Thursday, January 28, 2016

Henry James meets Thackeray, Trollope, Tennyson, and, best of all, Browning.

I'm midway through the one-volume condensation of Leon Edel's five-volume biography of Henry James, and it's everything I'd hoped it would be. Edel has a great eye for a quote, and the James family, copious writers of letters and notebooks and diaries, has so, so many to offer.

One of the passages I've enjoyed most thus far is this, from when Henry was a boy:
Henry remembered Mr. Emerson seated on the sofa in the rear parlor, "elegantly slim, benevolently aquiline." In the library one day he saw Mr. Thackeray who had come to America to lecture on the English humorists of the eighteenth century. Henry was dressed after the fashion of the time in a tight jacket adorned in front with a row of brass buttons; hovering near the door of the sun-filled room, he heard himself summoned by the enormous English gentleman. "Come here, little boy, and show me your extraordinary jacket." Thackeray peered through and over his spectacles alike at garment and boy. He then carefully explained to Henry that if he were to go to England he would be addressed as "Buttons."
The description of Emerson, if a bit unclear (the "benevolent" more sonorous than meaningful), is memorable, but it's of course Thackeray's gentle poking of fun at Henry that's the wonder. "Buttons"!

A few years later, in the fall of 1875, when James was thirty-three, he met Anthony Trollope during an Atlantic crossing. James was not impressed:
He was struck by his "plain persistence" in writing every day, no matter how much the ship rocked. Trollope had "a gross and repulsive face and manner, but appears bon enfant when you talk with him. But he is the dullest Briton of them all."
Not surprising that James took note of Trollope's dogged commitment to writing, given his own later ability to focus reliably on the task; still less surprising that Trollope himself cared not how much the boat rocked, if there was work to be done. I am surprised, however, to hear James describe Trollope's face as "repulsive." Not that you get a sense from photographs that Trollope was handsome, but James's adjective suggests something far worse than that.

Fortunately, James would encounter Trollope again two years later, a meeting that caused him to revise his impression:
A very good genial ordinary fellow--much better than he seemed on the steamer when I crossed with him.
That does make me want to leap to Trollope's defense: as romantic as the idea of taking a leisurely ten-day trip across the Atlantic seems any time I fold myself into an airline seat for the London flight, I do think the society--and the presumption that passengers would participate--would have driven me insane. Just when I would have been looking forward for a nice, long spell of deckside reading, suddenly I'd have to talk with the Smiths of Boston or the Joneses of Saratoga. If I were Trollope, that alone would be enough to make me a less than sparkling companion on the steamer.

James also offers an amusing portrait of Tennyson, whom he met around the same time in 1877. Edel writes, of the dinner party where the meeting took place:
James sat next but one to Tennyson, whom he described as swarthy and scraggy and less handsome than he appeared in his photograph. The Bard talked exclusively of port wine and tobacco; "he seems to know much about them, and can drink a whole bottle of port at a sitting with no incommodity."
Blimey. A few years later, James would write to his good friend Charles Eliot Norton about lunching with Tennyson,
who personally is less agreeable than his works--having a manner that is rather bad than good. But when I feel disposed to reflect that Tennyson is not personally Tennysonian, I summon up the image of Browning, and this has the effect of making me check my complaints.
Ah, Browning--that's where James is at his best in Edel's careful mosaic of his impressions. Browning, James wrote, was "loud, sound, normal, hearty," and "bustling with prompt responses and expected opinions and usual views." It's when he reads his work aloud, James explains, that he's really distinctive:
One of my latest sensations was going one day to Lady Airlie's to hear Browning read his own poems--with the comfort of finding that, at least, if you don't understand them, he himself apparently understands them even less. He read them as if he hated them and would like to bite them to pieces.
For all his circumlocution and endless hedging, when James cuts to the chase--as he does more often in his letters than elsewhere--he has an almost unparalleled ability to summon up a striking description. Can't you just see Browning reading now? It makes me wish James had been around to meet Byron . . .

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Dodie Smith's novels

Among the piles of books I return with from my London trips are almost always a couple of paperbacks of novels that are out of print in the States. Most often they're relatively domestic novels by women from the early to mid-twentieth century, doomed to US obscurity through some combination of sexism and a sense that they're too English in their focus and outlook. In recent years, I've completed my Barbara Pym collection, added to my Alice Thomas Ellis, and introduced myself to Barbara Comyns in that way. This time, it was Dodie Smith's novel The Town in Bloom (1965) that drew me in.

I first encountered Smith the way most folks do these days: not through the book that was the most successful in her lifetime, The 101 Dalmations (which her biographer, Valerie Grove, says she wrote "out of sheer irritation at Enid Blyton's success"), but via her charming, funny, beautiful, moving first novel, I Capture the Castle (1949). Often classed as a young adult novel, it tells of a girl coming of age amid genteel (but very real) poverty and English eccentricity. I wrote about it way back in 2007:
Without disrupting the verisimilitude of her young narrator's perspective, Dodie Smith's perceptiveness and intelligent attention shine through, and though I Capture the Castle is a gentle book at heart, with little of the darkness of the world, there's at the same time a palpable sense of reality to it. Its gentleness and humor are not created through avoiding or denying life's dangers but through enthusiastically embracing the world as it is--imperfect, yet still able to take your breath away with its shimmering beauty. Smith is not talking down to anyone, and she's not limiting the insights her story can generate: she's simply showing us a young woman learning about herself, her family, and the differences that make us who we are.
While I've not read all of Smith's books, it's hard to imagine another one topping I Capture the Castle: it has that feeling that great first books often carry of a lifetime of energy and perception finally finding a release, brilliantly.

The first volume of her memoirs, Look Back with Love (1974), however, does come close. It, too, is concerned with English eccentrics, primarily Smith's three bachelor uncles, all of whom worked at the Exchange by day, but gave their hearts to amateur theatre at night. Groves, in her foreword to the Slightly Foxed edition of Look Back with Love, praises Smith for being able to convey vividly "the feeling of enjoyment from the distant past," and she's right: the book brims with innocent pleasure and distinctive, appreciative character sketches. Here's an account of Smith's Aunt Bertha, for example:
She had a most original personality, in fact it bordered on eccentricity. She could not, for instance, tell her right hand from her left unless she hopped; and she insisted that if she was left alone for more than three hours her teeth went soft. But she was a shrewdly intelligent woman. She was also a very humble one and never ceased to be surprised when people liked her, as they invariably did. She had come out even worse than my mother over education and would look terrified if any historical character was mentioned--both she and my mother seemed to think that not to know history was the lowest depths of degradation. And though Auntie Bertha wrote excellent letters, her fear that the spelling and punctuation might be faulty always caused her to add a postscript saying--"Burn this."
It's a wonderful book, through and through, one I'd recommend to any Anglophile.

The fact that those two books are so good has left me a bit at sixes and sevens about the two other Smith novels I've read, The Town in Bloom and the one that followed it, It Ends with Revelations (1967). They're . . . fine? Smith never writes less than well, and there's unquestionable pleasure to be had simply sinking into her prose: her conversational sentences never step wrong, and the female narrative voice in The Town in Bloom is satisfyingly self-confident and congenial. Yet both feel a bit slight rather than minor--a fine distinction, I'll acknowledge, but one that I think exists: rather than setting a limited compass and ambition and making it work, they seem to be lacking some crucial element that would make them come to life. Though both have relatively small casts, few characters are distinctive; there's little of the quick grasp of personality Smith offers us in her memoir. And the plots--extravagant to the border of melodrama in Revelations (secret homosexuality; blackmail; an affair), slight to the point of nothingness in Town (young woman begins to make her way in theatrical London)--aren't convincing or compelling enough to offer much compensation.

And yet . . . I wouldn't say they're bad books, and would even recommend Town to the right reader. If you can reconcile yourself to the fact that Smith is interested in her heroine almost to the exclusion of all other characters, then the introspection and self-questioning and pondering over major life decisions that they both undertake can become quite interesting. What choices, at mid-century, did an educated woman who needed an income have? How was she best served in work and in love? What does it mean to look back on past choices with regret, but also to know that you wouldn't do differently even if it were possible? Here's a sample, from late in Town:
Was there in me a frozen immaturity? Bits and pieces were all I could look back on, bits of love, bits of talent for acting, writing, even music. (I had been taught music as a child, and very well taught, but for years I had only played by ear--how like me.) And now the boot of the car houses a collection of oil paints! A nonsense was all my life would ever add up to, the nonsense life of a nonsense woman. Eve's life of devotion amounted to something far more worth while than my ragbag of experience.

She had once said I suffered from an excess of individualism and I had always thought of this as a compliment. But if the individualism remained that of a precocious child, what then?
What I ultimately appreciate in these novels--and, again, much more so in Town--is that presence of thought. One of the qualities I most admire in a Dance to the Music of Time is Anthony Powell's willingness to allow Nick Jenkins space for reflection: he's not afraid to let Nick's thoughts on and reactions to an event break up and delay the actual account of it; what we care about in that book isn't so much what happens as what Nick draws from what happens. What will stay with me from Smith's novels, and what keeps me from saying they're unsuccessful, is exactly that, the sense she conveys of a character mulling it all over, just as we, the readers, are always doing as a book unfolds itself before us.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Mapp and Lucia

One of the highlights of my and rocketlass's holiday in England last fall was a trip to Rye to see Lamb House, where Henry James settled happily (at least in Jamesian terms) for the final years of his life. It turned out to be a lovely, fairly modest house with a large, beautiful garden hiding behind it, walled off from prying eyes and feeling both welcoming and secretive.

{Photos by rocketlass.}

What I'd forgotten until we arrived at the house was that it also later was the home of E. F. Benson. I knew Benson through his ghost stories, classic old-style ghost stories that carried the feel of Victorian England into the Edwardian era and beyond. Lamb House, however, is known not for being haunted, but for being repurposed by Benson as Mallards in his much-loved Lucia novels.

As I discovered in reading my first of those, Mapp and Lucia (1935), this weekend, having been to Rye helps. Oh, I'm sure readers who haven't can imagine both Mallards and the town of Tilling into being with sufficient clarity, but having walked the steep, narrow, cobbled streets, I took particular pleasure in the many instances of Rolls Royces being forced to back and fill multiple times in order to convey people to and return them from a destination a hundred yards or so away. And when Mapp spied into the secret garden from the top of the church tower, I could easily imagine her sense of illicit access, having availed myself of the very same view.

Mapp and Lucia tells the story of an invasion and conquest--a social one. Lucia, bored with life in her own town, decamps for the summer to Tilling. Within days, she's launched an all-out assault on the social primacy of the woman from whom she's rented Mallards, Mrs. Mapp, and the book follows their battle over the course of several months. It's gentle comedy, more rooted in situations and characters than in, say, Compton-Burnett–style cutting lines, or Wauvian perfection of prose, but Benson nonetheless turns in some memorable lines:
She loves being ridiculous, dear thing; it's a complex with her.

There comes a tide in the affairs of men which, if you don't nip it in the bud, leads on to boredom.

It was always wise to be polite to mimics. . . . the dreadful gift of mimicry, which was a very low weapon, but formidable.

Well, I feel like the fourth of August, 1914.

With a view to being more manly he poured himself out a very small whisky and soda.

Elizabeth carried up to bed with her quantities of food for thought and lay munching it till a very late hour.
What makes the book a great pleasure, even at times enchanting, however, is Benson's light, borderline whimsical inventiveness. Take this exchange, between Lucia and Quaint Irene, the local artist:
Irene rose to more daring conceptions yet. One night she had dined on a pot of strawberry jam and half a pint of very potent cocktails, because she wanted her eye for colour to be at its keenest round about eleven o'clock when the moon would rise over the marsh, and she hoped to put the lid forever on Whistler's naive old-fashioned attempts to paint moonlight. After this salubrious meal she had come round to Mallards, waiting for the moon to rise and sat for half an hour at Lucia's piano, striking random chords, and asking Lucia what colour they were. These musical rainbows suggested a wonderful idea, and she shut down the piano with a splendid purple bang.

"Darling, I've got a new scheme for Grebe," she said. "I want you to furnish a room sideways, if you know what I mean."

"I don't think I do," said Lucia.

"Why, like this," said Irene very thoughtfully. "You would open the door of the room and find you were walking about on wallpaper with pictures hanging on it. (I'll do the pictures for you.) Then one side of the room where the window is would be whitewashed as if it was a ceiling and the window would be the skylight. The opposite side would be the floor; and you would have the furniture screwed on to it. The other walls, including the one that would be the ceiling in an ordinary room, would be covered with wallpaper and more pictures and a bookcase. It would all be sideways, you see: you'd enter through the wall, and the room would be at right angles to you; ceiling on the left, floor on the right, or vice versa. It would give you a perfectly new perception of the world. You would see everything from a new angle, which is what we want so much in life nowadays. Don't you think so?"

Irene's speech was distinct and clear cut, she walked up and down the garden-room with a firm unwavering step, and Lucia put from her the uneasy suspicion that her dinner had gone to her head.

"It would be most delightful," she said, "but slightly too experimental for me."

"And then, you see," continued Irene, "how useful it would be if somebody tipsy came in. It would make him sober at once, for tipsy people see everything crooked, and so your sideways room, being crooked, would appear to him straight, and so he would be himself again. Just like that."

"That would be splendid," said Lucia, "but I can't provide a room where tipsy people could be sober again. The house isn't big enough."
Beyond the basic concept, a couple of moments make that passage for me. It's the "splendid purple bang," casually thrown in; the fact that as Irene lays out her idea, she does so "thoughtfully"; and that Lucia midway through convinces herself drink isn't the problem, only to have Irene immediately turn to the room's beneficial effects on the drunk. (Which we all agree to eye with skepticism, surely?)

If that passage amuses you, it's worth giving Mapp and Lucia a try. Benson's account of this all-out war for the smallest of social stakes was the perfect novel for bridging my week in London and the subsequent long weekend with tomorrow's re-entry into humdrum office life. I recommend you gather your lapcats and tea and settle in.

Monday, January 04, 2016

Charles Lamb

As I mentioned in my best-of-the-year-post, I've been slowly making my way through Everybody's Lamb, a 550-page collection of Charles Lamb's writings, accompanied by E. H. Shepard drawings. It was published by Harcourt Brace in 1923, and it's hard for me to imagine even then that Lamb's writing could have been thought to be in any way for "everybody."

Lamb's essays are thoroughly approachable and written in a conversational and witty prose style, yet they're also clearly of another time. Montaigne, for example, would on the surface appear more clearly dated and inaccessible, what you soon discover in reading him is that his themes are for the most part universal, his essays attempts to come to terms with problems of human character. Lamb, on the other hand, tends more to the observational and the modest--and while he marshals far, far fewer classical and literary references than Montaigne, he ties his thinking much more to the moment of his writing, to the clerks of the India House where he worked, the milieu of the playhouse and theater, the odd qualities of ladies playing cards. It's a late Georgian and Regency world, and while Lamb's sensibility retains its familiarity all these centuries later, it's nonetheless hard to imagine it attracting an audience at the scale of even a marketing person's extension of the term "everybody."

That said, I'm certainly part of that more modest everybody, and I'm grateful for the existence of the book, in particular because it mixes in a number of Lamb's letters, which are wonderful examples of the art. He achieves the difficult feat of maintaining a light, amused touch even as he allows his letters, frequently, to convey genuine feeling. You quickly realize, reading them, that his correspondence with Hazlitt and Coleridge and Wordsworth was a lifeline to him, a way for him to escape his workaday world of clerks and figures, and also his home life, which was bound to his poor mad sister. He never asks for our (or his correspondents') pity, but we feel it nonetheless, mixed with admiration for his cheer and fortitude.

This letter, to Miss Fryer, a family friend, lays bare Lamb's struggle a bit more clearly than most, but at the same time it is suffused with love, a love that clearly makes possible the doing of his duty to his sister:
Your letter found me just returned from keeping my birthday (pretty innocent!) at Dover-street. I see them pretty often. I have since had letters of business to write, or should have replied earlier. In one word, be less uneasy about me; I bear my privations very well; I am not in the depths of desolation, as heretofore. Your admonitions are not lost upon me! It is no new thing for me to be left to my sister. When she is not violent, her rambling chat is better to me than the sense and sanity of this world. Her heart is obscured, not buried; it breaks out occasionally; and one can discern a strong mind struggling with the billows that have gone over it. I could be nowhere happier than under the same roof with her. Her memory is unnaturally strong; and from ages past, if we may so call the earliest records of our poor life, she fetches thousands of names and things from the ten years she lived before me. What took place from early girlhood to her coming of age principally lives again (every important thing and every trifle) in her brain with the vividness of real presence. For twelve hours incessantly she will pour out without intermission all her past life, forgetting nothing, pouring out name after name to the Waldens as a dream; sense and nonsense; truths and errors huddled together; a medley between inspiration and possession. What things we are!
"Her heart is obscured, not buried." Patience, love, fortitude. If you've not tried Lamb, and this intrigues you at all, I heartily suggest seeking him out. You could start with his oddly backward-looking, even death-obsessed plaint about New Year's, "New Year's Eve," from 1821; its insouciant humor reflects the other side of Lamb:
I care not to be carried with the tide, that smoothly bears human life to eternity, and reluct at the inevitable course of destiny. I am in love with this green earth; the face of town & country; the unspeakable rural solitudes, & the sweet security of streets. . . . Any alteration, on this earth of mine, in diet or in lodging, puzzles and discomposes me. My household-gods plant a terrible fixed foot, and are not rooted up without blood. . . . I conceive disgust at those impertinent and misbecoming familiarities, inscribed upon your ordinary tombstones. Every dead man must take upon himself to be lecturing me with his odious truism, that 'such as he now is, I must shortly be.' Not so shortly, friend, perhaps, as thou imaginest. In the meantime, I am alive. I move about. I am worth 20 of thee. Know thy betters!
"The sweet security of streets." Two hundred years later, this urbanite, looking out on snow and quiet on his own residential street, from which nothing short of death will uproot him, knows whereof Lamb speaks.