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.

 

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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

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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

Roxana, Daniel Defoe (1724)

Roxana

 

If you have any Regard to your future Happiness; any View of living comfortably with a Husband; any Hope of preserving your Fortunes, or restoring them after any Disaster; Never, Ladies, marry a Fool; any Husband rather than a Fool…

 

So begins Roxana’s life of woe, written as a cautionary tale “to my Fellow-creatures, the Young Ladies of this country,” that any life is better than marriage with a Fool “nay be any thing, be even an Old Maid, the worst of Nature’s Curses, rather than take up with a Fool.”

Because, Fool she marries, has 5 children by him, suffers through her brother’s financial folly and thereby hers when he is given her portion of their father’s inheritance which he spends and then the folly of her husband’s financial losses. To add to this latest injury, her husband leaves her and their five children to find his fortune elsewhere, with no provision for food, bills or a roof over their head.

Though he has threatened to leave in the past, Roxana never believed he would do it and expects to hear from him or to at least receive something for her livelihood, but as the weeks and months drag on there is no word from him and she begins selling furniture, clothing and jewelry to feed the household. As the situation deteriorates, she knows she must give up her children and hopes the sister of her husband will oblige, so she sends her devoted maid Amy, who has been working without wages, to take the children to their aunt.

The landlord, who has given Roxana a year’s free rent to sort out her situation, begins to insinuate himself in her financial affairs with food and other necessities, which Roxana believes are without strings. However, it becomes clear that if Roxana is interested in staying in the house, he will want to share it with her, cohabit, as if they are a married couple. This is the predicament Roxana will find herself in throughout her life as no word from her husband either for a divorce or by a death certificate will allow her to legally marry. She will be forced to survive in cohabitation, as a mistress, a concubine, a whore.

After the landlord dies, she continues in this manner with successive men, in various situations, acknowledging she is at least lucky that her beauty can still attract rich men, even after so many children and the wear and tear of the guilt she suffers over the choices she has had to make since her husband left. She is given beautiful clothes, jewelry and homes to live in and money to keep up her lifestyle. One of her greatest fears as the years pass in this way, is over the control of this fortune, which she would have to give up if ever she could legally marry. Marriage would mean her husband would control her estate to do with it what he would and as past circumstances have shown her, she could once again find herself unprotected and defenseless. This terrifies her even after she hears her husband has died and she is free to marry legally.

Roxana is never morally accepting of the choices she has made and is often ashamed at her sinful life. The fate of her children haunt her and she wants to make restitution although the difficulty here is admitting to them how she has come by her wealth. With Amy as her “agent,” she makes some financial amends, but this ends up in disaster later on.

The subject matter of this 18th century novel made me wonder how it was received in its day. I discovered the book was popular, though throughout many early editions, the ending was changed by whoever published it as was common at the time. Most had Roxana on her deathbed confessing her sins and crying out her repentance giving her a measure of goodness and assurance of a Christian burial. In some of the endings when she reveals the truth to her children they forgive her and the book ends happily.

However, the real text as Defoe writes it ends with Roxana and Amy’s world collapsing once again into destitution, “the Blast of Heaven seem’d to follow the Injury…and I was brought so low again, that my Repentance seem’d to be only the Consequence of my Misery, as my Misery was of my Crime.


Note on the Text

My edition preserves the original format of the text keeping the unique spellings and word usage, the capitalization of words within sentences and the seemingly (to me, anyway) random italicization of words. But it was not difficult to read. Though at times dense, Defoe’s writing is descriptive and absorbing as if Roxana is telling her story live, in front of a spellbound audience.

A Personal Note

If not for a reading challenge that called for a book with an ‘x’ in the title, I am not sure I would have chosen this book. I scoured myriad lists to find a title and though I knew of Defoe, having read A Journal of the Plague Year  many years ago, I had never heard of this title, so I was happy to acquaint myself with another one of his works. Though I am not always successful in completing book challenges, I can honestly say they have enriched my life!

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My Edition
Title: Roxana, The Fortunate Mistress
or, a History of the
Life and Vast Variety of Fortunes of
Mademoiselle de Beleau, afterwards called
the Countess de Wintselsheim
in Germany
Being the Person know by
the Name of the Lady Roxana
in the time of Charles II

Author: Daniel Defoe
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1724
Pages: 330
Full plot summary

Challenges: Classics Club, What’s in a Name?, Mount TBR

Dracula, Bram Stoker (1897)

dracula

“We are in Transylvania; and Transylvania is not England. Our ways are not your ways, and there shall be to you many strange things.”

 

Reading Dracula was like reading Little Women. Steeped in the film versions, I thought I knew what I would find in the books. Both were a surprise, even though I know films always change things and leave out a lot. When will I learn not to judge a book by a film?

Dracula is told entirely through the journals of four of the six principal players: Mina Murray, whose best friend Lucy Westenra has become mysteriously sick; Johnathan Harker, Mina’s fiancé then husband; the psychiatrist Dr. Seward, who runs a mental institute and Professor Van Helsing of Amsterdam, Seward’s former professor who is an “obscure diseases” specialist. Lucy’s two suitors, Arthur Holmwood, later Lord Godalming and the American Quincey Morris, make up the final six.

There is literally no straight narrative in the structure of the book. Stoker uses detailed journal entries, newspaper clippings, letters, bills of lading to tell the story. I found this to be extremely effective, because by keeping things in the first person, the story has immediacy and suspense as one ‘scene’ cuts away to another and we see how each experience is seen and interpreted in multiple ways. While this device is sometimes distracting or hard to follow here, each character has a distinct and unique voice, which makes it easy to know which character is writing.

Because I am used to film and popular culture portrayals of Dracula I was shocked at how little Count Dracula personally features in the book. In addition to his human persona he shape-shifts into various creatures, but is mostly absent. The book is really about the quest to find and kill him. It is the lore around vampires, the ancient curse that shows up in the superstitious townspeople, the effect of vampire bites on Lucy and Mina and the knowledge Professor Van Helsing has that forms the story.

In film versions, the suave and charming Count is afforded lots of screen time with special effects liberally showcasing his pointed teeth, lips dripping with blood, the (Bela Lugosi’s) famous accent, the bat persona and the abundance of mist whenever he is about to appear. While in these versions he is sometimes portrayed as a sympathetic character in the book he is an evil creature without any redeeming qualities living only to satisfy his evil desires without regard to the human cost.

I was struck by the technological inventions Stoker makes use of that existed at the end of the 19th century.  They remind me of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne and seem to fit right in with today’s Steampunk subculture.

  1. Blood transfusions are given to Lucy as Dracula’s fatal bite causes her body to waste away. Dr. Seward transfuses her with Arthur, Quincey, Van Helsing and himself (without knowledge of blood type?) with limited results.
  2. The typewriter: When it is discovered that Mina is an expert typist, she types up everyone’s journal, in copies, so as to give a cohesive structure as to what each is experiencing; she also types up the notes of their planning meetings.
  3. The dictaphone: Dr. Seward speaks his journal into this machine that records on a record player, which Mina types up.
  4. The London Underground and train schedules: Mina is obsessed with the train schedules of the Underground and suburban/cross country trains and has their timetables memorized.
  5. Hypnotism: In an effort to find the whereabouts of Dracula Professor Van Helsing hypnotizes Mina frequently at sunrise and sunset.

When Dracula flees London for his hometown in Romania, the six follow him knowing they must ritually kill him by stabbing him through the heart and cutting off his head. This is the only way to stop a vampiric future and to save Mina, who although has not ‘changed’ yet, is exhibiting some debilitating symptoms.

As they plan and prepare for their journey in Dr. Seward’s living room, Mina makes a disturbing, but necessary request, of which they all must swear. If she becomes so changed that she poses a threat to herself or to them, they must “drive a stake through me and cut off my head.” And in a scene reminiscent of something out of a Medieval romance where knights on a quest pledge their honor to their lady, the men faithfully drop to their knees one by one and swear, as (“Lady”) Mina asks, to kill her if they are unable to ritually rid the world of Dracula so her soul may rest.

Quincey was the first…He knelt down before her and taking her hand in his said solemnly, “ I am only a rough fellow…but I swear to you by all that I hold sacred and dear that, should the time ever come, I shall not flinch from the duty that you have set us.” And each in turn makes the same vow.

Mention should be made here of Mina. She disparages the ‘New Woman,’ of their independence, their call to buck social convention. Yet, she herself is the prime example of such a woman: smart, intelligent, technologically savvy whose work is key in organizing and pursuing the search for Dracula. It is Mina whose facility with a typewriter and organizational skills, her intelligence and coping mechanism in the face of the horror that is happening to her, her obsession with train schedules that basically saves the day. And apparently, she is also an expert on the the criminal mind through the work of Max Nordau, which Stoker, in a bizarre “show and tell” scene, has her recite his philosophy about criminals in reference to Dracula’s own criminality. The irony of this anti-New Woman aspect about Mina is probably not lost on most readers, so it is curious.

The last quarter of the book does feel to me like knights on a sacred quest to rid the world of evil like Arthur and his knights, or Harry, Ron and Hermione against He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, and of all the films and books where ordinary people band together against the darkness that would overcome humanity.

Sadly, unlike the notoriety of these epic stories, this particular one will forever stay with the six, because it is too fantastical. No one would ever believe them.

When we got home we got to talking of the old time—which we could all look back upon without despair… I took the papers from the safe where they have been ever since our return so long ago. We were struck with the fact, that in all the mass of material of which the record is composed, there is hardly one authentic document; nothing but a mass of type-writing, except the later notebooks of Mina and Seward and myself, and Van Helsing’s memorandum. We could hardly ask anyone, even did we wish to, to accept these as proofs of so wild a story.

I didn’t find Dracula scary. I found it hopeful and encouraging. And nothing like the films….

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My Edition
Title: Dracula
Author: Bram Stoker
Publisher: Barnes and Noble Classics
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1897
Pages: 400
Full plot summary

Challenges: Mount TBR, Classics Club, Back to the Classics, #RIPXII

The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton (1905)

housemirth

 

You asked me just now for the truth—well, the truth about any girl is that once she’s talked about she’s done for; and the more she explains her case the worse it looks. 

 

Though Lily Bart didn’t grow up rich, she was born into a comfortable and respectable home with relatives high on the social scale. Like most girls in this class her only purpose in life is to find a wealthy, respected husband. Lily doesn’t just have hopes this will happen, she is very good at making it happen.

But it all comes crashing down when her father makes a series of bad business deals leaving her at the mercy of relatives and friends. Her luck holds out longer than many in this situation, because her beauty and charm is sought after and admired in her ‘set’ who continue to include her in their social gatherings, weekend outings and trips abroad.

Because her future is dependent on whom she marries Lily, like all women of her class, must calculate and weigh every conversation, each action and event she makes. She becomes a keen observer of the most minute details of what is socially acceptable and there are so many! One wrong word or action, one misinterpreted conversation or negative comment against her or showing too much interest in a man or not enough, can have devastating consequences.

The Power of Gossip and Lies

When the gossip about Lily and the unfounded lies begin to run rampant, the same friends who welcomed her into their world at her father’s death, abandon her and are willing to watch her fall rather than come to her defense and risk damaging their own reputations. As Mr. Rosedale admits to her,

Mrs. Dorset…did you a beastly bad turn last spring. Everybody knows what Mrs. Dorset is, and her best friends wouldn’t believe her on oath where their own interests were concerned; but as long as they’re out of the row it’s much easier to follow her lead than to set themselves against it, and you’ve simply been sacrificed to their laziness and selfishness.

One misstep in judgment (going to the apartment of her close male friend alone) begins the downward spiral of gossip and innuendo Lily never recovers from. And her pride makes it impossible for her to fight back.

Not only has the gossip killed any prospect for marriage, the question of how can Lily then support herself must be considered. In this class system, women like Lily are born to be dependent. There is never a question about working or learning a trade. Though she tries her hand at various occupations, Wharton writes a remarkable passage of truth that Lily is conscious of:

She had learned by experience that she had neither the aptitude nor the moral constancy to remake her life on new lines to become a worker among workers, and let the world of luxury and pleasure seep by her unregarded…Inherited tendencies had combined with early training to make her the highly specialized product she was: She had been fashioned to adorn and delight; to what other end does nature round the rose-leaf and paint the hummingbirds’ breast?

 Wharton’s Unsentimental Pen

I have railed against Wharton for writing such depressing novels as Ethan Frome  and Summer. It isn’t that I expect a fantasy of happy endings, but Ethan Frome, Charity Royall and Lily Bart cannot catch a break from the rigid social norms they struggle against.

However, about half way through The House of Mirth I had a stop-me-in-my-tracks moment: Wharton doesn’t write depressing novels, she just writes with an unsentimental pen. She chooses to write stories about people’s fate or more precisely that they can’t escape it once an action or word sets them on that trajectory; that social norms are so rigid and a person’s duty to their class is so morally strong there is no wiggle room for escape or independence from it. For whatever reason, Wharton writes about the injustices of a system that kills passion, desire and freedom.

And was this personal? I have read many times Ethan Frome is the most autobiographical novel she has ever written. So perhaps all this thwarted desire is her personal biographical commentary.

Women as Instigators

It is horribly sad that women in the novel are the instigators of the lies and stories that bring Lily down and that her own aunt with whom she is living believes the gossip about Lily accepting unwanted attention from married men. She not only believes it, but instead of asking Lily outright if what people are saying is true, she is incensed that Lily has allowed herself to be talked about in the first place,

It was horrible of a young girl to let herself be talked about; however unfounded the charges against her, she must be to blame for their having been made.

When your own family members turn against you, what recourse do you have? And when you know fighting back is useless, how do you cope?

Bullying in The House of Mirth

While The House of Mirth is rooted in its time period, something struck me as very contemporary. Lily’s death is suspicious in terms of it being an accident or self-inflicted. But the stage was set because of the devastating effects of the bullying and meanness she was subjected to. This is the same behavior and sometimes the result many teenagers of today are forced to endure.

Lily Bart shows us the tragic outcome when this behavior is allowed to grow and fester unchecked. I think this puts to rest those critics who wonder if  classic literature should still be taught in schools.

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My Edition:
Title: The House of Mirth
Author: Edith Wharton
Publisher: Bantam Classic
Device: Mass market paperback
Year: 1905
Pages: 317
Full plot summary

Challenges: Classics Club, Mount TBR

 

#TheLiteraryOthers: Uncovered (2015)

lgbt

 

This is my first post of possibly three for The Literary Others, a month-long reading event in support of LGBT History Month: October 1-31. Hosted by Roof Beam Reader,  you can find posts and reviews of books on Twitter-#theliteraryothers-and at the master list.

My Edition:uncovered
Title: Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home
Author: Leah Lax
Publisher: She Writes Press
Device: Trade Paper
Year: 2015
Pages: 349
For a plot summary

 

My thoughts:

When someone in the LGBT community is struggling with their faith tradition’s acceptance of them, it is easy to ask, “Why do you stay if they can’t accept you and if you can’t accept things the way they are?” The answer is complicated as Leah Lax shows in this spiritual memoir of her life as a Hasidic Jew struggling to do God’s will amidst the inner conflicts that plague her life in this strict Jewish sect.

Lax chose to enter Hasidic Judaism after graduating high school, where unquestioning allegiance to the Law gave no outlet for doubts. The rules governed the minutiae of everyday life, which made it a refuge against her chaotic and disordered childhood. There were no gray areas if uncertainties trickled into her mind. Group think and fear of gossip purged any thoughts of rebellion. When Lax married at 19 she hoped her home and religious convictions would mitigate the loneliness that troubled her since childhood.

She dutifully fulfills the command from her Rebbe to “build an everlasting edifice of a Jewish home and family,” and in a succession of years has 7 children. Her husband, unable to show her affection or take any interest in her, works long hours and then comes home to study his holy books.

Profoundly disappointed that marriage was not the healer she had hoped, she is awakened many nights by panic attacks unable to breathe. To add to the discomfort of these nightly assaults into her subconscious is the confusion that they portray her as a man. Though a gnawing sense that her decision to enter this marriage is fraying around the edges, she continues to stay and raise up her children as models of the tradition.

It is only after she hears of the suicide of a young yeshiva boy, who she believes jumped off the roof because he couldn’t live with the knowledge that he was gay, does Lax allow the questions about her own sexuality and doubts about her faith to rise up. Still, she “holds on for the kids” and it is several years before she can truly break free and live an open life.

It is easy to assume someone in the LGBT community should just leave a religion that doesn’t want them and can’t accept their sexual orientation. Yet, Lax shows us how seriously any deeply committed person of faith takes their religion. Because if you truly believe this faith tradition is God’s will for your life, you fight with everything inside you to stay, no matter the questions, the doubts, the personal toll. As long as you can find answers to your questions of confusion, discomfort and disappointment, you will sublimate or ignore even the most deep innate feelings you know about yourself. But once those answers are not good enough and stop making sense, the chinks become cracks, become wide open routes that show you the way out.

I found this book so compelling in its openness and honesty that I read it straight through. I appreciated Lax’s attention to the details of her inner and outer life that reflected her conflicts as a lesbian living as a married Hasidic Jew, how she tried to reconcile those very different things, how she tried so very hard to make it work and then ultimately why she couldn’t.

The book ends with a description of her successful life on the outside as a writer, dog lover and with the new home she has created with her partner. Her children have accepted her new life and she says they were not surprised when she came out to them.

And I was finally able to breathe!

 

Herland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915)

My Edition:herland.jpeg
Title: Herland
Author: Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Publisher: Dover Publications
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1915
Pages: 124
For a plot summary

There was no accepted standard of what was ‘manly and what was ‘womanly.’…When Jeff said to Celis, “Women should not carry anything…they are not built for heavy work. Celis looked out across the fields to where some women were working, building a new bit of wall out of large stones; looked back at the nearest town with its woman-built houses; down at the smooth, hard road they were walking on; and then at the little basket he had taken from her. “I don’t understand, are the women in your country so weak that they could not carry such a thing as that?[i]

 

I was so disappointed by Edward Bellamy’s depiction of women in his utopian novel, Looking Backward, that I found myself pining for a more positive view. I remembered I had Herland on my shelf and pulled it off only to find in the introduction the author was inspired by Bellamy! Charlotte Perkins Gilman was already known for her autobiographical, The Yellow Wallpaper, which exposed the chilling and harrowing methods of the ‘rest cure’ forced on some women when depression and the inability to cope made living impossible. Surely, she had a more affirmative and supportive concept about women in her utopia?

Happily for me, Herland presents a stable and progressive environment, a well-planned framework for a new way of life. The novel, in a parallel to Looking Backward, is based around conversations, in this case, between the three male explorers and their three female teachers.

The plot is simple enough. Three young men, Terry the rich boy, Van the sociologist and Jeff the doctor and friends since college have joined an expedition somewhere in Central or South America, the exact location is not made clear, where the native guides tell tales of a land of women high up in the mountains where there are no men or male children. One of the guides shows them a piece of cloth made with extraordinary skill that looks nothing like the work of local people. The three men vow to come back and find this land which they do a year later.

And the tales they heard are true. It IS a land of women, who have created a country of beauty, peace, culture and education without the aid of men. And poor Terry, who is certain the women have been waiting centuries for him spends the entire trip trying to prove it, but to no avail. Van and Jeff are eager to learn and understand the history and society of the country and it is through conversations with their three teachers, Zava, Moadine and Somel that we learn how the land came to be.

Two thousand years ago, after a series of wars, though they built fortresses and had skilled warriors, the men were unable to stave off attacks from other tribes and all were killed. This left women, young girls and old slave women as the only inhabitants when the final blow, a volcanic outburst, sealed off the pass below and penned them up against the mountains. There was no escape. After the initial despair where some women suggested suicide, the majority made the decision to live. The slave women taught them invaluable skills and they learned to work the tools and equipment of various trades. They had records and archives with their history, which they learned and added to as the centuries went by.

But the question had to be asked: if there were no men for two thousand years, how did they populate? For about 10 years after they were sealed in by the volcano, the remaining women plucked up the courage to plan a future as best they could. They cleaned up the land by working together and grew strong and wise and more and more mutually attached, until a miracle occurred: one young woman bore a girl child… a direct gift from the gods, they believed. She bore four more—all girls. The miracle continued as each woman, upon reaching the age of 25, bore her first child, until she, too, had five. But as the centuries passed and overpopulation threatened the land, the process settled on one child a piece.

“Babies are raised communally after a year spent with their mother, though even then, the mother is never far from her child. School and education is an environment calculated to allow the riches, freest growth….”[ii]

The children grow up in a system of education that draws out their talents and abilities to things they love and are good at so when they enter the work force work is a delight and a joyous contribution to the nation. This notion that education is for discovering what we’re good at and love is like Bellamy’s system, except that his excludes women, whose highest contribution to society is to procreate, with ‘careers’ only auxiliary, not part of the needs of the nation.

I should mention here that in Herland, motherhood, too, is lauded as the supreme achievement with babies loved and adored by the whole community. However, it is acknowledged that not every woman will have or want to have a child, a decision that is honored and respected. In Bellamy’s new world as in his real 19th century world, a woman who does not want to have children is looked on with derision, even suspicion.

It may be that Gilman’s perspective on motherhood is also a reflection of her ideas about women and work and the insistence that women have choices over their life. This may have also been a reaction against the criticism Gilman received when she gave up her daughter to be raised by her first husband so she could concentrate on her work. He remarried her best friend and the three were close, but the act of voluntarily giving up her child for such a “selfish” reason was looked upon as extremely “umotherly.”

Gilman also explores femininity in Herland. The women here are not ‘feminine’ in the way Terry, Van and Jeff are accustomed. It is confusing enough for them that society functions just fine in every area without men and Gilman uses this as a platform to explore this new womanhood. The three are educated about Herland for months together and individually by their three teachers, Zava, Moadine and Somel, whom they affectionately call “The Colonels.” The lack of sexual dynamics and their notions of femininity are confusing to the men. That the women of Herland created a land of peace and plenty, built streets and edifices, figured out food sources and methods of feeding 3 million people, developed laws and education without the guidance and organization skills of men, is an almost impossible concept for Terry, Van and Jeff.

Van: “Here you have human beings…but what we were slow in understanding was how these ultra-women, inheriting only from women, had eliminated not only certain masculine characteristics…but so much of what we had always thought essentially feminine….The tradition of men as guardians and protectors had quite died out. These stalwart virgins had no men to fear and therefore no need of protection.”

Terry, with sarcasm, “It’s likely women—just a pack of women—would have hung together like that! We all know women can’t organize—that they scrap like anything—are frightfully jealous.”

Jeff: “But these New Ladies didn’t have anyone to be jealous of, remember?”[iii]

What a blow to Terry who is observing a land where he is not needed and that frankly works better without men!

And in fact, Terry, the prized catch of manhood in his former life has the most difficult time. I think Gilman uses him to illustrate every sexist and chauvinistic word men ever said about women! Even after the men are accepted into society, learn the language and are educated on the history of the county, Terry refuses to accept that a country can actually exist without men and that in truth, the women MUST have been waiting just for him. As imagined, he causes the most problems, cannot accept what he sees and longs to get home to ‘real women.’ In a remarkable observation Van says, “those feminine charms we are so fond of are not feminine at all but mere reflected masculinity—developed to please us because they had to please us and in no way essential to the real fulfillment of their great process.”[iv]

Gilman explores many aspects of society, including religion

…they had a clear established connection between everything they did—and God. Their cleanliness, their health, their exquisite order, the rich peaceful beauty of the whole land, the happiness of the children, and above all the constant progress they made—all this was their religion….They applied their mind to the thought of God, and worked out the theory that such an inner power demanded outward expression. They lived as if God was real and at work within them.[v]

And relationships, because of course, there is romance! But between whom and whether they stay in Herland would be a spoiler, so you’ll have to read the book to find out. Hint: Poor Terry….

That this beautiful, stable, evolving world exists because women are cooperative with each other, that they are smart, are able to take their talents and abilities both physical and mental to their highest potential, have created culture and art is what Charlotte Perkins Gilman, writer and feminist, was working for in 19th/20th century America. It is hard to remember women once had to fight for the right to be smart and capable, to freely take their talents and abilities as far as they could, to create whatever kind of life they wanted.

It makes me laugh, knowing all I do now, to think of us three boys—nothing else, three audacious impertinent boys—butting into an unknown country without any sort of a guard or defense. We seemed to think that if there were men we could fight them, and if there were only women—why, they would be no obstacles at all.[vi]

Was Herland a reaction to Looking Backward? Or Gilman’s singular attempt to design a world where women were not only safe from the violence of men, they were also physically competent and smart and educated enough to build and care for their own society? Looking forward, taking the best from both, they have the potential to create a good decent society where each person is valued for their individuality, yet part of the whole.

___________
[i] p. 79.
[ii] p. 87.
[iii] p. 49-50.
[iv] p. 50
[v] p. 8.
[vi] p. 18.

 

Looking Backward 2000-1887, Edward Bellamy (1888)

My Edition:lookingbackward
Title: Looking Backward
Author: Edward Bellamy
Publisher: A Signet Classic
Device: Paperback
Year: 1888
Pages: 222
For a plot summary

 

In your day, riches debauched one class with idleness of mind and body, while poverty sapped the vitality of the masses by overwork, bad food, and pestilent homes…Instead of these maleficent circumstances, all now enjoy the most favorable conditions of physical life; the young are carefully nurtured and studiously cared for; the labor which is required of all is limited to the period of greatest bodily vigor, and is never excessive; care for one’s self and one’s family, anxiety as to livelihood, the strain of a ceaseless battle for life—all these influences, which once did so much to wreck the minds and bodies of men and women, are known no more.[i]

Julian West is a young well-to-do Bostonian with a good life and marriage on the horizon. Living in luxury on the accumulated wealth of his great grandfather, his only pursuit as he tells it is on “the pleasures and refinements of life.” Typically, for a man of his social status, “he is supported by the labor of others and does no service in return,”[ii] which is the way his parents and grandparents before him lived.

There is only one chink in his otherwise comfortable and rich life: his insomnia is so bad he has to enlist the help of the mesmerist Dr. Pillsbury, who comes to his home some nights and hypnotizes him to fall asleep. While the procedure is complicated, the waking up process is not, so Dr. Pillsbury has taught West’s man-servant that procedure and is instructed to wake him up the next morning. On that fateful night of May 30, 1887, something goes awry and the servant does not or cannot wake him up. As West slowly comes to, he finds it is not the next morning, but 113 years later and is found fully intact and functioning in his bedroom by the present occupants of the house after a rainstorm flooded their basement crumbling away the walls of a previous building housing James West’s bedroom.

Looking Backward, is basically a long conversation between James West and Dr. and Mrs. Leete and their daughter Edith as they orient West into the America of the year 2000. Only a few generations away from West’s time, their education has given them knowledge enough to understand the Boston of the 19th century and compare the great changes in governance, education, employment and vision that West will find in 20th century Boston. The book is a primer, from Edward Bellamy’s point of view on how to create a just, economically equal, safe and well-mannered society. While there are a few excursions to eating establishments and to product distribution centers, most of the book takes place in the Leete home between the Dr. and Mr. West.

West learns of the bloodless economic revolution that occurred shortly after he went to sleep where the nation took over all means and manner of the production of goods and services, doing away with small businesses and large corporations, which only engendered competition, waste, and the great divide between rich and poor. Now, society is run by the people, with total financial equality as the hallmark of the new system. There IS no rich or poor, since each citizen is paid exactly the same amount, no matter their occupation. The class divide, the bane of all societies that causes the greatest imbalance of power has now been done away with. Therefore, there is no crime, since no one has less than his or her neighbor; no poverty, because regardless of occupation each is given a living wage; no feeling of alienation because all people and occupations are valued. Some features of this new society:

Education-teachers and parents observe a child’s talents from an early age so they can guide him or her into their chosen occupation.

Employment-everyone enters the work force at age 24 and retires at 45 and is on call for emergencies until 55, when their work life is over and leisure life begins.

Money-There is no physical money. Instead, everyone is issued a credit card that is filled each year. At every purchase the cost of the item is debited from the card.

Goods-clothing or furniture is stocked at distribution centers in each ward (neighborhood). There is enough stock for everyone, because no one over buys in this society where the desire for wealth or ostentation by material possessions no longer exists.

Dinner-each ward has a restaurant building, where every family has their own dining room. Minor meals are taken at home.

Domestic servants have been done away with, as has most household work. Clothes are washed at public laundries and mended at public shops, and electricity takes the place of lighting fires and lamps. Houses are no larger than needed and furnished with simplicity, which make them easy to keep up.

Technological advances-during rain storms a waterproof sheet is let down covering sidewalks so people can walk to dinner or shopping without an umbrella; music is piped into bedrooms and living rooms with the press of a screw.

Political parties during West’s time tried to right the unequal wrongs, but were not strong enough to change the whole of society, since their focus on class discrepancies was too narrow. Once a higher ethical basis for the rearrangement of industry and society was recognized the national party rose up. Taking that name to nationalize the functions of production and distribution, moved Americans into a union, a family with a common life; the most patriotic of parties, raising patriotism from instinct to devotion “by making the native land truly a father-land, a father who kept the people alive and was not merely an idol for which they were expected to die.”[iii]

The book has much to offer as a construction of the ideal state for that time. I say, “for that time,” because it fails on the role of women. Granted, Bellamy was writing in the late 1880s and gender binary ruled the day. Still, this is a book about the future. He couldn’t use his imagination and take the present day women’s reformers and suffrage movement to their obvious next level? Instead, he kept women in their proverbial place using the same attitudes about their physical and emotional sphere as they did in the 1880s. Only men rise to a higher consciousness in his future while women are only thrown a bone: they are ‘permitted’ to work, but only amongst themselves and as an allied force not integral to the actual importance of society. Continues Dr. Leete:

Under no circumstances is a woman permitted to follow any employment not perfectly adapted, both as to kind and degree of labor, to her sex. Moreover, the hours of women’s work are considerably shorter than those of men, more frequent vacations are granted, and the most careful provision is made for rest when needed. The men of this day so well appreciate that they owe to the beauty and grace of women the chief zest of their lives and their main incentive to effort, that they permit them to work at all only because it is fully understood that a certain regular requirement of labor, of a sort adapted to their powers, is well for body and mind, during the period of maximum physical vigor. [iv]

And just when I thought Bellamy was advanced for his day by at least acknowledging the innate desire of women to contribute to society through work, my hopes were soon dashed when through Dr. Leete he says:

In your day there was no career for women except in an unnatural rivalry with men. We have given them a world of their own, with its emulations, ambitions and careers, and I assure you they are very happy. Women are a very happy race nowadays, as compared with what they ever were before in the world’s history, and their power of giving happiness to men has been of course increased in proportion.[v] * (See below)

Ah, the old ‘separate but equal’ was alive and well in the year 2000.

This is a short book, but is packed with political and social theory. The flimsy tale of James West’s arrival in the future is a device for Edward Bellamy’s dissertation on the perfect and just society. Due to this main objective, however, the book is short on a wider picture of his future world, for example there is no discussion on modes of transportation, what entertainment looks like, what is the style of dress for men and women, and so forth. I realize Bellamy is not a science fiction writer, but a little more creativity would have enhanced the story.

As it was, Looking Backward made a huge impact on many people and at its publication the book sold some 200,000 copies. By the end of the 19th century, it had sold more copies than any other book published in America besides Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The utopian society created by Edward Bellamy struck a chord and a movement was started to spread the ideas of his book. When Bellamy was asked for his blessing on these clubs and the ‘Bellamyites’ he wrote: “Go ahead by all means and do it if you can find anyone to associate with. No doubt eventually the formation of such Nationalist Clubs or associations among our sympathizers all over the country will be a proper measure and it is fitting that Boston should lead off in this movement.”

Although the movement all but vanished by 1900, at its height at least 165 Nationalist Clubs existed  all over the United States.

__________

*Similarly, Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Blythedale Romance, published in 1852, decided his utopia would keep its gender boundaries in the area of work when Zenobia declares, “we women will take the domestic and indoor part of the business, as a matter of course. To bake, to boil, to roast, to fry, to stew,–to wash, and iron, and scrub, and sweep,–these, I suppose must be feminine occupations, for the present. By and by perhaps when our individual adaptations begin to develop themselves, it may be that some of us who wear the petticoat will go a-field, and leave the weaker brethren to take our places in the kitchen” (pp. 43-44). Written 45 years later, Edward Bellamy’s women sure didn’t move very far.

[i] P. 146.
[ii] P. 6.
iii] P. 166.
[iv] P. 167-168.
[v] P. 170.

 

This book qualifies for my Classics Club Reading List, Back to the Classics and Reading New England.

“Thanksgiving” from Ceremonials of Common Days, by Abbie Graham (1923)

My Edition:
Title: Ceremonials of Common DaysIMG_3410
Author: Abbie Graham
Publisher: The Womans Press
Year: 1923
Pages: 97

 

On Thanksgiving Day I celebrate the Ceremonial of Being Glad for People. I could be grateful on this day for bountiful harvests and national benefits; but I have other days for those ceremonials because one heart is not spacious enough to hold the full measure of all gratitude. A year is a lean year or a year of plenty in proportion to the poverty or richness of its fellowships.

I would give my thanks for the people whom I have but glimpsed in passing: children watching at windows; those who sell flowers, especially little boys who trust me to buy their violets or dogwood branches; porters on trains and in hotels; post office employees who make letters possible; people in trains; nurses in hospitals; makers of music; those who sit in church with me, whom I “silently rejoice to be with.”

There is gratitude for the people whom I pass each morning and evening: children on bicycles; those who go and come from work; and for the people whom it is not given to me to see,–for those whom I know only through the printed page, for those who have designed certain buildings and parks and monuments, who have constructed roads, for those who sit in offices and plan for the well-being of the world, for the people around the world who work that I may have the necessities of life.

And there are other people who bring to me joyous delight on this day. To them I write letters—to the old friends and the new. For Thanksgiving is an articulate season, a time for expressing the unspoken things of the heart.

The Ceremonial of Being Glad for People was the initial ceremonial. Because of it, the other ceremonials were made necessary.[i]

abbiegraphm3

 

Abbie Graham (1889-1972) was a writer of nonfiction on many topics including spirituality, race relations, travel and most notably on the women’s suffrage movement in the United States. This is a little book of beautifully simple celebrations of life. Arranged by seasons it gives tips that the reader can use to plan her own personal special days.

Happy Thanksgiving to all! May we remember and be grateful for those precious in our hearts and may we reach out to those we do not know.

____________________

[i] 91-93.