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The most important question

In The Decameron, on the third day, Fiammetta tells a tale that Boccaccio took from a Latin version of the Hitopadesha. In it, a man tricks a married woman he has a passion for into meeting him at the public baths. There, in the dark, he pretends to be her husband and rapes her. When she discovers that she has been deceived, she has no recourse other than deceiving her husband, whom she loves – the shame and degradation belong to her, not to her rapist. If we read the Guardian or most newspapers, we recognise this story, reiterated 650 years on – or for that matter, since the Hitopadesha is from the twelfth century, 900 years on. The deceived woman, Catella, knows what her rapist knows: that like young women we read about today, she will be punished or killed for having been deceived, no matter what her intentions. But so what? Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, we might say. Except, thanks to the most important question, we do not say that.

The most important question was posed by Marguerite of Navarre in the 1540s. She posed it, perhaps, at her favorite thermal spa, Cauterets, in the Pyrenees south of Lourdes. It was, ‘Can a woman know true love and retain her virtue?’ Marguerite was a the sister of François I of France, and the wife of the King of Navarre, a much younger man. She was a poet, a reformist and an intellectual. She loved The Decameron, which perhaps seemed as old-fashioned to her as Pride and Prejudice does to us – a product of former times that could do with a rewrite. When she sat down with her friends and relatives to generate another 100 tales, she made two rules: the tales had to be true (in other words, gossip) and they had to answer the most important question. Marguerite died in 1549 before compiling 100 tales. The 70 or so she did compile were collected after her death as The Heptameron. They are, in their way, a bit more interesting than the tales of The Decameron, because the conversation about each tale is longer and more probing than the responses of the tellers to the tales in The Decameron. The gist of the answer that Marguerite’s tale-tellers eventually come up with is ‘no’: a woman cannot know true love and retain her virtue.

But in the late-seventeenth century, the question was addressed again, this time by Madame de Lafayette in The Princess of Cleves. The Princess of Cleves has a similar problem to Catella. She is married, properly and to a decent fellow, but another man, somewhat of a rake, loves her. As the story evolves, it turns out that the Princess returns her lover’s affections. She cannot act or demonstrate what she feels – she lives in the court of François I, eyes are always upon her. Marguerite’s question suddenly falls into parts. What does it mean to know? What is true love? What is virtue? And perhaps for our purposes the most interesting, what is a woman?

To solve the riddle, Madame de Lafayette employs a literary device that playwrights cannot employ: free indirect discourse. She enters into the minds of her three characters – the wife, the husband and the lover. She convincingly portrays their feelings and how they think of their feelings. She allows them to keep their feelings secret, and shows the pain and the pleasure of that secrecy. The Princess does know true love (her feelings are convincing) and she does retain her virtue (she remains faithful to her husband and recognises the difference between the erotic feelings she has for her lover and the affectionate feelings she has for her husband). Most importantly, she elicits the reader’s sympathy for her dilemma, because Madame de Lafayette has successfully engaged our empathy – that is, she has enabled us to see things from the Princess’s point of view. Her feelings that cross the patriarchal red line do not offend us, because once we have experienced them, we cannot discount them. We are now connected to the Princess.

Compare this to our experience of Desdemona in Othello. Shakespeare in some ways answers Marguerite’s question, but his answer is much more circumscribed. Yes, we may say, Desdemona knows true love, at least for a while. She does love Othello, in spite of her father, in spite of Iago, in spite of being surrounded by warrior males. But what we know doesn’t matter to Othello – he kills her anyway. Our job with Desdemona is to believe what she says, not enter her consciousness or experience the world as she does, though we are asked to hear the thoughts of Othello and Iago in asides and soliloquies. To sympathise with Desdemona is to do something simpler and more direct than to empathise with the Princess of Cleves.

Let’s return to the four parts of the most important question. What does it mean to know? What is true love? What is virtue? What is a woman? Other authors addressed these questions without upending, or even challenging, the patriarchal system. There is something about the way that these questions entered the world after 1665 that gave us the world that we have today, where women such as myself have a large degree of autonomy, active inner lives and a constant sense of agency.

My favorite novel by Daniel Defoe is Roxana. Roxana is a prostitute who relates her own story, much as Robinson Crusoe relates his own story. She does not retain her virtue and, depending upon our theory of true love, she does not know that, either. But she does know herself – that is the point of her confession – and she experiences herself, in the first person, as a woman and an agent. For many years she lives successfully in the mercantile world of property and sex, gaining a comfortable life and putting up with significant episodes of bad luck. She takes responsibility for her sins, and then she takes responsibility for her repentance. She wonders if she would have repented if she hadn’t fallen on hard times and feared exposure.

Roxana was a very popular novel in its day, but not respectable. It kept getting reprinted and reworked by printers as a way of sorting out its moral ambiguities, but what lingers is not the downfall but the exuberant self-actualisation (and survival) that Roxana manages in the difficult seventeenth century. Like Moll Flanders, also told in the first person, Roxana appeals to and expresses the inner life of women. And as soon as that inner life is expressed, it must be complex – it must be like the inner life of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, who spends 500 pages fending off rape by her boss and writes down everything she can, even though she is a servant girl. A literate servant girl! A literate servant girl with an extremely detailed inner life! A literate servant girl whose tale sold like hotcakes! Talk about suspension of disbelief!

The thing is, Pamela knows very well what virtue is, what true love is, and what a woman is: someone with a voice and an identity, intentions, intelligence, and a will to defend herself. It doesn’t matter that Pamela is Richardson’s idea of a woman. He knows the readers he might appeal to – they are out there, they are literate women. And girls. They have money to spend on books. They are customers. Richardson the printer recognised that women authors might sell. He helped 24-year-old Charlotte Lennox edit and publish The Female Quixote, and he also served as a mentor to Henry Fielding’s sister, Sarah.

Authorship of novels was a good semi-private gig for a woman. She could stay home and do it, she might make some money, and it was not quite as risky for one’s reputation as being, say, an actress or a singer. Many women did it. 100 years later, Nathaniel Hawthorne complained that ‘America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash – and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed.’ He might have blamed Richardson. In the end, Hawthorne did not achieve wealth, but he did achieve the thing that his particular bête noire at the time, a novel by Maria Susanna Cummins (then in her twenties) did not – status. And the tension between the two has preoccupied novelists ever since then. What a luxury – if you have status, you can wish for sales, and if you have sales, you can wish for status. The squabble goes on today.

But why the most important question is important is revealed in the life and work of Daniel Defoe. Defoe’s family were dissenters, fully involved in the religious and political tumult of seventeenth century Britain – a period when, according to Geoffrey Parker in Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century (2013), printing presses all over the world started putting out thousands of pamphlets of discourse, theory, and agitation against governments that were failing in the face of famine, disease, social change and civil unrest. Defoe lived through the Great Fire of London, the plague, and the attack upon Chatham by the Dutch. He was a merchant, and well-travelled, and because of his religious beliefs, quite practiced at looking within. He worked as a pamphleteer himself, often writing fake confessions for criminals hanged at Tyburn. The sensationalism of his subject matter opened up the inner lives of those hitherto treated as objects and lured readers into empathy and shared experience, as well as thrills. In fact, the book trade not only opened readers to those experiences, it created them. In the US, a prime example is, of course, the great bestseller Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which enters the mind of Tom, sold down the river to pay debts, and also Cassie, a violated woman who plots revenge and escape. In the UK, a prime example is another great bestseller, Black Beauty, an exploration of cruelty and exploitation of horses, told by Beauty himself, that lives in the minds of millions of former little girls and little boys.

Pamela, The Female Quixote, The Lamplighter, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Black Beauty all created controversy, and they did so in part because the novel is inherently political. A protagonist must exist in relationship to a group. There must be conflict between the protagonist and at least part of the group, and the conflict must be resolved in favor of, or in opposition to, the protagonist. Therefore the protagonist represents something, and what he represents is the exercise of power – his own, or the power used against him. The length of a novel means that with every turning page empathy grows and the reader’s commitment to the cause of the protagonist is likely to grow (otherwise he or she would stop reading). A long play lasts three hours. Reading Tom Jones or David Copperfield takes nineteen hours, at 50 pages per hour. And you think you are relaxing!

The most salient characteristic of being a reader is freedom, and this freedom is part of the political nature of the novel. Even when you are twelve years old and required by means of rewards and punishments to read Oliver Twist, you may stop. More than that, you may question and resist. How ridiculous is it that Oliver can’t get a second helping of porridge? You decide. In fact, you must decide. You can decide that Oliver has suffered an injustice, you can decide that Oliver deserves his fate, you can decide that this can’t possibly be true, you can decide that you do not care one way or the other, but whatever decision you are making, you are free to make it – there is no group disapproval, as there might be in a theatre should you boo or get up and leave. The entire time you are reading any novel, you are experiencing freedom and autonomy, and this is a political experience. You are also experiencing either agreement with the author or disagreement, and this is a political experience, too. He or she is luring you with plot-twists, character development, pathos, wit, exotic scenes, but you decide whether to go along or resist. And there are resisters to even the most universally admired novels. A reviewer on Amazon writes of War and Peace, ‘The fact is that WP just isn’t great, and we’ve been sold a bill of goods to make us feel guilty about falling asleep over it.’ After cataloging inconsistencies in the text, he concludes: ‘I agree with Tolstoy – it’s a “monstrosity”.’

Let’s go back to The Heptameron. There they are, stuck in Cauterets because of seasonal floods. The ten storytellers have complicated relationships with one another, in a complicated era. The instigator of the game is the Queen, but her mother is along and so is her husband, who always opts for the hyper-masculine reaction – of course, if a woman is available, a real man will take her. The son of a cardinal represents the ideas of the church – but then, the Queen is well known for being a reformist and aiding and abetting protestant thinkers in counter-reformation France. One woman has lost her husband to the floods. There are two other couples; one of the men is notorious for his sexual prowess (and named Simontaut). There are five women and five men – disagreements could arise, because the material of the stories is about the relative power of men and women, and about what is right. Marguerite herself has a long history of being outspoken and valuing the outspokenness of men and women of conscience – in other words, although the ten storytellers must get along, they must also look within, and also be honest. They are, in this isolated world, allowed for the time being to be free. They are freer than the storytellers in The Decameron, because they discuss the philosophical implications of the stories in some detail, and they are more responsible, too, because they must tell stories that are real, not taken from other sources. They are, in short, being political while being personal.

But why is the most important question ‘Can a woman know true love and retain her virtue?’ and not ‘Is every man free and equal?’ It’s easy to see that part of the reason is that the first question is a thin-edge-of-the-wedge sort of question. It does not seem to challenge the status quo, only to strive to understand it. Madame de Lafayette was writing around the same time that Blaise Pascal, René Descartes and Baruch Spinoza were being censored for asking more aggressive questions about the meaning of life. It is also a question about half of the world’s population, whereas the question of freedom and equality applies differently to different social and economic classes. It is not a simple question, but it is a question that a story or a piece of gossip can illustrate fairly easily. Without Marguerite of Navarre realising it, perhaps, it is a question about possession: who possesses a woman’s virtue? Is virtue a thing? It investigates the heart of patriarchy without directly challenging it. When the King, as Hircan, continues to answer that any man who can take a woman’s virtue can have it, the others contradict him. He moderates his opinions and is, in some sense, the first patriarch to be won over by empathy. Most importantly, it is a question.

Please be clear – I am not talking about greatness here, or how the most important question leads to great art. If we consider Don Quixote, we see that Quixote does not ask a question. He makes an assumption (or many assumptions). He goes out into the world and his story is the story of putting his assumptions to the test – an early example of the scientific method, if you like. When Quixote and Sancho Panza meet people, they have discussions with them (Quixote sometimes goes to sleep if the discussion is about love), but the inner lives of the characters must be expressed in order to exist. We see from Madame de Lafayette that the essential variable for the development of free indirect discourse is the necessity of secrecy, which asserts that the inner life exists alongside the exterior life, in time with it, though not necessarily in tune with it. The inner life is the constant subject of the novel.

The most important question leads to entertainment, pleasure, ubiquity. The popular novel, as an art form, seems so benign, or even contemptible. Certainly, in Fielding’s and Sterne’s day, a good girl was one who read sermons and poetry. But I would say a smart girl was one who read novels, who contemplated Pamela’s dilemma, who went on to Fanny Burney, Anne Radcliffe, Susanna Rowson, and also Fielding, and also Sterne; one who read about the inner lives of both men and women, and who said to herself, through them, what is a woman, and after that, who am I?

I like to think of Madame de Lafayette going to a party, and running into a man there named Girard Des Argues, who was a mathematician and a theorist of perspective. I like to think of her subsequently looking at paintings and realising that the use of perspective enlarges one person most of all, and that is the viewer, just as narrative enlarges the voice of the narrator. A narrator can be intrusive, and she can use a style that is very transparent or not at all transparent, but with every word that the narrator employs in the service of the tale she is telling, she inserts her perspective into the mind of the reader. The images the reader generates are given their subject and tone by the style, morality, and organising principles of the narrator. Because the novel is prose, because it is in a book and therefore does not have to be memorised, the style of the narrative can be highly idiosyncratic. The classic tropes that narrative poets, especially poets who had to recite their works, needed to use to enable memorisation and connection to other poems that were familiar to their audiences, are unnecessary and fall away. The novel is one-on-one. And the narrator, that poor slob from Paris (like Madame de Lafayette), but also from Clonmel (like Laurence Sterne) or Lynne Regis (like Fanny Burney), becomes an alternative consciousness for the reader during the reading and, if the novel is cherished, afterward, sometimes for many years (and I can always reread). Just behind the narrator, in the foreground of the novel, is the protagonist, whom I am viewing from within or without, or both, depending on the point of view that the narrator has chosen. The protagonist moves around within the imagined landscape, never ever overwhelmed by the heavens, the mountains, the buildings, the urban clamor, the great lords or the government officials. In order for us to read about those giant things, they must be reduced to his perception and understanding, and incorporated into the experience of the protagonist. He or she may or may not prevail in the end, but merely by the act of organising the experience of the protagonist into a lengthy comprehensible narrative, the author has outlived it, taken power over it, judged it.

What does this have to do with the most important question? It is a private, easily understandable, and readily accessible answer to the sub-question – what does it mean to know? To know means to investigate, organise according to some sort of theory of cause and effect, and then to pronounce the protagonist’s sentence in accordance with the justice or the injustice of the world that the protagonist lives in. It happens in great novels, it happens in hack novels – it supplies the reader (let’s say she is twelve or fourteen) with the raw materials of her own theory of the world. When she goes to church, when she goes to school, when she sits at the supper table, when she hangs out with her friends, the theory she has constructed from her reading rubs up against the world she must deal with and gives her opinions. From the outside, she looks like the girl you have known since the day she was born, who used to play with Barbies and now wears skinny jeans, but her inner life has become her own, has become a world of empathy and perspective that she got from reading novels. In her own mind, she is the agent of her own experience. It may be that she will not take kindly to an arranged marriage, to the circumscription of her rights in comparison to those of her brother, to her confinement to a small private corner of her socio-political world. I had this experience myself. When my daughter was eight and avid for Sweet Valley High novels, I read one after she went to bed, in which the bad twin falls off the back of a motorcycle and spends some time in a coma. In the morning, I said to Phoebe, ‘I don’t really want you to read about this sort of trauma.’ Very informatively, she told me, ‘MOM! It’s not trauma, it’s DRAMA.’ Point taken.

How does this compare to other art forms, like movies or music or pictures? Well, of course, the novel is not visual – the image I make of David Copperfield is not Freddie Bartholomew, at least until I see the movie, and then, possibly, I am offended that Freddie behaves so differently from my David. What I see in the movie is new and possibly illuminating information – a novel may try to give us the spectacle of the world, but films do it more efficiently and sensually. But it is spectacle, something seen and heard. It can arouse great feelings of sympathy and fear, but it pretty much fails at bringing me into the action, in spite of the music, in spite of the hand-held camera, in spite of the slowing and speeding up of the film. No matter what else the director tries, he must fall back on showing me other people doing things. I must watch them, as I do in the theatre. There may be less dialogue, because the actors have more leeway than they do on stage for demonstrating their intentions and emotions as they work them out across the landscape or, you might say, the cinemascape, but even as I go with them, I am seeing them as exotic, I am marvelling at the difference between their experience and mine. The novel does the opposite thing, because there are no markers of strangeness. It asks me to discount their difference from me, and focus on their similarity to me.

It is much the same with painting, especially portrait painting. The great portrait painter looks at his subject, sees the true nature of that person within the appearance, puts that knowledge into his painting, but the chances of me seeing those intricacies are very small. What I see is the artist’s idiosyncrasies of style and vision as a veil between me and the subject, not an invitation into the inner being of the subject. Why is it not the same with novelists? Why does George Eliot’s intellectual rigour and precision of style open up Dorothea and Rosalind and Lydgate and Casaubon rather than fencing them off? When I believe Van Gogh, I believe that he sees the world in this way. When I believe George Eliot, I believe that the world is this way – at least for the space of Middlemarch, for the twelve hours it takes me to read the book.

The very length and silence of the novel makes it simultaneously ephemeral and intrusive – drip, drip, drip. I remember two characters in Our Mutual Friend walking on the beach. They have tried to scam each other by getting married, and both have been scammed. Now they must scam someone else. Dickens describes the line in the sand left by the man’s walking stick as a dragon’s tale. The image exists vividly in my mind, related to countless other images, thoughts and feelings from the book, but also from the time that I first read the book (sitting beside a Christmas tree as a senior in college, living with four guys who couldn’t find jobs), from other readings of Dickens, from authors I relate to Dickens, like Trollope and Thackeray, from books I have read (and written) about Dickens’ life, from thoughts I have had about Dickens’ pride, prejudice and good works. And it is only one novel. If I have read thousands of novels, then my inner life is full, teeming, accessible to me, expandable every time to return to Our Mutual Friend. Why would I ever let you control it?

Clearly, the most important question is one that is now unsettling the non-Western world. Recently, in the Guardian, the girl Malala, whom the Taliban attempted to assassinate several months ago for her advocacy of education for women, reasserted her right to her books and her pen. Controversy lives in religious communities in the US, too, around the issue of God-given male dominance and female servitude. At the moment, I happen to be working on an introduction to the re-issue of Rebecca Goldstein’s The Mind Body Problem (1983), in which the narrator’s beauty and intelligence remove her, in the space of a very few years, from an Orthodox Jewish community in New York City to the philosophy department at Princeton – sixty miles and hundreds of years at once. She works out her fate in a fascinating novel. In his recent exploration of the world climate crisis of the seventeenth century, Geoffrey Parker points out that The Princess of Cleves is still in print, both paper and Kindle book, still a part of the French national school curriculum. What is virtue, what is love, what does it mean to know and what is a woman are achingly current questions. And I do believe that the novel cannot be replaced as a vehicle of learning by any other form.

Two days ago, I did a school visit. From time to time, I asked if any of the students had read Oliver Twist or David Copperfield. None of the students had, though most of the teachers had. Curriculums are changing. Perhaps the students are required to read other novels. I hope so. When I read Oliver Twist in seventh grade, I hated it. When I read Great Expectations in eighth grade, I hated it. When I read Crime and Punishment in tenth grade, I only understood the part about the horse falling to the cobbles and being whipped. But being required to read these difficult books prepared me to enjoy them later, when I became more proficient in the language of narrative. I went on to David Copperfield – loved it. Went on to Giants in the Earth, loved it. Went on to The Scarlet Letter, did not love it, but understood it and was amazed by it. I was the target, the books were the arrows my teachers were shooting at me, and some hit the bullseye and formed my sense of what I could do, what the world should be like, what is right and what is wrong. I see this in all my kids. We used to say that of the five kids, two loved to read novels, one wouldn’t read a novel if her life depended on it, one would read a novel but only if his life depended on it, and one – well, we didn’t know whether he could read. But now they are several years older, and the non-readers have, surprisingly, come around. They tell us what they have learned from the novels they’ve read, and even though one thing they have learned is that we are ignoramuses, we are glad. They have learned to have their own opinions.

References

Geoffrey Parker, Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century (Yale University Press, 2013).