A Mere Piece of Furniture

Dinah Birch

  • Albertine by Jacqueline Rose
    Chatto, 205 pp, £14.99, October 2001, ISBN 0 7011 6976 1

There are good reasons, and a few bad ones, for lifting minor characters out of famous texts and putting them centre-stage. One bad reason might be that refiguring a large reputation quietly amplifies your own. Shakespeare’s cultural authority has made him a tempting source, but writers who provide Shakespeare’s marginal presences with another chance to speak also aim to make amends, to offer restitution to those who didn’t get a fair deal on their first appearance. Browning’s monologue ‘Caliban upon Setebos’ is a pioneering work here. Written long before Caliban came to be seen as the play’s most worthy character, this extraordinary poem endows Prospero’s beastly slave with a measure of aspiration and much charm. Browning uses his Caliban to address the questions that were bothering his contemporaries – uncertain boundaries between animal and human, theories of religious belief, uses and abuses of power. Prospero, ‘careless and lofty, lord now of the isle’, gets short shrift. ‘Caliban’ is a poem that performs thought. It has no story to tell, and shows negligible interest in the plot of The Tempest. What we are given instead is a long examination of Caliban’s last utterance: ‘I’ll be wise hereafter, and seek for grace.’ Browning turns Caliban into a muddy embodiment of spiritual optimism. The vindictive deity Setebos, barely mentioned in Shakespeare’s play, is seen to be reaching for calm – the transcendent Quiet that Caliban himself secretly contemplates.

The high Victorians most admired Shakespeare’s redemptive late romances, but in the 20th century the more intellectual Hamlet was identified as the central text. Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead enacts a bleaker Shakespearean inheritance. No touch of immortality or hope of salvation for these helpless courtiers. This is a drama preoccupied with its own fixed conclusion: ‘In our experience, most things end with death,’ Stoppard’s Player King remarks. But Stoppard, like Browning, allows himself to side with the underdog. Shakespeare’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are a slight and slippery pair. Stoppard gives them a touchingly stoic resilience, and an irresistibly baffled wit. They are as firmly placed in Stoppard’s time as Browning’s Caliban in his. The cultivated inheritors of Prufrock (‘I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be’) and Vladimir and Estragon (‘Nothing to be done’), they are for ever incidental to the rise and fall of greatness that makes for high tragedy. Denied the dignity of his tragic heroism, the noble Hamlet is a destructive force. In John Updike’s recent novel Gertrude and Claudius, Hamlet is still more unlovable. He is coldly manipulative, while his kingly father is reduced to a clumsy and egotistical bully. Updike is also engaged in an act of rehabilitation. But he turns his attention to Gertrude, dismissed to a casually peripheral death in Shakespeare’s tragedy. This is a much freer reshaping than Stoppard’s – partly because Updike’s narrative stops where Shakespeare’s drama begins. The characters have different names during most of Updike’s novel: Gertrude is Gerutha; Claudius is Feng. One of the transitions that is important to Updike, and in a different way to Shakespeare too, is the movement from paganism to Christianity. As a child, Gerutha inhabits a pagan world, freer and more vital, as she perceives it, than the newly Christian court at Elsinore. Both societies are solidly male-dominated, however, and Updike’s novel chooses the female part. Gerutha, or the Gertrude she becomes, speaks with the unmistakable accents of 20th-century feminism: ‘My father and future husband bargained me away, and you have given me back my essential value.’ Gertrude’s value is what Updike wants to affirm. If this rich novel has a weakness, it is that only Gertrude emerges with any credit. Old Hamlet is seen to have failed his wife dismally: ‘He had never seen her as she was, fitting her instead into a hasty preconception, his queen.’

Giving a condemned or silenced woman a voice has become much the most popular move for those who reform founding texts. It is not a new notion: the Victorian poet Augusta Webster, who learned a great deal from Browning, did it brilliantly in her ‘Circe’. Webster’s enchantress takes a dim view of male heroism. Visiting mariners are turned into pigs and wolves because that is what they are. ‘Change? There was no change/Only disguise gone from them unawares.’ Webster was among the first to claim that all men are beasts, but she was not the last. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys’s celebrated reconsideration of Jane Eyre, Rochester’s mad wife is reincarnated as a courageous victim. Rochester, on the other hand, is a much diminished figure, ‘hard as a board and stupid as a foot, in my opinion, except where his own interests are concerned’. In Rhys’s novel, in which ‘names matter’, Bertha Mason is given a new name to go with her changed identity. As Antoinette Cosway, she is a spirited and handsome girl. Ruthlessly sold, abused and imprisoned, Antoinette finally triumphs in the avenging flames of Thornfield Hall. Jane Eyre, as central to the 20th-century literary imagination as Hamlet, is still generating inheritors. Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca was among the most successful. In Rebecca’s Tale, Sally Beauman’s recent reassessment of du Maurier’s edgy romance, the first Mrs de Winter becomes an articulate and implacable presence. Rebecca punishes her murderous husband by destroying the house that had for so long represented the security of his social class.

These are potent and gratifying works, but there is something odd about them. For all the sophistication of this oblique sub-genre, it is always taken for granted that fictional characters can be separated from their originating texts to be defended and explained. It is really what these characters represent that is vindicated, however: thwarted ambition, passion denied, the subjugation of a sex. They are archetypes not individuals. The secondary texts claim expressive freedom for their protagonists, an independence denied in their original manifestations. Yet their liberation must also be a transformation, which undercuts the point of the exercise. In a moment of defiance, Stoppard’s Guildenstern confronts the unheroic death that is written into his role: ‘no one gets up after death – there is no applause – there is only silence and some second-hand clothes, and that’s death.’ Updike’s Gerutha makes a comparable point:

Is a woman’s death less than a man’s, I wonder? I think death for both is exactly as big as it must be, like the moon when it blackens the sun, to eclipse life completely, even to the last breath, which perhaps will be a sigh over opportunities wasted and happiness missed . . . no woman wants to be a mere piece of furniture, to be bartered for and then sat upon.

Who could argue? But it would not have been possible for Shakespeare or his contemporaries to have conceived of death in these terms. Such sentiments are the product of a secular age. Voices of this kind cannot speak for the characters of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Wholly distinct from their models, they remain entangled in a narrative that no longer has much to do with them.

Jacqueline Rose’s critical intelligence alerts her to this problem in Albertine, her account of the woman who is fenced into a story of an erotic obsession not her own in A la recherche du temps perdu: her Albertine struggles to deny Marcel’s containment. Now that Modernism is beginning to shift into history, Proust’s vast and complex novel is acquiring a cultural status akin to that of Hamlet. Rose’s is among a flurry of Proustian re-evaluations, including film adaptations from Raoul Ruiz and Chantal Ackerman, Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life, Malcolm Bowie’s Proust among the Stars and Harold Pinter’s stage version at the National Theatre. Rose has long been preoccupied with the power of fantasy – ‘perverse, recalcitrant, persistent’, as she describes it in The Haunting of Sylvia Plath. In that study, she suggests that women are more likely to articulate this power. In Rose’s novel Albertine knows how to withdraw into the poisoned autonomy of fantasy, but Marcel is still more dependent on its seductive illusions. Neither is able to find freedom. ‘Thus quietly, invisibly, his dream of ownership, like all such dreams, set about sabotaging itself. In a way, it was a bizarre form of generosity. I don’t think he has ever once seen me or enjoyed me without bringing someone else along, coupling me inside his head.’ The pleasures and the corruptions of the mind displace the more immediate pressures of an unforgiving social situation. Albertine is an orphan, poor and displaced. Her lover, protected and privileged by his sex and wealth, has no comprehension of what she has to lose from the calculated manoeuvres with which he binds her into his own claustrophobic existence. She wants to marry, the only way she can secure her position in a class-conscious world which has excluded her. Her needs are alien, and in a sense invisible, to his enervated vision.

Rose broods on questions of confinement and escape throughout this novel. The story opens with Albertine flinging open the window of the stifling Paris apartment in which she is trapped:

There is perhaps nothing so hard to imagine, for someone who has never known asthma, as the idea that air can suffocate. That it does not free but constrains, grips the throat, makes each fibre convulse, hammers the whole body with its blows. Maybe that’s why I did it so loudly, made such a fanfare of my rage. As much because I don’t really believe that it can kill him, as because I do.

Anger and ambivalence drive this newly imagined Albertine. She wishes, and does not wish, to free herself from her own story. She is inclined to destroy Marcel, her would-be possessor, or at least to elude his control. But she also pities and even occasionally loves him, and wants to be united with him. Her quick insight is a reliable touchstone. Rose signals authorial anger in an epigraph to the novel from Proust: ‘The pages I would write, Albertine, above all the Albertine of then, would not have understood . . . Had she been capable of understanding them, she would, for that very reason, not have inspired them.’ Rose allows Albertine to escape this heavy authorial condescension: her Albertine understands Marcel only too well.

Marcel, on the other hand, hardly understands Albertine at all. In this version of their story, obtuseness replaces Marcel’s refined perception, and is what ties these dissatisfied lovers together. Again and again, Rose insists that Albertine is not only much cleverer that Marcel realises, but cleverer than Marcel himself. She is also more active, bolder, better-looking, more aware of what she is doing, and more adept at deceiving her lover. Proust’s narrator is tormented by uncertainty as to whether she is having lesbian affairs. Rose leaves Marcel in unhappy ignorance, but it is no longer a condition that the reader has to share. In this version of Albertine’s life, we are told at length that her sexual experiences with women are intense, varied, and very much more satisfying than her amatory encounters with Marcel. In a pivotal scene, Rose recasts the moment in Proust’s novel when Marcel enters the room of the sleeping Albertine, and takes his solitary pleasure while lying next to her unconscious body. In her version, Albertine is not helplessly asleep. She is simply pretending, and Marcel is seen to be deluded. Here as elsewhere, Rose seems to be revenging herself on an offensive text.

In order to do this, some things have to be purged from the original. Most comprehensively erased is Albertine’s anti-semitism, which was emphatic and unmistakable in Proust’s text, and had much to do with the cycles of reflective self-contempt and self-analysis that characterise his extended deliberations. But Rose’s Albertine, watching a pair of flamboyant Jewish sisters parading in a hotel ballroom, approves of their openly sexual display. She even envies them, seeing in them a braver response than her own to being thought to have a dubious reputation:

These girls were notorious. Shameless in a way I would never have dared to be. They weren’t trying to shock anyone . . . They didn’t care what anybody thought. They existed on their own terms. I knew that, in this world, we were meant to look down on them. But from where I was standing to be so flagrant was luxury untold. They may have been outsiders, but to my mind they embodied the proud spirit of the ballroom more than anybody else. Nobody could touch them. They could be sure they would go on for ever because they already had. Back to the beginning, they trailed their strength, flying in the face of a world that hated them. Would this be what it meant to belong? Really belong? A clan. Why mock them for that?

This is robustly written, and in its way it is admirable. After all, these are the values we admire – the courage of the oppressed, resisting the hostile prejudices of class, race and gender. Albertine’s reflections are all the more attractive for not displaying Proust’s curious ambivalence on the question of Jewishness, still less the original Albertine’s views. This is one area where Rose is not prepared to permit the ambiguity that characterises Albertine in almost every other respect. The reader is given the moral perspective of a different generation, the result of another historical experience. We like Albertine the better for it, and this is Rose’s intention. But we lose Proust’s riskier and more alienating suggestion that it is not possible to like Albertine, for it is hardly possible to know her.