VS Pritchett: The Complete Essays

V.S. Pritchett, The Complete Essays, Chatto and Windus, London was published in 1991 when the English author was 91 (he died in 1997), and is now out of print.

It was brought to my attention by an appreciation of it last month in The Paris Review by Morten Høi Jensen, to whom it had been recommended by James Wood. Jensen expresses well the strength of this collection:

In a single paragraph, without analyzing or interpreting or even commenting on the novels, Pritchett had somehow managed to capture their essence. And he did it not with the skeptical distance of a scholar but with the messy proximity of the fellow practitioner.

Pritchett Essays coverIt has 1300 pages and is, as he suggests, ‘heavy as a cast iron skillet’. The 203 essays, originally mostly book reviews, cover hundreds of writers from Europe, Asia and the Americas– an idiosyncratic, eclectic but loving and perceptive history of western literature. They were highly esteemed by the likes of Edmund Wilson, Elizabeth Hardwick, Anthony Burgess and Susan Sontag.

Pritchett discusses earlier writers such as Cervantes, Sterne, Smollett (who I’ve still to read) and Fielding; a large body from 19 and 20C – most of the canonical English novelists, and the less canonical like Gissing, the Grossmiths, Samuel Butler and Jerome K. Jerome; then Conrad, Woolf and co. to Orwell and Rushdie; as Jensen says, VSP was ‘generously receptive to younger talent’.

He assesses Americans from Benjamin Franklin, Whitman and Crane to Updike. Poe and Twain are delineated with characteristically controversial broad but telling strokes within the distinctive Puritan tradition of their country.

There’s an affectionate essay on the ‘sayings’ of his close friend, the hispanophile Gerald Brenan. It ends with typical acuity:

Be careful: if he is drawing his portrait he may be drawing yours.

Pritchett admires Brenan’s dislike of ‘critics of poetry who insist on “explicating”’. Maybe because he’s the same; Jensen quotes his biographer describing Pritchett’s quality of ‘undoctrinaire discrimination’ – that fine and sadly now underused term so dear to the great Leavisite tradition of critics (well, maybe not the ‘undoctrinaire’ part) -and the ‘sympathetic and respectful curiosity’ with which he approached characters in literature and in life.

He has the ability to get to the essence of a writer’s nature and work and portray it with elegance, wit and intelligence. I’m not sure I always agree with some of his larger generalisations, but I enjoy the stimulating, cheerful conviction with which he makes them and the polished, convivial style in which he expresses them.

Mostly he deals with prose fiction (and some non-fiction and figures from other artistic disciplines, like Cruikshank and Ruskin). Here’s a typically pleasing and pithy conclusion to the essay on the historian of the fall of the Roman empire:

Gibbon has a taste for the truth that is melancholy, for seeing life as a series of epitaphs.

This isn’t just thrown in as a witty epigram: it’s a logical conclusion arising from the intricate argument that preceded it.

The piece on the eccentric Thomas Day – its title ‘The Crank’ is apt – is brilliant. Day was the shabby enlightenment rationalist – ‘the modest and entrancing crank of the century’ – who was so convinced of the ‘sufficiency’ of men and the ‘insufficiency of women’ as Pritchett puts it, that he set about to ‘construct his own wife from blue prints in advance’. I’ve written here before about this deluded disciple of Rousseau and his notorious experiment to mould a suitable wife for himself from a child plucked from an orphanage, but this essay says to much more and so much better than I was able to in my post on the ‘Lives of the Obscure’ in Virginia Woolf’s first volume of The Common Reader.

There’s a particularly strong representation of major (and lesser) French writers — he almost convinces me to give Anatole France another try.

I’ve borrowed this massive book from the library, and must return it soon. I’ll have to buy a copy to read on, one I can annotate. I’ve only had time to read a few of the essays that appealed most, so I’d commend this review by Jensen to get a fuller picture of Pritchett’s tastes and achievements in these essays and in his short stories – which I intend to read now I’ve sampled this collection.

I found I had to dip in and read in small bursts, slowly. Every sentence and paragraph is so carefully constructed, the arguments and perceptions so cadenced and measured in expression, that every essay needs careful appraisal and rereading. They are to be sipped and savoured, not gulped.

Jensen sums up what I’ve noticed in the essays I’ve read so far:

they sparkle with impression, metaphor, and aphorism.

He goes on to suggest that maybe Pritchett has made less critical impact than Virginia Woolf, another who excelled in fiction and critical essay-writing, because he lacked her ‘fierceness’, her ‘polemical strain’. He was disdainful of what might be called the approach of the professional (ie academic) critics. I suppose he’s what’s usually dismissively categorised as a passionate amateur and aesthete. Nothing wrong with that.

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More obscure lives by Woolf: Edgeworth and Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An_Experiment_on_a_Bird_in_an_Air_Pump_by_Joseph_Wright_of_Derby,_1768

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

at once humane and brutal, advanced and hidebound…

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

‘Something was not right’, he sadly concludes.

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

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

 

 

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

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

Woolf Common Reader contents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader, vol. 1

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

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

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

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

The Common Reader: introductory essay

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

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

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