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The Distant Lands
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B+ : an unusual Southern epic; ridiculous, in part, but with much to recommend it too
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The complete review's Review:
The central figure in The Distant Lands is Elizabeth Escridge. She has just turned sixteen when the novel opens with her arriving, along with her miserable mother, at the Georgia plantation of Dimwood in the spring of 1850. It's been a long trip, and it's a strange new place they've come to -- far from the Devonshire she grew up in. Elizabeth recently lost her father, and she and her mother were plunged into absolute poverty, leading a desperate Mrs. Escridge to reach out to wealthy relatives across the ocean; William Hargrove dutifully offered to take them in. It's no hardship for him:
I could just as well have sent her all the money she needed to live comfortably in England. I easily have the means to do so ... The riches of the South are inexhaustible.It might have been wiser to subsidize them in place, but Hargrove was apparently familiar enough with their situation -- and, specifically, Mrs. Escridge -- that he decided it was worth the trouble of shipping them over:
Oh, she would have managed to sort herself out more or less in London, but I was thinking in particular of the future of her little girl. I tremble at the idea of her being under the guardianship of that irresponsible woman.Mrs. Escridge is, indeed, both a horrible woman and mother -- barely having set foot in Dimwood before moaning to her daughter: "I shall never get used to this country and I feel so unhappy that I should like to be dead". Part of it is that she has been crushed by her fate: married to Sir Cyril Escridge, she was apparently used to being the grand dame -- but a cascade of terrible events (which are then only spelled out late in the novel, when it turns out they could mostly be readily remedied) and she was left not only widowed but also utterly destitute, reduced to the lowest of circumstances. Turning to her distant American relatives -- her husband's uncle -- was the only way out -- but, as she reminds her daughter, the price is a high one (at least for someone who is bothered by this sort of thing):
From now on everything will be given us out of charity. Tactfully, of course, but that doesn't change our position at all. Charity down to the last morsel of bread.Mrs. Escridge can barely face it: she immediately retreats to the room she's been assigned at Dimwood and won't even show up for the large family meals; she doses herself with laudanum, and moans to her daughter; within hours, she's ready to turn tail and head back where she came from -- vacillating only as to whether she wants Elizabeth to flee with her or whether the girl should stay.
Elizabeth seems a bit more open to the new experience, though her mood and attitude shift with typical adolescent fickleness. Dimwood may be in the sticks, but there's no question that it offers great comfort; Savannah isn't that far away -- and pretty much her every need is more than taken care of: if the blue hand-me-down dress she's given on her arrival to tide her over is a gesture that still makes her feel second-rate, she's soon treated to a Savannah-shopping-spree that is all heaped excess. As Aunt Laura notes about her father, the welcoming William Hargrove: "His generosity is without limit -- as far as money is concerned", while Charlie Jones, a former beau of Mrs. Escridge and now the leading banker in Savannah with whom Elizabeth and some of the Hargroves stay when in the city, is equally free with his (also vast amounts of) money.
Dimwood certainly lives up to its name: hot and sultry can be expected, but everything -- and especially the house -- is also so damn dark. With the shutters often closed and limited light falling anywhere in, Elizabeth often stumbles along unseeingly; often she is led by the hand. Typically, a significant tête-à-tête begins clearly enough only for her conversation partner to observe:
But night has fallen, Elizabeth, and we are talking in the dark. I can only see your shining hair.Dimwood is a dark, mysterious place -- complete with nearby woods that are more or less off-limits, (and also called 'the Wood of the Damned', as a helpful reminder); only William Hargrove and a Miss Llewelyn (known also as 'the lady in gray', who lives in the house, but also: "a little apart", taking her meals in her room) sometimes go into it -- "But they don't go that way very often". Of course, there's an air of dark mystery to the place too, as, soon enough, Elizabeth is certain that she sees more there between those forbidding and forbidden trees, as Green goes in for more than just a bit of Southern Gothic:
'But Aunt Laura, there are people in that wood, I can see them very clearly.'Dimwood, and the family, would seem to hold quite a few secrets, but this is not a place where one asks question. As one of the young grand-daughters of William Hargrove reminds Elizabeth:
Why ? Why ? That word is banned at Dimwood, Elizabeth. One should never ask questions.Though Elizabeth sort of tries to adapt -- bucking all the while; it's her nature -- this particular lesson is not one that really sinks in (and not the only one ...), so that even months later she is reminded, yet again:
"Why" is a word one should use with care, Miss Escridge.It would seem to be taking discretion a bit far -- especially when there is so much piquing curiosity. Dark hints are frequently dropped, but little revealed -- Miss Llewelyn ominously mentioning to Elizabeth: "I know of things that I oughtn't know about everybody, about Dimwood, and about what happened over there ...", and with even Mrs. Escridge warning her daughter:
Be on your guard against William Hargrove. He is a cruel man. Your father told me some terrible things. In Haiti ... But never mind about that. I only wrote to him because he was under an obligation to come to my aid. I knew too much, you see ?Knowing too much is definitely not Elizabeth's problem -- she is long kept in the dark. Yes, that's a big and not very subtle theme running through The Distant Lands -- with Elizabeth also cautious in that respect, realizing (if not yet in all its ramifications) that: "Talking was dangerous". When she briefly escapes from the plantation shortly after her arrival, for that visit to Savannah, Charlie Jones offers her advice shortly before her departure back:
At Dimwood, you'll do well to let them talk without getting too caught up in the discussions. People talk too much in the South.Of course, in Elizabeth's case much of what she (over)hears are only half-bits of information; unfamiliar with local history and politics it is especially the tensions between the free North and slave-holding South that often come up -- only for many of the locals to try to dismiss them, or not take them too seriously. Even the very friendly William Hargrove -- he displays none of that cruelty Elizabeth's mother warned of -- couldn't help but add as he welcomed Elizabeth with genuine warmth and open arms:
You and your mother are part of the family here. My only regret is that you arrived at a time when things are going badly and likely to get worse.Only much later does he make explicit what specifically weighed on him then -- the death of a US senator (and former vice-president) he had high hopes in: "When you arrived here, Elizabeth, [John C.] Calhoun had just died a few days previously, on the 31st of March". To Hargrove: "Calhoun was the South" -- and one of the major events of the time, California becoming a state, was now not going the South's way; the handling of the issue made for a respite -- "We can count on ten years of peace", one of Hargrove's sons presciently estimates -- but no resolution of the fundamental issue separating the slave-holding states and those that were not.
Elizabeth is uncomfortable about the practice of slavery, but the Hargroves see it as a necessity; confronted by her about the practice they righteously insist: "you will never oppose it as much as all of us who hate it" while still insisting there is simply no other way, as it can't be done away with "without ruining the country". They are, to the extent (they see) possible, 'decent' masters, and insist on their slaves being treated well. William Hargrove is no stern master -- and has no patience or respect for those plantation owners who do wield the whip --, and even allows his slaves to flee, if they want; an often trotted out story is of the one slave who did run away to the North but then returned to the fold.
Still, slave-holding does make for a tension always in the air, and Elizabeth is repeatedly warned to be kind to the slaves: clearly there's also some fear of them, and what they might do, and the family is very careful about what is discussed in their hearing, with politics very much off-limits, in case they get uppity, or any ideas ..... Some Hargrove family history, of their experiences in the West Indies, also seems to lurk in their worried minds. As Charlie Jones reminds one of William Hargrove's sons:
'You are haunted by the memory of San Domingo, Josh.'Yes, Elizabeth hears odds and ends about the political situation and problems, but not too much seems to sink in. As she admits on yet another occasion: "I just feel a bit lost in all your discussion". She doesn't so much have other concerns as drifts off in her still adolescent mind, dreaming hazy dreams of love and the like. (Among her characteristics is a failure to listen; there are numerous scenes of people speaking to and around her, and her barely registering a thing.)
One dark shadow looming over Dimwood is the neighboring Armstrong family, who live at Old Creek. They used to own Dimwood, but sold it to William Hargrove in 1827 when he arrived here after making his fortune in the West Indies; old man Armstrong had freed his slaves, and the family had gone into a downward spiral since then, with all sorts of tragedies, leaving now the good-for-nothing young Jonathan in charge -- "a man devoid of all moral sense", as Elizabeth is warned. The Armstrongs continue to sell bits of their land to Hargrove, when they're in need of some cash -- but Dimwood itself was only 'sold' "for a period of twenty-five years. It was the old English custom that was still in use here in 1827. That means in 1852 ..." -- well, things might get rather upended at Dimwood. (The property did not, in fact, change ownership, with the Hargroves only having a twenty-five-year tenancy -- that is soon coming to an end.) While Hargrove can't imagine that Jonathan will really want the diminished Dimwood -- missing all those surrounding pieces that Hargrove had been buying up over the last years --, this is clearly a big problem. (Elizabeth, when she learns of it, is unconcerned, reasoning, quite reasonably, that if things go south she can just decamp to Charlie Jones' in Savannah, where she is always welcomed with open arms -- as in fact she will, before all too long.) The novel proper -- short of the short epilogue, which jumps more than three years ahead -- concludes with events in and around Dimwood, after the narrative (and Elizabeth) had long moved away from it, just a few months shy of the end of the tenancy; there is a change of ownership, but the actual resolution is both surprising and a bit anticlimactic.
Hardly settled in at Dimwood, Elizabeth is taken shopping in Savannah, and introduced to Charlie Jones there, who already lets her know that he would be happy to take her under his wing (and, indeed, would have been glad to serve as benefactor for mother (whom he once courted, and apparently still has a soft spot for) and daughter, in the stead of William Hargrove, recognizing that this would have been better for all concerned). Typically for the general discretion, Elizabeth only learns near the end of her stay that he is a widower -- and that he has a son, off just then at university. Elizabeth is introduced to local society, too -- though most of this passes her by in a blur. She does manage, however, to immediately attract suitors like flies, the bespectacled young architect Francis Brooks professing his love, as does a hotheaded Philip Hudson -- culminating quickly in an early-morning duel, a still-popular local practice regarding such nonsense as questions of so-called honor. (This duel, cleverly manipulated by an older, wiser man who quite successfully tries to make the best of it foreshadows the novel's grand finale -- another confrontation which doesn't go down nearly as well. That dueling is still tolerated here is clearly meant to show the particular failure of Southern society; so too, even the most sensible of William Hargrove's grandsons, who senses what is coming as far as the much larger political picture goes, understands the terms the inevitable confrontation should be phrased in, summing up the South's strength (intemperate passion) and weakness (ditto): "'A duel,' thought Fred. 'A duel with the North, that will be our war".)
Charlie Jones had taken Francis under his wing, supporting the young man from poor circumstances -- the main reason, it would seem, Hudson takes offense. Francis works at the building Charlie is having built, a "Tudor folly" which serves to illustrate just how ridiculously wealthy these folks are: Charlie actually has the bricks for the building shipped from England -- and not only that:
The journey is long, but the contents of the crates are priceless in my eyes. Each one of these bricks arrives wrapped in several layers of tissue paper.Class and standing matter oh so much here, and families are rated by their pedigree. The Hargroves move in the circles of the local artificial aristocracies, whose attitude is best summed up by one exchange of some visitors to a ball at Dimwood:
'Work ! What are you thinking of ? To work is to lose one's rank.'Jonathan Armstrong seems to have no interest in debasing himself through work, and he certainly has the right name -- impoverished though the family is, that pedigree still means a lot. When he appears on the scene, Elizabeth is quickly smitten; soon enough she is passionately in love. But everyone warns her away from him -- and also notes that he is devoted to another; Miss Llewelyn warns her that: "He's heartless. You won't hold on to him". (Of course, that's not the way to warn Elizabeth off, making it sound more like a challenge: so, of course, Elizabeth responds: "We shall see, Miss Llewelyn".)
While Jonathan flirts some with Elizabeth -- though she gets barely more than a glimpse of him --, giving her hope, he is apparently completely devoted to 'the lady in white', yet another of the mysterious figures floating around, barely seen. The mystery figure is apparently a great beauty -- "'Extremely beautiful, yes,' said Aunt Laura" (who, it turns out, should know ...) -- but elusive. As Aunt Laura tells Elizabeth
You would like her if you could see her. One can't help it, but it's difficult to get to her.But she's captured Jonathan, and his heart -- and for a purpose. Charlie Jones explains to Elizabeth what Aunt Laura couldn't bring herself to, that the woman -- Annabel Darnley -- was extremely wealthy, but lacked the social standing that she desperately longed for; Jonathan, and his family-name, are what might get her across this threshold. She is, in fact, not lower-class -- as Charlie explains: "She's not of low estate, she's a lady. That's another story" -- but she is a fallen woman. If work is generally frowned upon by the Southern pseudo-aristocracy, then Annabel's path is even more shocking: she was an actual working woman, a prostitute. Sure: "For two years or more, she has not exercised her ... profession", but it's kind of hard to get people to forget or overlook that. Regardless, even as Elizabeth is pining for this man she barely knows -- "I want that man", she makes clear, and even lets herself be drawn into a mystic ritual in the Wood of the Damned ("Give me Jonathan", she makes her wish --though adding: "But spare the lady in white, do not harm her") -- Jonathan and Annabel get hitched. This, of course, complicates Elizabeth's hopes .....
Jonathan and Annabel each get what they want, but it may be a devil's bargain: For him:
He must understand now that in selling her his great name, he has at the same time sold his person and his freedom. She has bought him.As for her, the entrée to the world she believes she belongs in does not materialize as she had hoped; Southern society neither forgives nor forgets. Complicating matters is Elizabeth, who in fact has turned Jonathan's head. If he lusts after Annabel with a grand passion, he nevertheless also falls for Elizabeth -- albeit in quite a different way. As is explained to Elizabeth:
He loves you with quite a different love, one which is quite imperious. How can I get you to understand ? You're kind of an ideal for him.As Annabel tries to explain to Elizabeth, hoping to ward of disaster: "Desire is not love. You have no idea what desire is". Annabel recognizes -- about herself, and about Elizabeth -- what Elizabeth can not yet understand:
I should have liked to have been in love, just once, to see what it is like. I have never been able to inspire love in the way you do. But it's always the same story: there was no love, there was only desire. I am made for desire.Green nicely highlights this: Elizabeth is still an innocent, but has romantic notions -- but the physical is missing. Men are drawn to her, but she can't elicit raw passion -- as she herself eventually comes to realize: "'I attract people,' she thought, 'and that's all'". (This magnetic quality extends to the younger generation at Dimwood -- many of the girls -- and even various of the slaves: she exerts an easy, effortless pull over them, and they are devoted to Elizabeth, despite her often callous and careless behavior towards them.) It's not sex-appeal, however; indeed, the physical seems to remain a foreign world, almost beyond her. And it proves to be a failing. Her own character then gets in the way of her possible happiness. Miss Llewelyn points out that the young Hargrove boys -- sensible Fred, "already his own man", and troublemaker Billy (the ultimate "uncomplicated soul") both have their eye on her -- and suggests Fred would be an appropriate match, but Elizabeth won't hear of it: "he'll never be Jonathan". (Miss Llewelyn also wisely observes that: "Billy would be impossible as a husband" -- words to remember come the second volume in the trilogy, The Stars of the South.)
Elizabeth does exert power over men, though she barely registers much of it -- and especially not the consequences. That two men are ready to duel over her after only a brief glimpse of her, as happened just after her arrival, doesn't make nearly as much of an impact as one might expect. Problematically, old man William Hargrove also found himself bowled over by her; he shows enough self-restraint to avoid too much embarrassment, but it proves to be one too many problems to handle at Dimwood, and a major reason why it's agreed, after only a few months, that "the little golden-haired nightmare" Elizabeth should be consigned to Charlie Jones' care.
Charlie Jones is both kind and generous; when he marries again he's even happier than before -- "he looks pleased with everything. What's the matter with him ?" Elizabeth asks (with typical bluntness). One of the Hargrove boys explains:
The matter with him is that he's married to a woman he adores. The soul is happy because the body is calm.Elizabeth doesn't quite get what he's getting at, but, yes, the suggestion is that Charlie Jones is in a better state of mind because he's finally getting some sexual release again. That wife Amelia is a devout woman without too much of a mind of her own helps (though she does come with some baggage of her own: a spinster sister who was denied her great love, as well as a full-blown family feud (with another sister) that is hard to overlook when the enemy has a property next door, the aptly called 'House of Chaos'). In giving marital advice to son Ned, when the time comes, Charlie Jones explains the secret to their happiness, which he sees as stemming from the fact that: "Amelia has never really experienced pleasure, what we understand as pleasure" -- which he sees not just as a positive but as essential: "That's where her wonderful, almost Olympian composure comes from". Yes, he tells his son: "It's preferable for it to be that way with women" -- and passes on his bedroom tips:
'Listen carefully to what I am going to say, and remember this,' said Charlie Jones. 'When you are with her, at certain times ... are you with me ?'As someone notes about the Joness:
A Jones ! If you want children, he'll give them to you, but that's all. The men in that family are well known for being placid.Green harps a lot about this separation between the spiritual and the physical. The Distant Lands is full of women who are spinsters -- often near-outcasts (of their own volition and not), mostly on their own. Amelia's older sister was disappointed in love for a ridiculous reason, but has never moved beyond it; Aunt Lara winds up in a convent. These women recognize what happened to Elizabeth regarding Jonathan -- and all warn her about pursuing it, since it can only lead to tragedy and misery (spoiler: it does):
You fell in love with a handsome face, a fearful trap. If there were only the face -- the face and the soul -- but there's all the rest that I can't talk to you about, for, thanks be to God, I have no knowledge of it.Yet if many of these women managed to avoid the temptations of the flesh, Elizabeth is, at least in this regard, a bit more daring. The problem is that the men, too, have similarly limited notions; so too Jonathan -- who, married and even an ocean away, has Elizabeth on his mind while realizing that his wife isn't quite the woman he had hoped she might be:
She is a vampire. Whereas you are all soul, she is all flesh.As it turns out, there's some flesh to Elizabeth too, some yearning that goes beyond the spiritual. She gets married -- but is disappointed not to get the expected physical satisfactions out of that, despite the frequent sex. That's on him, mainly, it seems; regardless, it's a definite letdown, Elizabeth finding:
Marriage changed everything, killing dreams.Long away from Dimwood, and long away from Jonathan, Elizabeth can't forget either. The Jones households, in Savannah and then Virginia, are perfectly nice places, but Elizabeth is hard to please. She remains ever fickle -- acting rashly, then quickly trying to retreat. She rarely takes pleasure in simply being somewhere: almost as soon as she arrives some place, she would rather be elsewhere. She mostly tempers the melodrama in public -- it's only the horse she confesses to: "I'm going out of my mind, Alcibiades, I'm madly in love with someone far away from here, and I want to die" -- but, honestly, it's surprising how much those around her put up with. Green even has to admit that he's playing with a peculiar, shallow, and in some ways inadequate (for his, and his story's purposes) character:
(H)er behavior was becoming like an indecipherable story in some book written by a madman. She simply could not understand herself. She was in love with one man and, all of a sudden, another comes along. Could one be in love with two men at the same time ?Elizabeth certainly lacks experience; she also doesn't learn from it. Above all, she doesn't take advice -- not well. (Sometimes she takes some of the advice she's given but not all of it, leading to even more disastrous results.)
The Distant Lands is a bit silly in regards to portentous warnings and prophecies and predictions -- yes, there's even some tarot card-laying ..... (Of course, The Distant Lands is rather silly in almost countless ways .....) These figure rather prominently -- a device used too often, too, to diminishing effectiveness. So too, then, there is, of course, one final warning -- Aunt Lara reaching out to Elizabeth, from the convent, with: "very grave premonitions". Aunt Lara begs her not to visit Dimwood, as she is planning to do -- but Elizabeth won't let herself be scared off. (You'd think with all these previous warnings she would have learned to pay maybe a bit more attention, but no .....) Naturally, tragedy strikes -- but, hey, at least in one fell swoop Elizabeth's man-problems are settled once and for all.
The Distant Lands is a big, long book that wends strangely along, much of it all Southern languor: not just: "At Dimwood, time went by with a slowness that might lead one to believe that some clever mechanism held back the working of the clocks". The clouds of politics and history loom large over parts, and then dissipate elsewhere -- though the diagnosis that: "The North is changing and modernizing. The South isn't shifting" is one that applies to the (set-entirely-in-the-South-)novel as well. Green goes on some odd tangents -- Charlie Jones' mystery Chinese immigrants-plan is one nice example -- but often doesn't go far enough with them, and even major characters either recede for long periods or simply disappear -- so also almost all of Dimwood, for much of the novel; so also Elizabeth's mother long disappears from the scene -- though she does show up again, remade as ... yes, 'Lady Fidgety'.
A major episode early on is the first ball held in Dimwood after Elizabeth arrived stateside. It's not quite as dramatic as the one in Savannah that ended in a duel, but does have the Hargrove's forcing clingy Susanna -- one of William's grand-daughters, and, like Elizabeth, only sixteen at the time -- to accept an offer of marriage, blinded by the fact that the man asking for her hand makes: "The best match in the whole of Georgia ! [...] It was beyond our hopes". If Elizabeth doesn't quite know how to handle men, she at least has a vague understanding of such attractions, but poor Susanna is in completely over her head -- fortunately then also acting it, which finally brings the family back to its senses. But it's only an episode, and once away from Dimwood Elizabeth, and the story, are essentially uninvolved in almost all the happenings there, beyond a few stray bits of news (such as that Fred has gone off and joined the cavalry, certain of the coming war).
Late in the novel, a character observes:
'Anything can happen, even the improbable !' he exclaimed joyfully.And so it does, often, in The Distant Lands, making for an uneven, even somewhat messy story -- strangely drawn out, with longueurs and quick side-trips and so much also left unmentioned and unaddressed. Ultimately, it is not really meant to be a novel of action -- though there actually is some good action along the way -- and ultimately, too, it is very much Elizabeth's story, limited to and around her. So also there's something to it when she senses:
Nothing was real, everything was concealed behind appearances. What mattered was going on inside herself.But part of the problem with such reliance on this character is that Elizabeth is such an odd little duck. Green gets much about adolescent fickleness and ingenuousness right, and it helps that Elizabeth often speaks her mind (often without really thinking); still, it's hard to see what all the men see in her, or at least why they are constantly so immediately forgiving. But Green tries to have it both ways, too; among the advice Aunt Laura gives her is:
Finally, Elizabeth, try not to behave like some foolish creature in a novel. We are in the nineteenth century.But Green of course can't resist. And, in part, the reader has to be grateful: it may well be that The Distant Lands is ultimately only made bearable by not only going but actively embracing going over the top. Even as he seems or tries to be so serious so often. It is an admittedly strange mix, but it's also what makes the book a surprisingly compelling read.
As Green also shows in his very short epilogue, from several years down the road, he does have command over most of the writerly tricks: the closing scene here is as effective as any in the most spine-tingling of horror novels, not so much a surprise as a beautifully framed revelation, a brilliant thunder-clap of a finale.
The Distant Lands is a strange novel, filled with characters more or less literally coming out of the shadows and then often receding past any vanishing point, a strange mix of briefly so attentively used characters that are then cast aside for long stretches (or forever); only occasionally do we even learn the fates of many of them (and then not even necessarily the most prominent of them: among the few whose stories are nicely tied up is that of the duelist Philip Hudson). Only Charlie Jones comes close to being a full-fledged presence in the novel as a whole, while Green seems to long have difficulty even deciding exactly what he wants of Elizabeth.
This is a novel full of to and fro, and actually rather limited action, but it's still a captivating read. It's an odd mix of modern and classical novel, Green certainly not quite successfully having made the transition to modern times: he apparently set out on writing it in the 1930s but only returned to and completed it in the 1980s, and it's almost impossible to believe it is a novel that is so recent.
It should also be noted that The Distant Lands is the first in the trilogy, and so much that had been left out or sidelined for the time being can be expected to come to the fore in the following volumes (including, regrettably, Billy); certainly, the final revelation makes for, if not a cliffhanger, certainly a circumstance that will have intriguing ramifications in the future.
The Distant Lands can hardly be endorsed wholeheartedly, or even recommended without considerable caution, but there's quite a lot to it, and quite a lot that makes it worthwhile. It is a reading experience, in ways that far too little fiction nowadays is; at nine hundred sometimes long pages, it can also be quite a haul.
- M.A.Orthofer, 12 May 2020
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French-writing American author Julien (also: Julian) Green lived 1900 to 1998.
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