I postponed the boat Glasgowward to two-thirds through the month and made it up a tier from three to four without arrest, though I intelligently left a Kindle on the Megabus as evidence of my transit (recovered a week later after reporting through official channels).
Arriving in a frozen metropolis glazed with a fine white crust, I dived into that most famous of Glasgow novelists, Alasdair Gray’s book, Poor Things.
It is the fourth of his works that I have read following Lanark, Janine and Unlikely Stories, Mostly. Although future dystopias featured in Lanark (as well as the immediate past) and Unlikely Stories contained an extensive and entertaining 17th century pastiche (a period I am very interested in), I had not yet seen him tackle a past quite alien from our own time and yet so much a cause of the disaster/triumph of the 20th century.
Yes, Poor Things tackles the Victorian era – a time universally shunned by modernists as encapsulating everything wrong with society as they say it. Specifically, Gray’s book concerns the late Victorian Age – the full bloom of the British Empire whose dizzying success seemed to threaten to decay into decadence at any moment. It’s a novel about the professional class of that time, primarily, in the second city of Empire – Glasgow. Medical doctors on the one hand and a crazy middle section by a slowly maddening lovestruck solicitor on the other.
Presented as an edited amalgam of a memoir, collection of letters and historical biography, the book’s contradictory accounts follow in the tradition of James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Its central trio of characters, augmented by Duncan Wedderburn, the aforementioned lawyer, all bring conflicting perspectives to the tale, none of which can be dismissed outright or considered definitive and they frequently rebut and invalidate each other in particulars. All of their biographies are undermined by each other or the Editor and yet the cast is comprised of distinctive, sympathetic and complementary figures that make the story emotionally rich as well as just plain weird.
Archie McCandless is in many ways a typical Gray hero (if such a thing exists). He is proud of his humble beginnings, modest but romantic in a contained, mostly socially acceptable way. It is the bizarre experiences of his life that lead him to become an eccentric recluse, scribbling unpublishable fiction in his later years.
Wedderburn is also Gray, only screwed up to 11. Again, he is changed irrevocably by his encounter with the novel’s antagonist (if not villain), Bella Baxter, for whom the online magazine Bella Caledonia is named. His comparisons with Faust in order to understand what is happening to him might have been useful to me when I was writing my essay on Janine in my third year. For me though, it is his theological ravings that provide the funniest parts of the book.
Although Gray’s typographical experiments are not as extreme as in Janine, the strangest part of the novel is Bella and the account she gives of her Grand Tour elopement with Wedderburn. She and Godwin Baxter (more of a father than a husband) are the paranormal, Gothic heart of the tale. Like Frankenstein’s Creature Bella is created not begotten (according to McCandless) and like said Creature, is also surprisingly eloquent following near-total amnesia. Unlike the Creature, however, she has no trouble finding a mate and is an irresistibly beautiful alpha-female. Instead of parroting Miltonic phraseology, Bella begins in blank verse. Whereas the Creature is banished to the ends of the earth after his plan to resettle in the South American jungles falls through, Bella does a world tour before eventually deciding that Glasgow suits her best. Much like the eponymous Lanark of Gray’s first novel, she occasionally wonders what she was like before she was brought to life in media res and given a new name but doesn’t dwell on this.
This all changes when the Coriolanus-like figure of General Blessington comes to reclaim her as his bride. He is one of Gray’s most horrible villains but, amusingly, McCandless is bound to respect him even so because he is a Liberal MP.
Gray’s epilogue really interests me. It’s a blend of research authenticating the historical sources of the novel, and part of the novel itself, weaving real events with the later biography of the re-christened Victoria (formerly Bella).
As much as it used to be a filmic cliché to end a turn-of-the-millennium story with 9/11, there is something overdone about finishing with the outbreak of the First World War. It doesn’t quite end there though; there is a coda. A coda about the interwar Scottish left that features an invented correspondence and personal acquaintance with Hugh MacDiarmid, whom Bella/Victoria calls ‘Chris’.
Dying at the close of 1945, she is content that Britain is heading for socialism, decolonisation and the end of misery. The book seems to ask, should we share in her optimism knowing what we know now?
Bella’s late-Victorian Fabianism is utterly unprepared for the mainstream labour movement’s betrayal of international solidarity at the outbreak of the war, but it is difficult to conclude that Gray wants us to throw out her world-changing enthusiasm as naïve entirely. Likewise, across Gray’s oeuvre there is praise for the post-war settlement i.e., welfarism and republics versus monarchical empires.
Yet, there is definitely an ambivalence about Bella’s state of peace at the end of the novel; only her minimal goals of public health provision have been promised. Free love and good pay for honest work seem distant dreams, crushed into the ground by realists and ostensible radicals alike. Like her literary heroes, H.G. Wells and D.H. Lawrence, she is considered a crazy eccentric in the 20th century. Technological optimism and desire for sexual freedom in its fullest sense (beyond mere genital liberty) seem absurd dispositions in an irredeemably callous world.
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