Frankenstein

Illustration from the frontispiece to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein showing Victor Frankenstein expressing disgust on seeing his creation.

Frankenstein is a story that has stood the test of time and a name that has endured in popular culture. It is often acclaimed as the first sci-fi novel and has given rise to countless Hollywood adaptations which apparently are nothing like the book. I am glad I read the book without having seen any of the film versions. But the story has become such a pivotal part of our culture that I, like many others, mistakenly believed that Frankenstein was the name of the monster. It is, in fact, the name of his creator but the confusion is an interesting one, albeit unintended, as one can argue that the creator himself was the monster.

First of all, I was blown away by the fact that Mary Shelley started writing this novel at the tender age of eighteen. Well, she was after all the daughter of two literary luminaries- the philosopher and writer, William Godwin, and Mary Wollstonecroft, a passionate advocate of women’s rights. The story surrounding the genesis of the novel is as fascinating as her creation. The prologue mentions how Lord Byron, John Polidori, Percy Bysshe Shelley (whom Mary married eventually) and Mary Godwin met regularly at a villa by Lake Geneva in Switzerland, in the summer of 1816. It was a season of especially inclement weather when they were mostly confined indoors. Lord Byron suggested the idea of writing ghost stories during a rainy and stormy spell. While the project was  eventually abandoned by most at the fireside, only Polidori’s The Vampyre and  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein saw the light of the day. Galvanism or the induction of electrical currents was a popular topic of discussion at the time and Mary was inspired by the concept to pen her story:

My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw – with shut eyes, but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of the unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion …

The rest is literary history.

Frankenstein is the story of the brilliant Victor Frankenstein who as a young boy was drawn to natural philosophy, the term used at the time to describe the sciences. He particularly sought out the teachings of alchemists and ancient philosophers. He became obsessed with the idea of creating new life and devoted hours to his project, neglecting in the process, his family, friends and his own health. He went to great lengths to create a human form from old body parts and animal remains and imbued it with life. Yet he ran away from his creation the very day it came to life, as he was repulsed by the gigantic and grotesque monster he had created.

His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.

He describes what happened next, to Robert Walton, a British explorer who rescues him from an ice floe near the North Pole while he was in pursuit of his monster. The explorer, in turn, describes the events in the form of letters to his sister Margaret Walton Saville in England. These letters form the outer narrative of this story within a story. And within the inner story are embedded the stories of the monster and of his neighbors.

It is interesting how Shelley weaves in the monster’s narrative as part of the novel. He discloses to Victor how he slowly became aware of who he was and lived in an abandoned hovel next to a cottage where he vicariously lived through the lives of the De Laceys, a family exiled from Paris for defending a Turkish man unfairly accused of a crime. He learned to read and write while eavesdropping on the lessons of the Arabian girl Safie, the daughter of the Turkish man and the guest at the cottage. Within his story is the story of De Lacey’s son Felix who loves Safie and reveals more about her and her mother. We have a tale within a tale within a tale like Russian matroushka dolls neatly stacked one within the other.

And like the narrative structure of nesting, the story is layered and can be interpreted in many ways. It raises many interesting ethical, philosophical and psychological questions.

First and foremost, it is a Promethean tale as indicated by the complete title: Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Just like the Greek titan stole fire to help humanity, Victor kindles the sacred fire of life. However he does not understand the ramifications of his project and things go awry. Frankenstein is a cautionary tale about what could go wrong if we flout the natural order of things. The story is more relevant than ever in our modern world of genetic engineering and artificial intelligence and makes us ponder over the ethical implications of scientific progress.

The novel also addresses the loneliness that results from parental abandonment. Victor’s abandonment of his creature turns the latter into a monster vowing revenge on his creator. He goes on a murderous rampage destroying the people close to Victor’s heart. The monster is basically good at heart. He wanted to be loved and to belong. His maker did not even bother to give him a name and referred to him as a devil, a fiend, a demon. He was rejected only on account of his deformity. The novel addresses the nature vs nurture debate and seems to imply that our minds begin as ‘tabula rasa’, a blank state, and our environment has a great impact on our behavior as opposed to our biological and genetic predispositions.

Once I falsely hoped to meet with beings who, pardoning my outward form, would love me for the excellent qualities which I was capable of unfolding. I was nourished with high thoughts of honour and devotion. But now crime has degraded me beneath the meanest animal. No guilt, no mischief, no malignity, no misery, can be found comparable to mine. When I run over the frightful catalogue of my sins, I cannot believe that I am the same creature whose thoughts were once filled with sublime transcendent visions of the beauty and the majesty of goodness.’  

 

Woodcut from a 1934 edition, illustrated by Lynd Ward. Villagers stone the monster.

The novel made me ponder about our own creator and our place in the world. How could God create something and not take responsibility for it? For what purpose were we created if there is so much misery in the world? People who look different are discriminated against and the world is full of injustice. Are we abandoned by God too? The epigraph to the novel is a line from Milton’s Paradise Lost which describes the conversation Adam has with God after his creation.

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay

To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee

From darkness to promote me?”

The monster never asked to be created. But unlike Adam he has no Eve. His fate is even worse. Not only is he shunned from society but also faces the solitude of living without a companion.

Woodcut from a 1934 edition of Frankenstein, illustrated by Lynd Ward. The monster gazes into a pool.

Hateful day when I received life!’ I exclaimed in agony. ‘Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and abhorred.”

The unjust ostracization of the monster brings us to the question: Who is the real monster? Some critics have analyzed the novel through a Freudian lens and have proposed that Victor and the monster are the embodiment of the ego and the id, representing the conscious desires and the subconscious wishes of the same being. A careful reading will reveal how Victor could have averted the deaths of some of his near and dear ones. The monster is his doppelgänger and they are very similar in their insatiable thirst of knowledge, in their admiration of nature, in the unabashed outpouring of sentimentality and the isolation they experience whether self-imposed or by society. The main difference is that Victor grew up in a nurturing environment and should have been more sensitive to the monster’s feelings. The creature then is a reflection of Victor’s own ugliness, a mirror of his own evil character.

Equally interesting is a feminist reading of the novel. At first glance, the novel seems to be very male oriented. The female characters are all passive and submissive to their men. Victor creates the monster without the help of a woman and he also destroys the female companion he is in the process of creating for the monster:

Yet one of the first results of those sympathies for which the daemon thirsted would be children, and a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth.

She who, in all probability, was to become a thinking and reasoning animal, might refuse to comply with a compact made before her creation. They might even hate each other; the creature who already lived loathed his own deformity, and might he not conceive a greater abhorrence for it when it came before his eyes in the female form? She also might turn with disgust from him to the superior beauty of man; she might quit him, and he be again alone, exasperated by the fresh provocation by being deserted by one of his own species.

Victor is afraid that she will enjoy autonomy and think for herself. His act is a blatant expression of the patriarchal repudiation of women and the fear of their sexuality and fertility. He is afraid of the child bearing abilities of women, their power to create an entire race of such beings and one of the horrors of the novel is making us wonder if science would eliminate the biological function of women. But Shelley highlights the misogyny to show the detrimental effects of envisioning a world without women for we see the terrible fate Victor meets with when going against nature. As a nineteenth century woman writer, Mary Shelley knew this misogyny all too well. Frankenstein was initially published anonymously because of her gender and some critics believed it to be written by Percy Shelley.

The portrayal of reproductive anxiety may have emanated from Mary Shelley’s own feelings of loneliness in life dealing with a loss of a mother who died from complications of childbirth, her own difficult pregnancies, several miscarriages and the tragedy of losing her children and husband. She wrote to exorcize her own demons and it is interesting in this regard to consider that Victor is her own creation just as the monster is Victor’s.

I admit the novel is not without its flaws. The whole education of the monster seems implausible. But I was struck by the complexity of ideas presented and captivated by the marvelous lyrical prose. I will be returning to this book over and over again to delve deeper into the themes for I have only scratched its surface. To write with such maturity and finesse at such a young age is nothing short of genius. Whatever be the fate of Victor’s mortal creation, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has lived over 200 years and has attained immortality!

 

Klara And The Sun

Klara and the Sun is the latest novel of Kazuo Ishiguro and the first since he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Regular readers of my blog will know that Ishiguro is among my favorite contemporary authors. I was eagerly looking forward to reading this book and unfortunately it left me a little underwhelmed. I didn’t have a great reading experience either with The Buried Giant, the book published prior to this one. I found it a laborious read and trudged along through the pages waiting for the novel to end. Klara and the Sun is not painstaking to read; on the contrary, it is fast-paced and a page turner. To me it seemed similar to Never Let Me Go; they are both sci-fi dystopian novels in a sense, and yet, I would hesitate to include them under any rigid genre categorization as they are also philosophical in tone and ultimately a meditation on the human condition and our existential plight. The same themes that we find in Never Let Me Go are rehashed and packaged in a new form in Klara and the Sun and although there are aspects to the book that are thought provoking, it falls far short of the former which packed great emotional force.

We are in an unnamed city in a futuristic world, albeit a foreseeable future. In a shop on a busy street, there are solar powered AF or Artificial Friends waiting to be sold. They are displayed in different areas of the store and get their turn at the coveted spot by the window to entice potential customers. Artificial Friends are robots created for the express purpose of providing children with guidance and companionship and to help them deal with their loneliness. They come programmed with a knowledge of many things. Yet they have very limited knowledge of the world outside. One of the AFs named Klara is different from the others. She is exceptionally observant and intuitive. She is purchased by a girl named Josie and moves to her house where she has to learn to understand her and the other adults of the house that include Chrissie, Josie’s mother and Melania, the hostile housekeeper. The only visitor is Rick the neighbor who is Josie’s childhood friend and current boyfriend. Josie is suffering from an unspecified illness which seems to be the consequence of being ‘lifted’. Her sister had apparently suffered from the same illness and died from it. Josie studies remotely at home on her ‘oblong’ with online tutors, an eerily timely detail in our post pandemic world. Other children are stuck at home too and have ‘interaction’ meetings arranged periodically by their parents where they learn to relate to each other.

There is all this new vocabulary thrown around. You wonder what ‘lifted ‘means and what an ‘oblong’ is. I actually looked up the dictionary in vain till I eventually figured out that these are invented words to describe this particular dystopian universe. An ‘oblong’ is something similar to an iPad or a smartphone. A child is ‘lifted ‘after having gone through the process of genetic editing which is an expensive procedure but popular with people of the upper classes to ensure that their children get into an elite university. Rick is not ‘lifted’ and due to his socio-economic situation he is doomed. We know that Josie’s parents are divorced and we learn that her father has been ‘substituted’ which means that he has lost his job and has been replaced by machines. Ishiguro does not explain any of these terms. He throws hints here and there and the mystery and suspense gradually build up. You know there is something sinister going on but have no idea what it could be. We are in a slow burn dystopia. Besides Klara is the narrator and we are seeing the world through her eyes and we have to piece together what’s going on through her limited understanding. As an AF her vocabulary is limited. I understand that a first person robotic voice would necessarily be devoid of elegance to fit the narrative, but I missed the beautiful prose of Ishiguro’s other novels.

Klara is convinced that exposure to the sun would help cure Josie of her mysterious illness. The sun assumes mythic proportions for her. It is interesting that Klara’s very name means brightness. Not only does she depend on the sun for nourishment and survival, she also endows it with divine energy and visits a barn which is almost like a pilgrimage place to make emotional pleas to the setting sun for Josie’s recovery. Robots have the same human propensities to pray and to bargain with the Gods. Klara with her caring nature and empathy, is humanized. She is programmed for servility and her unswerving loyalty and devotion to Josie remind me of Stevens the butler in The Remains of the Day.

But on the other hand, we don’t forget that she’s a thing, an appliance. Rick’s mother, Helen, asks her: “After all, are you a guest at all? Or do I treat you like a vacuum cleaner?” She also reminds me of Offred of The Handmaid’s Tale but Offred was at least aware of her oppression. Klara has no idea that she is being used. She is obsequious and stands in a corner in the presence of other family members. She is often referred to in the third person. How fascinating then that an object of utility is more capable of unconditional love than Josie’s caregivers! The person who is the most human in the novel is not human at all. There are times we forget who she is and think of her as another human being but the illusion does not last long. For every so often the world becomes pixilated through her eyes devolving into cubes and cones and we are reminded that she is only a robot.  

Klara’s servility mirrors the racism and classism we see in the world. We dehumanize people below us and exploit them for labor. You can exploit those whom you love too like Chrissie whose maternal love is motivated by her own selfish desire. Chrissie was left bereft by the loss of her first daughter and doesn’t want to lose Josie as well. We know that she secretly takes her daughter for portrait sessions and there is something unsettling about the artist she has commissioned. Will Josie be saved? Will the sun listen to Klara’s fervent prayer? I don’t want to reveal more and spoil the fun for future readers.

The most interesting aspect of the book for me is that it makes us think about life and mortality and the ethical decisions we have to make with the advance of science and technology. Can a soul be manufactured? Can a human be replicated in entirety? My hubby laughs when I say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to Alexa while giving her commands and reminds me that she has no feelings. But imagine a world where genetic editing is possible and where robots have feelings! What impact would such scientific progress have on division and hierarchy in society? Klara is just a product designed to be obsolete. She is a B2 model and there already exists a newer superior B3 model.

Is it far-fetched to imagine a time when artificial intelligence becomes so sophisticated that there is no demarcation between man and machine? Ishiguro portrays an alarming but a very possible futuristic world where no matter what scientific and technological advances we make, society will still be characterized by the same oppressive structures of race, class and inequality that will never be completely dismantled. This world, already disturbingly familiar, only becomes even more terrifying as we look into our future.

The Doll And Other Lost Short Stories Of Daphne du Maurier

I recently reviewed Never let Me Go and Other Stories for Heavenali‘s Daphne du Maurier reading week. The stories in the collection and especially the titular one are very well known. But how many of you are aware of du Maurier’s ‘lost’ short stories? It is no secret that I am an unabashed fan of the writer and reading an early collection of her ‘lost’ short stories was like stumbling upon buried treasure unearthed after decades of oblivion. All famous writers have to start somewhere. I enjoy reading their early forays into the art of writing. They contain the raw material that shapes their future works as they skillfully hone their craft. Most of these stories were written very early in her career and were either published in obscure magazines and tabloids and subsequently out of print or had never been published. A bookseller in Cornwall discovered five of the stories including the titular “The Doll” in a 1937 collection marked as “The Editor Regrets.” They explore many of the emotions and themes that found their way into her later works.

The stories may seem dated to the modern reader but they depict universal truths transcending time. Many of these tales were written when du Maurier was still in her teens or early twenties and reveal an insight into human behavior and a maturity or even a precociousness far beyond her years. She is a great observer of humanity-of people with their quirks, whims, frailties, and foibles. She knows how to tap into the dark recesses of the mind and to lay bare all the base emotions like obsession, jealousy, sexual frustration and hypocrisy resorting to suspense, social satire or even comedy. She also has a predilection for the macabre. Often the stories send a shiver down the spine. They are horror stories but they portray a horror of a different kind- one that is more terrifying and longer- lasting- psychological horror.

The collection opens with my favorite story of the lot which was written when du Maurier was just nineteen years old. In “East Wind”, the serene life on a remote island cut away from the rest of humanity is disturbed when shipwrecked foreign sailors arrive introducing alcohol and their promiscuous habits with devastating consequences for some of the inhabitants. There is a sense of impending doom when ” … all the while the East Wind blew, tossing the grass, scattering the hot white sand, forcing its triumphant path through the white mist and the green waves like a demon let loose upon the island.”  And the simple village folk end up throwing all caution to the wind.

“The Doll” is a daring story ahead of its time with an almost pornographic twist. Letters washed ashore reveal the journal entries of a man who tries to figure out what went wrong between him and a young violinist named Rebecca. He was smitten by her but she repelled his advances as she had another object of affection. Could this strange, beautiful and independent young woman with her unusual sexual proclivity be not only the namesake but the precursor to the first Mrs. de Winter? It’s quite a risqué story for its time as it depicts a young woman in control of her own life and sexuality.

There are a series of bittersweet vignettes about young couples with irreconcilable differences and the disillusionment they face in love. In “Nothing Hurts for Long”, a woman who believes her relationship with her husband is perfect and is preparing for his return home after a long absence, lends a ear to her friend’s troubles but her friend’s troubles start mirroring her own. The reunion with her husband is not what she anticipated. And “His Letters Grew Colder” is a story written in epistolary form about how love dies a natural death as seen by the contents of letters which become gradually less romantic in tone when the thrill of the chase is over. “A Difference in Temperament” too explores the fragility of relationships. If a man wants time to himself and a woman wants to share everything together, the relationship can only be doomed from the start. “Frustration” is an amusing account of the thwarted attempts at romance of a newly married couple. “Week- End “shows how you can fall out of love as suddenly as you fall in love. The lines “She put away his colds hands from her, and gave herself to her own dreams, where he could have no entrance.” succinctly capture the overarching theme of many of the stories.

In “Piccadilly”, written in the form of a monologue, a prostitute describes how she ended up in her profession. She resurfaces in “Mazie “where she dreams of the sea and a farmhouse but can her dreams come true given her lifestyle? “The Tame Cat” is an unsettling story about a naïve young girl with a jealous mother whose lover starts preying on her.  In “Happy Valley”, a woman dreams of a certain house that seems to be hers but that she has not seen.  Dream and reality and past and future coalesce in this atmospheric story which not only reminds me of du Maurier’s famous short story “Don’t Look Now” but also with the mention of Happy Valley presages Rebecca.

The last two stories in the collection are excellent character studies. “Now to God the Father” is about the good-looking and charismatic but hypocritical  Reverend James Hollaway who also features in another tale entitled “Angels and Archangels “in The Rendezvous and Other Short Stories. He professes to be a man of God but his virtuous sermons mask his vices. He is someone who abuses his position to further his own interests. “The Limpet” is a fascinating insight into a troubled personality- a girl who puts the blame on others believing that she is a nice person. The truth is that she is a manipulative, self-absorbed and passive-aggressive individual who destroys the lives of people around her including her parents, her aunt, her husband and her co-workers but desperately tries to convince the reader that she is a self-sacrificing martyr.

Du Maurier starts off each story beautifully with vivid descriptions and builds up the atmosphere. Most of the stories do not have fixed endings but are ambiguous. Life is not tidy either. All pieces don’t fit and much remains unresolved. The onus is on the readers to fill in the blanks and make the puzzle fit.  I found these lost stories captivating as they contain the embryonic elements seen in her future works and also provide early indications of her literary prowess. The common thread of cynicism that weaves the stories together is startling considering that she was so young when she wrote them. And as with anything written by her, you find yourself reflecting on your own life and relationships.

Apparently Du Maurier’s adolescent diaries described as ‘dangerous, incisive, stupid’ are yet to be published. She placed a fifty year moratorium on their publication and insisted they only see the light of day in 2039.  I hope this piece of information is true and I hope I am still around then to read them.

Thank you, Heavenali, for hosting Daphne du Maurier Reading Week. I enjoyed participating and reading all the posts by fellow bloggers.

A Normal Paranormal

Venice

I enjoy anything written by Daphne du Maurier and therefore I didn’t want to miss the opportunity of participating in HeavenAli’s Daphne du Maurier reading week. I decided to read and review a collection of short stories entitled, Don’t Look Now and Other Stories.

I had settled myself comfortably on the couch, snuggled with a copy of Don’t Look Now and Other Stories and was looking forward to a quiet and peaceful evening engrossed in the soothing pleasure of reading. What was I thinking? After all, I was reading Daphne du Maurier and I should have known better. I have read most of her novels and I should have been prepared to be shaken out of my comfort zone. The stories kept me on edge constantly and the evening ended with me feeling out of sorts and a little terrified too. Du Maurier is best known for her Gothic novel Rebecca, a gripping psychological thriller. Her short stories are less well known but they create the same suspenseful and unsettling atmosphere that can send chills down your spine or, at the least, leave a bad taste in your mouth. This collection has five stories, each distinct and different from the other, yet they create the same familiar feeling of foreboding. They are all page turners without exception.

“Don’t Look Now”, the eponymous first story which is almost the length of a novella, is the most famous of the collection as it was made into a successful film in 1973 by Nicolas Roeg starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. John and Laura Baxter who are grieving the death of their little daughter, make a trip to heal to Venice where they come across a pair of elderly twin sisters who claim they can see the ghost of the dead little girl near the couple. One of the sisters is blind and a clairvoyant psychic who can look into the future. She warns the couple that they are in danger and must leave Venice as soon as possible. They soon learn that their son in boarding school is hospitalized and may need surgery. Laura promptly leaves the city for England whereas John stays on for another day and starts seeing things. The blind sister thinks that he is a psychic too but is not aware of it. He is gradually overcome with confusion and paranoia and if things were not bizarre enough already, there is also a serial killer prowling in the area. The ending is frightening and unexpected. The setting is evocative and plays an important role as in all of du Maurier’s works. Who can forget Manderley’s imposing presence in Rebecca where the mysterious mansion stands out almost like a character itself? And who would have imagined that Venice, the idyllic tourist destination, a city we associate with beauty and romance would be a backdrop for this chilling supernatural story? The dark alleyways and labyrinthine canals create a sinister effect. One could say that the twists and turns in the plot are disorienting like the meandering alleys of Venice or like the mind of the narrator itself.

“Not After Midnight” is a story told in flashback of a man who is clearly suffering from a mysterious ailment or even a nervous breakdown. Timothy Grey, the teacher of a prep school, looks forward to his vacation in Crete to spend his time in solitude pursuing his hobby. He has a penchant for painting seascapes. He is determined to stay in a sea front chalet even when he finds out that just two weeks before his arrival, the previous occupant had drowned in the ocean, half eaten by octopuses. He is annoyed by the presence on the property of an obnoxious and boorish American named Mr. Stoll who drinks like a fish and brews his own beer. He and his wife hunt rare artefacts endowed with strange powers. Mrs. Stolls invites Mr. Grey to visit their chalet but curiously “not after midnight” and leaves him a peculiar gift, an ancient drinking horn decorated with “Silenos, drunken tutor to the God Dionysus”. He is seized with a morbid curiosity about what may have happened to the former guest and follows the Stolls around. The conclusion is abrupt and ambiguous and the words “not after midnight” are left unexplored. After building up an atmosphere of great tension with a sense of impending doom, du Maurier leaves us disappointed, longing for more. I thought the story had a lot of potential and I felt cheated by the ending. Or maybe I just need to brush up on my Greek mythology

“The Breakthrough” is a strange sci-fi story combined with the occult. An engineer is sent to work at a research facility in the middle of the Norfolk marshes where the scientist in charge is conducting secret experiments. He and his team are working on a device called Charon ( Du Maurier seems to have a predilection for the symbolism of Greek legends) that has the ability to transmit psychic messages and control a dog and a mentally disabled little girl but the true purpose is something more ambitious and frightening. Their goal is to capture the living energy from a soul of a person at the time of death in order to examine the afterlife. A member of the team is a young man dying with leukemia who is ready to be their guinea pig. The premise of the story is interesting in spite of being dated but the conclusion is underwhelming and anti-climactic like the previous story.

“A Borderline Case” is the most risqué and disconcerting story of the collection with a compelling title that can be interpreted in many different ways. After her father dies suddenly , Shelagh, a nineteen year old actress, decides to look up his estranged colleague in Ireland. He was best man at her parents’ wedding but shortly thereafter vanished without a trace from their lives. She arrives in a village in Ireland and discovers that he lives in an island in the middle of a lake and is either crazy or a criminal. She is irresistibly drawn to this mysterious man and his ways. I enjoyed this story as the ending completely caught me unawares. Some readers may find the dark and disturbing denouement quite predictable but I did not see it coming. Du Maurier drops hints throughout the story but also distracts us enough with developments in the plot that we are completely taken by surprise or shock as in the case of this story.

“The Way of the Cross “has a different tone from the rest of the stories. It is more didactic in nature, almost like a parable. A young inexperienced clergyman, Rev. Edward Babcock, has to fill in for a vicar who has fallen sick and escort a group of parishoners on a tour of Jerusalem. The group includes a retired colonel, his snobbish wife and their energetic and precocious grandson, a business man with a roving eye and his tolerant wife, an elderly ‘spinster’ smitten with the absent vicar and a newly married couple on their honeymoon experiencing intimacy issues. Biblical analogies abound through the actions of the characters as they retrace Jesus’ steps in the Holy Land on the first day of Jewish Passover. A strained dinner is followed by a walk on the Mount of Olives where everyone scatters and gets separated. Miscommunications and betrayals take place. Numerous mishaps happen in the form of accidents or humiliations ending with each of the characters having an epiphany and learning a valuable lesson.

Du Maurier has a remarkable talent for describing the extraordinary in the ordinary. All the characters are regular people in everyday situations with everyday problems with whom you can relate well. You are lulled into a false sense of security while reading about them till you realize that something is off kilter. Nothing is as it seems when you peel the surface and layers. The characters go about their mundane lives but they have an insatiable curiosity that leads them into places and situations they are unfamiliar with and chaos ensues. The paranormal is treated as normal in a casual way and soon the boundaries between fantasy and reality are blurred. The endings often leave you  bewildered and baffled. You have to go back to the first few pages and piece together how it all fits together. You think the stories have ended but have they? They stay with you long after you place the book back on the bookshelf or return it to the library. I know I’ll be thinking about these stories for days, if not months or years.

The Talisman Ring by Georgette Heyer-#1936Club

After decades, I experienced the pleasure of reading a Georgette Heyer and was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was published in 1936. It is a great candidate for the 1936 club hosted by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and StuckinaBook. The Talisman Ring was a welcome change of tone from all the serious reading I have been doing lately. It is nonsensical and absurd but utterly delightful. Set in the Georgian period in Britain around 1793, it is a romantic comedy and a murder mystery that reminded me a little of Jane Austen, a little of P.G.Wodehouse and a lot of Oscar Wilde.

Warning:  Suspension of disbelief is required to derive maximum enjoyment out of this novel.

The story has all the elements you need for a rip roaring farce-cousins betrothed to each other, a runaway heiress, smugglers, a missing ring, secret panels, hidden cellars, Bow Street Runners, break-ins, pistols, a headless horseman ( Huh?), a priest hole, an evil valet and a villain who has nothing villainous in his appearance or demeanor. There is also some crossdressing thrown in for good measure.

On his deathbed, Lord Sylvester Lavenham arranges the marriage of his grand nephew Tristram Shield to his half French granddaughter, Mademoiselle Eustacie de Vauban who has escaped the French Revolution and arrived in England ; neither of them is happy about this arrangement. The 18 year old Eustacie is full of romantic notions and craves adventure and even has fantasies about a glorious death- she wants someone to arrive ventre à terre to her deathbed. The dour and straitlaced 31 year old Sir Tristram is exasperated with her juvenile flights of fancy. As for Eustacie, she would have preferred to have been sent to the guillotine rather than make a mariage de convenance with her cousin. She has entertained that thought even before meeting Tristram and has even considered the outfit that would be most suitable for the occasion. Their exchanges are comical:

We used to talk of it, my cousin Henriette and I. We made up our minds we should be entirely brave, not crying, of course, but perhaps a little pale, in a proud way. Henriette wished to go to the guillotine en grande tenue, but that was only because she had a court dress of yellow satin which she thought became her much better than it did really. For me, I think one should wear white to the guillotine if one is quite young, and not carry anything except perhaps a handkerchief. Do you not agree?’

I don’t think it signifies what you wear if you are on your way to the scaffold,’ replied Sir Tristram, quite unappreciative of the picture his cousin was dwelling on with such evident admiration.

She looked at him in surprise. ‘Don’t you? But consider! You would be very sorry for a young girl in a tumbril, dressed all in white, pale, but quite unafraid, and not attending to the canaille at all, but–‘

I should be very sorry for anyone in a tumbril, whatever their age or sex or apparel,’ interrupted Sir Tristram.”

Tristram needs to marry and provide an heir and the Lord cannot stand his other grand nephew, Basil Lavenham aka Beau. Come on, the guy wears a green coat with yellow pantaloons and an absurd sugar loaf on his head. Not to mention the knots of ribbons at his knees and the ornate quizzing glass that hangs on a riband around his neck! Eustacie decides to run away and runs instead into a group of smugglers- er free traders who are led by an exiled cousin, Ludovic Lavenham, who is falsely accused of murder and is therefore in hiding. Eustacie and Ludovic are instantly smitten with each other. She ran away from one cousin to fall into the arms of another. But hey, it’s all in the family. And besides, Ludovic is the rightful heir to the Lavanham property ( cough cough!).The two are chased by excise men and Ludovic is injured in the process. They end up taking refuge at The Red Lion Inn which is the main setting of the novel.

The Red Lion Inn at Handcross, Sussex inspired the setting of the novel.

At the inn they meet an unmarried 27 year old woman Miss Sarah Thane, and her brother Sir Hugo Thane who is recuperating from a cold. Miss Thane is more sensible and practical than Eustacie but she has the same thirst for adventure and takes the young girl under her wing. They decide to solve the mystery of the murder of a certain Matthew Plunkett for which Ludovic is falsely accused. A talisman ring is missing and if found, will clear Ludovic’s name and uncover the truth. Sir Tristram becomes enmeshed in their adventure and they are helped by innkeeper Joseph Nye to keep Ludwig hidden and to prevent The Beau from becoming the heir. We witness some harebrained schemes and rollicking adventures till all’s well that ends well!

The characters are charming in spite of their ridiculousness. Some readers might find Eustacie, the ingénue and the headstrong Ludovic downright silly but the two youngsters could not be more perfectly suited to each other. And there is not just one but two romances to enjoy! The more mature and sensible pair, Sarah and Tristram indulge in delightful banter:

“How cross you are!’ marvelled Miss Thane. ‘I suppose when one reaches middle age it is difficult to sympathize with the follies of youth.’ 
Sir Tristram had walked over to the other side of the room to pick up his coat and hat, but this was too much for him, and he turned and said with undue emphasis: ‘It may interest you to know, ma’am, that I am one-and-thirty years old, and not yet in my dotage!’ 
‘Why, of course not!’ said Miss Thane soothingly. ‘You have only entered upon what one may call the sober time of life. Let me help you to put on your coat!’ 
‘Thank you,’ said Sir Tristram. ‘Perhaps you would also like to give me the support of your arm as far as to the door?”

  Their relationship is characterized by witty badinage and culminates in a charming and original marriage proposal. I also enjoyed the sweet friendship between the two women who despite the difference in age strike up a connection. Sir Hugo Thane is a complete hoot! He is a justice of the peace who has no qualms about consuming smuggled booze and is more concerned about his room than about a murder attempt on poor Ludwig:

Then understand this, Sally!’, said Sir Hugh. ‘Not a yard from this place do I stir until I have that fellow laid by the heels! It’s bad enough when he comes creeping into the house to stick a knife into young Lavenham, but when he has the infernal impudence to turn my room into a pigsty, then I say he’s gone a step too far.”

Georgette Heyer was known for her meticulous research in writing historical fiction. Although this is a period mystery, the focus is more on dialogue and plot than on costumes and balls which are described in more minute detail in her novels set in London. The action takes place in the countryside of Sussex and free traders who were known to operate in the area, play a big part in the story. For the first time in her fiction, she introduces Bow Street Runners who are considered the original British police force and they appear in some of her future works too. They are portrayed as inept and add a lot of hilarity to the plot.

There are many French words used in the book. As a word nerd, I thoroughly enjoyed reaching for the dictionary to learn some archaic words and Regency cant no longer used in conversation- abigail, chit, demmed, reticule, wench, dentical, gammon, oubliette etc to name a few. I learned that there are many types of carriages for transportation- barouche, landau, cabriolet, post chaise, curricle and phaeton. It was interesting to come across words in local Sussex patois like ‘ Adone-do ‘( ‘Have done’ or ‘Leave off’) and amusing insults like ‘cribbage faced tooth drawer’ to describe a dentist.

This was an uproarious and nostalgic read which took me back to my teen years when my friends and I would devour Georgette Heyer books along with Mills and Boon and Barbara Cartland. We would borrow and lend them and often lose and gain copies in the process. I am determined to read and re-read more of Heyer and her outrageously funny novels. They would be the perfect antidote for a break from grim reads.

     

  

Jamaica Inn- #1936Club

I am excited to participate in the 1936 book club hosted by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and StuckinaBook. I was thrilled to learn that Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier was published in that year. The novel is an underrated gem. Rebecca, the author’s more popular work, has unfortunately dulled its shine. Jamaica Inn is a Gothic novel par excellence which has a very Wuthering Heights vibe to it, and in my opinion may even be the superior work. The thrilling and fast paced novel is set in the remote and windswept Cornish moors. The strange isolation of the setting creates a very eerie atmosphere with a sense of impending doom. Cornwall was home to the author and is the inspiration behind many of her works. Jamaica Inn is a real place that still exists.  Daphne du Maurier once lost her way while venturing on horseback with a friend across the desolate moors and eventually stopped at Jamaica Inn, a coaching inn that was once a meeting point for smugglers. The inn’s secluded location and sinister past fueled her imagination. The rest is literary history.

The story was inspired by du Maurier’s 1930 stay at the real Jamaica Inn, which still exists in the middle of Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, England. 

To honor her mother’s final deathbed wish, 23 year old Mary Yellan leaves the tranquil life on a farm in Helford, to live with her Aunt Patience in a remote part of Bodmin Moor. Her uncle Joss Merlyn is the landlord of Jamaica Inn, a dilapidated and forbidding dwelling which stands alone on the road to Laucenston. A coachman warns her that it is a dangerous place, unfit for a girl. Locals avoid the place like the plague. Coaches hurry past and never stop there. Her uncle is a sadistic man prone to bouts of drinking, mood swings and violent outbursts. Aunt Patience who was once a lovely and lively woman has become a shadow of her former self. Her spirit is broken and she lives in constant fear of her husband. Mary soon discovers that uncle Joss runs a smuggling ring and appears to be its ringleader.

The inn no longer hosts travelers and the bar is open to a few shady characters who engage in drunken revelry and seem to be accomplices of her uncle. Mary is called upon to serve in the bar as and when needed. She is determined to investigate the nefarious activities her uncle and his cronies are involved in and discovers that they are wreckers who deliberately decoy ships on to the coast with the aid of false lights prompting them to run aground so they could plunder them easily. She also suspects them of being murderers and senses danger. She plots an escape and wants to take her aunt along whom she wants to save from a life of servitude. She befriends Jem, Joss Merlyn’s brother who visits on occasion and seems to be a younger version of her uncle. Much to her annoyance, she is irresistibly attracted to him. Her only other acquaintances are people she chanced upon during her ramblings through the moors and into town- the kindly Squire Bassat and his wife, and Francis Davey, the gentle but strange albino vicar of Altarum to whom she turns for advice. Is Mary wise to trust her friends? Is her uncle the mastermind behind all the vile activities or does he report to someone else higher up? Mary sinks deeper and deeper into the mess like in the boggy marshes of the moor where one could easily drown if not careful.

I marvel at du Maurier’s ability to create such a captivating mystery. Although this was a re-read for me and I knew who the culprit was, I was still on edge throughout and the brooding inn and the wild landscape added to the unease. The menacing moors correspond to the characters’ emotional states. They too are at the mercy of forces they cannot control:

No human being could live in this wasted country, thought Mary, and remain like other people; the very children would be born twisted, like the blackened shrubs of broom, bent by the force of a wind that never ceased, blow as it would from east and west, from north and south. Their minds would be twisted too, their thoughts evil, dwelling as they must amidst marshland and granite, harsh heather and crumbling stone.”

Although treacherous, the moors also offer comfort to Mary and provide an escape from the stifling tedium of her life. They represent wildness and freedom. Du Maurier has such a knack for evoking the atmosphere that I felt I was accompanying Mary on her long walks through the rough and bleak landscape with the mysterious tors and the hills in the distance cloaked in mist. I could hear the whistling wind and feel the lashing rain along with her.

Jamaica Inn is much more than a fascinating and atmospheric mystery story. It explores power struggles between the sexes within the traditional patriarchal structure. There is a darker story line of domestic abuse and male violence. Mary Yellan is one of du Maurier’s strongest female characters. She is a strong and independent woman with a mind of her own. She is courageous and resourceful and is not intimidated by the threats of her cruel uncle. Yet she is vulnerable as there is danger lurking around everywhere. She understands her limitations as a woman and sometimes wishes she were a man. Her small frame is no match for the enormous size and brute physical strength of her uncle. A girl has to have her wits about her to fend off unwanted advances. Mary is subjected to the lewd stares and comments of the men. She is referred to as a common slut and a woman of the streets in spite of being an innocent girl. She narrowly escaped a rape attempt by Henry the pedlar and she would have been gang raped by Joss’ men if not for the fact that she was his niece. Her uncle himself creepily says that “I could have had you your first week at Jamaica Inn if l’d wanted you. You are a woman after all.” On reading this novel in my youth, I admired Mary’s adventurous spirit. This time around I feared for her as a mother would for her daughter being aware of the constant threat of rape that hangs over a young woman.

She is a damsel in distress but takes control of the situation herself and refuses to be cowed into submission by her uncle’s brutality. In the process, she even gains some of his respect. Alas! Love changes everything. In spite of having no romantic illusions, Mary falls for Jem the horse thief who seems to be a younger and more energetic version of his odious brother. They have the same beautiful hands and fingers and although she is repulsed by the older brother, she is drawn to the younger one: “These fingers attracted her ; the others repelled her. She realized for the first time that aversion and attraction ran side by side ; that the boundary- line was thin between them.”  Even though she despises her uncle, there is a fleeting moment the night when he imprisons her in her room to protect her from the pedlar, when she is confused by the feelings he arouses in her. He admits that he has a soft spot for her and says that if he had been a younger man he would have courted and won her too:

She went then to her bed, and sat down upon it, her hands in her lap; and, for some reason forever unexplained, thrust away from her later and forgotten, side by side with the little old sins of childhood and those dreams never acknowledged to the sturdy day, she put her fingers to her lips as he had done, and let them stray thence to her cheek and back again.

  And she began to cry, softly and secretly, the tears tasting bitter as they fell upon her hand.

Daphne du Maurier was only 29 when she wrote this novel and I am amazed by her ability at that age to capture the ambivalence and subtleties of relationships.

How did the author get the reputation of being a romance novelist? Yes, there is plenty of romance if you are looking for it. Jem and Mary exchange passionate kisses at the fair in Laucenston and he enters her room through the window breaking the glass. But when she is at his house, she cleans the place and she obeys when he orders her to cook for him even though he makes disparaging remarks about women. At times their relationship mirrors the relationship between her uncle and aunt:

For the first time in her life she saw a resemblance between herself and Aunt Patience. They had the same pucker of the forehead, and the same mouth. If she pursed up her lips and worked them, biting the edges, it might be Aunt Patience who stood there, with the lank brown hair framing her face.” 

Minor Spoilers Follow

Some people might consider the ending to be happy. Mary has the choice of returning to the farm or to work for a respectable family in Bodmin Moor but she chooses to sail in the sunset to an unknown destination and destiny with Jem. He is stubborn and has no desire to please her or even consider her wishes for an instant. She tells him that she loves him but he doesn’t. These are the clues that du Maurier throws around for the discerning reader. Even Rebecca which people believe to have a happy ending, left me with a feeling of disquietude. There is more than meets the eye in du Maurier’s universe. Mary is aware of the constraints that women face and has a feminist streak but when it comes to putting it into practice, she chooses love for a rogue of a man. What can I say but that love sometimes makes the most sensible person act foolishly! As someone who follows her heart, I could understand Mary’s decision. I only hoped that she wouldn’t meet with the same fate as Aunt Patience who silently put up with abuse. That would be far more sinister than any of the abhorrent activities that take place in Jamaica Inn. For just as ” Dead men tell no tales”, docile women tell no tales either.

 

  

A Tale of Two Cities

Title Page ( of the first illustrated edition in installments)

Set in the late eighteenth century against the violent backdrop of the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities, published in 1859, depicts the disparate but not entirely dissimilar world of two cities, London and Paris. Right from the title and the oft-quoted opening lines of the book,“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—”, Dickens explores dichotomies of evil/ good, darkness/light, despair/hope and rebirth/ death.

The Likeness

A Tale of Two Cities is as much a personal drama as it is a political story. The novel narrates the story of Charles Darnay, an exiled Frenchman who is spared from execution for treason in London by the testimony of a young English lawyer, Sydney Carton, who bears an uncanny resemblance to him. Both Darnay and Carton are in love with Lucie Manette who has just been reunited with her Dad, Dr. Manette, who was unjustly imprisoned for 18 years in the Bastille. Darnay wins her hand in marriage and the couple lead a harmonious life with their young daughter until Darnay returns to Paris to save a falsely accused servant. Dr. Manette, Lucie and her little girl, and Lucie’s guardian, Miss Pross follow Darnay to Paris and are eventually joined by Sydney Carton and Mr. Lorry, a family friend and bank employee. They are all caught in the whirl of the Revolution in France as Darnay ends up in jail and awaits execution.

In Paris, revolutionary fervor is high among the aggrieved inhabitants of the poor neighborhood of Saint-Antoine. The wine shop of Ernest Defarge serves as a hub of the activities of a group of revolutionaries who go by the name ‘Jacques’. They want to uproot the existing social order characterized by the absolute power of the monarchy and feudal privileges enjoyed by the aristocracy and clergy. The Marquis Evrémonde heartlessly crushes a child under his carriage and reacts with indifferent arrogance to its death. The people have suffered at the hands of the aristocracy for far too long and are filled with a desire for revenge. They want to establish a new society based on more egalitarian ideas. Defarge is their leader and will eventually lead the mob to the storming of the Bastille.

The Wine Shop

In the character of Madame Defarge, Dickens creates the female face of the revolution, albeit a sinister one. Women, hitherto, confined to their domestic space, took to the streets in large numbers to air their grievances and played a pivotal part in the uprisings. Madame Defarge sits quietly in the wine shop knitting but nothing escapes her watchful eye. In the pattern of her stitches, she knits the names of her victims whose death is imminent. She is the leader of the ‘tricoteuses’ and represents the brutality of the Reign of Terror with her radical and extreme views. She reminds us of the Greek Fates, the ‘moirai’ who spin the thread of life determining the fate of human beings. While M. Defarge is ambiguous about killing innocent people, his bloodthirsty wife is unflinching in her desire for vengeance. She hates the Evrémonde family with a passion. Charles Darnay has a connection with the Evrémonde family and Ernest Defarge once worked for Dr. Manette. That is how the lives of the English get entangled with the Defarges in France. I don’t want to delve too much into the plot. There are a lot of plot twists, some of which quite improbable, creating a melodramatic climax and ending with the memorable last lines: It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known.

The Sea Rises

Dickens makes you live the revolution with the characters. I was quite horrified by how the oppressed become the oppressors. All the bloodshed eventually led to the establishment of a modern democracy and capitalist country but at the cost of innumerable lives. It is a cycle of oppression where the oppressed internalize the oppression of the oppressors and end up becoming like them despite their desire for social justice and quality. Though Dickens’ sympathy lies with the oppressed, he knows they can get carried away and highlights how people died often for no reason: “Liberty, equality, fraternity, or death; — the last, much the easiest to bestow, O Guillotine!” 

The polarities I brought up in the opening paragraph can be seen in the portrayal of the characters too. Sidney Carton and Charles Darney are set up as mirror images of each other and Miss Pross is a foil to Mme Defarge. The characters of Lucie and Madame Defarge are set up as stark contrasts to each other; one compassionate and angelic and the other vengeful and unforgiving. Lucie is the golden thread that holds the family together while Mrs. Defarge seeks to tear their family apart. Most of the characters represent extreme goodness or evil and end up being one dimensional except for Sidney Carton who is more complex and reveals a dual nature.  

Dickens uses powerful imagery in his writing to evoke the tension in the atmosphere. The image of a wine cask broken and spilling its contents on the streets of Paris foreshadows the bloodshed that will take place in that very neighborhood. He describes the storming of the Bastille in a very powerful and dramatic way personifying Madame La Guillotine. A Tale of Two Cities is also a love story and I was struck by the exquisite and heartfelt prose in the scene when Carton visits Lucie Manette and explains that while he expects no return of his love, he would do anything for her or for anyone whom she loves. I think these are among the most romantic lines ever penned in literature:

For you, and for any dear to you, I would do anything. If my career were of that better kind that there was any opportunity or capacity of sacrifice in it, I would embrace any sacrifice for you and for those dear to you. Try to hold me in your mind, at some quiet times, as ardent and sincere in this one thing. The time will come, the time will not be long in coming, when new ties will be formed about you—ties that will bind you yet more tenderly and strongly to the home you so adorn—the dearest ties that will ever grace and gladden you. O Miss Manette, when the little picture of a happy father’s face looks up in yours, when you see your own bright beauty springing up anew at your feet, think now and then that there is a man who would give his life, to keep a life you love beside you!” 

The title of the first Book of the novel is ‘Recalled to life’ and it could be extended to the whole novel as one of its major themes is the theme of resurrection. In fact, Dickens had even considered it as an alternate title for the novel. Charles Darnay is saved twice from a terrible fate. Dr. Manette never had the opportunity to know his daughter while in prison and missed out on that joy. She enjoys a father’s love for the first time and they are both thus recalled to life. In a morbid way, Jerry Cruncher, the grave thief resurrects bodies from graves and sells them to doctors and surgeons. In the end, he is willing to ‘resurrect’ himself by making 2 promises to Miss Pross- he vows to stop the criminal activity of grave digging and to treat his wife better and not interfere in her prayers. The person who most embodies redemption through sacrifice is Sydney Carton who led a life devoid of ambition and meaning, but eventually finds purpose by renouncing his life for the happiness of the other characters. His ultimate sacrifice makes him a hero and an almost Christ- like figure.

Last but not the least, the resurrection takes place on a societal and cultural level as the dismantling and death of the ancien régime in France leads to a new era ushering in freedom and equality. Dickens was indebted to Thomas Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution in writing this novel with historical accuracy. Dickens wrote this story perhaps as a cautionary tale for his own country to avert the tragic fate of its neighbor. Many of the issues raised continue to be relevant today as glaring injustice and the conflict between classes is not just an 18th century issue specific to France. In that sense, the novel is timeless as it serves as a warning of what can happen when injustice goes unchecked, and as a lesson in how to avoid history from repeating itself.

  • Illustrations above are by Hablot Browne ( Phiz) from A Tale of Two Cities, which was released in parts between April and November 1859.

Rachel, my torment!

“She has done for me at last, Rachel, my torment.”

Did she or did she not poison her husband? This question lies at the heart of the suspenseful and unsettling novel, My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier but the reader is no wiser at the end. No one does ambiguous endings like du Maurier. There are many possibilities and the mind of the reader is manipulated too along with the twists and turns of the plot. Yet, you don’t feel frustrated or cheated of an ending for as a reader you are called to actively engage with the text and draw your own conclusions. In fact, du Maurier’s books are meant to be re- read as our reading personalities develop and evolve too with time. In an earlier blog post, I had written about how my impression of Rebecca changed over the years. I recently re-read My Cousin Rachel and it almost felt like I were reading another story from the one I read in my youth.

The orphaned Philip Ashley has lived since childhood with his older bachelor cousin Ambrose on a grand estate in Cornwall, England in a male only environment where even all the servants are men. He idolizes his cousin and looks up to him as a father figure. On a long sojourn in Italy, to improve his health, Ambrose falls in love with an enigmatic half- English half -Italian woman who happens to be a distant relative and marries her in haste. Philip receives happy letters from him at first, but the tone shifts rapidly from fascination to mistrust and finally to panic implying that his wife Rachel might be trying to harm him. He begs Philip to come rescue him but by the time Philip lands up in Florence, Ambrose has been declared dead from a brain tumor and Rachel has left town with his belongings. Philip is determined to uncover the mysterious circumstances of the death and to take revenge on Rachel but when she unexpectedly turns up later on his doorstep in Cornwall, things take a different turn.

He is disarmed completely by the petite and elegant woman and in no time falls head over heels in love with her. In fact, no one is immune to Cousin Rachel’s charms- neither the servants nor the farmers and not even the dogs. She infiltrates the male bastion with her delightful feminine presence and introduces Continental habits in the mansion like her tisanas or home brewed herbal infusions that she gives as medicinal remedies to the people on the estate. Strangely, Ambrose did not rewrite his will after his marriage which means that Philip will inherit everything when he turns 25. Till then the estate is controlled by Nick Kendall, his godfather and guardian. The lovesick 24 year is anxiously awaiting his birthday so he can bequeath his entire property and the family jewels to the alluring lady in spite of discovering incriminating letters from Ambrose about her financial troubles and his fear that she might be trying to poison him. Well, it could hardly be a coincidence that the boy was born on April Fools’ Day!

Other than Louise, his guardian’s daughter whom he has known since childhood and is expected to marry, Philip has never been close to any woman in his life. Will Philip suffer the same fate as Ambrose? Is Rachel a manipulative gold digger and a murderess or is she an innocent woman who is the victim of the mental instability of her men? Why does she have to be either a demon or an angel? Couldn’t she just be a complex flawed human who had nothing to do with the death of her husband? And what role does the sinister Signor Rainaldi, her close friend and advisor play in her life? Does Philip have reason to be jealous of him?

The story is told through Philip’s point of view in flashback. It is easy to identify with a first person homodiegetic narrator. I remember when I read the book in my youth, I was sympathetic to Philip’s plight and could relate to his obsessive infatuation and impulsiveness. At times I wanted to strangle him for his blind folly as I was on his side and didn’t want him to be ensnared in her trap. I was seeing Rachel through his eyes. But re- reading the book in my middle years, I had a completely different take on the story. How reliable of a narrator is Philip? Aren’t the readers looking at Rachel through the male gaze? This book is about the perceptions or rather misperceptions men create about women.

We could view Rachel as a scheming temptress or as a strong and independent woman who has faced many tragedies in life- she has had an unstable childhood, she has been married twice and has been a victim of domestic violence, she has miscarried a baby and is unable to conceive again, she has lost her husband and has been left with nothing for her in his will. Besides, can we trust Ambrose? His paranoia and delusions could very well be explained by his brain disorder that seems to run on the male side of the family. Philip himself shows the same symptoms which makes him even less of a reliable narrator. Philip has an uncanny resemblance to Ambrose. They are besotted with the same woman and suffer from the same illness in a characteristic Gothic trope of doubling or mirroring.

It is interesting that the book deals with wills, property, transactions, belongings and inheritance. The theme of ownership extends to the control of women too for just as property changes hands, so does Rachel with both men claiming her at different times. Philip refers to her as ” My Cousin Rachel” which is also the title of the book. The possessive adjective reinforces the idea that Rachel is akin to property too. For me this title is as fascinating as that of Rebecca where we have an unnamed narrator who lives in Rebecca’s shadow. Here the protagonist has a name but she is only relevant as belonging to a man. Philip feels that he can own her by giving her things. He is the immature boy who ignores every piece of advice he gets from his well wishers and assumes that handing over the property to her and being intimate with her would seal the relationship.

Yes, things start steaming up soon in Aunt Phoebe’s boudoir and I am not just referring to the tisane.  

Philip misinterprets Rachel agreeing to have sex with him as a tacit acceptance of a marriage proposal. Rachel declares that she had sex just to thank him for his generous gift and has no intention of marrying him. When my younger self read the book, my heart broke for the rejected Philip. Historically women have been turned down by men after a sexual encounter. Here it is not a virginal woman but a sheltered and sexually inexperienced man who is initiated into sex and assumes that it would lead to marriage. It is a subversive novel as the tables have been turned completely. Rachel wants to be her own person in a man’s world. She is saying no to the patriarchy by refusing to marry him. She is not evil but a woman who is sexually liberal and revels in the power of her sexuality. Philip chokes her as he is shocked by the rejection and repeats the marriage proposal but Rachel sticks to her guns. The 2018 Roger Michell movie based on the novel and starring Rachel Weisz as Cousin Rachel explores this feminist layer which is only hinted at in the novel.

There are oedipal undertones which add another layer of complexity to the plot. Philip was raised without a mother and as Ambrose’s widowed wife, Rachel is a mother figure to him. The woman who is ten years his senior, nurses him back to health when he is sick and chides him for his silliness. On one occasion, he even thinks that she will hit him. It is a brilliant tour de force on the part of du Maurier to make the reader view Rachel as a femme fatale. Are we not possibly identifying with the narrator and his misogynistic views? Sally Beauman, in the foreword to the Virago edition, makes a profound observation:

Cherchez la femme : is Rachel pure or impure, is she innocent or guilty? But this question, fascinating though du Maurier makes it, is an authorial sleight of hand: it disguises the far more interesting issue of male culpability-…….So who is doing the poisoning, the corrupting, here? Is it Rachel with her tisanas and witchy herbal pharmacopoeia, or is it the Ashleys, with their conditional gifts of jewels, land, houses, money and status?

Will Rachel’s sexual power become her undoing?I am not giving away the ending for those who haven’t read the book but as soon as I finished the last chapter, I went back and read the first. The haunting and ominous first line of the novel is also the last line: “They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days. Not any more, though.” We have come full circle as Philip is still tormented by the same question. “No one will ever guess the burden of blame I carry on my shoulders; nor will they know that every day, haunted still by doubt, I ask myself a question which I cannot answer. Was Rachel innocent or guilty?” 

What a fascinating psychological thriller where in true Gothic style, the emotions of the characters mirror the landscape…the emotionally charged atmosphere indoors reflects the menacing and mercurial English weather outside. Every gesture haunts be it the seductive sweep of a gown, the slow pinning up of hair or a teary averted gaze. The book is a slow burn suspense with excellent foreshadowing and a sense of impending doom- it simmers like the tisane Rachel brews. It is no coincidence that tea brewing is associated with witches and feminine power. Rachel is the bewitching woman who casts a spell on those around her and concocts strange potions or er.. poison. I just had to brew my own tisana to recreate the mood as I was reading. My blend had rosehips, hibiscus, lemongrass, peppermint and orange peel. And no, there were no laburnum seeds in it.

    

Night Mail

A Still From The 1936 Documentary Film “Night Mail”.

The postal service has been in the news lately in the US, embroiled in political controversy. The discussion made me reminisce about the good old days when the dull post office building was imbued with enchantment and adventure with the comings and goings of letters from near and far and from near and dear ones. I thought of a delightful poem entitled Night Mail written by W.H. Auden in 1936 for a British documentary film of the same name which follows the LMS ( The London, Midland and Scottish Railway) mail train from London to Scotland. The poem is especially charming to me as it combines my love of trains and of letters, evoking the romance and nostalgia of a bygone era.

This is the night mail crossing the Border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order,
Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,
The shop at the corner, the girl next door.
Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb:
The gradient’s against her, but she’s on time.

Past cotton-grass and moorland boulder
Shovelling white steam over her shoulder,
Snorting noisily as she passes
Silent miles of wind-bent grasses.
Birds turn their heads as she approaches,
Stare from bushes at her blank-faced coaches.
Sheep-dogs cannot turn her course;
They slumber on with paws across.
In the farm she passes no one wakes,
But a jug in a bedroom gently shakes.

Dawn freshens, Her climb is done.
Down towards Glasgow she descends,
Towards the steam tugs yelping down a glade of cranes
Towards the fields of apparatus, the furnaces
Set on the dark plain like gigantic chessmen.
All Scotland waits for her:
In dark glens, beside pale-green lochs
Men long for news.

Letters of thanks, letters from banks,
Letters of joy from girl and boy,
Receipted bills and invitations
To inspect new stock or to visit relations,
And applications for situations,
And timid lovers’ declarations,
And gossip, gossip from all the nations,
News circumstantial, news financial,
Letters with holiday snaps to enlarge in,
Letters with faces scrawled on the margin,
Letters from uncles, cousins, and aunts,
Letters to Scotland from the South of France,
Letters of condolence to Highlands and Lowlands
Notes from overseas to the Hebrides
Written on paper of every hue,
The pink, the violet, the white and the blue,
The chatty, the catty, the boring, the adoring,
The cold and official and the heart’s outpouring,
Clever, stupid, short and long,
The typed and the printed and the spelt all wrong.

Thousands are still asleep,
Dreaming of terrifying monsters
Or of friendly tea beside the band in Cranston’s or Crawford’s
Asleep in working Glasgow, asleep in well-set Edinburgh,
Asleep in granite Aberdeen,
They continue their dreams,
But shall wake soon and long for letters,
And none will hear the postman’s knock
Without a quickening of the heart,
For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?

This simple rhyming poem describes the journey of The Night Mail train as it leaves London and crosses the border into Scotland. It passes through the countryside of cotton fields, rocky lands and steep slopes almost merging into the landscape, for even the birds and sheep dogs have become used to its presence. From the countryside, it reaches the industrial world of Glasgow ” Towards the steam tugs yelping down a glade of cranes / Towards the fields of apparatus, the furnaces / Set on the dark plain like gigantic chessmen.”. It stands for punctuality and efficiency reaching its destination on time. It carries all sorts of letters from all over the world for all sorts of people who are still asleep, and whether they are having happy dreams or horrid nightmares, they will wake up with the joyous anticipation of receiving news.

I immediately notice that the train is personified as a woman and referred to as ‘she’, emphasizing its emotional impact. I am also struck by the hypnotic rhythm of the poem. Auden paid special attention to the meter to mimic the movement of a train as it moves down the tracks. The pace is steady, builds up to match the acceleration of the train and eventually slows down as it approaches stations. The repetition of words throughout the poem gives the effect of the monotonous chugging along of the train. As the pace picks up, the rhymes become quick and become internal rhymes ( “Letters of thanks, letters from banks.. Letters of joy from girl and boy” ).

The poet has made inventive use of poetic devices like alliteration, enjambment and anaphora. There are many alliterations and in one instance, the poet has employed a poetic technique called ‘sibilance’ as there is a hissing or sibilant quality to the alliteration ( “Shovelling white steam over her shoulder /Snorting noisily as she passes”). The use of ‘enjambment’ or the continuation of a line to another without a punctuation mark ( “In dark glens, beside pale-green lochs / Men long for news.”) helps to achieve a fast pace to emulate the ascent of the racing locomotive as the reader moves on to the next line without pause. ‘Anaphora’ or the repetition of a word at the beginning of successive lines ( “Letters”, ”And”, “Towards” “The” and “Asleep” ) is an effective rhetorical device to emphasize a repetitive and mechanical action.

As you can see, this is a poem that begs to be read aloud. In fact Auden is believed to have written it with the aid of a stopwatch for the film Night Mail. The poem was set to music by Benjamin Britten and was narrated towards the end of the film by John Grierson in a distinctive and almost modern rapper style rendition. These talented men endowed the prosaic documentary about the functioning of the railways with a unique poetic charm. Listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zmciuKsBOi0

In today’s world of digital communication, letter writing seems like an old fashioned practice. I don’t think there is any ping that could compare to the tactile sensation of writing on pretty stationery with a delicate fountain pen and sticking the stamp with your saliva to the envelope. There are so many other joys that go along with epistolary delights– penmanship and philately to name two. But the moment that brings the most happiness is the anticipation of receiving a letter whether followed by elation or disappointment at the news- a fat or thin envelope from a college, a letter of congratulations or rejection, a billet- doux from your beloved or a break up letter, the announcement of a new arrival or a condolence letter. At the end of the day, whether it is a text message on a smartphone or a letter that arrives by mail, it is all about tapping into the human need for connection. “For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?”


What Maisie Didn’t Know

First published in serial form in 1897, What Maisie Knew is a heartbreaking story of the impact of divorce on a young and sensitive child and a commentary on upper middle class Victorian society and its morality or lack thereof. Right off the bat, I admit that I find Henry James’ dense and digressive style of writing very off-putting. The only reason I made my way through the labyrinth is because I know his stories are interesting and insightful. I am not the kind of reader who skims through a difficult sentence; I will read it again and again till I get its import. With all due respect to the author, sometimes his circumlocutious prose has terrible syntax and does not make sense grammatically. Take any of his contemporaries- Edith Wharton, D. H. Lawrence, Oscar Wilde or Sinclair Lewis to name a few. Their language is lyrical without being bombastic and a pleasure to read! I only trudged through What Maisie Knew as I found the story fascinating.

Beale and Ida Farange are getting divorced and get shared custody of their six year old daughter Maisie. A judge rules that she spend six months with her mother and six with her father. She is like a shuttlecock tossed between them and made a pawn in their disputes. Each parent sends her to the other with little messages. Her father tells her to tell her mother that she is a ‘horrid, nasty pig.’ The parents are both involved in adulterous liasions and make her their confidante. She is caught in between the mud slinging and in their adult world of adultery. She learns to play dumb as a coping mechanism. At first each parent denies her access to the other and later both parents try to dump her on the other. They must be among the worst if not the worst parents in fiction! 

“What was clear to any spectator was that the only link binding her to either parent was this lamentable fact of her being a ready vessel of bitterness, a deep little porcelain cup in which biting acids could be mixed. They had wanted her not for any good they could do her, but for the harm they could, with her unconscious aid, do each other.”  

Beale marries Maisie’s governess Miss Overmore and Ida marries Sir Claude. But in a soap opera kind of twist, her step parents end up falling for each other. She is shuttled back and forth between the different adults of her life and caught in their web of sexual intrigue, deceit and drama. Her two step parents are only slightly better than her own parents. With all the different partners and changing last names, it is no surprise that:

“She therefore recognised the hour that in troubled glimpses she had long foreseen, the hour when—the phrase for it came back to her from Mrs. Beale—with two fathers, two mothers and two homes, six protections in all, she shouldn’t know “wherever” to go.”

The only person who is a loyal and constant presence in her life is her stodgy governess Mrs. Wix who has lost her own daughter and thinks of Maisie as her replacement. But even Mrs. Wix is not much different from the other conniving adults who use Maisie to further their own interests. At first, the innocence of the child acts as a foil to the vileness of the adults. Gradually, she gets corrupted by all the adult machinations she has been exposed to and has a precociousness that is quite disturbing for her age. Her childhood is stolen away from her.

Everyone stakes their claim on Maisie but she gravitates toward Mrs. Wix and her mother’s second husband Sir Claude who is involved with her father’s second wife, Miss Overmore, now Mrs. Beale. She is happy to have brought them together and encourages their affair. Sir Claude loves Maisie but he is a weak man completely besotted with Mrs. Beale. And Mrs. Wix has a huge crush on Sir Claude herself and uses Maisie to get closer to him. Oh, what a tangled web!

I was so moved by the plight of the child that I almost forgot she was fictional and wished to lift her from the pages of the book and give her a hug. She is abused mentally, emotionally and verbally. Her father calls her a donkey and a monster to her face. Miss Overmore calls her a hypocrite and a wretch. Her mother Ida accuses her of being ‘a dreadful, dismal, deplorable little thing’ and ‘a precious idiot, a little horror’. Once when she returns home after a long absence, Ida doesn’t see her for three whole days. Besides, she is isolated from other children and her education is abandoned.

Eventually her father and mother abandon her too and leave for America and South Africa, respectively. At first her father says he is willing to take her along with him to America but the poor child is perceptive enough to sense that he does not mean it and she declines his offer and decides to go to France with Sir Claude.

The choice of France for the denouement is interesting. They are away from the restrictive English society, and Maisie, on the cusp of adolescence, blossoms there to full maturity. She feels at home in Boulogne and has an awakening and discovers who she is. She also sees Sir Claude for who he is. She recognizes his fear of Mrs. Beale and is aware of his lies and ultimately she has the courage to give him an ultimatum.

There are romantic undertones in Sir Claude’s relationship with Maisie. To me the strange nature of their relationship became apparent in the last few chapters. James is fascinated with the subject of sexual repression and development in children and in Maisy’s precocity, we see seeds of The Turn of the Screw which was published a year later. Maisie had always put Sir Claude on a pedestal since she was a little girl as he treated her with a lot of kindness. Maisie’s exact age is left in the dark but she is probably a teenager or close to being one by the end of the novel. Though nothing explicit is said, there are lots of hints dropped like the way they almost leave for Paris together and how their closeness arouses the jealousy of the other two women. His body language becomes different towards her. One wonders if he is aware of the erotic tension and tries to defuse it by missing the train to Paris on purpose, needless to say, an honorable action on his part.

Maisie has to do what no child should be forced to do; she has to pick her guardian. She makes her choice after some deliberation but the ending left me in tears. It was probably the best outcome for Maisie and possibly influenced by an epiphany she had from the sight of the statue of the Madonna or the ‘high gilt Virgin’ in Boulogne. I feel that not one among her potential guardians was fit to take care of her! So I suppose any ending would have left me in tears. At first I thought that Sir Claude and Mrs. Beale were the most suited in spite of their adulterous liaison which was a scandal at the time. I thought they had the child’s best interests but Mrs. Beale turned out to be quite manipulative and selfish. I also didn’t think Mrs. Wix, the voice of Victorian morality was fit to be her guardian. She has bouts of anger and she uses Maisie as her confidante and accuses her of having no moral compass disregarding the fact that she is a child who has no idea of the restrictions separating men and women in Victorian society.

You wonder if Maisie will survive her childhood. She is amazingly resilient but this kind of toxicity catches up with you. I was struck by these powerful lines that appear early in the novel:

“She found in her mind a collection of images and echoes to which meanings were attachable—images and echoes kept for her in the childish dusk, the dim closet, the high drawers, like games she wasn’t big enough to play…A wonderful assortment of objects of this kind she was to discover there later”

The stuff children are not able to understand or process when they are little is stored in the subconscious and surfaces laters in life- in their worldview, in their behavior and in the relationships they have with others. Our childhood leaves an indelible mark on our adulthood.

I love the way that in spite of the narration being in the third person, James is able to put himself in the mind of a very young girl. There is a gap between what Maisie sees and comprehends and what we deduce as readers. This is a brilliant tour de force as the readers understand what Maisie doesn’t know. What Maisie Knew is a disturbing and disheartening story with an unusual plot. You wonder how many Maisies have lived and continue living in the real world! Alas! If only they had Child Protective Services back then!