Tuesday, August 18, 2015

A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf.

 What a wonderful book, a classic to read again and again for the precision of Virginia Woolf's language, the inimitable way she mixes gentle humor and fiction with a serious social critique, and for the unassuming, patient research and analysis of its subject.

It is a long and delicate essay about Women and Fiction (in England) cast as a fictional autobiographical epistle. Woolf's alter-ego/narrator here drolly sets her essay in the form of what English Composition 1-A used to call the "I-Search" paper. Here, however, the "I" is a pretend-character who is articulate, bemused, insightful and not afraid to say simple truths. She composes a meandering story of how she came to conclude that a woman's need for 500 pounds a year and a room of her own (then) was the most important thing to say about a topic she's been invited to "give a talk on." The topic is Women and Fiction.

 Woolf acknowledges that she's writing fiction, and that it doesn't matter what you call the narrator, call her any of the "Marys" from an English folksong about Mary Hamilton's death: "There was Mary Beton, and Mary Seaton, and Mary Carmichael and me." This allusion accomplishes several things. First, because the Mary Hamilton of the song was executed for gender-related reasons, seduced or used by the queen's husband/consort and consequently a perpetrator of abortion or infanticide, the fictional Woolf identifies with being a powerless woman, punished for what a man did to her. Second, Woolf finds a form for her essay that allows her to present results of research without the crushing apparatus of a work claiming to be "true" scholarship. "Lies will flow from my lips," she says, "it is for you to seek out [the] truth." Third, this "fiction" guise allows her to cite contemporary abuses and scandals, books by contemporary women that drew the wrath of powerful men.

 For instance, she writes about reading a new work of modern women's fiction in which closeness between women could be acknowledged: "Chloe liked Olivia perhaps for the first time in literature. Cleopatra did not like Octavia. And how completely Antony and Cleopatra would have been altered had she done so!"

 How subtly she has introduced the idea that in men's books women do not like each other, and that perhaps in reality they do, or will, more often, and thus perhaps in new fiction by independent thinking women, they will. Writing in 1928, Woolf is less theoretical although no less radical than Simone de Beauvoir would be in The Second Sex (1949). Her ultimate focus is the need of a woman writer for at the very least some private space of her own from which to think, and a minimal independent income. Although far from being an existentialist philosopher, Woolf is certainly not an essentialist claiming that women's writing would bring to literature a needed "womanliness," in any sense, but especially as that was commonly understood: tender or sweet, emotion-based, interested in home and appearance and babies. She thinks women who are free to write without excessive insecurity will write "differently" than what literature has been in the past. Perhaps such women, free to perceive independently of men's ideas about women, will have new perspectives, ones that she herself cannot foresee.

She does not claim that women's literature will be "other" than men's literature on some essential level, but that women free from the image and influence of "the male sentence" can create something unpredictable and new. She envisions a day when occupational gender-limits are abandoned and then things will be so changed that, well, let me quote her:
          The nursemaid will heave coal. The shopwoman will drive an engine.
          All assumptions founded on the facts observed when women were the
          protected sex will have disappeared. . . .Anything may happen when
          womanhood has ceased to be a protected occupation.

But until then, patronizing and prejudicial opinions would and do dominate. Mr. Oscar Browning, for instance, is cited by his biographer as complaining, after reviewing student examination papers from Girton and Newnham, the two Cambridge women's colleges, that "the best woman was intellectually the inferior of the worst man." And Mr. Greg: the "essentials of a woman's being are that they are supported by, and they minister to, men." Woolf asks specifically that the psychologists of Newnham and Girton should try to determine what not just the material difficulties, but also the psychological difficulties of men's attitudes-- "not indifference but hostility"—had on women's ability to write with any confidence or hope.

 The book begins its history of how she came to think as she does with a day when "Mary" has been invited to lunch at "Oxbridge" (Oxford/Cambridge). Before lunch she's contemplating her talk but at one point she is frantically warned off of the grass which a woman is not allowed to walk on, and the interruption makes her lose her train of thought, which especially irks her. Remembering as she passes a famous Oxbridge library that her favorite essayist, Charles Lamb, had seen a manuscript of Milton there, she recalls his reaction to seeing Milton's changes: "it shocked him to think it possible that any word in Lycidas could have been different from what it was." She wonders whether the emendments were for style or sense, but then, she thinks, "one would have to decide what is style and what is meaning, a question which – but here I was actually at the door." And "instantly there issued, like a guardian angel barring the way with a flutter of black gown instead of white wings, a deprecating, silvery, kindly gentleman, who regretted in a low voice as he waved me back that ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction."

 She continues, in the next paragraph: "That a famous library has been cursed by a woman is a matter of complete indifference to a famous library."

 It is a frustrating day, and that evening she compares the meager and rather ascetic supper at "Fernham" (a fictional name combining the two women's colleges at Cambridge, Girton and Newnham) with the sumptuous delights of the Oxbridge kitchen lunch, all of which leads her to wonder why women are and have been so poor, and what effect it has had on their development in literature, and it prompts her to a public library where her question becomes one of how sex (not sexuality, but gender ) affects writing. She finds that many men have written extensively on females, especially their inferiority and their incapacity for education.

 Women writers, she notes, have frequently been confronted with men's scorn. First there was Nick Greene's remark that a woman acting put him in mind of a dog dancing. Dr. Johnson repeat the phrase two hundred years later about a woman preaching. And in 1928, a Mr. Cecil Gray reproduced the famous simile about a woman composer: "Sir, a woman's composing is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all." Woolf convincingly and charmingly surveys the library's entries about "woman.". But she notices they are all by men, and they all treat women as a curious anthropological phenomenon. Woolf ponders this attitude from a number of viewpoints. Instead of instantly starting to fulminate, she patiently watches herself and her thoughts, and a growing proclivity to doodle on her paper at this point, making, in fact, rather uncomplimentary doodles of "the professor," as she calls her personification of all those opinion-writers.

 And she discovers that she is angry. Why, she asks, should all this make her angry? Well, of course, she admits, it's never pleasant being told that you are inferior. But she traces her deep anger to a different source: from encountering a sense of anger, indignation, righteousness, in "the Professor's" writing. But that raises the question of why the estimable Professor should be angry. Here she deftly articulates the psychologically salient proposal that men's overreaction to women being their equals or independent in thought or livelihood or education is related to how hard it must be to feel superior enough to everyone else that it is possible to dictate, direct, lead, manage, conquer and subdue others, which seems to be the male prerogative.

  To maintain their secure superiority is, it seems, the role of woman: dependent, deferring, admiring,
reassuring, comforting, but above all looking up to them. At the slightest hint that their women might cease to fulfill this magnifying mirror duty, the men—the professors and the pontificators—are edgy. And angry. "Mary" gives gentle specific examples. It is interesting that Woolf writes here about the importance of Mirrors in creating and sustaining a sense of superiority; it calls to mind the later Lacanian theories involving mirrors as being the primary wedge which divides a person from authentic whole existence into an observer and a gendered role, teaching us that you Are, only as you Are a Male or a Female, and from that early point in the journey toward maturation one is thus living a divided and inauthentic life.  (I paraphrase and oversimplify Lacanian mirror theory wildly, of course.)

Here she examines the effect on women's writing. First of all, she looks at how much men control not only law, institutions of learning, business, government and the like but the very sources of information and influence. She hypothesizes that a visitor to the planet taking one look at a single edition of a London newspaper could not fail to understand that the society was a patriarchy. In that paper are stories of important men, and a few graphics about unimportant women—like an actress being suspended in mid-air over Hollywood; moreover, the writers of these articles, the editors, the very owners of the papers are also men. Like Simone de Beauvoir in the fifties, she notes that one effect is that women are convinced either that they may be inferior to male writers or that at least the male appraisers who bestow such important opinions on writing will think so. Consequently they sometimes try too hard to disguise their gender by writing overmuch like they think men write. She notes that George Eliot to some extent fell prey to this temptation of the male sentence, committing "atrocities with it that beggar description." Unfortunately, she does not give us an example.

 Or, of course, women "dare not" write at all, or at least not publish. Again and again in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, women asseverated that "no woman has any business to meddle with that or any other serious business." And yet she calls attention to the poetry of Lady Winchilsea, born about 1661, lamenting indignantly the position of women. Traces of writing by Margaret of Newcastle, or Margaret Cavendish, also noble and discontent, and in rage: "Women live like Bats or Owls, labour like Beasts, and die like Worms." Dorothy Osborne, then, a contemporary who wrote expressive and sensitive letters, regretting the Duchess's writing: "Sure the poore woman is a little distracted, shee could never bee soe ridiculous else as to venture at writeing book's and in verse too, if I should not sleep this fortnight I should not come to that." And yet, Woolf points out, "what a gift that untaught and solitary girl had for the framing of a sentence, for the fashioning of a scene. . . .One could have sworn that she had the makings of a writer in her."

 And then Virginia Woolf turns to "a very important corner on the road": Mrs. Aphra Behn, "a woman forced by the death of her husband and some unfortunate adventures of her own to make her living by her wits. . . . She made, by working very hard, enough to live on. The importance of that fact outweighs anything that she actually wrote. . . for here begins the freedom of the mind." Woolf suggests that this historical moment might be a fit subject for a student at Girton or Newnham, perhaps, especially how shocking Mrs. Behn's life seems to have been, bring into question "the value that men set upon women's chastity and its effect upon their education." Thus, towards the end of the eighteenth century a change came about which, if I were rewriting history, I should describe more fully and think of greater importance than the Crusades or the Wars of the Roses. The middle-class woman began to write.

 [Actually, I place Aphra Behn at the end of the seventeenth century, during the period generally called the Restoration, when women, including Mrs. Behn, also began to act on the English stage for the first time. Women had long appeared in French theatre, and it will be remembered that the English monarchy took refuge in France during the period of the Puritan-dominated Commonwealth. When James II returned in triumph to the English throne he brought with him a thoroughly Francophone culture. ed.])

 In The Rise of the Novel (1955) Ian Watt observes that the very inception of the English novel coincides with this amazing development in England: women of the middle class were beginning to have more leisure time generally and they provided England with its most voracious class of readers and coincidentally women of the middle class were also beginning to turn to writing. Not just the intrepid Fanny Burney, but hundreds of women wrote novels in the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries. In fact, perhaps the majority of novels written in the 1700s were written by women.

 In Woolf's perceptive examination of Jane Austen, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, and George Eliot, the four main British women writers of the nineteenth century, she selects a passage from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. The passage describes Jane Eyre's suppressed feelings of being caged, limited, denied scope, as she stands on the roof looking longingly out over the horizon of countryside. Or perhaps, Woolf notes, these are not the feelings of Jane Eyre imagined, but the feelings of Charlotte Bronte recorded. For the passage sticks out uncomfortably from the surrounding fiction. Its bitter complaining tone ends abruptly, too abruptly, with Jane noticing the "laughter of Grace Poole." (The original Madwoman In the Attic; see Gilbert and Gubar.) Woolf's conclusion is that Charlotte Bronte's work was marred by the discontent she herself felt which intruded into and marred the writing. Jane Austen, she says, and even Emily Bronte perhaps were able to find a placid acceptance of their circumstances, but such complacency is rare.

Woolf, or rather, "Mary" retails how bitter and insecure and harassed she herself had been before an
aunt left her a bequest that freed her from the exhaustion and the worry of finding work to support herself. Even worse was the grief at how her time and energy thus were diverted from exercise of the gift that she felt within herself. She quotes Milton's plaint about the wasting of "that gift which it is death to hide." After the bequest, "Mary" makes the discovery that with a bare survival subsidy she begins to recover the dignity which allows her to think for herself, without fear or bitterness or anger, and which may in time let her write freely.

The great beauty of Woolf's book is its research into the actual circumstances surrounding women, especially in English history, tracing the tragic obstruction of women's ability to know, to study, to find out anything about their "mothers" in history, and/or to communicate freely. ." She comments on the ironic dysjunction between the heroic and empassioned characters of women in drama and women's actual lives---noting that for instance in the seventeenth century, in reality, as a "Professor Trevelyan points out, she [woman] was locked up, beaten, and thrown about the room."

It is here that Woolf writes her famous remarks on what would have been the fate of Shakespeare's gifted sister, had he had one: "who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet's heart when caught and tangled in a woman's body?" She observes that history teaches us that "genius is not born among labouring, uneducated, servile people." And, she continues, "It is not born today among the working classes." But, she demurs: "Yet genius of a sort must have existed among women as it must have existed among the working classes." But what a fate it would have been in Shakespeare's era:  "Had she survived, whatever she had written would have been twisted and deformed, issuing from a strained and morbid imagination."

In the latter twentieth century, to U.S. feminists, and to "womanists" specifically, Woolf's view of women here, however, revealed itself as limited to the middle and upper classes, the "genteel" classes. And that criticism is certainly warranted. Virginia Woolf was the daughter of respected scholar Leslie Stephens, in a relatively privileged and narrow social circle. She is not alone in being an artist with a blind spot when it comes to class and ethnic hierarchies. Sojourner Truth at a (U.S. Women's Suffrage meeting in 1849 (or 1851) proudly defied the same exclusive preoccupation with women needing male protection: "That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman?" The protected sex, indeed!

 In a 1983 publication, In Search of Our Mother's Gardens: Womanist Prose, Alice Walker commented on the impossibility of Woolf's solutions for many, especially underprivileged women of color. What, Walker asks, then of poets like Phyllis Wheatley, a black slave, not even owning herself let alone a bequest and a room "with lock and key"?

Moreover, post-colonial awareness highlights the source of the great equalizer in Woolf's book: her bequest comes from, -- but here's the passage: "My aunt, Mary Beton, I must tell you, died by a fall from her horse when she was riding out to take the air in Bombay." In Bombay. On her horse in Bombay. Out in one of the Colonies, out where England was engaged in siphoning off the wealth of the 'brown' people of the East as well as of Africa, with which to provide young Mary Beton in London an income that would obviate the necessity of work and deprivation and insecurit.y

On the other hand, Woolf backs up her position that women writers will probably come first from the middle classes, and certainly Woolf is right about the need for the "space" in which writing can be generated. It would be healthy to acknowledge how powerful has been the correlation between being independently wealthy and being a writer, whether of poetry or fiction. She herself allows that "you may object that in all this I have made too much of the importance of material things." You "may say that the mind should rise above such things." She then quotes Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch to the contrary, and I will repeat an abbreviated version here:

"What are the great poetical names of the last hundred years or so? Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Landor, Keats, Tennyson, Morris, Rossetti, Swinburne—we may stop there. Of these, all but Keats, Browning, Rossetti were University men; and of these three, Keats, who died young. . . was the only one not fairly well-to-do. It may seem a brutal thing to say, and it is a sad thing to say: but, as a matter of hard fact, the theory that poetical genius bloweth where it listeth, and equally in poor and rich, holds little truth. As a matter of hard fact, nine out of those twelve were University men: which means that somehow or other they procured the means to get the best education England can give. . . . These are dreadful facts, but let us face them. It is – however dishonouring to us as a nation — certain that, by some fault in our commonwealth, the poor poet has not in these day a dog's chance. . . .Believe me – and I have spent a great part of ten years in watching some three hundred and twenty elementary schools — we may prate of democracy, but actually, a poor child in England has little more hope than had the son of an Athenian slave to be emancipated into that intellectual freedom of which great writings are born."
                                    (Quiller-Couch, The Art of Writing)

And I would add, too, that when that wealth is dependent on social inequities, like the Colonial wealth that flowed into England so consistently for more than four hundred years (1500-1950 for the bald colonial empire specifically), that which is expressed will benignly overlook that injustice itself. Woolf is so thoughtful that one has to be surprised she could pose the prospect of a bequest from an aunt "out riding in Bombay" without at least an ironic comment on the relationship of the colonies to the commonwealth, but that is how material interests obscure our insight. For she is addressing her talk to young women who are already "at college," and hardly acknowledging the class privileges that got them there, let alone the relationship of "Fiction" to the women of color of England's widespread empire.

Today most well-known well-published poets are still "university" educated; moreover, most of them teach poetry in universities. Are they willing to look social inequities in the face seriously? Do their poems and essays address the great injustice that keeps many longing young people out of college, and bankrupts others who manage to get there by means of loans? No. Look at the general tenor of what is publishable today and you will find it mostly apolitical. There come periods when the energy of the lower classes, the exploited and socially devalued, pushes up hard against moribund hierarchies, and then the literature, the art, the music and theatre and dance begin to speak of, and from, the lower social strata. But usually: not.

 Walker's example of a "great" poet who had none of the material or educational advantages unfortunately fails; Phyllis Wheatley was amazing for her time and place. But the impossibility then of thinking and writing rebelliously stifled what must have been an enormous innate ability. Wheatley's poetry expresses an 'approved' theme in which there is no injustice, no race, no poverty, no cruelty. Importantly, Alice Walker did also acknowledge the common ground between Woolf's vision of women writers and her own womanist search. That common ground was the acknowledgment of the need for some kind of space—-psychological, financial, educational. For Walker it was a search for the fecundity of our mothers' gardens. In our misogynistic and cruel social age, genuine matriarchal fecundity is often a psychological luxury. A Room of One's Own is a delightful semi-fictional musing about non-fictional social history which makes the reading so pleasant and palatable that one hardly knows one is being profoundly educated.

"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" indeed.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton; a Review.

Edith Wharton: the name seemed familiar.  I was browsing in a bargain book bin at a used book store.  Edith Wharton.  As I dredged up some fragments from the memory-stew, out came Ethan Frome. We read it in high school English class.  And then I snatched at another floating wisp:  an of Julie Harris in the movie.  That's all I really knew about Wharton, and it's probably more than many people do. So I picked this up, on a whim, to know more about women novelists of the past. Once I began reading, I couldn't put the book down.  And this novel is supposedly "inferior" to her later major works such as Ethan Frome which I suspect is read in high school because it is short and because it "teaches" that any girl who fools around with a married man, even just sled-riding, is going to be very very sorry. I think of Dylan Thomas and "useless" Christmas gifts:  "books about boys who were warned not to skate on Farmer Giles's pond, and did, and drowned."

 Edith Wharton was one of the few women novelists to win a Pulitzer Prize in the early twentieth century: hers was for The Age of Innocence in 1920. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1930.  To my mind she excels any other woman novelist until the 1960s.  She is comparable to Henry James in faultless style and vivid situations, and better than him to my mind, although much less well-known.  Gore Vidal was of this opinion:  

Traditionally Henry James has always been placed slightly higher up the slope of Mount Parnassus than Edith Wharton. But now that the prejudice against the female writer is on the wane, they look to be exactly what they are: giants, equals, the tutelary and benign gods of our American literature.   

Edith Jones Wharton was born into the upper class New York society she so dispassionately dissects in The House of Mirth, and she knows all the tiny markers of prestige, the subtlety of tone or gaze that indicates the rise or fall of someone's stocks in the social market.  She understands the eccentricities that differentiate individuals while seeing clearly that, on the other hand, the apparent idiosyncracies and distinctions are only tiny markers in a conformist herd. The actors ascribe almost instinctively to a rigid and pretentious code that remains unspoken while they frequently and gaily declare their opposition to it, thinking themselves daring, free and spontaneous. Oh, yes.  So open, unstuffy, gregarious, free of judgment they are in their frivolities.  So ready to spring open trapdoors under another's feet.  So coldly calculating each other's relative currencies.  So careful to obey the subtle strictures.

The House of Mirth, 1906, was not Edith Wharton's first publication by any means but it was the first to establish her as both a serious novelist and a popular one.  In many ways this could be a companion piece to Balzac's Père Goriot, but written about a young woman in a position comparable to that of Balzac's young law student who tries to go "into society." And the two enviable-seeming daughters of Old Father Goriot whose dashing lives are so perilously close to disaster.  In Wharton's novel Lily Bart is, in a way, already "in" society; she was born to a life of spending and making life decorative in social circulation.  But her father lost his fortune, and both parents died.

The advent of Lily's sudden fall dramatizes her naïve incomprehension of "expense."  As her father approaches a luncheon table, the young Lily appeals to him to please furnish the house with better fresh flowers, lily-of-the-valley, she thinks. He laughs in an odd way which causes Lily's mother instantly to dismiss the butler.  "Are you ill?" she says cuttingly. "Ill?—No, I'm ruined," he answers.

For two years after his death, which followed hard on the bankruptcy, Lily's mother keeps herself and her daughter anxiously on the edges of society while she prepares Lily to use her extraordinary beauty as "the raw material of conquest."  Wharton's shows keen insight into the self-delusion inculcated by the idea of personal beauty as a distinctive value, and of "good taste" as a virtue.  Lily comes to see herself as having an innate superiority, unable as she is, like most of us actually, to understand that social advantages do not bestow moral rights:

            [Lily] liked to think of her beauty as a power for good, as giving her
            the opportunity to attain a position where she should make her influence
            felt in the vague diffusion of refinement and good taste.  .  .  . she could not
            help thinking that the possession of such tastes ennobled her desire for
            worldly advantages.

After both parents' death, Lily is taken in reluctantly by a stuffy widowed aunt who understands the need for a woman to "dress," and at least pays for Lily's clothes, allowing Lily stay beautifully costumed  although always in debt because she wants more and genuinely sees no reason she should not have everything she desires.  We meet her when she is twenty-nine.  She has been courted by many but she is still unmarried.  Most men bore her.  Why should she give up her pleasant life?  She is so popular, so charming, so decorative, that women vie to have her for their weekends, their seasons, their parties. And that means gifts from her hostesses:  sometimes dresses, sometimes cash.   Lily makes her way by means of these parties and gifts.

She knows, however, that she is at the age when she must marry or lose the status of "charming girl" and become "spinster."  She identifies a good candidate:  a young man  
fabulously wealthy but almost pathologically shy.  Just then, however, another complication presses upon her.  Her main benefactor Judy Trenor has taken up hosting bridge parties, and Lily is expected to play cards. For money. It is understood that at parties, her role is to "help" Judy, whether that means the tediousness of writing out notes and cards for her, or the task of charming guests who might be sticky or stodgy.  Or appearing as a lively entertaining figure at the card tables.  And the wealthy play for rather large stakes.  When Lily wins, she is delighted and she spends.  When she loses, however, difficulties arise.  No one must know how utterly destitute she really is. And the young man she thinks she must marry would be shocked to know she owes money for "gambling debts."  

The final complication is that there is one man who does not bore her, an attorney, Lawrence Selden. He has adequate family status to be seen at occasional parties but he has no money to speak of.  She likes him but he is ineligible as a husband.  He doesn't have enough money or social clout.  Just as Lily had to have better fresh flowers at home she needs a better fortune for the life she is trained for.  He is just attractive enough, however, that spending time with him compromises her dedication to taking a rich husband.

One of Wharton's gifts is to make the reader admire the grit and cleverness with which Lily maneuvers in this artificial society and simultaneously to see the fatuous vanity of it as well as its heartlessness.  Wharton doesn't make Lily an innocent victimized by cruelty; Lily is an adept: she knows what she is doing.  But she is also spoiled by her  success managing people, and she is impulsive, drawn to instant gratifications. The novel begins with such an impulse:  to have tea with Lawrence Selden when she is stranded in a hot train station waiting for a late train.  There is always a mild flirtation between them, with something more serious just under the surface, and when he invites her to take tea with him in his hotel lodgings she yields to the impulse.  As she leaves afterward, she realizes how it may look—a single woman going to a man's hotel rooms, and it gives her a momentary disquiet. To her dismay she is seen by a man who moves somewhat in her circles but it is someone she finds loathsome. She knows she could give him a charming smile and a bright word that would effectively put him "on her side," so he does not speak maliciously about her leaving Selden's apartment). But she disdains to do so.

Lily is not above resentment that she cannot have both her freedom from financial worries and complete freedom from bores. She chafes under her obligations to always be careful, adroit, winsome, guarded:

            Why must a girl pay so dearly for her least escape from routine?  Why
            could one never do a natural thing without having to screen it behind a
            structure of artifice? She had yielded to a passing impulse in going to
            Lawrence Selden's rooms, and it was so seldom that she could allow herself
            the luxury of an impulse!  This one, at any rate, was going to cost her rather
            more than she could afford.

Thus Wharton casts a somber shadow over these three characters:  Lily, Selden, and Sim Rosedale.

For Wharton is not Louisa May Alcott: she builds a careful case to convince us of the complete unlikelihood of Lily Bart freeing herself.  Anyone who has read Ethan Frome knows that Edith Wharton is not going to supply artificial happy endings even if a situation is intolerable;  people are what they are in her fictions and there is no divine rescue,  no poetic justice, no fairy godmother.  Lily herself knows her own weaknesses: the idea of setting herself up independently to earn her own way is laughably unrealistic.  No life seems to her more dreadful than that of the few single women she knows who live by their own work in ugly little rooms with dismal clothing and no parties, no thrillingly beautiful people, no excitement.  She knows herself incapable of making that choice.
Wharton's most admirable quality is the patience, the detail, the fulsomeness with which she constructs the plot for both believability and empathy, in which she details each step in the inexorable descent, and with which she allows the coils she has laid out to slowly close around Lily.

Mentioning Sim Rosedale, however, brings up one aspect of the book that stings.  Or stinks.  How does an author go about casting the villains in a plot? One method, unfortunately, is to choose the outsider, someone who doesn't really "belong."  As if there is in social exclusion a wise intuition of moral inferiority.  In British and American literature and drama, the "dark" character is always to be mistrusted. Today (I hope) the educated reader finds this racist tactic flimsy and objectionable, an offensive reminder of how culturally promoted prejudices can fasten themselves on even the most intelligent of persons.  Sim Rosedale is one such character. And his darkness is, or seems to be, Jewish; Wharton describes him as fabulously successful on Wall Street(!) and doggedly determined to rise in society, although he does not come from "people."  Social aversions to Rosedale (think Rosen, Rosenbaum, etc.) are never stated flatly in terms of anti-Semitism. He is a "nouveau riche" in a setting with long traditions about restricting who is acceptable to the "good families."  Any "nouveau" or "nobody" is avoided in this world.  Nevertheless Wharton depends on us to sympathize with Lily's special repugnance by describing Rosedale in terms of "the instincts of his race," and "the tradition of his blood," for instance.  Wharton may have empathy for others excluded from the elite air, but not for Rosedale.

She also employs racist associations to describe a woman of disrepute, in ways that I suppose are meant to be telling to the reader.  But the particular references have fallen from use now, so that I was completely mystified by what she was referring to as "ladies of her nationality,"  "the ideal of their race," and  "Oriental indolence and disorder."  And we are expected to understand that "Oriental" does not here refer to a nationality but to decadence and sensuousness, characteristics Western Colonialist prejudice assigned to those 'Others' as justification for needing to civilize them (needless to say the task was accomplished by invasion, aggression and oppression).

In the 1999 edition I had purchased, there is a prefatory essay, "Mrs. Wharton in New York," by Elizabeth Hardwick, an extract Sight Reading(1998), that glosses over the ugly tracks of racism in Wharton as merely "[i]n the practice of the period."   Hardwick finds predatory Gus Trenor (husband of Lily's friend Judy) merely "realistic" when he is only a nudge away from an attempted rape.  But she describes Rosedale as "a crafty usurper" because in the end he turns down marriage with Lily when she has become a social liability, even though he never does anything particularly unkind or rude to Lily, or to anyone else that we know of. Besides, the premise of the whole book is that almost everyone in elite society is craftily "usurping" social position. Hardwick does acknowledge that there is something objectionable in the characterization of Rosedale, but ascribes it to an innocuous "practice of the period." I am surprised at a woman of Hardwick's stature continuing "in the practice of the period" in her own prejudices in 1998, and failing to identify that practice as racist and anti-Semitic.

All in all, however, The House of Mirth was a great book.  I was swept up in the story, and I found myself in tears for many pages leading to the ending.   Perhaps a reason for my special susceptibility was that I could identify with Lily's predicament.  When I was a girl, women still had to "take care" around men. You had to accept and pass off with smiling grace their crude suggestions, dirty little insinuations, and outright sexual aggressions.  I was in my thirties before I was finally willing to risk a man's hostility, at last becoming more comfortable with insults and anger than with being a willing, smiling, victim.

Moreover, in my twenties I honestly did not know what to do with my life so I understand much of Lily's dilemma. I was not trained to envision myself in a career, and I was not prepared for one.  When I turned thirty, however, I had an epiphany which Lily did not.  I realized my "girlhood" was gone, but in its place I found my adult competence and my assumption of competence I owed to the tide of  the Women's Liberation movement which swept me up in its power. It was far less exciting than a vision of myself as being "attractive" to men.   But I enrolled in graduate school, even though I had to temporarily support myself with office work. (Which I loathed because of the necessity to "dress the part," one more artificial demand for being 'attractive.')  I look back now, at that moment and think how easily it might not have been.  How easily any young woman who is attractive and successful at girlhood charm might not in other circumstances, find independence and authenticity. I work with such girls every week, as a volunteer mentoring girls in juvenile detention. They are not raised to luxury, but they are raised in a media culture of parties, sexiness, and fashionable self-display. They are not all beautiful but they are all young flesh and they can make that to work for them at least some of the time. It's a revolving door; they get addicted to parties and drugs, they get strung out and used by men, they are arrested and go into detention, they are rehabbed, educated, psychologized, medicated, but they come out into the same world they left.  Like the stereotypical pretty small-town girl of thirties and forties fiction, they dream of "Celebrity" the way those girls envisioned "Hollywood."  They want to become famous and glamorous, or at least to feel like it.  Yes, like Lily, young women can still "fall from grace."

Lily Bart never betrays her inner sense of decency or dignity.  She doesn't stoop to blackmail.  She doesn't stoop to selling her body or sexuality.  She doesn't intentionally hurt anyone.  And she doesn't waste her spirit in hatred, revenge, or blame.  She just tires out. And in her circumstances, she hits a wall.  In her circumstances I could have.

A marvelous book.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Lying Stones of Marrakech: Penultimate Reflections in Natural History by Stephen Jay Gould

Published in 2000, this collection of essays from Natural History Magazine is subtitled Penultimate Reflections in Natural History because the "millennial issue" of January 2001 was to carry the 300th in an unbroken series of Gould's monthly columns since 1973, which would be the last.  His "Preface" doesn't say why he was ending the series.  Like John Lennon at 30 observing that he had, "goddess willing, a good 40 years of productivity yet," Gould had good reason to expect ample years for more writing and research in Paleontology and Evolutionary Biology, unless he knew then that a swift malignant cancer would soon snuff out his light in 2002.

However it was, the brightness of Gould's searching brain here assays the very foundations of science (especially paleontolgy and "evolution")and its nemesis, Social Ideologies founded on distortions and prejudice.  He investigates the difference between questions which can or cannot be asked of science, the crucial difference between valid scientific methods and theories which are often demonstrated to be mistaken or misinterpreted, on the one hand, and fraudulent evidence, invalid methods and inappropriate topics like God's existence, whose religion is 'right,' and which human beings are 'more valuable' or 'more evolved' than others.  It is in his probing analysis of the devastating effects of the latter  that his light is most valuable.

Let us take Darwin's theory of "descent with modification" as a scientific thesis, and the fulminations of that "chief Victorian pundit of nearly everything "(as Gould calls him) Herbert Spencer, so-called philosopher when he should more rightly be called apologist to Capitalism "bloody in tooth and claw." Spencer took Darwin's findings and turned them on their heads: he devised the slogan "survival of the fittest" to mean that evolution is the history of Progress, and thus the struggle for existence is purification; Thomas Huxley called his theory the "gladiatorial" school of evolution. As many historians have noted, this theory should really be called "social Spencerism." 

Specifically, Spencer called for an end to all state-supported services--education, postal services, regulation of housing, even public sanitary systems.  He thought that any social intervention in suffering is counterproductive because it promotes the "vitiation of the race through the multiplication of its inferior samples."  Charities and philanthropists he calls "pauper's friends" who "defeat the sharp...spur to the lazy and so strong a bridle to the random." 

Does his program sound familiar in 2011?  Andrew Carnegie who had been troubled by a devout Christian conscience was vastly relieved that Spencer "reconciled God and capitalist society"; Carnegie had worried about the suffering of the poor, but now "I got rid of theology" and realized that "All is well since all grows better."  He acknowledged that "while it may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race" and concluded that we should welcome the "great inequality of environment, the concentration of wealth...in the hands of a few" because it was "essential for the future."

Gould studies the interweaving of such social ideology with political slogans such as those that justified the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire tragedy of 1911 when the horrifying spectacle of human beings leaping from the upperstories of the Trade Center buildings to escape fire in 2001 was prefigured in the deaths of all 50 young women who were forced to jump from the 8th through 10th floors of the Asch building because all safety exits had been blocked.  Another 110 women perished in the fire.

This fascinating and important lesson in the ideology we could call today neo-conservatism is only a fraction of the assets of this important book.  Highly, highly recommended.

View all my reviews

Monday, July 13, 2015

Not Like Other Girls by Rosa N. Carey; a review.

I happened to read Not Like Other Girls only because it was among some old books I brought home after my mother's death a few years ago.  It was in poor condition and missing any publication data, so I didn't know what period it represented. I was surprised as I read the first fifty pages or so to realize how firmly set it was in a past very far from my usual reading preferences. According to an internet search, it  was first published in 1884 and is one of the best-known of some forty novels by Rosa Nouchette Carey (1840-1909) a popular Victorian novelist. "Best-known", however, is a relative description: few contemporary readers know anything about Rosa Carey. And it takes a special interest to read something like this out of curiosity--to see, that is, what it meant to be a popular Victorian woman novelist.

Well, Victorian or no, I loved this book, despite the fact that my favorites are generally contemporary, postmodern, and--well--anything this book is not.  I have lately explored some older writing, for the sake of learning about historical values: George Eliot, Edith Wharton, Wilkie Collins, Balzac.  The essential difference among these five is that Balzac, Eliot, and Wharton saw social hierarchies as cruel and tragic; Collins and Carey accept a more stratified society as inevitable and natural, and see its dysfunctions as accidental and correctable.  

This is a representative Victorian story, reflecting genteel English characters whose lives are ruled by money and class, but Carey is surprisingly moderate, or sensible perhaps, in her views, and often amusingly critical of the rules governing women's propriety. The plot's dilemma is a problem of losing and attaining caste (and money, of course) but the characters are complex and caught between acceptance of how things are and a basic refusal to be ruled by 'society'  against their own needs. Since the author shows a partiality to the healthy and 'natural' impulses of youth, even in women, and moreover because in the end no one is shown to be particularly malicious or helpless, Not Like Other Girls belongs, I think, in the comic genre.  And this partly explains its appeal.  Besides, a woman who writes forty published novels in her life is not exactly a 'proper' Victorian gentlewoman. 

Carey is what I would call fatuously Victorian only in a susceptibility to mother-worship: although she sees and limns the faults in mothers in this book, she is surprisingly acquiescent to the idea that, although mothers may err, their children do worse when they resent it.  In the end, however, although she  may think the caste system harsh and unduly punitive, she also accepts its basic structure unquestionably. No one in this book will live happily ever after without servants and comfortable wealth.  They may threaten to, for the sake of love or for more practical reasons of necessity, but the book cannot end happily with Dick and Nan living without the blessing of Dick's hefty inheritance. Carey doesn't let herself imagine what would happen if needed money had not shown up.  


Three daughters--Nan is twenty, Phillis is about nineteen, and Dulce eighteen--lead an idyllic life in an English country neighborhood with their widowed and semi-invalid mother who --Carey at one point confides to the reader--has "a weak nature" and is over-dependent on other people's opinions, especially those of men.  The author often indulges in these confidential remarks on personal foibles or sometimes on social manners, as if she is standing to one side with the reader smiling at unfortunate tendencies in her characters and their dilemmas.  While not defying convention, the author thus allows glimpses of different opinions on Victorian social rules;  in some ways Carey might be called a proto-feminist, but I get ahead of myself. 

What is "an idyllic life"?  First of all, it is a life without the drudgery of housework, cooking, cleaning, laundry.  It is a life without the demands of work at all.  The three daughters and their mother Mrs. Challoner have two female servants and adequate resources for festive, if not lavish, tennis and tea-parties with a circle of well-bred friends, male and female.  They are healthy and surprisingly free of neurosis, temper, selfishness, vanity or greed. Especially considering that their mother is so demanding and dependent, their generous care for her is hardly credible.  As I said, the sacredness of the mother figure is a concession to romanticism in Carey.   They gather with friends for long walks in open meadows and fields.  They play lawn tennis and a badminton-like game: "shuttlecocks and battledores." Nan, has long had an unspoken but assured relationship with the son of a wealthy businessman nearby, a credentialed member of this social class. Phillis is happily uninterested in such relationships herself, and Dulce seems almost a precocious child devoted to her mother.

     The book's opening paragraphs sketch the nature of things to come and set the tone of light-hearted, even impertinent, joking.
      Five-o'clock tea was a great institution in Oldfield.
      It was a form of refreshment to which the female inhabitants of that delightful place were strongly addicted.  In vain did Dr. Weatherby, the great authority in all that concerned the health of the neighborhood, lift up his voice against the mild feminine dram-drinking of these modern days, denouncing it in no measured terms: the ladies of Oldfield listened incredulously, and, softly quoting Cowper's lines as to the "cup that cheers and not inebriates," still presided over their dainty little tea-tables and vied with one another in the beauty of their china and the flavor of the highly-scented Pekoe.
I was at once lulled by Carey's sense of humor and the fine awareness of style in choice of words and structural rhythm.  After two short introductory sentences, almost intentionally affected, the third,"In vain did Dr. Weatherby," launches a light and comic flight in a parody of over-refinement.  Mellifluous but humorous.

     The Challoners are" middle class,", as are most of the characters in Oldfield:  their father was a baronet's son but, alas, a younger son, so the title and estate went to an elder and unpleasant brother with whom there is no current relationship.  Sir Francis was, Mrs. Challoner shudders, not a nice man.  Their father left his money invested but since the income is limited, the girls have cleverly learned to make their own dresses which are no less admired than those of their friends.  The other neighbors (of any status) are all significantly wealthier, but we are assured that the fresh gracefulness of the girls and their mother so distinguishes their company, that friends "flocked eagerly into the pleasant drawing-room where Mrs. Challoner sat tranquilly summer and winter to welcome her friends."   Although Carey does not specifically say so, it is also true that the three daughters, at least, are sensible and kind-hearted.  Not flawless paragons, just free of any particular meanness.
Two events expel the Challoners from this English Eden.  First, Dick's father, Mr. Mayne, decides that, as Dick is coming of age and finishing a degree at Oxford, it is time to put a stop to such easy intimacy as he observes between his son and Nancy Challoner.  He expresses the intention magisterially to Dick and at an all-day party before the Mayne family leaves for Switzerland for the summer, the patriarch makes his disapproval of Nan unpleasantly clear to her as well. He has his eye on a wealthy daughter-in-law. 

Then a solicitor visits Mrs. Challoner: the family's investments have failed. There is no more money. Mrs. Challoner receives the news with a melodrama, collapsing, sobbing, getting "one of her headaches," and needing both the maid and her youngest daughter to help her to her room. Nan and her only just younger sister Phillis, meanwhile, take stock.  They own a small country house near the coast so they can give up their leased home in Oldfield but they will not even have enough for food and a maid (!) (a necessity for their mother in their opinion) unless they make up their minds to earn money somehow.  The usual fate would be to hire out as governesses and let Dulce, the youngest, help her mother "let rooms" at their cottage.  Phillis, however, realistically points out that they are under-educated for teaching children; they don't have a firm knowledge of any languages, nor of music or mathematics.  Besides, above all, they want to keep the family together.

So they decide to use the one skill they have and to become dressmakers.  Which is considered non-genteel and will expel them from their caste--the word is explicit.  It will be disgraceful and scandalous in a way it is hard to understand today in the U.S.  Do we have comparable social shames? We have castes of course, but those of us in the great formless middle class don't even know how far out of "A-Society" we are, and we take the attitude that we don't care.  Among us prison, drugs, prostitution, alcoholism, homelessness and other disastrous marks of "low life" are the primary signs of social degradation. Most of us, however, would not "refuse to know" people in such conditions. It is hard to comprehend why it is so scandalous that girls without money would make dresses for a living.  Woody Allen's film Blue Jasmine is insightful about just this kind of falling out of society, but for the great middle class our lives don't seem burdensome just because we work to earn our livings. 

It is curious how we even pretend to understand Victorian attitudes toward class when we read historical stories like this.  For instance, Jane Austen's books are readily comprehensible as contemporary cinema. They should not be.  They are stories of ludicrous snobbery, of a Europe made rich from subduing, dominating and impoverishing the rest of the world by means very far from genteel and then doting on a newly acquired hypocritical 'elegance.' Balzac wrote devastating attacks on the French version, and Edith Wharton and Henry James have made it abundantly clear that American society was no exception  in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  I myself when an undergraduate idolized the Romantic poets.  I wanted to live like that, going to Italy for a month, stopping in France, then back to London.  I had absolutely zero understanding of why I too couldn't have a life of freedom and leisure in which to exercise aesthetic tastes and literary preferences.  True.  What a shock by age 25 or 26 to understand that it was either marriage or "a job" for me, and probably both. It's true that my relatively free and comfortable life is still cushioned by the spoils of 500 years of exploiting countries that had not the aggression or militance to resist when first invaded and subjugated by Europe's 'civilization.'   But I am not of that gentry which was such a 'natural' locale for literature until the twentieth century. 

There are dozens of interesting side-stories in this clever and amusing book.  A very young and raw "Oxford man" has been newly appointed parish minister, or 'vicar,' in the town the Challoners move to.  Archie disapproves strongly of the Challoner girls' decision to 'do business,' and he expresses himself firmly. And officiously. But he nevertheless learns to like them, and even falls in love a little bit.   Archie's overweening and immature self-importance make him first a comic figure, and at last an earnest and caring pastor. His older sister Mattie who comes to keep house for him is somewhat dowdy and fluttery and talkative and he had not wanted her, but another sister he likes better, so Archie is disgruntled with his mother and his whole family, who are in financial straits also.  He treats Mattie with disapproval and sharp remarks which hurt her feelings, but she musters on. Mattie will have her own appealing and surprising story in the mix as well.

Then Nan's beloved Dick, back from summer vacation, finds out where the girls are and comes to visit, chaperoned by his suspicious father. When the girls' occupation is revealed, a war of wills begins.  Dick will have Nan or none.  He will have Nan as a dressmaker or not.  Father will not have Nan even spoken of.  Dick insists.  Nan concedes in private that she will either marry Dick or no one.  Father threatens.  Nan concedes that she must not marry without paternal consent.  And --so it goes.  Beautifully, feelingly, but humorously written and Dick is revealed as a sturdy and courageous friend.

Viewed as nineteenth-century melodrama the situation is banal and would be tiresome, except Rosa Carey is a skillful writer.  Her characters feel real.  Their dialog, actions, hesitations, indecisions, bursts of temper and impatience ring true, although their social mores are perhaps almost laughably colored with incomprehensible rules and shibboleths.  Parental power over their grown children's lives seems peremptory and heartless to us today perhaps.  Nevertheless, Carey creates such individuated personalities with such unconventional characteristics and such piquant dialogs and understated comedy that I thoroughly enjoyed this book. 

Well, by the end, every impasse in the plot is eventually removed via a kind of deus ex machina.  A familiar deus, in fact, who arrives miraculously to solve the plot's problems. It is of course a rich, and generous, and aristocratic relative; nothing new in that. And the machina--i.e., that which allows this god to appear suddenly-- is British Colonialism*.  And when I realize how there is nothing new in that, either, I am reminded of Edward Said's powerful study of the interplay of the whole Colonial past of Europe with every feature of its arts: Culture and Imperialism.


It is almost a cliché of English Victorian literature that instead of merely having a wealthy relative show up to save the day, that convenient hero is someone who has been far away, "making his fortune."  How did the Challoners not know they had a wealthy relative and one kindly disposed toward them?  Why, Harry Challoner has been in one of the British colonies where he "struck it rich."  Even more vividly, he has "made a killing."  We all know what that means and never think about it.  It means going "out there" somewhere and finding some precious valuable commodity that hasn't been claimed by anyone else yet.  Inconveniently, when we look more closely, we see that anyone who lives "out there" doesn't count as anyone.  In Australia the native population was considered so non-human that they were shot for sport, but in the literature the colonies are dangerous and rough for the Europeans who went so innocently and righteously forth to 'discover.'*  Or maybe what they 'find'  has been claimed, but by such inferior, almost inhuman nonentities that a man (inevitably European)  has a right to kill them and take what he wants. And to bring wealth "home."   After all, you risked a lot to go discover it. And they were just 'natives.'  That says it all.  How amusing it is to realize that many folk tales from Europe start with "the sons who go out to seek their fortune."  That didn't happen during feudalism.

(*I was stunned and dismayed when cinema director Tim Burton ended his Alice in Wonderland, a bittersweet and poignant coming-of-age fable for Alice, by constructing her as joining the male business of Colonialism to symbolize her emancipation from Victorian strictures on women.)  
Like nunneries in earlier literature as places of refuge, concealment, withdrawal and punishment for women, and like wars (the infamous Crusades, for instance) for men, the "colonies" are places for Victorian denouement: fled to, retired to, arrived from, lay concealed in, brought wealth from, disappeared into.  More, colonialism is the invisible source of inflowing wealth that creates this" genteel class" at home. In fact, Colonialism is the heart and soul of European art: poetry (Kubla Khan), painting (the Levirates), music (The Nutcracker, The Pearlfishers, Turandot, Aida), drama, ­(from The Tempest to Lawrence of Arabia) until at least the middle of the twentieth century.
So the Challoner mother and daughters are dumbfounded when a jolly red-haired giant shows up at their small cottage door.  Remember, the deceased father was a younger son of nobility and the plot made clear that there was no hope of help from that direction, the elder son being a ne'er-do-well, a scoundrel who spend all the wealth 'out there.'  But Harry, that baronet's son, has come into both the title and a fortune "out there."  And everything is resolved to everyone's satisfaction.  Minor characters as well as the Challoners all benefit equally.  Several surprising but logical turns are taken in the story and the last scene is free of a humorous undertone, as the 'main characters' finally come together. In other words, because jolly cousin Harry got rich in Australia, all ends happily.  In this England.  Maybe not for Australians.

1.  The title was tantalizing to me for I am conscientiously feminist and consciously idiosyncratic, let us say. In the 1950s as I grew up, the phrase "not like other girls" was loaded with ambiguity.  It could mean many things.  It could mean, lightly, a tomboy or a girl who liked sports or horses or other 'unmaidenly' diversions.  It could mean, tragically, someone mal-adapted to the point of social rejection or psychological breakdown.  It could mean, with a derogatory side-glance, a lesbian.  It could refer to someone who broke social conventions but by having a big heart and no fear earned warmth and respect from the very people who scorned her behavior (viz. Girl of the Golden West) . More commonly, however, it was a back-handed compliment, used by men to imply the inferiority of women generally but the exceptional quality of the 'girl' addressed.  The girl, of course, believed in her exceptional quality, not knowing that this was common and complicated flattery.  Why was it flattery?  It attributed the girl's attractiveness to her ability and willingness to distance herself from those 'other girls.'  Divide and conquer.  A hesitation to pursue something proposed by the man?  All he has to say is, "I thought you weren't like other girls."  And the pressure is on.
It was therefore fascinating that this book's main characters do such an unconventional and sensible thing as rejecting pretensions to class in order to stay together as a family.  The girls are brave in the face of ostracism and disapproval although they find working life more difficult than they'd imagined, and of course soon long for their freedom, exercise, fresh air, parties, friends, socializing, and Nan's courageous resignation of the impossibility of her liaison with beloved Dick turns to tortured longing.
Carey puts the authorial seal of approval on their bravery and sensibility but of course finds a solution for their 'suffering.'  It is interesting to compare the heroine of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, a more tragic book that also treats what happens when a young woman of 'society' becomes impoverished, especially a girl who fails to capitalize on her ability to fascinate and manipulate men, for it is an ability that requires pretense and being bored.  She is used to disingenuousness, but she longs for fun and sincerity.

2Colonialism may be not just the enabling device for sudden plot turns, it seems, but the enabling device for English literature in general since the rise of the novel in the late seventeenth century, or perhaps all literature related to the novel genre, which just coincidentally happened to arise at that point in history.   From Robinson Crusoe to Pamela or Moll Flanders.
The wealth brought home from colonies supplied the wherewithal for the creation of a new Europe.). It enriched for the first time many who began outside the aristocracy and thus arises a new privileged class which took political power over the next two or three stormy centuries, ousting the aristocracy (though never acquiring quite the "panache" of the titled). The very concept of a merchant class, of wealthy firms and manufacturers, of investments that fail or soar is derived from all those innocuous 'discoverers," "explorers," and 'conquistadors" which, although the names are given an innocent significance, are still important enough to teach to children in Eurocentric curricula. Magellan, who brought back (kidnapped) natives of South America, the survivors arriving in Europe seasick and homesick: frightened disheartened captives.  Vasco da Gama, who had his crew cut off the hands of men, women and children to fill a basket on his "voyages of exploration."  Cortez, Ponce de Leon, all the degradation, exploitation and genocide spread worldwide, to create also a "Third World." The slave trade, and in North American unimaginable eradication of the very language and cultures of the Americans Europe encountered. In the twentieth century that Third World would soon be called the "undeveloped world," as if those countries were poor because of their lack of 'our' civilization, and not poor because the First World had enslaved the people, brutalized them, stolen their wealth and their property.  Today we are advanced; we say they are "developing nations."  We should call their status "in recovery." And God forbid they should develop into "us." 
 It is sobering indeed to understand that for all non-Europeans (with the marginal exception of the Japanese) the year 1500 was at the beginning of an apocalypse, a tsunami we are still witnessing in the turmoil of the Middle East and the absolute degradation of the starving and refugees in much of Africa.
As a literary form, the novel itself derives from the same phenomenon. It arose in England as new middle class wealth began to consolidate after the century of the English Civil War, in late sixteen hundreds.  It depended for its existence on a leisured class with education, with leisure time to read for "diversion," and time to expend on the writing of something that would not repay the writer for all that labor. The early writers had independent income or they could not have spent their time writing and pontificating in coffee houses.  True, all societies in one way or another secure life support for those who draw or decorate or tell skilled stories, play music (fife and drum as it were at least) and dance and make ceremonies and rituals. Or for at least some of the 'artists,' as we call it,  since we are a fractured society and thus even the creators have to compete.
But the relationship of a novelist to society is of new devising in the 1700s, a creation of a wealthy, leisured self-conscious class. Early novels, interestingly, concerned themselves importantly with marrying "up" or "down," of increasing, or retaining, or losing status and wealth, and of male predatory piracy on female 'chastity.'  But then that was the great social upheaval: they were all busy establishing a completely new system of status and social identity.  Only one hundred years before (1600), it was considered virtuous to stay in the social position to which God had appointed you.  The Elizabethan "Great Chain of Being." But the possibility for Europeans to 'make a fortune' in the colonies changed all that.  The first unmistakable sign of the upheaval was the British Civil War (mid-1600s) when the monarchy was overthrown, a 'Commonwealth' declared, and the king of England beheaded.  Cromwell, the new leader, perhaps took his religious Puritanism too seriously and didn't adequately understand the financial changes necessary to accommodate the new merchant class;  he was overthrown and a new modified Monarchy was 'Restored':  thus the society and culture and period called the Restoration.  Reaction against the straight-laced Puritanism was expressed in an excessively materialist and frankly sexual culture.  Plots of theatrical comedies turned to legalistic trickery and marital infidelity:  all expressing an acquisitive viewpoint. But all that went a little overboard and the resulting pendulum return gave us Puritan and Sentimental and Adventurist novels.  The economic behavior of the nation was not to be examined from a morality point of view, so its private and social behavior, sexuality and status, were substituted as Christian virtues.  The Puritan worries about having and behaving.  Not about oppression or exploitation.  Coveting?  No longer a problem unless it's your neighbor's wife you covet, and even then, if you are caught, it's her problem.
What creates the self-consciousness of society in England (and Europe in general) and also gives rise to the writing of novels, to the career of being a writer, is a sense of domination and superiority among "the privileged," who now procure for themselves education (necessary to keep track of wealth), leisure time, and the sense of the"brave new world" that Shakespeare apostrophized.  And what provides those abstracts is unlimited aggression toward "others," who are named the backward and uncivilized.  What makes us civilized and them barbaric or savage is the fact of "us" going out there and ruling and using "them."
Can you imagine yourself in either role, discoverer or discovered?  Suppose I am a member of a small village and I hear the amazing news that we've been "discovered."  By strange aliens, humanoids, who "claim" our village for their king or gods or boss. And I'm supposed to leave my house and garden and move into barracks from which I will work in their fields of extraction of whatever they can "take home."  Or, on the other hand, imagine I am mountain climbing and come down in an area that has rich farms, so I "stake my claim" to the land and take away the produce and/or livestock as well as anything that strikes my eye: a beautiful stained glass window, some of their unique 'ceramics,' a couple of cute children, maybe.  I bring it all home and sell it for six million dollars and I'm set for life. When I am set for life, I suddenly apply to myself new maxims about "healthy, wealthy, and wise."  "If you're so damned smart, why aren't you rich?"  "Early to bed, early to rise."  "The early bird" (first one there gets it all). End of digression, but you see what I mean.  Unimaginable today, and yet we routinely read about it, see films about it, our children are taught about this being done by Europeans to people in all the other continents and the world's islands. We learn about it and honor the "explorers" and "pioneers."  So this naive book (we can't say anything is innocent any more) like how many Eurocentric novels, rests for its plot mechanisms and its very existence on Europe's aggressive invasions between 1500 and, say, 2000. Or 1950 perhaps, since resistance has arisen in the last sixty years.
I'll just mention that "the colonies" also play another role in Not Like Other Girls, in a subplot of great drama (perhaps overly so for here there is no nuance, no humorous undertone) in which a man thought dead returns from his ventures, this time in Africa.  All the conventions of brutality and savagery figure in the story of his "capture" by "a hostile tribe," although a woman, an "old negress. . . a poor degraded ill-used creature, half-witted and ugly" fed and nursed and protected him.  "They were a set of hideous brutes and the fetish they worshipped was cruelty."  He was saved and freed, but then fell in "with some Dutch traders who had come far into the interior in search of ivory tusks."  Get the picture?  And they all lived happily ever after.  (Not the brutes or the negress or the elephants, of course, but…as long as you "make a killing," that's all that matters.  I'm not bitter. )