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”

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Literal rather than literary

chevalier

Three Arthurian Romances:
poems from Medieval France

Translated with an introduction and notes by Ross G Arthur
Everyman 1996

The three poems offered in translation here are Caradoc, followed by The Knight with the Sword and The Perilous Graveyard. Dating from around the first half of the thirteenth century, the language of the original poems doesn’t come across well in this English prose translation, as evidenced by clunky passages such as this one, chosen at random from Caradoc [line 10090 ff]:

This is the vow which the King made. He rose quickly and set out on his voyage at once. I tell you that he crossed the sea with a sorrowful heart, so anxious about Caradoc that his body and soul grew weak.

At least with this version, literal rather than literary, the lack of fluency may be a mark of honesty: no attempt to impose a mock High Medieval language as a Victorian or Edwardian rendering might have been tempted to offer.

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Magic, literature and landscapes

An old photograph of Dunluce Castle, Country Antrim, Northern Ireland: the ruins are a possible model for Cair Paravel in C S Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia

What is it about literary landscapes that makes some of us want to be there? And when the places are fictional how can we still put ourselves in those spaces?

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Poison pen

The Sargasso Sea, from a chart by O Krummel (1891)

Jean Rhys: Wide Sargasso Sea
Edited by Hilary Jenkins
Penguin Books 2001 (1966)

“Great mistake to go by looks, one way or another.”
— Aunt Cora to Antoinette, Part One Wide Sargasso Sea

As a study in disintegration Wide Sargasso Sea is relentless. The main protagonist is forced to watch her mother gradually fall apart, and then she herself follows a similar journey. In fact it’s hard to name a single character who doesn’t follow a downward spiral. There have been many analyses of this mid 20th-century novel that distinguish it as feminist, post-colonialist and postmodern, and describe it as a prequel or an example of ‘writing back’ or rewriting (it overlaps the chronology of its literary inspiration). Many make reference to ‘the madwoman in the attic’, thus bringing the most marginalised figure in Jane Eyre stage centre and turning Wide Sargasso Sea a reconfiguring of Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel. No doubt all these things are true, but anything I add to these observations would be superfluous and, anyway, beyond my capabilities.

So I shall instead focus on just three points — madness, fire and poison — and put down my thoughts on how they inexorably lead to the disintegration of the significant actors in this tragedy.

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A heavy responsibility well acquitted

Diana-Wynne-Jones

Diana Wynne Jones
Reflections: On the Magic of Writing
Foreword by Neil Gaiman

Greenwillow Books 2012

Where to start? Diana Wynne Jones was a very individual and distinctive voice within British fantasy writing, highly regarded and rightly so, though that recognition was perhaps long coming: for example, though I was aware of the name I only first read her work in 2004, on a strong recommendation, beginning with The Merlin Conspiracy. However, from then on I was hooked. She had a growing loyal following from the mid-seventies onwards, but perhaps the fillip to her popularity came with an audience keen for more fiction along the lines of the Harry Potter books, aided by the success of the Japanese animated film of her Howl’s Moving Castle. Sadly, within a relatively little time she discovered she had cancer, dying just two years later in 2011.

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A slow smouldering

Old Place, Linfield, Sussex, one possible model for Poynton
(credit: http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/4639885)

Henry James: The Spoils of Poynton
Edited with an introduction by David Lodge, notes by Patricia Crick
Penguin Classics 1987 (1897)

This is an extraordinarily intense novella: intense in its use of language and intense in its unremitting focus on just two or three characters. First and foremost in the cast list is Fleda Vetch, a young woman whose superior quick-wittedness and taste are balanced by her apparent plainness and moral rectitude; next is the manipulative Mrs Adela Gereth, a widow to whom the unmarried Fleda becomes a companion. Owen Gereth, Mrs Gereth’s son, has lately inherited Poynton Place, thereby becoming a most eligible if rather vapid bachelor. Further down the cast list come Mona Brigstock, a philistine but strong-minded young woman, as manipulative as Mrs Gereth, and her mother Mrs Brigstock. Fleda’s sister Maggie and a scant handful of other individuals have even more minor parts, either walk-on/walk-off or completely offstage.

I use the phrase cast list intentionally: James apparently used his failed attempt at writing for the stage to better effect here. We have set ‘scenes’, played out on a limited number of stage sets; and — in the manner of Ibsen, for instance — all the attention is placed on the psychological drama. The main crises of the narrative, and the final climactic incident, essentially take place ‘offstage’; foregrounded are the ever-evolving to-and-fro of relationships and interactions.

And what are these relationships and interactions? Essentially they’re founded on the fact that Mrs Gereth’s impressionable son Owen has fallen for the pretty but rather vulgar Mona, who it soon becomes clear will have no intrinsic appreciation for the antique treasures that the elder Gereths have accumulated over a lifetime at Poynton. Under the terms of her late husband’s will Mrs Gereth will be forever separated from both the house and its possessions unless she can persuade Owen to fall for a more suitable young woman, one with taste and sensitivity, one who can cajole Owen into letting his mother continue in residence; in short, one Fleda Vetch.

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