To know what you prefer, instead of humbly saying Amen to what the world tells you you ought to prefer, is to have kept your soul alive — Robert Louis Stevenson.
Claire Randall (Catrionia Balfe) arriving at Inverness (Outlander 2015, 1st episode, opening)
Rhyme of a Journey from London to Edinburgh (1914)
Farewell to one city
a dawning of light
and hail to another
at fall of the night
On in the North steams
triumphant the train
a rhythmic refrain
Meadows fly past and
a luminous sheet
of wind-rippled water,
a grimy back street.
Stark rows of houses
break up the pale sky,
a jangle of coal-trucks,
a station passed by.
Cast the old thoughts that
troubled your mind
to drown in that river
left gleaming behind,
new ones come stirring
with live young wings
from rhythmical power
and swift-running things.
There’s a cathedral
in mist: as a dream
it has vanished, and slowly
we slacken and steam
into that station
whose girders of might
curve upwards, transfigured
in columns of light.
No stopping! No staying!
mad demons of speed
have boarded the engine
are hissing their greed.
Sudden lurch forward
and once more away
and see, we are racing
the dying of day!
A bridge we are crossing
with thunderous swerve;
left and right flashes
a river’s gold curve;
rise tier upon tier
held steeped in the sunset
what city is here?
To twilight, to darkness
and night has begun
The miles of our journey
ae nearly outrun
Waken, wan travellers,
Look! very high
there stands the great castle
along the dark sky …
— Dorothy Seward Walton (When Evening Comes in the City, 1934)
Dear friends and readers,
A couple of nights ago I went to an enjoyable, informative and perceptive (what more could you want?) lecture at the Smithsonian museum on Robert Louis Stevenson’s life and writing by Stephen Arata, the professor editing the complete works of RLS (39 volumes and still going): towards the end telling us of Stevenson in the South Sea Islands and how gradually he began to write deeply sympathetically to the native cultures, in effect from a post-colonial critical standpoint, Prof Arata said Stevenson wrote that the Scots people were peculiarly well-situated to write from a global perspective. That might seem contradictory, given their half an island is mostly rock, not arable for farming, their intellectual “world” city small (half of it very old), but if you think about their relationship to England as a nearby colony, the massacre at Culloden and the enforced diaspora, and how they set forth to become colonialists themselves as well as subaltern people, it makes sense. More to the point: they write this way.
John Singer Sergeant (1856-1925), Robert Louis Stevenson (1887)
There is no coming back … on the impetuous stream of life. And we must all set our pocket-watches by the clock of fate. There is a headlong, forthright tide, that bears away man with his fancies like a straw, and runs fast in time and space — Robert Louis Stevenson.
Last summer I was working on a paper on Trollope from a post-colonialist standpoint; that meant reading about and works written in, and films from Australia as context; for Charlotte Smith this summer I am on the same wave length of a perspective, but the focus texts are two of her novels partly in Scotland, Ethelinde; or the Recluse of the Lake (early novel, global in reach) and The Young Philosopher (last long fiction, ends in America), and whose affinities with Scottish women poets and novelists I wrote about this past fall, I’ve turned to Scotland. This a perfect excuse for immersion (wallowing is the more apt term) in the first season of Outlander (I’m one of those cut off from the present second season until it comes out on DVD), whose motifs and characters are uncannily like those of the second volume of Smith’s Young Philosopher (Englishwoman elopes to Highlands with Scottish laird, abducted, threatened with rape, saved in the nick of time &c&c), but that’s late at night.
Daylight hours, I’ve read Margaret Oliphant’s the Ladies Lindores and her Autobiography, Scottish women’s poetry, and Margaret Atwood’s poetical sequence, the Journals of Susannah Moodie, Elizabeth Bohls’s Romantic Literature and Post-colonial studies (no less than two chapters on Scotland), some wonderful essays on Scottish women novelists in Lyndsay Luncan, Carla Sassi (&c&c&)’s Re-visioning Scotland, on Nan Shepherd, Christian Isobel Johnstone (nearly contemporary with Jane Austen, would you believe, on war and nationalism), all of which I heartily recommend. I moved into male Scottish writers’ texts too: I’ve just finished what might be the first English novel set partly in India, Scott’s The Surgeon’s Daughter (one of 3 novellas called Canongate Chronicles), and am now thinking of adding to my love of Stevenson’s essays, short stories, and travel books (Travels on a Donkey, The Amateur Emigrant), some of his South Sea Islands writing. I am most interested in the intersection of feminist insights with a post-colonial perspective on structuring of the characters’ experience otherwise. I’ll write about Stevenson and Atwood in a separate blogs dedicated to them alone.
From Atwood’s Journals of Susannah Moodie (an book which is itself literally a work of art)
is falling but at least it’s
free. I don’t even know
whether I jumped or was pushed,
but it hardly matters now
I’m up here. No wings
or net but for an instant
anyway there’s a great
view: the sea,
a line of surf, brown cliffs
tufted with scrub, your upturned
face a white zero.
I wish I knew
whether you’ll catch or watch.
— From Atwood, “Small Poems for the Winter Solstice,” True Stories (1981)
Tonight I thought I’d confine myself to sharing a little bit of Oliphant, Scott, a third poem (from An Anthology of Scottish Women Poets, ed Catherine Kerrigan) and a few remarks from the essays I’ve read, not to omit suggestive stills and words from Outlander.
Edward Lear, Civita Castellan (1844) — in her extraordinarily genuine account of her life as a writer, supporting her own and brother’s children, with her three boys and beloved Margaret (at age 9) dying before her, she tells of her travels to Italy and around Europe, a classical cosmopolitan landscape emerges
I loved Oliphant’s The Ladies Lindores and am anxious to read the sequel, The (later) life of Lady Carr. It’s a mix of a sensible and saturnine meditative insightful text (recalling Trollope repeatedly) within a deeply Scottish world from a quietly feminist standpoint. The story-line is complicated, with (like Scott’s) several divagating turns, a back-story set of characters who emerge to become the central figures, and then cannot forget back stories we never see dramatized. We begin with a great Scottish house, Dalrulzian whom John Erskine, a young Scotsman who has been brought up to be English, has come to live. For years Robert Lindores, a younger son living on a limited income in a cheap French spa, suddenly inherits a title and another grand house in the neighborhood, and proceeds to try to make his two daughters and son’s lives the means for him now to become well-connected, in power. The most memorable story dramatizes how he bullies his sensitive daughter Lady Caroline Lindores into marrying Pat Torrance, a man who ferociously bullies, mocks, and terrifies her. His wife’s values remain humane, decent, and she is appalled by the changes in him, but years of passivity, her real dependence, and not having values to oppose his with, has not the strength of character to oppose him. The third Lindores lady is the wry, sceptical Lady Edith, who escapes his Net, just and marries Erksine. A son, Lord Rintoul, by accident causes Pat Torrance to topple over a cliff, and Rolls, Erskine’s servant ends up confessing, thinking he is protecting his master, Erskine. Lady Car is enabled to marry Beaufort, the man she met at the spa, and has dreamed of ever since, seemingly congenial, sensitive, but like Erskine, Rintoul, he turns out to be less than admirable, and Lady Car’s marriage filled quieter tense dissatisfactions. An English young woman, living in Scotland, Nora, with a wise spinster Aunt Barbara, accepts Rintoul knowing what he has done. There is a disabled character (in effect), Millefleurs, an awkward wealthy cousin the father wanted Edith to marry grotesquely short; the irony of the novel is he is the best husband material of them all. The Scottish servants are the loyal and constant characters, keep the whole order steady, and together with the bourgeois characters (lawyers, doctors) and rescue the upper class ones from calamity.
Horatio McCullough, 19th century Scottish landscape painter
Margaret Rubrik has written deeply engagingly about Olipant’s sceptical and unromantic attitudes, especially toward marriage, and about the Caroline story in The Ladies Lindores:
“Only wishful thinkers refuse to accept the unpleasant insight that even the beloved is a simple person with warts. Wherever idealists are not willing to cut their dreams down to size and accommodate themselves to all too human flaws, marriages end tragically, as in the case of Lady Car, whose career Oliphant pursues through two novels -— The Ladies Lindores and Lady Car -— and two unhappy marriages.
Unlike the docile things whom time teaches to cherish the “proper” feelings for their husbands, Lady Car continues to view her brutal first husband with unabated repugnance. Her feelings of nausea and sexual violation, as she had to comply with her repulsive husband’s desires at his bidding, are illustrated by her overt jubilation at his death and symbolised in the image of his trespassing into her room.
“To think I shall never be subject to all that any more—that he can never come in here again— that I am free—that I can be alone. Oh mother, how can you tell what it is? Never to be alone: never to have a corner in the world where— some one else has not a right to come, a better right than yourself. I don’t know how I have borne it. I don’t know how I can have lived, disgusted, loathing myself.” (The Ladies Lindores, II,14, 232f.)
In her second marriage to her childhood sweetheart Car does not find the hoped-for happiness either. She secretly blames Beaufort for letting her marry someone else first; for allowing her to be forced to perform sexual acts with a man she hated and for allowing her children to be fathered by a brute. All of these humiliations are so completely beyond a man’s scope of perception that he cannot understand them.
“Why expose me to all the degradations which nobody could impose on you?” (Lady Car, 7,123)
Beaufort cannot grasp the horror she feels at any association with her prior life, and thoughtlessly relishes his deceased rival’s luxury.
However, it is bitterest for Car to share the insight typical of Oliphant’s heroines that Beaufort is not the epitome of the crusader and social reformer she first fell in love with. She, who, like Dorothea Brooke, wanted to act as a muse for her husband’s magnum opus, attempts desperately, but in vain, to reawaken his enthusiasm for the visions he has lost all interest in.
Don Quixote disenchanted, ready to burn all his chevalier books, and see the fun of his misadventures, but urged to take the field by some delicate Dulcinea, could not have been more embarrassed and disturbed. (Lady Car, 4,74)
Car is one of those dreamers who seek perfection and do not content themselves with less than the absolute. In her analysis of the novel, Showalter reproaches Oliphant for identifying with Car’s disappointment at her indolent husband and her dull children, and for wanting to solicit pity for a passive, indeed even parasitic form of life.
Mrs. Oliphant never fully faces the dangers of a social myth that places the whole weight of feminine fulfilment on husband and children … [and] The tone of the book is certainly pathetic at times. However, it would be erroneous to believe that Oliphant sees her heroine uncritically or fails to recognise the fallacy of the domestic myth. On the contrary, she realises the problematic nature of Car’s immature idealism, and in many other novels she draws women who are not dependent on marriage and the family for their self-esteem. Car, on the other hand, must fail in her attempt to achieve the Victorian ideal that expects a woman to find complete fulfilment in marriage and her children.
The question as to how a relationship can work without admiration or even respect for one’s partner is posed time and again in Oliphant’ s novels because of her unconventional view of gender roles.
It must be admitted this is not a novel where a post-colonial perspective is of much help; it is rather deeply rooted Scottish landscape from which its visual poetry comes. In the novel I am especially drawn to her disillusioned axioms about life: such a we all live alone no matter how surrounded by others. Quiet convincing. Her tone so immediate and strong, with a real voice coming through.
Persephone books cover
Walter Scott (of course): The Surgeon’s Daughter has a pattern I see repeated over and over: a woman is swallowed up by the traditional culture: she either elects to marry or become a mistress of the non-western male, or she is threatened with or actually raped, traumatized, never the same again. The result is the same: retirement, retreat from the outward world. Who thought Scott would link to Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust and Ahdaf Soueif’s Map of Love. But so it is, with Smith’s two texts (Ethelinde, Young Philosopher), a first or early formulation. In the case of the poets, the women poets become sympathetic ethnographers and mythologers. In Scott’s novella, What I enjoyed best are the two ironic prefaces: these stumbling made up older male characters Scott writes as — it’s funny and melancholy about publishing and writing issues. Also a brief retelling in swift effective tones of the story as found in some newspaper or chronicle. Rob Rob has a similarly chilling retelling of a bloody set of murders — these are by Scott himself people forget. I also liked the opening where we meet the Scots country doctor, his son, who also becomes a doctor, the villain-protagonists, and our prosaic heroine. Our moral compass is found here, in the home-y early rural scenes. Maybe one way of accounting for the richness of Scott, how much can be taken from him is that his “filler” counts so enormously too and is so varied.
John Frederick Lewis (1804-76), The Reception (1873) — Scott’s vision is orientalist
The interesting thing about the text is that the threat of being a sex slave hovering over our heroine begins at the outset as in the older editions of the 19th century, the chronicle tale where the kernel story is told in less than 2 pages was put first. I have an old Everyman of rob Rob where a bloody chronicle tale is put first. It is important to remember that Scott wrote these too, supposedly paraphrasing with great concision. Yet we get back to that so circuitously. Another one is Kenilworth: I have an old Everyman where the poem Scott cites as his inspiration is put first. Then suddenly at the end of the novel we have this gorgeous barbaric scene. The inference to be drawn (as is common in Scott’s novels) is how irrational and ruthless are men, how prone to horrific violence, which they constrain by their ceremonies. After all as with Ivanhoe and other of Scott’s novels, the surgeon’s daughter though at the end the crux of the issue (will she become a sex slave of a son of a powerful Indian prince), is a minor character in the book. She is rarely on stage, and when she is we do not get much individual insight into her: she remains archetypal.
I know that those film adaptations of Scott I’ve seen often zero as quickly as they can on just those immediate active evens which lead to one of his denouements, stripping away introductions, prefaces, and especially those (often long) parts of the story which dramatize prosaic “ordinary” scenes which are nonetheless essential to understand what is going on, what to infer and what is the inference. From a post-colonial standpoint Scott shows us how as a group the Europeans are viciously exploitative so that individuals can come away super-rich, but also that the native people in power are just as bad to their people. We have the usual very few virtuous characters, many ambivalent ones and a presentation of what power does. We also how people’s characters can change as they cross borders of different cultural groups.
I don’t want to be overlong so end on a few thoughts gleaned from Bohls and Sassia, and a poem by Margaret Gillies Brown, “Emigrant Journey.”
Women dancing around the stones (paratexts of Outlander 2015-16)
How can we present and read landscape so that it is not equated with nature and thus women’s bodies? Women dominate the landscape, and women’s medical magic is drawn from botany and particulars of Scottish landscape, but they are punished for this as witches, so their rituals at the stones, their dance may be turned against them. Their individual identities dissolve away as stories of women from the 19th century and before are read by 20th and 21st century female relatives, or just readers; they cross borders and belong nowhere (connected only by connection to a man within a family structure). Thus (like Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust, Soueif’s Map of Love) Atwood’s Alias Grace blends the several women, not from different times, but classes and places: Susannah Moodie who wrote of Grace accused of murder: aliases.
There was the comfort and the all mod-con of home
With its recognisable dangers;
There was the journey,
1he endless coming on of the same wave,
The no-land time of ocean and high hopes
Until the icebergs rose
Like crystal palaces …
There was the moving days
And weary nights of train-hours overland,
The trees, the lakes, the straight and rolling plains
Until time stopped in sheer fantasy
Of a pre-dawn winter morning –
Gloved hand swinging the iron-hard handle
Of a frozen water pump
At the edge of a bark-rough cabin;
Above, the sky, moving strange magnificence,
Voile curtains of colour
Changing, shifting imperceptibly;
Below, the star sparkled snow –
A virgin’s looking glass
Where spruce trees shot the only shadows
That made no movement –
Silence, immensity of silence,
Oil fires were burning brands
Reaching for chiffon robes
Of an aurora of dancers
Repeating dream sequences …
I tried to wake from unreality,
Felt my spine freeze,
heard coyotes howling down the night.
—Margaret Gillies-Brown (poetry published 1970s-80s)
Jamie (Sam Heughan) and Clare (Caitronia Balfe) crossing the highlands to Lallybroch (Outlander)