I devoured The Crow Garden within a few days. In many ways, it was a delightfully indulgent read. Nathaniel Kerner, an aspiring “mad-doctor”, heads from London to Yorkshire to work at Crakethorne Asylum, meets its selection of suitably odd and tragic inmates, and becomes obsessed with a new patient, Vita Harleston—brought in by her husband after an attempt to run away from her life as the wife of a rich man. The consequences of Nathaniel’s obsession—the slipping of the characters into mesmerism and the dark corners of Victorian spirituality—are the meat of the book, and we are told the story almost entirely from his perspective. There’s a genuinely compelling quality to the narrative: a real spook-factor which made me want to finish it, to find out what was happening. But the book is also fully of missed opportunities and poor decisions. Here was the chance to comment upon the role of women in Victorian society, and upon the lives of those considered mad, from a contemporary perspective, using Nate as a kind of native informant; unfortunately, this did not happen. There are three key issues with the book: its manipulative quality; its unsuccessful attempt to reproduce Victorian literature; and its poor character development. I’ll deal with each of these, before moving on to why I kept reading, anyway.
My frustration with this book stems, I think, from its failure to really engage with any of the difficult issues it could have raised, instead finding it easier to launch—admittedly with an admirable quantity of blazing guns—into full-on penny-dreadful hysteria. The problems begin, I think, with the cover’s order: “Set a guard upon your soul – for you may find one day it is entirely lost.“
Don’t you tell me what to think, book.
My natural inclination is to rear away from such lazy manipulation in media: my rage-filled rants at Armageddon (1998) are entirely down to the fact that it makes me cry like a baby by pulling all the tricks in the well-worn book. I hate being manipulated to think, particularly to feel, a certain way by a set of narrative tricks which are blindingly obvious, because it suggests that the author considers me (and, by proxy, other readers) as stupid. The author of The Crow Garden does this throughout—almost painfully overtly.
Set primarily in Yorkshire and London, this story is full of your nineteenth-century stereotypes: a hopelessly romantic and particularly stupid protagonist; a main female lead by turns homely, imperious, and prone to manipulation (hooray for representation!); a creepy phrenologist; a grieving widow; and a host of ineffectual, characterless servants with heavy accents. Yorkshire is a dour grey wasteland, lacking in society and intelligence aside from the Londoners who venture up there to cure their mental woes. London is a strange phantasmagoria of fog and Egyptian Halls and prostitutes and mesmerism. I’m not sure you could have made it all any more trite by sticking Dick Van Dyke in there, if I’m honest. The novel throws all the stock images and tricks at you that melodrama can throw, and the result is a book in which every plot event or twist—significant or otherwise—is laid on with a trowel. It’s tedious.
One of the factors involved in this manipulative design is the book’s attempt to be a piece of Victorian literature. But there appears to have been a fundamental failure to understand what that means. There’s a distinction between what we think Victorian literature was and what Victorian literature actually was. Crucially, there’s a distinction between Victorian literature written in the Victorian period, and Victorian literature written today. The Crow Garden, in terms of its use of archaic language, and diaristic style, is a shallow mimicking of a Gothic horror in the vein of Dracula (1897). And it feels like a gimmick. Reading The Crow Garden is not like reading Dracula or The Moonstone (1868), or any other literature of the era it is apeing, because that is exactly what it is doing: apeing, not being.
The problem, I think, is simple copying of a style versus the generation of the affect that style (probably) provoked in its original readers. Let me illustrate this point by reference to “My Favourite Medieval Film is A Knight’s Tale” by Michael Livingston. Livingston—himself a medievalist—explains it thus:
… there is a truth of historical reality, and then there is a truth of historical relationship—a difference between knowing the actual physical feel of the past and the relative emotional feel of it. This is not to say that anything goes and facts are no longer facts. As I’ve noted before, that’s pretty much my idea of Hell. Rather, facts have contexts, and that context drives our emotional responses to the facts.
Because we don’t live in the fourteenth century, we don’t have the same context for a historically accurate jousting as a person would have had back then. A tournament back in the day was like the Super Bowl, but a wholly accurate representation of the event would not give us that same sense. Rather than pulling us into the moment, the full truth would push us out of it: rather than fostering the connection between the present and the past, it would have emphasized the separation.
Because we don’t live in the nineteenth century, we don’t have the same context for historically appropriate language. Or the novels written at the time, and the feelings they would have provoked. Language used at the time, and the literature of the time, generated a particular tone and mood that it does not now. We do not get the same effect reading it. What we get is a contemporary novel, dressed up in its great-grandma’s corset.
We can emphasize this further by pointing to another first-person perspective novel set in the Victorian era, Sarah Waters’s exemplary Tipping the Velvet (1998). This is a novel which speaks of the time, and with some of the language of the time, with a lightness of touch that lends it an authority. It is not accurate—indeed, it was never intended to be, as the author noted in a recent Guardian article celebrating the book’s twentieth anniversary. The protagonist, Nan, speaks with language appropriate to the time and place, though there is a fair share of poetic licence taken here, given that the world of the gay women’s underground that she is evoking has limited representation in historical sources, and also that the histories of colloquial phrases are so elusive. But she is not baroque, nor dramatic with language, as The Crow Garden’s characters are. It is this light authority, rather than the florid and forced style we find in The Crow Garden, which allows us to sympathise with Nan, and to vividly imagine her story, as if it were real, and as if she herself were truly telling it to us.
Nan King, the Oyster Girl turned Music Hall Star, turned rent-boy, turned ”tom” is about as far from Nate Kerner as it is possible to get. Nan: female, gay, honest about her (significant) flaws, and very human; Nate: male, heterosexist, deceptive even of himself, alienist. Whilst it is not necessary to like a first person narrator, it is necessary to be able to find a way of empathising with them, or living alongside them for the period of the novel. Nate is inconstant, illogical, and self-absorbed. Perhaps this was intended by the author to invoke the unreliable narrator; however, the technique simply makes Nate an empty vessel, there only to drive along the plot. You could read him as a holy fool, driven by a force he doesn’t fully understand to allow various narrative events to take place. That might give him too much credit.
The decisions he makes, and is allowed to make by society/his employers, are utterly inane. Without giving too much away, there were points when I was screaming at someone to stop him behaving in the way he was—his poor decisions drive the novel, but they have no logical basis whatsoever. None of it makes the blindest bit of sense. To argue that he is mesmerised is possible, but if that is the case, well, it’s a weak narrative trick. This failure is not merely of the type that insists “magic did it” or ”because science,” as can be found in lazy fantasy and science fiction; The Crow Garden is also wholly internally inconstant.
Nate Kerner’s narrative positioning and authority are also a constant source of frustration. The novel is in the first person, but we are nonetheless subjected to diaries and medical notes from that same narrator. This is an entirely unnecessary trick, to make the reader imagine that they are seeing something private, and showcases a lack of understanding about the role of the first person perspective. There isn’t even a discernible difference in tone or depth between the modes, and I cannot fathom what the purpose of them is. Secondly, there are moments which are, perhaps, intended to make the reader sympathise with Kerner, to make him more attuned to our sensibilities, such as when he casts doubt on, “the prevailing view that the tender sex was more prone to sickness of the mind” as “something I rather doubted” (p. 24); rather than making Kerner more progressive, however, instances such as this ring false in the context of his other, more conservative attitudes. It is as though the author were associating too much with her character, making it less possible for him to say anything that she herself would not. This foregrounds the fictional nature of the text almost as much as the case notes and letters, which, in my proof copy at least, are in a variety of faux-handwriting fonts (this, to be honest, is just the sugar-dusting on my frangipane of annoyance).
In the end, Nate ends up ... well. I’m not going to spoil the ending of his character arc for you, other than to say that it is utterly histrionic, and ultimately unbelievable. Vita, on the other hand, is … complicated. I want to argue that this book is attempting to move away from, or perhaps play with, the trope of the mentally ill woman as witch. But I’m truly not sure I can. Vita’s sanity is never proved or disproved, though she is treated throughout the book as definitively mad. Throughout, she lets herself be manipulated by men—until the very, very end, perhaps. She’s also an inconstant character, by turns demure and manipulative. Her desires are almost entirely impossible to interpret. She has no agency over herself, but is driven by her newly discovered, perhaps incipient, mesmeric abilities (read, magical powers). She is the mad-woman in the attic, in attitude if not in location. The crazy witch. And her entire life begins and ends with men.
All the women in the book, actually, revolve around their men. The nurses and housekeepers at Crakethorne revolve around phrenologist and head of the asylum, Dr Algernon Chettle. Mrs Kerner, Nate’s mother, revolves entirely around Nate, and mourns constantly for her lost husband. Her only other life activity is mesmerism. The only woman who does not revolve around men—who, indeed, actively rails against their often quite abusive activity—is Vita’s servant Peg, who frequently pulls out a flick knife to aid her mistress. She has a character, and an intelligence, as well as a solid sense of self outside of any reliance on other people, that we are never permitted to see. But she ends up ... poorly. That’s what you get for being your own person.
This is a book which does not represent either men or women in a good light, and neither does it represent them as the complex configurations of ambiguity that they actually are. It’s hard to forgive that. All of this notwithstanding, I kept reading. Why?
Fundamentally, because it was like eating baby food, or reading The Hobbit: a strange adventure, magic, bright colours, dramatic story arcs, spooks, silly characters that you can scream at. My critiques of this book have been rather extreme, in a sense, subjecting it to processes not made for it, and suggesting that it should have been something that it never set out to be. I continued to read, and, in many ways, enjoy The Crow Garden in spite of (and a little bit because of) these flaws. Because, ultimately, this book is a heavily romantic melodrama—not to be read slowly and mulled over at length, but enjoyed illicitly on lunchbreaks, on the Tube, late at night under the covers with a torch, with tea and biscuits. It is a book for those times when you don’t want to think; when you want to simply be swept up in a story, and enjoy the exaggeration of the language and characters as simple signifiers of tone, when you want a fantasy that, ultimately, means nothing.
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