Mary Swann’s Way

Danny Karlin

  • Jane Fairfax by Joan Aiken
    Gollancz, 252 pp, £12.95, September 1990, ISBN 0 575 04889 1
  • Lady’s Maid by Margaret Forster
    Chatto, 536 pp, £13.95, July 1990, ISBN 0 7011 3574 3
  • Mary Swann by Carol Shields
    Fourth Estate, 313 pp, £12.99, August 1990, ISBN 1 872180 02 7

Jane Austen’s work seems, at first, hospitable to that literary parasite, pastiche: there isn’t much of it, so ersatz continuations or alternative narratives must satisfy the hunger for more; at the same time, the passionate familiarity which many Jane Austen readers have with her novels (demonstrated in Kipling’s wonderful story ‘The Janeites’) ensures a ready frame of reference for the imitator. But Jane Austen is, in fact, notoriously hard to ‘do’ convincingly. Joan Aiken (their names are horribly homophonic – could this have given her the idea?) is the author of Mansfield Revisited, which seems to have been successful enough to persuade her to try the market again. I have only ever read one such work, the continuation of Sanditon by ‘a Lady’ published some years ago; the bitter taste still lingers on, and I have a grudging sense that Jane Fairfax may not be quite as thin a dish of gruel as that. Instead it has an unappealing, mixed-up wrongness of flavour. It wants to be both like Jane Austen (to substitute for the real thing) and to revise Jane Austen (to be a real thing itself). Aiken disastrously fails to recognise that these are incompatible aims. She plunders Austen’s novel (sometimes quoting it verbatim or paraphrasing it closely, though ‘her’ Miss Bates or Mr Woodhouse or Emma have embalming-fluid in their literary veins); other characters derive weakly from other Austen novels (a brutal fop from Northanger Abbey, a kind-hearted mother from Sense and Sensibility) and one has strayed in wearing Mrs Jellyby’s clothes from Bleak House. At the same time, Aiken misreads Emma in crassly uninteresting ways. The plot turns on Emma’s fantasies about sexual relationships being mistaken, yet Aiken makes her daft suspicion of a liaison between Jane and Mr Dixon, formed at Weymouth, turn out to be true after all. This makes absolute nonsense of Jane’s relationship with Frank Churchill: the upright, pure-hearted, melancholy Jane is represented as choosing to enter into a clandestine engagement with a man she does not really love, and (even more ludicrously) is endowed with a romantic yearning for Mr Knightley worthy of Harriet Smith herself.

A line in feminist literary criticism takes Jane Fairfax, along with Marianne Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility, as an exemplary figure of the repressions and suppressions which Austen’s art both questions and practises. But of this struggle Aiken’s own wretchedly bad writing can say little. Jane Fairfax does indeed, I think, step into Emma out of the pages of Mary Wollstonecraft: but the protest which her presence in Highbury registers against the prevailing social order is defused by the fairy-tale plot which takes care to avert her grim social destiny as impoverished governess. She is clearly an intellectual where Emma is a dilettante; socially and economically trapped where Emma is at large; Romantic and self-thwarted in her emotional life where Emma is carefree and self-indulged. However pointed and suggestive this contrast may be, it does not imply equivalence. Jane is outshone by Emma (so is the other Jane, Jane Bennett, by Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice: as though characters gifted with their creator’s name were relegated to an ironic secondariness); Austen does not make the injustice of Jane’s lot tell against Emma’s privilege as such: rather, it shows up Emma’s misuse of her resources. Those resources include the lion’s share of the reader’s attention, which is not given to Emma as a privilege but because she earns it. She is, in Austen’s judgment, more interesting than Jane. It is this judgment which Aiken implicitly challenges: but in order to do so convincingly she would have to break free of precisely the aspect of pastiche which offers the reader a comfortably familiar tone and texture. The book’s mock-Georgian front (disfigured occasionally by the stylistic equivalent of double-glazing: ‘Solicitous to protect Jane, Emma’s mother did not reflect that the boot might conceivably be on the other foot’) is fatally at odds with its modern interior.

Margaret Forster seems on altogether surer ground in Lady’s Maid, which also takes up the case of a marginal figure in a larger narrative, though here the narrative is history, not fiction. The ground is that of her own recent biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and the marginal figure is that of her maid, Elizabeth Wilson, who came to Wimpole Street in 1844, was privy to her mistress’s clandestine love affair with Robert Browning (and was one of only two witnesses to her marriage) and accompanied her to Italy with a bravery which Elizabeth Barrett Browning acknowledged in the very last words of her last letter to Browning on the eve of their elopement. ‘Wilson has been perfect to me – And I ... calling her “timid”, & afraid of her timidity! I begin to think that none are so bold as the timid, when they are fairly roused.’ As against this generous tribute, and many other signs of affection and intimacy, Forster maintains in her biography that the Brownings treated Wilson at certain times (not always, of course, but the times concerned were crucial) with ungrateful shabbiness, and that Elizabeth Barrett Browning especially was to blame for her lack of imaginative sympathy and practical charity. There is a cutting description of the meanness with which Wilson in 1852 was refused a rise in her annual wage of 16 guineas, and an equally indignant account of the way in which she was forced, four years later, to leave her child in England to return with the Brownings to Italy. Still, these accounts do not loom large in the biography; for much of the time Wilson is, if not an anonymous or impersonal figure, certainly a background one, even in her tender care for the Brownings’ child Pen, a devotion which he affectingly remembered and repaid in her old age.

Lady’s Maid attempts not just to flesh out an interesting, somewhat enigmatic, but definitely minor character in the drama of a famous writer’s life, but to reverse the priorities of biography and scholarship which place the mistress in the main text and the maid in the footnotes. But, like Jane Fairfax, the enterprise is riven with contradictions of which Forster seems as unaware as Aiken. The title seems to promise a generic study, as though Wilson might have been any Victorian servant, as though the identity of her mistress didn’t matter. But the very idea of taking an interest in Elizabeth Wilson is dependent on her intimacy with Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Had this not been the case, we would probably not possess even the scanty historical information on which Forster’s story is based. Forster herself describes how the English visitors to Florence who come to stay in the lodging-house which Wilson runs when she finally leaves the Brownings’ service do so because she has touched and been touched by the author of Aurora Leigh. Yet she does not extend this insight to her own book: she wants Wilson to have it both ways, to benefit from our interest in her as ‘Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s maid’ and as ‘a person in her own right’. Accordingly, she works hard to invent an interesting family for Wilson, to imagine her emotional and sexual life, to give some graphic colour to her relations with her fellow-servants. But most of this fails for lack, to put it brutally, of point. Why should we be interested in Wilson’s inner life? It is much more absorbing to watch her frantic early-morning struggle to procure her mistress a decent wedding outfit. Forster tries to place Wilson’s abortive or successful love-affairs centre-stage: but the Brownings effortlessly steal the show, in part because the (unquoted) texts of their letters and poems show up Forster’s prose as lifeless or gushy. (‘Whatever he was in other ways, Ferdinando was sure and certain in love-making. Wilson was awed by his mastery, his control, his great care for her pleasure – it was as unlike the fumbling brutalities she had imagined as grace was unlike clumsiness.’) Forster compounds her problem by a generous but wrongheaded decision to make Wilson a prolific letter-writer. None of Wilson’s actual letters survive, so Forster’s are all inventions, and inevitably they raise questions of probability in vocabulary and tone. Had the novel been about a fictitious Victorian maid its scope for polemic, for the subversive imagining of what life was like for domestic servants, would have been much greater: but then this novel has already been written – it is called Esther Waters.

In its scenic aspects – its depiction of Victorian landscapes and interiors, of social and private life in both England and Italy – the novel is a deep disappointment. It is no good saying that Wilson was an ordinary person and so her fictionalised consciousness cannot be expected to mediate brilliant descriptions of London streets or Tuscan scenery. Mr Bloom is ordinary; so, for that matter, is Mr Polly. In September 1849 the Brownings went on an excursion from their summer home in Bagni di Lucca to Prata Fiorito deep in the mountains, ‘an almost inaccessible volcanic ground not far from the stars’, Elizabeth Barrett Browning called it, a ‘world of innumerable mountains bound faintly with the grey sea’. Robert Browning later drew on it for the magical and sensuous landscape of ‘By the Fireside’. All Margaret Forster’s Wilson can make of it is a ‘steep and dreadful path sometimes with the donkey almost standing on its hind-legs it seemed and slipping often so that stones went crashing down the mountain ... Mrs Browning declared she had never had such a wonderful day and would write to her sisters and describe the glories of the views but my legs shook and today they ache’. If this is a salutary correction of Romantic enthusiasm, who needs it? Mrs Browning’s ‘wonderful day’ is more appealing than this grumpy down-to-earthness, and it would take a good deal more art than Forster deploys here to make it otherwise.

Mary Swann is the first book by the Canadian writer Carol Shields to be published in this country. This is a very good novel, alive in every sense: formally ingenious and inventive, strikingly evocative of place, of character, of the world of things, capable of both comedy and tenderness, and above all beautifully, pleasurably written. It’s hard to describe this last quality – it’s like a marked, a particular taste, that you can’t name – but it’s unmistakable, and Shields has got it.

Mary Swann is the name of a provincial poet, a farmer’s wife in a small Ontario village, whose boorish husband shot her, hacked her in pieces, and put her remains in his silo on the day that she delivered her only manuscript to a local newspaper editor and small press publisher, Frederic Cruzzi. Published in a posthumous edition of only 250 copies (a number which dwindles significantly in the course of the novel), the rather gruesomely named ‘Swann’s Songs’ is discovered years later by a young feminist scholar, Sarah Maloney, and Swann’s reputation begins to grow. Scheming academics, obsessive literary biographers, unreliable or downright devious relatives, neighbours and acquaintances of the dead woman, combine to clarify (or is it obscure?) the circumstances of her life and death. But the task of recombining Mary Swann’s torn limbs, of reconstituting her identity and incorporating her in the literary canon, does not progress smoothly. Morton Jimroy, for example, the repulsive but pitiable biographer (one of Shields’s best creations) finds the historical record exasperatingly and intractably thin. There aren’t even any medical records which give Swann’s true height and weight; naturally, as someone tells him with the undertone of grim humour which is one of the book’s many pleasures, it wasn’t possible to measure the dismembered corpse ... Moreover, Jimroy would be disgusted to learn (as we do) that much of the information which he has gleaned from Rose Hindmarch, Nadeau’s spinster librarian, is tainted by defects of memory and character. And there are other problems. Things – documents, photographs, memorabilia of Swann – start to go missing. Sarah Maloney loses Swann’s journal; the University archives unaccountably can’t trace the photocopy of it ... (But then, isn’t she guilty of deliberately throwing away Swann’s rhyming dictionary, lest it confirm the view of her as nothing more than a rustic curiosity?) Jimroy loses a photograph – one of only two in existence – which he himself pilfered from the Mary Swann Memorial Room in the Nadeau Local History Museum (curator, Rose Hindmarch – but are the furnishings and objects authentic?). Later on he will lose Mary Swann’s fountain pen, also pilfered. Frederic Cruzzi, Mary Swann’s publisher, loses his file on her and his four copies of ‘Swann’s Songs’ in a burglary. More disturbing even than the pattern of these and other losses, a pattern whose significance is subtly and wittily linked to one of Swann’s own poems, ‘Lost Things’, is the revelation that the texts of the poems themselves are unstable, that the words may not be wholly those of Mary Swann but also those of posthumous collaborators who were both her destroyers and preservers.

This revelation has the added effect of disconcerting readers who may have been dubious up to then (as I was) about the ‘authenticity’ of the Swann poems cited, who may have worried over their perhaps-too-literary feel. Shields has allowed for this response – has, indeed, cultivated it. It will be seen that Mary Swann (like A.S. Byatt’s recent novel Possession, with whose subject it has much in common) is a clever book, self-conscious about literature, fashionably preoccupied with questions of deconstruction, of the ‘textuality’ of identity, of the powers and powerlessness of language. This impression is confirmed by its confident and playful manipulation of different narrative modes – first and third persons, style indirect libre, epistolary, and at the close a screenplay by an anonymous auteur for a film called ‘The Swann Symposium’, in which the characters of the preceding sections appear teasingly as ‘fictional creations’. These intellectual and formal aspects signal the book’s modernity, and are an integral part of its strength. But they do not preclude pleasures more traditionally associated with the novel. The four main characters, besides the elusive figure of Mary Swann herself – Sarah Maloney, Morton Jimroy, Rose Hindmarch and Frederic Cruzzi – are each sharply and convincingly portrayed. Only towards the end of the novel do you realise with what art their differing ages, jobs, social and personal mentalities have been fitted into the novel’s design.

Shields is equally skilled in the evocation of her creatures’ habitats and life-styles (especially the funny and dreadful small-town routines of Nadeau), and of their past lives; the two skills come together in one of the book’s finest passages, a guided tour of Frederic Cruzzi’s house as it would have appeared to the burglar who stole his copies of ‘Swann’songs’, a description of rooms and objects which in a few pages sums up the riches and losses of his long life. On the evidence of such passages, and of such a book, the sooner more of Carol Shields’s work is published over here the better.