Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray

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Vanity Fair has been described as the best novel about Waterloo ever written, but it actually tells the stories of Becky Sharpe and Amelia Sedley, two young women who, in the opening chapter, find themselves graduating together from Miss Pinkerton’s school, and whose paths intertwine in the years that follow. They do both find themselves in Brussels during the Battle of Waterloo, and that battle does take place during the novel, but this is a story about the seamy side of the British Empire, and not about the glorious and warlike so-called heroes who built it. In fact the men of Empire, with the exception of Major Dobbin, are portrayed throughout as weak and foolish, corrupt, lascivious, fat and stupid. And even good old Dobbin – the best of the bunch – well his name speaks volumes.

The school “graduation” of Becky and Amelia epitomises the themes of the novel. Wealthy Amelia is given a signed copy of Johnson’s dictionary by the domineering and selfish headteacher, who snobbishly claims a close acquaintance with Johnson himself. Penniless Becky is denied a copy: in Vanity Fair money and status are all, and she has neither. But the soft hearted sister of the headteacher relents, cannot be so cruel, and passes a copy of the dictionary to Becky through the coach window as they are about to depart. Becky opens the book briefly, then disdainfully throws it down onto the lawn: a shocking and rebellious act that sets the tone for her character. Becky dismisses Amelia’s concerns about upsetting Miss Pinkerton, shouting, Vive la France! Vive l’Empereur! Vive Bonaparte!

Yes – Becky is a villain, and a cold hearted one at that. But this little scene provides a significant context. She lives in a society that thinks itself a whole lot better than her, but is in fact stamped through with corruption, like Blackpool through a stick of rock. Thackeray invites us to take an alternative perspective on Becky: how else is the penniless daughter of an emigré French artist to make her way in society? Who will help her to find a husband, help her to find respectability and security? Amelia will have support from her family, will “come out” in due course, and meet the right people, but Becky will need to fight every inch of the way. So whilst she is a scurrilous, shockingly immoral character, she has no other choice. Thackeray makes this clear at the beginning of the novel, in a way that challenges Victorian orthodoxy – the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them high and lowly and ordered their estate . (From the hymn All things bright and beautiful, Published in 1848, a year after this novel.)

However, for most of the novel Thackeray adopts a more conventional moral approach. In the later stages he presents Becky both through her actions, and through the vivid use of reptilian imagery, as an out and out villain. Nevertheless, her final acts, which Thackeray allows to pass without comment, show compassion and common sense, though not hypocrisy, and she leaves immediately for Bath and Cheltenham, dens of evil and vice.

Becky’s ascent through Georgian society is typical of the picaresque novel, and offers an amusing and effective condemnation of the Britain of the time. She dallies with Amelia’s brother Jos, fat cowardly and lazy, but rich as Croesus on the proceeds of the Raj. He disappoints – too cowardly to seize his opportunity and Becky moves on to the Crawleys, members of the minor nobility who she takes for all she can. She marries into the family, but they snobbishly disinherit her husband, and ignore her. The poverty that results from this plagues Becky and her husband Rawdon, though Thackeray does not show much sympathy. Becky’s dalliances with rich men are at first ignored by Rawdon, the colonel, who is led like a sheep. In the end he disowns her at the moment when she has finally gained him an office in the Empire – a sinecure in the West Indies with a fat salary. She is left alone, and escapes to Europe where she becomes a member of the louche set that hang around foreign spa resorts, gambling. She is at her happiest here – a true Bohemian, as Thackeray says.

Meanwhile life for the Sedleys – the nouveau riche – is not easy. Bankrupted by losses consequent to Napoleon’s return from Elba, Amelia’s father is reduced to poverty, and she becomes the victim of the kind of snobbery that affected Becky in the opening chapter. But Amelia is a romantic idealist, worshipping her dead husband George, even though he is not worthy of such adoration. When Amelia and Becky meet again in Europe the truth is revealed.

Thackeray was an admirer of Henry Fielding and there are clear similarities between Tom Jones and Becky: they are both outsiders, though Tom is mostly an innocent victim of circumstance and his own weaknesses, whilst Becky is the arch manipulator. Thackeray’s narrative voice is also similar to Fielding’s – full of interjections, ironical comments and intimate asides to the reader. There is a vast array of characters, though many are caricatures: the whole novel is introduced as a puppet show in the opening chapter with descriptions that are reminiscent of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, and the novel has that kind of vitality and variety. It’s easy to think that PG Wodehouse might have drawn on some of the elements of Vanity Fair for his own novels.

Vanity Fair – a cultural icon, and a long read, but well worth it if you are determined and interested.

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Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

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What more could I add to the thousands of words that have been expended on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice? I have just finished it again for the umpteenth time.

I remember not reading it for the first time when it was set for my A levels, and amiably discussing with a school chum whether it was any more than just women’s tittle tattle. That had been the essay we’d been set, though I had no idea how to answer it, never having got further than Mr Collins’ yawningly embarrassing proposal. I suppose that I didn’t have the wit to realise that that part of the novel was meant to be boring! In any case I went on to make up some stuff about it in an A level exam from which I profited little, but which did complete justice to the effort I’d made. It was only when I began to teach Austen that I really began to appreciate the wit and wonder of her writing.

Surely the plot must speak for itself. Pride in the guise of Darcy, wealthy nobleman, meets prejudice dressed as Elizabeth Bennett. Then Elizabeth’s friend, Charlotte Lucas, makes a sad marriage to a foolish man to safeguard her financial future: this is a feminist issue, and accounts in part for Austen’s enduring merit and fame. In a deliberate and artistic contrast, Lydia rushes into a foolish and romantic relationship with a ne’er do well soldier.  The charming and handsome military hero is a literary trope, but Austen does not treat Wickham with quite the same satirical intent that she shows for the Gothic novel in Northanger Abbey: there is a moral danger that she does not diminish with humour.

There you have it: Austen manages to be at the same time of political, moral and literary significance. No wonder she still gives so much pleasure today, managing to remain completely relevant as a commentator on the status of women, and as a literary and moral touchstone.

As for the rest, well there are some brilliant sections and characters, laugh aloud funny. The sycophantic and shocking Mr Collins, a parson with amazingly unchristian attitudes to forgiveness and full of pompous self regard. Lady Catherine De Bourgh, bursting into Elizabeth’s home full of indignation, self importance and ignorance. Lydia, foolish and possibly irredeemable, Mr Bennett, as clever as Elizabeth but unfortunately allied to a pretty, but vacuous wife.

Of course every rereading of Pride and Prejudice reveals more of the complex ironies involved. This is a hallmark of great literature. I remember a recent romcom which the reviewer claimed was only funny in the opening twenty minutes, and after that so consumed with the complexity and denouement of the plot that humour disappeared. Reading Pride and Prejudice this time did remind me of that comment. Once Elizabeth returns from her visit to the Collins and sets off to Derbyshire the plot begins to dominate, and moves at quite a rapid pace. But in  the last chapters we return to the heart of Austen – the brilliant entrance of Lady Catherine, more letters from Collins, and the appearance of Wickham and Lydia at Meryton, the former full of duplicity and hypocrisy, the latter of ignorance and bad manners.

Austen seems to embody so much that is English and good, and I say English because as a nation we are often overlooked, unlike the Celtic nations who prize their individuality and their own cultural voices. But Austen is not British. She shows the English in such a clear and intelligent way – parochial, snobbish, concerned with status and money, sexually repressed, ambitious and clever!

It seems that Austen is an unalloyed joy, but I could not help wonder about her treatment of Mrs Bennett in the final chapters. Here is a woman who loves her family, but finds her daughter marrying above her station. This daughter is desperate to move to Derbyshire away from the embarrassing manners of her mother and aunt, yet Austen seems to approve. Was this Austen’s honest final ironical appraisal of Elizabeth, for so much of the novel our rational and moral heroine, almost the voice of the author herself? In the end was Elizabeth just a cruel snob who would forsake a mother’s love for money, status and manners? I guess so; if not Austen herself would be morally repugnant, and to admit that would be iconoclasm.

(Oh and by the way, could it be the other way round, that Elizabeth is pride, and Darcy prejudice?)

The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling – Henry Fielding

Widcombe, Bath - off Ralph Allen Drive _ Fielding lived here with his sister for several years - a house I have passed many times when walking or jogging
Widcombe, Bath – off Ralph Allen Drive _ Fielding lived here with his sister for several years – a house I have passed many times when walking or jogging
Do I need to summarise such a famous story?  Tom our hero is a foundling, left in Squire Allworthy’s bed.  He is brought up by the squire alongside Allworthy’s nephew Blifil, taught by Mr Square and Mr Thwackum, and grows up in the wild west country of England where he falls in love with a beautiful neighbour, Sophia Western.  As is the way in romances of this kind various events and characters intervene to thwart the path of true love.  The scene moves to London via a rather strange route through the English countryside, and culminates at the foot of the gallows in Tyburn – literally so in one of the film versions.

In the opening section, set in Somerset, Fielding targets the hypocrisy of Square – an atheist philosopher – and of the Reverend Thwackum.  They favour Allworthy’s nephew Blifil, a selfish and unctuous child who flatters each in turn, over Tom, an exuberant character full of primal energy and innate compassion.  Tom is the favourite of Squire Western, Allworthy’s drunken neighbour, who is great fun – a simple drunk with a soft heart for his daughter Sophia, and an obsession with the hunt.  His honest down to earth qualities contrast with the hypocrisy of most of the rest – Square, Thwackum, young Blifil and Blifil’s father who has married Allworthy’s sister for little more than the cash she can bring him.

There are various happenings – sexual indiscretions, lies and betrayal.  Jones finds himself disinherited by Allworthy as a consequence of young Blifil’s dastardly plots and deceits. The journey to London follows with some incident and lots of humour, though I did find the section about the man on the hill who lost his money and reputation gambling a little more tedious than the rest.

Arrived in London, Jones meets up with Lady Bellaston and others of the aristocratic set. Fielding is again ruthless and very funny in his satire; we meet other characters who are much more sympathetic – Nightingale and Mrs Miller amongst them.  Throughout Jones shows himself to be strongly moral and caring, showing forgiveness, compassion, generosity and integrity in all his actions; despite this he manages to find himself in quite a few scrapes before the eventual denouement which I won’t uncover here.  Suffice it to say that this is a comedy, a satire in which at times the names of the characters reveal their true nature, and not always as obviously as those of Allworthy and Thwackum.  Black George Seagrim is only shown to be the black hearted creature he really is as the book draws to its close.

A few comments.  Leavis has this novel as one of The Great Tradition: indeed the first great English novel, written I suppose by the first of the notorious Great White Males who dominate literature before the c20.  I wonder how a more modern critic would respond to these characters who are so fixed in their time and their gender roles?  In fact Sophia and her Aunt are strong women who fight for their independence, though the constraints of the comic genre mould the ending of the novel in a way that sees Sophia accede to her father’s wishes.

Tom Jones is clearly a book of the enlightenment.  I found it interesting to read Fielding’s continual criticism of Partridge, who is superstitious and thus unenlightened.  One of the delights of this book is the way that Fielding begins new sections of the novel with authorial intrusions in which he satirises the mores and literary achievements of his age, and in one of these he is especially supportive of its religious scepticism.  Despite this the whole plot turns on the death bed confession of Square who casts aside his atheism for a very committed confession and repentance.  I didn’t get the sense that Fielding criticised him for this – rather the opposite in fact.

The set scenes are amongst the best aspects of this novel – a wonderful “battle scene” set in the village church yard in which Molly Seagrim defends her reputation against her critics is a very amusing example of the mock heroic, whilst Fielding’s intrusions are great fun if you are at all interested in literary criticism.

I was interested in the journey Tom took, especially as I live in the West country.  Tom is supposed to set off from Somerset, and head to London via Gloucester and Daventry.  He joins with a group of soldiers travelling North to put down the rebellion – there is talk of a French Fleet at Dover.  I think this must be the 1745 Jacobite rising.  There are famous scenes in the inn at Upton on Severn.  It did seem a circuitous route – and I would love to know more about it!  I suppose that shows how much I like the book – I don’t normally look for the objective correlatives of the fiction I read.

This is not my first reading of Tom Jones.  It’s a book you can return to frequently, and still enjoy.  Equally it’s available in film and television versions: both the examples below are worth watching for the way they create the world of c18 England and bring the characters to life.

Tom Jones – 1963 version starring Albert Finney

Tom Jones – TV mini series 1997

Jane Austen – Persuasion

A view of Georgian Bath - on the northern bank of the river, seen from the south at Alexandra Park - probably one of the best views in the city
A view of Georgian Bath – situated on the northern bank of the river, and seen from the south at Alexandra Park – probably one of the best views in the city
I should have read Persuasion a long time ago – after all Jane Austen is the eminent English novelist, according to Leavis, and others.  In the end it was the gift of a Kindle and the offer of a free book that dragged me in – though I’m glad it did.

Persuasion is set in Bath, my current home, and is even more closely linked with the city than Northanger Abbey which features Milsom Street and the Assembly Rooms – great Bath landmarks.  There is a sort of weird interest in that: I read the book in Australia partly flying from Sydney to Byron Bay, and had some fun, at a distance, in trying to remember the streets and place names Austen mentions.

In Persuasion these places are important – they reflect quite clearly the social – well mostly financial I suppose – status of the different characters when they come to Bath, which is where much of the story takes place.  Admiral Croft, whose wealth has allowed him to rent Sir Walter’s country estate, chooses a spot on Gay Street.  This adjoins the Circle, leading down from there to the city centre.  It’s at the heart of Georgian Bath.  A house on the West side would have especially beautiful open views across parkland and fields – Victoria Park lies just beyond the gardens.  At the bottom of Gay Street – next to Queen’s Square – you’ll currently find the Jane Austen centre, a small museum dedicated to the writer.  Apparently Austen herself rented three rooms higher up on Gay Street in the house that is now my dentist’s surgery!  It’s on the East side though.

Sir Walter himself, the heroine’s foolish, snobbish, spendthrift father chooses to rent in Camden Place.  This is a beautiful Georgian crescent, not as impressive as The Royal Crescent, but with stunning views across the city.  (In Austen’s day there was little development over on the south side of the river.  Now the city extends all along the southern bank and up into the hills, so ironically houses on the south have the best views in town, whilst Camden Place looks across at Victorian, Edwardian and modern housing sprawling across the hillside.)

Camden Place, Bath
Camden Place, Bath
Anne’s confidante, the rather more sober Lady Russell, has a place in Rivers Street which reflects her sober judgement and character.  These are smaller houses hidden in the Georgian part of town. Rivers Street itself runs along the top of Catharine Place, a small but beautiful park enclosed by Georgian Terraces – probably one of the best spots in Bath now – unspoiled Georgian splendour, close to bijou restaurants and pretty art galleries, with fewer tourists.

Rivers Street - the part that abuts Catharine Place
Rivers Street – the part that abuts Catharine Place

Not all of Rivers Street overlooks the parka Catharine Place
Not all of Rivers Street overlooks the park at Catharine Place
Finally Mrs Smith, Anne’s old school friend, who plays such a significant part in the denouement of the novel and in exposing the wickedness of Mr Elliot, is lodging in the centre of town.  Westgate Buildings is far too close to the centre and the bustle of the working classes.  Anne herself is not enamoured of Bath: Austen mentions her “disinclination” to visit, describing the extensive buildings, smoking in rain. Bath has been cleaned up now so we can admire the almost golden stone it is built of, but in Austen’s day smoke would have hung across the valley floor, trapped by the surrounding hills, and the houses would have been black and grimy.

Westgate Buildings
Westgate Buildings
For Anne and for Austen Bath epitomised the foolish and shallow world of fashion.  Now it’s a university town with its fair share of moral turpitude, snobbery and hypocrisy, a place where money and poverty stand side by side and mostly seem to rub along, like two trains standing at the same station, but on different tracks.

The Portrait of a Lady – Henry James

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They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over gullible women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires, 7 always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth. (2 Timothy 3:6-7)

This came up in my Bible reading when I was half way through The Portrait of a Lady. In some ways it’s a great description of Gilbert Osmond, and offers a summary of some of the moral aspects of the novel.  Isabel is certainly gullible, and Madame Merle and Osmond do worm their way into her life; Osmond is knowledgeable and cultured, his outward personality a shell that hides his true nature.

But there is no need to develop the analogy further.  This is a fantastic book, the first HJ I’ve ever read, actually!  Obviously it’s a long slow read, but it justifies the time spent and towards the end the plot gallops along!!

Madame Merle and Osmond are evil sharks circling the innocent Isabel, and James imbues the novel with tension that is as exciting as any thriller.  Her beautiful innocence is destroyed by their greed and selfishness.  As the story progresses we see this even more clearly: we are shown Osmond’s desire for control, his dead hand on their relationship, his hypocrisy and cruelty.  No wonder FR Leavis thought so much of Henry James – for a critic seeking moral truth in fiction James is ideal – radical, probing the moral values of society, but essentially conventional and bourgeois.

Isabel is freedom, innocence, America, the modern woman (though less the latter than Henrietta Stackpole -what a name!). Osmond and Madame Merle are imprisonment, decadence, decay, corruption, Europe.

Many American novels end in motion: Huck Finn takes off down the river; in Catch 22 Yossarian is running away.  These characters seek to escape responsibility, to break the rules, to escape from the moral constraints of society.  The Portrait of a Lady ends this way too – with a journey.  Will Isabel escape from Europe to find freedom and happiness away from Osmond, or return as her moral compass might dictate to an empty and cruel marriage?  Well I’m not going to say, but if you can’t be bothered to read the whole book, a skim of the last chapter will tell you.

Good Reads Reviews

Bleak House – Charles Dickens

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If you’re not tall, Bleak House is the sort of thing you might need to help you reach the highest shelf in the kitchen. It stands at 2 inches or 5 cm deep – pretty big. But what’s inside, you want to know?

Well, I read Bleak House to the very end. Dickens is not a favourite, but his reputation can’t be ignored. I’m with Leavis on this one – Dickens isn’t really part of The Great Tradition – whilst George Elliot and Jane Austen would definitely get my vote – in there with the great white males!!

There is a fantastic range of characters and actions in Bleak House – and the scope is vast, though Dickens doesn’t really explore the provinces and the only industrial character has a minor role. The focus is on the Court of Chancery, and the parts of London related to it.

The opening sections of the novel are stronger in their delineation of human weakness and folly, and interesting criticisms of Victorian attitudes to charity and morality. Later the unwinding of the plot becomes much more important: the impact of coincidence is significant, and really beyond belief.

There are two narrative voices, and that of Esther the least convincing. She is very much a goody two shoes, and not a character with complexity or depth. There is a sort of Victorian niceness that is really quite sentimental and simple, and her guardian, Jarndyce, is similarly self- sacrificing: these don’t seem to be characters so much as ciphers bearing Dickens’ moral values, foils to the weaker and less moral creatures that people the novel.

At the bottom of the heap is Joe, the homeless waif who is purely a victim: doormat might be a better word. At times Dickens needs to move the plot forward, and Joe plays his part in revealing the mystery of Esther’s origins. Apart from that he too is a cipher – a symbol of the oppressed poor – but not a believable character.

Lord and Lady Dedlock are also caricatures – despite their significance in the novel – though we do see more of Lord Dedlock later in the book. Dickens is at his best with the street life of London – Mrs Jellyby, the Smallweeds, Bucket and Guppy are great fun – but the characters at the heart of the novel – Richard and Ada – are very conventional and really quite tedious, though essential to its moral.

I had expected more obvious and extended criticism of the law courts in Dickens’ “comic indictment of a legal system that devours the innocent”. (Cover blurb, Penguin Edition.) This was disappointing.

Bleak House is however a very dark novel. J Hillis Miller’s essay, also in the Penguin edition, is prefaced with a quotation from Nietzsche. The descriptions of the law courts and offices, and of the streets of London, are dark and gloomy. Characters like Tulkinghorn and Lady Dedlock are devoid of compassion and life, empty and self seeking, whilst goodness is misdirected, in the case of Jellyby, or vapid and unconvincing, like Esther and John Jarndyce.

Miller attributes this darkness to the mid-Victorian crisis of faith. I would agree. There is no sense of redemption because the characters essentially never change – they begin as they end – for good or for evil. Only Guppy seems to exist in a human world of moral ambivalence, briefly, and he is a laughing stock – the only character Esther really despises.

BBC TV Production

Bleak House

Eugene Onegin – Alexander Pushkin

The Dual between Lensky and Onegin
The very thought of reading a verse novel wasn’t exactly comforting: I found Sir Charles Johnston’s translation of Eugene Onegin thrust into my reluctant mitts last week by a friend who is totally enamoured of both the story and the opera based on this poem. It is certainly a strange genre – a verse novel that claims realism as a key element (or at least for which realism is claimed as a major virtue). The octosyllabic line, and the limited range of rhyming words in English makes realism much more difficult to achieve, and as I am schooled on the poetic realism of Shakespeare’s heroes, who speak in blank iambic pentameters, Pushkin’s verse does seem strange to me, and certainly not real in the same way as Hamlet.

Some lines easily show the difficulty of translating this into English – yet better informed judges than me assert this is an excellent translation.

How could she? why, he’d never heard….
scarce out of bibs, already fickle,
fresh from the cot, an infant pickle,
already studying to intrigue,
already high in treason’s league!

An infant pickle??? There were other occasions when my mind boggled, just like this – though even here, the rest of the lines and rhymes suggest the skill of the translator.

There are patches of beautiful poetry – descriptions of Russian landscapes in the different seasons, Tanya’s nightmares vividly evoked, the petty rural domesticity of the earlier sections, the richness of the court where Tanya, now married, is found at the end of the novel.

Tanya (profoundly Russian being,
herself not knowing how or why)
in Russian winters thrilled at seeing
the cold perfection of the sky,
hoar frost and sun in freezing weather,
sledges and tardy dawns together
with the pink glow the snows assume…

Pushkin is also rich and subtle in his ironic treatment of Russian characters and situations – moving from flowery romance to mundane events in a way that neatly satirises his targets. Of Lensky, the young, over-romantic and sentimental poet, one verse concludes:

he sang of lifetime’s yellowed page –
when not quite eighteen years of age.

Similarly, of Tanya’s romantic illusions about Onegin:

this Grandison of hers was splendid,
a fop, a punter on the cards,
and junior ensign in the guards.

It’s a story of love and perhaps a tragedy in the true sense; the end is not death, but Onegin faces consequences caused by his own poor moral choices, whilst, in a way that is often found in Coronation Street, it is the woman who finally makes a strong and correct moral stance, holding society together with her love and self sacrifice. There’s violence and beauty, love and death by duelling – a fate that eventually befell Pushkin himself: in this sense we can see the contemporaneous relevance of the story. What I liked most was the romantic beauty of the settings, and descriptions of the mundane, bourgeois life of Russia at this time:

Her loving spouse with approbation
left her to follow her own line,
trusted her without hesitation,
and wore his dressing gown to dine.

Speaking of which – lunch is ready. Yum yum, as they say on Australian Masterchef

The Oldfield Park Bookshop

Masterchef Australia

Coronation Street

Eugene Onegin

The Opera