Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Quote of the Day (G.K. Chesterton, on ‘The First Essential Value of the Detective Story’)

“The first essential value of the detective story lies in this, that it is the earliest and only form of popular literature in which is expressed some sense of the poetry of modern life. Men lived among mighty mountains and eternal forests for ages before they realized that they were poetical; it may reasonably be inferred that some of our descendants may see the chimney-pots as rich a purple as the mountain-peaks, and find the lamp-posts as old and natural as the trees. Of this realization of a great city itself as something wild and obvious the detective story is certainly the ‘Iliad.’ No one can have failed to notice that in these stories the hero or the investigator crosses London with something of the loneliness and liberty of a prince in a tale of elfland, that in the course of that incalculable journey the casual omnibus assumes the primal colours of a fairy ship. The lights of the city begin to glow like innumerable goblin eyes, since they are the guardians of some secret, however crude, which the writer knows and the reader does not. Every twist of the road is like a finger pointing to it; every fantastic skyline of chimney-pots seems wildly and derisively signalling the meaning of the mystery.” —English man of letters G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), “A Defence of Detective Stories” in The Defendant (1901)

It wasn’t until I read assorted essays and biographies by Garry Wills that I discovered why he so deeply admired G.K. Chesterton, born 150 years ago today in London.

Those who have read this blog over time know how often I have quoted from Chesterton’s poems, literary studies, essays, and Christian apologetics.

But years before that, as a child, I had become enthralled by his “Father Brown” detective tales, as seen in this post from 15 years ago.

The late novelist P.D. James (herself a sterling detective novelist) pretty much sums up what drew me years ago to Chesterton’s work in this often-unappreciated genre:

“We read the Father Brown stories for a variety pleasures, including their ingenuity, their wit and intelligence, and for the brilliance of the writing. But they provide more. Chesterton was concerned with the greatest of all problems, the vagaries of the human heart.”

(By the way: If you watch the recent BBC series Father Brown, based loosely on Chesterton’s stories on the mild-mannered, mystery-solving cleric, I’m afraid that I must agree with Steven D. Greydanus, who writes, on his “Decent Films” blog, that this “cozy, nostalgic British crime series…,while not without merit, has little in common with either the letter or the spirit of Chesterton’s yarns.”)

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

This Day in Literary History (Death of Anne Bronte, The Forgotten, Underrated Sister)

May 28, 1849— Anne Bronte, the youngest, quietest, and most religious of a trio of sisters who mined extraordinary fiction from the wild Yorkshire moors where they grew up, passed away from tuberculosis at age 29 in the seaside town of Scarborough, where she had begged to be taken for a last visit before she died.

The adjectives I used in the last sentence might conjure up a weepy, weak, wren-like woman accustomed to taking a back seat to sisters Charlotte (Jane Eyre) and Emily (Wuthering Heights). 

That image is reinforced by Anne’s physical appearance: a “long neck, thin features and pronounced mouth,” writes Bronte family biographer Juliet Barker.

But Anne was also the most bitingly satirical of the three sisters, and the one most unafraid to challenge Victorian mores about what constituted suitable fiction for women and children—so much so that after her death, Charlotte and early biographers did her an inadvertent disservice by softening her sharp edges.

Partly as a result, family biographers and critics didn’t plumb Anne’s life for clues to themes and characters in her poetry and two surviving novels. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has only had one TV adaptation, the 1996 BBC miniseries with Tara Fitzgerald in the title role, and Agnes Grey has had no TV or film versions at all—unlike for Jane Eyre (9) and Wuthering Heights (12, counting modern and Spanish-language versions).

Like Charlotte, Barker wrote in her epic 1994 biography, The Brontes, Anne had “a core of steel, a sense of duty and obligation,” which manifested itself in making the best of her time away in school, despite rampant homesickness; in how she looked after her parson father; in how she worked as a governess for five years, despite her growing dissatisfaction with the profession; and in an ironclad commitment to writing that was so intense, Charlotte worried, that she dreaded for her sister’s health.

Biographers face an unusual problem with the Brontes, for none more so than Anne. It is impossible to understand how they came to write at all without understanding their interactions.

But too much stress on that environment can also lead to a failure to understand the sisters’ differences from each other, as well as from their equally talented but troubled artist brother Branwell.

It was Branwell, for instance, who created one of the few likenesses of the three sisters together. (Emily—and Branwell--preceded Anne in death only months before.) But it was Branwell who seems to have brought Anne’s second job as a governess to an end when, as tutor to a son in the Robinson family, he engaged in a scandalous affair that led to his dismissal.

Branwell’s alcohol- and opium-spurred downward spiral when he went home, in turn, likely inspired Anne’s characterization of Arthur Huntingdon of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, whose alcoholic rages lead his wife to flee under an assumed name with her child to a remote village.

The novel’s description of the suffering caused by alcoholism (“I see that a man cannot give himself up to drinking without being miserable one-half his days and mad the other”) has the special insight of one who has watched a loved one undone by the disease.

Anne’s relationship with Charlotte, though not as troubled, was equally complicated.

Though it was Charlotte’s idea, for instance, to publish her and her sisters’ poems together, Emily and Anne compelled her to adopt pseudonyms to protect their identities.

Eventually, Charlotte saw the wisdom of the sisters’ not using female names, because “authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality, and for their reward, a flattery which is not true praise.”

These pseudonyms—Acton, Ellis, and Currer Bell—feature gender-neutral first names, with the initials of the three authors corresponding to their actual names.

But it was other circumstances surrounding the publication of their books involving Charlotte that led the oldest sister to leave Anne as something of a cipher in the brooding family saga.

As Samantha Ellis’ January 2017 essay in the British paper The Guardian outlined, Anne had written a novel about her experiences as a governess, Agnes Grey, first. But it was Jane Eyre that was seen by British readers first, because, separate from Emily and Anne, Charlotte found a publisher more enthusiastic about issuing her book.

In addition, Anne’s challenge to conventional mores in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall led Charlotte to be overprotective of her sister’s image after her death.

It would have been bad enough that Anne, in defiance of the Anglican Church, opposed the idea of eternal damnation in favor of universal salvation.

But she also raised hackles with her depictions of a single woman (Huntingdon’s wife, adopting the name “Mrs. Helen Graham” in her new community) earning a living through her paintings, of domestic violence, and of the precarious legal position of women in Victorian England.

While Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights ultimately belong to romantic fiction with their raging but suffering chief male characters, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is unsparing in its realism. 

When contemporary critics took issue with this treatment, Anne responded, in a preface to the second edition of the book, with a ringing defense of gritty, unillusioned fiction that doesn’t cater to readers’ expectations:

“To represent a bad thing in its least offensive light is, doubtless, the most agreeable course for a writer of fiction to pursue; but is it the most honest, or the safest? Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of like to the young and thoughtless traveller, or to cover them with branches and flowers? Oh, reader! if there were less of this delicate concealment of facts—this whispering ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace, there would be less of sin and misery to the young of both sexes who are left to wring their bitter knowledge from experience.”

Anne also echoed John Milton’s denunciation of “a fugitive and cloistered virtue” in having her heroine directly challenge society’s encouragement of domineering boys while girls are supposed to be meek and mild:

“I would not send a poor girl into the world, unarmed against her foes, and ignorant of the snares that beset her path; nor would I watch and guard her, till, deprived of self-respect and self-reliance, she lost the power or the will to watch and guard herself.”

Anne’s death following months of depression over the death of Emily and her own ineffective medical treatment for tuberculosis left her posthumous reputation in the hands of Charlotte, who did not authorize a reissue of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in the remaining six years or her life—and who described her as a “gentle, retiring, inexperienced writer.”

That overprotectiveness led critics and English professors to overlook a writer with a contribution to literature every bit as distinct as her older sisters.

Quote of the Day (William Dean Howells, on the Uncertainty of Work)

“No one is sure of finding work; no one is sure of not losing it. I may have my work taken away from me at any moment by the caprice, the mood, the indigestion of a man who has not the qualification for knowing whether I do it well, or ill. At my time of life—at every time of life—a man ought to feel that if he will keep on doing his duty he shall not suffer in himself or in those who are dear to him, except through natural causes. But no man can feel this as things are now; and so we go on, pushing and pulling, climbing and crawling, thrusting aside and trampling underfoot; lying, cheating, stealing; and then we get to the end, covered with blood and dirt and sin and shame, and look back over the way we've come to a palace of our own, or the poor-house, which is about the only possession we can claim in common with our brother-men, I don't think the retrospect can be pleasing."—American novelist, critic, and editor William Dean Howells (1837-1920), A Hazard of New Fortunes (1889)

It was true 135 years ago when Howells wrote these words, and maybe more so now, about how “caprice” can end employment, for either individuals or mass numbers of employees.

 Executives screaming for less regulation may well end up playing casino with their employees’ futures. A multinational conglomerate thousands of miles away may abruptly terminate workers who’ve given the best part of their careers to a company.

All of this feeds into worker anger. Many may well accept the nearest explanation at hand that they can understand, even if they involve the creation of scapegoats. 

Tweet of the Day (Taylor Kay Phillips, on the Phrase ‘Just So I Understand…’)

“Literally no one understands something more completely than a woman in a meeting who starts a question with ‘Just so I understand…’”— Emmy-Award winning writer and comedian Taylor Kay Phillips, tweet of May 15, 2023

Monday, May 27, 2024

Quote of the Day (John F. Kennedy, on Memorial Day)

“Memorial Day each year provides a fitting occasion upon which Americans may not only pay tribute to our honored dead but also unite in prayer for success in our search for a just and lasting peace.”—President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), “Proclamation 3477—Prayer for Peace, Memorial Day,” May 18, 1962

Sunday, May 26, 2024

Quote of the Day (Margaret Renkl, on Why Tragic Tales ‘Hinge on Specificity’)

“Human beings are storytelling creatures, craning to see the crumpled metal in the closed-off highway lane, working from the moment the traffic slows to construct a narrative from what’s left behind. But our tales, even the most tragic ones, hinge on specificity. The story of one drowned Syrian boy washed up in the surf keeps us awake at night with grief. The story of four million refugees streaming out of Syria seems more like a math problem.” —Essayist Margaret Renkl, “The Unpeaceable Kingdom,” in Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss (2019)

This weekend, as we observe Memorial Day, the truth of Ms. Renkl’s comment is borne out anew. It’s hard to understand the toll that the Vietnam War took on America, for instance, when we read the statistic that more than 58,000 U.S. soldiers died in the conflict.

But, to hear how even one soldier became a casualty makes a huge difference in understanding the sacrifice that individual made and the continuing wound his loss represented to those who loved him.

The same applies elsewhere in the world, to victims of strife (as in Gaza) or human-rights violations (Ukraine, in the face of the Russian invasion).

Spiritual Quote of the Day (St. Francis de Sales, on Protecting Against a Vice by a Contrary Virtue)

“When attacked by some vice, we must practice the contrary virtue as much as we can and refer all the others to it. By this means we will vanquish our enemy and at the same time advance in all the virtues. Thus if assaulted by pride or anger, I must devote and direct all my actions to humility and meekness and adapt all exercises of prayer, the sacraments, prudence, constancy, and sobriety to this end. To sharpen his tusks the wild boar rubs and polishes them with his other teeth and thus files and sharpens them all. So also a virtuous man undertakes to perfect himself in the virtue most needed for his own protection must file and polish it by exercise of the other virtues.” —St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622), Bishop of Geneva and Doctor of the Church, Introduction to the Devout Life, translated by John K. Ryan (1609)