There are two traits in her character which are pleasing; namely, she admires Camilla, and drinks no cream in her tea.
—Jane Austen in a letter to Cassandra, January 1796
The company was seated for dinner on the second night of the camp, and as we discussed the villainous General Tinley from Northanger Abbey, the subject turned quite suddenly to torture.
“You know, surely,” said the lady in the blue bonnet, “that Jane based the general on a real-life model?” One gentleman at the table made a face to indicate he knew where this was going and had no interest in coming along. Others nodded their heads, and the lady leaned forward, lowering her voice and glancing behind her, as though the general himself might appear at any moment.
The tale begins in farce and ends in tragedy, but the short version is that the Austens’ neighbors in Hampshire included one family of straight-up villains who were deep into torture. The scion of this family was a stammering young man named John Wallop, Third Earl of Portsmouth. From childhood, when he boarded with the Austens as one of George’s pupils, the earl showed signs of idiocy and occasional psychosis—one reason his family engaged trustees to oversee his estate, including the solicitor John Hanson, who was also Byron’s lawyer, and who sometimes hosted Byron for hunting parties in the neighborhood.
“Of course, the English aristocracy is full of nincompoops,” the lady told the table, “but Wallop was simply a fiend.” As a young man, the earl rejoiced at any chance to inflict pain. He starved his servants, tormented frogs with a fork (here, one woman at the table stopped eating), and would visit slaughterhouses to whip the hogs who were about to die, telling each one in turn: “Serves you right!” Often he beat his oxen about their heads with an axe. His fascination with death was such that he would attend the funerals of strangers and, when there was not a dead stranger at hand, would have his servants stage a mock ceremony so that he could laugh at it. The earl also took to beating his servants. He pursued these pastimes with no appearance of remorse, or understanding of what remorse might mean—a bright-eyed young torture enthusiast. Or, if you join Miss Blue Bonnet’s more sympathetic view, “a silly broken creature without a heart whose father probably broke him in the first place.” (One woman at the table winced at this description of the madman. Another gentleman, who had not been listening, asked me to pass the bread.) When chance provided, the earl would prey on the sick or the convalescing: when one of his coachmen broke his leg in an accident, the earl waited until the doctor had set the leg, then went into the room where the man was recovering and rebroke it. His main erotic pastime involved hiring women-servants of the neighborhood to draw his blood using lancets and then carry it in a basin under their petticoats while he watched; this is also how the earl thought that insemination happened.
Even though he was almost certainly impotent, the family wanted to make sure the earl had no legitimate offspring, so, when he was 31, they married him to a 47-year-old woman who did her best to keep him in line while the second brother, Newton, waited to succeed to the title. During this period, Jane Austen and her family went to several dinners and balls at the Wallop family seat, and Austen’s letters show no sign that she knew what the earl got up to; in one instance she notes his wife’s new dress, while after another of his balls, she acknowledges that she got carried away with the wine: “I know not how else to account for the shaking of my hand to-day.”
But the earl was soon to go from villain to victim. Upon the death of the earl’s first wife, Hanson, the family lawyer, spirited him to London, where the lawyer then insisted on introducing his three daughters to the earl and told him to pick one. The earl chose Laura, who was deemed the prettiest, but somewhere en route to the chapel, the lawyer pulled a switcheroo, and the earl found himself shortly thereafter reciting the marriage vows not to Laura but to her elder, apparently plainer sister Mary Ann. Byron, whom Hanson engaged as a witness at the wedding, recalls that at the rushed ceremony, the earl recited his vows like a schoolboy doing Cicero— “[Portsmouth] responded as if he had got the whole by heart; and, if anything, was rather before the priest.”
Byron saw the wedding as just another instance of an idiot nobleman about to enter a joyless marriage and could hardly have known that Mary Ann rivaled her new husband for sadism. She took to beating him, kept a whip under her pillow, and installed her lover in the house, a man named William Alder, who (so the servants said) would sometimes creep into bed with Mary Ann while the earl snored at her side. At one point, Alder began torturing the earl regularly and keeping him under lock and key. Eventually, the earl regained sovereignty over his own house and banished his wife, along with the three children she had produced with no help from him. In a sensational trial after Austen’s death, the earl was accused and then acquitted of madness. He lived to 84, and in his final years became a sort of crazed faux monarch who called himself the King of Hampshire.
A few of us had heard the story before, or part of it; the Portsmouth saga appears in Claire Tomalin’s celebrated biography of Austen, but David Nokes’s biography ignores the more lurid aspects, and a lot of Janeites, even if they know about the earl, have little interest—he was just a kook in the neighborhood, of little significance because the families were not close. Others, like the lady in the blue bonnet, think of the tale as a reminder that even in bucolic Hampshire lurked deception, madness, and violence so unimaginable as to verge on comic.
The table was silent after the tale was concluded. One gentleman had left his seat, and the lady who had put down her fork at the mention of tormented frogs began, tentatively, to eat once more.
“But could Jane have known?”
“Jane must certainly have known,” said Miss Blue Bonnet.
“Jane could not—she writes about him in a letter, I forget which, and mentions nothing of—”
“But he was at school under Jane’s father! He boarded in their house as a boy—”
“Exactly—back when he was just a stammering bedwetter, not the worst villain on the earth.”
“So you don’t think General Tilney is drawn from the wicked earl?”
“I should think the general would be much more interesting if Jane had based him on the earl. In the book he’s just a coldhearted grasper.”
“That’s true, no one mentions him torturing the hogs.”
“Or torturing the coachman!”
“Though Catherine does imagine him abusing his wife.”
I entered the fray. “He does sound like a character who might have appeared in the Juvenilia.”
Miss Blue Bonnet looked at me as though I’d just saved her family from debtors’ prison. “My dear, exactly! I’ve said it myself. Where else could Jane have got the inspiration for those bloodthirsty villains?”
I demurred. “Well, Swift, for one.”
The lady considered. “Yes,” she said, “yes, Swift is there.” She paused to sip her wine. “But you must remember that Cassandra burned a lot of Jane’s letters. It is thoroughly possible”—she turned to the woman who had blanched at the frogs, and repeated—“thoroughly possible that Jane knew of the earl, and wrote all about him.” I gave a half-bow to concede the possibility.
I was beginning to learn the secret of mealtimes in Austenworld. In some ways they offer the most gossipy and delicious interactions that world has to offer. The shared passion, the disputed biographical details, the disagreements over recipes and interpretations—these bubble during the lectures and panels but wait until a teatime pause to express themselves in full. Meals are also the most democratic part of these gatherings. At the table, one’s manners are on fullest, clearest display (are you a bad listener? do you chew with your mouth open?), but digesting in company is also democratic, a reminder of equality (we are all animals together at the trough). In Austenworld, then, meals are much more about the rank and file than about the elites. Here, conversation goes to the quick, to the bold, and to those who care the most—not to those with credentials or book deals. It’s anarchy, it’s art, it’s where the most interesting conversations happen, and where judgments are discussed, refined, and rendered without mercy.
Excerpted from Camp Austen: My Life as an Accidental Jane Austen Superfan by Ted Scheinman, published March 6, 2018, by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright ©2018 by Ted Scheinman. All rights reserved.
This January, I finally read Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight, a grim and angry novel to begin a grim and angry year. First published in 1939, the frisson of suppressed brutality its narrator encounters everywhere has started to feel claustrophobically familiar now. In some ways, it’s a novel about precariousness — economic, social, psychological, historical — and about its exhausting effects on the human soul. I think Rhys had a special genius for understanding the subtle relationship between her characters’ inner lives and the grinding machinery of world history. It’s a gift I searched for often in my reading this year.
I found it again in Jane Bowles, whose singular novel Two Serious Ladies (1943) I discovered this spring. Written in a kind of flat and gloriously weird prose, the novel loosely follows two women as they throw themselves into destructive crusades against social convention. The private lives of individuals are probably always subject to the public machinations of power, but maybe this is most obvious in periods of historical crisis. At one point in the novel, overhearing a conversation between two young Marxist radicals, the protagonist Miss Goering remarks: “You…are interested in winning a very correct and intelligent fight. I am far more interested in what is making this fight so hard to win.”
Margaret Drabble’s Jerusalem the Golden (1967) is a quiet, intimate novel about friendship, sex, and social class. I read it under beating sun in Porto this summer and it charmed me almost to tears. Featuring a wry, self-aware protagonist, a glamorous cast of secondary characters, and cheerfully staunch leftist politics, it seems to me an unfortunately neglected novel of mid-20th-century Britain, and a forerunner of much of the great feminist fiction that followed.
On the recommendation of a friend, I picked up a copy of Alejandro Zambra’s My Documents (2015, translated by Megan McDowell), a startling and gorgeous collection of short fiction. Zambra’s observations are forensic, his prose is masterfully direct, and his interrogation of form, voice, and identity feels urgent rather than playful. I practically swallowed the book whole. I’m already looking forward to reading the rest of Zambra’s work, starting right now with his new book Multiple Choice (2016).
At one point in Good Morning, Midnight, Rhys’s narrator declares: “I want a long, calm book about people with large incomes — a book like a flat green meadow and the sheep feeding in it.” I confess that I shared this desire often in 2016. I reread not only Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, but also Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, as well as Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. A wealth of writing exists on all these novels and I have nothing insightful to add here, except that they consoled me somewhat while the world descended into catastrophe. Great writing can do more, but sometimes consolation is no small task.
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In 1782, the year she turned 30, Frances Burney was a single, successful chick-lit author with not one, but two bestsellers to her name. Fans pointed and stared at her when she went out to public places. They stood up and made a fuss when she entered rooms. They routinely addressed her as “Evelina” or “Cecilia” — which is sort of like the 18th-century equivalent of going up to Helen Fielding and calling her “Bridget.” She was only 26 when her first novel was published. Reviews were good, sales were even better, and since the book was published anonymously, all of London was scrambling to find out who’d written this delightful romp in which a beautiful if incredibly naïve young woman comes to the big city for the first time, buys some new clothes, and gets swarmed by suitors both true and faux.
Once the mystery was solved — once everyone figured out that this year’s It Novel, Evelina: Or, the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance Into the World, had been written by the relatively uneducated middle-class daughter of a music teacher — Fanny began living the dream. Suddenly, she was A-list, awash in cool parties and blind script deals. In January of 1779, Richard Brinsley Sheridan – essentially the Judd Apatow of his time — encouraged her to write a comedy, agreeing that he would take any play of hers sight unseen for the Drury Lane.
And she wasn’t just a one-book wonder.
The day before her 30th birthday, she published her second novel — Cecilia: Or, Memoirs of an Heiress — in which another beautiful if incredibly naïve young woman comes to the big city for the first time, buys some new clothes, and gets swarmed by suitors both true and faux. Teeming with parties, socialites, new hats, degenerate gamblers, and languid metrosexuals, Cecilia was twice as long as Fanny’s first book, three times more complicated, and — much to everyone’s surprise — it was an even bigger and more spectacular commercial success. Everywhere Fanny went that year, people wanted to talk to her about it. Princesses were reading it. Dowager duchesses. Milliners. Bishops. Members of Parliament. In October of 1782, while she was in Brighton with her BFF Hester Thrale, as relayed in Margaret Anne Doody’s biography Frances Burney, she wrote to her favorite sister, Susanna:
You would suppose me something dropt from the Skies. Even if Richardson or Fielding could rise from the Grave, I should bid fair for supplanting them in the popular Eye, for being a fair female, I am accounted quelque chose extraordinaire.
And she was.
She was something extraordinary.
At that particular point in world history — since Jane Austen was only 7 years old — she was the most successful female novelist currently alive on the planet.
But of course her glittering fame and success didn’t last. Eight years later, by December of 1790, she was wasting away and near death from some nonspecific “feverish illness” of the sort spinsters were particularly wont to get back then. Opium was prescribed. And, as Burney noted in her Journals and Letters, “three glasses of wine in the day.” She was still writing, but she was writing blank-verse tragedies with exhausting and ridiculous titles like Edwy and Elvira. And it’s not like people were lining up to read these blank-verse tragedies.
So what happened in those eight missing years to make a well-reviewed, commercially successful author fall so far so fast? Heartbreak? Rehab? Addiction to designer shoes?
She took the wrong day job.
There’s been a flutter of articles in the past several months on the sheer impossibility of earning a living wage from writing fiction. This is a quandary that plagues all artists: male, female, old, young. In L.A., where many writers are union-repped and writing for a screen of some sort, real numbers are bandied about quite bluntly – both in conversation and on Deadline Hollywood — but in the more refined sectors of the print economy, the main question no one wants to ask but everyone wants answered is quite simple: How are you supporting yourself? Is there a husband? A day job? A trust fund? If you write literary fiction, do you teach? If you’re in your 20s, do your parents pay your rent? At the end of March, The New York Times Book Review took on the subject in its Bookends column, asking, “Do money woes spur creativity, or do they stifle it?” Back in January, the novelist Ann Bauer wrote a piece in Salon owning up to the fact that her solution is a husband with good money and medical benefits. In December, Nell Zink addressed the question in the Paris Review blog and came down firmly in favor of nonliterary day jobs: “My main concern was always to have a job that didn’t require me to write or think.” Also in December, Liz Entman Harper published a roundtable in The Morning News in which she gathered seven writers who “have to keep one foot firmly outside of the literary world to get by.” Old standbys like teaching and journalism were represented, but other participants included a lawyer, a professor of psychiatry, a full-time United Methodist pastor, and a private investigator. They commiserated on the stresses and strain of working two shifts, but also pointed out the occasional benefits of cross-pollination between “jobby-job” and writing. One even posited that actually liking your job may be the secret sauce that makes the whole thing work. In the words of Christine Montross, “If you’re in a job that you hate and that drains you, I imagine it would be harder to find the energy or stamina to write in the off hours.”
Which brings me back to my 18th-century case in point.
The year was 1786. England’s most successful female novelist was 34 and unmarried. Lacking a Hollywood shark of an agent, she had sold her first novel outright for £20. Her father, a successful author in his own right, negotiated for her on her second, and it went for much higher — £250. But plays were how writers made real money back then, and the comedy Fanny wrote at Sheridan’s behest was never produced because her father/agent got cold feet about the impropriety of a lady writing for the stage. The cruel irony of this is that in the Downton Abbey sense of the word, Fanny wasn’t a lady. Her father wasn’t a gentlweman who lived off earned family income. He worked for a living — teaching music to society girls and writing — and so when Fanny’s fame and a friend’s connection brought her the “honor” of a royal appointment as Second Keeper of the Robes in the court of Queen Charlotte, it was virtually impossible for her to say no to the income and prestige it would bring her family. The plus of Fanny’s unusual day job — at least by the Nell Zink standard — was that it didn’t require her to think or write. And it came with a place to stay — an actual palace/castle. But it was poorly chosen because Burney hated it and the hours were insanely long: roughly 6am to midnight, day in and day out. Sure, there was health care — smelling salts, “the bark,” etc — but no vacation days, no weekends off. Nothing to do while the King was going mad.
Because, you know, back then it wasn’t considered appropriate to start composing your tell-all memoir while you were still on the celebrity payroll.
Arguably, the money was a draw. Two hundred a year, plus a footman and a maid. The servants make this difficult to calculate in modern-day dollars, although in Jane Austen dollars it’s not enough to marry on. I suspect that it was good not great — probably something vaguely comparable to what I used to make back in the late ’90s when I was a struggling, 20-something Hollywood assistant who accidentally stumbled upon the Everyman’s Library edition of The Diary of Fanny Burney in the stacks of the Beverly Hills Public Library. At the time, I had just moved from Chicago to L.A. with two suitcases and half a Seinfeld spec, and virtually all of my non-working hours were spent obsessing on my career prospects. Would I still be answering the phone at 30? Would I ever be able to make the leap from beleaguered, put-upon Hollywood assistant to beleaguered, put-upon Hollywood writer? Having read two of Burney’s novels as an English major at Columbia, I knew a little about her life and work, but that fateful day when I stumbled upon her diary, I didn’t see it as an artifact from a bygone era. I simply thought to myself, “Here is someone who has also tried to be a writer. I wonder how things worked out for her.” And of course in the most basic way – the way that mattered most to me at 27 — they worked out spectacularly well: Frances Burney had the exact kind of success most 20-something writers crave — i.e., the kind where you are singled out as a force to be reckoned with before you are 30.
But then what?
At 30, Jane Austen was an utter failure. A blocked writer with virtually no income of her own, she was living at her brother Frank’s house in Southampton with his new bride, her widowed mother, her older sister Cassandra, and an equally impoverished family friend. When she was 21, her father had queried a publisher about the first draft of Pride and Prejudice — then called First Impressions — but they refused to read it. At 27, she sold her novel Northanger Abbey, expecting this to launch her writing career — but her joy was short-lived: the publisher advertised the book but never put it out. The year before she had been offered a very tempting, well-paid day job — the job of being Mrs. Harris Bigg-Withers — but she couldn’t bring herself to accept. Either because she didn’t love the man — or because in the era before birth control that particular day job was incompatible with writing. She was 33 when it finally happened, the blessed event that would be the making of Jane Austen as a writer. It wasn’t a burst of literary inspiration — a plot, a character, her invention of a newfangled free indirect style. It was a piece of real estate — a house provided rent-free by her brother Edward. In the summer of 1809, after eight years of peripatetic living arrangements that were unproductive for her writing, Jane Austen settled down in this house and began to rewrite and revise the manuscripts of her younger years into the masterworks we know today as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. For her, there was no waking up at 6am to help the Queen get dressed.
And Frances Burney? After five years of her disastrous, soul-crushing day job — after five years of walking backwards and answering to a bell — the glittering young author who had once been compared to Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding and deemed “quelque chose extraordinaire” was no longer quite so extraordinary. She eventually rallied and made a comeback with her third novel, but her fourth is practically unreadable, and, as a fan, I can’t help but wonder what book Burney would have written in her mid-30s if she hadn’t taken that awful day job. Would she have found a way to hone her craft, perfect her talent for dialogue, and achieve the sort of literary immortality achieved one generation later by a clergyman’s daughter named Jane? Writers have always asked this question: how will I live? And the answers have never been easy. In October of 1790, Frances Burney was leaving St. George’s chapel at Windsor Castle when she ran into an old friend who was also a writer. James Boswell urged her to return to writing, posthaste. “I am extremely glad to see you,” Burney reports him saying. ”But very sorry to see you here! My dear ma’am, why do you stay? — it won’t do! ma’am! You must resign!” Eager to hear about another old acquaintance, Burney asked him about Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. “It will come out next week,” Boswell replied. “’Tis the first book in the world! — except my own!” Bubbling over with excitement about his Life of Johnson, he took a proof sheet out of his pocket to read aloud to her some choice quotes — but Fanny’s boss was watching at the window and the Queen was approaching from the terrace. She had no choice. Her day job was calling. She had to get back to work.
Previously: Working the Double Shift
Image Credit: Flickr/Tracy O.
Alright, look: Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography is big. Like, really big. In every sense of the word. At just under 1,200 pages, the book tackles the subject of the novel in English, a 700-year history. Its pages are densely researched and necessarily erudite. The print is small, and the thing weighs over six pounds. It took me over two months to read it in its entirety. Like I said, it’s big.
But I am going to try to convince you that The Novel is one of the most important works of both literary history and criticism to be published in the last decade, surpassing even such monumental works as Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors’s A New Literary History of America and John Sutherland’s The Lives of the Novelists. The reason Schmidt’s book is so effective and important has to do with its approach, its scope, and its artistry, which all come together to produce a book of such varied usefulness, such compact wisdom, that it’ll take a lot more than a few reviews to fully understand its brilliant contribution to literary study.
Do I sound hyperbolic? Well, hear me out. First, let’s begin with Schmidt’s approach and its relation to his project’s inevitable place in the canon. Schmidt states, in his introduction, his intention to allow the story of the novel to be “mainly told by novelists and through novels.” Thus he completely eradicates the presence of critics. Rather than a snide excision, this technique enormously improves his enterprise, for what is the most basic element of the novel’s narrative than influence from one practitioner to another? Here we are given Edith Wharton’s preference of calling the Gothic “the eerie,” and Virginia Woolf referring to same as “a parasite, an artificial commodity, produced half in joke in reaction against the current style, or in relief from it.” Here we learn of Jane Austen’s commendation of Maria Edgeworth and how Charles Dickens’s viewed the estate of Sir Walter Scott as “a warning to himself”:
I saw in the vile glass case the last clothes Scott wore. Among them an old white hat, which seemed to be tumbled and bent and broken by the uneasy, purposeless wandering, hither and thither, of his heavy head. It so embodied Lockhart’s pathetic description of him when he tried to write, and laid down his pen and cried, that it associated itself in my mind with broken powers and mental weakness from that hour.
We learn which of H.G. Wells’s novels Henry James viewed as expressing Wells’s “true voice.” We learn that Jonathan Franzen puts Elmore Leonard in the same “entertainer” category as P.G. Wodehouse. We read Michael Crichton’s review of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: “The ultimate difficulty with Vonnegut is precisely this: that he refuses to say who is wrong…He ascribes no blame, sets no penalties.” (Schmidt refers to Crichton’s career as “almost cynically contrived, fiction as speculation.”) I could go on and on with examples, but the point is that, here, collected in one place, we have the largest repository of the greatest novelists’ opinions and views on other novelists. It would take the rest of us going through countless letters and essays and interviews with all these writers to achieve such a feat. Schmidt has done us all a great, great favor.
The approach coupled with the scope (covering, as it does, a huge swath of time) results in maybe the most complete history of the novel in English ever produced. As Schmidt writes early on, he “set out to write this book without an overarching theory of the novel,” which basically means he precludes strict emphasis on historicity, movements, and linear evolution. Instead, he focuses on influence––that beautifully organic (yet inexact) process of thoughts begetting thoughts, ideas begetting ideas and styles begetting styles––which, Schmidt’s book implicitly argues, matters much more than the cultural context of any of the works.
Take, for example, Thomas Love Peacock, a marginal figure now but an important one in his time and, in many ways, the history of literature. The way in which Peacock is presented in The Novel typifies Schmidt’s multitudinous achievement. First of all, Schmidt gives Peacock (like he does for every writer discussed at any length) a short biography, replete with insights into how his circumstances relate to his work: after a lengthy hiatus, it was only after Peacock’s wife died that he “began again, more fluently” to write. Secondly, Schmidt, an uncannily astute critic, punctuates this section (like all sections) with critiques of the authors’ work: Peacock’s “masterpiece,” Crochet Castle (1831) is “marred by a strain of anti-Semitism” and “complemented by a vexing hostility to the Scots and their Caledonian hubris.” Moreover, Peacock himself…
…is memorable for the brightness of the entertainment, the leavening and sweetening of the verses breaking the dialogue, changing the key of a description. How various are Peacock’s poetic registers: he can do the voices of the Romantics (Byron in particular), and he can do his own voice.
But what makes Peacock as rendered by Schmidt so fascinating (and Schmidt makes countless writers function this same way) is way he’s contextualized within the framework of other writers. John Fowles, Schmidt tells us, referred to him as “Austen-drowned Peacock,” as Peacock “came in the wake of another writer whose success eclipses his as surely as Shakespeare’s eclipses Ben Jonson’s.” Austen has, in the centuries since, become the esteemed figure; Peacock may have had a better position in the canon if it weren’t for such basically arbitrary timing. Moreover, Peacock was the man who inspired Percy Shelley’s A Defense of Poetry, a vital work of criticism, “though all references to Peacock have been edited out of modern editions.” Further, Peacock relationship to Shelly and his wife Mary, leads to many odd synchronicities. Peacock’s book Nightmare Alley (which itself has much in common with Austen’s Northanger Abbey) was published the same year as Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, 1818. Shelley’s novel nearly succumbed to the same legacy of Peacock, namely that it almost didn’t have one. “Half a century ago,” Schmidt writes, “in The English Novel, Walter Allen did not mention Mary Shelley,” for her book “remained a feature of children’s horror literature” and “was not taken seriously.” But Shelley, who resented her husband’s patronage of Peacock (who became her husband’s executor), has since been critically reconsidered, while Peacock remains in the formidable shadows of extraordinary contemporaneous women.
I’ve barely even scratched at the first third of Schmidt’s book here, but I have to accept certain limitations reviewing Schmidt’s masterpiece. There is simply too much to represent to you. Later, as the story moves closer to the present and the structure of his book takes considerably more radical forms (such as the virtuoso chapter “Truths in Fictions, the Metamorphosis of Journalism”), Schmidt furthers his technique and, more importantly, his almost/kind of/sort of thesis, which is that the novel’s refusal to be accurately categorized, or concretely defined by such-and-such characteristics, is its principal quality. It has an almost osmotic ability to absorb features from various other sources, to combine elements from art and reality to depict something closer to actual lived experience, yet still remain stubbornly artificial, autonomous, so that the distinctions between art and life are starkly clear. Consequently, the novel form’s multiplicity allows, like novels themselves, for dimensions of inexpressible depth. Despite all of Schmidt’s hundreds of thousands of words on the subject, in the end the only term he has for this quality is a “something.”
Which brings me to Schmidt’s astounding artistry. None of what I’ve described above would have mattered in the least had Schmidt’s prose been a snoozer to read. But in every way possible––from entertaining style to convincing authority to elements of undeniable personality––Schmidt’s writing is a triumph of critical acumen and aesthetic elegance. Unafraid to insert his opinions, Schmidt declares, for example, that David Foster Wallace’s “importance as writer…is in the essays he wrote and the original ways in which he wrote them,” not his novels. About Samuel Richardson, Schmidt proclaims in exasperation: “Yet how tedious Samuel Richardson can be!” He defends Stephen King, saying that although his “bibliography is vast…the novels are generally substantial and serious in intent.” Again, I could go on and on. Similarly, Schmidt is willing to invoke personal memories while discussing a text. On James Fenimore Cooper, he notes that his father read The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757 (1826) to him and his brother because Cooper’s novels were “assumed to be good books for reading aloud,” and that he, Schmidt, was “haunted” by “scenes of brutality.”
Schmidt occasionally surprises with the beauty of his prose––as when he writes of William Beckford that in Vathek: an Arabian Tale (1786), “The reality of the novel merges with the stage paste of romantic masque”––as well as his humor. He notes that Mary Shelley was “linked to that of the American writer Washington Irving,” but that a romance was unlikely, “Irving being a confirmed bachelor or, modern biographers suggest, ‘a confirmed bachelor.'” Or when he finally arrives at a full-on chapter about Modernism, he opens it with this cheeky introduction: “It is not possible to postpone the high tides of modernism any longer,” as if, like history itself, he tried valiantly to resist it.
But it is the narrative, as told by Schmidt, that wows. He is able make a story with no “characters,” a novel with no “plot,” feel as dramatic and absorbingly propulsive as the best kinds of fiction. Part of this has to do with Schmidt’s apparent passion, which appears on every single page, but most of the tome’s energy comes straight from Schmidt’s preclusion of a strict critical approach. He wants to tell a story, not espouse indirectly the import of a given critical approach. Thus, he combines biography, analysis, memoir, and history into a hybrid monster, a modern Prometheus revitalized by Schmidt’s ambition and skill. He’s just so damned sensible, it’s hard to not follow his voice wherever it goes.
That Schmidt refuses, in such a lengthy work, to provide an overall assessment of the novel itself (save for his “something”) remains the book’s greatest strength. As Susan Sontag points out in her seminal essays “Against Interpretation” and “On Style,” the tendency to reduce a given work down to what it’s really saying is gravely erroneous. The illusory distinction between “form” and “content” is needless and harmfully furthers the notion that a “curtain could be parted and the matter revealed.” Style is not, in other words, the mere packaging of content, to be ripped open for the present inside. For anyone to try to objectively name the true “meaning” of an individual novel––i.e. to state the work’s content––would be, ultimately, doing a disservice to the art. Schmidt, too, understands this, that novels––as well as the story of the novel––are not to be reduced to an ingestible and comfortable conclusion. Rather, the story itself is all the meaning we need.
To reiterate: Schmidt has done me, you, all of us, a heroic favor in telling this story. In one single volume, he has synthesized myriad biographies of vastly contrasting artists, the nonlinear trajectory of their influence (good and bad) on each other, the various forms the novel has taken over its celebrated history, and a singular voice that pushes this complex tale along. The Novel: A Biography is a big book, yes, but it is also a big book, a piece of academic, intellectual work that doesn’t succumb to the insular (and boring) habits of much academic, intellectual work. It is a monumental achievement, in its historical importance and its stylistic beauty. The Novel, I believe, is a novel, the protagonist a murky, somewhat indescribable figure––the ultimate unreliable narrator––that Schmidt renders as real and human and flawed as anyone else before him. It is, itself, a work of art, just as vital and remarkable as the many works it chronicles.
On a desert plain out West, the Lone Ranger and Tonto are surrounded by a band of Indians, all of them slowly closing in. Sunlight reflects off tomahawks. War paint covers furious scowls. “Looks like we’re done for, Tonto,” says the Lone Ranger, to which Tonto replies, “What do you mean ‘we,’ white man?”
That old joke raises a question other than its own punch line. Why would anyone decide to write a novel in first-person plural, a point of view that, like second-person, is often accused of being nothing but an authorial gimmick? Once mockingly ascribed to royalty, editors, pregnant women, and individuals with tapeworms, the “we” voice can, when used in fiction, lead to overly lyrical descriptions, time frames that shift too much, and a lack of narrative arc.
In many cases of first-person plural, however, those pitfalls become advantageous. The narration is granted an intimate omniscience. Various settings can be shuffled between elegantly. The voice is allowed to luxuriate on scenic details. Here are a few novels that prove first-person plural is more of a neat trick than a cheap one.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
Prior to the publication of The Virgin Suicides, most people, when asked about first-person plural, probably thought of William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” This novel changed that. A group of men look back on their childhood in 1970s suburban Michigan, particularly “the year of the suicides,” a time when the five Lisbon sisters took turns providing the novel its title. Most remarkable about Eugenides’s debut is not those tragic events, however, but the narrative voice, so melancholy, vivid, deadpan, and graceful in its depiction not only of the suicides but also of adolescent minutiae. Playing cards stuck in bicycle spokes get as much attention as razor blades dragged across wrists. Throughout the novel, Eugenides, aware of first-person plural’s roots in classical drama, gives his narrators functions greater than those of a Greek chorus. They don’t merely comment on the action, provide background information, and voice the interiority of other characters. The collective narrators of The Virgin Suicides are really the protagonists. Ultimately their lives prove more dynamic than the deaths of the sisters. “It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn’t heard us calling.”
Our Kind by Kate Walbert
This title would work for just about any book on this list. A collection of stories interconnected enough to be labeled a novel, Our Kind is narrated by ten women, suburban divorcees reminiscent of Cheever characters.
We’ve seen a lot. We’ve seen the murder-suicide of the Clifford Jacksons, Tate Kieley jailed for embezzlement, Dorothy Schoenbacher in nothing but a mink coat in August dive from the roof of the Cooke’s Inn. We’ve seen Dick Morehead arrested in the ladies’ dressing room at Lord & Taylor, attempting to squeeze into a petite teddy. We’ve seen Francis Stoney gone mad, Brenda Nelson take to cocaine. We’ve seen the blackballing of the Steward Collisters. We’ve seen more than our share of liars and cheats, thieves. Drunks? We couldn’t count.
That passage exemplifies a technique, the lyrical montage, particularly suited to first-person plural. Each perspective within a collective narrator is a mirror in the kaleidoscope of story presentation. To create a montage all an author has to do is turn the cylinder. Walbert does so masterfully in Our Kind.
During the Reign of the Queen of Persia by Joan Chase
“There were the four of us — Celia and Jenny, who were sisters, Anne and Katie, sisters too, like our mothers, who were sisters.” In her New York Times review, Margaret Atwood considered this novel, narrated by those four cousins, to be concerned with “the female matrix,” comparing it to works by Anne Tyler and Marilynne Robinson. First-person plural often renders itself along such gender matrices. This novel is unique in that its single-gender point of view is not coalesced around a subject of the opposite gender. Its female narrators examine the involutions of womanhood by delineating other female characters. Similar in that respect to another first-person-plural novel, Tova Mirvis’s The Ladies Auxiliary, During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, taking an elliptical approach to time, braids its young narrators’ lives with those of the other women in their family to create a beautifully written, impressionistic view of childhood.
The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler
Novels written in first-person plural typically have one of four basic narrative structures: an investigation, gossip, some large and/or strange event, and family life. The Jane Austen Book Club uses all four of those structures. The novel manages to do so because its overall design is similar to that of an anthology series. Within the loose framework of a monthly Jane Austen book club, chapters titled after the respective months are presented, each focusing on one of the six group members, whose personal stories correspond to one of Austen’s six novels. The combinations of each character with a book, Jocelyn and Emma, Allegra and Sense and Sensibility, Prudie and Mansfield Park, Grigg and Northanger Abbey, Bernadette and Pride and Prejudice, Sylvia and Persuasion, exemplify one of the novel’s most significant lines. “Each of us has a private Austen.” Moreover, such an adage’s universality proves that, even when first-person plural refers to specific characters, the reader is, however subconsciously, an implicit part of the point of view.
The Notebook by Agota Kristof
If one doesn’t include sui generis works such as Ayn Rand’s Anthem — a dystopian novella in which the single narrator speaks in a plural voice because first-person-singular pronouns have been outlawed — Kristof’s The Notebook, narrated by twin brothers, contains the fewest narrators possible in first-person-plural fiction. Its plot has the allegorical vagueness of a fable. Weirder than Eleanor Brown’s The Weird Sisters, another first-person-plural novel narrated by siblings, the brothers in The Notebook are taken by their mother from Big Town to Little Town, where they move in with their grandmother. In an unidentified country based on Hungary they endure cruelty and abuse during an unidentified war based on World War II. To survive they grow remorselessly cold. Kristof’s use of first-person plural allows her to build a multifaceted metaphor out of The Notebook. The twins come to represent not only how war destroys selfhood through depersonalization but also how interdependence is a means to resist the effects of war.
The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
In the same way narrators can be reliable and unreliable, collective narrators can be defined and undefined. The narrators in this novel include both parts of that analogy. They’re unreliably defined. Sometimes the narrators are the people who find the corpse of the titular patriarch, an unnamed dictator of an unnamed country, but sometimes the people who find the corpse are referred to in third-person. Sometimes the narrators are the many generations of army generals. Sometimes the narrators are the former dictators of other countries. Sometimes the point of view is all-inclusive, similar to the occasional, God-like “we” scattered through certain novels, including, for example, Jim Crace’s Being Dead, E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, and Paul Auster’s City of Glass. Even the dictator, periodically and confusingly, uses the royal “we.” For the most part, however, the collective narrator encompasses every citizen ruled by the tyrannical despot, people who, after his death, are finally given a voice.
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
What about first-person plural lends itself so well to rhythm? Julie Otsuka provides an answer to that question with The Buddha in the Attic. In a series of linked narratives, she traces the lives of a group of women, including their journey from Japan to San Francisco, their struggles to assimilate to a new culture, their internment during World War II, and other particulars of the Japanese-American experience. “On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall,” the novel begins. “Some of us had eaten nothing but rice gruel as young girls and had slightly bowed legs, and some of us were only fourteen years old and were still young girls ourselves.” Although the narrators are, for the most part, presented as a collective voice, each of their singular voices are dashed throughout the novel, in the form of italicized sentences. It is in that way Otsuka creates a rhythm. The plural lines become the flat notes, singular lines the sharp notes, all combining to form a measured beat.
Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris
For his first novel’s epigraph, Ferris quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Is it not the chief disgrace of this world, not to be a unit; — not to be reckoned one character; — not to yield that peculiar fruit which each man was created to bear, but to be reckoned in the gross, in the hundred, or the thousand, of the party, the section, to which we belong…” The line nicely plays into this novel about corporate plurality. At an ad agency in Chicago post-dot-com boom, the employees distract themselves from the economic downturn with office hijinks, stealing each other’s chairs, wearing three company polo shirts at once, going an entire day speaking only quotes from The Godfather. The narrative arc is more of a plummet. Nonetheless, Ferris manages to turn a story doomed from the beginning — the title, nabbed from DeLillo’s first novel, says it all — into a hilarious and heartfelt portrait of employment. Ed Park’s Personal Days, somewhat overshadowed by the critical success of this novel, uses a similar collective narrator.
The Fates Will Find a Way by Hannah Pittard
Define hurdle. To be an author of one gender writing from the point of view of characters of the opposite gender investigating the life of a character of said author’s own gender. The most impressive thing about The Fates Will Find Their Way is how readily Pittard accomplishes such a difficult task. Despite one instance of an “I” used in the narration, the story is told in first-person plural by a collection of boys, now grown men, pondering the fate of a neighborhood girl, Nora Lindell, who went missing years ago. Every possible solution to the mystery of what happened to the girl — Heidi Julavits’s The Uses of Enchantment works similarly, as does Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods — becomes a projection of the characters affected by her absence. In that way this novel exemplifies a key feature of many novels, including most on this list, narrated by characters who observe more than they participate. The narrators are the protagonists. It can be argued, for example, that The Great Gatsby is really the story of its narrator, Nick Carraway, even though other characters have more active roles. Same goes for James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and Nancy Lemann’s Lives of the Saints, to name a few. What’s more important, after all, the prism or the light?
Has there ever been another writer of dark, morbid, surrealistic fiction who is as warm and humane as Nathaniel Hawthorne? I just finished reading The Marble Faun, his final novel, and what struck me is how much he cares about the people in the story, how fully he feels their isolation and estrangement. From Poe to Kafka, from Melville to W. G. Sebald, alienation and the uncanny have usually come to us with a chill, a coldness that questions not only the nature of human relationships but even the possibility of them. So it was a shock to read this surprisingly rich story about alienated friends and lovers, who are eventually drawn closer to each other by the very coldness that has separated them during their heightened, trancelike experiences.
The Marble Faun was published in 1860, and it’s very different from anything in Hawthorne’s famous earlier novels – The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables, and The Blithedale Romance. It deals with expatriates in Rome, and is generally considered the start of the “Americans in Europe” genre that Henry James would later develop.
It’s not a ghost story, and doesn’t draw much on the old gothic elements that Jane Austen, for instance, parodies in Northanger Abbey. The eerie, imaginative side of The Marble Faun comes less from the events than from the alertness Hawthorne brings to his characters’ perceptions. The novel is surreal largely because Hawthorne sees the world with disorienting vividness:
There is a singular effect, oftentimes, when out of the midst of engrossing thought and deep absorption, we suddenly look up, and catch a glimpse of external objects. We seem, at such moments, to look farther and deeper into them, than by premeditated observation; it is as if they met our eyes alive, and with all their hidden meaning on the surface, but grew again inanimate and inscrutable, the instant that they become aware of our glances.
This is a good description of how the novel works. Hawthorne catches his characters at the moments when they “look farther and deeper” into their surroundings, and then at the opposite moments when they feel everything grow “inanimate and inscrutable.” He is masterful at describing the psychology of guilt, the texture that despair can give to every detail. As part of this texture, he also excels at showing how the same street or statue or room can mean different things to different people at different times. Often the settings and the characters seem to seep into each other, merging and then coming apart.
The story revolves around a murder and its impact on the four main characters. Two American artists – the sculptor Kenyon and the copyist Hilda – become friends with the painter Miriam and a young Italian man, Donatello. Characteristically, Hawthorne describes Miriam, the novel’s heroine, as a walking illusion:
She resembled one of those images of light, which conjurors evoke and cause to shine before us, in apparent tangibility, only an arm’s length beyond our grasp; we make a step in advance, expecting to seize the illusion, but find it still precisely so far out of reach.
Nearly everything about Miriam’s past is unknown, and many important questions about her remain unanswered at the novel’s end. She has taken up a new identity in Rome after some unspecified involvement in some obscure crime. Hawthorne refuses to ever clear up the mystery, and pretends at one critical point not to know what Miriam is discussing with a monk who has started to follow her around the city.
Eventually, Donatello kills this monk because he thinks the man is persecuting Miriam and deserves to die. The murder – as impulsive and ambiguous as Billy Budd’s murder of Claggart – sets in motion the novel’s vision of guilt and despair passing from one person to another. Anticipating The Brothers Karamazov, Hawthorne creates a situation where everyone ultimately feels responsible for the murder, and where guilt spreads so wide and deep that nobody remains innocent.
Hawthorne traces the course of this guilt as it moves through the characters. The Marble Faun uses many of the techniques we find in self-consciously experimental fiction: unexpected time shifts, deliberately misleading narration, elaborate literary references, labyrinthine ambiguities, a constant awareness of conflicting viewpoints. Yet while reading the novel I never thought of it in these terms, because Hawthorne is so focused on using his techniques to deepen our understanding of the characters. It’s essential that the history of Miriam’s earlier guilt remain unclear, for instance, because this is how she experiences the past – she’s no longer able to say where her innocence ends and her responsibility begins. Similarly, Hilda develops a bizarre sense of complicity in the monk’s murder, even though all she did was witness it from a distance.
Hawthorne involves us in these changes with lavish conviction. I simply hadn’t expected the emotional and psychological fullness that the novel brings to the transformations of Miriam and Hilda and Donatello. The paradox of The Marble Faun is that it’s the most nihilistic of Hawthorne’s books at the same time as it’s the warmest and most sympathetic. The characters work their way towards each other through their worst encounters with desolation and self-doubt. As Melville recognized, Hawthorne is one of the great writers of negation. He is peerless at dramatizing darkness and loneliness and evil. Everyone in The Marble Faun becomes lost, wandering in destructive and hopeless alienation. Each character suffers from “an insatiable instinct that demands friendship, love, and intimate communication, but is forced to pine in empty forms; a hunger of the heart, which finds only shadows to feed upon.”
The novel offers no easy hope, no simple consolation. Miriam never escapes her guilt. Donatello goes to prison. Hilda’s doubts about her innocence and the darkness of the world stay with her forever. Yet the final paradox is that all the characters come together in their loneliness, and are united in their separation. They still have “only shadows to feed upon,” but they know this about each other, and they do their best to see beyond their individual tragedies and to share whatever comfort they can. Hawthorne loves them for this, and loves them for salvaging their humanity even after they’ve been broken by their nightmarish personal failures, and by the wild, irrational malevolence that haunts all the story’s events. The Marble Faun is intellectually rigorous in its refusal to surrender to the temptations of sentimentality, and emotionally rigorous in its even stronger refusal to surrender to the temptations of cynicism and despair.