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.

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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

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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.

Thomas Hardy on Hangmen, Witches, Bootlegging and Bad Marriages

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Wessex Tales, Thomas Hardy, 1888

Honestly, if you are getting tired of reading about Thomas Hardy, you can skip this review. Hardy’s writing is like a resplendent river that smooths the rough rocks in my soul. I can leave no stone unturned in my quest to read all his poetry and prose. There could be a salamander under that rock! But he’s not your favorite author, so you don’t have to read every single review I write about his minor works. And if he is your favorite author: Hi. Let’s be friends.

Wessex Tales is a collection of short stories that were originally published in magazines. Hardy writing short fiction for magazine editors and readers is not the best Hardy. Seeing as how he is my best friend and soulmate even though he died 58 years before I was born, I can tell when he is writing just for the money and not attempting much artistic expression. Wow. The idea that only 58 years separate our lives is mind-bending. What very different worlds we experienced.

My point is that these stories are just ok. Well, it’s Hardy, so just ok by his standard is still pretty darn good, but if you have read any of his five best novels, you won’t be impressed by these little yarns. The original 1888 publication contained:

  • “The Three Strangers” a cute little tale of mistaken identity. Not bad at all.
  • “The Withered Arm” which is quite good. A spooky, sad witch story that hints at Hardy’s fascination with tragic destiny. I think I’ve mentioned at least twice on this blog how much I love when English authors write about visits to mystic healers. That happens in this story to and it is wonderful, of course. British writers can’t help revealing their secret paganism; and I love it. I won’t tell you anything more about the plot of this one, because I’d rather save it for the next time you and I are hanging out around a campfire.
  • “Fellow Townsmen” which is very much about tragic destiny. Hardy had a lot to say during the 1880s about the silly impulses and motivations that lead people to make unwise marriages and the bitter consequences of those marriages.
  • “Interlopers at the Knapp” has a very different plot, but the exact same theme, only less tragic.
  • “The Distracted Preacher” which we need to talk about in more detail below.

 

“The Distracted Preacher” is my favorite, not for the tale but, for the note Hardy added for a later printing of Wessex Tales. The story concerns a preacher temporarily assigned to a seaside town. Of course, he falls in love with the beautiful widow who provides his lodgings. You would fall in love with her too; she’s badass and adorable. The way Hardy writes about characters falling in love is unmatched so far in English literature, in my opinion. Yes, that includes the Brontë’s and Jane Austen! I do not this not make this statement lightly. At any given moment I am desperately in love with three Thomas Hardy characters.

Anyway, it turns out that Lizzy is involved in a smuggling ring, the naughty wench. Predictably, the preacher asks her to desist smuggling liquor for him and for God and for the sake of her poor, dear conscience. She tells him she simply can’t, because she doesn’t know the king and doesn’t care about his coffers, but she does care about keeping herself and her mother fed and comfortable. Also, she simply couldn’t give up smuggling, because “It stirs up one’s dull life at this time o’ the year, and gives excitement, which I have got so used to now that I should hardly know how to do ‘ithout it. At nights, when the wind blows, instead of being dull and stupid, and not noticing whether it do blow or not, your mind is afield, even if you are not afield yourself; and you are wondering how the chaps are getting on; and you walk up and down the room and look out o’ the window, and then you go out yourself and know your way about as well by night as by day, and have hair-breadth escapes from old Latimer and his fellows, who are too stupid ever to really frighten us and only make us a bit nimble.” Yes, Lizzy. Smuggle to your heart’s content. You don’t need this preacher man. Live your wild life. Don’t wed yourself to the judgmental patriarchy. Except of course, she does. Conventional morality must win in the end. This is still the Victorian Era.

Wait! There’s a great little note from Hardy at the end of the tale. “The ending of this story with the marriage of Lizzy and the minister was almost de riguer in an English magazine at the time of writing. But at this late date, thirty years after, it may not be amiss to give the ending that would have been preferred by the writer to the convention used above. Moreover it corresponds more closely with the true incidents of which the tale is a vague and flickering shadow. Lizzy did not, in fact, marry the preacher, but—much to her credit in the author’s opinion—stuck to Jim the smuggler, and emigrated with him after their marriage, an expatrial step rather forced upon him by his adventurous antecedents.” Ugh. Don’t you love that? I think about the writer that Hardy could have been he wasn’t restricted by the Victorian monomania for morality. The tales he might have told. I think about that at least twice a week. Even if you’re not obsessed with wondering what Hardy might have written in another universe, you might enjoy “The Distracted Preacher,” for the humorous hijinks that the townsfolk get up to whilst attempting to evade the excisemen.

For said later printing, Hardy added some stories to Wessex Tales. They are all fairly forgettable, except for “An Imaginative Woman” in which a married woman poet discovers that the seaside lodgings her family rented for the summer belong to a fellow poet that she admires. She discovers some of his verses written on the walls and becomes so obsessed with him that. . .his likeness is imprinted on the fetus in her womb. . .and her baby looks like this poet even though she never met him. Oh, baby. Victorians sure didn’t understand paternity or inheritance; and they came up with some kooky ways for explaining their children’s weird faces. But yes, they really did believe that if a woman became obsessed with a picture of a man, that image could imprint on her womb. Her brain, like a 3D printer supplied with an image of a man’s face, could produce a reproduction of that face in her womb. Wow. I mean. Wow. You have to love that plotline.

Final Thoughts: “The Withered Arm” and “The Distracted Preacher” are worth a read if you have already read these more important works by Hardy: Far from the Madding Crowd, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Woodlanders, Jude the Obscure, The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Return of the Native and The Hand of Ethelberta. I know no one else feels the way I do about The Hand of Ethelberta, but I stand by that book. It’s top notch. Fight me.

Silly Novels by Robert Louis Stevenson

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Kidnapped and Treasure Island by Robert Luis Stevenson

Warning: I am going to insult Robert Louis Stevenson right now. If you went online today intending to yell at some chick for failing to appreciate Treasure Island, I am that chick; you have come to the right site. @me in the comments.

I love The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I love it so much. Everyone should read it at least three times. See my review of that story here for more on why I respect and adore it. I think that if Stevenson hadn’t written that one little story he would have been entirely forgotten. Nothing else he wrote is good.

I just don’t understand what is supposed to be great about Treasure Island or Kidnapped. I found both stories so under-stimulating that I am reviewing them together, because I cannot possibly scrounge up two posts worth of thoughts about these books. There just isn’t much to them. I imagine that some people appreciate the scary pirates in Treasure Island and the romantic highland setting of Kidnapped, but these books are Tom Sawyers they are not Huckleberry Finns. Well, they aren’t even Tom Sawyers, because Tom Sawyer is much funnier. Twain’s writing style is much quirkier and more engaging than Stevenson’s. What I mean by the metaphor is that like Tom Sawyer, Stevenson’s tales of childhood adventure are just that and nothing more. They do not have the emotional or thematic weight of Huck Finn.

Treasure Island concerns a young boy who comes into possession of a treasure map and falls in with a sordid set of pirates in his quest to recover the booty. This novel was wildly popular and influential. Half our silly ideas about pirates come from this book. Treasure maps marked with an X. One-legged pirates. Foul-mouthed parrots. Crazy marooned sailors. All that is very nice and imaginative. I admit the characterization is great. Long John Silver is a very creepy conman. Poor marooned Ben Gunn is simultaneously unpredictable, sympathetic and eerie. However, our protagonist, young Jim Hawkins is a thinly sketched everykid who could be swapped out for the main character of Kidnapped with no discernible difference. They’re just a couple of kids with no character traits in strange circumstances. I guess they’re both resilient and determined, but that describes every kid in every adventure story. I forgot their names immediately after setting down their respective volumes.

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David Balfour is the kid in Kidnapped, which is about getting shanghaied. Were you hoping for a plot less plausible than a kid getting his hands on an actual treasure map? Here you go: David Balfour has recently been orphaned. For some reason, his father died without once mentioning that David is the heir to an estate that is currently occupied by an evil uncle. Everybody has one of those: a secret, evil, rich uncle who lives in a rundown castle on the border of the Scottish Highlands. It’s so plausible that you should call your father right now, if you can, and ask him if he has a rich brother he has never once mentioned. Anyway, it turns out that David is the real heir. His uncle tries to kill him, but David is too clever. So, Evil Uncle enlists the help of a corrupt captain to shanghai David and sell him into indentured servitude in the Carolinas. David manages to avoid this fate through a series of absurd events that leaves him crossing the Highlands with an outlaw named Alan Breck. Breck has a few character traits, thank goodness. Stevenson drew inspiration for the plot and for Breck from real people and one real event, the Appin murder. Although the murder is more of an unnecessary tangent from than a meaningful backdrop for the plot. Briefly, England had just squashed the Jacobite Uprising and were working on further squashing the spirit and culture of the Scotts. Some important fella on the British side was murdered, so the local justice system gathered a biased jury and convicted the closest laird of the murder even though there was no evidence against him and everyone knew he didn’t do it. Think of all a skilled author could do with such an example of injustice in such a romantic time and location. Stevenson has his characters visit the laird who has not been arrested yet, but fears he might be. Then they leave. He never even mentions him again. I only know that he was later falsely convicted and executed because I looked it up.

What a waste.

I could forgive every literary sin I have mentioned if Treasure Island and Kidnapped excelled in one critical element. The most important element for any adventure tale. Pacing. These stories are both approximately 200 pages long, which is so short for a novel from this period. Yet, they both manage to drag on. While reading Kidnapped I found myself bored and feeling no sense of emotional connection to the characters or events. I thought “please just get to part where our two buddies have a fight, one of them almost dies and then they reconcile.” After two more chapters of nothing significant, we got to that exact point. Because every tale of two dudes adventuring together contains that element. David’s near death and Alan’s concern for him was the only moment that elicited an emotional reaction, but it was a weak response, because I’ve experienced it before while watching any number of predictable children’s movies.

Come for me in the comments, RLS fans. I am ready to hear how ignorant and obtuse I am. Make sure to criticize my punctuation while you’re down there.

 Final thoughts: George Eliot published an essay called “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” in which she opines the publication of formulaic, unrealistic novels written by women. (Yeah, George Eliot kind of sucked. More on that when I have fully processed how disappointed I am in her.) She was not alone in this sentiment. I think Treasure Island and Kidnapped belong in a category of Silly Novels by Male Novelists. There’s just not much to them. They are not great novels. If Stevenson hadn’t written Jekyll and Hyde, I don’t think these stories would be read today. They are worth pilfering for inspiration for Pirates of the Caribbean, but that’s it. No other value.

Henry James Was Essentially a Men’s Rights Activist

bostonians

The Bostonians, Henry James, 1886

I don’t know why Henry James thought satirizing late Victorian feminism would be a good idea. It wasn’t. The Bostonians, the result of this misguided endeavor, is a truly worthless book. I don’t know who he imagined would want to read it. Maybe Men’s Right’s Activists. I stumbled across a review of this book on what turned out to be an MRA website. That’s the type of book this is.

The plot concerns two cousins who get into a fight over a young woman. Olive Chancellor is a well-to-do Bostonian and very active in the Women’s Movement. She invites her Southern cousin, Basil Ransom to visit. At one of Olive’s meetings they are both introduced to a beautiful young woman named Verena Tarrant who is a talented speaker. They didn’t have Netflix in the 1880s, so the ability to deliver some stirring oration was quite a talent. Olive and Basil become locked in a battle for lovely Verena’s soul.

James depicts Olive as cold and joyless. He shows her the type of disrespect that activists are often shown by assuming that her efforts are more a result of her personality than her convictions. She tries to change people’s behavior because she is an egotistical, controlling nag, not because these behaviors are harmful. She is obsessed with the suffering of women, not because women have truly suffered, but because the more downtrodden they are the greater her glory in lifting them up to a higher life. James continually indicates that he sees no merit in Olive’s cause, equal rights for women, by depicting Olive as someone who believes “whatever is—is wrong” and who would “reform the solar system if she could get a hold of it.” Barf. That attitude is so dismissive. James draws feminists as meddlers who want to reform for reformation’s sake. At no point does he demonstrate respect for the idea that all people should be equal.

That disrespect got him in trouble with the literary community. Nobody was interested in his backwards, even for the time, opinions. One doddering old feminist character, Miss Birdseye, was clearly based on Eliza Peabody, a relative of Nathaniel Hawthorne and friend of the Alcotts. Here’s a segment of James’ description of Ms. Birdseye “she belonged to the Short-Skirts League, as a matter of course; for she belonged to any and every league that had been founded for almost any purpose whatsoever.” Cuz, you know, all these loud women talking about feminism don’t even care about equality, they just like being in a club together. To continue with the quote “this did not prevent her being a confused, entangled, inconsequent, discursive old woman whose charity began at home and ended nowhere, whose credulity kept pace with it, and who knew less about her fellow-creatures, if possible, after fifty years of humanitary zeal, than on the day she had gone into the field to testify against the iniquity of most arrangements.” Also, she’s ugly. Yep, Henry James did just depict humanitarianism as inconsequential. I want that on the record. The scorn in that phrase “iniquity of most arrangements” is at the heart of what makes this book worthless. Who the hell is James talking to? Who does he think his audience is? Society had already acknowledged that arrangements were iniquitous. Mocking that idea will appeal to no one except for reactionary assholes like Basil Ransom.

I’m getting ahead of myself. I haven’t gotten to the worst part of Ms. Birdseye’s characterization. James states that she is less busy since the end of the Civil Wa, “before that her best hours had been spent in fancying that she was helping some Southern slave to escape. It would have been a nice question whether, in her heart of hearts, for the sake of this excitement, she did not sometimes wish the blacks back in bondage.” Uhhhhhhhhhhh. Where to even start with this one. Yet again, James sees no sincerity in activism. Abolitionists were just in it for the thrills. Now, it is hard to know if James is being dismissive of the efforts of everyone involved in the Underground Railroad or if Ms. Birdseye really did only fancy that she helped slaves escape. Potentially, he could mean that she was so ineffective that she couldn’t bring about an escape. However, he doesn’t have much benefit of the doubt left. So, probably not? The idea that she might wish for the reinstatement of slavery smacks of that dumb philosophical argument that there is no true altruism, because if you feel pleasure when you help someone, you aren’t being truly selfless. I believe it was John Stewart Mill who rolled his eyes hard and said “Wtf do you care if someone who does a good deed feels pleasure? Someone was helped. Someone else felt happy. These are both good things. Shut up, Henry James. What part of feeling good about doing good is objectionable to you, you twisted ratbag?”

This is not to say that feminists and abolitionists are too sacred to be criticized or even mocked. You don’t have to do much digging to find objectionable behavior in either camp. But this is not an instance of one humanitarian holding other humanitarians to a higher standard. This is just one twisted ratbag making fun of people for promoting equality. Yes, the people that these characters are based on were not the intersectional heroes we wish for. However, that’s not what James is lampooning. He’s not mocking them for doing a bad job of striving for equality. He’s just mocking them. The Bostonians was published serially. James’ depiction of Ms. Birdseye was so poorly received that he had to change direction and write a touching death scene for her near the end of the novel.

Woof. 1,000 words already. I’ve covered the first 5% of the book. We need to talk about Basil. He is a Southern gentleman who lost his family fortune when his slaves were freed. Basil has such reactionary political opinions that he cannot get them published. A newspaper editor rejects his “paper on the rights of minorities” because his “doctrines were about three hundred years behind the age; doubtless some magazine of the sixteenth century would have been very happy to print them.” So, Olive and Basil are both ideologues. Basil has the upper hand in their fight for Verena, because he is charming and persuasive, while Olive is the incarnation of an MRAer’s mental picture of a feminist. Basil falls in love with Verena and wants to rescue her from the taint of public life, because women should be hidden away at home. Doing some baking.

Long story short, Verena chooses Basil, because I don’t know, the innate superiority of men? James depicts her as young and impressionable. She only became involved in the Women’s Movement, because of her father’s influence. She sways from one influence to another. James cannot conceive of a young woman who genuinely believes in equal rights or has any convictions whatsoever that won’t fly out of her silly little head as soon as someone mildly persuasive starts talking to her. Verena is clay to be molded by the stronger characters; “it was in her nature to be easily submissive, to like being overborn.”  Which describes exactly zero of the young advocates I know. Although, I can’t claim that a prominent feminist falling in love with an anti-feminist troll and losing her way is absolutely unrealistic. Remember Laci Green, the feminist, sex-positive youtuber who “reached out to the other side,” started dating an anti-feminist troll and immediately started tweeting transphobia? It can happen.

But do we need a novel about it? No.

We have to talk about the book’s queerness. There is an obvious implication that Olive is in love with Verena. They live together, an arrangement that lead to the coining of the term “Boston marriage” meaning a same-sex couple that live together ostensibly as platonic friends, but who are really romantically involved. I can understand how even a tacit acknowledgement of the existence of same-sex relationships during this era is significant, but this book is not the queer classic you deserve. Not by any stretch. James promotes the stereotype of homosexual love as the corruption of malleable young person by a misguided older lover. I don’t need it. You don’t need it. It’s trash and I don’t want to think about it anymore.

You might like The Bostonians if:

  • You’re a Men’s Rights Activist or whatever they’re calling themselves now.

You might not like The Bostonians if:

  • See above.

Final thoughts: Barf.