Hot Victorian Nonsense

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The Fate of Fenella, collaborative, 1892

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

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

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

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

Everything I Have to Say About Oscar Wilde

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Everything I Have Left to Say About Oscar Wilde

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

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

Fairy Stories

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

Lady Windermere’s Fan

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

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

Enjoy some quotes:

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

I can resist anything except temptation.

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

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

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

On now to the next play.

 

A Woman of No Importance

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

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

Here’s a quote:

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

 

An Ideal Husband

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

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

A quote:

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

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The Importance of Being Earnest

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

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

Quotes:

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

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

The Canterville Ghost

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

The Fall of the House of Wilde

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

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

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

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

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

Well, This Is Embarrassing

Well, This Is Embarrassing

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The Well-beloved, Thomas Hardy, 1892

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final thoughts. What was he thinking? Such piffle.

A Collection of Classic Creepy Tales

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

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

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

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

Happy haunting, dear ones.

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.

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.

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.