Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Moonstone

The Moonstone – Wilkie Collins

I wonder whether the gentlemen who make a business and a living out of writing books, ever find their own selves getting in the way of their subjects, like me?

As I said in my review of the Peter Ackroyd book, I feel a bit false describing myself as a Wilkie Collins fan, as though I loved The Woman in White and what short stories of Collins' that I'd read, I hadn't yet read any of his other novels. Well, I bit the bullet and picked up The Moonstone, mainly because it was the one about which I had heard the most, but also because it was the only one available from the library at the time. It was a very enjoyable read and a page-turning mystery. I had also forgotten how genuinely funny Collins can be. However, I have to say I did not feel it measured up to The Woman in White.


I doubt I have anything original to say about it, as the introduction by Sandra Kemp (which I read after I finished the book to avoid spoilers) has pretty much said it all. However, I will briefly add my 2 cents.

The story is one of the first detective novels; Sergeant Cuff pulls out all the stops when he examines with a magnifying glass, to be sure. All joking aside, it's interesting to see all the steps we take for granted—checking for clues, questioning people—are in their infancy here. Cuff has to work a lot harder than some modern-day detectives. It's a bit disturbing how easily Rachel is able to disrupt the investigation just as being a gentlewoman with the prerogative to do so. In both this case and in North and South, it was good girls lying for good reasons, but it's still pretty iffy that Rachel and Margaret both confound the law and use their social status to do so.

I think it's safe to say, however, that with The Woman in White, The Moonstone is also a sensation novel. There are many excellent cliffhangers, but none more so than when a character finds himself implicated-- “I found the mark, and read--
MY OWN NAME” (314)--in the robbery of the Moonstone. Even though I confess from having watched the TV show Wishbone (all you need to know about classic literature can be learned from Wishbone!) that I knew more or less what had happened. I still didn't know HOW, and Collins takes his sweet time in getting us there, through a variety of narrators in a delicious Victorian melange.

I told you before that I objected to Ackroyd saying that Collins' characters were secondary to his plots. That may be so, but that implies that his characters are not interesting, which is not true. As Kemp suggests in her introduction, Collins was one of the few Victorian novelists to treat women with unconventionality and to make servants living, breathing people rather than plot devices. In fact, it could easily be said that very few of the upper class characters of The Moonstone are more interesting and more realistic than their social “inferiors.” As Kemp suggests, the splendidly-named Rachel Verinder is, despite the author's best efforts, not worthy of heroine status1. Her courage, fortitude, and love for Franklin Blake cannot be doubted, but the constant admonishing that she is different from other girls of her age by the likes of Gabriel Betteredge get repetitive and annoying. Show me, don't tell me! Franklin Blake, while not unsympathetic or lacking charm, is also a bit wooden and dull. Perhaps, as Betteredge suggests in his discussion of gentlefolk with no occupations, it's their lot in life to be dull.

If ever there was a Victorian triple-decker crying out to be reworked by post-Sarah Waters NeoVictorians, surely it's The Moonstone! Rosanna Spearman, a wonderful character, should probably have a revised version of the novel written from her perspective, and perhaps we would find that the truth has actually been manipulated by Franklin Blake, Gabriel Betteredge, and even Sergeant Cuff, the white males in positions of authority, and those whose voices we get to hear first-hand (I'm thinking in terms of Dracula now, which some have subversively argued could be told differently with Dracula as the victim and the Crew of Light as patriarchal fanatics, as only they possess the means of reaching the reader and could be unreliable narrators). Rosanna is wonderful because she was a thief, sent a Reformatory, then lives a content but unhappy life as a respectable domestic servant in a grand house in Yorkshire, her life disturbed irreparably when she falls in love with the aristocratic gentleman Franklin Blake. Not only has Collins suggested that thieves can be good people and that felonious women can reform (which seems pretty impressive in 1868), Rosanna represents herself as deserving of love, to the point that she tries several times to declare her love to Franklin. I would have loved to have seen a further cat-and-mouse between Rosanna and Cuff. Cuff, despite being her adversary, has a lot of sympathy for her and understands her far better than the other characters. “Hadn't you better say she's mad enough to be an ugly girl and only a servant? . . . The falling in love with a gentleman of Mr Franklin Blake's manner and appearance doesn't seem to me to be the maddest part of her conduct by any means” (123). Rosanna is also bold enough to admit she hates Rachel and is jealous of her; she even suspects, when she finds evidence that Franklin was in Rachel's bedroom after midnight, what would at that time be considered “the worst.” Furthermore, a NeoVictorian could easily see a suggestion of the Sapphic in Rosanna's relationship with “Limping” Lucy, who would have saved Rosanna and taken her to a better life far away from Franklin Blake.

If Collins' sympathetic treatment of servants and the disabled is surprising, then the way he treats the evangelical Christians in the book, those who purport to serve the poor and the helpless (as well as the spiritually bereft) is downright shocking for a mid-Victorian. Despite the fact that he gets a lot of humorous mileage out of Miss Drusilla2 Clack and Godfrey Ablewhite, I would think at least some of his audience would shrink from these quite critical portraits of people engaged, at least some of the time, in virtuous activity. Yes, I know Collins' work was read by all classes (though perhaps not by the Bible-bashers who he is depicting here), but the way he pokes fun at Miss Clack seems all out of proportion for the fact that he had some of her ilk harassing him for having two mistresses (as is suggested in one of the footnotes). I'm actually rather fond of Miss Clack, despite it all, for, like Miss Bates in Emma, it's all too easy to make her the object of fun rather than seeing her situation for what it is. I think she copes with it in the best way she can; I'm not sure she can help being ridiculous. You may argue the point3. It is enjoyable, I think, for Miss Clack to get the upper hand over Mr Bruff, the family lawyer, admirable as he is.

Cuff, too, is a splendidly idiosyncratic character, based on the now-famous Mr Whicher, whose brusque exterior conceals a love for roses. Betteredge, although occasionally annoying, and very fixed in his conventional (chauvinist) opinions, is actually rather adorable by the end of the novel and hilarious in his obsession with Robinson Crusoe. I expect Defoe would have been rather flattered. But Ezra Jennings is yet another very odd and distinctively Collinsian character; I would be very interested to see what Dickens would have done with him. Physically striking—Eurasian in background, it would seem—damned by opium, bad luck, money problems, and lost love, Jennings is a figure of great, almost Phantom-esque pathos who lends much momentum to the final act of The Moonstone. (Revisionists would also find a goldmine of Franklin/Ezra slash if they wanted.) I also confess to being quite hard-hit by the depiction of dementia in the character of the doomed doctor Mr Candy. It's a bit too close to the bone for my comfort. Mr Murthwhite, the English explorer of Asia, is more of a type than a character, but would do well to be fleshed out more.

Greater minds than mine have picked up on Collins' unusual treatment of India, which to me is particularly sensitive in the Prologue, the Storming of Seringapatam (1799), which floods the mind's eye like a sequence from Sharpe and which more learned critics have compared to the British Imperialist rape of India. Despite the Brahmins' ruthlessness, one is almost happy at the end of their success in retrieving their sacred stone. However, let's not get carried away: Collins took liberties in making the Hindu principal god that of the moon rather than the sun, which to me sounds a bit like making Mary Jesus' aunt rather than mother—not really that excusable by artistic license. Though The Moonstone is credited with indirectly inspiring Conan Doyle, it has to be said that Collins is less racist than the creator of the Great Detective4.

All of this made for an enjoyable read, though inevitably disappointing after my expectations being built up so high by The Woman in White. Nevertheless, I will definitely read more Collins before too long. 

1Though, to be fair, she is a better judge of character than this reader. Consider the way she resists her cousin, Ablewhite: “You are a very good fellow in your own way, Godfrey . . . But I am quite sure you are not great; I don't believe you possess any extraordinary courage; and I am firmly persuaded—if you ever had any modesty—that your lady-worshippers relieved you of that virtue a good many years since” (213).
2Yes, Drusilla.
3Surely it's from genuine loneliness that Miss Clack tries to get the orphaned Rachel to live with her: “ 'You are very kind, Drusilla . . . I shall hope to visit you whenever I happen to be in London. But I have accepted Mr Bruff's invitation, and I think it will be best, for the present, if I remain under Mr Bruff's care.' 'Oh, don't say so!' I pleaded. 'I can't part with you, Rachel—I can't part with you!'” (269). Though I suppose it could be avarice—Rachel is now an heiress.
4It is interesting to me that when people are theorizing that the Brahmins could have gotten into the sleeping manor house to steal Rachel's diamond from her room, no one thinks through the full horror of having any stranger “under the sofa while my aunt and Rachel were talking about where the Diamond was to be put for the night. He would only have to wait till the house was quiet, and there it would be in the cabinet, to be had for the taking” (92).

Number 5 Cwmdonkin Drive

Number 5 Cwmdonkin Drive by Liz Wride

This wonderfully fresh one-act play, as presented as part of On the Edge, Michael Kelligan's script-held performances of new drama from Welsh and Wales-based writers, was given a fantastic interpretation by the Welsh Fargo Stage Company. I saw it (appropriately) at the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea, directed by D.J. Britton. Despite a distinct lack of cooperation from the weather, the actors did justice to a very funny and very original script which must be one of the highlights of 2014, the centenary year of the birth of Dylan Thomas. We've had innumerable biopics on Dylan Thomas, innumerable reworkings of his dramas, verse, and aspects of his life; Number 5 Cwmdonkin Drive is a witty and affectionate look at his influence on people.

Number 5 Cwmdonkin Drive is a play about Dylan Thomas fans, but not exclusively for Dylan Thomas fans. I stress the word “fans” rather than scholars, for the triumvirate at the centre—Mam, Dad, and the long-suffering Tom Dylan—are a warm, humorous, and humane depiction of real people. Number 5 Cwmdonkin Drive is a comedy, but it doesn't offer easy answers. It interrogates the admittedly odd but pervasive cult of location—as if essence de Thomas could be absorbed by a night's stay at his birthplace and childhood home, 5 Cwmdonkin Drive in the Uplands in Swansea. Most any Swansea resident will know that you can stay at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, returned to its 1914 facilities, as Mam (Lynn Hunter), Dad (Anthony Leader), and Tom (Sam Harding) do, and one supposes that the mystique of literary tourism draws us there.

However, as Tom Dylan makes clear, he isn't Dylan Thomas—he's an ordinary Welsh 18-year-old, though perhaps driven a bit neurotic by his well-meaning but overenthusiastic parents. Like Dylan Thomas and Swansea, Tom enacts the dichotomous—in one of many familiar, cleverly invoked lines in the play, Swansea is “an ugly, lovely town.” Dylan Thomas' legacy on Tom's life is also ugly and lovely, but it's the loveliness that comes to life with a rather Dickensian magic—a visitation. Pentre Ifan, the Neolithic dolmen in the Preseli Hills of south Wales, is said by local lore to show you your future mate if you walk around it three times clockwise, but I can't remember which sacred Welsh stone bestows madness or poetic genius on whoever sleeps by it. In Number 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, the birthplace has an equal gift (or curse) embedded in its walls. Dylan Thomas, of course, is not completely absent from the work—but as ever, a facet, an aspect of the poet, just as some of his most famous poems are embodied in the play—but the fact that Tom Dylan is the focus is quite refreshing.

The cast were all great in the script-held reading (Charlotte Griffiths and Christopher Morgan play other parts), and the audience responded wonderfully to the humour and clever knowingness of the piece. I had read beforehand that Number 5 Cwmdonkin Drive is about Dylan Thomas' birthday party, and that is one way to sum up this play, a perfect introduction for those who know nothing about Dylan Thomas, and an equally enjoyable fantasy for those who know him well (or think they do).

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Beyond Black - Hilary Mantel

Most people don't want to know about the future. They just want to know about the present. They want to be told they're doing all right.”

I've reflected a few times since reading Wolf Hall that Hilary Mantel's back catalogue is of particular interest to me, with novels about Robespierre, an Irish giant of the 18th century, and Beyond Black, about mediums, though it was completely different from what I expected. Indeed, I could find almost no stylistic similarities between Beyond Black and Wolf Hall; smarting from my experience with Affinity, I was expecting the rug to be pulled out from under me unto the last page. Instead, Mantel played it straight, which was a bold choice. The point of Beyond Black is to imagine that not only do the dead still exist on Earth, they are mundane, banal, nasty, and anything but spiritually-minded. Whoopi Goldberg's medium in Ghost being harassed and haranged is but the tip of the iceberg.

Despite what may seem a bleak premise, I found Beyond Black for the most part un-put-down-able. Its non-linear chronology and unconventional use of tenses makes for confusing reading at first but does not negatively impact the book because the premise and the two main characters are pretty solid pillars around which to weave a web. Describing Alison Hart, the main character and the medium, as a pillar seems pretty accurate. Despite the fact that I found some of the later revelations about Alison's childhood to be far-fetched, even for such a novel as this, in general I found her to be a great and sympathetic character. Alison is a large but, we sense, not unattractive woman. But it is her physical size—in part caused by, and in part excused by, her career—that defines her, especially in relation to the other main character, Colette, her business partner/live-in help. I appreciated the fact that Colette, as a very thin person, has a physical revulsion to Alison for being fat. In my experience, this is a very accurate depiction of very thin people, regardless of their other moral qualities; there is an impossibility in putting themselves in someone else's shoes. It's that old Victorian adage, to help those that help themselves. It's some kind of failing of will, on Alison's part, in Colette's mind, that she's fat.

Are Alison and Colette friends? As the book shows, they were once. But by the time of the book's main action, they are barely amicable. Alison can read Colette's thoughts, though. Colette, however, has no idea of the nastiness of Alison's “spirit guide,” Morris, one of her mother's old boyfriends who is frightening enough left to the imagination, bandy-legged, perverted, shallow, single-minded. Mantel has the audacity to suggest that the fiend paid another fiend one hundred pounds to be “reborn” physically as the son of Mandy, one of Alison's closest medium friends. The idea is enough to make one sick.

There is a lot of satire in this book, and I wouldn't encourage any budging Anglophiles to read it: it examines the worst of the UK from every angle. Colette is described on the back blurb as a “flint-hearted sidekick,” and I acknowledge that it's a challenge to make a character as close to Naturalism as Colette is interesting and sympathetic. Mantel just about succeeds, but (I think) the message she is trying to get across is that Colette is sadder in every way than Alison, despite Alison's insane career and extremely unorthodox childhood. Colette survives on “vitamin pills and ginseng” and surveys people's personal appearances like a hawk, but she has drifted into an unfulfilling and blah marriage with motor-car-obsessed Gavin before she has a “spiritual” experience (it's never clear whether she has imagined it, but it seems unlikely given it's Colette). This is what brings her into Alison's path. The challenge is in making us believe that a person like Colette would pay for supernatural guidance (tarot card reading, palmistry, crystal balls, etc) and then pragmatically throw in her lot with Alison to the point of mortgaging a house together. I think Mantel succeeds in this.

There is also an interesting creation of the sub-culture of real mediums. Their spats, their genuine sincere ability do their work against their adherence to New Age fads and kit, gender wars and the difference between old-fashioned practioners like Mrs Etchells (Alison's grandmother, possibly) and Maddy, for example. The satire on the death of Princess Diana in 1997—which is when Alison and Colette first start working together—is acid in the extreme, but also very funny. (I can understand now why Mantel made such cutting remarks about Kate Middleton.)

The master stroke in what Philip Pullman has called (on the cover) “one of the greatest ghost stories in the English language” is the unconventional way in which it's told, as I have already alluded. Unusually in prose form, Mantel has captured the ether by aural means, which means we often have to follow a script which signifies a tape recording of (usually) Alison and Colette talking. Sometimes Alison's spirits intrude. All of this is very entertaining and very sly. It's another way for conveying the mystery of Alison's past in a drawn-out and teasing way. Who is Alison's father? What did her mother's boyfriends do to her in her teens and which ones did what? What did she do to them as revenge? Can anything Morris says be trusted? Is the fearsome figure of Nick who we think it is? (SPOILER: Yes.)

One thing against which I have always struggled as a writer, and struggled with as a reader, is the ending. Unfortunately, I came away from Beyond Black with a sour feeling because the ending was disappointing. The more I thought about the book afterwards, I had to ask myself whether it wasn't all an excuse just to satirize British society. Which I suppose is a good enough aim, but I would prefer to believe there was more to it than that.

Like many readers, I suspect, I read through the pages waiting for Colette's man starting with an “M” to show up. I'm not convinced that he did, and in one sense I think the contract with the reader has been broken. If you're expecting me to believe that it's Mart, the gormless youth who hangs himself in Alison and Colette's shed, then that's a cop-out. That whole storyline piddled out in a disappointing fashion. There was such foreboding after Morris left and knowing that he'd return. Though the revelations were somewhat impressive, they felt a little muddled and anti-climactic, even after the death of Mrs Etchells. Furthermore, I'm not sure I understood the intent of the book at all if Colette was going to be allowed to slink back to Gavin. I'm glad that Alison ended the book with a new spirit guide and seemed to be enjoying herself for once, but resolving the Colette thread in such a way seemed wrong. However, when Morris started sobbing because Alison didn't want him to be her spirit guide anymore, that felt totally earned.

The Great God Pan – Arthur Machen

'It's a curious thing, Austin, to be alone in London at night, the gas-lamps stretching away in perspective, and the dead silence, and then perhaps the rush and clatter of a hansom on the stones, and the fire starting up under the horse's hoofs' (38).

Any student of Gothic horror—which I happen to be—will have heard of Arthur Machen's The Great God Pan, one of the lesser works that sprung up in the 1890s Gothic that produced Dracula and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It has more in common with the latter, being novella-length and interested in the overreaching hand of science, upsetting the balance of the natural order. It is a deeply unsettling story, definitely a case of bona fide male Gothic in its anxiety about evil women and the titled, respectable upper crust men they prey on (unlike in Jekyll & Hyde, these men seem to have no secret sins, and unlike in Dracula, we get no hint that they might be gender non-conforming, which is my reading of Jonathan Harker). Though I've read precious little MR James and even less HP Lovecraft, the pagan background of The Great God Pan seems to hearken to, or anticipate, them.

The mysterious mode of telling this story—which Fred Botting likens to a “mythological and occult frame”--reminds me of the slightly later machinations of Gaston Leroux's narrators, but far more sinister than Leroux's Shade. The male protagonists, from Mr Clarke with his self-indulgent file on “Memoirs to prove the Existence of the Devil,” to the investigative Villiers, all start to blend together, united in their fear at ending up another motiveless society suicide.

By far the scariest part of the book is a second-hand narrative of a weird girl summoning satyrs and devils as playmates in the Welsh countryside. The novella also occasionally makes some very evocative and cryptic remarks.

'We all know what happened to those who chanced to meet the Great God Pan, and those who are wise know that all symbols are symbols of something, not of nothing. It was, indeed, an exquisite symbol beneath which men long ago veiled their knowledge of the most awful, most secret forces which lie at the heart of all things; forces before which the souls of men must wither and die and blacken, as their bodies blacken under the electric current' (44).

May I just say that while it was nice of Kessinger Publishing to reprint this novella, theirs is a terrible press, without any design or graphic sense and a host of irritating typos.