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Lady Audley’s Secret by M.E. Braddon

October 1, 2017 18 comments

Lady Audley’s Secret by M.E. Braddon (1862) French title: Le secret de Lady Audley.

The first time I heard from Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Sensation Novels was on Guy’s blog when he published his review of Lady Audley’s Secret. (See his review here: Part I & Part II)  I knew this would be my kind of book and I’m glad our book club picked it for our August read. (Yes, I’m late again with my billet.)

When the book opens, Lady Audley has been married to Sir Michael for a few months. She was a governess at a nearby house and Sir Michael fell in love with her. She’s a beautiful blonde with stunning ringlets and captivating blue eyes. She’s an enchantress who bewitches everyone around her and poor Sir Michael stood no chance against her charms. So, against all odds, at the sober age of fifty-five, Sir Michael Audley had fallen ill of the terrible fever called love. Sir Michael has a daughter, Alicia who is almost as old as his new wife. While Lady Audley delights in girlish activities, Alicia is more outdoorsy. The two women have nothing in common and Lady Audley’s arrival made Alicia lose her power over her father and the housekeeping. Needless to say, the two hate each other with fierce British cordiality.

Sir Michael has also a nephew, Robert Audley. Aged of twenty-seven, he’s an idle barrister in London. Alicia is in love with him but he doesn’t pay attention to many things around him.

Indolent, handsome, and indifferent, the young barrister took life as altogether too absurd a mistake for any one event in its foolish course to be for a moment considered seriously by a sensible man.

Fickle as he seems, Robert Audley is genuinely fond of his uncle and enjoys staying at Audley Court regularly.

In parallel to the new microcosm at Audley Court, ME Braddon introduces us to George Talboys. He’s on his way back from Australia where he took part to the Gold Rush and became rich. He left his young wife with their baby son back in England and he’s dying to go back to her and resume their family life now that he’s settled financially.

He’s just arrived in London when he stumbles upon his old classmate, Robert Audley. Alas, he quickly discovers that his wife just died and Robert accompanies him to see her father and go to her grave. George is devastated by grief and Robert takes care of him, inviting him to share his lodgings in London. The two men are great friends and Robert would like to cheer him up. He eventually takes him to Audley Court to meet his uncle’s new wife.

Several events in the story make the reader understand that Lady Audley hides something and that this something might be that she was George Talboys’s wife. She seems to make sure to never meet him and when he suddenly disappears from Audley Court’s grounds, Robert is instantly worried and fears the worst. He finds this disappearance very odd and turns into a detective to find out what happened to his dear friend.

Bocca Baciata by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1859)

Nothing in this story stands against the question “Is it plausible?” It is full of coincidences, chance meetings, trains that arrive just at the right time to push the plot forward, little clues scattered here and there. It explores the ideas of murder in cold blood, bigamy and greed. For once, the villain is a beautiful blonde, an evil spirit hidden by her beauty but revealed in her portrait.

No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have painted, hair by hair, those feathery masses of ringlets, with every glimmer of gold, and every shadow of pale brown. No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have so exaggerated every attribute of that delicate face as to give a lurid brightness to the blonde complexion, and a strange, sinister light to the deep blue eyes. No one but a pre-Raphaelite could have given to that pretty pouting mouth the hard and almost wicked look it had in the portrait.

Robert, first described as lazy and fickle becomes obsessed with finding George and protecting his uncle from his wife. For an idle fellow, he sure deploys a lot of energy investigating his friend’s disappearance. The way ME Braddon described his grief over the loss of his friend, I wondered if there wasn’t a little bromance under all this friendship. (But he seemed to have lost all taste for companionship, all sympathy with the pleasures and occupations of his class, since the disappearance of George Talboys.)

What makes the trip the most enjoyable is ME Braddon’s buoyant and bouncy style. She writes like a French writer paid by the page with lots of commas, strings of adjectives and long sentences.

Mr. Harcourt Talboys lived in a prim, square, red-brick mansion, within a mile of a little village called Grange Heath, in Dorsetshire. The prim, square, red-brick mansion stood in the center of prim, square grounds, scarcely large enough to be called a park, too large to be called anything else—so neither the house nor the grounds had any name, and the estate was simply designated Squire Talboys’.

She’s very cinematographic in her descriptions, a gift that transports the reader on the action’s premises. She doesn’t think that a straight line is the shortest way to arrive somewhere and takes us into the detours of her delightful paragraphs.

His pretty, gipsy-faced cousin might have been over head and ears in love with him; and she might have told him so, in some charming, roundabout, womanly fashion, a hundred times a day for all the three hundred and sixty-five days in the year; but unless she had waited for some privileged 29th of February, and walked straight up to him, saying, “Robert, please will you marry me?” I very much doubt if he would ever have discovered the state of her feelings.

She also uses French references, mostly to describes flaws in a character.

Robert Audley’s main flaw is his love for French novels. He’s so addicted to them that he always carries six of them when he travels and they’re his main source of entertainment in London. Braddon talks about them with the same disdain as Flaubert when he describes Emma Bovary’s readings. They seemed to be what we call in French romans de gare (railway station novels) or airport novels in English but I have trouble using the term airport novels for 19th century books as it sounds a tiny bit anachronic. I kept wondering what kind of infamous novels Robert was reading until ME Braddon mentioned Balzac and Dumas fils. (You have no sentimental nonsense, no silly infatuation, borrowed from Balzac or Dumas fils, to fear from me.) Ahem. Can’t say I classify them in railway station authors but who knows how these masterpieces were received in their time by the Victorian bourgeoisie. And of course, it’s ironic for ME Braddon to write this about Balzac and Dumas fils, given the kind of literature she wrote.

But Robert is not the only one whose character is marred by French influence. Lady Audley’s quarters are adorned by medallion miniatures of Louis the Great and Louis the Well-beloved, Louise de la Valliere, Athenais de Montespan, and Marie Jeanne Gomard de Vaubernier. In other words, she is surrounded by king Louis XIV and his lovers (Louise de la Vallière, Athenais de Montespan) and Louis XV, the libertine king and his mistress Madame du Barry (Marie Jeanne Gomard de Vaubernier) Basically, her role models are adulterer kings and their conniving mistresses. Please note that there is no reference to the pious Madame de Maintenon.

Like a lot of 19th century British writers, ME Braddon peppers her prose with French expressions. Some were accurate and some were more imaginative. I couldn’t figure out what she meant with bonne bouche in this sentence The two young men looked at the paintings on the walls first, leaving this unfinished portrait for a bonne boucheOut of context it could means gourmet, although the usual expression is fine bouche but I don’t see how this meaning fits in the sentence. I had the same trouble with mauvaise honte in the young man’s mauvaise honte alone had delayed the offer of his hand. I suppose that the young man was shy.

Of course I couldn’t help smiling at this reference to my beloved Molière: “What the devil am I doing in this galere?” he asked. This is a direct reference to the play, Les Fourberies de Scapin where a character keeps saying What the devil was he doing in this galley?

This mix of effective descriptions, irony, bombast and improbable twists and turns makes of Lady Audley’s Secret a highly enjoyable ride. It’s well-written fun and it must be taken as it is, with a good-humored dose of suspension of belief. That’s comfort literature, good Beach and Public Transport reading, which is my non-debasing way to call the romans de gare.

The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy

December 26, 2015 13 comments

The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy (1888) Not available in French. (Sorry)

The cinema was invented in Lyon by the Lumière brothers. But what made their fortune was actually photography. They were inventors who registered more than 170 patents and in 1881, they created the instantaneous photograph plaque called the Plaques Étiquettes-Bleues. Before this invention, people had to stay still for about five minutes before the photography was taken and the photographer needed to be a specialist capable of handling a complicated process. With the Plaques Étiquettes-Bleues, photography became simple and accessible to amateurs. You only had to slip the Plaque in the camera and you were ready to take a picture. This invention was so revolutionary that it spread within two years after it was marketed and it resulted in the creation of many photography studios.

Levy_Romance2In other words, without the Lumière brothers, The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy wouldn’t be the same. Now imagine what would become of the Bennett sisters if they lived in 1888 and their father died while they were still unmarried. Amy Levy seems to explore this idea.

Fanny, Gertrude, Lucy and Phyllis Lorimer belong to small nobility and are single when their father dies. They discover that they have no fortune left and their family think that the only solution for them is to split, two going to live with friends of the family, the Devonshires,  and the two others being shipped to the part of the family established in India. But Gertrude, the brain of the four, comes with another idea. She has consulted a friend of their father’s and she determined to open a photography studio in London and earn their keep through their trade. Now you see my point about the Lumière brothers.

Lucy supports Gertrude immediately. Phyllis, the youngest one, has no objection but Fanny isn’t so easily convinced.

“Oh, Gertrude, need it come to that—to open a shop?” cried Fanny, aghast. “Fanny, you are behind the age,” said Lucy, hastily. “Don’t you know that it is quite distinguished to keep a shop? That poets sell wall-papers, and first-class honour men sell lamps? That Girton students make bonnets, and are thought none the worse of for doing so?”

Despite the opposition of their aunt, Mrs Spratt, and Fanny’s wariness, the project comes through. Their friends Constance and Fred Devonshire support them as they acquire a former photography studio and start their business.

A few days afterwards the Lorimers found themselves the holders of a lease, terminable at one, three, or seven years, for a studio and upper part of the house, known as 20B, Upper Baker Street.

(I noted that leases are one, three or seven years while in France, it’s three, six or nine years)

The four sisters are very different. Fanny is the old fashioned one, the less able to change her ways and be helpful. She can’t help in the studio, she can’t take care of the house and soon her sisters accept that poor Fanny is more a liability than an asset.

As Lucy had said, Frances Lorimer was behind the age. She was an anachronism, belonging by rights to the period when young ladies played the harp, wore ringlets, and went into hysterics.

Gertrude is the leader. She puts aside her literary ambitions to run the business, take the pictures, go to other studios or private homes to take photos and earn money. She’s not always comfortable with what she’s doing, like going to a man’s house without a chaperone but she knows she can’t be picky. Lucy is her real partner, sharing the workload, the worries about the bills and the customers. Phyllis is the youngest sister. She’s a pretty girl, a bit immature and rather selfish.

So basically, the business in on Gertrude and Lucy’s shoulders. Through their friend Constance, they get acquainted with a young man living across their street. Mr Jermyn hires them to photograph his work, introduces to his friends and acquaintances and soon becomes a familiar fixture of their new life.

They began to get glimpses of a world more varied and interesting than their own, of that world of cultivated, middle-class London, which approached more nearly, perhaps, than any other to Gertrude’s ideal society of picked individuals.

Business picks up, leading to choices and a new way-of-life. What will become of Fanny, Gertrude, Lucy and Phyllis?

You can imagine a bit of their fate if I tell you that in Austen’s world, Gertrude would be Lizzy, that Lucy reminded me of Jane, that Phyllis acted like Kitty and that Fanny would be Mary. Constance sounds like Charlotte.

While I enjoyed following the adventures of the Lorimer sisters and their shop, I missed the sharp analysis of the condition of women provided by Gissing in The Odd Women. Gissing’s novel was published in 1893, only five years after The Romance of a Shop. Levy’s book is unconventional. It pictures women who refuse to become nannies, teachers or governesses. They reject the idea to depend on family and be at the mercy of relatives who would have them at their beck and call because they put a roof above their heads. They take their life into their own hands and start a business. It lacks propriety in their world and sometimes, the daily business hurts their ingrained good manners. But Gertrude doesn’t mope or whine. She takes action. And she does the exact opposite of what is expected of her sex.

The shop part of the book was interesting to follow and I would have liked to read more details about the operations. I’m always interested in how business was made in the 19thC. The romance part was a bit too much for my tastes but it was still an agreeable read. It is as if the writer didn’t dare going as far as having female characters who chose a career and gave up the dream of being a wife. In Levy’s world, getting married is still the most enviable option for a woman. Opening a shop is a necessity but not a choice. In Gissing’s world, he hints that women should have the choice not to marry and have a fulfilling career for themselves.

Thanks to Guy for giving me this novel and you can read his excellent review here for Part 1 and here for Part 2

And Thomas Hardy invented the love rectangle

April 20, 2014 26 comments

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy. 1874 French title: Loin de la foule déchainée.

OK, I don’t know if Thomas Hardy invented the love rectangle and a more literate reader may prove me by A+B = QED that it was someone else, but it’s a nice title for my billet.

When the book opens, Gabriel Oak is a young shepherd who has just leased a farm and Bathsheba Everdene moves in the neighbouring farm with her aunt Mrs Hurst. She’s a proud beauty and Gabriel assesses her as such when he meets her for the first time but he falls in love with her anyway. They befriend, she even saves his life once but when he proposes she refuses him. She doesn’t love him and doesn’t want to get married.

“Well, what I mean is that I shouldn’t mind being a bride at a wedding, if I could be one without having a husband. But since a woman can’t show off in that way by herself, I shan’t marry—at least yet.”

Shortly after this, Bathsheba moves out of the village and Gabriel thinks he’ll never see her again. Then Gabriel loses his farm after his inexperienced sheep dog pushes his sheep over a cliff. He’s ruined and his search for employment brings him in Weatherbury. He helps putting out a fire on a farm and discovers that it’s Bathsheba’s property. She has inherited an estate from her uncle and is now a rich woman. Despite their shared history, she hires Gabriel as her shepherd.

William Boldwood is the other wealthy farmer in Weatherbury. He’s about forty, a confirmed bachelor and happy to be so. He never expressed admiration to Bathsheba’s beauty and she’s a little piqued by the lack of attention. On a whim, she sends him a secret Valentine card. He discovers where the card comes from, starts looking at her and falls head-over-heels in love with her. She has now another admirer in the village.

Arrives Sergeant Troy. He had a relationship with Fanny, a maid who eloped shortly after Bathsheba arrived in Weatherbury. She never knew why Fanny disappeared while Gabriel and Boldwood do. Troy is handsome, courteous and flirty. As a hopeless womaniser, he soon starts to court Bathseba who falls for him. The other two don’t stand a chance against the charming Sergeant.

Now, you see the love rectangle between Gabriel, Boldwood, Troy and Bathsheba. Who will get the girl? How will Fanny’s relationship with Troy influence the game?

Monet_meulesSummed up like this, the plot is simplistic. However, there’s a lot more to Far From the Madding Crowd than the love relationships. There’s the usual description of the country life in fictional Wessex and Hardy’s descriptions of the landscape are picturesque. Natural disasters are plausible and become handy plot devices; that comes with the genre. I enjoyed reading about the farming customs and he doesn’t repeat himself. Far From the Madding Crowd tells about sheep breeding and tending to fields. These topics weren’t in The Mayor of Casterbridge. The novels complete each other and are a part of the jigsaw picturing rural Sussex.

The four characters have more depth than my summary of the plot lets on. There’s an Austenian feeling to these characters. Bathsheba is a mix between Marianne and Emma. Boldwood reminded me of Colonel Brandon. Troy resembles Willoughby and Wickam. And Gabriel is more like Mr Knightley.

Bathsheba is a fascinating character. She’s independent, intelligent and stubborn. She’s also young, inexperienced and passionate like Marianne. She’s proud and level-headed like Emma.

Bathsheba, though she had too much understanding to be entirely governed by her womanliness, had too much womanliness to use her understanding to the best advantage.

Marrying Gabriel the farmer was a reasonable decision to make when he proposed. He was on his way to be a respectable and solvent farmer and she didn’t have a higher prospect. Yet she refuses him. When she inherits her uncle’s estate, she decides against hiring a bailiff and runs the estate herself. That’s against traditions and her workmen don’t know how to accept their mistress in such a role. Gabriel is there to smooth things out, always in the background. Because she’s aware of his regard for her, she accepts his help reluctantly. She’s alone on the farm and she enjoys their conversations. She needs someone to turn to. They remain friends and Gabriel doesn’t hesitate to tell her what he thinks of her behaviour when she goes overboard.

Gabriel Oak is also an interesting character, the most likeable of the novel. His name says it all: he’s as good as an angel and as solid as an oak. He’s intelligent and responds to Bathsheba’s intelligence. They are good partners at managing the farm and they both keep their heads in case of emergency. He loves her for herself, flaws and all. He’s the most mature character of the novel. His solid knowledge of farming, his simplicity and his interactions with Bathsheba reminded me of Mr Knightley.

Troy is the proverbial bad boy, thoughtless, lazy and self-centred:

Idiosyncrasy and vicissitude had combined to stamp Sergeant Troy as an exceptional being. He was a man to whom memories were an incumbrance, and anticipations a superfluity. Simply feeling, considering, and caring for what was before his eyes, he was vulnerable only in the present. His outlook upon time was as a transient flash of the eye now and then: that projection of consciousness into days gone by and to come, which makes the past a synonym for the pathetic and the future a word for circumspection, was foreign to Troy. With him the past was yesterday; the future, to-morrow; never, the day after.

Not exactly a man you want to build a future with. In addition to that lightness of character, he’s mercenary and Bathsheba’s money attracts him even if it’s not his first motive to pursue her. However, when you consider his relationship with Fanny, he’s a lot more complex than he seems to be.

Boldwood reminded me of Colonel Brandon because he’s also much older than Bathsheba, he’s wealthy and brooding. His passion comes as a surprise; he wasn’t really interested in women before and was content with his bachelor life. Bathsheba kindled an unexpected fire and he has trouble dealing with his feelings.

Each male character represents a way of feeling passionate about someone. Gabriel’s fire for Bathsheba is a homely one, a steady chimney fire, anchored in daily life. Troy is more like fireworks, beautiful, amazing and short-lived. Boldwood’s passion is a fire hazard, simmering and potentially destructive. And Bathsheba? She’s confusing, burning for Troy and capable of a strong bond with Gabriel. Sometimes she irritated me but I liked her for her courage and her intelligence. Even if she’s conceited, she also admits her faults and flaws. Despite her apparent carelessness, she has a strong business head and is intelligent enough to acknowledge Gabriel’s worth. She appeared to me as mostly young and needing the guidance of a mother (as long as the mother is not Mrs Bennett). Gabriel and Bathsheba show how hard it is to step out of one’s condition: Bathsheba wants to manage the farm and it’s not a woman’s job in these times; Gabriel wants to be a farmer, or at least, a bailiff.

Far From the Madding Crowd is pure Hardy and I had a wonderful time reading it. It took me time to re-acquaint to Hardy’s style and vocabulary. Each writer has his ocean of words and it took me a while to feel confortable swimming there again. I wondered about the title and Wikipedia tells me it comes from a poem by Thomas Gray, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751)

   Far From the madding crowd’s ignoble strife

   Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;

   Along the cool sequester’d vale of life

   They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

 

Agnes is more black and white than grey

March 31, 2014 11 comments

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë. 1847.

This month our Book Club’s choice was Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë and since it’s a classic, I assume I can afford a bit of spoilers in this billet.

Agnes Grey is the daughter of a clergyman who ends up working as a governess to earn her living after her family is impoverished by poor investments. She first lives at the Bloomfields’ where she’s supposed to teach to three young children. All of them are little devils who treat her like a servant.

Master Tom, not content with refusing to be ruled, must needs set up as a ruler, and manifested a determination to keep, not only his sisters, but his governess in order, by violent manual and pedal applications; and, as he was a tall, strong boy of his years, this occasioned no trifling inconvenience.

Their weak parents don’t support her educational aims and she can’t discipline the children. Their parents never scold them or make them respect their governess. The mother spoils her children and can never find a fault in them while the father blames Agnes for not managing to tame them. Eventually Agnes has to go.

She seeks another position and arrives at the Murrays’. This time, she’s in charge of four older children, two boys and two girls. The two boys are soon sent to boarding school while the two girls stay at home. The oldest, Miss Rosalie Murray is a stunning beauty and she’s soon out and ravishing hearts around her. She’s praised for her beauty and shallow is her middle name. She’s a shameless flirt while her sister Matilda is a tomboy. Matilda loves her dogs, her horses and spending time with lads and hunters.

As an animal, Matilda was all right, full of life, vigour, and activity; as an intelligent being, she was barbarously ignorant, indocile, careless and irrational; and, consequently, very distressing to one who had the task of cultivating her understanding, reforming her manners, and aiding her to acquire those ornamental attainments which, unlike her sister, she despised as much as the rest.

Like the Bloomfield children, they have no intention to study anything. They have a loose schedule, decide of meals and activities at random hours and have Agnes at their beck and call. During her stay with the Murrays, she will become acquainted with Mr Edward Weston, the new parson. There seem to be mutual attraction between the two but how will it end for Agnes?

In our Book Club meeting, we all agreed to say that Agnes Grey was interesting but not a page turner and that it had flaws. The interesting part was about Agnes’s treatment in the families and the image it gave of the Victorian bourgeoisie. We’re far from the benevolent country people we encounter in Jane Austen’s novels. Actually, the only two Austenian characters are Agnes who sounds like Elinor in Sense and Sensibility and Edward Weston, who manages to be named after Edward in Price and Prejucide and Mr Weston, the man who marries the governess in Emma. No, the high society in Agnes Grey is not really people you care to associate with. The husbands are cruel; they like to torture animals and let the children do it. Indeed, Mr Bloomfield delights in Tom’s wicked ways with a bird and Mr Murray loves to hunt. They don’t care much about their wives and children. They tend to like eating and drinking. The wives and mothers are weak and conceited. They don’t want to trouble themselves much with educating their children. Mrs Murray doesn’t hesitate to marry her daughter to Sir Thomas Ashby because he’s rich and has a large estate. She perfectly knows he’s a bad match for Rosalie but doesn’t mind sacrificing her daughter’s happiness for greed and social status.

They all have poor education and poor moral values. The girls grow up to be very ignorant. They are never asked to put effort in their studies. Nobody cares that they can hardly read, never learn anything and have the attention span of a goldfish. They are brought up to marry well but can flirt in the meantime. Agnes endures seing the Misses Murray busy batting eyelashes to Captain Somebody and Lieutenant Somebody-else (a couple of military fops). What would be flirting in the English countryside in the 19thC without the military stationed nearby, I wonder?

With Agnes Grey, Anne Brontë dives in her own experience as a governess to describe the odd place of a governess in a household. Agnes is lonely. The family treats her like a servant and the servants don’t acknowledge her as one of them. She’s not good enough to be part of the family but of too high a rank to be among domestics. Agnes is intelligent, a bit young and naïve but she’s clever enough to analyse her situation. And that’s what makes her position difficult. She perfectly knows she’s being bullied.

Either the children were so incorrigible, the parents so unreasonable, or myself so mistaken in my views, or so unable to carry them out, that my best intentions and most strenuous efforts seemed productive of no better result than sport to the children, dissatisfaction to their parents, and torment to myself.

The Bloomfield children don’t hesitate to beat her up and the Misses Murray have her sit in the place in the carriage where she always gets motion sickness. She’s not the mistress of her days and Miss Murray will ensure to have her occupied to squash any possibility of free time. They send her to performs their charity duties in their place and do their utmost to smother any burgeoning romance between Agnes and Mr Weston.

Agnes Grey underlines the narrow path traced to women of her time. Agnes’s mother married Mr Grey out of love and had to turn her back to her rich family for that. She became poor and never got assistance from them since she married below her rank. Women of their class don’t have a lot of choices to earn money. They can be governesses or teachers in school. That’s about it. As Gissing will point it out in The Odd Women that lives children with teachers that don’t have a true calling for teaching. Agnes has no experience with teaching; Anne Brontë never mentions textbooks or teaching methods or programs to be covered according to the children’s age. Agnes seems to play it by ear but perhaps there were manuals. Even with more docile children, could she be a good governess?

This was the interesting side of Agnes Grey. Now the annoying part. Anne Brontë was 27 when she wrote this novel. She had left home and lived as a governess. She wasn’t a child anymore and the ending of Agnes Grey is well, too romantic for me. I expected drama and a dramatic death due to pneumonia caught wandering in the fields in a rainy day or at least due to melancholy. I kept waiting for a Balzacian ending and got something more Hollywood-like. Agnes lacks substance compared to Jane Eyre. God, how dull she is! I know she’s young, she’s had a sheltered life and she went through tough times in these families. But does she have to be so forgiving, so religious and such a doormat? (Patience, Firmness, and Perseverance were my only weapons; and these I resolved to use to the utmost.) Don’t we all remember fondly of teachers who were strict but fair? Wouldn’t she have gained a bit of respect from her employers by standing up for herself? Was her position as a poor woman so precarious that she couldn’t take the risk to be fired? There’s a boring passage of her discussing religion with a cottager of the neighbourhood, Nancy Brown. What a moralising speech and a picky inspection of conscience! Agnes is so virtuous it hurts (Lady L. wouldn’t have liked her a bit) and I’m sorry, virtue being rewarded in the end seems a bit too simplistic to me. We’d know the trick if you only needed to be a good girl to have your wishes come true, wouldn’t we?

So, yes, Agnes Grey gives an interesting portrait of the Victorian little nobility but lacks in characterisation. Agnes is too good and the children/adolescent she teaches too are too bad. Despite this black and white picture, it’s still worth reading.

Love and marriage don’t go together like horse and carriage

September 5, 2013 15 comments

The Odd Women by George Gissing. 1893

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’m a little late to write about our Book Club choice for August, sorry. Actually, I have so many things to say about The Odd Women that it took me a while to find the quality time necessary to write my billet. I introduced the book in a previous billet , we’ve had our Book Club meeting and I’m delighted to say that this novel exceeded our expectations.

The Odd Women opens in the Madden household. Dr Madden is a country physician, a widower living alone with his six daughters. We’re in 1872 when he dies in a carriage accident. Mrs Bennet’s worst fear becomes a reality for the Maddens: six unmarried daughters, no relatives, no income, no perspectives. The girls must fend for themselves. Then we fast-forward in time and we’re now in 1887. Only three daughters have survived: Alice, Virginia and Monica. Alice works as a governess; Virginia is between two governess positions and Monica works as a shop girl. Virginia and Monica live in London.

Miss Rhoda Nunn knew the Maddens from the country and when she stumbles upon Virginia in London, she renews the acquaintance. Rhoda lives with Miss Barfoot and both run a school where they train young women for office work. They improve their minds, teach them typewriting and but also self-respect and the capacity to stand for themselves. Their goal is described early in the novel when Rhoda discusses her work with Virginia:

‘Oh, I’m not so severe! But do you know that there are half a million more women than men in this happy country of ours?’ ‘Half a million!’ Her naive alarm again excited Rhoda to laughter. ‘Something like that, they say. So many odd women—no making a pair with them. The pessimists call them useless, lost, futile lives. I, naturally—being one of them myself—take another view. I look upon them as a great reserve. When one woman vanishes in matrimony, the reserve offers a substitute for the world’s work. True, they are not all trained yet—far from it. I want to help in that—to train the reserve.’

A commendable and sensible goal. (20 years from there, the Great War will take care of training the “reserve”). Following her first meeting with Rhoda, Virginia entertains the idea to start a school for girls in the country and run it with Alice. Rhoda also meets with Monica to convince her to quit her job at the shop and join her school to be able to find a clerical job in the future. Monica is at a turning point in her life as Miss Nunn’s offer happens at the same time she is courted by Mr Widdowson whom she had met in a park. He is besotted with her and soon proposes. Monica accepts although he’s much older than her and she perfectly knows that she doesn’t love him.

She felt no love in return; but between the prospect of a marriage of esteem and that of no marriage at all there was little room for hesitation.

Rhoda disapproves of her marriage because she thinks that financial security is a bad reason to get married. Miss Barfoot lets it go, accepting that Monica isn’t built to remain single.

At the same period, Miss Barfoot’s cousin, Everard Barfoot, is back in England after years of living abroad. He’s single and perfectly happy that way. He’s against marriage having witnessed disastrous ones among his friends. He becomes highly interested in Rhoda when he discovers she’s a woman who doesn’t look for a husband. She’s against marriage too and thinks that her being single and successful is an example for the girls she trains. Everard sees it as a challenge to make her fall in love with him and throw her principles to the wind. He starts courting her. Will he win his bet and how will it affect him?

The whole novel gravitates around the two couples, thoughts about the institution of marriage and the condition of women. The question of marriage is predominant in the novel. For Gissing, it has reached a point where it is poisonous for everyone. He questions the possibility to get married, the marriage itself and its termination.

The first problem is that since genteel married women aren’t supposed to work,  a man needs to earn enough money to afford a wife. The first example is that of Mr Bullivant, who works at the same shop as Monica and chases after her. She doesn’t like him and uses rational arguments to push him away.

‘Then will you let me ask you a rude question?’ ‘Ask me any question, Miss Madden.’ ‘How would it be possible for you to support a wife?’ She flushed and smiled. Bullivant, dreadfully discomposed, did not move his eyes from her. ‘It wouldn’t be possible for some time,’ he answered in a thick voice. ‘I have nothing but my wretched salary. But every one hopes.’

Monica’s objection to their marriage is a valid one, one Mr Bullivant can’t deny. She’s satisfied with it because it serves her cause. But imagine how awful it was for two people genuinely in love? This issue is then seen through the example of Mr Mickelthwaite, a friend of Mr Barfoot’s. He has been engaged for 17 years to his wife before he made enough money to marry her. It was too late to have children; they had lived separately for ages and luckily still liked each other. What kind of life is that? Yet, this man considers it a duty to marry a woman when a man has sufficient means and he exposes his view to Everard as the latter explains he will never marry:

‘Then I think you will neglect a grave duty. Yes. It is the duty of every man, who has sufficient means, to maintain a wife. The life of unmarried women is a wretched one; every man who is able ought to save one of them from that fate.’

Who would like to be married to fulfil a duty? Everard has very modern views of marriage. He would like the partners to be equals. He sees a possibility in Miss Nunn because she doesn’t behave like other women. She has a mind of her own, doesn’t play coy, doesn’t want to seduce him with her charms as she is not hunting for a husband. She just enjoys his conversation and he appreciates to have a valuable female companion to talk to:

In this humour she seemed more than ever a challenge to his manhood. She was armed at all points. She feared nothing that he might say. No flush of apprehension; no nervous tremor; no weak self-consciousness. Yet he saw her as a woman, and desirable. ‘My views are not ignoble,’ he murmured. ‘I hope not. But they are the views of a man.’ ‘Man and woman ought to see life with much the same eyes.’ ‘Ought they? Perhaps so. I am not sure. But they never will in our time.’ ‘Individuals may. The man and woman who have thrown away prejudice and superstition. You and I, for instance.’

Think how you may about man and woman, you know that there is such a thing as love between them, and that the love of a man and a woman who can think intelligently may be the best thing life has to offer them.’

Everard is the living example of Austen’s statement in Emma when Mr Knightley declares Men of sense, whatever you may chuse to say, do not want silly wive. Everard would rather be a bachelor than be burdened with a woman he doesn’t consider as his equal. Before Rhoda, he thought no woman on earth could be his match. Contrary to Everard, Widdowson represents the old-fashioned vision of marriage and women.

Widdowson, before his marriage, had never suspected the difficulty of understanding a woman; had he spoken his serious belief on that subject, it would have been found to represent the most primitive male conception of the feminine being. Women were very like children; it was rather a task to amuse them and to keep them out of mischief.

In the traditional way of thinking, women are barely above the animal –I suspect some men thought their horse was more intelligent than their wife—and like children, need guidance. The poor and jealous Widdowson sees himself as a pastor for Monica and this belief combined with his possessive love turns him into a tyrant.  Unsurprisingly, Widdowson has trouble interacting with Monica, who, even if she’s not as radical in her behaviour as Miss Nunn, has nonetheless stayed long enough in her company to behave like a feminist. He sees her as his possession and is puzzled when the living object he calls a wife thinks, objects and makes decisions of her own.

Gissing is revolutionary in his vision of marriage. In his opinion, marriage as it is can only lead to unhappiness. He advocates a marriage based on love, equality and trust. He writes clearly that it should not be permanent when these criteria aren’t met anymore.

How many marriages were anything more than mutual forbearance? Perhaps there ought not to be such a thing as enforced permanence of marriage.

Or

But—perhaps, someday, marriage would be dissoluble at the will of either party to it. Perhaps the man who sought to hold a woman when she no longer loved him would be regarded with contempt and condemnation.

This vision is close to mine and it’s rare that I agree with a Victorian writer about marriage and relationships. Usually, I don’t share their views and take them for what they are, a reflection of their era. If Jane Austen is discreetly subversive, Gissing is openly subversive. Marriage shouldn’t tie couples forever; women should have the right to work according to their skills. Both men and women should have the choice to select a profession they enjoy. They should decide to get married or not. His feminism is blatant and I’ll write more about this in another billet. Austen and Gissing are subversive because they put the happiness of the individual before the needs of the society. Perhaps Austen is an heir of the Enlightenment; after all the right to pursue happiness is in the Declaration of Independence of United States, written at that time. In any case in Pride and Prejudice, the main characters consider that their happiness is more important that what the society wants from them. Elizabeth first refuses to marry Darcy, even if this alliance would provide financial security to her whole family and Darcy prefers to marry out of his social class to have a wife he loves. Gissing shows what marriages of convenience do to people. Monica’s choice is a disaster but the author also gives other examples such as poor Mr Poppleton who married a silly wife or Everard’s brother who married a selfish and whining one.

This is a militant book and yet, the novelist is not set aside by the activist. The characters are subtly drawn, Gissing investigates their inner minds, dissects their feelings and thought processes. He pictures their hesitations, their struggles against their ingrained vision of the world and relationships. Through their difficulties, he shows how hard it is to change of mind set. It serves his cause and makes of The Odd Women a compelling page-turner. Gissing seemed like a city Thomas Hardy in the way the events unfold. Apparent fate and coincidences play a role in the story. I say “apparent” because, like in Hardy’s Life Little Ironies, the coincidences are more like the collateral consequences of tiny decisions made by one of the protagonists than sheer chance.

I absolutely loved this book both thought provoking and entertaining, the best combination in literature. We all loved this novel and I’d buy it in French for every reader around me if it were translated. This new Book Club year starts divinely.

HIGHLY HIGHLY HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

PS: Once again, thanks Guy. Read his excellent review here.

Our Book Club reads The Odd Women by Gissing and you’re welcome to read it along with us

August 1, 2013 24 comments

 The Odd Women by George Gissing. (UK, 1893) 432 pages

book_club_2August is the first month of our new Book Club year. You can find the list of books here. This month our Book Club is reading The Odd Women by George Gissing. For a reason I don’t understand, it is not available in French. If there was a translation and it’s just OOP, then let’s hope it gets republished, at least in an ebook version. Regular readers of this blog know that I like Victorian literature very much and that I’m interested in the condition of women. So when I read Guy’s review about The Odd Women, I knew I had to read it. I’m very happy it is part of our Book Club reading this year as it’s always interesting to discuss thought-provoking novels. Here’s the blurb:

gissing_women_travail

“A novel of social realism, The Odd Women reflects the major sexual and cultural issues of the late nineteenth century. Unlike the “New Woman” novels of the era which challenged the idea that the unmarried woman was superfluous, Gissing satirizes that image and portrays women as “odd” and marginal in relation to an ideal. Set in a grimy, fog-ridden London, Gissing’s “odd” women range from the idealistic, financially self-sufficient Mary Barfoot to the Madden sisters who struggle to subsist in low paying jobs and little chance for joy. With narrative detachment, Gissing portrays contemporary society’s blatant ambivalence towards its own period of transition. Judged by contemporary critics to be as provocative as Zola and Ibsen, Gissing produced an “intensely modern” work as the issues it raises remain the subject of contemporary debate.”

gissing_two_womenOn Wikipedia, it is stated that there was an excess of one million women over men in Victorian England. This meant there were “odd” women left over at the end of the equation when the other men and women had paired off in marriage. I wonder why there were so many more women than men at the time. Girls were more likely to reach adulthood than boys? Untimely deaths left many widows? It must have worsened after WWI and all the young men who were killed.

I’m not a specialist but I’m under the impression that these “feminist” novels are a distinctive characteristic of British literature. In Pride and Prejudice and in Emma, Jane Austen has her leading characters discuss the position of women. It’s Mrs Bennet, all stressed out about marrying her daughters to be sure they won’t live poorly and Charlotte explaining to Lizzie that Mr Collins is her best prospect in life. It’s Emma saying that being single isn’t a problem as long as you have your own money. In Miss McKenzie, Trollope also describes the fate of women. If Miss McKenzie doesn’t find a husband, what can she do after her brother’s death? I haven’t read Agnes Grey but I understand it is about with the life of governesses, one of the acceptable positions for gentle women who had to earn their income.

Gissing_women_femmeI don’t remember reading a French novel of the 19thC challenging the role of women in society and showing how narrow their life choices are. I’ve been thinking about the Balzacs, Maupassants, Flauberts, Dumas or Zolas I’ve read and I didn’t find a title about this. There are hints in Mémoires de deux jeunes mariées by Balzac, but both girls are married and it’s more about the different kind of marriages one can enter into. Otherwise, women are for passion, lust, social ascension. They are mothers, daughters and lovers. They are rarely partners. They are either seen as cruel and manipulative or mocked for they naiveté and seen as feeble creatures, like in La Cousine Bette.

There is Notre Coeur by Maupassant which portrays an independent woman, Mme de Burne. I always think of Maupassant is a terrible chauvinist and it is visible in the names of the characters of Notre Coeur. Mme Michèle de Burne doesn’t want to remarry. Her name suggests that she has balls (des burnes) and her first name is both masculine and feminine (Michel/Michèle), so she’s not a real woman, right? The main male character, André Mariolle respects her position and his name means clown; so his opinion cannot be taken seriously. I haven’t read all of Zola, so there might be a volume about women in Les Rougon-Macquart. Can you think of a 19th French novel which depicts with objectivity the lack of prospects for women beside marriage?

Gissing_women_belle_epoqueI’m quite fascinated by this aspect of British literature. I will publish my billet about The Odd Women at the end of the month. Anyone interested in The Odd Women is warmly encouraged to reading it along with us. I’ll read all the blog posts you’ll publish about it and you’re, of course, more than welcome to leave comments below my billet.

I have included several book covers because they’re quite different for the same book. They don’t convey the same image at all. I wonder which one I’ll think best fitted to the book after I have read it.

Want to know more about The Odd Women? Discover Guy’s review here

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