Elective Affinities is a delightful read, well-translated (not that I can read high-German…) and an artefact of 1800s European thought. It balances some stock archetypes who are finely fleshed out with wider philosophical ideas of love and nature.
The narrative is unusual and apparently characteristic of the kind of comedy of manners an early British reader would find familiar. It often speaks directly to the reader, posing reflective questions matches my style of reading. As I read fast, perhaps unduly so, these moments add texture and pace in relative natural fashion. Of course, like with most Nineteenth Century fiction, the plot holds both many coincidences and is almost entirely focused on the inner life of rich European intelligentsia.
The structure of the text is therefore easy enough to follow: a husband and wife relationship is challenged by the presence of newly-arrived friends, and the attraction and dissolution of the relationship is likened to scientific discoveries in chemistry. The daily challenges of such privileged living consist of running a household and trying to make an easy, more efficient life. If you cannot see past this context, this story will either pass you by or leave you dry. Within such frivolities is a real ennui, especially nearer the end of the text where I recognized more shades of Eliot and strained moral angst. As the story was based upon Goeth’s experiences falling in love with a younger woman whilst married, it also operates as a window into a strained culture very few people will experience, least of all me.
To consider matters of the human heart through questions of science has been wonderfully done by Alan De Botton. Science in school needs to be taught with that judicious sense of wonder: our models of understanding are far from complete, despite our sense that they might one day be. The ultimate question of Elective Affinities is whether the roots of love are in fate or free-will. Even a biological fate is expected by many in 2018. Amazingly, we are able to sense a genetic compatibility with others through our pheromones – our partners might possess a genetic pattern that counteracts any DNA deficiencies we might suffer. Such questions resound as much now as ever – they are the stuff of dystopias. This metaphor is, sadly for me, not referenced consistently in Goeth’s work. A common criticism of Charlotte, both of the time and retrospectively, is that she allows anything to occur to her, even though her feelings and desire for action prompt otherwise.
Continuing this nitpicking, the characterisation of the captain is perhaps a little sentimental. Goeth believed that war fosters character and that there is something inherently masculine in fighting. The captain is a generally attractive and moral character, and Edmund becomes more moral too after fighting. Whilst these theme does not really translate so well for me in 2018, nor is it described in any detail, it is an important context that perhaps reflects European political will at the time.
The final thread of this text is its European expectation of morality. The interesting references to the bible and sinning at the end are unsettling, and the ending itself is Eliotesque shocking. Ottilie comes to questions how far we are removed from death: whilst the peasantry of the 1700s were not, the middle class of 2018 are now. In this experience, and others, the surprising cross-overs of expectation between these two eras make this a great intercultural read.