Sunday, 13 October 2013

Mr.Perrin and Mr.Traill by Hugh Walpole

Hugh Walpole's (1884 – 1941) Mr.Perrin and Mr.Traill was published when he was just 27 (1911) and it must have incorporated some of the experiences he had as a master at Epsom College and at the several schools which he attended as a pupil. The novel is an astonishing achievement and does not belie the regard in which he was held by such judges as James, Woolf, Bennett and Conrad. O.K. So he networked assiduously and made himself useful but drawing a recommendation from Virginia Woolf who looked down the vista of her nose at practically everyone is not to be slighted.

Central to the story is the skewed, twisted and bitter consciousness of Vincent Perrin mathematics master, a Cambridge graduate who came to Moffat's 20 years previously as a temporary device, as did all the masters, and stayed and stayed and became the embodiment of all the sarcastic teachers you have ever known and loathed. He is a bachelor with his own room in the college and eating common meals in the refectory. It is mutton three times a week, hearty fat mutton. You can feel it as a skim on your teeth perhaps to be displaced by tapioca pudding. Perrin's only emotional tie is to his old mother to whom he writes every week. He is often at variance with the other members of the staff being a spy for the headmaster, the odious cleric Moy-Thompson.

It was about half-past nine when Perrin, looking up at the sound of the opening door, saw Traill standing there. Traill filled the doorway, and Perrin knew at once that there was going to be a disturbance. He had had disturbances before, a good many of them, and always it had brought to him a sense of pathos that he, with an old mother (he always saw her as a crumpled but vehement background), should have always to be fighting people—he, so unoffending if they would let him alone. However, if anyone (especially Traill) wished to fight him, he would do his best.

Traill is the new master and recent Cambridge graduate, rugger blue, hero to the boys, devastating swerve and all that and the lover, at a distance, of the young Isabel Desart also connected with the school. His early view of the school which he regards as a stop gap:

The Rev. Moy-Thompson, the head master— a venerable-looking clergyman, with a long grizzled beard and bony fingers—sat at the end of the table in an impatient way, as though he were longing for an excuse to fly into a temper. For the others, Traill only noticed one or two; Perrin, Dormer, and Clifton were there, of course. There was a large stout man with a heavy moustache and a sharp voice like a creaking door; a clergyman, thin and rather haggard, with a white wall of a collar much too big for him; an agitated little Frenchman, who seemed to expect that at any moment he might be the victim of a practical joke; a thin, bony little man with a wiry moustache and a biting, cynical speech that seemed to goad Moy-Thompson to fury; a nervous and bald-headed man, whose hand continually brushed his moustache and whose manner was exceedingly deprecating. There were others, but these struck Traill's eyes as they roved about.

Perrin's fantasy of marriage to Isabel Desart who is unaware of his existence and who is attracted to the uncomplicated Traill is the setting for a convincing depiction of a descent into madness. Even the ornament on his mantelpiece begins to take notice:

The little red and yellow chinaman on the mantelpiece, Perrin saw, had been watching the conversation with great curiosity, and Perrin felt that he was a little disappointed now when matters promised to finish comfortably. Perrin himself was only too ready for peace. These quarrels always brought on headaches, and, in his heart, he longed eagerly, hungrily, for a friend. He already was beginning to feel again that he liked young Traill very much.

Other divisions of Perrin emerge possibly watched over by Mother. There is a man in a box trying to get out but the lid is being sat upon by a skeleton, there is Perrin 2 – The Evil One – there is a simulacrum of Traill always watching him from beside the door, not that he sees him there precisely as he slips out when one tries to see him, soundlessly. Worst of all the Chinaman leaves his perch on the mantelpiece:

Perrin sat back in his chair; the room was going round and round, and he had a confused idea that people were running races. He pressed his hands to his head; the little chinaman leapt, screaming, off the mantelpiece and ran at him, kicking up his fat little legs; and with the breeze from under the door, a pile of French exercises fluttered, blew like sails in the wind, and then slid, scattering, to the floor.

And thoughts:
Perrin was quite clear in his own mind now that he hated Traill very much indeed, but he could not be very definitely sure of any reasons. There had been something once about an umbrella, and there was something else about Miss Desart, and there was even something about Garden Minimus; but none of these things were fixed very resolutely in his mind, and his thoughts slipped about like goldfish in a pond.

It's quite sustained until the unravelling of the shabby cardigan that is Perrin comes to the consideration of methods of slaughter. Here is the lair of Moy-Thompson:

And so he went to see Moy-Thompson. You can, if the simile is not too terribly old, imagine Moy-Thompson as a spider and his study as his web; it was certainly dusty enough, with faded busts of Romans and Greeks on the top shelves of the book-cases, and gloomy photographs of gloomy places on the walls. The two men seemed to suit the place well enough, and its depression really brightened Mr. Perrin up. But it must be remarked once more that it was not from any anticipation of doing Traill damage that he embraced and cuddled his little piece of news so eagerly, but only because it helped his sense of importance. He was already wishing that he had told Garden Minimus to write his Euclid thirty times instead of fifteen, so cheered and inspired did he feel.

This classic deserves to escape the doom of detention.

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