Posts Tagged ‘perspective’

There are few American authors of her time who write about divorce as much as Edith Wharton. I guess she wrote about it so much because she had one; also, it was a major subject of debate in the conversations about women’s rights. So of course I’ve been thinking about mine. It was the most emotionally difficult part of my life, particularly with all of the people assuming I wouldn’t care. It’s a complicated thing, being a gay man who loves his wife, because love is even more complex than sexuality. One more reason for me to have run off to the Middle East.

The stories in this volume are arranged according to length rather than publishing date or theme or any other logical system. All were originally published between 1900 and 1914.

ETHAN FROME

Like me, Ethan Frome is a man who got married in a hurry and ran into trouble because of it. He got a little bit of education and dreamed of living in a city, but then his father got sick and he had to come take care of the family farm, and then after his father died his mother got sick too. His family arranged for a distant cousin Zenobia to come take care of his mother and the house. When you see a woman named Zenobia in a book written in the nineteenth century or the first couple of decades of the twentieth, she’s probably dangerous. It’s like how we don’t trust Victorian Lydias. Zeena cared for Ethan’s mother through her final illness, and then he had this weird emotional spasm where he couldn’t lose anyone else, so he married her.

Fast forward six or seven years. Zeena has become a hypochondriac invalid, and Ethan has realized that he’s never moving to a city while he’s stuck with her. Besides, at thirty-five she’s starting to age badly (rural Massachusetts winters are rough), and he’s still twenty-eight and in his youth and vigor. Zeena has taken on Mattie Silver, another distant cousin with no place to go. Mattie’s young and exciting, and draws Ethan into the life of the town because she enjoys being with people and he has to escort her. Ethan and Mattie are in love, but at a distance in the same house. When he feels affectionate, he shortens her name further to just Matt, so I derived a lot of enjoyment from picturing Matt as a man.

Zeena’s concocted a plot to get rid of Matt, even though she literally has no one to take her in. Her only hope is to get a job in a shop somewhere and earn her own living, which isn’t easy for a twenty-one-year-old girl in Massachusetts in the 18-somethings. Ethan goes through an intense time – he wants to run off with Matt and go live out West somewhere, but he doesn’t have the money to go anywhere. As with me, poverty keeps him from divorcing when and how he wants. He doesn’t have anything worth selling, in the middle of winter, not even his house or farm. No one would buy them.

As Ethan is taking Matt to the train station for the last time, they talk about how they never went sledding in town like they had wanted to (‘coasting’ in the vernacular of the time), so they stop for a bit of a sled. There’s a large elm tree that they have to dodge, but Ethan’s good at steering so they miss it. But what if they didn’t? They can get up to speed, charge straight into the tree, and dying together they would foil Zenobia’s plan and solve all their problems. But they don’t, die, they just get severely injured. Being forced into a sedentary life, Mattie becomes every bit as querulous as Zeena, and being forced to take care of someone again cures Zeena’s imaginary ailments. The three of them get along miserably for what seems the rest of their lives.

In many ways I am a lucky person, though I’ve been told that it has more to do with making good decisions than with luck. My decisions have worked out better than I deserve, I think. If I had to marry a woman, then The Ex was the right one; she wouldn’t put up with an Ethan Frome situation. I told her I was gay and she moved out. There was a short time that I wanted her back, but she held firm. She feels shame very acutely, and in her mind there’s less shame in divorcing a gay husband than in living with one. Of course, my being gay means that she had a good excuse, and that she can blame me into perpetuity without ever having to confront her own issues. I’m not saying that she will; I’m just saying that she still hates and distrusts me.

THE TOUCHSTONE

This was the most suspenseful of the stories, so I enjoyed it the most. Glennard is poor and in love, so he needs to find some way to get the money to marry. Years earlier, a famous novelist had fallen in love with him and wrote him some passionate letters from Paris; she died before the story begins, but he still has the letters. He sells them to a publisher to get the money to invest in a good company and make the money requisite to marry his great love.

But those letters were so very personal that his wife would see it as a violation of the soul to have made them public, so he has to try to keep the secret, even after the volume of letters becomes a bestseller. He goes full-on Raskolnikov about it.

The next morning he invented an excuse for leaving the house without seeing her, and when he returned, just before dinner, he found a visitor’s hat and stick in the hall. The visitor was Flamel, who was just taking his leave.

He had risen, but Alexa remained seated; and their attitude gave the impression of a colloquy that had prolonged itself beyond the limits of speech. Both turned a surprised eye on Glennard, and he had the sense of walking into a room grown suddenly empty, as though their thoughts were conspirators dispersed by his approach. He felt the clutch of his old fear. What if his wife had already sorted the papers and had told Flamel of her discovery? Well, it was no news to Flamel that Glennard was in receipt of a royalty on the Aubyn Letters.

A sudden resolve to know the worst made him lift his eyes to his wife as the door closed on Flamel. But Alexa had risen also, and bending over her writing-table, with her back to Glennard, was beginning to speak precipitately.

“I’m dining out tonight – you don’t mind my deserting you? Julia Armiger sent me word just now that she had an extra ticket for the last Ambrose concert. She told me to say how sorry she was that she hadn’t two, but I knew you wouldn’t be sorry!” She ended with a laugh that had the effect of being a strayed echo of Mrs Armiger’s; and before Glennard could speak she had added, with her hand on the door, “Mr Flamel stayed so late that I’ve hardly time to dress. The concert begins ridiculously early, and Julia dines at half-past seven.”

Glennard stood alone in the empty room that seemed somehow full of an ironical consciousness of what was happening. “She hates me,” he murmured. “She hates me . . .”

THE LAST ASSET

Mrs Newell is a resourceful sort of woman. She works her way up in society by dating rich men, having lost sight of her husband long ago. Now that she’s arranged a marriage between her daughter and a French count, she has to produce the husband to prove that she’s not divorced. She hires a reporter to find him, and he turns out to be one of those familiar strangers, people you talk to in a restaurant when you’re both the only Americans but never bother to learn their names. Notice I said ‘you’ – I wouldn’t strike up a conversation with a stranger in a restaurant, no matter how many times we ate breakfast in the same place, no matter how much his accent would remind me of home. No, the only place I enter into conversation with strangers is in an establishment dedicated to serving alcohol to homosexual men.

As with Ethan Frome, there’s a lot of sadness in this story, even though it’s about reunion.

XINGU

This one was just funny. There’s a snobby literary society up in New England somewhere, and they’ve invited a successful author to come join them. They want to impress her, but she’s not that interested in politics, design, or food, or any of the other subjects they bring up in order to awe her into confirming their sense of their own worth. Then, a member they’ve all been planning to vote out, suddenly asks her about Xingu, and everyone is convinced it’s a new philosophy that they haven’t heard of but are willing to pretend to know in order to put this author in her place. The author goes off with the savior of the group, and then everyone else looks it up – it’s a river in Brazil. She was speaking in double entendres the entire time, and they laugh and are embarrassed by their ignorance.

THE OTHER TWO

This one is frequently anthologized, so I’ve taught it a few times. It’s not as useful as “Roman Fever,” which I have more to say about so I wish academic publishers would use it instead. This story presents divorce not in its spiritual or political aspect but in its social – the awkwardness is more significant than the sin or the women’s rights. Mr Waythorn is Alice’s third husband; because of a child, he runs into the first, and because of his business he runs into the second. Divorce doesn’t necessarily remove the offending partner from one’s life completely, after all. He starts to get used to the ex-husbands, until eventually through one of those coincidental tricks of fate all three of them are in a room together, with her serving them tea.

What I find fascinating about this collection is the perspective Wharton chooses to tell the stories from. Except for “Xingu,” with its entirely female cast, Wharton always chooses the perspective of the man, not the woman. She employs the female perspective in The House of Mirth to great success, so I’m not certain why. I mean, these stories are just as emotionally complex for the women as they are for the men. I guess it gives her a chance to explore the idea that women are mysterious to men while men are completely transparent to women. Or maybe straight men like to imagine the world this way. I have a friend who described his wife as mysterious because he was always finding out new things to love about her (after more than ten years), but I always found her remarkably open, honest, and straightforward. Maybe some men need the exotic, something they don’t understand, so they project that quality onto the women they love. Love itself is often the only mystery – does she love me, and why?

I do enjoy Edith Wharton, even though there’s usually not much to make me happy in her stories. Her syntax demands to be taken slowly; it requires attention; as an author, she insists on her leisure. We must take the story at the pace she gives it to us, and there is something appealing about someone who will not be hurried. I suppose there may also be an appeal to reading a story about New England winters when I’m in the middle of a hot Southern summer, adjusting the emotional temperature to find greater comfort. This was an odd little collection of stories; I don’t know why these were chosen and not others, but I do love something strange.

Many of you will recall Hoffmann’s name from the Offenbach opera, or from the opera that he himself wrote. Others may recall comments about German ghost stories of the Romantic Era, and you’ll want to connect those with Hoffmann’s name. It seems strange to think that these stories were published at the same time as Jane Austen’s, though a trifle less strange to think of them as contemporaneous with Frankenstein, Wordsworth’s Prelude, and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

Another thing to think of as strange is the fact that the editor chose this group to package together. He wasn’t looking for a broad sampling of Hoffmann’s work; he put together the stories that were the most similar, that all have pretty much the same central idea. These are allegories of thought, intuition, and inspiration, and therefore of identity and art.

If there is a dark power which malevolently and treacherously places a thread within us, with which to hold us and draw us down a perilous and pernicious path that we would never otherwise have set foot on – if there is such a power, then it must take the same form as we do, it must become our very self; for only in this way can we believe in it and give it the scope it requires to accomplish its secret task. If our minds, strengthened by a cheerful life, are resolute enough to recognize alien and malevolent influences for what they are and to proceed tranquilly along the path to which our inclinations and our vocation have directed us, the uncanny power must surely perish in a vain struggle to assume the form which is our own reflection. Lothar also says there is no doubt that once we have surrendered ourselves to the dark psychic power, it draws alien figures, encountered by chance in the outside world, into our inner selves, so that we ourselves give life to the spirit which our strange delusion persuades us is speaking from such figures. It is the phantom of our own self which, thanks to its intimate relationship with us and its deep influence on our minds, casts us down to hell or transports us to heaven. (The Sandman)

So, unlike a lot of supernatural stories, these are deeply humanistic – it’s always ourselves, our divided selves, that control our lives and destinies. We make choices, so responsibility is never assigned to external forces like God or Fate. We each make our own world.

Nor do I quite see what you mean by wonders, my excellent Mr Peregrinus, or how you contrive to divide phenomena into the wondrous and the non-wondrous, since the reality they manifest is the same as ourselves, and we and they determine each other reciprocally. If you wonder at something because it has not yet happened to you, or because you think you cannot perceive the connection of cause and effect, that simply shows that your powers of perception are limited by the deficiencies of your vision. Whether your vision is naturally deficient, or sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, I cannot say. But, with respect, Mr Tyss, the most comical aspect of the matter is that you are trying to divide yourself into two parts, one of which perceives what you call wonders and readily believes in them, while the other wonders at this perception and this belief. (Master Flea)

As in this quotation, all this is often tied into vision and perception. Characters look through magnifying glasses or spyglasses or into mirrors, and their value is often determined by what they are able to see, which could also be named how they see, which is informed by their beliefs. Worth is conferred upon those who see wonders in the midst of everyday life, who know that the world is a miracle and more fantastic than we can imagine. Those with this gift are often found to belong to the world of fairy more than the world of work – these are stories like those of Diana Wynne Jones, where characters have more than one identity, so a bratty little brother can become a legendary hero, or an unemployed Welsh uncle can really be a powerful magician.

You are now, kind reader, in the fairy realm of glorious wonders, whose mighty strokes summon up both supreme bliss and extreme horror, and where the grave goddess raises her veil so that we may fancy we see her face – but her grave expression often breaks into a smile, and that is the impish humour that teases us with the bewilderment of magic, as a mother often teases her dearest children. In this realm, which our spirit often reveals to us, at least in our dreams, try, kind reader, to recognize the well-known shapes that, as the saying goes, cross your path every day. You will then believe that this magnificent realm is much nearer at hand than you had previously thought; and that is what I heartily wish you to believe, and what the strange story of Anselmus is supposed to convey. (The Golden Pot)

I do love narratives that teach this concept, that this is a world of endless wonder, that the bird that flew against my window this morning was a miracle of life trying to get into my apartment, and that by keeping it shut out I lost something more than the opportunity to clean bird shit off all my stuff.

At this point, my kind reader, you must be prepared to hear a story which seems quite unconnected with the events that I have undertaken to recount and is thus open to criticism as a mere episode. Sometimes, however, it happens that if you resolutely follow the path that seemed to be leading you astray, you suddenly find yourself at your journey’s end. And thus it may also be that this episode only appears to be a false trail but in fact leads straight to the heart of my main story. (Princess Brambilla)

These are also stories about storytelling, because the mythical aspects of the stories are told explicitly as stories, which then bleed into the supposedly realistic portions of the narrative until actual reality is compounded of both.

There are other ways that these stories speak to me, as in pieces of advice like this:

I tell you again, give up your solitary life. You’ll feel much better if you do. If you knew any other girls, you’d hardly think Dörtje the most beautiful of all; and if you had made advances to any other woman, you wouldn’t think that Dörtje was the only one who could love you. Come, come, Peregrinus, a bit more experience will teach you better. You’re a good-looking man, and I wouldn’t have to be as intelligent and perceptive as Master Flea is, to foresee that you’ll enjoy happiness through love in a quite different way than you now imagine. (Master Flea)

Which is advice that I’ve needed at some points in my life. As things are now, I’ve been pulling toward hermit-ness more than is needful. It made a little sense in the Midwest because I didn’t feel a connection with either the people or the place, but now that I’m back home in the midst of people who love me, I would be happier if I made more of an effort to spend time with those people. Then there’s the him from the Midwest, the memory of whom is keeping me from actively looking for the romance my heart cries out for. He was going to come down for a visit this weekend, but ran into some administrative difficulties – an ex had rented a car under his name a few years ago and not returned it on time, so there was an unpaid charge for a few hundred dollars attached to his credit card number, which they didn’t bother telling him until he showed up to pick up the rental he had ordered for Friday morning. He paid it off and is postponing the trip for a few weeks, which is frustrating for the both of us, but what lends poignancy to the situation is that I’m planning to tell him that long-distance is not working for me, and he needs to either commit to leaving his family for me or let me go. I think that if I phrase it that way he’ll pick the option I think would be best for us both, which is breaking it off. I don’t think he’ll be happy far away from his family, and if it takes this long and this much trouble to schedule a visit to see me, it’s going to take just as much time and effort to go back to see them, and before I left he had been talking about moving down here and getting up there twice a month. I think his expectations (for the world, not necessarily for me) are unrealistic. I also think that he loves me because I try to make people feel safe and comfortable (in real life, not necessarily on the blog), not because of who I am. He likes the feeling of security, and frankly, any gay man who thinks monogamy is important could fill that role, and most of them would fit his lifestyle and tastes more easily than I would. As for my own happiness, I haven’t felt fulfilled in the relationship for a long time; as The Ex did, he made me feel loved in spite of my weirdness and not because of it, as if I needed an interpreter to interact with real, normal human beings. I’d rather not be with someone who encourages my sense of isolation or alienation. It’s strong enough without the help. Which is sort of why I want him to come down here for the conversation instead of trying it over the phone – I don’t think he’s ever really seen me happy, and seeing who and what does this for me could be a good education for him. If you’ll excuse the cliché, an eye-opener.

All this stuff about identity doubling is not where I needed to be this week, which is why I was reading so slowly. About ten days ago, my car had serious trouble on the way to work, so it’s been parked at the college ever since. A week ago, my good friend (who comments here as Scribble Feather) took me to a car dealership to look into buying a new vehicle, but I was denied financing because of my income and credit score. Granted, I know my income is low, but my credit isn’t bad, so I checked the credit report. Apparently someone stole my identity and ran up three credit cards in my name – they applied for a fourth, unsuccessfully. I’ve been calling around to these different financial companies and declaring fraud, but it’s going to take some time before it’s all cleared up. Just thinking about finances is enough to give me the shakes, so it’s been an unnerving experience, the type where I have to shove all my emotions into a back room so that I can take care of what needs my immediate attention. I stayed with the good SF for a few days, and now I’m borrowing a vehicle from another friend, so we see how important communities are, and how grateful I am to be in the middle of one. And now that I’m done with a lot of that, the depression I’ve been delaying is starting to seep in. It’ll get better, though. The day the car gave up on life was the day of a job interview, which was successful, so tomorrow (Monday) I’m starting a new position, Library Clerk. This is in addition to my position as a part-time English instructor, and in the new year I’ll shift the schedule around so that the library job will be my main focus and I’ll only have one class. The new schedule will also make it easier to find a third part-time job, which I think will be necessary.

Oh, it might be helpful if I were to list the stories in the volume:

  • The Golden Pot, in which Anselmus writes his way into the heart of a snake
  • The Sandman, which has very little to do with sand and is part of Offenbach’s opera
  • Princess Brambilla, where Carnival goes on for far too long thanks to the commedia dell’arte
  • Master Flea, where a man learns confidence when he’s given the power to read others’ thoughts
  • My Cousin’s Corner Window, which is much shorter than the other stories and which fits almost nothing I said here

As is implied, this is a collection of stories that would be better read one at a time instead of all at once, and in truth, it was never the original author’s intent that they should be combined like this. Despite my disagreement with that editorial choice, I will say that Ritchie Robertson’s 1992 translation is a good one and feels very contemporary, even though the stories were written two hundred years ago.

This book glories in the use of pronouns. So much so, that at the beginning of a chapter it can be difficult to know whose perspective we are reading from. So much so, that the main character in the book is never named, but we have enough clues to deduce that he is Sherlock Holmes, nearly ninety, living in the country during World War II, keeping bees.

Holmes enters our story as a crazy old man yelling at children. More specifically, at a young German Jew who’s been evacuated to the English countryside to avoid the concentration camps. The boy is about to piss on the third rail that carries electricity to the train cars and the aged detective is trying to save his life, but since the boy rarely speaks and rarely understands English, all he sees is the crazy old man. The boy is always accompanied by a parrot who repeats strings of numbers. British spies keep trying to figure out the secret of these numbers, believing them to be a kind of code. This book even becomes a murder mystery because of the bird and his numbers. But Holmes is more interested in finding the kidnapped bird than the killer. I suppose retirement gives people a different perspective.

Throughout the story, people react to Holmes in different ways, but they seem to regard him as a relic of the past, a Victorian curiosity to have survived almost into the Postmodern Era. Yet, at the end, he comes to a very Modern, very un-Victorian conclusion:

The application of creative intelligence to a problem, the finding of a solution at once dogged, elegant, and wild, this had always seemed to him to be the essential business of human beings – the discovery of sense and causality amid the false leads, the noise, the trackless brambles of life. And yet he had always been haunted – had he not? – by the knowledge that there were men, lunatic cryptographers, mad detectives, who squandered their brilliance and sanity in decoding and interpreting the messages in cloud formations, in the letters of the Bible recombined, in the spots on butterflies’ wings. One might, perhaps, conclude from the existence of such men that meaning dwelled solely in the mind of the analyst. That it was the insoluble problems – the false leads and the cold cases – that reflected the true nature of things. That all the apparent significance and pattern had no more intrinsic sense than the chatter of an African gray parrot. One might so conclude, really, he thought, one might.

There were a few Victorian writers and thinkers who saw the lack of meaning in the world around them, who understood that human meaning is a human construction, but they were largely disreputable (which is not to say that their books didn’t sell). Dickens was so successful because you could read his books aloud to your children without the fear of any unchristian ideas entering their heads. He was a social reformer, it’s true, but he always approached his unpalatable subject matter with circumspection. He wouldn’t have made his doubts so explicit.

Much as I find the Victorian novels’ certainty about the world so comforting, in my own mind I side with Chabon’s Holmes. We have the inborn need to bring order to chaos – part of my discomfort with children is their apparent comfort with chaos – but the order is essentially manmade, not intrinsic to the things we arrange. Why do I fold towels the way that I do, or keep them in the places where I do? It doesn’t matter to the towels. Left to themselves, they’d end up on the floor in a heap. They want to become an undifferentiated mass of terrycloth, and I’m standing very firmly in the way. One of the things that I find difficult about living with a family is that my ordering hand is not master here.

For all that this book is a mystery, and the subtitle links it to detection, it is not so much a story about finding as it is a story about losing. The boy loses his parrot. The minister loses his faith, and his son. Holmes walks into a clearing and for a few seconds cannot bring meaning to the shapes he sees – he loses his ability to interpret optical data. I suppose this could be my own sense to the book, since some of the lost things are found, but most of them are not. The numbers are a secret between the boy and the parrot, and not even Holmes discovers their sense. Life seems to be unravelling, which is not a sensation I particularly enjoy. And indeed, there’s some of that in my life – sleep is not knitting up the ravelled sleeve of care – I’d like to be able to bring the issues to a swift decisive conclusion, but that is not really realistic. By summer’s end, things will be done.

It’s Christmas Eve. John Rivers, a grandfather in his late fifties, is talking with a novelist friend about the night he lost his virginity. No section breaks anywhere, just a hundred and fifty pages of that.

At the age of twenty-eight, Rivers was a moralistic mama’s boy. He finally broke from his mother and went to work in a Nobel-Prize-winning scientist’s laboratory. The Genius is famous all over the world for his brilliant mind, but Huxley is more interested in showing his physical side. He has frequent asthma attacks, which his family ignores. His children are little more than short people whom he acknowledges to live in the same house. And his wife is everything to him – a weird mix of mother and . . . I really want to say whore, but that doesn’t feel quite right. Probably because I’m uncomfortable with the word. It feels disrespectful, and those women deserve much more respect than they get. Anyway, the Genius has a safe in his bedroom where he keeps his gun, some money, the current draft of his next book, and his Victorian pornography. Rivers has a hard time understanding how Miss Floggy’s School for Finishing Girls can coexist with physics research, but it makes sense to me. People are a balance; strength is counterweighted with weakness, and being brilliant as a scientist is, in this case, placed against a certain sexual infantilism.

Rivers is invited to live with the Genius, and he gets on well with the family. The teenaged daughter has a crush on him, because he’s a handsome older man living in her house and she’s fully prepared to be fallen in love with. She writes poetry and wears too much makeup. There’s a little brother, but he’s hardly significant. The maid is a racial stereotype – I keep expecting her to scold Clark Gable for not being nice to Scarlett. But the mother is a Goddess. Rivers is completely in love with her, but too priggish to do anything about it. By Goddess, of course, I mean she’s a woman with gumption. She keeps the house running in order, despite the absent-minded professor and the overly romantic daughter. Despite the amount of work she puts in, she retains her beauty and inner light, the spiritual heart of her home.

Then the Goddess’s mother gets sick and she has to go away for a while. The daughter really starts in on her campaign for Rivers, having read too much Wilde and Swinburne without having any experience of love or sex to give meaning to their words. [Jack White: If you think a kiss is all in the lips, you got it all wrong. If you think a dance is all in the hips, go on then and do the twist.] Ruth does the work of sexualizing Rivers for the reader, though he won’t take advantage of a girl half his age. I don’t know what the age of consent was in St Louis in 1923, but no matter the legality. It would just have been wrong. Then Genius Henry sexualizes Goddess Katy – he convinces himself that she’s sleeping with her mother’s young doctor, and describes all the crazy shit she’s done with him. Poor Rivers has to face the idea that his Goddess could also be a wild animal between the sheets.

Henry’s bonkers enough to make himself sick from a few weeks of jealous celibacy, so when he’s at death’s door they call Katy away from the bed of her dying mother to come sit at the bed of her dying husband. When she gets back, the light’s gone out of her. All this care of others is wiping her out, erasing/effacing her. When she gets the phone call telling her that her mother’s finally dead, she comes to Rivers’s room.

Shaken by sobs and trembling, she pressed herself against me. The clock had struck, time was bleeding away and even the living are utterly alone. Our only advantage over the dead woman up there in Chicago, over the dying man at the other end of the house, consisted in the fact that we could be alone in company, could juxtapose our solitudes and pretend that we had fused them into a community. But these, of course, were not the thoughts I was thinking then.

And the handsome young assistant has sex for the first time. In some ways it’s kind of sweet, but in others not. His fifty-something self sees the event gently, as something nice that two people did for each other. His younger self was too religious to be anything other than nauseated. He keeps saying that it has to stop, but they keep doing it until the Genius heals up. Every time he says that it’s wrong, Katy shushes him. It’s not that she feels guilty or uncomfortable, it’s that she thinks his religion is immature and uninteresting. She takes the lead throughout the affair, and it doesn’t end until she’s ready for it to. Which is when the spurned poetess starts to make references to adulterers burning in hell forever.

I think it’s unfortunate that something as nice as sex has to be surrounded by so many cultural prohibitions. Katy seems innocent, and sleeping with Rivers turns her inner light back on. She’s full of grace again; she gets the strength to take care of her sick husband by fucking the lodger. It’s healthy. Then Rivers makes it less than it could be by going on about the wrongness of it, then the daughter becomes threatening, and it’s like an overripe fruit rotting from its own sweetness. What was beautiful becomes tragic.

“And to think,” said Rivers, “to think that once we were all like that. You start as a lump of protoplasm, a machine for eating and excreting. You grow into this sort of thing. Something almost supernaturally pure and beautiful.” He laid his cheek once more against the child’s head. “Then comes a bad time with pimples and puberty. After which you have a year or two, in your twenties, of being Praxiteles. But Praxiteles soon puts on weight and starts to lose his hair, and for the next forty years you degenerate into one or other of the varieties of the human gorilla. The spindly gorilla – that’s you. Or the leather-faced variety – that’s me. Or else it’s the successful businessman type of gorilla – you know, the kind that looks like a baby’s bottom with false teeth. As for the female gorillas, the poor old things with paint on their cheeks and orchids at the prow . . . No, let’s not talk about them, let’s not even think.”

Yes, let’s ignore the attitudes that keep women imprisoned. Katy is a goddess like Hera, or a bitch in heat, but never a human equal. Both Henry and Rivers either keep her on a pedestal or in a ditch, but neither of them really treats her like a partner. She has a specific function, and God help us all if she has to do something else, like attend to a dying woman in a distant city. I’m sure that part of the reason for the affair is that she needs a sense of freedom, a feeling of control over her own life and choices. She needs a connection with life, not death. So of course the novelist kills her. No other satisfactory way out of the situation. And thirty years later John Rivers (I wonder if he’s named after Jane Eyre’s cousin) reminisces about her and his summer of love. I feel like there must have been more to her than Huxley shows us. But no. We only see her through an aging man’s memory, with its necessary distortions. With all the tragedy of this short book, this one feels like the most egregious: we miss the chance to know a truly extraordinary woman, a human being whose intelligence and devotion live inside her beauty and sexuality, someone complex and wonderful but who sees life as simple and acts simply, a person too natural for 1920s American society. I suppose a happy ending was too much to hope for.

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.