Tom Jones is one of the great pioneering novels of English literature. This may not seem apparent at first. There is some dispute about whether Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson were really the first English novelists, but certainly it was they wh
Tom Jones is one of the great pioneering novels of English literature. This may not seem apparent at first. There is some dispute about whether Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson were really the first English novelists, but certainly it was they who helped popularise the form in which the novel was to become an art form.
Indeed, of the two of them, Richardson was the first to write a novel, with Fielding’s career as a novelist being partly a reaction against Richardson, as well as a reaction to Fielding’s his career as a dramatist being killed off by the authorities. Tom Jones is not even Fielding’s first novel, but is the third of the four that Fielding would write.
Nonetheless, Tom Jones is the most important of Fielding’s novels. It is the one to most fully outlines the philosophy behind Fielding’s idea of what a novel should be. This is indeed written into the structure of Tom Jones, where all of the 18 books contain an opening chapter in which Fielding pulls up an armchair (as it were) and sits down with the reader to discuss his ideas about how he wishes to write the novel.
This very device indicates something of the artificiality that Fielding sought to bring to the novel. Richardson adopted a more realistic approach, with the author seemingly invisible, and the story apparently told by the characters. In Fielding, the author is the true hero of the book, and is ever-present. The author is an omniscient, omnipotent force who manipulates the characters to do as he wishes, and constantly stops the story while he philosophises or points to a moral.
Fielding also draws on his career as a dramatist to create a plot that contains a number of surprises and changes to keep the reader’s interest – plot twists, changes of scenery, characters entering and exiting, bawdy humour, farce and pathos.
The characters here are to some extent ciphers, used as moral exemplars by Fielding, rather than intended as bold realistic psychological studies. Nevertheless they are an improvement on the characters in Fielding’s earlier works, and there is greater room for nuance and ambiguity in how we can view the people.
For example, Allworthy may be a holy fool similar to Parson Adams in the earlier book Joseph Andrews, but he is a little bit more aware of the foibles and limitations of the people who seek to dupe him than they give him credit for. Similarly, Tom Jones is not a virtuous prig like Joseph Andrews, but is wild enough to get himself into a good deal of trouble before he is able to extricate himself.
The plot is very ingenious, and has been praised and envied by many great writers, including Coleridge and Graham Greene. Indeed the very artifice of the plot is itself part of Fielding’s philosophy of novel writing, constantly reminding the reader that this is not a realistic piece of writing. A similar trick is achieved by the amusing and lengthy chapter titles.
Stripped of its ingenuity and reduced to bare bones, the plot is as follows. The story is about an illegitimate child called Tom Jones who is abandoned to the care of the benevolent Mr Allworthy. Allworthy rears Tom as if he was his own child, and Tom soon falls in love with Sophia Western, the daughter of the local squire. However, while Squire Western is fond of Tom, he does not wish his daughter to marry a bastard, and favours Allworthy’s unpleasant son, Blifil. After Tom disgraces himself and is slandered by Blifil and his two unpleasant tutors, Thwackum and Square, he sets out on his own.
However, Sophia runs away from home and follows him, anxious to avoid being forced to marry Blifil. A number of misadventures befall the two lovers with Sophia first in pursuit of Tom, and Tom later in pursuit of Sophia after she catches him in bed with another woman. Finally they arrive in London. Tom falls under the influence of the wealthy and malicious Lady Bellaston, and Sophia’s family continue to try to pair her off with unsuitable lovers. Finally we learn that Tom is actually Allworthy’s nephew, removing all obstacles to the lovers marrying.
Tom Jones is often viewed as a bawdy rough-house tale, and was revived as such in the 1960s movie, but this is to defy Fielding’s serious moral purpose in writing the book. Fielding constantly seeks to expose the hypocritical and sinful, and to praise those characters that live exemplary lives.
The hypocrites include Blifil, who professes to love his uncle, but is really after his money. There are also the boys’ tutors. Square professes a godless philosophy that seems designed to further his own interests. This is fully exposed when Tom catches Square in the bedroom of Molly Seagrim. Thwackum is a brutal tutor, who spouts religion but loves severely punishing Jones, and who is after as much material gain as he can get from Allworthy.
Other characters are more ambiguous. Partridge and Nightingale have their share of flaws, but are essentially decent and loyal to Tom. Honour and Mrs Fitzpatrick profess virtue when we first see them, but are only out for their own interests. Sophia and Allworthy provide the models of virtuous behaviour.
Perhaps the area that most interests readers is Fielding’s views on extra-marital sex. To view Fielding as a swinging-sixties permissive writer is a serious mistake. In fact, Fielding’s attitude to chastity was never that far removed from Richardson’s, for all their apparent clashes. Tom has three affairs in the book, and he pays a heavy price for all of them. His relationship with Molly Seagrim nearly leads him into an imprudent marriage, which he only narrowly escapes when he discovers she has other lovers.
Later he beds Mrs Waters, and this causes all kind of complications. It estranges him from Sophia, brings the accidental ire of Captain Fitzpatrick on him, which will later lead to Tom being arrested and nearly executed for murder, and causes a few awful moments when it is feared that Mrs Waters is actually Tom’s mother.
Tom’s final involvement is with Lady Bellaston, but she is a cold-hearted manipulative society lady who is using Tom, albeit rewarding him with money at a time when he is without funds. This relationship again nearly costs Tom a chance with Sophia, and puts Sophia in danger when Lady Bellaston tries to persuade a worthless admirer of Sophia’s (Lord Fellamar) to rape Sophia.
Fielding certainly does not approve of Tom’s affairs, and Tom has to learn his lesson before he can win the hand of his fair Sophia. However, while sexual infidelity is bad in Fielding’s world, he is more indulgent about it than Richardson would have been. Three affairs do not end Tom’s chances with Sophia, just so long as he repents for the future. In Fielding’s eyes, sexual activity does not prevent someone from being decent and virtuous, and Tom’s sexual escapades are set off by his acts of kindness and charity.
Regarding women, there are some double standards in Fielding, and the truly worthy ladies in Fielding do not have sexual affairs. This was true of earlier heroines such as Fanny Goodwill (in Joseph Andrews) and Mrs Heartfree (in Jonathan Wild). Indeed the latter heroine is obliged to defend her virtue against importunate male admirers so often that it starts to become ludicrous. Sophia Western too fits into this virtuous model, avoiding the temptations of men who would seek to take her chastity, forcibly or otherwise.
However, towards other women Fielding is lenient. Mrs Fitzpatrick and Lady Bellaston are morally compromised, but Mrs Waters and Molly Seagrim are treated with some tolerance, and are given a happy ending, rather than ruined by their behaviour. Sexual promiscuity may be wrong in Fielding’s world, but it is a lesser sin than hypocrisy, theft or malice. For this reason, unchastity is a tragedy in Richardson’s world, but a comedy in Fielding’s world.
Fielding’s omnipotent control of his characters is overall benevolent. He may pitch his characters into a number of calamities, but he always intends to rescue them in the end. This makes the book safe, and may seem consistent with the idea of Fielding being a conservative writer. Certainly he does not advocate major changes of society. While he may write about a love between two people in different social classes, he will not allow the lovers to come together until they discover that they are social equals.
However, Fielding was also a satirist, and any good satirist is really an accidental anarchist, however much he may regard himself as a conservative. Hence Fielding cannot help having a tilt at authority figures – doctors, lawyers, wealthy people, teachers, clergymen etc – who behave corruptly. He cannot help finding virtue in the lowlier members of society who have far less power and influence, such as his illegitimate hero.
Fielding also cannot help showing us that the world is really an unsafe place. Decent citizens may be robbed. People can lie and cheat you of your fortune. Women are unsafe when left alone with men. Good people may have their reputation unfairly ruined. The end of a Fielding novel may be happy, but we could be forgiven for wondering if the dangers facing our hero and heroine really end there. What happens after they marry? Curiously, this will be the theme of Fielding’s last novel, Amelia.
Tom Jones represents a great improvement on Fielding’s first two novels. It is better plotted, and has a much wider range of incident, tone and characterisation. Fielding also tells the tale more plainly than before. There are still many displays of erudition, but he does take the trouble of translating a few of the passages for us. He also abandons the heavy use of irony, and is more straightforward in telling us which characters are good or bad. This is a relief as over 800 pages of sustained irony would have become rather wearisome.
Overall then, for those who can adjust their minds to the style of 18th century literature, Tom Jones is a stimulating and fun ride through the society of his time. ...more
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To a certain extent, most great works of literature are an attempt by the author to convert their personal experiences into universal principles. Indeed, this is probably true of a good deal of popular fiction, and a large amount of non-fiction (poet
To a certain extent, most great works of literature are an attempt by the author to convert their personal experiences into universal principles. Indeed, this is probably true of a good deal of popular fiction, and a large amount of non-fiction (poetry, philosophy, politics, theology, history etc).
However, there can be few books in the English language that have sought to project subjective sensations to the level of objective reality as The Way of All Flesh, Samuel Butler’s ‘long drawn-out matricide and patricide’ as George Bernard Shaw called it. Though fictional, the story tells that of Samuel Butler’s relationship with his parents, and Butler draws a number of withering generalisations about family, marriage and church from his own life.
The story is narrated by the hero’s godfather, Overton, who draws on both Ernest’s accounts of what happened, and a seeming omniscience that allows him to read the thoughts of the remaining characters, and thereby supply the gaps.
The hero is Ernest, the son of Theobald and Christina Pontifex. Ernest has a bad start in life. He is brought up by his intolerant, ‘will shaking’, spiteful father, who beats his son for small offences, and inculcates the wrong values in Ernest. Ernest’s mother is no better, spouting insincere religious platitudes, engaging in vainglorious dreams about the betterment of her family, and betraying Ernest’s confidences to his father.
School life is tough, but frees Ernest from the baleful influence of his parents, and allows him to fall under the sway of his kindly godmother, Alethea. Unhappily, Alethea dies young. She leaves her money to Ernest, but only for when he is older, and Overton is put in the charge of the money till then, and forbidden to tell Ernest.
In the meantime, Ernest gets into bigger trouble. His university years are happy, but he reluctantly agrees to become a clergyman, and falls under the influence of a classmate who speculates with his money and loses it before absconding with the remainder. Attempts to spread the Christian message amongst the poor end disastrously with Ernest arrested for sexual assault.
Ernest emerges from prison stronger. He abandons his religious calling, and sets up a shop with Ellen, a former servant of the Pontifexes, whom Ernest marries. The marriage is a disaster, because Ellen is an alcoholic and, as it turns out, a bigamist. By this time Ernest has reached maturity, and Overton is able to present Ernest with the inheritance that will allow him to live comfortably and become a writer.
Samuel Butler wrote the book in the 1870s, but never published it. It was eventually released after his death in 1903. It is doubtful if Butler would even have given the book this title. There are a number of reasons why the book was not released earlier. On a personal level, Butler wrote for pleasure on those subjects that interested him, and the fact that the book was an undisguised attack on his family would have made it an awkward book to release whilst there were still family members alive to be offended.
On a more general level, I doubt that Victorian society was ready for a book that offers such an excoriating account of the family, the church and the institution of marriage. The fact that the book includes allusions to sexual assault and prostitution probably does not help, since these appear little in actual Victorian literature, and incessantly in later fiction set during the Victorian age.
Indeed Ernest is not unlike the kind of hero you find in later writers, such as late H G Wells and early George Orwell– the flawed, weak figure who is frequently unappealing, but still identifiable. Ernest is a little more sympathetic than those heroes, perhaps because we can see the origins and development of his weaknesses.
Butler firmly had the institution of family in his sights when writing. The book offers a grim view of the inheritance of unhappiness that passes down from one generation to another. Theobald is the victim of a harsh father who forces him into the clergy, and he treats Ernest with the same cruelty. Families are at the mercy of people who have been badly damaged, morally and psychologically, by their own families, and they continue the pattern into the next generation.
The text includes a number of suitably sarcastic asides to this effect. “A man first quarrels with his father about three-quarters of a year before he is born.” “There, sure enough, standing at the end of the table near the door were the two people whom he regarded as the most dangerous enemies he had in all this word – his mother and father.” Not to mention unflattering comparisons to the insect world, with Overton or Ernest lamenting that it is a shame that parents cannot die before their young hatch, or alluding to ants and bees that sting their fathers to death as a matter of cause.
Part of this indictment of the family is a look at marriage too. Marriages are not seen as desirable in this book. Theobald is virtually pushed into marrying Christina because her family have far too many unprofitable daughters draining their resources, and they are anxious to get her married off. While the marriage works after a fashion, there is never any true love there, and Theobald barely laments her death.
I can’t help thinking that if we follow it to its logical conclusion the lesson here is a feministic one that keeping women out of the workplace is a bad idea for both sexes, since it leaves them with a parasitical dependence on the support of their family, which impoverishes everyone. However, Butler does not seem to take this particular message from the story himself.
Ernest’s marriage is instantly disapproved of by the bachelor Overton, who makes it clear that he hates it when anyone to whom he is attached to gets married. (Butler had a number of very intense attachments to other men, so much so that he was rather anxious when Oscar Wilde was put on trial. It is not clear whether Butler was homosexual or bisexual however.)
Sure enough, the marriage is a disaster, and Ernest only escapes further damage when he discovers that his alcoholic wife is already married. At the end, Ernest settles down to a life of comfortable bachelorhood, and Overton approvingly remarks ‘I was proud of him and delighted with him. “I am sure,” I said to myself, “that whatever else he may do, he will never marry again.”’
A third factor that causes much misery in the book is the Church. Both Theobald and Ernest are forced into becoming clergymen, with terrible consequences. The job of clergyman is not well-suited to having a family, and Butler drily remarks that it would be better if Protestant clergymen had retained the vow of celibacy. As it is, Theobald’s profession means that he is around the home far more than is healthy, instead of working away from his home, and he is under greater strain to maintain his moral and religious front in the home as elsewhere.
The age of Theobald is one that is narrow in its concerns, taking the absurdities of the Bible literally, and utterly unprepared for the earthquake that will be caused by the theory of evolution, to which Butler occasionally alludes. Theobald’s parish are narrow-minded conservative landed men, devoid of any real charity. As Butler remarks in his characteristically caustic way, “they would have been equally horrified at hearing the Christian religion doubted, and at seeing it practised.”
The problems are passed on to the young Ernest when he too is forced into the clerical calling. After a repressed childhood, he is naïve when he begins his calling. He loses his money to a friend who has influenced his religious persuasions somewhat.
Worse follows when Ernest seeks to spread the message to the poor people in his lodgings with results that are comical and disastrous. He beats a hasty retreat from a violent resident without even attempting a conversion. Another well-informed labourer is able to run circles around Ernest by pointing to the contradictory accounts of the Resurrection in the four Gospels, something for which Ernest is simply not prepared.
Next he visits a prostitute, and is nearly seduced. He then visits another woman whom he also thinks is a prostitute, and ends up being arrested for sexual assault. By the time he leaves prison, Ernest has lost his faith in the Christian religion. While he does not give up faith altogether, he goes on to make a living as an enfant terrible writing shocking works that expose the weaknesses of Christianity.
If Butler does not like the family or marriage, does he offer anything to replace it? There is certainly no clear alternative put in place here, but his characters find other ways to satisfy their emotional needs. For Ernest, the solution to his problems is to cut his parents off and barely see them again, thereby allowing him freedom from their bad faith and meddling.
He does have children of his own from his marriage to Ellen, and Ernest resolves this by putting them into the hands of a kindly working-class couple who will raise them as their own. This fits in with an earlier passage, suggesting that families might work among lesser races. In Butler’s day, ‘race’ was applied more generally to groups of people, and may not have racist implications here, though the suggestion of members of inferior classes will make people uncomfortable.
There is another model in Overton and Alethea. Towards Ernest they act as parental figures, entering Ernest’s life at key periods to influence his development for good, but without rearing him or leading his life for him. There is also a kind of romance between Overton and Alethea, but one that is never contaminated or compromised by marriage.
Samuel Butler may not have all the answers and his conclusions may sometimes seem generalised, but The Way of All Flesh is an elegant and powerful counter-blast to conventional assumptions, and some of Butler’s ideas are likely to cause comfort and controversy today. For anyone who has experienced problems with their parents, his words may seem like a breath of fresh air. ...more
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In the first half of the eighteenth-century, two prominent Englishmen acquired a reputation of great notoriety. One of these was Robert Walpole, the first British statesman to be called prime minister. This was not in fact an honorary title, but an i
In the first half of the eighteenth-century, two prominent Englishmen acquired a reputation of great notoriety. One of these was Robert Walpole, the first British statesman to be called prime minister. This was not in fact an honorary title, but an insult, since it was then felt that no one politician should wield so much power. Curiously two other political terms that passed into respectable usage for many years – Whig and Tory –also began life as insulting terms that cast doubt on the honesty of those so named.
The other notorious figure was Jonathan Wild. Wild passed himself off as a great thief-catcher, and did indeed secure the arrest of many notorious criminals. However, this was only a front. In fact Wild was the criminal mastermind behind the scenes, and the men he handed up for arrest were those who had defied his control.
Jonathan Wild made a good business out of playing the (not-so) honest broker who helped the victims of robbery to get back some of their goods – for a steep price, of course. In reality, the goods had been stolen with his consent or connivance, and he was operating a racket. His luck ran out when this practice was made illegal, and he unwisely participated in a few robberies himself. Finally Wild was arrested and executed.
For the satirists of the day who hated the corrupt Robert Walpole, the potential for drawing parallels between the two disreputable leaders was irresistible. After all, wasn’t Wild only doing on a more obviously criminal level what Walpole was doing on a semi-legal level?
Not all the accounts of Wild’s life were intended as ironic attacks on Walpole, and a number of writers chose to provide their own lurid accounts of Wild’s life in order to make money. The most accurate and famous of these was by Daniel Defoe, and his account is included in the Penguin Classics edition of Fielding’s book.
Defoe’s account may have been more reliable than those of his contemporaries, but it is certainly not well-written. It includes many repetitious and redundant passages, even while Defoe regrets that he does not have more time to include the colourful details of Wild’s life in his pamphlet. I suspect the more likely reason is that Defoe had no wish to further research the career of Jonathan Wild, and contented himself with padding out the material that he already had.
While Defoe’s pamphlet is no masterpiece of great prose, it is a fascinating glimpse into the style of ‘true crime’ writing, which has not changed as much today as one might imagine. Defoe is also a contributor to another style of writing that was growing in the early eighteenth-century alongside that of those two great literary rivals, Fielding and Richardson.
Fielding and Richardson were felt to be the two pioneers of the British novel, and they certainly helped set the template for respectable English literature. Meanwhile Defoe was creating another template for the writing of English fiction in Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders. Defoe took Samuel Johnson’s motto that “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money" to its logical extreme, and his writings are aimed purely at selling copy.
Defoe differed from the other two writers in a number of ways. Fielding’s writing is full of irony, satire, humour and the benefits of a full classical education on display. Defoe’s style is plain and unadorned, devoid of imagination, wit or ingenuity. This does has the advantage of making Defoe more readable to modern audiences who are not acquainted with the erudite allusions that are strewn across Fielding’s work.
However, Defoe’s style is not Richardson’s either. There is none of the psychological character exploration or over-wrought piety that characterises Richardson’s novels. True, Defoe’s account of Jonathan Wild shoehorns in a little bit of shocked moralising about his subject, but in reality this is no more than we often see in modern ‘true crime’ writings which give us the prurient details of criminal’s lives whilst expressing a hypocritical horror of the men and women whom they are glamorising.
By the time Henry Fielding came to the subject matter, Walpole was out of power, Wild had been dead for 18 years, and the comparisons between the two men were something of a cliché. This has partly diminished the power of Fielding’s subject, but there is an argument for saying that Fielding was not especially interested in either Walpole or Wild when he wrote this book.
To take the first, it is true that there are a number of oblique allusions to Walpole, not least in Fielding’s over-insistence on using the word ‘great’, an epithet applied to Walpole. However, the book contains no sustained attack on Walpole.
The next point is more surprising. The book is arguably not about Jonathan Wild either. True, it names the notorious criminal, and includes a few details that equate with those of Wild’s activities – names of Wild’s associates, a few of Wild’s practices etc. However, most of the story’s content has no actual historical basis in anything that Wild did, and is purely an invention by Fielding. For the main part it is a series of amusing and fictitious tableaux in the life of Wild, rather than a coherent narrative..
In this version of events, Wild rapidly rises to power through acts of childishly petty dishonesty, whilst simultaneously duping his friend, the innocent and kind Heartfree, whom Wild has robbed, and intends to have executed. Appropriately the last of the four Books is set almost entirely in Newgate, where Heartfree is reprieved from execution and Wild is instead arrested and executed.
What lends ‘Jonathan Wild’ its strength is that Fielding is going far beyond an attack on Robert Walpole. If anything, Fielding might be said to be satirising the whole rotten structure of political power that allows corrupt men like Walpole to ascend to the top of the greasy pole. Fielding achieves this by constant use of mock-heroic allusions throughout the book. Wild is given a rich ancestry of prominent criminals. (This is untrue, as Defoe’s account makes clear. Wild’s parents were actually honest citizens.)
Wild is compared to great political leaders at numerous points. Wild also delivers long harangues that are shot through with Fielding’s trademark display of high learning. The speeches are obviously not those that the real Wild would have been capable of delivering, and Fielding makes this clear when he includes a badly-spelled letter sent by Wild, and the supposed narrator who glorifies Wild is obliged to inform us that he has been using a good deal of artistic licence when presenting Wild’s speeches to the reader.
This mock-heroic style serves two purposes. Firstly it functions to ridicule Wild, and make us realise how tiny and pathetic his criminal manoeuvrings really are. Far from being the great man that the unreliable narrator tells us that he is, or which Wild believes himself to be, Wild is an insignificant gang leader. He believes that he is very powerful, when really he is not even in command of his own lusts.
This last point is demonstrated in a number of amusing incidents – Wild automatically picking someone’s pocket, even when knows that there is no money there, and Wild stealing the parson’s bottle-screw as he ascends the scaffold, and dying with it in his hand. The impulse to criminality is automatic and compulsive.
We also see it in Wild’s relationships with women, where he is always hopelessly duped and robbed. The woman he most desires is insistent (forcibly) on maintaining her chastity. When Wild finally marries her to satisfy his lust, he soon discovers that she has had a string of lovers, and the two of them grow to feel an instant loathing for one another. In another incident, Wild visits a prostitute and soon finds that his ill-gotten gains have been picked from his pocket by her.
The second purpose of the mock-heroic style in ‘Jonathan Wild’ is to draw parallels between Wild’s behaviour and that of people who are much more powerful than he is. When Wild is compared to Alexander and Caesar, this may sound absurd and bathetic at first glance, but Fielding is making a serious point here. The activities of those ‘great’ leaders were little more than a large-scale version of the rapacity and plunder that we see in petty criminals like Wild.
Fielding draws out the point that there is a distinction between being great and being good. Heartfree is a genuinely good man, but not a great one. Wild is a great man, or could have been in another setting, because he has the ruthlessness, audacity and immorality necessary to seize what he likes. These are the qualities that truly allow powerful men to flourish in society. It has been suggested that the socialist writer Bertolt Brecht was influenced by ‘Jonathan Wild’ and it is easy to imagine this. Fielding offers us a glimpse of a thoroughly rotten system where the criminal rises to the top.
The word ‘great’ is hence perverted to mean something else here, and this is a common strand in a book where other words are similarly misapplied – honour, honesty etc. Language can be misapplied to justify anything, and there are plenty of people (like the supposed narrator) who can be duped into admiring and respecting the least worthy members of society. This can be seen in all the people who courted Walpole’s favour, and those who deceived themselves about Wild’s honesty.
‘Jonathan Wild’ is not without its weaknesses. The sustained irony and unsubtle labouring over some points can be wearying, and Fielding’s high-flown style is likely to slow the reader down at time. This may explain why some of Fielding’s writings get comparatively low scorings on Goodreads, in spite of Fielding’s importance as a writer.
There are however a number of amusing scenes, and thought-provoking ideas in ‘Jonathan Wild’ that take this work to a level far higher than that of yet another Wild/Walpole satire. ...more
Middlemarch is one of the most understated books in Victorian literature. Here there will be found no overblown melodrama or Gothic adventure. There are few deaths, and none of them mawkish and eccentric. There is only one act that could be considere
Middlemarch is one of the most understated books in Victorian literature. Here there will be found no overblown melodrama or Gothic adventure. There are few deaths, and none of them mawkish and eccentric. There is only one act that could be considered murder, and even this is a grey area. What we have instead is people living, fighting, suffering and sometimes triumphing within the margins of a quiet, enclosed life.
This understatement is strangely appropriate for the content of Middlemarch. One of my university lecturers suggested that the message of Middlemarch is that we are all failures in our own estimation. More accurately, Middlemarch may be said to be about under-achievement, although it could be argued that underachievement is in itself a form of failure.
Hence this long and richly textured book follows a number of storylines that centre on this theme. Indeed the two leading stories had been intended for separate books, but Eliot presumably recognised their thematic closeness and combined them.
The heroine of Middlemarch is Dorothea Brooke, a fervently religious woman who longs for a life of idealistic self-sacrifice. Unhappily this leads her to marry the older clergyman, Mr Casaubon, who is writing a book on aspects of classical history. However Casaubon’s intellect takes the form of a dry pedantry, and his studies are worthless due to the narrow range of his research. Worse still, this ailing, anaemic scholar makes a poor husband, and Dorothea is lonely. It is only after Casaubon’s death that Dorothea finally finds happiness and fulfilment with Casaubon’s cousin, Will Ladislaw.
Even here, many readers feel a sense of disappointment, believing the petulant dilettante Ladislaw to be a husband rather below Dorothea’s worth. While Dorothea is certainly happy with her choice, it is hard not to feel that he is a long way down from the kind of brilliant man that Dorothea had originally hoped to devote her life to.
The other main storyline follows Mr Lydgate, a young, arrogant and ambitious doctor. Lydgate has visions of greatly advancing the practice of medicine by using modern methods. However, after some initial successes, his abrasive manner alienates a conservative medical establishment and their patients.
Worse still, Lydgate, like Dorothea, makes an unfortunate marriage to Rosamond Vincy, a young and very attractive lady, who turns out to be a spoilt and wilful wife. As Lydgate’s debts mount, he soon finds that his wife is no helpmate in the face of his woes, and an attempt to borrow money from his patron, Bulstrode, proves to be disastrous.
Bulstrode is a very successful businessman and self-righteous cleric. However, he is also despised for his careerism and sanctimony by the people of Middlemarch. This proves additionally unfortunate when a seedy man from his past emerges, and proceeds to blackmail him for making money from seedy and unlawful businesses in his youth. When the revolting blackmailer Raffles falls ill, Bulstrode is deliberately negligent in administering the medical instructions provided by Lydgate, and Raffles dies. As this coincides with Bulstrode’s loan to Lydgate, both men are soon under a cloud of ill rumour, and they are obliged to leave Middlemarch and eke out less satisfying lives elsewhere.
A final variation on the theme is offered by Fred Vincy, Rosamond’s brother. Fred is well-educated, destined for the church, and in love with the plain Mary Garth. Unfortunately, he is also something of a wastrel, raising gaming debts and relying on the potential inheritance of his eccentric and unpleasant uncle, Mr Featherstone.
In the event, Fred is disinherited by Featherstone’s will, and no longer has the fortune he counted on for his future. This story has a happier ending than the others. While Fred does not inherit the life of ease that he desired, he is redeemed by a life of work when he agrees to assist Mary’s father in managing the local estates. From here, he is able to balance of life of adequate income and worthwhile activity, as well as winning the hand of his beloved Mary.
What is notable about the lives of failure and underachievement here is that they apply to other less likely characters too. Casaubon is as much an underachiever as Dorothea, and Rosamond’s aspirations are just as little met as Lydgate’s. These qualities might suggest that Middlemarch is a depressing book, but it is certainly not that. It is often sad, and the final result will not satisfy those who demand very happy endings to their literature.
However, while the book is about under-achievement, it offers the hopeful note that some can rise from under it to make some modest achievements. Those who fail are people such as Casaubon, who is inflexible and lacking in sensitivity to others, or Bulstrode, who has built his position up on a rotten edifice. Some such as Lydgate only achieve a partial success because they are brought down by their own failings and bad luck. Those who succeed are the adaptable ones. Dorothea makes a better marriage the second time around. Even her first admirer James Chettam simply transfers his affections to Dorothea’s sister. Fred Vincy too is able to find a vocation that is better suited for his talents.
The remarkable thing about the stories is their lack of dramatic incident. This is a book in which the events around Bulstrode and Raffles seem overwrought, and yet even these are mild by Victorian standards. This is perhaps the reason why Virginia Woolf famously called Middlemarch “one of the few English novels written for adult people”.
This is certainly a high compliment, though it also carries with it some of the limitations that this implies. Other books may have more child-like qualities, but this also allows them the chance for more variety and fun, whereas Middlemarch is mostly austere and dignified. Even the prose is often old-maidenly and verbose.
The other difficulty with an adult book is that sometimes it is almost a little too fairly balanced. Eliot has compassion for everyone, and a willingness to see their side. This can be seen in the way that she applies the epithet ‘poor’ to almost all of her suffering characters, even Rosamond and Casaubon. Notably she never applies it to the hypocritical Bulstrode, but she does present his dilemma in terms that are not without some sympathy.
Where the balance causes difficulty is when it confuses the story’s apparent motives. When Lydgate passes over the worthy Farebrother for a clerical position, Eliot shows his dilemma in such detail that it risks glossing over the fact that Lydgate has passed over the better man for purely political reasons.
A bigger problem lies with Dorothea’s marriage to Casaubon. In the early parts of the novel, there are passages that defend Dorothea’s decision so strongly that we might almost wonder if this is going to be a happy marriage. To get a glimpse of Eliot’s real intention, we have to look in other places – the future story development of the marriage of the Casaubons, the unkind remarks that the other characters make about Casaubon, and the pointed verses (some famous, some self-penned) that Eliot appends to the chapters.
However, the adult approach mostly works in allowing balance and consideration. We may also admire Eliot’s detailed knowledge and understanding of her world. She describes the historical setting of the book very well, allowing for a few errors as one might expect in an age before Google and microfiche. She also demonstrates an understanding of society and the workplace that is rare in Victorian literature. This is all the more surprising that a female writer who had less access to the workplace should do better than most male writers. This can be seen in her intelligent allusions to the workings of Lydgate’s medical practice.
At first glance, one might be forgiven for wondering if Middlemarch is a conservative work. The do-gooders such as Dorothea and Lydgate are doomed to fail. Progressives such as Bulstrode, and reformers, such as Dorothea’s father, are canting and insincere, their private practices contrasting with their apparent principles. Meanwhile the most virtuous character in the book is the land agent, Caleb Garth, a man who is stolid and steady.
Garth may be those things, but he is also an innovator on the estates he manages, and he is an ordinary working man who has chosen to live in poverty for much of his life, rather than seek better opportunities or take all the money that he could earn. He is the most grounded and earthy character in the book, and achieves a greater level of self-actualisation than any other.
In fact a closer look at George Eliot’s life gives us a glimpse of where her values lay. Eliot was a progressive woman. She flirted with radical politics, was a freethinker, and lived with a married man in an open relationship. She was certainly no stereotypical Victorian lady.
Indeed, Eliot’s portrayal of women in the book could be seen as feministic. Casaubon believes that he can find a dutiful wife, but he overlooks the fact that Dorothea has a spirit of her own, and it is this which causes their marriage to hit a crisis. For men too, marriage is not always happy. Lydgate marries Rosamond, expecting a docile and pretty doll-like wife. However, while Rosamond may be shallow and selfish, she is also very wilful, and Lydgate is shocked when he discovers that his wife will go her own way, and disobey his injunctions when it suits her.
Indeed, Middlemarch casts a scathing eye over the institution of marriage. Normally the point in a book where the characters live happily ever after, this time the marriages of the two leading characters only lead them into greater misery. Lydgate never fully emerges from this, and Dorothea is fortunate in marrying an older man who soon dies. The Bulstrodes too represent a marriage in crisis, with the husband hiding great secrets from his wife, including his appalling behaviour towards his previous wife. There is some consolation in her decision to stand by her disgraced husband though.
There are images of happier marriages though. Fred (sensible man) yields to his strong-willed wife, and the Garths and Chettams live a happy existence. Dorothea is able to make a better marriage the second time around. Notably these marriages all bear fruit, whereas the Casaubons, the Lydgates and the Bulstrodes do not have children.
This dim view of marriage suggests an unconventional attitude towards morality, and Eliot emerges as no great fan of the church. Dorothea and Ladislaw profess to have some kind of religious belief, but this seems to be one closer to deism than conventional Christianity. The clergymen in the book are not always portrayed well. Casaubon lacks the warmth and sympathy needed for the job, and retreats into his books. Bulstrode is a pious liar and hypocrite who is exposed. Farebrother is a rare decent clergyman in the book, but we are told that he was ill-suited for his role, and has never been a good cleric.
Indeed, on the whole Eliot favours those who follow more worldly paths of development. Hence Dorothea moves from the stultifying world of clerical pedantry to a warm flesh-and-blood relationship with Ladislaw, and Mary Garth talks Fred Vincy out of entering into a clerical profession that would be unsuitable for his talents.
When Eliot calls the book ‘A Study in Provincial Life’, she might almost mean this negatively. As has often been noted, Middlemarch is a historical novel. By setting it in the past, Eliot is able to expose the hollowness of conservative provincial life. We see the characters opposing all the major progressive changes of the age – better medical practices, the Reform Act, the railways, ones which were now widely accepted in Eliot’s day, and we may infer that this is how Eliot feels about contemporary parochial values too.
Indeed the failure of Dorothea and Lydgate to achieve as much good as they hoped should not be seen as a point in their disfavour. Their ideals are noble, even if they do not fully realise them. Dorothea is able to set in place reforms on James Chettam’s estate, even if she does not have the privilege of marrying Chettam and personally assisting with them. Instead Chettam is left to manage the estate with a less interested wife.
Dorothea also offers welcome patronage to the new hospital, and it is here that Lydgate does much to promote his new progressive ideas of medical practice. While these do not go down well in Middlemarch, he makes a good living later on and makes some modest gains, even though he counts his life as a failure. At any rate, his principles lived on to become common practice.
Notably the people who are most despised and impeded in narrow-minded Middlemarch are the outsiders – Lydgate, Bulstrode and Ladislaw – yet they are the people who do most to add life and variety to the town, moving it to a new progressive age. Ladislaw may seem an inadequate hero to many, but it is possible that Eliot admired his qualities very much. He is an artist, and a political reformer, who ardently follows points of principle.
Indeed like George Henry Lewes (Eliot’s lover) Ladislaw has an unconventional attitude towards marriage that is extraordinary for a Victorian novel. He spends most of the book in love with a married woman, and devotes a certain amount of time to flirting with another married woman. This may not win him many points with Victorian (or even modern) readers, but it is possible that Eliot was more sympathetic, given her private circumstances.
While Middlemarch was not always critically appreciated at the time, its reputation has grown steadily over the years. This reputation is deserved, as it is one of the greatest novels ever written. ...more
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Few great books can have inspired two other great works of literature that were written for the purpose of ridiculing it. There can also be few works of literature that helped to inspire another author of conservative leanings to contribute towards o
Few great books can have inspired two other great works of literature that were written for the purpose of ridiculing it. There can also be few works of literature that helped to inspire another author of conservative leanings to contribute towards one of the greatest innovations in English literature. However, this was to be the fate of Pamela, an epistolary novel by Samuel Richardson, which was to provide the springboard for the two works of Henry Fielding contained in this book.
Richardson’s novel comprises a series of letters written by a chaste and virtuous servant called Pamela Andrews who resists the attempts to seduce her, sometimes forcibly, by her employer, Mr B. The book was a huge success in its day and its puritanical morals were greatly admired. It also proved to be an important landmark in the development of the British novel, a medium that barely existed at the time.
However, there was a backlash by a number of writers who sought to expose the book’s annoyingly priggish and hypocritical morality, and the most memorable works were by Henry Fielding. The first of Fielding’s large-scale works satirising Pamela was called Shamela and this was a short and brilliantly scathing work that followed the basic narrative drive of Pamela whilst subverting it.
In this version of events, we learn that Pamela’s real name was Shamela, and that Mr B was known as Lord Booby. The work is preceded by the letters of a shocked member of the clergy who has discovered Shamela’s true character and proceeds to lay out the letters that she really wrote in order to expose her.
Lord Booby proves to be an appropriate name, as Fielding’s work depicts him as the victim, and Shamela as the predator. Here Shamela is seen as a corrupt and flighty Miss, conducting a secret affair with a clergyman, and deliberately withholding her ‘Vartue’ (virtue) from Lord Booby as a device to lure the lusty aristocrat into marrying her since this is the only means by which he can persuade her to satisfy his desires.
Indeed it has been suggested that Fielding’s work is merely another way of looking at the same events as Pamela, but with a more cynical eye. It is certainly true that in Pamela the heroine is willing to hold out on her virtue until she receives an offer of marriage, at which point her seducer suddenly becomes a desirable husband. Hence Pamela’s chastity, like that of Shamela, is a commodity that can be bought with the right offer and her pretences to virtue are a mere humbug.
Of course Richardson never intended this reading although there are passages in Pamela, which suggest an uneasy awareness of this possible interpretation. Shamela merely strips away the layers of hypocritical virtue and shows us the economic calculation beneath. It is funny, crudely vulgar and unsubtle, but this makes it the perfect antidote to the solemnly virtuous prosings of Richardson’s work.
However Fielding did not stop there. Indeed Pamela even inspired Fielding to take Richardson on in the field on novel-writing, and in the process Fielding was to make a major contribution to the development of English Literature, almost by way of a knee-jerk reaction to Richardson’s novel.
The satire against Pamela continued into Joseph Andrews, Fielding’s first novel. The hero as his name suggests is a brother to Pamela, and indeed we see him writing to Pamela. Later Pamela and Lord Booby (as Fielding continues to call him) make an appearance in the book and Pamela is notably down on the idea of Joseph marrying beneath him, even though she has also married out of her class. Hence she is once more seen as hypocritical and negative.
However, the emphasis of Fielding’s humour here is on Joseph, who begins the book as Pamela in reverse. This time the book follows a virtuous footman scorning the advances of Lady Booby, and a number of other lusty women who seek to take his virtue. By changing the gender around, Fielding has a good deal of fun since the idea of a man protecting his honour against female seducers seems obviously more ludicrous, and serves to further render the ideas in Richardson’s novels as silly.
However one of the curious aspects of Joseph Andrews (and later Tom Jones, Fielding’s greatest novel) is that Fielding’s attitudes towards chastity are not as diametrically opposed to Richardson’s as they first appear. Joseph Andrews may appear ludicrous in his emphasis on ‘honour’ and virtue, but it seems likely that Fielding supports Joseph in his pursuit of virtue. He is similarly concerned with Fanny’s attempts to prevent herself from being raped by a number of male characters.
The female characters in the book who act without chastity are often portrayed in a bad light. Lady Booby and Mrs Slipslop are unpleasant women who are unscrupulous and immoral in other ways, and not only in their willingness to seduce Joseph. The servant Betty provides us with a better model. She is the only person to help the stricken Joseph after he is robbed. However after an unsuccessful attempt to seduce Joseph, she instead sleeps with her employer and loses her place. Her actions only lead to trouble too therefore.
This tells us more about the emphasis of Fielding’s concern with chastity, male and female. Fielding does believe in the importance of chastity, male and female. He is sympathetic to Joseph’s wish to save himself for his sweetheart, Fanny Goodwill, and he is therefore right not to complicate his life through infidelities with his corrupt employer, Mrs Slipslop or the good-hearted but flighty Betty (who has already had a bout of venereal disease).
Another model of acting without sexual restraint lies in the story of Mr Wilson, a man who led a wild life and had a number of involvements with women before settling down happily with his wife. The other additional tale interpolated into the book deals with a jilt who leaves a decent partner for a less honourable man, and ends up unmarried as a result. There is a price to pay for immodest or flighty behaviour.
However, while Fielding shares the sense that unchastity is a sin to be avoided he clearly sets less stock on it than Richardson. For Fielding it is a mild sin and sometimes even an excess of good nature. Hence Mr Wilson is not damned forever by his early life and Betty remains one of the better characters in the book, who suffers from her lack of restraint, not from a bad nature.
It has been suggested that Fielding’s opposition to Pamela comes from conservative motives. Richardson’s book has a potentially subversive element in that it sets a servant’s honour against that of her master and ends in a resolution that involves her marrying above her station.
This may be true, but we may set against this argument the fact that Fielding himself went on to marry one of his servants. Was Fielding a hypocrite, or did he change his mind later? I think not, since Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones both show heroes who struggle against the cruelty of a society that does not allow people to marry beneath them. Fielding opts for the conservative conclusion of ensuring that discoveries are made that put the lovers back on an equal footing but the point has been made.
While Joseph Andrews certainly devotes quite a few pages to its attack on the content of Pamela, it may also been as a reaction against the style of Pamela, and in this way Fielding takes the work off in a very different direction that makes Joseph Andrews into something much more than a satire of another writer’s work. While Richardson stuck to an epistolary style, Fielding chose to write a proper connected storyline held together by a semi-omniscient narrator, rather than the potentially unreliable first person narrator of Pamela.
After the Pamela send-up in the first Book, the remainder of the novel moves on to other matters. The hero now is Parson Abraham Adams, a benign but naïve clergyman who helps Joseph and Fanny to get back home, amidst a series of picaresque misadventures in the manner of Don Quixote (whom Adams clearly resembles).
This is a very different form of novel from Pamela and it allows Fielding to turn his satirical aim at a number of other targets. By putting a parson at the centre of his book, Fielding is able to offer up his own opinions about the role of the clergy. Parson Adams is certainly a foolish man in some ways, blinded by his own good nature from seeing the wicked wrongdoings of others, easily gulled, and trying unsuccessfully to get his sermons published, even though nobody would want to buy them.
Nonetheless, Adams offers a better view of how the clergy should live and what they should preach in Fielding’s opinion. For example, Adams argues that the clergy should preach the importance of actions over faith, a doctrine contrary to some Protestant traditions. Hence while he meets a number of clergymen along the way who are selfish and refuse to help him, he remains an active and muscular Christian, sometimes literally so, as when he saves Fanny from assault.
The other important aspect of Adams’ attitude towards religion is his emphasis on the importance of a clergy that is not concerned with wealth. Adams lives in comparative poverty for most of the book, with his appearance causing others to disrespect him. Indeed he is appalled by the excesses of wealth in the church and he stands in opposition to other clerical characters in the book who have been corrupted by money and comfort.
This emphasis on the corrupting power of wealth is an important concern in Joseph Andrews and Fielding often shows us the bad behaviour of powerful and influential members of society. Lady Booby and Mrs Slipslop seek to act against Joseph and Fanny to get them expelled from the local area. A corrupt lord seeks to humiliate the travellers and to rape Fanny.
Set against this we see examples of virtue in the poor even in those from whom we may not expect to see it. I have mentioned how Betty showed kindness to Joseph when her masters would not. Similarly when Joseph is robbed and loses even his clothes, he is denied access to a Coach by ladies whose morals are more concerned with avoiding a naked man than helping a traveller in distress. It is left to the Postilion (“A Lad who hath been since transported for robbing a Hen-roost” as Fielding informs us in parenthesis) to provide Joseph with a cloak. Later when Adams fails to get help from the wealthy clergyman Trulliber he is helped instead by a Pedlar. The wealthy are frequently corrupt, Fielding says, and the poor are frequently virtuous.
This can also be seen in Fielding’s depiction of the law in Joseph Andrews. Fielding was an enthusiastic advocate for the law and he even contributed to the establishment of the Bow Street Runners, an organisation that set the model for the later establishment of a police force. The world of Joseph Andrews is one where the law cannot be counted on. The man who robs Joseph is able to escape justice by bribing a constable.
Later when Adams saves Fanny from rape, the two of them only narrowly escape being prosecuted by her attacker, who is taking advantage of a self-important and biased judge. Later still Joseph and Fanny face the ire of the law again for no greater offence than the trumped up charge of picking a twig, when Lady Booby wishes to act against them.
Fielding does not advocate any significant change to the law here. He may make pious assertions about the vanity of wealth or the virtue of poverty, but he is not seriously proposing to change the social system. He identifies the injustice of the class system in preventing marriages, but does not offer any serious suggestion that this is wrong. At best he suggests ameliorative changes.
However, any conservative of imagination cannot help undermining the very values they defend. The conservative who lacks compassion is likely to leave the reader unsympathetic to the hard values they propose. A compassionate and empathic conservative cannot help leaving us with a sense that this is a dangerous world in need of more reform than the writer perhaps intends us to see.
Fielding belongs to the latter group. He may defend the system of which he is part, but the world that he portrays in Joseph Andrews is corrupt to the core with innocent people constantly at risk of being robbed, raped or imprisoned, falling foul of both criminals and the law, whilst the wealthy are free to engage in corrupter sins.
Similarly whilst Fielding promotes good Christian values, we do not have a sense that this is a world in which those values truly prevail. They do in the book but only by virtue of Fielding’s god-like power as a narrator which piles on enough contrivances to rescue our heroes. We know that if this was reality, the injustices would not be so addressed. Hence it is only the indulgence of Fielding that allows a Holy Fool like Parson Adams to escape the full consequences of his gullibility.
Fielding and Richardson sought to establish two different styles of book writing that were to influence future generations of novelists. It is often felt that Richardson won the battle for the future, with a style of writing that laid more on characterisation, seriousness of purpose and a concentrated storyline.
It is certainly true that Fielding’s style is not always easy for the modern reader to appreciate. There are some aspects of style that make this so. Fielding follows the offputting habit still prevalent in Germany of capitalising every noun, and he does not divide paragraphs in the modern style, so we need to read long paragraphs in which the dialogue of several characters is incorporated, sometimes without quotations marks.
Other aspects that make Fielding sometimes unappealing is his use of broad and vulgar humour and lashings of unsubtle irony, which contrasts with his use of very learned and classical allusions, gained from an education that people no longer receive nowadays. Fielding’s characters also have little depth. We remember nothing of Joseph Andrews except his priggish focus on honour. After that he becomes so bland and generic a hero that we hardly notice him. The other characters are similarly defined by only one or two characteristics.
However, there are aspects of Fielding’s tradition of writing that have survived the test of time better. There have been plenty of picaresque and journey novels since, and many works are written via an omnipotent, omniscient narrator controlling events, though not always with the benevolence of Fielding. His abandonment of the epistolary style in favour of a clearer narrative, interspersed with other narrative devices, is also closer to the modern novel than that of Richardson’s, not to mention his abandonment of the other writer’s Puritanical standards of moral virtue.
While both writers have their merits, I do not personally have much relish for Richardson’s proselytising and I prefer the vulgar warmth and humanity of Fielding. ...more
Dec 27, 2016 09:46AM · like · see review · preview book
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H G Wells might be said to be the author of the common man. This description may seem extraordinary since he is mostly famous for writing about extraordinary events. However while Wells’ sci-fi is often the tale of extraordinary things happening to o
H G Wells might be said to be the author of the common man. This description may seem extraordinary since he is mostly famous for writing about extraordinary events. However while Wells’ sci-fi is often the tale of extraordinary things happening to ordinary men, his social comedies concern very ordinary things happening to ordinary men.
This statement needs to be qualified. There are some very extraordinary and unusual occurrences in Kipps and The History of Mr Polly, Wells’ two similar works of social comedy. However, there is nothing supernatural or other-worldly in the adventures of these two absurd anti-heroes, merely a series of unusual twists are not completely outside the realm of genuine human experience.
Also while Polly and Kipps are ordinary men, they do not always remain so in station. They begin with a lowly position as a draper’s apprentice, but they never experience desperate levels of poverty and unemployment. Also both are soon elevated to a higher position by the inheritance of money, and they buy shops.
The similarities begin to stop there however. For Kipps, the ownership of a bookshop is a happy ending that frees him from the mundane and restrictive lifestyle imposed on him by his wealth. For Polly, the shop only leaves him trapped even further, a timid but imaginative man who married poorly, and who is now constantly struggling against the threat of bankruptcy whilst all the other shops around him go out of business or reopen as new shops.
This is the fate of our hero for most of the book, an unhappy dyspeptic man who longs for a better life, but is crippled by financial worries and stifled by the conventional values of his time which impose the straitjacket of dreary domesticity, and leave the dreamer with unfulfilled wishes and aspirations.
This is no place for the dreamy or creative mind, as we see when Polly’s friend Parsons is dismissed from his job after adopting a new approach to dressing the window in the drapery. Polly retreats into the world of romantic books, and has a tendency towards using flowery and silly language, made up of phrases that the poorly-educated shop owner does not really understand.
However, Wells expresses his belief that it is still possible for people to change their lives if they choose, and Polly eventually does this. He first makes a bungled attempt at suicide that only results in him setting his shop and the neighbouring shops on fire. Nobody is killed and Polly even heroically rescues an old lady who lives next door. However, even with the insurance money received from this, he is left in the same position.
So Polly simply runs away and goes to live in the countryside. Here he finds work and friendship with a plump innkeeper, but he is obliged to fight several absurd battles with a ruffian who is related to the innkeeper, and believes that he has prior claim over her establishment. Once again, even in heroism Polly is comically ordinary. Nonetheless he has earned his place in the sun, and can live the rest of his life in peace, in this admittedly idealised countryside.
The age in which H G Wells lived does of course impose some restrictions on the fate of Mr Polly. There is certainly no suggestion of a sexual involvement between the married Polly and the innkeeper, and they remain friends at the end of the book. Polly certainly will not commit bigamy and marry her either. It is also necessary to include a scene where Polly goes to visit his wife Mariam, and is reassured that she is happier without him.
It is doubtful that Wells could have got away with affronting conventional morality with any other ending, at least not yet. It is at least a move forward that Wells was able to write a very popular and much-loved book about a man who finds a happy ending by abandoning his wife.
The History of Mr Polly reflects the socialist ideals of H G Wells, but only in a veiled manner. We catch glimpses of a more subversive world beginning to emerge around Polly. Parsons becomes a socialist, but only after he has lost touch with Polly, so there is even less room for socialist speeches than there was in Kipps. There is also a brief joking allusion to suffragism.
The nearest that we come to polemic is when Wells includes a couple of passages from a cynical anonymous writer (obviously meant to be Wells himself) deploring the fate of badly-educated men who enter into the business of shopkeeping with no knowledge of the subject, and the threat of penury not far behind.
Otherwise however, Wells’ politics are only implied by his satirical dig at the prim and soul-destroying respectability of petit-bourgeois life, and its damaging effects on the individual. As with Kipps, Wells offers no deep psychological analysis of Polly, and most of his observations are about the outside of the man, rather than his inner workings. We are invited to laugh at Polly, but also to feel pity for his position. There is however enough of the Everyman about Polly’s place in life to allow most readers to feel some kind of identification with him.
The History of Mr Polly is a charming work about a world long gone by. However, there is still enough about the foibles of his characters to ensure that the book has some pertinence for the readers of today and tomorrow. ...more
Dec 17, 2016 08:53AM · 1 like · like · see review · preview book
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*This review contains spoilers throughout.
Arthur Conan Doyle was a remarkable man in many ways. He was a popular writer. He was a doctor. He was a footballer and cricketer. He was a political campaigner, and stood for election twice. He even engaged *This review contains spoilers throughout.
Arthur Conan Doyle was a remarkable man in many ways. He was a popular writer. He was a doctor. He was a footballer and cricketer. He was a political campaigner, and stood for election twice. He even engaged in some amateur sleuthing of his own, though his results were hardly as brilliant as some articles on the subject make out.
However, Conan Doyle was also a silly man in other respects. He was fascinated by spiritualism, and was duped by many psychics. He even wrote a fictional novel called The Land of Mist that was blatant propaganda in support of spiritualism.
In the circumstances we have to be thankful that the only two Sherlock Holmes stories that deal with seemingly supernatural events (The Hound of the Baskervilles, and the short story, ‘The Sussex Vampire’) turn out to have rational explanations behind them.
The Hound of the Baskervilles is the book in which Dr Watson has the most prominent role, and he is even left to do a certain amount of amateur sleuthing on his own. Sherlock Holmes gives him a dry run in the first chapter when a client leaves his walking stick behind, and Holmes asks Watson to apply Holmes’ methods to make deductions about its owner.
Of course Watson does not get all the details right, though more than Holmes gives him credit for. Rather damningly tough, the practising doctor even fails to recognise the initials of a London hospital on the stick. Holmes is left to pay Watson the back-handed compliment of being a useful companion for illuminating the facts for Holmes, rather than being good at deducing things for himself.
The client who owns the stick is Dr Mortimer, who brings an extraordinary tale to Baker Street. After discussing the legend of a supernatural hound that killed an ancestor of the Baskerville family, prominent gentry in the area, Mortimer describes how Sir Charles, the owner of Baskerville Hall was found dead with the prints of a giant hound close by.
Mortimer fears for the safety of the new owner, Sir Henry Baskerville who has travelled from America to take charge of the estate. It soon becomes evident that human agents are involved. Sir Henry is followed by a mysterious stranger, receives a letter warning him not to go to Dartmoor to take up his estate, and has his boots stolen, suggesting that someone needs his scent for a hound that is actually flesh-and-blood.
After the London investigation stalls, Watson is once again left to take the lead. Holmes claims to be busy in London, and sends Watson to Dartmoor with Sir Henry. Watson proves to be better at investigating than we might expect. Of course he cannot eclipse the famous detective by solving the murder, but he works diligently towards unravelling a number of problems.
Watson learns that the Barrymore servants are signalling to someone on the moor, and discovers that this is a dangerous escaped convict who happens to be Mrs Barrymore’s brother. Watson traces down Mrs Laura Lyons, a married woman estranged from a brutal husband, who arranged to see Sir Charles Baskerville on the night of his mysterious death. Finally Watson pursues a second mysterious stranger who he saw on the tor one night. Watson successfully finds the stranger’s hideout in an abandoned hut, but discovers to his chagrin and relief that it is none other than Sherlock Holmes.
Holmes reveals that he has been investigating on his own so that he could allow two lines of enquiry and not put the murderer on his guard. Holmes reveals the murderer to be Sir Henry’s neighbour, a naturalist called Stapleton. To make matters worse, Stapleton’s supposed sister (to whom Sir Henry has formed a romantic attachment) is really Stapleton’s wife, and is being used to decoy Sir Henry on the moor so that he can be killed by the hound.
After a brief false alarm when the hound brings about the death of the convict in mistake for Sir Henry, Holmes sets about drawing his nets around Stapleton. He persuades Sir Henry to visit the Stapletons at night, knowing that Stapleton will turn the hound loose on Sir Henry. However, even Holmes, Watson and Inspector Lestrade are not prepared for the sight of a hound with a fiery glow around it (actually phosphorous). They shoot the hound and Stapleton flees the detectives, but in the dark and mist he perishes by falling into the Grimpen Mire.
The plot is the most complex of any Sherlock Holmes novel, and Arthur Conan Doyle had help in designing its structure. Indeed, it was not intended to be a Sherlock Holmes story at all. Conan Doyle had killed the detective off eight years earlier, and only put the detective in this story as an afterthought. (Two years later he was to bring Sherlock Holmes back to life and offer an explanation for his apparent death.) Perhaps this change of mind on Conan Doyle’s part explains why Holmes is missing from the middle of this book.
What we have is a perfect meld of all kinds of elements – a legend about a supernatural hound, a fierce convict on the moors, a calculating and brutal murderer, an unworthy woman seeking a divorce from her husband, the horror of the treacherous Grimpen Mire, and the detective work of Holmes and Watson. Never were all the ingredients put together so well.
The reader may feel surprise that the name of the murderer is revealed several chapters before the end. However, Conan Doyle was not writing a whodunit, but a crime story, and the conventions of the whodunit had not yet solidified. In any case, Conan Doyle keeps a few surprises up his sleeve, including a fiery hound and a gruesome demise for his villain.
Turning to Conan Doyle’s choice to offer a rational explanation for the supposedly supernatural elements, we may ask why this should be, since Conan Doyle was a less sceptical man than his famous hero. It is not as if Conan Doyle was above using favourite fictional characters to plug his spiritualist views. In The Land of Mist, he employed Professor Challenger (hero of a few of Conan Doyle’s earlier stories to cynically try to sell more copies of his fictional work on spiritualism. So why not The Hound of the Baskervilles?
There are a few differences here. Firstly whilst Professor Challenger appeared in some well-known Conan Doyle books, he did not capture the hearts and imagination of the general public in the way that Sherlock Holmes did. It would have been a riskier task for Conan Doyle to use his biggest cash cow in a manner that might permanently alienate the general public. It would also have run counter to the whole rationalist spirit of the Sherlock Holmes stories established so far.
Secondly, while Conan Doyle may have had some beliefs in spiritualism there are levels of credulity. Belief in the use of psychics does not mean that you need to also believe in legends about ghostly murdering hounds. It is possible to believe in the first, but not the second. Conan Doyle may have been foolish in some of his beliefs, but he was no idiot.
The use of a dark family curse based on the sins of the older generation could have lent Conan Doyle the chance to make comments about heredity, or the sinful nature of the aristocracy. Indeed Conan Doyle frequently adds colour to the book by throwing in allusions to the stone age dwellers who used to live on the moor in the past, as if to suggest some atavistic concept of human actions.
However, while there is some evidence of the corrupt blood of the ancestral Baskerville in Stapleton, who turns out to be a relative, Conan Doyle was not the man to denigrate the ruling classes. His treatment of the late Sir Charles and the current Sir Henry is always respectful.
Watson describes Sir Henry in flattering language throughout, and it is made clear that having a Baskerville in the area is actually necessary for the good of the local economy. Even Sir Henry’s involvement with Stapleton’s wife is innocent. He is unaware of her marriage, and shows restraint and courtesy in his courting, rather than licentiousness or force.
Conan Doyle’s hiatus in writing the Holmes stories proved dividends, and he returned to his famous detective with new life. The Hound of the Baskervilles is the best Sherlock Holmes story, and one of the best detective works in the whole of fiction. ...more
Dec 17, 2016 05:35AM · like · see review · preview book
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