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.

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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.

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.

Black Beauty

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Black Beauty, Anna Sewell, 1877

Do the words Black Beauty conjure a hazy memory of an exciting adventure story about a boy and his horse that you read as a child? Me too. That book is The Black Stallion. Can’t wait to reread that one. Black Beauty is not the same type of story.

An ailing Anna Sewell picked up her pen intending to right an injustice, not to entertain anyone. She saw widespread mistreatment of horses in England. So, to humanize the humble horse Sewell wrote a book in the voice of a horse. Black Beauty recalls his days as a handsome, happy colt on a country estate. Things do not go well from there. BB is sold several times. He becomes a London cab horse. It’s not pretty.

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As someone with limited experience with horses, I am perhaps not the best person to review this book. People flipped over this novel. Immediately. Apparently sad fake horse memoirs were exactly what they’d never known they needed. Anna Sewell lived only five months after the publication of her only book, but that was long enough to see it become a bestseller. It remains among the bestselling books of all time. Sad moralizing horse thoughts. Who’d a thunk it?

Don’t get me wrong, I think Sewell’s message is noble and worthy. I’m all for compassionate treatment of horses. I’m just not for a bleak collection of plotless parables about a horse’s sad life. But hey, as an activist novel it was incredibly successful. That’s wonderful for horses and wonderful for Anna Sewell. I want things to be wonderful for you, dear reader. I sincerely hope you are kind to horses. If you are already kind to horses, you can skip this book, because it’s rather dull.

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I don’t think I’ve ever read a book so overtly and single-mindedly concerned with good behavior. On page seven the reckless behavior of an aristocrat results in the broken legs and subsequent death of a horse.  Black Beauty’s mother laments that “he was a good bold horse, there was no vice in him.” These horses are concerned about vice. I read just  seven pages before I was rolling my eyes at the moralizing. And can we talk about how bored I am of the aristocrat breaks horse’s legs/back trope. Vronsky did it. No one else needs to. Please stop with this shorthand. There are other ways to be inconsiderate.

Anna Sewell is very thorough in her reckoning of all the people who might be involved in the life of a horse and all the ways they might be cruel or kind to a horse. We have good and bad owners, buyers, sellers, riders, grooms, assistant grooms, hotel grooms, breaker inners, cab drivers, coach drivers and a whole slew of other people that didn’t stick in my memory.

Look, horses are cool. I like them as much as the next person, but not as much as girls who read lots of pony books. Pony books are not my subgenre. So, I can’t get too jazzed about the mother of all pony books. But I’m happy for the success of Black Beauty. It’s seminal. But so are some other books that aren’t very good. I’m looking at you Frankenstein and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

You might like Black Beauty if:

  • you love horses

You might not like Black Beauty if:

  • you love plots

Final thoughts: It was boring.

Side note: Please do not judge my knitting skills by this atrocious horse. I am so embarrassed by it. I have knit other stuffed animals that turned out very nicely. Cats, rabbits, parrots, people. All very nice looking. I really failed on this poor, derpy horse though. Jeez. It is very hard to sew an accurate seam on black yarn. Yikes. I don’t have access to a horse of any color, so I tried to make a horse. I promise that next knitted item you see on this blog will be better. It is not the fault of the pattern. I have knit other patterns by Alan Dart and they turned out beautifully.

A Forgotten Gem by Thomas Hardy

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This novel is about a young society lady whose father is a butler and I got my father to pose for the picture. Cute, right?

The Hand of Ethelberta, Thomas Hardy, 1876

Did you know that if you stand before a mirror in a dark room and say Ethelberta Petherwin three times fast, a strong, ingeniously resourceful and kind literary heroine will appear?
I will let Thomas Hardy introduce dear Berta. He’s better at these things. An apparently refined and elegant young lady spots a hawk chasing a duck. “Ethelberta impulsively started off in a rapid run that would have made a little dog bark with delight and run after, her object being, if possible, to see the end of this desperate struggle for a life so small and unheard-of. Her stateliness went away, and it could be forgiven for not remaining: for her feet suddenly became as quick as fingers, and she raced along over the uneven ground with such force of tread that, being a woman slightly heavier than gossamer, her patent heels punched little D’s in the soil with unerring accuracy wherever it was bare, crippled the heather where it was not, and sucked the swampy places with a sound of quick kisses.”
Just look at all Hardy is able to do in one little paragraph. We love our girl already, because we understand her impulse to scurry after the birds. We relate to her, because we too want to know the duck’s fate. We are curious. How did such an elegant lady acquire this agility? He has already established a contrast between her fancy garb, genteel appearance and some lovable coarseness in her inner nature. That prose! The images of the delighted dog and the swampy kisses from her little heel. So good. Hardy is a champion and so is Ethelberta.

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Our heroine is a country girl, whose father sends money from his London job as a butler. E begins her long career of trying to support her many siblings and invalid mother, by becoming a governess. Don’t worry, I will spoil nothing, this is all background info. Being lovely, she of course elopes with the young aristocratic son. Soon thereafter her husband and his parents die. The elder Lady Petherwin dies last and leaves young Lady Petherwin nothing but a two year lease on an upscale London apartment. Determined to use her new social position to improve her family’s status, Berta comes up with some very creative ways of saving and making money, including:
• Writing light verse
• Becoming a celebrated performer/ storyteller
• Bringing her whole family to live with her under the pretense that they are her servants
• Ultimately deciding that she must marry, because she will not be able to hide the secret of her birth forever
As you can imagine, pretending that your siblings are your servants is a situation ripe for comedy. You have to admire the audaciousness of Ethelberta’s scheme. Hardy tops his usual love square in this book. Four men try for The Hand of Ethelberta, two of whom are loved by other women. We have a love pentagon with two love triangles branching off. Add in the tension between E and her reforming brothers, who worry that she’ll be burned as a blueblood in the coming revolution. Add her own inner tension; she constantly wonders if she’d be happier discarding her deceitful lifestyle and the trappings of wealth to become a rural school mistress. Not to mention Hardy’s bitter commentary on the scornful way servants are regarded. His mother was a servant and he does an excellent job of inverting the popular Victorian and Gothic trope of the bumbling, ludicrous, idiotic, superstitious servants.
Ethelberta is a truly unique character, with an admirable capacity for sacrifice and creativity. I love her for consulting books of philosophy in a crisis. What other Victorian heroine does that? I love her for other reasons, but I’m leaving plenty of detail out, because I really think you should read this one. The prose has all the elements of Hardy’s greatness, including such wisdom as:

“A half knowledge of another’s life usually does injustice to the life half known.”
And
“between continually wanting to love, to escape the blank lives of those who do not, and wanting not to love, to keep out the miseries of those that do, I get foolishly warm and foolishly cold by turns.”

You might like The Hand of Ethelberta if:

  • you enjoy a strong heroine with a surfeit of love interests
  • you like unexpected endings
  • you wish the women in Period Pieces had more gumption

You might not like The Hand of Ethelberta if:

  • I dunno…you’re more into Cormac McCarthy than Jane Austen

Final thoughts: The critics didn’t love this one, but we are not Victorian literary critics. For me, this is one of Hardy’s better books and certainly worth your time. There is a very good recording on Librivox, if you’d prefer an audiobook.

Maria Ruiz de Burton’s Savage Satire

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The protagonist of this novel dresses in blackface. I’m not going to touch that. So, here is a wonderful picture of the author herself, a woman whose face we should know.

Who Would Have Thought It? by Maria Ruiz de Burton, 1872

This book is notable for being

  • the first book written in English by a Mexican in the United States
  • about the Civil War. Have you noticed that no book I have reviewed on this blog is about the Civil War? No one wrote about it. The Red Badge of Courage and Cold Mountain are the only canonical books on the topic of the American Civil War. Neither author lived during the war. Ruiz de Burton did.
  • lost and rediscovered by the Recovering the United States Hispanic Literary Heritage Project in the 1990s.

Before you get giddy at the thought of the first novel by a Latinx woman on this blog, let me tell you what this novel is not. It is not as woke as you want it to be. Ruiz de Burton wrote in the 1870s. Nothing is woke enough for us. Our wokest politicians aren’t nearly woke enough. Our wokest friend’s wokest Facebook posts often piss us off. If you choose to read Who Would Have Thought It? and I think you should, you will be offended by Ruiz de Burton’s attitude toward Native Americans, African Americans and dark-skinned Latinx. You should be offended by this, but I still think you should read the book.

The book will not represent the experience of the average Mexican living in the U.S. in the 19th century. The author was born into a powerful family in Baja California. Her father was governor and helped lead Mexican resistance in Baja. Maria married Henry Stanton Burton, a captain in the invading U.S. Army. This is not the typical experience for Mexicans in the land that would be incorporated into the United States. Who Would Have Thought It? has one Mexican character. She is as weak, docile and boring as any other such heroine from Victorian or even Gothic literature.

Taking those failings into account, this is still a special book. Ruiz de Burton describes New England society during the Civil War from the perspective of an outsider and she skewers the hypocrisy she encountered without mercy. My jaw dropped repeatedly at her audacious satire. So much of Victorian fiction reinforces social norms. (Not Thomas Hardy, though. That’s why I love him.) Ruiz de Burton gives unearned respect to absolutely no one, from preachers to Abraham Lincoln himself. No one is safe. Hide your wives; hide your clergy. Ruiz de Burton is coming for them.

We begin with the Norval’s, an upright New England family in need of capital to provide their surfeit of daughters each with “a position.” Mr. Norval suddenly returns from a research expedition to the West with a swarthy young lass and many large boxes of “specimens” in tow. The girl, Lola, is not well received by the family, in great part due to her dark skin. When pious Mrs. Norval discovers that the specimen boxes are filled with gold and gems left to Lola by her deceased mother, she reveals her… shall we say, desire for worldly goods.

Mrs. Norval’s character arc is the highlight of the novel. She begins as a judgmental matron, too good to acknowledge her neighbors. Ruiz de Burton shows that her mantle of respectability is a thin skin covering a greedy and selfish character. Mrs. Norval seems devout, but she’s really in love with her minister. She seems frugal, but she’d do any immoral thing to acquire more wealth for her own worldly needs and to present a fashionable face to society. de Burton puts white New England women on blast and she sure blasts them. For example, when Mrs. Norval hears that her husband wants Lola to be treated with the same respect as his own, fair-skinned daughters, she objects “In that case your daughters and myself will have to wait upon your adopted child; for I am sure we will not find in all New England a white girl willing to do it.”  Her husband responds “And that, of course, speaks very highly for New England,–abolitionist New England mind you. But I’ll warrant, madam, that you shall have plenty of servants.” Damn! Gotcha. Ruiz de Burton shooting straight for the heart of hypocritical New England that prided itself on abolition, but still treated black people as lesser and exploited Irish immigrants as underpaid and mistreated servants.

This review is already getting so long and I could say much more about the satirical brilliance of Who Would Have Thought It? Ugh. I have to tell you about the Cackles. They were the poor next-door neighbors that the young Misses Norval were too good to associate with. They go off to fight for the Union. One Cackle falls off his horse in his urgency to flee from the Rebels. When he manages to reseat himself, he encounters a wounded senator who “came to see the battle from a distance” thinking “it would be such a splendid sight.” Cackle responds, “I hope you are satisfied, you and your friends, with the d—d fun you politicians have made for us all.” But he saves the senator, who repays him by advancing this first man to retreat to a high position in the Union Army. His brother becomes quite famous for losing control of his horse during another retreat. The confused beast runs back onto the field of battle. His fellow soldiers are inspired by his supposed bravery, retake their artillery and win the day. Not even war heroes are safe from Ruiz de Burton. She has no respect for the hierarchy of the Union Army. Cowardly clods are promoted, while honorable soldiers are left to rot in Confederate prison camps with no hope of being traded, because a powerful person has a personal grudge against them.

I can’t share every bit of biting satire or brilliant wisdom from this book with you. Suffice it to say that Ruiz de Burton weaves brutal satirical jabs into every moment of her narrative. Young ladies going abroad? “It was the anniversary of some great day in New England when the Misses Norval were to make their farewell appearance in church before leaving for Europe,–some great day in which the Pilgrim fathers had done some one of their wonderful deeds. They had either embarked, or landed, or burnt a witch, or whipped a woman at the pillory, on just such a day.” Damn.

Returning to Lola, whose role is rather minor. It turns out that she is not in fact “negro” as everyone assumed at first, but that her mother dyed her skin black with…I don’t know, walnut juice or something, to…I guess protect her somehow while they were held captive by a Native American tribe. The characters and the narrator betray a heartbreaking prejudice against Native Americans and anyone with dark skin. This is such a let down and an aspect of the novel and culture in general that cannot be ignored. Lola is considered “pure” and worthy only because she turns out to be of European descent. The presence of this attitude in this novel is plenty good reason to skip it. But I still think there is something unique about Who Would Have Thought It? I’m not suggesting that you tolerate or ignore this prejudice. I’m asking that you criticize it thoroughly while also acknowledging the moments of brilliance in this novel. There is no other novel like this. None.

A Series of Unfortunate Marriages

diggory venn

The Return of the Native, Thomas Hardy, 1878

Alert: The Return of the Native is one of the only audiobooks that Alan Rickman ever recorded. If you enjoy audiobooks at all, you should listen to this one before reading this post. Treat yourself. I will not divulge the entire plot here, but you might want to go give it a listen before I divulge a single thing.

This novel is a strange, mixed bag. It contains all the elements that make Thomas Hardy’s writing wonderful and some elements that let the story down. The highlight of the book is Diggory Venn, the reddleman. I love this character from the depths of my being. He roves the heath in something like a Romani wagon, selling red dye that shepherds use to mark their livestock. He’s quite successful, but his trade has the disadvantage of turning his skin and clothes red. Of course, he becomes the local boogeyman, because of his outlandish appearance. If you don’t wash behind your ears, the reddleman will carry you away. Far from being a scary kidnapper, poor Diggory is kind and resourceful and tireless in his efforts to help others. But the woman he loves, Thomasin Yeobright, will not marry him, in part because of his redness.

We must take yet another moment on this blog to recognize Hardy’s brilliance with character names. Characters in this book include:

Thomasin (Tamsin) Yeobright                                          Clement (Clym) Yeobright

Eustacia Vye                                                                        Damon Wildeve

Grandfer Cantle                                                                     Johnny Nunsuch

How does he do it?

The tale takes place on Egdon Heath. Hardy describes this wild habitat with such beauty and nuance that the setting is absolutely the second-best part of the book after Diggory Venn. I appreciate every word he uses to describe Egdon. However, when the setting is more interesting than half your characters, you halfway blew it. If he’d put the same energy into making Tamsin something more than a symbol of feminine sweetness, figuring out whether Eustacia is supposed to be an allegory or a girl, and eliminating the bizarre, abstract elements of Clym’s characterization, this would be a perfect book.

We need to talk about Eustacia Vye. Please indulge me by reading Hardy’s initial description of her:

“Eustacia Vye was the raw material of a divinity. On Olympus she would have done well with a little preparation. She had the passions and instincts which make a model goddess, that is, those which make not quite a model woman. Had it been possible for the earth and mankind to be entirely in her grasp for a while, she had handled the distaff, the spindle, and the shears at her own free will, few in the world would have noticed the change of government. There would have been the same inequality of lot, the same heaping up of favours here, of contumely there, the same generosity before justice, the same perpetual dilemmas, the same captious alteration of caresses and blows that we endure now.”

Wow. I love this intertwining of Hardy’s worldview with his description of this woman. She is as unpredictable and arbitrary as human destiny. I’m intrigued. Did you notice that in this extended metaphor he avoided implying that any deity actually does control the outcome of our lives? Hardy was pretty much an atheist. Go team!

I wanted to love our mercurial heath goddess, Eustacia, because she dresses in drag to get close to a fella she’s interested in. But she’s a Hera, not an Athena, and we can’t love Hera, because she’s prone to imposing extravagant punishments on the women that her husband rapes. You have to exhibit a smidge of compassion to be a sympathetic character. Instead, Eustacia’s careless, egotistic meddling ruins lives. This would be fine, not morally, but as a fictitious device, if Hardy didn’t spend the last section of the novel asking the reader to bewail poor Eustacia’s sad lot. The same lot in life that she chose for herself with complete disregard for the happiness of everyone around her. Perhaps this will not be a problem for you. Perhaps you are more forgiving than I.

 

You might like The Return of the Native if:

  • you’re a fan of Thomas Hardy’s other work
  • you love anything set on a moor

You might not like The Return of the Native if:

  • you need your characters to be at least as dynamic as the scenery

Final Thoughts: Even with this flaw, the end of the book is pretty satisfying. Overall, I like it very much. Hardy’s prose is top notch in this one. There is pristine scene in which a woman looks at a heron. I read it three or four times and I got more out of it each time. Currently, I would rank The Return of the Native fourth or fifth out of the seven Thomas Hardy books I have read, which may sound low, but the three or four books ahead of it are three or four of my all-time favorite books. I think it’ll end up at the top of my second tier of Hardy novels. We shall see.