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.

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