A royal bombinator

I was browsing my shelves a couple of weeks ago for something new to read, and picked up my OWC copy of The Eustace Diamonds – the next in the sequence of Palliser novels after Phineas Finn (which I posted about HERE last summer). After skimming through the foreword by the text editor, WJ McCormack, and the first few pages of the introduction, I decided I wasn’t ready in this enervating lockdown for an 800-page, small-print whopper. Maybe when the weather perks up later in the spring.

There was an expression in that foreword, however, that stopped me short. McCormack is writing about the book trade and the business of producing new, modern editions of Victorian novels like this one in OWC’s Centenary Edition of the Palliser novels. Here’s the whole sentence:

[This Edition] has not entered into the fabulously expensive business of establishing new texts which, with bombinating minutiae, often retards or replaces the reader’s engagement with literary history.

‘Bombinating’. The context makes the meaning fairly clear, but I still had to look it up. Here’s the entry in the OED online for ‘bombinate, verb, in current use’ (as always, I’m grateful to Cornwall’s library service for making this resource available free to members):

To buzz, make a buzzing noise.

[a1553    F. Rabelais ii. vii   Questio subtilissima, utrum chimera in vacuo bombinans possit comedere secundas intentiones. (In ridicule of the subtle discussions of the Schoolmen.)]

1880    A. C. Swinburne Study of Shakespeare (ed. 2) iii. 199   As easy and as profitable a problem to solve the Rabelaisian riddle of the bombinating chimæra.

1880    Daily News 21 June   The power of a chimæra bombinating in a vacuum to eat second intentions is scarcely less suggestive of a..solution.

Etymology: < reputed Latin *bombilāre, an erroneous reading (commonly accepted in medieval Latin) of bombitāre to hum, buzz, < bombus hum, buzz

The pejorative (and slightly pompous) sense in the McCormack sentence clearly chimes with that of the Rabelaisian citations here (I’ve resisted the temptation to explore that enigmatic quotation further; more detail is found at the Merriam-Webster site HERE: M-W links it to Greek ‘bombos’, from which derives the English ‘bomb’) – the (over-)subtle (or stringent?) textual forensics of academic literary scholars in editing texts by Trollope, giving too much information and thereby occluding the force of the text itself.

I was aware that the Latin bombus also signified ‘bumblebee’ – a word imitative of the buzzing or humming sound of winged insects in flight. Or so I used to think. Until I came across the Dec. 20 – Jan. 21 post on the OUP Etymologistblog by scarily erudite Anatoly Liberman (link HERE), which queried the sound-imitation notion (in a post that started off looking at the sounds and origins of the words kid, cub and bunny – it’s a brilliant blog for taking you down etymological rabbit (or bunny) holes), pointing out that the word possibly derives instead from ‘humble-bee’. OED states that another variant is the Harry Potteresque ‘dumbledore’.

Bufftailed beeCoincidentally the next morning ended a long spell of cold, wet weather and dawned sunny and warm. When I stepped outside my front door I nearly trod on a large bee. It was very somnolent – or sick. Anxious that it would be squashed by someone, I coaxed it onto a leaf and carefully placed it out of harm’s way in a flower bed. When I returned an hour later it had gone – so I hope it had revived its spirits in the early spring sunshine and taken off to do whatever it is queen bees do in the spring: start a new buff-tailed colony?

I contacted the excellent people at our local wildlife trust, who have helped with identification of various critters for me in the past (the last time I posted about it HERE: a magpie moth). A very helpful man called John emailed back the same day with the information that my picture was of a buff-tailed bumblebee queen (bombus terrestris), adding ‘one of our most familiar bumblebees and one of the first to emerge each spring. As you discovered, they can be very sluggish when it’s chilly and they are still warming up.’

John provided a link to his organisation’s website entry on this bee (link HERE), which included this lovely bit of information about it:

Buff-tailed Bumblebees are known as ‘nectar robbers’: if they come across a flower that is too deep for their tongue, they bite a hole at its base and suck out the nectar. Afterwards, other insects looking for nectar will also use this handy hole. [This entry also has a lovely picture of a worker bee in this family, which instead of a buff-coloured tail has a sort of grubby white one]

Although I decided against starting this Trollope novel in my present disengaged reading state, I’m gratified for this small but (to me) fascinating piece of information about the only true and original ‘bombinator’. And a queen, a royal bombinator.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edmund Gosse, Father and Son

Edmund Gosse (1849-1928), Father and Son. Penguin Modern Classics, 1970; first published 1907

The subtitle of Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son is ‘A Study of Two Temperaments’. But it’s not really a study of anything, let alone the temperaments of these two characters. It’s a sort of spiritual autobiography, as it tells of the author’s experience to the age of seventeen of being brought up by parents who were members of the strict, extremely austere religious sect the Plymouth Brethren. Both his father and his mother were biblical literalists and evangelical puritans, who considered fictional books sinful.

Edmund Gosse Father and Son cover

The cover shows a detail from ‘Self Portrait as a Young Man’ by G.F. Watts

Edmund was subjected from his earliest childhood to the interminable sermons and services in which his father led the small group of brethren. Reading the bible and the more serious hymns were the main diversions of Edmund’s childhood – though he did manage to smuggle in a little Strumpelpeter. The book describes his struggle to liberate himself from this stultifying education, and the development of his imaginative sensibility against these fearsome odds.

F & S is also partly a biography of his father, Philip, but not really that, either. Edmund had published a more conventional biographical account of the father in 1890, in which it seems a less monstrous portrait was given than the one in this book.

It shares more of the characteristics of a novel; scholars have pointed out numerous details that are simply invented – like the back story of his much-loved mother. His claim in the Preface to be ‘scrupulously true’ is hedged by ‘as far as the punctilious attention of the writer has been able to keep it so’. This is an early indication of the leaden prose style that I’ll come back to later.

In this respect (ie deviations from ‘truth’) it’s a bit like James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, serialised in 1914-15 by Ezra Pound in the modernist literary magazine The Egoist; it began life as the autobiographical novel Stephen Hero in 1904, but this was abandoned and refashioned by Joyce. Both books relate the growth of the protagonist’s artistic character – but F and S could hardly be more different in style and tone.

Edmund’s upbringing was much harsher and narrower than Stephen’s in Joyce’s novel, although they both have to summon the strength to reject the dominant religious regime of their environments.

His mother died when he was young, and he was sent to a boarding school where he never settled in. Although his father, an eminent biological scientist, was clearly a loving father in some ways, his ruthless, bigoted insistence on his religious rectitude was chilling and traumatic for the sensitive boy.

It should have been a gripping read – and at times it is. His abandonment in Ch. 12 of biblical hermeneutics for another, literary interpretative system, is dramatically portrayed. His father’s crazed attempts to explain away the growing proof of Darwinist evolutionary theory are a source of embarrassment to his son – and the scientific community to which Philip belonged; these sections are fascinating and chilling at the same time.

But the prose style is the turgid Victorian type, and it makes for a mostly plodding narrative. There are some welcome lighter moments – as when young Edmund decides to forgo trying to proselytize his schoolmates, concluding he’ll ‘let sleeping dogmas lie’. He also tries some delightfully naïve strategies to test the power of his father’s jealous god, which lead him to deduce that this god isn’t all he’s cracked out to be. This is a classic account of a Victorian crisis of faith – although it seems Gosse never entirely abandoned his Christian faith; he simply rejected his parents’ extremist version of it.

The narrative ends when Edmund’s father, with the help of the Christian writer Charles Kingsley, gets his son (aged seventeen) a lowly post as a clerk at the British Museum reading room. There he was under the supervision of William Ralston, who was, as Edmund was to become, an advocate and translator of Scandinavian literature – especially of Ibsen.

Ralston, who was also a champion of Russian literature, introduced Turgenev to the London aesthetic scene. Gosse met the Russian novelist in 1871 at Ford Madox Brown’s salon, which was frequented by the likes of Pre-Raphaelite artists, and writers including Swinburne and William Morris. I wonder if Gosse would have read Turgenev’s novel about a young man’s rebellion against a father whose values he can’t share; even the title – Fathers and Sons (in most English translations) – is similar. Constance Garnett’s version, titled Fathers and Children, was published in England in 1895, and it’s difficult to imagine Gosse wouldn’t have read it. The basic stories are very different, but the father-son dynamic is equally problematic.

Constance Garnett was married in 1889 to the son of Richard, the keeper of printed materials at the British Museum where Gosse initially worked – another link in this literary chain.

Henry James was a friend of Edmund Gosse’s during his time in London in the 1880s. At first just casual, the relationship became more intimate over time – James thought Gosse amiable, ‘an endlessly amusing companion’, but ‘second-rate’, as Leon Edel has it in his Life of HJ. Edel sees Gosse as a flatterer, and describes it as ‘one of the most literary-gossipy friendships in Victorian annals.’ James is said to have quipped that Gosse had ‘a genius for inaccuracy’ – presumably referring to his literary biographies and criticism, but the point could also apply to F & S.

It’s a pity Gosse chose not to add a second volume to his account of his youth; it would have been interesting to hear his redacted, rosy-tinted story about how he became a middle-ranking man of letters who loved to hobnob with writers with genuine literary talent.

 See the excellent, informative post on F & S by Bookish Beck at her blog HERE

 

Elizabeth Jane Howard, Mr Wrong

Elizabeth Jane Howard, Mr Wrong. Picador Books, 2015. Stories originally published in the 1950s and 1970s, I think

 I’ve read one Elizabeth Jane Howard novel, After Julius (link to my post HERE) – a rather melodramatic tale of tangled, thwarted love. I also know of her as the author of the four much-praised Cazalet novels, about the lives of middle-class characters, with the focus on the women (from what I’ve read about them). I was not expecting the hair-raising ghoulishness of two of the stories in this collection, therefore.

Elizabeth Jane Howard Mr Wrong coverThe title story, ‘Mr Wrong’ is about a car bought second-hand by a nervous, lonely young woman called Meg; it turns out to be haunted by a gruesome murderer and his victim – who starts to come after the callow, vulnerable new owner. The narrative and the story’s  title subvert with grim relish the trite social assumption that all a reserved young woman like Meg wants or needs from life is ‘Mr Right’.

‘Three Miles Up’ is like a nightmare version of those cosy tv programmes in which minor celebrities chug along picturesque canals in narrowboats. The two men in a boat invite a mysterious young woman to join them – they find her apparently asleep by a tree on the canal bank. Things then take a decidedly spooky and sinister turn as they decide to explore an overgrown branch canal that’s not on any of their maps.

After a bit of searching online I discovered that EJH had worked as a secretary for the Inland Waterways Association. This was a charity devoted to the conservation and promotion of Britain’s canals and waterways that was co-founded by Robert Aickman, the writer of supernatural ‘strange stories’, and with whom she had an affair. This liaison also led to her contributing these two stories and one other to the collection We Are for the Dark (1951), to which Aickman himself added another three. Interesting that she should create such vastly different genres of fiction.

Although none of the other seven stories in Mr Wrong have a supernatural element, several are quite acrid in their depiction of disastrous marriages and other relationships. Spouses have affairs and fight with their partners; parents neglect their children. ‘The Whip Hand’ has a monstrous controlling mother of a child performer who shows signs at the end of becoming nastier than her mother.

In ‘Child’s Play’ a spoilt 18-year-old newlywed returns home after a row with her husband to seek solace from her doting father, who turns out to be a serial philanderer. Father and daughter treat the mother, Kate, with contempt.

This story has a nice vignette of the family’s appropriately sociopathic cat bringing a mouse into the kitchen, and ‘forcing’ Kate ‘to meet her glassy, insolent gaze’. It then ‘began to crunch it up like a club sandwich’:

She liked Kate, in a limited way, to share in her triumphs. In ten seconds the mouse was gone, she had drunk a saucer of milk, and was polishing her spotless paws. She kept herself in a gleaming state of perpetual readiness – like a fire engine.

Even the cat has an agenda in this twisted family drama.

Only one story, ‘Summer Picnic’, has a gentler tone, and it provides a welcome respite from this sequence of stories about edgy, tainted lives and loves.

I found some of the perceptions of and assumptions about sexual relations in After Julius disturbing, and these misgivings recurred in reading some of the stories in Mr Wrong. In ‘Toutes Directions’, set in the south of France, there’s a sex scene in which the reader seems to be expected to find the young woman’s submission to a man she’s just met as a kind of epiphanic liberation. Maybe I’m misreading, but I thought it not far removed from rape.

Although the stories are technically quite good, I didn’t much care for the author’s attitudes to her characters and their world of tension. The amorality and caustic misanthropy are depressing and borderline morbid.

First magnolias of springI’ll lighten the mood with a picture taken the other day in a local park – the first magnolias there this spring. My tree is still in bud.

A crab for St Piran’s Day

Today is the feast day of the patron saint of Cornwall, Piran (Peran in Cornish). I’ve posted HERE about the remains of his oratory on Penhale Sands near Perranporth (named after him – it’s also a popular boy’s name in the county).

He’s said in his legend to have arrived on the Cornish coast strapped to a mill wheel, having been consigned to the sea by the king of Leinster, whom he’d angered with his Christian piety. He’s not the only legendary saint to have arrived in Britain by this unconventional means. Piran lived here in Cornwall as a holy hermit in the fifth or sixth centuries; he later became an abbot.

Piran is also said to have rediscovered tin-smelting, by lighting his fire on a black hearthstone which turned out to be rich in tin ore. The tin smelted to the surface to form a white-silver cross on a black background – which accounts for the design of the Cornish flag. Mining – principally at first for tin – was for centuries the dominant industry in this county. Remnants of this industrial activity are found everywhere here – even on the rugged coastal promontories.

Picture: Stemonitis, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In March 2016 a small species of hermit crab was rediscovered on the Cornish coast during a survey by Shoresearch Cornwall – a volunteer programme of the Cornwall Wildlife Trust. The species (clibanarius erythropus) had not been seen here for fifty years. After a viewers’ survey on the BBC ‘Springwatch’ programme, this apt name was chosen for it – both the saint and the crab are hermits, and survive the perils of the sea.

I’m indebted to a post on Facebook for knowledge of the existence of this handsome little red-pincered crab. There’s an even better photo of it in that FB post, if you care to search for the Cornish Wildlife Trust page, and today’s entry there.