Posts Tagged ‘English Writers’

Virginia Woolf (January 25 1882 – 28 March 1941)


















George Eliot was the pseudonym of novelist, translator, and religious writer Mary Ann Evans (1819-1880). This article by Virginia Woolf was first published in The Times Literary Supplement, 20th November, 1919.

To read George Eliot attentively is to become aware how little one knows about her. It is also to become aware of the credulity, not very creditable to one’s insight, with which, half consciously and partly maliciously, one had accepted the late Victorian version of a deluded woman who held phantom sway over subjects even more deluded than herself. At what moment and by what means her spell was broken it is difficult to ascertain. Some people attribute it to the publication of her Life. Perhaps George Meredith, with his phrase about the ‘mercurial little showman’ and the ‘errant woman’ on the dais, gave point and poison to the arrows of thousands incapable of aiming them so accurately, but delighted to let fly. She became one of the butts for youth to laugh at, the convenient symbol of a group of serious people who were all guilty of the same idolatry and could be dismissed with the same scorn. Lord Acton had said that she was greater than Dante; Herbert Spencer exempted her novels, as if they were not novels, when he banned all fiction from the London library. She was the pride and paragon of all her sex. Moreover, her private record was not more alluring than her public. Asked to describe an afternoon at the Priory, the story-teller always intimated that the memory of those serious Sunday afternoons had come to tickle his sense of humour. He had been so much alarmed by the grave lady in her low chair; he had been so anxious to say the intelligent thing. Certainly, the talk had been very serious, as a note in the fine clear hand of the novelist bore witness. It was dated on the Monday morning, and she accused herself of having spoken with due forethought of Marivaux when she meant another; but not doubt, she said, her listener had already supplied the correction. Still, the memory of talking about Marivaux to George Eliot on a Sunday afternoon was not a romantic memory. It had faded with the passage of years. It had not become picturesque.

Indeed, one cannot escape the conviction that the long, heavy face with its expression of serious and sullen and almost equine power has stamped itself depressingly upon the minds of people who remember George Eliot, so that it looks out upon them from her pages. Mr. Gosse has lately described her as he saw her driving through London in a victoria:

A large, thick-set sybil, dreamy and immobile, whose massive features, somewhat grim when seen in profile, were incongruously bordered by a hat, always in the height of Paris fashion, which in those days commonly included an immense ostrich feather.

Lady Ritchie, with equal skill, has left a more intimate indoor portrait:

She sat by the fire in a beautiful black satin gown, with a green shaded lamp on the table beside her, where I saw German books lying and pamphlets and ivory paper-cutters. She was very quiet and noble, with two steady little eyes and a sweet voice. As I looked I felt her to be a friend, not exactly a personal friend, but a good and benevolent impulse.

A scrap of her talk is preserved. ‘We ought to respect our influence,’ she said. ‘We know by our own experience how very much others affect our lives, and we must remember that we in turn must have the same effect on others.’ Jealously treasured, committed to memory, one can imagine recalling the scene, repeating the words, thirty years later, and suddenly, for the first time, bursting into laughter.

In all these records one feels that the recorder, even when he was in the actual presence, kept his distance and kept his head, and never read the novels in later years with the light of a vivid, or puzzling, or beautiful personality dazzling his eyes. In fiction, where so much of personality is revealed, the absence of charm is a great lack; and her critics, who have been, of course, mostly of the opposite sex, have resented, half consciously perhaps, her deficiency in a quality which is held to be supremely desirable in women. George Eliot was not charming; she was not strongly feminine; she had none of those eccentricities and inequalities of temper which give to so many artists the endearing simplicity of children. One feels that to most people, as to Lady Ritchie, she was ‘not exactly a personal friend, but a good and benevolent impulse’. But if we consider these portraits more closely, we find that they are all the portraits of an elderly celebrated woman, dressed in black satin, driving in her victoria, a woman who has been through her struggle and issued from it with a profound desire to be of use to others, but with no wish for intimacy, save with the little  circle who had known her in the days of her youth. We know very little about the days of her youth; but we do know that the culture, the philosophy, the fame, and the influence were all built upon a very humble foundation – she was the granddaughter of a carpenter.

The first volume of her life is a singularly depressing record. In it we see her raising herself with groans and struggles from the intolerable boredom of petty provincial society (her father had risen in the world and become more middle class, but less picturesque) to be the assistant editor of a highly intellectual London review, and the esteemed companion of Herbert Spencer. The stages are painful as she reveals them in the sad soliloquy in which Mr Cross condemned her to tell the story of her life. Marked in early youth as one ‘sure to get something up very soon in the way of a clothing club’, she proceeded to raise funds for restoring a church by making a chart of ecclesiastical history; and that was followed by a loss of faith which so disturbed her father that he refused to live with her. Next came the struggle with the translation of Strauss, which, dismal and ‘soul-stupefying’ in itself, can scarcely have been made less so by the usual feminine tasks of ordering a household and nursing a dying father, and the distressing conviction, to one so dependent upon affection, that by becoming a bluestocking she was forfeiting her brother’s respect. ‘I used to go  about like an owl’, she said, ‘to the great disgust of my brother’. ‘Poor thing’, wrote a friend who saw her toiling through Strauss with a statue of the risen Christ in front of her, ‘I do pity her sometimes, with her pale sickly face and dreadful headaches, and anxiety, too, about her father.’ Yet, though we cannot read the story without a strong desire that the stages of her pilgrimage might have been made, if not more easy, at least more beautiful, there is a dogged determination in her advance upon the citadel of culture which raises it above our pity. Her development was very slow and very awkward, but it had the irresistible impetus behind it of a deep-seated and noble ambition. Every obstacle at length was thrust from her path. She knew everyone. She read everything. Her astonishing intellectual vitality had triumphed. Youth was over, but youth had been full of suffering. Then, at the age of thirty-five, at the height of her powers, and in the fulness of her freedom, she made the decision which was of such profound moment to her and still matters even to us, and went to Weimar, alone with George Henry Lewes.

The books which followed so soon after her union testify in the fullest manner to the great liberation which had come to her with personal happiness. In themselves they provide us with a plentiful feast. Yet at the threshold of her literary career one may find in some of the circumstances of her life influences that turned her mind to the past, to the country village, to the quiet and beauty and simplicity of childish memories and away from herself and the present. We understand how it was that her first book was Scenes of Clerical Life and not Middlemarch. Her union with Lewes had surrounded her with affection, but in view of the circumstances and of the conventions it has also isolated her. ‘I wish it to be understood’, she wrote in 1857, ‘that I should never invite anyone to come and see me who did not ask for the invitation.’ She had been ‘cut off from what is called the world’, she said later, but she did not regret it. By becoming thus marked, first by circumstances and later, inevitably, by her fame, she lost the power to move on equal terms unnoted among her kind; and the loss for a novelist was serious. Still, basking in the light and sunshine of Scenes of Clerical Life, feeling the large mature mind spreading itself with a luxurious sense of freedom in the world of her ‘remotest past’, to speak of loss seems  inappropriate. Everything to such a mind was gain. All experience filtered down through layer after layer of perception and reflection, enriching and nourishing. The utmost we can say, in qualifying her attitude towards fiction by what we know of her life, is that she had taken to heart certain lessons learnt early, if learnt at all, among which, perhaps, the most branded upon her was the melancholy virtue of tolerance; her sympathies are with the everyday lot, and play most happily in dwelling upon the homespun of ordinary joys and sorrows. She has none of that romantic intensity which is connected with a sense of one’s own individuality, unsated and unsubdued, cutting its shape sharply upon the background of the world. What were the loves and sorrows of a snuffy old clergyman, dreaming over his whisky, to the fiery egotism of Jane Eyre? The beauty of those first books, Scenes of Clerical Life, Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, is very great. It is impossible to estimate the merit of the Poysers, the Dodsons, the Gilfils, the Bartons, and the rest with all their surroundings and dependencies, because they have put on flesh and blood and we move among them, now bored, now sympathetic, but always with that unquestioning acceptance of all that they say and do, which we accord to the great originals only. The flood of memory and humour which she pours so spontaneously into one figure, one scene after another, until the whole fabric of ancient rural England is revived, has so much in common with a natural process that it leaves us with little consciousness that there is anything to criticize. We accept; we feel the delicious warmth and release of spirit which the great creative writers alone procure for us. As one comes back to the books after years of absence they pour out, even against our expectation, the same store of energy and heat, so that we want more than anything to idle in the warmth as in the sun beating down from the red orchard wall. If there is an element of unthinking abandonment in thus submitting to the humours of Midland farmers and their wives, that, too, is right in the circumstances. We scarcely wish to analyse what we feel to be so large and deeply human. And when we consider how distant in time the world of Shepperton and Hayslope is, and how remote the minds of farmer and agricultural labourers from those of most of George Eliot’s readers, we can only attribute the ease and pleasure with which we ramble from house to smithy, from cottage parlour to rectory garden, to the fact that George Eliot makes us share their lives, not in a spirit of condescension or of curiosity, but in a spirit of sympathy. She is no satirist. The movement of her mind was too slow and cumbersome to lend itself to comedy. But she gathers in her large grasp a great bunch of the main elements of human nature and groups them loosely together with a tolerant and wholesome understanding which, as one finds upon rereading, has not only kept her figures fresh and free, but has given them an unexpected hold upon our laughter and tears. There is the famous Mrs Poyser. It would have been easy to work her idiosyncrasies to death, and, as it is, perhaps, George Eliot gets her laugh in the same place a little too often. But memory, after the book is shut, brings out, as sometimes in real life, the details and subtleties which some more salient characteristic has prevented us from noticing at the time. We recollect that her health was not good. There were occasions upon which she said nothing at all. She was patience itself with sick child. She doted upon Totty. Thus one can muse and speculate about the greater number of George Eliot’s characters and find, even in the least important, a roominess and margin where those qualities lurk which she has no call to bring from their obscurity.

But in the midst of all this tolerance and sympathy there are, even in the early books, moments of greater stress. Her humour has shown itself broad enough to cover a wide range of fools and failures, mothers and children, dogs and flourishing midland fields, farmers, sagacious or fuddled over their ale, horse-dealers, inn-keepers, curates, and carpenters. Over them all broods a certain romance, the only romance that George Eliot allowed herself- the romance of the past. The books are astonishingly readable and have no trace of pomposity or pretence. But to the reader who holds a large stretch of her early work in view it will become obvious that the mist of recollection gradually withdraws. It is not that her power diminishes, for, to our thinking, it is at its highest in the mature Middlemarch, the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people. But the world of fields and farms no longer contents her. In real life she had sought her fortunes elsewhere; and though to look back into the past was calming and consoling, there are, even in the early works, traces of that troubled spirit, that exacting and questioning and baffled presence who was George Eliot herself. In Adam Bede there is a hint of her in Dinah. She shows herself far more openly and completely in Maggie in The Mill on the Floss. She is Janet in “Janet’s Repentance”, and Romola, and Dorothea seeking wisdom and finding one scarcely knows what in marriage with Ladislaw. Those who fall foul of George Eliot do so, we incline to think, on account of her heroines; and with good reason; for there is no doubt that they bring out the worst of her, lead her into difficult places, make her self-conscious, didactic, and occasionally vulgar. Yet if you could delete the whole sisterhood you  would leave a much smaller and a much inferior world, albeit a world of greater artistic perfection and far superior jollity and comfort. In accounting for her failure, in so far as it was a failure, one recollects that she never wrote a story until she was thirty-seven, and that by the time she was thirty-seven she had come to think of herself  with a mixture of pain and something like resentment. For long she preferred not to think of herself at all. Then, when the first flush of creative energy was exhausted and self-confidence had come to her, she wrote more and more from the personal standpoint, but she did so without the unhesitating abandonment of the young. Her self-consciousness is always marked when her heroines say what she herself would have said. She disguised them in every possible way. She granted them beauty and wealth into the bargain; she invented, more improbably, a taste for brandy. But the disconcerting and stimulating fact remained that she was compelled by the very power of her genius to step forth in person upon the quiet bucolic scene.

The noble and beautiful girl who insisted upon being born into the Mill on the Floss is the most obvious example of the ruin which a heroine can strew about her. Humour controls her and keeps her lovable so long as she is small and can be satisfied by eloping with the gipsies or hammering nails into her doll; but she develops; and before George Eliot knows what has happened she has a full-grown woman on her hands demanding what neither gipsies, nor dolls, nor St Ogg’s itself is capable of giving her. First Philip Wakem is produced, and later Stephen Guest. The weakness of the one and the coarseness of the other have often been pointed out; but both, in their weakness and coarseness, illustrate not so much George Eliot’s inability to draw the portrait of a man, as the uncertainty, the infirmity, and the fumbling which shook her hand when she had to conceive a fit mate for a heroine. She is in the first place driven beyond the home world she knew and loved, and forced to set foot in middle-class drawing-rooms where young men sing all the summer morning and young women sit embroidering smoking-caps for bazaars. She feels herself out of her element, as her clumsy satire of what she calls ‘good society’ proves.

Good society has its claret and its velvet carpets, its dinner engagements six weeks deep, its opera, and its faery ball rooms… gets its science done by Faraday and its religion by the superior clergy who are to be met in the best houses; how should it have need of belief and emphasis?

There is no trace of humour or insight there, but only the vindictiveness of a grudge which we feel to be personal it its origin. But terrible as the complexity of our social system is in its demands upon the sympathy and discernment of a novelist straying across the boundaries, Maggie Tulliver did worse than drag George Eliot from her natural surroundings. She insisted upon the introduction of the great emotional scene. She must love; she must despair; she must be drowned clasping her brother in her arms. The more one examines the great emotional scenes the more nervously one anticipates the brewing and gathering and thickening of the cloud which will burst upon our heads at the moment of crisis in a shower of disillusionment and verbosity. It is partly that her hold upon dialogue, when it is not dialect, is slack; and partly that she seems to shrink with an elderly dread of fatigue from the effort of emotional concentration. She allows her heroines to talk too much. She has little verbal felicity. She lacks the unerring taste which chooses one sentence and compresses the heart of the scene within that. ‘Whom are you doing to dance with?’ asked Mr Knightley, at the Weston’s ball. ‘With you, if you will ask me,’ said Emma; and she has said enough. Mrs Casaubon would have talked for an hour and we should have looked out of the window.

Yet, dismiss the heroines without sympathy, confine George Eliot to the agricultural world of her ‘remotest past’, and you not only diminish her greatness but lose her true flavour. That greatness is here we can have no doubt. The width of the prospect, the large strong outlines of the principal features, the ruddy light of her early books, the searching power and reflective richness of the later tempt us to linger and expatiate beyond our limits. But is it upon the heroines that we would cast a final glance. ‘I have always been finding out my religion since I was a little girl,’ says Dorothea Casaubon. ‘I used to pray so much – now I hardly ever pray. I try not to have  desires merely for myself…’ She is speaking for them all. That is their problem. They cannot live without religion, and they start out on the search for one when they are little girls. Each has the deep feminine passion for goodness, which makes the place where she stands in aspiration and agony the heart of the book – still and cloistered like a place of worship, but that she no longer knows to whom to pray. In learning they seek their goal; in the ordinary tasks of womanhood; in the wider service of their kind. They do not find what they seek, and we cannot wonder. The ancient consciousness of woman, charged with suffering and sensibility, and for so many ages dumb, seems in them to have brimmed and overflowed and uttered a demand for something – they scarcely know what –  for something that is perhaps incompatible with the facts of human existence. George Eliot had far too strong an intelligence to tamper with those facts, and too broad a humour to mitigate the truth because it was a stern one. Save for the supreme courage of their endeavour, the struggle ends, for her heroines, in tragedy, or in a compromise that is even more melancholy. But their story is the incomplete version of the story that is George Eliot herself. For her, too, the burden and the complexity of womanhood were not enough; she must reach beyond the sanctuary and pluck for herself the strange bright fruits of art and knowledge. Clasping them as few women have ever clasped them, she would not renounce her own inheritance – the difference of view, the difference of standard – nor accept an inappropriate reward. Thus we behold her, a memorable figure, inordinately praised and shrinking from her fame, despondent, reserved, shuddering back into the arms of love as if there alone were satisfaction and, it might be, justification, at the same time reaching out with ‘a fastidious yet hungry ambition’ for all that life could offer the free and inquiring mind and confronting her feminine aspirations with the real world of men. Triumphant was the issue for her, whatever it may have been for her creations, and as we recollect all that she dared and achieved, how with every obstacle against her  – sex and health and convention –  she sought more knowledge and more freedom till the body, weighted with its double burden, sank worn out, we must lay upon her grave whatever we have it in our power to bestow of laurel and rose.







To read Woolf’s essay on George Eliot is to gain an insight on how writers view other writers. Her slightly breathless and decidedly quirky style belies Woolf’s deep absorption with Eliot’s life and craft, and how deeply she had immersed herself in Eliot’s books. Close attention to the details that bypass our normal low-grade awareness became a characteristic of Woolf’s writing, and in her essay on Eliot we can see a flash or two of gleeful recognition of the same trait in Eliot.

The way in which moments of life, become the fragments and images that are deeply embedded in our minds is one of the mysteries that forms the core of a writer’s art. Bits and pieces of the past resurface with their sensory complements – smells, sounds, colours, and the charge of feeling which accompany them, and these in turn stick to the strings of language the mind works at formulating, so that the shapes they take may be conveyed in a way that evokes those moments in a fashion as close to their first enactment as possible.

Eliot wrote about the country-life she cared deeply about, and what she felt compelled to discuss and comment upon, but she wrote best and most feelingly about the world she loved, her own, which she saw swiftly passing away, as the voracious machine of the industrial revolution tore away and consumed in large bites the natural and habitual ways of  her country life.

Woolf too saw her world overturned and transformed from the  certainties of the Victorian era in which she was born and the rambling old house of her childhood and girlhood, which smelled of meat and port and cigars, to the unravelling social strictures of the Edwardian era.

The beginning of the end of the British Empire and larger complexities and ambiguities of post WWI Britain followed by the changes in the social structure shattered the accepted mould into which older writers with all their old assurances had poured life-times of their work. Gone was the authorial voice with its overarching commentary. The moderninsts, with Woolf leading the way, had arrived on the scene.

Though far from missing the wider perspective of her times, throughout her life Woolf kept her focus on the intimate and the immediate, carefully observing and laying by the observations she made of the slivers of awareness that connect moments to each other to form a larger whole.

I think it is possible that her reading of Eliot may have shown her that they shared a sense of the importance of seeing and feeling and taking in the details out of which a general impression of life is formed. A somewhat darker commonality seems to have been the proclivity for watery deaths of some of Eliot’s characters in Adam Bede, Romola, The Mill on the Floss and Daniel Deronda. Later this was to find its tragic coincidence in Woolf’s suicide by drowning.

Eliot, being a Victorian, had a strong taste for melodrama, which deeply colours her narratives. This was something which Woolf, a Georgian, fervently eschewed, but in a sense they both wrote passionately about the immediacy of world they knew, and heard, and touched, and saw and felt. These are worlds that have passed away and are no more, but ones we nonetheless can enter at will, when we read their writing.

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Robert Graves












The Corner Knot

I was a child and overwhelmed; Mozart
Had snatched me up fainting and wild at heart
To a green land of wonder, where estranged
I dipped my feet in shallow brooks, I ranged
Rough mountains, and fields yellow with small vetch;
Of which, though long I tried, I could not fetch
One single flower away, nor from the ground
Pocket one pebble of the scores I found
Twinkling enchanted there. So for relief
“I’ll corner-knot,” said I, “this handkerchief,
Faithful familiar that, look, here I shake
In these cool airs for proof that I’m awake.”
I tied the knot, the aspens all around
Heaved, and the riverbanks were filled with sound;
Which failing presently, the insistent loud
Clapping of hands returned me to the crowd.
I felt and, fumbling, took away with me
The knotted witness of my ecstasy,
Though flowers and streams were vanished past recall,
The aspens, the bright pebbled beach and all.

But now grown older, I suspect Mozart
Himself had been snatched up by curious art
To my green land: estranged and wild at heart
He too had crossed the brooks, essayed to pick
That yellow vetch with which the plains are thick;
And being put to it (as I had been)
To smuggle back some witness of the scene,
Had knotted up his cambric handkerchief
With common music, rippling, flat and brief;
Then, home again, had sighed above the score
“Ay, a remembrancer, but nothing more.”

Marianne Stokes 'A Young Girl Picking Flowers'














Robert Graves’ poem about of the musical ‘transport’ he experienced as a child listening to Mozart  is appositely allusive  to the the ‘trance’ in which genuine poems take their form. The swirling galactic  indeterminate fields of dust and gas where stars are born, and the shadowy ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ (‘La Noche Oscura’) described by St. John of the Cross,  also relate to to this rich and fertile state and place  – this dream-like ground of transcendent mystery and creativity – this mystical reality from which it is so difficult to retrieve and return scarcely any but a shredded scrap back to our ordinary realm: A scrap hastily torn from a vision entire which shimmers and dissolves and disappears much as the world of a dream does upon awakening.

The test of a true poem is that it is able to restore in great part to the reader that other realm which stubbornly refuses to accompany us back into our dreamless world – or only does so in the tantalising shadowy fragments of ‘through a glass darkly’. The true poem accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of paradoxically forming with words an evanescent world in which what is the most real effortlessly unfolds without them.

Mozart Aged Eight, Holding a Bird's Nest.




The Corner Knot

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Now and then one comes across a character in a book who is hauntingly unforgettable. Kath, the central character here is someone such. The regret that comes with the contemplation of lost lives, and loss in general, is not easily cast aside.

It takes great skill and an inward looking perspective for a writer to construct a novel around a character who is already dead when the story begins. What follows must needs be a meditation in negative space on the subject of the human condition in general, and more specifically the degree to which we human being are aware or unaware of each other’s ‘human condition’, even when we are spouses, relatives and close associates of each other.

Kath’s husband Glyn discovers a photograph of her buried in his papers. The irony cannot be missed. Kath begins to come alive to him when he discovers her likeness hidden among his forgotten papers months after she is already dead and buried.

Kath had committed suicide for reasons that are unclear to almost everyone in her life, and to none more so than Glyn, since he had never troubled to grasp who and what she really was when she was alive. We as readers come along for the ride in his search to discover who and what she was, and to unravel the mystery of her life and death. in the mean time of course we discover things about the other characters in the story, mainly Kath’s sister Elaine, her husband Nick, but others as well.

The writer, Penelope Lively, casts an unflinching eye on the several relationships in this novel. She deftly strips them of their conventional veneers to reveal what lies beneath. No one is spared. The question which is asked and explored, but not fully answered, – because perhaps it does not lend itself to an answer, is, ‘what is it that keeps us alive and living’ : What keeps us going, and how can we manage to go on if we cannot find it ourselves, and there is no one to give us what we need in order to stay connected to life.

Lively makes us see how spouses and children ( Elaine, Nick and Peggy their daughter) must come to terms with huge rifts and tears in parental and spousal relationships if they are not to do without relationships entirely.

She (Lively) has also some light to shed on our probable fate if, as in Glyn’s case, the enormity of the lesson being delivered by life is such that we simply lack the ability to take it in.

Kath has the feverish beauty and fragility of the woman pursued by demons and doomed to kill herself. In some way she reminds us of real life women like Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath as well as fictitious characters such as Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina, and makes us ponder about the mysteries of their deaths as well.

Looking at her through the eyes of the people who knew her, we are compelled to try and sort out the artifacts large and small, hidden and revealed, of Kath’s existential dilemma. The spokes of the story only began to draw together for me with the presence of Mary Packard, the stable hub in the centre of all the revolving characters.

While this novel unfolds as a reflection of the aftermath of an ‘inexplicable’ death,  it is also a serious investigation int0 the kind of re-examination of purpose and priority which then devolve on  the living, It is also a highly symmetrical study of human relationships; specifically couple relationships, and even further than that, of as many different types of couple relationships as could have been effectively got into a novel. The couples made  still more sense to me when I classified them as  the dyads in the ‘cross multiplication’ of fractions. For example, Nick/Kath fun-loving,enthusiastic, imaginative, negligently left by their  respective spouses to shift as well as they could, and Elaine/Glyn, who with their highly successful careers and monumental self-absorption tended to ignore or treat as trivial their rather more skittish spouses. it was not surprising that Kath and Nick paired off – drawn i think by the many things they had in common both as individuals and lacked in common as spouses.
Then of course there were the ‘types’ of marriages – Oliver, the not quite marriage – Polly – the marriage to be, Margot and Glyn – the ‘never was going to be’ marriage, Kath and Glyn – the totally lost marriage, Elaine and Nick – the lost and possibly found marriage and of course the ‘should have been because they totally would have deserved each other marriage, Elaine and Glyn. each individual seemed to have chosen a spouse who possessed the traits they most coveted. that this strategy is bound to fail seems to be one of the points Lively is making. I think Kath succumbed to despair when she ‘struck out’ in her attempt to find fulfillment first with Glyn,  then with Nick, and  finally with her wish to have a child.

The irony of course is that eventually none of these things could have saved her or made her happy. What makes Kath central to me was that she alone looked unflinchingly into the abyss of dissatisfaction and disappointment that life so frequently turns out to be.

Lively’s ‘immortal  hand and eye’ have neatly formed ‘these fearful symmetries’ and relational acrostics for our edification and benefit, but miraculously she has accomplished this feat with a total absence of preachments, and without for an instant losing sight of the delicacy and fragility of our humanity.

If there was an elephant in the ‘room’ of this novel, it was Love: but Lively is much too astute to tell us so. Instead she shows us in relentless detail, the huge empty landscapes our lives become in its absence.

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That Smouldering Look

Like so many people who have read this book and have never been able to forget it, I was instantly captivated by Daphne Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel (published in July of 1951) from the first time I read it as a teenager. Since then I have read and re-read this marvelous book several more times, and I think I have finally managed to put my finger on the hook which was from the very start securely lodged in my cheek.
From the opening chapters an image of Rachel emerged in my imagination as a Franco Zeffirrelli heroine –  a delicate combined portrait of Madame Bovary and Jane Eyre in looks – but painted in   fine Italian chiaroscuro.
In my imagination a streak of light catches Rachel’s very soignèe, very tightly combed and knotted  dark hair, and shows off to its best advantage her beautifully shaped head. I see the simple and exceedingly elegant cut of her black dress, and her dark, suggestive beauty offset by her pale and sensitive hands, and  the creamy flesh of her slender neck emerging above the modest neckline. I see the dark and fading browns and greens of a renaissance landscape with plane trees and cypresses in the background…  I see some of Robert Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’ in her as well… I hear a Donizetti aria or two –  “Regnava Nel Silenzio” and “Una Furtiva Lagrima” –  because of course such passion as she may inspire inevitably compels the headlong rushing in of fools, as well as its predictable aftermath.
But above and beyond all of  that, the most insistent, most confusing, and most disorienting  sound I hear is Phillip’s voice:
It is a voice that comes out of his mouth without ever being his. I now know that this is because it is in fact a woman’s voice. – or more accurately, the voice of a castrato taken over by a woman, – perhaps like that of  Pauline Viardot’s Orpheus singing “J’ai Perdu Mon Eurydice” in a mist of grief and passion. Despite being cast as that epitome of maleness, the English country gentleman, Philips’ voice has the timbre of extreme sexual ambiguity.
As a writer, Daphne du Maurier is a superb ventriloquist, and her throwing of Phillip’s voice quite tricked my cognitive ear, though my intuitive ear was not so easily persuaded. It took me all these many disquieting years to discover that no man could ever speak of a woman in the way Phillip speaks of Rachel, but only a woman who finds others of her own sex a source of confounding fascination, which is to say, a lesbian.
When I construe Phillip as a young dyke, ‘his’ voice, a breaking mezzo/contralto,  fits exactly.
The richness of this book is that it is teeming with the unseen ghosts of literary and cultural symbols   – the ghosts of the Brontës (during whose lifetimes the novel is set), the noble and tormented ghost of Radclyffe Hall’s Stephen, the ghost of Lucrezia Borgia with the whiff of poison clinging to her reputed ring, and perhaps even the tantalising ghost of the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile – the smile which intimates there is something behind it that we could never see.  The atmosphere is filled with the anxious echoes of a past that is persistently insinuating itself into the present.
The chord Du Maurier strikes is rich in resonance and harmonics. It goes on echoing and reverberating, because throughout its long vibration, which in this novel is the tension of a prolonged falling in love, the sound of voice and the image of the speaker appear not to be the same.
Phillip,the first person protagonist, seems completely unable to hear his own voice. Nor does he seem able to grasp the implications of his emotions or his actions. He consistently and unswervingly evinces the bafflement of a young girl who falls in love with another young girl, or a  woman, without ever having the slightest inkling that despite everything they are led to believe about what they should expect to encounter within the strictly heterosexual constraints of conventional romances of the common and garden sort,  girls do in fact fall hopelessly and irrevocably in love with women.


Rachel captivates Phillip from the start, and the secret of her power over him rests in no small part on his utter lack of preparedness for such an encounter. Long before he meets her he has created an unattractive image of her which he is determined to dislike. He is certain that he will be impervious to her. He has no idea that she is the kind of woman who captivates without effort, and with an inescapable finality. Nor does he know he is exactly the kind of person who always falls fatally in love.

Philip has modeled himself so rigidly upon the template of cousin Ambrose, about twenty years his senior, that he is completely purblind to his own love-struck condition. Like a child in grow-up clothes – or rather like a girl who is determined to do a good job of playing a boy’s part in the school play, he has thrown himself into the role, and plays it whole-heartedy and well:  So well indeed that he himself is lost in it.
In fact, the the part of the English country gentleman is very nearly overplayed by him.
The relatively simple and uncomplicated virtues required of him in this part make him an easy read for Rachel, who has behind her the experience of surviving an unstable and precarious childhood and girlhood in the questionable care of her dissolute parents who married her off to a reckless Italian noble by the name of Sangalletti. Now there’s a a name that seems to carry in its sound a bloody (and decidedly un-saintly) harmonic, which turns out to be  quite ironically apposite, since he died in a duel. This wealth of  experience has endowed her with the strategies she needed to survive in a much more dangerous world than a rambling old country house in peaceful Cornwall could ever be.
When Rachel creates an exotic garden paradise in which she and Eve and the Serpent are one, we readers are at once uneasily aware that Phillip, a young girl in boy’s clothing, could never be her match. Ambrose, Phillip’s older cousin who was Rachel’s husband, like the ghost in Hamlet’s, did not survive his marriage, and has died under mysterious circumstances.

Pods of the Laburnum.

Even though deceased Ambrose and androgynous Phillip are central characters; besides a butler, a guardian, a dog, and a dead man, there is not one convincing living and breathing male in this story. Even Rainaldi, Rachel’s  sinister Italian friend and lawyer, with his slight build and waspish manner seems more like a peevish spinster than a real man.

Rachel is the dark lady of Phillip’s sonnets, but she is also the Muse – the Goddess – and as such we know that with her mysterious beauty, her ‘otherness’, elusiveness  and  unattainability  she can never be cast as a wife – at least, not for long. Doom hangs over us all from the start: One imagines that one can hear in Rachel’s and Philip’s dangerous connection the ominous sound of of two tectonic plates dragging against each other on the way to their earth-shattering climax:
I know that reading this book as a young girl, I sensed all of this without ever being able to know or grasp any of it. Like Phillip, without noticing what was happening to me, I too had fallen in love with Rachel right away. Even the very seeds she saved – or hid in her darkly ambiguously sinister manner – had a name suggestive of delicate blossoms and  warm lips – Laburnum….

Rachel my torment….

I have also wondered if there was not also a bit of a modulated Hamlet – Hamlet in a minor key – secreted in the manner in which Du Maurier configures Philip in the plot: Ambrose, the much older husband,  is already deceased when the story begins, and the reason for his death is suspected poisoning. True the finger points more directly at Rachel than at Rainaldi, who is a somewhat distant stand in for the Claudius figure, but both Rachel and Rainaldi stand side by side in the sinister reputations of  duplicitous Italians who tend to disposed of their rivals with undetectable poisons. Philip, for his part loathes and despises  the machiavellian Rainaldi, his vaunted rival, in much the same manner that Hamlet despises his step-father Claudius.

As with Hamlet, there is even the slight shadow of incest in Philips’ hopes of supplanting his father-figure. Ambrose is present in his ghostly form throughout the story.  Philip is waiting to inherit his kingdom. There is even an English Desdemona in Louise – a young and innocent woman who loves Phillip – and she is the daughter of his guardian, the prudent Nick Kendall, who is of course the Polonius figure. Then of course there is the matter of Rachel’s final accident….

Daphne Du Maurier admitted that her inspiration for Rachel was Ellen Doubleday the wife of her American publisher. We shall never know whether or not this particular passion was fulfilled, as was her affair with the famous actress Gertrude Lawrence.
I am now unable to escape the realisation that the ghost in this book was Du Maurier herself, with her impeccable persona of a very proper and very married English lady who nonetheless possessed the incongruous, undeniable, spot-on, pitch-perfect modulation of a lesbian sensibility.






Last night (September fifth 2011) I came across this quote of Daphne Du Maurier in a 1977 interview, and it finally confirmed for me something I always knew intuitively….

It was the answer to a question asked by (unnamed) the interviewer

“In My Cousin Rachel, was Rachel good or evil?”

“Lots of people have asked that and, to tell the truth, I don’t know. You see, I was Philip when I wrote the book.”





Elaine Dundy in her her wonderful introduction to another Du Maurier book I’ll Never be Young Again, could easily have been referring to the following passage when she described Du Maurier as “One of the great monologists in twentieth-century fiction.  This is the passage in which Philip recalls the first and only night he ever spent with Rachel.

“What happened on those first few hours of my birthday will remain. If there was passion, I have forgotten it. If there was tenderness, it is with me still. Wonder is mine forever that a woman accepting love has no defense. Perhaps this is the secret that they hold to bind us to them. Making reserve of it until the last. I would not know, having no other for comparison. She was my first and last.”

One is hard-pressed in this passage to hear even the trace of a man’s voice:  Instead one hears a wavering double note, that of a young girl discovering a potent and and revelatory nature of lesbian love.  Listen to Propertius expressing the same sentiment in his clear male voice – “ cuncta tuus sepelivit amor, nec femina post te /ulla dedit collo dulcia vincla meo.” – ‘Your love has wedged in the grave all others – nor since you did, has any women placed around my neck as sweet a bond’ –  (my translation.)

Compared to Propertius, in Philip’s utterance pessesses, to my ear at least, the travested, but still unmistakably recognisable voice of a woman.

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