Posts Tagged ‘Jane Austen’

Since vowing, in the wake of reading The 40 Rules of Love, to focus more on spiritual poetry, I have conspicuously failed to follow through. Yes, I’ve finished my volume of selected poems by Machado, dipped into a few of Eliot’s later poems, been diverted by very brief excursions into Robert Lowell and W.H. Auden, and a far longer exploration of Samuel Beckett’s life (more of that in a minute), only to end by picking up The Tenant of Wildfell Hall with the intention of finishing it at last, after starting it more than 12 months ago. That was after the eye-opening experience of reading Samantha Ellis’s Take Courage. I baulked at reading on at the time because I wasn’t sure that I could handle the nightmare of Helen’s marriage as Emily has her depict it.

Maybe Auden was right when he said in his Letter to Lord Byron (Stanzas 13 and 14 of the first part), after mentioning Jane Austen:

Then she’s a novelist. I don’t know whether
You will agree, but novel writing is
A higher art than poetry altogether
In my opinion, and success implies
Both finer character and faculties.
Perhaps that’s why real novels are as rare
As winter thunder or a polar bear.

The average poet by comparison
Is unobservant, immature, and lazy.

I don’t really agree with that, and nor did he I think: I sense his tongue is firmly in his cheek. His other praise of novelists is similarly faint and less ambiguous when he writes ‘he must become the whole of boredom’ and ‘if he can,/Dully put up with all the wrongs of man.’

So, perhaps not surprisingly the novel still insists on commanding my attention.

While Anne Brontë’s dialogue seems sometimes improbable and slightly stilted, her insights into character and her deep understanding of the dynamics both between and within men and women at that time (and I would argue still) is masterly (sorry, but mistressly doesn’t seem to work – and consummate has the wrong connotations. Any other suggestions would be warmly welcomed.)

This is one of the novel’s great strengths.

I am gripped once again at the point where Helen begins to understand her mistake in marrying the vulpine and narcissistic Huntington (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Penguin Edition Chapter 29 – page 243):

I have need of consolation in my son, for (to this silent paper I may confess it) I have but little in my husband. I love him still; and he loves me, in his own way — but oh, how different from the love I could have given, and once had hoped to receive! how little real sympathy there exists between us; how many of my thoughts and feelings are gloomily cloistered within my own mind; how much of my higher and better self is indeed unmarried — doomed either to harden and sour in the sunless shade of solitude, or to quite degenerate and fall away for lack of nutriment in this unwholesome soil!

And although she trusts things will get no worse, she is sadly mistaken.

What interests me particularly is the way that Emily Brontë blends her faith with her art. It’s signposted there with Helen’s use of the expression ‘higher and better self.’

Faith is unfashionable these days. I completely understand why. On the one hand, the abuse of religious teachings by unscrupulous zealots is vilifying the whole idea of God. And on the other hand, worshipping the material world can bring immediate rewards. ‘Why waste time on religion? It’s an outdated and destructive delusion,’ we might say. ‘And damaging to the art of the writer.’

I disagree. Her novel integrates her faith with her art and that only adds depth, a depth upon which too much of modern art and writing has turned its back. I accept that some will find Helen’s piety disquieting in that it initially seems to influence her to suffer in silence. Even during that period though it gives her strength to cope with her husband’s oppressive vagaries, while also enabling her to hold onto the necessary critical perspective that means she never succumbs to the temptation to tolerate them as in some way acceptable.

Even more impressively, in the end we see Helen demonstrating that such piety is not incompatible with constructive self-assertion when the occasion demands it. The prime activating consideration here for Helen was the welfare of her son, whom she wished to rescue from the corrupting influence of his father (pages 352-53):

My child must not be abandoned to this corruption: better far that he should live in poverty and obscurity with a fugitive mother, than in luxury and affluence was such a father. . . I could endure it for myself, but for my son it must be borne no longer.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall blends art and spirituality superbly well: the only other book I can think of off-hand that comes anywhere close is Bahiyyih Nakhjavani’s masterpiece The Woman Who Read Too Much, a brilliant evocation of the life and times of the woman given the name Táhirih (“The Pure One”), who famously stated at her point of death at the hands of a group of assassins: ‘You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women!’

On further reflection I must include Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.  To quote the Goodread’s review: ‘Writing in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful, spare, and spiritual prose allows “even the faithless reader to feel the possibility of transcendent order” (Slate).’

His absolute refusal to attempt anything of the kind may be part of the reason why Beckett as a writer fails to engage my interest. Few writers have ever seemed as trapped as Beckett was in a pillar-box consciousness that struggles and fails to find meaning in anything at all. Even so, I do remember enjoying being involved in a production of Waiting for Godot many years ago when working at Kilburn Polytechnic. As I recall we emphasised the comic music hall aspects rather than the existential angst. That play is perhaps the most accessible and amusing and least unpalatable expression of his bleak view of reality, and it appealed to my scepticism at the time about religion and God.

I still fail to resonate to the overall negativity and nihilism of his world view, of the kind that meant that towards the end of his life, when he was asked (Cronin – page 590), ‘And now it’s nearly over, Sam, was there much of the journey you found worthwhile?’ he replied ‘Precious little.’

There is nonetheless something about his perspective I do appreciate.

At the very end of his book Cronin concludes (page 592):

It is doubtful if he believed in any sort of survival of consciousness, or disbelieved in it either, since belief – or disbelief – was not something he permitted himself. He thought that all the guides were poor ones and that it was better to live, and to admit to living, in complete uncertainty . . .

In The Eclipse of Certainty I quoted Lamberth about William James. Lamberth reports William James’s point of view as follows (page 222):

For James, then, there are falsification conditions for any given truth claim, but no absolute verification condition, regardless of how stable the truth claim may be as an experiential function. He writes in The Will to Believe that as an empiricist he believes that we can in fact attain truth, but not that we can know infallibly when we have.

The sense I have is that James did achieve a position where, even though uncertainty could not be completely dispelled, a workable sense of reality that would guide effective practical and consensus moral action is within our reach, even in the still pluralistic social world we inhabit. This is very much how I feel about the issue, hence my sense of being very much at home in James’s worldview. So, my position is not as absolute as Beckett’s.

Literature, which at its best serves to express a writer’s enriching take on reality and cannot really do otherwise if it is to work, needs to tread a fairly narrow path between dogmatically preaching any form of doctrine, whether that be religious or nihilistic, and simply pandering to the reader’s desire to escape into an unreal but more comfortable or more exciting world.

And now I have another decision to make.

There are two wolves waiting in the wings – Wolf Solent (again half finished) and Wolf Hall (barely started yet). Neither of them preach or pander, as far as I can tell up to now. Which one will most reward my continuing immersion in its world, I wonder? Or will I end up somewhere else altogether? Time will tell.


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. . . art is something which, though produced by human hands, is not wrought by hands alone, but wells up from a deeper source, from man’s soul, while much of the proficiency and technical expertise associated with art reminds me of what would be called self righteousness in religion.

The Penguin Letters of Vincent van Gogh – to Anthon van Rappard March 1884 – page 272

The next two posts are going to be more challenging to write than the previous ones. The issues are a bit of a stretch. Firstly, it’s going to be quite difficult to convey what Woolf manages to achieve, and secondly it’s going to be almost equally tricky to tease out all the variables that can impact on any objective assessment of the quality of her achievement.

For example, my subjective response is so strong it clouds other issues to some extent, such as the need to examine the probable nature of consciousness from more than just this somewhat poetic perspective. Even if I do that, we come to possibly important distinctions between normal consciousness, in the sense of consciousness as most of us experience it, and other kinds of consciousness, some of which have been labeled ‘abnormal’ in a critical sense, and others which are seen as enhanced, as a result, for instance, of prolonged meditation under expert instruction.

Should an artist’s achievement be judged only in terms of how well she captures normal consciousness? In which case what is normal? Or should we be setting our sights somewhat higher and expecting an artist to tackle other states of consciousness in any work attempting, as the novel does, to represent a reality beyond the average scope? Perhaps we can fairly expect ‘madness’ to be delineated in places, and mystical states.

This is not even beginning to tackle aspects such as literary skill and the zeitgeist, or pervading collective cultural consciousness of the period.

You can see my problem.

I’m going to blast on anyway! Please stick with me if you still wish to do so.

Was replicating consciousness her conscious intention?

A fair question to ask at this point is whether she intended consciously to replicate consciousness in the novels under consideration here, ie To the Lighthouse and The Waves.

As is becoming my habit here, I’m going to start with the picture Julia Briggs paints. She feels that (page 77): ‘Woolf was set on capturing in words “the complex and evasive nature of reality.” She feels that (page 93): ‘Woolf had put behind her the forms of nineteenth century realist fiction which falsified, she thought, by assuming the novelist’s omniscience. Instead, her novel admits to uncertainties at every turn. She set out to write a novel about not knowing…’

To be fair to earlier novelists I feel obliged to subject you all to another detour.

The Cultural Context

Before attempting to convey the impact upon me of Woolf’s mapping of consciousness, it’s perhaps worth saying a few words about the literary context out of which her work sprang.

Thought she mentioned him only rarely in her work, journals and letters, Briggs was in no doubt that Shakespeare was a key influence upon her. Amongst other things he was the master of the soliloquy. This is not the same exactly as Woolf was attempting, but it may have been the soil in which her plan had its roots.

The main difference is that Shakespeare’s words were to be performed on stage and, while soliloquies were designed to give the audience an insight into a character’s mind that could not otherwise be conveyed, they were not attempting to reproduce exactly the contents of the character’s consciousness – not even in Hamlet, where the protagonist is famous for his introspection. Most of his soliloquies serve to open for the audience an illuminating window on his vacillation and his feelings about that. We see the tugging to and fro within his mind. It’s definitely a step towards Woolf’s destination and would almost certainly have influenced her, whether consciously or not. But she planned to divorce her maps of introspection from the switchbacks of a plot.

To leap forward to the 19th Century, and before we consider Jane Austen’s innovation – free indirect speech – we can give a passing glance to Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues and his complex masterpiece, The Ring and the Book, written after the death of his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Again, even though he is hoping to convey, in the latter work, the differing perspectives of the various characters on the key events of the plot, they are all addressing an audience of some kind as they speak. They are in persona, rather than introspecting alone.

What Jane Austen, followed by, amongst others Ford Madox Ford, attempted to do was to narrate her novel always through the eyes of one of her characters, rather than in her own voice.

A short quote from Austen’s Emma will illustrate her skill and give an example of her typical tone. Emma’s disastrous plan to link the low-born Harriet to the aspiring clergyman on the rise is being incubated precipitously and with no sense of its limitations in Emma’s mind:

Mr. Elton was the very person fixed on by Emma for driving the young farmer out of Harriet’s head. She thought it would be an excellent match; and only too palpably desirable, natural, and probable, for her to have much merit in planning it. She feared it was what every body else must think of and predict. It was not likely, however, that any body should have equalled her in the date of the plan, as it had entered her brain during the very first evening of Harriet’s coming to Hartfield. The longer she considered it, the greater was her sense of its expediency. Mr. Elton’s situation was most suitable, quite the gentleman himself, and without low connexions; at the same time, not of any family that could fairly object to the doubtful birth of Harriet. He had a comfortable home for her, and Emma imagined a very sufficient income; for though the vicarage of Highbury was not large, he was known to have some independent property; and she thought very highly of him as a good-humoured, well-meaning, respectable young man, without any deficiency of useful understanding or knowledge of the world.

We are not in Emma’s mind in the same way Woolf will enter the minds of her characters, but Austen is definitely not being the omniscient narrator, and we are experiencing Emma’s thought processes with all their limitations. She handles the clash of perspectives between characters mostly through skillful dialogue.

Ford Madox Ford followed faithfully in Austen’s footsteps. One example from the opening of Chapter III of Some Do Not (1924) will illustrate this clearly:

At the slight creaking made by Macmaster in pushing open his door, Tietjens started violently. He was sitting in a smoking-jacket, playing patience engrossedly in a sort of garret room. It had a sloping roof outlined by black beams, which cut into squares the cream-coloured patent distemper of the walls. . . . .Tietjens, who hated these disinterred and waxed relics of the past, sat in the centre of the room at a flimsy card-table beneath a white-shaded electric light of a brilliance that, in the surroundings, appeared unreasonable. . . . To it Macmaster, who was in search of the inspiration of the past, had preferred to come. Tietjens, not desiring to interfere with his friend’s culture, had accepted the quarters, though he would have preferred to go to a comfortable modern hotel as being less affected and cheaper.

He then skillfully develops their contrasting perspectives without dialogue, which brings him even closer to the experiments Woolf then attempted.

By the time Woolf was writing her pioneering pieces another innovator writing in English had also appeared on the scene with his masterpiece (Ulysses in 1922), an author about whom she was somewhat ambivalent: James Joyce. She found him ‘sordid’ but ‘brilliant’ (Briggs – page 133). She felt he got ‘thinking into literature’ but recoiled from what she experienced as his ‘egotism’ and ‘desire to shock’ (Lee – page 403). I’m ignoring Proust, whom she acknowledges in an article of 1926, and had been reading since 1922. His use of memory though is often echoed in her work.

Was replicating consciousness her conscious intention continued?

Back to Briggs again.

In Mrs Dalloway (page 132) Woolf uses the technique of interior monologue. We see inside the minds of her two main characters. A previous work Jacob’s Room (page 133) ‘had alerted her to a problem created by interior monologue – that it risked producing a series of self-absorbed, non-interactive characters.’ Mrs Dalloway, on the other hand, (ibid.) ‘is centrally concerned with the relationship between the individual and the group.’ As she moved forward in To the Lighthouse (page 164) ‘she wanted to re-create the constant changes of feeling that pass through human beings as rapidly as clouds or notes of music, changes ironed out in most conventional fiction.’

Woolf was all too aware of how words can fail to catch the mind’s pearls (page 238): in a letter to Ethel Smyth, she wrote: ‘one’s sentences are only an approximation, a net one flings over some sea pearl which may vanish; and if one brings it up it won’t be anything like what it was when I saw it, under the sea.’

It is at this same point in her text that Briggs possibly overextends her argument in a way that I want to accept but don’t think I can. She writes, ‘despite an energetic and enjoyable social round, she always felt that the life of the mind was the only “real life”…’

In my copy of her widowed husband’s extracts from Woolf’s diaries I have the exact entry Briggs refers to here (Diaries – page 144).

The problem for me is that Woolf doesn’t use the word ‘mind’: she describes her work on the novel that became The Waves. The other diary entry Briggs refers to in her notes implicates a more appropriate word: Woolf writes (Diaries – page 126), ‘the only exciting life is the imaginary one.’ Imagination seems to be what Woolf is extolling. This distinction matters to me. Imagination is a power of the mind, but mind is not reducible to imagination, and therefore the life of the mind is beyond imagination alone. I may come back to that in more detail in a later post.

Do we have any other leads in her diary entries – the ones available to me at least?

A key quote for me comes on page 85:

I am now writing as fast and freely as I have written in the whole of my life; … I think this is the proof that I was on the right path; and that what fruit hangs in my soul is to be reached there.

At the end of this sequence I may try to tackle more deeply the possible implication in this context of such words as mind, imagination, soul etc. For now all I will say is that the word soul could be taken to be subsuming into one concept thought, feeling, reason, imagination, mind etc. She is not engaged in refined philosophical discriminations here: she is using words that she knows are mere approximations to what she is trying to say. In which case is I’d better stop my nit-picking for now.

She does describe her experience of the mind as (page 123) ‘the most capricious of insects, fluttering.’ She is well aware it is elusive (page 131): ‘But what a little I can get down into my pen of what is so vivid to my eyes.’ At times she feels she is getting the hang of it (page 81): ‘My summer’s wanderings with the pen have I think shown me one or two new dodges for catching my flies.’ But even such slight confidence clearly comes and goes. We have already heard her say (page 212), ‘I had so much of the most profound interest to write here – a dialogue of the soul with the soul – and I have let it all slip. . .’

Once she begins to really connect it gets easier but she has to proceed with due caution (Pages 218-20:

I make this note by way of warning. What is important now is to go very slowly; to stop in the middle of the flood; never to press on; to lie back and let the soft subconscious world become populous; not to be urging foam from my lips. There’s no hurry.

… the well is full, ideas are rising and if I can keep at it widely, freely, powerfully, I shall have two months of complete immersion. Odd how the creative power at once brings the whole universe to order. I can see the day whole, proportioned – even after a long flutter of the brain such as I’ve had this morning it must be a physical, moral, mental necessity, like setting the engine off.

She is also very conscious of the many different levels of experience that she needs to attend to. She describes them jokingly at one point (page 75):

But my present reflection is that people have any number of states of consciousness: and I should like to investigate the party consciousness, the frock consciousness etc.

On a more serious note, but well after To the Lighthouse and The Waves were written, she hesitantly acknowledges (page 259:

I see there are four? dimensions: all to be produced, in human life: and that leads to a far richer grouping and proportion. I mean: I; and the not I; and the outer and the inner – no I’m too tired to say: but I see it: and this will affect my book… (18.11.35)

I will close with what I find to be a very revealing thought (page 97):

Have no screens, the screens are made out of our own integument; and get at the thing itself, which has nothing whatsoever in common with the screen. The screen-making habit, though, is so universal that probably it preserves our sanity. If we had not this device for shutting people off from our sympathies we might probably dissolve utterly; separateness would be impossible. But the screens are in the excess; not the sympathy.

It is this permeability which so strongly characterises her writing. Here she speaks of a permeability to others, but she also displays the same porous quality to her own unconscious. What she then experiences is hard to capture. Perhaps this is why she is drawn to poetry so much (page 326), ‘is the best poetry that which is most suggestive – is it made of the fusion of many different ideas, so that it says more than is explicable?’

I think I may be ready now to tackle the texts themselves.

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You’d think that I’d be able to answer that question with a great deal of confidence at the age of 73, nearing 74. And at one level I can.

And by that I don’t mean through detailed knowledge of my ancestry. All I know already (or am likely to know in the future, for that matter) is logged on this blog either tagged as poems or autobiography.

Nor am I talking about my fundamental reality as a spiritual being, something else I have explored at length elsewhere on this blog usually tagged as spirituality.

No. What I am getting at is far more mundane.

It’s that I know I have a tendency towards introversion. I like a fair amount of my own company and devote it to reflection, reading and writing whenever I can. It was in my teens I realised that I needed to disguise this pattern if I was to get anywhere in the world. I have persuaded myself I hide it reasonably successfully now. I may have done quite well in what, in her biographical chapter, Jane Stabler (Reading Douglas Dunn – page 5) claims the poet succeeded at – cultivating ‘an extrovert public profile which deflected attention from his private book-buying self.’

I read Susan Cain’s Quiet with a quiet sense of satisfaction that I had nailed all I needed to pin down in terms of my temperament. So much of what she said fitted me so well.

But not entirely.

There was the pool of pain problem, the inescapable fact that deep inside me there has always been a hurt that does not heal. Apart from my People Not Psychiatry work over the encounter group weekend in the mid-70s, which I have blogged about, there are numerous examples of when this pain gets triggered, of the kind the 2006 diary entry illustrates (see my italics in particular):

I’ve just seen the latest Pride and Prejudice directed by Joe Wright with Keira Knightley, Donald Sutherland, Brenda Blethyn and Matthew MacFadyen. It never fails to move me as a story in a passable rendering, which this was (though not as good as Simon Langton’s with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle).

I suspect that it is not the tough-minded observation of moeurs nor the positive resolutions that does the trick each time. It’s that Jane Austen has plumbed the very depths of unfulfilment, of unrequitable passion, of thwarted intensity. She knew what yearning was. Though she uses tales of manners satirically dressed with wicked accuracy, it is the undertow of sadness and longing that gives them power to move me so profoundly. Yes, I love her needle-sharp deflation of pomposity and hypocrisy. It makes me roar with pleasure. I admire her moral sense that probes the cracks even in the endearing Mr Bennet. But it is the pain as Elizabeth believes she is watching the man she has come to love and respect walk out of her life forever that touches my soul. Always for me it is the longing that is most real. There is some longing in me that has never been assuaged. Marriage, fatherhood, literature, religion, work and nature never do more than palliate the pain for a brief moment. There is a beauty always out of reach that my heart keens after. Most people seem not to feel it. They find effective anodynes it seems or maybe never feel this pain at all, plain and simple.

I am still inventing ambitions – to think and write about spirituality and psychology for instance when I retire – to convince me that life still has some hope. But all I really see is a future of exits – valued beings and things leaving me.


When I was blogging about transliminality recently someone stopped by to comment. She wrote:

I just stumbled upon your post in looking for images on transliminality, and I think your diagram is right on. I just finished a PhD in Religion, Psychology, & Culture at Vanderbilt University and wrote my dissertation on Transliminality & Transcendence: An Exploration of the Connections among Creativity, Mystical Experience, and Psychopathology — I felt very fortunate to have found institutional support for this topic.

She offered to send me a copy. I leapt at the chance.

And now I come to what has triggered this recent burst of introspection.

As I read with keen interest through the first sections of her thesis I came across the following:

What does it mean to be an HSP, a highly sensitive person? Such persons are part of the 15-20% of (not only humans but) every animal population studied so far that is characterized by greater sensory awareness, responsiveness, and caution than the other 80-85% (Aron 1997, p. 12). Evolutionary psychologists speculate that this variation develops in all known species because its traits are advantageous in certain circumstances—like hiding from predators, or refraining from starting wars—while the majority’s less-cautious and less-reactive tendencies are better at things like adjusting to new conditions and bringing home the bacon.

In people, sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) entails four qualities that can be summarized with the acronym BEDS: Behavioral inhibition, Emotional reactivity, Depth of processing, and Sensitivity to subtle stimuli (Aron et al. 2012, p. 7-11).65 Highly sensitive persons tend to hold back and inhibit their actions until they have “paused to check” out the situation at hand; their emotions are stronger or more extreme versions (both “positive” and “negative”) of what others tend to experience; they tend to, and need to, process (think about, introspect, assimilate) their experiences, feelings, relationships, thoughts, and circumstances more thoroughly than do others; they can easily become overaroused and anxious from sensory and situational stimulation that the majority of people would find comfortable; and they pick up on subtle sensory and emotional stimuli that most people do not notice. Additionally, in Aron’s initial three- to four-hour interviews with HSPs, “persons across all categories volunteered early that their particular form of spirituality (e.g., ‘seeing God in everything,’ long meditation retreats, a religious vocation) was central to their lives” (Aron et al. 2012, p. 11).

In less academic terms and with a different acronym Sezin Koehler in an article on the Huffington Post website summarises it neatly:

‘In Sensitive: The Untold Story Dr. Aron breaks down the four major traits of a highly sensitive individual into the acronym DOES: depth of processing, overstimulation, empathy and emotional responsiveness, and sensitivity to subtleties. . . . . Because of this above-average depth of processing, the highly sensitive person is easily overstimulated — aka overwhelmed — by events going on around them, and especially chaotic, loud, or crowded situations. The highly sensitive require a great deal of downtime in order to decompress after overstimulation. . . . . . . The highly sensitive show more brain activity in the insula — also known as the brain’s seat of consciousness, which helps integrate an individual’s inner and outer experiences into usable data for survival. The highly sensitive are easier to cry than others because they are emotionally tending to everything around them in a deeper way, which is not a bad thing. Dr Aron notes, “Emotions generally lead to better thinking, because we only think thoroughly about something we care about.” . . . . . In an interview in the film highly sensitive person Alanis Morrissette says, “I spent most of my life thinking that how I was was a problem for people.” I certainly relate to that sentiment. And Dr. Aron, herself a highly sensitive person, reveals, “I think I went into clinical psychology because I didn’t know what was the matter with me.”’

hspWhat was both amusing and irritating when I read about Aron was that I immediately recollected that I had started her 1997 book on iBooks two years or more ago but had given up halfway through. My highlights and notes indicated that I had got the point that what she was saying might apply to me but had failed to register that it might matter.

So, I’ve gone back to her book and finished it. I think what put me off before was partly her tone rather than the content of what she said. There was a touch too much American hyperbole for my understating English palate.

There is clearly enough of an overlap between my perception of myself and the other aspects of this trait to make me suspect that sensitivity might be the missing piece in my jigsaw. Introverts can also display this trait it seems, so it doesn’t negate that aspect of my personality.

What this realisation might do, after I have reflected on it for a bit longer (I can’t help myself – I must be an HSP!), is convince me that I do not need to uncover some forgotten loss, above and beyond those I have already explored, to explain why I am prone to bursting into tears and feeling so deeply sad at times. It’s just how I am. I’m more intense than I thought was reasonable, and this is apparently not unusual for HSPs, who tend to see themselves as inadequate when they needn’t do.

It also possibly explains two other disquieting tendencies I have, apart from my habit of trying to read their state of mind from the faces, postures and gestures of everyone that comes within eye-shot on the street, in cafes and just about everywhere else as well.


First, I have always felt pathetic about my performance anxiety, which is also a correlate of the trait, it seems. I can remember once I was playing really well and comfortably winning a game of squash. Then I noticed that someone was watching the game from the glass window overhead and staying there, not just moving on as most people did. My game crashed and I went to a humiliating defeat.

Secondly, Aron’s research indicates that ‘hunger has an especially strong effect on HSPs.’ Maybe that’s why I have always found the Bahá’í Fast so difficult.

This was obvious right from the start.

I had been dreading the first day of my first Bahá’í Fast – no food, no drink between sunrise and sunset in March. For someone who had never missed lunch in his life, this was a daunting prospect.

I had a long two-and-a-half hour commute at that time. So, I got up at just before my usual time and prepared a bowl of porridge for myself as the most sustaining breakfast I could think of. I sat down with the porridge and a cup of tea. I had ten minutes to finish my breakfast. That was no problem as I have always been a fast eater (no paradoxical pun intended).

As I sat down I felt an agonising pain in my gut and passed out. I later speculated whether it must’ve been some form of colic, probably brought on by my extreme anxiety at the prospect of the impending fast.

When I came round it was too late to eat. The sun had risen. I paused and wondered what I should do. I made the wrong decision. I left my tea and porridge untouched, got ready for work and headed for the tube.

To cut a long story short I spent the day with a slowly rising temperature and an increasing headache, until I ended up waiting on Guilford Station to head home to Hendon. I had a sandwich and a can of Coke in my bag. The train came, I boarded and found a seat.

Still not time to break the fast!

The other passengers must have found it weird to see someone peering at their watch every few seconds with a sandwich on their lap and a drink in their hand. At last the hour struck. I wrenched at the ring on the top of the can. It didn’t budge. With my hands shaking by this stage I wrenched harder. The top came off and cut me as it did so and the blood poured out.

The final irony!

I had to fidget with a handkerchief to staunch the blood I could ill afford to spill before I was able drink my Coke.

The following two days I phased myself slowly into the fast with water and salad in the middle of the day before I attempted a full day’s fasting again.

Even now my wife comments if we’re out and I start to get irritable, ‘Let’s find a cafe and sit down. You’re hungry, I can tell.’

Now I think I know why that is too.

Time will tell whether this explanation for my well of tears, my performance anxiety, my reaction to hunger pangs, my dithering and my people-watching holds good. I hope it does.

Hold on though. I may have to contact Elaine Aron to check something out.

She doesn’t mention anything in her sensitivity profile about a tendency to start a book, abandon it halfway through to start another and so on ad nauseam. At present I’m halfway through at least thirteen books that I can remember, never mind the ones I’ve forgotten I started. I think she may have missed something here. I’m definitely not a Completer-Finisher and perhaps this is why. I’m too sensitive.

Anyway, what were you saying about that post I said I’d write about procrastination?

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I recently finished The Road to Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead.

George Eliot has long been one of my favourite novelists. I tasted her first in my schooldays, even though my leisure choices were usually Byron and the Brontes. At this point, it was only her earlier work such as Silas Marner, mixed with Dickens’ more popular productions such as A Tale of Two Cities and Jane Austen’s best seller Pride and Prejudice – a bland and fairly easily digestible salad for my still developing palate.

Later at university I moved onto more demanding dishes altogether – Middlemarch, Our Mutual Friend and Emma. I can’t quite remember when I started to savour the cuisine of other cultures such as Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Conrad and even Joyce’s Ulysses, but I think it was a lot later even than that. My digestive system failed completely and irreversibly, I’m afraid, at Finnegan’s Wake.

Anyway, enough boasting.

In spite of everything, Middlemarch stubbornly remained a favourite especially after teaching it at ‘A’ level. I had resolved to read it once a year once I retired but have only managed to finish it once in those five years! Rebecca Mead’s performance puts me to shame. By my calculations, from her account on page 8, she has read it at least five times and probably more. Even so, under such light pressure, my paperback copy has collapsed – I have only the cover left to remind me of how fond I was of it! This is now kept inside my copy of Frederick Karl’s biography.

GE pic

Ahead of her Time

In Mead’s treatment I was struck by how much Eliot anticipates important contemporary themes from the very specific to the broader brush. This will become the focus of much of the second part of this review. While I found her sharing of the ways that Eliot illumined her path through life, and her descriptions of the places she visited to retrace Eliot’s steps, held my interest sufficiently well, they weren’t hugely informative.

I was more gripped by the overlap of ideas that broke through the surface narrative at regular intervals.

For example, in her discussion of The Mill on the Floss Rebecca Mead touches on an interesting point when she quotes Eliot on page 38:

 . . . surely if we could recall that early bitterness, and the dim guesses, the strangely perspectiveless conception of life that gave the bitterness its intensity, we should not pooh-pooh the grief of our children.

That phrase ‘strangely perspectiveless conception of life’ rang important bells for me. I was back with Margaret Donaldson’s brilliant book, Human Minds, and her concept of point mode (op.cit. page 30):

The first mode, which is called the point mode, [is] a way of functioning in which the locus of concern is that directly experienced chunk of space time that one currently inhabits: the here and now.

This mode of experiencing reality is not confined to infancy and early childhood though (page 43):

. . . .  although direct concern with what is here and now is accompanied in early infancy by narrow temporal awareness, this does not have to be so. . . . . When an adult concentrates on a skilled task, such as uppholstering a chair, there is the absorption in the moment that is typical of the point mode, yet there is a great reliance on past experience and a well formulated goal that is some way ahead: the finished chair.

That Eliot was able to pinpoint this kind of experience so accurately in words in such an early novel is what gives me confidence to trust the validity of her later conclusions about other things less easily corroborated.

Possible Limitations

Mead is not naïve about Middlemarch though. She unpacks what Virginia Woolf might have meant in her praise of the novel.


Virginia Woolf (For source of image see link)

She picks particularly on Woolf’s expression “with all its imperfections.” She writes (page 46):

What are these imperfections? Woolf gives few specifics, though she cites Eliot’s unwillingness to let one sentence stand for many and contrasts it with the delicacy shown by Jane Austen’s Emma. . . . . . She says that Eliot – the grand daughter of a carpenter, as she reminds us – is out of her depth when it comes to the depiction of higher social strata, and resorts to stock images of claret and velvet carpets. Eliot’s hold on dialogue is often slack. Occasionally, she lacks taste. She suffers from ‘an elderly dread of fatigue from the effort of emotional concentration.’

She quotes (page 47) Woolf’s further comment that there is however a melancholy acknowledgement of human limitation which makes the book distinctly appropriate for ‘grown-up people.’

Mead also defends Eliot’s use of the now unpopular authorial voice (page 54) and quotes examples to prove its value:

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lives on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.’

This contrasts strongly with the experience of reading Jane Austen, for example, where her device of free indirect speech means that the story unfolds through the consciousness of her characters rather than through any kind of explicit statements of her views. As Wikipedia explains: ‘What distinguishes free indirect speech from normal indirect speech is the lack of an introductory expression such as “He said” or “he thought”.’

What surprised me was that, as a student of English literature in the 60s in Cambridge, I had failed completely to take on board that this is how Jane Austen wrote. So much so, that when I recently read Mansfield Park (I am ashamed to say, for the first time), I was astonished to find that the whole narrative was carried along almost completely from within the consciousness of her characters. The caustic nature of her irony makes her presence felt even when she is nominally in the head of a character, especially that egomaniac, Mrs Norris. When the plan to bring Fanny, the daughter of her impoverished sister, to Mansfield Park, is being discussed, we get a typically caustic glimpse into her mind with only the faintest of obvious authorial touches at the start (Chapter 1):

The division of gratifying sensations ought not, in strict justice, to have been equal; for Sir Thomas was fully resolved to be the real and consistent patron of the selected child, and Mrs. Norris had not the least intention of being at any expense whatever in her maintenance. As far as walking, talking, and contriving reached, she was thoroughly benevolent, and nobody knew better how to dictate liberality to others; but her love of money was equal to her love of directing, and she knew quite as well how to save her own as to spend that of her friends.

Ford Maddox Ford does the same thing even more consistently in his greatest works such as Parade’s End.

The value of this approach is unquestioned. You are drawn deeply into the experience of the characters and, as in life, you can never be completely sure you have understood exactly what happened in an objective sense – all you have is a composite of subjective points of view.

I believe it is crucial that we all come to realise our interconnectedness. I therefore welcome the way the reading of novels has been shown to relate to increased empathy and social skills. Keith Oatley‘s book, Such Stuff as Dreams, tackles the thorny and long-standing question of whether fiction is pointless and a nuisance or whether it has some value. He feels that one of fiction’s most important benefits is the fostering of empathy. He defines empathy as follows (page 113):

In modern times, and on the basis of recent research on brain imaging, empathy has been described as involving: (a) having an emotion, that (b) is in some way similar to that of another person, that (c) is elicited by observation or imagination of the other’s emotion, and that involves (d) knowing that the other is the source of one’s own emotion.

He asks a general question (page 95):

If we engage in the simulations of fiction, do the skills we learn there transfer to the everyday social world?

In this book he sees fiction as (page 99)

. . . . . a kind of simulation, one that runs not on computers but on minds: a simulation of selves in their interactions with others in the social world. This is what Shakespeare and others called a dream.

And finds that the research suggests that the skills we learn there do transfer to ordinary life. After explaining a carefully controlled study by Raymond Mar, he writes that when all other variables were controlled for (and could therefore be discounted as an explanation of the effects) – page 159:

The result indicates that better abilities in empathy and theory of mind were best explained by the kind of reading people mostly did. . . . . .

Other studies he quotes all point in the same direction (page 165):

Nussbaum argues that this ability to identify with others by means of empathy or compassion is developed by the reading of fiction.

Clearly, if that is what we are after, free indirect speech would be a strong candidate for one of the best ways of enhancing empathy.

However, there are also advantages in a similar direction, as Mead points out in this engaging tour of Eliot’s thought, to the use of the author’s own voice which we will come on to next time.


The film of Mansfield Park lacks the depth and subtlety of the book but it was the impact of this film that helped me overcome the resistance engendered by the negative critics, go back and read it for myself.


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