving home without a blessing, is “tempt[ing] Providence to [his] ruine” (58, emphasis mine). Later, Crusoe himself seems to adopt this same mindset after being shipwrecked, even echoing the words of this other passenger: “[S]ometimes I would expostulate with my self, Why Providence should thus completely ruine its Creatures” (98).  

It is not even as simple and clear-cut as a debate among Fate, Providence, or Free Will as responsible for man’s actions: Crusoe complicates the matter by mixing his terms and equating some which would seem to be opposites. “[I]t was always my Fate,” he gloomily relates, “to choose for the worse” (59, emphasis mine)—before narrating the journey that ended with his capture as a slave. Later on, he says, “I was still to be the wilful Agent of all my own Miseries” despite the fact that “Nature and Providence concurred to present me with” opportunities to be happy and prosperous (78). Even around the time Crusoe experiences his conversion on the island, he still seems to be conflicted: “I had very few Notions of Religion in my Head…otherwise than as a Chance, or, as we lightly say, what pleases God” (112, emphasis mine).  

Whether Crusoe is here equating what happens by chance as “what pleases God” or saying that “what pleases God” is merely a matter of chance, or whether Defoe meant to remark on the condition of religious beliefs in his day is not entirely clear. Undoubtedly, though, there does exist a tension between Chance and Divine Order, Fate and Free Will, Nature and Circumstance—all encompassed in Crusoe’s attempts to navigate the different forces at work in his world and anxieties in determining for what he must assume responsibility and what was beyond his control.

“‘Pen Me A Pretty Little Letter'”

Remembering Thackeray’s designation of the narrator of Vanity Fair as “the Manager of the Performance” (xxxii) and of his cast of characters as “puppets” (xxxii), I suspect there is more significance than may first meet the eye in a certain pair of letter-writing scenes.  While I originally read the first simply as comic relief, I began to think about it more seriously when I encountered the second.  The first scene, of course, is the one in which Rebecca dictates to Rawdon Crawley a letter addressed to Miss Crawley, and punctuated with moments of humor such as this: “‘You old booby,’ Rebecca said, pinching his ear…‘beseech is not spelt with an a, and earliest is’” (312-13).  This scene operates on several levels, working well both as comedy and as an illustration of the personalities of Becky and Rawdon, but perhaps more significantly as an instance where Thackeray allows one of his characters narratorial power—where he gives one of his “puppets” the marionette strings.  We see the strength of Becky’s willfulness and agency here, where she takes the power of words away from her husband and inserts herself into a text (the letter). Rawdon, who is supposed to be writing the letter, can thus only claim credit for being the mechanical means of its creation—something Miss Crawley recognizes immediately because Rebecca’s influence is too strong: “‘Don’t you see, you goose…that Rawdon never wrote a word of it. …It is that little serpent of a governess that rules him’” (313).

This scene gains a further meaning, I believe, when compared with the scene in which Sir Pitt Crawley dictates a letter to his wife, informing Rawdon and Becky of the Sir Pitt Crawley Sr.’s death.  The former Lady Jane Southdown, we must remember, has a mother who “ordered her dresses, her books, her bonnets, and her ideas for her” (416).  Consequently, this dictation becomes a battle of wills between Lady Southdown and Sir Pitt, both commanding the obedience of Lady Jane in what to write in the letter, with Sir Pitt ultimately emerging successful. Fortunate Lady Jane, it turns out, no longer has to take the ideas her mamma “ordered” for her, since she has a husband who can dictate them to her: “‘[H]ow wise and good, and what a genius my husband is!’” (518). Compare this with Rawdon’s submission to Becky’s dictation: “So he altered these words, bowing to the superior knowledge of his little Missis” (313). And in contrast with Lady Jane, who received her ideas read-made from “‘wiser heads than hers’” (424), Becky “generally succeeded in making her husband share all her opinions” (311-12).

Perhaps this comparison would not be particularly fruitful if its only observation were that Becky takes an active role, even over the men in her life, whereas the passive Lady Jane is characterized as too weak to even form her own opinions on things.  I propose that these two complementary scenes be read as part of Thackeray’s larger commentary on intelligence in women.  Becky is repeatedly called clever, brilliant, full of wit, and she admits to herself, “‘I have passed beyond it [her poor origins], because I have brains…and almost all the rest of the world are fools’” (536)—and having seen enough of Lady Jane’s passivity and secondhand opinions, I am inclined to believe her.  But even Amelia, who is called more than once our heroine, “took her opinions from those people who surrounded her, such fidelity being much too humble-minded to think for itself” (324).  The comparison of the letter-writing scenes, paired with what we know of Thackeray as a narrator of his characters, highlights a particular difficulty in defining his view of women with or without intelligence: what does he think of them?

Thackeray, William Makepeace. Vanity Fair. New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1997.

A Tale of Two Governesses

“‘Do you suppose I have no feeling of self-respect, because I am poor and friendless, and because rich people have none? Do you think, because I am a governess, I have not as much sense, and feeling, and good breeding as you gentlefolks in Hampshire?’” (162-163). When I came across these words spoken by Miss Rebecca Sharp in Vanity Fair, I heard an echo in my mind of similar words from another governess with whom we have recently become familiar; I refer, of course, to none other than Jane Eyre.  Jane’s passionate speech towards Rochester in the famous garden scene where he tells her first that she must find new employment, and mere pages later, proposes marriage to her, is strangely similar to the above words that Becky Sharp directs at Rawdon Crawley.  “‘Do you think,’” Jane says with fervor, “‘that because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, that I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! – I have as much soul as you – and full as much heart!’” (361). Yes, how similar their words are, these two governesses – and yet, how different the effect produced by them! When Jane addresses Rochester, I feel the depth of her cry, and cry out along with her; when I read Becky’s retort, I am far more inclined to respond, “Yes, Miss Sharp; your sense, feeling, and good breeding are precisely the qualities I doubt you to have, given my present acquaintance with your character.”  Why is there such a difference in what is behind the words of these two women?

I believe that the reason for this difference can be found by comparing the author’s preface to each of the novels in question.  Charlotte Brontë advises certain negative critics of Jane Eyre, “Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion….To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee, is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns” (12).  Thackeray also establishes a certain connection between morality and his novel: “Yes, this is VANITY FAIR; not a moral place, certainly…Some people consider Fairs immoral altogether” (xxxi-xxxii). However, while Brontë makes it clear that her business in Jane Eyre is the unmasking of the hypocrite who parades as the virtuous man, Thackeray emphasizes the staged, showy, mask-like quality of Vanity Fair, saying: “But persons who think otherwise…may perhaps like to step in for half an hour and look at the performances. There are scenes of all sorts…the whole accompanied by appropriate scenery and brilliantly illuminated with the Author’s own candles” (xxxii).  Indeed, “performer” and “performance” are words Thackeray uses frequently in connection with Rebecca Sharp (9, 15, 42, 74, 165), along with multiple references to her mother’s career as a stage performer and other words that suggest Becky is merely playing a part.  He also often uses the pair of contrasts “artful”/”artless” when talking about the behavior of many of the women in the novel.

The theatrical, staged quality Thackeray succeeds in giving his work and his own narrative voice is perhaps the most prominent characteristic of the story.  However, this is also why Becky Sharp fails to be accessible and relatable, as Jane Eyre without a doubt is: Vanity Fair is the height of satire.  But because of this, we cannot trust the “Manager of the Performance” (xxxii) who readily admits that his characters are “puppets” (xxxii).  We cannot sympathize with them, any more than we can be sure of the true face of someone who is masked for a performance on the stage.

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York, NY: CRW Publishing, 2003.

Thackeray, William Makepeace. Vanity Fair. New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1997.

“A new servitude”

I have many times been both moved and intrigued by the prayer Jane makes when she first thinks of leaving Lowood: “‘Then,’ I cried, half desperate, ‘grant me at least a new servitude!’” (127). On this most recent visit to the novel, I was no less moved by this utterance than normal; however, what struck me as strange that had not occurred to me previously was remembering this statement while reading the scene in the second chapter where Abbot and Bessie are prepared to tie Jane to a chair because she is so strongly resisting their efforts to bring her to the red room.  Seeing that they are about to tie her down, Jane immediately begs them not to and promises to stay put (24). I found myself seeing, after reading this, other references to bondage and submission, and I wondered as I read what change had taken place in Jane between the scene in the red room and her decision to leave Lowood that makes her desirous for servitude, when before she fought with all her strength against attempts to restrain her?

Another instance of Jane’s declared unwillingness to submit is in her conversation with Helen Burns about the “disgraceful” (85) punishment Helen had received from Miss Scatcherd, and how quietly she had borne it. Jane herself, not “comprehend[ing] this doctrine of endurance” is convinced that “‘I should resist’” (85). This confident declaration is then put to the test just a few pages later when Jane is made to stand in shame before the rest of her classmates and does not resist, beginning to feel that “the trial, no longer to be shirked, must be firmly sustained” (100). Is this a turning point for Jane, in which her will is broken and her passionate nature curbed, which leads her to seek servitude when before she so adamantly resisted submission?

Perhaps the text can be read in this way; however, I propose another way of looking at Jane’s change of mind. Her friendship with Helen has taught her duty (85), forgiveness (89), and how to accept what befalls her willingly.  Her passion, far from being gone entirely, has simply been redirected and moderated. She still desires something more than the servitude she prays for (“Liberty, Excitement, Enjoyment: delightful sounds, truly” p. 127-28), but has come to recognize the value of conforming her will to reality, yet at the same time actively seeking out her own servitude rather than allowing herself to be a passive victim of her circumstances; to permit “no ill-usage [to] so [brand] its record on [her] feelings” (89), following in the example of Helen Burns.

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York, NY: CRW Publishing, 2003.

Noble Savage?

Perhaps he does not express himself in quite the same words, but Reade, in his portrayal of Jacky the Aborigine, seems to be of the same mindset as Dickens, who is quite harsh in his opinion of the “Noble Savage”: “His virtues are a fable; his happiness is a delusion; his nobility, nonsense” (991).  True, Reade does not say any of this about Jacky, nor does he place any such words in George Fielding’s mouth, but Jacky’s words and actions in several different situations, as well as George’s reaction to them, are just as telling of Jacky’s “other” status in George’s eyes and in Reade’s.  Reade first introduces Jacky by calling him “a single savage,” then calls him “blackee,” and “the aboriginal,” using these three depersonalizing terms and similar variations on them before Jacky himself offers his name and establishes his identity.  This identity George, in his close observation of “blackee” on “the absurd vehicle” (a boat not “according to reason”) and the undignified sneeze that capsizes him, does not initially allow.  The very fact that it is under George’s stare that Jacky enters the story (‘the gaze,’ of course, being very often symbolic of power over the one gazed upon), and that it is George who comes to Jacky’s rescue, places George in a position of superiority over Jacky.

It is interesting to note that Jacky, after identifying himself, attempts to explain away his “other-ness”: while cooking the shark, he says, “‘Black fellow stupid fellow – eat ‘em raw; but I eat ‘em burn’t, like white man’” (emphasis mine).  The narrator then tells us that Jacky, fluent in “‘the white man’s language,’” is anxious that he should “on no account be confounded with common black fellows” (emphasis mine).  Reade is nonetheless careful through his illustrations of the differences between George and Jacky that a clear distinction between the two still be made.  He does this in particular through the often childish way Jacky speaks English and his knowledge of the land – which, Reade generously allows, saves George’s skin and his fortune more than once.  Jacky’s “other” status, then, is not presented in a wholly negative light.  However, George, in “finding the shark’s flesh detestable,” can be seen as expressing his disgust with primitive customs in general; in becoming “irate” with Jacky’s destroying the coat purchased for him because the day was “a good deal hot,” perhaps he is asserting the general unreasonableness of the “savage” and the intellectual superiority of the white man.  (Strangely, George does not allow for the fact that Jacky is the native and surely knows the climate and his own tolerance of it better than a stranger to the land does.)

Furthermore, two other deeds Jacky does, more than any peculiarity of speech or custom, cast him in a negative light.  First, Reade relates the brutal violence with which Jacky kills Abner, who leaves when George most needs his help.  On the one hand, this does indicate the depth of Jacky’s loyalty to George, but on the other, the deed itself, and the matter-of-fact way in which Jacky executes it, as well as his lack of any remorse for it, solidifies his “savage” nature.  Second, Jacky himself, shortly after killing Abner, abandons a seriously ill George.  Again, there are mitigating circumstances; Jacky believes George is already dead and flees out of grief, which he does not understand and cannot process.  But overall, this action further serves to make Jacky “other,” to emphasize his inferiority to George, which Reade underscores by repeatedly calling him things like “simple-minded” and “half-reasoning savage.”   Perhaps it is in these two examples that Reade makes his most explicit statement in agreement with Dickens’ assertion that the noble savage’s “virtues are a fable” (991).

Dickens, Charles. “The Noble Savage.” Household Words. 1853.

Reade, Charles. It Is Never Too Late to Mend. Project Gutenberg Etexts: 2003. Project Gutenberg. Web. 25 January 2013.

Detective Reade?

It would seem that Reade’s narrator in It Is Never Too Late to Mend fancies himself a detective. He is certainly the most intrusive narrator I’ve ever encountered, and when I read Ronald Thomas’ discussion of the Victorian novel’s fascination with “some secret that must be revealed, or some clandestine plot that must be exposed” (169), I immediately thought back to the narrator.  From the very first chapter he makes a place for himself in the story, alternating between pieces of narrative (“George Fielding cultivated a small farm in Berkshire”), evaluative commentary (“This position is not so enviable as it was”), factual information (“Years ago, the farmers of England…”), and slightly more extended reflections (“But now, I grieve to say…”).  It is interesting to note, in connection with these disjointed transitions in the narration, that Reade uses the word “break” twice in close succession and “fractured” shortly afterwards, mere sentences into the novel, as if hinting his story’s form will mirror its content.

As regards the characters, he outlines them matter-of-factly: one might even, with Thomas’s article in mind, say with the method of “the forensic scientist” (186).  Much as a stage manager of a play might introduce the dramatis personae, he offers lists of traits that readers generally might prefer to compile on their own after having actually seen the characters exhibit them – thus, we have several instances of passages similar to the following: “This John Meadows had a cool head, an iron will, a body and mind alike indefatigable, and an eye never diverted from the great objects of sober industrious men.”  Where secrets are concerned, the characters have none of which our good narrator does not immediately inform us – for example, no fewer than three men are in love with the painfully boring Susanna Merton.  Most of the characters also have a “hidden” agenda: consider that no fewer than five men succeed in manipulating, in some way, that same paragon of religious piety, female delicacy, and filial devotion.  These “secrets” and agendas are many times not even entirely concealed from the other characters: George finds out that his brother loves Susanna and announces this to everyone present; Isaac Levi hatches a plan of revenge against Meadows.

Of course, I’m not really complaining about anything that Reade has done so far (other than making Susanna an appalling character) – I’m simply noting peculiarities in narrative style and how well they mesh with Thomas’ ideas about the growing prominence of the detective in Victorian novels.  I do, however, feel that Reade’s narrator is being slightly too enthusiastic in giving his audience all the characters’ secrets and devious motives so early on.  I like to figure out characters myself instead of being given bullet points of their strengths and weaknesses.  I also prefer to be the detective and discover possible subplots and agendas from subtle hints from a less present and more mysterious narrator.  But I’ll withhold judgment – after all, Reade’s narrator might be doing this all as a critique of the detective-story genre, and could still pull off a reversal (his own hidden agenda) that would reveal that he himself is the criminal.

Reade, Charles. It Is Never Too Late to Mend. Project Gutenberg Etexts: 2003. Project Gutenberg. Web. 25 January 2013.

Thomas, Ronald R. “Detection in the Victorian Novel.” Cambridge Companions Online. Cambridge University Press: 2006. 169-191.

“‘Strike in God’s Name'”: Religion and Reverse Colonization

Stephen Arata discusses an idea that it has become common to think of in connection with Stoker’s Dracula: reverse colonization.  The novel, he says, is full of “fear that…what has been represented as the ‘civilized’ world is on the point of being colonized by ‘primitive’ forces” (623).  He reads the story’s preoccupation with blood as a racial concern: “In Dracula vampirism designates a kind of colonization of the body.  Horror arises not because Dracula destroys bodies, but because he appropriates and transforms them…if ‘blood’ is a sign of racial identity, then Dracula effectively deracinates his victims” (630).  I found it interesting that though Arata deals at length with the political and physical implications of vampirism as reverse colonization, he does not address the spiritual dimension of colonizer-becoming-colonized, something which in my reading of Dracula I couldn’t help but notice.

The idea that the colonizer goes into what he might call a ‘barbarian’ society and ‘civilizes’ it according to his society’s view of what it means to be civilized has long included a catechetical aspect.  The colonizer, under the impression that the natives of the society are pagan savages, takes it upon himself as part of his colonizing venture to instruct these ignorant people in the ‘true faith.’  But how would this arrangement change in a reverse colonization situation?  One scene in Dracula that gives us at least a partial answer to this question is the scene in which the un-dead Lucy finally “‘die[s] in truth’” (184).  This scene represents a reclaiming of the ‘true faith’ and a casting off of pagan beliefs that have begun, along with the political and racial threats, to infiltrate the colonizer’s society.  It can, in fact, be seen as a reverse Crucifixion and Resurrection.

On the night when Van Helsing, Seward, Holmwood, and Morris go to the graveyard to make Lucy join the ranks of those truly deceased, Van Helsing notes, “‘Two nights ago my friend Seward and I came here’”  (179) – making that very day the third day since Seward and Van Helsing first found the tomb empty.  The reversal from the Christian story is located in the men’s (or at least Van Helsing’s) foreknowledge that the tomb will be occupied and that they must descend into it then in order to do any good, rather than going to the tomb, finding it empty, and realizing the joyful truth that the Lord has risen, never again to die, as his disciples find.  There is nothing joyful, but only horror, for the men who learn that the emptiness of Lucy’s tomb at night means only that the “‘curse of immortality’” (183) has befallen her.  To end this curse, a wooden “‘stake must be driven through her’” heart (184); this recalls the image in Scripture of the soldier who pierced the side (read ‘heart’) of Jesus on the cross with his spear, as the final proof that he was truly dead (John 19:34).  This ‘crucifixion’ to which Lucy must be subjected is blessed for the opposite reason that Jesus’ is: his comes with the promise that he will rise again; Lucy’s with the promise that she will not.  And it is the men who experience a ‘resurrection’ from Lucy’s tomb and the scene of her ‘crucifixion,’ as Van Helsing promises Arthur: “‘from this grim tomb you will emerge as though you tread on air’” (184).  This crucifixion, though it does, as Jesus’ did, bring forgiveness (Arthur’s forgiveness of Van Helsing, p. 186) by the grace that is Lucy’s true death, does not become the source and symbol of a new faith, but rather an attempt by a people threatened by reverse colonization to defend the old – and in their eyes, true – faith.

Arata, Stephen. “The Occidental Tourist: Dracula and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonization.” Victorian     Studies 33:4 (1990). 621-645. Print.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc. 2000. Print.

“That Unfortunate Necklace”

I’m not particularly pleased with the way things have turned out between Mr. Deronda and Gwendolen.

Okay, I’ll admit that the part of me that wanted them to embark on a torrid affair knew at the same time that that wasn’t going to happen.  But still, after that wonderful scene in the library where Gwendolen seeks out Deronda and he gives her advice about how to pursue knowledge and embrace suffering (387-88), I was expecting something more than actually happened.  Particularly, I’m referring to Deronda’s own attitude towards Gwendolen.  I was startled to hear him say, during the course of the party at the Mallingers’, “‘I might as well have kept from meddling,’” which the narrator then tells us is a reference to “his interference about that unfortunate necklace” (481).  This expression of regret for something he formerly saw as a good deed, and something from which Gwendolen has come to benefit, lessened my respect for him somewhat.

It is interesting to see (in light of our discussion last week about the necklace, a scene that I did not find particularly important until we talked about it), how symbolic the necklace has become for both Deronda and for Gwendolen.  Her response to what he says above is, “‘If you say you wish you had not meddled – that means, you despair of me and forsake me. And then you will decide for me that I shall not be good.’” (481).  Though she originally resented Deronda’s interference, Gwendolen begins to depend upon it and seek it out.  Deronda is responsible in some way for her change of heart and certainly for her desire to change her character.  Her journey of growth began with his stare and with his “meddling” in an affair that was none of his concern, and the consequences of his behavior involve nothing less than the fate of a human soul.  He ought to take responsibility for what he began; instead, he sees it as a burden that this “splendid sad-hearted creature…had turned to him with a beseeching persistent need” (501). 

I see here that shift that Rachel Hollander identifies in Daniel Deronda from “sympathetic understanding as the foundation of moral behavior” to “a radically new understanding of ethics, one that recognizes the limits of the ability to know the other” (76).  This is what must account for Deronda’s change in attitude toward Gwendolen, who is, admittedly, a complex character, in “a constant process of shifting and remaking” (80).  I can forgive him for not understanding her entirely.  I cannot, however, for inserting himself into her life in a way that has ethical consequences, trying to remove himself when he becomes uncomfortable by the weight of her uncertainty and hunger for meaning, and attempting to escape the responsibility which his (perhaps thoughtless) redeeming of her necklace brought upon him.  He is to be blamed, in short, for not trying to understand her as well as he should — for abandoning sympathy to a harmful extent and simply resigning himself to this new ethics of recognizing that he cannot know her perfectly.

Eliot, George. Daniel Deronda. New York: Oxford University Press. 2009.

Hollander, Rachel. “Daniel Deronda And The Ethics Of Alterity.” Literature Interpretation Theory 16 (2005): 75-99.

Iridescence of Character?

I will be the last person to complain that Jane Austen’s heroine’s are one-dimensional.  However, it did strike me while reading Daniel Deronda that Eliot’s Gwendolen Harleth seemed to embody the chief characteristics of each of Austen’s central characters: the independence and liveliness of Elizabeth Bennet, the willfulness of Marianne Dashwood, the cheerful carelessness of Emma Woodhouse, and the silliness of  Catherine Morland.  She even experiences the same fall from relative ease into poverty (or at least the threat of it) that faces Anne Elliot and the Dashwoods.  (Try as I might, I could not think of a characteristic among the virtues of Fanny Price that Gwendolen also had, which may be telling in its own way.)  Yet even as I realized (and as I began to feel Austen’s ladies pale somewhat in comparison) that Miss Harleth had all of these traits to her name  — and many more, surely to illustrate Eliot’s declaration that “a moment is room wide enough for the loyal and mean desire, for the outlash of a murderous thought and the sharp backward stroke of repentance” (33) and what she called Gwendolen’s “iridescence of her character” (33) — I found myself unsure whether Gwendolen was as likable or sympathetic a character as any of Austen’s.  That, in turn, led me to wonder over a deeper question that seems to be at the heart of Daniel Deronda: what is Eliot trying to say about women, particularly through her curious Miss Harleth?

It seemed to me at many places in the novel (thus far) that Gwendolen makes a conscious effort to not be the normal woman of her day: “‘I will not be told that I am what women always are,’” she says to Grandcourt (266).  She has a general dislike of men and no real desire for marriage, on which her views are far from conventional: “if she chose to take this husband, she would have him know that she was not going to renounce her freedom” (110-11).  She thinks in several places of wanting to be master over the man she marries.  For all this trying not to be a normal woman, though, “the demand to be held a lady was in her very marrow” (231).  Of course I, like Eliot, am fully willing to allow — and even welcome — contradictions in character’s feelings; Gwendolen, however, seems to be stuck in a paradox that may be her downfall, or at least her unhappiness.  She insists upon being a lady and yet not “‘what women always are.’”  Even in these assertions, she is still defining herself in relation to men: to be a lady, for her, is chiefly to be an object of admiration to men, and in a marriage (if she would ever stoop to such a fate) she would only want to be the master of her husband to continue her “domestic empire” (32).

Though I admire her spirit in some instances, and certainly her desire not to be a run-of-the-mill woman “‘who complet[es], sweeten[s], and embellish[es] the existence of others’” (Greg, qtd. in Poovey 1), I think she is going about it the wrong way.  Perhaps it would be better for her to have focused less on her physical charms and more on the formation of her mind, if she were trying to be different than other women, or perhaps she would be more effective in her purpose of not being every other woman by submitting to a marriage but on her own terms (as, for example, Miss Arrowpoint did).  In her attempt to be different, it seems, she has focused on trivialities and overlooked the essentials.  I am curious to see, as I read the rest of the novel, whether she will succeed in being both a good woman and a different one.

Eliot, George. Daniel Deronda. New York: Oxford University Press. 2009.

Poovey, Mary. Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England. University of Chicago Press. 1988.


Who will be redeemed?

That was the primary question occupying my mind as I raced to finish Mary Barton.  And now I feel I have at least a partial answer.  John Barton, however, did not make my list of characters for whom Gaskell successfully achieved redemption, and in my defense I offer the following reason from Catherine Gallagher: “There is not even a hint of possible damnation in the novel” (67).  In John Barton’s case, I believe this is so.  Throughout the novel, the narrator sympathizes with him and consistently identifies him as a victim — almost to the point of excusing him his crime.  Barton himself insists that “I did not know what I was doing!” (451), and Mary, Job Legh, and Jem each try, equally unconvincingly, to defend Barton.  He again tries to defend himself on his deathbed by saying, essentially, that he could have lived a good life if he’s ever seen it modeled (455-56), indirectly incriminating others. Thus, there is little sense that Barton bears any responsibility for his crime, and if he is not truly responsible, he cannot be brought to justice.  I had the distinct feeling that I was expected simply to pity and to forgive: “Death! Lord, what is it to Life?” he asks, and instead of wanting him to die for his crime, I wanted him to live with the realization of what he had done, while at the same time realizing that Gaskell’s ever-sympathetic narrator would let him die peacefully, as if he deserved such a death who took another man’s life.

If Gaskell does not succeed in redeeming John Barton, she does succeed in redeeming the elder Mr. Carson — and through him, the younger Mr. Carson.  She redeems the elder both as a character, in showing his humanity through the depths of his suffering (452-455 is perhaps the most poignant passage of the book), and spiritually.  Unlike John Barton, there is a clear indication that for Mr. Carson, damnation is a serious possibility: take his chilling words, “Let my trespasses be unforgiving, so that I may have vengeance for my son’s murder” (452).  Remember also the narrator’s comment: “All night long, the Archangel combated with the Demon” (455).  There is a certain nobility in Mr. Carson’s struggle, for without the possibility of damnation, there is no possibility of salvation.

I mentioned that through Gaskell’s redemption of the elder Mr. Carson, she also redeems the younger Mr. Carson, who (it can be argued) was never given the chance for repentance himself, at least not that we, the audience, were allowed to see.  In the brief episode that the elder Mr. Carson witnesses on his walk home from his meeting with John Barton, of the careless boy who knocked to the ground a little girl in the charge of her nurse, it is clear that Carson sees himself in the figure of the nurse, who angrily upbraids the boy for hurting the child, and threatens to bring him to the authorities.  I would argue that the reaction of the little girl (obviously meant to be Harry Carson, though the words she utters [“He did not know what he was doing,” p. 455] are John Barton’s of just a few pages ago) communicates that Harry Carson himself has forgiven his murderer, and is present with his father in the supreme gesture of tenderness Carson displays at John Barton’s deathbed:  “He raised up the powerless frame; and the departing soul looked out of the eyes with gratitude.  He held the dying man propped in his arms.” (457).

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

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton. Toronto: Broadview Literary Texts, 2000. Print.

The Mediatorial Quality of Gaskell

In the introduction to his book Realism, Ethics, and Secularism: Essays on Victorian Literature and Science, George Levine asserts, “Knowledge is a condition of sympathy…and epistemology links immediately to the ethical” (10).  Reading Mary Barton, I cannot help but feel that Elizabeth Gaskell herself might have said the very same thing, and has in part made it her purpose in Mary Barton to communicate this truth to anyone who reads her book.  She indicates in her preface that the thought that prompted her to write Mary Barton was “how deep might be the romance in the lives of some of those who elbowed me daily in the busy streets of the town in which I resided” (29).  Throughout the novel, she evokes her reader’s sympathy with detailed descriptions of the filthy and destitute conditions in which the working-class of England lived; one notable example is her vivid description of the horrific poverty in which the Davenport family lives, and in which the father, ill of the fever, dies (97-100).

In thus providing her audience with knowledge of the conditions in which the poor working-class lived, Gaskell is enabling and encouraging readers to feel sympathy, and thereby to impel them to action.  Her consistent references to John Barton’s thoughts and words about the wealthy (“Why should he alone suffer from bad times?” [55]) are a reminder of the social wrongs she believed needed to be addressed, hence opening opportunities to sympathize; those wealthy among her readers who took offense at Barton’s often accusatory attitude towards the rich might be softened and the more roused to action by Gaskell’s own tactful explanations of Barton’s frequent bitterness: “I know that this is not really the case; and I know what is the truth in such matters: but what I wish to impress is what the workman feels and thinks” (55).

Gaskell’s attempts to bridge the gap between rich and poor by both accurately presenting the mindset of the poverty-stricken and by explaining for the wealthy why they were so often hated and resented by the poor might also be seen as an example of what Michael Timko calls the “mediatorial quality” of Victorian literature (626).  This quality is a reflection of the Victorian concern “to mediate fact and value” (626-27), and about the proper relation of knowledge to action, as Levine also indicated in his discussion of the link between epistemology and ethics.  Gaskell’s treatment of poverty in England, and her apparent desire to communicate the knowledge of the conditions of one class to the class who had the means to raise the fortunes of those who suffered, seems to me to be one of the things that makes her “Victorian.”

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton. Ontario, Canada: Broadview Literary Texts, 2000. Print.

Levine, George.Realism, Ethics, and Secularism: Essays on Victorian Literature and Science.

Timko, Michael. The Victorianism of Victorian Literature.” New Literary History, Vol. 6, No. 3, History and Criticism: II (Spring, 1975), pp. 607-627. Print.