21 December 2014

If Wine Were Books …

My next column for The Sunday Guardian

Light, flavourful dishes with delicate wines: ‘You have wakened not out of sleep, but into a prior dream, and that dream lies within another, and so on, to infinity, which is the number of grains of sand. The path that you are to take is endless, and you will die before you have truly awakened.’ When you lightly saute pressed garlic in olive oil, its scent will remind you of Borges. Add pasta and stir in The Immortals. You will dream of mazes and dance with devils if you add a hint of parsley and read A Universal History of Infamy. The Borgesian conundrum will make you wonder if you made the pasta or if the pasta made you.

Silky whites, like Chardonnays, for gravy-based meals: 'Perhaps only people who are capable of real togetherness have that look of being alone in the universe. The others have a certain stickiness, they stick to the mass.’ When you stir a lush sauce and watch it froth heavily into brackish desire, pull out D.H. Lawrence. Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a book for all sorts of nights: the lonely ones and the intimate ones. Let it seep into you – the book, I mean, not the gravy – and let it fill your heart with the multiple shapes that love can take.

Rieslings to tame the heat of spice: ‘I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed / And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane. / (I think I made you up inside my head.)’ Wrap the richness of a spicy meal with the tired longings of Sylvia Plath. She’ll tease the pepper right out with her acid charm. Ariel is perfect for the tangy sweetness of the Riesling. If you choose, instead, the neuroses of a drier wine, look no further than The Bell Jar.

The pertness of a rich rose for cheese: ‘The evening's the best part of the day. You've done your day's work. Now you can put your feet up and enjoy it.’ Nothing will enhance the texture of cheese better than the oaky richness of The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. Cheese is your accomplice when you avoid the drudgery of facing your emotions, Ishiguro your guide. These are your perfect companions if procrastination is your game.

Light-bodied reds for savoury delicacies: ‘And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.’ The lavish lure of Scott Fitzgerald will perfectly balance any midweek mood when paired with the right meal. For those pleasant summer evenings of camaraderie, the blustering youth of a savoury will clear your palate like Nick Carraway and the middle-aged rambunctiousness of a rich red wine will invigorate your senses like Jay Gatsby.

An earthy, rustic Italian red for warm bread. ‘Love's mysteries in souls do grow, / But yet the body is his book.’ Dip bread in balsamic vinegar and the poetry of John Donne. If it’s the right kind of bread, any metaphysical poet will do. Slather butter if you must, and say out loud, ‘I am two fools, I know, / For loving, and for saying so.’

Fruity wines for fruity desserts: ‘People do not die for us immediately, but remain bathed in a sort of aura of life which bears no relation to true immortality but through which they continue to occupy our thoughts in the same way as when they were alive. It is as though they were travelling abroad.’ Marcel Proust will remind you of the sort of life that is best worth living just as a custard and a fortified sherry will emphasize the sweetness of fruit without the necessity for added sugar. For best results, ensure that the wine is sweeter than the dessert and that Proust is wiser than you.

Champagne and bubbles for salty meals: ‘In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways.’ Chilled champagne will work best for Edith Wharton’s quiet optimism. Pair the nuanced insights of The Age of Innocence with the fizzy sharpness of a sparkling wine and balance the book’s sorrow’s with the oceanic saltiness of a plate of hors d’oeuvres and the world is yours. 

07 December 2014

The Empty Vessel Syndrome

My next column for The Sunday Guardian.

As products of a largely phallo-centric society, our sexual discourse has had to limit itself to male desire and its immediate outcomes. Our literature, art and cinema have embraced the idea of ‘forced seduction’ or the idea that rape can somehow turn into love. This literary theme has been described by a well-known Dutch newspaper as: ‘Once upon a time there was a very pretty girl. She was raped. The boy begged for forgiveness and they lived happily ever after.’

But where’s female desire in all this? Even the old questions of rape versus seduction do not take into account any sort of independence or initiative from the female participant. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, the eponymous protagonist experiences a sexual encounter with Alec D’Urbervilles that is regularly described as either a seduction or a rape. Hardy at some point describes the relationship between Tess and Alec: ‘She had dreaded him, winced before him, succumbed to adroit advantages he took of her helplessness; then, temporarily blinded by his ardent manners, had been stirred to confused surrender awhile, had suddenly despised and disliked him, and had run away. That was all.’ Hardy himself is ambiguous – is Alec a womanizer and a cad, a flirt who seduced Tess, or is he a rapist who forced himself upon her, who tricked her into being a sexual conquest?

But neither of these questions are about what Tess wants. Had Tess wished for a sexual liaison with Alec, but had been unable to voice that desire due to convention, this encounter – this bizarre, macabre, necrophiliac, sleeping-beauty-esque encounter – might have been her only way of active participation or expression of desire. Modern sexual intercourse depends heavily on consent and agency – or it should – but the Victorian equivalent was bound by an onus on the female to be a passive receptacle, a recipient of sexual intercourse, regardless of desire. This adds a third layer to the scene: Did Tess give into temptation or was this what she had wanted all along?

In Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos – best known for its film adaptation, Dangerous Liaisons with Glenn Close and John Malkovich – the difference between the victim of rape, also known as ‘seduction’ if it turns to love, and the female libertine is brilliantly explored. The Marquise de Merteuil is a woman with agency, desire and experience, unashamedly so, while the young Cecile de Volanges and Madame de Tourvel, who are corrupted and destroyed by the machinations of the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise herself, are real victims. All the while, it celebrates the fleeting joys of intimacy, wrought through some human connection or the other, without ever reducing its participants to the obligations of their gender.

On the other hand, the most horrifying scene in Ben Jonson’s Volpone, for example, is the ‘seduction’ scene. An ageing Volpone forces himself on the young and innocent Celia. When Volpone experiences an erection, he immediately connects his arousal in this situation with a remembered theatrical triumph: ‘I am, now, as fresh, / As hot, as high, and in as joviall plight, / As when (in that so celebrated scene, / At recitation of our comedie, / For entertainement of the great Valoys) / O acted yong Antinous; and attracted / The eyes, and eares of all the ladies, present.’ Celia is entirely an empty vessel here, to be filled with Volpone’s desire and to be emptied when his desire shrinks: physically, emotionally and metaphysically, this is all she is.

Volpone goes on to suggest, after the rape, that the union could be more than physical, that their souls are now united: ‘Where we may, so, transfuse our wandring soules, / Out at our lippes, and score up sums of pleasures.’ This suggestion is vile. Jonson’s lack of subtlety in the scene is maddening. He trivializes the rape, as he and his contemporaries were wont to do, and simply refuses to address its atrocity. It is from this scene that the audience embarks on a love-hate relationship with Volpone. They despise the violator, but why do they adore the trickster? It is frustrating to watch, but it demonstrates that most important aspect of the crime: that it can be committed even by the people one adores.

The stillness of the empty vessel reinforces the passive receptacle theory; perhaps they must learn that old trope and make the most noise.

09 November 2014

A Throwback to John Fowles

My next two columns for The Sunday Guardian are a two-part essay on The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.

If there ever was a novel that must be read for its self-conscious take on everything that is to do with fiction itself, it must be The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles. And if it is to be read, for this reason or for any other reason, it is also to be read again – just to be sure that everything that Fowles has said has been absorbed for future rumination. He is reminiscent of Maugham, who also has a way of placing a world of meaning with each statement, each gesture, each parenthetical aside. Yet, Fowles is different, because he is didactic where Maugham is subtle, and he is wicked where Maugham is gentle.

First, there is the paradox of time that the reader is benignly, but calculatedly, made aware of. The writer is of 1969, but his characters are of exactly a century before. This is not merely external information to aid one's reading of the text. It is part of the text itself, part of the commentary that Fowles is constantly making. The novel, as an organic whole, is aware of its precarious existence – that it belongs to a different time period than the one it lives and breath;es in, a time period that is over and done with and can, therefore, be discussed in terms of historical and sociological constructs. In a sense, Fowles is unabashedly diagnosing an era both with clinical detachment and with a specialist's interest.

What makes this fact more interesting is that the era that is subject to this physician's table is not just any era – it is Victorian England, a veritable spiritus mundi of literary thought. Fowles takes reckless advantage of this and borrows freely, in his epigraphs, from Tennyson, Arnold, Hardy, Austen – you get the drift – and, in a masterful stroke, places them alongside quotes from mundane archives and sociological and medical reports that seem to have an equal bearing upon our knowledge of the period.

The milieu he paints is neither the world of Dickens nor the world of Thackeray. It is written with the hindsight that neither of these writers could possibly have possessed, the sheer advantage of having been born a century later, almost as though he is a historian who just happens to inscribe fiction into the history he writes: ‘The supposed great misery of our century is the lack of time; our sense of that, not a disinterested love of science, and certainly not wisdom, is why we devote such a huge proportion of the ingenuity and income of our societies to finding faster ways of doing things - as if the final aim of mankind was to grow closer not to a perfect humanity, but to a perfect lightning-flash.’

Unlike Georgette Heyer, who also wrote fiction that is set in a certain historical timeframe, or even Dickens, whose Barnaby Rudge and A Tale of Two Cities are set during the Gordon riots and the French revolution respectively, Fowles does not merely present a story with a certain background – he presents the story with the collective knowledge that he has gained about all time periods, including his own, with the perspective that modern studies have offered him, with connective information about a time that is merely an elusive future to his own characters. It is thus that Fowles can apply Sartrean logic in a setting before Sartre or remark with wisdom on a Darwin who is entirely new and astonishing to his characters. It is thus also that there are references to computers and motion pictures in a time when they did not exist. He slips into his fiction wicked comments on the reigns of Disraeli and Gladstone, knowing what is to happen in each of their reigns and comparing the Victorian political scenario to its modern counterpart. These allusions are not anachronisms, they are part of the technique of the narrator, and not of the narrative, both of which are individual and entirely separate entities.

Equally baffling is the freedom that he give his readers and his characters. Like everything else in Fowles, there is a paradox here again. In the complex relationships that exist between reader and narrator, Fowles makes wild offers of freedom to the reader. But he cannot cease to be an entirely autonomous creator.

And so, in his own way, he finds a compromise between the two – there is freedom, but there isn't. Now you see it, now you don't. But you know it’s there. Which leads us, of course, to the perceived freedom of fiction, the license of narrative, the relationship between author and reader, between narrator and assumed reader … because Fowles, who will not leave distinctions unblurred, creates, for himself, an assumed reader whom he periodically addresses, as well as an assumed narrator who appears, every so often, in the novel itself. So strong is the relationship that develops between them, in fact, that it is almost unfortunate that his assumed reader is not the actual reader; the former makes herself a part of the narrative, asking intelligent questions, making insightful comments and subtly manoeuvring the plot with powerful opinions and suggestions. In many ways, Fowles seems to be telling the actual reader to ask more questions and to never take anything at face value. He even places something as diffident as the novel's outcome in the reader's hand, thrusting it in the reader's face, as if to say, ‘There it is, now you make the choice.’ And as the reader is further embroiled in the novel, the tone shifts dangerously to, ‘Now make a choice, damn it!’

‘It is only when our characters and events begin to disobey us that they begin to live,’ says the narrator. The freedom he offers his characters is even dicier than that. They can choose – and how! – but there is always the lurking knowledge that we have that it is Fowles who finally chooses. The assumed narrator is, admittedly, a wily little boost to the author's ego. He becomes a character in the book and is like a chameleon, a shape-shifter. He exists a little everywhere. And he is always watching. He exists both in the third and the first person, both as a strange little bearded man and as a prosperous Harold-Zidler-like impresario, both as a powerful puppet master and as a helpless passer-by, the very manifestation of the freedom paradox.

In every way, in every possible way, this is what we do with our lives – and especially, most especially, our pasts. Fowles writes: ‘You do not even think of your own past as quite real; you dress it up, you gild it or blacken it, censor it, tinker with it ... fictionalize it, in a word, and put it away on a shelf - your book, your romanced autobiography. We are all in the flight from the real reality. That is the basic definition of Homo sapiens.’ And again: ‘I said earlier that we are all poets, though not many of us write poetry; and so are we all novelists, that is, we have a habit of writing fictional futures for ourselves, although perhaps today we incline more to put ourselves into a film. We screen in our minds hypotheses about how we might behave, about what might happen to us; and these novelistic or cinematic hypotheses often have very much more effect on how we actually do behave, when the real future becomes the present, than we generally allow.’

Fowles' characters are, perhaps, as cunning as Fowles himself. Each is strong enough to demand an ending to achieve his own ends. His characters are much like the stock characters of the classic romance a la Walter Scott – the grand triangle of the youth, the fair lady and the dark lady. But where an Ivan Hoe chose, and was expected to choose, the fair lady, our young protagonist, Charles, undergoes an existentialist anxiety of freedom and choice. Three alternatives are then presented – the fair lady, and thereby Victorian convention; the dark lady, and thereby Romantic non-conformity; final freedom from the two women, and thereby Modern rebirth and restructuring. Each of the three alternatives caters not just to the three types of readers, but also to the three main characters as each ending is centred around one of the three main characters.

This way, you are the reader, but also the writer. You are the plot, but also the character. You are the beginning and the end, perhaps even the beginning of the end. More than that, you are time, you are freedom, you are the one for whom the bell tolls, but also the bell-ringer. Only Fowles can give you this – and only he can take it away. 

26 October 2014

The Byronic Hero

My next column for The Sunday Guardian.

I warned you, in the last two fortnights, against the Darcys and Rochesters of the world, the menacing Heathcliffs, the brooding Gatsbys, the embittered Snapes, the loners, all dark, cynical, sinister men who cannot abide by authority and who are dangerously, bewilderingly attractive. They struggle with personal integrity (think Don Draper), have tortured pasts (think Heathcliff) and are dominant characters (think … er … Christian Grey), carved in Byron’s own shadow, because, of course, all girls just want bad boys. Byron himself described these heroes perfectly in The Corsair: 'That man of loneliness and mystery, / Scarce seen to smile, and seldom heard to sigh […] Lone, wild, and strange, he stood alike exempt / From all affection and from all contempt.'

James Bond will never commit to you, but his past is so mysterious and sexy, so that must be why. Dr Gregory House will be cold and ruthless and awful to you, but really, he’s a wounded tiger lashing out at the world. Don Draper will cheat on you every day of the week, but that’s only because he’s so terribly anguished by his past. Captain Ahab is really just hiding all the hurt inside his crusty exterior. Jay Gatsby is a loathsome criminal, but at least that’s because he loves you so. Severus Snape is petty, cruel and entirely lacking in compassion, but he had a crush on your mom, so that explains everything. Edward Cullen wants to suck your blood out and kill you, but don’t worry, that’s just his bloodthirsty instinct, he can totally control it. Hamlet treats you like dirt, but he’s so cute when he delivers his suicidal monologues.

They treat you badly because they love you: that’s the message of the Byronic hero. They’re flawed, but they’re beautiful; they’re violent because they’re damaged, and that makes it all okay; they’re the bad boys who can be fixed, the rogues who need to be loved, the villains who are capable of being heroes.

Byron almost undoubtedly modelled his protagonists after himself – roguish, lonely, complicated, gorgeous, deeply flawed, tortured, brooding, broken, outwardly sociopathic but capable of intense passion. He was, in fact, the original vampire, Edward Cullen before Edward Cullen, rich, lordly, weighed down by unspeakable fervour and severe dissatisfaction: John Polidori modelled his villainous vampire – that sexy, aristocratic creature with a troubled heart – on Byron, whose personal physician he was. Byron himself was described by Lady Caroline Lamb – a former lover – as ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’. She wrote a bizarre gothic novel based on her affair with Byron (he called it a ‘fuck-and-publish’ – as in, kiss-and-tell). There too was a Byronic hero carved in Byron’s mould.

But first, before, before Polidori’s The Vampyre and Caroline Lamb’s Glenarvon, there was Byron’s own Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in which Byron created an antihero described by Macaulay as ‘a man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection.’ It is that final part of the description – that sense that a man so flawed can love more deeply and more intensely than a less flawed, more reliable man can – that makes the Byronic hero so delectable. This is the inexplicable appeal of the bad boy, a bizarre and worrying tendency that people, often women, have to romanticize cruelty.  

In many dark and frightening ways, it sows the seeds of abuse and domestic violence – the psychology behind, ‘Yes, he hurts me, but he doesn’t mean to, it’s his way of loving me.’ The Byronic hero – and the romanticization of the prototype – perpetuates dangerous standards of abuse, frequently mistaking violence for romance, spreading the mythology that women wish to be hurt, normalizing the very idea of male power and female subordination. The exploitation of female vulnerability is celebrated through Byronic heroes, rather than seen as morally abhorrent or reprehensible. It translates, even more terrifyingly, into physical exploitation (back to Christian Grey), gathering all of its fiery, intense momentum into a sexual axis of pain seen as pleasure, of captivity seen as romance. This just cannot be good news for anyone.

Byronic heroes are devilishly handsome and alarmingly seductive, they tease, they woo, they charm. Ultimately, though, they are the sweetest of poisons: delectable but dangerous, tantalizing but terrifying.

22 October 2014

Don't Marry Rochester

My next column for The Sunday Guardian.

He’s violent, demanding, moody and cynical. He blows hot, blows cold with Jane: he’s kind to her, then he ignores her; he flirts with her, then he tells her he is engaged to Blanche Ingram. He’s often frightening; his attraction to Jane is clear through their early exchanges and there is an air of the sinister in the way he perpetually toys with her. He teases her enough to make her cry and exults in making her jealous and miserable. And lest we forget, his biggest skeleton in the closet is a wife in the attic.

The power dynamic between Jane Eyre and Edward Fairfax Rochester feels like a constant struggle. Jane, who is far more intensely concerned with economic independence than anything else, than even love, refuses to be submissive to what is clearly Rochester’s dominant nature. If this sounds like a Fifty Shades of Grey analogy, it certainly isn’t meant to be – although E.L. James based Anastasia and Christian on Bella and Edward from Twilight, who Stephanie Meyers based on Jane and Rochester themselves, so it’s all just one big loop, really. But what is clear – whether in Edward Rochester, Edward Cullen or Christian Grey – is the tendency to rule, to lord over the women they have chosen to love, as though obeisance were a form of reciprocity of that love.

‘I am my own mistress,’ says Jane, a sentiment she echoes frequently and which can be interpreted in two ways: she neither wishes to be Rochester’s mistress, a kept woman, nor does she wish to be ruled by anyone else, a master or anyone perceived to be her superior. She is reluctant to be equated in any way to Rochester’s past mistresses – Clara, Giacinta and Celine – all three of whom were discarded swiftly by Rochester. Even when Rochester repents the time he spent with the three women, it is a self-serving, disdainful sort of repentance: ‘It was a grovelling fashion of existence: I should never like to return to it. Hiring a mistress is the next worse thing to buying a slave: both are often by nature, and always by position, inferior: and to live familiarly with inferiors is degrading. I now hate the recollection of the time I passed with Celine, Giacinta, and Clara.’

Jane’s salaried position as governess to Adele Varens – the daughter of one of Rochester’s discarded mistresses and perhaps of Rochester himself – is of utmost importance to Jane, so much so that she is determined to continue to be in Rochester’s employ even after marrying him. This is the same Jane who, after the marriage has been pre-empted and the ‘madwoman’ has been discovered, refuses to live on in Thornfield as Rochester’s lover because she has no intention of being his mistress, of being enmeshed in an economic transaction in which her contribution is to be sexual (as mistress) and not academic (as governess). She asks herself: ‘is it better, I ask, to be a slave in a fool's paradise [...] or to be a village-schoolmistress, free and honest?’ Her usage of the word ‘mistress’ cannot be a coincidence: she sees herself not as a mistress, as in a kept woman, but as a mistress, as in a female head. With Rochester, the latter seems impossible while the former seems imminent.

Jane’s autonomy speaks volumes of her fortitude and self-reliance; Rochester’s duplicity offends her sensibilities and makes her realise that, beyond the basic legal problem of her being unable to marry Rochester, he is not a man to be trusted. Jane, being devastated by the revelation, does not even go into the wider picture, which we, as readers, are able to see: we see that Bertha Mason is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. She is gas-lighted into thinking she is mad and she is locked up in an attic, and that, in fact, is what does drive her mad. We see that Rochester despises female autonomy and he imprisons Bertha Mason, who is this fierce, mad, bold, brilliant creature – possibly bought as a slave from the Caribbean, originally – and is likely to do the same to Jane, who too resists ownership at every instance. Bertha is almost a parallel to Jane – that little girl version of Jane that everyone found wild and uncontainable and, therefore, locked up in the red room – and we already know how Rochester responds to women who resist him.

And all the men carved in his likeness – the Edward Cullens, the Christian Greys – are, invariably, just as vicious, just as dark and cold and imperious, just as controlling. And the women in their lives, who could truly be extraordinary, find their personal integrity trampled on, their independence destroyed, their lives just a shadow of the lives of these men. 

28 September 2014

Don't Marry Darcy

My next column for The Sunday Guardian.

For me, the days of romanticising the romance between Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice are long gone. No longer are the overbearing misanthropes and the dark brooders of particular interest to me – in literary or romantic context. Is Darcy a product of his times? Sure. But that doesn't make him any less smug or his demeanour any less supercilious. Nor does that make the prototype any less familiar.

And within the particular context of Jane Austen's book – which, I should say, I find unputdownable, unforgettable and a real joy to read – how can Elizabeth Bennet find any peace with this man whose pride she despises and who has shamed her violently, publicly and without reason? This is the same Elizabeth who has exclaimed fervently to her sister during her bemoaning of Charlotte Lucas's decision to marry Mr Collins: 'There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of merit or sense.'

Charlotte Lucas, though, tells Elizabeth: 'Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. If the dispositions of the parties are ever so well known to each other, or ever so similar beforehand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. They always contrive to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation, and it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.'

What Elizabeth finds distasteful is Charlotte's pragmatism in marriage. Jane Austen herself, after two failed romances, had thought she would receive no further proposals and would, perhaps, have to fend for herself financially; she received, though, a proposal of marriage from a wealthy neighbour, Harris Bigg-Wither, but she promptly turned him down and wrote in a letter: 'Anything is to be preferred and endured rather than marrying without affection.'

Elizabeth Bennet, true to her creator, pooh-poohs Charlotte's decision to marry Collins, but then goes right ahead to marry Darcy. Her disapproval and shock at Charlotte's decision are echoed clearly when Jane hears of Lizzy's engagement. Just as Elizabeth wonders how Charlotte can bear to marry Collins, Jane wonders the same about Lizzy and Darcy. And with good reason. This man – who offends without cause and shows almost no discernment in friendship – is bound to cross, at some point, a line that cannot be redrawn, bound to use words that cannot be forgotten and make decisions that cannot be forgiven.

Darcy's high-mindedness and his knight-in-shining-armour complex make for just the sort of condescension that will take its recipients from gratitude to annoyance quicker than you can saw Fitzwilliam. He routinely rescues the Bennets from scandal and related problems, coming across as perpetually disdainful of all but a chosen few. Lizzy might have been mistaken in her indignation at Darcy on behalf of Wickham, but Darcy's sabotage of the relationship between Jane and Bingley is a very real thing. His arrogance too is a very real thing. Darcy minces no words in his clearly – and regularly – articulated opinion of the Bennets and in his cavalier attitude towards their lack of wealth and station.

His very first proposal to Lizzy, in fact, is tinged with this. As soon as he declares his love, the narrative goes on to say: 'His sense of her inferiority—of its being a degradation—of the family obstacles which had always opposed to inclination, were dwelt on [...] she could easily see that he had no doubt of a favourable answer. He spoke of apprehension and anxiety, but his countenance expressed real security.' He goes on to ask her: 'Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections?—to congratulate myself on the hope of relations, whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath my own?'

Everything that makes Darcy attractive is a product of his privilege – his wealth, his aristocratic bearing, his education, even his good looks. Elizabeth is shocked that Charlotte has 'sacrificed every better feeling to worldly advantage'; but it is only when Elizabeth sees Pemberley for the first time that she herself begins to reconsider her decision to reject Darcy. She marries him – and it seems like a wonderful thing. At the same time, we who know Elizabeth know that she will grow out of Darcy.

So no matter how sprawling Pemberley is – and, indeed, how dashing Colin Firth looks in riding breeches and a damp shirt – don't marry Darcy.

31 August 2014


My next two columns for The Sunday Guardian are a two-part essay on Volpone by Ben Jonson. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.

I spend so much time reading and writing about Shakespeare, as most readers of the Renaissance period do, that I forget to set the context, sometimes. Shakespeare wrote at a time when the English stage was just getting accustomed to commericialisation. He was the earliest writer of mass-market appeal, a writer who was as adored by intellectuals as he was by the masses. And of course, he had rivals, foremost among whom was Ben Jonon, who famously referred to him as an ‘upstart crow’ – which also makes for the title of this column. Jonson, though, later went on to swallow his words and refer to Shakespeare as the ‘Soul of the age! / The applause, delight, and wonder of our stage’.

Jonson too was a writer of critical acclaim, well-loved by the court. He was a clever writer and although he is often remembered as one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, his plays are rarely read or performed – with, perhaps, one exception.

Volpone by Ben Jonson is often considered his masterpiece. The play is set in Venice and is centred around Volpone, an elderly, cunning ‘magnifico’, and his latest exploit. Its stark humour exposes qualities of greed, corruption, artificiality and contradiction as perceived by Jonson in Renaissance society. Volpone means fox in Italian. Jonson based his story around medieval and Aesopian tales in which a fox pretends to be dead in order to catch the carrion birds that come to feed on its carcass. Jonson cleverly uses names that mean vulture, raven and crow in Italian for the victims of Volpone the fox, and the one who manages to undo Volpone is called Mosca, meaning fly in Italian. These names are a part of Jonson’s technique in propagating his clinical, physiological and psychological theories of humour. In the comedy, these names are indicative of the inhuman, and often carnal, nature of the characters in the play. The animal imagery emphasises the theme of parasitism in the play, where one life form feeds off another.

The play is generally cathartic in nature: Jonson makes the audience sympathetic towards Volpone and supportive of his evil machinations. Volpone’s enthusiasm is infectious and, through Volpone, the audience is indirectly immoral. In identifying with Volpone’s wickedness, the audience is also able to distance itself from these negative emotions, if not always from the character. Thereby, the audience can be triumphantly free of immoral desires, which is exactly what Aristotle would have wanted. It is Volpone’s immediate and obvious success that is most inviting: when he exults in his own wickedness and the success of his operations, the audience cannot help but celebrate with him. The audience is meant to thoroughly enjoy the debauchery of the play’s eponymous protagonist, one of our earliest anti-heroes.

It is Jonson, however, who has the last laugh when he springs the ending upon an unsuspecting audience. Through the condemnatory conclusion of the play, Jonson, who has thus far manipulated the audience into sympathising with his anti-hero, suddenly makes the audience aware that it has hitherto sided with malevolence and sin.

With such an ending, the audience must first question itself and its own depravity; more importantly, the audience must now estrange itself from the plot of the play and pass judgement on Volpone with an objective eye, thereby assessing Jonson’s own judgement in the play. There is a sense of uncertainty with which an audience must leave any play of Jonson’s. The ending makes the audience conscious of its own collaboration with vice. At the same time, Jonson advocates a certain submission and orthodoxy. Despite the creation of characters of such obvious immorality and decadence, Jonson is both a didactic storyteller and a medium of spreading awareness. Jonson’s plays are acutely aware of the influence they have on the society that Jonson catered to, always couched with morals and messages. This sense conformity is transferred to the sphere of family relations, as in the case of Celia’s loyalty to her husband and Bonario’s loyalty to his father.

While outwardly a non-problematic play with regard to gender controversy, the inward thematic, character-driven nature of Volpone suggests a conformity and adherence to the intellectual and theological morality of the time. The final scene of the play is an example of this adherence in Volpone. In this scene, Jonson is uncompromisingly severe to Volpone and punishes him for his wickedness through the character of Scrutineo (another example of wordplay in Jonson through names). He now asks the audience for an opinion on the judgement of Volpone, thrusting them into a dubious and uncomfortable situation.

Someone told me, that Volpone did not sound very much like a comedy at all. I imagine this is true of any work of art taken out of its immediate context. No comedy can be as funny to a future audience as it is to its contemporary audience. And in the case of Jonson’s work, this is particularly true. There is a certain imbalance in his work which does not entirely meet the generic expectations of a comedy. Once again, it could be Jonson’s way of asking the audience to forget the type of comedy they have been conditioned to watching and to transgress the boundaries of labels and genres.

The modern tendency to classify it as a drama, not a comedy, springs from the contemporary trend of humanising villains and providing context for their villainy in order to project sympathy and understanding towards every sort of human being. The play has been sentimentalized to the extent of treating Volpone as a noble and tragic figure. But by creating, in the character of Volpone, any sort of candour, sincerity or tragic misunderstanding, we rob Jonson of one of his greatest desperados.

Jonson also greatly favoured the ancient Greek theory of humours. The theory, which can be traced to ancient times, is that there are four distinct bodily fluids: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. An imbalance of these fluids, or humours, causes a personality disturbance. Although never validated as a psychoanalytical theory, it was frequently referred to in literature and widely championed by Jonson, especially in plays such as Every Man in his Humour and Every Man out of his Humour. Jonson explains in one of his introductions that each humour has its own function: blood makes one excessively optimistic; phlegm makes one excessively cowardly; yellow bile makes one excessively violent; and black bile makes one excessively sad. Jonson’s characters, then, were defined by the proportions of their bodily humours.

While Volpone could fall under the category of dark or black comedy, there is still an aspect particularly disturbing about Jonson’s sardonic approach to the genre, his depiction of wantonness and his ruthless verdict. Even if we could confidently categorise most part the play as a comedy, there is still the debatable conclusion of the play. On the one hand, the ending could provide satisfaction that good has won and that evil has been punished; on the other hand, it could leave a certain distasteful atmosphere, to know that the protagonist has been dealt with most brutally.

Although Volpone’s undoing satisfies the Elizabethan taste for seeing the cheater cheated, the harsh sentences meted out by the court darken the comic tone. Volpone’s appeal in the epilogue for the audience to distinguish between the legal punishment he deserves as a character and the delight he has given them as an actor does not fully right the balance, but the play’s rich ironies have kept it on stage continually for four centuries. That the play has been received well through the ages is apparent enough. We can never be fully certain of how exactly the play was received during the Elizabethan age, although we know that it had several successful runs. We can only guess, from this fact, that audiences were enthralled by the novelty of the play, its unashamed crudeness and its unusual humour.

While the question must have been asked even then as to whether the play was a comedy or a tragedy, something in Jonson’s acerbic wit must have made its comic undertone apparent. The milieu then was different, and different jokes were well-received and understood. For example, the Elizabethan audience must have known what we as a modern audience are not always aware of: that the play is a stylistic parody of the doggerel verse used by the early Tudor playwrights whom Jonson loved to mock. Throughout the play, in fact, Jonson mocks all earlier forms of theatre; the Elizabethan audience must have also thoroughly relished the rivalry that existed between the various playwrights of the court, each trying to outdo the other and be the luminary of the new Renaissance that had taken England over.

Certainly a comedy, Volpone is also simultaneously a fable, a morality tale and a satire. Jonson’s plays challenged the audience to examine the impact of a society governed by deceit and subterfuge. His strength lay in his ability to confront his audience. In his ability to recreate theatrically the contemporary world and identify both general and specific aspects of the human experience, he was opening new ground that would be further explored in the ensuing centuries.