Friday, July 16, 2010

Rider Haggard the Divorce Lawyer?

While reading for the bar in England in the early 1880s, H. Rider Haggard started writing novels (imitating one of his brothers who'd done the same as family entertainment). He published Dawn (1884) and The Witch's Head (1885), made a total of £50 on the both of them (historian Thomas Pocock dismisses these early Haggardian domestic fictions as "potboilers"), and upon these financial failures, returned perhaps more eagerly to the study of the law. Prior to hitting the scene as "King Romance" with the publication of King Solomon's Mines (1885) and She (1887), Haggard was preparing for a career in the newly consolidated Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division of the High Court. During this period, he also did some reporting on probate and divorce cases. He mentions a "celebrated" divorce case in his 1882 history Cetywayo & His White Neighbor. The Probate and Divorce Courts also figure in Beatrice and more prominently in Mr. Meeson's Will. For this Vic-geek, it's an interesting mental parlor game to imagine Haggard as a divorce lawyer. Make it anachronistic, and have Haggard help George Henry Lewes divorce his wife and make an honest woman of George Eliot! The biographers all claim he was preoccupied with his first love, "Lily," that he may have had an (emotional?) affair with an Agnes Someone, and that he was rather dissatisfied with his wife Louie--the mother of, among other children, daughters Lilias and Agnes... ahem. I wonder if Haggard was as preoccupied with divorce as he was with disinheritance (a common theme in his domestic fictions)?

In other news, I found this amusingly acrid review by Harold Collins of Peter Ellis' 1980 biography of Haggard in Research in African Literatures. Collins is charmingly obnoxious on how Ellis reinvents much of what Morton Norton Cohen had to say in his 1961 bio. Then Collins gives us this pronouncement on the eternally debated question of Haggard's literary immortality (involving Haggard's alleged choice of popularity over artistry, pace Cohen):
Some recent rereading of Haggard suggests that it would not be too severe to conceive of Haggard as a TV scriptwriter before his time--fertile in imagination, able to pop out piquant situations at will but unable or unwilling to get rid of inconsistencies, implausibilities, incongruities, vulgarities, and other such literary dross. Read, for instance, the scene in Nada the Lily, in which the drugged baby hidden in the witch doctor's medicine bag is almost discovered by its bloodthirsty father who wants it killed. It's vrai Haggard.
Er, Rider Haggard as scriptwriter for Lost? Dexter? Weeds? Yeah, I can see it.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

file under: Posts I'm In Love With

When I moved into current residence, dozens of boxes of books came with me. Because I did not think I would live here that long, I left many boxes unopened in the basement. Books In Basement have undergone a dark life parallel to and completely divorced from Books Above Ground: they've survived flooding, rat infestation, and the twin plagues of negligence and inadequate sorting. Consequently, Books In Basement have come to resent me, and especially have come to loathe Books Above Ground. BIB and BAG can hardly coexist on the same dining room table without hurling insults back and forth. Periodically, I have to go down into the basement to locate a particular book. This entails heaving boxes around, sneezing, and lots swearing. Last week it was Dombey and Son. Success! Once I finish reading it, integrating Dombey and Son into the gated community where Books Above Ground are shelved will be challenging. Shelving real estate Above Ground is already over-crowded. And, as this post by the little professor reveals, neglected books grow recalcitrant. They're impossible to live with, but it's impossible to live without them.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Cranford read-along: chapters 9-16

Here we have Prada's take on the green turban, circa 2007. It's kind of pretty in a Grey Gardens sort of crazy. In Gaskell's Cranford, Miss Matty asks the narrator to find her a sea-green turban in town, and she is quite disappointed when the narrator fails to deliver one.

I have finished re-reading Cranford for the read-along at A Literary Odyssey, and I'm re-charmed by it, though rather hard-pressed to analyze it. One thing has occurred to me, and this won't be surprising to anyone who's read the rest of my blog: where is the marriage plot? Apart from other formal discrepancies, Cranford cannot be deemed a domestic novel in part due to the striking absence of a sustained representation of courtship brought to completion. The most likely candidate for such a plot would be Mary Smith, the narrator, an eligible young woman of agreeable background and surprising mobility (she "vibrates" between the nearby manufacturing town of Drumble and the backwater that is Cranford). Is Mary destined to be a spinster?

During my convalescence, apart from starting various sewing projects, I've been reading Kelly Hager's new book, Dickens and the Rise of Divorce: The Failed-Marriage Plot and the Novel Tradition. Hager quite persuasively argues that the "rise of the novel" (cf. Ian Watt) was characterized as much by failed-marriage narratives as by courtship narratives. I love her argument because it's terribly true: so many many Victorian novels represent horrible marriages and seem to argue in favor of legal separation or divorce, the right of wives to own property, the right of mothers to have legal custody over their young children should they achieve a separation from the father, and so on. Hager provides a thorough, though succinct, summary of such novels in the first chapter of her book before diving into half a dozen Dickens novels as her particular case study. Reading this concurrently has re-focused my attention on marriage--or the lack thereof--in Cranford.

All we get in Gaskell's little novella is a sustained and amusing suspicion expressed about marriage by the old spinsters and bachelors of Cranford, punctuated by two of the happiest unions imaginable achieved by some unlikely figures. Behold the evidence:
  1. Miss Matty and Mr Holbrook's sadly aborted courtship (the humble yeoman is deemed unsuitable for the supposedly higher-born Miss Matty by her father and elder sister).
  2. Mrs. Jamieson is more distraught at the death of her dog Carlo than she was when her husband passed: "indeed, Miss Pole said, that as the Honourable Mr. Jamieson drank a good deal, and occasioned her much uneasiness, it was possible that Carlo's death might be the greater affliction" (144).
  3. Mr. Hayter, the rector, fears matrimony. At a public event, he is seen "guarded by troops of his own sex from any approach of the many Cranford spinsters." Mary explains, "He was an old bachelor, but as afraid of matrimonial reports getting abroad about him as any girl of eighteen" (136).
  4. Miss Pole congratulates Miss Matty "that so far they had escaped marriage" (156).
  5. The genteel (i.e. penniless) widow Lady Glenmire marries beneath her station--marries Mr. Hoggins the surgeon. Miss Pole waxes acidic about the mésalliance: "She has married for an establishment, that's it. I suppose she takes the surgery with it" (167). We are not privy to the details of the courtship. The ladies of Cranford do not choose "to sanction the marriage by congratulating either of the parties" until they know if the union is to be approved by touchy Mrs. Jamieson (169).
  6. Finally, the best example of marriage in the book, one engineered among/by the servants in order to "save" Miss Matty from destitution. When Miss Matty loses most of her annual income--and thus her ability to pay rent--in a failed joint-stock situation, her faithful servant Martha officially introduces her beau, Jem: "'please, ma'am, he wants to marry me off-hand. And please, ma'am, we want to take a lodger--just one quiet lodger to make our two ends meet'" (188). Jem makes the near-fatal mistake of audibly hestitating:
  7. 'It's that you've taken me all on a sudden, and I didn't think for to get married so soon--and such quick work does flabbergast a man. It's not that I'm against it, ma'am ... only Martha has such quick ways with her, when once she takes a thing into her head; and marriage, ma'am--marriage nails a man, as one may say. I daresay I shan't mind it after it's once over.' (188)
    Miss Matty proceeds to remind the two lower-class lovebirds that "marriage is a very solemn thing" while Jem reiterates that "a man likes to have breathing-time" and that he's "a bit fluttered by being pushed straight a-head into matrimony" (189). It would be understatement to say that the arrangement of her own marriage by a female servant in order to save her boss from homelessness is a rather topsy-turvy event for a Victorian story. But Gaskell's overall tone of irony and levity throughout Cranford indicate that this is not any serious intervention into the sacred institution. We are left with the image of Mary and Miss Matty talking late into the night about "the chances and dangers of matrimony" (190). I wish we could hear exactly what they said, but Gaskell--whose other novels mostly do incorporate happy courtship plots--seems to lack imagination when it comes to this subject.

Note: my edition of Cranford dates from 1905 (I think), published in New York by Grosset & Dunlap, and contains illustrations after H. Thomson.