Bernard Walke, Twenty Years at St Hilary

Bernard Walke, Twenty Years at St Hilary. Truran, Mount Hawke, Cornwall, paperback, 2002. First published 1935

The friends with the beautiful Siamese cats, who’ve featured in a couple of recent posts, are active participants in the life of the city’s cathedral, and the charity that runs Epiphany House, which featured in one of my ‘local walks during lockdown’ posts (link HERE). In discussing some related topics, the life of Fr Bernard Walke came up. I hadn’t heard of him, so a copy of his book about his time as vicar of St Hilary, near Penzance, was duly reserved at the local library, now open for a click and collect service.

I’m not a religious person (my friends clearly are), but Fr Walke’s genial and charming humanity shine through every page of his memoir. His Anglo-Catholic faith is apparent, and he has that rare ability to make it seem natural and attractive.

Bernard Walke, Twenty Years at St Hilary coverHe’d been a curate at two other Cornish churches before St Hilary: first at St Ives, where he initiated his popular practice of taking mass outdoors onto the harbourside, and endeared himself to the ordinary townsfolk by joining the fishermen when they put to sea; then at Polruan, opposite Fowey, where he enjoyed occasionally accompanying the freighters carrying china clay to Europe and beyond.

Each chapter is packed with incident and experience. In the opening chapter he relates a typically endearing anecdote of the stray cat that adopted him and would trot after him to church when he celebrated mass. One day she was taken with the sparkling sequins decorating the mantle of a grande dame of the village in the front pew. She sprang from her usual spot on the pulpit lectern into the old lady’s lap. Next day Walke received an irate letter from his Vicar, enumerating his many ‘extravagances’ (code for ‘high church practices’) concluding with the cat’s ‘monstrous behaviour’ the previous night. One phrase stood out for him:

‘Your performing cat has made religion stink in the nostrils of the best people in Polruan.’

In his defensive reply Fr Walke adduced the example of St Philip Neri, whose cat always accompanied him ‘at his devotions’, but to no avail; the poor little cat was barred from the church.

Fr Walke arrived at St Hilary in 1913. His first impression of the village, just outside Penzance in rural west Cornwall, was not favourable. The church had been unsympathetically rebuilt in Victorian times, the landscape was rather bleak, and the village was blighted by what he thought rather ugly villas.

In his twenty years as vicar there, however, he became much loved by his parishioners and locals. There was hostility throughout that time from some to his catholic rites and adornments to the church, culminating in a violent incursion by Protestant activists near the end of his time there – an attack that almost broke his spirit and his already faltering health.

He began the memoir while being treated for TB in a sanatorium at Tehidy, then later in Gran Canaria when his health again deteriorated.

The memoir is dominated by his deep reverence for and love of nature: birds, trees, plants and animals are frequently befriended or described. He was particularly fond of donkeys, and would ride around the county in a ‘shay’, tolerating the wayward animals’ tendency to wander off the road. One had a habit when off duty of taking to the fields and causing mayhem, such as leading local horses into bad habits.

Fr Walke’s wife Annie was a noted member of the Newlyn community of artists. Many of this famous group populate the pages, and several of them contributed artworks to decorate the church: Harold and Laura Knight, Dod and Ernest Procter. Roger Fry did a reredos. Other well-known figures appear briefly, from AJ Munnings to GB Shaw.

This amiable country vicar’s warm heartedness wasn’t confined to love of nature: he was a great campaigner on behalf of the ordinary working people of his community. In St Hilary this was largely the pre-mechanised agricultural workers. Like all the greatest Christians, he practised what he preached, and strove to bring light and purpose into the lives of St Hilary’s people.

He is perhaps best known for the Christmas plays that he wrote and had performed in the church by the parishioners. A BBC friend persuaded him to have some of these broadcast on radio – the first ever outside broadcasts in the mid-1920s, continuing into the thirties.

He set up a local children’s home, and opened his own house up to a small group of Austrian refugees after WWI. The chapters set during that terrible war are particularly poignant. Fr Walke was a committed pacifist, and the already simmering hostility to his catholic tendencies was heated even further by his anti-war stance. There’s no mention of DH and Frieda Lawrence’s similar activity in nearby Zennor at this time (see my posts on DHL in Cornwall HERE).

His campaigning was also extended to an attempt to establish a new mining enterprise in the area; most of the mines had by this time closed, and many former miners who hadn’t joined the Cornish diaspora were unemployed.

I approached this memoir with some trepidation, since I don’t share the author’s faith. But I enjoyed it immensely; the author has a delightfully self-deprecating style, and his love of humanity is uplifting.

 

 

Rosamund Lupton, Three Hours

Rosamund Lupton, Three Hours (Viking, 2020)

I recently watched the 2019 Patrick Vollrath film 7500, set almost entirely in the cockpit of a passenger plane attacked by terrorists. It’s a daring premise, and just about works as a nail-biting thriller. Rosamund Lupton’s new novel Three Hours is similarly constrained in terms of setting; hers is more expansive, but still has claustrophobic units within it – classrooms and a school theatre set within a huge woodland campus of a progressive school in rural Somerset. Her plot also deals with an imperilled group of adults in a position of care and responsibility for a vulnerable group, in this case the large body of pupils in the school, with ages ranging from five to eighteen, under attack from armed terrorists.

I heard about it on the BBC Radio 4 book programme A Good Read, and bought it for Mrs TD. She loved it, and recommended it to me.

Lupton Three Hours cover Penguin

Our copy of Three Hours has been passed on to another family member before I could photograph it, so this image is from the Penguin website

The central plot is taut and well handled: during the three hours of the attack, will the police forensic psychologist and her team of officers and counter-terrorism experts figure out who the masked gunmen are, and hence what their motives might be, so that a strategy for negotiation or extraction can be devised? There are several heart-stopping twists along the way, that make it impossible to say more without spoilers.

Mixed in are several entwined narratives involving individual groups of pupils and staff, each endangered and vulnerable in their own ways. Gradually a smaller group of key individuals emerges into focus, each one with their own neatly-drawn backstory, all of which contribute to the driving central narrative. It’s a nail-biting ride.

Most engaging and moving is the developing story of two young Syrian refugees, brothers Rafi and Basi, aged sixteen and six respectively. In flashbacks we learn the terrible experiences and ordeals they endured as they made their escape from their war-ravaged homeland. Rafi as a consequence suffers from PTSD, making his response to this new life-threatening menace even more raw and heartbreaking. Rafi’s selfless love for and commitment to protecting his traumatised little brother are movingly portrayed.

The overwhelming message that the novel leaves is that love is more powerful than hate, and the bonds that tie us – family, lovers, schoolmates, work colleagues – are the most important thing in human experience. Not the most original theme, perhaps, but it’s not too cheesily realised.

I could have done with a bit less of the rather laboured parallels with Macbeth.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that Rosamund Lupton has been a scriptwriter – it’s easy to imagine this novel becoming a successful film or tv series.

 

Jane Gardam, Old Filth – and Feock again

Jane Gardam, Old Filth. Abacus, 2018. First published 2004

Mrs TD and I discovered a new walk yesterday. It starts at Feock church, on a headland divided by branches of the River Fal by Carrick Roads. I’ve written before about this village, the sturdy little church, its obscure patron saint, and its fine lych-gate and venerable yew trees.

Jane Gardam Old Filth coverMrs TD passed on to me a book she’d just read, and what a good recommendation it was. Jane Gardam was born in a district of Redcar, N. Yorkshire – where I attended grammar school. Old Filth deals with the long life of a retired advocate and judge, Sir Edward Feathers, said to have invented the uncomplimentary acronym of the novel’s title: Failed in London, Try Hong Kong. After an undistinguished career as a jobbing lawyer in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, he’s given the opportunity to ‘try Hong Kong’ and the ‘Far Eastern Bar’, where he flourishes.

The novel deals mainly, however, with the ways Feathers’ childhood and youth scarred him emotionally and made him into the cipher he appeared as an adult to his contemporaries. The novel is bookended by dismissive, pejorative comments about his outwardly uneventful, unexciting and unimaginative life by some of his surviving legal community:

Being a modest man, they said, he had called himself a parvenu, a fraud, a carefree spirit…He was loved, however, admired, laughed at kindly and still much discussed many years after his retirement.

Gardam’s narrative demonstrates brilliantly and movingly how little we can know about a person’s depths – the truth of them – from the exterior they construct and present to the world.

His widower father showed him no affection, and had him shipped at the age of four back to England – like so many other ‘Raj orphans’. His foster mother in Wales treated him and the other children in her care with cruelty bordering on sadism. Other events in his early life show his capacity for hiding his emotional scars while searching desperately for the love and affection so long denied to him by those who should have cared for him.

The narrative is complex in structure, with frequent flashbacks to different stages of his development, each one subtly indicating what shaped him into the outwardly competent but aloof figure he became. We gain a gradually focusing picture of his loving but not entirely satisfactory relationship with his wife, Betty. At the novel’s start Eddie is in his eighties and Betty has recently died. As the narrative proceeds we hear about the secrets that haunt him, the relationships, heartbreaks and experiences that moulded him.

It’s a deeply felt portrayal of a conflicted, damaged life, and an indictment of the heartlessness of the powerful elite British who ran ‘the colonies’ of their former empire, ensuring they exploited every natural resource, while tainting the lives of all who came into contact with them.

Back to our walk yesterday. We followed a path down to the foreshore of a creek at Penpol and Point. A group of ten swans cruised majestically up the ebbing tide, then spoiled the elegant look by breaking up into aggressively lunging squabbles.

Penpol creekWe followed another, unknown path back across fields high above the creek. The views were lovely – on a rare day this summer in Cornwall of clear blue sky and sunshine we could see Carn Brea monument high above Camborne, some fifteen miles away.

Back at Feock we walked a little way across a field to gaze at Carrick Roads below. There were handsome but very large cows gazing at us inquisitively; Mrs TD isn’t keen on cows, so I went ahead alone to take the picture below. Earlier the footpath passed beside a field with glamorous-eyelashed alpacas, and again Mrs TD insisted on hurrying past, avoiding eye contact with them as they sauntered over to look at us. They looked affronted but amused.

Carrick cows

 

 

O, lucky Finn. Anthony Trollope, Phineas Finn

Anthony Trollope, Phineas Finn, the Irish member. Oxford World’s Classics (1991?) First published as a magazine serial, 1867-68; first book edition, illustrated by Millais (not his best work), 1869

It took me a month to read this huge novel, and another to summon the energy to post about it. Energy was something Anthony Trollope must have had enormous quantities of – he published his first novel in 1847 at the age of 32, and many more followed, sometimes several per year (there were two more, for example, in 1869, when Phineas Finn came out in book form).

The phenomenal rate at which Trollope produced prose fiction came at the cost at times of subtlety and originality. There’s the usual large cast of characters in this novel, but quite a few of them could have been dispensed with at little damage to the fabric or structure of the whole – especially the lower-class characters, who lack the sense of familiarity and sympathy of another prolific Victorian, Dickens.

The cover is from ‘In the Conservatory’ by James Tissot

What I found the most interesting and topical aspect of PF was the portrayal of political life, and in particular of parliamentary life in reform-era England and Ireland. In his Autobiography (1883) Trollope expressed regret at having made his protagonist Irish; this probably reflects the way in which Irish-British politics had become more divisive and volatile in the years that had elapsed after 1869. It’s important for the novel that Phineas is the son of an Irish country doctor, and that his political career suffers its first major crisis as a consequence of his discovery of strong radical convictions about tenant rights and land tenure in his homeland – treated then as a primitive, submissive colony of Britain, another outpost of the exploited Empire.

Politics, then. As early as vol.1, p. 26 (this OWC edition preserves the two-volume structure of the original), Phineas’s cynical politician friend, Fitzgibbon, tells his callow fellow countryman (Phineas is only 25 at the start of the novel), about to set out on his political career, some home truths about the parliamentary system. As Liberals, the two are discussing the faults and merits of their Tory opponents, who at that time held a majority in the Commons. Phineas had objected that under a Tory government, the country got nothing done:

‘As to that, it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other [retorts Fitzgibbon]. I never knew a government yet that wanted to do anything. Give a government a real strong majority, as the Tories used to have half a century since, and as a matter of course it will do nothing. Why should it? Doing things, as you call it, is only bidding for power, – for patronage and pay.’

Much of the political element of the novel (the other element is a tangled web of love and marriage plots, including a duel between two male rivals for a pretty woman – plus a bit of the usual tedious Trollope obsession, fox-hunting) depicts the gradual coming of age of Phineas in this callous, factional world of party politics. He comes to realise that party has to come before principles if he’s to rise to a senior post that paid a salary (MPs at that time were unpaid, hence they had to be rich landowning gentry, or have wealthy sponsors) – a struggle that ultimately forces him to make a self-destructive choice.

That cynical view of British (and American) politics still applies today. During the present crisis it’s apparent that many in government are more interested in keeping in office and eyeing their standing in the polls than in ‘doing something’ for the country.

Phineas is a lucky rather than talented young man. He has little apart from his good looks and pleasant manner to recommend him. He’s fortunate to fall into a ‘pocket borough’ constituency where its aristocratic patron can guarantee his election: ‘The use of a little borough of his own…is a convenience to a great peer’, our narrator says of this as yet unreformed trait of the electoral system in mid-Victorian times.

This luck stays with him for most of the novel – until those pesky convictions enter his head: ‘Could a man be honest in Parliament, and yet abandon all idea of independence?’ is the problem he confronts. “But what is a man to do?” he asks an MP colleague late in the novel: “He can’t smother his convictions.” The reply he’s given is witheringly dismissive of such convictions in a young MP – this is the worst of all possible defects, he’s advised.

He’s less lucky in his love life. He falls in love with several women in the course of the narrative, is rejected twice, more successful twice – but again he has to balance expediency or ‘business’ (meaning money to support his career) against romance. One of the women who turns him down does so for similar reasons: she marries a dull but wealthy man to extricate her profligate brother from debt. As a consequence she denies herself a potentially happy love match with Phineas.

It has to be said that his broken heart heals remarkably quickly, and he’s soon in pursuit of another quarry.

The final part of the novel ties up the numerous loose ends in what looks like a hasty and poorly conceived way, and I tended to agree with one of the women who turned down Phineas’s proposal of marriage: his character lacks depth.

The women characters are more interesting (as they were in Can You Forgive Her?). They face the usual dilemma of spirited, intelligent women of the time: their role in society was largelyrestricted to that of domestic goddess and mother. Although Trollope stops short of promoting a ‘new woman’ or suffragist heroine, he shows a great deal of sympathy for the submissive, unfulfilling life that was such women’s destiny. Characters like Phineas’s first love, Lady Laura, yearn to be able to be ‘useful’ and ‘politically powerful’ – but their capacity to be so is denied them.

Despite the rather silly duel and some flimsy characterisation and clunky plotting, this novel is worth reading for the insight into nascent and much needed political reform.

 

 

 

 

Broken love: Rosamond Lehmann, The Echoing Grove

Rosamond Lehmann, The Echoing Grove. PMC 1981. First published 1953.

In two 1930s novels, Rosamond Lehmann depicted the rivalry between two sisters as they searched for love. Kate settled for suburban domesticity and complacent motherhood, losing her glamorous looks and zest for life in the process. Olivia was more restless and unconventional, and chose an affair with a selfish man with no intention of leaving his wife.

I posted a few years ago on Invitation to the Waltz HERE, and The Weather in the Streets HERE and HERE

Twenty years later, after some stormy relationships of her own, elements of which seem to have inspired The Echoing Grove, Lehmann deals with similar themes and dynamics.

Rosamond Lehmann, The Echoing Grove

The cover image is from the painting ‘The Tea Table’, by Edward Le Bas (1904-66)

Rickie Masters (apt name), descendant of ‘landed gentry’, is married to Madeleine: sensible, beautiful, maternal and a little dull. He has a passionate affair with her bohemian, unconventional sister, Dinah. Later they all have affairs with other people. WWII intervenes, killing off some of them and their loved ones; others die of natural causes, probably resulting from the stresses of their complicated love lives.

That’s pretty much it in terms of plot. The novel consists almost entirely of these three characters, and later one or two more with whom they become romantically or erotically involved, engaging in interminable, convoluted conversations. About themselves, mostly.

It doesn’t sound very inviting, does it. But somehow it kept me engaged – though I flagged during one mammoth talking session set in the London Blitz, where Rickie manages to ramble on about his guilt and obsessions (mostly himself) for what seems like a hundred pages and years of war. It’s one night! The unfortunate woman who listens with admirable patience and forbearance just wants to have sex with this man with whom, for some unaccountable reason, she’s fallen in love. She’d seemed so sensible and clear-eyed.

The narrative is largely in an even edgier, more fragmentary free indirect style than the one Lehmann used to such good effect in those two earlier novels. There’s a complex chronology, with jumps forward and back in time, that often left me confused, and having to turn back to find the thread.

There are some acerbic (and ironic) statements about gender relations that are familiar from those earlier Lehmann novels. This example is from an early internal monologue of Madeleine’s; she’s thinking about Rickie’s poorly disguised guilt about getting entangled with her alluring sister again:

Poor Rickie. Must be kind, patient, wifely… Why could men never put a good face on? If they were tired they yawned in your face, if they were depressed they glowered: women were expected to lump it.

Pretty perceptive and hard-hitting, considering how pliant she’s being about her husband’s infidelity. Maybe she thinks he’s just a naughty boy, and will come back, tail between his legs, just a bit sulky (which he does, occasionally). He also shows some of the homoerotic impulses seen in The Weather in the Streets.

Later, when Madeleine has confronted her unfaithful husband about his affair with Dinah, she contemplates going to have it out with her sister. Rickie can’t handle all this female emotion, and doesn’t care for the role he’s being allotted. He says he’ll go to bed:

He dragged his heavy limbs upstairs, telling himself that women were formidable, really relentless; not a nerve in their bodies.

Not sensitive like him, that is. He dreams of resilience and elasticity. I’m not sure whose.

Why that title, The Echoing Grove? The phrase doesn’t appear in the text. The nearest to it is a quotation from a poem by Blake, aptly called ‘Broken Love’:

Root up the infernal grove

The sympathetic woman who’s listening to Rickie’s endless monologue supplies this supplement to two earlier lines from the poem that he’d remembered Dinah reading aloud to him:

And throughout all Eternity

I forgive you, you forgive me.

There are opportunities for forgiveness in the novel, some of them successfully negotiated. Rooting up this ‘infernal grove’ is a way for the man in the poem to ask his partner to ‘give up love’, as Rickie’s bed partner of the time puts it. Renunciation and selflessness aren’t what these characters have in abundance. They’d benefit from what medieval Provençal troubadours called ‘mezura’ (middle English ‘mesure’), meaning something like self-control, avoidance of excessive emotion or behaviour. Like a medicine taken to ward off a fever. But then there’d be no novels like this one, just poems about courtly love.

Trollope, pubs and gin

Anthony Trollope, Can You Forgive Her? Post number 2

As this disturbing period of enforced social isolation intensifies, I find myself able again to engage with the online literary blogging world, and to offer my own attempt at keeping our spirits up.

Trollope, Can You Forgive Her cover

The cover image is from the painting ‘Yes’ by Millais – a young woman shown replying to her lover’s proposal of marriage – such a prominent theme in Trollope novels

Last time I wrote about the key sequence in Trollope’s 1865 novel Can You Forgive Her? in which the wastrel Burgo Fitzgerald sees a mirror image of himself in the teenage beggar girl who accosts him in the street to solicit money with which to buy drink. For perhaps the first time in his life he shows compassion and generosity towards a person in distress, and takes her to a pub to buy her a meal.

I was interested in H.K. Browne’s illustration of this scene in the first edition of 1864 (vol. 1, for which Browne did all twenty illustrations; vol. 2 came out the following year, illustrated by a Miss Stevens). Browne, aka Phiz, is best known as one of the main illustrators of ten of Dickens’ novels. In this image he reins in a little his tendency to crude caricature, and shows rare sympathy for Trollope’s more restrained mode of novel-writing than Dickens’.

He depicts Burgo, whom the girl had ingenuously gasped was too ‘beautiful’ to be as poor as her when she confronted him in Oxford Street, in a sleazy working-class pub, the centre of admiring attention.

Here’s how the scene is narrated:

He took her to a public-house and gave her bread and meat and beer, and stood by her while she ate it. She was shy with him then, and would fain have taken it to a corner by herself, had he allowed her. He perceived this, and turned his back to her, but still spoke to her a word or two as she ate.

It seems odd that she’s standing to eat, but this is presumably a feature of such a low pub: the only seat depicted is a barrel on which sits one of the male customers. The passage continues to describe the striking effect Burgo has on the others in the pub, not just the women:

HK Browne's illustration to ch. 29 of Trollope's Can You Forgive Her?

Image from Wikimedia Commons, public domain

The woman at the bar who served him looked at him wonderingly, staring into his face; and the pot-boy woke himself thoroughly that he might look at Burgo; and the watermen from the cab-stand stared at him; and women who came in for gin looked almost lovingly up into his eyes. He regarded them all not at all, showing no feeling of disgrace at his position, and no desire to carry himself as a ruffler.

Browne conveys all this skilfully, marking the social status of each figure with his usual eye for telling detail: the unkempt clothes, hirsute faces and scruffy hats and clay pipes of the water-cabmen; the shabby-chic hats, bonnets and hints of alcohol-flushed cheeks and addled eyes of the gin-drinking women; the young girl’s clothing, described in the earlier street scene, quoted in my previous post, is suitably impoverished.

Her attempt to shrink away into invisibility as she eats is poignantly drawn, and hints at the similar attempts of the two main romantically conflicted female characters, Alice and Lady Glencora, to do the same in their struggle with the competing courtship of their ‘wild men’ and dour, upstanding and insensitive rivals. Women of all ranks, this scene shows, have no possibility of independence or freedom of choice. The only options open to them lead to self-effacement, entrapment and nothingness.

Browne does give an indication of Burgo’s arrogance and selfishness in the exaggeratedly weak chin, the arch expression, and the louche, lazy pose as he leans complacently on the bar, clearly relishing the undisguised adoration, even as he ostensibly disregards it. He’s clearly used to it:

He regarded them not at all, showing no feeling of disgrace at his position, and no desire to carry himself as a ruffler [slang for arrogant swaggerer].

Burgos morally ambiguous behaviour here, and the portrayal of the darker aspects of Victorian society, is narrated (and drawn by Browne) with deft irony – a very different tone from the bucolic comedy in the Barsetshire novels. After paying for her meal, Burgo gives the young woman enough money to pay for a bed for the night, provided she promises not to spend it on gin. If only he showed as much fellow-feeling in his dealings with other people in his life. He could be a decent man, as the start of the final paragraph of this chapter suggests:

Poor Burgo! All who had seen him since life had begun  with him had loved him and striven to cherish him. And with it all, to what a state had he come! Poor Burgo! had his eyes been less brightly blue, and his face less godlike in form, it may be that things would have gone better with him…

I was interested in the two barrels on a shelf high up behind the bar. I assumed they held beer or wine, but one of them has the words ‘Old Tom’ painted on it (I’m afraid the detail isn’t very sharp as reproduced here). After a bit of online digging I discovered this was a make of cheap and potent gin, hence its popularity with the urban poor.

This seems to be one of Browne’s signature details: he habitually inserted an emblematic feature or two into his illustrations to give the reader visual hints at how to interpret the action that the narrative may or may not have made clear.

Back to Old Tom. In researching this online I came across this fascinating essay at the Victorian London website: ‘A Night with Old Tom’, by James Greenwood (1881, first published 1875). It’s too long to quote from here, but if you’re interested in sketches of Victorian London’s seamier side, and a footnote to this scene in Trollope, I’d recommend it.

I’d also recommend exploring the Victorian Web site. It has readable academic studies of Trollope, and the Pallisers in particular, as well as a great selection of useful material on social history; in the context of the penniless girl who Burgo takes pity on, see the sections related to gender matters and prostitution (although it’s not explicit in Trollope’s narrative that she is a sex worker). See also there the links to the prolific and hugely popular Victorian author George WM Reynolds, and in particular his 1845 novel The Mysteries of London. V Web has a chilling extract in which girls as young as eleven or twelve are trafficked by a sort of female Fagin; she then uses them as entrapment tools for blackmailing the ‘elderly voluptuar[ies]’ who were their unwitting customers. Sinister stuff.

Meanwhile, try to stay safe.

 

Can you forgive Anthony Trollope?

Anthony Trollope, Can You Forgive Her? Oxford World’s Classics, 1991. First published 1864-65

Here I am, back again after another long silence. Work again kept me away from reading and posting. The work project is now finished, and there’s a slight pause before the next one begins, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to catch up. Particularly while the world is going crazy; here in the UK we’re fast approaching lockdown because of the Covid-19 crisis.

Trollope, Can You Forgive Her coverI don’t want to summarise the plot, as that’s not the most exciting or original feature of this first in the series of Palliser novels. Its interest lies mainly in Trollope’s dealing with the theme of women’s powerlessness, especially in their marital position (pretty much the only kind of social relation open to them at the time). In brief, there are three linked marriage stories, all of them involving women making potentially unforgivable choices. Alice Vavasor breaks off two engagements, first to an amoral swine, her cousin George, who betrays her in every conceivable way, and then to upstanding but dry John Grey.

More interesting is the story of Lady Glencora, trapped in a loveless arranged marriage with the emotionally arid Plantagenet Palliser, heir to the dukedom of Omnium, who first appeared in the Barsetshire novel, The Small House at Allington, about which I posted here. She’s still attracted to another caddish swine, the admirably named Burgo Fitzgerald, with whom she had a love affair before her marriage. He’s a beautiful, reckless parasite: ‘Every man to himself’ is his motto. Like George with Alice, he’s desperate to get his hands on this woman’s money.

Third is Alice’s lively middle-aged aunt, courted by, yes, another contrasting pair, a dull braggart miserly landowner-farmer and a dashing, amoral waster. You can see how these women’s dilemmas in choices of men produce the title of the novel; each choice they make is largely determined by the contrasting impulses of heart and head, in that context of their subservient positions socially.

Alice muses what a woman should do with her life; women lacked power and agency in an English world still decades away from universal suffrage, and everyone lacked political agency in a Parliamentary system that’s skewed to favour the wealthy males of the landowning and aristocratic classes. Trollope shows some interest in the plight of women in the sexual politics of the era, but like Gissing in The Odd Women, his sympathy for them in their desire for independence and autonomy is limited. But he’s not entirely incapable of sympathy for the disadvantaged, as we shall see.

What I want to focus on here is perhaps the best scene in this very long, prolix novel (the fox-hunting scene is too tedious for words). In ch. 29, the mercenary cad Burgo has been thwarted in his attempt at a party to lure Glencora into eloping with him. As he walks home his thoughts centre as usual on himself. He feels sorry for himself, as he sees his chances of netting the wealthy prize slip away. But he also starts to feel something resembling remorse: ‘He thoroughly despised himself.’ Could there possibly be, even for him,

…some hope of a redemption…some mode of extrication from his misery? 

He even realises that despite the allure of her money, he’d learned to love Glencora. His misery is almost real. He even strives to justify his attempt to persuade her to commit adultery with him by framing it as saving her from a miserable life with a man she doesn’t love. He persuades himself that her husband has less right to her love than he does, who truly loves her (insofar as he’s capable).

As he walks home from the party, he crosses into Oxford Street, in central London, where:

A poor wretched girl, lightly clad in thin raiment, into whose bones the sharp freezing air was penetrating, asked him for money. Would he give her something to get drink, so that for a moment she might feel the warmth of her life renewed?

Burgo is about to pass her by without a thought, well used to such a ‘petition’,

But she was urgent, and took hold of him. ‘For love of God,’ she said, ‘if it’s only a penny to get a glass of gin! Feel my hand – how cold it is.’ And she strove to put it up against his face.

He sees that she is very young, perhaps sixteen at most, and had been ‘very lately…exquisitely pretty.’ A look of the ‘pure innocency’ and faith that she must have had until just a year ago still lingers in her eyes.

And now, at midnight, in the middle of the streets, she was praying for a pennyworth of gin, as the only comfort she knew, or could expect!

Even though that exclamation mark probably reflects Burgo’s point of view, as he’s the focalisation at this point, I think that this is the bluff clubman narrator’s voice, the one that’s usually so urbane and aloof. Can Trollope possibly be expressing some compassion here for the urban poor – and a girl who’s probably soliciting men who look rich for money in return for sexual favours – in a manner we tend to associate more with Dickens? It seems so.

For Burgo stops to talk to her:

‘You are cold!’ said he, trying to speak to her cheerily.

‘Cold!’ said she, repeating the word, and striving to wrap herself closer, in her rags, as she shivered.

I don’t read this gesture of hers as seductive, but more an instinctive attempt to gain some animal warmth (and kindness) from the well-wrapped gentleman.

‘Oh God! If you knew what it was to be as cold as I am! I have nothing in the world – not one penny, not a hole to lie in!’

‘We are alike then,’ said Burgo, with a slight low laugh. ‘I also have nothing. ‘You cannot be poorer than I am.’

‘You poor!’ she said. And then she looked up into his face. ‘Gracious; how beautiful you are! Such as you are never poor.’

He laughs again, but in a different tone – surely one less cynical, self-pitying and callous. He says he will give her money provided it’s for something to eat. And he takes her to a pub for something to eat and drink.

I hope you agree that this is a touching scene, and better crafted than Trollope’s usual dashed-off narrative technique. Burgo is shown as a more complex, sympathetic character. By that I mean in his sympathy for the girl (the etymology of ‘sympathy’: sharing her suffering, unselfishly for once), and my feeling a touch of fleeting sympathy for him (it doesn’t last). He redeems himself for a short time in this scene.

And it seems to me achieved by Trollope in a less melodramatic, sentimental way than Dickens, usually Trollope’s superior as a novelist in every way, would have done it (and they do have radically different novelistic intentions and styles). Trollope rarely depicts the poor with any kind of profound understanding, sincerity or fellow-feeling, but he manages it here.

Next time I want to say a little more about that pub, and gin.

 

John le Carré, Agent Running in the Field

John le Carré, Agent Running in the Field. Viking Penguin hardback, 2019

This was another novel passed on to me by Mrs TD. She thought I’d like something less arduous after the rigours of Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries.

She was right, I did; Agent Running is an entertaining, tautly plotted spy thriller by the master of the genre, still doing the business in his 88th year. But its complex, twisting, hall-of-mirrors plot takes some attentive reading or the thread is lost. The Iron Curtain has gone, but Moscow centre remains a threat to western interests. The cold war has become a cold world, where enemies and friends are no longer distinguishable.

Le Carré Agent running coverIt’s been described as le Carré’s Brexit novel. True, Britain’s controversial departure from the EU after a contentious referendum three years ago, the result of which, a narrow victory for leave, has divided the country catastrophically, is a central theme in the novel. Interestingly, le Carré puts the most forthright, angry response to the result into the mouth of one of the more annoying, unattractive characters.

This is Ed, a callow, awkward young man who challenges the protagonist, the former ‘runner’ of agents in the field, the half-Russian half-Scots spy, Nat, to a game of badminton at Nat’s Battersea sports club. Nat is forty-seven, just back from what seems to be his swan-song in the field (excuse my hideous mixed metaphor): running agents under diplomatic cover in Estonia. Back in London he’s been given the kind of job he dreads: unexciting, low-status bureaucracy in a dingy Camden house, base for a subsection of ‘the Office’ (it’s no longer Smiley’s Circus) unflatteringly described as ‘a home for lost dogs’. Nat’s been put out to pasture, and he hates it.

So he’s not entirely unhappy when things hot up. The novel takes a while to get going, I found, but there are some stirring set pieces and an exciting last third.

One of the most bracing sections takes place in Karlovy Vary (formerly Carlsbad) in the Czech Republic. I wonder if this is a phonetic nod at one of his most famously ambivalent villains, Karla? Nat goes there to meet the former double agent he once ran to pump him for information on the complex plot he’s beginning to uncover. Arkady is now a stereotypical former Soviet agent turned crook, living in a heavily guarded enclave to protect his stash of ill-gotten loot and even dodgier lifestyle.

Other dramatic scenes involve what le Carré does so well: codenamed projects and (double- or triple-) agents, dead-letter drops and covert operations in crowded urban locations, surveillance with a hundred field observers in disguise, field craft carefully observed ‘by the book’ enacted by the participants being watched, secretly filmed and listened to. Their conversations are as encoded as their encrypted, invisibly palimpsest written communication.

The main weak point for me were the not-too-convincing characters of Nat and his wife Prue, a rather cardboard cut out liberal-left pro bono lawyer, a supporter of anti-Big Pharma and other noble lost causes. The other was Nat’s obtrusive, present-tense, first-person narrative that gives the game away from the start about the main plot twist.

He’s the typically morally compromised le Carré hero, but far less engaging or sympathetic than that long line of jaded, spiritually and emotionally wounded spooks, from Leamas to Smiley, all looking for some kind of meaning in the murk. And why does Nat hint that the beautiful young probationer agent Florence working with him might have been a lover of his had he put his mind to it? Come on, Nat. You shouldn’t believe all that Richard Burton stuff you like to muse on in the HR file you obviously scrutinise carefully.

Nat’s is a world of duplicitous motives, state-sanctioned mendacity, shifting loyalties, multiple betrayals and evanescent morality. It’s now everyday life in Brexit Britain.

Ivy Compton-Burnett, Parents and Children

Ivy Compton-Burnett, Parents and Children. PMC 1970. First published 1941

It’s strange to think of Ivy Compton-Burnett (ICB for short) turning out these exquisitely fashioned country-house-of-the-gentry novels set in the late Victorian or early Edwardian period (families drive to the train station in carriages) in the middle of the twentieth century. They seem a throwback to Trollope’s world, not that of the Battle of Britain.

As always with ICB, most of the text takes the form of long set-piece conversations, most of them in dining or drawing rooms. The speakers reveal through their dialogue the ties and fissures, the tensions, frustrations, oppressions and cruelties lying not far below the surface of the family’s apparent gentility – for ICB is always exposing with unwavering precision the dynamics of families that are more or less dysfunctional.

Ivy Compton-Burnett Parents and Children cover

The painting on the cover of my battered old paperback is from ‘Interior’ by L. Campbell Taylor

Parents and Children is particularly concerned – as the title suggests – with the impact on offspring of their parents’ upbringing, their capacity for showing, sharing or withholding love, their tendency to keep important secrets, or to impose upon their children constraints that develop or deform them emotionally.

The central location is the huge country house inhabited by middle-aged Eleanor Sullivan, her barrister husband Fulbert and their family of nine children (ICB came from a large family herself, and knew how they formed mini alliances and animosities). The house is owned by his elderly parents, Sir Jesse and Lady Regan, which creates another level of tensions.

Eleanor is made to feel keenly that she is not the mistress of the house, while Fulbert is also uncomfortably aware that he is only the heir because of the death of his elder brother. This is conveyed early on in a typically acerbic character appraisal usually provided when a character first appears (when she allows them, ICB’s taciturn narrator makes these portraits stingers):

The two women lived in a formal accord, which had never come to dependence; and while each saw the other as a fellow and an equal, neither would have grieved at the other’s death.

Fulbert strives for recognition and affection from a father whose attitude is distant, high-handed and judgemental – not just towards his only surviving son, but of his grandchildren and their mother and other dependents on the estate.

There are numerous scenes in which these children (ages range from three to brothers in their final year at Cambridge; as ever they are all impossibly precocious and articulate) are seen with their governesses. Neville, the baby of the house, is meant to be charming, I think, with his habit of speaking of himself in the third person. I found there was a little too much of him.

In another of those narrative portraits of newly arrived characters, here’s when the two oldest sons appear; Graham, 21:

He had a deep, jerky voice and a laugh that was without mirth, as was perhaps natural, as he was continually called upon to exercise it at his own expense.

Daniel, 22, constantly snipes spitefully at his languid, maligned brother, who (as younger brothers do in this situation: I know, I am one) bites back with knobs on. Daniel’s antagonism arises from his being more conventional and assiduous in his attitude to filial responsibility (at the novel’s end we learn he gets a first, while Graham scrapes a low third class degree – both seem unsurprised by and content with this outcome). Most telling at this point in the narrative about the parental view of this corrosive sibling rivalry is this insight into their mother’s gaze upon them when they first enter the room to join their parents:

Eleanor surveyed her sons with affection, sympathy and interest, but with singularly little pride.

There’s a dark secret at the heart of the family, and several revelations and reversals emerge unexpectedly. Rather as in a detective mystery, details only make complete sense when the narrative is read a second time; clues and hints then take on a deeper significance.

The novel’s familial theme is clear – though it’s difficult to quote illuminating extracts from ICB’s fiction, because every detail is connected like a thread in a web to what goes before and after it in the narrative. Here’s one passage that’s particularly pertinent.

The family have been more than usually strained by the imminent departure of the father, Fulbert, on a six-month business trip to South America (at the orders of his exigent father). The children have been more than usually unsettled and testy. Their mother, Eleanor, has upbraided them for openly showing their honest, ‘natural selves’, when the released emotions would be better kept ‘disguised’. The ensuing emotional explosion causes her own attitude to be criticised by the older children, who see her as having ignited this ‘inflammable material.’ Luce, the perceptive, intelligent eldest daughter (she’s 24), sighs:

“Dear, dear, the miniature world of a family! All the emotions of mankind seem to find a place in it.”

“It was those emotions that originally gave rise to it,” said Daniel. “No doubt they would still be there.”

It’s the brilliance of the author’s depiction of characters interacting with each other, with disgruntlement, venom and spite barely concealed beneath the veneer of sophistication, that makes an Ivy Compton-Burnett novel such a rewarding read. Look out for moments when the narrator tells us something about a character’s expression or gaze: who they turn their eyes on, in what manner, what response they get.

An example of this shortly before the final crisis: a shocking piece of news has been delivered that’s upset the equilibrium of the whole family, and historic secrets are in danger of being revealed.

“We have our memories,” said [grandfather Sir Jesse].

“Yes, you can add to them a stock of those.” [This is said by his wife, Regan]

[Eleanor enters, and a frisson is felt in the room’s emotional temperature:]

Regan met Sir Jesse’s eyes, but the latter’s face told nothing.

In a similar way, there’s a deeper significance than the narrative reveals on a first reading in the messages conveyed by a photograph of a loved one: what is shown, what concealed or not perceived by those who look at it.

Adult characters are usually less than transparent in what they disclose about themselves and their true feelings; this means the reader has to slow down and consider the implications of every speech. It’s worth making this effort.

It would be easy to dismiss or dislike this technique as being too contrived: people “don’t speak like that in real life”. But the witticisms and epigrams serve multiple purposes. I’ll finish with one example.

Eleanor wonders if the governess Miss Mitford has noticed it’s stopped raining, and the fractious children could be sent with her outside to let off steam more harmlessly:

“She [Miss Mitford] does not notice anything when she is reading,” said Venice [aged 13].

“Does she do nothing but read? I hope she will not teach you to be always poring over books. There are other things in life.” [this is Eleanor, their mother]

“Not in every life,” said Graham…[In the next exchange he’s sarcastic about her rose-tinted view of her children’s happiness, especially considering his complex, timid little brother James – even more put-upon than he is; Eleanor is affronted at the suggestion that James is ‘a pathetic character’]

“Graham dear,” said Luce, in a low tone, “things can only be done by us according to our nature and our understanding. It is useless to expect more. We can none of us give it.”

“That does not take from the pathos. Indeed it is the reason of it.”

“It is partly the ordinary pathos of childhood, Graham.”

“Of childhood in the later stage, when it is worked and confined and exhorted. For its weakness the burden is great.”

“James has his own power of throwing things off,” said Luce.

“Of course all my children are tragic figures,” said Eleanor.

I said it’s hard to quote briefly to convey the richly textured subtlety of ICB’s prose. She’s a master of the suppressed.

There’s a link HERE to other ICB novels I’ve posted on.

 

John Harvey, Pax: painting monarchs into peace

John Harvey, Pax. Holland House Books, England. 2019. 354 pp.

In his last novel, Subject of a Portrait (2014: my post on it is HERE; Mike Flay’s guest post HERE; Harvey’s own guest post HERE; see below for links to related posts), about the love triangle involving art critic John Ruskin, his young wife Effie, and her lover Millais, John Harvey’s interest in artists’ love lives and the paintings arising from them, was manifest. In his new novel, Pax, he takes ekphrasis to a new level of complexity and subtlety.

Harvey Pax hb cover

Front cover of the novel, showing a detail from Rubens’ painting ‘Pax’

Against the backdrop of conflict in the West around 2003, an artist and art teacher, Stephen Bloodsmith (an aptly sanguinary name for an artificer), is creating a suite of etchings portraying the visit to London in 1629 of the renowned Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640).

Each scene in this artistic sequence is vividly realised through the narrative evocation of the modern artist’s reimagining of Rubens’ story as a means of creating his own artwork. It sounds over-elaborate, but it works. Bloodsmith’s personal life, manifested symbolically in his artwork, is increasingly informed by Rubens’.

Rubens’ English visit was ostensibly to broaden his market at the court of Charles I, but he had secretly been commissioned by the Spanish court to attempt to broker a peace between these two warring nations. It was the time of the slaughter and misery of the Thirty Years War (1618-48); this is the subject of one of Bloodsmith’s prints. Bloodsmith explains to his dealer the parallels between the horrors of the two historical periods, graphically represented in his print:

…people fight wars for various reasons, but what’s common to wars is that they hurt and damage each other much more than victory in war requires…I wanted it a bit like old engravings, but also a bit like black-and-white news-photos. So it touches modern atrocities.

Pax is therefore, at one level, a gripping wartime/espionage thriller: Rubens is spied on by shadowy, threatening figures, agents for the various factions in the European wars, from the sinister machinations of carmine-robed Cardinal Richelieu for the French, to the black-clad Puritan zealots plotting shortly before the English Civil War – the outcome of which of course was regicide (Charles’s beheading scene is evoked in this novel with chilling force). As always, Harvey has a perceptive eye for colour and clothes.

Secrecy, betrayal, and hypocrisy are also central themes at the level of personal and domestic, intimate emotional life – especially seen in the many adulterous affairs and the mysteries, doubts, evasions and lacerating suspicions arising from them, mirroring the broader, political-historical themes. These are narrated largely through various forms of ekphrasis: a visual representation is interpreted and reimagined in words.

 What’s so interesting and original about Harvey’s inventive use of this literary device is that his 21C protagonist and the narrator don’t just interpret and expatiate upon the significance of artworks created by others: Bloodsmith relives in his imagination and hence in his art (based on his reading of texts about Rubens, filtered through his aesthetic sensibility) the scenes he imagines:

“I’ve soaked myself in the history so much, I feel I’ve got a theatre in my head. It plays the scenes, then I pick the shot.”

The photographic/artistic image is pertinent: he creates his prints or paintings, in acts of imaginative synergy, inspired by his historical detective work and artist’s response to Rubens’ own work. Bloodsmith’s artworks drive the narrative, a ‘story in pictures’, and their recreation in Harvey’s engaging language is a key feature in the novel’s success.

The opening scene at Thameside sets the tone: it ‘recalls an event’ that ‘plays in [Bloodsmith’s] head’ – the meeting at the riverside of Rubens, an English diplomat and the brilliant but eccentric Dutch inventor-engineer, Cornelis Drebbel (1572-1633), who was demonstrating one of his more bizarre and prophetic creations: a wooden submarine, a ‘descending engine’ as he calls it . He optimistically predicts this will be a military device that, used in combination with his version of a limpet mine, will render war obsolete – the dubious argument of the nuclear deterrent.

Later we glimpse another area of his expertise: glass grinding, enabling him to produce telescopes and microscopes. This is surely not an accidental aside; these are means for seeing more clearly what might otherwise be veiled, unclear: visual clarity and significance is crucial in Pax.

The ‘veiled disclosure’ that Bloodsmith recreates and interprets in this first print sets the tone for all those that follow, from Rubens at the Madrid ‘court macabre’ of King Philip, where he was given his secret, perilous ambassadorial mission, to his stay in the London house of a fellow artist, Gerbier, and his various encounters with the wily King Charles. One of the main pleasures for the reader of this intriguing novel is the ways that Harvey intertwines these visual (re)interpretations with his own verbally dextrous narrative in words; as Drebbel cynically says to Rubens, exasperated at the deviousness of court politics, in what could serve as Pax’s motif:

Nation cheats nation as men cheat women, women men.

There are multiple, intertwining ekphrastic and historical narrative threads in this intricately structured novel.

Isabella Brant by Van Dyck

Sir Anthony van Dyck (Flemish, 1599 – 1641), Isabella Brant, 1621, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington. Open access

There’s the painting of Rubens’ late wife, Isabella Brant, by the man who’d worked as an assistant in his Antwerp studio, Anthony Van Dyck – a portrait gifted to his mentor by the younger artist on his departure for Italy in 1621. It’s usually seen as a token of the mutual esteem of the two men; Rubens begins to read a more insidious message in its iconography. Was his former protégé secretly signalling the illicit sexual relationship he was engaging in with his master’s wife? That suspicion explains Rubens’ outburst as early as p. 6, in that Thameside scene: ‘”Damn Van Dyck! God rot his bones!”’ Harvey/Bloodsmith speculates that Rubens was instrumental in dispatching Van Dyck to Italy to remove him from his household and attempt to end the adulterous affair.

The central painting in the novel, as depicted on the front cover, is Rubens’ ‘Peace and War’, or ‘Minerva protects Pax from Mars’. The evolving symbolism and dynamics of this painting’s creation are carefully delineated in the novel, not as a dry academic exercise, but arising from Rubens’ experiences on his London visit, especially his relationships and various love intrigues, and the unfolding of his clandestine peace mission. It’s his artist’s attempt to ‘paint these monarchs [Charles and Philip] into Peace’ – just as Bloodsmith tries to create his keynote Peace painting for exhibition in Brussels; the print sequence is a ‘pendant’ or ‘portal’ to that projected work, he hopes.

In addition to the global themes noted above – war, treachery, deception and so on – the personal equivalent is multiplied and duplicated several times over: Bloodsmith’s suspicion that his wife is having an affair is replicated in his own affair with his model, Mae, who’d featured in an earlier suite of his prints: ‘the Fire Girl’. This parallels on several levels Rubens’ racking fears about Isabella and Van Dyck, while he too is hypocritically contemplating an affair with his London host Gerbier’s pretty wife, visiting brothels, and falling passionately for an ‘Indian Maid’ at court, a ‘native to a tribe of the Americas’.

These parallels in multiple adultery across the two time periods become perhaps a little too prominent and schematic; for example, like Rubens’ ‘Indian’ beauty, Mae has dark skin, and is married.

Rubens, The Four Continents

The Four Continents by Rubens; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Munich. Public Domain

Another important Rubens painting is deployed to illuminate such parallels: ‘The Four Continents [or Rivers]’ (c. 1610), depicting the four major rivers and known continents of the world personified. It was inspired by the temporary peace (Rubens is consistent in his peace-making, if not his love life) between the Dutch Republic and Spain. A detail appears on the novel’s back cover: the black woman (Mae’s precedent?) symbolising Africa or the Nile gazes pensively (or is she timorous? amused? It’s enigmatic, defying definitive interpretation) out of the picture at us, the arm of her burly white male companion possessively round her waist. Read into that what you will, Bloodsmith…

Harvey Pax back cover

Back cover detail from The Four Continents

Harvey’s sensually pungent, multiple-strand narrative shows how Bloodsmith’s imaginative immersion in the historical Caroline London transforms his 21C lived experience; the characters and events of Rubens’ world merge into, penetrate and inhabit his own, so that he sees and feels their presences as vividly as ‘real life’, and the boundaries between the two worlds dissolve: the various characters take flight together in his mind’s eye. His final print symbolically integrates the multiple elements of this lived and imagined experience, making it new, culminating in ‘The Impossible Feast’ – a vision of ‘lust and war’ transformed into peace. Imagine.

This isn’t all just an extended exercise in modish postmodernism or magical realism: it dramatizes Bloodsmith’s intuition – that his story and Rubens’ ‘would converge’, in a process parallel with the struggle to reconcile ‘contradictions’ in his emotional life and his marriage – the desire for loyalty in his wife, while being incapable of such loyalty himself. Hence his conclusion near the end:

Maybe Rubens knew this, that you can love different people who are the opposite of each other…

This convenient resolution seems to me one of the least convincing aspects of this otherwise intriguing novel: Bloodsmith is let off his hypocritical hook just a little too generously for my liking.

If I’d had more time, I’d have made this post shorter…

Some links to my posts on John Harvey’s non-fiction works:

The Poetics of Sight

Clothes

 Works on the colour black discussed HERE

ARC courtesy of the publisher