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.

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Surprise, Surprise. Virulently Misogynist Early Sci-fi.

zodiac

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.

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.

The Worst Author in the Canon

the way we live now

The Way We Live Now, Anthony Trollope, 1875

Hold on to your hats, we are about to review the worst writer in the canon! Anthony Trollope, yes that’s his name, is a horrible writer. Perhaps someone worse will come along, but I doubt it. He packs the double punch of inept writing and racism. Yep.

This is a review of three of his novels, because they do not deserve individual posts. I read The Warden, Barchester Towers and The Way We Live Now. Why did I read all three? Because the racism didn’t rear its ugly head until the third book.

The Warden is a story for those of you who have always wondered how Anglican clergymen get appointed to a parish, which I presume is none of you. But if you are very concerned about the minutiae of church politics in the 19th century, boy do I have a book for you! Briefly, a clergyman who needs more money is offered a plum position that he feels he does not deserve, because he prefers gardening to actually doing his job. His colleagues argue “See here, Old Chap, you simply must take the position. Nepotism and cronyism are the zylem and phloem of the Anglican Church. Nobody in this institution deserves anything they have, Old Boy.” The Warden replies “I really feel I shouldn’t” and the go back and forth for a while. I don’t remember whether he takes the job or not, because who even cares, honestly. I read this one over a year ago.

Now, a kerfuffle over a fairly insignificant clergy appointment seems like a situation that, once resolved, couldn’t possibly have an aftermath. Nevertheless, Anthony Trollope wrote 500 pages of just that. In Barchester Towers old enmities are resolved. New enmities are formed. Lovers are kept apart by misunderstanding, overcome the misunderstanding and get married. Games of whist are described with meticulous detail for no reason whatsoever. If you just love stories of British manor houses, you might be able to tolerate this one.

That brings us to The Way We Live Now. That title. A bit on the nose, don’t you think, Trollope? It does encapsulate the aim of most fiction by squarely declaring the author’s intent to comment on contemporary life. But, why? Every non-historical novel could have this title. Why not change Pride and Prejudice to The Way We Fall in Love? The Great Gatsby could be The Way We Crush the Lower Classes Beneath Our Expensive Shoes. ChangemGreat Expectations to The Surprising Way We Ascend to a Higher Social Class While Abandoning Our Morals. Better writers come up with symbols, phrases or metaphors that encapsulate their point of view on contemporary life, rather than simply braying their intent to make a comment. As the The Catcher in the Rye symbolizes Holden Caulfield’s doomed need to hold on to innocence and The Great Gatsby symbolizes the impossible ambitions of the 1920s. But Anthony Trollope is not a better writer.

Of course, I expended considerable mental effort puzzling out Trollope’s exact comment on life in England in the 1870s. It’s not pretty. TWWLN concerns a wealthy capitalist and the swarm of aristocrats who try to profit off him. Nobles bolstering their dwindling resources by marrying the daughters of tradesmen is central to the novel, but hardly unique to the late 19th century. Sullying your blue blood by condescending to marry new money is as old as the English novel. Older, really. It’s not possible for a family to live forever off the land granted to some ancestor by Alfred the Great. Eventually, one of your heirs will have to stop hunting and gambling long enough to bestow the title of Duchess of Wherever or Lady Somethingorother on the daughter of a man who had the good sense to earn some money. I’m not trying to endorse capitalism here. I just think it’s a bit rich of British aristocrats to be completely pointless and then whine about not having any money.

To abruptly change the tone: the “now” of The Way We Live Now is anti-semitism. It’s not that men with titles are degrading themselves by befriending someone with new money. It’s that they are befriending a wealthy Jew. It’s not that their daughters are marrying merchants, it’s that they are marrying Jewish merchants. It’s not that their sons are gambling away their fortunes, it’s that their sons must now resort to marrying Jewish heiresses. Trollope’s mightiest symbol of how far England has fallen is the admission of a Jewish capitalist into Parliament. I don’t know what to say about this. Trollope wrote a horrible book with a message of racism and xenophobia. I’m glad this guy is rarely read outside of England. Y’all can keep him. No, don’t keep him. Boot him out of your canon. He’s horrible. I’m not talking about a moment of racism in an otherwise well-written book. I’m talking about a shoddily written book with racism as its main theme. Just trash.

Final thoughts: I could continue elaborating on the flaws in Trollope’s writing, but I think you know enough by now. The only decent thing I can say about him is that his books are good soporifics. I realized when I finished reading TWWLN that I’d grown to depend on it to help me fall asleep.

Lesbian Vampire!

carmilla

Sheridan Le Fanu

Horror is back! We missed you. I haven’t read a horror story since the Romantic era. I was eager to love Irish author, Sheridan Le Fanu. I tried. His most noted work is the vampire short story “Carmilla,” which is ok. Everything else I read by him was dreadful.

I was hoping he’d be great, so I started at the very beginning with his 1872 collection of short stories In a Glass Darkly, which is the preferred Bible quote for people trying to be cryptic. Le Fanu sets up a narrative double blind, ostensibly one physician is providing us with his colleague’s notes. The colleague, Dr. Hesselius, treats haunted people. Nabokov uses layers of narrative to great effect. Le Fanu uses them to no effect. There is no reason to have one doctor introduce another doctor. There’s no reason for any of the characters to be doctors at all. Dr. Hesselius doesn’t save anyone. All his patients die. They are haunted and then they die. We didn’t need a special doctor to get that outcome. All Dr. Hesselius does is refer to Swedenborgian theory, which was some kind of Victorian spiritual mumbojombo that Le Fanu loved to mention but couldn’t figure out how to work into the plot or theme in any meaningful way.

Let’s talk about the story “Green Tea.” Dr. Hesselius fails to treat a man who is haunted by a demon monkey. Le Fanu does write this one effectively creepy sentence about the bedeviled man “Mr. Jennings has a way of looking sidelong upon the carpet, as if his eye followed the movements of something there.” That gives me the willies. After Jenning’s suicide, Hesselius declares that he inherited a predisposition to suicide, and that evil spirits got into his circulation through the green tea he habitually drank. Yes, friends, green tea killed him. Nice try, Le Fanu. Green tea is not scary and you didn’t make it so. This might be an expression of imperialist guilt, but it’s also very silly.

I tried out one of Le Fanu’s novels, because I’m thorough. It’s called Uncle Silas: or How to Sacrifice Your Daughter to Your Patriarchal Pride. I added the subtitle. Maud Ruthyn is an innocent maid with a wretched set of relatives. Her father is sore, because of rumors that his brother Silas killed a man who was found dead in his house. Daddy dearest refuses to believe these rumors, because, well because he doesn’t want to. Silas is generally a scoundrel. Dad isn’t on speaking terms with him, but he’s certain that he isn’t a killer, because he just can’t believe that a member of his noble bloodline could do such a thing. Oh, you nonsensical British aristocrats.

Anyway, Dad hires Maud a governess who is evil, abusive and sly enough to get away with it. She’s secretly also in Silas’ employ. Dad doesn’t believe Maud when she complains about Evil French Governess. Dad dies. Instead of sending wee Maud to live with her charmingly forthright aunt, Lady Knollys (I think Lady Knollys is her aunt, but I might have gotten the less-than-gripping minutiae of this book mixed up), he sends her to live with Uncle Silas. This fool believes in the glory of his bloodline so much, he’s willing to sacrifice. . .his bloodline to prove the value of his noble name. Get this guy a world’s worst dad mug. The thing is, if Maud dies before she reaches what’s that thing called? 21. You know. Majority! If she dies before she reaches her age of majority, her money goes to Silas. Dad’s objective was to show the world that he was so confident in Silas that he trusted his only child to him even given that Silas has a strong incentive to kill her. Which he does in fact try to do, but only after his creepy son tries to court her. I’ll say this, I was frightened for Maud. She was in a very precarious situation that could have been avoided with even the slightest measure of caution or care for her wellbeing. Thanks, Dad.

Now on to “Carmilla” the story of a girl and her vampire best friend. This one’s ok. There are some very silly elements, but it’s not complete garbage. The main character is a bit daft, which does nothing for me as a reader. There’s a very silly thing involving anagrams. Somehow, the story manages to be a bit creepy and even a bit charming despite these flaws. It’s a tale of a female friendship gone awry. Men are afraid of very close female friendships, aren’t they? The main character makes a new friend who seems to love her too much. Oh, dear. Being daft, the protagonist suspects that she might be a boy who disguised herself as a girl to get close to her. No, sweetie. I’m sorry no one ever told you about homosexuality. Or vampires. Anyway, if you read anything by Sheridan Le Fanu, let it be “Carmilla.” It’s brief, if nothing else.

You might like Sheridan Le Fanu if:

  • I don’t know, you’d have to be very dedicated to ghost stories. Even so, there are better ghost stories.

You might not like Sheridan Le Fanu if:

  • You’ve read a good ghost story.

Final thoughts: It’s a shame that the great stylists didn’t write horror stories. I do love a ghost story, just not these ones. I’m pretty sure we’ll have to wait another 14 years for Robert Louis Stevenson to get a good horror story. Sometimes if you dig deep into the short stories of great writers, you find a ghost story. Oscar Wilde has a great one. We’ll get there in good time.

True Crime Poetry: Murder of a Child Bride

IMG_6956

The Ring and the Book, Robert Browning, 1869

Forgive me, ghost of Robert Browning, for what I am about to say.

I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do sometimes pretend that Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her husband, Robert, are watching me from beyond the grave. Just for fun. Because I love them and want them to be my guardian angels. Even though I don’t believe in angels or in any concept not supported by good data. Sometimes it’s comforting to let go of logic and just pretend.

I cannot, however, pretend that I enjoyed Robert Browning’s verse novel The Ring and the Book. It was a chore to read. Quite frankly, I skimmed parts of it.

Once upon a time, Robert Browning bought a Yellow Book, as he called it, from a street vendor in Italy. The book contained records of the 1698 trial of Guido Franceschini for three murders. The tale captivated Browning. After his wife’s death he set to writing a verse novel about the trial. Browning is famous for writing dramatic monologues: poems comprised entirely of a speech by the narrator. He sometimes chose figures from history and wrote speeches for them that revealed intimate psychological quirks and motivations. So, he naturally composed The Ring and the Book in a set of dramatic monologues in the voices of the characters involved in the trial.

This is a true crime verse novel, so I must tell you the sordid details of the crime. Guido Franceschini was an aristocratic Italian nobleman whose family was out of money (which is what happens when you don’t work, dummies). The age old answer to this problem is to marry someone rich, but far beneath your station. In his search for someone stupid enough to marry a broke, evil, 50-year-old Count, he found Pompilia who is twelve. Twelve. He married a twelve-year-old girl. 1698 not 698. Post-Enlightenment. Not the Dark Ages. Twelve. Here is a link to a charity dedicated to ending child marriage.

Pompilia and her parents move in with Count Guido. They discover that he is poor and cruel. He abuses them. Pompilia’s parents run away back to Rome. In an attempt to rescue their daughter or their money from Guido, they reveal that Pompilia is not their daughter by birth, but the adopted daughter of a prostitute. Theoretically, this will nullify the part of the contract that entitles Count Guido to all their money. Optimistically, perhaps they hoped that this information would cause Guido to annul the marriage and give them their daughter back. Instead, he took them to court on the grounds that they were lying and still owed him their money. Meanwhile, he tortured Pompilia to avenge himself on her unforthcoming parents.

Pregnant Pompilia convinces a priest, Giuseppe Capponsacchi, to help her escape her abusive husband by taking her back to Rome and her parents. Guido catches them enroute. Husband and wife plead their case to local authorities. They decide to send Pompilia away from her husband to a convent. They send Capponsacchi away as well.

Months later the nuns at the monastery decide to send Pompilia back to her parents “for her health,” meaning to give birth. Guido hears of this. A clause in his inheritance mumbo jumbo and his marriage contract entitles Guido to a rack of money if he has an heir and if Pompilia and her parents are dead. So, Guido enlists some friends to find the three of them and stab them to death. They are caught and arrested, tried and convicted. They appeal to the Pope. The Pope refuses to save Guido. He is executed.

This is a horrible story. It is true and it is sad. This might seem like quite a lot of plot. Trust me, it isn’t. Browning rehashes the entire story ten times. Ten. He tells the story in the intro, then we hear it again from the perspective of eight different people, twice from Guido makes ten. Ten times over the same details. We hear from the half of Rome that sides with Guido. Yes, half of Rome sided with him because…well because a husband has a right to murder his wife, if she’s unfaithful. (I am snarling at my computer screen as I type this.) Then we hear it from the half of Rome that sides with Pompilia, then a neutral third party, Guido, Capponsacchi, Pompilia on her death bed, two lawyers, the Pope, and Guido again on the verge of his execution.

This is hard stuff to read. Not just because reading 21,000 lines of poetry is arduous. I read Bryon’s verse poem, Don Juan, and loved it. It’s hard to read people justify murdering women because of adultery. Men can’t be legally murdered for this reason. Not that they should be. Just an example of the violent forms sexism can take. It’s hard to read that the only reason some people did not consider the murders justified is that they didn’t believe that Pompilia slept with Capponsacchi. They believed her when she claimed that he only helped her escape an abusive husband. It’s hard to read about domestic violence and spousal rape perpetrated against a teenager. It’s hard to read about a teenager treated as a pawn in a game for money. It’s hard to see her appeal to the religious authorities around her to rescue her from her abuser and have them reject her appeals, because she is not noble and he is. It’s a truly wretched story to read ten times over.

Browning, being the poetic genius that his is, of course reveals in each book psychological elements unconsidered in the previous books. It is chilling to hear Guido state that he could have mutilated his wife for her faults against him, but he was too kind. Pompilia’s testimony is sympathetic. Capponsacchi, under interrogation by church elders, correctly points out that the church knew Pompilia was in danger and did nothing to help her, so he did. And why should he be blamed? Browning’s poems are complex and deep. I prefer them in smaller more digestible chunks. There is a limit to the amount of philosophizing on one murder trial that I can personally stand. That limit lies somewhere between a Jack McCoy closing argument and The Ring and the Book. Much closer to Jack McCoy.

You might like The Ring and the Book if:

  • you’re a rare combination of Italian history expert, verse novel adorer, and true crime addict.

You might not like The Ring and the Book if:

  • your attention span has been shortened by television. Is that a real thing? Show me the data.

Final thoughts: I so often pretend the Brownings can hear me that I now must convince myself they cannot. If what Robert Browning wanted to do was bury himself so completely in a complex project that he lost sight somewhat of his grief over his wife’s death, I think he may have succeeded. This is a complex and profound book, if you find legal and religious waffling to be profound. I do not. To give him his due credit, I assume that Browning’s criticism of religion seemed cogent and relevant at the time. I don’t need to be convinced that religious men of power are hypocrites. I didn’t get much out of this text, except sadness for all the child brides who have lived, are living and will live in this world.

The First Mystery Novel and The Curse of Imperialism

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The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins, 1868

Famous for: generally being considered the first mystery novel.

Every family has that one bastard uncle who gets sent to India to imperialize and murders a couple of temple guardians while stealing a legendary diamond from the forehead of a deity. The Moonstone is the story of how that uncle’s dastardly act ruins a budding romance between two cousins who don’t realize they shouldn’t be marrying each other, because humans hadn’t quite figured out genetics yet.

A charming, intelligent aristocratic young lady, Rachel Verinder, inherits the diamond. That diamond is stolen. Confusion and chaos ensue.There’s mystery. There’s intrigue. There’s a full year of cousins not getting married, because of a misunderstanding.

I love it. It’s a great story. Wilkie Collins is a brilliant writer who should be more read on this side of the pond.

If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you may remember that I loved his earlier novel The Woman in White. I love it more than The Moonstone, but The Moonstone is also wonderful. Wilkie Collins (let’s get a puppy and name it Wilkie) does include some social commentary about the propensity of society to completely misjudge character. In The Moonstone British aristocracy embraces scoundrels and rejects the righteous. However, I think his strength as an author is in satirizing not society, but human nature. Like The Woman in White, The Moonstone has multiple narrators. The first is Gabriel Betteredge, who is basically Carson from Downton Abbey, but more charming. When the facts concerning the disappearance of the diamond do not fit with Betteredge’s worldview, he proclaims himself “superior to reason.” I wish fewer people in this country rejected reason when it didn’t fit their worldview, but it is a funny self-declaration.  Betteredge also continually criticizes the female intellect. Meanwhile, the women around him are demonstrably more intelligent than he is and have a far better understanding of the mystery of the Moonstone.

A second unreliable narrator appears in the character of Drusilla Clack, a sanctimonious spinster who constantly criticizes dear Rachel, quite clearly because she is jealous of her. It takes some, but not a great deal, of subtlety as a reader to pick up on Collin’s jokes at the expense of his narrators. If you love an unreliable narrator and the not-too-difficult puzzle of figuring out when an author is being facetious, this is the book for you.

Collins’ characters are delightfully and hilariously flawed. Rachel is a gender-bending heroine who just can’t do her gender roles well enough for some people, but is loved all the more by others for her individuality. I found the whole thing quite charming and well worth reading and rereading. However, I prefer The Woman in White. There’s more drama in The Woman in White. I found myself more invested in that plot, than this one, simply because the location of a diamond does not concern me as much as the well-being of humans.

You might like The Moonstone if:

  • you love mysteries
  • you like unreliable narrators
  • you like to laugh with the author while he mocks his characters’ foibles

You might not like The Moonstone if:

  • you lack patience. It’s quite long and the mystery drags on a bit before unfolding almost entirely within the last 100 pages.

Final Thoughts: I admire Wilkie Collins. He has a unique style that is intriguing, entertaining, humorous and a bit challenging. If you haven’t tried anything by him, you should. My favorite thing about him is his tendency to demonstrate that the most worthy characters in his melange are the ones who are most harshly judged by society.