Homosocial Aesthetic At The Hearth English Literature Essay

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Copyright© 1993
Geoffrey Clarke
Published by Excalibur Press of London
Typesetting and Origination by CBS Felixstowe Suffolk ISBN 1 85634 203 4
Excalibur Press of London138 Brompton Road London SW3 IHY
Over His Shoulder
A study of the aesthetics of the masculine novel of action and the romance form in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods.
Geoffrey Clarke
Over His Shoulder
A study of the aesthetics of the masculine novel of action and the romance form in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods.
Geoffrey Clarke
CHAPTER 1- A Homosocial Aesthetic at the Hearth of British Patriarchy
CHAPTER 2- The Aesthetics of Imperial Fiction
CHAPTER 3- "Two Pairs of Peepers"
CHAPTER 4- White Verses Black
CHAPTER 5- Science and Technology in the Romance Form
Chapter 1. A Homosocial Aesthetic at the Hearth of British Patriarchy.
There was, in the eighteen-eighties and nineties, a small group of men who, in reaction to a world they believed Queen Victoria had feminised if not desexualised, and in an age of antimacassars, starched collars and shirt fronts, sexual hypocrisy and concealed emotion, wrote and travelled together, and then set up a clubland at the hearth of British patriarchy, to which to return.
At the end of the nineteenth century some writers feared that sexuality, gender and male roles were not quite what they should be, and consequently set about producing new forms; the masculine novel of action and the romance genre, which, if we do not take their texts at face value, appear to confirm and consolidate their male bondings. At the Savile club in Piccadilly, Haggard and Lang produced a co-authored work, which could be taken to engage in misogyny. They wrote a novel entitled The World's Desire in the form of a Hellenic, lyrical fable, which explores the fictive world of masculinity but ends in misogyny and seems to hark back to Carlyle through Scott, Tennyson, Mallory's Morte d' Arthur, and The Odyssey.
It was when Haggard had completed his Icelandic saga Eric Brighteyes, that he received a letter from Lang about a sequel to The Odyssey that they had planned to collaborate on. Haggard completed a first draft and sent it to Lang. Lang lost the manuscript for six months and was only able to rediscover it among some paper covers, where it lay, presumably subconsciously repressed, to keep it from seeing the light of day. Green's version is that Haggard was working away on the story and doing a good deal of what is now the central portion. Then he sent it to Lang who promptly lost the manuscript so completelyand for so long a time that the idea of writing the book was almost abandoned. After this, the next stage was uncertain but Lang probably sent the manuscript back to Haggard who must have written a good deal more to it, and then returned it to Lang early in 1889. "Lang and I discussed it," wrote Haggard,"Then I wrote a part of it, which part he altered or rewrote." Each writing a part at a time, the novel was completed and sent for publication. After serialisation in the New Review (from April to December, 1890), The World's Desire was published on the fifth of November, 1890 by Charles Longman. 1.
As Homeric as Homer, as Arthurian as The Legends, Haggard and Lang's chivalrous work recounts, in a story reminiscent of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, the second journey of Odysseus, the son of Laertes. Back from his wanderings at his ancestral home, and finding among the ruins of a destructive attack the remains of his wife, Penelope, the Wanderer (Odysseus) hearing the invocation of the bow of Eurytus resolves:
"Let us forth again
Let us feed our fill
On the flesh of men."
Having thus sworn to avenge the deaths in flesh, he clothes himself in armour, selects two spears from a stand of lances, throws a quiver of arrows over his shoulder and takes the great bow in his hand; the bow of Eurytus, which no one else can bend. Then he goes forth into the moonlight to fulfil his mission. (It is just unfortunate that he spends the rest of the novel seeking the love of a woman rather than wreaking revenge forhis slain wife.) It is this bow, then, which produces the song of the tale:
"The Song of the Bow"
Lo, the hour is nigh
And the time to smite
When the foe shall fly
From the arrow's flight!
Let the bronze bite deep!
Let the war bird fly
Upon them that sleep
And are ripe to die!
Shrill and low
Do the gray shafts sing
The song of the bow
The sound of the String! 2.
Hyper - masculinity as an ethos of empire is the resplendent theme of these Greek epics, in a misuse of the genre as a form of disguise: an overt masculine response to an essentially feminine experience.
Odysseus is visited by the goddess Aphrodite who promises him Helen of Troy, the goddess whom all men desire. Soon afterwards, Odysseus is captured by Sidonian merchants who plan to sell him as a slave, but he defeats them and escapes with the treasure by ship to Egypt where he finds both the Pharaoh's sorceress wife, Meriamun, and the beauteous goddess, Helen. Meriamun has already been warned about Odysseus's arrival by the reincarnation of a courtier, whom she has promoted to power. She falls in love with Odysseus, but he is overwhelmed by the lovely Helen and rejects her in favour of "The World's Desire". But the Wanderer cannot conquer Helen easily for she appears to change shape. But what shape does she take? In his pursuit of Helen his directions are clear:
"By the star of Love shalt thou know her. On the breast of Helen, a jewel shines, a great star -stone. From that stone fall red drops like blood and they drip from her vestment." 3.
Now, it is from this moment, Wayne Kostenbaum argues in"Double Talk" (see footnote 12.) that the drops of blood falling suggest themselves to be symbolic of the menstruating female figure. Again, in the poem which prefaces the work, the authors, in obscure reference to a star and a snake, appear to be using imagery of a star to represent female love and the long, snaky member possibly to represent male love:
"Not one but he hath chanced to wake
Dreamed of the star and found the snake
Yet, through his dreams, a wandering fire
Still, still she flits, the World's Desire." 4.
The star and the snake appear to function here as symbols which are originally derived from Herodotus. As Morton Cohen ("RiderHaggard" p. 102) has reminded us: "the psychological symbols present a challenging puzzle to the specialist as well as the casual reader". Their symbolism is nowhere explained in the story itself, but whatever significance Haggard and Lang intended them to hold, it is difficult to avoid the suggestion of masturbation.
In Western literature beginning with monasticism, masturbation seems to be associated primarily with the realm of the imagination and with its dangers, as Foucault suggests in Volume 3 of The History of Sexuality, "The Care of the Self". It is not easy to dismiss here an erotic, nocturnal onanistic symbolism. (dream,wake up, ...find the snake?) Perhaps associating the snake with a penis Haggard is making a visual reference to the erotic fantasies created by masturbation. Of course we are not eliminating the invidious connection between the snake and Eve, which has been in currency since Chaucer which has obvious connections with the role of women at that time - their then essentially subservient place in society. This leads us to the nub of the theme for the confusion over the emblems of the star and the snake could be taken to suggest a more intriguing, fundamental, human choice between love and evil, between pure love and the profane, lust and purity.
William Henley used a similar kind of imagery - that of a sword, to demonstrate power and strength, in his poem Pro Rege Nostro, a public paean to service in action, where he equates an England married to the mighty sword with a chosen people.
"England, my own
Chosen daughter of the Lord,
Spouse-in-Chief of the ancient Sword," 5.
His work is often seen as the poet's own idiosyncratic response to his personal suffering, which dominated the literary annals of imperialism, but it is replete with a shared symbolism. Then, later, promising him that he is immortal, Helen decrees that, although he is clearly mortal: "Thou shalt live again, Odysseus, as thou hast lived before, and life by life we shall meet and love till the end is come." 6. So the wages of live is life after death; resurrection for heterosexual love. In this passionate, heterosexual scene, Helen promises Odysseus immortality, but it is difficult not to read into it the desire of the author, Haggard, for immortality through reincarnation, for it is well documented that he was a firm believer in the rebirth of the self. Stevenson, pointed out The World's Desire's misogyny and wrote a parodic poem which disparaged its heterosexual plot. According to Stevenson, Lang and Haggard were foolish to make their aged Odysseus seek a wife. He called the novel both audacious and wrong and derided it in broad Scots:
"Awdacious Odyshes
Your conduc' is vicious,
Your tale is suspicious
An' queer
Ye ancient sea-roamer
Ye dour old beach-comber
Frae Haggard to Homer
Ye Veer.
Sic veerin and steerin'!
What port are ye nearin'
As frae Egypt to Erin
Ye gang.
Ye ancient old blackguard
Just see whaur ye're staggered
From Homer to Haggard
And Lang'
In stunt and in strife
To gang seeking a wife
At your time o' life
It was wrang.
An' see! Fresh afflictions
Into Haggard's descriptions
An' the plagues o' the Egyptians
Ye sprang!
The Folk ye're now in wi'
Are ill to begin wi
Or to risk a hale skin wi'
In breeks
They're blacker and hetter
(Just ask your begetter)
And far frae bein' better
Than Greeks.
There's your Meriamun
She'll mebbe can gammon
That auld-furrand salmon Yoursel'
And Moses and Aaron
Will gie ye your fairin
Wi fire an' het airn
In Hell." 7.
The allegory in the romance The World's Desire swings from star to snake and back again as it would appear that the authorschange from male to female imagery.
"'What did I tell thee,' says Aphrodite. 'Was it not thou shouldst know the Golden Helen by the Red Star on her breast, the jewel whence fall the red drops fast, and by the Star alone? And did she not tell thee, also, that thou shouldst know her by the Star? Yet when one came to thee wearing no star but girdled with a snake, my words were all forgotten, thy desires led thee wither thou wouldst not go. Thou wast blinded by desire and couldst not discern the False from theTrue. Beauty has many shapes, now it is that of Helen, now that of Meriamun, each sees it as he desires it. But the Star is not yet the Star and the Snake is not yet the Snake and he who, bewildered by his lusts, swears by the Snake when he should have sworn by the Star, shall have the Snake for guerdon. 8.
Confirming their collaborative efforts, Stevenson wrote to Lang in continuance of their masculine bonds and Lang reported to Haggard, "Stevenson says he is 'thrilled and chilled' by Meriamun." Lang himself did not hold his own efforts in high esteem and parodied the contribution he made in a few lines of doggerel:
"It did not set the Thames on fire
It is not quite "The World's Desire!"
Much rather do the public scoff,
And yell to Nature, 'Take them off!'
While critics constantly conspire
To slate the hapless "World's Desire." 9.
To which I have penned the parody in reply;
"It did not set the world ablaze,
As on its pages they did gaze.
Much rather did the critics scoff,
And tell of Rider Haggard's toff.
While public papers they all say
The fiction set down here is gay."
Providing further proof of their collaboration, Lang wrote to Haggard pointing out that:

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