Antonina (Wilkie Collins)

Posted: October 5, 2015 in fiction
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Sometimes it’s not such a good idea to read a book that mirrors your own mental state.

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Antonina is a novel of ruin and despair, and I’ve had enough of those in the last few months. Reading more of them was probably not the best thing for me, but it’s too late now.

My financial state is not good. When I moved down here, my old landlord assured me that it would be simple to find someone to sublease my apartment because at the beginning of the semester, students were looking for places to live. However, none of them want my old place. It looks like I’m going to be paying rent in Illinois through the end of the lease in January. So, I get two paychecks a month, one goes to the two rents and the other goes to my child support. I pay my utilities on credit, and for food, I rely on the kindness of strangers. This system is not sustainable. I applied for a retail position, and they asked me to call their toll-free number for a phone interview, but I’ve been ringing the number four times a day for over a week now and it’s always busy. A friend sent me some money last month, and it’s enough to keep me limping along for another month or two, which is good, but not a long-term solution. I talked to my mom last night, and she mentioned she might send me some food. Great, but it came with the advice that I talk out loud to her imaginary friend in order to deal with my emotional problems.

What emotional problems, you ask? I’ll tell you. I moved to Texas two months ago in an effort to escape the harsh Midwestern winter and a growing sexual harassment problem at work. In June I was already depressed at the thought of driving through snow the coming January. As for the other situation, I wanted to be supportive when he told me he was bi and that it was this big secret, but when he started texting me that he was stroking it and thinking of me, I didn’t know how to say, “Telling me you’re attracted to men is cool, but giving me the details of your private time is too much. Since I work for you, this style of communication is really inappropriate. Since you were involved in my hiring process, I now feel like you hired me primarily because you wanted to work your way toward physical intimacy with me instead of because you valued my mind or skills. When you say these things, I feel cheap and dirty, and I want you to stop.”

So I was already struggling with feeling worthless, and then I get down here and I feel cut off from all the communities I try to join. In rural Texas, we don’t have gay communities, just a few guys hanging out in their isolated closets. Instead, we have Christian communities. I’ve tried joining the local branch of my mom’s church, and I work at a Christian school, but I just feel more and more like a closet atheist. I go through the motions, I know the right vocabulary and the right names to drop, but my heart isn’t in it. I feel like I have to hide something that is basic to my understanding of my own identity, but instead of my sexual attraction it’s now my unbelief. And, as one of my favorite gay-themed movies reminds me, “Being in the closet is being fucked up.”

I’m also teaching younger students, and I hate it. I do great with college students, I’m okay with high school kids (upper-classmen are noticeably better), but middle school and elementary kids? No. Just, no. I now have students who range from fifth grade to twelfth, so some parts of the day are great and other parts of the day I just want to shout profanities. If that one kid says “I don’t get it” while smiling vacantly at me one more time, I swear I’m going to forget that I’m a pacifist. I’ve never taught lower than eleventh grade before, so I feel really inadequate with most of my students. I’m seeing improvement, and so are their other teachers, but I go home most days exhausted and frustrated. It’s worse on the days that we have chapel, because the youth pastor’s definition of evil seems to be “whatever makes him feel uncomfortable,” which includes just about anyone who isn’t cis-gendered upper-middle-class Evangelical. Fortunately, the topic of sexuality hasn’t come up yet, but I expect it any day. The type of nondenominational conservative Christianity that is prevalent at school makes me feel like I’m teaching in a French farmyard filled with unexploded mines. Every day that the mines don’t detonate, I get closer to forgetting that they’re there, and eventually I’ll get careless and blow everything up.

One of my friends from back home has a good friend in Dallas, so he suggested we meet up at this guy’s church, where he has a reasonably-sized group of gay friends who worship and then go out for lunch together. I’m not uber-hopeful, since it’s another church community like the two I already don’t feel comfortable with, but it’s a gay community, so it can’t be all bad. Almost immediately after the suggestion, my car broke down in the middle of the town square. Since it’s from a European automaker, it had to get hauled around three counties before I could find someone who could work on it. I got it back the following Friday, and Sunday I started off on the way to Dallas, but then it overheated up into the danger zone, so I found a coolant leak and went back home instead. Monday I got it back to the mechanic’s before work, then picked it up again Tuesday evening. It’s given me a good two and a half days without worrying symptoms, so I may finally get into the city this weekend.

Two trips to the mechanic? I thought you didn’t have any extra money lying around! I don’t. I had to borrow twelve hundred dollars from the Christians I work for, because I’m almost at the end of my credit and no sane person or institution is going to lend me anything until I get some of these bills paid off. So, not only do I not want to continue here next school year, I feel guilty for it because they’ve been working so hard to build a mutual sense of loyalty with me. Oh, and the Check Engine light is back on, so my car won’t pass inspection in December unless I take it back to the mechanic who charges $120 just to plug it into the diagnostic computer.

All of this has been revealing to me just how closely my sense of self-worth is tied to my sense of independence. I feel independent and good about myself when I make enough money to pay my bills and can travel around to do the things I like. When my car breaks down, or I have to borrow money I can’t pay back immediately, I get depressed. I’m trying to redirect thoughts of self-harm, but I’m not always successful. I am still eating, so things aren’t as bad as they have been. I also know that since I’m not homeless things aren’t as bad as they have been, or as bad as they are for other people. I’m not saying my life is the worst ever, just that I have financial obligations that I can’t see myself meeting, and it tempts me to do bad things.

Anyway, on to Wilkie Collins. This, his first published novel, is set during the first siege of the fall of Rome. If that sounds overly specific and a little pretentious, it is. Collins’s early style is so pretentious that it’s a little hard to read.

CHAPTER 3: ROME

The perusal of the title to this chapter will, we fear, excite emotions of apprehension, rather than of curiosity, in the breasts of experienced readers. They will doubtless imagine that it is portentous of long rhapsodies on those wonders of antiquity, the description of which has long become absolutely nauseous to them by incessant iteration. They will foresee wailings over the Palace of the Caesars, and meditations among the arches of the Colosseum, loading a long series of weary paragraphs to the very chapter’s end; and, considerately anxious to spare their attention a task from which it recoils, they will unanimously hurry past the dreaded desert of conventional reflection, to alight on the first oasis that may present itself, whether it be formed by a new division of the story, or suddenly indicated by the appearance of a dialogue. Animated, therefore, by apprehensions such as these, we hasten to assure them that in no instance will the localities of our story trench upon the limits of the well-worn Forum, or mount the arches of the exhausted Colosseum. It is with beings, and not the buildings of old Rome, that their attention is to be occupied. We desire to present them with a picture of the inmost emotions of the times — of the living, breathing actions and passions of the people of the doomed Empire. Antiquarian topography and classical architecture we leave to abler pens, and resign to other readers.

Oh, for a red pen back in 1850! I could have cut out at least a third of this novel just by simplifying the language (while maintaining the Victorian long sentences and Latinate vocabulary) and cutting out all the direct addresses to the reader. I also would have gotten rid of the ethnocentrism. I shouldn’t have been surprised by it; I ran across his first written unpublished novel ten years ago and couldn’t get through it because of all the rampant prejudice. Don’t write a heroine who couldn’t exist in the foreign culture you’re writing about, like an inexplicably chaste Polynesian. Victorian Englishwomen are Victorian Englishwomen, whether you’ve written them in classical Rome or in the south Pacific. I guess this means that Wilkie Collins started writing fan fic before that was even a thing, though he was a bit more self-aware about writing in order to comfort his audience about the acceptability/respectability of their lifestyles.

Could he then have seen the faintest vision of the destiny that future ages had in store for the posterity of the race that now suffered throughout civilised Europe, like him — could he have imagined how, in after years, the ‘middle class’, despised in his day, was to rise to privilege and power; to hold in its just hands the balance of the prosperity of nations; to crush oppression and regulate rule; to soar in its mighty flight above thrones and principalities, and rank and riches, apparently obedient, but really commanding; — could he but have foreboded this, what a light must have burst upon his gloom, what a hope must have soothed him in his despair!

So, some good things. As in reading the earlier works of Ursula Le Guin, in Antonia we see the themes that help us to love Collins’s more mature works: overzealous Christians, sympathetic villainesses, handsome yet unintelligent men, dandies whose apparent uselessness belies their actual power, altered mental states (insanity through trauma and malnourishment this time), physical deformity and the strange cause/effect relationship that has on emotional states, unlikely medical scenarios (if you get stabbed through the neck in classical Rome, you’re going to die, I don’t care how much the novelist wants to keep you alive), the wild coincidences necessary to the sensational plot, and endings that don’t rely on the death or marriage of the female protagonist.

So yes, this book is a little obnoxious, but don’t judge the author on this one. He’s famous for the novels he wrote ten years later, The Woman in White and The Moonstone especially – once he gets away from historical romance and gets into mystery writing, things get a lot better. And don’t judge me based on my complaints about how my life isn’t the way I want it to be and I don’t know how to make it better – once I’ve written it all out and published it online, my attitude tends to improve dramatically.

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Comments
  1. From bad to worse–wow. I am so sorry the car got into the act. Uncalled-for!

    My most recent experience with “I REALLY shouldn’t’ve read this in my current state of mind” was with Agnes Smedley’s Daughter of Earth. I was feeling pretty bad when I started, and it only got worse. Should’ve stuck to more reliable reading matter–all things Ursula Le Guin are the best possible poultice for “I need some hope but I have to be able to believe in it, too.”

    We’re thinking of you and hoping things may yet improve. As Le Guin says, “There is more than one road to the city.”

    • theoccasionalman says:

      Le Guin is a good suggestion. I’ve just tipped myself into Dandelion Wine, and it’ll be a week or two before I can swim to the edge of the goblet and climb out.

  2. theoccasionalman says:

    Reasons this month will be financially simpler than last:
    1. I don’t have to spend $125 on a speeding ticket.
    2. I don’t have to pay a car insurance premium. I’m paid up through the end of the year.
    3. I’m not driving to North Carolina. I wish I were; I love my home state and the friends who live there, but I’m not heading back until December.
    That being said, I’m sure I’ll find another way to lose every last cent I have, but I’m hoping that’ll be delayed until November at least.

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