Posts Tagged ‘victorian’

This book was published in 1882; the critical consensus, then as now, is that this is really not his best work. Which is to say that it’s still better than loads of other novels, it’s just not as shining a star as The Return of the Native or The Woodlanders. There wasn’t much to stand out as especially beautiful or heart-wrenching for me – the thing is, Hardy had a specific story in mind that was quite shocking for his time, but by now it’s so commonplace that we don’t see the point of writing about it.

Let us begin with Lady Constantine. A beautiful woman, mid-20s, with a jealous yet absent husband. He’s been big-game hunting for years now. Due to his extreme insecurity, he exacted a promise from her that she wouldn’t see any company until he returned, so she’s been completely isolated. Beauty, intelligence, loneliness – she’s very much like a fairy-tale princess, destined to change her life. Enter Swithin St Cleeve. Just eighteen years old, and prettier than any girl you’ve ever seen. He’s just back from college, where he’s been studying astronomy. He starts using a tower in one of her fields as an observatory, with just a telescope that’s half-homemade. She falls for him and takes an interest in the stars to get close to him; she outfits the tower with all the expensive tools he needs. Throughout the first third of the book, he’s too enamored of the stars to see anything as near to him as her heart, and she’s bound by her promise to her absent husband to keep her hands off. The distances between stars tend to make this earthly romance seem trivial; we all dwindle to nothing when we stare into the night.

Then, as luck would have it, she gets news that her husband’s died in distant lands, so she becomes a little more pointed (only a little) in her attentions to the young astronomer. Finally he gets it, and then all the intensity of a celibate adolescent’s first crush overwhelms his science. In Act II, all he cares about is her. They get married secretly in another town, which gives them license to fuck but not to move in together. Suddenly all the conventions of society become significant again, and they’re very secretive about their meetings and affections. So when the bishop comes to town for a visit, he’s taken by the young widow and tries to make a move. She deflects him, but in so gentle a way that he doesn’t realize that’s what’s happened.

Lady Constantine has a ne’er-do-well brother who wants to get her married to the bishop so that he can continue to mooch off of her income. Act III begins when he begins to suspect that she’s interested in the boy. To make things worse, now she hears that her husband is just now dead, a year or two later than she thought. Her marriage to Swithin is invalid because she was still married to the first husband. But she didn’t know that, so all the (I assume) wild sex she’s been having is in a morally grey area. They were never legally married, but they thought they were. Of course, in the twenty-first century this greyness has largely passed away. Nobody cares. She hasn’t seen her husband in a few years, so it seems perfectly natural to me that she’d fall for a guy who’s pretty and unavailable, and that the sex act would be the natural consequence of those feelings. Just as natural for her to encourage Swithin to take an opportunity to go on a scientific voyage around the world, seeing the famous astronomers in South Africa and North America. But with him out of the way, there’s another natural consequence, so she pushes through a quick marriage to the bishop to make her child be born legitimate. Hardy glosses over a lot of what happened in the six or seven years of Swithin’s absence, but the bishop realizes that the child looks exactly like that teenager who used to hang around his new wife, and he hasn’t been married to her for nine months yet. The marriage is not a happy one, and the bishop dies of shame in a few years. He is just as cruel as her first husband, though this time we know the reason for it. Having had three bad marriages, she decides to retire to the country and raise her son in peace.

But when Swithin returns, he really pisses me off. Contact with the world has made him more aware of the world’s values, and he’s now stupid enough to think that a few grey hairs ruin a woman’s beauty. When he was eighteen and she was twenty-six it was all right, but now that he’s twenty-five and she’s thirty-three he’s not interested. Throughout the book he was proud of her and admired her, and then in the last chapter she’s suddenly not good enough for him. I suppose in 1882 it would have been impossible for them to have a happily-ever-after ending, but still. I’m not saying I was a genius at twenty-five, but I could see beauty in a woman who was older than I was.

Some people might refer to these two as star-crossed lovers, but I disagree. The stars are present when they are following their natural impulses; the talk of stars disappears when the lovers remember society and all of its legalistic moral strictures. You can’t blame the stars for people being dumb. We choose our own destinies; you don’t get what you want by waiting for the universe to serve it to you.

So, despite the astronomical references, this book wasn’t that stellar. I’ve been putting off writing about it because I just don’t have anything to say. It is as it is – shocking for the time, but rather commonplace now. I feel like the best I can say is that it’s nothing special.

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Looking back over Stevenson’s previous novels, the predominant feeling I get about this one is, What the fuck? Picaresque boys’ adventure stories are done. Instead, we get a philosophical allegory out of nowhere. Maybe his short stories prepared readers for this, but even though I’d read it before, I was completely taken aback. Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Prince Otto, and The Black Arrow did not make me think this was coming.

Of course, a lifetime of watching this theme being played out in movies and television shows didn’t really prepare me for the book either. If I think of it, I can name five or six other important characters, but they’re almost completely forgettable, even the narrator. There are no female characters of any consequence, and surprisingly little action. There’s just the mystery, Why does your friend have friends that you don’t like?

First of all, let me say that Dr Jekyll is not the good side.

And indeed the worst of my faults was a certain impatient gaiety of disposition, such as has made the happiness of many, but such as I found it hard to reconcile with my imperious desire to carry my head high, and wear a more than commonly grave countenance before the public. Hence it came about that I concealed my pleasures; and that when I reached years of reflection, and began to look round me and take stock of my progress and position in the world, I stood already committed to a profound duplicity of life. Many a man would have even blazoned such irregularities as I was guilty of; but from the high views that I had set before me, I regarded and hid them with an almost morbid sense of shame.

Most stories begin with problems or needs that have to be fixed or fulfilled, and Jekyll’s problem is that he wants to look more pious than anyone else. Note the emphasis on the external – he doesn’t actually want to be a good person, he wants everyone to think he’s a good person. There’s actually a big difference. The typical spiritual disciplines don’t help Jekyll be the man he wants people to think he is, though I don’t think he actually tried fasting and prayer to overcome temptation. He relies on science instead; he devises a medicine that will suppress the parts of his personality he doesn’t approve of. He relies on the drug more and more often, but it has a side effect he wasn’t prepared for: it periodically releases the evil parts of himself that he’s been afraid to reveal. His evil is personified in Mr Hyde, and Mr Hyde starts taking over more often so that Jekyll has to keep overdosing. Eventually he realizes that he can’t control Hyde and commits suicide to save the world from the two of them.

These days Mr Hyde’s portrayal is radically different from what Stevenson imagined. His Hyde is little, being only a small part of Dr Jekyll, and by ‘evil’ Stevenson means physically violent. He hits people, sometimes to the point of killing them. These days there are things that we consider much worse, but Hyde’s evil is only in physical violence, most of it not sexual. Hyde was ugly, and people thought of him as having some kind of birth defect but they were unable to say what it was. This is part of what I find interesting in the story – people lose their ability to speak and describe Hyde. It’s like Stevenson’s time didn’t have vocabulary for the type of evil he imagined, so he couldn’t represent it on the page. But in films, nothing exists if we don’t see it. There are two ways of portraying Hyde. In the first, he’s a monster, generally larger with scoliosis and other malformed joints. He’s kind of like the Incredible Hulk. In the second, he’s kind of smooth and sexy, so still taller with a deeper voice. This Hyde isn’t an animal; he’s a more pronounced version of stereotypical masculinity. Evil no longer shrinks and tramples little girls in the street; it seduces, it overshadows, it is strength. Hyde is so successful that some directors give him the nobility and strength of character as well as the muscles. Evil is a more nuanced, complicated, difficult problem than it seems to have been for a Victorian writer of children’s stories.

I feel more connections with Dr Jekyll’s story than are perhaps complimentary. I’ve never wanted to seem better than others, but I like being the best I can be, and when I was a religious person I wanted to be the best religious person possible. I tried really hard, and I was good at it. I became an expert in self-denial because that’s what my deity expected (in this sentence, ‘my deity’ is a set of cultural constructs that is pretty close to an amalgamation of my perceptions of my parents – my dad’s physical distance, my mom’s emotional distance and judgmentalism). Unfortunately, being religious creates this internal divide – like Dr Jekyll, I labeled some parts of myself as evil and crushed or ignored them. But, as in the Langston Hughes poem, parts of the self that are denied don’t just dry up like a raisin in the sun, they explode.

Six or seven years ago, my entire life collapsed. The first part was losing the religion. I was a good and faithful member of that church for more than thirty years; it was the most important part of my cultural identity. I had given everything I had to them, until something in me just broke and I couldn’t do it any more. I was severely depressed and no amount of service was changing that (they tell you to forget about yourself and work for others and you’ll find peace, but it’s a lie). I thought God hated me, and when I tried communing with him he was sort of unfeeling and cruel about the whole thing, which I now take as evidence that the voice in my head was just me. As they say, you know you’ve created God in your own image when he hates all the same people you do. My wife was a big help and support during this time. She had always seen my church as pulling us apart, so when I got rid of it she thought we were growing closer. She had reached a relationship goal, and we started going to churches together, with her settling on Catholicism. I guess she didn’t notice how often I used the baby as an excuse to leave Mass.

A few months later, I told my wife that I’m gay and she left me. She insists that she had no idea it was coming; I insist that she must have been willfully blind. If I had been looking for evidence that I was evil, this was it: not the whole gay thing, the fact that I broke the heart of the only person I felt truly loved me. I suppose I did have some self-hatred for being gay, but the way that the fact I’m gay hurt her is the thing I hated. If I could have taken a pill that would force me to be straight, I would have done it, for her. We had the kind of codependent relationship where each only exists as an extension of the other – I didn’t know who I was in isolation, or whether I existed at all. I had lost my self.

There are those who say suicide is never an option. That’s dumb; suicide is always an option. It’s not a good option, but it’s there. I actively wanted to die for a long time. I had several lengthy, detailed fantasies about killing myself. Most involved cutting, a few were burning, drowning, or hanging. When a friend gave me some sleeping pills, I couldn’t take any because I knew I’d overdose. There were some times the only reason I left the house was to get away from all the kitchen knives. I used to walk around the city at night trying to get up the nerve to jump in front of a truck. Fortunately, I’m also lazy, and the idea that suicide is always an option was really helpful. Because it was always there, there was no rush. I can live through today and try it tomorrow. I’m alive now because I kept procrastinating suicide until I didn’t want to do it any more. Some people say that suicide is selfish and we shouldn’t do it because of the pain it will bring to others; that seems like another dumb thing to say. Living my life for other people is what drove me to suicidal depression, so it wasn’t going to help me get out of it.

Counseling helped. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy wasn’t the path for me – it felt like I was Jekyll-and-Hyding again, naming a part of myself as evil and containing it, partitioning my self like a hard drive. The Emotional Freedom Techniques of Henry Grayson were better, but the most useful idea of his was the warm-up, where I say out loud that I love and accept myself even if I still think I’m not that great. I started visualizing myself as having separate people who live inside me, like The Ego Pirate or The Crying Boy. I stopped trying to correct any of these weird partial selves I have and just focused on loving them as they were, loving myself as I was. I started treating myself as I would my kids, with the same patience for my own vulnerability that I have with theirs. The little boy in me cried all he needed to and then stopped, my ego stopped trying to kill off the parts of me that were hurting, and I stopped feeling so fractured. I don’t need the visualizations any more.

I still get depressed sometimes, but it’s not constant. It’s been a long time since I thought about killing myself. With all the high-profile suicides, the thing that people seem not to be talking about is the fact that suicidal ideation isn’t a constant thing. It hits like a thunderstorm; sometimes it lasts for days, but sometimes only for a few minutes. Sometimes there are triggers, sometimes there aren’t. Sometimes memories are the trigger, and it can take a while for them to surface. For example. When I first came out, my brother called me on the phone, already a drastic step because he only has about a third of his hearing. He yelled at me for twenty minutes and threatened to kill me, and we haven’t spoken since. While that memory hurts, he’s not the one that’s bothering me right now. It’s my mom. When I told her about this, she didn’t react. She still tells me about what’s going on in his life as if nothing happened. No one else in my family responded either, except to agree that he’s an asshole and to say there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Not that anyone’s tried.

The Mom thing brings up a couple of important habits of hers that contribute to my depression. The first is her habit of ignoring everything she doesn’t like or approve of. She doesn’t have any photographs of my adolescence because I was weird and awkward-looking. This is where the partitioning began; to get parental approval, I had to lock away the aspects of myself that my mom didn’t like. “Don’t walk like that – you look like a fairy.” The second thing is the way that she blamed me for everything that happened to me. If I had a problem, it was always my fault, and usually my responsibility to get out of it myself. I can understand the desire to teach her kids to be independent and to think critically, but sometimes a kid needs a hug and to hear that everything is going to be okay. We need to feel that our mother is on our side, but I rarely felt like she was biased in my favor. More often, it went the other way. “And what did you do to deserve it?” Why do you assume that I always deserve it? She got a little hurt a few years ago because I never take my problems to her now, but she is the least sympathetic person I know. Why would I take her anything? With these attitudes growing up, of course I ended up feeling like there was an evil inside me that was going to consume the entire earth, and that it was my duty to protect everyone from me. Of course I wanted to commit suicide like Dr Jekyll.

I’m not evil. I’m gay and angry, but I don’t damage or poison people just by being in the same room with them. I’m fairly quiet with people I don’t trust, so most people (including my family) see me as a mirror of themselves – they’re shocked when I suddenly have different opinions than they do, but that’s not my fault, and it’s not proof of hidden evil. The more I embrace the parts of me that my mom doesn’t like or see, the more I like myself, and the more my real friends like me too. Even the worst parts of me can be loved.

So, if Stevenson’s story is about good and evil, what is evil? And what is good? Dr Jekyll’s evil is rejecting himself. His locked-up desires get stronger and stronger and burst out in violent and unexpected ways, but those desires didn’t start out as evil. His vices are initially so mild that other people brag about them. Evil is naming part of yourself evil and hating yourself because of it. And good? Well, like so many stories that people say are about good and evil, this isn’t a story about good. People talk of Hyde as the evil and Jekyll as the good, but he’s only one person, and Jekyll isn’t that great.

This book is short and strange, but not David Lynch strange, it’s what-does-Stevenson-think-he’s-doing strange. He’s writing something different than his usual books, and the result is weird, like he doesn’t know how to write this kind of story. Worth reading, but don’t assume you’re going to know anything useful about the author’s style or habits of storytelling. Obviously it’s helped me articulate things I’m experiencing, but that’s more to do with my response and less with the book itself. He’s tapped into something universal and collective, much more than ever before, but he doesn’t handle it with the skill that he did earlier novels. With all the retellings, I feel like I shouldn’t be surprised, especially since I’ve read this before, but it’s still unexpected and weird, every time.

Let’s take a moment to remember what Stevenson has written up until this point: Treasure Island, Prince Otto, and Kidnapped. All three of these were adventure stories, written primarily for a younger, male audience. His style represents a transition from the loquaciousness of his Victorian contemporaries to the bare, “hard boiled” narration of twentieth-century genre fiction. But apparently that style hasn’t suited everyone, and before the story he references specifically “The Critic on the Hearth,” both a play on the Dickens title and an appropriate yet affectionate title for his wife. In The Black Arrow, he claims to be trying to merge his boy adventures with the type of story (and writing) that traditional novel readers enjoy – in other words, he says that he’s going to infuse some Dickens and Brontë into this one. I suppose it’s because he’s finally writing about a young man who is interested in a woman.

As the subtitle suggests, this story takes place during the Wars of the Roses, though Stevenson seems to avoid taking sides in the York/Lancaster debate. His message is at least partly that it doesn’t matter what side of a war you fight on, because in the end war is a way for the rich to get richer and the poor to die. The poor, realizing this, are hesitant to involve themselves. It doesn’t help that in a civil war of this type, the people they are fighting and killing are their friends and neighbors, all hyped up over one cause or the other. It’s not a happy world to drop your characters into. Displacing the characters in time gives Stevenson the chance to use some archaisms, but not enough to make it seem written back in the fifteenth century.

This is the story of Dick Shelton, told in five acts. In Act I, he’s a young teenager who’s more interested in fighting than in girls. In his guardian’s house he meets a young man on the opposite side, and incautiously promises to guide him to Holywood. So they run off on a secret adventure, and it’s all very homosocial and Kidnapped-esque. But this time, lest anyone think Dick is actually gay, Stevenson pulls a Shakespearean stunt and Jack Matcham is really Joan Sedley, so all those jokes that people were making about Jack being a girly boy were quite accurate. And remember, it’s okay to fall in love with someone of the same sex if they turn out to have been lying about their sex all along. They don’t quite make it to Holywood before Dick’s guardian Sir Daniel recaptures them

In Act II, Dick has to face some home truths about Sir Daniel – his guardian killed his father and persuaded him to believe it was someone else. His life and the love of his new father figure is all a lie, so he goes all rampage and joins The Black Arrow, a group of outlaw archers who live in the forest and are bent on killing Sir Daniel for having killed Dick’s father, among others. Sir Daniel has flipped sides in the war a few times, so The Black Arrow is not wedded to a white or a red rose either. They just care about avenging the wrongs of Sir Daniel and his cohorts. Dick decides that he wants to marry Joan, which is a bit of a challenge because Sir Daniel is keeping her captive so he can sell her in marriage to a rich noble. Doesn’t matter which one, so long as he’s rich and is willing to pay for a really young wife.

In Act III, Dick tries to rescue Joan the first time. He and his Arrows steal a ship and try to come around by the shore, the only ingress unguarded. A huge storm blows up and his men are too sick and scared to fight, and they come into conflict with Lord Foxham and his men. Foxham is Joan’s rightful guardian, and he’s also trying to get her back from Sir Daniel. After they end the first battle, Foxham and Dick team up. They try again, and are unsuccessful again. This time Foxham is seriously wounded and has to go recuperate for a long time. The message here? (1) You’re not going to get the girl and resolve the action in Act III of a five-act play, and (2) Stealing boats is not the right way to go about doing anything.

In Act IV, Dick teams up with the only guy who kept his head during the storm at sea. They disguise themselves as friars to sneak into Sir Daniel’s but they just end up captured and needing to break out again. Dick does meet up with Joan for a short time, but they are quickly separated. We also meet her friend Alicia, Lord Risingham’s niece. Both girls are kind of badass, but hindered by the gender roles of their time. It’s hard to run in a medieval princess dress. At least they didn’t have to wear those cone hats with the veils.

Act V. Dick ditches Lawless and becomes an officer under the Duke of Gloucester, he who will become King Richard III. Gloucester is presented as ruthless and efficient, but still young. Reading Shakespeare I always pictured Richard III as an older man, but when he died he was five years younger than I am now, so maybe young and stupid was always part of his problem. He never outgrew the adolescent need to see everything in terms of black and white. Dick does well with a barricade and is knighted, then drops from favor just as quickly when he pisses Richard off. He saves the girl, forgives the bad guy (but in forgiving holds him in one place long enough for the leader of The Black Arrow to shoot him), and they almost all live happily ever after. Well, until their natural deaths. There is no living ever after in a story set four hundred years before it’s written.

If there’s a big lesson here, it’s that Dick has to learn that his actions have consequences. He’s so focused on his goal of saving the girl that he bumbles around doing shitty things to other people and being surprised when they respond negatively, and when they turn back up in town and respond negatively again. The story takes place in and around one town; it’s kind of dumb to think that people are going to just go away. There is a war on, but you can’t expect the people you don’t like to die and the people you do like to live. Life isn’t that tidy.

So. Did Stevenson succeed? Well, he finally does have realistic female characters, and Dick realizes that he’s turned on by a girl who’s going to call him out on his shit, but this is still the same kind of adventure story he’s been writing before. The girls are awesome, but we don’t get to see them much. They’re damsels in distress, but that distress is mainly caused by the fact that they can’t wear trousers or take fencing lessons. Given the chance, I’m sure they could manage their own problems. There’s an independence of mind that Stevenson’s previous novels haven’t afforded women, so in that sense this book is a step forward. People who read novels for psychological studies and mature themes are still going to be disappointed; it’s still aimed at the younger male audience, full of unnecessary violence and idiotic attempts at heroism. I suppose that could be another message, don’t set people up as heroes because they’re as fallible as you and will inevitably let you down. But it’s an early Stevenson novel, fun in a late Victorian sort of a way.

I’m always fond of book recommendations. I like to see what the people I love love to read; it’s a way for me to approach them more nearly, since books are easier for me than people. This rec comes from Virginia Woolf, who mentions it several times in The Common Reader even though it doesn’t get its own chapter. I also saw several references to it back in grad school when I was reading a lot of ecocriticism, because there are not that many Victorians who worked with nature as extensively as he does.

After making a hasty meal at the house, I started, full of pleasing anticipations, for the wood; for how pleasant a place it was to be in! What a wild beauty and fragrance and melodiousness it possessed above all forests, because of that mystery that drew me to it! And it was mine, truly and absolutely – as much mine as any portion of earth’s surface could belong to any man – mine with all its products; the precious woods and fruits and fragrant gums that would never be trafficked away; its wild animals that man would never persecute; nor would any jealous savage dispute my ownership or pretend that it was part of his hunting-ground. As I crossed the savannah I played with this fancy; but when I reached the ridgy eminence, to look down once more on my new domain, the fancy changed to a feeling so keen that it pierced to my heart, and was like pain in its intensity, causing tears to rush to my eyes. And caring not in that solitude to disguise my feelings from myself, and from the wide heaven that looked down and saw me – for this is the sweetest thing that solitude has for us, that we are free in it, and no convention holds us – I dropped on my knees and kissed the stony ground, then casting up my eyes, thanked the Author of my being for the gift of that wild forest, those green mansions where I had found so great a happiness!

Hooray for Victorians! Hudson was born in Argentina to English-speaking parents, so when he finally came to Victorian London he spoke a weird mixture of English and Spanish, but in his writing most of the Spanglish is gone, and he sounds halfway between Stevenson and Dickens. The Argentine literary tradition claims him also, as Guillermo Enrique Hudson, even though he wrote in English.

You may think that growing up in South America would give him a sympathetic view of people of different races, but some people travel all over the world only to find that their culture really is the best and most enlightened. You can’t always heal ethnocentrism with cross-cultural contact. Our protagonist is from Caracas, and while Spanish speakers are always referred to as white and therefore normal (different from modern United States usage, where Hispanic White is a separate category), he has nothing kind to say about the natives. They’re dirty lying superstitious murderous savages, even when they take him in and feed him for several months. This racial tension is the context that drives the main action in the story. The other important context is the white tendency to possessiveness that we see in the passage above. He sees something he likes, he wants to own it completely.

Enter the bird-woman. Hudson was an ornithologist and wrote a few nonfiction works on birds, so naturally the love interest in his romance is extremely bird-like. Protagonist starts spending time in those woods he likes so much, and he hears something that sounds like a bird but isn’t quite one. It turns out that no one hunts there because they believe the wood is protected by a spirit, daughter of the river-god or some such. Protagonist is not very interested in native religions, so he doesn’t explore the mythology. So he spends time in the woods, and learns to recognize the emotional content of the bird-speech, and eventually he meets her. In fairness to the natives, she does get seriously angry if any animals are harmed. She’s a total vegan, and makes a shimmery dress for herself from spider webs.

Like a good sensation novel, we get her background information about two-thirds of the way through the book. Once upon a time, there was a Spanish guy who fell in with a bad crowd. They were running from the law through the woods once, and run across this cave. There’s a young woman inside, and in trying to catch her, the bad guys fall to their deaths. The single good guy takes her out of the cave and they go to live in civilization. (Sound suspicious? This guy tells his own story, and I tend not to trust narrators. Salient facts: seven or eight guys go into a cave, but only one comes out, and he brings a woman with him. What happened in the cave and why the girl is pregnant are a matter of conjecture.) He passes the girl off as his daughter, albeit a weird daughter who only speaks in this bird language that no one else knows. She learns Spanish and gives birth, which kind of makes Rima look like an immaculate conception from nature itself. Rima learns her mother’s language as well as Spanish. When the mother dies, her supposed grandfather takes her far away from the people who think she’s a witch. They live in the greatest seclusion somewhere in the jungle probably on the southern part of the border between Venezuela and Colombia. She spends most of her time alone in the woods, chirping like a bird and hanging out with the animals. Grandpa takes his dogs and goes to a hunting shack, far away from where she lives, so that he can eat some meat. Not all people take to veganism.

The love affair between Abel and Rima is as weirdly Victorian as it gets. Two beautiful people meet each other, and he is the first man of her ethnicity that she’s seen since before puberty (Grandfather doesn’t count). She thinks he listens to her and treats her as more than just a ghost, even though he never really understands her. He sees that she is beautiful, so he wants to force her into his model of a conventionally beautiful woman. He doesn’t bring her a literal corset, but continually asking her to explain things in Spanish instead of her preferred language is like a mental corset. Language is a very important part of a person’s identity – when I first got back from Brazil, it was still hard for me to talk about emotional subjects in English, but I could open up more easily in Portuguese. There are some concepts that make more sense in other languages – every word was once a poem, and other languages blend meanings differently than we do in English. Even though we translate, the flavor of the meaning changes. Abel refuses to learn Rima’s language; he just keeps insisting she speak Spanish. He tries to control her in other ways too, like wanting her to walk next to him instead of running all over the place like a bird circling around him. She wants to be understood, but he can only understand through dissection.

Victorian modesty strikes a false note here. This girl has wrapped herself in spider webs, but how does she perform essential bodily functions? I’m particularly concerned about menstruation, which apparently never happens. Abel talks in vague terms about the loveliness of her form, but for her to be wrapped in spider webs and still climb trees and do the other things she does, that dress has to be sheer and tight up top and either split like trousers around the legs or considerably looser in the skirt. These details we ignore; he talks about the opalescent shifting colors, but not the shape. And then, nature girl meets the guy she wants to keep for life, and they never have sex. Her distance from society should make her less bound by sexual mores, but no. She’s as chaste as a Dickens heroine, and more chaste than some of them. I suppose you could read it that she’s so far removed from conventions that she doesn’t even have conventional desires, but it seems unnatural in a character so tightly bound to nature.

In some ways, Rima could be read as surprisingly feminist because she resists so much. The modesty and affinity with nature are classical indications of femininity, but the conflict between her and Abel is because she refuses to adopt the passive role with him. She won’t speak only in Spanish because she wants him to learn her bird language. She can travel faster and farther than he can with less food, so she goes off on a journey and leaves him to follow at his own pace. She also recognizes the landscape after having only seen it once, so even after traveling across all of Venezuela, parts of Brazil, and into Guyana, she can get home in half the time it takes him. And she is independent enough to do it. Unfortunately, the solitude that results from this leads to her death, but this relationship wasn’t going to end happily anyway. In the time and place that the novel was written, leading female characters had three options, to be wed, mad, or dead, so death was probably the best choice because it means she doesn’t have to compromise who she is in order to please some man. Rima is hunted down and killed for being different, and there is no man to save her because no man is her physical and spiritual equal. She seems like an entirely other species, one better adapted to the environment but poorly adapted to human society.

Abel reacts to her death the way you would expect: he goes to a neighboring tribe and starts a war that kills the entire tribe that killed her. Everyone who knew her and consented to her death dies. Such a white man thing to do. So much the opposite of anything she would have wanted. Then he goes off and lives like a crazy hermit in the woods, nearly starving to death before finally settling in Georgetown.

This issue of solitude is important to me. As Abel mentions in the quote above, when we’re alone we are free from social conventions and expectations. When you grow up in a difficult family situation, of the type that I did, figuring out what people want and giving it to them quickly is an essential survival pattern. It gets deeply ingrained at a very early age, so now people are hard for me because as I age I become less interested in conforming to what is expected of me. There’s often a dissonance between what I do/say and what I want to do/say, like watching his daughter’s shows with the family instead of reading by myself, because he thinks something is wrong if we aren’t all together in the evening. And he is similar enough to my dad in size and personality that I’m kind of afraid of making him angry, which is probably why I haven’t yet told him that I’m moving out in four weeks. That conversation needs to happen soon, though.

I need to find someone who makes me feel so accepted that I don’t have to be afraid of disagreeing with him. Or in other words, someone I can trust. I have friends like that, so I know such people exist, I just need to locate one who’s interested in me romantically.

 

When it comes to picaresque adventure novels, no one quite matches the Eighteenth Century. I’m thinking immediately of Tom Jones and Roderick Random, but I don’t mean to discount Gil Blas and Don Quixote. I know Don Quixote was earlier, but he was sort of the grandfather of the British heroic picaros. So when Stevenson started writing a novel about the famous Appin murder, it was a bit inevitable that things would move in this direction.

What famous Appin murder, you say? I’m glad you asked. Cast back in your mind to the seventeenth century. The Puritan government fell apart after the death of Cromwell, so they restored the monarchy by returning Charles II to the throne. When he died, the throne passed to his Catholic brother James. James was not popular with the people because they were afraid of having a Catholic king, so he had to flee the country. The monarchy was given to his daughter Mary and her husband William, and from them to his second daughter Anne, and from there to the distant cousin who became George I. However, James had a legitimate son, and this son tried to take back the throne in 1715. That son had a son of his own, who started another uprising in 1745. The Battle of Culloden ended these Jacobite claims to the throne, but did not end the partisan feelings between supporters of Bonny Prince Charlie and the Hanoverian king. In Appin, the land belonging to the Stewarts (relatives of Charles, James, etc) was confiscated and managed by the Campbells. Colin Roy Campbell of Glenure seems to have been fairly popular, despite his unfortunate position as Factor of the formerly Stewart lands. But, the Stewarts had to get rid of him to get their property back, so they shot him in 1752. It was widely believed that Alan Breck Stewart pulled the trigger, but he ran off to France, so James Stewart was hanged for it instead. The identity of the real shooter was kept as a family secret until the twenty-first century, when someone announced that James planned it all out, but that Donald Stewart was the real shooter. Two-hundred-fifty-year-old family secrets aren’t incredibly reliable, but that’s the information we have.

Stevenson’s story is of David Balfour, a seventeen-year-old boy denied his title and lands by a selfish uncle. The uncle pays a ship captain to kidnap him. He gets promoted to cabin boy when one of the mates kills the existing boy, and then they pick up Alan Breck, whose ship went down in the Hebrides. Alan and David team up to defeat the bad sailors, and then they travel together through the Highlands so that Alan can escape to France and David can regain what’s rightfully his. During a brief separation, David asks directions of a passing group of people, one of whom is Colin Roy Campbell, and the pause in their travel facilitates the Appin murder. Stevenson sets his story in 1751, a year early, but it’s the Appin murder all the same. David and Alan are both hounded through northern Scotland by the authorities, but everything turns out okay in the end.

Someone has written a gay erotic parody, and while I haven’t read it, I will say that the book lends itself especially well to such treatment. There is exactly one memorable female character, and she only appears for half a chapter. Her role is to be manipulated into providing them with food, drink, and a ride across the loch. A strong lass, she manages the oars herself, but the author doesn’t dignify her with a name. Most of the book is about the close relationship between Alan Breck and David Balfour, the way that Alan takes care of David when he’s sick and teaches him swordfighting when he’s well. For part of the time that they travel, they sleep together under a single coat, which implies some tight spooning. And, when he’s describing their relationship, it starts to sound like the way I feel about mine:

The thought of a separation ran always the stronger in my mind; and the more I approved of it, the more ashamed I grew of my approval. It would be a fine, handsome, generous thing, indeed, for Alan to turn round and say to me: “Go, I am in the most danger, and my company only increases yours.” But for me to turn to the friend who certainly loved me, and say to him: “You are in great danger, I am in but little; your friendship is a burden; go, take your risks and bear your hardships alone –” no, that was impossible; and even to think of it privily to myself, made my cheeks to burn.

And yet Alan had behaved like a child, and (what is worse) a treacherous child. Wheedling my money from me while I lay half-conscious was scarce better than theft; and yet here he was trudging by my side, without a penny to his name, and by what I could see, quite blithe to sponge upon the money he had driven me to beg. True, I was ready to share it with him; but it made me rage to see him count upon my readiness.

These were the two things uppermost in my mind; and I could open my mouth upon neither without black ungenerosity. So I did the next worst, and said nothing, nor so much as looked once at my companion, save with the tail of my eye.

We aren’t in open conflict, nor yet in accord. We’re becoming less guarded in our speech, or at least he is, and it’s becoming clear that we’re just too different. We have different tastes in leisure activities, in television programs, and even in what constitutes healthy food. The money thing just makes it worse; Stevenson’s characters are in physical danger, but our danger is primarily financial. I don’t mean to keep re-covering the same ground, but there it is. Young Balfour takes the same tactic that I’m taking: put up with an incompatible partner for a short time, because I’m going home.

Kidnapped is a good choice from someone who likes boys’ adventure fiction of the late Victorian Era. It avoids the fluid nature of eighteenth-century spelling and capitalization, and includes a number of peculiarly Scottish words and phrases, most of which can be interpreted using context clues. Real eighteenth-century picaresque novels typically included some sexually explicit scenes, but Stevenson avoids any mention of sexuality. That omission is a bit sad and unrealistic, but makes the book appropriate for children.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.