Saturday, October 25, 2008
A pastiche of a historical romance, it juxtaposes the ethos of the Victorian characters living in 1867 with the ironic commentary of the author writing in 1967. The plot centers on Charles Smithson, an amateur Victorian paleontologist. He is engaged to Ernestina Freeman, a conventional, wealthy woman, but he breaks off the engagement after a series of clandestine trysts with the beautiful, mysterious Sarah Woodruff, a social outcast known locally as the forsaken lover of a French lieutenant. The author, who continually intrudes on the narration, presents three different endings, encouraging his readers to reach their own conclusions.
This is a book I've thought about reading for years, but never got around to it. I think I saw the movie years ago with Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons, but if I did, I remember nothing about it, so the story was completely new to me while reading this book, having no idea how it would end - and after reading it, I still don't! There's nothing worse than reading a book and then having one of those ambiguous endings that make you think you completely missed the whole point and meaning of it. In a way, I feel like that with this one. I feel stupid, and unliterary. Bleh.
On the surface, the premise and plot are good. Charles Smithson, a well to do aristocrat of the late 1860's in England is engaged to Ernestina Freeman, the only daughter and heiress of a large department store owner. Ernestina is only too well aware that her family is in trade, and she tries to overcome this, but in many ways she overdoes it or forces it, but this doesn't seem to bother Charles all that much, for he's already well off - he doesn't really need her money, since he will be coming into a considerable amount and title when his bachelor uncle, who has made Charles his heir, dies.
But, while visiting Ernestina in Lyme Regis, a seaside bathing resort, he meets social outcast Sarah Woodruff. Sarah is an enigma - to both Charles and to the reader. What is really behind her odd behavior of seeking solitude and suffering from acute melancholia? The story behind Sarah is that she had been a respectible governess who fell in love with a Frenchman a few years back while nursing him from a shipwreck. He left for France, promising to return and marry her and never returned. She waits and waits for him along the Cobb in Lyme (the same from Jane Austen's Persuasion) and rumor has it she is half mad with grief and also a fallen woman. But no one really knows the truth. But, during the strict and straight laced times of Victorian England, she is a social pariah and avoided. Charles is intrigued by Sarah as soon as he sees her for the first time and soon his interest in her becomes more personal as they meet a few times by chance, and she asks him for his help. He wants to help her in the interest of a good samaritan doing a service for a tragic half crazed lone woman, but deep down he is sexually attracted, and yet repelled by her - a mirror of the sexual hypocrisy that was prevalent in Victorian society. Anything to do with sex was hushed up and not spoken of, reserved for only the darkest most private and secret of marriage beds. Yet, never has there been such a huge amount of pornography on hand as in this era. The male society was fascinated with what it could not openly discuss or acknowledge. Charles found himself in the same - albeit unaware of it - boat.
Upon first glance, Sarah appears to be the tragic figure in this story, but by the end, poor Charles is the tragic figure. Because of his obsession with Sarah, he meets her on purpose in a barn in Lyme, they kiss and then he pursues her to Exeter. All this is upon learning that his uncle has decided to marry a younger woman thus disinheriting Charles. He tells his future father in law, who embraces Charles anyway into the family and offers him a partnership in his family business - an idea anathema to any gentleman. A gentleman is not in trade. Charles is at his wits end, and it is in this frame of mind he goes to Sarah and they consummate their odd relationship (all in 90 seconds mind you - poor Sarah). Only afterwards does Charles realize he has been decieved by Sarah. She had been a virgin afterall, she had not been a fallen woman, and being the gentleman that he believes himself to be - grasps onto in fact as a lifeline - he tells her he wants to marry her and to end his engagement with Ernestina. They part ambiguously. Sarah expects never to see him again - in fact, acts as if she does not wish to see him again. He races off to Lyme, breaks his engagement and goes back to Exeter only to find Sarah has left without a trace. His manservant has gotten his revenge, and has not delivered a love letter from Charles to her. Charles has thus ruined his name and life, with no little help from his clever, lovelorn manservant, Sam who has his own interests to worry about in a side story that runs parallel to Charles'.
You can't help but feel sorry for Charles, I know I did, but at the same time, I shook my head over his folly. Why, why, why? Stupid man. And what was Sarah up to? Why did she lead him on and then turn him away? For the next two years or so, Charles leaves the country, an exiled Englishman, always thinking of Sarah and wondering where she is. Finally, while traveling in America, he is notified she has been found (again, thanks to Sam, his former manservant). Charles races back to London, seeks her out at the address and they meet. It's a strange meeting. She seems over her melancholy, but is living in this household with a famous artist. She does not want to be with Charles, yet she assures him she is not the artists mistress, nor does she ever intend to marry anyone. Charles is nonplussed, I don't blame him. She is a Sphinx, what is she really up to - what does she mean?? She then makes him believe she has given birth to his daughter and lets him meet her. Is it really his daughter - or is this just more of her bizarre cat and mouse game? Has her intention all along from their first meeting been just to destroy him thoroughly? If so, she's done a good job at it. The ending to me was odd, I wasn't sure if we were supposed to believe that Sarah was lying about the girl/daughter or what? I hate these kinds of endings!
Still, it was an interesting story, although tragic to see poor Charles' decline all in the name of honor and being a gentleman, and how ironic he ceased to be a gentleman in the eyes of society, because of what he did.
Some various moments with Charles were priceless to read. His encounter with a prostitute one night was horrific and hilarious at the same time, but his encounter with her little baby was tender and moving (much more so than with his own supposed daughter.) His drunken debauch with his friends was eye opening, and his ventures into paleontology collecting specimens seems so naive and carefree in hindsight, compared to what happens to him later on in the book after his fatal decision concerning Sarah. I liked a reference to Caesar and the Rubicon - that is exactly what it was like for Charles once he left Sarah to break his engagement with Ernestina. Sarah does seem to be very much like a Siren, luring him into her strange, sad world, and then watching him as he crashes upon the rocks, doing nothing to help.
A worthwhile read, with glimpses into Victorian society - aside from the author constantly injecting his opinions about everything in an omnicient sort of way. I found it slightly annoying and distracting from the main story, though some of the footnotes were interesting to read. I also could have done without the Victorian poetry at the beginning of every chapter - but I've never been a fan of Victorian poetry to begin with.