Saturday 29 June 2019

'Barchester as we knew it was dead'

About thirty years ago I worked in a library and was not a reader of Trollope. But, shelving, I grew familiar with titles. Our Trollopes seduced me with their covers, their titles, their quantity. Most were World's Classics editions, and years later I have assembled my own collection:

I read Trollope over many years. I read the Barsetshire series haphazardly, retaining an impression lacking in detail. Barchester Pilgrimage (1935) is the work of a man of much more detailed (though not always accurate) Trollopian knowledge, Ronald A Knox, a well-known man of letters in his time, a Catholic priest, and the subject of a biography by Evelyn Waugh.

It's essentially 'fan fiction'. Knox takes the characters from Trollope's novels and depicts their lives and those of their descendants in the later Victorian age and into the twentieth century.

The book comprises six longish short stories:
  1. 'The Loves of Johnny Bold', a hobbledehoy's progress, is a low-powered start, taking in atheism, a brief love affair with a suitable girl, and a trip to Cannes and a flirtation with a middle-aged temptress. Names from the Barsetshire series come thick and fast. Best to let your eyes glide over them.
  2. 'The Graces of Marmaduke Thorne' is about another young man, this time in the decadent 1890s. He considers Roman Catholicism and dallies with an American heiress.
  3. 'Is She Not Fast?' depicts an advanced woman in the new century, the craze for bicycling, and the first motorcars. There's a lot of talk about tariff reform and Imperial Preference, the Brexit of its day.
  4. 'Mr Theophylact Crawley-Grantley' starts with a minor slip. It's Josiah, not Joshua, Crawley. Theophylact, grandson of Mr Crawley and Archdeacon Grantley, is a controversial vicar whose radical career is thrown off course by the Great War, when 'Barchester as we knew it was dead'.
  5. 'There's No Holding Them', set in the 1920s, features some argy-bargy between Anglicans and Catholics over the millennium of St Ewold, and an engagement between two parties called Dumbello and Lufton. The names may be familiar, but nothing feels real and nothing quite charms.
  6. The Barset chronicles began with The Warden, and Knox attempts some circularity in his last instalment, 'Septimus Arabin's Wardenship'. A dull finish. Copious skipping advised.
Ronald Knox's pilgrimage is less a sentimental journey than a twee and rather sad one. His 'modern' Barsetshire is a fallen paradise. If the project has a virtue, it is to return the reader to the original.

Dickens the Fan

…remembering that when FIELDING described Newgate, the prison immediately ceased to exist; that when SMOLLETT took Roderick Random to Bath, that city instantly sank into the earth ; that when SCOTT exercised his genius on Whitefriars, it incontinently glided into the Thames ; that an ancient place called Windsor was entirely destroyed in the reign of Queen Elizabeth by two Merry Wives of that town, acting under the direction of a person of the name of SHAKESPEARE; and that MR POPE, after having at a great expense completed his grotto at Twickenham, incautiously reduced it to ashes by writing a poem upon it…
Preface (1850) to Oliver Twist
My father had left a small collection of books in a little room upstairs, to which I had access (for it adjoined my own) and which nobody else in our house ever troubled. From that blessed little room, Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Humphrey Clinker, Tom Jones, the Vicar of Wakefield, Don Quixote, Gil Blas, and Robinson Crusoe, came out, a glorious host, to keep me company.
David Copperfield (1849-50), ch. 4

Who stands and who falls? Of the classics listed by Dickens in the examples above, only Gil Blas and Scott haven't quite stood the test of time. The Scott is an interesting one. The Fortunes of Nigel (1822), set in Jacobean London, was well regarded in its time, but has long been out of print - I suspect not least because of its slightly ridiculous title.

Friday 28 June 2019

Something worse than all

'Thank Heaven upon your knees, dear lady,' cried the girl, 'that you had friends to care for and keep you in your childhood, and that you were never in the midst of cold and hunger, and riot and drunkenness, and - and something worse than all - as I have been from my cradle; I may use the word, for the alley and the gutter were mine, as they will be my deathbed.'
Further to the previous post: Dickens comes to some kind of specificity late in Oliver Twist in Nancy's conversation with Rose, though the confession is coded. It is only outside the text, in his introduction to the third edition of the novel, speaking perhaps in a different voice, that Dickens throws caution to the wind:
...Sikes is a thief, and Fagin a receiver of stolen goods ... the boys are pick-pockets, and the girl is a prostitute.
But that was in 1841. Fast-forward a few Victorian decades to the edition of 1867, and we find those lines omitted from Dickens's intro. It would be left to the editors of later academic versions of the novel to determine Miss Nancy's Profession.

Wednesday 26 June 2019

Miss Nancy's Profession

'Bill Sikes and the prostitute Nancy', reads the blurb of the current Penguin edition of Oliver Twist, promising spice that isn't quite warranted. Dickens's text is altogether less specific - indeed not specific at all. The most we hear is that Nancy has been groomed by Fagin into a life of thieving, like the Artful Dodger, from a young age. And George Cruikshank's famous illustrations present her as a somewhat homely figure, certainly older than she is suggested to be in the novel.

David Lodge has marvelled at Dickens's capacity to avoid in his writings any mention of the sexual life; and the question of Dickens's own illicit experiences in London and elsewhere have puzzled biographers, though Claire Tomalin's book about Nelly Ternan dredges up a letter to a friend, a letter in which Dickens speaks of 'conveniences of all kinds at Margate (do you take me?) And I know where they live'.

Saturday 22 June 2019

Mr Bumble a-wooing

The serial publications of Dickens's very early novels The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist overlapped, confounding some readers. The easy geniality of the former was at odds with the harshness and cynicism of the latter much shorter, less expansive novel. 'It's all among Workhouses, and Coffin Makers, and Pickpockets ... I don't like those things; I wish to avoid them,' commented Lord Melbourne, the prime minister.

I haven't read Pickwick for some years, but I remember a happy time. A heavenly Christmas episode stays in my mind. I marked it down as a reread for future times of strife; I've had need of it since, but somehow haven't returned.

Oliver Twist is indeed rather relentlessly bleak and dispiriting - and therefore, perhaps, unDickensian - but one seems to reach an interlude at the beginning of the second Book, when Mr Bumble visits the appalling Mrs Corney, the workhouse matron. The tone shifts throughout the scene, starting with Bumble in regular bumptious beadle mode and Mrs Corney as heartless as ever. But then follows a love scene between the pair that is certainly ridiculous but also cosy and rather warm. We're in a different novel suddenly, the sort of light-and-shade affair that would later become Dickens's hallmark.

But then abruptly appears a 'withered old female pauper' with shocking news: 'old Sally is a-going fast' - to which Mrs Corney responds with her usual asperity. We're back to base with Oliver Twist.

The chapter ends curiously. Mr Bumble, left to himself in Mrs Corney's parlour, dances 'with much gravity four distinct times round the table'. Dickens finds such behaviour 'inexplicable', and we might concur, while also having some inkling as to the beadle's thoughts. Oliver Twist as a whole is hard to ignore or indeed like, but harder still to come to a conclusion about: an orphan, a foundling among the wider Dickens family.

Saturday 15 June 2019

Further Reports

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Some people never write negative reviews. It is their policy. They tactically ignore the offending book, or damn it with faint praise, or try to like it, or...

There's probably an epigram in there somewhere. Oscar Wilde would have turned a pretty phrase, as he does tirelessly and tiresomely in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Lord Henry shrugged his shoulders. “My dear fellow, mediæval art is charming, but mediæval emotions are out of date. One can use them in fiction, of course. But then the only things that one can use in fiction are the things that one has ceased to use in fact. Believe me, no civilised man ever regrets a pleasure, and no uncivilised man ever knows what a pleasure is.” (Ch. 6)
Ignore the rhetorical dazzle - of specious value at the best of times - and consider the meaning, which is where Wilde's epigrams come a cropper. Their meanings are either facile or confused. But he keeps on trying. More, he thinks, means more. More chance of success, certainly. In fact he scores very few authentic hits, but he knows a good one when he's written it - for he'll almost certainly recycle it in one way or another. There are whole lines of The Picture of Dorian Gray that find their way into Wilde's drama - where they work, I would say, much more effectively.

Wilde would probably counter that it's the likes of Lord Henry who talk in this way. 'You cut life to pieces with your epigrams,' (ch. 8) complains Dorian of his lordship: surely a case of an author preempting criticism. But what of Wilde's narrative voice? That's florid, overblown, sickly: 'beautiful' writing in all its naffness.

The book's central idea - that Dorian's portrait ages over time, while he remains young - is famous and brilliant, but rather uncertainly handled. It comes to the fore after quite a lot of conventional social comedy and a touch of realism. The introduction of a supernatural element feels sudden and tonally askew.

The novel's second half involves a gear shift, as many years pass and Dorian sinks into a life of 'sin'. The East End scenes of his adventures are daringly depicted, but the lack of specificity, and the commentary of shame and guilt, though necessary for publication in 1890, are nevertheless distancing and difficult. But all the while the fantastical detail of the portrait - in many ways an add-on - keeps intruding, giving the book its novelty and fame, but weirdly at odds with the story as a whole.

A Word Child

In a moment of expansiveness (ever to be mistrusted) I confessed on Twitter that I'd never read Iris Murdoch. A flurry of suggestions coalesced around A Word Child, which I duly acquired.

My awareness of Murdoch was fragmentary. I knew Philip Larkin and Monica Jones had enjoyed private games centred on mocking and parodying her. I knew she was considered in urgent need of an editor. I knew she suffered from dementia, only to become a further victim at the hands of her husband John Bayley's seemingly endless memoirs.

She was the kind of writer I was always aware of in my formative years, along with Angus Wilson, Margaret Drabble and the like.

I made a real effort with A Word Child. The failure was mine alone. I could have gone on reading; I would certainly have appreciated the exquisite style. But there was so much of it. And I didn't want to be there. I think it was her world I turned away from: a grim grey 70s world of dully middle-class folk, all of them entitled, if only to their tragic sorrows and neuroses. I broke down after fifty or so pages. Such defeats always leave me obscurely depressed.

Oliver Twist

The world I always seek out when in a reading quandary is that of the nineteenth-century novel. I am not proud of this, wish I were more varied. I've read all of Dickens, but haven't read Oliver Twist since I was a child at school. I remember Mr Crisp's English lessons, an airy Victorian classroom, wooden desks with lids and defunct inkwells, and reading round the class, or silently to myself.

Dickens's main mode in Oliver Twist, as elsewhere, is irony: 'the impious and profane offence of asking for more'. This can be confusing to young minds and to less than engaged teachers, of whom I had a few. Mr Crisp was a good teacher, but I didn't really enjoy or 'get' Oliver Twist.

One should be careful of editions. I recommend the current Penguin, which reproduces the original serial text - in many ways quite different from what I probably read before: less polished, less corporate, more spontaneous and unexpected.