Sunday, June 24, 2012

words are a very fantastical banquet

Servants in Radcliffe aren't often allowed to answer a question without being interrupted -- that's true in Romance of the Forest and true in The Italian as well, the two books of hers I've recently read -- "I got a sound drubbing," says servant Peter in the Forest, as he's telling La Motte about a reconnoitering expedition to a nearby village, "but then it was in your business, and so I don't mind. But if I ever meet with that rascal again --" then the master steps in, "You seem to like your first drubbing so well, that you want another, and unless you speak more to the purpose you shall soon have one," and soon again, "Is it impossible for you to speak to the point?" snips La Motte, and "Do be less tedious if it is in thy nature," and this pattern recurs, not only with Peter and La Motte, but with other servants and other masters, in different combinations; Peter enters the role of the one who exasperates people; he can barely say a line without somebody having a go at him, and it's played for laughs, it seems brutal.

This is the Nurse and Juliet, I thought when I came across it the first time -- the servant who keeps talking about themselves ("Fie, how my bones ache! what a jaunt have I had!" says the Nurse, "Would thou hadst my bones, and I thy news," says Juliet) and the master trying to extract some specific piece of information -- "although," I said, "probably an everyday comedy trope at the time and borrowed from other literature without coming through Shakespeare" -- and I still believe, without knowing for sure, that it must have been a contemporary habit that she picked up -- believing this because she picked it up, when she's not a funny writer; easiest to take what's there -- but I noticed that the pattern was accompanied by bits of language that seemed to indicate an older presence inhabiting Radcliffe's brain, "thy" in La Motte's "thy nature" when the characters use a normal "you" in other conversations, and also his "speak more to the purpose," which appears in Much Ado About Nothing: "He was wont to speak plain and to the purpose," says Benedick in the garden, Act Two, Scene Three, "like an honest man and a soldier; and now is he turned orthography; his words are a very fantastical banquet, just so many strange dishes." Benedick at this point has sent a servant Boy to bring him a book; the words "He was wont," etc, are not referring to this Boy, but Benedick began the speech by telling the Boy to stop faffing around and obey.

In my chamber-window lies a book: bring it hither
to me in the orchard.

I am here already, sir.

I know that; but I would have thee hence, and here again.

Exit Boy

And I suspect (though I can only suspect) that the conjunction of actions, servants being told to hurry up, masters giving orders, and "his words are a very fantastical banquet," suggested that other phrase to Radcliffe's mind, namely, "to the purpose," and I suspect also that in The Italian she is thinking of Macbeth when one character urges an accomplice to stab a person to death, then, when the accomplice baulks, tells him to hand over the dagger, saying, "Arouse yourself, and be a man!" So too, Lady Macbeth tells her husband to hand her his daggers when he baulks: "Infirm of purpose! / Give me the dagger." Meanwhile the accomplice suffers bloody visions. Macbeth has bloody visions. In another part of the book the murderer who says, "Arouse yourself!" is in cahoots with a woman who is unnaturally firm and murderous (thinks the author) for a woman; and so Shakespeare seems to disintegrate and scatter himself through the two books, emerging from the author's brain at different times.

I know, I know, I know, I'm aware: people reading a book are often amazed when they see how nicely it reflects something they already know. "Look at this sentence here, they've been reading my favourite --" "Nuh," says the author, interviewed, "never heard of it. Total coincidence. Bizarre."

But whether she thought about Benedick or not is less interesting than the idea that she could have done so, that these conjunctions leading to results are possible, and that evolution therefore is capable of mysterious courses.


  1. Some of the best writers in English seem to have given short shrift to the real life of servants.

    1. Why is that, I wonder, when they were a mainstay of English-speaking society for so long? I can make a few guesses but I don't know for sure. The life of any prominent literary servant is usually the life of an adjunct; the master goes out for an adventure and the servant comes along, they're Sancho Panza or Sam Weller. Who are the exceptions? Governesses? Jane Eyre? Woolf was conscious of servants. Maria Edgeworth in 1800 had her Castle Rackrent narrated by the Rackrent family's steward. (This is a really excellent use of the same Comic Servant trope that Radcliffe borrowed. Edgeworth's turned a minor stock figure a major Unreliable Narrator.)

  2. On t'other hand, the modern English novel, in one conventional account. is founded on a servant, Richardson's Pamela, the servant who tames her master.

    Edgeworth's example is more enjoyable and ingenious. Wuthering Heights is narrated at one remove by a servant - I suspect EB had read Edgeworth. In North and South a family in decline is highly aware that it no longer has servants.

    But as Shelley suggests, how rare to find the English equivalent of Madame Bovary, a novel not about the servants but in which they are part of the novel's world, "on screen" with small speaking parts, not just assumed away.

    1. Pamela! That's the book I was trying to fish out of my memory. All the time I was writing that reply I kept thinking, "Woman's name, one word, not Clarissa," and couldn't get it. Pamela. So Shamela too. And other writers imitating Richardson, books that have died, never read any more unless you're studying the period or Pamela or Fielding. But as for English books that treat servants like part of the commenting village of a household and not sets of invisible hands or main characters, Eliot brings that in as an idea ("Of course, as a servant who was to be told nothing, he knew the fact of which Ladislaw was still ignorant" (Middlemarch) and in Felix Holt there's a description of a large house where servants have private lives in the mass of faraway back rooms) but I don't think she makes a lot out of it.

      "Pudd'nhead Wilson," said M. when I asked him.