Marcella by Mrs Humphry Ward
An 1894 novel about class politics with particular reference to land, which attempts to find a via media between the nationalisation of land and the negligence of landlords. Marcella is a fiery, strong-willed young woman who begins the novel with Socialist ideals as her father inherits a country estate. She likes to be important and cannot help feeling pride in her new position and upper-class heritage, while full of plans to improve the lives of her father’s cottagers. She forms an engagement with a deeply earnest and conscientious but Conservative heir to a country estate, Aldous Raeburn, but cannot reconcile herself to his politics. The difficulty is helped along by her attraction to a Radical but flighty politician, Mr Wharton. Tension is also created by a plot in which one of Marcella’s protégés in the village turns poacher and kills the Raeburns’ keeper; the game laws of the time are one of Marcella’s chief concerns. This novel is very much like Ward’s Robert Elsmere, about a clergyman who loses faith in the truth of the bible, in that it takes a very earnest, respectable, Victorian approach to the inevitable dissolution of systems that have been depended on, reaches a kind of precarious, painstaking earnest Victorian okayness with the exact stage of transition that Ward has engineered/represented by the end and shrugs towards the future. That novel had more to offer, I think, because having a good and conscientious man permanently lose his faith feels more a lot newer for the time than having people really want to be good to the poor but not be sure how to do it or whether good always comes out of trying to be good to the poor. This novel accepts that the system of dependence on patriarchal land owners is probably dying but asks urgently “But what if there are good land owners? What if they’re really getting their act together? What if you’re being really unfair in tarring them all with the same brush?” Marcella repents of her dreadful crime of being unfair to good land owners and decides it’s best to be a little ambitious and innovative but not too much and everyone will just do the duties at hand and see what comes of it. It was quite interesting to see that Marcella is allowed to live alone and take up a nursing career during the novel. I suppose she’s a little like Dorothea from Middlemarch with her initial conflation of morality with personal ambition. Like Dorothea, she has to get squashed but ends up less squashed I think, allowed more ability to be useful in the world in the end. The book is interesting in that it’s a decent enough treatment of material I find interesting but decidedly too long. As with Robert Elsmere, this is a Victorian book club kind of book. It tackles of-the-moment issues in a way that isn’t bad but lacks the kind of universal resonance that allows old books to live.
The Tightrope Walker by Dorothy Gilman
A girl who’s afraid of everything and trying to reinvent herself discovers a clue to a murder. In discovering first who was killed and when and then whodunit, she also embarks on a course of personal growth and learns to be the best her she can be rather than try to be someone else. There’s a guru in this and everything but Gilman’s approach to spiritual growth is brisk and efficient as well as kitsch and the character development is folded nicely into the mystery.
Arrest the Bishop? by Winifred Peck
Detective mystery. A blackmailing Reverend with dirt on several worthies is killed. Did the butler do it or the bishop? Pleasant enough but a bit slack.
A Nun in the Closet by Dorothy Gilman
A pair of nuns are sent out into the world to take possession of some property they’ve inherited. They discover a shot but not dead man on the premises, who refuses to explain anything, and make friends with the hippies camping nearby. The nuns and the hippies combine in their concern for the rights of migrant workers while it becomes clear that the people who shot the mysterious man are still circling. This one’s a bit twee even for me but still enjoyable.
White Oleander by Janet Fitch
The story of a teenage girl and her many foster placements after her mother begins a prison sentence. The placements all go wrong but somehow usually in a way that allows Astrid to develop a fetishistic, fraught relationship with beauty and art and consumerism. Exactly the florid shot of oestrogen I wanted it to be and which it promised to be from the first page which describes Astrid’s mother smelling of violets with beauty like the edge of a knife. Fitch enjoys Astrid’s monstrous mother, an egotistical poet fond of making pompous pronouncements on how life should be lived, best of all, I think, though of course Astrid must reject her monstrousness in order to grow.
A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin
A novel about emotional alienation. Katherine is a girl in winter literally but more importantly she is internally frozen, in the grip of a winter which may last indefinitely. Katherine is a refugee in war-time England with a job as a librarian under a petty tyrant boss. She has been forced by circumstances to make a complete break with her past but Larkin doesn’t commit to making her someone whose family has died or is in danger. Neither does he commit to making her someone of whom these things are not true. The novel has three sections and the first describes what passes for a temporary escape from the worst of her lonely life when she is permitted to leave work for a short while to take a young colleague with toothache to the dentist. Katherine is not drawn to this girl, who is a drip in the unsympathetic kind of way, but after a while is prevailed upon by her vulnerability to attempt to make some kind of connection with her — an attempt which she later finds has been betrayed, in its own small way. They spend time waiting in the snow before embarking on some slightly surreal yet mundane mishaps. The people Katherine meets seem a little too near for comfort yet somehow still very far away. This escape from the library into the winter outside is not the important escape — that is Katherine’s recently established contact with a family she spent a summer holiday with once when she was sixteen. She may be about to hear from Robin, the pen-pal who invited her back then. This changes everything because it seems to bring her into touch with a world of possibilities and emotional connection. She feels that if she does not make touch with this world soon she never will again, that she is on the brink of losing the ability to relate to people. Since she is still so young, Katherine’s fear that this state of winter might be permanent makes her seem particularly young in this moment to me and I felt the tenderness for her that you feel for people whose problems might not be as bad as they think they are but whose inability to see that is their biggest problem of all. Larkin, however, makes this impossibility of connection in the world of his novel a little more objective and a little less subjective for her, which made me feel I should feel sorry for him too.
The second section conveys summer as vividly as winter is conveyed by the first and last sections. Katherine is detectably a younger and more hopeful self here but has not really so much more to be hopeful about. She has always been puzzled by the wooden letters of her pen-pal Robin and her attempts to draw him out, first by letter and then in person, fail. She has a pleasant enough time as Robin, accompanied by his annoying sister Jane, dutifully shows her around, but she is irritated by her inability to work out what makes him tick or why he has invited her. She is doubly irritated by the presence of Jane, which she is sure prevents her from discovering exciting answers to these mysteries. During this section, in which Katherine works up a sexual attraction to Robin, it seemed to me that surely it is rare that male writers show as much interest as Larkin here in what their female characters think of their male characters. Which is strange. The holiday stasis is broken by Katherine’s discovery of the real reason why she has been invited, a reason that has nothing to do with her previous speculations. It is a kind of claim on her unwilling sympathies, not unlike Katherine’s winter encounter with the Miss Green with toothache, that again fails partly because of the claimant’s failure to follow through.
The third section shows us that Katherine now has very little idea how the holiday and Robin actually turned out; it is the hope she remembers feeling then which has been giving her hope she could feel it again. This hope dies when Robin turns up, nothing but a stranger wanting from Katherine what she wants from him.
There are signs that this is a poet’s novel. Not in a floweriness of language, because his poetry is not flowery, but in an attitude that the inanimate world is just as valid a subject of interest as people. There are descriptions of things that are given the same weight as descriptions of events. Katherine wishes by the end of her holiday that she had paid less attention to Robin and more to the simplest, least human physical details of English life. A view of life which always pleasantly uncramps my horizons.
Having studied Larkin’s poetry in 6th form and felt antagonistic towards his gloomy misanthropism, and having heard since that publication of his diaries or correspondence had shown him in an unpleasant light, I was surprised by how much I liked this. I mean, I don’t think I love it but I thought it was a solidly good novel, with a warmth of sympathy lurking amid the frozenness, and that it was a shame Larkin didn’t write more novels. Apparently he planned at one point to write a novel about coming to life again. It’s nice to know he thought he had it in him but I can see why he ultimately might not have done.
The Crossing by Andrew Miller
Contemporary literary novel. Tim falls for Maud. The problem with this is that Tim is both a little pretentious and a feelings person; the kind of person who makes elaborate meals and considers writing concertos, while Maud is an uncommunicative scientist who, when asked in a job interview to describe herself as a drink, decides she is a glass of water. Much is made of the fact that she has a tattoo which says “Every man for himself” in Latin. She doesn’t display much personality but nothing will stop her from fulfilling the aims she does have. Miller is doing a thing with Maud. She’s a mysterious absence at the heart of the novel. Is her interiority withheld from us or is she so much like a glass of water that there is nothing more going on inside than there is outside? Is she on the spectrum or cold or just astonishingly straightforward? Fittingly enough, perhaps, I felt pretty neutral about the interestingness of Maud and what Miller is doing with her. For Tim to carry on a relationship with Maud is for him to do all the voices, the I love yous and I love you toos, essentially. He’s partly aware of this, and fascinated by her otherness, and partly not aware that he’s talking for her. For both of these reactions we probably think a little less of him.
After the relationship finally falls apart following a tragedy, we go sailing. Maud and Tim are both into sailing and bought a boat together, though Maud was more into it than Tim. She takes the boat and sets off without an aim, right across the Atlantic. As I found the boat talk beforehand pretty hard-going and the rest of the novel only so-so I was surprised by how genuinely exhilarating I found this episode. First there is the sense of freedom brought by being so absolutely alone at sea, with nothing to do and nowhere to be, nothing to prevent Maud from sailing on and on. Then there is a battering storm which goes on and on and demands the full use of Maud’s capacities. This is also satisfying, not because it’s all that dramatic exactly but because Miller makes the subjection of self to physical exigency fulfilling. Like in The African Queen, where the characters are happier than they ever have been or will be precisely because of the awful time they’re having with that boat. Then Maud washes up amid a community of children who’ve been abandoned wherever it is by snake-handling religious maniacs. This section felt like a misstep; the community is both clichéd and too odd to be introduced so late in a novel. Most of all, it deprives Maud of her straight man out function. There’s nothing really particular about her relationship to the children. So overall, meh but that one bit did wake me up.
Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter
1960’s hard-boiled noir-adjacent story of Jack and Billy, who begin as aimless delinquent teenagers in pool halls. Jack, at least, is aimless. Billy has his pool, which does something for him besides let him make some money, though he’s not quite sure what. However, the novel spends more time in prison than pool halls. If I had set out to find a book full of explicit discussion of the dehumanising nature of the penal system and capitalism in mid-century America, I would have been delighted. As it is, though that book sounds like something that has a right to exist, I was never seduced somehow into really wanting to read it. I wanted a story that felt more immersed in individual experience. I feel hard-boiled and noir fiction, working at its best, sinks down much of its emotional and intellectual content into the fabric of the novel — the oddly incantatory function of the descriptions of the material world, the macguffins, the ritualistic performances of the relationships of the characters – so that these things can be used as symbolic shorthand. I liked the novel best when there were actual scenes that weren’t Jack raging against the machine or thinking about how there was no point to anything all by himself — these scenes related fruitfully to the material world in the way I associate with those genres, though flexibly. The novel shows the way toxic masculinity prevents urgently necessary connection between people and at times manages to keep the delicate balance required in dramatising the emotional lives of highly unpleasant people. Jack’s relationship with the slightly less fucked-up Billy eventually brings him to life emotionally. Billy has a more distinct personality than Jack but unfortunately it’s Jack we spend most time with. All too often he seemed like nothing more than a delivery system for feelings and thoughts which were too abstract or too intense to bear so much treatment without seeming windy and untethered. This made the novel a bit cabbagey for me even apart from its being so depressing. It’s just too up in the air, too diluted by its own intensity. What I really mean is that there was too much telling rather than showing.
It could not be true that he had wasted his life up to now; it was not possible that fighting City Hall was wrong or futile. The folk saying (So go fight City Hall) had to be wrong. It was not like Don Quixote fighting a windmill, because a windmill wasn’t a criminal, and society was. Society was a criminal because it committed crimes. To fight society because it was a criminal had to be good. But was that what Jack had done most of his life? Had he fought to make society quit cheating, lying, robbing and murdering? Or had he fought because he was scared? Search as he would, he could find nothing in his past to justify his fight. He had not fought the evil side of society; he was not even sure what it was. He had merely fought. It left him with an awful sense of frustration, because in his case society, too, had been fighting blindly and helplessly. There had been nothing else to do with him but what it had done.
By then he would realise that the freedom he had always yearned for and never understood was beyond his or any man’s reach, and that all men must yearn for it equally; a freedom for the society of mankind without its absence; a freedom from connection, from fear, from trouble, and above all the loneliness of being alive. By then he would understand that fulfilment was only temporary and desire the enemy of death.
These quotes are both summings up near the end, which is fair, but there’s too much of the above all the way through.
Marius the Epicurean by Walter Pater
1885 novel set in the Rome of Marcus Aurelius. This reads like Pater is projecting himself into a kind of virtual reality so as to wander around the possibilities of the era that he personally finds most enticing. It’s an imagined being, not doing. Imagining the mellow solemnity of growing up in a villa in the countryside with the rituals of the Roman Gods, already apparently a little old-fashioned, as your formative cultural heritage. Imagining encounters with Marcus Aurelius and Apuleius and Lucian. Imagining picking and choosing between various philosophies and ways of being, most notably Epicureanism, Stoicism and Christianity, having the ability to take what Pater considers to be the most interesting elements of each of them.
It seemed just then as if the desire of the artist in him — that old longing– might be satisfied by the exact and literal transcript of what was then passing around him, in simple prose, arresting the desirable moment as it passed, and prolonging its life a little.
This description of Marius’s urge to “arrest the desirable moment” reminded me of Pater’s modus operandi in this novel; he has a list of desirable moments to fit into this premise and he freeze-frames them.
Marius, as the title tells you, is an Epicurean. I know nothing about Epicureanism beyond what this novel told me, so I don’t know whether Pater’s take on it truly is a little idiosyncratic. Marius’s philosophy seems to be that nothing exists beyond the present moment so that we should take care to live the present moment as vividly as possible. The idiosyncrasy comes in with Pater’s idea of vividness. It is made clear at the beginning that Marius has a special capacity to enjoy beauty and visual stimulus and that his life’s good shall come to him through these. It is also made clear that Marius is far too refined and restrained and full of rectitude to interpret his philosophy as a licence for debauchery. I might have expected a novel full of Proustian descriptions of the visual world, then, but that doesn’t really happen. For all this emphasis on beauty being important to Marius, the physical world seems to have little reality for him. Physical beauty is the cipher for a beautiful concept behind it, he decides during a spiritual experience in a natural setting:
It was easier to conceive of the material fabric of things as but an element in a world of thought — as a thought in a mind, than of mind as an element, or accident, or passing condition in a world of matter, because mind was really nearer to himself: it was an explanation of what was less known by what was known better. The purely material world that close, impassable prison-wall, seemed just then the unreal thing, to be actually dissolving away all around him: and he felt a quiet hope, a quiet joy dawning faintly, in the dawning of this doctrine upon him as a really credible opinion.
This has something to do with Platonism, I think, but I don’t know enough to tell why Marius is an Epicurean rather than a Platonist. This intangible nature of what Marius is striving for is emphasised as he sums up his life at the end:
Revelation, vision, the discovery of a vision, the seeing of a perfect humanity, in a perfect world—through all his alternations of mind, by some dominant instinct, determined by the original necessities of his own nature and character, he had always set that above the having, or even the doing, of anything. For, such vision, if received with due attitude on his part, was, in reality, the being something, and as such was surely a pleasant offering or sacrifice to whatever gods there might be, observant of him.
The novel seems like it presents itself as a plea for some ethical position but the more I think about it the odder it seems. This insistence of Pater’s on talking about the physical world being everything one moment and nothing the next moment is at the heart of it. I think he means that the physical world is the key to the invisible world but this seems too obvious to him to always make it apparent. Instead there is all this invisible world stuff, when you thought it said something else on the tin.
Thankfully I have read Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations because one of the main things this book is for is to quarrel respectfully with him. At one point Marius almost has a chat with him to point out where he is going wrong but Marcus Aurelius is busy with orphans and misses his chance. Part of this is Pater’s puzzled sorrow that someone who tried to be good could have lent himself to some of his period’s atrocities and part of it is a rejection of what he sees as Marcus Aurelius’s gloomy assumptions that life is a burden.
Marius encounters Christians, and after spending lots of time looking at their tombs comes to the conclusion that Christianity is all about joy. He doesn’t convert but is able to die happily knowing that Christianity exists. I was surprised by how unconvincing I found Marius’s reactions to Christianity — surprised since it seems clear that the representation of early Christianity is carefully crafted to suit Pater’s own vision. The fact that Pater had in fact lost his faith in Christianity may have something to do with the awkwardness I felt here, the effect of crudely visible lines in something that has nonetheless clearly been lovingly pieced together.
Ultimately I suppose the oddness of the book is due to the fact that this is Pater’s world, and happiness in it is defined by the tastes of one wistful intellectual. And that’s what this objectively dull book had that I quite liked: a wistful intellectual vision of happiness.