The Aesthetic Retreat

Aestheticism and Romanticism have a lot in common: the rejection of materialism in general, an emphasis on sensibility and imagination, the quest for that striking, unforgettable emotion that gives meaning to life and more. There are many similarities, for sure, but the Romantics had a distinctive optimistic feature: they were dreamers and revolutionaries at the same time.They believed in the power of poetry and in particular in the mission of the artist, a super sensitive genius, whose task was to defend man’s natural sensibility, which they felt was about to be worn away by the values expressed by the new industrial and capitalistic society.

Their ambition was to talk to the heart of men, any man, however, if they wanted to reach a wider public, the dominant taste of the time would not do for the purpose. That is why Romantic poetry became a “bourgeois” sort of poetry, as it was purged of all classic refinements, thus losing its aristocratic trait and with a selection of a new simple language which made accessible to anybody  the poet’s message. As their noble minds were fueled by the inspiring principles of the French Revolution, they aimed at fighting against conformism, indifference, ignorance but very soon, when that revolutionary wind weakened, the artists started to question: must art have a purpose of some kind? Must artists pursue goals different from giving life and form to their creative inspiration? A Romantic poet like Keats had developed pretty soon another opinion about it, in fact, in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” he had clearly stated that art has only one goal : beauty. He even reinforced the concept adding : “That is all… Ye need to know“, thus anticipating the Aesthetic creed.

For the Aesthetes, in fact, those people, whose hearts the Romantics wanted to touch with their lines, resembled the crew of Baudelaire‘s poem: Albatros, that is, hopelessly rude, ignorant, insensitive. A poet, who, like the Albatross, happens to descend among them, cannot but become the martyr of common ignorance and blindness. In his flight the poet/Albatross is magnificent and elegant with his vast wings, he is “the prince of sky and clouds“, but when the men of the crew catch him and place him on the deck, well, everything changes. The bird has to walk now, seems to have lost all the confidence he had before, thus becoming pathetic,clumsy, ashamed and those beautiful wings which used to take him up to the sky, now seem like oars that drag him down. This fallen angel has become so gauche and weak that appears to be like a cripple.The men show no pity, but rather, they sneer at him.

The poet/Albatross belongs to the sky and he is used to facing the tempest. Only up there he is the king that laughs at the(bow)man, but when he is on the earth, when he is “exiled” among the jeering men, his wings become useless, as they “prevent him from walking“. Modern society, like the deck of that ship is no longer for poets, as it is peopled by men who do not wish to learn anything from them. Any attempt of communicative effort cannot but be destined to failure whatever the choice of language might be; they couldn’t and wouldn’t understand. Poetry, just like the wings of the Albatross, is of no use.That is why the aesthetes chose to keep on flying in their sky made of taste and beauty, thus avoiding the risk of being entrapped by men’s ignorance and violence. Art is for art’s sake and nothing more. On this point they were quite firm, as we understand reading Wilde‘s “Preface” to “The Picture of Dorian Gray“. The artist is the creator of beautiful things. Full stop. The critic should judge the form rather than the content of an art. Full stop. An artist should not pursue a didactic or moral aim. Full stop.  All art is quite useless. The end.

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Primitive Modernity

A Scene from Tristram Shandy (‘Uncle Toby and the Widow Wadman’) 1829-30, exhibited 1831 Charles Robert Leslie 1794-1859 Presented by Robert Vernon 1847 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00403

I’ve always been of the opinion that Sterne would have been wonderfully at ease with modern means of communications: his great irony and wit would have made him a great blogger, for sure, but even twitter might have been his natural scene with its short, sharp, effective messages. And how he would have enjoyed scattering emoticons here and there throughout his “The Life and Opinion of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman” only if he could, but since there was nothing of the kind at his time, he used hyphens, dashes, asterisks, crosses, symbols  with the same function. He understood, in fact, that signs had a quick and powerful impact on the mind of readers, exciting their curiosity with the effect of drawing them into the story.

This is exactly what I felt when I first read Tristram Shandy,  I was part of it. The reader, in fact, is so central that very often becomes a character among characters but without a definite script. We are invited to make drawings of the people the author doesn’t feel like describing himself, share his feelings, whether of joy or sorrow, or furthermore he demands our undivided attention whenever he pretends to say something important. All of a sudden, we find ourselves part of a fictitious world just like sometimes it happens in the stagings of some modern plays, when actors arrive from the back of the theatre, thus making you feel baffled.

The characters we have to interact with have not the typical stamp of bourgeois heroes, but they are common people like us, with dreams, passions or better hobby-horses, frustrations and disappointed hopes mostly. There is nothing relevant to say, actually. In Tristram’s life, in fact, there are not grand events to be told, but incidents that make him the hero of ordinariness. Of course, his father, just like any other father, had dreamt for his son a future made of success and glory, that’s why he wanted him to be named Hermes Trismegistus, that means not one but three times great, however, it unfortunately turned out to be Tristram only because of a misunderstanding between his father and his Uncle Toby, thus descending from the Olympus of the gods and becoming one of the many, one of us.

The bits and pieces of his life are disorderly narrated and this is the other element of Sterne’s modernity. He was the very first one to focus his attention not only on the life of his protagonist, but on his “opinions”, that is: his mind. He instinctively understood that if he wanted to deal with his mental processes, he should sacrifice the backbone of the novel structure: chronological time. It is, actually, impossible to delineate its plot. Just few examples: the preface is unusually placed in third chapter, he is the ironic judge and spectator of his own conception in the first one – and what a taboo he breaks talking about his own parents having sex -, any attempt of narration is interrupted by digressions and associations, he decides to skip from page 146 to 156 on account of missing chapter 24 – he didn’t feel like writing it –  etc.  Therefore, even if Sterne couldn’t have the support of the studies of psychoanalysis, he succeeded in representing the chaos of our mind on paper anyhow, in a rather primitive way, of course, but it allowed him to have his place among the gods of English modern novel as their forefather.

 

 

The Darkness behind the Locked Door

One of the most fascinating take on Wuthering Heights, in my opinion, is the Jungian interpretation,  which sees  Heathcliff as Catherine‘s dark side, her shadow. In the personal unconscious, the shadow consists of those desires, feelings, which are unacceptable, for both emotional or moral reasons : it is the dark side of human nature. Heathcliff represents her repressed sexuality, her unconfessed desire which, however, is arduous to control, as the shadow is impulsive, powerful, wild, and hence can become obsessive or possessive. When Catherine marries Edgar, she tries to reject that secret part of her,  that’s why Heathcliff mysteriously disappears. But Heathcliff, as the shadow, refuses to be suppressed permanently, in fact, he surfaces after two years to claim his place next to Catherine, who, despite her desperate efforts to integrate him, is eventually defeated and dies.

This paradigm can also be applied to Jane Eyre as well. In this novel the role of the shadow belongs to Bertha Mason, Mr Rochester‘s first wife. Both Bertha Mason‘s and Heathcliff‘s descriptions conform to the archetype of the shadow. Heathcliff is always portrayed as dark as a gypsy , while Bertha is a Creole, the daughter of a white European settler in the West Indies with “dark hair” and “discoloured black face“. At those time the Creoles were more associated with the native Caribbean populations than the white, civilized Europeans. Creole women were often described as obstinate, dissolute and untrustworthy, which is exactly what Rochester will tell about Bertha.

Rochester had been entrapped  in this marriage. He had been beguiled by her uncommon beauty, wealth and that Creole sensuality, but only when it is too late, he open his eyes to face the real truth: his wife is mad. Once back to England and to the strict conventions of the Victorian society he cannot but hide and lock Bertha in a remote chamber of Thornfield, thus caging his own sexuality.  Thornfield will represent for him from that moment on, what the very name foreshadows, a field, as his soul, tormented by the thorns or guilt, sexual frustration and disappointment. That’s why he is often away. Till Jane Eyre crosses his way.

The growing attachment he feels forJane will make him spend more time at Thornfield, thus it will be impossible for him to ignore his surfacing powerful shadow. As I mentioned before, the shadow cannot be repressed forever, in fact, Bertha walks the night undisturbed, her screams and hideous laughter can be heard by everybody and she even attempts at punishing Mr Rochester setting his room on fire for having been thus neglected and confined, but above all for having brought in the household the “other” woman, Jane Eyre.

 Bertha is, of course, Jane’s polar opposite but she is also her truest and darkest double. Her confinement in the attic mirrors Jane’s imprisonment in the Red Room at Gateshead, a punishment for her anger and lack of conformity. This doubling  makes Bertha’s role within the novel much more complex, and  that means that any analysis of her character must take account of her relationship with Jane. For example one night, when Jane sees Bertha  at the foot of her bed, dressed in white with a bridal veil, while she is looking in the mirror, Jane continuously repeats that she has never seen such a face. Only a few pages later, the morning of her marriage, Jane looks at herself in the mirror and says:” I saw a robed and veiled figure, so unlike my usual self that it seemed almost the image of a stranger. It is impossible not to notice that the two scenes are almost identical.

Mr Rochester‘s attempt to marry Jane is but his extreme effort to reject that contemptible part of himself and be free to live his life. But in vain. The disclosure of the truth will have as consequence the disappearance of the “good ” self, Jane, who will come back only when Bertha Mason dies, committing suicide. It is interesting to notice that Mr Rochester will be permanently injured in the endeavour of saving Bertha from the fire she had herself set. After all, as his shadow, she was part of him, therefore, letting Bertha die was just like dying himself.

 

 

 

 

 

Teaser and Seductive

It is true: when it happens to re-read a book after many years, even one that you think to know very well, it will inevitably appear under a different light. The book is just the same, but the reader has changed in sensibility and life experience, hence; words, actions unexpectedly take different forms and meanings and the novel, like a precious jewel case, opens to your mind to reveal its new treasure.

So, when I recently analyzed with my students chapter XXXVIII of Jane Eyre, I couldn’t help but noticing a tension in the book, that I had missed before and, I have to say, I quite enjoyed it. Whoever has bumped into my old articles about Jane Eyre, knows that she is not exactly my favorite heroine and not certainly one I naturally emphatize with. I have often found tedious such display of prudery, modesty and self-righteousness, however, between the lines of that chapter I could perceive a new aspect of Jane which I had totally missed.

First of all, I felt that Charlotte Bronte, through Jane, must have really had a great deal of fun ( mixed with a little degree sadism) in humiliating her Byronic hero: Mr Rochester. She tortures him slowly in this very long chapter, which apparently celebrates the re-union of the two lovers. When Jane Eyre comes back to Thorfield after a year, she only finds physical and spiritual ruins. Thorfield has been destroyed by a fire set by Mr Rochester’s wife Bertha Mason and Mr Rochester, in the attempt of rescuing her, has become lame and blind. When Jane approaches him for the first time, what she sees is only a shuttered, miserable, brooding man: a pale shadow of the man he used to be. However; after she has revealed her presence to him( which, I have to admit, is one of the most effective love scenes ever) thus giving Mr Rochester a sparkle of joy, she soon inflicts him one last terrible blow confessing that she is a rich and independent woman now.

Jane had left Thornfield a year before penniless, that is why Rochester had believed her  “dead in some ditch under some stream” or  “pining outcast amongst strangers”. Now that she has turned up rich and independent and being in such a wretched physical and mental state, he is convinced he has no longer any power on her. No more. Nevertheless, our heroine doesn’t seem to show any real mercy and keeps teasing him, in fact, right before going to sleep, somehow she hints at the presence af a man near her in the time she had been missing. The pangs of jealousy work during the night till the next morning, when the two meet again, Mr Rochester will flood a super satisfied Jane with questions on whom he perceives as his rival.

Her answers will just add pain to his tortured soul. That man is Jane’s cousin St. John Rivers, whom she describes at first as a sort of cultivated, refined, handsome Apollo with a Grecian profile too, exactly the kind of person that in that moment makes him feel undeserving of Jane’s love and attentions. At a certain point, probably feeling that this game was lasting a bit too long, Jane justifies her behaviour saying that she was doing this for his own good: to relieve him from his state of melancholy. Maybe she was right, but I could see her exultant smile between the lines. When Jane hears that Mr Rochester has been wearing  her little pearl necklace fastened round his bronze scrag under his cravat since the day he left, she cannot but triumph over the ashes of somebody who once could be rightly defined a true Byronic hero. What an end!

What is surprising in these last scenes is the sensual tension between the two lovers and it is Jane who makes the rules of the game. She is seductive. She approaches silently Mr Rochester till he feels her presence and only then she allows him to touch her fingers, her face and her entire body so that he might have the joy and the pleasure of identifying her.  Mr Rochester’s joy for having his Jane back at last is balanced by the uncertainties due to his condition and our heroine plays this bitter-sweet game as long as she can, till she eventually accepts to be his wife. From the ashes of the Byronic hero a dominant, self-confident woman is born.

 

 

Those Women !

 

 

A lot has been said and written about Mr Darcy and Mr Thornton, as no other character has been able to make vibrate the hearts of so many readers, all I dare say, to such an extent like them.These two men have often been considered quite alike, and not without reasons, in fact, I have to say that more than once, Elizabeth Gaskell seems to wink at Austen’s masterpiece in North and South. However, if we have motives to say that the two male protagonists follow quite the same pattern in the narration, the same cannot be affirmed for their wives-to-be, as they feel and act differently. Once overcome the question of prejudices according to the different settings and situations of the novels, Margaret and Elizabeth will eventually marry their chosen partners, of course, but only when we analyze closely those matches, we do understand how different the nature of the two heroines is.

I have already dealt with Miss Bennet in other posts, but I want to reiterate my interpretation having here the chance to make a comparison between characters.
Let’s start. Why does Elizabeth marry Darcy? For love? Maybe. For money? To be sure. Of course you’ll be turning up your nose at this point howling sacrilege and you would feel like reminding me the touching, explanatory letter that Darcy writes to Lizzy after he had been rejected, as the seed from which the flower of their love will grow and blossom and you would be right, but it is a seed and a very small one if compared to the sight of Pemberley. While visiting the grand house of the man she had so proudly refused, Miss Bennet is all of a sudden haunted by a thought, a fastidious fly that buzzes in her head :”I could have been mistress of all this“. That buzz does not seem to be willing to leave her. In fact, from that moment on, that hateful, disdainful, haughty, proud Mr Darcy will magically appear to her under a different, benign light and Miss Bennet will consent to be more yielding and ready to flirt. Would you call it love? Sort of.  But please, don’t get me wrong, I have the highest regard and even envy for those who manage to marry so well, I just wanted to remark that marrying Darcy with his 10.000 a year and half of Derbyshire, Elizabeth improves her station a lot and love must have found its way eventually, I am sure. The path was smooth after all.

When Margaret reunites to Mr Thornton, the latter is no longer a catch, he has lost everything (but his scowl) . Besides, Margaret in the meanwhile has become rich and has inherited Mr Thorton’s mill and house too, thus making him her insolvent tenant. This downfall reminds me of Jane Eyre’s pattern. Thornton like Mr Rochester must face the humiliation of defeat and loss. When  Margaret and Jane come to their rescue, they will do it as independent women, as even Charlotte Bronte endows her heroine with a fortune, a family and connections as well. They embody somehow a new prototype of woman, a modern character who is allowed to choose freely rather than hope to be chosen to secure status or reputation.Of course, in times when still the only way a woman could achieve a dignified and safe place in society was through marriage, an inheritance was that stroke of luck that loosed her laces and set her free. Free to marry even a man even in reduced cinrumstances like Mr Thorton that, at the time being, will have nothing to offer her but his deepest love and……..his mother’s resentment.

 

The Loss of Innocence

If one the typical characters of Jane Austen’s novels were to leave for any reason
the pampered life of a good, refined but secluded society made of balls, laces,
tittle-tattle, great expectations and shattered dreams to face the world outside,
well, very likely we would be reading one of the novels written by Elizabeth
Gaskell. Margaret Hale, the protagonist of North and South, could be in any way one
of Jane Austen’s most memorable characters : remarkably beautiful, intelligent, well
educated, young and therefore, ready to marry, but the pursue of a good match is
not the central theme here. Her perfect world will be smashed by her father’s sudden
decision to quit the church and move where the “dark satanic mills” have utterly
changed the landscape and the heart of people: the North. In Jane Austen’s books the
North has always been the remote place where the regiment was dislocated and
nothing more. There is never a hint about the profound changes the industrial
revolution was bringing about in the country. The arrival in the Northern town of
Milton will be felt by Margaret and her family as if they had been sunk into a hell
made of noise, dirt and machines. The verdant, peaceful, aristocratic South is only
a painful memory of the heaven they fear to have lost forever.

In the hell of Milton the Thorntons are the most distinguished family, and Mr Thornton is another Mr Darcy, a Darcy of the North, of course: a mill owner whose position has not been secured by breed, but by hard discipline and work .The educated but poor Margaret Hale and the rich but unrefined Mr Thornton are destined to follow the same love pattern of Pride and Prejudice: prejudice and misunderstanding at first, development of affection on both sides with a different degree of awareness, rejected proposal, smoothing of characters to a deserved happy ending. However, the context the two act, is harsher and more tragic than that of Pride and Prejudice. In Elizabeth Gaskell’s world there is pain, desolation, the desperate struggle to survive of the emerging, exploited classes working in mills and the brutal industrial plans of their masters. It is the real world which, nevertheless, allows the growth of genuine, sincere bonds and affections even among members of different classes.There is no time for frivolous deception and seemingly pointless conversation here, there is understanding and mutual support.

Mr Darcy and Mr Thornton share that scowl which actually hides a surprisingly sensitive nature, but Mr Thornton has deeper comprehension of people and himself. If we compare the two proposal scenes, for instance, Mr Darcy has no doubt he will be accepted. He is full of himself, after all, he knows who he is and what a good catch he would be for any girl. Elizabeth’s refusal takes him by surprise. Mr Thornton proposes not only because he is sincerely in love with Margaret, but because he feels bound in honour as Margaret’s coming to his rescue, while he was facing an angry mob, had been generally interpreted as a manifestation of her feelings for him. He knowns she doesn’t love him, that she thinks he is not good enough for her and that he won’t be accepted, even if she is in reduced circumstances. Despite her refusal, he will continue to offer his discreet support to her family in the many times of need.

Margaret’s love for Mr Thornton will grow, despite her initial prejudices, along with the understanding not only of the man but also of the dynamics of that part of the country he embodies. When  Margaret, after a great deal of tragedy, visits the house she was born and bred in the South, the happy and enchanted place of her thoughtless years,  she’ll be unable to revive those emotions that, however, are still vivid in her mind. That heaven like place does not exist any longer, because she’s deeply changed. Life had thrown her into the Blakean world of experience of the North and Helstone represents for her now that innocence she has painfully lost forever.

 

“That Woman!”

Amazing Sinéad Cusak as Mrs Thornton

I don’t know about you, but whenever I finish a book and particularly if I took pleasure in that read, I feel a sort of “dissatisfied satisfaction”, that is, I feel that I would have enjoyed a couple of chapters more not only to have that pleasure prolonged but to have all my curiosities answered. This happens more frequently, of course, when the narration focuses on the development of a love story, so when the longed-for happy ending comes, which often coincides with the very last page, you cannot help but wonder : “What will the wedding be like?”,” Will they live happily ever after”, “What did he/she do when…..”etc. , well, this kind of stuff.

Elizabeth Gaskell‘s “North and South” is somehow and exception. As when at the end of the book the romance between Mr Thornton and Margaret Hale comes to its deserved happy finale, well, I didn’t find myself speculating about the future of the now merry couple, not at all, but rather about Mr Thornton’s mother and her face at the sight of her beloved son in the company of his fiancée when they come back home to Milton. I may say that a couple of chapters more wouldn’t have been enough to explore the new family scenario, she could have written another novel at least about it.

The development of relationships is indeed very interesting in this novel as characters here work also as metaphors of nineteenth century England: the industrialized, productive north the Thorntons’ belong to and the charming, refined, aristocratic south Margaret Hale was raised in. These two worlds will inevitably collide, making first all their contradictions emerge to move forward then. However, what I found remarkably intriguing is the mother son relationship here. It is a solid bond which has grown stronger and stronger in time as they are, actually, survivors.The both survived the consequences of the storm of the suicide of Mrs Thorton’s husband and poverty, managing to achieve fortune and status with had work and discipline. Proud, cold and hardened by experience and now rich she wants the whole town of Milton to respect her family and her son in particular .

Despite Mr Thornton is about 30, his mother is still over protective and something more, I dare say: “she looked fixedly at vacancy; a series of visions passing before her, in all of which her son was the principal, the sole object—her son, her pride, her property” (2.1.5). Certainly, she is a woman with an infallible instinct as well, as, even before meeting Margaret Hale, she feels her as a threat to whom she considers her property.  For her it is enough to see his son back home to change his clothes before calling on the Hales, to understand that this unusual and unnecessary attention means something more : “Take care you don’t get caught by a penniless girl, John” (1.9.26) She is right to be alarmed, as page after page Margaret gains influence over Mr Thornton’s actions as he wishes to please her despite she rejected him. But why, is it only for love?

Now, if it is true that men end up marrying women who resemble their mothers  ( I am an exception, for sure), as this is a man’s very first relationship with the other sex, hence; I have to say that Mr Thornton is undoubtedly part of this lot. Margaret is, in fact, herself very proud, determined and speaks her mind very decidedly without fear of being contradicted just like Mrs Thorton. Furthemore, she is protective. She throws herself in front of an angry mob in order to protect him and she wants to prevent him from facing another financial disaster offering her love and support once become a rich heiress.

So, if I want to follow Sandy Welch’s amazing intuition for the finale in the adaptation for BBC and get on that train that goes northward to Milton with the happy couple, I often find myself picturing out a scene like Mrs Thorton waiting for his son at the railway station platform, Mr Thorton getting off with a radiant smile first, followed by…….. “that woman“! Do you think she would have thrown her arms round her neck? I have my doubts.