Why this Blog?

A place where I can lament the changing times; for eccentric comments on current affairs and for unfashionable views, expressed I hope, in cogent style; also occasional cris de coeur largely concerned, I regret to say, with myself.


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Tuesday 12 March 2013

Characters in Books (Again)

The classics: something everyone wants to have read, but nobody wants to read.
Mark Twain

As will become obvious, Mr Twain was referring to more ancient works than the ones to which I shall refer in this piece.  However, attempting to ignore the warning implicit in his dictum, I recently acquired a copy of Henry James's Portrait of a Lady; it cost only a pound, and after reading the first page or two I decided to give it a chance.

I have managed about 40% of the novel and am starting to weary of it.  Mr James created a splendidly simpatico character in old Mr Touchett, but then - naturally for good plot reasons - decided to kill him off; I was disappointed to read of his decease.  Then there is Miss Isabel Archer, the 22-year old upper-middle-class American female to whom he refers from time to time as "our heroine."  I'm afraid that in my view this epithet is quite undeserved.

It is true that Miss Archer started well, but by page 200 or thereabouts I started to get fed up with her; in fact, so annoyed did I become that I decided that perhaps the book should have been named Portrait of a Silly Bitch whose Formidable Intelligence was only Exceeded by her Selfishness and Naïveté.  In other words, she started to get on my tits.  And there's another one - Miss Archer's friend, Henrietta Stacpole, meddling "democratic" American journalist who certainly by page 180 has earned if not a smack in the mouth, certainly a one-way ticket back to the U.S.A.  And there's another meddler, the elegant Madame Merle; curiously I took no exception to the rather cold and stiff Mrs Touchett, though I had the suspicion that I was supposed to.  Really it is all too much.

Reflecting on this dismal situation this evening whilst eating a hamburger, brought to mind some other silly women I have come  across in "the classics."  Consider Anthony Trollope's infuriating Lady Eustace (The Eustace Diamonds) or Thomas Hardy's Bathsheba Everdene.  The latter of course appeared in Far from the Madding Crowd, annoying silly woman - she did NOT deserve Gabriel Oak I'm afraid - and that was in Hardy's first novel.  In his last, Jude the Obscure he created a 24-carat, ocean-going cow in the form of Jude's wife, Susan - and this opinion is based on my reading the book over thirty years ago.  Perhaps I am wrong, but I won't go back there.

By contrast, Rosamond Lehmann's heroines, Olivia and Kate Curtis in Invitation to the Waltz are really quite delightful (Olivia rather lets her standards drop I think in the sequel The Weather in the Streets); Miss Lehmann's heroines in her other novels (with the exception of Dusty Answer) are more difficult in this regard, and several are pretty bloody, although I believe that we are supposed to sympathise with them.  Despite  Miss Lehmann's superb writing I usually, as one might expect, find this pretty hard - if not impossible - to do.

Rose Macaulay created a complex though not unsympathetic character in The World my Wilderness: Madame Michel; she is however finally redeemed - at least in my eyes.  Her daughter is difficult, but understandably so.  Her female characters in Told by an Idiot are largely attractive - especially Rome (yes, that was the name).  Sadly Miss Macaulay's books are not so easy to find.

For the time being, Henry James having brought  me to this summit of annoyance, I shall return to the relaxed and cultivated English of one of his (many) admirers: Sir Max Beerbohm, where I shall be soothed; equally I know that there will be no silly bitches in Sir Max's writings to wind me up - oops!!  I had momentarily forgotten his infuriating charcter, Zuleika Dobson; I'll give HER a miss.

Re-reading the foregoing, I have concluded that anyone who can be bothered to read my scribblings will assume that I expect perfection in an imperfect world; perhaps I do and am thus a disappointed man.

I rather think that I am.

Until the next time.


Anonymous said...

Mark Twain, pedant and perfectionist
Suits you Sir....`O

Paul said...

Thank you for those kind words.