A Matter of Trust

There’s a lot of pressure in choosing a topic for the last blog post of the semester, and choosing from the many crazy and brilliant scenes/characters of Bleak House doesn’t make it any easier. There’s Mr. Guppy—the man who can’t stop (won’t stop) proposing, Mrs. Flite and her creepy collection of birds, and Mr. Bucket, the detective at the center of the first ever police procedural in literature (or so the internet tells me). So, out of all these characters, I have chosen to write about the narrator. Writing about the narrator is basically like choosing vanilla ice cream when you could have chosen, well, anything else, but here it goes anyway.

I believe narrators, especially third-person omniscient narrators. They speak with authority, and I totally buy into it. Maybe it’s because I like George Eliot. Maybe it’s because I’m traditional by nature. But whatever the cause, I tend to trust narrators until they give me a very specific reason not to, and the third-person narrator in Bleak House is no exception.

In the opening chapter, the narrator vividly describes the fog that permeates London, seeping into every nook and cranny, enveloping rich and poor alike. The chapter implies that the narrator, much like the fog, is everywhere. He (we’ll call him a “he”) is aware of the movements of every character and can perceive their inner motives and their darkest secrets. Although the narrator doesn’t let us in on every detail of every character from the beginning—if he did, there wouldn’t be a novel—his descriptions of each person we meet in the novel reveal quite a lot about character. When we first meet Mr. Tulkinghorn, the narrator tells us that he is “surrounded by a mysterious halo of family confidences” and that “there are noble Mausoleums rooted for centuries in the retired glades of parks . . . which perhaps hold fewer oble secrets that walk abroad among men, shut up in the breast of Mr. Tulkinghorn” (23). He is immediately associated with secrecy, but not in a positive way. The association with mausoleums makes the reader skeptical of his character and the nature of the secrets he keeps. And we should be skeptical. The narrator gives us fair warning that Mr. Tulkinghorn might not be the most trustworthy.

However, there is one character description that makes me question my trust in the narrator—that of Sir Leicester Deadlock. By the end of the novel, I felt I had been led astray in my perception of Sir Leicester. I had been led to think poorly of him, to see little depth in his character, and while I was pleasantly surprised to learn of his genuine love for his wife, I couldn’t help but feel I had been set up.

When we first meet Sir Leicester, we are told, with a clear tone of irony, that “there is no mightier baronet that he.” The narrator states, “He has a general opinion that the world might get on without hills, but would be done up without Deadlocks” (21). In summary, “He is an honourable, obstinate, truthful, high-spirited, intensely prejudiced, perfectly unreasonable man” (22). From this description, I fully expected Sir Leicester to be a flat character designed to point to the absurdities of the aristocracy. He seems unfeeling and full of himself. And this depiction carries for almost the entire novel as he proves his “might” in ridiculous squabbles with his neighbor. However, when he learns of Lady Deadlock’s past, a past that should be (in Victorian society, at least) a disgrace to him, he does not think at all of himself, his position, or his legacy; he can think only of her and her suffering. At this point in the novel, the narrator reveals, “It is she who, at the core of all the constrained formalities and conventionalities of his life, has been a stock of living tenderness and love.” He is “oblivious of his own suffering” and feels only compassion for her (838).

To a certain extent, I don’t mind that I was misled. Sir Leicester’s compassion is more moving because it is unexpected. However, I feel guilty because I have judged him so harshly, but it was the narrator who guided me to that judgement. He wanted me to think the worst of Sir Leicester so that I could feel all the right emotions when his love is revealed. This is clear emotional manipulation, and ultimately, it makes me wonder if I have been too trusting.

A Good Woman Is Hard to Write

I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation of any length with anyone about Dickens without discussing his characterization. It is, after all, what he is probably most famous for. There are those who prefer the realist genre who are annoyed by Dickens’ two-dimensional characters who seem to learn nothing throughout is exceedingly long novels. Then, of course, there are those who consider Fagin, Uriah Heep, and Vincent Crummles to be among the most interesting and entertaining literary characters of all time. Though my loyalties lie with Eliot and other realists, I tend to love the eccentric casts of Dickens’ novels . . . with one major exception, the heroines.

To be fair, I often like the heroines, too, but I find their goodness tiresome. This is especially true with Esther in Bleak House. Frankly, Esther deserves more personality than she gets in the novel. In the preface to the Penguin edition, Terry Eagleton writes, “In a society for which goodness has come to mean thrift, prudence, meekness, self-denial and sexual propriety, the devil is bound to have all the best tunes” (vii). This sums up exactly my dissatisfaction.

If we stop to think about it, Esther is a pretty great woman. It is Esther who “writes” some of the most interesting parts of the novel. She is the one who takes us into the bizarre household of the Jellybys. She is one who narrates the trips with Mrs. Pardiggle to visit the poor. She introduces us Harold Skimpole. Esther is clever and funny, and she is a great writer. But, instead of allowing her to simply be wonderful and demonstrate her character through her actions, Dickens forces her to tell us how wonderful she is.

Periodically throughout the novel, Dickens compels us to remember that Esther is the epitome of Victorian virtue. Every now and then, he reminds us, or has her remind us, that her goodness comes, as Eagleton suggests, from her “prudence, meekness, [and] self-denial.” This is the part I find so annoying. Why can’t Dickens give us a smart, confident heroine? Instead, her “goodness” requires that she question her own intellect and her competence as an author.

When we are first introduced to Esther, we get a whole page on how she is neither clever nor charming. She opens the first section of her narrative with the line, “I have a great deal of difficulty in beginning to write my portion of these pages, for I know I am not clever” (27). She then proceeds to describe childhood conversations where she attempted to convince her doll of this fact, just in case she got the wrong idea. And if that is not enough, she even inserts parenthetical comments allowing for the possibility that she is actually quite vain, although she doesn’t suspect it, simply because she acknowledges that her “comprehension is quickened when [her] affection is” (29). All of these statements reinforce the worst gender stereotypes of the Victorian period. A woman is supposed to be a paragon of virtue whose worth is in her capacity for feeling, not for thought.

As I mentioned above, Esther deserves better than this. I don’t totally fault Dickens for writing her this way because I imagine it would have been difficult for him to conceive of anything else. Still, though, Esther demonstrates throughout the novel that she is indeed clever and insightful and funny and, in general, a wonderfully well-rounded woman. Why is that so difficult to write?

Growing into Genre

For the last several weeks, due mostly to class discussion, seminar paper brainstorming, and blog prompts, I have been struggling to pin down George Eliot’s theories of representation, and I have found the process to be akin to creating a “Key to All Mythologies.” Sitting down, knowing I had to write something, I realized I needed a new plan of action, and—perhaps unsurprisingly—I found it in the work of the woman herself. In “Notes on Form in Art” Eliot writes:

“[I]t is often good to consider an old subject as if nothing had yet been said about it; to suspend one’s attention even to revered authorities and simply ask what in the present state of our knowledge are the facts which can with any congruity be tied together and labelled by a given abstraction.”

Therefore, I am going to attempt to put all previous discussion of narrative theory, the realist mode/genre, etc. out of my mind and turn my attention anew to the particular examples I can find relating to Eliot’s ideas of representation.

I’ll begin by going back to her early life, before she was a writer of anything other than letters and journals. As Rebecca Mead points out in her memoir/biography My Life in Middlemarch, the young Marian Evans was serious, earnest, and pious, prone to self-denial. Mead says, “She disapproved of singing, other than hymns; she dismissed novels as dangerous and frivolous” (26). She quotes a letter (though she doesn’t specify which one) where Evans states, “I am ready to sit down and weep at the impossibility of my understanding or barely knowing even a fraction of the sum of objects that present themselves for our contemplation in books and in life.” She continues, “Have I then any time to spend on things that never existed?” (qtd. in Mead 26). How did Eliot develop from a provincial girl with little time for fiction into one of the greatest fiction writers of all time? The pious, provincial girl and the great novelist share a thirst for knowledge and understanding of the human predicament; however, they clearly have differing definitions of reality.

In “Notes on Form in Art,” Eliot compares poetic form to a bivalve shell. Just as the shell develops with the animal, not before it, so form develops along with emotional expression. Though poetic form and genre aren’t exactly the same thing, I think a connection can be made here. As Eliot matured, so did her “shells,” or the genres in which she wrote. That is not to say that the novel is a more mature genre than the periodical, but merely that Eliot’s emotional expression took on different outward forms as she developed. As Dillane notes in “After Marian Evans,” Eliot’s “‘varying, unfolding self’ . . . underpinned her work” (154).

Her first attempt at literary “representation” was through translation. Translation allowed Eliot to explore the ideas of others and represent them in her native language without the burden of drawing her own conclusions, in writing at least. However, she quickly found a desire and an opportunity to draw her own conclusions in writing through her contributions to the periodical press. For a Victorian female intellectual, it would seem that the periodical essay would be the ideal genre since its anonymity allowed women to escape the confines of their gender. Through the periodical, Eliot was able to take on important issues without having her intellect or her personal morality questioned. “The Woman Question,” “the question of what place women’s literature should hold in the literary cannon [which was] conflated with the question of what place women should hold in contemporary political and social life,” took a back seat to Eliot’s ideals when she wrote for the periodical press (Easley 100). Though Eliot was able to weigh in on many of the most important issues of her day through her essays, it seems that she did not find journalism fully capable of representing the moral life. Though she could express her opinions on moral issues, the periodical essay was not a place where Eliot consistently developed her audience’s sympathy.

Eliot, I argue, saw the novel as the best genre for depicting the moral life and promoting sympathy. Where the young Evans had no time “to spend on things that never existed,” the older, more experience Eliot believed, “Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellowmen beyond the bounds of our personal lot” (“The Natural History of German Life” 110)*. As Dillane explains, many early critics praised Eliot’s first novels because they seemed true to her own life experiences but critiqued her works that ventured toward more universal themes. These critics seem to hold a definition of reality that is much closer to the young, earnest Evans. Their fictional realism, as Dillane notes, is bound to the “verifiable world” and praises “what is perceived as authentic embodiment of narrator, character and author, all validated by the fact that they originate from the same source” (158). However, Eliot saw fiction as a way to escape our self-centeredness, “our personal lot.” She sought to represent, instead, a moral reality. A true “picture” for Eliot, was one that drew people out of themselves and into humanity: “a picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the raw material of moral sentiment” (“Natural History” 110).

In “The Natural History or German Life,” Eliot states, “The thing for mankind to know is, not what are the motives and influences which the moralist thinks ought to act on the labourer or the artisan, but what are the motives and influences which do act on him” (111). Though this might not be the case for all who write in these genres, Eliot seems to focus more on what ought to be in her journalism (see “Evangelical Teaching: Dr. Cumming” or “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” for example). It took her transition to novels to develop a method for describing what is. In her novels, she teaches us “to feel, not for the heroic artisan or the sentimental peasant, but for the peasant in all his coarse apathy, and the artisan in all his suspicious selfishness” (111).

*I realize that this and the following quotations from Eliot are taken from a periodical essay and that there is a danger in developing this as a theory of fiction. However, seeing as these are themes that she developed in her fiction career, which began less than a year after the publication of this essay, and in her personal letters, I feel justified in at least including these statements as “facts which can with any congruity be tied together and labelled” under the abstract term “representation.”

“Light enough to trusten by”

God did not, as the Bible says, make man in His image; on the contrary man, as I have shown in The Essence of Christianity, made God in his image.”  ― Ludwig Feuerbach, Lectures on the Essence of Religion

Less than a decade before writing Silas Marner, George Eliot began the arduous task of translating Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity into English. In The Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach claims that God is merely an idea created by man, a projection of man’s nature. While Eliot never states these ideas explicitly in the novel, pieces of this philosophy are evident in Marner’s relationship with religion.

In the first chapter, we are introduced to Marner as a pious young man, actively involved in the community of Lantern Yard. When he is falsely accused of a crime, Marner insists that he is innocent and that God will save him. However, his God and, perhaps more importantly, his friends and community let him down. Silas loses his faith and begins a life of isolation in Raveloe.

At this point, Marner has two faiths—a faith in God and a faith in man. Both of these are shaken after his realization of his friend’s betrayal and his false conviction from the casting of lots. The narrator states, “Poor Marner went out with that despair in his soul—that shaken trust in God and man, which is little short of madness to a loving nature” (Eliot 14). These deep feelings of betrayal and injustice cause Marner to forsake all forms of religion because for him, “the form and the feeling [of religion] have never been severed by an act of reflection” (Eliot 14). Later, when Dolly Winthrop encourages Marner to go to church, Marner cannot summon any religious feeling and sees no use in participating in what he sees as meaningless forms. He has been disappointed by God and humanity.

It is only when Marner’s faith in humanity is restored that he is capable again of having religious faith. Through Eppie, he is able to become part of a community again, and his love for her teaches him of a greater love. Though he doesn’t fully understand the significance, he is even willing to participate in the ceremony of baptism out of love for Eppie. Now his religion is inextricably tied to his love of people.

It seems that this concept of religion is the one that lasts, in Eliot’s view. Toward the end of the novel, Marner goes back to visit his old town and finds that the chapel has been replaced by a factory, and he cannot get closure for the events of his past. Dolly commiserates with him, telling him that there are many things that people like them will remain in the dark about. But, Marner responds, “‘No; that doesn’t hinder. Since the time the child was sent to me and Ive come to love her as myself, I’ve had light enough to trusten by; and now she says she’ll never leave me, I think I shall trusten till I die’” (Eliot 179-80). His trust in Eppie allows him to trust in a sort of divine providence. And this faith, unlike his previous faith, is one that will last.

“What Can I Do?”

I remember an exercise my elementary school teachers would have us complete to demonstrate the importance of inflection for understanding meaning. The teacher would write a sentence on the board, and we would read the sentence aloud repeatedly as a class, emphasizing a new word each time.

Something similar takes place in Chapter 58 of Middlemarch. Here we see the very different responses of Dorothea and Rosamond to marital disappointment. Dorothea’s depth of compassion is best understood in light of Rosamond’s shallowness.

In Chapter 58, we see Lydgate coming to terms with the seriousness of his financial situation. As he prepares to discuss possible changes with Rosamond, he thinks back on Dorothea’s reaction to Casaubon’s illness. Of course, there is no way Lydgate could know the extent of Dorothea’s disappointment in marriage, but as he calls her situation to mind, we as readers must think back on her sad circumstances.

At the time of Casaubon’s illness, Dorothea was at the peak of her misery. She had placed all of her hopes in Casaubon, thinking that she could be a great help to a great man. However, she had soon realized that Casaubon would no allow her to be a great help, and as she continued in her marriage, she came to the more terrible realization that he was not a great man. Still, in his illness, Lydgate remembered her plea, “Advise me—think what I can do—he has been all his life labouring and looking forward. He minds about nothing else—and I mind nothing else” (468). Despite her disappointment in her husband, Dorothea felt a deep sympathy for him. She was bound to him by more than law. She was bound by love. Perhaps this bore no resemblance to romantic love, but even so, her interests were tied up in his, and begged Lydgate to tell her what she could do make life better for her husband.

Poor Lydgate! Just after reminiscing about Dorothea’s devotedness, he is met with a much different response (though it consists of the very same words) from his own wife. In agony he does his best to make Rosamond aware of the direness of their financial situation, hating to give her news that he knows will hurt her. Rosamond, however, responds with the simple but terrible question, “What can I do, Tertius?” Inflection is everything. Unlike Dorothea, Rosamond is not asking how she can help her husband. She is not suggesting that her life or her happiness is bound up in his. Rosamond’s question is the rhetorical equivalent of a wedge which she continues to drive between them. The narrator states, “Rosamond’s thin utterance threw into the words ‘What can I do!’ as much neutrality as they could hold. They fell like a mortal chill on Lydgate’s roused tenderness” (470). Unlike Dorothea, Rosamond is incapable of sympathizing with her husband. She cannot move past her own disappointment to consider his. Later when Lydgate’s reputation is suffering, we are told, “Even this trouble, like the rest, she seemed to regard as if it were hers alone” (585).

In this scene, like in so many others, Eliot shows us how very small differences in manners or in speech indicate a great difference in feeling. Such a simple question, so much like that elementary school exercise, reveals Dorothea’s great sympathy and Rosamond’s unfortunate selfishness.

Keepin’ It Real

Toward the end of her essay “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” George Eliot claims that there is “no species of art which is so free from rigid requirements” as the novel. She says, “[W]e have only to pour in the right elements—genuine observation, humour, and passion,” for a novel to be beautiful (162). However, despite her claim that the genre specifies no “absolute technique,” Eliot seems to form one herself out of these three elements. She focuses particular attention on “genuine observation.” She expects the language of the novel as well as the characters and situations to be authentic.

One of Eliot’s primary critiques of silly lady novelists in their reliance on elevated language. Though many generic forms use this style, Eliot sees no place for it in the novel. Mocking the author of The Enigma, she says:

The slightest matters have their vulgarity fumigated out of them by the same elevated style. Commonplace people would say that a copy of Shakespeare lay on a drawing table; but the authoress of The Enigma, bent on edifying periphrasis, tells you that there lay on the table, ‘that fund of human thought and feeling, which teaches the heart through the little name, ‘Shakespeare.’” (151)

The problem with the novelist’s style here is that it does not match that of “commonplace people.” Real people don’t speak this way, so neither should the author.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the elevated prose of the silly novelists is that their language itself highlights their artifice, and artifice seems to be a sin that Eliot cannot forgive. These novelists do not speak like commonplace people because they have not been able to absorb their observations of commonplace people. Thus, their characters are types; they do not correspond to real people of any class or occupation. Eliot says, “[T]heir intellect seems to have the peculiar impartiality of reproducing both what they have seen and heard, and what they have not seen and heard, with equal unfaithfulness” (142).

In her review of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Dred, Eliot praises Stowe for possessing the exact authenticity that the silly lady novelists lack. She says, “She [Stowe] never makes you feel that she is coldly calculating an effect, but you see that she is all a-glow for the moment with the wild enthusiasm, the unreasoning faith, and the steady martyr-spirit of Dred, of Tiff, or of Father Dickson” (380). Stowe’s characters are so genuine that the author herself disappears into them, and the characters become real on the page.

Eliot contrasts Stowe’s genuine characterizations with those of Charles Reade in It Is Never Too Late to Mend. Though Eliot praises Reade, saying, “We feel throughout [the novel] the presence of remarkable talent,” she does not refer to him as a genius as she does Stowe. While Stowe succeeds in portraying her characters with “energetic sympathy,” Reade “seems always self-conscious, always elaborating a character, after a certain type, and carrying his elaboration a little too far.” While Eliot recognizes that such portrayals are appropriate for the stage, she says they are “utterly out of place in a fiction, where the time and means for attaining a result are less limited, and an impression of character or purpose may be given more nearly as it is in real life—by a sum of less concentrated particulars” (383).

So, the novel itself might not have an absolute technique, but Eliot does. For her, novels must be true to life. Their events and characters must unfold for us gradually. Primarily, they must be real. This is a standard to which she seems to have held all authors. Whether she met it herself, I suppose we will find out in the next few weeks.

Eliot, George. Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings. Eds. A.S. Byatt and Nicholas Warren. Penguin: London, 1990. Print

The Power of Imagination

In her commencement address at Harvard University in 2008, J.K. Rowling spoke of the importance of imagination. She said, “Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.” This function of imagination is at the heart of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton. All of the adverse events of the novel arise from characters’ inability to imagine themselves in others’ circumstances, and the novel as a whole seems to be Gaskell’s attempt to help her audience develop their imaginative powers.

Though Gaskell’s novel deals with the large-scale social problems of England, most of her narrative takes place on a much smaller scale. She is much more interested in the joys and adversities of a small group of Manchester residents than in the political movements of the trade unions. She discusses the difficulties the unions face in order to show the effect of those difficulties on particular characters. Gaskell makes England’s problems personal, and in doing so, she allows readers to imagine themselves in position of the characters. She doesn’t give us the unions or Parliament as the primary actors in her tale. Instead, she shows us suffering individuals and families and asks for our empathy. She also emphasizes the importance of empathy in her characters.

The central action of the novel itself comes about as the result of a lack of empathy. On the one hand, the factory masters cannot imagine themselves in the situation of their workers. They do not see them as suffering individuals but as a collective nuisance. When the masters hear the demands of the delegation of workers, Gaskell says, “No one thought of treating the workmen as brethren and friends, and openly, clearly, as appealing to reasonable men” (240). Instead, they mock their shabby appearance. However, it is not just the masters who are incapable of empathy. On the other hand, John Barton, though he is described as a good man, is also incapable of any sympathy with the upper class: “[T]he only feeling that remained clear and undisturbed in the tumult of his heart, was hatred to the one class, and keen sympathy with the other” (Gaskell 226). John Barton does not think past his hatred of the rich to see the potential consequences of his actions for Carson’s family and anyone else who might get caught up in the wake of his crime.

Mary Barton is somewhat unique in that fifteen chapters go by before the main action of the novel is even mentioned. For those first fifteen chapters, Gaskell paints a vivid and devastating picture of the lives of the working poor. She takes readers into the squalid cellars in which they live to see their sickbeds and hear the cries of their starving children. She makes them confront the weeping mothers who have lost their husbands and children to fevers that could have been prevented with regular meals and suitable housing. Over and over, the characters wonder how their rich masters allow their workers to live in such squalor, and they profess that these masters must not know of their suffering because if they did, their humanity would not allow it to continue. Gaskell makes sure that her readers cannot fall back on this excuse of ignorance. She  shows her audience the realities of poverty and forces them to imagine it in all its horror. By focusing on the condition of the Bartons and their friends rather than on the condition of England or workers in general, Gaskell is better able to help readers develop imagination and empathy, demonstrating the power of fiction to address social concerns.

An Unusual Beginning

“Oddly, the meanings of books are defined for me much more by their beginnings and middles than they are by their endings.”  —Lev Grossman

Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Cranford has something of an odd beginning, especially when you consider that it was originally published in parts in Charles Dickens’s Household Words. When the original readers got to the end of the first number, all the characters who had featured prominently in the story had died or moved away. Miss Matty and Miss Pole are mentioned in the first two chapters (which made up the first number), but the beginning of the story focuses on Miss Jenkyns and the family of Captain Brown.

Why would Gaskell begin her narrative in this way? How does our introduction through these relatively minor characters develop our understanding of the place and people of Cranford?

Perhaps the easiest answer to the first question is that Gaskell intended the first part of Cranford to stand alone and turned the story into a novel only upon request. Perhaps, rather than revising her initial chapters, Gaskell simply decided to pick up the thread of the story with the remaining characters. Even so, we can learn much about Cranford values from the relationship between Miss Jenkyns and the Browns.

Toward the end of Chapter Two, Miss Jenkyns decides to accompany Miss Jessie Brown to her father’s funeral because to allow her to go alone “would be against both propriety and humanity” (24). Here, we see the two values that feature most prominently in the rest of the novel. Gaskell emphasizes the Cranford women’s love of propriety from the first words of the novel to the last, and Miss Jenkyns is perhaps the most proper of them all. Even after her death, her sister abides by her strict rules of decorum. However, when faced with the suffering of those around her, Miss Jenkyn’s first concern is humanity.

When Captain Brown arrives in Cranford, he shocks Miss Jenkyns’s propriety in all manner of ways: he does not hide his poverty, he speaks far too loudly, his oldest daughter seems cross while his younger daughter sports ostentatious dimples and pink bows inappropriate for her age.  HIs greatest sin, however, is his preference for Dickens over Dr. Johnson, a preference which offends Miss Jenkyns to the very core of her being. Soon, though, it becomes clear to all the Cranford residents that the elder Miss Brown is suffering from a fatal illness. Despite her feelings about Captain Brown’s poor taste, Miss Jenkyns devotes herself to the care of the Brown family. One of my favorite passages and one I find to be characteristic of the novel as a whole is Miss Jenkyns’s preparation of the aromatic apple for Miss Brown’s sick room:

“Miss Jenkyns stuck an apple full of cloves, to be heated and smell pleasantly in Miss Brown’s room; and as she put in each clove, she uttered a Johnsonian sentence. Indeed, she never could think of the Browns without talking Johnson; and, as they were seldom absent from her thoughts just then, I heard many a rolling three-piled sentence.” (22)

Though Captain Brown, Miss Jenkyns, and their “literary dispute” pass away by the end of Chapter Two, the competing values of propriety and humanity run throughout Cranford. These first chapters are telling, though. As is the case with Miss Jenkyns and the Browns, humanity always wins out over propriety. Whether it is Miss Matty’s bending of the rules to allow Martha a male “follower” or all of the ladies’ banding together to aid Miss Matty in her poverty, sympathy shines through as Cranford’s chief virtue.

‘Cause I am an Author, and You’re Gonna Hear Me Roar

In reading The Life of Charlotte Bronte this week, one passage struck me in particular. Buried in a chapter of relatively insignificant events—her first (unpublished) story and a new order of French books—is a letter from Bronte to a friend detailing the Haworth curates’ response to dissenters. Bronte writes, “We had two sermons on dissent, and its consequences, preached last Sunday—one in the afternoon by Mr. W., and one in the evening by Mr. C.  All the Dissenters were invited to come and hear, and they actually shut up their chapels, and came in a body.” Mr. W. delivered a sermon on Apostolic Succession in which, according to Bronte, “he banged the Dissenters most fearlessly and unflinchingly” (Gaskell 151). Bronte seems particularly impressed with Mr. C.’s evening sermon, which she says he delivered “with the boldness of a man who was impressed with the truth of what he was saying, who has no fear of his enemies, and no dread of consequences” (Gaskell 152).

The portion of this letter that intrigues me is Bronte’s response to these sermons. Unwilling to force her own religious opinions on others, she naturally does not agree with the curates “either in all or in half their opinions.” In fact, she says, “I consider them bigoted, intolerant, and wholly unjustifiable on the ground of common sense.” Yet, the sermons on this Dissenter Sunday clearly left an impression on her. She says, “In spite of all this, I admired the noble integrity which could dictate so fearless an opposition against so strong an antagonist” (152). Despite her distaste for the opinions expressed, Bronte is impressed by the confidence and courage it takes to express them so directly in the presence of a hostile audience.

As Linda H. Peterson points out in her chapter “Parallel Currents: The Life of Charlotte Bronte as Mid-Victorian Myth of Women’s Authorship,” Gaskell takes care in her biography to depict Bronte as a genius. Peterson says that Gaskell “intended to display her subject’s genius and claim this trait for women authors” (143). In the Romantic mode, Gaskell demonstrates the presence of this trait in Bronte from childhood, cataloguing her early writing and emphasizing her adult-like interest in the news of the world. However, while a genius might have existed in Bronte in her youth, her confidence in her intellect and in the worth of her opinions took time to develop. When Robert Southey writes to her that “[l]iterature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be,” Bronte feels chastised and assures him in her response that she has put all notions of a literary profession out of her mind despite the fact that, as Gaskell asserts, “her great forces of intellect . . . cried out perpetually” (123, 27). 

Somewhere along the way, though, Bronte did develop the confidence and courage she so admired in the curates. Somewhere along the way, she became convinced that her ideas were good and true. Her confidence is apparent in her correspondence with G. H. Lewes. Though she acknowledges that Lewes is a man worthy of respect, she does not feel obligated to accept everything he says as truth. When he praises Jane Austen for her lack of poetry and sentiment, Bronte contends in no uncertain terms that it is exactly those qualities which make authors great. Even more impressive are her comments to Lewes about gender. Though she had insisted that he consider her as an author and not as a woman, Lewes refuses to remove the question of gender from his review of Shirley. Bronte fearlessly takes him to task, stating, “There was a passage or two which you did quite wrong to write” (334). Though she acknowledges his intellect and talent, she goes so far as to call him “implacable,” “careless,” and “reckless.” This is definitely a different Charlotte Bronte that the one who yielded before Southey.

Though Gaskell emphasizes several of Bronte’s qualities (her genius, her duty, her suffering) throughout The Life, her courage in the face of opposition is the one I find most impressive. Not only was Bronte a great author, she knew she was a great author. She knew she had things to contribute. Gaskell might have written the biography to defend and to vindicate her friend, but as we can see from her letters, Charlotte Bronte was more than capable of vindicating herself.

Genre Studies

In How to Observe Morals and Manners, Harriet Martineau advocates for observers of morals to focus on physical objects. Rather than simply investigating the behavior of workers, she suggests that we look at occupations. Rather than determining local feelings about death and dying through conversation with members of the particular community, she encourages travelers to visit a local cemetery.

Dallas Liddle takes a similar approach when examining Martineau’s views on composition. He argues, along with Bakhtin, that the genre an author employs can tell us much about that author’s worldview. Basically, he says that each genre embraces a specific set of values. Liddle points out that the seemingly odd principles of composition that Martineau sets out in her autobiography can be better understood when we recognize that these are the same principles valued by journalists of the time, of which Martineau was one.

Initially upon reading Martineau’s statements on composition, I had half a mind to categorize her a “dangerous,” much like some of the reviewers of her era. As someone her earns a living by teaching first-year college students to write academically, some of Martineau’s practices—like refusing to revise—raise an eyebrow. However, when Liddle explains the constraints of news writing in the mid-nineteenth century, Martineau’s aversion to revision makes more sense.

My reaction to this practice of Martineau’s prompted me to consider the inherent values of academic writing and how they match (or don’t match) those that Martineau mentions in her autobiography and that Liddle emphasizes in his article. A couple of those principles seem particularly applicable to college writing.

Liddle notes that throughout her autobiography, Martineau suggests that she does not write out of personal desire; instead, she writes on subjects that are begging to be written about or because the public or some friend or relative specifically asked her to write. Liddle asserts that this principle likely stems from the idea that journalists surrender themselves as individuals and write solely for the public interest. In academia, we do something very similar. Professors consistently encourage students to develop “original” arguments, to look for gaps in the existing scholarship where they can enter the conversation and add their own thoughts to the debate. Academics mold their research interests so as to answer a specific need. They (we) write on subjects that are asking to be written about. Originality is one of the primary values of academia.

Liddle also briefly mentions Martineau’s productivity, stating that she would complete an impressive number of pages per day and would write at a specific time each day regardless of her mood. This also is partly the result of employment as a journalist since deadlines did not disappear when she did not particularly feel like composing. Such discipline is also important for academic writers. Writing students never “feel” like writing the essay they are assigned, yet professors expect them to nonetheless. Professors also will frequently impose writing schedules on themselves, forcing themselves to complete particular tasks toward publishing an article or a book. Such practices indicate the importance of productivity.

Whether or these values are good ones to hold is another question altogether, but examining genre conventions to learn about the worldview of an author seems incredibly helpful.

She Had a Dream, Too

There is something poignant in considering the writings of Harriet Martineau on the day we Americans set aside to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his tireless pursuit of racial equality. Though a full century separated Martineau and King, their writings reveal them to be kindred spirits, both motivated by the ideal of a brotherhood of man.

Toward the end of her treatise How to Observe Morals and Manners, Martineau stated her ultimate hopes for the human race. She said, “However widely men may differ as to the way to social perfection, all whose minds have turned in that direction agree as to the end. All agree that if the whole race could live as brethren, society would be in the most advanced state that can be conceived of” (124). For Martineau, the true measure of progress was the extent to which a particular society lived out this principle of fraternity.

The United States proved to be an interesting case study for Martineau. After all, it was (and is) a nation founded on a fundamental love of liberty, declaring its independence with a statement that all men are created equal. Martineau had much to praise about the US, calling the states “the most remarkable examples now before the world of the reverse of the feudal system” (26). However, she was also diligent to point out America’s flaws. She said, “The people of the United States have come the nearest to being characterized by lofty spiritual qualities. The profession with which they set out was high,—a circumstance greatly to their honour, though (as might have been expected) they have not kept up to it” (66). Chief among America’s sins, in Martineau’s mind, was the institution of slavery.

Early in her treatise, Martineau cautioned careless travelers against judging the practices of other nations too harshly. While she pointed out that some customs and practices are carried out in ignorance and will likely be outgrown eventually, she said, “they are very different from the wickedness which is perpetrated against better knowledge” (21). Included in her list of such practices was “the Georgian planter” who “buys and sells slaves,” going “on the supposition that he is preserving the order and due subordination of society” (21). She emphasized the importance of recognizing the larger circumstances that cultivate such practices.

In her travel writings in Society in America and in her autobiography, however, Martineau condemned the institution of slavery much more forcefully. While acknowledging that some slaveholders showed great mercy and patience, she could not help but point out the injustice of slavery as a system. She declared, “The personal oppression of the negroes is the grossest vice which strikes a stranger in the country. It can never be otherwise when human beings are wholly subjected to the will of other human beings” (Society in America). She noted the irony of a country that professes freedom and equality of men upholding such an institution. Regardless of the larger circumstances which led to the practice, the principle of slavery flew in the face of Martineau’s ideal of the fraternity of man.

In How to Observe Morals and Manners, Martineau acknowledged that no one country had yet achieved a state of social perfection where all men lived as brethren, but her writing remained hopeful. She said, “Far off as may be the realization of such a prospect, it is a prospect” (125). One hundred years later, Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed a similar hope, exclaiming, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’” He added, “With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”

Gothic Departures

Charlotte Smith’s novel Emmeline is steeped in Gothic imagery. In the opening sentence, Smith establishes a Gothic setting: “In a remote part of the country of Pembroke, is an old building, formerly of great strength, and inhabited for centuries by the ancient family of Mowbray; . . . the greater part of it was gone to decay” (45).  This large, dilapidated house is inhabited by the perfect Gothic heroine: Emmeline, a lovely orphan who has spent her life in seclusion. When Emmeline was published in 1788, the Gothic form was still very new. Just over 20 years had passed since the publication of Walpole’s The Castle of Oranto. Still, with Emmeline, Smith was able to make effective use the already-established tropes of the genre to further her narrative in interesting and unexpected ways. Her unique take on the Gothic tradition is especially forceful in the early episode where Delamere enters Emmeline’s bedroom.

Early in the novel, Emmeline is locked in her room late at night when a terrifying event occurs. We are told, “A total silence had long reigned in the castle” when Emmeline “heard a rustling, and indistinct footsteps in the passage near her room” (71). Strange noises in old castles are expected in early Gothic novels, and like the typical heroine, Emmeline initially tries to convince herself that these peculiar sounds are mere products of her imagination. Of course, though, the whispers and footsteps are very real. These, however, are not the haunting noises of some secret of the past, some hidden person believed to be long dead. Smith thwarts reader expectations in this passage because the threat is not from the past but from the present. The threat is immediate. It is not hidden but attempting to burst through Emmeline’s door. Mr. Delamere, in a fit of passion, forces his way into Emmeline’s room, terrifying her and causing her to flee into the dark castle corridors.

Here again, Smith turns the Gothic tradition on its head. The typical Gothic heroine finds herself lost in dark passages, running from the object of her fear. Her disorientation emphasizes her powerlessness and terror. When Delamere violently enters her bedroom, Emmeline does feel powerless, but for her, the castle is not strange or terrifying. It is dark and decaying, but it is her home. The shadowy hallways become a source of power for Emmeline. She “recollected, that as she knew the passages of the castle, which she was convinced neither Delamere or his servant did, she might possibly escape” (72).  When a draft blows out Delamere’s candle, the corridors are plunged into blackness. This heightens Emmeline’s advantage as Delamere vainly attempts to follow her. Ultimately, Emmeline is able to find sanctuary in Lord Montreville while Delamere remains lost in the dark.

By modifying Gothic tropes, Smith is able to control the reader’s experience. She intensifies the threat in the hallway by having it burst through the door. She empowers her heroine just when the reader thinks she is at her most vulnerable. In departing from the Gothic tradition, Smith makes its effects even more forceful.

You know what happen when you assume things…

Reading The Female Quixote feels very much like watching a farce. The plot moves quickly, building on one misunderstanding after another. The events are improbable yet, somehow, still believable. Lennox’s Arabella hilariously leads the cast of characters through a string of absurd situations. It is interesting to note, though, that much of this comedy relies on false assumptions based on class. Lucy and Arabella, to great comic effect, make incorrect judgments regarding social status and its implications.

Lucy incorrectly assumes that Arabella’s elevated social standing corresponds s to an elevated insight into human behavior. Upon Arabella’s first encounter with a potential admirer, she confides in Lucy, her “favourite Woman” (10). Though Lucy is common and uneducated, she possesses a greater measure of a common sense than her mistress does. While Arabella attributes every event to a secret romantic plot designed to gain her affections, Lucy’s mind naturally jumps to more probable explanations. However, Lucy’s veneration of Arabella as a lady causes her to hop on Arabella’s bandwagon and actively participate in her delusional adventures.

When Arabella returns Mr. Hervey’s letter, she assumes his devastation is inevitable, and she can’t imagine any other reaction than his immediate desire to kill himself. Lucy is doubtful, and reasonably so. However, she is persuaded by her mistress and writes a letter expressing Arabella’s command that Mr. Hervey live despite his broken heart. Lucy’s confidence in Arabella’s judgment is confirmed with the coincidence of Mr. Hervey’s headache. From this point on, when Lucy has trouble reconciling Arabella’s assumptions with probability and reason (as in the case of the heroic nobleman disguised as a gardener who steals carp), she puts her faith in Arabella’s superior reason. No matter the circumstance, Lucy “always thought as her Lady did” (26).

Many of the ridiculous events of the novel result directly from Arabella’s own misconceptions of social order. Since she has lived a secluded country life, she has no experience with society or class dynamics. Yet, she is intimately familiar with the outward signs of gentility described in her romances. When she meets men who are handsome, polite, and witty, she naturally assumes they are gentlemen, regardless of their position. At the races, she supposes the jockeys to be “Persons of Distinction” and gives one who pleases her more attention than a lady normally would give someone below her station, causing Miss Granville to point out that others might infer some sort of impropriety.

I cannot say with any confidence that Charlotte Lennox intended The Female Quixote to be a commentary on the 18th-century class structure. However, the bizarre and misguided assumptions that characters make based on class call into question some of the conventions of social order. Arabella’s status as a lady does nothing for her in the way of basic wisdom. Outward expressions of refinement lend little insight into a person’s character. So, if it does nothing else, this whimsical novel at least forces us as readers to evaluate the foundations of our judgments.

Homunculus Rex

A modern reader approaching an 18th-century novel, like Tom Jones (TJ) or The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (TS), might be surprised by the noticeable presence of the narrator. The narrator in these novels is not only present, but he can seem intrusive and downright pushy—directing readers’ judgments, mocking them at times, and dragging them along through seemingly endless digressions. Having already read TJ, I had some idea of what to expect from the narrative voice in TS, and in many ways, my expectations were on target. However, there is one key difference between these two narrators that shifts my perspective as a reader: Tristram Shandy, though narrating his own life story, is not the author. Tristram speaks with an authorial voice, but can I expect him to have the same depth of knowledge as, say, Fielding’s narrator? Tristram seems to think so and takes great pains to build his credibility.

Having spent too many hours in the Writing Center working through essays from freshman comp, I am tempted to use the Toulmin model to analyze Tristram’s many claims. Like 18th-century authors, though, I must consider my reader, so I will refrain. My reader can pick out Tristram’s warrants on her own time. But I digress…

Sandra Sherman notes the way Fielding uses Bakhtin’s idea of an author’s “essential surplus” of knowledge to entice the reader to read further. This surplus is comprised of information about the story and the characters that the author knows but that the readers, and the characters themselves, do not (Sherman 237).  Like Fielding, Tristram plays with this surplus of knowledge, toying with the reader and leaving stories mid-sentence. But, as I’ve stated before, this can be problematic for the reader since Tristram is a character in the novel, not the author. I could expect Laurence Sterne to have such a surplus, but can I really trust Tristram to relate a story that takes place before he was even born? Throughout the novel, Tristram seems like an omniscient narrator. He recounts in detail what characters are doing and thinking at any given time when, in fact, for many of the events of the novel up to this point, he is a mere Homunculus.

Tristram acknowledges that we are getting his history secondhand. Though he does not mention all of his sources, he does note that his uncle told him the story of his conception. At the beginning of Chapter III, he says, “To my uncle Mr. Toby Shandy do I stand indebted for the preceding anecdote” (7). In other circumstances, Tristram inserts evidential documents directly into the text. He gives his mother’s marriage settlement in its entirety. He also includes a tale from Slawkenbergius and a response from the Doctors of the Sorbonne on the issue of baptism by injection, both in the original language.

It seems, though, that Tristram is not as concerned with proving his knowledge as with proving himself a master storyteller. He begs the reader to “let me go on, and tell my story my own way” (11).  Though he states that he is hesitant to brag on himself, he points out his expert use of progressive digression: “there is a masterstroke of digressive skill, the merit of which has all along, I fear, been overlooked by my reader” (63).  He plants little hints in the text and chastises the reader when she doesn’t read closely enough to pick up on them. He is even concerned that he has given the reader enough time to prepare his mind for upcoming events. The reader’s experience with the text is of utmost importance to Tristram.

Perhaps we are to view this tale as an oral history, one that is more concerned with the spirit of the events rather than the facts. If this is the case, then I think I am comfortable tagging along behind Tristram through the rest of his story. Though he might not have the same surplus of knowledge that a typical authorial narrator would have, he is, in own unique way, the master of a very unusual type of narrative.

Men of Inaction

From the beginning of the novel, the narrator concerns himself with the presentation of Human Nature through a variety of distinct characters. Though many are deemed “virtuous” in one way or another, only a few stand out as deserving such a depiction. Through his ironic descriptions and snarky comments, the narrator imparts the important lesson that it is our conduct, rather our personal philosophy, which determines virtue.

Some of the most interesting parts of the novel involve two of its most uninteresting characters. Every now and then as the plot is rolling along, Fielding takes a moment to stop the action and insert little debates between Square and Thwackum. Though their views are conflicting, Fielding seems to suggest that the men are fundamentally the same. While Square values philosophy and believes “human nature to be the perfection of all virtue,” Thwackum values religion and holds to the doctrine of Original Sin (108). However, both miss the key to virtue in that “in all their discourses on morality” they never “mention the word goodness” (108-09).

Though Square and Thwackum are described as having opposing views, they are united in almost every aspect. Both take Blifil’s side over Tom’s in every circumstance. Beating Tom seems to be the favorite pastime of both. Both would prefer to debate the definitions of honor and virtue than display either by their actions. One of my favorite scenes with Square and Thwackum occurs at the (supposed) deathbed of Mr. Allworthy. Though the two argue about which Mr. Allworthy favors, both receive the same inheritance.

Fielding places Tom and Mr. Allworthy in sharp contrast to Square and Thwackum. Neither Tom nor Mr. Allworthy is perfect, but both act out their charity. Mr. Allworthy is fully devoted to Tom, and Tom imitates his caretaker in showing compassion to Black George and his family. One of my favorite moments in the novel so far comes at the dinner table when Square and Thwackum attempt to dissuade Mr. Allworthy from showing leniency toward Tom. Mr. Allworthy says that Tom “has suffered enough already for concealing the truth, even if he was guilty, seeing that he could have no motive but a mistaken point of honour for so doing” (107). Square and Thwackum use the comment as a launching point into a discussion on the nature of true honour as it relates to their personal philosophies. Mr. Allworthy calmly ends their debate by stating “that he had said nothing of true honour” (110).