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Tuesday, 31 March 2020

The things left unsaid in The Age of Innocence

Writing about Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf ponders, if she had lived longer: 
“She would have devised a method, clear and composed as ever, but deeper and more suggestive, for conveying not only what people say, but what they leave unsaid; not only what they are, but (if we may be pardoned the vagueness of the expression) what life is.” (full essay)   
This is something I’ve noticed in The Age of Innocence: Edith Wharton writes a lot about things people leave unsaid.  
(From where we are, the 2 writers may not seem that far apart, at least to some of us, but more than 100 years passed between Jane Austen’s last novel, Persuasion, which was published in 1818, and The Age of Innocence, which was published in 1920, exactly 100 years ago). 
In The Age of Innocence, I think there are 3 main kinds of silence: 
1/ As Edith Wharton focuses on Newland Archer’s perspective (instead of switching between perspectives as she does in The Custom of the Country or The House of Mirth), such moments are about him—we know the things he thinks but doesn’t say. 
Newland has a gentleman’s restraint. For example, look at this exchange between him and his sister Janey: 
“"Not the half of one—if she thinks such old maid's rubbish."
"Mother is not an old maid," said his virgin sister with pinched lips.
He felt like shouting back: "Yes, she is, and so are the van der Luydens, and so we all are, when it comes to being so much as brushed by the wing-tip of Reality." But he saw her long gentle face puckering into tears, and felt ashamed of the useless pain he was inflicting.” (Ch.10)
 As he’s a gentleman, bound by conventions, there is lots of restraint in his conversations with Ellen Olenska. For example, this is when he and Ellen discuss her intention to file for divorce: 
“It was on his lips to exclaim: "My poor child—far more harm than anywhere else!" Instead, he answered, in a voice that sounded in his ears like Mr. Letterblair's: "New York society is a very small world compared with the one you've lived in. And it's ruled, in spite of appearances, by a few people with—well, rather old-fashioned ideas."” (Ch.12) 
Then: 
“"And you take their view?"
He stood up at this, wandered across the room, stared with void eyes at one of the pictures against the old red damask, and came back irresolutely to her side. How could he say: "Yes, if what your husband hints is true, or if you've no way of disproving it?"
"Sincerely—" she interjected, as he was about to speak.” (ibid.)   
He cannot bring himself to ask if she’s involved with her husband’s secretary, as her husband threatens to bring against her in the divorce. 
“Since she would not or could not say the one word that would have cleared the air, his wish was not to let her feel that he was trying to probe into her secret. Better keep on the surface, in the prudent old New York way, than risk uncovering a wound he could not heal.” (ibid.) 
As they both leave things unsaid, especially on Newland’s side, they keep the discussion on the surface and make assumptions about each other, and end up misunderstanding each other. In the end, Ellen chooses not to have a divorce, to protect him, May, and their families, and they cannot be together. 
There are many more such moments in The Age of Innocence. Newland may see all the conventions and restrictions in his society, but he too is part of society—he too has been brought up that way. He also chooses restraint and leaves thing unsaid, he also hints or avoids subjects instead of speaking frankly, he also keeps things on the surface, he also uses stock phrases like everyone else. He is exactly like the people he secretly condemns. 
However, this makes it so good when he confesses his feelings to Ellen. There is lots of passion, and a real sense of release.  
Later on, Newland, now married, still has restraint when seeing Ellen. Here is the scene in Boston: 
“The young man's blush deepened. She had pronounced the word as if it had no more significance than any other in her vocabulary. For a moment it was on the tip of his tongue to ask: "Did he send his secretary, then?" But the remembrance of Count Olenski's only letter to his wife was too present to him. He paused again, and then took another plunge.
"And the person?"— ” (Ch.23) 
A bit later: 
“They sat silent, not looking at each other, but straight ahead at the people passing along the path. Finally she turned her eyes again to his face and said: "You're not changed."
He felt like answering: "I was, till I saw you again;" but instead he stood up abruptly and glanced about him at the untidy sweltering park.” (ibid.) 
There he’s repressing his passion. It is no use. He’s now married. Anything with her is impossible. 

2/ The 2nd kind of silence is the silence of nearness and understanding, between Newland and Ellen—it is enough to be near each other, they do not speak. 
“As the paddle-wheels began to turn, and wharves and shipping to recede through the veil of heat, it seemed to Archer that everything in the old familiar world of habit was receding also. He longed to ask Madame Olenska if she did not have the same feeling: the feeling that they were starting on some long voyage from which they might never return. But he was afraid to say it, or anything else that might disturb the delicate balance of her trust in him. In reality he had no wish to betray that trust. There had been days and nights when the memory of their kiss had burned and burned on his lips; the day before even, on the drive to Portsmouth, the thought of her had run through him like fire; but now that she was beside him, and they were drifting forth into this unknown world, they seemed to have reached the kind of deeper nearness that a touch may sunder.” (ibid.) 
Later: 
“"And that's to be all—for either of us?"
"Well; it is all, isn't it?"
At that he sprang up, forgetting everything but the sweetness of her face. She rose too, not as if to meet him or to flee from him, but quietly, as though the worst of the task were done and she had only to wait; so quietly that, as he came close, her outstretched hands acted not as a check but as a guide to him. They fell into his, while her arms, extended but not rigid, kept him far enough off to let her surrendered face say the rest.
They may have stood in that way for a long time, or only for a few moments; but it was long enough for her silence to communicate all she had to say, and for him to feel that only one thing mattered. He must do nothing to make this meeting their last; he must leave their future in her care, asking only that she should keep fast hold of it.” (Ch.24) 
This is a magnificent scene. Newland and Ellen understand each other without speaking, they don’t need to say a word. They just stand there, in the moment. 

3/ The 3rd kind of silence, which I find particularly interesting, is May’s silence.  
Wharton does something interesting when she chooses to focus on Newland’s perspective, instead of switching between different points of view. We know what he thinks, we can guess what Ellen thinks, but what about May? How much does she know? 
Through Newland’s eyes, Wharton creates the impression that May is young, inexperienced, conventional, narrow, pure, and innocent—a nice girl, basically. But at the same time, we can see that May is not really what he thinks she is.  
Take this passage: 
“His wise May—how he had loved her for that letter! But he had not meant to act on it; he was too busy, to begin with, and he did not care, as an engaged man, to play too conspicuously the part of Madame Olenska's champion. He had an idea that she knew how to take care of herself a good deal better than the ingenuous May imagined. She had Beaufort at her feet, Mr. van der Luyden hovering above her like a protecting deity, and any number of candidates (Lawrence Lefferts among them) waiting their opportunity in the middle distance. Yet he never saw her, or exchanged a word with her, without feeling that, after all, May's ingenuousness almost amounted to a gift of divination. Ellen Olenska was lonely and she was unhappy.” (Ch.13) 
May has a sensitivity and perceptiveness that Newland doesn’t realise she has. She’s not naïve and ignorant either—he thinks nothing reaches her, but for a long time she knows about his previous affair with Mrs Rushworth, she just doesn’t ask about it.  
In this aspect, Newland is reminiscent of Ralph Marvell in The Custom of the Country—he looks down on his wife and underestimates her. 
To me, it’s obvious that May knows Newland’s involved with Ellen. When he speaks of going to Boston for business, it’s not stated in the novel but it should be easy for her to know that Ellen would also be there, as they’re cousins.  
The whole thing about the trip to Washington makes it even clearer, to the reader though not to Newland, that she knows. When he mentions the trip the 1st time, she tells him to remember to visit Ellen, I suppose, to see his reaction, and to let him know that she knows he lies. When their grandmother Mrs Manson Mingott has a stroke and wants Ellen back, the way May mentions Newland’s Washington business trip, in front of everybody, shows her cunning. They would cross paths. 
Later on, when the Wellands argue about who should pick up Ellen, and Newland volunteers, it seems obvious that May has been waiting to see what he says, then she acts like it’s all good, to keep up the happy couple image in front of her parents. But afterwards, she cross-examines Newland about why his employer (Mr Letterblair) goes to Washington but he doesn’t. 
I’ve written enough. May is no simpleton, and her silence is much more interesting as Wharton hints that she knows a lot more than she shows.

Monday, 30 March 2020

Passion in The Age of Innocence

Edith Wharton can sure write about passion. Look: 
“"Then stay with me a little longer," Madame Olenska said in a low tone, just touching his knee with her plumed fan. It was the lightest touch, but it thrilled him like a caress.” (Ch.8) 
That is from an early meeting between Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska. 
“The words stole through him like a temptation, and to close his senses to it he moved away from the hearth and stood gazing out at the black tree-boles against the snow. But it was as if she too had shifted her place, and he still saw her, between himself and the trees, drooping over the fire with her indolent smile. Archer's heart was beating insubordinately. What if it were from him that she had been running away, and if she had waited to tell him so till they were here alone together in this secret room?” (Ch.15) 
If I had good concentration now, I would be very tempted to reread Anna Karenina to see the way Tolstoy writes about passion.
Contrast the way Newland feels about Ellen, with the way he feels about May: 
“The young man was sincerely but placidly in love. He delighted in the radiant good looks of his betrothed, in her health, her horsemanship, her grace and quickness at games, and the shy interest in books and ideas that she was beginning to develop under his guidance.” (Ch.6) 
The word “radiant” or “radiance” seems to be linked to May: 
“The day was delectable. […] It was the weather to call out May's radiance, and she burned like a young maple in the frost. Archer was proud of the glances turned on her, and the simple joy of possessorship cleared away his underlying perplexities.” (Ch.10) 
He loves May’s looks, and he’s aware that she’s seen as a prize, so to speak (especially after they’re married), but she doesn’t inspire passion in him as Ellen does. Several times he travels to meet Ellen, on an impulse (Skuytercliffe, then the Blenkers’ house, then Boston). 
“He was not sure that he wanted to see the Countess Olenska again; but ever since he had looked at her from the path above the bay he had wanted, irrationally and indescribably, to see the place she was living in, and to follow the movements of her imagined figure as he had watched the real one in the summer-house. The longing was with him day and night, an incessant undefinable craving, like the sudden whim of a sick man for food or drink once tasted and long since forgotten. He could not see beyond the craving, or picture what it might lead to, for he was not conscious of any wish to speak to Madame Olenska or to hear her voice. He simply felt that if he could carry away the vision of the spot of earth she walked on, and the way the sky and sea enclosed it, the rest of the world might seem less empty.” (Ch.22) 
The passages about passion in The Age of Innocence are too great not to share. 
“As the paddle-wheels began to turn, and wharves and shipping to recede through the veil of heat, it seemed to Archer that everything in the old familiar world of habit was receding also. He longed to ask Madame Olenska if she did not have the same feeling: the feeling that they were starting on some long voyage from which they might never return. But he was afraid to say it, or anything else that might disturb the delicate balance of her trust in him. In reality he had no wish to betray that trust. There had been days and nights when the memory of their kiss had burned and burned on his lips; the day before even, on the drive to Portsmouth, the thought of her had run through him like fire; but now that she was beside him, and they were drifting forth into this unknown world, they seemed to have reached the kind of deeper nearness that a touch may sunder.” (Ch.23) 
Is that not magnificent? 
The writing is even better because the passion is unfulfilled: 
“… for a man sick with unsatisfied love, and parting for an indefinite period from the object of his passion, he felt himself almost humiliatingly calm and comforted. It was the perfect balance she had held between their loyalty to others and their honesty to themselves that had so stirred and yet tranquillized him; a balance not artfully calculated, as her tears and her falterings showed, but resulting naturally from her unabashed sincerity. It filled him with a tender awe, now the danger was over, and made him thank the fates that no personal vanity, no sense of playing a part before sophisticated witnesses, had tempted him to tempt her. Even after they had clasped hands for good-bye at the Fall River station, and he had turned away alone, the conviction remained with him of having saved out of their meeting much more than he had sacrificed.” (Ch.25) 
The Age of Innocence is such a great book. Like The House of Mirth and The Custom of the Country, it has some critique of high society and social conventions, but it’s much mellower, especially as Edith Wharton wrote this novel after the war and her perspective now changed. The Age of Innocence has a tenderness and melancholy not in the other novels, and there is also lots of passion. 




__________________________________________

Now, I must admit that a part of me disapproves of Newland Archer. I empathise with him, but can’t help feeling that he’s a coward and he’s being unfair to both May and Ellen, especially May. When he meets and falls in love with Ellen, he’s engaged but not married to May, he’s still free; Ellen is legally married, but separated, and seeking a divorce. It would be difficult, there would be a scandal, but he’s not in the same situation as, say, Anna Karenina. 
I don’t think I’m judging Newland from the modern perspective. His choice, I can’t help thinking, cannot be seen purely in abstract terms as a choice between individualism/ human needs and social conventions/ public image/ other people’s expectations. On the one hand, I understand that breaking the engagement in order to marry Ellen would hurt everyone involved and both families, but on the other hand, is it not worse that he marries May but yearns for Ellen and keeps thinking that May is innocent, conventional, limited, and doesn’t have what Ellen’s got? Newland himself says that Ellen gives him a glimpse of real life, and his life with May is a sham one. 
On a personal level I find it difficult to sympathise with Newland completely—he realises his feelings for Ellen, but instead of thinking about it and considering everything, he decides to shorten the engagement and hurry the wedding. Then he goes on with the wedding after he and Ellen have confessed their feelings to each other. 
Perhaps it’s too early to write about these things—I might change my view at the end of the book. People feel for Newland and Ellen, and their thwarted desire, I find myself caring more about May. It’s unjust to her.

Saturday, 28 March 2020

Edith Wharton and other writers

I have written before about the similarities and differences between Edith Wharton and Jane Austen, so there’s no need to write again. The gist of it is that I love and admire them both for their acute perception and deep understanding of people, their sharp tongue, irony, and wry humour, and for their vividly drawn characters, but they have different styles, approaches, themes, and concerns, which is a good thing. 
If anyone asks, I’d say I prefer Jane Austen, which is to be expected because I discovered her several years ago and have read all her works, including the incomplete works, just not the juvenilia. She’s also the author that I feel closest to my heart (even though Tolstoy’s a greater writer), because of her views on relationships, and her ideas about balance, moderation, self-awareness, and the different virtues. However, that’s my personal taste, I get it if someone else prefers Wharton.    
In terms of psychological insight, I think Wharton is comparable to George Eliot, and both of them are interested in moral choice, except that Wharton’s novels don’t have an intrusive narrator and a moralising tone. Some critics have said Wharton’s very harsh on her female characters, but so is George Eliot on the female characters she disapproves of—just look at her stabs at Celia Brooke and Rosamond Vincy. I can’t help trying to imagine Undine Spragg under George Eliot’s pen. 
The main difference between these 2 writers is that, even though both deal with moral choice, George Eliot’s interested in sympathy (selflessness vs selfishness), kindness/ philanthropy, and human connection, Edith Wharton’s more concerned with dignity and self-respect. George Eliot focuses on the relations between people, Wharton concentrates on the conflict between the individual and society, exploring ideas about freedom vs conventions, human needs/ passions vs social duties, and so on. 
As I have written several times before, George Eliot is a writer I respect immensely but always struggle with. Readers who can get along well with her would probably find her more philosophical, and in a way, larger than Wharton. My aesthetics is heavily influenced by Tolstoy, Flaubert, and Nabokov, so I personally dislike the intrusive narrator, especially when I feel she is spoon-feeding readers something that could be suggested or hinted (here and here). It is easy to see why I prefer and think more highly of Wharton as an artist. 
Now, what about Edith Wharton and Henry James? So far, I have deliberately avoided mentioning James or making any comparison, because I have read lots of articles and essays in which the author writes at length about how James is superior and how Wharton doesn’t do certain things he does. This is something I don’t understand, because if they love James so much, why do they write about Wharton at all?  
I also take issues with it when someone sees her as a lesser James, or [insert adjective] James, because to me, she’s not [anything] James, she’s Edith Wharton. 
Whilst it is true that he’s her mentor, they both write about the American upper class, and they both tell a single story in each novel (instead of several strands of stories as Tolstoy and George Eliot do), they are very different. 
Look at this passage from Edmund Wilson: 
“Her work was then the desperate product of a pressure of maladjustments; and it very soon took a direction totally different from that of Henry James, as a lesser disciple of whom she is sometimes pointlessly listed. James's interests were predominantly esthetic: He is never a passionate social prophet; and only rarely—as in The Ivory Tower, which seems in turn to have derived from Mrs. Wharton—does he satirize plutocratic America. But a passionate social prophet is precisely what Edith Wharton became. At her strongest and most characteristic, she is a brilliant example of the writer who relieves an emotional strain by denouncing his generation.” (full essay
(Notice how Wilson has to say she’s a lesser disciple?)
Here is a fairer comparison, from Marilyn French: 
“It is true that they were personally close and perhaps had similar sensibilities, and that they were looking at the same world. But James, a man, emphasized the individual within society; he had a strong sense of legitimacy that strengthened and colored what he created, Wharton was far more aware of the power of the environment over the individual, of the sapping of energy caused by a sense of illegitimacy, and of the impossibility of getting beyond the bodily and social consequences of sex. James’s genius was linguistic and psychological; Wharton’s was sociological and psychological. Without seeming to diminish James—who cannot be diminished—one must separate the two authors and focus on Wharton’s excellences. She has a wider scope; she is more interested in the particular experience of women; and she had a profounder sense of constriction.” (full essay)
Comparison is not necessarily a problem, but critics usually pair Edith Wharton with, and compare her to, Henry James, in order to diminish and denigrate her, which is not only pointless but also foolish, because they’re different. 
Personally I prefer Wharton. It might be too early to say, because I’m reading the 3rd Wharton novel, and from James have only read The Portrait of a Lady, Washington Square, The Turn of the Screw, and some short works including “Daisy Miller”. However, my impression so far is that I admire James but can’t warm to him. Wharton’s also interested in nuance and subtlety, but she’s more direct, more energetic, and not so vague.  
Her characters are also more vivid. Lately I’ve been thinking about The Portrait of a Lady—a novel I struggled with at the beginning and came to appreciate. I finished it, thinking it’s a great book and particularly admiring the way James writes about silence and things left unsaid. But having finished reading, I find myself rarely thinking about it afterwards (the way I often think about Anna Karenina, Mansfield Park, or Madame Bovary), and a few years later, barely remember anything beyond the general plot. My memory of the book is all muddled up, and all the characters, including Isabel Archer, are very vague to me. It’s not about time, as Anna Karenina or Nastasha Rostova is still vivid to me, for instance, but about the book, as I remember thinking the characters are never not vague, I just came to accept it as I learnt to appreciate the other strengths and qualities of James’s book. Their motives are never clear, but even their character is not very clear. 
The vagueness is the point of The Portrait of a Lady—Isabel Archer is always behind some kind of screen, we never come to understand her or see her clearly, the same way the men in the story never fully understand her. Within the book, it works—we wonder what she would do next, then wonder why she does what she does, but never get a clear answer. The same argument can be made for Washington Square—it’s about the battle of minds, and a lot hinges on other characters predicting Catherine’s actions and guessing her motives.   
But somehow I like Washington Square (my preference is probably a controversial opinion), while The Portrait of a Lady becomes very abstract to me. The vagueness of the characters in The Portrait of a Lady works for the novel and what James was doing, but to me, it seems to work in an abstract sense—the vagueness becomes a hindrance to me appreciating the book in the long run, as I forget the book and can’t see any of the characters.
I don’t expect to forget Lily Bart and Undine Spragg. 
The more I write about Henry James, the clearer it appears to me how different they are. 
I also think Edith Wharton’s more visual. To quote from Marilyn French again: 
“Wharton had an intense visual awareness, especially of nature—a sensitivity she shares with many of her characters. She had an intense visual awareness of interiors as well. […] She was able to conjure an entire way of life with a few concrete details.    
[…] Wharton’s visual apprehension included people as well as things. She noted vividly postures, gestures, manners of speech, manners of walk, the tilt of a head, the way someone held a handkerchief. She paid attention to clothes, but also to the way they were worn. She knew that surfaces reveal values, that the depiction of significant details creates the texture of a life, and that the deepest beliefs of a person or a culture are perceptible in that texture.” 
As a writer, James is more psychological and metaphorical than visual. Wharton doesn’t go as far as Flaubert, but she’s more visual than James, her writing is more sensuous. I have written before about the use of light in The House of Mirth, for instance. This is another reason I prefer Wharton. 
Most importantly, The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, and now The Age of Innocence have affected me a lot more strongly than anything I’ve read from James.
Edith Wharton’s not a lesser Henry James. She’s Edith Wharton. And she should be recognised for her own excellences.

Thursday, 26 March 2020

Random thoughts on The Age of Innocence

1/ At the beginning, The Age of Innocence has a harshness that can be found in The House of Mirth and The Custom of the Country. I mean, look at this passage for instance: 
“The immense accretion of flesh which had descended on her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon. She had accepted this submergence as philosophically as all her other trials, and now, in extreme old age, was rewarded by presenting to her mirror an almost unwrinkled expanse of firm pink and white flesh, in the centre of which the traces of a small face survived as if awaiting excavation. A flight of smooth double chins led down to the dizzy depths of a still-snowy bosom veiled in snowy muslins that were held in place by a miniature portrait of the late Mr. Mingott; and around and below, wave after wave of black silk surged away over the edges of a capacious armchair, with two tiny white hands poised like gulls on the surface of the billows.” (Ch.4) 
Wow. 
“…she waved one of her tiny hands, with small pointed nails and rolls of aged fat encircling the wrist like ivory bracelets.” (ibid.) 
Ugh.
That is Mrs Manson Mingott, or Old Catherine, May’s grandmother. I didn’t feel it at the time, but now that I’ve singled it out, there’s something about the passage that makes it stand out a bit, like it belongs in a different kind of book. 
Later on, I started to notice a change, and compared to the other 2 novels, The Age of Innocence has a tenderness and melancholy that I like.

2/ For those who don’t know the story, The Age of Innocence is about Newland Archer, in New York high society in the 1870s, who is engaged to a young woman named May Welland but finds himself falling in love with her cousin Ellen Olenska. 
I keep thinking about May as the brunette Winona Ryder and Ellen as the blond Michelle Pfeiffer, but Martin Scorsese’s film switches the hair colour. 
In Edith Wharton’s novel, Ellen has dark hair. 
“It was that of a slim young woman, a little less tall than May Welland, with brown hair growing in close curls about her temples and held in place by a narrow band of diamonds.” (Ch.1) 
Later: 
“The light touched to russet the rings of dark hair escaping from her braids, and made her pale face paler.” (Ch.9) 
Now look at May: 
“As Madame Nilsson's "M'ama!" thrilled out above the silent house (the boxes always stopped talking during the Daisy Song) a warm pink mounted to the girl's cheek, mantled her brow to the roots of her fair braids, and suffused the young slope of her breast to the line where it met a modest tulle tucker fastened with a single gardenia.” (Ch.1) 
Later: 
“Across the warm brown of her cheek her blown hair glittered like silver wire; and her eyes too looked lighter, almost pale in their youthful limpidity.” (Ch.16) 
I’m not quite sure what colour her hair is meant to be—platinum blond?  
This is interesting, because of the traditional association of blond hair with a pure and innocent image, and dark brown hair with something mysterious, exotic/ foreign, passionate, dark, and dangerous (the outsider Mrs Struthers, for example, has intensely black hair). 
(There is, as it turns out, a book called Representations of Hair in Victorian Literature and Culture). 
Wharton also uses colours and flowers to present May and Ellen as opposites: May wears white a few times, Ellen wears dark blue velvet or red velvet; Archer associates May with lilies-of-the-valley and Ellen with yellow roses, and so on.  

3/ There is a lot of interior design in the novel, a lot more than in the other 2 novels. Wharton herself wrote a book called The Decoration of Houses, and also wrote about garden design in Italian Villas and Their Gardens
I find myself missing out on all these descriptions and details because I don’t understand anything from mahogany to rosewood and damask and such.  
However, something stands out in the description of Ellen’s house: 
“…what struck him was the way in which Medora Manson's shabby hired house, with its blighted background of pampas grass and Rogers statuettes, had, by a turn of the hand, and the skilful use of a few properties, been transformed into something intimate, "foreign," subtly suggestive of old romantic scenes and sentiments. He tried to analyse the trick, to find a clue to it […] in the vague pervading perfume that was not what one put on handkerchiefs, but rather like the scent of some far-off bazaar, a smell made up of Turkish coffee and ambergris and dried roses.” (Ch.9) 
Ambergris! That probably doesn’t mean much to other people, but it sure is exciting to a fan of Moby Dick
Also this line:
“It was usual for ladies who received in the evenings to wear what were called "simple dinner dresses": a close-fitting armour of whale-boned silk…” (Ch.12) 
What is whale-boned silk? Is it silk from baleen? Silk and baleen? 

4/ This is a funny passage: 
“Mr. Jackson, if perfection had been attainable on earth, would also have asked that Mrs. Archer's food should be a little better. But then New York, as far back as the mind of man could travel, had been divided into the two great fundamental groups of the Mingotts and Mansons and all their clan, who cared about eating and clothes and money, and the Archer-Newland-van-der-Luyden tribe, who were devoted to travel, horticulture and the best fiction, and looked down on the grosser forms of pleasure.
You couldn't have everything, after all. If you dined with the Lovell Mingotts you got canvas-back and terrapin and vintage wines; at Adeline Archer's you could talk about Alpine scenery and "The Marble Faun"; and luckily the Archer Madeira had gone round the Cape.” (Ch.5) 
I like travel and the best fiction, but also like good food, nice clothes, and money. Maybe I’m greedy. 
Canvas-back and terrapin is fancy duck and turtle meat, in case anyone wonders. 

5/ See this passage about Archer’s previous relationship: 
“He passed for a young man who had not been afraid of risks, and he knew that his secret love-affair with poor silly Mrs. Thorley Rushworth had not been too secret to invest him with a becoming air of adventure. But Mrs. Rushworth was "that kind of woman"; foolish, vain, clandestine by nature, and far more attracted by the secrecy and peril of the affair than by such charms and qualities as he possessed.” (Ch.11) 
Hold on, is that a Mansfield Park reference? It looks like it.
The next bit is more interesting: 
“The affair, in short, had been of the kind that most of the young men of his age had been through, and emerged from with calm consciences and an undisturbed belief in the abysmal distinction between the women one loved and respected and those one enjoyed—and pitied. In this view they were sedulously abetted by their mothers, aunts and other elderly female relatives, who all shared Mrs. Archer's belief that when "such things happened" it was undoubtedly foolish of the man, but somehow always criminal of the woman. All the elderly ladies whom Archer knew regarded any woman who loved imprudently as necessarily unscrupulous and designing, and mere simple-minded man as powerless in her clutches. The only thing to do was to persuade him, as early as possible, to marry a nice girl, and then trust to her to look after him.” (ibid.) 
This is, I believe, an important passage, especially the bit about “the abysmal distinction between the women one loved and respected and those one enjoyed—and pitied”.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Pandemic journal

LEEDS, THE UNITED KINGDOM—For some time, I’ve been restricting movement and mostly staying home, except the 2 times I went out last week for interpreting appointments. 
I’ve been sick for a few weeks, but judging from the symptoms, I’m quite sure it’s a normal flu, not coronavirus.
Last week, after I attended an interpreting appointment at LGI and the patient didn’t turn up, I walked to the coronavirus testing pod nearby, which looked like a construction site, and was told through intercom that I wasn’t allowed to get tested. They only accepted in-patients and no longer did community testing. But at the same time I was also told not to go to a GP if having any flu-like symptoms—doesn’t that mean that I can only get tested if it gets serious, and I’m near death? What then is the point? 
Anyway. 
I wish I could write a nice, cheery blog post about new hobbies or creative activities during the pandemic, but I can’t. We all know the pandemic has affected lots of industries, lots of businesses, lots of jobs, and the people getting hurt the most are the self-employed who can’t work from home. Like me. 
I work as a face-to-face interpreter in the medical sector—is it deemed essential? I don’t know. For some time I was conscious I was taking all the appointments because the other Vietnamese interpreters seemed to disappear or stay away, then I got sick and cancelled a few. Now it’s a dilemma—if I stay home in self-isolation, there’s no sick pay, but if I accept the bookings, is it worth it? If I don’t have coronavirus, I’m still unwell and wouldn’t want to contract it and be attacked by 2 viruses at the same time. If I do have coronavirus, I could potentially infect doctors and patients and other vulnerable people at the hospital or clinic, and worse, might make the clinic shut down. And how do I make an informed decision when I can’t get tested?  
Not only so, I’m registered as interpreter at 2 companies—Language Line (which is all right) and a shitty company I shall not name for now. I called the shitty company the other day to ask when I would be paid, as I was told it would be about 3 weeks—as it turned out, they made a rule that for new interpreters, it would take 50 working days to process, which means that I wouldn’t be paid till May for my work at the end of February. No exceptions, even during the time of the pandemic. Fantastic. 
I also asked if they had any change about their cancellation fee policy, which I saw as inhumane—an interpreter has to cancel an appointment over 7 days before, or pay £10 within 7 days, £25 within 2 days (much higher than the hourly rate), even if they’re sick, unless they can get a doctor’s note, which you don’t get unless you’re sick for several days. If you have any flu-like symptoms, you can’t see a GP. I asked the shitty company, and no, there’s no change, no exception. Even in the time of a pandemic, an interpreter who falls ill has to choose between paying a fee of £25 (making the previous working hour free, and more) and dragging their sick ass to the hospital, infecting everyone. Amazing.  
My main income is now from writing, which isn’t much. The magazine for which I write is based in Texas, the US, and they’ve just been made to close temporarily for 2 weeks, which means that I lose an article this month and another article next month.  
I also have to pause asking for film jobs and work experience, because most film productions are now cancelled or postponed, and everyone is uncertain about what’s happening. 
Is it just me or is everything shit? 
The stress about money only makes my depression worse. 
But enough whining. We all survive, I’ve got my bf with me, my mom’s all right, it’s not the end of the world, and this too shall pass. 
My concentration these days isn’t good as usual, as I easily get distracted, but I’ve been reading and enjoying The Age of Innocence. I do wonder if I’ve been reading the Edith Wharton novels too close to each other—perhaps there should have been a bigger gap. The world she depicts, New York high society, is so stifling, with so many subtle rules and conventions. As my mind wanders, I start to compare Edith Wharton to Jane Austen again. I know Wharton sometimes writes ghost stories, or writes about a different class, such as in Ethan Frome, but when she does write about the same class and the same society, as Austen does in her 6 novels, there is a sameness about them, and her writing is great but also suffocating, whereas Austen, despite always writing about the landed gentry and focusing on a female protagonist, seems to have greater range and more versatility. Look at The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, and The Age of Innocence. Then look at Pride and Prejudice (bright, light, and sparking), Mansfield Park (sombre, introspective), Emma (satire with a mystery) and Persuasion (autumnal, warm, romantic), and see how different they are in subject and tone.  
Having said that, I do enjoy the writing of The Age of Innocence. I suppose I feel the suffocation more because I’m self-isolating, and recently read 2 other Wharton novels that were also suffocating. Hopefully I can find something to write about. 
How are you doing? I hope you all are fine during the pandemic. Take care.

Thursday, 19 March 2020

Interpreting My Cousin Rachel: is Rachel innocent or guilty?

“No one will ever guess the burden of blame I carry on my shoulders; nor will they know that every day, haunted still by doubt, I ask myself a question which I cannot answer. Was Rachel innocent or guilty? Maybe I shall learn that, too, in purgatory.” (Ch.1) 
Readers of My Cousin Rachel would either be Team Philip or Team Rachel. The book is ambiguous, we have to decide for ourselves if Rachel is a femme fatale who poisons Ambrose then Philip, or a victim of the men’s misogyny, doubt, and paranoia. 
I’m Team Rachel. Under Daphne du Maurier’s skilful hands, Philip, the narrator, leads us to think that he’s naïve and inexperienced, and Rachel plays him, but Daphne du Maurier leaves lots of little clues. In the previous blog posts, I have pointed out how Philip is an unreliable narrator; he is also sexist, selfish, and controlling, with violent tendencies
Just compare the way Philip and Rachel treat animals. Quite earlier on in the novel, I felt inclined to trust Rachel because the dogs liked her. 
Now look at Philip and his horse Gypsy:
“[Wellington] clucked his tongue at sight of Gypsy in a lather. 
“This won’t do at all, Mr, Philip, sir,” he said, as I dismounted, and I felt as guilty as I used to do when on holiday from Harrow, “You know the mare catches cold when overheated, and here you’ve been and brought her back steaming. She’s in no condition to follow hounds, if that’s what you’ve been doing.” 
“If I’d been following hounds I’d be away on Bodmin moor,” I said. “Don’t be an ass, Wellington. I’ve been over to see Mr. Kendall on business, and then went into town. I’m sorry about Gypsy, but it can’t be helped. I don’t think she’ll come to harm.” 
“I hope not, sir,” said Wellington, and he began running his hands over poor Gypsy’s flanks as though I had put her to a steeplechase.” (Ch.13) 
He is indifferent to his own horse, and doesn’t understand Wellington’s concern. This is worse:  
“I mounted Gypsy and climbed the hill, and to spare myself the further mileage of the high road turned down where the four roads met, and into the avenue. We were more sheltered here, but scarce had gone a hundred yards before Gypsy suddenly hobbled and went lame, and rather than go into the lodge and have the business of removing the stone that had cut into her shoe, and having gossip there, I decided to dismount and lead her gently home. The gale had brought down branches that lay strewn across our path, and the trees that yesterday had been so still tossed now, and swayed, and shivered with the misty rain.” (Ch.23) 
Wouldn’t that be painful for the horse? He doesn’t want gossip, so he doesn’t go into the lodge to get the stone removed, and instead, forces his horse to keep going in the rain, with the stone still there. 
Now look at the scene after Philip’s old dog Don has an accident. 
“I went to the library. Rachel was kneeling there on the floor, with Don’s head pillowed in her lap. She raised her eyes when I came into the room. “They have killed him,” she said, “he is dying. Why did you stay away so long? If you had been here, it would not have happened.” 
Her words sounded like an echo to something long forgotten in my mind. But what it was I could not now remember. Seecombe went from the library, leaving us alone. The tears that filled her eyes ran down her face. “Don was your possession,” she said, “your very own. You grew up together. I can’t bear to see him die.” 
I went and knelt beside her on the floor, and I realised that I was thinking, not of the letter buried deep beneath the granite slab, nor of poor Don so soon to die, stretched out there between us, his body limp and still. I was thinking of one thing only. It was the first time since she had come to my house that her sorrow was not for Ambrose, but for me.” (Ch.18) 
There’s a clear difference between the 2 characters, in the way they react to Don’s suffering. Now look at them after the dog’s dead and buried: 
“I sat beside her and took her hands. “I think he did not suffer”, I said to her. “I think he had no pain.” 
“Fifteen long years,” she said, “the little boy of ten, who opened his birthday pie. I kept remembering the story, as he lay there with his head in my lap.” 
“In three weeks’ time,” I said, “it will be the birthday once again. I shall be twenty-five. Do you know what happens on that day?” (Ch.19) 
He changes the subject. 
If you look at all of these passages, who do you think has more feeling and compassion? Who do you think you can trust? 
Note too that Philip chokes Rachel once, and seems to have no remorse.
Daphne du Maurier leaves lots of little clues throughout the novel. For example, I think it’s likely that Rainaldi is gay. There is nothing obvious, but note this observation: 
“I watched him smoking his cigar, and thought how smooth his hands were for a man. They had a kind of feminine quality that did not fit in with the rest of him, and the great ring, on his little finger, was out of place.” (Ch.25) 
When Philip mentions his suspicions to Rachel: 
““He is in love with you. And has been, now, for years.” 
“What utter nonsense . . .” She paced up and down the little room, from the fireplace to the window, her hands clasped in front of her. “Here is a man who has stood beside me through every trial and trouble. Who has never misjudged me, or tried to see me as other than I am. He knows my faults, my weaknesses, and does not condemn them, but accepts me at my own value. Without his help, through all the years that I have known him — years of which you know nothing — I would have been lost indeed. Rainaldi is my friend. My only friend.”” (ibid.)  
If Rainaldi were straight, Rachel would perfectly understand Philip’s jealousy as there would, indeed, be a possibility of him being in love with her. Her reaction makes me believe Rainaldi is gay, and this reading would be in keeping with Philip’s paranoia and delusion—mistakenly seeing Rachel’s gay friend as her lover. 
But to go back to the question of whether Rachel is innocent or guilty, I think it’s fair to ask if Rachel would gain anything by poisoning Ambrose and Philip. 
In the case of Ambrose, the answer is no. At that point, he hasn’t changed his will, and when he’s dead, the entire estate goes to Philip. Rachel has no motivation to poison him—poisoning someone (so it looks like a long disease) is a long game, not an act of impulse.  
In the case of Philip, again the answer is no. The estate has been transferred to her, she has money, and she’s been staying at the house to nurse Philip. As Rachel has said, she waits for him to get better so she can return to Italy—poisoning him would only prolong the period of nursing him and delay the return. As the estate belongs to her legally, there is no reason for her to do anything to Philip. 
In fact, readers who pay attention can see that the new will gives Rachel everything but she only takes some of the money, lets Philip live in the house whilst she intends to return to her villa in Florence, and by the end, whilst Philip’s searching for proof to incriminate her, he discovers that she has returned all the jewels to the bank for him. She doesn’t take any of them. 
Rachel’s fear of Philip’s violence wouldn’t be a convincing argument either, because she already plans to go away from him. 
In short, with all these reasons and all these clues, I find it hard to see how people would still think Rachel’s guilty and Philip’s to be trusted.

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

My Cousin Rachel: Philip’s other side

In my previous blog post about My Cousin Rachel, I wrote that Philip Ashley’s a naïve, inexperienced man, an easy prey for Rachel—she twists him around her fingers. For some time, I thought that he was foolish, blinded by his infatuation, easily manipulated, and willing to give up his fortune in the name of love. 
Daphne du Maurier subverts expectations by depicting a relationship between a man without much experience and an older woman—it is a remarkable scene of the day after Philip and Rachel have sex, Philip exultant then confused, believing that it means they will married, Rachel serene like nothing happened.
However, the relationship is not so simple—Daphne du Maurier doesn’t depict a simplistic situation where Rachel is charming and manipulative and Philip is an innocent victim. 
Look at this scene when Rainaldi, Rachel’s Italian friend, is visiting: 
“He had power over her, because he had the management of her affairs, and it was this power that might take her back to Florence. I believed that was the purpose of his visit, so to drum it into her, and possibly to tell her also that the allowance the estate paid to her would not be sufficient to maintain her indefinitely. I had the trump card, and he did not know it. In three weeks’ time she would be independent of Rainaldi for the rest of her life.” (Ch.20)   
I read this passage, amused by Philip’s naïvete and lack of awareness, especially when he believes himself to have the trump card. Such a fool. His godfather Nick Kendall and a letter from Ambrose tell him about Rachel’s extravagance, and he still wants to transfer his whole estate to her. During Rainaldi’s 7 days in the house, he and Rachel talk in Italian, and Philip has no way of knowing what they talk about and what they plan, except that now and then he hears his name mentioned. 
When Rachel, Rainaldi, Nick Kendall and his daughter Louise, talk about Rachel going to London, Philip thinks: 
“They little knew I had a plot to fox them all.” (ibid.) 
Again, I thought, what a fool. 
But now my view of Philip is no longer the same. We know that he grows up with Ambrose, a self-proclaimed woman-hater, who doesn’t have a female servant. We know that he has little experience with, or knowledge of, women. But he’s not just naïve. 
For example, look at this early scene, after an argument: 
“I poured myself out a glass of claret, and sat down alone at the head of the table. Christ! I thought, so that’s how women behave. I had never felt so angry, nor so spent. Long days in the open, working with the men at harvest time; arguments with tenants behindhand with their rent or involved in some quarrel with a neighbour which I had to settle; nothing of this could compare to five minutes with a woman whose mood of gaiety had turned in a single instant to hostility. And was the final weapon always tears? Because they knew full well the effect upon the watcher? I had another glass of claret. As to Seecombe, who hovered at my elbow, I could have wished him a world away.” (Ch.13) 
That is the behaviour of a 14-year-old, not a 24-year-old. 
“This, I supposed, was what men faced when they were married. Slammed doors, and silence. Dinner alone. So that appetite, whipped up by the long day’s outing, and the relaxation of the bath-tub, and the pleasure of a tranquil evening by the fire passed in intermittent conversation, watching with lazy ease hands that were white and small against embroidery, had to simmer down. […] And what was she doing? Lying on her bed? Were the candles snuffed, the curtains drawn, and the room in darkness? Or was the mood over now, and did she sit sedately in the boudoir, dry-eyed, eating her dinner off the tray, to make a show for Seecombe? I did not know. I did not care. Ambrose had been so right when he used to say that women were a race apart. One thing was certain now. I should never marry. . .” (ibid.) 
She’s angry and upset, but all he cares about is himself and his loss of appetite. It is the same later, whenever they have a misunderstanding or a quarrel, Rachel is the one to apologise or soothe him, he sits there sulking like a spoilt kid. 
Philip, as a narrator, wants readers to think he’s naïve and foolish, but now and then lets it slip that he has something impulsive, even violent in him. He wants to strike Louise, wishes his godfather to die or go to hell because of the disagreement over the pearls, spends money on repairing the house and thinks his godfather can go hang himself if he doesn’t like it, wants to hit people for talking about Rachel leaving for London, etc. 
To go back to his decision to transfer the whole estate to Rachel, on the surface we see a foolish man losing reason and giving up his fortune for love, despite the gossip about Rachel’s extravagance and the suspicion about Ambrose’s cause of death. However, it is his way of preventing her from leaving, or to put it more crudely, his way of buying her, especially when he adds a clause in the document to prevent her from remarrying.  
If he wants to marry her, why doesn’t he ask? He doesn’t even confess his feelings. Instead, he sneaks behind everyone’s backs, gets Ambrose’s unsigned will and turns it into a valid document, transferring the whole estate to her on his 25th birthday (when his godfather is no longer his guardian), and keeps silent for 3 weeks.   
Afterwards, I mean after they have sex and after Rachel reads the document, he asks for marriage (in a so-not-romantic way) and they realise they have a misunderstanding, how does he react? 
“I tried to think what else I had to give. She had the property, the money, and the jewels. She had my mind, my body, and my heart. There was only my name, and that she bore already. Nothing remained. Unless it should be fear. I took the candle from her hand and placed it on the ledge, above the stairs. I put my hands about her throat, encircling it; and now she could not move, but watched me, her eyes wide. And it was as though I held a frightened bird in my two hands, which, with added pressure, would flutter awhile, and die, and with release would fly away to freedom.
‘‘Never leave me,” I said, “swear it, never, never.” She tried to move her lips in answer, but could not do so, because of the pressure of my hands. I loosened my grasp. She backed away from me, her fingers to her throat. There were two red weals where my hands had been, on either side of the pearl collar. 
“Will you marry me now?” I said to her. 
She gave no answer, but walked backwards from me, down the corridor, her eyes upon my face, her fingers still to her throat…” (Ch.22) 
What an ass. 
I don’t know why I’ve read quite a few reviews of My Cousin Rachel, and most of them only talked about Philip’s naïvete.

Sunday, 15 March 2020

Idle musings on male and female writers

As I read about the relationship between a charming, dominating woman and a naïve, inexperienced younger man in My Cousin Rachel, I can’t help idly wondering: what if the stories by Daphne du Maurier, Edith Wharton, or Jane Austen had been written by a man? 
Whilst the differences between men and women are sometimes exaggerated (like the idea that men can’t write women, for example), men and women are certainly different, biologically and socially, especially if we’re talking about the 19th century and early 20th century, when women don’t have equal rights.  
I’m not talking about a difference in prose or style. I don’t really believe in the idea of masculine prose vs feminine prose, certainly not the idea that by looking at a few sentences, you can tell if the author is a man or a woman.    
In terms of scope, there are male writers who work on a small canvas, focus on one strand of story, and pay attention to every detail and nuance, such as Henry James or Flaubert, just as there are female writers such as Jane Austen or Edith Wharton; and if some male writers such as Tolstoy or Dickens work on a larger canvas and tell multiple strands of stories, so does George Eliot. 
The difference I’m talking about is that books by women have a woman’s perspective, and a woman’s sensibilities, especially when we’re talking about the context of the 19th century and early 20th century, when women have less freedom, fewer rights, and fewer options. It’s hard to explain what I mean by “a woman’s sensibilities”, but I can see that in the works of Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Edith Wharton, etc. there is more sympathy for women, and more comment on gender inequality and women’s limited options. Even when there is a deeply unpleasant character, such as the shallow, selfish Rosamond Vincy in Middlemarch or the ignorant, frivolous, and opportunistic Undine Spragg in The Custom of the Country, the authors still let us see that, as a woman, they have limited options and narrow experience, and the men who love them, Lydgate and Ralph Marvell respectively, have a narrow, mistaken view of women and share the blame in their conflicts.   
There’s something else. In The Custom of the Country, the protagonist Undine Spragg is very ignorant, but she has social instinct and is extremely good at playing the game and using marriages to her advantage—she chews Ralph up and spits him out, then uses other men in the same way, and always gets what she wants. Now I’m reading Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel, in which a naïve, inexperienced man with a sheltered experience falls prey to an older woman and gets manipulated.  
I can’t help wondering, what if the stories of The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, Middlemarch, Mansfield Park, My Cousin Rachel, or Jane Eyre had been written by a male writer—say, Tolstoy, Dickens, or Flaubert? 
Also, how do you define a woman’s sensibilities?

Saturday, 14 March 2020

The unreliable narrator of My Cousin Rachel

A friend asked me about My Cousin Rachel—whether it’s atmospheric like Rebecca. I think I’d say no, the 2 novels are quite different. Rebecca is essentially about Manderley, and Rebecca’s presence in the house—her belongings, her style, her influence, her popularity among the employees. There are actions in Rebecca, especially in the later half, but a large part of the novel is in the narrator’s mind, as she obsesses over Rebecca, imagines people’s gossip about her and criticisms of her, or over-analyses her own awkwardness and inadequacy. 
My Cousin Rachel is also told from the 1st-person’s point of view and has a naïve, inexperienced narrator, but it is less internal. Daphne du Maurier also has the difficult task of writing Rachel—writing Rachel from Philip’s perspective, and so far I think she does very well. The reader can see why Philip likes Rachel, despite having believed her to be responsible for Ambrose’s condition and death. 
The guy is naïve and doesn’t have very good self-awareness. Sometimes he behaves like a child. 
“… I threw a lump of coal upon the fire, hoping the clatter bothered her. 
“I don’t know what’s come over you,” she said; “you are losing your sense of humour.” And she patted me on the shoulder and went upstairs. That was the infuriating thing about a woman. Always the last word. Leaving one to grapple with ill-temper, and she herself serene. A woman, it seemed, was never in the wrong. Or if she was, she twisted the fault to her advantage, making it seem otherwise. She would fling these pin-pricks in the air, these hints of moonlight strolls with my godfather, or some other expedition, a visit to Lostwithiel market, and ask me in all seriousness whether she should wear the new bonnet that had come by parcel post from London — the veil had a wider mesh and did not shroud her, and my godfather had told her it became her well. And when I fell to sulking, saying I did not care whether she concealed her features with a mask, her mood soared to serenity yet higher — the conversation was at dinner on the Monday — and while I sat frowning she carried on her talk with Seecombe, making me seem more sulky than I was.” (Ch.14) 
This is very telling: 
“Then in the library afterwards, with no observer present, she would relent; the serenity was with her still, but a kind of tenderness came too. […] I wondered, watching her hands with the silks, smoothing them and touching them, why it could not have been thus in the first place; why first the pin-prick, the barb of irritation to disturb the atmosphere, giving herself the trouble to make it calm again? It was as if my change of mood afforded her delight, but why it should do so I had no remote idea. I only knew that when she teased me I disliked it, and it hurt. And when she was tender I was happy and at peace.” (ibid.) 
It is obvious to readers, though not to Philip, that Rachel’s been playing him. She knows exactly how to control him, how to get the right information (e.g. find out his feelings about Louise and other women) or how to get him worked up, how to get him to do what she wants without realising it (e.g. she mentions teaching Italian to get him to sort out money for her, then acts angry when he does), and so on and so forth.  
At the same time, Rachel is very likeable, and the fact that she plays Philip and twists him around her fingers doesn’t necessarily mean that she’s manipulative, in a scheming, dangerous way, or guilty of Ambrose’s death. We have to see.  
It’s interesting, though, to see him become weaker and weaker, more deeply in love with Rachel, and less rational. 
See his reaction when he comes across an unfinished letter from Ambrose, stuck in a book: 
“I was swept by a kind of shame. What business was it of mine to probe back into that past, to wonder about a letter that had never reached me? It was not my affair. I wished to heaven I had not come upon it.” (Ch.15) 
His infatuation with Rachel becomes more important than his love for Ambrose and desire to find out the truth. He has forgotten about the final letters, he wants to forget this one. 
In fact, if we go back a bit, to the scene of Rachel and Philip opening the boxes and sorting out Ambrose’s belongings, I can’t help noting that even though there is some sadness, Philip’s more occupied with Rachel: 
“I kept moving my lips against her hair. It was a strange feeling. And she was very small, standing there against me.” (Ch.14)   
And: 
“I hoped she had not noticed — I had barely noticed it myself — that for the first time I had not called her cousin, but Rachel. I don’t know how it happened. I think it must have been because standing there, with my arms about her, she had been so much smaller than myself.” (ibid.) 
I know the point people often make is that Philip, in his inexperience, becomes easy prey for Rachel and loses all reason, but I can’t help finding it odd, the way he reacts to sorting out Ambrose’s possessions. I have faced loss myself, when my grandma passed away, I remember how I felt when going through her things and deciding what to do with them. Philip talks of his love for Ambrose, but I don’t quite see it. Not in this scene. Not in the scenes when he’s back from Italy either (see my previous blog post). 
He seems to move on very quickly, Rachel gets all of his attention. 
What does this mean? I do not know. But it’s interesting.

Wednesday, 11 March 2020

My Cousin Rachel: first impressions

Having dropped Stoner, I’m now going back to my plan to read more female writers this year—I’m reading My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier. 
At this point, Rachel hasn’t appeared. For those who don’t know the story: the novel is narrated by Philip, who is heir to his cousin Ambrose Ashley, 20 years his senior. For his whole life Ambrose has no interest in marriage and calls himself a woman-hater. For a few winters he goes to Italy for his health, where he meets Rachel, a distant relative, falls in love with her, and marries her. Everyone awaits his return, but there is delay, and he becomes ill. During this time he sends some worrying letters to Philip, who travels to Italy to “save” Ambrose (the travel is about 3 weeks), but when he arrives, Ambrose’s already dead from a brain tumour. Because of the letters, Philip firmly believes that Rachel has killed Ambrose, or is an enemy of some kind. 
I’ve seen the Rachel Weisz film, so I’m vaguely familiar with the plot—but even without the film, I know from the 1st chapter that the young, inexperienced Philip sets himself against Rachel but would fall in love with her.  
But there is something I notice that I didn’t know before. For those who don’t know the book, Ambrose dies suddenly in a foreign country, without altering his will, so he dies leaving Rachel nothing, and Philip inherits everything. 
Now look at this passage: 
“[Seecombe] waited upon me while I dined, solicitous, anxious for my welfare, and I was thankful that he did not press me with questions about my journey or about his master’s illness and death, but was full of the effect upon himself and the household: how the bells had tolled for a whole day, how the vicar had spoken, how wreaths had been brought in offering. And his words were punctuated with a new formality of address. I was “Mr” Philip. No longer “Master” Philip. I had noticed the same with the coachman and the groom. It was unexpected, yet strangely warming to the heart. 
When I had dined I went up to my room and looked about me, and then down into the library, and so out into the grounds, and I was filled with a queer feeling of happiness that I had not thought ever to possess with Ambrose dead…” (Ch.6) 
This is someone who is meant to be grieving for his closest family member, his father figure, his beloved cousin. 
Then: 
“I went out across the fields, and the men were harvesting. […] A year ago I would have rolled up my sleeves like the rest of the hinds, and seized a fork, but something stayed me now, a realisation that they would not think it fit.” (ibid.) 
He takes on the new role very quickly, doesn’t he? I mean: 
“It came upon me strongly and with force, and for the first time since I had learnt of Ambrose’s death, that everything I now saw and looked upon belonged to me. I need never share it with anyone living. Those walls and windows, that roof, the bell that struck seven as I approached, the whole living entity of the house was mine, and mine alone. The grass beneath my feet, the trees surrounding me, the hills behind me, the meadows, the woods, even the men and women farming the land yonder, were all part of my inheritance; they all belonged.” (ibid.) 
That is cold, no? We already see that, upon news of Ambrose’s marriage, Philip is bitter and resentful, instead of being happy for Ambrose. At that time, he knows that his position would change because of the marriage, especially if Rachel bears Ambrose a son.  
Now this: 
“… And [Louise] flushed again, silly girl, glancing up at her father to see how he would take it, as though we had not ridden backwards and forwards visiting one another before, times without number. Perhaps she also was impressed by my new status, and before I knew where I was I would become Mr. Ashley to her too, instead of Philip. I went back into the house, smiling at the idea of Louise Kendall, whose hair I used to pull only a few years back, now looking upon me with respect, and the next instant I forgot her, and my godfather as well, for on coming home there was much to do after two months’ absence.” (ibid.) 
Louise is daughter of Philip’s godfather, Nick Kendall.
All these things can’t be random, as they stress over and over again the same point that Philip seems very happy to inherit everything and become the new master of the house. There is little mention of grief or loneliness (though arguably grief could be the reason for his hatred of Rachel). 
I can’t help finding him obnoxious. When Seecombe (the servant) and he have a disagreement about Rachel and the will, this is what he thinks: 
“But I wondered, with a sudden flash of bitterness, what their manner would have been to me if, after all, I had not inherited the property. Would die deference be there? The respect? The loyalty? Or would I have been young Master Philip, a poor relative, with a room of my own stuck away somewhere at the back of the house? I knocked out my pipe, the taste was dry and dusty. How many people were there, I wondered, who liked me and served me for myself alone?” (Ch.7) 
Everyone, from Seecombe to Louise, expects Rachel, as the widow, to stay in Ambrose’s room when she arrives, but Philip perversely chooses to use it himself and gives her another room. It is understandable, because he firmly believes her to be responsible for Ambrose’s death, but there is something petty about it, especially when he previously believes that she goes away suddenly and takes Ambrose’s possessions, but it turns out that she wants to return them all—she wants nothing and demands nothing. 
This is the day Rachel’s meant to arrive: 
“I stood alone in the library, munching my sandwich of meat and bread. Alone, I thought, for the last time. Tonight she would be here, either in this room or in the drawing-room, an unknown hostile presence, stamping her personality upon my rooms, my house. She came as an intruder to my home. I did not want her. I did not want her or any woman, with peering eyes and questing fingers, forcing herself into the atmosphere, intimate and personal, that was mine alone. The house was still and silent, and I was part of it, belonging, as Ambrose had done and still did, somewhere in the shadows. We needed no one else to break the silence. 
[…] I judged that Wellington would be home with the carriage not earlier than five o’clock, so I determined to remain without until after six. They could wait dinner for me. Seecombe already had his instructions. If she was hungry, she must hold her hunger until the master of the house returned. It gave me satisfaction to think of her sitting alone in the drawing-room, dressed to the nines, full of self-importance and no one to receive her.” (ibid.) 
Again, this is very petty—note the obnoxious phrases “the master of the house”, “my home”, “mine alone”, etc. This is a comment on the character, not a criticism of Daphne du Maurier. 
My Cousin Rachel is meant to be an ambiguous novel—I suppose my view of Philip might very well influence my interpretation of his story and narration.

Saturday, 7 March 2020

Thoughts on Stoner, “the perfect novel”

John Williams’s Stoner has been called a perfect novel, the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of, etc. and been widely praised. I picked it up with high hopes, albeit fully aware of the controversy. 
I was disappointed. 
Over the past few days, I have been commenting on the book and discussing it with people: 
https://twitter.com/nguyenhdi/status/1234949608591306761 
https://twitter.com/nguyenhdi/status/1235162386774011910 (a poll) 
https://twitter.com/nguyenhdi/status/1235197867888971776 
https://twitter.com/nguyenhdi/status/1235286678094438402 
https://twitter.com/nguyenhdi/status/1235586345034276865 
https://twitter.com/nguyenhdi/status/1235884372848504832 
https://twitter.com/nguyenhdi/status/1236330136867426309
I lost interest about 2 days ago but continued, wanting to see how bad the marriage could get, but today decided to stop, somewhere after Grace’s birth and right before Lomax’s appearance.  
What shall I say?
My main problem with Stoner is that I don’t find Stoner compelling as a character, and don’t understand his motivations. I don’t mean that I can’t relate to the character, which to me isn’t a criterion of literary merit—in fact, I should be relating to him because of my love for literature, classic literature. Undine Spragg in The Custom of the Country is an example of a character I don’t like—she is a bitch, but a complicated, fascinating, compelling bitch; Humbert Humbert in Lolita is another example, who is repulsive but charismatic and interesting. William Stoner as a character is not compelling—he seems to pass through life and doesn’t have much of a personality, and I have no interest in him whatsoever.  
More importantly, the novel is puzzling because I don’t understand his motivations, and this is because the book is full of assertions but doesn’t show anything. For example, Stoner comes from a farming family and is sent off to university to study agriculture, then during his studies he decides to switch to literature, without saying a word to his parents. He studies for 4 years, his parents don’t know a thing till he has graduated. We are meant to understand that Stoner discovers a love for literature, but we are not shown how it happens, what Stoner thinks, how he comes to love literature and what he finds in books. I know I would make the same change, but I don’t know why Stoner himself makes the decision to change direction and go against his parents’ wish. I can’t even see his love for literature. 
The same can be said about his relationship with Edith. Stoner seems to fall in love with her at first sight, and proposes after 2 weeks. They get married after 2 months. The marriage turns out to be a horrible failure. Readers might have theories/ assumptions such as that Stoner gets married because that’s the only way he can get sex (to put it crudely), but if that’s the case, it’s not in the novel. I don’t think anyone knows why Stoner chooses Edith, why she accepts him and wants to have the wedding as soon as possible, why Edith’s parents ask about Stoner’s situation and know that he’s not rich but still approve of the marriage, or even why Stoner doesn’t let his own parents meet Edith until the day before the wedding. 
It’s hard to be invested in the story when I don’t know what the characters think, what they want, why they do what they do, and how they feel about what happens to them, most of the time. It is frustrating at times, when I want answers and don’t get any—the way Stoner just drifts away from his parents is strange, for instance. And if we're meant to sympathise with Stoner for his bad marriage (reviews say terrible wife), I find that difficult, considering the alarming lack of communication between them, and his lack of regard for her feelings.  
This is one of the passages that I think most feminists have problems with: 
“Within a month he knew that his marriage was a failure; within a year he stopped hoping that it would improve. He learned silence and did not insist upon his love. If he spoke to her or touched her in tenderness, she turned away from him within herself and became wordless, enduring, and for days afterward drove herself to new limits of exhaustion. Out of an unspoken stubbornness they both had, they shared the same bed; sometimes at night, in her sleep, she unknowingly moved against him. And sometimes, then, his resolve and knowledge crumbled before his love, and he moved upon her. If she was sufficiently roused from her sleep she tensed and stiffened, turning her head sideways in a familiar gesture and burying it in her pillow, enduring violation; at such times Stoner performed his love as quickly as he could, hating himself for his haste and regretting his passion. Less frequently she remained half numbed by sleep; then she was passive, and she murmured drowsily, whether in protest or surprise he did not know. He came to look forward to these rare and unpredictable moments, for in that sleep-drugged acquiescence he could pretend to himself that he found a kind of response.” (Ch.5) 
That is rapey, no? I quit halfway through so I don’t know how bad things can get—I’ve been told that Stoner, despite his ordinary life and his failures in work as well as marriage, should be seen as a heroic figure, because of his devotion to literature and to work. John Williams, I believe, sees him as heroic. I find that difficult. The protagonist doesn’t have to be perfect or morally good, I also see the point that he’s meant to be seen as a failure, but there’s a difference between a failed marriage because of, say, incompatibility (such as the Ralph- Undine marriage in The Custom of the Country) and a marriage where the husband doesn’t communicate with his wife about anything, doesn’t comfort her when she cries, doesn’t try to figure out why she’s afraid of touch, and forces sex on her whilst she sleeps. 
There is nothing spectacular about the prose either. Take this passage about Edith: 
“She was even taller than he remembered, and more fragile. Her face was long and slender, and she kept her lips closed over rather strong teeth. Her skin had the kind of transparency that shows a hint of color and warmth upon any provocation. Her hair was a light reddish-brown, and she wore it piled in thick tresses upon her head. But it was her eyes that caught and held him, as they had done the day before. They were very large and of the palest blue that he could image. When he looked at them he seemed drawn out of himself, into a mystery that he could not apprehend. He thought her the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, and he said impulsively ‘I—I want to know more about you’.” (Ch.3) 
The prose is plain, and flat. 
Or this passage: 
“After he had gone Edith remained for some minutes in the center of the room, staring at the closed door, as if trying to remember something. Then she moved restlessly across the floor, walking from one place to another, moving within her clothing as if she could not endure its rustling and shifting upon her flesh. She unbuttoned her stiff gray taffeta morning robe and let it drop to the floor. She crossed her arms over her breasts and hugged herself, kneading the flesh of her upper arms through her thin flannel nightgown. Again she paused in her moving and walked purposely into the tiny bedroom and opened a closet door, upon the inside of which hung a full-length mirror. She adjusted the mirror to the light and stood back from it, inspecting the long thin figure in the straight blue nightgown that it reflected. Without removing her eyes from the mirror she unbuttoned the top of her gown and pulled it up from her body and over her head, so that she stood naked in the morning light. She wadded the nightgown and threw it in the closet. Then she turned about before the mirror, inspecting the body as if it belonged to someone else. She passed her hands over her small drooping breasts and let her hands go lightly down her long waist and over her flat belly.
She moved away from the mirror and went to the bed, which was still unmade. She pulled the covers off, folded them carelessly, and put them in the closet. She smoothed the sheet on the bed and lay there on her back, her legs straight and her arms at her side. Unblinking and motionless, she stared up at the ceiling and waited through the morning and the long afternoon.” (Ch.5) 
I keep a long passage so you get an idea. Isn’t this mechanical and boring? 
Some fans say that Stoner is a perfect novel and you can’t change or replace a word—what are they talking about? Go read some Edith Wharton. 
Anyway, I’ve said enough. I’ve quit, and don’t think I’m missing anything. Life is short, there are many greater books to read.



Addendum: the discussion continued here: https://twitter.com/nguyenhdi/status/1236410952574255117