Posts Tagged ‘imagination’

Clive Barker writes such beautiful horror.

Weaveworld

Even this, one of his earliest novel-length stories, moves me to tears.

Nothing ever begins.

There is no first moment; no single word or place from which this or any other story springs.

The threads can always be traced back to some earlier tale, and to the tales that preceded that; though as the narrator’s voice recedes the connections will seem to grow more tenuous, for each age will want the tale told as if it were of its own making.

Thus the pagan will be sanctified, the tragic become laughable; great lovers will stoop to sentiment, and demons dwindle to clockwork toys.

Nothing is fixed. In and out the shuttle goes, fact and fiction, mind and matter woven into patterns that may have only this in common: that hidden among them is a filigree that will with time become a world.

This book was written a little before The Great and Secret Show, and has a lot of similarities to it. There’s a magical world bordering on ours, which people can access at rare times, but which is normally hidden and forgotten. Instead of existing outside, though, the secret magic is woven into a carpet, hidden in plain sight. And instead of having the two-journey structure, this book is in three volumes, and those volumes are subdivided into thirteen books. It brings to mind the twelve-part epics (plus one, to evoke the number of horror) as well as the Victorian three-deckers. Also like TGSS, there’s this amazingly powerful heroine.

“You’re a strange woman,” he said as they parted, apropos of nothing in particular.

She took the remark as flattery.

Suzanna is a regular person, in this book called Cuckoos, but when she faces a magical antagonist she gets access to the power of the menstruum, and while that word isn’t always associated with power, in this book it is. The menstruum is the source of magic, and when used appropriately, can give a woman so much power she becomes revered as a goddess. She has the task of protecting the Fugue, the magical place hidden in the weave, and the people who live there. She is assisted in this task by a lovable not-quite-hero, a cute boy who seems sort of worthless until he’s inspired by love to do incredible things.

And what lesson could he learn from the mad poet, now that they were fellow spirits? What would Mad Mooney do, were he in Cal’s shoes?

He’d play whatever game was necessary, came the answer, and then, when the world turned its back he’d search, search until he found the place he’d seen, and not care that in doing so he was inviting delirium. He’d find his dream and hold on to it and never let it go.

Cal is sort of like Christopher Moore’s Beta Males, more secondary protagonist than hero, but he loves the Fugue and will do anything to preserve it.

True joy is a profound remembering; and true grief the same.

Thus it was, when the dust storm that had snatched Cal up finally died, and he opened his eyes to see the Fugue spread before him, he felt as though the few fragile moments of epiphany he’d tasted in his twenty-six years – tasted but always lost – were here redeemed and wed. He’d grasped fragments of this delight before. Heard rumor of it in the womb-dream and the dream of love; seen its consequence in sudden good and sudden laughter; known it in lullabies. But never, until now, the whole, the thing entire.

It would be, he idly thought, a fine time to die.

And a finer time still to live, with so much laid out before him.

As with many other novels I love, this one follows the natural cycles: events usually slow down in the winter, as the British retreat to their fireplaces and let the snows rage around them, and then things pick back up in the spring and get really intense in the summer. The Fugue is a place of creation, so it is often allied with the spring.

Of course, there are antagonists. Immacolata wants to unleash the Scourge and destroy the Fugue, and Shadwell her minion wants to take over. I once read that the protagonist is often considered the character who changes the most, and Shadwell changes a lot over the course of the book, so maybe it’s his story and not so much Suzanna’s and Cal’s. In the first part he’s a salesman, in the second he’s a prophet, and in the third he’s a destroyer, but it is sort of implied that the three roles are all the same, really. He has a magic jacket that shows people the thing they want most and gives them the illusion of attaining it – as I reflected on this and the fact that the thing I want most is love and a man to share it with, I wondered what Shadwell’s jacket would show me. After all, the first time we see it, Shadwell just opens his coat and asks Cal, “See something you like?” as if he were displaying his body and inviting Cal to touch him, but with that slightly menacing tone that says that if he takes the bait he’s going to get beat up for it. The Scourge itself is amazingly powerful, like the dragons of ancient stories, and has lost sight of who he is because of those ancient stories. At one point it’s said that he’s been corrupted by loneliness, and I wonder how much loneliness it takes to turn someone’s mind like that. And I wonder how much time I have left, before I decide that romance is unattainable in this life and that I need to get on without it. Like in Moana, the danger has to be healed instead of destroyed, so this is ultimately a hopeful book, despite all the death and destruction and loss that comes before the end. Which you would sort of expect in a book that I feel with enough intensity to cry at the end.

The thing I wasn’t expecting from this book was racism. The term Negress is outdated, but can be read as descriptive and not pejorative, but there are other words for persons of African descent that are unequivocally used to denigrate (a word which means, to make blacker). I know that word was only used by a bad guy, but even when racism is only used to mark unsympathetic characters it still bothers me. There is also a random offensive comment on the Cherokee, in the narrator’s voice and serving no purpose but to dehumanize a nation whose roots extend beyond our human understanding of history. And another thing: what is this thing that British authors have with writing about gay Arabs? (Neil Gaiman, I’m looking at you and your American Gods.) Does this go back to Rumi and Shams of Tabriz, or did T. E. Lawrence depict the Middle East as some sort of nonstop gay sex party? If so, then there’s no reason for Lawrence of Arabia to be such a dull film (I’ve heard; I’ve never actually seen it). In this book, the homosexual desire is acknowledged, but not celebrated – that will come later in Barker’s career, after he comes out publicly.

The other day I drove back through the old neighborhood in Asheville where The Ex and I used to live, and it was strange and different. On a Saturday in December, there should have been endless traffic, but it was just like a Saturday in any other month – I guess the new outlet shops at Biltmore Square have finally succeeded in diverting holiday drivers away from downtown and the mall area. Less traffic is welcome, but the other changes were less so. I lived in the Charlotte Street area for a year, and I heard more angry honking in half an hour in 2017 than in all of 2009. I commented on this to The Ex, and she agreed that Asheville’s energy has gotten really angry in the last few years, so much so that she doesn’t enjoy coming into town as she used to. In my memory, Asheville is preserved as a magical place where people are kind and mindful of the life around them; the city may still recycle, but they’ve lost their attention to each other. It’s become crowded and distressing, the city’s music transformed into noise. Perhaps there are still oases of comfort, but the city itself is not the oasis it once was. I remember people worrying about gentrification and what would happen when artists and the poor could no longer afford to live downtown, and now we’re seeing it. The problem isn’t with public art or community events (Bel Chere is privatized, but not dead) – the problem is with the people. I wonder if it’s all newcomers; I’ve been getting intensely angry with the world lately, and a lot of it has to do with the way the American government is turning the country to shit and how powerless I feel to do anything about it. I would guess that’s a big part of Asheville’s problem right now too.

But, much like the Fugue, my communities can be saved. Suzanna’s grandmother leaves her a book of German fairy tales, with the inscription:

Das, was man sich vorstellt, braucht man nie zu verlieren.

Which Barker translates as:

That which is imagined need never be lost.

But looking back at the German, I appreciate the fact that it uses indefinite pronouns and active verbs, so that a more literal translation could be: That which one imagines, she never needs to lose, or One never need shed what she imagines. Despite all my anger at how very disappointing life in the United States has been the last few years, I still hope for something better. I’m still imagining the life I want, and trusting the stories that tell me that if I can dream it, I need not lose it. Nothing that we imagine can be lost forever.

 “It’s all the same story.”

“What story?” Cal said.

We live it and they live it,” she said, looking at de Bono. “It’s about being born, and being afraid of dying, and how love saves us.” This she said with great certainty, as though it had taken her a good time to reach this conclusion and she was unshakeable on it.

It silenced the opposition awhile. All three walked on without further word for two minutes or more, until de Bono said, “I agree.”

She looked up at him.

“You do?” she said, plainly surprised.

He nodded. “One story?” he said. “Yes, that makes sense to me. Finally, it’s the same for you as it is for us, raptures or no raptures. Like you say. Being born, dying: and love between.”

 

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witches of eastwick

Continuing to celebrate Halloween, here’s one of those novels whose title has gotten stuck in my head somehow and is as closely associated with October as Frosty the Snowman is with December, but is quite different from the Mitchell novel I read earlier in the week.

The first question is one of style. I tried to sit down and read it all at once, but Updike’s sentences resist being read quickly. Halloween being the season of personifying the inanimate, one could argue that they don’t like to be read at all. There is a profusion of detail that can seem ponderous, all those subordinate clauses pushing their way in so that it is sometimes hard to see what the subject and verb are, or maybe that heart of the sentence is intentionally hiding, enfolding itself in the extraneous as a means of self-preservation. Which sounds ridiculous, because the only life words have is when someone reads them. Stories are a complex act of shared creation between a writer and a reader – he suggests a shape, and I breathe life into it with my imagination, a complex, unique spiraling shape of personal experience and genetic memory. But Updike is seldom content to suggest; his riotous excess of description leaves little for the imagination, and since the imagination works more quickly than the reading eye, the process is slower. It was very challenging for me to take Updike’s mind into my own, and his style is very indicative of the Literary Novel of his time, the 1980s, and I’d say that it continues to influence the self-consciously literary writers of today.

Another issue is that of subject. Witches? In New England? How original. Updike is a man writing about women’s lives from women’s perspectives, which always seems highly suspect to me. It’s in many ways a book of all the things men accuse women of doing, like the way that most of the book is a transcription of gossipy phone calls. Some of it also seems like men’s fantasies of what women do, like the unspoken bisexuality of the witches, where it seems that every woman is trembling on the cusp of lesbian porn. The climax of Act One is a hot tub orgy with one man and three women (we know Updike is a heterosexual man because he never mentions the size of the penis with such power).

Maybe it was modish in the 1980s to refer to homosexuality a lot in your book, but the way his characters talk about it pushes men like me away. That word for us that I find the most upsetting, a British cigarette, gets tossed about like it’s as normal and inoffensive as iron or book. I’m not sure why I find this word so much more upsetting than all the other ways people describe me, nor why the shorter version is so much more upsetting than the word that means a bundle of sticks, but I’m apparently having a rainbow snowflake moment and I’ll thank you to respect my feelings, Mr Updike. The reviewers talk about his great sympathy for his characters, but as a homosexual male I felt outside the realm of his empathy. It seems natural for me to be angry at being the only one included in the book but excluded from sympathetic treatment, so maybe the rest of you (meaning women or heterosexuals) won’t feel the same way that I do. This book is about as pro-gay as the Christopher Reeve film Deathtrap.

But then again, maybe what seemed like sympathetic treatment in 1984 won’t seem sympathetic today. I believe that many women of my acquaintance would take umbrage at the idea that femininity requires taking the place of a man’s mother, just as I find it offensive that many people even today believe that men are perpetual children in need of mothering. For an example, watch the later seasons of Arrow. In the first season The Green Arrow is very Batmannish, but by season four he’s surrounded by women, a little sister and a few friends, and one of them takes over as CEO of his family business and they all boss him around as if he were a child, despite being younger than he. They all talk about how dumb and helpless he is, despite the fact that they know he’s a fucking superhero. He might be a filthy rich masked vigilante with serious top-shelf hand-to-hand combat skills and an amazing body, but he’s still ‘just a man.’

Healing belonged to their natures, and if the world accused them of coming between men and wives, of tying the disruptive ligature, of knotting the aiguillette that places the kink of impotence or emotional coldness in the entrails of a marriage seemingly secure in its snugly roofed and darkened house, and if the world not merely accused but burned them alive in the tongues of indignant opinion, that was the price they must pay. It was fundamental and instinctive, it was womanly, to want to heal – to apply the poultice of acquiescent flesh to the wound of a man’s desire, to give his closeted spirit the exaltation of seeing a witch slip out of her clothes and go skyclad in a room of tawdry motel furniture.

Our witches are three divorced women in their thirties, which was quite shocking in the late 1960s, when the book is set (distanced from author and reader in either time or space, as a Gothic novel should be). And yes, they set about having affairs with married men, and frankly it seems that everyone in town is having an affair with someone else and they all whisper about it but no one does anything about it but talk. When another woman in town gets left, they remark on the fact that she’s now gained the power if she’ll do anything with it, but they don’t make any effort to invite her to the coven. Sukie is the youngest, a bright redhead who writes for the local paper; Jane is the angry one, a cellist who also teaches piano; and Alexandra is the leader, being the oldest and most powerful.

The portrayal of Alexandra got on my nerves, too. This is entirely personal: she’s my age, height, and weight, and she thinks of herself as old and fat, and no one disagrees with her. I’m actually not sure how much I weigh – I haven’t weighed myself since I dated that guy in Texas, when I gained twelve pounds during a two-month relationship – but Lexa is the weight at which I no longer feel like I need to lose weight. He of the Midwest asked me the other day how much weight I’ve lost in North Carolina, and again I have no way of knowing, but I will say this. I can no longer grab an entire handful of excess at my side, and the tendons in my hands and feet are showing themselves again. I don’t have one of those sexual foot fetishes, but a man’s feet can be a pretty good indicator of how much body fat he’s carrying, and when I lived out there I had these thick pads of fat on top of my feet, and now they’re almost completely gone. My belt is getting loose, and when I put on my trousers yesterday I just pulled them up and fastened them without holding my breath or lying down or trying to stretch the waistband an extra inch or two. In Illinois I thought my trouser zippers were going to kill me, and now I don’t think of them at all.

On the first page they’re talking about a new man who’s moving to town, and while you may remember this as the same beginning to Pride and Prejudice, it’s not really anything like. At first they think he must be gay because he’s from Manhattan and has never been married, but once he gets there they all fall for him and he encourages all three. It’s never made explicit, but he’s very much a Satanic figure, and the name Darryl van Horne does sound a bit devilish. He fills in the wetlands, displacing the egrets that nest there; Alexandra doesn’t always see his aura when she’s surrounded by the peacock tails of color that other people’s emotions manifest; at one point his legs seem to be jointed the other way, as if he had goat legs; his face always seems cobbled from disparate pieces that don’t belong together; and he takes charge of their art and ends up controlling the witches. They eventually suspect that they’ve been serving him all along, but with no proof, they drift away from each other. There’s also all the magic going on that they’re not doing, and the way that their lovers end up dead. I also think it’s weird that his hot tub room and bedroom are both completely black. I suppose this draws more attention to the white bodies on display in those rooms, but it’s a little strange.

I don’t remember what gender politics were like in 1984; I was still too young to attend school back then. Maybe this sort of portrayal was normal or enlightened back then, but it’s not any more. It’s a book about women’s power, but the power comes from ceasing to have loved a man, so it’s still very anti-Bechdel. They may be empowered to the point that they have uncoupled copulation from procreation, but they freely admit to neglecting their children, and while the witches all have progeny, none of those children are main characters. Their pets are more important to the book than the children are. Their power makes them independent, outsiders in their own families and community, reliant on each other and no one else. It’s as if being a feminist requires (or induces) social isolation.

I suppose part of this review should mention love as the binding between the sexes, but I don’t see much of it in this book. I see desire and attraction, control and power and a lot of things that have nothing to do with love but get substituted for it. I think the lack of love is part of my trouble with the book. People are selfish and isolated and horrible to each other. In the beginning, Alexandra reminds herself that magic always has a price, a sacrifice necessary to maintain the balance of nature, and it bothers me that as we roll along they forget that. Maybe the dissolution of the coven is a result of their lack of sacrifice, their desire to get something for nothing, but Updike doesn’t address that explicitly.

He does address suicide. The only time we see something from a man’s perspective is when a guy kills his wife and then hangs himself. If this is a trigger, be ready to skip ten pages or so from the middle of Act Two.

I keep trying to wrap this up in a nice summative fashion – a story that builds and builds but doesn’t go anywhere, no Act Three climactic finish, the worst kind of realism – but all I can think of are more things to disagree with. I wonder how much of it is the book and how much is me. Recently someone told me that I’ve been saying No too much lately, so the other night I decided to say Yes to the drag show in a neighboring town. I had only been to one other drag show, and while the entertainment hadn’t been very interesting to me, the man I’d met there was amazing. So I tidied my apartment and cleaned myself up and went, only to find a crowd of around twenty people loosely centered around the door to the club. I walked through and stood for a moment directly in front of the door, cocking my head inquisitively at the handsome man stationed there. He told me that they couldn’t admit any more people, and I heard some of the students around me muttering about how shocked they were that any place in this town would be full, so I nodded at the handsome man and walked on down the street. I decided to find something else I could say Yes to, but there’s not much in that town, and I didn’t feel like drinking with a lot of straight college students (I wasn’t in a talkative mood), so I drove back to this place where I live, but I don’t know this town well – I’ve been in and out of the area for almost twenty years now, but I’ve never spent much time in this town – so I got lost and didn’t find downtown and eventually just came back home, thinking, This is why I keep saying No to the world. I did say Yes to the deer wandering in the road, meaning I didn’t hit her, and when I got home I looked up at the stars and said Yes. They’re always so amazing, out here away from streetlights, and I saw one suddenly rush to the ground, and I made a wish. The same wish I always make: Love.

 

There comes a time in a person’s life when he realizes that he is collecting the complete novels of Milan Kundera, and he decides to embrace it as a conscious decision. The local bookshop has two more (the two that I haven’t pursued as steadily because I read them first, fifteen years ago), and then it’ll be off to find the either more elusive or more recent books. When you shop primarily in used bookshops, recent novels are rather elusive.

Kundera didn’t publish any novels until he was about the age I am now, and this one, the second, still has a strong focus on youth. It seems a little allegorical, and I wonder if it might not be a little autobiographical as well. It’s about a young poet who comes of age during the Communist Revolution. While there are several important characters, they’re only named according to their function in the poet’s life, so while he is Jaromil, they are the janitor’s son, the artist, the redhead, the cinematographer, the silver-maned poet, etc. The janitor’s son becomes a policeman and a reminder of how far Jaromil is from the stereotypical adult masculinity he wants to achieve, but he only gets called the janitor’s son, even though his father isn’t in the story. This is indicative of Jaromil’s extreme self-centeredness. The ending makes the Narcissus metaphor explicit, but long before that I was sickened by Jaromil’s contempt for other human beings.

In some ways this book feels like a rewrite of Sons and Lovers – Jaromil’s mother is a little too close to him, and he has a relationship with a shopgirl that he knows she will disapprove of. Maman is imaginative, in the sense that she creates a mental reality when the perceived reality is unpleasant, but not in the sense that she is in any way unconventional. Jaromil (Communist poetry) was conceived by an engineer (the educated working class) out in nature, according to his mother, but it was more likely in a disgusting bachelor apartment borrowed from the engineer’s friend. Indeed, nature as landscape or unenclosed space has very little place in this book at all. Nature exerts itself over Jaromil as weather or as disease, or the idiosyncrasies of human biology. Maman was never that crazy about her shotgun husband, so she liked to pretend that a figure of Apollo (classical influences) conceived the boy without the father’s intervention, despite the obvious limitations of such a fantasy. This reading might seem facile and forced, but issues of artistic inspiration, expression, and responsibility are at the center of the book.

World War II figures largely in twentieth-century Czech history. German occupation and redrawing of boundaries is big on a national scale, but in the daily lives of people, particularly children, it seems to have had little effect. Jaromil’s father was killed in a concentration camp because he was having an affair with a Jewish girl, but his father was mostly absent anyway. This lack of a strong masculine presence in his life, coupled with soft delicate features, leads to his preoccupation with his inferiority as a male human. He does have an art teacher, but the teacher is concerned about the philosophy of art changing under Communism, and Jaromil tries to assert his independence by disagreeing with him, which damages their friendship. Jaromil never tries to build up the rest of his body, so he’s a spindly little artist who isn’t brave enough to talk to girls. Eventually he does find someone, and losing his virginity is a huge milestone for him, but his masculinity has turned toxic by this point. A sexual relationship doesn’t relieve his insecurities; it makes them worse. It leads to sexual violence, which brings up some unpleasant memories for me, and reading this part might explain why I’ve been so anxious and angry these last few weeks. Partially, at least – I have good reasons in my real life, too.

The book reaches a crisis at the end of the fifth section, and it seems like Kundera is about as sick of this kid as I was, because there’s this violent wresting of the narrative at the beginning of part six.

Just as your life is determined by the kind of profession and marriage you have chosen, so our novel is limited by our observatory perspective: Jaromil and his mother are in full view, while we glimpse other figures only when they appear in the presence of these two protagonists. We have chosen this approach as you have chosen your fate, and our choice is equally unalterable.

Still, every person regrets that he cannot live other lives. You, too, would like to live out all your unrealized potentials, all your possible lives. (Alas, unattainable Xavier!) Our book is like you. It, too, yearns to be all the other novels it could have been.

That is why we are constantly dreaming about erecting other observatories. How about putting one in the middle of the artist’s life, or perhaps in the life of the janitor’s son or that of the redheaded girl? After all, what do we really know about these people? We hardly know more than does foolish Jaromil, and he knows precious little about anyone. What kind of novel would it be if we followed the career of the janitor’s son, and Jaromil would appear only once or twice in the course of brief episodes about a poet and former schoolmate? Or we could follow the artist’s story and learn at last what he really thought of his beloved Maman, whose belly he had used like a piece of canvas.

And I breathed a huge sigh of relief. It was so great to get away from Jaromil for a while, even if only for twenty pages. There’s a middle-aged man, widower, who likes to have a sex life but doesn’t like to get attached, so he sees a girl only once in a while, and he has several girls. One of them is Jaromil’s girl, and they discuss him briefly, but this section is a few years after Jaromil’s death, so he’s seen at a great distance, as one who ruined the girl’s life but now has no more power to hurt her.

But who is this unattainable Xavier? Jaromil dreamt of becoming this guy, young and smart and strong and sexy, like a younger Czech James Bond-Indiana Jones hybrid, but there’s more than that. Xavier only exists in dreams – things get tough, he falls asleep and is instantly in another, equally real reality. He works through problems from one reality in the next, possibly nesting several dreams like in Inception (oh, how I love this film), and ultimately wakes back up to solve his problems and escape, even if only as a dream hiding in dreams. Xavier is Jaromil’s ideal self. But much as the poet dreams of freedom, he is continually caged in by his mother’s vampiric love. This is a trope I see in media a lot, and I suppose is relevant to my own life as well, the mother that wants her children to be strong, brave, confident, and successful, but constantly shelters them from experiences that will allow them to develop strength, bravery, self-confidence, and the other qualities that lead to success. Yes, it’s important for parents to show love to their children, but it’s also important for parents to know when their children can handle things on their own, and to sit back and let them do it. I have a lot of animosity built up toward The Ex, but I admit freely that she is an excellent mother, and I see my children growing up as intelligent, confident, capable boys. I know that living with her is the best choice for them. Perhaps not for always, and I keep hoping that I will be geographically close enough to have an emotionally close relationship with them, but for now they are having their best possible life, and I wouldn’t take that from them.

Today is Mothers’ Day in the United States, and while I have some animosity built up toward my mother as well, it’s the day that I pretend that doesn’t exist and call her. Sometimes she feels abandoned, which Jane Austen would call “the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning”; my mom was emotionally unavailable during my childhood because she was coping with the divorce and her own anger issues, and the work of repressing all that kept me at a distance. In my roving life I often regret the type of relationship we have, and I wish I could be closer to my biological family, but the bottom line is that I don’t miss them, the actual people that they are, very much. There’s a big family thing this summer that I’ve been planning to go to, but these days I’m thinking of skipping it. I miss my kids, and I’d rather put my time, energy, and money into seeing them rather than into seeing people that I’m really angry about.

Art and revolution. Poetry seems to have been at the forefront of the Communist Revolution, at least in Czechoslovakia. The arts were bent toward propaganda, which leads the artists in the book to ask the question, How do I adequately express myself? In modern abstract experimental forms, or in the more mimetic forms that will appeal to the uneducated masses? With the Party taking a strong interest in the arts, the question also becomes, How do I adequately express myself without getting arrested? A lot of artists and thinkers seem to have been sent to do manual labor on farms (I’m thinking forward to the guy in Slowness, as well as back to the teacher from The Joke), and while there is value in that sort of life, it’s not the life that they chose for themselves. So, it’s either follow the unstated, unacknowledged rules of the establishment, or be forced to give up art altogether. It’s a dangerous gamble/game.

This was a hard book for me. I’ve got my own issues with mothers, though, and with governments, and this troubled relationship with the idea of being a writer and whether or not that makes me an artist, so it may not be for you. Happy Mothers’ Day.

In the spring of 2003, I decided that it was ridiculous that I had never read anything by Jane Austen, and that it was about time I did. I read all six novels in about six months. Mansfield Park seemed to be the long, boring one (Emma is actually longer). A year later, though, I was a newlywed and had just moved across the country to start our new life together in Seattle, and I started to miss Mansfield Park. I realized that, while the book itself may not be the most attractive, it captivates me in a way that Pride and Prejudice just can’t. I spent most of the two years of my graduate study reading and writing about Mansfield Park – when I didn’t include it in a project, that project ended up a failure. I bowed to necessity and started nearly every academic thought with Mansfield Park. I’ve not subjected any of my students to it, but it is still frequently close to the surface of thought. With the possible exception of As I Lay Dying, it’s the book that I’ve read the greatest number of times.

My major professor once said that she had a hard time being friends with people who didn’t love Mansfield Park like she did; that may sound a little excessive, but I completely understand. Partway through the grad program, the ex declared that she hated the book (always had) and was tired of me going on about it. She resisted all of my attempts to inject a little Mansfield Park into her life. When you identify as strongly with a book as I did with Mansfield Park, hating the book feels like hating me. It certainly implies that she hates the parts of me that I see reflected there. As I read it this week, I realized that the parts of me that are reflected most clearly in the book are parts of me that I’m less fond of, so maybe I’m putting some distance between myself and it. I am fully cognizant of the irony that the longer we’re divorced, the more I become the kind of person she claimed to want me to be.

In many ways, Mansfield Park is Pride and Prejudice’s evil twin. That immortal opening line,

A single man in possession of a large fortune must be in want of a wife.

is matched with a line from MP’s opening paragraph,

But there certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world, as there are pretty women to deserve them.

I read an article once that said that after Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, the next Austen novel should have been Delicacy and Decorum, and while those are important concepts, I think a more apt alliterative title would have been Diffidence and Disappointment. I also read once that P&P is concerned primarily with happiness; I think that MP is more interested in disappointment. In most of Austen’s novels, two people fall in love with each other over the course of the book, and it ends with their marriage. In MP, we see our couples form, but the novel works at splitting them up instead of getting them together. The supposed hero doesn’t fall for the heroine until three pages from the end – he spends the entire book in love with the wrong girl, though frankly, I think she would have been good for him in a way that the supposed heroine will not be. There’s no balance of equals, as in the relationship between Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet; Edmund has been a male authority figure for Fanny since they were kids, and now he will continue to be so for the rest of their lives. It’s like seeing a love affair between Mr Collins and Mary Bennet. In fact, most of the characters in P&P have clear parallels in MP. There’s a bit about Austen’s character patterns in Gilbert and Gubar’s Madwoman in the Attic.

The protagonist here is Fanny Price, one of the more suggestive of Austen’s names. Fanny was already used colloquially to refer to female genitals (I suppress a giggle at every mention of ‘your own dear Fanny’ or ‘My very dear Fanny’), and surnaming her Price suggests that she exacts a heavy toll before that part of her body can be enjoyed. Which is true. Fanny is the youngest of Austen’s protagonists, and being as serious as she is when a person is as young as she is means that she’s generally harsh and judgmental. However, she’s been trained to have extremely low self-esteem, so she usually keeps her thoughts to herself. That might make the book unreadable, if we heard her thoughts more often. In Austen’s other novels, we spend almost all of our time looking at the narrative from one perspective (Elinor, Elizabeth, Emma, Anne, Catherine), but MP balances perspectives and judgment.

For a long time I’ve identified strongly with Fanny Price. Partially because of the childhood stuff, large family, oversensitive child,

Her feelings were very acute, and too little understood to be properly attended to. Nobody meant to be unkind, but nobody put themselves out of their way to secure her comfort.

That’s my family experience exactly, but it takes a lot of mature, rational thought to arrive at this explanation of it. When you’re the kid in the middle of it, you just feel alone and unloved, no matter how many people are around or how little privacy you have. Fanny’s also very imaginative, as in this scene where she’s watching Edmund give Mary a riding lesson, but from a great distance:

After a few minutes, they stopt entirely. Edmund was close to her, he was speaking to her, he was evidently directing her management of the bridle, he had hold of her hand; she saw it, or the imagination supplied what the eye could not reach.

Fanny’s imagining this as more intimate than it may have been. I don’t think her imagination gets as much exercise as it needs, since she doesn’t read fiction, just nonfiction and poetry. This is one of those indicators of character – at the time of writing, fiction was still thought to be a little naughty, which is why the writers of it tried to make it so . . . safe. Though Austen’s most religious protagonist is in the book with the worst behavior, so maybe they weren’t trying that hard.

Fanny is not the paragon of virtue some people read her as. This passage sounds a little like the demonic puppetmaster bit in Villette:

Fanny looked on and listened, not unamused to observe the selfishness which, more or less disguised, seemed to govern them all, and wondering how it would end. For her own gratification she could have wished that something might be acted, for she had never seen even half a play, but every thing of higher consequence was against it.

There’s so much of Fanny Price in Lucy Snowe that it’s hard to believe that Brontë never read Mansfield Park, but there’s no definite proof that she did or did not, so we can speculate all we like. Fanny looks on while her cousins and their friends behave like idiots, pretending to be putting on a play while really working out their own desires and relationships. Fanny herself will pretend to be disgusted by what’s going on, higher consequence and all that, but she loves it. She does half the backstage work, hardly the behavior of someone who doesn’t approve of the theatre in general.

I like the theatre part because I used to do a bit of that myself, in high school and college. I get minor roles, usually as someone’s dad. I miss it sometimes. I don’t think I’m that good, but at the same time I don’t want to put the time into a production if I’m going to be an extra. I prefer musicals, but the local ones they do over the summers are directed by someone I worked with in undergrad, and time with him is something else I don’t want in my life. I just don’t hate myself that much.

Fanny also loses her halo because she gets fucking pissed. When Edmund spends months trying to decide how much he cares for Mary and how much she cares for him, Fanny loses her temper (when she’s alone):

“There is no good in this delay,” said she. “Why is not it settled? – He is blinded, and nothing will open his eyes, nothing can, after having had truths before him so long in vain. – He will marry her, and be poor and miserable. God grant that her influence do not make him cease to be respectable!” – She looked over the letter again. “ ‘So very fond of me!’ ‘tis nonsense all. She loves nobody but herself and her brother. Her friends leading her astray for years! She is quite as likely to have led them astray. They have all, perhaps, been corrupting one another; but if they are so much fonder of her than she is of them, she is the less likely to have been hurt, except by their flattery. ‘The only woman in the world, whom he could ever think of as a wife.’ I firmly believe it. It is an attachment to govern his whole life. Accepted or refused, his heart is wedded to her for ever. ‘The loss of Mary, I must consider as comprehending the loss of Crawford and Fanny.’ Edmund, you do not know me. The families would never be connected, if you did not connect them! Oh! write, write. Finish it at once. Let there be an end of this suspense. Fix, commit, condemn yourself.”

Hell hath no fury like that of a quiet woman ignored. Her despair is so unchristian that she judges everyone around her harshly; Mary is not so bad as Fanny imagines her to be, nor is Henry Crawford. Fanny just hates Mary because Edmund is in love with her. Of the people at Mansfield, Mary Crawford is actually the person most careful of Fanny’s feelings, the one who takes her for granted the least. Some people do a queer reading of this friendship, and there’s some evidence for that. People in Austen novels are frequently interchangeable, but usually there’s a slot for a woman and a slot for a man. Fanny and Edmund tend to slip in and out of the same slot in Mary’s life, possibly her heart. When Fanny’s listening to the harp, she tries to leave, but Mary calls her back to hear Edmund’s favorite piece, thus demanding a repetition of a romantic experience with Fanny in Edmund’s place. In some ways, Fanny and Mary have much more of a relationship than Emma Woodhouse and Harriet Smith, though some critics try to make a big deal out of Emma’s need to elevate Harriet to an equal status and then control her behavior (that doesn’t sound like a relationship to me).

But Fanny doesn’t see it, because she’s not very self-aware. She starts falling for Henry Crawford while still assuming that she hates him. Here, when she’s denying his marriage proposal:

Fanny knew her own meaning, but was no judge of her own manner. Her manner was incurably gentle, and she was not aware how much it concealed the sternness of her purpose. Her diffidence, gratitude, and softness, made every expression of indifference seem almost an effort of self-denial; seem at least, to be giving nearly as much pain to herself as to him.

And I think she might be. She knows all the reasons for and against him, and the narrator frequently reminds us that if it weren’t for her obsession with Edmund, she could have been happy with Henry. And even with that obsession, his visit to her in Portsmouth reveals how much she wants him to think well of her. But she doesn’t realize how high her opinion of him is; she never thinks through her changing feelings for him. She gets a bad first impression of him and then consciously fights against changing it.

Mrs Norris sums her up in a moment of anger, and I think this is a more accurate description of Fanny than most people give:

If she would but have let us know she was going out – but there is a something about Fanny, I have often observed it before, – she likes to go her own way to work; she does not like to be dictated to; she takes her own independent walk whenever she can; she certainly has a little spirit of secrecy, and independence, and nonsense, about her, which I would advise her to get the better of.

Sir Thomas thinks this is unjust, but the narrator refrains from comment, because Mrs Norris is right. Fanny makes her own opinions and sticks with them. She may be outwardly submissive, but internally she’s a raging ball of hormones and teenage lovesickness, and she doesn’t tell anyone about it. The matter of Henry makes it pretty clear; she refuses to tell anyone why she won’t marry him. Edmund guesses, but he’s lost a lot of his influence with her by falling in love with Mary, so she won’t talk it over with him. Fanny is so used to being discounted that she won’t stick up for herself, with the result that she seems mysterious to strangers, and is rather secretive even with people she knows well.

I have a similar tendency – I get a feel for who people want me to be in a given situation, and I try to be that person. I do this so unconsciously that I don’t notice it, and I value my time alone because only then do I stop performing. I keep my thoughts and opinions to myself, unless I’m with someone I’m really comfortable with. [This is in real life; online, I’ll write about anything and be super opinionated. I’ll only talk out loud like this when I’m drunk or with close friends.]

I don’t like Edmund Bertram enough to identify with him; I can barely even call him the hero of the piece. I think Henry Crawford deserves that title. Compare him to Mr Darcy: their social habits are the opposite of the female protagonists’, so there’s some initial friction. Over the course of the novel, the man falls in love and tries to attract the woman with his old habits and proposes marriage, which she refuses. But he persists, and eventually wins her heart. Outwardly, I’m more like Mr Darcy, shy and withdrawn. But inwardly, I’m a bit more like Henry Crawford. I have that same unsettled, indolently restless nature. He’s interested in everything; sometimes he wishes he had been an actor, sometimes he wishes he had been a sailor, and sometimes he wishes he had been a preacher. He eventually decides that being rich and lazy is enough. I became a literature major because it really does give you the space to study everything, history, psychology, science, philosophy, education – whatever is part of human experience is in literature somewhere. Henry also needs everyone to love him, and that’s one of the qualities I’m trying to let go of (along with some Fanny Price-ish masochism and low self-esteem).

Austen almost never gives details of people’s physical appearance, allowing us to settle for ourselves how tall is tall and what a ‘fine figure’ involves, but then there’s this bit about Henry:

“I do not say he is not gentleman-like, considering; but you should tell your father he is not above five feet eight, or he will be expecting a well-looking man.”

I’m only three-quarters of an inch above five feet eight myself, which puts me at average height. In Brazil and the American South, I’m actually considered a little tall, certainly not too short to be handsome. [Unless it was the ex, and she was mad at me. She knew she was angry when she started thinking about how short I am.] However, in the Midwest I’m so small that someone tripped over me. They grow ‘em big in Iowa. Henry and I are also alike in the more substantial question of steadiness of character. He knows what’s right, but doesn’t have the consistency necessary to do it all the time. This is another of those traits that I don’t approve of when I see it in myself, but I do see it whenever I have something unpleasant to accomplish, or a large change to make. I keep putting things off until it’s too late. You can see the precise moment when Henry loses power over Fanny:

I have a great mind to go back into Norfolk directly, and put every thing at once on such a footing as cannot be afterwards swerved from. – Maddison is a clever fellow; I do not wish to displace him – provided he does not try to displace me; – but it would be simple to be duped by a man who has no right of creditor to dupe me – and worse than simple to let him give me a hard-hearted, griping fellow for a tenant, instead of an honest man, to whom I have given half a promise already. – Would not it be worse than simple? Shall I go? – Do you advise it?

He’s started to make good choices, using his responsibility wisely, but then he stops and asks for her approval. This kind of wavering is what she can’t tolerate in him. He’s figured out the right course, but he just can’t stick with it without her cheering him on. Which, of course, leads to the novel’s final disaster and Fanny’s marriage to Edmund.

A quick word on style: Mansfield Park tends to have long complex sentences, which is partially why people have a harder time loving it than some of Austen’s other novels, but it makes the short sentences more effective. I mean, this one practically pops out at us:

William and Fanny were horror-struck at the idea.

And, of course, I’ve seldom seen an author who cares about her characters so much as Jane Austen. Which is why MP is so odd; people keep getting banished from the narrative, and ultimately some are utterly excluded from the community. This never happens – people like John Thorpe have a place in Austen’s communities, but here someone finally commits an unforgiveable sin. Not that the author goes on about it.

Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore every body, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.

Which is one of my favorite passages in all of Austen’s work. It speaks of the playful optimism that you find in all of the other novels. It’s in Mary Crawford, our antagonist, instead of Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse. The character most similar to Austen’s other heroines loses the man she wants and ends up spending most of her time with people she calls friends but doesn’t actually care for much. And I think this is why the ex hates it so much. She likes being irreverent and saucy; she’s rather similar to Elizabeth Bennet or Marianne Dashwood, so of course she dislikes a book where she’s the villain. Well, not quite the villain, but certainly less sympathetic. Because we tend to read the book through Fanny’s eyes, it’s easy to think poorly of Mary, but I don’t think Austen does. As mentioned above, Austen’s narrator has a different opinion of her than Fanny does. The conflict between narrator and protagonist can make this frustrating for an uncareful reader, but fruitful and exciting for the literary academic.

I’d like to think that I’m outgrowing my resemblance to Fanny Price and Henry Crawford. I saw them more objectively this read than I have before, though, like them, I probably need someone else to help me gauge that. All this time alone in the desert has helped me work out who I want to be, and who I don’t want to be any more. It’s time to get back to life, to be around people again and see if I can keep being myself when I’m with others, particularly others I wish to think well of me.