Just a bit more travel before the gates clang shut. M and I went down to south Alabama last Saturday (blogged about here) and today we’re in Charleston. I had thoughts of seeing Some Things, but dear heavens, it’s hot. I have an enormous tolerance for and affection for hot weather, but 96 degrees in the city while leading a posse of an 11-year old, 15-year old, 24-year old and 2.5 year old…..is too much. No complaining, but the red faces and general discomfort made anything beyond an hour downtown not enticing. Tomorrow we might try the beach or an indoor museum…
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Still working on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which my high schooler is doing for school summer reading. I had never read it, so this was a good opportunity.
My advice? You should read it. I’ll blog more about it when I’m finished, but the bottom line is that it’s such an important part of American history (sold 300,000 copies the first year – galvanized the nation), is a fascinating exercise in social activism – in a time in which social issues of different sorts still divide our country – and is very easy to read. I had envisioned a lot of dense Victorian text, but Stowe had written for newspapers and magazines before she started this novel, and wrote in a very accessible, popular style – too popular – as in sentimental – at times. The treatment of the races is challenging to get through. I am not sure I would require young people who are black to read it. It’s hard.I’m an advocate of Huckleberry Finn, but Uncle Tom’s Cabin is different. Twain’s writing was more layered and his authorial point of view does not strike me as racist at all, but with Stowe, even though she was an abolitionist and wrote to convince the reader of the humanity of slaves, much of the narrative perspective is tinged in our contemporary eyes, with racism – all slaves are human, we are told, but the norm of what it means to be human is presented primarily in a European paradigm – how can you not accept Eliza’s humanity? She has such lovely light skin!
Rachel Ray, which is not a biography of a Food Network star, but rather an 19th century novel by Anthony Trollope. It was talked up on some blogs I ran across as an undiscovered gem, and it was, of course, free, and I do like Trollope, so I dug in.
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It’s a very simple story – of a young woman’s rocky engagement to a young man. So what else is new in 19th century literature? It wasn’t the most fascinating book I’ve ever read – and it’s not among even the better half of Trollope, but it was fairly entertaining in parts. What made it a challenge was that its original serial nature was quite evident in protracted passages in which characters contemplate – in detail – the events that were related – in detail – in the previous chapter. I did a bit of skimming.
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But making it worthwhile were Trollope’s insight into human nature and motivation – even if we do get a character’s motivations described several more times than necessary. In this story, the community – family, church and town – play an enormous role in managing expectations and behavior between a man and a woman. The balance Trollope creates is pretty interesting – yes, the young man and woman, it is implied, need and deserve more freedom than the community wants to give them – but also, yes, perhaps the restraint and boundaries have some value.
I was most interested in two specific areas that Trollope brings into the novel – beer and religion. For one of the families involved in the story runs the local brewery, which, it is universally agreed, produces just terrible beer. But that is just the way it is – and Luke Rowan the young man who wins Rachel’s heart – has, by inheritance, obtained a share of this brewery run by Mr. Tappitt, and wants more for the purpose of actually making decent beer. The tussle over this issue was very amusing, and, of course, a metaphor for the young people at the heart of the story, straining for freedom from the community’s restraints, for reasons that no one can really fathom, because isn’t everything working so smoothly now?
The tantrums spoken of were Rowan’s insane desire to brew good beer, but they were of so fatal nature that Tappitt was determined not to submit himself to them.
…That anything was due in the matter to the consumer of beer, never occurred to him. And it may also be said in Tappitt’s favour that his opinion — as a general opinion — was backed by those around him. His neighbours could not be made to hate Rowan as he hated him. They would not declare the young man to be the very Mischief, as he did. But that idea of a rival brewery was distasteful to them all. Most of them knew that the beer was almost too bad to be swallowed; but they thought that Tappitt had a vested interest in the manufacture of bad beer — that as a manufacturer of bad beer he was a fairly honest and useful man — and they looked upon any change as the work, or rather the suggestion of a charlatan.
Mr Tappitt was not a great man, either as a citizen or as a brewer: he was not one to whom Baslehurst would even rejoice to raise a monument; but such as he was he had been known for many years. No one in that room loved or felt for him anything like real friendship; but the old familiarity of the place was in his favour, and his form was known of old upon the High Street. He was not a drunkard, he lived becomingly with his wife, he had paid his way, and was a fellow-townsman. What was it to Dr Harford, or even to Mr Comfort, that he brewed bad beer? No man was compelled to drink it. Why should not a man employ himself, openly and legitimately, in the brewing of bad beer, if the demand for bad beer were so great as to enable him to live by the occupation? On the other hand, Luke Rowan was personally known to none of them; and they were jealous that a change should come among them with any view of teaching them a lesson or improving their condition.
As for religion. It plays a great role in the book, as Rachel’s mother turns to her pastor, Rev. Comfort, for advice on her daughter’s situation, and her other daughter – a widow – spends much of the novel contemplating a more permanent alliance with another clergyman – a Dissenter – whom she respects but does not quite trust. She has her own money and a marriage would require her to give control of this money over to her new husband…which she is not quite comfortable with.
Trollope has much to say about religion, but I particularly liked this passage, in which he digs into the tormented soul of Mrs. Ray, Rachel’s mother. Has this type of spiritual response disappeared with the genteel 19th century novel? I don’t think so..
And it may be said of Mrs Ray that her religion, though it sufficed her, tormented her grievously. It sufficed her; and if on such a subject I may venture to give an opinion, I think it was of a nature to suffice her in that great strait for which it had been prepared. But in this world it tormented her, carrying her hither and thither, and leaving her in grievous doubt, not as to its own truth in any of its details, but as to her own conduct under its injunctions, and also as to her own mode of believing it. In truth she believed too much. She could never divide the minister from the Bible — nay, the very clerk in the church was sacred to her while exercising his functions therein. It never occurred to her to question any word that was said to her. If a linen-draper were to tell her that one coloured calico was better for her than another, she would take that point as settled by the man’s word, and for the time would be free from all doubt on that heading. So also when the clergyman in his sermon told her that she should live simply and altogether for heaven, that all thoughts as to this world were wicked thoughts, and that nothing belonging to this world could be other than painful, full of sorrow and vexations, she would go home believing him absolutely, and with tear-laden eyes would bethink herself how utterly she was a castaway, because of that tea, and cake, and innocent tittle-tattle with which the hours of her Saturday evening had been beguiled. She would weakly resolve that she would laugh no more, and that she would live in truth in a valley of tears. But then as the bright sun came upon her, and the birds sang around her, and someone that she loved would cling to her and kiss her, she would be happy in her own despite, and would laugh with a low musical sweet tone, forgetting that such laughter was a sin.
And then that very clergyman himself would torment her — he that told her from the pulpit on Sundays how frightfully vain were all attempts at worldly happiness. He would come to her on the Monday with a good-natured, rather rubicund face, and would ask after all her little worldly belongings — for he knew of her history and her means — and he would joke with her, and tell her comfortably of his grown sons and daughters, who were prospering in worldly matters, and express the fondest solicitude as to their worldly advancement. Twice or thrice a year Mrs Ray would go to the parsonage, and such evenings would be by no means hours of wailing. Tea and buttered toast on such occasions would be very manifestly in the ascendant. Mrs Ray never questioned the propriety of her clergyman’s life, nor taught herself to see a discrepancy between his doctrine and his conduct. But she believed in both, and was unconsciously troubled at having her belief so varied. She never thought about it, or discovered that her friend allowed himself to be carried away in his sermons by his zeal, and that he condemned this world in all things, hoping that he might thereby teach his hearers to condemn it in some things. Mrs Ray would allow herself the privilege of no such argument as that. It was all gospel to her. The parson in the church, and the parson out of the church, were alike gospels to her sweet, white, credulous mind; but these differing gospels troubled her and tormented her.
And now, for the first time in many years, I’m returning to Muriel Spark – The Girls of Slender Means. Tight, dense and acerbic. I’ll report when I’m done. If I don’t melt in Charleston on Friday.
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