Thursday, January 30, 2014

Jamaica Inn: A Guest Post

[I'm happy to share these thoughts from Dorian Stuber, a regular reader who wanted to join in our discussion of Jamaica Inn. I'm sure he'd welcome comments. -- Rohan]

I’ve never posted here before, but feel obligated since I voted for Jamaica Inn and the margin of victory was so narrow. I’ve enjoyed reading these posts; they’ve helped me pinpoint some of the things I like about the novel.

I like Teresa’s idea that the novel revises our ideas about the heroines of the Gothic literature from the period in which it is set. Certainly, I enjoyed the text’s deployment of elements I’m familiar with from certain 19th century texts (the Brontes, Hardy), if not from Romance literature, of which I have no real knowledge. As someone interested in 20th-century British literature, I spent some time trying to figure out how to place Du Maurier amongst other literature from her own time. Is there anything modernist about this work, for example? Would it be useful to think of it as a Modernist take on the Gothic?

In the end, I think Jamaica Inn is too solidly aligned to the conventions of its genre (and I don’t say that as a criticism!) for that to be the case. But the ending is quite intriguingly open. In my edition (the Virago), at least, the penultimate page ends with Jem asking, “'Do you love me, Mary?’” To which she responds, rather ambiguously, “'I believe so, Jem.” I thought the book ended here, and was immediately reminded of the famously irresolute ending of Lawrence’s Women in Love (or The Fox or indeed any number of other Modernist works). But then I realized there were another few lines to go on the real last page, and the ending became a little less irresolute.  But I think the gender ambiguities that the text repeatedly offers us remain even with the ending we do get. Besides, Mary’s professed dream of farming by herself didn’t seem to me in any way conventionally gendered.

And yet it was just this professed dream of Mary’s that most puzzled me about the book. The thing that didn’t quite work for me was the disjunction between Mary’s repeatedly expressed longing for her lost home in Helston and the reality of the place as presented by the text. Helston may be more temperate than the moors, but it’s hardly gentle: think about the sickness that kills the county’s livestock, which Du Maurier describes so resonantly, at such length: “It was a sickness that came over everything and destroyed, much as a late frost will out of season, coming with the new moon and then departing, leaving no trace of its passage save the little trail of dead things in its path.” (This could be a description of the novel, except that sharp “little” couldn’t be said to apply to the things that happen at and around the inn.) The death of the livestock prefigures the death of Mary’s mother, which is itself presaged by the “eager” pleasure Mary’s neighbour takes in explaining to Mary and the doctor that the patient’s condition has worsened. The man who buys the farm after the mother’s death (admittedly a stranger from a nearby town) makes plans to change all the things he doesn’t like about the place; Mary, “an interloper in her own home,” can only watch “in dumb loathing.”  

I’m unconvinced, in other words, that Helston is quite so wonderful. And yet I also didn’t get the sense that the text was criticizing or making even gentle fun at Mary here. Mostly, the text presents Helston and Mary’s life before coming to the inn as a real lost paradise rather than, like all paradises, as one already lost. (And necessarily so, if there is to be a novel, that is, if Mary is to be catapulted into the events of the plot.) I rather hoped that the novel would more overtly suggest its, at least, if not its protagonist’s, awareness of the difference between memory and reality. One effect of that awareness would have been to give us a Mary who is naïve, blinded or misguided, at least in this regard, but I think that would only have made her more interesting, not less. Still, if the novel doesn’t overtly tell us that Helston is no more a place for Mary than Jamaica Inn, it is explicit that the era of the wreckers is fast coming to an end, with the advent of lighthouses, beacons, and the like. In that regard, there is a striking belief in progress, even modernity at the heart of this Gothic text.

-- Dorian Stuber

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Jamaica Inn

It was a dark and rainy day when I settled down to read Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier, perfect weather for this romantic thriller about an orphan, a drunken innkeeper, a horse thief, and an attentive albino vicar.

When her mother died, the orphan, a young woman named Mary Yellan, moved north to Jamaica Inn to live with her aunt Patience. Before even arriving at the lonesome inn on the moors, Mary began to hear rumors about the inn’s evil reputation. It turns out that Mary’s uncle, Joss Merlyn, is both a drunk and a criminal. At first, Mary assumes that his only crime is smuggling, but soon she learns of the murderous nature of his crimes and wonders how she might convince her aunt to escape with her. Can the vicar she keeps meeting on the moors help her? And what about Joss’s brother, Jem, a confessed horse thief? What is Mary to do about her growing attraction to him? Is he more involved in Joss’s activities than he will admit?

This book is a great example of how a book can be entirely predictable, yet extremely suspenseful. It’s a pretty neat trick. So how does she manage it? The predictability of the book lies in its employment of a lot of tropes we’ve all become used to seeing in literature and film, some perhaps influenced by du Maurier. Jem the horse thief, for example, is presented as a rogue with a heart of gold, ready to give Mary gifts and attention but never forcing himself. It’s clear to the experienced reader that he’s a romantic lead long before Mary realizes it. But du Maurier holds back just enough information to keep readers in doubt as to the real nature of his relationship with his brother. He may be a romantic lead, but is he a good man? And how good must one be to be considered good, anyway? And how evil to be considered evil? Mary ponders this question when she learns of Joss’s smuggling:
Smuggling was dangerous; it was fraught with dishonesty; it was forbidden strictly by the law of the land; but was it evil? Mary could not decide.
This question underpins many of Mary’s decision-making processes. When is a dishonest action evil? Just about every character in this book is morally compromised in some way, but at what point do they cross the line?

When Joss eventually crosses the line for Mary, her way becomes clear:
Mary did not consider her uncle any more. She had lost her fear of him. There was only loathing left in heart, loathing and disgust. He had lost all hold on humanity. He was a beast that walked by night. Now that she had seen him drunk, and she knew him for what he was, he could not frighten her. Neither he nor the rest of his company. They were things of evil, rotting the countryside, and she would never rest until they were trodden underfoot, and cleared, and blotted out. Sentiment would not save them again.
Evil turns a human into something other than itself, into a thing that can and must be fought. And Mary, as a good person, has the strength of will to fight.

Mary herself is a sort of commentary on the prototypical Gothic heroine. du Maurier sets her novel in the early 1800s, the time of Ann Radcliffe and her many fainting heroines. Mary faints once, early in the book, and she despises herself for it. For the rest of the book, she’s the type to swear to give herself courage, jump off a porch roof, walk for miles in the cold, and offer to confront a dangerous man at gun point. She is fearless, we are told, and much like a boy.

This point, that Mary in all her boldness, is being boyish for standing up her herself fascinates me, though I disagree with it on principle. Mary is, in most respects, the kind of heroine many woman want to see in novels. She’s plucky and fierce and smart, and she claims to prefer farming to romance. She’s certain that, given the chance, she’d be able to run her own farm. But she’s sometimes doubtful of her own strength, especially when it comes to matters of the heart. When she kisses the rakish Jem, she’s not sorry to have done it, but she’s determined to be the master of her emotions and not let her heart drive her into dangerous ground. At one point, this dilemma about Jem is treated as a battle between her boyishness and her girlishness. What a woman would do, and what a man would do is a minor obsession of the narrative. But I think du Maurier is being slyly subversive here because, in the end, Mary makes the choice of both a man and a woman. She refuses, right up to the end, to be tied down by these categories.

Jamaica Inn reads like a good old-fashioned potboiler, but there’s a lot going on inside, once you scratch the surface. This is the fourth book by du Maurier that I’ve read, and with each book that I read, I love her more.

Cross-posted to Shelf Love

Jamaica Inn

What a wonderful thing that Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn was the most recent pick for the Slaves of Golconda reading group (in which everyone is welcome to participate!). I’d read du Maurier’s most famous novel, Rebecca, and liked it very much, but somehow I never got around to reading further in her work. But I loved Jamaica Inn and am inspired to read more du Maurier now. The novel surprised me. After reading Rebecca the plot twists and turns and the moodiness and sensationalism of it weren’t a surprise, but I expected it to be another novel that takes place in a big house amongst people with wealth. However, Jamaica Inn is very much a novel of the lower classes; it takes place among farms and tiny villages and its characters are smugglers and horse thieves.

The novel tells the story of Mary Yellan, a 23-year-old who has just lost her mother and now, to fulfill a promise, has gone to live with her Aunt Patience. The last time Mary met Patience, she was happy and full of life, but things have changed: Patience has married Joss Merlyn, a surly, violent man who now runs Jamaica Inn, a place strangely devoid of customers — and a place that, mysteriously, no one wants to talk about. As Mary settles in to Jamaica Inn, she becomes determined to get her aunt away from her husband and into a better situation, but she gets unwillingly caught up in her uncle’s doings — which she realizes are worse and worse the longer she lives there — and becomes more and more miserable.

There are two sources of hope for Mary, although neither is particularly hopeful. The first is Joss Merlyn’s brother, Jem, who cheerfully admits he is a horse thief but whose involvement in his brother’s darker doings is uncertain. He is a mysterious figure whom Mary doesn’t trust, but something continually draws her back to him. The other figure of hope, a more substantial one, is a local vicar, Francis Davey, who treats Mary kindly, but who is distant and almost otherworldly. Something about him doesn’t sit right with Mary. But she is on her own and needs to take help wherever she can find it.

The novel started off just a tad slowly for me, but once it gets going, the plotting is very well done — the novel is suspenseful and exciting. Okay, I could figure out roughly where things were going, but there were plenty of surprises and du Maurier kept me glued to the book. In addition to the plot, though, there is much to appreciate. The novel is set in Cornwall, which du Maurier evokes beautifully. The sea, the moors, the marshes, the country roads are all integral parts of the book. Mary is a champion walker, and I could feel the rain and the wind as I read about her exploratory rambles around Jamaica Inn.

Mary is a fascinating character, spirited and independent, as I imagine her Aunt Patience once was. She is often doing things that other characters think women shouldn’t do: taking those long walks unaccompanied, for example, often in circumstances that would frighten just about anyone. She frequently thinks that all she wants to do is live a man’s life, which is to say, she wants to work a farm independently, as a man would. She has no aspirations to marry, as she knows marriage can often lead to subjection and misery, as it did for her aunt. She knows how the world works and what she needs to do to keep herself safe.

She is not a complete loner (although, appealingly, she prefers people who know how to keep quiet when they should to those who will talk nervously through any situation); she has fond memories of living in her small village with her mother, knowing all the people who live around her and being able to count on them for help. She wants a community and to know her place within it, and she is not interested in social climbing; when offered the opportunity to live with a family from a higher class than hers, she rejects it, knowing it’s not her place.

On the one hand, Mary knows who she is and what she wants out of life, but, on the other, there is something appealing about excitement and newness, an appeal that is reflected in the wild landscape surrounding her. At times the rough winds of Cornwall are frightening and lonesome, but at others, they are exhilarating. Perhaps Mary isn’t so sure what she wants out of life after all.

Jamaica Inn is so different from Rebecca that I wonder what du Maurier’s other novels are like. I’m looking forward to finding out.

"Defying Man and Storm": Jamaica Inn

I’m no connoisseur of romantic suspense, but it’s hard to imagine it being done better than Jamaica Inn. Really, this book has it all: a grim, windswept, yet beautiful landscape; a grim, brooding, yet charismatic villain; a grim, twisted, yet convincing plot; Jamaica Inn itself, “a house that reeked of evil . . . a solitary landmark defying man and storm”; and, in Mary Yellan, a heroine bold and determined enough to survive them all. There’s also a deceptively colorless vicar, a dubiously trustworthy horse thief, and a whole supporting cast of rogues; there’s treachery, murder, and, of course, true love. If it sounds like the stuff of clichés, it is — and yet, amazingly, it really isn’t, because du Maurier is just that good.
The most terrifying part of the novel, for instance, is not a scene of rapidly unfolding action or immanent violence (though there are such scenes, and they are plenty suspenseful). Instead, it’s a story told over the kitchen table. “Did you never hear of wreckers before?” is the speaker’s chilling question, and the pictures his words paint haunt us as they will Mary, his unwilling audience:
‘When I’m drunk I see them in my dreams; I see their white-green faces staring at me, with their eyes eaten by fish; and some of them are torn, with the flesh hanging on their bones in ribbons, and some of them have seaweed in their hair. . . . Have you ever seen flies caught in a jar of treacle? I’ve seen men like that; stuck in the rigging like a swarm of flies. . . . Just like flies they are, spread out on the yards, little black dots of men. I’ve seen the ship break up beneath them, and the masts and the yards snap like thread, and there they’ll be flung into the sea, to swim for their lives. But when they reach the shore they’re dead men, Mary.’
He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, and stared at her. ‘Dead men tell no tales, Mary,’ he said.
Mary can only hope that when she reaches the safety of her own bed, she can hide from what he has told her in the stark cold of the kitchen:
Here she could see the pale faces of drowned men, their arms above their heads; she could hear the scream of terror, and the cries; she could hear the mournful clamour of the bell-buoy as it swayed backwards and forwards in the sea.
It’s not just crime Mary comes face to face with that night, but evil. It’s embodied in Joss Merlyn, the landlord of Jamaica Inn, who is Mary’s uncle through his marriage to her Aunt Patience. Patience was a bright, happy young woman when she married Joss, but she is now a “poor, broken thing,” cowering and apologetic and fearful, but loyal, too, and loving, in her pathetic way. Joss is a wonderfully terrible figure of a man: huge, almost monstrous, but capable of an unexpected delicate grace that Mary finds more sinister than his overt cruelty. In her introduction, Sarah Dunant calls him “a Mr. Rochester without a Jane to redeem him,” which fits well enough, except that for all his faults, Mr. Rochester was never as bad as this! Patience must have married him “for his bright eyes,” Mary mockingly speculates, and it turns out that the power of sexual attraction to lure people off course is one of the novel’s central interests. Mary herself feels its pull (and understands Patience’s bad choice better) when she meets his younger brother Jem, who (to Mary’s dismay) almost charms away her suspicions:
He was too like his brother. His eyes, and his mouth, and his smile. That was the danger of it. She could see her uncle in his walk, in the turn of his head; and she knew why Aunt Patience had made a fool of herself ten years ago. It would be easy enough to fall in love with Jem Merlyn.
But Mary’s not looking for love. A farm girl, “bred to the soil,” she has no romantic ideas. At the same time, she understands the demands of the flesh:
Jem Merlyn was a man, and she was a woman, and whether it was his hands or his skin or his smile she did not know, but something inside her responded to him, and the very thought of him was an irritant and a stimulant at the same time. It nagged at her and would not let her be. She knew she would have to see him again.
I was fascinated by Mary’s frankness about her own desires: “Falling in love was a pretty name for it, that was all.” Her aunt’s abjection should be cautionary tale enough, you’d think, but even as Jem jokes “Beware of the dark stranger,” they kiss in the shadows.
Mary worries about giving “too much away,” about losing her independence and finding that her weakness for him makes “the four walls of Jamaica Inn more hateful than they were already.” The mixture of heady excitement and mistrust she feels for Jem adds, also, to the mysteries of the novel: how far is he involved in the murky activities of his brother? how much does he know about what happens at Jamaica Inn under cover of darkness? why does he ask Mary so many questions? Will her love for him save or destroy her? Du Maurier keeps her, and us, guessing as Mary struggles to figure out the answers and find her own way through the moral and physical dangers of her situation.
There are both predictable and implausible elements of the plot, but I forgave them both because they come with the territory and because du Maurier writes so well. When I wrote about Frenchman’s Creek I described her prose as “purple” (“royal purple, richest velvet,” to be precise). I expected more of the same here, despite having recently read The Scapegoat — which surprised me by being restrained and shadowy, not purple at all. I’m now adding du Maurier to my list of writers who impress by their versatility: she can clearly “do” the novel in different voices to suit her purposes. Jamaica Inn could easily have been full of cheap thrills, but for all its melodrama it never struck me as silly (whereas I called Frenchman’s Creek “ridiculous” — mind you, that was in 2010, so I may have been reading / judging differently). It’s not really a novel of character, and Joss especially borders on caricature, but (partly through Jem) he is humanized enough to be monstrous, but not a monster. I’m not so sure about the other chief villain, but at any rate he’s not a stock figure but has his own unique style of nastiness. For me, though, it was the scenery that made the novel truly memorable. The descriptions are vividly sensual without being florid, as here:
The drive was silent  then, for the most part, with no other sound but the steady clopping of the horse’s hoofs upon the road, and now and again an own hooted from the still trees. The rustle of hedgerow and the creeping country whispers were left behind when the trap came out upon the Bodmin road, and once again the dark moor stretched out on either side, lapping the road like a desert. The ribbon of the highway shone white under the moon. It wound and was lost in the fold of the further hill, bare and untrodden. There were no travellers but themselves upon the road tonight. On Christmas Eve, when Mary had ridden here, the wind had lashed venomously at the carriage wheels, and the rain hammered the windows: now the air was still cold and strangely still, and the moor itself lay placid and silver in the moonlight. The dark tors held their sleeping face to the sky, the granite features softened and smoothed by the light that bathed them. Theirs was a peaceful mood, and the old gods slept undisturbed.
As you can tell, I enjoyed the novel thoroughly. I'm eager to see what the rest of you have to say about it!

(cross-posted to Novel Readings)

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Our Next Book: Jamaica Inn

What a close vote! It was nearly a three-way tie between Jamaica Inn, Picnic at Hanging Rock, and The Murderess, but Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier just edged out the others with one more vote.

Discussion will commence around January 15.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Voting Time!

It's been a while since our last discussion, so what shall we read next? I've been invited to offer up some choices. The weather's getting colder here in the DC area, and cold weather always puts me in the mood for a good crime or suspense story. So I've put together a selection of different types of novels that involve some sort of mystery or crime. I hope something here appeals to you all!

Let's vote by November 11, and have our discussion after the holidays, around January 15.

Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco
It begins with a body. On a clear day in winter, the battered corpse of Crispin Salvador is pulled from the Hudson River—taken from the world is the controversial lion of Philippine literature. Gone, too, is the only manuscript of his final book, a work meant to rescue him from obscurity by exposing the crimes of the Filipino ruling families. Miguel, his student and only remaining friend, sets out for Manila to investigate. Winner of the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize. 

Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier
After the death of her mother, Mary Yellan travels to Jamaica Inn on the wild British moors to live with her Aunt Patience. The coachman warns her of the strange happenings there, but Mary is committed to remain at Jamaica Inn. Suddenly, her life is in the hands of strangers: her uncle, Joss Merlyn, whose crude ways repel her; Aunt Patience, who seems mentally unstable and perpetually frightened; and the enigmatic Francis Davey. But most importantly, Mary meets Jem Merlyn, Joss's younger brother, whose kisses make her heart race. Caught up in the danger at this inn of evil repute, Mary must survive murder, mystery, storms, and smugglers before she can build a life with Jem.

The Murderess by Alexandros Papadiamantis
The Murderess is a bone-chilling tale of crime and punishment with the dark beauty of a backwoods ballad. Set on the dirt-poor Aegean island of Skiathos, it is the story of Hadoula, an old woman living on the margins of society and at the outer limits of respectability. She knows women's secrets and she knows the misery of their lives, and as the book begins, she is trying to stop her new-born granddaughter from crying so that her daughter can at last get a little sleep. She rocks the baby and rocks her and then the terrible truth hits her: there's nothing worse than being born a woman, and there's something that she, Hadoula, can do about that.

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay
‘Everyone agreed that the day was just right for the picnic to Hanging Rock - a shimmering summer morning warm and still, with cicadas shrilling...’ St Valentine’s Day, in the midst of the hot summer of 1900, a party of schoolgirls went on a picnic to Hanging Rock. Some were never to return... An Australian classic, the disappearance of three girls and a schoolteacher at Hanging Rock has captivated and intrigued audiences for generations.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality their lives are changed profoundly and forever, and they discover how hard it can be to truly live and how easy it is to kill.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Excellent Women (reposted from 2007)

I would have loved to reread Excellent Women with the rest of the group, but I wasn't able to in time. I did, however, read the novel back in 2007, and I posted on it then. So I thought I'd repost my thoughts here. Here's what I wrote back then:

I thoroughly enjoyed Barbara Pym’s 1952 novel Excellent Women. It tells the story of Mildred Lathbury, a woman in her 30s whose life is taken up with part-time work helping “impoverished gentlewomen,” attending services and volunteering at the church, and maintaining friendships with the vicar and his sister. She also finds herself endlessly caught up in other people’s business:
I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is also a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her.
She is one of the “excellent women” of the novel’s title, women who aren’t wrapped up in families of their own and so have time to — and are expected to — devote themselves to taking care of others.
As the novel opens, a new couple is moving into the flat above Mildred’s; they are Helena and Rocky, and Mildred does not know what to make of them. Helena is an anthropologist and not terribly interested in her marriage; she spends her time with fellow-anthropologist Everard, working on writing up their field notes. She is a terrible housekeeper, a fact that disturbs and intrigues Mildred. Rocky is utterly charming and perhaps a trifle fake; Mildred quickly falls for him, but also wonders, as she does, whether Rocky really means to charm her, or whether he simply can’t help but make women fall in love with him.

Helena and Rocky disrupt Mildred’s quiet life. She is quickly doing things she has never done before, such as attending lectures in anthropology and mediating marital squabbles. Her life is further disrupted when the vicar — her close friend and up to now a confirmed bachelor — begins a flirtation and gets engaged.
The novel is told in the first person, which Pym uses very cleverly to capture Mildred’s thoughtful, intelligent voice, but also to make clear to the reader her naivete and lack of experience; Helena, for example, hints that the vicar might be gay, but this passes right over Mildred’s head. And yet Mildred knows she hasn’t experienced much — she’s very aware of her limitations, painfully aware at times. She does her best, wading into the deeper waters recent experience has led her to, but she also longs for things to be the way they once were, quiet and comfortable.

As much as she is aware of her lack of experience, however, Mildred has a strong sense of identity; she knows who she is, what her social role is, and how she wants to live. As an “excellent woman,” she accepts that many people expect her to help them out — why shouldn’t she, after all? What else does she have to do? She tries to be useful, but also to keep from being used — and here she fails now and then, as each of the main characters takes advantage of her at one point or another. It’s frustrating at times to watch Mildred trying and frequently failing to maintain the balance between taking care of others and taking care of herself.

For me, the pleasure of reading this novel lies in Mildred’s astute understanding of her small world; she knows it’s a small world, but what’s important is that it’s hers and she wants to enjoy it. She’s capable of viewing it with a critical, satirical eye, but also of loving it. She strikes me as courageous — both in accepting her life as it is and in remaining open to the ways it can possibly change.

Excellent Women

Mildred Lathbury fills her days working at a part-time job at an agency that assists older unmarried women, helping out at the church, and, almost despite herself, getting wrapped up in other people’s personal crises. She is both connected and disconnected to her neighbors in 1950s London. She knows all about their lives, but what do they know of hers? Mildred tells her own story in Barbara Pym’s lively and intelligent novel Excellent Women. 
Early in the novel, Mildred says that “an unmarried woman over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business.” Lacking troubles of her own to attend to, Mildred becomes a sounding board for everyone else. Her new neighbors, the Napiers, take advantage of Mildred’s sympathetic demeanor, coming to her at every step of the way as they deal with their own discontentments and worries about their marriage. Mildred, being an “excellent woman,” is willing to help, but her presence in the relationship is merely that, a presence—someone to transmit messages or to keep an eye on things when the movers come. Her own feelings about it aren’t part of the conversation, and although she is wise enough to know that her feelings might be unwise, she does have feelings.

People count on Mildred, but are they building strong connections to her as a person? When Mildred helps her friend Winifred sort donations for the church jumble sale, the two of them discuss the old framed photos being donated to the sale. Winifred is appalled that anyone would donate of photo of a relation, but Mildred is more matter-of-fact, noting that they had probably been stored away for years and the donors probably didn’t even knew who the people in the photos were. Yet, matter-of-fact as she is about it, she sees her own future in those photographs:
I could see very well what [Winifred] meant, for unmarried women with no ties could very well become unwanted. I should feel it even more than Winifred, for who was there to really grieve for me when I was gone? Dora, the Malorys, one or two people in my old village might be sorry, but I was not really first in anybody’s life. I could so very easily be replaced.
As an unmarried woman of a certain age myself, this sentiment is quite familiar to me, and I appreciated that Pym could have Mildred express this feeling about her state without making her seem self-pitying or hysterical or unbalanced. Mildred is realistic about her position. She’s not unhappy exactly, but she sees and understands the downsides about her life, even as she’s not entirely sure she wants to change it. One of the characters observes that some people have a knack for finding a mate, which means that widows are likely to marry again. The unspoken converse of this is that others, like Mildred, don’t have the knack. Flip the idea around even further, and you can see that the Mildreds of the world have the knack for being alone.

I think Mildred’s knack for singlehood turns up in her friendship with the anthropologist Everard Bone. She meets Everard through her neighbors with the emotional fraught marriage. (As it happens, Mrs Napier’s interest in Everard is one of the reasons for the conflict.) She runs into him at midday Lenten services at church, and he lingers on the street near her office, waiting for an opportunity to ask her to lunch or to have dinner at his house. To many, Everard’s purpose might seem obvious, but Mildred assumes he’s looking for something other than her company. Intervention with Mrs Napier, help cooking a cut of meat, something other than her companionship for itself. Anything else would involve signals she cannot, or will not (which is it?), pick up on. Or perhaps she knows her own experience well enough to know exactly what it is that Everard doesn’t want.

As the book drew to a close, I kept wondering where this ambiguous courtship was leading. And at the risk of spoiling the ending, I’ll say that I was impressed with how well Pym maintained the ambiguous nature of the relationship, right up to the ending and beyond. You can turn that final conversation around and upside down and still not be sure what Everard was after or what Mildred herself wanted.

Representations of single women in media often give me trouble, not because they all get everything wrong or because they’re all mean-spirited but often because they focus on one aspect of the experience: the freedom or the loneliness. Or they dwell on the desire for a mate and make finding one a goal. This book captures so much more. It gets at how singleness (like any life situation) can be happy and miserable. It doesn’t revel in the joy or make simple pleasures bigger than they are, and it doesn’t wallow in the misery or turn sadness into grand tragedy. In some ways, it’s a hard book for me to talk about, because parts of it hit close to the bone. But it’s not a heavy or depressing book at all. It’s wise and funny and real in ways that few books are. It was also my first experience reading Barbara Pym, and I loved it as much as I thought I would. I’m glad the Slaves of Golconda reading group finally pushed me to read it.

Cross-posted at Shelf Love

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Barbara Messud, The Excellent Women Upstairs

She's an ordinary woman leading a quiet life - no thrills, no romance, few expectations, just her work, her friends, and the comforting knowledge that everyone relies on her common sense. In a crisis, she can be counted on to make tea. All this changes when the new couple comes on the scene. The wife is an energetic professional in a whirl of commitments and contacts; the husband is a suave charmer. As she is drawn into their circle, our heroine finds herself both energized and resentful. What, exactly, is her role? What does she mean to these new people? What has happened to her life since they came -- and what will happen when they leave?
messudAs my mash-up title suggests, this is the basic plot outline of two very different novels: Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs and Barbara Pym's Excellent Women (1952). I read The Woman Upstairs a month or so ago and though I found it a page-turner, I ended up not liking it very much. It's not that I minded the "unlikable" narrator: as I said in my piece on Olivia Manning (apparently quite an unlikable woman herself), "the chief obligation of a writer, . . . as of a character, is not that she be nice but that she be interesting." The problem I ultimately had with Messud's Nora was that I did not find her very interesting: she was too much up in my face all the time about how angry she was, and so the novel gave me no sense of discovery about her. The novel was a page-turner because I wondered what would happen and why exactly she was in such a rage. But the answers to both questions were rather disappointing. Nora's anger especially seemed confused -- which is fine for her as a character (she has no obligation to be crystal clear about her own emotional state, and anger does tend to mess things up) but not for the novel, which to me seemed to be trying to make a broader political and feminist case for anger out of one woman's very personal neuroses and bad judgment.

But it was the artlessness of Nora's narration that I found particularly tedious after a while: there's no revelation to it, no subtlety compared to, for instance, Villette, which was the Brontë novel I kept thinking of as I read The Woman Upstairs. The explicit inter-text for Messud's novel is Jane Eyre, which is a pretty angry novel, to be sure. But Jane's retrospective narration adds a controlling layer of meaning, and Jane is more admirably assertive than Nora in pursuit of her own selfulfilment. That's the Victorianist in me coming out, perhaps, but I got quite irritated at Nora's complaining: stop moping (or ranting, which is just a louder version of the same thing) and get on with your life! Villette, in turn, is a much darker, twistier novel about the differences between calm surfaces and tormented desires, about repression and resentment and bitterness. And Lucy Snowe (cold, like her name, and coy, and judgmental, and yes, angry) makes us figure her out -- and she doesn't make it easy! There's a readerly excitement in working out just who Lucy is and what she's feeling that for me has no equivalent in The Woman Upstairs. For all its cleverness (and there are lots of smart things about it), Messud's novel ultimately seemed kind of obvious (the big surprise at the end - who didn't see that coming the minute they knew about Sirena's cameras?).

Excellent WomenI think this is why I liked Excellent Women so much better. It's so understated that a lot of it nearly slips past unnoticed, but as a result, while it lacks the driving forward momentum of The Woman Upstairs, its rewards are both more subtle and more surprising. We almost don't know that Mildred is ever angry at the way those around her treat her as an accessory to their lives or assume they know what she needs or (most annoying of all) whom she loves. "Perhaps," she observes dryly at one point, "I really enjoyed other people's lives more than my own," but over the course of the novel we can't help but realize how tired she is of being one of the "excellent women" -- the women who are always depended on but are somehow never part of the action on their own behalf - "excellent women whom one respects and esteems" but never truly sees. "I always think of you as being so very balanced and sensible," says her friend William, "such an excellent woman." "It was not the excellent women who got married," Mildred reflects a bit later, "but people like Allegra Gray, who was not good at sewing, and Helena Napier, who left all the washing up."

It's Helena and her smoothly flirtatious husband Rocky who play the Shahids' role in Excellent Women. "Things were much simpler before they came," Mildred thinks. They stir things up, but in doing so they bring things to the surface that might have been better off left undisturbed. When they go, she'll still have her old occupations, but the Napiers are more blunt than the Shahids ever are to Nora about how her options look to them:

'What will you do after we've gone?' Helena asked.

'Well, she had a life before we came,' Rocky reminded her. 'Very much so - what is known as a full life, with clergymen and jumble sales and church services and good works.'

'I thought that was the kind of life led by women who didn't have a full life in the accepted sense,' said Helena.

'Oh, she'll marry,' said Rocky confidently. They were talking about me as if I wasn't there.
'Everard might take her to hear a paper at the Learned Society,' suggested Helena. 'That would widen her outlook.'

'Yes, it might,' I said humbly from my narrowness.

Right there we see the genius of Excellent Women in microcosm: if you weren't already enraged on Mildred's behalf at the complacent condescension of her supposed friends, that moment of self-deprecating bitterness ought to do the trick.  She doesn't have to yell at us about how angry she is, but we don't have to be in her company long to understand that there's a lot going on in her head that isn't "excellent" at all.

Unlike Helena, Mildred spends a lot of time washing up - often, Helena's dishes. After one particularly dramatic incident at the Napiers', she finds herself in their flat, "with the idea of making some order out of the confusion there" -- but also, really, to get some time to herself. The scene beautifully literalizes her discomfort and frustration at the life she's living:

 No sink has ever been built high enough for a reasonably tall person and my back was soon aching with the effort of washing up, especially as yesterday's greasy dishes needed a lot of scrubbing to get them clean. My thoughts went round and round and it occurred to me that if I ever wrote a novel it would be of the 'stream of consciousness' type and deal with an hour in the life of a woman at the sink.

She feels "resentful and bitter towards Helena and Rocky" but she also admits "nobody had compelled me to wash these dishes or tidy this kitchen. It was the fussy spinster in me." They aren't altogether wrong, that is, in their assumptions about her, and yet (as her struggles through the novel with her hair, make-up, and clothing tell us) there's nothing inevitable about the woman she is or is becoming. At the end of the novel she finds herself trapped once again in a part she doesn't want to play but can't seem to escape.

Messud's novel suggests that anger is a necessary stage on the way to freedom, and in some ways its ending is triumphant: Nora has broken free of the Shahids' spell and perhaps (though her narrative doesn't convince me of this) gained some self-knowledge in the process. She is certainly fired up to do ... something. There's something infinitely sadder (if also, perversely, funnier) about Mildred's conclusion, but I ended up a lot with a lot more invested in her fate, and feeling a lot more admiring of the art with which she was drawn.

Cross-posted to Novel Readings.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Next Book: Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

It was a very close race, and if we ever have another 'runners-up' context, looks like Palladian might be a favorite! But this time the majority voted for Barbara Pym's Excellent Women, so that will be our next group read. Let's aim to put up posts and/or join in the discussion around August 30. Happy reading!

Here are some links to places you could buy the book:

Book Depository
Chapters / Indigo
Munro's Books
Abe Books