Friday, October 14, 2011

I make no apologies for this extremely prosy paragraph. I have been ordered to write it. (How interesting this is!) - the Wilkie Collins griffins

The Woman in White has spurred or focused my puzzlement over the role of enjoyment in criticism because it is one of the most sheerly enjoyable Victorian novels.  Stretches of prose are functionally  ordinary (“Half an hour later I was speeding back to London by the express train,” that sort of thing), and the plot is, stepping back a bit, nonsense, but perfectly paced nonsense, thrilling nonsense.  Collins attributes the success of the story not to its ingenuity but to the characters who drive it, to “their existence as recognizable realities” (Preface, longer quotation here).  This sounds suspiciously like a version of Ruskin’s question: Is it so?  Some – I do not think all, but some – of the characters in The Woman in White are “so,” wonderfully “so.”

Richard at La Caravana de Recuerdos has been reading an amazing book, a thousand-page diary of Adolfo Bioy Casares entirely about his friendship and conversations with Jorge Luis Borges.  The book sounds as bookishly juicy as The Life of Johnson.  In a passage Richard just posted (translation his), Borges and Bioy Casares assemble a list of “lifelike characters”:

Pinkerton from The Wrecker; the father from Douglas' The House with the Green Shutters…  Cousin Basilio's heroine… Shylock; perhaps King Lear (not Macbeth)… Martín Fierro; Grandet and Eugénie… Jesus; Count Fosco and the paralytic uncle from The Lady in White [sic, English in original]; according to my father, Félicité from Flaubert's Un coeur simple and the woman that's in The Crime of Father Amaro.

I have heavily trimmed the list to emphasize my own recent and upcoming reading.  If there was any doubt about why Borges is one of my guiding figures, I can see here how my entirely arbitrary and random matrix of tastes lines up so well with his.  Not my point, though, which is more that several people are reading The Crime of Father Amaro soon and it is not too late to join in and meet “the woman.”  No, that’s not my point either.

Count Fosco and Mr. Fairlie, the paralytic uncle, are just the characters I pick as the ones with the most vivid “existence,” the ones who Collins was able to infuse with “real” imaginative truth.  Fosco is a villain who is observed and described in the heroine’s diary, and whose written confession is the imaginative climax of the novel; Fairlie is a peripheral plot device who only plumps up during his own firsthand testimony, which mostly consists of this sort of thing:

That is to say, I had the photographs of my pictures, and prints, and coins, and so forth, all about me, which I intend, one of these days, to present (the photographs, I mean, if the clumsy English language will let me mean anything) to present to the institution at Carlisle (horrid place!), with a view to improving the tastes of the members (Goths and Vandals to a man).

I was very unreasonable – I expected three days of quiet.  Of course I didn’t get them.

I make no apologies for this extremely prosy paragraph.  I have been ordered to write it.

He waved his horrid hand at me; he struck his infectious breast; he addressed me oratorically – as if I was laid up in the House of Commons.

That last “he” is Count Fosco, and much of Fairlie’s letter is his version of the encounter between the novel’s two best characters.  Readers of Samuel Beckett’s novels might detect something familiar here.  This is the Borgesian definition, and Ruskinian, and Amateur Readerian, of “lifelike.”  Not that the character resembles an actual living creature, but that his creator truly saw the imaginary beast.  Mr. Fairlie and Count Fosco are like Ruskin’s Lombardian griffin, imaginary but true.

I will leave Count Fosco’s extraordinary letter alone, except to give Collins more credit: the villain’s confession contains almost no information that a half-awake reader does not already know, so is functionally almost useless, except that it is the best thing in the book, all due to the character’s force of personality, to his language.  “(Pass me, here, one exclamation in parenthesis.  How interesting this is!)”

Most of the other characters are like Ruskin's Renaissance griffin.  I have seen reviewers of the novel single out the heroine, Marian Halcombe, as a great character, but I have had trouble seeing how she is not more than a high-quality adventure novel heroine, one of those Strong Female Characters we are trained to praise.  I ask her fans for a passage, or line, or action that pulled her out of the book, something that belongs just to her.  Something not relative to novels of her time (where I see no shortage of plucky heroines, honestly), but to the timeless.  Where does she feed the monkey, so to speak?


  1. Why wouldn't her eavesdropping scene as she crouches in the midst of thunder and freezing rain, refusing to move until she hears everything that might be useful to Laura count? This isn't mere pluckiness, since part of the point is that it's an expression of unshakable loyalty and devotion; and it's undeniably a scene that keeps sticking in the imaginations of readers. (I know that I can never hear the word 'eavesdropping' without thinking of it.)

  2. I think one of the things that charms readers about Marian is that Collins allows her to be ugly. Not just plain, like Jane Eyre is forever claiming to be, but actually arrestingly offensive to the eye. And at the same time makes her smart and plucky, with a major role in the action—and of marriageable age, with sex characteristics (waist, bosom, etc.) not an old crone or a crippled orphan child.

    I agree that this is a pretty low standard, but it's one that women characters and readers are extremely often denied even today, a self-confident and sexual but physically ugly major female character. I wouldn't say it makes her more "lifelike" in the Borges/Casares sense (so I guess this whole comment is somewhat irrelevant to your post), but it definitely earns Collins a higher place in my esteem. He refuses to objectify her, although neither is she imagined with the same completeness as Fosco or Fairlie.

  3. Your writing about Count Fosco and stern uncle Fairlie is so damn--can I still use the word on your blog?--enjoyable here that I almost regret passing along my copy of The Woman in White after I finished it. What a wonderful character Fosco is in Borgesian or Ruskinian terms or whatever. Feeding the monkey, genius! Look forward to seeing how the Marian Holcombe fans respond to the gauntlet you threw down near the end of your post. Would agree that being "plucky" alone isn't really a good litmus test for whether a character is "lifelike" or not, but I'm also aware that the character has a lot of fans regardless. Anyway, thanks for the mention in such an entertaining post!

  4. The eavesdropping scene is a very strong scene, although when I think of eavesdropping, I think of Lermontov, since eavesdropping is actually a structural principle of A Hero of Our Time. I'll bet you are right, Brandon, that to many people it defines the strengths or "lifelikeness" of the character. To me, it defines her as "adventure novel heroine." She is doing the kind of thing intrepid heroines usually do.

    Fosco buying a fruit tart for a hungry monkey - but taking a bit of it himself first! - is on another imaginative level. It's independent of plot mechanics. It's even far enough back in the novel to be gratuitous.

    That Marian's action is part of the plot could be considered a strength - plot should reveal character, presumably.

    Completely agree with Emily on Marian's ugliness, with the caveat that the other side of the coin is that Marian apparently can't marry. The ugliness is thus partly a plot device.

    Come to think of it, my vote for the most curious, most interesting detail about Marian is Count Fosco's interest in her. I was hoping she would marry Fosco in the end and become an Italian countess.

    I've been trying to use the work "enjoyment" and its variants a lot this week, more than usual, even. Like, love, etc. Just to show that it is allowed.

    By the way, for a formative plucky heroine who is also unswervingly loyal and devoted to her sister, see Scott's The Heart of Midlothian (1818). Jeanie Deans is a narrow character - a lifelike narrow person - with a couple of quite good defining moments.

  5. << Pinkerton from The Wrecker; the father from Douglas' The House with the Green Shutters… Cousin Basilio's heroine… Shylock; perhaps King Lear (not Macbeth)… Martín Fierro; Grandet and Eugénie… Jesus; Count Fosco and the paralytic uncle from The Lady in White [sic, English in original]; according to my father, Félicité from Flaubert's Un coeur simple and the woman that's in The Crime of Father Amaro. >>

    What a curious list! "...perhaps King Lear (not Macbeth)..." That intrigues me! Is any rationale offered?

  6. A rationale, no. These are old friends, comfortable with the tastes of each other, shootin' the book breeze. I thought about omitting the Shakespeare characters (too distant from my purpose) but I was caught by the same thing you noticed and thought what the heck.

    I kept Jesus for similar reasons.