Exploring a Georgian-era Extravaganza
Consider the character of Matthew in the age of the Enlightenment. Do you think he is immature and naive, out of tune with his times? Or is he perhaps a man already ahead of his time, a born Romantic, a believer in the nobility of the poetic soul? Consider the following:
A) That he becomes fascinated with occult symbolism in an age when science was already establishing a more rational approach to the universe.
B) That he is at heart very much a man of peace and moderation at a time of great hostility and political division.
C) That he becomes unwittingly involved in the pursuit of Christian virtues (see ‘Different Kinds of Love,’ below) at a time when the English Church is losing ground amid a more secular society – a trend reinforced by the onset of the Industrial Revolution.
Consider the role of women in Eighteenth Century society. In particular the absence of any entitlement to higher education or an academic career. Did this create an artificial division of the sexes between the ‘rational’ male and the ’emotional’ female – with the one embracing the industrial age, the other finding a welcome retreat in the emerging cult of Romanticism? Do you think the characters of Sam and Johanna reflect this situation? In this context, consider:
A) The contrast between Johanna’s preference for faith and prayer and Sam’s implied agnosticism.
B) Of Johanna wielding power through ideas and emotions, against Sam’s pleasure in surrounding himself with the predictive instruments of science.
C) Is Johanna ultimately more powerful than her husband because of this?
In spite of his fondness for material values, and his occasional infidelities, is Sam a good man? If yes, then how does he demonstrate this innate goodness. How does his marriage and family life contrast to the plight of the bachelor, Matthew? Is Sam justified in his criticism of Matthew’s wayward life-style? Do you think a single man at the time (mid-Eighteenth Century) was regarded differently than today? Was the single man an object of admiration or of pity? Was a man entirely manly, in fact, if he remained out of wedlock? Contrast Sam’s life style and the opportunities open to him with those available to Matthew. Who is likely to be the more successful?
Different Kinds of Love
What is the significance of the seven chapters entitled ‘Observations of the Heavenly Bodies’ in relation to The Seven Corporal Works of Mercy? How does Matthew manage to stumble his way through them, and in which order to they occur? In particular, consider the following:
A) Is it necessary to be conscious of doing good deeds in order to experience any redemptive or transformative quality through them?
B) How does the planetary symbolism in each of the ‘Heavenly Body’ chapters reflect in the works of mercy themselves and the characteristics and personalities of the women who lead Matthew to them?
C) Does Matthew ever really become aware of the deeper journey he is on or the kinds of love that circumstances throw in his path?
Hidden Identities and Disguise
Do you feel the statement made by Lady Snatchal in Chap. 12 that ‘all of our life is a masquerade’ is justified? Examine the use of masks, disguises, wigs and role-play in the story. Matthew is a master wig maker, and his hobby is producing carnival masks – and most of the characters he encounters reveal themselves to have hidden motives or unseen qualities or vices. Even Matthew pretends to be something he is not when he meets the ‘Young Pretender.’ Each of the recipients of Matthew’s sonnets, moreover, is involved in some measure of assumed identity; some kind of fantasy or intrigue. Ralph the link boy is also not what he seems. And even Sam eventually reveals a surprisingly compassionate side to his character. Meanwhile, what secrets does Johanna reveal during the course of the story? What has she been hiding from Matthew?
Separating the Sheep from the Goats
What is the significance of the parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46) and how many places can you spot the divisions – socially, politically and emotionally in the characters themselves; their surroundings; their personalities, styles of dress and political aspirations? Can you see any resonance in these polarities between the Jacobite rebels and the Hanoverian ruling elite? Between Classicism and the Baroque? Or even perhaps between Catholicism and Protestantism? If so, do any of the major characters appear to alter their allegiances as the story unfolds? Consider:
A) Is there any significance in Lord Snatchal’s Christian name being Cornelius or of his club being called the Cornhill?
B) Those instances in which horned creatures are referred to, or in which wool, including the Jacobite plaid/tartan, is featured in contrast to other materials – ie silk.
C) How does the behaviour and personal demeanour of those belonging to the Cornhill Wig Club compare to those of the Jacobite Council of War?
D) How does the behaviour and personal demeanour of Bonnie Prince Charlie compare to that of King George?
Consider the use of magic and prayer in the story. Is it fair to say that thoughts precede deeds, or that our intentions can sometimes make things happen in ways not originally envisaged? For instance:
A) Does Matthew summon up his lovers through the magical evocations of his sonnets?
B) Is one form of love, carnal love for example, a worthy equivalent to the kinds of love that revolve around kindness and self-sacrifice?
C) Is one kind of love interchangeable with another? Is this sense, does Matthew arrive at a better understanding of the scope and variety of love as the story unfolds?
D) Does Matthew succeed in demonstrating the depth of his friendship and, ultimately, his love for Sam, and where does this occur?
Does the story itself become better or provide new insights upon a further reading, or by recalling the hero’s journey in thought alone?