Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A daily life busied with rustic simplicities and the scents of primeval herbs - The Country of the Pointed Firs, domestic picaresque

Messing around  in the comments of a Jam & Idleness review of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, I amused myself by calling the novel a “domestic picaresque.”  In Don Quixote and Lazarillo de Tormes, the characters have adventures simply because they travel around.  There may be nothing more to the plot than movement and variety of experience.  The women of Cranford have adventures by moving around to each other’s houses for tea.  The adventure may consist of observing different domestic habits and eating cake.  Boy, Cranford ought to be dull.

The logical question, when inventing a new genre – based on Bing and the MLA International Bibliography, my idea is not purely original, but close – the next question is what other works belong to it.  The only title that occurred to me was Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), which I had not actually read.  Now I have, and the important thing I learned from it – the most important thing I can learn from any book – is that I was right.

A narrator much like the author (I will call her Sarah) spends a long summer in a coastal town in Maine, nominally to write, but soon the visitin’ begins.  Folks come to visit Mrs. Todd, Sarah’s herbalist landlady, and Mrs. Todd takes Sarah to visit others.  What do people do on these visits?  They visit.  I am introducing my own regionalisms here, which are not necessarily those of Maine.  They visit about the news and weather and the past. 

When zhiv, several years ago, called the book a “plotless novel” but also a “modern novel,” this is what he meant.  We are now used to calling this sort of organized prose fiction a novel.

A line that runs through the book, connecting the episodes, is Sarah’s adaptation to the town, so that it is a moment of triumph when, near the end (Ch. XX), she goes visitin’ on her own.  Other unifying themes are the series of eccentric or even damaged men, mostly widowers – this one is shared by Cranford, and true Mainers might suggest that what I call eccentric is what Maine calls ordinary.

Another line is housekeeping and cooking and Mrs. Todd’s herbs, the domestic rather than picaresque side of the book, a different genre.  I found an interesting study by Ann Romines, The Home Plot: Women, Writing & Domestic Ritual (University of Massachusetts Press, 1992), which puts The Country of the Pointed Firs at the head of housekeeping fiction, as in specific works of Willa Cather (who I barely know) and Eudora Welty.  Jewett’s touch on the latter’s “family get together” novels Delta Wedding and Losing Battles was clear enough even before I got to Chapter XVIII, “The Bowden Reunion.”  Romines never mentions Gaskell, which is odd.

The genres are proliferating, which was not my point.  I guess I will spend a couple of days with the book and its “sorrows and the remoteness of a daily life busied with rustic simplicities and the scents of primeval herbs” (Ch.  X).

Jewett and her narrator have a mild and pleasant sense of humor but this book is not nearly as wickedly funny as Cranford.  I will just get that out of the way here.  Jewett wrote a mild book.  It ought to be dull.


  1. I love "domestic picaresque"! And The Country of the Pointed Firs definitely fits the bill. I see that in my own write-up I put it in my "gardening" category, which pretty clearly encompasses domestic and village-level picaresques.
    I think "Sarah's adaptation to the town" is more than a line running through it, but the overall loose structure to the picaresque (though I also see the in my write-up I didn't think the vignettes were held together enough). And there's also the town's adaptation to the present-day, as it's lost most of its industry and is adapting, in some broad way, to Sarah (or people like Sarah).

  2. Maybe "domestic picaresque" is a better idea than I first thought. Someone else will have to fill out the reading list, though - like I have a clue about 20th century domestic fiction.

    When I met the herb-gatherer (in chapter 2), I about laughed. In a novel written today, that would be a canny play for the Women's Studies classroom.

    Maybe I have more than 2 days of posts, too. We'll see.

    The town's adaptation is so interesting. Thus, the absence of young people in the book. Just old and older.

    For my tastes, too, the vignettes were too loose. Tighten, tighten! But the looseness was deliberate, a bold if frustrating aesthetic move.

    A couple of the later Dunnet Landing stories actually have more conventional fictional movement, well-made stories. But not the book.

  3. It ought to be dull, but it isn't. I very much enjoyed the book when I read it several years ago. Somehow Jewett manages to pull in the reader and make her care. Perhaps it is the charm of being able to "belong" to a small community without actually having to live there yourself. Don't know. But something about it really works.

  4. I'd like to propose a couple of Kipling stories as examples of the 'Domestic Picaresque' genre. First, there is 'The wish house'.

    In this story two women friends, Mrs. Fettley and Mrs. Ashcroft get together one pleasant March Saturday to drink tea, do a little needle-work, gossip a little and catch up with the latest news in their lives.

    Of course, during their little chat they criticize the marriages, lives, domestic and child-rearing choices of their neighbors and family. Next, they start to reminisce about their old mutual love, handsome Harry Mockler. Mrs. Ashcroft then tells a funny little anecdote about a poor peasant girl who became infatuated with her:

    'Our charwoman’s fiddle girl — Sophy Ellis was her name — all eyes and elbows and hunger. I used to give her vittles. Otherwhiles, I took no special notice of her, and a sight less, of course, when my trouble about Harry was on me. But — you know how fiddle maids first feel it sometimes — she come to be crazy-fond of me, pawing and cuddling all whiles; and I hadn’t the heart to beat her off . . . One afternoon, early in spring' Mrs. Ashcroft has a nasty headache and Sophy notices, leaves the house and 'she hadn’t been gone ten minutes before me old headache took off quick as being kicked. So I went about my work. Prasintly, Sophy comes back, and creeps into my chair quiet as a mouse... And then she said she’d changed my ‘eddick’ for me at a Wish ‘Ouse’.'

    And then Mrs. Ashcroft reveals to her friend a little secret: she has changed Harry's illnesses and ills into hers at Sophy's Wish House to prevent Harry from losing his job due to an injury. At first she thought she'd only feel his pains for him, but one morning she found that 'I’d growed a nasty little weeping boil, like, on my shin, just above the boot-top, that wouldn’t heal and had no clear shape. It made me sick to look at it, for I’m clean-fleshed by nature'. She, of course, has never told anyone of her sacrifice and Harry continued to live happily, married another woman, and moved away in search of a better job.

    Some have explained how this is a retelling of 'Chaucer's Wife of Bath tale even to the ‘mormal [ulcer] on her shinne’'. Nora Crook, on her book 'Kipling's Myths of Love and Death', wrote: 'With the Chaucerian original in mind, it becomes difficult to regard “The Wish House” as simply an exposition of woman’s capacity for self-sacrifice, despite his giving his heroine the name of Grace, and despite her taking her lover’s cancer upon herself. It is a rather tougher story about the obsessiveness of woman’s sexual desire and her exerting what Chaucer called the “maistrie” – the power –' over her man.

  5. I sure am glad someone read this book for me. That title has bothered around my head for 25 years now and has always seemed curious and attractive, and I can't stop picturing isoceles triangle cut-out Christmas trees. Consequently, I also can't prevent thoughts of Flatland from bothering in too, though I know these books have nothing to do with one another. Or maybe Flatland is a kind of domestic picaresque too. Who knows what kind of tea and cakes they might enjoy while visiting one another's dimensions?

    1. I've pictured the pointed firs as if they were the top of an iron fence against a light grey metal sky. Following along that train of thought I've been under the impression that people in the book fall on these emissions and hurt themselves, they go through wilful pain and Gothic torture, but now I discover that Jewett is herbs and landladies, nobody falls on spears or if they do then Tom hasn't mentioned it; there's nothing Gothic -- I was imagining storms. Horrifying storms and people suffering, crows, bats, dark afternoons, floods, the deaths of children or pets, etc, doom somehow, doom happening to somebody, maybe a fawn getting shot.

      Xavier de Maistre's Voyage around my Room: an extremely domestic picaresque.

    2. This is a gentle and even sweet book, with some important exceptions that act as baking powder. I plan to write about some of those.

      Doom is something that happens at sea, that creates widows. But that is all far away and in the past.

      The Country of the Pointed Firs is the high level beginning of a certain strain of American women's fiction, for lack of a better term. It lacks quilting. Someone later will have to add the quilts.

      Xavier de Maistre, all right, good.

  6. Another specimen might be Gertrude Stein's "Mrs. Reynolds": humdrum domestic life during WW2. A curious little book, in many ways...

  7. "She, of course, has never told anyone of her sacrifice and Harry continued to live happily, married another woman, and moved away in search of a better job."
    Actually, hunblehappiness, Harry hasn't married and Mrs. Ashcroft says that while his mother lives "I knowed she’d do watch-dog for me, ‘thout askin’ for bones.’" and he won't.
    'The Wish House', for all its domestic setting has a plot too shocking and openly tragic for it to count as 'Domestic Picaresque'. The supernatural isn't part of the genre.

  8. People are debating which texts belong in a category I invented. I am enjoying this. And my ignorance is such that almost all I can do is stand back and enjoy. Except for Flatland, I don't think so. I wish. Although see the next post, which is largely about circles. Circles stuffed with fruit, butter and sugar.

    I guess I do have another comment or two.

    Labeling almost any short story picaresque is difficult. They are insufficiently episodic almost by definition. Either the plot as such is too strong, as A. Nonymous argues, or there is not enough room for the kind of theme-and-variation work characteristic of the picaresque.

    There is actually a curious relationship between some of Kipling's Indian stories and Cranford that I had not noticed. English towns in India where the men are away building bridges and policing the natives while the wives make social calls on each other.

    Curiously, there are two supernatural episodes in The Country of the Pointed Firs, or really one, and another in one of the later "Dunnet Landing Stories." Perhaps it is relevant that the story ("The Foreigner") is in is an exception to the rule - it is conventionally well-plotted and so on. More like an Elizabeth Gaskell short story, in fact.

    But then there is that other example. I will write something longer about this.

    The charm Stefanie mentions is real. Perhaps I will also try to write about where Jewett cuts against the charm. That works, too.

    1. I really wasn't serious about Flatland. But it's curious how far afield the suggestiveness of Jewett's title can send one.

  9. Yes, but I was serious about wanting to include Flatland. I need to come up with another genre that somehow covers both.

  10. Thank you Anonymous for clarifying the marriage status of Harry for me. I was obviously wrong on that matter. By the way, I loved the Primary Colors book. :)

    The other Kipling story I consider fits into the Domestic Picaresque is 'A Wayside Comedy', which starts:

    'Fate and the Government of India have turned the Station of Kashima into a prison; and, because there is no help for the poor souls who are now lying there in torment, I write this story, praying that the Government of India may be moved to scatter the European population to the four winds'.

    And ends:

    'You're a blackguard,' he says to Kurrell, 'and I've lost any self-respect I may ever have had; but when you're with me, I can feel certain that you are not with Mrs. Vansuythen, or making Emma miserable.'

    Kurrell endures anything that Boulte may say to him. Sometimes they are away for three days together, and then the Major insists upon his wife going over to sit with Mrs. Boulte; although Mrs. Vansuythen has repeatedly declared that she prefers her husband's company to any in the world. From the way in which she clings to him, she would certainly seem to be speaking the truth.

    But of course, as the Major says, 'in a little Station we must all be friendly.'

  11. Yes, that one, I was vaguely thinking of that Kipling story. And then tack on a couple more from the same setting and we are getting somewhere.

  12. "Yes, but I was serious about wanting to include Flatland. I need to come up with another genre that somehow covers both."

    Er, books, perhaps?

    It's interesting- and fun- to try to create/invent a genre. I favour a narrow definition of domestic picaresque, but even then there are strange candidates- some of Saki's or H.G. Wells's short stories. Another possibility is Elizabeth Taylor. I think that one important aspect of domestic picaresque must be the emphasis on domesticity as refuge or trap.

  13. Books, well, I was hoping for something more Borgesian, animals "that have just broken a flower vase," that sort of thing. "Books mentioned in this post" works but feels like cheating.

    My trouble with finding examples is thinking of domestic novels with enough movement, with enough episodes, to be a picaresque. But of course the fun of the idea is that it is paradoxical.

    I fear your final qualifier rules out Cranford and perhaps only covers one or two episodes of Jewett's novel.

  14. So interesting! Good timing, as I was wondering if I should be thinking about Annie Fields. The rather quaint, ancient link took me back quite a ways.

    You know how I love it when you start covering ground that I stumbled over myself. It takes forever in that stray thought to get to the point, if it ever happens, but you pulled out an essential element quite neatly. The first point, which it only takes about 250 words or more to get to, is that I really wish I had written a post about Pointed Firs. That's too bad (for me), now that I have this series from you that I'm excited about as I catch up with the recent wutherings. I wonder if you'll get to A Country Doctor at some point. It's infinitely more traditional and 19th century, while being feminist at the same time. I never wrote about Deephaven I don't think, aside from the linked piece, because I never finished the long final story. But this all reminds me that it's a strong precursor to Firs, and it perhaps shows the evolution from sketch/story (picaresque) collection to plotless novel.

    The other big note here is that I'm reminded that Annie Fields is a sort of model for Mrs. Todd. Not a direct one, but a spiritual and personal one, the attraction and gravitational pull of a woman who is both mother and companion. That comes up in the next post, maybe...

  15. Yes, please, go back, sometime, write about Pointed Firs!

    The other, earlier, Jewett novels are certainly possibilities. Someday, maybe.

    I sort of dodge around Mrs. Todd in this series, as you may have seen by now, spending more time with the book's weirdos.