A martyr and a ruler: Ivy Compton-Burnett, A House and its Head

Ivy Compton-Burnett, A House and its Head (1935)

Ivy Compton-Burnett has possibly the most idiosyncratic and instantly recognisable literary method and prose style of any modern writer. I’ve written about her technique extensively in my previous two posts about her:

The Present and the Past – several posts

A Family and a Fortune

In A House and Its Head she sticks to the formula that works so well for her: a forensic portrayal of a deeply dysfunctional upper middle-class family – the Edgeworths – living in a large country house in the 1880s. The villagers with whom they come into contact are mostly hypocritical, outwardly pious, virtuous types in the vein of Dickens’s ‘telescopic philanthropist’, Mrs Jellyby, or just malicious gossips.

Ivy Compton-Burnett, A House and its Head - coverDuncan Edgeworth is the most interesting character in a novel full of them. He’s a monster – straight out of her usual pool of Jacobean revenge-tragedy nasties. “He behaved like a god,” one of his daughters says at one point, part in awe, part rancorously. “He is always a martyr and a ruler,” is another description of him near the end.

In the opening chapter he starts in a minor way to show his tyrannical, oppressive control of his family: of his downtrodden wife Ellen, two spirited daughters who rebel as far as they dare, but ultimately succumb to his bullying, and of his more courageous and rebellious nephew, Grant, who for a while looks like he’ll be the one to refuse to be constrained by Duncan, but turns out to be just a self-serving, shallow hedonist.

First, he berates innocent, timorous Ellen for the tardiness in coming down to breakfast of the younger generation – as if it’s her fault. When they finally appear, his sarcasm is vicious. It’s Christmas day, and they open their presents. Grant’s is a book ‘inimical to the faith of the day’ that Duncan disapproves of: ‘on every page there is poison’. Presumably it’s Darwin. Duncan places it on the fire to burn. When elder daughter Nance mildly objects (‘Oh, Father, really!’), this is his characteristically venomous response:

“Really? Yes, really, Nance. I shall really do my best to guide you – to force you, if it must be, into the way you must go. I would not face the consequences of doing otherwise.”

“Would not the consequences be more widely distributed?”

“I shall really do what I can to achieve it,” went on Duncan, as if he had not heard, “and I trust it will not be impossible. I do not do it in my own strength.”

His coercive control here is revealed as a combination of patriarchal laying down of the law (i.e. his), personal attack on what he sees as heinous moral turpitude in those around him, and ridiculing of the linguistic-semantic shortcomings, as he pedantically represents them, of his victims’ attempts verbally to resist his strictures and oppressive behaviour.

As always, it’s the brilliantly contrived dialogue that’s the main vehicle for ICB’s mordant, witty take on the corrosive nature of this privileged, borderline deranged cast of characters. She makes little attempt at the usual novelistic technique of presenting what’s meant to be naturalistic dialogue (it never is, even in writers noted for their “realistic” dialogue; it’s always a literary contrivance), and this heightens the sense of artificiality, pomposity and egotism in the characters who deliver the dialogue.

Here’s Duncan still being cruel to Nance near the end of the novel, when her friend Cassie has called to announce the death of her mother:

“Nance, here is Cassie, out of sorts and out of heart. So listen to her, and let her talk herself out. She hasn’t come to you, for you to be of no good to her. See you are of some use as a woman, as you can be of none as anything else.”

So accustomed (and cowed) are the others in his house to this kind of casual unpleasantness that his comment receives no response.

The plot enables ICB to show the nastiness and defects in her characters in full flow: there are many deaths, an infanticide, incest and adultery – plenty for the salacious gossips in the village to indulge in. See what I mean about Jacobean tragedy? Oh, and there’s an insulting marriage proposal that Trollope would have been proud of (“you and I would be a charming couple”, the young woman is told by her would-be husband, whereas if he married her sister, who had just turned him down, they would have made “such an awkward pair”. How could anyone resist this charmer?)

It’s never easy to read a Compton-Burnett novel: the style is arch and dense, and it’s necessary for the reader to keep alert as multiple characters converse with minimal identification of who says what. But she’s well worth the effort.

Scott at his Minor Moderns blog wrote a perceptive, more detailed account of this novel (I liked his summary of it as a modernist Gothic comedy), with a useful biographical portrait of the author.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger

Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger. Penguin paperback. First published 1987

An old lady – Claudia – lies dying in a hospital bed, appearing out of it most of the time, but we are privy in this novel’s first-person sections in a multi-voiced narrative to her still functioning, brilliant mind as it savours memories.

‘“Was she someone?” enquires the nurse’, who patronises her and fails to acknowledge the humanity and intelligence of this impetuous, spirited woman: to the nurse she’s just a delirious, rather querulous and troublesome patient, who needs placating and humouring.

But the doctor, reading her notes, confirms what Claudia’s thoughts had alerted us to a few lines earlier: ‘”Yes, she does seem to have been someone’ – and he recites her history as recorded there:

…”evidently she’s written books and newspaper articles and … um…been in the Middle East at one time…typhoid, malaria…unmarried (one miscarriage, one child, but he does not say)…” [ellipses in the original text]

Penelope Lively Moon Tiger coverMoon Tiger, Penelope Lively’s tenth novel, won the 1987 Booker Prize, and it’s easy to see why: it’s a moving account of Claudia’s tempestuous, richly textured life in the context of the history of the world in which she lived. That terse list of her achievements – of the scars life left on her and the legacy she left – is brought dramatically to life in this novel. Claudia lives on in the reader’s memory long after finishing it – a difficult, prickly, assertive woman who scared many who knew her with her uncompromising confidence and glamorous good looks: ‘sometimes she squashes people,’ is one comment about her from someone who loved her.

The novel opens with Claudia saying that she’s writing a history of the world, ‘And, in the process, my own’:

fact and fiction, myth and evidence, images and documents.

The raw material of the historian and journalist that she had been. In writing this personal and universal history in her head, however, she is attempting to make ‘real history’, her story. ‘Everything and nothing’ is her method, a refrain that recurs throughout the narrative.

Coming to this novel after WG Sebald’s The Emigrants was illuminating. Like Sebald, she’s concerned not just with events, evidence, data, but with something more profound and important, more elusive.

She recalls a trip with Gordon, the dying brother with whom she had an intense, even sexual, love-hate relationship. As usual he has challenged her, deprecating her kind of history writing. She vehemently refutes his suggestion that she disdains theory, preferring to write popular histories that appeal to less discerning readers, about ‘action’ and the big names: Tito, Napoleon –

“That’s not real history. History is grey stuff. Products. Systems of government. Climates of opinion. It moves slowly. That’s why you get impatient with it. You look for spectacle…[and this] may mislead. What’s really happening may be going on elsewhere.”

“Oh, come on,” cries Claudia. “You’d tell the prisoner on the guillotine that the action is really somewhere else?”

Yet in that opening hospital scene Claudia had reflected on the nature of her history:

The voice of history, of course, is composite. Many voices; all the voices that have managed to get themselves heard. Some louder than others, naturally. My story is tangled with the stories of others…their voices must be heard also, thus shall I abide by the conventions of history. I shall respect the laws of evidence. But truth is tied to words, to print, to the testimony of the page. Moments shower away; the days of our lives vanish utterly, more insubstantial than if they had been invented. Fiction can seem more enduring than reality…History unravels; circumstances, following their natural inclination, prefer to remain ravelled.

The novel’s longest and most vivid section – an evocation of the central and most important episode in her ‘composite’ life when she was a war correspondent in Egypt in the 1940s, and met the love of her life – reveals the cause for this philosophy of Claudia’s. She sits trying to file copy in her room while worrying about her soldier lover’s fate. There are the statistics of retreats and advances, tanks and aircraft lost, men taken prisoner:

Figures dance on bits of paper, tenuously related to machines, to flesh and blood. There is out there, where these things or something like them are supposedly happening, and back here where ice clinks in glasses at six and hoses play on the gardens of Gezira.

Like Sebald, she reflects on the ‘disorder’ that follows war, its ‘aftermath’:

The aftermath of war should, correctly, be another war; it usually is. But the conventional aftermath is the struggle to set straight that which is awry; the taking stock, the counting of the living and the dead, the drift of the dispossessed back to their homelands, the apportioning of blame, the extraction of penalties and, at last, the writing of history. Once it is all written down we know what really happened.

Like him, she attempts to articulate a response to reading the entries in a loved one’s diary at the end of the novel. It’s more poignant and revealing than any accumulation of evidence:

I cannot analyse and dissect it, draw conclusions, construct arguments. You tell me about gazelles and dead men, guns and stars, a boy who is afraid; it is all clearer to me than any chronicle of events but I cannot make sense of it, perhaps because there is none to be made. It might be easier if I believed in God, but I don’t. All I can think, when I hear your voice, is that the past is true, which both appals and uplifts me.

She needs these memories:

And I can only explain this need by extravagance: my history and the world’s. Because unless I am a part of everything I am nothing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wilkie Collins tries another thriller

Collins Miss Mrs coverThe third in this OWC trilogy of Wilkie Collins novellas is The Guilty River. It first appeared in Bristol publisher JW Arrowsmith’s Christmas Annual, 1886, three years before Collins’ death, and subsequently in their ‘Bristol Library’ series.

Arrowsmith’s annual festive volume had become a big success, tapping into the contemporary taste for seasonal sensation-thrillers and ghost stories. They’d enjoyed best-seller status with the first of three such one-volume ‘shilling shockers’ (as they were known when published in book form, cheap ‘railway reading’ to rival the cumbersome and more expensive triple-deckers) by Bristolian Frederick John Fargus, writing as Hugh Conway. His first was in 1883, Called Back. When Fargus died in 1885, Arrowsmith turned to the ageing Collins to replicate his success.

But Collins’ health was failing, opium was taking its toll as well, and he fell behind schedule. He produced his final copy in a rush, working long hours to meet the deadline. This shows in the creakiness of the plot in The Guilty River. He also unashamedly adopts many of the plot features of his predecessor, such as a love-triangle, one of whom is a man with sensory deprivation (blindness), and a complicated, fast-paced plot (once it got going) designed to maximise thrills and horrors.

The Guilty River starts quite strongly, with an interesting account of the 22-year-old protagonist, Gerard Roylake, engaged in hunting moths – a pursuit he prefers to the trivial company of his frivolous, social butterfly (pardon the pun) of a stepmother, who he’s just met for the first time. He catches the insects with a process he calls ‘sugaring the trees’ with ‘a mixture or rum and treacle’. This ‘treacherous mixture’ allured and ‘stupefied’ the creatures.

The wood is dark and dreary – it’s a scene of typical Gothic gloom and death. It becomes weirder when Roylake’s familiar flying ‘enemies’ appear.

As I stretched out my hand to take [the moth], the apparition of a flying shadow passed, swift and noiseless, between me and the tree. In less than an instant the insect was snatched away, when my fingers were within an inch of it. The bat had begun his supper, and the man and the mixture had provided it for him.

This strange and stirring moth-hunting scene foreshadows much of the sporadically thrilling plot that follows – and many of its devices. It involves a love triangle: first, a deranged Deaf Lodger who insists on being called The Cur, because of the misery of his condition as a lonely outsider, cut off from society by his disability. Only a year earlier he’d been a beautiful, loving, good young man. Because of the discovery of dark family secrets on his father’s side, and the fear that he has a ‘family taint’ caused by the African slave blood of his grandmother, exacerbated by his ‘deaf man’s isolation’, his mind has broken.

Insanely infatuated with Cristel, the beautiful daughter of the devious miller, Roylake’s tenant, and obsessively jealous of the young landlord, who also falls for the buxom charms of Cristel, he attempts first to murder his hated rival, then, when that is narrowly thwarted, to abduct the young woman.

There are some interesting plot features like the doppelganger theme: the lodger is seen as a dark counterpart to Roylake – the Mr Hyde to his Jekyll. But modern readers will not find congenial the assumption that character was adversely influenced by the lodger’s being of ‘mixed breed’, or that the criminality of his paternal ancestors’ blood flowed in his veins. The benign influence of his much-loved mother’s genes is weaker than that of these malignant forebears – a dramatic struggle of heredity shared to a less extreme extent by Roylake, whose gentle, loving mother was cruelly treated by his father. His jealousy of his innocent wife’s past also caused him to banish his equally long-suffering son to exile on the continent of Europe when his ‘martyr’ of a mother died.

There’s the usual Gothic-sensational complexity of structure, with multiple secondary narratives. One of these, the lodger’s ‘Memoirs of a Miserable Man’, has two further embedded narratives within it, and there are numerous other letters, reports, etc. to spice up the mix – with limited success. That staple feature of so many Victorian novels (Trollope’s in particular) of class-based objections to socially mismatched love-matches is handled in a cumbersome manner.

As in The Haunted Hotel there are overt comparisons of the events in the narrative with a theatrical melodrama: ‘like a scene in a play, isn’t it?’ says Roylake to Cristel after summarising for her the Cur’s ‘Memoirs’. Not a good play.

It’s not surprising, then, that Collins’ attempt to do a Fargus was a failure. Sales came nowhere near those of ‘Hugh Conway’. After its fairly stirring start the plot falters and loses coherence. The ending is a bit of a mess. Too often the narrative tries too crudely to heighten tension by asking ‘How will it end?’, or speculating on how different choices at key moments might have, surprise surprise, resulted in less torturous outcomes.

So: thanks, Twitter folks, for the recommendation of Collins’ Venice-set novella, but I’m afraid this trilogy as a whole isn’t a great success for me.

 

 

Wilkie Collins, The Haunted Hotel

The Haunted Hotel is the second novella or long short story in the trilogy by Wilkie Collins (1824-89) published by Oxford World’s Classics; I posted yesterday on the first one, Miss or Mrs? 

Collins Miss Mrs cover

The rather handsome image on the cover of the OWC paperback is a detail from a watercolour by James Holland, ‘The Steps of the Palazzo Foscari'(1844)

The Haunted Hotel was first published in six monthly instalments, June-November, 1878, in Belgravia: An Illustrated London Magazine. This was a popular journal initially edited by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, author of the best-selling sensation novel Lady Audley’s Secret (serialised in 1861; first book form 1862) and established by her lover, the publisher John Maxwell, to provide an outlet for her copious fictional production. It was sold to Chatto and Windus in 1876, when its huge sales had already started to dwindle.

Hardy’s novel The Return of the Native appeared in serial form in the same magazine in the same year as The Haunted Hotel. That’s where the connection ends. Collins’s novella is nowhere near in the same class as Hardy’s sixth published novel.

Like Miss or Mrs? it is highly melodramatic and plot-driven. It differs in that it is has more in common with the gothic romance wing of sensation fiction, as its title suggests. Its first major player is the mysterious Countess Narona – whose very name resembles that of the equally demonic (and dangerously foreign) Count Murano in Radcliffe’s seminal gothic romance, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). The eponymous Venetian hotel, like the castles in that predecessor, is decaying, putrid and full of dark, spectral secrets – including a lab-workshop in the cellar that would have pleased Victor Frankenstein.

Although once again Collins keeps his plot rattling along at a good pace, ending every few chapters (presumably these were the final pages of each monthly instalment) with a cliffhanger. But these aren’t sufficient to hold the modern reader’s attention. The narrative only fully arrives in Venice at ch. 17, almost half-way through the story. Collins attempts to build suspense leading up to this point with a variety of familiar gothic-sensational devices, from letters and legal reports to oral narratives delivered by marginal characters.

The single unifying principle, on which the author stakes his whole supposedly terrifying mystery, is the probability that the room in which a character died under suspicious circumstances has lingered in ghost form and appears to his family members when they come to stay in the rambling, ruinous palazzo he’d rented during his stay in Venice, and which has subsequently converted by developers into a fashionable hotel.

Unfortunately, although there is a certain frisson when the ghastly truth arrives, it has taken far too long to arrive, and the  clichéd plot, full of stereotypical characters and implausible coincidences and developments, once again weaken the story. Collins tweaks that ending to leave a slight possibility of doubt whether the supernatural element really does have a more mundane explanation – but that’s not enough to rescue the novella from mediocrity.

Interest perks up slightly when it takes a surprising metafictional turn in the Venice section: the evil Countess suggests to a theatrical entrepreneur that he produce a play she’ll write called ‘The Haunted Hotel’, involving, guess what, a Venetian palazzo with a terrifying ghost, a plot contrasting credulous superstition with more rational villainy, and some twisty secrets. This too soon palls and becomes yet another creaky implausibility. As in Miss or Mrs? there’s some nasty casual racism and sexism.

Nevertheless I also found this second dose of sensational Collins – this time with a gothic flavour – entertaining enough for the post-Christmas torpor. It was this novella in the OWC volume that was recommended to me by the literary folk on Twitter when I put out a request for Venice-set literature to prepare me for a planned short break there with Mrs TD next spring.

Collins had visited the city several times, including one stay with his collaborator-friend Dickens and their mutual friend, the genre artist Augustus Egg, and most recently in 1877 while on a tour to alleviate the symptoms of gout in the eyes – for which he also turned to opium for relief. This first-hand knowledge doesn’t show itself in the story, however. I thought the detail about the setting could have been arrived at by any half-decent writer of potboilers armed with a tourist guide and a few poems by Byron.

Wilkie Collins, Miss or Mrs?

Not much time for reading over the Christmas period, but visitors have now gone, and I can at least post about the first of three long short stories by Wilkie Collins (1824-89) in one OWC volume (2008). The first, Miss or Mrs? (1871) is 80-odd pages long. The middle one, The Haunted House, about which more next time, is probably better described as a novella at 160 pp. The Guilty River is 110 pp.

Collins Miss Mrs coverNorman Page and Toru Sasaki point out in their Introduction that these shorter-form works of fiction were well favoured by many Victorian novelists, from Dickens (a friend of and collaborator with Collins) to Stevenson, Henry James to Conrad, and of course with later writers like Thomas Mann and DH Lawrence. Although he wrote more than twenty novels between 1850 and 1890 (Blind Love was published posthumously), and produced his most popular work in the 1860s –The Woman in White (1860) to The Moonstone (1868) – Collins was happy to meet the demand from publishers and the reading public for shorter fiction, mostly published originally in magazine form. Two of them were later republished in book form, thus reaching a new market, and generating a new income stream for author and publisher.

Miss or Mrs? first appeared in the Christmas edition of The Graphic, an ‘illustrated London newspaper’, which sold 200,000 copies. Its typically lurid and melodramatic plot reflects Collins’ knowledge of the law (he’d been intended for a legal career by his father, and was called to the bar in 1851, but soon turned to writing as a profession).

I have a soft spot for these Victorian ‘sensational’ works of fiction. They rely on intricacy of plot and outlandish developments, larger-than-life characters, implausible coincidences and murky secrets to drive the narrative at a cracking pace. Not so much energy or interest is invested in characterisation or psychological verisimilitude.

Readers today might not find it so easy to warm to the two central romantic figures. Natalie Graybrooke is only fifteen. Her weak-willed, money-loving father is easily persuaded by his shady middle-aged and clearly villainous friend Turlington (with some nasty secrets in his history) to consent to their marrying, unaware that the shady ‘Levant trader’ has got seriously into debt and needs the money that her father has promised as a dowry to get him out of his difficulties.

Her secret lover has the implausibly Tennysonian name Launcelot Linzie. He’s not so much older than Natalie, but her cousin – neither her age nor their familial connection seem to cause much of a problem in Victorian times.

The convoluted plot involves a heartless abandonment of a man at sea (in the past), a dastardly murder plot that nearly succeeds (in the present), a blackmail plot, and the lovers’ secret wedding in a dodgy part of London (to avoid the gentry who know her family from finding out about Natalie and Launcelot’s marriage). Because she’s underage – presumably this is why the author makes his heroine so young, otherwise the plot collapses – they can’t elope, as under Victorian law of the time this would open the groom to the charge of abduction (if she’d been sixteen she’s described by him as being ‘ripe for elopement’! – some of the social and gender attitudes are pretty grim). So she has to remain, secretly wed, in her father’s household, subjected to the creepy advances of her would-be husband, Turlington.

It might be a plot device to make Natalie only fifteen, but Collins repeatedly describes her as sexually mature, alluring and nubile. Her physical and emotional precocity is accounted for in further dubious plotting – she’s another of those Victorian plot staples, an outsider: her mother had been born in the West Indies, and it’s thought she has ‘a mixture of Negro blood and French blood’. Both would have been considered sufficient to explain her sexually advanced development (Rochester’s wife in Jane Eyre belongs in this category; Heathcliff, too, in his own way, perhaps). This racial and gender stereotyping is difficult to countenance now, and the love scenes between Natalie and Launcelot are a little disturbing.

It’s good fun finding out how all these tangled threads of plot are tied up by the end, but it’s far from a work of high literary seriousness. Entertaining reading for the holidays, though.

Maybe the plot owes something to Collins’ well-known unconventional personal views on marital relations. From 1858 he lived with a lower-class widow and her daughter. Although she wanted to marry him, he disapproved of the institution of marriage. She left him for a time in the early 1860s and even married someone else, but returned to him and they continued their ménage. In 1868 he met Martha Rudd, then 19, and they began a separate household together and they had three children. He divided his time between the two families. He’d also become an opium addict, having taken the drug initially to treat the painful symptoms of gout.

It’s not surprising really that his stories have such outlandish and sensational plots.

Ardour and shyness: Virginia Woolf’s essays on women in The Common Reader vol. 2

Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader vol. 2: cover

My Vintage Books paperback edition of 2003

When she turns her attention to female writers in The Common Reader vol. 2, Virginia Woolf’s tone become more fervent than in those essays that discuss male figures. More indignant, too. Not surprising, really, as this collection was published just three years after A Room of One’s Own.

Here she is, in her essay on the Letters of Dorothy Osborne, (1627-95), most of them written in the years of clandestine courtship to the man she married in 1654, Sir William Temple. ‘Material conditions’ that made it difficult for non-aristocratic men to become writers at that time were worse for women:

the woman was impeded also by her belief that writing was an act unbefitting her sex.

The odd ‘great lady’ might write and print her writings and be grudgingly tolerated, protected by her rank: ‘But the act was offensive to a woman of lower rank.’ Dorothy wrote as much herself when the Duchess of Newcastle published one of her books, exclaiming that she could never stoop to such unbecoming lack of decorum.

Yet she was a woman with a ‘great literary gift’, Woolf adds. Had she born 200 years later she’d have been a fine novelist. As it was, the only form of expression open to her was letters – and these allow us a rare example of the voice of men and women ‘talking together over the fire.’ Despite the stylistic (and social-domestic) constraints of the time for women of her station, Lady Temple took pains over her compositions, and produced a literature of her own,

a record of life, gravely yet playfully, formally and yet with intimacy, to a public of one, but to a fastidious public, as the novelist can never give it, or the historian either.

Jonathan Swift secured a position in the late 1680s as secretary to Sir William. ‘Mild Dorothea, peaceful, wise and great,’ is his description of her in her final years. He failed to perceive the passionate, spirited woman who is glimpsed in those letters to her forbidden lover, and whose voice has otherwise been muted or ignored, along with most of the other women who lived in those days, and for many years afterwards.

The sketch of Mary Wollstonecraft also glows with suppressed empathetic anger. Mary’s violent father’s profligacy forced her into that hated role of so many women of her class, governess: ‘she had never known what happiness was.’ All she knew was ‘the sordid misery of real human life’ – and yet she forged an identity and a philosophy all her own:

The staple of her doctrine was that nothing mattered save independence…not grace or charm, but energy and courage and the power to put her will into effect, were the necessary qualities.

Revolution was in her blood:

She had been in revolt all her life – against tyranny, against law, against convention. The reformer’s love of humanity, which has so much of hatred in it as well as love, fermented within her.

Only rarely does this fiery tone emerge in Woolf’s essays on male writers.

She’s more sober in the piece on the quiet, unassuming devotion of Dorothy Wordsworth to her brother, as revealed in her journals and letters. But even she is allowed some force and fervour, as here in an account of her writing about a waterfall:

She searched out all its character, she noted its resemblances, she defined its differences, with all the ardour of a discoverer, with all the exactness of a naturalist, with all the rapture of a lover.

Woolf notes how Dorothy effectively created the conditions in which her ‘beloved’ William could become a poet, not just domestically, but emotionally, artistically, even linguistically:

It was a strange love, profound, almost dumb, as if brother and sister had grown together and shared not the speech but the mood, so that they hardly knew which felt, which spoke, which saw the daffodils or the sleeping city; only Dorothy stored the mood in prose, and later William came and bathed in it and made it into poetry. But one could not act without the other.

A more sober account, then, but the language, imagery and style of that passage show the emotion tempered by intellect of the Metaphysicals, the graceful expressive symmetry of the Augustans. The brother ‘bathes’ in the life-giving spring waters of his sister’s self-effacing generosity and art.

Dorothy may have lacked the fiercely passionate nature and agency of Mary Wollstonecraft, but Woolf convinces us that Dorothy’s role in English literary history is just as significant – not just in acting as midwife to much of her illustrious brother’s work, but in her own surviving written work. There was a different type of passionate blood flowing in her veins, a different order of self-expression, and Virginia Woolf has the clear-eyed sympathy to perceive them, as she sums up a typical journal entry by Dorothy:

Her pen sometimes stammers with the intensity of the emotion that she controlled, as De Quincey said that her tongue stammered with the conflict between her ardour and her shyness as she spoke.

Yet ‘still she must control’ her impulsive nature, ‘still she must repress, or she would fail in her task – she would cease to see.’

As Nora says in A Doll’s House when her controlling, patronising husband talks about a man’s pride: millions of women have to swallow theirs, every day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader, vol. 2

The second volume of Virginia Woolf’s collection of her own essays, The Common Reader, was published by the Hogarth Press in 1932, some seven years after vol. 1 – about which I wrote here, here and here

Again the range is wide; there are essays on Donne, novels of Hardy, Gissing and Meredith, prose writings from the ‘strange Elizabethans’ to Swift, Lord Chesterfield, De Quincey, Hazlitt and more. These include such forms as letters, diaries, autobiography and biography. There are less prestigious literary subjects too, from obscure 18C diarist parsons to rumbustious sporting gents. And Beau Brummell – his sad decline from lionised society dandy to shabby, smelly, neglected, lonely old exile in Calais.

Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader vol. 2: cover

My Vintage Classics paperback edition of 2003

Woolf’s reading was eclectic and formidable; the notes appended show that for each essay she’d consult a daunting set of sources. For the piece on Donne, for example, her reading included, apart from the two-volume edition of poems of 1896 by Chambers and another in two volumes by Grierson (1912), Sir Edmund Gosse’s two-volume Life and LettersLady Anne Clifford…Her life, Letters and Work by GC Williamson, and The Diary of Lady Anne Clifford.

In another post I hope to consider the essays on some of the women writers Woolf discusses. For now I’ll just note a few high points.

In ‘The Strange Elizabethans’ she notes:

Elizabethan prose, for all its beauty and bounty, was a very imperfect medium. It was almost incapable of fulfilling one of the offices of prose which is to make people talk, simply and naturally, about ordinary things.

But when it descends to down-to-earth matters, it’s filled with ‘awkwardness’ – as when Lady Sidney (d. 1586) finds herself cold at night when staying at court, and writes a letter soliciting the Lord Chamberlain for a better room that could have been put ‘more simply and with greater force’ by a housemaid of the same age.

She traces three main phases in the writing career of John Donne. The ‘imperious lover’ is followed by the ‘servile and obsequious’ figure writing eulogies for wealthy patrons, and all the ‘psychological intensity and complexity’ that characterised the satires and love poems changes. From feeling an affinity with the ‘contrasts’ in those earlier works, ‘he leaves us in the lurch’, and becomes ‘more remote, inaccessible, and obsolete than any of the Elizabethans.’

Here is the quality that shines through most of these essays. Woolf has the capacity to get to the essence of a writer’s or a period’s defining qualities and express her insights in often colloquial, unadorned language, to achieve what that first quotation demonstrates the Elizabethans found impossible. There’s a strong sense of a powerful reading intelligence conversing undogmatically with her reader (she’s particularly good on Hardy) – a critical approach that she delineates at length in the final essay in the collection, ‘How Should One Read a Book?’

There she begins:

The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions.

It’s an approach I tend towards in this blog. I can then, as she does, ‘put forward a few ideas and suggestions because you will not allow them to fetter that independence’ which is the essential quality of a reader. Outside of of the ‘heavily furred and gowned’ authorities in the academy, there are no clear laws or rules for readers.

Readers experience ‘a thousand conflicting impressions’ when reading, which we try to order. Then we turn to Defoe, Austen or Hardy ‘better able to appreciate their mastery.’ All this miscellaneous, eclectic, voracious reading served Woolf – and, by extension, all readers – ‘not to throw light on literature, not to become familiar with famous people [biographies, autobiographies, etc.], but to refresh and exercise our own creative powers.’

It’s sometimes asserted that literary critical writing – even in the form of a humble blog, provided it’s done thoughtfully – is a kind of creative writing. In my experience in writing this blog there’s a truth in that final remark of Woolf’s. When we talk about literature we ‘remain readers’. But even readers, as distinguished from ‘critics’, have ‘responsibilities’:

The standards we raise and the judgements we pass steal into the air and become part of the atmosphere [blogosphere?] which writers breathe as they work.

What we readers aver about our reading must be ‘well instructed, vigorous and individual and sincere’ if it is to have any value. We must judge ‘with great sympathy and yet with great severity’: this she hopes will enrich the world in some way.

These are exacting standards to read and write by. Being a Woolfian ‘common reader’ requires uncommon commitment, but ultimately one has to be able to say, in Woolf’s resounding words that close this entertaining collection:

They have loved reading.

Vita Sackville-West, No Signposts in the Sea

Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962), No Signposts in the Sea. VMC 1992; first published 1961

Vita Sackville-West gathered much of the material for this novella on some of the sea-cruises she took annually with her husband Harold Nicholson (they married in 1913) for the last six years of her life. The narrative consists of the journal entries of eminent political journalist Edmund Carr as he embarks on the first ocean cruise – and love – of his life.

He observes and records the foibles and relationships of his fellow travellers, from the bridge parties and factions and friendships that spring up on board, to his ventures onshore when the ship docks at exotic locations. In that sense it can be read partly as a travelogue, with vivid descriptions of the ports and islands they visit and pass by, the migrants, crew and social butterflies on board ship, and the ‘natives’ who are sometimes referred to (as are some other ethnic and social groups) in the offensive terms that were still sadly prevalent in people of the author’s class at the time.

VSW Signposts cover

The painting on the cover of my VMC edition is by my namesake, Sir John Lavery – don’t think we’re related, but both our families come originally from Ireland, so who knows?!

It’s clear from early on that Edmund has a terminal illness, and has left his newspaper to follow Laura, the woman with whom he’s falling deeply in love. The narrative relates the toxic effects of jealousy to which he’s subject, building with increasing tension to a foreseeable but still powerful conclusion. Along the way there are philosophical and poetical reflections on life (and mutability), death and love.

By allowing himself for the first time in his life to go with the flow of existence – he’s all at sea in every sense – because he knows his days are numbered, he discovers in himself depths of romantic sensitivity and an ambivalent attitude towards his often abrasive contacts with the mundane that represent the first stage of self-realisation and fulfilment.

The main cause of his jealousy concerning Laura is the handsome and suave Colonel Dalrymple. As the narrative is conveyed from the partial viewpoint of Edmund himself, we initially see this rival as charming and attractive, but as time goes on the Colonel’s attentiveness to Laura causes him great pain. Considering Edmund is fifty and Laura forty, the novella gives a reassuring indication for those of us who are no longer youthful that passion and the pangs of love and jealousy are not the sole province of the young.

Victoria Glendinning, who wrote the Introduction to this edition, finds Edmund’s working-class origins unconvincingly done. But I found this an important aspect of his self-delusion. He’s painfully aware that he isn’t one of the ‘well-bred’ cruising class like the Colonel, the quintessential English gentleman – or Laura. He can’t help but feel inadequate in their company, and by comparing himself unfavourably with them, heightens his sense of worthlessness. Otherwise his bitter jealousy would seem less plausible.

For example, Edmund records in his journal with a self-directed sneer that he’s ‘a man of the people’, a ‘rough terrier beside a greyhound’. Yet Laura often reveals to us that she admires his poetic nature and enjoys his company far beyond the level of a sympathetic fleeting on-board friendship. It’s the fate of the class-conscious jealous man to misinterpret the very narrative he’s in the process of writing.

Laura expresses some interestingly racy views on relationships and marriage that appear to reflect some of Vita’s and Harold’s complicated arrangements. She insists that in a marriage she would treasure her independence, sleeping in a separate bedroom and living an unsubmissive life.

Because of the fragmentary journal structure the narrative flows rapidly and rarely flags. There are some memorable and luminous scenes, like the electric storm at sea or the green flash that Edmund and Laura look out for most evenings as the sun dips beyond the ocean’s horizon (this feature reminded me of Eric Rohmer’s 1986 film ‘The Green Ray’ – ‘Le Rayon vert’). I found the depiction of the almost adolescent but scorching angst and torment of Edmund compensated for the slightly clunky plotting. At only 156 pages it’s a pleasant and entertaining way to pass a grey day of hail and rain in a Cornish November.

Other Vita Sackville-West novels discussed at Tredynas Days are:

All Passion Spent (1931)

The Edwardians (1930)

There’s a good review of Signposts at HeavenAli’s blog

 

Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black

Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black. Harper Perennial paperback, 2005.

Travelling: the dank oily days after Christmas. The motorway, its wastes looping London: the margin’s scrub-grass flaring orange in the lights, and the leaves of the poisoned shrubs striped yellow-green like a cantaloupe melon. Four o’clock: light sinking over the orbital road. Teatime in Enfield, night falling in Potter’s Bar.

Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black coverThe opening paragraph of this curious novel sounds like Iain Sinclair’s psychogeographical descriptions of the grubby margins of urban life. Not just because of the subject matter – the orbital motorway with its seedy squalor alongside – but the hallucinatory style and tone. The bizarre imagery resembles his, too – or maybe it strays into Angela Carter territory, especially in the sections of seedy occult showmanship.

Neither of these tendencies is a bad thing. But I found that 451 pages of grand guignol was a bit hard to stomach. The team at the Backlisted podcast on their Halloween show called this the longest ghost story in English literature . Maybe it is – but it’s too long.

The plot, however, is minimal. Alison is an obese medium whose spirit ‘guide’ Morris is a hideous, malevolent ex-circus dwarf. He’s often accompanied by a sickening group of lascivious, vicious thugs who seem to have haunted Alison since her childhood. They slip between the world ‘beyond black’, referred to as ‘spirit world’ by the ‘sensitives’ like Alison, and squat like cut-price demons in the back yards and under the carpets of the living.

Much of the narrative consists of nauseous flashbacks to the squalid house she lived in as a child with her mother. Emmie was a prostitute who had tried to abort Alison, and neglected her when her crude attempts failed and the girl starts to grow up. She makes no attempt to care for the child, and sells her on to these vile, vicious creatures without compunction.

Alison has constant nightmarish flashbacks to the violence and degradation she was subjected to by this troupe of horrors. These are heightened by being contrasted with the humdrum suburban tedium she inhabits in the ‘real’ world.

She acquires a manager/live-in companion. Colette is skinny and spiritually sparse – the reverse of Alison in every way. Their relationship deteriorates as Colette finally has enough of Alison’s bizarrely horrible conversations with people she can’t see.

There are flashes of dark humour, and Mantel has great fun sending up the boringly conventional suburbanites who are the two women’s neighbours.

In the PS section of material at the end of the book Hilary Mantel says that she researched the world of stagey mediums and found their ‘demonstrations’ ‘threatening, unlikely, and slightly repulsive’ – and it shows in this novel.

I think what prevented me from giving up on this rather nasty story was the conviction with which the author portrays Alison’s haunted world. Alison never seriously tries to convince the sceptical Colette that she really does see dead people, and is no charlatan. Her stage act could easily be a mix of shrewd psychology and suggestion – the punters are mostly credulous and naïve. But the narrative suggests that the nightmare Alison appears to live in is real to her, and her attempts to find out who she is, who her father was, what her true history is (not contaminated memories) is strangely gripping.

VS Pritchett: The Complete Essays

V.S. Pritchett, The Complete Essays, Chatto and Windus, London was published in 1991 when the English author was 91 (he died in 1997), and is now out of print.

It was brought to my attention by an appreciation of it last month in The Paris Review by Morten Høi Jensen, to whom it had been recommended by James Wood. Jensen expresses well the strength of this collection:

In a single paragraph, without analyzing or interpreting or even commenting on the novels, Pritchett had somehow managed to capture their essence. And he did it not with the skeptical distance of a scholar but with the messy proximity of the fellow practitioner.

Pritchett Essays coverIt has 1300 pages and is, as he suggests, ‘heavy as a cast iron skillet’. The 203 essays, originally mostly book reviews, cover hundreds of writers from Europe, Asia and the Americas– an idiosyncratic, eclectic but loving and perceptive history of western literature. They were highly esteemed by the likes of Edmund Wilson, Elizabeth Hardwick, Anthony Burgess and Susan Sontag.

Pritchett discusses earlier writers such as Cervantes, Sterne, Smollett (who I’ve still to read) and Fielding; a large body from 19 and 20C – most of the canonical English novelists, and the less canonical like Gissing, the Grossmiths, Samuel Butler and Jerome K. Jerome; then Conrad, Woolf and co. to Orwell and Rushdie; as Jensen says, VSP was ‘generously receptive to younger talent’.

He assesses Americans from Benjamin Franklin, Whitman and Crane to Updike. Poe and Twain are delineated with characteristically controversial broad but telling strokes within the distinctive Puritan tradition of their country.

There’s an affectionate essay on the ‘sayings’ of his close friend, the hispanophile Gerald Brenan. It ends with typical acuity:

Be careful: if he is drawing his portrait he may be drawing yours.

Pritchett admires Brenan’s dislike of ‘critics of poetry who insist on “explicating”’. Maybe because he’s the same; Jensen quotes his biographer describing Pritchett’s quality of ‘undoctrinaire discrimination’ – that fine and sadly now underused term so dear to the great Leavisite tradition of critics (well, maybe not the ‘undoctrinaire’ part) -and the ‘sympathetic and respectful curiosity’ with which he approached characters in literature and in life.

He has the ability to get to the essence of a writer’s nature and work and portray it with elegance, wit and intelligence. I’m not sure I always agree with some of his larger generalisations, but I enjoy the stimulating, cheerful conviction with which he makes them and the polished, convivial style in which he expresses them.

Mostly he deals with prose fiction (and some non-fiction and figures from other artistic disciplines, like Cruikshank and Ruskin). Here’s a typically pleasing and pithy conclusion to the essay on the historian of the fall of the Roman empire:

Gibbon has a taste for the truth that is melancholy, for seeing life as a series of epitaphs.

This isn’t just thrown in as a witty epigram: it’s a logical conclusion arising from the intricate argument that preceded it.

The piece on the eccentric Thomas Day – its title ‘The Crank’ is apt – is brilliant. Day was the shabby enlightenment rationalist – ‘the modest and entrancing crank of the century’ – who was so convinced of the ‘sufficiency’ of men and the ‘insufficiency of women’ as Pritchett puts it, that he set about to ‘construct his own wife from blue prints in advance’. I’ve written here before about this deluded disciple of Rousseau and his notorious experiment to mould a suitable wife for himself from a child plucked from an orphanage, but this essay says to much more and so much better than I was able to in my post on the ‘Lives of the Obscure’ in Virginia Woolf’s first volume of The Common Reader.

There’s a particularly strong representation of major (and lesser) French writers — he almost convinces me to give Anatole France another try.

I’ve borrowed this massive book from the library, and must return it soon. I’ll have to buy a copy to read on, one I can annotate. I’ve only had time to read a few of the essays that appealed most, so I’d commend this review by Jensen to get a fuller picture of Pritchett’s tastes and achievements in these essays and in his short stories – which I intend to read now I’ve sampled this collection.

I found I had to dip in and read in small bursts, slowly. Every sentence and paragraph is so carefully constructed, the arguments and perceptions so cadenced and measured in expression, that every essay needs careful appraisal and rereading. They are to be sipped and savoured, not gulped.

Jensen sums up what I’ve noticed in the essays I’ve read so far:

they sparkle with impression, metaphor, and aphorism.

He goes on to suggest that maybe Pritchett has made less critical impact than Virginia Woolf, another who excelled in fiction and critical essay-writing, because he lacked her ‘fierceness’, her ‘polemical strain’. He was disdainful of what might be called the approach of the professional (ie academic) critics. I suppose he’s what’s usually dismissively categorised as a passionate amateur and aesthete. Nothing wrong with that.

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