Author Archives: Sandra Ching

(Group 1 Research): A Lost and Painful Love

Algernon Charles Swinburne’s poem, “The Triumph of Time,” featured in Amy Levy’s Reuben Sachs: A Sketch, is emblematic of the predominant themes of Swinburne’s poetry, Reuben Sachs the novella, and Amy Levy’s life. Swinburne, in many of his literary works and poems, was preoccupied with a concept known as the “live biographical chronicle.” Which is to say that Swinburne enjoyed investigating the characters of certain historical figures and considering whether or not their contextual realities, such as their religion, political alignments, or place in history, constrained them and prevented them from achieving “true spiritual vision.” According to Swinburne, an effective historical poet “distills the permanent, spiritual meaning from representative lives, their events and circumstances.” Thus represents Swinburne’s interest in the “live biographical chronicle” where representative lives refer to the historical figures, such as Charlemagne, with which Swinburne was fascinated. In a similar way, Levy also seems concerned with the “live biographical chronicle.” Though she does not focus on historical figures and chooses to write instead about purely fictional characters, Levy presents characters to her readers that appear real and authentic. Levy’s characters do not represent stereotypes or caricatures; they are instead constructed with verisimilitude in mind. Moreover, the search for “true spiritual vision,” which Swinburne underwent in much of his poetry, is also present within Levy’s novella. This is particularly shown through the character of Leo, who feels that his Jewish religion (at least in the way that he personally has experienced it) prevents him from gleaning spiritual meaning from life.

Furthermore, Swinburne’s poem, “The Triumph of Time,” deals specifically with the idea of unrequited love, a concept that features heavily within the novella, Reuben Sachs, and in the life of its author. “The Triumph of Time,” which retells the historical unrequited romance between Jaufre Rudel and the Countess of Tripoli. Swinburne’s retelling of Jaufre Rudel’s passion for the Countess is said to be inspired by his own unrequited love for Mary Gordon. Of course, the presence of unrequited love is a major component of Reuben Sachs, for Judith loves Reuben unrequitedly in the face of many obstacles. This same sense of unrequited love in Reuben Sachs was perhaps inspired by its author’s own experience with unrequited love, for it is presumed by scholars that Amy Levy was in love with a female contemporary, Vernon Lee, but was unable to requite her passion, at least, physically.

In “The Triumph of Time,” Swinburne discusses a masochistic, insatiable love that cannot be fulfilled due to any number of obstacles. Indeed, Judith was unable to fulfill her love for Reuben due to her lack of fortune just as Levy was unable to fulfill her love for Lee (at least physically) due to the gender norms and societal constraints of her time. Despite being herself a “New Woman,” that is, a woman committed to upheaving patriarchal norms and championing equality and women’s rights, Levy was nevertheless unable to act upon her attractions to Lee and others and therefore was always relegated to unrequited relationships. Additionally, the kind of love that Swinburne writes is one that is fundamentally metaphysical and not carnal. Similarly, the love shared between Judith and Reuben, as well as between Levy and Lee, are unable to bear any kind of physical aspect. Thus, Swinburne, in “The Triumph of Time” and many of his other poems, argues that death is the only release from the pains of love. Furthermore, Swinburne claims death as not just the only vehicle of escape from love’s pains but also as the fulfillment of love’s “physical and spiritual passions.” This notion expressed in Swinburne’s poem through the documentation of the unrequited and lost love between Rudel and the Countess is also carried out in Reuben Sachs, as the novella concludes with the death of its titular character. While it is not the unrequited lover, Judith, who dies, it can be presumed that Reuben’s death nevertheless provides her with a release from the pain of unrequited love, as is evidenced by the sadistic smile she produces upon hearing of Reuben’s demise.

Finally, Swinburne’s primary objective in poetry, aside from investigating the lived experiences and spiritual components of historical figures, was to display “instances of illumination” particularly as a result of a loss of love or life. This is paralleled within Reuben Sachs through the character of Judith, who experiences spiritual enlightenment upon reading Swinburne’s works and realizing the fundamentally unrequited nature of her love for Reuben. Indeed, when Reuben chooses political progress over her, Judith finally recognizes that her love for Reuben will never be reciprocated and also realizes, particularly through her essentially forced marriage to Bertie Lee-Harrison, that she is trapped in a patriarchal system. If we interpret Reuben Sachs in conjunction with Swinburne’s “The Triumph of Time,” it becomes apparent that these epiphanies were only made possible through the pains of love that Judith experienced.

Reflections on Victorian Literature

As I was reflecting on the connections blog posts I’ve made this semester, I’ve discovered that a lot of what I wrote centers mainly around two themes: love and violence. I wasn’t purposely trying to write about the same themes, so I found it very interesting that I managed to center my blog posts about aspects of love and/or violence regardless. It was nice how, through the blog posts, I managed to answer the one of the things I wanted to learn the most about Victorian literature: “What are some common themes evident in Victorian texts?”

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Limitations in Victorian Society

As I was reading Reuben Sachs, one passage about Judith really stood out to me. The narrator describes that Judith’s outlook on life “was of the narrowest; of the world, of London, of society beyond her own set” (Levy 38). The narrator informs here that Judith had no optimistic outlook on her future and perhaps ties this back to what was said about Judith earlier: “[Judith] with her beauty, her intelligence, her power of feeling, saw herself merely as one of a vast crowd of girls awaiting their promotion by marriage” (Levy 35). As indicated here, Judith, despite her many good qualities (beauty, intelligence, empathy), views herself as an individual that could only rise in society through means of marriage. Judith is very likely limited economically by the fact that she’s a woman, for she specifies that she considers herself one of “a vast crowd of girls.” We see something similar in Wuthering Heights with Catherine I. When justifying her decision to marry Linton to Nelly, Catherine asks: “Did it never strike you that if Heathcliff and I married, we should be beggars? whereas, if I marry Linton I can aid Heathcliff to rise, and place him out of my brother’s power” (Bronte chapter 9 paragraph 87). Much like Judith, Catherine views marriage as the only way she and Heathcliff could economically and socially rise out of Hindley’s influence. We see two similar, connected themes here. The first is marriage being used as a tool for social mobility; the second is the economic limitation of women. As shown by the description of Judith and Catherine’s words, women typically had to result to climbing the social ladder through the institution of marriage because there were very few (if any) alternate, plausible options.

Towards the Self

In our reading for De Profundis, one of the passages that spoke out to me the most was the one where the narrator spoke about blame and fault. When reflecting on the suffering in his life, the narrator states: “Terrible as was what the world did to me, what I did to myself was far more terrible still” (Wilde paragraph 8). The narrator states here that he believes his own actions hurt him more than the actions of those around them. I found this very interesting considering how, in class recently, we’ve been talking about the exact opposite. A lot of our discussion lately has been about revenge and people being wronged; Mrs. Havisham for most of Great Expectations would probably say that what her ex-fiance did to her was more horrible than anything she did to herself. I thought that, therefore, this line in De Profundis couldn’t be more different from the material we’ve been reading; not unexpectedly, I was wrong. What the narrator says in De Profundis connects with something we’ve read in Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. When speaking to Catherine about the suffering she faced due to her decision to marry Edgar Linton, Heathcliff states: “Why did you betray your own heart, Cathy? I have not one word of comfort. You deserve this. You have killed yourself” (Bronte chapter 15 paragraph 24). Here Heathcliff says that Catherine’s primary source of suffering is Catherine herself (and not him) and that her own actions are what has “killed” her. This is also evident by what he says a bit further down in the same paragraph: “I have not broken your heart—you have broken it.” In other words, Heathcliff believes that Catherine’s actions towards herself were, to use Wilde’s words, “far more terrible” than what Heathcliff (or anyone else) did to her. This repetition of the theme of self-hurt in Victorian literature might have implications that individuals have to self reflect and examine the source of their sufferings before they decide on revenge.

Selflessness and Love

I was really shocked to find out that Pip’s benefactor turned out to be the convict, Provis, and not Mrs. Havisham; I was also surprised by some of the things Provis said to Pip and his affection for Pip. In particular, what Provis tells Pip over breakfast in Chapter 40 caught my attention: “I’ve come to the old country fur to see my gentleman spend his money like a gentleman. That’ll be my pleasure. My pleasure ‘ull be fur to see (Pip) do it” (Dickens, chapter 40). What Provis tells Pip here reminded me of the conversation we had in class about selflessness and love in Wuthering Heights.

Specifically, I’m drawn to what Catherine II (Cathy) tells Nelly about her love for her father. When pondering over the idea of death and losing her father (Edgar), Cathy says: “‘I love (Edgar) better than myself, Ellen; and I know it by this: I pray every night that I may live after him; because I would rather be miserable than that he should be: that proves I love him better than myself’” (Bronte, chapter 22) Cathy here shows an amount of selflessness in her love for Edgar: “‘I love him better than myself.'” This statement interestingly contrasts deeply with one of the other statements made about love in the novel: Catherine I’s “Nelly, I am Heathcliff!” (Bronte, chapter 9). There’s something about wanting better for the person you love that seems a bit more selfless to me. Instead of being like Catherine, who views Heathcliff as being her and their experiences equal, Cathy wants better for her father. Provis’ feelings towards Pip remind me a lot of Cathy’s feelings towards her father; Provis says that it’ll be his “pleasure” to see Pip spend the money (that Provis earned) “like a gentleman.” And it’s not like Provis comes from an affluent background either; he had to work to get that money. He didn’t have to spend it on Pip, just like how he didn’t have to protect Pip and tell the officers he stole from Mrs. Joe in Chapter 5. Provis wants better for Pip than Provis wants for himself.

It’s interesting that Dickens portrays more than one way of love in the novel. We have selfless love such as Provis’ affection for Pip and even Pip’s affection for Herbert, for he anonymously funds Herbert’s career and tries to convince Mrs. Havisham to do the same. With Estella and Mrs. Havisham, we seem to have a more selfish love or perhaps a lack of love at all, for Estella says that Mrs. Havisham “made her” and taught her to have a “cold heart” (Dickens, chapter 38). This is similar to the complex portrayal of love within Wuthering Heights (“I love him better than myself” vs “I am Heathcliff). The presence of complex love in Victorian literature might reflect how love is complicated in real life. It might also indicate deeper things about love within the Victorian period such as the idea of love being tainted by other (social, economic, political) factors.

Violence in Inheritance

When reading Herbert’s description of Mrs. Havisham’s half brother, I noticed that he seems to share similar qualities to Hindley. Both not only harbor hatred towards their siblings (or sibling-like figures) but are also driven to vengeance and violence over these feelings.

While explaining Mrs. Havisham’s backstory, Herbert says that her younger half brother was originally kicked out of the will by their father due to “bad” behavior (Dickens, Chapter 22). Herbert also tells Pip that,”It is suspected that (Mrs. Havisham’s half brother) cherished a deep and mortal grudge against (Mrs. Havisham’s) as having influenced the father’s anger” (Dickens, Chapter 22). Mrs. Havisham’s dynamic with her younger half brother reminded me a lot of Heathcliff and Hindley’s relationship. Nelly, when telling Lockwood about Hindley, states: “(Hindley) had learned to regard his father as an oppressor rather than a friend, and Heathcliff as a usurper of his parent’s affections and his privileges; and he grew bitter with brooding over these injuries” (Bronte, Chapter 4). Both Hindley and Mrs. Havisham’s half brother did not have the best relationship with their fathers and had even worse relationships with the people that their fathers favored; Mr. Earnshaw is described by Nelly to have favored Heathcliff over his two children, and, as shown by how Mrs. Havisham was left more of the inheritance, Mrs. Havisham’s father likely favored her over her brother. Hindley hated Heathcliff because he felt that Heathcliff had stolen what was rightfully his: the love of his father (and later his property). Mrs. Havisham’s younger brother hated his sister due to his belief that she played a part in their father’s division of the will.

Interestingly, the crux of the conflict between both pairs of siblings is over monetary issues. Both Hindley and Mrs. Havisham’s brother are described to have experienced debt and use violence to try to get their sibling’s fortunes. Once Hindley loses Wuthering Heights to Heathcliff, he walks around with a pistol that has a knife attached and tells Isabella he plans to kill Heathcliff (Bronte, Chapter 17). In chapter 13, when speaking about his desire to gain Wutheirng Heights back, Hindley states: “I will have it back; and I’ll have (Heathcliff’s) gold too; and then his blood; and hell shall have his soul!” This shows that one of his motives in murdering Heathcliff is to gain his fortune back. Unlike Hindley, Mrs. Havisham’s brother uses emotional violence when trying to swindle his sister’s fortune. It’s speculated that he made Mrs. Havisham’s would be husband get “great sums of money from her”; the brother also might have asked his conspirator to make Mrs. Havisham buy out his share of the brewery at a high price (Dickens, Chapter 22). Once the ruse was over, the two split the profits, showing that one motive of this violence was to gain Mrs. Havisham’s fortune.

The fight over money among siblings reflects the inheritance battle in the Victorian era and how individuals were often left with nothing or less than their siblings. Inheritances are closely linked with the idea of family or connections (because it’s usually something given to members of the family or individuals who had connections with the benefactor), so it’s interesting to see Bronte and Dickens use inheritance as something that tears people and relationships apart.

Coarse and Dirty Hands: Status Through Appearance and the Body

As I was reading Chapter 8 of Great Expectations, I couldn’t help but feel very sad for Pip as he was subjected to Estella’s words. Pip narrates that Estella kept nitpicking at his “coarse hands” and that “(Estella’s) contempt for me was so strong, that it became infectious, and I caught it.” This scene reminded me a lot of the interaction between Heathcliff and Catherine I once Catherine returns from the Grange.

In Chapter 7 of Wuthering Heights, Catherine returns from her time at the Grange wearing gloves and in very fancy dress. Nelly also notes that “While (Catherine’s) eyes sparkled joyfully when the dogs came bounding up to welcome her, she dared hardly touch them lest they should fawn upon her splendid garments.” This is a clear contrast to Catherine’s behavior before leaving the Heights, for she was depicted to be very close to nature and more willing to let her clothes get dirty playing in the moors. In this same scene, Nelly describes Heathcliff as being unkempt and “dirty,” for he was wearing clothes with “three months’ service in mire and dust.” This is why Catherine, when she sees Heathcliff, states: “‘If you wash your face and brush your hair, it will be all right: but you are so dirty'” (Bronte, Chapter 8). Heathcliff is described by Nelly to show “shame and pride” in his expression and reacts negatively to Catherine’s words (Bronte, Chapter 8). Much like Heathcliff, Pip is made to feel less than Estella during the card game he played with her. Estella, in the text, is described to speak about Pip “disdainfully” and “denounced (Pip) for a stupid, clumsy laboring-boy” (Dickens, Chapter 8). Later, Pip narrates that, his “course hands” “thick boots” had “never troubled (him) before, but they troubled (him) now, as vulgar appendages” (Dickens, Chapter 8). As he was leaving Estella’s home, Pip contemplates the words she said to him, specifically focusing on how she called him “common” and how it made him feel “low-lived” (Chapter 8).

Interestingly enough, both Heathcliff and Pip are picked on for not visually looking as clean or as luxurious as their counterparts. Clothes are used as a means to demean in both texts: Heathcliff is noted to have unwashed clothes and Estella picks on Pip’s boots. This is not strange, for even today clothes reflect aspects of social class. What’s perhaps more interesting is that hands play a factor in both interactions: Estella points out Pip’s “coarse hands” and Catherine is described to “(gaze) concernedly at (Heathcliff’s) dusky fingers.” The condition of one’s hands can reflect social standing because those in the upper class, who generally do less manual labor, would have cleaner and softer hands than those of the working class. This is perhaps scarier, for one can clean and change clothes, but it’s much harder to maintain one’s hands in good condition. As we’ve discussed in class and in our blog posts, a repeating theme of Victorian Literature is the tensions between socioeconomic classes; the fact that this tension is reflected in a human body part (showing closeness to the body and perhaps implying that social class is connected at a very basic level to humans) is perhaps telling of how fundamentally ingrained this tension was in that society.

Essential Relationships

As I was reading Darwin’s On the Origins of Species, I noticed a similarity between Darwin’s lines about the red clover and Catherine’s lines about Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights; both have to do with codependency and the idea of an essential relationship.

Darwin brings up the red clover in an attempt to further detail how plants and animals are “bound together by a web of complex relations” (5). He states that, because the red clover is solely pollinated by the humble bee, “if the whole genus of humble-bees became extinct or very rare in England, the…red clover would become very rare, or wholly disappear” (5). Here, Darwin depicts an essential relationship: the red clover needs the humble bee in order to continue to survive as a species. This reminded me a lot of what Catherine I told Nelly when she was explaining her decision to marry Linton instead of Heathcliff. When describing her love for Heathcliff, Catherine states: “If all else perished, and (Heathcliff) remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger” (Chapter 9, para. 89) Catherine describes her relationship with Heathcliff like how Darwin describes the red clover’s relationship to the humble bee: necessary. If everything disappeared but Heathcliff remained, then Catherine would continue living; if Heathcliff disappeared, then, regardless of what is left, Catherine would not exist. Catherine is similar to the red clover that would disappear without the humble bee. Catherine herself also labels her love for Heathcliff as something essential for her, stating: “My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary” (Chapter 9, para. 89).

I’ve always thought of the relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff to be a bit unusual because of their devotion (“Nelly, I am Heathcliff!”). We also discussed a bit in class about how their relationship may be unhealthy. Yet, if we consider Darwin’s passage, then we can see how their relationship resembles codependent relationships shown in nature. Is this another reference to nature/the natural from Bronte? Are there implications that, because it resembles something found in nature, Catherine and Heathcliff’s relationship isn’t unnatural and unhealthy?

Childhood and Nature

One of the most memorable lines in Wuthering Heights for me is Catherine I’s: “I wish I were out of doors! I wish I were a girl again, half savage and hardy, and free; and laughing at injuries, not maddening under them!…I’m sure I should be myself were I once among the heather on those hills” (Chapter 12, para. 36). Catherine states this line when she’s ill and entreating Nelly to open the window so she could feel the breeze. Catherine connecting “girl” with phrases invoking nature (“out of doors” and “savage”) establishes how nature is connected with childhood within the novel. We spoke about this a few weeks ago in class when we discussed how Catherine, during her first trip to the Grange with Heathcliff, had arrived at the Grange barefoot, symbolizing her connection to nature, but returned to the Heights with gloves, symbolizing how her experience at the Grange had changed her (clothed her) and disconnected her with nature. A similar theme of nature and childhood is shown in the poem “The Cry of the Children.” The speaker tries to urge the children to seek happiness and youth in nature, stating: “Go out, children, from the mine and from the city / Sing out, children, as the little thrushes do / Pluck you handfuls of the meadow-cowslips pretty.” The children reject the speaker’s words and continue to lament the state of their misery; they state that, because they must work long shifts in the factories, their only care for meadows would be to “drop down in them and sleep.” Much like in Wuthering Heights, the disconnect from nature is shown to symbolize the disappearance of childhood.

Victorian writers might have emphasized the connection between nature and childhood because of the industrial revolution and child labor. This is evident within “The Cry of the Children,” which mentions explicitly “wheels of iron” and “factories, round and round”; however the theme of industrialization is much less explicit in Wuthering Heights. Part of this might be because Wuthering Heights takes place within a more rural setting and with characters of the landed gentry and not the working class. I find it interesting that Bronte manages to include consequences of industrialization (the reduction of childhood) in the novel without directly depicting industrialization.

Subtle, Two-faced Violence

One theme that’s been reoccurring in the readings we’ve been assigned is the presence of violence. What’s interesting is that, although violence is often presented explicitly (Heathcliff beating Hindley half to death in Chapter 17 of Wuthering Heights, for example), there are instances in the texts where violence is present but hidden within something positive.

One of these moments is in Chapter 17 of Wuthering Heights. Isabella, recalling Joseph’s opinion on Hindley’s personality shift, states to Nelly: “(Hindley) is quieter now than he used to be, if no one provokes him: more sullen and depressed, and less furious. Joseph affirms he’s sure he’s an altered man: that the Lord has touched his heart, and he is saved ‘so as by fire.'” (para. 18). Although Joseph characterizes Hindley’s shift in personality as him being “saved,” which holds positive connotations, the presence of “‘by fire'” indicates that Hindley (if he was “saved”) was only “saved” through something violent: burning. This moment made me recall the poem “England in 1819.” In class, we spoke about how the poem’s title and words reference the events of the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester; on that day in 1819, individuals who gathered to hear speeches about parliamentary reform in St. Peter’s field were shot at by the cavalry. In our class discussion, my group discussed the last two lines of Shelley’s poem and our interpretation of it: ” Are graves, from which a glorious Phantom may / Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.” We were responding to a comment that interpreted these last two lines as hopeful and questioned whether the implications are as positive as they seem. We discussed how “Phantom” doesn’t usually have positive connotations, being associated more with the supernatural and the unknown. The word “burst” in particular stood out to me because it’s a word that describes a violent explosion; it might be a subtle reference to gunfire and how the cavalry shot at the crowd in 1819. We concluded that, while the last two lines of “England in 1819” do indicate desire for change from the negative status quo Shelley depicted earlier in the poem, the usage of “Phantom” and “burst” indicate that the means of this change, of the revolution, would likely be violent.

Interestingly enough, in addition to being present in its literature, the theme of hidden violence is present in the Victorian era itself, too. While Queen Victoria’s rule is often associated with prosperity and the glory of the English Empire, all that was possible due to (what often was violent) imperialism at the expense of the English colonies