Tuesday 23 September 2008

Ann Potter and Langdon Towne- The Perfect Love Story.

I guess everything finds different things romantic and I guess that is partly conditioned by the kind of people they are and the kind of things they are looking for.

I have previously referred to a literary situation that I have always found deeply romantic, that being the relationship between the Count of Monte Christo and Haydee, who finally redeems him. And it's not just the concepts, it's the characters as portrayed. I found the love story romantic long before it ever developed any parallels for me in real life.

But at the back of my mind of late has been a sense of resonance, as if deeply ingrained in me is another parallel I can think of to my current situation, one which I could never quite bring out to work out which it was.

And today I remembered.
And I realised of course, it is an even better one, in some ways, than the Count of Monte Christo and Haydee.

I have only ever read 'The North West Passage' by Kenneth Roberts once. Well over ten years ago. But I have gone back to re-read certain passages since. And do you want to know why?

Because deep down, I AM a hopeless romantic in some ways. because deep down, I guess I saw something of Langdon Towne in myself, I guess there is something in the love of Ann Potter and Longdon Towne that shines out as MY archetype. And something about Ann Potter that is exactly the kind of woman I secretly search for.

Over the years I have picked up that book and turned to just two passages in particular, two passages that really have given me butterflies.

The book is set in the latter part of the eighteenth century, starting towards the end of the seven years war and ending uring the American revolution. The book is set around the larger than life historical character of Robert Rodgers, one of those men who have much imagination, charisma and ambition but end up being dragged down by the downside of those talents. They burn too bright too soon, perhaps. It is about Rodgers, but it isn't. It's about dreams and reality, the motors that drive us. Freedom, the need to impress others and the facades people live by. And much more.

The different routs we all pursue to find happiness perhaps.

Langdon is essentially an artist. He ends up joining the militia under Rodgers for reasons I can't quite remember, but gets sucked into Rodgers dreams of finding a North West passage for the simple reason he wants to go west to sketch the natives.

I guess the temperament of Langdon is one I could relate to back then and still can now. He ends up leading an eventful life and seeing a lot of things, but he never becomes a brutal thug. At heart he remains a sensitive observer of life. He prefers to carry sketch books to guns, given the choice. But he knows how to handle himself with guns if needed.

It is during the London section of the novel that he finds Ann Potter. Potter the father is Rodgers secretary and there's not much good to be said for him. He asks Langdon to go find the daughter he left with 'a good family in the East end'. She is, he thinks, about fourteen.

It turns out, of course, that the 'good family' are nothing of the sort.

Ann is forced by day to pretend to be crippled so she can carry out various begging scams. And of course, the novel is written in the thirties so certain things are unsaid. But the family in question live above a brothel and since they demand money from Langdon to part with Ann, the reader can probably draw their own conclusions. And I think we are meant to draw that conclusion. We are meant to understand that Ann has been hugely damaged and scarred.

Potter doesn't take much notice of his daughter, indeed no one much does. She is handed over to be cared for by Elizabeth. A side point of the novel is that Elizabeth was once Langdon's love, but she deserted him for the more impressive prospect of Robert Rodgers and as the book progresses we realise that this was a lucky escape for Langdon. Because increasingly we see that it is Elizabeth who wears the trousers. a kind of eighteenth century Cherie Blair. Her character becomes markedly less sweet throughout the book till by the end we can see she bears a prominent part in ruining Rodgers by her possessive domineering.

Only Langdon genuinely has any feeling for her, a genuinely brotherly care.

Ann has huge barriers. She finds it impossible to emote. She rarely speaks, she is almost like a wooden doll. It is almost impossible for anyone to get through to her.

But Langdon does as much as anyone does. He gets warm eyes from her. And we understand that means something to him. We as readers notice what he doesn't. That their relationship changes. She grows to trust him in a way she trust no one else and he sees her in a way he sees no one else. He sees her as a a sister. What he doesn't notice is that she is becoming a woman. And we don't really. It doesn't hit us- quite- until it hits him.

Ann does have a way she expresses herself and one only Langdon can appreciate. She learns to mimic. She can act.
She will watch and observe those she sees and then act them out, be they Elizabeth, drunken whore of the east end or Indian squaw. Here she comes to life, by taking on other persona, she finds a medium by which she can express herself.

And Langdon can relate to that, as an artist. We can see how their minds meet before he starts to see her as more than a sister. We can see that though he doesn't see it, he has passed beyond that barrier of ice and connected to the person inside in the deepest platonic way possible.

And then we have what I think is the first of the these two beautiful scenes, the two of them illustrative of what I believe to be one of the most beautiful love stories ever printed.

Rodgers has got his dream. He is governor of Fort Michilimackiniac and is sending forth an expedition to find the North West Passage. And Langdon is going on it.

The farewell party is in full throw. And Langdon goes up the stairs for some reason to find Ann standing at the top of the stairs all forlorn. She is perhaps eighteen by now, he perhaps in his late twenties. Why is she standing there?

He tells her she could to bed. He still sees himself here as the older brother. She does not move, just stares with fixed expression. He moves closer to her and whispers to her to go, before Elizabeth finds her and berates her. And then he kisses her on the lips. She freezes, she does not respond. And she continues to stare in silence.

He tells her to go.

The scene is important. Important because it emphasises how impossible Ann finds it to emote, yet more important in it's longer term significance. Because, as we later discover, it DIDN'T mean nothing to her. Not at all.

Whilst Langdon is on the journey, he writes letters to Ann. At first he sees them as just letters to a sister. But over time, he starts to realise things. He gets a letter from her which reads 'Major Rodgers is very kind, but sometimes I wish he wouldn't be so kind'.

And Langdon starts to realise he doesn't see her as a girl. Nor as a a sister. The transition had happened without him being aware of it. She is everything he thinks about.
And we can tell he is partly relieved when the expedition fails and he has to return home. He wants his Ann.

He returns to Michilimackinac to find Rodgers has had to return to London in disgrace (I think. He's not there anyway). And Ann is gone. Gone home to England. And Elizabeth tells him a tale. Tells him that she would catch Rodgers and Ann together, that Langdon never saw it, but she played all the men.

And Langdon passes no comment. Is it because he disbelieves it?
No. No, I think the point is deeper than that. I think we are to understand that though Ann cannot emote and though she may not have cared for the advances of men, she had grown up in a dark world where she had learned how to use them. Never does Langdon ever after ask her for her version. he loves her too much to need to know perhaps. He understands. Understands how Ann would revert to old survival tactics to survive in a world where the only man she trusted was gone.

I don't think we're meant to see Ann as being virtuous in that regard. I think it is quite implicit that her defence against being used by men is to use them back. But cold as ice and as hard as wood she remains to all but Langdon.

Langdon departs back to London to find her, driven by that last image he has in his mind of her standing alone at the top of the stairs.
When he finds her, she has blossomed. He hears she works at a theatre- he does not realise it is her show.

For Ann now supports herself by having learned to express herself at last. Hundreds flock every night to see Ann act out scenes from the Americas. She is frontier soldier, she is squaw, she is the left behind lover. Everything she has seen, she brings to the stage.

And it is in the reunion scene, when she sees he has come for her. For the first time she finally lets her emotion go. She has been pining for him as much as he did for her. We can literally feel her letting it all out. It's not just that she has missed him, but she has finally herself come to terms with the fact she has emotions and that a world could conceivably exist where he no longer has to bottle them up. And the instant he returns, that possible world becomes the real world.

That kiss at the top of the stairs that she could not at the time respond to, told her inside she was alive and since then, she has finally learned to feel.

Do they have a romantic wedding?
No, they are married that night in the Fleet prison, illegally, by a debtor priest who needs the money.

Is this the most romantic love story I can think of in literature?

Yes, yes it is.

And is Ann Potter the woman most worthy of a man's love that literature has ever produced?
I think so.

Because I think I've found my own Ann Potter.

And I guess that's why it feels so perfect.

I think I'm still standing at the top of the stairs kissing her icy lips and her freezing unable to deal with it.

But he never gave up on her. In the end he crossed half the globe to find her again.

And I know I'd do the same.

I know how he felt about Ann Potter. I understand exactly how the character felt about her, because it's exactly how I feel.

And I think that it is exactly how it should be.


Anonymous said...

Crushed! Thanks for the uber-fast response today, made me smile.

Every cynic is actually a romantic...

A wise lady told me that once. It's true. I myself flutter between the two.

But reading your account of romance on the docket hits home very deeply. Another excellent post filled with clear thought.

Glad to see you are flourishing.

Anonymous said...

i like the thoughtcrimes customization

Anonymous said...

Now I don't have to read that book, you have summarized it so beautifully.
The perfect love story. It took a while but turned out eventually.
One day Crushed.

Anonymous said...

What a great post...I enjoyed reading this.

I'll have to ebay that book - even though I now know the ending. :)

Anonymous said...

What a lovely post.

I have never read the book but it sounds a great read.

Anonymous said...

I like Madame Bovary. To me she's a 19th century French junkie who never tried heroin just bc it was never around her...

Anonymous said...

It is a beautiful summary... I found myself getting wrapped up in the characters despite it being a synopsis. And what a beautiful image, of the icy cold lips...

Anonymous said...

Aaah romance,
so much more exciting than sheer animal lust.

So what did you think about Mrs Brown taking centre stage and introducing Gordon at the Labour Conference.
A much more becoming and romantic lady than Cherie, don't you think.

Anonymous said...

Have not heard of the book myself. Sounds interesting .

Anonymous said...

Eric- I've been on the look out for your long awaited return :)

This is true, I was once described by a Romanian girl as 'A disillusioned ex-romantic posing as a cynical game player'.

I guess I do flutter between the two.

Life could be worse, yes :)

Rubenh- It's a book everyone should read.
I don't always agree with Orwell- in fact some of his essays I positively disagree with, but 1984 was a perfect masterpiece. Correct in every way.

jmb- There's a lot I left out- really it's essentially just a sub plot.

I think he mets her first almost half way through.

Yes, I think so :)

Kate- No you don't :)

He marries her with many chapters yet to go, in fact.

As I say, it's kind of a sub plot. I guess the novel is really about thye ideals America was built on, written in an era when the American dream was seriously being questioned by Americans.

CherryPie- I think it's a better book than 'Last of the Mohicans'. And of course, it draws on real history. People like Rodgers were the forerunners of Lewis and Clarke, but Rodgers is not an American hero. He served the crown during the revolutionary wars.

Gledwood- I must admit to having really sympathised with Madame Bovary.
After all, her husband just wasn't enough for her.

I see her as an intelligent free sprited passionate woman caged by the conventions of her day.

I think I'd have liked her, had I met her. As a person.

Princess P- as I say, it's rare I get overly excited by romantic fiction. I often find it tedious.

Often I really don't sympathise- especially with th sorts of heroines portrayed. I often don't QUITE get the attraction.

But in this case, I did, all those years ago and it's one of my main impressions of this novel.

I guess in much the same way, I always found that the TV/screen romance that always had most involved with the chracter was the love of Mulder and Scully.

Quasar- I think it's produced better literature on the whole :)

A cheap gimmick. Not sure who it was meant for, really. After all the whole point of the conference was to rally the faithful and stop them haemorrhaging to opponents that five years ago no one would have considered.
Labour are collapsing not because the Tories are doing so well (though I concede they are), but because Labour can't even trust it's own supporters not to disappera off the SNP/ Plaid/Respect/Any MP who think he's better off as an independant.

But I really think that the old faithful are the LEAST likely to be impressed by that sort of gimmick.

It's not how things work in the Bilston Working men's club...

Cherie- Elizabeth Urquhart made flesh...

Nunyaa- It is a good read, yes.

The characters are well crafted.

In some ways, like a lot of good historical fiction, it really does explore concepts, though not in a way you notice at first.

But I think it really IS about freedom. Both personal and political.

Anonymous said...

It sounds like a great read - and even though I know how it ends sometimes I cannot resist a good love story! Congrats on finding your Ann Potter!

Anonymous said...

and you know what? I re-read 1984 for the third time just last week.

Then I post again, and who is the first one in the door?


I'm glad to be back too, I missed everyone. I was quite a gypsy for a few months, had crappy internet that did not always work, and it reflected the state of employment around these parts... Detroit was once know as a city of workers, but now it's a rusting ghost town.

But I'm alive, I have a keyboard and monitor with a steady connection again... And a little job at a local bookstore. Life really isn't bad.

Anonymous said...

yet another book to put on my "To read" list.

I suppose fighting for your Ann Potter is that only right thing to do.

happy hunting mate :)