Google+ Followers

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Sir Charles Grandison

My husband and I started reading Sir Charles Grandison this summer during car trips and finished volume I yesterday. (Only six to go.) This novel was a favorite of Jane Austen's, according to her brother Henry.

The plot line thus far is similar to The Sylph by Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire--the innocent, high spirited, forthright, and beautiful Harriet travels to London where many suitors pursue her and she encounters wickedness. The standout evil suitor, the arrogant, vain and wealthy Sir Hargrave Pollexfen,  arranges to kidnap Harriet from a masquerade ball by hiring unscrupulous servants to commandeer her chariot (strong shades of The Sylph). Sir Hargrave plans to force Harriet to marry him, but  Sir Charles Grandison foils the plan when he rescues her. At his home, she meets and becomes friends with his sister, Miss Grandison, a spicy figure, who later visits Harriet and demands breakfast immediately because "I can't eat my gloves." As the volume ends, Sir Charles refuses a duel with Sir Hargrave and makes a strong argument against duels for their spread of unneeded suffering. Certainly it seems as if Sir Charles and Harriet are destined to marry one another.

Probably my favorite letter in this volume was from a servant, Wilson, who helped with the kidnapping. The letter is a masterwork of rationalization and an expression of the limitations of the powerless--an apt psychological portrait as he tries to exonerate himself for his part in the misdeed. After all, he was just obeying orders. 

I can understand where Jane Austen loved Grandison, for in it women are allowed to be intelligent, strong and to have common sense. Richardson offers much proto-feminist rumination, calling for rationality to reign between the sexes, and advocating strongly for marriages based on love and mutual compatibility. I can see the seeds of Elizabeth Bennett in Harriet and can see Darcy as an amalgam of Sir Hargrave without the depravity (Arnie will no doubt argue that the shadow Darcy IS Sir Hargrave) and Sir Charles. Interestingly, however, we never encounter a masquerade ball in Austen. 

If Grandison is one source of many for Pride and Prejudice, Austen complicates the marriage plot by making the Bennet family's reputation questionable and the daughters fortuneless, problems Harriet does not have to contend with.

I still find myself amazed that the only novel Darwin took with him on The Beagle was Sir Charles Grandison. This novel is part of a stream of works that have fallen out of the canon because of changed tastes--yet this stream reamined influential into the first half of the 20th century. Others of this ilk, which I would characterize as too slow-moving for modern sensibilities, include Queechy by American Susan Warner and Swiss Adalbert Stifler's Indian Summer, to name two I have read or tried to read. 

Grandison is an exploration of point of view, but in a very different way from Austen. What Grandison does is use the epistolary form to layer various point of view, essentially retelling an episode from multiple perspectives. This creates tedium (in spots--in other spots the book is delightful) but also is integral to his purpose. What Austen has done is grasp the importance of point of view while dispensing with the tedium. She deliberately narrows her focus to one point of view and drops enough hints to let the reader figure out what is going on (or not).

Arnie tells me that Darwin was Mrs. Pole's grandson. Mrs. Pole was a friend of Austen and a perceptive reader of her novels. Darwin also married a Wedgewood daughter. The Wedgewood connection has long nagged at me as I think Austen must have had some interaction with the family. Wedgewood did finance the young, radical Coleridge, another link to the radical movement. Austen was not a radical but tantalizing hints of links or sympathy with some strands of radical thinking dance through her writing.  

No comments:

Post a Comment