Monthly Archives: March 2007

Lady Susan

1127015.gifPosts on Lady Susan aren’t due until tomorrow, but as the Hobgoblin and I are going on a long hike, and I’m not sure I’ll feel like posting when we get back, I’m going to write on it now. I enjoyed this book very much; it was a pleasure to read something by Jane Austen I hadn’t read before. I’m very familiar with her six major novels, but there is still a lot of shorter stuff I haven’t yet gotten to. My edition of Lady Susan includes The Watsons and Sanditon, the first of which I’ve now finished and the last of which I’m going to read next.

I’ve heard many people talk about the limitations of the epistolary form, and it’s probably true that there’s a limited number of things you can do with it, but I do like the form anyway. Perhaps it’s all the reading in the 18C I’ve done, a time when the epistolary novel flourished. What I like about it is the way you can see different versions of a character in the letters written to different audiences, and the way reading an epistolary novel gives one the sense of the importance of words and writing and how people can do battle with language — and other, less violent things, of course. But I think of doing battle with language when I think about Lady Susan, as Susan seems to be at war with much of the world.

Here is what she says in the very first letter of the novel:

I can no longer refuse myself the pleasure of profiting by your kind invitation when we last parted, of spending some weeks with you at Churchill … I impatiently look forward to the hour when I shall be admitted into your delightful retirement.

And this is what she says in the second letter of the novel:

I take town in my way to that insupportable spot, a country village, for I am really going to Churchill. Forgive me, my dear friend, it is my last resource. Were there another place in England open to me, I would prefer it.

Already we know so much about Lady Susan. She presents herself in very different ways in these letters, but even within one letter, her language can be interpreted in multiple ways. She writes the following to her brother-in-law, the owner of Churchill:

I am determined you see, not to be denied admittance at Churchill. It would indeed give me most painful sensations to know that it were not in your power to receive me.

As this is the novel’s first letter, we might interpret this to mean that Lady Susan wants to visit Churchill very much because she is genuinely interested in seeing those who live there, and this is the meaning she expects her brother-in-law to find. Upon knowing something more about Lady Susan, however, we can see that these sentences hint at her real feelings: she must leave her current residence, Langford, home of the Manwarings, because she has gotten herself into trouble there, and if she cannot stay at Churchill, she will experience “painful sensations” because her escape route will be blocked.

It’s this kind of facility with language that makes Lady Susan a very fun heroine — or villain, rather, except that, as Margaret Drabble, author of the introduction to my edition, points out, there really is no satisfactory heroine here, so Lady Susan steals the show. She prides herself on her ability to talk herself into and out of any situation (“If I am vain of anything, it is of my eloquence”); this is how she keeps Reginald, her gullible young admirer, by her side for so long. When Lady Susan can no longer convince people to believe her version of events, the novel ends — there is no more story.

The difference between appearance and reality, and the time and trouble it takes to learn to tell the two apart is a very common plot line in 18C fiction, and Lady Susan has much going for her as she tries to fool nearly everybody. She’s beautiful, and even Mrs. Vernon, her most serious enemy, is susceptible to it:

She is delicately fair, with fine grey eyes and dark eyelashes; and from her appearance one would not suppose her more than five and twenty, though she must in fact be ten years older … Her address to me was so gentle, frank and even affectionate, that if I had not known how much she has always disliked me for marrying Mr Vernon, and that we had never met before, I should have imagined her an attached friend.

Lady Susan is a symptom of a larger problem:

One is apt I believe to connect assurance of manner with coquetry, and to expect that an impudent address will necessarily attend an impudent mind; at least I was myself prepared for an improper degree of confidence in Lady Susan; but her countenance is absolutely sweet, and her voice and manner winningly mild.

We expect people’s insides to match their outsides, in other words — to be beautiful only if their hearts and minds are beautiful, and to act mildly and kindly only if they have mild and kind minds. Someone who combines a beautiful appearance and pleasant manners with lying and deceit is dangerous.

So Lady Susan depends on her pleasing appearance and behavior to keep her out of trouble and to get her whatever she wants. Besides the appearance vs. reality theme, there’s the juxposition in the novel between public reputation and the impression a person makes in private. Lady Susan counts on the power of private impression to overrule reputation; of her enemy Mrs. Vernon she says:

I hope [she is] convinced how little the ungenerous representations of any one to the disadvantage of another will avail, when opposed to the immediate influence of intellect and manner.

The novel shows, however, that reputation does mean something, and that the “ungenerous representations” of Lady Susan are a better source of truth than anything she herself says or does. You are better off trusting public concensus than trusting your own instincts — collective wisdom outweighs the individual’s insights.

Opposed to Lady Susan’s doubleness and deception is her daughter Frederica, whose simplicity Lady Susan cannot stand:

Her feelings are tolerably lively, and she is so charmingly artless in their display, as to afford the most reasonable hope of her being ridiculed and despised by every man who sees her. Artlessness will never do in love matters, and that girl is born a simpleton who has it either by nature or affectation.

Frederica’s artlessness is held up for praise in the novel; her mother’s criticism is a sign that we are to admire her, and yet she is a boring and lifeless character. All the interest in the novel belongs to Lady Susan. So we are left to deplore Lady Susan’s cruelty and deceitfulness, and yet we can’t help but admire her energy and intelligence and, yes, her artfulness and artifice. After all, Lady Susan’s skill with language is a skill she shares with her creator.

If you’d like to join the discussion of Lady Susan, come on over to Metaxu Cafe!

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Recent Acquisitions

This time of year makes me feel so conflicted — it’s beautiful outside and I’m happy about that, but it’s one of the busiest times of the academic year as the semester gets near the end (it’s not nearly close enough though), and that makes me feel tired and listless. I can’t go outside because I have so much work to do, but I can’t seem to bring myself to do my work …

Anyway, in this post, I’ll console myself by thinking about the books I’ve acquired recently that I’ll be able to read soon enough — maybe before the semester is over, but if not, certainly after.

  • I’ve got Adam Sisman’s Boswell’s Presumptuous Task on the way from Book Mooch — this comes highly recommended by bloggers, so I’m looking forward to it, and it’s the perfect follow-up to reading Boswell’s Life, of course, as it tells the story of how the Life got written.
  • Also through Book Mooch, I recently received John Brewer’s A Sentimental Murder: Love and Madness in the Eighteenth Century. Isn’t that a great title? Sandra wrote so eloquently about this one, I couldn’t resist. It tells the story of a murder, but goes on from there to meditate on history and storytelling and eighteenth-century culture.
  • I got a copy of Denis Johnson’s book of short stories Jesus’ Son; a book I’ve been meaning to read for quite a while and which I’ve heard wonderful things about. This book is part of my attempt to read more short stories; I’d like to read at least two collections this year, if not more.
  • I ordered the last two volumes of Proust, The Prisoner and The Fugitive combined into one volume, and Time Regained. I’m getting close to finishing Proust! Well, sort of. Actually I’m a little over half way, in the middle of volume four. I had to order these last two from the UK, and they look nothing like the first four in their American versions, unfortunately.
  • Cam recently sent me a selection of W.B. Yeats’s poetry. I’ve read some Yeats, but he’s a wonderful poet I need to read more of. Thanks Cam!
  • And, of course, there’s Don Quixote, ready for me when I’m ready for it. Here’s the template I set up for the group reading blog; I’ll get invitations out to people during April so we’ll be ready to begin in May. Let me know if there’s cool Don Quixote stuff on the web you know of so I can add some links to spice up the site a bit.

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Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter

I recently finished Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, which turned out to be a fun read — it’s a light, comic novel, but it also plays around with ideas about writing and the writer and stories, which gives the book some depth. Apparently, the book is somewhat autobiographical, based on the relationship leading up to Vargas Llosa’s first marriage, and the real-life Julia wrote her own side of the story in a book called What Little Vargas Didn’t Say. I don’t know anything about Julia’s book, but judging by the title, Vargas probably didn’t like it.

The novel tells the story of Mario, an 18-year-old university student in Lima who works at a local radio station preparing news bulletins. Part of the story is about how he falls in love with “Aunt” Julia — she’s related to Mario only by marriage — but their relationship is still scandalous because she’s 32 and divorced. The other part is about Pedro Camacho, a scriptwriter recently come to write serials for the radio station. He soon becomes hugely popular as radio listeners find themselves enthralled by his stories, but then the stories start to take some very odd turns and nobody knows what to do with Camacho anymore. Camacho is a very odd character, with strange ticks and mannerisms, a unusual physical appearance (he’s almost short enough to be considered a dwarf), a self-centered and imperious manner, and some disturbing prejudices against Argentinians and against women generally.

These two plot lines unfold slowly over the novel’s course; every other chapter, however, gives the story of one of the serials Camacho is writing, appearing in the novel as regular prose, not in script form. These stories are soap operas, dramatic, shocking, and fun. But as Camacho’s serials start to turn strange, so too do these interpolated chapters. Characters get interchanged with one another, plot lines get mixed up, characters from one story begin to appear in another, and eventually the authorial voice has lost control of the stories entirely. By the end of the book we don’t have straightforward stories anymore, but attempts at plot filled with questions about the plot direction and the characters’ fates.

Camacho has become overwhelmed by his own productivity; he had been producing scripts at such a wild rate, that he begins to forget his plot lines and characters, collapsing under the strain of his long hours. It has turned into a battle between the author, trying to give form and shape to life, and chaos, undermining the very possibility of coherence and order.

Meanwhile, Mario himself dreams of becoming a writer. He watches Camacho with interest, trying to figure out the secret of Camacho’s amazing productivity:

Riding back to Miraflores in a jitney, I thought about Pedro Camacho’s life. What social milieu, what concatenation of circumstances, persons, relations, problems, events, happenstances had produced this literary vocation (literary? if not that what should it be called then?) that had somehow come to fruition, found expression in an oeuvre and secured an audience? How could he be, at one and the same time, a parody of the writer and the only person in Peru who, by virtue of the time devoted to his craft and the works he produced, was worthy of that name?

Mario thinks about what it means to be a writer, and whether he’s capable of becoming one himself.  Camacho is very nearly the perfect definition of a hack writer, churning out the melodramatic stories day after day, but, at this point in the story at least, Mario can’t help but admire his energy and his ease with words and stories:

It was becoming clearer and clearer to me each day that the only thing I wanted to be in life was a writer, and I was also becoming more and more convinced each day that the only way to be one was to devote oneself heart and soul to literature. I didn’t want in the least to be a hack writer or a part-time one, but a real one like — who? The only person I met who came closest to being this full-time writer, obsessed and impassioned by his vocation, was the Bolivian author of radio serials: that was why he fascinated me so.

So this is a love story, but also a story about stories and about writing as a vocation. It’s a novel of the writer-in-training, about a character who lives through the excitement of teenage love and rebellion but who also gets a chance to watch a writer at work and to think about what kind of writer he wants to be.

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Literary friendships

Inspired by Stefanie, many bloggers are posting lists of books they’d like to read right now if they weren’t in the middle of other books and had the time for it (one lucky person has posted about books she’d like to read on her upcoming vacation — I’m so jealous); I’m not going to give you a similar list here, but I just finished an article (unfortunately not available online) from the New York Review of Books that’s got me adding books to my list of things I’m longing to read. It’s Richard Holmes’s “The Passionate Partnership,” a review of Adam Sisman’s book The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge.

Now first of all, Richard Holmes himself is someone I’m longing to read more of; he’s the author of Footsteps, a book I enjoyed immensely not too long ago, and he’s written biographies of Coleridge and Percy Shelley and a book on the friendship between Samuel Johnson and Richard Savage. This last one I’m certainly going to need to read.

And Adam Sisman’s book on Wordsworth and Coleridge sounds quite good; Holmes gives it a slightly mixed, but overall fairly positive review. It traces their friendship from the time they met in 1797 through their estrangement in 1810, telling the story of their collaboration on poetic projects; at times they worked so closely together that scholars aren’t sure who wrote what. There’s one poem, “The Mad Monk,” that appears in the Collected Works of both poets.

Here are some good passages from Holmes review:

All this leads to wider reflections which Adam Sisman’s book prompts but does not have time to pursue. There have been many famous “literary friendship” or double-acts. Each has its own dynamic, usually of love and loyalty, followed by trouble and strife, and finally some sort of reconciliation (if only from beyond the grave). Johnson and Savage, Goethe and Schiller, Victor Hugo and Sainte-Beuve, Gautier and Nerval, Fitzgerald and Hemingway come to mind …

But for emotional intensity, one almost needs the parallel of a literary love affair (as Sisman hints). The great Coleridge scholar John Beer has written provokingly in a recent essay: “It may be suggested that [Ted Hughes’s] admiration for [Sylvia] Plath bore strong resemblances to Wordsworth’s for the equally mercurial Coleridge.”

….

It may be, paradoxically, that the “sacred” nature of Romantic friendship is most truly revealed in the pains of its rupture. Coleridge’s nine-page letter of grand remonstrance to Robert Southey in November 1795 expresses a lover’s outrage: “you have left a large Void in my Heart — I know no man big enough to fill it.” Similarly Wordsworth, as restrained in his declarations of friendship as Coleridge was “gushing” (a new liquid word for sentiment), was nonetheless quite capable of expressing his feelings of rejection with vivid simplicity …

Also mentioned in the article is Adam Sisman’s earlier book Boswell’s Presumptuous Task, about the writing of The Life of Johnson, which sounds fascinating.

And then there’s this intriguing passage from Holmes’s article:

Coleridge’s Notebooks, still insufficiently known, may be considered as an inspiration to all confessional writers, and may even become — in their wild informality — the secret bible of Internet bloggers. (Apparently there are over fifty million of these.)

Since I’m not a “confessional” blogger, Notebooks is unlikely to become my secret Bible, but I’m intrigued, nonetheless.

Oh, there are so many good books to read …

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Race report

Last week the races were cancelled because of a snowstorm, but today the weather was much better, although the race course was damp and covered in sand and grit. But we had no snow and no ice like two weeks ago when the race got delayed because the roads were so dangerous. Spring is really on the way!

Today’s race was one of my best; I felt calm going into it, I had just the right amount of time to warm up, I felt a little anxious, as I suppose I must in order to get the energy up to do well, but I wasn’t really nervous. And after we started, I had no problem staying with the pack; in fact, I think because of the dampness of the roads and the sand and grit, the pack moved very slowly at the beginning. We were testing the roads, seeing how safe everything felt. And it didn’t feel terribly safe, actually — as we rounded the corner to head into the backstretch on the first lap, we nearly ran into a flock of turkeys, maybe a dozen or so, that decided to cross the road just at that moment. We managed to slow down enough and yell loud enough so they moved out of the way in time. That could have been a gruesome scene — what would it look like if a pack of cyclists ran over a flock of turkeys? I don’t want to know.

After the first few laps, things sped up a bit, but I had no trouble keeping up, and in fact, as the race went on, I found myself up close to the front fairly often. Someone in front of me would begin to slow down, and I would ride around him and speed up to catch another wheel and stay in the middle of the action. This is something I need to do more often; I tend to hang out in the back of the pack, but often it’s harder to ride back there, as there is a lot of slowing down and speeding up in the back that can sap your energy.

As we crossed the start/finish line at the beginning of the last lap, I thought to myself that I’d done an unusually good job of staying with the pack and that if I fell behind at this point it wouldn’t matter a whole lot — no point in killing myself — but I heard the Hobgoblin yelling, telling me to work my way up to the front so I could get myself in a good position for the final sprint, and I thought, eh, why not. So I worked hard on the last lap, moved up a bit, and was with the pack on the final hill — something that almost never happens to me. Almost always at this point if I’m still in the race, I’m slowing down, falling behind, treating the last lap as a cool-down.

The only bad part of the race happened on the last lap at the bottom of the hill that leads to the finish line — I heard some yelling, saw a body flying, and felt the pack swerve to the left to avoid a fallen bicycle. One of my teammates had crashed, jostled by another rider — he was fine although after the race I saw his front wheel was now pointing in the wrong direction.

I was a bit shaken by the crash, but the rest of pack was rushing on ahead, so I kept going up the hill to the finish, doing a sprint of sorts — I was tired enough by that point I’m not sure I was really going all that fast — but I ended up finishing in 14th place, the first time I’ve ever gotten a place of any sort at this race series (my best ever was a 13th place finish last summer in a different race). When they post results shortly after the race, they list the top 20, so I got to see my name up there.

This isn’t an impressive result, by any means, but for me it’s pretty cool. It means I’m improving — I never got close to doing this well last year — and improvement is all I’m looking for.

And I must say I have the awesomest teammates — even though three of them had gotten 4th, 5th, and 10th place, they seemed more pleased about my finish than they did about theirs.

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A Doll’s House

One of my reading goals for the year was to read a play, which I have now completed, as today I finished reading Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. I was hoping, however, that the play I read would be one I hadn’t read before, which didn’t turn out to be the case, as I’ve read A Doll’s House multiple times. I read it this time around because I’m teaching it in my Literature and Composition class. Perhaps I’ll still read a new-to-me play this year. We’ll see.

But I do love A Doll’s House. The thing I appreciate about it most, having read it I don’t know how many times, is the way Ibsen doesn’t waste a line. Everything is so tightly structured, so carefully crafted, that every line every character utters furthers the plot or the themes, and it’s a delight to see the way he leads the plot toward the stunning conclusion.

Is there anybody who hasn’t read this play? I read it in High School and have taught it so often that I feel like it’s an educational staple, but I might be wrong. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s about a couple, Nora and Torvald, who act in the first scene as though they have a perfectly happy marriage and family, but right from the start you pick up on some warning signs, and as the play goes on, you learn that Nora has a secret, that she’s desperately scrambling for money, that Torvald has little understanding of and respect for her, and that their family life is about to fall apart.

Here’s where I give away the ending, which is the best part of the play — Nora realizes just how little her husband knows about her, how much he cares about his own reputation even if she has to suffer for it, how poor of an education she has gotten and how little she knows about herself and the world, and she decides to leave Torvald and go live by herself until she has a chance to grow up. She leaves the doll’s house, and she leaves it dramatically; the play closes with these stage directions, “The sound of a door slamming is heard from below,” and the play is over. The play was first performed in 1879, and, as you can probably imagine, audiences found it shocking.

Ibsen doesn’t follow the classical unities of time, action, and place exactly, but he’s very close; the play takes place over the course of a few days around Christmas time, it’s all set in Nora and Torvald’s apartment, and it tells one unified story, that of the dissolution of the marriage. There are three other characters beside Nora and Torvald, two of whom, Mrs. Linde and Krogstad, operate as foils to the main couple; they have lived difficult lives, lost reputations and family members, and suffered in ways Nora and Torvald can’t really understand. But by the end of the play, they have found happiness, while Nora and Torvald have found their lives ripped apart; as the fortunes of one couple fall those of the other rise.

The other character is Dr. Rank who appears to have little to do with the plot; he’s the one character who is possibly expendable, if one is concerned about keeping the action unified. But Dr. Rank brings together many of the play’s themes. He’s suffering because of his father’s excesses — his father contracted a venereal disease which he then passed on to his son — and so introduces the idea of inheritance and the legacies, both good and bad, that parents leave for children. We learn that Nora’s father supposedly passed on his spendthrift ways and dubious moral character to her, and now Nora is deathly afraid of passing along her own errors to her children. As Dr. Rank says,

“To have to pay this penalty for another man’s sin! Is there any justice in that? And in every single family, in one way or another, some such inexorable retribution is being exacted.”

Nora’s decision to leave at the play’s end is partly an attempt to break this chain of heredity; she wants to live on her own until she has figured out what she believes and how she will live, and only then will she consider living with a family again.

But, of course, her leaving is also about her refusal to live with a man who won’t recognize her as a human being and who treats her as a child instead. Although Ibsen backed away from the claim that this is a feminist play, it’s very hard to read it otherwise; what Nora walks away from is a very narrowly defined role of wife and mother — she walks away from the husband who, when Nora talks about the sacred duty she has to herself, can say, “Before all else, you are a wife and a mother.” I noticed this time through that Mrs. Linde talks eloquently about the value of work, and Nora herself speaks of enjoying the little work she has been able to do, sewing to earn a little extra money. She’s longing for a taste of independence, for a challenge, for something to push her so that she can discover who she is.

So, yes, I enjoyed this play, and I think my students are enjoying it too. We’re discussing the conclusion to the play this week; we’ll see what they make of Nora’s dramatic exit.

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And the winner is …

Amanda from The Blog Jar!

Thanks to everyone, once again, for spending some time at this blog — I’m so glad you do.

Amanda, send me an email (ofbooksandbikes at yahoo dot com) with your address, and I’ll put Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals in the mail ASAP.

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