Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Terrible Town

I've promised you crap places, and I will present them to you, in descending order of badness. First is Old Trail Town, which is not that bad really. The children are playful and well-fed and the whole place has a kind of Yankee sensibility taken too far, like a weak version of The Lottery. Zona Gale's Christmas, A Story, which I audiobooked before Christmas, starts with Old Trail Town holding a town meeting to determine the fate of Christmas. You see, Old Man Ebenezer has shut down his factory, the main jobs provider in the town, because he can manufacture wheelbarrows more cheaply in his other, city, factory. The town's merchants, both of them, supplied last Christmas on credit and the town's bills are past due. So Old Trail Town has a choice: Christmas or no Christmas. Some ladies of the town bring up objections: "My children haven't popped corn all winter so it will seem special on Christmas night?" "What if we only do handmade gifts?" "What about Jesus?" The clergy approve of cancelling Christmas, and Christmas is voted cancelled. See how terrible Old Trail Town is?

Mary Chavah, old maid of Old Trail Town, doesn't keep Christmas anyway. She's persnickety, and set in her ways. Jenny, Bruce's wife, Bruce being Ebenezer's nephew, comes by Mary Chavah's house with secret exciting news: Jenny is expecting. Bruce and Jenny live in the city now, and Jenny is home to lie in. She's already made economical presents out of only $2 worth of material and thinks the whole Christmas ban is preposterous.

There's a lot of back and forth and around in Old Trail Town. It's an introspective place when people aren't going to extremes in town meetings. Even Old Ebenezer looks up at the sky and wonders what life would be like if his son had lived. Christmas, A Story is unlike anything I've ever read, weaving between fifteen protagonists down to Theophilus Thistledown, the turkey who will not be killed for Christmas. It jumps between spots of plot and long soliloquies about the nature of man and generosity. One passage, where Old Ebenezer walks down the street and sees only places of commerce and not a community, is right out of The Great Good Place, which we discussed last summer. Being called Christmas, A Story, I knew that there must be Christmas after all. The way it happens is this: Mary Chavah gets a letter from Out West saying that her sister is dead and her newly orphaned nephew is being put on a train to come live with Mary. Mary questions and equivocates, and says, "What could I do with a child?" In the locked-up chambers of heart, though, she likes the idea, and she goes into town to buy a pitcher and basin with dogs on it. Mrs. Busybody says, "You'd better not be buying a Christmas present, Mary Chava," and Mary says, "My sister's boy is coming to stay with me" and asks Mrs. Busybody to stay at the house and tend the fire and heat the soup while Mary goes to pick up the boy from the train station on the evening of December 24th. Mrs. Busybody tells every person in Old Trail Town, and the whole town choreographs a festive potluck, some edict-breaking outliers happen to bring a tree, and the people of Old Trail Town circumvent their own Christmas ban.

I was ogling East Lynne by Mrs. Henry Wood for a few days when it was back in the clearance section, wondering if buying it and maybe not reading it and having it clutter up my house for years would be worth $1. It had a proper Victorian picture of someone lying prostrate, as though tubercular, on the cover. Then a random customer dude bought it out from under my nose. He was really excited. He told me that this book outsold Dickens in its day. Having my suspicions about the worthiness of East Lynne confirmed but being unable to buy it for $1, I went home and downloaded the Librivox audio for free, like I do. Thank you, internet and Librivox in particular.

West Lynne, the town close by the estate of East Lynne, is worse than Old Trail Town. People in Old Trail Town are robust and democratic, even if they go crazy and cancel holidays sometimes. People in West Lynne suck. West Lynne is a modest town (considering that the population of England was only 500 at the time I can assure you that West Lynne has at least twelve residents) and is adjacent to a country estate called East Lynne. East Lynne begins the book as the property of the Earl, Lord Mountsevern, but in the first chapter he quietly sells it to a respectable lawyer called Mr. Carlisle. Lord Mountsevern was a profligate cad in his youth and now he has severe gout and one beautiful eighteen-year-old daughter, to whom, even with the sale of East Lynne, he is unable to leave a single penny. Mrs. Henry Wood says, in that first chapter, after Mr. Carlsile has gazed at Lady Isabelle Vain and departed and she is alone with her doting father Lord Mountsevern that "If he had known what was to come, he would have struck her down dead in an instant," and I thought, "Is she going to be a murderer or something?" But, no, she just has some sex. And, boy, is she punished for it.

Being gouty, Lord Mountsevern dies and is buried, leaving his daughter to her fate. Lady Isabelle finds that the house she has been living in has not belonged to her father for several months now and she is ruined, ruined! "I'll make my own way," she says, but her uncle, the new Lord Mountsevern, and Mr. Carlisle explain pointedly that even if she knew how to work, the shame of working for a living would be unbearable to a woman of her rank, so she is packed off to live at Castle Stupid, the other ancestral home of the Mountseverns. She lasts ten months. Some very important things happen here: Lady Isabelle's uncle is married to her second cousin Irene, and Irene and Isabelle's other second cousin Frances Levison is visiting. Unlike in healthy nations with large breeding pools and incest taboos, Isabelle falls in love with Levison because he's a sexy, rakish man. Cousin Irene accuses Isabelle of flirting, and Cousin Isabelle, the innocent, accuses Cousin Irene of flirting, and Cousin Irene caps ten months of verbal abuse by slapping Isabelle across the face.

Meanwhile back at East Lynne, Mr. Carlisle is forcibly reminded of the murder that happened in West Lynne ten years ago. Murder! His friends, the Hares, need his help. You see, ten years ago Richard Hare was courting Athie Hallijohn. Richard was there, at the Hallijohn cottage, the night of Athie's father's murder. Richard was, in fact, seen running from the cottage with a gun and then he scarpered off out of the county and no one's seen him in a decade. Until he comes back. His sister Barbara sees him lurking in the garden. He must hide, even at the home to which he is heir, because his own father, Justice Hare, has sworn to string him up if he ever lays eyes on him again. Barbara rushes out to talk to him and Richard Hare tells her that he is innocent and needs help, for which Barbara enlists her discreet lawyer friend Mr. Carlisle and his sister Miss Carlisle enlists herself to help as well. Poor Miss Carlisle! She's the most tragic figure of the book. She is Mr. Carlisle's older half-sister, and she owns a house and gets some hundred pounds per annum, but she has nothing to do. Nowadays she would become a lawyer too, and probably a judge, possibly a Supreme Court Justice, but as a single woman in 1862, all she can do with her days is boss the servants around and meddle in her adult brother's affairs.

But back to Castle Stupid. Lady Isabelle is crying and wondering how to embark on the shameful career of governess when Mr. Carlisle happens to stop by randomly because he has business in the area. Seeing that Lady Isabelle is destiture with no friends in the world except her slappy second cousin, he proposes. Because that is the only good and honorable option. Lady Isabelle says she doesn't love him and doesn't know if she can learn to, but Mr. Carlisle says, "That's fine, let's go," and Lady Isabelle is whisked away from Castle Stupid to her childhood home at East Lynne, even though it's not so much her home anymore and Miss Carlisle moves in to boss Lady Isabelle around. Lady Isabelle warms up to Mr. Carlisle enough to bear him three children, but she has her doubts, especially about that Barbara Hare. She overhears a servant saying that Mr. Carlisle and Miss Barbara have a history, and she notices Mr. Carlisle and Barbara going on long walks together in the garden of an evening. But they're not having trysts! Richard Hare, the accused murderer, is back in town, telling of a man named Thorne who was also courting Athie Hallijohn, and who he believes murdered Athie's father. Lady Isabelle is sick with worry that her husband is cheating on her. She makes Mr. Carlisle swear never to marry Barbara Hare, no matter what happens, and he gives his word. As Lady Isabelle is recovering from the birth of her third child as well as being sick with worry, Mr. Carlisle sends her to France to breathe sea air, where she runs into Captain Levison. Being cousins, they promenade on the seashore together, and Lady Isabelle finds herself falling in love with him again. When Mr. Carlisle comes to collect her, he invites Captain Levison, who is hiding from his creditors in France, to stay at East Lynne while he settles his debts. Lady Isabelle says, "Please don't invite him, please!" and Mr. Carlisle pats her on the head and says, "Don't you worry about a thing." So you see, Lady Isabelle is at East Lynne with her husband and the man she loves, and her husband is nose deep in the Hare affair. Captain Levison even encourages Lady Isabelle to believe that her husband is straying. Then one evening, everything goes Gothic. Lady Isabelle is angry at Mr. Carlisle, Barbara Hare is saying goodbye to her brother Dick, Captain Levison is poisoning Lady Isabelle's mind while acting sexy, and then there is a meeting in the road. Dick Hare sees the murderer Thorne, and Thorne sees the accused, although he is concealed by a false beard of unruly Dick Hare. Later, in the moonlight, Levison convinces Lady Isabelle to run away with him and they thunder away in a carriage, Isabelle already regretting what she's done. That night, Lady Isabelle is presumed a suicide, before it's discovered that Levison is missing too. A few days later, the whole of West Lynne knows that the murderer Richard Hare was spotted on the road...

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