[info]limyaael @ 07:15 pm: More book reviews
More books I finished recently, this time reading for my dissertation.

George Meredith, One of Our Conquerors

A Victorian novel by one of the authors I’m studying, which I’d read before, but found much more satisfying this time. It’s the story of Victor Radnor, the “conqueror” who has made his fortune in business and now thinks he’s going to enter on a scene of social triumph by establishing himself in a new home, Lakelands, and running for Parliament. He’s tried to establish himself twice before, but each time his neighbors discovered he is not actually married to the woman, Nataly, who passes for his wife—Victor’s legal wife, Mrs. Burman, whom he abandoned, is still alive—and ran them out of the neighborhood. Victor is pushing for Lakelands despite Nataly’s fear that the same thing will happen again. He’s also trying to contract a prestigious marriage for their illegitimate daughter, Nesta (who doesn’t know she’s illegitimate), though Nataly also opposes this.

This is an incredibly subtle and cruel novel when it comes to the psychology of the characters. As Victor sees it, Nataly is hounded by the persecution of a world that can’t recognize true love when it sees it and by Mrs. Burman, but he’s the main aggressor. He tortures her to death, never realizing what’s happening. Nataly, who has gone along with his plans for years, cannot bring herself to make more than token protests. The silence stifles her, and so does her fear of what Nesta will say when she finds out the truth about her birth. When Nesta befriends a “fallen” woman named Judith Marsett, things become even worse for Nataly. She doesn’t want her daughter to suffer the same things she did, and her love for Nesta turns into an obsessive concern about Nesta’s “purity.”

As usual, Meredith spares none of his characters, except maybe Nesta, who is stronger and braver than her parents, and Dartrey Fenellan, Nesta’s love interest. (One of the interesting things about Meredith’s later novels is that he reverses the usual gender dynamic and turns the admirable men into love interests and rewards for his heroines, who he is really more interested in). Nesta’s growth toward truth and love and a feeling of kinship with the women her mother has tried to keep her away from is about the only beam of sunlight in a novel that’s otherwise absolutely radiant with despair; you watch the inevitable happening and you can’t do anything to stop it. There is a reason—besides his continual deep flaws of style and structure—that Meredith was considered in the 1890s, when this novel was published, a great but not a popular writer.

Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: Voyaging and Charles Darwin: The Power of Place

These are biographies of Charles Darwin—massive biographies of Darwin. They clock in at around 500 pages each. This is partially because Browne’s interested in establishing the historical and scientific context of Darwin’s work along with the facts about his life, and in analyzing his books, and in analyzing the books of other scientists, like T. H. Huxley and Charles Lyell, who supported Darwin, influenced him, and wrote in response to him. They take an awful lot of time to read, but they’re worth it. The first one covers his life up to about 1858, the year before the publication of The Origin of Species, and the second part is, of course, dominated by his publishing.

Browne makes a major point about Darwin’s correspondence and how his thousands upon thousands of letters helped him pull in information, assemble it, and recruit helpers who could pass along animal skins, feathers, observations, live animals, and books that further added to his pile of facts. She describes Darwin as a spider in the center of a web, and the metaphor is accurate. There is no way that Darwin could have gotten all of his observations by himself—especially since a large part of his life was spent in poor health and he couldn’t have traveled around the world to all the places he needed to see—but he could get, and use, them second-hand.

Browne also scatters the books with plenty of the fascinating little facts that help make biographies amusing. Darwin once stayed very still so that he could watch a wasp that was drinking out of his eye; he wrote indignantly as early as 1838 about how stupid people were to judge all animals by their own standards and how a bee would undoubtedly view humans as hopelessly backward in the instinct department; he liked trashy romance books that had pretty girls and happy endings; he was passionately interested in earthworms, molluscs, ants, beetles, and all sorts of “lesser creatures” that many people think of as neither interesting or likely to be so. He also got along well with his devout wife, Emma, and shared a full and busy life with her even though she knew full well that he couldn’t accept the existence of a benevolent God.

Incredibly rich books that depict an incredibly rich personality.

Anna K. Nardo, George Eliot’s Dialogue With John Milton

Nardo’s book, which was published in 2003, takes issue with one of the foundational ideas of feminist criticism about George Eliot: that she was dominated by her response to John Milton and never broke free of him. Instead, according to Nardo, Eliot did feel free to argue with Milton, to transform aspects of Paradise Lost into scenes in her own novels—scenes sometimes played straight and sometimes subverted—and to mock various legends that circulated about him.

The first chapter of this book is a long recapitulation of stories circulated about Milton in the 1700s and 1800s, stories that would have been familiar to Eliot’s audience and are almost lost to us now. The first was a story about Milton falling in love, either with an Italian singer or with a woman (probably Italian) who fell in love with him after seeing him asleep and whose face, barely seeing it, he mistook for an angel’s. (In some versions these are the same person; he supposedly met his admirer in Italy later and recognized her as the model of his “angel”). However, when he returned to England, he nobly gave up love in pursuit of the national ideal that led him to write Paradise Lost. The only trace of his lost love, according to this legend, is found in his version of Eve. The second story deals with Milton’s daughters, whom—depending on which author you read—either betrayed him by selling his books and tormenting him after he went blind, or who were “serviceable” to him and his art by recording his poetry and reading books in other languages, mainly Latin and Greek, that he taught them to scan but not comprehend. This story can be twisted to give different perspectives on female service to male creativity and female rebellion.

I’d known about a few of these resonances before, since I’ve been reading Eliot novels and criticism about Eliot for the past three years. But I hadn’t realized it went further than just the gentle mockery of Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch when she wishes that she could marry a Milton figure because she would know how to value him and appreciate his learning, unlike his daughters, whom she thinks were awful. I find criticism fascinating that digs up a whole perspective I didn’t realize was there and explains it clearly enough that I can understand it.


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