Living in The Other House

An affluent womanizer, Tony Bream.  The nicest, sweetest girl, Jean Martle.  A desperate lover abroad too long in China, Dennis Vidal.  The odd Rose Arminger.

They all seem like characters from the famed game Clue. 

Who was the murderer of the little girl Effie Bream; who held this child’s delicate body under the water until she drowned?

In The Other House, Henry James writes an awkward murder mystery vis a vis a  novel of manners that begins with some piquant flavor of the supernatural.  As in many of James’s works (such as The Turn of the Screw and What Maisie Knew and The Awkward Age), a child is in grave danger of a horrific and unnameable threat from the adult world.  And as all good fairy tales do, this wayward genre-shifter begins with the death of a damned good mother.

Julia Bream, the ostensibly good mother, experiences a drawn-out death resulting from supposed hysteria (thanks, Dr. Ramage, for your accurate diagnosis) after the birth of her child, Effie.  She becomes obsessed with doing anything in her power to articulate how important it is that her playboy husband Tony not remarry after she dies.  But this request comes with a reason far beyond that of a wife scared of losing the top place in her husband’s heart.  The woman knows that there are many women in her husband’s heart — who doesn’t? — he’s the hottest dish in town.  Her fear is that Effie will have a step-mother, as Julia herself did (what princess hasn’t?).  Her desire is so pronounced that at every turn the reader waits to see a ghost rise up from the bedroom to physically restrain her husband’s phallus, or to encounter a walking Carrie gown dripping with blood and moaning her warning.  Nothing so exciting happens.

Instead, Rose Arminger, Julia’s oldest friend closes Book I with a real struggle of allegiance.  She vows to honor her sister-friend’s wishes, and uphold them at any cost; but to do so, she must keep herself from marrying Tony Bream.

And then, once the alluringJean Martle enters, she must stand between two women marrying Tony Bream.

Arminger, who is so two-faced that she is “awfully plain or strikingly handsome” (13), does what seems a good solution all ’round — murder Effie so that there is no longer any child to protect.

The central action of the plot, the murder of the child, is almost glossed over in the story so that it made its effects so much worse to read.  The only character who genuinely seems upset simply for the loss of an innocent child, is the marginal servant Mrs. Grantham who is said to be wringing her hands and weeping on a bench outside Wilverley, the “other house,” which belongs to Mrs. Julia Beever, while everyone inside juggles around their desires and hopes for the future in a most disturbing way.

Everyone knows that Rose has killed Effie, and everyone knows why.  Tony Bream, the charming dad, steps up and lies that he killed his own daughter so that he could marry Jean, as he knows that he won’t really be punished since, seriously, he is so good-looking that no one will punish him long or hard.  Paul Beever observes at the close of the novel that “they like you too much,” and Tony responds “Oh, too much, Paul!” (324).

Rose gets her punishment by having to marry Dennis Vidal, who seems to have been corrupted by his time in China, by returning with her lover to that country.  Going to live in China is, apparently for James and Tony Bream alike, as good as going to the guillotine.

While reading the back-and-forth love affairs of Tony Bream, which I found immensely fascinating, and all of the triangles that they create, what I wanted to understand most was the function of this “other house,” and of its “queen mother” (89) Mrs. Julia Beever.

Firstly, Wilverly seems important since the novel is named after it (ostensibly).  And secondly Mrs. Beever has Julia Bream’s first name and is also named the “queen mother” early on.  But I am completely perplexed (by a James novel, you scoff?  How unforeseen!).  There doesn’t seem to be any real meaning to be found in Wilverley or in Julia Beever.

To unpack: Beever is mother to Paul who seems like a kind of dud and doesn’t play an overly significant role except to be under his mother’s thumb and to be in love with the evil Rose Arminger.  Beever is not a good mother, but neither is she a bad mother.  I am open to viewing her as the “queen mother” of a dysfunctional family that includes all of the cast of characters.  Sure.  But no one ever goes to her for advice or comfort; no one confides in her — she seems completely on the outside…hence the “other house.”  She and Paul, both, are left out of the mess at Bounds, yet they are bound up in it too. In this way, they are “others.”

This suggests to me that the “mother” figure is the “other” figure in The Other House.  Beever, like the other Julia, watches  over but doesn’t act; she is scared and suspicious but can’t do much to stop what is to come.  These mothers are powerless and contained to their respective homes.  The motherless world is one is which children can be killed simply for reasons of passion.



Heroics in the Arctic with Satan

The motif of arctic exploration is not unique during the Romantic period in which many authors, such as Mary Shelley and Coleridge, utilize the setting of a sub-zero climate and its  dangers to highlight the macabre and mysterious nature of their plots and characters. In Wilkie Collins’s short story “The Devil’s Spectacles” the artic setting is reminiscent of such Romantic literary locations where characters are confronted with what they fear most — in this case, the devil and the dark nature of humanity.   Septimus Notman propels the tale by admitting on his deathbed to being a cannibal through eating his dead friend during an arctic adventure to save himself from starvation.  Upon his contemplation appears the devil with a pair of spectacles for Notman, which will give him the extra push needed to turn him from borderline sinful to full-fledged brute.  These spectacles allow their wearer to  “read everything in [one’s] mind, plain as print” and must be passed on to a different man before Notman can die.

When Notman dies, Alfred, his rich, empathetic, moralistic caretaker finds interest in the spectacles because he wants to determine whether he’s made the right choice to betroth himself to his poor maid, Cecilia, or if he should have followed his mother’s wishes to marry his young cousin Zilla.  “Cecilia,” which means “blind,” proves to have some indecipherable thoughts running through her mind: either they are very deceitful, or they are completely innocent and benevolent.  Alfred falls under the sway of the spectacles to believe that Cecilia is cheating on him with Sir John — a vague figure who once proposed to her and was refused.  After hiding in the bushes with his mother and eavesdropping on Cecilia’s conversation with a wayward maid, they both learn of Cecelia’s noble heart and Alfred never returns to the spectacles, passing them into Sir John’s hands.

The tale is rather more drab than it pretends to be in the first chapters, but it signals a couple important transformations and continuations between the Romantic and Victorian functions of the artic adventure.  Shelley’s Frankenstein, for example, exclaims of his artic trespass: “Prepare! your toils only begin: wrap yourself in furs and provide food; for we shall soon enter upon a journey where your sufferings will satisfy my everlasting hatred.”  It is the scene of hellish retribution.  Frankenstein here comes head-to-head with his creature-ish creation.  There is, perhaps, little less than the sublime element in the arctic, and it brings about deep pain that seems to continue on into infinity.

Collins’s artic is punctuated.  The devil is there — perhaps an ode to Dante’s Inferno in which Satan, weeping from his three colorful faces, is planted beneath a sheath of ice — but he doesn’t permeate beyond the artic; his malignancy is short-lived in England.  England undoes some of his evil work.  Here, the poor, innocent, faithful, and in-love Cecilia comes with a message to be “blind” to the devil’s spectacles; in her is the truth: in woman.

Woman is almost wholly missing from the Romantic confrontation with the arctic.  Where she tries to enter, she is silenced, ineffective.  But in this Victorian landscape we witness some permeability in which saving the tainted man is possible through, of course, the sweet truth of a pure, angelic woman.  That is fodder for another discussion.  But here, the artic, Dante-esque devil meets his foil and one soul has been saved.  The heroic act occurs within the domestic sphere in the safety of the English shrubbery.

I Can’t Forgive Alice Vavasor

Victorians were skeptical, to say the least, of forgiveness.  The process seemed destabilizing at best, insincere at its worst.  Forgiveness never really leaves the map of the Victorian literary landscape and yet authors attempt to push it to the margin.  Dismissing forgiveness as impossible or undesirable appears to be an unrealistic a goal in many of the texts of major and minor writers of the period.  An obvious reason for this quandary is that forgiveness is deeply engrained in gender issues that seem difficult to resolve.  In Tess, Thomas Hardy manifests the nature of gender and forgiveness when he writes of Angel’s response to his abused wife’s confession of past errors.  Tess, ravaged by Angel, forgives him and admits to her own sexual transgressions, seeking a kind of equal ground.  Angel cries that such absolution is outlandish: “O Tess!  Forgiveness does not apply to the case!”  Numerous instances like this in Victorian literature manifest that gender and forgiveness are intertwined.  What is forgivable for a man is often at odds with pardonable actions from a woman.

In his novel Can you Forgive Her? Anthony Trollope makes the connection between gender and forgiveness apparent.  Here, readers are asked to pardon the wayward yet irritatingly proper Alice Vavasor her sexual transgression, as she takes her place in literary history as one of the earlier female jilts in the British canon.  She — and readers, no doubt — are perplexed and perhaps a little angered that characters in this novel as so quick to forgive her societal sins in which she breaks off an engagement with a handsome, rich, and even-tempered Parliament shoe-in for her macabre, facially-scarred, violent, and disinherited cousin.  Like Dorothea Brooke, the protagonist in Mary Anne Evans’s Middlemarch, Vavasor looks to a man to manifest her own dreams.  Brooke craved intellectual acclaim; Vavasor wants to be a member of Parliament.  Both women project their desires — which are beyond their prescribed gender role — onto their male lovers in the hopes of finding fulfillment through them.

John Grey, the jilted but devoted lover of Vavasor, forgives his lover as soon as she breaks off their engagement. Her cousin Kate — whom appears asexual at times or in love with Vavasour at others (perhaps I will take this up in a later post) — has no problem ignoring Vavasor’s second rejection of her brother.  Her noble relatives — all of them! — immediately acquit her of her emotional trespass.  There never was so much easy forgiveness in a Victorian novel.  Vavasor feels this, and it pisses her off.  She doesn’t want to be forgiven.  She pleads with her friends and family to consider and reconsider her actions and to judge them  harshly.  End at the end of the novel, Vavasor is quite disgusted by the fact that society at large can turn its head the other way and allow her to rejoin the ranks (as a government-official’s wife, no less) as a decorous woman.

If all of the world forgives Alice Vavosor then she is determined to never forgive herself, come what may.  No, never.  Readers are taught through Trollope’s novel that Vavasor, despite her mistakes, is an exemplary woman.  She has a heightened sense of justice, morality, and propriety despite her obvious errors: more than any other character.  So, Trollope teaches his readers to trust Vavasor to show them the way.  And the way is quite clear: a woman ought not to ever forgive herself — no matter who else might forgive her — her sexual transgressions.

Self-forgiveness is the thing, perhaps, that Victorians can’t let go.  This type of forgiveness, more than any other, is so bound to gender issues and also to the rhetoric of the times, that authors can’t seem to leave it alone despite their apparent desire to dismiss forgiveness altogether as a necessary or possible action.

Forgiveness is a return to the self, to the individual…and we all know how much Victorians adored the individual.  The individual was the goal, the backbone, the god.  Individuality was the saving grace in the face of error.  Individuality was a social performance, like gender.

At the close of Can you Forgive Her? readers are asked to follow suit and forgive Vavasor — easily — for what she has done.  As a reader in the 21st century I could really care less about her jilting Grey; I once jilted a lover.  What I struggle to forgive in Vavasor is her insistence that she can never want to forgive herself.

Dickens and the Excrement Product

Freud’s claim that excrement is ailment makes a tidy frame for the familiar portrait of Victorian London, or what Dickens in Bleak House calls a “filthy wilderness.” Excrement, defined in the OED as “that which remains after a process of sifting or refining,” emerges from a laborious and sometimes painful process of internalization and elimination that is both visceral and psychological. To excrete is to rid the body of what was once inside it, creating a product with pungent olfactory properties.  Andrea Tanner has explained that as an affront to civilized society, just the smell of excrement was believed by Victorians to carry disease. The correlation between smell and disease prompted upper class Victorians to demand that the metropolitan local government install a program for waste removal, which created a new class of manual laborers to fill the urban streets.  Dirt sweepers and dustmen were employed to help dispel the threat that excrement (and especially horse manure, of which each horse produced between 15-30 pounds daily) posed to both the upper class body and its material possessions. These laborers may have given the upper class peace of mind but at a high price, as sweeping streets and emptying dustbins also acquainted laborers with a more epicurean lifestyle.  The popular “Educated Dustman” figure was held in contempt yet grudgingly admired by some upper class Victorians.  Engaging in self-improvement through reading, challenging the status quo, and acting as “heroic warriors” in the battle for social progress, the Educated Dustmen of London posed a threat to rigidly defined borders of rich and poor.  Because sanitation issues were connected to the poor, the dirty body came to symbolize a social discourse obsessed with sanitation.  The excrement product — dirt, dust, and waste that has material value — suggests a breakdown of social hierarchy. This excrement product has material value, first, in its contribution to creating the liminal spaces of public and private life.  Secondly, the excrement product has social weight as capital.  Finally, the excrement product itself produces social identity by engendering the racially transgressive body, providing a basis for colonialism and constructing theories of reality in the nineteenth century.

Because excrement is ailment, it embodies human struggle.  As one of the most universal sources of human struggle, the private/public divide is marked by the excrement product.  During the sixteenth-century, French edict required that human waste be kept in the home rather than thrown into the street.  Fecal waste became an excrement product that had value in its very social uncouthness; it was an unsavory product that must be restricted to the home.  As Dominique LaPorte argues, “As a ‘private’ thing […] shit becomes a political object through its constitution as the dialectical other of the ‘public.’”  Women, described by Ruskin in Sesame and Lilies as “rulers” of the private sphere during the Victorian period, were expected to tend to this political object (shit).  Both women and their private sphere provided ways to measure the “health” of the nation.  Poor reports of sanitation in the city lent health reporters to blame female labor, especially in factories, that took women out of the home, for not only urban sanitation problems but also for moral pollution (see Marjorie Levine-Clark’s Beyond the Reproductive Body).  This political objectification of the excrement product helped mark the home as a distinctly “private” sphere capable of pollution, denoting the “private” as a place to hide dirty possessions and immoral habits.

As a symbol of feces for Freud, gold and money are “brought into the most intimate relationship with dirt.”  The tendency of the rich to hoard money away in private easily lends itself to a relationship with excrement.  For example, Norman Brown asserts that a child in the anal stage “holds dear his excrement so he can share it with others.” However, through acculturation the child must learn to repress his desire to publicize his excrement product (or wealth) which, according to Brown’s theory, indicates that the privatization of the excrement product is somewhat responsible for miserliness. Wealth becomes, like excrement, aversive and repressive.  And like the word “shyte” in Thomas Elyot’s 1538 Dictionary, excrement has social value in its aversive qualities (while other “dirty” words, like “cunt,” have no social value – Melissa Mohr’s “Defining Dirt” is a useful article to note here).  Moreover, becoming wealthy and maintaining wealth is a process of subordination.  As Ruskin argues in Unto This Last, “the art of making yourself rich […] is equally and necessarily the art of making your neighbor poor.” More money leads to further consumption, which creates more waste.  Wealth births poverty, and poverty births excremental dirt; therefore, riches are excrement (Christopher Herbert makes this point in his article “Filthy Lucre”).  Just as prevalent a theme in Victorian fiction as the public/private divide, social class is a driving force in fictional representations of excrement. Indeed, as Natalka Freeland posits, “social problem fiction is defined by its dirtiness.”  As William Cohen’s description in Filth conveys, wealth can be read as both a “dystopic pollution and utopian resource.”  Victorians renounced their attraction to/relationship with the excrement product, replacing that satisfaction with the private hoarding of capital.  Hoarded capital, or what Catherine Gallagher terms “illth,” is a life-sucking possession capable of causing bodily harm (such as the spontaneous combustion splattering the pages of Bleak House).  Like the blood that bubbles from Richard Carstone’s lips after he loses the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit, capital infects people from the inside, inviting vampires like Mr. Vholes to suck them dry.  If we read “illth” as a kind of excrement product then those most associated with capital are interpolated as “dirty,” and capable of contamination and harm.

Despite the possible associations between excrement and wealth, contamination was often synonymous with poverty.  Ironically, the disposal of waste was cheaper for the rich.  As a leading fear in the aristocracy, threats of contamination from the poor were personified by a rising middle class and increasingly visible lower class.  Dirt and dust evidenced the dreaded economic and social invasion of the poor.  Like poverty, dirt is a byproduct of industrialization. Dirt and poverty demarcate obscenity, immorality, and death.  To be aware of dirt and poverty is to acknowledge the existence of a system that creates dirt and poverty.  But dirt also indicates a breakdown of that system. The excrement product, then, is a product of civilization; it is a product that marks the body.  Dirt epitomizes social identity through its markings of the body and the body’s relationship to it.  No body wears the markings of dirt more than the impoverished body.  Using the body as a medium, the markings of excrement (ailment) visibly move in and out of the impoverished body.  Disease, odor, dirty clothing, unsanitary living situations, and emaciated flesh mark the lower classes as a kind of excrement product that should be avoided in the public sphere.  If dirt indicates a breakdown of a system then dirt may also indicate the breakdown of a body.  Psychoanalytic discussions of the “dirty” posit the body, and especially the maternal body, as an abject figure susceptible to excretions.  In her Powers of Horror, Kristeva suggests that society is “horrified” by the breakdown of meaning that the abject maternal figure presents because the “dirty” body relates a breakdown between subject/object or self/other which disrupts order.

Powerful because of its intimacy with the body and its ability to deconstruct order, then, the dirty, impoverished body threatened aristocratic stability.  Cleanliness was the difference between order and disorder. Moreover, as Anne McClintock explains, dirt disrupts “the domestic fantasy of cleanliness depended upon by an empire that worked to clean up colonies that were dirty.”  Because many of the theories concerning race, gender, and difference during the nineteenth century relied upon a language of cleanliness and purity, racial hybridity and trangressive women were markers of contamination.  English colonization was partially enabled through the dichotomy of the dirty and clean, equating cleanliness with Christian ideals of purity (think Leviticus).  The fear of dirt sanctioned English government to take control not only of other countries, but also of England itself.  The Victorians’ desire to avoid dirt (and the poverty it symbolized) authorized English law to infringe upon certain human rights.

The establishment of the law, championed by the aristocracy, not only attempted to make the impoverished body invisible, but also to make the workings of its own institution invisible.  This is nowhere more evident than in Dickens’ Bleak House.  The shroud of suffocating fog that permeates “the dirtiest streets” of London at the opening of Bleak House finds its way into every crevice of modern life, from Tom-all-Alone’s to the Dedlock estate.  The “undrained, unventilated, deep black mud and corrupt water”of Tom-all-Alone’s invades even Chesney Wold where “the little church in the park is mouldy, the oaken pulpit breaks into a cold sweat; and there is a general smell and taste as of the ancient Dedlocks in their graves.”  The excrement product in Bleak House is inescapable: Esther wears the markings of social infection on her face, Lady Deadlock’s mildewed hair prevents immediate identification, the thick humidity that “breaks out like a disease” transforms London into an “ocean,” the stench of corpses remain in Jobling’s apartment, Ghost’s Walk, and the graveyard, Peepy’s dirty body makes everything wet, Jo’s tears are dirty, Phil Squad is a “dirty little man,” Chadband has a dirty thumbnail, Young Turveydrop’s apprentices wear dirty gauze dresses.  But over all this dirt looms the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit, which touches every character of the novel.  The finger of the law is dirtiest of all.  It, like Dickens, shines light into all corners of London to reveal the dank and dirty conditions of modern life.  Krook, who incarnates the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit, spontaneously combusts.  His body “smears like black fat” on Guppy’s sleeve, like the fog of London that persists with its “smouldering, suffocating substance vapour.” The excrement of a body possessed by the law revolts against the body itself.  Among other things, Dickens uses excrement product to highlight the fear that that which does not belong will find its way in, and destroy order.  Like Dracula who Leila May argues is the “emblem of the nineteenth-century horror of disease,” excrement enters through the private quarters, contaminating women first; social “others” and the poor follow.

Although excrement is ailment, Freud upholds in his Letters that it is also “unavoidable and asks to be treated humanely.”  The excrement product is a materialization of the social, sexual, political, and economical issues of Victorian England.  These elements combine to illustrate what Dickens describes in Oliver Twist as his objective in novels to portray “miserable reality” by focusing on the “squalid…dirtiest paths of life.” For Dickens, the excrement product provides the necessary tool to create realism.  The realism that Dickens portrays reflects concerns with the health of modern society.  Like the world he depicts, it is a kind of realism that “ought to clean itself up.”  Realism and the excrement product are inseparable; they are both the truth and the repression of the truth.   As Jo indicates in Bleak House, all people do is die.  Dickens connects the impoverished and the cadaverous body to show the excrement product as the final form of reality as the body decays, becomes part of the earth, and provides the sheets of dust on streets and belongings. The body becomes the excrement product, wearing its poverty even after (and perhaps especially) in death.  As the ultimate symbol of excrement, then, the body leaves its mark on all classes as the flakes of flesh that continue to invade civilized life, despite death.

The Best Wound in Trollope’s Lady Anna

When I was an undergraduate with an interest in studying Victorian literature, a professor once asked me how much Trollope I had read.  I scratched my head: Trollope?  Never heard of him.

The professor explained that Anthony Trollope used to be the backbone of nineteenth-century literature courses, so I, of course, made Trollope the focus of my summer reading, the summer of 1999.

I began with the Barchester Towers series and eventually came around to one of my all time favorite Trollope novels, the very ambitious He Knew He Was Right.  I could see why readers have long found his works so captivating and even why they have been — and remain — a reference point in Victorian studies.

My thirst for Trollope carried me to some of his lesser-known works, such as Lady Anna, which some critics have boasted rivals He Knew He Was Right in its display of insanity.  Well, that would be a pretty huge undertaking and I couldn’t wait to read it.

Lady Anna is a story about an ambitious but poor young woman — Josephine Murray — who is courted by a sleazy but very rich gentleman — Lord Lovel — whom she marries.  When she becomes pregnant with  her daughter Anna, Lovel insists that their marriage has been a hoax and goes abroad, leaving Murray to defend herself against the wagging tongues of England.  For twenty years, Murray has only one aim and that is to reestablish herself among high society as a truthful yet victimized woman whose daughter deserves the title “Lady” and the monumental inheritance and distinction that comes with it.

During these twenty years of long suffering the Murrays are taken in by the liberal Twaites, a father and son duo hell-bent on helping to call out the aristocracy on their indecency.  While the elder Twaite, a tailor, spares no expense to help Murray (despite his poverty), his son Daniel makes love behind the scenes to Anna, who promises him her hand.

Nothing seems very awry in the courtship between Daniel and Anna until the Murrays’ case in court — in which Murray pleads that she is the lawful wife of the late Lovel and that Anna deserves a proper title and Lovel’s money — actually becomes credible.  The law increasingly is made to believe that Murray is entitled to her share, despite her rival’s claim.  Her rival — the young Lord Lovel — is bankrupt and made to court Anna in order to secure the money if, in fact, the jury sides with her.

Murray is absolutely convinced that Anna should marry Lovel because then she will have the title that she deserves.  When Anna visits the Lovels for an extended stay she even believes that Lovel is charming enough to earn her love (despite his pink silk gowns).  But then, she is determined to remain true to her vows to the “foul, sweltering tailor” Daniel Thwaite.  This decision propels the novel.

Murray sinks, incrementally, into a dark abyss of insanity as Anna continues to insist that she will, despite her new inheritance (which she eventually wins), marry Thwaite. The marriage is looked down upon by everyone because suddenly Thwaite is “below” the kind of man that a Lady should marry due to his working class status.  Murray descends: “Then there came upon her a mad idea — and idea which was itself evidence of insanity — of the glory which would be hers if by any means she could prevent the marriage.”

Her strategy?  Kill Thwaite.

In what are some of the most lukewarm descriptions of an insane woman on the verge of murder I have ever read in a Victorian novel, Trollope describes Murray’s descent into madness like a stroll through the park. Even when she does shoot a bullet through Daniel’s shoulder it seems like a domestic shot.  She closes her eyes, mews like a kitten, and then, after the fact, becomes a shadow of her former self.

If Murray’s madness is anticlimactic, what is most compelling about Lady Anna is Trollope’s use of Daniel’s body wound from the shot.  In many — even most — Victorian novels the female body functions as a site for redemption.  It suffers, it wears the markings of that suffering for all to see.  But  here, Thwaite’s body must be sacrificed for happiness to ensue.

Really?  This is so rare!

After Thwaite is shot by his fiance’s mother, he decides to…be silent about it.  He explains: “It will be a lesson to her, and if so it may be good for us.” His body is made to absorb the anxieties of Murray, to be a walking articulation of her failed hopes and deepest fears, and he emerges on the other end wounded and silent.  A classic feminine Victorian prototype, no?

Yet, Daniel is one of the more “manly” Victorian heroes: what Trollope describes as “a very man.”  He is held as the opposite to Lord Lovel, who is a “butterfly.”  Daniel insists that “a woman should not be a butterfly — not altogether a butterfly, but for a man it is surely a contemptible part.”

This manly man, then, has his body ravaged and uses his silence to attain the ends that he desires. A very Pamela to the end!  During this period, Daniel “declared very often this this was the happiest period of his existence. Of all the good turns ever done to him, he said, the wound in his back had been the best.”

Amidst all the unnecessary recapitulation of a simple plot and the disappointing descent of Murry into “madness,” I was pleased to see that Trollope was still pushing boundaries by offering this twist to body politics. The best wound in Lady Anna is, surprisingly, the male wound, which makes it all possible…if not somewhat readable.

Jane Eyre Does Not Cry

A couple days ago I took some students in my class to see the latest cinematic attempt to bring Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel Jane Eyre to the public.

At the opening scene of Cary Fukunaga’s film my heart sank down into my heels and then, from there, I only stomped the ground with a red face throughout the rest of the film, trying to crush and smother the disappointment and anger that swelled through my body.

What I love about Bronte’s novel is her ability to articulate the position of a woman who is the kind of caged bird that Maya Angelou, more than one hundred years later, uses to express her abusive past.  Jane Eyre is my hero.  The world has tried to smash her to pieces and yet she perseveres in the staunchest ways possible.  At moments she may put on the garb of moderation or even indifference but never for long.  No garb can hold her spirit.

Fukunaga’s film begins with Eyre running through the English countryside away from Thornfield.  She is crying and even curls up into the fetal position.  I almost walked out of the theatre.  JANE EYRE….CRYING!!!???  Never.  Not Jane Eyre.  Not even Rochester can subdue her pride, her passion, her spirit.  (Well, maybe St. John can, but that is neither here nor there right now.)

Eyre appears to be from another world for many reasons.  She is from another world.  No character in Victorian fiction can match her uncanniness. No heroine can parallel her fierce passion.  My god.  The pages can hardly hold it.

I have never seen a film that does Eyre’s passion justice.  It actually brings tears to my eyes.  When one student said that Jane Eyre was just like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice I almost threw up.

Coming home from the film, I felt like the caged animal.  When will directors of Bronte’s masterpiece read the novel?

Produce! Produce!: Victorians and Work

Victorians wrote love stories about work.  Labor was the answer to almost every question.
Carlyle’s hero in Sartor Resartus cries, “Produce!  Produce! […] Work while it is called To-day; for the Night cometh, wherein no man can work.”

For Victorian authors and artists, work is either placed on a pedestal as an emblem of progress, or its face is dirtied like a troublesome rogue in texts like Gaskell’s Mary Barton and even Trollope’s The Claverings.
Yet, this, too, is a love story — perhaps more so.

In a historical moment of such monumental change in which every voice bleated the ultimate rebel yell of “FORWARD!” labor seemed the vessel of progress.  Sometimes the only vessel.

I think back to my childhood and my earliest perceptions about work, especially for women.

I always wanted my mother to work rather than to stay home with me and my sisters.  This was most likely because I sensed that my mother, too, wanted to work (despite the fact that she loved being a mother).
Yet she was crammed into the small shoe of motherhood.

Tight, white on the outside and red on the inner label that no one can see, I always imagined that my mother was tired of her motherhood shoes. Not that she didn’t want to be a mother.  And not that motherhood is not a form of labor.  Indeed, motherhood is the ultimate form of labor: the original labor.

What I mean is that on the inside I always felt that my mother was a business woman, or maybe a politician.  That all she really needed was some avenue through which she could use her motherhood shoes to stomp on some shit.

She’d be one hell of a shit-stomper.

Today, I ask myself if we — women of the twenty-first century — continue to feel, like the Victorians, that work is a saving grace.  THE saving grace.   

Florence Nightingale is my muse for this inquiry.  In her novella Cassandra she reads my mind.  From her place in mid-nineteenth-century England, this writer/nurse tapped into my twentieth-century politics.  Below, I have included some of my favorite quotes from Cassandra:

  • The position of a single woman of thirty in the middle classes is horrible.  Her cares are to be properly dressed, to drive or walk or pay calls with Mama; to work miracles or embroidery – but for what?  What we want is something to do, something to live for. 
  • In the conventional society, which men have made for women, and women have accepted, they must have none, they must act the face of hypocrisy, with the lie that they are without passion.
  •  Dreaming always – never accomplishing; thus women live – too much ashamed of their dreams. […] Women dream until they have no longer the strength to dream.
  •  Give us back our suffering, we cry to Heaven in our hearts – suffering rather than indifference; for out of nothing comes nothing.  But out of suffering may come the cure.  Better have pain than paralysis!
  • Women often long to enter some man’s profession where they would find direction, competition (or rather opportunity for measuring intellect with others, and, above all, time [for thought]. 
  • Women never have half an hour in their lives […] that they can call their own, without fear of offending or of hurting someone.
  • Men are afraid that their houses will not be comfortable, that their wives will make themselves ‘remarkable’ – women, that they will make themselves distasteful to men; they write books (and very wisely) to teach themselves to dramatize ‘little things’ to persuade themselves that ‘domestic life is their sphere’ and to idealize the ‘sacred hearth.’

 Phew.  Nightingale.  I mean, she’s on to something about the twenty first century, don’t you think?

On the other hand, many of my friends or colleagues — all who work well-paying and labor-intensive jobs — often tell me that they fantasize about staying home and raising their children.  Such a desire makes sense in many ways: if I were a parent (obviously I’m not a parent) then I would want to stay home for the sake of teaching and cuddling my children, and not missing out on any development.

At the same time, however, I relate women who do not work outside the home (farming, personal business, home-schooling and other obviously labor-centered activities don’t count) to my ultimate nightmare.  Women without jobs are often –sometimes mistakenly — attributed with a lack of passion and ambition.  Moreover, they are — sometimes unjustly — viewed as scared of the outside world.

Certain women — or men — who fit these categories have always seemed to me, trapped.  Indoors.  Inside themselves.  Lacking the drive for labor that has seemed — perhaps problematically so — the fulcrum of society.

I wonder if my friends and colleagues were to actually achieve their dream of not working outside the home, if they would be happy.  Women have worked SO hard to fight for women working beyond the confines of the home, that I doubt I could ever go back.