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Book Report: The Morgesons

Your Humble Blogger was chatting with one of the faculty members at the institution that employs me, and it occurred to me that a fellow who was studying James Fenimore Cooper would probably have some suggestion of a book for YHB to read. Having finally, grudgingly, admitted to myself that I like Victorian novels, I discovered that there really are quite a lot of them, and somehow liking one or two authors has not prepped me to browse the shelves and grab a likely book at random. Particularly as my library has good old volumes of collected works, all of which have covers that are dark red, thick and impervious to judgment. Curse them.

Anyway, we had a brief conversation, this American Lit guy and I, and he didn’t come up with much of anything, really. Which was fine—in some ways, an academic specialist is less likely to come up with a recommendation for the enjoyment of a reader like YHB. If he is working on James Fenimore Cooper, he is not likely to read anything but James Fenimore Cooper, except to the extent that he is looking for James Fenimore Cooper in other books (if you know what I mean), and even assuming that the man still likes James Fenimore Cooper at the end of the day (or ever did), he may not be able to look at any of the contemporaries from the outside, as it were.

But then, after he had left the building, he came back in to say that he had just thought of The Morgesons, by Elizabeth Stoddard. He hadn’t read it himself, but there had been quite a few articles about it recently, connecting it to Elizabeth Gaskell’s stuff. And, as it happens, our library does own a copy. So I went and got it.

I loved the start of it, got bogged down in the middle, nearly gave up on it altogether, and then broke through and enjoyed it right up until the muddled end. It’s a hoot, and it would make a great Masterpiece [nee Theater].

Digression: I don’t know whether I wrote about this before, but the peculiarities of British television and theater meant that the BBC was able to create an institution in which fine actors, actually of great actors, made themselves available for trashy television adaptations of forgotten novels that had fallen out of copyright. BBC and PBS, I should say; the American money (much of it Mobil or ExxonMobil) went to Grenada or ITV on occasion. But I suspect that the institution remained more or less constant, and the point is that if somebody went to some great British actor and said We’re doing The Bishop’s Candlesticks, and we are hoping you would play the vicar—it’ll be one of those Masterpiece things, Lord Wossname might very well say yes. Particularly, of course, because wherever they were filming, it would be easy enough to do on a Monday when he doesn’t have a performance in London. That institution makes it easier, in turn, for HBO to set up with the BBC to do Wome or something like that. In this country, if A&E or somebody were to decide to film The Morgesons and called up Christopher Plummer to play the old uncle, I don’t know that they would get through. I mean, they might. But there isn’t as much precedent. Mr. Plummer wouldn’t be as confident that the production company knew what they were doing, and could make everything run smoothly and easily, and make him look good. Or that he would be getting to spend a day or two with old buddies from his training days; that has to be part of the enticement as well. It’s too bad, really, because there are a bunch of old American novels that are plenty trashy enough to be adapted, and while Masterpiece does a few of them (in England), they are pretty far down on the priority list. And because there are a bunch of old American actors who would be fantastic playing somebody’s uncle or the vicar or the teacher or something, and we don’t get to see them. End Digression.

I do think that a portion of my enjoyment of the Victorian Novel is being pleased and astonished by how much the writers could get away with, if they are careful. Or if they aren’t. Adultery, violence, alcoholism, rape, drug abuse, lechery, murder, prostitution, bloodshed in vast quantity, and of course political social and religious blasphemy. Well, they could get away with depicting that stuff, not necessarily doing it. It’s a major Source of Reader Pleasure for me—is she really going in to his room at night? Is he really slipping her laudanum? Is he really mocking the doctrine of Virgin Birth?

Not that later writers couldn’t get away with that stuff as well. It’s just that I get very little enjoyment of a late-twentieth-century novelist getting away with exactly what he is supposed to be writing about, in a time when trangressing couldn’t be less transgressive. There are plenty of other Sources of Reader Pleasure, of course, but this sort of thing I really like about Victorian (and some Edwardian) fiction, and not really about anything more modern than that.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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