Friday 26 August 2011

Matthew "Monk" Lewis turns it up to 11

Matthew Lewis wrote his classic Gothic novel, The Monk (1796), when he was 19, and you can tell. He also completed the manuscript in a mere ten weeks, and that's obvious too. The book is really quite terrible, but in a good, fun, rollicking, silly, and very enjoyable way. Deep literature it ain't.

The Monk is a novel that glories in all the most horrendous conventions of the Gothicthere is rape, murder, ghosts, incest, torture, kinky sex with a demon, contracts with Lucifer (written in blood no less)but it also makes fun of these common tropes. In addition to hilarious horrors, there are prolonged rants against the hypocrisy of the Catholic church coupled with glaring factual errors with regards to said Church. Lewis aimed to entertain and by no means to instruct, and he succeeded.

I didn't take notes on this novel while I was reading it. As with several of the books mentioned in my previous post, The Monk was integral to my getting through the first week of Life After Caffeine. I needed a romp that wouldn't ask me to think too much and Lewis delivered; it couldn't have been a more perfect choice. And having carried this book around unread for approximately 10 years, it's also been a remarkable relief to realize that sometimes the right time for a book really is full a decade in the making. (FYI: It's almost 2 weeks since my last coffee; I think I'm almost okay now. Maybe.)

Gah, what a boring review. I wouldn't post this if I thought I could do better later. The fact is, for the next little while I'm going to be busier than usual and I'm not sure how much time I'll have for blogging; I'm certainly not going to be reading less, if I can help it! I will try to stay on top of things, by at least indicating when I've read a book. But spending a few hours on each post, and doing several posts per Victorian novel...not sure I can engage that deeply for the next little while.

Next up: a likely very short and unsatisfying review of Anthony Trollope's Autobiography!

Sunday 21 August 2011

A caffeine withdrawal-related miscellany

I have a complicated relationship with the noble coffee bean. I love coffee just for the taste, and that's normally why I forget the kind of headachey, sleepy, confused, and indecisive withdrawal week I just went through and start eventually drinking it again. When I do start drinking it again after a period of abstinence, I feel amazingly good and am stupidly productive...which eventually ends in complete dependence that provides no such boosts and I'm drinking it just to avoid the headache, etc. Which, understandably, I think, quickly becomes unacceptable, and I quit, again. I haven't had a coffee, or anything else caffeinated, since last Saturday.

But before I quit the good stuff, I finished reading Anne Fadiman's collection of familiar essays, At Large and At Small. Indeed, in a terrible instance of art thumbing its nose at (my) life, I found myself reading her essay about coffee while drinking what I knew would be my last cup of coffee (this time around).

"Coffee" was a great essay, but it filled me with fear because of its discussion of all the great people (Balzac being the one I recall most clearly) who would have gotten nothing done and achieved no fame or fortune whatsoever without imbibing copious amounts of the caffeinated beverage of extreme deliciousness. I don't think coffee can make me as gifted and prolific a writer as Balzac was; coffee is no substitute for natural talent. Yet, reading this piece made me antsy about ever getting anything interesting done again. Have I mentioned that coffee also makes me antsy?

As for the rest of Fadiman's collection, it was not as compelling to me as her previous work, Ex Libris, but I think this has primarily to do with the fact that Ex Libris was entirely about books and At Large and At Small is only partially about books. My favourite pieces in the latter (besides "Coffee") were about Charles Lamb and Samuel Taylor Coleridge; her other essaysaddressing such diverse topics as ice cream, butterfly collecting, and the American flagwere incredibly well-written, of course, but their subject matter didn't draw me in at all.

Reading this book has made it even more embarrassingly clear to me that books are my almost exclusive interest in life. Well, at least in terms of reading; I like cats very much, and travel, and hummus, but I don't care much to read about any of these things. Books that are stories and books about books (sometimes) are all I really care to read. Fadiman's superb writing carried me through the essays addressing topics that I had no interest in, but At Large and At Small didn't grab me the way her bibliophilic romp Ex Libris did.

The first few days of life after coffee (LAC) were passed away in the post-apocalyptic YA hell that is Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games. My darling friend Vee sent me the whole trilogy a while ago and I was incredibly grateful to have them here when my brain tried to adjust. The Hunger Games is a fast read as well as kind of an addictive one, but I have to say I don't know why the latter is true, for the novel is highly derivative of all such battle royale plots (especially derivative of, say, Koushun Takami's Battle Royale).

In spite of its being highly derivative, I still think this could have been a really good book, for Collins gestures towards the hideous underbelly of America's obsession with reality TV in conjunction with its love of sensationalist news "reporting". But she just doesn't and this is part of a larger problem: this book was produced by a lazy writer. Collins brings up incredibly fascinating issues and then doesn't bother to tease them out; her characterization is almost non-existent, and the writing is at best merely adequate. I wish either Philip Pullman or Garth Nix had written this book. That said, I will save the other two books in the trilogy for my next bout with the caffeine withdrawal, to help me pass the time.

In the midst of my caffeine withdrawal, which peaked at day 4 and covered my soul with the most sickening and soul-destroying malaise, I dove (gingerly; I did have a terrible headache, after all) into a graphic novel about the goddamn Batman called Knightfall Part 1: Broken Bat. Very few words and pretty pictures were just what the doctor ordered, and making my way through this collection helped distract me from my acute pain and thankfully short-lived despair.

I have read very few graphic novels in my day, but I think my husband may have screwed the form's chances of ever becoming a favourite of mine by having me read two of the best examples thereof to beginWatchmen and V for Vendetta. Watchmen, especially. Broken Bat, in comparison, was amateurish in its story-telling, for each chapter simply detailed the Batman having his ass viciously handed to him by increasingly more dangerous super-villains until he's (literally) broken by the large, hairy, angry, and souped up Bane. I wouldn't say I was exactly bored by the time it ended, but I wasn't sorry to see it go either.

Finally, there was the lovely J. D. Salinger's famous collection, Nine Stories. I actually began reading this small tome about a month ago but let it lay for a long time because the first several stories were just not compelling in the ways I've come to expect of Salinger's work. The first tale, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish", wasn't badbut it's about Seymour, so it should have been bloody fantastic, and it wasn't. And the story that followed it, "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut", I thought was actually kind of terrible. So, I put the book down.

But then I picked it up again last week, in part out of guilt and in part out of necessity (for it's due back at the library tomorrow) and in part because I thought short stories might help me get through the final days of caffeine detoxification (I'm feeling excellent now, thank you). The rest of the book is a mixed bag of disappointing and brilliant. I hated "Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes" even more than I hated the wiggily story, but "For Esmewith Love and Squalor", "De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period", and "Teddy" were so good as to make up for everything else; yes, it was worth reading all nine just for these three.

And now my reading brain has recovered, I am reading Anthony Trollope's autobiography while I wait for my next Vic Lit project novel to arrive from the library—Thackeray's The History of Henry Esmond. I actually already have a copy of this novel, but when I picked it up to begin it, all the pages started falling out; this is no way to read a Great Book, so I will wait for the hopefully less abused library copy.

Wednesday 17 August 2011

Dombey and Son - a novel without a hero?

As I was nearing the conclusion of Charles Dickens's Dombey and Son, it occurred to me that unlike Vanity Fair (which only claimed to be so), this might really be a novel without a hero. Paul Dombey, Sr. never comes close to occupying the role of hero; he is too selfish, prideful, self-absorbed, cruel. Certainly, he changes quite radically in the end but his moment for heroism has long passed by then. Young Paul might have become one but he is, of course, too good to live into adulthood. Other options? Really, only young Walter Gay has any potential in this regard and he spends a great deal too much time floundering about in the ocean trying not to drown to fulfill this role.

It's not simply absence or youth or personality defect that discounts these three potential heroes from inhabiting such a role; it's that they are either never confronted with the kinds of terrible and impossible choices that true heroes face and manage to respond rightly to, or (in Dombey's case) they respond in ways that can only be described as miserable failures.

But in the end, someone does show themselves to be capable of foolish bravery and truly selfish action performed on another's behalf: Florence Dombey. Florence Dombey suffers a great deal. During her lonely childhood, her father never once makes an effort to hide his utter disinterest in her; indeed, he sees her as a threat to his relationship with young Paul, then his second wife, and always to his perception of himself.

In the early years, he worries he will come to hate her, and he doesto such a degree that upon Edith's elopement with Carker the Manager, he blindly blames Florence and physically assaults her! (Further, he never inquires into Florence's whereabouts after she flees in fear and pain, assuming she's probably with his odious sister. Bad, bad man!) She runs, finally having seen what has been clear to everyone else her whole lifethat her father despises her, utterly, and does not deserve the place in her heart she's held for him. It's taken 17 years for her to see him clearly and the knowledge almost breaks her.

Up to this point, Florence is certainly a portrait of long-suffering devotion, but she is not heroic; her love is timid, mostly passive, and secret. She spends a great deal of time weeping, lamenting, sighing, placing her weary head upon her hand, and feeling like her heart is about to break. When she is forced to escape the Dombey household (which has never been eligible for the moniker "home"), she flees to the home of Sol Gills and his nephew Walter Gay, as they are the only people in her life who've ever truly helped and cared for her. Neither are there; both are lost on the ocean; but she finds Captain Cuttle, Sol's greatest friend, present and willing to hide her and nurse her indefinitely.

It takes her some time to recover but when she does, Walter has miraculously made it back to London and they soon discover that now they are young adults, their childhood friendship has become something rather more complicated. And here's where Florence begins to become something larger and braver and stronger than I would have imagined possible. Having survived one shipwreck, Walter must shortly away to sea again due to deep financial constraints; Florence responds thus:
'Are you soon going away again, Walter?'

'Very soon.

She sat looking at him for a moment; then timidly put her trembling hand in his.

'If you will take me for your wife, Walter, I will love you dearly. If you will let me go with you, Walter, I will go to the world's end without fear. I can give up nothing for youI have nothing to resign, and no one to forsake; but all my love and life shall be devoted to you, and with my last breath I will breathe your name to God if I have sense and memory left.'

He caught her to his heart, and laid her cheek against his own, and now, no more repulsed, no more forlorn, she wept indeed, upon the breast of her dear lover. (p. 752)
It's not simply that Florence proposes to Walter; it's that, having lost everyone she's ever loved, and had her hopes about her father so horrifically stripped away, she's capable of laying her heart completely on the line again. No other character in Dombey and Son has looked such emotional horrors in the face and remained in one piece, AND been able to continue to take important risks.

And Florence transcends even this incredible moment when a year after she and Walter sail away for China, she returns to her father who has lost everything and, locked up in his old and now empty house, is on the verge of committing suicide and can think of himself only as a thing:
Now it was thinking again! What was it thinking?

Whether they would tread in the blood when it crept so far, and carry it about the house among those many prints of feet, or even out into the street.

It sat down, with its eyes upon the empty fireplace, and as it lost itself in thought there shone into the room a gleam of light; a ray of sun. It was quite unmindful, and sat thinking. Suddenly it rose, with a terrible face, and that guilty hand grasping what was in its breast. Then it was arrested by a crya wild, loud, piercing, loving, rapturous cryand he only saw his own reflection in the glass, and at his knees, his daughter!

Yes. His daughter! Look at her! Look here! Down upon the ground, clinging to him, calling to him, folding her hands, praying to him.

'Papa! Dearest Papa! Pardon me, forgive me! I have come back to ask forgiveness on my knees. I never can be happy more, without it!'

Unchanged still. Of all the world, unchanged. Raising the same face to his, as on that miserable night. Asking his forgiveness! (pp. 886-89)
But she has changed, for having a baby has made her truly understand what it means to have and lose a child, and what the bond between infant and parent ought to be. She asks his forgiveness but she shortly after informs him (gently, but without fear) that they will never part again. Not only is she still willing to lay her heart bare to him, after a lifetime of neglect and cruelty, but she is no longer a child who hopes and begs; she is an adult who demands what is right, and right for all.

Now, I personally felt a little put out that she felt the need to ask this sumbitch for forgiveness; my feelings about him have been rather more aligned with Edith's than with Florence's. But this is Florence through and throughshe is heroic because her courage in being her best self only increases over time, and never breaks under the pain of ill treatment.

Of course, this is all very fantastical and sentimental. Indeed, my sister-in-law recently suggested that while it seems impossible, Dombey and Son is actually even more sentimental than The Old Curiosity Shopand I can only agree. Dickens makes people pay for their stupidity and cruelty and selfishness and never get another chance in The Old Curiosity Shop; in Dombey and Son, the morally bankrupt are made to suffer, often a great deal, but only a few are not given another chance to make reparations and live differently.

It was so sentimental, it made me roll my eyes a few times; but I still loved it. Next on my Vic Lit list: a much less well known Thackeray novel.

Tuesday 9 August 2011

The mysterious Edith Granger

This, my second quotation-heavy post on Dickens's Dombey and Son, does give some plot details away, so be warned. I simply can't stop writing and thinking about this book—indeed, there's already a third post in rough draft, and as I still have approximately 350 pages left in the novel, I suspect it won't be the last. I should have become a Dickens scholar, if my enthusiasm is any indication; the worth of my posts makes my not becoming one much less of a loss, I'm sure.


The loss of his son doesn't either chasten or soften Paul Dombey. After the funeral, he leaves young Florence alone with the servants in their gigantic, dreary house and takes to travelling about England with his charming new acquaintance, Major Bagstock. Major Bagstock is gruff, honest, straightforward, out-going, entirely devoted to Mr. Dombey—and on the make. In particular, he handily sets and springs a trap for the saddened but no less prideful and self-absorbed Dombey, which culminates in the latter's marriage to a beautiful young widow who boasts not a penny to her name. Bagstock and Edith Granger's mother, Mrs. Skewton, gleefully discuss the ease with which their mark has been lassoed: 
'Shall we marry him to Edith Granger, Ma'am?' chuckled the Major, hoarsely.

'Mysterious creature!' returned Cleopatra, bringing her fan to bear upon the Major's nose. 'How can we marry him?'

'Shall we marry him to Edith Granger, Ma'am, I say?' chuckled the Major again.

Mrs Skewton returned no answer in words, but smiled upon the Major with so much archness and vivacity, that that gallant officer considering himself challenged, would have imprinted a kiss on her exceedingly red lips, but for her interposing the fan with a very winning and juvenile dexterity. It might have been in modesty; it might have been in apprehension of some danger to their bloom.

'Dombey, Ma'am,' said the Major, 'is a great catch.'

'Oh, mercenary wretch!' cried Cleopatra, with a little shriek, 'I am shocked.'

'And Dombey, Ma'am,' pursued the Major, thrusting forward his head, and distending his eyes, 'is in earnest. Joseph says it; Bagstock knows it; J. B. keeps him to the mark. Leave Dombey to himself, Ma'am. Dombey is safe, Ma'am. Do as you have done; do no more; and trust to J. B. for the end.'

'You really think so, my dear Major?' returned Cleopatra, who had eyed him very cautiously, and very searchingly, in spite of her listless bearing.

'Sure of it, Ma'am,' rejoined the Major. 'Cleopatra the peerless, and her Antony Bagstock, will often speak of this, triumphantly, when sharing the elegance and wealth of Edith Dombey's establishment. Dombey's right-hand man, Ma'am,' said the Major, stopping abruptly in a chuckle, and becoming serious, 'has arrived.' (pp. 392-93)
That these elderly former lovers do not scruple to take advantage of Dombey's weaknesses (which comprise primarily his unbending pride and confidence in his own worth, not to mention a desire to make another attempt at establishing the company under the banner of Dombey and Son) is not something shared by the fair face of their scheme, however. Edith chafes under the compulsion to marry a man whom she scorns, and shows more humanity in spite of her shockingly cold and proud demeanour than either Bagstock or Mrs. Skewton are capable of imagining. The predatory Mr. Carker the Manager comes across Edith in a private moment and observes her thus:
It was that of a lady, elegantly dressed and very handsome, whose dark proud eyes were fixed upon the ground, and in whom some passion or struggle was raging. For as she sat looking down, she held a corner of her under lip within her mouth, her bosom heaved, her nostril quivered, her head trembled, indignant tears were on her cheek, and her foot was set upon the moss as though she would have crushed it into nothing. And yet almost the self-same glance that showed him this, showed him the self-same lady rising with a scornful air of weariness and lassitude, and turning away with nothing expressed in face or figure but careless beauty and imperious disdain.(p. 403 bottom)
Her self-protective mask of aggressive disinterest in everything going on around her is so strong that it reasserts itself even in moments when she imagines herself to be alone. Yet, Edith bridles painfully under the necessity of her purchase at the hands of a man who is thus far shown himself to be incapable of thinking of human relations in anything other than transactional terms. She will marry Mr. Dombey and all his money but she never claims to relish the prospect; indeed, she never pretends to have even the tiniest interest in it, not even to Dombey. She sees herself as chattel, as does everyone else around her: 
'Look at me,' she said, 'who have never known what it is to have an honest heart, and love. Look at me, taught to scheme and plot when children play; and married in my youth—an old age of design—to one for whom I had no feeling but indifference. Look at me, whom he left a widow, dying before his inheritance descended to him—a judgment on you! well deserved!—and tell me what has been my life for ten years since.'

'We have been making every effort to endeavour to secure to you a good establishment,' rejoined her mother. 'That has been your life. And now you have got it.'

'There is no slave in a market: there is no horse in a fair: so shown and offered and examined and paraded, Mother, as I have been, for ten shameful years,' cried Edith, with a burning brow, and the same bitter emphasis on the one word. 'Is it not so? Have I been made the bye-word of all kinds of men? Have fools, have profligates, have boys, have dotards, dangled after me, and one by one rejected me, and fallen off, because you were too plain with all your cunning: yes, and too true, with all those false pretences: until we have almost come to be notorious? The licence of look and touch,' she said, with flashing eyes, 'have I submitted to it, in half the places of resort upon the map of England? Have I been hawked and vended here and there, until the last grain of self-respect is dead within me, and I loathe myself? Has been my late childhood? I had none before. Do not tell me that I had, tonight of all nights in my life!' (pp. 417-18)
Edith is both trapped by circumstances and the means by which Dombey is trapped, though she never actively tries to further Major Bagstock's and Mrs. Skewton's plans. She coldly acquiesces because she is without options, she chafes against the untenable situation in which she finds herself, but never displays human kindness or tenderness; she seems as hardened as the prostitute she aligns herself with above. Yet, her first meeting with Florence Dombey shows that there is more to her than even she reckons herself: 
'Edith,' said Mr Dombey, 'this is my daughter Florence. Florence, this lady will soon be your Mama.'

Florence started, and looked up at the beautiful face in a conflict of emotions, among which the tears that name awakened, struggled for a moment with surprise, interest, admiration, and an indefinable sort of fear. Then she cried out, 'Oh, Papa, may you be happy! may you be very, very happy all your life!' and then fell weeping on the lady's bosom.

There was a short silence. The beautiful lady, who at first had seemed to hesitate whether or no she should advance to Florence, held her to her breast, and pressed the hand with which she clasped her, close about her waist, as if to reassure her and comfort her. Not one word passed the lady's lips. She bent her head down over Florence, and she kissed her on the cheek, but she said no word.

'Shall we go on through the rooms,' said Mr Dombey, 'and see how our workmen are doing? Pray allow me, my dear madam.'

He said this in offering his arm to Mrs Skewton, who had been looking at Florence through her glass, as though picturing to herself what she might be made, by the infusion—from her own copious storehouse, no doubt—of a little more Heart and Nature. Florence was still sobbing on the lady's breast, and holding to her, when Mr Dombey was heard to say from the Conservatory:

'Let us ask Edith. Dear me, where is she?'

'Edith, my dear!' cried Mrs Skewton, 'where are you? Looking for Mr Dombey somewhere, I know. We are here, my love.'

The beautiful lady released her hold of Florence, and pressing her lips once more upon her face, withdrew hurriedly, and joined them. Florence remained standing In the same place: happy, sorry, joyful, and in tears, she knew not how, or how long, but all at once: when her new Mama came back, and took her in her arms again.

'Florence,' said the lady, hurriedly, and looking into her face with great earnestness. 'You will not begin by hating me?'

'By hating you, Mama?' cried Florence, winding her arm round her neck, and returning the look.

'Hush! Begin by thinking well of me,' said the beautiful lady. 'Begin by believing that I will try to make you happy, and that I am prepared to love you, Florence. Good-bye. We shall meet again soon. Good-bye! Don't stay here, now.' (pp. 428-31)
Florence hasn't been shown such regard and kindness since dear Walter sailed away on the ill-fated Son and Heir, since she last visited Sol Gills at The Wooden Midshipman, since her dear brother Paul died. She is so young, so kind, so gentle that she begins to revive her almost entirely deadened hopes of inspiring her father to love her, and of being happy within and part of a family, the moment Edith embraces her for the first time. And Edith is sincere. She truly empathizes with and cares for the neglected girl, and asks pointed and observant questions about her relationship with her father, questions which no one has ever before had the guts, wherewithal, or interest to put to Florence before.

Indeed, Edith is so strangely interested in and committed to caring for and protecting Florence that she threatens not to marry Dombey if her scheming and relentless mother doesn't promise to allow Florence to stay home alone while the new Dombeys honeymoon: 
'Listen to me, mother,' .... 'You must remain alone here until I return.'

'Must remain alone here, Edith, until you return!' repeated her mother.

'Or in that name upon which I shall call to-morrow to witness what I do, so falsely: and so shamefully, I swear I will refuse the hand of this man in the church. If I do not, may I fall dead upon the pavement!'

The mother answered with a look of quick alarm, in no degree diminished by the look she met.

'It is enough,' said Edith, steadily, 'that we are what we are. I will have no youth and truth dragged down to my level. I will have no guileless nature undermined, corrupted, and perverted, to amuse the leisure of a world of mothers. You know my meaning. Florence must go home.'

'You are an idiot, Edith,' cried her angry mother. 'Do you expect there can ever be peace for you in that house, till she is married, and away?'

'Ask me, or ask yourself, if I ever expect peace in that house,' said her daughter, 'and you know the answer.

'And am I to be told to-night, after all my pains and labour, and when you are going, through me, to be rendered independent,' her mother almost shrieked in her passion, while her palsied head shook like a leaf, 'that there is corruption and contagion in me, and that I am not fit company for a girl! What are you, pray? What are you?'

'I have put the question to myself,' said Edith, ashy pale, and pointing to the window, 'more than once when I have been sitting there, and something in the faded likeness of my sex has wandered past outside; and God knows I have met with my reply. Oh mother, mother, if you had but left me to my natural heart when I too was a girl—a younger girl than Florence—how different I might have been!' (pp. 458-59)
Edith is hardened and resigned to her fate and doesn't give either her mother or her new husband any quarter, for she sees them as entirely complicit in her degradation; but her devotion to Florence is instantaneous and entire. Edith is, clearly, not as lost a soul as she imagines she is; she cannot see that she is a desperately needed good angel to Florence, who could perhaps serve the same function for her. Both are surrounded by the cruel, the corrupt, and the fatally selfish and somehow forge a bond based on something higher than mere transaction, something both more human and more humane. Which, of course, Dombey finds terribly threatening.

Early in Dombey and Son, on a page I foolishly failed to make a note of, our narrator asserts that at some point the thunder will strike and Dombey will be cast down. But it hasn't happened yet. And the dark looks he wears while secretly watching the women in his life (during which he correctly notes that Edith cares only for Florence) suggest that others will suffer for his small and hard, but incredibly powerful, selfishness before he does.

Saturday 6 August 2011

The house of Dombey and Son

I am currently about 240 pages (of 900+) into Charles Dickens's Dombey and Son. This is my third Dickens novel and fifth novel total of my Victorian Literature project. I would like to reiterate that this might be the best idea I've ever had. (Well, second best; there was the pie-luck, after all.)

So, Dombey and Son. Dickens revisits many of the same themes in his novels: the rough ways in which children are educated, their parents' often entirely selfish desires for them, their vulnerability. Nonetheless, Dickens treats them differently enough each time that I'm always surprised. And so far, Dombey and Son is the most surprising (you guessed it—plot spoilers follow).

The novel begins in Dickens's particularly charming way, with Dombey the father sitting with Dombey the new son:
Dombey sat in the corner of the darkened room in the great arm-chair by the bedside, and Son lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead, carefully disposed on a low settee immediately in front of the fire and close to it, as if his constitution were analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new. (p. 1)
This sweet and gently funny domesticity is not allowed to set the tone for the novel, however; indeed, it seems to be there only to throw into painful relief what follows—primarily, the elder Dombey's immediate commencement of a lifelong project of imposing his desires onto his boy:
'The House will once again, Mrs Dombey,' said Mr Dombey, 'be not only in name but in fact Dombey and Son;' and he added, in a tone of luxurious satisfaction, with his eyes half-closed as if he were reading the name in a device of flowers, and inhaling their fragrance at the same time; 'Dom-bey and Son!'

The words had such a softening influence, that he appended a term of endearment to Mrs Dombey's name (though not without some hesitation, as being a man but little used to that form of address): and said, 'Mrs Dombey, my—my dear.'

A transient flush of faint surprise overspread the sick lady's face as she raised her eyes towards him.
'He will be christened Paul, my—Mrs Dombey—of course.'

She feebly echoed, 'Of course,' or rather expressed it by the motion of her lips, and closed her eyes again.

'His father's name, Mrs Dombey, and his grandfather's! I wish his grandfather were alive this day! There is some inconvenience in the necessity of writing Junior,' said Mr Dombey, making a fictitious autograph on his knee; 'but it is merely of a private and personal complexion. It doesn't enter into the correspondence of the House. Its signature remains the same.' And again he said 'Dombey and Son, in exactly the same tone as before.

Those three words conveyed the one idea of Mr Dombey's life. The earth was made for Dombey and Son to trade in, and the sun and moon were made to give them light. Rivers and seas were formed to float their ships; rainbows gave them promise of fair weather; winds blew for or against their enterprises; stars and planets circled in their orbits, to preserve inviolate a system of which they were the centre. Common abbreviations took new meanings in his eyes, and had sole reference to them. A. D. had no concern with Anno Domini, but stood for anno Dombei—and Son. (pp. 1-2)
Love, tenderness, care—such ideals have nothing to do with Dombey family unity. As his wife lies dying in the same room with him, the elder Dombey can think only of how having a son will finally allow him to realize certain long-cherished monetary and social ambitions. His love for his son is entirely tied up in what the child will be and what that becoming will do for the reputation and prosperity of the family. Gender and what it stands for here is everything; young Paul's potential for personality, desire, or actions unrelated to this aren't part of the equation.

Dombey is as proud as any new father with misdirected and confused priorities might be, except that he's not a new father. No, he already has a daughter named Florence but, well, she's a girl: 
They had been married ten years, and until this present day on which Mr Dombey sat jingling and jingling his heavy gold watch-chain in the great arm-chair by the side of the bed, had had no issue.—To speak of; none worth mentioning. There had been a girl some six years before, and the child, who had stolen into the chamber unobserved, was now crouching timidly, in a corner whence she could see her mother's face. But what was a girl to Dombey and Son! In the capital of the House's name and dignity, such a child was merely a piece of base coin that couldn't be invested—a bad Boy—nothing more.

Mr Dombey's cup of satisfaction was so full at this moment, however, that he felt he could afford a drop or two of its contents, even to sprinkle on the dust in the by-path of his little daughter.

So he said, 'Florence, you may go and look at your pretty brother, if you like, I daresay. Don't touch him!' (p. 3)
Dombey is in the grips of a lifelong fantasy. At this point, all the birth of a son has done is confirm the worth and primacy of that fantasy; indeed, it has confirmed Dombey's very identity. The birth of Paul is central to the plan that has defined every aspect of his life. That this fantasy conforms to many of society's approved values of a man's worth in life doesn't, however, change the fact that it is an obssession—it keeps him from seeing clearly that when humans are involved, there are sometimes variables that cannot easily be overcome.

Children, it turns out, can have plans of their own; and sometimes God (or nature; in any case, something larger and stronger than mere individuals) has plans for them that blindly disregard all of one's best laid plans. But Dombey certainly tries to control the course of young Paul's life, beginning by reminding the wet nurse brought in to care for Paul once his fragile mother dies, that as essential as such a relationship might be, it's still only transactional:
'You have children of your own,' said Mr Dombey. 'It is not at all in this bargain that you need become attached to my child, or that my child need become attached to you. I don't expect or desire anything of the kind. Quite the reverse. When you go away from here, you will have concluded what is a mere matter of bargain and sale, hiring and letting: and will stay away. The child will cease to remember you; and you will cease, if you please, to remember the child.'

Mrs Toodle, with a little more colour in her cheeks than she had had before, said 'she hoped she knew her place.' (p. 18)
In spite of his confident assertion of power here, things don't work out quite as planned. First, of course, Mrs. Toodle (who Dombey et al insist upon referring to as Mrs. Richards) becomes attached to the infant Paul, who quite naturally reciprocates and thrives under her care. Second, the very existence of young Florence, as much as Dombey tries to ignore her and not figure her into his calculations for his son at all, quietly but insistently intimates to him that there are limits to both his power and his understanding:
The last time he had seen his slighted child, there had been that in the sad embrace between her and her dying mother, which was at once a revelation and a reproach to him. Let him be absorbed as he would in the Son on whom he built such high hopes, he could not forget that closing scene. He could not forget that he had had no part in it. That, at the bottom of its clear depths of tenderness and truth, lay those two figures clasped in each other's arms, while he stood on the bank above them, looking down a mere spectator—not a sharer with them--quite shut out.

Unable to exclude these things from his remembrance, or to keep his mind free from such imperfect shapes of the meaning with which they were fraught, as were able to make themselves visible to him through the mist of his pride, his previous feeling of indifference towards little Florence changed into an uneasiness of an extraordinary kind. Young as she was, and possessing in any eyes but his (and perhaps in his too) even more than the usual amount of childish simplicity and confidence, he almost felt as if she watched and distrusted him. As if she held the clue to something secret in his breast, of the nature of which he was hardly informed himself. As if she had an innate knowledge of one jarring and discordant string within him, and her very breath could sound it. (p. 31)
More than Florence, however, young Paul himself defies the elder Dombey's expectations by becoming a gentle, sensitive, kind, and very thoughtful boy. He is naturally generous and good to others and loves none so much as the piece of base coin that is his adoring elder sister. He is naturally generous in spite of his father's influence, and insists upon his father (who humours him because he is, after all, Son, of the house of Dombey and Son) helping young Walter Gay and his grandfather to get out from beneath some ruinous debt:
'If you had money now,' said Mr Dombey; 'as much money as young Gay has talked about; what would you do?'

'Give it to his old Uncle,' returned Paul.

'Lend it to his old Uncle, eh?' retorted Mr Dombey. 'Well! When you are old enough, you know, you will share my money, and we shall use it together.'

'Dombey and Son,' interrupted Paul, who had been tutored early in the phrase.

'Dombey and Son,' repeated his father. 'Would you like to begin to be Dombey and Son, now, and lend this money to young Gay's Uncle?'

'Oh! if you please, Papa!' said Paul: 'and so would Florence.'

'Girls,' said Mr Dombey, 'have nothing to do with Dombey and Son. Would you like it?'

'Yes, Papa, yes!'

'Then you shall do it,' returned his father. 'And you see, Paul,' he added, dropping his voice, 'how powerful money is, and how anxious people are to get it. Young Gay comes all this way to beg for money, and you, who are so grand and great, having got it, are going to let him have it, as a great favour and obligation.' (p. 141-42).
Paul is firmly entrenched in the concerns of the human, rather than the pecuniary, world. He cares about others and wants them to care for him. Dombey Sr. deals in coin; Dombey the younger recognizes no meaningful currency except community:
[H]e felt a gradually increasing impulse of affection, towards almost everything and everybody in the place. He could not bear to think that they would be quite indifferent to him when he was gone. He wanted them to remember him kindly; and he had made it his business even to conciliate a great hoarse shaggy dog, chained up at the back of the house, who had previously been the terror of his life: that even he might miss him when he was no longer there.

Little thinking that in this, he only showed again the difference between himself and his compeers, poor tiny Paul set it forth to Miss Blimber as well as he could, and begged her, in despite of the official analysis, to have the goodness to try and like him. To Mrs Blimber, who had joined them, he preferred the same petition: and when that lady could not forbear, even in his presence, from giving utterance to her often-repeated opinion, that he was an odd child, Paul told her that he was sure she was quite right; that he thought it must be his bones, but he didn't know; and that he hoped she would overlook it, for he was fond of them all.

'Not so fond,' said Paul, with a mixture of timidity and perfect frankness, which was one of the most peculiar and most engaging qualities of the child, 'not so fond as I am of Florence, of course; that could never be. You couldn't expect that, could you, Ma'am?'

'Oh! the old-fashioned little soul!' cried Mrs Blimber, in a whisper.

'But I like everybody here very much,' pursued Paul, 'and I should grieve to go away, and think that anyone was glad that I was gone, or didn't care.' (pp. 197-98)
But it's precisely because he's swiftly leaving the world, and knows it at some level, that he can't help but pay such close attention to those around him. Yes, poor little Paul, initially a physical specimen to be reckoned with (under Mrs. Richards's care), pretty early begins to show that he is simply too good to live long. His connection to people is transcended only by his connection to the distant shore towards which we're all inexorably travelling:
Sister and brother wound their arms around each other, and the golden light came streaming in, and fell upon them, locked together.

'How fast the river runs, between its green banks and the rushes, 'Floy! But it's very near the sea. I hear the waves! They always said so!'

Presently he told her the motion of the boat upon the stream was lulling him to rest. How green the banks were now, how bright the flowers growing on them, and how tall the rushes! Now the boat was out at sea, but gliding smoothly on. And now there was a shore before him. Who stood on the bank—!

He put his hands together, as he had been used to do at his prayers. He did not remove his arms to do it; but they saw him fold them so, behind her neck.

'Mama is like you, Floy. I know her by the face! But tell them that the print [of Jesus] upon the stairs at school is not divine enough. The light about the head is shining on me as I go!' (pp. 240-41)
And so, on page 241 (of 925) of a novel called Dombey and Son, Son passes away. And Dombey Sr., who may be the subject of this story but who is certainly not its hero, is left with nothing of the dream which has defined his life. It's probably fair to guess that the rest of the tale will be concerned with Dombey's reckoning with his life's work and meaning in the face of such a gaping hole in his plans; but how Dickens will construct that struggle is beyond me, for young Paul's death was not at all what I was expecting. But I should have been less surprised, at least, given how frequently childhood mortality figures in Dickens's fiction—and how frequently such early and excruciatingly unfair deaths (I'm thinking particularly of Little Nell as a counterpart to young Paul here) are tied to their parents' absurd and selfish desires and actions.

Dombey Sr. couldn't, in most ways, be more dissimilar to Nell's grandfather—but in terms of executing their burden of care with regards to their dependents, they are fatally similar in exhibiting a shocking inability to notice that their children aren't thriving, until it's far, far too late. Dombey, of course, has an opportunity to make some restitution both to the institution of fatherhood and to an individual in particular, but whether or not he'll do so seems to me highly unlikely. But then, Dickens does continually surprise...

Monday 1 August 2011

Slavish adoration

So, I had been planning to write my third and final post on Vanity Fair addressing, both ingeniously and in-depth, the way Thackeray constantly either draws attention to the bookish-ness of this book or addresses the reader directly. It's very distracting, as well as compelling. Here's an example from very early in the novel, in which our narrator breaks off describing Amelia's departure from school and all the dramatic, girly farewells, packing, etc going on, to consider how his reading public is doing—and it's only page 6:
All which details, I have no doubt, JONES, who reads this book at his Club, will pronounce to be excessively foolish, trivial, twaddling, and ultra-sentimental. Yes; I can see Jones at this minute (rather flushed with his joint of mutton and half pint of wine), taking out his pencil and scoring under the words "foolish, twaddling," &c., and adding to them his own remark of "QUITE TRUE." Well, he is a lofty man of genius, and admires the great and heroic in life and novels; and so had better take warning and go elsewhere. (p. 6)
This sort of indirect address is only outnumbered by direct addresses to “the reader”, who includes men, women, the old, the young, the rich, the indigent, and all classes in between; the moral, the immoral, the disinterested, the confident, and the fearful. Thackeray addresses everyone. He seems to have been hell-bent on constantly reminding readers that they are reading, and my favourite example of this—can you credit it?—was excised from the revised second edition (and presumably from all ensuing editions, as it is not included in the online Gutenburg Project file of the novel; it is, however, included in Peter L. Shillingsburg's Norton, bless his soul).

Just so you have a sense of where the following craziness is situated in the narrative: Early in the novel, George and Amelia accompany Becky and Jos (as well as fifth wheel, Dobbin) to Vauxhall for an evening's entertainment. Thackeray begins this chapter with a bland direct address that simply doesn't prepare one for what follows. Please to note that what is in bold is what was excised:
I know that the tune I am piping is a very mild one,—(although there are some terrific chapters coming presently)—and must beg the good-natured reader to remember, that we are only discoursing at present, about a stock-broker's family in Russell Square, who are taking walks or luncheon or dinner, or talking and making love as people do in common life, and without a single passionate and wonderful incident to mark the progress of their loves. The argument stands thus—Osborne in love with Amelia has asked an old friend to dinner and to Vauxhall—Jos Sedley is in love with Rebecca. Will he marry her? That is the great subject now in hand.

We might have treated this subject in the genteel or in the romantic or in the facetious manner. Suppose we had laid the scene in Grosvenor Square with the very same adventures—would not some people have listened? Suppose we had shown how Lord Joseph Sedley fell in love, and the Marquis of Osborne became attached to Lady Amelia with the full consent of the Duke her noble father; or instead of the supremely genteel suppose we had resorted to the entirely low and described what was going on in Mr. Sedley's kitchen—how black Sambo was in love with the Cook, (as indeed he was), and how he fought a battle with the coachman in her behalf; how the knife boy was caught stealing a cold shoulder of mutton, and Miss Sedley's new femme de chambre refused to go to bed without a wax candle; such incidents might be made to provoke much delightful laughter, and be supposed to represent scenes of "life." Or if on the contrary we had taken a fancy for the terrible and made the lover of the new femme de chambre a professional burglar, who bursts into the house with his band, slaughters black Sambo at the feet of his master and carries off Amelia in her night-dress not to be let loose again till the third volume—we should easily have constructed a tale of thrilling interest through the fiery chapters of which the reader should hurry, panting. Fancy this chapter having been headed


The night was dark and wild—the clouds black—black—ink-black. The wild wind tore the chimney-pots from the roofs of the old houses, and sent the tiles whirling and crashing through the desolate streets. No soul braved that tempest—the watchmen shrank into their boxes whither the searching rain followed them—where the crashing thunderbolt fell and destroyed them—one had so been slain opposite the Foundling—a scorched gaberdine a shivered lantern a staff rent in twain by the flash were all that remained of stout Will Steadfast. A hackney coachman had been blown off his coach box in Southampton Row—and whither? But the whirlwind tells no tidings of its victim save his parting scream as he is borne onwards! Horrible night! it was dark pitch dark—no moon, No, no, no moon—Not a star: Not a little feeble twinkling solitary star. There had been one at early evening but he showed his face shuddering for a moment in the black heaven, and then retreated back.

One, two, three! It is the signal that Black Vizard had agreed on.

"Mofy! is that your snum?" said a voice from the area. "I'll gully the dag and bimbole the clicky in a snuffkin."

“Nuffle your clod and beladle your glumbanions," said Vizard with a dreadful oath. "This way, men—if they screak, out with your snickers and slick! Look to the pewter room, Blowser—You, Mark, to the old gaff's mopus box—and I," added he in a lower but more horrible voice, "I will look to Amelia!"

There was a dead silence. "Ha!" said Vizard—"was that the click of a pistol?"

Or suppose we adopted the genteel rose-water style—The Marquis of Osborne has just dispatched his petit tigre with a billet doux to the Ladye Amelia.

The dear creature has received it from the hands of her femme de chambre, Mademoiselle Anastasie.

Dear Marquis! What amiable politeness! His lordship's note contains the wished for invitation to D— House!

"Who is that monstrous fine girl," said the Semillant Prince G—rge of C—mbr—dge at a mansion in Piccadilly the same evening (having just arrived from the omnibus at the opera.) "My dear Sedley, in the name of all the Cupids introduce me to her!”

"Her name, Monseigneur,” said Lord Joseph bowing gravely, "is Sedley."

"Vous avez alors un bien beau nom,” said the young Prince turning on his heel rather disappointed and treading on the foot of an old gentleman who stood behind in deep admiration of the beautiful Lady Amelia.

"Trent mille tonnerres!" shouted the victim writhing under the agonie du moment.

"I beg a thousand pardons of your Grace," said the young étourdi blushing and bending low his fair curls. He had trodden on the toe of the great Captain of the age!

"Oh D—!" cried the young Prince to a tall and good-natured nobleman, whose features proclaimed him of the blood of the Cavendishes. "A word with you!—Have you still a mind to part with your diamond necklace?"

“I have sold it for two hundred and fifty thousand pounds to Prince Eaterhazy here."

"Und das war gar nicht theuer, potztausend!” exclaimed the princely Hungarian &c. &c. &c.
Thus you see, ladies, how this story might have been written, if the author had but a mind—for to tell the truth he is just as familiar with Newgate as with the palaces of our revered aristocracy and has seen the outside of both. But as I don't understand the language or manners of the Rookery, nor that polyglot conversation which according to the fashionable novelists is spoken by the leaders of ton—we must if you please preserve our middle course modestly amidst those scenes and personages with which we are most us familiar. In a word this chapter about Vauxhall would have been so exceeding short but for the above little disquisition, that it scarcely would have deserved to be called a chapter at all. And yet it is a chapter, and a very important one too. Are not there little chapters in every body's life, that seem to be nothing and yet affect all the rest of the history? (pp. 49-52)
(Thackeray doesn't leave a sentence fragment, of course. This is what replaced everything above that is bolded: “But my readers must hope for no such romance, only a homely story, and must be content with a chapter about Vauxhall, which is so short that it scarce deserves”. Also, to my infinite dismay, there are drawings included in the excised bits that I can't find anywhere online. *Weeps quietly*)

Ignoring all questions of authorial intention versus editorial intrusion when it comes to addressing either the or a “true” version of Vanity Fair; my question is, why did anyone ever think this little tangent didn't belong simply for its own glorious sake? Hilarious, distracted, satirical of contemporary reading tastes, this scene also exemplifies much of what is unique and irresistible about this novel. How many people have spent their reading lives not realizing what they were missing? It's a crime, I tell you, a crime!

Really, literary outrage is all I have to offer here. If you want something more thoughtful, coherent, or awake, I suggest you read Rohan Maitzen's piece on Vanity Fair at Open Letters Monthly, from last summer. You see, while I've had some thoughts on what heroism means in this story, my predominant response to this book has been slavish adoration. While lovingly turning the pages of this, to me, perfect literary creation, I was very often tempted to kiss the pages to show my deepest respect and commitment to them; I dream already of having sufficient time and distance to re-read it as though it were new to me.

Next up: a trip to cooler climes, Dickens's Dombey and Son, and becoming accustomed to being a 36-year-old.