Angelica, by Arthur Phillips

This is a puzzling novel from 2007. And deliberately so. It is billed as a ghost story, and it certainly is. And usually I do not like ghost stories. But as I began this work, I had to admit at how enjoyable it was. Even though it also had a suggestion of horror, which I like still less. But I realized I was enjoying this novel because it is so beautifully written. And it was also a family story, which I also relate to, a story of the tension between Constance and Joseph Barton, as well as between each of them and their daughter of four, Angelica.

Their story unfolds in the London of the 1880s, and is related from four differing viewpoints. First, from that of the wife and mother Constance, who believes the ghosts she sees are also being experienced by her daughter. And who sees these ghosts as serving the needs of her husband, who, she decides, wishes to win from her the affection of their daughter.

The next section is from the viewpoint of Anna Montague, a spiritualist who makes her living advising people how to get rid of ghosts. She is a very practical woman, whom this reader accepted at face value, as she makes the purpose of these ghosts seem, like her, more down to earth, more practical than mystical.

The third section we see from Joseph’s point of view. He is a research scientist who seems truly in love with his wife, and who appears to be a normal man legitimately puzzled by his wife’s new conduct, so different from that of the charming girl he married. And the final, and short, section is from the viewpoint of a mature Angelica as she tries to analyze what happened between her parents when she was a child.

But like Henry James, Phillips appears to want to turn the screw on his readers. Because before he begins his novel, the author quotes Sir Everett d’Oyly: “Haunting can emerge from the forgotten depths of our own past….Memories and ghosts are not so easily distinguished as previous generations have assumed.” And this is the fulcrum on which Phillips has poised this novel. Are the ghosts real? Are they only in the mind of Constance? Or should the memories of both parents be challenged? And what exactly are these apparitions that are distorting the reality of their lives?

The emotional lives of Constance and Joseph dominate this household. After giving birth to Angelica, and then suffering three miscarriages, Constance is warned that she risks her life if she has another child. So she has withheld herself from her husband for more than three years. Which prompts both anxiety in her and frustration for Joseph. And culminates in her leaving her marital bed in order to sleep in a chair in Angelica’s room, standing guard over her. For Constance has seen a ghost hovering over her sleeping daughter at night, a ghost which suggests her husband’s presence, and which seems to signal his sexual designs on the young girl. A conclusion which is re-enforced when Angelica tells Constance she wishes one day to marry her father.

The story then takes on a more practical bent. Anna Montague enters the house and offers Constance her practical advice on how to defeat these apparitions. She acknowledges to herself that Constance will be a fruitful client, but she persuades her, and us, that she believes there are truly ghosts to be removed from the house and that, in doing so, she will not take advantage of Constance Barton’s wealth. She also supports Constance’s belief that husband Joseph is likely behind these ghosts. One should note that in the novel’s time frame of the 1880s, spiritualism and ghosts were a commonly accepted presence in this Victorian world.

Joseph, on the other hand, is not aware of these ghosts, only that his wife is acting mysteriously. He is also persuaded by a Doctor Miles that women in general are flighty creatures and need to be handled firmly by their husbands. While this novel subtly probes the psychology of this family from a modern novelist’s perspective, this is the one point where it truly reflects the psychological beliefs held about women in the male world of London in the 1880s.

Thus, the first section ends with the reader suspecting that Constance is trending toward insanity out of sexual repression, but also not being sure whether there may or may not be real ghosts. The second section ends, however, with the practicality of Anna convincing the reader that either these are real ghosts or that she and Constance truly believe that the ghosts are real. While the third section convinces us of Joseph’s reality, that there are no ghosts, and that all is in the mind of Constance. Whereupon, the final brief section, from the viewpoint of a mature Angelica, tries to have it both ways. She has convinced herself, she says, that “there was a ghost,” and that her mother “struck down the man who invited that ghost into our home.” Which act “evicted” the ghost as well.

Indeed, that early scene in which Constance drives a knife into the ghost is perplexing. For we later realize that the three sections, of Constance, Anne, and Joseph, cover the same time frame and the same events—but are being described from their three separate viewpoints. The problem arises when the sections from Constance’s view and Joseph’s view seem to end so differently. First, because Doctor Miles, who has been called to the scene, seems to act differently. And, second, because the author introduces Third, a mysterious friend of Anne, who suggests, if only symbolically, the final act. But is it by Constance or by Dr. Miles and his colleagues? Which is why, although normal literary logic is on the husband’s side, Angelica has to convince herself in her quote above what she believes truly happened. And that Arthur Phillips uses her conclusion, in turn, to convince the reader. Or at least to understand what he, the author, has intended. Or does one? For Angelica says she has no memory of being abused, wondering if Constance pretended seeing the ghosts rather than admitting her husband’s actual abuse.

One reads this novel, first, because it is so beautifully written. And, second, to learn what is going on. The blend of memory, psychology, spiritualism, and family intrigue is also fascinating to the modern reader. But the resolution, as with James, is confusing. For if one has a sense here of what the author intended, he also makes sure we are not certain. (April, 2019)

The Tragedy of Arthur, by Arthur Phillips

This 2011 work is a marvelous conceit. It also belongs to the new world of metafiction. It is about Arthur Phillips, a novelist, our novelist, who lives under the spell of his brilliant twin sister Dana and his equally brilliant father Arthur.

The son Arthur, the narrator of this tale, feels that he has to continually prove himself to his own father. This is a father who is constantly absent because he is in jail, sent there as a con man with an ego who time and again has created fraudulent, if almost harmless, plots to fool the public. For example, as a boy, the son had once watched his father create crop circles in order to suggest an alien invader.

This novel is about what may be the father’s greatest con. It is built around the question of whether the Shakespearean play the father has “discovered,” the tragedy of ancient King Arthur, may actually be real, may actually be by Shakespeare. The father gives the play to his son to have it vetted and published. But is it truly by Shakespeare? Arthur has his doubts, even when classical scholars begin to verify its authenticity.

What is Arthur to do?  Does he go ahead and support what he senses is a lie? Or does he withdraw his support and risk the trust of his publisher and perhaps his own literary future?

But what makes this novel truly work as literature is less the moral issue that the son faces than his complex relationship with both his father and his sister. The son Arthur is a quiet, insecure man who appears to have no ego. But maybe he does, for he is constantly dueling with his brilliant sister for his father’s attention, as well as seeking his father’s approval. Perhaps knowing his father’s attraction to Shakespeare, the son turns himself into a writer; and this work lists the actual books the real author has written.

There are interesting psychological connections to the relationship between father, daughter, and son. The daughter is continually ingratiating herself with her father, always believing in his love, and now accepting that the Arthurian tragedy was really written by Shakespeare. While son Arthur deeply regrets a dispute over the authenticity of the Arthurian tragedy is coming between him and his sister. This is compounded by more guilt feelings prompted by his failing hopelessly in love with Petra, the lesbian lover of his sister. This is a sub story that is not convincing, however, and really goes nowhere.

But most of all, the son, who since his boyhood has sought the love of his distant farther, and has long resisted the belief that his father loves him, now is persuaded that his father may have given him the manuscript of Arthur in order to demonstrate his love of his son. For the father has now given up all monetary rights to the manuscript, and has left his son a legacy that will make him and his mother and sister rich for the rest of their lives. Which, of course, troubles the son. How can he reap the benefits of what he believes is a fraud?

The novel that we are reading is the son’s solution to his problem. It is an introduction to the play that offers his evidence of why he believes the text is a fraud, even if he cannot actually prove it. But as a tantalizing aside, the son also comes to realize that by writing novels, he is in one sense no better than his father, for as a novelist he himself is creating a fraud, a fraudulent reality.

This novel itself is actually fun to read after its slow start in which the author establishes the family relationships and the father’s fraudulent career. One, in fact, wonders at first where this novel is headed. But once the Shakespearean play appears, first as a 1904 printed work, and than as a 1597 original work, both interest and suspense build. Is the text truly real? Will son Arthur be able to prove it either way? How will his relationships end, with his father, his sister, the lesbian lover? And how will the publisher Random House react to his conviction that the discovered text is a fraud?

The reader is offered brief, but to me unimpressive, samples of the Shakespearean work, as well as emails from the father defending the veracity of the work, and emails from an understanding editor at Random House questioning whether son Arthur really means the manuscript is a fraud. There are also emails and conversations with his sister, betraying his uncertainty, both regarding the manuscript and his relationship with his father.

At the end of 256 pages, the entire novel, is a script of the actual Arthurian play of more than 100 pages. I confess I did not read this. I have never been able to connect with a Shakespearean play by reading it, only by seeing it performed. So after dipping into it and seeing the same problem, the archaic and poetic language that made no conversational sense, I abandoned it. Anyway, I knew it was not real; it was Phillips’ own work. There was no reward in reading it, except to admire the author’s nimble exercise in literary egotism. Yes, it lends authenticity to the novel, and we see what it was all about, but I so enjoyed the novel, I did not need that.

What I admire about Phillips is his literary adventurism. Every novel is completely different. This one is the most daring, for it takes on Shakespeare. No, not takes him on, but rather takes off from him. (September, 2013)