Submission and cross-dressing: Tennyson’s The Princess

tennyson-5We’re in the 19th century for the Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up, in the Victorian era, when the British Poet Laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, published an epic poem called The Princess, on the subject of what to do about bizarre ideas about women’s education, independence, and silly things like that.

The submission of Victorian women was expected due to their supposed intellectual inferiority. A woman who tried to educate herself was violating Nature, because women were to be angels in the house, and to stay there, expecting nothing more from life than to serve their husbands (because they would all of course get married), and to raise their children as perfect souls. The artist and critic John Ruskin was particularly annoying on this subject, since he believed in some terrifying double standards. The Victorian woman must be incapable of error, incorruptible, infallible (though I’d like to know where she was to get this wisdom if she wasn’t allowed to leave the house), and would rule men in her own domestic domain. If the woman of the home allowed danger or harm to enter the house, it was her fault, because then the house would not be a home. He made no space for the possibility that a man might bring the danger home (his list included disease, crime, drink, and false religion). A man might also refuse to be ruled by his wife. Imagine that.

tennyson-1Thankfully for common sense, these ideals, though widespread, were also widely disagreed with. Many Victorian novels (including those we teach now, for their alignment with modern thinking) will show you that middle-class women in particular were disturbed by these restrictions, because the plots seem to try to winkle them out of such restricted lives and show them a different way of living, even if they all rush nervously back to the drawing-room and predictable safety.

So where does that leave us with Tennyson? He published The Princess in 1847. It consists of a Prologue, and seven Books: this marks it as an epic in form alone. It’s one of Tennyson’s earlier works, but is very well-known because of some of the individual poems within it, called the ‘intercalary poems’. It’s very easy to read, because it’s written in blank verse, a classical conversational form in unrhyming iambic pentameters.

note the chaps in disguise
note the chaps in disguise

Here’s the story: Princess Ida retreats from male society and creates a university for women where nothing male may enter. This feminine intellectual paradise is infiltrated by the Prince to whom she is betrothed, plus a couple of his friends, all disguised in frocks. He tries to persuade her to relent and marry him after all, and then his aggressive father declares war on her father, and the university is turned into a war hospital. The poem ends with Ida being persuaded by the Prince that they can co-exist harmoniously in marriage.

This poem is a ‘problem poem’, but it’s designed to be a comedy (in the Shakespearian sense), in that the women are made to see the error of their ways through the gentle persuasion of love. The Princess has to surrender, although she ends the poem in a ‘triumphant union’ with the Prince. She is sad that she can’t continue her resistance to patriarchal society (conservative, brutal, instinctive, unthinking) or continue her mission of a separate educational establishment for women (an intellectual, futuristic and abstract goal).

The Princess really is a very odd poem, because it’s self-consciously archaic, and deliberately farcical in many respects. It begins with a hissy-fit by the Prince’s father, a mighty king, who is furious when Ida’s father sends a message that the Princess has decided not to marry his son. He stomps and rages, and tears things up, and vows to send an army to crush the Princess’s pride. The Prince, who seems a resourceful sort of chap, suggests that he goes to discuss things with the Princess, but his father, still in a right old temper, forbids him, Naturally, the Prince, and his two best friends Florian and Cyril – I don’t know why I can’t find the Prince’s name: perhaps he’s an Everyman character – disobey this petulant ruling, and slip out of the palace at night to travel to Princess Ida’s realm. But remember that this is a women-only realm: no men may enter. So the three gallant gentlemen dress up as women, and here’s where the farce begins. Cross-dressing is a staple ingredient in British comedy: we really do find it funny when men wear frocks. They register at the Princess’s university as gentlewomen students, and attend classes in philosophy led by, ta da!, Florian’s own sister, Psyche, with whom Cyril immediately falls in love.

photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron to illustrate The Princess
photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron to illustrate The Princess

Princess Ida is treated with respect in the poem, though there is a bit of undergraduate sniggering when she first meets the three adventurers. We know that they’re men fooling the girls, and so we can enjoy the humour of the situation where Ida gravely lectures them on how unnecessary men are, and how much better a society is when it is ruled by women. Ida is a symbol of heroic will rather than a spoiled girl who won’t do what the men want. She embodies heroic comedy, rather than the domestic comedy which is what all the marriage-making is about. Marriage is a comic symbol, the ultimate in joining and making.

But is it a good poem? Is it enjoyable? It does use many different tones, which shows that, in trying to do too many things, Tennyson was never going to succeed. It’s also a right old mix of genres, using the heroic, the comic, the domestic, the epic, the lyrical, the idyllic, almost all at the same time. Good professional showmanship of technique, but is it good art? Some attempts at genre effect fail completely: the poem is framed by a Prologue and a Conclusion set in a standard mid-Victorian country-house party, and the seven Books of the poem are supposed to have been narrated by seven different speakers (to whom we were introduced in the Prologue), yet their voices are indistinguishable. They were supposed to have different personalities and points of view, yet the background society from which they come is so conventional, that in comparison with this fantasy landscape of Princes and Princesses, they are all the same.

tennyson-2Something I rather like about this poem is that it is particularly British. It uses Arthurian and chivalric ideas and terminology as a basis for the university experiment, and for the actions of the three young male invaders, who are knights errant on a quest in the service of love. It is totally fantastical, utterly unrealistic, a delirious exercise in sheer romantic silliness. The great Victorian satirists Gilbert and Sullivan saw its potential immediately, because this was the inspiration for their magnificent comic operetta Princess Ida. The Princess is fun to read; do try it.

Epic Poems You’ve Never Read 3: John Milton’s Paradise Lost

milton-3Hail Lucifer! The Really Like This Book podcast script catch-up tackles Milton’s Paradise Lost, that monster epic of the Restoration in which God is the villain, and Lucifer is the first anti-hero. Let’s pause to consider the history. We’re in the seventeenth century, when Britain was split in two by the Civil War, which ended when King Charles I was decapitated in central London after a formal trial by his enemies, the Parliamentarians. We then had an Interregnum – an interruption of monarchical rule – that lasted from 1649 to 1660, under the Protectorates of Oliver and then Richard Cromwell, that were characterised by severe social austerity under Puritan dominance. Charles II, son of the decapitated king, was restored as king in 1660, and society went wild. You could wear colours again. The theatres reopened, and before long even women were appearing on stage. Civil morality plummeted, led by the flamboyant and openly sexualised behaviour at Court.

milton-6This new atmosphere of libertinism must have been troubling if you had grown up under the overtly religious monarchies of James I and VI, and Charles I, as John Milton did. During the war he was Oliver Cromwell’s Secretary for Foreign Tongues, because he wrote and read, and probably spoke, eight languages. He was in charge of the Protectorate’s propaganda and censorship. But he was also a passionate polemicist in defence of political liberty and free speech. He wrote rebuttals of Royalist attempts to make Charles I a Christian martyr, and a formal Latin defence of the English people as a state without a monarch. This fixed his European reputation as the most learned man in England. He married three times, his first two wives dying in childbirth. He was completely blind by the time he was in his mid-forties (so he never knew what his second and third wives looked like). Problems in his first marriage made him campaign for the legalisation of divorce: this was a very risky thing to do since it defied Church teaching, but risk and criticism was not something Milton stayed clear of. He continually published poems – which was a form used widely for political argument – criticising social and political behaviour of the day, and defended the right of free speech and republican government. Naturally, this long record of republican activism did not go down well after the Restoration, when Milton lost his job. He lived for the rest of his life in political disfavour and comparative poverty, as well as blindness. In these conditions, he wrote the epic poem for which he is most remembered, and which is a serious contender for the greatest English poem ever written – Paradise Lost.

Doré's engraving of Lucifer
Doré’s engraving of Lucifer as Classical hero

Common modern reactions to the thought of reading Paradise Lost include: ‘it’s too long’; ‘it’s boring’; ‘it’s in weird English’; ‘it’s incomprehensible’; ‘it’s sexist’. Let me tackle these one by one. The length: well, it’s an epic. Milton’s poem is about the Fall of Man, why Adam ate the Apple, in the context of why Lucifer fell from Heaven, why he wanted revenge on God by destroying those whom God loved best, how he planned his escape from Hell, his journey across the universe to track down these tiny creatures on a tiny planet, and to seduce the weakness of humanity away from the strong and loving rule of God, represented by his archangels and Christ. That’s quite a subject. It’s not going to be handled adequately in a sonnet, or a poem of one or two pages. It requires an immense amount of writing. ‘Too long’ is a problem only if you’re looking for a quick read on the train, or something you can dip into and out of again over several months without forgetting anything important. Paradise Lost is a good long meaty read, a hearty meal of words and images highly suitable for evening reading (aloud) for a stay in a holiday cottage without internet or TV.

Lucifer being cast out by the archangels on God's side
Lucifer being told off by the archangels on God’s side

How can such a subject, such action, so much drama and debate, be boring? Paradise Lost needs some concentration, to be sure, but it is gripping stuff. Personally, I think Lucifer’s escape from Hell, and his journey across the universe are thrilling. His attempts to seduce Eve in the garden of Eden are tense and cliff-hangery. The efforts of the archangels to search and destroy a suspected evil in their midst have a certain relationship with wartime thrillers.

The language shouldn’t really be a problem, but a way around this is to listen to the poem as an audiobook. I knitted a large amount of green sweater while listening to this poem for the first time (though I already knew it in patches from reading). I was gripped and fascinated by the drama, without having to worry about the spellings. The sound of seventeenth-century English is a lot more familiar than its appearance. Hearing a well-trained actor read you the poem also lets you hear how it should be read, with all the sweeping vastnesses of Milton’s epic language made clear and natural. There is something off-putting when you begin reading a heroic simile on one page and have to turn over two more to get to its end, because you don’t know where you’re going, and you fret about leaving the main path of the poetic narrative. The actor reading the poem for you knows exactly where they’re going, and so you can relax and let them tell the story as Milton intended it to be told, leisurely, in control, and with pleasure.

Satan in Pandemonium, the court of devils
Satan in Pandemonium, the court of devils

The incomprehensibility of the poem depends on how much of the Bible and how many Greek and Latin myths you know. Milton was writing for readers who shared his cultural norms. He expected everyone to know intimately the details of the Fall of Man and also all the comparisons he brings in, from the fall of Troy, the Aeneid, the Odyssey, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and so on. So if you’re listening on audiobook and don’t know all this stuff, the effect will be of a delightful extended literature class, where you are told stories and can jot down names to investigate later because they sound rather good. If you read the poem yourself, the footnotes are there to help you, or you can ignore them all until you’re ready to investigate just a few points of puzzlement.

milton-5The last complaint about Paradise Lost was one I had myself, when I’d surged through it on my first reading: that it’s sexist. This is an entirely inappropriate objection to a seventeenth-century poem. Seventeenth-century writers didn’t have the conception of gender politics that we do now in our culture, so it’s daft to go looking for a fight in that department.  Nonetheless, some of you may share my annoyance at finding only one female figure in the poem, if you don’t count the repulsive personification of Lucifer’s daughter in the bowels of Hell. Perhaps archangels are simply without sex or gender. Perhaps senior devils, like Beelzebub and Satan, are only allowed to be male. Let’s just acknowledge that, for Milton, the universe was male. We can, however, find something interesting by looking at Eve herself more closely. She’s utterly innocent and devoted to Adam, her lord and master. She gets to look after the garden while he takes care of the fields. She subordinates her will to Adam’s, does not disagree with him, and only listens to Lucifer’s blandishments when she hasn’t got a wise husband, a careful guardian angel, or a wise deity, to take care of her and make sure she doesn’t disobey what they say. This smacks of infantilisation to me. In many ways, what Lucifer says to Eve is very reasonable, but because she takes no responsibility for herself, she isn’t allowed to be a full human being. Adam takes all the blame for the Fall on himself, because he wasn’t there guarding her while she considered eating the apple. If you don’t allow women the right to be wrong, you don’t give them any rights at all, it seems to me. That’s a feminist statement, if you care to look for it.

One of the great pleasures of reading Paradise Lost is to enter a lost world of pre-Enlightenment thought, with a world-view very different from our own. By being exposed to it so thoroughly, we might find ourselves asking different questions. Was Paradise Lost the first science fiction epic? Was Lucifer the first anti-hero, the protagonist steeped in evil and bad behaviour, but whose essential nobility is too great to ignore? And why is God so, well, so unimpressive, in this poem? Can one write greatness sufficiently when we all know the outcome?





The 1947 Club: Mistress Masham’s Repose by T H White

white-4I reread this less-known novel by T H White for the #1947Club because I had a Folio Club edition that I’d never read. My paperback copy of Mistress Masham’s Repose fell apart through overuse many year ago, so I was very happy to find this large, illustrated, embossed edition in a fancy cardboard slipcase, lurking under a shelf in a second-hand bookshop. But the problem with a slipcase is that it anonymises the book inside, and so for years my eye would glide over its dull whiteness without remembering the glory of the novel inside. It did protect the fine red watered silk binding, so I’m pleased about that.

This is a glorious novel, and will remind you of Joan Aiken’s Dido Twite novels (which I must also reread), since they too are set in an alternate history and landscape and feature a horrible governess villain who torments the imprisoned child hero in a vast country estate (published 1962 onwards). It helps if you’ve already read Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, since Mistress Masham’s Repose is a fanciful continuation of the plight of the Lilliputians, but this is not a requirement, since everything is explained.

white-5When Gulliver left Lilliput and its six-inch-tall people he boasted foolishly about them to the sailors on his ship. Once he had been landed safely, the ship tore back to Lilliput, looking for manikins to exhibit at fairs to make the sailors’ fortunes. One group of kidnapped Lilliputians escaped while on tour in Northamptonshire, and found their way to an island on an ornamental lake, which contains a folly of a temple called Mistress Masham’s Repose. The lake is in the large ducal estate of Malplaquet, which is something like Blenheim Palace and Stowe and Stourhead combined. Without anyone knowing, the Lilliputians settled, married, had descendants, and became Lilliput in Exile, farming, hunting and managing as best they could on their untropical island.

white-3Enter Maria. She is the ten-year old orphaned daughter of the Malplaquet family, kept in poverty by her horrible governess Miss Brown and the vile Vicar, Mr Hater, who are siphoning off her inheritance and working out how to remove it from her completely, with accidental murder a possible option. The Malplaquet estate is truly vast, but practically derelict. The house has 365 windows, all broken but six, fifty-two state bedrooms, and twelve company rooms … It had been built by one of her ducal ancestors who had been a friend of the poet Pope’s, and it was surrounded by Vistas, Obelisks, Pyramids, Columns, Temples, Rotundas, and Palladian Bridges. White gleefully renames the dusty, neglected rooms to puncture the ducal pomposity, and exaggerates the ruinous extent of the palace, for it really is a ducal palace, not just a stately home, to reinforce Maria’s parlous plight of poverty, semi-starvation, and ignorance, for she is barely taught anything.

Maria runs away from Miss Brown one day, decides to visit the lake called the Quincunx, and visit the artificial island and its temple. For the first time Maria penetrates the thicket of brambles that surrounds the Repose. To her amazement the grass is short and cropped, and there is a miniature baby sleeping in a cradle made of a walnut shell. She seizes the cradle in amazement, looks down to notice that she is being stabbed in the foot by a tiny, furious woman armed with a harpoon, and seizes her too. She goes home, puts her new toys safely in a tight drawer, and goes down to the kitchen to have her supper.

white-2Cook is one of Maria’s only two friends in the world. The other is the Professor, who lives on the estate on almost nothing apart from Cook’s discreet food parcels, and Maria takes her toys to show him the next day. The Professor explains that these are people, and that Maria must take them back: ‘people must not tyrannise’. This she does, and communications begin between Maria and Lilliputians. They can speak an eighteenth-century form of English, and the Professor, to his delight, finds a basic dictionary of Lilliputian in the Malplaquet library (probably left by Swift on a visit to the first Duke). The Lilliputians and Maria exchange gifts, and they tolerate her rather rampageous ways, realising that she is a very young Giant. They become her allies in her long and bitter battle against Miss Brown and Mr Hater. These villains spot and capture the Lilliputians, and imprison Maria in the dungeons, and then in the Vicarage. Cook rides her bicycle frantically to the Lord-Lieutenant’s house to raise the alarm before murder is done.

white-1This splendid story was written while White was beginning the research for his The Age of Scandal (1950) and The Scandalmongers (1952), which are anthologised studies of the later eighteenth century in England and its rackety, murderous, scatological, oversexed ways. Mistress Masham’s Repose is nothing like those two works, but it shares a passion for the period (even though it is set in the 1930s or thereabouts). It is a searching and eccentric investigation into what life could be like for Lilliputians in the wild, and how a young girl with good intentions but not much knowledge might be able to help them. The Professor is a repeat performance of White’s most famous scholarly creation, Merlyn from The Sword in the Stone (1938), in modern tweeds. The Lord-Lieutenant is King Arthur’s foster-father Sir Ector all over again, and Maria could be a female version of the Wart, but with less humility.

Maria’s poverty and isolation, and her matter-of-fact, make-do-and-mend ways remind us that this is also a post-war novel, written for a population still living under rationing. White is not sentimental about this child’s sufferings, and expects her to get on and make the best of the grim situation in which he has written her. The Lilliputians are refugees, still hoping to return to the Lilliput that none of them can remember, and Maria is a survivor among the ruins created by enemy action and neglect. The villains embody the tyrannical rules and regulations that White would resist all his life. It is not a charming novel, but it is brave, honest, delightful and inspiring.


The Faerie Queene, by Edmund Spenser

fq6In this week’s Really Like This book podcast scripts catch-up, I’m in the English Renaissance, pricking across the plain with the Red-Crosse Knight, in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. This is the biggest and most elaborate courtly flattery ever written, and it’s not even complete. Edmund Spenser was a subject of Queen Elizabeth, the first of that name, and she was a very experienced, very wily old lady of 66 when he wrote the poem to gain her favour. No doubt she was flattered and mightily amused when he personified her as Gloriana, Belphoebe, the Fairie Queene and the Queen of Love in an epic on the moral virtues. It was planned as a poem in 12 books, with each book consisting of 12 cantos, and each canto consisting of 12 stanzas, which were verses of 9 lines each. Spenser only managed to write the first six books, which means he completed nearly 8000 lines of verse. And that was only half of what he had planned. Some fragments of later cantos exist, but the poem effectively halts at the end of book 6. The Faerie Queene is the western world’s longest poem from this period, an action epic, and a Renaissance version of the chivalric romance. Spenser wrote a long letter to Sir Walter Raleigh explaining what he meant with the poem, which is one of the easier ways to get to grips with it before reading.

fq2The first thing to notice is that it’s an allegory: a work where characters are not rounded personalities as we would expect them to be in novels, but flat, and unchanging. They represent qualities, symbols, abstract concepts. This makes the multitude of characters very easy to remember: they don’t change, and they are simple black and white personifications. The aim of the Faerie Queene is to show how a gentleman ought to behave, through a series of adventures where knights battle with monsters, and are frequently rescued by King Arthur.

fq-1Whoa. What is King Arthur doing in a Renaissance poem? Arthur was from the middle ages, the Dark Ages even, a character who emerged after the Saxon invasions and was established long before the Normans, 400 to 600 years earlier than Edmund Spenser. Arthur belongs to a literary tradition that began with relatively primitive poems about military muscle and ended with delicate philosophical discussions about love in a fantasy boudoir. He doesn’t fit in the Renaissance world of Sir Philip Sidney and the Earl of Essex. However, Arthur is also an allegorical figure. In Spenser’s day he was still thought of as the perfect knight, and was, obviously, very well known. As a figure in a poem dealing with the twelve moral virtues, he would have no ulterior motives, or be anything other than a perfect kingly paragon of virtue.

The plot of the poem is, broadly, that Prince Arthur is on a quest to find his beloved Faerie Queene, an allegorical portrait of Queen Elizabeth, and is continually interrupted by entering the adventures of other characters. Spenser separates the figure of Arthur completely from the ‘matter of Britain’ that we usually associate him with (by which I mean Lancelot, Guinevere, the Holy Grail) by transplanting him into a totally different fantasy landscape. Queen Guinevere doesn’t exist in this new incarnation of Arthur’s story: he’s a single knight in pursuit of a new lady as the object of his courtly love, the Faerie Queene herself. In the six different books of the poem, Arthur functions as the all-conquering knight to rescue those in need.

Britomart of Book 2
Britomart of Book 2

Each book is about one of the moral virtues. Book 1 is about Holinesse, the second is about Temperance, the third is about Chastity, with a female knight as the hero, the immortal Britomart. The fourth book is about friendship, the fifth is about justice, and the sixth is about courtesy. Each book tells the adventures of a different knight, and that knight’s lady, and the monsters they encounter, the temptations they struggle with, and how they embody their book’s particular virtue. The story is very stylized, and utterly unrealistic, which can be explained by thinking about how story, as tales told in poetry, was evolving in English literature. By the sixteenth century, when the Faerie Queene was written, readers of romances and poetry were a bit bothered about the apparent disinterest that much earlier writers, for instance Chaucer, had in noticing the difference between fact and fiction. Renaissance readers felt that romance needed to be quite clearly romance, and narratives of exploration and discovery needed to be believable and true, and usable as guidebooks. The form of the narrative wasn’t important: a poem about the exploration of the New World would have been quite acceptable as an emigrants’ guide. What mattered was the presentation of facts as facts, and fantasy as fantasy. So the characters in the Faerie Queene do not show anything like real-life behaviour. They are also unfazed at encountering cave-dwelling monsters, talking trees, processions of foul fiends in the wilderness, or dragons. This is all standard, and this is why the Faerie Queene is such fun to read, if you like that sort of thing.

Una and the Lion, from Book 1
Una and the Lion, from Book 1

Book 1 is a self-contained epic on its own, and is thus the one book most widely studied in university classes. The story is also very attractive: the Red-Crosse Knight (who represents Holinesse) begged the Faerie Queene at her court to be allowed to undertake his first quest. He was weary of hanging around the court as a junior untried squire: he wanted action. So, graciously, the Faerie Queene, or Gloriana, agreed that the next quest to be announced at court would be his. The next day, a maiden of great purity arrived, asking for help from a brave knight to rescue the kingdom of her father, the Emperor, which was being terrorized by a dragon. Gloriana announced that she had just the knight for the job, a most experienced and doughty warrior; may I introduce the Red-Crosse Knight?

You will have spotted that Gloriana was not telling the maiden what the knight had told her, and I’m not quite sure why: I haven’t looked deep enough into the critical literature to see what the experts think of this apparent continuity flaw, or deliberate falsehood by the queen of truth and beauty. Anyhow, the maiden, whose name was Una, gladly accepted the knight’s service, and off they went. Almost immediately (because this story does not hang around, each canto has quite a bit of action) Una and the Red-Crosse Knight are misled and separated by a wizard called Archimago, disguised as a holy friar, and a strangely smiling lady called Duessa. These two are better known to Spenser’s original readers as Satan and Duplicity, and they force the two holy heroes to endure many trials and terrors, all connected with belief, and with chivalry, and the terrible lure of Catholicism, before being rescued by Prince Arthur. That ends Book 1, and we enter Book 2 with gusto, appetite whetted for more fantastical adventures.

fq7To understand the odd religious bias again Catholicism, we need to remember the persecution dealt out to Catholics during the reign of Elizabeth, and the persecution dealt out to Protestants during the reign of her elder sister, Mary I, or Bloody Mary, a generation earlier: practical effects of the history of the Protestant reformation in England. Spenser was aiming to please his own particular Protestant queen, so he packed this first book of the poem with spectacularly simplistic, negative messages about Catholicism. These too are part of the poem’s fascination, in decoding and untangling what Spenser’s audience would have understood immediately.

We do not need to read the Faerie Queene in translation: it is remarkably accessible in Elizabethan English. If you can understand Shakespeare you’ll be able to understand this. But I suggest that you try it as an audio book or CD, if you’re nervous about antiquated spellings putting you off your stroke. English has changed much less in sound from Elizabethan times than it has in its spelling, so focus on what the words sound like. On the other hand, if you can get hold of one of the lovely nineteenth- or early twentieth-century facsimile editions of the Faerie Queene, you can enjoy the classic layout of the stanzas of each canto in double columns, and the helpful rhymes at the start of each canto that summarise the action.