Naturalism Is Mostly Stupid

Naturalism Is Mostly Stupid

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Today I am taking on three short works by Stephen Crane:

  • Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, a novel about the fall of a young woman from the slums of New York
  • The Red Badge of Courage, a novel about a young Union soldier who craves battle glory, but when faced with an actual battle fights, then flees, then fights again.
  • The Open Boat, a short story about a man who survives 30 hours stranded at sea.

 

Before starting this project, the only work I’d read by Stephen Crane was “The Open Boat,” an excellent tale of survival at sea. Based on the strength of this story, I was looking forward to him. I should have known better. Naturalism is not my genre and Crane is a scion of American Naturalism.

The Naturalists were an offshoot of the Realists. They pushed further after the ideal of impersonal, objective literature. A scientific literature. Both movements were born out of a distaste for Romanticism. Emile Zola lead this movement that scorned fanciful, imaginative fiction with supernatural elements.

I have two questions about that. Why and how? Imagination is fun, y’all. Take Shakespeare for example. He’s a great writer. If you want to read something great by Shakespeare, you have some choices, and you can choose witches! Or ghosts! I will always choose something great with witches over something great with no witches. Sometimes I’ll choose something mediocre with witches. Stop taking yourselves so seriously, Naturalists. I understand that they were trying to better represent human experience. Which brings me back to how? How are you going write impersonal, scientific fiction, Zola and company? You simply can’t. Try as you might, you cannot remove yourself from your prose. Your personal ideals and your worldview are central to the act of writing from the outset. Even choosing what to write about is an act of self-expression, a value judgment. No author can escape their self.

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It seems to me that when endeavoring to create literature that is a “more authentic” representation of human experience, the axiom “write what you know” becomes less a suggestion and more a requirement. In his two short novels Stephen Crane did not write what he knew. Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, follows an impoverished family in New York City’s Bowery neighborhood. Crane did spend some time in the Bowery, you know, visiting prostitutes as “research” before he penned his first novel. So, yeah, he wrote about the slums from the vantage of a slum tourist. Blergh. In The Red Badge of Courage, Crane wrote a psychological novel about the Civil War. He was born after the war and had never seen combat, although he did graduate from a pseudo-military school. These novels are inherently fantasies. A young man’s fantasies of the slums and of war. I spoke with a friend who is a veteran about The Red Badge of Courage. He said he’d take a non-veteran’s psychological portrait of war about as seriously as “Call of Duty.” This psychological portrait isn’t edifying. It isn’t beautiful. It isn’t fun.

I’m not going to say that Crane was wrong to write these novels. Plenty of readers found value in them, and that’s fine. They just don’t have much value for me. I don’t get anything out of The Red Badge of Courage. I actually found it unreadable. One third of the way through, I had to switch to the audiobook, because Crane’s writing style was so awful that my eye kept sliding over the words without gleaning any meaning. I physically could not read the book. This is not a problem I’m used to having. Crane’s sentences lack variation in style and structure. Ideas do not flow between sentences to create meaning effectively. The result is a dull and scattered narrative. Short, plain sentences don’t necessarily convey meaning more effectively than long, complicated ones. I’m willing to give him the credit of assuming that the scattered narrative style is meant to reflect the scattered mental processes of the protagonist, but it doesn’t work for me.

Crane clearly subscribes to the still prevalent concept that brutality somehow makes a story more “real.” I hear this often. Heath Ledger’s Joker is more realistic because he’s more violent than previous versions. Nope. Still an implausible fantasy character in an implausible fantasy world. In Crane’s case, I won’t argue that the Civil War wasn’t bloody and brutal, just that perhaps he was drawn to that topic because of it’s brutal potential. In Maggie, his heroine is the only slum resident who isn’t drunk, violent and stupid. Which is just great. So glad Stephen Crane finally gave a voice to poor people. Even Maggie doesn’t find true affection. She is ruined by an alliance with a bartender who she’s drawn to not out of love, but because he is slightly less poor than her family and therefore seems glamorous. Because love and affection are just not a part of life in the slums? It’s equally unreal to ignore the human capacity for kindness and love as it is to ignore our brutal tendencies.

Due to Victorian publishing constraints, Crane couldn’t openly describe Maggie’s fate as a fallen woman. So, he implies that she resorts to prostitution out of desperation and either kills herself or perhaps is murdered. We are meant to sympathize with Maggie, a controversial stance even though authors like Elizabeth Gaskell began suggesting that fallen women weren’t hell-beasts decades ago. There is some decent social commentary in Maggie’s rejection by her family. Her drunken, violent, sinful mother and brother throw sweet, kind Maggie out of the house for the sin of being ruined. That element is well done. Similarly, Crane’s examination of Henry’s behavior after he runs from battle is not unworthy of interest. Henry expresses his shame by turning his self-hate outwards and becomes so annoying to his fellow soldiers that one of them beats him over the head with a rifle, resulting in an injury that you could call a “red badge of being a real asshole.”

Not long after Crane became famous for The Red Badge of Courage, he was on his way to Cuba as a war correspondent when his boat sank off the coast of Florida. He and three crewmembers tried to reach the shore for thirty hours. Three of the four men survived. Crane fictionalized this experience in The Open Boat. Finally, he had an ordeal of his own to write about. It turned out great. Very good story. His theme of the ironic indifference of nature to the suffering of men who consider themselves precious works much better in this story than in TRBoC. It’s a well-told thriller. I recommend it.

Final thoughts: Read The Open Boat. If you want to read fiction about the Civil War, read Ambrose Pierce. I’m worried about the Modernists, because lately every book I don’t like is a seminal work that influenced the Modernist movement. Oh, well there’s only one way to find out. Keep reading.

Happy Afternoons for Pauper Lunatics

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The Story of a Modern Woman, Ella Hepworth Dixon, 1894

I am trying to remember why I added this book to my list and I am guessing that my past-self was hooked by the idea of a New Woman roman a clef. Dixon wrote about her own experience as a woman in a changing, Late Victorian World. Yeah, girl. Tell me what that was like. I am listening. I am ready to know how you define modern womanhood.

I know you are never going to read this obscure book, so here is a summary. Mary Erle is the daughter of a prominent scientist. When he dies, little orphan Mary must earn enough money to support herself and her younger brother. She tries to make it as an artist, but the painting that she works on for six months (six months!) is rejected from the Royal British Academy of Art or Whatever. Poor Mary. Fortunately, one of her more successful painter friends asks her to write a story to accompany a piece of his. Thus begins her career as a starving writer.

Meanwhile, her wealthier friend Alison takes an interest in helping less fortunate women. She wants to lead a more useful life than that of a London deb. Alison, who is far more interesting than Mary, seriously considers marrying the prominent doctor Dunlop Strange. I am not kidding. His name is Dr. Strange. Dunlop Strange. However, she encounters a dying woman in a hospital who turns out to be Strange’s abandoned mistress. Even though most Victorian women were expected to and did look past this type of masculine misbehavior, Alison cares about other women and is not about to marry a man who would toss someone aside like garbage.

Sadly, Alison catches a cold that, in combination with the mental shock of discovering her beau’s dying mistress, proves fatal. I know. That seems a bit too delicate, but they didn’t have antibiotics then. So, I suppose a thorough wetting and some bad news could. . .kill an otherwise healthy young woman? On her deathbed, Alison implores Mary to “Promise me you will never, never do anything to hurt another woman” because “there comes a time in our lives when we can do a great deal of harm or a great deal of good, or an incalculable amount of harm. If women only used their power in the right way! If we were only united we could lead the world.”

The implication is that if society women refused to marry men who ruin poor women’s lives and leave them to die in the gutter, men would have to stop doing that. It is tempting to think that female solidarity alone could generate a brave new world. It is a solution to the problem of male misbehavior that I have contemplated myself. It’s tough though, because, as Thomas Hardy wrote “Of all the ingenious and cruel satires that from the beginning till now have been stuck like knives into womankind, surely there is not one so lacerating to them, and to us who love them, as the trite old fact, that the most wretched of men can, in the twinkling of an eye, find a wife ready to be more wretched for the sake of his company.” Alison did not marry Dr. Strange, but someone will. He certainly wasn’t worth dying over, honey. Side note: How perfect is Thomas Hardy. So perfect.

Alison’s dying wish sets us up for the great crisis in Mary’s life. After stringing her along for years, her worthless lover marries a much wealthier woman, because he thinks her fortune can advance his political career. Later he has the audacity to come knocking at Mary’s door complaining about his unsatisfying marriage and begging her to runaway to France with him and live as his mistress. Of course, Mary tells him to jog on; she is a modern woman and modern women don’t bang each other’s husbands. I mean. . .it is certainly not the strongest feminist statement I have ever heard, but I will take it.

I appreciate that while the novel contains a strong dose of self-pity, Hepworth Dixon spends ample time acknowledging that other women have it much worse. She was well-connected, after all. One of her connections was Oscar Wilde, who appears in the book split into several different characters. He offers Mary writing work, but she still disdains his company, finding him too acerbic.

 

Here’s a quote:

“‘Oh, dear Miss Erle,’ said a shrill voice at the door, ‘do come in. It’s such a nice party. I wonder,’ continued Mr. Beaufort Flower, who entertained a good deal himself, ‘why other people’s parties are so much nicer than one’s own? I suppose it is because one always knows so many more people at other people’s houses?’

‘Who is here?’ said Mary, who never troubled herself to laugh at his small witticisms.”

Um, excuse me, Ella. You had the privilege of being in Oscar Wilde’s presence and you never troubled yourself to laugh. I don’t know what you are trying to prove with that attitude, but you’ve only shown that your bad taste. Also, don’t try to write something witty that Oscar Wilde might have said. You are not up to the task. He was much funnier than you. Anyway, I will try to forgive her. Oscar Wilde did enough mocking of others that he deserved to be mocked a little.

Final thoughts: Not bad. I am glad I read it. If you are interested, give it a try. It is quite brief and fairly well-written. I enjoyed it. Not a masterpiece, but worthwhile if it appeals to you. I can’t end this post without telling you about “Happy Afternoons for Pauper Lunatics” which is a charity one of the characters in this book organizes. Feel free to use that for your next album title.

The Jungle Books

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The Jungle Books, Rudyard Kipling, 1894 and 1895

Uuuuuuuergh. I have struggled to find anything at all to say about imperialist scum-bag Kipling’s most famous works. Maybe if Disney stopped making movies about Mowgli, we could stop thinking about Kipling. I suppose it is ok to reclaim his characters for our own purposes. These books are not completely without merit, but they are hard to wrap the mind around. Quite paradoxical.

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Mowgli

 

Kipling was born in India, then educated in England for about ten years, after which he returned to India and became a journalist, poet and novelist. He claimed to love India, but was a fervent Imperialist who harbored deep prejudice against the “Orientals,” as he called them. See his unspeakably atrocious poem “The White Man’s Burden” for more information.

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Hathi the Elephant

Anyway, he wrote a book a young Indian boy, Mowgli, who is lost in the jungle when a tiger, Shere Khan, attacks his village.  Mowgli is adopted by a family of wolves. It seems a bit patronizing for this particular author to choose to write this character. Of course, he couldn’t depict a white, English boy living among beasts. So, it’s already yucky. However, it is a very compelling story concept. The idea of the feral child easily captures the imagination. And animals as characters is great. Everybody likes animals. The found family of Baloo, Bagheera and Kaa is quite endearing. They are a bear, a panther and a snake respectively.

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Baloo the Bear

There are two Jungle Books. After the success of the first, Kipling published another a year later, called The Second Jungle Book. Both contain stories that jump between characters and through time, which was a bad call. If Kipling had thought to tell Mowgli’s story from beginning to end in one volume, that would make a much better read than these two volumes, which I plodded begrudgingly through. They’re boring, y’all. His prose is dry and lifeless.

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Mang the Bat

For some reason, Kipling thought the animal society that Mowgli joins should have rigid rules, the Jungle Law, that Mowgli must memorize. He must show proper deference and courtesy to the various “people” of the jungle. The animals even speak in formal prose to cement the Arthurian nature of their world. What? Why even? The entire appeal of the jungle setting is wildness. *Tears hair out.* The feral child appeals, because he/she/they are surviving in a world without society. No rules to memorize. No caste. No school! Mowgli goes to jungle school. Really. Swing and a miss from Kipling. That is not the kind of learning required of boy raised by wolves. There are so many frustratingly poor artistic choices in these books.

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Bagheera the Panther

Most of the non-Mowgli centered stories are very bad and painfully dull. Some are only slightly bad, perhaps even worth reading. “The White Seal” is about a seal who searches for a breeding ground that hunters cannot reach. It’s a bit charming and has a distinct environmental perspective, but you have to overlook some nastiness towards native Arctic people. Blergh. When I was a kid, I loved the story “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” about a mongoose who defends a British family from two cobras. Mostly I just liked the wee mongoose’s name. He is quite brave and determined. But honestly, at 35, the story of an Indian mongoose bravely defending imperialists has lost some of its appeal.

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Akela the Wolf

Final Thoughts: Yup, we’re here already. I don’t have much to say about these books. They are under-stimulating. The plots of the Mowgli stories are dramatic and compelling. If only they had been better written. If only.

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One of the Bandar-log and Kaa the Snake

Final, Final Thoughts: Of course, I am not the kind of inconsiderate knitter who posts pictures of knitted items without telling you where the patterns came from.

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Jacala the Crocodile

Most of the patterns are by Anna Hrachovec, including the gator, the cat, the bat, the bear and the elephant. This is her ravelry page. You can also find her patterns on her website, Mochimochi Land. I used Tatyana Korobkova’s Small Tiger Doll pattern to make Mowgli wearing Shere Khan’s pelt, which is a thing that happens in the books, rather graphically. Akela the wolf is from Noel Margaret’s Wee Wandering Wolf pattern. I made the snake pattern up, but you could use this pattern from Just Be Crafty to make a very similar one.

Hot Victorian Nonsense

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The Fate of Fenella, collaborative, 1892

Collaborative novels are a Victorian literary trend too weird to be ignored. I picked one, The Fate of Fenella, essentially at random. There was no reason to think that it would be any good. Twenty-four authors agreed to write one chapter each with no preconceived outline. The next author read the preceding contributions and added on. The result is predictably chaotic. I did not mean to do an oxymoron there. It just happened. Of the twenty-four authors, I am pretty sure you have only heard of Arthur Conan Doyle and Bram Stoker.

I have summarized each chapter so you can judge the merit of each contribution for yourself.

  1. Helen Mathers. “Her hair, gloves, and shoes were tan-color, and closely allied to tan, too, was the tawny, true tiger tint of her hazel eyes.” Wow. I mean. It’s original. I have never heard the phrase “closely allied to tan.” I never needed to. The first chapter only goes downhill from this alliterative description of our monochromatic leading lady. The n-word appears in the first paragraph. Very gratuitously. It is quite assaulting. Anyway, beautiful young mother, Fenella, is posing as a widow at an English watering spot when she unexpectedly encounters her estranged husband. Fenella is hoydenish, wild and immature, yet charming.
  2. Justin H. McCarthy MP. Not content with the existing characters, author number two conjures up a young lawyer named, of all things, Clitheroe Jacynth. CJ is so enamored with Fenella that he proposes to her. She refuses.
  3. Eleanor Francis Trollope. Some bloke called Lord Castleton decides to “save” his friend CJ from his suffering by sharing the sordid details of Fenella’s life. The tea: she has been a flirt since birth. (Hard eyeroll.) She had an entanglement with a German count while her husband carried on with a woman, Lucille. They quarreled. Fenella left him. Society blames her, because men aren’t expected to be faithful, duh.
  4. Arthur Conan Doyle. Femme fatale Lucille shows up claiming that Fenella was with the Count again last week. Fenella encounters Frank talking to Lucille, gets angry and rushes off to CJ to beg him not to abandon her.
  5. Mary Crommelin. To further rile her husband, Fenella calls for the Count. He wants to duel.
  6. C. Phillips CJ offers to introduce Fenella to his respectable sister, hoping some of that respectability will rub off on her. The sister refuses. This chapter is wholly unnecessary.
  7. Rita Frank heads to Fenella’s room to slip a letter under her door. He sees the Count entering her boudoir. He sinks into a state of stupor. (Yeah, I dunno.) In the morning he decides to get away from it all and leaves the country. In his distraction, he doesn’t notice the newspaper headlines about the mysterious death of a foreign count.
  8. Joseph Hatton Stuck having to explain the nonsense in the last chapter, author eight declares that the Count entered Fenella’s room without permission. Immediately after retreating to his own room, Frank fell asleep and somnambulated back to F’s room. F was threatening to stab the Count if he didn’t leave, but before she could get around to it, her sleeping husband strangles him. Yep, he murdered a guy in his sleep. When the police come, Fenella takes the fall for Frank.
  9. Lovett Cameron The jury returns a verdict of justifiable homicide. To keep her bloodtaint off of his child, Frank gives little Ronny into CJ’s aunt’s care. Fenella seeks anonymity in the Channel Islands, but cannot escape her past. Frank randomly arrives in her hideaway.
  10. Bram Stoker Frank finally hears about the murder and believes that Fenella did it. He is glad, because at least she wasn’t cheating on him. Lord Castleton figures out that Frank is the real killer, but says nothing.
  11. Florence Marryat Lucille marries a buffoonish American (we’re all like that) and gets her revenge on Frank for loving Fenella more by kidnapping their child and taking him to the U.S. Yeah. She straight-up kidnaps him.
  12. Frank Danby Worst chapter so far. Believing that she is a murderer, not an adulterer, Frank rushes to forgive his wife. Fenella, who has withstood many hardships with great fortitude, upon hearing this good news suddenly becomes so weak that she falls into a swoon. The doctor says that Frank must bring her child to her. Or she will die. Or go mad.
  13. Edward Kennard Frank discovers that his son has been abducted and hires a detective to find him.
  14. Richard Dowling Frank goes to America in search of his boy.
  15. Hungerford Fenella sends CJ to America too. On the same errand.
  16. Arthur à Beckett Frank discovers that Lucille has sent Ronny off somewhere. Then he sleepwalks into her house somehow. Just cuz.
  17. Jean Middlemass Frank attacks Lucille. She gets her doctor friend to shut him away in a mad house.
  18. Clement Scott With no explanation of how they manage it, Lord Castleton and CJ spring Frank from the asylum and put him on a boat back to England. Somehow they also have Ronny. And Lucille is on board in police custody. Author 18 is whacky.
  19. Graves Fenella has a bad dream. Also, what does “Clo.” stand for? Clorence? Clothilde? Carlo? British for colonel?
  20. W. Lucy Shipwreck.
  21. Adeline Sargeant Obviously, Lord Castleton dies. It was kind of the other authors to include this redundant character who could easily be killed off. Ronny, CJ and Frank survive. Lucille is presumed dead. Gee, I wonder if she’s really dead?
  22. George Manville Fenn Her husband, not the American, some other guy, has escaped from prison and wants revenge for something. He tries to kill her.
  23. Tasma Frank is sick.
  24. Anstey Lucille re-reappears. Apparently, Frank saved her life while in a trance. This man is a very productive sleepwalker. She gets arrested for some past bank heist. Frank suddenly dies of a heart problem, leaving the way clear for CJ and Fenella.

Final thoughts: So very silly. It’s notable that when compared to other literary giants, Arthur Conan Doyle is not exceptional for stylistic brilliance, but when compared to this collection of lesser-knowns, his chapter is absolutely the best written. His is refreshingly direct. Far less florid.

Everything I Have to Say About Oscar Wilde

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Everything I Have Left to Say About Oscar Wilde

Ok, this won’t be everything I have yet to say about Oscar Wilde. His writing, his approach to life, his own tragic personal dramas, pierce the center of my being in a way that I cannot package into words and ship to the cold void of the internet. The Marianas Trench of my feelings for Wilde will not be plumbed, but we will break the surface. Piece by piece.

Poe and Hemmingway have their adherents, but Oscar Wilde has always been the literary icon for me. He is a tragic, flawed hero in the Greek style. Far from perfect, but exquisitely inspiring. I have been fascinated by him ever since I read The Importance of Being Earnest as a teenager. His wit, humor, defiance, and fashion choices move me.

Fairy Stories

His tales for children, including “The Happy Prince” and “The Selfish Giant” are so beautiful, poignant, and sad. Give them a read.

Lady Windermere’s Fan

How could he have become so good at play writing so quickly? This is only his third play. Lady Windermere’s Fan is a saucy takedown of the Angel in the House idea of Victorian femininity. Through a series of misunderstandings, a vociferously upright young wife must be rescued from ruin by a woman she scorned as immoral. Wilde skewers late Victorian prudishness by presenting a fallen woman who, while not entirely selfless, is capable of great sacrifice. She had good reasons for leaving her husband and becoming ruined in the first place, too.

The plot is a bit contrived. I am absolutely not a fan of testing a character’s morals by placing them in artificially complex situations that no one could be expected to navigate. However, I can overlook it in this case, because the ideas and style of the play are just lovely. I love that Mrs. Erlynne is a brazen courtesan who represents everything that good society cannot tolerate, yet she insinuates herself into good society with grace, cleverness and a healthy dose of self-interest.

Enjoy some quotes:

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

I can resist anything except temptation.

Life is far too important a thing to ever talk seriously about.

There are moments when one has to choose between living one’s own life, fully, entirely, completely-or dragging out some false, shallow, degrading existence that the world in its hypocrisy demands.

“How long could you love a woman who didn’t love you, Cecil?
A woman who didn’t love me? Oh, all my life!”

On now to the next play.

 

A Woman of No Importance

Yikes, this one is kind of bad. Sorry, Oscar. I’m shocked that he actually got it published and performed, considering the very obvious subtext of the plot. Lord Illingworth wants to give a handsome young man, Gerald, a position that he’s under-qualified for. Gerald’s mother is adamant that Gerald not go with Illingworth, because *dramatic music* Gerald is Illingworth’s son. So, you might be thinking that she wants to keep her son away from the immoral man who seduced her and abandoned her. That would be true. But. Also. She doesn’t want Illingworth to seduce his own son. Gross, Oscar. Why even write that?

I appreciate that Wilde stands up for the moral character of unwed mothers, but he doesn’t do it particularly well. His wit does not sparkle. The play is a continuous string of epigrams and paradoxes that become quite tedious.

Here’s a quote:

When good Americans die they go to Paris. And when bad Americans die they go to America.

 

An Ideal Husband

This play and The Importance of Being Earnest are Oscar Wilde’s best work. So clever and funny. An Ideal Husband centers on two couples and the scheming intriguer who would ruin them. Sir Robert Chiltern is a politician whose wife Gertrude, unaware of a sordid trick he pulled to launch his career, adores him as an ideal of honesty and rectitude. This pair takes themselves very seriously. Meanwhile, Chiltern’s sister, Mabel, and her beau, Lord Goring, are models of frivolity and facetiousness. Of course, dear Oscar shows that the seemingly foolish and superficial pair are much more forthright and realistic in their behavior and expectations than the couple that would like to be models of correct Victorian behavior.

I love this play. You should read it or watch one of the versions on youtube or maybe even pay to watch the 1999 film with Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett, Minnie Driver, Rupert Everett and some guy I don’t remember.

A quote:

Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people we personally dislike. 

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The Importance of Being Earnest

Absolutely the most delightful, whimsical play ever written. The wittiest banter of all time. It is silly, satirical and somewhat romantic. I love this play so much. I don’t think I have read anything funnier. The interview between Lady Bracknell and Jack/Ernest Worthing is a particular highlight. I won’t say anything about the plot, because you should just read it. Or at the very least watch the charming 2002 film with Rupert Everett again, Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon and Dame Judy Dench at her absolute finest. I adore this movie. It really plays up the silliness and faux romanticism of the source material.

If you read only one thing by Oscar Wilde in your life, it should be Earnest. It is a sparkling, unique masterpiece. He was a genius.

Quotes:

I never travel without my diary, one should always have something sensational to read on the train.

Oh! I don’t think I would like to catch a sensible man. I shouldn’t know what to talk to him about.

The Canterville Ghost

I highly recommend this funny story about a brazen, new-money, American family who move into a musty old British manor house and fail to be impressed by the resident ghost. They trample on tradition in a delightful way. You should definitely, definitely, definitely read it.

The Fall of the House of Wilde

I wanted to know more about Oscar Wilde’s life story, but I never can find the time to read non-fiction. The Fall of the House of Wilde by Emer O’Sullivan was the only biography of Wilde available on Audible, so I listened to it. I learned a lot. I think this would be a very engaging read or listen for anyone interested in Irish History, LGBT history or any fan of biographies.

I came for Oscar Wilde’s life story, but O’Sullivan set out to place Oscar in the context of his revolutionary, intellectual, fiercely individualistic, self-destructive, Irish family. It is true that Oscar was not a green carnation blooming in a desert. His father, William, was a noted doctor and archeologist. His mother was a poet. Both were known for their wit as well as their interest in Irish history, folklore and politics. O’Sullivan’s thesis seems to be first that Oscar is a logical outgrowth of his sparkling family and upbringing, not an natural wonder, and secondly he laments that the Wilde family was wiped out of Irish history when Oscar’s trial for homosexuality made the Wilde name unmentionable. Yes, they deserve restoration in their place in Irish history, but must we be so hard on Oscar?

I do think he is a wonder. A green carnation that bloomed from fertile soil, true. But a unique flower, nonetheless.

Final Thoughts: I love Oscar Wilde with my whole heart, but with some reservation. The biographical details of his life would not stand up to modern scrutiny. I have both condemnation and forgiveness in my heart. Read or listen to The Fall of the House of Wilde if you want to know what I am referring to. I think it’s best to hear the entire story than my one paragraph summary.

When I contemplate Oscar Wilde’s life, I am filled with profound sadness for the moral failure of the culture that I inherited. This brilliant man was condemned for loving who he loved and imprisoned in inhumane conditions. He died of illness he contracted in prison. It horrifies me to think of everyone who has suffered like Oscar suffered, for not being straight, for having the audacity to be themselves. It makes me sick and sad. The only consolation is that his art remains to lift us up, to remind us of the beauty and silliness in this life.

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.