Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Not Svengali and Trilby


I’ve been much distracted by blackcurrant jam-making and by cute babies on Facebook, so excuse me that this is well after my proposed December hit-and-run job.  Apart from anything else, I realized I missed not one, but two great posts from Pentimento, and while I was reading them and the erudite comments, I was sobered by thoughts like “Who did I think I am, footing it with these women who actually have thoughts their heads, besides jam and babies?”  Not that jam and babies aren’t good things, mark you, but Aristotle never wrote “The Nichomachean Make-and-Do.” 

Anyway, this is just a preamble for “this post won’t be very learned or deep.”

Melanie (I think) made a comment about the conventionality of the social relations in the book.  They are those of the 1900s: man and wife, with the man’s widowed mother living with the couple as a matter of course.  Benson was prescient on the subject of marriage as a civil contract, undertaken without the benefit of clergy and dissoluble, but the couple is, except for the fact that they are childless, otherwise severely conventional in a way that gave me pause to think how things have changed.  Mabel is nineteen, Oliver, much older, a politician well-advanced in his party, who must be at least thirty. 

The age disparity impinges on the narrative not a whit, except that it allows some de haut en bas exposition between the mature man and the very young woman.  We don’t have an Effi Briest or an Anna Karenina here, youth unhappily yoked with age, instead we have – teachability, and it’s a sobering insight that even I, conventional to the nines, find this severely creepy and suspect.  It used to be that parents regarded their daughters as well-settled if they married even a much older man, and not only in the fictional realm of Emma and Mr Knightley.  My own grandmother’s husband-to-be took a photo of her away to WW1 with him.  She was under fourteen at the time, and he, twenty-four, but this was a matter of no remark in the family.  Attitudes have changed, but do we do better to expect equality of temperament and wisdom in couples of approximately the same age?  (There must be a whole branch of social science devoted to investigating this question.)

The thought that I’m coming to is that the shock value for Benson’s first readers over Mabel’s suicide must have lain, not so much in the fact that houses of gentle death exist in the book, but that the government connives with her intention with no regard to her husband’s wishes.  Benson’s laying-out of a couple so attractive and normal, and then for him to show how little traction the married relationship has in the absence of either a public or private faith, must be quite the most subversive thing in the book.

And “She had not even had a child” strikes me as the saddest sentence in the book. 


Emily J. said...

I agree, O, with your assessment of that line. Mabel was one of the most sympathetic characters, I thought. I just finished last night and don't have "learned and deep" comments to make either, but I was sorry to see Mabel opt out - I kept hoping she'd become a secret convert. And I have mixed emotions about the "rest house" - Perhaps one of the scariest things about Benson's futuristic society because it is appealing.
I was hoping for more of a showdown at the end - even though I knew it would be bad theology for the Pope to shoot down the World's president. But I thought perhaps the references to physical similarity between Felsenbaugh and Percy might lead to an physical encounter. I need to go back and reread the last bit - I can understand why Benson might be intentionally ambiguous, but am I missing some clues? I don't want to give away too much, so I won't say anything more about the ending, but I'd be interested to read what others thought about it. I read the ebook version, and I haven't yet acquired the practice of marking pages to review on the ereader. Being unable to flip back and forth easily makes the ereader less attractive to me. I feel like I missed something in the end. I like being able to get a hold of books like this for free, but I'd still rather read print.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

I tried to write a post when I finished the novel, but my computer kept eating it. So I'll try to remember what I was going to say and post it here as well as to respond to Otepoti's thoughts. I'm not so sure how coherent I am, because I'm pretty preoccupied with babies and housekeeping myself. (Sadly, not jam.)

I hadn't noticed the age disparity. I got the impression in Middlemarch that the teachability of the young wife was definitely considered a feature of marrying a younger wife. You see a similar dynamic in the marriages of Dorothea and Causabon and Lydgate and Rosamund. The assumption of both Lydgate and Dorothea is that the wife will mold herself to the husband's interests and personality.

About the conventionality of social relations.... I've been surprised before at people quoting things I've forgotten I've written--I know Elizabeth has done that to me in the past-- but I don't think it was me that commented about the conventionality of social relations. Or if I did the thought didn't stick in my own head. But that does strike me now as an interesting observation.

Now I keeping thinking of this book in comparison and contrast to Brave New World and it does seem that one of the things Benson doesn't foresee is the breakdown of marriage and family, which Huxley sees so much more clearly. But the biggest difference is that in Benson's time the C of E hadn't yet given in on the issue of contraception. That was the beginning of the end of the family, as Huxley predicts so presciently.

So this makes me wonder now: are they childless by choice or accident? Is contraception widely accepted in Benson's dystopia? I can't remember any data to suggest either way.

In any case, that's a very interesting note about the primacy of the individual trumping the married relationship. Very reminiscent now that
I think about it of the American idea of the right to privacy and autonomy as the greatest civil good as you see it arise in arguments about abortion.

Also in the vein of Huxley, what struck me most about the suicide houses was how not shocking they would be to most people under thirty. When I taught Brave New World it was so hard to try to get my college students to see how shocking the contraceptive culture in the novel would have been to Huxley's readers. They hardly batted an eye. I suspect that current college students would react similarly to the state-sponsored suicide. After all yesterday I saw someone arguing on Facebook that the right to kill oneself is a fundamental human right.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

And then my own scattered observations as I read and made a few notes:

The attempt at a godless church outlined in this article made me think of Benson's humanist church. Definitely one of the things Benson sees quite clearly. Can Atheist Churches Last? Life imitating art?

One of the things that seemed almost off-putting was all the monarchical pomp surrounding the papacy in Rome. After a century of shedding much of those trappings, it felt very foreign. I much preferred the simplicity of the exile in Nazareth. Was that intentional on Benson's part, I wonder? How are we supposed to feel about the papal court?

Another thing that caught my eye were the similarities and differences between Franklin's contemplative prayer and Mabel's. She has such a longing for a deeper spirituality but no foundation to build on and yet she returns again and again to the church to meditate as best she can on the feeble shreds of mystery that she has to cling to. She longs for a savior and clings to Felsenburgh because he's all she's got. Her tragedy is that she never properly hears the Christian Gospel from a believer. The closest she can find is the apostate priest who is hardly going to be convincing as he lays out the case for Christianity for all he can offer is arguments and not at all the person of Christ, which is what Mabel really longs for. Which is rather convicting of contemporary Catholics as well who often approach the seeker with an array of arguments as if the point is winning a battle by forcing the other person to accept a belief system instead of helping to foster a relationship.

Enbrethiliel said...


Otepoti -- One novel I reread recently which brought up similar thoughts for me was Jean Webster's Daddy Long-Legs (published in 1912--only four years after The Lord of the World!). The age difference between the heroine and the man she falls in love with is greater than that between Mabel and Oliver, and the former says of her beau: "We think the same about everything--I am afraid I have the tendency to make over my ideas to match his! But he is almost always right; he ought to be, you know, for he has fourteen years' start of me." There were a few points during their courtship when I had the uncomfortable sense that the heroine was being groomed. But did I feel uneasy because there was truly an imbalance between them or merely because "we do things differently here" in this foreign country of the future?

Emily -- Using an ereader was a challenge for me as well. I wouldn't have been able to join the discussion otherwise, but reading was a huge slog! Just last night, when I finally finished it, a friend of mine said that he was amazed that I had such a hard time. I really think it would have been easier if I'd had a paper copy.

Melanie -- The relationships in the book are indeed very conventional (or as we might have to say these days, "old-fashioned"?) that I had some difficulty believing in the more futuristic elements. It takes more than volors to convince me they're in the future, I thought to myself several times . . . until the very end, when the significance of these machines was finally revealed.

Still, the humanist ideals of Benson's future remind me of what someone has told me of the present-day Netherlands, where the greatest ideal of the social order seems to be the convenience of the individual. And it does mean that people can get married (which apparently means "eligible for certain benefits") at the drop of a hat, just as they can be divorced at the drop of a hat. Abortion and euthanasia are seen as a matter of free choice. And once, when my acquaintance prayed before a meal, her Dutch stepfather said quite seriously, "Why do you thank God? Why don't you thank me? I put this food on the table."

But your question remains. What would shock us these days? What is still taboo?

Finally, the papal court was one of my favourite details! It's the first logical sign of contradiction to the "stripped down" government and society of England (which I think we can assume is the norm everywhere else in this dystopian future). And on a personal note, while I agree that the Church should have a heart for the poor, which can sometimes be shown only through

Only after the world becomes religious again, worshiping a new Son of Man with as much pomp and circumstance as the old rites used to have, does another sort of "stripping down," as seen in the exile in Nazareth, become the right answer. I also think that it makes sense that an attack on the Pope would end up taking out so many others who received their authority from God.

Enbrethiliel said...


Leave it to me to forget to finish my sentences! =P So let me continue . . .

. . . while I agree that the Church should have a heart for the poor, which can sometimes be shown only through her own visible poverty, I don't think pomp and royalty are necessarily signs of ostentatious wealth. The displaced kings and queens in Rome are arguably poor. But it is right for them to retain the outward signs of their authority, even if it seems like a frivolous expense to republican eyes."

Otepoti said...

Emily, Melanie, Enbrethiliel, I feel lucky to share virtual space with you; your comments are gold.

Enbrethiliel - this is the best reading group ever. I didn't think there was another soul alive who even remembered Jean Webster's "Daddy Long-Legs", let alone read it recently. Does your copy have those quirky schoolgirl illustrations? Mine belonged to - perhaps alarmingly - my grandfather who married my much younger grandmother. It has his signature in the frontispiece. The dynamic didn't play out well in real life, though.

I'll try and write again later in the day, but as a post, so the comment threads don't get unwieldy.

Enbrethiliel said...


Otepoti, yes, my copy has the illustrations! When I found out that the digital copies don't have them, I was doubly glad of it. =)

I've also been wanting to start the sort-of sequel to Daddy-Long-Legs, Sally McBride's story Dear Enemy, but I can only find it digitally and I'm not looking forward to another slog. =P Would you know if the original edition also has illustrations?

Melanie Bettinelli said...

Emily, I read most of it on my phone, though I did get a new Kindle for Christmas and finished it on that, so I'm with you on the e-reader thing. I keep meaning to go back and re-read passages, especially the ending, but I haven't.

About the ending. It really shocked me as I read. I kept thinking that surely he wasn't going to go there, not really. Something was going to happen. But the more I think about it, the better I like it. And it reminds me very much of the ending of another Catholic apocalyptic dystopian science fiction novel: A Canticle for Leibowitz. Has anyone else read it? Anyway, for me the key to that ending was the Book of Revelation. Thinking of Apocalypse as unveiling, revealing the truest nature of things.

In that light, Benson's ending actually seems quite perfect to me. Scott Hahn argues that the Book of Revelation is really about the Mass and here Benson seems to be making that connection as well: end of the world-- apocalypse-- the holy sacrifice of the Mass. I still have to tease it out, but I think ending with the liturgy is deeply significant.

In fact throughout, I'm quite intrigued by how Benson describes liturgy and even the mock liturgy of the humanist church.

Enbrethiliel, I don't think it's pomp=ostentatious wealth that was catching my attention so much as pomp and royalty=papacy as monarchy. The past few popes, and especially Pope Francis, have placed much more emphasis on the role of the pope as the Servant of the Servants of God and or the pope as first among equals. Much less emphasis on hierarchy and monarchy. So while papal rituals are still very rich in some ways, they've dropped or de-emphasized much of the things that specifically signified royalty: things like the sedan chair.

Enbrethiliel said...


Given how much we want actual royals to be "just like us," I think we (the collective "we" of the modern world) would freak out a little if a pope started to emphasise the royal aspects of the papacy again. I'm glad that our Holy Fathers are considering what their subjects can most comfortably handle, but I also wonder what we're missing by demanding that the papacy dress down to us.