Saturday, June 4, 2011

Book Review: Misfortune, Wesley Stace

This article was first published at The Compulsive Reader:

There have been many fine novels written exploring the theme of confused sexual identity. From Virginia Woolf’s Orlando to Jeffrey Eugenides Pulitzer Prize winning Middlesex, novelists have used the theme to raise questions about conventional notions of what is normal and to suggest that ideas about gender are as much functions of societal pressures as they are biologically determined.

Wesley Stace’s debut novel Misfortune is one more attempt to mine this same field. Set in England in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, Misfortune tells the story of Rose Loveall, a foundling boy raised as a girl by an eccentric, effeminate nobleman. Discovered a few hours after his birth on a dust heap in the outskirts of London, the baby is rescued by Lord Geoffroy Loveall. Loveall is unmarried, has never shown any sign of any interest in women and is in danger of failing to provide an heir to his estate and title. Moreover the death of his younger sister when they were both children has left him traumatized, and he is still in mourning for her. He sees in the foundling a substitute for his beloved sister, and without bothering to ascertain the actual sex of the child, he announces him as his daughter. Even when the truth is discovered, he insists on his delusion.

He persuades his sister’s governess who has remained with the family as a librarian to marry him and pass off the baby as their daughter. She agrees, thinking that as the child grows older, they will acknowledge the truth about the baby’s sex. For one reason or another that truth is never revealed, and Rose reaches puberty with not only the rest of the world believing he is a girl, but believing it himself. His eventual discovery of his masculinity after his father’s death paralyzes him with conflicting emotions. He finds himself unable to deal with all the problems raised by the revelation, retreats into himself, and finally runs away.

That Rose has managed to grow into his early teens without any accurate idea of the physical differences between the sexes is something of a stretch even given the repressive modesties of Victorian England. True his education was strictly controlled by his mother, his contacts with other children and the rest of the world restricted. Still he did have playmates, He did notice differences in the bathroom habits of the brother and sister who were his constant companions. He did note that his own physical makeup was much more like that of the boy than the girl. Moreover, he lived on a country estate where there were horses and other farm animals. The idea that in some fifteen years he had never come across the differences between the male and female anatomies is difficult to accept.

Even if the reader is willing to buy into Rose’s naivete, he leaves much to be desired as the central figure and narrator as well of a five hundred page novel. When he finally recognizes that he is a male, his problem seems tp be ,more with his clothes than with his sexuality. Men’s clothing fells awkward. It is stiff. It chafes. This is surprising considering the restraints of women’s apparel in the Victorian era. He has grown used to his dresses and needs them complete his image of himself. It is not that he wants to be female. It is not that he wants to pass as female. He is neither a trans sexual nor a transvestite. He wants to be a man, identifiable as a man, but dressed in female garb. He wants to wear the dress in the family.

The hot house environment in which this rose was raised had left him a passive character, easily cowed by others, incapable of standing up for himself. Faced with a flock of self serving family members out for their own gain after the death of his father, he allows them to take over his house. He looks to his mother and the faithful of his servants to save him and when they cannot, he uses his depression over the revelation of his sexuality to excuse his inaction. He turns completely inward at the crisis. In the end his solution is to run away and debase himself (although the period of that debasement is omitted from the novel and the nature of the defilement is only hinted at). Now while the passive acceptance of victimhood may well be a result of his upbringing, it is not likely to result in an engaging hero.

This kind of paralyzed hero is much more characteristic of the modern novel than it is if the Victorian. The Marxist critic, George Lukacs, has identified this kind of kind of character overwhelmed by the problems of the modern world as one of the major problems of the modern novel. Characters in nineteenth century novels seem much more able to deal with their world. They may falter for a time, but in the end they will generally overcome. And, if not, they will at least try. They will not sit by passively and allow themselves to be abused. Rose Loveall seems to belong more to the modern world than he does to the world in which he lives.

Even the voice in which he narrates the story has a modern ironic tone. First person narrators in nineteenth century fiction tend to be sincere and direct. They don’t generally set themselves up as authors discussing the art of narrative. Third person narrators may do so–Thackeray allowing his omniscient voice to discuss the manipulation of his puppets in "Vanity Fair,: for example, but this kind of ironic distancing is absent from first person narrators like Jane Eyre or Nellie Dean. Rose, on the other hand, is perfectly willing to comment on the narrative from the distance. There is a long passage when he begins his first person narrative where he explains why the beginning of the story was told from the omniscient point of view:

I should apologize for not revealing myself in the first volume, which I chose not to tell in my own voice. ‘Why,’ you may ask, ‘when you are so very first person now?’ The answer is simple: There was no I. And if there was an I, that little baby passed from hand to paw, there wasn’t enough of an I with which to speak, or see. I didn’t think my own voice would be persuasive enough, so I opted for the old-fashioned narrator, the All-Seeing One–or let’s call him God.". . . It was I who made the first line of this confession, but when I read it to myself in His voice(deep, echoing), even I believed it. Print, too, is very persuasive–. . . .

I have an entirely different style from God. I deal only in the truth, that is, the truth as I witnessed it. If I had written the foregoing part in my own voice, I would have been covering, waiting for what I knew and making up the rest. . . . MY intention
was to convey you to this point with the minimum of fuss, to have you trust in what you were reading. I needed God, so I put him to work for me.

Of course, I also spoke with my own voice–for even God, however neutral He pretends to be, must commit a little of Himself.

This kind of subversive meta-narrative further emphasizes the modernity of the novel’s central character. Sometimes the narrative intrusion is simply a kind of flippant aside, as in the narrator’s wish for a family tree in the front of the volume in order to keep the members of the clan straight. Sometimes it makes little sense as in the explanation for the omission of the year of degradation, because he knew his mother would somehow feel responsible. Were that the case why even give the hints which were certainly explicit enough to make her feel guilty? While these authorial comments may be few, they are intrusive and call undue attention to themselves.

The plot itself is complex with a lot of seeming coincidences and a few real coincidences. The characters tend to be either black or white. The good ones are good and the bad, evil, with very few in between. And in some cases they are indeed difficult to keep track of (even with the wished for family tree). The chronology of events is also difficult to keep in mind as is the age of the growing Rose since few points of reference are given. While there are some truly effective individual scenes, mainly erotic ones, they do not in themselves provide sufficient reward for wading through the pages of Rose’s history.

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