Monday, September 30, 2013

Book 134, Isle of Man: "The Manxman" by Hall Caine

UEA’s library isn’t quite as voluminous as some I’ve seen, but it does contain some nice surprises. I was originally planning to read some book of folklore for the Isle of Man (which is actually classified as a separate entity from the UK). While searching the catalogue, I also happened to come across a biography of an eminent Victorian named Hall Caine – a bestselling author and playwright, a companion of Dante Gabriel Rosetti, and a proud Manxman.

Once a recognizable face on both sides of the Atlantic, Caine is largely forgotten today. This online biography suggests that his greatest work was The Scapegoat, but the library offered me a copy of The Manxman instead: 29th edition, printed in the 1920s. Sadly, I dropped it - the librarians will have some gumming together of spines to do after this – and resorted to reading an online edition for the remainder of the week.

But heavens, this is good stuff. It’s fundamentally the tale of a love triangle: simple Pete, his smart half-cousin Philip, and the fair Kate. But the story follows them from birth to childhood to adolescence to tumultuous adulthood, their drama playing out against the charming backdrop of Sulby, a coastal village alive with superstition and fishermen’s rebellions and Christian extremism and ridiculous codes of honour – Philip and Pete, for instance, are both the grandsons of the old Deemster, a high-born judge in his castle, but the father of the first was disowned when he married a common-born girl and the second was the fruit of an affair with his mother paid off in cash for her shame. There’s this stupid, stupid taboo against marrying below or above your station – it’s something a gentleman simply cannot do if he wants to continue receiving the respect of the tiny island community.

But I suppose it’s character that really drives the tale. Philip's a social climber, guilt-tripped by the memory of his late father whose ambitions were ruined by his love for his lower-class, equipped with the intelligence and the personality for a rising career in law and politics, ultimately becoming a Deemster, or a judge for the island. He falls in love with Kate, who used to be Pete's sweetheart, before Pete set off for the diamond mines of Kimberley for five years, so he could earn a fortune worthy of her hand. The guilt of this tortures him utterly - and it tortures Kate too. Meanwhile, Pete's just the most big-hearted, loving man possible, unaware that his every forgiveness of Kate and his kindness to Philip just tortures them further.

Basically, this is a story of adultery in which everyone involved is actually a good person - sure, they do terrible things sometimes, but they feel horribly guilty about it (mind you, they're the sort of folks who feel guilty even when they do good). And it works. We're thrust into the minds of all three protagonists, and we struggle with them, feeling for them. (Me particularly: I'm in a weird halfway state in my relationship to a very good person, and I'm not sure where how it's all going to end up.)

But there's also a huge level of absurdity to the characters' quandaries - their values, their conceptions of sin that outweigh any considerations of social achievement, are very un-Asian (or perhaps un-21st century, or simply unworldly). It's a little mad, how a successful young man with a rising career, a credit to his race, et cetera, should be in agony over the thought of marrying a "fallen woman" - or indeed, that any woman should consider herself fallen at all.

Messy thoughts today. Also on my mind is the fleetingness of Caine's fame - he peddled his exotic status as the "Bard of Manxland" in a manner that presages the workings of "world literature" as a contemporary genre, but because he was only a geographical minority, not a racial of gender one, he's fallen quite out of the Canon. Plus, his irrelevance to my current course: it'd be unwise for me to emulate his maudlin histrionics, no matter how effective they may still be.

Plenty more reading for me to do for school. If, however, you'd like to spend just a couple of hours with the story, you could check out the film version, directed by no less than Alfred Hitchcock!

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Representative quote:
That night Philip dreamt a dream. He was sitting on a dais with a wooden canopy above him, the English coat of arms behind, and a great book in front; his hands shook as he turned the leaves; he felt his leg hang heavily; people bowed low to him, and dropped their voices in his presence; he was the Deemster, and he was old. A young woman stood in the dock, dripping water from her hair, and she had covered her face with her hands. In the witness-box a young man was standing, and his head was down. The man had delivered the woman to dishonour; she had attempted her life in her shame and her despair. And looking on the man, the Deemster thought he spoke in a stern voice, saying, "Witness, I am compelled to punish her, but oh to heaven that I could punish you in her place! What have you to say for yourself?" "I have nothing to say for myself," the young man answered, and he lifted his head and the old Deemster saw his face. Then Philip awoke with a smothered scream, for the young man's face had been his own.

Next book: Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows's The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, from Guernsey.

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