Algernon Charles Swinburne, LOVE’S CROSS CURRENTS

Love’s Cross Currents, Algernon Charles Swinburne

10€ 258 pages pocketbook

intro by Z. Tanner, epistolary schematic drawings (sorry)

Joli ménage!
by Zachary Tanner

“The world of Swinburne does not depend upon some
other world which it simulates; it has the necessary
completeness and self-sufficiency for justification and

  • T. S. Eliot1
    Need one be a sex-positive, 21st-century “esoteric
    of the Garden” into impact play who has read
    their Joyce and de Sade to relish Swinburne’s
    subtle, iconoclast novels? Maybe it takes one of
    us to savor the author’s cryptic treatments of
    forbidden eros, but certainly we’re not the only
    reader demographic capable of appreciating the
    vernacular prose-poetry of this Victorian ode to
    the Epistolary Novel, and so, let the people their
    Swinburne, for as the author once wrote of the
    “Arch-Professor of the Ithyphallic Science,” I
    “would give anything to have, by way of study,
    six or seven other opinions as genuine and frank
    as mine shall be.”2
    What turned me on to Swinburne? No doubt
    coming across some striking legend such as the

one I came across in Richard Church’s intro-
duction to my Everyman’s Library edition of

Swinburne: Poems & Prose:

“Swinburne the tadpole-scholar was a quiet
member of his aristocratic family, aloof and
retiring. But enrage him with drink, or poetry, and
he would become poisoned with all possible forms
of mental and emotional perversity, calling upon
the ghost of the Marquis de Sade to initiate his
imagination into the more exquisite forms of
sensual indulgence, or evoking the lamian beauty
of some Renaissance strumpet so that he might
boast to his Victorian public of fictitious dallyings
with her.”3
On the threshold of Swinburne studies, one
finds a basket of nasty letters about the author’s
eccentric personality, the mass of uninspired
tweed-types loving to hate as it does the marvel
of such functional substance abusers as William
S. Burroughs or Rainer Werner Fassbinder—in
Algernon the makings of a genderfluid movie
starlet who lived out life’s best years before the
moving image was around to lend a longing
luster to the monotonous ordeal of one’s despair.
What I’m getting at is the debased genius of
Mozart that Hollywood imagines would have so
disgusted Salieri. What we find is the Blakean
primacy of sensual experience lucidly deranged
in a manner reminiscent of Rimbaud in the

forgotten novels of a poet contemporary of
Dickens, Dumas, Balzac, et al. Any reader with

an affinity for the biographies of literary eccent-
rics will find a doozy in Swinburne and may turn

to any of a number by Lafourcade, Fuller,
Thomas, and Henderson, sparing Gosse only for
its historical importance, for, as Beetz writes in
Algernon Charles Swinburne: A Bibliography of
Secondary Works: “…Gosse relied heavily on

unreliable sources and possibly apocryphal anec-
dotes for his bio.”4

Originally published serially as A Year’s Letters
in The Tatler in 1877 under the pseudonym “Mrs.
Horace Manners” (fifteen years after it was

written), Love’s Cross-Currents was finally pub-
lished in book form in 1905 after the death of the

author’s parents—may they not roll in their
graves to be dug up again for our purposes here.
But to read Love’s Cross-Currents one hundred
and sixty years after it was begun, more than a
century still since it was finished, need we
know—to enjoy this elegant fiction—that it was

inspired by several very real Life Events concern-
ing Swinburne and his cousin Mary Gordon, to

whom he read sections of this novel before her
marriage? Need we know of Adah Isaacs
Menken to appreciate Miss Lenora Harley of

Lesbia Brandon? What of the hat stomping episode?
What of Swinburne adoring and corr-esponding
with Baudelaire before the English-speaking
world knew he was cool? Need we recognize a
Caroline lyric as such to cry over the verse? Well?

I turned to Goodreads, in search of contemp-
orary opinions, finding only a single text review

from user Steven, who writes, “Anyone who gets
through the book does so only by dint of drawing
up a family tree to keep straight its three sets of
cousins.” I don’t know if I necessarily agree. I
charted out the birthdates in the Prologue on the
flyleaf, but didn’t bother with a family tree until

my second reading, and I don’t think Love’s Cross-
Currents is any more difficult to follow than the

familial contortions of Austen, Faulkner, Nabo-
kov, or Tolstoy. In fact, I believe that it reads so

well and in such a surprising, revelatory way that
I hesitate to spoil the story in the introduction
with any kind of analytical summary, beyond
reiterating what Swinburne wrote of the novel in
an early Spring letter to Rosetti in 1866: “This
book stands or falls by Lady Midhurst; if she
gives satisfaction, it must be all right; if not, chaos
is come again.” Any reader who requires such a
summary before reading a suspenseful plot can
turn to the Falcon Press edition of Lesbia Brandon

and Randolph Hughes’s Commentary within,
where is given from pages 285 to 288 “a rapid
account of the family, in so far as it is necessary
to an intelligence of the situation as a whole.”
What need we know beyond the fact that
betwixt this quasi-incestuous love quadrangle (it
only counts if it’s your first cousin), a broken-hearted
dreamer will write to the unrequitable object of
passion: I do not think you can mean to break with all our
hopes and recollections and change the whole look of life for
me. (p.132) What do you do when the person you
love has resolved to have done with you? Well? “Of
course the boy talks as if the old tender terms
between them had been broken off for centuries,
and their eyes were now meeting across a
bottomless pit of change. I shall not say another
word on the matter: all is as straight and right as it
need be, though I know that only last month he was
writing her the most insane letters.” (p.263)

“Le dénoûment c’est qu’il n’y a pas de dé-
noûment.” (p.267)

But I would sell the reader short should I not
make some sort of tangible scholarly analysis of
this book as Epistolary Novel. Randolph Hughes
asserted that the book’s only artistic deficiency
was that the seaside mid-point did not grow out
of the initial conditions of the story.

I, however, fault Swinburne’s artistry for not
making any such use of the seemingly infinite
variation of metafictional conditions that might
exist in a text of this sort. Though in its own
unique way, it rewards readers familiar with
Laclos, Richardson, and Crébillon Fils, it makes
little use of such liberated effects in those other
novels as letters recopied, resequenced, enclosed
within other letters, continued, annexed to the
former, dictated by Valmont, written by a
waiting maid, now sent along with copies of
letters to uncles and their responses, delivered
same-day, written at daybreak or nightfall,
within an Ivy Summer-house, interrupted by
nervous mothers, for each letter in these classic
epistolary novels, a new trick, in them vast
rewards for any fan of postmodern metafictions,
but in Love’s Cross-Currents, never do we find this
hypertextual delight that most other novels of
this sort have to offer. It is not the sort of story
where a character continues a letter, having sat
up late to finish and seal in readiness a letter in
response to the above, only to be interrupted at
dawn by the arrival of thy second fellow which
infinitely disturbed us all. But it could have been.
A simple visual analysis of four novels should
suffice to exhibit something of Swinburne’s

perplexing non-comformity. That with such a
simple schematic and so few letters, a story of the
same depth as these others is successfully told is

something I find quite striking, whereby some-
how the poet’s deficiencies as a novelist boost the

work. It is also telling of the claustrophobic

nature of this study of concurrent familial temp-

Behold the Enchantments of the Genre:


Evelina (1778)
by Frances Burney
84 Letters from March to October

Les liaisons dangereuses (1782)
by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
175 Letters from August to January

Clarissa; or, The History of a Young Lady: Comprehending
the Most Important Concerns of Private Life. And Particularly
Shewing, the Distresses that May Attend the Misconduct Both
of Parents and Children, In Relation to Marriage (1748)
by Samuel Richardson
537 Letters from January to December

Love’s Cross-Currents (1905)
by Algernon Charles Swinburne
30 Letters from January to February following

If it is perhaps insufficient in the very form in
which it’s written, what makes this a worthwhile
read is that “the genuine stamp of a sincere and
single mind was visible throughout; which was
no small comfort.” (p.11) “To be face to face with
such a dead and buried bit of life as that was so
quaint that stranger things even would have
fallen flat after it.”(p. 260)
The striking whole amounts to something
that models quite closely the experiences I’ve had

of sending and receiving messages in this instant-
aneous, globalized world, well-wrought art

offering as it does timeless relief beyond
generational boundaries, creating an empathic
connection between the living and the dead.
What a marvel like a shell upon a beach is this!
1T.S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood (London: Methuen & Co., Ltd.,

1920), “Swinburne as Poet.” 2To Richard Monckton Milness – August 18, 1862, in Vol-
ume 1 of Lang’s The Swinburne Letters, p. 53-59. He continues

playfully: “At first, I quite expected to add another to the
gifted author’s list of victims; I really thought I must have
died or split open or choked with laughing. I never laughed
so much in my life: I couldn’t have stopped to save the said
life. I went from text to illustrations and back again, till I

literally doubled up and fell down with laughter. I regret to
add that all the friends to whom I have lent or shown the
book were affected in just the same way.” But what I find
especially interesting is the way that Swinburne is able to
subvert even the Arch Pariah of Subversion: “But in Justine
there seems to me throughout to be one radical mistake
rotting and undermining the whole structure of the book.
De Sade is like a Hindoo mythologist; he takes bulk and
number for greatness…I boast not of myself; but I do say
that a schoolboy, set to write on his own stock of experience,
and having a real gust and appetite for the subject in him,
may make and has made more of a sharp short school
flogging of two or three dozen cuts than you of your
enormous interminable afflictions; more of the simple
common birch rod and daily whipping-block than you of
your loaded iron whips and elaborately ingenious racks and
3p. xi.
4p. v.

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