Can we see the “spot” beneath the ink? Vanity Fair as Palimpsest

The readers are often referred to as “brother wearers of motley” – fools listening to another fool’s story (185). Yet, as we have seen in Shakespeare and other weavers of tales, the fool is often the font of knowledge and the voice of reason, and while the narrator perceives of his story through the lens of satire, many of his observations hold weight. He mentions that his aim is to show a side of the Fair that is rarely seen, the private realm. The narrator aims “to walk with you [the reader, the fellow fool] through the Fair, to examine the shops and the shows there” (185). In his desire to examine “the shops,” could there be a multiplicity implied? And can we see the images of past stories through the lines of the fool’s tale?

Vanity Fair is many things – satire, realist, comedy, romance – but what about palimpsest?

The written word depicted in letters and journals becomes an important marker of how time changes perception in the novel. In the first two hundred pages of the novel, the narrator remarks on the changeling nature of letters over the years: “Vows, love, promises, confidences, gratitude, how queerly they read after a while!” (187) One meaning warps into another meaning as more information behind the text becomes unveiled.

One of the narrator’s more sincere comments brought out the idea of the novel as palimpsest: “The best ink for Vanity Fair use would be one that faded utterly in a couple of days, and left the paper clean and blank, so that you might write on it to somebody else” (187). This is very clearly the definition of a palimpsest. Indeed, throughout the narrator’s tale, the reader is reminded that this is one of many stories in the Fair; there are more stalls that have their own stories, and this is the background of one of many stalls – such as the one we find Rebecca at the end of the novel (730). What is to say that the other layers of the Fair have not also been written and vanished so that this tale could be told. Instead of writing “on it to somebody else” it has been written on about somebody else.

This multiplicity comes out as the narrator compares the actions of his tale to those not present. This can be something as simple as referring to a “neighbor Jones” or a “neighbor Smith,” which obviously are standby names for anyone – inferring that these events have a universality (372). Yet there are more specific analogies to past characters, such as Lady Macbeth, that suggest that this story has been stacked upon other stories not mentioned: “Lady Macbeth would not quit Becky’s chamber until her cup of night-drink was emptied” (431). While this is not the only example of personification, this section exemplifies an interesting quality in the novel, the moments when characters become others. Even if only for a moment, Lady Southdown becomes Lady Macbeth. It begins with a simile: “looking more like Lady Macbeth than ever” (431). However, Lady Macbeth embodies Lady Southdown for a brief sentence as she “would not quit Becky’s chamber.”

These moments when the writing under the present text shows itself to the reader, begs the question: is this glimpse of the undertext an intentional ploy by the storyteller, or has the old story reared up to make itself known? In other words, was this analogy carefully selected from amongst other options, or was it inevitable? The repetition of the Fair, in all its versions, is unstoppable, and each character represents someone who has come before, whose story has all but evaporated from the page.

(I had to end this dramatically, yet I understand that Lady Macbeth’s story hasn’t disappeared, I mean it’s a play that has been written down, but you get where I’m going.)

Mr. Woodhouse: Fool, Villain, or Victim

So, what’s up with Mr. Woodhouse? He’s a funny, old curmudgeon, but what is his role in the novel?

His most obvious role seems to be as comic relief. From the reader’s first observation of his conversation with Mr. Knightley, Mr. Woodhouse was clearly a character to make one laugh. In referring to Mr. Knightley’s short walk to Hartfield, Mr. Woodhouse exclaims that he “must have had a shocking walk” (7). Moments continue to pop up to spotlight Mr. Woodhouse’s eccentricities: his summer vs winter walks (both quite short), his fear of all food and most weather, his lengthy conversation with his daughter arguing whose doctor was better. However, Mr. Woodhouse is not truely needed as a figure of comic relief, because there are so many others from whom to choose. Miss Bates for example is quite laughable (I would insert a quote here, but I believe my fingers could not withstand the exercise). Also, Elton and then his wife are fun to laugh at because we kind of hate them. But Mr. Woodhouse occupies a greater role in the novel. Could he be a kind of Shakespearean fool? One who teaches lessons through his foolishness. I like that thought, in a proper British literature – Geek kind of way. But his wisdom seems to appear to the reader only in brief moments: “My dear, you do not understand me. This is a matter of mere common politeness and good-breeding, and has nothing to do with any encouragement to people to marry” (270). This is one of the many social lessons Emma must learn in the novel, but this seems to be one of the (very) few nuggets of wisdom Mr. Woodhouse offers, aside from the health benefits of gruel.

How about a villain? From the start, Mr. Woodhouse is defined as a man who required support,” was often depressed and nervous, and had “habits of gentle selfishness” (5). While all of these are pitiable and forgivable behaviors (even endearing) in people of a certain age, Mr. Woodhouse’s impact on Emma’s life is not to be understated. In a moment of impolite impertinence, Mrs. Elton comments on Emma’s life with her father: “I perfectly understand your situation, however, Miss Woodhouse – (looking towards Mr. Woodhouse) – your father’s state of health must be a great drawback” (264-5). She’s not wrong. She’s contemptible, but she’s not wrong. Mr. Woodhouse’s habits have placed an immense amount of responsibility on Emma starting at an early age (when her eldest sister got married). And his inability (or lack of desire) to travel or make any decisive action has compounded in the need for Emma to be educated on proper social behavior in her adulthood rather than as a child. Mrs. Elton hit the mark in her comments to Emma, because Mr. Woodhouse could be an anchor, tied to Emma and restricting her growth.

Could he be a victim? Christine Roulston, in “Discourse, Gender, and Gossip,” says that “Emma’s narcissism and sense of self therefore depend on a weakened construction of the masculine order, which in turn allows her a maximum sphere of influence” (45). In short, the control Emma desires is only possible around weakened men, and Mr. Woodhouse seems to fit the bill. Not only is he weak, but he is feminized. His life consists of the private sphere (as he hardly ever leaves the house) and his conversation involves domestic worries: health, food, comfort, visits, etc. Has the novel emasculated Mr. Woodhouse to allow Emma to become the authority of the home? Why must he be weak for her to be strong?

So, can Mr. Woodhouse be fool, villain, and victim all at the same time? Or does he fall into one category more than the others? On the surface, I am apt to pity Mr. Woodhouse, but his weakness is a privilege. He is rich and is sure that his neighbors will respect his eccentricities. Perhaps his choice to dominate the domestic realm, instead of the public realm, is a different demonstration of class privilege – and by thrusting Emma into a more public role in her youth, Mr. Woodhouse has created a situation where Emma is set up to fail.

Blondes Have More Fun!

While discussing Richardson’s Pamela, Nancy Armstrong argues that through the act of writing “Pamela writes herself into existence as the wife of a wealthy landowner” (6). I find that this act of writing is also significant for Lady Audley in Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, yet her writing creates not only opportunities but complications, as well.

As a young mother, left behind by her husband, whom she felt abandoned her, Helen Talboys’ first act of authorial definition was to negate her roles as mother and wife and daughter: “I go out into the world, dissevered from every link which binds me to the hateful past, to seek another home and another fortune” (250). Interestingly, these words read less like the fraught emotions of a fleeing woman and more like the diction from a legal contract – as though she believed she could, through writing, separate herself from her former life.

Helen again wrote herself a new identity when her new life was threatened by George’s return by constructing her own death: “amongst the list of deaths[…]Helen Talboys, aged twenty-two” (36). Not only did Helen/Lady Audley divorce herself from her previous life, but she continued to be the author of that new identity by assuring that others could not prove her authority false.

By continually reasserting her individualism and subjectivity, Helen becomes an intriguing Victorian entity – the villainous woman. Yet Helen is smart and calculated, unlike many other wicked women. She took the frail, simpering woman-child ideal and used it as a tool for her own betterment: “she looked upon her beauty as a weapon” (337). I would argue that even her claim to madness was a way of crafting an identity that would most profit her situation. As a madwoman she would be ostracized, but she would perhaps be free instead of in a labor prison.

My first instinct is to say that this calculated temperament is unlike Pamela, who seems to be simply a victim to Mr. B’s calculated moves to deflower her. However, as my peers (and I believe my esteemed professor) have intimated, it is possible that Pamela was also purposefully creating an identity for herself. For Pamela this identity would have been aimed at her reader – first her parents and second Mr. B.

Yet, I believe it is safe to say that, unlike Pamela, Helen’s writing is the means of her undoing. When Pamela’s letters and journal are discovered by Mr. B, this results in her rise from servant girl to lady of the house (though an argument could be made that, since these writings are what continued to intrigue Mr. B, they could have as easily lead to her disgrace). However, when Helen’s writings are discovered – her letter to her father compared with the notes she wrote to Robert – they culminate in her fall from grace, or at least the grace of the Mr. Audleys.

Most interesting perhaps is that it was not necessarily even the contents of what she wrote that undermined her plans, but simply that she wrote while she was both Helen and Lady Audley. I don’t know what this means, or what the significance is yet. Writing, in the end, was the key to her failure and (if you believe the letter from Villebrumeuse) her death (445).

They wretched feminist side of me wishes to believe that she was able to write herself a new identity while at Villebrumeuse; that she again faked her own death so that she may “seek another home and another fortune.” Her last narrative act would have been of individual construction and would reinforce the more progressive sentiments present throughout the novel.

It feels like somebody’s watchin’ me.

Virtuous Classmates.

Whilst reading your journals (blogs), I have been humbled to imagine myself along side those of you who bring your 21st century disgust to the reading of Pamela. Ditto. “How is this a reward?” and “You stupid, Idiot-Girl” also flitted through my mind a time or two as I finished this monumentous domestic abuse apology novel. Therefore, dear peers, I will not be so prideful as to attempt to outdo your own wonderous remarks of derision. Therefore I will limit myself to thoughts of audience.

Throughout the novel, it is necessary that Pamela’s audience must change and that she is aware of this change. Initially, the novel consisted of Pamela’s letters to her parents. Therefore, her words were perhaps mitigated by what she knew her parents would most like to hear: how she remained virtuous, her commitment to everything holy, and the honor she has brought to the family by her being loved by all in the genteel household.

However, by letter XXXII, Pamela has become a prisoner in Mr. B’s home, and her letters become more of a journal. Also, by this time, she has been made aware that Mr. B has intercepted at least a portion of her letters so that he may read the contents. Therefore, she must understand that the privileges and assumptions of polite society (that one does not read other folk’s personal papers) no longer applies to her situation. This said, Pamela must realize that her audience has potentially expanded beyond her parents and herself to include the transgressive eyes of Mr. B. How then does this change in readership change Pamela’s writing?

Understanding that she still intends on her parents reading her papers, Pamela keeps in mind her religious virtue and honor. “Alas! I am denied by this barbarous woman to go to church!” (151) This perhaps, more so than any other outrage, would suggest to her parents how much she was in danger of losing her honored place with God.

Yet more interestingly, she begins to write with Mr. B in mind, especially after their engagement. In vigorously requesting that he could see everything she had written about her time with him, Mr. B sets up a precedent that this is a pleasure he will expect from her from henceforth. It is at this point that Pamela’s writing becomes more of a means of praising her husband and less of a means of speaking her own mind. As she lists her husband’s maxims (thank you Aubrey) on how to be a good wife, she simply augments his own words at times with hidden doubts or complete agreement. This augmentation harkens back to the letter Mr. B made her write to her family regarding her whereabouts. He provided most of the words, but she resisted his authorship by adding qualifying language. Yet this new augmentation seems less like a resistance and more like a substitution, of her thoughts for his.

As her audience changes, so too does her vocalization of personal beliefs, and as she gains her “reward”, those personal beliefs become hallow spaces for Mr. B to fill with instruction.

Thank you for considering my humble intellectual offerings.

Forever your unworthy peer

Sophia the Divine

Venus. Mentioned as a comparison to Sophia Western.

As Fielding’s novel, Tom Jones, is often dripping in sarcasm, I find myself at times incapable of deciding when moments of sincerity creep into the text. “Is this particular representation meant in earnest…I think so…but maybe that’s just me”. “He just called this guy a pimp. Does he mean to disparage the guy being called a pimp or disparage the impertinence of the guy who is calling the other guy a pimp? Or is the nation a pimp? Religion? My head hurts.” However, one of the more extended moments of sincerity in the novel appears in the midst of seeming parody, and that is in the narrator’s introduction of Sophia.*

As in most other aspects of the novel, this moment of introduction is filled with the parody of previous forms of writing – most detectable is that of Romance. The diction in this chapter is highly lyrical and flowery: “Awaken therefore that gentle passion in every swain; for lo! adorned with all the charms in which nature can array her, bedecked with beauty, youth, sprightliness, innocence, modesty, and tenderness, breathing sweetness from her rosy lips, and darting brightness from her sparkling eyes, the lovely Sophia comes” (134). This language creates a tension with the lower-class speech of the rest of the novel.

In addition, Sophia is introduced not only as a beautiful woman, but as though she were on of the goddesses of beauty and virtue. She is accompanied by the mythical embodiment of the winds and the goddess of flowers, Flora. Even nature is said to react to her as it would to a goddess of the earth: “every flower rises to do her homage, till the whole field becomes enamelled, and colors contend with sweets” (134).

Okay, so she is beautiful, perhaps divinely so, but what about her brain? It is at this point that the reader of parody expects a turn, a description of a simple vessel of sub-par taste and refinement, but damn is she pretty. Yet the opposite is true of Sophia: “her mind was every way equal to her person” (135). The narrator even claims that she is perhaps less cultured than some would prefer, but indeed that culture is often to the disadvantage of those who partake.

So while the romantic genre of elevated language is parodied in this chapter, Sophia is left unscorched by the narrator’s infamously fiery tongue. This remains the case throughout the novel, while men and women of different classes and beliefs are poked at and shown to be laughable, Sophia is left mostly free from the narrator’s ridicule. Why?

One of the notes to the novel suggests that Fielding compares Sophia to his first wife, Charlotte (881). Perhaps this comparison to his late wife was enough to keep her safe from censure. Another possibility lies in the fact that she is potentially the only reoccurring character in the novel who is not, in a large degree, contemptible or ridiculous.  Does she make mistakes and lapses in judgement? Yes, of course. Otherwise this wouldn’t be a novel it would be a newspaper clipping. However, I would argue that the narrator is more sensitive regarding Sophia’s errors than those of any other character in the novel.**

If you buy the basis of my argument, then the next question becomes, is this treatment a blessing or a detriment to Sophia throughout the novel? Is she held to too high of a standard and unable to be a realized, though humorously imperfect, person? Because I can list quite a few Tom Jones’ in my acquaintance, and even a Blifil or a Western, but I’m not sure I could drum up the likes of Sophia.

*I fully embrace the probability of my error in judgement on this account.

**With the possible exception of the Man of the Hill.

The Sensational Mr. Dickens

I am torn as to how to read Dickens’ Bleak House. Throughout the semester we have been discussing the realism of our author’s texts and how they represent the realities of life. However, while Dickens represents the tragedy of the impoverished and the dying poor, his narrative seems more sensational than realistic.

What leads me on this path of thinking is Dickens’ strong friendship with Wilkie Collins, who is one of the most well known sensational novelist. In fact, Collins’ The Woman in White was published in Dickens’ paper at the same time as Dickens’ own Great Expectations. The influence of Collins’ sensationalism on Dickens’ can be seen through the women in white, both ghostly figures who offer a sense of foreboding and mystery. This sensational female is seen in Bleak House as well with Lady Dedlock as the woman in black. Her image haunts Jo like a specter, in both illness and health: “The boy staggered up instantly, and stared at me with a remarkable expression of surprise and terror…’I won’t go no more to the berryin ground,’ muttered the boy; ‘I ain’t a-going there'”. The illness linked madness also relates back to Wilkie Collins and The Woman in White.

This is not the only sensational element present in Bleak House, there are also mystery’s of birth, an abyss of a court case, strange unexplainable deaths, etc. All of these elements are worthy of the sensation novel.

However, I am hesitant in other ways to say that Bleak House completely falls into this category. The sensation novel is called that because not only is it ‘sensational,’ but it causes the sensations of the characters to be transmitted to the reader: when they are afraid we are afraid, when their hearts are beating fast so are ours. Sensation novels tend to withhold information from the reader in order to increase that immediate feeling, the feeling of discovery. That can be seen in Bleak House in the scene where Jo takes ‘the lady’ to the burial ground. He doesn’t know who she is and neither do we, though we have suspicions. Also, as Mr. Krook’s border dies, we are left wondering, like the rest of the characters, if his death was intentional or accidental. And there are many more of these moments worthy of inspection, but there is no time at the present to do them justice.

Where the problem comes is in the moments where we know more than the narrator/characters. We are told mid-way through the book that Lady Dedlock is Esther’s mother, so while we discover that information along with Lady Dedlock, we know more than Esther when we return to her narration.

So what does all this mean? It means that Bleak House moves beyond the realism boundaries, at least in terms of how we have been discussing it. Dickens’ seems to blend realism with the poverty of the time, with the sensationalism successes of his friend Collins.

The Traditional George Eliot?

After reading Middlemarch, learning about George Eliot’s personal life through criticism and her letters, and reading Rae Greiner’s book chapter “Going Along With Others,” I am left questioning Eliot’s treatment of her female protagonists.

Why does George Eliot not allow her female character’s the same freedom that she practiced during her life? This question is a source of emotional unrest among Eliot scholars. One argument is that Eliot was focusing on realism, and it was more “real” for women in the 19th Century to end as a married woman. However, as Greiner addresses in her text, realism is limited in scope but only in that the events of realist fiction must be restricted to what has been and what is. As Eliot’s life exemplifies, it was not unheard of for a woman to be unmarried, or for a woman and man to live as an unmarried unit – unlikely, but not unheard of. Some of my colleagues have responded to this observation that Eliot was one in a thousand, that she was an extraordinary example. I suppose my question is, did she believe in her own supreme uniqueness? Is that why she could allow herself the freedom to live a progressive lifestyle and not allow her protagonists the same? For some reason that sits with me in a very uncomfortable way. It reeks of profound egotism that I suppose I am unwilling to ascribe to Eliot at this moment.

However, while I am unwilling to throw Eliot under the proverbial horse and carriage, I am also unwilling to drop the subject completely. Towards the end of her chapter titled “Going Along With Others,” Greiner discusses how sympathy becomes a public experience. Not only is it necessary to know others in order to understand the do’s and dont’s of society, but understanding communal sympathy ensures normative morality: “one’s moral judgments are mediated by community” (39). Therefore, realist fiction, with its restriction on what is and what has been, regulates and promotes traditional ideas and ways of thinking. Greiner makes this idea even more complicated when she argues that this public authority “cannot supply a fixed standard of judgment” and the authority is a “fiction that must continually be reproduced” (43). This reasoning implies that the traditional authority that propagates the ideas of normative – let’s call them – female endings is only allowed to thrive through the continued reproduction of traditional marital imagery. In this way, Eliot is promoting the traditional narrative as the “real” by refusing to grant one of her many, many, many female protagonists an alternate (nontraditional but not impossible) ending.

Why couldn’t Dorothea and Will love each other, live together, and not marry? That solution would even get around the whole no-money-for-you-if-you-guys-get-married situation. This solution would reflect Eliot’s “real” life. So why not? Did she think of herself as above the norm, as a special exception? Did she find dissatisfaction in her progressive lifestyle (considering the length of the relationship I tend to think not)? In perpetuating traditional, or “realistic” endings, Eliot leaves the female reader without a new possible “standard of judgment,” and thereby (thoughtfully or not) upholds the narrative of traditional authority.

Boys Will Be Boys…With a Sprinkle of Mackenzie is Wrong

After reading Middlemarch, I was expecting something much different from Silas Marner. While it is true that a decade separates the two novels, the transition to an epic-type novel, Middlemarch, which juggles non-ideal images of good and bad, from Silas Marner, a tale akin to a children’s story about morality, is a GIGANTIC leap. The explicit moral absolutes in Silas Marner are jarring mostly because of the juxtaposition to the moral grey areas throughout Middlemarch. 

Before writing this blog I read the blogs of a few of my colleagues, and one in particular struck me as most contrary to my own readings, which necessarily excited my argumentative nature. Mackenzie contends that Silas Marner moves away from a biblical narrative to a salvation by the human community. I like this, and I think I see this reading in the text, but I also think it’s wrong. Christianity and christian imagery is prevalent in this text I can taste it like pepper on a pepper-crusted steak. Because, lets face it, the morality in the novel is christian morality. Let us count the ways:

1. The super Jewiness of the hunched “alien” money lover.

2. Worshiping money is bad and will lead to bad things.

3. The guy can only be happy when his money is taken away and replaced by a gold-headed child while he has been in a fit (perhaps religious).

4. (Most importantly) He can only be happy when he accepts Christianity: “you must bring her up like christened folks’s children, and take her to church, and let her learn her catechise…That’s what you must do, Master Marner, if you’d do the right thing by the orphin child” (123).

These are only the more obvious christian images present in the text; many more exist, but I’m tired and only have 500 words.

I like the idealism behind the image of a community bond outside of religion, but I do not think that it occurs in Silas Marner…personally…you’re still my girl, Mackenzie.

Within this christian morality then, right and wrong are very black and white and are punished in that fashion. Unlike Middlemarch we are actually pretty stoked at the end of Silas Marner because everyone got what they deserved, and it was all tied up in a nice package. Dunstan was crazy evil: he stole money and had no remorse when he practically killed a horse (not cool). We were all glad he had been dead the whole time and wasn’t allowed to even spend a penny of Silas’ money. Molly, Eppie’s mother, was a drug addict. While she seemed to have maternal feeling for her daughter, she obviously didn’t provide well, as the child was wearing rags. She died a quite death in the snow. While we probably weren’t cheering on her death, in the moral sense, she paid for her crimes and delivered the child to a better home. Silas was unjustly treated by his friends and fell into the non-holy habit of hoarding money, but when a Jesus-like child appeared at his hearth he embraced her (and Christianity). Because of these good things, Silas is rewarded with love and is cured of his addiction to money, and he gets his money back so Eppie can live a good life.

And they all lived happily ever…WAIT…What about Godfrey? He eloped with a woman, had a child, and then abandoned them both. In the end he is allowed to keep all his money, his new, better wife, doesn’t have to tell the town about his misdeeds (unlike Mr. Bulstrode) so suffers no consequences. Oh, but he doesn’t have any other children. WHAT?!

Where is the justice? Molly paid for her half of the misdeed with death and Godfrey gets off with infertility? I kept wondering what the backstory was to the young marriage to merit this extreme difference. But all that is said is, “it was an ugly story of low passion, delusion, and waking from delusion, which needs not to be dragged from the privacy of Godfrey’s bitter memory” (30). We are being told by the narrator that the story is not worth being told; therefore, we are left with nothing but Godfrey’s corrupted viewpoint.

So what is the point? Silas Marner is a highly christianized narrative…THEREFORE…boys will be boys and sew their oats…women are temptresses that draw men into illicit actions. (Drops the mic)

From the Mouth of Brooke

Dorothea, Lydgate, Rosamond, Fred Vincy, Will Ladislaw. These are the heroes of our text, Middlemarch. In fact, Ladislaw is referred to in the text as “a sort of Byronic hero,” and he seems to fit the bill as he becomes the “lunette opened in the wall of her [Dorothea’s] prison”(295, 281). Therefore, it is through Eliot’s representation of these characters that we, the readers, look to find the essential realistic morality (Martin 22). Yet as I read through the novel it was the side character, Mr. Brooke, who seemed to be the conduit of realistic English morality Eliot seems to import.

From the start of the novel Mr. Brooke is presented as a comic relief character. He is laughable in his insistence on his own ideas and his way of speaking rather superfluously. He speaks often with “impetuous reason,” as Casaubon observes: with little thought to outside judgement (13). However, it is through this comedic character that social satire and observations are presented.

As he attempts to instruct Dorothea, in his bumbling, stammering way, as to the wisdom of her marriage, Mr. Brooke gives a rather pointed, non-traditional view of life and marriage:

Life isn’t cast in a mould – not cut out by rule and line, and that sort of thing. I never married myself, and it will be the better for you and yours. The fact is, I never loved any one well enough to put myself into a noose for them. It is a noose, you know. (31)

In a novel filled with affairs of the heart, Mr. Brooke’s view of marriage seems antithetical to the romance plots.

While Mr. Brooke view of marriage is perhaps more cynical than observed in other characters (so early in the text at least), he is more prevalently presented as a child-like character – observing the world through with less tainted lenses. When Mr. Featherstone dies the town gathers to attend the procession and to hear the will. As the casket is borne in, Mrs. Cadwallader and her companions focus on the event of the funeral: who attends, what they are wearing – a kind of Victorian Entertainment Tonight. They do not watch as the funeral or comment on the sadness, in fact Cadwallader says, “it was time the old man died, and none of those people are sorry” (254). But amongst that group of observers stands Mr. Brooke who, after Cadwallader comments on the imposing outfit of an attendant, remarks that “it’s a solemn thing, though, a funeral…if you take it in that light, you know” (254). Brooke is positioned to express those ideas that are taken for granted: that a funeral is a sad thing. But those around him, and perhaps the reader, pass him over because of his absurd buffoonery.

Through Brooke, Eliot is able to take social chances. He is in many ways non-traditional, as seen through his view on marriage and his strange innocence of those things overlooked by those around him. He also shows his non-traditional character as he allows himself to be touched by the position of the Dagley’s. Unlike other character’s, Dorothea, Mr. Casaubon, etc., who fight against change in their characters or beliefs, Brooke allows himself to feel his neglected responsibility as landlord (306).

Why is Brooke placed in this position? Eliot’s realism is tinted with hope in Mr. Brooke. Perhaps he is the realistic English landlord, presented as he is and not as he ought to be – but written with the idealism of how the ruling class could react to the vision of poverty: acceptance of responsibility. Brooke is bumbling but not incoherent, and he adds an unexpected progressive optimism to the novel.

Like Shakespeare’s clowns, the truth is seen in the character whom no one takes seriously.

 

Eliot, the Homosocial Bond, and the Male Power Structure

In Eliot’s literary reviews, as presented in the Selected Essays, she seems to stay relatively positive, expressing what the authors do well and only occasionally using a backhanded approach to briefly touch on the authors’ weaknesses:

Of what comparative importance is it that Mr Ruskin undervalues this painter, or overvalues the other, that he sometimes glides from a just argument into a fallacious one, that his is a little absurd here, and not a little arrogant there, if, with all these collateral mistakes, he teaches truth of infinite value, and so teaches it that men will listen? (368)

She lets the reader know that she understands the weaknesses in the writing, but seems to find a greater meaning; whether this is due to her true feelings of the value of the work or because the Westminster, with its socially liberal leanings, required certain writers to be treated more gingerly, as Dillane argues in Re-reading George Eliot’s “Natural History,” is unclear – this last suggestion seems incongruous in the case of Ruskin, as he was quite the opposite of liberal minded.

However, the article that stands out most is the one in which she does not continue this act of veiled criticism, but she openly attacks the value of an entire class of writers, in “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.” Laurel Brake describes how the Westminster, the journal Eliot contributes to and ultimately edits, was greatly concerned with issues pertaining to women: marriage, prostitution, “women’s stake in the public sphere,” etc (88). Therefore it seems odd that Eliot would so openly discount a multitude of female writers in that particular journal, no less as a liberal woman. While she focuses her wrath on three specific categories of female literature (she seems to have invented these groupings), she widens her scope to women writers in general:

In the majority of women’s books you see that kind of facility which springs from the absence of any high standard; that fertility in imbecile combination of feeble imitation which a little self-criticism would check and reduce to barrenness. (161)

Eliot believes that “the majority of women’s books” cause societies perception of women to plummet: “the average intellect of women is unfairly represented by the mass of feminine literature” (162). While it may in fact be that the mass of literature written by the women of the time is inferior, she makes no attempt to account for the reason, or find moments of merit, as she does with her other reviews. Perhaps women writers had less peer support and less opportunities for improvement, having only recently been allowed into the public sphere of authorship. Whatever the reason, Eliot falls victim to female in-fighting, which only distracts from the goal of equality.

Brake quotes Taylor and Mill’s discussion of the brake of the female homosocial bond: “‘Successful literary women are just as unlikely to prefer the cause of women to their own social consideration. They depend on men’s opinion for their literary as well as for their feminine success'” (94). It is this dependency on the male opinion that leads Eliot to so harshly denounce these “silly”. She is ultimately concerned that women’s worth is being represented in an unflattering way. But to whom is it being represented to? The patriarchy. Those who have the power to make the ultimate decisions on what has value and what doesn’t. So instead of searching for value in these female novels (as there must be some in the collective novels she mentions), or expressing concern outside of the negative portrayal to the male audience, Eliot unconsciously continues to empower the male power structure by allowing them to dictate female worth by male perception.

 

 

“The Monster of Many Human Qualities”: Gaskell’s Uneducated

Elizabeth Gaskell’s work is most outstanding in its diversity.  Writing novels of such range that it becomes difficult to imagine them being the product of one author: the humorous Cranford, the genteel romance of North and South, and the working-class political tragedy of Mary Barton. These texts are linked with the most obvious thread of economic hardship, while a more confusing narrative occurs in the two novels on which we focus in the course: Gaskell’s stance on the uneducated.

Cranford presents the reader with a town filled with ladies solely educated in the ways of conducting herself as a hostess, and Mary Barton surrounds the lives of the working-class, with no time or money to spare for education other than trade work. Both instances of ignorance are treated with a kind of hostile understanding or, perhaps, patronizing tolerance. In Cranford, while the cast of characters are strangely lovable, we love them because we can laugh at them. They are not respectable or bright, or even that nice, and only one of the many are compelling as a developed character. It seems as though we are equally meant to despise the ignorance and love the ignorant. Miss Matty is continuously ridiculed as the narrator represents her to the reader as a shockingly ignorant, silly woman:

‘Are you fond of astronomy?’ Lady Glenmire asked.

‘Not very’ — replied Miss Matty, rather confused at the moment to remember which was astronomy, and which was astrology…as to astronomy…she never could believe that the earth was moving constantly, and that she would not believe it if she could, it made her feel so tired and dizzy whenever she thought about it. (96)

Miss Matty is uneducated, but even worse, when offered knowledge she is unable to absorb it. What is difficult to ascertain is whether Miss Matty is a victim of her circumstances, in as far as education, or if she is incapable of intelligence. Gaskell walks a delicate line of pity and contempt, which is more clearly evidenced in Mary Barton.

Through the first half of the novel, Mary Barton portrays the indignities suffered by the working-class poor. The reader watches as countless men, women, and children suffer without food or medicine and ultimately die slow, agonizing deaths. However, as the novel nears the half-way mark, Gaskell educates the reader with another way to view the previous events. She presents the masters’ reasons behind the low wages and the letting go of workers: they we trying to keep their factories afloat and “they dreaded that the goods could be made at a much lower price” on the continent (161). In this same redefining chapter, Gaskell sees the Mr. Barton’s addiction to opium and asks what else can be expected from the suffering and ignorant.

Can you expect the uneducated to count the cost of their whistle?…No education had given him [Mr. Barton] wisdom…He acted to the best of his judgement, but it was a widely-erring judgement. The actions of the uneducated seem to me typified in those of Frankenstein, that monster of many human qualities, ungifted with a soul, a knowledge of the difference between good and evil. (159-160)

Not only does this new interpretation negate Mr. Barton’s autonomy as a character, no longer culpable for his own actions but a mere victim of the system, but his is no longer even a person. He, and all other uneducated people, are aligned with a monster whom Gaskell contends has no soul. How is the reader supposed to envelope this new context? How does this affect our reading of this text? Are we meant to believe that those unable to acquire education, women and the poor, are to be pitied as less than human? It becomes increasingly difficult to amass the wide ranging sympathies, present in both texts, with the narrators’ seeming patronizi of those victims who arise those sympathies.

 

Dang! I thought we were friends, Girl!

For many years Charlotte Bronte has been one of my favorite authors. She presented women as fully rounded characters with strong, complex inner turmoil. And while I do not necessarily love the way Bronte’s novels conclude, I believe she shined a light on women as real, thinking, feeling people — just like men. It is with this in mind that I went into reading Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Bronte; hoping to gain an insight into the mind of my favorite author.  To be honest my expectation was that I would be presented with a complex view of a complex woman, balancing the good and the bad. However, what I received was not complex. Gaskell’s representation of Charlotte Bronte was watered down and edited for the purpose of re-feminizing the deceased.

In “Parallel Currents,” Peterson notes how Gaskell purposed to create a view of Bronte that negated certain critic’s complaints that Bronte’s writing was “course” and “unfeminine” (148). However, in doing so Gaskell represents Bronte in just as singular a way as the critics. Instead of masculine and misaligned with her gender, Bronte is shown as the sensitive angel in the house whose desire is to care for her family over anything else. In her letter to Robert Southey she seems to acquiesce to his advice that “literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be” (Gaskell 173). Yet it is apparent that she no longer desired that form of advice as she began to write under the pen name “C.T.” (202).

Gaskell minimizes this change in strategy. She simply seems to desire to emphasize Bronte’s propriety and that she organized her life in the ‘correct order’ — family obligations then personal interests: “some morning, she would waken up, and the progress of her tale lay clear and bright before her, in distinct vision. When this was the case, all her care was to discharge her household and filial duties, so as to obtain leisure to sit down and write” (306). This accounting of Bronte’s actions assures that readers she her as a woman first and only then an author — something important for Gaskell, but how important to Bronte is unknown.

Gaskell also edits out the mention of monetary concerns in Bronte’s correspondence with her publisher and any commentary about men that might sound flirtatious or licentious: “The Life creates a mid-Victorian model of the woman artist as one more concerned with artistic expression than professionalism, a woman who both fulfills her ‘quiet regular duties’ and expresses her ‘splendid talents'”(Peterson 148). In extracting out all ‘questionable’ subject matter, Gaskell does more harm than good. Bronte appears weakened by Gaskell’s pen: less driven, less passionate, less complex. Bronte is reduced to a sympathetic caricature of a woman, haunted by hardship but unyielding in her faith and filial duties.

I believe that Gaskell defamed Bronte even more than the critics, because will the critics were just that, Gaskell professed to own a certain authority to the inner workings of the Bronte mind. That mind was, however, misunderstood by Gaskell or purposefully misrepresented. Bronte became a flat, uninteresting character under Gaskell’s pen. Bronte drew the fictional life of Jane Eyre with more grace and humanity than Gaskell accomplished with the real Life of Charlotte Bronte.

The Ordinary Life of the Extraordinary Mrs. Hope

Despite warnings of needing to “get through” the book, I truly enjoyed Deerbrook. The characters were well developed and the story-telling was well paced. My complaint with the novel was not that the story was poorly written but that the narrative choices were relatively uninspired.

The novel began with two warring families, lead by loud-mouth, troublesome women, Mrs. Rowland and Mrs. Grey. I was immediately reminded of Mrs. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice as the reader followed Mrs. Grey and her perturbed, but tolerant husband. Then came two sisters, one fair and a bit vapid, and one bright but plain, reminiscent of Elinor and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility. Both sisters love and are disappointed, but ultimately marry the man they desired. And of course, who could forget the evil step-mother, or in this case mother-in-law, Mrs. Rowland. There is not enough space in this blog for me to rail against the characterization of the evil Mrs. Rowland. However, I was thoroughly intrigued by the complexities developed in Hester.

While being the novels token beauty, she became much more than just the genres vain sister. Hester was complex. She had problems, but unlike other beauties, such as Marianne, she was self-aware and struggling to better herself.  Hester showed an innate personal weakness of selfishness and jealousy, and her struggle with those she loved to overcome. While I enjoy this new and interesting characterization of the female mind, it is the end of her struggle that bothers me most.

As the novel becomes more of a story about the patience of good overcoming the spread of evil, Mrs. Rowland and the plague, Hester’s internal dialogue falls away. The reader is left thinking that she has been reformed from selfish to righteous, but by what catalyst? The defining moment of her transformation appears to be marriage, motherhood, and poverty. These things seem to be what the novel is suggesting humbles her. However, she still shows jealously at Margaret’s attachment to the baby and Maria, and her vice follows her from relative prosperity into poverty. Her story disappears as the novel concludes its intended purpose: a sort of generic parable about patience and poverty and goodness. The evil are killed or their kids are killed, and the good become prosperous – yada yada. The one stand-out, unique woman is smothered out by a morality story, and we are left to wonder what truly happened to Mrs. Hope?

 

Why All the Hubbub?

Many things about Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography puzzle me. Her previous declaration against “literary lionism” emphasized that the over inflation of the writer’s ego would cause the work to suffer, but isn’t Martineau performing the most self-involved activity by writing her autobiography? She doesn’t even need to be lionized by others; she is good to go all on her own.

However, what most causes me pause with Martineau’s Autobiography is the introduction. While she mentions that she thought she was always meant to write her memoirs, and such, the meat of the introduction deals with her adamant desire that her personal letters of correspondence not be published. She says that she has asked her most intimate friends to burn her letters, so that they will not end up in the wrong hands. Martineau is very clear about not wanting her letters made public after her death, so I wonder how she would feel about The Pickering Masters “The Collected Letters of Harriet Martineau” and the University of Birmingham’s Special Collections which features many Martineau letters.

The confusing aspect of her introduction lies not only in not completely understanding her insistence on not publishing her letters, but that this is how she decided to start her autobiography. Instead of thanking people in her life or discussing millions of other things, she chose to re-emphasize the fact that her letters were to be burnt or left alone. I got the feeling that this introduction was meant as a warning to friends and family who may have other opinions on publishing. Martineau believed that people could not be freely open with each other if there was a fear of that openness being seen by someone else.

She questions the sanctity of confidential communication and the honor of privacy. Saying that all friends would have to be on guard with each other if they believed there was a chance of the communication becoming public. While, many of Martineau’s arguments in her texts are quite convincing, it is difficult for me to understand her obvious paranoia over these letters. Her reasoning is less than complete. This leads me to ask the question, why all the hubbub? What’s in those letters she didn’t want us to read?

 

 

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

Does Martineau hold herself to the same standard as she those she addresses?

In How to Observe: Morals and Manners, Martineau discusses how making generalizations about different societies is dangerous because they create an incomplete view of the culture. She is ultimately making the point that when traveling to other countries, and writing a travel book, there is very little that the average person on one trip can definitively conclude.  However, I find it interesting that, while explaining how difficult it is to understand others behaviors, she uses the example of not necessarily understanding your neighbor down the street or the family underneath your same roof, even though you are exposed to both very often (13-14). Your daughter may cry because she ripped her dress, but does that mean that is the only reason she would cry? Or that crying is the only response she could have to ripping her dress? She seems to emphasize that people are more complex than what we can determine about them after only a few weeks of observation.

However, this very perceptive observation into the complexities of people begins to negate one of Martineau’s own social observations of “literary lions.” Basically she contends that popularity as an author creates a situation where the author can no longer write. Popularity creates a new class for the author in which they cannot see outside of. The main problems she sees is the author would not be able to view humanity as an impartial observer, the author would become too egotistical about their work, and never be able to move beyond it and improve. In this judgment of literary lionism, Martineau commits the same generalization that she proposes to be dangerous. She takes every author and believes she can anticipate what their response to popularity would be. It is this discrepancy between what she says and what she does that makes her seems to believe herself an exception to the rules of observation. If we cannot know our neighbors or our family completely, then how can Martineau generalize how all authors would react to popularity?

She says that writers would not live up to their potential if they are lionized because they would become big-headed about their work, thinking that it is the best thing they could ever create. However, is it not possible that acceptance of their work would propel the authors to continue their work? Martineau is also concerned that a popular writer would no longer be able to operate as an impartial observer. But this concern stems from an unrealistic premise: that anyone can truly be an impartial observer to begin with. People are biased. Based on the norms of their experiences there are certain activities or behaviors that will trigger as ‘non-normative.’ An unbiased observer is impossible, so popularity would potentially only affect a writer’s already held biases.

The discreptency between Martineau’s observations and her guidelines for observation emphasis one of her more poiniant statements: generlizations “reveal more of the mind of the observer than of the observed” (Morals and Manners 13). Martineau’s concerns reflect more her own fears about being lionized than her concern about other authors. Perhaps she envisions how she would react to being valorizes and assumes that everyone else would react as she would. Martineau doesn’t seem to hold herself to the same standard of observation that she requires of others.