Robin Hood: Toxic Masculinity Can Be Delightful?

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The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, Howard Pyle, 1883

Look who it is! Robin Hood himself. What’s he doing here in the 1880s? I will explain.

The earliest surviving mention of the name Robin Hood dates to the 1370s. The legend was maintained in a slew of separate ballads composed in the two proceeding centuries. Originally Robin was simply a clever outlaw, not a kind, generous socialist. Walter Scott, in the unreadably racist Ivanhoe, recast Robin Hood as a hero. The original Robin was a yeoman, a farmer who owned his land. Scott changed his motivation, status and time period. Robin became a Saxon knight and Social Justice Warrior who stole from evil Norman conquerors to return England’s native wealth to its native people. Oopsy, Scott forgot that the Saxons were also Germanic conquerors.

Anyway, Scott’s 1820 novel initiated the long tradition of reimagining the medieval outlaw in whatever form of heroism happened to jive with the time. In 1973 Disney knew the people needed a sexy, anti-authoritarian fox. We still do. We can thank Howard Pyle for that fox. In 1883 he did his best to combine the various Robin Hood ballads into a continuous narrative called The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. The text still seems episodic, but that doesn’t necessarily detract from the tale. Pyle attempted to preserve the humor, rhythm and some of the fun language from his source material. I think he did a smashing job. He generated renewed interest in the Robin Hood myth that never died out. Thanks, Howie!

You will recognize Pyle’s Robin. He is kind and generous to his friends, always ready to prank an enemy, the best archer in the land, and he has a keen sense of economic injustice. He relieves wealthy travelers, especially fat friars, of their riches. Sorry, he does not redistribute to the poor. Instead, he uses the money to maintain his gang of outlaws. He needs this troop to protect him from arrest, because he’s a murderer, arguably in self-defense. No one can serve a warrant on Robin Hood, because he is a mafioso and his thugs will give you “cracked crowns and broken bones.” So, maybe you wouldn’t entirely recognize him.

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The murder Robin committed weighs heavily on his heart, so he and his gang perform elaborate jests upon their enemies rather than harm them, which is fun for us. Not content with the number of scrapes they get into with the Sheriff of Nottingham and his minions, Robin and his Merry Men are quick to perceive insults and start bashing random people with staves over silly disputes like who will cross a bridge first. This is how Robin jumps doughty fighters into his gang. Little John and several others join the group after proving their fighting prowess against Robin or another Merry Man. It gets a bit repetitive. Although, I do appreciate Robin’s ability to laugh at himself when he is bested.

In between bashings, Robin maintains his horde in style. They feast in the forest on the King’s deer—naughty boys—and use the riches they steal to keep themselves well provided with ale. Have I already gone on a rant about the unimaginable horribleness of the British royalty not allowing poor people to hunt? Evil. Anyway, when the Merry Men tire of their comfortable lifestyle they wander around Sherwood until they find someone to bash with a stick or prank or both. Now, you may be thinking that you don’t want to read about men who can’t stop bashing sticks into each other. I did get frustrated with them. Medieval medicine was mostly nonsense. One shouldn’t walk around cracking crowns and breaking bones, especially in this era. But wait, the story has a saving grace: Pyle’s writing style!

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Pyle’s prose has a lovely rhythm. It reminds me of footsteps. Thus, you feel as if you are walking through the woods with Robin. Combining that rhythm with pseudo-medieval language, he achieved such a charming effect. For example, “So saying, he strode away through the leafy forest glades until he had come to the verge of Sherwood. There he wandered for a long time, through highway and byway, through dingly dell and forest skirt.” Ah! Doesn’t that just make you want to quit your job to go wander through a dingly dell? His tone is so jolly and fun that I couldn’t help but enjoy myself, in spite of the goofy men constantly trying to prove their manliness. Isn’t that weird? It’s ok though. It’s ok to turn off the intersectional feminist part of your brain for a moment to enjoy jolly tale. Take a break. Turn it back on right after, though. We need you in the fight. Or, if you’re not comfortable with that, give this one a pass. You do you.

The most objectionable part occurs in the epilogue, when Pyle had the difficult task of disposing of a character who is too pure, noble and manly, and far too stout a fighter to be defeated by any man. So, of course, Robin is undone by the treachery of women. A vile Prioress bleeds him to death. Blergh.

Excepting the ending, I really enjoyed this one. It’s as charming as the fox in the Disney film. The story may be full of men attacking each other, but it’s also full of joie de vivre, a certain sweetness, and a vibrant appreciation of the beauty of nature. I almost forgot to tell you that the men refer to each other as “sweet chuck.” Just a cute little pet name. They call deer “dainty brown darlings.” Here’s another fun quote for you: “The bright light faded from the sky and a glimmering gray fell over all things. From the deeper recesses of the forest the strange whispering sounds of night-time came to the ear.” Just an small example of what I liked about this novel.

You may like The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood if:

  • you’re a nature lover
  • you like mischief

You may not like The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood if:

  • there are absolutely no circumstances under which you would consider reading a story that is mainly about men bashing each other with sticks

Final Thoughts: I liked it! Robin Hood is a fun character. I’m glad Pyle helped repopularize him.

P.S. Thank you, thank you, thank you to my wonderful friends Rachel and Alex for being completely perfect at portraying Robin Hood and Friar Tuck.

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A Country Doctor is not the Book about Women Doctors that You Deserve

 

img_7352A Country Doctor, Sarah Orne Jewett, 1883

I had such high hopes for A Country Doctor by Sarah Orne Jewett. It’s about a Victorian lady doctor! Hooray! And it is set in Maine, where I currently live. And it’s written by a woman. I was so ready to love it.

But it just isn’t good.

Firstly, there is a grand total of one, just one, pitiful sad lonely one scene in which our hero Nan—or whatever, I finished reading this book today and I already forgot the main character’s name, but we’ll call her Nan. I’m 90% sure it’s Nan.—actually practices medicine. Just that one scene. She relocates a man’s shoulder. Which is probably not the medical term for fixing a dislocated shoulder. I don’t care about this book enough to look up medical terms.

The beautiful, eerie, shimmering spirit of a good book haunts this novel, but Sarah OJ tragically murdered it. I want to know about the fiery, wild spirit of the young girl who would grow up to defy society and become a doctor. Unfortunately, OJ just hints at Nan’s wild youth through long and tedious conversations that adults have about her. Ugh. Imagine if Little Women or Anne of Green Gables was just conversations among adults and the scrapes the girls get themselves into were never directly narrated. I thought I was done with long conversations about the politics of Victorian medicine when I finished Middlemarch, but I guess not.

OJ focuses most of her wordcount on Nan’s peculiar family history. Nan’s mother was an uppity farm girl who married above her station. Mom’s in-laws were cruel. Dad died young. Mom took to drink and tuberculosis. After contemplating doing away with herself and her young child, the drunk, consumptive Momma delivers the child to her grandmother before expiring from her illnesses. Mom asks the attendant country doctor to look after her child. Her own mother is standing right there, but she asks the doctor to take on this random baby. Apparently, that was something you could do in the 1880s.

In time grandma passes away and the doctor takes little Nan to his own home. She takes to medicine. Thus commences the debate as old as women in the work place “can she have it all.” Obviously, in the 19th century a woman could not have a job and a husband. Obviously, a man appears and falls in love with Nan. Spoiler: she loves him too, but decides she is unsuited to marriage and that her one duty is to become a doctor. The shoulder relocation scene occurs during their brief courtship. Which means that the only example OJ gives of her protagonist’s medical prowess serves to demonstrate the effect of that skill on young men who wish to marry her. Nothing to do with personal accomplishment or utility to the greater good, just “what will the boys think?”

We know from the title of the book that Nan is going to choose medicine over men, so OJ’s attentiveness to this crisis in Nan’s life has no urgency. Her actual medical career serves as an epilogue to the central question of will she choose marriage or a career. Granted, this is an important topic to see inaugurated in literature. Sadly, Sarah Orne Jewett threw Can-She-Have-It-All a rather inept debutante ball.

My favorite part of the novel was the moment when two wives discuss how much easier cooking is with their newfangled stoves while their husbands discuss how much they miss the old-fashioned stoves. Too true, OJ. Too true. Often, men don’t understand how much work the women are doing to keep the house in order.

OJ’s most profound moment lies in Nan’s assertions that she is unfit for marriage. While it is unfortunate that her relatives cannot simply accept that she’d rather be a doctor than a wife, OJ takes some time to consider the idea that not all women are suited to being wives, home makers or mothers. Men at that time could choose whether they wanted to be husbands and fathers. However, women without independent means had no choice but marriage. When marriage is your only choice, marriage is not truly consensual. Neither is the sex within that marriage.

You might like A Country Doctor if:

  • You need it for your Ph.D. thesis on Victorian women in literature.

You might not like A Country Doctor if:

  • I think I laid that out for you already.

Final Thoughts: The topic and the themes of this novel are all I could ask for, but the execution is poor. I would be very interested in reading a history of women in medicine, though. Fascinating topic.

Star-crossed Astronomers

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I love Thomas Hardy for so many reasons. Lately, I have been particularly admiring the surprising behavior of his female characters. Even in the Late Victorian Era, women in literature are mostly predictable. They obey their fathers and husbands. They almost always do the right thing, and by “right” I mean socially acceptable. When faced with adversity, Hardy’s heroines do not follow convention. Here are some of the surprising things they do:

  • when Bathsheba must fire her steward, she doesn’t hire another man to help her; she runs her farm herself.
  • one young lady marries a rich old aristocrat instead of her handsome, poor, young lover. Instead of pining away of misery when the old bag turns out to be immoral and controlling, she takes charge and reforms him.
  • when Grace’s adulterer husband returns from months away with his mistress, she doesn’t take him back, but runs off to be with her own lover.
  • Lady Constantine, the heroine of the novel I am reviewing today, is abandoned by her husband. She’s lonely and bored. Does she humbly pine away, spending her nights knitting socks for charity? Nope! She finds herself a hot young country lad. When her husband finally croaks, she DOES NOT marry her lover.

Women simply do not behave like this in novels by other authors. I love it! Hardy is the only Victorian author I have found who allows his female characters to act in their own interest without losing his or the reader’s sympathy. He’s the best. Let’s get back to the romance at hand.

These lovers just can’t uncross their stars.

Thomas Hardy starts with a 28-year-old woman whose horrible husband has abandoned her to go on safari. Due to a truly stupid vow he pried from her, she musn’t go into society or have any fun while he’s away. He’s been away for years. Bored out of her skull, Lady Constantine decides she’d like to survey her estate from the top of a column that was built to commemorate her husband’s grandpa who died in “The American War.” Gotcha, Grandpa. Stay on your side of the Atlantic.

Lady Constantine discovers a handsome young astronomer using her column to study the stars. “Hey, boy, hey” says Lady Inconstantine. She falls in love and begins wooing him several months before a letter arrives bearing the news of her husband’s timely death. Gasp! Horrors! An older woman a younger man! How can a young man be expected to love an older woman when her beauty will fade long before his?

Oh wait, before we proceed I must mention that the astronomical cherub’s name is Swithin St Cleeve. Swithin. I didn’t even know that was a name. Thomas Hardy, you champion.

This set up is just fine. Well, perhaps not. I’m here for the abandoned aristocrat finding a young swain on her property and seducing him. Why not? Well, because she’s taking advantage of his inexperience? That is a plausible interpretation of the situation. Hardy goes to some effort to establish that she is the wooer, but that Swithin loves her and consents to the wooing. An eight-year difference in the other direction wouldn’t have been noteworthy. I don’t know. One should not seduce inexperienced young things. True enough.

The other flaw in the design is Hardy’s contrast between the enormity of the universe and the insignificance of earthly romance. He succeeds in making the central tension in the novel seem insignificant.

Next, Hardy unveils a series of ludicrous misadventures. They marry, but the marriage is invalidated, because her husband is not dead! Except he is dead! He just didn’t die before they got married. And a host of other implausible inconveniences and strange mishaps interfere with our two insignificant lovers.

Just when our heroine selflessly decides to send her young fella away to pursue his career unencumbered by a renewal of their falsified vows, she discovers that she is pregnant. Of course, Hardy could not use such a scandalous word, but he gets his point across. Swithin has wandered beyond the reach of letter or telegram. In her desperation, Lady Constantine marries the pompous bishop who has been courting her and passes the baby off as his. Nothing this shocking has happened in the history of English literature. Thomas Hardy don’t give af. I so very much wish I could read the novels this gent would have written if fully unfettered by what Victorian’s considered printable. As it was Two on a Tower caused quite a stir, particularly because Lady Constantine’s dupe was a bishop.

How dare you impugn the bishopry? 

Thomas Hardy did dare. He wrote a host of implausible circumstances leading to the conception of this child, but many children were conceived out of wedlock and even today women marry men other than the father of their child before the birth of said child. Hardy’s bit of scandal is a bit of realism buried in a surfeit of silliness. I do see hints of the Tragic Destiny that characterizes his later and greatest works. The emotional and moral question of the novel is “how social restrictions can lead an otherwise virtuous woman into shameful circumstances.” This question lies at the heart of Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, Hardy’s best works. Well, that’s just as far as I can remember. I haven’t read them in years and I wouldn’t be surprised if Far from the Madding Crowd conquers Tess in my heart. Anyway, the point is:

You may like Two in a Tower if:

  • you’re a cougar

You may not like Two in a Tower if:

  • life is too short for the minor works of major authors

Final Thoughts: This book is just ok. Not bad. Not perfect. The subject matter is certainly unique and scandalous for its time. I can’t say this is Hardy’s best work.

Poor, Sick Thomas Hardy Writes a Real Clunker

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A Laodicean, Thomas Hardy, 1881

I am reading a biography of my favorite author, Thomas Hardy, concurrently with reading his books. Before the author mentions any plot elements, I stop reading the biography and switch to the novel. No spoilers. When I finished reading A Laodicean, I thought “why is this book so bad?” Turns out there’s a very good reason.

After accepting an advance from Harpers to publish his next novel in installments, Thomas Hardy became very ill. He was an invalid for many months. Hardy could not afford to lose the money, so he dictated the novel to his wife from his sickbed. This is why we should not work when we’re sick. Bad novels. No, contagion is why we shouldn’t work when we’re sick, but also A Laodicean.

Laodicean means lukewarm or undecided especially in terms of religion. Our heroine, Paula Power, is first seen by our peeping tom of a hero, George Somerset, when she is about to be baptized into her late father’s Protestant faith. At the last second, she greatly disappoints the minister by refusing to enter the dark pool of baptismal water. This minster later becomes…not important to the plot at all, even though he professes to think of Paula as a daughter. I think Thomas Hardy, in his illness, forgot the poor fellow.

The theme of A Laodicean is less about Paula’s religious doubt and more about her wavering between the old and the new. Her father was a wealthy railroad engineer and designer. Upon his death he left her in possession of a castle formerly owned by the still local De Stancy family. Paula seems to be an independent woman, a representative of modernity. Yet, she yearns for the legitimacy of being an aristocrat. If she were a De Stancy no one would question her actions, such as the renovation of the crumbling castle.

Predictably, given that Hardy trained as an architect, our young hero is an aspiring architect. He falls in love with Paula and pretends to be interested in sketching the castle for professional purposes, wink wink. He is clearly superior to the architect Paula was planning on using for the restoration.

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All seems well.  Our hero will get the gig and enter into close, love-inducing proximity with our girl Paula. Enter a young scamp named Dare. Hardy rarely used his first name and I’ve already forgotten it. Anyway, this mysterious villain thwarts George Somerset at every turn. He’s very clever at it. But why does he want to? Turns out he is the illegitimate son of Captain De Stancy. Gasp! He wants to see his father restored to their ancestral home. More importantly he wants to get his hands on Paula’s fortune.

Paula favors George, but she feels badly about her family taking over the home that the De Stancy’s occupied for hundreds of years. Dare is so good at making other people look bad, that after a long chase across the Continent she renounces George and engages herself to De Stancy. At the last minute the truth of Dare’s deceptions and his identity is revealed to Paula. She calls off the wedding and reverses the Continental chase, pursuing Somerset this time. After a long and tantalizing ordeal, she finds him, they make up and they get married. A resentful Dare burns down castle De Stancy.

George sanguinely suggests that this is a good thing. Now they can build a new home with modern amenities. His bride agrees for two seconds before proclaiming “but I wish I had my castle and I wish you were a De Stancy.”

I can see the makings of a good concept swirling around in there. I’m sure Hardy was going to make a brilliant point about the tension between progress and tradition. Technology and the newly rich may be taking over, but social status does not come so swiftly. My American brain is dumbfounded by the insistent clinging of the British people to the oppressive tradition of aristocracy. Why don’t they just get rid of their royals? Because everyone wants to dream about being a princess, I guess. Paula Power lives in a castle. She can buy anything she wants and marry whomever she pleases. Hardy was perhaps too ill to illustrate what more Paula could attain as a member of the gentry, so it seems like she’s hankering after nothing more than words and ideas. The point falls a bit flat.

Dare is an interesting character. He is smart, but corrupt and ruthless. He feels entitled to better treatment as the last of the De Stancy line, and he manipulates everyone around him to achieve this aim, including his own unowned father. The tricks he pulls on Somerset are entertaining and heartrending to read. The iniquity!

I could tell that this book was published serially and written for money. It seems that Hardy did not have the wherewithal to develop the side characters, subplots and depth of meaning that typify his better novels. I quickly grew tired of the repetition of a small set of ideas. He was dragging out a scanty creative effort in order to get that paycheck from Harpers. Poor thing.

Ultimately, book centers on the wooing of Paula by Somerset and De Stancy. He wallows in the minutiae of their attempts to win her. It gets quite dull. Often their efforts are manipulative and icky. Both suitors use guilt freely. This is a type of courtship that is not fun to read about and Hardy spends at least one hundred too many pages detailing it.

Final Thoughts: I’m so grateful for modern medicine. Hardy suffered for months from a urinary tract infection. I wish I could go back in time and give him some anti-biotics. Then maybe this would have been a good book.

Surprise, Surprise. Virulently Misogynist Early Sci-fi.

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Across the Zodiac, Percy Greg, 1880

Why does sci-fi have to be so misogynist? That question lies at the heart of this book review, so we will start with it. Contemporary sci-fi culture is steeped in an antique brew of sexism that dates to 1880. In that year, Percy Greg published a story about a man who travels to Mars in a spaceship. Across the Zodiac originated the sword and planet sci-fi subgenre in which humans travel to other planets and manage to conquer the advanced technology they encounter using only medieval weaponry. I don’t understand the appeal of this premise, but I suppose it might tap into some deep megalomaniacal need to prove your superiority over an entire planet while pretending to be King Arthur?

I have so many problems with this novel. I am just going to tackle them in the order they appear. Percy Greg begins his thrilling adventure story with a long, dull conversation about ciphers conducted by a host of characters whom he does not bother to introduce and who have no importance to the narrative. This book is a stylistic nightmare: plodding, overly detailed and yet haphazard. Just try reading this one sentence:

“And you are the first and only man I ever met who hesitates to affirm the impossibility of that which seems to him wildly improbable, contrary at once to received opinion and to his own experience, and contrary, moreover, to all known natural laws, and all inferences hitherto drawn from them.”

That sentence is a heap trash. All he wanted to say was that the character does not reject ideas that are:

 

The subtitle of the novel is The Story of a Wrecked Record, which refers to the journal of a solo expedition to Mars that the narrator pulls out of a wrecked spaceship. Before he witnesses the crash, he spends the evening with some Confederate officers, because Greg felt the need to express his sympathy with the Confederate cause before he told a story about Mars. Yep. I found very little information about Percy Greg, except that his other writings express his “reactionary” politics. I think that means he wanted the South to rise again. I’m pretty sure he wanted to reestablish slavery, but he couldn’t so he did it in a novel, except slavery on Mars is based on gender not skin color. We’re getting there.

The writer of the journal describes his ship, its instruments and their voyage to Mars with scientific meticulousness, which is awful. The point of scientific writing is to describe an experiment in such detail that other scientists can reproduce your results. The point of science fiction is to entertain the reader. We can’t reproduce an imaginary voyage to Mars, so there is no reason to provide such a dismal quantity of detail about the journey. Profoundly boring. The endless logging of imaginary measurements takes up 10% of the book. Really. Greg is so abysmally unaware of what readers want to know. If J.K. Rowling wrote fifty pages of the Ministry of Magic quibbling over the Quidditch World Cup negotiations, that would be approximately equivalent to the beginning of this novel. Except that Rowling is a much better stylist.

When the protagonist arrives on Mars we get some nearly interesting description of the Martian geography, ecology and culture. Greg has a moderate amount of imagination, but he expresses himself so badly that it’s impossible to enjoy reading about crystal mansions, highly domesticated Martian animals or any of the rest of it.

Greg delves into complex Martian politics, which are Communist. But Greg is reactionary, so of course Communism is a horrible threat to those all-important scions: family values, production, religious freedom, male dominance, and so on. To be clear, I’m for religious freedom, I just wouldn’t buy the idea that religion is under attack for a ha’penny. “Whatever could not be produced in quantities sufficient for all to have a share was not produced at all.” Horrors! I mean, that sounds great. Women became “equal citizens, with no recognized relation to individual men.” Hooray! Except the reason they are separated from their dependence on men is to free men from the burden of having to feed women when Communism caused a collapse of the food supply. And of course the independence of women is depicted as horribly destructive. All family affection is destroyed. Seriously. I guess Greg thinks that women only love their children because their husbands tell them to. Makes perfect sense. . .if you’re a solipsistic fuck who thinks that women are incapable of thought or emotion that isn’t dictated to them by a man.

This guy actually thought that science would destroy maternal instinct. Uh. I don’t think he understands what science is. It gets so much worse. Equality nearly destroys Martian women. They cannot physically withstand the toll of education. Seriously. When asked to prepare for the same examinations that the men take “half the girls of each generation were rendered invalids for life.” Oh man, I really want to resurrect Percy Greg and force his zombified corpse to read meta studies about girls outperforming boys in school. Anyway, to rescue women from the torture of having to compete academically with men, Martians determine that they’d be better off as slaves. Yep, they’re basically slaves.

That’s not the end of it. It’s not over until the hero has a hareem of underage sex slaves. Really. Martian people are smaller than Earthlings. So, when the hero distinguishes himself fighting for the subculture of Martians that want to bring back religion and other nonsense, he is rewarded with a bevy of child-sized wives. His favorite is Eveena who “might possibly have completed her tenth year, which epoch in the life of Mars is about equivalent to the seventeenth birthday of a damsel nurtured in North-Western Europe.” Why Northwestern Europe as opposed to any place else on Earth? I cannot say.

I can’t write about this trash anymore. I’m sorry I read it. I’m a bit sorry to have brought it to your attention. You are too good to know about this book. He actually states that women are better off as slaves than as equals. Slavery is better for them than equality. Really. Why, in the 1880s would a man need to envision a world in which women are more suppressed? He’s not the only man to do this. I’m looking at you, Edward Abbott.

Let’s put this sorry mess behind us.

Final thoughts: 1. This book is trash on every level. 2. Fuck Percy Greg. 3. Sadly, I’m not surprised to find overt, toxic misogyny in the origins of the sci-fi genre. Granted, Greg isn’t a significant influence on the genre as a whole, but some people must have read this. It is the first of its kind. It helped create space for destructive and disgusting male fantasy in the sci-fi/fantasy world. That space endures today. 4. I am so grateful to the people who are fighting to make space for underrepresented groups in sci-fi. It can’t be easy. Thank you.

Henry James and the Myth of the Independent Woman

portrait of a ladyThe Portrait of a Lady, Henry James, 1881

I half enjoyed this book. Which is to say, I enjoyed half of it. The first half.  Then it went off the rails. I suspected this might happen. When a writer describes a female character as intelligent and independent, I get a bit excited, but I’m also apprehensive. So many writers directly characterize a woman this way, then proceed to depict dimwitted and passive behavior from this supposedly brilliant and forceful woman. They want you to think “gee, these situations are so complex and demanding that even a smart, strong woman has lost her way.” Instead, I think: don’t make claims about characters that you have no intention of substantiating!

Even our beloved Jane Austen is guilty of this disappointing deception. She describes Lizzy Bennet as quick and decisive, but during the slightest crisis, Lizzy just cannot decide what to do. The turning point between her and Darcy is the moment when she’s befuddled, and Darcy charges off on a horse, knowing exactly what to do. Because what this sharp, intelligent woman needed all along was a man to swoop in to make decisions and act on her behalf.

Back to the book at hand. Henry James tells us that Isabel Archer is an independent, intellectual woman. Brimful of ideas. Capable of startling action. At the beginning she seems quite quirky. He introduces her brilliantly, as a young woman so unconventional she’s more interested in introducing herself to dogs than to her own relatives. This is the Victorian Era, when propriety required one to announce one’s presence as a guest in someone’s home before playing with their dogs.

Isabel’s strange, cold-blooded aunt snatched her from Albany to England, where she meets her ailing uncle and his invalid son, Ralph in their English country estate, Gardencourt. Isabel is such a success in England, that several suitable suitors propose to her and she turns them down. James doesn’t provide any real substantive reason for her refusals, which is fine. You don’t need a reason to not marry anyone, Isabel. You do you. When she refuses a wealthy aristocrat, her cousin and uncle think she’s so original, they’d love to see what surprising thing she’d do if she had enough money to make what she wanted out of her life. So, Ralph and the dying uncle conspire to leave the bulk of the uncle’s money to Isabel. At this point the novel goes sour.

Previous to her windfall, I bought into Isabel’s character. I too, was excited to see what she would make of her life. The characterization of the family at Gardencourt is subtle. There are worlds of detail to analyze. Just the first half of the novel contains enough material for several Ph.D. theses on self-perception versus reality. It’s great. I was riding high on the wave of expectation James builds around Isabel. I was enjoying the prose. Then it all came tumbling down.

As I passed the half-way point, it became increasingly difficult to ignore the discrepancy between Isabel’s characterization and her behavior. James says she’s intelligent, but I think she says “I don’t understand you” more than she says anything else. She’s supposed to be intellectual, but she doesn’t engage in any intellectual activities. She does refuse to marry an aristocrat when everyone expects her to take such a fabulous opportunity, but that is the one independent thing she does. She spends the rest of the book being extraordinarily passive. It is so disappointing to me that Henry James decided to write about an intelligent and independent woman, but couldn’t come up with anything intelligent for her to do or say. She’s supposed to be so fascinating and modern, but the one concern he has with her is “who will she marry and what will the consequences be?” Just like every other woman in the history of novels. I wanted her to start a political movement or build a hospital or at the very least become a painter or dancer or just do something interesting. One interesting thing. Well, I would have liked for her to do a lifetime of interesting things, but I didn’t get one out of Henry James. Not one.

Isabel does end up marrying someone and he’s terrible. This is in the second part of the novel when things fall apart. James doesn’t really explain why she marries this man. Far after the fact of their marriage he offers the small illumination that he appeared smart and poor, so he seemed like a worthy person to share her newfound wealth with. Poor Isabel was projecting. He’s not what he appeared. Their marriage makes her miserable. She finds out a terrible secret about him. That’s the whole story. A woman inherits wealth unexpectedly and makes an unfortunate marriage. Her husband has a scandalous secret, which I guessed immediately upon his introduction to the story. James’ hints are beyond heavy-handed.

Early on I liked James’ prose and I liked the richness of his depictions of Isabel’s thoughts. However, there are so many elements of this novel, reputedly his best, that seem objectively bad to me. Objective is not quite the right word. We cannot measure the quality of prose objectively. Yet, there is a consensus about “strong writing” and “weak writing” and so much of this is not strong. If a creative writing class were to workshop this novel here’s the criticism James would have to absorb:

  • the narrator’s description of characters does not match their behavior
  • Isabel’s husband’s characterization is weak. He completely demoralizes his wife, but I’m not sure how. How exactly the marriage falls apart is never described. This is a problem, because their relationship is the crux of the story.
  • So much showing, very little telling. It’s almost as if the writer is afraid that he cannot write human behavior effectively, so he describes it instead of demonstrating it.
  • Please, please break up your paragraphs. There are so many long, long paragraphs that include perfectly natural places to break into a second paragraph.
  • There are several passages that read like sitcom phone conversations, where you can only hear one speaker, so they repeat the other speaker’s dialogue in the form of a question. For example, “Her husband has a very bad manner. Did I enjoy my trip to America? Why should I have enjoyed it? I didn’t go for my pleasure.” This is unnatural and I don’t see any reason to do it, when it’s just as easy to break the paragraph.
  • I struggle with the pacing. The first 250 pages give Isabel’s thoughts in such detail, but then her most critical decisions are not explained and there are huge gaps in time that seem unjustified.
  • So much of what the narrator states needs to be unpacked. I’ll give one glaring example “he had neither innocence nor weakness, so he had no practical philosophy.” I’m not sure what that really means. But more importantly, if you want us to believe that he has no innocence, have him do something that betrays a worldliness and lack of innocence. If you want us to believe he has no weakness, give us a scene that demonstrates this. What does it even mean that he has no practical philosophy? Have some faith in your readers. Write human behavior and let them interpret it. These characters rarely do anything. They just sit around having their feelings described. I read 500 pages about these characters, but I couldn’t give you an example of a typical behavior for any one of them, because there is so little actual behavior in the novel.
  • It seems obvious that Isabel’s husband is very controlling of women, because of how controlling he is of his daughter. If you want us to believe that Isabel is intelligent, she should have picked up on that.
  • If you want us to believe that Isabel is independent, she needs to be less passive and devoted to her horrible husband. What exactly is so modern and interesting about this woman whose sense of propriety trumps her need for personal happiness? Why do we end with her going back to her husband?

I could keep going. It seems to me that the only reason Henry James is in the cannon is his detailed description of characters’ conflicting thoughts. I’ve read that this influenced modernists like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce and I believe that. However, I strongly believe that we should be honest when someone makes art that is bad, but contains a spark of an idea that other artists took and made into good art. That’s what Henry James is shaping up to be. I still have, sigh, three more books by him to read.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention that there is an interesting and independent-minded woman in the book. It isn’t Isabel, it’s her friend Henrietta Stackpole, a feminist journalist. This book should have been about her. But I guess she’s not a “lady” in his mind, because he uses her for . . . comic relief? Well, no, the book is mostly humorless, but Henrietta does seem to be the butt of a joke somehow. James doesn’t take her seriously. He should. She’s everything he claims his main character is.

Final thoughts:

There are so many good late Victorian novels on the theme of marriage as a prison for women. Better on every level. Nearly anything by Thomas Hardy, George Elliot’s Middlemarch. Anne Bronte wrote a novel about a woman who leaves her abusive husband 53 years earlier. The Portrait of a Lady is insufficient, as a work of art and as a social statement. Fail.

Introducing Henry James

unspecifiedThe American, 1877 and Washington Square, 1880

Hello. Please welcome Henry James to the blog. Or don’t. He isn’t particularly welcome. I have read one short story, one novella and four full length novels by the fellow and I don’t care for him. The short story, Daisy Miller, was very pretty good, but everything else fell flat. I am not going to list the defects of James’ prose style now, because everything I have read by him contains the same flaws. I plan on working up a post on his many shortcomings to avoid the tedium of detailing them in every post. Dude wrote a lot of novels. You don’t need to read the same screed eight times. Today I will discuss two of his earliest novels and detail the flaws that are specific to them.

Henry James was American but spent much of his life living overseas. He was very concerned with culture clashes between Americans and Europeans. The titular American is a chap called Christopher Newman, a wealthy industrialist who ventures to the Continent in search of culture and a wife. Christopher Newman. Get it? He’s a new type of man that stale European bluebloods have not encountered. And you can tell he’s a good guy, because Christ appears in his name. I rolled my eyes when I first encountered this name. So heavy-handed, Henry. Our American hero is earnest, hard-working and self-assured. He has the excessive confidence of a tall, rich, American man.

The story opens in the Louvre with an entertaining scene in which poor Newman is duped into buying a poor copy of a painting by a pretty, opportunistic French mademoiselle. I was ready for wily Noemi to tempt him into a life of idleness and dissolution. Get in there and corrupt his Puritanical morals, girl. Sadly, Christ-opher is incorruptible. Instead, another character gets involved with her and pure, innocent Christopher is shocked when she becomes the mistress of a rich man. How dare she attempt to escape poverty! Before this scenario transpires Chris has befriended Noemi’s father and the two of them discussed her sexual purity for absolutely no reason. Sensing Christopher’s high-minded morality, the father tries to ingratiate himself by stating that he would kill his daughter if she ever ruined herself. When Chris hears about her ruination, he turns up at the father’s door like “Well…you better go kill her now.” Seriously. He is disappointed that the father doesn’t murder his daughter. Really.

Elsewhere in the novel, James attempts to update the Gothic novel for the late Victorian Era. In Gothic romances a young villager falls in love with the pure maiden who lives in the castle. Her evil wardens mistreat her and conspire against him. Against all odds, he persists, rescues her, and turns out to be the long-lost son of some nobleman. The angels of heaven descend to bless their holy matrimony. Newman stands in for the plucky villager. He came to Europe in search of a wife and he has very high standards. Chris spouts off copious entitled piffle about his search for an ideal wife. He sees this paragon as a reward due to him for his hard work. What is the point of the wealth he has accumulated if he doesn’t have “a beautiful woman perched on the pile, like a statue on a monument. She must be as good as she is beautiful, and as clever as she is good. I can give my wife a good deal, so I am not afraid to ask a good deal myself. […] I want to possess, in a word, the best article in the market.” Did you just throw up in your mouth a little? I did. I know that Henry James is taking a jibe here at the American obsession with money. The very words Newman chooses are redolent of Capitalism. But, we must remember that he is the hero. He is portrayed as a good and pure Christian who deserves the fantasy wife he seeks even though he only seeks her as a symbol of “victory over circumstances.”

Christopher soon encounters the exact embodiment of his fantasy, his “dream realized,” in the person of Claire de Cintre, a widow and member of an aristocratic French family. Unfortunately, the last three quarters of the novel center on this romance and it is not a very convincing one. Claire is quite boring. James does not make his reader fall in love with her. However, in true Gothic style, Christopher is willing to brave the contempt of her evil relatives in his attempts to win her hand. It’s all quite dull. Ultimately, she is too good and pure to disobey her mother. She becomes a nun. Newman returns to America in despair and remains in despair forever.

If The American has a silly and dramatic plot, and it does, Washington Square veers hard in the other direction. He examines how the scenario of the maiden wishing to marry an unsuitable man would play out in contemporary New York with no drama, just realism. Our male lead is Dr. Sloper, an eminent physician and misogynist. His wife dies, leaving him with a daughter whom he does not respect. Dr. Sloper thinks very highly of his own intellect and does not esteem Catherine’s intellect at all. Probably, if he had given her more credit from the outset, she would have accomplished more intellectually and developed more common sense.

A fortune hunter named Morris Townsend starts sniffing around Catherine, who is a bit of an old maid. Dr. Sloper does not believe that anyone could love Catherine for her own merit and forbids her to marry him. Poor Catherine somehow has some self-esteem despite being raised by such a pig of a father. She wishes to marry Morris. Dr. Sloper is right about Morris, but express his reservations in an honest conversation. He is too much of a misogynist for that. Instead he sees the question of her marriage as a competition between himself and the man who wishes for her hand. Who has more influence? Who will she obey? Catherine has never defied him before, and he believes that his paternal sway over this meek and humble girl will reign triumphant. In a way he wins, the two never marry because he threatens to disinherit her if she marries him. Catherine is happy to be well off with Morris, but Morris only wants her if she comes with a giant dowry.

The scuffle between the Morris, Dr. Sloper and Catherine does not end in a marriage. Instead Catherine loses respect for her father, because of his disrespectful and manipulative treatment of her. After the doctor’s death, an impoverished Townsend shows up at spinster Catherine’s door and expresses his regret. He should have taken her when he had the chance. Would she like to go out for oysters? No she would not. She is perfectly happy with her needlework and charity work and doesn’t need him.

On the surface, Washington Square sounds like an interesting reexamination of the well-worn archetype of the defiant daughter. There are some good bits of dialogue. I did take some pleasure in James’ subversion of the dramatic and romanticized elements of these stories into prosaic, everyday reality. However, prosaic reality isn’t all that fun or interesting. The characters are dull and flat. I didn’t care much whom Catherine married. It’s not a long book, but it still seemed bogged down in minutiae.

You might like The American or Washington Square if:

  • you are writing your Ph.D. on Henry James for some reason.

You might not like The American or Washington Square if:

  • see above. I think I covered it.

Final Thoughts: These books are just plain bad.