Of dictionaries and cicadas

Lisa Hill’s recent post (at her blog ANZ Litlovers) on Pip Williams’ new novel The Dictionary of Lost Words was timely. A week or so back I watched the 2019 film ‘The Professor and the Madman’, directed by the Iranian-American Farhad Safinia, based on the 1998 book by Simon Winchester with the less strident title The Surgeon of Crowthorne – a sort of joint biography of James Murray, who in 1879 became the editor of the New English Dictionary – later known as the Oxford English Dictionary, and of W.C. Minor.

Minor had been an army surgeon during the American Civil War, after which his mental health deteriorated. Having moved to England, he shot and killed a man in Lambeth in 1872, was found not guilty at trial on the grounds of insanity, and was committed to what was called, in those less forgiving times, the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum at Crowthorne in Berkshire. Minor read the appeal by Murray’s team for contributions of quotations from the major works published in the English language that would illustrate the evolving meaning of words from their earliest usage. He became one of the most prolific of contributors to the project, and Murray went to visit him often from 1891.

The film has a powerful, committed performance as Minor from Sean Penn. Mel Gibson got to air his dodgy Scots accent again (yes, ‘Braveheart’ wasn’t his finest hour) in a strange bit of casting as Murray. As a film it was pretty poor, but gave a reasonably sympathetic account of the early struggles to get the OED project off the ground (Murray didn’t live to see the final volume of the first edition published in 1928).

Lisa’s post describes Pip Williams’ novel as a kind of counter-factual feminist vision of how the OED might have been compiled if it hadn’t been such an androcentric product of the late Victorian patriarchy. It sounds fascinating, and I commend Lisa’s post to you.

She has some interesting things to say about the OED’s entry for loaded words (in terms of gendered usage) like ‘service’, ‘bondmaid’ and ‘delivered’.

Cover of Simon Winchester's The Meaning of Everything

That’s the famous photo of Murray in his Scriptorium

This morning while looking for something to read next (after Donna Leon), I noticed on my shelf another Simon Winchester history of the OED, The Meaning of Everything, published by the OUP in 2003 as a sort of sequel to The Surgeon. I’d forgotten that I’d read it, and spent some happy time leafing through it.

There are some fascinating photo portraits of some of the key figures in the development of the OED. Right at the start (and on the cover in my picture) is Murray himself in his Scriptorium, where he began to pigeon-hole the millions of slips of paper sent in by contributors like Minor, on which were handwritten the citations illustrating usage of words. There are also images from earlier dictionaries of the English language, like Cawdrey’s (one of my earliest posts was about this, and other forerunners of Murray like Blount, Minsheu and Mulcaster: link HERE).

As I flipped through the pages I came across a delightful passage from K. M. Elisabeth Murray’s 1977 biography of her grandfather, Caught in the Web of Words, about a typical day’s bout of his dictionary-related correspondence (all written by hand, of course, with a second ‘fair copy’ as well). These included requests to the director of the botanical gardens at Kew for information about the first record of an exotic plant, and to various contemporary authors about the meanings of words they’d used in their novels or poems.

One of these was to Lord Tennyson, ‘to ask where he got the word balm-cricket, and what he meant by it’, in his poem ‘Dirge’. A footnote explains that this is another term for the common cicada, and is a mistaken translation from the German Baumgrille, meaning tree-cricket. It wasn’t Tennyson’s mistake originally – he’d borrowed it from an 18C author.

‘Dirge’ was first published 1830, revised 1842. With seven stanzas of six lines each, it has an unfortunate refrain, repeated twice in each stanza, at lines three and six: ‘Let them rave.’

It appears to address a person (a woman?) reposing in their grave, while the busy world raves on round them (Van Morrison was to use a similar image). It’s full of intrusive archaisms, like ‘Thee nor carketh care nor slander’. Carketh – even the inflection is archaic. From the Middle English via Old French and Latin (meaning ‘burden’); here’s the OED online (how James Murray would have loved computers and the internet: they would have shortened his work by decades) –

That which burdens the spirit, trouble; hence, troubled state of mind, distress, anxiety; anxious solicitude, labour, or toil. (In later use generally coupled with care.) archaic.

The poem’s troubled, stumbling rhythm is largely trochaic, I suppose to give a melancholy air; instead it makes it almost impossible to read aloud and make sense, hampered further by some weird imagery and awkward archaisms:

The frail bluebell peereth over

Rare broidery of the purple clover.

Let them rave.

‘Rare’ here seems to be OED online’s (rare) sense of ‘Of colour: thin, faint, pale’, or maybe ‘exceptional’ (as in the old ballad’s refrain about ‘rare Turpin, hero’).

Here’s the bit with the cicada:

The balm-cricket carols clear

In the green that folds thy grave.

Let them rave.

It’s hard to hear the raucous scratching screech of a nocturnal cicada as ‘carols clear’. As so often with early Tennyson, the imagery sounds impressive and mellifluous, but doesn’t stand much close scrutiny in terms of meaning. Still, a poem should not mean, but be, as someone famously said.

PS a ‘dirge’ – a song or poem of lament or mourning, suitable for a funeral – derives from the Latin Dirige, Domine, Deus meus, in conspectu tuo viam meam (“Direct my way in your sight, O Lord my God”), the first words of the first antiphon in the Matins of the Office for the Dead, created on basis of Psalms 5:8 (5:9 in Vulgate). (Wikipedia).

 

An odd couple: John O’Hara and Donna Leon

John O’Hara, New York Stories (Vintage paperback, 2018). Donna Leon, Death at La Fenice (Arrow paperback, 2004; first published 1992)

Recently I’ve found it hard to concentrate on reading. This is strange, given that we now find ourselves with unusual amounts of unconstrained time on our hands. Maybe it’s because I’m so preoccupied with the anxieties and stress caused by the pandemic. People I know have been infected. Our daughter works in the NHS. Yesterday I went to the local hospital for an MRI scan, and it felt like entering a war zone: security guards at the entrances, no visitors, face masks compulsory, staff hidden behind PPE.

Before the limits on travel were introduced nearly a month ago I’d started reading John O’Hara’s New York Stories. I thought the short form would be less demanding in terms of concentration required. I was wrong.

Front covers of O'Hara, New York Stories, and Leon, Death at La FeniceThere are 32 stories in the collection, with publication dates ranging from the early 1930s to after O’Hara’s death in 1970 (he was born in 1905). They range widely in length, too, from what might now be called flash fiction – vignettes of just a couple of pages or so, which are often very well done – to a 58-page novella ‘We’re Friends Again’. They’re not arranged chronologically or thematically, but alphabetically by title. Steven Goldleaf in the Introduction believes this was to enable the stories to stand on their own merits – the consistency of which O’Hara was said to be very proud of.

I found them pretty uneven, and mostly unsavoury. There’s some good stuff here, but also a seediness that swerves into nastiness. Perhaps it’s the gritty competitiveness of metropolitan life that he explores, but the stories weren’t to my taste. They lack humour, too. Some are quite funny, but that’s another thing. Businessmen play cruel tricks on each other, or bicker viciously. Showbiz types scratch and grumble. Society ladies and guys who frequent swish clubs display a mix of snobbery and ennui, duplicity and venom. Married couples spar and dissimulate. There’s a lot of cheating – in the trickery and sexual senses.

Many have puzzling qualities, with some enigmatic endings. This elliptical approach to short fiction became a hallmark of The New Yorker magazine, where most of these stories first appeared (according to Goldleaf, again). I ended many of them with a ‘so what’ feeling.

I gave Mrs TD a copy of Donna Leon’s first Commissario Brunetti crime novel, Death at La Fenice, for her birthday. She enjoyed it, and recommended it to me. It was a good choice for a lockdown – in my restless mood I found it pleasantly diverting.

I chose it largely because we visited Venice – where all of this series of crime novels is set – around this time last year, and we loved it. Leon is very good at capturing the beauty and squalor of this city. The plot concerns the demise of a world-famous conductor at the eponymous Venetian opera house during a performance, and Brunetti’s quest to find out how and why he died.

As with most fiction of this genre, a group of prime suspects (and red herrings) is produced, and the clever Brunetti has to use all his skill to figure how the unpleasant German conductor came to die of poisoning. In this respect it’s a fairly undistinguished narrative. Much of the pleasure in reading it comes from the pungently evoked city setting I mentioned earlier (although there was sometimes just a bit too much map-reading detail of the ‘he turned left up the Zattere and crossed bridge so-and-so into campo X’ type), and the range of quirky, sympathetically drawn characters, some of whom provide warm humour. Most of the characters are convincingly flawed and human.

Brunetti’s family, for example, is vividly portrayed: his smart, resourceful teacher wife Paola and two teenage kids – a feisty girl and sulky, rebellious boy. There are some terrific scenes in which Brunetti visits an arthritic, suspicious old woman, now living in squalor, but a famous opera singer in her youth. Her back story is tragic, and crucial in Brunetti’s unravelling of the mystery. It brings out the horrors and shame of the Nazi era, and Italy’s subsequent history of corruption and graft beneath a veneer of sophistication and culture.

I also liked the way Leon depicts the ineptitude and vanity of the officers who work for Brunetti, and his preening, manipulative and ultimately useless boss. This is why he has to rely solely on his own intuitions and eye for detail to solve the crime. He’s not a deductive genius like Holmes, or puzzle-solver like Morse, or even a psychologist like Poirot (I hope I’ve got all that right: I’m not well versed in crime fiction). Instead he’s just an intelligent, observant and hard-working man with a good set of instincts and deep sympathy for suffering humanity.

There are over twenty titles in this sequence of Brunetti stories. I may well try another if my inability to focus on anything more demanding continues.

More ramblings, a viaduct and holy well

During our recent walks Mrs TD and I have commented on the birdsong, which seems louder than we’ve ever heard it. Maybe it’s our imagination, or else it’s because there’s so little interference from other sounds like road traffic and aircraft. We’d been disappointed not to see more wildlife in our rural ramblings, until the other day. As we walked down a country lane, a deer leapt from the wooded hill beside it, dashed across the road right in front of us, and into the field on the other side. Seconds later another followed, its hoofs clattering on the tarmac.

This horse's two friends were camera shy

This horse’s two friends were camera shy

They looked like adult female red deer: no antlers, but quite large. They darted away so quickly I didn’t have time to take out my phone to take a picture. But what a delightful sight.

The horses in a field were less remarkable, but just as handsome.

Nearer to home is this viaduct. It Carvedras viaductcarries the railway lines across the valley just outside Truro station. It’s called Carvedras viaduct, after the old name for this part of the city, where once there was a Dominican friary (more on this in a minute).

The original viaduct before 1902. By Unknown author – A postcard in the Geof Sheppard Collection, Public Domain

The Plymouth-Truro line was opened in 1859 as a single broad-gauge track (2.14m) for goods vehicles. The 70-mile route traversed numerous deep valleys which required the construction of 42 viaducts. The engineer Brunel recommended the use of wooden fan supports braced on masonry piers to keep costs down. Replacement of these with all-masonry piers began in the 1870s, as it became apparent that this had been a false economy: the annual maintenance of the timber structures was very expensive.

In most cases the new piers were built alongside the old ones. As you can see in my pictures, the original Brunel stumps of piers are clearly visible beside the newer, late-Victorian ones that carry the lines today. The old single-track line began to be replaced from the late 1880s with two standard-gauge lines (for most of the route, but not all). These renovations and replacements weren’t completed for decades.

The original stumps of piers beside the new viaduct structure

The original stumps of piers beside the new viaduct structure

The original stumps of piers beside the new viaduct structure

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Opened in 1902, the replacement Carvedras viaduct is 26m high, 295m long, and has 15 piers. Truro is a city established at the confluence of three rivers and valleys (which is perhaps where its original name in Cornish comes from), and the first viaduct the railway crosses as it approaches the city is even more spectacular, the longest of all 42.

These viaducts are impressive feats of engineering, and have a cathedral-like grace and beauty. Jackdaws and seagulls are very fond of them as places to congregate, perch and watch the world go by.

We can see Carvedras from our back door, with the cathedral beyond.

We can see Carvedras viaduct from our back door, with the cathedral beyond.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

St Dominic's Well Carvedras houseSt Dominic’s Holy Well is cited in a number of sources, online and in print, as located in the front garden of Carvedras House, beneath the viaduct of the same name. I was able to get this (not very clear) picture by leaning over the front wall. According to Wikipedia it was built in the 17C, but was presumably restored from a much earlier site that had been located in the grounds of St Dominic’s Friary, said to have stood in the grounds of Carvedras Manor. The friary was established in the 13C:

It was an important missionary centre with a church and chapter house. It is known that at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538 the Friary had a Prior and ten friars.

One of the annoying consequences of the current situation is that the local library is closed, and I’ve been unable to research this topic beyond the limited resources available online. Maybe once this crisis is over I’ll return to this subject and add some detail. For example, I don’t know what Carvedras signifies in Cornish; ‘car’ is fort, but I have no idea what ‘vedras’ means.

Mrs TD's sourdough loavesHere to finish today’s CV19 update is a gratuitous picture of some delicious sourdough bread Mrs TD baked. It should cost a fortune to buy at the baker’s: it took her a week just to produce the starter culture (if that’s what it’s called).

Other good things are coming out of this sad time. On my morning walk the other day I passed a house with a tray of lovely fresh cauliflowers outside, and a sign saying: Please take one – free. And a hand-drawn picture of a rainbow, with the people in Britain are displaying as a symbol of hope and solidarity.

And here’s a glorious tree in blossom that we passed on this morning’s walk.

Tree in blossom

Whitebells, St Keyne, the NHS, and a woodpecker

The last couple of days’ walks have furnished material for the last few posts here. I still seem to find it hard to settle down to any serious reading.

The last couple of posts have mentioned St Keyne’s church. I took this picture the other day of a well just by the main entrance porch to the church. It’s covered over with a grill, but through this it’s possible to see a set of stone steps leading down into the dank darkness below. I don’t know if there’s any water there.

This is not the same as St Keyne’s holy well in the countryside near Liskeard. There’s some information about it at this site, which quotes its legend from Richard Carew, antiquarian and High Sheriff of Cornwall, presumably from his Survey of Cornwall published in 1602:

‘The quality that man or wife whom chance or choice attains first of this sacred spring to drink thereby the mastery gains.’

I haven’t visited it myself. I do own a book given me as a wedding present the day Mrs TD and I got married, 25 years ago this summer: Secret Shrines: In search of the Old Holy Wells of Cornwall, by Paul Broadhurst. According to his account of this well, St Keyne lived towards the end of the fifth century, so about a century before St Augustine is said to have brought Christianity to England.

She was one of ‘the fifteen sainted children of the illustrious King of the Brecon Beacons’, and blessed with ‘bewitching loveliness’. Nevertheless she wandered about Wales and then Cornwall, ‘safe from insult or wrong-doing’ by ‘the strength of her purity’, performing thaumaturgical marvels wherever she went.

One such miracle was performed in Somerset, commemorated in the place-name of Keynsham (near Bath). There she turned all the serpents that were infesting the place into stone. A footnote suggests this could be an allegory of the erection of monoliths or crosses to neutralise ‘unbalanced energies’. We could do with some of that power during the current crisis.

Image from Broadhurst's account of St Keyne's Well

Image from Broadhurst’s account of St Keyne’s Well, about 100 years ago

When she retired to Cornwall she made her home near the well that now bears her name. She planted several different types of tree by it, and endowed its water with ‘peculiar virtue’ by her blessing. Robert Southey has a poem about it (full text HERE), telling the tale of a traveller who’s stopped to take a refreshing drink from it, and is told by a local householder that the saint often drank from and blessed this well, and ‘laid on the water a spell’:

‘If the husband of this gifted well/shall drink before his wife,/A happy man thenceforth is he,/for he shall be master for life.’

But St Keyne’s wish had been for equality for women. The man’s tale therefore continues:

‘But if the wife should drink of it first,/God help the husband then!’

Asked if he was drinking this water before his wife, the traveller says he left her by the church porch as soon as they were wed: ‘but i’faith, she had been wiser than me/for she took a bottle to church.’

Serves him right.

Broadhurst goes on to say that the local custom of drinking this well water for luck persisted into early modern times. The well was then rebuilt in granite, as it had begun to deteriorate.

Gate post

Here’s another picturesque gate post

I’ll end with some more images from the last couple of days’ walks.

Today I saw a great spotted woodpecker, furtively shielding himself behind a tree trunk high up when he saw me. Then a jay, standing by the side of the lane; it took off into the trees at my approach. The same trees where the other day a man told me he was engaged in a stand-off with a squirrel.

White bluebellsThese white bluebells (whitebells?) grow profusely in the wood above our house (soon it will be a violet-blue haze of proper bluebells).

As I went to cross a stile to access a footpath that crosses a field, I noticed this delightful little message. Our health service has been under unprecedented pressure during this virus outbreak, and the people have started posting images of rainbows in their windows, not just to thank NHS workers and other carers and services, but as a message of hope. How nice that someone thought to put this little rainbow on a stone in such a remote (but fairly well-trodden) spot.

 

NHS stile

Here’s a shot of the stile with the painted stone just in front and to the left, on a step

NHS message

Kenwyn Epiphany

I’d recommend you take a look at A Clerk of Oxford blog – it’s always a stimulating read, even if you think you have no interest in its topic: medieval literature and history. Yesterday’s post was mostly about the etymology and significance of the word ‘Lent’. I didn’t know it was used from Anglo-Saxon times to denote not just the pre-Easter fasting period, but also ‘spring’ (at least until 14C).

The lawn below Epiphany House: isn't it peaceful!

The lawn below Epiphany House: isn’t it peaceful!

It probably derives from the same Germanic root that gave us ‘long’ and ‘lengthen’ – for spring (‘lenten’) days begin to grow longer. There’s a lovely line in a 14C springtime poem in this same post that I wanted to share: In sori time my lyf I spend (rendered in modern English as ‘I spend my life unhappily’). Hope it’s not too gloomy for these worrying times. I find its curiously jaunty lilt offsets the melancholy.

The same post has equally interesting exposition of the term ‘quarantine’. Link to the post HERE.

Most of the recent socially distanced walks I’ve taken with Mrs TD around our local rural lanes take us past Kenwyn church (see previous few posts: grave of Joseph Emidy, the ex-slave and musician) and Epiphany House, nearby.

Epiphany House

Epiphany House on a beautiful spring day yesterday

This handsome building is more imposing than graceful, and its architecture is a bit muddled, reflecting the many extensions and renovations that it’s undergone over the years. There’s a bell tower with a graceful sailboat weather vane atop, and some lovely windows.

Its gardens are more impressive; there’s a huge lawn on the sloping hill below the house, skirted by venerable trees, very popular with birds and squirrels. On Tuesday as I passed by on my own (not sure where Mrs TD was) I heard the drumming of a woodpecker.

I was intending writing a longer piece about the history of the house. Unfortunately, as I researched online, I discovered that a friend and former colleague, Dr MT, has published about it. His expertise is daunting, so I’ll limit myself here to a brief summary.

The original (16C?) building served, as far as I can tell, as the vicarage of St Keyne’s church nearby. In 1787 John Wesley stayed there on one of his Cornish preaching tours. In his journal he described staying in ‘a house fit for a gentleman.’

Gate post near Epiphany House

This lovely old gate post caught my eye: it’s in the lane just below Epiphany House, where our walk continued

Soon after Truro diocese was created in 1876 the first bishop took residence. The house’s new name became the Cornish phrase ‘Lis Escop’, signifying its status as his court or palace. Edward White Benson, that first bishop, later became Archbishop of Canterbury. The local primary school is named after him.

During WWI it served as a convalescent home for wounded British officers, and housed Belgian refugees. In WWII Bishop Hunkin, who served in the ARP (Air Raid Precaution) service established its grounds as a fire-watching centre.

The second bishop, George Wilkinson (1883-91), had previously been vicar of fashionable Eaton Square parish in London. There he helped establish a community of devout Christian women, and when he took up residence in Truro invited them to come too. They formed a convent at a grand house near the city centre, now the Alverton hotel (my sister-in-law held her wedding reception there – another lovely location). They were known as the Community of the Epiphany. (I might say more another time about this Anglican order and their time in Truro).

Memorial to Mother Constance

This plaque commemorates Constance, former Mother of the Community of the Epiphany

In the early 1950s the bishop relocated, and from 1953-1982 the house was occupied by Truro Cathedral School. It was renamed Copeland Court, after an alumnus of that name  whose family owned the grand Trelissick estate a few miles away (now a National Trust property, and another favourite haunt of ours, when we’re not in lockdown).

In 1983 the school closed down, and the nuns at Alverton bought it and moved in. It wasn’t renamed after their order as Epiphany House until the Community’s dissolution in 2003, when the charitable trust took over.

The Epiphany Trust continues to uphold the charitable and devout traditions of the sisters. It’s used for accommodating retreats, courses and conferences, but also has meeting rooms for local business and other groups – including coroner’s inquests.

It’s a beatifully tranquil setting, and calms the soul just to walk through its grounds. It seems a long way from the bustle and commerce of the city nearby. I felt this solace even before I learned about the history of the house. You don’t have to be a nun to feel the peaceful spirit of the place.

PS 3 April 2020: I’m indebted to Dr T for providing corrections to some inaccuracies in my first version of this post. I’ve updated it to incorporate them.

Joseph Emidy in Kenwyn churchyard

The first week of what feels like house arrest is ending, and we start to adapt. I’ll try to make this a CV-free post, and stick to what we’ve been doing to cope – except to say we were happy to find a local farm shop that would let us pick up fresh fruit, veg, eggs, gin and tonic water. All the essentials.

And now another local shop, even nearer, is about to allow old established customers to collect or have deliveries of locally-sourced fresh produce. A local wine merchant delivered wine the same day as my order on Wednesday. It feels like being in one of those prisons you read about in 19C novels, where inmates have food and drink brought to their cells by their families. Incarceration Gangnam style.

Wild garlic growing profusely in Kenwyn churchyard

Wild garlic growing profusely in Kenwyn churchyard

The last two days’ walks have taken us past Kenwyn church – I posted a picture of its clock tower and lychgate last time. Yesterday we walked through the churchyard. It was a mass of aromatic wild garlic. I’d picked some in a local meadow the other day and made two batches of pesto, which is delicious. Had some with pasta, the rest is going in sauces to enrich them.

There were also swathes of bluebell spears, and the first few pale-violet blooms appearing. Midges danced in the sunbeams like tiny irritating fairies.

Joseph Emidy's headstoneOne of the most interesting of the (mostly Victorian) older gravestones is that of Joseph Emidy (c 1775-1835). He was born in Guinea, and abducted as a child by Portuguese slave traders. He was trafficked to Brazil and later Portugal, where he learnt to play the violin, and became so gifted that he became second violin in the Lisbon Opera orchestra.

Sir Edward Pellew, later Admiral and first Viscount Exmouth, a career naval man whose family came from Cornwall, admired his virtuosity and press-ganged him into providing musical entertainment for his frigate’s crew, playing hornpipes, jigs and reels – hardly the calibre of material he was used to performing. Unfortunately for Emidy, his playing as ship’s ‘fiddler’ was so impressive, Pellew refused to let him ashore, fearing he’d escape to freedom.

Kenwyn churchyard colour

Kenwyn churchyard colour

After four years of this forced, demeaning labour, Emidy was abandoned (around 1797) at Falmouth, when Pellew changed ships. He was able to make a living as a music teacher, and by playing at local parties and concerts.

One of his music pupils, James Silk Buckingham, later a campaigner for the abolition of slavery (and whose autobiography provides some of the online information about Emidy) showed his work to an impresario, who arranged for Emidy to play in London. Despite some initial reluctance from his fellow musicians, who feared playing with a man of colour would lead to failure, Emidy thrived.

He returned to Cornwall, where he lived for the rest of his life, composing and teaching music, and playing in orchestras in Falmouth and Truro. In 1802 he married a (white) woman, Jenefer Hutchins and they went on to have a large family. She came from a respectable tradesman’s family from Penryn; this marriage must have caused something of a stir locally – or maybe not. The Cornish don’t always behave predictably.

Kenwyn valley, just below the church

Kenwyn valley, just below the church

He moved to Truro around 1815, and became one of the most respected and influential musicians of 19C Cornwall. He died here, hence his burial in his (and my) local graveyard. Unfortunately none of Emidy’s compositions survive.

In 2007 there was a ceremony at Kenwyn churchyard to commemorate the bicentary of the abolition of the British transatlantic slave trade, with the focus on Emidy’s headstone. The inscription inaccurately describes him as ‘a native of Portugal’, an erasure that’s typical of stories of involuntary diasporas.

I came across an article about this ceremony that ends with this:

By Emidy’s grave some people recalled other notable African slaves who had found their way to Cornwall like Alexander the Moor, baptized in the ruins of Paul church near Penzance the year after the Spanish raid in 1596… Remarkable in a different way was Evaristo Muchovela (subject of ‘Evaristo’s Epitaph by Patrick Caroll, a BBC Radio 4 play broadcast in November 2002) who died aged 38 in 1868 at Redruth. Sold as a child in Brazil to Thomas Johns, a Cornish miner, c.1837, Evaristo was a slave for 22 years – long after the slave trade was abolished. Unlike Joseph Emidy he chose to stay with his master when Johns returned to Cornwall in about 1859. Johns set Evaristo up as a cabinet maker in Redruth before he died, and both he and Evaristo are buried in the same grave in Wendron churchyard [in W. Cornwall, near Helston]. (British Association for Local History website, spring 2007)

If you’re interested in reading more on these topics, see:

R. Costello, Black Salt: Seafarers of African Descent in British Ships (2012)

Richard McGrady, Music and Musicians in Early Nineteenth-Century Cornwall: World of Joseph Emidy – Slave, Violinist and Composer (1991)

(I’ve not read either of these texts, but they’re both cited in the online materials I accessed for this post, and seem reliable.)

 

 

Isabel Allende and a country walk

I’d intended writing today about Isabel Allende’s latest novel, A Long Petal of the Sea. Mrs TD enjoyed it and passed it on to me. I was less enthusiastic.

The early section that’s set in the brutality of the Spanish Civil War is graphically done, but I’ve read similar stuff before, much of it better. Then we follow the central couple, who’ve survived defeat of the Republican side for which they were fighting, and entered on a marriage of convenience to facilitate their exile to Chile in an emigrant ship, the Winnipeg, a sort of socialist Windrush organised by the Chilean diplomat-poet, Pablo Neruda.

The novel goes on too long for my taste – five or six more decades of the couple’s lives. They have affairs, grow closer. I found the research that Allende had obviously done too obtrusive. All that socio-political history gives the narrative a stilted feel, and the tone is occasionally preachy.

***

So instead I’ll write about what else is going on. As we enter the first week of more-or-less isolation, (the British govt can always be relied on to be decisive and clear) the reality of being confined to the house is kicking in. We are allowed out once a day to exercise, or to shop for essentials, provided we maintain a social distance of at least two metres. It’s amazing how many people seem still not to realise how crucial this is.

Fortunately we have a PM with the resolute, dependable character to steer a frightened nation through this crisis. Yeah, that’s irony again. As the numbers of cases and deaths start to rise exponentially here in the UK, scarily like the curves seen in Italy and Spain a couple of weeks ago, it looks certain that the situation will get much worse.

Land rover reclaimed by natureStill, the spring sunshine has finally arrived after what seems six months of rain. I went on a solo walk this morning in the remote country lanes by my house. Saw just a handful of people, so no problems maintaining that distance.

About half a mile up the road is this strange sight: an ancient Land Rover that’s slowly been reclaimed by nature.

River fordA little further along, the river Kenwyn at the valley bottom flows over the road in a ford. The light dappling through the trees, where the buds are just starting to burst, was lovely.

Along the way I passed the church where my sister-in-law was married. It has a fine lych-gate – that rather macabre structure where, years ago, a funeral cortege would pause. The church is dedicated to St Keyne.

Kenwyn church

She was a fifth-century holy woman, daughter of a Welsh king, who was said to have travelled extensively through South Wales before crossing into Cornwall, where she became a hermit. The only surviving account of her life is in John of Tynemouth’s 14C Sanctilogium, and it’s far from reliable. Like much hagiography. It’s designed to edify, not provide accurate history. The village of St Keyne, in the east of Cornwall near Liskeard, is named after her.

A mile or so down the road the valley opens up – it’s hilly everywhere in this county – and the Rural landscape landscape seemed to be basking in the rare warmth and sunshine. I tried to record a bullfinch that was singing its heart out in a tree beside the road, but by the time I’d got my phone out and found the voice recorder, he’d developed stage fright and fallen silent.

Further along the road  I came upon a man standing staring into the trees. I greeted him. ‘He’s keeping the social distance of two metres,’ he said. ‘A squirrel. We’re having a stand-off.’

I told him they’re not my favourite rodent: a family that lives in a  tree by my house ate every one of the crocuses we only planted in the early autumn. They waited until they flowered, for some reason; maybe then they taste better.

PrimrosesThere were spring flowers everywhere, including some delicate violets, and this lovely cluster of primroses.

So the times might be rough, but nature has a way of lifting the spirits. If anything good can come out of this CV-19 crisis, it might be the ways that nature is re-asserting itself as pollution and human plunder almost ceases. Cormorants and fish swimming in the limpid canals of Venice; animals not being run over on formerly busy roads that are now like rivers of tarmac.

Patricia Highsmith and death in Venice

Patricia Highsmith, Those Who Walk Away (Virago Modern Classics, 2014; first published 1967)

Texas-born Patricia Highsmith (1921-95) moved to a country cottage in Suffolk in England in 1964, apparently to be nearer the Englishwoman she’d fallen in love with. She wrote three novels there, including A Suspension of Mercy (1965), the only one of the three to be set in East Anglia, about which I posted HERE, and Those Who Walk Away, which is set mostly in Venice.

Patricia Highsmith Those who walk away coverAs Joan Schenkar says in the introduction to this VMC paperback edition, it’s a classic Highsmith exploration of her favourite fictional territory, the ‘infinite progression of the trapped and the hunted.’ Ray’s wife Peggy had recently committed suicide, and her father Ed’s grief twists him into a murderously vengeful monomaniac. Ray becomes ‘fair game’ to him. Ed blames Ray for his daughter’s death, and spends much of the novel trying to kill him. After all, he tells himself laconically, with unintentional irony, ‘he’s asking for it.’

After Ed’s first botched attempt to shoot him dead, Ray follows him to Venice, where a sinister game of competitive mutual stalking ensues. Lines blur between hunter and hunted. Ray seems to be set on a quest for his own oblivion, a liberation from his own identity. ‘Obsessions are the only things that matter. Perversion interests me most and is my guiding darkness.’ This Highsmith quotation in the introduction (no provenance is given) sums up perfectly the cheerfully dark, disturbing tone and plot of Those Who Walk Away.

Venice canal

A typical canal scene in Venice taken by me last March

I wish I’d taken this with me to read on holiday in Venice last spring. Highsmith evokes the beauty and history of the lagoon island with great aplomb. But she also shows the seedier side of the city, the menacing alleys and murky apartments where the poorer folk live. It’s there that Ray finds sanctuary, and the famous tourist honey-pot sites are where he’s most in danger.

The famous Gritti Palace hotel features, for example, a key location in another Venice novel  with an American protagonist that I’ve posted about here, Ernest Hemingway’s Across the River and into the Trees (1950). Thomas Mann’s novella seems to have cast a shadow over novelists who set their stories there, for Hemingway’s slightly sleazy account of an older military man’s love affair with a much younger Venetian woman is also haunted by the imminence of death. Hemingway’s American officer is also a keen hunter – of ducks, not hapless sons-in-law.

I’ve not read Highsmith’s famous debut novel, Strangers on a Train (1950), but have seen the 1951 Hitchcock film version, so can recognise the common device: two men with unstable identities, locked in a mutually destructive dance-macabre embrace.

Trollope, pubs and gin

Anthony Trollope, Can You Forgive Her? Post number 2

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

Trollope, Can You Forgive Her cover

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

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

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

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

Here’s how the scene is narrated:

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

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

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

Image from Wikimedia Commons, public domain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, try to stay safe.

 

Can you forgive Anthony Trollope?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Burgo stops to talk to her:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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