Thursday, May 19, 2016

demonstrates vacuums



When he wants to frame his argument against British crowds then he goes to the wilderness in Canada to live in a cottage with a considerable library as if he were at home in the Lake District, and he does not live in burrow, or nest, or cliff-face palace or amazing velvet ball lined with mirrors, but in his normal home, a cottage, and let me imagine (though no proof) that he sees himself wearing his usual daily clothes in that setting, not a dress or a ruff, not an incredible shawl, but the same trousers he always wears, though maybe warmer: perhaps he mentally gives himself a coat.

… there are daily
reports of people overriding
the most exotic restraints
to become ordinary. The armless woman
uses her toes to make woodburn kittens.
The blind man demonstrates vacuums
and sells lots of them, as convinced
of lint as the next person. Shall I go on?

Kay Ryan, To Explain the Solitary from Elephant Rocks, 1996. Adam Lindsay Gordon was addicted to horse riding in the northern hemisphere and then he was the same way in the southern hemisphere when his father sent him to South Australia equipped with a letter of introduction to the mounted police; but then he became a published poet where he was not one before, so there was a difference to his life (the difference was the publishing since he had written poems privately, personally, previously), he made life easier for the compilers of Inspirational Quotes by inventing the lines, "Life is mostly froth and bubble | Two things stand like stone | Kindness in another's trouble | Courage in your own" for Ye Wearie Wayfarer His Ballad - in Eight Fyttes, 1867, and still he rode dangerously, falling off his horse onto his head; and continued to ride in steeplechases, a favourite sport of his from childhood onwards -- one school expelling him when he wagged class to compete in races and the law nearly locking him up at seventeen when he fetched back the impounded horse that he had rented for a race -- and steeplechasing had already been imported south by the time he got there, but racing was more dangerous in Australia, he said when he wrote an article about it for the Australasian in 1868, and not fruitfully dangerous, he asserted, just bang-about for no sane reason that he could see. “Steeplechasing is of course intended to be a dangerous pastime, but the sport is scarcely enhanced by making it as dangerous as it can be made.”

This much at least will scarcely be gainsaid, our horses (to say nothing of their riders) seldom last long at cross-country work. The continual hard raps on heavy redgum or stringy bark rails, coupled with the constant jarring shocks caused by landing on a soil baked by an Australian sun, is enough to cripple the strongest knees and wear out the toughest sinews in a very few seasons.

The range of weights should be changed, he says, and the races should be shifted to a different time of year to ensure that the earth is soft. (I am finding all of this in Henry Kendall's 1892 Lindsay Gordon memoir.) The normalcy of the season needs to yield to the normalcy of malleable ground, and then – what? – gentlemen can join. “I think we should get a better and more respectable class of riders, for there are gentlemen here that would ride their own horses if they could.” You are allowed to feel that he has carried over with him, in his molten impressions, a form of society that will allow the words “gentleman,” “better,” “respectable,” “own,” to function as an argument. The gods on Olympus are unoriginally emotional but they transform into gold and can fly. Last weekend I watched an East Coast artist who was installing his work in Las Vegas put a multicoloured sculpture in front of a patterned wall and wonder if the look was “too Circus Circus,” a critique that everybody around him understood.


Monday, May 9, 2016

breaking away into the wide world



“[W]e have been homesick practically all the time.” Thirty years homesick: why is she here, Ada Cambridge? Richer, she would have gone home. De Quincey doesn’t imagine that his other self in Canada is homesick; it is difficult to picture when you are not in it; being like the true temperature of snow. “Doubtless, if we had settled in an English parish, we should have bewailed our narrow lot,” Cambridge writes, “should have had everlasting regrets for missing the chance of breaking away into the wide world.” You can’t believe it, reading the rest of this chapter. Writing doubtless, she means, I doubt. Now she remembers the place where she would have lived with her clergyman if they had stayed, a “beflowered house,” “a tiny hamlet of a parish […] that haven of dignified peace and ease.” “[M]an is content with his lot; harmony is achieved,” says Virginia Woolf while she is describing the life of the Rev. James Woodforde of Weston Longueville in her Two Parsons essay, from The Common Reader: Second Series, 1935.

Surely, surely, then, here is one of the breathing-spaces in human affairs — here in Norfolk at the end of the eighteenth century at the Parsonage. For once man is content with his lot; harmony is achieved; his house fits him; a tree is a tree; a chair is a chair; each knows its office and fulfils it. Looking through the eyes of Parson Woodforde, the different lives of men seem orderly and settled. Far away guns roar; a King falls; but the sound is not loud enough to scare the rooks here in Norfolk. The proportions of things are different. The Continent is so distant that it looks a mere blur; America scarcely exists; Australia is unknown. But a magnifying glass is laid upon the fields of Norfolk. Every blade of grass is visible there. We see every lane and every field; the ruts on the roads and the peasants’ faces.


“[O]ur parishioners dropped curtseys to us on the road,” recalls Cambridge, ”and” – not straight-faced – or straight and not at the same time – “felt honoured beyond measure when we went to see them.” In de Quincey, “Profound solitude cannot now be had in any part of Great Britain […] in England it is possible to forget that we live amongst greater agencies than those of men and human institutions. Man, in fact, ‘too much man,’ as Timon complained most reasonably in Athens, was then, and is now, our greatest grievance in England. Man is a weed everywhere too rank. A strange place must that be with us from which the sight of a hundred men is not before us, or the sound of a thousand about us.” His islands are noisy with humans, but the birds in Australia are either quiet or crying out inhumanly, if songs can be taken as, in some way, human.

They are rhymes rudely strung with intent less
Of sound than of words,
In lands where bright blossoms are scentless,
And songless bright birds;
Where, with fire and fierce drought on her tresses,
Insatiable Summer oppresses
Sere woodlands and sad wildernesses,
And faint flocks and herds.

That poem is the source of the songless birds and scentless flowers in the first chapter of Cambridge's book. It is A Dedication: to the Author of ‘Holmby House’,* by Adam Lindsay Gordon, whose marble bust is in Westminster Abbey and whose old cottage features an extensive variety of local craft work of the highest quality in the Ballarat Botanical Gardens near Lake Wendouree. If The Boscombe Valley Mystery was published in 1891 and Gordon died in 1870, then it is possible that he lived in Ballarat at the same time as the murderer Black Jack. “His only daughter died while he was in Ballarat and although a daredevil on a horse and an accomplished rider he led a tragic life. His poetry with its rolling rhythm survives him,” states the webpage for the Adam Lindsay Gordon Cottage at visitvictoria.com. In 1889 Banjo Paterson wrote a patriotic poem against Gordon’s birds and flowers.

"A land where dull Despair is king
O'er scentless flower and songless bird!"
But we have heard the bell-birds ring
Their silver bells at eventide,
Like fairies on the mountain side,
The sweetest note man ever heard.


Song of the Future. See also, CJ Dennis, The Golden Whistler, 1933. “Literary nationalists have always been indignant with Adam Lindsay Gordon for referring, inaccurately, to Australia’s ‘bright birds’ as songless:” Roger Covell, Australia’s Music, 1967. The Cambridges migrated in the same year that A Dedication was published, in Gordon’s book Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes, which was also the year of his death, at the age of thirty-seven, on the day after publication, when he went away privately with a gun and killed himself in a grove of bayside tea-trees. “At last, one morning in December 1839, the Rector took his gun, walked into the beech wood near his home, and shot himself dead,” Woolf wrote in Two Parsons. The parson in that sentence of course is not Woodforde. Whenever I think of that essay I remember the words, “and shot himself.” Ada Cambridge sailed overseas in April; Bush Ballads was printed on the 23rd of June (and A Dedication had not been printed before, because it was the actual dedication page of the book) meaning that Cambridge did not come to Australia believing that the birds would not be able to sing, even though the first chapter of Thirty Years in Australia leads you to believe that she did. Her corrective statement, “none of which, actually, is the rule,” is not a record of a discovery, it is a mode of alignment with pro-Australian literary forces.





*Holmby House: a Tale of Old Northamptonshire, 1860, was written by G. J. Whyte-Melville, 1821-1878. One of Gordon's favourite writers, according to Henry Kendall's A Memoir of the Life of Adam Lindsay Gordon: the Laureate of the Centaurs, 1892. When Gordon mailed Whyte-Melville a copy of his book Sea Spray and Smoke Drift, 1867, the other man sent a letter to say that if he rode as well as he wrote then he would "put him up in any steeplechase for which I had a likely winner."

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

the everlasting sense of living amongst forms



When Ada Cambridge in the fin de siecle writes, “Geoffrey Hamlyn was my sheet anchor, but did not seem to be supported by the scraps of prosaic history obtainable,” she is remembering how it was before she migrated to Australia in 1870 with her husband, who was being sent to a position in a southeast country town. His friend had written them a letter “reporting the place not wild at all, but quite like home,” though this friend had seen nothing outside Melbourne (two hundred and thirty kms from the place where they would be living) and knew “no more than we of the mysterious Bush, which I thought of as a vast shrubbery, with occasional spears hurtling through it.” Her retrospective conclusion is analogous to that of Weitemeyer, the poor Hamburg carpenter. “When we had assimilated all the information available, our theory of the life before us was still shapeless. However, we were young and trusting, and prepared to take things as they came.” De Quincey in his Autobiography Continued From 1803 – 1808, 1835, describes his own migration to “the woods of Lower Canada” where he saw himself in his late teens living in a spot he had already picked out, “a cottage and a considerable library, about seventeen miles from Quebec.”

My object [in planning the migration] was simply profound solitude, such as cannot now be had in any part of Great Britain--with two accessary advantages, also peculiar to countries situated in the circumstances and under the climate of Canada: viz. the exalting presence in an under-consciousness of forests endless and silent, the everlasting sense of living amongst forms so ennobling and impressive, together with the pleasure attached to natural agencies, such as frost, more powerfully manifested than in English latitudes, and for a much longer period. I hope there is nothing fanciful in all this. It is certain that in England, and in all moderate climates, we are too slightly reminded of nature or the forces of nature. Great heats, or great colds (and in Canada there are both), or great hurricanes, as in the West Indian latitudes, recall us continually to the sense of a powerful presence, investing our paths on every side …

“[T]he silence and grandeur of solitude impressed a sacred awe upon her heart.” Radcliffe, Udolpho, 1794. Dorothy Richardson’s Miriam had the same sensation at a ski resort. Reacting against Great Britain, de Quincey imagines the rewards of the migration logically existing; the opposition engenders the picture, not knowledge, because he does not know Canada, never migrated, knows neither “great colds” nor “great heats,” and is in the same state of ignorance as a tourist who thinks they can walk from the Mandalay Bay to the Wynn in the middle of June without a hat. “These things we did believe in, because all our authorities mentioned them,” says Cambridge, remembering the books she once read about “the physical characteristics of the country, there were but the scentless flowers, the songless birds, the cherries with their stones outside (none of which, actually, is the rule, and I have found nothing to resemble the description of the latter), and the kangaroo that carries its family in a breast-pocket” – she believed in it, as de Quincey can still believe, as he writes his memoir, that the migration might have been as he imagines it, and somewhere a Cambridge who has never migrated is imagining her own migration to the land where the “strange contrasts to the rest of the world which it affords [are] enumerated and commented upon--its cherries with their stones growing outside--its trees, which shed their bark instead of their leaves--its strange animals--its still stranger population--its mushroom cities--and, finally, the fact that the approach to human habitations is not announced by the barking of dogs, but by the barking of trees” – quoted from John Lort Stokes’, Discoveries in Australia, With An Account Of The Coasts And Rivers Explored And Surveyed During the Voyage Of H.M.S. Beagle, In The Years 1837-38-39-40-41-42-43 by Command Of The Lords Commissioners Of The Admiralty, 1846 – Stokes the original source of the cherries rumour -- though he tell us that he already knew “from the best authorities” before he landed on the continent that “within the heart of Australia, nature seems to delight in contradiction” – and so expected the things that he saw, not the precise forms, but the nature of them: the contradictions.

The birds we observed were common to other parts of the continent, being a few screaming cockatoos, parrots, and quails, and near the water a small white egret. There was nothing of interest to recall our memories to this first visit to a new part of Australia, save a very large ant's nest, measuring twenty feet in height. This object is always the first that presents itself whenever my thoughts wander to that locality.



Tuesday, April 26, 2016

suppose you never were there



The discussion around the excerpt that Scott G.F. Bailey posted on his blog from the rough manuscript known as The Bottom of the Earth included the suggestion that northern hemisphere people used to think of the southern hemisphere as “the bottom of the earth,” or another phrase that was something like that, and so (looking for more knowledge in that area) I read Weitemeyer’s book out of curiosity to see if he used those words or any other while he was planning (euphemism) his move to Australia, but Weitemeyer did not use any phrase at all: he used a series of scenes that suggested a difficulty in obtaining accurate information; difficulty was his description of distance. “Travellers who come from this distant continent, bring us very conflicting statements,” he remembers his school textbook telling him before it segued into a paragraph about kangaroos, wool, and the “vast lake of salt water” that it saw in the centre of the island – imagination – didn’t exist. “It was really an ignorant and disgraceful morsel of information for one of the best schools in Copenhagen to offer to its pupils,” he writes, “but it was all the knowledge I had or could get.” He spoke to a man in Hamburg who was being paid to encourage European citizens to migrate to Queensland.

"Do you yourself know anything much about Queensland?" I ventured to ask; "I suppose you never were there?" "I, no, I never was there-- [says the man] I wish I had been, I should not have to stand here to-day. But we have every information. They have found gold-diggings again. Here are the statistics of exports; I will read them for you:--

Weitemeyer buys his ticket, trusts that he knows nothing; imagines that bushranging will be his recourse if all else fails. “To be the captain of a gang of warriors, half robbers, half gold-miners, roaming over the continent of Australia, seemed a delightful prospect.” On the ship he “stood aloof looking round me in silent wonder as to what the end would be.” Distance is underinformednation and so is wonder. Proust, corresponding about stock investments with his cousin Lionel Hauser, once mentioned that he was interested in Australian gold mines. “With Marcel his investments reflected not incompetence but aspects of his character,” writes Jean-Yves Tadié. “When he dreamed about these names, stock exchange quotations came to resemble railway timetables.” Marcel Proust: a Life, 1996, tr. Euan Cameron. The dying man who whispers the murderer’s identity to his son in The Boscombe Valley Mystery, Doyle, 1892, would not have been able to name his killer if Sherlock Holmes had not been capable of covering the mental distance between the “allusion to a rat” that the son heard and the presence of a large goldfield town west of Melbourne. “He mumbled a few words,” says the son, “but I could only catch some allusion to a rat.” The Coroner asks him how he interpreted the rat. “It conveyed no meaning to me,” says the son. “I thought that he was delirious.” Not until Holmes has wired to Bristol for a map of Victoria with place names marked on it is he in a position to show Watson that “a rat” is not a rat but the end of a word, “-arat.” The abstract proceeds to materialism. “We have come now out of mere vagueness to the definite conception of an Australian from Ballarat with a grey cloak,” Holmes says. The son who, on the day of his father’s death, heard his father calling, “Cooee,” thought that he was being summoned, but the father was shouting to someone else and he did not expect to see the son crossing a distance towards him. “He appeared to be much surprised at seeing me and asked me rather roughly what I was doing there.” Here, at first, is the sound -- in the son’s imagination -- of the father absolutely desiring the presence of his son, and now secondly the father is nonplussed, he appears to have cried out ambiguously and confusingly, both desiring and not-desiring his son – but then thirdly and finally, thanks to Holmes, we all know that he did not think he was calling his son at all, in spite of the fact that “Cooee” was understood by the young man to be “a usual signal between my father and myself.”

Now this specific cry of “Cooee” identifies the father as a man who could utter that word without regarding it, as the son does, as a privately-owned set of consonants and vowels. Why is the father in this position of wisdom? Because he has emigrated from Australia. He is trying to communicate with a different man, one who has lived in Ballarat, a diabetic who is about to hit him on the head with a rock: someone who is still remembered on the Victorian goldfields by the name he called himself while he was living out Weitemeyer’s dream of bushranging. “'Cooee' is a distinctly Australian cry, and one which is used between Australians,” Holmes explains to Watson. The word that the son thinks of as his own is shared by thousands of people he has never met, inhabiting a continent that he has never visited, all so far away that the news of ownership has never reached him. When Captain James Cook wrote about his Voyage Towards the South Pole and Round the World, 1777, he gave you some idea of the distance between the hemispheres partly by describing the volume of supplies he would have to order before he left, and if I am wrong about this (I haven’t read the book in a while) then I am focussed on it because the phrase, “inspissated juice of wort” has stuck with me. What’s this word, “inspissated”? I wondered, when I read it. In my recollection I crossed the distance between myself and “inspissated” immediately by looking it up. Cook meant that the juice of wort was thickened by a process of dehydration. If I had not been impatient I would have discovered after a few more lines or paragraphs (I forget which) that he wanted to explain inspissation to me himself. Today I know the definition but I am still not comforted and calmed and undisturbed by the words “inspissated juice of wort” and I expect to go on being uneasy until I have found some and drunk it. Fanny Burney’s brother sailed with Cook, by the way: he must have known what it tasted like. A small bat-shaped island near the Australian coast has been named after him. See Henry Stuart Russell’s The Genesis of Queensland, 1888.


Sunday, April 17, 2016

wild and ashamed of myself, I could not help feeling amused



Thorvald Weitemeyer, 1850 – 1919, says that his autobiographical book Missing Friends: Being the Adventures of a Danish Emigrant in Queensland (1871-1880), 1892, has to end where it does because “I could not continue the history of my life and still preserve my incognito unless I wrote fiction.” It’s not as if he became famous or notorious or adopted a public position of authority and power that might have been affected by this record of his first, itinerant, ten years in Australia -- I searched for him on a genealogy website, no fame – but there was evidently a wariness or politeness or modesty in him that he trusted was general to human nature: the book was published anonymously and he removed the names of other people too, he says, in his introduction – also, “I have erased such private matters as, of course, would be out of place in a publication … Should any one who may read this book think they recognize themselves in any part of my descriptions, I must beg them to accept my apology. They will most likely then also recognize the substantial truth of my description and my endeavour not to be too personal.” At the end of the second-last chapter he rides into an anonymous town and this is where the danger of being recognised must have begun for him in hindsight because there is no story afterwards.

Then I go to the genealogy website:

The family settled in Bundaberg (1880-85); then Brisbane (1885-87), eventually becoming the first settlers of the Montville area in 1887. Their youngest child, Henry, was the first white person born on the Blackall Range in 1888. After Jane died, in 1900 Thorvald married Mary Wynne, a widower from Brisbane. The marriage did not last very long and Thorvald travelled to New Zealand for a number of years. It is unknown how long he was away from Australia, but he was in the Maleny district in 1913-14 and then went to Herbaton on the Atherton Tablelands in North Queensland. Thorvald opened a joinery shop and stayed there until he suffered ill health. In late 1918 his son, Christian, took him to his residence in Bundaberg and he died about 6 months later. He was buried in the Bundaberg Cemetery, June 1919. He was, indeed, a colourful and sometimes "eccentric" character who, in his own way, helped shape Queensland's history.

The website doesn’t tell me why he should be called “eccentric”, which I find tantalising, because his description of himself in Missing Friends is not the description of an eccentric man, and in fact he ends by notifying us that his restless movement, which might seem eccentric in some places, was normal in Queensland, not only during the time that is covered by the book but also in the early 1890s when he was preparing to publish the manuscript: “Australia is full of young men who, like myself at that time, travel about from place to place.” He hears of something interesting, he sells his belongings, he abandons his job, he gets on a horse, he goes: it is quite natural. Groups of other men around him are behaving in the same way. He comes back months later to discover that the people who stayed behind have prospered; he is regretful, but he does it again. There is supposed to be gold in the Palmer or somewhere and everyone goes to the Palmer. He describes them tearing through the streets in the direction of wherever the Palmer is. Other people are watching. “The baker and his wife, and a young girl also, were peeping out through the half-opened door, and seemed to enjoy the spectacle of the crowd racing down the street. I said to myself, 'Bother running like a fool here, I am going for a bottle of beer.'” There are two Thorvalds in the book, one of them running, the other believing that running is ridiculous: he is a ludicrous spectacle to himself. No doubt it is only the fact that they are both Scandinavian that makes me want to compare this to Knut Hamsun's way of looking at whatever you are doing, and simultaneously condemning it for a disgusting, stupid thing and believing that you must continue to do it. It is like the production of the book itself: he must expose himself immodestly with an autobiography but at the same time he may not make his life easier by writing "fiction:" this is a set of rules that he sees hovering heavily before him.

But "I have erased such private matters as, of course, would be out of place in a publication" is a reminder that the firmness of the rules that you have set for yourself is an illusion that you can bend and make as you like; and so Weitemeyer's book can be true and confessional and still erase his wife (m. 1878) just as John Cowper Powys' self-abnegating Autobiography, 1934, deletes his mother: there is something there that cannot be touched, something other than embarrassment.

In Weitemeyer, as in Hamsun, you have an ‘I’ who is determined to show you the times he behaved rudely, disgraced himself, confused everyone -- ruined a play that he was supposed to be acting in, drilled holes in the floor of a house he was supposed to be guarding, locked a woman in a room for her own safety and then threw the key outside thinking somehow that this would make her safer, fired a gun at the wrong time, and got laughed at.

The Yankee sat and smoked his pipe, and laughed in a peculiar way; and, wild and ashamed of myself, I could not help feeling amused at him, because he laughed, although the grimaces in his face were exactly those another man would make if he were going to cry. By and by the captain began to feel calmer, and as I was disposed only to feel angry with myself for the fear which had caused me to press on the trigger of the rifle until it went off, we were soon friends again.

None of the running men have been to the Palmer before -- “no one seemed to know properly where the Palmer was, and as conflicting and disparaging statements soon arrived from the Palmer, and the wet season was coming on, the north was everywhere swarming with men who were ready to camp and prospect anywhere” – but masses of them persist. People run and ride, they will get lost, and there will be a flood, a death, and Thorkill from Iceland will never see Reykjavik again though he’ll witness a Russian emigrant ship flying through the air above the tent, a sight that Weitemeyer cannot see. “I somehow thought he was looking at a bird, and wondered he had not got the gun, so I sat still and said nothing, but kept watching him.” Then “My mate was dying, and I knew it now.” The author himself has hallucinations as he rides through bushland at the end of the second-last chapter before he reaches the town that may (guessing from information on the genealogy page) have been St George in the Shire of Balonne, where, today, council meetings are held on the third Thursday of every month. From Monday 9th May until Friday 13th May 2016 there will be a Wild Dog Trapping Campaign. Spirits were high as community members gathered for the Declaration of Office by new Councillors for the Balonne Shire on Friday, April 8th, 2016 at the St George Cultural Centre. Following each Councillor making their declaration, newly appointed Mayor Richard Marsh highlighted the diversity of the group of elected members and focused on working cohesively as a team to progress the shire in his first public address. Councillor Fiona Gaske was elected to Deputy Mayor at the Inaugural Post Election meeting, held on the same day. Scads of ladies and gentlemen are “lolling out their tongues” at Weitemeyer as he travels through the lonely trees on his horse, whereat he sees a pan of eggs and potatoes on a log, moments later he notices that it is a woman, then it is a devil, but he recovers. “About noon I had a bath in a water-hole I came to, and ate some snails I found in the water. After that I felt somewhat better, and shortly after I came on to the road. I became quite collected in my mind at once, and jumping on to the horse tore away at full gallop for the town.”

I reflect that there was much suddenness in Queensland at the time, and I see now that the first art movement in colonial Australia had to be Impressionistic and not Futuristic because the exercise of speed was already there, the artists had no need to create it, “And on we raced,” Manifesto of Futurism, 1909, Filippo Marinetti, tr. R.W. Flint (?). There was a drunk tourist at a casino in Las Vegas one night, who, deciding that he did not want to walk down three floors to reach his car, climbed over a railing shouting, “Man up!”, crossed those three storeys in one plummet, and broke his arm. His friend began laughing, it was that sudden. “What a lark! What a plunge!” Mrs Dalloway, 1925, Virginia Woolf. “To the reader who has kindly followed me so far, I would say that he may believe that Australia is full of young men who, like myself at that time, travel about from place to place, and that similar scenes to those I have described happen every day in all parts of Queensland.”


Sunday, April 10, 2016

to shop with her



“To explain is never more than to describe a way of making: it is merely to remake in thought. The why and the how, which are only ways of expressing the implications of this idea, inject themselves into every statement, demanding satisfaction at all costs.” Paul Valéry, Sea Shells, 1936, tr. Ralph Manheim. I’ve been thinking of Camilla’s Mrs Mittin, the character in Burney who (aside from Briggs) most successfully evades the “why” that the author gives her, which is this, “simple egotism.”

She would work, read, go on errands, or cook a dinner; be a parasite, a spy, an attendant, a drudge; keep a secret, or spread a report; incite a quarrel, or coax contending parties into peace; invent any expedient, and execute any scheme ... all with the pretext to oblige others, but all, in fact, for simple egotism; as prevalent in her mind as in that of the more highly ambitious, though meaner and less dangerous. [vol V., bk II, ch XII, ellipsis in text]

She advertises her willingness to oblige you, but (we discover) she can only oblige you in the way she has decided you want to be obliged – by telling you to go to shows she likes and finding bargain hats for you – by shopping and gossiping -- Burney using the word “gossiping” in association with her fairly often, and never “shopping,” though it had been in the English lexicon since she was a child, both born at roughly the same time according to the OED, which says somewhere between 1755 – 1765 for “shopping” while Burney appeared in 1752 -- and the description of shopping (not called by that name though “shop” as a verb is used, “to shop with her,” vol. V, ch. VI), is that it is an activity of shame, in which Mittin pulls Camilla down the street by the arm and the heroine is humiliated as she imagines people sneering at the spectacle of two women going from place to place and looking without buying. If you do not want to pay for the cheap cape that Mittin has brought back to your room then she will become “evasive” when you ask her to return it to the shopkeeper. Does she secretly hate you? You will never know. The author herself does not know. Vulgarity per se is enough of an essential negative in Burney’s eyes. You do not have to be kind or cruel on top of it, although her vulgar characters are also kind and cruel. ("Mrs Mittin [...] a character so forward, vulgar, and encroaching." Bk VIII, ch I.)

“To please was her incessant desire, and her rage for popularity included every rank and class of society. The more eminent, of course, were her first objects, but the same aim descended to the lowest.” Mittin is flexible but stiff: she will contort anywhere but only inside the boundaries that she recognises. The motivating factor that Burney identifies as “egotism” is invisible or harmless to the other characters* until they bump against it, when, as with Camilla, Mittin becomes a haunting presence who sabotages the heroines’s desire to guard her tiny money by insisting that Camilla congratulate her effort and buy the hat or cape. Or not insisting maybe, but refusing to recognise her No. To “remake” Mittin, ‘in thought,” you would need to inhabit, not an external history (as with Mrs Ireton in The Wanderer, whose backstory is a lesson against indulgence), but the unexplained internal core of Mittin-egotism itself, keeping in mind that the core flexibly remakes everything that comes to it, attempting to draw it in and reform it, until Camilla, in a false sense, is a young woman who would like that cape. News outlets reform the world like that for their audience: the protester gassed at the rally was violent.

Camilla falls into debt, runs away, and suffers death visions whose Gothic intensity owes something to the popularity of Ann Radcliff. But Mittin is blithe: the brother who keeps borrowing money from his sister is also blithe: they are both smiling. The brother breaks down eventually. He is tortured, tortured. Mittin is impenetrable. “She's the good-naturedest creature I ever knew,” says Miss Dennell to her father in bk. VI, ch. VI. In bk. X, ch XIV, “The notable Mrs. Mittin contrived soon to so usefully ingratiate herself in the favour of Mr. Dennel, that, in the full persuasion she would save him half his annual expences, he married her.”



*or actively useful. “Mrs. Berlinton, tired of remonstrances she could not controvert, and would not observe, was extremely relieved by finding a person [Mrs Mittin] who would sit with her aunt, comply with her humours, hear her lamentations, subscribe to her opinions, and beguile her of her rigid fretfulness by the amusement of gossiping anecdotes.”


Mudpuddle's comment below is prompting me to add this .pdf link to a good Mittin-essay by Li-ching Chen. "But I Do My Own Way": Mrs. Mittin's Autonomy and Quest for Respectability in Frances Burney’s Camilla.


Sunday, March 27, 2016

examined and tossed about



Juliet in The Wanderer, 1814, goes to work at a milliner’s shop. This is the most amazing thing in Burney since the man in Cecilia shot himself. Millinery tires her, not the work itself, but the fact that she is always on display, she is in a room with other workers; she is depressed by conversation that she dislikes; the war between the customers and sellers is oppressive to her.

The ladies whose practice it was to frequent the shop, thought the time and trouble of its mistress, and her assistants, amply paid by the honour of their presence; and though they tried on hats and caps, till they put them out of shape; examined and tossed about the choicest goods, till they were so injured that they could be sold only at half price; ordered sundry articles, which, when finished, they returned, because they had changed their minds; or discovered that they did not want them; still their consciences were at ease, their honour was self-acquitted, and their generosity was self-applauded, if, after two or three hours of lounging, rummaging, fault-finding and chaffering, they purchased a yard or two of ribbon, or a few skanes of netting silk.

But “Upon further observation, nevertheless, her compassion for the milliner and the work-women somewhat diminished; for she found that their notions of probity were as lax as those of their customers were of justice; and saw that their own rudeness to those who had neither rank nor fortune, kept pace with the haughtiness which they were forced to support, from those by whom both were possessed.”

Eventually “In viewing conflicts such as these, between selfish vanity and cringing cunning, it soon became difficult to decide, which was least congenial to the upright mind and pure morality of Juliet, the insolent, vain, unfeeling buyer, or the subtle, plausible, over-reaching seller.” The two sides have four faults each in that sentence: they are equal for a moment, but the ladies are condemned more insidiously by Burney because they have more power, as Mr Giles says in vol. IV, ch. LXV, when he is speaking to Mrs Ireton: “I don't know why you ladies who are so rich and gay should not try to make yourselves pleasant to those who are poor and sad,” and the Admiral in vol. V, ch. XCII, "For who the devil's the better for her birth and breeding, if they only serve to make her fancy she has a right to be impudent?"

The protagonist wants to settle on her morals and she can't. “I know no longer what is kind or what is cruel, nor have I known for some time past right from wrong, nor good from evil!" said Cecilia in Cecilia after she had lived for months with a guardian who guilted her into giving him money for his debts. It is economics that introduces these problems to Burney’s world, the inequalities of money, which create a level of misunderstanding that is different from the interpersonal kind (which the author still pursues), it is a misunderstanding that confounds direct thought, and it is less optimistic than the interpersonal, since there is no Other to understand; there is no hope that (as at the end of Camilla) the problem will be fixed with some statement of truth. “[E]very doubt was wholly, and even miraculously removed, by learning thus the true feelings of her heart.” With economics it is the opposite: every revelation makes it worse.