trying to do better

I keep wanting to write reviews of all the books I read, not just the Classics Challenge ones, but finding the idea too daunting. It’s not the quantity of books I read that worries me, but the quality of the reviews. Having produced about 5,000 words a week for three years for my degree, and then the post-degree review-writing that I do at Quadrapheme, I’m not at all used to the idea of just writing a couple of paragraphs of reflection and then letting it go. I have this odd notion that unless a review is deeply considered and profoundly analytical and aspiring to be worthy of the London Review of Books, it is just not worth writing.

This notion is clearly absolute bollocks, of course, but it’s persistent.

Anyway, my point is that I’m going to try and start writing reviews of as many of the books I read as possible. They’ll be brief, they’ll be personal and probably quite opinionated, and I doubt I’ll quote much, but at least they’ll get me started. The Classics Challenge reviews will still, probably, read like earnest undergraduate essays, but that’s kind of the point of that challenge, for me.

The next book that I’m reading, unfortunately, is for me to review over at Shiny New Books, so I can’t really write about it here until that review is published in March. But there will be something here soon. (The book, if you’re interested, which of course you are, is The Well by Catherine Chanter. It is about a family that moves from London to the country and discovers some rather horrifying truths about the land that they’ve purchased. I love anti-pastoral, and this looks to be a strong contender in that field. Drop by SNB at the end of March and read what I think of it!)

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Wise Children, by Angela Carter

First published: 1991.

Edition read: Vintage Classics, pub. 1992.

Provenance: purchased from Bookends in Carlisle.

Read: December 2014, curled up in an armchair next to the Christmas tree.

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Angela Carter was a revelation. I started her book of cultural criticism, The Sadeian Woman, in my second year of university, given it by a friend who was two years older and who, as a Finalist, had attained a level of world-weary knowingness that awed me. I didn’t manage to finish the book because, frankly, I hadn’t read enough secondary material to know what to do with it, and it scared me. Even then, though, I could recognize that this writer was totally unique. No one else thought like this, or if they did, they didn’t write it down so sensibly. Last year, I read The Bloody Chamber, her collection of re-imagined fairytales, and made the wonderful, rare discovery that every line in the book was quotable in its brilliance, beauty and wit. When it came time to make this list of fifty, I put her novel Wise Children on it, keen for more of the same. It wasn’t quite the same.

Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy it. Wise Children is a novel that pays homage to, among other things, Shakespeare, especially Shakespearean comedy and the later romance plays; it has twins, doublings, the possibility of incest, a contrast between “high” and “low” culture and lifestyles, and a persistent questioning of legitimacy. The two sisters at the heart of the story are Dora and Leonora (known, mostly for brevity’s sake, as Nora) Chance, chorus girls, dancers and sometimes actresses on the vaudeville and chorus hall circuit of early twentieth-century London. They are the bastard children of Sir Melchior Hazard, the greatest Shakespearean actor of his generation, an Olivier figure who never acknowledges them as his own and who is quite content to let the world think that they are his brother Peregrine’s by-blows. The two names–Chance and Hazard–are playfully resonant: both mean “luck” or “fortune”, though Chance is a simple word and Hazard a grander one. These names are Carter’s first warning that Wise Children will be about the differences between subcultures within the same country, and the potentially awful consequences that may visit you if you choose to ignore the less picturesque aspects of your own history. You could, I suppose, call it an allegory.

Spotting the Shakespeare references scattered throughout the book is highly diverting; there is, for instance, the fact that Melchior Hazard’s mother met her husband while playing Cordelia to his King Lear, an imaginary incest which parallels the Chance girls’ childhood crush on their famous father. (This also mirrors the uncomfortable father/daughter dynamic in Pericles, where the exiled king encounters a girl in a brothel who turns out to be his long-lost daughter, Marina.) My favorite, however, has got to be a scene set during a game show broadcast. The Chance sisters have an extended unofficial family which includes “little Tiffany”, their goddaughter, who is now in her early twenties, and an extended official family, which includes Tristram Hazard, their half-brother. Tiffany and Tristram, both carrying on the family line by working in show business, co-host a game show called “Lashings of Lolly” (I don’t think you’re meant to understand what this means; I certainly don’t.) They are also dating, and as the novel opens, Tiff is pregnant with Tristram’s baby. In a rather extraordinary scene, she descends a staircase on the set of Lashings of Lolly during a live broadcast, apparently out of her mind, alternately singing and talking nonsense, before taking off her clothes and dashing, naked and unstoppable, from the studio. It’s painfully funny, and it’s as obvious a parody of Ophelia’s mad scene in Hamlet as I’ve ever read.

Mostly, Wise Children (like Shakespeare) is about generation, and generations. The novel’s title comes from an old saying: “It’s a wise child who knows its own father.” The traditional view of parenthood, where paternity is nearly impossible to establish but maternity is nearly impossible to deny, is interrogated and turned inside-out by the book’s events. Where paternity is so often disputed, we have, in the end, a disputed maternal line for the Chance sisters as well; there is some suggestion that their mother might have been the woman who raised them and whom they considered to be their grandmother. This totally destabilizes the idea of heredity: if women no longer occupy a position of immobility, their children could be anything, could inherit all manner of undesirable traits, from unknown forebears. Even unbroken heredity is as much a curse as a blessing: you have to destroy your progenitor in order to become your own person, but more often than not, you become the thing you thought you’d put behind you. Melchior, on his 100th birthday, dresses as his famous father, Ranulph, who killed Melchior’s mother, her lover, and himself. Is he being his father, or defeating him? Is it possession or exorcism, damnation or redemption?

This is a hugely entertaining book, but not a particularly easy one to review. It’s not even particularly easy to describe, or analyze. I have not pulled any quotes from it; few leap out. It addresses large questions but makes no claims about any of them. Carter’s point, presumably, is that supposedly clear demarcations between the known and unknown, the legitimate and illegitimate, the normative and deviant, are actually very blurred lines. I’d recommend Wise Children, but it’s more diffuse than her most notorious work, lacking the intensity and precision of The Bloody Chamber. Still–as the Lucky Chance sisters would no doubt tell you–different doesn’t have to mean bad.

The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins

First published: 1868.

Edition read: Oxford World’s Classics, 1985, ed. Anthea Trodd.

Provenance: purchased from Bookends in Carlisle.

Read: November 2014, sitting up in bed late into the night.

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There are a few reliable old warhorse-facts you can trot out about Wilkie Collins and his novel The Moonstone: it was the first detective novel in the English language (dubious), he was friends with Dickens (true), he was a theatrical impresario, also much in the vein of Dickens (also true), he did not behave well to the various women in his life (perhaps this depends on your definition of “good behavior” but I am inclined to say “true” to this as well.) After you’ve mentioned these, you can add that The Moonstone is about the theft of a priceless Indian jewel, make some hrrrumph-ing noises about the legacy of colonialism, and turn the conversation to some more convivial topic. That’s usually as far as it gets.

If you actually read The Moonstone, you’ll notice, first of all, that the whole question of India and the “Hindoos” who seek the jewel is a bit of a red herring. English xenophobia is not the point of this novel at all; what Collins’s plot really does is allow him to examine the myriad ways in which the society he depicts fails to exercise imaginative compassion. It’s about power, usually economic power, and its warping effects on an individual’s judgment, morals, and behavior. It’s also about class differences, about which I think Collins is kinder, subtler, and more interesting than Dickens.

As per usual, though, Wordsworth Classics takes the prize for most-irrelevant-and-vaguely-alarming cover design.

The story is told by seven narrators, which understandably tends to alarm first-time readers. The actual events, however, are linear: each character is being asked to write down what he or she remembers about the events leading up to the theft of a diamond, and each character’s memories cease to be relevant quite conveniently at the point where the next character’s memories begin. The diamond in question is a yellow gem which was left to Rachel Verinder, the daughter of a prominent Yorkshire family, by her uncle, who is rumored to have done some rather unsavory things in military service in India. She is to receive the diamond on her eighteenth birthday. The day arrives; the diamond is delivered; she wears it throughout the evening and all through her birthday dinner; the guests retire; she puts the diamond away in a cabinet in her own room; the next morning, it’s gone. No one knows where it is. After a good deal of incompetence from the local police force, enter Sergeant Cuff from London, who is a celebrity in the vein of Sherlock Holmes and possesses the tenacity and implacability of a Poirot. (He is also, rather charmingly, a keen amateur rose grower.) It is Cuff’s idea to ask witnesses and guests to write down what they remember of the whole affair, in an attempt to get at the truth.

In this sense, of course, The Moonstone looks very much like a detective story, although whether it’s the first in the English language or not depends on your opinion of The Murders In the Rue Morgue (published twenty-seven years earlier) and Bleak House (published sixteen years earlier). The details of the plot, however, show how easily detective stories lend themselves to social commentary, especially on a microcosmic level. Much of the novel is concerned with the idea of privacy, particularly women’s privacy, and the violation of private female space. You don’t need to have read Freud to realize what kind of story this is: a young woman has a priceless jewel stolen from her bedroom in the dead of night after a celebration of her newly minted adulthood, and reacts with strong but inconsistent emotion to her loss. The men who busy themselves looking for her lost treasure–her cousins, the detective, the butler of the house–are bewildered by her response: “Why–having lost her Diamond–should she object to the presence…of the very people whose business it was to recover it?” The novel isn’t an allegory about lost virginity, I should add; there are too many other competing and contradicting themes for it to be so straightforward. But there are very intriguing resonances, as Rachel desperately tries to keep the theft a private or at least a family matter, and the men around her first annex for themselves the authority of “recovering” the jewel, and then insist on dragging all the details into the light, much against her wishes.

The question of female privacy also feeds into the heavy class focus that Collins brings to the novel. The Verinder family’s female servants are forced to submit to a police search of their bedrooms and personal belongings, which alienates them almost at once from any desire to be cooperative. The servants, most of whom have served the house faithfully for generations, are resentful and ashamed that the facade of their being “part of the family” can break down so easily, and that their masters can demonstrate how little they think of their inferiors. The lack of regard for the feelings of poor women is most painfully demonstrated in the subplot between Rosanna Spearman, a crippled servant at the house, and Franklin Blake, Rachel’s cousin and the family’s prodigal son. Rosanna falls in love with Blake instantly, and although he never looks at her twice, she forgets her place–as a poor woman and an unattractive one–so far as to dream about what would happen if he did. Her misery drives her to commit suicide. Her fate is viewed with sorrow, but without particular pity, by most of the characters, including the otherwise-sympathetic butler Gabriel Betteredge, and by Blake himself. The very idea of the loss of social hierarchy is absolutely inconceivable in the world of The Moonstone; the realization that Rosanna was aiming high, even if only in her imagination, prevents either of the men from mourning her death humanely, distracted as they are by the perceived impudence. Her love is described as “monstrous”. Only Lucy Yolland, the daughter of a local fisherman and one of Rosanna’s few friends, declares, “I loved her”, and refuses to call Blake “Mr. Franklin” (a deferential form of address) because of what she sees as his responsibility for Rosanna’s death. Betteredge, who despite being likable is also a pompous blowhard, is enraged by her disrespect in precisely the same way as he is disappointed by Rosanna’s. Both women fail to accept the codes of behavior and belief that more powerful members of their society use against them. It is not just that they are women who dare to express their feelings, although that is bad enough; it is that they are poor women who dare to do this. “People in high life,” Betteredge notes, “have all the luxuries to themselves–amongst others, the luxury of indulging their feelings. People in low life have no such privilege.”

It is, therefore, the duty of people in high life to exert themselves to imagine, and to empathize with, the feelings of people in low life: people, that is, who cannot indulge their feelings because they literally cannot afford to do so. The Moonstone abounds with relationships where this sort of imaginative empathy fails miserably between two individuals: Franklin fails to understand Rosanna, Rachel fails to understand Franklin. The most bleakly comic instance of this is the relationship between Drusilla Clack, a poor relation of the Verinders, and Lady Verinder, who is dying of cancer. Drusilla is an evangelical Christian; instead of trying to make Lady Verinder more comfortable, holding her hand, or even listening to her, Drusilla plies her with tracts about hell and salvation, right up to the point of the older woman’ s death. (These are not without comedy value; their titles are masterpieces of hyperbolic hysteria. My favorite is “Satan Among the Sofa-Cushions.”) The evidence of Ezra Jennings, meanwhile, is essential in understanding the irreparable damage that can be done to a person by failing to extend empathy towards them. He is mixed race, hailing from the colonies (probably Jamaica or another Caribbean island), shunned by the locals despite his evident skill as a doctor’s assistant, and we gather that his past is marred by the loss of a loved one and by the weight of unfair suspicion being cast upon him for his racial difference. The introduction to my copy of The Moonstone, written by Anthea Trodd of Keele University, suggests that the vagueness of Jennings’s sufferings is because his real value to the plot lies in his medical knowledge of opium, and that by “passing up prime opportunities for extended pathos,” Collins strengthens his story. Apparently, in other works, his tendency is to push the moral point too far; here, his “concise and inexplicit treatment of the character suggests that he understands that any competent reader needs few suggestions to take Ezra’s history as read.” I agree with her to a point, but I disagree that the purpose of Jennings is solely to provide information about opium (useful though that is). It may be his function within the plot, but within the narrative, he is perhaps the most tragic example of the obscurity that overcomes a kind and brilliant person when the imaginative empathy of his neighbors–fueled, in this case, by racism–does not reach him.

And equally, that imaginative empathy never reaches Rachel. Her male friends and relations are confounded by her; her mother does not understand her either; and any attempt to explicate her is met with the need for qualifications and contingency. Here is Mr Bruff, her lawyer, considering her attitude towards disaster: “Rachel Verinder’s first instinct…was to shut herself up in her own mind, and to think it over by herself. This absolute self-dependence is a great virtue in a man. In a woman, it has the serious drawback of morally separating her from the mass of her sex…I strongly suspect myself of thinking as the rest of the world think in this matter–except in the case of Rachel Verinder. The self-dependence in her character was one of its virtues in my estimation.” She can be made an honorary man; her “self-dependence” bestows that upon her, while the discussion of “virtue” situates her securely in the realm of the feminine, albeit a feminine characterized by special strength, like Britannia or Artemis. Yet she is never allowed to tell any part of the story in her own voice. It is as though the stories of the other men have to prove to us that she is worthy, but by the time they have done that, the story’s over. (Her virtue, in the masculine sense, is also at least partly cemented by the fact that the sole female narrator, Drusilla, disapproves of her.) The Moonstone, at the end of the novel, is found; I’m not sure that Rachel, despite her supposedly happy marriage, ever is.

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For more by Collins, see:

The Woman In White, ed. John Sutherland (Oxford: Oxford University Press,  2001)

Armadale, ed. Catherine Peters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

No Name, ed. Virginia Blain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Basil, ed. Dorothy Goldman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

For more on Collins’s work and context, see:

Wilkie Collins, Peter Ackroyd (London: Chatto & Windus, 2012)

Wilkie Collins: Women, Property and Propriety, Philip O’Neill (London: Macmillan, 1988)

Wilkie Collins, Medicine and the Gothic, Laurence Talaimach-Vielmas (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2009)

‘In the Secret Theatre of Home’: Wilkie Collins, Sensation Narrative, and Nineteenth-Century Psychology, Jenny Bourne Taylor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)

I wrote this when I was sixteen and it’s held up okay

In my junior year of high school, we had to write a different sort of essay every month. The categories of essay–process, descriptive, narrative, and so on–were determined by our textbook, which was so profoundly uninteresting that I have forgotten its name. The theory was that eventually we would have a set of personal essays, one or two of which might be used for our college applications the next year. (US college applications require at least one personal essay, which generally prompts a lot of adolescent soul-searching/panic.) This was one I wrote in November; it is optimistically saved, in my computer, as “college essay 2” (I didn’t capitalize the titles of computer files back then. I think I thought it made me somehow, obscurely, cooler.)

In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since (The Great Gatsby)

I’m no F. Scott Fitzgerald (thank God). I’m no Nick Caraway either, but we do have something in common, Nick and I. He, of course, is well out of his “more vulnerable years” by the time he sets forth his father’s advice, and I have a feeling I’ve only just started in on mine. But both of us have listened to our fathers dispensing what paternal wisdom they would. Whether it is the best advice I have ever received remains in doubt; whether my father’s pronouncement even qualifies as advice, for that matter, is a question I will not attempt to answer. I do know that, like Nick Caraway, I have been “turning it over” ever since, and I may never stop.

At some point in everyone’s life, death makes a real and tangible appearance. It doesn’t necessarily happen the first time someone you know dies—dozens of great-aunts and second cousins were six feet under before I recognized death as a part of my world, the real, actual world—but make no mistake, it happens eventually. It happened to me the summer I turned sixteen, under circumstances that are irrelevant to the trajectory of this essay. Suffice to say that, at the time, I walked through the world as if everything had been turned one hundred and eighty degrees to the right. Such profound disorientation is as painful as it is sudden, and it does not go away, and there is no one—there is literally no one—to whom you can communicate all of this. Bits and pieces of it slip out, of course, but they constitute a mere twenty percent of the iceberg of grief and sorrow and rage and incomprehension that lies in your path, that you cannot get over, that you have to live on alone.

By this I am not asking for your sympathy; I am not asking for your pity. I am only trying to set up the story.

At the end of the summer my parents and I were talking about the death, which had defined the past three months of our lives. My father the atheist, who had had a couple of beers, was expounding upon his view of the afterlife. It sounded to me like something Emerson might say after partaking of magic mushrooms, and I told him so. He chuckled indulgently, which is what he does when I’m rude, then became very serious and leaned forward suddenly. “Eleanor Mary,” he said, “we live for other people. We do not live for ourselves.”

It has been nearly five months since he said this, and still I am trying to figure out what he meant by it.

To live for someone else.

There are many ways to take this. To live for someone else could mean to always put them first. To listen to them cry. To be, as a character from the excellent movie Waitress puts it, “whatever you need me to be.” But then what are you, except a repository for someone else’s needs and neuroses? What can you be when you leave yourself out of the equation? No. I am not convinced.

Other people; other people. Who do you live for? I wonder this sometimes. At my age it’s harder to tell. When you’re forty you can say, “I live for my wife, my husband, my daughter, my son. I live for my mother”; you can even say “I live for my dog,” if that’s what you’ve got. There’s nothing wrong with living for your dog. When you’re sixteen, what do you have? What belongs to you? Whom do you love? Who loves you?

Your parents, sure. The love of your parents is like a given in a geometry problem. It’s your base, your jumping-off point, but after the first few sentences, it doesn’t enter into your proof. You only use it as a place to start from.

You live for your friends, of course, if you have them. But your friends are young and selfish people, just like you, and they are fallible, just like you, and you will let each other down. It won’t be the end of the world when it happens, but it will happen.

Who are you living for? Who needs you here?

Somehow you know who needs you. I know who needs me. Family is a mathematical constant, friends are deeply flawed, but you prop each other up. You love each other. You live for each other.

If I die tomorrow, someone will suffer terribly. My death tomorrow would cause other people to go through days of such crushing grayness, such bleak internal landscapes, as no human being should be required to go through. The people who love me aren’t perfect, but I am good enough for them, and they are good enough for me, and in this way life goes on.

A few months after the death, a good friend and I were talking about it. We were in her car, it was late at night, and we couldn’t see each other’s faces. Finally she said, “You know one good thing now.”

“No,” I said. “What?”

“You know,” she said, “that you will never do this. You will never hurt anyone this way, because you know what it’s like. And I know that I will never do this to you, I will never hurt you this way, because this can’t happen twice.”

I am sixteen years old and selfish and I live to gratify my own wishes. This is all true. But if that were all, I wouldn’t make it, not for very long. I live for my mother, a part of whom would die if I did. I live for my father, despite—partly because of—his Emersonian declarations. I live for my brother, who is still young and utterly sincere in a way that hurts to witness. I live for my friends and their laughter and the darkening sky; I live for rural midnights on long dirt roads; I live for rooftops and rosemary and learning how to cook.

I live for the dead boy, because he cannot, anymore; and I live for myself, because, thank God, I can.

The year after I wrote this, I met these people. Then I went to uni and I met L'Auberge Anglaise. I am more grateful to all of you than I can say; you know who you are.

The year after I wrote this, I met these people. Then I went to uni and I met L’Auberge Anglaise. I am more grateful to all of you than I can say; you know who you are.