Posts Tagged ‘independence’

The people marketing this book claim that it completes a trilogy begun by The Rainbow and Women in Love, which is of course complete bollocks. The previous two are joined by having the same major characters, and there isn’t even a hint of Brangwens in this book. If we’re talking about theme instead of character, well, doesn’t Lawrence work through issues of love, marriage, sex, and freedom in all his novels? If it were theme, what would separate these three from the rest of the oeuvre?

Aaron is a Midlands coalminer, and on the surface things seem all right – wife, children, tradition, etc. But at Christmas his daughter breaks a glass ball that he had been putting on trees since he was a kid, and without this symbol of unbroken tradition he goes completely off the rails. He runs out to buy candles for the tree and maybe have a pint, but he ends up sleeping with one of the gentry instead of going home that night. From there, he goes deeper and deeper into the Bohemian world, first to London and then to Italy, because there’s a certain inevitable attraction between Lawrence characters and Italy.

The title references the Biblical story of Aaron, Moses’s brother. Aaron used a staff to perform Moses’s magic tricks, including the one where the staff buds and grows flowers like a tree without being rooted in earth. Our Aaron has a flute, and while it’s not magical, it is often the source of Aaron’s power. His friend Lilly makes the comparison explicit and wonders what flowers will grow from the flute – the answer seems to be that with musical talent and a handsome face all sorts of doors are open to one, no matter what his background. His rootlessness begins with sleeping with a man (the first time?), and he has several other opportunities of the same type. This being Lawrence, there’s nothing graphic or explicit about same-sex lovers, but he creates the opportunity for it, and there are some men in his book that seem like gay couples, even though we didn’t talk about that sort of thing in 1922. Aaron has a major emotional crisis the first time he sleeps with a woman – he had had affairs before he left his wife, so I guess he only had to get away from her to sleep with men. It’s the going back and forth that he has a hard time with at first, like bisexuality is harder to swallow than being at either end of the Kinsey scale. By the time he gets to Italy, though, he’s past that. So yes, I suppose you could also argue that Aaron’s rod is his cock because this book is more about what he does with that than what he does with his flute, and we are revving up to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, published a few years later.

In his own powerful but subconscious fashion Aaron realised this. He was a musician. And hence even his deepest ideas were not word-ideas, his very thoughts were not composed of words and ideal concepts. They too, his thoughts and his ideas, were dark and invisible, as electric vibrations are invisible no matter how many words they may purport. If I, as a word-user, must translate his deep conscious vibrations into finite words, that is my own business. I do but make a translation of the man. He would speak in music. I speak with words.

The inaudible music of his conscious soul conveyed his meaning in him quite as clearly as I convey it in words: probably much more clearly. But in his own mode only: and it was in his own mode only he realised what I must put into words. These words are my own affair. His mind was music.

Don’t grumble at me then, gentle reader, and swear at me that this damned fellow wasn’t half clever enough to think all these smart things, and realise all these fine-drawn-out subtleties. You are quite right, he wasn’t, yet it all resolved itself in him as I say, and it is for you to prove that it didn’t.

I don’t recall Lawrence speaking quite so directly to the reader like this in his other books, but I might be wrong. As with his other novels, there’s a little bit of action and then a lot of analysis of that action, and a lot of dialogue about abstract concepts, which I suppose is Lawrence’s way of selecting his audience. A lot of the ideas center around Lilly, either because he’s giving them voice or because Aaron is trying to understand his friend’s influence over him. Aaron goes to Italy because he’s following Lilly, and he really loses his sense of peace when he’s too much away from him. It’s sort of like how I’m feeling for New Guy – he works six days a week, so we don’t see each other as often as we’d like. And I get lonely and sad when I don’t see him, as if my equilibrium is becoming dependent on him. This process kind of scares me; with the Midwestern Man, he was only attracted to me as long as I didn’t need him. Once my emotional wagon got firmly hitched to his star, he lost interest, and things only got really great again after I decided to leave him. New Guy doesn’t have the same issues, so maybe he’ll still love me if I rely on him, but it’s hard for me to trust that.

At first, Lilly’s talk about relationships focuses on independence. The ideal is two people who can stand on their own two feet, emotionally, economically, rationally, and in all other ways, but who choose to stand close together. I like the sound of it, it’s an image that appeals to me strongly — probably because I spent eight years being needed, but a lot of that time I didn’t feel wanted. I have no desire to get back into a relationship where I am undesired but necessary. Lawrence’s discussion of Aaron’s relationship with his wife feels uncannily familiar, where a marriage ends up being a struggle for one party to feel powerful and the other to feel loved. In the end, though, Lilly changes his mind and decides that it really is about power and submission – either you’re strong enough to bend the entire world to your will or you find someone you can submit to. This leads to the sort of elitism that I’m not fond of, the sort of thinking that creates Hitlers of us all, and it ends the book with the same sort of abruptness that Women in Love did – that one ends with Birkin realizing he believes in the possibility of romantic love between men, this one ends with Aaron realizing he is in deep submissive love with Lilly, both of them steps too far to pursue at that time. It’s like the book has to end when it gets to the point that society won’t accept, even though that point has been the goal the entire time.

I have a friend who’s working through similar ideas of bisexuality and polyamory in her life. She’s currently got a boyfriend and a girlfriend, and they all know about each other and accept the situation as it is. In talking about it, it seems that she needs to be both dominant and submissive – she’s a forceful person, so she needs someone she can order around and control, but she also needs the experience of being with someone who awes her, who can take command of the situation and make her obey. It’s a little more sadomasochistic than I want in my relationships, but I think about my experience on both sides of the sexual fence, and I can understand it. Being a top makes me feel powerful, but also anxious about my performance. Being a bottom makes me feel loved, but also a little passive. I’m not balancing them both at the same time, though. I don’t need to use sex to make me feel like I’m in control of my own life, and I certainly don’t want to be with someone who will overwhelm me into subjection. A bedroom is one place where I want to be able to set aside issues of power and control and just relax with someone I love.

This is also a novel about coping with World War I. The war is over before the book begins, but everyone is still thinking about it, talking about it, seeing the immediate effects of it. The war may be part of the reason for Aaron to embark on this quest for identity. It’s like the war blew up the entire world, and people haven’t figured out how to put it back together. Aaron didn’t fight because the country still needed coal to operate during the war, but it still left him unmoored, like Darl or Shadrack. And eventually historical events break his flute, so the only thing he has in the end is this friend who will never commit to anything, the one person who refuses to let anyone rely on him. Ultimately we are all alone, which is why it’s so important to enjoy one’s own company. If alone is our natural state, we should learn to love it.

Maybe alone isn’t everyone’s natural state. Maybe not everyone’s nature is the same. Learning to love myself in solitude has been a hard lesson, though, and it’s something I don’t want to lose, no matter whom else I fall in love with, no matter how many times.

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.

 

I’ve mentioned before that I love du Maurier’s awareness of the literary tradition, which she shows by telling updated versions of stories from the past – for example, many critics have pointed out the similarities between Rebecca and Jane Eyre. This time she does it again, but the story she’s retelling is by Mark Twain, The Prince and the Pauper. While Twain used the story to ruminate on social class and equality, du Maurier uses the same vehicle to describe something completely different.

One had no right to play about with people’s lives. One should not interfere with their emotions. A word, a look, a smile, a frown, did something to another human being, waking response or aversion, and a web was woven which had no beginning and no end, spreading outward and inward too, merging, entangling, so that the struggle of one depended upon the struggle of the other.

Du Maurier’s novel is about personal responsibility, especially as it relates to family dynamics. The prince is the Comte Jean de Gué, who has recently failed to renew a contract and has thus ruined his family’s finances. The pauper is John, a historian from London who lectures at one of the universities. John spends all of his vacations in France, so his language ability is quite good. On one such vacation, he runs into Jean in Le Mans, and Jean drugs him and takes his place. John thus becomes a contemporary (1957) French aristocrat for a week. Until this point, John’s life has been mostly empty, without family, lovers, or close friends. When he is thrust into a family, with mother, sister, brother, wife, and daughter, it’s overwhelming for him. He spends the first half of the book trying to understand his place in this family, how they expect him to act, what actions of affection are considered normal in this family. As the first-person narrator, he tells us all about the changes in his personality, as he moves through shock and overconfidence to love. He makes all sorts of mistakes along the way – for a historian, he’s really slow about picking up on which girls Jean is sleeping with – but he comes through all right.

For me, there was a real shock and disappointment at the end. John is a little distant with the family and he makes some serious mistakes, but as Americans say, his heart is in the right place. He is figuring out what it means to love, and how to do it effectively. In the end, he finds a way to make each member of his new family happy, useful, and independent, or possibly interdependent. My shock was when the real comte returns, and he sees John as having dismantled his entire life. The comte is a cruel, power-addicted sadist – he likes his family to feel their dependence on him; he likes to feel them squirming under his thumb. John’s biggest blunder of all is assuming that Jean’s life is about love. To some extent, Jean has done the same thing to him: after living in John’s shoes for a week, he quits his job at the university, gives notice on his lonely apartment, and goes on permanent vacation. Everything is dismantled, but John’s life didn’t have people in it. There’s a strong implication that no one will miss him, or even much notice that he’s gone. But when I look at the life they’ve each lived in the de Gué family, I have very firm opinions on whose life is worthwhile and whose isn’t. John may not have attracted people to him, but when they are there, he does his best to treat everyone with love and respect. Jean is connected to many people in a tight web of mutual responsibility, but he has no interest in that responsibility. Everyone else has to dance to his tune, while he insists on playing whatever tune he likes.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, because I know what the title means, and John uses this word to describe himself. It’s commonly understood that the scapegoat is made to carry guilt that isn’t his, but consider the Jewish ritual. The animal is healthy and whole, and the priest heaps all the sins of the people on his head. These are the intentional sins, the unintentional ones having been atoned for by killing a bull. Then they beat the goat and chase it out of the community. If John is the scapegoat, it is essential that he be expelled. No matter how much he loves and is loved, no matter how better fitted he is for the position than Jean, he cannot stay. Cynics will find this ending more realistic than the one I was hoping for, but optimists will be as upset as I was.

I was quick to assign one character to the role of prince and the other to pauper, but the actual financial situation seems to indicate the reverse. Jean has an uncertain income based on a failing glassworks while most of the family fortune is entailed on an as-yet hypothetical male heir (I’m guessing the estate doesn’t bring in anything, or not enough to speak of); John has a steady job, and even if he is unemployed at the end, his habits of saving and living quietly mean that he is in no hurry to find work. Jean accuses him of loving the luxury of his house, but John doesn’t notice it. I think this could be indicative of the aristocracy in general after World War II – old family fortunes on the wane, being replaced by the middle class who works for their money and husbands it well.

The historical moment is very important in this story. During World War II, we know that France was occupied by Germany, but despite having read other books set in this time (I’m thinking specifically of Five Quarters of the Orange), I hadn’t much considered the conflict between the Resistance and the others, largely seen as collaborators or appeasers. Twelve years after the end of the war, these divisions are still significant, and John’s drunken jokes about shooting people at the big annual hunt are a little too on target. In the United States we talk about polarization, and people’s political opinions are becoming more vehement (or I’m becoming more aware of the vehemence they’ve always had), but few people are being killed because of them. After the election the university campus was covered with the hashtag gayandscared, but I never really was. I rely strongly on people’s combination of kindness to strangers and apathy on political matters in daily life. This part of France at this time in history doesn’t have that mix.

The thing that John understands that Jean doesn’t care about is the fact that we have a responsibility to ease the suffering of the people around us. In pursuit of relieving suffering, John causes some, but in the end he hits on a plan where each member of the family can live with the least possible amount of pain. I realize that reducing life to an analysis of quantifiable suffering is a very utilitarian Buddhist thing to do, but in the context of this book it makes sense. The principal difference between John and Jean is their approach to other people’s pain, whether they seek to increase or relieve it. When I think about my own family behavior, I know that I’m often careless of other people’s pain, but at least I don’t try to increase it.

My big struggle right now is figuring out how to explain to him that I’m moving to North Carolina in a way that will cause the least pain. I realize that enough time has passed since I made the decision that that ship has probably already sailed, but still. I don’t like to see him suffering, and he’s doing a lot of that right now on issues that are unrelated to me. I feel bad about taking his last support from him, but I also have my own suffering to attend to, and I know that in the long run, he won’t be happy if I keep increasing my unhappiness. And the longer I stay away from my kids and the place I think of as home, the greater my suffering becomes.

So, fellow du Maurier fans, I’d say that this is a good one. I don’t always connect well with her stories, but this one I really did. The last twenty pages or so are hard, but the rest is fantastic.

 

Well. It has been quite a while since I’ve written something personal here, but sometimes I read long books, and sometimes I read very long books, and I was in the mood for Chaucer, and nothing says springtime like eight hundred pages of Middle English poetry.

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veine in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour,
Whan that Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tender croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the night with open eye –
So priketh hem nature in hir corages –
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kouthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelonde to Caunterbury they wende,
The holy blissful martyr for to seke
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

See? Nothing. This seems to be one of the earliest accounts of the Spring Break road trip, an urge that I still feel even though I’m in my mid-thirties.

One of the strange mental habits I have is to think of Decent People; generally, in contrast to myself. “It’s so nice driving on the interstates after midnight. There’s so little traffic. Yeah, all the Decent People are home in bed.” “It’s Friday night, and all the Decent People of the world are taking their families to Walmart. I guess I’ll go back home and watch Cary Grant and William Powell.” “You still haven’t changed the oil in the car yet? Decent People would have done that a thousand miles ago.” One of the interesting things about The Canterbury Tales is that it’s quite clear who the Decent People are, and one of the interesting things about the way we study The Canterbury Tales is that we more seldom teach the stories told by Decent People. I guess all of us who study literature professionally feel a bit indecent. It’s a good feeling.

In Chaucer, whether people work for The Church or not has little to do with whether they are Decent or not. Behold, my favorite image from the book:

“And now hath Sathanas”, seyth he, “a tail
Brodder than of a carrik is the sail.
Hold up thy tail, thow Sathanas!” quod he,
“Shewe forth thin ers, and lat the frere se
Where is the nest of freres in this place.”
And er that half a furlong wey of space,
Right so as bees out swarmen from an hive,
Out of the develes ers ther gonne drive
Twenty thousand freres on a route,
And thurghout helle swarmeden aboute,
And comen again as faste as they may gon
And in his ers they crepten everychon;
He clapte his tail again and lay ful stille.

I can’t say as I’m completely certain why I love the image of twenty thousand friars spewing out of Satan’s ass, swarming all over hell in their tonsures and long rough robes; I’m sure Freud would enjoy explaining that about me. As I enjoy analyzing The Host: He’s always complaining about his wife, and then he goes and flirts with clergymen:

But, by my trouthe, if thou were seculer,
Thou woldest ben a tredefoul aright;
For if thou have corage as thou hast might,
The were nede of hennes, as I wene,
Ya, mo than seven times seventeen!
Se, whiche braunes hath this gentil preest,
So gret a nekke, and swich a large breest!

I guess the Prioress has good taste in priests. The Nun’s Priest’s mock-epic beast fable is one of the more entertaining, a bit like Aesop meets Alexander Pope and foreshadows Henry Fielding. The Host also has this to say about the Monk:

I pray to God yeve him confusioun
That first thee broghte unto religioun!
Thou woldest han been a tredefoul aright;
Haddestow as greet a leve as thow hast might
To parfourne al thy lust in engendrure,
Thow haddest bigeten many a creature.
Allas, why werestow so wid a cope?
God yeve me sorwe but, and I were a pope,
Nat oonly thow, but every mighty man,
Thogh he were shore ful hye upon his pan,
Sholde have a wif, for al the world is lorn!
Religioun hath take up al the corn
Of treding, and we borel men been shrimpes.
Of feble trees ther comen wrecched impes;
This maketh that oure heires beth so sklendre
And feble that they may nat wel engender.
This maketh that oure wives wol assaye
Religious folk, for ye mowe bettre paye
Of Venus paiementz than may we.

In our time, all the hot guys don’t become priests; but then, most churches don’t require celibacy of their priests any more. But really, there’s got to be some other problem with the time if all the wives are out offering themselves to men of the cloth. Judging by the less Decent Tales, The Host is not the only one to notice that women have an eye for a man in a cassock. They don’t always return it; The Monk’s Tale is a catalog of the Fall of Great Men, frequently (but not all) because of the women in their lives – Samson, Holofernes, Solomon, and many others.

In general, the less Decent stories are about sex, or at least the battle between the sexes. Perhaps that’s why we love them so – gender roles haven’t really changed that much in seven hundred years. We still want to figure out how to make people love us back. The Wife of Bath has it that men should submit to their wives, and The Clerk implies that women should submit to their abusive husbands, but I think the truth is this:

Love wol nat be constrained by maistrye;
Whan maistrye comth, the God of Love anon
Beteth hise winges, and farwel, he is gon!
Love is a thing as any spirit free.
Wommen of kinde, desiren libertee,
And nat to been constrained as a thral,
And so doon men, if I sooth seyen shal.

The trick is to find someone that you love too much to control, and who loves you the same way. We want to feel free, and loved as we are. I’ve yet to find that person, but I’m still hoping. The hope is a bit foolish since I don’t like to go out and meet people, but only a bit because I still end up meeting quite a lot of people, just not gay men that I’m attracted to.

The Wife of Bath rationalizes the existence of us Indecent People:

For wel ye knowe, a lord in his household
Ne hath nat every vessel al of gold.
Somme been of tree, and doon hir lord servise,
God clepeth folk to him in sondry wise,
And everich hath of God a propre yifte,
Som this, som that, as him liketh shifte.

And there are some pleasures imagined by Decent People, like The Knight:

ne how the Grekes pleye
The wake-pleyes, ne kepe I noght to seye –
Who wrastleth best, naked with oille enoint,
Ne who that baar him best, in no disjoint;

Seriously? If my wake is going to have nude wrestling, I’ll hop out of the casket to watch.

When it comes to Decency, no one on this trip is as Decent as The Parson. He concludes the book with ninety pages of prose, mostly about the Seven Deadly Sins, how to avoid them, and how to repent of them. He likes lists, especially numbered lists, and if those lists can be long, even better. Like this list of little-recognized sins:

Now sith man understondeth generally which is venial sinne, thane is it convenable to tellen specially of sinnes whiche that many a man, peradventure, ne demeth hem nat sinnes, and ne shriveth him nat of the same thinges, and yet natheless they been sinnes soothly, as thise clerkes writen. This is to seyn, that at every time that man eteth or drinketh moore than suffiseth to the sustenaunce of his body, in certein he dooth sinne. And eek whan he speketh moore than nedeth, it is sinne; eek whan he herkneth nat benignly the compleinte of the povere; eek whan he is in heele of body, and wol nat faste whan oother folk fasten, withouten cause reasonable; eek whan he slepeth moore than nedeth; or whan he comth by thilke encheson to late to chirche, or to othere werkes of charite; eek whan he useth his wif withoute soverein desir of engendrure, to the honour of God, or for the entente to yelde to his wif the dette of his body; eek whan he wol nat visite the sike and the prisoner, if he may; eek if he love wif, or child, or oother worldly thing, moore than reson requireth; eek if he flatere or blandise moore than him oghte for any necessitee; eke if he amenuse or withdrawe the almesse of the povre; eke if he apparaileth his mete moore deliciously than nede is, or ete to hastily by likerousnesse; eek if he tale vanitees at chirche, or at Goddes service, or that he be a talkere of idel wordes of folye or of vileinye, for he shal yelde acounte of it at the day of dome; eek whan he biheteth or assureth to do thinges that he may nat parfourne; eek whan that he by lightnesse or folye misseyeth or scorneth his neighebore; eek whan that he hath any wikked suspecioun of thing ther he ne woot of it no soothfastnesse. Thise thinges, and mo withoute nombre, ben sinnes, as seyth Seint Augustin.

Wow. I personally have done a lot of these things, and yet I don’t feel bad about them. I mean, loving your children more than is reasonable? Check. Enjoying good food, a little better than is strictly necessary to choking it down? Check. Showing up at church late? Check. Having sex without considering conception? Check. Forgetting to skip meals when other people are? Check. I’m the sort of person who tells jokes and laughs during funeral services, so I guess that counts as speaking unnecessarily. This enormous weight of sin that The Parson dumps on us all seems excessive to me, and a bit ignorant.

Of leccherye, as I seide, sourden diverse speces, as fornicacioun, that is bitwixe man and woman that ben nat maried; and this is deedly sinne and agains nature. Al that is enemy and destruccioun to nature is agains nature.

Has he seen nature? How many species are monogamous? For that matter, how many species of mammals are strictly heterosexual? It seems to me that religious laws are themselves against nature. If working against nature is a deadly sin, then Christianity has a lot of repenting to do –

But war thee wel that swiche manere penaunces on thy flessh ne make thee nat bitter or angry or annoyed of thyself, for bettre is to caste awey thin heire than for to caste awey the swetenesse of Jesu Crist.

– not in chain mail on bare skin or hairshirts, because that sort of mortification of the flesh defeats the purpose. We have life so that we can enjoy it; whether that’s the sweetness of Jesus Christ or the sweetness of the love that The Parson can’t even name, we must find the goodness in life and taste it often. So much of what The Parson teaches seems to work against finding any joy in life at all, but even he admits that hating the life you live is a bad thing. And lest you think he’s a big old hypocrite, Chaucer says in the General Prologue that this Parson is the real deal. He contrasts him with the bulk of the clergy:

And shame it is, if a preest take keep,
A shiten shepherde and a clene sheep.

Another phrase that I love.

It’s true that Chaucer didn’t finish his project, four stories for each of thirty travelers (and when the Canon’s Yeoman rides up he makes thirty-one), but I think he gives us a fairly good picture of what life is like in fourteenth-century England. There’s a lot of bigotry, a lot of hypocrisy, a lot of sex, a lot of love, a lot of hope and despair. It’s like seeing the entire world, or at least the world as they knew it.

I don’t believe the world or the flesh is here to be overcome, as the old Christian Fathers would have it; the world is here to be loved. We have life so that we can be happy in it. For some people, that means a life of perpetual decency; for others, it’s a little more free. We have to be reconciled to ourselves, we have to love ourselves, we have to find peace with who we are, we have to get in touch with our personal nature (which no one else can define) and live it completely. The Parson finds it one way, The Wife of Bath another. They’re different, nearly binary opposites, but the end result is the same. They each are who they are without shame or self-reproach. And if that is something I gain from spending the month of April with eight hundred pages of Middle English, the time will have been well spent.

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.

The concept here seems pretty simple. Ransom Riggs went searching for a bunch of old-timey novelty photographs and made a story out of them. Lest you think the pictures themselves are made up, cracked.com is fairly obsessed with old-timey novelty photographs, and we all know that they are the best source for historical fact. Despite its somewhat gimmicky nature, the story is pretty solid, and Riggs’ descriptions are vivid enough that his book would be interesting without the pictures.

Our protagonist is a sixteen-year-old boy. That doesn’t necessarily make it a teen novel, but the simple vocabulary and sentence structure, the absent parents, the discovery that he has magical powers, and the coming-of-age that involves abandoning his family and former life for a group of friends he just met, do. Ditto the narration that lacks any sort of commentary longer than a single sentence, and the way that the story sidles up close to emotional moments and then runs off to hide in the corner when we get too close. I’m making it sound worse than it is; I don’t mean to. I’ll read the sequel.

So. Jacob Portman is an unpopular kid (Teen Novel Requirement #7) with exactly one friend, a six-foot-five redneck with green hair who disappears fairly early, which is too bad. I thought Ricky had some interesting potential. Jacob grew up listening to his grandfather tell these crazy stories about growing up in an orphanage for circus freaks in Wales and saving the world from monsters. One day his grandfather dies horribly, and Jacob sees the monster who does it. He spends quite some time in therapy, then talks his parents into letting him go to Wales to see the orphanage. When he gets there, he finds the peculiar children, who are kind of like the X-Men, if they were all between six and fifteen years old, and if Professor X were a time-manipulating bird-woman keeping them trapped in a perpetual childhood. They’ve been living in a time-loop for seventy years, so that the bomb the Nazis dropped on their island wouldn’t kill them all. Well, the monsters show up, the Nazis show up, and eventually Jacob goes off to save 1940 from bog-wights and Nazis. Come on, it’s a first-person narrator, you knew he was going to survive, and that he was going to choose to stay where he was accepted instead of going back to twenty-first century Florida.

I pictured my cold cavernous house, my friendless town full of bad memories, the utterly unremarkable life that had been mapped out for me. It had never once occurred to me, I realized, to refuse it.

I grew up in a small town in the South, kind of like the one Jacob is from. When your childhood is unhappy, you don’t see the possibilities for happiness that life can offer. There’s an age when you know everything you need to know for your life, and there isn’t anything other than what you already know. I’m glad that I got out of that town and have discovered that the world is larger, scarier, and more wonderful than I had thought. I’m glad I was wrong, and I didn’t need a magical sideshow to convince me of it.

I slammed out of the Priest Hole and started walking, heading nowhere in particular. Sometimes you just need to go through a door.

I’ve also found this to be true. Sometimes I head blindly through doors simply because they happen to be open, and I need to get away from the current situation. It’s how things get better. I wouldn’t say my life is perfect, or that anyone should take it as a model, but it’s a damn sight better than it was.

Another requirement for the teen novel is the inexplicable crush. I didn’t get these as a teenager, so I think they’re overrepresented in teen novels, but I did get one just a few months ago, so maybe not. I do like the description of what the initial mutual attraction feels like:

I didn’t know what to call it, what was happening between us, but I liked it. It felt silly and fragile and good.

There’s one phrase that I’m really glad he didn’t use, ever: waiting for his life to start. I get frustrated over this phrase because it implies that we don’t live during our childhoods. Each of our lives began back before we can remember; all that stuff when we didn’t have control over our lives continues to inform our actions and attitudes forever.

I used to dream about escaping my ordinary life, but my life was never ordinary. I had simply failed to notice how extraordinary it was.

When I think about all the different things that happen to children and young adults, I’m amazed any of us reach thirty-five. Sometimes I need to be reminded, but my life is a miracle. I should have died of pneumonia back when I was a toddler. There are a few other times I thought I was going to die; there’s also my childhood paranoia that my older siblings were trying to kill me. Then there’s that annoying habit I had for a few years of falling asleep while driving. I once wandered into a Communist rally in a foreign country, and I’ve done things that would get me beheaded in this country if I were to confess them in the right places. Yes, life is scary. But it’s also wonderful. I’ve seen more beautiful places and people than a poor white boy from Down East has a right to expect. I’ve looked at the Sahara Desert from the air, where the patterns in the sand look like giant trees, and climbed mountains in Brazil to find the giant crosses that overlook the cities there. I’ve attended Mass at Notre Dame and seen the Pacific Ocean from a highway in Canada. If the world were as merciless as some people think, I would never have left rural North Carolina.

I had just come to accept that my life would be ordinary when extraordinary things began to happen. The first of these came as a terrible shock and, like anything that changes you forever, split my life into halves: Before and After.

This is a phenomenon I’ve often noticed and tried to explain to people. For Jacob, it was his grandfather dying. For me, the first was going to college for the first time. Then there was getting married. Then the birth of my first child. And the second. And the third. And then the separation from them. It always seems to me that everything in my life has been preparing me for whichever transcendent experience happens next. I’ve had enough of them that I fully expect to keep having them, these moments that alter the way I see myself and the world so profoundly that I feel ripped in half.

Someone once told me the story of reading The Lord of the Rings as a kid, when she had to wait between books. How nerve-wracking. I mean, think of the ending of The Two Towers. Sam, convinced that Frodo has been killed by the giant spider, takes the ring and the magical elven flashlight and sets off to throw the ring into the mountain alone. The movies make this moment easier by not ending there. Miss Peregrine ends on a similar journey-beginning moment, and the reviewers on Amazon say that the second one does too. If you’re into that, could be a good thing. I think it’s only good if the author keeps writing stories in the series (cough cough — Fathom’s Five — cough cough), and ends on an ending note when he loses interest/inspiration/momentum. We’ll see how Ransom Riggs does in the future.

Oh, and it’s been turned into a graphic novel, if you’re not as fond of . . . words.

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.