Sunday, September 1, 2013

drain it, and make a little colony

Then I tell myself I have recognised another piece of Catherine Martin's personality to go with the fear of explaining herself too clearly, and I think, Perhaps she was a perfectionist, perhaps she was afraid of being wrong, perhaps she was afraid of fog, and these observations begin to represent themselves like clues, which is a tendency I might want to suppress, O this understanding that seems too easy, and Catherine Martin so dead so lost so long, forgive me I suppose, and not many biographical details of her in circulation: a regressive writer who published The Explorers under her initials only, M.C., and An Australian Girl anonymously, and then The Silent Sea as Mrs Alick MacLeod (she was not Mrs Alick MacLeod, her husband was an accountant named Frederick), until Dale Spender in 1988 looks at these names and says that possibly "she wrote even more but that it has not -- as yet -- been attributed to her" (Writing a New World: Two Centuries of Australian Women Writers).

Stella doesn't have the many-sidedness that George Eliot ("Martin also wrote of George Eliot with great admiration, speaking, for example, of Eliot's ‘superb individuality’, her ‘wide culture’ and ‘intellectual grasp’, and of ‘the depth of philosophic thought’ which characterised her works and which ‘marks a new departure in fiction’" -- Rosemary Foxton) gave to Dorothea Brooke, who could have sounded like a prig too if she had not been so naive and sincere that her own ambition makes her into a joke; she runs into a trap because she doesn't know how to recognise it. Then the ambition to live in selfless dedication leads her into an ignoble circumstance.

But Stella is not flawed like that, her refinement does not betray her, the problems come from the outside, they are not within, she meets a villainous woman in a drawing room, her high-mindedness is correct, it is the people around her who work to thwart her; she is not the villain as well as the victim though Dorothea is both those things, and is Don Quixote the clown-knight.

Martin's opinion, in the Mallee chapters, about the land being refurbished to grow fruit and corn, might have been a legacy of Middlemarch. Dorothea makes plans --

"I should like to take a great deal of land, and drain it, and make a little colony, where everybody should work, and all the work should be done well. I should know every one of the people and be their friend"

-- which is close to the position Stella finds herself in at the end of An Australian Girl. "Give me two hundred acres to cut up into little farms --" she says, but the book ends before the plan is allowed to work itself out.

Which could even be understood as a muffled reference to the hymn of the uncompleted life that comes at the end of Eliot's story even though the evidence for that assumption would never be perfect.

Dorothea is a range of characters inside herself; Stella is only one or maybe two. I begin to wonder if priggishness is the faith that you alone in all humanity have only a single flat clear side or dimension.

The prose agrees with Stella's opinions; she believes that Ted is not intelligent and the world provides clues to back her up; she would like to run away from him and the world justifies her feelings by making him an alcoholic. (The alcoholism was not there before. It was born from her desires. It was abrupt.) Her ideas about properness are allowed to structure the material universe and so this universe is a universal strait jacket. Martin hasn't given herself the freedom (does not want the freedom, in her heart of hearts: doesn't desire it, fears it?), the freedom that George Eliot takes for herself, to make her characters despicable, mistaken, or pitiful. Eliot's characters are to blame for their predicaments -- Dorothea is to blame for marrying Casaubon -- she did it, she was the one, but this blame breaks the reader's heart perhaps.

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