Prudence and Obedience

Was parenting much simpler once? Who knows? But one thing I can say for sure, roles were more defined.Letter XVI from Richardson’s Clarissa is a proof of what I am saying. Clarissa has understood to be promised to old and odious Mr Solmes, a rich man, whose marriage with the girl would satisfy the social ambitions of Clarissa’s father. When the girl understands that everything has been settled, she tries  to do whatever is in her power to avoid her sad fate and decides to speak to whom she believes to be the weaker of her two parents, that is her mother, as she had found her particularly condescending at breakfast, while her father had left the house early with a “positive, angry disposition“. So much the better. Clarissa sends quickly a note to her mother to inform her that she needs to talk to her:

“I had but just got into my own apartment, and began to think of sending Hannah to beg an audience of my mother (the more encouraged by her condescending goodness at breakfast) when Shorey, her woman, brought me her commands to attend me in her closet. ( Clarissa Lett. XVI Vol. 1)

Nothing more should be said.The verbs in bold, in fact, sum up perfectly the roles and the psychological attitudes of the two characters. Clarissa’s mother is the one who commands, while the girl is expected to be submitted and humble.The meeting, which follows, in fact, respects  this pattern. Clarissa’s father had previously charged his wife to make his daughter accept the idea of marrying Mr Solmes, therefore, she approaches the meeting with the disposition of one who has to impart orders. Therefore, she mostly stands up and breaks the barrier of the roles sitting near her daughter and lowering to her level only to weak her resistance, trying to make her feel her true motherly affection with that more intimate approach, but she is ready to rise again as soon as she herself fears to yield, she is a mother after all. Clarissa, on the other side, keeps an imploring posture. She bows, kneels and eventually faints, when her mother tells her that the family, actually her father, expects her to perform her duty and that she would have soon received the visit of the head of the family whose disposition cannot certainly be defined gentle.

For a great deal of this meeting Clarissa’s mother is the only one to speak, while the girl is able to utter only few syllables, besides, whenever she essays to say something her mother doesn’t mean to be interrupted. Eventually, she lets her speak, but unheard. He is to marry Mr Solmes.

There has been a lot of water under the bridge since those were the patterns of family relationships. But, how much water? What would such a meeting be like nowadays ? Well, I have no children and I cannot say, so I asked my students to give that dialogue a fresher look and these a couple of “gems” I picked:

Clarissa wants to talk with her mother about her obligation to marry a man of an important family that she doesn’t like, but the mother approaches her first.

* Clarissa, what’s the matter?

* I guess you already know what’s wrong, mom.

* Tell me.

* Mom! You know I’m so disappointed for your will to make me marry that Solmes. He’s such a creepy moron.

* Clarissa! You know it is your dad’s will, and I can’t disappoint him. And don’t use these words to describe him.

* He’s too old for me. There are many cool guys with big money in my school… and I also chat with a lot of them.

* I don’t mind.

* You can’t say that I must not marry him. It’s my life. I want to choose the man who will stay with me for the rest of my damned life.

* Clarissa, you know how it works for people like us. We can’t choose what to do about our life. It’s all about a big project for our family.

* But mom I…

* Clarissa, you are to marry him. There are no other choices.

* Go to hell mom.

Somebody shuts the door. ( Andrea T.)

You soon realize that, apart from the choice of words, this modern Clarissa is allowed to speak more than her mother and in Andrea’s imagination she cannot but have the last word. The following interpretation is more “sociopolitical” in its way, but in this case the mother prevails:

*Muuum, I have a problem, would you please come here and talk with me?

*What do you need, Clarissa? I hope it is important as  I am tidying you room!

*You already know what I want… you know… he is old and ugly… please I have a lot of suitors on Instagram!

*Yes I know but your father wants you to marry him and you are to respect and follow his will.

*I know mum but….but my friends can decide for themselves…. why can’ t I??

*Because you are different from your friends… you know… you are muslim and you are to obey or you will pay the consequences.  (Vittorio F.)

Definitely there has been a lot of water under the bridge.

 

 

The Power of Letter Writing

Among the many narrative techniques which were experimented by the authors of the eighteenth century, the epistolary novel was by no means the form which had the most effective and powerful impact on the mind of readers. Just guess, it was as if you could intercept some correspondence which was not addressed to you and you were free to peep into somebody else’s live, having knowledge of their emotions, secrets and confessions without even feeling guilty. You have also to consider that it was a time when people had no many other chances of diversions like today and while reading you were not distracted by notification beeps, telephone calls and modern noise in general. Therefore, letters, with their dates, names of the places, recipient names and even the time of the day, gave that sense of realism which made the reading seem more true and therefore, intense.

The greatest proof of what I’m saying  is  Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther“, whose impact was enormous in the Europe of the eighteenth century. Werther ‘s agonies of love were shared by an entire generation of readers, who were so affected by the overwhelming power of the emotions, which seemed uncensored as made accessible by the letter form, which provoked the first – and dangerous – process of mass imitation. Thousands of young men copied Werther’s outfit, which consisted of a strange combination of colours: custard yellow trousers and waistcoat plus an electric-blue jacket. If you wore those clothes, it meant  that you were or you wanted to be thought of as a brokenhearted, sensitive young man, exactly like their hero. Yet, this collective folly took a very dangerous turn, in fact, the imitation process didn’t stop at clothes, they wanted to live the life of their idol and even make his tragic end, therefore, The Sorrows of Young Werther led to as many as 2,000 cases of copycat suicides among young men.

Yet, this impressive power of epistolary novel could be experimented on women as well, to convince them, for example, of the advantages of pursuing a highly moral conduct. Of course, it was a man who took a trouble to endeavour such enterprise, Samuel Richardson, who created on this purpose  two opposite characters both for station and choices of life: Pamela and Clarissa. Pamela apparently seems to be the less fortunate of the two heroines.  She is a beautiful maidservant, whose country landowner master, Mr. B, attempts to seduce and rape her multiple times, but unsuccessfully. Eventually, Mr B  changes attitude and ends up falling in love and marry her. The entire title is, in fact, “Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded”, so the moral was that any correct behavior would have rightly compensated sooner or later. The story, you may well understand was quite unlikely to happen at those times. A rich man marry a servant at those times? Impossible. By the way,  Pamela was such a great success that Richardson  even wrote a sequel.  But what would happen if one yielded, for any reason? That was the lesson that Richardson would have imparted in his other, very long, masterpiece: “Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady“.

Clarissa Harlowe is an extremely beautiful tragic heroine, who, differently from Pamela, seems to be destined to a brighter fate. She belongs to the upper class and has inherited a large sum of money from her grandfather, but she is not free. Her family wants her to marry Mr Solmes who is a rich, but ignorant and unrefined sort of person, a man she despises.  To avoid this marriage, she consents to an elopement with Mr Lovelace (nomen omen, watch out Clarissa!!), but the latter turns out to be a very violent man who will drug and rape her. She eventually manages to escape from Lovelace’s clutches, but she gets sick and finally dies like a saint. So women, choose! I you don’t want to end up like Clarissa you know what to do. By the way, I guess, Richardson must have thought it a very difficult task to convince us to behave properly, as he employed one million words to write Clarissa. Did it work? I don’t think so. I would suggest any man with such and intent to be a bit shorter, as I/we usually get lost after a thousand words. Top.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Novel Recipe

I: Mr B. Finds Pamela Writing 1743-4 Joseph Highmore 1692-1780 Purchased 1921 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N03573

As everybody knows, those  writers who are commonly regarded as the fathers of the English novel started to write their masterpieces late in their lives. They were in their fifties or sixties at least, that is, after having done or seen much. Novel-writing was just their new playground at first. Daniel Defoe, for example, had a great writing experience and skill as journalist, but novel-making was something else. It was not about drawing up articles any longer, but rather, creating an organic structure where characters could move and interact for many pages. Since there was no psychoanalysis to help him yet, the simple ingredients he used were: an interesting subject, space, time. For what concerns the first ingredient, he was very lucky, because he was the witness of an age of great changes, that is, when the middle class was growing in importance thanks to trade and new politics. So, if we believe that literature is the mirror of the times, in that mirror Defoe saw the image of a bourgeois hero reflected: Robinson Crusoe.

He was perfect: young, middle class, Puritan, slave trader, traveller and sinner too. He was fit for an adventurous story.That was the second ingredient : the world.  He made him travel a lot, shipwreck and then placed him on a desert island where he remained in solitude for a long time before enjoying the company of a cannibal he named Friday. The narration was linear, chronological. But he felt that in those big spaces and with a few chances of human relations he had to do something for his hero so as to avoid the puppet effect, he needed more insight. So Robinson’s diary became part of the novel and his deepest thoughts surfaced on the page. Realism, intimacy, exoticism: a success.

But, what happens if we modify the dose of one of those ingredients? If we decide to make our characters act in smaller spaces: a house, for example. Very likely the complexity of their personalities will come out better, because the writer will have to deal more with the world inside rather than the world outside. This is exactly what happened in Richardson‘s novels, which are mostly focused on the dynamics inside family circles and their connections. Furthemore, they were written in the epistolary form so the reader was more deeply involved in the agonies of Clarissa or Pamela‘s moral fight between love and proper behaviour.

When Sterne decided to write not only about The Life“, that is the chronological sequence of somebody’s events, but also about the Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, that is his thoughts, he felt instinctively that time ingredient should have been employed in a complete different way. So, anticipating Bergson‘ s theory of “la durée”, he understood that in our mind past, present, future co-exist in random order and that the usual chronological sequence was no loger fit to mirror that chaos in a novel. As no psychoanalysts could have ever given him any advice about it, he created that chaos in a primitive way. First of all he upset the order of the novel and  placed the preface in the third chapter, rather than in its usual place, then he filled the book with digressions, blank pages, drawings, dashes , skipped chapters etc.. The experiment was a successful one, because out of all that chaos the delicate complexity of Tristram’s soul materialized. One last thing, no recipe works without another ingredient, the most important one, of course: “the genious touch”.

Heathcliff the villain

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A villain is the evil, immoral guy of a story. The etymology of the word villain comes from the Latin “villanus” meaning “farmhand“. He is antagonist to the knight not only for his low social status but for those moral values of chivalry: faith, loyalty, courage and honour that do not seem to affect his world.The villain is often cruel, malicious and devoted to wickedness. The typical villain of the Morality plays was the devil himself:Satan. In the Elizabethan Drama the villain’s want of morality allowed him to act against the laws of nature and God which were at the basis of society and  thus breaking them he gave the start to the dramatic action. The audience could easily spot villains on stage because dramatists often used to choose for them names that hid the clues for their moral imperfection. In Hamlet, for example, Shakespeare called the villain Claudius, which comes from the Latin “Claudus” that is “lame”. Sometimes the names could also point out the dangerousness of the villain. Richardson seemed to warn his unfortunate heroine Clarissa naming the man of her dreams Lovelace, truly a loveless man whose lace of love will strangle her to death. Heathcliff as well belongs to the cathegory of the villains. Emily Brontë chose for his protagonist a name that could mirror all the enigmatic nuances of his personality. He is heat, heath and cliff at the same time, that is wild, passionate, maybe stubborn, but definitely dangerous and uncontrollable. He is a modern Satan, dark( “he looks like a gipsy“), retiring, elusive and vengeful. Wherever he goes he upsets the preexisting balance bringing chaos and sorrow. Once adopted, for example, he will win Mr Earnshaws’s affection causing such frustration and  jealousy in his son Hindley that will fire up their deadly fight. The same destiny will share the Lintons’ when, after a mysterious absence of years, Heathcliff will turn up at their door only to carry out his revenge. Nothing and nobody will stop him. Not even love.