Friday, 30 September 2011

Lytton Strachey

It takes Basil Willey in Nineteenth Century Studies to put us right about Lytton Strachey’s scalpel job on Thomas Arnold in his Eminent Victorians. He does not deny that it is exquisitely done with the contrast of high minded quandry and banal fact that leads to bathos. Arnold’s earnest wresting with evil is followed by:
His legs, perhaps, were shorter than they should have been; but the sturdy athletic frame especially when it was swathed (as it usually was) in the flowing robe of a Doctor of Divinity, was full of imposing vigour; and his head, set decisively upon the collar, stock and bands of ecclesiastical tradition, clearly belonged to a person of eminence.

Strachey’s chum Virginia Woolf once described James Joyce as underbred. We must therefore accept that she might have considered Lytton overbred or in any case some sort of genetic cul-de-sac that it would be unsafe to breed from should he have been so inclined. The character of St. John Hirst in The Voyage Out is said to be modelled on him. “There’s Hirst...........And he’s as ugly as sin”

Strachey’s way with Thomas Carlyle in a shorter piece collected in Portraits in Literature is similarly deflationary, prophetic fire reduced to a fart in a biscuit tin.

He had higher views: surely he would be remembered as a prophet. And no doubt he had many of the qualifications for that profession - a loud voice, a bold face and a bad temper. But unfortunately there was one essential characteristic that he lacked - he was not dishonoured in his own country. Instead of being put into a pit and covered with opprobrium, he made a comfortable income , was supplied by Mrs. Carlyle with everything that he wanted, and was the favourite guest at Lady Ashburton’s fashionable parties. Prophecies, in such circumstances, however voluminous and disagreeable they may be, are apt to have something wrong with them. And in any case, who remembers prophets? Isaiah and Jeremiah, no doubt have gained a certain reputation; but then Isaiah and Jeremiah have had the extraordinary good fortune to be translated into English by a committee of English Bishops.

The loss to English literature of Jane Welsh is blamed on the Sage of Chelsea. No, Lytton, no, this must be the easiest sum ever presented to the felicific calculus. The misery of two people was obviated by them marrying each other.
Finally one must judge Strachey to be an unreliable critic though a wonderful stylist with an accurate but not deadly sting. His major works are available on the Gutenberg Project.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Marianne Dashwood

They only see what they want to see. They don't know they're dead.
Cole from The Sixth Sense.

Finding value at the heart of reality. It is a truth that we create our own worlds, up to a point. In noticing what we notice when not under threat there is implicit a scale of valuing. The altering of these constructions is a favourite theme of Jane Austen's. The heroine at the end of the novel has a new world, a more 'real' world. It is more real in that it is more complete, the blank or missed bit is now present. In 'Sense and Sensibility' the modern reader must regret to a degree the punishment of Marianne, it seems too comprehensive and she appears to me at least to be too reduced, too broken to be put together without permanent disability. That is all too often life, sigh!

Monday, 26 September 2011

In the Year of Jubilee

In The Forsyte Saga John Galsworthy chronicled the upper middle classes for the lower middle brow reader. The opening of the novel is set in 1886 which is one year before the jubilee of Queen Victoria. In the Year of Jubilee George Gissing writes about the lower middle classes. His audience is perhaps upper middle brow. There is no chance whatever that his work will be turned into a superior soap to beguile the winter schedule with a Christmas episode.

The close attention to class and the minute division in those classes that are opaque to the outsider is a theme of Gissing’s. In general his people are ill fed, ill housed and ministered to by mutinous servants. When introduced in the novel they are sketched in like types from a Lombroso catalogue.

A younger girl of much slighter build with a frisky gait, a jaunty pose of the head, pretty, but thin-featured and shallow-eyed; a long neck, no chin to speak of , a low forehead with the hair of washed-out flaxen fluffed all over it.

Due to the new universal education they, the 3 French sisters, are able to read but to what end.

But on tables and chairs lay scattered a multitude of papers, illustrated weeklies, journals of society, cheap miscellaneous penny novelettes and the like.

The 3 are living in De Crespigny Park, more genteel than their previous residence on the Camberwell Road. The husband of the eldest Ada is Arthur Peachey who is a leading light in a manufactory dedicated to disinfectant. Their deceased builder father left them some money.

Beatrice and Fanny had learnt to support themselves, Beatrice in the postal service, and Fanny, sweet blossom! by mingling her fragrance with that of a florist’s shop in Brixton; but on their fathers death both forsook their employment and came to live with Mrs. Peachey.

The other family in the novel are the Lords, Stephen the father, Nancy and Horace the children. Fanny French has designs on Horace whom she reckon will come in for half of the plunder when the old boy dies. He is a dealer in pianos, a lucrative trade when every parlour that fancied itself had to have one.

One thing about Gissing; if you want to know how people lived when the Empire straddled the globe and the Old Queen reigned he’s your man. Interiors, food, hairstyles, dress both male and female he covers everything with special attention to the shoddy and the tawdry. He’s much the better writer than Galsworthy in the rendering of texture. His depiction of the squalid and evil conditions of Victorian England distorting the lives of the masses is excellent. His women are fell creatures, his men mostly hapless. All his works are on Gutenberg. Recommended: New Grub Street, The Odd Women. I am at present reading The Nether World about life in the tenements. Not many jokes.

Friday, 23 September 2011

The Forsyte Saga

I’ve just finished reading The Man of Property by John Galsworthy being the first volume of The Forsyte Saga. Absolutely first rate as one of his characters might think but not say, after all it doesn’t do to be too enthusiastic. The Forsytes give nothing away; they amass, they collect and finally surrender only to take a profit. When the novel opens it is 1886 just before the Jubilee Year of 1887 and the family meet up for the engagement party of June Forsyte at the house of her Grandfather Jolyon. His brothers and sisters with all their children are there. The family saddle of mutton is also there, for they love succulent, simple and ample food, floury potatoes and the gourmand brother Swithin drinks champagne by the pint. Collectively they live in those areas like Park Lane and Kensington where property values are on the rise and their family conversations are like moves in real monopoly.

Soames Forsyte son of James the brother of old Jolyon is married to the beautiful Irene. They are not happy and there is talk of separate bedrooms. She has brought nothing to the marriage but her beauty which is in itself an indication of a lack of judgment on his part. Her father was a professor, not much money in that, and after the death of her mother he remarried a much younger woman. The step-mother was anxious to have Irene off her hands and enhance her own chances. Pertinacious Soames wore her down after several refusals. They have been married for 3 years and she is now about 25. He is 32 or so and his name is in the style and title of a firm of solicitors.

It’s an interesting thing how the intentions of the author often fail to coincide with the depiction of his character. Irene suffers from what we can today easily recognise as Dickens disease. Under that sanctified plaster we wonder whether there is functional plumbing. A little thought suffices to reassure ourselves when we recollect that the refined love of the best of everything has been traded for conjugal rights with a man that physically repelled her even in her days of chaste courtship.

But I will say no more; these short reports are merely an incitement to read. Find it on Gutenberg Project (Complete Saga)

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Room by Emma Donohue

Emma Donnohue's Room is not a book that I normally would have read being allergic to Booker hype but I was staying in a house that had a copy so I took it up. I hardly left it down until it was read. It is told from the perspective of Jack a just 5 year old and the setting is that of a garden shed in which he and his mother are the captives of a man that is referred to as Old Nick. Jack has been born into captivity and to him the TV which they have is no more than images from the dream time with no connection to any free reality. Ma knows that from now on this reality must be adjusted and the real nature of their predicament made clear so she begins to raise that magical diaphane on the misty neverland of Dora the Explorer.

It seems to me that Donohue has brought us into a world that does not bear thinking about, one of profound horror and anxiety as we jog along in the banality of evil hoping that they may somehow escape and that their captor will in turn get a room of his own in the big house. Good read.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Weighting for the Barbarians

So I finished Waiting for the Barbarians and I've been thinking about it. The first thing that occurred to me was that in an age of muskets and bows, empire and Barbarian horde, in a time of danger, no god is invoked. When I looked to check it struck me that god is all through it in the form of god's own tense, the nunc-stans of the continuous present. That this hadn't been apparent to me before because I normally can't abide the intrusiveness of it, that buttonholing, is an indication of the skill of the writing. So if God is in the grammar, where's the devil? In the diction, Mo.

The magistrate narrator is a weighing scales. The sentences are perfectly weighted to the dynamic of the action, he is balanced between the meddling Empire and the nomadic Barbarians. His attachment to a Barbarian girl who has been partially blinded and lamed by the emissaries from the centre causes the pointer to tilt in the direction of folly. He mounts an expedition to return the girl to her people.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Henry James's Big Ask

I am now it seems at the stage in the bog of The Golden Bowl where I think I previously lost my wellingtons some 30 years or more ago. Does ones taste change so little or is it that the vast indetermination and fog grows so thick that the continent that is Henry James is cut off. There are so many ‘big asks’. The chief one is that an American who is a billionaire by 47 simmered in the ruthless stews of the Gilded Age would buy a prince in a poke. This Adam is a figure of great wealth sanitized by benevolence, a Carnegie or Mellon or Beattie. James was insulated from ‘getting and spending’ by grandfather’s money. This patriarch was Scots Irish, an Ulster Presbyterian from Cavan.. The Cavanman is reputed to eat his dinner from an open drawer in readiness for unexpected callers. Whether that elder endowed anything or not we can be grateful that he established a line that produced the other James boys.

The other novel I’m reading might be said to be an antidote - Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee. It is crisp, precise, direct although so far there is no indication whether the Barbarians or the Colonists are generic or specific to a time and place. Muskets are mentioned and torture is routine. It is realism but not of the coarse sort. Distance makes types and that’s fine because when you move closer they become individuals though so far they have remained unnamed.