Two Pairs of Novels (Part 2)

Commuting days until retirement: 202

The Tortoise and the HareI’m not sure exactly what originally put me on to the first one of this pair; but I do remember reading someone’s opinion that this was the ‘perfect novel’. Looking around, there are encomiums everywhere. Carmen Callil, the Virago publisher, republished the book in 1983 (it originally appeared in 1954), calling it ‘one of my favourite classics’. Jilly Cooper considers it ‘my best book of almost all time’. The author, Elizabeth Jenkins, died only recently, in 2010, at the age of 104. Her Guardian obituary mentions the book as ‘one of the outstanding novels of the postwar period’. The publisher has given it an introduction by none other than Hilary Mantel – a writer whose abilities I respect, having read and enjoyed the first two books in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy. She writes: ‘I have admired this exquisitely written novel for many years…’

So why, having read it, did I feel distinctly underwhelmed? Its title is The Tortoise and the Hare, and it tells the story of a somewhat troubled marriage. The husband is an eminent barrister, and the wife is – well, the wife of an eminent barrister. (We are talking about the early fifties here, after all.) And indeed, she seems like what we might nowadays call a trophy wife – the attractive and desirable spoils of her husband’s success. The novel is narrated in omniscient mode, but centred around the point of view of Imogen, the wife. She watches with concern her husband’s burgeoning friendship with Blanche Silcox, a worthy spinster of their village: no scarlet woman, but a capable and organising, but also middle-aged and tweedy one – the tortoise who threatens to snatch the prize from the hare. At the opening of the novel Imogen is with her husband in a bric-a-brac shop, tempted by a delicately decorated china mug. However he only sees where it has been damaged; he has the buying power and she feels unable to challenge him, even though she knows he would give in to her wishes if she were to insist.

So we see the ground rules established. Imogen’s inability to step outside the limits of the role forced upon her by the conventions of the time is in one way an exemplar of what is interesting about the book – as Mantel puts it, ‘its focus on a fascinating and lost social milieu’. But this also seems to me to be part of its weakness. The customs of the time overwhelm the characters to such an extent that they seem to lose any idiosyncrasy or inner volition; we are left with a sense of inert waxworks being trundled about on a stage, fixed expressions on their faces, and their limbs in stiffly adopted poses. True, there are one or two minor characters who break through the unruffled surface of stifling convention: an avant garde architect and his pretentious wife; her sister Zenobia, the ‘famous beauty’. Then there are some who seem to stretch convention almost too far, the like the cerebrally challenged snob of a mother who sends her room daughters to a school where they have ‘a particularly nice class of girl’. “I’m not crazy about examinations. They won’t have to earn their living, but they will have to keep their end up in society.”  But the characterisation seems to me hardly any better here; they are all caricatures – another collection of waxworks, this time with crudely drawn masks fastened over their faces.

The other novel of my pair seemed to invite comparison because it is by another woman novelist writing at the same time, and for the trivial reason that she is also called Elizabeth. She wrote a dozen or so novels between 1945 and her death in 1975. Her reputation has probably suffered because it has been partly blotted out by that of the Hollywood film star of the same name, Elizabeth Taylor. In a comment on the back cover of another of her books, yet another Elizabeth-named novelist, Elizabeth Jane Howard, writes: ‘How deeply I envy any reader coming to her for the first time!’

Well I am one of these lucky readers; and I also noticed that a fellow WordPress blogger recently praised her in Vulpes Libris. And indeed, I in looking this post up I also found an earlier one on this same author. This latter entry is about The Soul of Kindness, the novel I first read and was going to use for the comparison. However it struck me that it was published in 1964 – only ten years after Jenkins’ The Tortoise and the Hare, but a decade in which there was enormous social change. The Taylor novel struck me as outclassing the Jenkins one in all sorts of ways, and but I felt I should try to make a fairer comparison, and so selected one which was almost contemporaneous – The Sleeping Beauty, published in 1953.

The Sleeping BeautyStraight away we find a cast of characters which have all the idiosyncrasies, mixed motives and secrets that you’d expect in authentic, three-dimensional people. There’s the odd household consisting of two sisters – one damaged in a car accident, and one widowed, who fretfully runs the household, which includes a guest-house – and her daughter who has learning difficulties, as they wouldn’t have been called then. Alongside them is another widow, whose MP husband has recently drowned in a boating accident which their traumatised son survived, and the friend with whom she distracts herself in various random enthusiasms, including covert betting on horses. Into this circle is introduced Vinny, the slightly mysterious single man (some of whose mysteries are revealed later) and his insufferable headstrong mother. (“At least you know where you are with her, ” comments one character. “But you don’t want to be there, ” retorts another.)

So here we are, with real people in a real world. Jenkins’ characters seemed to me to be entirely defined by the conventions and the medium in which they move. They can only exist within it, like those floating, translucent sea creatures, which, taken out of water, collapse into nothing. Taylor’s characters, on the other hand, have a fish-like solidity; if taken out of the milieu in which they live they might gasp and flap, but would still be recognisably themselves. They are for all time, and indeed, once you are involved in the action of the novel and the interactions of the characters, the period background becomes just that – background. Only occasionally does a detail give you a sudden reminder of the time you’re in: someone is standing on a railway platform and is startled out of their thoughts by the clatter of a descending signal.

Taylor has a particular gift for sharp description and telling details. For example, a here’s our first sight of that guest-house with the odd menage:

At the top of the cliff, but mostly hidden in trees, he could see a gabled Victorian house of tremendous ugliness, ivy over its dark walls and one upstairs window glinting evilly in the sunset.

This is intensely visual, and and wonderfully suggestive at the same time. Compare a typical descriptive passage from Jenkins, as two characters go for a walk together:

The trees were of unusual height. Against the pale blue sky their myriad leaves, now grey-green, now silver, shivered and whispered. Beneath, the river slid on, dark and clear, till it rounded over the weir in a glassy, greenish curve, then splintered into flakes, tresses, sheaves of foam that poured, thundering, to gush into the stream below.

This is all very well; evocative and elegantly written, pleasant to read, but oh, so conventional; and it doesn’t really get us anywhere. There’s nothing to lift the scene out of the ordinary and give it a purpose, or jolt us with a little shock and portend what is to come. We learn of nothing more than the pleasant surroundings in which the book’s characters live. Taylor’s descriptions, by contrast, are spare with well chosen detail, apt complements to what is happening in the novel.

On the basis of what I have read, I don’t think I’m being unfair to Jenkins. It’s true she had a Cambridge education at a time when that was still unconventional for women, and a life full of literary connections, knowing Virginia Woolf and Edith Sitwell. She wrote biographies as well as fiction. According to the Guardian piece I mentioned earlier, The Tortoise and the Hare is based on her own experience, with herself as the spurned lover – although she never married. But from what I have seen, novel writing was not her forte, while Elizabeth Taylor seems to me to have been a much greater talent. I look forward to reading more of her.

Two Pairs of Novels (Part 1)

Commuting days until retirement: 220

Why two pairs? Well, of my recent fiction reading on the train, I found that four novels fell naturally into pairs which invited comparison with one another. I was drawn to each of the novels by their reputations, and warm praise coming from various reviewers. In each case I found that the reputation of one of the pair seemed to me better deserved than the other.

I haven’t finished writing about the second pair, so rather than holding everything up I’ll publish what I’ve written about the first pair now. What was originally to be a single post seems to have fragmented, with the previous one, into three.

My first pair are both American and 20th century − but the similarities go beyond that. Both are what you would call campus novels, in that the action is centred around the life of a university. Both give you a strong idea on the first page of what is to come.

The first is Donna Tartt’s The Secret History − a debut novel that was an outstanding success in terms of sales when it first appeared in 1992. The setting is informed by Tartt’s experience as a student of classics in an Eastern American university. The second has also been popular, but in quite a different way. Its quiet, cerebral author died in 1994 and this particular book, Stoner by John Williams, attracted only modest attention on its publication in 1965, but was reissued in 2003 and proceeded to enjoy a huge boom on both sides of the Atlantic. Again it derives from the writer’s university experience, but this time as a teacher.

The Secret History’s opening doesn’t waste any time. From the first page we have:

The snow in the mountains had been melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation. He’d been dead for ten days before they found him, you know. It was one of the biggest manhunts in Vermont history – state troopers, the FBI, even an army helicopter… It is difficult to believe that Henry’s modest plan could have worked so well…

The Secret HistoryWell, full marks for grabbing the reader’s attention. The author proceeds to go back and trace how this central event came about, and later its consequences. And trace it she does, in very great detail − sometimes, I found, in rather too much detail for me. Her account certainly has longeurs, as the movement of the characters from one encounter to another is carefully choreographed and each event constructed − at times it’s as if the stage directions are visible. And while from time to time you feel twinges of sympathy for the narrator Richard Papen, he’s hard to like. Clearly Tartt intends this, but 600 or so pages is a long time to spend with a slightly irksome companion.

On the positive side however, Tartt’s major characters − a little outlandish but for the most part just about believable − are well handled, I felt, as is particularly the way they coalesce − or not − as a group. We are introduced to them as a tightly bound coterie centred around a charismatic teacher of Greek, Julian Morrow. We are given to understand that, while employed as a teacher in a minor north-eastern American university and devoting his efforts to a very small circle of hand-picked students, this man is immensely cultured and has been on intimate terms with many major twentieth century figures from show business to high culture. He remains elusive and morally ambiguous; and for me he never seemed to escape from the page as a rounded character, but remained a rather improbable collection of attributes assembled by the author.

However the group of students at the centre of the story did achieve life of a sort in my mind. As Richard, uncomfortably conscious of his working class small-town roots in the West, slowly succeeds in working himself into the circle, what appears at first as an impenetrable, other-worldly group bound together by its eccentricity is slowly teased apart as the foibles of its individual members and the tensions between them become visible.

There’s Henry, the dominant member, perhaps also the most intellectual and serious. Improbably, as we learn at the start, he is the prime mover in the murder that takes place. Bunny, the murder victim, seems the polar opposite of Henry, raffish and unpredictable, yet they appear to have a mysteriously close, troubled – but not sexual – relationship with one another. There is a gay member, Francis, another rootless soul; and the group is made up by the twins Charles and Camilla (did that pair of names have the connotations it does now when the book was written? − an unlucky coincidence perhaps). They are inseparable for much of the novel, and a faint suggestion of incest hangs about them. Collectively, the combination of a devotion to high classical culture and the dependence of nearly all the characters on alcohol and/or drugs seemed somewhat incongruous to me. And I was a little bored at times by the endless passages in which people are shuffled between social events and each other’s rooms; it’s rather like reading a play with an excess of stage directions.

The author does nevertheless exploit well the volatile blend of character and circumstance she creates. But the problem with a spectacularly eventful plot is that you are necessarily placing your characters much closer to the dangerous cliff-edge of credibility. Tartt’s novel, it seems to me, like her unfortunate character Bunny, falls victim to this brinkmanship.

That’s not a charge you could make about Stoner. Here’s the equivalent passage on the first page that gives us our first sense of its flavour:

William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. When he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the University library. This manuscript may still be found in the Rare Books Collection, bearing the inscription: “Presented to the Library of the University of Missouri, in memory of William Stoner, Department of English. By his colleagues.”

An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.

StonerPerhaps fittingly for a novel written by a professor about the life of a character whose adulthood is entirely spent teaching at a university, this introductory passage seems almost like an abstract at the top of an academic paper, in the way that it presents us with the boiled down essence of the narrative. Stoner’s life is viewed as if from a distance, so that the details can’t be made out; shrunk in this way it becomes insignificant, an impression which is heightened in the second paragraph. The tone is simultaneously flat and suggestive − inviting rather than compelling our sympathy and attention.

We then begin at the beginning and advance into the detail of Stoner’s life, and as we share his successes and failures, his moments of joy, of disappointment and of frustration, the distant and uninvolved perspective of the introduction stays in the back of our minds. I found this to be a strangely effective way of eliciting my sympathy. The plain, unshowy and dispassionate third person description seen in the introduction continues throughout the book, almost entirely from Stoner’s point of view. This sustained understatement reflects his own earnest, workmanlike character, and leaves us space to feel the emotional effects of his personal and professional high points and, rather more often, low ones. Stoner and his family, lovers and colleagues arise from the page fully formed; I was never aware of the mechanics by which they were created, or the stage directions. While, unlike Tartt’s novel, the story’s events are all too mundane and believable, I was gripped throughout by an emotional power that The Secret History never managed to invoke.

I wondered whether I was a little unfair in pitching the work of a young author against a more mature one; but checking up I find the difference is not that great: Tartt was 28 when hers was published, and Williams 43. We can perhaps point to the fact that The Secret History was a first novel, and Stoner Williams’ third. Either way, for me, Williams wins hands down in this comparison. In a word, I’d say that Stoner had soul − I felt a depth of integrity that was missing from The Secret History.

The next post will deal with my second pair – both English novels.

Accident of Birth

Commuting days until retirement: 390

My commuter train reading in recent weeks has been provided by Hilary Mantel’s two Mann Booker Prize-winning historical novels, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. If you don’t know, they are the first two of what is promised to be a trilogy covering the life of Thomas Cromwell, who rose to be Henry VIII’s right hand man. He’s a controversial figure in history: you may have seen Robert Bolt’s play (or the film of) A Man for All Seasons, where he is portrayed as King Henry’s evil arch-fixer, who engineers the execution of the man of the title, Sir Thomas More. He is also known to have had a big part in the downfall and death of Anne Boleyn.

The unique approach of Mantel’s account is to narrate exclusively from Cromwell’s own point of view. At the opening of the first book he is being violently assaulted by the drunken, irresponsible blacksmith father whom he subsequently escapes, seeking a fortune abroad as a very young man, and living on his very considerable wits. On his return to England, having gained wide experience and the command of several languages, he progresses quickly within the establishment, becoming a close advisor to Cardinal Wolsey, and later, of course, Henry VIII. I won’t create spoilers for the books by going into further detail – although if you are familiar with the relevant history you will already know some of these. I’ll just mention that in Mantel’s portrayal he emerges as phenomenally quick-witted, but loyal to those he serves. She shows him as an essentially unassuming man, well aware of his own abilities, and stoical whenever he suffers reverses or tragedies. These qualities give him a resilience which aids his rise to some of the highest offices in the England of his time. In the books we are privy to his dreams, and his relationships with his family – although he might appear to some as cold-blooded, he is also a man of natural feelings and passions.

Thomas Cromwell and the Duke of Norfolk

Thomas Cromwell (left) and Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk – both as portrayed by Hans Holbein

But the theme that kicked off my thoughts for this post was that of Cromwell’s humble origin. It’s necessarily central to the books, given that it was rare then for someone without nobility or inherited title to achieve the rank that he did. What Mantel brings out so well is the instinctive assumption that an individual’s value is entirely dependent on his or her inheritance – unquestioned in that time, as throughout most of history until the modern era. As the blacksmith’s son from Putney, Cromwell is belittled by his enemies and teased by his friends. But at the same time we watch him, with his realistic and perceptive awareness of his own position, often running rings around various blundering earls and dukes, and even subtly manipulating the thinking of the King. My illustrations show Cromwell himself and Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, a jealous opponent. By all accounts Norfolk was a rather simple, plain-speaking man, and certainly without Cromwell’s intellectual gifts. So today we would perhaps see Cromwell as better qualified for the high office that both men held. But seen through 16th century eyes, Cromwell would be the anomaly, and Norfolk, with his royal lineage, the more natural holder of a seat in the Privy Council.

Throughout history there have of course been persistent outbreaks of protest from those disempowered by accident of birth. But the fundamental issues have often often obscured by the chaos and competition for privilege which result. We can most obviously point to the 18th century, with the convulsion of the French revolution, which resulted in few immediate benefits; and the foundation of a nation – America – on the ideals of equality and freedom, followed however by its enthusiastic maintenance of slavery for some years. Perhaps it wasn’t until the 19th century, and the steady, inexorable rise of the middle class, that fundamental change began. As this was happening, Darwin came along to ram home the point that any intrinsic superiority on the basis of your inheritance was illusory. Everyone’s origins were ultimately the same; what counted was how well adapted you were to the external conditions you were born into. But was this the same for human beings as for animals? The ability to thrive in the environment in which you found yourself was certainly a measure of utilitarian, or economic value. But is this the scale on which we should value humans? It’s a question that I’ll try to show there’s s still much confusion about today. Meanwhile Karl Marx was analysing human society in terms of class and mass movements, moving the emphasis away from the value of individuals – a perspective which had momentous consequences in the century to come.

But fundamental attitudes weren’t going to change quickly. In England the old class system was fairly steady on its feet until well into the 20th century. My own grandmother told me about the time that her father applied to enrol her brothers at a public school (i.e. a private school, if you’re not used to British terminology). This would have been, I estimate, between about 1905 and 1910. The headmaster of the school arrived at their house in a horse and trap to look the place over and assess their suitability. My great-grandfather had a large family, with a correspondingly large house, and all the servants one would then have had to keep the place running. He was a director of a successful wholesale grocery company – and hearing this, the headmaster politely explained that, being “in trade” he didn’t qualify as a father of sons who could be admitted. Had he been maybe a lawyer, or a clergyman, there would have been no problem.

Let’s move on fifty years or so, to the start of the TV age. It’s s very instructive to watch British television programmes from this era – or indeed films and newsreels. Presenters and commentators all have cut-glass accents that today, just 60 or so years on, appear to us impossibly affected and artificial. The working class don’t get much of a look in at all: in the large numbers of black-and-white B-movies that were turned out at this time the principal actors have the accents of the ruling class, while working class characters appear either as unprincipled gangster types, or as lovable ‘cheekie chappies’ showing proper deference to their masters.

By this time, staying with Britain, we had the 1944 Education Act, which had the laudable motive of making a suitable education available to all, regardless of birth. But how to determine what sort of education would be right for each child? We had the infamous eleven plus exam, where in a day or two of assessment the direction of your future would be set. While looking forward to a future of greater equality of opportunity, the conception seemed simultaneously mired in the class stratification of the past, where each child had a predetermined role and status, which no one, least of all the child himself or herself, could change. Of course this was a great step up for bright working class children who might otherwise have been neglected, and instead received a fitting education at grammar schools. Thomas Cromwell, in a different age, could have been the archetypal grammar school boy.

But given the rigid stratification of the system, it’s not surprising that within 20 years left wing administrations started to change things again. While the reforming Labour government of 1945-51 had many other things to concentrate on, the next one, achieving office in 1964, made education a priority, abolishing the 11 plus and introducing comprehensive schools. This established the framework which is only now starting to be seriously challenged by the policies of the current coalition government. Was the comprehensive project successful, and does it need challenging now? I’d argue that it does.

R A Butler

R A “Rab” Butler

To return to basics, it seems to me that what’s at stake is, again, how you value an individual human being. In Cromwell’s time as we’ve seen, no one doubted that it was all to do with the status of your forbears. But by 1944 the ambitious middle class had long been a reality, showing that you could prove your value and rise to prosperity regardless of your origins. This was now a mass phenomenon, not confined to very unusual and lucky individuals, as it had been with Cromwell. And so education realigned itself around the new social structure. But with the education minister of the time, R.A. Butler, being a patrician (if liberal-minded) Tory, perhaps it was inevitable that something of the rigidity of the old class structure would be carried over into the new education system.

So if an exam at the age of eleven effectively determines your place in society, how are we now valuing human beings? It’s their intellectual ability, and their consequent economic value which is the determining factor. If you succeed you go to a grammar school to be primed for university, while if not, you may be given a condescending pat on the head and steered towards a less intellectually demanding trade. We would all agree that there is a more fundamental yardstick against which we measure individuals – an intrinsic, or moral value. We’d rate the honest low-achiever over the clever crook. But somehow the system, with its rigid and merciless classification, is sweeping the more important criterion aside.

Anthony Crosland

Anthony Crosland

And so the reforming zeal of the 1960s Labour government was to remove those class-defining barriers and provide the same education for all. The education minister of that time was a noted intellectual – private school and Oxford educated – Anthony Crosland. His reported remark, supposedly made to his wife, serves to demonstrate the passion of the project: “If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to destroy every fucking grammar school in England. And Wales and Northern Ireland”. (In Northern Ireland, it should be noted, he was less successful than elsewhere). But the remark also suggests a fixity of purpose which spread to the educational establishment for many years to come. If it was illegitimate to value children unequally, then in no circumstances should this be done.

You may or may not agree with me that the justified indignation of the time was leading to a fatal confusion between the two yardsticks I distinguished – the economic one and the moral one. And so, by the lights of Labour at that time, if we are allocating different resources to children according to their aptitudes – well, we shouldn’t. All must be equal. Yes – in the moral sense. But in the economic one? Even Karl Marx made that distinction – remember his famous slogan, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”?  All that the reformists needed to do, in my opinion, was to take the rigidity out of the system – to let anyone aspire to a new calling that he or she can achieve, at whatever age, and under whatever circumstances that their need arises.

Back to personal experience. I can remember when we were looking over primary schools for our first child – this would be in the early 90s. One particular headmaster bridled when my wife asked about provision for children of different abilities. The A-word was clearly not to be used. Yet as he talked on, there were several times that he visibly recognised that he himself was about to use it, spotted the elephant trap at the last moment, and awkwardly stepped around it. This confused man was in thrall to the educational establishment’s fixed, if unconscious, assumption that differing ability equals unequal value. (We didn’t send our children to that school.)

Over the years, these attitudes have led to a frequent refusal to make any provision for higher ability pupils, with the consequence that talent which might previously have been nurtured, has been ignored. If you can afford it, of course, you can buy your way out of the system and opt for a private education. Private school pupils have consistently had the lion’s share of places at the top universities, and so the architects and supporters of the state system ideology have called for the universities to be forced to admit more applicants from that system, and to restrict those from the private sector. Is this right? I’d argue that the solution to failure in the state schools is not to try and extend the same failed ideology to the universities, but to try to address what is wrong in the schools. A confusion between our economic and moral valuations of individual threatens to lead to consequences which are damaging, it seems to me, both in an economic and a moral sense.

The plans of the present UK education minister, Michael Gove, have come in for a lot of criticism. It would be outside the scope of this piece – and indeed my competence – to go into that in detail, but it does seem to me that he is making a principled and well intentioned attempt to restore the proper distinction between those economic and moral criteria – making good use of individual ability where it can be found, without being condescending to those who are not so academic, or making the distinctions between them too rigid. And of course I haven’t addressed the issue of whether the existence of a separate private education sector is desirable – again outside the scope of this post.

Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King
(Nobel Foundation)

What, at least, all now agree on is that the original criterion of individual value we looked at – birth status – is no longer relevant. Well, almost all. Racist ideologies, of course, persist in the old attitude. A recent anniversary has reminded us of one of the defining speeches of the 20th century, that of Martin Luther King, who laid bare the failure of the USA to uphold the principles of its constitution, and famously looked forward to a time when people would be “judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”. The USA, whose segregationist policies in some states he was addressing, has certainly made progress since then. But beyond the issues I have described, there are many further problems around the distinction between moral and economic values. In most societies there are those whose contribution is valued far more in the moral sense than the economic one: nurses, teachers. What, if if anything, should we do about that? I don’t claim to know any easy answers.

I kicked off from the themes in Hilary Mantel’s books and embarked on a topic which I soon realised was a rather unmanageably vast one for a simple blog post. Along the way I have been deliberately contentious – please feel free to agree or disagree in the comments below. But what got me going was the way in which Mantel’s study of Cromwell takes us into the collective mind of an age when the instinctive ways of evaluating individuals were entirely different. What I don’t think anyone can reasonably disagree with is the importance of history in throwing the prejudices of our own age into a fresh and revealing perspective.

When I Set Out for Lyonnesse

Commuting days until retirement: 405

View from Tintagel Castle

The stuff of myths: our view from Tintagel Castle

Another week’s escape from commuting, as we visit a part of the Cornish coast I haven’t been to before – the northeast stretch around Tintagel and Boscastle. The cliff walks are breathtaking, there are magnificent deserted beaches accessible only after a steep scramble down rocky paths, and the area is stiff with historical and mythical associations.
Lyonnesse is the kingdom of legend where King Arthur supposedly held his court. In writings of the past there is much confusion about its location, but it has mainly been associated with Cornwall, and sometimes the Scilly Isles. Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing in the 12th century, names Tintagel as the place of Arthur’s conception. Along with many other sandalled, bare-legged tourists we clambered up the hill to the ruined medieval castle, and from the atmosphere and views began to appreciate why it’s a place that has generated legend.

A meeting

St Juliots

St Juliot’s church

But my title is borrowed from the poet and novelist Thomas Hardy. We had arrived at St Juliot’s, a small church outside Boscastle that we’d heard was worth visiting when I suddenly realised, having read Claire Tomalin’s excellent biography a year or two ago, that this was a highly significant place in Hardy’s life. It was here that, in 1870, as a young architectural assistant with dreams of being a writer, he had come to draw up plans for restoration to the church. Emma Gifford was the sister-in-law of the incumbent priest and was living in the rectory. We are told that she opened the door to him on his first arrival, and a piece of paper bearing a poem he’d been working on during the journey was sticking out of his pocket. This immediately attracted Emma. Love ensued, and he became a regular visitor to the rectory (a full day’s  journey from his native Dorset, Tomalin notes, involving four trains and a 16 mile ride in a trap).
The poem whose title I have borrowed celebrates that first trip – it’s short and jubilant in tone, and has him returning “with magic in my eyes”. Although not published until after Emma’s death, the manuscript is dated 1870, the time of the visit.


Emma Gifford

Emma Gifford

Young Hardy

Thomas Hardy around the time he met Emma

They were married in London in 1874. With Hardy’s career as a novelist taking off, Emma was at first strongly appreciative and encouraging of his writing. It has been debated how far his early novel A Pair of Blue Eyes was autobiographical, and whether the character of the heroine Elfride Swancourt is based on Emma. While the setting is no doubt drawn from life – Elfride is the daughter of a parson living near the sea, and visited by admiring young men – the parallels are not otherwise close. But there is one surprising scene for the time, where on a coast walk, one of Elfride’s men friends slips on a cliff edge and is trapped, dangling dangerously. However, concealed by the clifftop, Elfride is enterprisingly removing her voluminous underwear and tearing it into strips to make a rope with which she rescues him. They embrace, but overcome with embarrassment at being naked beneath her dress, she flees home alone. Quite apart from the more obvious preoccupations of a young Victorian man, perhaps there is something symbolic of Hardy’s own fortunes here.

Later in life, when Hardy’s success as a novelist had become assured, however, Emma became more disenchanted with his writing. She had nursed some literary ambitions of her own, and perhaps there was an element of resentment. But relations became strained and distant in general, and she eventually retreated to an attic room in Max Gate, the Dorset house Hardy had built, and spent much of her time there.

Memorial plaque

Memorial to Emma

In 1912 she died suddenly, and Hardy, overcome with remorse and regret, seemed fall in love with her a second time, this time in retrospect. To the right is my photo of the memorial plaque to Emma he placed in the church. By all accounts Hardy was already close to Florence, his second wife, before Emma’s death, but his posthumous love affair with Emma persisted long afterwards, sometimes to Florence’s irritation.

An engraved window

Memorial window

A part of the memorial window to Thomas Hardy

A few years ago a window was commissioned for the church, to commemorate Hardy’s association with it. Rather than being stained glass, the window is engraved, delicately and beautifully, by the late artist, Simon Whistler. I found it almost impossible to capture its quality in a photo; here is my best attempt, which just shows a part. You can see Hardy’s name in the centre pane, surrounding an image of the church  itself, and the date of his death on the right, under a representation of his architect’s tools. As you view the whole window, symbols and episodes from Hardy’s life shimmer against the backdrop of the graveyard outside, ghostly traces of the events of a century and a half ago.

The window also bears quotations from one or two poems inspired by his experiences in this part of Cornwall. In later life Hardy was independently wealthy from his novels, and after Emma’s death he turned to poetry in a way that he hadn’t before. In his collection Poems 1912-1913 he gives vent to his regret and hopeless longing. In a bottom corner of the memorial window are two lines from one of the most well known of them – Beeny Cliff. The window also depicts the figure of Emma on the cliff, astride her pony. Beeny Cliff itself is just a mile or so from the church, and some of our walks along the coastal path took us over it.

The poem made an impression on me when I first read it, before knowing anything about the context. If you are not keen on old fashioned romanticism, or a strong formal structure, then it’s probably not for you. But I have always had a soft spot for it: I like the way the emotion is powerfully conveyed by the insistent metre, and the poem contains many examples of the idiosyncratic but precise and evocative vocabulary often found in Hardy’s work. Here’s the whole poem:

Beeny Cliff

O the opal and the sapphire of that wandering western sea,
And the woman riding high above with bright hair flapping free –
The woman whom I loved so, and who loyally loved me.

The pale mews plained below us, and the waves seemed far away
In a nether sky, engrossed in saying their ceaseless babbling say,
As we laughed light-heartedly aloft on that clear-sunned March day.

A little cloud then cloaked us, and there flew an irised rain,
And the Atlantic dyed its levels with a dull misfeatured stain,
And then the sun burst out again, and purples prinked the main.

– Still in all its chasmal beauty bulks old Beeny to the sky,
And shall she and I not go there once again now March is nigh,
And the sweet things said in that March say anew there by and by?

What if still in chasmal beauty looms that wild weird western shore,
The woman now is – elsewhere – whom the ambling pony bore,
And nor knows nor cares for Beeny, and will laugh there nevermore.

View from Beeny Cliff

“That wandering western sea” as seen from Beeny Cliff

Fate – Grim or Otherwise

Commuting days until retirement: 469

life-after-lifeThe existence of each one of us, and the crucial events of our lives, are entirely dependent upon a chain of often minor and unrecorded preceding circumstances. Yes – a rather pompous-sounding and trivial observation, but when seen from a subjective point of view it can seem to assume a more profound significance. What prompts this is the novel I’ve just finished, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.

It’s a theme that often surfaces in contemporary fiction: in Making it Up Penelope Lively takes the events of her own life and allows them to develop in plausible directions other than the one in which they actually did; David Mitchell (the novelist, not the TV personality), in his first novel Ghostwritten, traces interlinked chains of causality around the globe in which, giving just one example, a fleeting encounter in a London street has critical consequences for the future of humanity.

Kate Atkinson has been a favourite of mine since her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum. She has a Dickensian ability to create an extensive collection of characters each of whom are entirely convincing, and whose interactions with each other may surprise you, but are never less than believable. In fact I find her characters more realistic, and less caricatured, than those of Dickens.

In Life After Life her realism becomes a little more magical. It concerns Ursula Todd, born in 1910 and witnessing the events of the 20th century in a variety of different ways (or not at all) as repeated versions of her life take different courses. I’m not giving anything much away – as both of these events come at the very beginning of the book – if I tell you that in one life she dies at birth, and in another gets to assassinate Hitler before he becomes Chancellor of Germany. Ursula’s large and believable family (Atkinson is particularly good at families) also individually suffer a variety of fates alongside Ursula’s own. The close juxtaposition of earthy reality and fanciful metaphysics comes off, for me, entirely successfully.

So what about the metaphysics of real life? Just to consider this blog, it owes its existence to a whole host of preceding factors. Among them is Sir Tim Berners-Lee, as is the precise trajectory of a shell in the battle of the Somme in 1916, which, had it been very slightly different, would have resulted in the death of my grandfather. As it was, it landed close enough to him to give him what all WW1 soldiers hoped for – a ‘Blighty wound’, which was a passport back home.

A scene at Pozieres during the Battle of the Somme

A scene at Pozières during the Battle of the Somme

Torquay in the early 20th century

Torquay in the early 20th century

But the first my grandfather knew of it was when he came back to consciousness in a hospital in Torquay. Like most who have been through experiences like his, he never said very much about them. However some measure of what he had been through lies in the fact that he felt moved to return to Torquay for a holiday nearly every year for the rest of his life. His son, who would have been my uncle, was not so lucky, though. He lost his life in the first months of the second world war at the age of 19. I was told how likeable and outgoing he was as a character, and I’m sure he would have gone on to have a family. I sometimes spare a thought for my non-existent cousins.

Photo: Steve Cadman

Photo: Steve Cadman

Most of us are aware of certain fateful moments in our own lives – at any rate in retrospect. The one that often returns to me took place when I was on a work trip to New York. My hotel room had a view over the United Nations, giving me an almost cheesily memorable backdrop for my thoughts as I sat there. And my thoughts were about a woman of my acquaintance, and how a postcard suggesting we should go out together would be received, if I sent it to her.

The indecision finally resolved itself, and I sent the card. It gives me a curious, vertiginous feeling to think that the existence of my very real, and now adult, children hung in the balance at that moment. You may wonder what their reaction would be on reading this. It would be Oh God, not that story again.

Well, my nearly-wasn’t wife and I are shortly off to Venice for a long weekend. The idea is to have a relaxing break, but having just run the gauntlet of the Ryanair online check-in process we are starting to wonder. Anyhow, I don’t expect to encounter any life-changing events there; but if I return with any memories worth mentioning they may find their way on to these pages.

W G Sebald

Commuting days until retirement: 477

WGSebaldIt’s a rather sad experience to discover a contemporary writer who immediately engages you, only to learn that he has recently died – so that once you have exhausted his published novels there will be no more. This was my experience in the case of W G Sebald.

Sebald was a German writer, an immensely intelligent and learned man, who had learned early in life of his family’s former involvement in Nazi regime activity. He preferred to become an expatriate, studying in Manchester and taking up an academic post there. He then lived in Switzerland for a short time before returning to England to become a lecturer, and then Professor of European Literature at the University of East Anglia. He held this post at the time of his death in a car crash in Norfolk in late 2001. He had evidently suffered a heart attack at the wheel.

austerlitzAs far as I remember I came across him simply by picking up one of his books in a shop. At first sight I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but it seemed so different from anything else I had come across that I had to buy it. The book was Austerlitz, his last published novel. Embarking on a Sebald novel takes you into an unfamiliar but compelling experience, where you are never quite sure what is entirely fictional and what is reference to factual reality. This ambiguity is enhanced by the grainy black and white photos, engravings and other visuals which punctuate the text, appearing to depict real things but at the same time conjuring up a dream-like atmosphere. The basic narration is always first person, but it’s never quite clear to what extent the persona is Sebald’s own. This effect is further enhanced in Austerlitz, as most of the story is spoken by the eponymous character, but told to the first person narrator who meets and talks with him in a variety of settings across Europe.

Sebald’s prose style is also unique. Sentences will generally be long, punctuated with commas, and in the course of a single sentence he will often digress from the here-and-now, maybe to refer to some historical fact, or describe the foibles of some character, before returning to the present. A Sebald novel is an other-worldly experience, both real and not-real, and makes reading him (for me, anyway) uniquely pleasurable. I don’t often re-read novels, conscious of everything out there which I have yet to read and probably never will – but Sebald is an exception to this. As is shown by the interview I have included below, the texture of his work is laden with allusions and metaphors, few of which I have been aware of on a first reading. He writes in German, and is translated, but he was generally closely involved in the translations himself, so we can be sure of their authenticity. I would recommend all four of his novels: The Emigrants, Vertigo, The Rings of Saturn, and Austerlitz.

My post was prompted by a piece in this weekend’s Guardian Review, where I was pleased to find that a new book of his essays is being published next month. (There are other books of essays and poetry that I have not yet read – I’m saving them up for myself.) One of the essays is reprinted there: if I had read just the first sentences without knowing who the author was, I would immediately have recognised him as Sebald.

He was, according to all accounts, a shy, modest and delightful man. He was known univerally to those who knew him as ‘Max’. A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to meet someone who had been a friend of his – the Hungarian-born poet George Szirtes, a fellow member of staff at the Univerity of East Anglia. I learned how well liked he was, and what enormous sadness friends felt when he died.

Looking around the internet, I found a YouTube interview with an American radio station, made just before his death, so I have embedded it here.