Bleak House: The bleakness of house tours

The old housekeeper, with a gracious severity of deportment, waves her hand towards the great staircase. Mr. Guppy and his friend follow Rosa; Mrs. Rouncewell and her grandson follow them; a young gardener goes before to open the shutters.

As is usually the case with people who go over houses, Mr. Guppy and his friend are dead beat before they have well begun. They straggle about in wrong places, look at wrong things, don’t care for the right things, gape when more rooms are opened, exhibit profound depression of spirits, and are clearly knocked up. In each successive chamber that they enter, Mrs. Rouncewell, who is as upright as the house itself, rests apart in a window-seat or other such nook and listens with stately approval to Rosa’s exposition. Her grandson is so attentive to it that Rosa is shyer than ever—and prettier. Thus they pass on from room to room, raising the pictured Dedlocks for a few brief minutes as the young gardener admits the light, and reconsigning them to their graves as he shuts it out again. It appears to the afflicted Mr. Guppy and his inconsolable friend that there is no end to the Dedlocks, whose family greatness seems to consist in their never having done anything to distinguish themselves for seven hundred years.

—Charles Dickens, Bleak House

The Portrait of a Bookworm

She saw the young men who came in large numbers to see her sister; but as a general thing they were afraid of her; they had a belief that some special preparation was required for talking with her. Her reputation of reading a great deal hung about her like the cloudy envelope of a goddess in an epic; it was supposed to engender difficult questions and to keep the conversation at a low temperature. The poor girl liked to be thought clever, but she hated to be thought bookish; she used to read in secret and, though her memory was excellent, to abstain from showy reference. She had a great desire for knowledge, but she really preferred almost any source of information to the printed page; she had an immense curiosity about life and was constantly staring and wondering. She carried within herself a great fund of life, and her deepest enjoyment was to feel the continuity between the movements of her own soul and the agitations of the world. For this reason she was fond of seeing great crowds and large stretches of country, of reading about revolutions and wars, of looking at historical pictures—a class of efforts as to which she had often committed the conscious solecism of forgiving them much bad painting for the sake of the subject. While the Civil War went on she was still a very young girl; but she passed months of this long period in a state of almost passionate excitement, in which she felt herself at times (to her extreme confusion) stirred almost indiscriminately by the valour of either army. Of course the circumspection of suspicious swains had never gone the length of making her a social proscript; for the number of those whose hearts, as they approached her, beat only just fast enough to remind them they had heads as well, had kept her unacquainted with the supreme disciplines of her sex and age. She had had everything a girl could have: kindness, admiration, bonbons, bouquets, the sense of exclusion from none of the privileges of the world she lived in, abundant opportunity for dancing, plenty of new dresses, the London Spectator, the latest publications, the music of Gounod, the poetry of Browning, the prose of George Eliot.

—Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady

Jane, Jane, Jane

I thought I’d share some Jane Eyre tidbits I’ve run across lately. First of all there is this gorgeous photo from the latest film adaptation of Jane Eyre:

Jane Eyre 2011

This beautiful image of the authoress at work (recall that Jane Eyre was written as an autobiography) immediately became my desktop wallpaper. Click to see it in its high-resolution glory. And here is what she is writing:

Jane Eyre manuscript

If that inspires you to write, you might enjoy applying your pen to this lovely Charlotte Brontë notebook, the cover of which is printed with a portion of the Jane Eyre manuscript.

Paperblanks Jane Eyre notebook

Finally, Mallory Ortberg was inspired to write a little précis of Jane Eyre. I think it captures Jane’s sensible, no-nonsense attitude in contrast to the overwrought males around her. Here is a snippet:

JANE WHERE HAVE YOU GONE
I AM BEREFT AND WITHOUT MY JANE I SHALL SINK INTO ROGUERY
i am  with my cousins
WHICH COUSIN
IS IT THE SEXY ONE
Please don’t try to talk to me again
IT IS YOUR SEXY COUSIN
“ST. JOHN”
WHAT KIND OF A NAME IS ST. JOHN
I’m not going to answer that
I KNEW IT
DID YOU LEAVE BECAUSE OF MY ATTIC WIFE
IS THAT WHAT THIS IS ABOUT
yes
absolutely

That pretty well sums it up, no?

Romola: A small fish in a small pond

Tessa sat quiet as a dove on its nest, just venturing, when he was fast asleep, to touch the wonderful dark curls that fell backward from his ear. She was too happy to go to sleep—too happy to think that Tito would wake up, and that then he would leave her, and she must go home. It takes very little water to make a perfect pool for a tiny fish, where it will find its world and paradise all in one, and never have a presentiment of the dry bank. The fretted summer shade, and stillness, and the gentle breathing of some loved life near—it would be paradise to us all, if eager thought, the strong angel with the implacable brow, had not long since closed the gates.

—George Eliot, Romola

Reading Austen in the 70s

From Margaret Drabble’s introduction to Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sanditon:

We may tend to think Elizabeth Bennet a sensible girl not to mind getting her skirts muddy, and the Darcy and Bingley women ridiculous for noticing, but eighteenth-century mud was doubtless much more substantial than our own, and long skirts picked it up more, as those who now wear long skirts again will surely have noticed…. The Austen family wore pattens when young, to negotiate the country lanes round Steventon, a practice which seemed as archaic and vulgar to Jane Austen’s nephew, as the wearing of clogs would have seemed to us now, had not a freak of fashion brought them very nosily back again in 1972.

I confess I did wear clogs in the 70’s, though I preferred pants to maxi-skirts. I wonder what cultural trends we could relate to Jane Austen today? Perhaps laptops are today’s writing desks, and instead of daily letter-writing today’s young ladies check Facebook.

“Jane’s Fame” by Claire Harman

Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World by Claire HarmanJane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World
Claire Harman
Henry Holt and Co.
2010
304 pp.

While I was tidying up the list of books I read in 2011 I noticed that I began the year with a short biography of Jane Austen, read the wonderful A Jane Austen Education in the summer, and finished the year with Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World. Add to that a re-reading of Persuasion (my favourite) and much munching of popcorn in front of various film adaptations and the enjoyable Lost in Austen spinoff. This all happened without even trying, which just goes to show how ubiquitous Jane Austen has become. Jane’s Fame traces the development of Jane Austen’s popularity, which was by no means a sure thing in the beginning. She was nearly forgotten after her death in 1817, but a biography published by her nephew in 1869 revived interest in her, which prompted the reprinting of her books, and her renown steadily grew from there to today’s all-Austen-all-the-time proportions.

I found it interesting that for a long time the most ardent Janeites were male scholars. No doubt it only seems that way because they had the floor, but in any case her books were certainly not considered to be particularly for women until recently. She was also much-loved by soldiers in World War I, who read and discussed her books in the trenches to escape the hell they were going through. Austen was also prescribed to wounded and shell-shocked soldiers for comfort and solace in their convalescence or their last days.

Claire Harman points out that one of the reasons Austen is so easily appropriated by generation after generation of readers is that her books lack details of time and place that would make it seem dated or foreign to future readers. Apparently she did this quite deliberately and mentions it in her letters. Though some criticized her books for failing to mention the great events of the time, such as the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars, in retrospect she made the right choice if she wanted her works to be enduringly accessible. Two centuries later, references to contemporary issues and obsolete facts of life would only get in the way of the stories. Today’s writers might do well to question the conventional wisdom about describing the setting of a novel in vivid detail. People are people, whether they communicate by text message or penny post.

Jane’s Fame is quite a thorough examination of the reception of Austen’s books, and even describes the huge success of the recent film adaptations (including a discussion of the wet shirt), and mentions the most popular Austen blogs and web communities. Nothing is left out, as far as I can tell, though it is understandably UK-centric. If you want to know what people have thought about Jane Austen and her books over the last 200 years, this book will tell you. The tone is scholarly but with enough Austen-like wry humour to make it enjoyable.

After reading this book I realize that I have been remiss in not reading Austen’s unfinished novels, now called Sanditon and The Watsons, as well as the story Lady Susan. I even have a Penguin edition of them sitting on my bookshelf so I have no excuse. I believe that will be my first new book of 2012!

Our Mutual Friend: Inner City School

The school at which young Charley Hexam had first learned from a book—the streets being, for pupils of his degree, the great Preparatory Establishment in which very much that is never unlearned is learned without and before book—was a miserable loft in an unsavoury yard. Its atmosphere was oppressive and disagreeable; it was crowded, noisy, and confusing; half the pupils dropped asleep, or fell into a state of waking stupefaction; the other half kept them in either condition by maintaining a monotonous droning noise, as if they were performing, out of time and tune, on a ruder sort of bagpipe. The teachers, animated solely by good intentions, had no idea of execution, and a lamentable jumble was the upshot of their kind endeavours.

It was a school for all ages, and for both sexes. The latter were kept apart, and the former were partitioned off into square assortments. But, all the place was pervaded by a grimly ludicrous pretence that every pupil was childish and innocent. This pretence, much favoured by the lady-visitors, led to the ghastliest absurdities. Young women old in the vices of the commonest and worst life, were expected to profess themselves enthralled by the good child’s book, the Adventures of Little Margery, who resided in the village cottage by the mill; severely reproved and morally squashed the miller, when she was five and he was fifty; divided her porridge with singing birds; denied herself a new nankeen bonnet, on the ground that the turnips did not wear nankeen bonnets, neither did the sheep who ate them; who plaited straw and delivered the dreariest orations to all comers, at all sorts of unseasonable times. So, unwieldy young dredgers and hulking mudlarks were referred to the experiences of Thomas Twopence, who, having resolved not to rob (under circumstances of uncommon atrocity) his particular friend and benefactor, of eighteenpence, presently came into supernatural possession of three and sixpence, and lived a shining light ever afterwards. (Note, that the benefactor came to no good.) Several swaggering sinners had written their own biographies in the same strain; it always appearing from the lessons of those very boastful persons, that you were to do good, not because it WAS good, but because you were to make a good thing of it. Contrariwise, the adult pupils were taught to read (if they could learn) out of the New Testament; and by dint of stumbling over the syllables and keeping their bewildered eyes on the particular syllables coming round to their turn, were as absolutely ignorant of the sublime history, as if they had never seen or heard of it. An exceedingly and confoundingly perplexing jumble of a school, in fact, where black spirits and grey, red spirits and white, jumbled jumbled jumbled jumbled, jumbled every night. And particularly every Sunday night. For then, an inclined plane of unfortunate infants would be handed over to the prosiest and worst of all the teachers with good intentions, whom nobody older would endure. Who, taking his stand on the floor before them as chief executioner, would be attended by a conventional volunteer boy as executioner’s assistant. When and where it first became the conventional system that a weary or inattentive infant in a class must have its face smoothed downward with a hot hand, or when and where the conventional volunteer boy first beheld such system in operation, and became inflamed with a sacred zeal to administer it, matters not. It was the function of the chief executioner to hold forth, and it was the function of the acolyte to dart at sleeping infants, yawning infants, restless infants, whimpering infants, and smooth their wretched faces; sometimes with one hand, as if he were anointing them for a whisker; sometimes with both hands, applied after the fashion of blinkers. And so the jumble would be in action in this department for a mortal hour; the exponent drawling on to My Dearert Childerrenerr, let us say, for example, about the beautiful coming to the Sepulchre; and repeating the word Sepulchre (commonly used among infants) five hundred times, and never once hinting what it meant; the conventional boy smoothing away right and left, as an infallible commentary; the whole hot-bed of flushed and exhausted infants exchanging measles, rashes, whooping-cough, fever, and stomach disorders, as if they were assembled in High Market for the purpose.

Even in this temple of good intentions, an exceptionally sharp boy exceptionally determined to learn, could learn something, and, having learned it, could impart it much better than the teachers; as being more knowing than they, and not at the disadvantage in which they stood towards the shrewder pupils. In this way it had come about that Charley Hexam had risen in the jumble, taught in the jumble, and been received from the jumble into a better school.

–Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend

Our Mutual Friend: The 1%

Georgiana had by this time seen a good deal of the house and its frequenters. As there was a certain handsome room with a billiard table in it—on the ground floor, eating out a backyard—which might have been Mr Lammle’s office, or library, but was called by neither name, but simply Mr Lammle’s room, so it would have been hard for stronger female heads than Georgiana’s to determine whether its frequenters were men of pleasure or men of business. Between the room and the men there were strong points of general resemblance. Both were too gaudy, too slangey, too odorous of cigars, and too much given to horseflesh; the latter characteristic being exemplified in the room by its decorations, and in the men by their conversation. High-stepping horses seemed necessary to all Mr Lammle’s friends—as necessary as their transaction of business together in a gipsy way at untimely hours of the morning and evening, and in rushes and snatches. There were friends who seemed to be always coming and going across the Channel, on errands about the Bourse, and Greek and Spanish and India and Mexican and par and premium and discount and three quarters and seven eighths. There were other friends who seemed to be always lolling and lounging in and out of the City, on questions of the Bourse, and Greek and Spanish and India and Mexican and par and premium and discount and three quarters and seven eighths. They were all feverish, boastful, and indefinably loose; and they all ate and drank a great deal; and made bets in eating and drinking. They all spoke of sums of money, and only mentioned the sums and left the money to be understood; as ‘five and forty thousand Tom,’ or ‘Two hundred and twenty-two on every individual share in the lot Joe.’ They seemed to divide the world into two classes of people; people who were making enormous fortunes, and people who were being enormously ruined. They were always in a hurry, and yet seemed to have nothing tangible to do; except a few of them (these, mostly asthmatic and thick-lipped) who were for ever demonstrating to the rest, with gold pencil-cases which they could hardly hold because of the big rings on their forefingers, how money was to be made. Lastly, they all swore at their grooms, and the grooms were not quite as respectful or complete as other men’s grooms; seeming somehow to fall short of the groom point as their masters fell short of the gentleman point.

–Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend

Our Mutual Friend: Mr. Wegg reads to Mr. Boffin

‘Hem!’ began Wegg, ‘This, Mr Boffin and Lady, is the first chapter of the first wollume of the Decline and Fall off—’ here he looked hard at the book, and stopped.

‘What’s the matter, Wegg?’

‘Why, it comes into my mind, do you know, sir,’ said Wegg with an air of insinuating frankness (having first again looked hard at the book), ‘that you made a little mistake this morning, which I had meant to set you right in, only something put it out of my head. I think you said Rooshan Empire, sir?’

‘It is Rooshan; ain’t it, Wegg?’

‘No, sir. Roman. Roman.’

‘What’s the difference, Wegg?’

‘The difference, sir?’ Mr Wegg was faltering and in danger of breaking down, when a bright thought flashed upon him. ‘The difference, sir? There you place me in a difficulty, Mr Boffin. Suffice it to observe, that the difference is best postponed to some other occasion when Mrs Boffin does not honour us with her company. In Mrs Boffin’s presence, sir, we had better drop it.’

Mr Wegg thus came out of his disadvantage with quite a chivalrous air, and not only that, but by dint of repeating with a manly delicacy, ‘In Mrs Boffin’s presence, sir, we had better drop it!’ turned the disadvantage on Boffin, who felt that he had committed himself in a very painful manner.

Then, Mr Wegg, in a dry unflinching way, entered on his task; going straight across country at everything that came before him; taking all the hard words, biographical and geographical; getting rather shaken by Hadrian, Trajan, and the Antonines; stumbling at Polybius (pronounced Polly Beeious, and supposed by Mr Boffin to be a Roman virgin, and by Mrs Boffin to be responsible for that necessity of dropping it); heavily unseated by Titus Antoninus Pius; up again and galloping smoothly with Augustus; finally, getting over the ground well with Commodus: who, under the appellation of Commodious, was held by Mr Boffin to have been quite unworthy of his English origin, and ‘not to have acted up to his name’ in his government of the Roman people. With the death of this personage, Mr Wegg terminated his first reading; long before which consummation several total eclipses of Mrs Boffin’s candle behind her black velvet disc, would have been very alarming, but for being regularly accompanied by a potent smell of burnt pens when her feathers took fire, which acted as a restorative and woke her. Mr Wegg, having read on by rote and attached as few ideas as possible to the text, came out of the encounter fresh; but, Mr Boffin, who had soon laid down his unfinished pipe, and had ever since sat intently staring with his eyes and mind at the confounding enormities of the Romans, was so severely punished that he could hardly wish his literary friend Good-night, and articulate ‘Tomorrow.’

‘Commodious,’ gasped Mr Boffin, staring at the moon, after letting Wegg out at the gate and fastening it: ‘Commodious fights in that wild-beast-show, seven hundred and thirty-five times, in one character only! As if that wasn’t stunning enough, a hundred lions is turned into the same wild-beast-show all at once! As if that wasn’t stunning enough, Commodious, in another character, kills ’em all off in a hundred goes! As if that wasn’t stunning enough, Vittle-us (and well named too) eats six millions’ worth, English money, in seven months! Wegg takes it easy, but upon-my-soul to a old bird like myself these are scarers. And even now that Commodious is strangled, I don’t see a way to our bettering ourselves.’ Mr Boffin added as he turned his pensive steps towards the Bower and shook his head, ‘I didn’t think this morning there was half so many Scarers in Print. But I’m in for it now!’

—Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend