The Mysterious Case of the Missing Mice and Men

I am not a morning person. I never have been. On weekends, I enjoy a lie-in. Not that I necessarily sleep through it: the advantages of a tablet include the luxury of lying comfortably in my warm bed, while others are no doubt savouring the beauties of the morn or something similar, and browsing through the various online newspapers, journals, and blogs. And yes, a bit of social media as well. And last Sunday morning, even before I was fully awake, I knew something very terrible had happened to our education system. Everywhere I looked it was the same story: Michael Gove! How terrible! How could he! Disgraceful! Disgusting! This man does not deserve even to be mentioned in polite society! He should be tarred and feathered and run out of town!

What has he done? I wondered. Has he been caught stealing from the church funds? Has he, perhaps, run off with the vicar’s wife? It wasn’t easy getting to the answer, as all this no doubt entirely justified indignation referred to an article in the Sunday Times, which, being beyond a paywall, I couldn’t access without getting out of bed and walking to the newsagents’. But, after ploughing through much outrage and invective, often obscenely expressed, I got to what I think was at the heart of it all: this heartless bastard, Gove, has, purely out of spite, dropped from the school GCSE curriculum John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, and has replaced them with other texts. Well, no wonder! The only three books in the world that are worth studying, and he has dropped them! What an act of sheer, wanton vandalism! I could not but agree with the various comments that this dangerous maniac had to be stopped: he was, single-handedly, wrecking the teaching of English in our schools.

Now, I do not take this at all lightly. Having closely followed what our children had studied for their GCSEs, if “studied” is indeed the word I am looking for here, I have rather regretfully come to the conclusion that the teaching of English in our schools is badly broken. And that someone could wreck what is already badly broken is, I must concede, a remarkable feat. Lest it be thought that I exaggerate, let me expand on that a bit. (And those who have already heard me expatiate on this matter may skip the next paragraph.)

As a parent rather concerned that our children should receive a good education, and, in particular, that they should acquire a good grasp of the English language, I could not help but notice, year after year, essays returned after marking with an encouraging remark, such as “well done”, or even “very well done”, or “keep up the good work”, written at the bottom, but without any of the often basic grammatical errors – errors of the kind any child is likely to make who hasn’t been taught – so much as pointed out, let alone corrected. As a parent who would love to communicate some of his love of English literature to my children, and who thought he would have an ally in the school’s English department, it was with some disappointment, to put it mildly, that I observed that up to a year before our daughter sat her English GCSE examinations, she had not been required to read a single book from cover to cover. This was, admittedly, rectified somewhat in that final year, but the only books she was required to read were Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (a pretty good book but a very straightforward one and one she could easily have read several years earlier); An Inspector Calls by J. B. Priestley; and About a Boy by Nick Hornby. (I am not joking.) When it came to poetry, the view was even more dismal: I occasionally saw the odd sheet of paper containing what purported to be “poems” by writers of whom, despite my taking an active interest in poetry ancient and modern, I had never heard. The “poems” themselves – and I use the quotation marks here advisedly – were simple-minded, and looked as if they had been written by a sixth former. For all I knew, they probably were. All that we may consider to be the backbone of the English literary tradition – Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Wordsworth, Austen, Dickens, Hardy, Woolf, Forster, Yeats, Eliot, and so on – weren’t even touched. I was, frankly, worried. How could anyone pass GCSEs in English language and in English literature when they’ve been taught bugger all about either? But pass them she did, and with flying colours too. The school she attends receives glowing reports in reviews by OFSTED. And it is particularly proud of the high grades its pupils get in English.

Of course, the syllabus may vary from school to school, and some schools really may teach worthwhile works from the vast treasure-house of English literature; but the fact remains that it is indeed possible to pass these subjects with flying colours without really knowing or understanding them.

It’s not that I necessarily blame the schools. Schools are judged by their position on national league tables, and this position depends not on how much the children learn, or on how well they understand the subjects, but on how many grades they obtain. And since, as is rather obvious from our experience, one may get good GCSE grades in English (let’s just stick to English for now) without having to understand or even to learn it, we shouldn’t be too surprised if ensuring learning and understanding is not too high on many schools’ list of priorities.

And everyone is happy. The children, naturally, are happy: not necessarily about having to study About a Boy, which, despite the alleged direct relevance it has to their own experience, they dislike studying as much as they would have disliked studying more traditional texts; but they are, naturally, happy with the grades. Parents, who are wise enough to care about what grades their children obtain rather than what their children actually learn, are also happy. Schools that get the good grades are happy: they come high in the league tables, and what more could one ask for? Examination boards, who are in competition with each other, are happy, as the higher the grades obtained for their examinations, the better they can sell themselves to schools. Admittedly, some teachers may not be quite so happy (I’m guessing here) – especially the good ones who actually care about the subjects they teach; but their performance is appraised, as I understand it, on the grades obtained by the pupils in their charge, so they seem to have little choice in the matter. And while employers may moan (and they do) about people with GCSE passes in English Language and in Mathematics who are functionally illiterate and innumerate, even the most fastidious of employers is unlikely to complain about people with high grades in English literature not having sufficient understanding of Keats. So who’s not happy? A few oddballs like myself, I suppose, but we don’t count, and never have done.

So, to return to that wee rascal Gove, I was intrigued. That anyone could “wreck” a system already so badly broken seemed to me, quite simply, extraordinary. How did he do it?

Finding out from browsing the internet wasn’t easy. Everywhere I looked, I found the same thing: Gove is a bastard; Gove is a wanker; Gove is just horrible; and so on, all in a similar vein. (For any transatlantic reader who may be wondering what a “wanker” is, please do not ask: I try to keep this blog clean, and exclude from it anything that may, in the words of Podsnap, bring a blush to the cheek of a young person. Let us just say that the ideas a wanker is likely to have may well be – how shall I put it? – seminal. And let’s leave it there.)

And it seems that not only has Wanker Gove dropped from the curriculum these three absolutely indispensable titles, he has decreed that American literature must not be taught at all. Scottish, Welsh, and Irish are, as far as I could tell, still allowed; the status of the novels of Conrad, or of the later works of Henry James or T. S. Eliot (once they had settled in Britain, that is, but certainly not earlier), remains a bit doubtful; but anything written by those bloody foreigners – Emily Dickinson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Derek Walcott, R. K. Narayan, Wole Soyinka, Nadine Gordimer – are all most definitely out. And especially out are John Steinbeck, Harper Lee, and Arthur Miller, authors of the Only Three Books Worth Studying.

Of course, I was, as every right-thinking person should be, outraged. I suppose I should link to at least some of those reports that tell us that these specific books have been dropped; that American literature has been dropped; that it have been dropped specifically because Gove personally does not like it; and so on. But really, there’s little point. There are so many such articles and opinion pieces (and Facebook posts and tweets, etc. etc.) of this nature, that any interested reader can find them without too much trouble. And moreover, as I soon found out, they aren’t even true. Even by Sunday evening, some cracks in the original story were beginning to appear. It seems that the new proposed syllabus included the poems of Emily Dickinson. How could that be? Surely American literature was banned, and Emily Dickinson, the last time I looked into her biography, was just a bit trans-Atlantic.

On Monday, a response appeared penned by Gove himself. He protested that these specific books have not been dropped; and neither is American literature excluded. He’s back-pedalling, said many. But if we go to the primary source of this story, the original government guidance that caused this furore (and this I will link to, here), it backs up what Gove has said: American literature has not been excluded, and there is no specific reference to those Only Three Books Worth Studying.

To summarise, the proposals are as follows: there is a core that is compulsory, and must be studied. Admittedly, this core does not cover the Only Three Books Worth Studying, but clearly, not to deem something compulsory is not quite the same as excluding it: beyond this core – which is nowhere near so onerous as to take up all the study time available for GCSE courses – schools are free to set whatever text they wish. And the core itself seems to me unexceptionable:

- a whole Shakespeare play (i.e. not merely selected scenes);
- poetry from 1789;
- a 19th-century novel;
- some fiction or drama written in the British Isles since 1914.

I tried to think of various combinations that would meet these criteria. How about, say, Macbeth, “Ode to a Nightingale”, The Scarlet Letter, and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie? Or, say, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Persuasion, selected poems of Emily Dickinson, and The Plough and the Stars? I’d have been delighted if our daughter had been set texts such as these instead of what she had so disdainfully been fobbed off with. And if the school really feels that modern American novels are absolutely indispensable, there’s nothing to stop them teaching Of Mice and Men or To Kill a Mockingbird. But frankly, I’d rather they chose something else: there’s no shortage of good, and even great, modern American novels to choose from: why restrict ourselves endlessly only to these? For, amongst other things, the following passage in Gove’s article caught my eye:

In one year recently, 280,000 candidates studied just one novel for the AQA GCSE. The overwhelming majority of them (more than 190,000) studied Of Mice and Men. Most of the remaining AQA pupils studied other 20th-century texts including works such as Lord of the Flies. The numbers studying novels written before 1900 – Pride and Prejudice, Far from the Madding Crowd and Wuthering Heights – were tiny in comparison, around 1 per cent of the total. The situation is no different in drama, or when one looks at other exam boards.

Now, I’m not a statistician, but … well, actually, no: I am a statistician – but I haven’t had access to the raw data from which the above statistics have been derived. But I guess it doesn’t take a statistician to figure out that of pupils taking AQA GCSE who had studied a single novel, for over two-thirds of them, that single novel was Of Mice and Men. The other statistic that is frequently bandied about is that some 90% of all pupils, across all examination boards, study this same Of Mice and Men. I have no way of judging how accurate these figures are, but given that they are publicly stated by a government minister, and that, further, I have seen no-one, not even the most outspoken detractor, question these statistics, I have no reason to believe these figures false. And if they are true, that should be a matter of concern for anyone who feels strongly about literature. Even restricting ourselves to modern American novels, there is an extraordinary variety of books out there: is this unremitting focus on a single title an adequate response to such variety?

And, while I have nothing against Of Mice and Men (or To Kill a Mockingbird, or The Crucible); while I actually think highly of all three of these; let us not kid ourselves about the reason for their popularity as classroom texts: they are easy to read, easy to engage with, contain very clear and unambiguous moral messages, and, hence, are easy to teach. Yes, these are all compelling reasons for teaching them, but one can’t help feeling that it would be no bad thing to set, for the abler pupils at least, material that is both linguistically and morally more challenging.

But what I find particularly shocking about the paragraph by Gove quoted above is this bit:

The numbers studying novels written before 1900 – Pride and Prejudice, Far from the Madding Crowd and Wuthering Heights – were tiny in comparison, around 1 per cent of the total.

Now, I know there are those who are not shocked by this at all. There are those who think this is just as it should be. Bethan Marshall, for instance, senior lecturer in English at King’s College, London:

Kids will be put off doing A-level literature by this. Many teenagers will think that being made to read Dickens aged 16 is just tedious. This will just grind children down.

Whatever one may think of this, let us concede that this is a wonderfully innovative idea: let us, from now on, design all school curricula around what our children are unlikely to find “tedious”. Kids put off mathematics by having to learn all that tedious stuff about differentiation? Great – let’s drop calculus. Put off geography by having to learn all that tedious stuff about soil erosion? Put off biology by having to learn all that tedious stuff about cell structures? Drop ’em all, says I! Once we start building all the curricula around what kids won’t find tedious, we’ll soon get to a stage where they can all get their GCSEs without being taught anything at all. To judge from the English GCSEs, we’re virtually at this Utopia already.

Perhaps some of us are entitled, however, to find it just a tad depressing that a senior lecturer in English at a prestigious university should think that sixteen-year-olds are all a bunch of plebs utterly unable to appreciate one of our very greatest novelists. I think she is wrong. I speak as one who remembers being sixteen years old, and utterly in thrall to the works of novelists of the stature of Dickens. And since I am not arrogant enough to imagine that I exceeded all others in terms of intellect, or in terms of ability to appreciate; and since I personally know other people who are grateful to their schools for having introduced them to literature of such quality; I cannot but conclude that the good senior lecturer in English at King’s College, London, is mistaken. Many children will, no doubt, find Dickens “tedious”, but it is hard to think of any topic in any subject at all that most children don’t find tedious: the question “so bloody what?” rather comes to mind. If we are to pander in our syllabi merely to what children find “fun”, then, in the process, we will deny those whose lives may have been enriched by a proper teaching of literature. As mine certainly was. Being myself more of a Kirsanov than a Bazarov in this respect, I can’t help but find all of this profoundly depressing.

For let us be clear why we should be teaching works from what we tend rather airily to refer to as “our literary heritage”: our literary culture is a defining feature of our civilisation; and, if we value our civilisation and think it worth propagating to future generations, we should take care to propagate to future generations the values of our literary culture. That’s it. This, I think, is the sole reason for studying literature. If we do not believe this, there is no point in studying literature at all. But if we do believe this, we have no choice but to engage with what our literary heritage has to offer. To go through GCSE English without engaging with Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Austen, Dickens and the like, is a bit like going through GCSE physics without engaging with Newtonian mechanics. And we are in a sad state indeed if something so obvious needs actually to be spelt out.

However, much though I applaud this latest initiative, I remain pessimistic that it will do much good. Will Gove finally do away with league tables, and this unremitting obsession with grades? I doubt it, given that his political party introduced the school league tables in the first place, and remains ideologically committed to competition in all aspects of life. But in an environment where there seems so little to cheer, it is at least something, I think, to have a Minister of Education who actually recognises that something is very seriously wrong when only 1% of children studying English Literature GCSE engages with literature from before the 20th century. At the very least, merely posting “Gove is a wanker” on Twitter is not really an appropriate or an adequate response.

“Mansfield Park” by Jane Austen

It is, I think, fair to say that …

Now, always mistrust an essay or a posting that starts with such words. But I am going to go ahead and start with these words anyway.

It is, I think, fair to say that Mansfield Park is the Austen novel that her fans tend least to like. And the reason this novel is so frequently disliked – if the comments I frequently find around the internet are to be trusted – is that Fanny Price is not considered by many readers a likable character.

Now, disliking a protagonist seems to me, for reasons well articulated here, a poor basis for disliking a book. But the question of whether or not we like Fanny is not, perhaps, one that is easily dismissed. For while the reader’s personal like or dislike of Fanny has, or at least should have, no bearing at all on the reader’s judgement on the book’s literary qualities, it certainly has a very strong bearing on how the reader interprets the book. The reader who sees Fanny as priggish, repressed, and overly censorious of human frailties is bound to interpret this novel differently from the reader who sees her as clear-sighted, possessed of moral integrity, and, indeed, heroic. One may try, of course, to be more sophisticated as a reader, and see in Fanny both admirable and not-so-admirable features, but here again we run into difficulties, for those aspects of her character that may be regarded as admirable are precisely the same aspects that may, with equal justification, be regarded as reprehensible: the principled and the priggish are not different qualities, but, rather, the same quality seen from different perspectives. And where Austen herself stands on all this, from what perspective she views her creation, is hard to discern given the various levels of irony she employs throughout. Following immediately on the footsteps of the eminently reader-friendly Pride and Prejudice, Austen here seems to go out of her way to make things as difficult as possible.

***

Fanny is the still centre of a turbulent world. While the various uncontrolled passions – or whims, or passing fancies – drive the other characters this way and that, Fanny remains in the midst of it all, not herself by any means passionless, but with a quiet and undemonstrative constancy. And being so still, and being, further, an outsider, she can see clearly what others cannot. Towards the end of the novel, Fanny is in Portsmouth, away from what many readers consider the “real” action of the novel: and this “real” action is resolved off-stage, as it were, with the turbulence of the various other lives merely reported to Fanny, and to the reader, second hand, through letters and through newspaper reports. Many have found fault with this: even Nabokov thought this a structural flaw. But let us give Austen benefit of the doubt on this matter: the decision to keep the static Fanny in the foreground and to relegate the seemingly more interesting turbulence of the other characters to the background, even in the climactic sequence, is a conscious artistic decision, and not one arrived at lightly. We have, indeed, been given a foretaste of this earlier in the novel in the very intricately choreographed sequence in Sotherton, where Fanny sits alone, still, observing the various other characters in motion all around her, all grouping and re-grouping with each other. Austen’s focus of the interest is not so much what these other characters do, but the repercussions of what they do in Fanny’s mind.

In the sequence that forms the denouement of the novel, Fanny is placed in Portsmouth, away from all the other characters who had, with Fanny, populated the novel up to that point. When the storm breaks, it breaks off-stage: it is merely reported to us. But, unless we are to assume that Austen had miscalculated badly on a point as important as this, we must conclude that it is not this storm in the background that forms the climax of the novel, but, rather, what Austen has placed in the foreground. It is here that we should search for the novel’s denouement.

Certainly, this off-stage storm solves all Fanny’s problems: she is entirely vindicated in her resistance to Henry Crawford; it paves the way for Sir Thomas Bertram to realise that it is indeed Fanny who is the daughter he had always wanted – i.e. Fanny becomes a fully-fledged member of the Bertram family, a position she had not till then held; her fears concerning Maria – fears that only she had entertained – prove well grounded; and, like so many protagonists of other Austen novels – Catherine Morland, Marianne Dashwood, Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse – Edmund is freed from false perception. All birds are killed with this one single stone; her foes all utterly vanquished, Fanny is triumphant. And yet, this personal triumph of Fanny’s, so complete and so unreserved, could only come about through misery for everyone else: a happy ending for Fanny could only come about with the destruction of others’ happiness. Maybe this is why it is so easy to dislike Fanny. But it’s unfair to dislike Fanny for this: she had not willed this, not even unconsciously; indeed, she feels genuinely sorry for those whose suffering forms the basis of her triumph. And if we dislike Fanny even for her magnanimity, as many seem to do, we must turn the moral lens of the novel on to ourselves; and doing so is rarely comfortable. It is little wonder this novel is not widely liked.

But if these off-stage events that lead to Fanny’s triumph in the Mansfield world – a world in which she had previously occupied that uncertain status that is somewhat above that of the servants and yet below that of the family – cannot be considered in themselves the resolution of the novel, then where exactly does this resolution lie? To answer this, we need to consider carefully the themes that have been laid out with such subtlety and intricacy in the rest of the work.

***

The novel tells of a journey from adoption to acceptance. We start with a brief resume of the older generation: the three Ward sisters make – rather as the Bennet sisters had done – three unequal marriages: one makes a brilliant marriage with a titled landowner; another weds a clergyman – not a particularly good marriage, but, thanks to her brother-in-law, one that becomes reasonably comfortable; and the third, disastrously, marries “a lieutenant of marines, without education, fortune, or connexions”. It is on the next generation that the novel focuses.

Mrs Norris, the Ward sister who had married the clergyman, and one of the great monsters of literature, in one of her most hateful moments accuses Fanny, progeny of the bad marriage, of ingratitude, “considering who and what she is”. Mrs Norris has no doubt that who Fanny is determines also what Fanny is. Fanny takes even this gross insult with her customary meekness and patience, but she herself, not quite one of the servants but neither one of the family, cannot be entirely sure on this point: what, after all is she? As someone who had been displaced from her native environment aged only ten, and who had occupied a most uncertain position within her new environment, Fanny’s identity – “who and what she is” – is far from clear.  Although from the same trunk, the branches of the Ward family have grown in very different directions, and within a mere single generation, the common origin from that single trunk seems barely visible.

Fanny is the only one of Austen’s heroines whose childhood is depicted. Despite being marked by the special favour of adoption into a rich family, her childhood does not appear particularly happy: wrenched at the age of ten from the only environment she has ever known – from her parents, from her siblings, her friends – and placed in the somewhat cold and unfeeling environment of Mansfield Park, where she faces mean-minded hostility from her Aunt Norris, and general indifference and disregard from her other aunt and her cousins (Edmund excepted), her situation is not one we are likely to wish on any child. And yet, Austen seems careful not to engage our empathy too strongly with this child. One need only look at how Dickens depicted the childhood of David Copperfield, or how Charlotte Brontë depicted the childhood of Jane Eyre (another ward in an unloving family), to see what Austen might have made of these chapters. Of course, it can be argued that engaging the reader’s sympathy so directly is very much counter to Austen’s classical temperament: the circumstances described here are such that some measure of sympathy for the child is inevitable anyway, and any further prompting on this score on the author’s part becomes a loading of the dice, and mere wallowing (a charge to which neither Charles Dickens nor Charlotte Brontë could entirely plead innocence). But it becomes difficult to account for Austen suppressing at this stage of the novel the death of Fanny’s sister. Fanny had been particularly attached to her sister, and one can but imagine that the news of her death would have made on her a devastating effect. And yet, it is only relatively late in the novel that this event is so much as mentioned. And the only reason I can think of for Austen to suppress this event at the point where we may have expected it to have been narrated is that she wants to maintain a certain emotional distance between the reader and Fanny. Even when we are taken into Fanny’s mind – as we often are – the reader is invited to judge the workings of that mind from as objective a perspective as is possible.

And some readers have judged Fanny very harshly indeed. She is the most morally upright of all Austen’s protagonists, and even for her moral uprightness she is upbraided. This is not to say that censorious judgements of Fanny are necessarily wrong: indeed, Austen, having refused to enlist our sympathies for her heroine further than is unavoidable, gives us perfect freedom to judge her any way we want. It is, indeed, the author’s refusal to guide our moral judgement in this matter in this most morally serious of novels that makes it so very troublesome.

Austen seems to me actually to go further: not only does she refuse to direct the reader’s moral judgement, she makes it difficult for the reader to exercise that judgement. For, very soon after the start of the novel, she introduces the brother and sister Henry and Mary Crawford, characters of tremendous vivacity, charm, and wit; sparkling and effervescent; and tremendously attractive. These people are, indeed, everything Fanny isn’t. Austen, in short, invites us to like characters whose very existence seems a sort of reproof to Fanny.

Yet it would be very wrong to accuse Fanny of lack of feeling, or even lack of passion. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet has combined charm and vivacity with a depth of feeling, but here, the two do not go together: Mary Crawford may possess the former, but it is Fanny who possesses the latter. No-one in the Mansfield circle possesses such depth of feeling as Fanny shows for her brother William, or for Edmund. Consider, for instance, her feelings on Edmund’s letter when he presents her with a neckchain to wear at the ball (another of the novel’s many symbols):

Two lines more prized had never fallen from the pen of the most distinguished author—never more completely blessed the researches of the fondest biographer. The enthusiasm of a woman’s love is even beyond the biographer’s. To her, the handwriting itself, independent of anything it may convey, is a blessedness. Never were such characters cut by any other human being as Edmund’s commonest handwriting gave! This specimen, written in haste as it was, had not a fault; and there was a felicity in the flow of the first four words, in the arrangement of “My very dear Fanny,” which she could have looked at for ever.

(From Chapter 27)

No-one else in Mansfield Park, Edmund once again possible excepted, is capable of such feelings, of such an emotional reaction. Indeed, so Romantic are Fanny’s sensibilities, it is difficult to forget that she is a contemporary of Wordsworth’s:

Fanny spoke her feelings. “Here’s harmony!” said she; “here’s repose! Here’s what may leave all painting and all music behind, and what poetry only can attempt to describe! Here’s what may tranquillise every care, and lift the heart to rapture! When I look out on such a night as this, I feel as if there could be neither wickedness nor sorrow in the world; and there certainly would be less of both if the sublimity of Nature were more attended to, and people were carried more out of themselves by contemplating such a scene.”

(From Chapter 11)

Later, speaking to Mary Crawford, Fanny seems even more explicitly Wordsworthian:

“… How wonderful, how very wonderful the operations of time, and the changes of the human mind!” And following the latter train of thought, she soon afterwards added: “If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory. There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient; at others, so bewildered and so weak; and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control! We are, to be sure, a miracle every way; but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out.”

(From chapter 22)

But Mary, we are told, is “untouched and inattentive”. Fanny, observing this, returns to more trivial matters that she knows will interest Mary more.

No-one else seems to share Fanny’s depth of feeling, or her fine sensibilities (here so conspicuously married to sense). Not even, perhaps, Edmund: although he is certainly the most sensitive of the family, he has still to learn to perceive clearly. But Fanny, the outsider, can perceive very clearly indeed: the Bertram household, together with the Crawfords and the Grants, seem to constitute a veritable Vanity Fair, with everyone driven to some degree or other by self-regard, by selfishness, by thoughtlessness, by malice. Fanny can see all this, but she is silent – too silent, in many readers’ estimation; but that is hardly to be wondered at: had she spoken, those around would be as untouched and as inattentive as Mary had been.

Fanny’s silence, though censorious up to a point (as it must be, given how clearly she sees), is not, however, without compassion: she can see how great a fool Mr Rushworth is, and yet when his intended, Maria Bertram, walks off with Henry Crawford during the visit to Sotherton, Fanny naturally feels sympathy for him. She is, indeed, perhaps the only character in the entire novel who does feel sympathy for this great booby of a man. More surprisingly, Fanny can even feel sorry also for Julia when, in those famous chapters describing rehearsals for the play, Henry Crawford snubs her by showing quite openly his preference for her sister Maria:

…Maria felt her triumph, and pursued her purpose, careless of Julia; and Julia could never see Maria distinguished by Henry Crawford without trusting that it would create jealousy, and bring a public disturbance at last.

Fanny saw and pitied much of this in Julia; but there was no outward fellowship between them. Julia made no communication, and Fanny took no liberties. They were two solitary sufferers, or connected only by Fanny’s consciousness.

(From Chapter 17)

The entire sequence of the rehearsals that ends the first of the three parts is one of the many virtuoso passages in the novel, although, perhaps, given how harmless the entire enterprise may seem to modern readers, it is possibly the easiest to misinterpret. In particular, Fanny’s objections may seem prissy: they aren’t. In the first place, everyone concerned knows that they would not have been doing this had the owner of the house, Sir Thomas, been present: when he returns unexpectedly in the midst of the rehearsals, they all know without having to be told that these rehearsals must stop instantly. And in the second place, under the guise of play-acting, some very real feelings come to the fore – rather as they do in Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte – and, as Fanny can see (though no-one else can), these feelings, rooted as they are in mere vanity and selfishness, and lacking in depth or in sincerity, are dangerous and destructive. Maria, though engaged to Mr Rushworth – an engagement she has walked into of her own free will, and which she does not break off because she rather likes the idea of being mistress of Sotherton – responds to the cold-blooded and calculating flirting of Henry Crawford with “triumph”; she is indifferent to the feelings of her future husband, and takes delight in humiliating her own sister. Mary Crawford, on the other hand, has her own plans concerning Edmund. The entire enterprise develops such a momentum that not only is it unable to stop, it sucks in everyone: even Edmund finds himself thinking up excuses to become part of this, and one wonders how even Fanny could have held out had not Sir Thomas’ unexpected return put an abrupt  end to all the shenanigans..

But though Fanny can see clearly, and even sympathise, she must keep all she feels to herself: the others, like Julia, make “no communications”, and it is not Fanny’s place to take “liberties”. Like many a narrator of tragic tales, Fanny cannot do anything about what she sees.

But the novel, in the latter half, takes a sinister turn: Fanny is no longer merely the observer of events, but becomes a participant. Henry has taken it into his mind that it would be amusing to win Fanny’s heart. Rather like the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangeruses, Henry and Mary plot together, and aid each other in their amoral schemes and stratagems. But in the course of this charm offensive, something rather strange happens: Henry genuinely seems to fall for Fanny, and he proposes. From this point onwards, Fanny becomes the focal point of the plot itself. Sir Thomas, who has a genuine regard for Fanny, goes to the little room – the “little white attic” that Fanny had made her own – and observes a symbolically fireless grate. He is perturbed by this: Fanny must, he insists, have a fire. And she must also have a husband.

It is a measure of the subtlety of Austen’s characterisation that although Fanny has been represented up to that point as quiet and tractable, we are not surprised to see her refuse the offer of marriage. And the persuasion she resists is extremely subtle. It is noticeable that the pressure to marry Henry does not come from the more unlikeable characters of the book: Aunt Norris is quite conspicuous in these pages by her absence. Rather, the pressure comes, insidiously, from those very people who actually care for Fanny – from Sir Thomas and from Edmund. Not that they have any intention to be cruel, or to force Fanny against her will: but, rather, they think the marriage will be good for her; that she does not yet understand herself; and that her mind, with persuasion, can be changed. Unlike the cruelties practised on Clarissa Harlowe in Richardson’s novel – a character who in many ways foreshadows Fanny, not least in her quiet determination not to submit, whatever the odds – Fanny is, in this moment of greatest danger, treated with perfect civility and kindness. And, if anything, this makes her resistance all the more difficult.

And so, to teach Fanny a lesson (although Sir Thomas wouldn’t have seen it in such terms), Fanny is packed off to Portsmouth for a few months, so she can see the life she would have been condemned to had it not been for the Bertrams.

It is certainly a very daring step to change the locale so dramatically at so late a stage in the novel. It comes almost as a shock to the reader: it is certainly a shock to Fanny. Austen isn’t, in general, particularly noted for conveying a sense of place: not that she is bad at it – at this stage of her artistic development, she was in complete control of her material – but possibly, this is the sort of thing Dickens might have achieved more memorably. Nabokov, in his Lectures on Literature, despite his self-proclaimed attempt to be “fair”, couldn’t resist comparing Austen’s description of the sea from this section of the novel unfavourably with a similar passage from Bleak House. But it’s an unfair comparison: if there are certain things Dickens could do better, there are also certain other areas where Austen’s art remains peerless: comparisons at these levels are pointless, and not, perhaps, the best way to appreciate the art of either writer.

The depiction of what goes on in Fanny’s mind at this stage is masterly. The dirt, the clutter, the cramped conditions, the noise – everything to which Fanny is unaccustomed, and which to her appears insupportable – are conveyed partly through detailed description of the physicality, but, more powerfully, through the depiction of the impact they have on Fanny herself. Inevitably, Fanny finds herself comparing Portsmouth, her original home, to her adopted home Mansfield Park:

Such was the home which was to put Mansfield out of her head, and teach her to think of her cousin Edmund with moderated feelings. On the contrary, she could think of nothing but Mansfield, its beloved inmates, its happy ways. Everything where she now was in full contrast to it. The elegance, propriety, regularity, harmony, and perhaps, above all, the peace and tranquillity of Mansfield, were brought to her remembrance every hour of the day, by the prevalence of everything opposite to them here.

(From Chapter 39)

And here, it seems to me, is the denouement . On returning to her origins, she realises her true identity: it is that of her adopted home. Everything about Mansfield – “the elegance, propriety, regularity, harmony, and perhaps, above all, the peace and tranquility” – she finds she values, and cannot do without. Fanny now knows who and what she is, and the rest is mere plot.

***

Although, admittedly, it is the development of this plot that allows Fanny to assert her identity. But this assertion seems to me but a coda – albeit a powerful one – to the drama that, thematically, at least, has already been resolved.

Sir Thomas’ world collapses: as with Sir Leicester Dedlock in Bleak House, his peace of mind, built as it was on illusion, cannot survive the revelations of the various cracks in the fabric of his family that he had not previously noticed. But in the embers is something that doth live: Fanny, he realises, is the daughter that he had always wanted; and Edmund begins to see clearly – as clearly, indeed, as Fanny had done. And a particularly nasty fate awaits the monstrous Mrs Norris and the sinning Maria: they are to spend the rest of their lives together, in what strikes me as a rather Dante-esque punishment for them both. Oh – what a play Beckett might have written about Maria and Mrs Norris living out their futile days, and tormenting each other for eternity!

But all of this is in the coda. In Pride and Prejudice, the union of Elizabeth and Darcy had been the point at which the drama had been resolved, but Mansfield Park is a far more intricate work. Despite the happy ending for Fanny and for Edmund; despite the complete vindication of Fanny, and the fulfilment of her passions; it leaves behind troubling questions that are more easily felt that articulated. If Austen had never written anything beyond Pride and Prejudice, I doubt we’d have considered her to be capable of something so troubling and so very intricaate as this. No wonder it isn’t better liked!

Meta-novels

How about this for a plot of a 19th century novel?

A young man of independent means, not particularly handsome as such but extremely polished and self-confident, eminently eligible and unutterably vain, delights in winning the hearts of ladies. Not that he cares a whit for any of them: he is utterly cold-blooded and unfeeling. He does it because it flatters his vanity. His sister, beautiful and vivacious, is a confidante of his, advising and helping where she can. It is a thrilling power game. Once, out of boredom, he decides to have a go at a rather prim, quiet and softly-spoken young lady – a ward of a family, at that, and not likely to be endowed with a large dowry. It is a challenge for him – something a bit different to re-invigorate his jaded sense of pleasure. But far from being bowled over by such eminent attention, she keeps her distance. He is a bit puzzled at first: no-one had ever resisted him before. But he sees this as a challenge: he is determined to win her heart, as his vanity will not allow him to walk away unsatisfied on this score. But in the process, a strange thing happens: he really does find himself in love with her. It is something he had never felt before. He ends up proposing, but she, unaccountably, and to the great distress of her guardians, refuses. He keeps open his offer, sure that eventually he is bound to win her affections. He behaves, for the first time in his life and despite himself, with honour and with sensitivity.

But then, away from the young lady to whom he has proposed, he meets up with another lady whose heart he had won earlier. This second lady is married now, to a rich young booby whom she despises. Our hero, unused to letting anything stand in the way of instant gratification, begins an affair with her, and the affair is discovered. The future for the lady, whom her great booby of a husband soon divorces, is blighted; but as a man, he can escape without too great a stain on his character. However, his prospective marriage with the woman he had despite himself come to love, comes to nothing, and this once proud heart-breaker is left pondering on what might have been.

This is not my plot, of course. It is from Austen’s Mansfield Park, slightly embellished and with the centre of gravity moved from Fanny Price to Henry Crawford. But just that shift makes for what could be a very different but equally great novel. A meta-novel, if you like. Imagine what Henry James could have made of such a plot! Or, for that matter, Jane Austen herself!

I have already speculated on how Anna Karenina might have been had Tolstoy focussed on Dolly rather than on Anna. And I can’t help wondering what sort of novel Austen might have written had she focussed, say, on Charlotte Lucas rather than on Elizabeth Bennet: a young woman, handsome, intelligent, and sensitive, knowingly marries a man she knows to be a complete idiot for the sake of her future security. Could this have developed into one of the great 19th century novels of adultery, I wonder?

Or how about this for a plot:

A young lady of a passionate nature, orphaned and without means, is invited to become companion of a recently widowed distant cousin of hers. Having no other option, she accepts. This widow has a young teenage son, pampered and handsome. The young lady, intense and passionate, is violently attracted to him. The violence, if not necessarily the passion, is returned: in one incident, the pampered boy, in a fit of rage, throws a hammer at her. He is immediately horrified by what he has done, but the scar, both real and symbolic, remains upon her lip. Later, when the boy comes of age, they embark on an affair: the sex is intense and violent. She fantasises about displacing the boy’s mother as the Lady of the House, as surely as she has displaced her from the boy’s heart.

But the boy is not as attached to her as she likes to think. For all the passion and the excitement, he finds her exhausting. Despite being the spoilt son of a rich mother, he is actually quite a decent, easy-going chap at heart; and, given his good looks and his natural charm, he is popular with the ladies. He eventually leaves home, and is happy and relieved to get away from his mother’s companion. She, noticing this but refusing to accept, is eaten up with jealousy. A violent jealousy.

And then, the storm breaks. The young man has eloped – not with a society lady, but with a girl from the working classes. An orphan at that – a fisherman’s niece. He has genuine feelings for her, and she is dazzled the idea of becoming a lady, but society will not, of course, accept a union across such disparate social classes. He cannot even bring her home to his doting mother, who is now heartbroken. So he travels around Europe with her, pretending to be husband and wife; but even there, they cannot mix with English expatriates, as her social background is all too apparent. As for her, this life is not what she had expected: she is desperately lonely, and is torn with guilt and remorse. She spends all her time grieving, and becomes severely depressed. The young man eventually becomes fed up with her constant moaning, and deserts her. But his mother’s companion, who loves him still with a passion as violent as ever, is determined to seek out this presumptuous upstart, and punish her for having, as she thinks, destroyed her happiness.

Now, wouldn’t this have made a terrific novel? Instead, Dickens keeps Rosa Dartle, Steerforth and Little Em’ly in the background, while filling the foreground with the dull David Copperfield, the even duller Agnes Wickfield, and the unbearably tedious Dora Spenlow, who is a sort of Madeleine Bassett without the laughs.

Any other ideas for meta-novels?

“King Lear” at the National Theatre

The following is a review of Shakespeare’s King Lear from the National Theatre, London, starring Simon Russell Beale and directed by Sam Mendes, seen as a live cinema broadcast on May 1st, 2014

Anna Maxwell-Martin and Simon Russell Beale as Regan and Lear (Picture courtesy of National Theatre)

Anna Maxwell-Martin and Simon Russell Beale as Regan and Lear (Picture courtesy of National Theatre)

As a Shakespeare commentator, A. C. Bradley is, for understandable reasons, somewhat out of fashion these days, but I do tend to agree with him when he describes King Lear as Shakespeare’s greatest achievement, but not his greatest play:

When I regard it strictly as a drama, it appears to me, though in certain parts overwhelming, decidedly inferior as a whole to Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth. When I am feeling that it is greater than any of these, and the fullest revelation of Shakespeare’s power, I find I am not regarding it simply as a drama, but am grouping it in my mind with works like the Prometheus Vinctus and the Divine Comedy, and even with the greatest symphonies of Beethoven and the statues in the Medici Chapel.

I suppose there’s room for debate on the first point: is King Lear Shakespeare’s “greatest achievement”? The Henry IV plays, Twelfth Night, Hamlet, the sonnets, etc. all have claims on that score; but if one were to qualify Bradley’s assertion to “one of Shakespeare’s greatest achievements”, few, I imagine, would dissent: speaking personally, I can’t think of any other work of art, in any medium, that makes on me a greater impact than this. But as for Bradley’s second point, there can surely be no quarrel at all: as a play, it is a mess. How many other plays can one think of where a character who is a major presence in the first half disappears without explanation half way through, and is never referred to again? Where another major character is given virtually no motivation at all for what can only be described as outrageous behaviour? Where important plot complications are introduced as late as the fourth act, when there is not sufficient time to resolve them satisfactorily? Where the sub-plot resembles the principal plot so closely that the climactic moment of this sub-plot has to take place off-stage so as to avoid repetition? Where there is much travel between different locations, but no indication given of how far from each other these locations are, nor how long the characters would need to travel from one to the other?

And yet, this is not because Shakespeare did not know how to write plays: even as early as The Comedy of Errors, it is obvious that he was a master of his craft, shaping and pacing unerringly even the most intricate of plots. And it is worth noting also that when Shakespeare revised the text (assuming the Folio text is a revision of the Quarto text – a reasonable assumption, I think, to make), although he did tidy up a few loose ends, there were many other loose ends (e.g. the mysterious disappearance of the Fool half way through the play) which he could very easily have sorted out, but which he chose not to. This suggests to me not merely that the rough edges don’t matter in the overall context, but, further, that Shakespeare had actually intended these rough edges to remain; that we should no more lament the seemingly unfinished nature of this play than we should the unfinished nature of so many of Michelangelo’s sculptures.

I don’t insist on that last point. Possibly a finished surface would have made this an even greater work, but, given my decades-long familiarity with the work as Shakespeare left it, I cannot imagine it any other way. But whatever the reason for the seemingly unfinished and rough-edged quality of this play, it causes no end of headaches for the director. What is an actor to make of Edgar, whose frequently bizarre behaviour seems so utterly unmotivated? What can an actor make of Edmund, for that matter – the complete villain who, for some unknown reason, decides to do some good before he dies? What can an actor make of a character so dull and two-dimensional as the Earl of Kent? Or any of the other supporting characters, who all seem – at least in comparison with the supporting characters in Shakespeare’s other mature tragedies – so desperately under-written?

This latest National Theatre production, broadcast live in cinemas last week, features at its centre an extraordinarily powerful performance from Simon Russell Beale as Lear, but otherwise, presents what seemed to me a rather lacklustre and frequently misjudged interpretation. Kate Fleetwood as Goneril, and Anna Maxwell-Martin as an increasingly psychotic Regan both impressed, but the rest of the cast seemed to do little with their characters. Admittedly, Shakespeare hadn’t given them much to work on, but I have seen more made of Gloucester and his two sons, of the Fool, and even of Kent, than was apparent here. Many of the directorial decisions (by Sam Mendes) also seemed to me doubtful. There is, in theory, no objection to playing Shakespeare in modern dress, but in this case, it meant that the heraldic formalities preceding the duel between Edgar and Edmund in the final act could no longer make sense: here, the entire duel was cut, with Edgar simply walking on stage, declaring himself, and casually assassinating Edmund. It seemed, somehow, too casual and too understated an act to serve as a resolution of what has been, till then, a major strand of the play. And it also deprived that final scene of much of its weight: thinning out the material between Lear’s great speech at the start of the scene (“No, no, no, no, come, let’s away to prison…”), and his entrance at the end with Cordelia’s body, may have seemed like a good idea: after all, who is really interested in Edgar and Edmund by this stage of the drama? But in practice, the pacing seemed all wrong, and, despite Simon Russell’s Beale’s peerless delivery of some of the most intense of all tragic lines, the impact this scene normally makes seemed somehow diminished.

One can also question the wisdom of providing an explanation for the disappearance of the Fool. Trevor Nunn’s RSC production had also accounted for this: there, we saw the Fool hanged by Cornwall’s soldiers, thus linking the disappearance to Lear’s line near the end of the play, “And my poor fool is hanged”. (In most productions, Lear refers here to Cordelia rather than to the Fool.) Here, as in Adrian Noble’s 1982 production for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Lear kills the Fool himself in a frenzy of madness in III,vi, and the Fool’s enigmatic words – “And I’ll go to bed at noon” – become his dying words. It is certainly a shocking moment; but introducing such a moment of shocking violence at this stage diminishes the shock value of the scene that follows immediately after, in which a servant is killed, Cornwall is fatally wounded, and, most famously, Gloucester has his eyes plucked out. It is this later scene, surely, that should be the culminating point of the tempestuous third act: in this production, it did not seem so. In any case, there is surely little point served in explaining the disappearance of the Fool: we are here within a dramatic framework in which the world itself has stopped making sense: why go out of one’s way to explain something that Shakespeare, even in his revisions, did not think worth explaining?

There are several other features in this production which seemed to me misjudged. When, for instance, Lear delivered his terrible curse to Goneril (I,iv), here, Goneril reacted instinctively by slapping her father; and later, in the mock-trial scene, Lear’s allegation that Goneril had “kicked the poor king, her father” is changed to “hit the poor king, her father”. This diminishes the drama in every sense. Is it at all credible that Lear, a man accustomed all his life to unquestioned obedience, unable to control his violent temper, and already in a towering rage, would take a slap from his own daughter and let it pass? Lear’s allegation in the mock-trial scene in Act III – that Goneril had kicked him – is a wonderfully mad and surreal image, and I see nothing to be gained by ironing out this surreal madness into something that is true and reasonable. And in any case, the word “kicked”, with its concentration of plosive consonants, makes a far greater impact that the relatively weak “hit”. Shakespeare knew what he was doing: re-writes almost invariably results in diminution.

There were other things also. Edmund was presented as a corporate careerist, bespectacled, sharp-suited, and with a portfolio under his arm; Edgar, in contrast, was a layabout – casually dressed, swigging from a bottle of wine and smoking a fag*. It wasn’t clear why they were characterised thus, nor why these characterisations had to be made so blatantly obvious.

But even given all this, it is a measure of the extraordinary qualities of the work that it reduced me once again to tears. Simon Russell Beale must take the credit for this. Right from the start, he presented a man still physically powerful, but who is already descending into dementia: his mind is beginning to go, and he knows it. I have rarely seen that moment in I,v where he confronts this awareness directly for the first time (“Let me not be mad, sweet heaven”) performed with such heartbreaking poignancy. He takes care to differentiate, as all the best Lears do, between the violent but essentially childish tantrums of the first act and the deeper passion that overtakes him later in the play. His reunion with Cordelia, where, out of shame, he could hardly bring himself to look at her, really couldn’t have been done better; and his inconsolable howling over her dead body really did seem like the promised end, or an image of that horror. This was a tremendous Lear; but it needed badly a production that was better thought out, and in which the supporting cast could rise above the various directorial misjudgements, and make something out of their admittedly difficult roles.

 

* Whatever a “fag” may mean on the other side of the Pond, in UK, it means a cigarette.

A brand makeover

This blog has been going now for over 4 years, and, over this time, I suppose it has, as it were, established itself as a “brand” of sorts. However, a friend of mine has urged me (see the comments section of this post) to rethink my tag-line. Since its inception, this blog has had the tagline “Because I’m Worth It” – an ironic reference to the advertising slogan used by the cosmetics company L’Oréal, but which can easily be mistaken by those who do not recognise this reference, and, hence, the underlying irony, as indicative not merely of egotism on my part, but of egomania. Not that I am entirely free of either, of course, but I think the time has come for a change. So I am happy to accept Alan’s suggestion (made over a few pints last week), and change it, as you can see, to “Avuncular Musings”. A bit of a brand makeover, if you like.

Some notes from my Ivory Tower

I have always tried to live in an ivory tower, but a tide of shit is beating at its walls, threatening to undermine it.

- Gustave Flaubert, from letter to Ivan Turgenev, November 13th 1872

There are times when a piece of music circles endlessly around the mind. Earworms, I think they’re called. It can happen also with lines of poetry. Of late, these few lines by Auden have been battering consistently at my inner ear:

The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach,
The Ogre cannot master Speech:
About a subjugated plain,
Among its desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips.

There’s been a lot of drivel gushed lately, from various ogres’ lips. Possibly no more than usual, I suppose, but I am, for whatever reason, noticing it more these days. I shall not list here the various idiocies I hear every day from politicians and from political commentators of every shade: this is not a political blog, after all, and it’s best saving my political rants for my drinking cronies on a Friday evening, who are by now quite used to me and my ways, and don’t mind my ranting as long as I buy my rounds on time. But, as this is a literary blog, a few literary rants aren’t, I trust, out of place.

However, in this instance, I don’t much feel like a rant: I write with a countenance more in sorrow than in anger. And in any case, one develops after a while what may be termed “rant fatigue”. Let the whole world go hang, it’s tempting to feel, as long as I have my own library to retreat into. But, much though one may wish it, one cannot, as Flaubert observed, remain ensconced in one’s ivory tower: there is always this tide of shit eating away at its foundations.

The latest tide of shit comes in the form of a headline: apparently, Russell Brand and Dizzee Rascal are to appear on the A-level reading lists for English. Admittedly, I had never heard of Mr Rascal: it may well be that the Collected Works of Dizzee Rascal are well worth studying for English literature. But quite frankly, I can’t be arsed to find out. Rant Fatigue has set in too deeply, I suppose.

Reading through the comments below the line in the Guardian, and elsewhere for that matter, is generally a pretty depressing experience: there is little that dissipates so quickly one’s faith in humanity. But I do gather from some of what I read there that the works of Russell Brand, Dizzee Rascal and Caitlin Moran or whoever, are not intended as set texts for English Literature: rather, they are examples to be studies as part of the English Language course, as students need to learn to analyse various uses of the English language in various different contexts. Fair enough, I suppose. Any old excuse will serve for bringing in the mindless trivia and ephemera of the célébrités du jour into the classroom. Let us, by all means, analyse drivel so that we can see it’s drivel. But the problem is that we are so inundated with the stuff, that after a while we become inured to it: far from recognising it as drivel, we exalt it.

So it’s back to the ivory tower for me. And I intend staying there till the tide of shit actually does wear down the walls.

(Incidentally, now that the joke in the title of this blog has worn off somewhat, I am wondering whether it’s best to rename this blog “Notes From the Ivory Tower”.)

The two King Lears

Lear, enraged by Goneril, rants at her thus in the Quarto text of King Lear:

Lear:
Does anyone here know me? Why, this is not Lear.
Does Lear walk thus, speak thus? Where are his eyes?
Either his notion weakens, or his discernings
Are lethargied. Sleeping or waking, ha?
Sure, ‘tis not so.
Who is it who can tell me who I am?
Lear’s shadow? I would fain learn that, for by the marks
Of sovereignty, knowledge, and reason
I should be false persuaded I had daughters.

Fool:      Which they will make an obedient father.

Lear (to Gonoril): Your name, fair gentlewoman?

- From Scene iv of the Quarto text (1608), edited by Staley Wells, Oxford World Classics

In the 1623 folio text, this same passage appears thus:

Lear:
Does anyone here know me? This is not Lear:
Does Lear walk thus? speak thus? Where are his eyes?
Either his notion weakens, his discernings
Are lethargied. Ha! Waking? ‘Tis not so!
Who is it that can tell me who I am?

Fool:      Lear’s shadow.

Lear (to Gonerill): Your name, fair gentlewoman?

- From I,iv of the Folio text (1623), edited by Jay L. Halio, New Cambridge Shakespeare

Different, certainly, but the situation and characters depicted are, I think, much the same. What we tend to get in most texts and productions is a conflated version. Here is the same passage from the conflated version in the Arden Shakespeare series:

Lear:
Does anyone here know me? Why, this is not Lear.
Does Lear walk thus, speak thus? Where are his eyes?
Either his notion weakens, or his discernings are lethargied. Ha! Sleeping or waking? Sure, ‘tis not so. Who is it who can tell me who I am?

Fool:      Lear’s shadow.

Lear:      I would fain learn that, for by the marks of sovereignty, knowledge, and reason, I should be false persuaded I had daughters.

Fool:      Which they will make an obedient father.

Lear (to Goneril): Your name, fair gentlewoman?

- From I,iv of conflated text, edited by R. A. Foakes, Arden Shakespeare

I realise one can get too precious about these matters, but it does seem to me that either the Quarto text or the Folio text is preferable to the conflated version. In the Quarto text, Lear’s rant builds up a fine head of steam, but is deflated at the end by the Fool’s one’s liner. Lear then turns to Gonoril (so-spelt) with heavy-handed irony. In the Folio text, the rant is curtailed, and the words “Lear’s shadow” that had previously been spoken by Lear as a rhetorical question, are now spoken by the Fool as an ironic rejoinder to Lear. But the conflation seems to me the worst of all worlds: giving the words “Lear’s shadow” to the Fool while the rant is still in full flow not only robs the rest of the rant of all momentum, it also diminishes the impact of the Fool’s deflating one-liner once Lear is finished.

Time after time I found passages like that. Most of the changes between the Quarto and Folio text are minor, but where there are two distinct versions of the same passage – i.e. when it is not merely a matter of changing some of the odd bit of wording, but, rather, substituting one entire passage for another – it seems to me to make little sense conflating them.

043Consider also Scene 8 in the Quarto text (III,i in the Folio). Lear has already wandered off into the storm, and his daughters have shut the door on him. Before we have the big scenes of Lear in the storm, there is a short scene between Kent (still in disguise) and an unnamed “gentleman”. This scene merely serves an expository purpose, and shouldn’t take too long. But almost invariably, the two versions of Kent’s speech to the gentleman are conflated, and, as a consequence, this speech becomes overlong: a long expository speech is surely the last thing we want at this stage of the drama! And also, as a consequence of the conflation, the exposition itself becomes muddled. In the Quarto text, the King of France does not know about what’s been happening in England, and Kent sends the gentleman to his camp to tell him; in the Folio text, the King of France knows, and so Kent doesn’t send him.  In the conflated text, the King of France knows, but Kent sends the gentleman anyway.

Despite all the many re-wordings and the occasional re-writing, the nature of the drama does not seem to me very different between the two texts. When I read the two good texts of Hamlet recently (the “Good” Quarto and the First Folio), it seemed to me that Shakespeare had revised his thoughts on certain important aspects of the play, and of Hamlet’s character, and that the two texts effectively give us two different plays. Here, the changes don’t make for so radical a re-casting of the drama: mainly, it seems that Shakespeare had tidied up the play at certain points, and, at other points, had added a few afterthoughts. The tidying up is generally, I think, to be welcomed: in the Quarto version, for example, between the scene in which the blind Gloucester is led away by Edgar, and the scene in which Goneril returns with Edmund to her castle, there are three successive scenes that do no more than explain details of the plot; cutting out one of these three scenes, as Shakespeare does in the Folio, does no harm at all: quite the contrary. However, there is at least one excision from the Quarto text that is mystifying. It is the scene during the storm in which Lear, his mind collapsed, puts his two absent daughters on “trial”. The excision of this is scene in the Folio is surely no accident: the cut is expertly done. But why? Why cut out one of the most extraordinary scenes that even Shakespeare has ever conceived? Many conjectures have been advanced, but none to my mind is convincing. Whatever Shakespeare’s reason may have been, I’d certainly feel cheated were I to see this scene cut in any performance.

And of the afterthoughts, there is at least one that is magnificent, and another that takes us into another world entirely, and defies analysis. The first is at the end of III,ii, where the Fool appears to step not merely out of character, but out of the time-frame of the drama itself, to deliver a “prophesy” to the audience; and, having done so, prophesies that the prophesy he had just made will later be made by Merlin, “for I live before his time”. Suddenly, time itself seems to yawn before us: this piece of absurdity – the prophecy itself seems to make little sense – seems to take us into a dramatic world in which nothing, not even time itself, can hold together.

And then, there is the ending. In the Quarto, we get this:

Lear:
And my poor fool is hanged. No, no life.
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? O, thou wilt come no more,
Never, never, never.   Pray you, undo
This button. Thank you, sir. O, O, O, O!

Edgar:   He faints. (To Lear) My lord, my lord!

Lear:      Break heart, I prithee, break.

Now, I wonder what sort of artist could look upon even something so wonderful as this, and think it could be improved upon; or what sort of mind thinks of expanding the three nevers to five to form a trochaic pentameter:

Lear:
And my poor fool is hanged. No, no, no life?
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never.
Pray you, undo this button. Thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her! Look, her lips!
Look there, look there.

Edgar:                                          He faints. My lord, my lord!

Kent:     Break heart, I prithee, break.

Faced with something such as this, all criticism, even the finest, seems superfluous.

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