Friday, May 10, 2013

In Which I Discuss Two Similar Novels, Although One Is Much Better Than the Other

Americans are loud, rude, unmannerly, vulgar, boorish, guileless, and overfamiliar. Americans talk to much, laugh too loudly, spend too freely, dress too flashily. They hold their forks improperly. An American woman might even, and..., careful, let me fan myself..., an American woman might even speak to man to whom she has not been introduced. The shame of it.

A woman with this much virtue lost!, and such a woman might not even know her own disgrace. Like a child born into poverty does not know for what he wants, an American woman does not know she stands in such wretched ignominy. Like a savage who has never known religion, an American woman sins against a manner to which she has not been introduced. In her innocence, she is ignorant of her sins. But is a slow, lingering death punishment enough for such sins? Or, can't we all just learn to get along?

I'm not sure why Daisy Miller has survived the last 135 years in print while Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Fair Barbarian languishes in obscurity, but it certainly isn't because the former is better than the latter. Maybe Mr. James' other books are better, deeper, less cliché-driven, but they are, on the other hand, thicker, so if you feel like you should knock off some Henry James to see if he's any good but don't want to get stuck into Portrait of a Lady for the next few weeks, you read Daisy Miller like I did. Generations have made this mistake. Maybe Portrait of a Lady is fantastic. Maybe Portrait of a Lady is the epitome of nineteenth century fiction and it puts Galsworthy to shame and I'm never going to read it because Daisy Miller was so whimpering bad. Meanwhile, FHB does it again, gives the Austenian drama a twist, complete with boisterous American relatives, and her light is still hidden under the barrel of Children's Literature. It's a pity because her adult novels are so damn good. And they're funny. A Fair Barbarian is now my third-favorite FHB novel, unless I really like A Lady of Quality, which I'm reading right now. I'll let you know.

Daisy Miller and A Fair Barbarian are both concerned with, as stated previously, shockingly immoral young ladies, the kind who dress nicely and don't realize they're conversational pariahs. A proper young lady may only engage in politenesses about the weather while standing carefully shielded from the young man conversing with her by her own mother. Poor Octavia Bassett, in the FHB, doesn't have a mother, or rather her mother is in heaven or elsewhere, as she died in childbirth at the age of nineteen after a brief but successful career on the stage in San Francisco. And there Octavia's troubles began, and by troubles we, of course, mean: self-confidence, personability, an easy-going manner, charm, charity, intelligence, smiling. Daisy Miller has a mother but she's a useless slattern who can't even get her youngest son to bed before 11:00pm. Daisy Miller and Octavia are both Americans who find themselves tourists across the Atlantic, Daisy visiting the ruins and castles of the continent and Octavia visiting her maiden aunt. Octavia's father “had emigrated to America in his youth, having first disgraced himself by the utterance of the blasphemous remark that 'he wanted to get to a place where a fellow could stretch himself and not be bullied by a lot of old tabbies.'” Miss Miller's father is a prosperous something-or-other in outstate New York and Mr. Bassett has been a mining millionaire off and on out west.
I had no idea when I read Daisy Miller and A Fair Barbarian one after the other how similar they would be. They were written in 1878 and 1881 respectively, and they comment on the same manners and milieu, and the young women protagonists and have much in common, except that Octavia is self-aware and intelligent and Daisy is a pretty little nothing with no sense and no concept of her own desperately low place in the society in which she is traveling. In fact, one might go so far as to call Henry James a big, furry misogynist based on his inability to bestow sentience on his young protagonist. Also, Daisy Miller is a narrated by an asshole gentleman called Winterbourne who spends the entire book alternating between roles: as Daisy's escort and protector, or wondering if he should allow himself “lawless passions” with her because he could. His inclination to have his way with Daisy, as punishment for her being such a slut as to talk to him, is thwarted in Italy by her companionship with a Mr. Giovanelli, an Italian who, to his shame, is not English. Mr. Winterbourne washes his hands of Daisy, and decides to go for a stroll to the Coliseum late one night, where he discovers Daisy and Mr. Giovanelli talking on a bench. Mr. Winterbourne scolds Mr. Giovanelli for bringing Daisy out during the mosquito hours when she might contract malaria, which she of course does, dying and allowing Mr. Winterbourne to look back on her life for her. If only she'd had a less useless mother! Or a maiden aunt! Octavia has a maiden aunt, Miss Belinda Bassett, and she escorts her to Lady Theobald's tea party, where she meets Mr. Barold, another traveling bachelor of leisure, who thinks much like Mr. Winterbourne, but to different effect, as the book is not told from his perspective. I don't want to give away too much of the plot because, of course, once you have read my review, you will want to rush out and a read A Fair Barbarian and you are a discerning reader who will brook no spoilers, so let me give you some lines:

“Miss Belinda Bassett was a decorous little maiden lady, who lived in a decorous little house on High Street (which was considered a very genteel street in Slowbridge). She had risen at seven, breakfasted at eight, dined at two, taken tea at five, and gone to bed at ten, with such regularity for fifty years, that to rise at eight, breakfast at nine, dine at three, take tea at six and go to bed at eleven, would, she was firmly convinced, be but “to fly in the face of Providence,” as she put it, and sign her own death-warrant. Consequently, it is easy to imagine what a tremor and excitement seized her when, one afternoon, as she sat waiting for her tea, a coach from the Blue Lion dashed —or at least almost dashed— up to to the front door...”

Have I been reading anything that's not Victorian? Why yes, I read a graphic novel that caught my eye while I was full-scanning for Comic Con. Twelve Reasons Why I Love Her. Daisy Miller is a bit of a Victorian manic pixie dream girl, and Gwen, the “her,” is as well, although she turns out to be a full-on human being with a past and opinions, to her own detriment. Twelve Reasons Why I Love Her was rather uncomfortable, as New York allows its citizens to behave like jerks, and us kind Midwesterners read their graphic novels and shake our heads, wondering why New Yorkers don't walk around smiling all the time like we do. In non-chronological order, Twelve Reasons Why I Love Her is the story of Gwen and Evan, who meet at a foreign film. Gwen brings Evan flowers on their first date. There's a great drawing of her bunch of roses for him and his wimpy little bouquet for her. It would be funny but for the awkward argument because he feels emasculated. She says, “I thought it would be fun. I thought that you were the kind of guy who would appreciate me rejecting gender norms. When we met at the movie theater, I thought you were different. I didn't know you were going to be an asshole about it.” Later on, he's a total dick to her about Barry Manilow. Eventually, he ruins the relationship because she hung out with her ex, the guy she had a miscarriage with. The whole book was uncomfortable and sad, but it was a graphic novel so I read it in forty five minutes.

I've abandoned Why We Left by Joanna Brooks, about the first English colonists to come to North America, poor and indentured all. She explores their sad lives through folk ballads, and it's a good premise. The introduction was interesting, but the meat of the book concentrated on six ballads used to explore different pains as England transitioned from feudal to capitalist economy, with the attendant outmigration to the Americas, and the ballad analysis went slowly. Her main point was that these were not people seeking opportunity, they were desperate people looking to eat (which they often failed to do in America as well, although sometimes they ate each other)and escape arrest for vagrancy. Most of these people left England as landless laborers and remained working-class and uneducated as they moved from England to the American South and then west from there in search of jobs or farms and finally to California, where her own family ended up after generations.

I've finished The Child Catchers, more on that next time, and I also read The Wonderful Bed. I've been reading magazines lately. They're less fun to blog about, although I like Pacific Standard.

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