HOSPITALITY AND TREACHERY IN WESTERN LITERATURE by James A. W. Heffernan, Reviewed by Peter Melville
 

HOSPITALITY AND TREACHERY IN WESTERN LITERATURE
By James A. W. Heffernan
(Yale, 2014) x + 426 pp.
Reviewed by Peter Melville on 2014-05-19.

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[EDITOR'S NOTE: My thanks to Kenneth Johnston for editing this review. --JH]

Referring to Pride and Prejudice (1813), James A. W. Heffernan notes that despite the hundreds of books and articles dedicated to Austen's second novel, "the salience of hospitality in its pages is a truth, so far as I can tell, universally ignored" (213). As a Romanticist that shares Heffernan's interests in literary representations of hospitality, I have often been similarly puzzled by this peculiar critical oversight. Fortunately, Heffernan begins the task of paying this aspect of Austen's novel some serious attention in the seventh, and (to my mind) most engaging and persuasive, chapter of his new book. Hospitality may be a novel object of study in Austen scholarship, but it has become increasingly topical in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literary studies. In this respect, Heffernan's text finds its place on the shelf alongside Rachel Hollander's Narrative Hospitality in Late Victorian Fiction (2013), David Simpson's Romanticism and the Question of the Stranger (2012), and my own Romantic Hospitality and the Resistance to Accommodation (2007). Heffernan's book is unique, however, not only for its specific focus on the under-studied relationship between representations of hospitality and treachery, but also because it is, to my knowledge, the only full-scale study of hospitality themes and figures across Western literary traditions--from Homer, Virgil, and the book of Genesis to Joyce, Woolf, and Camus. Not surprisingly, it is a rather lengthy study, even as it leaves one wishing for still more in-depth analyses of the cultural and literary contexts surrounding and linking the many works and periods it covers. Regardless, an impressive work of scholarship, Heffernan's text offers a remarkably worthwhile and convincing account of what literary history teaches us about "the delicate process of receiving a guest or crossing another's threshold" (11).

The real treasures of Heffernan's book lie in the extraordinary series of readings and close analyses each of its chapters has to offer. Since there are too many chapters to consider in a review of this size, I will focus on those that treat literary texts from periods that would presumably be of most interest to readers of Review 19. After considering representations of the guest-host relation in classical and biblical traditions as well as in Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and select Shakespeare texts in Chapters 1 through 4, Heffernan turns in his fifth chapter to Wordsworth and Coleridge in an attempt to augment and challenge existing interpretations of Romantic hospitality that focus primarily on Romanticism's anxious embrace of "the stranger's ultimate resistance to accommodation" (Melville, Romantic Hospitality [2007], qtd. 150). For Heffernan, "the romantic literature of hospitality is at least as preoccupied with the violation of hospitable trust as it is with absorbing the strangeness of the other" (150).

The chapter opens with an adventurous, though scrupulous, reading of Wordsworth's various recollections of his visit to the Carthusian Monastery of the Grand Chartreuse, where he and his friend Robert Jones found refuge during a walking trip through France in August of 1790. Heffernan carefully considers the 1805 version of The Prelude's brief account of the hospitable lodging that Wordsworth and Jones found at the monastery alongside darker, lengthier accounts of the same from Descriptive Sketches (1793), the revised Prelude of 1850, and "The Tuft of Primroses" (1808) wherein the poet recalls a sanctuary "freshly invaded by soldiers of the newborn French Republic" (152). Wordsworth's memories of the latter are of course anachronistic, since the Chartreuse (as he himself discovered during his second tour of France) would not be occupied until 1792, nearly two years after his initial visit to the monastery. This conflation of the monastery before and after its occupation expresses Wordsworth's "conflicted passions" with regard to what Heffernan calls his "admiration for revolutionary zeal" and his "veneration for the monasteries it [...] crushed" (154). Heffernan argues that for Wordsworth the monastery emblemized not only the "transcendental immortality of Alpine nature," but also his own personal gratitude for a form of hospitality that offers weary travelers "solace at once for body and soul" (155). The (imagined) violation of such a sacred space by revolutionary soldiers becomes, in turn, a kind of archetypal "crime against hospitality" in Romantic writing (153). To be sure, Heffernan claims that in addition to "hold[ing] the key" to understanding Wordsworth's one and only play The Borderers, Wordsworth's shock at the violation of the Chartreuse "prefigures" what is perhaps the most famous crime against hospitality in Romantic era literature: namely, the crime perpetrated by Coleridge's ancient mariner, who killed a seabird "cruelly and in contempt of the laws of hospitality" (Argument to "The Rime" in Lyrical Ballads [1800], qtd. Heffernan 157). Unfortunately, Heffernan's reading of The Borderers lasts only a page and a half, but his textured analysis of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is as thorough as it is breathtaking and unique in its attempt to accentuate the poem's "distinctively Wordsworthian" concern for the "sanctity and vulnerability of the spirit of place," the violation of which (whether at sea or in the Alps) marks the presence of the inhospitable par excellence.

Chapter 6 shifts Heffernan's focus toward late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century representations of the "eroticized hostess," a figure whose offer of hospitality is fraught by "desires that make [her] vulnerable to guests whom [she] can never fully control" (170, 171). Having considered, in earlier chapters, eroticized hostesses in classical literature (e.g., Homer's Circe, Calypso, and Nausicaa, Virgil's Dido) as well as medieval and early-modern texts (e.g., Lady Bertilak of Sir Gawain, Shakespeare's Hermione), Chapter 6 seeks specifically to problematize this recurring figure within Romantic literary discourse to show, on the one hand, that it "knows no generic bounds," and on the other hand, that representations of the eroticized hostess remain diversely shaped by "distinctive historical context[s]" (200, 201). Heffernan accomplishes these tasks through a series of illuminating and incisive close readings of Coleridge's Christabel; Keats' Madeline, Belle Dame, and Lamia; Byron's Haidée; and Stendahl's Madame de Rênal. Again, what makes these readings especially convincing is Heffernan's commitment to placing each of these hostesses within the complex cultural contexts of their invention, including the social, economic, and political consequences of the French Revolution, abolitionism, and expressions of women's rights.

Heffernan's seventh chapter traces hospitality themes of domesticity, mating, and power primarily through nineteenth-century fiction, from Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813) to James' Portrait of a Lady (1881), even as it considers some eighteenth-century precursors, such as Fielding's Tom Jones (1749) and Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). The chapter begins by locating an intriguing critical blind spot with respect to Michael McKeon's conclusion that the "domestic novel" (starting with Richardson's Pamela [1740]) reflects "'the problematic separation out of self from society' but also strives to reconnect the two" (McKeon, The Secret History of Domesticity [2005] 717, qtd. 203). According to Heffernan, "we cannot fully understand this process without examining the transactions of hospitality in English fiction. For it is in such moments of threshold crossing that the public world meets the private one, that society, in the form of friends and strangers alike, meets the separated, domestic self" (203). To that end, Heffernan examines exemplary nineteenth-century texts in which hospitality functions as a prelude to mating or precipitates marital disaster. He demonstrates, for instance, how much of the action and social relations of power in Pride and Prejudice are negotiated through contesting forms of hospitality. The chapter also compares gestures of "monstrous inhospitality" and the desire for a mate in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) and Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (1847), and concludes with extended readings of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin (1833) and James' The Portrait of a Lady (221). This engaging and intelligent series of readings builds to a powerful thesis--namely, that these novels exemplify the process by which the treachery of hosts and guests in nineteenth-century fiction "grows less violent, more subtle, and also, if anything, more disturbing" (251).

Heffernan carries this thesis into Chapters 8 and 9, which focus on the twentieth-century fiction of writers such as Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Albert Camus. In his brief "Epilogue," Heffernan returns to a question he raises much earlier in the book: why does literature tend to prefer treachery, or the inhospitable, to hospitality "at its best" (333)? One reason, he muses, is that literature "thrives on discontent, restlessness, jealousy, resentment, hatred, suspicion, desire, frustration--everything that ignites conflict and thereby motivates plot" (333). A second, more interesting reason, he suggests, "springs from the kinship between hospitality and love" (333). This is an association that Heffernan suggestively promotes in his introduction as well; but neither the introduction nor the epilogue is fully able to dispel skepticism over what this "kinship" actually means or entails. "In receiving a guest, as in taking a lover," Heffernan attempts to explain, "one risks betrayal. Either way, one opens oneself to what Proust called the 'hostility lurking at the heart of our friendly or purely social relations,' to the subtle or open wounds that may be inflicted by anyone operating at close range" (333-4). These are curious and provocative words, but it remains unclear why love (one social relation among many) is being privileged in this way, or how this privileging shifts from notions of sexual love to other kinds of love, such as the brotherly love of Camus' "The Guest" or the love of nature in Coleridge's "Rime," to name only a few variations mentioned by Heffernan. On this point, the book's epilogue leaves one wanting a more extended and rigorous theoretical focus.

As I have suggested, this is a shortcoming that finds its origin in the book's introduction, which given the book's hefty size is regrettably brief. For a book that aims "to show how deeply and widely the theme of hospitality permeates the history of Western literature" (12), its twelve-page introduction seems oddly reluctant to provide a satisfactory picture of the present state of hospitality studies in contemporary literary and theoretical discourse. Heffernan prefers instead to reiterate his claim that the theme of hospitality has been "slighted" by literary theorists and critics (2), despite the fact that he repeatedly refers to and engages critics and theorists throughout his text who have not slighted this theme in the least. Hospitality may not exactly be a buzzword in literary studies, but the book's introduction gives the unfortunate impression that Jacques Derrida remains the exclusive authority on the subject. Heffernan's discussion of Derrida's various works on hospitality is certainly engaging and thoughtful. His theoretical treatment of hospitality, however, seems incomplete without addressing in a more substantial way the work that has been done on hospitality since Derrida, including not only the literary studies I mentioned earlier, but also political and philosophical texts that have sought to extend and/or challenge Derrida's thinking on hospitality, such as Murielle Rosello's Postcolonial Hospitality: The Immigrant as Guest (2001) and Tracy McNulty's The Hostess: Hospitality, Femininity, and the Exploration of Identity (2007). Heffernan does touch on these and other critical contexts in subsequent chapters, but the introduction would have been a useful place take up questions asked by this burgeoning field of study, if only to provide a better sense of where Heffernan's book stands in relation to theoretical positions taken within that field and what makes his book valuable and distinct--namely, its rather compelling claim that Western literature demonstrates time and again "how often and easily the fabric of trust that hospitality weaves can be rent by suspicion, resentment, misunderstanding, and treachery" (11).

I should point out that these last few criticisms stem from the kind of deeply rewarding engagement that this book demands of its readers, and that should in no way overshadow the book's many achievements. For on the whole, this book stands as a great success, and should go a long way in establishing the importance of hospitality within the field of literary studies.

Peter Melville, Associate Professor of English at The University of Winnipeg, Canada, is the author of Romantic Hospitality and the Resistance to Accommodation (2007).


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