Thursday, December 14, 2017

Favorites of 2017: Fiction

It's that time again, when I offer a brief survey of my favorite books, music, movies and television first experienced during the past year.

18th- and 19th-century fiction

As should be no surprise to regular readers of E & I, literature of the 18th and 19th centuries dominates my end-of-year list of favorites:

Eliza Haywood: The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless (1751)

Haywood's novel-writing career spanned three decades and major shifts in style and sexual culture. Earlier I wrote about her first novel, Love in Excess (1720), which displays the influence of the amatory fiction of Aphra Behn. The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless seems to be influenced less by literary models and more by Haywood's own experiences.

To escape conflict with her new stepmother, Betsy flees to London and to the protection of a family friend. Her free behavior leads several men-about-town to make assumptions about her profession (followed by crude sexual advances), and alienates her suitor Mr. Trueworth. 
'I wonder,' continued she, 'what can make the generality of women so fond of marrying? — It looks to me like an infatuation. — Just as if it were not a greater pleasure to be courted, complimented, admired, and addressed by a number, than be confined to one, who, from a slave, becomes a master. . .they want to deprive us of all the pleasures of life, just when one begins to have a relish for them.' (Vol 4, Ch. 3)
Betsey seems very modern in her determination to live as she pleases, and it is not only in the 18th century that women have encountered difficulties in doing so. When she is trapped into marrying an incompatible man, Mr. Munden, it seems impossible that she will ever be united with a man of true worth. In featuring an error-prone but sympathetic heroine, Miss Betsy Thoughtless anticipates the novels of Fanny Burney and Jane Austen.

Charlotte Lennox: Henrietta (1758)

Charlotte Lennox was most famously the author of The Female Quixote (1752), a parodistic novel about the dangers of too much novel-reading. Henrietta (1758) is about dangers of a different kind. Henrietta, an orphan, travels to London, where she is made the object of multiple unscrupulous schemes on her body and her reputation. She must rely on her wit and steadfast principles to escape the many traps set for a young woman living in the city without family protection or fortune.

And Henrietta has a proposal scene that may remind you of another, more famous one:
'I see (resumed he) that I have not been happy enough to inspire you with any tender sentiments for me. Pardon me, miss Courteney, but I must be so free as to tell you that if you were not prepossessed in favour of another person, the proofs I have given you of my affection would not be received with such indifference.'
'There needs not any such prepossession,' replied Henrietta, vexed at this hint, 'to make me receive with indifference the proofs you have hitherto given me of that affection your lordship boasts of. Am I to reckon among these proofs, my lord, the insult you offered me at Mrs. Eccles's, and the strange declaration you made me in the country?'
'Ah, how cruel is this recapitulation now!' cried lord B—: 'do I not do justice to your birth, your beauty and your virtue, by my present honorable intentions?'
. . .'Well, my lord,' replied Henrietta, who had listened to him with great calmness, 'if ever I was in doubt of your intentions, you have clearly explained them now; of them, and of the sentiments you have avowed, you may collect my opinion, when I declare to you, that if you had worlds to bestow on me, I would not be your wife.'
'Is this your resolution, miss Courteney?' said his lordship.
'It is, my lord (she replied) . . .It is interest by which I am influenced, when I refuse your offered alliance, because I am sure I could not be happy with a man whom I cannot esteem.'
'Hold, madam, hold,' interrupted lord B—, 'this is too much: I have not deserved this treatment, but I thank you for it; yes, from my soul I thank you for it: it has helped restore me to my senses; I have been foolish, very foolish, I confess. . .The best apology I can make, madam (said he) for the importunate visit I have paid you, is to assure you I never will repeat it.' (Vol. II, Ch. VI)
It seems clear that Jane Austen drew on this scene for Darcy's first, impulsive proposal to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.

Charlotte Smith: Emmeline, or the Orphan of the Castle (1788); Celestina (1791); and The Old Manor House (1793)

In my post on Charlotte Smith's novels, "What have I to do now but to learn to suffer?", I wrote,
To paraphrase Chekhov, if in the first volume there's an orphan in a castle, in the last volume it will be revealed—spoiler alert!—that the orphan is actually the legitimate owner of the castle. On the way to this revelation (and true love. . .) there are false accusations. . .unwelcome attentions. . .misunderstandings, duels, hazardous sojourns in foreign lands, midnight pursuits, and fateful (and highly coincidental) meetings.
Smith was another influence on Jane Austen; as I wrote,
If Emmeline looks back to the novels of Fanny Burney and Samuel Richardson, Celestina looks forward as well to the novels of Jane Austen. Once again the heroine is an orphan raised by a wealthy family. And once again the son of the family in which the heroine was raised falls in love with her. His name, perhaps familiar to readers of Sense and Sensibility, is Willoughby.
For the many other parallels between Smith's novels and Austen's, please see the full post linked above.

Stendhal: Le rouge et le noir (Scarlet and black, 1830)

Did Stendhal go to my high school? His picture of the game-playing, insincerity, and deliberate cruelty in the romantic relations between men and women takes me back to my teens. Julien Sorel, a handsome and ambitious young man from a working-class background, tries to make his way in Parisian high society. When the daughter of his rich benefactor falls in love with him, Sorel decides that he must keep her off-balance by pretending indifference; as soon as she is sure of him, she'll treat him with the same disdain she lavishes her other fawning suitors:
After a short moment's silence, he managed to control his heart enough to say in an icy tone: '. . .It's not your position in society that's the obstacle, but unfortunately your own character. Can you promise that you will love me for a week?' 
(Ah! let her love me for a week, a week only, Julien murmured to himself, and I shall die of joy. What do I care for the future, what do I care for life itself? And this divine happiness can begin at this very instant if I will, it depends entirely on me.)
Mathilde saw he was thinking deeply.
'Then I'm altogether unworthy of you,' she said, taking hold of his hand.

Julien embraced her, but at once the iron hand of duty gripped his heart. If she sees how much I adore her, I shall lose her, he thought. And before he withdrew himself from her arms, he had resumed all that dignity that befits a man. (Ch. 31; translated by Margaret R. B. Shaw)
The feelings Julien inspires, and his inability to accept them without calculation, will ultimately have tragic consequences both for himself and for the women who love him. Scarlet and Black is also a portrait of a corrupt and venal society fixated on appearances over substance, one which in some ways may remind you of our own.

Charles Dickens: Bleak House (1852-53)

The endless case of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce pits family members against one another, souring natural affections and drawing even those with good intentions into obsession and self-destruction. A harrowing vision in which the all-enveloping miasma of the legal conflict is reflected in the murk of the outer world:
Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. . .Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. . .Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.

. . .The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln's Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.

Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds this day in the sight of heaven and earth. (Ch. 1)
In 2005 Bleak House was made into an excellent BBC series written by Andrew Davies and featuring Gillian Anderson, and E & I favorites Carey Mulligan and Anna Maxwell Martin.

George Eliot: Daniel Deronda (1876)

Written a few years after Middlemarch, this was the last novel Eliot completed. The hero of the title finds himself torn between his complicated feelings for the capricious, pleasure-loving Gwendolen Harleth and his growing love for the orphaned Jewish refugee Mirah Lapidoth. As he delves deeper into the mysteries of his origins, it becomes apparent that Daniel has more in common with Mirah than he at first suspects.

Eliot's fictional treatment of the "Jewish Question" and the stirrings of Zionism in late-Victorian England has divided critics since its appearance. Their opposing positions are encapsulated by F. R. Leavis, who famously thought that all the Jewish episodes should be cut out and the novel renamed Gwendolen Harleth, and the first translator of the work into Hebrew, who included only the scenes featuring Mirah and her Zionist brother Mordecai.

I hope that, without being accused of philistinism, I can express the feeling that the scenes featuring the saintly Mordecai in particular can sometimes go on too long. But that is a very minor issue in a great novel. Daniel Deronda is a powerful work that deserves to be more widely read and appreciated. In 2002 it was also made into a wonderful BBC series written by Andrew Davies and featuring E & I favorites Romola Garai, Jodhi May, and Amanda Root, which I wrote about in the post "Why BBC literary adaptations are so delightful: Daniel Deronda edition."

Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary, translated by Eleanor Marx (1856-57/1886; Eleanor Marx is pictured above)

Her money spent, and feeling disgraced and abandoned, Emma Bovary takes poison.

Her money spent, and feeling disgraced and abandoned, the first English translator of Madame Bovary, Karl Marx's daughter Eleanor, took poison.
Her life is idle, useless. And this strong woman feels there must be some place for her in the world; there must be something to do—and she dreams. Life is so unreal to her that she marries Bovary thinking she loves him. Where a man would have been taught by experience, the woman with like passions, like desires, is left ignorant. She marries Bovary. She does her best to love "this poor wretch." In all literature there is perhaps nothing more pathetic than her hopeless effort to "make herself in love." And even after she has been false, how she yearns to go back to him, to something real, to a healthier, better love than she has known. . .In a word, Emma Bovary is in search of an ideal. She has intellectuality, not mere sensuality. It is part of the irony of fate that she is punished for her virtues as much as for her vices.

Into Emma Bovary Flaubert put much of himself. He too dreamed dreams that ended in nothingness; his imaginings were ever brighter than the realisation of them. . .Both strained after an unattainable heaven. (From Eleanor Marx's introduction to her translation)
For more on the parallels between Eleanor Marx and Emma Bovary, please see "These long, sad years": Madame Bovary and Eleanor Marx

For a comparison of Eleanor Marx's excellent English translation of Madame Bovary to three other highly-praised versions (by Gerard Hopkins, Francis Steegmuller, and Lydia Davis) please see "The best I could do": Eleanor Marx and translating Madame Bovary

Contemporary fiction

Arundhati Roy: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Knopf, 2017)

This, only Roy's second novel after 1997's Booker-Prize-winning The God of Small Things, is almost Dickensian in its outrage at injustice. Roy peoples her story with striking characters, such as Anjum, a Hijra who raises an abandoned child and makes her home in a graveyard, and Tilo, a woman who, caught up in larger conflicts, tries to remain true to herself.

The unhealable wound at the novel's center is Kashmir, a beautiful land where thousands of people have died and no side can claim the moral high ground. As Tilo writes in the novel, no doubt echoing Roy's own sentiments,
I would like to write one of those sophisticated stories in which even though nothing much happens there's lots to write about. That can't be done in Kashmir. It's not sophisticated, what happens here. There's too much blood for good literature. (p. 288)
But it is not only in Kashmir that there is injustice and violence. When Tilo chooses to have an abortion she is required to have someone else—preferably the father—sign the consent form for general anesthesia. She decides to have the operation without it, and passes out from the pain. When she wakes up, she is in the general ward.
There was more than one patient in every bed. There were patients on the floor. . .Harried doctors and nurses picked their way through the chaos. It was like a wartime ward. Except that in Dehli there was no war other than the usual one—the war of the rich against the poor. (p. 398)
The title of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is not entirely ironic. There are moments of joy and of human connection and solidarity. A community of misfits, of the rejected and the rejecting, forms in spite of the relentless social, political and economic pressures that pit people against one another. Roy's clear-eyed and dispassionate dissection of the hypocrisies, deceptions and brutalities practiced even by those who claim to be fighting for justice makes for harrowing but urgent reading; her powerful prose and vivid characters make her work emotionally compelling as well.

More favorites of 2017:

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