Mrs. Sparsit’s Wet and Wild Adventure

December 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Hard Times, by Charles Dickens.

There’s a depth of emotion to the second half of the second book — the climax of the affair between Louisa and Harthouse — that is hard to locate, exactly.  The action is filtered through the nasty little eyes of peeping Mrs. Sparsit, until Louisa returns home and the emotion all spills out in the typical Dickensian fashion.  What Dickens seems to do in the chapters preceding this is work all of his emotion into the scenery and the metaphor.

In such a short book — and really, I’m beginning to near the end, and I feel like I’m just getting my bearings; I’m poorly calibrated for short Dickens — a chapter is spent on explaining “an idea in the nature of an allegorical fancy” that Mrs. Sparsit develops:

She erected in her mind a mighty Staircase, with a dark pit of shame and ruin at the bottom; and down those stairs, from day to day and hour to hour, she saw Louisa coming.

It became the business of Mrs. Sparsit’s life, to look up her staircase, and to watch Louisa coming down….

The eleventh chapter is remarkable in a number of ways.  Mrs. Sparsit tails Louisa to her tryst with Harthouse, and there is this remarkable transition from the industry and bustle of the railway journey to the country house to a garden to a dark wood:

All the journey, immovable in the air though never left behind; plain to the dark eyes of her mind, as the electric wires which ruled a colossal strip of music-paper out of the evening sky, were plain to the dark eyes of her body; Mrs. Sparsit saw her staircase, with the figure coming down.

(Amazing, that.  The plain thing, here, is an imaginary “immovable” staircase.  It is compared to the plainness of a fanciful staff on the night sky, made of electric wires.  Dickens gives the lie to Fact and Progress once again.)

An overcast September evening, just at nightfall, saw beneath its drooping eyelid Mrs. Sparsit slide out of her carriage, pass down the wooden steps of the little station into a stony road, cross it into a green lane, and become hidden in a summer-growth of leaves and branches.  One or two late birds sleepily chirping in their nests, and a bat heavily crossing and recrossing her, and the reek of her own tread in the thick dust that felt like velvet, were all Mrs. Sparsit heard or saw until she very softly closed a gate.

She went up to the house, keeping within the shrubbery, and went round it, peeping between the leaves at the lower windows.  Most of them were open, as they usually were in such warm weather, but there were no lights yet, and all was silent.  She tried the garden with no better effect.  She thought of the wood, and stole towards it, heedless of long grass and briers: of worms, snails, and slugs, and all the creeping things that be….

She sees their interlude “by the felled tree” and Louisa’s struggle, “in the whirl of her own gratified malice, in the dread of being discovered, in the rapidly increasing noise of heavy rain among the leaves, and a thunderstorm rolling up.”  I love how this mention of the thunderstorm also comes upon the reader unsuspected, swept up like Mrs. Sparsit in the suspense of Louisa’s wooing by Harthouse.

Mrs. Sparsit saw her out of the wood, and saw her enter the house.  What to do next?  It rained now, in a sheet of water.  Mrs. Sparsit’s white stockings were of many colours, green predominating; prickly things were in her shoes; caterpillars slung themselves, in hammocks of their own making, from various parts of her dress; rills ran from her bonnet, and her Roman nose.  In such condition, Mrs. Sparsit stood hidden in the density of the shrubbery, considering what next?

The whole scene is so astonishing, and rushes so headlong, that you can miss that it’s a parody.  Dusk in the fecund forest by a tree surely felled by lightning, with a lover, as the sublime power of a thunderstorm descends?  This is Romance.  But it’s Mrs. Sparsit we experience it with, and see its ridiculousness.  (The key, perhaps, is that absurd bat that keeps crossing her path, and the strange phrasing of its introduction.  It jarred me out of the scene on my first reading.)  The passion is real, for Louisa, and yet Dickens shows how the stage is set, how the eyes are watching (including ours), how it would be a huge mistake to trade a life for a moment.  It’s ingenious.  And it manages to indulge us with the image of a sopping wet Mrs. Sparsit, to boot.

Perhaps it’s because I recently saw the new Anna Karenina film adaptation (which is wonderful), but I kept thinking of Tolstoy’s novel during these Louisa-Harthouse chapters, and wondering if they were an influence on his conception of the affair between Anna and Vronsky.

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