Wednesday 28 October 2020

A little renovation


I am aware that as this blog approaches its tenth birthday, it's getting a little hard to navigate. With 400 posts and over 300,000 words, it might be excused if the regular reader (i.e myself) gets a little confused. This is not helped by my flinging labels around like a baboon with excrement.

So, in preparation for the blog's tenth birthday next May, I shall create an actually useful index to enable users to find anything that interests them. So far I've gone through all 400 posts, sorting them into categories, I hope to finish them by the end of the week.

Wednesday 21 October 2020

'Les Liaisons Dangereuses' at the Dr Johnson's Reading Circle

In October the Dr Johnson Circle met again on Zoom to discuss what may have been the most divisive book in the group’s five years, Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos.

In the book, two conniving aristocrats, the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil, play games with each other and everyone around them. Valmont schemes to break the virtuous wife, Présidente de Touvel and both scheme to break the virtue of the young Cécile. The book is an epistolary novel in which a third of the letters are skilful tissues of lies, another third are reports about how the schemes are progressing (which might also be skilful tissues of lies) and the last third are genuine communications of feeling (which we may have doubts about, given all the lying).

The division was not over the quality of the book, which was described as ‘powerful’ and ‘mind-blowing’ by members of the circle, it was whether the quality and craft had created a book that was possible to enjoy. We all agreed that we were increasingly appalled as the book progressed and the schemers at the centre were increasingly exposed. But half the circle found themselves disconnected, to the extent of putting the book down, and half the circle found themselves engaged, to the extent of staying up into the night to finish it.

The book spends a few pages at the beginning trying to distance the reader from the action with what purports to be a publisher’s note. The ‘publisher’ of the book has the suspicions that the text may not be actually a genuine collection of letters but, horror of horrors, a novel. He notes that if they are a collection of letters, they can’t be modern French ones, as the current French aristocracy are so virtuous that the characters and events of the book could not possibly happen there. However, the intimate nature of the epistolary form means that this distance is narrowed, especially as the book progresses.

Usually the Reading Circle meets bi-monthly, but with the need for online meetings, it’s been upped to once a month. This means our previous reading of Pamela was fresh in our minds as we read this, especially as the form and subject matter overlapped in so many ways. Whereas Pamela was largely told through her letters, Dangerous Liaisons has letters zipping about in all directions and while Pamela used her letters to reveal herself, many of the letters in this book took the form of disguises. It showed how sophisticated that form of novel had become and we wondered how Laclos kept the details in his head as he wrote, talking fancifully of the reams of post-it notes that must have littered his desk.

At one point Danceny, Cécile’s aspiring lover, declares that, A letter is the portrait of the soul”, a sentiment that couldn’t be further from the truth in this novel. Johnson once wrote something similar to Hester Thrale, though he was being ironic;

“In a Man’s Letters … his soul lies naked, his letters are only the mirrour [sic] of his breast, whatever passes within him is shown undisguised in its natural process. Nothing is inverted, nothing distorted, you see systems in their elements, you discover actions in their motives.”

Valmont is a man famous for seduction but he fails to seduce. He may have charm but his primary technique is to wear down his would-be conquests until they can’t put up any more resistance. He describes it as siege warfare, and that is exactly how he plays it, a war of attrition until the woman gives up. While this is very easy with Cécile, whom he rapes without much compunction, Tourvel is a less easy target. She is committed to her husband and he must use all his ‘skill’ to break her - sending her letter after letter even after she pleads with him to stop. Indeed, the campaign to wear her down begins to wear him down and he starts to fall in love, terrified of having ‘an involuntary feeling’. This makes him weak in Merteuil’s eyes and makes him a target, congratulating him with the wonderfully sarcastic, “you are well endowed, I am sure, with a good opinion of yourself.”

Tourvel, whose spirited defence almost breaks Valmont, eventually gives in and his cock-crowing report almost buries the rape in his self-congratulation. She changes instantly, from a character who expresses herself in firm, yet polite dignity, into Valmont’s slavish worshipper and then, worst of all, the typical tragic heroine dying of a broken heart. While the book may be reaching for the same tragic death as Clarissa, a book overtly mentioned in the text, her sudden lack of agency saps the tragedy out.

While Valmont may be the physical player in the schemes, it’s Merteuil who is the true puller of strings whilst maintaining her cover as a chaste widow, good friend, kind mentor and eager lover. She’s like Iago with a decent postal system. Now tired of Valmont, and jealous of his almost-loving Tourvel, she sends letters to incite a duel which kills him, finding herself the happy fly in the middle of her web and looking for new victims. She receives a huge comeuppance though: the now loose Valmont papers implicate her in enough schemes to ostracize her from all her community; she loses her wealth in a court case she had not expectation of losing and her beauty is taken by smallpox. While some in the Reading Circle felt this appropriate karma for her actions (and the calculated manner in which she did them), others wanted her to have a last triumph she never had, slinking off to Holland a much-reduced figure. In some ways she does get the last laugh, although the author couldn’t have known it: she was spared the guillotine in the Revolution which occurred only four years after the novel’s publication.

This is in no way a book which makes the reader feel good at the end but it is thoroughly gripping throughout. It was fascinating to read a book which uses the word ‘love’ so many times but is filled with so much hate, Dangerous Liaisons still has some danger in it.

Wednesday 14 October 2020

Review: Anti-Pamela by Eliza Haywood

The Anti-Pamela; or, Feign'd Innocence Detected came out a year after Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded and a month after An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews and unlike the other two books, was not a debut novel but one by established novelist, Eliza Haywood. 

Unlike Shamela, it is not a direct parody but seems more a response, Haywood is trying to show how a proper novelist deals with the same films. As such, Anti-Pamela shows the flaws in Pamela by comparison, but inadvertently shows the strengths of Pamela when compared to Anti-Pamela. As such, the book is not in itself anti Pamela, but that the main character, Syrena is herself the opposite of Pamela.

Much like Pamela, Syrena is heavily influenced by her upbringing. Pamela’s parents are near saintly, but Syrena is raised by a mother who trains her beautiful daughter to find the best ‘deal’ with her beauty. For Pamela, being ‘ruined’ is losing her virginity but for Syrena, being ‘ruined’ is losing her virginity without a decent cash payoff. In many ways, the best relationship is between this mother, who wants the best for her daughter as she sees it and Syrena, who isn’t mature enough to put the mother’s lessons properly into practise.

Unlike Pamela, Anti-Pamela doesn’t focus on one situation in a claustrophobic house but moves from one ‘adventure’ (a word with sexual overtones in the eighteenth century) to another. In the first, Syrena, who has been bred up to ‘bag’ a rich man, is languishing as an apprentice in a small dressmakers. On a trip to buy lace, she meets a man in a brocaded hat who offers to buy her stockings and there’s sexual tension with the nature of the purchase. Falsehood being ingrained in her she, pretends to ‘seem coy, but such a coyness to give him room to fancy I might at last be won.” The man quickly seduces her, much to her mother’s dismay as he wasn’t sufficiently rich. She has to move back to her mother’s and has “an abortion to the great joy of mother and daughter.”

The second adventure is the closest to Pamela, as Syrena becomes the maid to an elderly lady and both the father and the son latch on her instantly. It’s clear that she is seen as sexually available to the men of the family and is her job to manipulate both men and decide which will give her the best deal, as the elder’s mistress or the younger’s wife. There’s a greater sense of the workings of the household and her place within it; all clearly shown by the geography in the house and the timetable of the servants. There was a wonderful sense of what is was like to be one of the higher servants in a house, especially how many of the higher servants are largely decorative and have little to do, which makes them easier to get alone. At one point, the younger man waits in the old lady’s cupboard for three hours waiting for her. The end of this adventure shows how Syrena and her mother have no compunction in ruining people’s lives. They set up a fake-rape and accuse the son of perpetrating it, he even goes to prison. The aim is to drop the charges in return for marriage, with Syrena having no worry about marrying a man who hates her in return for money. However, the discovery of the mother’s letters to Syrena undoes their plan and they have to go in hiding in Greenwich.

The book then goes through another series of adventures and each one works for a while but is ultimately unsuccessful which limits future pickings. Things get more desperate as Syrena’s total head-turning beauty has a very small window. She’s not even 17 by the end of the book. 

At one point, Syrena leaves her mum after argument in which Syrena wants to be more sexual in her advances as the coy-game is taking too long. She becomes the kept woman of a tradesman who almost bankrupts his family for her but also falls in love with a handsome man who uses her for money as she uses the tradesman. 

Finally, she falls in love with an elderly man and ‘lets’ him talk her into marriage. Syrena’s mother says that he’s their best bet as only an elderly man would choose to marry his maid. The wedding is almost prepared and the night before it, she is introduced to the old man’s son. To her horror, the son is the handsome man who had previously used her. Again, her plans are foiled by her own indiscretions and she is packed up to be isolated in Wales.

Although there were letters in the book, it was not out-and-out epistolary, with the adventures linked together and occasionally told by a narrator. This narrator means the book doesn’t keep circling the same ideas again and again and gets the story moving. As such, the biggest implied criticism Anti-Pamela makes of Pamela is that it is too stuck in one place, containing too little incident. However, the accumulation of incident does mean that we don’t live in the character’s minds to the same extent, while I may not be Pamela’s biggest fan, Anti-Pamela does show a new direction that novels could, and did take.

(On a little note about my copy, I had the Broadview edition edited by Catherine Ingressia, which also included Shamela. For the most part, I found it a brilliant edition but I was rather irritated by the footnotes. It had the American ‘thing’ of describing well-known London locations but it also explained very common phrases as if they were something strange and archaic. Do people really not understand what ‘fast and loose’ means?)

Wednesday 7 October 2020

Review: Shamela by Henry Fielding

Shamela was Henry Fielding’s first foray into prose fiction and was published a year after Pamela. Richardson’s book caused a great deal of media attention and readers quickly found themselves in opposing camps, the Pamelaists and the Anti-Pamelaists, similar to how big films sometimes split audiences in two.

Henry Fielding was definitely an Anti-Pamelaist and wrote Shamela as a direct parody. Before he gets to slamming Pamela, he has a few other targets first. The first being one of his favourite targets, Colley Cibber. The full title of the book being An Apology for the Life of Mrs Shamela Andrews, a little jab at Colley Cibber’s almost identical title for his theatrical memoirs (which hardly mentions sometime collaborator, Henry Fielding). 

Next is the dedication, which is a parody of one Conyers Middleton wrote to Lord Hervey in a biography of Cicero. My copy of Shamela includes the parodied text and it is spot on, striking the same note of insipid flattery. It also includes a number of references to wanking, I liked his description of editing as ‘tickling the text with my own pencil’.

With these targets out of the way, we move onto the proper target, Pamela itself. He starts with parodying the media-blitz of the book, writing a letter of recommendation for the book by himself and signed;
     “Sincerely your well-wisher, myself.”

This is followed by piss-take of Aaron Hill’s puff with absurdist, overelaborate praise which declares that Pamela is such a moral book that it can easily replace every other form of religion and moral teaching. These are mixed with genuine quotes from the Aaron Hill letters, making his own praises for Pamela seem as over-the-top as the fake parts. The recipient sends the ‘true’ story of Shamela to correct the lies in Pamela.

Fielding leaps right into the central instability of Pamela, that someone constructing a text as carefully as she does, is not constructing her own identity with as much carefulness. As such, Shamela is always acting a part.

The plot itself follows the first half of Pamela almost exactly. Shamela is a maid in Mr B’s house and quickly realises that he lusts after her and decides to play the ‘vartuous’ woman in order to bag a better deal. The conflict in the book doesn’t come from Mr B trying to force himself on Shamela, but in Shamela trying to manipulate him into marriage and not give away her real self. In the mirror of the principal rape scene in Pamela, Shamela tries desperately not to laugh at his clumsy attempts.

My favourite element was his take on Mr B, he picked up on the problem I had with him, that Mr B is a terrible seducer. He’s portrayed as being so charmless that he can’t connect with a woman by groping them. Shamela find him such a competent lover that she has trouble convincingly pretending to fall in love with him.
    “Sure no man ever took such a method to gain a woman’s heart.”

Mr Edwards, who is Pamela’s confidant, becomes Shamela’s secret lover. He’s a  conniving Methodist and sees good religion as nothing more than reading good books and singing psalms. Being a Methodist, he doesn’t see the goodness of his actions having anything to do with Jesus’s salvation. He can commit as many crimes as he wishes, as long as he truly believes.

Fielding also has a number of jabs at how long and padded Pamela is. At one point she says that her and Mrs Jewkes “talked of my vartue till dinnertime”, a perfect sum up of what much of what reading Pamela is like. The seemingly eternal scenes of Pamela giving gifts to servants is reduced to the phrase ‘&c.’ 

Fielding also skips most of the second half of Pamela is not represented by Shamela as the letter was lost, which I found a shame because I wanted to read his interpretation of the Lady Davers scene and his take on the married Mr B’s pretentious moralising.

I had great fun with Shamela finding it a perfect tonic to Pamela but it is a pretty ephemeral work, a fun little cash-grab that would unexpectedly develop into one of my favourite novelistic careers.