The Victorian Sage

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Tag: north and south

The Cold Distance of the Master: Žižek and Gaskell

A few months ago I wrote on the concept of the master, making some comparisons to the 19th-century concept of the Great Man. The master was a term associated with Jacques Lacan, but, primarily for me, with Slavoj Žižek. Žižek is preoccupied with this figure, and while Lacan was essentially a psychoanalyst, Žižek is very much engaged in political issues, so when he speaks of the master, he necessarily invites comparison with the Great Man theory of Carlyle and his successors.

In In Defense of Lost Causes (Verso 2008), Žižek once again considers the figure of the master in a brief but suggestive passage, contrasting him to the supposedly postmodern figure of the boss:

A “postmodern” boss insists that he is not a master but just a coordinator of our joint creative efforts, the first among equals; there should be no formalities among us, we should address him by his nickname, he shares a dirty joke with us… but during all this, he remains our master. […] We are not only obliged to obey our masters, we are also obliged to act as if we are free and equal, as if there was no domination – which of course, makes the situation even more humiliating. Paradoxically, in such a situation, the first act of liberation is to demand from the master that he act like one: one should reject false collegiality from the master and insist that he treat us with cold distance as a master. (202)

jurgen-klopp-1

Jurgen Klopp. What a boss [in the Žižekian sense].

 

Back in Victorian England they had masters rather than the bosses described by Žižek. Indeed, the name given to the factory owners by their employees was “master”. In Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1854-5) this relation between masters and men is particularly central. Indeed, it is a relation that may be seen as the central problem of the age, when one thinks of Carlyle and Ruskin’s preoccupations with it. But it is Gaskell who provides the most fully-drawn model of the “master”: Mr. Thornton (he is also the love interest of the protagonist of North and South, Margaret Hale).

 

thornton.jpg

Richard Armitage as Thornton in North & South (2004)

Thornton, played by Richard Armitage in the popular BBC adaptation, is a hard man who, in the early part of the novel, is unwilling to compromise with his workers, or to listen to their views. Just how courageously intransigent he is is demonstrated in the climactic riot scene, which takes place about half way through the novel. Here, Thornton leaves his house to confront the mob, and faces down the whole lot of them through the power of his own presence:

Mr. Thornton quivered with rage. The blood-flowing had made Margaret conscious – dimly, vaguely conscious. He placed her gently on the door-step, her head leaning against the frame. ’Can you rest there?’ he asked. But without waiting for her answer, he went slowly down the steps right into the middle of the crowd. ’Now kill me, if it is your brutal will. There is no woman to shield me here. You may beat me to death – you will never move me from what I have determined upon – not you!’ He stood amongst them, with his arms folded, in precisely the same attitude as he had been in on the steps.

I have gone into this in more detail elsewhere (and also in my PhD thesis, soon to become publicly available [which event will, of course, be announced here when it arises]), but suffice to say that the sheer masterfulness of Thornton’s personality is key both to his behaviour here and its effect on the rioters and to the development of the social element of the plot of the novel. It is not that Thornton is by any means perfect, and he has himself plenty to learn at this point, but his availability for heroic status in a mid-19th-century industrial novel is that, whatever his misjudgements, he is a true master of men. So, later in the novel, when Thornton has won back the trust of his workers and the mill is back in productive mode, there is a fine balance to be struck between genuine engagement with and concern for the men, and the cold distance of the master. This is made abundantly clear in the scene where Thornton magnanimously offers blacklisted union firebrand Nicholas Higgins his job back.

So, measter, I’ll come; and what’s more, I thank yo’; and that’s a deal fro’ me,’ said [Higgins], more frankly, suddenly turning round and facing Mr. Thornton fully for the first time.

‘And this is a deal from me,’ said Mr. Thornton, giving Higgins’s hand a good grip. ‘Now mind you come sharp to your time,’ continued he, resuming the master. ’I’ll have no laggards at my mill. What fines we have, we keep pretty sharply. And the first time I catch you making mischief, off you go. So now you know where you are.’

So Thornton here has behaved in a noble and unselfish way, but this must be combined with a rather anxious assertion of continuing mastery, which takes the form of a warning about punctuality (Higgins has caused trouble for the mill owners, but there has been no suggestion that, of all things, his punctuality is a problem). It is at the point of true kindness that the master is at his most vulnerable, his least masterly. Thornton is, throughout the remainder of the novel true to this aloof persona, even when he is engaged in work for the benefit of his “hands”.

And what is the point of this act of anxious masterfulness by Thornton? It is so that Higgins knows where he is. Here is where the post-modernist boss differs from the Victorian master: the master is anxious that you should always know your place; the boss is anxious that you should never come to suspect it. But perhaps the moment of truth must eventually come for everybody: the moment when the boss reveals himself ascold and indifferent to us in our full subjectivity. This is a neighbor whose truth is not in the bonhomie with which he greets us on a daily basis, or even in the dirty jokes we tell each other, but in his ability to slip immediately and seamlessly into the role of pure corporate functionary, and with the symbolic authority bring the weight of this crashing down on us. Then, finally, we remember where and what we are, for a time.

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A Publication in Between

An essay of mine, entitled “Towards a Wise Despotism: Traces of Thomas Carlyle in the BBC North & South (2004)” appears in the latest issue of the peer-review journal Between, the magazine of the Italian Association for the Theory and Comparative History of Literature. The issue is available here. My essay looks at how the social and political theories of Thomas Carlyle, generally discredited in themselves, are received when presented, unannounced, within the framework of a classic social novel of the 1850s, ie. Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, taking the adaptation of North and South to be a “reading” of Carlyle at second hand. This essay is a considerably shortened version of a chapter-draft for my PhD.

Between-bmp

See! There I am!

Lionel Asbo (2012) – Martin Amis

Martin Amis’s newest novel is subtitled “State of England”, placing it squarely in the tradition of the mid-19th century condition of England novels, Dickens’s Bleak House, Gaskell’s North and South, etc. These novels were concerned witth humanizing the working-classes for their middle-class readers, and instructing these readers in how to manage the working-classes. I have been reading North and South recently. The message of this book is (it seems to me): The poor are well-meaning and docile if treated with the right mixture of kindness and firmness, and here, embodied in Margaret Hale and the post-strike John Thornton, is how to do it. It’s not just a book to entertain; rather it purports to provide a model of dominant-class behaviour to control and placate the working-classes. It’s eminently socially engaged and consciously practical (which is not to commend the actual politics of the novel).

Martin Amis

Martin Amis

Amis’s addition to this genre is different. The upper-classes are almost invisible, or at least only appear as secondary characters. Lionel Asbo is focalized entirely on the titular character and Desmond Pepperdine, his mixed-race nephew. The former is a demonized depiction of lower-class masculinity, and the latter idealized. Lionel Asbo is addicted to porn and prison: “Porn is like prison. You know where you are” (148). Later, upon coming into a fortune in the National Lottery, he becomes a tabloid celebrity, and is lusted after by DILFs (the d is for divorcee), with several of whom he conducts affairs in which his sexual sadism is given free rein, in a post-50 Shades depiction of sexual relations. Lionel’s sadism is merely a component of the miasma of hate which surrounds him. When he tries to write a letter:

[T]he letter had an atmosphere. Lionel had hated writing it, and the words themselves had hated being written. Even the paper had hated the pen. (87)

But, then again, in Lionel’s home town of Diston, “everything hated everything else” (165). For some reason, Des Pepperdine is immune to this, and he provides a positive focus for the novel. He rises up through the social ranks, gets an education, gets a job, gets a baby with his girlfriend. The manichaean morality of the two main characters sometimes adds humour to their interaction with each other, but doesn’t make this an acute study of class psychology, or an insight into the state of England.

The least successful part of Lionel Asbo is towards the ending. Amis has added a Chekhov’s gun to the plot in the early stages, and it is clear that this is about to go off, with grave consequences for Lionel’s mood, and his attitude towards Des. In line with this, the latter part of the novel is edited like a thriller, with quick intercutting between the characters as the moment of truth approaches. Maybe Amis was already seeing the film version as he wrote. I’m not that familiar with Amis’s work, so I don’t know how much this tactic is characteristic of him, but tension-building kineticism does not seem to me to be his forte, and Asbo‘s tone has not got the reader into the zone of tension creation, so it falls rather flat. The novel works better as a comedy and as a satire dripping with scorn for a shallow, vacant, actively intelligence-hating (“What you doin there with that pen?” (6)) society – not because it provides an accurate picture of any section of that society, but because scorn has a power of its own, when well expressed, and Lionel Asbo has that power, intermittently at least.

In summation, in so far as this is directed at a middle-class audience, it is not saying, like Gaskell, “Here are the working-class and here is how we must engage with them”; rather it is saying, “Here is the working-class, the filthy oiks! Look at them! From a distance!” Yet, there is also Des, as good and kind as one of Dickens’s cardboard heroes. Perhaps he is a symbol of something, and this is the key to the novel, a prophecy of the victory of the Desses over the Lionels. But who or what Des is supposed to be, beyond a cipher and placeholder, is hard to say.

The Victorian Bachelor in Adaptation

Victorian novels, especially Dickens’s, tend to feature a benevolent / philanthropic bachelor-type character, who enters for the purpose of providing protection, prospects of social advancement and, often, large amounts of money to the protagonist. Someone like Mr Brownlow in Oliver Twist or the Cheerybles in Nicholas Nickleby. They may be an uncle or other relation to the protagonist, or be motivated to help simply by their overflowing niceness, and they ask nothing in return. They are singularly uncomplicated individuals, ones who tend to have no intimate personal relationships but to operate in the capacity of fairy godfathers to any deserving person who happens to come into their path. Recent adaptations suggest this character creates quite a headache, as such disinterested benevolence cannot be accepted as credible.

Andrew Davies was certainly conscious of this when he came to script Bleak House (BBC 2005). Bleak House has John Jarndyce as a central character, and Jarndyce is in the tradition of the benevolent bachelor, though with a complicating factor: he wants to get married to Esther, and traditionally this character is entirely happy with his bachelor state, and never countenances any other possibility. Dickens doesn’t really deal with Jarndyce’s reasons for marrying Esther, or the element of sexual desire that is, presumably, involved in his proposal. Rather, he has Esther (and also Ada) refer to Jarndyce as being “like a father” and other such terms. He also constantly stresses Jarndyce’s moral uprightness, and the respect all the other characters have for him, a sleight of hand obscuring Jarndyce’s real intention, as Davies sees them:

Dickens raises it, in a way, but shies away from it, as usual. Why did Jarndyce not get married before? Why does he settle on a child? Of course, she’s grown up by the time he actually pops the question, but by then she’s so obliged to him, isn’t she? […] Dickens is writing about a man who, for some reason, can’t deal with grown-up women, so what he’d like to do is groom this girl (Cartmell and Whelehan, 240).

Now whether Davies successfully redrafts Jarndyce’s character to get this across is another story. I don’t think he does. Though there are a few telling details added, they’re buried beneath the weight of Jarndyce’s overall niceness and at the serial’s pivotal points, it tends to follow the Dickens approach to Jarndyce. I don’t think anyone comes away from Davies’s Bleak House thinking of Jarndyce having groomed Esther. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting point, and this ambivalence about benevolent bachelor characters recurs in other period dramas of recent vintage.

In North and South (BBC 2004), we have Mr Bell making an implicit offer of marriage to Margaret Hale. Mr Bell is Margaret’s godfather, and her father has entrusted her to him, little suspecting (one presumes) that by “looking after” Margaret, Mr Bell has matrimony in mind. And, of course, in Gaskell’s novel he doesn’t have that in mind. Gaskell’s Mr Bell is presented without any sexual colouring at all; he’s an Oxford don, he’s never been married and the idea of it never seems to have occurred to him. Again, though, for scriptwriter Sandy Welch, this attitude on Bell’s part is unthinkable, and the need is felt to uncover the sexuality lurking under his mild and disinterested exterior.

Mr Bell's proposal

Oliver Twist (BBC 2007) – written by Sarah Phelps, who also scripted the 2011 BBC Great Expectations – is one of the more radical classic serials of recent times: a black Nancy, a Fagin who is victim rather than villain (not without precedent in recent adaptations, but the anti-semitism is explicitly tackled here), and who is also of a rotund figure, thus breaking with the conventional vision of Fagin from Hogarth’s illustrations through Alec Guinness in Lean’s Oliver Twist, Ron Moody in Carol Reed’s Oliver! and beyond. It also rejects the Dickensian portrayal of Brownlow by painting him as a paranoid and somewhat controlling individual. In this version he lives with Rose Maylie – no, he doesn’t want to marry her, but he is a morose and taciturn individual and very over-protective of Rose, being generally opposed to letting her out of the house, because she is the last link with the woman he once loved (who was Rose’s sister and Oliver’s mother– i.e. Rose is O.’s aunt in this version). So this Brownlow, as well as lacking the good temper of Dickens’s character, is also given a romantic past, and perhaps a romantic present, if we see him as having transferred his love for Rose’s older sister onto Rose herself. Actually, it’s Monks, here Brownlow’s nephew (confused yet?) who bears a predatory lust for Rose, but given the close filial relationship between Brownlow and Monks for most of the serial (until Monks’s dastardly Rose-entrapping schemes are revealed), one might well see Monks as a manifestation of Mr B.’s dark urges. It’s all very confusing, but for the purposes of this post all that’s relevant is that Brownlow is not the happy bachelor of Dickens’s novel.

Of course, the greatest of all Victorian bachelors was Sherlock Holmes, albeit much later in the Victorian era. I haven’t seen the serial Sherlock yet (!), so I don’t know if they do try to explore the title character’s sexuality. In Doyle’s stories, Holmes is depicted, I would say, as being “above” sexuality, a concept the Victorians wouldn’t have had a problem with, but that, in the context of recent adaptations, may not now be seen to be credible. Certainly not if the vid below is any indication.

*Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan, “A practical understanding of literature on screen: two conversations with Andrew Davies”, in Cartmell and Whelehan, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Literature on Screen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 240.

Beating the Poor: the BBC North & South (2004)

The adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South first aired on BBC1 in November/ December 2004 was, I believe, quite well received, particularly the portrayal of mill owner John Thornton by Richard Armitage, who made quite an impression if the IMDb reviews are anything to go by. It is, of course, quite faithful to Gaskell’s novel, which is half romantic melodrama, half commentary on industrial relations, the rise of trade unions and so forth. I want to talk about one scene which jarred me somewhat, and which is not taken from Gaskell.

It is the introduction of our hero Mr Thornton, occuring a few minutes in. The heroine and the focalizer in the serial (and the book), Margaret Hale (played by Daniela Denby-Ashe), enters Thornton’s factory. The setting of the factory is given a strange wonderland quality by the wisps of cotton floating through the air like snowflakes. I’m not sure if this is intentional; obviously, such airborne materials were highly obnoxious to the health of the workers, but they sure looked pretty, in this serial at least. Anyway, she sees Mr Thornton in the distance, standing looking down over the plebs on the factory floor, smartly dressed in a black suit, striking a very stylized pose, very Byronic in fact. Suddenly, his watchful stillness gives way, he roars out “Stephens! Put that pipe out!” and rushes after a worker, presumably Stephens, then grabs him, tears the pipe from him and, in an awesome display of macho power, actually beats the crap out of him, punching him in the face and stomach till he falls to the ground, then gives him a few kicks to the torso before letting him crawl away.


Why the insertion of such an excessive scene? Perhaps it’s a particularly strong expression of the class bias of period drama. Of course, Margaret is suitably shocked by Thornton’s actions, and expresses her disapproval to him and to other characters, but really, she knows better, and so do we as viewers. The swelling strings that accompany Thornton’s entrance, the idealized pose, his conspicuous handsomeness, the open-mouthed awe in Margaret’s face as she watches him– it is very obvious that this man is to be our hero, and here he is performing an act of unbridled violence. We can’t approve of this, we tell ourselves, but always knowing: this is the hero, there’s going to be a good reason for this; and provisionally exonerating him as we await the rationale for his actions. So strongly is he coded “hero”, that his act of violence is already endorsed.

And to introduce him with this act. Before he is anything else, he is a man who subjugates his social inferiors through brutal force. This scene makes a strong statement indeed about the class values of the period drama, or at least of this particular period drama – I don’t want to over-generalize, though I think that a class bias may well be more generally detectable in this type of adaptation, albeit not so violently expressed.

And yes, the reason, when it finally emerges, several scenes later, is an infallible one. Mr Thornton witnessed the aftermath of a devastating fire in a cotton mill, seeing bodies of the 300 dead. Including children. All because of an accidental flame. Subconsciously, we already knew that.

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