Tuesday, October 14, 2014

All Cousins, All the Time

 These British. I tell you. I submit this blog as further evidence of my "Britain had a population of five hundred people during the 1700s and 1800s" theory. Why else would people devote this much energy to wooing and marrying their close relatives? The important thing is that we're going to go from most cousiny to least cousiny here, so we need to start off with The Female Quixote by Charlotte Lennox, the bloody great groundbreaking 1752 proto-novel with the same premise as the male Quixote, which I haven't read yet. If Hilary McKay, Frances Hodgson Burnett, the Brontes, and all Mary Wollstonecraft's friends hadn't been invented yet, I would dig The Female Quixote more than I did. Jane Austen was a fan. The Female Quixote mocks the French romances whose shoulders it rides on, the preposterous novels that gave young ladies stupid ideas. Sixty years later, Pushkin wrote, "Marya Gavrilovna read French novels and was, consequently, in love..." So Arabella is raised in isolation at her father's country estate, and she's found the shelf of French romances her mother amused herself with before she died. In the first chapter, Arabella weirds out an attractive man who's visiting the area by concocting a scandal, commanding him not to kill himself, and banishing him. He leaves, confused. In the second chapter, Arabella's father hires a gardener with good deportment, so Arabella assumes he's royalty in disguise and he plans to carry her off. In the third chapter, her cousin comes for a visit. Glanville is one of the good guys of literature. He's nice, he's pleasant, he tolerates Arabella's whims, and he's generally a good chap to have around, but he unconsciously commits a slight and Arabella banishes him. She does regret it, so she's pleased when Glanville turns up again six weeks later with his sister in tow. They all go to the races, with Arabella rambling on about their similarity to the Olympic games (which haven't been rebooted yet.) There they meet Glanville's friend Sir George, who read romances in high school, as it were, and knows what Arabella's on about. One of the best slices of the book is the recitation of Sir George's history, with all the requisite battles, single-handed combats, captivities, lady loves, and near deaths. Meanwhile, Arabella goes around assuming that everyone man she sees wants to carry her off. The weirdest part is when Glanville's father, her paternal uncle, tries to pull her aside and encourage her to marry Glanville now and stop mucking about acting crazy, and Arabella assumes that he has fallen in love with her.

I was really curious at the beginning how Arabella would manage to go tilting at windmills when a lady of her status could barely leave the house unescorted and the answer is: she doesn't. Except for an episode when she's convinced the gardener is going to carry her off and she runs away and gets in some random man's cart, Arabella's adventures are confined to her father's estate until Glanville takes her to town, where she throws herself into the Thames to avoid some gentlemen passersby. There's also an episode where Glanville comes home in his cups and pokes fun at Arabella for being a crazypants, which was probably the last time in two centuries when a non-scoundrel had a few beers. Lennox wins firstmost by writing a novel during the reign of George II that is still listenable today, even if it goes on and on and on and on and on and on, but what else are you going to do on a dreary evening in 1752 when none of the great authors have been born yet and you have nothing else to do but snog your own cousin?

Another seminal work of cousinish yearnings is The Melting of Molly. To be fair, Molly's cousin is only one of her several potential suitors and I'm wearing a bit thin on the cousin romance already, now that I've declared it a theme. It seems like I'm always reading some cousin-wooing nonsense but my trough runneth low. In any case, The Melting of Molly is both hilarious and short, so there's no reason not to read it. Written in 1912, when people were swallowing weight loss tapeworms, Molly is a twenty five-year-old widow of joyous disposition and buxom girth. She lives in the same fictional town that A Fair Barbarian was set in, populated by "old tabbies." Alfred, Molly's old beau who went off to seek his fortune in the colonies, sends Molly a letter saying he'll be back in Hillsboro in four months time and he remembers the while muslin with the blue sash she wore when they said goodbye. Now Molly is 5'3" and 160 pounds. What to do? She runs across the yard to her neighbor doctor and he presents her with one of those amazing diet books from the 1900s with a regimen of breakfast toast, lunchtime meat, and supper toast with one apple and a cold water bath. Molly needs to record her trials in a blank book, which is the novel. At work one time I found a Flat Belly Diet! Journal with two pages filled in. The first page said, "This is so hard. I ate a cup of spinach and a slice of lean turkey today. I ran a mile and a half. I want to loose weight, but this is the hardest thing I've ever done." The second page said, "Today I cheated and ate two Tic-Tacs." The rest of the journal was blank.

Molly slims and sulks and romps with the doctor's adorable half-orphaned son. The doctor is a widower. What's going to come of that, eh? The hunky judge stops by for a chat, and Aunt Adeline calls Molly inside and tells Molly that she disgraces her mourning garb by chatting with men in the front yard like that, so Molly puts all her black clothes in a drawer and buys a whole set of new outfits, and she's tickled when the shop assistant calls them a "trousseau." Then the local bachelors start sniffing around, but who to choose? There's the judge, Molly's own dear cousin (cousin!), and Alfred writing "from Rome this time, where he had been sent on some sort of diplomatic mission to the Vatican, and his letter about the Ancient City on her seven hills was a prose-poem in itself. I was so interested that I read on and on and forgot it was almost toast-apple time." Or is there some other older but not creepy-old man about Hillsboro? Who's loved Molly the whole time? And lives next door? The Melting of Molly is hilarious, short, and on Librivox.

Now I'm running out of cousins. George III was inbred enough to be his own cousin on both sides. I always thought he was mad from one of the usual causes, inbreeding and syphilis, and that was why he lost America, but it turns out that America was a sideshow to the unresolved questions of power in a constitutional monarchy. George's "search for a sound ministry" was similar to Lincoln's search for a winning general, if Lincoln had been a thoroughly average man of no particular ability. George's mentor and favorite was a wash. Pitt the Elder was a strong minister who repealed the Stamp Act, hence Pittsburgh, but they clashed. The British parliament would not hold together and there were issues of the day to be dealt with, like the abolition of parties and George's lousy, profligate children. George did go mad later, of poryphria probably, and had a terrible last few decades, hence The Regency. John Cannon's 114-page biography, George III, does "justice to a man who found life difficult and whose suffering was appalling."

I've run out of cousins now. I'm sorry. I promised you so many romantic cousins that a Ptolemy would stop smooching his sisters, and now all I have are boring middle class teenagers who would be just as squicked about cousin-dating as we are. Carolyn Mackler and Jay Asher co-wrote The Future of Us in alternating chunks. Imagine the conversation they had planning it:

Carolyn Mackler: Hello, Jay! I look forward to co-writing a book with you. What should we write about?
Jay Asher: Well, Carolyn, why don't we write our book about teen sexuality, obesity, rape, veganism, suicide, bullying, sexual harassment, depression, sibling rivalry, feminism, drug use, perfectionism, car accidents, death, divorce, abandonment, masturbation, loneliness, single motherhood, or alcohol abuse?
Carolyn Mackler: Um, Jay, between the two of us, haven't we already written books about all of those topics?
Jay Asher: Well, let's write about time travel then.
Carolyn Mackler: Should we write about ancient Roman teens who travel forward in time to the 1890s?
Jay Asher: I don't really know anything about Rome or the 1890s.
Carolyn Mackler: What if we write about modern kids serving in the Plantagenet court?
Jay Asher: What's a Plantagenet?
Carolyn Mackler: What if our characters travel back in time to medieval Japan and become samurai?
Jay Asher: That sounds like a lot of research.
Carolyn Mackler: Well, if you don't want to do any research, then maybe we should just write about two kids named Josh and Emma who travel between 1996 and 2011 on Facebook.

Yeah, basically Emma's family gets a computer and Josh brings over an AOL disc that his family got in the mail for free and when they boot it up, they can see their Facebooks in the future. Josh thinks it's a prank, then they kind of figure it out. They can see other peoples' Facebooks too, so they know what their future friends' cats look like, but future Emma is one of those people who posts all her personal problems; her future marriage is falling apart, so she has to figure out how to not marry this guy, or the next guy, or the third guy. She ends up having a golden retriever and an It's Complicated in the Bay Area and that's her best possible outcome. Josh, meanwhile, is future-married to the hottest girl in school, whom he's never even talked to, and he thinks he's supposed to woo her now and date her through college, instead of waiting a decade and hitting it off with this girl at their mutual friend's barbecue when they're in their mid-twenties. Meanwhile, Emma's best friend Keegan is the future parent of a teenager, so she's about to be made pregnant now, but Emma can't figure out how to change the future and unimpregnate Keegan, and that plot line just dies. I didn't like The Future of Us as much as other Carolyn Macklers. It took no risks. Knowing the future is not an end in itself, and the characters did not make dramatic changes to their suburban white people futures during the one week in eleventh grade in which this book takes place. Emma was boring enough to be a fan of both Green Day's first album and The Dave Matthews Band. Josh was a little skater kid, but he didn't have that much going on. I've said it before: high school is boring and there are thousands of books out there that trick us into believing otherwise, but reading about high school kids causing minor ripples in the fabric of space-time that only affect themselves isn't much. No cousins anymore.

Surfeit of Books Update: Remember the summer before last when I was complaining about the awkward dialogue and overlong comic arcs in Bless Me, Father? Well, I checked out the DVD set and it's way better than the book. It turns out that snappy pacing and quick punchlines save funny stories told ponderously. Welcome, Bless Me, Father to my short list of movies and TV shows that are better than the book.

No comments:

Post a Comment