1984, George Orwell

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That I have reviewed two classics one after the other (Pride and Prejudice and 1984) is just a coincidence based on what audiobooks become available at my local library, but if I had the chance, classics would be all I read. And some new releases I suppose, one must ‘keep up’. Of course I’ve read them both before, but that’s why they’re classics – they stand, demand even, re-reading.

I pick up Orwells as a matter of course whenever I see them second hand and in looking for my copy of 1984 for this review I see I have a a few yet to be read – The Unknown Orwell, A Clergyman’s Daughter, Collected Essays, The Road to Wigan Pier, Coming up for Air – so expect some more reviews.

As a young man growing up, 1984 was in the distant future, a dystopia hanging over us in a way that is difficult to explain now that it is so far in the past. Later,  we congratulated ourselves that we had dodged a bullet, but what shocked me on this re-reading was Orwell’s prescience. The Introduction to my edition points out how many concepts from 1984 almost immediately entered the language:

… in common use by people who have never read the book – for example Newspeak, thought-crime, Big Brother, unperson, doublethink – most relate to the power of the state to bend reality.

These concepts, and particularly doublethink, “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them”, are at the core of right wing orthodoxy today.

1984 was Orwell’s last work, written in the immediate aftermath of WWII. The right, of course, promptly adopted it as an attack on Stalinism, which indeed it was, while ignoring any meaning it might have for their own tendency to totalitariansim. Orwell’s anti-Stalinism was not anti-communism, though the right and their fellow travellers in the ‘centre’ like to conflate the two. Orwell was clearly of the far left, he admired the anarchists in Spain, though he chose to fight with POUM who were basically Trotskyite (my review of Homage to Catalonia). The Republicans probably lost the war in Spain because the Soviet-supported Communists were as dedicated to defeating POUM as they were to combatting Franco. When the Republican government rounded up the leadership of POUM, Orwell was lucky to escape with his life, and this of course informs 1984, where the ruling Party is led by the Stalin figure, Big Brother and the shadowy opposition by Goldstein, clearly standing for Trotsky.

For a novel of such universal themes 1984 is suprisingly provincial. The ‘world’ it describes is the drab, post-war London of socialism, shortages and rationing. The world is divided into three blocs who have fought themselves to a stalemate. England belongs to the Oceania bloc of Great Britain, North America, South Africa and Australia, but Orwell makes no attempt to explain how English socialism prevails over US capitalism, nor how the UK is never overrun by Eurasia (Europe/Russia/South Asia).

Society is divided into Inner Party (Ruling Class), Outer Party (Middle Class) and Proles. The Inner Party rules by doing its best to prevent casual sex, channelling the resultant sexual frustration into political hysteria, with cameras and microphones everywhere so that the Thought Police may monitor every person’s activities, and children encouraged to report on their parents.

London today has an ‘Orwellian’ 500,000 cctv cameras in public spaces, though they’re probably not as informative as our communications and search records, with computer algorithms taking the place of the Ministries of Love and Truth in analysing and storing the resultant data, all available to the government and the police at the push of a button (or to you, if you want to watch, here).

At the core of the story is 39 year old Winston Smith, a minor bureaucrat whose job is to rewrite past newspaper reports so that they do not contradict current ‘truths’. Smith, who has one failed marriage behind him, lives a lonely and largely sexless life, though he did once give in to a hideously painted prole prostitute (for a socialist, Orwell is very ambivalent about the Proles). Smith is discontented with his life and has begun writing down anti-State thoughts in a journal he found in a junk shop. He becomes aware at work of a younger woman who appears to be paying him some attention. Although at first he fears she may be an informer for the Thought Police, he meets her and they become lovers, meeting first in parks then in a room he rents above the junk shop.

When they are, inevitably, betrayed the novel follows two courses, the Political and the Personal. Smith undergoes months of imprisonment, torture and indocrination to force him not just to agree with the Party, to engage in doublethink whenever he thinks he knows two facts which are at odds, but to internalise his agreement, to love Big Brother.

The Personal, the horrors of Room 101 which force Smith to disavow his feelings for Julia, his lover are well known, and anyway, as with many dystopian works, are merely a vehicle for the real message.

It’s clear that Orwell’s cynicism about ‘truth’ or about our leaders telling us the truth was a direct result of his participation in the war in Spain. In Looking Back on the Spanish War he writes,

As far as the mass of the people go, the extraordinary swings of opinion which occur nowadays, the emotions which can be turned on and off like a tap, are the result of newspaper and radio hypnosis. In the intelligentsia I should say they rather result from money and mere physical safety. At a given moment they may be ‘pro-war’ or ‘anti-war’, but in either case they have no realistic picture of war in their minds.

As a participant, he was able to make the comparisons first-hand between what was happening in Spain and what was reported in European newspapers:

I saw great battles reported where there was no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed… I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various ‘party lines’…

This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. After all, the chances are that those lies, or at any rate similar lies, will pass into history.

The middle part of the book is taken up with Smith reading a critique of the Party, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, by the rebel leader Goldstein, a pretence to get us to absorb a lot of Newspeak and Doublethink theory.

The war between the blocs is explained as very little to do about territory gained and lost, and all to do with motivating members to unquestioningly support the Party – reprising the anarchist argument War is the Health of the State. In reality –

the war is waged by each ruling group against its own subjects, and the object of the war is not to make or prevent conquests of territory, but to keep the structure of society intact.

I won’t take the theory lesson much further except to point out the almost exact parallels between the orthodoxy required by the Party in 1984 and the contortions of apparently intelligent people on the right of politics today to hold, and to insist that we also hold, beliefs that are completely at odds with what we, and they, know to be true.

To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies – all this is indispensably necessary.

Does that sound like Creationism to you? Does that sound like Climate-Change denialism? Like the arguments in favour of invading Iraq? Of course it does, because that’s how those in power work, in Orwell’s time, in our time.

 

 

George Orwell, 1984, first pub. 1949. My copy (not pictured above) Penguin 1989 with Introduction by Dr Peter Davison [I sourced the illustration from another blog (here) but couldn’t identify the illustrator. Tetiana Aleksina who often ‘likes’ my excursions into SF might have more info.]

George Orwell, Looking Back on the Spanish War, written 1943, first pub. 1953. Published with Homage to Catalonia, 1968.

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Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen

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In her biography of Elizabeth Macarthur (review) Michelle Scott Tucker makes the point that Elizabeth, who grew up at about the same time as and in similar circumstances to Jane Austen, was an Elizabeth Bennet who married a Wickham rather than a Darcy. I was thinking about that as I listened to P&P this week, my nth re-reading since high school, in preparation for arguing the case that Elizabeth (Bennet) should have married not Wickham, nor Darcy, but Mr Collins.

Jane Austen was born in 1775 (Eliz.Macarthur in 1766) and Pride & Prejudice was first offered to a publisher in 1797. Elizabeth Bennet is 20 or 21 and we can assume that the year in which the story takes place is about 1795. At that time Napoleon was at war with Austria and Prussia (timeline) but not with England. I don’t know my English history well enough to know why England had a standing militia – Wickham is of course in the county militia – but perhaps in preparation for the war with France which was finally declared in 1803. The previous (English) war, as far as I know was the American War of Independence (1775-83) in which the young John Macarthur fought before joining the NSW Corp and sailing in the Second Fleet, which left England for NSW in 1789.

I wanted to establish that to make clear that there was no reason for an unusual shortage of husbands at the time of P&P as there may have been 20 years later after Wellington’s campaigns in Spain and then Waterloo. Also, we (readers of Georgian romance) tend to regard the prospects of younger sons as entirely hopeless, but in fact we know – and the story of the Macarthurs is an example – that there were considerable opportunities throughout the New World.

Jane Austen and her older sister Cassandra both had chances or half chances to marry but appear to have preferred to withdraw from the marriage market and to live together with their mother, and while he was alive, their father. This is not an option Austen allows her heroines, all of whom marry for love, and if not all of them marry into prosperity as Elizabeth and Jane Bennet do, then at least into comfortable livings.

Jane’s father retired in 1801 and died in 1805, leaving Mrs Austen, Cassandra and Jane in straitened circumstances for four years until Edward Knight (Jane’s brother) offered them a house on his estate at Chawton. How predictable this was a decade earlier when P&P was written I’m not sure, but the situation of Mrs Bennet and her daughters is more or less identical – that they would be homeless and almost without income when Mr Bennet died. And it must have been something Jane was thinking about because it was also the situation of Mrs Dashwood and her daughters in Sense & Sensibility, for which there was a first draft by 1800.

So the big question is why does Elizabeth reject security not just for herself but for her mother and sisters, when it is offered by Mr Collins. Charlotte Lucas, six years older than Elizabeth and all qualms quashed by impending spinsterhood, sees exactly what Mr Collins is offering and has no hesitation in seizing it.

When Elizabeth refuses Mr Collins her father famously says:

An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents – Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.

Then, near the end, after Mr Darcy has offered for Elizabeth, her father says more seriously:

I know your disposition, Lizzy. I know that you could be neither happy nor respectable, unless you truly esteemed your husband; unless you looked up to him as a superior. Your lively talents would place you in the greatest danger in an unequal marriage. You could scarcely escape discredit and misery. My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life. You know not what you are about.

So clearly, Mr Bennet favours Elizabeth waiting for Mr Right, and we can guess that his sentiments are those of the author. Austen in her own life seems to have chosen poverty ahead of marriage, and in P&P she has both Jane and Elizabeth run the risk of certain poverty (on the eventual death of their father) while holding out for improbable suitors – Jane and Mr Bingley are at least of the same class, if of unequal wealth, but Mr Darcy is another step up again.

There are many reasons to read Jane Austen, and one of mine, the principal one even, is my enjoyment of the romances. But these romances are just that, romantic, and gloss over the realities of life for genteel women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Women were dependent, on their fathers, on the generosity of the head of their wider family, and ultimately on their husbands. Even if they brought wealth into a marriage, they did not retain or control it.

Austen barely introduces us to any of the militia other than Wickham, who of course proves unsuitable, but what I was attempting to tease out in my opening paras was that if Elizabeth had found an officer she liked – and her younger sisters certainly found plenty to choose from – and was prepared to start out relatively humbly, then she may have eventually found some comfort as an officer’s wife. But Austen does not make this an option.

The option she does offer Elizabeth – if we allow that at the time of Mr Collins’ visit Jane’s expectations of Mr Bingley were worth holding out for –  is vastly superior – a husband with a good living at Rosings and the certainty of inheriting her father’s estate, and with it the opportunity to provide an ongoing home for her mother and those of her sisters who had not married. That’s why I say Elizabeth has a duty to accept Mr Collins, not just to secure her own future, but also that of her mother and sisters.

 

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, first pub. 1813, version reviewed published by Audiogo, read by Lindsay Duncan

Other Austen-related posts –

Mothers of the Novel, Dale Spender, here
Evelina, Fanny Burney, here
Sense and Sensibility, here
Three Novels, Jane Austen, here
Love and Freindship, here
Jane Austen: Independent Woman, here
Jane’s Fame, Claire Harman, here
Sue at Whispering Gums, here

Aphra Behn

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For some reason the writers of my childhood, all British of course, all regarded being ruled by Kings as natural, desirable and romantic and being ruled by themselves as unthinkable, and this was particularly the case in relation to the English Civil War (1642-1651). I’m thinking of Children of the New Forest, all those Bonnie Prince Charlie stories, and the execrable Scarlet Pimpernel, which we were expected to read (uncritically!) in high school. I’m proud to say that I was an unnatural child and took the side of Cromwell and Robespierre, and of even more obscure figures like Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers.

Which is by way of coming to Aphra Behn (1640-1689) who was a novelist, a feminist and, sadly, a royalist.

I am of course slowly(!) making my way through Dale Spender’s Mothers of the Novel. At this rate WG will be able to start her reading some time next year and still beat me to the end. Spender writes that when she started Mothers she thought she would find that Behn was the first woman writer, but as we saw in an earlier post she was able to push that honour back another half century, to Mary Wroth and Margaret Cavendish. Spender still claims that Behn was the first woman to earn her living by writing, but she also makes that claim for Wroth.

Excesses of all kinds were forbidden during the Commonwealth, but the opposite was true under Charles II following the Restoration in 1660. Theatre flourished –

The popularity of the stage and the revitalisation of drama – and ‘immoral’ and bawdy drama at that – reflected the shift in interest and taste, and suggested new realms of literary possibility.

Aphra Behn’s writing reflects these times and mores, but Spender argues that ‘immorality’ also gave the male literary establishment the fig leaf it needed to ignore her. So, despite her 13 novels (and reams of plays and poetry), Daniel Defoe who wrote Robinson Crusoe 30 years later, is generally credited with the invention of the novel. Behn was also accused of having no Latin or Greek, but as she herself pointed out, neither did Shakespeare.

Behn’s early life is unknown but it seems she sailed to Suriname in the West Indies – the setting for her most famous work, Oroonoko – in the late 1650s or early 1660s; returned to London in 1664; married Mr Behn, a merchant who died or departed soon after; was a spy for Charles in the Netherlands in 1666; incurred debts for which she was briefly imprisoned; began writing poetry and then comic verse plays, the first of which, Forc’d Marriage was produced in 1670.

She turned to writing novels after wearing out her welcome in the theatre – her plays often attacked prominent Whigs (politicians seeking to impose limits on the power of the King). Spender says this was a natural progression as there were only two playhouses in London, so limited opportunities for production, and dramas were often circulated as scripts.

This meant that Aphra Behn was quite used to thinking of the presentation of her dramatic stories in printed form. It also meant that the reading public had been prepared for prose stories in print through their familiarity with published plays.

Behn was a successful professional writer who both anticipated the desire of her public for bawdy romantic comedies and was still able to present the issues that interested her – the abolition of slavery, the lives of ordinary people, and a woman’s perspective on relationships rather than deeds.

 With her representation of the world which is distinctly not that of the dominant sex, Aphra Behn symbolises the nature and extent of the omissions while women are excluded from the literary canon. In her choice of subject matter, her commentary, and her style, she illustrates some of the differences in outlook between women and men; even her sense of humour – which frequently makes men the butt of the joke – contrasts markedly to the forms to which we are accustomed, and in which it is the humour of men that prevails.

Spender gets angry a lot. Justifiably I know, but wearing.

… when Aphra Behn became the first woman to seek commercial publication, she plunged right into the problem that has plagued women writers ever since. The problem of having to obtain the approval of men.

Behn believed and wrote “that justice called for a single moral standard for both sexes”, but remained aware that men’s occupation was obtaining a paid place in the world, while women’s was obtaining a man who could support them. Spender does not say “Behn’s first novel was …” but provides a list of works by and about her which goes on for two and a half pages. From it I gleaned that her novels were –

The Adventures of the Black Lady (1684)
Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave, a True History (1688)
Agnes de Castro, or The Force of Generous Love (1688)
The Fair Jilt, or The History of Prince Tarquin and Miranda (1688)
The Unfortunate Bride, or The Blind Lady a Beauty (1688)
The Lucky Mistake (1689)

The Novels of Aphra Behn (1905) includes all the above plus –

The Nun
The Lover’s Watch
The Case for the Watch
The Lady’s Looking Glass to Dress Herself By
The Lucky Mistake
The Court of the King of Bantam

That’s twelve novels, Britannica adds –

Love Letters Between a Nobleman and his Sister (1683) an epistolary novel of which Spender writes “Attributed to Aphra Behn, but not included in her ‘Works'”.

The first Collected Novels (with a Life) came out in 1696 and others subsequently in 1771, 1886 and 1905, so I’m not sure how Behn managed to be omitted from the canon. Wilful blindness probably, as in Australia with Spence, Praed, Cambridge, Martin. Vita Sackville West wrote a biography in 1927 – Aphra Behn, The Incomparable Astrea – and Virginia Woolf wrote glowingly of Behn in A Room of Ones Own (1928).

The Nun may in fact be two novels – The Nun, or The Perjured Beauty and The Nun, or The Fair Vow-breaker – they, along with The Fair Jilt, portray convents as little more than brothels and are, according to Spender, laugh out loud funny.

Oroonoko, a short novel which was also made into a popular play, draws on Behn’s experience of Suriname (sometimes disputed but almost certainly genuine) with detailed descriptions of flora, fauna and scenery. Oroonoko had been a prince in Africa, he and his wife are enslaved and transported. He escapes, kills his wife rather than allow her to be tortured, is captured and hacked to death (So no happy ending, then!). Sackville-West suggested, “Oroonoko resembles those seventeenth century paintings of negroes in plumes and satins, rather than an actual slave on a practical plantation.” But,” Spender writes, “nonetheless we are provided with a horrific portrayal of slavery. There is no doubt we are intended to deplore its practices.”

Project Gutenberg (here) has the works of Aphra Benn in six volumes plus Love Letters. Looking on Goodreads, Penguin Classics has published at least Oroonoko and Love Letters.

 

Dale Spender, Mothers of the Novel, Pandora, London, 1986

Mothers of the Novel, Dale Spender

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My understanding, prior to today, of the history of English Lit. goes like this:

Greeks & Romans
The Bible in Greek, Latin and Hebrew
The Dark Ages
Beowulf (975-1025)
Piers Ploughman (1370), William Langland
The Canterbury Tales (1387), Geoffrey Chaucer
Gutenberg’s moveable type printing press (1440)
The Bible in English
Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Jane Austen (1775-1817)

Walter Allen in The English Novel: a Short Critical History (1951) writes “The comparatively sudden appearance at the turn of the seventeenth century of the novel as we know it was a manifestation of a marked change in men’s interests.” Dale Spender is nothing if not a feminist and you can imagine how this gets up her nose!

The subtitle of Spender’s Mothers of the Novel (1986) is ‘100 good women writers before Jane Austen’ and Spender’s intention is to demonstrate the influence on the early development of the novel of women, who were then and I am sure are often now, completely ignored by the literary establishment, not least of course by Allen. I have in previous posts discussed male writers and essayists (here) who influenced Jane Austen, and I have also started working backwards, with a review of Austen’s immediate predecessor, Fanny Burney’s Evelina (here).

I won’t say much about the list above. Beowulf, which begins, “Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,/þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,/hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon”, I know only from seeing in Campus Lit that real lit. students had to study it. Piers Ploughman and The Canterbury Tales I owned and read in my (Engineering) student days. English translations of the Bible were mandated by Henry VIII in 1539 (see for instance my review of The Taming of the Queen, Phillipa Gregory (here)).

Shakespeare is credited by Allen with the introduction into literature of fiction, by which he means the telling of made-up stories in current settings.

Then there is Jane Austen from whom the modern novel sprung fully formed.

On reflection I might add John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) and Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (1719) which Allen regards as the modern novel’s immediate predecessors. Alongside Shakespeare there were poet/dramatists Ben Jonson (1572-1637) and Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593). Samuel Pepys was a bit later and his Diary (1660-1669) wasn’t published until the C19th.

Spender begins her account of the rise of the novel with Sir Philip Sidney’s pastoral romance Arcadia (1590). Sidney was another contemporary of Shakespeare’s and Shakespeare drew on Arcadia for the Gloucester subplot of King Lear (wiki). This brings up two issues, firstly that ‘pastoral romances’ were fictions carefully avoiding any connection with current times (longer definition below); and secondly that writers routinely used each other’s plots, writing variations on a theme so to speak, which is why there is so much material for the ‘who wrote Shakespeare?’ crowd.

The first of Spender’s 100 is Sidney’s niece, Lady Mary Wroath (1587-1652) who wrote Urania (1621), a variation on Arcadia with significantly stronger female figures. Also, for the first time –

Realism intrudes: and it is not just the realism of content. Wroath also introduces dialogue … and it is impressive and realistic dialogue… One of the responses to Urania … was widespread discussion among writers and readers about who these realistic characters really were.

Lady Mary Wroath (or Wroth) was clearly the first woman to write with the intention of being published, and the first to write for money, her husband having died in 1614  leaving her destitute. She was also a notable poet. See for yourself, Latrobe Uni have published transcribed and modernized versions of her poetry side by side (here).

Spender goes on to discuss – and I’m only talking about Spender’s first three chapters for the time being, there’s already too much to write about – Anne Weamys who wrote A Continuation of Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1651); Katherine Philips, one of a number of women who wrote poetry privately but was published posthumously; Anne Clifford, Lucy Hutchison and Anne Fanshawe who wrote biographies of their husbands, to assert claims arising out of the disruption of the Civil War or just for family information; and Margaret Cavendish.

… if there is to be one woman singled out to represent the starting point of women’s entry to the world of letters, it must be Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1624-1674). She wrote and she wrote; she wrote poetry, prose, philosophy; she wrote about people and she wrote about science…

She wanted to be a writer, a serious writer, and a recognised writer, and because she did not shrink from public view, because she unashamedly sought publication and wasted not one whit of her time in trying to preserve or protect her reputation, she encountered the most savage and sneering response that society could devise. She was called ‘Mad Madge’ for her literary efforts and was publicly mocked and ridiculed.

Margaret Cavendish was a feminist who reflected at length on the position of women and the power of men.

She had, writes Spender, to invent many of the genres of writing (including SF!) which are today taken for granted, and was as well or better known as a writer in her own time than all the men cited by Allen.

The exclusion of women from the literary heritage has not been confined to efforts to keep them out of print but has extended to keep them out of consideration even when they are in print.

Spender is a fierce feminist, and Mothers of the Novel is a polemic, well argued and bursting with the stories of previously unacknowledged women writers.


Spender writes of the literature Mary Wroath would have grown up with –

Any reading for leisure or pleasure would have consisted of versions of the classics with their heroes (and occasional heroines) of antiquity, or pastoral romances, based on conventions of courtly love, and which were unrealistic, highly extravagant and affected affairs, such as those written by Marie de France in the twelfth century …

Apart from the more imaginative offerings (some would say fantastical offerings) of the pastoral romance – where romantically named shepherds and shepherdesses [who mostly proved to be princes and princesses in disguise] gambolled in exotic surrounds and obeyed the ritualistic dictates of love, compounded by mistaken identities – there were also … sermons, tracts and ‘philosophies’ which were associated with education.


Venturing down yet another rabbit hole: Marie de France who is not otherwise mentioned by Spender was a poet of the C12th whose life is completely unknown except from her surviving work. She may have been French, but then so was the whole English court (of Henry II). She was a “creator of verse narratives on romantic and magical themes that perhaps inspired the musical lais of the later trouvères, and author of Aesopic and other fables, called Ysopets. Her works, of considerable charm and talent, were probably written in England” (Britannica).


 

Dale Spender, Mothers of the Novel, Pandora, London, 1986

Further reading:

Mary Wroth, The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania (Abridged with modern spelling), 2016  (buy it here)
Margaret Cavendish, [her ‘science fiction’ classic] The Blazing World, 1668. Project Gutenberg, 2016 (here)
Myra Reynolds, The Learned Lady in England, 1650-1760, Project Gutenberg, 2015 (here)
Aurélie Griffin, Mary Wroth’s Urania and the Editorial Debate over Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, Études Épistémè [Online], 22 | 2012 (here)

Evelina, Fanny Burney

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Frances “Fanny” Burney (1752-1840) can be regarded as Jane Austen’s immediate predecessor as a novelist, and she in turn cites as a major influence Eliza Haywood (1693-1756) and in particular her The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless (1751):

… a sophisticated, multi-plot novel that has been deemed the first novel of female development in English. Betsy leaves her emotionally and financially abusive husband … and experiences independence for a time before she decides to marry again (Wiki).

Dale Spender has established that Austen was in fact preceded by 100 women novelists commencing with Lady Mary Wroth in the C16th (though all the credit is given to five men) so I have plenty more reading to do, not least Spender’s Mothers of the Novel.

Evelina (1778) was the first of Burney’s four novels, the others being Cecilia (1782), Camilla (1796) and The Wanderer (1814). She also wrote a number of plays but for a long time was best known for her letters and journals under her married name Madame D’Arblay. By comparison, Jane Austen began writing around 1790 when she was 15 and all her six novels were published in the years 1811-1815. Austen admired Burney and was a ‘subscriber’ to Camilla.

Burney was English, from Kings Lynne in Norfolk, but her mother who died when Fanny was 10, was French. This feeds into Evelina – and I admit I had to look this up to get it right: Evelina’s guardian, Mr Villars, a country clergyman, had been tutor/guardian to Evelina’s mother Caroline and, before her, to Caroline’s father, Mr Evelyn who married a French barmaid, Madame Duval. On his death two years later Mme Duval took charge of Evelyn’s fortune but relinquished Caroline to Villars. Caroline at 18 married Sir John Belmont, who on learning that she had no access to her father’s fortune abandoned her and burnt their marriage certificate. Caroline died in childbirth and Evelina was raised by Villars. So both the author and her heroine are motherless and with a French background.

The novel begins with Evelina aged 17. Mme Duval has written that she is coming over from Paris to take charge of her and to force Belmont to acknowledge that Evelina is his child, and therefore his heir. A Lady Howard and her daughter Mrs Mirvan are involved somehow and Villars reluctantly allows Evelina to stay with Lady Howard and then to accompany the Mirvans, including their daughter Maria who is Evelina’s age, to London.

As were Austen’s unpublished (till much later) earlier works, this is a story told in letters, initially between Mr Villars and Lady Howard, but subsequently mostly from Evelina to Villars and Maria describing her experiences. The tension in the novel – and I should be clear that I found it immensely enjoyable – arises firstly from Evelina’s beauty and demure deportment which men find irresistible, and secondly from the vulgar Mme Duval’s arrival in England and her ability to assert her authority as Evelina’s proper guardian over Evelina’s preference to remain in the country with Mr Villars.

Burney uses Evelina not just to tell a coming of age story, and to describe in some detail the entertainments available in London at the end of the C18th, but also to discuss in a more frank way than Austen (due to her greater personal experience?) the various levels of middle class society: “To draw characters from nature, though not from life, and to mark the manners of the times”.

We attend concerts, operas, plays, fireworks displays, displays of mechanical curiosities and walk in various gardens. Mme Duval’s nearest relations are wealthy silversmiths, but still vulgar, when they meet a Lord they tout for business. The men Evelina meets are quite often literally rapacious and must be restrained from dragging her off into the undergrowth. Whether this is intended as a cautionary tale for unprotected females or is an accurate description of London life after dark (and not always after dark) I cannot tell. Of course she also meets one very courteous young Lord, and inevitably falls in love. By the 75% mark they are getting along handsomely at a country retreat near Bristol. I’ll read on but say no more.

I find I am becoming decided in my preference for reading over reviewing, for which as a reviewer I apologise, but the taking of notes interferes with my enjoyment of the work. Nevertheless, I paused at this point long enough to record this exchange between Evelina’s current companion Mrs Selwyn and a young nobleman:

“But, did you study politics at school, and at the university?”

“At the university!” repeated he, with an embarrassed look; “why as to that, Ma’am, no, I can’t say I did; but then with riding, -and -and so forth, really, one has not much time, even at the university, for mere reading.”

“But, to be sure, Sir, you have read the classics?”

“O dear, yes, Ma’am!, but not very -not very lately.” (Loc. 4339)

Sounds like my sort of university!

Evelina, although her fortune is uncertain has been brought up as a gentlewoman: educated, moral and thoughtful – a very recognisable type for at least another century, in the novels of Austen, Mrs Gaskell, or in Australia, Catherine Martin and Ada Cambridge for instance.

What is striking though is the environment in which the author places her, amongst distant relatives a number of social levels below her, and in situations where a single woman without fortune or family is openly treated as prey. One “well bred” young knight spends nearly the whole course of the novel, wooing her, dragging her into corners, blocking her way, talking over her protests and generally pawing her in a vain attempt to make her his mistress. And at night in the streets and in entertainment precincts she is followed and in one case surrounded by young men who believe they can rape her with impunity.

By the time we came near the end [of the poorly lit walk], a large party of gentlemen, apparently very riotous, and who were hallooing, leaning on one another, and laughing immoderately, seemed to rush suddenly from behind some trees, and meeting us face to face, put their arms at their sides, and formed a kind of circle, which first stopped our proceeding, and then our retreating, for we were presently entirely enclosed. The Miss Brangtons screamed aloud, and I was frightened exceedingly; our screams were answered with bursts of laughter, and for some minutes we were kept prisoners, till at last one of them, rudely seizing hold of me, said I was a pretty little creature. (loc. 2951)

Her grandmother treats her protests with scorn and her friend, Maria’s father, a sea captain, speaks and behaves coarsely and commits assaults on Mme Duval and later, on a young nobleman, in the pretence that they are practical jokes. Of course this may just be a clumsy attempt at slapstick or the author poking fun at French women and sea captains. From this distance it is impossible to tell.

Burney’s writing is not as precise as Austen’s but it is nevertheless very good, and the story immensely entertaining without ever resorting to any of the “robbers, smugglers, bailiffs, caverns, dungeons, and mad-houses” said by Walter Scott to characterise the earliest novels. It both improved my understanding of Austen and was worth reading in its own right.

 

Fanny Burney, Evelina, First pub. 1778. My version, Project Guthenberg (for Kindle) here
Audiobook available from Audible (cover above) or free from Librivox

Ice, Anna Kavan

Ice

“Few novelists match the intensity of her vision,” JG Ballard
“There is nothing else quite like Ice,” Doris Lessing

Ice was first published in 1967 and republished in the Penguin Classics edition above in  2017. The sticker on the back indicates I bought it new though I don’t remember why, perhaps it was those testimonials from two of my all-time favourite writers.

Kavan, born Helen Emily Woods in 1901 (in France to English parents) had a troubled life. Her father suicided when she was 10, her mother married her off to her (mother’s) lover. She began writing in her twenties and published first under her (first) married name Helen Ferguson before legally adopting the name Anna Kavan, and changing her hair from brunette to ice blonde, in 1940. She had multiple hospitalizations for depression and a lifelong heroin addiction (wiki). She has a considerable body of increasingly experimental work to her credit. Ice was the last work published before her death in 1968.

1967 was the year of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, the Monterey Pop Festival, The Ticket that Exploded, Ballard and Lessing were both established writers, I was a year or so away from university and already started on the edgy science fiction of Phillip K Dick, John Sladek and Robert Sheckley. The USA and the USSR were held back from annihilating each other and us all only by the certainty of MAD.  France was testing nuclear weapons at Mururoa.

This is the context that produced Ice.

The world is coming to an end as nuclear winter leads to walls of ice converging from the poles towards the equator. As individual countries break down into lawlessness our protagonist, a guy, seeks his old love, an ice blonde wraith who is currently living with his rival. In sunshine he makes his way to their retreat in the country. His rival stands back, is condescending. She doesn’t trust him, turns away when he approaches, chooses to stay. As he leaves, snow begins to fall. He knows the girl’s relationship with his rival is abusive.

She goes abroad, or is taken – it feels like from England to Norway, but nowhere, no-one is named. He makes his way by sea to the northern country where the girl is with/being held by the Warden, his rival, the local military commander. Social structures are collapsing as the ice approaches.

The whole short novel, 180pp, a fable Kavan said later in answer to criticisms that it has no plot, is a dream/nightmare as the protagonist braves ice and war to get near Her only to lose out and have to restart as his rival becomes increasingly powerful in regional and then world terms. As with any dream, we proceed in discontinuous fragments. She is consumed by ice, by marauders, is sacrificed to a dragon

Armed men came up, pushed me back, seized her by her frail shoulders. Big tears fell from her eyes like icicles, like diamonds, but I was unmoved. They did not seem to me like real tears. She herself did not seem quite real. She was pale and almost transparent, the victim I used for my own enjoyment in dreams… The men did not wait any longer but hurled her down, her last pathetic scream trailing after her.

As with Ballard, the post-apocalyptic world is just a backdrop for the disintegration of the protagonist. The real theme of the novel is that the woman fears her rescuer, fears most of all that if she trusts him he will let her down. Even when he does at last rescue her, takes her to a Pacific island, she turns away from him, tells him to leave, and when he does, takes that as proof that she must not rely on him. Been there!

The guy leaves, fights a few wars, meets up with his rival, now Supreme General, has a change of heart and fights his way back to Her. The ice has nearly reached the Equator. He persuades her to ‘escape’ with him. There will be no escape.

The point is that the girl is a victim:

Fear was the climate she lived in; if she had ever known kindness it would have been different… All her life she had thought of herself as a foredoomed victim.

Systematic bullying when she was most vulnerable had distorted the structure of her personality, made a victim of her, to be destroyed, either by things or by human beings, people or fjords and forests; it made no difference, in any case she could not escape.

This is Kavan writing out her pain. Ignore the male protagonist, he is not Kavan’s focus, merely the instrument of the girl’s suffering, her suffering. Ignore the SF, Kavan just needed a setting to explore victimhood and nuclear winter was topical. I have not read Kavan before, now I am interested to know if Acker or Ettler did. Kavan seems like a precursor. The results of Googling ‘Anna Kavan Kathy Acker’ suggests that others have had the same thought.

 

Anna Kavan, Ice, Peter Owen, London, 1967, Repub. Penguin, 2016

 

 

 

 

Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen

Brona’s Books: Austen in August

Image result for sense and sensibility audiobook

Some impressions on re-reading (listening to) for the nth time the great Jane Austen.

I don’t remember all the books that were set for English Expression in my matric year – Martin Boyd, A Difficult Young Man; Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh; Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice are the three that stand out. Of the others, there were eleven in all I think, three were American which for confused political reasons I refused to read, and three were Russian which I didn’t read because I wasn’t reading the Americans (I said I was confused). The night before the exam I sat up in bed and re-read P&P just for the pleasure of the love story and I’ve read and re-read Austen ever since.

If you’re wondering, I failed Eng Exp, but seeing as I got firsts in Physics, Chemistry and Pure Maths, Melb Uni Engineering didn’t care, Trinity College didn’t care, and the headmaster of Mudsville High, Mudsville, Western Victoria had an excuse not to make me dux, so everyone was happy (except my father, so win-win all round really).

1. Why do I and so many others read and re-read Austen? I’ve already said I’m a sucker for a classic love story, so that’s no.1; then there’s the precise, spare writing; the sly wit. After that, as we get to know Austen better, some of you will say characters we love. I don’t really, though I have a soft spot for Lydia and Mrs Bennet (In high school I totally identified with Mr Bennet); then there are themes, descriptions, issues – there’s always something.

2. Sense and Sensibility was the first of Austen’s novels published, in 1811 when the author was 35. The first draft had been completed as early as 1800 so, under the title Elinor and Marianne, it had circulated amongst her family and friends – effectively been workshopped – for more than a decade. This of course allowed her to refine her language and her plot but also gave her freedom to experiment and, I think, to play up to her audience, to include jokes about pet topics.

3. It is an opinion generally held held and easily supported that the theme of S&S is the advantages of one and the ridiculousness of the other. The cult of sensibility which obtained amongst young women of refinement prevailed from Regency times right up to the turn of the Twentieth Century. It wasn’t just tight corsets making women swoon, it was the idea propagated by novels that the correct response, for a woman, to any adverse turn of affairs was firstly an excess of emotion, and secondly to fall down unconscious. Austen’s earliest long fiction, Love & Freindship (here), is a spoof on young women in novels and this carries over into S&S. It’s interesting that Elinor who throughout the novel is the embodiment of sense, is finally allowed when she learns that her lover is free, to give into sensibility, albeit behind closed doors.

4. I have not seen it discussed elsewhere but we should at least consider S&S as YA. Elinor and Marianne are respectively 19 and 16. Austen repeatedly makes fun of Marianne’s opinions which are fixed in a way that only teenagers’ are. We, the older reader, don’t ever really believe that Marianne won’t grow out of her tremendous distress at the failure of her first love affair. And we feel for Elinor who must deny her own feelings and act beyond her years to support her sister in the physical/emotional absence of their mother.

5. The two principal young men, the sisters’ love interests, both behave very badly, lying directly or by omission about prior commitments. Austen I think lets them both off lightly. Willoughby, whose belated apology is long, tedious and unnecessary to the plot, gets some undeserved sympathy from Elinor – undeserved but believable. I have daughters, I know how they respond to D & Ms. I’m not sure Edward even apologizes, he is freed when Lucy runs off with his brother and promptly rides to claim Elinor whom he had no right making up to in the first place.

6. This reading, by Sarah Badel for the BBC, reflects something I often think about when I’m reading/listening to/watching Austen and that is I think that our own social crawler instincts – our willingness to accept the gentry’s evaluation of ‘nouveaus’ – end up making some characters more vulgar than Austen intended. This dates back at least to the Olivier P&P (movie) where Mrs Bennet is portrayed as out of her depth in ‘polite’ society and Mr Bennet, as shamed and mocking where I think Austen intended him to be amused and tolerant.

All this gets back to class. Walter Scott wrote at the time (here):

… the author of Emma confines herself chiefly to the middling classes of society; her most distinguished characters do not rise greatly above well-bred country gentlemen and ladies; and those which are sketched with most originality and precision, belong to a class rather below that standard.

To the extent that class analysis is tolerated these days I think that we would grade Austen’s world as ‘upper middle’. Austen did portray a great deal of class mobility, not from the working classes whom she rarely bothers to name (the woman who cares for Marianne when she is ill is “Mrs Jenkins’ maid”), but from the well-off, ordinary middle – people in trade – into the gentry, the idle well-off. That said, I think the Steele sisters, Lucy and Anne, should be seen respectively as grasping and silly rather than lower class.

7. I have not mentioned the funniest and most quoted lines in S&S, as Elinor and Marriane’s sister in law talks their brother down by stages from his original intention to give his sisters a thousand apiece from the money he has inherited from their father, to a general intention to be of assistance to them in finding somewhere else to live; and I’ve probably assumed of my readership a familiarity with Austen which you don’t all have, in which case I apologize and suggest you make up the deficiency immediately.

 

Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, first pub. 1811. Audiobook: BBC Audiobooks, 1996, read by Sarah Badel.

Previous Jane Austen posts –
Three Novels, Jane Austen, here
Love and Freindship, here
Jane Austen: Independent Woman, here
Jane’s Fame, Claire Harman, here
Sue at Whispering Gums, here