“Will you tell me, Miss Stanley, how you can possibly contrive to unite so perfectly the literary with the domestic characters? I have watched, but cannot find you fail in either – how is this?”
“Simply, Sir Dudley, because, in my opinion, it is impossible to divide them. Perfect in them, indeed, I am not; but though I know it is possible for woman to be domestic without being literary – as we are not equally endowed by Providence – to my feelings, it is NOT possible to be more than usually gifted without being domestic. The appeal to the heart must come from the heart; and the quick sensibility of the imagnative woman must make her FEEL for others, and ACT for them, more particularly for the loved of home. To WRITE, we must THINK, and if we think of duty, we, of all others, must not fail in its performance, or our own words are bitter with reproach. It is from want of thought most failings spring, alike in duty as in feeling. From this want the literary and imaginative woman must be free.”
2020. I thought I might have a little bit of reflections of the past as well as resolutions for the year ahead. I have been thinking a little while of changing the blog name.
Since 2012, around 170 posts have been published on “Reading and Roaming”, mostly book reviews. The initial purpose of starting this blog is to share my thoughts of the books I’ve read, because my thoughts are much better to be put into writing, and I would have better memories and experience with the books; more than that it is an aim to improve my english.
Looking back my 170 posts, I am really grateful to myself that many Wilkie Collins’s works had been devoured and cherished. He is the author that leads me to my persistence of reading Victorian fiction and biographies of that era. In this case, whether it being a lucky or unfortunate circumstance I know not, the reading habit has become my utmost intentions and obstinacy of being absorbed into it academically. In my opinion, looking back at it, during my idle hours, working towards this aim obstinately without much guidance is unwholesome to my mental constituency. It sounds a bit exaggerating but I hope you would understand this.
This blog has been here for 7 years now, the sparks and passion for writing this blog have extinguished a little. Although I wouldn’t destruct my fantasy in academic pursuits because I always could find some other ways of increasing my knowledge of this field; on the other hand, the real meanings and pleasure of reading have been distorted because of my obstinacy to try to get myself to be more intellectual, to get recognition from others instead of satisfying my curiosity and to be engrossed in the plot and euphoria of reading.
Reflecting on this, I would like to change my blog name to “The Vigorous & Virtuous”. Going back to basics, why I like reading or why my favourite books are mostly Victorian fiction is because I believe, reading develops empathy, it helps you work towards being a good person, a person who appreciates “beauty, virtue and genuineness”, instead of being intellectual and the one who knows it all. Especially in this modern world which is full of frustrations, confusions and chaos, the innermost rudiments of humanity are what we need. Not without mentioning the diligence of eminent or lesser-known persons of that era, I really adore this characteristic, which is one of the most important, humblest elements apart from talents, that works themselves towards accomplishment and success.
In future, I hope to share more readings which I think have enlightened me and hope myself to be even creative and write something that, all the while, do make justice to the name of this blog.
Have a fruitful and enriching new year ahead of you.
I have recently finished “Victorian Love Stories”, edited by Kate Flint (OUP, 1996). I came across A Conflict of Egoisms by Hubert Crackanthorpe.
In A Conflict of Egoisms, there are great details on the “wounded pride and wounded love” of the wife towards her husband’s indifference and generalized points of view to the reality. The woman is engrossed in sensation reads to escape the disappointment, decadence and dissipation in marriage. But it is the husband’s perspectives that I find the most potent. As a novelist and essayist, he is not only evading his marital life but also concerned about his progress in work and words that he loads himself up as a steam engine and somehow leads to depression, delusion and death. “He would shut himself up in his study every morning, and struggle on till evening, with scarcely any food, till his eyes throbbed and it seemed that endless regiments of heavy soldiers were tramping across his brain. When he had done, he would lie in his armchair, a helpless prey to fits of depression, inexplicable as it seemed to him, but which were in reality the reaction that inevitably followed the long hours of cerebral excitement”.
I was so absorbed with the plot and the writing, so I looked up on the internet about the Hubert Crackanthorpe’s life – which is even more fascinating but also saddening. He Crackanthorpe was born in 1870 and drowned himself in Seine at the age of 26 in 1896. There might be foul play as an inquest was never carried. His body was recovered in Seine months after his wife and author – Leila Macdonald (1871-1944) left France and travelled back to London that she filed a divorce based on the ground of “legal cruelty” (she adamantly stated that she had been transmitted venereal disease from Crackanthorpe). There should be more biographies and information concerning his life but unfortunately it was said that both reputable families tried to cover it up because Crackanthorpe seemed to lead a profligate living which defamed the families’ reputations. Below is the ending passage from A Conflict of Egoisms (1893) that much in a way reminds me of Hubert Crackanthorpe’s tragic end,
He stood in the middle of the suspension bridge, peering down through the iron-work at the river.
A long fall through the air — the water black, cold and slimy, the rush down his throat, the fight for breath, to sink down, down at once, and the yearning for the peace of death swept through him.
Could he crawl through the iron-work? No, it was too small. And some one might see him. He must clamber over, quickly. As he looked round him to see if he were observed, his eyes fell on a heap of flints a few yards off, where the road was under repair. He went up to it, and stooping down, began, with the feeble slowness of an old man, to fill his pockets with the stones. Then he went back to the bridge edge, and gripping the stanchions, prepared to swing himself on to the top of them. As he did so, a blackness filled his eyes; a dull thud; his body dropped back on to the roadway — dead.
Although My Lady’s Money (1878) by Wilkie Collins is a relatively short story compared with his other works, it is still instilled with a few Wilkie Collins’s elements. It is teeming with social objects, care and observations of undistinguished persons of his contemporaries and this novel really deserves some recognition.
Mr. Troy made no answer. In the melancholy experience of humanity to which his profession condemned him, he had seen conscious guilt assume the face of innocence, and helpless innocence admit the disguise of guilt: the keenest observation, in either case, failing completely to detect the truth.
This story draws the quotidian misconceptions and societal mores which exist in everyday life. Hearing the cousin of Late Husband, James Tollmidge, passed away, Lady Lydiard decided to draw out her 500-pound bank note in order to support financially Tollmidge’s family, but to enclose it in a letter anonymously and get it dispatched to the clergyman’s hands. As the letter was left unsealed on the table when being called upon an emergency concerning the health of her canine friend Tommie, the bank note was found missing when it was communicated to the clergyman’s hands. As visitors came and went, all persons who were present before the letter was sent were all suspected of theft. Through the interrogations of Mr. Troy, Lady Lydiard’s lawyer, a person was pointed out as the only suspect of theft – Isabel Miller, a young girl who was employed as the reader, companion for almost two years, and regarded as the adopted daughter by Lady Lydiard, as she was the one who was instructed to seal the letter. However, the interrogation was devoid of comprehensive search and questioning, persons concerned who were of rank and reputation were out of the question of theft.
“Now listen. Here’s the guinea opinion: Suspect, in this case, the very last person on whom suspicion could possibly fall.” (Old Sharon)
Accidents and mystery always happen in the most hospitable roofs, appearances do not always look like what they really seem to be. If not for the obstinacy and loyalty in proving her innocence to Lady Lydiard, she would never clear her name and further investigations would not be conducted. It was not until the appearance of Old Sharon, a ragged, unconventional “detective” who gave out this useful advice that we start to see the light for the story in culminating with a satisfying conclusion.
One thing I love about Wilkie Collins’s works is that he always delineates the social standards of his times to conflict them. The Victorian moralities are always referred to and appreciated these days but fiction writers of those times were always looking for all points of contemporary perspectives and mores, observing and accepting the irregularities, constructing their points, refuting, debunking, and wrestling with them. In the case of this story, it tackles the misconceptions that a person with ranks and said reputations should be much respected and devoid of wrongdoings. One of the most interesting scenes in the novel is the interaction between Miss Pink and Lady Lydiard. Miss Pink, a retired schoolmistress of a young girls’ academy, and the aunt of Isabel Miller, is the character who is exactly the anomaly and juxtaposition of Lady Lydiard. She is absent of title and rank but she desires it, she imitates the proprieties, refined but ostensible qualities which she considers as the criteria that only a titled person would acquire. “Miss Pink’s highly-trained conversation had perhaps one fault – it was not, strictly speaking, conversation at all. In its effect on her hearers it rather resembled the contents of a fluently conventional letter, read aloud.”Placing the primness and pride on top she was overwhelmed with shock concerning her meeting with Lady Lydiard with her “coarse terms and vulgarities”. Miss Pink and Lady Lydiard are respectively the living images of South Morden (a dull remote countryside) and London (a vivacious and fast-paced capital). Despite a place with its beautiful and pastoral nature its residents do not constitute it to become a desirable place of abode as it seems.
Thus far he had stood apart, watching her and listening to her in silence. Not a look that had crossed her face, not a word that had fallen from her, had escaped him. Unconsciously on her side, unconsciously on his side, she now wrought on his nature with a purifying and ennobling influence which animated it with a new life. All that had been selfish and violent in his passion for her left him to return no more. The immeasurable devotion which he laid at her feet, in the days that were yet to come – the unyielding courage which cheerfully accepted the sacrifice of himself when events demanded it at a later period of his life – struck root in him now. Without attempting to conceal the tears that were falling fast over his cheeks – striving vainly to express those new thoughts in him that were beyond the reach of words—he stood before her the truest friend and servant that ever woman had.
In Wilkie Collins works, he occasionally upholds dispositions of vibrancy and energy like P. G. Wodehouse concerning the aged and elderly. For example, Bertram Wooster always describing his aunts as “aged relatives” but when troubles get them, they could fiercely steam up their temper like a boiled teapot. Not without mentioning Hon. Galahad, in the case, a friendly and energetic raconteur in the Blandings series, one of my favourite characters apart from Frederick Threepwood.
“Cousins!” exclaimed her Ladyship, suddenly descending from the lofty ranges of sentiment to the low. “I hate the very name of them! A person who is near enough to me to be my relation and far enough off from me to be my sweetheart, is a double-faced sort of person that I don’t like. Let’s get back to the widow and her sons. How much do they want?”
In My Lady’s Money, characters in old age are in no way undermined as dull. They are full of energy and they know how they live their lives.
Although you might have never heard of a short story named A Step in the Dark by Kate Eyre (serialied in Cassell’s Magazine in 1887) , but Lady Lydiard really resonates the pleasant personalities of Lady Vane in person (a woman in her eighties), and I would quote one passage here,
Somehow it saddened me to watch her, Why, I can hardly tell, possible only because it is not what one looks for in a woman of her age. Yet with all her worldliness, her bitter tongue, and her love of sarcasm, I doubt if Lady Vane is any worse than many a sedate old dame, correct in manner, but hard of heart. Seldom indeed does her ladyship turn a deaf ear to the poor and needy- always provided the poor and needy do not come to her in the guise of relations – but the fact that her gifts are nearly always accompanied by cruel, stinging words, takes away from them much of their charm…
And this is a description about this mischievous Lady Lydiard,
Accurately described, Lord Lydiard’s widow was short and fat, and, in the matter of age, perilously near her sixtieth birthday. But it may be said, without paying a compliment, that she looked younger than her age by ten years at least. Her complexion was of that delicate pink tinge which is sometimes seen in old women with well-preserved constitutions. Her eyes (equally well preserved) were of that hard light blue color which wears well, and does not wash out when tried by the test of tears. Add to this her short nose, her plump cheeks that set wrinkles at defiance, her white hair dressed in stiff little curls; and, if a doll could grow old, Lady Lydiard, at sixty, would have been the living image of that doll, taking life easily on its journey downwards to the prettiest of tombs, in a burial-ground where the myrtles and roses grew all the year round.
Not only Lady Lydiard but also Robert Moody, the Lady’s steward, is a great and important character in the novel. Although in a relatively old age comparing with the youngsters in the story, he is always maturing and transforming, just like the protagonist in a bildungsroman novel. In the beginning he is a lackadaisical steward whose love we find is always unrequited; but till the middle of the story, when the theft incident happens, he becomes a revered, patient, committed, and a noble warrior of love. This is the power Wilkie Collins instilling to the aged and the underprivileged in all his works. Although the characters are of frail bodies but they are not the faint-hearted. Last but not least, the story has the exemplary ending of consolation and refuge for the soul of a reader.
Good-by to Miss Pink—who will regret to her dying day that Isabel’s answer to Hardyman was No.
Good-by to Lady Lydiard—who differs with Miss Pink, and would have regretted it, to her dying day, if the answer had been Yes.
Good-by to Moody and Isabel—whose history has closed with the closing of the clergyman’s book on their wedding-day.
Good-by to Hardyman—who has sold his farm and his horses, and has begun a new life among the famous fast trotters of America.
Good-by to Old Sharon—who, a martyr to his promise, brushed his hair and washed his face in honor of Moody’s marriage; and catching a severe cold as the necessary consequence, declared, in the intervals of sneezing, that he would “never do it again.”
And last, not least, good-by to Tommie? No. The writer gave Tommie his dinner not half an hour since, and is too fond of him to say good-by.
In Mrs Zant and the Ghost (The Ghost’s Touch), Wilkie Collins implies two concepts or conflicts of the contemporaries: supernatural vision of persons and the agreed matrimonial act imposed by an ecclesiastical belief.
In the story, protagonist, Mr Rayburn, and his daughter, Lucy, encountered a young lady (Mrs Zant) in Kensington Gardens whom they believed was distressed by agitation and troubled by illness. Mrs Zant seemed to overlook their presence but approached them, saw through them with an unspeakable fear. Intrigued by her presence and concerned about her helplessness, Mr Zant followed her to a lodging house with his daughter and contrived to find out the truth. Through Mrs Zant epistolary confession, she experienced a certain kind of vision, not by sight but by feelings. While she wandered under the tree, she felt everything in reality disappeared before her eyes, every sound of hearing among the surroundings was completely erased and only her sense remains. “I felt an Invisible Presence near me. It touched me gently.” The unknown entity touched and embraced her and she felt a rapture of joy. She acknowledged the unknown entity to be her husband, who died of consumption (or the overdose of sleeping drops) after they had not married to each other for long. According to the letter to Mr Rayburn, she returned to the Park for the first time since she had convalesced from brain fever; and this was the place where she used to take a stroll with Mr Zant when they were betrothed.
“Judged from the point of view of the materialist, Mrs. Zant might no doubt be the victim of illusions (produced by a diseased state of the nervous system), which have been known to exist — as in the celebrated case of the book-seller, Nicolai, of Berlin — without being accompanied by derangement of the intellectual powers.”
In this story, Wilkie Collins mentioned the case of Nicolai, who had seen supernatural figures during the days incessantly, for two years, while his habitual treatment of bloodletting was ceased. One morning in February 1791, out of his nervous mood and annoyance with his business, he saw phantasms for the first time, which were only seen by him, and did what the mortals did in the daytime at the market – transacting businesses, some were even on horsebacks, and some were with dogs. The figures also spoke to him occasionally. It seemed like a pleasing view, a normal spectra. But once he applied bloodletting again, the phantasms never reappeared. There was a paper of his called “A Memoir on the Appearance of Spectres or Phantoms occasioned by Disease“, in which Nicolai acknowledged that this vision was subjected to his bodily ailments, “the whole panorama was exhibited on his own retina, and the working brain behind was the manager and scene-shifter of the show”. Compared with this context, Mrs Zant did not reflect what her passing fancies of her brain into her vision, but according to the preface of the story, a plausible and unknown supernatural presence “reached mortal knowledge through the sense which is least easily self-deceived: the sense that feels”. In Wilkie Collins’s contemporaries, illusions and ghostly encounters were gradually superseded by scientific explanation under the progression of secularism, but in my point of view, Wilkie Collins really tried to ascertain that every man is certainly with feeling, and immortality, supernatural entities, religions, and superstitions are still some requisite components to propel his stories in reflecting the beauty of fate, faith, hope, and a belief which can constitute humans value better virtue, and even exert a moral and fatal punishment on the misdeeds, just as what we had read in Man and Wife, The Two Destinies, and The Moonstone.
“In his way of thinking, if one man may marry his wife’s sister, and no harm done, where’s the objection if another man pays a compliment to the family, and marries his brother’s widow? My master, if you please, is that other man. Take the widow away before she marries him.”
As we had read in Wilkie Collins’s novels, he was concerned much about the welfare and state of women in their matrimonial lives. In Man and Wife, a doubt arises in Scotland on couples that could be announced as husband and wife legally when the third witness is present, as well as mentioning the case of Irregular Marriage in Ireland. In Woman in White, we learn the unfair Married Women’s Property Act in Victorian England; however in Evil Genius, we see lenience towards the fairer sex in marriage act concerning the divorced law implemented in Scotland.
In the case of Mrs Zant and the Ghost, the story touches the subject of Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Act, which stipulated in 1835 that a widower was illegal to marry the late wife’s sister. It was considered incestuous as husband and wife were made one flesh upon marriage. However, perhaps as to be seen more “protective” to women and due to “moral” concerns, a widow was allowed to be married into a husband’s brother’s household. In this opinion, it was based on the fact that the in-law family needed the wife to conceive of a future heir, or to accept the in-law daughter under a roof so that she would not be left destitute. This act was not repealed until 1905. It is a shame I have not read it, but Dinah Maria Craik and Felicia Skene wrote Hannah and Inheritance of Evil Or, the Consequences of Marrying a Deceased Wife’s Sister, respectively, based on this law. In Mrs Zant and the Ghost, Wilkie Collins, in my point of view, might be questioning the Parliament if this act of “levirate marriage” was really without consequences and if it was really in every nuptial case without misdeeds and immoral motives on the male’s part.
In this story, we can see again another case of Wilkie Collin’s challenging the contemporaries. Although Mrs Zant and the Ghost might not be an eye-catcher compared with his other works, but all works could be treated as gems if they are to be digged diligently.
I haven’t read Wilkie Collins’s works for a while, as there are some books I think I have been wanting to read for long, I have accomplished some of them, but some are still left on the shelf. Honestly as reading those novels, the emotions are not as strong as reading Wilkie Collins’s stories. There is always a time I feel I need to go back to the basics and get to read some of his books again; especially recently I am finding myself at lost, feeling listless when I am back home. I do not have much social life, do not know where to go to and what to do apart from my assiduous nature to work, work, work.
When in solitude, I resort and correspond myself to the characters of Wilkie Collins’s works. He is an irreplaceable author and occupies a significant portion in my reading world. Some characters are too Eccentric and feel at ease only on their own. Being of course the essential and indispensable existence of the books, the stories which are full of sensation and mystery would not be so much fascinating and absorbing without them. On the other hand, on an emphatic scale, they are eagerly waiting to have someone who is willing to delve into their minds and understand their poignancy. As a reader, eccentricity in Wilkie Collins’s stories is one of the most tantalizing aspects and always ends up to be my favourite part of the plots. I get to know and feel the characters through their confessions, their monologues and epistolary writings. Rosanna Spearman and Ezra Jennings from The Moonstone, Hester Dethridge from Man and Wife, Sarah Leeson from The Dead Secret, Miserrimus Dexter from The Law and the Lady, Miss Dunross from The Two Destinies, and so forth. They are always alone, they are phlegmatic, full of regrets, and they long to love and admire a person, to be forgiven of the sins that had committed in the past, to be accepted and respected by whoever that is tolerant enough and has a big heart. As a quote from one of Wilkie Collins’s novel, everyone tends to have a time who is prone to be alone, to observe the aura and the surrounding atmosphere. It is impossible of a person who had grown up and been in solitary moments is not stirred in emotions by the eccentric characters that Wilkie Collins protrays. Being in solitude is the moment in real life that you can develop an unique self.
They are not sociable; they are hardly ever seen to make acquaintance with each other; perhaps they are shame-faced, or proud, or sullen; perhaps they despair of others, being accustomed to despair of themselves; perhaps they have their reasons for never venturing to encounter curiosity, or their vices which dread detection, or their virtues which suffer hardship with the resignation that is sufficient for itself. (I Say No, Wilkie Collins)
Reading Wilkie Collins’s stories, you read about Reconciliation. That is why you always have a good feeling when reaching the end of the stories. In Hide and Seek, there are regrets for readers, of course, that the unrequited love on the aspects of man-and-woman endearment between Madonna and Zack is not fulfilled in the end though it is compensated with the most affectionate tenderness. However, more importantly, it is the comradeship between Matthew Grice and Zack Thorpe that should be considered and regarded as the best solution in the story. The friendship is subtle in the beginning but grows into a passionate nature in the end emphasizing with that astounding secret they share. Even between The Two Destinies, the common feature of reconciliation in the end is similar – the separation, the rumination, the abandonment of oneself into an unknown place, and finally, the undying, limitless love, and the recognition of one to another. There is no wordy decoration, the recognition of love is simple, straight-toward and without pretension. That is why I always adore Wilkie Collins’s writing.
The time came; and on either side, the two comrades of former days — in years so far apart, in sympathies so close together — lived to look each other in the face again. The solitude which had once hardened Matthew Grice, had wrought on him, in his riper age, to better and higher ends. In all his later roamings, the tie which had bound him to those sacred human interests in which we live and move and have our being — the tie which he himself believed that he had broken — held fast to him still. His grim, scarred face softened, his heavy hand trembled in the friendly grasp that held it, as Zack pleaded with him once more; and, this time, pleaded not in vain.
“I’ve never been my own man again” said Mat, “since you and me wished each other good-bye on the sandhills. The lonesome places have got strange to me — and my rifle’s heavier in hand than ever I knew it before. There’s some part of myself that seems left behind like, between Mary’s grave and Mary’s child. Must I cross the seas again to find it? Give us hold of your hand, Zack — and take the leavings of me back, along with you.” (Hide and Seek, Wilkie Collins)
Another essence is the Empowerment in Wilkie Collins’s stories. Talking about empowerment, I mean a woman’s empowerment, a progress of self-realization and enlightenment, a consciousness that a heroine can believe herself as she has the ability to execute her power, to achieve and accomplish, and an ability to be her own self. A heroine can also be reticent and sufficient to protect and defend what she thinks is right, which it should not be regarded as sacrifice but a moral act. For instance, in The Law and the Lady, isn’t Valerie the propeller to assert her husband’s innocence against the notorious verdict of “not proven” in that case? In Man and Wife, Anne Silvester is a strong character who is initially teeming with ambivalence of whether to submit or to defend the dignity of herself against the protagonist’s control which she finds that the harmful relationship has been eclipsing her own free will. In the end, she toughens herself. The disposition of the heroines in Wilkie Collins’s might not be uncommon in his contemporaries, but it is the enlightenment of a woman who is resilient and satisfied at the same time that she could decide her life on her own. It is not important to focus on whether a woman could set to be free from a man’s life in the end, but it is important that a woman has a story, has a past, can think proactively, and gets to have an opportunity to explore and execute her power.
The first instinct of girls in general, on being told of anything which interests them, is to ask a multitude of questions, and then to run off, and talk it all over with some favourite friend. Rachel Verinder’s first instinct, under similar circumstances, was to shut herself up in her own mind, and to think it over by herself. This absolute self-dependence is a great virtue in a man. In a woman it has a serious drawback of morally separating her from the mass of her sex, and so exposing her to misconstruction by the general opinion. (The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins)
I might not be focusing on Wilkie Collins’s works on literary aspects, but these are some of the reasons for my love of his works; that he is considerate and treats every character as an individual, which also includes us readers. It is his contrivances of genuineness, virtue and beauty to compose a story that moves me.
“You’re my brilliant friend, you have to be the best of all, boys and girls.”
There is so much to dip in and dig out from My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante in this first book of the Neapolitan Quartet. In the story, the two playmates (Elena and Lila) were indispensable to each other; gradual transition and changes upon themselves were reflected furiously, relationships and point of views were prevalent; nervous conditions and circumstances were rioting and gnawing on the girls as they grew up at different stages as the plot was being developed. This is a very riveting and passionate story on childhood and adolescence that touched heavily on reality and reflected by norms. I admit I have not read many books in my life; apart from Wilkie Collins’s works I have never come across such a book which made my heart go racing through the pages. There was a euphoria to read this book and treasure it.
I was absolutely engrossed with the friendship in the story. The girls were not always individually but also assiduously exploring dimensions of expressions and empowerment together. The doubts and insecurity about themselves and the world that they lived in provided the backdrop of rivalries in different aspects not only against men but also between the themselves – They implicitly competed against each other on schooling, on physical aspects, perhaps also on love. Between them two were not the palpable fights, but was the not-so-harmonious rivalry in which social norms and insecurities about themselves set in to make someone closest to herself the competitor of and superiority of another. In this case, the ambivalent feelings to the one endeared and compatible to herself with that undertone of rivalry implied that the friendship itself was always in need for rebalancing.
She let me shine with a vivid light, she encouraged me to become more and more disciplined, more diligent, more serious. When Lila stopped misbehaving and effortlessly outdid me, the teacher praised me first, with moderation, and then went on to exalt her prowess. I felt the poison of defeat more acutely when it was Sarratore or Peluso who did better than me. If however, I came in second after Lila, I wore a meek expression of acquiescence. (p. 47)
Classes and studies are part of my favorite highlights in the book, especially the scene of that class competition between Lila, Elena, Enzo, Alfonso, and Nino. It is some kind of victorious feeling to read about the two main heroes answering teacher’s questions and emulated the boys of other classes with their smartness.
In the beginning of their friendship, Elena could not stand solitude a minute without Lila. Not with her parents and anyone guiding and inoculating her to copy one’s exemplary actions and to learn the good of another person of the same age, it was more of a voluntary and confused curiosity and fascination towards a girl who outstripped her academically in effortless strength and cleverness. Lila was a rebellious girl but she quickly became the new favorite student in the teacher’s class for her intellect. Her disposition entered into Elena’s mind and could not get her out of sight from the age of six. She somehow insinuated Elena to exert the secret and peerless strength, namely, endurance and diligence, in studies and in everything. Up until teenage years, Lila’s perseverance to be an autodidact in Latin and Greek that she borrowed books from the library illustrated the disposition rather to be seen as a betrayal and emulation upon the other as seen in Elena’s view in the beginning, but it was also a will, and an inquisitiveness, as Elena also found that, it was in fact the sharing of knowledge and tutelage from Lila that made her studies in school more complete and meaningful, rather than a grudge, a humdrum. It was a spark of light to be with Lila until she could have the self-indulgence and pleasure to study.
Blood. In general it came from wounds only after horrible curses and disgusting obscenities had been exchanged. That was the standard procedure. (p. 35)
At early stages, what also triggered her to stick to Lila was the agile legs of this little friend’s. Elena could not stand her mother – the hostility she first confronted in her little world. She had this kind of Little Hans in Freudian theory that by sticking to Lila’s pace, Elena could soon forget and escape her mother’s limping legs, her eyesight and control in her mind, to find her own soul asylum and security. As the friendship grew and getting to know Lila more, Elena fascination towards Lila grew stronger – when she was with Lila, “every disobedient act contained breathtaking opportunities”, (1) Lila’s rebellion towards the teacher actually led to her being discovered the intellectual capacities; (2) Lila’s stone fight with child bully and school repeater Enzo ultimately won over his admiration and respect; (3) the “expedition” to knock on Don Achille Carracci’s door proved that he did not appear to be the “fairy ogre” everyone was talking about in the neighborhood. In fact, Lila’s fearlessness and rebellion unintentionally embroiled and involved Elena in various incidents that led Elena discover another facade of the neighborhood which had gone unnoticed before; moreover, Lila provided her a shelter and a safe haven of which that her home had been wanted amidst the little tragic stricken world of violence, poverty, and insecurity. Elena at first envied Lila, but later got fascinated with, submitted and subservient to this slender and bony friend’s enigma – with them together, there was nothing to be afraid of. Elena desired to make Lila exclusive to herself without intervention, to be insulated from the outer world, although clearly this was not to be the case as they grew up.
As I watched, I understood conclusively that soon she would lose completely her air of a child-old woman, the way a well-known musical theme is lost when it’s adapted too fancifully. She had become shapely. Her high forehead, her large eyes that could suddenly narrow, her small nose, her cheekbones, her lips, her ears were looking for a new orchestration and seemed close to finding it. When she combed her hair in a ponytail, her long neck was revealed with a touched clarity. Her chest had small graceful breasts that were more and more visible. Her back made a deep curve before landing at the increasing taut arc of her behind. Her ankles were still too thin, the ankles of a child; but how long before they adapted to her now feminine figure? (p. 142)
As Elena had said, she loved correlations of the little convergence and divergence between herself and Lila; how one was always in joy could be in sorrows of another, even in physical aspect. It was not a pretentious or impressionable step, but Elena was exploring the ideas of how growing up would play a role upon herself and others. When Elena transited to teenage years, she felt a nuisance to this matter. The body let her see a different light but it turned out to be a dreadful feeling to see herself on the mirror. On the other hand, it was her first period that she found common grounds with other girls in the neighborhood. Physical aspect, not a choice within her control, but could be regarded as one’s properties, a liberty and sovereignty though it is tragic and pessimistic amid the environment surrounded by violence and patriarchy. On the other hand, Lila was still a wild and bony playmate. The crowd pressure put on Elena was making her proud that Lila was disoriented but it was until a time later that Elena felt the anguish that as her body grew, she did not own a man’s respects. When Lila was not in a desperate need for love, Elena started to imagine romance with other boys, and she got more male pleasure gaze. Girls’ jealousy of physical attraction is part of the rivalry in the book. However Elena also had a emphatic and symbiotic connection to Lila’s body, while she helped bathing and cleansing her friend’s body before the wedding, so that Stefano could “sully her in the course of the night”, the “only remedy against the pain I was feeling, that I would feel, was to find a corner secluded enough so that Antonio could do to me, at the same time, the exact same thing”.
We thought that if we studied hard we would be able to write books and that the books would make us rich. Wealth was still the glitter of gold coins stored in countless chests, but to get there all you had to go to school and write a book. (p.70)
Lila seemed to know, in the beginning, education was the way to climb upwards on the ladder of social mobility; however, she might not have the same opportunities as Elena. Elena’s parents did not entirely encourage Elena’s studies as regards the fees and expenses of schooling but she somehow had it; Lila, on the other hand, as the family business was under the strain, the norms regarding gender at home and outside was severe, although Lila had intellectual inspiration, she had not a chance to pursue. When Elena got to the teenage years, schooling and education became a matter of what Elena aspired to under the praises and encouragement, and was soon warmed to a pleasant habit that lead to her academic achievement. On the other hand, schooling and education was what Lila chased at the very beginning as an inquisitive child, she found the pleasure much earlier than Elena (was always ahead of Elena in everything); but also one of the reasons for that was to get out of the poverty cycle, nonetheless she failed of not having the opportunity, and it slipped through her fingers.
“The beauty of mind that Cerullo had from childhood didn’t find an outlet, Greco, and it has all ended up in her face, in her breasts, in her thighs, in her ass, places where it soon fades and it will be as if she had never had it.” (p. 277)
From then on, Little Women was no longer valid to apply to herself. Accumulation of wealth became something according to Lila a metamorphosis achieving through the family business. That might be an evasion of not having the same opportunity as Elena in schooling and education, but more importantly it was the endeavors to succeed in the family business as in a way to strengthen herself, to be more unyielding to the underprivileged circumstances which she was facing, and more so, to desperately constrain and undermine the destructive disfigurement of her beloved brother as well as the family (dissolving margins, p. 176).
But to Lila, she has ever-changing features and decisions to undermine the forces of dissolving margins,
“He’s rich,” I said to her finally. But even as I said that I realized how the idea of the riches girls dreamed of was changing further. The treasure chests full of gold pieces that a procession of servants in livery would deposit in our castle when we published a book like Little Women – riches and fame – had truly faded. Perhaps the idea of money as a cement to solidify our existence and prevent it from dissolving, together with the people who were dear to us, endured. But the fundamental feature that now prevailed was concreteness, the daily gesture, the negotiation. This wealth of adolescence proceeded from a fantastic, still childish illumination – the designs for extraordinary shoes – but it was embodied in the petulant dissatisfaction of Rino, who wanted to spend like a big shot, in the television, in the meals, and in the ring with which Marcello wanted to buy a feeling, and, from step to step, in that courteous youth Stefano, who sold groceries, had a red convertible, spent forty-five thousand lire like nothing, framed drawings, wished to do business in shoes as well as in cheese, invested in leather and a workforce, and seemed convinced that he could inaugurate a new era of peace and well-being for the neighborhood: it was, in short, wealth that existed in the facts of every day, and so was without splendor and without glory. (p. 248)
At this point, I am still trying to analyse and expanding the ideas of dissolving margins in Lila’s case. I would need to find out more in the next three volumes.
“The mind’s dream have ended up under the feet.” (p. 314)
To believe that a man was kind, was ambitious and adamant in his voice, that he was always denying in his actions to be the victimized offspring of a murdered father, and was determined to instill the atmosphere of prosperity and “new era” brought Lila to be married to a new rising grocer at the age of sixteen. In the end of the first book, Elena could be seen as herself getting some intellectual achievement and even surpassed Lila. The expectations she had for Lila failed as she increasingly longed to get out of the neighborhood. The ideas of wealth, the marriage between Lila and Stefano, were the turning point that Elena started to get more observant and awareness of what her heart craved to pursue under the shadow of Lila. But I know even as that, Lila should not be abandoned by Elena; whatever Lila had become could not change how Elena viewed Lila: she could still be the one to astonish and inspire Elena like she was as a child. She was not losing the illumination, she was not fading and being contaminated but only looking for ways to adapt, change, invent, and empower herself as well as Elena.
As reader, I hope that when reading the second volume, my emotions would not get affected by Elena’s narratives with her irascibility toward Lila, and not to take sides with any one of them – whatever happened to the friendship, nobody would be the one being held culpable but it was the circumstances that were too hostile and inevitable for them to have made such decisions. I hope to find Lila more lovable, more affectionate towards Elena, and find out how Lila perceived Elena as her most “brilliant friend”, although rivalries and conflicts would still be setting in. I am very much looking forward to reading the second volume.