Book Review: When True Love Came to China, by Lynn Pan

Lynn Pan’s When True Love Came to China is one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read about anything. It argues that China was a stranger to love – or at least to “true love” – until the New Culture and May Fourth movements of the 1910s, when love was imported to China from its Western place of origin.

To make her case, Pan reviews Chinese and Western literary sources and shows that China, where “feeling” and “lust of the mind” were indeed well known, nonetheless fostered only a pragmatic experience of male-female coupling, due to the prevalence of arranged marriage and also to the Confucian preoccupation on moral perfection, which left little room for supposedly frivolous pursuits such as being in love. It fell to the Western mind, with its predisposition toward religious ardor, to develop the tradition of ecstatic devotion to one person. Even if the reader is uninterested in China, Pan’s chapter on the idea of love in the West is worth the price of the ticket.

That Pan limits her search for love to the Chinese and Western literary corpora tempted me to call foul, for love, as I thought, must surely evince itself outside of books. Psychologists, anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, and folklorists might be even more insistent that Pan’s approach is myopic and that  a better-directed hunt for love should also lead through their respective fields. Upon reflection, however, it makes sense that broader cultural phenomena such as love would sooner or later find expression in books, with the more significant phenomena garnering the most articulation. When True Love Came to China is in fact a monumental testament to the importance of books. Pan’s treatment of China’s pioneering lovers of the early twentieth century makes the primacy of book-borne sensibility undeniable.

When Pan quotes from Yu Dafu’s (1896-1945) letter to Wang Yingxia (1908-2000) – “Oh Yingxia! You are truly my Beatrice.” (p. 204) – she clinches both arguments, proving that love is a Western import to China and that books are important. Earlier chapters of When True Love Came to China highlight the role played by Ellen Key (1849-1926) and her book Love and Marriage, as well as the better-known effect in China of Henrik Ibsen’s (1828-1906) play A Doll’s House, in which the protagonist Nora walks out on her family. Nora is shown to be the role model proposed by the ardent Xu Zhimo (1897-1931) to the married Lu Xiaoman (1903-1965) in Xu’s exhortation for her to leave her husband and run off with him (p. 217).

For love to flourish, freedom and the idea of personality (see p. 163 and thereabouts) must also be secured, and Pan traces China’s quest for these latter prizes as well. The liberation of women, obviously, becomes an important part of the story, and students of this subject will find much in the way of further reading in Pan’s bibliography.

There is simply too much here – love, freedom, religion, marriage, feminism, history, China, Japan, Europe – for the present reviewer to summarize. When True Love Came to China is enthralling from so many angles. It is essential reading for life.

Book Review: Sanshirō, by Natsume Sōseki

Sanshirō’s namesake protagonist journeys to Tokyo from his provincial hometown in 1908, to pursue his education in Western subjects. What he finds on arrival is no brave new world of expanding horizons but a stagnant morass of demoralization. On a basic level, the Western ideas he encounters are not liberating but imposing, adding nothing to the native culture but confusion:

‘The sky was so clear before,’ said Mineko. ‘Now the color is all muddied.’

Sanshirō took his eyes from the stream and looked up. This was not the first time he had seen a sky like this, but it was the first time he had heard the sky described as ‘muddied.’ And she was right, he saw. There was no other way to describe this color. Before he could say anything in reply, however, Mineko spoke again.

‘It’s so heavy! It looks like marble,’ she said, using the English word. She was looking up high, eyes narrowed. Then she moved her narrowed eyes slowly, until they were turned upon Sanshirō. ‘It does look like marble, don’t you think?’

Sanshirō had no choice but to agree. ‘Yes, it looks like marble.’ (p. 97)

Mineko was doing so well with “muddied.” Why did she switch to marble? Why did Sanshirō have no choice but to go along with it?

I confess that I remembered this passage incorrectly. I thought that Mineko had described the sky consistently as marbled and that Sanshirō concluded that marbled was the only adjective that suited it. The difference, however is only one of nuance, with the true text showing how an English word comes to replace a Japanese one and my misremembered version accepting the imposition of English as an accomplished fact, conforming to my experience of Japan in recent years. On drives along the hilly coastline of southern Hokkaido, our car frequently passes through tunnels, uniformly designated as ton’neru, which has always seemed to me like bad English and not Japanese. I wonder how the Japanese named tunnels before the arrival of Commodore Perry and what was wrong with the old name.  Why not call it a zuidō, using two kanji? (But then again, kanji are Chinese characters and zuidō is a Chinese pronunciation. Perhaps the Japanese really can’t avoid borrowing a foreign term, the only choice being the era in which the term was imported.)

At any rate, as though responding to the general marblization of things, a student at Sanshirō’s school addresses a gathering, “We do not study Western literature in order to surrender ourselves to it but to emancipate minds that have already surrendered to it.” (p. 116) Very soon after hearing this bold proclamation, Sanshirō attends a crowded track meet, which, auguring poorly for the emancipation project just announced, takes place under both the Japanese and the British flags.  

Sanshirō was disappointed to find that the ladies’ seats were separate from the rest and unapproachable for ordinary human beings; also, there were a lot of important-looking men here in frock coats, which made him appear less impressive than he might have wished. Ogawa Sanshirō, youth of the new age, had shrunk a little in stature. (p. 118)

Of course, it doesn’t matter if skies are muddied or marbled, or whose flag flies over the track meet, if sex segregation and aristocracy are still so prevalent. As Haruki Murakami observes in his introduction to the 2009 Penguin edition I read, “Western ‘modernity’…had not yet taken root in Meiji Japan, nor, perhaps, is it all that firmly rooted in our own day.” (p. xxxv)

As for the plot, it involves Sanshirō’s somewhat passive pursuit of the witty and cosmopolitan Mineko and leads, rather predictably, to the contradiction between free and arranged marriage, which is fundamental to the Westernization question. The persistence of arranged marriage, as evinced in the storylines of myriad Asian movies and TV dramas popular today, confirms the truth of Murakami’s observation.

Therefore, as I finish Sanshirō, and as I finish also the 2020 Japanese movie Aristocrats, which features an arranged marriage, I resolve that my next reading, perhaps my next several readings, will focus on the crucial conflict between arranged marriage and freedom in marriage. No sooner have I closed the cover of Natsume’s novel than I have rushed to the library to borrow Lynn Pan’s nonfiction When True Love Came to China, which has some bearing on Japan as well.

Book Review: The Village Notary, by József Eötvös

The Village Notary is no great pleasure to read, for the compelling moments of its plot are scattered between cynical diatribes. 

The diatribes are telling, at any rate. Here’s one on democracy:

“It makes me laugh to think that the very men who now divide the county trace their origin as political parties to an idle controversy on the uniforms of the county-hussars. Hence the yellows and the blacks. I am sure your Excellency would laugh if you had seen their committee-rooms. Rety’s head-quarters ring with high praises of his patriotism, for his having at the last election fixed the price of meat at threepence a pound; while in the next house you find all the butchers of the county for Bantornyi, the intrepid champion of protection and threepence-halfpenny. Just now, at the café, I overheard an argument on Vetsöshi’s abilities, which are rated very low, because he is shown to be a bad hand at cards. In short, your Excellency can have no idea of the farce which is acting around us.” (vol. 1, p. 175)

And here’s a pithy specimen on prison conditions:

The county gaol at Dustbury was, in those days, free from the prevailing epidemic of philanthropical innovations, which a certain set of political empirics are so zealous in spreading. The ancient national system of Austrio-Hungarian prison discipline was still in full glory; but as coming events cast their shadows before, so this venerable and time-honored system was every now and then attacked by the maudlin and squeamish sentimentality of modern reformers….In the gaol of a neighboring county, so fewer than six prisoners were dull enough top permit their feet to be frozen by the cold; and though the county magistrates gave them the full benefit of their attention, though their feet were amputated with a handsaw, though only one of the patients survived, and though such things were known to have frequently happened without any one being the worse for it, yet (so great is human perversity) a cry of indignation was got up against the worshipful magistrates of the said county, for all the world as if those honorable gentlemen had made the cold. (vol. 3, pp. 67-68)

Less pithy but more bitter is this eulogy of the book’s namesake protagonist, which amounts to a mockery of liberal learning itself, for its cruel inability to alter the individual’s destiny as fixed by birth:

The poor curate’s library contained but few books, but among them was a great treasure; namely, a copy of Plutarch….Jonas passed many hours in looking at the solemn faces of the classic heroes, nor was it long before he knew their names and actions….He was happy; for there is no greater happiness than the delight which a pure heart feels when thinking of great deeds and generous men. The childhood of nations and individuals idolizes all heroes, and thus did Jonas.

A child’s perceptions of distance are very weak: it is the same in the moral world. Children try to grasp any shining bauble which strikes their eyes, no matter whether far or near. Life has not yet taught them to wait, to plod, and perhaps to be disappointed. The boy is equally ignorant of the bitter truth, that there is usually but one road which leads to the high places of the world, and that the ascent, though easy to some, is impossible to others, for from where they stand there is no path which leads to the top. (vol. 1, pp. 42-43)

The reader can perhaps detect in these lines the self-pity of the author, particularly if he too once imbibed the elixir of liberal learning, without heeding the country-club logo stamped on the cup.

Just as the romantic should avoid Don Quixote, the idealist should avoid The Village Notary.

Book Review: Last Words from Montmartre, by Qiu Miaojin

Sophisticated people use art to assimilate life. In extreme cases, the process feeds back, and they sublimate the latter to the former. Qiu Miaojin (or her protagonist, Zoë) was an extreme case.

My goal is to experience the depths of life, to understand people and how they live, and to express this through my art. All my other accomplishments mean nothing to me. If I can only create a masterpiece that achieves the goal I’ve fixed my inward gaze upon during my creative journey, my life will not have been wasted. (p. 37)

Xu, even if you’ve already abandoned me, I want to act with the beauty of Antinous and Yourcenar. I am too greedy for life – only this kind of beauty can be the crowning laurels of my existence. I want this crown of laurels so much so as to be as beautiful as Antinous and Yourcenar. Even if you are unwilling to accept this crown that I offer you, I want to transform myself into an idol in the temple of my own life so that I can complete the meaning of my eternal love for you, a sacrificial offering to you who have abandoned me. (pp. 56-57)

Yesterday I went to see Angelopoulos’s film Landscape in the Mist again. When the little boy witnessed the death of the donkey and kneeled on the ground, weeping pathetically in the center of the screen, I cried pitifully with him. I am that little boy, an innocent child who weeps over the death of an animal. Walking with White Whale out of the movie theater into the cool Parisian night’s faint breeze, she said that the movie was so beautiful she could die right there. And I replied that with someone by my side with whom I could share the beauty of such a movie, I could die that night too. Movies are like that, life is like that, and love even more so, no? (p. 83)

Good-night, Zoë, a Zhivago-esque night. (p. 127)

Book Review: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs

This book was written (and published in 1861) to inoculate northerners against southern sugar-coating of slavery. This passage exemplifies its purpose:

One day I saw a slave pass our gate, muttering, ‘It’s his own, and he can kill it if he will.’ My grandmother told me that woman’s history. Her mistress had that day seen her baby for the first time, and in the lineaments of its fair face she saw a likeness to her husband. She turned the bondwoman and her child out of doors, and forbade her ever to return. The slave went to her master, and told him what had happened. He promised to talk with her mistress, and make it all right. The next day she and her baby were sold to a Georgia trader.

Another time I saw a woman rush wildly by, pursued by two men. She was a slave, the wet nurse of her mistress’s children. For some trifling offense her mistress ordered her to be stripped and whipped. To escape the degradation and the torture, she rushed to the river, jumped in, and ended her wrongs in death.

Senator Brown, of Mississippi, could not be ignorant of such facts as these, for they are of frequent occurrence in every Southern State. Yet he stood up in the Congress of the United States, and declared that slavery was ‘a great moral, social, and political blessing; a blessing to the master, and a blessing to the slave!’ (pp. 135-136)

So attuned to hypocrisy, Jacobs takes special aim at the church, as in the following scene:

I well remember one occasion when I attended a Methodist class meeting. I went with a burdened spirit, and happened to sit next to a poor, bereaved mother, whose heart was still heavier than mine. The class leader was the town constable – a man who bought and sold slaves, who whipped his brethren and sisters of the church at the public whipping post, in jail or out of jail. He was ready to perform the Christian office any where for fifty cents. This white-faced, black-hearted brother came near us, and said to the stricken woman, ‘Sister, can’t you tell us how the Lord deals with your soul? Do you love him as you did formerly?’

She rose to her feet, and said, in piteous tones, ‘My Lord and Master, help me! My load is more than I can bear. God has hid himself from me, and I am left in darkness and misery.’ Then, striking her breast, she continued, ‘I can’t tell you what is in here! They’ve got all my children. Last week they took the last one. God only knows where they’ve sold her. They let me have her sixteen years, and then – O! O! Prey for her brothers and sisters! I’ve got nothing to live for now. God make my time short!’

She sat down, quivering in every limb. I saw that constable class leader become crimson in the face with suppressed laughter, while he held up his handkerchief, that those who were weeping for the poor woman’s calamity might not see his merriment. Then, with assumed gravity, he said to the bereaved mother, ‘Sister, pray to the Lord that every dispensation of his divine will may be sanctified to the good of your poor needy soul!’ (pp. 78-79)

“No wonder,” Jacobs writes, “the slaves sing, –

‘Ole Satan’s church is here below;
Up to God’s free church I hope to go.’ (p. 84)

The founding principles of our republic fall under the charge of hypocrisy too; yet despite their authorship by slave-mongers, they inspire. When Jacobs slips away from her tormentors, she resolves that, “come what would, there should be no turning back. ‘Give me liberty, or give me death,’ was my motto.” (p. 111) If Patrick Henry hadn’t meant for his declaration to be echoed by everyone, then he shouldn’t have blared it.

Instrumental as she no doubt was in helping to crystalize public opinion against actual slavery, Jacobs would not join in the mounting mid-century chorus against “wage slavery,” or bourgeois society, that was first voiced experimentally by Thoreau (“It is hard to have a southern overseer; it is worse to have a northern one”), developed heroically by Gandhi (“Formerly, men worked in the open air only as much as they liked….Now…their condition is worse than that of beasts….They are enslaved by the temptation of money and of the luxuries that money can buy”), and finally reprised in satire by Orwell (“Freedom is slavery”). On a trip to England after her escape, she observes:

I had heard much about the oppression of the poor in Europe. The people I saw around me were, many of them, among the poorest poor. But when I visited them in their little thatched cottages, I felt that the condition of even the meanest and most ignorant among them was vastly superior to the condition of the most favored slaves in America. They labored hard; but they were not ordered out to toil while the stars were in the sky; and driven and slashed by an overseer, through heat and cold, till the stars shone out again. Their homes were very humble; but they were protected by law. No insolent patrols could come, in the dead of night, and flog them at their pleasure. The father, when he closed his cottage door, felt safe with his family around him. No master or overseer could come and take from him his wife, or his daughter. They must separate to earn a living; but the parents knew where their children were going, and could communicate with them by letters….There was no law forbidding them to learn to read or write; and if they helped each other in spelling out the Bible, they were in no danger of thirty-nine lashes, as was the case with myself and poor, pious, old uncle Fred. I repeat that the most ignorant and the most destitute of these peasants was a thousand times better off than the most pampered American slave. (pp. 205-206)

This edition comes with a narrative by Harriet’s brother, John, which includes this pithy farewell note to his “master”:

Sir – I have left you, not to return; when I have got settled, I will give you further satisfaction. No longer yours, John S. Jacob. (p. 248)

Book Review: Six Frigates, by Ian W. Toll

Although I read mostly novels these days, it’s good every once in a while to check in with an amazing history book, of which Six Frigates is a superb example. The story of the founding and early institutional history of the United States is easily as enthralling as any novel. Toll’s book is very nautically detailed, but it also includes thorough treatments of the Founders, the political parties, the leading issues facing the young republic such as Barbary piracy and French and British impressment of sailors (which seems to approach kidnapping and slavery in its straightforwardness), as well as quaint customs like dueling.

Among Six Frigates’ panorama of the early nineteenth century appears this account of British anti-Americanism, which I read as evidence of the social reaction that came to dominate thought by century’s end:

Hatred of America seems a prevailing sentiment in this country. Whether it be that they have no crown and nobility, and are on this account not quite a genteel power; or that their manners are less polished than our own; or that we grudge their independence…the fact is undeniable that the bulk of our people would fain be at war with them. (p. 276)

Readers of some of my other reviews will know that the tracing of such sentiments to the murderous genteel ideologies of the twentieth century is a pet project of mine.

Here is another private take from Toll’s book: As a Baltimorean, I read the whole work in dreadful anticipation of a cruel truth that finally emerges in a postscript:

1853: Constellation is broken up at the Gosport Navy Yard in Norfolk. Some of her timbers may have been incorporated into a new sloop of war, also christened the Constellation. (The latter remains afloat in Baltimore harbor.) (p. 475)

In sum, there is a lot for me in this book (not all of it pleasant), and there is certain to be a lot for you too; but above all it is a gripping, epic story. It will capture (or should I say impress) your imagination, whatever your circumstances.

Book Review: A Sport and a Pastime, by James Salter

James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime is immersive and dreamlike. Much of it narrates car trips through bucolic cat-filled towns, and thus it seems “truly French,” although other books with different approaches could seem just as “French.”

In the composition of his dreamscape, Salter eschews action verbs and employs instead verbs of being, “there is” or “there are” (il ya) constructions, and the passive voice, as in:

There are tunnels of hay, mosques, cupolas, domes. Every house has its vegetable garden. The roads here are empty – a motorcyclist, a truck, nothing more. People are traveling elsewhere. Outside a house two small cages are hung for the canaries to get some air. (p. 7)

and:

That penetrating cold of France is here, that cold which touches everything, which arrives too soon. Inside, beneath the coupole, I can see the tables being set for dinner The lights are already on in the marvelous, glass consoles within which the wealth of this ancient town is displayed: watches in leather cases, soup tureens, foulards. My eye moves. Perfumes. Books of medieval sculpture. Necklaces. Underwear. The glass has thin strips of brass like a boat’s running the edges and is curved on top – a dome of stained fragments, hexagons, hives of color. Behind all this, in white jackets, the waiters glide. (p. 14)

When an action verb like “glide” comes along, it’s almost startling.

Most of these static vignettes appear at the beginning of the book, setting the scene. Action verbs creep in later, when the tryst between Phillip and Anne-Marie intensifies.

The sex scenes are OK I guess, although the words for parts of the body (like “prick”) and for coupling seem vulgar and unpoetic. I wonder if we’ll ever come up with better words for those things.

Apparently, I’m not the first person to note similarities with The Great Gatsby, as far as narrative point of view is concerned – although I thought I was the first person. If Gatsby’s protagonists trust Nick Carraway with the details of their story, then the unnamed narrator of A Sport and a Pastime takes things a step further by telling other people’s story whether he’s been entrusted or not. (I wonder if Sport refers to Gatsby, as in “Old Sport.”)

Narrative bombs like “None of this is true” (p. 11) lend the book its ponderability.

Book Review: Lord of Formosa, by Joyce Bergvelt

Lord of Formosa is well-researched, fast-paced, transporting, and enjoyable. Readers should not feel daunted by the book’s 440-page length: The story flies by. Asian settings and character names are also made easy to assimilate by use of maps and by keeping the players to a minimum. Also, this is a transnational story, so it’s easier to keep track of the Chinese, Japanese, and Dutch names than it would be if all the names were Chinese. (Another bit of good news in this regard is that the main character, Zheng Chenggong, ends up with a Romanized name, Koxinga.) It is everything a historical fiction book should be.

One interesting facet of the book is Koxinga’s transition from protagonist to antagonist. It occurs abruptly in the “Physician” chapter, in which Koxinga is treated by a Dutch doctor. Seeing the volatile patient through the eyes of his caregiver effectively subjugates him to the latter’s judgement. For the balance of the novel, the narrative perspective – and the reader’s sympathy – remains with the Dutch, particularly with Formosa’s last governor, Frederic Coyett. A late-game discovery of restraint on Koxinga’s part salvages his appeal somewhat, and he winds up as an honorable antagonist though still an antagonist.

Author Joyce Bergvelt has done a great service in writing such a compelling book about Taiwan, which is such a uniquely fascinating place that it deserves a lot more books like this one.

Book Review: Tales of Ming Courtesans, by Alice Poon

Tales of Ming Courtesans is a freedom book. Utilizing an approach that is very different from Lisa See’s in her Peony in Love, Alice Poon has created characters that do more than make the most of miserable situations. Rather, they rail at the injustice of them and seek liberation. In one passage, Poon credits very liberal expressions to the Hangzhou merchant Wang Wei and includes a ringing endorsement from Liu Rushi, perhaps the most intrepid of the three Ming courtesans portrayed in this book:

‘Confucius was dead wrong to have classed women as inferior humans. Just think of all the female talent that has gone to waste over the past several millennia because of that stupid gender discrimination! Aiya, too tragic! And our society is so depraved to exploit girls from poor families and allow the thin horse [human trafficking and procurement] trade to thrive! Why aren’t learned men ashamed at just ignoring it and do nothing about it! Let me tell you this: [Qian] Qianyi and I have always shared the same view on this issue. We have even planned to jointly petition the Emperor to ban the slave trade. That’s why we are great friends!’

‘Ah, now I understand why you call your boat the “Untethered Villa”! You are a freedom lover, true? Wasn’t it the Song poet Su Shi who had used the term “untethered boat” to portray his freedom from the burdens of officialdom?’ (p. 183)

Such discourse was indeed atypical of old China, but it was not unimaginable in the late Ming dynasty, when traditional dogma came under bold scrutiny and received norms of gender relations were challenged. Of course, Liu Rushi and her sisters are not merely interested in “freedom from the burdens of officialdom” but are desperately seeking to escape from brutal chains of control and chronic abasement. As their desperation increases, idealistic talk of freedom fades, and only the struggle for survival remains.

Nonetheless, they fight the good fight. Tales of Ming Courtesans is compelling and very exciting – and hard to put down. Readers will be sorry when it’s over, and if they are like me, they will be eager to learn more about Liu Rushi and her extraordinarily forward-thinking times.

Book Review: Northwood, or Life North and South, by Sarah Josepha Buell Hale

Written in open anticipation of the Civil War, Northwood, or Life North and South (1852) posits basic differences in character between Yankees and Southrons. Some character traits are caused by geography and climate, as in:

The universal necessity for constant labor or application to business, which yet happily exists in the New England States, contributes, perhaps more than any other cause, to preserve the purity of morals which distinguishes the inhabitants of that section of our country. Had the Puritans and their descendants been fed with manna and fattened with quails in their wilderness, they would, doubtless, long before this, have spurned the hand that bestowed the unsought favors. (p. 240)

In some cases, the climatic factor gives way to the social:

‘Your cool climate keeps your temperament cool; and the perfect equality subsisting in your society makes the controlling of the passions more indispensable than with us, where the overflowings of wrath may be poured out on the heads, and bodies too, of unresisting menials.’ (pp. 205-206)

The novel’s protagonist, Sidney Romilly, shifts back and forth between New Hampshire and South Carolina and thus tries both halves of the experiment on himself. The results he relates in a letter to an English friend:

‘As a fair parallel I will mention Napoleon the Great. Like him I was taken from humble life, to be the heir of a sovereignty; make what exceptions you please to my use of the term sovereignty, the southern slaveholder is as absolute in his dominions, or plantation rather, as the grand seignior, and when I had become accustomed to command, and my mind was weakened by indolence and enervated by dissipation, I was suddenly thrown back to my former insignificance, and compelled to dig for my daily bread. “O, what a falling off was there!”…. [However,] the activity which we are compelled by our situation to exert…operates to dispel the gloom of grief. Employment is an excellent comforter, and fatigue the best opiate in the world. I never slept so soundly since my childhood, and my slumbers are most refreshing. I awaken in the morning without any solicitude save just the business of the farm. I have no appointments to keep or engagements to escape, no punctilios of honor or intrigues of love. In short, could I fairly forget the last dozen years of my life, I think I might now enjoy the best felicity of which mortal men can, on earth, be partakers.’ (pp. 324-326)

Northwood’s author, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, directly addresses the problem of slavery only toward the end of the book. While against the institution – as something that is bad for white people – she is equally against its violent overthrow and rather dreams, somewhat like Gandhi, of a swelling of (Christian) soul force that will compel slave-owners of their own accord to manumit their menials, educate and evangelize them, and then allow them to colonize and Christianize Africa. She holds no belief in racial equality (or amalgamation) and supposes black and white coexistence in America to be impossible.

Otherwise, Northwood is chock-full of little bits of wisdom I’m more prepared to accept. For example, it rebukes me for excessive romanticism by commenting favorably that a certain love-letter “was not an unmeaning rhapsody – alternately fire and frost; now breathing out his affections and now lamenting his destiny”… but rather addressed to the lady “as his friend and therefore entitled to his confidence – as a reasoning being and therefore able to understand his situation and assist him with her counsel.” (p. 207) It chides me too for my regrettable Machiavellian conception of respect, when it quotes Sidney’s report that “‘I am more respected and less feared; better, far better beloved, yet less flattered; have fewer followers and firmer friends.’” (p. 340)

In refutation both of Machiavelli and of the Chinese philosopher Han Fei, it supplies the Christian argument that love is superior to law: “Even God, reverently speaking, could not, by force, compel His rational creatures to be, in heart and soul, obedient to His law. Therefore, He sent His beloved Son to die for us, and thus, by His love, to move us to love, which includes obedience in return.” (p. 394)

Finally, the book has a few things to say about the general struggle between equality and aristocracy. On the one hand, it heralds the bitter reaction of the latter against the former that, in my humble opinion, has given rise to all totalitarian doctrine from Marxism to Nazism and that has constituted the chief driving force of history since the mid-nineteenth century:

‘Neither is it strange that the aristocratical spirit of the old world should be alarmed and revolt at the democratical influence which the new is so rapidly obtaining. We cannot expect those who pride themselves on an ancestry, whose pure blood has flowed through proud veins for many hundred years, will forget at once this fancied superiority, and look on what they call our plebian origin, without feelings of contempt.’

On the other hand – or perhaps on the same hand – these pages also note the development of a pseudo-aristocracy, arising among the plebians, that may, in spite of its origins, exemplify the reaction of the aristocratical spirit against the democratical one:

‘I do think the real English gentleman has more of dignity, and less of arrogance, than our purse-bound citizens. The Englishman is more proud, perhaps, but is free from that puffing consequence which is the most offensive part of the folly in our own countrymen. This may arise from the superiority of the former being established and acknowledged, whereas our own gentlemen are continually striving to maintain their precarious honors, and seem determined, by making the most of what they happen to possess, to indemnify themselves for the transientness of its continuance.’ (pp. 244-245)

It is ultimately the totalitarian, in his twentieth-century guise, who seeks to “maintain precarious honors” and indemnify himself against the transientness of democratical society by reimposing upon it a fixed hierarchial order, with himself at its apex.

In the meantime, the pseudo-aristocrats of Northwood, are described by Hale consistently as people of fashion. Examples of her use of the term are almost beyond counting:

His appearance, rank, and fortune, made his alliance a prize not lightly to be rejected by people of fashion. (p. 182)

Thus gently and almost imperceptibly, Stuart was loosening the chains which fashion had twined around our hero and restoring him to the freedom of that rational enjoyment which his soul was formed to appreciate but for which the Circean cup of luxury had nearly destroyed his relish. (p. 237)

Now he must put forth his own strength and depend on his own exertions. Yet strange as it may seem to those who connect felicity only with wealth, splendor, and distinction, he was never, in the proudest moment of his prosperity, when he was the star of fashion and minion of fortune, so cheerfully and equally happy as now, while confined to labor and living in obscurity. (p. 323)

He whispered to Sidney in great confidence that he fancied Miss Redington’s accession of wealth had already begun to make her dissatisfied with a residence in that unfashionable place and that he presumed she would soon depart for Boston. (p. 332)

I’ve always found fashion to be imposingly hierarchial, a ready means by which even Americans, who lack a true aristocracy, strive to concoct a false one. It’s therefore confirming to see how often Hale presents fashion as the antithesis of New England’s virtuous, egalitarian simplicity.