A damp squib and a thing of wonder to start the New Year

I didn’t want to write about the new BBC dramatisation of War and Peace – really I didn’t: I wanted to start the New Year on a positive note.

That’s very prejudiced of me, isn’t it? But we all have our prejudices, and it’s perhaps better admitting to them than pretending that we come to everything with an entirely open mind. But I don’t know that my negativity on this score is completely a matter of prejudice: the dramatisations that have appeared on television in recent years of classic novels have not, after all, been such as to inspire much confidence. Not in me, at any rate.

One may justly say “So what?” I don’t need to watch if I don’t want to. And, as Bogart didn’t quite say, we’ll always have Penguin Classics. But it seems to me, nonetheless, a question worth posing: why is it that these classic novels, so crammed with dramatic potential, make for such poor television drama?

Of course, not everyone will agree that this is poor television drama: just browsing through Twitter, I see that reactions to it are, on the whole, quite favourable. So let’s rephrase the question slightly: why is it that these classic novels, so crammed with dramatic potential, make for what seems to me to be such poor television drama? Now, no-one can object to that, surely!

It’s not the acting: there really is no shortage of acting talent. Neither is it the cinematography or the set designs: just about everything on television these days looks superb, and far outstrips the BBC productions that I grew up with back in the 70s and 80s, with their cardboard sets, and their handful of actors doing their best to teem in the crowd scenes. I’m afraid it’s the script. The underlying assumption appears nowadays to be that any individual scene that lasts longer than a minute or so will bore the audience, weaned as they all are on pop videos and on computer games; and so, before any scene is given a chance to get going, we have to be whisked off elsewhere to stop us reaching fro our remote controls.

This approach to drama has many problems. For one, it becomes very difficult to characterise to anything beyond a superficial level; and when the characters are profound and complex, and the relations between them intricate (as they generally tend to be in novels of any quality), all the profundity and complexity and intricacy are ironed out, leaving only a skeleton outline of the plot. Now, I have myself written a part-by-part synopsis of War and Peace (I did this many years ago when I was leading a group read of the novel on a now defunct books board: I have put these synopses up here), but let’s not pretend that mere synopses of the plot can be in any way representative of the novel itself. All they can convey is a sequence of events: the various complexities of character and of situation that have given rise to these events; and the significance of these events; don’t even reach the surface. In short, the very features that make these novels such towering works of the human imagination go missing.

On top of this, it becomes impossible to control the pacing. In any well-paced drama, there are finely judged rises and falls in tension, giving the drama its shape. But when the pace of editing is more or less the same throughout, all that emerges is a mere shapeless sequence of events, each following the preceding with the same monotonous plod.

And, of course, there’s the assumption that the modern audience, being ever so much more sophisticated than the readership Tolstoy had written for, needs sex. And lots of it. Sex, rumpy-pumpy, screwing, shagging, bonking, how’s your father – whatever we modern sophisticates choose to call it. In the novel, Tolstoy hints, only in passing, of an incestuous affair between brother and sister Anatole and Hélène, but modern sophisticated minds such as ours can’t handle hints. So, while so much of vital importance in the novel was cut in this adaptation, room was made for a scene in which Anatole frolics in bed with his naked sister: for, of course, only when sex is presented explicitly can it get through our thick modern sophisticated skulls.

Well, let’s not labour the point: this latest adaptation is obviously not aimed for me, so what I may have to say about it is quite irrelevant. But it saddens me, nonetheless: it was, after all, the BBC dramatisation from 1972 that first aroused my enthusiasm for this novel. I was only twelve or so at the time, but I remember fondly saving up my pocket money in an old biscuit tin, and, once I had enough, triumphantly marching into a Glasgow bookshop and taking the Penguin Classics edition up to the sales desk. I read through the whole thing that summer: as with my first encounter with Shakespeare a few years earlier, when I had seen Timothy West play King Lear on stage at the Edinburgh Festival, my reading War and Peace in the summer of ’73 was one of the turning points that helped make me, for better or for worse, the person I now am.

The adaptation that had so inspired me was marvellous: true, the sets indeed look very cardboard these days, and the battle scenes, done on a 70s BBC budget, are less than spectacular; but Jack Pulman’s script really set standards for transferring a great novel to the screen. As for the acting – Morag Hood’s rather stylised performance as Natasha didn’t quite come off (possibly Natasha, as described by Tolstoy, is an impossible character to bring off convincingly in performance), but the rest of the cast, including a then relatively unknown Antony Hopkins as Pierre, was without exception superb.

Well, that’s enough nostalgia for one post. I always fear I’ll come across as some crabby old git who automatically damns anything modern in favour of what things used to be like back in my days … and, no doubt, such an image is not too far from the truth. But it’s not, I hope, the whole truth. After all, I have nothing but praise for an audio version of War and Peace that was broadcast on BBC radio only ten years ago (and yes, ten years ago counts as “modern” in my book!). And, lest it be thought that I am too curmudgeonly in starting a new year of blogging with a “why oh why?” piece, let me try to balance that a bit: for, only hours before the first part of the BBC War and Peace, I saw in the local cinema a broadcast of The Winter’s Tale that was simply a thing of wonder.

The production was by the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company, and Branagh himself played Leontes. I had never actually seen Branagh play Shakespeare on stage before: his stage production of Twelfth Night was just wonderful, but he only directed that, and didn’t appear in it. There are the films he made, of course, but, whatever Branagh’s talents, film direction doesn’t appear to be amongst them. But no matter: the performance he gives here on stage is as remarkable as his direction (he co-directed with Rob Ashford). And the generally young cast is well supported by such experienced old hands as Judi Dench and Michael Pennington.

The play itself is a miracle. It is about love and jealousy, about irrational evil that breaks out for no apparent reason and destroys all in its path; it is about guilt and atonement, and forgiveness and renewal; it is about the cycles of life, about pain and grief, and about joy and hope; it is, indeed, about everything that is important in our human lives, all encompassed in its fairy tale form. And finally, it is about the Resurrection itself. A rational explanation is suggested towards the end to explain away the miracle, but we don’t believe it: as Chesterton’s Father Brown put it, it is easier to believe in the impossible rather than the improbable:

“I can believe in the impossible, but not the improbable … It’s what I call common sense, properly understood,’ replied Father Brown. ‘It really is more natural to believe a preternatural story, that deals with things we don’t understand, than a natural story that contradicts things we do understand. Tell me that the great Mr Gladstone, in his last hours, was haunted by the ghost of Parnell, and I will be agnostic about it. But tell me that Mr Gladstone, when first presented to Queen Victoria, wore his hat in her drawing–room and slapped her on the back and offered her a cigar, and I am not agnostic at all. That is not impossible; it’s only incredible.”

  • From the Incredulity of Father Brown by G. K. Chesterton

 

Shakespeare knew this, of course: he knew everything He knew that we wouldn’t attach any credibility to that absurd story of Hermione living apart for all those years: far easier to believe that she was brought back like Alcestis from the grave. That final scene, which never fails to strike me with a sense of wonder, is Shakespeare’s vision of the Resurrection itself. But there is no triumph here: the joy is subdued, and sorrowful. In Shakespeare’s vision, the sorrows and griefs we experience in our earthly lives cannot all be wiped away: they continue to cast their shadows even in eternity, and the best we can hope for is a forgiveness and a sorrowful understanding that is, at least, a sort of joy. It is an ending that leaves me in tears every time I experience it, whether in the study, or in the theatre, or, as here, in the cinema.

And this would not have been possible in those good old days of my childhood that I look back on so fondly. Thanks to modern technology, the glories of our theatres – where standards seem to me as high as they have ever been – and of our opera houses can now be beamed worldwide to far greater numbers than previous generations could have dreamed possible.

So there – having said that, I think I can safely say that I am not a curmudgeonly old sod after all. Not completely, at any rate.

A Happy New Year to you all!

Season’s greetings

It’s that time of the year again, and, as usual, I shall be neglecting this blog over the festive season while I celebrate the birth of Christ indulge myself by eating and drinking to excess. (Oh – and a bit of goodwill to all as well … let’s not forget that.)

So, till I sober up in the New Year and resume my blogging, may I wish you all a Very Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year.

fabriano-adoration-magi

From “Adoration of the Magi” by Gentile da Fabriano, courtesy Uffizi Gallery, Florence

“1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear” by James Shapiro

Biographies of Shakespeare generally tend to be like Hamlet without the Prince: we know much about the historic times, the cultural and social background, the religious controversies and conflicts, and so on, but about the man himself, all we have to go on are a few scattered documents. We do not even know what Shakespeare thought: all he wrote in his plays are words spoken by characters in their respective characters, so the reader who thinks Shakespeare a nihilist on the basis of Macbeth’s despairing utterances is on grounds as shaky as the reader who imagines Shakespeare a believer in a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them as we will. Perhaps he speaks in his own voice in the sonnets – in some of them, at least – but even when we can be fairly sure that he is indeed speaking in his own voice, we find little more than a poet aware of his own genius, who knew that nor marble nor the gilded monuments will outlive his works.

However, this has not stopped writers and scholars trying to re-create the sort of life Shakespeare may have led. I am particularly fond of Anthony Burgess’ witty and characteristically exuberant biography, but there have been others. A few years ago, academic and writer James Shapiro, who teaches at Columbia University, made quite a splash with a book re-creating a single year of Shakespeare’s life – 1599. It was an eventful year all right: it was in this year that Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s men, moved into the Globe Theatre, and Shakespeare himself, after a few relatively fallow years (at least by his standards), burst into an astonishing period of creativity with Julius Caesar, Henry V, As You Like It and Hamlet. We tend nowadays to use the word “amazing” to signify something that is very good, but this really was, quite literally, “amazing”. Shapiro in this book brought together his prodigious knowledge and understanding of the times to give us a tremendously vivid account of the historical, cultural, political and social picture of the times, and conjectured intelligently on what a man of Shakespeare’s background and position may have been doing or thinking. Most interestingly, he considered how the times are reflected in the plays, and how contemporary audiences are likely to have seen them.  For there is no contradiction between these plays being “for all time”, and also for their own time: we may judge for ourselves what these plays mean to us now, but to discover what Shakespeare’s own audiences may have received these plays is fascinating in its own right.

WP_20151220_11_27_04_Pro (1)1599 was a runaway success: perhaps to everyone’s surprise, it became a bestseller. Shapiro certainly has a gift for presenting historic times in a most vivid manner, and of interpreting what documentary evidence we have to give an impression of what it might have been like to have lived in those times, in that place. Now, given the success of that first book, he has followed it up with 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear.  And once again we see the same virtues that had distinguished his earlier volume – that same ability to interpret what we know of history, of the culture of the times, to try to re-recreate what it might have been like to have lived there and then. , We cannot, of course, know with any precision what Shakespeare was thinking, or even what kind of person he was, but certain conjectures do seem reasonable: for instance, it tells us much about Shakespeare the man that, despite being acknowledged in his own time as the leading poet and dramatist of his age, and despite the documented fact that writing flattering verses for masques at the court would have earned him far more than merely writing plays, Shakespeare did not go in that direction. Even Ben Jonson did; but Will, it seems, was made of somewhat sterner stuff.

The years between 1599 and 1606 had hardly been “fallow years”: these years had seen the writing of Twelfth Night, Othello, Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida, as well as the curious but intriguing Timon of Athens, which was probably written in collaboration and even more probably abandoned in an unfinished state. But, supreme masterpieces though at least four of these works undoubtedly were, Shakespeare had certainly slowed down: five plays – or four and a half plays, if we consider Timon of Athens to be unfinished – in five years is slow by Shakespeare’s standards; and, as Shapiro points out, Shakespeare’s dramatic output but stopped completely after the accession to the throne of King James. But then, in 1606, in the course of a single year, came King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra. All in one year. Even when one knows this to be a fact, one can but shake one’s head in disbelief.

The political environment was now much changed. James wanted to be seen as the founder of a new dynasty, reconciling previous discords in an era of peace and stability: he liked, indeed, to be seen as Octavius Caesar. His deepest desire seemed to have been to unite England and Scotland, much to the opposition, it seems, of both the English parliament and of the Scottish ruling classes. It is not unreasonable to assume that this debate resonates strongly in King Lear, in which division of kingdom brings about a cataclysm, although it is still very much open to conjecture whether Edgar’s “I smell the blood of a British man” was intended as a celebration of the proposed union, or knowingly played for laughs.

The major event that overshadowed these times was the Gunpowder Plot, discovered and foiled in November of the year before. Now that we have relegated the whole thing to a jolly annual celebration, it’s perhaps difficult for us to imagine just how traumatic an event this must have been: the appalling St Bartholomew’s Day’s massacre just across the channel, and the attempted invasion of the Spanish Armada, were very much within within living memory, and the fear of a Catholic uprising, and of the death and devastation it would bring in its wake, were all too real. Had the Plot not been discovered, thousands would have been killed, including the King and the entire Parliament: it was an attempted act of terrorism on the largest imaginable scale. Shapiro describes in vivid and exciting detail the discovery of the plot, of the various manhunts in the immediate aftermath to track down the perpetrators (why has this not been filmed, I wonder?) – one of these manhunts taking place in Shakespeare’s own Warwickshire, and involving people whom Shakespeare must personally have known – and of the fears that lingered of the promised end, or an image of that horror.

English Catholics, not surprisingly, found themselves particularly vulnerable, and in danger. In the summer of 1606, two English Jesuits, Robert Southwell and Henry Garnet (both since canonised), were hung, drawn and quartered: they were the co-authors of what was soon to become a notorious treatise – on the subject of “equivocation”. The theme of “equivocation”, a word that had previously meant merely “ambiguity”, soon took on a whole range of meanings, for the treatise was, in effect, a justification of, and instructions for, lying under oath. At a time when the fate of one’s soul was a matter, both for Protestants and for Catholics, of vital importance, this treatise explained how to say one thing while meaning another, so that, strictly speaking, one isn’t lying at all; it explained how to give a false impression while keeping one’s soul free of perjury; it even went as far as to claim that it is permissible to speak an untruth under oath as long as the truth is clear in one’s heart, because God, who can see into the human heart, cannot be deceived. As was quite rightly perceived, this treatise threatened to bring down the institution of law itself.

Equivocation in all its guises is a major theme in Macbeth. Once again, it seems not unreasonable to conjecture that the topicality of that word chimed with themes that had long been maturing in Shakespeare’s mind. In this play, perhaps above all others, Shakespeare seems fascinated by the contradictory directions in which the same mind can be pulled at the same time: thus, Macbeth both desires to kill and desires not to kill with equal intensity; Lady Macbeth’s desire for murder is matched by her own inability to commit it. From the very first scene, we have equivocation: fair is foul, and foul is fair; and as soon as Macbeth enters, he remarks “So fair and foul a day I have not seen”. The witches equivocate with both Macbeth and with Banquo, the Macbeths equivocate with Duncan, Malcolm later equivocates with Macduff: everywhere one looks in the play, there is equivocation. And the theme appears transformed into a grimly comic tonality with the Porter, pretending to himself that he is porter of the gates of Hell itself, without realising how close to the truth he is:

Faith, here’s an equivocator, that could swear in both the scales against either scale; who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven: O, come in, equivocator.

I hadn’t realised till Shapiro points it out that these lines themselves are equivocal. They seem at first glance to be mocking the equivocating Southwell and Garnet, but the treason they have committed was for God’s sake – i.e. not for their own; and neither could they equivocate to heaven because Heaven knows what’s in their hearts. Strange that I have been reading these lines for over 40 years without seeing this.

In late July 1606, “in the midst of a thrilling theatrical season that included what may well be the finest group of new plays ever staged”, a virulent outbreak of plague forced the theatres to close. Shapiro tells us there is very little historic documentation to tell us what it must have been like to live within the plague-stricken city, although I suspect it might not have been very different from Daniel Defoe’s painstaking journalistic reconstruction of the Great Plague of 1665 in A Journal of the Plague Year. Shapiro comments that there is perhaps no better description of the horrors of the “terror and malaise that plague carried with it” than these four lines from Macbeth:

… The dead man’s knell
Is there scarce asked for who, and good men’s lives
Expire before the flowers in their caps,
Dying or ere they sicken.

– from IV, iii

Perhaps it is impossible for us to feel the horror that Shakespeare’s contemporary audience, who lived with plague as a daily presence (there were plague deaths even when there weren’t major outbreaks), would have felt when Lear describes Goneril as “a plague sore, and embossed curbuncle in my / Corrupted blood”; or when a soldier in Antony and Cleopatra speaks of a hopeless situation in battle, and declares it be “like the tokened pestilence, / Where death is sure”. These works may indeed be for all time, but there were resonances also in its time and for its time that are now at best diminished, but which should, nonetheless, be acknowledged. Shapiro, as ever, is unerring in the light he throws upon them.

Much though I enjoyed reading this book, there are a few points where I must register a protest. In a section comparing an older anonymous play about Lear with Shakespeare’s version, Shapiro says:

The anonymous author of Leir had been content to build to a somewhat wooden reconciliation scene between father and daughter, one that failed to pack much emotional punch. Shakespeare’ Lear would substitute for that not one but two powerful recognition scenes: the first between Lear and Cordelia, the second, soon after, where the two plots converge, between the mad Lear and the blind Gloucester. It’s debatable which of the two is the most heartbreaking scene in the play.

 – From Chapter 3

I agree fully with the last sentence above, but the scene between the mad Lear and the blind Gloucester comes before, not after, Lear’s recognition scene with Cordelia.

Later, in an otherwise fascinating passage describing how, in Macbeth, even good people are forced to equivocate, Shapiro, after describing the scene in which Macduff receives the news of the slaughter of his wife and children, continues:

In the long and unsettling scene that follows, yet another seemingly virtuous character, Malcolm, swears and lies to Macduff, telling him that his rapacious and violent nature renders him unfit to rule in Scotland…

  • From Chapter 10

Actually, Malcolm’s equivocation with Macduff precedes rather than follows the news of Macduff’s slaughtered family.

And from Chapter 13:

The wild drinking scenes aboard ship in Antony and Cleopatra in which Pompey has to be carried off dead drunk…

It is Lepidus, not Pompey, who is carried off dead drunk.

Now, I am sure that James Shapiro knows these plays backwards, and, strange though it seems, these are errors of carelessness, or of poor editing, or both. But however these errors got in, they are terrible howlers, and makes me wonder what other errors have crept in that I am not sufficiently competent to identify. If anyone from Faber & Faber is reading this, may I suggest that every effort be made to correct these (and possibly other) errors, as they are terrible disfiguring blots on what is otherwise a quite superb read.

Some seasonal silliness

In terms of blogging, it has been a bit of a heavyweight year – what with posts on the first part of Don Quixote, on Persuasion, some monstrously long posts on Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, and, most recently, on James’ The Portrait of a Lady, and so on. And there was the usual smattering of Shakespeare, of course. So, as the year winds down and we enter the festive season, let us lighten the tone a bit.

Some years ago, I used to contribute to an online Books Board, and, every Christmas, we used to set a Christmas Challenge: we had to write a piece on anything we wanted, as long as it was Christmas-themed, and incorporated a number of items specified by whoever set the challenge.

On cleaning out old documents from my hard disk recently (and it still doesn’t seem right to me to spell “disc” with a “k” – even in this context!) I came across a couple of these I had written a few years ago. This one is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, and it had to make reference to:

  • Two paintings in the National Gallery, London
  • A piece of classical music
  • A birth, and a death
  • A conspiracy
  • A kitchen utensil

That’s enough explanation. Here it is.

The Adventure of the Distraught Archaeologist

I had long been accustomed to receiving telegrams from Holmes asking me to meet him on matters of some urgency, so when, early one Saturday morning in December, I received a telegram from my old friend asking me to meet him at a public hostelry by the river near Hampton Court, I cannot say I was entirely taken by surprise. Eager to enjoy the fine, crisp winter’s day, I soon found myself travelling very pleasantly by boat on the Thames to Hampton Court. Inside the inn, I found Holmes sitting at a table by the window with a ruddy-faced, thick-set man who held out a welcoming hand on seeing me approach.

“And this, I take it, must be Dr Watson,” he said, shaking my hand cordially. “I’m very pleased to meet you. Richardson,” he introduced himself, “Cedric Richardson.”

“Good old Watson!” said Holmes, “I knew you wouldn’t let us down – even when you are recovering from illness, although I am happy to see that you are recovering quickly, and, indeed, are organizing a celebration once your wife returns.”

Having known Holmes for many years now, I was not in the least surprised by his uncanny powers of observation and deduction, but my attempts to follow his chain of reasoning all too frequently came to nought. Holmes chuckled on noticing my bemusement.

“That you had been recently ill is plain to see from the pallor of your appearance, and the slightly emaciated look about the jowls. However, that you are fit enough to trek all the way out here is sufficient testimony to your successful recovery.”

“But how did you know about my wife being away?”

“My dear Watson, you may remember that I published a monogram once on the distinctly different types of soil in London. On your boots, there are distinct traces of that reddish earth that is only found in certain parts of Camden. Now, you would not have had time to go to Camden this morning before coming here: so it follows that you went there yesterday, if not earlier. And it follows also that you set out this morning without cleaning your shoes, something your wife, I know, would hardly have allowed you to do had she been in the house.”

“Indeed, she is visiting friends this weekend. She has gone to help out an old schoolfriend who has recently given birth to twins. But the celebrations?”

“Simplicity itself. Camden, I know, is out of your regular circuit: your medical practice does not take you in that direction. However, I do know that you particularly admire the champagne supplied by a certain establishment of wine merchants on Camden High Street. Since your wedding anniversary falls next week, the inference did not seem too far-fetched.”

“Absolutely right, Holmes! As well as placing an order for the champagne, I purchased two bottles of Bordeaux which, when warmed in a saucepan with some cloves, makes the most delicious mulled wine for this time of year. But your deductions in this respect really are quite extraordinary!”

“Elementary,” replied Holmes. “There are twenty-three other deductions one may make from your appearance, but we have more pressing business ahead of us. You have already met Cedric Richardson. He is, if I may say so in his presence without causing him embarrassment, one of our most eminent archaeologists. His assistance was invaluable in the case of the Giant Rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared. But perhaps Mr Richardson can tell us the details of this case in his own words.”

“Thank you, Mr Holmes,” said Richardson. “Perhaps I should start by telling Dr Watson that for the last few years I have been researching the megalithic remains around our isles, and that in this pursuit, photography is a boon. The photographic images I have taken of various menhirs, dolmens, mounds and burial chambers are absolutely invaluable in my line of research. However, there appears to be a conspiracy against me. Various artefacts that I have recovered from these sites have been stolen. And recently, some of the photographic prints that I took only last week have vanished from my study.”

“May I ask if you developed these prints yourself?” Holmes interjected.

“No, Mr Holmes. I have a good friend who works in a branch of chemists’ shops, and he kindly develops these prints for me.”

“And could you please describe these prints?”

Richardson paused for a moment, and then, leaning forward, said in a whisper:

“Mr Holmes, they were the Boots’ prints of a gigantic mound.”

A thrill ran down my spine as I heard these words.

“These pictures were taken from my desk, which I always keep locked. And I am the only one who has the key. My study, too, remains locked when I am not there, and once again, I am the only one who has the key. Now, who can steal from a locked desk in a locked room? And why?”

“What were you planning to use those photographs for?” asked Holmes.

“I was planning to use these prints next week, when I am due to present my findings at the annual Christmas Conference of the Royal Archaeological Society. But without my evidence, I am utterly lost. I’m telling you Mr Holmes, it’s a conspiracy!”

“Not in the least,“ said Holmes. “I cannot, of course, make any rash promises, but I would be very surprised if, by the end of this day, I do not know the whereabouts of your purloined photographs. But first, I shall have to send a few telegrams. And after that, Watson, I do not think we can spend our time here better than by viewing those wonderful paintings by Mantegna that I know are on public display at Hampton Court Palace.”

I knew better than to ask Holmes about the case until such a time as he should see fit to tell me of his own accord, but that afternoon we spent, on Holmes’ insistence, on staring at those dreary paintings, “The Triumphs of Caesar”, by Mantegna. Holmes had recently written a paper on the allegorical paintings of Mantegna, which were considered by many experts in the field as the last word on the subject.

“Mantegna’s treatment of the Agony in the Garden is far superior to the effort of his brother-in-law Bellini, wouldn’t you say Watson?”

“I really cannot say,” I said, barely able to disguise my distaste of being dragged around the gallery when I could have been drinking a few pints of the lovely local ale at a riverside tavern. “You know these things always bored me to death.”

“Good old Watson,” Holmes chuckled. “All right, I shall not bore you any longer. Let us retire to the inn. We still have an hour before Richardson appears, and, if my suspicions are well-founded, we shall know the solution to our problem by then.”

On the way back to the inn, we stopped at the post office, where two telegrams were waiting for my friend. Holmes read these, and with a dry chuckle, put them into his pocket.

“Well Watson,” he said when we were seated at the inn with two pints of ale. “What do you make of it all?”

“I’d say that a crime as daring as this could only point to Moriarty,” I replied, “the Napoleon of crime.”

“Yes, that thought had crossed my mind as well,” said Holmes, “and so I sent a telegram to an associate of mine who is currently in Professor Moriarty’s employment, and he assures me that Moriarty has currently no interest whatever in Neolithic burial mounds. However, another distinct possibility presents itself. And that is that this Cedric Richardson, fine upstanding fellow though he is, is nonetheless a shit-for-brains who cannot distinguish proverbial arse from elbow.”

“My dear Holmes!” I ejaculated.

“So, to ascertain my hypothesis, I sent another telegram to Mrs Richardson, and she assures me that the photographs, far from having been stolen, are in her safekeeping, as her fool of a husband had kept them lying around the place. I have Mrs Richardson’s telegram right here,” he said, holding it out for me to read.

“Extraordinary!” I gasped.

“Elementary,” replied Holmes. “Now, we are due to meet Richardson here shortly, and we must explain the situation to him clearly, and impress upon him what an utter fuckwit he is. Afterwards, I suggest we head back to London. Patti is singing Violetta in Covent Garden tonight in a performance of Signor Verdi’s opera La Traviata, and I have tickets for two seats in the stalls.”

“The Portrait of a Lady” by Henry James

This post is not primarily about the plot of The Portrait of a Lady, but inevitably, elements of the plot do emerge. So it is best to issue what is commonly known as a “spoiler warning”.

             Some think it a matter of course that chance
Should starve good men and bad advance,
That if their neighbours figured plain,
As though upon a lighted screen,
No single story would they find
Of an unbroken happy mind,
A finish worthy of the start.

  • From “Why Should Old Men Not be Mad?” by W. B. Yeats

Flicking through a printed copy of The Portrait of a Lady, one finds long sections that are on the page intimidating blocks of print, with what little clear white space there is only visible at the end of the paragraphs, alternating with equally long sections of dialogue, with clear white space in abundance. Of course, most novels contain sections of narrative and sections of dialogue, but rarely are they quite so clearly distinct from each other as they are here. James liked dialogue: much of the novel can read like a play, with important information conveyed to the reader through what the characters say. Take, for instance, the climactic scene towards the end as Isabel discovers Madame Merle’s secret:

“Ah, poor creature!” cried Isabel, bursting into tears.

It is a surprising reaction in many ways, even given what we know of Isabel’s generosity of spirit: it’s a remarkable person indeed whose immediate reaction on learning that she has been betrayed and abused is to feel sympathy for her betrayer and abuser. But we get to know what Isabel thinks at this point purely from what she says and does – much as we would do if she were a character in a play or in a film.

James makes his dialogue do much of the narrative work throughout the novel. It may be objected that no-one really speaks as these characters do – that no-one, James himself possibly excepted, could be so precise and so articulate in their verbal expression. But if we can accept Shakespearean characters speaking in blank verse, I think we can accept also James’ characters speaking in exquisite Jamesian prose: it is part of the convention, part of the pact we make with the author. There are a few other things we need to agree as part of this pact: we need to agree that the author is an omniscient narrator, but that he won’t always give us the benefit of that omniscience; that he is happy to enter into the minds of different people, but that he will choose whose minds he wishes to enter into at any given time; that he can show us whichever scene he wants, but that the choice of which scenes to show and which he prefers to suppress will, once again, be entirely at his discretion; and so on. These are the rules of the game, as it were. So of course the narrator knows from the start the secret of Madame Merle; many readers, I think, will guess the secret for themselves long  before it is revealed, and may even wonder why Isabel is so slow in guessing what is so obvious; but the narrator, omniscient though he is, confirms the secret only when it is presented to Isabel, and not earlier. What the reader learns, which of the reader’s suspicions are confirmed, and when, are all strictly controlled by the author, and the ground rules are that we, the readers, must submit to this.

James’ felicity with dialogue, idiosyncratic though that dialogue may be, makes it perhaps surprising that he fared so badly as a dramatist. As is well-known, he tried, presumably inspired by Ibsen, whom he admired, to refashion himself in the mid-90s from a novelist to a dramatist, but failed miserably. I should try to get hold of some of his plays just to figure out why they are, by common critical consent, such failures as drama, but it seems reasonable to suspect that the scenes of dialogue only work in his novels because of that one element novels have but plays don’t – the narrative passages. All that is so remarkable about his passages of dialogue – the registering in what is said of the subtlest shifts in perception, or the finest alteration of the balance of power between the characters – seems to rely on the narrative around it to set it off: without all those pages blocked with print, and with barely any clear white space visible to relieve the reader’s eye, the dialogue would, I think, have fallen flat; but, once set in the context of the narration, it’s a different matter entirely. The dialogue in the early chapters is little more than conversation, but as the novel progresses, it becomes far more than that: it depicts the intricate interplay of the characters, and of the seemingly intangible shifts in the way they perceive each other, and themselves. And it is these long narrative passages that alternate with the dialogue that make this possible.

These narrative passages are almost purely internal: they describe what is going on in the characters’ minds – what they perceive, what they think they perceive. There is very little description, if any, of what the characters look like: what impression we get of their appearance we get merely from what they say and do, and from how they react to each other. And neither does James seem very interested in a sense of place: he will give us a few lines to set the scene, in the manner, as it were, of stage directions in a play, but once the dialogue starts, there’s where the interest lies – in what the characters say and think and perceive, and not in where they are. Quite often, in the middle of these scenes of dialogue, I’d quite happily forget whether the dialogue is taking place in an English country house, or a terrace of a Florentine villa, or amidst the ruins of Rome. That may, of course, be because I am a bad reader, but the point is, I think, that in this novel, it doesn’t matter much: when, say, Myshkin and Rogozhin exchange crosses in The Idiot,  we are always aware, and, indeed, it is important to be aware, that the scene is taking place in Rogzhin’s vast, gloomy old house; but when say, Ralph Touchett warns Isabel about marrying Gilbert Osmond, it matters little where this takes place: James’ interest seems focussed almost entirely on people, not on places.

James’ shaping of the novel is also curious. Most readers will agree that at the centre of the novel is a dissection of a bad marriage, so it is rather surprising that the man Isabel marries doesn’t make his entrance till almost half way through. The novel is in roughly three movements (it seems appropriate here to borrow terminology from music), each of these movements ending with an important scene between Isabel and Caspar Goodwood, the disappointed suitor who remains nonetheless devoted. In the first movement, we are mostly in Gardencourt, an English country estate somewhere near the Thames in Berkshire, and the choice of the name is far from accidental: it is a clear reference to the character Grandcourt in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, a work to which this novel clearly owes much (as it does also to George Eliot’s Middlemarch); but it is also a reference to a prelapsarian state in the Garden, a state both of innocence and of inexperience: Isabel Archer here, though intelligent and independent of thought, is also innocent, and lacks experience of the world; and this world is, indeed, all before her. Isabel must make her decisions on how, and where, to take her place in it. For Gardencourt is also a court – a place where judgements and decisions are made, with far-reaching consequences.

At the start of the second movement, the serpent enters the garden, in form of the very charming and accomplished Madame Merle, and Isabel, now wealthy (thanks to the manoeuvring, unknown to her, of her cousin Ralph Touchett), soon leaves the Garden to engage with the evils and temptations that reside outside. The decision she eventually makes, we can see quite clearly, is a wrong decision – a disastrously wrong decision; and James does not hide from the reader its wrongness: we are actually given scenes of Osmond and Madame Merle conspiring with each other like conventional villains from melodrama on how best to entrap the innocent Isabel. There are shades, certainly, of Mary and Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park, and  of  the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses; and also, I think, of the Gothic thriller: the innocent heroine who marries a villain, and who is then persecuted and terrorised by her husband, is a staple of the Gothic mystery novel, and is, indeed, the basis of the plot of one of the most famous examples of the genre – Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. (Later in James’ novel, the villain even has his daughter locked up in a convent! It is indeed astonishing how happy James was to use motifs from the old-fashioned melodrama even while pushing forward the art of the novel.) But although we can see all this villainy clearly, Isabel can’t, and James, in this movement of the novel, has the hardest of tasks: he has to show us his heroine acting foolishly, and against the best of advice, and yet convince us somehow that she is nonetheless intelligent; he has to show Gilbert Osmond both as a villain of a Gothic novel, and yet also as someone whom Isabel can credibly accept. This is not an easy task for the novelist to accomplish, but, as one of his own characters might say, James brings it off quite beautifully.

Of course, we do have to accept that someone who lives in a villa in Tuscany and does not have to work for a living is actually “poor”, but once again, that’s part of the pact we have to make with the author: in the milieu he is depicting, Gilbert Osmond is, in comparative terms at least, “poor”. He is also middle-aged, a widower, generally undistinguished, and in every sense, one would have thought, an unsuitable match for the wealthy, young, and beautiful Isabel (at least, one thinks of her as beautiful, though I don’t think James says so himself directly); but his very seeming unsuitability is among those things that draws Isabel to him. Back in Gardencourt, she had rejected the extravagantly eligible Lord Warburton – wealthy, young, handsome, titled, and by nature kind and generous – at least partly because, one suspects, he was so very eligible: Isabel wanted to experience life on her own terms, and make her own decisions, and so, to this end, any decision determined by conventionality and approved of by custom is from the start dismissed. This determination not to abide from the stultifying demands of conventionality, and to make her own way, does indeed, in James’ hands at least, indicate on Isabel’s part an independence of mind and a certain intellectual pride that indicate intelligence, even when, as here, both that independence of mind and that intellectual pride are so woefully misdirected.

Not that Gilbert Osmond is a stereotype villain: James is happy to use elements of the Gothic thriller, but that is not the genre in which he is writing. Osmond does indeed woo and marry Isabel for her money, but her money, though a necessary criterion for Osmond, is not in itself a sufficient criterion: he wants power – power over other people; and the idea of power over Isabel, who, it is thought, had turned down even a wealthy and handsome English aristocrat, excites Osmond’s sensibilities. Osmond is an unforgettable portrait of a man who lives primarily by his ego, and whose principal delight lies in having that sense of ego heightened by exercising power over others.

It is in the third and longest movement of the novel, which begins some years after the second movement had ended, that it all unravels: it is here that we are given the anatomy of a failed marriage. Isabel is, predictably, unhappy: in the patriarchal society she inhabits, her husband has easily assumed a dominant role. And Osmond too is unhappy with the marriage: Isabel, her pride still intact, keeps aloof as best she can, and does not flatter her husband’s ego as he had hoped she would. They generally tend to keep out of each other’s way.

This third part begins not with Isabel or with Osmond, but with Edward Rosier, a character we had only very briefly glimpsed earlier, and whom I certainly did not remember by this stage. It is almost as if Isabel’s story has ended, as all good stories should, with a marriage. We do see Mr and Mrs Osmond after a while, though they seem at first more supporting characters rather than leading characters of the drama; but even here, we sense how unhappy Isabel is, and how dissatisfied Osmond is, despite having had his way: she does not openly defy him, but neither does she submit to the power he wishes to wield over her. It is many more chapters before we actually see them together: the person whom we see with Osmond, close to Osmond, is not is wife, but, rather ominously, Madame Merle.

Things come to a head with the various machinations around the marriage of Pansy, Osmond’s innocent daughter now on the verge of adulthood. Edward Rosier wishes to propose to her, but Osmond, while not disapproving, has higher things in mind for his daughter: she, too, exists, as far as he is concerned, primarily to serve his ego. So Osmond is casually and calculatedly rude to Rosier. He has bigger fish in mind: Lord Warburton, a few years older than when we had first seen him, but still very eminently eligible. And Lord Warburton appears interested in Pansy, although Isabel suspects that the interest not to be wholly sincere, and, observing all proprieties though he may be, his chief aim is to be close to her, Isabel. And Isabel has too much pride to yield to this.

This situation sets up a series of tremendous scenes in which the dialogue is more, much more, than the somewhat inconsequential conversation it had been in the early chapters of the novel: the more James tells us about his characters, the more we find every word they speak weighted with meaning and significance. The balance of power is intricate: the slightest thing can alter it. And perceptions of where one stands in the struggle for power can be as powerful as the thing itself.

Isabel warns off Lord Warburton. Not explicitly, but she knows how to do this kind of thing without being explicit. Osmond senses Isabel’s part in Lord Warburton’s withdrawal: he has no hard evidence, but does not require it. All this brings about a series of conflicts between husband and wife that are among the most dramatic scenes in all fiction, though very little, as such, happens. Everything relies on the reader being aware of the shifting balances of power between the characters.

It all leads leads to a denouement that frankly breaks the heart. I did not remember from my last reading some thirty or so years ago just how affecting this ending was: I suppose that, as with so much I read in my younger days, I had not been a good enough reader, nor had been sufficiently mature emotionally, to take it in adequately. This time round, I found an emotional directness that I had not expected from James. In his later fiction, he often allowed emotional scenes to take place off-stage, such as, say, the final meeting between Milly Theale and Merton Densher in The Wings of the Dove; but here, James presents directly scenes of the deepest of emotions, of the most tender of feelings, with a lack of embarrassment I am tempted to describe, despite James’ own well-known aversion to Dickens, as “Dickensian”. I really had not remembered this ending being quite so affecting. However, this ending did not spring out of nowhere: it could not have been so affecting had James not laid the necessarily groundwork for it with such painstaking care earlier in the novel. And so exquisitely is the novel structured, that to understand properly what happens at the end, we must consider it from the very beginning: James’ decision to delay the entrance of Gilbert Osmond till almost half way into the novel is, after all, no mere whim: this novel is, one must remember, the portrait of a lady, rather than the portrait of a marriage.

It is in the prelapsarian and innocent wold of Gardencourt that we begin. The very opening sentences suggest a sense of calm and inactivity that quite belies what is to come afterwards. I have often wondered whether there has been another novel of comparable stature that has so unpromising an opening:

Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.

This is what, on this side of the Atlantic, we would describe as “twee” – self-consciously arch and affected and cloying. It suggests a world where everything is delightful and lovely, where nothing really changes, where even the drinking of tea in the afternoon becomes a “ceremony”. This could almost be the opening of a Wodehousian idyll. The setting is right for Wodehouse – an English country estate, wealthy Americans, and so on. But James is not writing a country house comedy any more than he is a Gothic thriller: instead of Bertie Wooster, we have a somewhat different kind of English aristocrat – Lord Warburton. It is into this static situation that Isabel Archer emerges, and, quite literally, sets the novel in motion.

These early chapters proceed at an extremely leisurely pace, as if nothing of any great moment lies on the horizon. A flashback tells us of Isabel’s background, and of how she came to be where she is; and a flashback within a flashback gives us some more detail of Isabel’s past. Isabel is characterised in these early chapters principally by how the other characters react to her: all three men in Gardencourt fall in love with her. Mr Touchett is an old man, but he almost from the start develops for her a deep paternal affection. Meanwhile his son, Ralph, finds himself utterly entranced by his cousin; but he knows he is seriously ill and dying – this prelapsarian garden contains its shades – and he doesn’t even pause to consider a future for himself with Isabel – or, indeed, a future for himself at all. And there is also Lord Warburton, who makes possibly the most delicate of proposals in all literature, and is turned down: Isabel is looking towards other horizons. If the world is all before Isabel, she will explore it, and find her own place in it, on her own terms.

The pace is so leisurely here, that the reader may well wonder where, if anywhere, all this is leading. There are elements of humour, it is true, and some of that humour is – quite surprisingly, once again, given James’ aversion – “Dickensian”. Henrietta Stackpole is a name – like Caspar Goodwoood –  that could easily have been invented by Dickens, and her general air of uncouth brashness provides a much needed contrast to the endless refinement of moneyed and aristocratic England that James presents. And as for the brusque and peremptory manners of Mrs Touchett, there seems to me more than a touch of Betsey Trotwood about her. There’s an element of Dickens also, I thought, in the cameo appearance of Mr Bantling, and the talked about, though never seen, Lady Pensil (how Dickens would have loved these names!) But despite this occasional touch of Dickensiana, we are unmistakably in Jamesworld – a world of moneyed and leisured people, whose work, should they work at all, is of no interest to anyone (and certainly not to James); a world where the young and wide-eyed visitors from the New World meet the more cynically sophisticated environment of the Old. Not that James’ characterisations are in any way schematic: Lord Warburton, of the Old World, is principled and very much a man of integrity; while the villains, Gilbert Osmond and Madame Merle, are expatriate Americans; but the novel turns on the encounter between moral innocence and moral corruption, and in James’ fictional world, these states are represented respectively by the New World and the Old.

The first movement of the novel ends in London, with Isabel’s meeting with Caspar Goodwood, who is devoted to her, and has followed her to Europe, despite there being little hope of his being accepted. He is everything lord Warburton isn’t – rough-edged, energetic, vigorous, and all the other qualities befitting a denizen of the New World. Isabel’s rejection of Caspar turns out to be more difficult than her rejection of Lord Warburton: she did not even have to think about rejecting the English aristocrat, but after declaring her final rejection of Goodwood, she sheds tears. But she has a sense of her own destiny, and Ralph, already under a death sentence, and the only one not to declare his love for his cousin, persuades his father to leave to Isabel much of what had been marked out for him. So, soon into the second movement of the novel, Isabel finds herself not merely searching for her destiny, but with the means to do so. The world is indeed all before her; but beside her is Madame Merle, and in her calculated coils, Isabel, although she doesn’t realise it, is helpless.

The pace is slow; nothing much appears to be happening; but all the seeds are carefully planted that are later to flower to such devastating effect. It is only after all these seeds have been planted, after all these elements have so carefully been put into place, that James allows Gilbert Osmond to make his entrance. And, with an insidious sense of inevitability, the unthinking happens: the proud, intelligent Isabel, who had turned down Lord Warburton and even Caspar Goodwood, who is loved hopelessly and selflessly by her cousin Ralph, falls prey to, of all people, the scheming Gilbert Osmond. He and Madame Merle engineer Isabel into accepting.

The second movement ends as the first had done, with Caspar Goodwood once again meeting with Isabel, this time to ponder uncomprehendingly on the proud, independent searcher coming to this of all ends. And once again, the meeting moves Isabel to tears.

But the story is not over yet: we have the final tragic movement yet to come. And the drama that is let loose here is electrifying. In scene after scene, James tightens the tension, knowing precisely to what extent to turn the screw at each scene; and in between these scenes are those passages of narration, increasingly metaphor-laden. One metaphor in particular struck me:

After he had left her, Madame Merle went and lifted from the mantel-shelf the attenuated coffee—cup in which he had mentioned the existence of a crack; but she looked at it rather abstractedly. “Have I been so vile all for nothing?” she murmured to herself.

  • From Chapter 49

The coffee-cup in which there is a crack is an image that very obviously foreshadows the central symbol of James’ later novel, The Golden Bowl. There, the crack had been a fine in an otherwise exquisite bowl of gold, but it was a fatal crack: the bowl was bound eventually to break. It is a mysterious and enigmatic symbol purely because its most obvious interpretations are too banal given the weight James gives to it, and we are forced therefore to peer further. Why does this crack in the coffee-cup resonate so powerfully both with the reader and with Madame Merle at this point?

For Madame Merle has been vile, and she has known it. James, rather disconcertingly, refers quite frequently to the “horror” and the “terror” felt by Isabel, almost as if she really were a protagonist in a Gothic horror novel. And the adjective “evil” is used to describe Osmond and Madame Merle. This may seem somewhat over-the-top to some readers, just as the use of the same word in Mansfield Park in relation to Mary and Henry Crawford is seen also to be a gross overstatement, but James is as serious as Austen was: to seek to exert power over others is indeed, both to Austen and to James, an evil, and that it happens in a real world rather than in some Gothic world of dungeons and torture chambers does not make it any less evil.  Gilbert Osmond and Madame Merle are clearly, without any exaggeration, forerunners of the evil spirits Peter Quint and Miss Jessel in The Turn of the Screw, who also seek to “possess” other human beings for their own ends.

But by the end, Madame Merle is defeated. Isabel has a sudden intimation of the evil in the relationship between Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond when she enters a room, and is struck by the way the two are positioned with respect to one another:

Madame Merle sat there in her bonnet, and Gilbert Osmond was talking to her; for a minute they were unaware that she had come in. Isabel had often seen that before, certainly; but what she had not seen, or at least had not noticed—was that their dialogue had for the moment converted itself into a sort of familiar silence, from which she instantly perceived that her entrance would startle them. Madame Merle was standing on the rug, a little way from the fire; Osmond was in a deep chair, leaning back and looking at her. Her head was erect, as usual, but her eyes were bent upon his. What struck Isabel first was that he was sitting while Madame Merle stood; there was an anomaly in this that arrested her. Then she perceived that they had arrived at a desultory pause in their exchange of ideas, and were musing, face to face, with the freedom of old friends who sometimes exchange ideas without uttering them. There was nothing shocking in this; they were old friends in fact. But the thing made an image, lasting only a moment, like a sudden flicker of light. Their relative position, their absorbed mutual gaze, struck her as something detected. But it was all over by the time she had fairly seen it.

  • From Chapter 40

It is a simple impression made in a split second, which contains nothing really to alarm, or even to disconcert, but which nonetheless strikes Isabel as somehow wrong, although what precisely is wrong she would not have been able to explain. It is a sudden glimpse into a previously unseen world, and, although what is glimpsed is vague and intangible, it sets off a “sudden flicker of light” in Isabel’s perceptions. She knows, she senses, that she is, somehow, the victim of these two. But Isabel is unarmed, because she lacks knowledge: she does not know enough to pinpoint even to herself the nature of that which she so powerfully senses.

Later in the novel, when she does have the knowledge, when Madame Merle’s secret is known to her, the balance of power shifts. Madame Merle now senses that Isabel knows something of her secret, but how much Isabel knows, she cannot tell:

The person who stood there was not the same one she had seen hitherto; it was a very different person—a person who knew her secret. This discovery was tremendous, and for the moment she made it the most accomplished of women faltered and lost her courage. But only for that moment. Then the conscious stream of her perfect manner gathered itself again and flowed on as smoothly as might be to the end. But it was only because she had the end in view that she was able to go on. She had been touched with a point that made her quiver, and she needed all the alertness of her will to repress her agitation. Her only safety was in not betraying herself. She did not betray herself; but the startled quality of her voice refused to improve—she couldn’t help it—while she heard herself say she hardly knew what. The tide of her confidence ebbed, and she was able only just to glide into port, faintly grazing the bottom.

  • From Chapter 52

In The Golden Bowl, when Maggie Verver faces the adulterous Charlotte Stant, she senses that she now has power over her: not only does she know of Charlotte’s affair with her husband, she knows also that Charlotte is aware of her knowledge; but what Charlotte isn’t aware of is how much she knows. And Maggie enjoys the power she now has over Charlotte by deliberately not telling her, and leaving her to the agony merely of conjecture and surmise. I think something similar happens at this point between Isabel and Madame Merle: Isabel senses that it is she who now has power over Madame Merle, and, like Maggie Verver, enjoys the enjoyment of this power by remaining silent:.

Isabel saw all this as distinctly as if it had been a picture on the wall. It might have been a great moment for her, for it might have been a moment of triumph. That Madame Merle had lost her pluck and saw before her the phantom of exposure—this in itself was a revenge, this in itself was almost a symptom of a brighter day. And for a moment while she stood apparently looking out of the window with her back half turned, Isabel enjoyed her knowledge.

  • From Chapter 52

Madame Merle is retires from the fray: Isabel has won. Like Charlotte Stant in The Golden Bowl, she returns to America: in Jamesian terms, she gives up the fight. Like Princes Eboli in Schiller’s Don Carlos (and in Verdi’s opera of the same name, based on Schiller’s play), Madame Merle is shamed into defeat. Isabel is triumphant.

But it is a strange sort of triumph. There remains still her deeply unhappy marriage. Gilbert Osmond had, on his last meeting with Isabel, taken the moral high ground: it is he who is, both in his own eyes and in the eyes of the world, in the right, and Isabel in the wrong for even thinking of defying her husband’s wishes. Isabel had lost in that particular confrontation: the balance of power had been all on Gilbert’s side. But she had defied him nonetheless: she had travelled to England on her own, to visit her dying cousin Ralph.

And it is in the magnificent scene at Ralph’s deathbed that we reach the culminating point of the novel. Here, as in the scene in Anna Karenina where Anna lies close to death, there is no room any more for dissimulation: in the presence of death, so solemn and so majestic, all involved seem to share a higher state of consciousness. The love between Isabel and Ralph is perhaps the only one in the entire novel that has been, and is, entirely sincere, and entirely mutual. Isabel had previously been careful not to reveal to Ralph that she was unhappy in her marriage, as the satisfaction Ralph would receive on being proven right would have been far outweighed by his unhappiness on the same score; but there is no room for untruths now, not even kind untruths: Ralph and Isabel speak to each other from the deepest recesses of their hearts. It is a scene I had not expected from James. It is almost as if he is daring the reader to feel embarrassed by so unadorned, so naked a depiction of the most deeply felt of human emotions.

“He married me for my money,” she said.

She wished to say everything; she was afraid he might die before she had done so.

He gazed at her a little, and for the first time his fixed eyes lowered their lids. But he raised them in a moment, and then—

“He was greatly in love with you,” he answered.

“Yes, he was in love with me. But he would not have married me if I had been poor. I don’t hurt you in saying that. How can I? I only want you to understand. I always tried to keep you from understanding; but that’s all over.”

“I always understood,” said Ralph.

“I thought you did, and I didn’t like it. But now I like it.”

“You don’t hurt me—you make me very happy.” And as Ralph said this there was an extraordinary gladness in his voice. She bent her head again, and pressed her lips to the back of his hand. “I always understood,” he continued, “though it was so strange—so pitiful. You wanted to look at life for yourself—but you were not allowed; you were punished for your wish. You were ground in the very mill of the conventional!”

“Oh yes, I have been punished,” Isabel sobbed.

  • From Chapter 54

I was caught up short at the point where Ralph declares himself to be happy: I was sure I had read another scene in another novel where a man, in the throes of the greatest of griefs, also declares himself happy, but I couldn’t remember at first which novel it was. Then, eventually, it came to me: it is in a novel written by that author James professed to dislike – Dickens; and it occurs when Bob Cratchit, grieving for his dead child, calls around him the rest of his family:

“… But however and whenever we part from one another, I am sure we shall none of us forget poor Tiny Tim — shall we — or this first parting that there was among us?”

“Never, father!” cried they all.

“And I know,” said Bob, “I know, my dears, that when we recollect how patient and how mild he was; although he was a little, little child; we shall not quarrel easily among ourselves, and forget poor Tiny Tim in doing it.”

“No, never, father!” they all cried again.

“I am very happy,” said little Bob, “I am very happy!”

  • From Chapter 4 of “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens

We may say that Ralph is “happy” because he can speak to Isabel before he dies, and that Bob is “happy” because he still has the rest of his family, but in both cases, I think, the author is encouraging us to peer deeper: the “happiness” in both cases comes, I think, from their having been, and continuing to be, so close to another human being as to be able to experience emotions of such depth, even though that experience is so full of pain.

The death scene is the novel’s emotional high point: it doesn’t so much put human affairs in their context, but, rather, heightens them; the presence of death confirms the moral seriousness of human affairs, and of what humans do to each other. But the novel isn’t entirely finished yet: there is still some unfinished business to attend to. As at the end of the previous two movements, Caspar meets and speaks once again to Isabel; and this time, he offers a way out. Much has been written on why Isabel refuses. I think this ending is inevitable: one has only to imagine Isabel accepting Caspar Goodwood’s proposal to realise how unsatisfactory an ending this would have been. Isabel has to refuse because, despite all that has happened, she has still her pride, and her self-respect. In The Lady From the Sea, a play written by Ibsen some four years after the publication of this novel, the title character, Ellida Wangel, had chosen well: her husband is a decent and kindly man; but given that the choice had not been entirely free, Ellida finds herself questioning its validity. Now, it is unlikely that Ibsen would have read James’ novel, but, whether by design or by accident, Ibsen had presented in Ellida Wangel a corollary of Isabel Archer: where Ellida questions even a correct choice because it had not been free, Isabel accepts an incorrect choice because it was: wrong though that choice was, in every respect, it was made in absolute freedom, and Isabel known that she is honour-bound, to herself if no-one else, to accept the consequences of what she had chosen so freely.

And neither is she choosing, I think, to remain a victim: armed now with knowledge she had previously not possessed, she is now capable of resuming the struggle with Gilbert Osmond, this time on equal terms. And I do not think it is merely wishful thinking on my part that she will emerge triumphant – that she will vanquish Gilbert Osmond as surely as she had vanquished Madame Merle. The real struggle is still to come: we are only at the beginning.

“‘Twere best not know myself”: Some new thoughts on Macbeth

I remember hearing Orson Welles saying in an interview once that, having written Hamlet, Shakespeare realised how difficult it was to write a tragedy with an intelligent person as protagonist; and, thereafter, his tragic protagonists – Othello, Lear, Macbeth, Antony, Cleopatra, Coriolanus – were all fools.

It’s an attractive idea. The journey undertaken by a Shakespearean tragic protagonist is, typically, a journey towards greater self-understanding, towards a higher level of self-awareness; and, for such a journey to be possible, the protagonist must display at the start some level at least of self-unawareness. And it is difficult convincing the audience, or the reader, that a character who starts with some level of self-unawareness can also be intelligent. To get around this problem in Hamlet, Shakespeare made his tragic prince a character of almost infinite complexity. His intelligence at the start of the play is apparent despite his failure fully to understand himself: it is apparent by his awareness of the fact. Hamlet is even to himself an enigma. And he remains so to the end: his progress through the course of the play is not towards finding an answer to all the questions that had so mystified him, but towards a state where he can be content to live with those questions remaining unanswered.

Going by Welles’ conjecture, one can understand why Shakespeare never tried anything like that again. We may sometimes be guilty of thinking that one of the attributes of genius is effortlessness – that a Shakespeare, a Rembrandt, or a Mozart, needed simply to turn up at work in the morning to knock off a masterpiece or two. I’m sure it wasn’t so: Hamlet especially seems to me to bear the mark of a tremendous effort, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, after having finished the damn thing – not once, but twice – Shakespeare had said to himself “That’s the last time I try something like that!”

But I’d guess also (and I’m only guessing, for who knows how a mind such as Shakespeare’s worked) that genius would be drawn to new challenges – that they just would not be able to help themselves. And one of the challenges Shakespeare was drawn to, I think, was to depict a tragic protagonist who is self-aware from the very beginning, who knows exactly what he is doing and where his actions will lead him. And such a protagonist, I think, is Macbeth. Here, I depart somewhat from Welles’ theory: Macbeth is no fool. At times, indeed, I think he is the most intelligent character Shakespeare ever created.

For, uniquely amongst Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists, Macbeth knows precisely what he is doing. He knows precisely what the significance is of his actions, and what they will cost him. And the peculiar terror that play invokes comes from his inability, even with this knowledge, to do otherwise. In the first two acts of the play, both he and his wife present two different and contradictory fronts: she is the one determined to commit the murder, but incapable of doing the deed herself; he, on the other hand, is the one who knows the true significance of what he is about to do, and shirks at it, but is, nonetheless, able to do the deed.

What he fears is not eternal hellfire: “We’d jump the life to come,” he says. What he fears is his earthly punishment:

But in these cases
We still have judgment here
(I,vii)

It is not that he fears being caught and executed: should that happen, Macbeth, that bravest of soldiers, would have faced execution with the same courage and equanimity as the previous Earl of Cawdor had done.No, what he fears is more subtle:

that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice
Commends the ingredients of our poison’d chalice
To our own lips.
(I,vii)

The blood he is about to shed will return to plague him; the poison he is about to administer will, in turn, poison him. Why fear hell in the life to come when hell can be equally potent in the here-and-now, upon this bank and shoal of time?

At the very start of the play, we had heard that Macbeth, the fearless warrior, had faced a traitor in battle and had “unseam’d him from the nave to the chaps”. This is not a squeamish man, not a man feared of bloodshed. It is not the physical act of killing Duncan that so terrifies him. What terrifies him is his knowledge of what he will then have to live with. Lady Macbeth does not have the imagination to foresee this: she thinks that “a little water will clear us of this deed”. So when the bloody instructions do come to plague the inventor, her unprepared mind cannot take it: it collapses under the weight.

But Macbeth knows what he must do to live with this:

Had I but died an hour before this chance,
I had lived a blessed time; for, from this instant,
There ‘s nothing serious in mortality:
All is but toys
(II,iii)

Had he but died an hour earlier, he would indeed have lived a blessed time: he knows that to be all too true. But from now onwards, he has to live as if there were nothing serious in all mortality, that all is but toys; he has to live as if life itself didn’t matter, that it all “signifies nothing”.

Macbeth is aware at every step of what he is doing. And he is aware even of his awareness, and wishes he knew and understood less:

To know my deed, ’twere best not know myself.
(II,ii)

But he does know himself, and there, it seems to me, is his tragedy.

Shakespeare continued to try out new things in his subsequent plays. In his next tragedy, Cleopatra is a creature of “infinite variety”, and she does not so much progress from one state to another as allow what is already inside her, what is best in her, to come to the fore at the end; and Antony’s best self-awareness is the knowledge that he never did understand himself, even when he thought he did. And in his final tragedy, we have that brute unthinking hunk Coriolanus, incapable of self-awareness, or of any progress towards it.

But of all Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, I think it is Macbeth and Lady Macbeth whose journey through the course of the play fills me with the greatest terror. Lady Macbeth simply had not foreseen the damnation of her soul even while she was here upon this bank and shoal of time; while Macbeth can see all too clearly each step of the way, and yet is unable to act otherwise.

Ceci n’est pas une rant

This is not a rant. Really, it isn’t. One can get rant-fatigue as well as one can any other kind of fatigue. And when, within just twenty-four hours, I find at least three things I would like to rant about, fatigue well and truly sets in. So I would like to make it clear that, despite the label I have attached to this post, this is not a rant.

MagrittePipe

“The Treachery of Images” by rene Magritte, cortesy of LA County Museum of Art

Yesterday morning, I woke to the news that the Digital Cinema Media has blocked the showing in cinemas of a 60 second advert for a Christian website, made by the Church of England and featuring various people reciting the Lord’s Prayer. The very idea of banning anything does, I admit, spark in me a sort of Pavlovian reaction, but actually, considered calmly once the initial outrage has passed, there are good reasons not to show this in cinemas. There are, after all, many religious groups, or, if you prefer, quasi-religious groups, who are extreme, and whose stance on various matters, to put it delicately, may well put a bit of a damper on a night out at the cinema. Would we really want to see a message from the Westboro Baptist Church when all we want is a pleasant evening out? I am not, of course, suggesting that the Westboro Baptist Church is in any way comparable to the Church of England, whose very inoffensiveness seems to border on the offensive. But allowing one religious message to pass while blocking others can, I can see, lead to so various legal issues, that it’s wise, if at all possible, to avoid. It’s the Pandora’s Box Argument: once you allow something out of the box – no matter how inoffensive, or even laudable – who knows what may follow. I can sympathise with this: if the Digital Cinema Media have a policy in place not to show any advert of a religious or political nature, then, not only are they within their rights to do so, it’s a policy that makes perfect sense, however unfair it may be to the eminently inoffensive advert that has fallen foul of it. But, from the reports I have read on this, this is not what the Digital Cinema Media is saying in its statement: its statement speaks of not “causing offence”. And this does trouble me. If a sixty second film of people reciting the Lord’s Prayer is pulled for fear of “causing offence”, we really are in a pretty bad state.

Let us, however, subscribe to the Christian virtue of charity, and assume that Digital Cinema Media’s statement was merely badly worded – that it is the phrasing rather than the intent that is at fault. I can live with that.

(My atheist friends, incidentally, tell me that the Christian faith, like all other faiths, is simply made-up fantasy anyway, so what does it matter? Indeed! After all, we wouldn’t want to see sixty second of some made-up fantasy while we’re waiting for the latest Star Wars film to start, would we?)

Well, that was the first point that made me want to have a bit of a rant. The second is this tweet by eminent author Joyce Carol Oates, in which she muses whether a group that systematically rapes women and children, chops people’s heads off, burns people alive, pushes gay people from tops of high buildings, and the like, could have anything about them that is “celebratory & joyous”. Maybe, Ms Oates, maybe. Who knows?

The third thing that made me want to rant is this news story that appeared in the Washington Post, about the University of Ottowa banning yoga classes because … well, because oppression, cultural genocide, or something. Heaven only knows. It’s our old friend “cultural appropriation”, I believe. I know that in a democratic society one should engage in argument and debate with those with whom one disagrees, but much of the time I can’t really feel arsed. And in any case, I’ve had a good rant about cultural appropriation only quite recently, and I really wouldn’t want to bore my readers.

So there it is. Three things that make me feel there’s a good rant coming on, but in each case, I find I can’t really be arsed.

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