Tragedy in the Woodlands

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The Woodlanders, Thomas Hardy, 1887

I adore this book. I know I roasted Thomas Hardy just a few days ago, but we are back in a good place with The Woodlanders. What an underrated gem of a novel.

Like many another Hardy novel, we begin with a man walking along a rural road. No shade. This is an excellent way to start a novel. That man is up to something. He is going to interact with our main characters. He will kickstart the plot. Importantly, he will traverse the landscape, providing reason for Hardy to describe the setting to us. Oh boy. What at setting. We have abandoned the moors for the woodlands. Squirrels! Wood pigeons! Larches! Foxes! Metaphors about the Teutonic antecedents of the characters! You know you want to read Hardy’s metaphors about trees, squirrels, broken hearts and Ginnungagap. Your really do.

In The Woodlanders, the man on the rural road is a barber. He has traveled from a city to purchase the hair of Marty South, whomst I love. The barber finds Marty hard at work crafting spar gads. Oh you don’t know what a spar gad is? Neither do I . It has something to with thatch.

Anyway, sweet, perfect Marty is making spar gads, secretly completing her father’s work so that they don’t lose his income while he is ill. Marty! The barber explains that the lady of the manor, Felice Charmond, noticed in church that Marty’s hair is the same rare color as hers and she wants it to adorn her own head. Marty surmises that the widow Charmond wants to allure some man with additional hair, but Marty wants to keep her own powers of allurement, because she is in love with Giles Winterborne.

Oof, you can tell from the name that he will have a sad fate. If he was born during such an inauspicious time of year, you know Thomas Hardy will plague him with bad luck and misery the way only Thomas Hardy can. He is part of a tragic love pentagram. Yes, I meant to write pentagram, not pentagon. It’s a more romantic name for a five-pointed shape.

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The five points are:

Marty—a lonely, hard-working, woodland lass.

Giles—a cider-maker and part-time harvest diety.

Felice—a rich widow with a past that doesn’t bear looking into.

Grace—a merchant’s daughter.

Edred—a devilish doctor who dabbles in metaphysics.

Marty loves Giles. Giles and Edred love Grace. Edred also loves Felice. Grace loves Giles, but she is not fully aware of her own feelings. Felice loves Edred. Nobody loves Marty. Except for me. I love you, darling. Down to the last spar gad your nimble fingers ever crafted.

Now, I will not tell you the entire plot. There isn’t much to it. The drama unfolds in the characters’ hearts. Their shifting feelings about each other constitute the most important “action” of the novel. And, oh, the relationships are so subtle and complex. The details Hardy provides are beautiful. Grace’s father loves her so much that he refuses to clean the smudge mark of her reading candle from the ceiling over her bed. Giles begins to lose his shot at genteel Grace when he awkwardly encounters her while standing in the middle of a public square under an apple tree sapling that he is trying to sell. Grace becomes aware of the intellectual new doctor in her village when she notices his fire changing colors due to his chemical experiments. Her maid informs her that she has sold her eventual cadaver to this doctor. “Kaleidoscopic dreams of the face of a weird alchemical surgeon, Grammer Oliver’s skeleton, and the face of Giles Winterborne, brought Grace Melbury to the morning of the next day.”

And the themes! They are not new for Hardy, but he does them so well. This man was strongly opposed to marriage without the possibility of divorce. Characters learn too late that they have married the wrong person and are doomed to a loveless and bleak existence, because Victorian mores will not allow them to escape the chafing bonds of matrimony or form meaningful attachment with someone whose companionship could provide true comfort in this pitiless world. Gah! It’s so bitter and tragic and true. I sob every time I read this book. Which has been a lot of times. Hardy also satirizes the Victorian tendency to value social status above character. True again, Hardy.

Of course, it is profoundly beautifully written. Open any page and you will find a sentence that makes you emit your soul from your body in a sigh of pure aesthetic pleasure. Like this one “The two trees that had creaked all the winter left off creaking, the whir of the night-jar, however, forming a very satisfactory continuation of uncanny music from that quarter.”  Uncanny woodland music! Yes, please!

I think what I love most about this book is the unexpected compassion the characters exhibit towards each other in tense situations. Women who might look upon each other as rivals show care and tenderness towards each other. I don’t find this unrealistic. I think there are plenty of people out there who still exhibit concern for another’s feelings even when that person’s interest runs contrary to their own in a deeply personal and emotional matter. It happens.

I almost left out the Best Scene. Sweet, perfect Marty is holding saplings upright for Giles to plant. I might cry. It is already so beautiful. Marty helps him in his humble work, which lofty Grace cannot do. So, she understands Giles and knows his true value better than Grace can. While they are planting, Marty observes:

“How they sigh directly we put ‘em upright, though while they are lying down they don’t sigh at all,” said Marty.

“Do they?” said Giles. “I’ve never noticed it.” (And you never noticed Marty either, you unlucky fool.)

She erected one of the young pines into its hole, and held up her finger; the soft musical breath instantly setting in, which was not to cease night or day till the grown trees should be felled—probably long after the two planters should be felled themselves.

Gah! Marty South forever!

You might like The Woodlanders if:

  • you enjoy a woodland setting
  • you enjoy things that are good

You might not like The Woodlanders if:

  • you are not in the mood to fling yourself on your sofa and sob

Final thoughts: I love it! I don’t think I have ever used this many exclamation points in a post.

Well, This Is Embarrassing

Well, This Is Embarrassing

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The Well-beloved, Thomas Hardy, 1892

I don’t actually want to talk about this novel. I am embarrassed for Thomas Hardy. This one is so bad. Yikes. Writing a description of the plot is going to hurt. But my author-soulmate wrote this poorly conceived clunker and it would be disingenuous to skip it.

Listen to this nonsense. Jocelyn Pierston is a sculptor. He considers himself a man afflicted by an inconvenient malady: his affection flits from woman to woman in an—according to him—uncontrollable and regrettable manner. Pierston blames his commitment-phobia on his artistic temperament. Here is a blurry, real-time picture of my face as I type these words.

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Pierston’s quest for the ideal female form to immortalize in stone causes his romantic feeling to flee capriciously on to another object after he has sworn fidelity and made who knows what other promises to some poor lass. I know what you are thinking. “Barf, surely Thomas Hardy didn’t think anyone would be interested in the life story of this idiot.” I guess he did though. I can’t explain it. We know he wrote some of the most compelling characters of the entire Victorian Era. Tess! Bathsheba! Gabriel! And then he whipped out this stupendously uninteresting tale.

Pierston thinks of the women he crushes on as embodiments of his ideal “well-beloved” woman and blames this entity, the Well-beloved, for refusing to stay put in one female frame. Sigh.

I’m getting ahead of myself. It gets so much worse. Pierston returns from London to his home town on the Isle of Portland, an insular island that is connected to England by a spit that is submerged during hightide. He sees a friend of his youth, Avice. Not a typo. She is Avice, not Alice. She impulsively kisses him as she did when they were children. This social gaffe—they are much too old for casual kissing—leads to a renewed acquaintanceship and an engagement.

Avice seems cool. She recites poetry publicly and shows other signs of intellect. But, it would be too simple for Pierston to marry his hometown honey. A twist of fate leads him to spend a rainy afternoon in the company of a dusky maiden named Marcia. Of course, his well-beloved departs from Avice and enters Marcia. Ugh. Such a gross concept, Thomas Hardy. Pierston wants to place the blame for his endless string of compromising dalliances on an outside entity. No, sweetie. It’s not “the well-beloved” that is tormenting you. You need to stop obsessing over momentary attraction and start learning to form friendships with women. I’ll say it again: yikes.

Anyway, he ditches Avice and plans to marry Marcia. However, Marcia is proud and imperious and maybe already in love with a different guy. Their attraction doesn’t last long enough for them to follow through on the marriage.

Many years and many well-beloveds later, Pierston returns to the island and discovers that poor Avice has died. She married another, poorer islander, had a sad life, and died young. Pierston is stricken with remorse. He should have stuck by her! She was the one he truly loved all along! That’s what he tells himself, anyway. I can’t bring myself to give a single frog about this man’s emotions.

Anyway, he encounters the spitting image of the Avice he was once engaged to in the form of her daughter. He insists on calling her Avice as well. We’ll call her Avice II. So, this asshole falls in love with the daughter. That’s what he tells himself. He is incapable of love. Anyway, he wants to marry her, mostly to make up for the wrong he did her mother. At this point he is forty and she is about twenty. Avice II is a more worldly, but less cultured version of her mother, whom she closely resembles, probably because everyone on the island is related…so they all look the same? That is Hardy’s explanation. Anyway, it turns out that Avice II is already pregnant with another man’s child so Pierston helps them marry. Cuz he’s such a swell guy. Haha, no. Out of guilt.

Twenty years later…do you know what’s coming? What could have transpired in twenty years? The birth and bringing up of a third Avice. That’s right, he meets and gets engaged to a third Avice. The granddaughter. I am not making this up. What a truly wretched plot. Sixty-year old Pierston wants to marry the granddaughter of the woman he should have married forty years earlier. Yikes! Avice II pushes for the marriage, because she is ill and wants to know, before she dies, that her daughter will be provided for by a rich husband.

Pierston can sense that the youngest Avice is only going along with the marriage out of a sense of maternal duty. She does not want to marry this sixty-year-old stranger. Pierston knows this, and he feels bad, but not bad enough to call off the wedding. Fortunately, on the eve of the ceremony, another twist of fate intervenes and Avice III runs off with her young beau. It turns out that her lover is Marcia’s stepson. Marcia returns to Pierston’s life. She is no longer an ideal beauty to his eye, but he’s a miserable, lonely old man. So, he marries her.

If there is one redeeming element of The Well-beloved it is that Pierston does not marry either the daughter or granddaughter. Yikes. But that is small comfort. What a truly stupid concept for a novel. Cringe-worthy. If we delved deeper into the details of this text you would only be more annoyed.

Final thoughts. What was he thinking? Such piffle.

A Collection of Classic Creepy Tales

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Hello, spookies. When the first cool breeze of September rustled my hair, I felt the urge to read creepy stories. So, I purchased this ebook of 50 short horror pieces, called 50 Masterpieces of Occult and Supernatural Fiction . It costs only two dollars, so if you too are in the mood for ghosts, werewolves, vampires and haints, go for it. Considering that I have filtered out the duds for you, this would be a very low risk investment. Many of these are worth your time. A few are truly excellent. I have been telling everyone if you only read one, read The Great God Pan. It is so good. So good.

  • “The Corner Shop” by Cynthia Asquith
    • A traditional, cozy ghost story. More chilling than horrifying. Has a satisfying ending.
  • “Caterpillars” by E. F. Benson
    • Ghost caterpillars. Nuff said.
  • “The Middle Toe of the Right Foot” by Ambrose Bierce
    • A cleverly constructed spooky mystery. You already know that Ambrose Bierce can write a good story. This is one of his better ones.
  • “Scoured Silk” Marjorie Bowen
    • This one really got to me. If you are triggered by domestic abuse, skip it. It’s haunting.
  • “The Sweeper by A. M. Burrage
    • Please read this so you can tell me what the hell is going on. What? I don’t get it. I need a second opinion. Yes, your opinion. Please. It’s only a few pages long. Help me out.
  • “The Screaming Skull” F. Marion Crawford
    • So good. Definitely the second-best story in this anthology. I love a monologue and this one is primo. Based on a Dorsetshire folktale, this is a lovable story, but very spooky.

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  • “The Sumach” by Ulric Daubeny
    • I LOVE IT. Usually, I do not approve of creepy trees, because trees are the best. They do so much for us. Trees aren’t trying to hurt us. But this story is so charming that I forgive the creepy tree. This tale evokes the fear that the lady of the house can be seduced away from her duties…by a spooky tree. I love it. It is true that if you leave us alone to think our thinky thoughts, we will get up to some dangerous, patriarchy destroying stuff. Watch out. Don’t leave your wife alone with the trees. She is gonna do weird stuff…with trees. Also, the explanation of why the tree is spooky powerful is very good. Great story.
  • The Signal-Man” by Charles Dickens
    • A bit predictable, but well-written. I’m not mad that I read it.
  • “The Phantom Coach” by Amelia B Edwards
    • Very nice little ghost story. I enjoyed it.
  • “The Beast with Five Fingers” by W. F. Harvey
    • Such a weird, quirky tale of a vicious, disembodied hand. If you can wade through some odd exposition and enjoy an odd narrative style, you will dig this one.
  • “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne
    • Hawthorne’s supernatural takedown of the Puritan pretense of morality. Basically, what George Eliot was going for with Bulstrode’s character in Middlemarch, but mercifully hundreds of pages shorter and with Satan worship. So much more fun that way.
  • “Oh, Whistle and I’ll come to you, My Lad” and “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas” by M. R. James
    • The premises of these stories are great, but James’ writing is rather dry. Still, they aren’t bad.

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  • “The Great God Pan” by Arthur Machen
    • This story is the reason for this whole post. If you like horror at all, you need to read this. So good. We begin with a creepy surgeon wanting to perform a procedure on a young woman that will “lift the veil” and allow her to see the spirit world. As you can imagine, things go horribly wrong. Machen is a good writer. The settings and characterization are compelling. I found the story so gripping and suspenseful that I read it entirely in html in one day and was shocked to discover that is a 100-page novella, not the 30-page short story I thought I had just whizzed through. It’s good, y’all. If you need any further recommendations: Stephen King and Oscar Wilde both admire it. And those are our highest authorities when it comes to horror and style respectively.
  • “When I Was Dead” by Vincent O’Sullivan
    • A wry, cynical monologue. Quite funny and dark.
  • “The Inn” Guy Preston
    • Some very creepy and unnatural things happen to a man at an inn. Very inventive story.
  • “Gabriel-Ernest” and “The Open Window” by Saki
    • The first is a twisted take on a werewolf story. The second is a very sarcastic and satirical little tale. Both are worth reading.

Happy haunting, dear ones.

Tess! Probably the Best Novel Ever Written

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Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy, 1891

CW: sexual assault

Stop! Go read Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Or reread it if it has been a few years since your last visit to Marlott, Tantridge, Flintcomb Ash and Talbothays. You don’t need to be here. You need to be reading Tess. This book is a masterpiece. A sad, frustrating, beautiful masterpiece that will rip your heart out. I just finished rereading it and I am feeling very forlorn, but the journey was aesthetically enriching and spiritually fulfilling. When I read a particularly beautiful phrase that I want to remember and return to, I dogear the page. If you just cringed, get over it; they are my books and I can crease the pages if I want to. Tess is probably my most dogeared book. Go read it. Please.

Ok, now that we have all read Tess, let us proceed to discuss its splendor. What makes this book so great?

Style Of course, the paramount reason for loving Thomas Hardy is simply his skill as a writer. He turns a beautiful phrase. Even his lesser works have exquisite moments for the lover of a great sentence. In Tess, though, you can feel that he is more emotionally invested in the characters and the message. His skill is put to its highest use. Pretty much. I do like Far from the Madding Crowd more than Tess, but not necessarily because I think it is a better book. Simply a matter of preference. I will say, that if there is any flaw in the novel, it is that the style is not quite consistent. The segment when Angel Clare visits his parents seems like it came from a different book. But we will forgive Hardy this tiny failing, because as a whole, the novel is divine. If you have already read the book (and you have, right, or you would have stopped reading this post) you can open to a random page and read a random sentence and just marvel at how lovely it is and how perfectly it propels the reader toward Hardy’s ultimate vision.

Mood Big mood in this one. Later in life Hardy’s cynicism, atheism and bitterness at the injustice of the world took center stage in his writing. You could argue that Jude the Obscure is the more bitter and cynical text and you might be right. However, as much as I love Jude, Hardy’s tough kernel of existential despair is woven into the narrative, the characters and the plot more effectively in Tess. From the beginning he builds the feeling that Tess did not ask for or call the tragedies of her life down upon herself. For example, this description her childhood “If the heads of the Durbeyfield household chose to sail into difficulty, disaster, starvation, disease, degradation, death, thither were these half-dozen little captives under hatches compelled to sail with them—six hapless creatures, who had never been asked if they wished for life on any terms, much less if they wished for it on such hard conditions as were involved in being of the shiftless house of Durbeyfield.” Tess’ experiences are so harsh that she comes to “hear a penal sentence in the fiat, ‘You shall be born.’” Like I said, big mood.

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Themes There are a number working together, including my favorite Brit Lit theme: paganism versus Christianity. He introduces Tess performing a May Day dance. Profligate Angel sees the women of Marlott dancing and the minister’s son cannot resist the chance to whirl about with the maidens. Later, denied the opportunity to baptize her bastard child, Tess wakes her little mystic siblings from their slumber and performs a ritual more sacred, because it is not sanctified by any judgmental, patriarchal church. That moment makes me so proud of her. Mystic, precious Tess. I am also proud of her when she writes that letter to Angel asking him “Oh why have you treated me so monstrously, Angel! I do not deserve it!” Of course you don’t, you pure and perfect soul! And when she murders Alec. I know, blee blah, murder is wrong. But, he’s just a character, not a real guy. He had it coming, and I am proud of her for doing it. Fight me. There are a lot of women in Victorian novels who should have murdered evil, controlling men who they couldn’t escape from, but their authors weren’t bold enough. Hardy and Tess are bold enough and I love them for it. I have strayed away from the point of this paragraph, which is paganism. When Tess and Angel make their sweet, babes-in-the-woods-style, attempt to flee from the law and end up sleeping on a slab at Stonehenge. . .is that not the best, most romantic place for those two characters to end up? It is. Perfection. If I had a time machine, I would go hug Thomas Hardy for providing me this and other moments of pure artistic pleasure.

The original title was Tess of the D’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman and I wish publishers would print the entire title. At this point in his career Hardy could find publishers willing to print his blatant attacks on Victorian sexual mores. He could even call a fallen woman “pure” right in the title. This man was doing the work of divorcing women’s spiritual value from their so-called sexual purity. In the 19th century! What a mensch.

When Alec reappears in Tess’s life and starts imploring her not to “tempt” him, as if her very existence is a sin, Hardy writes that “there was revived in her the wretched sentiment that had come to her often before, that in inhabiting the fleshy tabernacle with which Nature had endowed her, she was somehow doing something wrong.” Did you think you would hear an anti-body/slut-shaming PSA from a Victorian man? I never expected such a thing, but here you have it. Hardy makes it clear that Tess is just out in these fields trying to survive when along come these men accusing her of sin just for inhabiting the body and face she happened to be born into. You didn’t do anything wrong Tess! You never did one wrong thing.

Consent Since Tess was first published readers have questioned whether the sexual encounter between Alec and Tess was consensual. It is a bit confounding. In my opinion most of the textual evidence points to rape. However, I am not sure how to square that with the smaller amount of contrary evidence. Also, Thomas Hardy wrote in a letter to a friend that “it was a seduction, pure and simple.” He may have seen it as consensual, but by 2019 standards, it certainly was not. Tess denied consent for his sexual advances on many precious occasions, and there is no true consent between an employer and the employee who very much depends on him for her livelihood and the survival of her family. Anyway, even if she had enthusiastically consented, Angel Clare would still by hypocritical trash for treating her like tainted goods. I hate him so much. Let’s talk about that.

Angel Fucking Clare Least favorite literary character, no contest. I am so angry at this man. I know, there are far more evil and destructive characters in the canon, but it is in the name: Angel was supposed to be better. His fascination with Tess’s country maidenhood, her supposed virginity, her sexual purity is repulsive. When she reveals her past, he says she is not the same person that he married. To him, her virginity is her identity. What a piece of absolute trash this man is. What kind of bullshit, worthless love could be shaken by her story? Obviously, she is the same person, you giant douche. Oh, I get so mad. I want to push him down a long, steep hill studded with rocks and cow plops. I really love Thomas Hardy, though, for shaping Angel’s past to illustrate what a cruel hypocrite he is for deserting Tess. Angel is no virgin. More importantly he has some objection to the teachings of the Anglican church (I can’t be bothered with figuring out/remembering what he objects to, because I hate him, and he is not worth my time) that prevent him from becoming ordained. When it comes to the Church, he is capable of rejecting conventional wisdom to the detriment of his prospects. But, when it comes to trivia like Tess’s sexual history, he can’t see past his bullshit social conditioning. Angel Clare is the worst. Also, he clearly didn’t love her for her own dear self, because he never bothered to learn about her family. If he had done so, he would have known better than to abandon her to share their ill-fortune. I hate him so much.

Hardy tries to redeem Angel at the end of the story, which is a mistake, in my opinion. He should have just killed that asshole off. I do appreciate that Angel stays by Tess even though she is a murderer, but I cannot stomach the thought of him marrying Tess’s little sister. He does not deserve Tess. He does not deserve an approximation of Tess. You might be thinking that we cannot know that Liza-Lu and Angel end up together, but I have read enough Hardy novels to know that marrying a man to the younger sister of the woman he first loved is absolutely something he would do. Yuck.

Pastoral Perfection Hardy stands out among Victorian authors because he wrote about country living from experience. His descriptions of life on a rural farm have an authenticity that George Eliot never approached. The atmosphere in Tess and the setting . . . absolute perfection. Just read this description of Tess trying to get closer to Angel’s harp playing: She went stealthily as a cat through this profusion of growth, gathering cuckoo-spittle on her skirts, cracking snails that were underfoot, staining her hands with thistle-milk and slug-slime, and rubbing off upon her naked arms sticky blights, which, though snow-white on the apple-tree trunks, made madder stains on her skin; thus she drew quite near to Clare, still unobserved by him. Ah! You should be crying. From pure artistic pleasure. That is the most perfect sentence. I love the snails beneath your feet, Tess. I do. And the cuckoo-spittle on your skirts. Angel never deserved you. I need to stop. This story is so sad. Tess! Why did you have to do this to my emotions, Thomas Hardy?

Final thoughts: It’s a masterpiece. Obviously. Read it. I am still crying. Because of Tess. And because of the cuckoo-spittle.

A Perilous Look at Dorian Gray

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The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde, 1890

Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.

Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.

Those lines from the preface of The Picture of Dorian Gray resonate with me right now. My thoughts on this book are so jumbled and difficult to articulate, which is appropriate. I suppose. Oscar Wilde wants us to be baffled by the paradoxical nature of his writing. I guess I will just start spewing some thoughts at you. . .as if that’s any different from what I normally do.

There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

  • This too is from the preface. It reminds me greatly of Mark Twain’s preface to Huck Finn in which “persons attempting to find a moral [. . .] will be banished.” Both authors command their readers not to look for morals, which is the height of irony given that these books are more explicitly about morality than other Victorian classics. And Victorian novels are generally very concerned with morality. I don’t know who Twain and Wilde thought they were fooling with these “don’t look at the man behind the curtain” exhortations. If you write a book about a character’s ethical rise or fall, be prepared for readers to notice that.
  • Yet, I personally value the book almost exclusively for Oscar’s (we are on a first-name basis) beautiful writing. I don’t care about Dorian all that much. I’m much more interested in the butterflies in Basil Hallward’s garden, because they are so beautifully described. Or the bees. Listen to this: “The sullen murmur of the bees shouldering their way through the long unmown grass, or circling with monotonous insistence round the dusty gilt horns of the straggling woodbine, seemed to make the stillness more oppressive.” That sentence is so perfect, I want to live inside it. I want to rub my face on it, lovingly. Ok, I just did. Sometimes I’m overcome with affection for a snippet of writing and feel an urge to press the page to my face as if it were a cute kitty.
  • These overwhelmingly beautiful descriptions of sensual experiences persist throughout the novel and they are rather persuasive arguments in favor of the aesthete lifestyle that Oscar himself symbolized. However, the plot overtly condemns a life of pure artistic pleasure. Dorian’s Hedonism destroys many lives, including his own. What a tragic foreshadowing of Oscar’s early death, which was arguably caused by his own unwise decisions. I don’t exactly see it that way, but some of his biographers do. I think I will wait until another post to discuss my deep existential sadness about Oscar Wilde’s life story.

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I have to mention that this is the first time in this literary journey that I have encountered a male character who is anxious about maintaining his youth and beauty. Generally, in literature, men don’t worry about that, because they have other ways of proving their value to the world. Other ways of obtaining their ends. It’s not insignificant that when the male gaze turns on another male, he starts to feel the same anxieties that plague female characters throughout literature.

I worry about the implications of this book as a work of gay literature. Lord Henry’s influence leads to Dorian’s complete moral degradation. The idea of an older man corrupting a beautiful youth is a depiction of homosexual love that makes me profoundly uncomfortable. Thank goodness for the counterpoint of Basil’s more enriching love. Still. . .look what happens to Basil. Also, I can’t help but wonder how much Oscar internalized the Victorian attitude toward homosexuality. In many ways, he was an outspoken advocate for the beauty of homosexual love. Yet, Dorian Gray can be interpreted as belying that message. I don’t like to interpret it that way, because I hate to think that Oscar Wilde felt any shame about his gayness, but the possibility of that interpretation is difficult to miss. Of course, it wouldn’t be Oscar Wilde’s life or literature if it wasn’t paradoxical.

On a very different note, this is an excellent horror novel. I don’t know if I have said that about any other book on this blog. Have I? Oh, yeah. Jekyll and Hyde of course. Anyway, my point is that excellent horror novels are rare in the cannon. So, hooray for Dorian Gray. Good job, Oscar.

Final Thoughts: There is so much more that can be said about this book, but others have said it. Really, you should just read it or reread it and think your own thinky thoughts about it. It is a masterpiece.

Retro-Futuristic Feminist Nonsense!

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Anno Domini 2000, or, Woman’s Destiny, Julius Vogel, 1889

The 8th Premier of New Zealand wrote a feminist science fiction novel. I read it, so you don’t have to. You are welcome. Get ready to enter the wild and wacky world of Julius Vogel’s imagining.

It is the year 2000. The slow, but steady grind of progress has transformed society. Everyone realizes that women are smarter than men. Most world leaders are women. The leaders of the Commonwealth decided that “every human being was entitled to a position of the world’s good things” and enacted Universal Basic Income. Luxury is the new normal. The United Britain is the most powerful empire on the globe. The colonies are wealthier than Mother England. Together, England and her colonies are more powerful than the rest of the world combined.

He started off well, but swung hard into imperialist propaganda, huh?

Vogel very sweetly predicted that in the year 2000, transportation technology would be so advanced that the Emperor of United Britain could “go from one end to the other of his dominions in 12 days.” Cute.

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That’s the gist of the setup. Now he launches into the story and oh, boy; it is the silliest story. Vogel’s vision of female advancement does not extend beyond lifting them into positions of power. Once so elevated, they behave exactly like stereotypical heroines in bad Victorian novels. The heroine at hand is Hilda Fitzherbert who is Under-Secretary of State for Home Affairs for the British Empire. Also, she is 22 and has “a face artistically perfect.” Barf. The trend of very young political leaders in sci-fi/fantasy is so obviously based on the assumption that people must be young and hot to be interesting. As if people, especially women, stop developing mentally or experiencing life-altering events after 27. Why does she have to be young and “perfect” looking? Why? Oh, because this is a goddamn love story. Sure, the love story has vast geo-political ramifications, but it’s a love story. Geez. But still, people finding love in their 90s is still romantic. She didn’t have to be 22, Julius.

We begin with a conversation between the Under Secretary and the Assistant Under Secretary. What do they discuss? Important home affairs? Nope. A man. A man who is in love with Hilda. She’s not interested in him and he’s an ass; so he proceeds to try to ruin her political career out of spite. Yep. That’s the plot of the novel. Hilda versus the scorned lover. How disappointing that Vogel couldn’t imagine Hilda versus the famine. Hilda versus the rise of fascism. Hilda versus anything other than a goddamn man who is mad because she won’t bang him.

Next Hilda consults the Prime Minister of Britain. . .about this goddamn man. By the way, the Prime Minister is also beautiful even though she has the audacity to be 40. Yikes. Also, Hilda calls her “dear mamma” because they are such close friends. Yikes again. So unprofessional, Hilda.

I could go on at length about the many problems with the book, but it would get repetitive and honestly, it’s not worth our time. So, I will just let you know that

  • the Emperor of England is considering whether to marry the daughter of the President of the United States of America as part of a political deal. Hi, we are the United States? Have you met us? That is literally not how we negotiate international politics. Also, he doesn’t want to marry her, because she has red hair. I’m serious.
  • He refuses to marry her, so the U.S. invades Canada out of spite. Really. This gives Britain an excuse to take back their lost colony, which Vogel describes as “weak as water compared to the parent country they abandoned.” He loves the British Empire so much that he is still sad, more than a hundred years later, about that war they lost. Boohoo. It takes the Empire about half a day to retake their former territory “a triumph which amply redeemed the humiliation of centuries back.” Oh, and the 4th of July is abolished. That is some next level imperial fervor, dude. Chill.
  • Hilda’s love life has caused a world war, but Britain triumphs. Her scorned lover dies. She marries the Emperor of course, because why not?

Final Thoughts: This book is very silly nonsense. It’s sweet that Julius Vogel was so committed to women’s rights that he wrote an entire novel to promote the cause, but he should have stuck to politics. And all that imperialist pride. . .what the hell, Julius?

A Brief Summary of Henry James’ Long Problems

turn of the screw

Henry James, The Turn of the Screw, 1898

I’m ready. I’m going to blab about everything that is wrong with Henry James. Well, not everything, because I haven’t read all his “major” novels yet. There is nothing major, in the Clueless sense of the word, about any of his novels as far as I can perceive. Have you ever heard anyone say “Henry James is my favorite author!” I haven’t. He is remembered for being experimental and an influence for the Modernists, but his own work is, frankly, atrocious. I mean it. I worry about the Modern Era in literature that looms before me. If those goobers read Henry James and thought “Yes! This! The world needs more of this,” I worry about their judgment. The Turn of the Screw is perhaps a perfect microcosm of James’ flaws. Taking this novella as an exemplar, let’s get into the problem with Henry James. Have I typed those last five words before? I may have.

Anyway.

  1. Good concept, executed poorly. A young lady takes a job as a governess to two orphans living on their uncle’s remote country estate. The last governess died under mysterious circumstances. Yes! I am ready for these spooky, haunted children. Come to me, spectral governess. I am waiting. . . for nothing. James doesn’t really pull it off. Similarly, What Maisie Knew takes on the concept of divorce, a fascinating topic for the Late Victorian Era, but James does nothing good with it. In a Portrait of a Lady he tries to write about a modern, independent woman and fails spectacularly. It’s as if he thought of and about creative and interesting topics but failed to think up anything worthwhile when he contemplated them.
  2. Turn of the Screw starts out as a frame story. Visitors at a storm bespattered country estate gather around the fireside to share spooky stories. One claims to have the spookiest story of them all, but he must send away for the manuscript. He reads the manuscript. The novella ends. Right there with the last word of the manuscript. Henry James doesn’t close the frame. There is absolutely no value to the introductory portion. The listeners do not comment on the tale after they hear it. They are simply forgotten. He could have simply started with the governess’ narrative. In fact, BBC radio productions and similarly abridged versions do just that, recognizing that the James’ “frame” is unnecessary and pointless. Come at me. I will fight you on this. Oh wait, no one out there actually cares about Henry James enough to defend him, because he just isn’t good enough to deserve that level of devotion.
  3. He circles meaning like a turkey vulture, not daring to descend and eat until…I don’t know what he’s waiting for, really. Conversations drag on in a way that frustrates rather than builds tension. The governess sees ghosts and wants to know if her charges see them too. Rather than ask them, she talks around the topic page after page until you want to shake her and query the children on her behalf “hey, have you been hanging out with your dead governess?” Similarly, in P of and L Isabell won’t ask if Madame Merle happens to have been impregnated by her husband. Instead, James talks around that for a few hundred pages. In What Maisie Knew, James takes dragging-out-indelicate-conversations-with-children to the limit. The entire novel consists of interminable conversations between Maisie and adults who won’t come out and say “are you aware that your parents are having affairs with other people and that such behavior is wrong?” Speaking of repetitiveness. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hang fire, is apparently an expression that means “pause” and the preceding interlude represents what it feels like to read James’ dialogue, in which he uses that expression about as often as he changes speakers. Just sloppy and annoying. Weak writing by any acknowledged interpretation of the term.

I don’t have anything else to say about this story. I have two more novels “The Ambassador” and “Wings of the Dove” to drag myself through before I can put James behind me and dive into his hopefully more competent proteges. Gosh, I hope those books are better than what came before. Cuz, yikes.

You might like The Turn of the Screw if:

  • you like Uncle Silas. Yeah, you’d have to be into Victorian horror enough to have read Uncle Silas. You’d have to have a specific thing for Victorian horror, regardless of quality. Honestly, Uncle Silas is better.

You might not like The Turn of the Screw if:

  • You like stories that are well-told.

Final thoughts: Look, I get it. You’ve gotten this far, and you still want to know about the poor vulnerable governess and the spooky, haunted children. Me too. Watch the BBC production with Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary from Downton Abbey). It’s not bad.