Tuesday, June 30, 2020

English literature: Happy ever after?

Jean Gabin as Inspector Maigret in Maigret et l’affaire Saint-Fiacre (1959), directed by Jean Delannoy. 
Image source: Pinterest

In an article on the novels of Georges Simenon in the London Review of Books of 4 June, the novelist and critic John Lanchester writes:
The reader whose idea of the novel is formed by the English canon may at some stage start to read books in the French tradition. At that point, it may suddenly seem that everything one has previously read has essentially been children’s literature. Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, even Austen and Eliot, are all wonderful writers, but their work is founded in wish fulfilment, happy endings and love conquering all. The side notes and off notes and internal dissent are all there, of course, but they are subtextual, subtle, inexplicit. The main current of the English novel is in the direction of Happy Ever After, along the lines of Miss Prism’s deathless observation: 'The good ended happily and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.' When you turn from that tradition to the work of Laclos, Flaubert, Balzac, Stendhal, Maupassant and Proust, it’s like getting a glass of ice water in the face. Everybody lies all the time; codes of honour are mainly a delusion and will get you into serious trouble; the same goes for love; if you think the world is how it is described in consoling fictions, you have many catastrophic surprises in store. Above all, the central lesson of the French tradition is that people’s motives are sex and money, and you can write about those things as sex and money, directly, no euphemisms required.
Hmm. I'd like to suggest a few counterexamples to what Lanchester identifies as "the direction of Happy Ever After" in 19th-century English literature, in works by the very authors he names; I'm sure that many more could be identified. Be forewarned that multiple spoilers follow.

  • Charles Dickens: In Bleak House, Richard Carstone, a young man full of promise, gets drawn into the endless court case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, neglects his health to pursue the case, is bankrupted and dies of consumption. Jo, a street kid, dies after infecting the heroine with smallpox, while his sympathetic friend and protector Nemo dies of opium overdose. Lady Dedlock, married to the much older Sir Leicester and thinking that a secret she has kept from him is about to be exposed, flees into a bitterly cold winter night and dies trying to reach the grave of her first love, without realizing that Sir Leicester's knowledge of her secret makes no difference to his devotion. 
  • William Thackeray: In The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq., Redmond Barry, a charming rogue, bankrupts himself and his rich wife, loses his young child to a tragic accident, drowns his sorrows in drink, and ends the novel in prison.
    The great and rich are welcomed, smiling, up the grand staircase of the world; the poor but aspiring must clamber up the wall, or push and struggle up the back stair, or, pardi, crawl through any of the conduits of the house, never mind how foul and narrow, that lead to the top. (Ch. 10)
    In Vanity Fair, "a novel without a hero," the anti-heroine Becky Sharp uses sex to try to secure her social and financial position, with very mixed results: she ends up as a widow with a questionable reputation and a very modest income.
  • Anthony Trollope: To choose just an example or two out of many, in the Palliser novels Lady Laura Kennedy chooses security over passion and winds up trapped in a loveless marriage, while Lady Glencora Palliser has a loveless marriage thrust upon her by her socially ambitious family. Here are Lady Glencora's meditations in the novel Can You Forgive Her? as she contemplates running away with the man she actually loves (and whom we know is shallow and unworthy):
    'I am not such a fool as to mistake what I should be if I left my husband, and went to live with that man as his mistress. . .But why have I been brought to such a pass as this? And, as for female purity! Ah! What was their idea of female purity when they forced me, like ogres, to marry a man for whom they knew I never cared?' (Ch. 47)
    In The Eustace Diamonds we are given access to the thoughts of Lucinda Roanoke, a young American woman who is being maneuvered by her aunt into an engagement with a man she despises:
    When she was alone she stood before her glass looking at herself, and then she burst into tears. Never before had she been thus polluted. The embrace had disgusted her. It made her odious to herself. And if this, the beginning of it, was so bad, how was she to drink the cup to the bitter dregs? Other girls, she knew, were fond of their lovers—some so fond of them that all moments of absence were moments, if not of pain, at any rate of regret. To her, as she stood there ready to tear herself because of the vileness of her own condition, it now seemed as though no such love as that were possible to her. For the sake of this man who was to be her husband, she hated all men. Was not everything around her base, and mean, and sordid?. . .How should she escape? And yet she knew that she meant to go on and bear it all. Perhaps by study and due practice she might become—as were some others—a beast of prey and nothing more. The feeling that had made these few minutes so inexpressibly loathsome to her might, perhaps, be driven from her heart. She washed the tears from her eyes with savage energy, and descended to her lover with a veil fastened closely under her hat. 'I hope I haven't kept you waiting,' she said. (Ch. 42)
    Children's literature?
  • Jane Austen: Many of her major and minor characters wind up in unions with unsuitable partners. In Sense and Sensibility, Willoughby trades sex for financial security by abandoning Marianne Dashwood, whom he loves, and marrying an heiress he doesn't feel anything for, Miss Grey. In the same novel, Lucy Steele trades sex for financial security by breaking her engagement with Edward Ferrars to marry his wealthier brother Robert, although whether she cares anything for either of them is doubtful. In Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Lucas trades sex for financial security by marrying the pompous Mr. Collins, and spends her days trying to distance herself from him in their modest parsonage. In Mansfield Park Maria Bertram trades sex for financial security by marrying the rich but dull Mr. Rushworth, but then runs off with Henry Crawford; after her divorce, Crawford is unwilling to marry her, leaving Maria a social pariah. In Northanger Abbey Isabella Thorpe trades sex for financial security by engaging herself to James Morland, but breaks off the engagement when she learns that he is not as wealthy as she thought and finds (or so she thinks) a better prospect in Henry Tilney's older brother Frederick. When she discovers that Frederick has no intention of proposing to her, she attempts to return to James—to no avail, which leaves her socially tainted.

    In a famous exchange in Sense and Sensibility which is hardly subtextual, subtle, or inexplicit, the sisters Marianne and Elinor openly debate in front of their visitor Edward Ferrars the role of money in personal happiness—which, since a woman who lacked independent means was dependent on the income of her husband, must include for them both the choice of marriage partner:
    "What have wealth or grandeur to do with happiness?"

    "Grandeur has but little," said Elinor, "but wealth has much to do with it."

    "Elinor, for shame!" said Marianne, "money can only give happiness where there is nothing else to give it. Beyond a competence, it can afford no real satisfaction, as far as mere self is concerned."

    "Perhaps," said Elinor, smiling, "we may come to the same point.  Your competence and my wealth are very much alike, I dare say; and without them, as the world goes now, we shall both agree that every kind of external comfort must be wanting. Your ideas are only more noble than mine. Come, what is your competence?"

    "About eighteen hundred or two thousand a year; not more than that."

    Elinor laughed. "Two thousand a year! One is my wealth! I guessed how it would end." (Ch. 17)
    Not only does Austen not employ euphemisms, her characters name quite precisely the amount of income they are hoping to achieve through marriage. Is there a French novel with an equivalent scene?
  • George Eliot: In Middlemarch we witness the resolutions of "three love problems," two of which result in miserably unhappy marriages. Dorothea Brooke marries Edward Casaubon, a "formal studious man thirty years older than herself," believing that the research project to which he has devoted decades of his life will be worthy of the sacrifices she makes to help bring it to fruition; she is crushingly disappointed. After a late-night bedroom argument,
    she sat listening, frightened, wretched—with a dumb inward cry for help to bear this nightmare of a life in which every energy was arrested by dread. But nothing else happened, except that they both remained a long while sleepless, without speaking again. (Ch. 37)
    Tertius Lydgate, another character passionately dedicated to a life purpose, is similarly thwarted by his choice of marriage partner, the beautiful but vain, shallow, and demanding Rosamond Vincy. Middlemarch shows the human cost of Victorian social mores that demanded that men and women unite themselves for life when they barely knew one another.

    In Daniel Deronda, the flirtatious, pleasure-loving Gwendolen Harleth marries the domineering Henleigh Grandcourt, and is made miserable by his tyrannical control. Although, like Casaubon, Grandcourt ultimately dies (horribly), his death does not free Gwendolen to marry the man she loves, because in the meantime that man has fallen in love with another woman.

    In The Mill on the Floss, Maggie Tulliver cannot choose between her long-pledged devotion for Philip Wakem and her attraction to her dashing new suitor Stephen Guest. Before she can resolve her dilemma she and her brother Tom are drowned together during a flood.
In short, for these characters there is no "happy ever after." And this is not only true in the novels of the 19th-century English authors named by Lanchester, but of others such as Emily Brontë (Wuthering Heights, in which the lovers Heathcliff and Catherine both marry people they don't love, and both die in misery), Charlotte Brontë (Villette, in which it's suggested that the heroine's great love drowns at sea), Elizabeth Gaskell (Ruth, in which the disgraced heroine nurses her seriously ill seducer back to health, is infected by him, and dies), and George Gissing (New Grub Street, in which struggling writer Edward Reardon finds himself trapped in an incompatible marriage, and smart, sincere, and deeply-feeling Marian Yule is emotionally abandoned by her cynical, social-climbing journalist fiancé Jasper Milvain).

Lanchester is a better critic than this ill-considered and, I have to say, lazy contrast between English and French literature would suggest. I recommend that he, and all my readers, (re)acquaint themselves with the great, complex, and thoroughly adult novels listed above.