Posts Tagged ‘victorian’

This week I had a student preparing to enter a course of study that I felt was completely wrong for her, so we took the Myers-Briggs personality test, and that helped steer her in a better direction. It reminded me of a lot of truths about myself that I don’t often think about, or that I think of as pathological when they’re really not, like my aversion to conflict. It made explicit the fact that an aversion to conflict and a strong desire to help people can make me popular to others, but that it’s very hard for me to trust them. The doors of my heart are made of heavy steel, and once shut they do not open easily. It’s unfortunately sort of easy to shut them – don’t do something you say that you will, lie to me, don’t try hard at your job or schoolwork, don’t finish things that you start, treat my relationship with my children as if it were unimportant simply because I don’t see them very often, take delight in the conflicts of others, tell me not to trust someone close to me, use the phrase ‘the gay lifestyle,’ that sort of thing. The high standards I have for friendship sometimes makes it seem miraculous that I have any friends at all, and truthfully I don’t keep many people close to me. Those people I do don’t always realize how close they are to me, or how few people are as close to me as they are. I was interested at the way www.16personalities.com added a fifth element, so now I’m INFJ-T, the T meaning Turbulent. This refers to my habit of second-guessing all my decisions and actions, which has a strong effect on the way my Counselor/Advocate personality expresses itself.

Rereading this book, I was a little surprised to see how strongly my life and especially my bloglife are influenced by it. Unlike some of my colleagues, I see the value in people like this:

The common reader, as Dr Johnson implies, differs from the critic and the scholar. He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole – a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing. He never ceases, as he reads, to run up some rickety and ramshackle fabric which shall give him the temporary satisfaction of looking sufficiently like the real object to allow of affection, laughter, and argument. Hasty, inaccurate, and superficial, snatching now this poem, now that scrap of old furniture, without caring where he finds it or of what nature it may be so long as it serves his purpose and rounds his structure, his deficiencies as a critic are too obvious to be pointed out; but if he has, as Dr Johnson maintained, some say in the final distribution of poetical honours, then, perhaps, it may be worth while to write down a few of the ideas and opinions which, insignificant in themselves, yet contribute to so mighty a result.

Notice the reflection of my reading habits here. Yes, I get into these high-culture moods sometimes, but I mix Thomas Hardy with Christopher Moore, and French Enlightenment thinkers with mid-twentieth century sociologists, and it’s all a big mishmash of words. I may impart some knowledge, but I’m more interested in receiving it; I have little interest in correcting the opinions of others if those opinions are thoughtfully considered. That both gives me some value as a teacher and keeps me from realizing my full potential in the field – I refuse to become an authority figure (an INFJ trait).

This book came about because Woolf was writing reviews for the Times Literary Supplement and other periodicals, which means that to some extent she and I are engaged in the same pursuit. However, she would probably not have approved of how very personal I get.

Once again we have an essayist capable of using the essayist’s most proper but most dangerous and delicate tool. He has brought personality into literature, not unconsciously and impurely, but so consciously and purely that we do not know whether there is any relation between Max the essayist and Mr Beerbohm the man. We only know that the spirit of personality permeates every word that he writes. The triumph is the triumph of style. For it is only by knowing how to write that you can make use in literature of your self; that self which, while it is essential to literature, is also its most dangerous antagonist. Never to be yourself and yet always – that is the problem.

Woolf was still looking for essays that say something universal about the human condition. While there is some possibility of that in the way that I write, if people want universality from me they usually have to be able to extrapolate the message from my relation of my experience. I understand that my experience is unique to me, composed of the intersections of all my different identities, and while some experiences are common to certain groups of people, there’s no guarantee that I will have anything in common with another former academic/gay man/ex-Mormon/addictive personality/emotionally abused person.

Though Woolf keeps her experience away from her reviews, there are some qualities and preferences that become clear. A somewhat academic adherence to factual accuracy, as seen in her scathing review of a biography of Mary Russell Mitford, where she refers to the author as Mendacity (with a capital M). She also derides the author’s lack of passion for her subject:

What considerations, then, had weight with Miss Hill when she decided to write Mary Russell Mitford and her Surroundings? Three emerge from the rest, and may be held of paramount importance. In the first place, Miss Mitford was a lady; in the second, she was born in the year 1787; and in the third, the stock of female characters who lend themselves to biographic treatment by their own sex is, for one reason or another, running short. For instance, little is known of Sappho, and that little is not wholly to her credit. Lady Jane Grey has merit, but is undeniably obscure. Of George Sand, the more we know the less we approve. George Eliot was led into evil ways which not all her philosophy can excuse. The Brontës, however highly we rate their genius, lacked that indefinable something which marks the lady; Harriet Martineau was an atheist; Mrs Browning was a married woman; Jane Austen, Fanny Burney, and Maria Edgeworth have been done already; so that, what with one thing and another, Mary Russell Mitford is the only woman left.

I believe that the homophobia and slut-shaming and elitism in the above quotation are qualities that Woolf ascribes to Miss Hill, not attitudes that she herself embraced.

Woolf also had a good value for solitude, as when she describes Elizabethan drama:

But gradually it comes over us, what then are we being denied? What is it that we are coming to want so persistently, that unless we get it instantly we must seek elsewhere? It is solitude. There is no privacy here. Always the door opens and some one comes in. All is shared, made visible, audible, dramatic. Meanwhile, as if tired with company, the mind steals off to muse in solitude; to think, not to act; to comment, not to share; to explore its own darkness, not the bright-lit-up surfaces of others. It turns to Donne, to Montaigne, to Sir Thomas Browne, to the keepers of the keys of solitude.

Sir Thomas Browne, though unknown to me, is one of her heroes, like Max Beerbohm of the above quotation. This volume is arranged roughly chronologically, but there’s some fracturing and avoidance toward the end. We go from Chaucer to the Elizabethans and through the eighteenth century to Jane Austen, but then there’s an essay on modern fiction (compared unfavorably to the novels of the past) before she goes on to the Brontës, George Eliot, and the famous Russians (Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, of course, but there are others), but then she jumps back to the Romantic-Era Miss Mitford and a few other earlier writers before she gets on to talking about writing itself for a bit, and only ends with an evaluation of the writing current at the time. Of her contemporaries, Beerbohm gets some special attention:

But if we ask for masterpieces, where are we to look? A little poetry, we may feel sure, will survive; a few poems by Mr Yeats, by Mr Davies, by Mr de la Mare. Mr Lawrence, of course, has moments of greatness, but hours of something very different. Mr Beerbohm, in his way, is perfect, but it is not a big way. Passages in Far Away and Long Ago will undoubtedly go to posterity entire. Ulysses was a memorable catastrophe – immense in daring, terrific in disaster. And so, picking and choosing, we select now this, now that, hold it up for display, hear it defended or derided, and finally have to meet the objection that even so we are only agreeing with the critics that it is an age incapable of sustained effort, littered with fragments, and not seriously to be compared with the age that went before.

When it comes to the past, scholars are seldom entitled to publish their own opinions. No one wants to be the Victorianist who says that Dickens was nothing special. The monoliths of the past are monolithic in that we can’t disagree with them. Shakespeare was the greatest dramatist in the English language, but that’s because people decided he was a couple of hundred years ago, and few playwrights have even tried to compete. We don’t have different opinions on that now. When it comes to the present, the experts in the past can disagree and be extreme in their devotion or antipathy and it’s all right. The thing is, though, that even scholarly fads change. Walter Scott was once considered one of the most important early nineteenth-century poets who wrote some very influential historical novels, but now he’s largely ignored. Or at least he was when I was getting my degrees ten or fifteen years ago. The trend for the last forty years or so is to look away from the white men and recover works by women and minorities; after all, Byron felt seriously threatened by Mrs Hemans’s popularity, and the first American bestseller was a classic fallen-woman narrative written by a woman. Conrad is held at a distance because of his subhuman portrayal of Africans and Asians, even though in Woolf’s time he was beloved both by the masses and by the critics. And those writers considered obscure or nonacademic in Woolf’s time (evidenced by the fact that they’re included in this book), many are now canonical, like Austen, Brontë, and Eliot. This book focuses on biographies and volumes of letters, so those who only published letters or journals are not as easily embraced by academia. We like poetry and fiction, so this passage about journal-writing is itself a little dated:

Should you wish to make sure that your birthday will be celebrated three hundred years hence, your best course is undoubtedly to keep a diary. Only first be certain that you have the courage to lock your genius in a private book and the humour to gloat over a fame that will be yours only in the grave. For the good diarist writes either for himself alone or for a posterity so distant that it can safely hear every secret and justly weigh every motive. For such an audience there is need neither of affectation nor of restraint. Sincerity is what they ask, detail, and volume; skill with the pen comes in conveniently, but brilliance is not necessary; genius is a hindrance even; and should you know your business and do it manfully, posterity will let you off mixing with great men, reporting famous affairs, or having lain with the first ladies in the land.

Woolf seems most interested in those who refrain from these last three. She assumes her readers to have read the canonical works, and she introduces us to the less frequently taught.

Gently, beautifully, like the clouds of a balmy evening, obscurity once more traverses the sky, an obscurity which is not empty but thick with the star dust of innumerable lives.

Circling back, it’s not just that she’s writing for a general audience, showing them less-known literature, she’s also writing about the general audience. The essays in this volume tend to champion the lives of the not-so-great, the ordinary people who get passed by and whom few consider great. [Perspective: I once read a book that conducted a detailed scientific analysis of nineteenth-century prose styles, counting the ratio of words of dialogue to words of narration, the number of words per sentence, average number of adjectives per noun, that sort of thing. The author, Karl Kroeber, actually felt like he had to apologize for using Austen, C Brontë, and Eliot, because they were clearly inferior to Dickens, Thackeray, and Hardy. The analysis was interesting, he found that Mansfield Park is empirically the most boring Austen novel because it uses dramatically less dialogue and more narration than the others, but the patronizing misogyny was upsetting.] The message seems to be, obscurity does not imply triviality. It’s hard to find anything about me through a Google search, but my friends and family love me, and there are many ways in which my life matters, and has mattered to many different people.

And of course, my favorite essay about writing is here, “The Patron and the Crocus,” with my favorite quotation about writing,

To know whom to write for is to know how to write.

Here on this blog I have several dozen followers, but I don’t deceive myself about their actually reading what I write. There’s a small group of four or five people who read and comment occasionally, and those are the people I write this blog for. If other people read and enjoy it, great. Little bit of trivia: most people who find my blog through an internet search are trying to find out whether Hesse’s Demian is about a gay relationship or not.

It seems a bit odd to acknowledge to myself that even though my favorite book is Ragnarok and I went through four-year obsessions with As I Lay Dying and Mansfield Park, that this is the book that seems to have shaped me the most, the book whose philosophy vibrates in tune with my own heart, one of the most important books to me, even though I haven’t read most of the material she’s reviewing. I love Woolf’s novels, but I love her nonfiction even more – the way that her voice reaches out to me and holds me gently, the way she affirms much that I had already believed, the polite manner in which she sometimes disagrees with me, the way that I feel her to be speaking in my own mind, across the abyss of years, gender, and mental illness. When I read Woolf’s novels, I love her writing and her characters; when I read Woolf’s nonfiction, I love her.

 

This one seems like a strange direction for Hardy. The Return of the Native was such a triumph, I suppose it’s a little natural for me to feel a letdown as I move to the next thing (that isn’t The Woodlanders). It’s like when I first listened to White Blood Cells. I thought, White Stripes are the most amazing band ever! and I ran out and got another album, and I was disappointed. So I let it go for a little bit, and then I listened again. De Stijl is a great album, it’s just a different album than White Blood Cells. Not less than, just different. Similarly, The Trumpet-Major isn’t necessarily less than Return of the Native, it’s just different.

We’re reading about Wessex six or seven decades before Hardy’s writing about it, which means Nostalgia. And possibly anachronisms – I don’t know enough of the minutiae of nineteenth century life to speak to that, but scholars more dedicated than I say it’s remarkably accurate.

The present writer, to whom this party has been described times out of number by members of the Loveday family and other aged people now passed away, can never enter the old living-room of Overcombe Mill without beholding the genial scene through the mists of the seventy or eighty years that intervene between then and now.  First and brightest to the eye are the dozen candles, scattered about regardless of expense, and kept well snuffed by the miller, who walks round the room at intervals of five minutes, snuffers in hand, and nips each wick with great precision, and with something of an executioner’s grim look upon his face as he closes the snuffers upon the neck of the candle.  Next to the candle-light show the red and blue coats and white breeches of the soldiers—nearly twenty of them in all besides the ponderous Derriman—the head of the latter, and, indeed, the heads of all who are standing up, being in dangerous proximity to the black beams of the ceiling.  There is not one among them who would attach any meaning to ‘Vittoria,’ or gather from the syllables ‘Waterloo’ the remotest idea of his own glory or death.  Next appears the correct and innocent Anne, little thinking what things Time has in store for her at no great distance off.  She looks at Derriman with a half-uneasy smile as he clanks hither and thither, and hopes he will not single her out again to hold a private dialogue with—which, however, he does, irresistibly attracted by the white muslin figure.  She must, of course, look a little gracious again now, lest his mood should turn from sentimental to quarrelsome—no impossible contingency with the yeoman-soldier, as her quick perception had noted.

I’m writing this the night of the election, and I feel a similar sense of participating in a historical moment that is in the process of being written. Tonight they will either declare the first female U. S. president or the granting of nuclear weaponry to a buffoon who is unqualified to lead and hates everyone. History, no matter what the outcome. As with Hardy’s soldiers, glory, death, or both.

One of the things that feels anachronistic is the ratio of men to women. By mid-century British thinkers were focused on The Surplus Woman Question, the issue of what to do when women are not allowed to work for their own support, and yet they far outnumber the men whom society allows to support them. Perhaps in 1805 there wasn’t such an issue, but really. Overcombe seems like a giant frat party.

Anne was so flurried by the military incidents attending her return home that she was almost afraid to venture alone outside her mother’s premises. Moreover, the numerous soldiers, regular and otherwise, that haunted Overcombe and its neighbourhood, were getting better acquainted with the villagers, and the result was that they were always standing at garden gates, walking in the orchards, or sitting gossiping just within cottage doors, with the bowls of their tobacco-pipes thrust outside for politeness’ sake, that they might not defile the air of the household. Being gentlemen of a gallant and most affectionate nature, they naturally turned their heads and smiled if a pretty girl passed by, which was rather disconcerting to the latter if she were unused to society. Every belle in the village soon had a lover, and when the belles were all allotted those who scarcely deserved that title had their turn, many of the soldiers being not at all particular about half-an-inch of nose more or less, a trifling deficiency of teeth, or a larger crop of freckles than is customary in the Saxon race. Thus, with one and another, courtship began to be practised in Overcombe on rather a large scale, and the dispossessed young men who had been born in the place were left to take their walks alone, where, instead of studying the works of nature, they meditated gross outrages on the brave men who had been so good as to visit their village.

Which explains why Anne Garland has three suitors, all of whom are locals. Anne and her mother live in an apartment that is part of the local miller’s house, and he has two sons. The older is a trumpet major in a squadron training in town, the younger is at sea. John makes up to Anne, but she’s only interested in being friends, so he respects that. John Loveday is really a great guy. Festus Derriman, on the other hand, is a problem. He’s a giant, but he’s a coward. He talks big, but acts small. He’s a drunk bully who has a hard time with the idea of consent. Anne is very definitely not interested, but he keeps finding ways to trap her, and she keeps escaping. Fess’s father is a local landowner, but he’s determined to keep everything away from the blowhard, so he keeps trying to hide the tin box with all his deeds and will and saved cash. No hiding place is ever quite good enough, so he keeps moving it, which puts the box at risk in a comic-relief sort of way.

The third suitor is Bob, the sailing son of the miller. Anne and he had a thing when they were younger, but when he comes back he brings a fiancée, Matilda Johnson. And in her reaction, Anne shows her naivete in the matter of men and marriage.

She would not be critical, it was ungenerous and wrong; but she could not help thinking of what interested her. And were there, she silently asked, in Miss Johnson’s mind and person such rare qualities as placed that lady altogether beyond comparison with herself? O yes, there must be; for had not Captain Bob singled out Matilda from among all other women, herself included? Of course, with his world-wide experience, he knew best.

“Singled out from among all other women”? No, sweetie, Bob found a pretty girl that he wanted to have sex with and she wouldn’t do it without marriage. Or at least he thought she wouldn’t. John puts him off of her by telling him a story about Miss Johnson and his regiment. [His entire regiment? Really? Score one for Victorian vagueness.] And Bob understands himself better than Anne understands him:

You know, Miss Garland,’ he continued earnestly, and still running after, ‘ ’tis like this: when you come ashore after having been shut up in a ship for eighteen months, women-folks seen so new and nice that you can’t help liking them, one and all in a body; and so your heart is apt to get scattered and to yaw a bit; but of course I think of poor Matilda most, and shall always stick to her.’

She was the first one he saw when he got off the ship; that’s all. She’s an actress who gets slut-shamed, and the tradition of marrying castoff mistresses to inferior or inadequate men goes back over a hundred years before this, to Fielding and Smollett.

It’s like Hardy suddenly decided to write a Jane Austen novel. It’s set during the Napoleonic Wars and includes the Battle of Trafalgar (Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion). A young woman loses her father and has to live in reduced circumstances in a place that uses Combe in its placenames (Sense and Sensibility). She meets a young man she was enamoured of in the past and must re-win him from his new love (Persuasion). The problem is, Elinor Dashwood and Anne Elliott and Elizabeth Bennet are not interchangeable. This collaged heroine doesn’t feel believable to me; she’s just too contradictory. I’m not saying that Hardy is well known for his deep insight into the female mind; I’m just saying that in my opinion, Anne Garland is too much of a weather-cock to be real.

There are some situations that are horrible to live in. Anne Garland lives in a straitened economic circumstance with people who are almost completely uncongenial. She has no friends except a mother who is more romantic and less class-conscious than she is, trying to live this unrealistically privileged life in a community that doesn’t understand privilege. Small towns are marvellously effective at leveling society. Maybe Anne Garland makes more sense if I imagine her, not an intellectually independent woman in her twenties, but an American teenager who reads a lot of books. Like the protagonist of David Bowie’s Labyrinth movie. She makes her men prove their worth and devotion time and time again; it’s not enough just to love her. They have to suffer for it.

So, how does a young woman choose? Two honourable men, both doing service for their country? How do you choose between equal suitors? It’s not a choice Austen’s women ever had to make. Captain Benwick himself withdraws from Anne Elliott, and the other women have only to consult their code of ethics to choose between the men who are interested in them. Fortunately, we’re in a Hardy novel and not an Austen. One of them dies in the Wars, the other gets the girl.

I think one of the important differences between Austen and Hardy is in the equality of the hero and heroine. Anne Elliott is not Captain Wentworth’s prize for getting honorably rich in the war, and she has to do more than wait in a tower for him to come sweep her off her feet. I love the fact that the film ends with her on his ship, heading into the war together. Anne Garland, on the other hand, insists on acting like some sort of Holy Grail, a valuable and symbolically weighted object, but an object nonetheless. Austen’s women learn to take action and think for themselves; Anne Garland learns to force healthy, able-bodied men into ideological corsets. There must be a better life than forcing oneself to live with Anne’s disapproval.

“Worthy” is such a poisonous concept; during a war, when men are dying all around, there’s just no time for it. Show love. Even if it’s just for a few hours. And don’t shame others for loving temporarily. Miss Garland erases the double standard by holding men to the same ideal of celibate fidelity that she holds herself to, but that doesn’t make the ideal healthy or good. My briefest sexual relationship was one of the most satisfying; it is the one that involves the fewest regrets and the simplest emotions. I’m not saying that a one-night stand is the same as a decades-long commitment; I am saying that there’s no shame in it. I’m also saying that it’s not fair to expect commitment when you don’t offer it in return. Love people for who they are and what they have to offer, not for what you think they ought to be.

 

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.

A few weeks ago, I was complaining about an author who wrote a period novel, but didn’t do it well. Byatt does it well. She knows the Victorian Era, so her books are similar to the classics, but she discusses things that were unmentionable back then. These stories contain things that people really did and thought about, but only hinted at in literature.

When students discuss the Nineteenth Century, they often treat it as a period of great certainty; they trust the surface of religious conservatism, or the now-well-publicized hypocrisy: a church on each corner, with a bar and two whorehouses between each pair. But they don’t question the moral certainty of the time. Well maybe it’s not exactly hypocrisy. That conservative certainty was all surface. The Nineteenth Century was a time of great insecurity – people started questioning their religion in a way they never had before, so they had to reassure each other constantly that “God is in His Heaven, and all is right with the world.” As Hamlet’s mother would say, “Methinks they do protest too much.” Darwin is an easy scapegoat, but the Industrial Revolution changed the world so much that the old belief system wore thin in several places. Nothing convinces people that God is limited like poverty. Byatt really captures the uncertainty of the time.

The two stories here are linked by this theme of uncertainty, but also by a minor character. Captain Papagay appears at the end of each to signal the fulfillment of other characters’ goals, though it’s only the middle of their journeys. For a story to end in hope, there has to be some sense that the characters live beyond the end.

MORPHO EUGENIA

In some ways, this is a protracted analogy between ant colonies and Victorian country houses. The communities are remarkably similar.

Nevertheless, in the hot days just after Midsummer, when they increased their vigilance in order to observe, if possible, the nuptial flight of the Queens and their suitors, he was hard put to it not to see his own life in terms of a diminishing analogy with the tiny creatures. He had worked so hard, watching, counting, dissecting, tracking, that his dreams were prickling with twitching antennae, advancing armies, gnashing mandibles and dark, inscrutable complex eyes. His vision of his own biological processes – his frenzied, delicious mating, so abruptly terminated, his consumption of the regular meals prepared by the darkly quiet forces behind the baize doors, the very regularity of his watching, dictated by the regularity of the rhythms of the nest, brought him insensibly to see himself as a kind of complex sum of his nerve-cells and instinctive desires, his automatic social responses of deference or required kindness or paternal affection. One ant in an anthill was neither here nor there, was dispensable, was nothing. This was intensified, despite his recognition of the grimly comic aspect of his reaction, by the recording of the fate of the male ants.

This story was difficult for me to read because it reminded me of my own marriage. It failed for a different reason than William’s, but a lot of the emotions were the same. The ex became interested in me primarily as a provider of children and for her children – like William, I was defined primarily by my reproductive function, which inspires about as much respect as prostitutes generally receive. I felt worthless, like a drone in an anthill. I need to be with someone who wants me for more than sex. Sex yes, and frequently, but not just when partner is at peak fertility and wanting another pregnancy.

There are a few long passages speculating on intelligent design, trying to reconcile God and Darwin, but the arguments tend to go in big circles without reaching any conclusions. It seems that the only conclusion available to logic is that God is an evolutionarily advantageous fantasy adopted by the masses for the preservation of the social order.

One of the things that I appreciate about Byatt is that she considers the “surplus women,” the worker ants who support the queen. Miss Crompton lives in the house in a marginal position between the family and the servants, quietly watching both, with her beautifully bony wrists. A woman of sense and education, she constantly surprises William, though me not at all. I’ve come to expect rebellion, poetry, talent, intelligence, and an appreciation for natural beauty from Victorian governesses. Here she is, upon seeing her first monarch butterfly, on a ship a hundred miles from shore.

‘It fills me with emotion,’ she says. ‘I do not know whether it is more fear, or more hope. It is so fragile, and so easily crushed, and nowhere in reach of where it was going. And yet it is still alive, and bright, and so surprising, rightly seen.’ ‘That is the main thing,’ says Captain Papagay. ‘To be alive. As long as you are alive, everything is surprising, rightly seen.’

A friend complimented my nature photographs, which I routinely post to facebook. He said something about my skill, but I don’t think I really have any. Like all art, my pictures are a method of self-expression. I see the world as completely, breathtakingly, gobsmackingly beautiful. My natural state in the forest or mountains is one of wonder and awe. And excitement – I jump and skip like a small child. If my pictures are at all lovely, it’s because I see the world as so beautiful that I can’t show it to you any other way.

THE CONJUGIAL ANGEL

This not-quite-half of the book is less about science than faith. Instead of faith in God, though, it’s about faith in the occult: mediums, séances, the dead. And also unlike the first story, it deals with a fictional version of people who really lived.

The Victorian Era’s favorite bromance is the one commemorated in In Memoriam A. H. H. Alfred Tennyson and Arthur Hallam were best friends, so close that Hallam’s father and twenty-first century literary critics assume they were a gay couple. Byatt presents them as men who love each other, but who don’t have sex. Instead, they use their sisters as proxies. Arthur was set to marry Alfred’s sister Emily, but then he died. Alfred spent seventeen years writing a poem about his grief in which he calls himself Arthur’s widow, and then he married Arthur’s sister Emily. Personally, I find the collective grief for Arthur Hallam to be excessive. As he’s described, I can’t see anything unusual about him, but everyone treats it like a huge betrayal that Emily falls in love with someone else eight years later. Eight years is plenty of time to give to someone who was always more in love with your brother than with you.

It is hard to love the dead. It is hard to love the dead enough.

Despite the more-than-appropriate mourning period, Emily still feels guilty for finding another lover.

And with them in the dreams stood also a separate creature, the girl in black with a white rose in her hair, as he liked to see it. You are accompanied through life, Emily Jesse occasionally understood, not only by the beloved and accusing departed, but by your own ghost too, also accusing, also unappeased.

This is an issue I feel from time to time. My younger selves are all still here in my head, and some of them don’t approve of my life as it is now. Of course, they’re also jealous, so I try not to take their disapproval too seriously, but it contributes to my tendency to depression. I feel guilty for not being able to feel guilty. I end up in church feeling empty and disconnected, looking for a community but feeling alien. As my community is forming up here in the new town, I don’t feel that I have much in common with anyone. I try to connect through the job, or through talking about my family, but it just doesn’t seem to work. I feel too different. It doesn’t help that over Labor Day I drove back home and hooked up with someone I felt a close connection to but whom I will never see again. I find myself hoping that he was lying about moving away soon because I’d like to run into him again someday, and that won’t happen if he really does go to California. I’m lonely, and my twenty-year-old self tells me it’s my own damn fault. I was so judgmental and intolerant – if that part of me had its way, I’d still be married, making justifications like Byatt’s aged Tennyson:

He thought he had acquitted himself well enough, he thought he had. He had felt a suffusion of affection and companionable calm, which he suspected was less than what others felt, somehow, but not unpleasant, not inadequate. To Emily’s taste, he was sure. If he was truthful, there was more excitement in the space between his finger and Arthur’s, with all that implied of the flashing-out of one soul to another, of the symmetry and sympathy of minds, of the recognition they had both felt, that they had in some sense always known each other, they did not have to learn each other, as strangers did. But this did not make them men like Milnes. They were like David and Jonathan, whose love to each other was wonderful, passing the love of women. And yet David was the greatest lover of women in the Bible, David had despatched Uriah to his death to possess Bathsheba, David was manly beyond all heroes.

It always bothers me when people assume that being a homosexual means that a man is effeminate. Since coming out of the closet, I’ve become more confident and assertive, more stereotypically masculine, not less. Even after I’ve taken it like a good bottom, I don’t feel or act womanish. I love masculinity as a concept and some men specifically – for me, there’s nothing feminine about being a gay man. And if I find someone who loves me as Lieutenant Jesse loves Emily, I won’t turn him down either.

You don’t seem to understand. I didn’t mean to speak so much so soon, but there I go, rushing on, like the North Wind, can’t stop – have you ever felt that someone was to do with you, when you saw them, quite simply, just that, that there are people all over the place with noses like dough-buttons and eyes like currants and other people like Roman busts, you know, and then suddenly you see a face that’s alive – for you – and you know it’s to do with you, that that person is a part of your life, have you ever felt that?

Sometimes people are just perfectly matched, and the externals of their lives don’t make them an obvious fit but their real selves align perfectly. One of the ancient Greeks – I think Plato – once theorized that people were originally conjoined beings, split in half for this mortal life. Some of the pairs were androgynous, some were doubly feminine, some doubly masculine. We spend our lives looking for our other half, our soulmate. This has given rise to the (in my opinion) dangerous idea that there’s only one person in the entire world that a person can be truly happy with. In Byatt’s story, this gets merged with the Christian understanding of angels (hence the title), and eventually Arthur Hallam appears as half an angel, haunting the girl who moved on, never realizing that Alfred is his other half, not Emily. She has her Captain (promotion since their marriage), and she loves him, not the boy who died forty years earlier.

Taken together, these two stories show the limitations of mid-Victorian Christianity, its inability to accommodate evolution and spiritualism, two contrasting forces that probably shouldn’t work together to destroy the mechanism of social order, but that’s how the process happens. And of course, they’re also stories about finding love, written with the skill of someone who loves the Victorian Era and the English language. Since I love these things too, I’m going to keep reading Byatt’s stories. They leave me satisfied, full, if not exactly happy. The realism of her stories doesn’t lend itself to simple emotions, even when it’s magical realism.

A little while ago, my friend David was struggling with his feelings for T. S. Eliot. I agree with him, that Eliot is an author that is hard to love, but after reading this collection, I no longer feel guilty for disliking him, despite the occasional beauty of his words.

This collection was assembled by the good people at Borders, before they went out of business. It covers his works from 1917 to 1923, or in other words, when he was 29 to 35 years old. There’s more prose than poetry, and I think it’s important to read the essays in order to understand the poetry.

Okay, story time. When I was in school, we usually studied literature in chronological order, discussing great movements. In twelfth grade, our teacher decided to teach British literature thematically instead of chronologically, so we did a unit on heroism that included Beowulf, an excerpt from Paradise Lost, and Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” He knew that most of his students didn’t really care about movements, and if they were going to study literature at the university, they’d learn the movements there. So, as he explained it, there are two contradictory basic impulses that battle through culture throughout time: classicism and romanticism. To introduce a comparison he didn’t make, classicism is Spock in The Wrath of Khan. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one. A hero sacrifices everything to protect his society. They find value in the history and traditions of their community, like Alexander Pope, always looking backward to gods and kings in ancient Latin and Greek texts. Romanticism is Captain Kirk in The Search for Spock. The needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many. A hero struggles to live naturally and authentically, despite social pressures, so he is rejected by society. They find value in nature and in themselves, like William Wordsworth, always looking around at poor wanderers amid the trees and rivers. If you’ve ever heard me talking about literature, it should be no trouble to determine which I prefer. So, imagine my great umbrage at reading:

We agree, I hope, that ‘classicism’ is not an alternative to ‘romanticism,’ as of political parties, Conservative and Liberal, Republican and Democrat, on a ‘turn-the-rascals-out’ platform. It is a goal toward which all good literature strives, so far as it is good, according to the possibilities of its place and time.

Or:

With Mr Murry’s formulation of Classicism and Romanticism I cannot agree; the difference seems to me rather the difference between the complete and the fragmentary, the adult and the immature, the orderly and the chaotic.

Or the weird, excessively sarcastic:

For to those who obey the inner voice (perhaps ‘obey’ is not the word) nothing I can say about criticism will have the slightest value. For they will not be interested in the attempt to find any common principles for the pursuit of criticism. Why have principles, when one has the inner voice? If I like a thing, that is all I want; and if enough of us, shouting all together, like it, that should be all that you (who don’t like it) ought to want. The law of art, said Mr Clutton Brock, is all case law. And we can not only like whatever we like to like but we can like it for any reason we choose. We are not, in fact, concerned with literary perfection at all – the search for perfection is a sign of pettiness, for it shows that the writer has admitted the existence of an unquestioned spiritual authority outside himself, to which he has attempted to conform. We are not in fact interested in art. We will not worship Baal. ‘The principle of classical leadership is that obeisance is made to the office or to the tradition, never to the man.’ And we want, not principles, but men.

Well, yeah, Mr Meanie Pants, I do desire men more than I do principles. Now fuck off.

Not content with mocking Romantic principles, he trashes Romantic poets, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, and Coleridge (not the prose, just the poetry), and then he even talks smack about the tradition that Romantics love, like:

The real corrupters are those who supply opinion or fancy; and Goethe and Coleridge are not guiltless – for what is Coleridge’s Hamlet: is it an honest inquiry as far as the data permit, or is it an attempt to present Coleridge in an attractive costume?

And

Milton and Wordsworth, on the other hand, lack this unity, and therefore lack life; and the general criticism on most of the long poems of the nineteenth century is simply that they are not good enough.

Another quick story: I’ve been working at my current job for almost five months now, and at first I had a lot of trouble with one of my co-workers. He had a habit of expressing his opinions as if they were dogma, even on trivial matters. And he only expressed an opinion of it was in opposition to whomever was speaking at the time. He didn’t have an unqualified good word to say about anyone or anything. At first, I assumed he was much younger than I am, and that he was so rigidly axiomatic because he hadn’t had enough experiences with the real world. But no, I was wrong. He’s my age. Almost exactly. He’s actually a few weeks older than I am. However, I’ve spent the last eighteen years living on both American coasts, and also traveling through South America, the Middle East, and even a short trip to Paris, looking for people to love and ways to understand myself. He’s been living in either Indiana, Japan, or Korea, and he seems to have spent all that time correcting the internet. He doesn’t call himself a troll because it’s not trolling if you’re right. So he was approaching us real people as if we were faceless webpages, so aggressive and offensive that I started shutting down as soon as I saw him. He’s been verbally beaten down a couple of times since then, once by me for speaking disrespectfully of the American South, and now he’s quieter, but I don’t think he and I will ever really be comfortable in each other’s presence.

This is T. S. Eliot. He was a troll before the internet existed. He wants to break with the nineteenth century, so he opposes them as vehemently as he dares (he may have a soft spot for Matthew Arnold). Eliot reminds me of an undergraduate so passionately attached to his opinions that he ignores his professors.

So, we circle back to the poetry. He may be in his late twenties and early thirties, but he still writes poetry like a Victorian undergraduate. He’s so insulated in his little community of people who share his ability with Latin and Greek that he assumes everyone does. My students used to ask me why he included so much Latin, Greek, Italian, German, and French in his poems, and I told them that it’s a way of selecting your audience. Eliot has a specific sort of reader in mind, probably what he would consider a person with a minimum of education, but he sets the bar so high that very few people of any time would be qualified to read him. He’s selected not to have an audience.

Polyphiloprogenitive
The sapient sutlers of the Lord
Drift across the windowpanes.
In the beginning was the Word.

Perhaps he’s a bit like Ginsberg writing “Howl,” but Ginsberg showed that he was writing for a few select friends by writing about their specific experiences that other people can still identify with, not by using language that no one else would be able to understand.

Eliot rejects the nineteenth century, it’s true, but he seems to reject his own time as well. That’s the effect I feel from all those allusions. His view of the 1920s seems summed up here:

O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag –
It’s so elegant
So intelligent

Some of the most beautiful writing in the English language is reduced to a pop song. I tried to find the Shakespearean Rag on youtube, but it’s not there. I think it must be like the “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” scene from Kiss Me Kate. High drama is juxtaposed with people who can’t afford proper dentistry, and the modern sufferers seem tawdry and mean compared with Cleopatra’s burnished throne or Juliet’s temporary tomb.

Okay. I hate it when people are excessively negative, and here I am being excessively negative because T. S. Eliot is excessively negative. Now, OccMan, say something nice.

Eliot does put his words together very well. Some of his images and thoughts are really very beautiful.

The winter evening settles down
With smells of steaks in passageways.
Six o’clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.

And

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

And again

Stand on the highest pavement of the stair –
Lean on a garden urn –
Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair –
Clasp your flowers to you with a pained surprise –
Fling them to the ground and turn
With a fugitive resentment in your eyes:
But weave, weave the sunlight in your hair.

In fairness, I can understand Eliot being depressed around this time. He was the primary caregiver for his wife, who had a severe mental illness. Eventually he placed her in a long-term care facility, but during the time he wrote these poems and essays they were still together. Can you imagine? Leaving your home to study in a foreign country, loving the new place and marrying someone from there, only to have her lose her mind and suddenly the whole world seems like a sterile, unfriendly place, where the best offer he ever hears is

There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

Later, of course, he’ll go on to write a sweet book of poems about the neighborhood cats, but he’s always remembered for these early depressed writings. This is what we study, and that may say more about us who study literature than it does about Eliot himself.

According to Hardy’s own preface, this was meant to be a bit of a joke, a funny story between the more dramatic Far From the Madding Crowd and The Return of the Native. Don’t let that make you think it’s any shorter than the others; it’s quite as long as any late Victorian novel can expect to be. And personally, I didn’t think the joke was very funny. I’ve spent too much time on the edges of society to be amused by the struggles inherent in the position.

In some ways, this book feels a little like a sequel; the exposition is pretty serious, as in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Four years ago, Christopher Julian was in love with Ethelberta Chickerel. He was rich and she was a butler’s daughter, so nothing came of it. Instead, she married even further above herself; her husband died a few weeks later, still a minor, so she was sort of adopted into the in-laws’ family. Now he’s fallen in the world; she’s the young, wealthy, beautiful widow Mrs Petherwin, and he’s just Kit Julian, the local music teacher and church organist. It seems like they’d be a good fit for each other, but one of Hardy’s jokes is the way that things build up and then come to nothing.

‘I thought at one time that our futures might have been different from what they are apparently becoming,’ he said then, regarding her as a stall-reader regards the brilliant book he cannot afford to buy. ‘But one gets weary of repining about that.

In the end, he gets a happy finish, a happier one than Ethelberta gets, I believe.

Ethelberta is not a woman to be envied.

A talent for demureness under difficulties without the cold-bloodedness which renders such a bearing natural and easy, a face and hand reigning unmoved outside a heart by nature turbulent as a wave, is a constitutional arrangement much to be desired by people in general; yet, had Ethelberta been framed with less of that gift in her, her life might have been more comfortable as an experience, and brighter as an example, though perhaps duller as a story.

She’s precisely the type that people enjoy reading about, but very few would actually want to be. She was always intelligent and sensitive, so her family gave her a better education than her brothers and sisters received. She became a teacher, then a governess, then married the boss’s son and became a lady. She’s acutely aware of how precarious her social position is and is determined to keep that position no matter the cost. During the first third of the story, she lives with her mother-in-law with a cover story to explain where she came from, so she’s fairly secure and has time to say things like:

Well, no; for what between continually wanting to love, to escape the blank lives of those who do not, and wanting not to love, to keep out of the miseries of those who do, I get foolishly warm and foolishly cold by turns.

But when the mother-in-law dies, she has to shift for herself. How does a single woman work without losing her social position? This is the 1870s, not the 2010s, so this is a serious question for her. The dilemma is easier to understand if we see the social position not only as a circle of friends, but as an identity. Ethelberta is struggling to maintain the vision she has of herself, to continue being the person she truly believes herself to be. It’s more serious than most modern readers would consider.

Persons waging a harassing social fight are apt in the interest of the combat to forget the smallness of the end in view; and the hints that perishing historical remnants afforded her of the attenuating effects of time even upon great struggles corrected the apparent scale of her own. She was reminded that in a strife for such a ludicrously small object as the entry of drawing-rooms, winning, equally with losing, is below the zero of the true philosopher’s concern.

She’s apparently not a true philosopher, because this is only a brief flash on her consciousness. She sets herself up running a rooming house for wealthy, respectable foreigners; since she can’t advertise too extensively (she can’t seem to need money), it never pays well. She supplements her income by becoming a public storyteller, one step removed from an actress. That one step preserves her respectability and position. Unfortunately, she doesn’t go about it sensibly; one show a week, or a fortnight, would keep her audience coming back and preserve the novelty of the entertainment. Going out every night, people get used to it. She loses her popularity and her position declines.

She stood there, as all women stand who have made themselves remarkable by their originality, or devotion to any singular cause, as a person freed of her hampering and inconvenient sex, and, by virtue of her popularity, unfettered from the conventionalities of manner prescribed by custom for household womankind. The charter to move abroad unchaperoned, which society for good reasons grants only to women of three sorts – the famous, the ministering, and the improper – Ethelberta was in a fair way to make splendid use of: instead of walking in protected lanes she experienced that luxury of isolation which normally is enjoyed by men alone, in conjunction with the attention naturally bestowed on a woman young and fair.

And thank God for the improper. They introduce the world to new possibilities. They may be shunned for their audacity, but they are eventually copied and end up setting the ton of the next age. There is no question for Hardy that the fact of her being a woman is the defining feature of her life. As a man, Ethelberta would have been able to fight up the social ladder through education and success in some public enterprise; as a woman, the education is indispensable, but success in public enterprise would prevent her attaining the position she’s after. For a woman to be a public personality is too vulgar. Her only avenue to success is marriage.

Which is why poor Kit doesn’t stand a chance. It doesn’t matter how she feels about him – he’s not moving in the right circles any more. There are several other suitors to her hand, but she doesn’t love any of them and she’s afraid that they wouldn’t love her if they knew about her family. The poor old woman who ‘owns’ the rooming house where she lives is really her mother; the cook and the housemaid are her older sisters; the footman is her fourteen-year-old brother. And her father, of course, is still butler to one of the gentry’s best families.

I could really feel where Ethelberta is coming from, for most of the book. My parents were not well suited to one another – my father started working on a farm when he was fourteen, and the highest he ever rose was to an HVAC technician, the kind of maintenance worker who fixes your heating and air conditioning. My mother studied French and Latin at school and became a teacher, one of the most respectable positions for middle-class American women in the late 1960s. But pregnant women couldn’t teach in elementary schools in the early 1970s, so she had to leave work before my oldest brother was born. Then followed more than a decade of poor financial decisions, six more children, and a divorce. I grew up with a sense of decayed grandeur, surrounded by the feeling that we’re somehow better than the other people in our economic position and the only way to get what I truly deserve is to get a scholarship to a good university, work hard, get a good job, and never come back to rural North Carolina again. I wanted my mother to be proud of me, so I did get the scholarship and work hard, though the rest of that hasn’t quite played out. Some of my siblings got out like I did, but others accepted the reduced circumstances and found work as electricians and auto mechanics. Ethelberta’s family accepts her snobbery and the inequality of their positions, but my family hasn’t been quite as successful. We’re all pretty sensitive, so the fact that our ambitions have led in different directions has created some possibly irreparable conflicts. I try to keep peaceful relations with everyone. It’s not always easy to mix with the more country siblings because I still talk like I’m from Massachusetts, but I find that the rewards are worth the effort. My oldest brother’s wife has invited me to stay with them when I come Down East for Christmas, and this weekend my youngest brother drove twelve hours in one day so that he could see me for about ninety minutes. He’s been listening to the news, so he’s been worried about IS detaining or killing me. He held me so tight – I have a hard time believing in my ability to produce such intensity of feeling, but I can’t doubt that it’s there. The friends I’m staying with were impressed with our similarities: they knew one of my more ambitious brothers ten years ago, and apparently #3 and I have enough resemblance that you can see it, but #7 and I look like we’ve spent years studying each other to get our mannerisms exactly identical. Yet he loves big trucks, Mustangs, and wearing baseball caps, and I read Thomas Hardy novels when I’m vacationing in Paris or São Paulo. Cultural differences that arise from economic disparity may determine whom we feel comfortable living with, but with a little forbearance and good manners, those differences don’t have to limit whom we love.

Hardy’s characters don’t necessarily practice the forbearance unless it’s within their own family circle. Ethelberta’s brother and future brother-in-law end up traveling together one night, and the carpenter and the peer don’t really see eye to eye.

If every man of title was as useful as you are to-night, sir, I’d never call them lumber again as long as I live.’

‘How singular!’

‘There’s never a bit of rubbish that won’t come in use if you keep it seven years.’

In the final third of the novel, Ethelberta’s secret is in danger of getting out, so she determines that a hasty marriage is the only solution.

Life is a battle, they say; but it is only so in the sense that a game of chess is a battle – there is no seriousness in it; it may be put an end to at any inconvenient moment by owning yourself beaten, with a careless “Ha-ha!” and sweeping your pieces into the box.

Hardy says this, but Ethelberta can’t own herself beaten. She can’t see her quest for social position as unimportant or a game. She’s serious; she plays for keeps. She angles for the guy with the highest title, even though he’s older than her dad and has a very low character. Toward the end the novel gets a little Radcliffean, with the vicious viscount in the castle with the beautiful young heroine married in ignorance and partially against her will, but it turns out all right. This book is supposed to be funny, after all.

There are some jokes I appreciated, but they’re generally one-liners.

Ethelberta breathed a sort of exclamation, not right out, but stealthily, like a parson’s damn.

Or

‘O Joey, you wicked boy! If mother only knew that you smoked!’

‘I don’t mind the wickedness so much as the smell.

Or

Like the British Constitution, she owes her success in practice to her inconsistencies in principle.

There’s one little piece that I enjoyed because it seems so realistic, and I think must have happened rather frequently, despite its absence from most novels. Two maids and a footman have just prepared the upper dining room for the dinner in the middle of a ball, and while the quality are dancing on the lower floor,

Away then ran the housemaid and Menlove, and the young footman started at their heels. Round the room, over the furniture, under the furniture, out of one window, along the balcony, in at another window, again round the room – so they glided with the swiftness of swallows and the noiselessness of ghosts. Then the housemaid drew a jew’s harp from her pocket, and struck up a lively waltz sotto voce. The footman seized Menlove, who appeared nothing loth, and began spinning gently round the room with her, to the time of the fascinating measure

‘Which fashion hails, from countesses to queens,
And maids and valets dance behind the scenes.’

One of the most important messages of the novel is the reminder that servants are real people too. They may be treated like furniture, but the only difference between them and their supposed masters is the accident of birth. Their emotional lives are as rich, their pleasures both as simple and as complex. A good servant can still be a man of feeling who takes a bit of fun when no one’s looking.

Hardy introduces some new vocabulary that I like, such as ‘man-famine.’ In the 1870s, young men were being sent out to the colonies to build the empire, so there weren’t many at home. Another example of the hidden effect of imperialism that Said talks about. He also gives us the word ‘indifferentist,’ which I rather like. It seems to imply not only that someone doesn’t care about a given situation, but that he’s studied his indifference and employs it as a tool.

There are also some passages that strike me as beautiful, even in a book that treats serious questions of gender and class as jokes. When Christopher Julian meets Mr Chickerel for the first time, he responds to the family resemblance without knowing that this is Ethelberta’s father.

Ethelberta’s face was there, as the landscape is in the map, the romance in the history, the aim in the deed: denuded, rayless, and sorry, but discernible.

I’m kind of surprised that this novel isn’t more popular with the critics. Hardy is more explicit in his criticism of social structures and gender strictures than in his other books, so it would seem that the Marxists and feminists would have been all over it. But I guess not; some people can’t understand the concept of serious comedy.

No one questions the supremacy of Mr Dickens in the realm of the Victorian novel. Not only was he the most popular novelist, he made sure that ladies could read his stories without wandering outside the boundaries of respectability. Perhaps this is why I almost always mentally refer to him as Mr – there’s something about him that keeps me at a distance. No amount of biographical research has conquered this respectable lack of intimacy. Most of his contemporaries that we still read were not so cautious. Thackeray, for example, once tried to flirt with Charlotte Brontë by talking about the ‘naughty’ books they both wrote [She shut him down, of course, with absolutely no hesitation]. The lack of respectability doesn’t seem to have injured Brontë any, as she was second in popularity, and coming in at third was the fiercely antagonistic Wilkie Collins. He chafed at selling fewer books than a woman, but when all the reviews pan your books for their immorality (despite their commercial success), you have to face the consequences.

Collins’s career falls into three stages: before 1860, 1860-1870, and after 1870. The early novels were a bit shorter than we’re used to from the 1850s (think about the size of Bleak House, or Villette), and they rocked the boat a little. Collins likes to use characters who are traditionally excluded from society, as in Hide and Seek, where the heroine is deaf. That book also ends without a marriage; Collins creates a family without legal ties. The middle stage of his career is by far the most successful, and contains the two books that still get read in college courses. For Collins, 1860 means The Woman in White, the novel that launched his fame. He was so proud of it that he had it etched on his tombstone. Everyone’s favourite character from it, Marian Halcombe, received a number of marriage proposals, and I’ll admit to falling in love with her a little myself. Then there were No Name and Armadale, both fine novels. But everyone gets all het up over The Moonstone, which TSEliot once called the first, best, and longest British detective story. I tend to take issue with all of these superlatives, because there were clearly fictional detectives before 1868, some of them were longer (The Moonstone isn’t that long, compared to other books of its time), and I don’t find that it improves on rereading. Yes, I laugh at Miss Clack, yes, I identify with Ezra Jennings and Mr Murthwaite, but Gabriel Betteredge, Franklin Blake, and Rachel Verinder, the most prominent characters, fail to keep my attention. Once you know the secret, the book loses its interest. In 1870 Collins produced Man and Wife, which is like No Name and Armadale in being a perfectly fine Victorian novel overshadowed by the ones the academy pays more attention to. It marks the turning point in Collins’s career because the plot is obviously politically motivated. In the later part of his career Collins points out the absurdity of the complex marriage laws in the United Kingdom, by writing stories that illustrate the nonsensical points by which unethical men can contest their own marriages to unsuspecting ladies. They’re so painfully allegorical that they stop being believable. There are also some short stories that feel like truncated novels. The bright spot of the later career is The Law and the Lady, which features the first female detective. Valeria is out to clear her husband’s name, and deserves some attention for being a pregnant first-person narrator written in the 1870s. Seriously, sometimes fictional Victorian babies just pop out of nowhere.

Despite gendered comments on his rivalry with Brontë, Collins seems to have had a higher opinion of women than most people of his time.

You say I am driving you on to do what is beyond a woman’s courage. Am I? I might refer you to any collection of Trials, English or foreign, to show that you were utterly wrong. […] The woman was handsome, and the sailor was a good-natured man. He wanted, at first, if the lawyers would have allowed him, to let her off. He said to her, among other things, ‘You didn’t count on the drowned man coming back, alive and hearty, did you, ma’am?’ ‘It’s lucky for you,’ she said, ‘I didn’t count on it. You have escaped the sea, but you wouldn’t have escaped me.’ ‘Why, what would you have done, if you had known I was coming back?’ says the sailor. She looked him steadily in the face, and answered: ‘I would have killed you.’

Can you imagine such a passage in one of Mr Dickens’s? His female murderers, aside from being French, are generally not this chatty. They’ll do it, but they won’t go in front of a judge and affirm their willingness to commit a crime that they have not yet committed. To use a colloquial vulgarity, Collins’s women have balls. Big huge lady-balls. Most of them are in positions that no man of his time would have submitted to, but they survive and find ways to be happy. The efforts are often heroic, and sometimes almost superhuman.

But I don’t complain; I only mourn over the frailty of our common human nature. Let us expect as little of each other as possible, my dear; we are both women, and we can’t help it. I declare, when I reflect on the origin of our unfortunate sex – when I remember that we were all originally made of no better material than the rib of a man (and that rib of so little importance to its possessor that he never appears to have missed it afterwards), I am quite astonished at our virtues, and not in the least surprised at our faults.

Collins just can’t stand conventional people. His disdain of them is rather apparent in most of his novels; they have so few characters because his protagonists have to hate the run-of-the-mill as much as he does.

What had Allan seen in him to take such a fancy to? Allan had seen in him – what he didn’t see in people in general. He wasn’t like all the other fellows in the neighbourhood. All the other fellows were cut out on the same pattern. Every man of them was equally healthy, muscular, loud, hard-headed, clean-skinned, and rough; every man of them drank the same draughts of beer, smoked the same short pipes all day long, rode the best horse, shot over the best dog, and put the best bottle of wine in England on his table at night; every man of them sponged himself every morning in the same sort of tub of cold water, and bragged about it in frosty weather in the same sort of way; every man of them thought getting into debt a capital joke, and betting on horse-races one of the most meritorious actions that a human being can perform. They were no doubt excellent fellows in their way; but the worst of them was, they were all exactly alike. It was a perfect godsend to meet with a man like Midwinter – a man who was not cut out on the regular local pattern, and whose way in the world had the one great merit (in those parts) of being a way of his own.

Of course, such a man must fall in love with an unusual woman. Instead of the customary beautiful teenager full of airs and graces, Allan takes to Miss Milroy:

She was pretty; she was not pretty – she charmed, she disappointed, she charmed again. Tried by recognized line and rule, she was too short, and too well-developed for her age. And yet few men’s eyes would have wished her figure other than it was. Her hands were so prettily plump and dimpled, that it was hard to see how red they were with the blessed exuberance of youth and health. Her feet apologized gracefully for her old and ill-fitting shoes; and her shoulders made ample amends for the misdemeanor in muslin which covered them in the shape of a dress. Her dark grey eyes were lovely in their clear softness of colour, in their spirit, tenderness, and sweet good humour of expression; and her hair (where a shabby old garden hat allowed it to be seen) was of just that lighter shade of brown which gave value by contrast to the darker beauty of her eyes. But these attractions passed, the little attendant blemishes and imperfections of this self-contradictory girl began again. Her nose was too short, her mouth was too large, her face was too round, and too rosy. The dreadful justice of photography would have had no mercy on her, and the sculptors of classical Greece would have bowed her regretfully out of their studios. Admitting all this, and more, the girdle round Miss Milroy’s waist was the girdle of Venus, nevertheless – and the pass-key that opens the general heart was the key she carried, if ever a girl possessed it yet.

After all, Marian Halcombe, of the numerous marriage proposals above, is first introduced like this:

The easy elegance of every movement of her limbs and body as soon as she began to advance from the far end of the room, set me in a flutter of expectation to see her face clearly. She left the window—and I said to myself, The lady is dark. She moved forward a few steps—and I said to myself, The lady is young. She approached nearer—and I said to myself (with a sense of surprise which words fail me to express), The lady is ugly!

But Marian is so completely badass that you forget her physical defects because Collins shows you the person she really is. Her beautiful sister is rather empty-headed, even before the amnesia. Miss Milroy is unfortunately no Marian Halcombe. She can’t even support the name Eleanor; everyone calls her Neelie.

All that female badassery is concentrated in Lydia Gwilt. The novel may be titled Armadale, but it’s about her. The critics called her

One of the most hardened female villains whose devices and desires have ever blackened fiction

and she may deserve it.

There are five men in this novel named Allan Armadale. It works like this: AA1, a wealthy landowner with plantations in the Caribbean, had a son, AA2. AA2 was rather a disappointment, so he was disinherited in favor of a distant cousin, Allan Wrentmore. Wrentmore got everything, provided that he change his name to AA3. Of course he changed his name. He was really young, so when AA2 showed up under the name Fergus Ingleby, he gave him a position of trust despite all the warnings. Wrentmore’s mother wanted to separate them, so she wrote to one of her old admirers and proposed marrying her son to his daughter. Fergus used a nonlethal poison to keep Wrentmore out of the way long enough for him to take his place on the ship back to Europe and marry Miss Blanchard with his real name. Wrentmore figures out the identity theft and goes after them. He kills Fergus in the confusion of a shipwreck, but the guilt eats at him for the rest of his short life. The former Miss Blanchard gave birth to a son, AA4, and Wrentmore married a Creole woman who also gave birth to a son, AA5. As he’s dying, Wrentmore writes his son a letter warning him to stay clear of AA4 (Allan hereafter). AA5 has a terrible childhood with his stepfather, so he runs off and starts going by Ozias Midwinter. Midwinter knows the story, but Allan doesn’t. The secret of Midwinter’s real name is revealed only to Mr Brock, the clergyman who helped raise Allan, and Miss Gwilt.

Miss Gwilt seems to have been abandoned as a baby. She was picked up by a couple of con artists as an advertisement for their supposed hair tonics, but when the Blanchards showed some interest in her, the cons dumped her on their hands. When she was twelve, she was working as Miss Blanchard’s maid. There was some difficulty to be overcome when Miss B was marrying Fergus Ingleby/Allan Armadale, so the happy couple forced her to forge some letters for them. After the forgery and the marriage, they hid her in a French convent to keep her quiet. When she was seventeen, her music teacher committed suicide for love of her, so she was moved to another convent in Belgium. She nearly took the veil herself, but decided against it. She got involved with a different set of cons, and married one of their marks when the police busted their gig. He was abusive, and she fell in love with another guy, so she poisoned him. There was a well-publicized trial, and she was convicted. The public rose up in outrage, though, a beautiful woman who had been mistreated and all that Roxie Hart stuff, so she wasn’t punished. Celebrity trials worked pretty much the same then as they do now. Journalists can have as much influence on justice as the judges themselves. So she tries to hook up with her Cuban lover, but their marriage is invalid because he’s already married. He takes her money and leaves; she tries to kill herself, but one of the Blanchard men was (coincidentally) on the same ship she jumped out of, so he saves her. He gets a cold and dies – his other male relatives are in an avalanche on their way back for the funeral, so the Blanchard estate goes to Allan. Midwinter was briefly an usher in a school, but when he got sick he was fired, and wandered away until he turns up in Allan’s town, again by coincidence, and they become best friends.

For a while the novel is taken up with the struggle over fate or coincidence. How can all of these things have happened by accident? Then, Allan and Midwinter go for a boat ride one night (Allan was drunk and unmanageable), and they end up onboard the wreck of the ship where Wrentmore killed Fergus Ingleby. Allan has a series of prophetic dreams that may or may not warn him against getting close to Midwinter and Miss Gwilt. Midwinter becomes convinced that there’s a malevolent Fate that has brought Allan and him together to recreate the murder, even though they love each other. My gay heart leaps up when I read casual details, like Allan giving Midwinter a set of gold studs (do straight men give each other expensive jewelry? Not in my experience), or Midwinter’s closing affirmation on the last page of the book,

Your love and mine will never be divided again

So yeah, you could read them as gay before that existed as a cultural concept. They do fall in love with women, but that’s secondary to their interest in each other. The middle of the novel gets mired in the circumstantial evidence necessary to debate the existence of accidental coincidences – the introduction of Mrs Milroy perks things up for a while, but they slow down again, until halfway through Book Four we start reading Miss Gwilt’s diary and the character of the novel changes.

Miss Gwilt initially schemes to marry Allan, but she hates him. She falls in love with his friend instead. Her love for Midwinter changes her in some significant ways.

I have seen handsomer men by hundreds, cleverer men by hundreds. What can this man have roused in me? Is it Love? I thought I had loved, never to love again. Does a woman not love, when the man’s hardness to her drives her to drown herself? A man drove me to that last despair in days gone by. Did all my misery at that time come from something which was not Love? Have I lived to be five and thirty, and am I only feeling now, what Love really is? – now, when it is too late?

Hardly the monologue of a hardened villain, but Miss Gwilt is more complex than that. One of my frustrations with Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon is that it’s the classic Gothic story told from the point of view of the villain, but Thackeray’s villain is no more nuanced than those of Ann Radcliffe. Miss Gwilt is not your average villain, and I don’t mean that because she’s more evil than the rest, but because she’s a lot more subtly drawn than they are. There’s no motiveless malice; she’s abused and depressed, and her society has left her with very few alternatives.

Poor dear Midwinter! Yes, ‘dear’. I don’t care. I’m lonely and helpless. I want somebody who is gentle and loving, to make much of me; I wish I had his head on my bosom again; I have a good mind to go to London, and marry him. Am I mad? Yes; all people who are as miserable as I am, are mad. I must go to the window and get some air. Shall I jump out? No; it disfigures one so, and the coroner’s inquest lets so many people see it.

I know that I’ve been going on for quite a while now, but Victorian novels lead me into tangled wildernesses of thought from which it is difficult to extricate myself. I just have one more thing to talk about, so hang on just a little longer.

This novel gives a close look at a marriage, and it’s rather similar to what mine became. The ex was like a lot of conservative Christians:

In the miserable monotony of the lives led by a large section of the middle classes of England, anything is welcome to the women which offers them any sort of harmless refuge from the established tyranny of the principle that all human happiness begins and ends at home.

She saw her job, her mission in life, as taking care of her children. Just that. She got out of the house when we had only one, but after the second came, she only left the house when necessary. She had a couple of friends whom she could neglect for months at a time without offending, but she confined her daily life to her family. She ended up centering all her hope of adult interaction on me. I may have mentioned this before, but I’m a shy person who doesn’t like spending all of his time interacting with people. But as a teacher, that’s my job, so I’d talk to people all day long, and then I’d look forward to coming home where I could just be quiet. We had very different ideas about how I’d spend my time.

It is not in his nature to inflict suffering on others. Not a hard word, not a hard look, escapes him. It is only at night, when I hear him sighing in his sleep; and sometimes when I see him dreaming, in the morning hours, that I know how hopelessly I am losing the love he once felt for me. He hides, or tries to hide it, in the day, for my sake. He is all gentleness, all kindness – but his heart is not on his lips, when he kisses me now; his hand tells me nothing when it touches mine. Day after day, the hours that he gives to his hateful writing grow longer and longer; day after day, he becomes more and more silent, in the hours that he gives to Me.

The ex used to say that while I could make any sort of sacrifice of money and possessions for her and the boys, I was extremely selfish with my time. Maybe she was right, but I find that I need time alone in order to be able to handle being around people, even people I love. I get too much alone time now, but back then I never got any. I’d get home from work after the kids were in bed, and she’d want to spend time with me. All I wanted to do was eat my cold dinner and go to sleep. It may have been the introversion, or it may have been the homosexuality, but at the end of our time together I couldn’t stand her touching me. I just wanted to be left alone. Then the baby would lie between us perpendicularly and kick me in the face half the night, and the middle boy would wake himself up at 4:30 so that he could see me before I left for work in the morning. I didn’t leave until 6:45, so having another hour to sleep would have been really nice, but not going to happen when a two-year-old wants his breakfast.

These days I feel like Lydia Gwilt. I want someone gentle and loving to make much of me; I want to rediscover what it feels like to fall in love when I’m thirty-five. However, I’ve been in a relationship where I’m everything to the other person, and I don’t want that again. I want to be with someone who has interests outside of me – other friends, hobbies I’m not interested in, activities to pursue that leave me time to be alone. I’m finding the ability to set boundaries extremely sexy.

One last thing, and then I promise to stop. The last chapter, the one with The Purple Flask, is one of the most emotionally intense reading experiences I’ve ever had. The effect is not diminished with time or repetition. You see, Midwinter’s idea of fate is always negative, and coincidence is neutral. The novelist seems out to prove that you can interpret the events of your life to mean that there is a positive supernatural force guiding our lives, one that’s interested in using Midwinter to save Allan’s life, and ultimately, even in redeeming Lydia Gwilt. Christianity might be full of hypocrisy (evangelical churches and theatres blend into each other in this book), but that doesn’t mean that atheism is the only alternative.