feminism

THE HEARING TRUMPET BY LEONORA CARRINGTON

It was three years ago that my grandfather walked onto the blade of the sword that old age had, for some time, been holding out to him. If we – his family – were honest with ourselves, we would have had to admit to feeling relieved. None of us had known what to do with him, before death had intervened and took control of the situation, with the great authority that only it is capable of. His behaviour had been increasingly erratic, like that of a young bird learning its trade. Sometimes his mental processes were graceful, even though impossible to follow; at others, reality impinged upon his flights, causing him to stumble. He was a once tough and capable man, who had been reduced to a curio; and I sometimes wondered if, or how often, he was aware of his own failings and, worse still, ours.

“You may not believe in magic but something very strange is happening at this very moment. Your head has dissolved into thin air and I can see the rhododendrons through your stomach. It’s not that you are dead or anything dramatic like that, it is simply that you are fading away and I can’t even remember your name.”

The Hearing Trumpet was published in 1976, when its author, Leonora Carrington, was fifty-nine. It is, therefore, perhaps no surprise that, as she approached her sixtieth year, she would make the concerns and experiences of the elderly, specifically elderly women, the focus of her work. Indeed, it is narrated by Marion Leatherby, who, at ninety-two years old, is put in a care home against her wishes by her son and daughter-in-law. However, the book is much warmer and light-hearted, and strange, than that brief synopsis might suggest. Much of that is due to how engaging and eccentric, and funny, the narrative voice is. Marion writes, for example, of having a little grey beard, which ‘conventional people would find repulsive,’ but which she considers ‘rather gallant.’

While Marion could not, of course, be said to be in the prime of life, she refutes the idea that, at such an advanced age, she is mentally and physically incapable. In fact, she highlights, or accentuates, her abilities. So, yes, she is almost completely deaf, but her sight is ‘still excellent’; and although her skeleton has been bent by rheumatics, it does not prevent her from sweeping her room once a week. Likewise, she may be prone to sudden flights of fancy, but her mind wanders ‘never further than I want.’ What one gets from Marion is, then, a picture of a woman who is totally at ease with who she is, and who is, moreover, less sensitive to the idiosyncrasies of others, which is to say that she is accepting of others and their foibles. All told, she is a likeable and charismatic creation.

b20b30e4e4d8ef3c50b9622b7426cbda.jpg

Less likeable, however, is the behaviour of some of those around her. As already noted, her family pack her off to an institution for the senile, without seeking her opinion on the matter. They appear to believe that Marion is at an age, and in a condition, such that she cannot make decisions for herself, an attitude consistent with the idea that being old is a kind of second childhood. In this way, The Hearing Trumpet is, in part, a kind of social commentary or criticism, relating to the perception and treatment of the elderly. This is made clearest when – in the book’s least successful scene, in my opinion – the family discuss Marion, without her being present, or at least without being aware of her presence, in the most disparaging and callous way. She has been, Muriel says, ‘a constant anxiety’ to them. Worse still, Robert, her grandson, declares that she ‘can hardly be classified as a human being.’ She would, he concludes, be better off dead.

“I am never lonely, Galahad. Or rather I never suffer from loneliness. I suffer much from the idea that my loneliness might be taken away from me by a lot of mercilessly well-meaning people.”

Anyone coming to The Hearing Trumpet looking for surrealism such as one finds in Carrington’s paintings would likely be disappointed with the first third of the book. It is, for all its charm, fairly conventional, having more in common with writers like Muriel Spark than Ithell Colquhoun or any of the French novels usually gathered together under that umbrella term. Yet once Marion arrives at the ‘sinister’ Lightsome Hall, the tone of the work changes and it becomes, well, curiouser and curiouser. It is run, first of all, by a couple of religious fanatics, who say things like ‘we seek to follow the inner meaning of Christianity’ and make the residents do strange dances called Movements. Stranger still is the caper involving the winking Abbess, the search for the Holy Grail, and the concluding apocalypse section.

I must say that while I enjoyed the unpredictability, and was particularly engaged by the Abbess’ story, I wasn’t as enthused as I was by the early stages. This may have something to do with not fully understanding, or being all that interested in, the symbolism involved. Certainly, Carrington appeared to want to say something about women, femininity, etc, what with the references to Venus, a Bee Queen, and so on, but I thought she dealt with that more elegantly when Marion imagines herself beautiful, and through the character of Georgina, who, although severely wrinkled, still considers herself attractive and sexually alluring [for which she is mocked]. In any case, The Hearing Trumpet is a fine, and fun, novel, but more than that, it is a comforting one, for, with its gang of rebellious and resourceful pensioners, it makes one feel as though getting old will not be as horrifying as one might think.

THE SUFFERINGS OF PRINCE STERNENHOCH BY LADISLAV KLIMA

Only once have I been considered mad by the world at large. Yet it is, perversely, when I felt most sane. I sought advice from the doctor upon the urging of my intimates; and what did he say? Nothing! He cowered before my tears and my reason. I had stopped being able to laugh at life, to find absurd amusement in what Rene Daumal called ‘this monkey cage frenzy.’ My mind’s eye had been squeegeed clean. I saw clearly that a conventional existence was terrifying, painful…impossible. I could no longer continue in the hapless, mindless manner I had become accustomed to. Work, talk, fuck…and repeat. Impossible! The doctor gave me a prescription. I later found out that it was for the kind of drug they give to patients in mental institutions, the most unruly patients, who were, to quote, ‘literally climbing the walls.’ He wanted to sedate me, to dupe me into again accepting what I had renounced, what I felt as though I had transcended.

When looking back on myself during this period, I feel a sort of kinship with the Czech novelist and philosopher Ladislav Klíma. Certainly, no one could accuse the man of having lived conventionally. His personal philosophy, which naturally filtered into his work, manifested itself as a kind of non-conformism, in the rejection of societal norms, such that, for example, he spent his later years shining shoes, drinking heavily, and eating vermin. Moreover, Klíma is said to have destroyed a number of his manuscripts. One might speculate that he did so not because he doubted the quality of what he had produced but because writing and regularly publishing books could be considered a stable career, and therefore ought to be avoided. Yet some of his manuscripts did, of course, survive, including The Sufferings of Prince Sternenhoch, which is generally thought to be the most important, and best, of Klíma’s work.

“It is necessary to love – to love everything; even what is most revolting. Love is the cruellest, most difficult thing of all.”

The book begins with thirty-three year old Prince Helmut Sternenhoch, wealthy aristocrat, and confidante and favourite of Kaiser ‘Willy’ Wilhelm, taking an interest in Helga, a relatively poor seventeen year old girl. One’s initial impression of the Prince is emphatically a negative one. He calls Helga ‘downright ugly’, for example, and proceeds to enumerate her faults and physical failings: her movements are ‘sluggish’, her hair ‘bulky’, and so on. He was, he states, ‘absolutely ill’ when he first saw her. Indeed, so vicious is some of the criticism that I was concerned at this point that The Sufferings of Prince Sternenhoch was going to be unpleasantly misogynistic throughout. However, after a few pages one realises that Klíma is poking fun at Helmut, that one is meant to take against him, at least for the time being.

In the first half of the novel, Prince Sternenhoch is portrayed as arrogant and loathsome. He is a man who believes that he is superior by virtue of his position and his wealth, and that, regardless of his own behaviour, he is therefore deserving of the greatest respect. For example, he wishes to marry Helga in order to demonstrate his magnanimity, and, to a lesser extent, to shock and surprise [and amuse] others, including Willy. Making a young girl marry is for him a kind of game, a kind of self-flattery. He even threatens the girl’s father with jail when he does not show him due deference. Klíma further, and most obviously, lampoons the man when it is revealed that he is ‘only 150 centimetres tall’ and ‘toothless, hairless and whiskerless, also a little squint-eyed,’ upon which revelations he opines that ‘even the sun has spots.’

In spite of my initial concerns, Klíma’s novel is refreshingly critical of patriarchy and specifically the abusive treatment of women in relationships. To recap: the Prince is much older than Helga, he is ugly and conceited. Yet he appears to believe that the girl ought to be grateful to him for wanting to marry her. While it is true that he doesn’t himself force her, nor want to force her, there is still an underlying suggestion that Helga does not have any choice in the matter. She must, and she does, become his wife. Indeed, unsurprisingly, she is said to go to the alter ‘like a sacrificial lamb.’ Once married, it becomes clear that Helga finds her husband repulsive. She will not, for example, allow him to have sex with her, going so far as to flee to the stable when he enters her bedroom. This of course causes the Prince some consternation, for he, like many men of his [and perhaps our] time, believes that her body is his by rights of marriage.

If the book were more popular one images that Helga might be held up as a kind of feminist icon. Throughout, she is associated with, and surrounded by, powerful animals, by jaguars and lions and tigers, which of course symbolise her strength. She does not lay down, open her legs, and weakly submit to her husband, but rather she challenges him, ignores him, fights him, and calls him names. Indeed, she could be said to dominate him. Helmut may want to fuck, he may even want a loving relationship, but without her consent, without her approval, he can have neither. There is a chilling scene in the novel that I think best demonstrates the power balance in the relationship, which is when Helga murders the couple’s child [their only fornication took place on their wedding night, when she was still meek] because it looks like the Prince. The young Daemoness demands that the nanny take the blame, and Sternenhoch, who is terrified of her, agrees immediately.

insane_21.jpg

One might have noted the term Daemoness in the preceding paragraph, and it is necessary to explain its significance. For the Prince, Helga is not symbolically a demon, but rather a literal one. She has, it seems, supernatural powers, and they are not, let’s say, God-given. There is, in fact, much in the book that might lead one to describing it as a horror story. Yet, while I found all that a huge amount of fun, I am more interested in what it says about Sternenhoch and subsequently how it relates to one of Klíma’s principle themes, which is the nature of reality. It is clear as one makes one’s way through the book that the Prince is insane, and if it wasn’t then he openly declares it himself numerous times. Therefore, the behaviour of his wife, her demonic or devilish abilities, could be explained as simply a consequence of his madness, as a kind of hallucination.

What Klíma seems to be saying, and it is something that I have said myself many times prior to reading his novel, is that whatever you experience is your reality, that there is no concrete, objective reality, and that trying to convince yourself that there is such a thing is the surest, quickest road to madness. And so, if Sternenhoch sees his wife an an emissary of Satan, then that is what she is. It is no more unbelievable, no more insane, than any other version of ‘reality.’ On this, there is a fascinating discussion between the Prince and his wife, who believes that she is alive, yet dreaming, but who is, as far as he is concerned, quite dead [but haunting him]. Her life after her death is, she states, ‘only my dream, which I have probably been dreaming for only a short time in the forest, although it seems to be lasting an eternity.’ Moreover, to further complicate matters, the Prince wakes in his bed and wonders ‘what if this bed is in heaven? What if I am only dreaming that I have awoken? After all I must be dead, dead…’

There is so much more that I could discuss, specifically Klíma’s ideas about will, and ‘the self as God.’ In the novel, it is Helga – who considers herself all powerful, more powerful than God or the Devil in fact – who embodies this theory, which has much in common with Nietzsche’s Übermensch. As I understand it, the author believed that if you reject conventional moral, societal values, practices, etc, you become your own deity, and this is how he lived his life. However, there are passages in The Sufferings of Prince Sternenhoch that spell all this out, quite clearly, and, convinced that I really have nothing to add to what Klíma himself wrote, I will let you read about it for yourself rather than go over it in detail here.

What I do want to acknowledge before I conclude is just how readable, how relentlessly entertaining, I found all this to be. It is true that the book is somewhat repetitive, especially in the second half, when it revolves around the Prince’s meetings with the dead Helga, but I was never at any time bored or tempted to put the book down. Indeed, I flew through it at a breakneck, one might say mad, pace. Much of my enthusiasm could be put down to how genuinely funny it is. The Prince’s descent into insanity throws up some wonderful scenes, such as when he caresses his slipper in his lap, believing it to be a cat. My favourite, however, involves the gypsy, Esmerelda Carmen Kuhmist, who gives Sternenhoch a magical nut and convinces him that the best way to deal with his fear of his spooky tormentor is to shout ‘Ghost, jump up my ass!’ whenever he sees her. Which of course he does, repeatedly, hilariously. And so too will I, most likely, if I am ever again at the point of finding existence terrifying, painful….impossible. Life, jump up my ass!

THE MURDERESS BY ALEXANDROS PAPADIAMANTIS

A woman’s lot is not a happy one, goes the old saying. Historically speaking, that much is undeniable. But these days? I don’t know. Being a man I am not qualified to say, really, although my experience of the world, and more importantly the testimony of women I know and have known, has gone some way to convincing me that there is still some truth in it. Certainly, when I was a kid I was aware that, as unpleasant as things were, being a boy I was afforded some level of respect and independence. Automatically. I didn’t need to earn it; it was my birthright, so to speak. Poor as I was, I at least had that. Yet for the girls life was different. Rather than being allowed to enjoy their immaturity, they were expected to help their mothers, to look after their brothers and sisters. To be a girl was also to be accosted and cajoled and pressurised for sexual favours almost without pause. Furthermore, I always got the impression, rightly or wrongly, that they were considered something of a disaster-waiting-to-happen, because there was the chance that they might get pregnant and bring another mouth to feed into the [too poor] household. Perhaps this is the reason their parents kept such a close eye on them, why they stifled them and dictated to them, and why they always seemed so unjustifiably angry with them. In any case, what is without question is that I didn’t grow up in the most enlightened community.

To my surprise, The Murderess, written by a man and published in 1903, has much to say about all this. It focuses on Hadoula, an old Greek woman, and her impoverished family. The novel opens with the ‘solid’ and ‘well built’ mother and grandmother looking after her newly born grandchild, while her daughter sleeps. Despite the habitual hardships, Hadoula is shown, albeit more in her memories than in the present, to be strong, cunning and resourceful. For example, during her engagement to her future husband she tries to warn him not to accept the dowry on offer, a dowry made up of essentially useless land and property that, as she foresaw, leaves the couple and their children in a trying situation. Moreover, it is told how she stole not only from her husband, but from her parents also, and how this money allowed her to build a house.

If it wasn’t for the title, the early stages of the book would lead you to believe that The Murderess was going to be similar to Halldor Laxness’ Independent People, that, specifically, it was written in praise of endurance, as a kind of homage to the working class and their will and ability to survive in tough or terrible circumstances. But it is, in fact, almost the opposite, for Hadoula, no matter how resolute she may have been for nearly sixty years, finally, shockingly, succumbs to madness and does a bad thing. And then another. And then another. Yet one of the impressive things about Papadiamantis’ work is that in spite of these actions, which manage to disturb even though you are prepared for them, one is still likely to feel some level of sympathy for her. [This is not, of course, the same as saying that you condone what she does, or even that your entire sympathies are with her].

“She thought over a thousand things, and sleep did not come to her easily. Her ponderings and memories, dim images of the past, arose in her mind one after the other like waves that her soul could see.”

The Murderess is essentially a very fine existential thriller, one that, as many readers have noted previously, has something in common with Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. This something relates to how the murderer [or murderess, in this instance] justifies the crime[s] with logic. For Raskolnikov the argument, in short, is that if he is superior then conventional morality need not apply to him. In Hadoula’s case, she is motivated to act by the belief that, first of all, to be female, in her time and in her community, is to live a miserable existence, and that to live a miserable existence is worse than being dead or in Heaven. Secondly, not only are little girls destined for an unhappy life, but they are also a burden to their parents [for they need to be married off, given a dowry, and so on]. And, so, if these things are true, then both the parents and the children would be ’better off’ if the girls were not around.

One sees in this a neat combination of the psychological, the philosophical and the socio-political, giving the novel a depth that belies its small number of pages. I wrote previously that one will likely sympathise with Hadoula, and the reason for this is twofold: one takes account of her trying circumstances, the years of misery and strife, and one can understand how a mind put under this kind of constant strain may begin to ‘smoke,’ even if the body continues to survive its punishment. However, one must not forget that she is a serial killer, and quite a cold one at that, or certainly one who acts with ‘malice aforethought,’ rather than rashly or impulsively. She doesn’t murder one person in a ‘moment of madness,’ and then regret it, or grieve about it, etc. Quite the contrary, she considers what she is about to do, she mulls it over, decides that it is the right action…and, crucially, then goes through with it [for it is one thing to develop a philosophy, but another to act upon it]. She is, all told, one of the most fascinating characters I’ve ever encountered.

opera-the-murderess.w_hr

[A scene from the opera of the same name, which is based on Papadiamantis’ book]

‘Written by a man’….you may have detected an element of disbelief in that statement. This is not to say that it is unusual for a man to make a woman or women the dominant force in his work, but rather that this is one of the few male-authored novels I can name [and followers of this blog will be aware that I have read thousands] that appears to be so totally, so sensitively and intelligently, committed to what you might call ‘feminist concerns’ [although these issues should, of course, concern us all]. I imagine that what I mean by that will already be obvious, but let me provide another example: in the opening pages, Hadoula laments that her entire life has been spent in servitude to others [and, in fact, one could see her subsequent behaviour as an attempt to murder herself, to end her own misery]. Furthermore, all of the women in the novel are intelligent, aware, hardworking, and spirited – without ever being romanticised or made to seem angelic or without fault – and yet they are all undervalued [or ignored], all dispossessed and put upon.

It is worth noting that, in comparison, the men in The Murderess are invariably bastards or essentially useless. Hadoula’s husband was a drunk and more or less an idiot; one of her sons is prone to extreme violence; and two others left home and never write. In this way, one can’t help but think that the old woman got it all wrong, that it is the husbands, the sons, the fathers that are the real burden, although I’m not, of course, suggesting that she ought to have done away with them instead.

THE HOUR OF THE STAR BY CLARICE LISPECTOR

I know that women are not intrinsically weak, that they are not more vulnerable than men; I know that unhappiness is not gender specific, that both sexes can suffer equally, and yet something deep in my psyche tells me that a woman’s sadness, her pain, is worse than a man’s, that it is less acceptable or tolerable. Philip Larkin once wrote that ‘they fuck you up, your mum and dad, they may not mean to but they do,’ and I don’t know if I would go that far, but if I had to trace these feelings back to anything or anyone it would be my mother, who raised me on her own. Ironically, she always endeavoured to give me the impression that she was strong, and maybe she was, but I never quite bought it. Her life was a constant bitter struggle to keep disaster at bay, to extract even a glimmer of hope or positivity from each day. In short, she suffered terribly, and I suffered in witnessing it.

All of which goes some way to explaining why I anticipated that Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star would be an uncomfortable, or upsetting, reading experience for me. And to some extent I was right in that regard, for Macabéa, the nineteen year old girl at the heart of the story, is a wretched creature: orphaned, raised by her pious and unpleasant aunt; poor and unloved; ugly and physically withered. She has a job as a typist but, due to a lack of education or inherent mental weakness [the narrator calls her ‘backward’], she is not very good at it. Indeed, there are few characters in literature who have so little going for them. Yet, despite her situation, Macabéa is sweet-natured, even-tempered; she takes all her misfortune on the chin.

One could perhaps explain her stoicism as being a consequence of her naivety, or lack of self-awareness [which the narrator frequently comments upon] or experience. Misery is a habit. You passively accept misfortune because it is all you know; in fact, you come to believe that it is all there is. Moreover, I know from experience that when you have so little, you do not expect or covet things. As a teenager I didn’t think about having a nice girlfriend, nice clothes, a nice house, a stable family life, an exciting future; I didn’t even realise these things were possible, that they even existed. It seems ridiculous, but it is true. If you had tried to convince me otherwise, I’d have brushed it off as make-believe.

favela

[A favela, or slum, in Rio, Brazil]

As a way of accentuating her unimportance, the nothing that is her existence, the narrator says that there are thousands of girls like Macabéa. She is, we’re to believe, not even special in her misery. In one sense, that is a reasonable statement. There are certainly thousands of people [men and women] were are born and raised in poverty, who have few or no prospects, who get so little of any worth out of life. However, there is something extraordinarily delicate about her, something other-worldly, which reminded me of the girl from Anna Kavan’s Ice, or even those sometimes found in Dickens’ novels. Dickens’ work is often accused of being exaggerated or romanticised, vis-a-vis the poor, but I have always resisted that interpretation, for there are all kinds of unusual people in the world, living in circumstances that, were they to appear in a novel, would be rejected as unrealistic. There is, in fact, no such thing as realism, because in life absolutely anything is possible. Yet, that does not mean that Macabéa is ordinary, or archetypal, or representative of a certain class of people, for the average person does not kiss walls because they have no one else to kiss.

For all this talk about Macabéa, it is the narrator, Rodrigo S.M., who dominates The Hour of the Star. I dislike the term ‘unreliable narrator’, for they are all unreliable, but he is certainly unstable. The novel is very short, some way shy of one hundred pages, and yet for the opening half [at least] he struggles to get his story going, focussing more on his own feelings, turning his attention to Macabéa on occasions, but constantly interrupting himself. It is as though Macabéa is a conduit, that it is the appearance [or illusion] of wanting to tell her story that gives Rodrigo S.M. the opportunity to talk about what he really wants to talk about: himself; he is, in this way, like all authors, who use, or take advantage of, their characters. Moreover, he claims to want to play it straight, to be cold and impartial, to avoid sentimentality, etc., in his presentation of Macabéa and her plight, and yet the novel is full of pity and compassion, only, again, one feels as though it is directed more at himself.

“Who has not asked himself at some time or other: am I a monster or is this what it means to be a person?”

So, while it is temping to think that this is a novel about poverty, or how happiness is not doled out fairly, that some subsist on meagre rations, it is actually primarily about the writing process, specifically the relationship between a writer and his characters, a relationship as intimate as any you may have had with your sexual partners. There are a lot of religious references in the book, and you could make much of all that, I’m sure, but for me it relates to how to be an author is to be God, creating worlds, directing events and giving life. In her quiet, contemplative moments, when in need of guidance or assistance, to whom should Macabéa pray? To Rodrigo S.M., her Father who is in His Study, scribbling lines. Her life is in His hands. And, yet, His is in hers also; they sustain each other. Without her we would not know Rodrigo S.M.; if she dies, so does He; her disappearance necessitates His; her end, is His.

As one progresses through the novel, one comes to realise that Macabéa and Rodrigo S.M. are opposite sides of the same coin. Considerable discussion could be devoted to the innocence and sweetness of the poor girl in contrast to the experience of the more worldly and unpleasant narrator. One could also of course touch upon the male-female dynamic, for it was not an accident that Lispector chose to make it so that it is a man who creates, who holds sway over the woman, who puts her through such awful experiences [there is a definite aroma of sadism involved in all that, which does not only have a social-political context, but could be seen as the sadism involved in being an author]. I don’t, however, wanted to linger over this stuff too much. Before I finish, I do want to devote a few words to Lispector’s style, because that is the novel’s real selling point, that is what makes The Hour of the Star one of the necessary books. When reading Lispector previously, I found myself frequently irritated by what I saw as being a dated kind of modernism. But The Hour of the Star is nothing like that. There are no passé Joycisms, rather an abundance of memorable aphorisms, beautifully carved images, and droll asides. It is a strange, unique and threatening style, and all the more cherishable for it.

MIDDLEMARCH BY GEORGE ELIOT

I am not, I must confess, terribly fond of Englishness. I suppose that being English I find it too familiar, and therefore unexciting. Or perhaps it is the case that my tough upbringing worked on me as a kind of aversion therapy, so that everything connected with my homeland strikes me as unappealing. I don’t know. Until I came to think about this review, I had never really sought to thoroughly explain to myself my preference for things foreign, a preference that extends to the women I have been in relationships with, landscapes [I find the English countryside incomparably dreary], art, film, and most other aspects of my private and intellectual life. One consequence of this attitude is that, I now realise, I’m particularly tough on English literature; I make fewer allowances, I let less slide. And so a novel written by an English person has a much steeper mountain to climb to reach the summit of my affections. Of course, some have managed it [Charles Dickens, for example, found the going relatively easy and has become a particular favourite; Jane Austen laboured somewhat, but got there in the end], but they are certainly in the minority up there. The purpose of all of this is to give some perspective to my claim that Middlemarch by George Eliot is not one of the finest English novels [a statement that coming from me would mean very little] but one of the greatest novels, period.

With Emma it was, apparently, Jane Austen’s intention to create a heroine that her readers might not like immediately, or at all. To some extent she was successful in this endeavour, for many appear to find the title character irritating. Yet I have never felt that way about her; she is too energetic and silly to engender any kind of antipathy. However, if George Eliot had ever had, while writing this book, the same aim in mind she absolutely nailed it. In the interests of fairness, one ought to point out that Dorothea Burke is not without positive traits, such as her desire to help the poor, but she is without charm. Indeed, if I were asked to choose a bunch of adjectives to describe someone who I would cross the street to avoid, those pertaining to Eliot’s heroine – pious, self-denying, proud, judgemental – would be high on the list.

For me it is these qualities that inspire her to forgo the more obviously appealing Sir James in favour of the musty Mr. Casaubon. In this respect, I was reminded very much of another strong-willed young woman, Isabel Archer from Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady. Both women, to themselves, justify their strange choices as wanting to be useful or challenged. Dorothea, in fact, likens Casaubon to Locke or Pascal; she thinks him a superior soul who will instruct and lead her, while she will aid him in his work. Yet, as the reader, one can’t help but think that marrying him is a kind of sacrifice, or martyrdom. She prides herself of not valuing frivolous things, and of being able to give them up [like horse riding, or jewels]; she doesn’t admit it to herself, but in picking Casaubon she gives up physical attraction, or at least trades it so that her intellect, her soul, can be, ahem, given a good seeing to instead. But even in this, even in denying herself, one could argue that there is a kind of vanity or egotism, that, just like Isabel, she chooses one, Casaubon, over another, Sir James, in order to show that she knows better, that she can make her own obscure choices, will go against the grain.

That Eliot allows her heroine to get off on the wrong foot, so to speak, with her audience was a brave move. I can imagine some readers clapping the book shut and throwing it away from themselves, in order to be rid of the haughty Miss Brooke. However, if you do persevere I am confident that your attitude will change towards her, or will soften at least. The reconciliation between the reader and Dorothea is most likely to take place during her disastrous marriage to the mummy [as Chettem calls Casaubon]. Before the couple tie the knot one might have been in two minds as to whether it would be a success, because, although the ageing clergyman, who is not in the best health, may strike you as unsuitable for marriage with a young woman, Dorothea’s personality is such that the union does, on the surface, pretty much make sense. Even her Uncle concedes that it is not sheer folly, and that Sir James would not have been a good match; but once Dorothea is alone with her husband she quickly comes to realise that life with him will be a lonely, frustrating, and unhappy one. And Eliot uses the contrast between the husband and the wife to expose aspects of Dorothea’s character previously unknown to the reader, making her much more agreeable.

Edward Casaubon, is, quite rightly, one of the most well-known and cherished characters in English fiction. Of all the people who feature in this vast novel, he was the one I best remembered from my first read, the one I would reference in conversation with others. Yet it was interesting to note during this reread that, while Eliot’s reputation is as a fair-minded author, a creator of finely crafted, sympathetic, flawed but human characters [and it is a deserved reputation], she is fairly relentless in mocking Casaubon, at times reaching Dickensian levels of satire. He is a terminally boring, self-absorbed and passionless man. Eliot makes this clear in numerous ways, but a number of his speeches [one about painting in particular – where he speaks about admiration without ever giving the impression that he feels any himself], and his letter to Dorothea asking for her hand in marriage, are almost painful to read in their formality and dryness.

“MY DEAR MISS BROOKE, — I have your guardian’s permission to address you on a subject than which I have none more at heart. I am not, I trust, mistaken in the recognition of some deeper correspondence than that of date in the fact that a consciousness of need in my own life had arisen contemporaneously with the possibility of my becoming acquainted with you.”

Perhaps the deepest thrust Eliot delivers is in relation to Casaubon’s work, his life’s work, called the Key to all Mythologies. It is an ambitious, comprehensive study that he is, of course, incapable of bringing to completion. He isn’t, then, only self absorbed, monomaniacal, and emotionally limp, but also completely ineffectual. I have known a number of people like this, such as my friend’s father, who left his wife, isolated himself from his friends and family, and then spent the next two decades faffing about with complex computer programmes and photography equipment, never getting within even sniffing distance of achieving anything. Or, to call forth a more famous example, what about Austrian author Robert Musil, a man of questionable temperament apparently, who dedicated the majority of his career to writing The Man Without Qualities, and yet died leaving the work unfinished? Indeed, what Eliot most impressively nailed with Casaubon is a particular kind of male behaviour or psychology or approach to the world. Many men are, to some extent, obsessive, are prone to cutting themselves off and getting lost in their hobbies or projects, be that football, gardening, or whatever. Moreover, a lot of us do not have a sense of our own ridiculousness, of how tedious we can be when we hold forth on these subjects; nor do we understand our own capabilities or limitations. This is especially true of men who are engaged in intellectual pursuits.

I must admit that I had an uncomfortable realisation during the book that there is a very real danger, not that I am a little bit like Casaubon, but that I could go full Casaubon. And you should never go full Casaubon. For example, one of my girlfriend’s once left me because I had stopped paying her attention as I worked my way through Cao Xueqin’s multi-volume Chinese novel, The Story of the Stone [totally worth it though]. Moreover, I once decided that I wanted to be able to name the greatest novel from each major country and spent at least two years engaged in research; and this is without mentioning the years I spent on my own writing projects, including a [never completed, of course] work that was meant to incorporate all of the [hundreds of thousands of] pieces and fragments of prose I have accumulated throughout my life, which I believed would, in toto, result in a bildungsroman for the modern age! Casaubon is, in this way, a warning to people like me. He is the ghost that visits you on Christmas Eve, proposing to show you who you could turn into if you are not careful.

In light of all this, it is not difficult to see why Dorothea suffers so much in the marriage. She thought she was aligning herself with a Locke, but instead got with an old man of no genius; she thought she would share in, and help with, his work, and yet she ends up being little more than an unpaid secretary or unvalued pupil.

“And certainly, the mistakes that we male and female mortals make when we have our own way might fairly raise some wonder that we are so fond of it.”

Since first reading Middlemarch I have, whenever the subject has arisen, claimed that it is the greatest novel ever written about love and relationships; and I have found, on this occasion, more than enough in the text to back that up. Indeed, while Casaubon and Dorothea are endlessly fascinating, I perhaps enjoyed the Lydgate and Rosamond storyline even more. As with the more famous couple, Eliot’s great skill is in being able to make you see the potential for success in the relationship, while also observing its possible flaws. Despite their age and attractiveness, Lydgate and Rosamond getting together isn’t mindless star-crossed lovers fluff; the coupling is psychologically sound. He thinks that her beauty and grace will enrich his life, which is understandable, and consistent with his personality, while her air of vulnerability, of needing to be looked after, is also consistent with his profession. Likewise, she wants a man who is not a Middlemarcher, who is superior, and Lydgate fits the bill. However, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that a marriage based on such superficialities will likely flounder.

As central as love and marriage are to the narrative, what unites or defines almost all of the couplings formed during the duration of the novel is a sense of eventual disappointment or, more precisely, disillusionment. Indeed, this feeling plays a part in many other aspects of the story, including, for example, Fred Vincy’s dreams and ambitions. In this way, I can’t help but think that, while the name Middlemarch has served the book adequately, the two most appropriate titles were already taken: Great Expectations and Lost Illusions. All of the major characters approach life hopefully, with expectations of success, and yet nearly all find their hopes dashed.

“Having once embarked on your marital voyage, it is impossible not to be aware that you make no way and that the sea is not within sight–that, in fact, you are exploring an enclosed basin.”

Again, Dorothea and Casaubon provide an interesting example. As noted, Dorothea finds that marriage is not all she thought it would be. Yet, crucially, she cannot really fault her husband; he did not make false promises, nor did he change upon signing the contract. It is more a case that Dorothea, like most people entering into relationships, took every small example of admirable traits or behaviour during the courtship to be but a taster of the huge amounts of such qualities the person in question would have in store. Likewise, Casaubon is also left disappointed; he imagined Dorothea would ease his strain, would support, rather than question, or make demands of him. To return to Fred Vincy, he considered it a fait accompli that old Featherstone would leave him a sizeable legacy, but things do not work out as he envisaged. In fact, the only people who avoid disappointment are those who never had ideals for living, or great hopes, in the first place, such as Mary Garth. As a consequence, I’m not quite sure what the novel’s message really is. Do not hope? Have small ambitions? Be sensible? Maybe. Or perhaps to speak about a message is to turn down the wrong road. I prefer to believe that Eliot wasn’t interested in pedagogy, that her novel is simply showing you life: in its smallness, its meanness, its disappointments, as well as its joys and its successes.

While there isn’t an out-and-out message, Middlemarch does engage with important issues, such as the women question, as I have anachronistically heard it called. As one progresses through the book one comes to realise that Dorothea could be viewed as a kind of unassuming feminist icon. What defines her character is a desire to be active and useful; she draws plans for poor housing and wants to donate to the local hospital. She may not want equality, or never voices that idea, but she does want to do good, to contribute to society. On the other hand, many of the male characters treat her as ‘a vulnerable little woman’; her uncle, for example, worries about her overtaxing herself, and thinks that too much knowledge is bad for a woman; Sir James Chettam thinks that she ought to have been given stronger guidance [i.e. be told what to do and what not to do] when weighing up Casaubon’s proposal, indicating that he believes her unfit to make this so important decision. It is vital, for me, that Eliot allows Dorothea to be both feminine and strong; she is vulnerable, but no more than anyone else, than any man, and she is emotional. While her decision to marry Casaubon is shown to be a poor one, she at least made it herself and insisted on it in the face of opposition. Through her Eliot explores how difficult it was for women to find a useful place in society, one where she is allowed to be significant and make a difference. Lydgate is a doctor, her uncle dabbles in politics, and so on, but she is expected to be little more than a wife.

In terms of Eliot’s style, she has a fine authorial voice: frequently wise and warm, while also capable of irony and a kind of wry humour. I’ve read elsewhere that some find her omniscient, Godly approach not to their taste, and while there were occasions when she unnecessarily breaks the spell [for example, when she addresses the reader and notes that you may or may not be interested in so-and-so], I found it, generally speaking, not to be a problem. What certainly is worth trumpeting is her ability with metaphors. This is an area that I am particularly interested in, for I think that it is a dying, or dead, art [if you’re going to liken, say, a pale face to milk or ivory then you might as well have not bothered at all]. In fact, most rappers turn out better metaphors that this generation’s acclaimed novelists. Eliot’s, however, are supreme; they are constantly surprising and illuminating [which is the point of a metaphor – to enable you to better understand, or appreciate, the thing that is being described by way of comparison].

Before I conclude, I want to outline some minor criticisms. I said at the beginning of this review that you will probably come to change your mind about Dorothea, that although she seems unlikable at first, I am confident that you will come to like or admire her. Yet one of the failings of the novel, for me, is that her character changes too abruptly, that, more specifically, she loses her illusions regarding Casaubon too suddenly. It is not that Eliot does not provide justification, it is simply that the reasons she gives are not entirely consistent with the character of the Dorothea that we meet in the opening stages of the book. For example, during the marriage Casaubon is shown to be lacking passion, and this dismays his wife. Yet she never indicated a desire for passion prior to the marriage, only intelligence and learning [which he has]. Furthermore, by the end of the book Dorothea has become a kind of Jesus figure; forgiving, full of love and understanding. That’s lovely and all, but it just seems too epic a journey, too big a change, to have undertaken in the course of the novel. Another problem with the book is that Will Ladislaw, who is the closest Eliot comes to a romantic hero, is dull as shit. Seriously, I yawned my way through almost all his bits. In any case, none of that was enough to spoil my enjoyment or to dampen my affection.

Finally, then, if this review seems somewhat confused or poorly structured [I hope it doesn’t but I fear it does], or far too long, that is because I struggled to write and edit it. However, I struggled not because my ideas wouldn’t come, or would not allow themselves to be moulded into coherent sentences and paragraphs, but simply because I had so much I wanted to say, because every time I started to lay down my thoughts and feelings I was aware that there were other fascinating aspects of the novel that I could be engaging with. I felt, as I wrote, always as though I was grappling with something bigger than me,  like a fisherman trying to land a shark. That, for me, is the sign of a truly great book – one that will not politely submit itself to a nicely-formed, perfectly manageable 1000 word review. Oh no, Middlemarch made me drag this this out of myself, all 3000 words of it.

ANNA KARENINA BY LEO TOLSTOY

It must be great being a genius. You can do things like try and write a moralistic novel about adultery and the evils of high society and end up with a humane masterpiece on your hands. I’m pretty sure if Tolstoy had attempted to make a nuclear bomb he would have inadvertently cured cancer; he was just that kind of guy. It may be apocryphal but I have read numerous times that with this book the author’s intention was to condemn Anna and her set. Yet, if that is the case, why does Anna Karenina not read like a diatribe, like a dressing down of women like Anna and the scoundrels and fops of high society? Because there was too much love in Tolstoy, too much understanding. He may have wanted to vent his spleen, be didactic, but his intelligence and compassion would not allow it. Not only would a diatribe, a pure condemnation, not have satisfied his intellect, but, because he cared for people, he could see things from all points of view. Yes, there are moments of what you could call judgmentalism, like when Kitty describes Anna as satanic, but [almost] everyone in the book is multi-faceted and everyone elicits some sympathy from the author. Whatever the great Russian’s intentions were, I came away from the book feeling a kind of tenderness, for the characters and for the world at large.

I’ve read Anna Karenina once before and, although I very much enjoyed it, I certainly loved it far more this time around. Maybe the reason for that is that during my first read I focussed my attention too much on Anna herself. Anna – the adulteress, the titular character, and one of the most famous names in literature – is probably the least interesting of the major players in the book. She is, in fact, perhaps only interesting so much as her position, as a woman, contrasts that of her brother, Stiva Oblonsky, as a man. The novel opens with that wonderful scene, where Stiva wakes up in an unfamiliar room, and, as his sleep-fogged mind clears, he gradually comes to the realisation that he is there because he has been thrown out of the marital bedroom. Oblonsky has been caught cheating on his wife with a French governess. However, being a man Oblonsky is not lambasted [except perhaps by Levin], condemned or even all that harshly judged; he is, after not too long a time in the doghouse, forgiven, despite his wife not believing in his future fidelity. Anna, on the otherhand, as an adulterous woman, is forced to flee Russia once her affair comes to light and is shunned by society upon her return.

There is also a contrast in the way that both Anna and Stiva see infidelity, and in the reasons behind their actions. Oblonsky, as he is no longer attracted to his wife, deems it perfectly natural that his eye [and other things] ought to wander; he cheats not because he falls for the French governess but because he has the hots for her; and he does not see anything wrong in that. Anna is different. Anna considers Vronsky to be her first and only love. She finds in the relationship an emotional connection she does not have with her husband; her affair is a grand passion. This is why many readers sympathise with her; people, these days, are concerned less with duty and more with the dictum of following your heart. Anna does, however, think that her actions are wrong; she does not love her husband, but she does believe that cheating, lying, and so on, are bad things; Oblonsky, and Vronsky for that matter, lie without compunction. It is all part of that archaic idea that for a man to err is natural, but that a woman ought to be entirely chaste; that it is expected that a man will give chase, but that the woman ought always to resist and flee. I don’t know if Tolstoy’s desire was to highlight these inequalities but he does so nevertheless. I guess I am less inclined to believe that it was his desire, because Anna’s treatment at the hands of the author is different also. She loses everything, while Oblonsky manages to maintain the status quo, and, as most of us know, Anna does not survive the full duration of the book.

In any case, it is necessary to explain why, although the Anna passages and chapters are by no means badly written, I mostly found her, as a character, disappointing. I have seen her held up as a feminist icon numerous times, principally because of all that following your heart stuff and because she is regarded, in breaking from her husband, and therefore conventional society, as some kind of modern woman. Yet, I actually consider the opposite to be the case i.e. that she is not modern at all, but that she is a throwback. I find her disappointing, and often irritating, because she is so predictable; she is the kind of female character that someone like Balzac would have created, by which I mean a melodramatic woman who loses her heart to a handsome officer and ruins her life; a woman who throughout the book wrings her hands and cries and has fainting fits. Is that feminist? If so, then I have misunderstood that whole movement completely. It is not even true to say that she leaves her husband. She cheats on him, yes, but she doesn’t leave him. She, in fact, doesn’t even ask to be let go; her brother does that on her behalf. Anna, meanwhile, simply sits around weeping and gazing forlornly into the distance; she doesn’t act at all. It is her husband, Karenin, the wronged party, who frees her, despite not wanting to lose her.

While Anna disappointed me, Alexis Karenin is perhaps the best evidence of Tolstoy’s subtlety, fair-mindedness, and psychological complexity. He often seems to be glossed over in reviews and articles, but I think he is expertly drawn. Many authors, certainly around the time the book was written, would have gone one way or the other with the husband of the cheating woman: either he would be an imbecile or a saint. Karenin is neither, although I think I am right in saying that Tolstoy’s original thought was to make him saintly. What I like about Karenin is that he is essentially good, yes, but makes obvious mistakes; he is hugely successful in the business world, but he is artless where his wife is concerned. He doesn’t know how to express passion or even warm emotion, and it is clear that this [along with his ears!] is why Anna disparages him and finds it as easy as she does to wrong him. Indeed, Anna at one stage calls him a machine and says that if he had killed her and Vronsky then at least she’d be able to respect him. She doesn’t respect him though, of course, and this, in the beginning, fuels her feelings of entitlement and allows her to proceed, not without guilt, but with less compunction. Karenin’s way also serves to make Vronsky seem brighter, bigger and, crucially, more in love. It is Karenin’s smallness, his shrinking away from romance and passion, that enables the demonstrative Vronsky to seem all the more passionate and romantic and in love. The irony, the tragedy is that Karenin does love his wife very much, but he is an emotionally humble man who covers his embarrassment with jokes and easy sarcasm.

As well as Anna and Vronsky, there is another important relationship formed during the timeframe of the novel, that of Kitty and Levin. I wrote earlier that Anna is a throwback, but Constantine Levin points towards the future [over the century following the publication of the book literature became increasingly concerned with people like Levin – the introspective loner, the anguished, tortured soul]. Levin is very much a Dostoevskyan type of character [I wonder if Tolstoy ever acknowledged the influence?], he is in conflict with other people and also in conflict with himself; he is on a kind of quest to understand himself. When we first meet him he seems intense, pompous, judgmental. It is interesting that it is pretty much accepted that Levin is Tolstoy, because he isn’t particularly sympathetic at times. Take, for example, what he says about ‘fallen women.’ He compares them to a spider; he says that just as one could explain to someone who recoils from them that they are just following their nature, and that will not make one whit of difference in terms of finding them revolting, likewise he will still be disgusted by these women, no matter how one tries to explain or justify their situation.

One of the potential problems with the book, as time marches on, and people have become increasingly secular and morally laidback, is that readers are more likely to identify with and sympathise with amiable cads like Stiva Oblonsky or the intellectually and emotionally straightforward Vronsky rather than the complex Levin [because we would rather see our own flaws reflected in a character]. There is, I feel, a disconnect between who Tolstoy considered, intended as, his hero [or most heroic character] and who the general public will like and see themselves in the most. Levin is, to a certain extent, the moral or more specifically the philosophical heart of the novel; but arrogance, irritability and moodiness are not, I’m told, attractive qualities. Fortunately, however, Tolstoy breathes life into Levin by making him vulnerable, awkward, self-questioning, harder on himself than anyone else; so while he is sometimes a bit of a dick, he is also kind of loveable or endearing [he is, in fact, my favourite; but then I am a dick too]. Like almost everyone in the novel, he is not fully one thing or the other; his behaviour and attitude changes, he is inconsistent in the way that real people are.

If Levin is the moral or philosophical heart of the novel, and Anna provides the tragedy, it is Kitty who goes on the most admirable journey. At the beginning of the novel she is a socialite; she a pretty young girl, who likes balls and dancing and dresses. She is aware of her attractiveness and proud of it, but she is not conceited. Kitty’s two suitors are Levin and Vronsky; her preference is for Vronsky, because he is elegant and handsome and has good prospects [although her mother does seem to have played some part in her choice too]. However, once Vronsky abandons her for Anna Kitty starts to reassess her feelings, her priorities; she begins, in effect, to mature. She comes to see the balls as a kind of cattle market, as a way of arranging marriages, or more specifically of marrying off daughters. The pivotal moment for Kitty is meeting Mlle Varenka, who is a kind of role model; Varenka is pretty too, but is without ego, and Kitty wants to copy her. Crucially, however, she comes to realise that she can’t be anything but herself; that is her epiphany. One could see Kitty’s story as a journey towards Levin, but it isn’t that to me, it is a journey towards womanhood, towards independence [of thought], towards finding out who she really is.

That Tolstoy was a master of character construction and character psychology I hope to have made clear, but his art extends well beyond that sphere. He was, in my opinion, also the master of detail; he had an uncanny ability to know what to draw a readers attention to in order to elevate a scene, for example, the way that Kitty brushes the hoarfrost from her muff or, while at a ball, how she is danced towards Anna, her partner manoeuvring her so that they evade the ribbons and tulle on the other women’s dresses. Tolstoy was able to give significance to apparently insignificant things, he was able to imbue them with poetry. To my mind, Count Leo was also the master of tempo or pacing; he appeared to understand exactly the right point at which to move on his narrative; when the society scenes are getting dull, the action will move to the country; likewise, if Levin is starting to bore, Tolstoy will look in on Kitty. Finally, and perhaps most impressively, Tolstoy was the master of grand scenes. There are numerous grand scenes in Anna Karenina, by which I mean significant scenes that become burned into your consciousness. My favourite is Kitty iceskating; but there is also the wonderful chapter where Levin takes up  a scythe and spends a whole day working his own farm, the mushroom picking with Varenka and Sergius, and Vronsky’s horse race. The horse race is particularly potent, because it foreshadows his and Anna’s fate, it sums up their relationship. Initially, the race is exciting, romantic; Vronsky takes the lead, and appears to be sure to win. Yet he makes a fatal, stupid error and his horse falls and breaks its back. As silly as it sounds, that horse is Anna; Vronsky by pursuing her, by riding her so hard, ruins her and, if you want to be dramatic about it, ultimately kills her.

As I come to the end of my review I realise that I have hardly touched on the novel’s themes. What is Anna Karenina really about? I am sure in classrooms around the world that is what is being most discussed. However, I sometimes think these kinds of questions are irrelevant, especially in relation to very long novels such as this. Anna Karenina has many themes, it is about many things; there is no single standout idea. Yes, to a certain extent it is about adultery; it is about love, it is about the contrast between a superficial attraction and a meeting of souls [or I think that is what Tolstoy himself intended, at least initially], for example, Kitty and Levin vs Anna and Vronsky; it is about relationships, familial and sexual; it is about gender and class; it is about duty [see: the brothers, and Stiva and Dolly, and Anna and Karenin and her to son etc]; it is about death; and so on. But, the genius of the book is that more than being about anything Anna Karenina is a believable representation of something. When reading the book what we are exposed to are thoughts, feelings, mundane moments, and dramatic ones too. We follow a group of people who we care about as they live their lives over a significant period of time. Life, for better and for worse; that, to me, is Anna Karenina.

Here, by the way, is Tolstoy as a young man:

Leo_Tolstoy_in_uniform

Just look at the glorious fucker.

THE CUSTOM OF THE COUNTRY BY EDITH WHARTON

I have a saying which is that the greatest trick that man has ever pulled is to convince women that they are free. I’m sure many of you are raising your eyebrows at that. I’m serious though. Years ago men tried to control women by keeping them locked up in housework, in children, in piety. Then we realised that by doing so, although we posses them, we aren’t benefitting from it in the way that we would like. No, what we want, what we have always wanted, is for them to look nice, to leave us alone to pursue our own interests, and yet to give us what we desire when we desire it. For that women needed to be convinced of their emancipation.

This freedom, in my opinion, is a mirage. I believe that women are socialised to exercise their ‘free will’ in a way that most pleases men, i.e. they are taught to be promiscuous, to not want commitment, to be ok with all kinds of sexual congress, to be obsessed with their appearance, etc. Furthermore, they have been taught to be satisfied with scraps of attention, to appreciate the glittery, the sparkling, the bright and blinding; which are all things that men can give them with little effort on their part. Of course, not all women fall for the trick, I’m not saying that, but that doesn’t call into question the entire theory. Just look around you, at TV, at pop stars, and so on. Society is ordered in such a way as to create vacuous, easy, and lovely looking women. And this situation is getting worse, the numbers are growing with each new generation. Take it from a man, someone who has been dating girls for a number of years. I’m not taking the moral high ground here, I’m as bad as anyone; I, too, have benefited.

Remarkably, these ideas, which have played on my mind for quite some time, form the basis of Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country, which was published in 1913. In fact, one character, Charles Bowen, engages in a conversation, about half-way through the novel, in which similar points to my own are raised:

“I want to get a general view of the whole problem of American marriages.”

Mrs. Fairford dropped into her arm-chair with a sigh. “If that’s what you want you must make haste! Most of them don’t last long enough to be classified.”

“I grant you it takes an active mind. But the weak point is so frequently the same that after a time one knows where to look for it.”

“What do you call the weak point?”

He paused. “The fact that the average American looks down on his wife.”

Mrs. Fairford was up with a spring. “If that’s where paradox lands you!”

Bowen mildly stood his ground. “Well–doesn’t he prove it? How much does he let her share in the real business of life? How much does he rely on her judgment and help in the conduct of serious affairs? Take Ralph for instance–you say his wife’s extravagance forces him to work too hard; but that’s not what’s wrong. It’s normal for a man to work hard for a woman–what’s abnormal is his not caring to tell her anything about it.”

“To tell Undine? She’d be bored to death if he did!”

“Just so; she’d even feel aggrieved. But why? Because it’s against the custom of the country. And whose fault is that? The man’s again–I don’t mean Ralph I mean the genus he belongs to: homo sapiens, Americanus. Why haven’t we taught our women to take an interest in our work? Simply because we don’t take enough interest in THEM.”

Mrs. Fairford, sinking back into her chair, sat gazing at the vertiginous depths above which his thought seemed to dangle her.

“YOU don’t? The American man doesn’t–the most slaving, self-effacing, self-sacrificing–?”

“Yes; and the most indifferent: there’s the point. The ‘slaving’s’ no argument against the indifference To slave for women is part of the old American tradition; lots of people give their lives for dogmas they’ve ceased to believe in. Then again, in this country the passion for making money has preceded the knowing how to spend it, and the American man lavishes his fortune on his wife because he doesn’t know what else to do with it.”

“Then you call it a mere want of imagination for a man to spend his money on his wife?”

“Not necessarily–but it’s a want of imagination to fancy it’s all he owes her. Look about you and you’ll see what I mean. Why does the European woman interest herself so much more in what the men are doing? Because she’s so important to them that they make it worth her while! She’s not a parenthesis, as she is here–she’s in the very middle of the picture. I’m not implying that Ralph isn’t interested in his wife–he’s a passionate, a pathetic exception. But even he has to conform to an environment where all the romantic values are reversed. Where does the real life of most American men lie? In some woman’s drawing-room or in their offices? The answer’s obvious, isn’t it? The emotional centre of gravity’s not the same in the two hemispheres. In the effete societies it’s love, in our new one it’s business. In America the real crime passionnel is a ‘big steal’–there’s more excitement in wrecking railways than homes.”

Bowen paused to light another cigarette, and then took up his theme. “Isn’t that the key to our easy divorces? If we cared for women in the old barbarous possessive way do you suppose we’d give them up as readily as we do? The real paradox is the fact that the men who make, materially, the biggest sacrifices for their women, should do least for them ideally and romantically. And what’s the result–how do the women avenge themselves? All my sympathy’s with them, poor deluded dears, when I see their fallacious little attempt to trick out the leavings tossed them by the preoccupied male–the money and the motors and the clothes–and pretend to themselves and each other that THAT’S what really constitutes life! Oh, I know what you’re going to say–it’s less and less of a pretense with them, I grant you; they’re more and more succumbing to the force of the suggestion; but here and there I fancy there’s one who still sees through the humbug, and knows that money and motors and clothes are simply the big bribe she’s paid for keeping out of some man’s way!”

I’ve included the discussion in its entirety because it is so fabulous. Reading it was one of those miracle discoveries that you get every so often in literature, when someone articulates almost exactly your own thoughts and feelings.

The focus of the novel is Undine Spragg, a self-centred but very beautiful young woman. She is a poster-girl for the dangers of socialisation; she embodies my, and Charles Bowen’s, ideas about the way that women are raised and taught to behave. Her mother is weak and subservient, maybe even intimidated by her daughter; her father appears to believe that she should have everything she wants, no matter how unreasonable. Indeed, Abner Spragg does exactly what I was talking about at the beginning of this review: unable to engage with his daughter properly he simply throws something shiny or new and expensive her way in order to pacify her. He doesn’t do so for sexual gain, of course, but he is putting in place a pattern of behaviour and creating and re-enforcing an attitude towards relations between men and women that will carry the girl throughout her life. Later, when she starts forming serious relationships, she brings the same expectations to them, which is that the man ought to always satisfy her desires. In these relationships, the male concern is sexual, but they take on the paternal role: they keep their true thoughts and feelings to themselves, they shelter her from business matters, and so on. Undine’s role, both in her own mind and in the minds of the men she encounters, is simply to look beautiful.

mode1910-3

In a way, you could call The Custom of the Country a feminist novel, because, of course, socialisation of women, male attitudes towards women, are feminist concerns. However, Wharton is too clever and too deft a writer to fall into the trap of writing a political tract. She appears to be saying it is a great shame that women are kept at arm’s length, are taught and encouraged to be beautiful and little else, but she does not ever really blame anyone for this state of affairs, she is entirely even-handed, and she certainly is no man hater. Ralf, one of Undine’s husbands, is, for example, probably the most sympathetic person in the whole novel; he is shown to be truly in love in with his wife and devoted to his son. Yet, Undine’s and Ralf’s marriage is not on an equal footing either. He doesn’t want to bore her with financial or business matters, while she thinks it his responsibility to ensure her amusement. Crucially, Undine doesn’t want a relationship on an equal footing: she wants to be pampered and spoiled and allowed to do what she likes

Undine Spragg is one of the most extraordinary characters in literature. It would be easy to see her as a typical conniving, scheming femme fatale, but she isn’t really. What is most interesting about Undine is that she truly believes that she has a right to what she wants, that no one and nothing ought to be able to stop her. That is not the same as a traditional femme fatale, a Becky Sharp, who know that they are bad or that they are doing bad things, and don’t care. Undine thinks she is absolutely in the right; she would be mortified to think that she is in the wrong. There is, in fact, a great deal of naivety and innocence in her. She twice marries the wrong kind of man, not exactly for money as you might anticipate, but because she doesn’t seem to understand the relationship between her desires and money [i.e. that the things she wants cost a lot of money and that money doesn’t simply come to hand when it is called for]. Both men aren’t rich, and yet Undine thinks they should still do all they can to please her and cannot comprehend why they are unable to. She also makes many social faux pas; she does not use society, or manipulate it; she is essentially clueless, but eager to learn. The upshot is that Undine is both monstrous, almost sociopathic, and yet somehow strangely charming, strangely endearing. And, I think, that the sympathy I felt towards her comes from me being a man, because, again, being a man I like, I respond to, beautiful but child-like women, just as the male characters in the novel do.

If this is all the book had to say it would still be a brilliant, forward-thinking novel. However, it raises many other fascinating questions, deals with other engrossing themes, such as money, divorce, family, parentage, duty etc, etc. Perhaps the overriding theme, the one that ties many of the other themes/ideas together, is that of old vs new. Undine’s battles, her disagreements with the grand old families, the Marvells and de Chelles, is indicative of the tension that Wharton sees between old values and new, the old world and the new world. However, Undine is not quite as modern as she may seem at first glance. She instinctively respects these traditional families, although only because she feels them to be important and respected by others. It is Elmer Moffatt, my favourite character in the novel, who truly embodies the new age. Moffatt is unrefined, he has no great name or heritage behind him; he is brash and loud and straight-talking; he is a speculator, a self-made man. He is, in fact, The American Dream.

There is a poignant scene towards the end of the novel, although in order to understand it some explanation is required. Undine has married a French aristocrat, who, albeit titled, and therefore giving the appearance of wealth, has very little ready cash. Undine, needing money for her trips to Paris, arranges for a man to come and view and put a value on some very expensive de Chelles family heirlooms; and Moffatt is the man who comes to buy them. He offers two million dollars, but de Chelles turns the offer down. The Frenchman is incredulous, he cannot fathom why Undine would even have the heirlooms evaluated; there is no question, he says, of them ever being sold. For Undine, however, they are merely objects, which are pleasant to look at but only if they are not taking the place of other, more pressing, desires. Anyway, eventually, right at the end of the book, Moffatt is seen bringing these heirlooms home. He has, of course, bought them. de Chelles and his set, his values, his way of life even, is on the way out.

If I have any criticism to make of The Custom of the Country it is that Undine’s second marriage too closely resembles her first. Consequently, you feel as though it is unnecessary, as though you’ve already been through this already, that Wharton had made the same points previously, and this makes the novel drag a little bit in the final third. Furthermore, it doesn’t make sense that Undine would make the same mistake twice, i.e. that she would again marry someone who is seemingly well-to-do, but financially in dire straights, because she would foresee, you’d imagine, that she would find herself in the same position that she so loathed before. I feel as though Wharton could have cut the de Chelles marriage out completely, and if she had done so the novel would have been even more wonderful, more brutal. In any case, this minor quibble about pacing aside, The Custom of the Country is one of the few genuinely great novels I have read this year.