Friday, November 18, 2011

A Woman of Property, or Woman as Property?

Ruth Raven has been reading about the trials and tribulations of a young lady who inherits a fortune, yet spurns it as an encumbrance. Can such things be? Such matters are beyond the wit of Hetty Sorrel: I give the stage to my esteemed friend while I recruit myself with the ratafia bottle.

Of Moths and Butterflies, by V. R. Christensen, is set in the early days of Gladstone's prime ministership: although he is not mentioned by name, this fact is absolutely crucial to the plot.  The Married Women's Property Act (1882) is on the horizon, but just too late to be of any use to the heroine, Imogen. These are the dying throes of the era when a woman's property automatically became her husband's upon marriage, and Imogen, who has just inherited her thoroughly unpleasant uncle's property, foresees that her fortune is going to bring her nothing but trouble.  In modern parlance, everyone wants a piece out of Imogen, so she runs away from her scheming family and goes into service in a country house. There are two conflicting love interests, mistaken identities, mysteries of birth and a thorough-going villain to boot. There are points at which one could almost think that this is an actual Victorian novel with its elaborate plot, coincidences and revelations.

There are, however, ways in which the author defies convention and poses some very uncomfortable questions. Without giving away too much of the plot, we begin in the usual way by sympathising with the heroine and her flight into the unknown: little by little, however, we see the flaws in her character emerging until we wonder whether she will ever be able to overcome them.  There is a deep psychological truthfulness in Christensen's portrayal of Imogen that relates the events of the girl's unhappy past with her tendency to play mind-games, quite unconsciously, with her suitors.

The "big idea" of the book is suggested by the moths and butterflies of the title.  What sort of life can a woman make for herself if she is regarded merely as a prize specimen in a collection? There is a certain relevance for our time: although we might not see women bought and sold in marriage (in Western society at any rate), we still talk of trophy wives, prenups and and massive settlements.

 It would be interesting, if running a book club, to choose Of Moths and Butterflies in conjunction with Disraeli's Sybil, or The Two Nations and Wilde's An Ideal Husband.  There is, I believe, the makings of a two or three-part  television costume drama here: Sarah Waters' Fingersmith and Michael Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White has shown that there is still a great public appetite for recreations of the Victorian era.

Of Moths and Butterflies may be obtained from Amazon (and is available electronically on Kindle).

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Thinking Caps On!

On our coach journeyfrom Liverpool to London, the game of 'I Spy' having palled, my elderly friend Dr Isaacs propounded the following divertissement.
You are to imagine a staircase of an hundred steps. On the bottom step sits a pigeon; on the next, two pigeons; on the next, three, and so forth, all the way to the top, where sit an hundred pigeons.  How many pigeons are there in toto?
Well! I began by adding one, plus two, plus three &c, until my antique companion laughed me quite out of countenance and told me that there was a much easier way, supposedly discovered by the great mathematician Carl Gauss when but a boy (Though this may be a fable- see this link for someone who thinks so:
I had much to do with this problem, and required many hints, but at last I took a ribbon from my hair and wrote the numbers along it.  I then folded the ribbon in half so that the first number lay upon the last and what do you think? I had fifty pairs of numbers, of course, and each pair added to one hundred and one.  If you multiply one hundred and one by the number of pairs (fifty) you come to five thousand and fifty. I happened to remark to Dr Isaacs that this was all very well, but how can one know that this will always happen without adding the numbers all together in the way I first tried.  He was quite ecstatic and declared he liked my question better than my answer, for I demanded proof, and that is the first step to being a mathematician! For my proof, he simply showed me this picture, which is done for ten, not an hundred, but you can see the way of it readily enough.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Time for a Little Levity

One cannot always be down in the dumps with melancholia or the megrims, and even Hetty Sorrel can laugh at herself.  I urge you to watch this delightful summary of Adam Bede, and would only like to correct its authors on the following points:
1.  I was never married to Adam Bede- dreadful thought!- though I was engaged to him a short time.
2.  He was certainly not an 'old man', though certainly he was wise and solemn for his years.
3. I did not bear my child in the forest, though I left it there.
4. Arthur Donnithorne did not bring tidings of my pardon to my prison cell, but to the very gallows- though I am sure that the fault does not lie with the authors of this synopsis, for they were probably unable to show the galloping horse.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Now Wash Your Hands

The best way to treat invalids, I find, is to divert them from their own woes with a story of others worse off than themselves.  My attached friend and amanuensis Ruth Raven, now out of hospital and recovering from her second mastectomy, has begged to hear again the story of Dr Benjamin Isaacs and his misadventure in Tenerife.  Here it is; but first, a preface on the matter of medical handwashing.
 Let me lay down at the outset that Dr Isaacs, though possessed of towering intellect (especially as compared with your humble servant), was not ahead of his time.  As all the world knows, his profession did not even think of washing the hands before ministering to patients until the1840s, and its first exponents- Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1843 and Ignaz Semmelweis in 1847- were roundly laughed at for their pains.  For a history of the practice, and how it was justified by the researches of Pasteur and Lister, let me recommend you this link:
  Nay, Dr Isaacs' dispute with the ship's surgeon arose from the Jewish practice of washing the hands before eating bread, which the surgeon remarked upon with some insulting words, the upshot of which was, 'What, man, I wonder you can be so superstitious! Do you think you can bring back your Temple by playing the priest?'
  Nothing was more calculated to sting Dr Isaacs than this, for he regarded himself not as a religious man, but as one enlightened by the beams of science, and he replied with,
 'I wonder you can be so uncleanly, unless you prefer your bread flavoured with sauce of clyster and poultice.'
  Anyway, to our story.  As usual, you may read more of this in Hetty, or, To Hell with Adam Bede (Ruth Raven) available here:
The picture appears by courtesy of the Wellcome Trust's estimable library.


After berating me over the matter of the earrings, Dr Isaacs was the next of us to behave foolishly, and in a manner that almost cost him his life. Our last port of call before Liverpool was to be the Island of Tenerife, and our captain assembled everyone on deck and warned us that though we would be there for a good week- there being some repairs to make to the ship before we set forth- we should, if we were wise, remain on board as much as possible, because the local people were not fond of the English; however, he said, he could not bring himself to forbid us, for, he said, he had no doubt that some of the more learned (by which I was sure he meant Dr Isaacs) would wish to ‘take a look-see’ at the remarkable University, surely the wonder of the island.
  Well, on the very morning we were to visit this University, Dr Isaacs came to tell me, quite abruptly, that he purposed another journey, but one on which I could not accompany him, because, said he, no accident must befall me and my unborn child. I was a little angry at this, because it meant that I would have to sit reading or enamelling in my cabin all day, since we had agreed that I would not walk abroad without him.
He explained that he intended to hire a mule and travel more than twenty miles to the south, sleeping out overnight if need be, and all to see some ancient piles of stone that were called the Pyramids, in imitation of those in Egypt. He wanted to lay eyes on these, he said, before he died, and if I could spare him for one day he would be sure to lay on some entertaining diversion for me on the morrow. I retorted rather pettishly that I was not a child that required compensatory treats for every trifling annoyance, and that he might do as he pleased. I was sorry when he went away, for I thought he looked a little crestfallen and rather older than his usual appearance.
  I decided that I would show that I was not angry with him by making him a small keepsake of our voyage, so I took one of the watch covers with which Mr Fagin had provided me and enamelled it so that it exactly resembled a seashell I had found on the beach at Rio de Janeiro. I spent a long time over this task, and when I was finished my anger really had melted away.
  I did not expect Dr Isaacs back before nightfall, so it was with surprise that I saw him staggering up the gang plank around midday. I wondered if he was drunk, but such a condition was so far from his usual character that I dismissed the idea at once. My old friend was ill. I helped him to his cabin and made him lie down upon his bunk, while I plied him with cold, refreshing drinks and made shift to mop his head, which was sweating profusely. I could get no sense out of him, so ran post haste to find the ship’s surgeon. This man was of little help, for he would not even come and look at the poor Doctor: ‘This is a case of Physician, heal thyself’’, he laughed callously. I gathered that the two had recently had a professional falling out over the practice of hand washing, which Dr Isaacs advocated, and which the surgeon derided as a foolish superstitious ritual.
  I went away in tears, but one of the sailors, a little bandy-legged, cross-eyed man called Poole, came to me and offered to help, ‘For I think I know what this is’, says he. Indeed, he needed but one look at Dr Isaacs to form his opinion, as follows:
  ‘Do not be afeared, Madam, for all he has had a close shave. There are in the market place some terrible scoundrels who pretend friendliness towards Englishmen, whom they hate. They offer them to drink, perhaps some tea, or chocolate, or the like, while they discuss the price of some trinket they have for sale. Only, instead of selling him the trinket, they put some stupefying drug into his drink, and either drag off the wretched victim to a secret place and there make an end of him, or they hold him to ransom in their mountain lair. What has happened, in my opinion, is that the Doctor suspected foul play and discreetly made his way out of the villains’ clutches and so, with great difficulty, got back to his friends. He will be all right, Madam, so long as you keep him quiet and comfortable and keep giving him harmless drinks. I will run to the cook for some tonic water for him, and you may call upon me to do the poor gentleman any service you wish.’
I shed even more tears as I wrung his scrawny hand in gratitude, and for the first time in my life felt my heart bursting with pure affection for a man who had no physical charms to speak of. How many more tears I shed when I learned that, before leaving the ship, Dr Isaacs had charged Poole, at whatever cost, to look after me and, as far as possible, befriend my mission, should he not return.
  The Doctor lay on his bunk in the grip of terrible visions and waking dreams for two full days, and he had a miserable week of it thereafter, for, as he said, his mind kept playing tricks upon him and showing him, over and over, the scene of his downfall. He had, after taking his leave of me, wandered around the market, and, being much interested in the little ceramic pots made by the Indians of that place- for they do not possess the potter’s wheel, and make everything by hand- he thought he would acquire one for me as a kind of peace offering (How this stung me!); only, the stall holder invited him to take chocolate with him, and thereafter all was as the sailor Poole had divined.
‘I thought that something was amiss,’ said the Doctor, ‘because the merchant seemed to be watching me intently all the while, as if waiting for something to happen; and there were two other fellows with him that I had not noticed before. It is fortunate that I have some knowledge of Spanish, for I heard them say that it would take a second cup to finish the job. So, taking advantage of the instant in which they were pouring it out, I simply took to my heels and ran. They did not expect so lively a pair of legs on such a one as me, but I was running for my life, and as I conceived it, for the success of your mission. Indeed, I thought a heart attack might finish me off before the drug, and you saw in what state I got on board.’
  We swore that from then on we would not run ourselves into unnecessary peril, but would garner up all our resources against the day when they would be needed most, and, except where modesty forbade, we would stand shoulder to shoulder at all times.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

To My Followers- Both of You

Dear Friends,
This blog will fall silent for a week or more, as Ruth Raven's mastectomy looms ever nearer.  Hetty must now assume the role of comforter, and devote herself entirely to the needs of her attached friend.  I offered RR the services of my worthy sailor friend Poole when the time comes: he is something of an expert at knocking folk unconscious with a belaying pin, and is much in demand with ships' surgeons whenever amputations are called for- much more effective, to my mind, than rum.  To my astonishment, RR, speaking as usual across the chasm of History, informs me that neither recourse will be necessary. What fortitude must women of the 21st Century possess!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Hetty and the Guinea Pigs

Hetty: Remind me again. Why did I buy cavies from a sailor in the market of Rio de Janeiro?

Ruth Raven: Everyone who has read these words from George Eliot's Adam Bede will either get a lovely warm glow or reach for the sick bucket.
'There are various orders of beauty, causing men to make fools of
themselves in various styles, from the desperate to the sheepish; but
there is one order of beauty which seems made to turn the heads not only
of men, but of all intelligent mammals, even of women. It is a beauty
like that of kittens, or very small downy ducks making gentle rippling
noises with their soft bills, or babies just beginning to toddle and
to engage in conscious mischief--a beauty with which you can never be
angry, but that you feel ready to crush for inability to comprehend the
state of mind into which it throws you. Hetty Sorrel's was that sort
of beauty.'
As we clever modern people know, there is a dark side to all this. Oh, there is. There just is. The implication is that Hetty, just like the cute little animals, has zilch concept of morality.

Hetty: I feel an attack of the megrims coming on.

Ruth Raven: I know, but stay with me. In George Eliot's last book, Daniel Deronda, she uses a beautiful phrase to describe the sort of goodness that desperately flawed human beings could still aspire to- 'a region in which the affections are clad with knowledge'. It seemed to me that one way you could start clothing your affections with knowledge was to have guinea pigs crapping in your pockets for a while- a sort of preparation for motherhood, if you like. You see, even soft furry animals have their dark side.

Hetty: Was George Eliot a Methodist, like my cousin Dinah?

Ruth Raven: Nope.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A Subject of Some Delicacy

Readers of Hetty, or, To Hell with Adam Bede by Ruth Raven (available from will doubtless be curious as to the libertine watches mentioned therein.  Hetty would not wish to sully her well-mannered blog with the dreaded words adult content, so the example shown here is one of the mildest of the genre. My old friend Mrs Fagin explains them thus, in the chapter called 'The Triumph of Eros over Time':
The are called libertine watches, but that does not make the owners of 'em libertines, at least not all of them. In Switzerland, where folk have a very passion fro watches, people give them out to the bride's maids at weddings, to signify that the time is fast ticking away until their own marriage bed. Among rich people they make pretty birthday gifts, for putting a bawdy scene inside a watch is like defiance to Old Father Time himself, who, if he exists, would rather see a death's head with worms crawling out of the eye sockets than a lusty couple at the baby-making business.'

And that, my dear readers, is as saucy as this blog gets.