Sunday, June 10, 2012

to admit a view

Ann Radcliffe's calm tone in Romance of the Forest is the voice of the person who can see differences from a distance: she surveys each state clearly with her voice, the villain's badness is evident, the heroine is detectably good, and La Motte enters and exits obvious states of goodness and badness. La Motte's progress through the story is unique, lone twitch, he moves like a coin being flipped. Which side will be facing upwards when the end arrives? The decision to end the book won't be his. It will belong to the characters who move directly. He probably suspects it, powerless man, if characters can suspect anything, which they can't, but it would explain his moodiness if they could. "Why are you like that, La Motte? Why are you sneaky and grouchy and wayward?" "Because I know I have no power in this book, I'm going to be everybody's pet idiot, and readers will write abusive pen notes next to my name when all I'm trying to do is keep myself viable to the end of the chapter." "All right, that makes absolute sense."

If Lucien de Rubempré could separate out his states and foresee the consequences as clearly as Hazlitt, he would be happier.

Lucien would have been happier if he'd stayed home in his village, says Balzac, and Ann Radcliffe agrees, yes, innocence should stay away from the cities. "Here is the village!" indicates an honest servant at the end of Forest. "God bless! It is worth a million such places as Paris." Rustic dances forthwith and the protagonists retire to a chateau. "Here, nature was suffered to sport in all her beautiful luxuriance, except where here, and there, the hand of art formed the foliage to admit a view of the blue waters of the lake, with the white sail that glided by, or of the distant mountains." Adeline the virtuous heroine from Forest appears in Balzac's History of the Thirteen, where he is a man and his name is Auguste de Maulincour. Auguste was raised by his grandmother. "She transmitted all her own delicacy of feeling to him and made a timid man of him and apparently a very stupid one. His sensibility was preserved intact, was not blunted by contact with the world and remained so chaste, so vulnerable that he was acutely offended by actions and maxims to which mundane society attached no importance."

This is Adeline through other eyes, an intact sensitivity, chaste and "acutely offended" in exactly that way.

Misguided, easily outraged, Auguste becomes suspicious of a married woman; he spies on her, he wants to tell; he fills the role of Iago, suggests the translator Herbert J. Hunt in the introduction, he is a suspicion-spreader: Iago guileless. (Graham Robb, in his Balzac: a Biography, says that Hunt is "one of [Balzac's] most scrupulous translators," and they are alike, Robb and Hunt, they are both opinionated, they are both scrupulous, and they both admonish less scrupulous people. Hunt's footnotes and Robb's biography of (even more than the Balzac one) Victor Hugo have a similar rigorous critical tone, which Robb has found a word for, here, where he comments on Hunt: this behaviour is "scrupulous.")

But this Iago's Desdemona's father is a member of the untouchable Thirteen and he attacks Auguste in revenge, with hair-poison. Ann Radcliffe is right, her kind of innocence should stay out of the cities, it will be destroyed there, or impurified, it won't be able to live in the protagonist any more, it will have to migrate. If Adeline-innocence wants to survive then it should put its hands on the steering wheel of its vehicle-human and drive that body away.

And Hazlitt is right, presume: the state of fairy innocence he has described will be ruined too, if he goes backstage, he will have seen "the half-lighted candles stuck against the bare walls" "this insight into secrets I am not bound to know" but I still think, in spite of Lucien, that whatever will replace it might not be worse; in Dickens it is not worse, it gave him the Crummles in Nicholas Nickleby.

But we do not all have the same character, Hazlitt points out to me: I am not Dickens. "The stage is not a mistress that we are sworn to undress," he writes, and he might also (following that idea) have thought that other mysteries should not be penetrated, women's clothing for instance (since he is talking about mistresses and undressing), but nothing is alien to Balzac, and so when he wants to put Madame de Bargaton's intelligence and skill in perspective for us in Lost Illusions he can tell us how quickly she learnt to wear a hat, and how challenging it is, this hat-wearing. "There is an indefinable art in wearing a hat: wear it too far back, and it gives you a bold expression; too far forward, it has a sinister air; too far to the side, it gives you a jaunty look; but well-dressed women can put a hat on just as they like, and yet it will always look right. Mme de Bargaton had instantly mastered that curious problem."

I am not Balzac either, says Hazlitt.

There might have been some compensation for you, I say to him, if you had seen how Cato painted, or how Caesar combed, and you might have written another essay afterwards: "There is an indefinable art in brushing hair. This is how Caesar mastered that curious problem." No, replies Hazlitt. I would not. Now go and pester La Motte, he's used to it.


  1. I used to have little interest in Hazlitt, but as a writer, now that I am learning how important Hazlitt was to Keats, I am very curious about him.

    1. Sorry about this: I had a reply here, and then Blogger deleted it and dumped your comment in the spam folder along with someone who was trying to make us all look at washing machines. The connection between Keats and Hazlitt is interesting; the network of connections between a number of friends back then, is interesting, the association of Keats and Hazlitt or Hazlitt and Charles Lamb (I came to him through Lamb, I was looking for more essays), or Dorothy Wordsworth and Coleridge, or Coleridge and anybody who wanted to listen to him talk, or Lamb and the poet John Dyer, whose Georgic poem The Fleece I like a lot, and then the other Wordsworth and Dyer's Grongar Hill, and on and on. They might have been Romantics, but they were a long way from the lonely genius contemplating in the painting with one knee up on a dominated crag.