Saturday, January 29, 2011

Thomas Hardy – ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’

Reflecting on The Woodlanders a few years ago, I wrote: ‘unlike Richard Yates, who writes about impossibilities, Hardy gives us missed possibilities’. That book left such a rich impression – not for its plot, which I’ve completely forgotten (having carefully avoided spoilers in the post, it doesn’t help much), but for its textures, in terms of both landscape and portrait. The Mayor of Casterbridge doesn’t quite live up to it on those terms, being so packed with event and exposition, but that is also its strength: a plot so tight and self-perpetuating, yet which also keeps the reader guessing. Things are obviously going to end badly, but how? – and how is it going to remain interesting? This novel does deal in impossibilities: its events might have unfolded in a different way, but they are driven by the flaws of its central character, and the same end must be reached. The stunning opening chapter, during which Michael Henchard, a hay-trusser with a young family in tow, gets drunk at a village fair and sells his wife to a passing sailor, sows the seed of all that is to follow.

Years later the wife, Susan, believing the sailor to be dead, tracks Henchard down to Casterbridge, where he has risen to be mayor, and the town’s dominant corn trader. Her daughter, Elizabeth-Jane, is now grown up, and remarkably well adjusted, unlike Henchard himself:
It was an odd sequence that out of all this tampering with social law came the flower of nature Elizabeth. Part of his wish to wash his hands of life arose from his perception of its contrarious inconsistencies – of nature’s jaunty readiness to support unorthodox social principles. (p. 296)
The notes to this (Oxford World’s Classics) edition point out Henchard’s physical resemblance to the devil (e.g. ‘his red and black visage kindled with satisfaction’ (p. 78)). It is an effective device, and put me in mind both of James Hogg’s Justified Sinner and Roald Dahl’s The Witches, but it did seem to quash the moral ambiguity of his character, at least for a time. And yet, he is more misguided than bad: he fights against the hellfire in his constitution, generally with more hellfire. The day after selling Susan, he realises his mistake and, being 21 years old, pledges solemnly to drink no more alcohol for another 21 years. He also makes some attempt to find her, but without success. The pledge is telling. Henchard clearly believes in a moral order, in transgression and atonement. He knows he has behaved unacceptably, and the pledge is a way of controlling his punishment, of forestalling fate. His resolve is almost autistic, in that it is totally autonomous: he doesn’t see that the way to avoid similar behaviour in future is to become more open, less fierce, less guarded. Also – perhaps this is the rub – more charming. At one low point, he calculates:
Henchard’s wife was dissevered from him by death; his friend and helper Farfrae by estrangement; Elizabeth-Jane by ignorance. It seemed to him that only one of them could possibly be recalled, and that was the girl. (p. 114)
It is as though he doesn’t care whom he is close to, as long as he is close to someone.

There is another character with this failing: Lucetta Templeman. One of the book’s many parallel events occurs when she arrives in Casterbridge, ostensibly a stranger, and takes up residence at High Place Hall (grand but conveniently central). She has come to marry Henchard, to whom she had been secretly engaged before Susan’s re-appearance. They met and courted in Jersey, where Henchard used to travel on business, so she is not known in Casterbridge. When she arrives, her plan is to pretend to court Henchard again, before marrying him and thus preserving her honour (both parties share a sense of obligation to this Victorian moral code, though neither can live up to it). Although it is not her plan in advance, this is exactly what Susan does, under Henchard’s guidance, and in a humbler – but not too humble – cottage. Her death a few years later re-introduces the possibility of a respectable alliance between Henchard and Lucetta. On arrival, Lucetta, newly genteel thanks to an inheritance, employs Elizabeth-Jane as a companion, and the two of them gaze out from High Place Hall on to the market place, and Donald Farfrae. The stage is set.

Donald Farfrae is Henchard’s nemesis, and his opposite in many ways. He is young, charming, ambitious and, as a Scot with a full song book, a welcome novelty in the West Country. He is also canny:
the curious double strands in Farfrae’s thread of life – the commercial and the romantic – were very distinct at times. Like the colours in a variegated cord these contrasts could be seen intertwisted, yet not mingling. (p. 149)
Farfrae courts Elizabeth-Jane to begin with, but with Lucetta’s arrival his attentions move towards her, and the plot begins to seem unduly cruel. Farfrae, whilst challenging Henchard in trade, unwittingly prevents his marriage to Lucetta and casts aside his step-daughter (as she is presented at the time). Things move quickly, and Henchard is driven by Lucetta’s aloofness to extort a promise of marriage under threat of revealing their former relationship. Elizabeth-Jane is horrified, and he snaps:
Don’t be a no’thern simpleton! […] This promise will leave him free for you, if you want him, won’t it? (p. 184)
The favour is so brutal that she cannot possibly collude in it. The odd thing is, that Henchard is right, in one sense at least. It has already been shown that Elizabeth-Jane and Farfrae share an easy compatibility, and an intellectual seriousness wholly absent in the rest of the novel’s cast. Lucetta is frivolous but dazzling, more anxious for status and being important to someone important (and lively, exotic, charming) than she is concerned with being important to a particular person. Her over-hasty marriage to Farfrae shows the extent to which she views him as a commodity. Both are fickle, but only Lucetta is congenitally so. Elizabeth-Jane’s influence would be sufficient to compensate for Farfrae’s flaws if only he would let her. She is studious, affectionate and true, and she is willing to allow other people and events to shape the course of her life without feeling undue bitterness:
She had learnt the lesson of renunciation […]. Yet her experience had consisted less in a series of pure disappointments than in a series of substitutions. Continually it had happened that what she had desired had not been granted her, and that what had been granted her she had not desired. So she viewed with an approach to equanimity the now cancelled days when Donald had been her undeclared lover, and wondered what unwished for thing Heaven might send her in place of him. (p. 167)
Henchard’s devilishness turns out to be a red herring, as it must for the novel to remain engaging. His rough idea of the bonds of affection as so many (or so few) title deeds, is bound to lead him to loneliness, especially when he insists on shoring them up with lies and blackmail. ‘This man of strong impulses’ (p. 62) is ultimately to be pitied, though the impulses lead to some pretty terrible behaviour. His paternal love for Elizabeth-Jane, absent for much of the novel, is the driving force of its closing chapters, and I won’t say how he manages to destroy it in one last moment of madness, but he claws a little of it back in death with what must be the saddest will in literature.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Colour Me In

I am grey, still on the page, oh colour me in
When I first heard that line, I felt I had been fixed on a pin. It was early 2004, S. had given me the heave ho, and I felt drained of any possibility of being myself without her there. I’ve always been a bit like that – dependent on just the right people, a few close friends, and if they aren’t there I disappear. Become
Just an outline, sketchy but fine, oh colour me in
It was always something I’d been rather ashamed of, and to hear Broadcast’s ‘Colour Me In’ catch this frailty, clear as a bell, and lift it up, was a joy. I played the song on my guitar for months, lived and breathed it. The chords were beautiful: crystalline, precise, un-fussy. Trish Keenan’s delivery had not a drop of sentimentality about it, she gave a calm strength to what would seem like weakness to most. There are many reasons to love Broadcast, but this is mine. It is hard to believe she is gone.

(Click the image above for the chords to the rest of the song.)

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Charles Dickens – ‘The Pickwick Papers’

I wish I wasn’t always so sceptical about Dickens. The more I read, the less justification there is for it. And sure, it’s a slow process – this is the first of his novels I’ve read during the run of this blog – but he never lets me down, though I always think he’s going to. Prior to this I found Barnaby Rudge surprisingly menacing, and Nicholas Nickleby surprisingly hilarious. Lo and behold, The Pickwick Papers is surprisingly Quixotic. There are flaws. The pacing early on is all over the place, and the plot, when there is one, is as light as can be. Only a handful of characters achieve any kind of presence, but when they do – first Alfred Jingle, and then Sam Weller – they are gripping and magical (see Sam’s way with a fable), and it is thrilling to feel the force of Dickens’ imagination as he conjures them up. Mr Pickwick himself is slightly more than a cipher, developing into a lovable, obstinate patrician by the end, but his companions in the Pickwick Club (a group of men who are interested in things generally, and who travel about writing them down) are as flat as pancakes. This is not necessarily a problem, as there are other strings to Pickwick’s bow. There is an elopement chase scene early on which temporarily reverses the novel’s desultoriness. There is bonhomie as only Dickens can write it, which is generally a good thing (though mixed with Christmas at the halfway mark it became much too sweet, and I put the novel down for several months as a result). Most surprising were the bold satirisation of the legal system and the fierce indictment of debtors’ prisons, strands later picked up as the central themes of Bleak House and Little Dorrit. So in this great comic novel, there are moments of real anger:
we still leave unblotted in the leaves of our statute book, for the reverence and admiration of succeeding ages, the just and wholesome law which declares that the sturdy felon shall be fed and clothed, and that the penniless debtor shall be left to die of starvation and nakedness. This is no fiction. (p. 565)
Scenes in town are noticeably more vivid than their rural counterparts, which is a disadvantage for a novelist writing in the picaresque tradition, but the contrast makes it obvious how alive Dickens feels London to be. Here he is on inns in the borough:
Great, rambling, queer, old places they are, with galleries, and passages, and stair-cases, wide enough and antiquated enough, to furnish materials for a hundred ghost stories, supposing we should ever be reduced to the lamentable necessity of inventing any. (p. 129)
It is a nice irony that the author of the most famous ghost story in English had, at this early point in his career, such a low opinion of the form. The criticism feels like knee-jerk snobbery, though; in the first half of the sentence, the marvel expressed at the character of ramshackle, densely populated urban areas is real.

The plot: Mr Pickwick’s landlady, Martha Bardell (her name a sound-a-like for Dickens’ first love, Maria Beadnell), takes it into her head that he has proposed marriage, which he hasn’t, and sues him for breach of promise. Pickwick loses the case, but refuses to pay the resulting fine or any costs. In due course, this lands him in the Fleet debtors’ prison. Eventually Bardell’s lawyers, Dodson and Fogg, have her incarcerated there too because of the non-payment of costs, for which she is ultimately responsible. Pickwick is prevailed on to pay up, at last, in return for a signed apology from Bardell, which is the closest he is going to get to clearing his name. Much of the novel has nothing to do with these events, but they do provide a loose framework for the passages on law and prison which draw on Dickens’ own journalism and childhood respectively. The lengthy stay in prison, especially, helps with the pacing, and somehow the second half of the book feels much more coherent than the first, though an account of its events wouldn’t suggest so. There are marriages at the end, and a spectacular drunken trip to Birmingham (pictured above) to inform the father of one of the bridegrooms after the fact. There is a further satire, of the medical profession, with a chemist who leaves prescriptions all around town with the wrong people just to get his name more widely known. There is the Eatanswill Gazette, proprietor Mr Pott, mortal enemy of Mr Slurk and his Independent newspaper. And there is Pickwick, who is rich enough and big hearted enough to protect everybody, because nobody really means any harm, and everything is ultimately for the best, and in any case it is the journey, not the destination, which matters.

Friday, January 07, 2011

‘The man as killed his-self on principle’

[This shouldn’t be too hard to place, but it can be semi-secret until the next post comes along. It made me laugh today.]

He was a clerk in a government office […] and a wery pleasant gen’lm’n too – one o’ the percise and tidy sort, as puts their feet in little India-rubber fire-buckets ven its vet veather, and never has no other bosom friends but hare-skins; he saved up his money on principle, vore a clean shirt ev’ry day on principle, never spoke to none of his relations on principle, ’fear they shou’d want to borrow money of him; and was altogether, in fact, an uncommon agreeable character. He had his hair cut on principle vunce a fortnight, and contracted for his clothes on the economic principle – three suits a year, send back the old vuns. Being a wery reg’lar gen’lm’n he din’d ev’ry day at the same place, vere it was one and ninepence to cut off the joint; and a wery good one and ninepence worth he used to cut, as the landlord often said, vith the tears a tricklin’ down his face, let alone the vay he used to poke the fire in the vinter time, vich wos a dead loss o’ four-pence ha’penny a day, to say nothin’ at all o’ the aggrawation o’ seein’ him do it. So uncommon grand vith it too! ‘Post arter the next gen’lm’n,’ he sings out ev’ry day ven he comes in. ‘See arter the Times, Thomas; let me look at the Mornin’ Herald, ven it’s out o’ hand; don’t forget to bespeak the Chronicle; and just bring the ’Tizer vill you?’ And then he’d set vith his eyes fixed on the clock, and rush out just a quarter of a minit afore the time to vaylay the boy as wos a comin’ in with the evenin’ paper, vich he’d read vith sich intense interest and persewerence, as vorked the other customers up to the wery confines o’ desperation and insanity, ’specially one i-rascible old gen’lm’n as the vaiter wos alvays obliged to keep a sharp eye on in sich times, ’fear he should be tempted to commit some rash act vith the carving knife. Vell, Sir, here he’d stop, occupyin’ the best place for three hours, and never takin’ nothin’ arter his dinner but sleep, and then he’d go avay to a coffeehouse a few streets off, and have a small pot o’ coffee and four crumpets, arter vich he’d valk home to Kensington and go to bed. One night he wos took very ill; sends for the doctor; doctor comes in a green fly, vith a kind o’ Robinson Crusoe set o’ steps as he could let down ven he got out, and pull up arter him ven he got in, to perwent the necessity o’ the coachman’s gettin’ down, and thereby undeceivin’ the public by lettin’ ’em see that it wos only a livery coat he’d got on, and not the trousers to match. ‘Wot’s the matter?’ says the doctor. ‘Wery ill,’ says the patient. ‘Wot have you been a eatin’ of? says the doctor. ‘Roast weal,’ says the patient. ‘Wot’s the last thing you devoured?’ says the doctor. ‘Crumpets,’ says the patient. ‘That’s it,’ says the doctor. ‘I’ll send you a box of pills directly, and don’t you never take no more o’ them,’ he says. ‘No more o’ wot?’ says the patient – ‘Pills!’ ‘No; crumpets,’ says the doctor. ‘Wy?’ says the patient, starting up in bed; ‘I’ve eat for crumpets ev’ry night for fifteen year on principle.’ ‘Vell, then, you’d better leave ’em off on principle,’ says the doctor. ‘Crumpets is wholesome, Sir,’ says the patient. ‘Crumpets is not wholesome, Sir,’ says the doctor, wery fiercely. ‘But they’re so cheap,’ says the patient, comin’ down a little, ‘and so wery fillin’ at the price.’ ‘They’d be dear to you at any price; dear if you wos paid to eat ’em,’ says the doctor. ‘Four crumpets a night,’ he says,’vill do your bisness in six months!’ The patient looks him full in the face, and turns it over in his mind for a long time, and at last he says, ‘Are you sure of that ’ere, Sir?’ ‘I’ll stake my professional reputation on it,’ says the doctor. ‘How many crumpets at a sittin’ do you think ’ud kill me off at once?’ says the patient. ‘I don’t know,’ says the doctor. ‘Do you think half a crown’s vurth ’ud do it,’ says the patient. ‘I think it might,’ says the doctor. ‘Three shillings vurth ’ud be sure to do it, I s’pose?’ says the patient. ‘Certainly,’ says the doctor. ‘Wery good,’ says the patient; ‘good night’. Next mornin’ he gets up, has a fire lit, orders in three shillins’ vurth o’ crumpets, toasts ’em all, eats ’em all, and blows his brains out.

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