More or less imperfect

Pencil sketch by Charlotte Brontë (right), which recent research reveals is a self-portrait, alongside George Richmond’s more famous portrait

Inverted Commas 6: Imperfect characters

Though I describe imperfect characters (every character in this book will be found to be more or less imperfect, my pen refusing to draw anything in the model line) I have not undertaken to handle degraded or utterly infamous ones.

Charlotte Brontë introduces her authorial voice into Shirley (1849) a few times, including here in Chapter V. Now, Jane Austen intrudes herself rarely in her novels and that usually very briefly towards the end, in the last chapter or so. Charlotte, who (as discussed here) didn’t anyway have a high opinion of Austen, had fewer compunctions and here justifies her inclusion of flawed humans.

Child torturers, slave masters and drivers, I consign to the hands of jailers; the novelist may be excused from sullying his page with the record of their deals.

So it is that her leading actors in this novel (set around 1812 when Jane was in reality revising First Impressions as Pride and Prejudice) allude to the Napoleonic wars, politics and social unrest, unlike Miss Bennet or Lady de Burgh, Mr Darcy or Mr Bingham (Austen’s novel had first been drafted a score of years before).

And yet, imperfect though some Austen characters may be, Jane doesn’t show potential protagonists in quite so unflattering a light as Charlotte does. Robert Moore for example declares that the poor “ought to have no sympathies; it is their duty to be narrow. Poverty is necessarily selfish, contracted, grovelling, anxious…” Though Caroline Helstone appears to be more ‘in the model line’ and the epitome of the kind, generous and intelligent young woman that one may admire, she is revealed as brittle, doubting; while other females — such as Robert’s sister Hortense — are more abrasive.

And yet we thrive on imperfect characters in fiction, do we not? Without their imperfections how can they progress to happy or tragic ends, how can they grow or become corrupted, how may they achieve great things or alternatively fail to realise their potential? What is a narrative about a perfect human being but a parable or allegory, a homily to pointedly indicate our weak wills and unspiritual natures?

However, despite the author declaring that she will not ‘handle degraded or utterly infamous’ personages in Shirley we will find that there are villains sufficient to create the external tensions that drive the plot forward, unlike the difficult conversations and misunderstandings that mostly animated Austen’s novels.

Maybe the charge of imperfection that Charlotte laid at the door of her characters was a reflection of her view of herself: a probable self-portrait underlines the low opinion she had of her appearance when we compare it to the more idealised chalk drawing by George Richmond in 1850, completed five years before the author’s death.

Bly spirits

The figure on the tower at Bly, Essex: a contemporary illustration to The Turn of the Screw

Henry James: The Turn of the Screw (1898)
in Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw
Penguin English Library 2012

Here is the ideal kind of story to read as autumn sets in, the nights get longer and our wilder imaginations take hold. Or perhaps not, if we are of a nervous disposition or cursed with an overactive imagination.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I began this. A ghost story, certainly, set in an old country house, mysterious goings-on, and two children under the supervision of a governess with issues of her own. What would I encounter? Poltergeists? Subterfuge? A storm in a teacup? None of these, it turns out, and to some extent I’m as mystified as before though, I have to admit, in different ways.

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Sense and sensitivity

Book title image generated by https://t2i.cvalenzuelab.com/

Gail Honeyman: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
HarperCollinsPublishers 2018 (2017)

Eleanor is a mass of contradictions: a classics graduate familiar with dead languages but having problems understanding metaphors; sensitive and yet not always displaying ‘common sense’; a creature of habit yet one who can surprise herself by occasionally straying beyond her comfort zone; seemingly happy with her own company but unprepared when she has to admit to herself to being profoundly lonely. Despite her mantra of being ‘completely fine’ she most decidedly is not.

This is a very percipient portrait of a vulnerable young woman living alone in Glasgow, how she goes through crises and what she puts herself through in order to survive. (You know what must follow in these pages when the very first section is headed ‘Good Days’.) It’s also a very funny book for all that it treats with abuse, near-death experiences, anxiety and depression: Eleanor has acquaintances who support and advise her, employers and work colleagues who turn out to be sympathetic and a therapist who understands her, and it’s her reactions to them and the everyday situations she meets that provide the leavening in what could otherwise be a very dark read.

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Dido Twite and HMS Thrush

1807 aquatint by Robert Dodd of a Brig-Sloop (British Museum)

An addendum — sorry! — to discussion of The Cuckoo Tree

Dido Twite has been sailing with HMS Thrush for a goodly period of time. At least, so we may gather from a close reading of Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, particularly Night Birds on Nantucket, The Stolen Lake, Limbo Lodge (also known as Dangerous Games) and The Cuckoo Tree.

It’s very likely that, after 18 months on board a whaler — during which time she has sailed from the North Sea, through the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans north to the Arctic Circle, and then back around the tip of South America into the North Atlantic — she has subsequently circumnavigated the globe for another fifteen months on board the Thrush.

What do we know about this naval vessel, from actual history and from fiction?

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“The dark side of human nature”

Das Eismeer (1823-4) by Caspar David Friedrich

Mary Shelley: Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus
The 1818 text edited with introduction and notes by Marilyn Butler 1993
Oxford World’s Classics 1998

“[A] tale so strange, that I should fear you would not credit it, were there not something in truth which, however wonderful, forces conviction. The story is too connected to be a dream, and I have no motive for falsehood.” — Victor Frankenstein recounting the story so far, Volume III Chapter 6

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was first published on March 11th 1818,* and for two hundred years has never been out of print. Popular culture has led us to picture the Creature as portrayed by Boris Karloff (despite the name, an English actor called William Henry Pratt) in numerous films and parodies; but readers new to the novel might be surprised to first find themselves in the Arctic wastes, as revealed in a series of letters from Robert Walton to his sister Mrs Margaret Saville. He writes from St Petersburgh (sic), then Archangel (Arkhangelsk), and then from somewhere in the polar regions.

As we quickly discover, though, this is merely a framing device; the author then introduces us to Victor Frankenstein marooned on an ice floe. We no sooner get to what appears to be the meat of the story when we realise that Victor’s narrative is also a framing device, with the Creature’s story at the heart of it. And at the heart of the Creature’s story we read about a penniless French family, the De Laceys. Frankenstein is, structurally, nothing less than Russian matryoshka dolls, one nesting inside the other. Once we grasp this we can begin to rid ourselves of the popular modern stereotypes and start to come to grips with Shelley’s original, in its first incarnation as it were.

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Modest and accomplished

The Cobb, Lyme Regis 1892

Jane Austen: Persuasion
Introduction and notes by Elaine Jordan 2000
Wordsworth Classics 2007 (1993)

William Walter Elliot of his cousin Anne, after she modestly claimed minimal understanding of Italian: “one who is too modest for the world in general to be aware of half her accomplishments, and too highly accomplished for modesty to be natural in any other woman.” — Persuasion: Volume II Chapter 8

Persuasion was the last completed novel by Austen, published posthumously in December 1817 in tandem with Northanger Abbey, one of her earliest completed novels. It’s likely that neither of these novels appeared with the titles Austen gave them (Northanger Abbey was provisionally called Catherine, and in an earlier draft Susan) but I wonder how the public would have viewed Persuasion if it had in fact been published as The Elliots, a handle which Austen family tradition asserted was her original choice of working title.

You might assume then that this is a story of a family from the landed gentry when in fact our focus is almost entirely on just one member of that family, Anne Elliot. Unusually for Austen novels there is a substantial backstory, which is that eight years before Anne was ‘persuaded’ to refuse young Captain Wentworth’s offer of marriage on the grounds that he had few prospects ahead of him. She has since bitterly regretted her decision but, in common with many of women of her supposedly advanced age (she is 27 when this story opens), it’s more than just due the fear that she will never get another offer: it’s that she continues to have feelings for Frederick. On top of that, her father’s poor management of the Somerset estate has necessitated the letting out of the property so that the family can live in more straitened circumstances in Bath.

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Jane and Charlotte

The doorway at High Sunderland Hall, Halifax in 1913, known to the Brontës (image public domain)

Juliet Gardiner’s illustrated biography The World Within: the Brontës at Haworth (Collins & Brown 1992) is a kind of companion to Penelope Hughes-Hallett’s ‘My Dear Cassandra’: Illustrated Letters of Jane Austen (1990) issued by the same publishers a year or two before. The two titles to me recall Charlotte’s reported antipathy to Austen.  It’s clear that Charlotte may have overreacted to gauche comments on the passion in her novels, but it’s nevertheless possible to identify in some of Charlotte’s more considered (if still lukewarm) assessments a sneaking admiration for her older contemporary, who died when Charlotte was only one year old.

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Irony and Ingenuousness

Blaise Castle
Blaise Castle folly, Henbury, Bristol

Jane Austen
Northanger Abbey, Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon
Oxford World’s Classics 2008

“Blaize Castle!” cried Catherine; “what is that?”
“The finest place in England – worth going fifty miles at any time to see.”
“What, is it really a castle, an old castle?”
“The oldest in the kingdom.”
“But is it like what one reads of?”
“Exactly – the very same.”
“But now really – are there towers and long galleries?”
“By dozens.”

The irony of this dialogue between the imaginative young ingénue Catherine and her would-be suitor, the boorish John Thorpe, is that Blaise Castle is neither the oldest castle in the kingdom (it was only built in 1766) nor are there dozens of towers and galleries (the three-cornered folly has only three towers and two floors). To these two themes of irony and ingenuousness are added the twin essences of parody and pastiche to furnish the reader of this Austen novel with gothic contrasts and dualities galore.

Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto: a Gothic story is regarded as the original ‘gothick’ horror tale; first published in 1764, it now seems rather tame and rambling with its over-the-top supernatural happenings (particularly the appearance of a giant flying helmet), its convoluted über-melodramatic plot and its unengaging characters. But it set off a trend for similar novels featuring creepy castles, hidden chambers, darkened passages, villainous father figures, fainting heroines and secrets waiting to be revealed; in fact, precisely the kind of novels that were eventually to be lovingly sent up by Northanger Abbey. Continue reading “Irony and Ingenuousness”

Austen mania

New specimen £10 banknote featuring Jane Austen © Bank of England 2017

Due to come into circulation on 14th September 2017, the Bank of England’s new ten-pound note features, as everybody may know by now, Jane Austen. Previewed back in July 2013 in a Bank of England video, the design was again unveiled to great fanfare two hundred years to the day after the death of the novelist, on 18th July 1817. The brouhaha surrounding the concept of course proves the adage that you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

Early version of the design of the £10.00 banknote © Bank of England

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Dido and the Brontës

Pacific Island recruiting ship ‘Para’, c 1880
State Library of Queensland, negative number 65320 (credit: http://www.globaleducation.edu.au/case-studies/australian-pacific-islanders.html)

Are you wondering what’s happened to Dido Twite, the engaging young heroine of Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles? Yes? Then read on. No? Still, do keep reading, because if you’re a fan of the Brontës you may find the following note of interest!

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Regency murders

ratcliffe_poster

P D James and T A Critchley
The Maul and the Pear Tree:
the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, 1811

Faber & Faber 2010

I deliberately began reading The Maul and the Pear Tree exactly two hundred years to the day that the horrific killing spree known as the Ratcliffe Highway murders began, on December 7th 1811. Four innocent people, including a babe in arms, were butchered in London’s East End that first night, stretching the rudimentary resources of the parish, the local magistrates and the Thames police based in Wapping. It inaugurated a period of terror, suspicion and xenophobia in St George’s and the neighbouring parishes and, through the medium of the press, a few weeks of morbid fascination in the public at large. It also led to questions in Parliament on the adequacy of current policing by neighbourhood watchmen, with a scornful analysis by the playwright Sheridan on the floor of the House of Commons.

Panic really set in when, twelve days later, a second attack resulting in three more horrific murders took place, also around the witching hour of midnight.

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Of blunders and pardons

The manor house at Steventon (where Jane’s father was rector) — perhaps a model for Hartfield.

Following a review I’ve discussed the who, when and where of Jane Austen’s Emma, and then intimated I’d get onto the what. In this post I plan to briefly discuss the novel’s structure before bringing out some themes, chiefly by means of what the characters say. Needless to add, this is not meant to be an exhaustive or detailed analysis, merely a sketch of what has struck me about this superbly crafted novel.

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Of Highbury, in Surrey

I promised some musings on the subject of Jane Austen’s Emma, based on notes taken while reading it for the first time, and so here is my offering … while it is still fresh in my mind. As regular readers will be familiar from previous musings on novels that have caught my fancy, I’ve mainly based my thoughts on the four ‘W’s — who, what, when and where.

Here comes the customary warning of spoilers.

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The imaginist

Edmund Blair Leighton: The Piano Lesson

Jane Austen: Emma
Edited by James Kinsley and David Lodge
World’s Classics 1980 (1971)

How much more must an imaginist, like herself, be on fire with speculation and foresight! — Emma, Volume III Chapter 3

Emma thoroughly deserves its plaudits as an epitome of the author’s skills. Its status as Austen’s longest novel and the main product of her mature years ensures that any assessment I give is bound to be brief and inconsequential; but I’d be remiss if I didn’t add my own two-penn’orth of praise to the general applause.

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Austen’s powers

Examples of Regency dress

Twenty-seventeen is the bicentenary of Jane Austen‘s death, with the climax of the celebrations arriving on the fateful day of July 18th. Austen lovers the world over will be adding their own appreciations — as I too will be doing, discoursing on Emma, the last of her books to be published in her own lifetime.

I’ve posted a number of reviews, discussions and oblique references to the author over the years. For those who may be interested in what this newbie admirer of Austen’s powers has to say I’ve appended a list with links and also included a brief description. Feel free to indulge yourselves — or pass by!

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