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Monday, May 28, 2012

The Old Wives Tale and Wesleyan Methodism

In The Old Wives' Tale, Arnold Bennett portrays the divergent yet parallel lives of two English sisters.  One sister Constance remains in a provincial English town her entire life while Sophia elopes to Paris with the feckless though dashing Gerald Scales.  A pessimistic interpretation of the novel would be to say we live, grow old, and die.  And while there is quite a bit of pessimism in the book, a wider perspective would state that the aim of the novel is to show the influence of one's upbringing and surroundings on a person's path in life.  The two heroines are raised in a small provincial town in 19th century England, the progeny of parents of strict adherence to the principles of Wesleyan Methodism.  Bennett, himself raised according to these same principles, uses a sardonic tone to describe the Baines family in church:

In the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel on Duck Bank there was a full and influential congregation. For in those days influential people were not merely content to live in the town where their fathers had lived, without dreaming of country residences and smokeless air—they were content also to believe what their fathers had believed about the beginning and the end of all. There was no such thing as the unknowable in those days. The eternal mysteries were as simple as an addition sum; a child could tell you with absolute certainty where you would be and what you would be doing a million years hence, and exactly what God thought of you. Accordingly, every one being of the same mind, every one met on certain occasions in certain places in order to express the universal mind. And in the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, for example, instead of a sparse handful of persons disturbingly conscious of being in a minority, as now, a magnificent and proud majority had collected, deeply aware of its rightness and its correctness.

And the minister, backed by minor ministers, knelt and covered his face in the superb mahogany rostrum; and behind him, in what was then still called the 'orchestra' (though no musical instruments except the grand organ had sounded in it for decades), the choir knelt and covered their faces; and all around in the richly painted gallery and on the ground-floor, multitudinous rows of people, in easy circumstances of body and soul, knelt in high pews and covered their faces. And there floated before them, in the intense and prolonged silence, the clear vision of Jehovah on a throne, a God of sixty or so with a moustache and a beard, and a non-committal expression which declined to say whether or not he would require more bloodshed; and this God, destitute of pinions, was surrounded by white-winged creatures that wafted themselves to and fro while chanting; and afar off was an obscene monstrosity, with cloven hoofs and a tail very dangerous and rude and interfering, who could exist comfortably in the middle of a coal-fire, and who took a malignant and exhaustless pleasure in coaxing you by false pretences into the same fire; but of course you had too much sense to swallow his wicked absurdities. Once a year, for ten minutes by the clock, you knelt thus, in mass, and by meditation convinced yourself that you had too much sense to swallow his wicked absurdities. And the hour was very solemn, the most solemn of all the hours.

Strange that immortal souls should be found with the temerity to reflect upon mundane affairs in that hour! Yet there were undoubtedly such in the congregation; there were perhaps many to whom the vision, if clear, was spasmodic and fleeting. And among them the inhabitants of the Baines family pew! Who would have supposed that Mr. Povey, a recent convert from Primitive Methodism in King Street to Wesleyan Methodism on Duck Bank, was dwelling upon window-tickets and the injustice of women, instead of upon his relations with Jehovah and the tailed one? Who would have supposed that the gentle-eyed Constance, pattern of daughters, was risking her eternal welfare by smiling at the tailed one, who, concealing his tail, had assumed the image of Mr. Povey? Who would have supposed that Mrs. Baines, instead of resolving that Jehovah and not the tailed one should have ultimate rule over her, was resolving that she and not Mr. Povey should have ultimate rule over her house and shop? It was a pew-ful that belied its highly satisfactory appearance. (And possibly there were other pew-fuls equally deceptive).   (Book 1, Ch. 5)

Bennett gives a Thackerayan description of the "solemn" service, with the battle between God and his evil counterpart for the attention of the congregation.  Nevertheless, the scene provides background for the beliefs of the Baines family and their community, belonging to a rigid religious system convinced of "its rightness and correctness."  There is no room for discussion, what must be cannot be changed or debated.  It is in this spirit that Constance responds to the death of her sister Sophia:

Up to within a few days of her death people had been wont to remark that Mrs. Scales looked as young as ever, and that she was as bright and as energetic as ever. And truly, regarding Sophia from a little distance—that handsome oval, that erect carriage of a slim body, that challenging eye!—no one would have said that she was in her sixtieth year. But look at her now, with her twisted face, her sightless orbs, her worn skin—she did not seem sixty, but seventy! She was like something used, exhausted, and thrown aside! Yes, Constance's heart melted in an anguished pity for that stormy creature. And mingled with the pity was a stern recognition of the handiwork of divine justice. To Constance's lips came the same phrase as had come to the lips of Samuel Povey on a different occasion: God is not mocked! The ideas of her parents and her grandparents had survived intact in Constance. It is true that Constance's father would have shuddered in Heaven could he have seen Constance solitarily playing cards of a night. But in spite of cards, and of a son who never went to chapel, Constance, under the various influences of destiny, had remained essentially what her father had been. Not in her was the force of evolution manifest. There are thousands such (Book 4, Ch. 4).

What a harsh judgment from a sister!  Nevertheless, Constance has remained committed to the beliefs of her parents that all will be judged harshly who have compromised those beliefs.

Sophia had sinned. It was therefore inevitable that she should suffer. An adventure such as she had in wicked and capricious pride undertaken with Gerald Scales, could not conclude otherwise than it had concluded. It could have brought nothing but evil. There was no getting away from these verities, thought Constance (Book 4, Ch. 4).

Constance's unforgiving attitude toward her sister's demise dehumanizes Constance as a barbaric, unfeeling personification of the Wesleyan Methodist system.  Her first thoughts of her sister after her death is not of her soul but of her sin.  She offers no means of redemption, the deed was done and the punishment was absolute.  In this society, every misdeed faces harsh judgment (though admirably, Constance defends her son when he steals money from the till), and any misfortune must be the result of some character flaw.  In the case of Daniel Povey:

The flighty character of his wife was regarded by many as a judgment upon him for the robust Rabelaisianism of his more private conversation, for his frank interest in, his eternal preoccupation with, aspects of life and human activity which, though essential to the divine purpose, are not openly recognized as such—even by Daniel Poveys. It was not a question of his conduct; it was a question of the cast of his mind (Book 2, Ch. 2).

His perverse frame of mind is to blame for his wife's character.  In another instance, the refusal of Madame Foucault to allow her residence to be used as a brothel any further is rewarded, showing the other side of divine justice:

Madame Foucault was deeply impressed. Characteristically she began at once to construct a theory that Sophia had only to walk out of the house in order to discover ideal tenants for the rooms. Also she regarded the advent of the grocer as a reward from Providence for her self-denial in refusing the profits of sinfulness (Book 3, Ch. 6).

A respectable tenant is the reward for her "self-denial."  All wasn't bad in this society, though everything that happened was viewed as a divine judgment, whether favorable or unfavorable.  Nevertheless, subjection to this judgment was a fearful aspect of life.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A Review of Three Men in a Boat

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome is a book that details the week-long journey of the title characters down the River Thames from London to Oxford and back.  Along the way, all four characters (including the dog) experience of adventures hilariously described by Jerome.  Th trip commences when the narrator discovers he has every disease except housemaid's knee and basically exhibits a "general disinclination to work."  He and his two friends, George and Harris, along with the dog Montmorency embark on a boating trip with many humorous occurrences.

One of the funniest stories involves the transport of smelly cheese.  While they are packing and preparing to begin the trip, the narrator tells of his consent to take some cheese to the home of a friend, who plans to return home later.  During the trip, the narrator clears out an entire train car with the "two hundred horse-power scent."  The smell of the cheese, upon arrival at the friend's house, forces the wife to take her children to stay in a hotel, rather than live in the house with the cheese.  When the owner of the cheese attempts to take it to the mortuary, the coroner declares the smell could wake up the dead.  Ultimately, the cheese is buried on a beach that becomes a haven for consumptive people.  Therefore, the narrator decides that one should never take cheese on a trip.

Harris tells the story of his attempt to conquer the Hampton Court Maze.  A cousin had given him a map that solved the maze by taking the first right every time.  When he attempted to use the map he ended up getting himself and a big group of people lost.  With the group infuriated at him, Harris gives up and gets the help of the keeper, who is new on the job and can't help the group either.  Eventually, a more experienced keeper helps everyone escape.

One of my favorite accounts involves a trout in a glass case mounted on the wall of an inn.  An old gentleman tells the men that he caught the fish 16 years previously and that it weighed over 18 pounds.  After he leaves the room, another man enters and claims to have caught the 26-pound fish five years before.  They meet three more men, including the landlord, who claim to have caught the fish of various weights.  George climbs to get a closer look at the famous specimen when he slips and knocks the trout off the wall, causing it to shatter several pieces.  The stuffed trout proves to be a plaster of Paris fish.

The book contains many other amusing stories, including the description of the nearing drowning of the men while trying to pose for a photograph.  The book is also valuable for its historical accounts of sites and cities along the way.  I highly recommend this cavalcade of whimsy to anyone who enjoys a delightfully clean, entertaining tale.


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