Tag Archives: English author

Goth-Cred and The Castle of Otranto

9 Jun

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Horace Walpole – The Castle of Otranto – 17th century imagery and the birth of the Novel.

There is an epiphany that quite clearly occurs in the historical development of the novel that the “Castle of Otranto” embodies. Not only does it herald a specific genre, the necessary stock figures and applicable theme-specific scenarios, it also introduces the reader to something far more exciting. Rather than a two dimensional didactic, or even the repetitious monotone of an epistolary – where one is forced to endure and experience at second hand, the episodic adventures of another’s life – it is instead, a catalyst for imagination.

               Otranto through imagery engenders pure escapism, allowing the reader on a subjective level to visualize and experience the imagination of its author. Walpole creates a first-person-shooter account that puts the reader in the fore-front of the action; a feast for the mind that interprets Walpole’s written word into a spectrum of colorful form. Although one could dwell on Walpole’s innovative choice of subject, plot development and characterization one would miss that which makes it such a seminal work. It is the development of atmosphere that metamorphoses this from a simple work of fiction into an entertaining cerebral experience. The reader is no longer just an end-user but rather an amenable participant, whose ability to dispense with reality makes for such an enduring and enjoyable experience.

                Walpole’s novel although published in 1764 is still available in print and being enjoyed by contemporary audiences. Instead of reading under sufferance the novel engenders one to turn the page, whilst willing the characters to succeed or fail. It’s the participation of readers themselves that transforms a printed page into a story, and the imagery and atmosphere within the pages that turns the printed characters into a memorable experience. There is a dimension to Otranto that goes beyond the printed word that is 4th dimensional, allowing one to submit to what Coleridge would have termed “the wiling suspension of disbelief,” but which Walpole more succinctly terms “…the air of the miraculous.” (p.6) Just as designer Brook Stevens put the art into everyday items such as steam-irons and Robert Mapplethorpe turned the advertising genre of commercial photography into high art, Walpole does the same with the novel. There is an immersion quality to his work that allows one to soak into his thought process and actually experience that which he’s trying to describe. It evokes Cinema- Scope realism that wasn’t apparent in Richardson’s writing and a believability that was glaringly absent from Defoe’s. Rather than watching the unfolding action, the reader is placed in a position alongside his characters. One doesn’t just read Walpole, one participates.

               The Castle of Otranto – although apparently fictitious – is an immured stone-edifice, filled with circular staircases, hidden grottos and studded oak doorways. It’s a, “between branchy…,” creeper clad, “…rook racked, and river rounded,” – to quote Manley-Hopkins – seat of incestuous aristocracy, filled with the ghosts and secrets of an ancient family. It’s the intensity of imagery that Walpole creates that makes his story so enduring. Although he teeters between comedy, horror, the ridiculous, and even a retelling of “Hamlet,” it’s his solid descriptive voice that makes the novel memorable. One is literally led through the castle as though the author is describing perhaps a place once visited, and to which he returns throughout: a castle created for the mind of the reader in which to contain his story. Although his characters are a tad underdeveloped, it’s the environs and the experience they have whilst in them, that brings the story to life. One can literally hear the slam of doors, the steps on descending stairwells and hear the wind rattle through the casements. One can sense the gloom and feel the damp oozing up through the walls as one creeps through the gloom to assist in the escape of Isabella or to catch a glimpse of the Giant. Walpole, through vivid description, takes us by the hand and leads us through the streets of his creation.

               The escape of Isabella from the unsolicited advances of Manfred is a keen example of this. Her flight to the bottom of the “principal staircase” in preference to the “guarded locked gates”, in an attempt to access  the “subterraneous passage” she recollects, that will afford escape from the vaults of the castle to the church of Saint Nicholas – that runs contiguous apparently –in order to gain sanctuary at its alter.(p.26) Seizing a lamp hung at the bottom of the stairs to light her way through the gloom – we imagine the crash of shoes on stone and the hiss of flame – as she hastens to the lower realms of the castle, “hollowed out into several intricate cloisters.”(p.26) Subjected to awful silences, door shaking blasts of wind  and grating rusty hinges, that can be heard throughout the subterranean gloom, we stand with Isabella, our breast heaving, as we attempt to ascertain the pursuit of the dreaded Manfred.(p.26)

               Although one must assume that Walpole doesn’t have experience with the spirit world, former Counts masquerading as priests, or even perhaps itinerant Giants, he does have a plan. In the lucid explication of the route taken by the fleeing Isabella he takes us to a location where he has undoubtedly visited. His memory of the castle and its environs lends credence to his tale, and complimented with his dynamic prose adheres to the old adage of writing what you know. Because of Walpole’s crafted narration “The Castle of Otranto,” although a fantastical tale, is made almost believable. His rich descriptions, vivid imagery and sense of timing, create what might be considered a modern novel. It was the development of the descriptive scenario coupled with ornamented language that undoubtedly turned the epistolary and picaresque novels of Walpole’s day, into the modern codices we now enjoy on our bookshelves.

 

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Lights-Camera -Action – PAMELA / RICHARDSON

7 Jun

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 The origins of the Adventure genre found in the eighteenth century novel “Pamela” by Samuel Richardson 

   The modern action adventure story owes much to Richardson’s “Pamela.” With a plot that shocks and entertains, and with rip-roaring action throughout, “Pamela” is a riot of lust, suspicion, and double dealing. Every facet of modern literary intrigue can be found within its pages, and it’s likely that contemporary novels all owe a degree of provenance to it.  “The Riddle of the Sands”, an early twentieth century novel by Erskine Childers, is often acclaimed as the first espionage novel of modern times and yet, many of the stories twists and turns can be traced to “Pamela.” Incidents of secret meetings, hidden messages, near misses, daring escapes, and mysterious comings and goings are all imagined by Richardson, who proves through his novel to be a patriarch of the genre. Pamela although not the first female action-adventure-hero of eighteenth century literature, is definitely one of its finest. A young woman, she must guard her chastity and endure impossible – if not improbable – situations despite seemingly insurmountable odds, using only common sense, guile, and home spun morality. Pamela beseeches the Almighty to save her in her moment of need, “… Angels and saints and all the hosts of heaven defend me,” (p.63) but her bootless cries fall on a deaf heaven, and so is forced to fend for herself.

               Richardson recognized that a novel should encourage the reader to read further; what today we would call a page-turner. Rather than a didactic epistolary he chooses to suspend the reader’s sense of disbelief to the extent that the line between credulity and incredulity is continuously crossed. Just when one imagines that the story has been told and that the book is finished, a short, sharp, shift, in gear takes one deeper into a fresh sub-plot. According to Graemme Shimmin author of “A kill in the Morning” – an espionage novel of some renown – “in order to be memorable, an intrigue novel must contain the following six sub-genres.”(Shimmin)

1. Stunning opening

2. Dynamic protagonist

3. Realism

4. Action

5. Cliff hanger scenarios

6. Startling twists.

 

               Whether or not Shimmin is aware of Richardson’s work is unclear however, he describes “Pamela” to a tee. Richardson’s novel embodies each of these categories, demanding as it does the reader’s attention at every line.

               The novel opens with a young, beautiful, serving girl at the death bed of her mistress. Her world is about to crash about her ears, as without her lady’s patronage she must leave the luxury of a substantial country-pile and return to her impoverished parents and the misery of a country hovel. Although accustomed to mixing with her betters and trained by her mistress in the arts of high-society, she’s doomed to endure a world of rural mediocrity. Fortunately there’s a reprieve. Upon her death bed the Lady of the house insists upon her continued service under the protection of her son, whom she asks to take care of her. The foreshadowing of a new benefactor after the death of an original is enough to alert the seasoned reader. Pamela, as we can guess, is about to go from a happy ordered existence into one of intrigue and danger. The naivety of the girl plays a huge role as unbeknownst to her Mr. B, unlike his dying mother, does not have her best interests at heart. After giving her a sum of money he tells her to be a, “… a good girl, faithful and diligent,” and that, “… he would be a friend to [her] for [his] mother’s sake.”(p.43)

               Pamela is a dynamic protagonist whose natural beauty and purity of mind are her fatal flaws. Determined to defend her chastity at all costs, she outwits myriad intrigues and manages dexterously to extricate herself from desperate scenarios despite, in some instances, over whelming odds. She’s a character with moxy, who’s unafraid to speak her mind despite her lowly station, and who’ll defend to the very best of her Christian sensibilities that to which she clings so dearly. Her ability to think clearly under pressure, hiding her correspondence and managing to escape the machinations of a master with a penchant for hiding in closets is worthy of “007” himself. When overcome by impossible odds, or just when we think she is about to succumb, Pamela relies on her innate female ability to faint at will. A necessary skill she’s honed to perfection.

               Pamela, having to extricate herself from the wretched advances of the lascivious Mr.B, is an exceptionally believable character. Given the plight of eighteenth century women, the disparate societal gap – both educationally and financially – between the upper and lower classes, is well documented. Countless novels have been written about indentured servitude and consequently Richardson doesn’t take us into a realm of disbelief, but rather offers us a quotidian drama that we can readily accept. A young woman pestered by a man of higher status is conceivable. Pamela is an every-woman who crosses the boundaries between the lives of the rich and poor, and who gives us insight into both. She’s our eyes and ears as she introduces us to the inequalities of hierarchical society, where everybody, except Pamela and the insatiable Mr. B, knows their place and acts accordingly.

               The action is nonstop as Pamela crashes from one crisis to the next. Richardson cracks a thundering pace, and it’s only through Pamela’s correspondence that we’re provided pause to the wickedness she experiences. The subterfuge of her fellow servants allows Pamela no respite, and just when she thinks she’s safe, she’s always closest to danger. We see this in both Mrs. Jervis and Mrs. Jewkes who assist in her attempted rape. Mrs. Jervis by allowing Mr. B. to hide in the closet so that he can jump out when Pamela least expects and ravish her, and Mrs. Jewkes who actually pinions Pamela whilst the master attempts to mount her. With drunken, complicit maids and a cross dressing member of the gentry, this is undoubtedly the most disturbing scene of the entire novel.

               Pamela’s daring escape through the window, and the horror we experience as readers when we realize she’s unable to extricate herself from the garden is masterly. Her incredible luck when she just happens to “recollect” a ladder, only to be foiled by poor masonry that nearly kills her when the brickwork of the wall comes crashing down about her.  We know that she’ll be discovered in the wood shed, despite her pretense of drowning, and yet hold our breath in false hope as the clock strikes twelve, and she , “hied away to the pond…[on a] dark and misty night, … of which [she isn’t] sensible,”(p.210) until she’s ultimately discovered. All this along with Gypsies, skulking strangers, sham marriages, foreign gentlemen, a mysterious incestuous neighborhood where nobody is prepared to help her, a jailed priest, hidden correspondence, hateful sister-in-laws, disapproving neighbors, false friends, midnight carriage rides and imprisonment: the list goes on and on. Pamela is nothing but action from beginning to end, leaving one quite breathless and unprepared for what’s to follow!

               Solely dependent on her “scribbling” to affect her liberty we’re offered several cliff- hanger moments where the discovery of her correspondence is all but inevitable. The awful moment when the master decides he’s going to strip her, to discover whether or not she’s secreting letters about her person, “I will now begin to strip my pretty Pamela, and hope I will not go far before finding them.”(p.271) Fortunately her tears of protest force him to relent although, as we learn later, her letters are hidden in her skirts the whole time. The terrifying scene when Pamela is about to be raped; naked and vulnerable, she’s held down by the wicked Mrs.J whilst the master straddles her. In a last minute reprieve, in a fit of conscience, Mr.B recovers himself and lets her go. Breath-taking, heart-stopping seat-of-the-pants action, that Richardson skillfully weaves into his novel.

               The masterful twists offered by Richardson are totally unexpected, although in retrospect, exactly what one would expect of an adventure novel of the quality of “Pamela.” The love, hate, relationship that exists between Pamela and her antagonist who, despite the gut-wrenching fear he incites in his determination to bed her, unexpectedly turns into a love match! Pamela surprisingly suddenly sees him as an honorable gentleman, “…he is a handsome, fine gentleman,”(p.235) and when requested by Mr. B to return to the place of her former imprisonment immediately acquiesces, “Away with my fears,” says she, “… and with all my apprehensions…I will return. I will obey him!”(p.288) Despite earlier enmity and the pressure of public opinion, they marry and later have children. This twist is so dramatic that it divides the novel in two. Rather than suffer the rapacious efforts of Mr. B, Pamela must endure the consequences of her choice and the alienation of an unappreciative privileged class. 

               Although one may at first mistakenly dismiss the idea that “Pamela” is nothing more than a collection of letters from a lovelorn serving girl, one has to remember the period in which it was written and the genesis of the novel itself. The novel was a new format, and the potential for this new literary vehicle appears to have been poorly understood by the first initiates of the craft. Suffering an embarrassment of riches many early authors dumped as much material as possible into their novels with no real thought to construction or even sequel. This is why we have for example, the ridiculous wolf scenes in Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe.” Had this been eliminated from the original text, it could possibly have been the spark for a follow up, and would certainly have shortened a somewhat verbose masterpiece by at least fifty pages.

               “Pamela” embodies a similar theme, and it’s clear that Richardson doesn’t know when to stop, or how far he should carry his novel. His decision to include two novels in one demonstrates, I suggest, his immaturity and lack of finesses as a novel writer. Richardson could very easily have created a second novel, but instead decided to bind together what reads more as epic literature rather than genre fiction. Richardson had grasped the blockbuster theme, but as with most original concepts – think early science fiction novels – doesn’t quite know what to do with it. That being said “Pamela” personifies the advent of adventure fiction by offering larger than life depictions and a heightened sense of reality. Pamela is a fully fleshed character that one can get behind, and for whom the edge of one’s seat is more than sufficient to experience her trials and tribulations.

 

 

Works cited

Shimmin, Graeme; Writing spy fiction with an unputdownable plot; http://graemeshimmin.com/writing-spy-fiction-tips-on-developing-a-plot-for-a-spy-novel/; web.

DDAY * 6-6-44 *

5 Jun

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GO R.E.M.E!

‘NOUGH SAID.

 

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2649518/D-Day-veteran-honours-war-dead-70th-anniversary-celebrations-begin.html

 

 

90 year old veteran reported missing from care home. Turns out they’d said no to him going to Normandy to celebrate D-Day: but he went anyway.

An 89-year-old WW2 veteran disappeared from his nursing home without saying where he was going and went to France for the D-Day commemorations.

The former mayor of Hove, Bernard Jordan, left the home at 10:30 BST on Thursday, and was reported missing to Sussex Police that evening.

Staff later discovered he had joined other veterans in France and was safe and well at a hotel in Ouistreham.

Earlier, it was believed care home staff stopped him going to the events.

Brighton and Hove police had tweeted: “90 year old veteran reported missing from care home. Turns out they’d said no to him going to #DDay70 but he went anyway #fightingspirit”

Hundreds of veterans have been marking the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings in France, with events on the beaches of Normandy.

War medals

The landings were the first stage of the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe.

Mr Jordan, who was mayor of Hove from 1995-96, is a resident of The Pines nursing home in Hove.

The pensioner had gone out wearing a grey raincoat and a jacket underneath with his war medals on, the police force said.

A spokesman said: “We have spoken to the veteran who called the home today and are satisfied that the pensioner is fine and that his friends are going to ensure he gets back to Hove safely over the next couple of days after the D-Day celebrations finish.

“Once the pensioner is home we will go and have a chat with him to check he is OK.”

THE POTION PEDDLER

4 Jun

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O’er hill and dale, past moss covered dry stone walls and creeper-caught bridges. Following the ancient roads hacked by Caesar’s legions through soft English chalk and the coastal trails blazed by retreating Saxons. Twixt green bowers of gnarled spreading forests and across the wastes of stark deserted moorland – the grind of iron shod wheels squawked on greased axle trees.

Undeterred by wind and weather, the same ancient routes crossed and re-crossed in order to reach the forgotten familiarity of distant villages and time-worn market towns. The clip-clop of plodding diligence to fresh faces and familiar vistas.

A whale-oil lamp swung above his hooded head, tapping its wooden tattoo on the side of the hooped caravan. The familiar clink of glass with every hoof fall; the slosh of liquids medicinal and the clatter of necessary instruments. Smell of horse was strong in his nostrils, the tang of pestled powder bitter on his tongue, the stain of dark paste upon his fingers.

He always broke camp at night, stealing away from candle-lit curiosity and the press of eager crowds. There was no point prolonging contact, garnering associations or establishing friendships. The exchange of hard won silver for bottled miracles and manufactured tablets was oft regretted the morning of the night before. Dubious cures for infestations and arthritis; promised miracles to ease the burden of daily life only a palm-pressed sixpence away.

His time-keeping was meticulous. Never out stay a welcome and never frequent a settlement more than once every few years. Acquaintances were soon kindled and soon burnt; it was best to stay one step ahead. Familiarity bred contempt as did the fact that his potions were worthless. Snake oil and powdered Egyptian mummy, dried toad and unicorn horn infused the heady concoctions and broken promises that persuaded village folk to dig eagerly into leather purses.

Of an evening when the crowds were gone and the camp fire blazed he would sit quietly, his hand coursing over velum – ink splashing in the fire light . The only sounds were of curb chained horses cropping grass – the gleam of flame lit brass. Recording the events of the day; penning for posterity the stories learned and experiences shared. New tales to relate to future customers – to expound upon, to embellish.

The art of potions wasn’t the mixture nor was it the voluminous recipes laid down by generations past. Secrets divulged by father to son, mother to daughter. Forgotten knowledge retained by travelling folk and distributed frugally among those outside the inner circle. Although an initiate of the ancient rite of healers, he knew that it took more than colored glass and powdered opiate to heal the body and excite the imagination.

His audience sought beyond the physical plane, thronging to his caravan in eager anticipation for both cure and enlightenment.

Stories of adventure – tales of distant lands, dragon slaying knights, daring deeds done by daring men. Engaged in enigmatic conversation it wasn’t long before his product was crossing the counter to be scooped up by needy souls, weak in body and bereft of worldly contact.

Although tutored in the ways of healing, it was a story-teller’s heart that he possessed.

 

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PERFECT SKY

10 May

PERFECT SKY

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Blue blown and sky chased, the puff gusted halcyon of summer longs.
With soft, splashed shape, nimbus hangs freshed breathed and heaven braced.
Buoyant – steepled, storeyed, stacked with soft crush.
The easy ooze of liquid light, the gentle creep of summer hush.
Scattered like cushions the blinding sapphire of glassed forever
Submits to dapple daubed shadow. The brushed caress of Westings past. 
 

VICTORIAN POETRY – VOICES IN THE WILDERNESS

3 May

             

Proto-feminism viewed through the poetry of  Bronte and Rossetti

 

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  The social and political upheavals of the nineteenth-century reverberated through all strata of Victorian society. Science and reason were replacing inherent irrationality and religious doctrine. Contemporary revelations in theory and invention drove a forced adaptation to modernity, the tempo and like of which had never before been experienced. A “Brave New Britain” was being forced upon the public whether they desired it or not. What had once been considered self-evident was systematically eroded by the forward march of what some described as progress. London itself was metamorphosing from a medieval city into a modern megalopolis, a Victorian Babylon with the demolition of the old allowing for the creation of the new. The development of the railroads, the introduction of coal-gas, and modern sewers were some of the improvements to which the Victorians had to quickly adapt. Cultural concepts were changing, the old theologies replaced by the new sciences. Ideas that before had been heretically unutterable were now under careful consideration, the old gods replaced by scientific revelation.

               This change was not without comment, and the backlash and resistance to it can be found in the poetry of the day. The polemic was undergoing an identity crisis and for the first time the complainant wasn’t singularly male. The rise of the female voice, a new point of view previously dismissed by the patriarchal society, was an unfamiliar concept. Although much of the female poetry of the era is questionable in its complexity and sophistication, the first of these voices were none the less beginning to emerge.

               Due to disparity in gender equivalency, women were expected to fulfill designated roles and had limited or no access to formal education. Their poetry, although constrained and subject to societal conditioning, was a medium of female expression, and a window on the Victorian era and their role within it. Whether by restraint, geographical location, or social obligation the female voice, although barely audible, was pitched differently than that of their male contemporaries. In particular the poetry of Anne Bronte describes physical and societal isolation, and is more personal in its lament, revealing as it does her desperate position rather than a unified voice for female liberation. Gabriella Rossetti on the other hand, although subjected to patriarchal constraints, provided illumination into female thinking, and offered the spark of optimism that women would eventually be on a par with their male counterparts. Rossetti’s poetry is a chink of light in the oppressive darkness, suggesting a different point of view and an alternative way forward, whereas Bronte’s is a subliminal lament from the shadows.

               By comparing and contrasting the poetry of Anne Bronte and Christina Rossetti it’s possible to analyze the position and perspective of Victorian women towards themselves and their own situations. The poetry of Bronte records the isolated, desperation of women; Rossetti exhibits tentative steps towards equality and the prospect of female assimilation. Although both poets were yoked by societal convention, their dissimilar voices attest to the universality of the female plight and the necessity for change.

               Anne Bronte hailed from Haworth on the Yorkshire Dales, a God-forsaken, windswept, rain- lashed wilderness where the enlightenment of the Victorian age struggled to make its mark. Housed in a vicarage overlooking the church where her didactic father was the pastor, Anne’s daily view was of a grave yard replete with a labyrinth of tomb stones. Confined by weather, parental attitude, and religious duties the metaphor of the grave yard was an all-encompassing idea that featured regularly in her verse. Considering the bleakness of her situation it’s little wonder that she sought solace on the local moors, which by contrast to her living arrangements, and as evidenced in her inspired poetry, was a liberating experience. Her awareness of intrinsic beauty is reminiscent of the earlier Romantics; her attitude towards the sublimity of raw nature juxtaposing the harsh realities of everyday life.

               Anne Bronte describes both the geographical loneliness of her upbringing as well as the societal isolation brought about by inherent attitudes towards Victorian women. Her poetry screams “escapism” her only recourse was to take flight on her poetical imaginings. In “My Soul is Awakened, My Spirit is Souring,” her verse offers what at first appears to be a pastoral Arcadian reflection, but which is actually a lament. The poem is a metaphor for female subjugation, the barren isolated moor of which she writes representative of the female outlook and their muted, universal desire for more. Her imagery is strong, but her message stronger.

               Although the heathland around her appears to be dead there’s an understanding of innate beauty, “The long withered grass in the sunshine is glancing/…The bare trees[…] tossing their branches on high.” Her personal realization of unfulfilled ambition and her plaintive regret “I wish I could see how the ocean is lashing, /..The foam of it billows to whirlwinds of spray.” Bronte illustrates unbounded, savage nature, a composition of excitement and tumult that’s obviously not representative of her own experience. There’s an isolated, imaginary omniscience, both with regard to her life experience and her limited world view. Her inspiration is drawn from a finite aspect, and yet she maintains a forlorn desire to be as free as the wind that buffets the granite escarpments of her native Yorkshire, “My soul is awakened, my spirit is soaring, and carried aloft on the wings of a breeze.” The recognition that Britain is changing, that the Victorian age is ushering in new ideas and opportunities encapsulated within, “Far above and around me the wild wind is roaring / Arousing to rapture the earth and the seas.” Standing alone on a fell-side, and yet aware of world changing events and societal repression, a young woman frustratingly dreams of more. Earth bound and shackled by society, she’s forced to endure the mundane. Even Anne’s imagination is limited in its scope. Simplistically she dreams of anywhere but the heath, or perhaps yearns simply for a fulfilling life. Anne’s plaintive cry is that of sequestered womankind, desperate to be rescued from unrelenting subjugation. A poetical improbability as her poem concludes.

               Christina Rossetti offers a different view of Victorian womanhood, her perspective much broader than that of Anne. An immigrant to Britain she was raised in the hubbub of London and educated by her scholarly father, their home the haunt of exiled intellectuals and artists. Growing up in the city with the luxuries of the capital was a far cry from the bleak and austere moors that were the haunts of Anne, and therefore engendered a completely different view of life. Rossetti witnessed Victorianism in all its affected glory, both the good and the bad, and rather than being subjected to the rural quotidian was the product of an enlightened, urban family. Still, as a woman in Victorian Britain this was not enough to liberate her, and just as in Bronte’s poetry there are similar allusions to oppression and repressed desire. Hers is a voice that although recognizing the limitations of nineteenth century females, projects a desire to change their intolerable position and lack of opportunity.

              “Goblin Market” is probably Rossetti’s most famous poem, an amalgamation of social commentary, repressed passion, and a polemic on the patriarchal system. Dependent upon the reading, one is able to recognize her dissimilar poetical allusions; underlying eroticism gives voice to female desire, the goblin market men to endemic patriarchy, and the richness of literary visualization to a Utopia beyond the reach of her sex.

               The poem begins with a blazon of delicacies, a cornucopia of fruits that are offered by the goblins to the unwary sisters; rich, vibrant alliteration that suggests mouthwatering abundance. Rossetti seems to be showcasing the unattainable, a smorgasbord of earthly delights, “Rare pears and greengages, damsons and bilberries, taste them and try.” In reality the choices offered to women were limited, with the affluent constrained to hopeful fulfilment through marriage, and the lowly to menial labor on the factory floor or the ignominy of prostitution and the status of fallen women. “Goblin Market” provides a dreamscape of opportunity, the experience of the sisters striking the bell necessary to awaken womanhood.

               This allusion offers the briefest glimpse of an alternative social order that was beyond the grasp of ordinary women unless they were prepared to compromise themselves and their bodies. “We must not look on Goblin men, we must not buy their fruits, who knows upon what soil they fed their hungry thirsty roots,” advises the older sister to the younger. Having no money, Laura offers the Goblins exactly that, her most precious asset, the very essence of herself, “She clipp’d a precious golden lock, she dropp’d a tear more rare than pearl, then sucked their fruit globes fair or red.” Acquiescing to the demands of the Goblin men Laura epitomizes stereotypical Victorian women, having no choice but to accept the high price she must pay for a taste of freedom. Rossetti’s imagery of fruit is reminiscent of original sin and an inability to save oneself from temptation or male dominance.

               The sister succumbs to the will of the Goblins and under the influence of their produce falls sick. With only her sister to save her from ignominy and the certain death, an allusion to fallen women and prostitution, a bond of true unity is created. This implication to sisterhood and proto-feminism is buried in what could easily be misconstrued as fairytale-esque. Famous as Rossetti was for her child’s verse “Goblin Market” contains a much stronger message than simply good versus evil; it offers an optimistic rendering of a possible future. The women aren’t just liberated from both the Goblins and death, they’re recognized within the verse as strong independent women – true sisters. Predictably Rossetti ends her poem with a cliché marriage, but then again what else could she do being but Victorian chattel herself?

               Female dependence upon male philanthropy and benefaction is an obvious subject in “Maiden Though Wert Thoughtless Once.” Marriage for many Victorian women was the only possibility for financial and domestic stability hence the emphasis on the Victorian values, chastity and maidenhood. A fallen woman or one who’d strayed in sexual experimentation outside of wedlock was considered, if discovered, a social pariah and therefore doomed. There were few chances or even occupations for women during the period, and given that they weren’t for the most part formerly educated stood little chance of professional success and were therefore constrained to motherhood and matrimony. Bronte put this paradox to verse, describing a salon in which several women are gathered, where the subject of the poem is obviously dressed to impress whilst engaged in a piano recital. Clearly the lady without being too obvious is trying to make an impression, much to the amazement of her associates. “Maiden though were thoughtless once, of beauty and of Grace simple…homely…careless of form and face.” A woman doing her best to attract the attention of a man by wearing and looking her finest, whilst appearing to adhere to that most Victorian of ideals, industriousness. The voice is diminutive but her attitude serious, “They could not read my secret thoughts nor see my throbbing heart.” Intones a living, breathing, sexual human being, a woman with hopes and desires and yet obviously hopeful of the attentions of the man alluded to in the poem. A man approaches known to the subject, “We heard without, approaching steps of one well known to me.” And although she lives in optimism and hopes of male attention shows no outward sign of desperation. Bronte engenders the plight of Victorian women walking a tightrope of wanton chastity in an attempt to be a man’s heart’s desire; quiet desperation and the pretense of aloofness at the realization that her moment has past. Anne’s is a voice, understanding of the game and the societal requirements demanded of her sex. Although not a complaint the poetry imbues hopelessness and despair. The footsteps pass by; her love unrequited. “The anguish of my drooping heart the bitter aching woe.” Anne demonstrates a strategy of “by any means necessary,” including giving her heart to a man who clearly has no designs upon her, who ignores and leaves her to her Northern fate. Bronte declares a feminine position rather than a personal one, and although not offering a solution does highlight the predicament of women. What could women become, she asks, if not solely dependent upon men? Bronte’s voice although subdued is one of audacious awakening, a voice that demonstrates plight rather than optimism in dealing with an impossible situation. Her message depicts a contemporary nineteenth century enigma, one which would’ve been eye opening and quite controversial should the average Victorian have considered the lack of options described within the framework of her poetry.

               “No, Thank You, John” juxtaposes Bronte’s “Maiden.” Rather than the accustomed passive we are offered instead an aggressive stance by a woman who seemingly knows her own mind. Not for Rossetti the demure supplicant, rather the forthright, modern women declaring her position and refusing the charity of marriage. “You know I never loved you John, no fault of mine made me your toast.” Given Victorian female dependence upon male benevolence the poem is understandably ground- breaking. The idea that a woman had more common sense than her male suitor must have been both amusing and eye opening. “But then you’re mad to take offence../ ..use your own common sense.” The poem is a polemic on marriage or rather of marriage upon demand, a visceral attack on the dependence of women upon men. “I’d rather say no to fifty Johns than answer “Yes” to you.” Rossetti lampoons the idea that any woman should sit quietly in the hope of a marriage proposal. She herself had several suitors and although pursued did not marry two of the men to whom she was engaged. Although this seems to indicate a woman with particular requirements, her broken engagements were due to social and religious affinity rather than strength of character. Strong will did not define Rossetti’s romances but her voice in “John” is that of a woman who’s come to understand the value of choice and independence. The imagery is of a persistent, foolish man who doesn’t seem to understand that his attentions are neither solicited nor desired. A high-minded voice is used to admonish the suitor for his stubbornness believing that his inquiries may be welcomed elsewhere. “I dare say Meg or Moll would take pity on you if you asked.” A strange position taken by Rossetti hinting that she alone is an independent spirit, and an admonishment perhaps to fellow females not prepared to resist male hegemony, “Here’s friendship if you like; but love – No, thank you John.” Rossetti makes it very clear who’s in charge and in the traditions of “fin-amors” requites romance and perceived stability.

               Although both poetical voices are different in context they highlight the plight of Victorian women and therefore are invaluable in understanding the complexities of patriarchal dominance. Although one is from the wilderness of Yorkshire and the other from the artistic, societal ranks of the city, it’s the plaintive isolation of an oppressed female voice in both instances which is so important in illuminating the inequity of Victorian gender politics. Without their collected works it would be impossible to survey the extent of female subjugation and missed opportunity. Anne Bronte was an everywoman whereas Christina Rossetti had the good fortune to write from a more privileged position. Despite that, their observances embellished what must have been a ubiquitous feeling of hopelessness, their poetry helping to promote and recognize the universality of the female plight and the necessity for change. Two separate yet distinct voices drawing attention to the injustice of Victorian gender roles.

 

 

CHAUCER – POLITICS AND THE POET

1 May

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     TROILUS AND CRESSIDA AND THE POLITICAL UPHEAVAL OF 14TH CENTURY ENGLAND.

or in other words…  “WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT?”

 

 

  Ostensibly a love poem that depicts love both found and lost, Chaucer’s “Troilus and Cressida” contains a deeper undercurrent of complexity than is at first obvious. The encirclement of the Trojans by the Greeks and the shifting politics within the besieged city itself were reminiscent of the political maneuverings which at the time of writing were redolent of England. Political upheaval, regime change, power struggle, and both internal and foreign conflict would have been as apparent to Chaucer’s readers as they were to the poem’s characters themselves. Chaucer captures the political mood of the 14th century in his poetry and manages to incorporate the essence of those struggling for and those trying to maintain power. Included in his narrative are the machinations of the crown and government as well as the religious, social, and gender politics of the period. This contemporary narrative set in a prehistoric pagan period emulates in many aspects the medieval climate of the 1380’s.

               “Troilus and Cressida” is a macrocosm of British upheaval and unrest, the political climate of the day undoubtedly very much in the mind of the author whilst penning his poetry. An astute political awareness would have been vital in order to assuage criticism and at the same time promote his writing and entertain his readership. During his life time Chaucer was the subject of three different monarchs, a protagonist in war, an envoy, a civil servant and both a relation and benefactor of the monarchy. It was within his own interest to ensure that any political commentary in his writing favored those who favored him. Although the medieval spotlight is often focused on the alternative view, his characters tend to err on the side of righteousness or suffer the consequences. Chaucer was well-aware, that not only was he a writer, but also a courtier soliciting the favor of his King. To the readers of the period Chaucer’s inclusions would no doubt have been recognizable, the quotidian drama of political intrigue and social controls adding an element of familiarity.

               Chaucer astutely introduced the politics of the late 14th century into “Troilus and Cressida” in order to flesh his characters and color his writings, giving it an appeal that would foment both recognition and notoriety. The poem includes allusions to social, religious, and gender politics. By incorporating the events of the period and utilizing those ideals recognized as the social standard, he embellishes his characters with both vice and virtue whilst carefully crafting a 14th century story in a pagan setting. By analyzing the events of the period and comparing these to the narrative of the poem it’s possible to review the politics of a Chaucerian England.

               Troy is an embattled city, a nation state besieged by the Greeks. Whilst the Trojans languish behind high walls the enemy is encamped in the surrounding countryside. Conflict is a daily occurrence and the balance of power hangs precariously. One wrong move and the city will be besieged – its inhabitants murdered, its wealth plundered and its buildings destroyed. Although a story of antiquity, the plight of the Trojans is not dissimilar to medieval England. “The besieged monarchy of Richard II staggering under debt of war created from successive unsuccessful forays with France, forced the country into austerity and the English to relinquish their conquests on the continent.” (Dobson 124.) In order to recoup the losses created by perpetual war the young King – under the guidance of his uncle John of Gaunt – is craftily advised to illicit a pole tax from the people; a tax that demanded that every person in England pay an equal portion whether rich or poor. This meant that both the wealthy and the impoverished had to pay a fee to the crown. A system detested by the poor but lauded by the landed, as with tax evasion and the misappropriation of funds the wealthy paid nothing and consequently profited off the backs of the serfs who had little choice but to pay. Given that it was the poor who were doing the fighting and dying, the titled and positioned saw no reason why they shouldn’t also pay for the experience. For the first time in English History (1381) the people revolted, organized themselves into peasant armies and marched on London. A beggar’s army led by such inspirational figures as Watt Tyler and John Ball, ordinary men who dared to confront and bear arms against the representative of God on earth. In their attempts to pacify the so-called rebels the King met with them in the city, and after calculated deception and the murder of their leaders a militia loyal to the crown dispersed the rebels and the rebellion was quashed. Despite the outcome, the poll tax was abolished and the wars of expansion on the continent curtailed. One of the demands made by the mob, the practice and policy of serfdom, declined, and workers wages, also unfairly restricted by the crown, began once again to rise. At the same time the power of Parliament was in the ascension and political debate began to challenge the divine right of monarchy.

               Chaucer uses the idea of political rebellion to great effect within his poetry in several different instances. When we first encounter Cressida she’s the abandoned daughter of the considered traitor Calkas. Her father has foreseen the downfall of Troy and after weighing his options defects to the Greeks. This treachery is common knowledge among the Trojans who seek revenge upon his daughter Cressida, the sins of the father to be visited upon the daughter in appropriation for his treason and deceit. It’s whispered among the common people of Troy that upon sight Cressida will be burnt alive and killed as recompense for the danger in which her father has placed them.

“That Calkas fled was an allied./…And seyden al his kin at-ones ben worthi for to Brennen, fel and bones.” (1-87-91)

               Here we see a mirroring of the English peasants standing up against the King all be it reverse imagery. This may be precautionary on the part of Chaucer, who rather than displaying those who line their pockets as miscreants and thieves, instead are represented as charitable and benevolent. The revengeful Trojan public eager for the blood of Cressida is representative of the Peasants Revolt of 1381. It’s the ordinary citizens who would kill and depose the affluent, an allusion perhaps to King Richard and his meeting with Watt Tyler at Mile-End in London? There the King under the protection of the militia tricked Tyler, had him murdered, dispersed the mob, and enacted a state of exception, or rather they instituted martial law. The state of exception installed in England after the rebellion is representative of the besieged city of Troy, Cressida taking the place of the embattled King Richard. This shows Richard and Cressida in a favorable light as they are both portrayed as just, honest, and without sin, therefore worthy of saving.

               Royal politics are also portrayed in the poem. King Richard II was a very young King, not having achieved his majority at his coronation and therefore, as was the custom, appointed a Regent in the form of his uncle John of Gaunt. Cressida is saved by the grace of Prince Hector the son of King Priam, not by the King himself.

“On knees she fil biforn Ector adown…/ His mercy bad, hirselven excusyinge.” (1-110-112)

“Now was this Ector pitous of nature…/ And seyde”Lat youre fadres treson gon forth with meschaunce, and ye yourself in joie.” (1-112-116)

 

               An allusion to the power-struggle in England at that time, where John of Gaunt, a patron and a relation to Chaucer, was responsible for the political decisions of State and the Privy Purse. Priam, the King of Troy is replaced by his son Hector the great Trojan hero. Chaucer craftily embodies the King and his Gaunt in the characters of Priam and Hector ensuring that both are adequately accounted for and that both receive equal dedication.

               Shortly after the rebellion Parliament addressed the issues that had given rise to public instability and dealt with them accordingly. Known as the “Wonderful Parliament” they achieved greater power if not a parity with monarchy by pressing for royal reform. They asserted their position by prosecuting those who’d willfully stolen from the state and accused several of the King’s closest confidants of treason, removing them from the King’s inner circle, and in some instances executing them. “John of Gaunt was initially charged but later reprieved thanks to the influence of Richard himself.”(Collins 67) “The Wonderful Parliament” features in Chaucer’s writing and can be discerned in the figure of Pandarus, the advisor to Troilus, and also in the contrite Trojan council who later decrees that Cressida be given up to the Greeks as ransom for Antenor.

“Priam, the kyng, ful soone in general let her upon his palement to holde.”

The embassadours ben answere for final th’ exchaaunge of prisoners…/and forth in they procede( 4-144-47) 

               Pandarus, the uncle of Cressida, sees an opportunity to manipulate a love affair between Troilus and his niece. Promising the love-sick Prince that he can obtain his love for him, Pandarus demands that his actions aren’t forgotten and that ultimately he’ll be rewarded for his arbitration.

“And whan that Pandare herde hire name nevene…/Lord he was glad”(1-876-78)

               It’s possible here to see allusions to the poor advice of “…King Richard’s inner circle of advisors, the advice of John of Gaunt, and also to the power of the “Wonderful Parliament” itself.”(Goodman p.56) A royal figure is being controlled and manipulated in each instance. It only remains for the reader to decide, which is which? Chaucer is very ambiguous in his casting and tends to use the ideas of the day rather than point fingers at definite personalities. The notion that the machinations of ancient Troy are on a par with those of modern England are extremely tantalizing.

               The “Wonderful Parliament” features for a second time in the poem when Troilus begs the Trojan council for the release of Cressida. Having lost prestige in battle, similar to the taint of scandal on King Richard, the council refuses his request and Cressida is handed over. Despite the fact that she initially had the patronage of Hector – John of Gaunt – she’s now nothing more than chattel and no longer worthy of consideration. The strength of Parliament at that particular period was clearly greater than that of the throne and although Chaucer may be playing both ends against the middle he’s careful not to point the finger adroitly, once again employing the politics of the day to enliven his story.

               Religious politics play a significant role in 14th century England and Chaucer is wise to ensure that his characters that resemble medieval Christians do in fact engender the psyche and religious morals of pagan Troy. As always Chaucer offers his epithet that his knowledge is based on the books of his predecessors and therefore cannot be faulted for any mistakes or misunderstandings invoking the one to true God to bless his enterprise. Although a tale of polytheism and righteous pagan attitudes there is an obvious sense of modernity within his verse.

“But ye lovers that bathen in gladnesse if any drope of pyte in yow be remember yow on passed hevynesse” (1-22-23) 

               Allusions to Boccaccio and his “Filostrato”, the original manuscript from which Chaucer drew some of his ideas, are not surprisingly amalgamated into the poetry given that Chaucer was translating the work at the time of writing. The principal point of the “Filostrato” is that earthly delights are nothing when compared with heavenly, and therefore one can better work towards the afterlife than pursue vanity and earthly desires in order to be assured of God’s grace. Troilus is therefore viewed in medieval terms but excused for his prehistoric manners. In the sense of universal power and the politics of a divine maneuvering supreme being, just as the King of England is all powerful, God observes everything and everyone. The idea of omnipotence poses the paradox of divine intervention and free will. If Boccaccio is to be understood then free will takes second place, and therefore those pursuing terrestrial pleasures are doomed to failure, hence Chaucer’s characters are doomed from the very outset. Much as the wheel-of-fortune turns, so does the unfolding of the divine plan therefore, as the characters climb we know that they will eventually be crushed under the same wheel that bought them to the pinnacle of happiness. Thus Hector will fail in his promise to keep Cressida safe. Boccaccio’s ideas of simple and conditional necessity ensure that no matter the decisions taken the outcome is already known, and free will, although allowing for perceived choice, is in fact already ordained. If God doesn’t create all, but knows all, then the outcome of any action is predetermined. One can only hope for the intervention of God and therefore prayer is never a wasted exercise, as Chaucer well-knows when dedicating his poems and hoping for heavenly intervention. Divine political hierarchy is therefore sacrosanct and the machinations of men are nothing but mere vanity.

               At the end of the poem the power of the medieval church is once again intoned in the fate of Troilus after his death. Unlike Cressida, Troilus has proven loyal and chaste and so Chaucer uses consideration in his placement in the afterlife. Rather than receiving entrance to a Christian heaven with God in his Imperium he is instead sent to the “eighth sphere” where with the stars he is fixed in the firmament for eternity.

“His lighte goost ful blissfully is went up to the holughnesse of the eighthe spere in convers leyting everich element.” (5-1808-10) 

               By reminding his readership that only Christians may enter the Kingdom of Heaven Chaucer fulfills his politically correct duty. Once again acquiescing to political pressure he ends his book with a prayer to the true God, despite having earlier prayed to pagan gods and invoked both furies and muses to help him with his text to admonish his characters. Bowing to tradition he asks for the protection of the Trinity to ensure not only the success of his “little book,” but to appease the religious authorities, and finally prays to be worthy of Christ’s mercy.

“Thow oon and two and thre, eterne on lyve that regnet ay in threand two and oon…/defende, and to thy mercy everichon.” (5-1864-1867) 

               Fourteenth-century gender politics are not least among Chaucer’s allusions and he uses these constantly to demonstrate the hierarchy that exists between the would-be lovers, those who put them together, and those who hope to profit by their union. The troubadour tradition of courtly love, or fin-amors, reverses the power positions within the relationship of Troilus and Cressida. Troilus is a son of Priam, the King of Troy, and therefore high on the social ladder. Cressida is the daughter of a traitor and a woman to boot, and so lower than he. The desire which he feels for her and the “hereos” he suffers because of his lust reverse their positions. The medieval document “Roman de la Rose,” of which Chaucer would’ve been aware, lays out the chivalric code for lovers, where the Knight must pay homage to his love, perform the actions of a Knight in both word and deed and endure any “love-service” his lady demands. In order to attract Cressida Troilus discards his petulant ways and undertakes to be the best man he can possibly be in the hopes that his chivalric deeds will be noticed. Despite their class differences, it’s the son of a King who is supplicant to the daughter of a perceived criminal. Bounded by chivalric politics Troilus unwittingly straps himself onto the wheel-of-fortune and prepares for a rough ride.

“For he bicome the frendlieste wight, the gentilest, and ek the mooste fre, the thriftiest and oon the beste knyght.” (1-179-181) 

               By incorporating the quotidian climate of 14th century England into his poetry Chaucer created verse that was current, topical, and amusing. The poem is embellished by its duality, the double lives of Troilus and Cressida as both ancient pagans and alternatively pseudo medieval-Christians making his characters more accessible to his contemporary audience. Constrained by royal patronage and dependent on their benefaction, Chaucer walked a fine line when attempting to equate his modernity with the ancient world. An adherence to medieval politics was necessary and so the allusions to social, religious, and gender issues had to be tempered with accepted doctrine and political savvy. Despite the difference of centuries it is possible to view medieval Britain through the eyes of Chaucer, and equate his thinking to the events that shaped his world. By analyzing and comparing the events of the period to the narrative in the poem it’s feasible to review the politics of a Chaucerian England.