Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Rations

What strikes one about the literary diet of the Brontes is its apparent narrowness when compared with the panoply of stimuli thought essential to effect a modern education. A single Latin textbook, the smallest selection of poets, Blackwood's magazine for entertainment...from such meagre resources had they to cultivate their skills, to constitute their knowledge, and to hone their fine judgment. But does not the wealth of their brief lives' great output prove over again, that the chink must not dare be too wide if wonder is something we value?

Wonder: that sense of not knowing what's there to be known, without which there is no true learning, which these sisters did feel in such famous abundance, and which fades to the sight of those half-lidded eyes before which, in these days, small digestible pieces are placed for straightforward consumption, and ever more colourful, crazy concoctions are needed to make them stand open.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

The Other One

Who really remembers to read Agnes Grey? Is it in any man's library? Certainly, it isn't in Everyman's Library, the only one of the Bronte novels to be left so unbound and unshelved. Paired with Emily's Wuthering Heights on first publication, to make up the third in the requisite three volumes of the period, and muted even then by the clamour that greeted Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey is mere filler, mere matter, under-praised, overlooked, and - the fate of all thirds - in the way and thought dull. Agnes herself opens her history with the modest retraction of hopes for some depth or for truth, and the careful suggestion that the return for her reader may not even match his investment; her dry, shrivelled kernel may hardly be worth the small effort that goes into cracking the nut. If Anne is, as Elizabeth Langland would have it, nothing much more than 'the other one,' then Agnes has all the ignominy of being nothing much more than the other one's other one.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Obscurity

...except that not all of the Bronte family were carried to their final resting place through this gate. Poor Anne languishes in Scarborough: to where she was transported in a performance of treatment when all treatment was really in vain; where, on her last day, she was carried, coughing, down the boarding house stairs on Ellen Nussey's back; where she was buried with few of her family in attendance, her father Patrick having known that his cheery goodbye at the door of their high Haworth home was really the last rite of rector to sinner with the hope of a father to child overlain; where now she rests in the peaceful obscurity that can only be known in a place by the sea, to which the world throngs but not for thee.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

The Metalocution Office

The Office of Circumlocution, rendered by Dickens in all its fine print, is a chamber of endless frustration. With Barnacles bound to it, Tite lipped and fast, it serves its old Ship of State well, making just enough breeze between passings of papers to ensure a continuing motion and with just that right number of short, aimless tracks to head off the thought and the verve of its public, too focused and tired out for choppy revolt. Just think of the strangeness of Clennam, arriving and wanting to KNOW!, you know, and, stranger, demanding it DONE!, you hear? Well, he met with short shrift, and endless lined forms, and learned of the roundabout circles of life that kept his Queen safe on her Throne and his Government safe from Reform. It had its full stops, no doubt, this place, and was not all industrious rounds; the spiralling staircase down which Clennam walked in the BBC version last year gives sinister sense of the madness induced by too constant attendance on forms and submissions. But Meagles, for all his despair at the circus, regains his good humour outside; and Doyce, whose life's work is wrapped up in its coils, is not broken down by its ways. For at least it has papers for one who would claim, and a next step to take after this one. So, if one forgoes the hope of completion, of absolute knowledge and positive action, Circumlocution will do.

But Metalocution: now that is a quite different story. For its office has no ways at all by which a man might set to moving his case, not even the Barnacles' roundabout routes, not even the tracks that go nowhere. In Circumlocution, one submits one's claim on a form that will go to the next place, at which place it will be translated to code to render it fit for the next place; at the place after that, or the place after that, one may meet with one's claim once again, for the purpose of ticking another ten boxes, of changing one's mind or of logging one's hopes. All going nowhere, of course, as we said, but all at least full up with purpose. In Metalocution, one submits just once, and never one's own claims and never one's own words. This office is concerned with only its archives, with nought but the ways it reports and it files. In this place, no concession is made to one's ends; it hears only that which it sets up as Good, as Transparent, Impartial, Progressive. One talks in it, writes in it, thinks in it too, in only the ways that are Public; one meets in it, not to say what's to be done but to say that which, archived, will fit with what's Public. One speaks to the minutes, and minutes Public-speak, and the frustrated ends of the Circumlocution begin to seem all very well; at least they would leave to a man his endeavours, and give him ways to set about them. Metalocution is deaf to all labours and keeps men to headless ventriloquy.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

The Common Room

It is (Quite a beginning, for one seated in the common sitting room, road side and wood panelled, quick to put pen down for the common woman's work of domestic meetings and greetings, of tea to be served and talk to be made; a phrase full of poise, a stake driven deep in a world that was scarcely hers to claim.) a truth (But claim it she does, with both hands, eyes fixed on that age old concern that beauty and truth might ally, that art might not simply please, but, in pleasing, reveal what is real; this old hope is worn here, not quite on the sleeve but in the first line that was written and read.) universally acknowledged (Trumpets of Enlightenment: truth is proclaimed as that which implies the agreement of all humankind. Out with the changing, the local, the brief, and in with the lasting and true. Out of the common room, too close, too ad hoc, and into the light of all reason. But already a cloud: this phrase goes to qualify truth and in doing so shows there are truths (not in heaven, but on earth) undreamt of by all those philosophies. And already a blind spot: for what force can the act of acknowledgement have for the absolute nature of truth? If the true is the true, or is taken as true, only once it's acknowledged as true, then the universality claimed by the true is reliant once more on mere common consent...) that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. (Pure Austen, this cool undercutting of grandeur with the small ins and outs of real life. But so much more subtly done than the simple reversal it seems; for critique of pretensions to grand, lasting truth is implied, not exclusively on her own terms of homely concerns and polite social scenes but also within the short opening clause that comes, word for word, from that ivory tower for which novels, and women, and the common rooms in which they were written and sat, are exemplars of all that's untrue.)

Jane takes a small piece of that ivory - two inches wide, that is all - and brings it indoors, to her common sitting room, where its truth must make talk and make tea, and respond to the meetings and greetings that give substance to commonplace life, whose business it is to get five daughters wed and whose solace is visits and news.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Crinoline

As many as twelve whole feet in circumference; stiffened almost beyond its control; a tortuous constructon of whalebone or steel; ill-fashioned for throughways and commonplace seating: the 19th century crinoline took no little part in its era's containment of women. No need in this case to resort to the tropes of imprisonment, bondage, and cages. Comprised of stiff bars running down and across; strapped onto the bodice, pulled tight and laced up; laid over a petticoat woven from hair: the garment interprets itself. The Victorian woman, daily and by her own hand, donned her garment of crime, shame and madness. And pity the beau with an amorous heart who chanced to approach his beloved: it formed her small waist and her childbearing hips, but it wound round her virtue a fence made of iron.

Yet what abandon was there underneath its harsh frame, as limbs that had formerly lived out their sentence in swathes of weighty, encircling clothes that clung close and cloyed like a sickening child were all at once freed by their self-contained skirt for motion not hitherto easy. Eugenie of France, who made crinolines famous, began strenuous walking for health, and housemaids all over, and factory hands, felt a newfound release at their work.

Not even a decade would pass 'til a system of pulleys and ropes was designed by which a lady might raise all her skirts for pursuit of more vigorous games. Thus the habit par excellence of her detention was her first fitting out for release.

Thursday, 30 April 2009

Persuasion

The enthusiast for 19th century fiction may often neglect to discriminate. After all, no new publication that is just to her taste is likely again to appear. In consequence, imagined sequels and prequels are very acceptable, and TV adaptation often a treat. Even a modern-day take has its attractions (although travel through time and/or Space will not do!).

Bridget Jones, then, may be a source of delight, perhaps especially for the starved traditionalist; rather frothy, of course, and thin on the ground, but with a just sufficient vestige of that combination of romance and reserve that defines so the 19th century's novel, not excepting its more apparently cerebral examples: 'You'll forget all about me,' suggests Eliot's Dorothea upon Ladislaw's making farewells. His reply: 'How can you say that, as if I were not in danger of forgetting everything else?' Is there anything superior to this burgeon of sentiment in its tightly laced corset of words? Is there anything quite like that symbiosis of feeling and phrasing brought so to perfection by the 19th century writer?

If one's answer is 'No,' then even Bridget Jones may be comprised in one's enthusiasm; its imitation of one of the 19th century's classics will do, in these spartan days, to occasion the kind of enjoyment that only yet another aspect on one's favourite landscape can give. Which is why it seems incomprehensible that the trick was not tried out again. The Age of Reason, Bridget's sequel, fails miserably, as if all but the film had turned up for the filming.

Of course, Bridget begins her sequel having already secured the young man in possession of a large fortune: therein, no doubt, lies The Age of Reason's rub. But let us imagine the following:

Having given her consent to a man outside her station in life (it is no easy thing, after all, to picture Mark Darcy slamming tequila with Bridget's three mates), Bridget is quickly persuaded by her friends that the relationship is unpromising and that more suitable offers are bound to present themselves, that she is, in short, too young and too fun to settle for the staid life of the staid wife of a top London lawyer. Consulting neither Darcy's opinion nor his feelings, Bridget breaks with him, consoled by the sense that the camaraderie that has been so central to her formation as a young, social, single woman in London is preserved - even strengthened. Shortly afterwards, Mark takes a job in New York to work at the cutting edge of human rights law (and this time he stays there), and Bridget hears nothing more of him than newspaper reports of the success of one of his high profile cases and his subsequent accession to something of the status of star in his native land, not least due to his marked and widely reported ability to lay aside the wigs and powder pretensions of the law and enjoy the grass-roots celebrations of grateful immigrant clients.

In the meantime, Bridget deteriorates somewhat: the flush fades at last from the fast London life, as her two girlfriends get, respectively, married and bitter, and her gay boyfriend drifts into the Scene. Recession hits hard and, to save her diminishing earnings, Bridget spends most nights of most weeks at her parents' house, where the food and the bills are for free. Through all of these trials, it is needless to add that her self-image suffers, as the short skirts and see-through blouses are replaced by clothes more appropriate to her new pounds of flesh. In all, Bridget's lot becomes a rather unenviable one, too often dominated by the caprices of her dissatisfied mother and with little real prospect of a mode of escape. To make matters worse, she finds herself frequently called on by the friend who got married (and who has moved with her family to a place close by the Joneses), ostensibly to help care for the children but really to hear lengthy and exaggerated accounts of the grand career she left behind for all this, and repeated complaints at her neglect by the bitter friend whose feminist views have become so extreme as to make motherhood nought but a treason. But, her own patchy career and humble retreat to the family home bring Bridget herself in for feminist ire and make her a less than effective, and excessively harried, intercessor for her two former friends.

It is into this situation, after some years have run past, that the triumphant, and humanized, Darcy returns. Having made a name, and a fortune, for himself in New York, he has come back to England, where he plans to work pro-bono and far less, and where, most importantly, he intends to settle down, get married, and start a family. As he returns initially to his parents' house, Bridget, who has engaged to stay with her married friend as a companion during her husband's protracted business trip (a trip that has done nothing to improve the married friend's spirits, but has rather added to her round of complaints the suspicion that her husband is having affairs), finds herself unwittingly and helplessly close to Darcy and likely, given the fact of her married friend's desire to resurrect the grandeur of her own lost law career in interaction with England's star lawyer, to be brought into regular contact with him and his circle. Efforts to forestall this contact by means of a sudden willingness to babysit her married friend's children can only delay the inevitable, and Bridget and Mark find themselves, once more, in the same room together.

It is Christmas Day, a day now painful to Bridget in any case, but this time made all the more painful by Darcy's polite but distant attitude to herself despite an obviously improved general sociability. The pain is acute when Bridget's married friend, prompted by a default jealously of Bridget's single status and elated at the intermittent law talk she has had that day with a reluctant Darcy, takes the earliest opportunity that evening to report having overheard Darcy remark on how he should hardly have known Bridget had she not been pointed out to him, so greatly had she changed since last they met. Facing herself in the mirror that night, Bridget admits to herself the grounds for such a remark; what were fabulous curves have grown frumpy and dull, and the finished effect is: decline.

As time passes, and the comings and goings of the circle of family and friends continue apace around the holiday period, it becomes clear that Darcy is beginning to enjoy the rather overt attentions of one member of their party in particular: a young woman who has been renting the converted-garage attached to his parents' house. This young woman is a very nice young woman, and has been especially friendly to Bridget, not simply because Bridget's television connections might open career doors but because she feels genuinely warm towards a person whom she regards as requiring cheering up. Bridget, however, while acknowledging to others and even to herself the many merits of the young woman of their party, feels the insurmountable distance that must separate a personality bouyed up by a natural optimism and apparently independent means, and a nature, such as hers, bound to find out the opportunities for resigned melacholy in every situation that offers itself. In consequence, she and the young woman of their party are not on the terms of intimacy that the latter had hoped for. This is not helped by the ongoing and generally apparent flirtation between the young woman and Mark Darcy, with which the latter is whiling away the holiday period in pleasant style.

Come New Year's Eve, however, a change of scene and society becomes necessary to all the younger members of the Christmas gathering. Bridget travels to London, where she has planned an old-style get-together with her friends, married, bitter and gay. Along too have come Mark and the young woman, the latter having promised to show Mark something of the London scene from which he has been so long removed but having had, to fulfill her promise, no actual knowledge of the scene other than that Bridget and her friends are the best ones to follow. They manage to wedge themselves into a newly opened and fashionable bar for the occasion and Bridget and her friends succeed in resurrecting old times sufficiently to guarantee a thoroughly enjoyable night. Bridget, who has half-consciously given more attention to her appearance during the holidays and as a result of Mark's presence than she has for some time, is looking very well and has unearthed an outfit of her old sexier clothes for the occasion. For the first time in a long time, she feels something of the old enjoyment in life. The general effect of this does not go unnoticed by Mark, who appears - though not yet to Bridget - to be more and more aware of the merits of the woman for whom he had not, a few years ago, been sufficient. Perhaps to counteract this growing effect, perhaps unconsiously to bring it to a climax, he continues, almost by default, his flirtation with the young woman of their party, whose eagerness to be seen as an accomplished reveller on the London scene is leading her to imbibe too much too soon, as Mark, at her request, provides her with drink after drink from the bar. He, for his part, is beginning to tire of the over eager, over youthful, spirits of the young woman of their party and beginning to compare her rather unfavourably with the reanimated Bridget.

And then who should pass by but Daniel Cleaver, who gives such a long, appreciative look at Bridget that Mark, had he not already begun to feel its stirrings, could have remained unaware for no longer of the old attraction of Bridget's real-woman's curves and down-to-earth, melancholic, humour when compared to the too enthusiastic, too readily pleased, too slender, too unformed, young woman getting drunk at his side. Cleaver looks tanned, healthy and well, and his sudden and brief appearance causes great interest amongst Bridget and her friends, whose enjoyment of the evening is gradually marking them off from Darcy and his young woman and growing none the less enviable to Mark as a result...

...the tale writes itself. With only one snag: what can that circumstance be, that results from mere heedlessness on Darcy's part, that is so insubstantial as to wane in the course of a month, but that binds him in honour for life while it lasts? What in our time can rival the threads by which a man then could be tied? Tis a riddle whose key would complete what, in a parlance too modern for even our starved traditionalist, might be termed: Bridget Jones: The Reboot.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Metawriting

The little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces so little effect after so much labour: like so many of Austen's so succinct sayings, to be read with the sense something else is being said. For what are the bounds of powers of expression but the form of an expressive subject; and what is so fine a brush but the tool for exquisite perception? And what are those two inches wide but the waiver of that awareness that makes it so hard to write without watching the writer: the fetish of modernist authors was, after all, no modern effect.

Metawriting: condition of all would-be authors, and their curse. For two inches wide is too small a space to be seen past the bulk of one's sense that one writes. There are, of course, as many ways to cope with this bulk as there are risks that one just never will; but Austen's is a curious way, and works. Northanger Abbey, her first completed novel, does not try to escape its self-aware, self-conscious, stasis but looks what surrender will do.

Picture the scene: the common sitting room, the small writing desk, household life all about in and out, and nothing in view but oneself as the woman who writes in the common sitting room, at the small writing desk, and so on. Surrender! What is it that this woman writes, who writes? Mrs. Radcliffe et al...Gothic Romance, of course! Surrender! Just write what you see if you cannot see past it. Submit to the reader, every line of every page, that this story, which is not Gothic Romance, has nothing to say but that which it would say were it just such a Gothic Romance. And do not stop it at that. Surrender! Let the thinly drawn plot that would not run like this if it were the Romance it is not, draw from Gothic Romance its few small motifs: let its innocent youth learn a lesson from age and let threatening secrets uncover.

Surrender! So laboured, so much labour, I know; but with oh! such little effect: that two inches wide, space cleared and in view.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Length and Breadth

The year 1817 brought the deaths of two prominent English women: Jane Austen, in July, and Princess Charlotte, in November. No surer death knell of an age, still rural and feudal, could have sounded, nor could a new era have been so hurriedly, so unexpectedly, ushered in. Jane, after all, was but 42; Charlotte a mere 21. And yet both, in their way, succumbed to the most mundane, most expected, of conditions. Childbirth took Charlotte, after fifty long hours and a small, still born son. Jane, for her part, combined an array of complaints that, separately and in milder doses, she had visited with irony upon a host of her fictional women: faintness and wan looks, lethargy and headache, loss of appetite and recollection. (On Jane they worked without irony, to the death, and their toll on her looks, as her face lost her bloom to black and white blotches, would not do for romance.) Victims of their female condition, at its most pervasive and most ordinary, these two nonetheless brought an age to its close.

For who would rule England now? George III, with all his fifteen legitimate offspring, had now none with an heir to the throne; Charlotte had been one of a kind, and with her died the hope of royal, permissive, continuance. But her agonizing labour almost literally yielded Victoria, for the vacuum created at its close gave rise to such a flurry of jiltings of mistresses and marryings of eligibles and such a rush of pregnancies, among George's until now rather licentious sons, that Victoria's christening table might almost have coldly been furnished with the meats baked for young Charlotte's wake.

And who would write England now? Jane's tiny round table - placed by the window of her cottage, situated at the turn in the road through Chawton, with green open aspect without and crisp painted wood round within - is larger than two inches square, but not much; and the epigrammatical style of her novels more expansive than daubing on ivory, but not much. What could her offspring possibly be?

Yet, as sovereignty grew constrained and its power contracted, the novel swelled out and its impact expanded: no less did Charlotte's lengthy labour straighten England's rule than Austen's tiny worktop swelled out England's fiction.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

A Progress

In the very last year of her life; when her legs would not walk and her eyes would not see; when news from the front was bewilderingly bad and even triumph seemed protracted and bloody; when her eldest daughter, Empress of Germany, wrote of all but her own fatal illness; and her eldest son, Prince of Wales, was not ripe for the throne despite bearded and bald middle age; when children and grandchildren were dying before her: Victoria resolved to retrench. It was not forced upon her; the day's government, prematurely nostalgic for her dignified rule and somewhat wary of Edward's succession, had grown indulgent. But the country was broken by war with the Boers, in money and in spirit. And the queen would partake of the cost.

But here arose a great disparity between the plethora of expenses incurred by a state that would not relinquish its monarchy - expenses reluctantly borne because so often the price of uncecessary flourish - and the range of tiny outgoings that, by virtue of their nearness to the queen whose vista contracted with age, occurred as occasions for the proper self-mortification. Her bed, she declared, would not yet be mended; and the selection of bread on her table at breakfast would be taken to serious review. Her bed and her bread: small change for an empire, no help to the war; but the greatest sacrifices conceived by a queen, aged, infirm, and so born to her station that its great and costly indulgences came not before her to question, perhaps because even they, at their surface, produced kinds of discomfort.

Her bed and her bread: privation came to her as it came to the many; for the Queen goes a-progress through the lives of her people.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Courtship

"Victorian" is the byword for prudery; yet, Victoria was far from a prude. The era is famous for moral constraint; yet, Victoria would not be constrained. During a neverending reign, she never relinquished her infantile will, though - refracted through sovereignty - this might be taken for royal command. And despite expansions of empire, family, and waistline, she never outgrew the flattery of gallant and powerful men.

Lord Melbourne was first: Prime Minister at succession, he was father, advisor and lover all in one, spending hours of most days in her company, instructing her, explicitly, in the business of government and, implicitly, in the pleasures of courtship when one rules in the court. Albert next - intensified Melbourne - in whom Victoria took a marked and persistent physical pleasure and to whom she turned for all cues to her rule. John Brown after that, the warmth and strength of whose broad kilted body grew necessary to the Queen, over 2o years of her widowhood in which he carted her weight into carriages and onto horsebacks and entered her bedroom at will; soon, no intercessions might be made with her that were not passed by this loyal, alluringly impudent, servant.

Last was Disraeli, his part played out so late that it needed the momentum of 35 years of courtship to suspend disbelief. Victoria: increasingly immobile, red-nosed, more like a cook than a queen; Disraeli: bronchial and ageing. But he smoked nonchalantly in defiance of health, and dyed his hair black in defiance of age, and altogther did for the final hurrah. She was his Faery Queen: boxes of primroses went to his door, notes of submission made their humble reply, and courtship continued, as nervous of Gladstone and his plans for reform as it was dimmed by the shade of the last curtain fall.

Disraeli would not see the Queen at his deathbed, though she made the request.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Virtue

'I do not wish to consider myself, nor yet to be considered, in a bony light': thus Pleasant Riderhood to Mr. Venus, articulator of bones in London's East End. And thus Mr. Venus - though made, it would seem, for true love and surrounded by trophies of his art - loses his domestic chance. He may scuttle its image in the fathoms of his teacup and read in the residue there of twists and turns in its future dearth. But he cannot wash out the taste of its truth: that Venus must never trump Virtue.

Pleasant is in love with Love, no doubt. But Pleasant knows that Love is a virtue; Love is what you do. And if what you do is articulate women, bone by bone, then all the professions of Love in the world will not override the sense, primary and strong, of woman as so many tarsals and carpels, as so many shillings and pence, with no sense nor worth until spoken for.

A woman may be Pleasant; but she must not forget her Virtue: if she does not, then she may win her Love (who agrees to articulate only men, children and the lower animals) and may reasonably hope to keep him.

Monday, 19 January 2009

HM's Chamber

In March 1870, Dickens met Victoria. Her husband's death had left the queen alone in the world, as she considered it, and loath to perform any but the most perfunctory rites of her sovereignty, for which she found excuse in a various and almost wholly elective ill-health. She was, in fact, stout of constitution and, out of respect for an author whose writings she had enjoyed and who had so captured the Victorian age, she remained standing for the course of their interview. He, whose decline in health was no less marked than his determination to suppress the fact in a frenzy of continued exertion, no doubt wished they might both take a seat.

But they stood: a writer, born into the shabbiest of gentilities, who attended to the minutiae of Victorian poverty, to its shawls and its smells, with the careful, expansive, eye of one for whom it was, had been at least, personal; a queen, born into the shabbbiest of sovereignties, whose horizons had narrowed to the diameter of her dead husband's chamber pot, daily scoured out in a mourning that, by now, replaced ruling. London, reeking with river and fog and misery; and a pristine pot, never to reek no more. A man, desperate to bury bad health in a fever for more of his audience; a woman, recoiling from hers in a fiction of nerves and disorders.

Dickens died 3 months later. Victoria reigned for 30 years more.