Happy Afternoons for Pauper Lunatics

IMG_7753

The Story of a Modern Woman, Ella Hepworth Dixon, 1894

I am trying to remember why I added this book to my list and I am guessing that my past-self was hooked by the idea of a New Woman roman a clef. Dixon wrote about her own experience as a woman in a changing, Late Victorian World. Yeah, girl. Tell me what that was like. I am listening. I am ready to know how you define modern womanhood.

I know you are never going to read this obscure book, so here is a summary. Mary Erle is the daughter of a prominent scientist. When he dies, little orphan Mary must earn enough money to support herself and her younger brother. She tries to make it as an artist, but the painting that she works on for six months (six months!) is rejected from the Royal British Academy of Art or Whatever. Poor Mary. Fortunately, one of her more successful painter friends asks her to write a story to accompany a piece of his. Thus begins her career as a starving writer.

Meanwhile, her wealthier friend Alison takes an interest in helping less fortunate women. She wants to lead a more useful life than that of a London deb. Alison, who is far more interesting than Mary, seriously considers marrying the prominent doctor Dunlop Strange. I am not kidding. His name is Dr. Strange. Dunlop Strange. However, she encounters a dying woman in a hospital who turns out to be Strange’s abandoned mistress. Even though most Victorian women were expected to and did look past this type of masculine misbehavior, Alison cares about other women and is not about to marry a man who would toss someone aside like garbage.

Sadly, Alison catches a cold that, in combination with the mental shock of discovering her beau’s dying mistress, proves fatal. I know. That seems a bit too delicate, but they didn’t have antibiotics then. So, I suppose a thorough wetting and some bad news could. . .kill an otherwise healthy young woman? On her deathbed, Alison implores Mary to “Promise me you will never, never do anything to hurt another woman” because “there comes a time in our lives when we can do a great deal of harm or a great deal of good, or an incalculable amount of harm. If women only used their power in the right way! If we were only united we could lead the world.”

The implication is that if society women refused to marry men who ruin poor women’s lives and leave them to die in the gutter, men would have to stop doing that. It is tempting to think that female solidarity alone could generate a brave new world. It is a solution to the problem of male misbehavior that I have contemplated myself. It’s tough though, because, as Thomas Hardy wrote “Of all the ingenious and cruel satires that from the beginning till now have been stuck like knives into womankind, surely there is not one so lacerating to them, and to us who love them, as the trite old fact, that the most wretched of men can, in the twinkling of an eye, find a wife ready to be more wretched for the sake of his company.” Alison did not marry Dr. Strange, but someone will. He certainly wasn’t worth dying over, honey. Side note: How perfect is Thomas Hardy. So perfect.

Alison’s dying wish sets us up for the great crisis in Mary’s life. After stringing her along for years, her worthless lover marries a much wealthier woman, because he thinks her fortune can advance his political career. Later he has the audacity to come knocking at Mary’s door complaining about his unsatisfying marriage and begging her to runaway to France with him and live as his mistress. Of course, Mary tells him to jog on; she is a modern woman and modern women don’t bang each other’s husbands. I mean. . .it is certainly not the strongest feminist statement I have ever heard, but I will take it.

I appreciate that while the novel contains a strong dose of self-pity, Hepworth Dixon spends ample time acknowledging that other women have it much worse. She was well-connected, after all. One of her connections was Oscar Wilde, who appears in the book split into several different characters. He offers Mary writing work, but she still disdains his company, finding him too acerbic.

 

Here’s a quote:

“‘Oh, dear Miss Erle,’ said a shrill voice at the door, ‘do come in. It’s such a nice party. I wonder,’ continued Mr. Beaufort Flower, who entertained a good deal himself, ‘why other people’s parties are so much nicer than one’s own? I suppose it is because one always knows so many more people at other people’s houses?’

‘Who is here?’ said Mary, who never troubled herself to laugh at his small witticisms.”

Um, excuse me, Ella. You had the privilege of being in Oscar Wilde’s presence and you never troubled yourself to laugh. I don’t know what you are trying to prove with that attitude, but you’ve only shown that your bad taste. Also, don’t try to write something witty that Oscar Wilde might have said. You are not up to the task. He was much funnier than you. Anyway, I will try to forgive her. Oscar Wilde did enough mocking of others that he deserved to be mocked a little.

Final thoughts: Not bad. I am glad I read it. If you are interested, give it a try. It is quite brief and fairly well-written. I enjoyed it. Not a masterpiece, but worthwhile if it appeals to you. I can’t end this post without telling you about “Happy Afternoons for Pauper Lunatics” which is a charity one of the characters in this book organizes. Feel free to use that for your next album title.

Hot Victorian Nonsense

IMG_7642

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.

Retro-Futuristic Feminist Nonsense!

IMG_0489

Anno Domini 2000, or, Woman’s Destiny, Julius Vogel, 1889

The 8th Premier of New Zealand wrote a feminist science fiction novel. I read it, so you don’t have to. You are welcome. Get ready to enter the wild and wacky world of Julius Vogel’s imagining.

It is the year 2000. The slow, but steady grind of progress has transformed society. Everyone realizes that women are smarter than men. Most world leaders are women. The leaders of the Commonwealth decided that “every human being was entitled to a position of the world’s good things” and enacted Universal Basic Income. Luxury is the new normal. The United Britain is the most powerful empire on the globe. The colonies are wealthier than Mother England. Together, England and her colonies are more powerful than the rest of the world combined.

He started off well, but swung hard into imperialist propaganda, huh?

Vogel very sweetly predicted that in the year 2000, transportation technology would be so advanced that the Emperor of United Britain could “go from one end to the other of his dominions in 12 days.” Cute.

IMG_0501

That’s the gist of the setup. Now he launches into the story and oh, boy; it is the silliest story. Vogel’s vision of female advancement does not extend beyond lifting them into positions of power. Once so elevated, they behave exactly like stereotypical heroines in bad Victorian novels. The heroine at hand is Hilda Fitzherbert who is Under-Secretary of State for Home Affairs for the British Empire. Also, she is 22 and has “a face artistically perfect.” Barf. The trend of very young political leaders in sci-fi/fantasy is so obviously based on the assumption that people must be young and hot to be interesting. As if people, especially women, stop developing mentally or experiencing life-altering events after 27. Why does she have to be young and “perfect” looking? Why? Oh, because this is a goddamn love story. Sure, the love story has vast geo-political ramifications, but it’s a love story. Geez. But still, people finding love in their 90s is still romantic. She didn’t have to be 22, Julius.

We begin with a conversation between the Under Secretary and the Assistant Under Secretary. What do they discuss? Important home affairs? Nope. A man. A man who is in love with Hilda. She’s not interested in him and he’s an ass; so he proceeds to try to ruin her political career out of spite. Yep. That’s the plot of the novel. Hilda versus the scorned lover. How disappointing that Vogel couldn’t imagine Hilda versus the famine. Hilda versus the rise of fascism. Hilda versus anything other than a goddamn man who is mad because she won’t bang him.

Next Hilda consults the Prime Minister of Britain. . .about this goddamn man. By the way, the Prime Minister is also beautiful even though she has the audacity to be 40. Yikes. Also, Hilda calls her “dear mamma” because they are such close friends. Yikes again. So unprofessional, Hilda.

I could go on at length about the many problems with the book, but it would get repetitive and honestly, it’s not worth our time. So, I will just let you know that

  • the Emperor of England is considering whether to marry the daughter of the President of the United States of America as part of a political deal. Hi, we are the United States? Have you met us? That is literally not how we negotiate international politics. Also, he doesn’t want to marry her, because she has red hair. I’m serious.
  • He refuses to marry her, so the U.S. invades Canada out of spite. Really. This gives Britain an excuse to take back their lost colony, which Vogel describes as “weak as water compared to the parent country they abandoned.” He loves the British Empire so much that he is still sad, more than a hundred years later, about that war they lost. Boohoo. It takes the Empire about half a day to retake their former territory “a triumph which amply redeemed the humiliation of centuries back.” Oh, and the 4th of July is abolished. That is some next level imperial fervor, dude. Chill.
  • Hilda’s love life has caused a world war, but Britain triumphs. Her scorned lover dies. She marries the Emperor of course, because why not?

Final Thoughts: This book is very silly nonsense. It’s sweet that Julius Vogel was so committed to women’s rights that he wrote an entire novel to promote the cause, but he should have stuck to politics. And all that imperialist pride. . .what the hell, Julius?

Thomas Hardy on Hangmen, Witches, Bootlegging and Bad Marriages

IMG_7493

Wessex Tales, Thomas Hardy, 1888

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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