Sarah Scott’s Millenium (sic) Hall
Scott’s 1762 novel attracts attention primarily due to its subject matter. In recent decades its depiction of an all-female utopia has justifiably enjoyed considerable attention from feminist critics, but Scott’s themes are more revealing and complex than some reductive summaries might suggest.
The women of the Millenium Hall commune (critics generally use the original edition’s spelling) live a life in many ways entirely rational. They spend their time in fully human activities, pursuing the arts in an Edenic setting. Each is a refugee from the persecutions of men and each has found, in female affection and support, satisfaction otherwise unavailable. In fact the place has the air of blithe eighteenth century Enlightenment absoluteness: the women, the reader is told, are altogether harmonious. With the conflicts occasioned by gender removed, they can enjoy daily happiness. Passion appears invariably accompanied by error at the least and very often wickedness. The few satisfactory marriages one glimpses are wholly cerebral. Though love between men and women seems virtually always harmful, among the women one hears no hint of lesbianism. The author herself had a very brief disastrous marriage and a longterm relationshop with Lady Barbara Montagu (sometimes considered co-author) during which they put into practice many of the ideas suggested in the novel.
Nonetheless, Scott is socially conservative enough to present the ladies as endorsing marriage as a general rule and assisting others in finding proper matches even while rejecting life with a man for themselves. Chastity and sexual reputation have such importance in their minds that one woman actually accepts a mismatched marriage rather than allowing a wholly untrue rumor to circulate.
Indeed, the bliss of Millenium Hall is such that the place might seem as though it must have the ennui of Eden as well as its charms. The critic seeking a route to social reform might note that each woman has come with an independent fortune -- it is markedly easier to construct a utopia if one need not bother about anyone’s earning a living. Still, even the ladies’ sometimes absurd gentility may be read as a response to the very real economic domination of men.
Radical as it may be in some of the claims on behalf of women, the book is scrupulously conservative in essentials: for instance, claiming that while “every station has its duties, those of the great are more various than those of their inferiors.” Scott’s conservatism is even stronger in matters of religion. Far from ideas like eighteenth century deism, Scott advances a wholly confident orthodoxy, often invoked to place the seal of undeniable truth on the ladies’ contentions. Their spirituality is shallow with one exception: they are philanthropic, helping their poorer neighbors (while not questioning the class system). This benevolence is the most certain evidence of their Christian virtue. In contrast, the sympathetic male narrator has just returned from the slave plantations of the Indies where he made his fortune never, apparently, thinking of the well-being of the workers.
The narratives of the lives of the groups’ members, while programmatically determined, are often similar to the incidents in novels like Richardson’s. Seductive aggressive males, fainting females, marriage, money, and class generate the incidents. In this way the book conforms to the “conduct novel” which, by setting forth exemplary behavior, both to be emulated and avoided, anticipates the self-help genre which occupies so many best-seller notches today.
de La Fayette’s Princess de Clèves
More a soap opera than a roman d’analyse, Princess de Clèves depicts a world in which the courtiers spend their time in elaborate intrigues, pursuing power and sex, because they have nothing else to do. However deceitful and selfish their methods, they have exquisitely developed sensibilities. It’s like a despiritualized Genji where every act is a theatrical gesture and refinement is cultivated by all. Vanity here presents in one of its purest forms. Surely the idlers who filled the courts of many absolute monarchs in all parts of the world must have similarly passed their time seeking pleasure while pursuing the more serious occupation of jockeying for influence by backstabbing and lying.
In this context the heroine is the exception. She excels in every quality admired by the nobles around her. In fact, an annoying habit of the author is to use empty superlatives. Not Madame de Clèves alone, but many characters are the noblest, the most handsome, charming, witty, yet the reader is given virtually no specific detail to make these grand abstractions imaginable. These are less descriptions of individual than they are rhapsodies for beauty that is too beautiful to be quite real.
Unfortunately for Madame de Clèves, she is also too good to survive. In an amoral court, she is incongruous. Having entered a loveless marriage with little hesitation, she then insists on being faithful, eventually dying for virtue (as her long-suffering husband had done before her). The one who inspired her passionate unfulfilled love, the Duc de Nemours, one learns in a one-sentence paragraph, found that time ameliorated his loss and his love faded.
The narrative, far from being a psychological masterpiece as some have said, strikes me as melodramatic and sentimental. The court’s aesthetes appreciate their own reaction more than the object of their contemplation. Nonetheless, the reader must admire the novel’s brevity, structure, and the lofty pitch of its abstract ideals.
Edith Wharton’s Hudson River Bracketed
Oddly, toward the end of her career, Edith Wharton produced a work that looks very much like someone else’s first novel, a Bildingsroman (more specifically a Künstlerroman) about an sensitive but awkward Midwesterner experiencing a love-tragedy amid the pretentious New Yorkers. Unlike most critics, Wharton thought this one of her best works. For me the satiric material on the Middle West, reminiscent of Floyd Dell or Sinclair Lewis, is awkwardly done and fits poorly into the plot. For a college graduate in the twenties, with or without literary interests, to take the temple at Delphi for a Christian Science Church, as Weston does, is not quite believable. Similarly, Wharton’s treatment of “modern” styles in fiction has aged poorly. One hears of “pure manly stories of young fellows prospecting in the Yukon” [London] and “descriptions of corrupt society people” [Wharton]. Rauch and his Voodoo poems sound like e. e. cummings with their tradition under a show of modernism, and I suppose Weston himself is based on Wolfe. But where is the strong mainline of modernism, Eliot, Pound, Stein, Joyce? The writers here seem like a shallow bunch. Vernon Lee criticized the book for its “cult chat,” but it is hard to associate these paper dolls with real writers.
Significantly, the descriptions of Vance’s blockages are okay, while his transports are weak. In fact all the rhapsodies of nature and of psychology sound flat to my ears, and the view of writer as unique seer badly puffed up. The vague concept of “Mothers” is perhaps meant to demonstrate the young writer’s intuitive brilliance, but it sounds rather silly instead. Wharton’s images too often seem like Weston’s, such as the self-dramatizing of feeling “handcuffed and chained” to one’s life.
The sentimental plot, generated by the virtuous self-control of Halo Spear and Vance Weston, is about to conclude in a conventional happy ending, when, in the space between the beginning and the end of the very last sentence Wharton’s tone switches. At first it seems the two, now each freed of their marriages, can find their destiny with each other: “And when at last he drew her arm through his and walked beside her in the darkness.” Without warning, Vance’s alienation returns: “the creator of imaginary beings must always feel alone.”
Though myself a “raw product of a Middle-Western town,” I found her literati to be reductive even as caricatures and the love story emotionally simple, which is to say sentimental. I imagine the sequel, The Gods Arrive, is more of the same, but I rather doubt I shall ever find out.