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Manners, Morals, Muddle, Mystify

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Let me get back to something I’ve talked about before, which actually has a lot to do with my reading Henry James at all, and of my reading The Wings of the Dove at the present half second.

I’ve almost always read first and foremost for characters and their relationships with each other, but also for a sense of place.

When it comes to Victorian novels, or their equivalents in American literature, the sense of place I’m looking for is not so much the physical place itself as the emotional atmosphere of it–the heightened formality, the sense of men and women living with each other by rules that force them into civilization whether they want to go or not.

I am not a very formal person, in real life.  In fact, I’m almost the complete opposite.  But there is something about modern life that grates on me, and that grating is what I tend to thing of as the “animalism” in it.

No, I don’t mind animals.  I mind the way so many people treat themselves as animals.  I don’t know if they’d actually put it that way themselves.  It’s the sexual exhibitionism, the crudeness of the language, the constant and unending Anglo Saxonisms, the culture of flaunting it both economic and sexual, the assumption that everybody and anybody is ready to do it at a drop of the hat and for no particular reason.

In other words, the Lady Gaga Paradigm.

I don’t think I’m the only person in the world who reads Victorian and Regency novels for that particular kind of a sense of place.  In fact, I’m willing to bet that most of the women who read Regency romance novels do it almost entirely for that.  Some of them also read Jane Austen, but when they do they tend to glide over the sharp edges and warm themselves in the glow of formality and civility.

If this was another post of another kind, I’d explain why those sharp edges are what make Jane Austen great literature and Regency romances not–but for right now, I can’t really blame the readers here, because I did the same thing with actual Victorian novels for years.

Mique said something about, having read Dickens in his twenties, he didn’t think younger people would actually “get” most of it. 

I’m here to say I didn’t “get” most of Henry James until very recently.

The sense of place is definitely there, in The Wings of the Dove, put there is no sense in which James can be said to be writing a novel in which that sense of place is affirmed as true.

Quite the contrary.  For James, formality and civility, that strong Victorian emphasis on fine felling and delicacy, are a very thin veil over a very brutal reality, fully as brutal as anything Lady Gaga has come up with yet.

The Wings of the Dove concern the lives of three people:  Kate Croy, Merton Densher, and Milly Theale.  Kate Croy is a young Englishwoman with “important” relations and absolutely no money of her own.  Her father has brought the family to ruin in some unnamed way.  Her mother is dead.  Her sister married a poor man, had several children by him, and was then widowed.  All these people expect Kate–the most beautiful and accomplished among them–to make a Great Marriage, and in so making it support the rest of them.

Kate is being enabled to make such a marriage by her aunt, Maud Lowder, who married a very successful man of business and was then widowed with a fortune.  She’s quite willing to hand that fortune to Kate, if Kate will make the kind of marriage she wants–a marriage to a Lord, or another  Great Man, such as the sort of person who might one day be Prime Minister.  This man does not have to have a fortune of his own, but he has to be Great, because Greatness is what Maud is buying.

Merten Densher is a young Englishman, well educated, with the manners of a gentleman, and a very successful journalist–but a successful journalist is not a Great Man, and he doesn’t make enough money to keep Kate in a state that would satisfy Maud.  And it’s not just Kate he has to think of supporting, but Kate’s entire family, father and sister and nieces and nephews, if Kate marries in a way that does not please her aunt.

Milly Theale is a young American woman almost all of whose relations are dead, and who is in possession of a truly enormous fortune.  She is rich enough to make Maud Lowder’s money look modest, and she is also dying of tuberculosis.  She met Merton  Dresher when he came to America to write for his newspaper for a while.  She meets Kate Croy in London, since Aunt Maud is a friend of Milly’s traveling companion.

Milly Theale is in love with Merton Densher.

Merton Densher is in love with Kate Croy.

Kate Croy is in love with Merton Densher.

Kate Croy and Merton Densher get together and work out a scheme–Densher will marry Milly.  Milly will die in a short time (this is inevitable).  Densher will inherit Milly’s fortune and then be able to marry Kate no matter how many poor relations she has to support.

It’s a litte more complicated than this, but not much more, and what strikes me about it is how enormously, unrelentingly brutal it all is.

As Eliza Doolittle tells Henry Higgins when he suggests that, now that she has become a lady, she will have to make her way in the world by getting married:  “We were above that sort of thing in Covent Garden.  I sold flowers. I didn’t sell myself.”

In the world of the Victorian novel, though, men and women are forever selling themselves–and in James, unlike in Trollope or Dickens, there is no pretense about it, no overarching fiction about how in spite of being threatened with such a thing, people actually end up finding a way to marry the people they love, and to marry for love. 

There is no marrying for love in Henry James.  To belong to the class of people for whom and about whom he writes is to belong to a class of people who must make themselves commodities first and foremost.

And wealth does not get you out of the trap.  Milly Theale is rich, but she’s sold as a commodity just as surely as Kate is.  So is Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady. 

Working and having a profession doesn’t change the situation, either.  Merton Densher works hard and has a profession and is fairly close to being at the top of it, but he is unable to escape the requirement that he order his private affairs on the basis of the commodification of his own and his lover’s persons.  He cannot marry for love any more than Kate can.

I’ve been sitting here reading this thing and thinking that it is first and foremost a book about prostitution, that the lives of all these people have been reduced to prostitution. 

I don’t know why this wasn’t clear to me when I read James when I was younger, and I read a lot of James when I was younger.  I think  I tended to take his work the way I did Trollope’s or Dickens’s or Jane Austen’s, even, as somehow making it all all right because it worked out “for love” in the end.

And a great many Victorian novelists do make it work out for love in the end.  I have a suspicion that that may be why Trollope and Dickens were so much more popular than James.  

But it seems odd to me that I literally did not notice how consistently James portrays the Victorian world as the arena of barely disguised–if disguised at all–emotional brutality. 

I think I may, like readers of category romance Regency novels, have mistaken the superficial and quaint formalities for the substance, but that’s odd, too, becuase I’m n ot somebody who usually has patience with the superficial formalities.  And I’m really not somebody who usually has patience for people’s concern with respectability when it appears anyplace else BUT the Victorian novel.

One of the writers I have recommended here from time to time is V.S. Naipaul–but what I’ve recommended has been his nonfiction.  Naipaul is the writer par excellance on tourists to the revolution.  If you don’t believe me, see The Writer in the World.

But a few years ago, I decided that since I liked Naipaul nonfiction so much, I ought to read his fiction, because it was his fiction he was known for, and for which he got the Nobel Prize.

So I read it.  And I hated it.  I hated all the characters, all poor immigrants to London from the old colonies and all obsessed with status and respectability.  They made me completely and utterly insane.

So it’s not that I’m interested in that sort of thing intrinsically.  And it’s not that I am or want to be a formal person.

In the meantime, though, I’ve managed to gain a great deal more respect for James–and I respected him anyway.

If great literature is the truth, even if it didn’t happen–then James is definitely great literature.

Written by janeh

May 10th, 2010 at 8:27 am

Posted in Uncategorized

9 Responses to 'Manners, Morals, Muddle, Mystify'

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  1. We sell ourselves today, too. We sell ourselves to our employers for the money to feed, house and clothe ourselves, as well, in some cases anyway, for status. And when we’re telling ourselves that we’re relating to each other as free men and women, not mere wage slaves, we’re actually often using each other – neither our family relationships nor our marriages nor or friendships have much staying power.

    So we tell ourselves nice stories. We’re looking for true love and unable to settle for anything less. We’re unappreciated and underpaid, but we’ve got an exciting private live, almost like Lady Gaga’s, but better. Or we’re too bright and good and smart to buy into that wage slave crap and we don’t need to, not really, not as long as we have generous parents or governments.

    It’s not just the Victorian period in which people relate to each other with brutality.

    I think we’re not doing ourselves justice if we don’t realize that we are not little islands; we depend on others for the money we need to survive and we cover the insecurity of personal lives centres on each individual’s emotional desires with stories about how honest and free and authentic we are. This is not the only way to view ourselves and our society; the Victorians had another and they and we often treat each other brutally. We just do it in different ways.


    10 May 10 at 9:07 am

  2. That’s a very harsh view, Cheryl. I tend to think of us as selling our labor to our employers, or clients, not our selves. They don’t have any power (at least in my profession) to tell us how to live our lives outside of work, and I give them only as much of my labor as I please, in the manner I please, at a rate I set.

    Yes, I used to be a wage-earner type employee, with less freedom than I have now, but still, it wasn’t my life I was selling, nor my body. Only my work.

    As for home life, although we aren’t formal, we *are* infinitely courteous to one another. I think it’s important to treat one’s family far better than one would treat strangers, so we say please and thank-you consistently. We don’t denigrate each other, and even when we argue, and we do, on rare occasion, we do it without unforgivable personal attacks or name calling.

    Home should be a refuge from the clamor of the world, a warm, safe place where you’re loved and encouraged. To gain that, you must give it to the other family members, even if it makes you vulnerable.

    Is there anyone to whom I am “brutal?” Phone solicitors, sometimes. People I see abusing their animals or children. In normal, everyday life? No. I try to be courteous and kind to everyone, no matter how little they earn, or how menial the task they perform. Or, for that matter, how rich they are.

    I don’t think any of this is a “nice story” I’m telling myself. I honestly try to live this way, consciously and mindfully. Because I’m lucky enough in circumstance that can, and thus I have the obligation to do so. If that makes any sense.

    Other people are brutal, sometimes, I agree. Which is why I’ve tried to arrange my life, and my family’s life, so that brutality doesn’t live with us here at home.


    10 May 10 at 11:44 am

  3. I’m being harsh, I suppose. But my life consists of time. When I sell my time to pay my way, I’m selling my life. I’m glad I can, of course. I’d much rather pay my way by selling my time than by selling other parts of my life, or worse, not pay my way at all. And I’m extremely fortunate to have been born in a time and place which provides me with options of gaining training and restrictions on what employers can exact and what they must provide.

    As for families…yes, of course, they are not all brutal, not all the time. But they are like democracy, the best solution to organizing society because the other options are worse. I think of Victorian family structure, with its rigidities and repressions; and then I look at some (not yours, clearly) modern versions with their fragility and collapses and reformations that always seem to leave someone – usually several someones – in agony while some members pursue their emotional fulfillment, or act out their own traumas and problems.

    And then I think, the Victorian version of family and personal relationships weren’t the only brutal ones. They just cut in different places than our versions do.

    And no, I’m not personally going through any family traumas or anything. This is just something I think about sometimes.


    10 May 10 at 12:15 pm

  4. Cheryl: I’m going to side with Lymaree, here. Life consists of time in a way, but time is just the framework we build our lives on. There’s a substance to your life that’s more than just passing time. That substance has to do with relationships, and accomplishments, and how we live. My job is more than just selling them 40 hours a week (I mean, HA! 40 hours a week would be relaxing). The way I do my job and interact with my colleagues is part of what contributes to the substance I describe above, to my identity, I guess.

    And if we have to do something for money to get by, well, I guess that’s the price we pay for living in a capitalist society. I don’t see that as bad, though.


    10 May 10 at 1:43 pm

  5. Oh – I find myself between Lymaree and Cheryl on the family structure thing. Like Lymaree, my husband and I have evolved a way to interact that is respectful (if not very formal) and we do try to be nice to each other. It’s too easy to take family members for granted and to let them see the hard side of you, and we consciously decided we didn’t want to do that. We help each other out, and we talk to each other, and we try to be nice. It’s not hard.

    But I think you’re right in a way too, in that it’s just a different way to approach your family and your life. I know what I’d prefer, though: the strictures and predetermined roles in the Victorian era wouldn’t suit me at all.


    10 May 10 at 1:46 pm

  6. As a college student, I liked reading Thomas Hardy much more than Henry James. Perhaps because I found Hardy’s prose easier to discern and his themes were more apparent. Hardy’s characters never experienced happy endings either.


    10 May 10 at 3:55 pm

  7. I disliked Hardy intensely because he seemed to go on and on and on with descriptions of the countryside. But I never read anything more of James than a few pages of a couple different works, at which point I invariably decided ‘not for me!’


    10 May 10 at 4:27 pm

  8. We must have read different Regencies. One of my favorites is Heyer’s A CIVIL CONTRACT, and let me give you the shorthand:
    Adam’s father has just died. Adam has inherited a title, ton of debts and responsibility for two sisters, a widowed mother and the family estate.
    He had an “understanding” with Julia–a love match. But he can’t support Julia on his pay as a Captain, and he certainly can’t save anything from the wreck. (Mind you, Julia is ready to marry him anyway.)
    Enter Jenny Chawleigh, who went to school with Julia, and is a rich merchant’s daughter and heir. Jonathan Chawleigh’s money CAN salvage Adam, and he’s anxious for Jenny to “marry well.”
    Adam must marry Jenny. And he has to play the game by her class’s rules–“a stricter order than his own” I believe is the phrase. He can’t marry Jenny and carry on an affair with Julia.
    Jenny loves Adam to desperation, and Adam must never know. Jenny, probably the wisest character in the book, won’t place Adam under the additional obligation.
    Complicating everything is Jonathan Chawleigh–a self-made man and a rich one, about equally annoying when he tries to treat his new son in law like a clerk in his shop and when he tries to shower unwanted gifts on everyone.
    No one dies and conveniently clears up the situation. Jenny and Adam have to make a successful marriage somehow. Julia has to build a life without Adam, and Adam and Julia have to go on seeing one another socially and acting as good friends.
    Jenny is a much better match for Adam, and Adam eventually realizes this. But Jenny knows that what Adam feels for her will never be what he felt for Julia.
    NO, it’s not exactly prostitution. But it IS about the price one pays for things, and the things money can’t buy. And, in places, it’s laugh out loud funny. Jenny’s right: you can’t live in alt all the time.

    Obviously not all Regency novels are Heyer at her peak–but then not all Victorians are James at his. Fortunately, we can pick novel by novel.


    10 May 10 at 5:19 pm

  9. “A Civil Contract” – one of my favourites.

    She also turned the popular fictional elopement upside down when she showed what happened after the impulsive marriage as Sherry and Hero grew up.

    Heyer’s imitators weren’t nearly as good and tended to revolve around the poor young bluestocking and the arrogant handsome stranger who turned out to be a duke.

    On a completely different note – I just came across this. It’s rather long, but partway through, the author claims that “to be effectively absolute a moral code needs to be beyond human power to alter”.

    He doesn’t say why, exactly, aside from pointing at our recent history of developing our own moral codes, but the claim reminded me of earlier discussion here.

    Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1255983/How-I-God-peace-atheist-brother-PETER-HITCHENS-traces-journey-Christianity.html#ixzz0ncLccldA


    11 May 10 at 7:01 am

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