A coherent policy regarding what is and is not available in full text. It is not immediately evident why a book published in 1839 needs to be forever cloaked behind a wall of invisibility or reduced to the dreaded snippet view. At the very least, an explanation would be nice. Moreover, GoogleBooks' habit of randomly making books unavailable after they had previously been available is inexplicable, not least because copyright is not an obstacle when the edition is from 1842. (Matters are even more inexplicable when your realize that Google's own scans of "invisible" books sometimes show up in full view at HathiTrust or archive.org.)
Searchable libraries. Once upon a time, you could search your own library, and it was Good. Then, as your library increased in size, you suddenly discovered that the search function no longer worked at all, and it was Bad.
An actual quality control alert box that leads to actual fixes. There should be a way to do something about missing or distorted pages. (Yes, this would cost money.) And see above: this is something that affects not just GoogleBooks, but other online repositories like archive.org, which frequently rely on Google's scans.
Logical handling of multivolume texts. The most common search for a triple-decker goes something like this: 1) look for the title; 2) find one random volume of the title; 3) go into the "other editions" section on the "about" page and try to find the other volumes; 4) discover that one volume is still randomly missing; 5) do a GoogleBooks search for the missing volumes, to no avail; 6) do a regular Google search to find the missing volume (which usually brings it up, and reminds you to skip #5). Nothing after #1 makes any sense. The search should bring up all three volumes clustered together (as, hey, archive.org manages to do); it certainly shouldn't have them categorized under "other editions," because, you know, they aren't other editions, they're the rest of the book. (Having all three volumes linked together would also be nice.)
Have somebody proof the metadata. As in, not only should publication dates match, but book titles should match the actual book you've just pulled up.
Mrs. Humphry Ward, Helbeck of Bannisdale. Arguably her best novel, with characters facing believable spiritual and psychological conflicts, plus (for Mrs. Ward) relatively taut plotting. Its vexed attitudes to both Catholicism and anti-Catholicism are intriguing.
W. M. Thackeray, The History of Henry Esmond. And not just because I wrote about it in Book One. You'd have thought enough people would be into an unreliable narrator with characters grumping away in the footnotes...
Emily Lawless, With Essex in Ireland. Besides having sharp things to say about anti-Irish prejudices, albeit within a Unionist context, it's...brace yourselves...actually funny. The novel parodies just about every major trend in both historical fiction and the earlier national tale, and it has a narrator who sends up Edmund Spenser. (I actually proposed an edition of this a few years back, but the reviewers didn't think the book would sell, alas.)
A non-kiddified edition of Johann Wyss, The Swiss Family Robinson. I was hoping to teach it this semester, only to discover that the only translations currently available have all been made suitable for younger readers.
Grace Aguilar, The Vale of Cedars. OK, this is very niche, but it's a nice rebuttal to Ivanhoe, not to mention Aguilar's only "Jewish" novel aimed at a general audience.
Unaltered editions of George MacDonald's religious fiction. Modern reprints of MacDonald have a bad habit of being reworked for contemporary religious tastes, and therefore cannot be used in classrooms (or for scholarly purposes).
Edward Bulwer-Lytton, The Last Days of Pompeii. Despite my ongoing resistance to my father's suggestion that I edit this novel, there still ought to be a scholarly edition, given that it was something of a cult read at the time (and led to statues, among other things). And, despite the bad writing contest, Bulwer-Lytton is a major Victorian novelist--he ought to be easier to find.
Charlotte Yonge, The Daisy Chain. Granted, this novel annoys a lot of people, but it's nevertheless one of Yonge's most significant efforts.
"...Consistency, my dear Mr. Brocklehurst; I advocate consistency in all things."
"Consistency, madam, is the first of Christian duties..."
--Jane Eyre, ch. IV
Everybody knows that they're supposed to laugh here. The joke is usually assessed in one of two ways: 1) this is a flagrantly obvious violation of Christian priorities (e.g.); 2) this indicates hypocrisy (e.g.). I became rather curious about "consistency" some time back, and while 2) is obviously the case--Bronte wallops us over the head pretty hard about the distance between Brocklehurst's theory and practice--I think that the novel's denunciation of Mr. Brocklehurst and Mrs. Reed is targeted a little more specifically than just general hypocrisy.
"Consistency," which conjures up dreary visions of gloomy, unsmiling believers, meant something a bit less glum than that: it referred to the believer's constancy in regulating all actions according to the Bible. As the Christian Penny Magazine put it, "A Christian may be said to be inconsistent, when one part of his conduct does not agree with another, or when any part of it is at variance with the Word of God." Manuals and advice books across all denominations exhorted readers to aim for the ideal goal of what Congregationalist John Angell James called "uniform piety." Thus, while it sounds bizarre to say that "[c]onsistency [...] is the first of Christian duties," it actually isn't--far from turfing out love in favor of some weird rules-oriented regimen, the call to consistency advocates fully incorporating Christian faith into every aspect of human existence. In other words, the reference to "consistency" per se is not the joke. Nor is it that Brocklehurst and Mrs. Reed are just hypocrites--beyond their own obvious failings, they are both obsessed with what Mrs. Reed calls the "system" at Mr. Brocklehurst's school, which certainly is an inflexible, rules-oriented regimen that has little in common with Biblical teachings. Their mutual misunderstanding of consistency is arguably the novel's first example of idolatrous behavior, insofar as they're elevating Mr. Brocklehurst's manmade "system" over divine truth. The true punchline may be the adult Jane herself, whose ability to regulate her own passions according to a conscience shaped by the laws of God qualifies her as truly "consistent" (pace Lady Eastlake) in a way that escapes Brocklehurst and Mrs. Reed alike.
Despite its wide-ranging religious and political aftershocks, the Disruptionof 1843 has not inspired mass quantities of fiction, no doubt because a crowd of unhappy Evangelical clergymen in mid-Victorian Scotland does not strike the imagination as a potent source of high drama. In his preface to The Awakening of George Darroch (1985; rpt. 1995), Robin Jenkins sighs that the event is "quite forgotten" (n.p.), striking a wistful tone that, when taken together with the actual novel, seems a trifle mischievous. For far from being the sort of historical novel that would please my Victorian religious novelists, The Awakening of George Darroch is less a triumphant recuperation of an event lost to the popular historical imagination and more an ironic reflection on why the event was doomed to be lost.
The Awakening divides the conflict into two plus one. There are the Moderates, primarily embodied in the form of Darroch's brother-in-law, Robert Drummond, a man who "liked morality to be on a firm sure basis" (42) and feels that the conflict would eventually settle itself without any immediate action; the Evangelicals, represented by Darroch, who having given his word that he would leave the Church of Scotland now leaves all up to God; and, the third term, Jerry Taylor, an atheist and radical political activist whose critique of the rich calls both sides into question. Taylor is a minor character in comparison to Darroch or, for that matter, Drummond, and he is offstage most of the time. Yet the question he poses when Darroch first meets him--why so many poor should suffer "in a land that calls itself Christian" (26)--animates Darroch's thinking for the rest of the novel. It is not, however, a question that ever gets answered, and the novel's ending does not suggest that it ever will be--at least, not by the Church as it stands. The problem, as we soon discover, is that social justice animates neither the Evangelicals nor the Moderates; they are primarily concerned with a legal question (can a congregation refuse to accept the landowner's choice of clergyman), not with the condition of the poor. When Darroch raises the problem of poverty in a room of Evangelicals, they worry that he is losing his mind, and warn him off anything to do with "secular politics" (228). No wonder that Taylor feels skeptical.
Taylor's near non-existence as a character is a strategic decision, because most of the other characters range from deeply flawed to outright mustache-twirling villains. Moreover, the novel spreads these flaws evenly over the Evangelical and Moderate ranges, leaving us with a suspiciously "not so different" scenario that makes it clear why the novel casts the Disruption as a non-event posing as an event. Darroch himself, although he sincerely wants to work for the betterment of the poor, kills his wife by repeatedly impregnating her beyond her strength, despite the doctor's warnings. His praise for human sexuality appears positive and "liberated" enough, in modern terms, but he is unable to process the implications of having sex with a woman who is horrified by the act. (The only two happy marriages we see feature couples with little in the way of religious inclination and a lot in the way of mutually compatible and enthusiastic sex drive; significantly, both of them are on the way out of the country by the novel's end.) His fellow Evangelical clergymen are the sort who complain that the modern Church "no longer publicly castigated fornicators" (162). The Evangelical businessmen, meanwhile, far from being kind to their workers, are happy to offer "low wages" and fire workers without a thought to their futures (137). On the flip side, the rather worldly Moderates are all interested in preserving the social and spiritual status quo. One pit manager, standing in for his (and Darroch's) employer, complains that the miners are "demanding, if you please, more pay and safer conditions" (133)--the horror, the horror. Others pride themselves on their elegance and gentility, laughing at the very idea that the Church could or should do anything for the poor. One of the temptations facing Darroch, as it happens, is that Drummond has finagled a much nicer living for him elsewhere, one that would more than support his extensive family in considerable style. But sticking to his oath means losing the new place. What to do?
The reader expecting Darroch's "awakening" to be some sort of conversion experience is in for a bit of a shock, because while it is indeed a conversion experience, the outcome is deeply...well, deeply not what most evangelicals have in mind. Breaking down in the library of his deceased friend John Jarvie, whose wife Eleanor he has been coveting for quite some time, Darroch is possessed by a conviction of sin (an important stage in the evangelical conversion experience), but then hears a "still small voice," which instead of "warning him against self-deception," turns out to be "the voice of God, with a message" (175). Apparently, even in 1843, God had a telephone. In any event, the message, which is that he has been divinely chosen to lead the Kirk towards social justice, is a trifle surprising, given that he has previously been a rather no-account clergyman with a low stipend, but Darroch feels no doubts. The reader, by contrast, cannot help noticing that God, preparing Darroch to face Christ-like persecution, has conveniently arranged for Darroch's lust for Eleanor to remain secret (she's leaving the country) (175), which certainly lets Darroch off the hook when it comes to any public confession of sinful desires. Moreover, his newly-awakened self, far from being cleansed from sin, instead is prepared "for beating the hypocritical world at its own game" (176), having seen the uselessness of "serv[ing] Christ meekly and honestly" (176). Other characters, like Drummond, have noticed that Darroch has a taste for spiritual theatricality; now, his change of heart leads him to embrace the performance of Christian virtue head-on. No longer in a "confusion of morality," he finds "the secret of mastery over others: it was to have so strong a faith in his own rectitude that they became inevitably unsure of theirs" (177). Darroch in effect converts to himself, idolatrously enough--instead of leaving all up to Christ, he now glories in entire self-sufficiency.
Safely ensconced in this parody of assurance, Darroch turns into someone suspiciously reminiscent of Robert Wringhim, the divided protagonist of Hogg's Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, albeit without murder, insanity, visitations from the Devil, and so forth. As Darroch calmly observes near the end of the novel, there are now "two George Darrochs" and the third who "surveyed" both (243)--one self-abasing before Christ, one with his eye on the main chance, and the mysterious third who weighs both of them. This is both Hoggsian and weirdly trinitarian (a combination of doubling and tripling that returns near the end). When faced with a moment of doubt, he simply conjures up an alternate self, one who glories in public spectacles like standing on the "scaffold" with a condemned prisoner, "Bible in hand, Christ's representative. The frolicking spectators fell silent and prayed" (181). What this last fantasy tells us, in other words, is that Darroch has simply converted to power, and power in which he is at the very center of attention, conveying authority by sheer force of presence. If his new self is a gift from God, then all things are possible. "He saw no reason why, with the Lord's help," he muses, "he himself should not become as dominant as Dr Chalmers or Dr Cook in the councils of the Church, with a bolder message to proclaim" (231). It is somewhat awkward, under the circumstances, that his dream of power does not seem to distinguish between the opposing sides. Similarly, his fantasy of joining the prisoner on the scaffold has nothing to do with comforting the prisoner, but everything to do with a yearning for overwhelming charisma--a yearning with somewhat worrisome authoritarian underpinnings. The self keeps creeping in before the "bolder message," scumbling the boundaries between personal advancement and political action. Indeed, at the end of his conference with the condemned murderer, Mrs. Cooper, he believes that "for those two long minutes his hand was God's," as were his "tears" (185)--phrasing that somehow manages to represent divine possession as something that does not displace the subjectivity of the possessed. Darroch does not lose himself in God, but instead sees the momentary breakdown between himself and the divine as one that nevertheless preserves his own identity; he is God, instead of channeling God as a chosen vessel.
But the third term. As I noted at the beginning, Jerry Taylor is the novel's mostly absent yet politically present third term, the secular alternative whose full significance escapes both sides. The unholy ghost of the Evangelical/Moderate/Atheist trinity, he is both inside Christianity and outside of it; in a moment of spectacular irony, he is arrested inside Darroch's church and attempts to hold off the takers by hitting them with Bibles. Literally, the Church is no sanctuary for the Other. And, while Darroch glories in the possibility of his own Christ-like persecution, it is in fact Taylor who spends his time with the downtrodden, Taylor who is badly beaten, and Taylor who is sent to jail. It is thus all the more jarring when we discover, after Darroch, "his head held high," is the "first" after the Evangelical leaders to formally leave the Church of Scotland (263), that he has not actually sacrificed much of anything. Although he loses his current living and his chance at the second, he is very likely going to be the next incumbent at his old friend Jarvie's church (266), which, if not as nice as the previous new option, is certainly a great improvement on his current place. Darroch's martyrdom lacks a certain something--the suffering, for example. That is left for Taylor, rotting in jail. And that, the novel hints (fairly or not), is why the Disruption slipped back into the historical shadows. At one level, it disrupted everything. At another, it disrupted nothing at all.
Another Catholic triple-decker published by Hurst and Blackett. Its author, Lady Gertrude Douglas (1842-93), was a not-overly-prolific novelist and philanthropist whose primary claim to fame, other than her conversion, was the minor scandal she caused in 1882 by marrying a former "street waif" twenty years or so her junior. One of the numerous aristocratic converts of the period, Lady Gertrude also had a go at being a nun, which apparently did not end well (although no hard feelings, at least in public). Linked Lives, although it in part shares A Woman's Trials' French setting, is otherwise a far more explicitly religious novel: its primary subject is the psychodrama of conversion, manifested in deeply individual forms, and it contains a number of "controversial" exchanges laying out dogma (e.g., the Immaculate Conception). Anglo-Catholics come off as particularly deluded members of a nation that has lost its spiritual way, in contrast to the deliberately anachronistic and faithful Brittany. The novel's particular affective focus, though, is the Real Presence, which is the crucial sticking point for one of our protagonists.
The primary "linked lives" of the title are Mabel Stanhope, a wealthy young Ritualist who feels dangerously attracted to Catholicism (and, of course, eventually converts); Hugh Fortescue, a much older relative by marriage, with whom she falls passionately in love and vice-versa, despite him being (gulp) a Low Churchman; and Katie Mackay, daughter of impoverished Irish immigrants to Scotland, who is taken up by a family of thieves and finds her life going even further downhill from there. These lives are, in turn, linked to people both nice (the Vaughans, father and daughter, fellow Ritualists who precede Mabel into Catholicism; Steenie Logie, a sailor in love with Katie) and nasty (the thieving Kerr clan; Willie Cameron, who seduces and impregnates Katie). The links that unite all these lives, of course, are provided by divine providence, which has a habit of speaking up. Katie's life--theft, reformatory school, pregnancy, attempted suicide, jail--is more outwardly exciting than Mabel's, but Mabel's desperate wrestling with the knowledge that conversion will blow up her engagement to Hugh does more of the novel's emotional work. Lady Gertrude structures each woman's life in terms of endless worldly deferrals on the way to union with God, ultimately redeeming Katie entirely and granting her marriage and family (albeit by relocating her to Australia, along with Steenie), despite her sexual "fall," while rewarding Mabel and the finally-converted Hugh with...near-simultaneous deaths, Mabel on an exploding ship (!) and Hugh from lung disease. That, one notes, is the better ending of the two.
Such fatal endings to romance are a regular feature of Catholic fiction--Protestants are more likely to let people get married and such--but the reader's understandable exasperation with the outcome ("not again") is, in some respects, anticipated by and folded into the plot itself. Life, Lady Gertrude argues in the third volume, constitutes an "exile country, where all are at best but pilgrims, journeying towards their home"; the "sacrifices" demanded of the converted faithful are necessary "to recover for our nation the treasure of faith, forfeited by our heretic ancestors," and thus should be borne willingly (III.58). This argument renders explicit the literal and figurative homelessness of all of the novel's main characters, and grounds their physical and spiritual displacement in a larger drama of national transformation. Thus, Katie begins the novel in a slum, is passed on to the Kerrs, is passed on again to the reformatory, is passed on once more to service, and so forth, until she concludes the novel rooted in domesticity abroad--at home, yet still in permanent exile from her native Scotland. Mabel, who also spends a lot of time in motion, seeks to become a true "child" of the church, but cannot figure out what that church is. Her death, significantly, comes on the journey between Scotland and Australia, so that she bypasses a lesser potential home (life in Australia with Hugh, should he survive) to be released from exile by entering Heaven. Similarly, Hugh dies in Australia without ever being able to return to his homeland, or make a home with Mabel. Steenie, Katie's devoted lover, is a sailor who is always in the process of moving between one part of the world to the next. Even when characters find a spiritual home in the Catholic church, like Reverend, later Father, Vaughan, they die far away from their national home. In other words, Lady Gertrude's characters are always alienated from domesticity (private or national), never quite able to rest in this-worldly space. Significantly, only the nuns of the Convent of the Perpetual Adoration achieve anything close to being fully at home, and then only in the presence of the Sacrament: "Happiest of all thou," the narrator apostrophizes Mabel's friend Genevieve Vaughan, now a nun, "who hast chosen for thy portion to dwell in the shadow of the sanctuary, and to know no other love on earth than the love of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. In our poor outer world hearts are daily torn with loving. There is no earthly love but has its bitter pangs. Not to everyone is it given, as to thee, to begin on earth the life of heaven" (III.259). It thus makes sense that Hugh and Mabel are rewarded by being denied carnal love. Mabel, who loves Hugh with the "deepest heart-worship" (II.18) but without sexual consummation, and who in the presence of the Sacrament is filled with "a rush of indescribable love" (II.189), is almost, but not quite, like Genevieve. They share the devotion to the Sacrament, but Mabel is riven by her simultaneous earthly desire for Hugh and her spiritual absorption in Christ; her fiery death on the journey to reunite with him, while horrifying, is also a metaphorical martyrdom (akin to burning at the stake), given that she gives up her place in the lifeboat to Katie. Dying resolves the problem of loving Hugh and loving Christ, just as it resolves Hugh's similar dilemma. (Modern readers will still probably not find this an upbeat conclusion.)
Of course, Mabel's death at sea has been prefigured from early on in the novel--"you would not believe how much I love, yet hate--dread the sea!" says Mabel, which Hugh and Genevieve will "remember" many years later (I.162)--and this, too, is part of the novel's discipline. For it is not just that Lady Gertrude likes to point out the workings of providence, but that she makes sure to spoil particularly exciting events, like the sudden death of Mabel's brother Guy in a boating accident (II.79). There's a bit of having one's cake and eating it, in the sense that the novel both wants to foreground sensational events (death by drowning, death by fire, attempted suicide and possible child-murder, etc.) and carefully prefigures them all so that the reader feels no shock. Maureen Moran has argued that sensationalism "challenges consensus about the supposedly stable and comprehensible social world" (9), but here, the Catholic novelist grounds the apparently sensational in the larger unfolding of God's plot, as explicated by the helpful narrator. The characters experience the sudden and inexplicable horrors of everyday life, but the reader, by virtue of having advance knowledge, is denied the pleasure of shilling-shocker thrills. That is, the reader is asked to contemplate horror, but is also asked to reflect on their desire for the sensation of horror--a desire that the novel resolutely denies, much as it denies Hugh and Mabel their romance.
The semester will begin in a couple of weeks, so let's get back into the swing of things with some Catholic fiction. Grace Ramsay's (the journalist Kathleen O'Meara) triple-decker A Woman's Trials (1867) was published by Hurst and Blackett, which tended to be lower-c catholic about whom it brought out; it's telling that they somehow managed to get bothJohn Cumming and Nicholas Wiseman on their lists. Despite having a conversion at its center, A Woman's Trials is one of those novels that leaves the reader somewhat confused about what, precisely, constitutes the difference between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism; characters go to Mass on occasion, of course, and there's this book for children with a picture of Mary, but the uninitiated would be no more initiated at the end than they would be at the beginning. (To make matters even more complicated, the saintliest character, Miss Jones, is a devout Protestant and remains so, yet seems unable to plead the excuse of inculpable ignorance.) However, the novel is of interest for its close scrutiny of a Protestant subgenre, the Catholic school narrative, and, more broadly, for its struggles with a question that preoccupied both Protestant and Catholic authors: what did it mean to be a "martyr" in an age that appeared to have eliminated bloody religious persecution? Was such a thing even possible, and if so, what were the implications?
A brief recap of the plot is in order, given that (as usual) nobody but myself will have read this thing. Our heroine, Mabel Stanhope, is the adored only child of a wealthy baronet. The good baronet is a Very English Englishman, which includes a staunch devotion to all things Protestant; he certainly has a terrible time understanding why his good pal and near neighbor, Admiral Oldcastle, refuses to disinherit his son when said son converts to the dreaded Popery. In any event, despite being a thorough Protestant, the baronet sends Mabel off to a French boarding school run by and mostly populated with Catholics, the better to be appropriately "finished" by mastering the language. Now, this is actually a quite loaded plot, as both British and American novelists (and polemicists more generally) warned against sending young Protestant ladies to such schools, whether run by convents or otherwise. Rachel M'Crindell's The Schoolgirl in France (1840) is probably the best-known example of the genre, although Charlotte Bronte's Villette appropriates a number of its tropes, such as the scheming, chilly headmistress; indeed, Ramsay's Mme. Saint Simon owes something to Bronte's Mme. Beck. The most striking thing about the French Catholics Mabel encounters, however, is that aside from a nice priest, just about all of them are morally bankrupt--not spectacular sinners, as a general rule, but hardhearted, greedy, and thoroughly lacking in charity or conscience. Thus, Mme. Saint Simon "never did an unjust thing unless it was necessary to her interest" (I.123)--a snarky assessment characteristic of the novel's tone. In other words, Mabel is not converted by peer pressure or any other sort of pressure (indeed, Mme. Saint Simon is utterly horrified when she finds out in volume II), or even by good example (we don't see any until the priest starts playing a significant role later in the novel); the novel's great moral exemplar, as I've already noted, is Miss Jones, the Protestant woman who practically starves to death as the school's English mistress. Nor do we see Mabel being bowled over at Mass, one of the most common conversion tropes in Catholic fiction. (Ramsay actually satirizes the trope: the other girls who go to Mass for lack of anything better to do are completely unaffected by it, and the big Mass scene primarily involves multiple girls fantasizing about a sexy soldier and completely failing to notice what's going on otherwise.) Rather, Mabel is inexorably attracted to Catholic truth, irrespective of the behavior of actual Catholics. The school in and of itself has no effect. Something about Catholicism instinctively resonates with Mabel, described throughout the novel as "pure," and leads her at some point--that point is never made clear--to convert (although she describes herself as Catholic before she is formally received). Midway through Volume II, the news of her conversion leads to a spectacularly melodramatic confrontation with her father:
The Baronet broke from her with a wrench.
"Then my worst fears have proved too true," he said in a hollow voice, "you are a Catholic!"
"Yes, father, in heart and soul I am a Catholic!"
Sir John struck his open hand upon his forehead, as if to shut out the answer from his brain. If the lightning had blasted his child where she knelt, no word of impious murmuring would have poisoned his grief; but now, something too like a curse hissed through his clenched teeth; a curse, not against Mabel, but against Heaven. (II.121)
Unlike his more charitable friend Oldcastle, the baronet disowns Mabel forever and ever. By contrasting the baronet's behavior to Oldcastle's, Ramsay demonstrates that intolerance--especially such violent intolerance--is not the essence of Protestantism, but a choice, just as the contrast between Miss Jones and the novel's surplus of unpleasant Catholics is a reminder that the Church does not hold a monopoly on saintliness. Still, the remainder of the novel sets the much-coddled Mabel on a hardscrabble journey to female independence, with the help of Miss Jones: returning to France (a bad idea, as one patron tartly points out), she must learn how to budget, find work (not successfully), build her own fire, take the omnibus, and cook. Worse, she falls in love with a mysterious but genteel Frenchman, who suggests that she read Rousseau--always a bad sign. To nobody's great surprise, the Frenchman is leading a double life, but despite the momentary nervous breakdown caused by this revelation, Mabel survives, is reunited with her parents, and is on track to marry the converted Oldcastle son at the end of the novel; Miss Jones, meanwhile, gets to die.
One of the more interesting things about how Ramsay structures this novel is her use of alternate pathways--potential fates that either prefigure Mabel's choices or warn of dreaded outcomes. Thus, Mabel's brief romance with the double-dealing Frenchman was anticipated in the first volume by a classmate's elopement with the aforementioned sexy French soldier, who neglects to marry her. (The novel is, in fact, more oozing with eroticism than one might expect from a religious novel: the teenage girls are all on the lookout for hunky guys when they aren't reading Dumas and Sand, and men are represented throughout as sexual threats looking for easy prey.) Her more successful classmates, Milly and Olga, go on to not enjoy their eventual marriages to wealthy Frenchmen; Milly has no interest in her husband, while Olga, in thrall to ennui, is all too aware that her husband is a philanderer. (Said husband makes a brief play for Mabel at one point.) Here, then, is another dangerous option for a wealthy woman: upper-class but unloving relationships. None of these characters appears redeemable or even aware that some redemption might be in order, and the girl who elopes disappears entirely from the novel, not even recurring as a corpse or penitent. As I've already mentioned, Admiral Oldcastle's acceptance of his son's conversion is a positive alternative to Mabel's own experience, one eventually duplicated by the end (that this is the only duplicated alternative seems significant). Miss Jones' life, meanwhile, exemplifies all the worst horrors that a working "lady" might have to face as a governess or teacher: she is underfed, underwarmed, underhoused, and generally underappreciated, until the stress of her existence ultimately kills her.
Both Mabel's and Miss Jones' experiences, the novel argues, exemplify what martyrdom and suffering might look like in the mid-nineteenth century. There are no spectacular dismemberments on view, no strange prisons, no miracles. Instead, there are the physical privations and humiliations attendant on being a penniless woman in a dangerous urban environment. In the case of Miss Jones, Ramsay cleverly transforms the meaning of suffering: early on, when Miss Jones is still something of a figure of fun, eternally incapable of mastering a decent French accent (she pronounces "Monsieur" as "Moshu"), so too is her claim to being a "martyr," namely, "cold feet" (I.79). But later, when Miss Jones is faced with the stark alternatives of being dishonest or losing her position, the narrator praises her staunch Christian adherence to truth as an exquisite act of moral courage: "there was the majesty of truth, something perhaps of the Martyr's halo shining from that pale, wan face. Oh, surely, many a martyr's palm was won with less heroic faith!" (I.253). There may be no "ghastly treason of a Pagan sacrifice" (I.253) involved, but that's exactly Ramsay's point. By witnessing to Christian faith through her actions, Miss Jones engages in an explicitly modern form of self-sacrifice that resists not ancient modes of torture, but modern capitalist calculations about the relationship between employer and employee; the choice, which will leave her unemployed and penniless, still threatens death from illness and/or starvation. Too, Miss Jones' life is deeply ascetic--granted, by necessity rather than by choice--but it echoes classic hagiographical imagery of fasting and self-mortification (freezing rooms, sleeping on a bare mattress on the floor, trying to avoid any sensual indulgences). Similarly, the narrator compares Mabel nerving herself for her confrontation with her father to "the Christians of the early Church, who, before the decree had gone forth condemning them to martyrdom, were wont to visit the amphitheatre, and listen to the roar of the wild beasts chained in the vaults below" (II.93). Again, no literal lions are around, but losing status as a wealthy eligible heiress constitutes its own form of social death, as Mabel is soon to find. Mabel's struggles against hunger and squalor in her quest to achieve self-sufficiency require her to progressively strip herself of her worldliness and class prejudices--risking her ladylike hands in cooking and fire-making, for example--and thus constitute their own form of spiritual discipline. Moreover, like Jane Eyre, she must resist the allure of a man who, unable to marry her, offers instead a life without the "empty form" (III.222) of marriage. The similarity may well be intentional: like Jane, she realizes that her love has been "idolatry" (III.222), but unlike Jane, she sternly and permanently rejects the man who betrayed her, itself an act of self-sacrifice with physical as well as romantic implications (the man had been subsidizing her living experiences without her knowledge). Here, again, is modern martyrdom, weighed out in the refusal of both cash and worldly desires. It's a small thing--no audiences around--but an act of witness all the same.
Sherlock Holmes stories have been metafictional since there have been Sherlock Holmes stories, what with Holmes complaining that Watson likes to gin up the sensation to maximize his readership. Since the 1970s or so, however, adaptations have taken the more mischievous and/or subversive approach of foregrounding the purported distance between Watson's character "Holmes" and the "real" Holmes, from Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and Michael Dibdin's The Last Sherlock Holmes Story to more recent examples like Michael Chabon's The Final Solution and Mitch Cullin's A Slight Trick of the Mind. The Sherlock special The Abominable Bride is thus yet another excursus into the realm of explicit Holmes metafiction, with the added fillip that it takes on the current series' relationship to the Jeremy Brett Granada adaptation (establishing shots, a few snatches of the opening theme, the discussion of the story title at the end) and to its legions of online critics and fans.
At one level, the episode sent up the Granada series' famous attempts to reconstruct "authentic" period detail, which here becomes a kind of shorthand for Holmes as walking dead, as it were. This was perhaps most obvious in the closing shot, in which the 19th-century 221B set was abruptly juxtaposed with a 21st-century street scene, but also in the repeated references to the Paget illustrations (something for which the Granada series was also known), which here, rather cheekily, are ripped out of their original narrative contexts and made to serve an entirely different purpose. More generally, the undeniably bonkers Gothic plot, which somehow manages to yoke "The Five Orange Pips" (the, er, five orange pips, the revenge plot, and the KKK imagery) to "The Greek Interpreter" (Mycroft, the obliquity of the ecliptic, the avenging woman) to the sort of bizarre church setting one expects from the steampunk Robert Downey, Jr. films, is uncomfortably reminiscent of the later Granada journeys into extended episodes (many of which viewers would like to forget). "Is this silly enough for you yet?" inquires Moriarty. But the repeated breakdowns in both cinematic style (Holmes' second confrontation with Mycroft in particular, with its odd upward angles and lighting) and language, as the 21st century kept erupting into the 19th, reminded viewers that such aspirations to authenticity have a bad habit of pulling apart at the seams when examined too closely. Characters do what the authors want them to do, in good Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead fashion, which is why poor Mrs. Hudson goes from complaining about being reduced to a "plot function" to making everyone tea because, well, that's what she does. Of course, the whole thing is just a cocaine-and-who-knows-what-else dream, and so it's one added layer of irony that Holmes dreams up an "authentic" Holmes based on an adaptation of a series that does not exist in Sherlock's own universe. Speaking of which, much of the episode relies on a stealth pun: shooting guns vs. shooting up. The bride blows her brains out (well, sort of) just as the mysteriously reappearing Moriarty did/does--when she isn't murdering her husband with an awfully phallic rifle--and the solution to her mystery is also the solution to the 21st-century case of revenant Moriarty. Meanwhile, the gun-toting feminist approach to patriarchy, as presented here, is as potentially lethal as Sherlock's own recreational use of cocaine, morphine, and whatever else (and, perhaps, just as addictive?).
The quite deliberately embarrassing "ooh, feminists are the real KKK!" reveal at the end, even when taken as modern-day Sherlock's own drug-addled fantasy about what the women in his life really think*, seems suspiciously like a parody of a certain type of social justice rhetoric. Faced with a room full of avenging angels (well, in KKK garb), Holmes the good ally speechifies at length about silenced women engaging in resistance &c. And it's there that Moriarty wearily pops up to point out how "silly" this all is--both the ridiculous framing (activists as the KKK) and Holmes' purported moment of truth. Here, we gave you what you wanted, the showrunners say to the segment of their audience who complain about the series' sexist aspects; now, isn't it all so ludicrous? (Moriarty's suggestion that Sherlock and John really ought to "elope" is equally sardonic fanservice, yet another shout-out to the sort of fandom ship-teasing that the showrunners have quite calculatedly employed.) Then again, Moriarty's own "defeat" at Reichenbach Falls, where Watson magically shows up to save the day (with yet another gun, possibly Chekhov's), is itself overtly silly, what with the ineffective fistfighting and Moriarty's eventual demise. Nothing much here to be taken seriously.
In terms of how effective all this meta was...well, aside from the more mean-spirited facets of some of it, it might have worked better if so many other authors had not already explored these issues. (A Slight Trick of the Mind and Mr. Holmes are all about why the Sherlock Holmes stories worked; they're also about the ethical limitations of such storytelling.) This perhaps speaks to the source of my ongoing frustration with this series, which is that it keeps imagining that it is more original than it actually is--even when, as here, it is thumbing its nose at people who insist on fetishizing a previous adaptation.
* ETA: A poster on Metafilter makes this interesting argument: "The link for me comes from reading David Graeber’s “Debt: the first 5,000 years” in which he writes about the way societies who based their economies on slave labour had a kind of societal guilt about the institution that expressed itself in (amongst other ways) bloody violence against the slightest hint of slave revolts out of the fear of what such a revolt would do to the slave-owning classes - in other words they feared the worst because they knew deep down that they deserved the worst. By the same argument, if we read the episode as taking part in Sherlock’s head & not representing anything real, then perhaps Moffat’s plot isn’t saying that feminism wants to kill all men, but rather that this is what men feared - that their subjugation of woma[n] meant that they deserved this, even if no woman ever seriously plotted to kill their husbands for some inchoate feminist cause. Perhaps then the feminist plot in this episode really represents Sherlock’s own buried feelings about his treatment of the women in his life, from Hooper to Irene Adler on? Treating women badly seems to be a Sherlock trope & deep down he knows he deserves censure for it."
Covenanter fiction is its own subgenre of the Scottish historical novel, starting with the famous three-way argument between Walter Scott (Old Mortality), James Hogg (The Brownie of Bodsbeck), and John Galt (Ringan Gilhaize). The Covenanters, who have their heated partisans and equally heated detractors, open up narrative space to address everything from religious psychology to violence to national identity to modernity (or the lack thereof). Harry Tait's The Ballad of Sawney Bain (1990), which might seem to promise cannibalism, actually produces Covenanters; if you came for the cannibalism, you're likely to be sorely disappointed. Although the novel is loosely based on the influential Sawney Bean legend--a tale whose illustrious descendants include the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and others of that ilk--it says relatively little about what Sawney Bain, his wife Agnes, and their various and sundry brood were getting up to in their cave, leaving most of it to the imagination of our "civilized" viewpoint character, known simply as "the minister," a Presbyterian clergyman newly returned to Scotland from his life abroad in Holland at the very end of the seventeenth century. Initially as secure in his proto-Enlightenment gentility as he is in his King's English, which marks his otherness in a narrative where virtually everyone else speaks and/or writes in Scots, the minister becomes increasingly obsessed with finding out the truth of what went on in the cave, until the quest leaves him at the end with little more than dubious sanity.
The minister is only one voice amongst several. There are the narratives of Mathius Pringle, an earlier Presbyterian clergyman and avid witch-hunter; the Black Book of Sawney's wife Agnes, which forms the bulk of the novel; the occasional testimony of the Bains' apparently sole surviving child; and various oral narratives, folk and otherwise, about the Civil War period, the Bains, and the Bains' mentor, the purported warlock Steven Malecky. In other words, as you might expect, the novel foregrounds problems of interpretation, conflicting evidence, and point-of-view, especially in the context of an overarching Christian "plot" in which all events are part of God's divine providence (if only one can figure out how to see them in that light...). Now, historiographic metafiction, as Linda Hutcheon famously dubbed such self-reflexive meditations on the nature of historical truth, can be an awfully arid business unless the project has a greater point than deconstructing history's grand metanarrative. By the end of the minister's quest, he has failed to resolve much of anything; indeed, the obstinate silence with which Sawney Bain greets his interrogation at the very beginning foreshadows the rest of the plot, which frequently consists of characters ignoring, evading, or resisting his questions. In a moment of frustration, the minister thinks to himself that " [t]he peasant memory [...] is like the peasant mind, a childish thing, unguided it drifts helplessly in a tale composed of superstition and blood, passion, hardship, and despair" (265). This contemptuous observation, built out of his moderate cosmopolitanism and staunch Presbyterianism, quite obviously casts him as the objective adult in this affair, even as it also hits on the consistently nightmarish aspects of seventeenth-century Scottish history (famine, ongoing bloodshed) that shape his parishioners in the present. At the same time, "childish" fails to register the extent to which the locals consciously seek to undermine his quest.
The minister's dismissiveness is one way of keeping himself grounded--something all the more necessary in this intensely peripatetic novel. In the present, the minister arrives in the Lowlands from Holland, travels to his new church in Trig, and then travels to the Highlands and back in search of Malecky. In the past, Sawney Bain travels to Germany and back in order to fight, returns to Trig, and then leaves to fight again, traversing both the Lowlands and Highlands as both soldier and refugee from Pringle's persecutions; so too do Malecky and Agnes. This rootlessness receives its stark counterpoint in the form of the Bains' cave, simultaneously the Bains' final destination and the object of the minister's quest. Significantly, for the minister, the cave initially isolates the abject "horror" (an important keyword) of the Bains and their actions, both temporally and spatially: "The mist was no more than a natural hazard and to master it some sensible care had to be taken. There were no other dangers. The dreadful pestilence of the cannibal clan was already a thing of the past, already a terrible secret, but still, he thought, days like these would surely have been counted as blessings by them" (41-42). If, for the minister, the world in general is fallen, it is nevertheless easily negotiated and, more importantly, not necessarily pregnant with demonic activity (witch-hunting is, by this point, mostly an anachronism). The cave, though, gathers within itself a host of unspeakable and unnatural evils, most importantly cannibalism and incest, which are all the more horrific because undergirded by a strange twist of Presbyterian theology. (The Bains are believers who train their children to read the Bible and know their catechism, something that makes them even more frightening to the minister.) It is both a uniquely evil space, unlike the rest of creation, and--at least, at first--something violently erased from the present, leaving only testimony and terrible memories. But for the Bains, the cave was a conscious attempt to reconstruct a Biblical Eden in the face of what they call "Chaos," the world of mutual destruction unleashed by the Civil Wars: "But o this cave He had made anither Eden," explains Sawney Bain to Agnes, "and it was His will that we should bide there and multiply till the appointed hour when He wad call us forth. And was not the proof o this the fact that neither death nor famine nor pestilence visited us, forbye we kent very weel that they raged mightily in Chaos" (407). The Bains, from their point of view, do not exit Christianity so much as they exist in its purified annex, a bounded location free from the anarchy of the fallen world (Chaos) in which God's providence manifests itself with absolute clarity. Indeed, incest and cannibalism (to the extent that they're real--the characters tend to be evasive on this point) simply literalize or reenact the Bible. Incest, of course, happens repeatedly in the Bible (Adam and Eve, Lot, Noah), and when it comes to eating of the body...well. In other words, the cave is terrifying not because it is absolutely not-Christian but because it is all too reminiscent of Christianity and its Holy Book, insufficiently Other to the world of Chaos where all things kill and are killed on a depressingly regular basis.
When the minister pushes beyond the cave to seek Steven Malecky, the man whom he blames for what happened there, he seeks the Devil--the better to exorcise the possibility that the cave is rooted in Presbyterianism itself. It must be Malecky, or something far worse: "I have prayed for guidance in this matter, and I must think it possible that I have been chosen to be God's instrument, and when I am finally faced with Malecky I will know as that instrument how to act. I cannot rationally think otherwise, for to do so would be to declare that God's kingdom is but an arbitrary place of chance, and men little more than beasts imperfectly elevated by some freak of nature, and containing in their midst unnatural monsters as a matter of course" (358). It would, that is, be Chaos. The minister thus doubles Sawney Bain, who goes through the novel seeking Christian certainty (and thereby makes himself vulnerable to anyone with an ounce of authority, as both Agnes and Malecky point out repeatedly); his faith promises to make sense of a world that is otherwise bloody and meaningless, but, as we have seen repeatedly, such sense-making is frequently just another method of justifying bloodshed. Thinking in terms of God's plot becomes just one more way of evading the sheer nightmarishness of human history. In that sense, the minister's figurative punishment near the end, as he takes a literal fall (off a horse) and finds himself fallen in more ways than one, is to realize that "the world that now remained was an arbitrary comedy, a cruel jest in a wilderness of lies" (446). The horrors of the book's final pages resides in this new reality, in which the minister finds himself veering between Christian faith and nihilistic terror. Unable to find Malecky, the minister is instead saddled with the ominous figure of Samuel Free Frae Sin Gilfinnan, a one-legged piper whose last name is strangely reminiscent of James Hogg's demonic Gil-Martin, and who has the strange habit of appearing without regard to the laws of physics. The minister's response to Gilfinnan, whose appearance is angelic one moment, demonic the next, registers the final breakdown of his belief in an all-explanatory providence (nothing does much to explain Gilfinnan). Gilfinnan's coming heralds something entirely different, the coming of a rebellion that is neither for "Kirk or King" or, for that matter "God in Heaven," but for the people's "ain cause" (464)--a new Scottish identity that resists all the old authority and promises to put a being authentically of the people in its place. The promise of this new revolution constitutes the novel's way out from the minister's fractured interpretation of this world and all its inhabitants. Whether it's a less bloody way out, though, is something about which the novel remains silent. The minister will not be part of that new Eden, whatever it is.
Adaptations of Shakespeare are frequently spectacles, occasions for lavish costumes and flashy settings to underline the prestige of yet another Shakespeare production. But the newest Macbeth sets out to be an anti-spectacle. The hilly landscapes are bleak and virtually empty; costumes run the limited gamut from white to black; and except for Duncan's (presumably chilly) castle, the only visible manmade structures are Macbeth's tiny wooden house and the nearby church, both so full of cracks that the wind blasts through the walls and the rain pours through the ceilings. Characters are alternately filmed in medium shots or tight closeups so that they fill the screen, blocking out all else, and framed in shots so long that they virtually disappear into the inhospitable surroundings, like gnats. The gloom is only interrupted by occasional blasts of fire, accelerating from the child's funeral pyre with which the film opens to the burning Birnam woods (a new twist on the prophecy--the smoke and flames come toward Dunsinane, not the trees) to the apocalyptic red blaze with which it all ends.
This bleakness, not to mention the apparent sparsity of the population, makes the play's game of thrones seem even more pointless: what, exactly, is the rationale for all this traumatic bloodshed, save the naked lust for power? The filmmakers accelerate the speed of Macbeth's rise, decline, and fall by sharply abridging Shakespeare's text. The Weird Sisters glare ominously, but actually have little to say. Virtually all of Malcolm's dialogue is gone, including his test of Macduff's virtue; so, surprisingly, is Lady Macbeth's admission that Duncan looks too much like her father for her to kill him, along with her sleepwalking (and, for that matter, all references to insomnia). Perhaps not so surprisingly under the circumstances, the Porter at the gate is also out (no humor allowed here, plus there's no gate in sight), and, given the scenery, so too is Duncan's praise for the "pleasant seat" of Macbeth's castle (which, here, is pretty much one step above a hut). The murderers neither speak nor are spoken to. Various minor characters are nowhere to be seen. Other moments have been rearranged, so that Duncan's proclamation of Malcolm as his heir happens after he arrives at Macbeth's home, while Malcolm actually walks in on Macbeth right after he murders Duncan (and, understandably, takes a hike immediately thereafter, without chatting with Donalbain).
What is the effect of all these cuts? Most importantly, the characters' motivations are stripped down to their starkest elements--greed and revenge predominant among them. In the original text, Duncan is worthy of being followed in part because he is virtuous, and ditto Malcolm (the point of testing Macduff); here, Macduff follows Malcolm because it gives him ample opportunity for avenging the murders of his wife and children, not because Malcolm is the rightful and virtuous heir. Similarly, moving Malcolm's proclamation as heir both delays Macbeth's initial expression of greed--he was quite cheerful enough about his promotion before--and alters its resolution, as it offers a more immediate psychological reason for him to change his mind about murdering the king. Lady Macbeth sans sleepwalking and sans angst about Duncan's looks becomes even more the manipulative woman behind the weak man; her crash into insanity is largely prompted by Macbeth's decision to murder the Macduff family, which the film represents as the moment at which she clearly realizes that she has lost control over her husband. That moment also brings into focus the question of her maternity: the film opens with the cremation of her child and, in a shocking echo, Lady Macduff and her three children are burnt alive at the stake. Having lost a child, Lady Macbeth ultimately implodes at the sight of her husband murdering more. Macbeth, who murders Banquo in part out of rage that his children will become kings, is haunted by the ghost of a young soldier killed during the opening battle--an obvious substitute for his own lost child--who comes bearing the fatal dagger during Macbeth's soliloquy; instead of representing future potential, the dead soldier only impels Macbeth to yet more bloodshed. Indeed, the only children who make it out of this adaptation alive are the silent baby and equally silent girl accompanying the Weird Sisters (a reference to the children who appear in the original prophecies of Macbeth's death), both apparently devoid of fathers in a world in which avenging fathers and fathers avenging alike are a prime cause of bloodshed, and Fleance, whose race towards the hellish apocalypse at the end, sword in hand, promises that the play's end is no end at all.
This is the preliminary syllabus for next semester's MA-level Gothic course, which covers the entire nineteenth century. I've taught both early and Victorian Gothic at the undergraduate level, but this is my first go with graduate students. Still working on what to assign from the scholarship in the field. Also, Mrs. Oliphant should get a look-in somewhere (probably with Braddon, Broughton, and Riddell). Hound appears at the end as a nice late-Victorian wink at the whole genre (along with "The Canterville Ghost," a story that allows you to play "pin the tail on the trope"). I confess that I teach Le Fanu's "An Account..." whenever possible.
Incidentally, I do hope that these e-texts refrain from vanishing, as e-texts so aggravatingly have a habit of doing.
2/15 James Hogg, Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner
2/22 Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
2/29 Charles Dickens, The Complete Ghost Stories
3/7 Elizabeth Gaskell, Gothic Tales
3/21 Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Carmilla, “An Account of Some Strange Disturbances on Aungier Street,” “Mr. Justice Harbottle,” “Schalken the Painter,” “Green Tea,” “An Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House”