Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Round and round with Hardy and James

I make no promises that this post bears anywhere near the inspiration and joys of juxtaposition of Craig Brown's wonderful daisy chain of a book, One on One, about which I've written before (and which, oddly enough, remains unpublished in the States), but it shares a bit of that book's haphazardly paired DNA.

It began when I was flipping through a volume of the letters of Robert Louis Stevenson and came across a letter to Henry James of December 5, 1892.* After bringing James up to speed on his threatened deportation from Samoa, Stevenson settled down to discussing books:
Hurry up with another book of stories. I am now reduced to two of my contemporaries, you and Barrie -- O, and Kipling! I did like Rider Haggard's Nada the Lily; it isn't great but it's big. As for Hardy -- You remember the old gag? -- Are you wownded, my lord? -- Wownded, 'Ardy. -- Mortually, my lord? -- Mortually, 'Ardy. Well, I was mortually wownded by Tess of the Durberfields. I do not know that I am exaggerative in criticism; but I will say that Tess is one of the worst, weakest, and least sane, most voulu books I have yet read. Bar the style, it seems to me to be about as bad as [sensational novelist George William Macarthur] Reynolds -- I maintain it -- Reynolds: or, to be more plain, to have no earthly connexion with human life, and to be merely the unconscious portrait of a weak man under a vow to appear clever, or a rickety schoolchild setting up to be naughty and not knowing how. I should tell you in fairness I could never finish it; there may be the treasures of the Indies further on; but so far as I read, James, it was, in one word, damnable. Not alive, not true, was my continual comment as I read; and at last -- not even honest! was the verdict with which I spewed it from my mouth. I write in anger? I almost think I do: I was betrayed in a friend's house -- and I was pained to hear that other friends delighted in that barmecide feast. I cannot read a page of Hardy for many a long day, my confidence is gone.
Editor Ernest Mehew's quite good notes to the volume of Stevenson's letters reveal both James's initial opinion of Tess, which, it appears, is what prompted Stevenson to take it up, and his later, more damning assessment. In a letter the previous spring James had written,
The good little Tommy Hardy has scored a great success with Tess of the D'Urbervilles, which is chock-full of faults and falsity and yet has a singular beauty and charm.
Though I'm more forgiving of Hardy's faults, that assessment is far from unfair. After receiving Stevenson's broadside, however, James replied,
I grant you Hardy with all my heart and even with a certain quantity of my boot-toe. I am meek and ashamed where the public chatter is deafening -- so I bowed my head and let Tess of the D's pass. But oh yes, dear Louis, she is vile. The pretence of "sexuality" is only equalled by the absence of it, and the abomination of language only by the author's reputation for style.
James would surely be pleased to learn that Hardy's reputation as a stylist has taken a hit, as these days, he's praised in spite of his sometimes clunky prose, but if James thought Tess's sexuality was overplayed to the point of falseness, just think--D. H. Lawrence is still to come!

Longtime readers will know that I disagree heartily with Stevenson's and James's assessments (though I admire Stevenson's passion--oh, the books that provoke us to actual anger!**). Hardy is far from perfect, certainly, but while I am willing to give Hardy critics Jude the Obscure, a book whose determination on doom is so pervasive as to render it laughable, I can read Tess again and again and find myself swept up in it anew each time. The same goes, to a lesser extent, for his other major novels; The Mayor of Casterbridge, Far from the Madding Crowd, and The Return of the Native all have substantial charms.

After reading these letters, I went in search of a favorite Anthony Powell line about Hardy, which I found in a 1971 review of a critical biography of Hardy for the Daily Telegraph:
Hardy's failing was a total lack of humour, which, one feels, might have prevented some of the absurdities. He could do knockabout up to a point, or irony, but one has only to think of Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Proust, or Conrad***, to see the missing quality that is possessed by most of the great novelists in one form or another.
On the next page of Miscellaneous Verdicts, the collection in which I found that review, is one from 1972 of a collection of Hardy's letters to his ill-situated semi-paramour Florence Henniker. Powell quotes the following passage from one of Hardy's letters:
In my enforced idleness, I have been reading H. James's Wings of the Dove--the first of his that I have looked into for years and years. I read it with a fair amount of care--as much as one would wish to expend on any novel, certainly, seeing what there is to read besides novels--and so did [his wife] Em; but we have been arguing ever since about what happened to the people, and find we have wholly conflicting opinions thereon. At the same time James is almost the only living novelist I can read, and taken in small doses I like him exceedingly, being as he is a real man of letters.
I absolutely love this letter. How often do you find someone acknowledging, not simply that James is complicated, but that he can be so subtle as to leave readers with wholly different--and irreconcilable--understandings of what he was trying to say? And then there's the reminders of Hardy's perpetual insecurity: there's the dig about "what there is to read besides novels," from a man who'd seven years earlier given up the form; and also the reasons for his approval of James, that he is "a real man of letters," a contrast with Hardy, who seemed to perpetually need reassurance that he had reached the inner circle.

I'll close with the letter that sent me to Stevenson in the first place--and which, conveniently, pulls together most of the threads herein. It was sent by George Lyttelton to Rupert Hart-Davis on March 8, 1956; after airing a dislike of Austen (and a belief that Emma deserved spanking), Lyttelton writes about the Irish novelist and critic George Moore,
D[esmond] MacCarthy somewhere hints that G.M. had really read very little and that mere deliberate mischief played a great part in his dicta which listeners were glad to have for their wit and sometimes were shrewd enough. "What is Conrad but the wreck of Stevenson floating about on the slip-slop of Henry James?" is beastly good, though (of course) unfair. But how I do enjoy the old rascal; how attractive are complete absence of principle and an unlimited love of mischief, both apparently quite unselfconscious!
True on all counts.

Friday, May 25, 2012

A travelers' weekend

For this holiday weekend that will find so many people traveling, a brief post built around a passage from Andres Neuman's Traveler of the Century. The speaker is a young man on the verge of the first real love of his life; the parenthetical interpolation is the voice of his friend, an aged organ grinder:
I've always thought of love as pure movement, a sort of journey. . . . For me there's no greater joy than being reunited with a friend I've not seen for a long time. What I mean is, we also go back to places because we love them, don't you think? And loving someone can be like a homecoming (being older, I think that love, love of places, people or things, is about harmony, and harmony for me is to be at rest, to observe what's around me, being happy to be where I am.)
The first 200 pages of Neuman's novel, which is about the intellectual, emotional, and social life of that young man, newly arrived to a small town in Germany just after the defeat of Napoleon, were almost too slow and meandering for my taste. I nearly put the book down, but the underlying charm of Neuman's voice kept me reading through the digressive intellectual debates and salon banter.

But then the young man finds love, and the novel takes on a dreamily romantic character that is incredibly engaging, even seductive, as Neuman convinces us that this pair of hot-pantsed young lovers really are falling as much for each other's minds as for their bodies. And because of that, we begin to care about, and feel that there's really something at stake in, their heated, semi-nude discussions of poetry and translation, all shadowed by the knowledge that their idyll can't last. I've been quoting from the book all week over at the Annex and on my Twitter feed; it's been a real joy.

As for the tension between movement and stasis, searching and contentment . . . well, longtime readers know where I fall on that one: home is home is home and you make your happiness there. And now, work having let out early for the holiday weekend, the prospect of watching a summer afternoon slip away while sipping iced tea on my back steps beckons. Enjoy the holiday, folks.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


I'm continuing to be enchanted with the correspondence between George Lyttelton and Rupert Hart-Davis. What's caught my eye today is a passage from a letter from Lyttelton of December 18, 1956:
I have just finished the Strachey-Woolf letters. Not fearfully good are they? Good things here and there of course, but Strachey is often trivial and V. W. often shows off, and on the whole one sees why many people spit at the name of Bloomsbury. And I suspect they would spit even more if all the names were given. Neither had any humility, and I am more and more blowed if that isn't the sine qua non of all goodness and greatness. The trouble is that if you are very clever and don't believe in God, there is nobody and nothing in the presence of whom or which you can be humble. For instance, Milton and Carlyle, for all their arrogance, were fundamentally humble, don't you think? Here endeth the epistle of George the Apostle.
As the self-deprecating final sentence suggests, Lyttelton's closing position (Which, in the case of Milton, at least, surely we can question? "Justify the ways of God to man" smacketh not of humility, no?) seems to be more rhetorical or even intellectual than religious: Lyttelton elsewhere confesses himself to be not particularly religious, an admirer of The Book of Common Prayer but a waverer when it comes to actual belief:
And "believe' is too big a word to use about life after death. I vageuly feel, I occasionally hope, but that is all. That great man Judge Holmes surely hit the nail when he said 'I see sufficient reasons for doing my damndest without demanding to know the strategy or even the tactics of the campaign.'
But I'm getting distracted (surely blogging's most forgivable sin?) from the main point: Strachey-Woolf and Bloomsbury.

Any time Bloomsbury comes up in the essays, letters, memoirs, and whatnot of writers whose lives overlapped with it, I find myself feeling grateful to be from a later era and a different country: oh, the baggage Bloomsbury brings! All evidence suggests that they were just as cliquish and self-absorbed as their opponents say they were, but at this remove that matters less than their wholehearted devotion to the arts. I know plenty of people who can't stomach Virginia Woolf's novels--which I find still wholly alive, fresh, and moving today--but even they tend to acknowledge the fierce perceptiveness of her essays and reviews. Leonard Woolf, meanwhile, ought by all rights to be essentially a tragic figure but instead ends up an impressive one: picturing him working the binder on the earliest Hogarth Press books brings shivers of admiration. And Strachey . . . oh, how Eminent Victorians still bites and burns.

That said, Lyttelton isn't wholly incorrect in his verdict about the Strachey-Woolf volume. When I wrote about it a couple of years back, I acknowledged that the letters are "a bit mannered." That said, I think they're more interesting than Lyttelton gives them credit for being. As I wrote back then, they give
less the sense of guardedness or caution than they do of performance, of two people who, even as they dashed off notes, tried to bring all their intellect and wit to bear. What we lose in intimacy we gain in fun and insight; these are closer to, say, the composed, circumspect letters of E. B. White than they are to the endearing gushings of a Mitford sister.
Anyone who's gotten to watch two born skeptics--of formidable intellect--attempt to impress each other knows there's real pleasure to be had there. A meeting of the minds (let alone souls) it's not, but when the minds are such as these, feints, parries, and pas de deux are perfectly fine.

Lyttelton touches on Bloomsbury again in his next letter:
I have followed up the Strachey-Woolf letters by reading Clive Bell on his friends. He questions the existence of 'Bloomsbury' as a one-time centre of culture, but, however hard to define, it was surely recognisable all right. . . . Does anyone doubt that V. W. and L. S. and Co were exclusive, and fastidious, and highbrow, and contemptuous of past greatness, and mutual admirers, and if that isn't Bloomsbury, what is?
Perfectly true. Each of those characteristics has its dark side, no doubt, but given what we got from Bloomsbury, I'll gladly plump for the better part--of such confidence and ego are movements made.

Monday, May 21, 2012


Thursday's post started out as a simple one: I was going to quote a letter from George Lyttelton to Rupert Hart-Davis about handwriting. But merrily off into the weeds I wandered, demonstrating along the way perhaps the most salient characteristic of the Lyttelton/Hart-Davis letters: their infectious, engaging, popcorn-like readability. They're bonbons, and you open the book meaning to read just one--or perhaps two, to get a taste of their back-and-forth--and an hour later you've wandered through fifty pages of them. Unlike bonbons, however, they bring neither surfeit nor regret. Scheherazade could have kept the Sultan's headsman at bay for weeks just by reading these aloud (though only, honesty compels me to admit, if he happened to be an Anglophile lover of literature). One of the pleasures of letter collections is how easily their discrete units are to parcel out in the midst of reading other, more immersive works; this collection is far too addictive to enable that.

But now--handwriting! Early in the correspondence Hart-Davis writes that he hopes Lyttelton can easily read his handwriting, to which Lyttelton replies:
In a world where nearly all is dark, as Bishop Gore used to say, two things are luminously clear: viz that your letters are of first-class interest and quality, and that your handwriting is perfectly legible, and, in fact, very pleasant to look on. And the second is very important. Did you ever get a letter from Monty [M. R.] James? I once had a note from him inviting us to dinner--we guessed that the time was 8 and not 3, as it appeared to be, but all we could tell about the day was that it was not Wednesday.
To which Hart-Davis replied,
I never saw Monty James's writing but doubt whether he can have been more illegible than Lady Colefax: the only hope of deciphering her invitations, someone said, was to pin them up on the wall and run past them!
My handwriting, as my small band of far-flung correspondents and nearby coworkers would loudly attest, is abominable, a disgrace to civilization and possibly even a chink in the armor of evolutionary theory. It is only a lifetime's familiarity with the primary uses of pencil and paper that enable readers to determine that yes, those marks are intended to be letters and words. Fortunately, as I have neither Lady Colefax's title nor M. R. James's antiquarianist's pedigree, I received my first typewriter at age ten and have blissfully never looked back.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

"This is not so much the first over, as a gentle limbering up," or, Embarking on the Lyttelton/Hart-Davis letters

While waiting to get back to my local bookstore to pick up a copy of Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies--I'm nothing if not loyal!--I've been reading the first volume of the collected correspondence of George Lyttelton and Rupert Hart-Davis, a book that made its way to my shelves a few years back on the recommendation of Michael Dirda. In the course of a piece on the pleasures of James Lees-Milne's diaries at the Barnes and Noble Review, Dirda included the Lyttelton/Hart-Davis correspondence in a list of his ten favorite books, alongside such IBRL favorites as Cyril Connolly's The Unquiet Grave, Boswell's Life of Johnson, Casanova's memoirs, Joseph Mitchell's Up in the Old Hotel, and In Search of Lost Time. About the list Dirda wrote,
If literature is news that stays news, as Ezra Pound famously said, then such books as those on my list represent what one might call the higher gossip. Their pages are packed with amusing anecdotes, erotic adventures, moral observations, lyrical evocations of the past, bits of biography, encounters with unusual people, and glorious descriptions of nature, art, places, and society. These are, in short, works that recreate a time and a place, while also plunging us deep into a tattered human heart.
I'm only 150 pages into the six volumes of Lyttelton/Hart-Davis letters, and I've already encountered all these elements. These are truly wonderful letters.

The correspondence began in charming fashion: Hart-Davis, a publisher, had been a pupil of Lyttelton at Eton, and when they met again at a dinner party in 1955 Lyttelton complained of being lonely in rural Suffolk:
"Nobody even writes to me," he said. Flushed with wine, I accepted the challenge.

"I'll write to you, George."

"When will you start?"

"Next week-end."

"Right. I'll answer in the middle of the week."
For seven years, until Lyttelton's death, that's what they did.

The first couple of letters are, as you might expect, a bit awkward: tentative and self-consciously literary. But amazingly quickly the pair settle into a true exchange that feels as comfortable as any rambling conversation with an old friend. They're both highly educated and steeped in English literary culture in that oh-so-English public school way that can positively boggle even the relatively literate mind at times. References--most caught, some requiring resort to research--abound, as do quotations, all feeling organic, markers of the mind at work. Hart-Davis, dismissing Lyttelton's apology for the "tediously otiose" act of quoting Dr. Johnson, sums up the pleasure of quotation:
[I]t's such a pleasure to write down splendid words--almost as though one were inventing them.
The most fun part of these early letters is the simple joy these two men are discovering in each other's company--finding that this lark on which they've embarked is, after all, a genuine meeting of the minds, a friendship that seems almost from the start to be infinitely capacious. Most collections of letters are best suited for dipping into rather than reading straight through; this one, at least thus far, seems the rare exception where following the trajectory and growth of the correspondence would more than make up for any of the inevitable tedium brought on by letter after letter after letter.

I'm sure I'll be sharing more in the coming weeks--this post, actually, was a sidetrack from what was to be a simple post about a tossed-off remark by Lyttelton about M. R. James's handwriting, which I promise I'll get to soon. For now, I'll leave you with a line that Hart-Davis quotes from the notebooks of another IBRL favorite, Thomas Hardy*:
Nine-tenths of the letters in which people speak unreservedly of their feelings are written after ten at night.
Being as we're long past that hour, I'll attempt to retain my reticence by retiring.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The return of the New York Moon!

After a multi-year hiatus, the New York Moon has peeped out once more from behind the clouds, this time with an issue organized around the loose theme of nostalgia. There's lots worth your attention, beyond the lovely graphic design and illustrations, including a look at Egypt through the eyes of a 1914 Baedeker Guide, a remarkable set of photos of abandoned spaces in Cairo, an analysis of the recordings sent spinning into space with the Voyager probe, and--by me--a look at one of my favorite things in all of London, the Crystal Palace dinosaurs (and, unknown to me before I started researching the article, their never-completed Central Park counterparts!).

Once you've read that issue, you might trawl the archives. The last piece I contributed to the Moon is one I'm still proud of, a commonplace bookµstyle collection of writings from travel writers, novelists, and explorers on deserts and water, for the Desert issue. The original, commissioned illustrations are themselves worth the trouble of clicking through.


Friday, May 11, 2012

Case notes, or, Some disconnected bits on the law and justice

1 When I'm between books, I often turn to John Mortimer's Rumpole stories, through which I've slowly been making my way for the past several years. Usually Rumpole's relationship with and characterization of his wife is a subject of humor verging on whining--he regularly refers to her, in a nod to Rider Haggard, as She Who Must Be Obeyed--but in "Rumpole at Sea," the story I read this morning, he quietly reveals that he has a lot more respect for Hilda than he usually lets on. In telling the story, Rumpole is forced to relate a number of events at which he was not present, but he explains, "I have reconstructed the following pages from [Mrs Rumpole's] evidence which was, as always, completely reliable." Later, he notes:
She Who Must Be Obeyed has a dead eye for detail and would have risen to great heights in the Criminal Investigation Department.
A reliable witness with a dead eye for detail? What higher praise could Rumpole offer?

2 One of the best moments early in Sergio De La Pava's A Naked Singularity--a moment when you begin to realize that you're in the hands of a genius--is on the fifth page, when Casi, the protagonist, informs the reader that there is about to be a digression:
And this is as good a time as any for you, gentle reader, to learn that I can wander a bit while storytelling so that the very imminent digressive passage on the judicial creation of Miranda warnings can be entirely skipped by the uncurious without the slightest loss of narrative steam.
Said digression ensues, explaining in intense and often hilarious language the case and judicial and legal activity that led up to "the kind of decision that makes maybe five people happy" and led to the warning about self-incrimination that TV has made so famous.

With A Naked Singularity on the brain last week, I was surprised to see the following exchange late in Dickens's Our Mutual Friend:
"Don't!" said Mr Inspector. "Why, why argue? It's my duty to inform you that whatever you say, will be used against you."

"I don't think it will."

"But I tell you it will," said Mr Inspector. "Now, having received the caution, do you still say that you foresaw my visit this afternoon?"
So as far back as that, in England, an officer--of a police force that had been in existence for less than forty years--already felt it was his duty to warn a suspect, and it was already known as "the caution"? I had no idea, and neither, it seems, does Wikipedia: the section on similar rights in England and Wales in the entry for Miranda, while noting that the right may have originated there, only traces it as far back as 1912. Any legal scholars want to weigh in?

3 In anticipation of Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall (which is one the best books I've read in recent years), I read Ford Madox Ford's treatment of a slightly later period in the career of Thomas Cromwell, The Fifth Queen. Ford, a Catholic, lays his sympathy with Katherine Howard, Henry VIII's fifth queen, and in the process he paints a much darker portrait of Cromwell than Mantel does. Ford's Cromwell isn't the ruthless villain he is forced to play as the foil of the perfectly noble Thomas More in Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons, but he is driven much more by self-interest than in Mantel's account, and his mutability is seen less as an emblem of his essential--and laudable--modernity than of an essential ethical slipperiness.

Mantel's Cromwell is so well drawn, so memorable, that he's hard to shake even as you're reading Ford, so when we see him meet the downfall we've known since the first page is inevitable, it's hard not to feel a real pang. The moment in The Fifth Queen when his last-ditch machinations fail and he's confronted by the lords who are his bitterest enemies, stripped of his chancellorship, and named a traitor unites the two characterizations and is vividly arresting:
Then such rage and despair had come into Thomas Cromwell's terrible face that Cranmer's senses had reeled. He had seen Norfolk and the Admiral fall back before this passion; he had seen Thomas Cromwell tear off his cap and cast it on the floor; he had heard him bark and snarl out certain words into the face of the yellow dog of Norfolk.

"Upon your life you dare not call me traitor!" and Norfolk had fallen back abashed.

Then the chamber had seemed to fill with an awful gloom and darkness; men showed only like shadows against the window lights; the constable of the Tower had come in with the warrants, and in that gloom the earth had appeared to tremble and quake beneath the Archbishop's feet.
And now on to Bring Up the Bodies!

4 As seems only right on questions of the law and justice, I'll let Kafka have the last word. This comes from Gustav Janouch's Conversations with Kafka (1968):
How often is injustice committed in the name of justice? How often does damnation fly the flag of enlightenment? How often does a fall disguise itself as a rise? We can see it all now quite properly. The war didn't only burn and tear the world, but also lit it up. We can see that it is a labyrinth built by men themselves, an icy machine world, whose comforts and apparent purposefulness increasingly emasculate and dishonour us.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Dickens as a reader

One of the reasons that there were three years between Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend, and then another five before The Mystery of Edwin Drood, was that Dickens was devoting much of his time to his highly lucrative (and draining) reading tours. Most biographers put at least some of the blame for Dickens's early death on the grueling pace and physical demands of his reading tours. By all accounts, however, they were brilliant performances--sentimental and overblown by today's taste, perhaps, but gripping and effective, carrying away audience after audience.

In his account of Dickens's reading career, Charles Dickens as a Reader (1872), Dickens's friend Charles Kent, who wrote his book at the suggestion of Dickens and had access to the author's marked-up performance manuscripts, reminds us at the opening that not every writer is even a competent reader. He illustrates that with a story of Dr. Johnson and Virgil Thomson:
According to the grimly humorous old Doctor, "He [Thomson] was once reading to Doddington, who, being himself a reader eminently elegant, was so much provoked by his odd utterance, that he snatcehd the paper from his hand, and told him that he did not understand his own verses!"
Kent's book is admiring to a fault, but it's still of interest to any dedicated Dickensian. What's perhaps most interesting is the realization Kent comes to when he looks at the marked-up manuscript for Dickens's reading of the scene from David Copperfield where Emily runs off:
The wonder still is to us, now that we are recalling to mind the salient peculiarities of this Reading, as we do so, turning over leaf by leaf the marked copy of it, from which the Novelist read; the very wonder, we repeat, still is to us how, in that exquisite scene, the very words that have always moved us most in the novel were struck out in the delivery, are rigidly scored through here with blue inkmarks in the reading copy, by the hand of the Reader-Novelist. Those words, we mean which occur, where Ham, having on his arrival, made a movement as if Em'ly were outside, asked Mas'r Davy to "come out a minute," only for him, on his doing so, to find that Em'ly was not there, and that Ham was deadly pale. "Ham! what's the matter?" was gasped out in the Reading. But--not what follows, immediately on that, in the original narrative: "'Mas'r Davy!' Oh, for his broken heart, how dreadfully he wept!"
Kent goes on to give a number of specific examples of lines Dickens cut but whose emotional sense he managed to convey by tone or expression. Frustratingly, he doesn't give any further details of how Dickens achieved his effects in this case, which perhaps would have been difficult to determine outside the actual moment. But the complicated choices of what to omit are a reminder of what Kent notes elsewhere in the book: that Dickens, ever the craftsman, devoted copious attention to assembling his reading manuscripts.
It was not by any means that, having written a story years previously, he had, in his new capacity as a reciter, merley to select two or three chapters from it, and read them off with an air of animation. Virtually, the fragmentary portions thus taken from his later works were re-written by him, with countless elisions and eliminations after having been selected. Reprinted in their new shape, each as "A Reading," they were then touched and retouched by their author, pen in hand, until, at the end of a long succession of revisions, the pages came to be cobwebbed over with a wonderfully intricate network of blots and lines in the way of correction or of obliteration.
Oh, to have seen him in action!

Monday, May 07, 2012

Reviewing and plots

In my re-reading of Our Mutual Friends over the past several days, I've been making extensive use of Philip Collins's collection of contemporaneous reviews of Dickens, Charles Dickens: The Critical Heritage. Among the twenty-five pages of reviews of Our Mutual Friend--most of them mixed at best--is one from the Eclectical and Congregational Review of November 1865 that, in passing, addresses one of the great problems of fiction reviewing:
Needless work, we presume, it would be to attempt to tell the outline of Mr Dickens's story. Most of our readers have either read, or will read it; those who have not read will, perhaps, not thank us for attempting to tell it.
Now, a fiction reviewer these days certainly can't presume that all his readers will be familiar with the work in question, but even given that, I prefer that attention to plot be kept to a minimum--fiction reviewing is difficult precisely because it should be primarily evaluative or analytical, yet it seems that often the reverse holds true: we get a recap of the plot and, almost as if they're thrown in as a bonus, perhaps a few lines at the end rendering some quick judgment.

That said, I'm not sure I trust the judgment of the Eclectic and Congregational Review's critic, however, based on what comes next in this review:
Yet, perhaps, as a story, it is quite equal to any Mr Dickens has told; it is sustained throughout; there is nothing in the plot too strained or unnatural. Mr Dickens has not always been thought happy in this, for a writer with so much of nature; he has sometimes and often devised most unnatural positions and situations. . . . Yet there is less that offends in this way than in many other works of the writer, as even in Great Expectations, where the reader is startled by the half grotesque and half horrible episocidal thread of Miss Haversham [sic].
The "episodical" thread of Miss Havisham? Imagine pulling her thread from that book . . . what on earth would you be left with?

The reviewer is right that there is less here of the grotesque or fantastic than in other of Dickens's novels--no spontaneous combustion, for example--but there is strain, as the plot turns on some unlikely events and a number of the novel's least convincing characters.

More perceptive is the opening of the unsigned review, by E S. Dallas, that appeared in the Times on November 26, 1865:
Novels published in parts have the advantage and disadvantage that their fortunes are often made or marred by the first few numbers; and this last novel of Mr Charles Dickens, really one of his finest works, and one in which on occasion he even surpasses himself, labours under the disadvantage of a beginning that drags. Any one reading the earlier numbers of the new tale might see that the author meant to put forth all his strength and do his very best; and those who have an eye for literary workmanship could discover that never before had Mr Dickens's workmanship been so elaborate. On the whole, however, at that early stage the reader was more perplexed than pleased. There was an appearance of great effort without corresponding result. We were introduced to a set of people in whom it is impossible to tak e an interest, and were made familar with transactions that suggested horror. The great master of fiction exhibited all his skill, performed the most wonderful feats of language, loaded his page with wit and many a fine touch peculiar to himself .The agility of his pen was amazing, but still at first we were not much amused. We were more impressed with the exceeding cleverness of the author's manner that with the charm of his story; and when one thinks more of an artists' manner than of his matter woe to the artist.
The reviewer is responding in part, it seems, to a characteristic that I noted in my first post on the book several days ago: that the opening chapters feel remarkably de-centered, jumping from location to location and character to character with barely a hint of the thread that will ultimately connect them all. It's a daring decision--all the more so because Dickens isn't explicit about it, neither calling out the fact that he is doing anything unusual nor hinting at who among these characters may end up as his hero.

Dallas ends up approving of the book, and his review closes with fulsome praise for Dickens's characterization of one of his heroines, Bella Wilfer, "without exception the prettiest picture of the kind he has drawn--one of the prettiest pictures in prose fiction." Bella is more interesting, and more complicated, than the usual bland, flawless Dickens heroine, but she's far from the best thing in the book. Still, I suspect it's that passage that led Dickens, as Philip Collins tells us, to take the unprecedented step of sending the reviewer a copy of the manuscript of the book in thanks. Dickens's heroines, it always seems, are the closest to his heart--the more you read about his life, the more you become convinced that this is simply how he saw women, how he needed them to be, and that blindness deformed a number of relationships throughout his life. To have an outsider recognize his portrait as perfect would surely have pleased him beyond most other praise.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Dingy London

As a counterbalance to the recent string of long posts, a short one today, quoting Dickens on London, which, in Our Mutual Friend is presented with more dinginess and dirt than in any other of his novels:
It was a foggy day in London, and the fog was heavy an dark. Animate London, with smarting eyes and irritated lungs, was blinking, wheezing, and choking; inanimate London was a sooty spectre, divided in purpose between being visible and invisible, and so being wholly neither. Gaslights flared in the shops with a haggard and unblest air, as knowing themselves to be night-creatures that had no business abroad under the sun; while the sun itself, when it was for a few moments dimly indicated through circling eddies of fog, showed as if it had gone out and were collapsing flat and cold. Even in the surrounding country it was a foggy day, but there the fog was great, whereas in London it was, at about the boundary line, dark yellow, and a little within it brown, then browner, and then browner, until at the heart of the City--which call Saint Mary Axe, it was rusty-black. From any point of the high ridge of land northward, it might have been discerned that the loftiest buildings made an occasional struggle to get their heads above the foggy sea, and especially that the great dome of Saint Paul's seemed to die hard; but this was not perceivable in the streets at their feet, where the whole metropolis was a heap of vapour charged with muffled sound of wheels, and enfolding a gigantic catarrh.
This one is, if anything, even more depressing:
A grey dusty withered evening in London city has not a hopeful aspect. The closed warehouses and offices have an air of death about them, and the national dread of colour has an air of mourning. The towers and steeples of the many house-encompassed churches, dark and dingy as the sky that seems descending on them, are no relief to the general gloom; a sun dial on a church wall has the look, in its useless black shade, of having failed in its business enterprise and stopped payment for ever; melancholy waifs and strays of housekeepers and porters sweep melancholy waifs and strays of papers and pins into the kennels, and other more melancholy waifs and strays explore them, searching and stooping and poking for anything to sell. The set of humanity outward from the City is a set of prisoners departing from gaol and dismal Newgate seems quite as fit a stronghold for the mighty Lord Mayor as his own state dwelling On such evening when the city grit gets into the hair
We can only hope that London presents such a welcoming face when the Olympics crawls in to strangle it this summer!

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Finds among the faults

For all the praise I've given Our Mutual Friend in the past week, there's no denying that some aspects of it are weak. While John Lucas in Charles Dickens: The Major Novels argues convincingly that the flatness of Dickens's caricature of social climbers in the novel is intentional--that "they are his marvellously intelligent and imaginative way of exploring the cost of class consciousness in a society which can conceive of itself no other way"--that's a second-order response, generated by multiple readings and long engagement with the book. Our first acquaintance with the interpolated set-pieces that introduce the mannered, empty voice of society is much more likely to fall in line with this anonymous writer from the Saturday Review of November 11, 1865:
In Our Mutual Friend . . . we find only caricatures, but they are caricatures without either of Mr DIckens's characteristic excellences. They are not very witty or humourous, and we are unable to recognise their truth and purpose. Nothing, for instance, can be more dismal in the way of parody or satire than the episode of the Veneerings and their friends. Where is either the humour or the truth of caricature? The execution is coarse and clumsy, and the whole picture is redolent of ill-temper and fractiousness. This spoils it. A good caricaturist enjoys his work, however angry he may be against the object of it. Mr Dickens, in this case, seems to screech with ill-will and bitterness.
Though it's hard to banish suspicions of political disagreements underlying that review, even as Dickens's analysis of the fundamental emptiness of much society rings true a century and a half later, so does the reviewer's analysis--there is none of the glee of invention here that animates Dickens's best grotesques and villains.

Even so, there are moments of genius, like the introduction of the ready man, Mr. Twemlow:
There was an innocent piece of dinner-furniture that went upon easy castors and was kept over a livery stable-yard in Duke Street, Saint James's, when not in use, to whom the Veneerings were a source of blind confusion. The name of this article was Twemlow. Being first cousin to Lord Snigsworth, he was in frequent requisition, and at many houses might be said to represent the dining-table in its normal state. Mr and Mrs Veneering, for example, arranging a dinner, habitually started with Twemlow, and then put leaves on him, or added guests to him. Sometimes, the table consisted of Twemlow and half a dozen leaves; sometimes, of Twemlow and a dozen leaves; sometimes, Twemlow was pulled out to his utmost extent of twenty leaves.

Another of my favorite parts comes amidst one of the novel's greatest failures, the conversion of Mr. Boffin, who has unexpectedly come into wealth, from a kindly man to a miser. Rather than having us gradually notice the change, Dickens simply has a character announce it--as if he himself has just thought of the possibility. But one of the ways that Boffin expresses his newfound miserliness is so amusing that it redeems the whole character arc: he starts obsessively buying and reading books about historical misers.
Morning after morning they roamed about the town together, pursuing their singular research. Miserly literature not being abundant, the proportion of failures to successes may have been as a hundred to one; still Mr Boffin, never wearied, remained as avaricious for misers as he had been at the first onset.
He hands a bundle of these volumes to one of his assistants, saying,
Don't drop that one under your arm. It's Dancer. Him and his sister made pies of a dead sheep they found when they were about a walking.
He even finds a whole book--a real one, which Dickens himself owned, called Lives and Anecdotes of Misers; or, the Passion of Avarice Displayed. His assistant, Silas, reads from the table of contents:
I should say they must be pretty well all here, sir; here's a large assortment, sir; my eye catches John Overs, sir, John Little, sir, Dick Jarrel, John Elwes, the Reverend Mr Jones of Blewbury, Vulture Hopkins, Daniel Dancer--"

"Give us Dancer, Wegg," said Mr Boffin.

With another stare at his comrade, Silas sought and found the place.

"Page a hundred and nine, Mr Boffin. Chapter eight. Contents of chapter, 'His birth and estate. his garments and outward appearance. Miss Dancer and her feminine graces. The miser's Mansion. The finding of a treasure. The story of thee mutton Pies. A miser's Idea of Death. Bob, the Miser's cur. Griffiths and his Master. How to turn a penny. A substitute for a Fire. The advantages of keeping a Snuff-box. The Miser dies without a Shirt. The treasure of a Dunghill.'"
Dancer, we learn, did without a fire by sitting on his dinner to warm it, only one of many manifestations of his madness.

This is one of the reasons Dickens has lasted: even when he's at his worst, even when there are large problems within a scene or a novel, there are guaranteed to be enough jewels--to take a metaphorical cue from the misers--hidden in there to make the reading worthwhile.