Facetious Nights

A book blog

Cecilia by Frances Burney

A beautiful and virtuous young heiress has less than a year to go until she comes of age is leaving the country to live in London with Mr Harrell one of her three guardians.  Her late uncle has appointed has appointed Mr Harrell, the husband of her childhood friend, Mr Briggs, an eccentric and off-putting miser and Mr Delvile, a gentleman from an old family who is absurdly proud.   Cecilia soon realises that she is in an unfortunate position as her childhood friend and her husband lead a shallow extravagant social whirl of a life.  Cecilia pines for rational conversation and true affection and learns the human cost of the Harrells’ extravagance: honest workmen and their families are suffering because the Harrells refuse to pay what is due to them.  Cecilia feels that the relief of the poor is the true purpose of her great wealth.  She is emotionally blackmailed into lending the Harrells large sums of money but regrets wasting money on such a hopeless cause.  She hopes to escape from the Harrells but is hindered by the defects of her other two options.

Mr Delvile comes out ahead of Mr Briggs as his wife and son tip the balance.  Cecilia feels greatly drawn to Mrs Delvile who shares her husband’s unreasonable family pride but apart from this important flaw has a high moral and intellectual tone.  Cecilia and the young Mortimer Delvile are drawn to one another but their attraction is blocked first by a series of irritating circumstances which make it appear as though Cecilia’s affections are already engaged, then by the family pride.  Cecilia’s ancestry is only vaguely adequate but the real obstacle is a clause in her uncle’s will that if she marries she will lose her fortune if her husband doesn’t take her name.  I was put off reading this novel for years because I knew this was the major plot point and how it turned out.  I dislike Obstacle Fiction in general where everything goes wrong and I found the idea of having to take this obstacle seriously too annoying.  In the event, this potential name change isn’t represented as a serious, gendered obstacle, really.  The book treats the clause as a pretty normal thing in the circumstances and makes it clear that for most people it would not be an obstacle; it’s just that this one guy’s family are weirdos.

Mortimer struggles with the family pride name issue before telling Cecilia that he loves her so much that it doesn’t matter to him, in a scene that is very similar to Mr Darcy’s first proposal but less stiff-necked.  His parents, however, are not budging.  Cecilia never accepts the validity of their position but, being so virtuous, she naturally takes filial obedience very seriously, as well as feeling too much pride herself to push in somewhere she isn’t wanted.  The conflict between duty and inclination is painful for Cecilia but it is never in question which she will choose.  The problem is that because duty in this case is defined solely by other people’s feelings her knowledge of her duty fluctuates frustratingly out of her control.

The conflict is made more painful because Cecilia is invested in her relationship with Mrs Delvile as well as with Mortimer.  Mrs Delvile is painfully torn between her great affection for Cecilia and her adamant, unquestionable conviction that Mortimer must not change his name. Cecilia is only able to maintain her affection for Mrs Delvile because, being so virtuous and forgiving, she is willing to occupy her point of view and see that her feelings are real to her and that, feeling as she does, she ought to stick to her guns.  There is a constant interchange of painful forgiveness and overlooking causes of resentment between — well, I was going to say Cecilia and Mrs Delvile, but really between them and Mortimer as a group of three and between Cecilia and Mortimer as well.  This is also the case with Cecilia’s friend Henrietta who has a crush on Mortimer.  Characters’ interests conflict, even where there is the highest level of affection and sympathy.

One of the things that I wondered about most while reading the novel was the degree to which features only work because of the novel’s specific moment in time.  The language is one of these features.

This is how the characters speak in moments of high drama (which are a lot of moments):

“No, we will not part!” cried Delvile, with increasing vehemence; “if you force me, madam, from her, you will drive me to distraction!  What is there in this world that can offer me a recompense?  And what can pride even to the proudest afford as an equivalent?  Her perfections you acknowledge, her greatness of mind is like your own; she has generously given me her heart,  — Oh sacred and fascinating charge!  Shall I, after such a deposite, consent to an eternal separation?  Repeal, repeal your sentence, my Cecilia! let us live to ourselves and our consciences, and leave the vain prejudices of the world to those who can be paid by them for the loss of all besides!”

“Is this conflict, then,” said Mrs Delvile, “to last forever?  Oh, end it, Mortimer, finish it and make me happy! she is just, and will forgive you, she is noble-minded, and will honour you.  Fly, then, at this critical moment, for in flight alone is your safety; and then will your father see the son of his hopes, and then shall the fond blessings of your idolizing mother soothe all your affliction, and soften all your regret!”

“Oh madam!” cried Delvile, “for mercy, for humanity, forbear this cruel supplication!”

“Nay, more than supplication, you have my commands; commands you have never yet disputed, and misery, ten-fold misery, will follow their disobedience.  Hear me, Mortimer, for I speak prophetically; I know your heart, I know it to be formed for rectitude and duty, or destined by their neglect to repentance and horror.”

It occurred to me that we’re kind of used to hearing Elizabethan/Jacobean non-naturalistic literary language, but the eighteenth-century equivalent doesn’t get aired in the same way, and I’d be interested to hear actors make this kind of thing sound natural.  This kind of dialogue always makes me think of musicals; characters open their mouths and express themselves in this performative “pretend this is how the world is” kind of way.  Novels of this period get away with this high-flown stuff without having to make it a whole “I’m doing a thing” thing — or being just plain bad, of course.

I was also struck with the character of Cecilia.  While the concept of her character is very simple — she’s perfectly balanced and right about everything apart from sometimes being just too generous — there were aspects that didn’t feel so familiar as I might have expected.  What really struck me about Cecilia was that her great instinct for goodness is rooted in her need to respect herself.  This is explicitly stated many times.  When she feels unsure she has made the right decision she decides she needs to recover her self-esteem as her first priority.  I’m not actually sure I’ve ever seen self-worth uncritically presented as the primary, central motivation for goodness.  I can certainly imagine some Victorian novelists presenting this strain of thought critically or at least ambivalently as self-sufficient, in the disapproving Victorian inflection of the word.  And Cecilia is self-sufficient; she has no one she can look to for ethical guidance.  The influence that has most impact on her is the Delviles’ disproval of her marrying Mortimer and while she submits to this she never respects it, never regards it as anything other than an unfortunate foible.  She has no one in her life who matches her in both principles and capability.  Mortimer is a worthy young man, of course, but she can’t rely on him to make decisions about their potential marriage that will allow her to keep her own good opinion.  She is not completely correct in all her decisions and perceptions, as she is both young and faced with a lot of tough choices, but she comes very near perfection in her serious, sensible but liberal and sympathetic way.  She has the greatest delicacy and rectitude and sometimes faints with sensibility and is therefore irreproachably good and feminine but that emphasis on her sense and judgement and risk-aversion means that she could come across as dull or stolid, because she doesn’t strike either a sweet, mellifluous damsel note, or a more challenging, strident note of principled, intelligent woman at odds with the ethics of her environment — even though that is what she <i>is.</i>  I think Burney avoids making Cecilia a prig but I’m not quite sure how.  I do wonder if it has something to do with her being able to play her straighter, without it that choice making her a writer who doesn’t understand when something is too clichéd to be used so straight and also well.  As it is, Burney does undercut some of her high drama and high tone with farce and sly commentary, though not as often as Austen does.

The novel is pessimistic about the world and the possibility of solutions to its sufferings and problems.  Cecilia is better than the rest of it but she must compromise with it, not reform it or defeat it or exist in supreme isolation.

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The Idiot by Elif Batuman and Alberta and Freedom by Cora Sandel

The Idiot

Selin, a young Turkish-American student at Harvard, tries earnestly to be educated and has a crush on Ivan, an emotionally unavailable flake. Most of her communication with Ivan happens through enigmatic emails. The novel is about the attempt to find or imbue meaning. It’s an attempt that doesn’t meet with success, exactly; the novel ends with Selin declaring that she has learned nothing. Nevetheless, it’s an attempt that accrues experience we can see is a kind of learning. A very nebulous, negative type of learning, perhaps. The novel has a very bald, deadpan style. If the style doesn’t work for you, you will find this novel decidedly dull. For me, that was what made the novel work; it establishes a very direct connection to Selin and the way experience works. It walks a fine line between the banal and ascribing over-significance, and generally it kept its balance very well. The defining features of Selin is basically her emptiness, her nervous willingness to be filled and her inability to find anything that will do it, sorting through what seems to be on offer in a way both naïve and shrewd. That emptiness and fruitless search for meaning makes the novel sound more dreary and existential than it is; I found it droll rather than dreary. The emptiness is that of just not having been around that long, not that of ennui. Selin is passive because everything is new and therefore to have anything happen at all is a kind of seeking. Not a lot does happen and we can imply that this in itself will help Selin eliminate options; seeking becomes more active the more options are eliminated.

Alberta and Freedom

Here you spend some time blowing about uncertainly with Alberta in Paris. Alberta is not a painter herself but she is part of a social group of artists and there is a fair bit of description of the days and their atmospheres that seemed painterly. It’s not a happy book but I felt somehow something quite warm and likeable about it. Alberta is a very occasional artist’s model and freelance journalist but really she has no job. This means she has no role and no income. Sometimes she scribbles fragments which may ultimately add up to something, to a role, but they do not do so yet. Both the lack of money and the lack of role are problems but this rolelessness brings us to the freedom of the title. Alberta is lost and lonely, shut out from the action of life both because she is evading it and because she cannot get into it. This awkward, unnerving in-between-ness in which she somehow carries on is the nearest she can get to freedom because there she is as much herself as the world will allow her to be, without having to be something to somebody else. This is part of why the book has some warmth to it; Alberta’s life is not so devoid of consolation as it might seem. But then, in one of the most important moments of the book for me, Alberta has a fleeting epiphany that everything she has suffered has given her more wisdom and experience, more illumination, than before, and I feel this is a consolation which could be carried over into the next book, where I gather Alberta is not free. The freedom theme is very gendered; all the choices open to Alberta and other women involve more irrevocable commitment than they might for men, which corrupts the joy of romantic relationships.

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett and Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight by Elizabeth von Arnim

The Wee Free Men

Girl goes into Fairyland to get back her brother who’s been stolen by the fairy Queen. Tiffany has already decided that she is going to be a witch and she learns throughout the book what it means to be a witch. Her dead grandmother was, basically, a witch and Tiffany spends a lot of time getting to grips with what made her grandmother special and coming to terms with her death and her own future continuing her work. This definitely has one of the fullest, if not the fullest, unfoldings of Pratchett’s particular take on life. The witches who seem to be most closely identified with Pratchett’s own ideas have an earthy, almost saturnine or dour approach and aren’t quick to allow themselves or other people frills. By taking on the witch role they’re denying themselves other things in their lives and their reward is knowledge, being close to the workings of the universe. Evil distorts reality and Pratchett leans especially hard on this idea here with the fairy Queen. Duty is heavily emphasised. Magic is stepping up and doing your job and doing it well.

All this stuff about what it means to be good is my sort of thing and I particularly like stuff about how goodness is essentially a true understanding of life.  I liked the Granny Aching stuff.  However, I felt there were slacknesses and that the book didn’t match my favourite Pratchett Witch books. I felt I could detect too much resentful defence of being a taciturn, logical person sometimes, in a way that didn’t feel as if it had quite enough to do with Tiffany. Then again, that was probably because Tiffany didn’t feel nine. Thirteen would have been better. She seemed to have too much baggage about the kind of person she was but then, not being that kind of person, I don’t suppose I would know at which age baggage might accrue.   The confrontation scenes with the fairy Queen were too repetitive, both of other Pratchetts and in themselves. The plot is kind of a tag-on. I don’t think that the humour is broader or more juvenile really than other Pratchetts, but it felt quite slabby, like “Now here is a humorous scene.” I think that’s what I would say about this book; the humour and the ethics are both less folded into each other than in better Pratchetts.

Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight

A well-behaved young princess from a small Ruritanian country breaks out in search of the simple life, attempting to settle in an idyllic English village and wreaking havoc on the inhabitants in her desire to bring them help and pleasure.

This is new to me but I reread The Enchanted April and Christopher and Columbus in recent months, which, like this, are very sunny. Christopher and Columbus, like Princess Priscilla, has the feel of one of those charming, slight, whimsical and slightly odd black and white films. I was thinking about Arnim’s themes when I read these, because it’s interesting to see how the same stuff can be turned to different purposes. The way people who are truly sincere cannot make themselves understood, as if they are speaking a different language, which leads to misunderstandings both comic and tragic. The intoxication of getting away from one’s responsibilities. Not a permanent getting away, as far as I can recall, and certainly not here. Whimsical framings of trains of logic which sometimes leads her characters right and sometimes wrong. Sunny as some of Arnim’s books are, the same themes and tics are used to much more depressing effect in some of her others like Vera, Love and, ultimately, The Pastor’s Wife, which deal with psychological oppression and manipulation and desperation. The stony ground on which the tremulously ingenuous fall on.

This is a slight and whimsical read with some darker aspects that might grate. Not a great work or anything but I enjoyed it a lot.

A Scots Quair by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

Something I really liked about this trilogy about early twentieth-century Scotland is the way each book builds on the last. They’re all related and the last two books do things they couldn’t do if it hadn’t been for the last book, but they’re all different. The big theme of the trilogy is, on a personal level, gaining experience and what it does to you, and, more generally, the inevitability of change.

Sunset Song, the first novel, is a bildungsroman, really. Chris Guthrie is the teenage daughter of a crofter in 1911 Scotland. She’s torn between identifying as the “English” Chris, who finds reality in the pages of books and wants to be a teacher and as the “Scottish” Chris whose self is always, inescapably, tied up with the land. A big theme of the trilogy is how ephemeral people are compared to the land, which almost negates time. In this first book characters occasionally catch glimpses of figures from another time. In later books there’s a character that’s into archaeology, which speaks of the same need to find the people who are gone in the landscape which is shared with those living. Chris becomes a sexual being, gets married and has a baby. Then WWI happens. It’s nothing much at first, but it changes everything forever. This book is the seeing out of a way of life. Chris’s experiences here are synthesise the archetypal and the personal. I felt it was one of those books that has been done many times but, not least because it was written before it had been done so often, almost fools you into feeling like it’s a first time. Which is how that archetypal/personal experience thing should work. The writing style reminded me of Esther Waters by George Moore, though only in the sense that that novel seemed poised between the Victorians and modernism. This has that same sense of new suffusing the old, and of something preparing to take flight and change into something else. People seem to like this first book the best. It has the most joy and lyricism and sense of timelessness, and the war, though it destroys what the book is about, gives it a good sense of narrative. It has an ending.

The other two books are about what happens after the end. They expand outwards from the small community of Kinraddie where Sunset Song is set. In Cloud Howe Chris marries again and moves to Segget, a larger community. Her husband is the minister and this is a difficult position for both him and Chris, as it places them a little outside their class and community. Robert is an idealist, where Chris is a realist, though her realism is not everyone’s. There is a sense of desperate need for positive change in this book. The central paradox of the trilogy is that this is seen as a doomed mission but one it is vital to embark on. Or at least, Chris’s husband and son find it so. Chris is the real grown-up of the trilogy, able to face reality without placebos like religion and politics. This could be a bit of a tiresome stereotype, shutting women out from the important things while, as consolation prize, suggesting that they’re the more mature for this exclusion. Chris isn’t a boring grown-up to the more interesting men, though. We enter into both mindsets but Chris is the centre. This book is where I decided that I loved the trilogy, because Gibbon is committed. He wants a solution but he doesn’t pretend there is one. The biggest flaw in the trilogy is the presentation of the political ignorance and callousness of the majority. It’s too two-dimensional. In another book it would be a big problem for me but it’s surrounded by enough that’s real.

In Grey Granite Gibbon moves Chris and her son Ewan to a city and really goes for the political stuff. Ewan is not unlikeable but chillingly distant from everyday emotional concerns. When he becomes a Communist it’s a way of becoming human for him, in a way, as he finally identifies as one of everyone else, but we soon see that he’s just as distant as ever really. The flaws of social reform and political ideals are clear here. With Ewan’s quest for justice and equality we have a sense of passion for something even he knows is hopeless. His politics are, apparently, the author’s, but one doesn’t feel these can have provided Gibbon with much consolation. Chris has lost her ability to invest in anyone romantically, to feel really close to anyone. To experience others is important but ultimately one is alone. In a way her life is over in this book, but in another way it’s about how life goes on even when your life is over. There is no real end.

I think this is a book you have to be willing to commit to despite its flaws. Otherwise it would probably seem torrid. But I felt like the author committed to it and that meant a lot. This trilogy creates an impressive sense of progressive experience that comes from that commitment.

NW by Zadie Smith

It’s about several characters with working class, mostly black backgrounds. The two we see most of have left this background behind to some extent; for Natalie this is more deliberate than it is for Leah but they are both very ambivalent about it. To what extent does their new context replace their original context, and how much do they want it to? It’s about the choices and experiences of women in their twenties and thirties, too, as they take on various forms of responsibility and their social identity crystallises. Natalie and Leah both seem to ultimately find this process pretty depressing. The two most important things about this book are social realism and a certain experimentalism in the style of telling. London is seen as a stream of language and consciousness and Smith tries to replicate this to some extent.

There was a point at the end of the first section and at the beginning of the second section when I despised this book, but I got involved again. I didn’t find it that hard to hold onto the thread and care enough about what was happening while it was happening. My problem with the book, I suppose, was just that it felt so dutiful, both the discussion of social issues and the experimentalism. There’s nothing really incisive here, no moments of observation or language that gave me that feeling of “This is true but I haven’t seen it said like that before”. There’s a certain kind of book full of social observations that never seem especially novel or true to me, a kind of book that inevitably includes at least fleeting descriptions of dreadful dinner parties with dreadful pretentious people. I’ve decided you need to go to those dinner parties to feel really enlivened and set free by the truth of any acknowledgement that they’re dreadful. From the outside that, and the rest, all seems a bit too obvious.

I liked White Teeth and On Beauty better. I can’t remember them very well but I remember having more of the feeling that they were giving something about life back to you. This doesn’t quite come to life. The reviews in the inside pages seem a little overexcited just to see an accent on the page.

Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig

This is uncomfortable reading. It’s an examination of the kind of situation that you know before you ever start reading is going to end in tears, that is going doomed to miss its chances to go right, and you spend the whole time dreading the crash. It’s all the worse because mingled with the emotive nature of the dread is the more petty but just as powerful, perhaps even more unbearable, element of embarrassment. This mix of dread and emotiveness and petty but overruling embarrassment is innate to the pity dynamic and this book is a really thorough exploration of the implications of the situation it sets up. There’s something that seemed very Victorian to me in the way it uses its small set of characters as a microcosm, to demonstrate what happens from beginning to end when they are posed with an ethical dilemma.

Edith Kekesfalva and her father, the characters who are pitied, are less the subject of this book than the pitiers, the young officer Hofmiller and the doctor Condor. I liked the way Hofmiller is intoxicated by his discovery of emotional intelligence; Zweig is good at making the simple concept of pity far-reaching in its relevance. The essential problem is the embarrassment element. In some ways, sometimes, pity means to be embarrassed by someone. Hofmiller is alternately embarrassed into and out of his pity for the Kekesfalvas. Condor’s pity is an absolute commitment to a person, to allow oneself to be eaten alive in order to create others. It stands as a reproach to Hofmiller after he has very thoroughly learnt the lesson “beware of pity”. Pity, at its best, is pitiless in its demands of pitiers. To pity one must be prepared to give all, the moral seems to be. Once engaged in the relationship of pity you cannot escape whole.

Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys

In the late thirties Sophia Jansen, hopeless, lonely, depressed, alcoholic, has come back to Paris to revisit the scenes of previous failures for “a quiet, sane fortnight.” We’re not sure how old she is, but she’s very much aware that she’s not as young as she was. Sophia has come apart; she’s not in the process of coming apart. I hadn’t read any Rhys for years and it was interesting to see that there is something engaging about the misery and monotony, and to try and work out what it is.

Sophia has a submerged kind of consciousness, emerging occasionally into clarity and recognition of pain, or, much more rarely, into recognition of its absence. She is past pride, she’s given up. She hasn’t got the stamina for the performance of social interaction. She is frightened and alienated by other people and resentful of them; she feels herself at the mercy of their agency, having none of her own. She’s self-pitying, but not really the kind of character there’s much point in thinking should just buck up and get their act together. She’s far too far gone.

The book is made up of her recollections of past humiliations and tragedies and chance encounters with people she is never going to be able to really connect with in the present. She plays at connecting with them for moments, but could not sustain any relationship. Sophia keeps bolting into the lavatories of cafes (called here lavabos, as I have never seen elsewhere) to look at herself and temporarily escape into her own society. There is a sense that she finds a certain, dysfunctional comfort and self-affirmation in confirmation of her doomed status: “Who is this crying? The same one who laughed on the landing, kissed him and was happy. This is me, this is myself, who is crying. The other – how do I know who the other is? She isn’t me.” I guess the book is about the consolations of self when barely recognisable as such. It engages, I think, because of something to do with the implicit contrast in it. It’s made up of Sophia’s vulnerability and incoherence, yet it’s well arranged. Sophia/Rhys lays out everything in just the right place and order. It represents a dogged energy and purpose. Also a kind of ultimate satisfaction with the state of things.