The Ethics of Diet: A Catena of Authorities Deprecatory of the Practice of Flesh-Eating, Howard Williams (1883)

“Do vegetarians eat meat by night?”

“What on earth do you live on?”

“The animals were ‘sent’ to humans for food.”

“What would otherwise become of the animals?”

 

ethicsofdietEvery modern-day vegan or vegetarian has been asked these questions by meat-eating friends or family members incredulous that it is even possible “to survive without meat and so we must be cheating somewhere, at some time.” And then we, in whatever way that is comfortable to us, defend ourselves. But what makes these questions particularly remarkable is that they are the questions swirling around 1877 London challenging those vegetarians to come up with a defense against their choice not to consume animal flesh.

Howard Williams, a five-year vegetarian, professor of history and the well-known biographer of Pope and Swift railed against the ignorance and mockery of these flesh-eating tormentors and decided to remedy the absence of knowledge about the long tradition of flesh abstention. He would write the history of vegetarianism from the point of view of well-known nonflesh-eaters of the past.

The Ethics of Diet: A Catena of Authorities Deprecatory of the Practice of Flesh-Eating was published in 1883. Arranged in a historical timeline beginning with Hesiod and ending with Schopenhaur, Williams provides 50 sources made up of well-known philosophers, scientists, religious and literary figures who provide the reader with a historical record of their treatises, poems, discourses, biographies and literary works that speak of animal rights, human health, the morality against eating animals, the economics of taking up land for animals and not people and the meat-centered diet of the rich. Before each entry Williams gives a brief biographical sketch and summation of their thoughts. For many of these famous individuals their beliefs came from considering the perfect society or advanced civilizations where flesh eating made no sense. Some had personal experiences that triggered thoughtful examination of what their culture termed the normal treatment of animals for food that led them to see things differently.

I find this collection to be terribly important as a foundation against the so-called mockery and disdain of my own times. Vegetarianism has a long history practiced by the great and the humble for all kinds of economic, moral, philosophical and religious reasons. There is also a sense of camaraderie in knowing that famous vegetarians have been asked the same questions I have! Their arguments, thoughts and pleadings in defense of animals from so long ago is hopeful. Defending animals against the belief they are commodities or inferior life forms to be treated without regard has always had their champions and with this book there is the weight of Pythagoras and Voltaire, Seneca and Shelley.

No matter our diet, the question—must we eat meat or not—is as old as the hills with both sides bearing a long tradition of discourse.

Excerpts

Ovid (43 BC-18 AD), quoting Pythagoras (c570BC-c470BC)

Pythagoras was the first to forbid animals to be served up at the table and he was first to open his lips to say….”Forbear O mortals! to pollute your bodies with such abominable food…there are the fruits which bear down the branches with their weight, and there are the grapes swelling on the vines; the lavish earth heaps up her riches and her gentle foods, and offers you dainties without blood and without slaughter…It is not enough that such wickedness is committed by men. They have involved the gods themselves in this abomination, that they believe this deity in the heavens can rejoice in the slaughter of the laborious and useful ox. The spotless victim, excelling in the beauty of its form, decked out with garlands with gold is placed before their altars, and the fruits which it cultivated placed on its head between its horns and struck down, with its life-blood it dyes the sacrificial knife…”

Clement of Alexandria (c150BC-c215BC) Essay on Man

“Pythagoras seems to me to have derived his mildness towards irrational animals from the Law [Jewish Law]. For instance, he interdicted the employment of the young of sheep and goats and cows for some time after their birth; not even on the pretext of sacrifice allowing it, on account both of the young ones and of the mother; training men to gentleness by their conduct toward those beneath them. ‘Resign,’ he says, ‘the young one to the mother for the proper time’. For if nothing takes place without a cause, and milk is produced in large quantity in parturition for the sustenance of the progeny, he who tears way the young one from the supply of the milk and the breast of the mother, dishonors Nature.”

“The Law, too, expressly prohibits the slaying of such animals as are pregnant till they have brought forth, remotely restraining the proneness of men to do wrong to men; and thus also it has extended its clemency to the irrational animals, that by the exercise of humanity to beings of different races we may practise amongst those of the same species a larger abundance of it.

Rousseau (1712-1778)

“One of the proofs that the taste of flesh is not natural to man is the indifference which children exhibit for that sort of meat, and the preference they all give to vegetable foods, such as milk-porridge, pastry, fruits, etc. It is of the last importance not to denaturalize them of this primitive taste and not to render them carnivorous, if not for health reasons, at least for the sake of their character. For, however the experience may be explained, it is certain that great eaters of flesh are, in general, more cruel and ferocious than other men.

_______________

My Edition
Title: The Ethics of Diet: A Catena of Authorities Deprecatory of the Practice of Flesh-Eating
Author: Howard Williams
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 2003 (1883)
Pages: 394

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The Razor’s Edge, W. Somerset Maugham (1944)

“I’ve been reading a good deal. Eight or ten hours a day. I’ve attended lectures at the Sorbonne. I think I’ve read everything that’s important in French literature and I can read Latin, at least Latin prose, almost as fluently as I can read French. Of course Greek’s more difficult. But I have a very good teacher. Until you came here I used to go to him three evenings a week.”

“And what is that going to lead to?”

“The acquisition of knowledge.”

“That doesn’t sound very practical.”

 

 

razorThis is my first book by W. Somerset Maugham and I found it to be a compelling narrative with a theme that is close to me. It is a book with a large cast of characters, but by weaving them in and out of each other’s lives Maugham keeps them familiar to us. We watch as their individual fortunes rise and fall affecting all around.

The story begins just after WWI and centers on Larry Darrell and his childhood friends. He is the only one of his group who fought, joining the Air Force to train as a fighter pilot. Traumatized by seeing his best friend killed, when he returns home he is unable to resume his carefree life as a member of the upper class. Set to marry his long-time love, Isabel, and live the conventional life of his class, his experiences during the war have changed him in ways that make that life impossible. He is full of questions about the meaning of life and no longer feels comfortable in the Chicago of his childhood. With inner demons demanding attention he embarks on a life of study and manual labor in France and Germany and to India where at the feet of gurus and into ashrams he spends several years. Confounding his friends with his voluntary poverty and perpetual study, he refuses to reign in his voracious quest for answers.

As the years pass and Isabel loses her ability to wait for him; as the offers of employment dry up and the words of wisdom from well-meaning friends fall on deaf ears, Larry remains undaunted. At its heart this is the story of one man’s spiritual journey, but it is also that for all the characters who experience existential crises in the life choices they make and in the way their lives unfold.

Maugham, who plays himself in the story, met Larry just after he returned from the war at a party given by Isabel’s uncle Elliott. As a writer, he comes to Paris often. His meetings with Larry make him the perfect go-between keeping all at home informed of Larry’s whereabouts and progress on a quest they cannot understand.

Maugham structures the narrative so that he runs into the characters accidentally on streets, in restaurants, at events as a device for “catching up.” He is the older, trustworthy, non-gossipy family friend. They pour out their trials and tribulations to him, their decisions, their changes of heart or circumstances, whether their hopes are attained or dreams dashed.

That Maugham plays himself in this story had me confused. Is this a fictional account of a true story? If so, does his presence make it nonfiction? Or are the characters fictional in order for Maugham to expand on the real point of the book—the quest for the meaning of life vs. living a conventional material life, and as a vehicle that showcases the new Eastern spirituality that had become so popular in the West?

My confusion forced me to learn more about Maugham to see if that might shed some light.

Maugham was involved with some of the major players and organizations that brought Indian religion and philosophy to the States in the late 19th to mid 20th centuries. Swami Vivekananda and the Vedanta Society, Paramahansa Yogananda and The Self-Realization Fellowship were well-known messengers of this new spirituality. They lectured throughout the United States and Europe to packed houses making positive impressions everywhere. Maugham uses himself in the book as a sort of messenger not only between Larry and his friends, but as Larry’s sounding board, foil, and inquisitor to his spiritual journey. By forcing Larry to explain himself through their conversations he becomes the transmitter of this spirituality to the reader.

As a new reader of W. Somerset Maugham I thoroughly enjoyed his style of writing and telling of this story. He is asking us to think about what makes a meaningful life and the struggle between material desire and spirituality. Is Larry the better person for his choices and Isabel, who refuses Larry’s life of poverty, the villain? Is a life of inner exploration superior to that of outer conformity to convention? Or does there have to be a choice between the two? A universal conundrum for sure.

________________

My Edition
Title: The Razor’s Edge
Author: W. Somerset Maugham
Publisher: Doubleday, Doran & Co., Inc.
Device: Hardcover
Year: 1944
Pages: 258
Full plot summary

Classics Club Spin #18

CCspin18.jepg

 

A perfect event for a first blog post after being away for so long!

I am not sure why these Spins are so exciting. Like the lottery, maybe? Whatever the reason they give me both the push I need to get myself reading from my list and to feel like part of the CC community. Once the Spin Gods choose the number it is so much fun to go to other blogs to see who got what.

If you have never heard of the Classics Club it is basically a blog and community of bloggers who want to read more classic literature. We make up a list of at least 50 books we want to read in five years, then blog or use some other form of social media for our reviews and enjoy the comments and discussions with the folks who stop by. A few times a year, we separately list out 20 books from our main list and the Spin Gods chose a number.  The book that corresponds to that number is our Spin book. It is not too late to sign up both for this Spin or the Club itself. Here is all the information you need.

With all that said, here is my list. I have decided to list from the bottom up, instead of starting at the top. I am a dare devil, I am. I will stop back on Wednesday and announce my Spin book. Good luck, All!

ETA: And the Spin number is 9. I will be reading Rob Roy, by Sir Walter Scott. This has been on my shelf for a long time and frankly, I don’t even know what it is about! THIS is one of the reasons this event can be fun as well as meaningful.

Elizabeth Gaskell
1. North and South (1854)

George Gissing
2. The Odd Women (1893)

Aldous Huxley
3. Brave New World (1932)

Henry James
4. Portrait of a Lady (1881)
5. The Ambassadors (1903)

Sinclair Lewis
6. Main Street (1920)

George Meredith
7. The Egoist (1879)
8. Diana of the Crossways
(1885)

Sir Walter Scott
9. Rob Roy (1817)
10. Ivanhoe (1820)

Mary Shelley
11. Frankenstein (1818)

Robert Louis Stevenson
12. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886)

Harriet Beecher Stowe
13. Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)

W. M. Thackeray
14. Vanity Fair (1848)

Susan Warner
15. The Wide, Wide World (1850)

H. G. Wells
16. First Men in the Moon (1901)
17. The Invisible Man (1897)

Oscar Wilde
18. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)

Virginia Woolf
19. To the Lighthouse (1927)
20 .The Years (1937)

Classics Club Spin #17: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Bronte (1848)

Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveler, or to cover them with branches and flowers. Oh Reader! If there were less of this delicate concealment of facts — this whispering of ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace, there would be less of sin and misery to the young of both sexes who are left to wring their bitter knowledge from experience. Acton Bell, Preface to the second edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

 

tenantThe story of Helen Huntingdon is intense. We meet her as a mystery woman new to the neighborhood who appears to all as aloof and disinterested in society. “She doesn’t even go to church,” the gossips exclaim! She is misunderstood and a target of slander from the beginning and though she refuses to reveal the truth about herself none of the townspeople ever ask her outright. Her only trustworthy friend is also very attracted to her and he believes the worst about her until she is finally able to show him her journal, documenting the horrible life of abuse she experienced by her husband and the daring escape with her young son. This is the reason for secrecy and reticence in order not to be discovered by her husband.

Two Aspects of this Book are very Modern: Reading Classics in the 21st Century and Bullying Behavior

I had been book blogging for several months when I reviewed, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, The House of the Seven Gables. After I published it on my blog I found a discussion about it on another blog on why is this still an assigned classic in school–it is so densely written and boring it should be tossed into the dustbin of literary history. I was fascinated, because all the criticisms the commenters were making were exactly why I liked it! The writing hadn’t seemed dense to me, because I love Hawthorne’s description of every little detail of a character’s thoughts, the minute details of the house and street it was located on.

In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the journal Helen gives Gilbert tells the story of her abusive marriage. It is achingly repetitive. The book itself is over 500 pages in my edition and the journal takes up at least ¾ of it and frankly it could have benefited from serious editing, the same criticism of The House of the Seven Gables. Even so, my interest was held through Arthur Huntingdon’s perpetual meanness, psychological abuse, leaving to carouse in London, adultery, drinking, the coming home and then doing it all over again. Throughout the journal, even before she marries him, Helen’s friends and family warn her repeatedly about his bad habits and immoral behavior, until it is so obvious she should not do it. And yet, she marries him and this repetition continues leaving the reader to wonder how long will Arthur’s abuse go on and how long will Helen accept it as her duty?

Does the so-called ‘boringness’ of these books for some call into question their relevancy? Do we find them boring because we have a smaller attention span now? Is it hard for teenagers in the 21st century to sit down and read a 500 page book? I suppose this means CliffsNotes will always be in demand.

The second aspect of this book that is very modern manifests in the way Helen bears the consequences of gossip and bullying, the way she believes her husband will change after they are married, the toll it takes in the way Arthur abuses, cheats on and neglects her and the vulnerability she experiences when Arthur’s friends see her as fair game because Arthur is reckless in his affections for other women and ignores her.

Helen has no recourse for this sham of a marriage since only her husband can enact divorce and though the church might take pity on her if she were able to admit and document how bad things are, most people, like her Aunt would still say she has a duty to the marriage and should go back to her husband. And Helen will say she has a duty, too.

Whatever I ought to have done, my duty, now, is plainly to love him and to cleave to him; and this just tallies with my inclination.

Today, there are a fair amount of churches that believe women are locked into the bonds of marriage no matter how harsh the treatment by their husband and continue to counsel against separation or divorce with dire consequences.

In another modern aspect, Helen is subjected to gossip and bullying behavior by the townspeople that remind me how exacerbated this would have become on Twitter, for instance, which would have a field day in blaming the victim, when their ‘evidence’ for Helen’s illicit relationship is only a ‘feeling.’

“Why mother, you said you didn’t believe these tales,” said Fergus.

“No more I do, my dear; but then, you know, there must be some foundation.”

“The foundation is in the wickedness and falsehood of the world and in the fact that Mr. Lawrence has been seen to go that way once or twice of an evening — and the village gossips say he goes to pay his addresses to the strange lady, and the scandalmongers have greedily seized the rumour, to make it the basis of their own infernal structure,” said I.

“Well, but Gilbert, there must be something in her manner to countenance such reports.”

“Did you see anything in her manner?”

“No, certainly; but then, you know, I always said there was something strange about her.”

In the Preface to the second edition of the book, published in 1848, Anne Bronte (writing as Acton Bell) addresses the critics who find the story coarse and brutal for depicting such negative scenes of married life. She answers that truth is better than falsehood and “to represent a bad thing in its least offensive light” is the least honest or safe for a writer. Characters like Arthur Huntingdon do exist and her purpose in telling this story is to warn both young men and women of the pitfalls of a marriage when you see it only through rose colored glasses–you must get to know the person.

So I answer my own question about the relevancy of classics with a resounding YES!  Reading books written more than a hundred years ago with characters who are experiencing the same issues we are connects us to the past by opening our eyes to, in this case, perennial injustices in which we have evolved somewhat, but still have a long way to go. We may see ourselves in these characters and learn from their mistakes and triumphs. And what a way to respect the past than by heeding Bronte’s advice  and her characters who lived exactly 170 years ago.

 

_______________________________

My Edition
Title: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Author: Anne Bronte
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Device: Paperback
Year: 1848
Pages: 511
Full plot summary

Classic Club List, Classic Club Spin, Victorian Reading Challenge

The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)

On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A. It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore; and which was of a splendor in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony.

 

letteraTechnically this is a reread. However, all these many years since high school have dimmed my memories of the details. The first being the Introduction to the book or autobiographical essay that Hawthorne uses to show that the story he tells is true; that one day during his job as the Surveyor in the Custom House in the city of Salem, Massachusetts he explores the old building and discovers a room filled with old documents belonging to his predecessors. Upon opening a package wrapped with red tape, he finds a tattered piece of material with a faded letter “A” embroidered on it. Also enclosed are documents containing interviews with townspeople enabling him to piece together the story of Hester Prynne the adulteress, who bore a child, refused to name the father and lived life as a recluse.

The story takes place during the mid 17th century in the first few years of the Puritan city’s founding. Hester Prynne has been convicted of adultery and must live for the rest of her life with the shame branded on her in the form of an elaborately embroidered scarlet letter ‘A’ sewn into the bodice of her dress. She lives her life on the outskirts of town, raising her daughter and eking out an existence by sewing and embroidery. The man complicit in the liaison is identified to the reader as the Reverend Dimmesdale, though he does not acknowledge any involvement in Hester’s plight or responsibility for Pearl.

We learn Hester comes to Salem from England awaiting her husband who has not yet arrived and is feared to have died at sea. However, on the day Hester is released from prison and paraded through the crowd of townspeople to the platform from where she will be displayed for the day, he appears though he makes no move to rescue Hester, to forgive her or reveal their relationship to the authorities. He disguises himself as an itinerant doctor and changes his name to Chillingworth.

As the pious and well-loved minister of the town, Dimmesdale’s conscience gets the better of him and as the years go by his guilt begins to literally eat away at him. Dr. Chillingworth moves in to his home presumably to care for him, but he knows Didmmesdale’s connection to Hester and it is not clear how honestly is his medical advice.

Dimmesdale dies after a brilliant last sermon and soon after so does Chillingworth, himself a victim of guilt-related wasting disease. Hester and Pearl leave for several years and when Hester returns to Salem she is alone living once more on the edge of town bearing her sentence with quiet humility until she dies.

Some Things that Strike Me: The Supernatural,  Corporate Sin

Hawthorne is at his best when he blends the normal with the supernatural as he does in The House of the Seven Gables and The Blithedale Romance and which he does here. In fact, there is a constant sense of evil and malevolent forces at work throughout; of the men in Hester’s life who act in fiendish ways, including her husband whose guilt has ‘transformed him into a devil;” a meteor that lights up the night sky and is observed as a foreboding sign; the rumored dance of witches with the Black Man [Satan] of the forest; little Pearl “born of sin” whose soul seems to fight the forces of good and evil. And finally, the scarlet letter which has a life of its own.

In the Introduction, as Hawthorne sifts through the documents pertaining to Hester Prynne, the remnant of the scarlet letter falls on his chest.

It seemed to me,—the reader may smile, but must not doubt my word,—it seemed to me, then, that I experienced a sensation not altogether physical, yet almost so, of a burning heat; and as if the letter were not of red cloth, but red-hot iron. I shuddered and involuntarily let it fall upon the floor.

The scarlet letter is also of curious interest to the infant Pearl who notices the lettera2glimmering gold embroidery “with a decided gleam that gave her face the look of a much older child,”  causing Hester to never feel safe. This look is described as elfish, almost fiendish, an evil-spirit possession of the child mocking her mother.

When Dimmesdale dies it is in the presence of his congregation at the conclusion of what turns out to be his last sermon. Hester is near and comforts him. He confesses his guilt to her and hopes his suffering in life is sufficient penance to reach Heaven. Many of the spectators testify to seeing a scarlet letter A visible on his chest. Some say it was put there as the penance he took on when Hester first appeared to the public to show his flock we are all sinners. Others believe it was placed there through the work of Chillingworth, by necromancy and magic.

I find Pearl to be a striking character who is thought of as both the sin of her parents as well as a magical creature, full of airy light who is a wild woodland elf. The stain of her mother precludes the town’s children from associating with her so her playmates are the trees, brooks and animals of the forest and her fantasy life. But she scares Hester almost from the beginning.

The child’s own nature had something wrong in it, which continually betokened that she had been born amiss, –the effluence of her mother’s lawless passion, — had often impelled Hester to ask, in bitterness of heart, whether it were for ill or good that the poor little creature had been born at all.

Pearl refuses to obey rules and is described as a disordered and peculiar child whose character, Hester believes, was formed while she was giving in to her illicit passion which was transmitted into her child. As Pearl was “imbibing her soul from the spiritual world…the warfare of Hester’s spirit was perpetuated in Pearl.”

How unfair for a child to be so burdened by society’s strictures and grievous religious dogma through no fault of its own and without ever having recourse.

I also found it unusual that Hester’s accuser is not her husband, but the townspeople, the governors and magistrates, the clergy. At that time, religion and its enforced morality had a hold on one’s personal life and was policed by neighbors. Transgressions were brought to the clergy and punishment was strong to set an example.

It occurs to me how different a scenario is the accusation of adultery during the colonial times compared to our own. We leave adultery to the couple involved to sort it out as they will and while one or the other might make accusations against each other it is not a criminal offense affecting the entire town. It reminds me of the witch trials of Salem, this belief that what you do as an individual your community has something to say about it and everyone must toe the same line.

As the years pass though Hester continues to wear the scarlet letter, many in the town have either forgiven her or are unsure of her past. She becomes known for her good deeds to the poor and sick and comforting and consoling to any young women thought wronged in some accusation or another. In fact, many choose to see in her exemplary life the letter representing not her shame, but her penance. “They said that it meant Able.

And how does this all end for Hester Prynne and her little woodland elf of a daughter? Quite nicely as it turns out. The old devil Chillingworth died a rich man and bequeathed his fortune to Pearl who became the richest heiress of her day. Mother and daughter leave the country for many years until one day Hester arrives back at her simple cottage and attaches to her dress the scarlet letter continuing the punishment of her own free will. It is speculated that Pearl, being of marriageable age, has found a husband across the sea and would not be joining her mother.

To the townspeople who observe packages and letters coming into Hester’s home bearing seals of unknown English heraldry, they know someone from afar, is it Pearl?, is caring for her. This is confirmed the day Hester is seen embroidering a baby garment….

Such an intense tale of passion and mystery! Made up or based on reality? Whether the Introduction is true about the package with the faded fabric or not, a story of great magnitude is the result.

________________________

Title: The Scarlet Letter
Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1850
Pages: 238
Full plot summary

 

Challenges: Classics Club, Back to the Classics, Victorian Reading Challenge

Classics Club Spin #17

classicsclub

Several times a year, the Classics Club (CC) Spin gives me a boost to get on with reading from my CC List. The last two times I have needed that boost, and even though I am glad to say I don’t need it now, these Spins are fun. I enjoy seeing what is on the lists of other Classic Clubbers and the experience helps me to feel part of the community.

The rules are simple: I go to my CC List and choose 20 books I haven’t read, list them 1-20 and wait until Friday, March 9th when the Spin Goddess chooses a number. Voila! The corresponding number on my list is the book I will read and blog about by April 30th.

If you want to read more classics and think a community of bloggers doing that very thing will spur you on, join the Club first and you can participate in the Spin.

My list:

Jane Austen
1. Sense and Sensibility (1811)
2. Pride and Prejudice (1813)

Anne Bronte
3. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848)

Charlotte Bronte
4. Shirley (1849)

Emily Bronte
5. Wuthering Heights (1847)

Fanny Burney
6. Evelina (1778)

Willa Cather
7. O Pioneers! (1913)
8. My Antonia (1918)

Daniel Defoe
9. Robinson Crusoe (1719)
10. A Journal of the Plague Year (1722)

Theodore Dreiser
11. Sister Carrie (1900)

George Eliot
12. Mill on the Floss (1860)
13. Silas Marner (1861)
14. Daniel Deronda (1876)

Elizabeth Gaskell
15. Mary Barton (1848)
16. Cranford (1851)
17. North and South (1854)
18. Wives and Daughters (1864)

Henry James
19. Portrait of a Lady (1881)
20. The Ambassadors (1903)

Some Clubbers do a theme with their Spins, for example, “books I am afraid to read,” “books by women,” but I decided to choose the first 20 on my list minus the ones I’ve already read or don’t have in my physical possession. Check out #ccspin on Twitter to find Spin lists by CC members.

I will be back on the 9th with an update. Psst, Spin Goddess, the Brontes or Gaskell, please 🙂

ETA: The Spin Goddess has chosen #3 and I got my Bronte! I will be reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. 🙂

The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton (1920)

It was not the custom in New York drawing rooms for a lady to get up and walk away from one gentleman in order to seek the company of another. Etiquette required that she should wait, immovable as an idol, while the men who wished to converse with her succeeded each other at her side. But the Countess was apparently unaware of having broken any rule, she sat at perfect ease in a corner of the sofa beside Archer, and looked at him with the kindest eyes.

 

AgeinnocenceThis the fourth book I’ve read by Edith Wharton after Ethan Frome, Summer and The House of Mirth. I see similar patterns in all of them, but each one is from a fresh perspective, from the particular protagonist.

Wharton seems to be interested in the struggle between a person’s freedom versus society’s demands; between the ability to dream a new reality for yourself and what your class says you can and cannot do. In each of the aforementioned books the main character is caught in what they want for their life and their inability to get it. There is always interference and it is then that their conscience kicks in or their chance to choose is lost. And then they resign themselves to their fate. This is my perspective, anyway.

The Age of Innocence tackles marriage and after only a few pages in it is obvious that this particular courtship is not going to go well.

It is an opera night in 1870s New York City and the well-known Swedish opera singer Christine Nilsson is performing. Newland Archer is scanning the audience and rests his eyes on the box across from him where May Welland, his soon to be announced fianceé is sitting with her mother and aunt. He has the vantage to observe her unnoticed.

His thoughts at first are to his love and what he will make of her and how she has been raised to be molded by her husband. “…he contemplated her absorbed young face with a thrill of possessorship in which pride in his own masculine initiation was mingled with a tender reverence for her abysmal purity.” He is interrupted when a friend points out a young woman who has just entered the Welland box and whose foreign dress is causing a stir. She is Madame Ellen Olenska, May’s cousin, who has come from Europe having run away from her husband and has come home to get a divorce.

At first, Ellen is shunned by many of her American relations who fear the disgrace divorce would cast on their reputation. When Newland’s law firm takes on the handling of the divorce, he is asked by the family to intercede with Ellen and encourage her not to file. Later he is asked to dam this breach between Ellen and the family due to his marriage to May, which leads to a disaster as the two fall in love.

As Newland navigates the thorny rules and rituals of courtship and marriage, he exposes the faults and farce of the new state he is entering into. He catches himself musing on what he expects his wife to be; while not quite equals, he wants something that is more free than what he sees in his circle. But the way women are raised, how can this be?

He reviewed his friends’ marriages—the supposed happy ones—and saw none that answered, even remotely, to the passionate and tender comradeship which he pictured as his permanent relation with May Welland. He perceived that such a picture presupposed, on her part, the experience, the versatility, the freedom of judgment, which she had been carefully trained not to possess; and with a shiver of foreboding he saw his marriage becoming what most of the other marriages about him were: a dull association of material and social interests held together by ignorance on the one side and hypocrisy on the other.

Would his marriage become like so many others where the husband “had formed a wife so completely to his own convenience that, in the most conspicuous moments of his frequent love-affairs with other men’s wives, she went about in smiling unconsciousness…”

Newland reasoned that the things he loved about May–her frankness, her grace and loyalty were an artificial construct.

He felt himself oppressed by this creation of factitious purity, so cunningly manufactured by a conspiracy of mothers and aunts and grandmothers and long dead ancestresses, because it was supposed to be what he wanted, what he had a right to, in order that he might exercise his lordly pleasure in smashing it like an image made of snow.

Wharton pulls no punches here.

Ellen, through her life experiences, possesses the sexual and intellectual freedom that Newland desires in a woman, a wife. And yet she is not free. Even if Newland wanted to leave May, the lack of a divorce would stand in the way of their marriage. Ellen sees the futility of living in limbo and announces she is going back to Paris, presumably to her husband. And what Newland and men like him don’t understand, is that women like May see through the bars of their gilded cage; they understand what marriage really is and only pretend to ‘smile in unconsciousness.’ Sick at Ellen’s departure, Newland tells May he wants to take a trip. Without missing a beat she tells him she is pregnant and that she told Ellen so a few weeks ago.

“You know I told you we had a long talk one afternoon—and how dear she was to me.”

“But that was a fortnight ago, wasn’t it? I thought you said you weren’t sure till today.”

“No; I wasn’t sure then—but I told her I was. And you see I was right! she exclaimed, her blue eyes wet with victory.

In the final chapter decades have passed. May has born three children and after 26 years of marriage has died. Newland thinks of his life with her as deep and real. Ellen, though, lives only in the past. And at the very end of the novel when circumstances take the turn that both had wished for long ago, Newland makes a remarkable decision.

It would be easy to dislike a character like Newland Archer, but Wharton makes it impossible. He is honestly trying to assess the promise of his life against the social conventions of his time; exposing the hypocrisy of  the status quo and the values they hold dear.

_____________

My Edition
Title: The Age of Innocence
Author: Edith Wharton
Publisher: Barnes and Noble Classics
Device: Paperback
Year: 1920
Pages: 307
Full plot summary

Challenges: Classics Club

 

Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier (1938)

Unconsciously I shivered, as though someone had opened the door behind me, and let a draught into the room. I was sitting in Rebecca’s chair, I was leaning against Rebecca’s cushion, and the dog had come to me and laid his head upon my knee because that had been his custom, and he remembered, in the past, she had given sugar to him there.

 

RebeccaWhen I put Rebecca on my Classics Club list, I didn’t know anything about it. I put it on my list with the same intention I put many classics on it: I want to read well-known or important classics, and knew this was one of them.

When I started book blogging, I discovered how many readers include Rebecca on their top 10 favorites list. That in itself was intriguing, yet there were so many other classics I knew about that I wanted to read first.

Now I am initiated. Now I understand.

(Caveat: For those not initiated, you will see often in this post ‘the second Mrs. de Winter,’ this is because her name is never mentioned).

There is so much tension built into this book, which begins in the first pages where an unnamed narrator is recounting a dream. It is a beautiful descriptive dream of a house, its grounds and its secrets and an ominous statement that it is no more.

The house was a sepulchre, our fear and suffering lay buried in the ruins. There would be no resurrection.

When the young second Mrs. de Winter comes to Manderley, her background has not prepared her to take up the responsibilities of caring for a show place like Manderley. Her shyness and reticence in the presence of the household staff and housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, does not instill confidence and she is constantly questioning herself and her marriage to Maxim. In her mind she concocts rich fantasies about what the staff really thinks of her, although reality is never as bad as her thoughts. But there is another facet of this experience she has no control over. She is living with the ghost of the first Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca and her secrets, that permeate every aspect of the second Mrs. de Winter’s life.

No one will talk about Rebecca, which only adds to the second Mrs. de Winter’s rich fantasy life. Though many characters are introduced including Beatrice, Maxim’s sister and kind-hearted Frank Crawley, Maxim’s business associate, who genuinely like and accept her their refusal to talk about Rebecca and her death hangs over Mrs. de Winter’s ability to feel comfortable in the house.

That is until Mrs. Danvers, who it turns out was not just the housekeeper, but Rebecca’s confidante confronts Mrs. de Winter when she catches her in Rebecca’s suite and is only too happy to talk. Danvers is the classic dead mistress-obsessed housekeeper who refuses to let go of the past. She cleans and dusts this suite every day. She lays out Rebecca’s clothes as if she is only gone for the day. du Maurier writes this scene so well. It is easy to share de Winter’s panic as Danvers speaks.

It’s not only this room it’s in many rooms in the house…I feel her everywhere. You do too, don’t you?”…Sometimes, when I walk along the corridor here, I fancy I hear her just behind me. That quick light footstep. I could not mistake it anywhere. And in the minstrels’ gallery above the hall. I’ve seen her leaning there, in the evenings in the old days, looking down at the hall below and calling to the dogs. I can fancy her there now from time to time. It’s almost as though I catch the sound of her dress sweeping the stairs as she comes down to dinner.” She pauses. She went on looking at me, watching my eyes. “Do you think she can see us, talking to one another now? Do you think the dead come back and watch the living?”

I swallowed. I dug my nails into my hands.

Sometimes I wonder,” she whispered. “Sometimes I wonder if she comes back here to Manderley and watches you and Mr. de Winter together.”

When a ship capsizes in the bay and Rebecca’s small boat is discovered with her dead body still inside Maxim has no choice but to reveal the truth about how she died. It is a shocking revelation, but in my opinion, less shocking than the reasons he did it. As she listens to the truth about their marriage, as she hears the details about who Rebecca really was and as the investigation and inquest unfold, she is transformed. She is determined to support her husband, will hear all he is accused of, will stay by his side. In this regard she grows up and is changed overnight. Even Maxim acknowledges her transformation, dismayed that it is his fault.

But you. I can’t forget what it has done to you. I was looking at you, thinking of nothing else all through lunch. It’s gone forever, that funny, young, lost look that I loved. It won’t come back again. I killed that too, when I told you about Rebecca. It’s gone, in twenty-four hours. You are so much older…

And then he says her name. He doesn’t, of course, but in my head it would have made so much sense for him to say it here.

Du Maurier’s writing style is quite amazing in this book. How many passages are worth quoting her way with words? How detailed she gives to the narrative whether in describing a person, Manderley and its grounds, or an event, but the narrative never feels bogged down in the details.

Yet, it is the details that infuse, propel and wrap up the story. I spent the last quarter of the book on a roller coaster as one revelation proves Maxim’s guilt while another one covers it up, while still another could go either way. I have never been very good at guessing outcomes in books, so I was not prepared for the very end. While it explains the dream of the first few pages and why the narrator is estranged from her home, I was still shocked. With eyes as big as saucers I closed the book…“What???”

I have heard people say and I have said it too about books that really touched me; I wish I could forget I read this book so I can read it again for the first time.

*********

My Edition
Title: Rebecca
Author: Daphne du Maurier
Publisher: Avon
Device: Paperback
Year: 1938
Pages: 380
Full plot summary

Challenges: Roofbeam Reader TBR, Classics Club

The Bostonians, Henry James (1886)

 

bostonians

 

Of course, I only speak to women—to my own dear sisters; I don’t speak to men, for I don’t expect them to like what I say. They pretend to admire us very much, but I should like them to admire us a little less and to trust us a little more…When I see the dreadful misery of mankind and think of the suffering of which at any hour, at any moment, the world is full, I say that if this is the best they can do by themselves, they had better let us come in a little and see what we can do. Verena Tarrant

…you ought to know that your connexion with all these rantings and ravings is the most unreal, accidental, illusory thing in the world. You think you care about them, but you don’t at all. They were imposed upon you by circumstances, by unfortunate associations, and you accepted them as you would have accepted any other burden, on account of the sweetness of your nature. Basil Ransom

Boston in the 1880s was one of the national hotbeds for the first wave of feminism. The early supporters of suffrage and equal rights for women were former abolitionists, reformers and liberal Christians who advocated for the poor, had harbored runaway slaves before the War and exposed the inequality of the classes. Lectures in homes and in public halls abounded as women took to the stage to voice the long history of the injustices perpetrated against them and to defend the right to full participation in every facet of public and private life.

This is the city in which Olive Chancellor lives and imagines a better world for women. A young, wealthy feminist she has given her life to the cause of suffrage and women’s emancipation. But an error in judgment occurs when her sentiments get the best of her and she invites a distant cousin from Mississippi to visit. Believing her mother would have wanted to make contact with their Southern relatives, she has taken up that mantle after her death. Basil Ransom, who shows up at her door one evening could not be more traditionally Southern in his demeanor or his views on women. Somewhat older than Olive he fought for the South, an act that places him squarely at odds with his Northern cousin and the milieu in which he finds himself.

At her suggestion, which she later regrets, she tells him she is going to hear a well-known speaker on women’s rights and he is free to join her if he wishes. This tragic invitation, for Olive at least, is worse than the one that invited him to meet her in the first place. It is at this gathering both become entranced by young Verena Tarrant, a dynamic speaker who is on the verge of becoming this generation’s speaking authority for women. At least this is what Olive believes when she invites Verena to live with her so that they can learn and study together and prepare Verena for her mission in life.

But from the beginning of his first vision of “that charming creature,” Ransom never believes Verena’s sincerity to the Cause. He is convinced she doesn’t believe what she says and as the months progress he mocks and ridicules her to her face and to those around her. Olive cautions her:

There are gentlemen in plenty who would be glad to stop your mouth by kissing you! If you become dangerous some day to their selfishness, to their vested interests, to their immorality—as I pray to heaven every day, my dear friend, that you may!—it will be a grand thing for one of them if he can persuade you that he loves you.

Which is exactly what Basil Ransom sets out do as he and Olive battle for heart and mind of Verena. Though Olive tries in many different ways and at several times to physically remove Verena from Ransom’s insinuating presence in their life, he is unrelenting in his desire to take her from this false view of womanhood and bring her to her senses, which is home, husband and children. And yet, for all her protestations against his mockery and her heartfelt pledges of devotion to Olive and their work, Verena is susceptible to his charms and is pulled to him then to Olive, back and forth as she struggles under their force.

What Henry James weaves here is a finely crafted war of wills between these three and the very well-defined supporting characters. Ransom, the die-hard son of the Confederacy, who is often introduced or described as ‘The Mississippian,’ whose traditional Southern values are anathema to his Northern hosts is truly a fish out of water in Boston. While I wrote in my notes that “he is such a pig,” and his views and actions toward Verena are contemptible, I also have sympathy for him. He is a product of his region and culture fighting to preserve it and it is not in his DNA to think women really want to be free of the restrictions men have placed on them, to have their own opinions, to vote, to be treated equally. This is not an excuse for his behavior and he is free to change, yet these sensibilities are very useful for James in giving a clue to his underlying motivations for Verena: “The South may have lost the War, but I captured a Yank.” If it is this deep resentment of the North that motivates him it is personified in Olive who he will rise up against.

I have never thought very hard about interactions between Northerners and Southerners—‘brother against brother’—at the War’s end. How DID people of such opposing political, national and personal beliefs deal and work with each other? How did they become friends or fall in love or enter into all manner of relationships? If, as Olive worried at the lecture over how to introduce Ransom to her abolitionist friends, because not everyone would “care to know a person who had borne such a part in the Southern disloyalty,” how did people heal from this?

Before Verena is set to make her big public lecture debut, she and Olive have secreted themselves away for months to practice and rehearse her speech. Ransom is unable to discover her whereabouts until the event. On the night of the debut, Verena takes one look at him and her resolutions weaken. The lecture is delayed and the audience, who paid good money to see this new speaker, is becoming anxious. Olive sees him as well and sees what it is doing to Verena. As Ransom gets a physical hold of her he whisks her out the door.

Whatever motivates Verena to leave her great work for someone who mocks her, who openly ridicules the women she surrounds herself with and the work she wants to do in the world, is unclear to me. Though she tells Olive at one point that Ransom loves her, he never actually says it; not once does he say to himself that he loves her nor does he tell anyone else. He is only motivated by revenge for the South’s lost cause and vengeance against Olive for her treatment of him.

And whatever Olive’s feelings are toward Verena, in the end she lets her go. Olive knows that if she presses her to state her loyalty to the cause they have worked so hard for, to pledge faithfulness to Olive and the friends they work with she would do it, but “the magic would have passed out of her spirit for ever, the sweetness out of their friendship, the efficacy out of their work.” If Olive and Verena have what is called a Boston marriage in the end, Olive is the bigger person and Basil Ransom is the plunderer.

Poor Verena, caught in the middle, is never really allowed to know herself and to understand what she wants. And for me that is the biggest mystery of all. As she is forced out of the hall by Ransom, she says, “Ah now I am glad!” when she hears Olive stepping up to the stage to give the lecture herself, something she has always refused to do. Does Ransom interpret these words as a victory for him? Or are they in support of her dear friend? And why is she in tears?

“It is to be feared that with the union, so far from brilliant, into which she was about to enter, these were not the last she was destined to shed.

A Personal Note

This is my first Henry James, so I can only speak of his writing style from this book, which is dense and explanatory. In the notes to my edition I was reminded his brother is William James, the celebrated American psychologist and philosopher and I do not know what effect, if any, that had on James or this particular book. Because part of the denseness of the writing comes from the mental conflicts James describes in depth, we know more about the characters’ psychological state than what they look like.

This compelled me to read the book in two days. I really needed to know what was going to happen to everyone! And then I wanted to get these preliminary thoughts down. I am a little disappointed in my rapid reading of the novel and don’t advise it for others. I hope to read this again in a few years, because I know there is a richness and profundity that was missed.

______________

My Edition
Title: The Bostonians
Author: Henry James
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Device: Paperback
Year: 1984
Pages: 433
Full plot summary

RBR TBR, Classics Club, Back to the Classics, Victorian Reading Challenge

Looking Toward 2018

bikebook

 

I don’t have a great desire to do a recap of 2017. I want to look forward. But I do want to mention two things that were important to me this year:

  1. Favorite books of 2017: I am making myself choose only four, three classics and one historical novel, even though it is an impossible task! Dracula, Northanger Abbey, House of Mirth, and Radio Girls.
  2. “Enriched by reading the reviews” of other bloggers’ books is one of the ways I would characterize this year as well as reading your comments on mine.

Number 2 brings me to my plans for 2018. I am going to concentrate on what I would call the foundational classics I have not yet read, like Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, and books by Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot and Oscar Wilde. I want to read Rebecca and find out why it is on so many top ten list of favorites. And maybe I’ll tackle a Woolf.

And I want to read some American foundational classics like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Moby Dick and books by Willa Cather and Henry James. Maybe do some traveling with Charley. Louisa May Alcott wrote so many other books besides Little Women…time to dust some off? And I want to find out more about Sarah Orne Jewett whose The Country of the Pointed Firs I so enjoyed in 2016.

 

 

In order to help with these deficiencies, I am taking part in a number of (overlapping) challenges, including Roof Beam Reader’s TBR, Back to the Classics and the Victorian Reading Challenge. These will also help me with my Classics Club list.

Since I can’t deny my attraction to the 19th century, I am also going to read more historical fiction that takes place in that time period, so I have signed up for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The second emphasis for the year is to expand my awareness outside the UK and US by concentrating on Reading all Around the World that I neglected last year,  participate in the European Reading Challenge and Doing Dewey’s Nonfiction Challenge. I can’t promise I will stay out of the 19th and early 20th centuries with these challenges, however, but more history and different perspectives and experiences is always a good thing!

I am also doing a personal challenge on the American Civil War with thanks to Jillian who helped me craft the categories.

Good gracious, this is a lot! And I know there will be readalongs and other events throughout the year that I will participate in…well, a good way to stay out of trouble!

I wish you all a Happy and Prosperous New Year!