The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

A Black Spot in our Sunshine: Happiness in Mill, Carlyle and the Present Day

Happiness is a concept around which we orient much of our activity, and much of our self-reflection: ultimately, our feeling about an aspect of our lives is often determined by asking ourselves the question: does it make me happy? Sometimes, it is very difficult to answer this question. Happiness, a seemingly simple concept, is actually a complicated abstraction that is very difficult to identify and to measure.

Many 19th-century thinkers left accounts of their formative years, and these tended to be years of turmoil, confusion and unruly emotions. One of the concepts individuals were increasingly using to analyse and evaluate their experience was that of happiness. A famous example comes from John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, (published posthumously in 1873) in a passage where he is talking about himself at the age of 20 (in 1826), a time at which he devoted most of his energy to crusading journalism and political activism:

I was in a dull state of nerves, such as everybody is occasionally liable to; unsusceptible to enjoyment or pleasurable excitement; one of those moods when what is pleasure at other times, becomes insipid or indifferent […]. In this frame of mind it occurred to me to put the question directly to myself: “Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, “No!” At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for.

This was the start of what Mill called a “mental crisis”. It is striking the central role that happiness played in Mill’s thinking. The worthiness of his aims – which he did not doubt – was of no worth when his own personal happiness did not result therefrom. So, for Mill, ultimately much of his intellectual life’s work became about developing ideas about increasing happiness individually and collectively.


John Stuart Mill in 1870.

At around the same time, a famous contemporary of Mill, Thomas Carlyle, was undergoing a mental crisis of his own, one described with powerful intensity in the semi-autobiographical Sartor Resartus (1833-34). Carlyle called his time of distress, confusion and alienation the “everlasting no”. A realization of his own unhappiness is central to the crisis:

“Reasonably might the Wanderer exclaim to himself: Are not the gates of this world’s happiness inexorably shut against thee; hast thou a hope that is not mad? Nevertheless, one may still murmur audibly, or in the original Greek if that suit thee better: ‘Whoso can look on Death will start at no shadows.'” (SR, II, 6, “Sorrows of Teufelsdrockh”)

Carlyle recognised in himself an inability to experience anything similar to the happiness he had been introduced to as a concept. He concludes that happiness is definitively denied to him – its gates inexorably shut against him. His response, though, is very different to Mill’s – diametrically opposed, even. He rejects the concept of happiness and the pursuit of happiness completely:

What then? Is the heroic inspiration we name Virtue but some Passion; some bubble of the blood, bubbling in the direction others profit by? I know not: only this I know, If what thou namest Happiness be our true aim, then are we all astray. (SR, II, 7, “The Everlasting No”)


Man’s Unhappiness, as I construe, comes of his Greatness; it is because there is an Infinite in him, which with all his cunning he cannot quite bury under the Finite. Will the whole Finance Ministers and Upholsterers and Confectioners of modern Europe undertake, in joint-stock company, to make one Shoeblack HAPPY? They cannot accomplish it, above an hour or two: for the Shoeblack also has a Soul quite other than his Stomach; and would require, if you consider it, for his permanent satisfaction and saturation, simply this allotment, no more, and no less: God’s infinite Universe altogether to himself, therein to enjoy infinitely, and fill every wish as fast as it rose. Oceans of Hochheimer, a Throat like that of Ophiuchus: speak not of them; to the infinite Shoeblack they are as nothing. No sooner is your ocean filled, than he grumbles that it might have been of better vintage. Try him with half of a Universe, of an Omnipotence, he sets to quarrelling with the proprietor of the other half, and declares himself the most maltreated of men.—Always there is a black spot in our sunshine: it is even, as I said, the Shadow of Ourselves.  (SR, II, 9, “The Everlasting Yea”)

Carlyle considers that man is incapable of happiness, because the concept of happiness, as he understands it, is based on sensual satisfactions. Man is not primarily sensual for Carlyle: rather he is filled with a void of longing that is more than sensual, something Infinite that Carlyle doesn’t quite have a name for here. Once an individual begins to think in terms of what can make him happy and satisfy him, the only real answer is God’s infinite Universe altogether to himself. And that is not very practical! So Carlyle turned away from the concept of happiness and insisted in Sartor (and thereafter) that the summum bonum was to Know what thou canst work at (SR, II, 7, “The Everlasting No”), and to work on with a minimum of self-consciousness, and a minimum of considering of one happiness.


Thomas Carlyle: What are you looking at? Get back to work!


This contrasting attitude to happiness was one of the key differences between Mill and Carlyle. It would appear that Mill was on the right side of history here (and in most of their other areas of dispute). Happiness is both a crucial concept in our everyday analysis of our lives, and is used on a larger scale as a scientific term. We have, for example, the World Happiness Report, commissioned by the UN, wherein happiness levels in each country are prepared. These are completed simply by asking people how happy they are, with details of GDP, freedom, life expectancy, etc. of each country provided in the Report to allow correlations to be drawn. The UN also established “Happiness and Well-Being” as “A New Economic Paradigm” in 2012. Academically, we now have a Journal of Happiness Studies. There is no escaping the pursuit of happiness. We must pursue it if we wish to align our ideals with those of the academic and economic establishment.

Our consciousness of happiness is thus being perpetually reinforced. As we ponder the concept, then, we cannot fail to consider its lack or opposite. What if you don’t have happiness? What if you are not happy? Then you are unhappy, sad, or perhaps depressed. The latest World Happiness Report finds that depression is one of the three greatest threats to happiness. Insofar as depression is synonymous with sadness – or at least deep sadness – and sadness is an antonym of happiness, this is a tautology. The biggest threat to happiness in today’s world is the absence of happiness!

Therein lies the dialectical bind of happiness: the more conscious one becomes of it, the more conscious one must also become of its absence. The more one must ask oneself if one is happy and, if not, why not. This activity of ceaseless questioning is in itself not a pleasant one, and conducive to anxiety. Happiness is an essentially abstract concept centralized by utilitarian philosophy and economics. We can no longer unthink it, or remember that not all societies have prized it. Aristotle’s eudaimonia, remember, was an activity, not a state. As such, it was as close to Carlyle’s ideal of work as to Mill’s happiness.

So, as our notions of happiness get more and more sophisticated, and our economic structures become more and more entwined with this utilitarian abstraction, we will experience more and more depression, more anxiety, more and more the absence of this concept of happiness, which has moved from a mere abstraction to a materialized abstraction, build into the economic and ideological framework of our society. The felt absence of happiness is now one of the central facts of our experience. This is why we should go back to Carlyle and get a new perspective on this, because to us the idea that you don’t need to think about happiness is an alien one. Carlyle’s style is antiquated. The message, too, seems at first antiquated, but, if we wish to escape the clutches of happiness, it must be renewed:

[M]an is actually Here; not to ask questions, but to do work: in this time, as in all times, it must be the heaviest evil for him, if his faculty of Action lie dormant, and only that of sceptical Inquiry exert itself. Accordingly whoever looks abroad upon the world, comparing the Past with the Present, may find that the practical condition of man in these days is one of the saddest; burdened with miseries which are in a considerable degree peculiar. In no time was man’s life what he calls a happy one; in no time can it be so. (Characteristics, 1831)



On Žižek, Adaptation and Fragments of the Whole

[T]he goal of the translation is not to achieve fidelity to the original but to supplement it, to treat it as a fragment of the broken vessel and produce another fragment that, rather than imitating the original, will fit it as one fragment of a broken Whole may fit with another. A good translation will thus destroy the myth of the original’s organic Wholeness, rendering this Wholeness visible as a fake. One can even say that, far from being an attempt to restore the broken vessel, translation is the very act of breaking. (Slavoj Žižek, Absolute Recoil, Verso, 2014, p. 143-144)

Žižek’s view of translation as a fragment to fit together with the equally fragmented original is one he owes to Walter Benjamin (as he acknowledges in the passage quoted above), and is also one he applies to adaptations. Indeed, the one substantial piece of analysis he give apropos this passage is of an adaptation, not a translation, focusing on different versions of the play Antigone. Žižek leaves aside the possibility that adaptation and translation may be theoretically distinct concepts, but certainly there is a school of thought that sees them as analogous. So, provisionally admitting this point, how productive is Zizek’s approach? Can we conceive of an adaptation which operates by destroying the myth of the original’s organic Wholeness? An adaptation which is a fragment and which exposes the fragmentary nature of the source?

These (imagined) variations should not be read as distortions  some lost primordial original, but as fragments of a totality which would have consisted of the matrix of all possible permutations (in the sense in which Levi-Strauss claimed that all interpretations of the Oedipus myth, inclusive of Freud’s, are part of the myth). Should we then endeavour to reconstruct the full matrix? What we should rather do is locate the traumatic point, the antagonism, that remains untold and around which all the variations and fragments circulate. (p. 146)

It is an idealistic view of adaptation, one that posits a unity behind each avatar, a unity that cannot be found in any individual work, but only uncovered by the scholar. It is the scholar who communicates the traumatic point untold in the fragments.

My own approach is in some ways the opposite to Žižek’s. When you track versions of the same story across time, what you find is not one single traumatic kernel underpinning the narrative, but a predominantly unchanging narrative line that is used as support for reflection on themes that do not predominantly come from the source, but from cultural influences. Adaptations prove that the ideology of a text is not dependent on the story being told. The source provides a narrative framework more than a philosophical or ideological framework.

It may perhaps seem counter-intuitive to think that the same storyline can be used for substantially different ideological purposes. One clear example can be seen in Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens’ 1838 novel, and the 2007 BBC series Oliver Twist (adapted by Sarah Phelps, latterly better known for her Agatha Christie adaptations, And Then There Were None (2015), etc.). In my essay “Adaptation, Transtemporality, and Ideology: The BBC Series Oliver Twist (2007)” (available in (Re)Writing Without Borders: Contemporary Intermedial Perspectives on Literature and the Visual Arts, eds. Brigitte Le Juez, Nina Shiel, Mark Wallace, Common Ground, 2018), I discuss the ideological shift in the story between the two versions in question, even though at the level of narrative structure there are only minor differences.

By going through the main characters in the narrative (Fagin, Sikes, Nancy, Rose, Monks – I don’t go into Oliver himself in detail, as there was only space to study the most relevant characters to my argument), I demonstrate (at least to my own satisfaction) that through changes in presentation of characters rather than in narrative functions, Phelps manages to invert much of Dickens’ embedded worldview in Oliver Twist.  To take a brief excerpt from my essay, I discuss the character of Fagin, who emerges in Phelps’ version as a victim in ways Dickens never envisaged:

This is most striking with regard to the character of Fagin. John notes in a brief overview of the series that Fagin is placed as a “victim of discriminatory social circumstances” throughout.* This climaxes in the trial scene, in which Fagin (played by Timothy Spall) is sentenced to death by Judge Fang, who further makes him the offer of a reprieve if he will convert to Christianity: “Fall to your knees before this assembly and take Christ as your saviour” (5; 22:15). Fagin refuses and becomes a martyr for the Jewish religion. The exchange is not found in Dickens, and Fagin’s principled refusal to forsake his religion contrasts with the greedy opportunism of Dickens’ villainous character. The offer made by Fang cannot be explained with reference to nineteenth-century legal practices, either.

Rather, Fagin’s trial scene constitutes an argument directed against the ideology of the source text from a presentist perspective, from which perspective ideologies of religious tolerance and idealization of the socially or politically marginalized or oppressed provides a basis from which the narrative is re-constructed, said re-construction incorporating a dialectic between source and adaptation.

* The quoted phrase is from Juliet John, Dickens and Mass Culture, Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 223.

Tim Spall

Timothy Spall as Fagin in Oliver Twist (2007)

So there’s a whole different problematic about the character of Fagin. Fagin is the most obviously troublesome character in the novel, as the anti-semitic element of the depiction has long been noted (I go into the history of the character in the essay), but other characters like Sikes, Nancy and Monks are also altered in revealing ways. Sikes is still brutal, but tortured and sensitive; Nancy is much more kindly and maternal towards Oliver; Monks is fleshed out: he wants to marry Rose, but goes about securing this match in a particularly evil way.  They all still behave in ways that move the plot along the same lines as Dickens, but we feel very differently about them. Each character has inscribed into them not only the source material, but also other features which are often in tension with the source, and which in analysis often prove to be traceable to ideological issues of wider significance. It’s in the spaces between Dickens’ Nancy and Phelps’ Nancy that we can find out something significant about how we constructs narratives of human life. We don’t write stories or understand people as Dickens did: even if an adaptor tried to, there would be tension there. With Phelps, the tension is upfront: she wants to challenge Dickens, particularly with regard to Fagin:

The anti-Semitism bothered me hugely, but rather than sweep it under the carpet, rather than make it comedy, I wanted to look at it in its squinty, nasty, horrible little eye. [“Behind the Scenes” feature on Oliver Twist, BBCDVD2572, 2008]

Thus, I’m unconvinced by Žižek’s emphasis on a traumatic core common to source and adaptation. Trauma is evidently personal and contextual. The trauma in Phelps’ retelling is precisely the absence of trauma in Dickens. It is Dickens’ perceived callousness which provokes Phelps into attributing trauma to Fagin.  And if one was to follow Oliver Twist around the world and find other adaptations, you would find other sources of trauma. Many would engage in arguments with other elements of Dickens’ text, aside from the anti-Semitism. Or, if not engage in arguments, instead maintain silence over the elements which provide an ideological jolt. So in difference we can find those elements which demand analysis. It does not necessarily follow that these differences point to a commonality at a deeper level, a shared trauma. Analysis does not have to lead to a higher-level synthesis. The idea that it does is the Hegelian coming out in Žižek .

Belief and Capitalism in Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man (1857)

The primary insight of Herman Melville’s last novel The Confidence-Man (1857) is one which was more recently articulated by financial historian Niall Ferguson:

“[M]oney is a matter of belief, even of faith: belief in the person paying us, belief in the person issuing the money he uses or the institution that honours his cheques or transfers. Money is not metal. It is trust inscribed. (The Ascent of Money, Penguin, 2009, pp. 30-31)

Money works, that is, because people believe in it. The people it’s working for may or may not be the ones doing the believing, but someone is doing the believing, and of course acting accordingly.

So look at Melville’s title again. The Confidence-Man. This was a collocation more familiar to 19th-century readers than to us. Later, it was shortened to conman. We perhaps use the word “con” now to mean a trick or fraud without remembering that it comes from the word “confidence”. This is because we don’t use “confidence” in the way Melville used it. Indeed, Google Books Ngram Viewer records that use of the word “confidence” has been declining quite steadily since the 1850s. And when we do use it, it’s mostly with regard to self-confidence and related concepts. To take one of the most recent coinages: body-confidence is a form of self-confidence.


Cover of the Signet 1964 edition. From PDFBooksWorld.

So we don’t immediately get the import of Melville’s title and his book. He spends the book circling round the idea of confidence in the 19th-century sense: the sense of trust. Confidence is a synonym for trust. A confidence man is a man who operates by gaining the trust of the other. Implied without being explicit in the title is that to give our trust is a mistake. Trust, or confidence, is a tool of predation and exploitation.

So, on a philosophical level, this book can be seen as a dialogical investigation into the theme of trust, and its place in human society. On occasion, however, Melville gets more specific than this. He’s not speaking in universalist terms – not always, at any rate. He is referring specifically to a capitalist society, and putting the idea of trust under capitalist conditions at the centre of his text. One of Melville’s characters claims:

“Confidence is the indispensable basis of all sorts of business transactions. Without it, commerce between man and man, as between country and country, would, like a watch, run down and stop.” (Signet, 1964, p. 136)

Thus, Melville’s man of business is inveterately opposed to any sort of cynical or mistrustful thinking. This is given expression throughout the novel. One character speaks of the need to “strangl[e] the least symptom of distrust, of any sort, which hereafter, upon whatever provocation, may arise in you” (p. 40). Melville is deliberately using jarringly violent language here, to call into question the view being expressed, and to hint at the dark motives behind an emphasis on trust or confidence.

Melville’s book has a specific and realistic setting, on a Mississippi steamer. Through delineating the behaviour of the societal cross-section on the steamer, he instils in the reader a severe distrust of the idea of trust. Melville suggests that the exploitation of trust is both an age-old human trait, and one that is particularly characteristic of his own society. This last is particularly related to the financial and commercial structures within which his characters are enmeshed.

Thus the most direct statement of Melville’s actual position is found late in the book in the interpolated story of China Aster. Typically for this contrary book, this structurally unnecessary episode is thematically central. Aster is an honest, hard-working man whose personal destruction has a financial basis. Initially, Aster wants no part of the credit system. But a purported friend goads him into taking a loan:

“Why don’t you, China Aster, take a bright view of life? You will never get on in your business or anything else, if you don’t take the bright view of life. It’s the ruination of a man to take the dismal one […]. Why don’t you, then? Why don’t you be bright and hopeful, like me? Why don’t you have confidence, China Aster?” (p. 217)

Eventually, the friend instils the necessary trust and optimism in Aster to take a friendly loan. But he also gets Aster to sign a contract on unfavourable terms. Of course, Aster is ruined by his attempts to repay. Melville’s concise moral of the story, chiselled on a stone by a listening character, is: “The root of all was a friendly loan” (p. 228). Aster was exploited by a friend he trusted, and the means of exploitation was the credit system.

Melville’s book is a sobering read in the light of our current financial circumstances, wherein, as Maurizio Lazzarato has argued, indebtedness is central to economic and indeed social progress. If you’re not in debt, you’re doing it wrong. We have to believe in our credit-based financial system individually and act accordingly, or we are frozen out; and, as Ferguson knows, they only work because we do believe in them. But who do they work for? Melville has an answer: they work not for the true believer, who is a dupe, but for the confidence man, the instigator of and predator on trust. After reading Melville, we trust just a little bit less, but whether this helps with our socio-financial adjustment in a capitalist society is a difficult question.

Humphry Clinker (1771), by Tobias Smollett

Having enjoyed Tobias Smollett’s early novel Roderick Random (1748) a few years ago, I finally got around to reading my second Smollett: The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771).  In Scotland’s Books, Robert Crawford calls it “Smollett’s last, greatest novel” (Penguin, 2007, p. 316). The Wikipedia entry for the novel cites the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography in saying Clinker is considered by many to be Smollett’s best and funniest book. Whatever about “best”, I am strongly of the opinion that Clinker is much less funny than Random. As the literary product of an older gentleman, it is perhaps unsurprising that it is a more sedate work, with less of the frantic energy and grossly scatalogical humour (but still quite a bit of the latter) of the earlier novel. This probably savours of maturity to the critical eye, but for me boisterous energy and scatology is where Smollett excelled, and much is lost between Random and Clinker.

Clinker is an epistolary novel, told entirely in the form of letters: mostly those of Matthew Bramble and his nephew Jeremy Melford, and to a lesser extent various other members of Bramble’s entourage, as they all travel around Britain together, a journey undertaken for Bramble’s health. Bramble is essentially the protagonist, the patriarch of the party, a bachelor who is somewhat misanthropic and unsociable but is, we soon learn, benevolent and generous, with a keen sense of justice, a commitment to reason, and a strong interest in social progress. He is a forerunner of those philanthropic bachelors who populate the novels of Dickens, spreading goodwill but remaining aloof from intimate human relations. At the same time, he is more intellectual than Brownlow, the Cheerybles, etc. Through the course of his letters, he discourses on any number of subjects, demonstrating both Smollett’s “effortless range of learning” (Crawford, p. 314) and that Bramble is sort of a stand-in for Smollett himself.

Among the epistolarians of Clinker, women are coded as linguistically inept. The two primary female letter writers are Matthew’s sister Tabitha Bramble and her maid Winifred Jenkins. Both are distinguished by very poor spelling and comical malapropisms. In her first letter in the book, Tabitha orders her housekeeper “don’t forget to have the gate shit every evening before dark” (London: Heron, year not given [1960s?], p. 20). An example, obviously, of Smollett’s scatological humour, albeit not a particularly good one.

While Matthew Bramble’s bachelorhood gives him an opportunity to practice universal benevolence, Tabitha Bramble constitutes a rather spiteful depiction of the middle-aged spinster. She tries to marry every unattached man she meets. She is, as Jeremy puts it, “declining into the most desperate state of celibacy” (45). Matthew analyses her character as follows:

In her temper, she is proud, stiff, vain, imperious, prying, malicious, greedy and uncharitable. In all likelihood, her natural austerity has been soured by her disappointment in love; for her long celibacy is by no means owing to her dislike of matrimony: on the contrary, she has left no stone unturned to avoid the reproachful epithet of old maid. (72)

18th-century literature had a tendency to paint the position of old maid in the harshest light, and this novel is a particularly potent example.

This novel is epistolary, and it is episodic. There are threads that are introduced in the beginning and returned to at the end, but the novel is not by any means tightly plotted, and the resolutions to all the plot points are so obvious as to preclude tension. Because the book is structured around a tour, it is essentially a travelogue as much as it is a novel. An 18th-century travelogue is a volume of doubtful interest to the modern reader, and the detours (mostly in Matthew’s letters) over sociology, economics, agriculture, etc. are not always compelling. Some, of course, do resonate quite strongly with present concerns. Given the quite recent vote on Scottish independence (and the possibility of another), Bramble’s reflections on the Act of Union are interesting:

The only solid commercial advantage reaped from that measure, was the privilege of trading to the English plantations; yet, excepting Glasgow and Dumfries, I don’t know any other Scotch towns concerned in that traffick. In other respects, I conceive the Scots were losers by the union.—They lost the independency of their state, the greatest prop of national spirit; they lost their parliament, and their courts of justice were subjected to the revision and supremacy of an English tribunal.’ (277)

Or, how about this, on the subject or rural depopulation/urban overpopulation, a subject very relevant in terms of Ireland’s current demographics:

But, notwithstanding these improvements, the capital is become an overgrown monster; which, like a dropsical head, will in time leave the body and extremities without nourishment and support. The absurdity will appear in its full force, when we consider that one sixth part of the natives of this whole extensive kingdom is crowded within the bills of mortality. What wonder that our villages are depopulated, and our farms in want of day-labourers? The abolition of small farms is but one cause of the decrease of population. Indeed, the incredible increase of horses and black cattle, to answer the purposes of luxury, requires a prodigious quantity of hay and grass, which are raised and managed without much labour; but a number of hands will always be wanted for the different branches of agriculture, whether the farms be large or small. The tide of luxury has swept all the inhabitants from the open country—The poorest squire, as well as the richest peer, must have his house in town, and make a figure with an extraordinary number of domestics.  (97)

There is much such debate on issues topical and arcane. These passages lacked Smollett’s characteristic humour, and for the most part were probably more interesting to the 18th-century reader than he of the 21st-century.

The plotting, too, is lacking in interest or originality. You know the drill: everybody turns out to be everybody’s else long-lost something; some people get married; some people get a chunk of money. There are no real villains in the novel to be punished, humiliated, or sent to the colonies – although one slightly repentant highwayman in the early part of the novel is recommended to make the journey:

It would be no difficult matter to provide you with an asylum in the country (replied my uncle); but a life of indolence and obscurity would not suit with your active and enterprizing disposition—I would therefore advise you to try your fortune in the East Indies. (192)

The book draws to a slow close with a plethora of predictable marriages and re-unitings (through outrageous coincidences) of long-lost families. But Clinker does have its moments. One nice humorous touch is the following anecdote about a man addressing a bust of Jupiter. This anecdote has an authentic ring to it, so I imagine Smollett is recording it rather than inventing it:

Some years ago, being in the Campidoglio at Rome, he made up to the bust of Jupiter, and, bowing very low, exclaimed in the Italian language, ‘I hope, sir, if ever you get your head above water again, you will remember that I paid my respects to you in your adversity.’ (187)

On the whole, though, I don’t agree with the consensus that Clinker is Smollett’s best. His real gifts are better exhibited in Random. 

Men Lie to Women, Women Lie to Themselves: Deception and Gender in Stephen King’s Pet Sematary (1983) and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899)

With the new film adaptation of Pet Sematary (1983) due out in April this year, I have revisited this novel that I haven’t read since my early teens, a time when I devoured all of King’s earlier output. Sematary was one I enjoyed at the time. Of all King’s novels, it is for me the one with the most memorable physical setting: the pet cemetery (it’s written “Pet Sematary” on the sign, hence the novel’s title) itself, and beyond it the deadfall and the twisting path through the woods, across a swamp and onto a rocky hilltop where the Micmac Indians once buried their dead. Years after reading it, I could still picture Louis’ nighttime journeys to the Micmac burial ground.


There’s a lot of other stuff going on in this novel. The basic plot is that the protagonist, university doctor Louis Creed, and his family move to a house in rural Maine. The setting is initially idyllic, but the house is set inconveniently close to a busy road, and – even more inconveniently, as it turns out – near the pet cemetery. Creed finds out from Jud Crandall, an elderly neighbour, about the Micmac burial ground, set miles deep in the forest, in a hidden path behind said pet cemetery. Jud leads Louis to the burial ground in order to bury Louis’s daughter’s beloved cat there, after the latter is killed outside the Creed house by a passing truck. They bury the cat quickly, before Ellie (Louis’ daughter) finds out about his death. The cat soon turns up outside the house again, albeit in an unsettling, zombified and quite smelly state. Ellie doesn’t take much notice though. That takes us to a third of the way through the novel.

So this is a novel about death. About the acceptance of death, and the refusal of such acceptance. By burying the cat at the Micmac burial ground, Louis appears to align himself with the notion of refusing to accept death. In fact, though, an earlier conversation between Louis and his wife Rachel has shown that while Louis accepts the idea of a pet cemetery as a healthy way for a child to learn about death, Rachel is horrified by the idea and doesn’t want Ellie to go there. This escalates into an argument about the propriety of speaking to children about death. Louis says:

There’s nothing wrong with a child finding out something about death, Rachel. In fact, I’d called it a necessary thing. (46)

Rachel disagrees, and her response to Louis’s calm, rationalistic approach to the debate is a host of emotional actions: she “cried”, “sobbed”, “hissed”, “screamed” (46). So Louis’s later attempts to avoid death are related to the need to keep Rachel on an even emotional keel.


The cat returns in a promotional shot from the new Pet Sematary film.

When Louis goes to the Micmac burial ground with Jud and his dead cat, he keeps it a secret not only from Ellie, but from Rachel as well. As he knows, she doesn’t want to hear anything about death. Jud, as a sort of father and mentor figure, offers some homespun philosophical reflections on themes of secrecy and gender:

“[A]ny woman who knows anything at all would tell you she’s never really seen into a man’s heart. The soil of a man’s heart is stonier, Louis – like the soil up there in the old Micmac burying ground. Bedrock’s close. A man grows what he can, and he tends it. (136)

Later, Jud writes to Louis: “I’d guess most men tell their wives a smart of lies” and Louis mentally adds “[w]ives and daughters as well” (145). Louis, after his difficult encounter with Rachel, has now embraced Jud’s philosophy of masculinity. It’s about silence, secrecy and a hidden darkness. Femininity, on the other hand, is characterized both by an upfront emotionalism and by an inability to face the darker elements of reality.

This sort of gendered characterization is not a new idea in canonical literature. Indeed, it is very reminiscent of the famous closing passage of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), wherein Marlow decides to lie to Kurtz’s fiance about the manner of his life and death, in line with a philosophy Marlow has earlier outlined:

It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there has never been anything like it, and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset. Some confounded fact we men have been living contentedly with ever since the day of creation would start up and knock the whole thing over.

In HoD, what Marlow decides to hide, even though he purportedly “hates a lie”, is the violent and exploitative nature of colonialism, which resides behind the “great and saving illusion”. The importance of women in the HoD universe is that they really do believe in the illusion of benign colonialism – what was sometimes called the “civilizing mission“. Believing is what women do, and pretty much all that they do. Men do the work; they do everything except the believing. Feminine faith and simplicity is beautiful to Marlow. To protect that faith, men like Marlow and Kurtz brave the horror of colonial reality, and live a lie.

So, in deciding that women can’t face the truth and must be lied to while the men go about doing the dirty work needed to keep society going, Creed is trying to be a latter-day Marlow. But Marlow ends his story with the beautiful lie still in place, and the truth remains “out there” (specifically, in Africa); for Creed, living in a different age, it doesn’t end so well, and the beautiful illusions just can’t hold up against the horrible truth, which comes right into the home with unpleasant consequences.

Maybe that’s the 19th-century outlook versus the 20th century. Maybe it’s mainstream literature against the horror genre. Maybe the women of the 1980s were that bit more woke, such that a Conradian-style deception was not really feasible. Maybe the upcoming adaptation will provide a further perspective on the Creeds’ dynamics and their relationship to death. That’s one of the values of adaptations: by comparison with their originals we are given tools to think about our society and how our attitudes contrast to those of other places and times.

Becoming a Man in Tom Wolfe’s Back to Blood (2012)

The tradition of the Condition-of-England novels of the mid-19th century is still with us; novels still offer “analysis and synthesis of social reality”. One of the contemporary novelists who most clearly invites comparison with the C-of-E genre is the American Tom Wolfe. Wolfe’s novels are huge sprawling affairs with large casts spanning social classes but linked by chance, like Dickens’ Bleak House moved across the Atlantic.

Wolfe published Back to Blood in 2012, and it is still his most recent novel. He is in his mid-80s, so it may be his list. In fact, it is only his fourth novel, as he didn’t start until late middle age, with 1987’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. Up until then, he had written only non-fiction, journalistic pieces collected in very successful volumes such as The Right Stuff and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. But with Bonfire, Wolfe set the template for his fiction work, and he has reused it in work since then.


Tom Wolfe in the 1980s, in typically dandyish dress.

Bonfire was a quintessentially New York novel, as tied to place as Bleak House is to London. With Blood, Wolfe set the entire 700 page opus in Miami, having apparently gone down there first to put in the research. To highlight the similarities between Bonfire and Blood the following precis, which can be applied to either novel, is offered:

The plot is set in motion when the white male professional protagonist becomes embroiled in a charged encounter with a low-status black male, one which becomes public knowledge and sets loose a storm of public condemnation on the head of said protagonist. Finally – several hundred pages – later the protagonist faces down the baying, bovine public and wins back his honour and his financial and social standing.

In Blood, this protagonist is Nestor Camacho, a cop of Cuban heritage. Camacho first comes to public attention when he arrests a Cuban attempting illegal entry into the US, an arrest carried out in a spectacular fashion. This leads to Camacho being ostracised by the Cuban community, including his own family. Then, shortly afterwards, Camacho arrests a black drug dealer in a violent manner, and a video emerges of Camacho’s partner racially abusing said drug dealer and of Camacho himself calling the guy a “filthy little bitch” (Vintage, 2013, p. 309) and so on. Cue public outrage.

Though the general public denounce Camacho and he is relieved from duty by the Police Department, another reading of the incident is provided:

No indication whatsoever of the life-or-death crisis that precipitated this vile “abuse,” not so much as a hint that this put-upon black man is in fact a powerful 250-pound young crack house thug, nothing to make it at all credible that he might have touched off the whole thing by wrapping his huge hands around the Sergeant’s neck, that he was within one second of murdering him by crushing his windpipe, that his life was saved only by the immediate reaction of Officer Camacho, who threw himself onto the brute’s back and, weighing only 160 pounds, clamped a couple of wrestling holds onto 275 pounds of crack house thug and rolled in the dirt and the dirtballs with him until the brute became utterly depleted in breath, power, willpower, heart, and manhood… and gave up… like a pussy. How could any man pretend not to realize that, faced with death, even a cop experiences an adrenal rush immensely more powerful than all chains of polite conversation and immediately seeks to smother his would-be killer with whatever vile revulsion comes surging up his brain stem from the deepest, darkest, most twisted bowels of hatred? How could any man, even the mildest and most sedentary, fail to understand?! (pp. 416-417)

Who is it who speaks here? It is a characteristic of Wolfe’s fiction, and especially this book, that there is a very blurred line between narratorial comment and the thoughts of the characters. The above is an example. The use of an exclamation mark seems to indicate the emotion that would come with Nestor’s point of view, but some of the language is rather formal and literary, which Nestor is not. There is an intertwining of the narrator’s voice with the character’s, indicating an ideological alignment.

The logic of the plot bears this out also, as Nestor undergoes a Hero’s progress, from equilibrium to crisis and finally back to equilibrium at a higher level and with gained knowledge. This happens during the rushed final chapter, when he returns to active duty, taking up again his badge and his gun, whilst also embarking on a new relationship with a beautiful and well educated young girl – leaving behind his old girlfriend, a Cubana nurse who dumped him but now wants him back. The old girlfriend’s reflections on the “new” Nestor are revealing:

“It was like he was being all manly and taking charge […]. He was kind of… I don’t know…” She laughed, trying to take the edge off the word she was about to use– “hot.” (pp. 695-696)

The Nestor she is responding to is one who has come through the fire of public opprobrium, and now he is back on the beat, and, what’s more, he’s manly and hot. His coming to true manhood is related to his ability to withstand and ignore the opinions of the public, who are characterized by a reflexive liberal outrage. The very strength of the public feeling toward Nestor’s actions allow him and Wolfe to avoid analyzing those actions in depth. The reflexiveness and hysteria of the public position makes opposition to it seem brave, rational and manly, and the troubling complexities of Nestor’s actions as a guardian of the peace giving way to violence disappear.

Meanwhile, and equally disturbingly, Nestor coming to manhood also means disowning the community from which he sprung: his girlfriend is gone, and his relations with family and other Cubans are just jettisoned and forgotten about halfway through the book. Manhood is not about such relations in Wolfe’s world. Manhood is about engaging fully and thoughtlessly with the symbolic authority one has been invested in by the state. Nestor is just a badge, a gun, and a uniform, with a doting young girlfriend on the side. Heroic masculinity is about silence, violence and power. As evidence, there is the otherwise pointless episode where Nestor faces down a “big lug” in a diner:

Nestor was in such a good mood, thanks to Cristy, he would have been glad to laugh at the big lug’s crack—which did have a valid point, after all—and let it pass… except for one word: sniffing. Especially coming from the working-stiff lips of a hulk like this one, it meant sniffing Cristy in a sexual way. Nestor ransacked his brain to find a reason why even that might be okay. He tried and he tried, but it wasn’t okay. It was an insult… an insult he had to stomp to death on the spot. It was disrespectful to Cristy, too. As every cop on patrol knew, you couldn’t wait. You had to shut big mouths now.

He stepped away from the counter and gave the americano a friendly smile, one you could easily interpret as a weak smile, and said, “We’re old friends, Cristy and me, and we haven’t seen each other for a long time.” Then he broadened the smile until his upper lip curled up and bared his front teeth… and kept stretching that grin until his long canines—i.e., eyeteeth—made him look like a grinning dog on the verge of ripping open human flesh, as he added, “You got a sniffing problem with that?”

The two men locked eyes for what seemed like an eternity… Triceratops and allosaurus confronted each other on a cliff overlooking the Halusian Gulp… until the big americano looked down at his wristwatch and said, “Yeah, and I gotta be outta here and back on the site in ten minutes. You got a problem with that?”

Nestor nearly burst out laughing. “Not at all!” he said, chuckling. “Not at all!” The contest was over the moment the americano averted his eyes, supposedly to look down at his watch. The rest of it was double-talk… trying to save face. (649)

So in “stomp[ing] to death” the perceived insult, the incipient violence of Nestor’s new manlihood is laid bare. This is one of the many troubling aspects behind Wolfe’s book and the implied ideology behind it.

Wolfe has sympathy mostly with power and money, and interest in how they are gained and wielded. The dialogism that informs a first generation Condition-of-England novel like Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855) has here given way to brute force. Because of this, Wolfe needs to be read for the many challenges he presents to the liberal way of thinking. The Wolfean universe is not necessarily one we want to live in, but the questions are: How accurately does it reflect the universe we do live in? How valid is its analysis and synthesis of social reality? And how does it use of the baying liberal mob as fuel for conservative feeling resonate with current trends?

Damsels in Distress; Stern, Silent Rhodesians; and Imperial Dreamlands: Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit (1924)

Once again I have been perusing the work of Agatha Christie, this time a relatively little-known, relatively early novel called The Man in the Brown Suit (1924). The title of the book is a particularly uninteresting one. A man in a brown suit is far from a noteworthy phenomenon, and, prima facie, there is little reason why one would want to read about him. Christie was not a particularly good titler of books: she often used generic titles involving Murder (…in Mesopotamia, …on the Orient Express, …is Easy, etc.) or Death (…on the Nile, …in the Clouds, …Comes as the End, etc.) and also had a fondness for using nursery rhymes (One, Two, Buckle My Shoe; Five Little Pigs; And Then There Were None; etc.). But The Man in the Brown Suit perhaps takes the prize as the most boring title she ever used.


But Brown Suit is not a boring book. It is interesting in that it is uncharacteristic of Christie. It is less a detective novel than an adventure novel. It is very much in the vein, indeed, of John Buchan’s Greenmantle and such works. A dash of espionage, some foreign travel, embroilment in huge political conspiracies, a daring and reckless central figure. Christie’s protagonist and narrator (of most of the book) is an 18-year-old girl called Anne Beddingfield. Here is a notable point of difference from Buchan. Buchan’s hero in Greenmantle, The 39 Steps and others in the series is Richard Hanny, and he is a bachelor who surrounds himself with loyal and similarly adventurous male friends. Women don’t get a look in. (Note: the romantic interest introduced by Hitchcock in the famous film version of Steps does not exist in the novel.)

In feminizing the genre, Christie introduces a few notes not found in writers like Buchan. One notable motif in Brown Suit is that of the damsel in distress, that age-old and much critiqued trope. Christie is self-consciously working with this trope from the beginning and throughout, as is evidenced by the narrator’s repeated references to “The Perils of Pamela”, obviously a play on the famous silent-era serial The Perils of Pauline (1914), which is still today a byword for damsel-in-distress narrative. One could make the case that Christie is satirizing this trope:

Pamela was a magnificent young woman […]. She was not really clever, the Master Criminal of the Underworld caught her each time, but as he seemed loath to knock her on the head in a simple way […], the hero was always able to rescue her at the beginning of the following week’s episode. I used to come out with my head in a delirious whirl […]. (11)

Thus Anne recognizes a certain formulaism and unreality about the series, but at an emotional level it retains its impact. This is a central theme of Brown Suit, both interesting and irritating. Christie/Anne is constantly displaying a consciousness of the improbabilities of the plot, but such a plot is still evidently emotionally satisfying for both narrator and author.

Also differing from Buchan is the inclusion of a romantic subplot – indeed it is so central that one might consider it co-plot rather than subplot. Anne’s thirst for Perils-of-Pamela-style adventure is from the beginning indistinguishable from her desire to find romantic love. She has a very specific ideal of romantic love: “stern, silent Rhodesians” (11). This tag recurs several times in Anne’s narrative to describe the man of her dreams. Here enters the complicating factor of imperialism. Rhodesia had recently – just the preceding year, in fact – been annexed by the British, so Anne’s romantic desires are firmly focused on the figure of the imperial conqueror.

So, the excitement of the imperial project is inscribed in Brown Suit. While England is a place of “butchers and bakers and milkmen and greengrocers” (9) and of “drab utility” (11), the imperial battlegrounds of South Africa and Rhodesia are loci of adventure and excitement, of attractively inarticulate men of action and of romantic opportunity. This initial set-up dichotomizing boring, utilitarian England and the exciting, adventuresome realm of foreign affair (imperialism and war) is strongly reminiscent of Buchan (see the opening of The 39 Steps) and of Erskine Childers’ seminal spy novel The Riddle of the Sands (1903). It is here that Anne can play out the battle within her between the woman of action and the submissive damsel in need of rescue. Even in the closing pages of the book, Anne writes of her lover: “I followed him as meekly as the Barotsi woman I had observed at the falls, only I wasn’t carrying a frying-pan on my head” (189-190). Thus Anne has neither sought nor found emancipation, but she has found a true master, one such as could only exist in the dreamlands of imperialism.

This, then, is a very different Christie. The youth of her heroine gives her much scope to reflect on gender, desire and on the search for fulfilment in life. Poirot might be little more than a brain inside a utilitarian shell of a body, but Anne is a more complete human being in certain respects. Her idealization of the “stern, silent Rhodesian” type may seem immature, and even troubling in the context of the imperial struggles (and indeed the trade union struggles mentioned in the book) of the time, and they demonstrate Christie to have been at a far remove from any insight into the workings of imperialism. In Brown Suit, imperialism is a fantasmic construct. But that is not a reason to avoid the book, for the fantasy of imperialism was as important as the reality. As Conrad depicted in Heart of Darkness, the genuine belief in the imperialist mission by those removed from it was central to its perpetuation: “that great and saving illusion“, as Conrad’s Marlow called it. This illusion would appear to be a central dynamic principle behind The Man in the Brown Suit, a work which is in itself energetic and readable, though unlikely to be much remembered were it not for Christie’s more straightforward detective works.

The Post-Victorianism of Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands (1959)

Wilfred Thesiger was a writer-explorer in the tradition established in the Victorian period. In his introduction to Arabian Sands (Penguin 2007; book first published 1959), Rory Stewart writes of Thesiger:

His writing, therefore, often echoed the reports of nineteenth-century British travellers on the North-west frontier: matter of fact, understated, replete with precise information, useful for Imperial projects. (ix)


Thesiger and Salim Bin Ghabaisha, one of his Bedu companions in his travels across the Empty Quarter.

Given that the travels documented in Sands took place in the late 1940s, Thesiger was too late to contribute to imperial projects. At the time, Britain did have a presence of sorts on the so-called Trucial Coast (modern-day UAE), but they had little real power, and they pulled out amicably in the late 60s. And Thesiger would not have wanted to contribute to imperialism. For all the Victorian pluck, reserve, tolerance of hardship and uncomplaining perseverance in evidence in his writing, Arabian Sands is more in the tradition of Rousseau’s Noble Savage than British imperial literature.

Thesiger admired without reservation the Bedu desert nomad tribes of Southern Arabia. His was not a “civilizing mission” in the Victorian tradition, but consciously the reverse. Thesiger was desperate to escape modern western living and find purity in the austerity of the desert. He notes with regret the imminent coming of the oil companies to Arabia, and foresees the dying out of the Bedu way of life:

I realized that the Bedu with whom I had lived and travelled, and in whose company I had found contentment, were doomed. Some people maintain that they will be better off when they have exchanged the hardship and poverty of the desert for the security of a materialistic world. This I do not believe


I knew that for them the danger lay, not in the hardship of their lives, but in the boredom and frustration they would feel when they renounced it. The tragedy was that the choice would not be theirs: economic forces beyond their control would eventually drive them into the towns to hang about street-corners as “unskilled labour”. (329-330)

Hardship over boredom and frustration was the choice Thesiger made throughout his life, and the reader of Sands is compelled to consider the same choice. It’s not only material comfort Thesiger gave up. He was also apparently celibate throughout his life. Whether he found this a burden or not he does not say. This is not surprising, for in Sands, there is very little self-analysis or self-psychologizing. The point was not to have a rich emotional life, nor even to know thyself. In crossing the world’s largest sand desert, the Empty Quarter of Oman, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Yemen, there was no space for such luxuries. There was so much less self to know.

So the really Victorian thing about Thesiger is, perhaps, his commitment to the annihilation of self. This is Thomas Carlyle’s rather violent term from his extremely influential work bildungsroman Sartor Resartus (1833-34):

“Here, then, as I lay in that CENTRE OF INDIFFERENCE; cast, doubtless by benignant upper Influence, into a healing sleep, the heavy dreams rolled gradually away, and I awoke to a new Heaven and a new Earth. The first preliminary moral Act, Annihilation of Self (Selbst-todtung), had been happily accomplished; and my mind’s eyes were now unsealed, and its hands ungyved.” (Bk. 2, Ch. 9)

Sartor’s protagonist Teufelsdrockh is, like Thesiger, a ceaseless traveller, and the image of the desert is one Carlyle often invokes:

In strange countries, as in the well-known; in savage deserts, as in the press of corrupt civilization, it was ever the same: how could your Wanderer escape from—his own Shadow? Nevertheless still Forward! I felt as if in great haste; to do I saw not what. From the depths of my own heart, it called to me, Forwards! The winds and the streams, and all Nature sounded to me, Forwards! Ach Gott, I was even, once for all, a Son of Time. (2, 6)

For Carlyle, any exceptional person must pass through the desert, but it is only a passing through. The point is to emerge out the other side. This is where Carlyle’s deism comes in. The only way out of the desert is through religious faith.

Product of a later age, Thesiger’s is a godless universe. There is only desert. One doesn’t simply pass through, but returns to it again and again, experiencing hardship upon hardship without end. The journey is the goal. To a Victorian like Carlyle, this would be a nightmarish and unacceptable conclusion. But to Thesiger, there is nothing to regret and nothing to complain of. Having experienced that new modernist dawn that the Victorians anticipated with some ambivalence, Thesiger is absolutely convinced – so convinced that he rarely mentions it in Sands – that the desert itself is the answer, is as close to Carlyle’s Everlasting Yea as one is going to get. This is a certainty Thesiger seems to hold beyond the need for dogmatism, and it is the undogmatic ease of Thesiger’s philosophy that is one of the merits of this great book.

Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (1942): Victorianism and Knowing One’s Place

Some months ago I wrote on Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library, suggesting that it was a middle-class revenge fantasy aimed against the hedonistic youth of the day, and noting that Christie’s ire seemed to be particularly directed against the figure of the attractive, party-loving young woman. On recently reading Christie’s Five Little Pigs (1942), I was again struck by Christie’s use of the figure of the attractive and sexually available young woman, and, in the context of my previous reading of Christie, the particular animus the author seems to feel for this figure, so at odds with the conception of Christie as a cool and unemotional writer, one concerned with bringing the detective genre to “geometrical perfection“, as Tzvetan Todorov put it. In many ways, this conception is not inaccurate, but still Christie’s books are not without anger and hostility.

christie five little pigs

Five Little Pigs (HarperCollins, 2207)

In Five Little Pigs, Hercule Poirot undertakes to investigate a 16-year-old case: the murder of the painter Amyas Crale, for which his wife Caroline was convicted. An open-and-shut case, it seemed at the time, for Caroline never publicly protested her innocence, and she died shortly after being sentenced to life imprisonment. Caroline’s motive was said to be Amyas’ affair with his young model Elsa Greer – now Lady Dittisham. All very satisfactory, but Poirot becomes convinced Caroline was innocent. In his conviction he turns out, of course, to be correct.

Before turning to the figure of Elsa Greer, it is worth defining the philosophical and ideological position from which Christie seems to condemn this character. This position is, in a word, Victorianism. This is articulated in the description of the governess character, Miss Williams, another potential suspect.

Nevertheless, to Poirot’s eye, there was no despondency there and no sense of failure. Miss Williams’ life had been interesting to her – she was still interested in people and events. She had the enormous mental and emotional advantage of a strict Victorian upbringing denied to us in these days – she had done her duty in that station of life to which it had pleased God to call her, and that assurance encased her in an armour impregnable to the slings and darts of envy, discontent and regret. (HarperCollins, 2007, p. 185)

Who speaks here? That opening to Poirot’s eye indicates that the passage is a piece of interior focalization. But it doesn’t sound like Poirot. We can’t imagine him saying these pious words. If not Poirot, it can only be the narrator  – in either case, there is a definite weight to this opinion. Christie’s third-person narrators are rarely if ever unreliable; Poirot even more rarely. In the context of Elsa’s character, the concept the narrator/Poirot introduces here of knowing one’s place becomes key.

In fact, we’ve already found that Elsa Greer/Lady Dittisham is linked to social mobility – of not knowing, but creating your place. She tells Poirot early on: “My father, you know, was a mill hand. He worked his way up and made a fortune” (152). This is a significant fact for Poirot, for just a few pages later: “He smiled very faintly. In her voice was the arrogance of the successful mill hand who had risen to riches” (157). This is pretty brutal. No sooner is the admission of humble birth made, than it becomes an index of Elsa’s character flaws. Later, another character writes: “All the veneer of refinement and education was stripped off. You could see her father and her father’s mother and father had been millhands” (227). Elsa did not know her place, as her father had not, but even when she seems to have escaped her lowly upbringing, she is at any moment capable of giving herself away. This not knowing your place is also presented by Christie as a modern – that is, not Victorian – characteristic, for Elsa herself is described as a girl “who went in for being modern” (121).

What Elsa is not, is a gentlewoman. It is the anti-Elsa, Miss Williams, who articulates this most clearly when she details the struggle between Elsa and Caroline over Amyas Crale:

Miss Greer’s manner had been unbearably insolent the last few days. She was feeling sure of herself and she wanted to assert her importance. Mrs Crale behaved like a true gentlewoman. She was icily polite, but she told the other clearly what she thought of her. (264)

Here we have the essence of gentility: icy politeness to the unacceptable other, to the social interloper. Once we know this – Elsa’s social defeat by Caroline – there is perhaps an inevitability to the solution. Caroline didn’t kill Amyas; Elsa did. He was, of course, about to dump her to reclaim his marriage to the gentlewoman Caroline. For how could a man of such talent and culture, even an egotistical one like Amyas, choose the classless Elsa? To a degree unusual in Christie books, the solution here seems less a dispassionately crafted puzzle and more the inevitable result of an ideological bias. Knowing what we know of Elsa and Caroline, how could the book end but with the defeat and unmasking of the millhand’s daughter?

Poirot, like Sherlock Holmes, before him, did not always punish the guilty. And so it was here. He confronts ex-Elsa, now Lady Dittisham:

“Do you think I care in the least what my husband would feel?”

“No, I do not. I do not think you have ever in your life cared about what any other person would feel. If you had, you might be happier.”

She said sharply: “Why are you sorry for me?”

“Because, my child, you have so much to learn.”

“What have I got to learn?”

“All the grown-up emotions – pity, sympathy, understanding. The only things you know – have ever known – are love and hate.” (334-5)

And so Lady Dittisham walks free. The characterization of the working class as lawless children without the discipline or understanding to govern themselves, a feature of Victorians like Thomas Carlyle, haunts this passage. Elsa/Lady Dittisham is not a real adult, and those things she has yet to learn, she will never learn them. We have already seen that you cannot learn these things. Elsa had only one lesson to learn, and that was the same one Miss Williams learned: know your place. She did not learn it, and the consequences were tragic. That is the ideological lesson of Christie’s severe moral drama, her tribute to Victorian paternalism and protest against the modern, insolent, socially mobile young woman.

Death of Democracy and Rebirth of Aristocracy in Doyle’s The Poison Belt (1913)

In my last post on The Poison Belt (1913), I wrote as follows:

That all death including mass death should be looked on with equanimity is the thrust of the book. Indeed, had it been published a year or two later I would be sorely tempted to see it as a propaganda exercise justifying and glorifying WWI. Each time Doyle writes of the beauty of his armageddon it seems as if he is talking about the near future, about the wholesale slaughter of the trenches that was just around the corner, as if he is trying to convince the reader and himself that it is all for the best.


Reading Belt, it seems that there was already something in the air, that Europe could see it coming, and was bracing itself for death on a wider scale than had ever been seen. Think of this novel as a straw in the wind, a demonstration of Raymond Williams’ concept of the structure of feeling, which is given expression in literature before becoming an acknowledged part of the general experience.


That point has since recurred to me in connection with another passage from the book, a particularly revealing one, I think, and one that has stayed with me more than any other from The Poison Belt. In this passage, Challenger, his wife, Roxton, Malone, and Summerisle are sealed into the former’s house, awaiting the death of everyone outside. Most of the people who are to die are at a great distance, but one is close by and in plain sight: Challenger’s chauffeur, Austin. Austin has already appeared in the book; he has been depicted as loyal and wholly devoted to Challenger. The discussion about him that I wish to discuss is as follows:

“By George, that poor devil of a chauffeur of yours down in the yard has made his last journey. No use makin’ a sally and bringin’ him in?”

“It would be absolute madness,” cried Summerlee.

“Well, I suppose it would,” said Lord John. “It couldn’t help him and would scatter our gas all over the house, even if we ever got back alive. My word, look at the little birds under the trees!” (Arthur Conan Doyle, The Poison Belt, Hesperus, 2008, 46)

And that’s that. They don’t bring him in, and he soon dies – or seems to at least. Why, then, has Challenger made no effort to save the life of his loyal servant of ten years’ standing? It’s not that he is wholly indifferent to the death of humanity. He has tried to warn them in a letter to the Times which was, of course, ignored. If he cannot perform the heroic duty of saving the whole world, then can he not at least fulfil the Carlylean dictum: “Do the duty which lies nearest thee.” The duty that lies nearest is saving the life of Austin, and Challenger has made no effort to do this. It seems not to have even occurred to him until now, when Roxton mentions in somewhat dismissive terms, inviting the rejection of the idea that arrives. Why?

It is obvious from reading the discussion of Austin, and from reading between the lines of the situation, that for Doyle’s characters there are two grades of human, and their lives are of different values. The classifying principle is, well, class. The working class and the gentleman’s class: Challenger, Roxton and Summerisle are all titled persons. Malone is not, but is a writer, and, as such, Doyle attributes him a dignity equating to that of Professors and Lords. We must recall Carlyle, a particular favourite of the young Doyle, here. Of the Man of Letters, Carlyle had written: “he is the light of the world; the world’s Priest;—guiding it, like a sacred Pillar of Fire, in its dark pilgrimage through the waste of Time.” So Doyle’s protagonists – Professors, Lords and Men of Letters – are the true elite, the aristocracy of talent as well as, for the most part, of title, the men worthy of inaugurating that new world that Doyle longs for.

Austin, representative of the untalented herd, must die. Doyle’s apocalypse is thus revealed as a class purge, leaving behind 20th-century democracy for a return to a primitive patriarchy under Challenger. His dominance is emphasized by the fact that only he is allowed a female companion. It is like the Primal Horde of Freud’s Totem and Taboo. It is a rejection of democratic tendencies for a return to history as the vehicle of Great Men.

And to complete our analysis here, we must again remember that the book was a straw in the wind, that it anticipated the slaughter of the WWI trenches, and that Doyle himself was to welcome that conflict, enlisting Sherlock Holmes, no less, as a vehicle for propaganda. In the famous closing lines of the Holmes story “His Last Bow”, the Great Detective, having just captured a German spy, proclaims:

There’s an east wind coming […], such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared

Even before the Great War began, I maintain, Doyle was in The Poison Belt considering with a sort of joy the regeneration of the world, the sacrifice of the herd, and the birth of a new aristocracy from the ashes of democracy. This was the cleaner, better, stronger land into which Challenger and his companions were almost born.

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The best mystery and crime fiction (up to 1987): Book and movie reviews

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VHS Rules, OK?

my small infinities

My wee little life in this great big world and related sundries.

Nirvana Legacy

Dark Slivers out now: Kindle ebook or, for paperback, email

it's this or get a real job


"The game is afoot."

Exploring Youth Issues

Dr. Alan Mackie @ Edinburgh University

Bundle of Books

Thoughts from a bookworm

Selected Essays and Squibs by Joseph Suglia

The Web log of Dr. Joseph Suglia

Anti-Fascist News

Taking on Fascism and Racism from the Ground Up.

Black Label Logic

The Sophisticated man's shitlord