onsdag 23 januari 2013

Don't let's be nasty to the Victorians (part three, approximately)

Is it all right to give up on a book that is actually well-written and cannot be accused of being boring? I've asked myself the question since laying aside Sleep, Pale Sister by Joanne Harris after 70 pages, and not feeling any great urge to pick it up again. Joanne Harris is a good writer, no doubt about it, and she can draw you into a plot with great skill. I enjoyed both Gentlemen and Players and the historical yarn Holy Fools, which came with the added bonus of a charismatic villain. In Sleep, Pale Sister, Harris sets her story in Victorian England, which should be a great match. Or maybe not, because Harris doesn't seem to "get" the Victorian mindset, or want to. Her male protagonist is full of complexes of - you guessed it - a sexual kind which he has picked up during a - you guessed it again - cold and loveless childhood as the son of a clergyman. He is a painter of fierce tigers in the jungle and a forerunner of impressionism. No, I jest. He is a painter of sentimental pictures of fair maidens, likes to be compared to the Pre-Raphaelites and is a member of the Royal Academy, and consequently, it is hinted, is Not Much Good. He marries one of his models, whom he has watched over and groomed since her childhood to be the perfect woman, but shrinks when she shows a streak of sensuality and fails to make her happy. And for this he must needs be punished.

So, that is quite a lot of prejudices about Victorian gentlemen rolled into one, then. As with Mr Timothy, I hesitated to buy Sleep, Pale Sister because of the blurb text, which this time states that the heroine (called Effie, just like Ruskin's wife - hmmm) "must finally plan her revenge". Why? Why must she? Isn't hubbles wretched enough as it is, without his wife going all vindictive on him? In the circumstances, you could understand  an elopement. But revenge, as if the poor sap had wilfully done her wrong and had to be paid in kind? The pursuit of happiness is one thing, malevolence surely another.

I realise that I've become far too sensitive to anything close to Victorian-bashing after reading too many boo-those-uptight-but-secretly-perverse-Victorians novels. Here, again, is why we should be less sanctimonious about the poor Victorians:

They weren't half as uptight as we think: Yes, their sexual morals were stricter. And there were Victorians with strange hang-ups: Dickens was obsessed with virtuous young maidens; Gladstone became somewhat over-enthusiastic about saving prostitutes; poor old Ruskin was freaked out by the whole marriage-consummation thing. But they were not representative of the whole age: their quirks were their own, and no worse than individual neuroses and obsessions which we encounter today. We need go no further than to Queen Victoria herself to see another side of the Victorians' supposedly "inhibited" love life. She and Prince Albert were not the world's greatest parents, but as for marriage consummation? Not a problem.

We're no better: The main accusation against Victorians is that they were killjoys who put a ban on innocent pleasures and, as a consequence, got hooked on less innocent ones. Well, we're nice ones to talk. Self-abnegation in the name of virtue may be out, but other reasons for hankering after a hair shirt have popped up in its place: health, environment, good parenting, even (bizarrely) political causes. The simple truth is that no-one is likely to be better off just because you deny yourself a little, or even a lot, of what you fancy. But mankind is strangely reluctant to get its head round this. Remember those boycotts of French wine because of France's nuclear tests somewhere in the Pacific? I recall meeting someone who still boycotted French wine a long time after the tests had stopped and who expected us to be impressed by her steadfastness. When it comes to pointless self-denial, we offer the Victorians a pretty good match.

Sensualism can be tyrannical too: I admit it reluctantly, I who often find myself warbling "I belong to the earth, I belong to the wind, and the rain, and the hills, and the heeeatheeer". Indulging one's creature comforts is one of life's great pleasures, but it is not all of life. The wish to find a spiritual side of life as well is part of what makes us human, and not to be dismissed out of hand. Harris is clearly an advocate of sensual pleasures: good for her. But the heroine in Holy Fools couldn't understand why anyone would wish for more from a convent life than companionship and planting potatoes, or why it mattered if the convent saint never existed as long as she constituted a suitably life-affirming figurehead. It is this blank incomprehension of non-earthbound matters that makes me feel ill at ease and less than hopeful that Sleep, Pale Sister will give its neurotic anti-hero a fair shake. Enjoy the good things in life, by all means, but let's not force French wine down anyone's throat.

Perhaps I'm being colossally unfair. I've not even read a hundred pages of Sleep, Pale Sister. It may turn out to be a subversion of all the usual stereotypes belonging to novels set in Victorian times: maybe the wife will get the comeuppance she deserves, maybe there will be mercy for the husband. But somehow, I think not, and I'm not wild about finding out.