Odours from the abyss: Jacky in Howards End

I recently read Howards End and, long story short, I loved it. The characters are amazing, the text is endlessly quotable: goblin footfalls, telegrams and anger, the size of each of our islands. It made me think about early 20th century London, it made me think about socialism, and love, and the differences between people independent of historical context. I remembered when a friend showed me the confidence trick quote to comfort me after being fooled, I read whole pages aloud for anyone I could get to listen, I physically restrained my brother until he read the parts about Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

But when it was over there was a question that was bugging me more than "Would it be tacky to get Only connect tattooed?", and that was "But who provides for Jacky?". Because Jacky is not mentioned at all in the last chapter, where the affairs of the Wilcoxes and of the Schlegels are settled. We get to know both their financial situation and their social one: that Charles wants to change his name, that Dolly doesn't, that Paul (even he gets a paragraph) is resentful to be tied down in England. But not a word on Jacky.

It is easy to imagine, and I do, that Margaret doesn't let her starve. But it bothers me to no end that Forster doesn't say so explicitly.

When I realized this, I wondered whether I have a more general problem with how Jacky is written. It is clear that she isn't treated with nearly as much interest as any of the other characters. She is pitied in an impersonal and vague way, her hostile circumstances are declared "bad" by the narrator, but their tragic aspect is not explored. In fact, she is deemed "incapable of tragedy". To the narrator, Jacky is a convenient metaphor, taken up every now and then. To the Schlegels, Jacky is a vision of the abyss, "like a faint smell, a goblin footfall, telling of a life where love and hatred had both decayed", and her mistreatment by Henry is always an afterthought. When Helen is angry at Mr. Wilcox over Jackie, it is chiefly directed at the way Leonard was ruined by being entrapped by her. When Margaret chastises Henry, his betrayal of Mrs. Wilcox takes up more space than his abandonment of Jacky.

But none of this soured Howards End for me. Forster owns up to how Jacky is not written as a character, stating plainly that "we are not concerned with the very poor". Jacky had sunk under the surface of the ocean, and about these people there can be no narrative. This acknowledgement alone is a very powerful commentary: Jacky cannot be written as a person because society does not allow her to be seen as a person. Her treatment thus becomes a shared failure of the author and the reader, and I liked that.

But even if this was not Forster intention, and he has written Jacky like this because of a shortcoming of imagination or craft, I could still live with it if only her affairs would have been settled in the final chapter (there were many options that made sense: she could have been given some of the income Margaret is renouncing, or some of Helen's or of Henry's). In short, I don't ask that Forster give Mrs. Bast a story or a personality; I just ask that he give her money and not bother about her ideals.

"I Did Not Want to Lose My Summer for a Scare": T.S. Eliot on the Outbreak of World War One

Eliot's draft registration card photo, 1918
A hundred years ago today, T.S. Eliot wrote to his mother with his first impressions about the war that will become known as World War One. At the beginning of August 1914, Eliot was in Germany, attending a summer school in Marburg. Though he would later describe the experience of being caught in Germany as "much like the childhood's exasperation of being in an upper berth as the train passed through a large city - (...) an intolerable bore," his first letter to his family paints a slightly different picture. He captures the disbelief, confusion and rising tension as the international participants at the summer school suddenly find themselves thrust into the roles of friends or enemies to Germany, according to their nationality.

Review: There Once Lived A Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories by Ludmila Petrushevskaya

This is a book that's hard to pin down.

It's a collection of 17 stories by Russian writer Ludmila Petrushevskaya and it falls a little short what I would have wanted to see, as far as editing collections goes. We are given no useful information about these stories. We are told in the introduction that they span the whole of Petrushevskaya's life, but it's unclear if they're the only short stories she's written (they are not). There are no dates attached to any of the stories, beyond a statement in the introduction that the first of them was published in 1972 and the last in 2008. Why is this important, though? After all, we're only here for the literature, right? Well, it's important because the translator, Anna Summers, is the one who selected the stories and organized them in sections. The theme for each section is transparent and their interplay is sometimes clever. Nonetheless, there is a meta-story being told here and it's Summers' story, not Petrushevskaya's. Or perhaps it is Petrushevskaya's after all, and this is the most natural order for these stories, but we have no way of evaluating that. This lack of basic tools is even more frustrating when you realize that it's not something Google can fix for you if you don't speak Russian (and perhaps not even then). 

Listen to a Short History of Metaphor

Yesterday I talked a little about metaphors and I quoted from Davidson's paper What Metaphors Mean. Davidson's paper was philosophy; it only used examples from literature to make a point about how language works. But reading about this topic yesterday I stumbled across this Radio 4 show that discussed the evolution of metaphor in the history of literature. I thought some of you might enjoy it. Granted, it jumps around a lot and there is some conceptual sloppiness going on (some of the examples they discuss are not metaphors), but it's a pretty interesting conversation. They discuss Homer, Milton, Spenser, Donne, Shakespeare, Dickens, Woolf and possibly a couple of other people I can't remember right now. 

If you're in the UK, you can listen to the show here. If you're not in the UK, there is a browser extension on Chrome called Hola that lets you pretend you are :)

The Literary Hippopotamus Chase

I wanted to sit down and write a short post about James Joyce, T.S. Eliot and a hippopotamus. Sounds easy enough, right? But one thing led to another and somehow, at the end of two hours, I found myself busy trying to find out who called Tolstoy a "great moralizing infant," all thoughts of Joyce or Eliot forgotten. It was time well spent, though, as I did read a ton of interesting stuff and I'm going to share some of it with you here (including, yes, who called Tolstoy such apt names). Here then is my wild hippopotamus chase across the internet and the reading list that resulted from it.

1. Where it all started: The Letters of T.S. Eliot, vol. 1. 

This is the first item on my reading list, but also the only one that I wouldn't wholeheartedly recommend. I am 1/3 through this volume now and I am delighted and entertained by it. But if you don't already have an interest in modernism, literary history or snooping on dead people's letters, I think you can safely skip this one. We only need a footnote from it to get this literary hippopotamus chase started, and I'm going to quote it for you right here: 
TSE used to say that the only evidence that James Joyce had read anything of his, was that one day in Paris the novelist told him that he had been, presumably with his children, to the Jardin des Plantes, and had paid his respects to 'your friend the hippopotamus'. 
- The Letters of TSE, Faber & Faber 1988, page 213
Can you spell "adorable literary history anecdote"?  I mean T.S. Eliot definitely keeping track of whether Joyce had read his stuff or not, Joyce with his kids visiting the menagerie, Joyce telling Eliot he saw his "friend the hippopotamus" - there is not one aspect of this that I don't find adorable. So of course I was then off to read Eliot's poem, The Hippopotamus

Change Your Bookmarks and Let's Go!

As I mentioned before, I grew tired of our current name/URL and have been longing for a change. My co-bloggers agreed, but it took us a while to find the time and courage to do it. It's time now. This weekend I'll be tinkering and this site might go offline for a while. From Monday we'll have a spiffy new home at zombiechekhov.com. If you're wondering why Zombie Chekhov, there's a longer answer here, but the short version is that it started as a playful riff on this quote from the diary of Katherine Mansfield, a quote we love and resonate with.
"Ach, Tchehov! why are you dead? Why can't I talk to you, in a big darkish room, at late evening — where the light is green from the waving trees outside? I'd like to write a series of Heavens; that would be one." 
Under this new name, we'll still be writing about the same old things: books, writers, the occasional movie. If we occasionally do manage to conjure that "conversation in a big darkish room, at late evening" feel, we'll be happy.

I want to keep reading your blog, what do I do? 

  • Mom, you're so sweet. 
  • Bookmark zombiechekhov.com.
  • If you subscribe to Lit. Hitchhiker via email, feed reader or the Google Followers gadget, I think I can redirect those, so you probably don't have to re-subscribe. But if you don't see any updates on Monday, that means I failed horribly. Check zombiechekhov.com. Give me a hug.
  • Follow us on twitter @lithitchhiker. We'll keep this handle for a while longer to minimize confusion.

We hope to see you on the other side. Zombie Chekhov will be waiting. (I am sorry. I will see myself out now.)

The man.