The Fixed Period: A Time without Violins or Imagination

Brace yourself.  Try to imagine a world in which the violin has become “nearly obsolete.” I know, right?!  You’ve nearly fallen to your knees, begging for mercy, asking yourself why. Why, great creator, did humanity ever get to this point?

I am a big fan of the violin.  I am learning to play it at almost 40 years old because I feel that it is the most beautiful instrument on the planet. Yet, when Trollope kicks off his futuristic dystopia novella The Fixed Period (British, 1882) with this absolutely chilling vision, it signals that although Trollope is one of the most skilled Victorian Realist writers, the man had next to no imagination.

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Living in Henry James’s Other House

An affluent womanizer, Tony Bream.  The nicest, sweetest girl, Jean Martle.  A desperate lover abroad too long in China, Dennis Vidal.  The odd Rose Arminger.

They all seem like characters from the famed game Clue. 

Who was the murderer of the little girl Effie Bream; who held this child’s delicate body under the water until she drowned?

In The Other House, Henry James writes an awkward murder mystery vis a vis a  novel of manners that begins with some piquant flavor of the supernatural.  As in many of James’s works (such as The Turn of the Screw and What Maisie Knew and The Awkward Age), a child is in grave danger of a horrific and unnameable threat from the adult world.  And as all good fairy tales do, this wayward genre-shifter begins with the death of a damned good mother.

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Heroics in the Arctic with Satan

The motif of arctic exploration is not unique during the Romantic period in which many authors, such as Mary Shelley and Coleridge, utilize the setting of a sub-zero climate and its  dangers to highlight the macabre and mysterious nature of their plots and characters. In Wilkie Collins’s short story “The Devil’s Spectacles” the artic setting is reminiscent of such Romantic literary locations where characters are confronted with what they fear most — in this case, the devil and the dark nature of humanity.   Septimus Notman propels the tale by admitting on his deathbed to being a cannibal through eating his dead friend during an arctic adventure to save himself from starvation.  Upon his contemplation appears the devil with a pair of spectacles for Notman, which will give him the extra push needed to turn him from borderline sinful to full-fledged brute.  These spectacles allow their wearer to  “read everything in [one’s] mind, plain as print” and must be passed on to a different man before Notman can die.

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I Can’t Forgive Alice Vavasor

Victorians were skeptical, to say the least, of forgiveness.  The process seemed destabilizing at best, insincere at its worst.  Forgiveness never really leaves the map of the Victorian literary landscape and yet authors attempt to push it to the margin.  Dismissing forgiveness as impossible or undesirable appears to be an unrealistic a goal in many of the texts of major and minor writers of the period.  An obvious reason for this quandary is that forgiveness is deeply engrained in gender issues that seem difficult to resolve.  In Tess, Thomas Hardy manifests the nature of gender and forgiveness when he writes of Angel’s response to his abused wife’s confession of past errors.  Tess, ravaged by Angel, forgives him and admits to her own sexual transgressions, seeking a kind of equal ground.  Angel cries that such absolution is outlandish: “O Tess!  Forgiveness does not apply to the case!”  Numerous instances like this in Victorian literature manifest that gender and forgiveness are intertwined.  What is forgivable for a man is often at odds with pardonable actions from a woman.

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Bleak House and the Excrement Product

Freud’s claim that excrement is ailment makes a tidy frame for the familiar portrait of Victorian London, or what Dickens in Bleak House calls a “filthy wilderness.” Excrement, defined in the OED as “that which remains after a process of sifting or refining,” emerges from a laborious and sometimes painful process of internalization and elimination that is both visceral and psychological. To excrete is to rid the body of what was once inside it, creating a product with pungent olfactory properties.  Andrea Tanner has explained that as an affront to civilized society, just the smell of excrement was believed by Victorians to carry disease. The correlation between smell and disease prompted upper class Victorians to demand that the metropolitan local government install a program for waste removal, which created a new class of manual laborers to fill the urban streets.  Dirt sweepers and dustmen were employed to help dispel the threat that excrement (and especially horse manure, of which each horse produced between 15-30 pounds daily) posed to both the upper class body and its material possessions. These laborers may have given the upper class peace of mind but at a high price, as sweeping streets and emptying dustbins also acquainted laborers with a more epicurean lifestyle.  The popular “Educated Dustman” figure was held in contempt yet grudgingly admired by some upper class Victorians.  Engaging in self-improvement through reading, challenging the status quo, and acting as “heroic warriors” in the battle for social progress, the Educated Dustmen of London posed a threat to rigidly defined borders of rich and poor.  Because sanitation issues were connected to the poor, the dirty body came to symbolize a social discourse obsessed with sanitation.  The excrement product — dirt, dust, and waste that has material value — suggests a breakdown of social hierarchy. This excrement product has material value, first, in its contribution to creating the liminal spaces of public and private life.  Secondly, the excrement product has social weight as capital.  Finally, the excrement product itself produces social identity by engendering the racially transgressive body, providing a basis for colonialism and constructing theories of reality in the nineteenth century.

 

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The Best Wound in Lady Anna

When I was an undergraduate with an interest in studying Victorian literature, a professor once asked me how much Trollope I had read.  I scratched my head: Trollope?  Never heard of him.

The professor explained that Anthony Trollope used to be the backbone of nineteenth-century literature courses, so I, of course, made Trollope the focus of my summer reading, the summer of 1999.

I began with the Barchester Towers series and eventually came around to one of my all time favorite Trollope novels, the very ambitious He Knew He Was Right.  I could see why readers have long found his works so captivating and even why they have been — and remain — a reference point in Victorian studies.

My thirst for Trollope carried me to some of his lesser-known works, such as Lady Anna, which some critics have boasted rivals He Knew He Was Right in its display of insanity.  Well, that would be a pretty huge undertaking and I couldn’t wait to read it.

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Sorrow is Power

That I have named this very blog after Marie Corelli — and her “electric creed” in the novel A Romance of Two Worlds — speaks to a fact that I don’t really need to reveal: I am in love with Marie Corelli. The pleasure that reading her books brings me is one that can only be had through reading Corelli. But I will save my love-song for Corelli for another post (you’re welcome!).

Having just finished her novel The Sorrows of Satan (British, 1895) reminded me of my blog series, “The Devil is a Woman, but only Momentarily.” This is my fourth installment in the series.

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