Leonie Hargrave - Clara Reeve
as by Leonie Hargrave
a. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. (Jun. 1975) First Edition. "First Edition" stated on copyright page. 442 pp. Paper over boards with cloth spine. Dust jacket illustration by Richard Hess. Note: all copies examined have a tipped in title page mounted on a stub.
b. London: Hutchinson. (1975) First English edition. 442 pp. Paper over boards. Dust jacket illustration by Michael Leonard.
c. New York: Book Club. (1975) 442 pp. Paper over boards with cloth spine. Dust jacket illustration by Richard Hess. Note: identical to "a." except price missing on inside front of dust jacket.
d. New York: Ballantine Books 25070. (Jul. 1976) 483 pp. First paperback edition. Cover illustrator unknown.
e. Berlin, Germany: Ullstein. (1978) First German. 493 pp
When Howard Rhodes falls in love and marries below his station his entire line is disinherited from the Rhodes' estate. His daughter marries Robert Reeve and their first daughter is Clara Reeve. Robert drowns at sea and Clara's mother dies in childbirth. Clara is put in the care of her father's relations, the Jerninghams. At her mother's funeral she first meets her aunt on the Rhodes' side, Zaide Visconti and her dandyish, epicene son Niles Visconti. The Jerninghams are middle-class Protestant stock, with Clara and her kind-hearted aunt Lydia under the raging dominance of her uncle Josiah. When she is 18, Clara is invited to Blackthorne, the ancestral Rhodes' home, by her uncle, Lord Rhodes. There she is reunited with the Viscontis. Nile is accompanied by his new Italian wife, Renata, and his brutish manservant, Manfredo. Also there is Godfrey Mainwairing, the dashing nephew of Mrs. Lacey, Lord Rhodes' housekeeper. Clara is much taken by the witty and outspoken nature of Visconti mother and son. Before she leaves Renata forces her journal upon Clara. When she returns to the Jerninghams she discovers Josiah is preparing to marry her off to a cousin in the Jerningham family. Clara refuses and her aunt defends her resulting in a fight where Lydia accidentally kills Josiah. Before he dies Josiah makes Clara swear that she will only marry her cousin. Meanwhile, the Viscontis have been staying at one of the Rhodes residences in England, where Niles and Renata have had a daughter, Clara Maria. When Renata dies after walking into the winter snows Clara travels to the Viscontis where she becomes close to Niles who surprises her by proposing. Clara refuses. When Lord Rhodes dies Clara discovers that she has inherited all of the Rhodes estate since her grandfather was unlawfully disinherited. Clara now accepts Niles proposal of marriage, and, after marrying her cousin, she, Lydia and the Viscontis move to Italy. The family move into a Venetian palazzo. At first Niles and Clara seem happy, although their marriage remains unconsummated, but Clara soon finds herself being dominated by Manfredo and her waiting maid who exploits Clara's ignorance of her rightful position as a Lady. The palazzo where they all reside is the property of Count Wrbna, Zaide's lover and a man of revolutionary politics. Soon Clara finds herself the object of Zaide's open scorn, and learns that Zaide revels in her youthful association with Lord Byron. Niles become more distant, as the couple now sleep in separate bedroom even though he professes no less love. When Wrbna is assassinated the family flee Venice. When Clara presses Niles on the issue of the marital rites, a matter of which she is utterly ignorant, he coldly breaks her hymen. The family arrive at the Visconti home on the island of Ischia, across the bay from Vesuvius. Among the staff at the villa is a wretched old gardener who has a surprisingly close association with Clara Maria. Niles's neglect intensifies even as he begs Clara to flee Ischia with him as she feels more at the mercy of her servants, becoming aware that Manfredo is having a sexual relationship with her maid servant. Clara is finally able to translate Renata's journal and is horrified to learn that Renata had been in effect Manfred's prisoner, raped by him with Clara Maria really his daughter, and that her death was in fact a suicide to pre-empt Manfredo's murdering her. Clara no longer knows whether to trust Niles. One day while following Clara Maria, Clara enters a room previously locked where she discovers women's clothes and a portrait of an unknown sorrowful woman. Godfrey, working at an excavation at Pompei, visits Clara to suggest that she arrange an annulment, having seen Niles enter a brothel. In a terrible accident Aunt Lydia and the gardener are killed. Clara's feelings of terror grow until one night she flees the villa and catches a boat to Capri. Her hopes are dashed when she finds Niles is on the same boat, who asks her to escape with him to Australia. Clara tries to confront Niles about Manfred, the portrait and the brothel, but he is evasive telling her only that Manfred is really his older brother, fathered by Lord Byron. While Niles makes travel arrangements Manfred tries to rape and murder Clara, but before he can effect either Niles returns and kills him. In Naples Clara meets Emily Annie Shiftney, a prostitute and an acquaintance of the unknown woman in the portrait. Clara finally discovers that Niles is really a woman, the woman in the portrait. Just as Clara is to flee Zaide intercepts and absconds with her and Godfrey to Vesuvius. Zaide reveals that the gardener was Byron's manservant and that he is really the father of Manfredo, her favoured son whose illegitimacy caused Zaide's family line to be disinherited from the Rhodes' estate. Zaide subsequently married and murdered Comte Visconti, and proceeded to pass off Niles as his son and hair so as to retain the Visconti estate. Niles was raised as a hothouse genius and perfect gentleman in the hope that he might be reinherited by Lord Rhodes. She married to Niles to Clara so as to retain a connection with the Rhodes' fortune. Manfredo's had planned to become Lord Visconti by murdering Clara, having Niles take her place as Lady Rhodes and Manfredo adopt the identity of "Niles Visconti"'. Reintroducing Niles to female dress Manfredo not only has sex with his sister but also prostitutes her. At the lip of the volcano Zaide makes an attempt of Godfrey's life, having realised that he is Clara's true love, and when it fails throws herself into Vesuvius. Her marriage to Niles annulled Clara marries Godfrey Mainwairing. Many years later Clara receives a letter from Niles who is a happily married wife in Australia.
- O, dear boy, you're not going to pummel the fun out of this one too?
Clara Reeve is a magnificent sequence of ever-burgeoning impostures. Just as Disch is pastiching the Victorian triple-decker so Niles is passing "himself" off as a man. Our sense of the importance and nature of the novel and gender identity are two hegemonies bequeathed to us by our Victorian forebears, and so Disch is able to examine the means by which they are constructed and the ways in which we interpret them. These two concerted masquerades rely upon the objectification of realism, that as readers we assess essence by external signifiers and commodities. The novel excites an interest in the commodities of culture, the signifiers of success and class, but concomitant with this is the threat these delineated signifiers pose, obscuring and replacing the values which they are supposed to represent, and becoming tools accessible to those who would use them to attack society. Disch can make explicit the cultural values that inhere in the artefacts and behaviours of the period, and critique the operations of idealisation (ideation?) by which they shape the characters of his novel. The lavish attention to detail that Disch brings to bear in bolstering his novel is the same stratagem that supports Niles's masquerade. Indeed, by inviting his readers to accept the verisimilitude of his cod-Victorian novel Disch is at the same time complicit in the deceit practised by Niles. In this respect, through the agency of his narrator Disch flirts in bad faith with his audience, since Clara only ever refers to Niles as a man and in her descriptions never allows "his" disguise to drop, so abetting the fraud.
"There is great happiness and great blessedness in devoting oneself to another who is worthy of one's affection; still men are very selfish and the woman's devotion is always one of submission which makes our poor sex so very unenviable. This you will feel hereafter - I know; though it cannot be otherwise as God has willed it so." - Queen Victoria in letter to Princess Alice, Feb 15, 1858
"All marriage is such a lottery - the happiness is always an exchange - though it may be a very happy one - still the poor woman is bodily and morally the husband's slave. That always sticks in my throat. When I think of a merry, happy, free, young girl - and look at the ailing, aching state a young wife is generally doomed to - which you can't deny is the penalty of marriage." - Queen Victoria in letter to Princess Alice, May 16, 1860
- DEAREST CHILD: LETTERS BETWEEN QUEEN VICTORIA AND THE PRINCESS ROYAL PREVIOUSLY UNPUBLISHED, ed. Roger Fulford 1964
"There is every reason to expect their [works] to be streaked with vindictiveness toward the society that constricts and [artistically] discriminates against them. Their distortion of marriage and femininity is not the primary aspect of this matter. They tend to convert their exclusion into a philosophy of art that glorifies their exclusion. They exalt style, manner, surface. They decry artistic concern with the traditional matters of theme and subject because they are prevented from using fully the themes of their own experience. What is more this theory can be seen, I believe, as an instrument of revenge on the main body of society."
- "Homosexual Drama and Its Disguises", Stanley Kauffman, New York Times, 23 Jan 1966, II, p1.
"All literature is concerned with the opposition of reality and appearance. The shifting and conflict of social classes becomes the field of the problem of knowledge, of how we know and how reliable our knowledge is, vexing historians and scientists. It always asks - "Do I belong? Does he belong?" Money is the medium that, for good or bad, makes for a fluent society, not an equal society but one in which there is a constant shifting of classes, a frequent change in the personnel of the dominant class. In a shifting society a great emphasis is put on appearance. Status in a democratic society is presumed to come not with power but with the tokens of power. Hence the development of what Tocquevile called the "hypocrisy of luxury". The work of the novel is to record the illusion snobbery generates and try to penetrate to the truth which, as the novel assumes, lies hidden beneath all false appearances. Modern society bases itself on great expectations which if ever they are realised are found to exist by reason of sordid reality. The novel then is the perpetual quest for reality, the field of its research being always the social world, the material of its analysis being always manners as the indication of the direction of man's soul. It is probable that at this time we are about to make great changes in our social system. For our time the most effective agent of the moral imagination has been the novel of the last two hundred years."
- Lionel Trilling
"What may be called the fascination of corruption penetrates in every touch its exquisitely finished beauty"
- Walter Pater on Leonardo
Clara Reeve is the canvas on which Disch portrays the confluence and contrast of disparate periods and themes in one life. The period of action in the novel is the crux between existing cultural polarities. The high Victorianism of the historical period under examination is still in variance with the influence of the Regency and the forces of Romanticism. The book itself negotiates the conflicting aims and tactics of the domestic realistic novel and the gothic Sensation novel, while Clara herself mediates between her past and our own cultural assumptions. In formulating the events of her life Disch can investigate the precursors of the revolution in manners which underpins our modern society. Clara Reeve as a person is writing from a vantage point that can incorporate the upheavals of the New Woman, Socialism and the turn-of-the-century backlash against the Victorians without being programmatic, while still being enough a person of her time to faithfully recount the import of events as they would have been for her at that time, leaving the larger issue of interpretation to the reader.
Out of all of this, the task for Disch is to create a narrator who can body forth an historically accurate past. The bet is whether he can achieve characterisation alongside the accumulation and expenditure of details. Although Disch's minutiae are always right and pertinent, supporting his themes and his sustenance of past milieu, the breadth of coverage to which he attains, admirable and impressively prodigal though it is, is such as to threaten to overspill and burst the confines of the novel's embankments. Alongside the materials which directly buttress his own arguments Disch has also to intersperse many percipiencies along the way on mores, arts and events to create an illusion of contemporaneity, meaning that the reader, unsure as to how much importance to accord each detail and whether all contribute to a unitary whole, can be mislead into thinking that Disch is attempting a "Condition of England" novel. For which reasons the second and final sections of the novel "escape" to Italy thereby avoiding London (the condition of England so often being the condition of London) and any obligations to continue further in this vein. Anyway, with 334 Disch has already demonstrated that he is more than capable of bringing particulars together fructifying into an impression of a societal and aesthetic whole. The double bind is that if Disch had focused untiringly on the one theme of marital repression the novel would have been in danger of becoming painfully monotonous as reader and writer make single-mindedly for the conclusion. The level of external detail, aside from satiating the reader's own requirements from this genre, is necessary to represent Clara Reeve's own involvement in her surroundings while compensating for her ignorance of Niles's nature. These observations constitute her entire life. The attention she pays to the details of her environs is a consolation in the confinement of her existence. The impression created is that women are so confined to their rooms that that is what they know intimately, and when released into the outdoors nature has a brilliancy of beauty that is comfort and excitation to the receptive female soul. Such rich personal investment allows Disch to evade the narrow tones of victimisation, devising in Clara Reeve a compelling voice as much alert to natural beauty as current fashions.
Autobiography grows out of the Christian tradition of self-introspection being the fundamental means to salvation, but for our secular times autobiography is the testament and simultaneous method of self-realisation. Combined with this is that autobiography deals with the particular case, and, in the instance of Victorian autobiography, more often than not the individuals in question live lives of, if not eventfulness, then peculiar psychological extremity. The traditional female story centres around marriage, where the woman is validated by being singled out by one man. Since women often have few worldly resources upon which to draw, action is replaced by a turning-in on interior wherewithal. Heroines become heroines by becoming heroines, through self-awareness, rather than the determinism of being heroines. Given such a bind is it any wonder Disch features women supplicating St. Rita, patroness of lost causes. For Clara, her victory of self-development, aside from winning through to the end of the novel, is in becoming the person who can write this book. Under Niles's tutelage and then through the later conflicts of the novel Clara finds a personal breadth, which from the hints scattered throughout the book, leads to a more involving and rewarding life of travel and culture. Feminist criticism gives priority to female autobiography as the primary texts of the female narrative throughout history, revealing the conditions and denials of women's lives. Aside from being Clara Reeve's autobiography, Clara Reeve incorporates a wealth of testaments to the female situation: Zaide's letter, Renata's journal, and the prostitute Emily Ann Shiftney as another perspective on Victorian sexuality. All of these are stories that are hidden, repressed, and ignored as intolerable to polite Victorian society. Ironically, from "his" letter we discover that it is Niles who has found the most happiness as a traditional domesticated wife.
Marriage in novels has almost always been a transaction. Love may be a contributing factor but marriage is a function of society and the principal occupation of women. To put it most barefacedly: women dissemble to entrap a man who is capable of providing for them and which connivance must be recompensed in children and housekeeping until the contracting parties all die. In fact, the Victorian middle class encouraged and depended upon the hypocrisy of "a good match". Romantic love as we understand it (mutual passion and self-sacrifice) was the preserve and recompense of those who didn't have the requisite funds, such as Clara's parents denied their inheritance. The family aped industrialism: high-yield reproduction financed under a veneer of respectability, with the cost of individual lives outweighed by the magnitude of the GNP. To keep these personal engines oiled good wives still had the duty to love their matches and to ensure their husbands loved them ("whatever love means"). This pretence is paradigmatic of larger Victorian society, of pervasive exchanges, denials and misrepresentations of the personal and commercial, with marriage the totem of the bourgeoisie who give rise to and sanction this state. The marriage of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert was the conciliating nexus of the national hope for a blissful union of man and wife (of love, respect, and eugenesis), from which imperially potent nuptial radiance corresponding lights assuredly would be sparked in the bosoms of their connubially-aspirant subjects. Nowhere within the frame of action of the novel though does such a union occur, although Victoria and Albert are almost household gods for the unhappy Lydia, while both Clara's parents and Clara in her second marriage have happiness.
The function of women as the executrices of marriage is vital to the maintenance of society. The integrity of the home was the integrity of the nation. An errant woman or even a wrong choice made by a woman (i.e. marrying the wrong husband) imperils the illusion upon which our social harmony relies. Wives and mothers are the guarantors of all our putative happinesses. Indeed, women, having the perceived upper hand in the courtship ritual, were commended as the arbiters of civilisation, out of their self-control selecting husbands whose gentility and uprightness masculinity would ensure the furtherance of the family unit and the British nation. Disch spotlights this hypocrisy by demonstrating that under such a double bind the ideal genteel (feminised) man that a woman ought to desire is really another woman. Requiring that women be placed on pedestals as moral exemplars rendered them impotent as individuals. A loving woman would be passive and malleable, self-denyingly devoted in the performance of her domestic duties, content under the guidance of her husband. Curiously, the same people extolling the powers and benefices of femininity were just as convinced that women were the root of all sin; the happy marriage only letting sex enter as the duty of procreation. The female body was controlled by men for the continuation of the family, with women denied the knowledge and experience of their own sex. To be feminine was to abnegate female independence and female desire. The double standards of Victorian sexuality are taken to their extremes in Clara Reeve creating a marriage without sex, as both "husband" and wife are denied any sexuality. Making women mothers, though, does rather put them beyond the sexual pale. Men, though, are men and the consequent Victorian reliance on prostitutes is quite staggering, eliciting a growth commercial operation whose disregard for finer considerations is a rebuke to all the finer feelings which supposedly emblematise marriage.
The woman submits to her husband because of his potency, but because of this there is always the threat of the abuse of that power. Even if he does not physically abuse his wife, the work of the man is so outwardly-oriented in the provision for his home that the perceived pillar of society almost always implies a neglected wife. The home was held solely by the finances allocated and distributed by the man - this was his function. Paternal is the operative word, too, since marriage was only an illusory liberation with merely a titular change of authority, the daughter passed smoothly from the thrall of her father into the dominion of her husband. Her hopes of emancipation destroyed by the very man whose love was to be her freedom, so often the barely sublimated expression of this is of the wife as martyr (her love is abjection and mortification, the path of marriage altruistic devotion and sumbission) and the husband as destroyer. This is where the otherwise surprisingly absent Victorian religious aspect of the novel inheres in this book. Given the critical intent of Disch's novel we might him to feature a programme of religious debunking; although Clara Reeve reveals a certain sceptical side, Disch is never so explicit as to follow the same tack of anti-Victorianism familiar to us from Samuel Butler and Edmund Gosse. In the aftermath of Darwinism's assault on organised, revealed religion, the belief was secular love offered a correspondent to God's love for his creation, or, more bleakly, a consolation in a chaotic world ("We must love one another or die" - Dover Beach, Matthew Arnold). When Clara asks how can a loving God allow cruelty in this world what she is really expressing is her pained perplexity at the neglect and callousness from her loving husband.
For all this, women are implicated in their own jeopardy by the attraction they so often feel for those men who would humiliate and annihilate them. Barely comprehended by the women in question but felt nonetheless is the sexual element of their submission. The conspiracy of ignorance around all sexual matters means that for women unable to differentiate, the threat and the attraction become blurred resulting in a dark glamour and stormy appeal consolidated in the Byronic figure. To the Victorian imagination Byron was the epitome of all the vices that destroy domestic happiness: the scandalous mistreatment of his wife, the intimations of incest with his sister, and the illegitimate offspring (a frequent element in many Gothic novels of the period). Disch has Byron himself at the very heart of his story, invoking his actuality as person and myth. Disch boldly asserts a tie between Byron and his fictional Byron manques, and then proceeds to parcel out the Byronic legacy between the two Visconti "brothers". To Niles is allotted the "character" of the Byron of legend - a modern dandyish egotist whose eloquence expresses a luxuriant scorn of society, the capricious self-creation of his own aristocratic will whose secret miseries hangs a cloud over existence. The physically and sexually threatening satanic aspect of Byron, a hate-filled lascivious tyrant, governed by no law but his own will is apportioned to Manfredo. The maturity of the later Byron who benefited from his tumultuous emotional sexual education, however, is to be located in the older Clara who writes this novel. The sexual aspect of Byron was such a fixation for the public's opprobrium that it served to confirm their sense of the hazard Byron in his person posed to the operations of society, but by focusing on this one aspect with such vehemence it precluded the need to consider what that peril was or why society was so vulnerable to his Romantic attacks.
Romanticism is commonly described as a turning towards Nature, but it was not the generic Nature of shared objective common traits and social assumptions as described by 17th and early 18th century philosophers but a celebration of particularity, individuality and the self. For Romantic philosophers the examination of nature was a journey into subjectivity and of one's own responses to the world. It overthrew all consensus and standards, was therefore inherently anti-social and deliberately revolutionary. This Romanticism insisted on the primacy of the individual, his sensations and his emotions expressed in language that sought to make its effects through the fabulous, striking at the essence obscured by artificial and deceitful conventionality, bold in contrast to the formal, genteel or sentimental effects of the earlier 18th century. Literary emphasis shifted from description and didacticism to the emotions and associations aroused in the writer and his readers. Outside of poetry and political pamphleteering we recognise these features most prominently in the newly emergent Gothic novels, which mode has lasted to the current day. The Gothic novel explored intense feeling and bodily sensations in its characters, locating in emotions inarguable truths beyond normal constraints. In this way, there was a constant tension between the internal world of feeling and the external world, with the two only being infrequently resolved through natural catastrophes such as earthquakes, storms, erupting volcanoes, and other physical manifestations of the sublime. This emphasis and prioritisation of essence filters through in the Gothic novel to its very plot: hidden identities and criminal plots enact the ambivalencies of the belief that in an inherently unjust society expression of an individual's nature is innately good contrasted against the connotations of evil and criminality inherent in such Romantic archetypes of rebellion as Cain and Satan. The narrative of crime and rebellion exposed the hypocrisies upon which society depends. The protagonists of the original Gothics became the novels trying to realise themselves, to achieve an equilibrium, using accounts of criminal detection to subject the self to some objective social authority, while also attempting to hold society accountable to the individual, while finding any revelation of truth to be innately dangerous and destructive. From our modern perspective we find any assertion of innate and irrefutable truths to be itself dangerous since we view any concept as being some form of social construct, and it is in this tension between essence and constructed form that Disch locates the horror of his novel.
In seeking private excitation and revelation of essence the Romantics were in revolt against their 18th century forebears, but as they entered the 19th C they found their beliefs under assault and infiltration from the development of mass reproduced material culture. The rising middle-classes while rejecting the excess of the Romantics found that material goods offered an arena for aesthetic and emotive excitation and appreciation. They found self-expression and self-delineation in external property, found that their possessions could constitute their sense of identity, that both could in effect be manufactured. This blurring of internal is inherent in the Frankenstein monster's image: given such an agglomeration of parts from where does identity originate? Where is the soul in the body? It is at this point that essentialism becomes confused. The most obvious example is Niles - do we ever know who or what is the real Niles? Niles, Frankenstein's monster himself, can choose to become Pygmalion (a notorious misogynist) to Clara's Galatea, trying to create an identity for her, to improve her, and indeed to the extent that she does become an internally richer and more resourceful person having known him Niles succeeds as her mentor, even as at the same time Clara's love for him will both redeem and annihilate Niles and his sense of self. The Visconti's believe that what they want can be manufactured - families, homes - even at the same that their personal history makes a mockery of the proprieties of biological reproduction. Can Niles' and Clara's marriage ever be a marriage in sprit or fact? The hope is that external props in and of themselves will validate the absence of any internal meaning. Even Clara with her hopes of being married and being a Lady and Aunt Lydia with her reproduced English home in Italy prove the pervasion of these self-willed deceptions. It is the providence of the author to prove the truth of "God shall bring every work into judgement and every secret thing".
The respectable Victorian novel is about weighing the individual and his/her rights against society and its claim with the hope that the argument will be tipped in the favour of the latter. Romanticism disrupts this delicate investigation by asserting the primacy of the energies of the individual. If, as Mario Praz argues, Romanticism is the state of ferment of the invalid fighting to overcome his fever then the Gothic novel is surely the roiling of hysterical vapours accumulating in the collective womb of Victorian womanhood. The Victorians associated the Romantics with a fervid irresponsibility that would threaten or destroy the necessary constraints that bound society together. To offset the harsh bleakness that this utilitarian approach to socialisation offered they sought to sublimate the Romantic aesthetic of savoured powerful emotions into a consolation of softer feeling and emotionally-leavened domestic and civil responsibilities. In this way the Victorians championed the novel that treated primarily of the domestic arena with domestic relations its province. As the Victorian home was a refuge for shutting out the harshness, violence and perils of the world, so the novel was an escape from the boredom and stresses of domestic life into an idealised and sentimentalised representation of female experience. It was for this reason that there was the need to control what women read: in this frivolous form of escapism for the empty hours of underemployed women there lurked the potential to shape women's dreams and lead them into new desires - what George Eliot castigated as the "mind and millinery species". The Gothic novel as we have it now is the bequest of the Sensation novels which began to appear in the early 1860s, at the very time that the domestic novel was supposed to be pre-eminent with ordinary domestic relations its province - and also the very period that the events of Clara Reeve take place. The Sensation novel, treating of extreme melodrama, its content revolving around adultery, bigamy, divorce, and psyches under stress, could question conventional morality and expose hypocritical social respectability with its trails of clues revealing domestic secrets and hidden sexual histories. The Gothic novel played up to a desire for extreme emotions and situations in circumstances where there ought to be no extremes. Instead it acted out the unspeakable suppressed tensions and fears of family life, locking the threats of the husband within the Gothic residence.
Niles is not only the distant husband of numerous Gothics but also and importantly given the societal and gender analysis of the novel, a flagrant example of the dandy. The dandy used external forms such as material acquisitions, his dress, manners, and wit to achieve and signify the satisfaction of a perfect self. The dandy's rejection of middle-class bourgeois ethics, manners and community made him a hate figure for the utilitarian philistine populace. Ironically, his attention to external details, his knowledge of art and commodities, and his lavish lifestyle made him a living advertisement and apotheosis of their commercial and cultural accomplishments. Dandyism in the Victorian era was a nostalgia for pre-bourgeois values, with the dandy arrogating to himself aristocratic mores, but the middle-class still rejected him for not fulfilling their conception of a gentleman and declared his vanity both selfish and effeminate. His avoidance of obligation, employment and attachments made him avowedly anti-family - the antithesis of the ideal Victorian life. There was a tradition of the dandy's indifference to women, and his sensitivity often had a homosexual taint, but Disch is able to avoid this obvious line of enquiry by making his dandy an actual woman. The dandy emphasised his power to fascinate, creating his life out of cosmetics and ephemera, and rebelling against stolid nature. Using the cover of the artificiality of the dandy, Niles is therefore able to disguise the very artificiality of his condition. Also in conjunction with the figure of Zaide, Disch is able to look forward to the gender wars of the late 19th century, when the femme fatale figure was used to argue the strength of woman juxtaposed against the apparent weakness of the fin-de-siecle dandies. Using the figure of the dandy, Disch is able not only to refer back to Byron and the egotistical figures of the Regency but also to look forward to such decadent aesthete figures as Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde whose work is the very epitome of irony and deconstruction of gender roles.
Disch as an artist is much given to the use of irony and emotive ambiguity but in Clara Reeve he subjects these tools to the same rigour with which he has previously deployed them. One might think that the mercurial, contrarian, witty Viscontis are maybe Disch-fulfilment in fictive form, initially beguiling, but in fact they are his means of putting these traits to intense moral scrutiny. The dark-side of ambivalence and irony is deliberate hypocrisy, and with their superior triviality the Viscontis cultivate valueless hypocrisy. Their belief that all exteriors are merely deceit and that there is nothing beneath those surfaces only propagates nihilism. In the person of Zaide Disch inheres the worst characteristics of failed marriage and decadent Romanticism, in her scheme to apply the hypocrisies of masculine society against itself. Niles states that "marriage is the foot of all falsehoods" and in this statement we can trace the evil heart of Zaide. Zaide is the apotheosis of the bad wife and mother. For all her perversion of her duties, it is as a mother that she finds her fulfilment, from whence her corrupt power and influence resides. Even her villa is a testament to her failure in bourgeois housekeeping, an aristocratic neglect. At the same time, Zaide is the apotheosis of decadent Romanticism: cruel, voluptuous, excessive, careless, anarchic, irreligious, and unEnglish. For the English of many centuries these traits were the preserve of the Italians, and it is no surprise that it is there she is so at home. The Viscontis rely upon the willingness of others not to confront their impropriety, so that Clara is trapped by the inability to speak out against her treatment, her need to maintain her semblance of normality and not to expose herself to the larger pain that honesty will require. When Zaide first meets Clara she says "What begins in fright can grow into the finest, clearest, ripest beauty" , which offered as a decadent apercu is in fact an accurate prophecy of Clara's development in the novel. The Viscontis' conception of beauty is of painful desire and contamination, not a vision that one would want vindicated: the indifferent, cold Pierro della Francesca, and the lonely, bitter degradation of Niles's hidden portrait - "Evil painted as a bouquet". Zaide, is in effect, an artist with a vision that she wants to realise, but when she tries to impose upon Clara, the true values of Romanticism rear up. Clara realises that she does not want to enact someone else's philosophy, that she truly believes in her own values, and that, as Niles says, "People are free the minute they choose to be". That the beliefs that Clara defends are commonplaces of decency may seem trite, but for Disch these are hard-won and therefore valuable truths as can be seen from his story "getting Into Death" which in many ways is a miniature of "Clara Reeve".
The major achievement in the Sensation Novel is "Jane Eye", not just as literature but also for establishing the formulas of the Gothic novel - the uncertain young girl, the male protagonist with a double identity. It is not hard to see that Clara Reeve has, if not distinct parallels with "Jane Eyre", then asymptotes. If Disch cannot hope to match "Jane Eyre"'s expression of an individual quest for equality of passion and emotional boldness, he can instead examine the contemporary forces which obstruct resistance, rebellion and the Romantic independence that "Jane Eyre" seems to champion. While both Jane Eyre and Clara Reeve start as disinherited orphans, Clare Reeve's middle-class status means she is much more restrained and inhibited by omnipresent propriety than the more insecure and therefore adventurous Jane Eyre. Victorian Sensation Novels usually offered a heroine who was unrealistically proactive (and frequently morally compromoised), Disch offers a real constrained lady. Furthermore, each novel has its dark doppelganger: Bertha Mason locked away in the attic represents the uncontrolled passion that is the negative aspect of Jane Eyre's character, while the portrait of Niles demonstrates the split in sexual roles which Clara Reeve may reconcile. While Jane Eye comes into money and is able to reconcile herself to serving the master she loves once he is tamed, to submit to a domesticated God, for Clara the journey into marriage is only the beginning of her trials and of the novel's thematic explorations. In Victorian novels inheriting money is usually the final step towards independence for the heroine, Clara Reeve demonstrates that this was not really so, since it only serves to place her further in the thrall of her persecutors. The false marriage is only one of the obstacles in "Jane Eyre" - Bertha Mason is a legal embarrassment, but Clara Reeve treats of the whole range of falsehoods which are inherent in the Victorian marriage where Niles's deceit strikes at fundamental assumptions. The sexual passions in "Jane Eyre" are ultimately ephemeral, giving way to matrimony and mature dispassionate love; Clara Reeve is simultaneously about the absence of desire in a marriage and of the destructive effects of sex. "Jane Eyre" illustrates the ideological strain between Romantic individualism and realist socialisation; in inducting and guiding the reader into socialisation, it may be the novel will have to confine elements (no matter how appealing in themselves) as ultimately antisocial and problematic. While readers are often unsure about the ending of "Jane Eyre", the considered end result of this process is that the final creation of the well-rounded Clara Reeve is the desirable literary and social product.
Given the extent to which the novel is freighted with allusions to Byron, "Frankenstein", "The Portrait of Dorian Gray", and much else besides readers may not be surprised to discover that the novel is named for a real Clara Reeve (1729-1807), the author of numerous Horace Walpole-style medieval gothic novels as "The Old English Baron". There is lineage of the pastiche Victorian novel, which sets "Clara Reeve" in a line of succession from the period mysteries of Julian Symons, John Fowles's "The French Lieutenants' Woman" and Disch's coeval Joyce Carol Oates to such recent frontrunners as Charles Palliser and Caleb Carr, but this essay is long enough as it is. If anyone is dubious as to the plausibility of Niles' deception, bearing in mind the popularity of Vesta Tilley the famous music hall male impersonator, they ought to look up such cases as Captain Leslie Barker of Brighton who was married for almost a decade in the 1920s before being discovered. And touching upon false identities, when "Clara Reeve was first published with the declaration that "the pseudonym may be said to be the Maiden name of an author both prolific and much praised for work in other modes" certain reviewers took it upon themselves to decide that no-one other than Gore Vidal could have written this novel. As a novel "Clara Reeve" actually appeared several years too early, since it preceded the torrent of feminist studies of the Victorian novel which appeared in the late 1970s and thereby missed out on commercial and critical associations. Indeed, in his examination of the shackles of wedlock and the subsequent emancipation D has pre-empted many of the techniques and conclusions of Marilyn French's canonical "The Women's Room" (1977).
The tradition of the novel in the 18th and 19th century is a promise of realism, of description, of definition and knowability. Disch, in "Clara Reeve", buggers this up no end since it is the only means by which he can win out over his material. Disch cannot give us the radical ending the novel might suggest since Victorian society cannot provide it. Furthermore, the literary constraints of the bourgeois novel will not allow it. Fiction is a comfort, and for all that it tempts with exoticism its more radical imports are kept in check by formal constraints that duplicate moral assumptions. As experienced the novel is not a form of ideas but of sensations and relationships - "realism" - feeding back what its readers already know, hence its superiority as an entertainment for domestic women. Furthermore, radical conclusions on the reader's part are unlikely since the novel's desire to enact larger societal forces as individual characters means that culpability is misdirected since the reader's guilt for society is readily waived or assuaged. The realism of the Victorian novel presupposes epistemologies of power from which judgement and knowledge can be issued to establish societal consensus and certitude. To write the novel that he is writing Disch is constrained by these forces. Realism, however, is only a process of accumulated impressions, and Disch can use his artistry to imbue ambivalence upon individual moments even as they cohere to form the consensus ending. The Victorian novel is all about inhabiting others lives and lifting the mask from society, all of which "Clara Reeve" does, but at the heart of it remains Niles Visconti who remains a mystery - a mask grown into his face or is she passing her face off as a mask…does even he/she know who she/he is? This is where knowability gives way. It is in this dissent and discomfiture of literary process that the radical heart of the novel lies, not in its comforting conclusions that love will win over everything evading acknowledged social problems of inequality.
What Disch has then is a constant struggle with all the "signifiers" of his novel. To not only duplicate the everyday life, but also to duplicate the same Victorian tension of the unspeakable. Hence his choice of outre gender-crossing subject matter. The thrillingly unspeakable for the Victorians, novels about adultery, bigamy, divorce is now the drab fare of infinite torpid domestic dramas. As in "et in Arcadia" Disch finds a way to blow all the subtexts of his chosen literay form up onto the screen but whenever he seems to reach a foregone conclusion he does a switch. He has managed to find a correlative in the same vein of domestic relations that has all the same exotic, extravagant and dangerous content. From the novel we can see that Disch relishes the material richness of Victorianism, recognises the chance for something meaty to work upon. "Clara Reeve" is no five-finger exercise in pastiche but an important part of Disch's emotional growth as a writer. The post-Victorians reacted with a peculiar hedonistic austerity against all Victorian style, furnishings, mores, etc. Disch as a younger writer was given to literary experiments of some austerity. While Disch brings to this novel the same degree of criticism as the early 20th century writers he has a greater willingness than they had to bring to life the richness of the Victorian milieu. What D achieves in "Clara Reeve" is the inception of the more expansive tone of his maturity that arbitrates observation, thought, and action in a discursive narrative style. Disch intends not to graffito but to inhabit the gothic, to bring as much life to it as possible, illuminating every room in the edifice, taking the covers off the effects and fixtures, and inviting his guests to feel the plush. Disch follows the formalities of this genre and ultimately abides by them, but rather than the shrieking parody of "The House That Fear Built" here he is trying to imbue it with all the artistry available to him, to take these worn and fretted furnishings and at every instance either enliven or grandly expand them. Georgette Heyer may be subjected by Mario Praz to a vigorous feeling up down one of modernism's darker alleyways in the shadows of the Great Tradition but she still makes her departure with no small decorum though slight disarray.
F.R. Leavis ora pro nobis!
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