Julian Barnes, The Only Story

Julian Barnes, The Only Story. Published 2018 by Jonathan Cape, London.

Some of the best parts of this novel are the epigraphs, like the one at the beginning from Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary: ‘Novel: A small tale, generally of love.’

This is ‘the only story’, then: the unlikely love story of Paul, a late-teen university student, and Susan McLeod, a married woman in her forties. But this isn’t The Graduate: she doesn’t seduce him – this is a mutually conceived passion that, not surprisingly, goes comprehensively and terribly wrong.

Barnes Only Story cover

Front cover

That’s the plot, really, and I find I have little more to say about this. I thought some of Barnes’s earlier fiction was among the best of his times, especially Flaubert’s Parrot. A History of the World was spoilt for me by having to teach it to recalcitrant teenagers, but it has some excellent moments, especially the woodworm trial. Woodworm generally, in fact.

I found this one a bit slow. Barnes tries to up the interest by playing in a vaguely postmodern way with the narrative voice: there’s a lot of direct address to the reader and second-person speculation of this kind:

If this is your only story, then it’s the one you have most often told and retold, even if – as is the case here – mainly to yourself.

So what’s the point? It’s not the ‘Call me Ishmael’ buttonholing technique of Melville; we seem to be invited to consider this to be a kind of ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’ confessional, but not a diary or a recording – the narrator even tells us at one point that he did keep a diary for a while, but this narrative is of a different order. What is it then? Therapy, of a Holden Caulfield type? I couldn’t work it out. And saying: ‘I’m not trying to spin you a story; I’m trying to tell you the truth’, rings only too true: there’s not enough story. That it’s the Only Story doesn’t help. The colloquial anti-storytelling mode keeps yielding up the likes of ‘I see where you’re going’ and ‘You think I’m being naïve’ (that ‘you’ is we, the readers, as if in a teenagers’ chatroom, not a novel for grownups).

And that ‘talking to yourself/reader’ trope became wearing after a while, especially when the predominantly first-person vaguely autobiographical voice shifts in part 2 to pretty much full-on second person, ‘You believe her’, etc.

Then in Part 3 an omniscient third-person narrator takes over, with this slightly glib and tricksy justification:

But nowadays, the first person in him was stilled. It was as if he viewed, and lived, his life in the third person. Which allowed him to assess it more accurately, he believed.

The back cover of the dust jacket

The back cover of the dust jacket

This voice reveals to us details like Paul’s keeping another notebook in which he simply records what other people have written about love. Often he crosses these entries out as events in his life, or his modes of thinking, cause him to change his mind about them – hence the rather unattractive cover images on the dustjacket.

I can’t find any particular reason for that narrative voice-shifting, other than the obvious effect it has on perspective on what’s being told – but it’s of little consequence, I find. Mrs TD read this before me and asked me to, so we could discuss it, as she wasn’t sure about her opinion. When I’d finished and told her (briefly) what I’ve written here, she looked relieved, and said she’d had exactly the same reservations about it.

I’m afraid I find Paul’s endless picking over the detritus of this doomed affair and reflections on time, memory, etc. – not much else happens – are of more interest to him as a character than they are to me (or Mrs TD). It’s like having to listen to someone telling you in detail what they dreamt last night. There’s way too much tennis, too, for my taste.

I can’t bring myself to write entirely negatively about such a fine writer. Here are some balancing remarks  that brighten the picture somewhat.

This is an early description of the character who sadly pops up too infrequently, for her portrayal is the best thing in the novel. She’s an eccentric slightly older woman friend of Susan’s, with a sad story of her own to reveal at one point:

She was a large woman in a pastel-blue trouser suit; she had tight curls, brown lipstick, and was approximately powdered.

Moira at her Clothes in Books blog would find plenty to get stuck into with this novel: Barnes has a fine eye for the details of appearances and what they signify about character (like the tennis dress Susan wears when she and Paul first meet; it shouldn’t be sexy, but clearly is for him) – here we get all we need to know about Joan’s shambolic loneliness, which doesn’t conceal her emotional wounds or her sagacity and human kindness.

Now I find I’ve flicked through the whole novel and that was the only passage I’d marked as being well done; there’s one other, but would take too much quotation to do it justice.

 

 

Ithell Colquhoun, The Living Stones: Cornwall

Ithell Colquhoun (1906-88), The Living Stones: Cornwall. Peter Owen, 2017. First published 1957

Ithell Colquhoun was a surrealist painter who became increasingly interested in the occult and arcane esoterica – to such an extent that she was expelled from the English Surrealist Group in 1940 – which must have taken some doing. She was a member of the Druidic Order, and the one to which WB Yeats belonged: Stella Matutina. The Goose of Hermogenes (1961), also published by Peter Owen, is her work of surrealist fiction.

Colquhoun Living Stones She writes here, describing herself as ‘an animist’ rather than a ‘pantheist’, of the mystical qualities of Cornwall, in particular in the wild, rugged landscape of West Penwith, where she kept a studio in the 1940s and moved there permanently in the fifties, partly restoring a near derelict hut at Vow Cave near Lamorna. It’s this move that forms the backdrop to The Living Stones. She writes with passion and poetic fervour about the dramatic windswept moors, with their standing stones, strange stone circles still fizzing with atmosphere and mystery, the outcrops and huge granite boulders that look sculpted by some ancient surreal artificer, redolent of an ‘unattained past’.

It’s best I think just to give a few examples of her unique take – I’m reminded of the almost equally committed, entranced response to Penwith’s savage beauty of DH Lawrence, whose stay near Zennor during WWI I wrote about a few times a year or so back here. Here’s an early description of her local valley:

It is not so much that individual buildings are haunted as that the valley itself is bathed in a strange atmosphere. The weirdness spreads up through the Bottoms to Tregadgwith and up through that more open branch of the valley which runs under Bojewan’s Carn, spreads, indeed, all over West Penwith, thinning out here, coagulating there. One could make a map with patches of colour to mark the praeternatural character of certain localities, but these would intensify rather than vary the general hue. So it is not surprising to find eerie places beyond the confines of Lamorna.

The chapter ‘The Living Stones’ begins memorably:

The life of a region depends ultimately on its geologic substratum, for this sets up a chain reaction which passes, determining their character, in turn through its streams and wells, its vegetation and the animal life that feeds on this and finally through the type of human being attracted to live there. In a profound sense also the structure of its rocks gives rise to the psychic life of the land: granite, serpentine, slate, sandstone, limestone, chalk and the rest have each their special personality dependent on the age in which they were laid down, each being co-existent with a special phase of the earth-spirit’s manifestation.

It’s easy to dismiss this kind of thing as New-Age hippydom, but anyone who’s lived in this beautiful peninsula, as I have for over twenty years, will attest to the special quality of its land, air, sea – and the stones; she goes on:

West Penwith is granite, one of the oldest rocks, a byword for hardness, endurance, inflexibility. That is the fundamental fact about Cornwall’s westernmost hundred, and, unless you like granite, you will not find happiness there.

It’s not just the prehistoric aura that she describes; she also writes well about the Celtic Christian layers of mystical presence in Kernow. She cites the old saying, ‘there are more saints in Cornwall than in heaven’, and has clearly researched meticulously those saints, many who crossed from Ireland (in St Piran’s case, by means of a highly unorthodox millstone), and gave their names to so many towns, villages and hamlets. She likes to speculate on the pre-Christian origins of many of the places made holy by these Celtic missionaries – not only the churches and chapels but also the caves and especially the wells and springs with which the county is liberally supplied.

She writes of a group of free-thinking young people, nowadays we’d probably call them travellers or hippies, who try to establish a sort of commune near her hut. It doesn’t end well.

She also records, with varying levels of approval, some of the traditions and festivals of the region, from the Obba Oss of Padstow to the Furry Dance of Helston (Flora is a more modern invention that obscures its misty Celtic origins). She describes the bards and their Gorsedd (the Cornish equivalent of eisteddfod), the Arthurian legends that intrigued Lawrence (not surprisingly she can’t abide the modern commercial exploitation of Tintagel with its ersatz tourist tat).

Although this mystical lyricism can get a bit wearing, it’s impossible not to be charmed by Colquhoun’s palpable love for the living landscape of this region. Let me finish with one of my favourite passages in a book filled with highly evocative, poetic descriptions; she’s been trying to trace the holy well of St Germoe:

The track here was dank, shadowed by soughing trees full of violence and sadness. I hurried upwards, relieved to get clear of the valley. How much primeval gloom can still lurk almost within earshot of a busy road!

See: she does have a sense of humour – though there’s a lot of grumpy railing against the barbaric incursions of modern consumerism: she hates the blare of radios and polluting racket of trippers’ cars. Most of us in Cornwall, I’d have to admit, have been guilty of this kind of curmudgeonly intolerance of incomers as we commune with our pilgrim saints and haunted moors and chough-guarded cliffs, with that ‘tingling magnetism’ that flows along this landscape and that Colquhoun felt and loved.

PS: There are interesting woodcuts by Colquhoun at the end of every chapter, and several WG Sebald-esque grainy black-and-white photos. I’d be grateful if anyone could tell me how her name is pronounced; is it similar to ‘Ethel’? or ‘eye-thul’? The guide at Tate St Ives who showed a group of students and staff around the recent Virginia Woolf exhibition (I wrote a post about it here) pronounced it (for there were several of Colquhoun’s surreal landscapes in the excellent exhibition) somewhere between these two possibilities.

 

 

 

 

 

Anthony Trollope, The Warden. Post 2

Last time I took Trollope to task for his tipping the moral balance of The Warden against the reformers, despite his finding fault too with the corrupt and privileged elite, like the warden Harding’s ‘most coveted of the snug clerical sinecures attached to our church’ (note that use of ‘our’) as well as the representatives of the law, media and state. As my replies to comments on that first post suggest, he goes out of his way to punish the blameless old men in the hospital, and in fact make their position even worse once the decision is made – by whom, or how, the author neglects to tell us, we just have to take his word for it – not to award them a penny more from the charitable trust that provides for them. All the reformers succeed in doing, is his moral, is to worsen their lot, and endanger their own happiness.

This time I’d like to be less indignant about Trollope’s moral tepidity, and say something about some of the novel’s merits. Chief among these is his ability to use a varying narrative voice and position with which to deliver his observations (even though, to return to my indignation for a moment, some of these are pretty unsavoury).

First is his (usually successful, but not always) pose as an ironically less-than-omniscient, humble recorder of limited materials available to him. This is from ch. 6:

What had passed between Eleanor Harding [the eponymous warden’s unmarried daughter, in love with misguided reforming zealot John Bold] and Mary Bold [the reformer’s unimpressed sister] need not be told. It is indeed a matter of thankfulness that neither the historian nor the novelist hears all that is said by their heroes or heroines, or how would three volumes or twenty suffice! In the present case so little of this sort have I overheard, that I live in hopes of finishing my work within 300 pages, and of completing that pleasant task – a novel in one volume…[and then he’s forced to resume the scene at the warden’s tea party; and his novel fills just 284 pages of my OWC edition!]

Trollope as metafictional postmodernist! This knowing ironic stance recurs often, as in ch. 11:

And now I own I have fears for my heroine; not as to the upshot of her mission [to dissuade her beloved John Bold from continuing his campaign against her father’s unfair share of the trust’s funds]…as to the full success of her generous scheme, and the ultimate result of such a project, no one conversant with human nature and novels can have a doubt; but as to the amount of sympathy she may receive from those of her own sex.

The narrator goes on to suggest that only ‘girls below twenty and old ladies above sixty will do her justice’, for these are the only groups of females who still have hearts capable of opening up ‘the soft springs of sweet romance’. But the majority of the rest, he fears, will disapprove of her plan. For they are sufficiently worldly (as in unromantic) to know that ‘young women on their knees before their lovers are sure to get kissed.’

OK, he concedes with a wink, this prediction might well come true, but he claims Eleanor’s youth is such that she doesn’t yet know such an outcome is likely:

She may get kissed; I think it very probable that she will; but I give my solemn word and positive assurance, that the remotest idea of such a catastrophe never occurred to her as she made the great resolve now alluded to.

This is good fun – though not entirely generous to Eleanor. But I can’t go on finding Trollope politically incorrect, so let’s allow him some good jokes, even if they are a bit off-colour.

He even makes a gesture of propitiation about that dodgy morality I’ve been complaining about. This is in the penultimate ch. 20, ‘Farewell’, in which the narrator takes his leave of the awful bully, archdeacon Grantly, who has been indomitable in his defence of the warden’s position – not out of fondness for his father-in-law, but because of his unswerving belief in the church’s infallibility. I’ll have to edit this long section, which is a pity, because it dilutes the subtlety of the effects achieved by the narrative voice:

We fear that he is represented in these pages as being worse than he is; but we have had to do with his foibles, and not with his virtues. We have seen only the weak side of the man [not his stronger points]. That he is a man somewhat too fond of his own way, and not sufficiently scrupulous in his manner of achieving it, his best friends cannot deny. That he is bigoted in favour, not so much of his doctrines as of his cloth, is also true: and it is true that the possession of a large income is a desire that sits near his heart. Nevertheless the archdeacon is a gentleman and a man of conscience…His aspirations are of a healthy, if not the highest, kind…He is…a man to be furthered and supported, though perhaps also to be controlled; and it is a matter of regret to us that the course of our narrative has required that we should see more of his weakness than his strength.

That’s also pretty good – there’s a touch of the ironical voice of some of Jane Austen’s deceptively gentle, critical narrators, with a slight suggestion too of Henry Fielding’s garrulously intrusive, highly unreliable narrator in Tom Jones. Even though I hate that Trollope can’t quite bring himself to punish the likes of the odious Grantly, while he’s happy to ruin the harmless old bedesmen in the hospital, I have to concede that this is good writing – that arch use of anaphora (‘That he is…’ repeated and varied numerous times in this passage), accompanied by the nuanced repetitions (‘is true’) of the obvious defects in Grantly – his weaknesses, hypocrisy, bigotry and greed – are beautifully laid out here, all in the witty guise of a defence of the man.

And now I find I’ve gone on too long once again. I doubt I’ll return for another post on this novel, which is a shame, because there are some interesting things in it about the presentation of women (I’ve hinted at a few features already, not all of them to Trollope’s credit), the somewhat heavy-handed ironical portraits of contemporary writers and The Times newspaper and its unscrupulous journalists; there’s even a little swipe at that easiest of targets, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Some of these sections are duds, and the digressions set in London tend to look like padding, but some are really well done – and the fake news aspects of the amoral press and emotionally exploitative, manipulative Mr Popular Sentiment (a rather nasty attack on Dickens) that he depicts are sadly pertinent today.

As I was about to publish this a comment by Izzy popped up on the previous post, making a good point about some of Trollope’s merits, including use of dialogue – do take a look if you missed it.

 

 

 

 

Dignity with sleekness: Anthony Trollope, The Warden

Anthony Trollope (1815-82), The Warden. First published 1855. Oxford World’s Classics 1994.

Trollope’s fourth novel is set in the cathedral town (based in part on Salisbury) of Barchester, and is the first of six in the Barsetshire sequence.

Its subject was highly topical: the ‘malapropriation of church funds’ (p. 24) and other financial/corruption scandals that beset the Church of England in the mid-19C, such as that involving the already wealthy Earl of Guilford’s nepotistically acquired Mastership of the Hospital of St Cross at Winchester: from this role he earned an income far greater than the amount allocated for the charity he ostensibly headed (David Skilton’s Introduction gives useful context).

Trollope Warden cover

This rather sweet cover illustration is from ‘The Only Daughter’ by J. Hallyar. It conveys the loving bond between Warden Harding and his daughter Eleanor.

A similarly dubious charitable institution inspires the plot of The Warden. The clergy of Barchester are described in the opening pages as the town’s ‘aristocracy’, and Septimus Harding, precentor of the cathedral for the previous ten years (he’s about sixty as the novel opens) has been appointed by the Bishop as Warden of Hiram’s Hospital in the town – a sort of almshouse for twelve ‘bedesmen’, retired working men with no other means of support. In return for neglible pastoral duties he’s awarded a moderately large annual income of £800 and a pleasant house with garden, while the charity’s supposed beneficiaries, the bedesmen, get a paltry daily allowance (supplemented by 2d daily out of Harding’s own pocket – though this doesn’t make much of a dent in his own income) and a home.

When local physician and ‘strong reformer’ of ‘all abuses’ John Bold takes up the old men’s case, advocating reform of this unjust division of the alms the hospital’s 15C founder surely intended was to benefit the old men, and not the titular head, the stage is set for a contentious and litigious conflict, for Archdeacon Grantly, married to Harding’s elder daughter Susan, is a fierce defender of the church’s reputation, and he enlists the services of the Sir Abraham Haphazard, the highest and toughest QC in the land, a ‘machine with a mind’, driven only by ‘success’, to fight the reformers. Meanwhile a campaigning, reforming newspaper ‘The Jupiter’, based loosely on The Times, takes up the case on the old men’s behalf, printing highly rhetorical and sensational stories that fuel the personified ‘Scandal’ in the town and its ‘murmurs’ and ‘whispers’ about the injustice of the Warden’s position.

To complicate things further, the naively (over-)zealous reformer Bold is in love with Harding’s younger daughter Eleanor, and she intervenes on her father’s behalf, knowing he is too mild-mannered and self-effacing to put up a fight for his own benefit.

The novel is charming, amusing and highly entertaining, and written (mostly) with great zest, pace and gentle irony. It’s weakened, however, by Trollope’s tendency to hedge his moral bets. On the one hand, he presents the reforming side as hypocritical, amoral and misguided; Bold, for example, is described thus by the narrator:

There is something to be admired in the energy with which he devotes himself to remedying evil and stopping injustice; but I fear that he is too much imbued with the idea that he has a special mission for reforming. It would be well if one so young had a little more diffidence himself, and more trust in the honest purposes of others.

Although there’s a whiff of irony in this critique of sanctimonious reformers, it still portrays Trollope’s view: that the church may well have some corrupt or greedy individuals, but that by and large as an institution it would be excessive to reform it from top to bottom; individuals are flawed, not institutions, he seems to suggest. Bold is comforts himself smugly in the ‘warmth of his own virtue’, according to this partial narrator.

On the other hand, the church is presented as a deeply corrupt, decadent institution full of ‘grasping priests’ and ‘gorged on wealth’ that’s badly in need of reform. But again it’s just a few individuals who are singled out for critical appraisal. Chief of these is Dr Grantly, the archdeacon and Bishop’s son; here’s that same ironical first-person, garrulous narrative voice describing him early on:

He has all the dignity of an ancient saint with the sleekness of a modern bishop; he is always the same; he is always the archdeacon; unlike Homer, he never nods…[and has a] sonorous tone and lofty deportment which strikes awe into the young hearts of Barchester, and absolutely cows the whole parish of Plumstead Episcopi [his parish].

‘Sleekness’ is excellent.

Later he’s likened to an ‘indomitable cock’ sharpening his spurs, readying for combat with the Warden, who he perceives as full of weakness and treachery (towards the church and the ‘sacred justice of al ecclesiastical revenues’); his ‘holy cause’ is to defend ‘the holy of holies from the touch of the profane’ and ‘pestilent dissenters’ – the reformers and the insurrectionary, ungrateful bedesmen. Oh, and he secretly reads Rabelais, hiding and locking the salacious book away when visitors call, and pretending instead to be composing sermons.

These bedesmen, largely illiterate old men, like Dickens’s trade unionists in Hard Times, are shown (with one noble but rather sycophantic exception, called Bunce) motivated by avarice rather than a sense of moral rectitude; their advocates are ‘raising immoderate hopes’ in their previously contented minds, and making them ‘hostile’ towards their kindly Warden. Here’s that sententious, floridly oratorical narrative voice on this in ch. 4:

Poor old men! Whoever may be righted or wronged by this inquiry, they at any rate will assuredly be only injured: to them it can only be an unmixed evil. How can their lot be improved? All their wants are supplied; every comfort is administered; they have warm houses, good clothes, plentiful diet, and rest after a life of labour; and, above all…a true and kind friend to listen to their sorrows, watch over their sickness, and administer comfort as regards this world, and the world to come!

This is both disingenuous and patronising – these men are given a pittance to live on, so would benefit greatly from a larger income. Trollope seems to side with the establishment view (like Grantly’s) that money is wasted on the labouring classes – they can’t appreciate the finer things of life, and don’t therefore deserve them. And Trollope ensures at the end that they don’t receive an extra penny when the Warden does the decent, honourable thing and resigns, unable to justify his ‘hated income’; ‘I have no right to be here’, he confesses  (and detects a savour of ‘simony’ in an offer of an alternative living by Grantly near the end) – a stance much to the horror and against the urgings of the hypocritical archdeacon, self-serving lawyers and fake-news-purveyors of the Jupiter.

Rather like Dickens’s equivocal position on social injustice and industrial exploitation of workers in Hard Times,published the previous year, Trollope seems genuinely disconcerted by the injustices he portrays, but can’t bring himself to turn his satirical guns on to the culpable institutions or their representatives. Instead he represents Warden Harding as a meek, saintly, pious and harmless old man, while the warring factions, as I’ve indicated, are all tainted with self-interest, self-righteousness and hypocrisy. Whereas Dickens seems to think that if the poor can just have circuses and be amused, all will be well in the world, Trollope suggests in this novel that if do-gooders just kept their noses out of other people’s business, the few good men like Harding would keep in check the venality and greed of the few bad, weak men who spoil a system which, though flawed, serves pretty well most of the time.

I realise I’ve started off sounding rather negative about this novel; so I need another post to indicate some of this novel’s virtues and delights. And maybe a few more cavils.

Men do kill women. Vita Sackville-West, All Passion Spent

Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962), All Passion Spent. Virago Modern Classics 2010; first published 1931

Henry Lyulph Holland, first Earl of Slane, had existed for so long that the public had begun to regard him as immortal. The public, as a whole, finds reassurance in longevity, and, after the necessary interlude of reaction, is disposed to recognise extreme old age as a sign of excellence.

VSW All P Spent coverSo begins, eloquently and wittily, Vita (short for Victoria) Sackville-West’s ninth novel. Lord Slane had led a life of eminence as politician (rising to Prime Minister, then in later years he sat – when it suited him – in the House of Lords) and diplomat (ultimately as Viceroy of India). When he dies aged 94 his six children and ‘their two wives and a husband bringing the number up to nine’, a ‘sufficiently formidable family gathering’ – all in their sixties – gather like ‘old black ravens’ – or vultures – to determine the fate of his widow, their mother, Lady Slane, who is 88.

There’s a sort of inverted or subverted King Lear plot; led by the domineering Herbert, the eldest, they assume that she will spend a portion of the year in each of their houses in turn; they will ‘divide mother between them’. Each of them has their own venal, selfish motives for such an arrangement. She must, they assume, ‘be allowed to break down, and then, after that was over, be stowed away,’ or ‘cleared up’, like her late husband’s desk. They privately believe their mother ‘was rather a simpleton’ with ‘no grasp on the world as it was’, therefore malleable:

Mother had no will of her own; all her life long, gracious and gentle, she had been wholly submissive – an appendage. It was assumed that she had not brain enough to be self-assertive…That she might have ideas which she kept to herself never entered into their estimate…She would be grateful to them for arranging her few remaining years.

This patronising assessment (shared by most who know or knew her) is proved inaccurate; for Lady Slane, who ‘had spent a great deal of her life listening, without making much comment’, and who ‘all her life had been accustomed to have her comings and goings and stayings arranged for her’, obediently doing what was expected of her as the trophy wife of a public male figure, amazes the vulture offspring by announcing that she has no intention of complying with their decision: she is to rent a house for herself and her equally elderly French maid Genoux in Hampstead where she will live alone. Visitors will be banned, except for her children; anyone younger she deems too trying.

They assume she ‘must be mad.’ This stereotypically passive, submissive woman, always ‘reserved in speech, withholding her opinion’, never revealing what she was thinking, had clearly fooled them all along. This was a mask she wore involuntarily. Now she is free.

Only Edith, the unmarried youngest child, ‘always flustered’ and inclined to say the wrong thing, and who the rest of the family dismiss as scatterbrained and ‘a half-wit’ (pretty much like her mother, then), has any emotional intelligence, is ‘surprisingly shrewd’, and perceives her mother’s true nature, just as she sees through the hypocrisy, greed and bullying of her siblings – except for her equally unprepossessing brother Kay, a bachelor whose collection of compasses and astrolabes was all that interested him and kept him happy.

What follows is a revealing portrait of a woman asserting her right to be herself – Vita habitually denied she was a feminist, but a believer in human rights. As a member of the bohemian, ostensibly free-thinking Bloomsbury set, and Virginia Woolf’s lover (along with Violet Trefusis and others), Vita was intent on showing how society oppressed and constrained women and their individuality, and how the institution of marriage precluded most women from expressing their true selves. Lady Slane had longed to be an artist, but marriage to Henry meant that she never once painted. She had a role to play as his decorative ‘appendage’, his obedient wife – this is the only life for which women like her were ‘formed, dressed, bedizened, educated…safeguarded, kept in the dark, hinted at, segregated, repressed, all that at a given moment they may be delivered, or may deliver their daughters over, to Minister to a Man’.

Victoria Glendinning, in an astute and intelligent Introduction, considers the weaknesses in this portrayal. Why make Lady Slane so intellectually dim, so feminine? Her argument is compelling.

The newly liberated old woman’s life in Hampstead is amusingly told, with some engagingly eccentric characters – including a long-forgotten old flame who turns up unexpectedly, reminding her of what she once glimpsed but foreswore in her radiant, unquestioning youth – and some lively, sparkling prose. It’s hard to believe that home-educated Vita saw herself, like Lady Slane, as a rather stupid and limited writer beside the glittering Virginia Woolf.

Take this, for example: Lady Slane’s landlord, the delightfully strange Mr Bucktrout, has taken a liking to her – he’s refused to rent out his house for decades, but recognises in her a kindred spirit; he’s even taken to giving her little presents, and is one of the few people she’ll allow to visit. She thinks of his small, thoughtful gestures of attentiveness, comparing them favourably with the empty manners of polite society:

Courtesy ceased to be blankly artificial, when prompted by real esteem; it became, simply, one of the decent, veiling graces; a formula by which a profounder feeling might be conveyed.

She remembers a flock of yellow and white butterflies that once accompanied her and her husband as they crossed the Persian desert together, in a passage too long to quote here, but which is a beautiful, fragile image of the life she glimpsed but was unable to enter into. As the man says who once locked eyes and souls with her in India, and then left her life:

Face it, Lady Slane. Your children, your husband, your splendour, were nothing but obstacles that kept you from yourself. They were what you chose to substitute for your real vocation. You were too young, I suppose, to know any better, but when you chose that life you sinned against the light.

Men do kill women, he concludes. Henry had ‘cheated her of her chosen life’, she reflects on another occasion, but had offered her another, an ‘ample life’, but one ‘pressed up close against her own nursery’. He’d substituted his life and interests, or their children’s, for her own. ‘It had never occurred to him that she might prefer simply to be herself.’

Vita can write (ok, maybe not sustained over every page), and needn’t have felt inadequate when compared with the better fiction of her famous lover; I’d have liked to quote more examples to support my case, and realise I’ve focused here on the novel’s themes and moral, rather than on the style. I’d be interested to know if I’m alone in admiring it – despite its unevenness. She is indeed a lesser talent, less serious, ambitious and experimental, less important in the annals of literature, perhaps, than the author of Orlando, whose protagonist is based on Vita; but there’s some fine writing in this heartfelt novel, even though it flags about halfway through.

What fell purpose: JR Ackerley, My Dog Tulip

JR Ackerley, My Dog Tulip. New York Review Books Classics, 2010. First published 1956

Last December I posted on JR Ackerley’s autobiographical semi-novel We Think the World of You, and was put off by the snobbish arrogance and petulance of the central character. The dog was ok.

My dog tulip coverMy Dog Tulip continues the story, with a change of the dog’s real name, Queenie. It tells how the narrator learns to cope with this boisterous, loving animal in a small London flat. The first book showed in graphic detail the unpleasantly confined conditions in which the German shepherd bitch had been kept for the first year or so of her life; she was rarely taken for walks, and regularly mistreated or beaten. Not surprising then that she was a handful to bring up when the narrator rescued her, with no previous experience of owning or training a dog (not that he makes much effort to train Tulip).

I’m afraid I found the same problem with this novel. The owner is cantankerous and aggressive towards anyone who has the temerity to question his methods. One of the early chapters deals in more detail than we need with the dog’s excretory habits. When Tulip defecates outside a grocery store, the narrator becomes belligerent when the grocer remonstrates with him. A passing cyclist yells at him to stop Tulip crapping on the pavement; again JR retorts with abuse.

He seems genuinely not to understand (or care) when people are dismayed with his besotted insouciance as far as Tulip’s animal behaviour is concerned. I was a dog owner myself; my dog Bronte was also ‘beautiful’, as JR frequently tells us Tulip was, and not always well behaved – but I hope I had the grace to acknowledge when she overstepped the mark of canine propriety. Ackerley insists that Tulip ‘knows where to draw the line’, but I feel that it’s his line, and it’s a pretty flexible one as far as Tulip’s misbehaviour goes.

He also tells us in doting detail how he tries to ‘marry’ Tulip to a male dog. Mostly he avoids such cringe-making anthropomorphism, but that’s more than twee. He’s trying to encourage her to mate and have puppies. Leave it at that. Spare us the gynaecological detail. Only a dog’s owner is interested.

When Tulip does whelp, our narrator’s first thought is to drown the female puppies, on the grounds that he ‘had gleaned that bitches were more difficult to get rid of than dogs’. He also intends to ‘liquidate’ (his word) these bitch puppies without Tulip’s knowledge. His excuse is that he’d read that animals ‘cannot count’. He waits for a call of nature to distract her, but she seems to detect his ‘fell purpose’ in his eyes – his ‘guilty conscience’ – and ‘let fly from both orifices simultaneously’ over his Chinese carpet. Good for her. He had it coming. And he decides to give the puppies away. This he does, but soon gets impatient and pays little heed to the likelihood of their new owners being fit for purpose.

He’s also not averse to corporal punishment, often hitting Tulip, and her new puppies:

 

They were charming whimsical little creatures, they were also positively maddening, and exasperated me to such an extent that I sometimes gave them a cuff for disobedience and made them squeak, which was both an unkind and useless thing to do, for they could not know what obedience was.

More to the point, they wouldn’t know why they were being struck.

Ok, so it’s 1948, and people didn’t clean up after their dogs as we do today, and expectations of their behaviour were different. Mrs TD tells me than when she was a little girl her mother’s dog Sweep was allowed to roam the area freely all day; he only came back in the evening when he was hungry.

There are some touching moments that show the mutual devotion of Tulip and her flatmate (‘owner’ doesn’t seem appropriate), and I’m glad he was able to enjoy her loving company for over 16 years (two more than my Bronte). But I fail to understand how this book has been praised so highly by the likes of EM Forster – a friendly correspondent of Ackerley’s.

The Introduction is by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, a dog behaviour expert – but surely not one on literature, for she gushes that the story is ‘so delicate, so sensitive, so clearly understood, and so purely and delightfully composed as to rival an Elizabethan sonnet.’ Really. Take another look at the brief extracts I’ve quoted above. Ackerley is no Philip Sidney.

For a less negative view of the book I’d recommend John Self’s post at Asylum. I usually find his taste impeccable, but we disagree on Tulip.

An animated film of the book by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger was released in 2009.

 

 

 

 

A woman of no interest: Barbara Pym, Quartet in Autumn

Rohan Maitzen, an academic at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, who specialises in Victorian literature, wrote in her entertaining personal blog yesterday a piece about what she’s doing when ‘posting’ about rather than ‘reviewing’ books in her blog:

Here, in contrast, I can write whatever I want, no matter how inadequate my understanding might be. My blog posts are narratives of my own reading experience, and so I’m answerable only for being honest and thoughtful about that.

I feel much the same. Most of my posts about books are musings or personal responses rather than reviews.

Of late, when I’ve been obliged to spend quite a bit of time in bed trying to recover from a recurring heavy cold/cough, I’ve got through quite a few books, so today’s post will be a quick response to Barbara Pym’s 1977 novel Quartet in Autumn (links to my previous posts on BP at the end of this piece). A thoughtful introduction at the sadly now defunct Open Letters Monthly (one of Ms Maitzen’s former haunts) by Michael Adams in 2011 is a good place to start if you’re new to Pym’s quietly stated but profoundly moving fiction; he cites admirers such as those who rediscovered her in the 70s when she’d become neglected and unpublished, Larkin and Lord David Cecil, then slightly later advocates like John Updike and Shirley Hazard.

Pym Quartet cover

Cover of my Picador Classic edition (2015)

For several thoughtful, academic essays on this novel (and many other matters Pymian) I’d recommend the Barbara Pym Society website, which introduces Quartet as follows:

Quartet in Autumn, shortlisted for the Booker Prize when it was published in 1977, is one of Barbara Pym’s most unsentimental books, about four English office workers who face aging in different ways. Edwin, Letty, Marcia and Norman have little in common except that they have worked in the same office for many years.  They are each eccentric and difficult in their own way, and resist connections with each other. Letty is a spinster who doesn’t know why life seems to have passed her by. Marcia is an anti-social eccentric, whose quirks and paranoia are becoming more pronounced since her mastectomy. Edwin is a widower obsessed with church-going. And Norman is a ‘strange little man’ with a sarcastic sense of humor and more than a touch of misanthropy.
   In typical Pym fashion, these four characters dance around each other, unable to commit to truly knowing one another. They know each other’s habits and eccentricities, but they don’t really know each other. And when one of them goes into a decline, the other three notice, and try to move into action, but ultimately can do little to help.  This may not be an uplifting book, but it is certainly sharply funny, observant, sad and true. I always enjoy Pym’s clear-eyed observations about her fellow humans – while she shows her characters with warts and all, she does not judge them. They are real people, worthy of her respect. [Link here]

The link to the Society’s conference monograph papers includes several fascinating pieces on Quartet – and on her other novels and related topics. Well worth exploring. I’d recommend this essay by Tim Burnett on the social background to the novel: it very much reflects the dying world of shabby genteel gentlewomen about which Pym had previously written, but which by 1977 was changing rapidly – there are timely references to the welfare state, particularly the NHS (Marcia’s mastectomy – an operation that Pym herself underwent, would have been free at the point of service, the basic principle of Britain’s health service – but then, as even more so now, under severe financial strain), immigration (some slightly uncomplimentary references to a Nigerian landlord, racist anti-Asian graffiti, etc.) and other signs that the post-war world in which she’d grown up was transforming out of recognition. Even the ‘churchy’ elements that dominated her previous novels is much reduced; only Edwin, with his mania for attending obscure saints’ day ceremonies at a range of his favourite churches, and tendency to look up new priests’ details in Crockford’s directory in the public library (another aspect of the welfare state that’s so prominent in the novel), maintains that tradition.

Burnett also considers the theme of nutrition in this novel: Marcia hoards tinned food (among other things – milk bottles, plastic bags), and we are often told what the office quartet are having for lunch or supper – usually as an index of their social status and mental state (Marcia slips quietly into a kind of anorexia, subsisting largely on tea and the occasional biscuit).

The other Pym Society essay I found informative is this one by Raina Lipsitz on the characters’ varying degrees of ‘failure to connect’. Poor Letty, for example, perhaps the most sympathetically portrayed, and who we see most of, is shown resisting the overtures of a fellow diner at the cheap restaurant she lunches at – yet there’s a part of her that yearns for the human contact she instinctively, paradoxically, shies away from.

The writing shows Pym’s superb ability to convey depth and nuance in apparently effortless, transparent prose. Here she is early on, describing the quartet’s (separate, not collective) visits to the local library:

Of the four only Letty used the library for her own pleasure and possible edification. She had always been an unashamed reader of novels, but if she hoped to find one which reflected her own sort of life she had come to realize that the position of an unmarried, unattached, ageing woman is of no interest whatever to the writer of modern fiction.

This is a deeply felt, poignant novel about that process of nearing and reaching retirement age in a world where you’re not noticed; when Marcia and Letty are given a low-key retirement send-off at their office, it’s done at lunchtime to keep the costs down, and no one in charge is clear exactly what any of these four colleagues actually do. They won’t be replaced – for they have no value to the organisation (which significantly is never identified, neither is the work they do: filing and clerical, it’s hinted, but they don’t often seem to do much work) – or, by implication, to society.

Pym’s is the voice of the vulnerable, marginalised, atrophied remnants of a bygone, dying era. As with Willie Loman, attention should be paid to them, no matter how unattractive or superficially flawed or redundant they seem.

Previous posts on Barbara Pym novels:

Excellent Women

No Fond Return of Love

Crampton Hodnett

Jane and Prudence

A Glass of Blessings

Some perfection that you missed: May Sinclair, The Life and Death of Harriett Frean

May Sinclair, The Life and Death of Harriett Frean VMC 2009; first published 1922

Sinclair Frean cover

May Sinclair was born in 1863, and as the introduction to this VMC edition points out (the title page attributes it to Jean Radford, but DJ Taylor’s name appears afterwards on p. xi), she published her first novel in the reign of Victoria, and her final collection of stories ‘a few years short of George V’s Silver Jubilee’. That would be The Intercessor, and other stories (1931; the Jubilee was 1935). The point is that she has an impressive range of subjects and themes across her writing career, reflecting her experience of the socio-cultural and historical shifts in that span of time, from the height of British imperialism (she was an active suffragist on the home front) through WWI and its aftermath.

May Sinclair is perhaps best known as an early Modernist writer, the one who is said to have coined the term ‘stream of consciousness’ to describe the narrative technique of Dorothy Richardson when reviewing the first volumes of her Pilgrimage sequence of novels in 1918. I see traces of that style in this novel, though for the most part it’s a fairly conventional narrative voice – just the odd moment signals her slightly more modernist tendencies. I’ll try to quote below to illustrate this.

In this impressive short novel, not much more than 100 pp of text, she manages to compress the significant aspects of the long life of the titular protagonist. Hatty Frean is born into a bourgeois household, but her father (like Sinclair’s own) lost everything as a result of his reckless monetary speculations; we’re alerted to this erratic element in his character early on, in a passage that also shows why Hatty develops such a passionate attachment to her much-loved, more dependable (in her eyes) mother:

Her mother had some secret: some happy sense of God that she gave to you and you took from her as you took food and clothing, but not quite knowing what it was, feeling that there was something more in it, some hidden gladness, some perfection that you missed.

Her father had his secret too. She felt that it was harder, somehow, darker and dangerous. He read dangerous books: Darwin, and Huxley, and Herbert Spencer. Sometimes he talked about them.

The voice here (like James Joyce’s in the early pages of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) takes on some of the naïve tones of the young Hatty, as she considers her parents with the partially formed, excessively admiring appraisal that cause her to over-invest in the Victorian moral certainties of both parents, while failing to discern the defects and underlying hypocrisy. It’s a subtle technique, for her narrating perception here is unreliable; yes, the father does ruin the family with his reckless gambling on the markets, but a few paragraphs later Hatty concludes that ‘His thinking was just a dangerous game he played.’ Events prove her sadly wrong. Although her blind faith in her father is shaken, she never stops thinking of him as a paragon, or to remind her friends that she is Hilton Frean’s daughter, as if this in some way endorses her arrogant air of superiority. She never stops to consider that other people’s lack of respect for such assertions has anything to do with the faults in her family – or in her own perception.

The tragedy of this sad figure, then, is that she accepts unquestioningly the values of selflessness and self-effacement that she was taught to esteem. As the years pass she becomes ever less able to understand why she’s so unfulfilled or fails to inspire the respect and devotion in others that she feels for her parents, and for their ‘idea of moral beauty’. By denying herself, as they have taught her, the happiness that comes her way, she condemns herself to a life of loneliness and increasing despair.

It’s not a depressing read, however. Sinclair’s mastery of that style I mentioned ensures that Hatty is shown feeling dim traces of the terrible fate those parents have consigned her to, but is too far gone to amend her behaviour, as this random example shows: ‘I was brought up not to think of myself before other people’, she proudly tells a person who’s just suggested her course of self-sacrifice has ‘made three people miserable just for that’, and that she insulted the woman she thought she was elevating above herself:

Harriet sat a long time, her hands folded on her lap, her eyes staring into the room, trying to see the truth…Was it true that this idea had been all wrong?…’I I don’t care. If it was to be done again to-morrow I’d do it.’

But the beauty of that unique act no longer appeared to her as it once was, uplifting, consoling, incorruptible.

For that’s the point, isn’t it? Her belief that she’s ‘not thinking of herself before other people’ is in reality an act of pride and arrogance, a sin against the laws of nature.

There’s a May Sinclair Society whose site is worth a look.

I owe this literary find to Dr Oliver Tearle, who warmly recommended Harriett Frean at his always entertaining site Interesting Literature back in January.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crows, maggots and oysters: Dickens, Bleak House

I’ve been teaching Dickens this term. I don’t find much to say about Hard Times, with its skewering of Utilitarian selfishness and ‘fact’ displacing ‘fancy’. These strong points are weakened for me by the unpleasant hatchet job on trade unionism. Dickens rightly fulminates against the oppression of the ‘Hands’ by their greedy, bullying, heartless ‘masters’, and the injustices in the social system of the time (it was finished in 1854). His depiction of a union organiser as a windbag rabble-rouser, on the other hand, leads to the distressing conclusion that the workers will be ok provided they have imaginative outlets: principally circuses.

There’s too much sentimentality, too, a trait Dickens found hard to tone down.

Bleak House is another matter. Here we find much more nuanced social criticism, and the huge canvas and cast of characters is deployed with panache. Let me close this short post with a fairly random quotation that illustrates what he’s capable of when he resists the temptation to sentimentalise. This is from Book 1, ch. 10: ‘The Law Writer’, which introduces yet another apparently minor character and his circle, but a person who, like all the other secondary figures, plays an important part in the plotting and thematic coherence of the novel:

The day is closing in and the gas is lighted, but is not yet fully effective, for it is not quite dark. Mr. Snagsby standing at his shop-door looking up at the clouds sees a crow who is out late skim westward over the slice of sky belonging to Cook’s Court. The crow flies straight across Chancery Lane and Lincoln’s Inn Garden into Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

 

Here, in a large house, formerly a house of state, lives Mr. Tulkinghorn. It is let off in sets of chambers now, and in those shrunken fragments of its greatness, lawyers lie like maggots in nuts. But its roomy staircases, passages, and antechambers still remain; and even its painted ceilings, where Allegory, in Roman helmet and celestial linen, sprawls among balustrades and pillars, flowers, clouds, and big-legged boys, and makes the head ache–as would seem to be Allegory’s object always, more or less. Here, among his many boxes labelled with transcendent names, lives Mr. Tulkinghorn, when not speechlessly at home in country-houses where the great ones of the earth are bored to death. Here he is to-day, quiet at his table. An oyster of the old school whom nobody can open.

That motif of the crow recurs throughout the narrative, serving as a device to connect the contrasting locations, from the lowly law stationer in his shady, dank court, to the grand ‘house of state’ of the pompous, corrupt lawyer Tulkinghorn. In Bleak House Dickens brilliantly links the high and the low (even street crossing sweeper Jo, effectively a beggar, who ‘knows nothink’, plays a key role in the puzzle. Everyone knows something, but what they don’t know is usually more important. There are secrets everywhere. Even the painted Allegory on the ceiling signifies more than its surface reveals.

That simile of the lawyers lying ‘like maggots in nuts’ is crude but it works. To move on to ‘an oyster of the old school’ mixes the image improbably, but Dickens is in such fine form here he gets away with it: Tulkinghorn, like Allegory, can be two things simultaneously – maggoty in his insidious law-scheming, and oystery in his clammed-up secret-guarding.

This is a far stronger, richer novel than Hard Times: the moral outrage isn’t negated by dodgy political prejudices and myopia.

He’s still not very convincing in his women characters, though.

Bleak House title page

Title page of the first edition (1853) illustrated by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne) via Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Jackson Mitford: holiday reading

Mick Jackson, The Underground Man. Picador paperback, 1998; first published 1997.

Nancy Mitford, Don’t Tell Alfred. Penguin paperback 2015 reissue, first published in 1960.

Jackson Mitford coversOne of my first blog posts was about Mick Jackson’s charming ursine caper Bears of England. I didn’t find The Underground Man as satisfying, but it is a more ambitious, complex and serious novel.

Perhaps that’s why. Despite his capacity for quirky humour, Jackson indulges his penchant for digressions and eccentric excursions and disquisitions too much, making this is an occasionally lacklustre read. Its protagonist is a wealthy landowning aristocrat in Nottinghamshire in the high Victorian period. ‘His Grace’, as his large, not entirely sympathetic staff address him, is based on the eccentric Duke of Portland.

An old man when the narrative begins, he’s bald, losing his faculties (including his sanity) and valetudinarian, like Emma’s father in the Austen novel. He has a tendency to become fixated on trivia, such as the objects he finds in the attic, and on maps, clothes – and tunnels. His huge country house already had some medieval tunnels constructed by the monks who once owned it. These were to enable them to escape when Catholics in England were persecuted.

Mick Jackson, The Underground Man coverThe duke employs engineers to build a larger network of such tunnels, wide and high enough to allow him to ride in his carriage along them. They serve no practical purpose, but amuse him enormously. This self-indulgent childishness is offset by the genuine care and fondness he shows for his estate workers and their families.

The problem is, that’s the plot. The 261 pages are filled with the minutiae of his daily existence, which is rarely more than mildly interesting. The chief interest of the novel is its depiction of a troubled soul and mind slowly deteriorating into a kind of paranoia.

The fragmentary structure doesn’t add to the coherence of the narrative, though the multiple voices that complement the main diary entries of the duke do provide occasional insights into the responses of those around him to the duke’s increasingly bizarre behaviour and erratic obsessions.

My other main holiday read was slightly more engaging: Nancy Mitford’s Don’t Tell Alfred. 

I took it to Spain with me not realising it’s a sequel to The Pursuit of Love, published in 1945, which I read a while back but never posted about here. I don’t find much to say about either novel, except they’re very funny in parts, moderately amusing much of the time, but frothy and ultimately insubstantial. I know it’s shallow of me but I find it hard to care much about characters like Fanny, the protagonist, when they’re given to saying things like this about a luncheon date with her errant son in London:

Never possessing a London house of my own I have always found the Ritz useful when up for the day or a couple of nights; a place where one could meet people, leave parcels, write letters, or run into out of the rain.

Linda’s mother is known as the Bolter, because of her fondness for running off with new partners when married to others. Here’s a sample of the arch humour that the novel is shot through with; eccentric, irascible but supposedly loveable Uncle Matthew, now an old man, is discussing her mother with Fanny:

‘How many husbands has the Bolter had now?’

‘The papers said six –‘

‘Yes, but that’s absurd. They left out the African ones – it’s eight or nine at least. Davey [Fanny’s uncle, another extreme hypochondriac] and I were trying to count up. Your father and his best man and the best man’s friend, three. That takes us to Kenya and all the hot stuff there – the horsewhipping and the aeroplane and the Frenchman who won her in a lottery. Davey’s not sure she ever married him, but give her the benefit of the doubt: four. Rawl and Plugge five and six, Gewan [Spaniard Juan who was introduced in The Pursuit – Matthew has no time for foreigners and wilfully mispronounces the name] seven…[etc.]

 

OK, that kind of thing is pretty funny at times, but some of the jokes and slang are just plain silly. The plot is full of abrupt reversals and revelations, and there’s a large cast of eccentric, mostly louche, lazy and rich characters (most of them have titles or don’t really need to work for a living) who are selfish or stupid or both. Some are said to be very clever or astute. Many of them have a stylishly epigrammatic turn of phrase – one of the pleasures the novel offers.

The approach of the ‘swinging sixties’ is surprisingly prominent in that one of Fanny’s less appealing sons (the other is a tiresome beatnik-bearded, parasitic fake Buddhist) Basil has become a dodgy tourist agent, mercilessly ripping off package holidaymakers. He speaks in a weird hybrid of Cockney, ‘beatnik’ and upper class toff jargon, dismissing his hapless clients as ignorant, bovine victims. Americans’ fondness for psychotherapy (here of a very dubious nature) is wickedly sent up. The other harbinger of the emerging teen/pop era is a rock n roll star with the unlikely name of Yanky Fonzy.

Nancy Mitford, Don't Tell Alfred coverI don’t think Nancy M really ‘gets’ pop culture, the hoi-polloi, or the nascent sixties – or wants to.

The Alfred of the title is Fanny’s Oxford don husband, who accepts a prestigious diplomatic post early on, thus sparking off the novel’s numerous divagations and complications, some of which are quite entertaining, but many are duds.

No doubt I should be more charitable, and accept that it’s all tongue-in-cheek and ironic and not to be taken too seriously. But I found the snobbery and occasional casual racism distasteful – though the novel in its best moments is very funny, and there’s a surprisingly racy sexiness about it.