/ Social Order / Property / … Social Survival /
I’ve been commenting on Henry James’ What Maisie Knew over the past couple of weeks. Now my reading of the novel is complete I’ve got to say something not about novels, literature, movies, but about social order / and social survival:
First I hark back to my first class on Victorian novels, 1959 or so. I had little business then (or since) studying Victorian literature: read it, fine: but study is too pretentious, too immodest: it’s all too long, I’m too slow. I can read Dickens, Eliot … (as well as Tolstay, Dostoievsky …) and love it. It took me years to read the first hundred pages of Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, but only the rest of the afternoon to finish reading the whole thing: 800 or so pages! You need a head of steam, it doesn’t come automatically or in the first hour. Anyway, My Vic prof was an odd bird, had a stammer: would utter a phrase, his wheels would spin, he’d go have-have-have-have, then get out another phrase. I came to love the guy, what character to stand up before a Columbia class and stammer!
Anyway, something he said sounded like more pablum in my mind then but rings deep in my mind since. He said that the Victorians
Maisie came out at the end of the Nineteenth Century. Queen Victoria died soon thereafter: but the Victorian Age flowed seemlessly into the Edwardian Age … Then came WWI: and all bets were off (other than the bet that we’d continue to accelerate social catastrophe).
I deal with James’ third period prose elsewhere. (Further elsewhere I comment that Maisie is my first third period novel completed: I’ve read lots of James, but not complete, late, long-long run-in-circles-forever James.)
Maisie is a young girl. Her parents are divorced: a modern couple. The courts (offstage) act King Solomon to Maisie’s upbringing: cut her in half: half to the mother, half to the father. Meantime the father meets the governess. Meantime the mother meets a string of rich men, one brutally rich: another, Sir Claude, rich, well bred, nice. Meantime Sir Claude meets the governess, while the mother meets a whole string of rich men, while the mother has saddled her own frightful governess, Mrs. Wix, onto her daughter.
Et voila: modern life: money counts, only money counts, breeding is nice but only money counts. And the hell with the family. Except for Mrs. Wix: she still believes in family, abhors adultery, wants Maisie to grow Christian in close-your-knees habit if not in theology.
Forget the movie: the movie is abhorrent.
OK? At the end, Maisie now a young teen or thereabouts, Maising picking up some of her mother’s grace, her father’s good humor, her governess’ etherial beauty, and Sir Claude’s (and a couple of her mother’s rich men’s) polished manners. Sir Claude helps himself to the same governess Maisie’s father had helped himself to, the governess making sure in each case that she’s firmly planted in a house with the key in her hand, and with the only thing approaching the appearance of character Sir Claude pays the bills: oh, not endless: but he even promises Maisie that Mrs. Wix won’t be out on the street.
Dig it? Sir Claude gets his bed made, his breakfast cooked, his whistle blown … He’s not very very rich, but somehow he’ll still have a little something in the bank tomorrow. He’ll never need employment, his shirts will be washed, tea will be served. He can hop on the boat and go to France, hop on the train and go to Paris.
And, Sir Claude believes, and apparently Maisie, and the governess, and apparently Henry James,
Sir Claude, and Maisie, like Henry James, take being “white”, Christian, civilized … literate, informed, educated … for granted.
Sir Claude walks with Maisie in the park, or the other park. These London parks: benches to sit on, cabs to rent, walks to walk, gardened, tended, moved, all perks of a wealthy city, polluting a prosperous river. And just a boat and a train ride away is Paris, a wealthy city, polluting a prosperous river.
Not only that, the prosperous needing-no-employment gentlemen, and ladies, sitting on the benches, are white! Christian! civilized!
Not only that, the guys clipping, moving, tending are also white! and civilized! and would happily sit on the bench, with the ladies, if they didn’t need the employment …
(Hitler bragged of his Thousand Year Reich. In 1933. In 1933 it was manifest.
How long did it last? By 1944 it was sliding, by 1945 it was dust. (And had it not been, Berlin, Munich might have met a nuke.))
(Walk in those London parks today, they still exist. How white is it? How Christian?
Try Paris. It ain’t just “black”, it’s (“half”) Muslim!
Would the white Christian imperialists reached so blithely into Africa if they’d seen themselves turning black? I laugh myself almost helpless when Charlie Hebdo insults the Prophet, then gets a bomb for breakfast.)
And how about the money? How many of those in the park, no matter the color, the religion, have their shirts cleaned? have money in the bank tomorrow? without employment?
What would James have made of President Obama?
Well, he looks like Sir Claude (except for the skin), he behaves like Sir Claude … Maybe he didn’t go to Harvard and Yale, but he went to Columbia and Yale, or Harvard, or some damn place.
But you know at any point in Victorian culture (or Edwardian culture), Sir Claude may have been sitting on the bench with Maisie, and the governess, with the girls; but out of sight, in their offices, behind closed doors, the movers and shavers had their tea served and their shirts washed while they were plotting and planning, never resting: Trollope characters, not James characters.
I don’t think though that even Trollope saw London as the desperate pest hole anyone may see in another generation to so: if we’re “lucky”.
Thank God I won’t be so lucky. I’m 76. And 1/2. My luck shouldn’t last much longer.
Bombs for Breakfast
I still remember vividly a party I attended in Westbeth, mid-1970s. The guest of honor was an Irishmen who’d just gotten a big spread written on himself in New York Magazine: Irish terrorists were all in the news, some English lord had found a bomb in his egg cup. I asked the Irish shaker and mover how come the English weren’t embarrassed at how many bombs they’d served the Irish? for centuries and centuries: and I saw zero recognition that he knew what I was referring to! Bombs for breakfast is something nice people don’t serve.
Read my Race: A-Scientific Myth before you think you know what I mean by white or black.
|Social Epistemology||Social Order||Social Survival|