Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion was published in 1915, a time of great turbulence in Ford's own personal life--he was involved in the difficult negotiations of being married to two women (Elsie Hueffer and Violet Hunt), and in love with a third (Brigit Patmore); additionally, he was experiencing strained relations with at least two of his closest friends, Arthur Pierson Marwood (Ford's business manager and financial backer for the English Review) and Joseph Conrad.  There are two manuscripts in existence; the first manuscript contains information on Edward as the father of illegitimate children--this was later taken out, perhaps, to render a more plausibly sympathetic portrait of Edward.

The first four and a half chapters were published initially in Wyndham Lewis's magazine Blast on June 20, 1914. Although the installment ended with a "To be Continued," the next number of Blast did not come out for another 13 months which was four months after the novel was published in book form. The magazine and the book form do not differ significantly from one another.

Ford's original title of the book was actually The Saddest Story but this title was rejected by his publishers.

The first person narrator (American James Dowell) begins the story famously: "This is the saddest story that I have ever heard." Of course, the readers soon find out that this is not just any "heard" story, but a story of affective entanglements in which the narrator was very much embroiled. The narration starts by fits and starts, Dowell explicitly repeating "I don't know," and ending his first chapter with "It is all a darkness." What the reader gathers in the initial chapters are the bare facts of the major events in this story: that Florence, Dowell's wife, was dead, and that she had cuckolded him through having an affair with his friend (a former decorated soldier and magistrate), Edward Ashburnham. Dowell tells of Florence's heart condition (we find out later that Dowell deliberately withholds the information that it is a fake condition as he is narrating at this point) and of how she needed to had to recover at some baths in Nauheim, a resort town in Germany. Dowell lingers on a coquettish look that Florence used to give him while turning her head to go off to her bath. At Nauheim, Florence and Dowell meet Edward and Leonora Ashburnham, the English couple that, for the next nine years, would become their constant companions.

In the remainder of the first part, Dowell tells of a certain incident which occurred during the four friends' visit to M-- (Marburg) castle. In the bedroom of Martin Luther, Leonora has an outburst after Florence briefly touches Edward's wrist, and Dowell may have discovered the import then. But, the outburst is ambiguous, and Leonora covers up the outburst as owing to her feeling that Florence, in going on and on about Luther, and insulted her Roman Catholic beliefs. Following the relaying of this incident, Dowell goes into a history of Edward's cheating, and Leonora's decisions to put up with it and exert control over Edward through other means, primarily by controlling his money. Dowell reflects on Leonora's religious beliefs and how they would not allow her the option of divorce. We get the first mention of Edward's affair with one Mrs. Maisie Maidan, a young woman that they had taken in as a servant. Mrs. Maidan, we learn, dies on the day of the Marburg castle visit. The first part closes, finally, with some more details on a heated exchange between Florence and Leonora after Leonora has found out about Florence. Dowell reveals Mrs. Maidan's grotesque death--her heart fails and she falls into her suitcase, which closes on her, just as she was packing to leave.

The second part is brief. Dowell tells of how he came to marry Florence (who is from Pennsylvania), and how he takes her to England. Florence, as it turns out, had already had an affair with a lower class servant named Jimmy at the beginning of their marriage, and she used the excuse of her heart condition to pretty much lock Dowell out of her bedroom. On August 4, 1913, Leonora sends Florence out to accompany Edward and a young girl, Nancy Rufford (daughter of a friend whom the Ashburnham's have taken in) on an outing, where Florence witnesses some intimate moments (though not explicit, in any way) between Edward and Nancy. Florence runs home, where Dowell is having dinner with one Bagashawe, who turns out to have known about Jimmy. Horrified, Florence runs upstairs and kills herself by drinking prussic acid.

In the third part, Dowell reveals how he receives news from Leonora of Florence's affair with Edward after both Florence and Edward have died. Yet, Dowell defends Edward, describing him as a victim of too much sentimentalism. Upon Florence's death, Dowell decides that he would like to marry Nancy. The focus then shifts onto Nancy, and her rough history with an abusive father, a difficult mother, and then education at a convent. Leonora and Edward had taken her in, and she had regarded the two of them as a sort of aunt and uncle. According to Dowell, though Edward would really have liked to be with Nancy, his restraint was his triumph. Leonora, however, was unhappy with his triumph. Dowell then spends a few chapters on the nature and history of Leonora and Edward's unhappy marriage, revealing more details on Edward's first instance of cheating (kissing a servant girl in Kilsyte at a train station, which then turned into a public case), and his running into the arms of a wealthy woman by the name of La Dolciquita later on. Dowell defends Edward and emphasizes Leonora's coldness, and the "world having put ideas into his head" in the Kilsyte case, thus paving the way for his affairs later on. Dowell does give a short account of Leonora's side, but it is one in which he unflatteringly dissects her controlling nature, her passion for wanting Edward to come back to her yet regard for him as someone she could psychologically dissect and manipulate.

In the fourth and final part of the novel, the narrator reveals that he is aware of the rambling character of his narrative. He continues with an account of Nancy's thoughts while becoming involved in the saga of Leonora and Edward; naive and instructed only in the ways of the world through novels and scattered reading, Nancy begins to see the truth about Edward's love for her. She feels a certain degree of power, but Edward, in his restraint, tries to send her back to India, where her mother and father still live. Leonora, however, essentially doesn't want Edward to have the satisfaction of a kind of moral high ground, and she refuses. In the meantime, Leonora reveals to Nancy that Edward needs her, and encourages her to go to him. All of this Dowell describes as Leonora and Nancy being cruel to Edward. The novel finally ends with the narrator going to Edward's old estate to take care of Nancy, who has become mad, famously repeating the word "shuttlecocks," Leonora's remarriage to a "normal," faithful man, and Edward's gruesome suicide through slitting his own throat.

The rambling, first-person narrator who tells a story in bits and pieces, fits and starts, has taken us far from the largely chronological, at least semi-omniscient narration so characteristic of the Victorian novel. Ford's dedicatory to Stella Ford, his wife at the time (1927), also reveals another important in way in which the novel form has progressed by the beginning of the twentieth century. It is clear that Ford intended his work to be his masterpiece, to be a novel whose significance would change the face of English reading and representation. Ford was trying to develop a technique based on impressionism, calculated to produce impressions upon a reader. Like in many of Conrad's works, The Good Soldier seems to use the device of the first person narrator in order to create deeper, truer impressions, because the single narrator is scaled to individual perception.

Critics have read The Good Soldier under a number of rubrics, now that interest in Ford Madox Ford as a viable modernist has increased: the failed marriages in the work explode and frustrate the Victorian marriage plot, the "darkness" and the importance of the "heart" in the novel resonates with the darkness of empire, the inaccessibility of the human heart represents an epistemological crisis, and finally, a number of readers have also explored the work as a new incarnation of detective fiction, in which Dowell is a highly unreliable detective who must rely heavily on conjecture and the eyewitness accounts given to him by Edward and Leonora largely after the major tragedies of their lives have unfolded.

One of the aspects of Dowell's narration that interests me in particular is his oscillation between narrative tics which seem to "block" productivity and moments of effusive psychological dissection. The tics that I am referring to generally signal a lack of epistemological certainty and a sense of therefore giving up the possibility of knowing in face of such uncertainty: for instance, "God knows," "Heaven knows," Jesus knows," "I don't know," and "I leave it to you" at the very end). At other times, such as when Dowell describes Leonora's Roman Catholicism and its huge effect on her character and her actions, or when he describes Edward's sentimentalism and passion, he could not sound more sure than a naive psychologist who has definitely pronounced his diagnosis.

What is the relationship between this oscillating narrator and the reader? As a reader, I found it easy to become swept up in some of Dowell's moments of certainty and effusion; the withholding perpetuated by his stilted moments perpetuates the reader's desire for more knowledge. We desire, along with Dowell, to know about these characters, and yet like Dowell, the reader feels hopelessly blocked--the only account we have is Dowell's, a man who did not know, for nine years, that his wife was having affair with his friend, and whose account of his own life was largely reconstructed retrospectively from the accounts of others who were also directly involved. I think then, that The Good Soldier is very much about granting the reader a true experience of what it is to live life--it is to be so embroiled as to not be able to know, and yet so embroiled that the desire to know can't be conquered.

For some related comments on reader experience and temporality in The Good Soldier, see my paragraph on The Good Soldier in conjunction with Ricoeur's Time and Narrative.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Selections from Our Village by Mary Mitford

Mary Mitford's series of sketches were first published in the Lady's Magazine in 1819. The popularity of Mitford's sketches led to their collected volume publications, first in 1824, and then four more volumes were published between 1826-1832.

The popularity of the sketch form in the nineteenth century is one that has received comparatively little attention (the novel being considered the dominant nineteenth-century literary form). It might be mentioned, then, that other authors successfully published their own volumes of sketches between 1820-1840, including Dickens (see Sketches by Boz), Washington Irving (Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon), Thackeray (The Paris Sketch Book), and Elizabeth Gaskell (Sketches among the Poor).

Mitford's sketches also survived the test of time in that Victorian audiences continued to enjoy them. Margaret Oliphant, for example, wrote a piece in Blackwood's in 1870 comparing Mitford to Austen, and favoring Mitford with a "larger heart" and more pleasantness. Oliphant writes, "Miss Mitford...takes in all the Joes and Pollys and Harriets of a country-side, and makes their wooings and jealousies as plesant to us as if they were the finest ladies and gentlemen." (Source: Amanpal Garcha's From Sketch to Novel)

General features: Mitford's sketches are picturesque descriptions of different people in a village in the Berkshires which she calls "Our Village." People are at the heart of these descriptions, though the rural landscape often features as a comforting backdrop to the lives of these people. Each sketch stands alone, as they were originally published separately. The titles of the sketches range from specific individual's names ("Hannah," "Lucy," "Cousin Mary," "Tom Cordery") and descriptive types ("The Talking Lady," "The Old Bachelor," "A Village Beau") to events ("Bramley Maying," "A Country Cricket Match") and places ("A Great Farm-House"). "Walks in the Country" is a repeated title for a number of different sketches. Mitford's sketches don't really tell stories, although sometimes important events in the lives of people (for example, marriages) are referred to as "stories." As Oliphant has noticed, the sketches strive to present a pleasant picture, even when handling more difficult subjects like death or poverty--there is frequent mention of the resilience of village congeniality and comfort, the healing force of nature, and village people and events are linked up with pleasant literary allusions.

Although Mitford swears fidelity to real life in her preface to the sketches, other comments that she revealed to the press demonstrate that she did in fact wish to sugar-coat and embellish where necessary. Characters in the village don't seem particularly realistic and more types, and pleasant types at that whose faults inevitably seem only to be trifles.
Here are some notes on specific sketches and the preface:
Preface: Mitford's preface to the 1824 edition associates feelings of comfort and community with the local dwelling over time: Her "hearty love of her subject" comes from a "local and personal familiarity, which only a long residence in one neighbourhood could have enabled her to attain."

Our Village: This initial sketch moves a bit more quickly than the others; Mitford takes us from house to house, briefly sketching out caricatures of the people that live in each house. She soon remarks, however, that it won't simply do to pass over some people so quickly: "But cricketers and country boys are too important persons in our village to be talked of merely as figures in a landscape. They deserve an individual introduction--an essay to themselves--and they shall have it. No fear of forgetting the good-humoured faces that meet us in our walks every day."Mitford is confident that individuals won't be lost upon her on such a local scale.

Modern Antiques: In this sketch, "modern antiques" refer to two women who seem to be stuck in the eighteenth century with regards to their clothing, customs, and reading. Unlike the old man of Dickens's "Scotland Yard" sketch, however, these old women seem to exist side by side with the "modern" inhabitants--they are accepted into the community despite their "antiquity" and are visited by younger members of the society. This brings a sense of a continuous historical community.

Lucy: This sketch describes the narrator's amiable servant. Lucy, who is a big gossip, is nevertheless described as a sort of model for a "good" gossip: she is a "very charitable reporter," who "could have furnished a weekly paper from her own stores of facts, without once resorting for assistance to the courts of law or the two houses of parliament." Such a comment seems to level news reports and gossip; Lucy has just as much information; what's more, she relays this information charitably and pleasurably.

Walks in the Country (The First Primrose): One of many of the "walks" sketches, this one tells of the narrator encountering her old house. The sketch shows some momentary anxieties about the "curse of improvement," but ends reassuringly about key features of the natural landscape surrounding the house that has not changed.

Bramley Maying: Here Mitford actually references Irving's sketches, claiming that Geoffrey Crayon would be interested in the rural custom known as Maying - the social meeting of young women and men from different parishes in what is called a "may-house." Mitford takes a jab at metropolitan life, describing this "rural custom" as "altogether a different affair from the street exhibitions which mix so mcuh pity with our mirth, and do the heart good, perhaps but not by gladdening it." On the way, Mitford and her traveling party get lost (but the getting lost seems rather delightful). When they finally see the affair, they are, however, disappointed because the strictness of "etiquette finding its way into the May-houses." Again, such potential unpleasantness is immediately balanced out by the festive laughs and congenial, unrestrained socializing outside of the May-house.

Walks in the Country (Violeting): In another "walks" sketch, Mitford passes by a workhouse, but quickly turns away to think on cottage gardens, where "order, cleanliness, food, clothing, warmth, refuge for the homeless, medicine and attending for the sick, rest and sufficiency for old age, and sympathy, the true and active sympathy which the poor show to the poor" abound. Like Dickens, Mitford seems to critique philanthropic feeling and sympathy borne out of an observer observing from high those more miserable than himself/herself.

Country Cricket Match: Mitford compares a country cricket match with men in literary wars. The affect seems overblown here, but it serves to heighten her sense of the "genuine and hearty sympathy of belonging to a parish, breathing the same air, looking at the same trees, listening to the same nightingales." She seems to convey here patriotism and unity.

Old Bachelor: Sometimes, there are some that end up with hard lives. A poor old bachelor dies right before he decides to take the path of conjugal bliss: "He had waited for this living thirty years; he did not enjoy it thirty days." Nevertheless, the villagers invite him for visits; he too, despite his unorthodox lifestyle, is integrated into the community.

Aunt Martha: Relations inside of the village are analogized to familial relationships: the narrator's Aunt Martha is "every body's Aunt Martha--and a very charming Aunt Martha she is." Aunt Martha, like Lucy, as it turns out, is also a good gossip, one which doesn't spread malicious rumors but actually reports on scandal and makes it sweeter: "she is a gentle newsmonger, and turns her scandal on the sunny side."

A Parting Glance at Our Village: This sketch reveals some more anxieties about industrial development; the narrator complains about the "innovation" of a stone road connecting their parish to others. Nevertheless, she assures us that the "hive" remains unchanged despite such formal changes, and despite bees dying out. Again, village community is imagined as resilient against the test of time and creeping modernity. And yet, the sketch ends with her observations of the curator's house being "let" - undoubtedly a strange and new aspect of the housing market in the village.

According to Amanpal Garcha, Mitford's impact on Victorian audiences has much to do with her valuing of (rural) "stasis" in an industrialized world increasingly plagued by fast, metropolitan movement. For Mitford, it isn't narrative in the form of a moving plot that generates pleasure, for readers, but that "Imaginative pleasure issues primarily from a work's static elements." In particular, in Mitford, this is an "aestheticized" and picturesque stasis. And yet, Garcha argues that Mitford doesn't distance herself from fiction despite the lack of narrative plot, but actually connects her work with that of novels. As Mitford writes in the sketch entitled "Our Village," "nothing is so delightful as to sit down in a country village in one of Miss Austen's delicious novels...or to ramble with Mr. White over his own parish of Selborne" thus linking novels and Gilbert White's "fragmentary, plotless, and minutely detailed accounts of natural phenomena." Mitford's work fits into Garcha's larger argument that the development of the sketch was important to the many of the eventual features of the mature Victorian novel.

To return to the "stasis" which Garcha singles out in Mitford--I think that more might be said about the affective resonances of this stasis and relatedly, resilience. As evident from the summaries/notes above, Mitford constantly tries to "sugar-coat" adversity and anxiety and to also stubbornly maintain that those who have been exposed to more metropolitan, modern influences yet retain their country congeniality and kindness. This kind of stasis, resilience, and continuity of village life is meant to be deeply comforting, but it's a kind of comfort that feels a bit like a choice. Like the "good" gossip who does "charitable reporting," there's an element of willful avoidance of the unpleasant, and even the fictionalizing of the unpleasant through figuring it as pleasant. Mitford gives us why this kind of willful resistance and resilience against the discomforting and unpleasant is important: the kind of sympathy that the rich give to the poor, or more broadly, from one in a higher/better position to one in a lower/worse position is a cheap kind of sympathy, something common and ultimately borne of a kind of selfishness. To perpetuate the bonds of community, it seems, Mitford finds the type of sympathy created by "staying" with the bright side of things and being happy about others's happiness to be far more efficacious. What Garcha's argument offers is a look at how for Mitford, the "bright side" is culturally located in the kind, slow-paced, human-scale familiarity of the country, and the "dark side" in the indifferent, fast-paced, machine-scale anonymity of the city.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray was first published in an American magazine, Lippincott's. As the main rival publication to Harper's and the Century, the editors at Lippincott's during the last decades of the century sought to diversify its appeal by publishing more British authors (editor J.M. Stottart booked Rudyard Kipling and Arthur Conan Doyle in addition to Wilde for publishing "novelettes" in Lipincott's). Wilde accepted the offer in hopes to further his own recognition as a literary talent and The Picture of Dorian Gray was published in the spring of 1890. In Britain, Ward, Lock & Co. published The Picture of Dorian Gray nine months later as a single volume. To satisfy the length requirements for volume publication, Wilde added six additional chapters (Chapters 3, 5, 14, 17, 18, and portions of 19, 20).

Wilde's work was met with mixed receptions--the story was at once embraced by Christian moralists who liked the work's seeming condemnation of a life consisting of purely sensual, aesthetic experiences, and also slammed by others who thought it was not a moral work at all. These latter unfavorable reviewers often associated the novel's sustained attention to the hedonistic lives of Dorian or Lord Henry Wotton with the French Decadent authors and "New Journalism," movements which more socially conservative audiences felt to be sensationalistic, prurient, and unhealthy. One of the most scathing attacks came from the Scots Observer who, in referring to Dorian Gray as "medico-legal," implied a connection between Wilde and a recent scandal involving sexual liaisons between telegraph-boys and one Lord Arthur Somerset. Wilde was impatient with reviewers that found his work to have no moral, and his retort was that "artists...had no ethical sympathies" at all. Those who sought a moral in his work deeply misunderstood it because morality had nothing to do with artistic creation.

As a result of Wilde's sparring with the press, the 1891 version of The Picture of Dorian Gray included some distinctive revisions. Wilde toned down words which would imply romantic affection between Basil Hallward and Dorian, added the preface, and commissioned the book publisher to adorn the book with artistic effects to signal its artistic (rather than moral) import. (Source: Joseph Bristow, Introduction to Dorian Gray)

The novel begins with a conversation between Basil Hallward, an artist, and Lord Henry Wotton. Lord Henry Wotton discovers that Basil has recently become enamored with a young man by the name of Dorian Gray and has painted a portrait of Dorian. Basil talks about how he has realized a new "artistic ideal" in Dorian, and fears that he has "put too much of himself" in the portrait. Meanwhile, Dorian arrives and Wotton insists on meeting Dorian.

Wotton, also charmed by Dorian and his youthful innocence, begins to influence Dorian by pointing out to him that his youth won't last, making Dorian more self-conscious about appreciating his youth. Consequently, Dorian begins to resent the picture's perpetual youth and makes an offhand comment about how he wishes he and the picture could trade places.

Soon, Dorian falls in love with an actress named Sibyl Vane, and they are engaged to be married. Dorian especially feels drawn to Sibyl's innocence which enables her to flit seamlessly and unconsciously into and out of female roles. Sibyl's brother, James Vane, who is about to leave for Australia, warns his sister against falling too quickly in love, and threatens that he will kill Dorian (whom he only knows as "Prince Charming") should he harm her. Before his departure, James Vane finds out from his mother that he is an illegitimate child (but this plot thread doesn't seem to gather much import in the remainder of the novel).

Dorian tells Basil in the presence of Wotton of his engagement and all three go to see Sibyl at the theater. Unfortunately, corrupted by the "knowledge" of love, Sibyl becomes a bad actress. Dorian casts Sibyl aside, and when he returns home, he sees that his portrait has now gained a certain disturbing sneer. Disturbed by this, Dorian resolves to be moral and to renew the engagement to Sibyl. It is, however, too late, and Wotton reveals to Dorian that Sibyl as poisoned herself. Wotton encourages Dorian to think on her death as freeing him from a boring marriage and as a rather aesthetically pleasing tragic gesture. Dorian wrestles with this and eventually takes Wotton's advice, agreeing then to join Wotton at the opera the same might.

Basil, of course, is horrified at Dorian's behavior. When Basil requests if he may exhibit the portrait, Dorian refuses and furthermore, refuses to show it to Basil. Basil mistakenly thinks that Dorian has discovered his having "put too much of himself" in the portrait. Dorian sends his portrait up to an abandoned room upstairs and locks up the room. Meanwhile, Dorian receives and reads a book from Wotton (likely French Decadent Huysman's A Rebours). A long chapter follows detailing the effect of this "poisonous book" and his subsequent pursuit of new sensations as his primary mode of living life. All experience becomes aestheticized for Dorian and detached from any sense of doing good or evil.

Despite many rumors of Dorian having ruined many others' lives and reputations, Dorian retains his look of boyish innocence and beauty because it is the portrait which registers these changes in his place. Basil eventually asks Dorian about the rumors about his questionable behavior. Dorian, pushed to the wall by Basil's questioning, decides to reveal the portrait to Basil. Shocked and afraid, Basil tries to get Dorian to repent of his sins, but in a moment of hatred for Basil, Dorian stabs and kills Basil. In order to get rid of Basil's body, Dorian blackmails his former friend Adam Campbell, a scientist who seems to have previously been involved with the controversial practice of vivisection.

At a dinner party of one Lady Warborough, Dorian nearly loses it and tempted by opium, decides to go seek oblivion at an opium den in the East End. In the den, James Vane hears someone call Dorian "Prince Charming" and runs out to kill him. Dorian manages to save himself by telling Vane that his affair with Sibyl was eighteen years ago, and so his youthful face testifies that he could not possibly be Sibyl's former lover. The woman who has revealed that Dorian is "Prince Charming" sets James Vane back on track, however, after Dorian has escaped.

While giving his own dinner party, Dorian flirts with Duchess of Monmouth (Wotton's cousin) but finds he can't carry on a spirit of levity because he is plagued by fears of Vane; at one point he sees (or imagine he sees) Vane at the window. Fortunately for Dorian, James Vane is accidentally shot by a hunter on his premises, and Dorian is for the moment freed from anxiety. Dorian then explains to Wotton that he has decided to turn "good," and live a more moral life. Wotton is cynical and says the goodness is merely another novel sensation. Dorian imagines that his leaving a young girl with whom he has recently  dallied in order to "save" her is a good action, but alas, he finds his portrait looks worse for it--it now registers hypocrisy. In the end, Dorian stabs his own portrait with the knife that he has killed Basil with, and dies. Those who find Dorian at the end sees that the portrait transforms back into a picture of youth, and Dorian's body now bears the marks of age and corruption.

The different versions of The Picture of Dorian Gray demonstrate the extent to which its final composition was deeply affected by the conversation/sparring between Wilde and the press. Dorian Gray strikes me as a text which registers the battle between anxieties over the degrading effects of "sensation" and "decadence" and Wilde's (and others' associated with the aesthetic/art for art's sake movement in England) frustration with conventional morality and advocacy of art's ability to transcend such bromides.

Formally (and undoubtedly, this owes too to Wilde's primarily writing only drama at the time Dorian Gray was published), the novel doesn't have much of a narrator's voice; much of the work is relayed through dialogue, with characters like Wotton and Dorian speaking epigrammatically and wittily like Wilde's favorite characters in drama. The narration is also often filtered through focalizations and free-indirect discourse, though the free-indirect discourse doesn't seem particularly productive of ironic effects because the narrator is so absent from the text. Ideas seem to rule the text--characters are rather flat and what they say and think matters much more. Such formal features only serve to add to the extent to which Dorian Gray feels like a retort to very specific contemporary ideas--its narrative/storytelling aspects seem very secondary. In fact, I might argue that Wilde's use of the "genericness" of the Faustian bargain seems to render the story intentionally secondary; or at least, Wilde seems to keep in mind different audiences: the reader who would "get" his ideas, and the reader who perhaps might just enjoy the sensational aspects of the man-sells-soul story (which, of course, is the point of art, and even this less careful reader might unknowingly follow his ideas).

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

New Grub Street by George Gissing

George Gissing's New Grub Street was first published in three volumes in 1891. The subject matter and major themes of the work make it difficult to not consider Gissing's biography in conjunction with the text. Gissing's adult life was a trying one; one plagued by difficulties in marriage and literary career. 

Early in his career, Gissing was imprisoned briefly for stealing money in order to help a prostitute by the name of Helen Harrison. Gissing married Helen, but it was an unhappy marriage--she died from her heavy drinking several years later. Subsequently, Gissing's view of his own, rather bleak financial standing led to his marrying Edith Underwood, a working-class woman with whom there is little evidence that he felt true concordance with. Such tensions of marriage and career recall those that are central to the narrative of New Grub Street.  

It was shortly after Gissing's marriage to Edith that he wrote New Grub Street. Gissing had no high hopes for the work, writing that he had produced it out of an "utter prostration of spirit," but nevertheless the work met with a generally positive critical response. This, unfortunately, was not enough to make Gissing a household name. Nevertheless, Gissing's work remains crucially important today in presenting a faithful portrait of some of the new difficulties of the "literary" profession at the turn of the century.
The title of the work references the "Grub Street" of the 18th century which came to be synonymous with hack writers of small literary merit, in Samuel Johnson's formulation, "originally the name of a street in Moorfields in London, much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems; whence any mean production is called grubstreet." Gissing's work chronicles the lives of writers in the 1880s, "New Grub Street" referring to difficult relationships between "literature" and the contemporary market.

The story follows the friends and relations of an old family by the name of Yule. There were three brothers, John, Edmund, and Alfred. Of these brothers, John chose to engage in business, manufacturing paper and becoming relatively prosperous. Edmund died leaving little money to his widow and his daughter, Amy, who has married young writer Edwin Reardon who seeks to write literature free from the gross contingencies of the "market."Alfred Yule engages primarily in writing pedantic literary pieces for which there is only a small audience at best. His daughter Marian is his assistant, and his wife a woman of modest backgrounds who inevitably feels alienated from the intellectual camaraderie between her husband and daughter.

Reardon's friend, Jasper Milvain, is a young journalist and avowed "man of business," as "practical" as Reardon is idealistic. Milvain's sisters Dora and Maud come to live with Jasper in London after their mother dies, and the Milvains all become acquainted with Marian via Jasper's encounters with her at the British Museum Reading Room. A budding interest develops between Jasper and Marian, but the prospects seem bleak because Jasper has designs to marry a wealthier woman who can support his endeavors and also because Alfred takes an intense dislike of Jasper owing to Jasper's ties to an editor named Fadge who has disparaged Alfred's work. 

When Marian receives five-thousand pounds from the death of her uncle John Yule, Jasper decides to propose marriage. Marian accepts against her father's will (her father wishes that Marian will help him invest in a new literary venture), but their engagement is postponed indefinitely when she finds that the money is in fact unavailable. During the postponement, Jasper yields to the temptation of money and asks a wealthier woman, Miss Rupert, to marry him. Miss Rupert, however, refuses him and he goes back to Marian to suggest that they marry immediately. Marian sees that Jasper's heart is not in it, however, and breaks off their engagement. 

Meanwhile, Edwin Reardon finds that he is unable to write because of financial pressures--he finds that his success at producing writing cannot be contingent on commercial pressures. This places a strain on his marriage, and pushed to the wall, Edwin accepts a job as a clerk to one Mr. Carter. Amy leaves with their ten-month old son Willie to live with her mother and brother, feeling Edwin's position to be disappointing (she had suggested he leave to the seaside for a few months to recover his nerves and to then try writing again). Edwin and Amy become more and more estranged from one another, and even when financial problems might be solved by Amy inheriting ten thousand pounds from the death of John Yule, Edwin feels too proud to accept her money. Similarly proud, Amy refuses to go with Edwin to Croydon when he finds a more stable position (a secretaryship) there. 

A well-meaning friend, Harold Biffen, tries to convince Reardon to reconcile with Amy but to no avail. It is not until Reardon receives news that his son Willie is dying that he goes to Amy, and the two reconcile over this tragedy. However, Reardon, weak from his poverty, soon dies from illness as well. Poor Biffen (who has recently survived a fire and saved a manuscript for a realist novel he has written narrating the commonplace events in the life of one "Mr. Bailey, Grocer") receives Reardon's old furniture and room but his lack of literary success and corresponding lack of female company leads him to take poison and commit suicide. In contrast, another writer, Whelpdale has involved himself with a scheme to revamp a periodical by the name of Chat as Chit-Chats, catering to a public that has an increasingly low attention span. Whelpdale is successful, manages to become an editor, and decides to propose to Dora Millvain, who accepts. It seems that the more "business" minded writer wins most. 

This result is borne out too by Jasper Milvain's success at the close of the novel. Having practically manipulated Marian into rejecting him, Jasper is now free to marry Amy Reardon. Her fortune enables him to become editor at Fadge's magazine, The Current. The novel ends with their happy ending, but the way in which they discuss Marian as a sort of burden which he has avoided feels deeply unsettling. 

Gissing's narrative doesn't quite follow a chronological format but switches its focus back and forth between characters, thus often employing retrospective signifiers.

Despite Jasper Milvain's attempts to write friendly reviews of Biffen's realist work, Mr. Bailey, Grocer, Biffen's work is torn apart by other readers and critics. They complain that its focus on commonplaces leads to its failing in fiction's "first duty" (to tell a story) and to amuse readers, besides. No doubt Gissing too seeks to focus on the commonplaces of writerly lives, on the poverty and the meanness which seems to always befall those who strive for literary value independent of fluctuating readerly tastes. However, Gissing does tell a story (or rather, stories) of the commonplace that manage to maintain momentum and interest.   

The picture of late nineteenth-century London as a place for writers is a complicated one--it isn't just one which condemns the market for destroying the humanistic ideals of the "literary men." Gissing knows that his relatively well-to-do, pragmatic reader won't readily sympathize with men like Reardon or Biffen; in an odd narrative break, Gissing launches into an extended second-person address:

"The chances are that you have neither understanding nor sympathy for men such as Edwin Reardon and Harold Biffen. They merely provoke you. They seem inert, flabby, weakly envious, foolishly obstinate, impiously mutinous, and many other things. You are made angrily contemptuous by their failure to get on; why don't they bestir themselves, push and bustle, welcome kicks so long as halfpence follow, make a place in the world's eye - in short, take a leaf from the book of Mr. Jasper Milvain?...But try to imagine a personality wholly unfitted for the rough and tumble of the world's labour-market. From the familiar point of view these men were worthless; view them in possible relation to a humane order of society, and they are admirable citizens." 

Yet, despite this appeal, it is Gissing that has painted such an unsympathetic portrait of Reardon when he says any number of ugly, mean things to his wife who indubitably suffers for his inability to write for the market. And, it is Gissing who paints the portrait of the poor Biffen, deluded into thinking he loves Amy Reardon during his final days of intense poverty and immense sexual frustration. The suggestion that they might be great men in a society that operated less according to the market and to the "practical" seems to fall flat given these portraitures.   

Along the same lines of presenting a complicated and "real" view of the literary world, Jasper Milvain is neither a modern villain without human feeling, nor is he a paragon for the new man of letters. Milvain is at times generous--though, admittedly, only when he himself feels well off enough--such as when he writes good reviews for Biffen and Reardon. He understands much about "success" that Reardon and Biffen do not: he understands that one needs to know people and have a reputation that precedes one's writing, he understands a new generation of readers with a less "sustained attention" and a demand for shorter, amusing pieces, and he understands the practical but very real difficulties and strains placed on a marriage when poverty intervenes. Still, Gissing doesn't excuse Milvain's treachery against Marian, and Milvain himself seems torn apart by his own performance of such a treachery. Amy and Jasper's "happy ending" ("So Amy first played, and then sang, and Jasper lay back in dreamy bliss") sounds bitingly ironic next to the reminder of Marian's continuing struggles. 

It seems that Gissing provides no "answers," and even the book itself is kind of a question or challenge to his readers: in writing about the state of literature in an increasingly capitalist society that successfully commodifies aspects that were hitherto taken as humanistically independent of the market, has he been able to write something which exempts itself, through its self-reference and self-awareness? The experiment is an interesting one. 

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells

William Dean Howells began working on The Rise of Silas Lapham in the summer of 1884. Its serialization in Century Magazine begun in November, and ended in August of 1885. Century Magazine was the continuation of Scribner's beginning in 1881, the change of name bringing no remarkable changes to the magazine's interests or scope. The Century was backed by wealthy contributors and published works of a high literary standards. Nevertheless, the magazine was yet known to be far more "journalistic" than Harper's, generally devoting more space to timely interests and issues.

Documents from Howell's own life attest to the personal importance of characters in Silas Lapham. Silas is modeled both after Howells's father and Howells's close personal friend, Mark Twain. Silas resembles Twain in his "backcountry origins."The famous dinner at the Corey's refers to the Twain's embarrassment while telling a story at the Whittier Birthday Dinner, and event conducted by Howells marking the twentieth anniversary of the Atlantic Monthly. As the editor at the Atlantic, Howells felt the need to mediate between his sympathy for his friend and for the wealthy contributors to the magazine. (Source: Kermit Vanderbilt, Penguin introduction)   

The Rise of Silas Lapham follows two major plot lines, one which ends in Silas's bankruptcy, and the other in Penelope Lapham's marriage to Tom Corey. The Laphams made their fortune from mineral paint on the Silas's father's land ("new money") and the Coreys are an old Bostonian family with so much inherited wealth that Bromfield Corey, Tom's father, spends his time painting pictures ("old money").

The novel opens with an unscrupulous journalist Bartley Hubbard arriving at Silas Lapham's office to interview him for a series called the "Solid Men of Boston" for his newspaper. It becomes clear during this opening scene that Bartley has gotten the better of Lapham, churning out a stereotyped portrait of the uncultured and naive "new money" man who is "simple, clear, bold, and straightforward in mind and action."  

The "bankruptcy plot" follows Silas Lapham's fall in economic terms, and rise in moral terms (though, the novel seems ultimately ambivalent about the value of these moral terms). Several factors conspire to bring about Silas's eventual bankruptcy. First, the Laphams decide to build a house on the water side of Beacon Street in order to better integrate themselves and their daughters into Boston society. Lapham is portrayed as an easy target for architect Seymour, who has no trouble persuading Lapham to pay for all the things that would be fashionable for his new house. Second, a man by the name of Milton K. Rogers from Lapham's past returns to make demands upon him. Apparently, Rogers was once a partner in Lapham's paint business, but Lapham pushes Rogers out in an ethically murky move. Mrs. Lapham has always felt badly about this, and when Rogers returns to borrow money from Lapham, Lapham feels compelled to respond kindly. Things take a turn for the worse when Rogers unloads some worthless mills along the G.L. and P. railroad on Lapham. At the same time, Lapham makes some poor decisions gambling in stock, and must also continue to make payments to one Mrs. Dewey (a beautiful typist who works in Lapham's office) and her mother, who turn out to be the widow and daughter of John Millon, the man who saved Lapham's life by taking a bullet for him in war. As Lapham considers his fate one day, he accidentally burns down the new home which he has been building, finding out afterwards that the insurance has just expired a week before.

Eventually, pushed to the wall, Lapham must consider an offer for the mills from some wealthy Englishmen which Rogers seeks out for him. Lapham feels that it is unconscionable to not let the Englishmen know that the mills' values will be controlled by the railroad. When Lapham informs the Englishmen of the situation, they still wish to buy the mills, but Lapham still feels like it is immoral to sell to them and refuses. Rogers accuses Lapham of ruining his family once again. The upshot is that Lapham has supposedly become a more moral man, albeit bankrupt.

Meanwhile, the "love plot" consists of the Laphams and the Coreys both mistakenly identifying Tom as interested in Irene, the more beautiful of the Lapham daughters. The Lapham's lives become entangled with the Corey's when Mrs. Lapham nurses Mrs. Corey back to health during an encounter abroad along the St. Lawrence river in Canada. Mrs. Corey and her son Tom continue to call on the Laphams even though the Laphams live in an "unfashionable" part of town (Nankeen Square). Irene, however, is as childish as she is beautiful, and it turns out that Tom is actually in love with Penelope, who is described as "small" and "dark" yet who is clever, who reads, and who has a rather irreverent sense of humor. Interested in Penelope, Tom goes into business with Lapham, and the Corey family feel obligated to invite the Laphams to dinner, which turns out to be an embarrassing affair to Lapham after he gets drunk. By the time the two families discover that it is Penelope and not Irene that Tom loves, Penelope feels that she cannot accept him: first, because of her part in egging on Irene, and second, because of her family's fall from fortune. Penelope, like her father, would like to take the more "moral" path, but as the minister Sewell famously advises, "It is better for one to suffer than for three," citing an "economy of pain" as justification.

In the end, Penelope marries Tom despite these moral qualms, and Lapham returns to his father's land, selling their house in Nankeen square and giving up his control of his paint business to a younger generation (including Tom who expands the business abroad in Mexico and a West Virginia Company which with Lapham merges).


Howells's "realism," thrown into relief by the novel's many references to the inefficacy of other kinds of novels at showing real life (being generally too romantic, melodramatic, and full of unnecessary suffering) nevertheless sits uneasily alongside its somewhat surprisingly allegorical ending. Although the novel seems to end neatly with Lapham's "moral rise" and Penelope's "happy ending," the ending feels hardly satisfying: it's unclear as to whether Lapham's actions have truly constituted heroism, although those like Bromfield Corey would like to view Lapham's story as one of "delicate, aesthetic...heroism."And yet, such a neatly manufactured story would mean, problematically, that "new money" can't rise to the ranks of "old money" no matter how hard it tries, and the only way in which it can be absorbed into the culture of "old money" is to become its aestheticized object (much like the pictures that Bromfield collects).

This ambiguity seems to be accentuated by how the novel begins with a predatory interviewer, and kind of ends with one too: Sewell asks Lapham, "And do you ever have any regrets?" To which Silas answers, confusedly, "About what I done? Well, it don't always seem as if I done it..."Seems sometimes as if it was a hole opened for me, and I crept out of it. I don't know...I don't know as I should always say it paid; but if I done it, and the thing was to do over again, right in the same way, I guess I should have to do it." Though Sewell is ostensibly Lapham's friend, the juxtaposition of his rather straightforward, confidently journalistic question and his Lapham's convoluted, uncertain answer seems to place the two men in an uncomfortable power differential.

Lapham's moral rise thus feels oddly unsatisfying at the same time it is satisfying. Howells's realism, perhaps, is then the tension which results from his characters' internal moral compasses not matching up with the logic of the various external worlds. Penelope feels that her choice to marry Tom is immoral, and yet according to Sewell's "economy of pain," it is the best choice. Lapham's choice to lose his wealth feels moral to him and Mrs. Lapham, but for Rogers, he's just being "particular" and worse, for Bromfield, "picturesque."

I want to suggest, finally, in thinking about the "interviews" that frame the text, that journalistic media seem to gain an amount of omniscience in Howells's text. Both Sewell and Bartley are able to translate dialogic experiences, in other words, they are able to account for multiple "worlds." Bartley can tell the picturesque story of Lapham's economic rise and identify his qualities as the typical "self-made man" while also maintaining his tongue in his cheek, thus making fun of the narrowness and limits of believing this kind of simple narrative. Sewell can refer the Laphams, in his advice, to an abstracted world which makes utilitarian decisions based on the least amount of pain for the least amount of people, and also appreciate the difficulty of what seems "moral"internally, in the end saying: "We can trace the operation of evil in the physical world...but I'm more and more puzzled about it in the moral world." Of course, it might be a bit of a stretch to cast Sewell as a "journalistic" character, but at the very least, he seems someone as involved as Bartley in providing ways to "account" for the various worlds which characterize late-nineteenth century life.