Thursday, January 2, 2014

the tale of his marvellous exploits, and those of his wife

When I think about that quote ("They had none of them believed in her voice, till one Sunday, when the Captain held service, she had poured out her glorious contralto in a hymn ...") it strikes me more and more that Praed (in all of the books of hers that I've read) will often write as if you had asked her the question, "How is this character being evaluated by the people around them?" which in Fugitive Anne means that there is a supporting cast of extras who initially disregard the heroine and then change their minds.

There are the passengers who try to ignore her on that ship, and there are the cannibals who are united in a decision to eat her until she sings Ave Maria, which convinces them that she is an earthly representative of Mormodelik, Spirit of the Pleiades. "The warriors continued their dance, but presently stopped too; and now the whole congregation gazed at her as she stood on the raised ledge, her head level with the point of the boulder; her grey habit the colour of the rock itself, falling in straight folds round her; her brown face upraised, with its delicate aquiline nose, its little square chin, and its shining eyes all aglow; her lips tremulous with excitement."

The people on the ship and the cannibals here forming a united group of converted doubters. Later they will be thematically at one with the lost tribe of Ancient Mayans and several nations of Europe. "This was the Danish explorer's first appearance as a public lecturer in England, though in his own country, and in Germany, he has related before several learned societies the tale of his marvellous exploits, and those of his wife the Baroness Marley." (Anne is the Baroness.) "It is an open secret that Lady Marley and Mr Eric Hansen have been received with favour in high places."

The groups notice her, they acknowledge her, she has given them her evidence and they have accepted it, though there is a danger that the cannibals will get tired of her singing and eat her anyway. "In her misery, she wondered whether the time would ever come when she should fail in bringing down rain or in frightening away the tribesmen's enemies; and whether they would then denounce her as a false goddess, and roast and eat her as they were eating the dead warriors of the Pooloongools."

Change here being something you can foresee and dread, whereas in Cambridge you often do not foresee it: the train will arrive suddenly on top of you, or the man you're going to marry will unexpectedly hand you a tray, which is a way of looking at the world that is more in sympathy with a contemporary theorist's point of view than is Praed's appeal to the fixed order of aesthetic appreciation, so firm and universal that even a group of people who have lived far away from Ave Maria can react as if they're acquainted with its reputation, even becoming a congregation: "and now the whole congregation gazed at her." Contemporary theoretical thought in general moving further towards the non-hierarchical, the less-fixed, and the volatility of the self, and Leopardi in the 1820s reasoning that the appreciation of beauty depended on acculturation, the Ethiopian, he said, preferring black beauty to white beauty because relevant experiences had naturally brought them to inhabit that point of view. Praed's cannibals have received experiences that have brought them into the same frame of mind (re. Ave Maria) as the Europeans whose bodies form a component of their nourishment at those times when they are not eating the Pooloongools. Here's the question that comes next: are the rumours about cannibalism's benefits true, and does eating human flesh really let you absorb the abilities-slash-tendencies of your victim?

(Has it occurred to them that by eating her they might acquire the singing voice?)

Praed dreads; Cambridge does not often dread; it is possibility of a universe of fixed statuses that gives Praed this dread, the expectation that a certain thing should be so (or: should be evaluated so) but what horror if it doesn't, what horror, what high stakes we're playing for as we wait here to get eaten; and the result of the evaluation is not completely under our control, no matter how much evidence we give, our grey habits harmonising with the rock face and our contralto pouring out, yet not enough, maybe.

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