Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Questioning the Meaning of Love: Rose Lerner's SWEET DISORDER

"Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a Heaven in Hell's despair."

So sung a little Clod of Clay
Trodden with the cattle's feet,
But a Pebble of the brook
Warbled out these metres meet:

"Love seeketh only self to please,
To bind another to its delight,
Joys in another's loss of ease,
And builds a Hell in Heaven's despite."

Rare book collectors the world over likely envy the gift that Phoebe Sparks, the heroine of Rose Lerner's historical romance Sweet Disorder, received from her printer-husband: one of the 28 copies William Blake printed of his illustrated poetry collection, Songs of Innocence and Experience. When her husband grew ill, Phoebe had to sell the coveted volume, although she likely didn't gain much from the transaction; Blake was not highly regarded in his own day, considered a political radical, a nonconformist, even a madman (from his earliest childhood, he claimed he saw visions). Few readers in 1812, in the midst of the years of the Napoleonic wars, were likely to find him a congenial read. But his work, in particular the poem printed above, "The Clod and the Pebble," from 1794's Songs of Experience, serves as the fulcrum upon which Lerner's romance rests. Is love naturally selfless? Or inherently selfish?

Over the course of the twentieth century, literary scholars have interpreted "The Clod and the Pebble" in radically different ways. Early in the century, most critics praised the clod's championing of selfless love, suggesting that Blake included the position articulated by the pebble only to highlight the superiority of the clod's claims. By mid-century, however, some critics were arguing for the "healthy egoism" of the pebble, wary of the abnegation and the passive-aggressive potential of the clod's self-denial. Still other critics argued that Blake, like the bookseller to whom Phoebe sells her copy of the Songs, believes that both views of love are true: love is both selfless and selfish. One type of love is innocence; the other experience.

Both Phoebe and Nick Dymond know what it is to deny their own wants. Nick, mourning the loss of his army career after a debilitating wound, has been sent to the town of Lively St. Lemeston in order to coax the widow Sparks into marrying another man. England's unrepresentative election laws mean that there are only a few qualified voters in the small town, and Phoebe, the widow of one of them, can bestow her former husband's freeman status, and thus his right to vote, on whomever she next decides to marry. And Nick's younger brother, standing for the Lively St. Lemeston seat, needs each and every vote if he's to defeat the Tory candidate. Nick is less than indifferent to the politicking for which the rest of his family lives and breathes. But when his mother, Lady Lannister, threatens to cut off his allowance, now his only source of income—"If you won't contribute to this family, I see no reason why this family should contribute to you"—Nick reluctantly sets aside his own desire to hide in his rooms and lick his wounds, agreeing to travel to the small market town and take on the ridiculous role of matchmaker to the middling classes.

The Accidents of Youth, an 1819 children's book warning against dangerous
behavior. Similar to the "Improving Tales" Phoebe pens?
For her part, Phoebe has no desire to marry again, despite the enticing gifts Nick and his Tory counterpart offer in recompense (ah, the days of open bribery...). Though she wed her first husband for love, that marriage all too quickly grew sour; now, though she only earns a pittance for the children's books she writes, it is enough to maintain her independence, an independence she's not at all eager to give up. But when Phoebe's younger sister finds herself in trouble, Phoebe knows she's going to have to put aside what she wants in order to keep Helen's reputation intact.

Both Nick and Phoebe have difficult relationships with their mothers, mothers who have shaped their children's views about selfishness and selflessness in ways that leave them frustrated. Phoebe's constantly accuses her of wanting too much, of being a selfish child and an even more selfish adult, a view that Phoebe sometimes resists, sometimes, out of guilt, believes: "She was just too much, just as her mother always said: too hungry, too loud, too demanding, too changeable. Never, ever satisfied" (Kindle Loc 2993). But despite her mother's disapprobation, Phoebe can't seem to stop herself from longing: for privacy, for her dead father, for the all-too-attractive aristocrat who comes courting, not on his own behalf, but on behalf of the local baker.

Nick, in contrast, believes he doesn't really desire much of anything at all. But as he grows closer to the prickly, desiring Phoebe, he begins to see that his affable, easygoing nature is really just a cover: "It wasn't his leg that kept him from feeling like a whole man, he realized. It was something far deeper, a lack within himself. He had never wanted anything with such a bone-deep conviction. Sometimes, it seemed, he could go all day without wanting anything at all" (2226). When the thrillingly illicit tryst with the widow for whom he's supposed to be matchmaking goes comically, painfully wrong, Nick is sent into a tailspin of self-reflection, trying to understand just why he's always so quick to deflect his own desires in favor of catering to the desires of others.

Luckily, Phoebe is able to recognize a fellow toiler on the road of desire transmogrified into guilt, and to offer Nick a bit of guidance to help him find his way free of its painful thickets. "Did she [your mother] ever make you feel guilty about taking the wrong things?" Phoebe asks, setting off a cascade of memories of politically-motivated restrictions on what Nick was and wasn't allowed to want (for example, no eating anything with sugar, because sugar came from slave plantations, and Whigs were fighting to outlaw slavery). (3393). It wasn't the restrictions themselves, but "the way she did it. The way anything... anything I asked for was an indelible stain on my character," Nick realizes, that has made him give over wanting altogether (3396). "I think when wanting something doesn't help you get it, there's maybe not much point to wanting," Phoebe concludes, an insight that hits painfully close to home for Nick (3411).

A satirical anti-slavery print by Isaac Cruikshank (1792), with which Nick's family was likely quite familiar...
From Nick, Phoebe discovers her own surprising truth about the selflessness of love: far too often it only masks a selfish desire to believe oneself in the right. The positions staked out by the pebble and the clod are not the only two options; the opposite of selfishness isn't selflessness. Instead, Phoebe realizes, "Loving someone meant letting him choose, letting her put herself first" (4483). In order to achieve a true marriage, a marriage that progresses beyond the binary opposition of self/not self, the contraries of selfless innocence and selfish experience must be both acknowledged and then resolved. "Love wasn't selfless, and it wasn't selfish, either," Nick finally realizes at book's end. "It was saying that another person's self was just as important as yours, and expecting them to feel the same way" (4696).

A sentiment not all that common in 1812. But one that the iconoclastic William Blake would likely find very much to the point.

Illustration credits:
"The Clod and the Pebble": The William Blake Archive
The Accidents of Youth: Jane Austen's World
Cruikshank print: Library of Congress

Rose Lerner, Sweet Disorder
Samhain, 2014


  1. This sounds like a fascinating novel! I think the genre gets far too little credit for containing such novels-of-ideas, and since the ideas here have to do with poetry, the book sounds right up my alley. Does the Robert Herrick poem that gives it the title show up in the book as well?

    1. Yes, Herrick's in there too, Eric, although I think Blake is the more relevant literary influence. I definitely think you'd enjoy it.