Tuesday 28 December 2021

In Search of Lost Time Vol.1: Comedy of Manners Proust vs Psychological Proust

There are, you probably noticed, different modes in Proust. According to the New Yorker

“There are at least six Marcel Prousts to study, and, though we’d like to say that each feeds the others, the truth is that they exist in separate, sometimes baffling strata. There’s the Period Proust, the Toulouse-Lautrec-like painter of the high life of the Belle Époque, who offers an unmatched picture both of riding in the Bois and of visiting the brothels near the Opéra; and the Philosophical Proust, whose thoughts on the nature of time supposedly derived from the ideas of Henri Bergson and are argued to have paralleled those of Einstein. There’s the Psychological Proust, whose analysis of human motives—above all, of love and jealousy—is the real living core of his book; and the “Perverse” Proust (as the eminent scholar Antoine Compagnon refers to him), who was among the first French authors to write quite openly about homosexuality. Then there is the Political Proust, the Jewish writer who diagrammed the fault line that the Dreyfus Affair first cracked in French society, and that the war pulled apart. Finally, there’s the Poetic Proust, the pathétique Proust who writes the sentences and finds the phrases, and whose twilight intensity and violet-tinted charm make his Big Book one of the few that readers urge on friends rather than merely force on students.” 

I may (or may not) come back to this point. But in terms of writing characters, I would say that there are two different modes: Comedy of Manners Proust, and Psychological Proust.

Proust begins Part 2 of Swann’s Way telling us about the Verdurin set. That is Comedy of Manners Proust—he satirises various types of people and pierces through all of their pretensions; he is comic, sometimes even grotesque; and he makes me think of Jane Austen.

Mme Verdurin, for example, once laughs so hard that she dislocates her jaw.  

“From this lofty perch she would take a spirited part in the conversation of the “faithful,” and would revel in all their “drollery”; but, since the accident to her jaw, she had abandoned the effort involved in wholehearted laughter, and had substituted a kind of symbolical dumb-show which signified, without endangering or fatiguing her in any way, that she was “splitting her sides.” […] So, stupefied with the gaiety of the “faithful,” drunk with good-fellowship, scandal and asseveration, Mme Verdurin, perched on her high seat like a cage-bird whose biscuit has been steeped in mulled wine, would sit aloft and sob with affability.” (Vol.1, P.2) 

That’s what I mean about Proust being grotesque. Her husband is also ridiculous. 

“As for M. Verdurin, he was unsparing of his merriment, having recently discovered a way of expressing it by a convention that was different from his wife’s but equally simple and obvious. Scarcely had he begun the movement of head and shoulders of a man shaking with laughter than he would begin at once to cough, as though, in laughing too violently, he had swallowed a mouthful of pipe-smoke. And by keeping the pipe firmly in his mouth he could prolong indefinitely the dumb-show of suffocation and hilarity. Thus he and Mme Verdurin (who, at the other side of the room, where the painter was telling her a story, was shutting her eyes preparatory to flinging her face into her hands) resembled two masks in a theatre each representing Comedy in a different way.” (ibid.) 

This is the sort of thing you expect to find in Dickens. 

This is Dr Cottard, one of the people who frequent the Verdurin salon: 

“Dr Cottard was never quite certain of the tone in which he ought to reply to any observation, or whether the speaker was jesting or in earnest. And so by way of precaution he would embellish all his facial expressions with the offer of a conditional, a provisional smile whose expectant subtlety would exonerate him from the charge of being a simpleton, if the remark addressed to him should turn out to have been facetious. But as he must also be prepared to face the alternative, he dared not allow this smile to assert itself positively on his features, and you would see there a perpetually flickering uncertainty, in which could be deciphered the question that he never dared to ask: “Do you really mean that?”” (ibid.) 

He doesn’t dare to have an opinion of his own. But Swann is not different. The narrator has told us from the beginning: 

“When challenged by [my family] to give an opinion, or to express his admiration for some picture, he would remain almost disobligingly silent, and would then make amends by furnishing (if he could) some fact or other about the gallery in which the picture was hung, or the date at which it had been painted.” (Vol.1, P.1)

He says: 

“… whenever he spoke of serious matters, whenever he used an expression which seemed to imply a definite opinion upon some important subject, he would take care to isolate, to sterilise it by using a special intonation, mechanical and ironic, as though he had put the phrase or word between inverted commas, and was anxious to disclaim any personal responsibility for it…” (ibid.) 

The narrator says this again when he writes about Swann and the Verdurin set. Swann can see the ridiculousness of the other members, but he is the same.

Here is Mme Saniette, another person in the set: 

“As she was entirely uneducated, and was afraid of making mistakes in grammar and pronunciation, she used purposely to speak in an indistinct and garbling manner, thinking that if she should make a slip it would be so buried in the surrounding confusion that no one could be certain whether she had actually made it or not; with the result that her talk was a sort of continuous, blurred expectoration, out of which would emerge, at rare intervals, the few sounds and syllables of which she felt sure.” (Vol.1, P.2) 


This is Brichot, a professor from Sorbonne:  

“For he had the sort of curiosity and superstitious worship of life which, combined with a certain scepticism with regard to the object of their studies, earns for some intelligent men of whatever profession, doctors who do not believe in medicine, schoolmasters who do not believe in Latin exercises, the reputation of having broad, brilliant and indeed superior minds.” (ibid.) 

Not different from the numerous English teachers I saw on twitter who hated classic literature. 

I must note that the first-person narrator is not present in any of these scenes. Proust isn’t strict about point of view. 

Most ridiculous so far is probably Dr Cottard—he has no critical thinking, no opinions of his own; he takes everything in the literal sense and is easily fooled (“instead of sending Dr Cottard a ruby that cost three thousand francs and pretending it was a mere trifle, M. Verdurin bought an artificial stone for three hundred, and let it be understood that it was something almost impossible to match”); and he keeps making lame jokes, fancying himself so witty.

His wife is the same. She too has no opinions of her own. She too laughs at her own “witticism”. 

“And then, in her joy and confusion at the aptness and daring of making so discreet and yet so unmistakable an allusion to the new and brilliantly successful play by Dumas, she broke into a charming, girlish laugh, not very loud, but so irresistible that it was some time before she could control it.” (ibid.) 

These people all seem so insufferable. Like Jane Austen and Edith Wharton, Proust is ruthless. This is the Proust I like: sharp, precise, ruthless, and hilarious.

But there is another Proust—Psychological Proust—the Proust who goes on and on, for pages and for ages, about Swann’s love for Odette, or Swann’s jealousy. If you think of other psychological novelists such as Tolstoy or Flaubert, they depict characters in one mode, and move fluidly between scenes or conversations and characters’ thoughts, whereas in Proust, there is a clear division, a clear shift. Psychological Proust is analytical and not comic (though once in a while he may be funny). 

“Truth to tell, as often as not, when he had stayed late at a party, he would have preferred to return home at once, without going so far out of his way, and to postpone their meeting until the morrow; but the very fact of his putting himself to such inconvenience at an abnormal hour in order to visit her, while he guessed that his friends, as he left them, were saying to one another: “He’s tied hand and foot; there must certainly be a woman somewhere who insists on his going to her at all hours,” made him feel that he was leading the life of the class of men whose existence is coloured by a love-affair, and in whom the perpetual sacrifice they make of their comfort and of their practical interests engenders a sort of inner charm. Then, though he may not consciously have taken this into consideration, the certainty that she was waiting for him, that she was not elsewhere with others, that he would see her before he went home, drew the sting from that anguish, forgotten but latent and ever ready to be reawakened, which he had felt on the evening when Odette had left the Verdurins’ before his arrival, an anguish the present assuagement of which was so agreeable that it might almost be called happiness. Perhaps it was to that hour of anguish that he owed the importance which Odette had since assumed in his life. Other people as a rule mean so little to us that, when we have invested one of them with the power to cause us so much suffering or happiness, that person seems at once to belong to a different universe, is surrounded with poetry, makes of one’s life a sort of stirring arena in which he or she will be more or less close to one.” (ibid.)

I keep a long passage so you see what I mean about the difference, the shift. 

“… he would ask her, instead, to give him the little phrase from Vinteuil’s sonata. It was true that Odette played vilely, but often the most memorable impression of a piece of music is one that has arisen out of a jumble of wrong notes struck by unskilful fingers upon a tuneless piano. The little phrase continued to be associated in Swann’s mind with his love for Odette. He was well aware that his love was something that did not correspond to anything outside itself, verifiable by others besides him; he realised that Odette’s qualities were not such as to justify his setting so high a value on the hours he spent in her company. And often, when the cold government of reason stood unchallenged in his mind, he would readily have ceased to sacrifice so many of his intellectual and social interests to this imaginary pleasure. But the little phrase, as soon as it struck his ear, had the power to liberate in him the space that was needed to contain it; the proportions of Swann’s soul were altered; a margin was left for an enjoyment that corresponded no more than his love for Odette to any external object and yet was not, like his enjoyment of that love, purely individual, but assumed for him a sort of reality superior to that of concrete things.” (ibid.) 

My problem with Proust at the moment is not that he takes his time and writes about it for so long, but that the more he explicates the relationship between Swann and Odette, the more puzzled I am about Swann’s feeling for Odette. I simply don’t get it. 

From the beginning, we are told that Swann is not sexually attracted to Odette: 

“… she had struck Swann not, certainly, as being devoid of beauty, but as endowed with a kind of beauty which left him indifferent, which aroused in him no desire, which gave him, indeed, a sort of physical repulsion, as one of those women of whom all of us can cite examples, different for each of us, who are the converse of the type which our senses demand. Her profile was too sharp, her skin too delicate, her cheekbones were too prominent, her features too tightly drawn, to be attractive to him.” (ibid.) 

She’s not his type, so what is his type? 

“… as often as not they were women whose beauty was of a distinctly vulgar type, for the physical qualities which he instinctively sought were the direct opposite of those he admired in the women painted or sculpted by his favourite masters. Depth of character, or a melancholy expression, would freeze his senses, which were, however, instantly aroused at the sight of healthy, abundant, rosy flesh.” (ibid.) 

We are told that for some time, Swann doesn’t spend the early part of his day with Odette, nor go with her to the Verdurins, because he spends that time with a young seamstress—a woman of his type. 

I know that sometimes married couples who don’t love each other at the beginning may come to respect and love each other (which Chekhov depicts in “Three Years”, for instance), but it isn’t the case here. 

Physically, Swann isn’t attracted to Odette, and has to associate her looks with a painting by Botticelli to find some satisfaction. Mentally, he knows she isn’t intelligent, they don’t have the same tastes, and probably don’t have much in common. Socially (this is a classist world, a world of snobs), Odette is beneath him—she is part of the demi-monde, and said to be a kept woman, a courtesan, or what we nowadays call a sugar baby. He’s also aware that their relationship may be based on self-interest on her side, for he gives her presents and sometimes helps her with her money troubles. 

And yet, Swann is besotted with her, obsessed with her. Why?  

Proust says: 

“In his younger days a man dreams of possessing the heart of the woman whom he loves; later, the feeling that he possesses a woman’s heart may be enough to make him fall in love with her.” (ibid.) 

I’m not quite convinced. He spends pages and pages analysing it, explicating it, but I still don’t quite understand Swann’s feeling for Odette. Love? I don’t think it is. But what is it? It seems irrational. 

“And the pleasure of being a lover, of living by love alone, the reality of which he was sometimes inclined to doubt, was enhanced in his eyes, as a dilettante of intangible sensations, by the price he was paying for it—as one sees people who are doubtful whether the sight of the sea and the sound of its waves are really enjoyable become convinced that they are—and convinced also of the rare quality and absolute detachment of their own taste—when they have agreed to pay several pounds a day for a room in an hotel from which that sight and that sound may be enjoyed.” (ibid.)

I would understand perfectly Swann heaping money on Odette and loving her despite not seeing love from her, if he were sexually attracted to her, but he’s not. As the narrator says over and over again, her kind of beauty leaves him cold and indifferent. Perhaps I’m missing the point and it’s meant to be irrational, but if that’s the intention, why does Proust spend so long analysing it?

After introducing Forcheville, a newcomer to the Verdurin set, and satirising the set, Comedy of Manners Proust again leaves for Psychological Proust to write about Swann’s love and jealousy.

“… It was true that Swann had often reflected that Odette was in no way a remarkable woman, and there was nothing especially flattering in seeing the supremacy he wielded over someone so inferior to himself proclaimed to all the “faithful”; but since he had observed that to many other men besides himself Odette seemed a fascinating and desirable woman, the attraction which her body held for them had aroused in him a painful longing to secure the absolute mastery of even the tiniest particles of her heart.” (ibid.) 

The writing about jealousy is very good, especially Swann’s mishap and Proust’s use of metaphors, but it remains puzzling to me that Swann becomes so obsessed and jealous when he thinks Odette is “no way a remarkable woman” and “so inferior to himself”. 

I don’t get it. 

Sunday 26 December 2021

The 18 types of people on Book Twitter

1/ The Book Shopper:

Buys more than reads. Tweets photos of book posts and book hauls, but doesn’t say much about books. Loves book sales, especially NYRB sales. Has an NYRB collection. Complains about lack of space, but continues buying books. Once in a while says “oh no, I went to a bookstore and accidentally came out with a pile of books”. 

2/ The Fancy Book Photographer:

Visual. Likes beautiful covers and sees books as objects of beauty. Takes photos of books with flowers, a cup of tea/ coffee, some decoration, etc. Doesn’t talk about the beauty of prose or metaphors.  

3/ The Book Counter: 

Posts photos of books read in the week/ month. Counts number of books they read in a year, and compares it to previous years. More extreme: may have statistics about how many books are by women, how many books are by writers of colour, how many books are in translation, and so on. Generally prefers novellas and short novels to “loose baggy monsters”. 

4/ The Ranker: 

Likes lists and rankings. Occasionally creates a poll comparing books or authors, even when there’s no basis for comparison.  

5/ The Memer:

Regularly shares memes about how much they love books, how all they need is a library and a garden, how books are friends, how books allow you to travel, how books make you better people, and so on and so forth. Doesn’t talk much about specific books, however. 

6/ The Quoter: 

Types lines from books, or shares photos of passages in books, though doesn’t comment on them. 

7/ The Plot Summariser:

Has a blog and reviews books by summarising the entire plot then adding about 2-3 sentences of comments. 

8/ The Group Read Participant:

Takes part in group reads, often more than one at the same time. Reads a set number of 20-40 pages a day. Sees reading “loose baggy monsters” as climbing the Everest, and feels a sense of accomplishment after getting to the top. Congratulates others for reading books. 

9/ The Challenge Participant:

Takes part in challenges such as German Literature Month, Women in Translation Month, Japanese Literature Month, and so on. 

10/ The Text Disruptor/ Canon Hater:

Attacks the Western canon and hates the concept of a canon, though forgets that other countries and cultures also have their own canons. Thinks that the canon is created by a committee, and wants to “disrupt texts”, “decolonise the bookshelf”, “decolonise the curriculum”, etc. Thinks that Shakespeare is celebrated only because of the establishment. First and foremost concern when they look at a book list is to see how many of the books are by women and how many are by people of colour. Often an English teacher.  

11/ The Canon Defender: 

Continually argues with DisruptTexts proponents, always in vain, but doesn’t learn. There can be an overlap with the next group, but a Canon Defender isn’t necessarily a Bloom Worshipper. 

12/ The Bloom Worshipper: 

Quotes Harold Bloom often, and sees The Invention of the Human as a Bible. Often speaks of the School of Resentment, and uses words such as “inwardness”, “anxiety of influence”, “overhearing himself/ herself”, etc. Has little interest in non-Western literature. 

13/ The Nabokov Worshipper: 

Aesthete, only interested in details and “the tingle in the spine”. Refuses to look at literature through the lens of gender, race, or ideology, and ends up looking at literature through a Nabokovian lens. Always defends Nabokov when someone criticises his novels, especially Lolita, or his views, especially on Dostoyevsky. 

14/ The Book Slut/ the Omnivore:  

Reads everything, from different periods, different countries, and different genres. Thinks all kinds of books are good and people shouldn’t be snobbish. Often says “as long as people are reading, that’s good”. 

15/ The Book Snob/ the Old Fogey: 

Reads classics (almost) exclusively. Only interested in books that have stood the test of time. Out of the loop, has no idea what’s hip and who’s currently big.  

16/ The Women Promoter: 

Reads women (almost) exclusively, and often uses the hashtag #ReadMoreWomen. Tends to prefer modern literature. When looking at a book list, first checks how many books are by women. Protective of Persephone Books. Loves Woolf and A Room of One’s Own

17/ The Edgy Kid:

Sees Modernism as the peak of literature, and thinks the novel belongs to the 20th century, not the 19th. Likes Proust, Kafka, and Dostoyevsky, thinks Tolstoy is sunny and simple, and doesn’t care about Shakespeare. Not interested in Dickens or Jane Austen, sees them as old-fashioned, boring, and “safe”. Not interested in plot, and generally not interested in anything before the 20th century. Tends to read books that are difficult, challenging, plot-less, experimental, and overall intellectual. Likes unreliable narrators, dislikes intrusive narrators. Often male. 

18/ The Peacemaker: 

Cheers for everyone. Sees “argument” as a bad word, and sees any challenge to an opinion as a provocation. Sees Book Twitter as a safe space. Mostly female. 

In Search of Lost Time Vol.1: light and shadow

One of my favourite writers, Edith Wharton, is brilliant at writing about light. So is Proust. 

The main difference is that Edith Wharton briefly describes a scene and picks out an image or two—how light is reflected on something or how something looks in a certain light—whereas Proust tends to spend pages and pages describing a room, a path, a church, and so on. See, for example, the way Proust describes light moving in a church: 

“… There was one among them which was a tall panel composed of a hundred little rectangular panes, of blue principally, like an enormous pack of cards of the kind planned to beguile King Charles VI; but, either because a ray of sunlight had gleamed through it or because my own shifting glance had sent shooting across the window, whose colours died away and were rekindled by turns, a rare and flickering fire—the next instant it had taken on the shimmering brilliance of a peacock’s tail, then quivered and rippled in a flaming and fantastic shower that streamed from the groin of the dark and stony vault down the moist walls, as though it were along the bed of some grotto glowing with sinuous stalactites that I was following my parents, who preceded me with their prayer-books clasped in their hands. A moment later the little lozenge panes had taken on the deep transparency, the unbreakable hardness of sapphires clustered on some enormous breastplate behind which, however, could be distinguished, dearer than all such treasures, a fleeting smile from the sun, which could be seen and felt as well here, in the soft, blue stream with which it bathed the jewelled windows, as on the pavement of the Square or the straw of the market-place...” (Vol.1, P.1)  

I especially like “had taken on the shimmering brilliance of a peacock’s tail, then quivered and rippled”.

The steeple of the church looks different at different times of day: 

“From my bedroom window I could discern no more than its base, which had been freshly covered with slates; but when, on a Sunday, I saw these blaze like a black sun in the hot light of a summer morning, I would say to myself: “Good heavens! nine o’clock! I must get ready for mass at once if I am to have time to go in and kiss aunt Léonie first,” […] 

And again, after mass, when we looked in to tell Théodore to bring a larger loaf than usual because our cousins had taken advantage of the fine weather to come over from Thiberzy for lunch, we had in front of us the steeple which, baked golden-brown itself like a still larger, consecrated loaf, with gummy flakes and droplets of sunlight, thrust its sharp point into the blue sky. And in the evening, when I came in from my walk and thought of the approaching moment when I must say good night to my mother and see her no more, the steeple was by contrast so soft and gentle, there at the close of day, that it looked as if it had been thrust like a brown velvet cushion against the pallid sky which had yielded beneath its pressure, had hollowed slightly to make room for it, and had correspondingly risen on either side; while the cries of the birds that wheeled around it seemed to intensify its silence, to elongate its spire still further, and to invest it with some quality beyond the power of words.” (ibid.) 

The houses on the narrator’s walk look different at different times of the year: 

“We used always to return from our walks in good time to pay aunt Léonie a visit before dinner. At the beginning of the season, when the days ended early, we would still be able to see, as we turned into the Rue du Saint-Esprit, a reflection of the setting sun in the windows of the house and a band of crimson beyond the timbers of the Calvary, which was mirrored further on in the pond; a fiery glow that, accompanied often by a sharp tang in the air, would associate itself in my mind with the glow of the fire over which, at that very moment, was roasting the chicken that was to furnish me, in place of the poetic pleasure of the walk, with the sensual pleasures of good feeding, warmth and rest. But in summer, when we came back to the house, the sun would not have set; and while we were upstairs paying our visit to aunt Léonie its rays, sinking until they lay along her window-sill, would be caught and held by the large inner curtains and the loops which tied them back to the wall, and then, split and ramified and filtered, encrusting with tiny flakes of gold the citron-wood of the chest of drawers, would illuminate the room with a delicate, slanting, woodland glow. But on some days, though very rarely, the chest of drawers would long since have shed its momentary incrustations, there would no longer, as we turned into the Rue du Saint-Esprit, be any reflection from the western sky lighting up the window-panes, and the pond beneath the Calvary would have lost its fiery glow, sometimes indeed had changed already to an opalescent pallor, while a long ribbon of moonlight, gradually broadening and splintered by every ripple upon the water’s surface, would stretch across it from end to end.” (ibid.) 

Proust writes about light and shadow: 

“It was on the Méséglise way that I first noticed the circular shadow which apple-trees cast upon the sunlit ground, and also those impalpable threads of golden silk which the setting sun weaves slantingly downwards from beneath their leaves, and which I used to see my father slash through with his stick without ever making them deviate.” (ibid.) 

That’s shadow from sunlight. This is shadow from moonlight: 

“Outside, things too seemed frozen, rapt in a mute intentness not to disturb the moonlight which, duplicating each of them and throwing it back by the extension in front of it of a shadow denser and more concrete than its substance, had made the whole landscape at once thinner and larger, like a map which, after being folded up, is spread out upon the ground.” (ibid.)

Everything under Proust’s pen comes alive and becomes interesting, even a tiled roof: 

“After an hour of rain and wind, against which I had struggled cheerfully, as I came to the edge of the Montjouvain pond, beside a little hut with a tiled roof in which M. Vinteuil’s gardener kept his tools, the sun had just reappeared, and its golden rays, washed clean by the shower, glittered anew in the sky, on the trees, on the wall of the hut and the still wet tiles of the roof, on the ridge of which a hen was strutting. The wind tugged at the wild grass growing from cracks in the wall and at the hen’s downy feathers, which floated out horizontally to their full extent with the unresisting submissiveness of light and lifeless things. The tiled roof cast upon the pond, translucent again in the sunlight, a dappled pink reflection which I had never observed before.” (ibid.)

Today, on the way to my boyfriend’s grandparents’, as we go every Christmas Day, I looked at the stone fences and noticed the sunlight gleaming on some of the stones. Proust, like other great writers such as Tolstoy or Nabokov, trains you to see things differently, and to notice more. 

The excerpts are from In Search of Lost Time: Swann’s Way (translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff & Terence Kilmartin, and revised by D.J. Enright). 

Thursday 23 December 2021

In Search of Lost Time Vol.1: Françoise and asparagus

The narrator writes of his aunt’s maid/ cook Françoise: 

“I came to recognise that, apart from her own kinsfolk, the sufferings of humanity inspired in her a pity which increased in direct ratio to the distance separating the sufferers from herself.” (Vol.1, P.1) 

Who does that sound like? Yep, Mrs Jellyby and Mrs Pardiggle in Bleak House (except that Dickens’s characters make no exception for their own kinsfolk).

If we have to categorise characters as caricatures (for lack of a better term) or realistic, complex, lifelike characters, everyone would put Mrs Jellyby and Mrs Pardiggle in the first group and Françoise in the second. Mrs Jellyby and Mrs Pardiggle are caricatures because the characterisation is exaggerated, because these characters have one facet, because they don’t change and don’t surprise us. This doesn’t mean that Mrs Pardiggle and Mrs Jellyby are failures—they have a vivid existence and are unforgettable. This also doesn’t mean that Dickens is incapable of creating complex and realistic characters as his detractors like to say—in Bleak House for example, Esther Summerson or Lady Dedlock is rounded and complex; Dickens may also write a character like a two-dimensional one then give him depth later on, turning him three-dimensional, such as Sir Leicester. 

Françoise would be seen as lifelike and realistic because there are different sides to her character, because she surprises us as we learn more and more about her. 

Françoise, when Proust first introduces her to us, is a kind, patient, and devoted servant. A great cook. A servant who well understands her mistress and puts up with her difficult demands and eccentricities. 

Then the narrator writes of the mutual hatred of Françoise and the aunt’s friend Eulalie: 

“… Françoise would sigh grimly, for she had a tendency to regard as petty cash all that my aunt might give her for herself or her children, and as treasure riotously squandered on an ungrateful wretch the little coins slipped Sunday after Sunday into Eulalie’s hand, but so discreetly that Françoise never managed to see them.” (ibid.) 

Françoise appears different: 

“… She would, however, have seen no great harm in what my aunt, whom she knew to be incurably generous, allowed herself to give away, had she given only to those who were already rich. Perhaps she felt that such persons, not being actually in need of my aunt’s presents, could not be suspected of simulating affection for her on that account. Besides, presents offered to persons of great wealth and position, such as Mme Sazerat, M. Swann, M. Legrandin and Mme Goupil, to persons of the “same rank” as my aunt, and who would naturally “mix with her,” seemed to Françoise to be included among the ornamental customs of that strange and brilliant life led by rich people, who hunt and shoot and give balls and pay each other visits, a life which she would contemplate with an admiring smile. But it was by no means the same thing if the beneficiaries of my aunt’s generosity were of the class whom Françoise would label “folk like me” or “folk no better than me” and who were those she most despised, unless they called her “Madame Françoise” and considered themselves her inferiors.” (ibid.) 

Psychologically, Proust is brilliant. Some time later, Proust again makes us see the character differently:   

“[Aunt Léonie] would beguile herself with a sudden pretence that Françoise had been robbing her, that she had set a trap to make certain, and had caught her betrayer red-handed […]. Sometimes, however, even these counterpane dramas would not satisfy my aunt; she must see her work staged.” (ibid.)

As aunt Léonie, believing herself to be ill and weak, confines herself in the rooms and goes nowhere, she makes up drama and imagines Françoise and Eulalie plotting on her. But if the suspicions she has about Eulalie are “no more than a flash in the pan that soon subsided for lack of fuel”, because Eulalie doesn’t live in the same house, she focuses her energy and paranoia on Françoise, seeming “to find a cruel satisfaction in driving deep into her unhappy servant’s heart”. 

“My mother was afraid lest Françoise should develop a genuine hatred of my aunt, who did everything in her power to hurt her. However that might be, Françoise had come, more and more, to pay an infinitely scrupulous attention to my aunt’s least word and gesture.” (ibid.) 

Both characters now appear in a different light: the pathetic aunt has a cruel streak in her, and Françoise becomes more sympathetic. 

But that isn’t all. Proust drops more and more details, and lets the characters unfold. Françoise again changes, as we see in the passage at the beginning of this blog post: she is unkind. 

“One night, shortly after her confinement, the kitchen-maid was seized with the most appalling pains; Mamma heard her groans, and rose and awakened Françoise, who, quite unmoved, declared that all the outcry was mere malingering, that the girl wanted to “play the mistress.” The doctor, who had been afraid of some such attack, had left a marker in a medical dictionary which we had, at the page on which the symptoms were described, and had told us to turn up this passage to discover the first aid to be adopted. My mother sent Françoise to fetch the book, warning her not to let the marker drop out. An hour elapsed, and Françoise had not returned; my mother, supposing that she had gone back to bed, grew vexed, and told me to go myself to the library and fetch the volume. I did so, and there found Françoise who, in her curiosity to know what the marker indicated, had begun to read the clinical account of these after-pains, and was violently sobbing, now that it was a question of a prototype patient with whom she was unacquainted. At each painful symptom mentioned by the writer she would exclaim: “Oh, oh, Holy Virgin, is it possible that God wishes a wretched human creature to suffer so? Oh, the poor girl!”

But when I had called her, and she had returned to the bedside of Giotto’s Charity, her tears at once ceased to flow; she could find no stimulus for that pleasant sensation of tenderness and pity with which she was familiar, having been moved to it often enough by the perusal of newspapers, nor any other pleasure of the same kind, in her boredom and irritation at being dragged out of bed in the middle of the night for the kitchen-maid; so that at the sight of those very sufferings the printed account of which had moved her to tears, she relapsed into ill-tempered mutterings, mingled with bitter sarcasm…” (ibid.) 

Giotto’s Charity is the nickname of the pregnant kitchen maid. 

Forget everything else and look at that passage alone, does it not sound exaggerated? Does Françoise not, in this passage, seem like a caricature? 

To get back to what I was saying, Proust lets his characters unfold and makes us view them differently over time. His characters feel like real people. I have no doubt that Françoise would continue to unfold, and to change.

Even more interesting is the way Proust writes about the asparagus, and makes us view it differently. 

When the asparagus is first mentioned in Swann’s Way, it is comic—the mistress and the servant talk about a neighbour’s asparagus—we’re told that Françoise has been cooking everything with asparagus and it seems to be one of those details which enrich the novel and give life to things but have no significance. 

Later on, Proust transforms asparagus into something magical and poetic: 

“… what most enraptured me were the asparagus, tinged with ultramarine and pink which shaded off from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure, through a series of imperceptible gradations to their white feet—still stained a little by the soil of their garden-bed—with an iridescence that was not of this world. I felt that these celestial hues indicated the presence of exquisite creatures who had been pleased to assume vegetable form and who, through the disguise of their firm, comestible flesh, allowed me to discern in this radiance of earliest dawn, these hinted rainbows, these blue evening shades, that precious quality which I should recognise again when, all night long after a dinner at which I had partaken of them, they played (lyrical and coarse in their jesting like one of Shakespeare’s fairies) at transforming my chamber pot into a vase of aromatic perfume.” (ibid.) 

Does that passage not make you see asparagus—not just in the novel but also in real life—differently? 

But some time later, the narrator reveals the truth about the asparagus: 

“… in the same way Françoise had adopted, to minister to her unfaltering resolution to render the house uninhabitable to any other servant, a series of stratagems so cunning and so pitiless that, many years later, we discovered that if we had been fed on asparagus day after day throughout that summer, it was because their smell gave the poor kitchen-maid who had to prepare them such violent attacks of asthma that she was finally obliged to leave my aunt’s service.” (ibid.) 

That changes everything. 

Proust is a wonderful writer. 

Wednesday 22 December 2021

Best of 2021

It is 22/12, so I suppose it’s right that I create a Best of the Year post. 

1/ Unlike 2020, the year I (finally) read Nguyễn Du and classic Vietnamese literature; discovered Murasaki Shikibu and Heian literature, and Cao Xueqin; and read a few writers I had never read before (such as Edith Wharton, Carson McCullers, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Natsume Soseki, Yasunari Kawabata, Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, etc.), 2021 has mostly been a year of re-discoveries.

The most important one was the re-discovery of Shakespeare—I finally saw the magic, finally found something that eluded me several years ago. Shakespeare is now one of my obsessions, one of the authors who mean the most to me. 

I also re-discovered Chekhov and Ibsen

2/ There will be other lists, and this list may look different, when I’ve read all of Shakespeare’s plays. 

10 favourite Shakespeare plays (no particular order): 



King Lear 

Measure for Measure 

Henry IV, Part 1 

Henry IV, Part 2  


The Merchant of Venice 

The Winter’s Tale 

Much Ado About Nothing 

(The last 3 spots may be different tomorrow)

3/ 10 favourite Chekhov stories (no particular order): 

“Three Years” 

“In the Ravine” 


“The Bishop” 

“My Life” 

“The Lady with the Little Dog” 

“The Name-Day Party” 


“The Kiss” 

“Ward No.6” 

4/ In 2021, I also reread Anna Karenina.

When I read it for the first time 8 years ago, I thought it was the greatest novel I’d ever read. 

8 years later, I still think it’s the greatest novel I’ve ever read. 

(I know I’m reading In Search of Lost Time, but I don’t think it will replace Anna Karenina for me). 

5/ This year I also read Bleak House. My pick for the greatest novel in the English language remains to be Moby Dick, but my pick for the greatest novel of 19th century British literature, and perhaps British literature in general, would be Bleak House, not Middlemarch

6/ 10 best films of 2021 (excluding Shakespeare films, features that are part of Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes, and features that are part of David Suchet’s Poirot): 

A Letter to Three Wives (1949)

Ace in the Hole (1950)—revisit 

Early Summer (1951) 

A Star Is Born (1954) 

Good Morning (1959) 

The Third Alibi (1961) 

Educating Rita (1983) 

Ran (1985)—revisit 

Memories of Murder (2003)—revisit 

Ballad of a White Cow (2020) 

(The list may change by the end of the year) 

If I have to single out a film that made the strongest impression on me, it would be A Star Is Born. I have not seen any of the remakes. 

7/ This year I also watched Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes and David Suchet’s Poirot.

10 favourite Sherlock Holmes episodes (in order of broadcast): 

The Dancing Men 

The Solitary Cyclist

The Speckled Band

The Blue Carbuncle

The Resident Patient

The Red-Headed League 

The Second Stain 

The Man with the Twisted Lip 

The Six Napoleons

The Problem of Thor Bridge 

8/ 10 favourite Poirot episodes (in order of broadcast): 

The Mystery of the Spanish Chest

The Mysterious Affair at Styles 

The ABC Murders 

One, Two, Buckle My Shoe 

Hercule Poirot’s Christmas 

Hickory Dickory Dock 

Murder in Mesopotamia

Five Little Pigs 

The Hollow 

After the Funeral 

For Evil Under the Sun and Death in the Nile, the Peter Ustinov versions are much better. You should watch them even if you don’t care for Poirot. 

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, everybody! 

Tuesday 21 December 2021

In Search of Lost Time Vol.1: as comedy of manners

One thing I didn’t expect was how funny Proust would be. Some parts of Swann’s Way feel like a comedy of manners.

For example, the narrator writes about Swann from his great-aunt’s perspective:

“… she did not, in fact, endow him with any critical faculty, and had no great opinion of the intelligence of a man who, in conversation, would avoid serious topics and showed a very dull preciseness, not only when he gave us kitchen recipes, going into the most minute details, but even when my grandmother’s sisters were talking to him about art. When challenged by them to give an opinion, or to express his admiration for some picture, he would remain almost disobligingly silent, and would then make amends by furnishing (if he could) some fact or other about the gallery in which the picture was hung, or the date at which it had been painted.” (Vol.1, P.1)

That is amusing because I see it in other people, and at the same time embarrassing because I see it in myself. 

Here is the narrator writing about his great-aunt: 

“Whenever she saw in others an advantage, however trivial, which she herself lacked, she would persuade herself that it was no advantage at all, but a drawback, and would pity so as not to have to envy them.” (ibid.) 

I recognise that in some of my relatives. Swann is coming, and the great-aunt is dissuading the narrator’s grandmother’s sisters from mentioning that his name appears in the Figaro

“She did not, however, put any very great pressure upon my grandmother’s sisters, for they, in their horror of vulgarity, had brought to such a fine art the concealment of a personal allusion in a wealth of ingenious circumlocution, that it would often pass unnoticed even by the person to whom it was addressed.” (ibid.)

A few pages later, in the middle of a conversation about something else:

“… “I don’t agree with you: there are some days when I find reading the papers very pleasant indeed,” my aunt Flora broke in, to show Swann that she had read the note about his Corot in the Figaro.

“Yes,” aunt Céline went one better, “when they write about things or people in whom we are interested.”

“I don’t deny it,” answered Swann in some bewilderment.” (ibid.)

Apart from his name in the Figaro, they also want to thank Swann for the wine he sent. 

“… “Coarse or not, I know bottles in which there is something very different,” said Flora briskly, feeling bound to thank Swann as well as her sister, since the present of Asti had been addressed to them both. Céline laughed.

Swann was puzzled, but went on…” (ibid.)


The grandmother too has a horror of vulgarity. 

“The truth was that she could never permit herself to buy anything from which no intellectual profit was to be derived, above all the profit which fine things afford us by teaching us to seek our pleasures elsewhere than in the barren satisfaction of worldly wealth. Even when she had to make someone a present of the kind called “useful,” when she had to give an armchair or some table-silver or a walking-stick, she would choose antiques, as though their long desuetude had effaced from them any semblance of utility and fitted them rather to instruct us in the lives of the men of other days than to serve the common requirements of our own.” (ibid.) 

For example, rather than give him photographs of famous buildings, she avoids the “commercial banality” by buying paintings of those buildings. 

“We could no longer keep count in the family (when my great-aunt wanted to draw up an indictment of my grandmother) of all the armchairs she had presented to married couples, young and old, which on a first attempt to sit down upon them had at once collapsed beneath the weight of their recipient.” (ibid.)

Nabokov would call them genteel.

Aunt Léonie, like the narrator’s other relatives, has her pretensions. 

“Unfortunately, having formed the habit of thinking aloud, she did not always take care to see that there was no one in the adjoining room, and I would often hear her saying to herself: “I must not forget that I never slept a wink”—for “never sleeping a wink” was her great claim to distinction, and one admitted and respected in our household vocabulary: in the morning Françoise would not “wake” her, but would simply “go in” to her; during the day, when my aunt wished to take a nap, we used to say just that she wished to “ponder” or to “rest”; and when in conversation she so far forgot herself as to say “what woke me up,” or “I dreamed that,” she would blush and at once correct herself.” (ibid.)

It gets funnier. She is an invalid whose hobby is listening to gossip and discovering the identity of anyone she doesn’t recognise, so the narrator uses over and over again the phrase “didn’t know from Adam”: “at Combray a person whom one “didn’t know from Adam” was as incredible a being as any mythological deity” (ibid.). Someone she doesn’t know from Adam may turn out to be someone’s daughter who has been going to school somewhere else, or a gardener’s brother, and so on, but Proust doesn’t stop there. He goes further: 

“Everyone was so well known in Combray, animals as well as people, that if my aunt had happened to see a dog go by which she “didn’t know from Adam” she never stopped thinking about it, devoting all her inductive talents and her leisure hours to this incomprehensible phenomenon.” (ibid.) 


““That will be Mme Sazerat’s dog,” Françoise would suggest, without any real conviction, but in the hope of appeasement, and so that my aunt should not “split her head.”

“As if I didn’t know Mme Sazerat’s dog!” My aunt’s critical mind would not be fobbed off so easily.

“Well then, it must be the new dog M. Galopin brought back from Lisieux.”

“Oh, if that’s what it is!”” (ibid.) 

Hahahaha I thought “a dog” was exaggeration or some figure of speech.

Now look at the narrator’s friend Bloch, who upsets the entire household once because he turns up an hour and a half late for dinner and covered with mud from head to foot:  

““I never allow myself to be influenced in the smallest degree either by atmospheric disturbances or by the arbitrary divisions of what is known as time. I would willingly reintroduce the use of the opium pipe or the Malay kris, but I know nothing about that of those infinitely more pernicious and moreover flatly bourgeois implements, the umbrella and the watch.”” (ibid.) 

Proust picks interesting details. 

My headline is of course clickbait—not the entire of Swann’s Way is like this—but I do think that In Search of Lost Time doesn’t present a complete break with the literature that came before, as some people say, and that many parts of the novel do feel like comedy of manners. 

Sunday 19 December 2021

In Search of Lost Time Vol.1: aunt Léonie’s house and the pie of smells

One of the main elements of Proust’s style, I’ve noticed, is that he creates layer upon layer of comparisons.   

Many people must have written about the long passage about sleep and dreams at the beginning of Swann’s Way, and the famous madeleine episode, I will instead write about something else: the pages after the madeleine episode. 

As the narrator (generally called Marcel) tastes a madeleine dipped in tea, he experiences strange sensations and an all-powerful joy that he doesn’t understand.  

“And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane.” (Vol.1, P.1)

A few paragraphs later, he starts to describe Combray, and his aunt Léonie’s house. She is an invalid, confined to two adjoining rooms, and she would spend her afternoon in one room whilst the other is being aired. 

“They were rooms of that country order which—just as in certain climes whole tracts of air or ocean are illuminated or scented by myriads of protozoa which we cannot see—enchants us with the countless odours emanating from the virtues, wisdom, habits, a whole secret system of life, invisible, superabundant and profoundly moral, which their atmosphere holds in solution;” (ibid.)

(I need to break his long sentence into smaller chunks in order to talk about the images).

Rather than describe what the rooms look like, Marcel writes about smells: “just as in certain climes…” is an analogy and “which their atmosphere holds in solution” is a metaphor. The latter is particularly interesting. 

“smells natural enough indeed, and weather-tinted like those of the neighbouring countryside, but already humanised, domesticated, snug, an exquisite, limpid jelly skilfully blended from all the fruits of the year which have left the orchard for the store-room, smells changing with the season, but plenishing and homely, offsetting the sharpness of hoarfrost with the sweetness of warm bread, smells lazy and punctual as a village clock, roving and settled, heedless and provident,” (ibid.) 

His metaphors become more complex. First, he writes “weather-tinted”, which is a metaphor because the word “tint” means “colour (something) slightly; tinge”. Then he follows it with a simile, “like those of the neighbouring countryside”. Next, he says the smells are “humanised, domesticated”, the way one writes about animals. That is followed with “an exquisite, limpid jelly”, which is reminiscent of the earlier metaphor “which their atmosphere holds in solution”. Then he writes “smells changing with the season”—is this an expansion on “weather-tinted”? He describes the smells (hoarfrost, warm bread), then follows with a complex metaphor, “lazy and punctual as a village clock”.

“linen smells, morning smells, pious smells, rejoicing in a peace which brings only additional anxiety, and in a prosaicness which serves as a deep reservoir of poetry to the stranger who passes through their midst without having lived among them.” (ibid.) 

The smells are first concrete and specific (linen), then more general and abstract (morning), and completely abstract (pious smells). The next part of the sentence becomes more metaphorical: “rejoicing in…”. 

“The air of those rooms was saturated with the fine bouquet of a silence so nourishing, so succulent, that I never went into them without a sort of greedy anticipation, particularly on those first mornings, chilly still, of the Easter holidays, when I could taste it more fully because I had only just arrived in Combray: before I went in to say good morning to my aunt I would be kept waiting a moment in the outer room where the sun, wintry still, had crept in to warm itself before the fire, which was already alight between its two bricks and plastering the whole room with a smell of soot…” (ibid.) 

The narrator now builds more metaphors upon metaphors. I especially like “saturated with the fine bouquet of a silence so nourishing, so succulent”—which Marcel tastes. I also like “the sun, wintry still, had crept in to warm itself before the fire”. Personification of the sun is not unusual, but the image of the sun creeping in to warm itself before the fire is so mad, so unexpected. 

“… I would pace to and fro between the prie-dieu and the stamped velvet armchairs, each one always draped in its crocheted antimacassar, while the fire, baking like dough the appetising smells with which the air of the room was thickly clotted and which the moist and sunny freshness of the morning had already “raised” and started to “set,” puffed them and glazed them and fluted them and swelled them into an invisible though not impalpable country pie, an immense “turnover” to which, barely waiting to savour the crisper, more delicate, more reputable but also drier aromas of the cupboard, the chest of drawers and the patterned wall-paper, I always returned with an unconfessed gluttony to wallow in the central, glutinous, insipid, indigestible and fruity smell of the flowered bedspread.” (ibid.) 

Proust goes further and further in his metaphors. The air is “thickly clotted”, and a large part of the sentence is about the fire baking the smells like dough and making a country pie of smells. A rich image, and it goes with the earlier metaphors of “an exquisite, limpid jelly” (of smells) and (the smells) “which their atmosphere holds in solution”.

The rooms of aunt Léonie are described almost entirely by smells. Thick with metaphors. And all of these images and metaphors link back to the thing that evokes these memories: the smell and taste of a madeleine dipped in tea. 

I’m reading In Search of Lost Time: Swann’s Way (translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff & Terence Kilmartin, and revised by D.J. Enright). 

An update

After the Patreon experiment, I have decided to go on blogging as usual. 

I have deactivated my Twitter account (which is set to be permanently deleted in 29 days unless I change my mind), but if you’re here, it doesn’t matter. After 2 years on Twitter, I’m now going to return to the quiet corner of my blog.

Friday 10 December 2021

In defence of Esther Summerson

1/ As a narrator:

Compared to the omniscient narrator, Esther is more straightforward, her sentences are less complex, and she only rarely adopts free indirect speech whereas the omniscient narrator does often and speaks in a great range of voices. But Esther is a very funny writer—a lot of the grotesque images I have picked out are from her narrative. And she’s a very good writer, very visual.  

For example: 

“When the house was out of sight, I sat, with my bird-cage in the straw at my feet, forward on the low seat to look out of the high window, watching the frosty trees, that were like beautiful pieces of spar, and the fields all smooth and white with last night's snow, and the sun, so red but yielding so little heat, and the ice, dark like metal where the skaters and sliders had brushed the snow away.” (Ch.3) 

That is when Esther, aged 14, leaves her godmother’s house and her life is taking a new turn. 


“It was a cold, wild night, and the trees shuddered in the wind. The rain had been thick and heavy all day, and with little intermission for many days. None was falling just then, however. The sky had partly cleared, but was very gloomy—even above us, where a few stars were shining. In the north and north-west, where the sun had set three hours before, there was a pale dead light both beautiful and awful; and into it long sullen lines of cloud waved up like a sea stricken immovable as it was heaving. Towards London a lurid glare overhung the whole dark waste, and the contrast between these two lights, and the fancy which the redder light engendered of an unearthly fire, gleaming on all the unseen buildings of the city and on all the faces of its many thousands of wondering inhabitants, was as solemn as might be.

I had no thought that night—none, I am quite sure—of what was soon to happen to me. But I have always remembered since that when we had stopped at the garden-gate to look up at the sky, and when we went upon our way, I had for a moment an undefinable impression of myself as being something different from what I then was. I know it was then and there that I had it. I have ever since connected the feeling with that spot and time and with everything associated with that spot and time, to the distant voices in the town, the barking of a dog, and the sound of wheels coming down the miry hill.” (Ch.31) 

Because this is a novel by Dickens and not by Nabokov, Esther is a reliable narrator. But I’d like to mention 3 things I find interesting. 

First of all, as a narrator, Esther is very secretive about her romantic feelings, which of course suits her reserved nature. Because she’s not at all open about Allan Woodcourt, we barely see him until a few last sections of the novel, when he appears in the other narrative. It’s also interesting to note what she doesn’t know, such as Mr Jarndyce knowing her feelings better than she does. I love Dickens’s decision to have a first-person narrator and an omniscient narrator, and can’t help marveling at the masterful way he switches between the two. 

Secondly, everyone would perhaps notice that whenever Esther is present in a scene, it’s narrated by her, which means that we only know how other characters behave towards Esther from Esther. However, there are moments in the other narrative where we may see what other characters think about her, such as chapter 46, when Jenny finally comes across Jo, tells him about Esther’s illness, and they talk about her. 

Thirdly, there is one time where Esther narrates two scenes in which she isn’t present: chapter 51, when Allan Woodcourt sees Mr Vholes (the vampiric lawyer) to get the address and then visits Richard. 

2/ As a character: 

Esther Summerson is, in a few ways, a cousin to Fanny Price (Mansfield Park), just funnier. As Fanny Price is Jane Austen’s least popular heroine, I believe Esther suffers a similar reception, and as with Fanny Price, I think the criticism of Esther is generally due to misunderstanding, if not lack of empathy. 

This passage is the key to her character: 

“[My godmother] checked me, however, as I was about to depart from her—so frozen as I was!—and added this, "Submission, self-denial, diligent work, are the preparations for a life begun with such a shadow on it. You are different from other children, Esther, because you were not born, like them, in common sinfulness and wrath. You are set apart."

I went up to my room, and crept to bed, and laid my doll's cheek against mine wet with tears, and holding that solitary friend upon my bosom, cried myself to sleep. Imperfect as my understanding of my sorrow was, I knew that I had brought no joy at any time to anybody's heart and that I was to no one upon earth what Dolly was to me.

Dear, dear, to think how much time we passed alone together afterwards, and how often I repeated to the doll the story of my birthday and confided to her that I would try as hard as ever I could to repair the fault I had been born with (of which I confessedly felt guilty and yet innocent) and would strive as I grew up to be industrious, contented, and kind-hearted and to do some good to some one, and win some love to myself if I could.” (Ch.3)

As far as I’m aware, some readers complain that Esther is too good, too cloying, too passive, too modest, and so on and so forth. They seem to forget that Esther grows up having it drummed into her ears that her existence is a disgrace and that she shouldn’t have been born. They seem to forget that, even worse than Fanny Price’s situation, Esther doesn’t know her parents and is entirely dependent on her godmother’s tolerance of her. They seem to forget that, without the kindness of Mr Jarndyce, she could easily be on the streets, like Jo, and she is grateful because he doesn’t have to help her. They seem to forget that Esther can see the poverty and suffering of other people, and knows herself to be fortunate. She knows what it’s like to be without love, and knows how invaluable love and kindness are.

Like Fanny Price, Esther is quiet but not naïve. She notices everything, and can judge character. She’s sharp and perceptive. To some extent, she is passive, though I’m not sure what critics expect her to do. She becomes more self-assured over time and does take things into her own hands, however. For example, she’s the one who decides to take the sick Jo home, despite the risks, and stays firm, despite Mr Skimpole. When she learns the secret, she herself decides to see Mr Guppy and tells him to stay out of it. She also decides to speak to Mr Skimpole near the end of the book, telling him not to go to Richard’s house and make him poorer, and rebuking him for betraying Mr Jarndyce. It is perhaps her decision that she doesn’t see Mr Skimpole again after that conversation. 

There are also many little moments when Esther makes up her mind to do something, or advises someone to do something. She’s the one who tells Caddy and Prince to announce the engagement to their parents. She’s the one who actively helps with the wedding, and stays firm with Mrs Jellyby. And she’s always firm and straightforward with Richard and Ada.

What more do people want? 

I have now finished reading Bleak House, after more than 3 weeks. It’s one of the greatest novels of all time, perhaps Dickens’s finest achievement. 

Thursday 9 December 2021

Marriages in Bleak House

As Bleak House is a large book (my copy is more than 1000 pages) with lots of characters, let’s see if I can categorise the couples as happy or unhappy. 


1/ Mr and Mrs Jellyby: 

“I was a little curious to know who a mild bald gentleman in spectacles was, who dropped into a vacant chair (there was no top or bottom in particular) after the fish was taken away and seemed passively to submit himself to Borrioboola-Gha but not to be actively interested in that settlement. As he never spoke a word, he might have been a native but for his complexion. It was not until we left the table and he remained alone with Richard that the possibility of his being Mr. Jellyby ever entered my head. But he was Mr. Jellyby…” (Ch.4) 

Mrs Jellyby is, in Dickens’s words, a “telescopic philanthropist”, who spends all her time and energy on the Africa cause, and neglects everything at home. The satire mostly focuses on her, their daughter Caddy mostly blames her, and Esther seems to see the badly managed, out-of-control household as her fault. Mr Jellyby, as Mr Kenge, can only be described as the husband of Mrs Jellyby.

However, it’s also his fault. I mean, what does he do when Esther comes over and tries to tidy up the house for the wedding? 

“Poor Mr. Jellyby, who very seldom spoke and almost always sat when he was at home with his head against the wall, became interested when he saw that Caddy and I were attempting to establish some order among all this waste and ruin and took off his coat to help. But such wonderful things came tumbling out of the closets when they were opened—bits of mouldy pie, sour bottles, Mrs. Jellyby's caps, letters, tea, forks, odd boots and shoes of children, firewood, wafers, saucepan-lids, damp sugar in odds and ends of paper bags, footstools, blacklead brushes, bread, Mrs. Jellyby's bonnets, books with butter sticking to the binding, guttered candle ends put out by being turned upside down in broken candlesticks, nutshells, heads and tails of shrimps, dinner-mats, gloves, coffee-grounds, umbrellas—that he looked frightened, and left off again. But he came regularly every evening and sat without his coat, with his head against the wall, as though he would have helped us if he had known how.” (Ch.30) 

Later on, when Caddy is unwell after childbirth and Esther comes to help, he is the same. 

“If he found me bustling about doing any little thing, he sometimes half took his coat off, as if with an intention of helping by a great exertion; but he never got any further. His sole occupation was to sit with his head against the wall, looking hard at the thoughtful baby…” (Ch.50)

I write about them at length because I’ve come across the foolish comment that the Jellyby family is proof, or indication, of Dickens’s sexism. 

2/ Mr and Mrs Skimpole: 

We see Mr Harold Skimpole quite early on, but don’t see his wife till Mr Jarndyce and Esther visit his house. Mr Skimpole introduces his daughters, as his Beauty daughter (Arethusa), his Sentiment daughter (Laura), and his Comedy daughter (Kitty), mentions that they can sing or play music, and adds that none of them have any idea of time and money.

“Mrs. Skimpole sighed, I thought, as if she would have been glad to strike out this item in the family attainments. I also thought that she rather impressed her sigh upon my guardian and that she took every opportunity of throwing in another.” (Ch.43) 

Mr Skimpole mentions trouble with a man over an armchair, and happily leaves the house to go with Mr Jarndyce. 

“It seemed to escape his consideration that Mrs. Skimpole and the daughters remained behind to encounter the baker, but this was so old a story to all of them that it had become a matter of course.” (ibid.)

Mr Jarndyce believes his friend Mr Skimpole to be nothing but a simple child, but Esther isn’t convinced that it’s entirely artless. She may describe him as charming and delightful, but she does condemn him—sometimes she says he never seems to think about his family, or that he cheerfully washes off his trouble and makes it someone else’s.

For example, look at the moment Esther is looking at the Beauty daughter, who is married and has children: 

“She looked very young indeed to be the mother of two children, and I could not help pitying both her and them. It was evident that the three daughters had grown up as they could and had had just as little haphazard instruction as qualified them to be their father's playthings in his idlest hours.” (ibid.) 

Above all, note the moment when Esther brings the sick Jo home and Mr Skimpole wants to turn him out before he gets worse:

“The amiable face with which he said it, I think I shall never forget.” (Ch.31) 

That is the face of evil. She condemns.

Near the end of the novel, when Esther is with Mr Bucket, she learns about what Mr Skimpole did about Jo. 

“I regarded this as very treacherous on the part of Mr. Skimpole towards my guardian and as passing the usual bounds of his childish innocence.” (Ch.57) 

And the detective tells her “Whenever a person says to you that they are as innocent as can be in all concerning money, look well after your own money, for they are dead certain to collar it if they can.” (ibid.)

Whoever thinks the portrayal of Mrs Jellyby is indication of Dickens’s sexism (because she’s a woman who doesn’t do her duties at home) doesn’t seem to notice that in the same novel, Dickens gives us the irresponsible, unreliable, selfish Mr Skimpole. 

3/ Mr Turveydrop and the late Mrs Turveydrop: 

As his wife is dead, we don’t see Mr Turveydrop as a husband, only as a father, but it’s not hard to guess. He too neglects his son, and cares about nothing but his own deportment and his own comfort. Whilst his son is overworked, he stands around doing nothing and being a model of Deportment. 

However, we do have this line: 

“He had married a meek little dancing-mistress, with a tolerable connexion (having never in his life before done anything but deport himself), and had worked her to death, or had, at the best, suffered her to work herself to death, to maintain him in those expenses which were indispensable to his position.” (Ch.14) 

4/ Mr and Mrs Snagsby: 

If the three marriages above seem to suggest that all unhappy families are alike, the marriage between Mr and Mrs Snagsby is different. At the beginning, they seem to have some harmony: 

“Mr. and Mrs. Snagsby are not only one bone and one flesh, but, to the neighbours' thinking, one voice too. That voice, appearing to proceed from Mrs. Snagsby alone, is heard in Cook's Court very often. Mr. Snagsby, otherwise than as he finds expression through these dulcet tones, is rarely heard.” (Ch.10)

Dickens hints of her jealousy from the start: 

“Rumour, always flying bat-like about Cook's Court and skimming in and out at everybody's windows, does say that Mrs. Snagsby is jealous and inquisitive and that Mr. Snagsby is sometimes worried out of house and home, and that if he had the spirit of a mouse he wouldn't stand it.” (ibid.)

The marriage becomes increasingly difficult and torturous, as Mr Snagsby gets mixed up in a mystery he doesn’t understand, and she becomes more jealous, convinced that Jo is Mr Snagsby’s child with someone else, but he cannot explan everything to her. Her jealousy becomes so bad that near the end of the book, Mr Bucket tells her to watch Othello

5 and 6/ The brickmakers and their wives Jenny and Liz:  

I group them together because Dickens also does in the novel. The brickmakers are controlling and abusive, and mistreat their wives. These men are also the counterexamples if anyone accuses Dickens of sentimentalising the working class. 

7/ Richard Carstone and Ada Clare: 

Richard and Ada love each other, but Dickens knows that love alone isn’t enough. Ada’s love for Richard is foolish, and the marriage is ill-advised. 

“He ate little and seemed indifferent what it was, showed himself to be much more impatient than he used to be, and was quick even with Ada. I thought at first that his old light-hearted manner was all gone, but it shone out of him sometimes as I had occasionally known little momentary glimpses of my own old face to look out upon me from the glass. His laugh had not quite left him either, but it was like the echo of a joyful sound, and that is always sorrowful.” (Ch.60) 

All of their money is slowly swallowed up by the lawsuit. Ada has neither the firmness to tell Richard to stop, nor the wisdom to stay out of the trouble herself. 

Unhappy? Happy?

1/ Grandfather Smallweed and his wife: 

I’m not sure how to categorise them—probably something in between. Even though she has turned into a child in her old age and he often throws cushions and insults at her, they don’t seem particularly unhappy. 


1/ Mr and Mrs Bagnet:

Like Mrs Jellyby and Mrs Snagsby, Mrs Bagnet also holds power in the marriage, but the Bagnets are happy. I would say that Mr and Mrs Bagnet are the happiest couple in Bleak House

Mrs Bagnet is independent, sensible, no-nonsense and her husband always tells her to talk to people or make decisions, saying “tell them what I think” or “tell them my opinions”. She has the head. To others, Mr Bagnet says “I never own to it before the old girl. Disciplined must be maintained.”, but we all know he adores her and they’re happy together. 

How do some people read Bleak House and see the Bagnets and still think Dickens is sexist? Some people pick up a book with received ideas, and just don’t think. 

Spoiler alert: For the rest of the blog post, I will discuss some plot details that those of you who have not read Bleak House may not want to know. 

2/ Mr and Mrs Bucket: 

Dickens doesn’t write much about them, but they seem to be a happy couple. 

“It is likely that these occupations are irreconcilable with home enjoyment, but it is certain that Mr. Bucket at present does not go home. Though in general he highly appreciates the society of Mrs. Bucket—a lady of a natural detective genius, which if it had been improved by professional exercise, might have done great things, but which has paused at the level of a clever amateur—he holds himself aloof from that dear solace. Mrs. Bucket is dependent on their lodger (fortunately an amiable lady in whom she takes an interest) for companionship and conversation.” (Ch.53)

The lodger, as we find out later, is Hortense. The detective later tells the story of how he caught Hortense: 

“Mr. Bucket asks, triumphant in his admiration of his lady's genius.” (Ch.54)

3/ Mr and Mrs Badger: 

This is another B. Mr Badger is the doctor who takes Richard on as an apprentice (before he switches to something else). Mr and Mrs Badger are a happy couple, though strange, because he can’t stop talking about how great her ex-husbands were. 

4/ Mr and Mrs Chadband:  

I’m not sure, as Dickens doesn’t write much about them, but they seem happy enough. Mr Chadband is the minister who is compared to a vessel. 

5/ Prince Turveydrop and Caddy Jellyby:

Both are overworked, and both prioritise the comfort of Mr Turveydrop over their own, but they love and support each other. It helps that both of them have neglectful parents and can understand each other. 

6/ Sir Leicester Dedlock and Lady Dedlock: 

I saved till last the most important and most interesting marriage in Bleak House

“His gallantry to my Lady, which has never changed since he courted her, is the one little touch of romantic fancy in him.

Indeed, he married her for love. A whisper still goes about that she had not even family; howbeit, Sir Leicester had so much family that perhaps he had enough and could dispense with any more.” (Ch.2)

Dickens doesn’t quite say if Lady Dedlock loves her husband, but they seem happy enough, at least.

Look at her, when she finds out about Esther: 

“As Sir Leicester basks in his library and dozes over his newspaper, is there no influence in the house to startle him, not to say to make the very trees at Chesney Wold fling up their knotted arms, the very portraits frown, the very armour stir?

No. Words, sobs, and cries are but air, and air is so shut in and shut out throughout the house in town that sounds need be uttered trumpet-tongued indeed by my Lady in her chamber to carry any faint vibration to Sir Leicester's ears; and yet this cry is in the house, going upward from a wild figure on its knees.

"O my child, my child! Not dead in the first hours of her life, as my cruel sister told me, but sternly nurtured by her, after she had renounced me and my name! O my child, O my child!"” (Ch.29)

For her whole life, Lady Dedlock doesn’t know her daughter survived, but when she does know, she has to pretend her daughter didn’t exist, and carries on as before.

The meeting between Lady Dedlock and Esther, no longer as strangers but as mother and daughter, is one of the most moving scenes in literature. 

“Even in the thinking of her endurance, she drew her habitual air of proud indifference about her like a veil, though she soon cast it off again.

"I must keep this secret, if by any means it can be kept, not wholly for myself. I have a husband, wretched and dishonouring creature that I am!"

These words she uttered with a suppressed cry of despair, more terrible in its sound than any shriek. Covering her face with her hands, she shrank down in my embrace as if she were unwilling that I should touch her; nor could I, by my utmost persuasions or by any endearments I could use, prevail upon her to rise. She said, no, no, no, she could only speak to me so; she must be proud and disdainful everywhere else; she would be humbled and ashamed there, in the only natural moments of her life.

[…] If I could believe that she loved me, in this agony in which I saw her, with a mother's love, she asked me to do that, for then I might think of her with a greater pity, imagining what she suffered. She had put herself beyond all hope and beyond all help. Whether she preserved her secret until death or it came to be discovered and she brought dishonour and disgrace upon the name she had taken, it was her solitary struggle always; and no affection could come near her, and no human creature could render her any aid.” (Ch.36) 

Lady Dedlock is a character of tragic stature. Before these scenes, she appears to us as she appears to almost everyone else—beautiful, haughty, disdainful—but it’s all a mask.

But Dickens does something even more magical in his depiction of Sir Leicester. For a large part of the novel, Sir Leicester is a caricature, a proud and snobbish baronet, who “supposes all his dependents to be utterly bereft of individual characters, intentions, or opinions”.

However, Dickens makes us all see Sir Leicester differently when he learns the truth about Lady Dedlock.

“Sir Leicester, left alone, remains in the same attitude, as though he were still listening and his attention were still occupied. At length he gazes round the empty room, and finding it deserted, rises unsteadily to his feet, pushes back his chair, and walks a few steps, supporting himself by the table. Then he stops, and with more of those inarticulate sounds, lifts up his eyes and seems to stare at something.

Heaven knows what he sees. The green, green woods of Chesney Wold, the noble house, the pictures of his forefathers, strangers defacing them, officers of police coarsely handling his most precious heirlooms, thousands of fingers pointing at him, thousands of faces sneering at him. But if such shadows flit before him to his bewilderment, there is one other shadow which he can name with something like distinctness even yet and to which alone he addresses his tearing of his white hair and his extended arms.

It is she in association with whom, saving that she has been for years a main fibre of the root of his dignity and pride, he has never had a selfish thought. It is she whom he has loved, admired, honoured, and set up for the world to respect. It is she who, at the core of all the constrained formalities and conventionalities of his life, has been a stock of living tenderness and love, susceptible as nothing else is of being struck with the agony he feels. He sees her, almost to the exclusion of himself, and cannot bear to look upon her cast down from the high place she has graced so well.

And even to the point of his sinking on the ground, oblivious of his suffering, he can yet pronounce her name with something like distinctness in the midst of those intrusive sounds, and in a tone of mourning and compassion rather than reproach.” (Ch.53)

He remains loving, and devoted to her. And when he has a stroke, and discovers that Lady Dedlock has left the house, he’s no longer a caricature—he gains a nobility one didn’t expect to see in him. These chapters have some of the most moving scenes I’ve encountered in literature.  

Many people pick Middlemarch as the greatest novel of 19th century British literature. My pick would be Bleak House.