Monday 25 May 2020

Consolations #3

The reason people don’t read Scott anymore is that they think he’s prolix. They are right. There’s no getting around the fact: he’s a deeply prosy, long-winded writer. If the only thing that will hold your attention is a string of staccato action set-pieces you will surely struggle with him. But the secret to enjoying him is to accept this. Instead of impatiently yearning for things to hurry up, you need to surrender yourself to the prose, to sink into it as into a warm bath.
Adam Roberts, 'The Victorian novel: a guide to reading in lockdown', Spectator, 16 May 2020

Adam Roberts was one of my teachers at university in the early 1990s. He's still there but is now also an acclaimed science-fiction author. His recent Spectator recommendations gratify me in that they accord with my own preferences: Scott (The Antiquary, Rob Roy, The Heart of Midlothian), Thackeray (The Newcomes) and Eliot (Daniel Deronda). I applaud his impeccable taste, in particular his defence of Sir Walter Scott - in which happy task he joins no less than Virginia Woolf.

I happen to be reading Rob Roy at the moment, and I read The Bride of Lammermoor a few weeks back. I agree with Professor Roberts that Bride is uncharacteristic - over melodramatic - and Rob Roy a masterpiece. In essence it's a Waverley encore, but so much more assured.

I found a different sort of melodrama - arch, brittle - in my reread of The House in Paris. If Scott is a warm bath, Bowen is an icy shower. One should not perhaps read for style alone, but for me it's Bowen's chief strength:
Round the curtained bedhead, Pompeian red walls drank objects into their shadow: picture-frames, armies of bottles, boxes, an ornate clock showed without glinting, as though not quite painted out by some dark transparent wash.


  1. Quite simply, I adore Elizabeth Bowen. She seems to remember very well what it is to be a child. There's no false sentimentality there, no idealisation. And no easy solutions. One is forever corrupted by experience and that's it. "Once a thing is known..." indeed. I have The Hotel and Eva Trout waiting to be read, and have just started rereading her marvels of short stories. Each one is a jewel.

    From Brookner, I am reading Providence. Such a Romantic book! My heart is already in my mouth...

    1. Many thanks for comment. Eva Trout is an extraordinary book - her last and most extreme. Hermione Lee, I think, thought it disastrous. I adore the strange contorted locutions of Bowen's four post-war novels.

  2. Yes, The Little Girls is especially extreme in that regard, I think, although it is the only Bowen book I've not read in English, but in translation. It is extremely bizarre, and yet, oddly enough, it is how people talk.

    1. Delaying the verb within the sentence, sometimes beyond endurance, seems to be a feature.


Questions and comments are always welcome. (Please note: there will be a short delay before publication, as comments are moderated.)