09 April 2012

It Turns Out That Frances Hodgson Burnett Actually Knows How to Write

Google eBook, 564 pages
Published 1916 (originally 1883)

Read March 2012
Through One Administration
by Frances Hodgson Burnett

After Burnett's first three novels, especially Haworth's and That Lass o' Lowrie's, I was about to give up on her as one of the worst writers to ever pick up a pen. (I read The Secret Garden a couple years ago, it wasn't much cop, either.) But then, Through One Administration came along and completely changed all of that. Somewhere, somehow, Burnett didn't just learn how to write, but how to write very well. While her early novels are mostly dialogue and sketchy characterization, Through One Administration dives deeply into the psyches of its characters in a way that reminds one of George Eliot. There's a genuine attempt to understand why people behave and act the way that they do that is completely lacking from Burnett's first few novels.

Through One Administration is set, largely, in Washington, D.C., during the administration of one president (well, duh), following a group of characters acquainted with Bertha, the beautiful daughter of an entomologist, now married to a lawyer. (One assumes that "Bertha" was a much sexier name to our ancestors than it is to us.) The protagonist is Colonel Philip Tredennis, who knew her when both were young, but comes to D.C. to accept a political post after fighting Indians to find her married-- only she's not in love with the man she married. Tredennis and Bertha's struggle to figure out what to do in such a context makes up the main plot of the novel, such as it is.

The best section of the book is definitely the part when Bertha has taken her children to the Virginia countryside when they fall ill, and her husband can't be reached, so Tredennis goes and helps her. They are never physically intimate, but they are emotionally intimate, and Burnett ably makes this section extra-melancholy by telling it all in retrospective; almost as soon as Tredennis arrives, we are told that he left, but then she jumps back and fills in what happened between the two of them while they were there, so you spend the whole time knowing this idyllic moment of happiness is going to be a brief one.

Tredennis is an awesome character, a man apparently not attractive, and not very loud, but forthright, and very honest. My favorite Tredennis moment comes when he is talking to Bertha's father ("the professor") about Arbuthnot, another man who is in love with Bertha:
"'This Arbuthnot,'" interposed the professor, with a smile. "It is curious enough to hear you entering upon a defence of 'this Arbuthnot.' You don't like him, Philip. You don't like him."

"I don't like myself," said Tredennis, "when I am compared with him; and I don't like the tendency I discover in myself, the tendency to disparage him. I should like to be fair to him, and I find it difficult."

"Upon my word," said the professor, "it is rather fine of you to make the effort, but" --giving him one of the old admiring looks-- "you are always rather fine, Philip."

"It would be finer, sir," said Tredennis, coloring, "if it were not an effort."

"No," said the professor, quietly, "it would not be half so fine."
I think that's incredibly perceptive look into the mind of a person who finds it very hard to live up to his own moral standards. That someone's dislike of someone else would be intensified by not liking himself for disliking the other person is very touching. And if the professor is right, then the whole exchange is rather reassuring. I've read this page over a few times since reading it the first time, and I continue to be impressed by its complexity. (This discussion is probably revealing more about me than Through One Administration, but I guess that's literature for you.)

Speaking of the professor, he's a pretty awesome guy, too. I read Through One Administration at the same time as Gaskell's Wives and Daughters, and like that novel, this one has a rare positioning of the scientist's powers of observation as positive. The professor views his daughter like one of the insects he chloroforms, pins, and studies... and that's a good thing! Watching her so acutely means that he understands her in a way that few others do, and indeed, he's the moral center of the novel. When he approves of a character, we know that we are meant to, too.

Also, Bertha herself is a very interesting question. Through One Administration is very conscious about the fact that women are looked at, and Bertha herself-- thanks to her father's scientific training?-- is conscious of this herself, and uses it utterly. I was reading an 1885 overview of Burnett's career from Time written by a Clementia Black that explains this book's stance better than I could myself, which says that Burnett "keeps present the sense that the enclosure [of society] is artificial, and that only artificial natures (if the expression may be allowed) can move freely in it. And she lets us forget that there are, below the surface smoothness, such things as sincere feelings running in a straight channel without pause or divergence, and that in a nature of any value, there are such elements as struggle and self-conquest" (82). This is an excellent summation of the major trend of the novel, revealing that even facile people have some level of depth; you just have to know where to look. We learn this of Bertha, Arbuthnot, and others, even learning that it often takes a lot of work to be as facile as those people seem. The world is artificial, and so we must be artificial to succeed in it.

It's not all amazing-- the third quarter of the novel is surprisingly incident-free-- but on the whole Through One Administration is an incredible achievement in character-depth and melancholy. As Black says, "We are left at the end with a feeling of sad and irredeemable complexity, and a conviction, such as real life often enough brings up, that a knot so manifold as this is beyond all human untying, and that Death's is the only sword strong enough to cut it" (84). Certainly the best Burnett that I've read, and I can't believe that it's not more widely read; there's not a single modern reprint that I'm aware of. In the annals of nineteenth-century fiction, this deserves to be a minor classic.

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