Thursday, 2 September 2010

Review Post 45 - What novelists do in their spare time

George Eliot, a writer who once lived in my home town and is, therefore, officially brilliant, is well known for her epic novels (Middlemarch, Romola etc.), and I have long wanted to complete the set by reading Felix Holt, the only fiction of hers not in my possession - or so I thought...  When browsing a list of Oxford World's Classics publications, I discovered an Eliot title I'd never heard of, and it turns out that old Mary Ann, as I like to call her (it's a Coventry thing), in addition to her eight major works, also had two short stories serialised in literary journals.  Unfortunately, they were not as popular as her longer works, so they remained alone and largely overlooked, waiting for the odd reader to discover them centuries later.  Now, how could I resist that?

Brother Jacob, the second of the two stories in my edition, is a whimsical tale of David Faux, a young man who decides that the world owes him a living and that he intends to seek payment of that debt sooner rather than later.  He concocts a plan which involves appropriating twenty Guineas belonging to his mother in order to decamp to the West Indies and make his fortune in some vague and unplanned fashion.  The plan, however, comes unstuck when his idiot brother (whose name you can probably guess) tags along, complicating matters somewhat.

Having eventually made good his escape, we rejoin David several years later after his return from the Caribbean, now making a fair living as a confectioner under a pseudonym.  Life is starting to look up for our gallant protagonist when tempting news reaches his ears - but will his youthful misadventures threaten his imminent prosperity?

This amusing tale, probably Eliot's lightest literary moment, is reminiscent of Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge (albeit without any of Michael Henchard's redeeming qualities).  It shows the price we pay for our greed and the way it causes us to overreach when happiness is within our grasp.  Faux, whose name was chosen for its French meaning of 'false' and its resemblance to the English word 'fox' - indicating the cunning nature of our 'hero' - is the cause of his own downfall, and it's simple Brother Jacob who is involved in his final come-uppance.  Remember, everyone: it's rather important to be honest.

The first of the two stories, The Lifted Veil, is about the same length (around forty pages) as Brother Jacob, but in many ways it is a far weightier tale.  A dark (almost Gothic?) story, it centres on the figure of Latimer, an aged gentleman in a country house, apparently waiting for his death.  He tells us the story of his life, and recounts how he became obsessed with Bertha, a beautiful young woman who was the intended bride of his more popular and successful elder brother, and how events arranged themselves so that he ended up her husband.

All fairly normal stuff so far, you may think; however, there is a twist in the tale.  Latimer chooses Bertha despite knowing full well that she will end up despising him, with full knowledge that his marriage will be unhappy, a sham.  And how does he know this?  Well, you see, our friend Latimer has a couple of very unusual abilities...

When first offered for publication, the periodical which ran it was not particularly keen on the tale and wanted to tone it down a little; it was certainly a far cry from the pastoral story-telling of Scenes of Clerical Life and Adam Bede.  The focus on a number of pseudo-sciences, such as phrenology, (which had not, at the time, been dismissed as being without substance) seems strange to the modern reader, and the final twist in the story (a fairly unexpected one) is even more startling.

The underlying focus though is on the value of uncertainty in life and the misery that ensues when your destiny is preordained.  It is the possibility of forging your own future which makes life possible, and enjoyable, and on reading Latimer's tale, the reader can feel content not to have inside knowledge as to what is in store for them, tempting as it is to want to know our fate.

All in all then, a most enjoyable duet of tales, especially so when you consider that I never even knew they existed.  While there can be no comparison to Eliot's longer works, the two stories show another facet of a great writer, and that's something which is always welcome.  So, as mentioned above, it just remains for me to source a copy of Felix Holt, and I will have finally read all of Eliot's fiction - unless, that is, there are more lost stories waiting to be discovered...

Review copy courtesy of Betty from Oxford University Press (Australia & New Zealand) :)