About Simon Lavery

Author, blogger.

John Harvey, The Plate Shop

John Harvey, The Plate Shop. Holland House Books, 2021. First published 1979.

John Harvey The Plate Shop cover Holland House is an independent London publisher founded in 2012. They recently released all five of John Harvey’s novels in a ‘revisited’ set. Here at the Days there are several posts about The Subject of a Portrait, his excellent 2014 novel about the tangled lives of Ruskin, Effie Gray and the artist Millais (links HERE). In one post I introduced him like this:

[JH]) is a distinguished academic: he’s University Reader in Literature and Visual Culture at Cambridge, and a Life Fellow at my old college, Emmanuel. This interest in the ways in which visual art and fiction intertwine is reflected in this novel, and in his two books on the socio-cultural and literary significance of the colour black.  Men In Black (1995) explores the meaning of clothing and colour, and in particular the way that Victorian men’s clothing went dark, reflecting the constraint and self-abnegation of that period. He explores how Dickens and Ruskin (subject of the novel under discussion here) assessed its ‘paradoxical aspects of repression and self-assertion’. The Story of Black (2013) develops this theme in broader symbolic terms, including aesthetically and sexually. (Links to these posts at the end.)

In 2019 wrote about Pax, his most recent novel, which also deals with the worlds of art and eros. It tells of the visit to London in 1629 of Rubens, and of another artist in 2003.

I was delighted to be sent by John and the publishers a set of the reissued novels that I haven’t yet read. The Plate Shop was his first novel, inspired by his experience as a student doing a vacation job. The ‘shop’ is part of a factory making heavy machinery. The novel deals with what the author calls in his introduction to this edition ‘the hard relationship between Money and Work in the world.’

This was a time of economic and technological change, and the plate shop is precariously placed. It represents outmoded methods, old technology, is a relic of the industrial revolution. New ways of manufacturing and marketing commodities and new foreign markets are taking over, and Britain’s traditional economic dominance in this world is precarious. Dinosaurs like this shop needed to modify (evolve?) or die. The catastrophic miners’ strike of 1984-85, just a few years after this novel is set, marked a low point in this corporate decline, and was the beginning of the end of Britain’s manufacturing and industrial status.

There’s a large cast of characters, brutalised and exploited by the work ethic of the time; their response is to behave tribally, to operate in packs. One of the most sympathetic is different, an outsider and foreigner, ‘not one of us’, a Czech plater who’s sacked in a case of racist bigotry only too casually apparent at that time. I recognise these characters and this setting from my own time as a student in the early seventies in a vacation job at a factory outside Bristol that made the British parts of the supersonic aircraft, Concorde. Like John, as an academic I was consigned to the technical drawing office – a smoke-filled den (chain-smokers, all of them) deep inside a huge hangar. Mine was a tedious clerical job: no heavy machines, drilling or plating for me.

Dominating the plate shop is the larger-than-life figure of Clyde, the bullish but fading shop foreman, who symbolises in human form the doomed nature of this field of manufacture. He used to rule the shop, using his mechanical genius to fix problems and impose his will on his awe-struck workforce. But just as the pictures got smaller, so the machines became more complex, and he’s struggling to maintain his dwindling authority. He’s out of key with his time – and so is his shop.

The hated Time Study men now threaten his role, with their stopwatches and timesheets that determine the schedule and control for each worker. Clyde becomes increasingly bemused and frightened as he sees himself becoming redundant, superfluous.

The gripping prose style is Dickensian, synaesthetic: all harsh, clanking, metallic sounds and vivid light and dark in many of the scenes set in and around the workshop (which is most of the novel). These descriptions remind me of Hard Times, which could be seen as a sort of precursor to The Plate Shop. Here’s an example from the very first page, showing the artist-author’s realisation of the concrete in a multi-sensory, poetic style:

From dazzling points in the walls, pencils of light came in. Colours came out in the machines, which stood clear in all their different shapes: an upshooting wiry machine was all run and whip and gleam of tough silver threads; a square red casing stood rigid at attention, severe, burning in upright fire. Beneath a soaring tree of girders sprawled a long low humped and curved machine – deep-green, enormous – like a dangerous armour-plated creature asleep. In the girders above, a fat amber cable curled among the leads like a snake asleep among vines.

See what I mean about the Dickensian tone? Those images, that hint of dark satanic mills.

The Plate Shop also reminded me of those gritty black-and-white films of the sixties and early seventies, often in heavy industry settings, like ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’. These also portrayed that end-of-an-era period of decline and depression, the technological and social revolution that turned the smoky, complacent world of (soon to be) post-colonial Britain into a vacuous, superannuated nation of service industries, manufacturing all gone, and a deep sense of grievance, loss and entropy in its working population.

This novel is a brilliant, deeply felt elegy to that grimy, world of decaying heavy industry and capitalism.

It’s good to see that Holland House have included some of the original illustrations John Harvey produced for the first edition, but which had not previously been published. These reveal the author’s academic and aesthetic speciality: Victorian Novelists and their Illustrators (1970: his first non-fiction book).

My posts on John Harvey’s books about the colour black HERE; on Clothes HERE.

 

 

 

 

 

Guilty pearls. Jane Gardam, The Man in the Wooden Hat

Jane Gardam, The Man in the Wooden Hat. Abacus, 2018. First published 2009

 This is a sequel to Jane Gardam’s Old Filth, about which I posted a couple of years ago (link HERE). The Man in the Wooden Hat tells much the same poignant story, but from a different perspective.

OF was largely an account of the life of Sir Edward Feathers, an undistinguished jobbing London lawyer who moved to Hong Kong and revived his career. He went on to become a respected judge back in England. We learnt about his damaged childhood, and the knocks he endured and which shaped him into the fragile, emotionally scarred man he became.

Jane Gardam The Man in the Wooden Hat cover Wooden Hat gives the story from his wife Betty’s point of view. We don’t get so much information about her childhood, but the formative experiences of her life were her exhilarating war work at Bletchley Park during WWII – she was clearly a brilliant mind, contributing to the breaking of enemy codes – and subsequent horrors in a Japanese prison camp. Like Edward, she’d been a ‘Raj child’ – raised in the far east and shipped home for exiled schooling away from her family.

 

Both characters then are emotionally unsuited for the rigours of enduring married intimacy. There are fissures in the relationship from the start: Edward’s proposal, their honeymoon, early years of marriage – all lack the spark of romance. There is love, but it’s of a frail and unfulfilling kind. As they grow old together they become accustomed to life of quiet acceptance, creating a genuine bond, but with something missing at the heart of the relationship. Probably because of their respective damaged emotional states, and the problems that fate provides for them.

The awful cad Veneering reappears, too. He’s Edward’s professional (and romantic) rival. There’s a crucially symbolic gift of ‘guilty pearls’ that functions like Chekhov’s gun, with a heartbreaking twist at the novel’s end.

Edward and Betty’s whole adult life is sketched in with unobtrusive compassion and understanding: their mis-steps, regrets and fleeting moments of insight into what might have been.

As in OF, the narrative is carefully crafted. The emphasis is on character and what makes a person feel and suffer. There’s more on the odious colonialism and casual sexism and racism of the times; Jane Gardam presents this unflinchingly but without tub-thumping.

The narrative voice is again poised and assured. This is a writer with whom you feel in safe, caring hands.

 

 

Philip Hoare, Albert & the Whale

Philip Hoare, Albert & the Whale. Fourth Estate, 2021.

I think I first became interested in whales after reading Moby-Dick as a student. Many years later I read Philip Hoare’s strange book about them: Leviathan, or the Whale. It was first published I think in 2008. A few years before then I’d seen a pod of southern right whales, rolling and blowing in the sea below us off the coast of South Africa. We’d gone there with friends who had an apartment in Cape Town. We saw more whales just off the beach in another bay nearby. These are among the most magical experiences I’ve had.

Philip Hoare Albert & the Whale cover

My library copy has a plastic protective cover, hence the nasty shine in this picture

 Albert & the Whale revisits the world of cetaceans, largely through the quizzical eyes of the German artist-genius, Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). As in his earlier whale book, Hoare does this through indirect means: a mix of art history and criticism, memoir, impressionistic detours into the lives and work of the likes of Jung and Freud. Writers are adduced, from Melville himself to Auden and his circle, Thomas Mann and Marianne Moore.

The mix doesn’t always work. At times it’s all just a little too impressionistic and fey. At its best it’s amazing, similar to the more effortless brilliance of Sebald; Hoare is in a lesser league (though he pinches many of Max’s tropes, like the grainy monochrome photos – some of them selfies) – more akin to the less earnest, much funnier Out of Sheer Rage (1998), Geoff Dyer’s eccentric account  of his failure to write a biography of D.H. Lawrence.

On the way there are some hit-and-miss prose poems inspired by the most famous of Dürer’s paintings and woodcuts, including Melancholy, St Jerome (with the weird comet in the background) and St Eustace. The book’s title is a bit misleading, because a whole menagerie of creatures, real and imaginary, feature in the text, such as narwhals and walruses, the armoured rhino with its extra dorsal spike, and octopuses.

Perhaps Dürer’s most famous animal engraving is that of the hare. Hoare’s account of it begins: ‘Like the turf, like her eye, she’s the world’ –

The hare was sacred to the Germans, believed to reproduce parthenogenetically, and so was associated with the Virgin Mary. But the hare quivers as she crouches, un-annunciated. Her ears are smooth and soft-resisting; like her vibrating whiskers, they’re visible sentience, sensing a world beyond our own. She’s wild, ready to be picked up and turned over, to lie entranced in your arms….

This is sensitively done, but it’s a shame that the author prolongs such flights too long (there are five more lines of this: it becomes strained). With just a little pruning this book’s meditation on time, mortality and the relationship between humans and the animal (and wider natural) world could have been even better.

There are seven pages of beautiful colour plates at the end. Together with the many black-and-white images throughout the text, these more than compensate for the purple prose. I learnt a lot, too, about the life and work of Dürer, his influences and those he influenced. I was less interested in the obsessively detailed information about how much Hoare paid for his drinks in cafés, or the price of admission tickets to the many museums he visited.

Flowering currant Spring is beginning to show its colours here in Cornwall. Today’s walk took me past a house at the end of my road where these lovely flowers are blooming; I think they’re flowering currant. Magnolias and daffodils are coming to their peak.

Invisible woman: Elizabeth Strout, Oh William!

Elizabeth Strout, Oh William! (Viking, 2021)

Not the most inspiring of titles. Its novelist narrator, who we met in My Name is Lucy Barton (links below to other posts on ES novels), tells us more about the events in that earlier novel. For example, that her hospital stay in New York was for a real – and serious – condition, and her estranged, damaged mother really did visit her. She might also have loved her equally damaged daughter, Lucy. Just couldn’t say or show it. Or act upon it.

Elizabeth Strout Oh William! cover There’s more of that kind of thing in Oh William! Here the slender plot has to do with Lucy’s ex-husband, the hapless William, who was (still is) a serial adulterer. Most of his actions cause Lucy to utter the exclamation in the (silly) title. Usually out of exasperation, sometimes pity (maybe even love).

She exclaims in similar ways about others, including herself. Life exasperates her. The cruel, deprived upbringing she told about in Lucy Barton is alluded to in order to account for her present diffidence, her sense of not belonging in the world, and lack of self worth – even as she nears William’s age, 70. She says several times she feels ‘invisible’. ‘What a strange thing life is.’

Strout is able to pull off these banal expressions as Lucy’s only available means of articulating her profound, turbulent emotions. The narrative is told from her viewpoint, and it’s colloquial and idiomatic like that all the time (she’s very fond – overfond – of ‘is what I mean’ after an attempt to explain something). But that’s not to say it lacks complexity or depth. She’s more George Herbert (without the spirituality) than John Donne.

After her various scrapes with William as he tries to find out the truth of his own troubled past in rural Maine, she feels close to him, even sad they divorced, but validated that they did. More to the point, she learns a bit more about herself and her dislocated sensibility. On almost the final page she repeats ‘Oh William!’, then goes on:

don’t I mean Oh Lucy! Too? Don’t I mean Oh Everyone, Oh dear Everybody in this whole wide world, we do not know anybody, not even ourselves!

Except a little tiny, tiny bit we do.

But we are all mythologies, mysterious. We are all mysteries, is what I mean.

This may be the only thing in the world I know to be true.

Other posts here at T Days on ES novels:

My Name is Lucy Barton HERE

 Amy & Isabelle HERE

Olive Kitteridge HERE

 

Occupied San Francisco, atom bombs and lost words

It’s been a while since my last post – busy with work. So this will be a catch-up on recent things.

First crocus

This was the first crocus to appear in a pot in our garden, taken on 28 Jan

 Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle. PMC, 2001; first published 1962. I bought this during the presidency of the last incumbent, now just a nightmare memory (or will he return?). It looked for a while like he was going to make this counterfactual story come true. The plot involves a post-WWII America in which the Nazi – Japanese axis powers won the war. The Japanese occupy the ‘Pacific States’ zone, the Germans hold the eastern zone, with a buffer zone in the mid-west.

I’ve read very little sci-fi/fantasy, but I suppose this falls more into the category of speculative fiction – like Len Deighton’s SS GB, or Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America – both of which I found entertaining but not entirely satisfactory. As with most good sci-fi the genre lends itself to some fierce critical insights into the ‘real’ world of our time.

The title refers to a weirdly postmodern novel-within-the novel which tells an alternative counterfactual history of the war: this time the allies defeated the Nazis, but what followed isn’t in line with what ‘really’ happened. I rather liked this head-spinning reflexiveness. The author, rather like the Wizard of Oz, turns out to be much less than his grandiose ‘high castle’ solitude and anonymity would suggest.

I’d seen a couple of episodes of the TV series on Amazon, but gave up on it. It’s similar to but different from the novel, and much less interesting.

Daffodils and blossom

These daffodils and early blossom have appeared in a local park, taken two days ago

 Kamila Shamsie, Burnt Shadows. Bloomsbury, 2009. Kamila Shamsie’s 2017 novel Home Fire was one of my favourite books of last year (brief post about it here). This one came even more highly recommended, but I found it slightly less impressive. It still packs a powerful emotional punch.

It begins in Nagasaki, 1945. A young Japanese woman survives the bomb, and the rest of the novel traces her subsequent life. She travels to India, then to Istanbul and post-partition Pakistan. Much of the central plot involves her teenage son’s reckless flirtation with some of the forces of violence in this turbulent part of the world. Oddly enough, given this dramatic subject matter, I found the central part of the novel flagged rather, though it picked up in the last part, and developed a tension almost as unbearable as that in Home Fires.

Pip Williams, The Dictionary of Lost Words cover Pip Williams, The Dictionary of Lost Words. I just returned this to the library, so don’t have publication details to hand. It’s similar in some ways to Eley Williams’ The Liar’s Dictionary (brief mention of this one at the same link as above). Both novels involve words that didn’t make it into a major dictionary.

In this one the central character is Esme. As a little girl she likes to hide and play under the table at which the eminent scholar-lexicographers edit the ‘slips’ – small pieces of paper on which the words and entries about them are written and then filed in the pigeon-holes ready for collation and publication in the Oxford English Dictionary. There are colourful depictions of the famous editor, James Murray, his family, and many of those involved in the making of the dictionary, and of the long struggle to get to the end of the project that took nearly fifty years to finish. In a way it never did. It was first mooted in 1857, work began a few years later, and the last fascicle was published in 1928. Supplements and updates have been appearing since. I use the online edition all the time, and have referred to it often in this blog.

The ‘lost words’ collected by Esme begin (significantly, given its meaning) with the slip for ‘bondmaid’, which she finds under the table, dropped by one of the editors. She hides it away in a secret trunk, and over the following years builds up a large collection of her own. This becomes a sort of feminist alternative to the venerable (and patriarchal) OED. Esme’s words are culled from her visits to the covered market in Oxford: the taboo words, slang and vernacular of the women who were denied a place at high table, even if they did eventually get admitted to the universities.

This feminist angle is the strongest part of the novel. It culminates in the grand dinner held in 1928 to celebrate its completion. Several women, including Esme and two of Murray’s daughters, had been key members of the editorial team; many of the public who contributed words and citations – including Esme’s beloved aunt Ditte – were also women. None of them were allowed to attend this august, all-male event. A few were allowed in the gallery to look down at the men eating and drinking.

Not surprisingly the novel includes forays into the suffragist movement, and shows Esme’s awakening to the cause of rights for women – and the working classes who were also excluded from the privileges of the male elite. There’s a rather tedious romantic sub-plot, and some tragedy.

The research intruded too much into the narrative for my taste. The issues, despite their worthiness, dominated the characterisation. I’d have been better off reading a non-fiction account. I’d recommend Simon Winchester’s The Surgeon of Crowthorne (1998), about one of the more unusual contributors to the OED, and The Meaning of Everything (2003) by the same author.

Laurel berries

According to my plant identifier app these are Japanese laurel berries. Wonderful colours and texture.

As I write this we’re being battered here in Cornwall by storm Eunice. I had to take down my new bird feeder pole, fearing it would be torn up and become a flying spear. The birds are gathering, confused, in our magnolia tree and keep looking reproachfully and hungrily up at our windows.

I’ll place throughout this post a few pictures taken recently showing the first stirrings of spring in the area.

 

 

 

Anthony Trollope, The Eustace Diamonds

Anthony Trollope, The Eustace Diamonds. Oxford World’s Classics, 1983. First published as a serial, 1871; as a book, 1872

The Eustace Diamonds is the third in the Palliser series of novels. They deal largely with the urban worlds of politics and social ambition. The Barchester series, which preceded the Pallisers, focused more on the parochial worlds of the country gentry and clerics.

The central themes of this novel are familiar: the struggle between head and heart of promising but hard-up young men, who need to ‘marry money’ in order to finance their political and/or social ambitions, but who fall improvidently in love with penniless young women.

The flip side of these narratives is the career of Lizzie Eustace, a Becky Sharpe type of character: beautiful, scheming and a serial liar (she cheerfully admits that she prefers lies to truth – they’re more interesting and exciting). Aged just 19 she snares the dissipated, dying Sir Florian Eustace, a man of immense wealth and minimal morals. No sooner are they married than he discovers Lizzie’s true nature – she’d borrowed money on the basis of her impending marriage, and he’s saddled with her huge bills.

Trollope tries hard to condemn ‘this selfish, hard-fisted little woman’, but can’t prevent himself from presenting her as the most attractive character in the novel – even if she is called, at various times, a ‘vixen’; ‘”I do not think Satan himself can lies as she does,”’ says another character of her. Lovable rogues are always more endearing than prudish goody-two-shoes. Aren’t they?

Sir Florian promptly does the only decent thing and dies. Much of the rest of the novel deals with Lizzie’s efforts to hang on to the titular diamond necklace (worth a fabulous £10K – a huge amount at that time) as part of the estate he’d generously left her. His lawyers insist it’s an heirloom, and therefore not hers – it belongs to the Eustace family heirs. Lizzie insists, knowing she’s lying, that he’d given it to her. This legal tussle is the central thread of the narrative, but there are numerous others.

These mostly involve fairly similar on-off love/money matches. There’s Trollope’s customary hunting scene, too. This time for once it’s quite interesting, and serves to develop characters and plot.

Frank Greystock, another of Trollope’s unheroic, flawed heroes (like Phineas Finn in the previous novel in this series), struggled to engage my interest or sympathy. He wants to do the right thing, having rashly proposed to his Jane Eyre-ish governess sweetheart, Lucy – the penniless young woman I mentioned at the start – and marry her; but he’s also unable to resist Lizzie’s smouldering, scheming charms. Unlike the dowdy, prim, plain Lucy, Lizzie has beauty, brains and wit – and pots of money and a castle in Scotland. All his family and friends tell him to think of his rising career as a new Tory MP and lawyer; he needs Lizzie’s wealth to support his lavish, overspending lifestyle and vaulting ambition. Where do you think this will end?!

The novel is, as usual with Trollope, over-long, and at times there are diversions and new characters and plot developments that feel like padding. But there are also several set pieces and exchanges between the warring characters that make this a rewarding reading experience. Some of the best of these involve Lucinda, a fiery misandrist who gives her fiancé a torrid time. The only way she can escape his creepy clutches is to go mad. Trollope always finds it hard fully to endorse his feisty proto-feminists.

I particularly liked the political elements in the novel. Although The Eustace Diamonds is seen as one of the least political of the Palliser novels, the politics is still lurking just beneath the surface all the time. As in previous novels in the series, parliamentary politics is portrayed as a cynical game, a chess match played by chancers who don’t have any firm political or ethical convictions; they just do what’s expedient to benefit their own party, which in turn will advance their own careers.

Here’s how Trollope introduces us to Frank’s party at the start of his parliamentary career:

His father was a fine old Tory [ie Conservative] of the ancient school, who thought that things were going from bad to worse, but was able to live happily in spite of his anticipations. The dean [his father] was one of those old-school politicians…who enjoy the politics of the side to which they belong without any special belief in them. If pressed hard they will almost own that their so-called convictions are prejudices. But not for worlds would they be rid of them…They feel among themselves that everything that is being done is bad, — even though that everything is done by their own party…These people are ready to grumble at every boon conferred on them, and yet to enjoy every boon.

There’s much more in a similar ironic vein.

Things aren’t so very different today in Britain. Our beleaguered, amoral Prime Minister has just leaked to the media a series of initiatives intended to encourage the electorate to forgive his history of egregious mistakes, hypocrisy, narcissism and mendacity. Nothing to do with making things better – except for him. Trollope would have rolled his eyes and shrugged – just as he does when Frank speaks passionately against a Liberal political decision in a parliamentary debate, then adds slyly that Frank would have been just as vehemently opposed if their respective positions had been reversed.

Here to end – a picture of the first wild daffodils of the year, seen by a country lane on this morning’s walk (Monday) on a beautiful sunny day in Cornwall.

Daffodils

 

 

Thomas Hardy, The Trumpet-Major

Thomas Hardy, The Trumpet-Major. Penguin Classics, 1997. First published in serial form, then, slightly revised, as a three-volume book, 1880.

My attempt to end a run of disappointing reading experiences wasn’t entirely successful with Hardy’s sixth (I think) published novel, The Trumpet-Major. This Penguin edition’s introduction (by Linda M. Shires) discusses the incongruities in its three generic strands: comedy, romance and history – it’s set in 1805, when Britain feared imminent invasion by Napoleon’s army, massing on the north coast of France.

Thomas Hardy, Trumpet-Major cover

The striking photo on the cover is ‘A Newhaven pilot, 1844’ by D.O. Hill and Robert Adamson, in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

Her argument in defence of Hardy’s artistic achievement in this novel is ingenious, but didn’t convince me. My response was to find the comedy too broad (stereotypical rural characters) and laboured – but there’s a very funny scene in which the hopelessly inept local rustics attempt a drilling exercise in which their inability to distinguish left from right is exacerbated by their impatience to leave in order to fulfil their duties in the church service about to start nearby. British readers will recognise the humour here as in a similar vein as that found in the old sitcom ‘Dad’s Army’, about the Home Guard in southern England early in WWII, preparing to combat the expected Nazi invasion.

The romance will disappoint any reader, including me, who likes to see a satisfyingly happy ending (spoiler alert). The good, steady, decent guy is the one who should marry the beautiful protagonist, and his feckless, selfish rival should not. The beautiful young woman should not be inconstant in her affections – a central image of a weathervane sums her up here. Admittedly this is a pretty shallow expectation of novelistic artifice.

The historical aspect is the most interesting element. The Trumpet-Major is set near Weymouth in Dorset, on the south coast of England, and therefore likely to be a landing-point for the feared French invasion. The locals are understandably nervous and frightened, and fake news is rife. A system of hilltop beacons will be lit as an early warning. One section of the novel describes a false alarm, which sets all the inhabitants off on a terrified evacuation. Meanwhile large groups of soldiers set up tented camps just outside the village at the centre of the narrative. The uniforms set all the local female hearts aflutter.

I found these incongruous strands simply didn’t combine effectively, despite the editor’s claim that aesthetic disjunction was Hardy’s intention.

Just took a look at my posts in January last year. Snowdrops and daffodils began to appear by the second week (none yet in my garden, but they’re coming), and we’d just entered another lockdown. This year the Covid infection rates are soaring again, but there are few restrictions. Let’s hope the government policy (perhaps that’s too flattering a term for their reluctance to act decisively) works: so far the signs aren’t great.

 

 

 

Wendy Moore, How to Create the Perfect Wife

Wendy Moore, How to Create the Perfect Wife, Phoenix paperback, 2014; first published 2013

I first came across this bizarre twist on the Frankenstein story when I was teaching a Romantics module on a degree course a few years ago (link to my series of posts on Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel HERE).

Moore, Perfect Wife cover Wealthy, eccentric and uncouth Thomas Day had been upset several times when his fiancées had a change of heart about marriage and rejected him. The latest of these was Margaret, sister of his friend Richard Lovell Edgeworth (Anglo-Irish inventor and father of the novelist Maria). Day was hardly a compelling romantic prospect: his face was badly scarred from childhood smallpox; he was dirty, unkempt, morose, moody, misogynistic and opinionated, given to holding forth at tedious length on his pet subjects.

A devotee of Rousseau’s radical theories about education and social equality, he nevertheless (like his hero) held paradoxically misogynistic and repressive views on women: their role, he believed, was to submit to and obey men. Libertarians at that time firmly held that women were an inferior species and were therefore exempt from androcentric strictures about equality, liberty and human rights. (Today’s so-called libertarians here in the UK at the moment think, equally irrationally, that it’s an infringement on their civil liberties to have to wear a mask to stop them infecting and potentially killing people around them.)

The marital rejections he’d been humiliated by, he believed, were the consequence of young women’s being exposed to and deformed by the corrupting influence of foppish Georgian society. They were susceptible to what he saw as the vacuous distractions of fashion, dancing, gossip, and so on, and lacked rational capacity (that is, they failed to discern his genius). His plan was for his wife to live with him in simple, idyllic rural seclusion, dressed peasant style and following a frugal regime. She would defer to him and his every whim, and yet entertain him intellectually – she’d therefore need a modicum of rational education.

His monstrous plan, formed at the age of just 21 in 1769, in imitation of Rousseau’s scheme in Emile, or on Education (1761-2), was to find a pre-pubescent girl, as yet unspoilt by social influences, her mind a blank slate on which he could inscribe his own program, and to train her to become his ideal wife. He hedged his bets by selecting two orphans from foundling hospitals in Shrewsbury and London, whose names he changed to Sabrina (Latin for Severn, the river in Shrewsbury where her hospital was located), and Lucretia. If one fell short of his exacting standards, the other would, he hoped, meet them.

His scheme, fortunately, failed. Both girls failed to fulfil his selfish, impossible ambitions. His despotic methods included interminable sessions of tedious instruction – the pedagogy of the oppressor. He would cruelly expose them to physical, emotional and psychological traumas, privations and constraints, and try to condition their behaviour through punishment, coercion and bullying. One example of this, which Moore doesn’t mention explicitly, was his practice of firing a gun behind them unexpectedly to startle them; if they screamed or made a fuss they’d be admonished. It was their task to show stoical indifference to all hardships or knocks, and to obey blindly any male orders, however ridiculous or demeaning to them.

Day’s arrogance is depicted with graphic clarity in this lively, depressing account, and the monstrous presumptuousness of his experiment is expounded in all its cruelty. Moore also points out that it was Day’s social rank, wealth and gender that enabled him to get away with his devious schemes; nowadays one would hope he’d be exposed and prosecuted as a paedophile and predator.

He was a strangely paradoxical character: he gave away much of his wealth to the poor, and was an abolitionist, and yet he made a virtual slave of Sabrina, and abandoned her to a life of penury when she failed to satisfy his requirements.

Moore goes on to show what happened in Sabrina’s life after she was callously cast aside by Day (just as Victor Frankenstein abandoned his Creature, who had also come to appal him). After many hardships she found a kind of peace and perhaps love. Day, for his part, continued to be as boorish and overbearing for the rest of his life. Astonishingly, he managed to find a young woman who went along with his tyrannical regime for a wife, and even seemed to dote on him. There really is no accounting for taste.

I’d have liked to see more of the author’s discussion of influences on Day’s thinking other than Rousseau’s; the scientists/’natural philosophers’ whose thinking radically influenced the nascent Romantic movement, such as those in what became, from 1775, the Lunar Society (which met on the nights of a full moon, hence the name). These late Enlightenment intellectuals – ‘men of observation’ – promulgated the ‘experimental optimism’ mentioned by Jenny Uglow in her book about them, The Lunar Men: The friends who made the future, 1730-1810 (2002; reviewed in the Guardian HERE).

I’d also have liked more on the influence of Day’s callous experiment with Sabrina on later writers, touched on only briefly in Moore’s account, from Henry James’s Watch and Ward to Shaw’s version of the Pygmalion story. Trollope has a tale about a young man who moulds an orphan to become his wife as a central thread in his 1862 novel Orley Farm (I haven’t read it, so can’t confirm this claim). Maria Edgeworth’s fictional treatments of Day’s story are covered by Moore rather more thoroughly, from an early short story to the ‘society’ novel Belinda (1801).

Moore’s style is gratingly journalistic at times, and there’s a dusty air to the whole thing, perhaps a consequence of the obviously very thorough research she conducted – there are 35 pages of notes, and an extensive bibliography. Sometimes I felt that the copious narrative detail obscured or diminished the shocking impact of the central theme.

 

 

 

 

 

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer, Corsair paperback, 2016. First published in the USA, 2015

This is the harrowing story of the fall of Vietnam to the communist forces, and what followed. The ignominious evacuation of Saigon – a corrupt regime propped up by equally dodgy American military and covert forces fled in scenes realised dramatically here – was mirrored this summer in Kabul. Only those influential or rich enough to bribe their way onto the last planes to leave the airport made it – and not all of them survived.

Nguyen Sympathizer cover The narrative is in the form of a confession to his captors by a self-confessed ‘mole’, a communist spy embedded at the highest level of the Vietnamese military as it struggled to delay the inevitable collapse of the former colonial government. At the onset he emphasises his dual or split nature – an image that looms very significantly at the novel’s end.

He can sympathize with both sides of the conflict: his mother was Vietnamese, his father a French priest. He’s therefore seen with suspicion by the natives of the country he was born and brought up in, but equally by the Americans (he was educated in an American university and speaks perfect English) and Europeans.

The narrator’s final epiphany is breathtaking. The Sympathizer was a worthy winner of the Pulitzer in 2016. It was perhaps a little too long for my taste, and some of the scenes of violence, torture and rape are unpleasant, and I’m not sure they needed to be quite so graphically detailed. The novel packs a serious punch – but I can’t really say that ultimately I enjoyed it. Admired, perhaps.

On reflection I think it was partly the narrative voice that put me off, as well as the content, and excessive length (just short of 500 pp). There’s a whiff of the hard-bitten noir style of the Chandler school. This is in keeping with the covert nature of the mole’s life, his task to pose as something he’s not, which has the effect of creating for him an existential dilemma. Like a tough, embittered Chandler hero, he inhabits a nasty world in which nobody can be trusted or taken at face value, and he’s haunted by the victims of his duplicity.

The satiric section of the novel depicting the narrator’s role in the making of Coppola’s epic Vietnam film ‘Apocalypse Now’ was one of the best parts of the novel. He tries (and fails) to persuade the ‘auteur’ director to portray the Vietnamese characters as something more than ciphers – and pays a heavy price for his efforts.

I’ve started reading a Hardy novel – The Trumpet Major – in an attempt to break this run of unsuccessful reading experiences.

 

Hilary Mantel, An Experiment in Love

Hilary Mantel, An Experiment in Love, Picador 1996; first published 1995. This is another novel I heard good things about recently, in this case on the BBC Radio 4 book podcast, A Good Read (link HERE: the item comes after about nine minutes). I was attracted by the main setting: a hall of residence for women at the LSE (part of the University of London) in the early 70s – the very time when friends of mine were there.

Hilary Mantel An Experiment in Love cover

This is the edition I borrowed from the library; it was published in America.

I found these university/London scenes compelling and realistic – I felt I was reliving my own youth. The class differences are particularly well brought out: the privileged ‘Sophies’ and their boyfriends, the ‘Rogers’, are well off, privately educated, with a veneer of sophistication and casual generosity blended with condescension. Then there are the poor, working-class (northern) girls like Carmel, whose unfulfilled and angry mother is a cleaner, and who struggles to make her meagre grant stretch to keep her alive. At least students got a grant in those days (I was one of these lucky ones); now they’re left with huge debts when they graduate.

The women at the heart of the narrative are also well done: Carmel is a self-confessed mouse, timid and nerdy, but also sensitive and perceptive. Oddly enough she has a (doomed) sex life with a dull man who fails to see her true self and dumps her when she reveals her inner truth.

In fact it’s the sexual element of these young women’s lives that’s a key feature in the novel. In 1970 the liberation of women was beginning to take shape – but within patriarchal limits. Abortion was available, after a fashion, but the women who went through the procedure were viewed with a mix of pity, scorn and awe by the likes of Carmel. She believes, perversely, that it’s the nice girls who are foolish enough to get pregnant. I remember well this weirdly perverse and ambiguous attitude at the time.

Despite the early stirrings of feminism and the continuing quest for equality for women, girls from Carmel’s background could only hope to gain a good education as a way out of their otherwise inevitable fate: the drudgery of unequal marriage, motherhood and housework. Even this hope turns out not to be all it seems. She starts out well, winning a scholarship to a smart but repressive Catholic convent school, and then a place at London University. The price of being a swot is high: social life is limited by her poverty already, and she’s no competition for the glamour-pusses like the Sophies.

There was something amiss with this novel too, though. There was something a little too contrived about the plot, and the ending (which I didn’t see coming) was a dramatic shock. As the podcast participants point out, however, there are clues strung through the narrative, and it’s probably a good idea to re-read, to see how skilfully Mantel builds the tension and the inevitable outcome that shouldn’t have been such a surprise to me after all.

The depiction of anorexia – I suppose these were days when it wasn’t much understood or acknowledged – is interesting. The descriptions of the institutional meals are stomach-turning – but I realised eventually that of course they are seen from Carmel’s food-averse point of view. My own recollection of hall of residence food was that it wasn’t great, but not as disgusting as Carmel makes out.

Karina, who has a love-hate relationship with Carmel from their early childhood, is another complex character. Her family were east European immigrants, seemingly having escaped persecution decades earlier, although this is never made explicit. Carmel dislikes her mostly because her mother, taking pity on Karina’s family’s poverty (they’re even poorer than hers) and history, insists that Carmel walk to primary school with her every morning. This reaction quietly points to the kind of initially unperceived, insidious bigotry that caused Karina’s family to be persecuted in the first place. It also explains why Karina becomes so bitter and angry.

At the novel’s end, though I was less irritated than I was with the Nymph (see my previous post), I wasn’t enthused. I’m not sure about the novel’s uninspiring title, either. There was little I could see in the way of experimentation, in love or anything else.