Monday, November 23, 2009

Lady Audley's Secret

Don't ever let anyone tell you that Victorian novels aren't pretty hilarious.

Every object in the quiet sitting-room had an elderly aspect of simple comfort
and precision, which is the evidence of outward repose.
"I should like to live here," Robert thought, "and watch the gray sea slowly rolling over the gray sand under the still, gray sky. I should like to live here, and tell the beads upon my rosary, and repent and rest."
He seated himself in the arm-chair opposite Mrs. Barkamb, at that lady's invitation, and placed his hat upon the ground. The elderly terrier descended from his mistress' lap to bark at and otherwise take objection to this hat.

I've been reading "Lady Audley's Secret", a sensation novel from 1860, at Project Gutenberg, to pass away those lunch hours I haven't been spending on my own writing.

I must-must-must get an actual hard copy of this one. Even aside from the terrier, this is a keeper - the author is a woman, and some of the social and personal observations of the time and of the writer are almost indispensably interesting. Take this item:

There must be a battle, a brave, boisterous battle, with pennants waving and
cannon roaring, before there can be peaceful treaties and enthusiastic shaking
of hands. Perhaps the union between France and England owes its greatest force
to the recollection of Cressy and Waterloo, Navarino and Trafalgar. We have
hated each other and licked each other and had it out, as the common phrase
goes; and we can afford now to fall into each others' arms and vow eternal
friendship and everlasting brotherhood. Let us hope that when Northern Yankeedom
has decimated and been decimated, blustering Jonathan may fling himself upon his
Southern brother's breast, forgiving and forgiven.

For someone reared in the Capital of the Confederacy, that alone is quite the corker.

The "sensation" of the novel's genre is almost beside the point. Its secrets are laid bare within the first chapters; anyone who's ever read a book in life (or ever seen any one of the squillion "Law and Order" series) can see who-done-what, and even why. What is wonderful about this book is its precision of language - even with the inevitable tangents and philosophies of Victorian literature, the expression of these ideas (and they *are* fascinating ideas, considered on their own - and in the context of the author's gender) is clean, engaging, and immediate. It has, as my dearest writing friend TEO once said of me, very kindly, a "there-ness" which makes the progress from clew to clew a great deal of fun.

Plus: awesome, oudmoded spellings, like "clew" for "clue" - and that indispensible Victorian trope; subtextual (but barely, in this case!) homosexuality.

What could be more enter-taining?

The there-ness in this case involves the diffident main character, a well-to-do layabout who slowly turns himself into Matlock in the best possible sense. He's a gas, and his own mental monologues are frequently pretty funny - but he's also one of the best DEVELOPED characters I have read in some time. He actually develops. He grows, he gets somewhere.

Read this book. If you're not experienced in nineteenth-century novels, it's a really nice place to start, and not so well-traveled you'll have to endure much cultural baggage - funny as this work is, it's not a towering piece of pop-culture history. If you DO have some background, but haven't been impressed with the written legacy of Victoriana (or if you've been abused by Louisa May Alcott's "darker" sensational pieces), this might be a lighter hand than some of the heavier ones to be endured, out there.

Also - seriously. The terrier. Awesome.

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