Category Archives: 19th Century

‘Tis my belief she’s a very good woman at bottom.” “She’s terrible deep, then.”

Under the Greenwood Tree, by Thomas Hardy

Romcoms get a bad press. They’re often seen as nothing but megaplex filler, Saturday night entertainments for the undemanding. Mostly of course that’s true.

As with anything though there are exceptions. Steve Martin’s LA Story is for me a thoroughly likeable film that’s easily borne several viewings, even though I hate every English character in it (including the female romantic lead). It’s a romcom, but it’s a good romcom. They do exist.

Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree isn’t of course a romcom (it predates cinema for one thing). Except, well, it sort of is. Boy meets girl. The path of true love proves bumpy. Will the boy and girl end up together in the final reel/chapter? All this against a backdrop of the impact of social change in mid-19th Century Britain as seen through the declining fortunes of a traditional church choir, facing replacement by new technology in the form of the church organ.

Hardy is a writer with a formidable reputation, perhaps for many readers too formidable as his classic status can be offputting. Some years ago my wife persuaded me to read The Mayor of Casterbridge which she was convinced I would love, and as so often she was right. The Mayor of Casterbridge is, quite simply, brilliant and utterly deserving of the word classic (and, as is true of so many classics, it’s actually not a difficult book to read at all).

More recently Emma of Book Around the Corner and Guy of His Futile Preoccupations have both been singing Hardy’s praises, and their reviews made me want to give him another try. Where better than at the beginning, with Under the Greenwood Tree, his first Wessex novel?

And, even though I didn’t read this edition but because it’s the best cover for it I’ve seen, here’s how the Oxford World Classics version looks:

The clue to Under the Greenwood Tree lies in its subtitle, “A Rural Painting of the Dutch School”. To draw analogies from another media again this is a pastoral, a romanticised and somewhat nostalgic depiction of an imagined country life.

It’s easy when reading a nineteenth century novel today to think of it as being contemporary fiction of its time, but Under the Greenwood Tree isn’t. It was written in 1872, but is set in (as best I can tell) the 1840s and it deals with the passing of country traditions that at the time of writing must already have been lost for a generation. It’s not therefore, strictly speaking, a realist novel. What it is though is a delight.

The village of Mellstock, in Hardy’s fictional county of Wessex, has a new vicar and that means change. The old vicar, much loved by all, was a respectful man who didn’t bother you if you didn’t attend church and who would never have dreamt of visiting his parishioners as they went about their business. He kept to himself, and kept church for Sundays.

The new fellow, by contrast, is always calling on people to see how they are and making an effort to get to know his flock. That’s strange enough, but much worse is that he plans to abolish the ancient Mellstock Quire (choir) – a collection of locals who sit in the upper gallery in church and play music for the congregation, as well as going round at Christmas time to everyone’s homes and playing carols whether those inside want to hear them or not.

The quire by the way play string instruments, as god surely intended:

“I can well bring back to my mind,” said Mr. Penny, “what I said to poor Joseph Ryme (who took the treble part in Chalk-Newton Church for two-and- forty year) when they thought of having clar’nets there. ‘Joseph,’ I said, says I, ‘depend upon’t, if so be you have them tooting clar’nets you’ll spoil the whole set-out. Clar’nets were not made for the service of the Lard; you can see it by looking at ’em,’ I said. And what came o’t? Why, souls, the parson set up a barrel-organ on his own account within two years o’ the time I spoke, and the old quire went to nothing.” “As far as look is concerned,” said the tranter, “I don’t for my part see that a fiddle is much nearer heaven than a clar’net. ‘Tis further off. There’s always a rakish, scampish twist about a fiddle’s looks that seems to say the Wicked One had a hand in making o’en; while angels be supposed to play clar’nets in heaven, or som’at like ’em, if ye may believe picters.” “Robert Penny, you was in the right,” broke in the eldest Dewy. “They should ha’ stuck to strings. Your brass-man is a rafting dog–well and good; your reed-man is a dab at stirring ye–well and good; your drum-man is a rare bowel-shaker–good again. But I don’t care who hears me say it, nothing will spak to your heart wi’ the sweetness o’ the man of strings!” “Strings for ever!” said little Jimmy. “Strings alone would have held their ground against all the new comers in creation.” (“True, true!” said Bowman.) “But clarinets was death.” (“Death they was!” said Mr. Penny.) “And harmonions,” William continued in a louder voice, and getting excited by these signs of approval, “harmonions and barrel-organs” (“Ah!” and groans from Spinks) “be miserable–what shall I call ’em?–miserable–” “Sinners,” suggested Jimmy, who made large strides like the men, and did not lag behind like the other little boys. “Miserable dumbledores!” “Right, William, and so they be–miserable dumbledores!” said the choir with unanimity.

At the same time, the village has a new schoolmistress, Miss Fancy Day, daughter to a wealthy local farmer. As the quire perform their annual Christmas carrolling one of its youngest members, Dick Dewy, sees her and falls immediately in love. She’s pretty, spirited, has some measure of refinement and is every inch the desirable catch. So desirable in fact that Dick isn’t the only one with an eye on her. There’s another farmer who has considerably more money and position than Dick, and who is therefore a better match, and that new vicar is in need of a wife too. Can Dick win Miss Day’s heart, and if so can he keep it? It doesn’t help that Miss Day turns out to be something of a flirt…

The romance is at the forefront of the novel, but the looming obsolescence of the choir is never far away either. Miss Day you see will be the new organist. The vicar and Miss Day are modern, forward looking, bringing new ideas and new fashions (some shocking – a hat in church!) to Mellstock. Against that what chance have a group of old men with their fading traditions and battered instruments?

Looking at what I’ve written what strikes me is how dark this novel could have been. It isn’t at all. The quire make their case for survival, but they understand that times change and they’re not resentful men. Dick has rivals better placed than him to win Miss Day, but he’s a sound lad and not daunted. Miss Day hasn’t perhaps the most constant of hearts, and is perhaps overprone to vanity, but there’s no real harm in her. This is an extraordinarily affectionate work in which there is drama, yes, but a very gentle drama. Things may change, are changing, but Mellstock will remain.

Part of what makes Under the Greenwood Tree such a joy is Hardy’s slyly humorous prose. Dick is a young man “consisting chiefly of a human skeleton and a smock-frock, who was very awkward in his movements, apparently on account of having grown so very fast that before he had had time to get used to his height he was higher.” After he falls in love with Miss Day:

It followed that, as the spring advanced, Dick walked abroad much more frequently than had hitherto been usual with him, and was continually finding that his nearest way to or from home lay by the road which skirted the garden of the school.

There’s some lovely character humour within the quire, as well as comic interplay between wives and husbands. I loved too a throwaway line when a man is late for his wedding due to some honey bees suddenly swarming – “Marrying a woman is a thing you can do at any moment; but a swarm o’ bees won’t come for the asking.” Everything is a chance for comedy, from the quire’s debate with the vicar as they argue for more time to a country dance where Dick desperately tries to get as many dances with Fancy as propriety permits (and certainly more than his main rival).

Finally, it almost goes without saying that Hardy is a master at portraying nature itself. The novel follows the seasons, from Winter through to Winter and on to Spring again (and if you’re reading this because you’ve been set this book at school and found this blog looking for something to crib off, do look at how Hardy uses seasonal and weather imagery to underline the progress of the plot and character emotions, easy marks). Here’s one final quote:

The last day of the story is dated just subsequent to that point in the development of the seasons when country people go to bed among nearly naked trees, are lulled to sleep by a fall of rain, and awake next morning among green ones; when the landscape appears embarrassed with the sudden weight and brilliancy of its leaves;

Isn’t that lovely? The whole book’s lovely, though with sufficient notes of melancholic ambiguity to prevent it becoming oversweet. If you find yourself, as I did when I picked this up, in need of a book that’s well written but in which nothing bad can truly happen (and however robust we may be, we all at times need a little escape) this couldn’t be a better choice. My wife (naturally), Emma, and Guy were all right. Hardy deserves reading.

Update: Emma of bookaroundthecorner posted a review of this the same day I did (unfortunately I accidentally deleted her pingback). Her review is, as ever, excellent and well worth reading – particularly for how it brings out the novel’s musical themes. Emma’s review is here.


Filed under 19th Century, Hardy, Thomas

a singular air of reluctance or compulsion

Three Ghost Stories, by Charles Dickens

I’ve always had a rather mixed view of Charles Dickens. He can create memorable characters, make a story rattle along, bring scenes to vivid life, but he’s also frequently maudlin and I’ve read more than one book by him that could have used a severe editorial pruning. When I reviewed Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger I described it as Dickensian, that wasn’t wholly a compliment.

A little while back though Sarah at A Rat in the Book Pile reviewed Dickens’ short story The Signal Man. It’s a story I already knew from a BBC Christmas adaptation, but Sarah made a good case for the original and I’m a sucker for a good ghost story. And after all, was there ever a better time and place for spooks than Victorian England?

One of the advantages of owning a kindle is easy access to classic fiction. I downloaded Three Ghost Stories, and recently wanting a lighter read thought it the perfect time to indulge in these frock-coated frights.

There are (as the title rather suggests) three stories in this collection. The Signal Man, The Haunted House and finally The Trial for Murder. Sarah was right. The Signal Man is a great short story.

The Signal Man draws on a classic piece of folklore, the premonitory haunting: a spirit which brings forewarning of death or calamity. A retired traveller comes across a railway cutting, “as solitary and dismal a place as ever I saw”, and shouts a greeting to the signal man working down below. The signal man starts in fear, but eventually calls his visitor down to join him where he explains what it was that made him so frightened by a cheery greeting.

Here the visitor descends almost literally into the underworld:

On either side a dripping wet wall of jagged stone, excluding all view but a strip of sky: the perspective one way only a crooked prolongation of this great dungeon; the shorter perspective in the other direction terminating in a gloomy red light, and the gloomier entrance to a black tunnel, in which massive architecture there was a barbarous, depressing, and forbidding air. So little sunlight ever found its way to this spot, that it had an earthy, deadly smell; and so much cold wind rushed through it, that it struck chill to me, as if I had left the natural world.

I won’t give too much away. The signal man thinks himself haunted by a figure that appears to him presaging disaster on his line – a rail crash, a terrible accident. Only he can see this figure, and so only he receives these dire and useless portents. What can you do with the knowledge that something awful will happen, but no knowledge of what exactly it will be?

Dickens leaves open the possibility of psychological explanation, but for me this worked best in a more literal fashion. Premonitory apparitions are a big feature of the folklore of the British isles. One example that springs to mind are washer women seen by travellers, who on greeting are discovered to be washing blood out of clothes and the sighting of whom foretells a death in the traveller’s own family. The signal man is cursed with valueless prophecy.

Of course the figure reappears. What disaster is it foretelling this time? For that you’ll need to read the story, and it’s worth reading because it’s an absolute gem and I agree with Sarah entirely that it shows none of the faults of Dickens’ longer works.

Where The Signal Man showed all Dickens’ strengths and none of his weaknesses, The Haunted House balanced the books by showing him at his worst. It starts promisingly enough, with a narrator whose “health required a temporary residence in the country” – doesn’t it always in these tales? There’s a nice bit of satire as the narrator travels by train to the house where the mystery will unfold and while travelling meets a spiritualist who boasts of his high connections in the unseen world:

There are seventeen thousand four hundred and seventy-nine spirits here, but you cannot see them. Pythagoras is here. He is not at liberty to mention it, but hopes you like travelling.” Galileo likewise had dropped in, with this scientific intelligence. “I am glad to see you, amico. Come sta? Water will freeze when it is cold enough. Addio!” In the course of the night, also, the following phenomena had occurred. Bishop Butler had insisted on spelling his name, “Bubler,” for which offence against orthography and good manners he had been dismissed as out of temper. John Milton (suspected of wilful mystification) had repudiated the authorship of Paradise Lost, and had introduced, as joint authors of that poem, two Unknown gentlemen, respectively named Grungers and Scadgingtone. And Prince Arthur, nephew of King John of England, had described himself as tolerably comfortable in the seventh circle, where he was learning to paint on velvet, under the direction of Mrs. Trimmer and Mary Queen of Scots.

When the story gets to the actual haunted house though it wanders off in endless and very laboured comic digressions, ultimately sputtering out in a dismally sentimental conclusion. One of the other advantages of the kindle is you can make notes directly against the text. At the end of this one I wrote “flabby and dull”, after deleting my initial comment which was a lot ruder.

Finally comes The Murder Trial, which is a predictable and uninteresting story of how a jury foreman finds himself the only man at a trial who can see the murder victim’s ghost, attending and influencing events. I don’t have any quotes from this one, the whole thing was too dull for any to stand out.

So, three ghost stories. The second story is terrible, the third just utterly mediocre, but the first wouldn’t be out of place in an MR James collection and when it comes to supernatural short stories there simply isn’t higher praise.


Filed under 19th Century, Horror

He was overcome by an immense sense of discouragement

With the Flow, by Joris-Karl Huysmans and translated by Andrew Brown

Guy Savage alerted me to Huysmans’ With the Flow. A bored clerk wanders the streets of Paris eating a series of dismal meals and generally having a miserable time. It’s a tremendous study of depression (melancholy) that somehow manages to be relentlessly glum and extremely funny at the same time.

The novella opens with M. Folantin taking a waiter’s recommendation as to which cheese is best. It’s the Roquefort, but when it comes Folantin is unsurprised to find that what’s on his plate appears to have been “cut out of a cake of Marseilles soap.”

He’s unsurprised because that’s how his life is. He’s a government clerk, but it’s not a job that pays well and his early hopes of rapid promotion have long since slumped. Folantin is intelligent and as a youth won scholastic prizes, but his family were poor and he is without connections. What place is there for him in this new Paris of wide boulevards in which the old neighbourhoods are being abolished?

Folantin eats his dinner, and drinks his wine that tastes of ink:

His feet frozen, squeezed into ankle boots that had started to warp in the deluge and the puddles, his cranium white-hot under the gas burner hissing over his head, M. Folantin had hardly touched his food, and even now his bad luck refused to let go of him; his fire faltered, his lamp grew sooty, his tobacco was damp and kept going out, staining the cigarette-paper with a stream of yellow juice.

Folantin is unmarried. He has no friends, because the friends he once had did marry, and as a bachelor he had less and less in common with them. He’s, well, not happy to be unmarried but he comforts himself that things would be even worse with a woman to support and to have to spend all his time with. He’s not a sociable sort. He doesn’t even use prostitutes anymore – his libido has flickered out. His only real human contact now is indifferent waiters and troublesome household staff:

… he had at least got rid of his housekeeper, Mme Chabanel, an old hag, six feet tall, with moustachioed lips and obscene eyes set into her face over her sagging jowls. She was a sort of camp-follower who ate like a horse and drank like a fish; she was a lousy cook, and over-familiar to an impossible degree. She would plonk the plates onto the table any old how, then sit down opposite her master, hoist up her skirts and chatter away, laughing and joking, her bonnet askew and her hands on her hips.

It was pointless to expect her to serve him properly; but M. Folantin would perhaps have put up with even this humiliating lack of ceremony, if the amazing old girl hadn’t stripped him of his possessions like a highway robber; flannel waistcoats and socks would vanish, old shoes would go missing, spirits would evaporate into thin air, and event he matches seemed to light themselves.

Widow Chabanel had been replaced by the concierge, who pummelled the bedclothes into shape with his fists, and made pets of the spiders, whose webs he looked after.

Huysmans loves his comic servants, but he does do them very well.

Folantin’s problem is money. He has just enough to support himself, but not enough to live at all well. He regularly changes restaurant hoping to find one he can afford which has halfway decent food, but it’s all disgusting. He gets meals delivered, but he’s so meek he’s taken advantage of by the delivery staff. Worst of all are Sundays when he doesn’t even have work to keep him occupied and must somehow eke out the long day’s nothing until the time comes for bed.

It all sounds grim. It is grim. Folantin bemoans his own lack of passion. He wishes he cared about women, the office, dominos or cards, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t care about anything except having a pleasantly quiet life and the hope of one day having a decent meal. He wishes he were religious, because they at least have the delusion (as he sees it) of another life to help console them for how awful this one is.

In modern terms Folantin is suffering from depression. Huysmans though is as ever just a hugely gifted comic writer (something he never seems to get credit as) and there’s a relentless quality to Folantin’s misfortunes that makes it impossible not to laugh. One shouldn’t, but I certainly did.

The irony is that if he had money Folantin would be another of Huysmans’ decadents – his bored nobles exploring the boundaries of experience. Folantin though can’t afford to be decadent. Decadence, like a decent steak, is reserved for those with money. Instead Folantin’s existence leads to chapters opening with the words:

One evening, as he was picking at eggs that smelt of pooh…

The Hesperus edition of With the Flow comes accompanied by an interesting little short story titled M. Bougran’s Retirement. M. Bougran is another clerk, but a more senior one. Not so senior though that he can protect his job when he finds himself made redundant to make way for some ministerial favourite.

Pensioned off M. Bougran finds himself completely at a loss. Work defined his existence, and without it he just doesn’t know what to do with himself. One day though he has a brilliant idea – if he can’t go to work anymore perhaps he can make it as if work were coming to him…

I won’t say more. Again it has that mix peculiar to Huysmans of desperation and comedy. The intricacies of civil service procedure and etiquette are beautifully observed (unsurprisingly, given Huysmans was a clerk himself) and it’s all incredibly easy to imagine. Huysmans has that great nineteenth century gift of crafting almost photographic pictures from words.

In one of the two forewords translator Andrew Brown talks of M. Bougran as a sort of anti-Bartleby and there’s some truth to that. M. Bougran would prefer to, but he is no longer required to. He is pointless, and perhaps always was. It’s a beautifully crafted little tragedy which sadly still remains fairly relevant today.

Ultimately neither of these are among Huysmans’ best works. There’s a reason they’re not as well known as The Damned or Against Nature, but they’re subtle and well written and Andrew Brown is as effective a translator as ever. It’s also all up to Hesperus’s usual high standards in terms of the actual physical quality of the book.

I’ll end with a slight note of caution. The two forewords, the Andrew Brown one and the other by Simon Callow, are both very good but they do contain spoilers. If you do decide to read this you might be better off reading the forewords after the two stories themselves.

As I wrote this I discovered that Guy has actually reviewed this too, which I hadn’t originally realised. His review is here.


Filed under 19th Century, Brown, Andrew (translator), French, Huysmans, J.-K., Novellas

M. de Norpois recommends some investments

Currently I’m reading Within a Budding Grove, by Proust. For various reasons it’s taking me a lot longer than I’d hoped. Mostly the issue is that I wasn’t able to read it on holiday as I planned. That’s a shame because Proust needs time. He’s incredibly readable, but dense too. Every sentence requires attention. The sheer volume of wit, psychological insight, sociological comment and just sheer style demands concentration. It’s a great read, but it’s not a great daily commute read.

Quite honestly I’ve no idea how I’ll write it up once I have finished it. Inadequately is probably the best answer I have. How else could it be? To write with any accuracy about the scope of this volume alone would need more words than Proust needed to write it. Still, it should be fun to make the attempt doomed as I know it will be.

It’s impossible, for me anyway, to read Proust without being sent off on hundreds of digressions and tangents. Every page sends my mind racing in different directions. This quote, almost a humorous aside in the book, like so much else sent me well beyond the page I found it on:

My father, who was trustee of this estate until I came of age, now consulted M. de Norpois with regard to a number of investments. He recommended certain stocks bearing a low rate of interest, which he considered particularly sound, notably English consols and Russian four per cents. “With absolutely first-class securities such as those,” said M. de Norpois, “even if your income from them is nothing very great you may be certain of never losing your capital.”

Recently at bookaroundthecorner’s blog there was a discussion regarding the familiarity characters in 19th and early 20th Century fiction have with the financial markets. Often they display a casual knowledge of the merits of different classes of investment that’s quite alien today. The modern middle classes don’t, can’t, discuss gilt rates over dinner unless some of them actively work in the bond markets.The middle classes of the late Victorian/Edwardian period appear much more comfortable in this territory.

My personal theory is that it’s related to the need to procure a remittance (a competence as it was once wonderfully called) which doesn’t require the beneficiary to actually engage in work. The range of occupations open to the upper middle classes and upper classes was relatively narrow. There was no real social safety net. To maintain position, particularly in old age but also during the more active years, required a source of income not dependent on a job.

In this period the only pension you had was likely that which you provided for yourself. The only illness or unemployment protection came from your investments. If you wanted to live as part of “society” you needed a source of income that didn’t tie you up when you could otherwise be calling on people and participating in the social whirl. Class and money are ever hard to separate, and while one is not the same as the other (even in America) class is hard to sustain without money and after a generation or two money tends to buy class.

The characters of the novels of this period then know financial instruments because they have to. It’s an integral part of their world. They know them because not to know them would be folly, and because their parents would have known them too. They are part of ordinary conversation because familiarity with them is key both to survival and to social position.

Today it’s very different. There isn’t the same stigma about working for a living, and the growth of the superrich has made incomes that would once have been counted wealthy now merely comfortable. The young men (and now women) of the upper middle classes who would once have lived on their competence while doing some light duties at the bar or the City now compare themselves to oligarchs, CEOs and top traders and in that company a solid competence from land and investments really doesn’t cut it anymore.

On the other hand, we do now have pension plans, occupational contribution schemes, unemployment benefit and sick leave (to varying degrees of protection according to country). Equally importantly, perhaps more so, we no longer have the stigma of debt. The characters of these great novels of the past fear debt as social catastrophe, but now it’s commonplace (consumer debt is even an underpinning of our economic model). At worst those characters could even face prison for debt. That’s unthinkable today.

The characters of these novels mostly live lives of considerable comfort but comfort stretched over an abyss. Today that comfort is less easily obtained, but the abyss too is no longer bottomless. There’s a long way one can fall, but not so far as prison and the workhouse.

That’s why I think finance is so important to pre-First World War fiction. The anticipated readers of literary fiction of the day would have needed to know such matters and so would have been interested in them. Today finance is more abstruse, less common knowledge. It is alchemy and the ways of the bond market are neither known by nor of interest to a contemporary readership.


Filed under 19th Century, French, In Search of Lost Time, Modernist fiction, Personal posts, Proust, Marcel

He was more a man of preferences than assumptions.

Bartleby the Scrivener, by Herman Melville

It’s a daunting sort of name Herman Melville. Not intrinsically, but because of Moby Dick of course. Like the names of a fair few great authors Melville’s comes with a slight expectation that reading him will be some kind of worthy, possibly improving, labour. One feels one should, but somehow the prospect never looks much fun.

Well, that’s how he’s always been for me anyway. I still haven’t read Moby Dick, but I have now read Melville’s infinitely shorter and less intimidating Bartleby the Scrivener and even though John Self of The Asylum, Trevor of themookseandthegripes and Kerry of Hungry like the Woolf all told me it was great, I was still surprised at how great it was.

The narrator is a lawyer on Wall Street. He employs two scriveners (legal clerks basically) and a copy boy in a small office which has nothing much by way of view. He’s a sensible and solid sort of man. Reliable. The sort you’d want if you had some tedious piece of property conveyancing to do and wanted it done meticulously but didn’t need any particularly creative thinking being put into it.

His first scrivener is nicknamed Turkey and is dependable before lunch, but has a tendency to return red-faced and irascible after it. In the morning Turkey has a careful hand. In the afternoon however it’s smudges, dripped ink and a more incautious approach than is perhaps entirely appropriate.

Alongside Turkey is Nipper. Nipper has poor digestion. In the mornings he’s irritable and difficult and his concentration is poor. After lunch though his stomach settles and his work is as good as Turkey’s was in the morning. Here’s Nipper struggling with the table he works at:

Though of a very ingenious mechanical turn, Nippers could never get this table to suit him. He put chips under it, blocks of various sorts, bits of pasteboard, and at last went so far as to attempt an exquisite adjustment by final pieces of folded blotting paper. But no invention would answer. If, for the sake of easing his back, he brought the table lid at a sharp angle well up towards his chin, and wrote there like a man using the steep roof of a Dutch house for his desk:–then he declared that it stopped the circulation in his arms. If now he lowered the table to his waistbands, and stooped over it in writing, then there was a sore aching in his back. In short, the truth of the matter was, Nippers knew not what he wanted. Or, if he wanted any thing, it was to be rid of a scrivener’s table altogether.

That final sentence contains a world of frustration.

Ginger Nut is a young boy who mostly goes out to buy ginger nut biscuits for the others. It’s a well ordered office, but an extra hand would be useful. Bartleby is hired. He’s a pallid and reserved fellow who turns out at first to be highly efficient. He works quietly behind a screen stolidly ploughing through his documents without complaint. He’s a model employee.

All goes well, until one day the narrator asks Bartleby to help check a document:

It is, of course, an indispensable part of a scrivener’s business to verify the accuracy of his copy, word by word. Where there are two or more scriveners in an office, they assist each other in this examination, one reading from the copy, the other holding the original.

This actually carried on until right into the 1980s (possibly the 1990s). A colleague of mine as a trainee used to have to sit in a room with a copy of a bond prospectus in one hand, a bottle of seven-up in the other and another trainee holding another copy of the prospectus. One read it out. The other checked what was read against his copy. The seven-up kept throats moist. If that had still been going when I trained I doubt I’d have made it to qualification.

Bartleby doesn’t like the idea much either. He’s asked to help check a document. It’s a perfectly routine part of his job. He doesn’t come into the narrator’s office so the request is repeated, more loudly. The answer comes:

“I would prefer not to.”

And that’s where things suddenly get much less funny.

I sat awhile in perfect silence, rallying my stunned faculties. Immediately it occurred to me that my ears had deceived me, or Bartleby had entirely misunderstood my meaning. I repeated my request in the clearest tone I could assume. But in quite as clear a one came the previous reply, “I would prefer not to.” “Prefer not to,” echoed I, rising in high excitement, and crossing the room with a stride. “What do you mean? Are you moon-struck? I want you to help me compare this sheet here–take it,” and I thrust it towards him. “I would prefer not to,” said he. I looked at him steadfastly. His face was leanly composed; his gray eye dimly calm. Not a wrinkle of agitation rippled him. Had there been the least uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence in his manner; in other words, had there been any thing ordinarily human about him, doubtless I should have violently dismissed him from the premises. But as it was, I should have as soon thought of turning my pale plaster-of-paris bust of Cicero out of doors. I stood gazing at him awhile, as he went on with his own writing, and then reseated myself at my desk. This is very strange, thought I. What had one best do? But my business hurried me. I concluded to forget the matter for the present, reserving it for my future leisure. So calling Nippers from the other room, the paper was speedily examined.

We all live by social contracts, by expectations of what is and isn’t permissible. We may dream of telling a boss to go stuff it, but mostly we don’t. Everywhere I’ve ever worked the underlying reality is that employees must do what they are told or look for another job. Employers though still mostly dress orders up in polite clothing. “Could you type this up for me please?” “I’d like you to take a note in this meeting.” “If you could turn the draft by tomorrow morning that would be great.” They’re expressed as requests, but we all know they’re not really.

What happens when someone doesn’t care about the unwritten rules? If I say to someone “could you let me have those deeds please?” and they reply “I would prefer not to” what do I do with that answer?

Actually, that one happened to me once when I was a junior lawyer, with a senior partner’s PA. I had no idea what to do. The social contact was simple. I was a fee earner. She was a PA. It was her job to give me those deeds. When she said no I was lost. I couldn’t go back to the partner and say I hadn’t been able to get the deeds because his PA didn’t want to give them to me. I had to negotiate with her. The truth was that when she broke the social contract there wasn’t actually much I could do about it.

That’s what particularly interested me here. There’s a lot in this story. There’s a great many possible interpretations (and I’ve linked to three different blogs to show some different takes). What struck me most was that it asks precisely that question of what happens when someone just doesn’t care about the social rules we all live by?

I won’t say how the story develops or what answers it has, but I will say that for a novella that opened with comic scenes worthy of The Diary of a Nobody to then go onto questions of that difficulty is no small achievement. To stay funny while doing so is simply brilliant.

In the end there’s something profoundly disturbing about Bartleby as a character. His passivity becomes both sinister and pathetic. At one point he is asked to be at least a little reasonable:

“At present I would prefer not to be a little reasonable,” was his mildly cadaverous reply.

And why should he be? Why should any of us be? Why should we do that which we prefer not to? Mevlille examines pity and despair and purpose and meaning (and much more besides), and he does so while being funny and without even breaking the 100 page barrier. He leaves me wanting to read more by writers such as Beckett and Kafka, and maybe even one day when I’ve finished Proust I’ll read Moby Dick itself.

It is still quite daunting though.


Filed under 19th Century, Melville, Herman, Novellas

Furthermore she was said to be full of the most inestimable talents.

Butterball, by Guy de Maupassant

I wasn’t blown away by my first de Maupassant, I enjoyed it but found it a bit obvious. I’m a sucker though for a Hesperus Press edition, and when I saw Guy Savage review a Hesperus collection of de Maupassant stories I knew I had to get it.

Butterball is a six story collection, with Butterball also being the title of the first story. The stories vary from excellent to very good and thematically the whole collection fits together nicely. These are stories of appetite and passion and of how desire subverts and is subverted by social norms. They’re also huge fun and very well written. Here’s a little excerpt from the title story which I rather liked:

An uninterrupted curtain of white snowflakes glimmered ceaselessly as it fell to the earth; it effaced shapes and covered everything with a foamy, icy powder; and in the great silence of the city, calm and buried under the winter weather, all that could be heard was this indescribable, vague, floating whisper, the noise of falling snow, more of a sensation than a noise, the intermingling of light atoms that seemed to be filling the whole of space and blanketing the world.

Butterball itself is set during the 1870 Franco-Prussian war. A group of citizens are given permission by the Prussians to leave an occupied town by coach. The passengers are mostly wealthy and respectable, a pair of nobles, rich bourgois and their wives, a trio of nuns. They include too though a left-wing revolutionary by the name of Cornudet and a famed prostitute known as Butterball. Here’s a description:

She was small, round all over, as fat as lard, with puffed-up fingers congested at the joints so they looked like strings of short sausages; with a glossy, taut skin, and a huge and prominent bosom straining out from beneath her dress, she nonetheless remained an appetising and much sought-after prospect, so fresh that she was a pleasure to see. Her face was a russet apple, a peony bud about to flower; above, two magnificent black eyes opened wide, shaded by great thick eyelashes that cast a shadow all around; and below, a charming mouth, with pursed lips all moist for kissing, well furnished with gleaming microscopic baby teeth.

At first, when they realise who and what Butterball is, the good people of the coach are scandalised. They ostracise her. She is not a fit person for their company. The journey is long and cold though, and it soon becomes apparent that only Butterball has thought to bring provisions. As hunger mounts, Butterball shares what she has and propriety soon gives way to desire. Appetite has undermined the social order, and has let prostitute and gentry talk freely to each other.

Problems arise when the coach stops at an inn which has been commandeered by a Prussian officer. He wants Butterball, but she refuses him for although a prostitute she is a patriotic woman and unwilling to have sex with the enemy. The company are now all friends, and Butterball’s defiance impresses them all.

The difficulty is, the coach can only continue if the Prussian permits it, and it soon becomes apparent that he won’t permit it unless Butterball gives in. At first her refusal was a heroic gesture of French solidarity, but now it means that the other passengers might be seriously inconvienced and delayed.

So they started to plot.
The women came together in a huddle, they lowered their voices, and the discussion became more general, as everyone gave their opinion. In fact, it was all handled decorously. The ladies in particular invented the most delicate turns of phrase and charming subtleties of expression to say the most indecent things. A stranger would not have understood a word, so carefully did they observe the linguistic proprieties. But the thin glaze of modesty in which every woman of the world is coated merely covers the surface, and they came into their own in this risqué adventure, and enjoyed themselves to the full when it came to it, feeling altogether in their element, and pawing at love with the sensuality of a greedy chef preparing at someone else’s dinner.

Isn’t that the most marvellously scathing paragraph?

Butterball is a story of hypocrisy, greed and self-justification. The passengers are divided on lines of sex, of politics and of class and throughout the story their alliances shift accordingly. When their own interests are threatened though, all these differences fall away and they unite as one against Butterball.

This is also a story suffused with appetite. Butterball, like her provisions, is ultimately another object for consumption, another choice morsel. Hunger drives the passengers to befriend Butterball, and another sort of hunger drives them away from her.

Butterball’s companions have variously position, piety, revolutionary sentiment. Each of them is what some part of society would hold up as an example of what is proper and good. In the end though, their hearts as frozen as the landscape de Maupassant places them in and their doctrines and moralities when challenged are no more substantial than snowflakes.

Butterball is a tremendously accomplished short story. It’s far though from the only one at that level in this collection. Guy describes the impressive Bed 29 over at his blog so I won’t dwell on that here, I would like though to speak a little about First Snow.

Several of the stories in this collection are about about passion, lust and sex – Butterball itself, The Confession (slight but wonderfully cynical), Rose (a sexually ambiguous tale), The Dowry (where desire leads to ruin) and Bed 29. First Snow is a different beast, desire is vital here too but it is not sexual desire that is at issue.

In First Snow a young woman is enjoying the seaside near Cannes. She is dying, but happy. She reflects:

She will exist no more. All the things of life will continue for others. It will be all over for her, all over for good. She will exist no more. She smiles, and breathes, as deep as she can with her sickly lungs, the aromatic odours coming from the gardens.

That repetition of “She will exist no more” makes me shiver even as I write it. Just as food is a key metaphor in Butterball, so cold is here and that is a very cold paragraph. Why she will exist no more though, and why she is smiling, that is where the chill of this story truly lies.

I won’t spoil it by giving any hints, but like Butterball it’s a satisfying and beautifully crafted piece of work. As I said above, the first short story I read by de Maupassant didn’t blow me away. Having read these though it’s clear to me that he’s a master of the form and I fully understand why others have recommended him to me so highly.

It’s remarkable how much de Maupassant packs into each of these stories and how economical and subtle his style is. It’s remarkable too how explicit many of these stories are. Like a 1940s movie, de Maupassant shows very little directly, but leaves little doubt what’s going on. He knows that what’s really interesting about sex (in art, anyway) isn’t the act, but the desire and the consequences.

Butterball is translated by the always excellent Andrew Brown, whom I now consider a name to watch out for. It’s fair to say that if I had doubts about whether to read a book or not I’d be a lot more tempted if I heard that he had translated it.



Filed under 19th Century, Brown, Andrew (translator), de Maupassant, Guy, French, Short stories

Fantasy in a frock-coat

The Jinx, by Theophile Gautier

I love Naples. I studied there once, living in the middle of the Spaccanapoli for a month. I was back there recently for my wedding anniversary. It’s a filthy, chaotic and incredibly noisy place. There’s graffiti, piled-up garbage (partly due to yet another strike) and run down buildings and every other wall seems to have a small shrine to a local saint or to the Madonna.

When I stayed there I was in the crime-ridden heart of the city, but untouchable because the Camorra had put the word out not to harm tourists. They didn’t want the police being forced to investigate and so cramp the illegal lotteries and cigarette sales which generated real money.

I don’t believe in magic and I’m not religious, but I can still recognise that Naples is a city rife with faith and superstition. I’ve mentioned the ubiquituous shrines, but there are also churches filled with riches (while outside the poverty is inescapable) and shops selling all manner of religious paraphernalia. If you’ve ever wanted a lifesize Madonna for your home there’s more than one shop in Naples that can help you out.

All of which is rather a long winded way of saying that when I heard about Theophile Gautier’s 1857 novella The Jinx at Kevinfromcanada’s blog I knew I had to read it. A story about a North European falling into trouble among the superstitions of Naples? Gautier could have written it with me in mind.

Gautier isn’t well known now, but he was once much better regarded. He wrote the ballet Giselle, and advocated “art for art’s sake”. He was seen as a forerunner to Oscar Wilde (Wilde even quotes Gautier in Dorian Grey) and was a major literary figure of his time. Extraordinary how a man can achieve so much fame, and yet in the UK at least be so forgotten.

The Jinx is the story of a young Frenchman, M. Paul d’Aspremont who comes to Naples to see his fiancée Alicia who is recuperating there from an illness. She is English, pale and beautiful. Her uncle, who has accompanied her, is good natured but red faced and gouty. All of them are types instantly recognisable to any reader.

The novella opens with a ship bearing Paul and other well born travellers into the Bay of Naples. Each of them is perfectly dressed, unruffled and uncreased. Paul is in most regards a man typical of his class. He is civilised, rational, the flower of North European civilisation.

His clothes were elegant without drawing attention to themselves by any showiness of detail: a dark blue frock-coat, a black polka-dot cravat whose know was tied in a manner neither affected nor negligent, a waistcoat of the same design as the cravat, light grey trousers, beneath which was a fine pair of boots; the chain holding his watch was all of gold, and his pince-nez dangled from a cord of flat silk; his hand, elegantly gloved, was tapping a small slender cane in twisted vine stock, tipped with ornamental silver.

In one regard however Paul is atypical. Although each part of his face is on its own handsome, in combination his features do not blend well and the overall result is quite ugly. Most troubling are his eyes, which seem closer set together than they should be and the irises of which seem to change colour so that when he focuses them upon a target they change “from grey to green, [becoming] speckled with black spots and streaked with yellow fibrils”.

Paul’s gaze is a fierce one, particularly when he concentrates, and it does not take long for the superstitious locals to conclude that he possesses the jettatura, the evil eye. To them his gaze is like that of the cockatrice, and what he looks upon he destroys.

As the story progresses, Paul becomes slowly aware of the locals’ peculiar hostility. To them he is like a man carrying a plague – it’s not his fault that he carries the curse of the jettatura, but that doesn’t make it any the less serious. To be in his view is to invite misfortune, perhaps even death and soon whereever Paul goes he is faced with outstretched charms, hands held in peculiar gestures, horns and coral stems and other measures thought effective against his unwitting powers.

Paul is a man of reason. Alicia is if anything even more rational and level headed. She is a robust English protestant and there is no place in her worldview for magic. Any misfortunes or odd incidents that may occur near Paul are to her clearly just coincidence and nothing more. To the servants each such event is proof positive that he is what they think he is.

The Jinx then is a story of Northern Europe and Southern, and of reason and superstition. It’s original readers would have been men much like M. Paul d’Aspremont, Northern Europeans, rationalists and if religious at all most likely protestants. Gautier roots his characters in a recognisable world and a recognisable philosophy; but Naples is not Northern Europe, and things which seem impossible in the cool light of the North start to seem more credible in the more permissive South.

I’m going to say very little more about the story, but I will add one more detail. So far I’ve described this as a conflict of North and South and of credulity and doubt, but it’s also seems to be at first a conflict of class too with the educated middle classes coming face to face with the fears of the urban poor. Paul though is not the only man with designs upon Alicia’s heart. He has a rival.

The Count Altavilla is Neapolitan, but far from the servant class. He is a nobleman, rich and a feared duellist. He too accuses Paul of being a jettatore – a carrier of the evil eye. When he does so things become more serious because it’s no longer just a question of gossiping servants and market traders. With Altavilla present the supernatural is in the drawing room and unavoidable.

Here’s a description of the Count, as you’ll see he’s a potentially formidable opponent for any lover.

The Count was, indeed, one of those men whom one doesn’t like to see too close to a woman one loves. He was tall and perfectly proportioned; his hair was jet black, swept up into abundant tufts over his smooth and finely-sculptured forehead; a gleam of Naples’ sunshine sparkled in his eyes, and his teeth, broad and strong yet as pure as pearls, seemed to be even more dazzling because of the bright red of his lips and the olive hue of his complexion. The only criticism a meticulous taste might have found to make against the Count was that he was just too handsome.

What’s wonderfully clever in all this is that Gautier slowly (and in a precisely controlled way) led me into suspecting that Altavilla and the other Neapolitans were right. I started suspecting that Paul was a jettatore. As I suspected it, so within the narrative did Paul, so that as his worldview unravelled so did my certainties as to what was really happening.

What though is happening? By the time Paul and I both suspected him of being what he was accused of being, there still wasn’t really anything that couldn’t be explained away. That’s not a spoiler. That’s the point. Our experience of reality is based in large part on what we believe, and it can be hard to hold onto our beliefs when everyone around us believes something else, even if what they believe is extraordinary.

The Jinx then is disquieting because it’s in part about the subversion of a reality – Paul’s reality and that of the reader. In a way that’s much more frightening than a mere vampire or serial killer could ever be.

Everything I’ve written so far makes this sound like a dark and disturbing tale. Well, it is, but it’s not just that. It’s also delightfully and wittily written. It’s full of jokes, most of them at the expense of the English…

The letter, enclosed in a thick envelope of azure cream-laid paper, sealed with aventurine wax, was written in that hand – angular down-strokes and cursive up-strokes – which denotes a high level of aristocratic education, and which young English ladies of good family all possess, a little too uniformly, perhaps.

The Jinx is a beautiful example of a novella. It’s clever, skilfully crafted and extremely well written. Andrew Brown’s translation is as good as it can be (I’ve read a few of his translations it turns out, I need to add him to my categories) and the physical production is up to Hesperus’s usual high standards. To add to it all, there’s also a rather good introduction by Gilbert Adair that’s well worth reading after you finish the story.

The Jinx is a novella which works as art for art’s sake. It’s in turns amusing, subversive, disturbing and even tragic. It’s a delightful little work and one which I can easily imagine influencing Wilde. I’m grateful to Kevin for introducing me to it and my only complaint would be one that he made too. The original title (of this work written in French) was in Italian, Jettatura, and I think it would have been better left untranslated. That said, when that’s all I have to complain about I’m pretty happy.

The Jinx. Kevin’s review is here. Kevin discusses a bit more of Gautier’s background, has some excellent quotes from the book and discusses Gautier’s style in a way that I certainly found very useful.


Filed under 19th Century, Brown, Andrew (translator), French, Gautier, Theophile, Naples, Novellas

Who has never cursed stationmasters? Who has never argued with them?

Tales of Belkin, by Alexander Pushkin

The Tales of Belkin are made from spun sugar. They seem insubstantial, but they’re constructed with great care.

There’s hardly any plot to these tales, and these aren’t the sorts of stories that have cunning or entertaining little twists at their end (there’s a bit of that, but no real surprises). These aren’t perfect miniature portraits of a person or situation either. They’re none of those things.

So what are the Tales of Belkin? Well, let’s step back. What they definitely are is a collection of five short stories, published around 1830 as a single collection and accompanied by a foreword in two parts.

The first part of that foreword is ostensibly written by the editor and explains who Belkin was – a collector and compiler of true tales from his neighbourhood. The second part is a letter from a friend of Belkin’s, published by consent, in which he describes Belkin and the background to his work.

Of course, Belkin never existed. The foreword makes no hint of that though. We’re told that people’s names have been changed to protect those involved, but that place names have not due to Belkin’s “lack of imagination.” The whole thing is a huge joke, because what’s claimed to be essentially an unimaginative act of collation is in fact a delicate work of art.

The five stories cover a range of topics. There are duels, romances, spectral appearances, kidnappings, feuds and rivalries. There are several cases of mistaken identity. None of it is terribly realistic, but when you have lines like this you really don’t need realism:

Maria Gabrielovna had been raised on French novels; it should therefore go without saying that she was in love.

That quote above is typical of the Tales. There’s a wry humour shot through most of the collection that makes it a delight to read.

The first story is the darkest. It’s a tale of obsession, long awaited revenge and that much overindulged Russian pasttime of duelling. Titled The Shot, it’s an example of a classic Russian narrative of this period.

The story opens with a bored group of young officers stationed in an out of the way spot. They pass their time drinking, gambling and killing each other in the occasional duel. When a new arrival offends an older crack shot everyone expects the newcomer to be dead within days. The older man though has other concerns, and what those are is where the real meat of the tale lies. Here’s an excerpt:

He stared down my pistol, taking ripe cherries from his hat and spitting out the pits, which flew at me. His composure sapped my strength. What good was it for me, I thought, to take his life, when even he didn’t value it?

After The Shot, the tales are generally much lighter in tone. In one a young couple plan to elope, but the night they arrange to meet sees a terrible blizzard which throws everything into confusion. In the next an undertaker has a vision of the dead returned to him to complain about their cut-price coffins.

The penultimate story, The Station Master takes a more melancholy turn with a man losing his beautiful young daughter to a kidnapper. From there though it’s back to a comic love story between the children of two rival landowners, with one’s daughter disguising herself as a peasant girl so she can meet the son of the other.

There’s a definite playfulness to Tales. While preparing this writeup I saw somewhere that in part Pushkin was satirising common genres of his day. I can’t speak to that. I don’t know enough about Russian literature of the period to recognise satires on it. All that said, I do find it very credible because Pushkin’s jokes aren’t just about the characters but about the writing itself:

At this point I am going to deviate from the pleasing conventions of current-day novelists by describing neither the Russian caftan worn by Adrian Prohorov, nor the European outfits of Akulina and Darya. I suppose, however, that it is not inappropriate to say that both women wore yellow hats and red shoes, which they did only on special occasions.

Of course despite the disclaimer (and the tale is supposedly written by Belkin who’s not a novelist at all) Pushkin has in fact given a pretty good idea of how these characters are dressed. Is he satirising those other novelists? Satirising the imaginary Belkin and his literary vanities? Both and other targets too?

Throughout this collection Pushkin shows an incredibly light touch. There’s the wit I referred to above, but there’s also at times a surprising of psychological insight. It’s surprising because in humorous stories of this kind it’s unexpected, and it creates a layer of sadness alongside the comedy.

[Maria’s mother] spoke with her husband and a few of the neighbors, all of whom agreed finally and in chorus that this was clearly Maria Gabrielovna’s fate, that no horse could outrun destiny, that one lived with the man and not the money, and so on – words of wisdom being remarkably handy in those moments when we need to justify our actions, but have little reason to do so.

I opened by comparing these stories to spun sugar. They’re slight, frivolous even, but that’s not the whole truth because they play clever games with narrative and style. With the creation of Belkin, Pushkin makes these stories within stories. In The Shot Pushkin is writing as Belkin who heard the tale from a soldier who heard the story that is within the tale from two more men who were each involved with it. There are multiple layers of narration there, but so smoothly done I didn’t even notice it until I stopped to think about it.

The Tales of Belkin then are beautifully constructed exercises in style. They are also funny, sometimes charming and generally rather clever. In fact, it wasn’t until I started writing this I realised how clever and I’ll come back to that in just a moment.

After all the positive comments above, it is worth mentioning one concern I had. Generally I found the translation by Josh Billings fluid and natural. There were moments though that it jarred with me slightly.

I struggled with a description of a character as “having been a real ham at one time”, which “did him no harm in the opinion of Maria Gabrielovna who (like most young women) gladly excused mischief, displays of daring, and enthusiasm.” Ham may be true to the Russian, but it’s only meaning in English I know is a bad actor, which has nothing to do with being mischievous. A reference to Russia as the “fatherland” surprised me too (though is probably accurate to the text) as did a description of a man as a “sickly old geezer” – a term which for me which brought to mind cockneys down the dog and duck rather than the Russian plains.

Those complaints aside, the translation wasn’t stilted and managed to generally avoid sounding archaic or overly modern. In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed the Tales of Belkin and while one or two choices of language might have jarred Josh Billings must be owed some thanks for that.

When I started writing this blog entry I could see no connection between these stories. I was missing the obvious. Belkin is the connection. He’s the only character who appears in each one, with direct asides to the reader and with the structure of the tale being a structure Belkin has chosen. The cleverest thing with the Tales of Belkin is that they are just what they say they are, tales of Belkin, even though he is apparently in none of them.

I’m going to have to reread them. Like spun sugar, there’s more substance there than you’d think at first glance.

Tales of Belkin. I bought Tales of Belkin because of a competition at The Asylum blog in which a copy was among the prizes. I didn’t win but decided to get the book anyway. John asked for a linkback from anyone who ended up reading it, so here it is.


Filed under 19th Century, Novellas, Pushkin, Alexander, Russian, Short stories

Piccadilly was a trench of raw white fog …

Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman, by E. W. Hornung

When he created Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle created something of an industry. For a few years lone, brilliant detectives were ten a penny. Even today they’re hardly rare, Gregory House M.D. is the most recent example that springs to mind but without Holmes I doubt we’d have Monk or The Mentalist or a dozen other shows.

Of all those pseudo-Holmes, most are now long forgotten. A few, The Glasgow Detective, John Silence, Sir Denis Nayland Smith, Thomas Carnacki still have their readers (well, I still read them anyway). One of Holmes’ spiritual children though stands head and shoulders above the others and, became for a while a household name with multiple TV series and films made about him.

E.W. Hornung was Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law, and while most characters based on Holmes were essentially Holmes-lite, Hornung did something much more interesting. He created an anti-Holmes. Where Holmes is a brilliant gentleman-detective, Hornung created a gentleman-thief: A.J. Raffles.

Raffles first appears in this collection, Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman. The eight stories it contains cover the career of Raffles and his answer to Watson, Bunny Manders. The stories open with their first meeting and end with what was supposed to be their last. Hornung though had his own Reichenbach falls, Raffles was too popular for just one book and more stories followed.

So, how do the stories stand up today? Pretty well actually. Raffles is a fascinatingly sociopathic character. He is charismatic, well born, a brilliant cricketer, a master of disguise (just like Holmes) and blisteringly intelligent but he’s also a rogue – an amoral criminal who indulges as much for sport as he does from need.

Again I see him, leaning back in one of the luxurious chairs with which his room was furnished. I see his indolent, athletic figure; his pale, sharp, clean-shaven features; his curly black hair; his strong, unscrupulous mouth. And again I feel the clear beam of his wonderful eye, cold and luminous as a star, shining into my brain–sifting the very secrets of my heart.

The first story opens with Bunny ruined. He fagged for Raffles at school, and goes to him seeking help. If he doesn’t receive it he has but one option remaining:

The barrel touched my temple, and my thumb the trigger. Mad with excitement as I was, ruined, dishonored, and now finally determined to make an end of my misspent life, my only surprise to this day is that I did not do so then and there.

It’s no spoiler to say that Bunny does not pull the trigger. Instead he receives an extraordinary offer. Raffles too is insolvent. Raffles however has quite different ideas as to how to remedy the situation. Raffles plans to steal what he needs. The only issue is that the job Raffles has in mind needs two men to successfully pull it off…

Like Watson, Bunny both assistant to the main character and also his scribe. Conan Doyle’s conceit is that his stories are written by Watson and exist within his fictional world. Here Bunny writes up his and Raffles’ adventures and publishes them with the names changed.

Another similarity to the Holmes stories is the closeness of the central characters’ to each other. That said, the two relationships aren’t quite the same. Holmes and Watson are roommates, colleagues and to an extent friends but I’ve never been persuaded by interpretations of their relationship as homo-erotic (I think it’s an anachronistic reading of the text). Raffles and Bunny enjoy a more complex situation, with Raffles almost a seducer of Bunny and Bunny tempted into criminal acts he would never otherwise have countenanced. There’s a resentment at times, and for me at least the homo-erotic reading is was much more tenable (though far from the only possible interpretation).

The stories enjoy a surprising amount of continuity. Characters recur, situations which arise in one adventure may impact another. The collection ultimately forms a coherent whole which is slightly greater (not hugely though) than the sum of its parts.

As the stories continue, Raffles’ character becomes both clearer and more disturbing. He fantasises about murder, mere robbery perhaps no longer enough for him.

I have often thought that the murderer who has just done the trick must have great sensations before things get too hot for him.

For all his criminality though, Raffles remains a gentleman. He is at pains to distinguish himself from professional criminals (one story is even called Gentlemen and Players, if you don’t know the significance please feel free to ask in the comments and I’ll explain) and in one story carries out a robbery merely because he has been offended by being invited to play cricket as if he were a professional at the game rather than a gifted amateur. Yes, he he needs the money he steals, but that’s not why he steals. He steals because he enjoys it. He steals because it’s one of the few things that still excites him.

My dear fellow, I would rob St. Paul’s Cathedral if I could, but I could no more scoop a till when the shopwalker wasn’t looking than I could bag the apples out of an old woman’s basket.

These are fun stories that I think would be enjoyed by anyone who enjoyed Holmes and Watson. Raffles is an inversion of Holmes, but the appeal is similar. There are adventures, exotic characters, cunning stratagems and bags of Victorian charm. One key difference is that unlike Holmes Raffles doesn’t always succeed. Sometimes his robberies are foiled and the uncertainty of outcome adds to the fun in reading them.

I do have one caution. This is a period work and some language is offensive by modern standards. In one story a robbery target has Black servants, and the language used with respect to them both by the characters and at times by the descriptive text would not be acceptable today. Where it’s used by the characters it’s by definition in character, and would therefore only be an issue if seeing such words at all is a problem. Where it’s in the descriptive text it’s a bit trickier. I don’t expect a book written over a century ago to meet modern standards of appropriate speech, but I do mention it for those who might be upset by it.

I read the Raffles’ stories on my Kindle and as they’re out of copyright they’re easily available for free online. A paperback version can be found here though for those who might like one. The cover sadly isn’t that great, so while it’s out of print if you do want a physical copy of this I’d suggest tracking down the old Penguin Classics edition which had this marvellously appropriate cover:


Filed under 19th Century, Crime, Hornung, E.W., Short stories

He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction.

The Yellow Wallpaper, and other stories, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was many things. A feminist, a writer, a public speaker and political campaigner. Her best known story is The Yellow Wallpaper which was published in 1892 in the New England Magazine. It’s a tremendous piece of work. Justly famous.

I read The Yellow Wallpaper as part of a Dover Thrift Editions collection. It stands out from the other stories. Sufficiently so that although I do recommend tracking down a copy of The Yellow Wallpaper itself I’m not sure I’d recommend tracking down her other fiction. Sometimes an author puts lightning in a bottle, and however they try once it’s out they can’t get it back in again.

The Yellow Wallpaper itself is the story of a woman who has recently given birth and who is depressed and nervous. Her husband is a doctor and so also her doctor. He has prescribed a rest cure and they have rented a large Summer house for three months. Her husband is a solid and unfanciful man, and has installed them in what was once the nursery of the house. A large room with barred windows, a solid bed and decaying yellow wallpaper.

Banned from writing in her journal, reading or visiting friends lest she excite herself, the narrator sits and lies in the room staring out of the window or at the peculiar wallpaper.

It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide – plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions.
The color is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.

As the story continues, the pattern becomes more repugnant. A smell is noticed, and the narrator becomes persuaded that she can see a woman moving at times behind the wallpaper, trapped within it but eager to get out. It is almost as if the woman were imprisoned in the room in which the narrator must spend her days…

Essentially, The Yellow Wallpaper is structured as a ghost story. MR James would have been proud of it. It also has elements of the gothic tale with its imagery of a woman trapped in a high room unable to free herself. For all those ingredients though, it is not a ghost story and it’s no spoiler to say it’s not. It’s much more frightening than that. It’s a story about how through a dangerous mixture of love and self-assurance a man drives the woman he loves towards insanity.

John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him.

The final pages, the final paragraph, are remarkably chilling. In writing this piece I discovered the story was semi-autobiographical, which makes it all the more disturbing. Gilman wrote at a time when post-partum depression was disregarded as mere hysteria and in which women generally were viewed as intellectually and emotionally frail. That ignorance had a cost.

The remaining stories deal in similar territory, but less effectively. In The Yellow Wallpaper Gilman has very serious points to make. It talks about how female creativity and expression are quashed and so forced to find such outlets as they can. It talks of how men do not listen to women, and of how male certainty can crush women. Ultimately too it talks of how men themselves are damaged by relationships founded on inequality.

The Yellow Wallpaper manages to make all these points while also delivering an excellent quasi-ghost story. The story doesn’t just have a point, it also has a narrative.

The next story in the collection (don’t worry, I’m not going to go through them all) is Three Thanksgivings. An elderly woman of 50 (and yes, I am glad to live in a time when 50 is no longer elderly) is being urged by her now married children to give up the large house she inhabits and move in with one or the other of them. At the same time, she owes a mortgage to a Mr. Butts who is keen to own both the house and the woman herself through marriage.

The story consists of three thanksgivings, as per the title. In the first two she visits each of her adult children, a son and a daughter. The son wishes to make plans for her. The daughter’s husband likewise. The children both mean well but they offer no freedom and nor of course does Mr. Butts. The solution is to create a woman’s society which gathers at the large house and pays its own way with women from all across the county gathering to better themselves and enjoy each other’s company.

The story has a clear point to it. The elderly woman is faced with unappetising choices and with sacrificing her independence. With the aid of other women, she maintains her dignity and self-determination both. Perhaps the reader could organise such a society in her own community?

Gilman can still write. I quite liked the passage I’m about to quote, but overall Three Thanksgivings isn’t so much a short story as a speech in story form.

Afterward Mr. Butts called. He came early in the evening with his usual air of determination and a somewhat unusual spruceness. Mr. Peter Butts was a florid, blonde person, a little stout, a little pompous, sturdy and immovable in the attitude of a self-made man. He had been a poor boy when she was a rich girl; and it gratified him much to realize – and to call upon her to realize – that their positions had changed. He meant no unkindness, his pride was honest and unveiled. Tact he had none.

Mr. Butts is in a way typical of Gilman’s characters. Few of the people in these stories mean unkindness. The enemies here are selfishness, thoughtlessness, assumptions of how things should be. Even the errant husband in Turned who cheats on his wife with their maid (one of the best of the stories after The Yellow Wallpaper) doesn’t mean unkindness, though in his particular case that makes his wrongs all the worse.

As the collection continues, its didactic nature becomes clearer. Several stories are essentially lectures about how letting a wife work might make for a happier marriage, or how when one sex is free the other is freed too. Gilman is no hater of men. For her men are victims too of societal roles that do nobody any favours. Men make their women into ornaments and in turn their women make them into joyless providers.

Another issue I had with the collection is that Gilman’s prescriptions do assume a certain level of prosperity. Perhaps that’s inevitable. Feminism had to start somewhere and starting with the already moneyed and educated has a certain logic. Still I couldn’t help observing that the women in her stories generally had positions fortunate enough to give them options beyond those their men offered them.

One final quote.

Mollie was “true to type.” She was a beautiful instance of what is reverentially called “a true woman.” Little, of course – no true woman may be big. Pretty, of course – no true woman could possibly be plain. Whimsical, capricious, charming, changeable, devoted to pretty clothes and always “wearing them well,” as the esoteric phrase has it. (This does not refer to the clothes – they do not wear well in the least – but to some special grace of putting them on and carrying them about, granted to but few, it appears.)

What’s depressing in that quote (taken from probably the weakest story of the collection, If I Were a Man) is how much of it remains relevant after so much time has passed. One story refers to how women in another state now have the vote. Progress there has been made. On the domestic front though far too much of this collection still stirs a degree of recognition.

The Yellow Wallpaper. Alternatively, as it’s out of copyright, the title story can be found online here . That second link leads to what I suspect may be the original version, as it uses her married name rather than her maiden name which she reverted to. It also comes with illustrations, which for some reason I’m always fond of in a book.


Filed under 19th Century, Gilman, Charlotte Perkins