Monday, September 19, 2016

she has followed her instructions to the letter



Near the end of Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman, 1951, the character Natalie follows her friend into a dark forest where she realises that this good companion has been employed all along by a presence that somehow wants to abduct her. “She has done as she was told then, Natalie thought; she has brought me here with friendship and without force, she has followed her instructions to the letter and will probably be commended.” What is the presence? Earlier on the bus the two friends guessed that the other passengers might be agents of “them,” but the conversation is so ambiguous that it’s possible for the reader to understand “them” as something fairly routine: a power of convention that wants to repress an imaginative high school student; that sort of they. Now, though, when Natalie anticipates the presence in the woods, it is as if she is expecting a murderer. It is not the powers of society, it is a phenomenal force that draws her specifically away from society in order to approach her. Its strength does not seem to be located anywhere outside her belief in it: not in any institution or animal physicality.

Hangsaman is always discussed as if that event is a manifestation of the trauma that was repressed after a sexual assault in chapter one. Why is it necessary for trauma be shaped like a magical serial killer? This seems like a key question in Jackson and the answer must lie unanswerably outside the books as well as inside them. If you can say why Natalie’s family ignores the evidence of the assault then you might know why Eleanor in the Haunting of Hill House, 1959, has to steal a car, drive away, and be mentally possessed by an unfamiliar structure, why it is necessary for the structure to seem (supernaturally) familiar to her; why, in other words, the exposition of her character has to happen there, and not in the home where she has spent eleven years caring for her dying mother. All of Hill House can be read as a return to the last fifty pages of the earlier book.

(I think that by publishing Hangsaman Jackson found the other story.)

When I started writing this post I was wondering how Jackson might have changed her work if she had been able to read Elfriede Jelinek. Specifically I wondered if she might have lost the magazine archness veneering her sarcasm, if she might have looked at Otto, Gretl, and the twins in Wonderful Wonderful Times / Die Ausgesperrten, 1980 and recognised her own cynicism towards families, the conviction of Natalie’s father that his desires are best and that his disdain for his wife is justified, the wretchedly obedient self-hatred of the wife herself which Jackson makes as unpitiable as possible, for both authors will prickle at benevolence. I was disturbed by what I interpreted as the author’s voluntary or habitual defanging of herself. In Jelinek’s translated sentences play and anger are the same thing: the sentences are negatively energised, the play is jeering, whereas Jackson’s play is play apart, in a place where people have time to sit comfortably every now and then, writing calm, wry statements about the little things in life: a leisure place, and as such it exists apart from the anger or panic or disgust that supply the sentences with their meanings. But there is always something theoretical to appeal to in Jelinek when the characters act on that sarcasm: there are patriarchal mores or the denialism of postwar Austria; there is no ghost they. Jackson is unsealed, more careless, she hides (Jelinek exposes); she is (idea) not writing Hangsaman to reveal a fictionalised sexual assault but to conceal one, as if some wound, not necessarily sexual, has already happened and now it needs obfuscation to hide it away.


Monday, September 12, 2016

come to hear a little more



Society is the unit of enclosure in Richardson; also the space of letters. The books are their own enclosures in a way that a fiction with nature descriptions is not, since the material of a book is never nature and it can’t mimic nature; cannot be like a twig or rock; a book can’t come from nature; so every detail in a Richardson book is a reinforcement of enclosure in its own implied matter. (This should be qualified by a reminder of the Alps in Grandison, vol. 4 ch. 39.) Richardson, as an author of fiction books, was born from a volume of model letters that his friends Charles Rivington and John Osbourne convinced him to write for them, “a little book (which, they said, they were often asked after) of familiar letters on the useful concerns of common life; and, at last, I yielded to their importunity” (letter to Aaron Hill, 1 Feb., 1741). He owned a printing business and they were his colleagues in the trade. You assume that they didn’t feel like writing the model letter book themselves; maybe not trusting their own abilities, or else they didn’t have time, or it seemed easier to bug their friend, who had never written a work of fiction before, though he had edited some of the books that came through his presses, and had once composed a pamphlet of advice for apprentices, The Apprentice’s Vade Mecum, 1733. Something in what he was (what was it: what was he?) encouraged them to ask him several times to write this Familiar Letters, which was composed in 1739 and published eventually in 1741. “While I was writing the two volumes, my worthy-hearted wife, and the young lady who is with us, when I had read them some part of the story, which I had begun without their knowing it, used to come into my closet every night with – ‘Have you any more of Pamela, Mr. R.? We are come to hear a little more of Pamela’ &c. This encouraged me to prosecute it.” They did not have to ask him directly, according to him (their asking-him asked him, not they) – he flew into it “so diligently, through all my other business, that, by a memorandum on my copy, I began it Nov. 10, 1739, and finished it Jan. 10, 1739-40.” The epistolary formula stimulated him to invent it, the never-alone to and fro motion, which he combines with the direct me-to-you of instruction (the idea of vade mecum never left him). These two actions at once. He is always with people.


Tuesday, August 30, 2016

weigh’d



Reading the sentence, “How a middle-aged business man came so thoroughly to understand a little servant girl is the usual mystery of creation,” in Eaves and Kimpel’s Samuel Richardson: a Biography, 1971, p. 105, re Pamela, 1740, I made the following notes:

Richardson believed that he was shy; now say that shyness is a form of captivity.

See for evidence, his letter to Samuel Lobb, Jan 31st, 1754, sampled like this: “When I was young, I was very sheepish; (so I am indeed now that I am old: I have not had Confidence enough to try to overcome a Defect so natural to me, tho’ I have been a great Loser by it),” going on through the strategies he invented so that he could raise his voice in public: “this was my Rule to get Courage … : I let them all speak round before I open’d my Lips, after the first Introductions: Then I weigh’d, whether I had been to speak on the same Occasions, that each Person spoke upon, I should have been able to deliver myself as well as they had done ...” etc.

His women are under the wills of others, even in their homes, this is the form of his world.

Sir Charles Grandison, who is the best possible man in Richardson’s mind, is not shy.

Richardson doesn’t heroise inactive men (compare Burney).

Grandison lectures his inactive uncle. The uncle becomes subordinate.

An inactive, speechless woman in Richardson has a vocabulary of goodness around her: she is humble, modest, obedient, kind, and respectful; lots of praiseworthy things can be read into her silence; especially young women.

Kind, self-sufficient men are active in R.

Kind, self-sufficient women do not have to be active.

His “Rule” was to wait until the rest had spoken before he decided to join or stay silent: all depended on them. “I let them all speak round before I open’d my Lips … Then I weigh’d … And if I found I should have rather chosen to be silent, than to say some things they said, I preserv'd my Silence and was pleased. And if I could have spoken as well as others, I was the less scrupulous: While those who were above my Match, I admir'd, endeavour'd to cultivate their Acquaintance, by making myself agreeable to them by my Modesty, if I could not by my Merit; and to imitate them, as nearly as my Abilities and Situation would permit ...”


Friday, August 26, 2016

to have recourse



Harriet asking to delay her wedding, Clementina wanting to repel marriage and become a nun, this is another mirroring that I can’t parse, the two women parallel, both struggling against a vise (vol. 6, many ch.). The tenor of the book runs a) with the desires of the vises, but also b) with the feelings of the women since it will not criticise their unreason except through a questionable polyphony. Unreason here is as the vises perceive it. The value of this secret unreason is preached by the book, but hopelessly, the book forming the parallel as a kind of protest, like an extended, begging hand. It is sympathetic to Harriet, showing her dread, and Harriet says that Clementina should be allowed to follow her inspiration, though she is not speaking to the other woman’s face, never having met her. Harriet believes the longing, as a longing, should be heeded. And the reader might recall the aspiring rapist Pollexfen ignoring Harriet's own distress long ago in vol. 1, ch. 33: “he now and then made apologies for the cruelty, to which, he said, he was compelled by my invincible obstinacy, to have recourse.” Now the Pollexfen situation is replicated insidiously by people the author has more or less labelled good. Here is a high point of Richardson’s ambiguity.

Here is one undertone in him: women are always in captivity.


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 has never met Clementina but at no point does she suspect that the people who tell her about Clementina's goodness might be exaggerating. You could say that Harriet 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.

Harriet 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. What does she want? She wants something that is not sensible.

Richardson, in his letter, relishes the thought of Miss Mulso being not-sensible, being filled with desire for she doesn'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 (actually 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)