Thursday, January 22, 2015

Antique Style

His sister Rebecca—tall, erect, with grand lace, in a splendid stiff brocade, and with a fine fan—was certainly five-and-fifty, but still wonderfully fresh, and sometimes had quite a pretty little pink colour—perfectly genuine—in her cheeks; command sat in her eye and energy on her lip—but though it was imperious and restless, there was something provokingly likeable and even pleasant in her face.

How OSUM are the phrases “command sat in her eye and energy on her lip” and “provokingly likeable” … ? This description is as appealing and meaningful 152 years on as it was the moment he wrote it; that is the immediacy, the “there-ness” of wonderful writing, and it ignites neurons no matter how old.

This is why I love nineteenth and even late-eighteenth century novels. Far from prim musings on tea and crumpets, or the pinings of silent, tragic heroines, its finer observations of character and place have gathered no dust (I can never forget the DOG in Lady Audley’s Secret – so funny I still laugh, and I can’t even remember the words). I don’t “love it for itself” or “love it for what it is”, but entirely because so much of the preserved literature (not necessarily “the classics”) is such good writing.

There is a precision of language that gets lost in the presumptions we thrust upon a wide swath of century-old works, and a terrifying, trembling depth of feeling. “Sensation” novels especially, perhaps now the artifacts of our tut-tutting supposed evolution, can be wonderfully harrowing; the tension is incredible not only in Edgar Allen Poe (whom I do love, and who was reared in the same swamp and clay as I), but in Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Sheridan Le Fanu, Matthew Gregory Lewis, and Louisa May Alcott herself, mother of some hair-raising tales.

Metaphors of the repressed retro-image of the 19th century in particular, crinoline and drapery were not the smothering death of human feeling, as some people presume (and then decide to don corsets themselves and tell their own versions of retconned history, since they feel nobody did it right the first time). Perhaps, instead, those forces “repressing” our recent forbears presented a dramatic choke point we have lost.

I don’t mourn for the loss of centuries past, and am hardly the dreamer wishing I could fly back in time, but I *do* defend the humanity of those who came before us, and refuse to accept that the past itself represents any compromise of our ingenuity and talent. Creativity is stimulated by the restrictions we have faced and still do; certainly I won’t say that with twenty-first century license we are freed from all psychological constraint, and my stance that The Dirty, Stupid Past is indeed not more wretched nor intellectually dim than we are today does not equal bemoaning “what we have come to” nor any of the “why in my day” traps so many at my age begin to indulge.

Let us not forget: you and I live in tomorrow’s pathetic and ignorant history, slogging through with too much technology – or not enough – perpetuating, as humans ALWAYS have, our own worst miseries, and no more knowing what comes next than any of the billions we sneer upon for not having known before we came along. You and I are denizens of the past, and don’t know it. We can’t live like that.

Neither could anyone before. They were all the latest-and-greatest, and their talents are not lessened because they failed to know you and I would be inspecting their fruits once their bones were become dust.


A mind cultivated with no eye on history, on the arts and words and works of our past, is an intellect missing out. Not merely on instruction, but incredible entertainment.

And knowing past literature looks good at a party. So consider just a few recommendations …

  • Lady Audley’s Secret … Mary Elizabeth Brandon
    A seminal detective story in the guise of a sensation novel, here is a funny and gripping set of twists modern readers will know from the start, but which still holds you to your seat – and even introduces a sort of proto-Columbo, in a character who actually grows a bit over the course of the novel.
  • The Monk – A Romance … Matthew Gregory Lewis
    This utterly deranged romp through the exact same perversions and criminal insanity that still obsess us today. Written for the same rebellious reasons any young adult produces shocking statements, Lewis spent pretty much the rest of his life disavowing the work (published 1796), but it’s actually a fascinating read – and not the worst story I ever read, to boot. Grand Guignol storytelling!
  • Carmilla … Sheridan Le Fanu
    This novel is THE goth kids’ must-read, the earliest lesbian vampire novel (and YES, Virginia, that is totally A Thing) and a precursor to Bram Stoker. For darkling cred, knowing Le Fanu widely, and this novel particularly, should be de rigeur****. I was lucky and read this for the first time during a power outage, with a flashlight; it’s easy reading, and fun in the dark.

I don’t mean to reduce recommendations to sensation or horror novels – just happened that I was sipping on some Le Fanu when this came up (see above!). I would *love* to see other people’s personal recommendations in the comments (as if my TBR pile is not extreme enough, here I’m inviting more … !).

1 comment:

donnaeverhart.com said...

If I were to give a recommendation, I'd choose Mary Chestnut's Civil War. It received the Pulitzer Prize in History back in '83 I think. What I love about it is, not only the intimate look of the war from a direct perspective, but the language of the day. How they formulated sentences, their word choices, etc. (I shall, vs I will for example.) And from what I remember, there were no contractions, or very little use of them.