Since when had Sensei and I become close like this? At first, Sensei had been a distant stranger. An old, unfamiliar man who once upon a time had been a teacher of mine. Even once we began chatting now and then, I still barely ever looked at his face. He was just an abstract presence, quietly drinking his saké in the seat next to mine at the counter.
It was only his voice that I remembered from the beginning. He had a resonant voice with a somewhat high timbre, but it was rich with overtones. A voice that emanated from the boundless presence by my side at the counter.
At some point, sitting beside Sensei, I began to notice the heat that radiated from his body. Through his starched shirt, there came a sense of Sensei. A feeling of nostalgia. This sense of Sensei retained the shape of him. It was dignified, yet tender, like Sensei. Even now, I could never quite get a hold it – I would try to capture it, but the sense escaped me. Just when I thought it was gone, though, it would sneak back up on me.
I wonder, for instance, if Sensei and I were to be together, whether that sense would temper into solidity.Strange Weather in Tokyo, Hiromi Kawakami. Translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell.
And there are fools who talk of a dog as an inferior being to ourselves! This creature’s faithful love is mine, do what I may. I might be disgraced in the estimation of every human creature I know, and he would be as true to me as ever. And look at his physical qualities. What an ugly thing, for instance—I won’t say your ear—I will say, my ear is; crumpled and wrinkled and naked. Look at the beautiful silky covering of his ear! What are our senses of smelling and hearing compared to his? We are proud of our reason. Could we find our way back, if they shut us up in a basket, and took us to a strange place away from home? If we both want to run downstairs in a hurry, which of us is securest against breaking his neck—I on my poor two legs, or he on his four? Who is the happy mortal who goes to bed without unbuttoning, and gets up again without buttoning? Here he is, on my lap, knowing I am talking about him, and too fond of me to say to himself, ‘What a fool my master is!’Bernard Winterfield, The Black Robe (1881), by Wilkie Collins
The prologue concerns a duel in France between an English and a French men over a card-sharper incident. As the story progresses, the plot insinuates deeper conflicts and meanings; the main characters are embroiled with a duel of inner struggles with their own. Each of their lives is overshadowed by and tormented with self-accusations and remorse that are only to be unveiled by contrivances and confessions.
I think this book written in Wilkie’s late life is not less multi-layered and important than his major works. Not only the Black Robe encapsulates the atypical Wilkie Collins’s mastery of epistolary writing, plotlines teeming with unsettling secrets and romance, but the subject of religionus pursuits is also heavily involved in the story which makes it really memorable and fascinating. The plot gets more poignant in time as we feel the sympathy and are saddened by the circumstances in which the protangonist is victimised. He could not come to terms with his inner struggles – that his regrettable past could not be consoled through working laborously and by those being close to him; social conventions and nuptial life only intensify his pain – this is the fundamental motive which he gets carried away by religious fervour other than adhering to an unmovable faith. The story records the details of gradual estrangement from his wife. The doctrine of Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) is what he is being converted to, and the conversion is unfortunately plotted by the contrivances of a capricious priest belonging to that senior order, who does all these with a self-denying but controversial motive (reinstitution of a propety which was once owned by the Roman Church before the dissolution of monasteries by Henry VIII). In this case, the Black Robe also highlights an clashing duel and rivalry between the “priestly pugnacity” and “petticoat government”.
“For once in your life, indulge in the amiable weakness of doing yourself justice.”
As readers, we get resonance with the novel. On one hand, we are reflective of our own actions in life, we are enjoined and impassioned to try our best endeavours; on the other, we are just as frail and vulnerable as the characters in the novel. We constantly flagellate ourselves with remorse, guilt and regrets without impunity. We are self-tormentors enough to distrust ourselves. We have high hopes, work laboriously to fight the obscurity, just to confront disappointments placed in the way. In other words, we instinctively care too much because we are highly complex moral beings. But we should be consciously aware of how far the burden we can endure, forbear, and take in.
There it is—the misdirected hard work, which has been guided by no critical faculty, and which doesn’t know where to stop. I try to admire it; and I end in pitying the poor artist. Look at that leafless felled tree in the middle distance. Every little twig, on the smallest branch, is conscientiously painted—and the result is like a colored photograph. You don’t look at a landscape as a series of separate parts; you don’t discover every twig on a tree; you see the whole in Nature, and you want to see the whole in a picture. That canvas presents a triumph of patience and pains, produced exactly as a piece of embroidery is produced, all in little separate bits, worked with the same mechanically complete care. I turn away from it to your shrubbery there, with an ungrateful sense of relief.
Although right now, it’s not springtime, this book is definitely the best one to devour during this globally uncertain climate, and so are the other Plum’s works. One of my favourite quotes is this one, when a character, Horace Davenport, intends to get funds to run an onion soup bar on the street of Piccadilly Circus. Such imagery!
And let me tell you, Mr Pott, the potentialities of that bar are stupendous. I’ve stood there night after night and watched the bottle-party addicts rolling up with their tongues out. It was like a herd of buffaloes stampeding for a water-hole.
“The risk you run, when you impersonate another man, is that you are apt to come up against somebody to whom his appearance is familiar.” – Efficient Baxter
I often think Wodehouse is the counterpart of another favourite, Wilkie Collins. Despite the fact that they shine in different spectrum, both writers have their charms in ingeniously entertaining their readers with such fascinating elements of dissimulation and disguises. The characters of Wilkie Collins’ are in disguise because they are forced to do so without a secure foothold amidst their straitened circumstances and social prejudices. With such engaging plots, Wilkie Collins always scrutinises and experiments in his novels without sacrificing his mission to convey the didactic messages that morality, equality, and individuality prevail and matter. Wodehouse, on the other hand, as a benign old bird and being sympathetic towards his chums’ love lost and bookies’ debts, he laboriously helps out and assigns guests of his country castles to assume different garments and deportment; at the same time, how Wodehouse weaves the plot so seamlessly and beautifully purely for joy is beyond me. Not only the guests in disguise are effervescent in their respective brilliance and eccentricity, but the recurring victims who fall into their traps also find a voice of their own in his stories.
To most people at whom the efficient Baxter directed that silent, steely, spectacled stare of his there was wont to come a sudden malaise, a disposition to shuffle the feet and explore the conscience guiltily: and even those whose consciences were clear generally quailed a little.
In my opinion, reading some of the Wilkie Collins’s later novels with characters in disguise, the fascination mainly centers on the protagonists’ sole helplessness, reflection and vulnerability after he or she is tempted to assume the identity without anyone to turn into when in need, and finally culminating in being self-enlightened. Dead stymies propelled majorly by fate would force to have their forlorn and regrettable pasts confessed and unveiled in the end.
Reading Blandings is an extremely different experience – a lighthearted matter. The lovelorn and helpless chums and girls are not tempted to assume identities calculated by their own decisions but rather being cajoled to do so. They often they have partners in crime and other lurkers on the grounds as well, which makes the whole situation much less lonelier and helpless. In Blandings, the characterisation is very much the same but would never be bland. Because the hosts and guests have their respective satellites and are living in prime of their lives, we extract so much farce in them. The clever ones are always the cleverest; the absent-minded could at one time be the shrewdest but constantly end up sustaining puzzled and unresponsive; the overbearing disciplinarians are the most irritated; the cheerless and suspicious ones who think of themselves as Sherlock Holmes are doomed to be victims and being rubbed in the nose now and then as the laughing stocks in the human nature of schadenfreude. Even the Empress of Blandings has her all-the-year-round innocence to fit into.
In the confined space the report sounded like the explosion of an arsenal, and it convinced the Empress, if she had needed to be convinced, that this was no place for a pig of settled habits. Not since she had been a slip of a child had she moved at anything swifter than a dignified walk, but now Jesse Owens could scarcely have got off the mark more briskly. It took her a few moments to get her bearings, but after colliding with the bed, the table and the armchair, in the order named, she succeeded in setting a course for the French window and was in the act of disappearing through it when Lord Emsworth burst into the room, followed by Lady Constance.
Reaching the solutions in Blandings, the answers and revelations are so far-fetched, the ways how those conspirators achieve their purposes and find the excuses of running away from the crime scenes always leave me fruitfully gobsmacked. In Uncle Fred in the Springtime, the mastermind Uncle Fred tries to secure £250 twice from different persons. I cannot help myself admiring him in the story!
“Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood.” – Lord Ickenham (Uncle Fred) / Shakespeare
Although the young have flights of fancy and fantasy, for instance, sons of Lord Emsworth – Freddie Threepwood and Lord Bosham – who are accorded with their cheeky spirits and hearty ways, they are often thwarted by difficulties ahead. In contrast, uncles like Galahad and Lord Ickenham always sustain the lighthearted avuncular vibe of resisting affronts and instituting reprisals. They are more adventurous to do the confidence-tricks, pinching and sneaking, and disapprove of nephews’ defeatist attitudes and streaks of pessimism. Sometimes Uncle Fred would also supply some piece of advice to their nieces regarding love and pursuits,
You would have flung yourself into his arms, and he would have gone on thinking he was the boss. As it is, you have got that young man just where you want him. You will accept his chocolates with a cool reserve which will commit you to nothing, and eventually, after he has begun running around in circles for some weeks, dashing into his tailors from time to time for a new suit of sackcloth and ashes and losing pounds in weight through mental anguish, you will forgive him – on the strict understanding that this sort of thing must never occur again. It doesn’t do to let that dominant male type of chap think things are too easy.
Indeed, the uncles and aunts constantly find their nephews and nieces too socialistic, irritating, melancholic, being a slip of striplings; vice versa the young blooms find their elders and guv’nors too patrician, potty, cheeseparing, frigid, and redoubtable; but both parties are equally harmless and endings always consummating and satisfying. When consuming Wodehouse, you realise that it is not everything that might need to be taken into account too seriously, and the joy you get habitually from Wodehouse’s writing will be that, as Phil Collins now and then serenades, every day is “another day in paradise”.
I first heard of Angela Thirkell (1890-1961) when I visited England last year and saw the “Pre-Raphaelite Sisters” exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Among The Portrait of a Young Lady by John Everett Millais, and of course, many others, I was intrigued by a picture of Angela Thirkell wearing a glamorous dress that Fanny Cornforth put on to model for Edward Burne-Jones, whom she was his granddaughter. I think in the picture, she embedded the typicality of a young girl protrayed by P. G. Wodehouse in those days: vivacious, headstrong, whimsical, and energetic. My mind was conjured of Vanessa Cook in Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen of Jeeves and Wooster series rather than her exact demarcation: the spoilt and sweet daughter named Gloria Salt in Pigs Have Wings of the Blandings Castle. If I were to refer a sentence in Summer Half, that young girl whom donned that glamorous dress I saw at the National Portrait Gallery was absolutely not the girl with a brain as small as a “louse”, or in other words, a “mouse”.
Summer Half (1937) by Angela Thirkell is the fifth book of her most known Barsetshire Series, inspired by the same town imagined by Anthony Trollope. (shame I still haven’t read any of his novels yet!) Although Summer Half is the fifth book, it is actually her first book I have read.
I absolutely admire Angela Thirkell’s writing. What I adore the most is getting myself absorbed in the olden days: before I read this book, I have never known such mouth-watering farmer treats like “Gentleman’s Relish” and “bread and dripping”. Considering the stockpile chores of darning socks and wringing clothes in mangles, they would be deemed no less than helpful and pleasurable conversation starters between the Matron of the Southbridge School dormitory and the demure domestic angel, Kate.
That will be Jessie. She’s a good girl, but she’s vain, and she won’t wear her spectacles. I’ve told her again and again you can’t tell navy blue from black without your glasses, Jessie, especially I said by artificial light, but it’s no good speaking. I can’t keep an eye on everything, and I shall tell Jessie it has been noticed by outsiders. There was a really dreadful affair, Miss Keith, last term, when Mr Carter’s black silk socks had a little place in them, and she simply pulled the edges together, and never tried to darn it properly.
Provided with a pastoral backdrop of an idyllic town and a boys’ school within its reach, the characters could be quite silly and ironic at times. While reading the story I totally underestimate the matter of mischief, whims and eccentricity that the boys (e.g. Tony Morland, Eric Swan) are willing to go far, how they try to drive the housemaster and assistants (e.g. Everard Carter, Philip Winter) off the wall. The students remind me of the bespectacled Baxter and newt-fanatic Gussie Fink-Nottle in Plum’s novels. For example, there is one of the boys who wears glasses as advised by an oculist always deliberately glares and irritates the assistant, that the assistant is “powerless against his monstrous regiment”. Then there is also a chameleon called Gibbon, which is owned by a student named Hacker, that
someone found it and tied it up in red paper with its head sticking out, and put it in Winter’s desk with note to say that it had gone in Red in sympathy with his political views.
Despite that, both parties share “some kind of loyalty, some real liking, and respect” for the heroic acts to which both parties are committed. For example, for the boarding house which the teachers and boys belong to, it is mutually acknowledged that winning “consolation race”, “sack race”, “reading prize”, and “scripture prize” are disgraceful to the House. Except one boy, who well deserves the first prize of sack race, by practising “with a pillow-case morning and evening all that term, without being discovered by matron”. Moreover, I am interested to read the first book, High Rising, only to read how Donk sucks an egg!
Concerning the girls in the story, apart from the angelic Kate, Lydia Keith is my favourite character in the novel. On the other hand, Rose Birkett, the daughter of the headmaster, is annoying as ever with her most used words “sickening” and “marvellous”. Similar to many P. G. Wodehouse’s stories, Summer Half involves a universal subplot of how a man desperately tries to disengage from and get jilted by his betrothed, which is funnily seen as an heroic act of Christendom, rather than him taking the initial move. “At dinner Philip behaved as well as anyone can behave who has seen a glimpse of freedom and then had his fetters more firmly riveted”.
Although the people in Summer Half might not be seen as some rambling madmen and are not on the same par as those nonconstructive, deranged, random, and erratic lunatics as the ones in P. G. Wodehouse, I still enjoy the story, and might read more of Angela Thirkell’s books in future. 🙂
Quotes from Summer Half:
“I know we had to alter the clocks five times a hour going to America,” said Mr Keith.
“Oh rot, Daddy, you couldn’t,” said Lydia.”Not five times an hour.”
“I didn’t say five times a hour, my dear,” said Mr Keith mildly. “Well, yes, you are quite right. I did. But you took me wrongly. What I meant was that I had to alter my watch five times during the voyage, an hour.”
“The captain must have been potty,” said Lydia.
“I think Father means an hour five times,” said Colin. “I mean to alter it an hour five different times.”
Mr and Mrs Birkett were delightful with the Rectory, and decided at once to take it for August. Their kind hearts made them invite Philip for the first fortnight of the holidays, after which he had luckily arranged to visit Russia to see what it was really like; or rather, to confirm his impression that it was exactly like what he thought it was like.
“Seeing Hamlet fourteen times isn’t Shakespeare, it’s simply being potty about John Potter!”
To see Philip’s anxiety had made it all the more amusing. Noel was not at heart unkind, but any man who let his naked emotion get beyond his control was, in Noel’s view, fair play.
Her fall was her fault, she must take blame and shame as her deserved lot. – On penitentiaries and refuges, Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women (p.16)
(all page references are referring to Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women by Jenny Hartley (2008), unless indicated.)
I had read The New Magdalen by Wilkie Collins this January. A novel first published in 1873, it is a didactic story with a mission which was dedicated to Wilkie Collins’s younger brother, Charles Allston Collins, upon his death of the same year (born 1828, died 1873). The heroine, Mercy, was inveigled by her own will to serve in a respectable lady’s house. She could put everyone off the scent except herself, and she felt guilty as she assumed another’s name to live comfortably under a hospitable roof. What draws pity from readers is her backstory. Her trials and tribulations began not because she voluntarily led herself to do so but it was due to her birth that she resorted to abhorrent means under every appalling circumstance in order to survive (“The dragon, pauperism was the villain”). Despite the fact that Mercy was admitted to a Magdalen refuge and repented day and night, she was not accepted by society. Once fallen, a woman was seen irretrievable in the pit: here was an impressionable and weaker sex who was deemed without a morsel of virtue left for herself. She stumbled and was inflicted with scorns and thorny paths along rowdy streets and dark alleyways.
“Even the flowers of the field cannot grow without light and air to help them!” – The New Magdalen, Wilkie Collins
Lately, upon reading a biography named Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women by Jenny Hartley (2008), I feel that The New Magdalen was exactly a tailor-made fiction for the girls at Urania Cottage, although the Institution seemed no longer active after 1862, as Charles Dickens got less involved with rescued work in 1858 and started shifting the focus on Nelly Ternan and his reading tours. The New Magdalen by Wilkie Collins is a story in which the fallen heroine in the end did not yield and seek acceptance from the people who were only consumed with condescension, vanity and vileness but instead was enlightened and awakened by the idea of self-respect, acceptance, and redemption: she became a woman who learnt to love herself.
Helping those in need – Charles Dickens and the Urania Cottage
(1) “The good people who have established Refuges and Homes for those who repent have succeeded in making them repellent and intolerable.” (p.32)
Charles Dickens came up with the plan of opening a Home called Urania Cottage for young pauper girls in Shepherd Bush in London in 1847 with financial aid of Angela Burdett-Coutts. This biography is in many cases indicating Charles Dickens being a vanguard of his time and his rescue work in his nature; and those so-called refuges of his contemporaries were a far cry from the Home that Dickens set up and Burdett-Coutts helped founded.
In Dickens’s perspectives, chucking the sinned and fallen girls over workhouses and hospitals, forcing them to live in days of austere and self-effacing repentance was not actually helping them but only would they sink further deeper. In The House of Mercy at Clewer in Windsor (philosophy of abjection), established in 1848 by a Spanish widow of an English clergyman (widow being associated with High Church order), “inmates’ heads were shaved, and their unruliness punished by solitary confinement” (p.32). Especially in the case of religious charitable societies, the inmates were not allowed to talk freely lest they would make a sacrilege to God against the mission of the institutions. Mentioning the aura of “lethargic indifference” surrounding the refuges, Benjamin Drouet’s Pauper Asylum for Children at Tooting in South London (coined the “Tooting Farm”) was infamous for its savage treatment of over-crowded children in the midst of cholera. Situated in close proximity of open ditches, under damp, filthy, starving and abused conditions, 150 out of 1,372 children died in January 1849 (p.46). Among other contemporary organisations, inmates were also assigned to monotonous tasks like picking oakum and laundry work to support the institutions’ finance.
Regarding Urania Cottage, financial aid from Angela Burdett-Coutts was crucial. Charles Dickens supplied comfortable atmosphere of practical help and spiritual support to the inmates. Compared with The House of Mercy at Clewer, the girls at Urania Cottage would be at leisure to mend their gardens in spare time, go out chaperoned once a week, being adorned in clothes of sundry colours, rewarded with peer friendships, motherly love, and paternal education. Dickens was determined to make his Home in active and affectionate management rather than the commonly “lethargic indifference”. In a year or so, the girls would be ultimately promised an overseas voyage with their most intimate friends of the Home, and culminated with a happy matrimonial union after emigration. The girls were taught of the motto of not indulging in the reproachable past but hopefully looking for the “possibility and potentiality” out on the horizon.
Before the girls arrived at Home, they were in a way to undergo sessions of individual interviews, or to be more analytical these days, they had inadvertently so called “counselling therapy” in confiding to someone about their past who empathised and acknowledged their pains. The Listener would be none other than Charles Dickens himself; he was to know their history, examine their behaviour, and elicit whether the girls were corrigible to reform and start a new life overseas (places included Australia, Canada, South Africa, and New Zealand). Lamentable past and deeds of each girl were strictly kept secret from matrons at Home and among her friends; moreover, her subsequent history (life upon emigration), if known, was recorded in a “Case Book” invented by Charles Dickens. Although there was the Urania committee, the original and inimitable Dickens shone in glory with him “dispensing justice, order and mercy to his pocket-sized Utopia in west London” (p.113).
(2) “Did a little for a lot, aimed to do a lot for a few.” (p.148)
The House of St. Barnabas in Soho was a charity for distressed persons in London which helped the inmates find work. The Institution focused on the good deeds of helpers instead of the helped, which was similar to other contemporary charitable organisations. According to the mission of the House, it was “to give a definite sphere of united action to persons engaged in various worldly callings, who desire to give a portion of their time, as well as of their substance, to the poor, under fixed regulations, consistent with the discipline of the Church of England.” Helpers included middle- and upper-class volunteer helpers, some with a lack of experience who held presumptuous and subjective viewpoints of the inmates owing to the lack of trust and intimacy upon them. The House of St. Barnabas contained substantially short-stay inmates who took shelter for only two to three weeks. This organisation was found upon efficiency and statistical outcome of the numbers of paupers they had taken and being helped, with no interests of how former inmates coped afterwards. It could never satisfy and fulfill the uproarious demand from the metropolitan pauperism, and applicants with questionable characters were compulsory to be removed immediately.
Compared with the House of St. Barnabas, Urania Cottage which Dickens managed provided shelter for girls upon limited basis in each intake. The Home only consisted of thirteen girls in its first intake, and thereupon the number of admissions kept maintained round the same. After the Cottage had been in operation for five and a half years, there were only 56 inmates recorded in an article titled “Home for Homeless Women” in April 1853 issue of the Household Words.
(3) You must solemnly remember that if you enter this Home without such constant resolutions, you will occupy, unworthily and uselessly, the place of some other unhappy girl, now wandering and lost; and that her ruin, no less than your own, will be upon your head. (p. 255)
It was not until 1836 that the Foundling Hospital in London acknowledged the cities’ increasing demand by taking illegitimate children under its wing, only provided that the child was the first-born of the mother with her irreproachably moral character. According to page 23 of the Founding Museum guidebook, “the most meritorious case[…]would be that a young woman, having no means of subsistence, having no opulent relations[…]but yielded to artful and long-continued seduction and an express promise of marriage; whose delivery took place in secret, and whose shame was known only to one or two persons.”
Charles Dickens understood the young women’s shame instead of criticising their downfall. He did not expect the girls to be absolutely quiet and domestic; instead, he tolerated and was fascinated with the restlessness in them. The boarders of Urania Cottage ranged from “orphans, servants, child-carers, seamstresses, milliners, half-starving apprentices, to theatre-girls, prostitutes, tramps, petty thieves, and ones who attempted suicides” (p. 157). All walks of life he found and saved on streets and prisons, and salvaged downtrodden girls whom his companions and prison governors discovered and communicated in letters and persons to seek his help.
(4) In a distant country, they may become the faithful wives of honest men, and live and die in peace. (p. 255)
Emigration was not a popular notion in his time, considered by the contemporaries. In the 1840s, British government was sending out assisted migrants from cities and towns on assigned ships. Convicts were still being transported to Botany Bay and other parts of Australia due to the overcrowding of prisons and hulks. Emigration was regarded as the only solution to “shoveling out paupers”; women, on the other hand, were in demand in Australia to “redress the balance between the sexes” (p.18).
However, Dickens disregarded others’ opinions of the emigration plans. To him, Australia was a place he held high hopes for people he knew in intimacy for a new change. In 1865 and 1868, he respectively sent in two sons Alfred (aged twenty) and Edward (sixteen, nicknamed Plorn) with one-way tickets to Australia. In England, Charles Dickens came up with the verdict that Plorn was a stripling with “a want of application and continuity of purpose” (p. 189).
For the reformed girls back at Urania Cottage pleading a normal life, it was a rare chance for them to continually earn their means and at the same time, ignoring society’s norms and perspectives. Their situation was demeaning, and worse, their future unforeseeable. Dickens had visions of sending and helping the girls emigrate, in the first place, to Australia (mainly Adelaide), rather than disbanding the newly reformed girls back on the streets. Charles Dickens envisaged that “the new emigration projects had to distance themselves from the older, compulsory and punitive system”. Of course, deeming him a vanguard for the vision of emigration was an exaggeration, because Caroline Chisholm (1808-1877) also promoted the reunion and emigration for families and children upon her return to England in 1846. What was interesting was that some Uranian girls were still rebellious to abscond with their peers once they disembarked, and refused to meet the delegated pastor and recruiting agent assigned by Dickens and Burdett-Coutts in Australia. While some went to be a maidservant, got married, attained what Dickens had hoped for; many migrated to Melbourne to join the gold rush.
On a personal note – Charles Dickens, the Great Original, the inimitable
“I know my plan is a good one – because it is mine!” (p. 241)
Of course, it would be inescapable that some girls of Urania Cottage did not meet Dickens’s expectations. Some had constant and tempestuous outbreak, they carried on thieving at Home, some sneaked off in the middle of the night, some were too violent in their words and actions that they were expelled by Dickens back on the streets lest they would badly influenced other inmates at Home.
As regards Dickens, the biographer Jenny Hartley did not exclude all gossips about him: that he did not admit pregnant women and babies to the Refuge; that he founded this Home merely to escape his dullness of his real nuptial household; and that he rightly did so at the same time to fulfill literary gains in plotting ideas for his novels, including Dombey and Son (1846-48), David Copperfield (1849-50), and Bleak House (1852-53). Nonetheless, I find it amusing because the Author could amazingly relate to the healing journey of Dickens himself: during the process of listening to the girls’ story, he also had this gleam of light and aspiration to console himself through a way of retelling his history, especially in David Copperfield. This Urania Cottage was said by some critics as Dickens’s proud experiment; he let his own philanthropic reality conjured up from his steam-powered imagination. On the other hand, I think it was a soul asylum for Dickens too.
Talking of inspiration, at one point, I might think that Wilkie Collins might have extracted cases and history of the girls of Urania Cottage, confided by Dickens, for his foundation of the New Magdalen (1873), because the painful concatenation that Mercy had gone through as she told in her confession was too convoluted to be imaginable. But it would not be right to deduce it as Dickens purposely concealed the plight of girls before they were admitted to the Home except himself. Probably, Wilkie Collins did a bit of interview and research about the underprivileged women of the underworld.
“All people who have led hazardous and forbidden lives are, in a certain sense, imaginative.” (p. 68)
In this biography, I especially enjoy reading the chapter “Audacious Rhena Pollard” because Dickens was wonderfully portrayed as an ingenious master by Jenny Hartley. In this chapter, a matron informed Dickens that an inmate named Rhena Pollard kept insinuating to her privately that she wanted to announce at the committee meeting about her application to leave the Home. Dickens, in his fictional flair, contrived a ploy and a role with which he compelled and designated the Matron to play and comply. Dickens, in his letter to the Matron, cleverly premeditated all emotions, reactions and actions for Rhena Pollard when she was “allowed to leave the Home”, and so much to her violent temper, Rhena was distressingly and unknowingly “producing exactly the kind of public show Dickens had choreographed for her” (p.119). In the end, it is so much a humour in the chapter: Dickens wrote another letter which he asked the Matron to read aloud to all girls at the Home, alike a parent reading aloud to the children at fireside during winter, “…at this forgiving Christmas time, and at your request[…]the unfortunate creature, so young as so forlorn, can be brough back into the fold.” What a tearful letter! What a merciful father to a prodigal daughter! What a clever plot! Readers like me could not help admiring Dickens’s worldly knowledge of humanity and his brilliancy.
Two sides of a coin Dickens might have, the house of fallen women he founded was such an interesting and fascinating entity which signified a decade of his rescue work. On the other hand, I was a bit disappointed by the benefactress of the Home, Angela Burdett-Coutts, because in this biography, she gave me an impression of being a much more conservative and close-minded person compared with Charles Dickens, and was not as eccentric as I always wish her to be.
We gave them our best bodies. We gave them our workhorse years. And what did they give us? Murder. Banishment. Starvation. Revoking on what was rightfully ours. (Eleanor Billington)
In England, the Puritans who lived under Anglican rule of King James were the underprivileged ones; in America, they were called Pilgrims who possessed influential power to both Indians and Strangers. Formerly, they were chained to monarch’s way and now, they brought the leash to govern in God’s way. It was a new land where the Saints would not permit themselves to get besmirched by transgressions. All colonists were expected to work in ways they thought would please God. But it seemed the New World they conjured up was too supposedly ideal to avoid God’s test, and to forget as well as defy ways in which the defective human nature worked.
My husband, failing to convince toads, had wrecked his chances by blaming those with power. (Eleanor Billington)
The novel is set exactly in 1630, the year that John Billington was hanged for the murder of John Newcomen (a newcomer of Plymouth colony whom nobody knew the name). But the Saints (the non-conforming separatists), especially the governor, William Bradford, was to be questioned for Billington’s fatal verdict. The killing was considered among the colonists the first-ever murder in New Plymouth. But thinking deeply, some indigenous of the Massachusetts tribe were brutally murdered by New Plymouth captain, Myles Standish, and his militia in 1623 in name of defending themselves. Not only that, it became a matter of myth to ponder amid the Plymouth wives and women whether the first wife of the governor, Dorothy, grievously committed self-murder because of her husband, instead of slipping accidentally on the Mayflower (The family of a self-murderer, owed their belongings to the King in penalty. No matter, of course, of God’s view, who tell us it is the most of sins). In this case, was John Billington the first murderer in the Colony? Or was it actually an excuse for the governor and the “godly” to crush those who spoke up publicly against them?
One must outwardly and inwardly be what one is. The only sumptuary law we had was of disguises. (Alice Bradford)
Beheld mainly depicts two women with strong narratives: Alice Bradford (second wife of William Bradford, whom he married in 1623) and Eleanor Billington (wife of John Billington). Two wives with their respective husbands display the supposedly qualities of good and evil in extremity. Yet these two women are much the same: they are together in the opinion of what is important to them: only their own children are with them that this colony could be defined a Home to live in. Moreover, they both live under the pressure of being judged by the colonists according to their husbands’ actions. It is distinctively seen in the case of Alice Bradford. She is made convert to the cause by convincing herself of who she is because of her husband. Alice Bradford has outgrown with submission to believe she is honest to her faith, her husband, and lives in God’s fear.
My father was a solemn man. But her tendency towards sadness benefited me as much as I was agitated by it. Her belief in me was tied to her disbelief of herself. It was not just her I missed. It was myself, who I was in her eyes. (Alice Bradford)
Talking about Alice Bradford, the novel mentions her friendship with Dorothy, whom Alice deemed as the dearest consort. Incidentally, their symbiotic relationship reminds me of My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante – the emulation in their period of girlhood and growth. The time when Dorothy had her first menstruation; while Alice thought Dorothy was more beautiful and had more grandeur than herself; that she basked in her good light; that Alice was ignorant of her needs and she felt herself betrayed Dorothy which contributed to her death. It is one’s vanity reflecting on another’s plainness, one’s freedom against another’s life of passivity. The ever-changing nature in their circumstances and characters, and the ways society regarding the status of women make the girls endeavour to smoothen instead of sharpen their edges for their pre-nuptial lives. It is they who must conform themselves to live in a non-conformist way.
This novel, I think, works cleverly on the idea of the ambiguity of dichotomy: sticklers vs rebels, selfish vs unselfish acts, disguises vs honesty, puritanism vs hypocrisy. Moreover, it is different from other historical fiction on Mayflower I have read thus far because TaraShea gives a new voice to the ill-reputed Billington which I really like. The story looks at two sides of the coin. Its writing is beautiful, its message conveyed with wonderful meanings.
I got to tell you, owning and reading this book is an unforgettable experience. I bought this book during my one-month trip in England from end of January to mid-February. While in Chatham wandering around in Waterstones, I found this book on the shelf and I told the lovely lady at the counter that I have been looking for this book for quite a while, and enquired if she had read it. She said she hadn’t but her other colleagues couldn’t praise it enough as some of them met the Author at a literary festival. Based on my choice she also recommended the Familiars by Stacey Halls. Wow. What a joy! While reading this book I kept recalling the conversation with the lovely lady and the kindness of strangers I met in this trip.
“She gazes at the canvas again, at the tenderness in her expression, the passivity of her unsmiling face. She feels a weight within her, a flattening. She starts to see it not as a celebration, but as a trap which has snapped around her. The woman in the painting has become her twin, like her and yet nothing like her. She has suffocated her, until Iris does not know where she ends and this image begins. She has escaped one half of herself for another.”
Indeed, this book is captivating and engrossing. Every character in this novel is trapped in his or her station, constraints and conventions, and they all somehow involuntarily conform to the public and societies’ values. Iris, the heroine and “fairer sex” of the novel, the “apprentice” of Mrs. Slater’s Doll Emporium on Regent Street, not only stigmatises and restrains herself because of her family’s inculcation but also society’s inbred values of the underpinning of gender. This is gradually empasised as she is “admitted” into the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s circle as a model of a medieval painting.
In reality, models in painting of the early Victorian period personally were not being appreciated and admired aesthetically in public but seen as unedifying and reputation being scandalised; their unique beauty were sensualised exaggeratedly and yet authentic personalities were flattened out in paintings. For instance, look at Portrait of a Young Lady by John Everett Millais, based on his wife’s younger’s sister, Sophy Gray (1843-1882). There is a whole chapter to explain her life in an excellent biography by Suzanne Fagence Cooper, Effie. When she was 14, Millais completed a portrait of her and was quickly sold to a friend of Rossetti at ￡63. Sophy Gray was very much sensationalised in the eyes of beholders of the painting. Red lips, a world-defying stare down on the beholders, an irresistible painting. But in reality she led a tragic life of self-denial and suffered from heartache and anorexia. Women, artists, readers of paintings like the ideas of grasping and transforming the ephemeral moment to eternal beauty.
If a young woman grows up being praised for her compliant attractiveness and docility, then she responds by pushing this self-denial to extremes. Looked at in this light, modelling for Everett’s paintings of idealised girlhood may have laid the foundations for Sophy’s illness….They stress the sufferer’s desire to remain childlike. Young women try to starve their bodies back into innocence, shedding the curves of adulthood. If they persist, they can interrupt their monthly cycles, making themselves infertile, unwomanly. (Effie, Suzanne Fagence Cooper, p.219)
Seeking individuality, hoping to be acknowledged and recognised by others in the extremity could be harmful, yet conforming the norm could be tragic.
In the novel, the artistic ambition in characters are also tainted and influenced by secular thoughts. Iris strives to be a painter but her passion in painting is at one point gradually given way to a passion and obsession for Louis that her talents she hopes to be recognized and acknowledged by him. Rose, her twin sister, is obsessed with her long gone beauty and regrets of a lost love. The novel also mentions the models like Lizzie Siddal as maidens and damsels being “rescued” by the artists. The concept of obsessing and relying on males’ amusement and kindness is heavily depicted in the novel in that female characters are often entrapped, disappointed by the outcomes of it.
The artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood besot and romanticise themselves with their themes of medieval paintings, when on the other hand, they despise the dishonesty in the artistic perspectives and techniques taught by the Academy. Another character is definitely illusionised himself by his idealised world and ideas. Silas Reed, the taxidermist who makes a living from selling his finishes as silent partners to painters is infatuated by Iris of her auburn hair and twisted clavicle. His imagined conversations of his courtly love to Iris without actually knowing her leads to a dangerous obsession. The distorted concept of idealisation and obsession of what they perceive of beauty could one way lead male characters to success or downfall in its extreme. To survive and not to destruct themselves, the only mean is to balance his/herself in the world of extremity and not to be fooled by it.
I must say the relationship between Louis and Iris is engrossing, and Iris’s escape and the ending is enlightening. Iris in the end is like she has found the point of equilibrium and balance to perceive the reality and reached the nirvana in the end while retaining her individuality. But the character who actually grabs my heart is Albie. The errand boy, the street kid. He is one of the most endearing child I have come across in books. He is obsessed with a new set of teeth, the idea of growing up to be resourceful to his sister. But he sacrifices to not have a new set of teeth and is the real martyr whose idea of love is not associated with any pretensions and values but enacting on what he knows on love with his heart.
Moreover, I like the idea of the author writing this historical fiction in present tense, which makes my reading so much easier and absorbing.
This is the Author’s debut novel. In the part of acknowledgements, she thanked her tutors who inspired and encouraged her in the writing journey. Her passion and gratitude to her mentors are in a way inspiring to me as well. This book is endearing to me.
Regarding this novel penned by Mrs. Henry Wood, the main plot was set in a town named West Lynne where a condemned feud of murder was concerned some years ago; the perpetrator was believed to have got away in fear of trial and hanging. On the other hand, at the present time, in a house called East Lynne, bordered under the veneer of the most hospital roofs and situated some few miles off the Town, a shocking and disgraceful familial incident happened during a night which the mistress of the house was embroiled. Stories and speculations concerning the mistress and her whereabouts excited all residents of West Lynne. Although two incidents were temporally separated by a few years in between, both cases were eventually found to be interlinked with the same infamous and unrepentant man who selfishly and discreetly ascribed the fatal downfall to the two victims and led them to become subjects of reprehension and defilement at the Town.
An evening to herself in the grey parlour, a terrible evening; one made up of remorse, grief, rebellion, and bitter repentance: repentance of the wretched past, rebellion at existing things. (p. 425)
What is fascinating about the story of East Lynne is that both contemporary and modern readers are more interested in the tragic yet scandalous familial affair which besmirched a gentlewoman toward wretchedness than the other case of murder; in other words, the House exerts more significance than the Town itself. This eponymous abode is transmuted to a legendary place interred with a tragedy which spans through two generations up until the eventual downfall of its late mistress, Lady Isabel Vane. Both Isabel and her mother lived the final wasted years in East Lynne where their lives were never to be fulfilled and overshadowed by hopelessness and wrongdoings committed in the past which could only be relieved and reconciled by death.
Human passions and tempers were brought with us into this world, and they can only quit us when we bid it farewell to enter upon immortality in the next[…]We despise what we have, and covet that which we cannot get. (p.590)
Events are like flashes played upon with phantasmagoria; happiness could only be recalled when it is often intermingled with memories of indelible pain, regrets, anguish and shame. The novel seems all the more to emphasize strong emotions and untamed passion that women are constantly trying to overcome and being told to restrain for the sake of societal proprieties.
Women in sensation fiction are malleable to work with the flow of the plot, because, as seen by the contemporary societal views, they are impressionable and easy to be counterattacked and tempted only to lead a life of penance rather than reward, no matter whatever extent they place the trust and confidence upon themselves. However, in most stories, once they fall, they are most likely to take a mental servitude upon themselves with the utmost will to reflect and repent. Of course, women’s faults in contemporary sensation fiction are not so repugnant as they seem; many immoral decisions they might make, numerous sins they might commit; their actions are debatable, their true characters incite vacillating views, if readers are just humble enough to have the sympathy to feel their plight and suppression in the first place.
Love never yet came for the trying: it is a capricious passion, and generally comes without the knowledge and against the will. (p.199)
In East Lynne, female characters consider each other as rivals. On the other hand, they are resourceful in a way of building their inner strengths only by relying on men’s nods of approval and recognition, but so often they are only left to disappoint themselves with too much expectations, and flight of fancy. The novel concentrates on emotions and consequences based on this notion which determines the uncontrollable impulses of the female characters.
Take the case of Cornelia Carlyle, the spinster and sister of the protagonist (Archibald Carlyle) for example. Acting in a role of an overbearing disciplinarian in the story (comically, imagine Constance in the Blandings Castle series by P. G. Wodehouse; more seriously, imagine John Thornton’s mother in North and South), Cornelia represented herself as a splenetic yet respectable and pious figure, overseeing and managing the protagonist’s personal affairs and pecuniary interests. She disapproved of every young woman she and Archibald came across with; even when Archibald married Lady Isabel Vane, she intervened and moved into his nuptial household, causing such turmoil and displeasure to the married couple, especially Isabel, whom she inadvertently bombarded with vitriol. However, looking at the other angle, Cornelia was driven by her maternal instincts of being protective of her brother as well as feeling jealous to shield her brother from all other attractions. She was a woman with the sole vocation of attending a man’s interests and hoping her love and care towards her brother could be unequivocally requited. Little surprised her morale was to be utterly deflated.
Perhaps had you brought up a lad as I have brought up Archibald, and loved nothing else in the world, far or near, you would be jealous, when you found him discarding you with contemptuous indifference, and taking a young wife to his bosom, to be more to him than you had been. (p. 135)
In the case of another female character, Barbara Hare, who at the beginning developed an unrequited love for Archibald Carlyle; gradually and more frequently she ruminated and built up the fancies of thinking that her love and care would soon be rewarded. But she only realised that “while she had cherished false and delusive hopes, in her almost idolatrous passion…she had never been cared for by him.” (p. 134)
There never was a passion in this world, there never will be one, so fantastic, so delusive, so powerful as jealousy[…]Shakespeare calls jealousy yellow and green. I think it may be called black and white; for it most assuredly views white as black, and black as white. The most fanciful surmises wear the aspect of truth, the greatest improbabilities appear as consistent realities. (p. 182)
Regarding the case of Lady Isabel Vane, readers are able to catch glimpses of the hardship she had confronted in each stage: (1) the death of her father; (2) the marriage with Archibald; (3) desertion and downfall; and (4) in disguise of a governess returning to East Lynne.
In the first stage, she started to have a notion about reality and what penury was,
Since the previous morning, she seemed to have grown old in the world’s experience; her ideas were changed, the bent of her thoughts had been violently turned from its course[…]It has been the custom in romance to present young ladies, especially if they be handsome and interesting, as being entirely oblivious of matter-of-fact cares and necessities, supremely indifferent to future prospects of poverty – poverty that brings hunger and thirst and cold and nakedness; but, be assured, this apathy never existed in real life. (p.97)
Proceeding to her marriage with Archibald Carlyle, Isabel started to develop a feeling that her husband neglected her in actions. She thought he displayed indifference and coldness, whereas his affection was only not as demonstrative and passionate as it was before, and had “subsided into calmness”. It is her “excitable temperament” which infiltrated her mind with jealousy that her husband was in love with another woman.
With Isabel’s desertion from home that she helplessly precipitated into the sad abyss of irrevocable wretchedness, and her opportunistic return to East Lynne, we witness a child-like wife who in the beginning of the novel played a passive role and ensconced herself under the authority of men (father, custodian, husband) tried to extricate herself from chains of mental negations and confinement. She thought of means to rebel, rescue, and gain control of her life. However, the helpless state of inbred vulnerability and passivity under men’s authority remained symbiotic with the rest of her wasted and poignant life.
In this novel, every female characters in West Lynne have their notions of fancy – some stayed at where they are, some resorted to actions – but the root of their thoughts arise from the only wish of not making themselves a disagreement to the paternal authority.
What I admire Wilkie Collins’s works is that heroines are not oblivious to the notions that they are inferior in conception; they sometimes are also exploited and driven to a state of desperation. They might also have brimful of passions and fancies only to get invariably snuffled by reality, they would resort to break the shackles. But reading his novels, the messages all point out to a process of heroines seeking themselves, being enlightened and finding self-respect. They have sparks to shine in the novels.
It is not in the case of East Lynne, which I think in the end of the novel, female characters have still not been dealt with themselves, and are still under the state of mental confinement with actions and feelings guided by men; and all male characters, how virtuous they are, all are invariable and prosaic entity under the subordination of societal views. I could not be soothed and lightened the heart by the ending which I think is a total frustration. Although some characters act comical at some scenes of the novel, they do not help much to ease the aura of the women’s helplessness from the beginning to the end of the story. East Lynne comparably leaves me with a heavy heart, which somewhat overwhelms me with not a genuinely good way. But still, the book is an interesting read with its melodrama and cultural and historical backgrounds.
Amidst praises of contemporary literary critics and authors regarding East Lynne when the novel was first published in 1861, Wilkie Collins upturned his nose. He considered himself to be a “rather better novelist, with a rather wider reputation than Mrs. Henry Wood” and was aghast to acknowledge that the novel attracted such incredibly profitable sales. So, intrigued by what he once expressed, I make use of myself in two weeks’ time to find out if this is really the case.
It is curious, nay, appalling to trace the tread in a human life; how the most trivial occurrences lead to the great events of existence, bringing forth happiness or misery, weal or woe. (p. 116)
In the Introductory pages of East Lynne published by Oxford World’s Classics (2008), the Scholar points out that readers and protagonists of East Lynne are obliged to accept life’s little ironies enlarged in many Victorian sensation fiction of the day. They are sure to be met and dictated by “destiny” and “coincidence”, rather than “logic” and “rule” (p. xxi). Think of all difficulties being contrived and pried into the characters in the plot, think of how characters brace and react to those unprecedented circumstances with the help of their physical and social milieu; and finally, how destiny and coincidence await them at the end of the tunnel to redeem and require the characters to compensate for their deeds – the inescapable fate works alongside Authors of sensation fiction in order to help weave and crochet the most plausible plots (though readers might find it unconvincing at times) while Authors who endorse righteousness cudgel their brains to work out the fairest judgement on the characters they have created. Although reality always advocates the opposites, this dispensable conspirators named fate and destiny in sensation novels are always irresistible to readers which we could often find the most rewarding culmination and didactic messages confined in this fictional world. It is only through the most extravagant and seemingly most implausible circumstances that could best illustrate humanity with its most prominent contours.
With the above-mentioned aspects of fate, destiny, and circumstances which help Authors delineate the most recognisable features of humanity, East Lynne overtly espouses such melodrama with cleverly plots deliberately contrived which I appreciate rather than to discard what others might view as far-fetched and overly wrought out. For example, if the railway accident (similar in its nature to Staplehurst rail crash in 1865) had never hurled towards the fallen Heroine during the time when she banished herself in France, she would not have “carried the cross” and returned to her former abode in disguise of a governess to witness further humiliation which only herself would know; and she would never have felt how the world would have turned upside down. The dread of seeing a woman she envied of became the new love of her former husband ; comparing, contrasting, and reminiscing the happiness and the care which were formerly bestowed to her alone. The treads of fate and destiny which enforce its way to characters definitely are worth a second visit to readers.