January 2012


Three issues I have tried to deal with here
Of methodology, genre and merit
For method – all things must begin with google
And so I google this Aurora Leigh
I find the dedication to John Kenyon
And google him in turn to find that he
Had written to the daughter of Sam Coleridge
Who replied thus: charming is this poem
But the poet has done grave injustice
To the classics that she scarce understands.
Thus Sara Coleridge echoes the father
Admonishing Aurora, “Silly Girls
Who plant their flowers in our philosophy
To make it fine, and only spoil the book!”
My next methodological step is
To read, unread, reread each flower, every
Philosophy. To read with sympathy
And then to read again, to search for men
And women, eyes and nose, highs and lows, rhymes
and prose, all those in Barrett Brownings words.
On then, to genre – Aurora Leigh is
A poem, novel, travel narrative
And autobiography complicated
By aspects of Elizabeth in two
Disparate protagonists. In this epic tapestry is woven lyric threads,
And at th’ abortive wedding in part four
There’s drama, as the wait is felt and told
By the voices of despised nobility.
Another avenue for assumed voices
Is found in the epistolary parts
That, like The Ring and Book, whose “evidence”
was written, for there were no open courts,
Aurora Leigh records, in layers of irony
Communications and their misreadings.

To novel, travelogue, and self-writing
We can add one more prose genre – criticism –
To which Aurora Leigh could well belong:
“A woman cannot do the thing she ought,
Which means whatever perfect thing she can,
In life, in art, in science, but she fears
To let the perfect action take her part
And rest there: she must prove what she can do
Before she does it” – an eternal truth
To which a presidential candidate
might testify. And so to the doing
Of poetry we see the addition
Of a saying, in the lines that bludgeon us
With meaning, and with what their meaning means.

Now to merit – shall we, as Arnold would do
Apply the touchstone method – mark this line
Addressed to Waldemar – “To love and lie!
Nay–go to the opera! your love’s curable.’”
IS this an echo or a separate note
In harmony with Shakespeare’s “men have died
from time to time, and worms have eaten them,
but not for love”? On to the next precept
Of subjective judgement. Could one have written
A proem or a povel like this one?
I think I demonstrate that I could not
My pentameter could hardly be verse.

On the canonizability of
Aurora Leigh – Mary Poovey would ask
Does this poem serve a desired or desirable
function? It serves three. It is a showcase.
It is herstory. It is pleasure. First as
showcase – what does it show? Victorians.
Xenophobic, necrophilic, also
Melancholic, anti Catholic, though the
Maenadic, hebraic, erotic side
Of Catholic Italy is contrasted
Favourably with an England “so
Clipped and rational, that if you seek
for any wilderness/You find, at best,
a park.” Other Victorianisms are
the dead mother (who is essential back
story for a writer – kill the mother,
and you have a lifetime of artistic fodder)
And the Woman Question – but more about that later
Note also fading aristocracy,
Foiled by a rising middle class. Each of
the main characters in Aurora Leigh
Is classed ambiguously – Where Ms. Leigh
Is always classed with lions, Marian
Is “stag” or “fawn”, links lower in the chain.
Aurora speaks aristocratically
When she says in disregard for food or rent,
“My soul is not a pauper; I can live
At least my soul’s life, without alms from men”
And yet elsewhere she speaks in bourgeoisie
She says to Romney that “Whoever says
To a loyal woman, ‘Love and work with me,’
Will get fair answers” Romney spirals down
In ironic fulfillment of his cause
To raze the remnants of feudal constructions
Be careful what you wish for, Romney Leigh
Marian, we hear, is quite unsuited
To housework – and in this she is indulged
By otherwise unsympathetic parents
And therein lies Marian’s odd privilege.
Physiognomically speaking, her low brow
Her neither brown nor whiteness and her hair
In Pre-raphaelite curls race her as “other”
To the quasi Saxonness of Aurora
Whose mother is Italian but blue eyed;
And for Aurora’s other attributes
Lady Maud threw down, when she was born
“ The undeniable lineal mouth and chin”

The xenophobic entail, then, is shown
To be ludicrous, and yet Aurora is
Not all England – she’s Romney’s Italy
Also, his little Chaldean who reads
His “meaning backward like [her] eastern books,
While he is from the west, dear.”

Moving on
To Herstory – like class and race, gender
And sexuality are troubled here,
As are attitudes to motherhood
and women’s art. Aurora speaks a good deal of writing
But writing is inextricable
From the gender question. On one hand,
Aurora sees herself as genderless
“As a palm tree, rather than an a lush
And overbearing vine.” The artist, thus
Is placed beyond gender, and classed above
Two sorts of mothers – Marian’s marylike sort
Note Marian’s name -derived from the virgin
And yet unisex. The other sort is
The mother whose children’s poor milky mouths
Are “Wiped […] of mother’s milk by mother’s blow
Before they are taught her cursing.” Here the charm
The lovely crap, the old mystique about
Maternal instinct and mother’s duty
Are deconstructed quite summarily
Now hear these lines, written so long before
Roe v. Wade: “I ripped my verses up,
And found no blood upon the rapier’s point:
The heart in them was just an embryo’s heart,
Which never yet had beat, that it should die:
Just gasps of make-believe galvanic life;
Mere tones, inorganised to any tune.”
When Romney speaks in Miltonic terms of
A womans’ role to cure, not cause headaches
Little does he sense he’ll be undone
Weakened, symbolically castrated by
Disability. And so as clothed
In her father’s doublet, careless of its fit,
Aurora grapples with the irony
Of doing busy work, embroidery,
That she may be useful, while inside
A lion, or a lioness – she’s not sure which
Is roaring across time to Judith Butler
About the discursive limits of sex,
this same Aurora speaks of pregnant thought
And says “poets (bear the word)”, which calls to mind
Bearing the Word by Homans, who equates
In troubling and essentialist ways, feminine art
With childbirth. This plays into the equation
Of the masculine with the intellectual
And the feminine with Mother Nature –
Aurora Leigh teems with life and nature.
In that, it falls into Romantic tropes
And scoffs Classics: “Five acts to make a play?
And why not fifteen? Why not ten? or seven?
What matter for the number of the leaves,
Supposing the tree lives and grows? exact
The literal unities of time and place,
When ’tis the essence of passion to ignore
Both time and place? Absurd. Keep up the fire
And leave the generous flames to shape themselves.”
Yet later Aurora critiques the poets who want to withdraw to the “daisies” –
she believes one should also observe
the swarthiest faces in the urban crowds:
She also critiques Byron and pope, excepting
Keats who is in touch with his feminine side
So much for childbearing and pain, now pleasure.
As A novel, ‘tis a marriage plot, a joy
For those of us who love Harlequin tales
And really, who does not? The narrative
Is formed into a ring, a wreath, a circle
By returning to the questions and inequities
Of the start. Mountains abound here and stairs
Aurora and Marian are higher dwellers
Joining the ranks of madwomen in attics,
Renaissance beloveds on pedestals
And Juliets on balconies; Romney
“Who has climbed a mountain-height and carried up
His own heart climbing, panting in his throat
With the toil of the ascent, takes breath at last,”
To be rejected. What, on god’s green earth
Do women want, asks Lacan. Leigh replies,
As Romney climbs a mountain once again
Without his sight. We do not know his face
Romney Leigh has never been described.
The objects are the women – and his gaze
Confers upon them stone wreaths and headaches.
Now blinded, he is still – as turned to stone
He has become the looked-upon, Edward
Rochester to Aurora’s Jane. When first
He popped the question, St John style, he said
To Aurora “If your sex is weak for art,
(And I who said so, did but honour you
By using truth in courtship) it is strong
For life and duty.” His proposal meets
The same fate as his brother’s from Jane Eyre
“You have a wife already whom you love,
Your social theory. Bless you both, I say.
For my part, I am scarcely meek enough
To be the handmaid of a lawful spouse.”
As blind and burnt out Rochester, Romney
Has lost the gaze that must objectify.
Leighton’s thought on this is echoed in
Aurora’s words on the panopticism
Of her old life: “Nay, the very dog
Would watch me from his sun-patch on the floor,
In alternation with the large black fly
Not yet in reach of snapping. So I lived.”
So, sightless, Romney comes to claim his bride
Disrupting the two mother family
With lengthy declarations of his sins
To which his love says, “Why, Ulysses’ dog
Knew him, and wagged his tail and died: but if
I had owned a dog, I too, before my Troy,
And if you brought him here, I warrant you
He’d look into my face, bark lustily,
And live on stoutly, as the creatures will
Whose spirits are not troubled by long loves.”
In other words, she’s changed – but note, at last,
She thinks she is Ulysses, Romney thinks
She’s his Penelope. So in some ways
Some things are left untidy but dear reader
like every good Harlequin book, this ends
with two chapters of climactic resolution
An extended declaration of their love,
And the standard linear full stop of a kiss.

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It’s always the bicentennial or sesquicentennial of something, but this year’s is a biggie, as I’m sure all you long nineteenth centuryists are already sick to death of hearing–so happy 2012! (About the link–it seems totally in the spirit of Dickens to make a big capitalist hoopla over a meaningless anniversary, doesn’t it?)

Is one of my NYR’s to blog more frequently? I’m not sure yet, but I’m trying to write more in general, hoping that that will get me to write more on that little thing I’ve got to get done for those expensive three letters. So maybe you’ll be hearing more from me here? Or, more likely, here–I believe there are stages one must go through before while writing a dissertation, and one of them is to take up a hobby and spend ridiculous amounts of time on it. Mine’s running, so if you want to read about what a theoretically-minded pain slut would-be Boston Qualifier, check it out.

So, here I am, back to blogging. I actually darkened the door here not because of the new year, but because I remembered this post that I had begun, but never finished–way back in September.

Here’s what I had:


How I learned to stop bitching and love The Newcomes

For an embarrassingly long time, I’ve been reading The Newcomes, you know, one of the books W. M. Thackeray (has anybody read this Thackeray?) wrote that wasn’t Vanity Fair. It is, after all, rather long:

Not one brick, but two!

I’m reading it since it briefly mentions China 4 or 5 times in its more than 900 pages, and I need to decide whether it merits a footnote or maybe even a full paragraph in my dissertation. It’s been slow going. When I talk about it I say maybe there’s a reason why nobody reads any Thackeray except for Vanity Fair. I’m used to being completely unengrossed by Victorian novels for the first hundred pages, but WMT managed to make the pages refuse to turn all through the first volume. For the first three hundred pages or so, there’s really not anything like a plot, although that’s not stopped me from liking a novel (cf. Charlotte Mary Yonge), and it’s about a more or less happy family, but that’s not necessarily a turn-off either (again, cf. Miss Yonge). Around page 500 I thought I detected something like a plot. Now that I’m around page 300 of the second volume, I’m thinking that this is actually an enormously sad, hence great novel. In its way, it’s quite more tragical than Vanity Fair.


I had some passage in mind to illustrate the novel’s particular brand of world-weariness, something like this (“spoiler” alert):

Very likely this was the happiest period of Thomas Newcome’s life. No woman (save one perhaps fifty years ago) had ever seemed so fond of him as that little girl. What pride he had in her, and what care he took of her! If she was a little ailing, what anxiety and hurrying for doctors! What droll letters came from James Binnie, and how they laughed over them; with what respectful attention he acquainted Mrs. Mack with everything that took place; with what enthusiasm that Campaigner replied! Josey’s husband called a special blessing upon his head in the church at Musselburgh; and little Jo herself sent a tinful of Scotch bun to her darling sister, with a request from her husband that he might have a few shares in the famous Indian Company.

The Company was in a highly flourishing condition, as you may suppose, when one of its directors, who at the same time was one of the honestest men alive, thought it was his duty to live in the splendour in which we now behold him. Many wealthy City men did homage to him. His brother Hobson, though the Colonel had quarrelled with the chief of the firm, yet remained on amicable terms with Thomas Newcome, and shared and returned his banquets for a while. Charles Honeyman we may be sure was present at many of them, and smirked a blessing over the plenteous meal. The Colonel’s influence was such with Mr. Sherrick that he pleaded Charles’s cause with that gentleman, and actually brought to a successful termination that litle love-affair in which we have seen Miss Sherrick and Charles engaged. Mr. Sherrick was not disposed to part with much money during his lifetime–indeed he proved to Colonel Newcome that he was not so rich as the world supposed him. But by tyhe Colonel’s interest, the chaplaincy of bogglywallah was procured for the Rev. C. Honeyman, who now forms the delight of that flourishing station.

All this while we have said little about Clive, who in truth was somehow in the background in this flourishing Newcome group. To please the best father in the world; the kindest old friend who endowed his niece with the best part of his savings; to settle that question about marriage and have an end of it; Clive Newcome had taken a pretty and fond young girl, who respected and admired him beyond all men, and who heartily desired to make him happy. To do as much would not his father have stripped his coat from his back,–have put his head under Juggernaut’s chariot-wheel,–have sacrificed any ease, comfort, or pleasure for the youngster’s benefit? One great passion he had had and closed the account of it: a worldly ambitious girl–how foolishly worshipped and passionately beloved no matter–had played with him for years; had flung him away when a dissolute suitor with a great fortune and title had offered himself. Was he to whine and despair because a jilt had fooled him? He had too much pride and courage for any such submission; he would accept the lot in life which was offered to him, no undesirable one surely; he would fulfil the wish of his father’s heart, and cheer his kind declining years.

In Vanity Fair, life sucks because people are selfish and manipulative assholes or pathetic self-delusional fools. In The Newcomes, there’s no shortage of assholes, but there’s plenty of good-hearted people too. And even–especially when those good-hearted people get their way, everything ends up sucking all the same.

Ironicallyish, sometime in the many months since beginning the post, I encountered this quote from a contemporary review, via Nicholas Dames’ contribution to The Feeling of Reading, ed. Rachel Ablow:

The merit of the “Newcomes” cannot be judged by quotations. They are like the stones of the temple, whose beauty is in their proper places, as parts of a design. Characters are built up bit by bit, and many admirable traits depend for their effect upon the knowledge of their antecedents…

The passage I’ve chosen is fairly unremarkable on its own–but where Vanity Fair has plenty of eminently quotable zingers about the shittiness of the world in general, it’s these longer passages that put the particular world of the novel in hand into melancholy perspective that I find particularly satisfying.

I was reminded of this unfinished post now that I’m almost done Sylvia’s Lovers, advertised by OWC (and Wikipedia) as “the saddest story I ever wrote” by “Mrs. Gaskell” herself. How sad is it? Pretty damn sad. We’re talking Thomas Hardy territory here, and not just the train-wreckiness of the plot. We’ve got the working-class rural regionalisms, the aching nostalgia–although there’s not so much overcompensatory hyperintellectualism (don’t get me wrong, I heart overcompensatory hyperintellectualism–takes one to know one, innit.)

For some reason, the novel’s felt very cinematic to me (curiously enough, it seems there’s never been an adaptation). I’d love to see a long Kubrickesque travelling shot of this:

The infant was wailing and suffering with its teething, and the mother’s heart was so occupied in soothing and consoling her moaning child, that the dangerous quay-side and the bridge were passed almost before she was aware; nor did she notice the eager curiosity and respectful attention of those she met who recognized her even through the heavy veil which formed part of the draping mourning provided for her by Hester and Coulson, in the first unconscious days after her mother’s death.

Though public opinion as yet reserved its verdict upon Philip’s disappearance–warned possibly by Kinraid’s story against hasty decisions and judgments in such times as those of war and general disturbance–yet every one agreed that no more pitiful fate could have befallen Philip’s wife.

Marked out by her striking beauty as an object of admiring interest even in those days when she sate in girlhood’s smiling peace by her mother at the Market Cross–her father had lost his life in a popular cause, and ignominious as the manner of his death might be, he was looked upon as a martyr to his zeal in avenging the wrongs of his townsmen; Sylvia had married amongst them too, and her quiet daily life was well known to them; and now her husband had been carried off from her side just on the very day when she needed his comfort most.

I guess this post is my own foray into Victorian-style reviewing–long on quotation, short on commentary. There’s much more I could say and am thinking about–like how these passages work with Sianne Ngai’s discussion of tone as something distinct from what is actually represented in fiction, the play of perspective, un-close-reading, but hey, I’ve got a dissertation to write.