Friday, August 19, 2016

see Greville just ready with his dagger

Richardson wrote to his friend Isabella Sutton on July 24, 1752,

I have had two letters from Miss Mulso, admirable ones. She particularly commends herself to your favour. I have threatened her with a melancholy ending of my story. O how she raves! almost execrates me! I want to shew you fresh instances of her admirable genius though against myself; and I want to let you see Greville just ready with his dagger; but I will say no more. What scenes of distress might be painted! but did I not say, I would not proceed on this subject?

Greville is an expressive mood-object, a poltergeist: he makes the book more frightening; produces gestures but never enforces them. Sir Hargrave Pollexfen is the ghost’s solid: he acts, he suffers, isn’t playful and plots real sexual violence (does not press impressions on hands). While he is helping his friends carry out a seduction he is caught by Italian revengers who would have castrated him if Grandison hadn't appeared in the nick of time (vol. 4, ch 36). This scene offers itself up as an obvious counterpoint to the earlier rescue of Harriet from Pollexfen himself (vol. 1, ch. 33), but there are so many ways to read the existence of this mirroring that I find I can’t say what I think it should ‘mean.’ As an event it fuels the cycle of events, but as a mirror it has no lessons and appears like a blank.

Grandison’s character is illustrated more than once by his willingness to manifest in certain situations, e.g., when Pollexfen invites him to breakfast (vol. 2, ch 3) – a trap, as Grandison knows – but Grandison comes nonetheless, refusing to be teased into a duel in front of Pollexfen’s friends; he will set his own conditions for appearing. Calmly he tells everyone why he will not duel. They understand. He has “shewn that reputation and conscience are entirely reconcilable,” they say. When he appears in front of the Italian family that has contentious feelings towards him he will set his own conditions there too. It is part of Richardson’s plan for his magnificence, him being able to impose himself reasonably. Harriet you notice cannot lay out her terms; she can’t say that she loves him. As her marriage draws closer she has progressively more trouble appearing and speaking. She hesitates over her own marriage ceremony, she wants it put off; she does not want to marry in front of people. She fails to finish sentences or she remains quiet and curtsies instead (vol. 6., multiple places). Even as she is married, “My joy may not be sufficient to banish fear” (vol. 7, ch. 6). Why does she feel this weird terror? In vol. 6, ch. 32 it is bad enough to give her nightmares. She says that Grandison should marry the superb and good aristocrat Clementina della Porretta, not her, Harriet, even though she has never met her. She has only heard about her from other people. At no point does she suspect that the others might be exaggerating. You would say that she is having a dream of a perfect woman, but later they meet and there is no difference between the Clementina in the reports and the real one. One letter from anybody was enough to describe her as she is.

Personally I suspect everybody of exaggerating Clementina.

Harriet, like Clarissa Harlowe, is leaving the realm of earthly reasons to be resistant. But her circumstances are not the same, she is fortunate, she is marrying the right man and everyone envies her; horror, humility, and depression, this is what, however, for some reason, Richardson decides he will describe for her, as if she is going through a terrible incident; as if something bad has happened.. He doesn't ask his readers to be sensible, he asks them to be filled with desire for they-don't-know-what, "but I will say no more,"

Friday, August 12, 2016

read it out, that I may know what I have written

So (repeating myself) Grandison is a book of evidence, of evidence addressing itself forwards and backwards to more instances of evidence, and not only complicitly, internally, with innocent remarks between characters (the opposite of innocent, since they are written as if they mimicked spontaneity), but also with obvious footnotes that point you from (for example) the words “that situation” in vol. 6, ch. 18 to an incident in vol. 3; and then there are the references to letters that are not actually there, annotated with the news that “These three letters do not appear” when Harriet in vol. 7, ch. 45, refers to “my last three letters,” as if the story took place in a real universe where those letters exist as of course they do not, and never did, though the author will (in his endnotes) include quotes from genuine texts, namely a sermon by John Tillotson (1630 – 1694) – and a military law against duelling – to supplement the book as an entity, though he is still pretending to pretend that he is only the editor of someone else’s letters, a transparent protest as everyone knew, and he knew they knew; and he wrote this book that teases its own exterior context by having Grandison take away a stack of Harriet’s letters and return the next morning to say that he’d stayed up all night with them because the story was so exciting – he couldn’t put them down – (vol. 2 or 3? Somewhere around there).

There is a second critic, a more technical and cynical one, in the character of Charlotte or Lady G, whose way of reflecting on people’s motivations gives Richardson an opportunity to show his readership how conscious he is of his invention, this structure made of letters that pretend to have been written almost immediately after the events that they describe. (He remarks covertly: I have the personality of a writer who identifies that opportunity and takes it.) Immediacy increases the emotional thrill, Charlotte says. “No pathetic without it.” Contrast with Tom Jones, Fielding, 1749, which only takes place after everything is safe. But the wrong amount of distance is comedy, continues Richardson through Charlotte: look – fidelity? – too much fidelity, becomes – what? – look, that’s a playscript – (like a contemporary writer putting in something that feels like a movie scene, that impression of almost-unconscious influence – but this is ‘life’ that scripts itself).

I am referring to the letter that Charlotte writes to Harriet, vol 6., ch 9, from the moment when she records the approach of her sister.

But here she comes. – I love, Harriet, to write to the moment; that's a knack I had from you and my brother: And be sure continue it, on every occasion: No pathetic without it!

Your servant, Lady L.

And your servant, Lady G. – Writing? To whom?

To our Harriet –

I will read your Letter – Shall I?

Take it; but read it out, that I may know what I have written.

Now give it me again. I'll write down what you say to it, Lady L.

Lady. L. I say you are a whimsical creature. But I don't like what you have last written.

Charlotte. Last written – 'Tis down. – But why so, Lady L.?

Lady L. How can you thus teaze our beloved Byron, with your conjectural evils?

Ch. Have I supposed an impossibility? – But 'tis down – Conjectural evils.

Lady L. If you are so whimsical, write –
'My dear Miss Byron – '

Ch. My dear Miss Byron – 'Tis down.

Lady L. (Looking over me)
'Do not let what this strange Charlotte has written, grieve you: – '

Ch. Very well, Caroline! – grieve you.

Lady L. 'Sufficient to the day is the evil thereof.'

Ch. Well observed. – Words of Scripture, I believe. – Well – evil thereof.

Lady L. Never, surely, was there such a creature as you, Charlotte –

Ch. That's down, too. –

Lady L. Is that down? laughing – That should not have been down – Yet 'tis true.

Ch. Yet 'tis true – What's next?

Lady L. Pish –

Ch. Pish –

(Describing his own technique in a letter to his friend and collaborator Lady Dorothy Bradshaigh as a “way of writing, to the moment," 14 February, 1754.)

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

a mellow manly voice, and great command

Richardson’s method of concentrating your attention on an idea is to mention it repeatedly rather than beautifully, issuing periodic capsule summaries of sympathetic actions, eg, “The Count saluted me in a tender accent,” vol. 5, ch. 7, without any detailed description of the salutation; multiple characters stating the same idea in their own ways – here’s a paragraph from the same chapter –

O that I could embrace my fourth son! said the Marchioness. The Bishop threw his arms about me. Generous expansion of heart! were the words that fell from his lips. Jeronymo shewed his friendly Love in what he said: And must not, said the Count, this young man be one of us?

--in which he varies the nature of the affection that each person shows to Grandison, with the Marchioness and the Count uttering speech at opposite ends of the bloc, Jeronymo not having his speech reported, and the Bishop both acting and speaking, but the important part, the dominating motive, is that we realise everyone in this house feels tenderly enthusiastic towards Grandison while he approaches the daughter, Clementina. Grandison is loved. As a further example, there are the sentences, “He sung. He has a mellow manly voice, and great command of it” (vol. 4, ch. 16), which are not trying to get a reader vitally excited in the moment when Grandison sang, but present his vocal handsomeness as a kind of plain fact that joins the other facts we have learnt about him, mounting up, mounting up, volume after volume, creating a kind of inescapable mass. The word “inescapable” reminds me of Richardson’s penchant for shutting his characters anxiously in rooms or other enclosed spaces such as carriages. The books ostensibly preach patience and reason but they are neither patient nor reasonable. See the reaction to Clementina’s religious decision in vol. 5: people calling her an angel, Harriet deciding that nothing she can do will live up to the heights of C.’s behaviour; a monotonous hysteria of praise. They are knotted inside these hysterics. But they have their variety, that little leak. Speaking of enclosure, there is also the way Harriet will shut herself alone in her room for hours because she values the attention she has to pay to what she calls “narrative letter-writing.” This kind of writing does not happen quickly, she tells her friends when they ask her to come down. It takes effort (vol. 2 somewhere?). Clementina, beginning to go mad because Grandison may have left her, becomes a compression of all of this, the enclosure, the focus, the addressing of words to people who aren’t there --

She shut herself up in her chamber, not seeming to regard or know that her woman was in it; nor did she answer to two or three questions that her woman asked her; but, setting her chair with its back towards her, over-against a closet in the room, after a profound silence, she bent forwards, and, in a low voice, seemed to be communing with a person in the closet.

’And you say he is actually gone? Gone for ever? No, not for ever!’

(vol. 3, ch. 20)

Friday, July 29, 2016

they had no reason to be dissatisfied with what they heard

The surprise of the hand interrupts the completeness of the surveillance that attempts to constitute the book, letters being written and characters showing their letters to other characters, and those characters then copying the letters into their own letters, till the story can occur for the reader with a more or less (but not completely) chronological distinctness, details filled in and characters saying words that seem mysterious but then we see a piece of information, an anecdote, that explains it: there is a network of sense that we will get to eventually, that is more or less one promise implicit in the History of Sir Charles Grandison: if we keep watching and explaining one another – if we read -- and so on, we will discover why things are said or done, and the quality of a character’s nature will be exposed, tested, and given additional verity; people will comment and others will reinforce their comments, the decency of Charles Grandison will be mentioned by everyone, his enemies will be converted to admirers (vol. 2, ch. 4), his sisters when they meet him after a long separation become his advocates (vol. 2), the parents of a young woman in vol. 3, ch. 20, will eavesdrop outside a room so that we can learn that they appreciate the respectability of his conversation, “they had no reason to be dissatisfied with what they heard me say to their daughter;” all of this as if the reader is a judge or interested enquirer who requires proof of some conjecture, or an answer to some question. Or not an answer to the question but a response. We won’t “get to it eventually,” there is no “it,” there is rather an increasing cluster of actions around a few core ideas, which seem to be represented in Grandison’s character and his unusually handsome appearance: his complexion, his hair, his fine mouth, all of which are mentioned, and praised. Clarissa Harlowe was beautiful too. Richardson is conscious of beauty. But you notice that he develops a more ostentatiously enthusiastic imagination when a character is ugly, with Emily's bad mother having a "complexion, sallowish, streaked with red [that] makes her face (which is not so plump as it once has been) look like a withering John-apple that never ripened kindly," (vol. 3, ch 5) and a corrupted clergyman entering the room behind "a nose now that hid half of [his pimply face], when he looked on one side, and he seldom looked fore-right when I saw him" (vol. 1, ch. 30).

Greville’s behaviour appears opaque against the dense mass of clarity around him.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

not to be too serious upon it

Writing suffer because in Moon Lake everything that might be like a digression is preemptively overruled or ruled, that is, dominated, by the plot. It does not allow itself to recognise the plants as an impediment, and it blends them in and ends them and goes on as if everything had a reasonable purpose. If I had to define “middlebrow” in the pejorative sense then that would be one consideration. And some things that get qualified as Middlebrow would be disqualified by that qualifier; they are not middle by my calculations, they are only mild, not blind. When I read Wallace Fowlie’s translations of Rimbaud next to John Ashbery’s then I see that Fowlie has decreased the poet’s hysteria by changing his punctuation. And there is a moment in vol. I, letter 20, of The History of Sir Charles Grandison, Samuel Richardson, 1753, that comes like a flash into the story. Up to this point, the men and women in the book have been speaking to one another regularly in civilised rooms, the epistolary sometimes-narrator, Harriet Byron, being wooed by the men and telling them straightly that their requests are hopeless because she is not in love with them. “I have never yet seen the man who is to be my husband,” she says. They have been using the phrase “your hand” in its symbolic matrimonial sense, when the tense decorum is shocked by one of the suitors taking Byron’s actual hand and pressing his teeth into it. The word “hand” acquires a retrospective build-up of pressure which can only be recognised by that release.

Why, Mr. Greville, I do most sincerely declare to you, as to a neighbour and well-wisher, that I never, yet, have seen the man to whom I can think of giving my hand.

Yes, you have! By heaven you have (snatching my hand): You shall give it to me!—And the strange wretch pressed it so hard to his mouth, that he made prints upon it with his teeth.

Oh! cried I, withdrawing my hand, surprized, and my face, as I could feel, all in a glow.

And oh! said he, mimicking (and snatching my other hand, as I would have run from him) and patting it, speaking thro' his closed teeth, You may be glad you have a hand left. By my soul, I could eat you.


I rushed into the company in the next room. He followed me with an air altogether unconcerned, and begged to look at my hand; whispering to Mrs. Reeves; by Jupiter, said he, I had like to have eaten up your lovely cousin. I was beginning with her hand.

I was more offended with this instance of his assurance and unconcern, than with the freedom itself; because that had the appearance of his usual gaiety with it. I thought it best, however, not to be too serious upon it.

Then there is this strange sentence.

But the next time he gets me by himself, he shall eat up both my hands.

In what sense is she saying that? Is she reporting Greville’s lines again, or is this her? What does she mean by “hand” in that sentence and what does she mean by “eat”? Why does it come after the assurance that she is not going to “get too serious upon” his behaviour? Richardson allows her to say it in any sense you choose to understand: it has come out weirdly and the weirdness is allowed to stand without being softened.

Monday, July 18, 2016


The End of the World, Filmed by the Angel of Notre Dame, Blaise Cendrars, 1919
Three Fantasies, John Cowper Powys, 1985
Vathek, William Beckford, 1786
The Sundial, Shirley Jackson, 1958
Something by Nathalie Seurat
The Lost Ones, Samuel Beckett, 1971
Topology of a Phantom City, Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1977

Topology of a Phantom City, Alain Robbe-Grille, 1977
Justine, the Marquis de Sade, 1791
Bound to Violence, Yambo Ouologuem, 1971
The Lives of Cleopatra and Octavia, Sarah Fielding, 1757
Clarissa, Samuel Richardson, 1748
The Making of Americans, Gertrude Stein, 1925

The Making of Americans, Gertrude Stein, 1925
Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, Marguerite Young, 1965
Rhode Island Notebook, Gabriel Gudding, 2007

Rhode Island Notebook, Gabriel Gudding, 2007
Speech! Speech!, Geoffrey Hill, 2000
Miss Herbert (the Suburban Wife), Christina Stead, 1976

Miss Herbert (the Suburban Wife), Christina Stead, 1976
Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, 1726

A Season in Hell, Arthur Rimbaud, 1873. [suggested by Scott GF Bailey]

Thursday, July 14, 2016

those whose shoots grow

When you look at the post about book lists at Babbling Books again you are in despair because in the interim you have seen the Feminista's 100 Great 20th Century English-language Works of Fiction by Women, and noticed To Kill a Mockingbird, which, as you know, is only there because everyone had to read it under duress in high school, so that this is one of the few books by women, or in fact by anybody, that anyone who voted for this list has ever known or can remember. You think of lists as bad records of failures. Why did Giorgio Bassani say that Francesca Duranti’s 1984 book The House on Moon Lake, tr. Stephen Sartarelli, reminded him of “the same beloved, familiar, infallible fictional pathways discovered by Henry James”? He must have remembered that stories in James tend to consist of people haunting one another, The Turn of the Screw making it overt by introducing the notion of ghosts, which foregrounds, by default, the author’s usual implied verb. At the end of Moon Lake Duranti has inserted a supernatural woman who promises to sell the lead male a collection of letters and then retains him inside her house by means of some enigmatic power. So the constellation of ideas, woman, house, man, mystery, letters, haunting might make you think of The Aspern Papers. But the intention is different; the presentation is blunt, the book does not seem convinced of its own paranoia, the haunting is deserved in a way that appears clear (the lead male does not want to spend his time with real women so he gets an unreal one), and honestly the most weird mystery in the entire Moon Lake appears at the end of chapter fourteen, when this man is trying to work his way through a stumbling block in a book that he is writing and the thought of the word voluble sends the text off on botany, a subject it has never been interested in before. “Voluble. The word’s ambiguity entranced him. Botanists define voluble plants as those whose shoots grow upward in a twining spiral – each species in its own way, the dextrorse twining only in a clockwise direction, the sinistrorse always in a counterclockwise direction; they are plants that …“ etc. These plants enter the book more or less of their own volition. Once they have appeared then the man considers birds and following this he realises that he is going to create a female character with the qualities of owls and lilies. It is as if Duranti has tried to think of the least likely source of inspiration that a book-writing human being could possibly have but she does not enjoy her imagination’s own convoluted strangeness: it is a functional object that she now drops. If Bruno Schulz had written this, I thought, he would know what he had done. He would allow the book to suffer fully from its bewitchment.