Monthly Archives: September 2012

The Rebel of the Family, by Eliza Lynn Linton

This is another deviation from my dissertation project, but it’s a Victorian novel, so I’m going to write an entry on it anyway! I have a few broad impressions of this novel, which is, apparently, Linton’s anti-feminist contribution to New Woman literature. My first broad impression is that this is essentially a New Woman Cinderella story, but a bit of a topsy-turvey Cinderella story (as a New Woman version would be, I suppose). Perdita seems like a Cinderella character, but ugly (at least in a conventional sense) rather than beautiful, while her mother and sisters are beautiful rather than ugly. And although the dead father part of the story persists in this version, the mother and sisters are blood related to Perdita, which is significant in a narrative so concerned with bloodlines. There are several twists to the conventional Cinderella plot-line, the most obvious of which is that, rather than being forced to work for a living like Cinderella, Perdita chooses to work for a living, and passionately believes in work as a “cause.” Another twist is the presence of two fairy-godmother characters (Bell Blount, the mannish lesbian, and Mrs. Crawford, the Quakerish angel in the house), between whose visions of womanhood Perdita is perpetually torn. Both want to give her a moral “makeover,” like the fairy godmother, but unlike Cinderella, she rebells against both visions. Finally, her “Prince Charming” is not the wealthy landowner that liberates her from her poverty; Mr. Brocklebank tries to fulfill that role, but she refuses him.

Taking this novel at its anti-feminist face value, I wonder if this fairy tale structure is supposed to suggest some overlap between puerile fairy tales and the women’s rights movement. And I’m especially intrigued by this overlap because of Eva’s constant characterization as a “mere child” (in fact, her characterization really reminds me of Harold Skimpole in Bleak House, who couldn’t possibly be expected to understand anything as vulgar as money, and paying one’s debts). There is something very dangerous about fairy tales in this novel.

Another broad impression I had of this novel goes along with the fairy tale structure. The Rebel of the Family really helps me understand Bakhtin’s views on the monologic novel, where the author has a strong view about “how things should be,” and the characters are mere mouthpieces of the author’s agenda. In that sense, monologism has a linear simplicity that aligns with our conventional stereotypes of “simplistic” fairy tales (although many critics have shown that fairy tales are not as simplistic as they appear…). I’ve been frustrated throughout the novel by the fact that the characters do feel like thinly-veiled dogma… but of course, given the novel’s anti-feminism, I think my frustration is really just due to the fact that I strongly disagree with the author’s treatment of some of her characters’ plights.

In a lot of ways, these plights are very similar to the plot of East Lynne, which I would imagine Linton had at least some exposure to, given its extreme popularity. M. Bois-Duval is clearly a Francis Levison-type cad, and Leslie Crawford would have been best friends with Archibald Carlyle, I think. Even Florence Crawford’s death-bed scene, where she asks Leslie to forgive her, and he does, is pretty much the same as Lady Isabel’s death-bed scene, where Mr. Carlyle forgives her. In this sense, the melodramatic subplot is quite strong. But in East Lynne, I feel like the characters get at least a partially balanced treatment. Lady Isabel’s motivations for acting the way she does are excruciatingly detailed, and I think that even Francis Levison gets a sentence of character background, if I remember correctly (but I’d have to go back and look for it). However, this could be my bias against The Rebel of the Family coming out here, since actually, East Lynne makes a point of punishing the offending Lady Isabel, and even her innocent son, William. But despite the fact that Linton seems to find many of her characters reprehensible, she actually doesn’t really punish any of them (except maybe Florence, who never really shows up as a character anyway). [Side note: Florence is just like Bella Royston in The Odd Women: an offensive character who falls for the wrong guy and gets killed off without ever having made an appearance in the novel. And both are “New Woman” novels. Wow.] All the Winstanley girls marry well (although neither Eva nor Thomasina are happy with their choices–maybe that’s considered their “punishment”?) and Mrs. Winstanley gets out of debt. M. Bois-Duval lives happily ever after (although he doesn’t “ruin” Eva–is that his punishment?) and even Bell Blount gets off pretty easily (although she doesn’t get Perdita–more punishment?). Nonetheless, for all the lesbianism and flouting of social convention, everybody’s living pretty well at the end of this novel… so unlike Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, and all the other masters of renunciation. I guess it’s telling that my nineteenth-century reading has socialized me to expect clear contrapasso-type punishments. Maybe that’s what’s “new” about this “New Woman” novel.

Character List:

Mrs. Winstanley: The matriarch of the Winstanley family. She is the daughter of a bishop and the widow of a major, which makes her a gentlewoman, and therefore part of a higher caste. She is on the brink of financial ruin, but thinks it’s more important to keep up appearances than to pay bills for unimportant things like food and shelter. The sole purpose of her existence is to get her oldest and youngest daughters married, so that the family can get out of debt. She hates her middle child, Perdita.

Thomasina Winstanley: The “queenly” eldest daughter of the Winstanley family. She doesn’t really have much in the way of feelings, but she’s rational and relatively fair. She’s almost engaged to Mr. Brocklebank, who then proposes to Perdita, but gets refused and ends up proposing to Thomasina after all. She dislikes Brocklebank, but she loves her mother and would do anything for the family appearances, so she marries him. In the interim, she also saves her younger sister, Eva, from ruining herself by reasoning with the cad, M. Bois-Duval, who means to run off with her, and getting him to renounce his fake attachment to her.

Perdita Winstanley: The shy, awkward, “ugly” middle child of the Winstanley family. She’s described as a Red Republican, a democrat, and atheist, an ungrateful, undutiful daughter–basically, anything that is bad for a well-born gentlewoman. She is incapable of lying, and is therefore always at odds with her mother and sisters, who believe in keeping up appearances. She wants to be loved and respected, but is constantly being reprimanded. Her desire to make an independent living gains her the respect of Brocklebank, who thinks that men shouldn’t have to pay for women, but who also thinks that women are too stupid to vote. He gets her a job, and then eventually proposes to her. She rejects him because she’s in love with Leslie Crawford, a middle-class chemist (much to the chagrin of her caste-conscious family). She also befriends Bell Blount, an outspoken man-hating, lesbian Woman’s Rights leader, who tries to convince her to come live with herself and her “little wife,” Connie. Bell ends up denouncing her love for Leslie Crawford to Mrs. Winstanley, which, among other things, gets Perdita banished from the house. But after Leslie offers to pay her mother’s debts, everyone lives happily ever after.

Eva Winstanley: The “pure,” “innocent” “Child” of the Winstanely family. She’s a hopeless flirt and coquette, but her mother and two of her lovers persist in thinking that she’s too young and innocent to know what she’s doing. She’s basically the epitome of a spoiled, entitled brat, and she almost gets into serious trouble by encouraging the advances of a French cad when her family summers in France. M. Bois-Duval is a Viscount who tries to convince her to run off to Paris with him, without the conventional “forms” of the marriage ceremony. She is almost out the door one night when Perdita catches her in the act of running away, and interrupts the plan. Since Eva is beautiful, and likely to marry well, Thomasina takes matters into her own hands, and blames Perdita for trying to leave the house and midnight, in order to shield Eva, the family’s best “investment.” This gets Perdita kicked out of the house, but Eva ends up marrying Sir James Kearney, a very rich and well-bred man who has been drooling over her from the very beginning. Another of Eva’s lovers is the already-engaged Hubert Strangeways, who loses a duel with M. Bois-Duval over his attentions to Eva.

Bell Blount: Left her well-bred husband and children to become the Champion of her Sex and lead the Woman’s Emancipation Movement. She’s outspoken, man-hating, and clearly not a favorite of the author who wrote her, Eliza Lynn Linton. She’s also clearly a lesbian, and has a “little wife,” Constance Tracy, who is unutterably jealous of Bell’s attentions to Perdita. Bell falls in love with Perdita and tries to convince her to champion the Cause and to move in with she and her “little wife,” but Perdita likes men and wants to get married eventually. When she finds out that Perdita is in love with Leslie Crawford, Bell denounces Perdita to Mrs. Winstanley and ends her friendship with Perdita, to the immense relief of all involved, not the least of whom is Linton herself, I think.

Leslie Crawford: A chemist by trade, he falls madly in love with Perdita. He’s a nice guy, and the only “reasonable” person in the book (Linton really stacks the deck in his favor). When he first meets Perdita, she is on a bridge, thinking of killing herself, and he convinces her not to, and walks her home. He’s clearly interested in her, but unbeknownst to her, he’s married to a lunatic in an asylum. It turns out that his wife, Florence, is actually his cousin, with whom he was raised by her mother, Mrs. Crawford (whom Perdita initially thinks is Leslie’s mother, and who becomes closer to Perdita than her own mother). After marrying Leslie, Florence gets seduced by M. Bois-Duval (the same French cad who almost seduced Eva Winstanley). The novel strongly implies that Lily, Florence’s daughter, is actually hers with M. Bois-Duval, not Leslie. After she has this child, she goes crazy and has to be institutionalized. She dies in the asylum, after asking and receiving Leslie’s forgiveness. The other twist is that Leslie never tells her doting mother, Mrs. Crawford, anything about her disgrace, so Mrs. Crawford is pretty confused about the death-bed scene, and about Leslie’s coldness to Lily, who she thinks is his. Leslie asks Perdita to marry him not long after his legal wife’s death, so the novel ends with them waiting a while to get married, but with the implication that they will live happily ever after. Especially since Leslie ends up being the one to pay all the Winstanley family debts in return for the Winstanleys revoking their disowning of Perdita for marrying a mere chemist.

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The Mayor of Casterbridge, by Thomas Hardy

TheMayorofCasterbridge1

I read this novel in my spare time, and it doesn’t figure into my dissertation research per se, but it’s got an excellent bigamy plot, and so I thought it would be appropriate to add it to my general pool of thoughts. The line of influence from the sensation genre to Hardy’s plots is clear, in my opinion (and I think that the last chapter of Winifred Hughes’ book talks about Hardy in relation to sensation novels), but I was intrigued by how unsusceptible the Casterbridge folk are to sensation in this novel. References to sensation come up about twice in the final chapters of the novel, and they are treated with the same blase attitude both times. In chapter XLIII, when the “members of the philosophic party” (316)–Hardy’s typical country Chorus–meet at a tavern to discuss the impending wedding of Elizabeth-Jane and Donald Farfrae, the narrator cautions:

“But we must guard against a too liberal use of the conventional declaration that a great sensation was caused by the prospective event, that all the gossips’ tongues were set wagging thereby, and so on, even though such a declaration might lend some eclat to the career of our poor only heroine. […] It would be a truer representation to say that Casterbridge […] looked up for a moment at the news, and without drawing its attention, went on labouring and victualling, bringing up its children, and burying its dead, without caring a tittle for Farfrae’s domestic plans.” (317)

Similarly, in the final chapter, Casterbridge is only momentarily interested in Richard Newson, the fascinatingly long-lost sailor. This, according to the narrator, could have been because “Casterbridge was difficult to excite by dramatic returns and disappearances, through having been for centuries an assize town in which sensational exits from the world, antipodean absences, and such like, were half-yearly occurrences” (336). Basically, Casterbridge doesn’t give a tiny rat’s ass about anything that happens in Hardy’s novels, since they see it all the time. I think it’s fascinating that Hardy builds into his novel a town full of blase readers, who are so over-exposed to sensation that they don’t turn their heads for his carefully crafted “sensational exits” and “antipodean absences.” They’re a lot like Simmel’s blase city-dweller, except, interestingly, they’re rural through and through (I think that Simmel essay is “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” if I remember correctly).

Ultimately, I think Casterbridge’s boredom with sensationalism goes back to their relation to temporality. As in all of the other Hardy novels that I’ve read, Casterbridge goes about its humdrum daily existence in a town that has been around since the ancient Romans invaded Britain. Susan Henchard, for example, shares her eternal real estate with the bones of rich Roman maidens, and the famous “Ring,” where all illicit meetings happen, is actually an ancient colosseum. Time is personified continually throughout the novel (again, the same as in any Hardy novel), so the old cliche applies: the more things change, the more they stay the same. There is something earthily eternal about Casterbridge, in spite of the petty changes Time wreaks on individual lives. So, sensationalism–that apex of popularity so contingent on the present moment–is noticed briefly, then discarded. The Mayor of Casterbridge, I think, is basically a sensation novel in plot, without the benefit of a sensational audience.

Character List

Michael Henchard: Gets drunk and sells his wife to a sailor for five guineas in the first chapter. When he sobers up and realizes what he’s done, he vows not to drink any more liquor for 21 years (the same number of years he’s been alive at the time), and his subsequent industriousness eventually leads to his becoming the mayor of Casterbridge. After the sailor who bought his wife gets lost at sea, she looks him up, they get remarried, and live relatively happily until she dies. Then Henchard finds out the daughter he thought was his is not his, and treats her coldly. Meanwhile, he tries to marry the woman he “ruined” years earlier, but she secretly marries a new flame, and Henchard’s luck goes downhill from there. His rivalry with Farfrae leads to his financial and social ruin, and he falls back on the affection of his supposed daughter, only to discover that her blood father is still alive. He lies to Newson, telling him that Elizabeth is dead, but Elizabeth marries Farfrae, who finds her father anyway, and Henchard leaves Casterbridge a broken man. He dies in a hut about 20 miles away, tended by a day laborer whom he once publicly shamed.

Susan Henchard: Described as “simple” by all the men in her life, she gets sold by her husband in the first chapter. Her daughter by Henchard dies three months later, but she has a new daughter (also named Elizabeth-Jane) by the sailor who buys her. She lives a relatively happy life with the sailor, thinking that the sale is socially and legally binding. When a friend tells her that’s not the case, she becomes depressed, so the sailor-husband’s supposed death comes at a perfect time for her. She goes back to Henchard, not telling him that her Elizabeth-Jane is not actually his Elizabeth-Jane. But on her death-bed, she writes a note telling the truth, telling Henchard not to open it until her daughter’s wedding day. He opens it early and sorrow ensues.

Elizabeth-Jane Henchard/Newson: First she thinks she’s a Newson, then she thinks she’s a Henchard, then it turns out she’s a Newson after all. In the midst of it all, she’s steady, hardworking, humble, modest, affectionate, and beautiful. When Farfrae falls in love with her, she wants to return his affection, but Henchard forbids it (then encourages it, then forbids it again, then finally resigns himself to it). She stays in love with Farfrae through the whole mess of the rest of the plot, and ends up marrying him in the end.

Donald Farfrae: He’s a Scottish immigrant on his way to America when he passes through Casterbridge and revolutionizes Henchard’s ideas about corn and wheat purification. Henchard decides that Farfrae is the best thing to ever happen to the world, and he persuades him to stay in Casterbridge and manage his very successful corn business. They become best friends, until Henchard sees that Farfrae is becoming more popular and successful than he is. He gets jealous and fires Farfrae, who then goes into business for himself and eventually takes over Henchard’s business when he goes bankrupt. Unfortunately, Farfrae also takes over Henchard’s ex-lover, Lucetta, knowing nothing about her past. This marriage ends in Lucetta’s death, along with the death of their unborn child. Then he ends up with his first love, Elizabeth-Jane, whom, clearly, he should have been with all along.

Lucetta Templeman (Le Sueur): As Lucetta Le Sueur, she was a native of Jersey (an island between Britain and France), where she met Henchard during one of his bouts of depression and nursed him back to health. This relationship turned sexual, and the town started a-talking. To make matters worse, Lucetta wrote a series of incriminating letters to Henchard begging him to make an honest woman of her. He agreed, but said that, although he had not seen her in many years, his first wife might still be alive. Right about that time, Susan did indeed come back, and the marriage plans are called off. Lucetta is poor until a rich aunt of hers dies and leaves her wealthy. Susan dies around the same time, and Lucetta comes to Casterbridge a wealthy woman, ready to claim Henchard as her husband. But she meets Farfrae and they fall in love at first sight. After a witness to Henchard’s wife-sale reveals his shame, Lucetta gets scared of marrying him (rightly so!) even though she has already promised him that she would. She runs off with Farfrae and does her best to keep all her secrets from reaching his ears. But her letters to Henchard fall into the wrong hands, and her secret gets out. The townsfolk arrange a skimmington (effigies to make fun of cuckolds and adulteresses), she falls into an epileptic fit and dies.

Richard Newson: He buys Susan Henchard for five guineas and lives a relatively happy life with her. When she starts getting nervous about their living arrangement, and he gets lost at sea, he decides the kindest thing is to let her think he’s dead so that she can go back to Henchard in good conscience. Toward the end of the book, well after Susan’s death, he shows up to claim Elizabeth-Jane, with whom he wants to share all his riches. Henchard tells him she’s dead, but he eventually finds out the truth and returns in time to see her get married. Then he moves to Budmouth to be near the sea.

Joshua Jopp: A guy from the wrong side of the tracks (Mixen Lane, to be exact). He is initially slated to be Henchard’s manager, until Henchard decides to hire Farfrae. This gives Jopp a grudge against Henchard. Later in the narrative, he rents a room to Henchard after the bankruptcy. When Henchard decides to be a good guy and return Lucetta’s incriminating letters to her, he gives them to Jopp to drop off at the Farfrae residence. Unfortunately, Lucetta has just scorned Jopp earlier that day, and he vows vengeance. So he takes the letters to a tavern and reads them aloud to everyone there. Thus, the town discovers her past and arranges the skimmington that inadvertently kills her.

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September 8, 2012 · 7:18 am