Benjamin Markovits' A Quiet Adjustment (2008) is the middle novel in Markovits' planned trilogy about Lord Byron. At first glance, it seems like a radical departure from the first novel, Imposture, which I discussed last year: where Imposture overtly proclaimed its affinities with the nineteenth-century Gothic and historical novel traditions, beginning with its supposed status as a found manuscript, A Quiet Adjustment initially looks like a realist historical novel in the biographical mode. Our protagonist is Annabella (or Anne Isabella) Milbanke, Lord Byron's much put-upon wife, and the novel spends the bulk of its time in the years 1812 to 1816--the period of Annabella's marriage to and separation from her husband--before concluding shortly after Byron's death. Given the intense controversy surrounding Byron's marriage, fanned in the nineteenth century by Harriet Beecher Stowe, the reader accustomed to this kind of historical novel expects to see some fictionalized resolution to the whole uproar, one way or another. All the more so in this novel, which is more overtly invested in factual biographical detail than its predecessor (in large part because more factual biographical detail is available). Instead, Markovits proceeds to disassemble the assumptions of biographical historical fiction, including the notion that it's possible to offer such a resolution in the first place.
To begin with, A Quiet Adjustment shares several thematic concerns with Imposture. Both novels take a strong metafictional interest in the extent to which genre shapes experience, rather than vice-versa. Annabella's project in marrying Byron, we are told repeatedly, involves "reforming" him, which grounds her understanding of the relationship firmly in the reformed rake tradition. Between Annabella's desire to reform Byron and the regular abbreviation of Byron's name to "Lord B.," both Annabella and the reader may well believe that they have wandered into Samuel Richardson's Pamela; it is only later (here, slightly contra James Soderholm) that they wake up in Clarissa. (As Soderholm reminds us, the real Byron compared Annabella to Clarissa Harlowe.) Similarly, both novels address the possibility of establishing or locking down a past and a future through the act of writing. Thus, Markovits takes the real Annabella's list of a husband's ideal qualities and turns it into an accidental moment of prophecy: "But the contradictions in her description had been only too faithfully played out in the conflicts of fact; and though the free expression of them had not, at first, been without its ironies, it was a mistake to dismiss out of hand the sharpness of her vision" (61). Annabella's playful yet strategic attempt to reveal her interest in Lord Byron while purportedly concealing it, and to conceal her own interiority while purportedly revealing it, turns out to have been truthful beyond the bounds of her own intentions. She gets her future life "right," but is right about precisely those things she did not expect to happen. This moment grants imaginative writing a kind of magical quality, yet this magic exceeds the writer's control--or, for that matter, the reader's.
In fact, as in Imposture, the whereabouts of the true self are difficult to find. Even the most casual reader of Thomas Carlyle recognizes the injunction "'Close thy Byron; open thy Goethe" from Sartor Resartus; for Carlyle, "Byron" (besides being the real Byron, with whose poetry Carlyle quickly lost patience) stands in for a larger tendency to dwell endlessly on the self and its sorrows. For Carlyle, the inward turn never produces authentic self-awareness; one can only know oneself through the process of work. A Quiet Adjustment layers Carlyle's irritation over the plot at large. Lord Byron introduces himself to Annabella with the loaded question "'Do you think there is one person here who dares to look into himself?'", which Annabella reads as a precise transcription of her own feelings: "It was her own thought exactly, and she was startled to hear it given a public voice. His remark betrayed the kind of scorn that was her secret comfort" (29-30). The moment is loaded in more ways than one. By asking the question, Byron appears to separate himself and Annabella from the rest of the high-society crowd, and Annabella, in her thrilled response, seizes on this separation; but the question actually includes both of them in the crowd's cowardly aversion to self-exploration, rather than excludes them. Annabella's response only heightens this contradiction: in good Lockwoodian fashion, she reads herself into Byron's language, finding a perfect identity between their minds where there may be only a projection of her own. As it turns out, Annabella's own quest for self-consciousness is both intermittent and fraught, rather proving Carlyle's point than otherwise. At one moment, she finds that her "sense of solitude [...] had begun to seem hopelessly porous" (86), as though the borders of her self-awareness were being quietly invaded by the motives and desires of others, undermining her conscious agency. More frequently, she is forced to reinterpret herself through the gaze of others, sometimes inadvertently (as when she eavesdrops on a not-entirely flattering conversation between Byron and John Cam Hobhouse), but sometimes because that seems to be her only route to self-knowledge: "What surprised her, really, was only the pleasure she managed to take from having, as it were, acquired another lens through which to regard herself" (163). Annabella often regards other people as a series of mirrors, most useful as a means of getting at some truth about her own nature. Annabella's quest to know herself, then, has more than a few overtones of narcissism--not least because the reader soon suspects that not only does she not know herself, but also that she is incapable of doing so.
Annabella's unreliability emerges most clearly towards the end of the novel, when--her quest to "reform" Lord Byron having singularly failed, along with her marriage--she announces to her friend Mary that "'[...] I am determined not to stand idly by while Augusta, in all the waywardness of her affectionate nature, consigns herself to ruin'" (283). Augusta's second project, then, is to reclaim her sister-in-law from the moral degradation of her incestuous relationship with Byron. The success of this project will be measured by a single act: "'She must be made to confess'" (285). Given that Annabella plans to elicit this confession through what is, in effect, blackmail (because of the rumors about the breakup of the Byrons' marriage, only Annabella's public favor can save Augusta from total social ruin), the reader may feel a sneaking suspicion that Annabella is interested less in saving Augusta's soul and more in scoring a point. But the verb "confess" is deeply problematic in this novel, playing the same part as "imposture" did in the previous book. One of its first appearances, as it happens, is in scare quotes: "The fact was, as she 'confessed' to her aunt afterwards, that she had enjoyed the task of composing her lover from scratch" (61). The irony of "confessed" lies in Annabella's unwillingness to confess, since, as I mentioned above, the whole point of the exercise is not to reveal her true intentions; what Annabella confesses is not a deep secret, let alone the real truth. Annabella wants to use confession in order to force Augusta's inner self and outward appearance into perfect alignment; confession will lock Augusta into a single identity, that of the incestuous sinner. In so doing, she will return to her first impression of Augusta, a woman with "no sign of such a divide" between authentic interiority and public self (183). In other words, the fantasized organic self will give way to the real, far more monstrous version. The violence of this reunion emerges in Annabella's ruthless decision to "stamp out" any remnant of Augusta's own "point of view" (313). And yet, Annabella has apparently learned nothing from herself or, for that matter, from her own experience with Byron, who "freely confessed" to bad behavior without being particularly affected by the revelation (162).
What Annabella has to confess, as it happens, is uttered in only the most coded of language. One of the novel's pointed paradoxes, in fact, is that the word "incest"--the real or fancied discovery of which drives the narrative--never makes it into the novel. The tantalizing tidbit known to those who know nothing else about Byron remains entirely repressed, emerging only through the subtlest of hints. We don't "hear" the word "incest" when Annabella tells her ex-suitor, the clergyman Mr. Eden, about her suspicions. Lady Caroline Lamb is much more explicit about Lord Byron's homosexual experiences, but Annabella's legal adviser, Dr. Lushington, grateful for the information, "promise[s] to make the force of it felt by a canny suppression" (176)--secrets prove more powerful when kept slyly unspoken. This strategy of silencing extends even to the novel's scanty representations of sex in action: for example, Byron and Annabella consummate their marriage between paragraphs, as it were (129), and after they engage in some of the "local customs or practices" to which Byron had "become accustomed," Annabella thinks to herself later that "there are things that can only be done unsaid" (215). And at the end of the novel, Annabella colludes in the decision to posthumously silence Byron's confessions by burning his memoirs--possibly a moment of vengeance against Byron's final, deathbed tease, in which he orders his valet to visit Annabella but does not tell him what to say (332). This tension between confession and silence (and silence, in particular, about what another author might have turned into the novel's sensationalist selling-point) makes it difficult to locate precisely where any truth, revisionist or otherwise, might lie: if confession can always be manipulated, then Augusta's confession may not mean what Annabella thinks it means; if silence has its own force, then Annabella's smug observation that "His side of the story had gone up in smoke. What was left was hers, and she felt, not unlovingly, the duty that was imposed on her" (341) may be more than a trifle premature. If anything, silencing Byron only provokes more narratives about his "side"--as the entire Byron industry, this novel included, suggests.
This novel has one most interesting peculiarity: its status, once again, as a pastiche. Imposture, as I noted, is, as pastiches go, a "fake." A Quiet Adjustment, oddly enough, is not a pastiche of early nineteenth-century English fiction; if anything, it is a pastiche of Henry James writing about Annabella Milbanke and co. As we get further and further into the novel, the characters spend more and more time intricately parsing each other's conversations, letters, sentences, and motives, so that the "real" action takes place not at the level of bodily encounter (the suppressed sex) but in discursive fencing. That alone would not make this Henry James, were it not for the eruptions of Jamesian turns of phrase. For example:
"It is, Annabella was conscious of being, in her way, at the center of their disagreement and strove quite beautifully to make herself agreeable to both the parties to it, "perhaps the best letter she could have written [....]" (295; detailed analysis of the letter's tone follows)
It was the clearest appeal, and Lady Byron met it beautifully, almost with tears. (312)
Oh, Byron's women! and the sensation recurred within her of living, at a high pitch, in the very refinement of that mode of feeling which Lord Byron's eloquence had made so brilliantly public. (272)
The Jamesian proliferation of adverbs and adjectives, the characters' quests for just the right word or phrase, the interest in delineating the highways and byways of self-consciousness...all of this leaves us with a fiction of realist fiction. It is late nineteenth-century realism, reinvented from a twenty-first century point of view. The novel invites us to reflect on pastiche's success (or not) at creating the illusion of reading an "authentic" text from the past, while leaving a gap between the later and earlier nineteenth centuries (rather like the consummation of the Byron's marriage...). We encounter the Byrons not as "the Byrons," but as mediated through a later nineteenth-century moment.