Posts Tagged ‘Dickens’

Penny-in-the-slot criticisms

TRIGGER ALERT: This post contains some intemperate views, and expresses no small degree of irritation on my part regarding various comments I have seen online over the years. If such things trigger you, then I would advise giving this one a miss.

There is a kind of criticism that I have heard referred to as “penny-in-the-slot criticisms”. Which means that these criticisms are automatic reactions, instinctive and unthinking – reflexive rather than reflective.

When it comes to literature, and to books in general, there is a set of criticisms that, I think, could come under this category. Perhaps the worst thing about these criticisms is that they are immutable: no matter how vehemently you may argue against them, you won’t change anyone’s mind, because your argument will not be engaged with. Not that your argument was necessarily right: one is – or, at least I am – grateful when one’s argument is shown to be flawed, and one is forced either to refine one’s ideas, or to rethink them, or even to withdraw them altogether. But no, in an environment in which even to questions someone’s opinion is viewed as an act of aggression, that kind of thing doesn’t happen. It’s not even a case of one’s argument not being countered: it’s simply not engaged with. But nonetheless, as sure as night follows day, that penny-in-the-slot criticism you had argued against will re-appear, as if you’d never said anything at all to counter it.

Here are a few such criticisms I’ve picked up over the years (in bold), along with brief arguments against them (in italics) that are regularly ignored.

“People don’t really enjoy reading difficult books: they only read books such as Ulysses to show off.”

If it were true that it is not possible to enjoy anything that is difficult, it’s hard to explain why so many are attracted to chess, say, or to difficult cryptic crossword puzzles.

And show off to whom? We do not live in a world where erudition is much valued. Reading something like Ulysses in order to “show off” seems like an awful lot of hard work for very little in return.

“People who write difficult books – again, like Ulysses – are just showing off how clever they are.”

Once again, showing off to whom? And why?

And if you don’t like “clever” writers, do you really prefer stupid ones?

“Male authors couldn’t/can’t create convincing female characters.”

Odd, isn’t it? Good writers of fiction can imagine themselves into the minds of all sorts of people different from themselves – children, old people, people from different walks of life, people from different social class, and all the rest of it. But the one barrier that is, seemingly, insurmountable is the barrier of gender. Not sure why: no-one has bothered explaining.

And in any case, how do you know that men writers cannot create women? Do all women think and feel in the same way? And are you privy to all their thoughts and feelings?

A good many of these penny-in-the-slot criticisms refer to Dickens. Some do lead to a bit of an exchange, but they never really get anywhere:

“Dickens really couldn’t create women.”

Miss Havisham, Betsey Trotwood, Sarah Gamp –

“Yes, but those are caricatures.”

But caricatures are not failed attempts at portraiture. You did not specify –

“You know what I meant. Dickens could not depict real women.”

Esther Summerson, Lady Dedlock, Harriet Beadle, Rosa Dartle, Lizzie Hexam…

“Dickens could only create caricatures.”

As said previously, a caricature is not a failed attempt at portraiture. It takes skill to create a memorable caricature. And as for Dickensian characters who are complex people and most definitely not caricatures, we have Steerforth, John Jarndyce, William Dorrit, Pip, Miss Wade …

“But Dickens’ heroines are awful”.

Some of Dickens’ romantic heroines, especially in his early novels, are certainly bland and colourless. But so are his romantic heroes. Nicholas Nickleby is as colourless as Madeleine Bray, the adult David Copperfield as colourless as Agnes Wickfield, Martin Chuzzlewit as colourless as – and so on. It’s not just his heroines. The convention that romantic heroes and heroines had both to be spotless created all sorts of problems for writers. Dickens later overcame this and created heroes and heroines who are genuinely interesting – Pip and Estella, Bella Wilfer, Louisa Gradgrind, etc.

Silence. No response. And then, soon after:

“Dickens couldn’t create female characters, and all his characters are merely caricatures anyway.”

And also, for good measure:

“Dickens was just soap opera of his day”.

Just for clarity, could you define what you mean by “soap opera”, and specify how it differs from other (and presumably superior) forms of drama?

No, of course they can’t. At least, they don’t. The whole point of these criticisms is that you don’t need to follow them up.

And then you get the killer one:

“Dickens is sentimental.”

Sentimentality is a difficult thing to define adequately. Yes, in many of his works – especially the early ones – he can be genuinely mawkish. But that is by no means the full story: there is also much in his novels that has real emotional depth and complexity. For instance …

And you put together a long, detailed catalogue of examples, but no-one is listening. They have demonstrated how superior their taste is to yours by proclaiming that they are above Dickens and you aren’t, and that’s the end of the matter. They may even add, for good measure:

“I don’t have to like something just because the critics say I must.”

The implication is that I am blinded by the authority of these “critics” (whoever these mustachio-twirling pantomime villains may be), but they, being more independent in their thought, aren’t. And you might as well stop there, unless you want to create a scene.

Dickens certainly gets more than his fair share of penny-in-the-slot criticisms, but other writers aren’t exempt either:

“The Brontës were the bodice-rippers of their day.”q

“Austen was the chick-lit of her day.”

You can write entire essays trying to refute these claims, safe in the knowledge that no-one will engage with anything you may have to say. Well, some might, I guess – but you know that the same comments will come up again, and from the same people.

And then, on Shakespeare, there is that old bugbear of mine:

“Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be seen, not read.”

How do you know this? Are you privy to what Shakespeare intended? And even if that is what Shakespeare had intended, why deny ourselves the experience of reading these plays when reading them can be so enriching?

Then there is that perennial one:

“I read to enjoy myself.”

My protestations that I, too, read to enjoy myself pass unnoticed.

“At the end of the day, it’s all just a matter of personal opinion.”

This is the point where you decide you’ve had enough of book boards, and create your own blog where you can let off steam to your heart’s content. As I have done here.

(If anyone has been triggered by any of this, please do bear in mind that I had placed a Trigger Warning at the start of this post, and I don’t think I can be held responsible for any distress or trauma caused.)

“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 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.

Some bleak thoughts on “Bleak House”

The barbarians are at the gates. They may well be inside already.

Yes, I know, this has been thought and said by just about every generation. People were thinking such things at least as far back as the classical age; indeed, it is from the classical age that this expression originates. But just because previous generations have also entertained this thought does not make the thought wrong: quite the contrary. The antiquity of this thought renders it respectable, and the frequency with which it has occurred across so great a span of time enhances the probability that it is, perhaps, true.

This thought, gloomy though it is, struck me quite forcefully this last Friday evening, when, ironically, I was enjoying a quite wonderful night out. I had gone to the Arts Centre in Hounslow to see a dramatisation of Dickens’ Bleak House, performed by a touring theatrical group called The Pantaloons, of whom I had not previously heard. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much. But what I saw was utterly joyous: I’d have been delighted to have seen a show as good as this even in London’s West End. A cast of only five actors brought to teeming life virtually the entire cast of Dickens’ vast novel: a few basic props to indicate character – a scarf for Mr Jarndyce, spectacles for Mr Tulkinghorn, and so on – a change of voice and diction, and of body language and facial expression – and, miraculously, in front of our very eyes, characters transform one into another at breathtaking pace. The innocent and naïve Ada Clare turns into the dignified and tragic Lady Dedlock; and then, the very next moment, into the glaring, small-minded and mean-spirited Judy Smallweed. The same actor convinces as the unworthy suitor Guppy one minute, and as the worthy suitor Allan Woodcourt the next. And so on. It would be invidious to single out any one of the five when all five were so spectacularly good.

It was, of course, a whistle-stop tour of this huge novel, and inevitably much of the material was thinned out (no Mr Skimpole, for example, or the Jellybys, or Chadband); but what surprised me was how much managed to survive. The whole evening fizzed with verve and wit and sparkle, and these mere five actors communicated the feel and the zest of a gloriously overcrowded Dickensian canvas, with not a single square inch of that canvas left untouched by the sheer fecundity of the man’s prodigious imagination. There was much audience interaction, as in pantomime, and a great many jokes reminding the audience that what they were seeing was indeed a modern production featuring modern actors, re-enacting a novel written some 160 years ago. The actor playing the odious blackmailer Smallweed particularly enjoyed himself with the audience, asking (in character) one member what he did for a living (I’m so glad I wasn’t asked that; “operational research analyst” wouldn’t have sounded right at all in the context!), and telling us all that we had all been “ripped off” for our theatre seats. I, too, I admit, played a small part in all this: before the show had started, the cast were personally greeting the audience as they were coming in, and speaking to them; and at one point, they asked if anyone had read the novel. As usual on these occasions, I tried to keep my head down, but as the actress playing Esther Summerson was looking straight at me at this point, and I had no option but to nod and say “yes”. Later in the show, they improvised some lines about not diverging too widely from the script, as “there is at least one person here who has read the book”. Well, I guess it was good to be part of the show, even in so small a way! (Just as well they hadn’t asked me if I have written a blog post about this book!)

The danger of this kind of thing is that the more serious aspects of the work could become drowned out by all the jokeyness, but that danger was well avoided here. It is one of the most marvellous thing about theatre that we, the audience, can be aware that what we are witnessing are but actors speaking their lines; that we may even be able to identify these actors as living in real life, outside the stage action; that we may admire the costume design, sets, and lighting; and yet, even while fully aware of the artifice of it all, we can find our heart-strings tugged at, and our minds entering the most rarefied realms of fancy and of imagination. So here, even as Dickens himself is wheeled on stage to be charged with engineering the absurd plot device of spontaneous combustion, we can find ourselves in awe of the spontaneous combustion itself, recognising it not merely as a theatrical plot device, but also as a metaphor hinting at realities too vaguely glimpsed to be explicitly stated. We recognise also the immense tragedy of Lady Dedlock, and the heart-rending, unmediated pathos of Little Jo, who, raging with fever, is “moved on” until he drops dead; we recognise the horror behind the grotesque – the terror underlying Miss Flite’s naming of the birds, the inadequacies of human laws indicating the inadequacy, should it exist, of a Higher Law. Through all the pantomime jokeyness and the sheer exuberant fun of it all, we are given a glimpse into the dark, elusive heart of this very great novel.

So why, despite a show that reminded me why I loved the novel so much, and which entertained me so royally all evening, was I visited with such gloomy thoughts of barbarians at the gates? The reason, I am sorry to say, is this: there were only twelve people in the audience. Yes, that’s right. Twelve. Including us. And it was hard not to imagine how dispiriting this must have been for the cast, giving so much to a virtually empty auditorium. Admittedly, if the small size of the audience bothered them, they didn’t show it: they gave a fully committed performance with a professionalism that, under the circumstances, bordered on the heroic. But it’s hard not to feel that something is not right. That something, indeed, is very, very wrong. After the show, as I waited for the bus back home from Hounslow town centre, I saw no shortage of people out that Friday night, in bars, in clubs – anywhere, indeed, but in the theatre; and the money they were spending was far, far more than what I had spent for my seat. The show itself, though by no means slight, made no great intellectual demand: it was joyous and exuberant throughout, and thoroughly entertaining. But the fact remained: twelve people – just twelve people. And it is hard to resist the conclusion that there is in our society an indifference bordering on hostility for anything perceived even remotely to be of cultural worth. We don’t need no educashun, and we certainly don’t need no kulcher either.

How all occasions do inform against our culture – against that which is of the greatest value. I have, for some years now, been chairman of a local music society, which has been going now for over sixty years. Each year, we organise nine concerts, mainly classical, bringing some wonderful musical talent right to our very doorsteps. Last month, we hosted pianist Jayson Gillham, who had been finalist in the Leeds International Piano Competition in 2012, and was last year was outright winner of Montreal International Music Competition. He has already performed with some of the most prestigious orchestras in the world, and in some of the most prestigious halls, and, given this background, one might have thought the good people of our locality would be fighting for tickets. We certainly did our best to publicise the concert – with mentions on various social media platforms, announcements on local radio, fliers, banners, and the like. And yet, we couldn’t even fill our modest church hall: to see this rising star of the world of classical music, only fifty or so turned up in a hall that could hold about eighty. Of course, that was a much larger audience than the one that turned up to see Bleak House, but I, as chairman, felt frankly embarrassed. Not, admittedly, that the small audience size seemed to bother Jayson Gillham any more than it had bothered the cast of Bleak House: he gave a superb recital, finishing with a quite electric performance of Chopin’s B minor sonata. But once again, I couldn’t help feeling that something isn’t right. One can bring a horse to water, as they say, but we were doing far more than that: we were bringing water to the horse. And still the horse seems reluctant to drink.

It’s the same story everywhere. Many similar music societies in the neighbourhood have already folded. There is absolutely no shortage of musical talent: merely a shortage of people prepared to appreciate it.

And no, I don’t buy the contention that ’twas ever thus. Our music club has been going for some sixty-five years now, and that would not have been possible if ’twas ever thus. That membership numbers and attendances are declining year on year is hardly, after all, a figment of my imagination. Neither is it a figment of my imagination that not so long ago, mainstream television channels would broadcast regularly, at peak viewing times, the London Symphony Orchestra playing classical music (Andre Previn’s Music Night); and that Andre Previn himself, then Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, could appear as guest on the hugely popular Morecambe and Wise Show without requiring any special introduction. Can anyone imagine the Principal Conductor of a major symphony orchestra even being invited on to a popular television show these days? It seems that what is referred to – usually sneeringly these days – as “high culture” is increasingly sidelined away from the mainstream, so that only those who have made the special effort to look out for it will ever find it.

I could go on with my jeremiad, citing further examples, but jeremiads, no matter how deeply felt, tend to get a bit boring: so let’s skip all that. But I am not prepared merely to sit back and let it all happen. I may not be able to turn back the tide, but I can have a damn good try at the very least! So, wherever you are, may I please encourage you to support your local arts events: once we lose these things, they’re gone for ever. And if you’re in the UK, may I recommend a look through The Pantaloons’ forthcoming shows: I’ll certainly be looking out for them in future. And finally, if you live anywhere within travelling distance of Egham, please do have a look at our list of concerts for the 2015-16 season, and do come along to a few of them. Tell you what – mention this blog to me at the concert, and I’ll get you a coffee during the interval. Now, I can’t say fairer than that!

“The Cricket on the Hearth” by Charles Dickens

An elderly, kindly man is married to a much younger woman. Then, out of nowhere, a stranger appears, and it seems that he is a figure from the young wife’s past, and that she is in love with him. The older husband is stricken by jealousy, and even considers killing the stranger. But then, having considered the situation, comes to feel that it is he who is in the wrong – that it was wrong for him to have married a woman so much younger than himself, and possibly, in the process, have thwarted her own desires and aspirations. So, although he still loves her – indeed, because he still loves her – he offers her freedom.

I could be describing a play by Ibsen here. Indeed, this is, more or less, the central dramatic action of The Lady From the Sea. But no – I am describing here one of the strands of The Cricket on the Hearth, the third of Dickens’ Christmas Books, a series that had started with A Christmas Carol. Dickens never did recapture the genius of that masterpiece: The Chimes, that followed the year after, was a dark and angry work – very powerful in its way, but lacking much sense of festive cheer, or any of the whimsy or exuberance we associate with Dickens at Christmas. Here, in The Cricket on the Hearth, he seemed to go the other way: the darkness is effectively banished, and we get nothing but the whimsy and the good cheer: even John Peerybingle’s jealousy dissipates almost as soon as it starts, and, unlike the Ibsen play where the possibility of the young wife leaving her husband was all too real, there is little danger of that here: it is all a misunderstanding here, and is wiped out quite painlessly. There is little danger, indeed, of anything: and there, perhaps, is the problem. The sense of joy at the end of A Christmas Carol was convincing because it was hard-earned; here, it is hardly earned at all. In A Christmas Carol, on the way to all that joy and rejoicing, we had been allowed to glimpse into the abyss: here, the abyss doesn’t even exist. There are very few shadows in this work, dark or otherwise: even the Scrooge-like figure, Tackleton, doesn’t seem that monstrous, and is easily accommodated into the general rejoicing at the end. Of course, this is a fairy tale, and a very whimsical fairy tale at that, but fairy tales, no matter how whimsical, need more than their fair share of darkness, and Dickens’ refusal to supply any – possibly as a reaction to the excessive darkness of The Chimes – results in a sort of flatness, a lack of those contours that mould figures and give them shape.

And yet, the themes were there, and, as A Christmas Carol demonstrates, neither whimsicality nor a fairy tale format need inhibit serious treatment of serious themes. But in his depiction of the Peerybingles, there doesn’t seem to be much awareness at all of the potential thematic richness: it’s not that I was expecting an Ibsenite dissection of marriage; but I was entitled to expect, I think, something not quite so superficial as this. Even the night where John Peerybingle wrestles with his conscience – a passage that really should have been the climactic point of the work – is dispatched in a quick couple of pages or so.

And then, there is the motif of the blind girl. The very motif of a young blind girl who imagines her world to be something grander than it actually is may appear sentimental to modern taste, but once again, there is potential here – as Chaplin demonstrated so triumphantly in City Lights. But Dickens makes surprisingly little of it. Even the scene where the blind girl is told how shabby everything really is around her does not make much of an impact. The problem is not that it is “stagey”, or “sentimental”, or “melodramatic”, or any of those other epithets that are regularly aimed at Dickens by his many detractors: it is, rather, that neither the staginess, nor the sentimentality, nor the melodrama, seems particularly well handled. It’s almost as if Dickens’ heart wasn’t in it. I frequently got the impression reading this that he was merely going through the motions; that, indeed, he was producing another Christmas Book for no better reason than that the public expected it of him. Perhaps.

And yet, The Cricket on the Hearth was immensely popular in Dickens’ own lifetime. Since I do not subscribe to the idea that public taste necessarily improves over time, I couldn’t help wondering whether I had approached this work in the wrong frame of mind – whether I had not been ideally responsive to this because I had failed to make the leap of the imagination that any fiction requires from the reader. That, too, is possible.

The next in the Christmas Books series was The Battle of Life – a real Christmas turkey that I’d prefer not to re-read: there’s nothing quite so depressing as a favourite writer writing badly – in this case, very badly. The year after that he gave it a rest, but then returned the next year with The Haunted Man, a splendid piece that was excessively florid even by the standards of Dickensian prose, and which was, like The Chimes, almost unrelievedly dark. It seems that the man who had given us Christmas at Dingley Dell could now see little in the world worth celebrating, or rejoicing over.

Well, we needn’t repine: The Cricket on the Hearth may be a bit of a flop, and The Battle of Life even worse; but The Chimes and The Haunted Man, dark though they both are, are wonderful works, and A Christmas Carol is a work beyond compare – a work one can return to year after year without ever feeling it has become stale. And anyone who says otherwise gets a punch on the nose from me – season of goodwill or no!

“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 (one 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 than 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 intricate as this. No wonder it isn’t better liked!


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?

A Happy New Year … I think …

Despite wishing everyone I know, and many I don’t, a Happy New Year, I always find this a rather miserable time. There is no particular reason why this should be so:  in theory, no day in the calendar is privileged over any other; but since we find it convenient to parcel out time in discrete entities rather than see it as a continuous flow, and since the traditions of the Western world have determined that January 1st should mark the beginning of each of these discrete entities, it is inevitable that, around this time, our minds are haunted, more perhaps than usual, by thoughts of the passage of time. And thoughts of the passage of time are rarely conducive to good cheer.

We try our best to disguise this. We party; we drink ourselves sometimes even to oblivion (Scottish readers will know what I mean); we tell ourselves with a tiresome repetitiveness that we are looking forward to a better and brighter tomorrow; and we join hands with each other to spread good cheer, and swear fellowship with all of humanity. But I can’t help thinking that we have picked the wrong Robert Burns poem for this occasion: for it is “To a Mouse” rather than “Auld Lang Syne” that comes to mind at this time of year … well, to my mind at least:

Still, thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e’e,
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!

Perhaps one needs a close acquaintance with Scottish patterns of speech to feel the full force of that seemingly inarticulate “Och!” – so perfectly placed in the verse – but the meaning is fairly clear: backward cast your eye, and it lights only upon on prospects drear; and forwards, we can but guess and fear. (How strange, incidentally, that Burns should associate prospects with the past rather than with the future!) This is all a far cry from Auld Lang Syne (that’s just “Auld Lang Syne”, and not “for the sake of Auld Lang Syne”, as so many ignorant sassenachs will have it!); and no, there’s not much cheer in any of this. And, as we hear the usual tributes to those who have passed away over the previous twelve months – and think, inevitably, of our own friends and acquaintances in these ranks – we can but wonder how this same list will read in twelve months’ time. Not all the spectacular firework displays in the world can disguise this as a happy and celebratory time, and attempts to do so seem but a forced jollity. And there’s nothing quite like forced jollity to make one feel even more depressed than one had previously been.

Perhaps it is merely my nature that is excessively saturnine. But I doubt it: I know many who feel similarly gloomy about Christmas, and my saturnine nature does not extend quite that far. Possibly the New Year’s gloom is but a natural reaction, and, some may say, a corrective, to the excessive merrymaking of Christmas. Perhaps. Some may say that this New Year’s gloom is but a sign of advancing years; but even in my youth, I do not think I have attended a single New Year’s Party where I have not felt my jollity to be counterfeit. And, as Samuel Johnson reminds us in Rasselas:

Every man … may, by examining his own mind, guess what passes in the minds of others: when you feel that your own gaiety is counterfeit, it may justly lead you to suspect that of your companions not to be sincere.

If Johnson is indeed correct in this, then it seems there is an awful lot of counterfeiting going on around this time of the year.

There’s little cheer on this matter in literature: I cannot, off the top of my head, think of a single happy depiction of the New Year. Even when Dickens, that most genial of authors, turned his attention from Christmas to New Year in The Chimes, he produced a work so unremitting in its gloom that he never repeated that experiment again in any of his subsequent Christmas Books. What about films then? Not much cheer here either, I’m afraid: the two depictions of the New Year that come immediately to mind are far from uplifting. One is Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, in which the Tramp, ridiculous as always, has invited for New Year a beautiful lady and her friends to his ramshackle home, not realising that they wouldn’t even consider forgoing the bright lights of a New Year party for his homely fare; and as they enjoy the pleasures of the party, the ridiculous little man is left alone, nursing his prospects drear. And the other instance that comes to mind is in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, in which Joe Gillis (played by William Holden), desperate to break away from the curiously unreal world he has found himself in through his affair with the self-deluding and mentally unstable Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), attempts to re-enter the world of “normality”: he goes to a New Year’s party, with ordinary, normal people enjoying themselves in ordinary, normal ways. But the unreal world he has entered draws him back: the lover he thought he had left has tried to slash her wrists, and this he cannot walk away from. Normality is for others, not for him.

Perhaps I have just been reading the wrong books, and watching the wrong films. Well, I’ll break a long-standing rule and make, here and now, a New Year’s resolution: I shall, henceforth, be as happy and as cheerful and as optimistic as I possibly can. After all, there’s so many things that can go wrong with our lives, and with the world in general, that once one starts being pessimistic there’s no end to it. So one might as well be happy. Why not? After all, it’s less than twelve months now to Christmas!

A Happy New Year, everyone!