Lessing, Austen, Cather

In my previous post I looked at some passages from Doris Lessing’s novel The Good Neighbour to show something about her techniques of world building, mimesis. There are many passages in the novel that show how interested she is in enumerating and describing things; these enumerations and descriptions contribute to the meaning of the novel, the thematic aspect.

It is not surprising that Lessing includes in this book several instances of the figure congeries, that is, a heap of things. A heap doesn’t have to be large, though many of them are. Here’s a relatively short congeries—Janna and Mrs. Fowler are talking about clothing—Janna’s interest in clothing is one of the key elements in the thematic aspect of the novel: “We talked about the dresses and knickers and petticoats and camisoles and slippers and boas and corsets of fifty, sixty, seventy years ago” (35). The effect of heaping is reinforced by the polysyndeton, the repetition of “and”. In the following longer example of the figure, Janna goes into Mrs. Fowler’s bedroom:

“I went next door into the room I knew she didn’t like me in. The bed that has the good eiderdown, the wardrobe, the dressing table with little china trinkets, the good bookcases. But everywhere piles and heaps of—rubbish. I could not believe it. Newspapers dating back fifty years, crumbling away; awful scraps of material, stained and yellow, bits of lace, dirty handkerchiefs, shreds of ribbon—I’ve never seen anything like it. She had never thrown anything away, I think. In the drawers, disorder, and they were crammed with—but it would take pages to describe. I wished I had the photographer there—reflex thought! Petticoats, camisoles, knickers, stays, vests, old dresses or bits of them, blouses . . . and nothing less than twenty years old, and some of them going back to World War One. The difference between clothes now and then: these were all “real” materials, cottons, silks, woollens. Not a man-made fibre there. But everything torn, or stained, or dirty. I pulled out bundles of things, and every one I examined, first for interest, and then to see if there was anything wearable, or clean. I found at last a wool vest, and long wool drawers, and a rather nice pink silk petticoat, and then a woollen dress, blue, and a cardigan. They were clean, or nearly” (p. 57–58).

This is a heap, but it is more than just things, since we are also told how Janna reacts to all the rubbish: the word rubbish is hardly a neutral description; the phrases “I could not believe it” and “I’ve never seen anything like it” are not constituents of the heap, but reactions to it; and her wish that she had brought a photographer from the magazine shows that she considers this heap of rubbish so spectacular that it deserves memorialization. Lessing uses this heap to show something about the personalities of her characters—both Mrs. Fowler for keeping all this rubbish and Janna for reacting to it—and thus to contribute to the thematic aspect. (For another remarkable congeries, see pp. 151­–53, where Janna explicitly says “I make this list for the record”—for what record she doesn’t say—and she poses the question “how are these hoards of rubbish seen by those who let them accumulate?”)

Lessing’s mimetic technique in this novel is quite different from Cather’s technique in The Song of the Lark. Both Cather and Lessing like to fill their books with things, but the things in The Good Neighbour all come with emotions attached. Cather’s things matter to the people in the story, but they also have a kind of independence, a solidity of being. They seem to be there in the world of the story even when no one is around to perceive them. Here is a bit of the initial description of Dr. Archie’s office; I quoted some of this in a previous post. “The waiting room was carpeted and stiffy furnished, something like a country parlour.” (7). This description is presented without the benefit of anyone looking at the room. Cather does not write something like, “As Peter Kronborg entered Dr. Archie’s office, he saw . . . .” In this description we learn that in the room there is a bookcase—we don’t learn about it because someone is looking at it, but just because it is there. “On the top shelf stood a long row of thirty or forty volumes, bound all alike in dark mottled covers, with imitation leather backs” (7). Perhaps there is some reason that these books are singled out for our attention, but if there is we don’t learn about it now. The books are simply there.

In Chapter VI, however, we see these books again. Evidently they have been patiently waiting for their turn in the story. Thea Kronborg, the central figure of the novel, is at this point in the story a young girl, and a close friend of Dr. Archie. Here she is visiting him in his office. “When Thea Kronborg entered quietly and slipped into a seat, he nodded, finished his paragraph, inserted a bookmark, and rose to put the book back into the case. It was one out of the long row of uniform volumes on the top shelf.

“‘Nearly every time I come in, when you’re alone, you’re reading one of those books,’ Thea remarked thoughtfully. ‘They must be very nice.’

“The doctor dropped back into his swivel chair, the mottled volume still in his hand. ‘They aren’t exactly books, Thea,’ he said seriously. ‘They’re a city.’

“‘A history, you mean?’

“‘Yes and no. They’re a history of a live city, not a dead one. A Frenchman undertook to write about a whole cityful of people, all the kinds he knew. And he got it nearly all in, I guess. Yes, it’s very interesting. You’ll like to read it some day, when you’re grown up.’” The title of the book Dr. Archie is reading is “A Distinguished Provincial in Paris”, written by Balzac in 1838. Dr. Archie tells Thea, “I expect this man knew more about people than anyone who ever lived.’’ (38)

Dr. Archie’s choice of books reveals something about his character, and also, I think, something about Willa Cather’s aesthetics. These books have a purpose in the story, but that purpose was not revealed when the books are first shown to the reader. They have to sit patiently until it is time to play their part. Then they retire from the stage, but we know that any time we enter the doctor’s office they will be there, on the top shelf.

Jane Austen shows a very different mimetic technique in Pride and Prejudice. She hardly mentions any objects; when she does mention an object—such as the hat that Lizzie is trimming at the beginning of Chapter II—there is no description. Austen doesn’t care about the hat in itself, she only cares that she can use it to move the plot forward.

In Chapter VII of Volume I of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Bennet visits Netherfield, the estate which Mr. Bingley has leased; there she falls ill, too ill to return home. Elizabeth, when this news is brought to her, sets out to walk the three miles to Netherfield to look after her sister, “crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles with impatient activity, and finding herself at last within view of the house, with weary ancles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise” (23). She finds that Jane is too ill to be moved; the Bingley’s invite Elizabeth to stay to look after her sister; a servant is sent to bring back a supply of clothes.

That night after dinner, Elizabeth retires to attend to her sister, and the Bingley sisters pass judgment on what they consider Elizabeth’s trek through the mud. “She has nothing to recommend her,” one of the sisters says, “but being an excellent walker. I shall never forget her appearance this morning. She looked almost wild. [. . .] I hope you saw her petticoat . . . six inches deep in mud, I am absolutely certain, and the gown which had been let down to hide it, not doing its office” (24–25). When Mr. Bingley defends Elizabeth’s conduct, his sister replies, “To walk three miles, or four miles, or five miles, or whatever it is, above her ancles in dirt, and alone, quite alone, what could she mean by it? It seems to me to shew an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country town indifference to decorum” (25).

Here it may seem that Austen does show an interest in an object, Elizabeth’s petticoat, but her interest is only its revelation of her characters—Elizabeth’s impetuosity and her care for her sister, the Bingley sisters’ censoriousness. We are told that a servant was sent to get clothes for Elizabeth, but these clothes are never enumerated nor described. We learn that her petticoat was muddy, but we are not told, for instance, the color of the petticoat. Austen is not interested in Elizabeth’s taste in clothing, only in what the mud on petticoat shows about her and those commenting on her.

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