Sunday, October 7, 2012

An apology, for 'Virtue Reclaimed'.

The Pammy premise....

Jonnie Comet

23 June 1999

‘Merit should be chiefly placed
In Judgement, Knowledge, Wit, and Taste;
And these, she offer’d to dispute,
Alone distinguished Man from Brute.’    –Vanessa

  More boldly than is usual I have been initiating discussions of a new work in progress from my hand; a novel with the working title of Pamela; or: Virtue Reclaimed.  Deliberately to be like Richardson’s 1740 Pamela; or: Virtue Rewarded, probably my favourite book of all time, it is a fictional diary of a young lady ‘in service’. Mine is an updated version of the story, where instead of the cruel manipulating master whom she must forgive, my Pammy has a much more insidious problem within herself.  The story, then, shall deal with how she comes to face her own temptations and rise, like the Mr B of Richardson’s book, to a new level of propriety, respectability, and Godliness.  
  The heroine’s father abandoned the household when she was two and her deceptively celibate mother forced her own man-hating precepts upon her all her life.  The narration starts just as Pammy, an effervescent prodigy with 170+ IQ, and the sweet, good-natured Vicki, the youngest of a good Catholic family and Pammy’s childhood ‘blood-sister’ and soulmate, come to America from Australia as exchange students to the Cs in Delaware.  Inspired by the recent acquisition of a Macintosh computer, which seems to accompany her everywhere, Pammy has begun a very detailed, honest, and startlingly introspective journal which may apparently be her life’s one great opus. 
  The Cs (you never hear their last name, as in Richardson’s book, in which the diarist endeavours to keep ‘Mr B’ anonymous– as if she could) are the most enigmatic part of the story– a very contradiction in terms. The father, not known as John Paul Caprici, is an old character of mine of whom I wrote in the 1980s and then gave over but have since resurrected as an adult.  Born on a Wednesday, he is ‘full of woe’– Pammy will call him ‘the man of sorrows’.  He was a member of a rock band on Long Beach Island in the late 1970s but lost a beloved fiancee in a tragic plane crash in 1980 and, distraught, sold off the beachfront property intended for their honeymoon cottage, broke up the band, made a few enemies in the process, and fled to London to immerse himself in music-production work and a rakish lifestyle.  Following the death of his father he met Lisa in New Jersey, who is an angel.  Eager to leave his spate of recklessness behind, he retires to a gentleman’s country life at a very nice authentic Colonial-style spread on the bay beach at Lewes.  
  Lisa embodies everything good and Christian about women, and as the mother of the two little girls whom Pammy and Vicki are to mind as live-in exchange students, becomes a very good influence on the heretofore ill-guided Pammy. Vicki feels homesick and departs one December leaving Pammy alone, who chooses to not return to her mother but to attend high school and then UD in Delaware.  Her mother, acknowledging Pammy’s reasons, recognises that her daughter’s academic prowess and literary demeanour would be better served here than at UQ, where at home ‘everyone’ goes (Queensland has a mundane English literature programme), and signs her over as ward to the Cs.  Gradually the humble, dutiful, scholarly Pammy achieves a somewhat ambiguous relationship in the household, something akin to a younger sister to Mrs C, an older one to the girls, and a niece or almost daughter to Mr C; she admits often that she feels like she’s living with her ‘faery godparents’.  
  The conflict Pammy faces is over her own sexuality.  Seduced by a deceitful female school-friend at age 14 she has never been fully confident since.  She readily recognises that having been intimate with the Catholic Vicki, who was too remorseful with guilt to allow it to continue, was morally wrong, but it is like an addiction that she cannot help and it undermines her self-worth.  Over the second third of the story she develops an abject fear of being ‘found out’ and losing the respect the Cs have for her, and the trust they have in her with their two little girls. In at least one way however she is far stronger than she believes.  She embodies my own view that most of what liberals call ‘sexual preference’ is just that– a matter of choice rather than a natural (as in genetic) determination.  Whether the inclination is adopted freely or under subtle, chronic conditioning, as on an immature intellect, is not the issue. Pammy insists that if properly motivated, she can leave behind her corrupt ways and ‘go straight’.  Therefore she repels all ‘politically-correct’ labels for herself, even when reflecting her innermost thoughts in the privacy of her own diary.  Whether this is out of philosophical nobility or denial she cannot say, but despite her profound haughtiness in writing the reader will surmise Pammy is deluding herself.  
  Lisa contracts some unnamed blood disorder in the summer of 1998 and dies unexpectedly in October.  Upon her deathbed she tells the weeping Pammy, ‘I have always believed you were capable of much more than you have done.’  As she labours on in mourning Pammy slowly realises she had never really deceived Mrs C, who probably always suspected her inclination and yet as a true Christian chose to love her anyway, in ways Pammy’s own mother never could have.  Inspired by the faith of a friend she had long underestimated, she must rise out of the moral mire of her sinful existence and endeavour to deserve her keep, both by the decimated C family and by the Shepherd of us all.  
  Therefore the real core of the story is the tedious household arrangement during Mr C’s widowhood, when Pammy, set up with her own apartment in Newark, attends UD with 15-18 credits per term, carries a GPA over 3.7, drives the 75-mile distance between Lewes and Newark every Wednesday afternoon to make dinner and help the little girls with homework, and then returns each weekend to do washing and other chores.  Mr C takes up quarters in the attic to be away from his wife’s room which is kept intact until he must enlist Pammy to clear out her wardrobe.  Under the weight of what’s been lost, Pammy reports, ‘I would rather have spent the same two hours in a nuclear reactor.’ The departed Lisa has now become a saint to her, and though she dares not say so directly, she wishes to emulate her as a Christian and woman in general. The fact is that she does, much more than she realises.  
  The most obvious and yet troubling criticism of the premise of this love story is the hasty assumption of many that no ‘normal’ man could endure in a household with a ‘nubile’ young woman for long after his wife’s death without ‘hitting on her’.  In fact this is exactly what Pammy’s mother cautions her about, prompting Pammy to promise to the heartbroken Mr C– precisely as Jane Eyre promised Rochester– ‘I would stay with any friend.  I will stay with you.’  But I submit that the belief in an inevitable, irresistible consummation of two people thrown together in adversity is too low a view of human potential.  The great problem with modern society is that sexuality has come to the fore and is generally claimed to be the most important influence on our lives.  This belief is Romantic– the idea that one’s own personal perceptions and sensory satisfaction can be more important than absolute truth or absolute good.  But I am no Romantic.  I am only concerned that so many seem to be.  
  My criticism of the world today is that people have grown too trusting of what we see and feel round about us, which is anti-intellectual and subjects the God-given power of Reason beneath the perceptions of inherently flawed physical feelings and senses.  Modern people are no longer interested in the ‘irrelevant’ thought processes of the past, if they are even aware of them.  As a scholar of literature from before the Romantic period I can attest that, whilst in 1999 it may be implausible to expect that a young single woman and an unattached, lonely man can coexist in a household, observing all prior rules of propriety, without their quickly developing a sexual or at least overtly passionate premarital relationship, before 1799 the story I am writing would not only have been perfectly plausible, but the public would have demanded it develop precisely as I do develop it.  
  It is logically and morally dangerous to claim that the capacities of human nature have changed so much since ‘then’, that we know so much more about mankind now, that we were naïve and clueless ‘then’ but are not now.  St Paul says we see in a mirror dimly– meaning all of us, in every time of life, in every time of man.  Not one of us has any better clue about the true capacity of human nature than another.  This is where so many go wrong– they claim, for example, that the Bible reflects a way of thinking then, but is irrelevant now.  That claim is Romantic– it assumes that what is right for one man or one age may not be right for another, totally disregarding the possibility of an absolute truth.  What God has deigned is universal– it cannot change.  What must change is the way mortal and mutable Christians view it, so that we can be more in line with how God would have us think. In this way pure Romanticism is anathema to true Christianity.  
  Emerson would justify Pammy’s transgressions in saying that so long as she felt personally satisfied by it there could be no judgement of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in being intimately involved with her childhood friend.  Fortunately I have read enough chivalric and moralist literature to have something to base my arguments on. After Richardson’s 1740 masterpiece in which Pamela reforms her rakish master and marries him respectably, the public raved over it and demanded a sequel just to have more of it. Preachers praised it as the epitome of Christianity put to good earthly use.  The Catholic poet Alexander Pope boldly stated that priests could do far worse than to base sermons on the openly Protestant Pamela– and many took the advice.  Ben Franklin published it in 1744 as the first novel printed in America. Austen, Thackeray, Charlotte Bronte, and even Hardy were profoundly influenced by it; but by the time Romanticism had done its full damage at the close of the 19th century only the most moralistic literati cared a whit for it.  
  What I am attempting is to take a major problem of our time– the inane argument over whether any alternate mode of sexuality or morality can be personally prescribed and justified– and put it into a context which leaves little room for doubt.  Pammy has always been a good little girl and has always gone to church and with the Cs, at least at first, she merely follows what she’s been taught.  Like many mainstream Anglicans (a minority in Catholic Queensland) she takes it all for granted. But following Mrs Cs death and searching for some clue about what to do, she discovers the Bible again.  Passages like ‘You are the light of the world’ and ‘Whosoever will not take up his cross and follow me, cannot be my disciple’ haunt her– she knows there is guidance in there somewhere.  So she explains to Dani, her eager young ‘protegee’ (as it were) in Delaware, that she will end their intimacy cold-turkey– and does.  With the understanding Dani’s blessing she begins a single-minded crusade to do nothing for herself and to be the best nanny she can be under the circumstances, caring for the two little lambs who have lost their mother, taking every example of their mother she can.  She denies herself in order to serve others.  She loses half her friends who don’t get it– but recalls Helen’s words to a sceptical young Jane Eyre: ‘If all the world hated you, you would not be without friends.’  
  Deliberately, the very ironic part is that Lisa is 33 when she dies– the perfect angel, the one without blemish, the one whom everyone should look to as a paragon of virtue, who essentially says to Pammy on her deathbed, ‘Love one another, as I have loved you’.  Despite all her book-learning, Pammy will only accept the full gravity of the symbolism when a full year afterwards, at nearly 20, she accepts Mr C’s serious, sober proposal of marriage, which he actually suggests as an expedient way to keep her in the family (and country) after she has become to him the best teammate and the most loyal of friends.  But they both know better.  They are of the same mind on so many things– but are also, after all, flesh and blood too.  It is only that there are procedures to follow for propriety’s sake.  In church that Sunday, as they anticipate speaking to the priest about it, there is a baptism service and the whole concept of rebirth and being ‘sealed as Christ’s own forever’ comes back to Pammy like a boomerang from the Outback.  In a sudden revelation she gets it, and there is a very moving moment when she begs the priest for a penance– having learnt too much from going to Vicki’s church, no doubt– and his only response is to read to her about Jesus at the charcoal fire from Acts and then say that her penance is to ‘feed the lambs’. Pammy knows who the lambs are.  She has been serving them all along.  
  I put everything I know into this story. It is part Jane Eyre, part The Sound of Music, part Emma, and partly Swift’s Cadenus and Vanessa.  It has begun to appear to me more eminently publishable than anything else I’ve written, if only for the incredible breadth of its market (I should love to publish it in installments in some mass-market periodical) and so I am not really working on anything else at the moment.  It is a modern Christian fairy tale, in which the good people are obvious and no-one’s flaws are so awful that they cannot be corrected and forgiven.  Pammy ends up marrying the only one suited for her in every way, a gallant and respectable gentleman of means, the only male role model she has ever known, and her very best friend, in a largely intellectual union of two kindred souls separated by 23 years, but the admiration and affection between them is sincere and there is no doubt they will be well matched till at last one of the loves of Mr C’s life will outlive him.  
  The character of Pammy is a deliberate paradox.  Truly beautiful, she gets called ‘Barbie’ because she looks like a bimbo, but her beauty is juxtaposed with a formidable intellect– as with Vanessa in Swift’s comic epic mentioned earlier (which Pammy quotes from in fact). Young men hate her– they cannot get past her looks to care about what she thinks and so misjudge her.  When they discover how brilliant she really is they can’t reconcile such stirring beauty with such daunting brain power and so are at a loss as to how to deserve her.  She goes through high school and college in the US like Frankenstein’s poor monster, out of place, out of time, an 18th-C Absolutist in a 20th-C Romantic world.  People ask me why I made her so physically striking– it’s simple when you think on it.  In the modern sensory world, for a woman to be both intelligent and beautiful is a liability, even a curse.  Either attribute alone would be easier to take. But as Pammy writes in a sophomore sociology thesis, men are primarily visually stimulated and judge women first on their appearance.  As a man myself I have studied this at great length and have come to be able to put mere looks aside– honest.  It is true that many women are pleasant to look at, but I don’t care.  A beautiful-looking woman is like a work of art– you can take it home and admire how it looks, but you can’t have a satisfying conversation with it. And good conversation ability can last a lot longer than than good looks.  
  Therefore Pammy is fodder for the modern Romantic male-centred misconception that worth is equal to looks– that is, appeal to the senses rather than to the intellect is most valuable.  Pammy appeals both ways and is actually the very best ‘catch’ a rational man could wish for.  The sad thing is, there are precious few rational young men. Thus she represents another of my long-standing beliefs that the dumbest thing a modern girl can do is marry an immature idiot her own age with an earring in his nose. The only truly sensible choice of husbands for an intelligent young woman is an adult who is already established in his station in life and comfortable with being himself.  This is only what everyone believed up till that damnable book Wuthering Heights and the whole Romantic movement in fiction, when emotion took over logic throughout society.  I lament that, for its negative aspects are still with us and show no signs of abating.  This is why I study the 18th century, because it was the middle period in which the good aspects of Passion and the good sides of Reason were melded successfully.  Such a perfect blend is not likely to ever happen again– more to pity.  
  All I am trying to say is that I haven’t made anything up here that’s implausible.  This book is founded on all the precepts I have learnt in school, studied on my own, and lived myself, for all the years I’ve been thinking.  It is not intended to be scholarly, but realistic– the character at times nearly bores the reader with what appear to be trivial details (a trick I got from Dickens, Austen, and even Billy Joel).  What she does not say is as important as what she does.  She is struggling and occasionally admits it, but what she is struggling about does not occur to her till nearly the very end.  She is human and fallible and knows it, and her failings are as authentic as her strengths.  Above all she realises the power of free will, which she must accept and harness in order to follow the will of God.  She does not know the eventual outcome and eventually stops asking God to tell her, leaving it all to Him and reconciling herself to whatever fate He determines for her.  When at last she can do this completely, she will have earned the best reward imaginable.  
  I’m sorry if this is trite and boring; but I can’t abide the ‘film noir’ genre of literature.  Hemingway does not impress me with his tragically hopeless, permanently scarred anti-heroes.  I think the entire premise of that Naturalist, amoral outlook is dangerous to impressionable minds, especially today. It must be remembered that all literature by definition has a teaching component, whether admitted or not by the writer, because the net effect of all reading is that the reader comes away changed in some way from having read it– the same as the definition of education.  My primary concern is how that reader changes.  A good story is not the goal– that is Romantic, to please through perception.  The good story is the means to the end, which is an important lesson.  Failure to accept this on the part of the writer has led to exactly what we have now– an entire culture built on gratifying false ‘needs’ as perceived by flawed people and forgetting more profound issues of life. Any book which seeks to gratify the reader in the ‘here and now’ at the expense of a valuable lesson for posterity abandons the morality of mankind for a quick quid for the writer, which is, of course, socially irresponsible. Any writer that does so is therefore part of the problem, no matter  how materially wealthy he becomes.  
  This is the belief of mine I have long wished others to understand, though often I worry that no-one ever will.  Yes, write– never fail to write– but always place yourself beyond the work, not only into the chair of the reader, but into that of the critic in posterity.  What has your book taught?  What effect does it have beyond the first few readers who say they like it?  Why is it worthy of being remembered after you cease to collect royalties on it?  What will a professor say about it in 200 years?  For as sure as you and I are sitting here the printed word will endure and come back one day to affect someone in a very different time than ours. Literature by its whole definition is not intended to be transitory or ‘for the moment’.  If all you mean to do is please an audience at a sitting and make 6.95 into the bargain each time, you had better hold a lecture up at Loveladies, tell your story, and forbid notes, rather than to ever take out a pen or switch on your computer.  The whole premise of writing it down and publishing it is to make an impact on posterity.  Otherwise, why bother?
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epigram  - Merit should be... Vanessa  - J Swift, Cadenus and Vanessa; 1713

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