10.28.2011

Review: Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway, by Celia Blue Johnson

Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway, by Celia Blue Johnson, is a new collection of the stories, misfortunes and inspirations behind some of your favorite classic novels. At least I am, and I think Ms. Johnson is, assuming that they’re some of your favorites. They are classics, after all. And I’ve read half of the fifty selections in the book, so she can’t be too far off. Just as Newton had his apple (just go with it, I don’t care if it’s true or false, it’s a good story), each of these authors had their moments of clarity that led to their own discoveries, their own, Anna Kareninas, their own Jay Gatsbys (or James Gatzes for that matter) and their Sherlock Holmeses, a large number of them based on real people or real events.

With an average of three to five pages devoted to each subject, the entirety of the book can sometimes feel rather like a series of long Wikipedia articles, but Johnson does make a few attempts at what reads like narrative dramatic irony. Yet that narrative voice is sometimes her downfall—specifically when that voice moves from stating facts to voicing speculation. In addition, since there are only three to five pages for each book (and often the focus shifts to more than one book of the particular author), Johnson seems to only concern herself with what she deems to be the initial impulse to write – the one solitary spark that ignited the author’s spirit; she does not concern herself with certain other factors that may have contributed to the novel’s inspiration. For some books, that’s enough; for others, not so much. For example, Ken Kesey’s hallucinogenic vision of Chief Bromden is enough to explain One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest, but other books are just more complex. Let’s take Jane Eyre. Johnson introduces a real case of bigamy that likely inspired a portion of the tale:

Shocking news swept through the classrooms at Roe Head School. A governess in the nearby city of Leeds had discovered that her husband had a secret wife from a previous marriage. The poor woman had recently given birth to a baby, and she was devastated. When confronted, her husband explained that his first wife was mentally disturbed. The situation was unbearable for him, but divorce was out of the question. So he had resolved to find a new bride and never let the two women know about one another. A deceitful husband, a nonexistent marriage, an illegitimate baby…the governess’s life fell apart…[On] a trip away from home… [Brontë visited] North Lees Hall, an impressive manor about a mile north of Hathersage. In the past, a mistress of the hall was deemed crazy and confined to a padded room, where she died in a fire. …[Brontë] must have been reminded of the mentally disturbed wife from Leeds. She melded both tales together in the pages of Jane Eyre…”

Okay, governess – check. Bigamy – check. Crazy wife in a padded room – check. Death in a fire – check. But note how Johnson has completely glossed over Charlotte’s being a teacher at Roe Head. And note how she completely omitted any mention of Cowan Bridge. For those who are perhaps less informed, let me explain. As a child, Charlotte was sent to the school at Cowan Bridge along with younger sister Emily and older sisters Maria and Elizabeth. Both of her older sisters contracted tuberculosis while at the school and died shortly after being removed from it. Later, Charlotte was sent to school at Roe Head, to which she returned as a teacher some years later. This should sound somewhat familiar if you know the book at all. But this is left out of Johnson’s assessment.

And then there's Pride and Prejudice. Maybe I’m just over-critical of Austen commentary, but I feel like the content of this episode is just plain lazy. Johnson proposes that Tom Lefroy (I won’t insult any of you by assuming you don’t know who that is – if you don’t, read this…or watch “Becoming Jane”…which is, in fact, what Johnson may have been doing while writing about Austen) was the model for Fitzwilliam Darcy – but then she backtracks with a lot of “yets” and “maybes.” The thing is, she shouldn’t have considered the theory in the first place. If Tom Lefroy’s going to be the inspiration for anything, it should have been Persuasion.

Sure, the initial version of Pride and Prejudice was written relatively soon after the Lefroy affair, but Persuasion would be the more accurate choice. By the time she began it in 1815, Austen had had some twenty years to consider both the affair as it might have been, and her acceptance of Madame Lefroy’s decision in removing Tom from the neighborhood. If any of her novels can be said to have been really inspired by Lefroy it’s Persuasion, not Pride and Prejudice.

To be fair, the original 1796 version of First Impressions (Pride and Prejudice before the edits) does not survive, and perhaps there was a Thomas Langlois Lefroy in its midst, but the version we have today does not, especially not – as is suggested – in Mr. Darcy. If anyone could be ascribed to be a shade of Lefroy, it is Charles Bingley or (and not to stir up too much controversy or anything) Sense & Sensibility’s John Willoughby.

Minus the seduction/ whoring/ illegitimate-siring and subsequent abandonment bit.

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