Kneehigh Theatre: The Dancing Frog

Our 10-year-old granddaughter is staying with me and Mrs TD for a week. She comes for a stay with us every summer, but this is the first time without her big brother – he’s on a sea cadet camp. “I’ll be a lonely child,” she told us happily. “Don’t you mean only child?” my wife asked. “No,” she said happily; “lonely”.

Kneehigh Asylum brochure cover

Kneehigh Asylum (their outdoor dome at the Lost Gardens of Heligan) brochure

On Wednesday we took her to the afternoon performance of Kneehigh Theatre’s show ‘The Dancing Frog’, based on the children’s story by the gifted illustrator and writer Quentin Blake. It’s directed by Mike Shepherd, one of Kneehigh’s founders. We went last time with her parents to see Ubu Karaoke, which I posted about last week. This show is more suitable for a younger audience, and sure enough there was a row of tots sitting on cushions on the floor just in front of the performing area. They entered into the audience participation moments with gusto – we all did, it was irresistible.

It was typically exuberant, inventive and multi-talented Kneehigh. Elderly Gertrude, played by singing, accordion-playing Tim Dalling (who plays an array of other characters in the show), meets her youthful self (Jenny Beare), and they share memories of her sailor husband (also played by Tim), who drowned at sea (though we get to see some startlingly brief shore leaves before his ship hits an iceberg). Heartbroken, Gertrude stands by the river, feeling she can’t live without the love of her life. Like Ophelia, she enters the water, but as she sinks down, a frog swims in front of her and they surface.

The cover of Quentin Blake's book

The cover of Quentin Blake’s book

Then the frog dances for her. Entranced, Gertrude takes him home. He loves to dance to the music on her record player. Soon he’s performing on stage, at first in England (he makes his name as a replacement for a talking dog who develops a sore throat and can’t go on stage), and goes on tour all over the world.

We’re treated to cameo performances of his remarkable choreography in all the major world capitals, from flamenco in Spain to Swan Lake in Russia – memorably staged in front of us complete with corps-de-ballet in tutus and an evil villain. George performs a stunning solo.

There’s a heart-stopping scene at the end when George the frog is trapped by a fire on the 13th floor of his New York hotel. Gertrude stands below with a bucket of water: George has to leap into it – will he survive? You’ll have to go the show to find out!

Blake's illustrations on the book's inside front cover

Blake’s illustrations on the book’s inside front cover

George dancing (drawn by Blake)

George dancing (drawn by Blake)

It’s an absolutely delightful piece of imaginative theatre. The puppet frog (who looks just like drawings in Blake’s book) is handled by Alisa Dalling. Although she’s more or less holding him to make him move and dance, we quickly forgot her presence and believed entirely that this cheerful green creature was a living, worm-chomping amphibian who saved Gertrude from grief, and charmed all who saw him (apart from a nasty landlady and some rascally theatre folk who wanted to lock George up and force him to perform without Gertrude’s protection and love).

George and Gertrude have to get through some difficult and even dangerous times, then, reinforcing the heartwarming moral of this lovely story. The book has a frame narrative omitted in this dramatisation. Young Jo asks her mother for a story, and this is the tale she tells. When it’s finished, Jo asks if it was true, for frogs don’t normally dance, and nobody could catch one and make it perform on stage; her mother replies

‘You can do all kinds of things if you need to enough’.

The story is told with bracing vigour, humour, pathos and panache, with perfectly chosen music and songs (some original and cleverly pertinent to the plot and characters), dance and mime. There’s particularly clever use of props, like aeroplanes, butterflies, the husband’s ship (and that nasty iceberg) – and even the flames of the fire.

We all agreed afterwards that we’d enjoyed the show immensely, and completely suspended our disbelief. I’d highly recommend you go and see this terrifically entertaining show if you get the chance – or read the book if you can’t.

Adam Foulds, The Quickening Maze

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Unbosoming?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Anthony Trollope’s Small House at Allington again

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Great stuff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anthony Trollope, The Small House at Allington

My OWC paperback edition of The Small House at Allington

My OWC paperback edition of The Small House at Allington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clues were given a few pages earlier:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lily takes the opposite view:

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

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

 

Kneehigh Theatre: Ubu Karaoke

On Saturday I went with Mrs TD and daughter’s family to see the innovative Kneehigh Theatre’s rousing show Ubu Karaoke in their ‘Asylum’ marquee in the beautiful setting of the Lost Gardens of Heligan .

We always expect to be delighted by Kneehigh’s invention and imaginative multi-talented casts and crew; Ubu Karaoke is probably their best yet. There’s a storyline of sorts – crazed, megalomaniac dictator assassinates the equally dodgy ruler, creates a regime of repression and disorder designed to benefit only himself, until the ex-leader’s daughter rises up against him (a bear is also involved) and he’s flushed down a toilet – literally. It’s described on their website as ‘ this deliriously unhinged improvised promenade musical’:

We all know an Ubu.
Impossibly greedy, unstoppably crude, inexorably hell-bent on making our country great again!
Sound familiar?

The show is staged in the round, with the audience sitting or standing in tiered wooden stalls, but also encouraged to stand next to the action and mingle with the players. The programme boasts with justification that’s it’s ‘as satisfying as Massaoke, and eminently more useful’. A terrific house band, with the glorious name The Sweaty Bureaucrats, belts out a rousing sequence of classic pop and rock tunes to punctuate and illustrate the action. There are electronic info-screens all round the circular tent with a constant stream of hashtag jokes, commentary and lyrics to the songs. The audience are encouraged to sing along; on the Saturday we went they did so with gusto, making a powerful, stirring, hilarous atmosphere.

Kneehigh programmeIt’s played for laughs, with plenty of scatological humour. The dictator’s henchman, for example, revels in the name Captain Shittabrique (played with panache by Robi Luckay); he feigns disgust at the regular and predictable mispronunciations of his surname. The kids loved that. (So did the adults, really).

There’s a serious underlying message, though, as there was in Alfred Jarry’s original anarchic, surreal/Symbolist romp staged for just one performance on its first run in Paris in 1896 – it caused a riot, with its pointed satire on power elites and ridiculing of the establishment and authority. Ubu was Jarry’s bizarre ‘weapon of mass disruption’, a ‘howling, hysterical metaphor for greed’ (programme notes). His play was in turn loosely parodying elements of Hamlet (which Kneehigh keep by having the murdered leader’s ghost appear on a high platform; we know he’s a ghost because he has a paper bag over his head bearing the word ‘GHOST’ on it), King Lear (those crazed, power-mad dynasties) and others I probably missed.

Alfred Jarry

Portrait of Jarry, By Atelier Nadar – Reproduced in Peintures, gravures et dessins de Alfred Jarry, published by Collège de pataphysique, 1968, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6248594

Kneehigh have kept some other features of Jarry’s play (like the talking, renegade bear), but change several to highlight the parallels with some of today’s more egregiously outspoken, bigoted and narcissistic leaders. Preening President Dallas, for example, has a pointedly blonde, initially vapid and complicit daughter called Bobbi (played by Kyla Goodey; like most of the cast, she played other roles, in her case as a…well, I don’t know what to call it: sort of crowd-rouser and chorus.)

Jarry (1873-1907) was just 23 when his play was first performed. The absurd, strutting, obese, grotesque figure of Ubu is said to have been based on his old physics schoolteacher. His uniquely original theatrical debut made Jarry a prototypical punk superstar. His playful, irreverent use of language, liberally laced with expletives and toilet humour, is retained with gleeful vigour by Kneehigh; our 12-year-old grandson was shocked by some of the more outrageous stuff – but he’s a bit of a prude.

Jarry was a forerunner of Dada and Surrealism, and invented the term ‘pataphysics (the redundant apostrophe is intentional). It’s defined as the science of the realm beyond metaphysics, a typically absurdist spin on a serious concept. It’s also been called the science of imaginary solutions, concerned with the laws governing exceptions – the repressed part of a rule that ensures that the rule doesn’t work (obviously).

He owes a debt to earlier literary iconoclasts like Rabelais and perhaps Cervantes. There’s also a nod towards the dynastic tragedies of classical theatre (his title and plot in Ubu Roi parodies aspects of Oedipus Rex). He clearly influenced some of his contemporaries like Apollinaire, and later figures from Oulipo, including Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec, as well as Ionesco, Genet, Boris Vian and others.

This is all starting to sound very serious and highbrow – but Kneehigh’s Ubu Karaoke gave us as much fun as a theatrical experience as we can remember. The MC (Niall Ashdown) played a deadpan commentator and instigator of mayhem, and produced some brilliant improvised jokes. The deposed President, Nick Dallas, was played with sinister swagger by the excellent and splendidly named Dom Coyote, who also played a mean guitar in the house band.

Tom Jackson-Greaves was responsible for the energetic choreography (Kneehigh specialise in physical musical theatre), and came on to do an astonishing solo in the guise of a fourth-wall-breaking barman (there’s a working bar doing a brisk trade throughout the performance).

I can’t finish without praising the astonishing cross-dressing lead players. Katy Owen played Mr Ubu, a diminutive but terrifyingly outrageous performance with an accent that mangled Cardiff with something unidentifiable and totally weird. Mrs Ubu was portrayed by Mike Shepherd (who started Kneehigh back in 1980) as a sort of psychotic panto dame.

If you are in the area I’d urge you to see experience Ubu Karaoke; its run continues until August 25. I don’t think it’s touring, but Kneehigh’s Fup is revived and playing in various venues across the country. We’re taking the granddaughter to see their show The Dancing Frog next week – it’s based on the Quentin Blake story, and looks great fun, too.

See also my post on Kneehigh’s Asylum performance two summers ago: The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk – based on the story of the artist Marc Chagall.

DH Lawrence’s idyllic cottage in Cornwall

Estate agent's advert for DHL cottage

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

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

The first post was on Aug 11 2016:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Third post, Aug. 13, 2016

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

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

Post 4, Aug 14 2016

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

 

Orwell’s Catalonia

George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plymouth pilgrimage 3

For the past two years I’ve made a visit to Plymouth in memory of my old friend Mike Flay, who died in May 2016. We used to meet a few times a year there and talk about books, football, family, education.

Here’s a link to the two previous posts, each of which has photos of the zones we frequented in the city, bombed heavily during WWII because of the Devonport naval shipyard – still a military base. The brutalist reconstruction has not been entirely picturesque, but the waterfront is still lovely.

The Waterfront restaurant bar from the Hoe. Kids were having great fun jumping from the harbour wall into the sea.

The last two years I went in July. This summer I’ve been away in Mallorca and otherwise engaged, so this year’s sad pilgrimage is a month later than usual.

I did my usual dérive along the commercial bleakness of Armada Way and on to the Hoe. No bowls match in progress this time – locals nor ghostly Drake awaiting the Spanish Armada.

The customary pint of local brew ‘Jail Ale’ (named presumably for the famous Dartmoor Prison nearby) at the Waterside bar we used to patronise – where Mike would always have a burger, having started his journey earlier than me.

No Brittany ferry passed by this time, either. A gaggle of Italian school kids perched on the wall nearby, legs dangling over the water, trying to look cool and largely succeeding, as Italian kids do.

The attractively restored Tinside Lido, when I walked on, was much busier than last time. The sun had finally emerged after a rare cloudy start to the day; it’s been an unseasonably hot, dry summer in the west country, where we usually get more than our fair share of rain, even in summer. Now the fields look parched and brown – an unusual sight in this green land.

On to the ‘colonial hotel’, as Mike called the Copthorne, close to the station. He was thinking of Conrad, though the comparison was ironic, for there’s not much of the Far Eastern exotic about it. A business couple talked earnestly about mortgages and financial deals. The young woman serving at the bar wore a name badge: Jelena. She’s one of so many who will unfortunately find Britain less congenial after the Brexit negotiations finally come to their dreary end. Not our finest time.

The doors to the hotel are now locked and one has to press a button to gain access after speaking through an intercom. The bar now calls itself a ‘Brasserie’ – an unconvincing development. The toilets are also locked and it’s necessary to get a code number from the bar staff in order to get in there. Clearly the proprietors are expecting invasion of some kind.

The layout of the lounge had changed, and the customary Sky News on the TV is now playing on a side wall, on a much bigger screen. Sports news was on: football transfer news (Mike would have enjoyed that, and grumbled about the state of Man Utd), cricket.

As I sped back through Cornwall on the train home I felt the usual pained sadness of loss. The usual doubts about these trips: but I’m sure they’re not a wallow – they’re a celebration of his life.

 

Lydie Salvayre: Cry, Mother Spain

#WIT Women in Translation month I don’t know why but I’ve been unable to upload my photo of the book’s cover; here’s a link to the Maclehose Press website which has a blurb and fine picture of it.

I returned yesterday from a holiday in north Mallorca – more on that maybe another time. It seemed appropriate to read there this novel by Lydie Salvayre: Cry, Mother Spain, translated by Ben Faccini and published by Maclehose Press, Quercus London. It was first published in French in 2014 (when it won the Prix Goncourt) with the title Pas pleurer (Don’t cry). In an interview at the World Literature Today site Faccini explained that he wanted to avoid using a negative term. The author told him she wanted to highlight, with that French phrase, the protagonist Salvayre’s mother Montse’s determination not to cry in the face of humiliations, political and personal disasters arising from the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Faccini himself wanted to accentuate the central theme of mothers and daughters, of interrogating the past in the context of one’s mother country from a place of exile. There’s maybe an echo of the title of Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country.

It’s a deeply moving, powerful account of that bloody conflict, fusing elements of autobiography, political history and literary allusion – threaded through the narrative are references to the account by the monarchist Catholic writer Georges Bernanos, Les Grands Cimetières de la lune. In an author’s preface Salvayre says she read that book in 2012 and was ‘shocked by it’. Bernanos describes in it the Francoist atrocities he witnessed in the opening months of the Civil War in Mallorca in 1936 – crimes carried out in many cases with the complicity of the Catholic clergy (‘that despicable institution’ is how the narrator describes the church, when it showed its ‘true and terrifying face’) who dominated Spain’s life – spiritual, social and political – at the time, as the opening words of the novel starkly show:

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. A ceremonial ring on his venerable hand, the Most Reverend Archbishop of Palma pointed at the chests of the “guilty poor”, singling them out to the vigilante firing squads…[these victims] were those who dared to open their mouths, and on July 18, 1936, my mother opened her mouth for the first time. She was fifteen. She lived up in the hills, cut off from the world, in a village where wealthy landowners had kept families like hers in the most abject poverty for centuries.

Montserrat, known to her intimates as Montse, is a name Salvayre is ‘happy to appropriate and revive for a short while, rescuing it from the oblivion to which it has been consigned’:

For the time being I don’t want to introduce any invented characters into my account…She’s ninety years old as she sits and remembers her youth in the crossbred, trans-Pyrenean language she has adopted since Fate hurled her into a village  somewhere in the south-west of France more than seventy years ago.

That language Salvayre describes in another interview at Music and Literature as ‘Fragnol’ – a hybrid of French and Spanish. Montse was raised speaking Catalan, but her Andalusian husband insisted on Castilian been spoken in his household. It’s a novel as much about the struggle of women in the face of patriarchal social oppression as it is about the class struggle and the insurrection against the stifling Catholicism of early 20C Spain.

When the main local landowner considers Montse for a job as a maid – about the only work available to a girl of her class outside of peasant toil in the fields – she’s deeply insulted and outraged at his assessment of her as seeming ‘quite humble’. When the war breaks out next day she feels liberated from that destiny of drudgery in that month when she ‘discovered life’: she never worked as a maid for him or anyone else. She’d found her voice.

Her brother José returns from Lérida full of utopian ideas and slogans of the Anarchists, and he fuels her incipient feelings of mutiny against the oppressive social norms for women by instilling in her those same idealistic political dreams. Sadly for him and his country they come to nothing, defeated by the forces of Fascism, aided by the Germans and Italians, and with the growing support of an ignorant, timid, ultra-conservative peasantry, and self-interested bourgeoisie.

After an initial period of euphoria when the remote, backward village, ‘where things repeated themselves, identically and endlessly’, where ‘the rich had their prosperity, the poor their burdens’, and ‘nothing new ever came along to add hope’, becomes elated by those naively optimistic ideas of José’s, the peasants gradually shift to adopt the cynical and manipulative ideologies of the Stalinists. The lukewarm support of Soviet Russia – the only nation prepared to provide  political and financial aid to the Republican, anti-fascist cause (the foreign volunteers of the International Brigade were eager but mostly ill-equipped and poorly led and trained) – evolved inevitably into an anti-revolutionary, anti-Trotskyist purge as vicious and treacherous as that of the Francoists – as Orwell has starkly described in Homage to Catalonia.

This novel is more affecting than his account, because it has at its heart the true story of a Catalan families caught up in the internecine turmoil and factional viciousness, denunciation, betrayal, retribution and shameful slaughter. More importantly, it’s told from a woman’s perspective, filtered through the modern sensibility of her novelist daughter, who perceives, and subtly weaves into the narrative, the parallels with events today in which cynical media manipulation and shameless courting of ultra-nationalist bigotry have become too familiar; here’s an example, where she considers the fascist supporters’ fervent advocacy of ‘nation’ and ‘nationalist’: this ‘thrusting’ of those terms about ‘like a banner’ is done

to mask their true aim of separating nationals from non-nationals. In other words they are creating a system that differentiates and categorises humans. This is, I suppose, just another form of xenophobia, and the objective is to go on and discredit the non-nationals, to marginalise them, and finally to get rid of them like parasites.

 

Former Prime Minister Cameron comes to mind, likening migrants to ‘swarms’. Orwell said in ‘Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War, talking of atrocities committed by both sides, that they are ‘believed in or disbelieved in solely on grounds of political predilection. Everyone believes in the atrocities of the enemy and disbelieves those of his own side, without ever bothering to examine the evidence.’ And on fake news:

Nazi theory indeed specifically denies that such a thing as ‘the truth’ exists.

Elsewhere Salvayre quotes Bernanos:

‘The wealthy despise those that serve them, either through conviction or foolishness, as ultimately they only believe themselves to be defended by the corrupt; they only put their trust in the corrupt.’

José and Montse leave their stultifying village for the heady revolutionary hub of Barcelona, but the brother quickly becomes disillusioned by the ‘interminable squabbles’ between the communists and anarchists, ‘one blinding and the other self-deceiving’. Disgusted by the hatred and casual murders perpetrated by his fellow militiamen, he returns, sickened, to the village to face its increasing hostility which leads to inevitable catastrophe for him – and them. Instrumental in José’s fate is the character of Diego, an interesting character whose sad past has embittered him and encouraged him to adopt a communist stance for opportunistic reasons. Their two lives play out with the sombre inevitability – like the civil war and the lives of those caught up in it – of Greek tragedy.

Montse has a more uplifting experience in Barcelona which, though short-lived, transforms her life – to the chagrin of the daughter to whom she tells her story. For she insists that she remembers or cares for nothing that happened after 1937 and that love affair – not the terrifying flight across the border with other refugees from the fascist regime; the struggle to settle in a foreign land which viewed her with suspicion.  All that matters in her fading memory is the brief moments of exhilaration and love in the Catalan capital in that dazzling summer of liberty and hope, never entirely erased by the horrors that followed.

There’s an excellent post on Cry, Mother Spain at Grant’s blog 1st Reading

 

More obscure lives by Woolf: Edgeworth and Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An_Experiment_on_a_Bird_in_an_Air_Pump_by_Joseph_Wright_of_Derby,_1768

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

at once humane and brutal, advanced and hidebound…

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

‘Something was not right’, he sadly concludes.

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

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