Thursday, September 1, 2011

Felix Bartlett

September, 2011:  I was in Cowra for the launch of Bush Doctor (The Memoirs of Dr. Felix P. Bartlett), edited by two of Felix Barlett's descendants, Jane Caiger-Smith and Michael Bartlett.  I bought a copy, and after Jude The Obscure, felt too wrung-out to start on another novel.  Bush Doctor was a good antidote to Jude.  Bartlett was born in Brixham, England, in 1855, and spent nearly twenty years in Cowra as the local doctor.  
This was the prime of his life.  I think people often look back on their lives and see one passage of it as particularly vivid - story-worthy!  The rest of their life looks more ordinary, less exceptional, but this one period stands out, made of an different substance.  By chance, I'm concurrently reading Francis Ratcliffe's Flying Fox, Drifting Sand (but I haven't finished it yet so will leave it uncommented-upon), another young Englishman whose vivid passage took place in Australia.  It's not just that this is the 'exotic' passage in their lives; another person could have come to Australia, or gone to India or Africa, and gathered just a few dull memories.  It's not what they did or where they went - it's the way they experienced it.  Sometimes you experience things as though you are freshly sharpened hour-by-hour.  Sometimes you are blunt for months, years, on end, hardly grazing the world as you pass through it.  
Bartlett found his time in Cowra stimulating; he was taxed to the limits of his resources, trying to keep everyone in the district alive.  Saving people's lives must give you a sense of satisfaction, purpose, and of your own almost super-human strength.  I felt envious, reading about Bartlett's life; being, as I am, a writer who writes things that might never be read, I often lack a sense of purpose, and am more likely to feel non-existent, or unreal, than super-human.  Bartlett is a real man; I am one of those semi-children, suspended in development, or maturity - an artist (why would anyone want to be one?, I have been asking myself in the past few years).  Yet even a real man like Bartlett succumbed, in the end, to making a story out of his real life.
And I'm grateful that he did!  My favourite part of his memoirs is titled 'Cowra: Medical Matters'.  His sub-headings include 'Sandy Blight', 'Accidents', 'Cancer', 'The Typhoid Epidemic of 1885', 'Hydatids'; I also liked 'Cowra: The Town', with the tantalising sub-headings that would keep me reading into the night, 'The Madmen', 'The Drink', 'The Carcoar Murders', 'The Mouse Plague'.  Perhaps because he was a doctor, he writes in graphic and intimate detail - after all, he was the medical student who didn't faint when his professor chopped off part of a patient's face and "the blood began to fly in arterial spurts.  Then came another incision through the upper lip and along the side of the nose nearly to the eye and Timothy's face was again sprayed with blood."  Bartlett's description of this operation covers a whole, long paragraph.  He ends with, "It was by far the most blood-thirsty fracas that I have ever seen, but as for feeling faint or even pale, it had no effect on me."  What a fearless observer for us readers to have on their side!  

Thomas Hardy

September, 2011:  Mumma recently read Thomas Hardy's last novel, Jude The Obscure (1895), and recommended it.  A recommendation from Sally is enough to put a book on my list, but her comment, "It's very anti-marriage," put it right at the very top of my list.  I said, "Can I borrow it now?"
Jude the Obscure is a cry for understanding, a cry of reason - and a fading hope that anyone will hear in time.  "Someone might have come along that way who would have asked him his trouble, and might have cheered him by saying that his notions were further advanced than those of his grammarian.  But nobody did come, because nobody does..."  Naturally enough, it ends with death and despair.  This is a very real purpose of writing - that it can be a communion, of writer and reader, from beyond the grave.  And it does actually improve the writer's immediate life, and alleviate his or her sense of profound, Cassandra-esque loneliness, to salt away these thoughts and ideas for a future reader.  When you write a letter to a friend, for example, you feel companionship - writing a letter can feel like a social interaction.  If you happened - heaven forfend! - to get run over by a truck on your way back from your stroll to the post-box, this wouldn't nullify the companionship that you felt while writing the letter.  This is how I (an atheist) console myself when reading the work of writers like Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, Eve Langley, Isabelle Eberhardt - it is worth something that they are appreciated after they've died.  And maybe in some ways they all, like Langley, "prefer to work in the lonely silence of the unknown winter."  Otherwise the tragedy of their lives is heavy - that they were sane, clear-eyed people, who, like Sue of Jude, "saw all my superstitions as cobwebs that [they] could brush away with a word"; but who were treated as mad or aberrant or ever - for shame! - obscene.

"As for Sue and me when we were at our own best, long ago - when our minds were clear, and our love of truth fearless - the time was not ripe for us!  Our ideas were fifty years too soon to be any good to us."
Jude The Obscure is full of ideas.  It is principally a illustration of the damage caused by marriage.  It is also a case for making education freely available to those who really want it (as opposed to mandatory for all, as it is in our "qualification essential" society).  Jude grows up an orphan in a small, muddy hollow in Wessex, and develops an ambition to go to university at the far-off, glittering city of Christminster.  He prepares himself by learning Latin and Greek from a couple of old, secondhand grammars, while delivering bread for his great-aunt's bakery.  

But how to live in that city?  At present he had no income at all.  He had no trade or calling of any dignity or stability whatever on which he could subsist while carrying out an intellectual labour which might spread out over many years.
What was required by most citizens?  Food, clothing and shelter.  An income from any work in preparing the first would be too meagre; for making the second, he felt a distaste; the preparation of the third he inclined to.  They built in a city; therefore he would learn to build.

This is the soundest career plan I've ever read - what is required by most citizens?  Hardly a line of reasoning that would lead to the conclusion: "I know, I'll design apps for mobile phones."  
His ambitions are thwarted when a buxom young woman with dimples and abundant tresses (the first of which turns out to be studied, the second detachable and made of horse-hair) seduces him, then, following the advice of a girlfriend, pretends to be pregnant in order to make him marry her.  Jude, being serious and horourable, or "such an old slow coach", marries Arabella.  This soon turns out to have been a mistake.  

Their lives were ruined, he thought; ruined by the fundamental error of their matrimonial union: that of having based a permanent contract on a temporary feeling which had no necessary connection with affinities that alone render a life-long companionship tolerable.
This simply-worded sentence sums up the core of my own disbelief in marriage.  Most of us want to find someone with whom we have these affinities, and getting married isn't proof that you've found him or her.  In fact, if you're lucky enough to find him or her, marriage is completely superfluous.  Even being together is superfluous, as Jude points out.  There are some affinities that endure to the end.  Marriage - and divorce - are irrelevant to these affinities.
I won't go on describing what happens over the next four-hundred pages.  For my own benefit, I will transcribe a few bits and pieces that appealed to me:

Perhaps Sue was thus venturesome with men because she was childishly ignorant of that side of their nature which wore out women's hearts and lives.
Jude, in a desperate bid not to give up his dream of going to university, sends letters to several heads of colleges in Christminster describing his situation and asking them for advice.  Only one writes back:

Sir, - I have read your letter with interest, and, judging from your description of yourself as a working-man, I venture to think that you will have a much better chance of success in life by remaining in your own sphere and sticking to your trade than by adopting any other course.

Jude goes out on the town and on the way back to his rooms, he chose:

"...a circuitous route homeward to pass the gates of the College whose Head had just sent him the note.
The gates were shut, and, by an impulse, he took from his pocket the lump of chalk which as a workman he usually carried there, and wrote along the wall:
"I have understanding as well as you; I am not inferior to you: yea, who knoweth not such things as these?"  - Job, XII 3.

Sue says that universities ought to exist for people like him.  At the end of the novel, she says:

"Your worldly failure, if you have failed, is to your credit rather than to your blame.  Remember that the best and the greatest among mankind are those who do themselves no worldly good.  Every successful man is more or less a selfish man.  The devoted fail...'Charity seeketh not her own.'"
The dialogue between Sue and Jude is natural, idiomatic, idiosyncratic, and conveys the depth of their affinity.  Here they are on their way to the church to try to get married (having obtained divorces from their respective spouses), and both are having grave doubts about the act:

"We are horribly sensitive; that's really what's the matter with us, Sue!" he declared.
"I fancy more are like us than we think!"
"Well, I don't know.  The intention of the contract is good, and right for many, no doubt; but in our case it might defeat its own ends because we are the queer sort of people we are - folk in whom domestic ties of a forced kind snuff out cordiality and spontaneousness."
Sue still held that there was not much queer or exceptional in them: that all were so.  "Everybody is getting to feel as we do.  We are a little beforehand, that's all.  In fifty, a hundred, years, the descendants of these two [the ones ahead of them at the altar] will act and feel worse than we.  They will see weltering humanity still more vividly than we do now, as '...shapes like our own selves hideously multiplied...' and will be afraid to reproduce them."
"What a terrible line of poetry!...though I have felt it myself about my fellow creatures, at morbid times."

Sue finds her first husband, Phillotson, who is twenty years older than her, so physically repugnant that she shrinks from him when he tries to give her a kiss on the cheek, and soon after their marriage moves into a separate bedroom.  One night, after their in-house separation, he absentmindedly goes into her room instead of his.  She wakes to find him undressed and about to get into bed with her, and she jumps out the window, falling a storey or two.  Phillotson is heroic, in his way, and this incident convinces him that he has to let her go.  Later, Sue finds out that Jude and Arabella spent a night together:

"Your story was that you had met as estranged people, who were not husband and wife at all in Heaven's sight - not that you had made it up with her."
"We didn't make it up," he said sadly.  "I can't explain, Sue."
"You've been false to me; you, my last hope!  And I shall never forget it, never!"
"But by your own wish, dear Sue, we are only to be friends, not lovers!  It is so very inconsistent of you to-"
"Friends can be jealous!"

Sue concludes the argument by saying:

"O it was treacherous of you to have her again!  I jumped out of the window!"

And a bit later:
"O don't you understand my feeling!  Why don't you!  Why are you so gross!  I jumped out of the window!"
"Jumped out of the window?"
"I can't explain!"
I read, in a Good Weekend column, the trite phrase "about as funny as Thomas Hardy", i.e. not at all.  It's true that Jude The Obscure left me convinced of the cruelty of the world - specifically, of groups of people towards anyone who differs from them.  And it paints being alive as a grinding-down process, in which all hopes, dreams, hearts etc. are slowly worn away.  But against this harsh backdrop, Jude and Sue's thoughts and feelings are beautiful and interesting (and sometimes funny); thoughts and feelings make life worth living.  Jude describes Sue as, "a woman-poet, a woman-seer, a woman whose soul shone like a diamond."