Angela Thirkell: High Rising

Angela Thirkell, High Rising. VMC 2013; first published 1933

Thirkell H Rising cover

The VMC cover demonstrates the retro charm of this frothy confection of a novel

Angela Thirkell was quite someone: a granddaughter of the Pre-Raphaelite artist Burne-Jones and goddaughter of JM Barrie, her father was Professor of Poetry at Oxford, and she was related to Kipling and British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. Like her enterprising protagonist Laura in her second novel High Rising, she took to writing potboiler-middlebrow ‘rather good bad books’ about which she has ‘no illusions’ as to their literary merit, to make a living when left alone in the world:

She had considered the question carefully, and decided that, next to racing and murder, and sport, the great reading public of England (female section) likes to read about clothes.

There’s a character in this novel who reluctantly shows Laura’s publisher her novel; Laura is relieved to find she’s one of those ‘rotten’ writers who knew they couldn’t write’ – a typically self-deprecating reference that surely applies to Thirkell herself.

So Laura churns out, as often as Thirkell did, frothy romances set in the world of fashion, ‘opium’ as a friend and fan of Laura’s describes the experience of reading them. Laura is slightly embarrassed to add to the pile of what would now be derisively known as chick-lit, but happy to cash the royalties cheques. She’s level-headed, a realist who’s learned to exploit her own limited talent and the even more limited tastes of her target market. (Elizabeth Taylor does a much more witty, interesting and sophisticated job on this in Angel.)

Unlike Laura, whose husband had died (though she says he was an expensive nuisance when alive), Thirkell left her second husband; her first she divorced on the grounds of adultery. Men tend refreshingly to be portrayed as the weaker sex in this novel, and it’s the spirited, sensible women like Laura who win through – ‘excellent’ women, to borrow Barbara Pym’s phrase – a writer to whom Thirkell is often compared, but who is a far sharper, more accomplished artist.

I won’t summarise the rather predictable but amusing plot – links to other bloggers’ posts at the end supply outlines. I’ll just single out the few points that amused me in this undemanding, often saccharine entertainment. It’s ideal for a rainy day or sickbed – a guilty escapist pleasure that was a bit too much for Karen of BookerTalk, who likened it to an indigestible ‘meringue’. She craved something edgier and saltier. I know what she means, but I (mostly) enjoyed this novel. I didn’t care for the casual anti-Semitism; it’s not sufficient to put it down to the opinions of the period. Look what was going on in Germany in 1933.

Thirkell set these comedies in Trollope’s Barsetshire – a feature that appealed to me, as my recent Barsetshire posts indicate. She’s not in his league, of course, but wouldn’t claim to be.

Laura’s young son Tony divides critical opinion: to some he’s a charming, precocious chatterbox; I’m with those who found him irritating, with his obsession with trains and the patrician manners his private school encourages. But he reminded me of my grandson when he was that age. Now he’s scared of trains. Existential pre-teen angst has replaced innocent pleasure. Tony will probably become Transport Minister in a Tory government and close unprofitable country lines like the one passing through High Rising.

I preferred Laura’s cheerful maternal doting on him mixed with prevalent hatred. On several occasions she could happily kill him, our narrator tells us. She contemplates writing a book: ‘Why I Hate My Children’. Reminds me of the recent bestseller ‘Why Mummy Drinks’.

There’s a weird section in Ch. 9 just like passages in Cold Comfort Farm (published the year before, in 1932): Laura sees a handsome, swarthy rider in Hyde Park:

Rather DH Lawrence-ish, thought Laura vaguely. The sort of person who would turn into a half-caste Indian, full of black, primal secret something-or-other, and subjugate his mate.

Her reverie is ended when this hunky vision speaks in an accent so ‘healthily Cockney that the lure of the he-man vanished.’ The pastiche is almost as good as Stella Gibbons’.

There’s a well done car crash (no one is hurt) when Laura’s publisher gets drunk at a New Year party (as publishers do) and drives her home. The aftermath is a good example of Thirkell making an entertaining meal of unlikely material. The car ends on its roof, with Adrian jammed under the steering wheel, and Laura on top of him. She’s livid.

‘[The door]’s stuck, of course,’ she said coldly. ‘Do we spend the night here? It may be respectable, in view of the limited opportunities, but it’s not my idea of comfort.

Adrian manages to get out:

‘Come on, Laura,’ he said. ‘I’ll give you a hand.’

‘How can I get out of a small window above my head, you soft gobbin,’ said Laura angrily. ‘I’ll never take you to a party again.’

The dressing-down she gives him when they get to her house is classic.

Farcical-theatrical set pieces like this just about redeem a lively but uneven, limited comic novel. They could easily feature in those screwball-women films of the period starring actors like Claudette Colbert.

See Jacqui’s post

Ali’s at HeavenAli

Jane’s blogging as FleurInHerWorld (now Beyond Eden Rock)

Karen’s at Booker Talk

Anthony Trollope: The Last Chronicle of Barset

Anthony Trollope, The Last Chronicle of Barset. First published by George Smith (of Smith, Elder & co.) in 32 monthly parts, each one with an illustration by George H. Thomas, 1866-67; 2-vol. edition 1867 (there’s a feature on these images at the Trollope Jupiter blog HERE; the Jimandellen blog has a detailed account with reproductions HERE)

For a more general feature on Trollope and his illustrators there’s a useful guide by Simon Cooke at the Victorian Web site HERE

The cover of my Oxford World's Classics paperback edition depicts 'The Bromley Family', 1844, by Ford Maddox Brown

The cover of my 900-page Oxford World’s Classics paperback edition depicts ‘The Bromley Family’, 1844, by Ford Maddox Brown

In this sixth and final Barsetshire novel (I’ve posted on the previous five earlier this year) Trollope reworks some familiar themes from the previous volumes, especially the central feature – the threat to rural-pastoral peace from metropolitan and other destabilising agents. This is achieved when in the final chapters the troubled and penniless Rev. Crawley replaces Harding in the role of vicar of St Ewold’s, which the former warden of Hiram’s Hospital took on when he resigned that post as a matter of honour and morality in the first novel in the chronicles: The Warden. He is thereby accepted fully for the first time as a ‘gentleman’ into the contemporary Barsetshire clerical circle, while symbolically inheriting from the saintly Harding the role of guardian of its traditional moral values. He’ll fulfil that role with less charm and self-effacing grace than his predecessor, but with the stern asceticism of St Simeon Stylites – with whom he’s overtly compared in Ch. 41, when he pushes himself to physical and mental breaking point in his parochial duties as a way of atoning for his failings (he’d been charged with the theft of a £20 cheque):

He would spare himself in nothing, though he might suffer even to fainting…But he would persevere…No personal suffering should deter him. He told himself that there had been men in the world whose sufferings were sharper even than his own. Of what sort had been the life of the man who had stood for years on the top of a pillar? But then the man on the pillar had been honoured by all around him. And thus, though he had thought of the man on the pillar to encourage himself by remembering how lamentable had been that man’s sufferings, he came to reflect that after all his own sufferings were perhaps keener than those of the man on the pillar. [ellipses mine]

Trollope has become a skilled and often subtle narrator of these otherwise rather creaky and glacially-paced plots – the mystery of the provenance of Crawley’s cheque isn’t resolved until p. 757 of this 900-page novel, largely because the person who could have cleared his name is conveniently out of the country and incommunicado. Those looping verbal repetitions (in the quotation above) demonstrate Crawley’s tendency symbolically to flagellate himself in order to show how he can outdo the world in inflicting pain and suffering on himself, while railing at the world’s failure to esteem him. This tendency has been largely responsible for the frequently-expressed view in his community that he’s prickly, proud and obsessive to the point of insanity (young Lord Lufton, a key character from earlier volumes in the series, calls him a ‘poor, cracked, crazy creature’). His bizarre forgetting where he obtained that cheque is typical of his manic, half-mad eccentricity and morose self-absorption. His self-pity at the ‘trials’ of poverty he suffers as a member of the ‘poor gentry’ verges on the monstrous, especially in his overbearing, patriarchal treatment of his children and his indulgent wife, whose love and devotion to him never falters, even when he’s at his most high-handed and bitter. Indeed, Mrs Crawley, who ‘saw clearly the workings of his mind’, perceives that he was

good and yet weak, that he was afflicted by false pride and supported by true pride, that his intellect was still very bright, yet so dismally obscured on many sides as almost to justify people in saying that he was mad. She knew that he was almost a saint, and yet almost a castaway through vanity and hatred of those above him.

This astute insight into her husband’s grotesquely conflicted, flawed character from one of Trollope’s typically wise, sympathetic mature women is again highlighted by that telling use of repetition and the symmetrical balancing of synonyms with their antonyms, enhanced by the spot-on rhythm, imagery and cadence of the sentences.

This narrative skill changes up a gear in the next sentence:

But she did not know that he knew all this of himself also.

She does not comprehend that he castigates himself constantly with the knowledge that people ‘were calling him mad and were so calling him with truth’, and neither does she ‘dream’ that ‘he was always inquiring of himself whether he was not mad’, and should therefore resign his pastoral office.

Even as shrewd an observer of this difficult man’s complex nature as his wife is surpassed by our narrator in psychological perspicacity – and all of this conveyed with a subtlety and sympathy that in other Victorian novelists would be praised as genius.

GH Thomas illustration of the Crawleys

Image above of the Crawleys at the Victorian Web Here:

This bleak and imposing design is Thomas’s first illustration and establishes the anguished tone of the Crawleys’ narrative. Though modelled on Millais’s earlier design for Framley Parsonage, it shows the reverend and his wife in later years; both have aged and their economic circumstances have declined from poverty into penury. The glum ambience is powerfully conveyed by the worried gestures and glances and the emptiness of the room suggests both material poverty and the emptiness of anxiety. [Simon Cooke, cited above]

This is a superb ending to the Barsetshire novels. The three sub-plots are less satisfying than that of the public humiliation and redemption of Crawley: Trollope’s lack of sustained interest in romantic plots is apparent in his recycling of the doomed Lily Dale-Johnny Eames affair from the previous novel – he even gives Eames another foolish and dangerous romantic London dalliance to take his mind of his humiliating, dogged pursuit of annoying country belle Lily. Trollope also returns to his staple plot of a spirited son’s defiance of parental disapproval of his choice of wife whose lowly social-financial status is their main concern (Henry Grantly and Crawley’s daughter Grace). The other London plot involving a society artist’s flirtation with a woman married to a dodgy city ‘financier’ (usurer/loan-shark) is more lively and exciting, but skirts close to farce towards its end – as the Johnny Eames flirtation plot does.

What lingers in the memory after finishing this fine, uneven novel is the portrayal of noble, heroic, infuriating Crawley, wallowing in self-pity and rancour, spurning the kind offers of aid from his loving friends and family, but capable of facing down the bullying of Mrs Proudie, and of providing genuine support and comfort to the oppressed brickmakers and their families who live in his impoverished parish.

Good to see the indomitable Miss Dunstable, now Mrs Thorne, reappear and provide moral sustenance for faltering lovers – though even she’s incapable of enlightening the ‘morbid’ tenacity of Lily’s infatuation with the scoundrel Crosbie.

Adam Foulds, The Quickening Maze

Adam Foulds, The Quickening Maze. Vintage paperback, 2010. First published 2009

I’d thought this was a novel about John Clare and his 90-mile walk home to Northamptonshire in 1841 from what was then known as a lunatic asylum in Epping Forest, on the fringes of London. The main characters in Adam Foulds’s novel, however, are Matthew Allen, the enlightened (for those times) proprietor of High Beach, and his sporadically precocious, often awkward 17-year-old daughter Hannah. The so-called peasant poet’s absconding and trek only feature in the closing pages, and he flits like a troubled phantom as just one (ok, the most prominent) of several distressed and deluded inmates of the asylum who feature throughout the narrative.

Adam Foulds, The Quickening Maze coverHannah develops a crush on new neighbour the poet Alfred Tennyson, whose brother suffers from depression, ‘the English malady’ Allen calls it (I’d always thought that was another thing) and becomes another of Allen’s patients. Tennyson inclines that way a little himself after the death of his dear friend Hallam – he was starting to compose the poem about him that would help establish his reputation later. Poor callow Hannah is too inexperienced to recognise she can’t compete with Hallam.

Feeling outshone by her prettier friend Annabella,  Hannah suffers indignities and humiliation in her attempts to make the future poet laureate notice her. These sections are done with remarkable sensitivity, warmth and poignant humour, and demonstrate with insight the tortures and raptures of adolescent love at a time when the quest for a suitable marriage partner was what society deemed the sole and fitting preoccupation of such young women. As Annabella tells her with depressingly worldly shrewdness on hearing of the arrival of the eligible aristocratic brothers from Lincolnshire in their area, “We have to be thinking of these things.”

The insights into Allen’s psychological methods are fascinating. Here he explains his ‘therapy for the insane’ to Tennyson:

“Brightness of company, exercise, a familial atmosphere, an unbosoming of anxieties…”

“Unbosoming?”

“Yes, the disclosure of personal fears and unhappinesses. Often I find encouraging patients through a conversational, what shall we call it, memoir is terribly useful.”

The asylum and the experiences of the inmates are portrayed at times with wit and sympathy, but at others there are scenes that are chilling, often stomach-churning (depending on the severity of the patient’s condition). There are two main sites at the asylum: benign Fairmead House, for those well enough to receive the gentler therapy mentioned above, ‘full of gentle disorder, idiocy and convalescence’. Some aren’t even mad at all; they’ve been incarcerated, as so many were in the Victorian era, for reasons of family expediency.

But Leopard Hill Lodge for the more seriously ill, presided over by a brutal and sadistic warder called Stockdale, is described here from the viewpoint of Allen’s young son:

[The Lodge] was full of real madness, of agony, people lost to themselves. They were fierce and unpredictable. They smelled rank. They were obscene. They made sudden noises. Their suffering was bottomless. It was an abyss of contorted humanity, a circle of hell.

Here we see the strengths of Foulds’s prose. Not surprisingly for a writer who’d previously published mostly poetry, it’s highly poetic. There are striking images and lilting cadences. At its best this prose soars.

Unfortunately the ornateness can become cloying. Here’s an example of maybe both qualities simultaneously; Hannah is visiting her friend Annabella, who’s sitting in her garden under a tree:

The tree looked ardent, single-minded, standing there and declaring its flowers straight out of the wet, gnarled wood.

The description is partly to be understood as Hannah’s perspective, with maybe a touch of the sentimental-romantic friend’s, too, while the closing words are surely those of the poet-novelist. ‘Gnarled’ is such a good, twisty word. I’m not sure what ‘declaring its flowers’ is about, though.

The narrative structure is fragmentary, almost collage, which works quite well as a means of depicting the fractured, hallucinatory nature of the minds of the inmates (and the sensibilities of the supposedly sane, including Allen, with his crackpot schemes and tendency to bankrupt himself on them, and the earnest, hopeful Hannah, painfully self-conscious about her unfinished poise, blushes and, well, sweating unbecomingly and at the most embarrassing moments).

Clare’s delusions are particularly poignantly portrayed. At times believing he’s a prize-fighter, he also believes at others that he’s Lord Byron or even Shakespeare. There are some interesting scenes where he consorts with gypsies (he’d spent some of his earlier years with travelling folk, and felt a deep sympathy with their unbridled culture).

It’s an interesting novel, but that poetic style is sometimes intrusive, and so is the rather too evident thorough period research. The ways the plot’s various elements are resolved, however, are startlingly effective, and make some powerful statements about the hypocrisies and delusions of the supposedly sane Victorian ‘maze of life’.

 

Anthony Trollope’s Small House at Allington again

I hadn’t intended returning to Anthony Trollope’s fifth Barsetshire novel, The Small House at Allington, after my post about it last time. But I felt I needed to indicate some of its strengths I didn’t have space for there.

Trollope is after all a writer of romantic comedies (though his interest in power struggles is more to his liking), and he can be pretty funny. In this scene the ghastly Lady de Courcy, whose snobbish cynicism has been portrayed in several of the earlier novels in the series, is visited by her daughter Lady Alexandrina, who’s come to complain about her ‘sufferings’ with her new husband. This is Crosbie, who’d jilted ‘dear Lily’ in favour of what he thought to be a more desirably glittering member of an aristocratic family, better suited to his ambitions as a ‘swell’ in fashionable London society – then quickly regrets his decision when his bride’s brittle coldness becomes apparent. (Their mutual contempt is shown with delightful dryness by Trollope even as they leave for their honeymoon and they each take out reading matter in the train to avoid having to converse.)

“Oh, mamma! you would not believe it; but he hardly ever speaks to me.”

“My dear, there are worse faults in a man than that.”

 

Lady de Courcy tells Alexandrina that she is to go to Baden-Baden indefinitely in order to escape from her increasingly boorish, goutish, abusive husband, the earl. She announces melodramatically to her unsympathetic daughter:

“Another year of it [life with the earl] will kill me. His language has become worse and worse, and I fear every day that he is going to strike me with his crutch.”

She hadn’t intended taking the daughter with her, and clearly resents the implicit request to join her in her escape:

She had endured for years, and now Alexandrina was unable to endure for six months. Her chief grievance, moreover, was this, – that her husband was silent. The mother felt that no woman had a right to complain of any such sorrow as that. If her earl had sinned only in that way, she would have been content to have remained by him till the last!

Great stuff.

In an earlier scene Johnny Eames, the annoyingly earnest, ingenuous young man who’d loved Lily since they were children together, has to do some enduring of his own. Lily’s engagement to Crosbie had been announced, and the dashing intruder ‘swell’ from London, his hated and now more successful rival, is on a visit to his mother’s humble home from the grander surroundings of the ‘big house’ at Allington where he was staying.

Crosbie reveals an early sign of his capacity for unpleasantness beneath the Apollonian surface: he haughtily refuses all of the flustered, awe-struck Mrs Eames’s offered refreshments, partly from snobbishness at the humble simplicity of this country cottage and hostess, and also because he knows of the son’s hopeless love for his fiancée, and ‘despises’ him for it.

Mrs Eames implores him with her eyes to accept a piece of cake ‘to do her so much honour.’ Understanding that the poor woman would be ‘broken-hearted’ if they all behaved so high-handedly, Lily and her sister Bell take some of the ‘delicacies’. And here Trollope shows his hand:

The little sacrifices of society are all made by women, as are all the great sacrifices of life. A man who is good for anything is always ready for his duty, and so is a good woman always ready for a sacrifice.

True, it’s hardly a great sacrifice, and there’s some irony here; but it’s a telling act of kindness by the Dale sisters, showing compassion for an honest, anxious woman who is suffering at the treatment of a callous cad who is supposed to be a gentleman – one who knows his ‘duty’, and is displaying here and about to show in his treatment of Lily his contempt for all that being a gentleman entails.

I hadn’t thought of Trollope as a humourist before starting these Barsetshire novels, even less as a proto-feminist. Although he does rather disappointingly often portray women characters as stereotypical ‘angels’, in these later novels he’s showing his ability to create complex, interesting ones, too (Amelia Roper is one of several in this novel), and narrative sympathy for their not always happy lot in Victorian society. And he can be very funny.

We get to meet Plantagenet Palliser here, too, who is to feature in the next series of novels, to which I hope to turn fairly soon. Kindly old Septimus Harding pops up unexpectedly, too (along with several others from the earlier novels), tellingly in the company of the treacherous Crosbie. The handsome young cad doesn’t show up well in this saintly company either.

Anthony Trollope, The Small House at Allington

My OWC paperback edition of The Small House at Allington

My OWC paperback edition of The Small House at Allington

[Warning: for those who have yet to read this novel I dwell on what might be considered spoilers here]

This fifth novel in the Chronicles of Barsetshire, published 1862-64, is different from its predecessors. Anthony Trollope refrains from giving his central female character the happy ending enjoyed by the romantic ladies in the previous marriage plots. There are some satisfactory matches made, but here he seems more interested in other matters.

Lily Dale is that unfortunate young lady. In Trollope’s now familiar authorial voice he says as early as p. 14 that she’s ‘dear Lily Dale’ –

For my reader must know that she is to be very dear, and that my story will be nothing to him [sic] if he do not love Lily Dale.

The narrative goes on to portray her on first meeting Adolphus Crosbie, the morally slippery and caddish London visitor to their idyllic rural ‘small house’, shrewdly identifying him as a ‘swell’ – then promptly falling in love with him. Although the narrator quickly assures us he is not ‘altogether a bad fellow’, it’s clear he’s not good husband material for her:

He was not married. He had acknowledged to himself that he could not marry without money; and he would not marry for money. He had put aside from him, as not within his reach, the comforts of marriage…

Lily has no money. Crosbie has just £700 and a small patrimony – not enough for him to marry a dear, delightful but penniless girl and carry on living the lavish bachelor life he enjoys in swanky London society. It’s not hard to figure where this is going. Lily is not destined, like some earlier versions of her in Trollope, to find herself conveniently a wealthy heiress in the final act, thus rendering her eligible to handsome, weak-willed predators like Crosbie.

Clues were given a few pages earlier:

I do not say that Mr Crosbie will be our hero, seeing that that part in the drama will be cut up, as it were, into fragments…among two or more, probably among three or four, young gentlemen – to none of whom will be vouchsafed the privilege of much heroic action.

Those other ‘young gentlemen’ are neither heroic nor very interesting, and Trollope predictably provides them with bad first choices for wives, then most of them see the light and marry the right young ladies. In resisting the temptation to do this with Crosbie and Lily he darkens the tone that had threatened to become twee and formulaic in the earlier Barsetshire novels.

I found the non-romantic, older characters the most engaging, especially truculent Squire Dale. He’s the owner of both the Allington houses, having inherited his estate with £3000 per annum (Trollope as usual tells us exactly what his main characters are worth; with the younger ones in particular this has important consequences for their marriage prospects – see Crosbie above).

Trollope is getting better at creating complex conflicted characters like Dale. Earlier examples were also among the most interesting in the novels they appeared in, from henpecked Bishop Proudie representing the clergy, and sottish Roger Scruton among the uncultured rich, to Lady Lufton, of the more cultured but imperious variety.

It’s with Christopher Dale, squire in the big house at Allington, that the novel opens, and this is an indication of the importance of the role he’s going to play. In some respects he can be seen as the nearest thing to a true (if imperfect) ‘hero’ in the novel. He’s described at such length in the opening pages and subsequently that I can’t quote much here. It’s clear that he’s a flawed individual, having annoyed his fellow squires by flirting with politics (and failing) as a Liberal, even though he’s as Conservative at heart as they are (this political factionalism had become increasingly prominent in the earlier novels). More importantly, he’d suffered from an unrequited love:

In his hard, dry, unpleasant way he had loved the woman; and when at last he learned to know that she would not have his love, he had been unable to transfer his heart to another.

Not only does this help account for his irascible behaviour towards his dependent, impoverished relatives in the small house (and most other people), it foreshadows the bad choices and cynical or more judicious ‘transfers of heart’ that are to come in some of those fickle young ladies and gentlemen mentioned above. The portrait continues:

A constant, upright, and by no means insincere man was our Christopher Dale, – thin and meagre in his mental attributes…but yet worthy of regard in that he had realized a path of duty and did endeavour to walk therein. And, moreover, our Mr. Christopher Dale was a gentleman.

A ‘gentleman’ marks him as potentially good; Trollope doesn’t use this term lightly. And ‘duty’ is a key theme in all the novels in the series so far – usually seen in the context of penniless young ladies or gentlemen ensuring that they marry well and thereby keep their families financially buoyant, while ‘transferring their hearts’ without being too mercenary.

There follows a long description of his appearance – Trollope often gives an almost phrenological portrait, as here. Dale’s face is ‘destroyed by a mean mouth with thin lips’, and so on. These features

forbad you also to take him for a man of great parts, or of a wide capacity.

All of this helps explain his contrariness and petulance with others. When he drives away his nephew, who is effectively a son to him, he complains sorely, “He cannot bear to live with me”, without examining how he’d alienated the man. Similarly he treats Lily’s family so high-handedly that her mother can’t bear to dine with him, though she encourages her girls to do so; he is largely responsible for causing Crosbie to jilt Lily by refusing to settle the dowry on her that would have satisfied his swell’s need for a wife with money. So the narrator’s remark that he treats his nieces

with more generosity than the daughters of the House of Allington had usually received from their fathers – and they repelled his kindness, running away from him, and telling him openly that they would not be beholden to him…

is really an insight into how he perceives himself – it’s a bit of free indirect thought, not objective narrative comment. Unable to stop himself treating them imperiously, he then feels let down when they react as they do.

These ‘bitter thoughts’ reflect his maudlin tendency to see his relationships as doomed, because

he accused himself in his thoughts rather than others. He declared to himself that he was made to be hated, and protested to himself that it would be well that he should die and be buried out of memory, so that the remaining Dales might have a better chance of living happily; and then as he discussed all this within his own bosom, his thoughts were very tender, and though he was aggrieved, he was most affectionate to those who had most injured him. But it was absolutely beyond his power to reproduce outwardly, with words and outward signs, such thoughts and feelings.

This subtle psychological probing is where Trollope is gaining in prowess as a novelist. We get too little of it in his depiction of the central, supposedly most interesting characters (ie those in the romantic plots). His half-serious declarations, in the earlier novels, that he had little interest in plotting, are now not so openly stated; instead he just goes ahead and creates rounded characters like Dale. Lily, Crosbie and the rest of them play their parts to fill out their scenes; the public demanded such romantic comedy of him, and he churned it out. But he also wrote characters like this one, showing where his true authorial interest and skill lay.

Dale’s self-pity and wallowing in the consequences of his gruffness are reflected in Lily’s bizarre loyalty to the man who callously breaks her heart. It might annoy or upset readers who want a nice neat ending for the heroine, but thematically and psychologically it’s more like reality and less like the novels that Lily and her sister discuss in a revealing metafictional scene. Such novels are ‘too sweet’, says the more sensible Bell, who doesn’t like them; they’re not ‘real life’.

Lily takes the opposite view:

That’s why I do like them, because they are so sweet. A sermon is not to tell you what you are, but what you ought to be, and a novel should tell you not what you are to get, but what you’d like to get.

She’s just ghost-written her own sad future and shown her fatal flaw. Like her uncle the squire, she’s too much of a Dale – unswerving to the point of rigidity once she’s decided something, but not good at analysing her own or other people’s characters. Unfortunately for her that decision was to give her heart to Crosbie. She’s a self-created victim, like her uncle.

 

DH Lawrence’s idyllic cottage in Cornwall

Estate agent's advert for DHL cottage

The ‘tower house’ at Higher Tregerthen, nr Zennor, where the Lawrences lived in 1916-17; advertised for sale by a local estate agent last week

An advert in the property pages of last week’s local Cornish newspaper, The West Briton, provided the inspiration for today’s post. Two years ago I posted a series of pieces on DH Lawrence’s letters written during his stay here in 1916-17. I shall dip into these posts here, with some added material from the letters of that time (he was a prodigious, brilliant correspondent).

The first post was on Aug 11 2016:

When we came over the shoulder of the wild hill, above the sea, to Zennor, I felt we were coming into the Promised Land. I know there will be a new heaven and a new earth take place now: we have triumphed. I feel like a Columbus who can see a shadowy America before him: only this isn’t merely territory, it is a new continent of the soul. Letter of 25 Feb. 1916 to Lady Ottoline Morrell, from The Collected Letters of D.H. Lawrence, ed. Harry T. Moore (Heinemann, London: 1962, repr. 1970; all quotations here are from this text), vol. 1, p. 437

The copy at the bottom of the estate agent’s ad gives the Lawrence quotation(s)

The quotation in the estate agent’s copy (I’ve gone for a full-size image in the hope it can be read) conflates and slightly misquotes two different letters from Lawrence. The first part I quoted in that first post of mine. It should read

At Zennor one sees infinite Atlantic, all peacock-mingled colours, and the gorse is sunshine itself, already. But this cold wind is deadly. [24 Feb. 1916, from Porthcothan, to JM Murry and K. Mansfield]

Not surprisingly the agent omits that second sentence. Their second sentence cites part of this, which I quoted in my second post:

 [5 March 1916, from the Tinner’s Arms inn, Zennor, to John Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield] We have been here nearly a week now. It is a most beautiful place: a tiny granite village nestling under high, shaggy moor-hills, and a big sweep of lovely sea beyond, such a lovely sea, lovelier even than the Mediterranean… To Penzance one goes over the moors, high, then down into Mount’s Bay, looking at St Michael’s Mount, like a dark little jewel. It is all gorse now, flickering with flower…

The rooms and fabric of the house have clearly been modishly updated since the Lawrences lived there in relative squalor

In the same letter he goes on to describe the house, in good estate-agentese:

What we have found is a two-roomed cottage, one room up, one down, with a long scullery. But the rooms are big and light, and the rent won’t be more than 4/- [4 old shillings, 20 pence in new currency, if I remember rightly: a pittance even then; it’s rather more expensive to buy now!] The place is rather splendid. It is just under the moors, on the edge of the few rough stony fields that go to the sea. It is quite alone, as a little colony.

DHL planMy picture left from the text captures the whole of the rest of this excited letter, with Lawrence’s sketches of the site plan. I see I’ve underlined his likening the place to ‘a little monastery’. As my posts of two years ago indicate, he was hoping to set up a ‘Rananim’, a sort of Utopian commune of like-minded higher spirits (with his own and Frieda’s at or near the top of the heap, he assumes, with characteristically disarming lack of modesty). If you can read the text in my picture you’ll see that he enthusiastically allocates living space to his chosen companions; the Mansfields were unable to put up with the primitive, ‘rugged’ living conditions and escaped to the ‘soft’ part of the county. ‘The walls of their cottage are rather damp,’ he admits in a later letter to Barbara Low (?30 May).

Lawrence had a sturdier spirit, and preferred this ‘queer outlandish Celtic country [where] I feel happy and free’ [16 April 1916, Higher Tregerthen, to Catherine Carswell].

The estate agents might feel the need for some judicious editing of some of his other descriptions, as here in that same letter to Barbara Low cited above:

The place is perfectly lovely. The cottage is tiny…The stairs go up at the side, nice and white, the low square window looks out at a rocky wall, a bit of field, and the moor overhead. The fireplace is very nice, the room has a real beauty. Upstairs is a good bedroom with a great window looking down at the sea – which is six fields away. There is also a window, as in the living room, at the back, looking over the road on to the hill which is all rocks and boulders and a ruined cottage. It is very lovely, and dear to my heart.

Third post, Aug. 13, 2016

By this time the euphoria Lawrence had felt on entering this ‘promised land’ in the far west (‘there is something uralt and clean about it’, he said in that letter about the house) had faded, transformed into something bitter and disillusioned. This was partly because he felt betrayed by his ‘truly blood kin’ – principally the Middleton Murrys, who failed to share his enthusiasm for Higher Tregerthen and the ‘rough primeval’ scenery around – ‘too rocky and bleak for them’, he wrote disparagingly to Ottoline Morrell on 16 April; and partly because of his and his German wife’s experiences with the locals, who suspected them of signalling to the enemy (this is at the height of WWI), a feeling reinforced by their tendency to hold forth heatedly on the stupidity of the war and the bigots (as they saw them) who blindly supported it (‘one hates one’s King and Country’ he wrote to Ottoline Morrell on 18 April). The dream ended when Lawrence was exempted from conscription on the grounds of his ‘consumption’ – which relieved him (‘I should die in a week, if they kept me’, he wrote to Catherine Carswell, 9 July) and saddened him, for he felt a deep sympathy for the Cornish conscripts, ‘most unwarlike, soft, peacable, ancient’ – yet ‘they accepted it all…with wonderful purity of spirit’ and sense of ‘duty to their fellow man’. This was an attitude he pityingly admired, for he despised what he saw as wrong-headed patriotism (and a nationalist sentiment unfortunately being encouraged in some political quarters again today):

All this war, this talk of nationality, to me is false. I feel no nationality, not fundamentally. I feel no passion for my own land, nor my own house, nor my own furniture, nor my own money. Therefore I won’t pretend any…the truth of my spirit is all that matters to me.

Post 4, Aug 14 2016

In October 1917 the police raided the house at Higher Tregerthen and the Lawrences were ignominiously evicted from the county, still half-suspected of being spies in the pay of the enemy. Lawrence in these last Cornish letters had given up on this Celtic paradise – ‘here one is outside England’ he had written ecstatically to JB Pinker from Porthcothan, nr Padstow, on 1 January 2016, on first arriving in Cornwall, before moving to Zennor – and was now talking of going instead to the actual, not his fantasy Celtic America/new found land, which despite its shortcomings was ‘nearer to freedom’.

 

Orwell’s Catalonia

George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

Having just been to Mallorca and read Lydie Salvayre’s Cry, Mother Spain, a novel about the impact of the Spanish Civil War on rural families in Catalonia (and parallel descriptions by Bernanos of atrocities perpetrated in Mallorca by fascist Francoists), about which I posted last week, I needed to reread George Orwell’s contemporary account of his experiences as a militia volunteer in Homage to Catalonia. It’s decades since I first read it, but it remained pretty clear in my memory as a searing, sad, highly personal story.

Salvayre Orwell covers First published in 1938, it describes his experiences in Spain from December 1936, soon after the war broke out, to June 1937. He’d served at the Aragón front, where to his frustration ‘little or nothing happened’, having spent the first weeks in desultory training in the Lenin Barracks, Barcelona, then recuperating in horribly ill-equipped and inexpertly staffed medical facilities after being shot in the throat.

On leave in Barcelona in May ’37 he found that bourgeois class distinctions had returned and the revolutionary idyll had ended. He also found himself caught up in internecine street fighting instigated by the communist assault on the trade-union controlled Telephone Exchange, which resulted not surprisingly in an armed response from the non-Stalinist leftists. The loosely Trotskyist POUM militia (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista), to which Orwell had been assigned, naively unaware of the significance of its political allegiance, was anathematised by Moscow’s Comintern as traitors in the pay of the fascists, and hence a divisive and fatally distracting crisis ensued, probably enabling Franco’s forces to prevail while his opponents fought each other. It was an only too familiar leftist splintering and infighting that produced his enduring hatred of the Stalinist hard line with its intolerance of anything other than one-nation revolution and unwavering party loyalty, that he later satirised in 1984 and Animal Farm, and was to criticise in much of his non-fiction.

In his 1989 introduction to this PMC paperback edition Julian Symons rather harshly suggests that Orwell combined a ‘capacity for subtle and complex thought and argument with a sometimes tactless ardour and simplicity.’

Orwell got to Spain under the auspices of the British Independent Labour Party, (and, as he later learned to his cost, links with the largely Trotskyist POUM militia), whose recommendation took him to the revolutionary hotbed of Barcelona (setting of the key testing ground for the anarchist fervour of the two idealistic siblings in Salvayre’s novel), which was still under the control of the anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists, rather than to Madrid, where the struggle against the fascists was led by the Soviet-supported communists.

Orwell was surprised and ingenuously delighted to find ‘one breathed the air of equality’ in a classless Catalonian capital, ‘where the working class was in the saddle.’ Symons isn’t far wrong when he describes the ‘romantic puritan’ Orwell’s reaction as ‘childlike wonder’. Who can blame him. Salvayre’s José was also delirious with excitement at what seemed the Spanish utopia: a truly classless society.

But the euphoria was partial and short-lived. Orwell quickly realised there was something ‘pathetic in the literalness with which these idealistic Spaniards took the hackneyed phrases of revolution.’ Like José, he became disillusioned with the endemic lack of organisation , urgency or discipline in the militia (the ‘mañana’ mentality), largely peasant and urban trade unionist men with little military aptitude, and an average age of about twenty, with many as young as fifteen: ‘we were not real soldiers’.

Life at the front, and his experience of war, was far from romantic or heroic; weapons were scarce, antiquated and more dangerous to the users than to the enemy. He rarely got to fire his decrepit rifle. ‘Above all it meant mud, lice, hunger and cold.’ He caustically lists, in decreasing order of importance, the five key things in the warfare he experienced: ‘firewood, food, tobacco, candles and the enemy.’ He notes the things only a person who’d been there could know, like the fact that ‘At the front, everyone stole’. So much for class solidarity. Even idealistic revolutionaries, he implies, are ultimately venal, materialistic and corrupt.

The story of the communist purge of ‘undesirable elements’, meaning those who’d fought so bravely with Orwell at the front, including his own brave and selfless commander, and the POUM leader Andreu Nin, who disappeared, were tortured to death or allowed to die from neglect in prison by the communists, disgusted him. Yet I think he’s honest when he insists this book is not ‘a book of propaganda’ and that he does not intend to ‘idealize the POUM militia.’

As I noted in my post on Salvayre’s semi-fictional account of the war in Catalonia, there are timely references to the use of media and other propagandist modes of manipulation of opinion; in Orwell’s case this includes his scathing criticism of the blatantly biased reporting in the European press, either pro-Franco from such right-wing papers as the British Daily Mail (which continues to produce xenophobic, counterfactual ‘news’, in a manner encouraged and endorsed by the so-called alt right), or pro-Moscow in the leftist press.

This is not a dry, political or even socio-historical treatise, though it doesn’t flinch from exploring such aspects of the complexities of this terrible war – that ‘appalling disaster’ he calls it near the end. There are numerous touches that reveal the flawed and only too human personality of the writer, who ruefully acknowledges that he played ‘so ineffectual a part’ in the war. He admits that when he was frightened in combat he didn’t function well as a soldier, or became so infuriated at the factionalism that, like José, he lost patience with those around him, revealing perhaps unwittingly his upper-class, Eton-educated origins, which he rejected but couldn’t entirely transcend.

But it’s that bitterness about what could have been that lingers: those heady days in ‘equalitarian’, classless Barcelona, that so quickly reverted to the normal hierarchies of rich and poor. We still endure that legacy of power wielded by the power elites, who increasingly denounce, as the commissars did in Spain, any deviation from their truth, as fake news and, most cynical of all, unpatriotic.

Ken Loach’s 1995 film ‘Land and Freedom’ depicts the experiences of a young working-class Liverpudlian man fighting in a POUM unit and undergoing a similar process to Orwell’s of elation followed by disillusionment.

My thanks to Jacqui for her comment to my post on Salvayre, pointing out this piece on the novel by Naomi at The Writes of Woman blog.

More obscure lives by Woolf: Edgeworth and Day

More on the ‘Lives of the Obscure’ in V. Woolf’s The Common Reader, vol.1.

Last time I noted her portraits and analyses not just of the literary greats like Austen and Eliot, but also the vignettes of marginal, forgotten characters, mainly women, whose obscurity seemed to resonate with her poignantly. This is what follows the mention of Miss Biffen:

It is Mrs Dyer who pours out tea for them in Clifford’s Inn. Mr Charles Lamb has just left the room. Mrs Dyer says she married George because his washerwoman cheated him so. What do you think George paid for his shirts, she asks?

These sketches, apparently random and fragmentary, cohere into an impressionistic whole, a galaxy of minor stars. She goes on:

Gently, beautifully, like the clouds of a balmy evening, obscurity once more traverses the sky, an obscurity which is not empty but thick with the star dust of innumerable lives.

More fragments follow, sense impressions, then she notices an ‘enormous wheel’ careering down a Berkshire hill in the 18C. Suddenly the young son of a bricklayer jumps out ‘from within’ and it’s smashed ‘to smithereens’:

This is Edgeworth’s doing – Richard Lovell Edgeworth, we mean, the portentous bore.

This must be one of his crackpot invention/experiments; Woolf doesn’t think it necessary to explain, preferring to let the weirdness speak for itself. Her attention turns to ‘his two volumes of memoirs’ and his extraordinary life:

Byron’s bore, Day’s friend, Maria’s father, the man who almost invented the telegraph, and did, in fact, invent machines for cutting turnips, climbing walls, contracting on narrow bridges…a man meritorious, industrious, advanced, but still, as we investigate his memoirs, mainly a bore.

This Anglo-Irish politician, writer and inventor (1744-1817), is said by Wikipedia to have invented the caterpillar track, among other things, and he was the father of the novelist Maria Edgeworth. He seems to have been an unpleasant character. As Woolf says of this gifted egoist he married four times – two of the wives were sisters Honora and Elizabeth Sneyd (the former a writer and proto-feminist who shared his interest in educational theory) – and fathered with them not 19 (as Woolf says) but 22 children. He and his even more unpleasant friend Thomas Day were prominent members of the Lunar Society (c. 1765-1813), a loose association of scientists, philosophers and artists forming the Midlands Enlightenment; other members included Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestley and Josiah Wedgewood, the entrepreneur and ceramicist – see this review in the Guardian of Jenny Uglow’s book, The Lunar Men: the friends who made the future, 1730-1810. London: Faber, 2002. Its name alludes to their practice of meeting for dinner and conversation at each others’ houses on the Sunday nearest the full moon so that they could ride home illuminated by it.

An_Experiment_on_a_Bird_in_an_Air_Pump_by_Joseph_Wright_of_Derby,_1768

An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump, by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1768. It depicts one of the ‘natural philosophy’ experiments with the vacuum device invented by Boyle. Public domain via National Gallery, London/Tate Gallery: Wikimedia Commons

Edgeworth wrote with daughter Maria a tract on education heavily influenced by Rousseau’s theories. He in turn influenced boring Day, who hardly distinguished himself by proposing to Edgeworth’s sister, and to Honora before she married his friend – who had also fallen in love with her while still married to his previous wife. Not surprising they were friends, really.

He attracts Woolf’s attention because of his associations with ‘diffident, shrinking figures who would otherwise be drowned in darkness’. It is through their eyes, she says, that we see him: a tyrant unaware of his own cruelty, bemused that his wife had ‘taken a strong dislike to Mr Day’ – that serial proposer.

Here Woolf acknowledges one of the ‘pitfalls’ of ‘this nocturnal rambling among forgotten worthies’: it’s difficult, she explains, to stick ‘strictly to the facts.’ This is especially true of Day, ‘whose history surpasses the bounds of the credible,’ showing more of the characteristics of fiction. Mrs Edgeworth must, she speculates, have ‘dreaded’ visits from her husband’s friend, ‘with his pompous, melancholy face, marked by the smallpox’, his antisocial manners, his desperation to marry (he’d taught himself to dance in the vain hope of winning the hand of Honora’s sister, later Edgeworth’s wife; as Woolf says, she, ‘of course, refused him’) and his fawning encouragement of Edgeworth’s crazier schemes. Honora’s friend the poet Anna Seward perhaps misguidedly described Day as ‘a sable-haired hero.’

Then we hear of Day’s now notorious scheme to create for himself the perfect wife by adopting two young orphan girls and bringing them up according to some tenets supposedly taken from Rousseau. The more successful girl he’d marry – he named her Sabrina Sidney.

Woolf’s account of how Sabrina failed to pass Day’s exacting tests for a wife is slightly askew. She implies he rushed in a rage after rejection by Elizabeth:

flew into a passion at the sight of her; fired a pistol at her skirts, poured melted sealing-wax over her arms, and boxed her ears.

From what I’ve read these details are accurate, but Day didn’t perform these violent acts out of temper, but as trials calculated to imbue Sabrina with the calm stoicism, fortitude and endurance in the face of the greatest provocation that he felt ideal in his prospective wife. Not surprisingly she disappointed him profoundly when tested so cruelly, by screaming and displaying all of the undesirable flightiness and intemperance, as he saw it, of her sex.

Woolf doesn’t mention that Sabrina, after being cast off by Day, married another man, was widowed, and ended her days as a housekeeper to the family of Fanny Burney’s brother.

She does conclude, with pointed accuracy, what the ‘inconsistent philosopher’ Day’s character really was like:

at once humane and brutal, advanced and hidebound…

This section of Obscure Lives ends with a bizarre scene in which Edgeworth is decribed in a disturbing meeting with an unkempt, ‘mad clergyman’ in an ‘untidy house’ with a garden full of celestial globes. A beautiful young girl brings them tea, ‘a scholar and an artist!’ the clergyman exclaims – but Edgeworth can’t determine if she’s the old man’s daughter, mistress, or what: ‘Who was she?’ And why was the house so filthy, the front door locked? ‘Why was the clergyman apparently a prisoner? Questions began to crowd into Edgeworth’s head…’

‘Something was not right’, he sadly concludes.

The essays in The CR vol. 1 aren’t only essential reading for their discussions of the literary giants, but also for passages of strange charm like this.

I’ve drawn here on Jenny Uglow’s article on Day in the Guardian in 2002. See also the 2013 novel by Wendy Moore, How to Create the Perfect Wife, reviewed in the Guardian that year, which points out ‘Day was a paradoxical character: he became known for his charitable work, giving away much of his fortune to the poor though never giving much thought about Sabrina and her well–being after he abandoned her. He was an adamant abolitionist while at the same time making Sabrina practically his slave’

 

 

Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader, vol. 1 – obscure lives

Yesterday I introduced this compilation of 21 literary reviews and specially written essays by Virginia Woolf brought out by the Hogarth Press in 1925 shortly before Mrs Dalloway was published.

Woolf Common Reader contents

The table of contents of vol. 1. The paper isn’t great quality: the ink has bled and blotted slightly

The range of subjects is broad. She covers authors and texts from the Pastons and Chaucer in the 14C to her contemporaries. The majority consider English prose fiction writers from Defoe, Austen, the Brontes and George Eliot to Conrad and Joyce, but she also analyses the Russian greats, especially Chekhov, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. There’s an excursion into Greek drama, too; fellow blogger Melissa posted about it recently here.

Woolf also reflects on the essay genre itself, with pieces on Montaigne, one of its inventors, and the main English practitioners.

Other prose genres are discussed, from the diaries of Evelyn to the memoirs and other writings of the likes of the Duchess of Newcastle, with her desire for fame. A unifying feature that threads through most of the essays is the nature of reading and writing in different historical periods, and the reflexive, creative relationship between readers and authors. I hope to return to this aspect of the collection after my holidays.

I wanted rapidly to post here about one essay that stood out for me, and brought to my attention an aspect of Woolf that I hadn’t noticed before in the novels: she can be very funny. She makes a point of turning her analytical attention to marginal, largely overlooked and forgotten figures in the past – perhaps, as I noted yesterday, out of a sense of fellow-feeling as a woman in the early 20C. In her introductory paragraph to ‘Lives of the Obscure’ (presumably an ironic take on hagiographical ‘Lives of the Saints’) she playfully pictures herself as a sad antiquarian, taking out a ‘life subscription’ to a ‘faded, out-of-date obsolete library’, perhaps in her holiday haunt of St Ives, for she imagines it by the sea, ‘with the shouts of men crying pilchards for sale’ outside. It’s a library largely stocked unpromisingly ‘from the shelves of clergymen’s widows, and country gentlemen inheriting more books than their wives care to dust.’

The only other people there are clearly as lost a cause as this fictitious, unflattering version of herself: ‘The elderly, the marooned, the bored’ – they don’t seem to want to read these texts, just shelter from the world’s bustle:

No one has spoken aloud here since the room was opened in 1854.

Then she weirdly depicts the books themselves as just as lost – perhaps dead, certainly not expecting to be disturbed, so long have they been neglected:

The obscure sleep on the walls, slouching against each other as if they were too drowsy to stand upright. Their backs are flaking off; their titles often vanished. Why disturb their sleep? Why reopen those peaceful graves, the librarian seems to ask, peering over his spectacles, and resenting the duty, which has indeed become laborious, of retrieving from among those nameless tombstones Nos. 1763, 1080, and 606.

The first of three sections in this essay opens by absurdly stretching this conceit to great comic effect:

For one likes romantically to feel oneself a deliverer advancing with lights across the waste of years to the rescue of some stranded ghost – a Mrs Pilkington, a Rev Henry Elman, a Mrs Ann Gilbert – waiting, appealing, forgotten, in the growing gloom. Possibly they hear one coming. They shuffle, they preen, they bridle. Old secrets well up to their lips. The divine relief of communication will soon again be theirs.

There’s a seriousness underneath this surreal playfulness: it’s that recurring theme of the almost symbiotic relationship between texts, writers and readers. By opening these dusty, unread, largely tedious volumes the modern reader in a sense restores to life these long defunct minor figures.

She goes on with an amazing and scintillatingly impressionistic portrait of several groups of people from around 1800 onwards, principally the Taylor and the Edgeworth families, but including such vivid miniatures as the sad story of one Fanny Hill (no relation, I presume, to the eponym of Cleland’s racy novel) who ill-advisedly married a dashing but treacherous Captain M. who predictably treated her abominably. She returns years later, ‘worn and sunk’, when formerly she was ‘so sprightly’:

She was living in a lone house not far from the Taylors, forced to drudge for her husband’s mistress, for Captain M. had wasted all her fortune, ruined all her life.

And so the ‘words toil persistently through these obscure volumes’:

For in the vast world to which the memoir writers admit us there is a solemn sense of something inescapable, of a wave gathering beneath the frail flotilla and carrying it.

The portentous imagery perhaps parodies that of these old memoirs, but does so affectionately, without patronising or condescending (well, not too much). And Woolf is genuine in perceiving this ‘flotilla’ borne along to her over a century later, making a connection with her and taking on new life, despite its ancient strangeness, and she acknowledges its jaded, once-sprightly significance:

It is one of the attractions of the unknown, their multitude, their vastness; for, instead of keeping their identity separate, as remarkable people do, they seem to merge into one another, their very boards and title-pages and frontispieces dissolving, and their innumerable pages melting into continuous years so that we can lie back and look up into the fine mist-like substance of countless lives, and pass unhindered from century to century, from life to life.

Despite the ironic tone she’s not entirely joking any more. The figures she goes on to delineate, those faded portraits she dusts off, include all kinds of strange figures, like a Mr Elman talking in Brighton to Miss Biffen, who has no arms or legs: ‘a footman carries her in and out. She teaches miniature painting to his sister.’ One wonders how. Years later in his rectory he’ll think of her and other ‘great men’ he thinks he’s known, ‘and making – it is his great consolation – string bags, for missionaries.’

Wonderful. There I’d better stop. I hadn’t intended lingering so long on this essay, but it beguiled me. I’d like to show the other outlandish characters and extraordinary vignettes in it brought lovingly back into the light – maybe another time.

 

 

 

Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader, vol. 1

Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader. Vol. 1, Vintage Classics paperback (2003). First published by the  Hogarth Press, 1925

V. Woolf, cover of vol. 1 of The Common ReaderMany of the essays in this first volume of The Common Reader first appeared as book reviews, many of them in the TLS. She revised and reworked this material and added more essays specially written for this collection. She was seeking to produce a shaped text that resembled the kind of reflective conversation that might be held around a Bloomsbury dinner-table on the topic of the art of reading.

I’m about to go on holiday, so intend returning to an examination of these essays in more detail when I return. As a taster, here’s her short introductory essay that acts as a foreword or preface: it explains her intentions and emphasises  what seems to be the unscholarly, amateur and idiosyncratic nature of her enterprise (she tackles some of the major canonical authors, but deliberately includes many obscurities – she clearly sympathised with the obscure ones). This apparently self-deprecatory tone (highlighted by the ambivalent, gender-free use of ‘common’ in conjunction with the notion of ‘reader’) disguises her true serious artistic and personal role and agency as reader and writer, already adumbrated in the character of Rachel in The Voyage Out, her first novel, published in 1915, in which the protagonist’s choice of reading indicates a spirited and independent determination to avoid the literary choices and tastes of the male-dominated (academic) world and its authoritative canon, favouring, for example, the elemental power and wildness of Wuthering Heights over Jane Austen’s more demure depictions of the emotional life of women (there are essays on both subjects in this first volume).

Here she presents her manifesto for her own canon, defending her own approach and literary philosophy and instincts, later mapped out more broadly and systematically in non-fiction works like ‘A Room of One’s Own’ and ‘Three Guineas’. Being a woman and therefore excluded from the benefits of the classical education enjoyed by males of her class, she was conscious of her ‘outsider’ status as a critic  – despite being formidably well read, having access to her father Leslie Stephen’s extensive library – she too was determined to exercise the right to choose her reading and to express her views on what she’d read. Despite the ‘amateur’ tone, then, of this opening essay, she had a serious and positive aesthetic. More on this in later posts, hopefully.

The Common Reader: introductory essay

There is a sentence in Dr. Johnson’s Life of Gray which might well be written up in all those rooms, too humble to be called libraries, yet full of books, where the pursuit of reading is carried on by private people. “ . . . I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers, uncorrupted by literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours.” It defines their qualities; it dignifies their aims; it bestows upon a pursuit which devours a great deal of time, and is yet apt to leave behind it nothing very substantial, the sanction of the great man’s approval.

The common reader, as Dr. Johnson implies, differs from the critic and the scholar. He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole — a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing. He never ceases, as he reads, to run up some rickety and ramshackle fabric which shall give him the temporary satisfaction of looking sufficiently like the real object to allow of affection, laughter, and argument. Hasty, inaccurate, and superficial, snatching now this poem, now that scrap of old furniture, without caring where he finds it or of what nature it may be so long as it serves his purpose and rounds his structure, his deficiencies as a critic are too obvious to be pointed out; but if he has, as Dr. Johnson maintained, some say in the final distribution of poetical honours, then, perhaps, it may be worth while to write down a few of the ideas and opinions which, insignificant in themselves, yet contribute to so mighty a result.

This could almost serve as a template for those of us who attempt to write blog posts on literary topics: we acknowledge our deficiencies and the superficiality or eccentricity of our criticisms, but strive to ‘write down a few of the ideas and opinions’ – no matter how insignificant – that might just contribute to the distribution of bookish honours. Except, to my mind, ‘honours’ is too grand a term for my own enterprise. I’m content to settle for ‘ideas and opinions’, and hope that they will stimulate thought, debate – and more reading.