Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Where to point one's time machine?

To open a review of a book on Lord Chesterfield, collected in The Condemned Playground (1945), Cyril Connolly wrote,
All of us who allow the sense of the past a certain play in our lives come sooner or later to adopt a special period, to fall in love with a few decades of history which we cannot read about without a certain quickening, an interior voice affirming, "This was the time." For many people it will be the Elizabethan period, for others the seventeenth century, the Regency, or the reign of Charles II. For me it is the first half of the eighteenth century and the few years before it: the end of Dryden, the flowering of Congreve and Pope, the beginnings of Horace Walpole and Selwyn, a transitional age full of a certain beautiful clumsiness such as is found in the interiors of Hogarth and the furniture of William Kent.
Before I set about answering Connolly's implied question, the relatively rigorous rationalist in me insists on pointing out that any serious look at the difference between past and present will come down almost entirely in favor of the present, at least for those of us fortunate enough to live in the developed world. Looked at from any number of viewpoints (from basic human rights and gender equity to advances in medicine to the decreasing costs of knowledge to the fact that I can, right now, on a freezing March night, find a bunch of fresh grapes for sale, cheap, within half a mile, something that would have made a Roman emperor pass out) any real wish to be somewhere in the past should be looked at with deep suspicion--and that's all before we note that such a wish always assumes that one's historical travels will land one in some echelon of the comfortable classes, however small their numbers may have been. The life of a peasant in the early eighteenth century is not, we can assume, what Connolly is imagining.

But now that rationality has said its piece, let's just wave politely at its departing back and settle in to the pleasurable warmth of literary nostalgia. Aaaaah. That's more like it.

So what era whispers to me? It won't surprise regular readers of this blog that for almost my entire adult life it's been Connolly's own time: the interwar years in England. Described vividly in countless cherished novels and memoirs, they were the heyday of so many of my favorite writers: Anthony Powell, Evelyn Waugh, P. G. Wodehouse, Virginia Woolf, Graham Greene, Ivy Compton-Burnett, George Orwell, and Nancy Mitford among them. The satirists alone make me want to travel to their time, so that I can see firsthand the vapidity and philistinism that was their source material. The lives we learn about from the authors of the interwar years are similar enough in both outlook and material culture to ours to feel comfortably comprehensible, yet the world they reflect is tinged with a glamor that did not survive the rapid-fire modernization that followed World War II. It's almost enough to make you forget that this was also the period of the rise of fascism, the Moscow show trials, and a worldwide depression--but I forgot: I'm officially trafficking in nostalgia here. Oh, to have a drink on the terrace of a country house with Anthony Powell and Henry Green, with Evelyn Waugh grumbling in the corner!

In the past year, however, I've found my faith wavering, my eyes wandering to the eighteenth century, the freewheeling years that saw the births of both the novel and the print culture in which we still live. Maybe Connolly is right? Or almost right--I'd be more inclined to pick a slightly later period, essentially the years of James Boswell's lifespan, 1740 to 1795. Johnson dominates the era, but he is joined by such an array of wonderful characters, among them Henry Fielding, Samuel Richardson, David Garrick, Laurence Sterne, William Hogarth, and Lord Chesterfield. If I could be allowed to tack a few years onto each end of Boswell's sadly short life, it would be possible to be an adult in time to meet Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope, while as an old man getting to read the first of Jane Austen's novels. Could one ask for more?

So which should it be? My reading in the eighteenth century is neither as broad nor as deep as my knowledge of the interwar years, so if confronted today with a time machine, I'd have to chose the closer destination. But the late Georgian era is tempting nonetheless . . . maybe Jenny Davidson, who specializes in that period, would be willing to weigh in?

And while we're at it, what period calls to you?


  1. I love this post!

    My heart particularly thrills to the 1720s and 1730s, to the point that I have a strange feeling of coming home (like when you put the key in the lock of the door at home on returning from travels) when I see a 1721-type date on a title page! But I have a thing for the 1790s, also, and of course it is much easier to imagine my actual present-day self living a life in 1790s London than in 1730s London, because in the earlier period one would really have to have a very strong preference for being very wealthy, whereas in the second the life of novelist/prose polemicist would have been more widely accessible...

    I do love the interwar stuff as it comes through in, oh, for me it's really the novels of Dorothy Sayers and Josephine Tey. But there's an elitism to the English version of it that just slightly rubs me the wrong way...

  2. Jenny, you're unquestionably right about the elitism that pervades the interwar years (and the writing thereof); it's all Oxford and Eton and who you know. It's easy to see why the protagonists of Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying and Maclaren-Ross's Of Love and Hunger get so frustrated at their hand-to-mouth existence.

    The flip side of that is we get the imaginary semi-late-Edwardian world in which Bertie Wooster gambols, and the puncturing of the world of privilege from the inside at the hands of Waugh and Powell and the like.

    Oh, and a point in favor of the late eighteenth century that I can't believe I forgot: Hazlitt! You could get drunk with Hazlitt!

  3. Rebecca1:59 AM

    First time reader to your blog, but I would be in the time machine with you going back to the interwar years. If I had to choose another era I think it would be the Edwardian age, mostly because of my love of E.M. Forster. With both those periods, I think it's the fact that each way of life didn't gradually give way to the next age; it was pushed away and destroyed by the World Wars. There's a real sense of a lost era, almost as though the people from that world exist almost completely separately from others. I think Anthony Powell even writes about that when describing characters like Sunny Farebrother and Ted Jeavons who lived through the First World War.