Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The New Novel

I thought Michael Gorra's chapter Maupassant (from Portrait of a Novel) on the concerns of women reading novels was priceless, and so well explored.  Apparently, it was seen by many as illicit for women to read novels, especially questionable novels.  As a result, many French novels and stories were banned in translation, including many of Maupassant's short stories.  It took over 30 years for Flaubert's Madame Bovary to find its way into English print.  Zola was considered outright pornographic.

While the situation had relaxed a little in Henry James's time, he consciously set Isabel Archer's arrival in Paris in 1872, only a year after the Paris Commune, the fourth revolution to rock France.  One can imagine Isabel like one of Homer's women, having secretly read novels, maybe even French novels, but still blushing when she reached Paris.  James didn't revel in sexuality like Flaubert and Zola, but he did explore its tensions.

According to Gorra, the author more fully exploited sexuality in later novels like The Americans and The Golden Bowl, but like George Eliot preferred to deal with the consequences rather than the acts themselves.  This was generally true for English writing.  Even Thomas Hardy dealt more with consequences as seen in Tess of the d'Urbervilles.

Not so for the French writers, who reveled in brothel scenes and other carnal delights, allowing their women to experience much more pleasure than could be found in English novels, which no doubt would have made them quite tempting to read in their time.

It makes you wonder what Winslow Homer chose for his young lady in red.  The theme seemed to delight him, as he painted several young ladies reading novels, including this one of a young woman reading under an oak tree, with red once again figuring into the image.


  1. Very interesting!

    As for me, I'm reading something a bit more wholesome:

    Betty Smith's "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn"

    Most kids I grew up with read the book back in the 1960s. I did not though I read Mark Twain (his books were not well liked by my classmates back then - still dunno why). The book remains a good read after all these years. Will also watch the old movie based on the book in a short while.

  2. I would join you if I could (maybe after the first of the year). Here's an interesting mini-overview of the book: