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Classics, Colonialism and Crumpets

It's been said too often that if class is the British bugaboo, race is the American. But their respective literatures suggest it's a bit more complex than that. Since the 1814 publication of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park — the first British novel in which I remember an explicit reference to the colonies and the raw materials extracted therefrom — the rigid class system was assaulted at least indirectly by the confluence of cheap native labor and immigration. In the United States, the growth of a leisure class that mirrored the punctiliousness of Europe's was funded largely on the backs of slaves in the South, and an immigrant work force as industrious as England's in the North. In both cases, then, it was inevitable that class and race would meet and collide.

Also inevitable: the growth of the novel, which would evolve from an indulgence practiced by landed gentry (despite the superb work produced by Austen and Sir Walter Scott, among others) to a consciously crafted art form as aware of the importance of grace, symmetry, and tension as the architectural layout of the country estates at which those gentry wrote their novels in the first place. Neither George Eliot nor Henry James were aristocrats, but the spoils of colonialism funded the life of letters; at the very least it provided raw material for fiction. However, as the later novels of E.M Forster and William Faulkner's Light in August revealed, those marginalized by capitalism regnant were, by the first third of the 20th century, resisting violently, and it's fascinating to note how the authors themselves seem flummoxed by what they've unleashed.

Critics still disagree about George Eliot’s final novel (Henry James: "A very ponderous and ill-made story"). No one dismisses the power of the first thread: Gwendolyn Harleth, a spoiled ingénue, is treated as chattel in a marriage to an insufferable prat; it's the second, concerning the title hero — an exemplar of his class who discovers his Jewish blood — that still occasions debate. British Prime Minister Disraeli excepted, no... one was better qualified to examine the subtleties of Jewishness than Mary Ann Evans, who herself hid her identity in a society which still condescended to female novelists. The novel's genius lies in the communion between Gwendolyn's search for spiritual fulfillment and Deronda's requiring a Gentile romance to add a terrestrial element to his spiritual yearning. If the novel isn't as integrated as Middlemarch, contemporary readers will find its socio-ethnic paradoxes more relevant. Nadia May’s starchy tones compound the age-old divide.

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Praised by Pauline Kael as “the most preposterous work of art ever written,” Oscar Wilde's perfect comedy resists the pedantry of summarization. Algernon Moncrieff's "Bunburying" could well be a euphemism for leading a double life, but why bother explaining it? Scratch this play's burnished surface and you'll find another beautiful surface beneath. Leave the analysis to Lady Bracknell, the play's grim judge, jury, and chorus in one. Almost four hundred years of... British marital comedy unfurls, parodied and purified so that any suggestion of sex survives in the form of poised witticisms and Algernon's obsession with cucumber sandwiches.

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Perhaps the best novel written about how the impregnable British class system stultified proletarian ambition and deadened the sensibilities of those atop, Howards End relates how the lives of three families — smug imperialists the Wilcoxes, the middle-class intellectual Schlegel sisters, and bank clerk Leonard Bast — intertwine, first comically, then tragically. The narrator’s intrusions are precious, but Forster, an old-fashioned and rather quaint liberal in the best sense, extends sympathy... to all his characters, making Howards End the perfect bridge between Dickens and Edith Wharton. (Its epigraph is the famous “Only connect — !”) When things get soppy, his wicked dialogue is a blessing. So is May’s spirited reading, which mimics the tremulous empathy of Margaret Schlegel herself.

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The father-daughter relationship was never examined with such merciless precision. When pretty gold-digger Morris Townsend courts dull, quiet, plain Catherine Sloper (whose greatest talent is that she "embroiders — neatly"), Henry James can't decide whether to sympathize with the pitiful creature or the suspicious, smug, ruthlessly intelligent father trying to protect the fortune he's ambivalent about bequeathing to her. In the end it's a draw, and while Catherine and Mr. Sloper... each have their own respective triumphs, they're worthless considering the resulting upheaval. There's a frosty grace in the novel's closing chapters, as James forces the reader to realize that introspection isn't so much a product of intelligence but a result of deep psychic pain. Lloyd James, sounding like an eager graduate student, reads.

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Thanks to Hermione Lee’s magisterial recent biography, the myth that Edith Wharton was merely a corseted Henry James (to paraphrase Oscar Wilde) is finally put to rest. For one, James never wrote a novel as savage as The House of Mirth, which indicts Old New York as a bastion of arrivistes obsessed with social mores that Europe itself was beginning to abandon. The story of Lily Bart doesn’t quite rise to the... level of tragedy; she’s too intelligent and beautiful to belong, but too naïve to understand the forces arrayed against her. But Wharton surrounds her with a gallery of monstrous dowagers, vapid heiresses, and effete suitors whose utility as a class is directly proportional to the importance Lily attaches to them. In this world of Newport vacations and Mediterranean yacht cruises, idleness is akin to terminal illness. Anna Fields’ reading chews eagerly on every one of Wharton’s pungent pensées.

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