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For the Term of His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke

May 10, 2018 10 comments

For the Term of His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke. (1874) French title: La justice des hommes.

Published in 1874, For The Term of His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke is an Australian classic that explores the convict era in Tasmania, then Van Dieman’s Land. From what I read on Wikipedia, some of the facts described in the novel are actual stories from the penal settlements in Port Macquarie and Port Arthur.

The book opens on a tragic scene: We’re in 1827 and Richard Devine, son of a rich shipbuilder discovers that he is a bastard, that his real father is actually Lord Bellasis. Sir Devine senior disowns him and says that his money will go to a relative, Maurice Frere. When he’s about to leave his home, he stumbles upon a murder. Lord Bellasis has just been killed! Richard Devine is soon accused of the murder, takes a new identity and is sent to the penal settlement of Port Macquarie.

The first book of the novel is the journey on the Malabar from England to Tasmania. Richard Devine is now Rufus Dawes. Lieutenant Maurice Frere is on board, as an officer in charge of the convicts. Captain Vickers embarked on this ship with his wife Julia and his daughter Sylvia to take the commandment of the penal settlement in Port Macquarie. Sarah Purfoy is travelling with them as Julia’s maid but she’s actually following her lover, John Rex who is a convict. Blunt is the captain of the Malabar. The voyage will settle the characters and the relationships between them. Sarah Purfoy will be forever in love with John Rex and his freedom is her reason to live. She uses her charms on Maurice Frere and on Blunt. Sylvia takes an instant dislike for Maurice Frere, showing the instinctual assessment children have of adults. Frere will become a powerful master of penal settlements.

We will follow them during twenty years. I won’t tell too much about the plot. Let’s say it’s full of twists and turns.

Marcus Clarke uses his novel to describe the convict system. It’s a lot like slavery, except that the convicts have no monetary value, contrary to slaves. It’s always in their administrative coldness that inhumane businesses inadvertently show their inhumanity. Imagine that someone bothered to write rules about transporting convicts, how much space per person there was supposed to be on the ship, the living rules like “no talking” between convicts and such trivial matters like this. Sailors were rewarded with a lump sum per capita for each convict that reached their destination alive.

Then there’s the description of the penal settlements. Marcus Clarke describes them as natural prisons: wilderness around them is such that escape is nearly impossible. Tasmania is an island anyway and the natural setting of the settlements kept the convicts from evasion.

Colonel Arthur reported to the Home Government that the spot which bore his name was a “natural penitentiary”. The worthy disciplinarian probably took as a personal compliment the polite forethought of the Almighty in thus considerately providing for the carrying out of the celebrated “Regulations for Convict Discipline”.

The settlements are far from civilization and their commander can organize life as they wish. Convicts work in awful conditions. They are flogged, punished and mentally tortured. Frere sets up a system to discipline and punish the convicts that is inhuman.

Sylvia is the only one who doesn’t agree with the management of the settlement and who feels compassion towards the convicts. She’s the one who criticizes the idea of penal settlement and questions its use.

There is no one to really help the convicts out there. As a woman, Sylvia has no power. Clergymen are appointed to preach the convicts but they are ill-equipped to deal with this environment. See poor Mr Meekin when he arrives at Maquarie Harbour:

Mr. Meekin, more astonished than ever at this strange country, where beautiful young ladies talked of poisoning and flogging as matters of little moment, where wives imprisoned their husbands, and murderers taught French, perfumed the air with his cambric handkerchief in silence.

Imagine Mr Collins from Pride and Prejudice thrown into a penal settlement and you’ll see how useless Mr Meekin was.

The way Marcus Clarke describes the penal settlements, there’s absolutely no hope for the prisoners. They are not considered as human beings anymore. They have no value in the eyes of their jailers. They degraded them to a convict status that deprives them from basic rights. They become Others with this Otherness that Toni Morrison describes about Blacks. Their jailers can treat them as badly as they want, no moral judgment will be passed on them because their mistreatments are done to people who are not fully human.

And the British government has no control over what happens in these penal settlements and probably turns a blind eye about it.

The aspect of convict life interested me a lot. France had penal settlements in various places, the most famous ones being in French Guiana. Its well-knows prisoners are Dreyfus and Henri Charrière who later wrote Papillon, an autobiography about experience as a convict. This penal settlement was running from 1852 to 1953. I remember being horrified by Papillon when I read it.

As I said, I was interested in the workings of the penal settlements but I would have enjoyed For The Term of His Natural Life a lot more if it had been written in a more sober manner and if the discussions about the penal system had been more challenging.

I had trouble with the book’s style and its literary genre. I’m not proficient enough in literature to tell exactly what genre it is but there were too many gothic elements for my liking. It refers to several other works of literature, the most obvious ones being Le Comte de Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas and Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. I thought that the descriptions of boat building after some characters were left behind on an hostile coast would never end. There’s also plenty of angst like in Wuthering Heights or Frankenstein.

Having got out of eye-shot of the ungrateful creatures he had befriended, Rufus Dawes threw himself upon the ground in an agony of mingled rage and regret.

See what I mean?

From the beginning, I thought about Le Comte de Monte Cristo and it’s clearly a sort of Ariadne thread along the book.

The secret, for the preservation of which Richard Devine had voluntarily flung away his name, and risked a terrible and disgraceful death, would be now for ever safe; for Richard Devine was dead—lost at sea with the crew of the ill-fated vessel in which, deluded by a skilfully-sent letter from the prison, his mother believed him to have sailed. Richard Devine was dead, and the secret of his birth would die with him. Rufus Dawes, his alter ego, alone should live. Rufus Dawes, the convicted felon, the suspected murderer, should live to claim his freedom, and work out his vengeance; or, rendered powerful by the terrible experience of the prison-sheds, should seize both, in defiance of gaol or gaoler.

Kind of obvious, no? And somewhere along the way, there’s a direct reference to Dumas. This probably explains why I was so disappointed with the gothic ending. Not at all what I expected.

Frequent fliers with this blog know that I’m so NOT a good reader for Gothic/Romantic/Adventure books. So, even if Clarke’s novel is considered as a great piece of literature, it didn’t quite work for me. I felt sorry for Rufus Dawes but his over-the-top attitude prevented me from totally rooting for him.

I also read it in English and phew, that was an ordeal. I usually don’t have problems with 19th century literature. There’s no slang, it’s formal language all along which means a lot of French-looking words I can guess even if I didn’t previously know them.

But here, some sentences looked so French that they bothered me. It felt like hearing a French man smattering English. Things like “I could render her happy” (For me a typical French way of speaking “Je pourrais la rendre heureuse”) or “[he] whispered a last prayer for succour.” with the use of succour (in French secours) instead of help. And the use of the verb essay (like essayer) instead of try, threw me off. (John Rex essayed to climb the twin-blocks that barred the unknown depths below him.)

There were also specific words. During the first part, I had problems with ship vocabulary. It led to puzzling moments like when I read that at six p.m. the poop guard was removed to the quarter-deck. It took my reading the sentence aloud to realize that poop meant poupe in French as in a part of the ship and that nobody was actually guarding the loo.

I’m curious to hear about what native English speakers think about Clarke’s style. It sounded old fashioned to me compared to books of that time.

I’ll say that I’m glad I read For The Term of His Natural Life to learn about penal settlements in Australia but it wasn’t an agreeable read for me, mostly because its genre is not my cup of tea.

PS: I thought I’d share a tip about downloading the quote you highlighted while reading on a kindle. See here.

 

The Three Miss Kings by Ada Cambridge

January 13, 2018 45 comments

The Three Miss Kings by Ada Cambridge (1887). French title: Les trois Miss King.

My only reading plans this year are to read the books for my Book Club and to read one Australian book per month. The Three Miss Kings by Ada Cambridge popped up in the books other bloggers suggested when I asked for Australian books recommendations. This is also an opportunity for me to join the Australian Women Writers Challenge this year as it is compatible with my reading plans. I committed to read and review four books by Australian Women Writers. I’ve had mix-ups with names in the past, originally thinking that Miles Franklin was a man and Kim Scott a woman, so I hope I’ll get everything right in the future.

Here’s the starting point of The Three Miss Kings’ story, a beginning that sounds like a mother reading a bedside story to her children:

On the second of January, in the year 1880, three newly-orphaned sisters, finding themselves left to their own devices, with an income of exactly one hundred pounds a year a-piece, sat down to consult together as to the use they should make of their independence.

Elizabeth, Patty and Eleanor decide to sell their childhood home in the country to move to Melbourne. Their local attorney takes an interest in them after dealing with their father’s will and since his son Paul works as a journalist in Melbourne, he asked him to help the girls settle in the city. So, our three sisters pack everything, say goodbye to their home and pets and take the boat to Melbourne. They know they will be out of their depths there, at least at the beginning but they are confident in their judgment and skills to help them figure things out.

They had no idea what was the “correct thing” in costume or manners, and they knew little or nothing of the value of money; but they were well and widely read, and highly accomplished in all the household arts, from playing the piano to making bread and butter, and as full of spiritual and intellectual aspirations as the most advanced amongst us.

I will not go too much into the plot and how the three sisters enter into Melbourne’s society, find themselves a protector in a childless Mrs Duff-Scott who’s more than happy to “adopt” three grownup daughters and to play matchmaker. There’s also a mystery in the sisters’ filiation which is well introduced in the novel. It is a page turner, I wanted to know what would become of them, what twists and turns Ada Cambridge had in store for me. I switched off my rational mind and enjoyed the ride. If I have to compare The Three Miss Kings to other novels of the period, I’d say it’s something in the middle of A Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy, A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy, Miss McKenzie by Anthony Trollope and Lady Audley’s Secret by ME. Braddon.

Ada Cambridge’s style is also a reason why I enjoyed her book so much. It caught my attention and stirred various reactions. First, I loved her descriptions of the countryside where the sisters grew up.

Second, I noticed that she used French words in the middle of her sentences, like British writers of her time. One day I will note down all the French words in a 19thC British or Australian book to see whether there’s a theme. It seemed to me she used French words for love situations, food and fashion but I might be wrong. I didn’t notice any misuse of French words, I guess she was fluent.

Third, I was very puzzled by some English words or expressions that I’d never encountered before. Ada Cambridge used several times the word commissariat, like here: I am quite used to commissariat business, and can set a table beautifully. In modern French, a commissariat is a police station. Each time I saw the word, the image of a place full of policemen popped in my mind. Disturbing. Then, there was this Mrs Grundy business. The first time Ada Cambridge referred to Mrs Grundy, I thought I’d forgotten about a character of the book. I eventually understood she was not a character of the book and had to research her on Wikipedia. Phew. Talk about confusing.

But mostly, I loved Ada Cambridge’s cheekiness. Do you expect sentences like this is a 19thC book?

As the night drew on, Mrs. Duff-Scott retired to put on her war paint.

Or

Mr. Westmoreland has fallen in love with her really now—as far as such a brainless hippopotamus is capable of falling in love, that is to say.

Who would have thought that war paint was already used at the time? I didn’t see any reference to a powder room, though. It gave me the impression that life in Melbourne’s upper-classes was far more casual and relaxed that life in London.

I enjoyed her style and her tone immensely. I closed the book thinking I would have loved to meet Ada Cambridge. There’s this lightness and humour in her voice but also her vision of life and women that seeps through the sweet story. Patty is a feminist, pushing for her independence and resenting Paul’s interference with their life.

Patty felt that it was having a fall now. “I know it is very kind of Mr. Brion,” she said tremulously, “but how are we to get on and do for ourselves if we are treated like children—I mean if we allow ourselves to hang on to other people? We should make our own way, as others have to do. I don’t suppose you had anyone to lead you about when you first came to Melbourne”—addressing Paul. “I was a man,” he replied. “It is a man’s business to take care of himself.” “Of course. And equally it is a woman’s business to take care of herself—if she has no man in her family.” “Pardon me. In that case it is the business of all the men with whom she comes in contact to take care of her—each as he can.” “Oh, what nonsense! You talk as if we lived in the time of the Troubadours—as if you didn’t know that all that stuff about women has had its day and been laughed out of existence long ago.” “What stuff?” “That we are helpless imbeciles—a sort of angelic wax baby, good for nothing but to look pretty. As if we were not made of the same substance as you, with brains and hands—not so strong as yours, perhaps, but quite strong enough to rely upon when necessary. Oh!” exclaimed Patty, with a fierce gesture, “I do so hate that man’s cant about women—I have no patience with it!”

The writer under these words appeared to have a progressist view of women’s place in society. She also refers to Darwin’s theories in passing and we know they were controversial at the time. Her vision of religion is also daring for her century. I had the feeling she was well-read and modern, that she was not afraid to speak up for herself and for her gender, that she was interested in new theories, in progress in social matters as well as in science. She comes out as a woman involved and in advance for her time.

On a personal level, I also share her vision of life, the one she describes in this paragraph:

“There is no greater mistake in life than to sacrifice the substance of the present for the shadow of the future. We most of us do it—until we get old—and then we look back to see how foolish and wasteful we have been, and that is not much comfort to us. What we’ve got, we’ve got; what we are going to have nobody can tell. Lay in all the store you can, of course—take all reasonable precautions to insure as satisfactory a future as possible—but don’t forget that the Present is the great time, the most important stage of your existence, no matter what your circumstances may be.”

Yep, definitely someone I would have loved to have a long chat with.

Reading The Three Miss Kings is also my participation to Australian Women Writers Gen 1 Week. Talk about killing two challenges with one book!

Lady Audley’s Secret by M.E. Braddon

October 1, 2017 18 comments

Lady Audley’s Secret by M.E. Braddon (1862) French title: Le secret de Lady Audley.

The first time I heard from Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Sensation Novels was on Guy’s blog when he published his review of Lady Audley’s Secret. (See his review here: Part I & Part II)  I knew this would be my kind of book and I’m glad our book club picked it for our August read. (Yes, I’m late again with my billet.)

When the book opens, Lady Audley has been married to Sir Michael for a few months. She was a governess at a nearby house and Sir Michael fell in love with her. She’s a beautiful blonde with stunning ringlets and captivating blue eyes. She’s an enchantress who bewitches everyone around her and poor Sir Michael stood no chance against her charms. So, against all odds, at the sober age of fifty-five, Sir Michael Audley had fallen ill of the terrible fever called love. Sir Michael has a daughter, Alicia who is almost as old as his new wife. While Lady Audley delights in girlish activities, Alicia is more outdoorsy. The two women have nothing in common and Lady Audley’s arrival made Alicia lose her power over her father and the housekeeping. Needless to say, the two hate each other with fierce British cordiality.

Sir Michael has also a nephew, Robert Audley. Aged of twenty-seven, he’s an idle barrister in London. Alicia is in love with him but he doesn’t pay attention to many things around him.

Indolent, handsome, and indifferent, the young barrister took life as altogether too absurd a mistake for any one event in its foolish course to be for a moment considered seriously by a sensible man.

Fickle as he seems, Robert Audley is genuinely fond of his uncle and enjoys staying at Audley Court regularly.

In parallel to the new microcosm at Audley Court, ME Braddon introduces us to George Talboys. He’s on his way back from Australia where he took part to the Gold Rush and became rich. He left his young wife with their baby son back in England and he’s dying to go back to her and resume their family life now that he’s settled financially.

He’s just arrived in London when he stumbles upon his old classmate, Robert Audley. Alas, he quickly discovers that his wife just died and Robert accompanies him to see her father and go to her grave. George is devastated by grief and Robert takes care of him, inviting him to share his lodgings in London. The two men are great friends and Robert would like to cheer him up. He eventually takes him to Audley Court to meet his uncle’s new wife.

Several events in the story make the reader understand that Lady Audley hides something and that this something might be that she was George Talboys’s wife. She seems to make sure to never meet him and when he suddenly disappears from Audley Court’s grounds, Robert is instantly worried and fears the worst. He finds this disappearance very odd and turns into a detective to find out what happened to his dear friend.

Bocca Baciata by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1859)

Nothing in this story stands against the question “Is it plausible?” It is full of coincidences, chance meetings, trains that arrive just at the right time to push the plot forward, little clues scattered here and there. It explores the ideas of murder in cold blood, bigamy and greed. For once, the villain is a beautiful blonde, an evil spirit hidden by her beauty but revealed in her portrait.

No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have painted, hair by hair, those feathery masses of ringlets, with every glimmer of gold, and every shadow of pale brown. No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have so exaggerated every attribute of that delicate face as to give a lurid brightness to the blonde complexion, and a strange, sinister light to the deep blue eyes. No one but a pre-Raphaelite could have given to that pretty pouting mouth the hard and almost wicked look it had in the portrait.

Robert, first described as lazy and fickle becomes obsessed with finding George and protecting his uncle from his wife. For an idle fellow, he sure deploys a lot of energy investigating his friend’s disappearance. The way ME Braddon described his grief over the loss of his friend, I wondered if there wasn’t a little bromance under all this friendship. (But he seemed to have lost all taste for companionship, all sympathy with the pleasures and occupations of his class, since the disappearance of George Talboys.)

What makes the trip the most enjoyable is ME Braddon’s buoyant and bouncy style. She writes like a French writer paid by the page with lots of commas, strings of adjectives and long sentences.

Mr. Harcourt Talboys lived in a prim, square, red-brick mansion, within a mile of a little village called Grange Heath, in Dorsetshire. The prim, square, red-brick mansion stood in the center of prim, square grounds, scarcely large enough to be called a park, too large to be called anything else—so neither the house nor the grounds had any name, and the estate was simply designated Squire Talboys’.

She’s very cinematographic in her descriptions, a gift that transports the reader on the action’s premises. She doesn’t think that a straight line is the shortest way to arrive somewhere and takes us into the detours of her delightful paragraphs.

His pretty, gipsy-faced cousin might have been over head and ears in love with him; and she might have told him so, in some charming, roundabout, womanly fashion, a hundred times a day for all the three hundred and sixty-five days in the year; but unless she had waited for some privileged 29th of February, and walked straight up to him, saying, “Robert, please will you marry me?” I very much doubt if he would ever have discovered the state of her feelings.

She also uses French references, mostly to describes flaws in a character.

Robert Audley’s main flaw is his love for French novels. He’s so addicted to them that he always carries six of them when he travels and they’re his main source of entertainment in London. Braddon talks about them with the same disdain as Flaubert when he describes Emma Bovary’s readings. They seemed to be what we call in French romans de gare (railway station novels) or airport novels in English but I have trouble using the term airport novels for 19th century books as it sounds a tiny bit anachronic. I kept wondering what kind of infamous novels Robert was reading until ME Braddon mentioned Balzac and Dumas fils. (You have no sentimental nonsense, no silly infatuation, borrowed from Balzac or Dumas fils, to fear from me.) Ahem. Can’t say I classify them in railway station authors but who knows how these masterpieces were received in their time by the Victorian bourgeoisie. And of course, it’s ironic for ME Braddon to write this about Balzac and Dumas fils, given the kind of literature she wrote.

But Robert is not the only one whose character is marred by French influence. Lady Audley’s quarters are adorned by medallion miniatures of Louis the Great and Louis the Well-beloved, Louise de la Valliere, Athenais de Montespan, and Marie Jeanne Gomard de Vaubernier. In other words, she is surrounded by king Louis XIV and his lovers (Louise de la Vallière, Athenais de Montespan) and Louis XV, the libertine king and his mistress Madame du Barry (Marie Jeanne Gomard de Vaubernier) Basically, her role models are adulterer kings and their conniving mistresses. Please note that there is no reference to the pious Madame de Maintenon.

Like a lot of 19th century British writers, ME Braddon peppers her prose with French expressions. Some were accurate and some were more imaginative. I couldn’t figure out what she meant with bonne bouche in this sentence The two young men looked at the paintings on the walls first, leaving this unfinished portrait for a bonne boucheOut of context it could means gourmet, although the usual expression is fine bouche but I don’t see how this meaning fits in the sentence. I had the same trouble with mauvaise honte in the young man’s mauvaise honte alone had delayed the offer of his hand. I suppose that the young man was shy.

Of course I couldn’t help smiling at this reference to my beloved Molière: “What the devil am I doing in this galere?” he asked. This is a direct reference to the play, Les Fourberies de Scapin where a character keeps saying What the devil was he doing in this galley?

This mix of effective descriptions, irony, bombast and improbable twists and turns makes of Lady Audley’s Secret a highly enjoyable ride. It’s well-written fun and it must be taken as it is, with a good-humored dose of suspension of belief. That’s comfort literature, good Beach and Public Transport reading, which is my non-debasing way to call the romans de gare.

The Romance of a Mummy by Théophile Gautier

March 11, 2017 19 comments

The Romance of a Mummy by Théophile Gautier (1858) Original French title: Le roman de la momie.

Note: I read The Romance of a Mummy in French. For the translation of the quote, I used the English translation by F. C. de Sumichrast that is available at Gutenberg Project.   I am totally unable to translate Gautier myself.

The Romance of a Mummy was our Book Club choice for February, so I’m a little late with my billet but it doesn’t matter. Here’s the blurb on my book:

Pharaoh loves Tahoser who loves Poëri. Pharaoh is back from Ethiopia when he casts a lustful glance at Tahoser, the daughter of a high priest. He is covered with glory, he has nothing to expect from the world and he suddenly feels that he’s a slave to this young Egyptian. But gorgeous and graceful Tahoser longs for a man with dark eyes, a man she had a glimpse of from the terrace of a luxuriant house. She doesn’t hesitate to shed away her rich clothes and jewels to conquer the heart of Poëri, this exiled Hebrew man.

A sumptuous love story that a young English Lord will discover on the papyrus he found in an inviolate grave in the Valley of the Kings. There rests for eternity but with all the appearance of life, a young woman who’s been dead for thirty centuries.

That’s the summary. What the summary won’t tell you is that, in a book of 159 pages, 40 are eaten by a prolog that describes with great minutiae the discovery of the papyrus. This prolog has been removed from the version on Project Gutenberg, btw. Then 30 pages are devoted to the description of Thebes, of Tahoser’s palace and of Pharaoh’s triumphal return. All this is aimed at French readers who want to bask into Ancient Egypt. Consequently, it doesn’t feel at all like a story from a papyrus written thirty centuries ago but like a lecture on pharaonic architecture and Ancient Egypt’s ways.

True, Gautier can write, as you can see in this description of heat in Thebes:

Oph (c’est le nom égyptien de la ville que l’antiquité appelait Thèbes aux cent portes ou Diospolis Magna) semblait endormie sous l’action dévorante d’un soleil de plomb. Il était midi ; une lumière blanche tombait du ciel pâle sur la terre pâmée de chaleur ; le sol brillanté de réverbérations luisait comme du métal fourbi, et l’ombre ne traçait plus au pied des édifices qu’un mince filet bleuâtre, pareil à la ligne d’encre dont un architecte dessine son plan sur le papyrus ; les maisons, aux murs légèrement inclinés en talus, flamboyaient comme des briques au four ; les portes étaient closes, et aux fenêtres, fermées de stores en roseaux clissés, nulle tête n’apparaissait. Oph (that is the name of the city which antiquity called Thebes of the Hundred Gates, or Diospolis Magna), seemed asleep under the burning beams of the blazing sun. It was noon. A white light fell from the pale sky upon the baked earth; the sand, shimmering and scintillating, shone like burnished metal; shadows there were none, save a narrow, bluish line at the foot of buildings, like the inky line with which an architect draws upon papyrus; the houses, whose walls sloped well inwards, glowed like bricks in an oven; every door was closed, and no one showed at the windows, which were closed with blinds of reeds.

Believe me, it sounds a lot less bombastic in English. The translator erased a lot of the pomposity and sensuality of the original text. Alas, I had to endure it in French. And Gautier does use and abuse of bombast. All the time. For everything. He loves longs sentences made of lists of things to describe anything. The palace, the city, Tahoser’s jewels. He can’t say something is full of flowers. He has to write the list of all the flowers. This is really not my type of prose. I feel smothered in words, irritated by his useless show-off of the breadth of his knowledge of the French language. The man must have been a walking dictionary.

Such prose should end up in a five hundred pages book and here, it’s only 159 pages. This means that the pages he wasted on endless descriptions are missing for characterization. The book is sick with architectural grandeur but the characters are papyrus thin. They see someone beautiful, they fall madly in love, it’s the man/woman of their dream. It’s full of unrealistic feelings and behaviors. The last part of the novel couples this improbable love triangle to the train of the biblical tale of Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt. Unbelievable.

I get that The Romance of a Mummy was part of the Egyptomania current in the 19th century. I understand that in 1858, the lengthy descriptions might have been helpful to help the reader see the setting in their mind, since there was no films. Unfortunately, it didn’t age well. In 2017, it sounds like a half-baked Hollywood peplum.

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

December 17, 2016 19 comments

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. (1895) French title: L’Importance d’être constant.

Before visiting the Paris exhibit about Wilde and after reading The Happy Prince and Other Tales, I turned to The Importance of Being Earnest, another landmark in Wilde’s field of masterpieces. I loved this play and I wish I could see a stage version.

wilde_importanceI guess that a lot of readers know the story. Jack Worthing is in love with Gwendolen Fairfax. Her cousin is Algernon Moncrieff, who’s also Jack’s good friend. Jack created himself an alias for when he’s in town. When he’s in the country, he’s Jack, the serious guardian of Cecily Cardew. When he’s in town, he’s reckless Ernest who’s in love with Gwendolen. Algernon and Gwendolen both know him as Ernest. For his countryside family and friend, Ernest is Jack’s daredevil brother. Jack explains all this to Algernon who was about to get in the way of his marrying Gwendolen because he saw that Ernest’s cigarette case bore the inscription “From little Cecily, with her fondest love to her dear Uncle Jack.”

Jack decides it’s time to kill fictional Ernest and goes to his country home. At the same time, Algernon is intrigued by Cecily and rushes to Jack’s country home to meet her and arrives before Jack. He worms himself into Jack’s house and Cecily’s heart under the pretense of being…Ernest.

The rest is a series of hilarious qui proquos mixed with witty lines while sending catty remarks to the London literary milieu and joyfully trampling over an institution, marriage. This is a gem of a play that thrives on irony and good words. It has this kind of biting humour I enjoy. It’s everywhere, even in the names of the characters: Jack chooses to call himself Ernest where he definitely does not behave earnestly. Algernon is actually Swinburne’s first name, something I would have never noticed without attending the exhibition. For me Algernon is a weird name that reminds me of Molière’s characters. (Like Argan or Arnolphe)

In appearance, the plot doesn’t lead into mentioning Victorian literature, literary critics or censorship. And yet Wilde manages to throw piques here and there in the dialogues. Here we have a clear reference to Victorian triple Deckers…

I believe that Memory is responsible for nearly all the three-volume novels that Mudie sends us.

Miss Prism. Do not speak slightingly of the three-volume novel, Cecily. I wrote one myself in earlier days.

…and remember how Trollope and Wilde were on the same painting A Private View at the Royal Academy by William Powell Frith? The plot itself with the revelation of one of the character’s identity through a mind-blowing series of coincidences reminded me of sensation novels or of early Thomas Hardy’s novels. After this little pat at successful novels, Wilde just dismisses their literary value around the corner of an offhand sentence:

Oh! it is absurd to have a hard and fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn’t. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.

And after implying that people aren’t reading the good stuff because these books are not listed on the approved TBR recommendations, he throws a last punch to the literary milieu with this statement on literary criticism:

Literary criticism is not your forte, my dear fellow. Don’t try it. You should leave that to people who haven’t been at a University. They do it so well in the daily papers.

I bet these lines have made teeth grind. Then he’s playing darts with his words and targets another institution, marriage. It is shown as a nasty affair that has nothing to do with love. Gwendolen’s mother, Lady Bracknell explains:

To speak frankly, I am not in favour of long engagements. They give people the opportunity of finding out each other’s character before marriage, which I think is never advisable.

Jack’s intention to propose to Gwendolen doesn’t make Algernon gush. Congratulations are not the first thing that comes to his mind and his vision of marriage doesn’t rhyme with bliss:

I really don’t see anything romantic in proposing. It is very romantic to be in love. But there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal. Why, one may be accepted. One usually is, I believe. Then the excitement is all over. The very essence of romance is uncertainty. If ever I get married, I’ll certainly try to forget the fact.

He goes even farther when he talks about what we’d call today public display of affection. (Well, at least in English, there’s no French expression for that.)

That sort of thing is enormously on the increase. The amount of women in London who flirt with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous. It looks so bad. It is simply washing one’s clean linen in public.

For Algernon, love and marriage don’t go together like a horse and carriage. Well, until Cecily comes along. Women are a bit foolish in Wilde’s play. Gwendolen and Cecily are both enamoured with the idea of loving someone named Ernest. This name is conductive to their love. Why Ernest? Apart from the wordplay with earnest, is there anything else behind the name?

I loved The Importance of Being Earnest. It’s so good it seemed like a giant quote from a fictional French playwright who’d be a fusion between Molière, Marivaux and Musset. Molière for the comedy, the humour and the criticism of society’s flaws and Marivaux and Musset for the tricks on identities and the play with sentiments. The tone of the play and the plot itself bring me back to French theatre but with sentences like I hate people who are not serious about meals. It is so shallow of them, don’t you feel like you’ve crossed the Channel?

A word about the French translation. I’ve read this in English but I’ve checked the French editions. The one in the Cahiers Rouges collection by Grasset sounds good. Ernest becomes Constant, which is the French translation of earnest. The wordplay is maintained in French, which is not always that easy to do. For readers who are either French and practising their English or English-speaking natives who want to practice their French, Flamarion has a bi-language edition of The Importance of Being Earnest.

Last but not least, I can’t resist sharing this last quote with you.

I am sick to death of cleverness. Everybody is clever nowadays. You can’t go anywhere without meeting clever people. The thing has become an absolute public nuisance. I wish to goodness we had a few fools left.

Some politicians have taken the matter in their own hands and put the fools out of the shelves to liberate us from all this annoying cleverness. Please guys, don’t bother on our account, we rather liked the intelligent ones.

The Happy Prince and Other Tales by Oscar Wilde

December 13, 2016 13 comments

The Happy Prince and Other Tales by Oscar Wilde (1888)

Before visiting the Oscar Wilde exhibition in Paris I killed two birds in one stone by reading The Happy Prince and Other Tales. I was immersing myself in a side of Wilde’s work I’d never read and I was progressing on my #TBR20 project. It is a collection of short stories composed of

  • The Happy Prince
  • The Nightingale and the Rose
  • The Selfish Giant
  • The Devoted Friend
  • The Remarkable Rocket

wilde_happy_princeThe Happy Prince is my favourite story. The Happy Prince is a statue of someone who was known for his sunny character. The statue is richly decorated and make the mayor and his clique very proud. Arrives a Swallow who’s stayed behind in Europe instead of flying to Egypt with his friends and family. He was in love with a Reed and was reluctant to leave her. The Happy Prince is no longer happy. He’s very sad because he realised that he had spent a happy life only because he was sheltered in his castle and had no idea of the poverty and misfortunes of common people outside his castle. He now feels terrible and convinces the Swallow to stay and help him right his wrongs.

The Nightingale and the Rose is the story of a Nightingale who sacrifices her life to make a red rose bloom so that a Student desperately in love can conquer the girl he fancies.

The Selfish Giant tells the story of a Giant who closed his garden to the neighbouring children who used it as a playground and as soon as he bans them from their paradise, Winter and his friends take possession of the place.

The Snow covered up the grass with her great white cloak, and the Frost painted all the trees silver. Then they invited the North Wind to stay with them, and he came.

The Devoted Friend is about selfish Hans and his so-called definition of friendship that makes him shamelessly take and take from his friend without never giving anything back in return.

The Remarkable Rocket is the story of a delusional and snooty rocket. He’s part of a fireworks team and he thinks he’s the most beautiful and impressive of the lot until he screws things up. But he’s so full of himself …

“I am not going to stop talking to him merely because he pays no attention. I like hearing myself talk.  It is one of my greatest pleasures. I often have long conversations all by myself, and I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying.”

…that he never realises that people around him see him differently.

I really enjoyed these stories and this is a side of Wilde I didn’t know. There’s an immediate and simple story suitable for children and underlying meanings and comments for adults.

“Shall I love you?” said the Swallow, who liked to come to the point at once, and the Reed made him a low bow. So he flew round and round her, touching the water with his wings, and making silver ripples. This was his courtship, and it lasted all through the summer. “It is a ridiculous attachment,” twittered the other Swallows; “she has no money, and far too many relations”; and indeed the river was quite full of Reeds. Then, when the autumn came they all flew away.

Isn’t it both poetic and ironic? Since a lot of animals are involved in these tales, a lot of personifications happen. And my native language, French, has genders for everything. And in case of personification, I tend to imagine the animal or the object according to its grammatical gender, even when I’m reading in English. So, for me a Reed or a Nightingale is a He, not a She. A Swallow or Hail is a She, not a He. It is strange the first time I hear about a reed referred to as a she and then I get used to it. If you’re a reader fluent in several languages, does it happen to you too?

I had a great time reading these tales. I didn’t know what to expect but I thought that Wilde showed a gentle caring soul in these tales. In the exhibition about him in Paris, they said he used to read stories to his children when he was there.

After this I started The Importance of Being Earnest.

Literary escapade: Born to be Wilde

December 10, 2016 30 comments

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all. (Oscar Wilde)

It totally agree with that. In Paris, there’s currently an exhibition about Oscar Wilde’s life and work. It is at the Petit Palais, a beautiful building near the Champs Elysées. The Petit Palais was built for the 1900 World Fair and incidentally, 1900 is also the year Wilde died in Paris. The title of this exhibition is Oscar Wilde, l’impertinent absolu. (Oscar Wilde, the ultimate impertinent). It is the first time such an exhibition is organized in Paris and it is well worth visiting.

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It explains very well Wilde’s education and role models, his taste for art, his admiration for Ruskin and his work as an art critic. A room is dedicated to the conferences he did in America. It is on the occasion of this tour that he said his famous phrase:

We have really everything in common in America nowadays, except, of course, language.

He was like a rock star and had his picture taken like a supermodel by the famous photographer Napoleon Sarony. You needed someone named Napoleon Sarony to immortalize the emperor of irony. For the anecdote: these pictures were so famous that they were used without Sarony’s authorization by various publicists. Sarony went to court and his case reached the Supreme Court who judged that photographs should be included in the scope of the copyright law. (1884)

The exhibition describes Wilde as an intellectual well introduced in London’s high society.

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This is A Private View at the Royal Academy by William Powell Frith. (1881) The painter is on the painting with Trollope, Gladstone, Browning, Millais and Wilde. Can you see him on the centre-right, near the lady with the pink dress? Wilde was also well introduced into the Parisian beau monde. But the exhibition does not focus to much on his life as a dandy. His affairs with men are mentioned but so is his marriage to Constance Llyod. Wilde as a husband and a father are displayed. Unfortunately, after Constance’s death, her family destroyed all the letters Oscar Wilde had written to her, so we’re missing out information on their relationship.

His personal life takes a good place in the exhibition but his work is celebrated as well, especially The Happy Prince and Other Tales, The Importance of Being Earnest, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Salomé. It was interesting to read about the reception of these works when they were published, see excerpts of their film version or discover the illustrations of the first editions. (*)

Of course, his trial and subsequent conviction to two years’ hard labour took a significant place. I was surprised to read that Wilde was condemned in 1895 for gross indecency and that it was based on a law that was only voted in 1885. I always assumed it was a very old law that had been unearthed for the occasion. I’m shocked to read such a law was passed so late in the 19thC. That’s the Victorian Era for you, I suppose. No wonder that French prostitutes saw so many British customers that some had calling cards in English.

His detention was very hard, at least at the beginning at the Newgate Prison in London. He did hard labour, was not allowed to read anything but the Bible and it was forbidden to talk to fellow prisoners. Eventually, he was transferred to the Reading Gaol, near London. Isn’t that ironic to put a writer in a prison named Reading Gaol? The absolute silence imposed in the Victorian prisons must have been a personal form of torture to the brilliant conversationalist that Wilde was.

This section of the exhibition ends with a videoed interview of Robert Badinter. He’s a famous French attorney and he was the minister of Justice in 1981. He fought for the abolition of death penalty in France in 1981 and he remains well-known for that. 1981 is also the year the French Parliament voted that homosexuality was no longer a crime.

In this interview, Badinter explains that he studied closely the Wilde trial for a series of conference about law and Justice. He used this example and the one of all the women burnt for sorcery to demonstrate that Justice is relative. It depends on the time and place. Wilde was condemned to two years’ hard work for something that is no longer a crime. According to Badinter, since Justice is relative, it mustn’t pronounce death sentences. The State doesn’t have the right to take the life of people for crimes that might not be crimes in the future or somewhere else. Thought provoking, isn’t it?

This fantastic exhibition ended with a video of Wilde’s grand-son. He speaks French very well and had kind words to say about his grand-father and his work, even if he never knew him. Oscar Wilde, l’impertinent absolu gave a moving portrait of Wilde. It went beyond the funny aphorisms and the dandy costumes to show an intelligent and multifaceted man. I liked that his family life was shown as well, a part of him often ignored. (The French Wikipedia page about him doesn’t even mention that he was married) I thought that the different angles helped discovering this fascinating artist.

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

You were definitely pointing at the stars, Mr Wilde. Some imbeciles might have stared at your finger pointing the stars instead of stargazing with you.

Night and Sleep by Evelyn de Morgan

Night and Sleep by Evelyn de Morgan

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(*) I read The Picture of Dorian Gray when I when a teenager and read The Happy Prince and Other Tales and The Importance of Being Earnest before attending this exhibition, so more about this in the coming week.

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