Give them back their future

If you were young, how would you be feeling about your future, decided by your elders in a badly informed opinion poll last year?

Past and Present, No. 2 1858 by Augustus Leopold Egg 1816-1863Augustus Leopold Egg Past and Present, No 2 1858. Image: Tate

Two orphaned sisters are reduced to poverty and despair because of the actions of their parents. The elder girl is now responsible for both their fates, and neither she nor we see any hope for her as she looks yearningly at the moon.

On Saturday’s Unite For Europe march, the intelligence and passion of three speakers (Ismaeel Yaqoob, Elin Smith, Felix Milbank) representing Students for EU moved the crowd in Parliament Square and along Whitehall as in turn they pleaded eloquently for isolationist, zenophobic Brexit to be reversed so they can have their futures back.

The New Cosette, marching to Unite for Europe on 25 March, 2017 © Martin Hübscher

In 1858, Egg told another tale of an older generation’s betrayal of the young. A whole family, father, mother and two children, are victims of unfair, unnatural social rules designed by patriarchy to benefit itself.

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The Epistolary Problem

“I made this [letter] very long, because I did not have the leisure to make it shorter.”
(Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.)
Blaise Pascal, apologizing to his correspondents in Letter XVI, Provincial Letters, 1656.

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Metsu, Man Writing a Letter 1662-65 Oil on panel. National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin. Image: WGA

Surfing the net for versions of this quote, you come across English criticism of Pascal for not making his aphorism shorter. Translators improved on the original, which is spread in stately baroque fashion over two sentences, into variants of:

If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter

This is pithier and therefore sounds wittier to English ears. It omits the rich caress of the word “loisir”and the grace notes of irony and politesse. Maybe the literal translation should only be said with a French shrug to make the rest of us appreciate its élan.

Pascal was not writing an Oscar Wilde play; les lettres provinciales are not a bourgeois comedy of manners. Pascal was engaged in intellectual battle with the powerful Jesuits, laying waste to their methods of ethical reasoning with impregnable arguments of his own.

Brevity is the soul of wit, but it is very difficult to be truthful, and fair to your casuistic opponent, in a few words.

No-one likes receiving a letter of complaint, of any length, and finding the time to read it is a chore.

It is easy to write a short love letter, which the recipient would be happy to find leisure to read again and again. Anyone looking at them would think they were wasting time:

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Metsu, Woman Reading a Letter 1662-65 Oil on panel. National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin. Image: WGA

Some letters are too personally important to be read in front of witnesses; their content penetrates your mind so deeply that you feel your axis shift. The minutes you spent physically reading a letter like that are preserved in your mind for ever. You will never be quite the same again. Till this moment I never knew myself.

vermeerwomanVermeer, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter 1663-4. Oil on canvas. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. Image: WGA
While she reads her letter, time stands still. Vermeer painted the silent gaps in time.

Epistolary (Half) Eschewed

Portrait of a young woman gilbert stuart

Portrait of a Young Woman, writing a letter, by Gilbert Stuart, c. 1802 -1804. Image courtesy of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. I am sorry to have interrupted her; she is rather lovely, rather to be loved and written about than briefly employed as a cover girl.

All roads in this land lead to Pemberley. Jane Austen, the prosaic revolutionary, waits quietly, with gloves and bonnet on, at the crossroads of 18th century and modern novels. The bonnet conceals the expression in her eyes, which isn’t quiet at all.

Audio: Till this moment, I never knew myself

Pride and Prejudice, which seems so fresh and spontaneous on every reading, took eighteen years to evolve, from the first draft written in 1796-97 to publication in 1813. It had a gestation period almost as long as the heroine’s life at the stage when we first meet Elizabeth Bennet, aged 20. And which of us remembers anything before we are two, anyway?

Poor Clarissa Harlowe was only eighteen when her ordeals, recorded in epistolary form by Samuel Richardson, started.

Clarissa is an articulate, morally courageous young woman, not immature at all, whose fortitude and capacity to forgive her abuser overcomes adversity far more severe than any suffered by an Austen heroine – and yet she has martyr written all over her, which Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse and Elinor Dashwood, even Marianne Dashwood, Fanny Price and Anne Eliot, do not.

Their creator gave them autonomy. They step off the page. They walk into our minds, and they get transplanted into other times and places. They dress and speak differently in all these reincarnations, their education and professions and leisure pursuits vary, but they are still recognizable, except, perhaps, when attacked by zombies.

They are not social rebels; they don’t demand equal rights. They would have been deterred by the violent excesses of the French Revolution which had just rocked Europe. The only revolutionary changes that take place are in their own heads.

They are not submissive and they refuse to be victims. They are paragons of self-improvement, never blaming other people or fate for their shortcomings.

They are intelligent young women, articulating a life of the mind richer and more independent than offered by ribbons, posies and billets-doux.

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 The Love Letter by Fragonard, 1770s. Image: WGA.
Arch, erotic and epistolary – the Rococo melted away with the advance of more demanding, independent-minded literary heroines.

Jane Austen began writing novels on the conventional epistolary model, and quickly abandoned it after Lady Susan (c. 1794), and the first draft of Sense and Sensibility (c. 1795). Continue reading

Epistolary, Too

Fragonardbolt

Fragonard The Bolt c. 1777 Oil on canvas Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image: WGA

Clarissa’s tribulations – she is treated abominably by her lover and the author – were too much for the gravity of some of Richardson’s worldly-wise contemporaries. Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749) is unapologetic fun-loving, lusty fiction; Clarissa is a beguiling mix of comedy of manners, social criticism and erotic tragedy disguised as moral improvement.

Clarissa Harlowe in the Prison Room of the Sheriff's Office exhibited 1833 Charles Landseer 1799-1879 Presented by Robert Vernon 1847 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00408Clarissa Harlowe in the Prison Room of the Sheriff’s Office by Landseer, exhibited 1833 © Tate Gallery London

The anti-hero, Robert Lovelace, is handsome, sardonic and self-loathing in the great libertine and vampire tradition. We know the type, the complete shit, wearing Whiff of Sulphur Aftershave, whom we secretly fancy more than the nice man next door. Lovelace belongs, or rather wants to belong, to Dark Erotica. “While I, a poor, single, harmless, prowler; at least comparatively harmless; in order to satisfy my hunger, steal but one poor lamb….” (Letter 515)

He is also a rapist who uses an 18th century variant of Rohypnol. Clarissa is as susceptible to his sex-appeal as the reader; she fights her desire with moral intelligence and instinct for self-preservation, but we know, reading between the lines of her letters, how much she is attracted to her abuser.

Our young female reader will need all the heroine’s strength of character to stop herself being seduced by Lovelace, particularly when he reveals, too late, that he really does love and esteem her. There’s no doubt he’s an epistolary bastard; having his cake, eating it, and throwing it up.

Listen to: extracts from Lovelace’s letter to his friend Belford, Letter 497, Clarissa

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Epistolary

readingheloiseBernard d’Agesci Lady Reading the Letters of Heloise and Abélard c.1780 Oil on canvas, Art Institute, Chicago. Image source: WGA

Oh, no, it’s her again, our young 18th century friend falling out of her dress while being debauched by reading the love letters of two of the finest minds of the Middle Ages. What effect would the gratuitous sex and gore of Game of Thrones have on her?

What will she read next that will cause images to rise like heat in her mind and release forbidden chemicals in her blood? If we believe the picture, reading is a Dionysian ritual for this young woman, in which she abandons self through arousal of desires and emotions she had never guessed she had.

What isn’t shown is that when she reads, she identifies with all the characters; like Tiresias, the first recorded human transsexual, she now knows what it is like to love as a man and a woman. Through imagination, we become angels. A similar orgasmic expression was given by painters of religious subjects to saints in ecstasy, with the approval of the Church.

The next book she will pick up is one of the seven volumes of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, first published in 1748. It was Number Four in The Guardian’s 100 Best Novels list in 2013.

Before by Hogarth, 1730 -31 © Tate Gallery London

Clarissa is an enormous book of approximately 970,000 words – the author himself was worried about the length. The size and weight of the Penguin Classics edition is a deterrent to picking it up to throw, let alone read.

It is an epistolary novel – 537 letters followed by a postscript – and the word epistolary is itself a turn-off in this emailing, Tweeting world. It should be adopted as a swear word: I’m having an epistolary day today.

But our young lady doesn’t want to read Clarissa on Kindle, or in extracts of 140 characters on an impersonal screen; she likes the intimacy of a physical book, which belongs to her; she enjoys the mystery and suspense of opening each page as if she is unlocking a jewel chest.

LuiseUlrikevonPreußendiamonds

Antoine Pesne Luise Ulrike of Prussia, Queen of Sweden 1744. Image: Wikipedia. The sitter was a younger sister of Frederick the Great of Prussia. Her ensemble is studded with diamonds on her black cap and the bow on her choker, an ostentatious aristocratic style of fashion emulated by the impostors who arrive at Clarissa’s safe house “richly dressed and stuck out with jewels.” (Clarissa, Letter 312)

And the young woman likes jewels, and clothes, just like Clarissa does. Even when her virtue is being tested, even when her heart is broken, and she is overcome with shame and indignation at her treatment by her ruthless lover, Lovelace, Clarissa has time to note another woman’s fashionable dress, stuck out with jewels:

Listen to: Audio extract from Letter 312, in which fashion and class-conscious Clarissa is visited by Lovelace and two female accomplices, impersonating two of his rich, aristocratic relatives.

Clarissa is a middle-class girlie-girl, like Cher in Clueless (1995), who is momentarily distracted from her remorseful, Jane Austenesque epiphany by a shop window display: “Ooh, I wonder if they have that in my size.”

That’s the point, you see: multi-faceted, capable of thinking and feeling several different things at the same time – and knowing it; being female; being human. You can wear high heels, and be a feminist; you can be a lesbian and wear lipstick.

The obsessive materialism of the aspirational middle-classes, whose new wealth was often founded on sugar and slavery, is presented as the source of society’s moral corruption in Clarissa. We are so much closer to the 18th century than the gap of years, fashion choices and sanitary inventions suggests…..

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