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Vulgar, Common and Low

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One of these days I’m going to have to say something about Dickens–although  I’m happy to see that by now, three people who have never been English majors OR English teachers have chimed in to say how much they like him.

And by the time Dickens died, he was not only the best selling novelist of his generation, but the best selling novelist of all time, and his works stayed in print and sold briskly for fifty years before any English department was ever established in universities–and in that time he most certainly was not taught in high schools in England or America. 

Like it or not, he always has been and is now a popular writer, not a writer just for English majors.  For that, you have to look to Joyce, maybe.

What’s more, what teachers say to students may not be what they actually think, because I know lots and lots of PhDs in English Literature who can’t stand Dickens, and who are uncomfortable even to have him in the Canon.

But that’s something for another time.

Right now, I want to circle back and get a couple of things clear, because they matter.

The big one is this–neither I, nor the Victorian novelists I’m writing about, is talking about the aristocracy.

I think the confusion comes because the sort of people somebody like James or Trollope puts at the center of his work would be, in America, “upper class.”

In England, these people are not upper class, but MIDDLE class. 

And some of them are in trade.  If they’re men, there’s really no shame in it, especially if they make money.

If they’re women, the situation is different, because at the time, to go out into the world and do that kind of work would have marked any woman as sexually compromised–she would have been considered an immoral little tramp, and she would not have been accepted into the homes of “nice” people.

The nice people themselves, however, although sometimes rich, were not usually so.  They were, instead, what my mother’s generation would have called “comfortable.”  They had means, but not to the extent that they need do nothing at all for a living. 

These are doctors, lawyers, even men of business–sometimes men of very good business indeed–who made a decent living and had something in reserve to enable them to send their sons to a particular kind of school, often one that had been in the family for generations. 

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were this sort of person, from the class about which Trollope and James and most of the rest of the Victorian novelists wrote. 

This class is often inately suspicious of the aristocracy, as being a group of people likely to get into a lot of debt and act dishonorably.  The fathers would rather have their daughters married to a solid man of business in the City or a lawyer with a good practice than to a lord.

Some of the women tend to be something else, impressed beyond reason with titles. But such women are not  presented favorably in these books.  Think of Lizzie Eustace (in The Eustace Diamonds), and the contrast with Mary Gray (of Can You Forgive Her).

But at issue here, and especially in the James novel I’m reading, is a particular way of life and a particular way of being in the world.

The first requirement of this way of being in the world is a highly refined sensibility about just about everything–a sensitiveness to cleanliness, taste and civility of a kind that is difficult to maintain in poverty.

(Although not impossible.  Dickens presents a number of characters over the course of his books who in fact are able to maintain such things in poverty, and sometimes even while working as governesses or hiring out as seamstresses.  See  Esther Summerson in Bleak House.)

It is this refinement of senstivity–the “gentleness” in “gentleman” and “gentlewoman,” that is at issue for all the characters in all these novels. 

And that’s true in Austen as well–the instinctive recoil against the “vulgar,” which is not a matter of money but of manners, of understanding, and of feeling.

What interests me about James, not just in the novel I’m reading but in almost all the ones I’ve read, is that he is quite clear that the means necessary to maintain such a status for a good hunk of the people in it completely destroy just that “gentleness” that they are supposedly so desperate to preserve.

And for women, the “gentleness” is always an illusion, a matter of not looking at the reality of their lives. 

Like I said yesterday, in James, there is no gauze veil cast discretely over the fact that the women of this class, whether rich or poor, are simply and brutally bought and sold. 

So–Kate Croy and Milly Theale tomorrow.

Which is Mother’s Day.

Written by janeh

May 8th, 2010 at 5:39 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Vulgar, Common and Low'

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  1. Yes, I understand something of 19th Century class distinctions, which is why I wrote “gentry.” If I’d wanted to be technical, I’d have said “armigerous” since having a coat of arms seems to be a requirement for an acceptable male major character.

    And while of course younger sons must have a profession, the range of acceptable ones really does look like something out of Veblen. Holmes and Watson are right on the edge. Holmes has to go through a whole song and dance about not haggling over a fee, because that would be declasse. Watson barely squeaks by because the social acceptability of physicians is rising. And note the choice of word: a physician administers physic–potions–not like those vulgar surgeons who use knives like barbers. One of Holmes’ older clients could remember when they were entirely separate professions, and if physicians weren’t quite gentlemen, surgeons weren’t even close.

    What made a “gentleman” or a “lady” was all too often not an ethical code or a “sensibility” but not engaging in manual labor or negotiating a price, except–tellingly–over horses. You could sleep with half the peerage–some came close–and be a “lady” so long as you didn’t marry and be faithful to a yeoman farmer, and you could be barely literate and be a “gentleman” so long as you didn’t own a steel mill and actually bargain with suppliers and customers.

    All of which is sideways to Dickens. Yes, he was popular in his day–but if that were relevant, Jenette Radcliff or Monk Lewis would be Canon–not to mention Edgar Rice Burroughs and H Rider Haggard–and Tom Clancy and Danielle Steele would be on the waiting list.

    And I am not altogether shocked that he has some non-English teacher readers–all female, please note. What I wrote was that for me at that time, the English assignments of those years were catastrophically bad choices. If I hadn’t already been reading for pleasure, they’d probably have precluded my doing so. And they’ve permamently made an endorsement of a book or author by any of the literary “establishment” a negative factor. I am LESS likelty to read a book when it’s recommended by the sort of people who rammed Dickens down my throat. And I note even here, no one’s chiming in with the reverse. No one’s saying “being assigned Dickens in class opened up a new world to me and made reading a part of my life.” Whatever happened to “first, do no harm?”

    If the teachers were lying to me, that’s on me and not them. I’d have responded much better to “I don’t care for him either, but he’s important in the history of Literature and if you pay attention you’ll learn something about 19th Century England” than to the drumbeat of “these are the best. They appeal to sophisticated (read “good”) taste–not like that popular trash (Tolkien, Kipling, Howard and Heinlein) you read, you vulgar person. Don’t you know Kipling’s under the Ban?”

    Don’t spend decades–generations, even–convincing schoolchildren that reading fiction is one of those unpleasant things you have to do for your high school diploma, then go around whining that midlist fiction doesn’t sell as well as you’d like.


    8 May 10 at 10:38 am

  2. My high school days were 60 years ago. I have only vague recollections of what we read and I don’t trust those. Did I read book X in HS English, university English or on my own? I can’t remember at this distance in time.

    But I agree with Robert, I’m less likely to read a book which is recommended by the literary type people. (Sorry, Jane, but I’m not going to read Dickens or Henry James).


    8 May 10 at 5:10 pm

  3. I don’t think Mique counts as a female non-English teacher reader!

    And I don’t consider Dickens counts as the literary stuff I tend to avoid – aside from being born much earlier than those authors, he generally had a plot and a range of interesting characters in his book.

    I’m still a bit baffled by the degree of Robert’s anger against being forced to read things he didn’t like to. It never bothered me that much, and I’ve never been much worried if someone else thinks my tastes in reading are despicable – or that reading ‘made up stuff’ at all is a waste of time. I suppose it helped that I was and am a very fast reader, so it didn’t take all that long to get through whatever I disliked and back to what I liked – but surely, to judge by the amount he’s read, Robert is a rapid reader too!

    I think I only once disliked a required book so much I didn’t actually quite finish it. That was in university, and the book was Maria Chapdelaine, in the original French. It had to be read because the course was in French Canadian literature and you couldn’t really do that without actually reading some of the earliest examples. Unfortunately, the author, whose name I have forgotten, wanted to promote the view of Canadien (ie French Canadian) society as the epitome of morality and general perfection, especialy insofar as it was isolated from all those crass, urban, immoral and heretical Anglos. So he invented Maria, whose very name indicates her perfection, and put her down on an isolated farm. She struck me at the time as the most tedious heroine I had ever encountered, and I’ve never felt the temptation to see if I was mistaken.

    Dickens is entertaining light reading by comparison. Maybe not James – I could never get into James either, but at least he didn’t write about Maria Chapdelaine.


    8 May 10 at 5:23 pm

  4. Yeah, the degree of my anger puzzles me too. It’s not as though I looked forward to music and gym. But the English teachers were messing up something that wasn’t inherently painful, and which maybe should have been fun, and it went on and on for years. And they beat those books to death. I still remember having to write about what some family in THE YEARLING had for dinner. If what they had for dinner was important, no one ever explained why, and I wasn’t in a mood to ask. It felt more like an excuse to drag the whole thing out.

    And there was a snobbery about it. “THESE are the books that matter. What sort of person would go around reading THOSE instead?” It permanently affected how I viewed educators–and reviewers, and critics. And the effect was permanent because I suspect my 12-year old self was basically right–not necessarily about the literary merits of every book, and not about the attitude of every instructor, but across the board. Too often matters of taste are falsely labeled literary merit, and too often different taste is condemmed as inferior. Taste is neither inferior nor superior: it is only taste. Literary merit should be something different.


    8 May 10 at 6:25 pm

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