Fake scholarly editions, fake manuscripts, and fake translators or editors all enjoy an honorable position in literary history, from Pope's Dunciad to Walpole's The Castle of Otranto to Scott's historical fiction to Nabokov's Pale Fire. In this tradition, the "found manuscript" simultaneously promises and undermines historical authenticity (preserved under mysterious circumstances, badly corrupt, lost during the printing process...), while the scholar often misses the point, misreads the text, or injects personal vendettas into the footnotes. (Thackeray uses the last to good effect in the footnotes of The History of Henry Esmond, where several irritated characters complain about Esmond's narrative biases.) But the fake scholar also produces historical distance--think, for example, of the pedantic "editor" of the second edition of Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner, whose glosses historicize the action and emphasize the otherness of what goes in the ballad.
Adam Thorpe's Hodd, a revisionist account of the Robin Hood legend inspired by "Robin Hood and the Monk," multiplies all these effects. The novel purports to be a twenty-first century printing of an interbellum proof of a proposed English translation of a fifteenth-century Latin copy (nearly destroyed during WWI and eventually lost in a fire) of an early fourteenth-century monk's autobiography (also long lost). This Latin copy is itself badly damaged, thanks to a combination of time, water, and war, and occasionally corrupted by scrivener's errors; there are occasional marginal notes by the scrivener and a sixteenth-century reader; and the proof itself has both "editor" Francis Belloes' footnotes and his additional comments in pencil. Although this strategy rather overeggs the pudding, perhaps--then again, that too is part of the fake manuscript tradition!--the battered, lost manuscript suggests both that our knowledge of the past is frequently fragile, contingent, and accidental, and that that knowledge is easily skewed and distorted for other purposes. Within the novel, the fate of the earliest version of "Robin Hood and the Monk," written by our fourteenth-century autobiographer, suggests the speed at which history can be reinvented: the horrified narrator, whose own version of Hodd's/Hod's/Hode's rescue from Nottingham jail is itself baldly revisionist, is forever plagued by minstrels and others singing "various ballads, among which was ever a mangled version of mine own on Hode, as well as others proliferated from this single seed" (304). In reworking a medieval ballad, Thorpe invokes the centuries-old fascination with the ballad as an authentic trace of a largely vanished oral culture, present in the modern world only in fragmentary or degenerated form--think of Percy, Scott, Macpherson, &c. But as our narrator's experience suggests, the ballad is neither spontaneous (it's intended to advertise Hodd's power) nor an organic expression of primitive community. Indeed, Thorpe deliberately invokes Rime of the Ancient Mariner in his representation of the narrator's endless repetition of his own ballad, which requires him to admit that he murdered a child: each time he plays the harp, "it made me sing of the betrayal and capture of Robert Hodde, and his release from that foul dungeon through our pluck and wiles; so that each time I was forced to make my confession openly--though no one knew it who gaped upon me, listening to my chant" (272). Endlessly compelled to indict himself, yet receiving neither punishment nor absolution, the narrator is repeatedly traumatized by his own performance.
Not surprisingly, this is a novel riven and driven by violence, both historical and mythical. It is not an accident that Belloes, the fictional editor, is a shellshocked veteran of WWI. In the novel, the Robin Hood legend and World War I work together as two foundational epochs in popular narratives of English identity: "Merrie Olde England," on the one hand, in which the outlaw is the true Christian defending the poor against oppression, and the Great War, on the other, in which the self-satisfied optimism of the Empire came to a crashing halt. Belloes' attraction to the monk's autobiography lies in its apparent anticipation of World War I; even when Belloes doesn't make explicit connections, as he frequently does, the autobiography conjures up scenes familiar from WWI iconography (for example, the pit which Hodd uses to punish bad behavior clearly suggests a trench). References to Belloes' WWI experiences begin to creep in around footnote twenty and grow more pointed as the narrative progresses. A discussion of the crossbow vs. the longbow concludes with the lamentation that "no such ban has at present been made against other mechanical weapons of far crueller disposition" (50); arrows are contrasted to "our present armoury" (52); at the same time, medieval "violence" is not so different from "the sordid arena of modern warfare" (56). Similarly, Belloes' annotations of his proofs usually intensify the parallels in ways that cannot be assimilated to scholarly discourse--the very last words of the novel transcribe his anguished outburst "'withdraw to safety, Alec--bolt--for Godssake--leg it'" (307), a flashback to his best friend's death that replaces the more sedate original text. In that sense, the shellshocked Belloes experiences the same kind of endless loop narrated by the monk: both find themselves forced to endlessly relive a traumatic experience that cannot be healed through writing, memory, or confession. Simultaneously, his attempt to resurrect this alternative to "Merrie Olde England," which casts Hodd as a charismatic but utterly monstrous heretic, seeks the origins of modern violence in the medieval example; writing backward from his present (as Michel de Certeau would no doubt agree), Belloes rejects nostalgia for a lost age of jolly community and good Christian outlaws in favor of a world of unspeakable savagery, hatred, and oppression.
As the narrative reminds us, this too is a historical construct, and one in which religion poses a serious stumbling block to both the monk and the editor. Belloes frequently has little patience with the monk's excurses on the age's moral degeneracy and his own sinful nature, and simply edits them out--an act of textual violence that suggests how the present cannot entirely appropriate the past for its own purposes without erasing essential differences. He is far more interested in the violence than in the narrator's self-condemnation on the counts of Pride and Envy; the deadly sins Past and present fail to align in other ways as well. The heretical Hodd, whom Belloes aligns with the Brethren of the Free Spirit, is a megalomaniac with a shocking "sudden gaze" (59) that enables him to dominate all around him. His belief in his own godlike powers and the rightness of all his acts anticipates any number of twentieth-century charismatic but murderous leaders--all of them after the editor's time. And his intellectual seduction of the narrator equally anticipates the Milgram experiments. At the same time, the hermit, our narrator's first "master," calls into question (more than the unsurprisingly mildly corrupt monks) the human consequences of asceticism and mysticism: from Thorpe's point of view, the hermit's withdrawal from society in terms of salvation is as much an act of selfishness as it is a true quest for God, one that leads to a drowning man's death. The narrator tries to dismiss his own instinctive horror at the hermit's choice as "childish ignorance" (195)--but his desperate attempt to avoid blaming the hermit, which does not quite succeed, equally raises the question of what it means to sense that something is wrong, but to refuse to take action. We as readers are invited to make our own comparisons...and yet, is that not too an unavoidable act of violence against the otherness of the past? Can we do otherwise?
1) Reading: finished Hodd, about which I've got a blog post in progress (it's a historical novel! With a lot of religion! Totally relevant!), and read an article about Victorian anxieties in re: reading.
2) Writing: 400+ words, plus some revisions/more explicit keywords and flagging. Introduction and conclusion come next, after which I'll do another run of revisions before moving on to the previous chapter (yes, I know that doesn't appear to make any sense...).
3) Miscellaneous: Continued to work on conference paper proposal #2.
1) Writing: As I said yesterday, no writing--just thinking. I expect that tomorrow will primarily be devoted to subtraction rather than addition.
2) Reading: Besides Hodd, I've been reading this bizarre Catholic novel, The Beleaguered Hearth (1856). After pondering its components (which, so far, include Italy, banditti, boxing [with banditti], miraculously floating friars, sex, mysterious hidden castles, and curses), I think that this is an example of Catholic Gothic revisionism, in which the novel uses Gothic tropes to argue in favor of what we would now call an "enchanted" universe. I mean, it's not what I would call a shining example of Victorian narrative construction, but the author is trying to do something at least reasonably interesting.
3) Miscellaneous: Starting to put together yet another conference paper proposal.
1) Reading: I decided that I needed a break from religious fiction, so I started reading Adam Thorpe's Hodd (a revisionist Robin Hood novel), which is, of course, narrated by a monk. So still religious. But interesting, albeit very Walter Scott (well, if Scott used more foul language...).
2) Writing: 400+ words. I'm going to let it rest for a day or so; the argument's transitions need to be sharpened up, although I think I've got all the major keywords worked in at this point. Otherwise, there's just the George Eliot material to finish up the chapter's main body.
(Developed a nasty headache last night, so lights out before I hit the blog.)
Reading: Finished up Burwick.
Writing: 500+ words, mostly on Friday, plus dropping in a couple of footnotes. One of the problems with organization-by-association is that one has to periodically stop and ask if the argument is, well, actually organized. Still, nearing the end of the chapter.
Miscellaneous: Finished and sent off conference proposal #1. I do wish that all of the nineteenth-century literature conferences were not being held at roughly the same time.
Onward! I think I need to do some recreational reading, though.
1) Reading: more of Burwick and all of George Waring's Children's Mission (1843), a collection of three rather conservative tales about children saving adults (that's not the conservative bit). In tale #1, wreckers try to prevent the lighthouse keeper from lighting the lamp on the night of a storm, but his brave daughter does it and saves the day; she's rewarded with money, the family moves up in the world, and she finally marries into the landed gentry. (I.e.: Good working-class folks vs. those icky improvident criminal types.) In tale #2, an angry worker tries to burn down the haymows after the farmer dares to use a machine to bring in the hay; young Walter saves the day by managing to alert the adults. (I.e.: Worker revolts are bad.) In tale #3, the girl doesn't do anything except exist; however, her existence saves the sanity of a young man who had been led to believe that he killed his evil brother. But he didn't! (I.e.: All things come right in the end for good people.)
2) Writing: 690+ words.
3) Miscellaneous: Fooled around a bit with an article I finished drafting over the summer, but which has what you might call organizational issues.