Dreaming With His Eyes Open: A Life of Diego Rivera by Patrick Marnham (1998)

My father was a storyteller and he invented new episodes of his past every day. (Diego Rivera’s daughter, Guadalupe)

This is a hugely enjoyable romp through the life of Mexico’s most famous artist, the massive, myth-making Marxist muralist Diego Rivera. In his own autobiography My Art, My Life, Rivera made up all sorts of tall stories and whopping fibs about his ancestors, childhood and young manhood. He then collaborated with his first biography, written by friend and fan Bertram David Wolfe in, published in 1963, in which he also perpetrated all sorts of fantastical stories.

Instead of boringly trying to tell fact from fiction, Marnham enters into the spirit of Rivera and, maybe, of Mexico generally, and prints the whoppers alongside the – generally more mundane – truth. Thus where Rivera insists that by age 11 he had devised a war machine so impressive that the Mexican Army wanted to make him a general, or that he spent the years 1910 and 1911 fighting with Zapata’s rebels, or that he began to study medicine, and after anatomy lessons he and fellow students used to cook and eat the body parts – Marnham gently points out that, aged 11, Rivera appears to have been a precocious but altogether dutiful schoolboy, while in 1910/11 he spent the winter organising a successful exhibition of his work and the spring in a small town south of Mexico City worrying about his career and longing for his Russian girlfriend back in Paris.

Mexico appears throughout the book in three respects: its turbulent and violent politics; its exotic landscape, brilliant sky, cacti and parrots; its racial heritage, the hated Spanish at the top of the hate list, and everyone sentimentalising the white-pyjama-ed peasant – though not necessarily doing very much to help him.

First half – Apprenticeships 1886-1921

The most interesting aspect of the first half of his career is the long time it took Rivera to find his voice. Born in 1886 to a minor official in the provincial city of Guanajuato, young Diego’s proficiency at drawing was noticed at school. The family moved to Mexico City and his parents got him into the prestigious San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts, when he was just 11 years old. In 1906 i.e. aged 19, he won a scholarship to study abroad and took a ship to Spain, settling in Madrid, where he met the city’s bohemian artists and studied the classics, Velasque and El Greco, who he particularly revered.

But the real intellectual and artistic action in Spain was taking place in Barcelona (where young Picasso had been studying), the only Spanish city in touch with the fast-moving art trends in northern Europe.

It was only when Rivera went to Paris in 1909 that he was first exposed to Cézanne and the Impressionists and even then, they didn’t at first have much impact. After a trip to London where he saw Turner, his painting becomes more misty and dreamy, but it was only in 1913 that he began to ‘catch up’, seeing the importance of the Cubism which had become notorious about 1911. For the next four years he painted in nothing but the Cubist idiom, becoming a well-known face in the artist’s quarter of Montparnasse, and a friend of Picasso, a paid-up member of the avant-garde – all drinking, mistresses, models and arguments late into the night.

Marnham’s account of these years is interesting for a number of reasons. It sheds light on how a gifted provincial could happily plough a traditional academic furrow right up to 1910, blithely ignorant of what we now take to be all the important trends of Modern Art. And for its compellingly gossipy account of the artistic world of the time.

I liked the fact that whenever a ‘friend’ visited, all the artists turned their works to the wall before opening the door: the artistic community – which included not only Picasso, but Gris, Mondrian, Chagall, Derain, Vlaminck, Duchamp – was intensely competitive and intensely plagiaristic. Picasso, in particular, was notorious for copying everything he saw, and doing it better.

Food was so cheap in the new little cafés which sprang up to cater to the bohemians that the Fauvists Derain and Vlaminck invented a game which was to eat everything on the cafe menu – at once – in one sitting. Whoever gave up had to pay the bill. On one occasion Vlaminck ate his way through every dish on a café menu, twice!

Rivera’s transition from traditional academic style to cubism can be seen in the Wikipedia gallery.

Rivera did indeed return to Mexico in October 1910 and stayed for 6 months, though he did not, as he later claimed, help Zapata hold up trains. He wanted to see his family and friends again.

Upon arrival he discovered that he was relatively famous. His study in Madrid and Paris had all been paid for by a state scholarship awarded by the government of corrupt old dictator, Porfirio Diaz and, to justify it, Diego had had to send back regular samples of his work. These confirmed his talent and the Ministry of Culture organised an exhibition devoted to Rivera’s work which opened on 20 November 1910 to quite a lot of fanfare, with positive press coverage.

It is ironic that this was exactly the same day that the Liberal politician Francisco Madero crossed the Rio Grande from America into northern Mexico and called for an uprising to overthrow the Diaz government, thus beginning the ‘Mexican Revolution’.

In his autobiography Rivera would later claim that he was a rebel against the government and came back to Mexico to help Emiliano Zapata’s uprising. The truth was pretty much the opposite. His ongoing stay in Madrid and then Paris was sponsored by Diaz’s government. He never met or went anywhere near Zapata, instead efficiently supervising the hang of his art exhibition in Mexico City, spending time with his family, before going to a quiet city south of the capital to paint. He was, in Marnham’s cutting phrase, ‘a pampered favourite’ of the regime (p.77)

In the spring of 1911 Rivera returned to Paris with its cubism, its artistic squabbles, and his Russian mistress. Not being a European, Rivera was able to sit out the First World War, rather like his fellow Hispanic, Picasso, while almost all their European friends were dragged into the mincing machine, many of them getting killed.

Of minor interest to most Europeans, the so-called Mexican Revolution staggered on, a combination of complicated political machinations at the centre, floodlit by raids, skirmishes, battles and massacres in scattered areas round the country.

Earlier in the book, Marnham gives a very good description of Mexico in the last days of Diaz’ rule, ‘a system of social injustice and tyranny’. He gives a particularly harrowing summary of the out-and-out slavery practiced in the southern states, and the scale of the rural poverty, as exposed by the journalist John Kenneth Turner in his 1913 book Barbarous Mexico (pp. 36-40).

Now, as the Revolution turned into a bloody civil war between rival factions, in 1915 and 1916, Rivera began to develop an interest in it, even as his sophisticated European friends dismissed it. Marnham himself gives a jokey summary of the apparently endless sequence of coups and putsches:

Diaz was exiled by Modera who was murdered by Huerta who was exiled by Carranza who murdered Zapata before being himself murdered by Obregón. (p.122)

Obregón himself being murdered a few years later. Rivera’s Russian communist friend, Ilya Ehrenburg, dismissed the whole thing as ‘the childish anarchism of Mexican shepherds’ – but to the Mexicans it mattered immensely and resonates to this day.

Rivera spent a long time in Europe, 1907 to 1921, 14 years, progressing from talented traditionalist and into the heart of the modern movement with his particular brand of cubism. Partly because of personal fallings out, partly because it was ceasing to sell so well, Rivera dropped cubism abruptly in 1918, reverting to a smudgy realist style derived from Cézanne.

Then he met the intellectual art critic and historian Elie Faure who insisted that the era of the individual artist was over, and that a new era of public art was beginning. An argument reinforced by the Mexican Revolution and then the Bolshevik revolution which had just taken place. Art for the people. It was with this in mind that Diego finally got round to completing his Grand Tour of Europe with 9 months spent in Italy, slowly crawling from one hilltop town to the next, painstakingly copying and studying the frescos of the Quattrocento masters.

Second half – Murals 1921-33

The Mexican Revolution was declared over in 1920, with the flight and murder of President Carranza and the inauguration of his successor President Obregón. A new Minister of Culture, José Vasconcelos, was convinced that Mexico needed to be rebuilt and modernised, starting with new schools, colleges and universities. These buildings needed to be decorated with inspiring and uplifting murals. As Mexico’s most famous living artist, he had been in touch with Diego since 1919, and his talk of murals came at just the time Elie Faure was talking to Diego about public art and just as Diego concluded his painstaking studies in Italy.

He was straightaway given two of the most important mural commissions he was ever to receive, at the National Preparatory School (la Escuela Prepatorio), and then a huge series at the new Ministry of Education.

At the same time Diego evinced a new-found political consciousness. He not only joined the Mexican Communist Party but set up a Union of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors. From now on there are three main strands in his life:

  1. the murals
  2. the Communist Party
  3. his many women

Diego’s women

He was a Mexican man. The patriarchal spirit of machismo was like the air he breathed. Frank McLynn, in his book about the Revolution, gives lengthy descriptions of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata’s complex love lives – basically they both kept extraordinary strings of women, lovers, mistresses and multiple wives.

Diego was a man in the same mould, albeit without the horses and guns. More or less every model that came near him seems to have been propositioned, with the result that he left a trail of mistresses, ‘wives’ and children in his turbulent wake.

EUROPE
1911 ‘married’ to Angelina Beloff, mother of a son, Diego (1916–1918)
1918 Maria Vorobieff-Stebelska, ‘Marevna’, mother of daughter named Marika in 1919, who he never saw or supported

MEXICO
1922-26 married to Guadalupe Marin, mother of his two daughters, Ruth and Guadalupe, she modelled for some of the nudes in his murals
– affair with a Cuban woman
– affair with Lupe’s sister?
– affair with Tina Modotti, who modelled for five nudes in the Chapingo murals, Earth enslaved, Germination, Virgin earth 1926-7
1928 – seduced ‘a stream of young women’
1929 marries Frida Kahlo, who goes on to have a string of miscarriages and abortions
– three-year affair with Frida’s sister, Cristina, 1934-7
1940 divorces Frida – starts affair with Charlie Chaplin’s wife, Paulette Goddard
– affair with painter Irene Bohus
December 1940 remarries Frida in San Francisco
1954 marries Emma Hurtado
– affair with Dolores Olmedo

Diego’s murals

Making frescos is a tricky business, as Marnham explains in some detail – and Rivera’s early work was marred by technical and compositional shortcomings. But he had always worked hard and dedicatedly and now he set out to practice, study and learn.

Vasconcelos was convinced that post-revolutionary Mexico required ‘modernisation’, which meant big new infrastructure projects – railways with big stations, factories, schools, universities – and that all these needed to be filled with inspiring, uplifting, patriotic art for the people.

The National Preparatory School, and then a huge series at the new Ministry of Education, took several years to complete from 1922 to 1926 and beyond. He was convinced – as Marnham reductively puts it – that he could change the world by painting walls.

There was a hiatus while he went to Moscow 1927-8.

And then it was an unavoidable paradox, much commented on at the time and ever since, that some of Diego’s greatest murals were painted in America, land of the capitalists. In 1929 he received a commission to decorate the walls of a hacienda at Cuernevaca from the U.S. Ambassador, Dwight Morrow. Following this he went to San Francisco to paint murals at the San Francisco Stock Exchange (!) and the SF School of Arts. His argument was always that he was bringing the Communist message to the capitalist masses, but there’s no doubt that it also meant money money money. Fame and money.

In 1931 he helped organise a one-man retrospective at New York’s new Museum of Modern Art (founded in 1929) which was a great popular success. Marnham is amusingly sarcastic, listing the names of the umpteen super-rich multi-millionaires who flocked to the show and wanted to be photographed with the ‘notorious Communist’. Twas ever thus. Radical chic. Champagne socialism.

As a result of all this fame he was invited by Edsel Ford, son of the famous Henry, to do some murals at the company’s massive car factory in Michigan. Diego put in a vast amount of time studying the plant and all its processes with the result that the two massive murals painted on opposite sides of a big, skylit hall are arguably among the greatest murals ever. Stunningly dynamic and exciting and beautifully composed.

North wall of Diego Rivera's Detroit Murals (1933)

North wall of Diego Rivera’s Detroit Murals (1933)

Everything was going swimmingly until the next commission – to do a mural in the foyer of the enormous new Rockefeller Building in New York – went badly wrong. Diego changed the design several times, to the annoyance of the strict and demanding architects, but when he painted the face of Lenin, not in the original sketches, the architects reacted promptly and ejected him from the building. A great furore was stirred up by the press with pro and anti Rivera factions interviewed at length, but it marked the abrupt end of commissions (and money) in America. What was to have been his next commission, to paint murals for General Motors at the Chicago World Fair was cancelled.

Diego was forced, very reluctantly, to go back to Mexico in 1943, back to ‘the landscape of nightmares’. Marnham makes clear that he loved America, its size, inventiveness, openness, freedom and wealth – and was angry at having to go back to the land of peasants and murderous politicians.

He was ill for much of 1934, and started his affair with Frida’s sister for all kinds of possible motives. Towards the end of the year he felt well enough to do a mural for the Palacio de Bellas Artes. In 1935 he resumed work on new rooms of the National Palace, a project he abandoned when he went to America. He made the decision to depict current Mexican politicians and portray the current mood of corruption. Bad idea. Once the murals were finished, the Mexican government didn’t give him another commission for six years and he was replaced as official government muralist by Jose Clemente Orosco.

He did a set of four panels for the Hotel Reforma in Mexico City, but the owner was offended by their blatant anti-Americanism (given that most of his guests were rich Americans) so he took them down and they were never again displayed in Diego’s lifetime.

Forced out of art – more accurately forced back into painting oil canvases which, paradoxically, were always far more profitable than his murals – for the next five years Diego concentrated on politics.

Diego’s politics

Diego’s politics seem to be strangely intangible and were certainly changeable. He lived in a fantasy world, was a great storyteller, and Lenin and Marx seem to have entered his huge imaginarium as another set of characters alongside Montezuma, Cortes and Zapata.

Having joined the Mexican Communist Party in 1922 he left it in 1925, went on an ill-fated trip to Moscow in 1927-8, arriving just as Stalin was beginning to exert his power and the campaign against Trotsky was getting into full swing and, for his tactless criticism, was asked by the Soviet authorities to leave.

Enter Trotsky

A decade later, stymied in his artistic career, Diego joined the International Communist League, affiliated to Trotsky’s Fourth International. He wanted to be a Communist, but not a Stalinist. In January 1937, he gave his support to the exiled Trotsky and persuaded the reluctant Mexican government to give him safe haven at his home in Mexico City.

Trotsky lived with Diego and Frida for two years, Diego providing him with every help and resource, taking him on long tours of the country (for a spell along with the godfather of Surrealism, André Breton, who also stayed at the Casa Azula).

Diego wasn’t a political thinker. In Russia in 1927 he had begun to realise what was happening to Soviet communism and the point was rammed home, for even the most simple-minded by the simultaneous collapse of the Communist Left in the Spanish Civil War (where Stalin’s commissars, secret police and assassins spent more time torturing and killing the other left-wing forces instead of combating the common enemy, Franco) and then the outrageous Moscow Show Trials, 1936-38. Marnham’s account of all this is very interesting; he writes in a wonderfully clear, sensible, entertaining style, with a persistent dry humour.

Anyway, the idyll with Trotsky came to a grinding halt when Diego discovered that Frida had been having an affair with him. She was 30, Trotsky was 58. (One of the revelations of this book is the number of affairs Frida had, with both men and women. She had affairs with at least 11 men between summer 1935 and autumn 1940.)

In fact Diego had put himself in some danger with Stalin commissioning no fewer than three NKVD hit squads to track Trotsky down and kill him. After Diego kicked Trotsky out of the Blue House, the ailing Communist, along with wife and bodyguards, did up a house only a few hundred yards away. Here he was subject to a horrifying attack by an armed gang led by – bizarrely – one of Mexico’s other leading mural painters – David Alfaro Siqueiros – who burst into the villa and fired 173 shots into the bedroom – again amazingly, missing Trotsky who took shelter under the bed with his wife. Siqueiros went on the run. Having read 400 pages of Frank McLynn’s biography of the Mexican Revolution, I am now completely used to thinking that this was how political disagreements were routinely handled in Mexico.

A second assassination attempt was made in August, when Ramón Mercader, hired by the NKVD, inveigled his way past Trotsky’s security men and, as the great man leant down to read a letter, embedded a small icepick he had smuggled into the house. Amazingly, this failed to kill Trotsky, who fought back and his guards burst in to find the two men rolling round on the floor. The guards nearly killed Mercader but Trotsky told them to spare him. Then the great man was taken off to hospital where he died a day later.

After Trotsky

Deeply wounded by Frida’s affair with the old Bolshevik, Trotsky’s murder led Diego a) to forgive her b) to flee to America, specifically San Francisco where he’d received a commission to do a big mural on the theme of Pan America.

With a new president of Mexico the unofficial ban on Rivera was lifted and in 1940 he began a series of murals at the National Palace. There were eleven panels in all, around the first floor gallery of the central courtyard. They took Rivera, off and on, nine years to complete, not finished till 1951. They bring to the fore his lifelong engagement with a central issue of Mexican identity? Are Mexicans Aztec Indians? Or Spanish? Or half-breeds?

Diego and Frida

Surprisingly, Marnham deals with the last 15 or so years of his life (he died in 1957) very scantily. Rivera painted numerous more murals but Marnham barely mentions them.  Instead Marnham develops a theory about the psycho-sexual relationship between Frida and Diego, trying to tease sense out of their complicated mutual mythomania.

He suggests that Frida’s illness limited her mobility, and made her a world class invalid. This she dramatised in a wide range of paintings depicting her miscarriages, abortions, corsets, operations and other physical ailments. But overlaid on them was her unhappiness about Diego’s infidelity, especially with her own sister… In reality she seems to have had scads of affairs with lots of men and quite a few women but this doesn’t come over from her art, which tends to present her as a victim.

And yet she is an empowered victim. Biographical accounts and some paintings strongly suggest that, although he boasted and bragged of his own countless affairs and ‘conquests’, in the privacy of their relationship he became the reverse of the macho Mexican male – he became her ‘baby’. She often gave him baths, and maybe powdered and diapered him. Many women like to see men as carrying on being big babies: it can be a consolation for their powerlessness. But it can also be true.

Then again Marnham quotes a startling occasion when Diego said he loved women so much sometimes he thought he was a lesbian. And Frida poked fun at his massive, woman-sized breasts. Marnham shows how they shared much about their early childhood – both had close siblings who died and haunted their imaginations; both fantasised about belonging to peasant Indian parents, not their boring European ones. And so both egged each other on to mythologise their feel for their vexing country.

I was particularly struck to discover that, during their various separations, Frida completely abandoned her ornate ‘look’, the carefully constructed colourful native dresses, and earrings and head-dresses she copied from the native women of the Tehuana peninsula. According to Marnham, when they divorced in 1940, she cut her hair, wore Western clothes and flew to New York to stay with friends, looking like a crop-haired, European lesbian. So the conclusion seems to be that her self-fashioning into a kind of mythological creature incorporating native dress – and his murals which obsess about the native inheritance – were both central ingredients to the psychological-sexual-artistic nexus/vortex/chamber of wonders that they created.

No wonder their mutual infidelities upset the other but — they just found they couldn’t live apart. The sex may have stopped but the intensity of the psychological and artistic world they created together couldn’t be even faintly recreated with other partners.

It was obviously very complicated, and in its complexity, prompted the core of the artworks, the endless reworking of her own image which have made her more and more famous, probably better known these days than her obese husband. Looking for one narrative through all this – especially a white, western, feminist narrative – strikes me as striving for clarity where the whole point was the creativity of a non-judgmental Mexican myth-making.

Same with the politics. In her last years Frida became a zealous Stalinist. This after the Moscow Show Trials, his alliance with Hitler and everything Trotsky told them from his unparalleled first hand experience. None of that mattered.

Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin were part of her personal mythology, as much as Diego – more objective, more interested in the external world than her – experimented endlessly with the theme of the Spanish conquest, fascinated by his Aztec forebears,and endlessly tormented by the meaning of being Mexican – is it to value the European heritage, or despise it? Should you side with the defeated Indians, or leap forwards to a future of factories and communist state ownership? Even when – as Diego knew only too well – most of the Indian peasants he claimed to be speaking for, and ‘liberating’ in his murals, in fact clung to village traditions and above all to their Roman Catholic faith.

Two deaths

On 13 July 1954 Frida died, probably from an overdose of painkillers. A few months his repeated attempts to rejoin the Mexican Communist Party was granted. He embarked on his last set of murals. In 1954 he married his art dealer, Emma Hurtado. Everyone says he aged suddenly and dramatically. Before the year was out he was having an affair with Dolores Olmedo who had been friends with Frida, was her executrix, and was also the principal collector of Diego’s easel paintings.

So, as Marnham summarises the situation in his customarily intelligent, amused and dry style – he was married to his art dealer while having an affair with her principal customer. In September 1957 he had a stroke and in December of the same year died of heart failure. He left an autobiography, My Life, My Art full of scandalous lies and tall tales, and a world of wonder in his intoxicating, myth-making, story-telling murals.

Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park by Diego Rivera (1947)

Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park by Diego Rivera (1947)


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Villa and Zapata by Frank McLynn (2000)

Almost immediately Villa lost his temper and began ranting at Obregón… Obregón replied in kind and both men seemed on the point of drawing their guns. (Description of a typical political discussion between ‘revolutionary’ leaders, page 253)

In the autumn of 1913 the young American journalist John Reed spent four months embedded in the army of Mexican ‘revolutionary’ Pancho Villa. He was present at the general’s meetings with fellow leaders, met ordinary soldiers and peasants fighting for change, and rode into battle with the villistas. During one conversation Villa suddenly asked Reed: ‘And the war in America? How is that going?’ Puzzled, Reed replied that there was no war in America. ‘No war,’ exclaimed the amazed Villa. ‘Then how do you pass the time?’

Exactly. Fighting was a full-time activity for Villa and the various bandits, rebels, criminals, psychopaths, idealists, chancers and mercenaries he led in the so-called Army of the North, as it was for a rich array of other rebel leaders who flourished throughout Mexico, not to mention their counterparts in the various state militias and in the Federal Army. Combine their itchy trigger fingers with the spectacularly two-faced, corrupt and scheming politicians who made a mess of running the country, and you have the toxic social and political mix which plunged Mexico into anarchy and violence between 1910 and 1920.

Frank McLynn is a popular historian who takes scholarly works and turns them into rip-roaring narratives. In the introduction to Villa and Zapata: A Biography of the Mexican Revolution, he candidly admits he has piggy-backed on Alan Knight’s two-volume history of the Mexican Revolution (Knight makes regular appearances in the text, quoted as giving the definitive view on this or that event) on Friedrich Katz’s award-winning biography of Pancho Villa, and on John Womack’s biography of Emiliano Zapata, to produce his book – although the ten page bibliography gives evidence of a mass of other reading as well.

As the writer Patrick Marnham puts it, the so-called ‘Mexican Revolution’ presents ‘a fiendishly complicated story’, and it is quite an achievement to have converted it into one coherent, and very readable, narrative. McLynn bases it on the twin biographies of Zapata and Villa, but ranges far further afield to give a panoramic portrait of the whole period.

Mexico: a whistlestop history

Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821. The following decades were characterised by political turmoil dominated by the figure of general-turned-president Antonio López de Santa Anna: hence the era of Santa Anna.

Attempts at stability weren’t helped by the big war with America, from 1846 to 1848, which resulted in Mexico losing over a third of its territory to the Giant in the North, which became the American states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

Civil war between liberals and conservatives from 1858 to 1861 was won by the Liberals. But when they stopped repaying foreign debt to their European creditors, France sent an army to invade, claim the money, and impose on the Mexicans an Empire ruled by the Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of Austria. Resistance to this bizarre foreign imposition persisted in the more far-flung provinces and, when threats from post-Civil War America forced Napoleon III to withdraw his army in 1867, Maximilian’s remaining forces were quickly defeated and he was executed. This was the War of the Intervention.

The decade or so after Maximilian’s death was dominated by the Liberal politicians, Benito Juárez. In 1876 Porfirio Díaz, a republican general during the French intervention, was elected president. He lost the 1880 election but was re-elected in 1884, and ruled continually from then until 1911. Hence this period of Mexican history is known as the Porfiriato.

Diaz encouraged foreign (mainly American, but some British) investment and influence, invested in the arts and sciences, expanded the railroad network and telecommunications, resulting in a period of economic stability and growth. ‘Order, peace and progress,’ was his motto. He created concentric circles of advisers, cronies, bankers, financiers and big landowners, to bolster his rule.

All great and good – if you were rich. But the Porfiriato did little or nothing for the majority of Mexico’s population, the extremely impoverished peasants and peons who worked the land.

McLynn paints a vivid portrait of Mexican society on the eve of the war. The most important feature was the power of the hacendados, owners of the vast haciendas, centralised settlements which owned most of the agricultural land in Mexico. They ’employed’ millions of peons, debt slaves who were born or compelled into debt to the hacendados, forced to do back-breaking work seven days a week, for a pittance (25 cents a week) which they were then obliged to spend in the hacienda stores. The hacendados as a class were wealthy and, of course, backed Diaz. Beyond the cities, towns and haciendas lay the hundred thousand or more dusty villages where ‘free’ peasants, only a notch or two above the peons, scratched a living from whatever common land was left over.

During the 1900s many of the hacendados, in all of Mexico’s thirty states, made illegal attempts to co-opt and fence in what had previously been common land, using their armed militias to make examples of any villagers foolish enough to try to defend traditional ‘rights’. This included beating up or plain murdering uppity villagers.

It was during the early 1900s that Francisco ‘Pancho’ Villa (born in 1878), Emiliano Zapata Salazar (born in 1879) and thousands like them, born and raised in big peasant families, saw at first hand how their fathers and fellow villagers were treated with contempt by hacendados who could beat, kill and even rape at will, and who, since they controlled the local police and legal system, got off scot-free. A mounting sea of anger and frustration.

The challenge from Madero

The so-called ‘revolution’ was triggered by a mild-mannered, well-educated and rather other-worldly liberal, Francisco Madero, who announced his intention to run for president in 1910 against Diaz who was, by now, nearing his 80th birthday. Diaz tried to use state power to intimidate Madero and then ran him out of Mexico. From exile in America, Madero announced that he would lead an ‘uprising’ against Diaz commencing at on November 20.

A number of rebel or bandit forces rallied to this call, including those led by Villa, already a noted bandit, train and bank robber.

Key fact: Villa throughout his career operated in the northern state of Chihauaha, Mexico’s largest state. Emiliano Zapata operated mainly in the state he grew up in, Morelos, a fairly small state just to the south of Mexico City. Villa was a larger-than-life bandit-turned revolutionary, who loved publicity and the high life and, when he won power, redistributed land and money to his loyal followers, while continuing to support American-owned mines and oil wells, in order to cream off big money from them, which he used to a) buy arms b) enjoy life. Zapata was an intensely honest, upright peasant with a peasant’s mystical attachment to the land: when he gained power in Morelos, Zapata instituted widespread land redistribution which in effect simply gave the peasants more land on which to practice their back-breaking work. He was against big cities, factories, capitalism and the future. He wanted his people to live in a timeless peasant utopia. Principled and incorruptible.

Madero’s contest with Diaz sparked uprisings all across the country, led by a kaleidoscope of local leaders, sometimes of small criminal gangs, sometimes of larger supposedly ‘revolutionary’ groupings. Pressure from inside and from international sponsors, most notably the States, forced Diaz to hold genuine elections, which Madero won in 1911. Diaz went into exile in France. Phase one of the ‘revolution’ was over. But, in McLynn’s account, Madero made the fatal mistake of acquiescing in Diaz’s parting plan, allowing an interim president to hold power for five months before taking the reins of power, long enough for the well-entrenched forces of reaction to consolidate and plan their resistance to the incomer.

Villa and Zapata, among numerous other rebel leaders who had led wide-ranging attacks on Diaz’s Federal troops, thought the job was done when Madero was elected. It took everyone a year or so to realise that Madero was not prepared to make the slightest changes to the economic and especially landholding system. He had only ever been a liberal pursuing the idea that elections ought to produce a genuine change of leader. He didn’t actually plan to change anything about Mexican society. The hated hacendados remained in power.

Pancho Villa

Pancho Villa

The hundred or so pages which bring us to this point have consisted of an incredibly detailed account of the military campaigns of not only Villa in the north and Zapata in the south, but of numerous other rebel or revolutionary leaders, plus the elaborate politicking which went on in Mexico City, and in the Modera and Diaz camps, plus the machinations of other political players, plus the changing attitudes of the American president Taft and his diplomatic advisers. It is all fiendishly complicated.

And this, I’m guessing, is the main reason that most educated people don’t know much about the Mexican Revolution: it went on such a long time, and was incredibly complex. Not only that, but at no point did an actual revolutionary socialist leader come to power.

Compare and contrast with the Russian Revolution, which was not only more more important in its impact, but easier to remember: 1. the Tsar was overthrown and executed 2. Lenin took power and 3. instituted a communist society. Simples.

1911 to 1920

The sequence of events from 1911 to 1920 is unbelievably complicated, which explains why it takes McLynn 300 more large-format pages to explain them – but the outline can just about be summarised. In February 1913 Madero was murdered by the military leader he had himself appointed, Victoriano Huerta in La Decena Tragica, the Ten Tragic Days, during which Mexico City itself became a battlefield between Army and Constitutionalist forces. Madero’s murder sparked further uprisings all over Mexico which amounted to a ‘second revolution’. (It is grimly fascinating to read about the role played in the overthrow of an elected liberal leader by a military dictator by the American ambassador to Mexico, the unhinged Henry Lane Wilson.)

All the old rebel leaders rose against against Huerta. The Constitutionalist army of Venustiano Carranza created an alliance of Northern states the most powerful component of which was Pancho Villa’s ‘Army of the North’, which won a series of military victories taking them right to the perimeter of Mexico City. With his army collapsing and even arch-conservatives turning against the economic and military anarchy he had precipitated, Huerta fled the country in 1914.

By 1915 Carranza had consolidated his power to become president, going on to create a new constitution in 1917, and then set about quelling his former allies, who included Villa, leader of rebels in the north, and Zapata, leader of rebels in the south.

Emiliano Zapata, leader of revolutionaries in Morelos from 1911 to his assassination in 1919

Emiliano Zapata, leader of revolutionaries in Morelos from 1911 to his assassination in 1919

After a great deal more complicated fighting and toing and froing of alliances, this generation of ‘revolutionary leaders’ was assassinated – Zapata in 1919, Carranza himself in 1920, Villa in 1923, and another key leader, Villa’s rival in the north, who made the transition to political office, Álvaro Obregón in 1928.

That’s a high-level summary, but it’s precisely the details of the countless battles with the federales, of the tentative relationship between Villa and Zapata, of the Machiavellian politicking of Carranza, of kaleidoscope of alliances, pacts, backstabbing and betrayals, which make the story so human and enjoyable. And appalling.

Socialism or personalism?

None of these leaders was a socialist. None of them had much following among the urban working class which, in Marx and Engels’s view, ought to be at the forefront of a communist revolution.

Their followers, who made up the bulk of their ‘armies’, which fluctuated wildly in size depending on success or failure, were made up of peasants, escaped peons, criminals, bandits and psychopaths, with a handful of literate educated men who liked to think they were fighting for a national cause. The only thing like a political policy which they had was a wish for land reform – Tierra y Libertad was the rather vacuous cry of all the ‘revolutionaries – but they had no idea how to carry it out with the result that… it wasn’t carried out.

Instead, the fighting was intensely regionalised and the rebel groups followed not a ’cause’ but their regional leader – the leader who was strongest and most effective in their region, who won battles and embodied the ideals of machismo more than any other. In this respect, it reminds me of Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon warrior tribes of the 5th century AD.

This explains – or is typified by the way that – Mexican politics of the period was not characterised by political ideas (or nothing more sophisticated than that the rebels wanted land reform and the conservatives didn’t), instead what you get is that every one of these leaders created an –ism or, in Spanish, an –ismo, which simply meant whatever that leader proposed; and the followers of each macho leader were given the leader’s name plus –ista at the end to indicate who they were followers of.

Thus something called villismo was attributed to rebel leader Pancho Villa, even though he was illiterate and uneducated and unintellectual, and changed his mind about key decisions from day to day – and his followers were called villistas. Emiliano Zapata was the exponent of Zapatismo – embodied in his so-called Plan of Ayala of 1911 – and was followed by zapatistas.

But this didn’t make this pair special or different; the same rule applied to all the leaders of the time: followers of Pascual Orozco were Orozquistas, followers of Ricardo Flores Magón were Magónistas, followers of Carranzo were Carrancistas, followers of the dictator Huerta were Huertistas and so on. The thirty odd years of economic progress were and still are referred to as the Porfiriato, after Porfirio Diaz. Which in turn was followed by the Maderism of of Madero. Maderismo? ‘Its main objective was to achieve democratic regeneration of the country through effective suffrage and no re-election of public officials.’ People not ideas. Personalities not policies.

Villa in Chihuahua

McLynn devotes a chapter to Villa’s rule over the state of Chihuahua from 1913 to 1914 which he managed with surprising effectiveness. He imposed law and order, provided pensions, free food and cheap meat for his followers and their families. Cut the cost of food and other basics, organised rationing, abolished abuses and corruption with a draconian code (execution for almost any wrongdoing), got his army to repair railroads and telegraph lines, expanded the school budget, raised teachers’ pay, built more than 100 new schools and set up a military college. (p.190)

But he and even the most literate of his followers were economic illiterates. Most of these ‘reforms’ were paid for by simply stealing money from rich hacendados and levying punitive taxes on the wealthy mining operations in Chihuahua (themselves profitable because it was so easy to ship iron, silver, copper and so on over the border into nearby America.)

Once income from these sources ran dry Villa printed money – which caused runaway inflation. Like so many illiterate dictators, he blamed ‘saboteurs’ and set up a secret police to track them down. McLynn gives a colourful portrait of Villa’s court at the time, which included literate managers and secretaries, but also genuine psychopaths such as Rodolfo Fierro, el carnicero, who shot men for the fun of it, though he overstepped the mark when he killed English landowner William Benton and sparked an international incident.

None of this was made to introduce equality – the focus was on redistributing land and resources to his followers, just like, say, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, and with the same net effect. The labouring peons and peasants remained dirty poor, but just had a new class of more anarchic and unpredictable rulers. It was, in the words of John Reed who saw all this in action, ‘the socialism of a dictator’ (p.191) or, in Alan Knight’s judgement – ‘Villa’s “socialism” was a figment of the Brooklyn Eagle.’

Zapata in Morelos

Of the 15 points in Zapata’s 1911 Plan of Ayala, only three were actually about economics or reform, articles 6 to 8 stating that:

6. property taken from the people by ‘landlords, científicos, or bosses’ will be returned to the citizens who have the titles to that property
7. one third of property of Mexican monopolies will be redistributed to villages and individuals without land
8. owners of monopolies that oppose this plan will lose the remaining two thirds of their properties which will be used as war reparations and as payment to the victims of the struggle of the revolution.

After Huerta’s ouster in 1914, Zapata set about implementing these proposals in his home state of Morelos but found it difficult in practice. Much remained to be done when he was assassinated in 1919. Permission for agrarian reform was sought by Zapata’s successor from Carranza’s successor, Álvaro Obregón, in 1920, but was only ever implemented in Morelos, and then only partially.

If any of these characters had had clear, wide-reaching social and economic policies for the entire country – towns and cities as well as simply the peasants of one small state, industries and utilities as well as agriculture – maybe they could have acted as a foundation on which to build coalitions, create political parties, attract voters and take the issue towards some kind of settlement.

But instead leaders of both right and left encouraged – or simply operated in – a culture soaked in personality. Are you for or against Villa or Carranza or Zapata or Modera or Huerta – or any of their hundreds of representatives at regional, state and local level?

The result is a style of politics based around personal alliances and vulnerable to all kinds of psychological whims and disagreements between the main players – a system which seems almost guaranteed to ensure that no one individual or party can ever come to uncontested power, and that armed uprisings, and the violence, looting, pillage and rape which this book is absolutely full of, spread across your country uncontrollably.

Since none of them were proposing really political ideologies with specific policies, you couldn’t really co-opt them, pinch them, incorporate them into your policies, discuss them or reach compromises – as we do in democratic countrties. The only way to end a cult of personality is to eliminate the personality. The only way to end villismo or zapatismo was to kill Villa, to kill Zapata.

That’s certainly what it looked like to the newspaper readers in the great big neighbour to Mexico’s north – an exasperated sense that the uprisings and violence never seemed to end.

'What?...Again?' Cartoon by Clifford Kennedy Berryman in The Washington Star (1919)

‘What?…Again?’ Cartoon by Clifford Kennedy Berryman in The Washington Star (1919)

Fame and the media

Zapata and Villa remain names to conjure with because, at various times, and in their respective states (Morelos for Zapata, Chihuahua for Villa) they both managed to pull off impressive military feats, often against superior Federal Army forces, which hit the headlines, sometimes around the world.

To a U.S. readership puzzled by the issues at stake, these military victories brought the two men to a peak of fame about 1914, and climaxed with the overthrow of Huerta and the triumphant entry of rebel armies into Mexico City.

In this the duo were helped by the media, by enthusiastic newspaper promoters like John Reed, and, strikingly, by the new medium of film. Rather mind-bogglingly, Pancho Villa signed with a Hollywood studio to make several films about his life and struggle while he was still fighting in the revolutionary war – namely the Life of Villa (1912), Barbarous Mexico (1913), With General Pancho Villa in Mexico (1913), The Life of General Villa (1914) and Following the Flag in Mexico (1916).

Villa’s name was further kept before the American public when, in 1916, the U.S. Army under General Pershing was sent to Mexico in response to an uncharacteristic raid Villa made on the American town of Columbus. Pershing led no fewer than 5,000 troops and employed aircraft and trucks in a huge co-ordinated manhunt, with the public kept informed by regular newsreel footage. He spent eight months in the hunt but failed to catch the wily bandit – thus adding to Villa’s latterday Robin Hood, Jesse James, Ned Kelly glamour.

Zapata’s legacy is completely different. Shy of the floodlights, far less garish and larger-than-life, Zapata is associated with inflexible, incorruptible, unflinching commitment to the issue of the peasants and their land. His example has been cited by land reform movements around the world and as recently as the 1990s a neo-Zapatista movement was started in Mexico’s impoverished south-east.

But, as far as I can tell, his only idea was a semi-mystical one that the land belongs to he who tills it: a notion generally referred to as ‘Agrarianism’. Still relevant to the places in the world where landless peasants, peons and serfs are still forced to work for big landlords – not very relevant to the urbanised majority of the modern world’s population.

The revolutionary legacy

As to the so-called ‘Revolution’ it did not lead to any revolutionary or socialist policies. Venustiano Carranza, who claimed political suzerainty over both Villa and Zapata (in an uneasy relationship which becomes a central theme of the story) replaced Huerta as president. He wasn’t a cold-blooded killer like Huerta, but he ruthlessly pursued the centralisation of all political power, and continued what was effectively a civil war which lasted from 1915 to 1920. The endless turmoil prevented anything much in the way of ‘reform’ except burning, looting, pillaging, raping and murder on an epic scale all across Mexico.

Carranza’s Constitution of 1917 was written by young professionals and, among other political changes, called for the expropriation of hacienda lands and redistribution to peasants, empowered the government to expropriate holdings of foreign companies, demanded an 8-hour work day, a right to strike, equal pay laws for women, and an end to exploitative practices such as child labor and company stores.

But just writing and ‘adopting’ a constitution doesn’t change anything on the ground. Meanwhile the style of Mexican politics carried on unchanged. Carranza was finally forced to flee when his one-time puppet Obregón launched a political campaign for the presidency in 1920. He looted the chancellery of all its gold and the capital of as much treasure as he could transport on the so-called Golden Train headed to the port of Vera Cruz. From here he planned to sail off into exile, as more or less every Mexican leader before him. Instead the train was ambushed and he was squalidly shot down in a mud hut where he had been taken to hide by bandits who then betrayed him.

Obregón won the presidential vote of 1920. The northern ‘revolutionary’ general Elías Calles succeeded him in 1924. Obregón ran again but was assassinated in 1928, allowing Calles to plan to become another long-term power behind the throne, another Diaz.

Since he wasn’t allowed to be president two terms in a row, Calles appointed Lázaro Cárdenas to be a puppet front-man for four years till he could return, but Cárdenas took the role seriously, won a power struggle with Calles, and expelled him from the country.

Same old story. In polities with a cult of personality, civilised negotiation is impossible. Either x is ruling or y. Whoever loses doesn’t go and get a job with a big corporation and cease commenting on politics – they have to be run out of the country.

In the late 1920s Cárdenas set up the Party of the Mexican Revolution designed to be ‘a big tent corporatist party’, to bring political factions and interest groups (peasantry, labor, urban professionals) together, while excluding conservatives and the Catholic Church. In 1946 the party was reorganised and renamed the PRI, or Institutional Revolutionary Party (‘a mesh of corruption’, according to McLynn, p.399), the party which went on to run Mexico until 2000.

The PRI embedded the myth of ‘the revolution’ to justify its existence for nearly 70 years.

Who knows whether these changes would have come about anyway, as a concomitant of unstoppable technological and economic change, population growth, better exploitation of natural resources. But in the Mexican way, they required so much violence. So many brutal and cruel deaths. So much breathtakingly duplicitous, dishonourable, backstabbing

My view is influenced by this two-hour documentary which seems to conclude that the ‘revolution’ led to some big political changes (i.e. a readjustment about who ran the political system) but absolutely did not lead to the fair redistribution of land or anything like ‘equality’. Even now, over a hundred years after the ‘revolution’ began, there is still mass poverty in Mexico, and large numbers of workers still toiling on the land.

The Storm That Swept Mexico

A two-hour-long American documentary covering the Mexican Revolution, which includes contributions from Friedrich Katz, author of the prize-winning biography of Pancho Villa which McLynn used in his book.

Why 1910 to 1920?

1910 is the start date of the Mexican Revolution because it was in this year that Francisco Madero launched his bid to become president and end the Porfiriato. 1920 is often taken as the end date (though historians still squabble about this) because it marked:

  1. The murder of the man who had lorded it over Mexico after the flight of military strongman Huerta, Venustiano Carranza – Head of the Constitutionalist Army, 1913–1915, Head of the Preconstitutional Government, 1915–1917, President of Mexico, 1917–1920, who had been the unremitting enemy of Villa, Zapato and the leaders of uprisings in other provincial states.
  2. The surrender of Pancho Villa, who was granted an amnesty for himself and his closest supporters, who were allowed to go and live in peace on a hacienda in Chihuahua.

Although Mexican politics continued to be a treacherous and dangerous business for decades to come (‘the years 1924-28 were dark and barbarous’), the half-war, half-bandit violence which had brought terror and destruction to most of Mexico for the decade since 1910, substantially came to an end. Unlike the obsessive centraliser Carranza, who couldn’t allow any other centres of power, Obregón was a natural politician and fixer who was able to negotiate peace with all factions and create genuine stability. Well. For a few years…

However, as the 1923 presidential election approached, the two likely contenders to replace Obregón were De la Huerta from the Right and Calles from the Left. Obregón had indulged Villa in peace and quiet on his hacienda as the old revolutionary became more right-wing and took to drink, but a series of misunderstandings led Obregón and his cronies to suspect Villa was about to throw in his lot with De la Huerta, possibly in exchange for a state governorship.

Numerous other enemies with a grudge against Villa had never given up their determination to take revenge. Obregón smiled on the complicated assassination conspiracy which McLynn lays out in great detail. On 20 July 1923 Villa was driving a car packed with friends and bodyguards out of the town of Parral, where he’d been visiting one of his many mistresses, when it was bombarded with bullets by a gang of gunmen and Villa’s body was riddled with bullets. Think Bonnie and Clyde.

In 1926 a massive rebellion broke out among Catholic peasants against the fierce anticlerical campaign of Obregón’s successor, Calles, which eventually spread across 13 of Mexico’s states, leaving as many as 100,000 dead and 250,000 to flee to America.

In 1927 Obregón announced his intention to run again for president. Various factions who tried to stop him found themselves blackmailed or stitched up, arrested or murdered, but powerful forces were determined to stop him. On 17 July Obregón was shot five times in the face at point blank range by a devout Catholic linked to the Cristeras during a banquet in his honour. Obregón was the last of the generation of Villa and Zapata, who had fought alongside and then turned into their political enemy – which is why McLynn takes his book up to this point. Eight years past the official end of the ‘revolution’, but long enough to make the reader realise there was plenty more political and social violence. What a country!

Almost at the end of the book McLynn tells us that the son of Emiliano Zapta the incorruptible, Zapata the peasants’ friend, ended up becoming a landowner, got himself elected mayor of Cuautla, sold out to the old elites and became a contented member of the Morelos plantocracy.

McLynn’s conclusion is that the bandit groups of both Villa and Zapata were co-opted into struggles not to change the ruling class, but within the ruling class – suborned to the death-contests fought between Diaz, Madero, Huerta, Carranza and Obregón. The net result of these ten violent years was to replace an ageing, traditionalist ruling class with a younger, more thrusting ruling class – but one which went on to use the age-old Mexican techniques of treachery and violence to seize power and, almost as an afterthought, drag Mexico into the twentieth century. The old landowning aristocracy was killed or fled into exile, the hacienda system was broken up and replaced by more modern forms of industrial farming, cash crops, mining and so on. The look and dress of the old ruling class was abandoned. Superficially, to look at, Mexico and Mexicans had become more ‘modern’ and ‘democratic’.

McLynn’s final, damning, conclusion, is that the ‘revolution’ made Mexico safe for capitalism.


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Edward Burne-Jones @ Tate Britain

One aspect of being a successful artist is establishing a look, a style, a brand. This exhibition, the first devoted to Burne-Jones at Tate Britain since 1933, brings together over 150 objects including some of his greatest paintings, a roomful of drawings, wall-sized tapestries, even a grand piano he decorated – which all go to prove that he established the ‘Burne-Jones look’ early on, and then stuck to it.

The Briar Wood (1874-8) by Edward Burne-Jones. The Faringdon Collection Trust

The Briar Wood (1874-8) Picture one in the Briar Rose series, by Edward Burne-Jones. The Faringdon Collection Trust

People sleeping and dreaming are his subjects. Even when supposedly awake, all his figures look as if they’re sleep-walking through the situations he places them in.

The figures are tall, statuesque, rather elongated. If nude, they have beautifully defined musculature, if clothed the men, in particular, are often wearing fascinatingly detailed armour, while the women wear long gowns whose convoluted folds are he captures with shimmering sensuality.

This painting, from a series depicting the legend of Perseus and Andromeda, shows these features – human figures elongated, the (admittedly delicate) musculature of the nude woman, and the fascinating style of armour Perseus is wearing, like no armour any real medieval warrior ever wore, almost cyber-punk in its fetishistic detail.

The Doom Fulfilled by Edward Burne-Jones (1888). Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart

The Doom Fulfilled by Edward Burne-Jones (1888). Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart

Many exhibitions I’ve been to at Tate Britain set out to prove a thesis, but this show is a return to an older, more traditional type of curating, which sets out simply to explain and delight.

I recommend buying the audioguide. This has four voices on it – the exhibition curator Alison Smith, an art scholar who’s a long-standing fan of Burne-Jones, the novelist Tracey Chevalier ditto. But the most interesting one is the voice of Burne-Jones’s great great grand-daughter, Serena Thirkell, who shares her memories of growing up in a house where some of these famous paintings hung in the hall or dining room, and how she and the other small children were attracted, frightened and fascinated by them.

I particularly liked her take on the amazingly sumptuous painting, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid. To the adult eye there are all kinds of things going on in it, from the (typically strange) armour of the king to the (typically blank) expression on the beggar maid’s face, to the heads-together pose of the two figures at the balustrade, obviously inspired by pre-Raphael Renaissance paintings, ditto the carefully delineated leaves of the olive branches poking in from the left.

But what Serena remembered was the avenues of escape from the picture, the way she and her little friends could imagine scampering up the stairs to the gallery, and then outside into the lovely Italian landscape glimpsed through the window. And how this sense of escape was balanced by the sense of threat created at the other end of the painting – caused by the narrowing, claustrophobic steps going down, past the king’s knees and feet, down, down towards… what scary darkness?

King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid by Edward Burne-Jones (1884)

King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid by Edward Burne-Jones (1884)

Her memories remind the listener that you don’t always have to respond to art with sophisticated theories or abrasive gender politics. Sometimes you can let yourself be swept off your feet to fairyland. Few artists devoted as much energy to creating that effect as Burne-Jones.

The exhibition’s content is indicated by the titles of the seven rooms:

  1. 1856-1870 Apprentice to Master
  2. Burne-Jones as a draughtsman
  3. 1877-98 Exhibition paintings
  4. Portraits
  5. The series paintings – The Perseus series
  6. The series paintings – The Briar Rose
  7. Burne-Jones as a designer

Unusually, Burne-Jones didn’t attend art school at all. He began studying theology at university, before packing it in and essentially teaching himself art.

The iconography of Christianity i.e. the figurative depiction of key moments – the Annunciation, various saints though not, tellingly, the Crucifixion itself – stayed with him for the rest of his career.

Later in life Burne-Jones collaborated on designing stained glass windows for churches which were produced in the factory of his close friend, William Morris. It’s estimated that he produced the designs for over 650 stained glass windows, which is why many of the patterns and designs in the final room, ‘Burne-Jones as designer’, seem so familiar. Anyone who visits English parish churches has been exposed to his pervasive influence.

Adoration of the Magi (1894) by Edward Burne-Jones. Victoria and Albert Museum

Adoration of the Magi (1894) by Edward Burne-Jones. Victoria and Albert Museum

Room two shows how much effort Burne-Jones put into practicing drawing and sketching, especially on the four big trips he made to Italy during the 1870s, where he copied and studied extensively from the Renaissance Old Masters. Some of the sketches are breath-taking – of hands in different poses, or feet, especially elaborate depictions of the folds of dresses, not to mention a standout sketch of a flowering plant and a page of sketches of birds. What an eye, what a hand!

Desiderium (1873) by Edward Burne-Jones. Tate

Desiderium (1873) by Edward Burne-Jones. Tate

This room also contains some surprisingly comic insights into his private life. He enjoyed a long friendship with the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, and the exhibition shows some of the comic cartoons he included in his letters to her. He depicts himself in these as a skinny, long-bearded, mournful man, which creates an irresistibly comic effect, when placed next to the caricatures of his bosom buddy, the big, super-energetic, wild-haired Morris. I laughed out loud at the cartoon he drew of himself falling asleep in a chair while Morris passionately declaims one of his interminable epic poems.

Room three is amazing – full of massive ‘exhibition’ paintings, made to stun his contemporaries and sell to rich patrons. Love Amid the Ruins, The Beguiling of Merlin, The Golden Stairs, Laus Veneris, The Wheel of Fortune and half a dozen other enormous, strange, haunting, remote, dreamy images, pregnant with meaning, in which movement isn’t really movement at all.

Reminiscent, it occurred to me, of Botticelli whose Spring or Birth of Venus show supposedly dynamic images in which, in fact, nothing is really moving.

The Tree of Forgiveness by Edward Burne-Jones

The Tree of Forgiveness by Edward Burne-Jones

But the real Burne-Jones’ fan will be transported to heaven by rooms five and six. These recreate in their entirety the two most important series of paintings which Burne-Jones created. Room five contains the ten paintings he created to depict the Greek myth of Perseus between 1875 and 1885. The original idea was to hang ten oil paintings, interspersed with four relief panels on oak wood, all carefully arranged and lit so as to transport you into a mythic world of the imagination.

Only four of the planned ten were worked up into finished oil paintings (including The Doom Fulfilled, shown above) and the curators have hung these four, along with cartoons (actual size preparatory works) of the other six, plus one completed oak relief, placing them all in order so you can follow Burne-Jones’s huge and powerful depiction of the story through in order.

It’s a great bit of curating, which really works. Above all it shows you how muted, dulled and misty his palette was. And makes you realise this was always his style. The Laus Veneris, which is used as a poster for the show, is in fact exceptional in its use of bright orange for Venus’s dress. Even in the first room of early works, his faces are softened and blurred, the colours are dark and misty. As the years passed he perfected the technique of using colour alright, but making all the colours submit to the same muted tonality.

A kind of silvery blue-black dominates the Perseus series and helps them to cohere, tonally. Whereas, when you step into room six, you are enveloped in the Briar Rose series, four massive paintings depicting the early parts of the Sleeping Beauty fairy story, where a kind of muddy brown dominates and unites the colours.

The Garden Court (1874-84) by Edward Burne-Jones. the Faringdon Collection Trust

The Garden Court (1874-84) by Edward Burne-Jones. the Faringdon Collection Trust

There are scores of incidental pleasures to be had along the way, noticing how the sketched birds are incorporated into later paintings, spotting the influence of Michelangelo in the more muscular figures, or of Mantegna in some of the amazingly detailed swirling gowns.

The room of portraits caters to people who like gossip and biography about artists, featuring as it does portraits of his daughter Margaret, his long-suffering wife Georgiana, several of the lady friends with whom he enjoyed passionate friendships – Amy Gaskell and Lady Windsor – his longstanding patron, William Graham, and so on, with a bit of juicy gossip behind each one.

But what interested me more was the obvious link between later Burne-Jones and the European Symbolist painters of the 1880s and 1890s. The subject matter of both is generally the figurative depictions of human beings – realistic, easy to decode and relate to. And yet stylised in a powerful way which seems charged with mysterious meaning: especially all those women with the same faces, the same large eyes, the same vacant stare, the same elongated bodies draped, folded, bent in positions of sleep and languor – compositions pregnant with a meaning just beyond the mind’s grasp.

Some of the unfinished Perseus series, especially the one about Perseus’ encounter with Atlas, could be by a European Symbolist, transmuting what ought to be the straightforward telling of a well-known myth into something altogether new and haunting. The figures inside the globe Atlas is holding are depictions of the signs of the Zodiac, and yet they are the Zodiac symbols come to life and seeming to interact in strange and unknowable ways…

Atlas Turned to Stone by Edward Burne-Jones (1872) Southampton City Art Gallery

Atlas Turned to Stone by Edward Burne-Jones (1872), a peculiarly Symbolist work. Southampton City Art Gallery

Some people don’t like Burne-Jones’s big-eyed damsels, or jewelled dreamscapes. They see his entire visions as a creative dead end which supported a kind of anti-modern British philistinism right up to the end of the 19th century and beyond, while, throughout this period, the French were busy inventing modern art just 50 miles across the Channel.

But it is 2018. We are well into post-post-modern art, into the era when the internet makes everything available to everyone, when there are no longer movements with fierce adherents and bitter opponents. The stakes are no longer so high or so intense. We can like whatever we want to. I thought this was an absolutely wonderful exhibition – the room of the Sleeping Beauty panels is worth the admission price alone.

The promotional video

This shaky handheld video gives you a good sense of what the show is like.


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A Nation Without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910 by Steven Hahn (2016)

My thinking about the concept of borderlands has been influenced by a growing body of literature interested in exploring the liminal spaces in which social relations, cultures and claims to sovereign authority make contact, struggle, and reshape one another. (p.525)

Executive summary

This is a long, turgid and demanding book. Plenty of times I nearly gave up reading it in disgust. If you want to find out what happened in America between about 1820 and 1865, read James McPherson’s outstanding volume, Battle Cry of Freedom. For the period from 1965 to 1910 I currently can’t recommend an alternative, but they must be out there in their hundreds.

Two types of history

There are probably countless ‘types’ of history book but, for the purposes of this review, they can be narrowed down to two types. One type provides a more or less detailed chronology of events laid out in sequence, with portraits of key players and plenty of backup information such as quotes from relevant documents – government paperwork, constitutions, manifestos, speeches, news paper articles, diaries, letters – alongside photos, maps, graphics and diagrams explaining social or economic trends, and so on.

The other type is what you could call meta-history, a type of history book which assumes that the reader is already familiar with the period under discussion – the people, dates and events – and proceeds to ask questions, propose new theories and put forward new interpretations of it. Since this kind of book assumes that you are already familiar with the key events, people and places of the era, it won’t bother with biographical sketches, maps or photos – you know all that already – but will focus solely on laying out new ideas and interpretations.

A Nation Without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910 by Steven Hahn is very much the second type of history. If you want to find out what happened in America between 1830 and 1910, with maps, pictures, diagrams etc – this is not the book for you. There are no maps. there are no pictures. There are no diagrams. Sure there’s still a lot of information but what there mostly is, is lots of ‘reinterpretations’.

Reinterpretations

In the first paragraph of the introduction Hahn declares his intention to tell ‘a familiar story in an unfamiliar way’, and the front and back of his book are plastered with quotes from high-end journalists and fellow academics confirming that this is indeed what he has achieved – praising his achievement in ‘reconceptualising’ and ‘rethinking’ this crucial period in American history.

  • ‘a forthright challenge to old stereotypes’
  • ‘subtle and original conceptualisation’
  • ‘not a typical chronological survey of American history’
  • ‘conceptually challenging’
  • ‘breathtakingly original’
  • ‘a bold reinterpretation of the American nineteenth century’
  • ‘an ambitious rethinking of our history’

What this means in practice is spelled out in the introduction, where Hahn announces that:

  • Traditional history teaches that the United States started as a nation and turned into an empire. Hahn seeks to prove the reverse: to show that the United States inherited an imperial mindset from imperial Britain, with a weak centre only loosely ruling a farflung collection of autonomous states, and was only slowly struggling to become ‘a nation’, until the War of the Rebellion. The war gave the ruling Republican Party unprecedented power to pass a welter of centralising legislation which for the first time made America a ‘nation’. In this respect it was comparable to Italy and Germany which only became unified nations at much the same time (the 1860s) and also as a result of war(s).
  • Traditional history teaches that America was divided into a slave-free North and a slave-based South. Hahn insists that slavery was ubiquitous across the nation, with some of the fiercest anti-black violence taking place in New York, and that the principle struggle wasn’t between North and South but between North-East and the Mississippi Valley for control of the new country and, possibly, of the entire hemisphere. A recurring thread of the first half is the way that southern slavers seriously envisaged conquering all of Mexico and Central America and the available Caribbean islands to create a vast slave-owning empire in which the ‘slave-free’ north-east would be reduced to a geographic stump.
  • Traditional history teaches that America is an exception to the rest of world history, a shining light on a hill. Recent decades have overthrown that view to show just how deeply involved America was with trade, exploration and slavery back and forth across the Atlantic (this is the thrust of Alan Taylor’s brilliant account of early America, American Colonies). However, Hahn wants to overthrow not only American exceptionalism but even this newer, Atlantic, theory – he wants to shift the focus towards the Pacific, claiming that many key decisions of the period don’t make sense unless you realise that politicians of both free and slave states were looking for decisive control of the vast Californian coast in order to push on into Pacific trade with Asia.
  • Traditional history teaches that there was a civil war in American from 1861 to 1865. Hahn prefers to call this epic conflict ‘the War of the Rebellion’ – partly because the war was indeed prompted by the rebellion of the slave states, but also in order to place it among a whole host of other ‘rebellions’ of the period e.g. the Seminole War of the 1840s, the refusal of the Mormons to accept federal power in their state of Utah, the wish of some Texans to remain an independent state, the attempts by southern filibusters (adventurers) to invade Cuba and Nicaragua in defiance of federal law, numerous native American uprisings, and countless small rebellions by black slaves against their masters. Instead of being the era of One Big War, Hahn is trying to rethink the mid-nineteenth century as the era of almost constant ‘rebellions’ , large and small, by southerners, by native Americans, by newly organising workers everywhere, by the Mormons, by women – against the federal government.
  • Traditional history teaches that capitalism spread across America from its East coast, which was deeply interconnected with the global capitalist economy pioneered by Britain. Hahn seeks to show that there were all kinds of regional resistances to this transformation – the South was committed to a slave economy which limited the growth of markets and industrialisation; the whole centre of the country was occupied by native Americans who had completely different values and means of production and exchange; much of newly settled West preferred small local market economies. Probably the biggest single idea in the book is that the Republican triumph in the War of the Rebellion went hand in hand with the triumph of a centralised capitalist nation-state. But the latter part of the book goes on to insist that, even after its apparent triumph, capitalism continued to face a welter of opposition from numerous sources, from the disobedience of the defeated South, from western cowboy economies, through to resistance from highly urbanised Socialist and trade union movements – ‘the United States had the most violent labour history of any society in the industrialising world’ in the 1880s and 1890s.

Put this succinctly, these are certainly interesting and stimulating ideas. If only they had been developed in an interesting and stimulating way in interesting and stimulating prose which included interesting and stimulating facts.

But too often the ‘ideas’ dominate at the expense of the evidence and the basic information. Too often Hahn argues the points in prose which is so muddy, and with snippets of information or quotes handled so unpersuasively, or in such an obviously selective, cherry-picking way, that the reader has the permanent sense of missing out on the history, while ploughing through the interpretation. Take the new terms he coins:

New Terms

Most people in the world refer to the conflict between the Union and the Confederacy between 1861 and 1865 as the American Civil War. Hahn’s attempt to ‘reconceptualise’ it and refer to it throughout as ‘the War of the Rebellion’ has a sort of appeal, especially if you can keep in mind the cohort of other rebellions he sees as surrounding it and feeding into it. But put the book down and start talking or writing to anyone else in the world and…they will be deeply puzzled. It will require quite a lot of explanation to convey why you’re using a different name from the rest of the world… and all the while you have the strong sense that it will never catch on…

To given another example: America saw rapid economic change in the 1830s and 1840s, as scattered farmsteads and distant agricultural regions began to be connected, first by canals and, in the 1840s, by railways. Raw materials and goods could be traded further than just the local market. Eastern investors became interested in money-making possibilities. Traditionally, this period has been referred to as ‘the market revolution’. Characteristically, Hahn prefers to give it a different name, referring throughout to ‘market intensification’.

He does this partly because – at this late date – there is, apparently, still widespread disagreement among historians about when the American industrial revolution began: was it the 1830s or 40s or 50s? Something was definitely changing about the scale of agricultural and semi-industrial production from the 1830s onwards – Hahn is suggesting a new term designed to more accurately convey the way existing structures of production and distribution didn’t fundamentally change, but became larger in scale and more linked up. More intensified.

It’s an interesting idea but it’s quite subtle and I felt a) it requires more evidence and information to really back it up and b) I don’t, in the end, really care that much what it’s called: I’d just like to understand it better.

Show or Tell

You could also think of think of the two types of history book I referred to earlier as ones which show, and ones which tell. James M. McPherson’s brilliant account of the civil war shows. He gives you all the facts, and the people, and quotes extensively from a wide range of sources. There are numerous maps, especially of all the key civil war battles, there are photographs which give you a strong feel for the time, there are diagrams and above all there are really extensive quotations from letters, speeches, articles and so on, so that you can read about the issues in the words of the people who were debating and arguing them. As a result, McPherson’s account is rich and varied and highly memorable. You remember the people and what they did and said and achieved. As you follow his intricate account of the war, complete with maps and detailed descriptions of each battle, you get a real sense of what was at stake and how contingent human affairs are.

Hahn tells

By contrast, Hahn tells you what happened, with no reference to maps, no graphs or photographs, with minimum quotations. For example, he doesn’t give a single account of a civil war battle, and certainly no maps of them. All the evidence is subsumed to the need to make his case and put forward his theories.

But the risk of writing history in such a theory-heavy way is that your account might end up being more about yourself and your theories, than about the ‘history’; that you spend ages asking academic type questions…

What was the character of American governance? On what axes did American politics turn?How far did slavery’s reach extend, and what was its relation to American economic and political growth? How did the intensifying conflict over slavery turn into civil warfare, and in what ways did civil warfare transform the country? How integral was political violence and conquest to American development? How were relations of class, race and gender constructed, and what did they contribute to the dynamics of change?When did American industrialisation commence, and how rapidly did it unfold? How should we view popular radicalism of the late nineteenth century and its relationship to Progressivism? At what point could the United States be regarded as an empire, and how was empire constituted? (p.2)

… and then a lot of time answering them in a similarly abstract, academic kind of way.

To give an example of the triumph of theory over detail, Hahn is heavily into modern identity politics and goes out of his way to discuss the history of women and of people of colour using the latest up-to-date sociological jargon.

Thus Hahn tells us that the nineteenth century family was a ‘patriarchal institution’ ruled by the ‘patriarchal father’ or the ‘patriarchal husband’. He explains that 19th century American society was profoundly ‘gendered’ (a favourite word of his), a society in which people have defined themselves by ‘gender stereotypes’, where people carried out ‘gendered divisions of labour’, according to ‘gendered norms’ and ‘gender conventions’ and ‘gender exclusions’. The more aggressive leaders of the era, such as presidents Andrew Jackson and Theodor Roosevelt, are both accused of ‘masculinism’.

Similarly, Hahn loses no opportunity to tell us the big news that Southern slaveowners and their newspapers and politicians often expressed ‘racist ideas’ and ‘racist conventions’ and ‘racist stereotypes’ in ‘racist’ language.

The thing is – this is not really news. It is not that useful to be told that 19th century American society was sexist and racist. The use of the latest terminology can’t hide the fact that this is pretty obvious stuff. Not only that, but it is deeply uninformative. Instead of giving specific, useful and memorable examples of the kind of behaviour he is deploring, there tend to be pages of the same, generalising, identity politics jargon.

Part of his attempt to overturn ‘received opinion’ is to attack the notion that slaves were the passive recipients of aid and help from well-meaning white abolitionists. Wherever he can, Hahn goes out of his way to show that it was the blacks themselves who organised resistance to slave-hunters, set up communications networks, who were aware of the political implications of the outbreak of the War of the Rebellion, who organised themselves into groups to flee their southern masters and make for the Union front line then, later, after the war, continued the struggle for equality, organised themselves into networks and groups at local and regional level, won significant political and administrative posts across the South before a backlash set in during the 1870s.

In a similar spirit (that marginalised people weren’t passive victims but strong independent people with their own agency who have all-too-often been written out of the story but whose voices he is now boldly going to present) Hahn refers a number of times to women organising as much political activity as they were then allowed to do, taking on domestic and cultural responsibilities, organising a Women’s Convention in 1848, campaigning for women’s suffrage throughout the later pat of the century, fighting for admission to teaching and the professions, and so on.

Well and good, and interesting, in outline – but the way Hahn tells these stories is highly generalised, draped in politically correct phraseology, rather than illuminated by specific stories or incidents which really bring them to life.

McPherson shows

By contrast, McPherson shows us these forces in action. He devotes pages to giving the names and stories of specific women who helped transform the perception of women’s abilities. These include the passages he devotes to the role of nurses during the war, and as workers in key industries depleted of men because of the draft.

I was fascinated by his description of the way that, in the pre-war period, the movement of women from being cottage industry producers to the heads of nuclear households in which the male now went out to earn a wage, represented a as a big step up in power and autonomy for women.

McPherson shows the importance of women in the 1840s creating a new market for consumer goods, which made America a pioneer in all sorts of household conveniences for the next century or more.

McPherson devotes a passage to Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the bestselling novel of the 19th century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

I was struck by McPherson’s account of how women, in the 1830s and 40s began their dominance of the teaching profession, which has never gone away (in 2017 77% of teachers in the USA were female). The conference to launch the women’s rights movement which Hahn gives one brief mention, McPherson devotes three pages to, with accounts of the women who organised it, and the debates it held (pp. 33-36).

Later on, McPherson has a section about medicine and nursing during the war where, in a nutshell, certain strong-willed women followed the example of Florence Nightingale and set up nursing homes and went into the field as nurses. These women nurses and organisers impressed the male medical establishment, the army and the politicians, and made many men revise their opinion of women’s toughness. Notable pioneers included Clara Barton and Mary-Anne Bickerdyke (p.483) and Elizabeth Blackwell who, in 1849, became the first American woman to earn an MD.

The same went for factories and agriculture, especially in the North, where women were called in to replace men drafted into the army, and permanently expanded cultural norms about what women were capable of. (pp.477-489)

You see how all of this is immediately more interesting, more enlightening, and more useful knowledge than any number of references to ‘gender stereotypes’, ‘gendered divisions of labour’, ‘gendered norms’, ‘gender conventions’ and ‘gender exclusions’.

And if you are a feminist or interested in what women did during this period, it is far more useful and empowering to be given specific names and events and stories, which you can then go and research further yourself. Being given the name and career of Mary-Anne Bickerdyke is more useful than being given another paragraph about ‘gender conventions’.

Other problems with the book

1. Poor style

Hahn’s prose style is awful. Pages go by full of anthropological and sociological jargon, and utterly bereft of a single fact or name. Take this excerpt:

Although patrons expected favours and services from their office-holding clients, they had their own needs as well. Their power and prestige were enhanced by – often required – collections of followers who could offer loyalty, votes, skills, and readiness to intimidate foes, but all this came at the price of the rewards patrons had to make available: protection, work, credit, loans, assistance in times of trouble. (p.63)

Of what organised society is this not true? It could be describing power relations in ancient Rome, or Shogun Japan, or among the Aztecs.

Orotund His core style is orotund American academese which combines:

  • preferring pompous to simple words
  • clichés
  • identity politics jargon

Pompous locutions Favourite words include ‘deem’ instead of ‘think’, and ‘avail’ instead of ‘take advantage’. He is particularly fond of ‘contested spaces’: America in the 19th century was thronged with ‘contested spaces’ and ‘contested narratives’ and ‘contested meanings’. All sorts of social forces ‘roil’ or are ‘roiled’. When he quotes speeches the speakers are always said to ‘intone’ the words. People never do something as a result of an event or development; it is always ‘thereby’.

He has a habit of starting a sentence, then having second thoughts and inserting a long parenthesis, then finishing the sentence – combining two thoughts or ideas in one sentence, which forces you to stop and mentally disentangle them.

Cliché Hahn has a surprising fondness for really crass clichés. For example, early on tells us that General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna initially supported the setting up of a monarchy in Mexico, then:

in a veritable flash, he sided with the liberals and constitutionalists

‘In a veritable flash’. a) That’s not very impressive English and b) it’s rather poor historical ‘explanation’: instead of serious analysis of Santa Anna’s motives for this (apparently sudden) change of mind, he is treated like a character in a fairy story. Hahn’s sense of human psychology is often disappointingly shallow. On the same page we are told that:

Santa Anna was haughty, temperamental, and guided chiefly by personal ambitions for power and adulation.

A political leader guided by a personal ambition for power. Fancy that. On page 24:

Napoleon, in his audacity, planned to reverse the wheels of history.

On page 29, President Andrew Jackson (who served for two terms, 1829 to 1837, and I think is seen as a bogeyman by liberals because he aggressively opened up the West to expansion by the slave states and capitalists, though it’s difficult to tell from Hahn’s book) is quoted in order to demonstrate the amorality of his expansionist vision:

‘I assure you,’ he boasted to the secretary of war, his imperial hunger not yet satisfied, ‘Cuba will be ours in a day.’

‘His imperial hunger not yet satisfied’. He sounds like a character in a fairy tale. Instead of stopping to convincingly explain to the reader why Jackson was such a Bad Thing, Hahn writes sentences like this about him:

In 1828, in an election that empowered white settlers west of the Appalachians and especially in the South, Andrew Jackson won the presidency, and the bell of doom began to toll.

Ah, ‘the bell of doom’. That well-known tool of historical analysis.

The spread of the abolitionist movement in the 1830s prompted did pro-slavery counter-attacks on black churches or schools:

as the fires of hatred were fanned to a searing heat. (p.61)

Half a dozen times ‘the writing is on the wall’ for this or that person or movement. Indians, or blacks, or women, or strikers ‘throw themselves into the fight against’ the army or Southern racism or the patriarchy or capitalism. Oppositions ‘dig in their heels’ against governments.

Wrong usage Not only does he use surprisingly banal clichés, but Hahn is continually verging in the edge of ‘malapropism’, defined as: ‘the mistaken use of a word in place of a similar-sounding one, often with an amusing effect’. Here is a paragraph of Hahn which seems to me to combine cliché with phrases where he’s using words with slightly the wrong meaning.

Nearly one quarter of Santa Anna’s troops fell at the Alamo… and the slaughters he authorised there and at Goliad touched a raw nerve of vengeance among those left to keep the Texas rebellion alive. Believing that he verged on total victory, Santa Anna planned a multi-pronged attack on Houston and divided his army to carry it out. But the winds of fortune (in this case a captured courier) enabled Houston to learn of Santa Anna’s moves… (p.41)

‘He verged on total victory’ – can a person verge on anything? I thought only nouns could ‘verge on’ something, like the example given in an online dictionary: ‘a country on the verge of destruction’. Maybe this is correct American usage, but it sounds to me like an example of malapropism, something which sounds almost correct but is somehow, subtly, comically, wrong.

Elsewhere I was brought up short when I read that:

The militant posture on the Oregon question helped the democrats and their candidate, James P. Polk from Tennessee… eke out a tight election. (p.122)

The dictionary definition of ‘eke out’ is ‘to make (a living) or support (existence) laboriously’. Can it be applied to narrowly winning an election?

As for ‘the winds of fortune’ in that paragraph, that is just an awful cliché, isn’t it? Surely any historian – any writer – who uses phrases like ‘the winds of fortune’ or ‘the wheels of history’ or ‘the bell of doom’ or ‘the fires of hatred’ to explain anything, can’t be taken completely seriously.

2. Glossing over key events

Whereas McPherson dedicates a section of his book to a particular event, explains what led up to it, explains who the people were, gives extensive quotes explaining what they thought or planned to do, and then gives thorough descriptions of what happened – Hahn more often than not asks a sociological or anthropological question and then answers his own question at great length, only incorporating the subset of facts, events, people or quotes which suit his argument.

With the result that the book gives a very strong feeling that is it skipping over and omitting whole chunks of history because they don’t suit his agenda.

To give an example, early on in the book there are a couple of fleeting references to ‘the Alamo’. They come in the context of his discussion of the independence of Texas. Texas was initially a vast state or department of Mexico: the Mexicans invited or allowed American settlers to settle bits of it. Eventually these settlers decided they wanted to declare it a white American state. They were strongly encouraged by slave plantation owners in the Deep South who hoped they could export slavery to Texas.

Now this aim was itself only part of the wider ‘imperial’ aims of Southern slave owners who, in the 1830s and 1840s, envisioned creating a vast slave empire which stretched through Texas to the whole of California in the West, which would reach out to conquer Cuba for America, and which also would take control of some, or all, of Central America.

In this context, some notable American cowboys and adventurers took control of the Alamo and, when a Mexican army surrounded it, insisted on holding out till it was finally taken and everyone killed. From a macro perspective it was just one of the numerous clashes between American rebels and Mexican army from the period.

The point of explaining all this is that I know that The Alamo is part of American frontier legend. I know there’s an expression: ‘Remember the Alamo!’ I know a big Hollywood movie was made about it starring John Wayne. I hoped that, by reading this book, I would discover just why it’s so important in American folk mythology, what happened, who Jim Boone and the other ‘heroes’ of the Alamo were, and so on. I’m perfectly prepared to have the whole Hollywood ‘myth’ of the Alamo debunked, and to learn all kinds of squalid or disillusioning things about it, but I wanted to know more.

Not in this book I didn’t. I didn’t even get the debunking option. Instead Hahn more or less ignores ‘the Alamo’ because his focus in that particular chapter is on ‘reconceptualising’ that part of American history in terms of his broad meta-theme – the imperial fantasies of the southern slave-owners.

To find out more about the Alamo, I looked it up online. Just like I ended up googling ‘the Comancheria’, ‘the Indian Wars’, the ‘robber barons’ and ‘Reconstruction’. The entire era from the 1870s to about 1900 is often referred to as ‘the Gilded Age’ (because really rich Americans began to ape the houses and lifestyles of aristocratic Europe) but Hahn uses this phrase only once, in passing, only at the very end of the book, and doesn’t explain it. So I had to go off to the internet again, to really learn about the period.

His interest in theory, in proposing new interpretations and even new names (the War of the Rebellion) for the central events of the period means that he jumps over huge areas, omits all kinds of detail and gives us only the scantiest references to people I know are famous and important, or names I know are widely used for the era, wanted to learn about, and then found deliberately omitted in this book.

It is an intensely frustrating experience.

3. No maps

The history of the United States in the 19th century is the story of its relentless geographical expansion – westwards across the continent, taking whatever territory it could by force, seizing Florida from Spain, seizing Texas and California from Mexico (in the 1846 Mexico War), doing its damnedest to conquer Canada but being held at bay by the British (in the war of 1812) – attempting to conquer islands in the Caribbean such as Cuba (in the 1850s), and stretching the long arm of its empire across the Pacific to seize little Hawaii in the 1870s, even creating a short-lived American regime in Nicaragua (in 1856-7).

To understand any of this at all – to see what was at stake, where places were, the route of invasions, the site of battles and so on – you need maps, lots of maps, but – THIS BOOK HAS NO MAPS.

Whoever took the decision not to commission clear, relevant, modern maps deeply damaged the usefulness of this book. In just the first fifty pages, Hahn describes the extent of Commanche land, the shape of 1830s Mexico, discusses the status of East and West Florida, describes the debates about the precise territory included in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, follows the march of Mexican General Santa Anna to locations in East Texas. WITH NO MAPS.

So, in order to understand any of these discussions, and any of the hundreds of discussions of geographical issues, places, conflicts packed throughout the book – you need to have an Atlas handy or, better still, read the book with a laptop or tablet next to you, so you can Google the maps of where he’s talking about.

In fact, on page 33 I discovered that the does contain maps, but that they are poor-quality reproductions of contemporary nineteenth-century maps which are, for all intents and purposes, impossible to read. Take this example, ‘A Map of North America by Palairet’, which doesn’t even give you a date. The print is so tiny you can’t make out a single placename except ATLANTIC OCEAN.

Map of North America by J. Palairet

Map of North America by J. Palairet

I’m not often moved to get on a high horse about anything, but this is disgraceful. This volume is part of Penguin’s multi-volume history of the United States. It was published in 2016. It’s meant at some level to be a definitive history of the period, The decision not to commission a single clear modern map, and not to use any photographs, or diagrams or graphs, is inexcusable.

Here’s another example, Bacon’s Military Map of America from 1862, showing America’s ports and fortifications. Can you read any of the place names? No. Can you see any of the ports and fortifications? No. Is this map of any use whatsoever? No.

Bacon's Military Map of America, 1862

Bacon’s Military Map of America, 1862

Part two 1865-1910

I’ve read several accounts of the civil war but know next to nothing about the period which followed it. That’s why I bought this book and I certainly learned a lot, though all the time having to struggle through a) Hahn’s unfriendly prose style b) with the constant feeling that I wasn’t being told the full story of events but only what Hahn wanted to tell me in order to make his points with and c) without any maps, diagrams of photographs to refer to. The key points of the period which I took away are:

  • The administrative centralisation begun during the war of the Rebellion continued at accelerating pace for the rest of the century and into the 20th century, though not without all kinds of oppositions.
  • ‘Reconstruction’ is the name given to the period immediately following the War of the Rebellion, when the North tried to rebuild the South in its own image. Abraham Lincoln was shot on 15 April 1865. He was succeeded by vice-president Andrew Johnson who, unlike Lincoln and the Republican party which dominated the Congress and Senate, was a Democrat. For a year Johnson was fantastically lenient to Southern soldiers and leaders, letting them return home with their weapons, and return to their former positions of power. Congress, however, saw that the Southerners were simply reinstituting their racist rule over the blacks and so superseded Johnson, implementing a new, more military phase of Reconstruction, by sending the chief Northern generals to administer the South under what amounted to martial law. Thus there are two periods: Presidential Reconstruction 1865-67, and Congressional Reconstruction 1867 to 77.
  • Some of the colonels and generals who had risen to prominence in the War of the Rebellion were sent West to quell risings by native Indians, for example the Sioux Rebellion of 1862. There then followed about 20 years in which the U.S. government and army broke every agreement with the Indians, harried and pursued them, bribed and bullied them onto ever-shrinking ‘reservations. Some administrators and military men openly stating that they aimed to ‘exterminate’ the Indians. (General Sheridan called for a ‘campaign of annihilation, obliteration, and complete destruction’, p.379). It is ironic that Americans in the 20th century were so quick to criticise the British Empire and its colonial grip over native peoples, given that America did its damnedest to exterminate its own native peoples.
  • Describing what happened in the South from 1865 to 1910 is long and complex. But basically, there was ten years or so of Reconstruction, when the Republican government freed the slaves, gave them the vote, and tried to encourage their integration into economic life. This period ended around 1876 as the Republican Party lost its radical edge and became increasingly associated with northern capitalism. More to the point, the U.S. Army was withdrawn and the southern, racist Democrat party took over. They quickly began passing a whole raft of laws which brought about institutionalised ‘Segregation’. For example, during Reconstruction the number of black voters was huge, 80% or more of all adult black men, with the result that an astonishing number of local officials, judges and even governors was black. With the revival of the Democrats into the 1880s, all the southern states, starting with Mississippi in 1890, passed voter registration laws requiring voters to demonstrate specified levels of literacy, live in fixed abodes or even pay a small fee ($2) – with the result that voter levels fell to something like 5%! (pp.470-473).

This was one of the biggest things I learned from the book. Realising that it wasn’t slavery, or the Reconstruction period – it was this backlash during the 1870s and 1880s which instituted the Jim Crow legislation, the official segregation, the systemic impoverishment of black people, which was to last until the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s.

This is quite mind-boggling, a massive stain right the way through American history. It made me rethink my attitude towards slavery: I’ve read numerous books about slavery, seen movies and TV series about slavery, stood in front of statues against slavery, visited exhibitions about slavery.

But reading these pages made me realise that slavery isn’t at all the problem; that slavery is now so distant in time as to be almost irrelevant. It was this institutional racial Segregation, instituted across the Deep South of America, and whose ideology – if not its laws – spread to the North and west, infected all of American life – which is the real issue. It was the deliberate trapping of black people in the lowliest, poorest-paid jobs, and their systematic exclusion from voting and public life, the division of parks and public places, theatres and toilets and buses into black areas and white areas – this is the thing to understand better because, as far as I can see, it continues to this day. #BlackLivesMatter.

In a way, then, the emphasis which is still given by schools and exhibitions to slavery is misleading. Slavery was abolished 180 years ago in the British Empire and 155 years ago in America. This book made me realise that understanding the philosophy and practice of Racial Segregation is much more important and much more relevant to our ongoing problems today.

What feels like the lion’s share of the last 100 pages of the book is devoted to the consolidation of capitalism, and its enemies. There are detailed passages describing the rise of the ‘corporation’, as a new legal and commercial entity, quite different from the companies and partnerships which preceded it (pp.454-464) I didn’t understand the legal and commercial details and will need to study them elsewhere.

Hahn is at pains to describe the way successive federal administrations, although equivocal about the massive cartels and monopolies which came to prominence in the 1890s, nonetheless took them as almost natural agencies which the government could use and work through – as potential extensions of state power. BY the 1890s everyone on left and right thought that these huge monopolies (of railways, gold, silver, copper, iron, steel) a) were here for good b) that the reach and effectiveness of huge transcontinental corporations or agencies could be a model for modern government.

Behind all this is the Rise of the Nation-State, the grand theme Hahn has been tracing since the 1830s. But although the various aspects of its rise is the central development, Hahn’s focus is much more about the multitude of forces which resisted the rise of the state, criticised, questioned, critiqued it, from both left and right.

So these last hundred pages devote a lot of time to the confusing multitude of opposition parties which rose up against the, by now, time-honoured duopoly of Republicans and Democrats. We learn about greenbackism, antimonopolism, the Populist party, the Progressive Party, the rise of mass trade unions, the Knights of Labour and the first socialist parties – and then descend into the jungle of disagreements and bickering among working class parties – socialist, syndicalist, anarchist, gradualist, evolutionary, revolutionary. There is a lot about the strikes – kicked off by the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 – which really blighted American industry in the 1880s and 1890s.

A softer, liberal version of resistance to monopoly capitalism came to be termed the Progressive movement, the idea that progressive politicians should use the levers of the state to combat alcoholism, illiteracy, corruption, infectious disease, prostitution, greed and labour exploitation (p.454). This movement lay the basis of what would later become the American welfare state (such as it is).

Some tried to bring the opposing blocs together. Liberal capitalists formed the National Civic Federation (NCF) in 1900, which brought together chosen representatives of big business and organized labour, as well as consumer advocates in an attempt to resolve labour disputes and champion moderate reform.

The final pages describe how the whole American imperial mindset was then exported, just at the turn of the century, to Cuba and the Philippines, which America won off Spain as a result of victory in the following Spain’s defeat in the 1898 Spanish–American War, along with Guam and Puerto Rico, and also to Hawaii which, after decades of slowly taking over, America annexed in 1898.

Hahn shows how the same military leaders who had crushed the Indians were now sent to impose ‘civilisation’ on the Cubans and Filipinos, and with much the same mindset. By now we are very familiar with American racist and segregationist thinking and so are not surprised when Hahn quotes racist comments by soldiers and administrators, or the speeches of politicians back in Washington, who thought people from inferior races i.e. the multicultural populations of Cuba, the Philippines and so on – simply weren’t capable of governing themselves, and needed the steady hand and civilising influence of the white man.

By the end of this book, I really hated America.


Old for us, new to the Yanks

I can’t get over the fact that so much of this seems to be new to the book’s reviewers. Back when I was a kid in school in the 1970s, I’m sure we all knew about American slavery. I remember the stir caused by the TV series Roots when it came out in 1977, over 40 years ago. All of us knew about the American Civil War, and maybe even had confederate flags or union caps among the various cowboy and Indian and army costumes we wore when we were ten. When I was a student, a friend of mine bought me Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, the classic 1970 account of how America betrayed, bullied, and massacred its native peoples.

I’m sure all educated people knew about this history and these issues decades ago. The people around me in the Labour Party of the 1970s, the party of Tony Benn and Michael Foot, were very well aware of America’s history of imperialism, its origins in brutal slavery which it didn’t overthrow until the 1860s, how it exterminated its native peoples, reached out to seize islands in the Pacific, in the Caribbean, and to dominate the nations to Central America, before going on to its long history of supporting military dictators, torture and assassination (in my youth these included the Shah of Iran, General Pinochet in Chile, General Franco in Spain, the military Junta in Greece, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and so on.)

In the 1980s I hung around the communist bookshop in Brixton which was absolutely plastered with posters about American racism and the legacy of slavery, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, protests against American imperialism and American multinational corporations and the CIA. Entrenched anti-Americanism was all absolutely basic, entry-level, left-wing political awareness.

Yet somehow, in these books by Hahn and Taylor, a lot of these things – the brutality of southern slavery, the genocide of the Indians – are presented as if they are new and seismic discoveries.

think what is happening here is that American academic history writing has finally caught up with how the rest of the world has seen America for generations – a hypocritical bully bragging about ‘liberty’ while keeping the descendants of the slaves locked up in drug-riddled ghettos, the last native Americans stuck in alcohol-soaked reservations, and propping up dictatorships around the world.

I think part of what’s going on in books like Taylor’s and Hahn’s is that, since the end of the Cold War, American academia is finally free to portray the brutal realities of American history for what they were – and that, for American readers and students, a lot of this comes as a massive, horrifying shock. To educated people throughout the rest of the world – yawn.

So if so much of the content has been so well known for so long, what was it that impressed the reviewers? I think it’s the unrelenting consistency with which he does two things:

One is the thorough-going application of a politically correct, identity-politics attitude which says right from the start that he is going to ignore a number of ‘famous’ events or movements or names (goodbye civil war, hello war of rebellion), in order to give more prominence to the role of native Americans, women and, especially, to blacks, than they have received in ‘previous’ histories.

But as I’ve commented above, in fact his widespread use of politically correct terminology like ‘patriarchy’ and ‘gender stereotypes’ and ‘racism’ and ‘masculinism’ in the passages where he does this, on the whole tends to obscure a lot of these voices, to bury them beneath a shiny sociological jargon which removes specificity – names, places, events and even words – from many of the groups he’s supposedly championing. In this simple respect, I’ve found much older accounts more enlightening.

In fact, it is possible to argue that Hahn and all the other politically correct historians who nowadays use terms like ‘patriarchy’ and ‘gender’ and ‘people of colour’ do so because these terms in fact fend off real acceptance of the blood and horror of those times. These sterile, clinical and detached terms in a way help to drain accounts of the period of their emotion and outrage. You could argue that the language of identity politics, the jargon of sociology and anthropology which recurs throughout the book, despite his explicit intention to bring uncomfortable facts and ignored voices into the light – in fact, through its sheer repetitiveness and its unspecific generalisation – works to neutralise and blunt the impact of a lot of what he’s describing.

For example, Hahn gives facts and figures and sociological explanations for the rise of slave fugitives following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. But McPherson, writing thirty one years ago, and without using any jargon, tells the specific story of the slave woman who escaped with her children to the North, but was tracked down. As the slavehunters, with their dogs and guns, beat on the door of the cabin where she was hiding, this woman cut the throats of her small children so they wouldn’t be taken back into slavery, and then tried to cut her own. You see which approach leaves you most stunned, horrified and angry at the unspeakable horror of slavery, and it isn’t the Hahn.

This is because the second thing going on in the book is what really garnered the praise, and that is Hahn’s high-level, intellectual and often bloodless ‘rethinking’ and ‘reconceptualising’ of the era in the terms I outlined at the start of the review.

He is interested in suggesting to highly educated readers already familiar with most elements of the period some new ways of thinking about it. Throughout, he downplays the voices of the white politicians who (I’m guessing) dominated earlier narratives, he really downplays the War of the Rebellion (maybe because there are already tens of thousands of other accounts of it), and instead plays up the notion that the increasingly centralised American state faced a whole slew of rebellions from multiples sources, devoting his time to describing and theorising this riot of rebellions.

And so he ignores what I’m assuming is the old-fashioned type of history which celebrated the rise of American freedom and capitalism and wealth and included lots of dazzling images from the ‘Gilded Age’, and he focuses instead on the wide range of oppositions which the state (and rich monopolists) faced from women, Indians, blacks, alternative political parties, the trade unions, socialists and so on.

But I find it difficult to believe that previous accounts failed to mention the movement for women’s suffrage, that there aren’t hundreds of books about the Indians, and thousands about Segregation, that nobody noticed the epidemic of strikes in the 1890s, or that numerous commentators at the time and ever since haven’t criticised America’s interventions in Cuba and Hawaii and the Philippines as being as blatantly imperialist as the European Empires her politicians liked to pompously denounce.

Maybe some of Hahn’s high-level reconceptualising is new and interesting, but to the average educated reader the actual events of this era remain unchanged and the main feature of Hahn’s book is that he doesn’t tell them as fully or as imaginatively as other versions do.

In a word

Don’t read this book unless you are already master enough of the period to appreciate Hahn’s reconceptualising of it. If you want vivid detail, maps, extensive quotes and a deep understanding of the period from 1820 to 1865, read Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson: so gripping, so packed with information and ideas, that I had to write five separate blog posts about it.

For the period after the Civil War – I have still to find a satisfactory history. Reading this book suggests I may have to track down separate books devoted to specific areas such as the Indian Wars, the Gilded Age with its labour militancy underside, Segregation and its long-term consequences, and the imperial conquests at the end of the century.


Related links

Related book reviews

Related art reviews

I’m Still Here @ Royal Festival Hall

On the ground floor (Level 1) of the Royal Festival Hall is a suite of rooms rather hidden away opposite the loos and cloakroom. It turns out to be a linear and surprisingly big exhibition space. It is currently displaying artworks from the 2018 Koestler Awards.

The Koestler Trust is the UK’s best known prison arts charity. Each year, it encourages over 3,000 people from inside the criminal justice system, as well as secure forensic and immigration removal settings, to express themselves creatively, and learn new skills by entering work to the annual Koestler Awards.

The Mental Health Hydra, a collaborative work by members of the Bluebird House secure mental health unit

The Mental Health Hydra, a collaborative work by members of the Bluebird House secure mental health unit

This year the curators asked three wives and two families who’ve supported a family member though a prison sentence to select works from the over 7,236 submitted which really spoke to them about the experience. Since the five groups each chose around 40 works, the exhibition contains some 200 pieces. Some of them are for sale.

AAAAARGH! by Michael at Bolton Probation Office

AAAAARGH! by Michael at Bolton Probation Office

There’s a really wide range of styles and types and sizes of work, including paintings and sculpture, poems and videos, animation and craft.

Left: Lift by the Spinney (secure mental health unit) Right: Circle by Gordon from HM Prison Edinburgh

Left: Life by the Spinney (secure mental health unit) Right: Circle of Life by Gordon from HM Prison Edinburgh

Many of the works are done to a very high standard indeed. Anthony Gormley curated last year’s show. This work – Night at the chippy by ‘Brian’- won the Grayson Perry Highly Commended Award for ceramics.

Night at the chippy by Brian (The State Hospital)

Night at the chippy by Brian (The State Hospital)

I don’t know why, but writing that sentence made me cry. So much talent, so many young lives, gone astray.

Disconnected by Peter at HM Prison Dovegate

Disconnected by Peter at HM Prison Dovegate

If you’re passing by the South Bank Centre, make the effort to go visit this exhibition. It’s open from 10am till 11pm, and is FREE.


Related links

Space Shifters @ the Hayward Gallery

I went to see Space Shifters during half-term so the exhibition was packed with mums, dads and children, running round, whooping in amazement, smiling, poking their tongues out and pulling funny faces. Why? Because this is an extremely open, light and enjoyable exhibition of modern art which plays with space and perception.

Installation view of WeltenLinie (2017) by Alicja Kwade © the artist. Photo by Mark Blower

Installation view of WeltenLinie (2017) by Alicja Kwade © the artist. Photo by Mark Blower

Take WeltenLinie (2017) by Alicja Kwade, a set of black frames big enough to walk through, some of which contain mirrors, others do not, with abstract sculptures or blocks of material dotted among them. According to the free pamphlet given to every visitor, Kwade’s

sculptural installations, objects and films illustrate or attempt to give material form to abstract questions and scientific principles. Addressing the relationship between reality and illusion, they ask us to think about what we know and how we know it.

Maybe although, to be honest, I don’t think they ask us to think about what we know and what we don’t know at all. I found it much more fun watching kids step through each frame and tentatively explore to see if the next frame was a mirror or a blank space, and then posing in front of the mirrors and pulling silly faces, and running round the back and hiding.

This is a brilliant exhibition to bring kids to.

Installation view of Space Shifters

Installation view of Space Shifters

Space Shifters features works by 20 leading international artists that ‘alter or disrupt the visitor’s sense of space’. In case you’re wondering, those artists are:

  • Leonor Antunes
  • Larry Bell
  • Fred Eversley
  • Felix Gonzalez-Torres
  • Jeppe Hein
  • Roni Horn
  • Robert Irwin
  • Ann Veronica Janssens
  • Anish Kapoor
  • Yayoi Kusama
  • Alicja Kwade
  • John McCracken
  • Josiah McElheny
  • Helen Pashgian
  • Charlotte Posenenske
  • Fred Sandback
  • Monika Sosnowska
  • Daniel Steegmann Mangrané
  • De Wain Valentine
  • Richard Wilson

At one point I heard a little boy running round an exhibit shouting ‘mirrors, mirrors, mirrors’ and there are, indeed a lot of mirrors – distorting mirrors, see-through mirrors, polished balls which are, in effect, mirrors.  There’s a set of mirrors which look like the type you get on old fashioned wardrobes, stuck onto rectangular frames, and it turns out that these are costumes, rather heavy costumes, designed to be worn by performers, who walk slowly along straight lines indicated on the gallery floor. Here is a very poor photo of just such a performer, taken in low light.

Abstract Bodies by Josiah McElheny

Abstract Bodies by Josiah McElheny. Photo by the author

Down on the ground floor is an entire room devoted to the work Narcissus Garden by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama which consists of stainless steel balls arranged in an organic pattern a little like the shore of a lake, inviting you to wander into the ‘inlets’, to view them all from different perspectives or to settle down amid the sea of reflections, like this family.

Installation view of Narcissus Garden by Yayoi Kusama

Installation view of Narcissus Garden by Yayoi Kusama

In the first gallery there are beanbags supplied so you can lie back and watch an enormous double spread of mirrors, two big mirrors shaped into a sort of butterfly wings, which is attached high up on the wall and slowly rotates. From the beanbags you are given a slowly moving panoramic reflection of the gallery interior and everyone in it.

Installation view of 360° Illusion V (2018) by Jeppe Hein © the artist. Photo by Mark Blower

Installation view of 360° Illusion V (2018) by Jeppe Hein © the artist. Note the bead curtains on the upper right. Photo by Mark Blower

Some of these are old – the first version of the Narcissus Garden dates back to 1966. Others have been created specially for this exhibition. What’s interesting is that you can’t tell the difference. In many key ways ‘modern’ art hasn’t really developed much since the extraordinary breakthroughs of the 1960s.

Two of the most striking mirror-based artworks are upstairs. One can be seen through windows standing on one of the terraces or ‘sculpture courts’ outside the gallery. It is Sky Mirror, Blue by Anish Kapoor who made it in 2016. This big blue concave mirror reflects a section of the sky and, as you watch, you can see England’s distinctive clouds moving slowly across it. Quite restful and entrancing.

Sky Mirror, Blue (2016) by Anish Kapoor. Photo by the author

Sky Mirror, Blue (2016) by Anish Kapoor. Photo by the author

But probably the most stunning exhibit, and the only one which truly qualifies as a profoundly disorientating experience, is 20:50 by Richard Wilson, which was premiered as long ago as 1987. Into one entire room, carefully lined and sealed, have been poured thousands of litres of recycled oil which rise right up till the surface is exactly flush with the v-shaped walkway which visitors can go along. As you walk ‘out’ into this gangway, the ‘lake’ of completely flat, completely placid oil, works as a room-sized mirror and perfectly reflects everything above it, the walls and ceiling, as well as the views out the window. It is a genuinely disorientating and wonderful experience – which is why a queue forms for it as soon as the gallery opens (at 11am, by the way).

Installation view of 20:50 by Richard Wilson (1987) at Space Shifters © the artist. Photo by Mark Blower

Installation view of 20:50 by Richard Wilson (1987) at Space Shifters © the artist. Photo by Mark Blower

It’s not all mirrors, though. In several rooms whole areas had been partitioned off by heavy metal bead curtains, downstairs lead grey, upstairs a lighter set, painted golden. Kids loved running back and forwards through these. I’m amazed they hadn’t been pulled off their hangings. There were a number of rather more subtle sculptures, experimenting with tall vertical and spindly feel, or a big circular purple blob which looked like an enormous candle, the central crater, rather like 20:50, brimful of fluid.

Probably the other most striking piece was Handrail by Monika Sosnowska (2016). There is, apparently, an order to the show: you are meant to go round the first room, lie on the beanbags to admire 360° Illusion V, then progress up the ramp and through the lead curtains into the space containing WeltenLinie and other works, before going up the stairs to the upper floor. As you do so you may or may not notice that the standard black handrail is at some point taken over by a lithe red handrail which twists around it like a snake and then, if you carry on with your hand on, you emerge into the large upstairs gallery and discover that the handrail suddenly goes postal and runs all over an entire wall in a crazy scrawl.

Handrail (2016) by Monika Sosnowska © the artist. Photo by the author

Handrail (2016) by Monika Sosnowska © the artist. Photo by the author

But I think my favourite – or the one which made me smile and I remember – is the very modest work titled Fred Sandback. Born in 1945 Sandback began making minimalist sculptures out of elastic cord and wire back in the 1960s. For once, I very much liked an entry in the exhibition guide. He explains that he got frustrated with sculpture which got ‘bogged down in its own materiality’, so he set out to make something ‘without an inside’ that could exist on an equal footing with the viewer.

The idea was to have the work right there along with everything else in the world, not up on a spatial pedestal.

For decades he’s simply been using off-the-shelf acrylic yarn. And so his piece in this exhibition is left untitled and consists of one string of red yarn pinned out to form a triangle, one side across one wall, changing angle where one wall joins the next, both lines extending down to the floor where the third side of the triangle runs across the floor.

Untitled by Fred Sandback

Untitled by Fred Sandback

 

So minimal it’s almost not there – which is exactly what I like about it. In a world full of ever-escalating clamour and rage, Sandback performs choreographies without words or scripts. It’s a matter of

conjuring up a form and then getting comfortable with it and seeing where it may take you.

As I stood enjoying it several other visitors came up and stepped over the barely visible red line on the floor ‘into’ the art work, and the gallery assistant had to ask each of them to please step back out of it because if they stepped ‘into’ it they destroyed its Zen-like purity. I found this very funny. ‘So in a way, you’re a crucial part of the artwork yourself,’ I suggested to her. A totally relaxed, open and permissive art work which – however – requires strict policing!

This is a great show, mind-opening, eye-widening, light and airy, and hugely enjoyable. Bring the kids. If you don’t have any, borrow some. They’ll love it and you’ll love watching their reactions.

The promotional video


Related links

  • Space Shifters continues at the Hayward Gallery until 6 January 2019

Reviews of other Hayward Gallery exhibitions

Trilby by George du Maurier (1895)

‘Y a pas d’quoi!’ said Trilby, divesting herself of her basket and putting it, with the pick and lantern, in a corner. ‘Et maintenant, le temps d’absorber une fine de fin sec et je m’la brise. On m’attend à l’Ambassade d’Autriche. Et puis zut! Allez toujours, mes enfants. En avant la boxe!’

Trilby was a publishing and cultural phenomenon. It was the best-selling book of 1894, selling 300,000 copies by the end of the year. Soap, songs, dances, toothpaste, and even the city of Trilby in Florida were all named for the heroine. Trilby boots, shoes, silver scarf pins, parodies, and even sausages flooded the market, and the type of soft felt hat with an indented crown that was worn in the London stage dramatization of the novel, is known to this day as a trilby. The plot inspired Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel Phantom of the Opera and innumerable other works derived from it.

The plot in brief

In outline the plot is simple. We are in the bohemian artistic circles of Paris a generation or so before the book’s publication, sometime in the late 1850s. An uneducated but strikingly beautiful young woman who works as an artists’ model and also does sewing, charring and other odd jobs, is ‘discovered’, by the tall, creepy Jewish musician, Svengali. He discovers that a consequence of her sweet innocent nature is she is very easy to hypnotise. So he does, and turns her into a concert-level singer and performer. In the right clothes, tall and statuesque and under his control, she is transformed into a singer of classical music who electrifies audiences all across Europe, making Svengali rich and famous.

The Paris background

Du Maurier was himself an art student in the 1850s in Paris. He attended the atelier of painter Charles Gleyre where he met talented young artists such as the American James Whistler, Thomas Armstrong (later Director of Art at the South Kensington Museum) and Edward Poynter (later, President of the Royal Academy). In fact Whistler recognised a blatant portrait of himself in the character named Jim Silbey when the story was published in magazine instalments, and threatened to sue, forcing Du Maurier and his publishers to remove the character and an illustration of him from the published book.

There were obviously lots of hi-jinks in this high-spirited setting and a big part of the book’s appeal for 1890s readers was its nostalgia for what, by then, was a bygone era of simpler times.

The fin de siècle reader, disgusted at the thought of such an orgy [of drunkenness] as I have been trying to describe, must remember that it happened in the fifties, when men calling themselves gentlemen, and being called so, still wrenched off door-knockers and came back drunk from the Derby, and even drank too much after dinner before joining the ladies, as is all duly chronicled and set down in John Leech’s immortal pictures of life and character out of Punch.

It seems, from the text, that people (well, men) could get away with a lot more back then.

And it’s arguably the most surprising and unexpected thing about the book that this bohemian setting is the dominant theme of the book. It comes as a great surprise to discover that Trilby and Svengali are only really – in terms of time on screen – relatively minor characters in the story.

The first 200 pages (of the 300-page edition I read) is overwhelmingly about, and told from the point of view of, three happy-go-lucky British art students having the time of their lives in Paris.

The setting is the studio rented by these three, nicknamed Taffy, the Laird and Little Billee. They paint away during the week, and have Sunday ‘afternoons’ where all sorts of other artists and musicians come round, as well as owning a variety of exercise equipment, notably several sets of fencing equipment, so the Sunday involve someone playing the piano, someone singing, a couple of chaps fencing, and a host of others milling among the half-finished paintings, chatting, smoking pipes and cigarettes.

Svengali and his sidekick, Gecko, are just two of a gallery of characters who appear at these parties, Trilby is to start with the girl who brings the milk up to the studio every morning. They invite her to take a break and smoke a cigarette while she watches them work, and then she offers to do a bit of cleaning, and then they ask her to model for them and, before you know it, she’s one of the gang, spending many day with the chaps, cooking and cleaning or smoking and relaxing with them.

There’s a wonderful passage in part one which describes a typical day in the life of a bohemian artist in Paris in the 1850s, which involves basically strolling round Paris enjoying the sights and stopping at cafes to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner, going to a cabaret, drinking, smoking and generally having a wonderful time. It is all described with high-spirited humour and conviction. Du Maurier lived this life. Lots of it is simple autobiography and memoir, which is what gives it such verisimilitude.

There’s no sex in the book. In terms of release and escapism, I think it was the happy, uplifting portrayal of youthful high spirits in Paris which contributed greatly to its popularity. Some of it is like a holiday brochure.

England versus France

On the face of it the most obvious opposition or thematic polarity in the book is between the pure, virginal, white Trilby and dark, swarthy, Jewish Svengali – white Western virgin women threatened by dark, Eastern, wicked man, a theme expanded in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published the following year, and in hundreds of thousands of pulp novels and sensational movies, from then right up to the present day (the movie Taken was on TV last night in which hard-man Liam Neeson rescues his white virginal daughter from Albanian sex traffickers who are planning to sell her to a rich Arab. Nothing changes.)

Except that for the first 200 pages or so of the book you really don’t see the Svengali and Trilby together that much. The polarity which dominates the majority of the text is between Britain and France, specifically Paris. Between good, solid, Anglo-Saxon purity and the magic, mystery and ‘immorality’ of legendary, mythical Paris.

Paris! Paris!! Paris!!!
The very name had always been one to conjure with, whether he thought of it as a mere sound on the lips and in the ear, or as a magical written or printed word for the eye.

Innocent Little Billee can’t believe he is here, in Paris, city of poets and artists. Poetic Paris is contrasted throughout with businesslike London, as the humorous, dainty, witty Parisian artists are contrasted with ‘Taffy’, who is in fact a six foot former British Army officer, taller and stronger (of course) than any mere Continental and who, in the course of numerous anecdotes, knocks them down, breaks up fights, picks up puny Frenchmen and swings them round his head.

Paris is poetry and art and exquisite cuisine. Britain is roast beef, business and the finest army in the world.

The Frenchness of the story – and du Maurier’s tremendous confidence in this milieu which he knew so well – extends to the language, because a good deal of the books is actually in French.

Lots of the book is in French

Large chunks of the dialogue, and numerous throwaway words and phrases throughout the narrative prose are in French. Du Maurier not only spent his formative student days in Paris, but he had been born and raised there and was perfectly bilingual, and it shows.

‘Tiens! c’est la grande Trilby!’ exclaimed Jules Guinot through his fencing-mask. ‘Comment! t’es déjà debout après hier soir? Avons-nous assez rigolé chez Mathieu, hein? Crénom d’un nom, quelle noce! V’là une crémaillère qui peut se vanter d’être diantrement bien pendue, j’espère! Et la petite santé, c’matin?’
‘Hé, hé! mon vieux,’ answered Trilby. ‘Ça boulotte, apparemment! Et toi? et Victorine? Comment qu’a s’porte à c’t’heure? Elle avait un fier coup d’chasselas! c’est-y jobard, hein? de s’fich ‘paf comme ça d’vant l’monde! Tiens, v’là, Gontran! ça marche-t-y, Gontran, Zouzou d’mon cœur?’
‘Comme sur des roulettes, ma biche!” said Gontran, alias l’Zouzou—a corporal in the Zouaves. “Mais tu t’es donc mise chiffonnière, à présent? T’as fait banqueroute?’
‘Mais-z-oui, mon bon!” she said. “Dame! pas d’veine hier soir! t’as bien vu! Dans la dêche jusqu’aux omoplates, mon pauv’ caporal-sous-off! nom d’un canon – faut bien vivre, s’pas?’

It’s expecting a lot from your average reader to be able to read extended passages of dialogue in pure French. But it’s worse than that. A great deal of this dialogue is in the French slang from the bohemian circles of mid-Victorian Paris, French which is – as the narrator describes it – ‘droll, slangy, piquant, quaint, picturesque’ – in a phrase, ‘French French’.

For example, Trilby’s French is highly colloquial. Where the French students speak student slang (‘studio French’), Trilby speaks a more working class dialect of the street. And Svengali murders French with his heavy Germanic accent. And the three British characters all have different French accents which are phonetically transcribed.  So there are quite a few different types of French on display. Here’s Trilby:

‘Maïe, aïe! c’est rudement bien tapé, c’te musique-là! Seulement, c’est pas gai, vous savez! Comment q’ça s’appelle?’

Here’s the Laird struggling to speaka da lingo:

‘Voilà l’espayce de hom ker jer swee!’ said the Laird,

Here’s Little Billee, trying to keep up with native Frenchman, the sculptor Durien:

Durien came in and looked over his shoulder, and exclaimed: ‘Tiens! le pied de Trilby! vous avez fait ça d’après nature?’
‘Nong!’
‘De mémoire, alors?’
‘Wee!’
‘Je vous en fais mon compliment! Vous avez eu la main heureuse. Je voudrais bien avoir fait ça, moi! C’est un petit chef-d’œuvre que vous avez fait là—tout bonnement, mon cher! Mais vous élaborez trop. De grâce, n’y touchez plus!’

And:

‘Demang mattang, à votre sairveece!’ said Little Billee, with a courteous bow.

And:

‘Dites donc, l’Anglais?’
‘Kwaw'” said Little Billee.
‘Avez-vous une sœur?”
‘Wee.’
‘Est-ce qu’elle vous ressemble?’
‘Nong.’

Here’s Svengali speaking ungrammatical French with a heavy German accent:

“Sacrepleu! il choue pien, le Checko, hein?’ said Svengali, when they had brought this wonderful double improvisation to a climax and a close. ‘C’est mon élèfe! che le fais chanter sur son fiolon, c’est comme si c’était moi qui chantais! ach! si ch’afais pour teux sous de voix, che serais le bremier chanteur du monte!’

The Oxford University Press paperback edition I read has footnotes translating all this and it’s just as well. Every page of the novel has at least some French on it – raw, colloquial slangy French – and some pages have huge great chunks. How did the original readers manage when the dialogue just switches into a foreign language?

At last she asked Durien if he knew him.
‘Parbleu! Si je connais Svengali!’
‘Quest-ce que t’en penses?’
‘Quand il sera mort, ça fera une fameuse crapule de moins!’

Possibly an ‘educated’ British would have understood the occasional Latin tag du Maurier scatters through his text:

  • ‘Quia multum amavit!’
  • et vera incessu patuit dea!
  • Omne ignotum pro magnifico!
  • Par nobile fratrum
  • ex pede Herculem!

And there are patches of German and Italian, too. But the experience of reading the book is not only to be soaked in the lives and jokes and high spirits of 1850s Bohemian Paris, but to be dropped into extended passages of raw French. This is the melodramatic climax of the entire book, when the impresario tells Trilby to sing and, without Svengali, she discovers that she can’t:

The band struck up the opening bars of ‘Ben Bolt’, with which she was announced to make her début.
She still stared – but she didn’t sing – and they played the little symphony three times.
One could hear Monsieur J—— in a hoarse, anxious whisper saying,
‘Mais chantez donc, madame – pour l’amour de Dieu, commencez donc – commencez!’
She turned round with an extraordinary expression of face, and said, ‘Chanter? pourquoi donc voulez-vous que je chante, moi? chanter quoi, alors?’
‘Mais ‘Ben Bolt,’ parbleu – chantez!’
‘Ah – ‘Ben Bolt!’ oui – je connais ça!’
Then the band began again.
And she tried, but failed to begin herself. She turned round and said,
‘Comment diable voulez-vous que je chante avec tout ce train qu’ils font, ces diables de musiciens!’
‘Mais, mon Dieu, madame—qu’est-ce que vous avez donc?’ cried Monsieur J——.
‘J’ai que j’aime mieux chanter sans toute cette satanée musique, parbleu! J’aime mieux chanter toute seule!’
‘Sans musique, alors – mais chantez – chantez!’

At key moments throughout the book you need to be really fluent in French, and several other languages – or to be reading an edition which translates these passages – to have a clue what’s going on.

‘Got sei dank! Ich habe geliebt und gelebet! geliebt und gelebet! geliebt und gelebet! Cristo di Dio…. Sweet sister in heaven…. Ô Dieu de Misère, ayez pitié de nous….’

This brings us to another really dominating aspect of the experience of the text – the pictures.

120 illustrations

Du Maurier was a writer only by accident and at the very end of his life. For most of his career he was a highly successful illustrator for magazines and books.

Born in 1834, du Maurier studied art in Paris, then got a job with Britain’s leading satirical magazine, Punch, in 1865, drawing two cartoons a week. He also did illustrations for popular periodicals such as Harper’s, The Graphic, The Illustrated Times, The Cornhill Magazine and Good Words. He illustrated a number of ‘classic’ novels from the time, including several by Thackeray. It was only after 25 or more years of producing a steady stream of humorous illustrations with comic captions that his failing eyesight drew an end to his artistic career and forced him to consider other options.

In 1891 he reduced his involvement with Punch and, at the suggestion of his good friend Henry James, wrote his first novel Peter Ibbetson, which was a modest success. Trilby was his second novel, published in 1894 and a runaway success beyond anyone’s imagining. He had two years of getting progressively more fed up with the demands from commercial interests and thousands of fans, before he died in 1896, leaving a long autobiographical novel to be published posthumously.

The obvious result of all this is that the book is stuffed with du Maurier’s own illustrations, some 120 of them, by my count. These illustrations, like the ones he’d been doing all his life, portray rather stiff and starchy Victorian people but in situations which convey a sense of warmth and humour.

Here is young ‘Little Billee’ with the taller Taffy and the Laird, distracted from studying Old Masters in the Louvre by the sight of a pretty woman art student. It contains humour at the expense both of the easily distracted young man, as well as something satirical in the ‘saintly’ gaze of the fetching student. The entire setting is sent-up.

Among the Old Masters

Among the Old Masters

The presence of illustrations on around half the pages makes it feel like a children’s book, half-reminds you of reading Winnie The Pooh or Professor Branestawm. For the first 50 or 60 pages it doesn’t feel at all serious, which means that when you get to the more ghoulish and creepy scenes with Svengali, it has more the sense of pantomime (‘He’s behind you!’) than full-blooded horror.

Combined with the general student hi-jinks of the early scenes, the good-humoured illustrations also contribute to the book’s entertainment value.

Comedy

Indeed the book drips with comedy, it is almost a comic novel. The opening entire setup of three British artists in their studios is hugely funny. Their inability to understand the French spoken around them is gently mocked. In fact throughout the book there is a continual stereotyping of British and French stereotypes which is comparable to the outrageous humour of Allo Allo.

The British are characterised by bluntness, philistinism, bad food, bad weather. In particular there is no end to the gentle raillery of the biggest of the three, big Beefy British warrior (he had served in the army for a while) Taffy the Yorkshireman.

A Yorkshireman, by-the-way, called Taffy (and also the Man of Blood, because he was supposed to be distantly related to a baronet) – was more energetically engaged. Bare-armed, and in his shirt and trousers, he was twirling a pair of Indian clubs round his head. His face was flushed, and he was perspiring freely and looked fierce. He was a very big young man, fair, with kind but choleric blue eyes, and the muscles of his brawny arm were strong as iron bands.

For three years he had borne her Majesty’s commission, and had been through the Crimean campaign without a scratch. He would have been one of the famous six hundred in the famous charge at Balaklava but for a sprained ankle (caught playing leapfrog in the trenches), which kept him in hospital on that momentous day. So that he lost his chance of glory or the grave, and this humiliating misadventure had sickened him of soldiering for life, and he never quite got over it. Then, feeling within himself an irresistible vocation for art, he had sold out; and here he was in Paris, hard at work, as we see.

He was good-looking, with straight features; but I regret to say that, besides his heavy plunger’s mustache, he wore an immense pair of drooping auburn whiskers, of the kind that used to be called Piccadilly weepers, and were afterwards affected by Mr. Sothern in Lord Dundreary. It was a fashion to do so then for such of our gilded youth as could afford the time (and the hair); the bigger and fairer the whiskers, the more beautiful was thought the youth! It seems incredible in these days, when even her Majesty’s household brigade go about with smooth cheeks and lips, like priests or play-actors.

He is the Roast Beef of Old England made flesh.

Taffy jumped out of his bath, such a towering figure of righteous Herculean wrath that Svengali was appalled, and fled.

And when the art students at Carrel’s studio attempt to carry out the traditional initiation ceremony on Taffy:

He took up the first rapin that came to hand, and, using him as a kind of club, he swung him about so freely and knocked down so many students and easels and drawing-boards with him, and made such a terrific rumpus, that the whole studio had to cry for ‘pax!’ Then he performed feats of strength of such a surprising kind that the memory of him remained in Carrel’s studio for years, and he became a legend, a tradition, a myth! It is now said (in what still remains of the quartier latin) that he was seven feet high, and used to juggle with the massier and model as with a pair of billiard balls, using only his left hand!

But then the entire bohemian world comes in for sustained ribbing. Du Maurier finds it all wonderfully entertaining and he invites you to, as well. Even when Svengali is at his most sinister he never loses the heavy German accent which made him such a figure of fun in the first half of the book and which is, quite simply, funny.

Du Maurier as intrusive narrator

Du Maurier intrudes a lot as the first person narrator, or in the mock figure of ‘the scribe’ of this modes story:

That is the best society, isn’t it? At all events, we are assured it used to be; but that must have been before the present scribe (a meek and somewhat innocent outsider) had been privileged to see it with his own little eye.

The present scribe is no snob. He is a respectably brought-up old Briton of the higher middle-class—at least, he flatters himself so.

And that is the question the present scribe is doing his little best to answer.

The present scribe was not present on that memorable occasion, and has written this inadequate and most incomplete description partly from hearsay and private information, partly from the reports in the contemporary newspapers.

And he invokes the equal and opposite figure of ‘the reader’, partly as a figure of fun, much in the tradition of Tristram Shandy and of the Thackeray so many of whose books du Maurier illustrated.

Of course the sympathetic reader will foresee

Let the reader have no fear. I will not attempt to describe it.

And that, as the reader has guessed long ago, was big Taffy’s “history.”

Fundamentally this is a comic strategy, making the reader a colaborator in the essentially light-hearted and frivolous occupation of telling a story. It is a paradox that du Maurier was friends with Henry James. James was an avowed opponent of the ‘baggy monster’ novels of the great Victorians, stories told in monthly instalments which wandered all over the place and in which the author kept interrupting, introducing himself, making apologies and generally carrying on. James spent his career developing infinitely more sophisticated narratives in which he explored the implications of different types of narrator. Trilby is a late-flowering example of everything James hated, more like an episode of the Chris Evans radio show than a work of art, with the effervescent presenter continually popping up and commenting on his own story, and taking the mickey out of his readers, of Victorian society, of churchmen, of the French, of novels and of his own ability to tell a story.

Prose constructed from humorous episodes

There’s another consequence of du Maurier’s origins as a creator of humorous cartoons, which is not so obvious but, I think, quietly ubiquitous. This is to do with the structure of the humorous cartoons which du Maurier spent the majority of his working life devising. First there is the incredibly realistic scene and setting. there is the wonderfully limned background and then the vividly depicted characters. And then, as the eye progresses to the bottom of the picture, there is the humorous captions. These are almost always in dialogue form, in which someone says something and then someone else replies with something ironic or revealing.

Take du Maurier’s most famous cartoon (below). It is breakfast time in the household of a pompous vicar. He has invited a curate (a person who undertakes lowly duties in a parish) to attend. But in his epic condescension, the vicar has given the curate only one egg for breakfast, and a rather old one at that. The pompous vicar says:’ I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mrs Jones.’ To which the curate, unctuously keen not to offend his boss, replies: ‘Oh no, my lord, I assure you! Parts of it are excellent!’

The effort expended in creating this illustration is phenomenal. The attention to detail! The characterisation of the balding vicar, with his rigid backbone and hook nose and pompous demeanour, wonderfully contrasted with the young curate’s sloping shoulders and eager-to-please expression. But just as important to the overall effect are the faces of the two women sitting aloofly at table, let alone the wealth of visual detail, all the cutlery on the table, the pictures on the wall, and the presence of both a butler and a maid.

What I’m suggesting is that du Maurier took a technique he had perfected in his cartoons – a wealth of realistic detail treated solely in order to lead up to a boom-boom punchline – and wrote his prose novels the same way. Realistic, if gently mocking depiction, leading up to a boom-boom punchline.

Take the long passage in Part Two (the novel is in eight parts) describing Svengali’s background, and which includes this paragraph. It is long and thorough and detailed and realistic – and it leads up to quite a good joke. Just like one of du Maurier’s cartoons.

He was poor; for in spite of his talent he had not yet made his mark in Paris. His manners may have been accountable for this. He would either fawn or bully, and could be grossly impertinent. He had a kind of cynical humor, which was more offensive than amusing, and always laughed at the wrong thing, at the wrong time, in the wrong place. And his laughter was always derisive and full of malice. And his egotism and conceit were not to be borne; and then he was both tawdry and dirty in his person; more greasily, mattedly unkempt than even a really successful pianist has any right to be, even in the best society.

All these jokes lead in the same direction. Du Maurier mocks the pomposity and pieties of the mid-Victorian middle class. The example above mocks the fashionable idea that a Great Pianist should be dishevelled in appearance in order to stress his ‘Romantic’ sensibility, and in also mocks the way this idea – that being greasy and dirty equates to sublime artistic talent – is most piously held among the most refined and precious parts of society.

Same goes for the excerpt below. The Victorians, or Victorian journalist, developed a bit of proverbial wisdom that said that contemporary art or literature should  be chaste and pure enough so as not to risk ‘bringing a blush to the cheek’ of a young person.

In part of his lengthy description of Trilby, du Maurier goes into an extended riff which gently mocks this whole idea, invoking the non-existent ‘young person’ and the piety of her supposed parents (specifically, the mother).

Trilby had all the virtues but one; but the virtue she lacked (the very one of all that plays the title-role, and gives its generic name to all the rest of that goodly company) was of such a kind that I have found it impossible so to tell her history as to make it quite fit and proper reading for the ubiquitous young person so dear to us all.

Most deeply to my regret. For I had fondly hoped it might one day be said of me that whatever my other literary shortcomings might be, I at least had never penned a line which a pure-minded young British mother might not read aloud to her little blue-eyed babe as it lies sucking its little bottle in its little bassinet.

Fate has willed it otherwise.

Would indeed that I could duly express poor Trilby’s one shortcoming in some not too familiar medium – in Latin or Greek, let us say – lest the young person (in this ubiquitousness of hers, for which Heaven be praised) should happen to pry into these pages when her mother is looking another way.

Latin and Greek are languages the young person should not be taught to understand – seeing that they are highly improper languages, deservedly dead – in which pagan bards who should have known better have sung the filthy loves of their gods and goddesses.

First of all du Maurier laments that his tale is not pure enough to avoid a blush rising to the cheeks of any virginal young person who looked at it. Then he mockingly laments his fate as the author of such a shameful story. Then he moves on to make a joke about how, on this strict criteria, we ought to ban Greek and Latin since they are crammed full of obscenity.

You could sum it up by saying that the spirit of Punch saturates the entire book.

Anglo-Saxon morality

Anyway, this mention of Anglo-Saxon morality brings us back to the plot of the book, which is not at all what I expected.

For the narrative follows neither Trilby nor Svengali. It turns out all to be about Little Billee, the naive and innocent youngest of the trio of British painters in Paris. He is arguably the most gifted and certainly the most sentimental, always ready – as du Maurier mockingly points out – with a tear poised at the edge of his eye, to burst into tears at the slightest provocation.

Long story short, Little Billee falls in love with Trilby. When she is posing (dressed) for Taffy, the Laird and Little Billy, she keeps looking up and seeing  his eye really firmly focused on her face while he neglects his drawing. Once or twice he goes into studios of other artists, especially the training studio of Carrel and, finding Trilby posing nude in front of thirty or so male students, rushes back out, red-faced with shame and mortification.

Slowly Trilby realises that he has ‘fallen in love’ with her. And at the end of a Christmas Day when the other two Brits have staged an epic party for all their Bohemian friends (described with a Dickensian love of the food and with much mocking and ribbing of the hosts and guests) Little Billee takes Trilby to the top of the garret stairs and proposes to her. In fact this turns out to be the nineteenth time he has proposed (comedy!) and she, exhausted and worn down, says yes and then runs off in floods of tears.

Without realising it, Little Billee’s naive obsession proves the catastrophe or turning point of the action. For he writes a letter to his mother and sweet virginal sister back in provincial Devon announcing that he is to be married but instead of joy, this prompts horror in Mrs Bagot (his real name) who promptly turns up in Paris with her teenage daughter accompanied by her brother-in-law who is, rather inevitably, a man of the cloth, the Rev. Thomas Bagot.

They represent, in other words, a full frontal massed assault of Victorian Values at their most strict and narrow, proceed to interrogate Taffy about this ‘Trilby’. At which he is forced to concede that she is an uneducated model and cleaner. Can you imagine the response of the respectable Mrs Bagot and the reverend. It is not favourable.

Then, at just the right moment, Trilby walks in (‘just as in a play’) and has a Grand Confrontation with her fiance’s mother. Long story short, she a) presents herself with dignity and honour but b) agrees that she must not come between sweet Billee and his family. So she immediately decides break off the engagement and to leave Paris.

Little Billee discovers this, later in the day, from a letter she sends him and has a nervous breakdown. He has a complete collapse. He is confined to his bed, doctors tend him, it takes weeks to recover, during which Trilby packs her bags and, taking the younger brother she cares for, flees Paris to an unknown destination. When Billee is better, he is helped to a train and back to England, all the way back to the family home in Devon where he is cared for by his sweet sister and loving mother.

Taffy and the Laird are left devastated that their happy-go-lucky little household has been broken up, and upset about Billee and worried about Trilby.

As a reader who had been very happily amused and entertained up to this point, I was absolutely furious with Mrs Bagot. She is concerned for her son’s future, for his career, for his place in society, and that he should marry a ‘respectable’ woman who will help him climb the ladder. Nonetheless, Billee’s selfish obsession and his mother’s narrow-mindedness bring the happy-go-lucky first half of the novel to a crashing end, and I couldn’t help hating her.

The odd thing is that du Maurier, having spent 150 pages being amusingly indulgent of the student milieu, having reported their drunkenness, their laziness, their slovenliness, the cheap clothes, their outrageous jokes and the easy way they hang round with models who are ‘no better than they should be’ (it is very broadly hinted that Trilby has had a number of lovers) all of a sudden sits up and becomes pious and sentimental on us. He takes Mrs Bagot’s concerns seriously. When Trilby leaves the studio she glimpses virginal Miss Bagot in the cab waiting outside and is stricken with guilt a besmirching the name of such a family. Later that day, when Billee arrives having read the letter from Trilby he collapses in the arms of his mother and sister i.e. he is won over to their side, and du Maurier gives us some nauseating paragraphs about family honour and so on.

Billee in the arms of his sister and mother

Billee in the arms of his sister and mother

When push comes to shove, du Maurier abandons his youthful free spiritedness and tolerance – and sides with the enemy. It is almost unbelievable that this one event has such seismic consequences for all concerned, and strips the book of its innocence. From now on du Maurier struggles to recover the high spirited humour of the first half. The reader, rather like Taffy and the Laird, feels a strong ‘sense of desolation and dull bereavement’.

The passage of time

Instead, five years pass. Billee, now William Bagot, continues painting and becomes a success, a name, is an artistic ‘lion’ who is invited to salons by rich society ladies, who mixes with the highest society, is mentioned among the great up and coming artists and so on. But inside he is cold and empty. He is as polite as is required, but his heart is dead.

It was as though some part of his brain where his affections were seated had been paralyzed, while all the rest of it was as keen and as active as ever. He felt like some poor live bird or beast or reptile, a part of whose cerebrum (or cerebellum, or whatever it is) had been dug out by the vivisector for experimental purposes; and the strongest emotional feeling he seemed capable of was his anxiety and alarm about this curious symptom, and his concern as to whether he ought to mention it or not.

Du Maurier takes us on Billee’s journeys into upper class society and, more interestingly, for a page or two out to the East End where he becomes well known and takes part in evening sing-songs in squalid taverns… an echo of Dorian Gray’s adventures out East. Du Maurier says it was the breadth of Billee’s human sympathies which underpin the warmth and humanity of his art. Which is fine, but there was no such painter as William Bagot. And also, throughout the extensive and detailed sections on art, I can’t help thinking that British art of this period grew steadily more isolated from all the trends on the Continent, almost completely oblivious to Impressionism and the myriad types of post-Impressionism, continuing with ever-more stately depictions of sad-eyed women by Edward Burne-Jones or stately ladies of ancient Rome by Frederick Leighton, Alma-Tadema or Albert Moore. Wonderful in their way but eventually destined to his the brick wall of European Modern Art and evaporate overnight.

The book contains very long passages about art, about types and theories of mid-Victorian art, about the difference between superficial and profound art, much humour at the expense of the Laird’s endless attempts to paint toreadors accurately (and a joke about the fact that, once he actually visits Spain and paints toreadors from life, his paintings immediately stop selling). But to a post-modern reader it all seems pre-historic. We are told that one of Billee’s most successful paintings is of a pig in a sty being suckled by lots of little pink piglets, handled with

An ineffable charm of poetry and refinement, of pathos and sympathy and delicate humor combined, an incomparable ease and grace and felicity of workmanship.

It’s like the depiction of the artist Basil Hallward and his work in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) or Rudyard Kipling’s portrayal of the artist Dick Heldar in The Light That Failed (1891). In none of these three books is there a glimmer of the tsunami of modernism which is about to completely revolutionise the very idea of what art is.

Anyway, du Maurier describes himself as being present in the story – says that he was introduced to the Laird and Taffy when Little Billee brought them to a grand party at the house of millionaire Sir Louis Cornely. And it is here that they hear, from the lips of a great classical singer, of the spreading reputation of La Svengali, the most beautiful woman singer in the world. This gives rise to discussion among the posh chaps present who have seen the famed singer at various venues around Europe, while Billee, Taffy and the laid listen in wonder.

Darwinism

The novel takes us up to page 200 with a lengthy passage describing Billee’s return from London back to his family in Devon. His mother has ambitions to marry him to Alice, daughter of the local vicar. She is, indeed, a noble, virtuous, shy, well-mannered and devout young lady, and deeply in love with Billee. Billee goes and sits by the sea, with Alice’s own dog, Trey sitting at his feet, in order to give the whole scene a sentimental resonance.

Billee would like to please Alice, his mother and his sister, and is sure he could make the lady a good and faithful husband except for one tiny detail… He is an atheist. He is reading On the Origin of Species for the third time and it has demolished his belief in a Christian God. If there is a God, how could he be so cruel and vengeful, flooding the earth, punishing unbelievers, conceiving of Hell?

To round out this scene, Billee walks back towards the village and bumps into Alice’s father, the vicar. Quite quickly the vicar starts questioning Billee about his faith, which church in London he attends and so on, to which Billee has to stumblingly admit that he has no faith and attends no church. By the end of the walk the pair are no longer on speaking terms, and Billee’s engagement to Alice never takes place.

Du Maurier being the satirist that he is, then gives a page-long passage describing the way that this redoubtable pillar of the church in later life comes into a small fortune due to acquiring shares in a rising company, and finds the financial independence this gives him allows him to read widely and, like Billee, to lose his faith, becoming a Positivist (i.e. believer in science not religion as the source of truth).

He argues with his bishop, loses his post and moves to London where he becomes an atheist lecturer. So far, so satirical. His daughter on the other hand, remains sweet and virginal and a devout Anglican. This little homily seems to me to epitomise the split-mind of Victorian men – happy to mock and satirise his fellow man till the cow comes home; but coming over all pious and sentimental at the sight of a young English lady.

Du Maurier was quite relaxed and open about the ‘affairs’ of the models he described in the French scenes, of Svengali’s one-time girlfriend, ‘Mimi la Salope’, and of Trilby herself. But as soon as an English lady – Mrs Bagot – and even more, an English virgin – saintly young Miss Bagot – enter the narrative, all open-minded, relaxed, tolerance of permissive living vanishes, and the narrative hits a cold hard wall. As far as I can tell, for the second half of the 19th century and into the 20th, this was a common phenomenon. Young, and not so young, men went over to Paris to have ‘adventures’ i.e. casual sex, and then came back to England to act as stern, upright defenders of British morality.

Fake context

You know the movie Forrest Gump where Gump is made to appear at various key moments of history, for example receiving a war medal from President Johnson, the inclusion of real historical events and personages designed to give verisimilitude to the story.

Same here. Du Maurier invokes a number of figures from the worlds of art and music and literature to lend reality to his tale. Regarding Billee’s success as an artist, du Maurier intrudes a lot to ask us whether we remember the first great success of Billee’s painting – ‘The Moon-Dial’ – or the great sale at Sotheby’s where his painting fetched a record price. He makes this effort to persuade us that Billee is one of the great contemporary British painters (although we all know that he doesn’t exist).

Similarly, after Trilby’s great appearance singing in Paris, du Maurier claims his fictitious character was reviewed by the entirely real figures of Berlioz (who, he says,wriote no fewer than twelve articles about La Svengali) and Théophile Gautier, who is made to write her a poem.

Back to Trilby

After all these digressions have taken up about 50 pages of this 300-page book, we touch back down five years after the previous events (the vicar and so on). Little Billee, Taffy and the Laird are reunited to go to Paris to see a performance of Trilby under the management of Svengali. First they take a stroll around all their haunts – which gives du Maurier chance to describe how Paris changed in the 1860s due to Baron Haussmann’s famous boulevard-building programme. They also bump into a raft of former acquaintances from their student days, most of whom have abandoned art. One of the liveliest of them, Dodor, is now working as shop supervisor in a haberdasher’s store and engaged to the owner’s daughter. Another, l’Zouzou, a soldier who was, to their surprise, related to a grand ducal family, they meet on an outing to the Bois de Boulogne, where he is entertaining his bride to be, a very ugly American lady named Miss Lavinia Hunks, and her incredibly wealthy mother. Opportunity for much knowing satire and mockery.  Such is life. Sic transit gloria mundi, and other truisms.

Our trio attend the Paris premiere of Trilby’s singing which du Maurier describes in pages of detail. The humble milk girl they’d known back in the day who could barely hold a note is now the possessor of the greatest voice the world has ever heard. (In a stroke of creative inspiration du Maurier has her sing mostly cheap trite street songs and nursery rhyme, but with such thrilling passion and expression that there is 15 minutes of standing ovation at the end of her brief concert.

They go away stunned at the impact it has on them. Above all, for the central protagonist of the novel, Little Billee, it seems to unblock the cold channels of his heart. Once again he feels the thrill of passion and is swept up with genuine love for his friends and burning jealousy for the man Trilby has married, no other than her mentor, the tall, swarthy, oleaginous Svengali.

Next day Little Billee pops down to the post office to write and send a letter to his dear mama. Who should be there by Svengali with a clutch of letters. Svengali notices our hero:

looking small and weak and flurried, and apparently alone; and being an Oriental Israelite Hebrew Jew, he had not been able to resist the temptation of spitting in his face, since he must not throttle him to death.

That ‘Oriental Israelite Hebrew Jew’ is easy to take as grotesque anti-Semitism until you remember that a) plenty of other characters are given the same kind of excessive description based on national stereotypes, especially big strong Anglo-Saxon Roast Beef Taffy – and b) that du Maurier’s style delights in hyperbole and exaggeration and creates humour by concatenated repetition.

As for Trilby, G—, to whom she sat for his Phryne, once told me that the sight of her thus was a thing to melt Sir Galahad, and sober Silenus, and chasten Jove himself – a thing to Quixotize a modern French masher!

Galahad, Silenus, Jove and Don Quixote are all dragged into a short sentence, which also has a throwaway generlisation about the French, in a classic example of his technique of comic hyperbole. Or sentimental hyperbole, as when gecko describes his devotion to sweet Trilby:

‘Well, that was Trilby, your Trilby! That was my Trilby too – and I loved her as one loves an only love, an only sister, an only child – a gentle martyr on earth, a blessed saint in heaven!’

That’s five descriptive phrases in a row, a glut of descriptors. All the characters, in their dialogue, and the narrator, are given to overemphasis and reptition. It’s part of what makes the whole thing feel like a Victorian play, crammed with moments of comedy, sentiment, horror and shock by turns.

And believe it or not, I think the purpose of that ‘Hebrew’ sentence is comic rather than insulting – as the last clause indicates: ‘since he couldn’t throttle him to death’, is typical of the mocking exaggeration du Maurier applies to all his characters.

Little Billee fights back but is as nothing to Taffy, who has seen it all, and steps up to Svengali who, recognising him, cowers in terror. Tall, strong, manly, Anglo-Saxon Taffy takes him by the nose and wags his head from side to side before delivering a stinging open-handed slap. While the manager of the hotel calls for the police, Svengali runs off, and doesn’t bring any charges.

Taffy gives Svengali what for

Taffy gives Svengali what for

This all happens in Paris. Then our trio return to England and to their separate pursuits, Little Billee down to Devon again, this time accompanied by Taffy, who turns out to be have connections with the vicar and with the local gentry, and gets taken up by them, and the two artists generally make a very favourable impression on the local society and peasants.

Once they have all celebrated a quiet Christmas, Billee and Taffy return to London in order to see Trilby’s London debut. They don’t know that that very afternoon Svengali had been in a brawl with his loyal and devoted lieutenant, Gecko. Gecko had played violin for Svengali in those bohemian Sunday afternoon sessions and, as Trilby’s singing career took off, had continued to be lead violin in the orchestra, whose arrangements Svengali wrote himself.

But all through those years he had grown more and more devoted to Trilby. The encounter with Billee and Taffy had put Svengali on edge and tetchy. Several times he criticised Trilby’s singing and finally rapped her over the knuckles with his baton. At which gecko snapped and leaped at him, stabbing Svengali with a shallow cut on the neck. Gecko was manhandled away, doctors are called and patch up Svengali’s throat but tell him on no account must he conduct this evening in case the wound burst again.

So that evening, at the grand theatre in London, where are assembled the cream of hi society and stretching up away into the gods, everyone who is anyone, Trilby goes to sing with Svengali, for the first time, not conducting, but in a box, placed so he can see her.

But when the band strikes up, and the conductor turns to Trilby, the statuesque woman in the expensive ballgown appears dazed and confused. ‘What am I doing here?’ she asks. ‘What do you mean sing?’ And when she finally gives in to the impresario’s imploring to sing, it is in the tuneless cracked voice the bohemians remember from those years earlier.

The shocked audience start booing. Trilby bursts into tears and is hustled off the stage. It is discovered that Svengali is dead. He died of heart failure in his box and had been siting there with a rictus grin on his face and black demonic eyes empty of life.

Our heroes – the Laird, Taffy and Billee – swarm backstage and, when Trilby obviously recognises them, the impresario allows them to take her home with them.

They put her up in Billee’s Fitzroy Square rooms. And here the truth comes out. She remembers nothing about the previous five years. Her memory is that she came back to Paris after his kid brother died, suicidally depressed and unable to sleep, and came across Svengali somewhere. And he helped her to sleep. And he adored and worshipped her. And they seemed to travel around a lot and she was often tired.

But when they explain that she is one of the most famous women in Europe, that she is the most famous singer in the world, she laughs and puts them off and says, ‘Get away, nonsense, who are you trying to kid?’ She has no memory at all of her world-conquering career. For the entire time she has been the puppet of Svengali the master musician and hypnotist.

And now Trilby is drained and broken. Only 23 she looks 30, her skin white and translucent. For the last thirty pages of the book she wastes away and dies. She is surrounded by the three chaps and her maid, and regularly called on by the best doctors money can buy, but they can do nothing.

Du Maurier wrings every last drop of emotion from the situation, making Dickens’s description of the death of Little Nell look like a news report. First he gets Mrs Bagot to come all the way from Devon and, upon seeing how nobly Trilby is dying, to realise what a foolish woman she has been and she begs Trilby to forgive her and Trilby begs Mrs B to forgive her and both women collapse in tears – as does the gentle reader.

Mrs B and Trilby have a long conversation about God, death and forgiveness, in which Trilby reveals that the worst thing she ever did in her life was go off for a carriage ride with some admirers and leave her five year old brother crying at home. Mrs Bagot cries. Trilby cries. The reader cries.

Then, right at the end, from out of nowhere a packing case is delivered and Trilby unwraps it to discover a fine photographic portrait of Svengali in his Hungarian musicians outfit, staring straight out of the photo. Trilby is lying on a couch, places it on her feet, holding it at full length and then… a strange change comes over her. His intense black eyes hypnotise her one last time, from beyond the grave, and she sings the Chopin Impromptu in A flat which was her signature piece, sounds of supernatural beauty which bestill the room and move the listeners to tears.

Then she is gone. Doctors called. Death confirmed. Not a dry eye in the house.

The death of Trilby

The death of Trilby

Postscript

Cut to: twenty years later at the Grand Hotel on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris where Svengali had spat at Billee and Taffy pulled his nose and slapped him. Taffy is married to Little Billee’s sister, but alas Little Billee is dead. Trilby’s dying words were ‘Svengali, Svengali, Svengali’ and this prompts the sensitive Billee to have a recurrence of the brain fever which had brought him low for five long years. He sickens, wastes and dies, an ‘early death, his manly, calm, and most beautiful surrender.’

Well, anyway, Taffy and wife have come back to Paris sometime in the 1880s. Once again du Maurier shows off his knowledge of the city as he has the happy couple tour round all his old haunts. But the purpose of this final section is that he takes Mrs T to the theatre and notices, down in the orchestra pit, a grey-haired violinist who looks like Gecko, Svengali’s old assistant.

It is and Taffy invites him out for a meal. And now we hear the whole story and Gecko clarifies, if we had any doubt, that there were two Trilbies: the sweet innocent natural girl – and then the robotic hypnotised singing machine which Svengali and he spent three long years hypnotising and training to sing note by note. Not only notes but inflections, volume, stress, every element of singing. Once again Gecko emphasises that Svengali was a musical genius, and had a crystal clear idea of what perfect singing should be, but which most humans fell short of. But because he exercised complete control over Trilby, he was able to programme her like a robot; and, eventually, after the long years training, control her with the slightest movement of his eyes or his baton.

So these final pages make explicit the theme of the double, the doppelgänger, and suddenly I’m thinking of Jeckyll and Hyde, and the Picture of Dorian Gray and all those Sherlock Holmes stories which are based on people living double lives, the whole late-Victorian fascination with two-sidedness.

Gecko says it was horrible to see her turned into an automaton; only on a few occasions in all that time was she truly herself. He leans his head on his arms and weeps. Truly this is not a happy book. Taffy orders Gecko a cab and pours him into it. Then Mr and Mrs Taffy stroll home through the deserted streets of Paris, looking forward to going back to England, back to their quiet little country home and their happy family.

For all its jaunty humour and carefully calibrated irreverence, Trilby ends with a hymn to the pieties of home and family every bit as whole hearted as Tennyson’s great mid-Victorian poem, In Memoriam.

Où peut-on être mieux qu’au sein de ta famille?’

Anti-Semitism

Quite obviously the novel brings together two blatant, popular and enduring stereotypes or topoi: the pure, upstanding, virginal white English woman in jeopardy from a dark, swarthy, threatening foreigner from the East.

These are so obvious, and have been written about and criticised so often, that I can’t think of much to add except for a few thoughts about Svengali.

The most striking thing about the Jewish characterisation of Svengali is how breath-takingly in-your-face it is.

Trilby went to see him in his garret, and he played to her, and leered and ogled, and flashed his bold, black, beady Jew’s eyes into hers, and she straightway mentally prostrated herself in reverence and adoration before this dazzling specimen of her race. So that her sordid, mercenary little gutter-draggled soul was filled with the sight and the sound of him, as of a lordly, godlike, shawm-playing, cymbal-banging hero and prophet of the Lord God of Israel – David and Saul in one!

Not only of Svengali. His first attempt to hypnotise someone is on:

Mimi la Salope… a dirty, drabby little dolly-mop of a Jewess, a model for the figure.

He notes that one of the contemporary music scenes greatest singers is of Spanish or Sephardi Jewish ancestry:

For Glorioli – the biggest, handsomest, and most distinguished-looking Jew that ever was – one of the Sephardim (one of the Seraphim!) – hailed from Spain, where he was junior partner in the great firm of Moralés, Peralés, Gonzalés & Glorioli, wine-merchants, Malaga. He travelled for his own firm; his wine was good, and he sold much of it in England. But his voice would bring him far more gold in the month he spent here; for his wines have been equalled – even surpassed – but there was no voice like his anywhere in the world, and no more finished singer.

And, surprisingly, the protagonist of the story, Little Billee, is described as having a tincture of Jewish blood in him,

In his [Little Billee’s] winning and handsome face there was just a faint suggestion of some possible very remote Jewish ancestor – just a tinge of that strong, sturdy, irrepressible, indomitable, indelible blood which is of such priceless value in diluted homœopathic doses, like the dry white Spanish wine called montijo, which is not meant to be taken pure; but without a judicious admixture of which no sherry can go round the world and keep its flavor intact; or like the famous bull-dog strain, which is not beautiful in itself; and yet just for lacking a little of the same no greyhound can ever hope to be a champion.

As usual, when you read these kinds of comment in context you realise that they are more complex and multiform than the term ‘anti-Semitic’ (or ‘racist’ or ‘sexist’) allow. They are just examples from a spectrum of comments based on ideas of racial characteristics which we have, by and large, abandoned.

In fact these four examples cover a range of the spectrum: Svengali has all the threatening stereotypes du Maurier can muster heaped on him; Mimi is, by contrast, a hapless victim. Glorioli is characterised as not an Eastern  but a Spanish Jew, and therefore is described in different terms. And this last paragraph, where he says a drop of Jewish ‘blood’ enhances character doesn’t appear to be an insult but a roundabout form of praise, albeit based on ideas of ‘race; or ‘blood’ which we now find abhorrent.

Also, anyone prompted by the cruder descriptions of Svengali must also bear in mind that du Maurier makes him tall and powerful, and credit is repeatedly given to his unquestioning musical genius. He plays the piano to concert level and he is credited with arranging the music for Trilby to sing with great taste and precision. And we should remember that Svengali is invited to the heroes’ Sunday afternoon parties. Invited, not banned. Du Maurier is interested in creating a rounded, if objectionable, character. He is a novelist, not a Nazi.

Anyway, this spectrum of opinion about Jews is part of a macro-spectrum which includes comments about all manner of races – the French ‘race’ and character is pored over at length, the Americans come in for some ripe satire, at least half the characterisation of Svengali is not just that he’s Jewish but that he’s German.

He could be very funny, Svengali, though he was German, poor dear!

Let alone the countless mocking descriptions of all aspects of the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ character, some fond, some satirical, some surprisingly patriotic, some openly scathing (about the narrow philistinism of the English bourgeoisie).

In fact the book comes from an entirely different way of looking at human nature – in terms of intrinsic values of identifiable categories called ‘races’ – which tried to make sense of the diversity of human beings by grouping them into categories.

All ages do this. Our own age – as I’m reminded every time I open a newspaper or turn on the radio – enthusiastically groups humans into categories according to present-day concerns, namely ‘women’ (who all and everywhere need our help), ‘people of colour’ (who need to be more represented in culture and organisations) and Muslims (who are the victims of Islamophobia). Against them are lined up racists, sexists and Islamophobes. Just the same kind of sweeping generalisations.

Reading du Maurier’s racial generalisations doesn’t offend me. It feels as remote from real life as reading the medieval Catholic literature which went to such lengths to define the ‘saved’ and the ‘damned’ (and which damned Jews and Muslims; there is some hair-raisingly anti-Semitic content in Dante, who also condemned the Prophet Mohammed to a special place in Hell.)

None of that offends me. It is of anthropological and historical interest. I am interested in the cultural system these old categories embodied and elaborated, and the light it sheds on how previous societies have created and structured their values. It’s no different from reading contemporary journalism which blames ‘gammons’ for Brexit and ‘angry white men’ for Trump.

I’m not trying to let du Maurier off the hook. There is a virulence and vehemence about the characterisation of Svengali which I can easily imagine being very offensive to any Jew and indeed any progressive liberal reading it these days. But on the other hand, he is the baddy. Baddies, in boy adventure stories like this, always are laden with all the negative qualities the writer can muster, and generally are cruel, sadistic bullies, often from the East (reflect on the villains in the James Bond books; plenty of eastern stereotypes, not least about Russia).

Every age tries to make sense of the world by creating stereotyped categories of human beings to populate it with, those on our side and those who are against us, and then proceeds to vilify and insult those who are against us. To imagine that our own society doesn’t do just the same is naive.


Related links

Reviews of other fiction of the 1880s and 1890s

Joseph Conrad

George du Maurier

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Anthony Hope

E.H. Hornung

Henry James

Rudyard Kipling

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

The Magician by William Somerset Maugham (1908)

‘It was the face of a fiend of wickedness.’ (Susie describing Oliver Haddo)

This is, surprisingly from Maugham, a horror story.

The setup

The book begins as a fairly run-of-the-mill love story. Young English surgeon Arthur Burdon knew Margaret Dauncey’s parents. When they died he was named the girl’s executor and guardian, a duty he faithfully performed. When she turned 17 she expressed a wish to go to Paris to study art, which Arthur supported and enabled. But it was at this stage that Margaret discovered her father had died penniless and Arthur had actually paid for entire education and living expenses.

During the tearful conversation where Margaret asks if this is true and Arthur admits it, they both also admit that they’re deeply in love with each other.

‘Don’t you know that I’d do anything in the world for you?’ she cried.

And they admit on the spot that they would like to be married. Nonetheless, Arthur insists that she goes off to Paris, studies art, sees life and so on, before they get wed. He is a thoroughly decent chap.

In Paris Margaret stays in the studio of Susie Boyd (at 30, a lot older and more experienced than Margaret) in Montparnasse and becomes a regular at the local bar, Le Chien Noir, much frequented by poets, writers and artists.

So it’s at this point that the story begins, with Arthur arriving in Paris to meet Margaret and finalise plans for their wedding.

Commenting on the action is a much older man, Dr Porhoët, who was friends with Arthur’s parents and has known him ever since he was born. Dr Porhoët is a wise and bookish old man. He spent most of life as a practicing doctor in Egypt and is now retired, and thus is available to the characters for tea, conversation and advice as required.

Porhoët candidly tells Arthur he is surprised that he and Margaret are in love because Arthur is such an extremely unimaginative, prosaic, practical man who, by dint of working hard, has made himself into a leading surgeon – whereas Margaret is young and fanciful, not only beautiful but highly imaginative.

The magician

So far, so standard. The novel looks like settling down to become another of Maugham’s stories about the trials and tribulations of another mismatched couple. Except that into this fairly run-of-the-mill setup Maugham throws a bomb, in the shape of the tall, monstrously obese, absurdly flamboyant and utterly sinister, self-proclaimed magician and master of the dark arts, Oliver Haddo.

In the introduction to The Magician which Maugham wrote years later, he freely admits to basing the character of Haddo on the notorious black magician, writer, poet and self-publicist Aleister Crowley, who he met in Paris in the mid-1900s when he was living with the painter Gerald Kelly.

In fact not only Haddo-Crowley but many of the other characters and settings are borrowed directly from life. Margaret’s studio is modelled on Kelly’s. Maugham and Kelly were regulars at a bar in Montparnasse called Le Chat Blanc, where local poets and artists congregated almost every evening. In the book this café becomes Le Chien Noir and many of its real-life habitués are coped into Maugham’s book with only slightly altered names. Maugham was notoriously sloppy about this, writing many of his stories almost directly from life and sometimes not even bothering to change people’s names – a habit which got him into trouble especially in classic short stories from south-east Asia a generation later.

The main characters

I enjoy the old-fashioned, detailed, physical and psychological descriptions Maugham gives of his characters. I like the way they’re often unexpected or have unexpected aspects. We’re so culturally conditioned by Hollywood and advertising stereotypes of above all young, physically fit, good-looking protagonists, that it’s a pleasure to go back before the domination of American advertising to be presented with characters who come from a different set of values. Here’s the hero, Arthur:

He was very tall and very thin. His frame had a Yorkshireman’s solidity, and his bones were massive. He missed being ungainly only through the serenity of his self-reliance. He had high cheek-bones and a long, lean face. His nose and mouth were large, and his skin was sallow. But there were two characteristics which fascinated her, an imposing strength of purpose and a singular capacity for suffering.

Margaret is the most stereotypical, being young and beautiful. But I still enjoyed the way the longest description of her is occurs while she and Arthur are looking at a statue of a perfect young woman in the Louvre:

In Arthur’s eyes Margaret had all the exquisite grace of the statue, and the same unconscious composure; and in her also breathed the spring odours of ineffable purity. Her features were chiselled with the clear and divine perfection of this Greek girl’s; her ears were as delicate and as finely wrought. The colour of her skin was so tender that it reminded you vaguely of all beautiful soft things, the radiance of sunset and the darkness of the night, the heart of roses and the depth of running water. The goddess’s hand was raised to her right shoulder, and Margaret’s hand was as small, as dainty, and as white.

Susie:

She was one of those plain women whose plainness does not matter. A gallant Frenchman had to her face called her a belle laide, and, far from denying the justness of his observation, she had been almost flattered. Her mouth was large, and she had little round bright eyes. Her skin was colourless and much disfigured by freckles. Her nose was long and thin. But her face was so kindly, her vivacity so attractive, that no one after ten minutes thought of her ugliness. You noticed then that her hair, though sprinkled with white, was pretty, and that her figure was exceedingly neat. She had good hands, very white and admirably formed, which she waved continually in the fervour of her gesticulation. Now that her means were adequate she took great pains with her dress, and her clothes, though they cost much more than she could afford, were always beautiful. Her taste was so great, her tact so sure, that she was able to make the most of herself. She was determined that if people called her ugly they should be forced in the same breath to confess that she was perfectly gowned.

And a passage to make feminists explode with outrage:

Susie could not prevent the pang that wrung her heart; for she too was capable of love. There was in her a wealth of passionate affection that none had sought to find. None had ever whispered in her ears the charming nonsense that she read in books. She recognised that she had no beauty to help her, but once she had at least the charm of vivacious youth. That was gone now, and the freedom to go into the world had come too late; yet her instinct told her that she was made to be a decent man’s wife and the mother of children.

It is fascinating, chilling, informative, amazing, that at age 30, Susie considers herself an old maid, a spinster, over the hill and on the shelf. It is a vivid insight into social history.

Anyway, Susie plays the well-worn role of friend and confidante to the heroine and secret admirer of the hero. It’s a similar role to that played by Miss Ley in Maugham’s second novel Mrs Craddock, and in just the same way that Miss Ley comments sardonically and insightfully into the story of Bertha and Jim in that marriage, so Susie, at least initially, finds everything in the earnest love affair of Arthur and Margaret funny and mockable. (In a tiny grace not, a ‘Miss Ley’ is mentioned in the letter written to Arthur from a friend who knew Haddo at Oxford: the letter describes the dark rumours which described the man even as a student, but it is this casual reference to a ‘Miss Ley’ which makes the Maugham fan’s ears prick up and wonder whether, at one stage, he was going to create an overlapping universe of characters appearing across all his novels. Intriguing thought. Instead of a Marvel Comic Universe, a Maugham Character Universe. To some extent he did do this, with the character of ‘William Ashenden’ narrating both Cakes and Ale and the book of short stories named after him – and the Kent town of Whitstable appearing in several novels renamed ‘Blackstable.’)

Anyway. Then there is the villain, Haddo, whose main characteristic – as of so many villains throughout the ages – is his gross fatness:

He was a man of great size, two or three inches more than six feet high; but the most noticeable thing about him was a vast obesity. His paunch was of imposing dimensions. His face was large and fleshy. He had thrown himself into the arrogant attitude of Velasquez’s portrait of Del Borro in the Museum of Berlin; and his countenance bore of set purpose the same contemptuous smile.

And:

He was clearly not old, though his corpulence added to his apparent age. His features were good, his ears small, and his nose delicately shaped. He had big teeth, but they were white and even. His mouth was large, with heavy moist lips. He had the neck of a bullock. His dark, curling hair had retreated from the forehead and temples in such a way as to give his clean-shaven face a disconcerting nudity. The baldness of his crown was vaguely like a tonsure. He had the look of a very wicked, sensual priest.

Big fat and evil, Haddo is designed to send shivers of horror through the reader and, as the book proceeds, does so very effectively. So, having created and described these characters in great detail, what does Maugham do with them?

The plot

Through a series of carefully orchestrated events, Haddo becomes an increasing and insidious presence in the lives of the young couple. It is on Arthur’s very first night in Paris that Margaret and Susie take him to Le Chien Noir where he is introduced to the gallery of bohemians, and into which Haddo erupts, fat and grandiloquent and ridiculous and spooky.

At first, as Haddo tells a series of preposterous stories about what a wonderful big game hunter and mountain climber he is at Le Chien Noir he is met with mockery and scorn. It isn’t long before the theme of magic is raised and Haddo prompted to tell at length the lives of the famous magicians and alchemists of old – Paracelsus, Raymon Lull et al. (These are the sections which his critics drew attention to, as feeling like they had been cut and pasted out of the Encyclopedia Britannica and Maugham admits, very candidly, in his introduction to spending weeks in the British Museum researching. I like medieval history, and the voodoo feel of the medieval and early Renaissance world, so I enjoyed the atmosphere of flickering candles in darkened cellars, and mystic shapes drawn on the floor and ritual incantations.)

Haddo intersperses stories about the alchemists with tales of his own encounters with strange men and women who possess second sight, the ability to control animals and to conjure spirits. It helps to reinforce all this that Dr Porhoët chips in, mostly sceptical but admitting that, during his time in Egypt, he also witnessed strange and unaccountable events.

‘I have seen many things in the East which are inexplicable by the known processes of science.’

The same night, after eating at the bar, Haddo ends up tagging along with Susie, Arthur and Margaret to a fair ‘held at the Lion de Belfort’ in Montparnasse. Haddo lays his hands on the mane of the horse which pulls the cab they go to the fair in, and the horse starts whinnying and shivering in fear. As soon as he removes his hand, the horse stops. At the fair they see the usual sights, but then go to a scruffy booth presided over by an oriental woman who has a weird control over the snakes she tends.

Throughout these scenes the core trio of Arthur, Margaret and Susie are generally accompanied by Dr Porhoët, and he has a definite function in the book, which is to provide a plausible support of Haddo’s stories.

If Haddo had been the only one talking about the Zohar and the Clavicula Salomonis and the Pseudomonarchia Daemonorum of Wierus and the Grimoire of Honorius and the Hexameron of Torquemada and the Tableau de l’Inconstance des Démons, by Delancre and Delrio’s Disquisitiones Magicae he would have been isolated and much less believable.

But Maugham has given Dr Porhoët a career in Egypt so that he can position Porhoët as backing up and reinforcing many of Haddo’s claims. A few days later, when the trio visit Dr Porhoët’s apartment they discover it to be lined from floor to ceiling with leather-bound ancient volumes by all the great masters of the dark arts. Porhoët isn’t a magician and is drily ironic about most of the ‘learning’ contained in his books. But he does have one or two stories of weird and inexplicable events he saw occur during his time in Egypt…

So Dr Porhoët is like a straight man to Haddo’s dark magician, not quite believing in magic but helping to establish the fact that there is a vast body of writings on the subject, and that, maybe, you know, there’s something to it… Thus he and Haddo are able to have learned conversations about the old magicians, alchemists and their texts, a dramatic to and fro, spiced with Porhoët’s scepticism, which are much more persuasive than if Maugham had had Haddo just give long monologues covering the same material.

Dr Porhoët is Haddo’s enabler. He is the door which lets Haddo in. Dr Porhoët’s testimony makes Haddo’s belief in ancient magic much more believable. If a man of science who is basically a sceptic believes some of these stories, then maybe…

The crisis of the plot

Out of politeness, after the fair outing, Margaret invites Haddo a few days later to come to tea.

Part one of this tea party is another long disquition between Haddo and Dr Porhoët, touching on the lives and works of Paracelsus, Hermes Trismegistus and Albertus Magnus. It builds up to the long and vivid story of how Paracelsus created and nurtured ten little homunculi or spirits in jars. Silly though it sounds, the telling, amid plenty of detail, and horror-stricken intensity, creates a real atmosphere.

The story ended, Dr Porhoët rises to leave the little party and disaster strikes. Margaret’s little pet dog, which had started whining and gone to hide in a corner when Haddo first arrived, now inexplicably springs at him and bites Haddo in the hand. Without thinking, Haddo brutally kicks the dog right across the room at which Margaret screams and Arthur – who has met all of Haddo’s stories with mockery and disbelief – punches him full in the face then, while he is on the ground, kicks him again and again. For the usually sedate and restrained Maugham, this is a shocking scene. While they all turn their attention to the dog, Haddo staggers to his feet, where he makes a dignified apology for his behaviour, bows and leaves the apartment. But not before Susie has seen a look of implacable demonic hatred on his face!

Haddo’s campaign of seduction

Next day Margaret encounters Haddo in the street who promptly stumbles and collapses. Passersby say he is having a heart attack. Margaret is forced to take him into her apartment, despite her misgivings, to rest, give him a glass of water etc. She is full of dislike but her good manners prevail.

This is a bad mistake because Haddo proceeds to seduce Margaret, but not in a sexual sense, something far worse. He entrances her somehow. He is meek and apologetic, he begs forgiveness, she finds herself touched by the tears in his eyes, she finds herself noticing the beauty of his lips and face. He recites Walter Pater’s famous description of the Mona Lisa and then goes on to spin flowery prose poetry about other paintings, paintings characterised by dark atmosphere and unknown sins… the whole thing sounding very much like the purple prose used by Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray – paintings, art, strange moods, rare emotions, unknown pleasures and so on…

When he commands her to listen to him playing the piano she follows and sits meekly, aware that she can do no other. He has somehow hypnotised her into admiration and submission. He doesn’t take advantage of her body; much more insidiously, she finds him entering her heart and affections.

Haddo performs magic. He scatters a pinch of blue powder onto a bowl of water and, behold! the water burns up and disappears. Haddo elaborates a fantasy in which he scatters enough blue powder over the world to burn up the oceans!

He then scatters dried leaves over the fire to produce a pungent smoke which he tells Margaret to inhale deeply. He takes her hand and suddenly they are transported to a barren cross-roads in a bleak landscape of burnt heather where Margaret sees a sort of witches’ sabbath.

Margaret’s gaze was riveted upon a great, ruined tree that stood in that waste place, alone, in ghastly desolation; and though a dead thing, it seemed to suffer a more than human pain. The lightning had torn it asunder, but the wind of centuries had sought in vain to drag up its roots. The tortured branches, bare of any twig, were like a Titan’s arms, convulsed with intolerable anguish. And in a moment she grew sick with fear, for a change came into the tree, and the tremulousness of life was in it; the rough bark was changed into brutish flesh and the twisted branches into human arms. It became a monstrous, goat-legged thing, more vast than the creatures of nightmare. She saw the horns and the long beard, the great hairy legs with their hoofs, and the man’s rapacious hands. The face was horrible with lust and cruelty, and yet it was divine. It was Pan, playing on his pipes, and the lecherous eyes caressed her with a hideous tenderness. But even while she looked, as the mist of early day, rising, discloses a fair country, the animal part of that ghoulish creature seemed to fall away, and she saw a lovely youth, titanic but sublime, leaning against a massive rock. He was more beautiful than the Adam of Michelangelo who wakes into life at the call of the Almighty; and, like him freshly created, he had the adorable languor of one who feels still in his limbs the soft rain on the loose brown earth. Naked and full of majesty he lay, the outcast son of the morning; and she dared not look upon his face, for she knew it was impossible to bear the undying pain that darkened it with ruthless shadows. Impelled by a great curiosity, she sought to come nearer, but the vast figure seemed strangely to dissolve into a cloud; and immediately she felt herself again surrounded by a hurrying throng. Then came all legendary monsters and foul beasts of a madman’s fancy; in the darkness she saw enormous toads, with paws pressed to their flanks, and huge limping scarabs, shelled creatures the like of which she had never seen, and noisome brutes with horny scales and round crabs’ eyes, uncouth primeval things, and winged serpents, and creeping animals begotten of the slime. She heard shrill cries and peals of laughter and the terrifying rattle of men at the point of death. Haggard women, dishevelled and lewd, carried wine; and when they spilt it there were stains like the stains of blood. And it seemed to Margaret that a fire burned in her veins, and her soul fled from her body; but a new soul came in its place, and suddenly she knew all that was obscene. She took part in some festival of hideous lust, and the wickedness of the world was patent to her eyes. She saw things so vile that she screamed in terror, and she heard Oliver laugh in derision by her side. It was a scene of indescribable horror, and she put her hands to her eyes so that she might not see.

It is preposterous like all horror stories but, if you give yourself permission, if you read sympathetically and let your imagination go, many passages of the book are genuinely visionary and creepy.

Abruptly he leaves, and she comes back to herself. But over the following days she finds herself thinking of him more and more. He had scribbled down his address before he departed and now Margaret finds herself drawn to go and see him, despite her better judgement. Susie returns to the studio, Arthur arrives and takes her in his arms – but she is changed utterly, and walks and talks as in a daze.

The wrong marriage

Long story short – Margaret makes excuses to Susie and lies to Arthur and starts to visit Haddo every afternoon. He shows her more of the Dark Side, explaining more foul mysteries and mysterious sins.

If this was a modern movie I might have expected them to have sex, the camera lingering on the sight of the enormous repulsive slug-like magician ravishing the slender beautiful Margaret in a variety of pornographic postures.

However, two things appear to restrain Maugham. One is the censorship of his day. A whole raft of publishers had refused to publish Mrs Craddock simply because it depicts feelings of arousal and lust, without any actual sex. Here again we have the feeling that Maugham is sailing as close to the wind as he can, but there is a definite line he can’t cross.

But reason two is that it will become important to the plot that Margaret remain a virgin.

In a nutshell, all the time she is making plans for her wedding to Arthur, naming the day, the dress, the cake and so on -she is secretly seeing Haddo and, to the reader’s horror, agreeing to marry him, overcome with horror and revulsion but unable to stop herself.

On the day that she and Arthur are due to catch the boat train from Paris back to London, Margaret sends a note to say that she has married Haddo and left town. Susie spends a day visiting her dressmaker, Haddo’s apartment, the British Embassy, establishing the truth of the story before telling Arthur who is absolutely devastated.

Thus Haddo wreaks the revenge on Arthur that Susie had seen in his face, after Arthur knocked him to the ground after the incident of the dog bite.

Haddo and Margaret’s peregrinations

Arthur returns to London where he throws himself into his work, taking two jobs, delivering lectures and editing a big book of surgery in order to try and blot out his intense emotional pain.

Susie takes up an invitation from a friend to go and stay in Italy for the winter. In the spring she passes on to the Riviera. In both places she discovers Haddo and Margaret have been staying, spreading scandalous behaviour. Haddo gambles intensely, getting Margaret to lay the bets at the tables. They have high society parties but eventually Haddo’s caddish behaviour is found out – he cheats at cards, he tries to pass forged money- and he is blackballed and cold shouldered by Society.

In Monte Carlo Susie actually witnesses Margaret gambling and shudders as she then smiles acquaintance with a notorious courtesan.

Susie returns to London, and meets with Arthur a few times. What Arthur doesn’t realise is that Susie is passionately in love with him. It gives an added intensity to the story that Susie loves Arthur with a pure disinterested love which she knows can never be returned because of Arthur’s total commitment to Margaret.

They go to the opera (music, Susie realises, is a drug Arthur uses to help transport him away from his pain at Margaret’s desertion) and bump into an acquaintance of Arthur’s who invites them to make up a dinner at the Savoy.

Here they are horrified to discover two of the other guests are Haddo and Margaret, with Margaret appearing cold and disdainful while Haddo politely but cruelly mocks Arthur at every opportunity in the conversation, and Susie has to sit watching her beloved suffer, wincing at every one of Haddo’s cruel jibes.

They abduct Margaret

Convinced that Margaret is not happy but somehow hypnotised by the obese bully, Arthur goes to the Savoy the next day and, after a long pleading conversation in which Margaret reveals that she is unhappy, abducts her – marching her out of the room, into a hansom cab, directing it to Euston and fleeing to the country.

There’s a chapter where Arthur tries to detoxify Margaret and where Susie assist. There is an explanation of the type of late Victorian divorce which they will arrange for her. But when Arthur returns to London to resume his work and organise the divorce Margaret becomes more and more restless, and one day Susie goes into her room to find she’s left. She has returned to Haddo.

Susie, by now convinced that Haddo’s hold over Margaret really is irrational and magical, travels back to Paris to see Dr Porhoët. More tales of how ancient magicians exert power and control over their victims (designed to reinforce the plausibility of the situation).

A few weeks later Arthur turns up and tells a long story about how he has visited Haddo’s country seat (apart from everything else, Haddo is posh; he went to Eton and Oxford and is heir to a big estate in Staffordshire, Skene.) He stayed at the local inn and then walked through the bleak and blasted countryside to the spooky old Gothic house. It is protected by a fence surrounding the grounds. Arthur finds a loose plank, wriggles it loose and and – in a spooky scene – stumbles through a dark wood to a clearing with a bench.

After a while Margaret comes and sits at the bench in a spectacularly convenient coincidence – whatever; we left plausibility behind quite a time ago. She initially thinks Arthur is a phantom and explains to Arthur that she knows Haddo is carrying out all kinds of black magic in the house. She quite calmly tells Arthur that she thinks Haddo is going to kill her, using her somehow in some black magic ritual. Terrified, Arthur pleads for her to come with him but she wriggles free and says No, Haddo will punish her if he knew she was speaking to Arthur, she must go she must go now — and runs off into the pitch blackness of the woods. Arthur searches and searches in vain, then retraces his footsteps to the hole in the fence, walks back to the local inn, gets a cab ride the next day to the station, catches the train to London, catches to boat train to Paris and is now standing in front of Susie and Porhoët telling him this narrative.

As it happens Susie and Dr Porhoët had just been having another one of those conversations about black magic and speculating on Haddo’s motives. Now she remembers one of the many black rumours about Haddo that she heard in Monte Carlo.

‘They said there that he was attempting to make living creatures by a magical operation.’ She glanced at the doctor, but spoke to Arthur. ‘Just before you came in, our friend was talking of that book of Paracelsus in which he speaks of feeding the monsters he has made on human blood.’
Arthur gave a horrified cry. (Chapter 13)

Susie, rather inconsequentially, persuades the by-now distraught Arthur to accompany her for a few days to Chartres to calm his nerves. But one day he rushes into her room convinced that something has happened to Margaret. How? Why? He can’t explain. Even staid, boring, unimaginative Arthur is now caught up in the atmosphere of magic and irrationality.

Back to England, back to Skene

They rush back to Paris, co-opt Dr Porhoët (what a hectic retirement he’s turning out to have!), catch the next boat train to London (‘Susie never forgot the horror of that journey to England’), catch a cab to Euston, catch the train to Staffordshire, catch a cab to the local inn at the village of Venning, and hear from the innkeeper’s nosy wife that, Yes, Mr Haddo’s beautiful wife passed away earlier that week. The funeral had taken place the previous day.

Arthur is even more distraught. He takes the others to confront the local doctor, slow provincial Dr Richardson, who claims it was a case of heart disease at which Arthur lets fly a stream of insults and abuse before storming out with a plan. For a moment I thought he might be planning to dig up the corpse which would have made for a grim and compelling scene.

Instead Arthur drags Susie and Dr Porhoët along with him to the gates of Skene House, pushes past the outraged gatekeeper, bangs on the door and loudly asks entrance from the  stroppy doorkeeper. Next thing we know, Haddo himself is there, even more physically repulsive than before.

Dr Porhoët, who had not seen him for some time, was astounded at the change which had taken place in him. The corpulence which had been his before was become now a positive disease. He was enormous. His chin was a mass of heavy folds distended with fat, and his cheeks were puffed up so that his eyes were preternaturally small. He peered at you from between the swollen lids. All his features had sunk into that hideous obesity. His ears were horribly bloated, and the lobes were large and swelled. He had apparently a difficulty in breathing, for his large mouth, with its scarlet, shining lips, was constantly open. He had grown much balder and now there was only a crescent of long hair stretching across the back of his head from ear to ear. There was something terrible about that great shining scalp. His paunch was huge; he was a very tall man and held himself erect, so that it protruded like a vast barrel. His hands were infinitely repulsive; they were red and soft and moist. He was sweating freely, and beads of perspiration stood on his forehead and on his shaven lip. (Chapter 14)

Haddo simply brushes them off and ignores their concerns. Margaret died of a heart attack, the local doctor says so. If Arthur attacks him, Haddo, now, in the doorway of his house in front of witnesses, why he will be compelled to report it to the village constable.

Incensed with frustration Arthur turns on his heel and marches back down the drive with the other two lamely following in his wake. And now there is a stranger plot development which is that Arthur – cool phlegmatic Anglo-Saxon rational scientist Arthur – asks Dr Porhoët to raise Margaret’s ghost from the dead! Without his books, and relying on memory, given a day to buy the basic ingredients from the local store, Porhoët, against all expectations, but in accordance with the book’s by-now dream logic, manages to do this. Out in the blasted heath, miles from any other people, at night, Porhoët arranges bowls, burns incense, says magic spells.

Inexplicably, a sudden terror seized Susie. She felt that the hairs of her head stood up, and a cold sweat broke out on her body. Her limbs had grown on an instant inconceivably heavy so that she could not move. A panic such as she had never known came upon her, and, except that her legs would not carry her, she would have fled blindly. She began to tremble. She tried to speak, but her tongue clave to her throat.

Margaret doesn’t appear like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, in the same shape as in life and speaking clearly to command revenge. Instead they at first only hear her, hear the sound of a woman weeping uncontrollably.

And then, seeming to come out of nothingness, extraordinarily, they heard with a curious distinctness the sound of a woman weeping. Susie’s heart stood still. They heard the sound of a woman weeping, and they recognized the voice of Margaret. A groan of anguish burst from Arthur’s lips, and he was on the point of starting forward. But quickly Dr Porhoët put out his hand to prevent him. The sound was heartrending, the sobbing of a woman who had lost all hope, the sobbing of a woman terrified. If Susie had been able to stir, she would have put her hands to her ears to shut out the ghastly agony of it.

And in a moment, notwithstanding the heavy darkness of the starless night, Arthur saw her. She was seated on the stone bench as when last he had spoken with her. In her anguish she sought not to hide her face. She looked at the ground, and the tears fell down her cheeks. Her bosom heaved with the pain of her weeping.

Then Arthur knew that all his suspicions were justified.

Fiery climax

The die is cast. In the long final chapter two things happen: the fight and the storming of the old house.

Several days go by while Arthur goes for long walks in the countryside and Susie and Dr Porhoët worry about him. One afternoon the sultry air is growing heavy with a storm when Arthur returns to the inn. It is getting dark as Susie and Dr Porhoët beg Arthur to tell them what his plan is: To kill Haddo, he simply replies.

The wind in the darkness outside rises to a howl and then the lamp in the room they’re in is suddenly extinguished. In the darkness they all realise that someone else is in the room with them. Reading this at night I found it genuinely scary. A huge black shape fills a corner and without a word Arthur flings himself on it, identifying arms and head and neck, rolling over, struggling, fighting for a grip.

Arthur seized the huge bullock throat and dug his fingers into it, and they sunk into the heavy rolls of fat; and he flung the whole weight of his body into them.

Arthur fights to the death in the pitch blackness, breaking the thing’s arm and then strangling it to death. He staggers to his feet. ‘I’ve killed him,’ he says hoarsely. Except that, when Susie lights a candle with the rasp of a match… the room is empty. There is nothing there!

It is an uncanny and genuinely eerie touch.

They must go, go now, go immediately to Skene, Arthur insists. And so he force marches Susie and Dr Porhoët  the three or so miles from the inn to the fence of the old Gothic pile. He breaks in through the broken fence. He bangs on the door but there is no answer. They know from the gossipy landlady of the inn, the servants are sent away at night. Confident that the house is empty save for Haddo, Arthur breaks into a ground floor window then comes to the front door to let the other two in.

Room by room the search the house, finding half of it abandoned and cold. They search two floors then are stymied about how to get up to the upper floor, the only rooms which they saw lit, from the outside. Eventually Arthur finds a secret passage concealed behind the wood panelling.

Up they go and discover – chambers of horrors: three long rooms which are a) dazzlingly lit b) immensely hot, warmed by open furnaces. There is a lengthy description of all the alchemical equipment Haddo had gathered and was using, but the climax of the entire novel is a series of glass bowls in which Haddo had been experimenting… to create humans, to create human life – going far beyond the tales of the homunculi created by Paracelsus and into a world of creating and moulding human beings which is reminiscent of H.G. Wells’s horrifying fantasy of a decade earlier, The Island of Dr Moreau.

All of Maugham’s habitual taste and decorum is thrown to the winds as he describes, at nauseating length, a series of half-human abortions and monstrous lumps which are kept in the glass basins, palpitating, or writhing or scuttling on deformed limbs. As a modern reader inured to the disgusting by, for example, the Alien movies I still found the descriptions sickening. God knows what contemporary Edwardian readers must have made of them.

In another [bowl] the trunk was almost like that of a human child, except that it was patched strangely with red and grey. But the terror of it was that at the neck it branched hideously, and there were two distinct heads, monstrously large, but duly provided with all their features. The features were a caricature of humanity so shameful that one could hardly bear to look. And as the light fell on it, the eyes of each head opened slowly. They had no pigment in them, but were pink, like the eyes of white rabbits; and they stared for a moment with an odd, unseeing glance. Then they were shut again, and what was curiously terrifying was that the movements were not quite simultaneous; the eyelids of one head fell slowly just before those of the other.

And then, over in a corner, they see the vast body of Haddo, lying dead, strangled with protruding eyes and tongue. His arm is broken, as Arthur broke the fat body he fought with in the blackout at the hotel. Somehow, by some magic which we are now totally prepared to believe, Haddo transported his body, or a version of himself to the hotel room, and Arthur, killing the phantasm there, also killed the host body.

‘Out, out,’ cries Arthur, ‘We must leave now,’ and hustles them out of the rooms and down the stairs. Aren’t you coming? cries Susie. ‘In a moment,’ he replies. He rejoins them at the door, the run down the drive, then detour into the dark wood, find the hole in the fence and walk the long way back towards the inn.

Dawn comes as they approach the inn. Susie feels an enormous sense of life and colour returning to the landscape. And then she realises there is red in the west too. Arthur set Skene alight. Now it is blazing out of control. The old Gothic ruin, along with the body of its black magician master and the horror of the creatures he made, will all be wiped from the face of the earth.

Arthur puts his arm around Susie to support her and she suddenly feels safe and protected. The warm sun rises over the rejuvenated landscape. All will be well.


The pleasures of the text

Entertainment

Although it’s a preposterous story told in often lurid and over-wrought prose, it is still, like most of Maugham, immensely entertaining and readable.

Escapism

There’s not only the obvious escape any story offers, namely of escaping your present-day concerns into a world where you understand all the characters and what is going on – and where stories have neat beginnings, middles and ends – so very unlike the experience of messy, complicated and often inexplicable life that most of us experience.

There’s also the pleasure of escape into another era, the Downton Abbey syndrome. There are different clothes (for women, an amazing array of rich costumes, gowns, cloaks, dresses, and hats – lots of hats – and fine jewellery). There is the way the streets of London, Paris or the towns they visit are not clogged and poisoned by cars, lorries, buses, taxis and other sources of poisonous toxic fumes.

And, something I noticed in Mrs Craddock and here – all the characters take it for granted that they can just swan off abroad whenever they like. We are told that Arthur is a busy surgeon at a leading hospital but he can not only pop over to Paris for weeks at a time, but go gallivanting off to Charters, or spend the latter part of the novel running off to Staffordshire. I wish I had that kind of job.

Even more I wish I led the life of Susie. On the one hand the modern feminist reader might be horrified at the way she – and presumably the society around her – consider her an old maid on the shelf at age 30, and might object to the rather harsh way in which Maugham repeatedly emphasises the plainness of her looks, which verge on ugliness.

But on the upside – she doesn’t have to work! As far as I can tell she has no job because she enjoys a modest allowance. This means she spends all day strolling round Paris, visiting galleries, having little tea parties and, when Margaret leaves with Haddo, simply accepts an invitation from a friend to go and stay in Rome for the winter, going to the opera, going out for dinner, strolling round galleries. When she gets bored of that, she moves on to the Riviera for spring.

If she is meant to be proof of the terrible suffering and oppression which women endured in late Victorian and Edwardian times well, I wish I could have spent my life undergoing the same ‘suffering’. Spring? ‘We’re off to Monte Carlo, darling’. Summer? ‘Probably back for the Season. Shall we meet you at the opera?’

Manners

Everyone is so polite. It is lovely to read about the decorum and manners of a long lost era. Sure, it acted as a terrible restraint on people’s feelings – for example, it is made very clear that Arthur suffers immensely because he feels he cannot speak openly to anyone about his anguish over Margaret, but the general level of exquisite politeness at almost every level of society is so remote from the everyday rudeness and curtness of our own times.

And you have to enter into this world of exquisite manners in order to understand, and enjoy, when they are being deliberately manipulated by the characters. For example, it is one of Haddo’s amusing traits that he is wickedly heartless with the most polished manners, twisting the emotional knife into Arthur with soft words and refined diction. Take the scene on the door of Skene House where our trio have barged their way to find the truth about Margaret’s death. Haddo appears with silky ease and is the soul of politesse.

‘I have come about Margaret’s death,’ said Arthur.
Haddo, as was his habit, did not immediately answer. He looked slowly from Arthur to Dr Porhoët, and from Dr Porhoët to Susie. His eyes rested on her hat, and she felt uncomfortably that he was inventing some gibe about it.
‘I should have thought this hardly the moment to intrude upon my sorrow,’ he said at last. ‘If you have condolences to offer, I venture to suggest that you might conveniently send them by means of the penny post.’

Even in the midst of all the horror, Maugham still has the focus to make Haddo the source of wonderfully cynical jibes, clothed in Eton-Oxford-aristocratic refinement. Here is Arthur shouting at Haddo, and Haddo fending him off with unimpeachable civility.

‘I saw Margaret three weeks ago, and she told me that she went in terror of her life.’
‘Poor Margaret! She had always the romantic temperament. I think it was that which first brought us together.’
‘You damned scoundrel!’ cried Arthur.
‘My dear fellow, pray moderate your language. This is surely not an occasion when you should give way to your lamentable taste for abuse. You outrage all Miss Boyd’s susceptibilities.’ He turned to her with an airy wave of his fat hand. ‘You must forgive me if I do not offer you the hospitality of Skene, but the loss I have so lately sustained does not permit me to indulge in the levity of entertaining.’

Well, if you’re going to be a black magician confronted by the fiancé of the woman you stole from him and subsequently murdered as part of your fiendish experiments – this is the style to do it in.

The movie

The Magician was made into a fabulously melodramatic black-and-white silent film in 1926, directed by Rex Ingram.


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1902 Mrs Craddock
1908 The Magician
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner (novel)
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before The Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde @ the Barbican

This is an extraordinarily packed, dense and demanding exhibition.

The basic idea is deceptively simple. The show looks at over 40 artistic couples who were pioneers of early 20th century avant-garde art, photography, design and literature, and explores the stories of their sexual, emotional and artistic relationships, liberally illustrating the narratives with photos and art works, books and pamphlets, fabrics and ceramics, chairs and bookshelves, which one or other or both of them produced.

Women first

One central aim of the exhibition is to show that, more often than not, the women in these artistic relationships were as, if not more, important and influential (and creative in their own right) than the male artists and male critics of their time – and ever since – have acknowledged.

So, in a small but telling detail, in all the displays of couples, it is the woman who is presented first, the woman’s name which appears first and the woman’s work and contribution which is most explored.

Thus in the opening room we are told that the model Camille Claudel played a larger role in the career of sculptor Auguste Rodin than is usually credited, as well as being an interesting sculptor in her own right, with samples of her work to prove it.

The same goes for Maria Martens, who enjoyed a long and passionate working relationship with the more-famous Marcel Duchamp, but was a notable artist in her own right.

Later on we learn that Gustav Klimt’s lifelong soul-mate, and the model for some of his most famous paintings – Emilie Flöge – was more than just a muse and model, but a talented fashion designer who ran her own very successful couture house, the Schwestern Flöge (1904–1938), in Vienna.

Emilie Flöge and dress designs c.1900

Emilie Flöge and some of her dress designs c.1900

The exhibition works through scores of other examples, in each case showing that the women in each famous couple were often notable artists, sculptors, designers and business people in their own right, as well as contributing ideas, designs and artworks to what would nowadays be seen more as collaborative relationships than the old-fashioned story of an active Male Artist and a passive Female Muse.

Natalia Goncharova, the Russian Futurist artist, painter, costume designer, writer, illustrator, and set designer was every bit as innovative as her lifelong partner and founder of Rayonism, Mikhail Larionov.

Frida Kahlo, during the 1930s overshadowed by her husband, the famous mural painter Diego Rivera, has subsequently emerged as a powerful artistic figure in her own right.

Leonora Carrington has traditionally been seen as a ‘muse’ for the Surrealist artist, Max Ernst, during the three intense years of their relationship, 1937-40, but she was a sculptor and painter in her own right, as well as the author of a harrowing account of her experience of mental illness, Into the Abyss.

Early in their relationship Georgia O’Keeffe was the junior partner to her husband, the famous New York photographer Alfred Stieglitz, but her career as a painter would go on to eclipse his reputation.

And so on.

In fact, the show at moments suggests that it was sometimes the men who were the muse figures for a woman artist, for example in the section on Picasso and how his image was crafted and shaped by his lover Dora Maar, in her own photographs and sculptures.

Picasso en Minotaure, Mougins, 1937 by Dora Maar © ADAGP, Paris. Photo © Centre Pompidou

Picasso en Minotaure, Mougins, 1937 by Dora Maar © ADAGP, Paris. Photo © Centre Pompidou

So, on one level, this exhibition is a massive, encyclopedic review of twentieth century avant-garde art as retold from the women artists’ perspectives. Redressing a balance. Restoring, or creating, a new feminist interpretation of many artistic relationships, from the super-famous to the sometimes relatively obscure.

Collaborations

But this theme – rediscovering and rethinking the importance of the women collaborators vis-avis often more famous male artists – is not the only one. It is complemented by explorations of the diverse meanings of the very ideas of ‘working relationships’ and ‘collaborations’.

Take homosexual partnerships. Alongside the long sequence of heterosexual couples, there are rooms devoted to gay, lesbian or bisexual couples, for example the passionate same-sex relationship between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West which inspired Woolf’s novel, Orlando. Or the room devoted to the long-lasting artistic relationship between transgender couple Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore.

Other rooms expand the notion of ‘relationship’ beyond the idea of a simple binary couple, for example the relationship of the three Magic Realist painters – Paul Cadmus, Jared French and Margaret Hoening French – who worked together so closely that they attributed their works to a joint pseudonym made up from the first two letters of their first names – the PaJaMa collective.

Other rooms move beyond threesomes to explore larger groups of artists who collaborated and worked together during this exuberant period. Thus one room focuses on the community of lesbian writers and artists in 1920s Paris, while another explores the Surrealist idea of the ‘Chance Encounter’ in a room which brings together some ten or so artists, male and female, who collaborated together in loose and shifting networks of co-operation.

Paul Cadmus and Jared French (1937) photographed by George Platt Lynes © 2018 Estate of George Platt Lynes

Paul Cadmus and Jared French (1937) photographed by George Platt Lynes © 2018 Estate of George Platt Lynes

In other words, the exhibition starts off by exploring the notion of modernist artistic couples but quite quickly deconstructs, reconfigures, explores and rethinks what working artistic relationships actually meant in practice for a wide variety of artists.

It may begin with women who challenged conventional notions of female behaviour and the role of ‘the wife’ or ‘the mistress’ or ‘the muse’, but soon becomes an investigation of a number of types of artistic working relationships, between not only heterosexual and same-sex couples, but among larger and more fluid groupings.

Is Modernism about Love or the Machine Age?

But alongside the notion of the couple, the collaboration and the group, the curators make a bold assertion which I find hard to agree with, namely that artistic modernism was coterminous with ‘modern love’. To quote the introductory wall label at the start of the exhibition:

Modern art. Modern love. From the 1890s through to just after the Second World War, these two phenomena were interwoven and indelibly linked. Side-by-side, artist couples forged new ways of making art and of living and loving.

And in the scores and scores of wall labels which follow, there is much, much more along the same lines. All of the artists are given thumbnail biographies and these tend to focus as much on their love lives, on their bohemian rejection of bourgeois conventions around love, marriage, sexuality and so on, as on their actual artistic achievements.

Central to the exhibition is the claim that Modernism, or the 20th century avant-garde, was about love and sex and desire. Or, as the curators put it:

‘Modern Couples’ roots Modernism in the field of desire.

This claim, or assertion, allows the curators to present a coherent and persuasive narrative. Modern Art is about love and desire. 20th century women artists and authors invariably depicted love and desire. Therefore women artists are central to Modern Art.

Or: If love and desire are the core subject of Modernism, then women artists, who focused on love and desire, must be central to Modernism.

It is a circular, self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing argument.

Having established this axiom, the show can then settle down to ticking off a familiar checklist of feminist art concerns, demonstrating how these radical women artists ‘subverted’ traditional ‘patriarchal’ ideas of ‘gender stereotyping’ and explored ‘transgressive’ sexuality i.e. by having numerous lovers or by being lesbians.

By selecting love and ‘desire’ as the central theme of Modernism, the curators are able to pull together:

  • the heterosexual and homosexual relationships of women artists
  • women artists’ ambivalent roles as sexual objects and muses to men
  • women artists’ own sexual feelings and needs, expressed in infidelities, affairs and multiple partners
  • the fact that women artists sometimes got pregnant and gave birth
  • the way women artists explored and mythologised the condition of femininity and fertility
  • alongside the legion of lesbian artists, seen as social and political pioneers in the way they explored man-free notions of same-sex desire

All of these multifarious activities and interests can be pulled together as if they make up a single coherent movement, all saying the same thing, all addressing the same handful of ‘issues’, all united in the same aim.

And the way the same theme and subject – love, sex and the (generally female) body – is repeated on all the wall labels and is exemplified again and again in the artworks also contributes to this sense of a huge transcontinental network of artists, sculptors and writers all inspired by the same theme. Reinforcing the curators’ premise that ‘modern art’ is coterminous with ‘modern love’.

This strikes me as being very neat, very convenient and not completely true, for one very big reason.

At university I was taught that the huge array of new artistic and literary strategies which we call ‘Modernism’ was, at least in part, a reaction to the ongoing dominance of the Machine in modern life, and a response to the hectic pace of technological change which accelerated from the 1890s onwards.

Electric lights, bicycles, skyscrapers with electric elevators, motor cars and airplanes, the cinema and portable cameras, were just a few of the technologies which didn’t exist in 1890, were only just being developed in 1900, and which had become almost commonplace by 1910, in a few decades of dizzying technical and engineering change.

I was taught that T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land and James Joyce in Ulysses and Alfred Döblin in Berlin Alexanderplatz and John Dos Passos in U.S.A. use techniques of collage, parody and fragmentation to convey the disorientating experience of life in modern, fast-moving cities and the way it had uprooted sensitive people from their cultural and communal identities, producing a blizzard of fragmented experiences.

The City of Ambitions (1910) by Alfred Stieglitz. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum

The City of Ambitions (1910) by Alfred Stieglitz. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum

Same with the photomontages of Alexander Rodchenko and the Russian Constructivists, or the zealous machine-worship of the Futurists, or the angularities of the Vorticists, or the geometric forms of Fernand Léger, or the Suprematism of Kazimir Malevich, or the shock close-ups and split screens and montages of Sergei Eisenstein, or the grid pictures of Piet Mondrian which began life as attempts to capture the energy of fast-moving traffic around modern city blocks.

I was taught that all of these undeniably ‘modernist’ books and artworks were first and foremost responses to what many artists felt was the disruptive impact of a host of new technologies on modern life. They have nothing – visually or intellectually – to do with love and desire.

So it’s a surprise to realise that this indisputably key element of Modernism – the hectic, alienating, urban, machine-riddled aspect of the Modernist movement – is largely absent from this exhibition. If it’s mentioned at all it is only to be quickly downplayed.

Thus when the exhibition describes the Futurist poet and provocateur, Marinetti it does so mainly in order to prove that his partner, Benedetta, was a pioneering artist in her own right, who feistily stood up to Marinetti’s misogynist rhetoric and co-wrote a lot of his most famous works.

Fair enough, but this perspective downplays Marinetti’s importance as (half-crazed) apostle of The Machine – of the new age of fast cars, planes and trains, a mania which influenced the Surrealists in Paris and the Vorticists in London.

Room 20, devoted to Russian Modernism, describes the artistic output of Alexander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, Lilya Brk and Osip Brik, and Vladimir Mayakovsky mainly in terms of their fluid relationships and collaborations i.e. in order to justify the curators’ central premise.

What is underplayed is the crucial importance of The Machine Age to their development of new styles of photography and photomontage, design, experimental film and so on – radical responses to the impact of new technologies on human life which were so acute and perceptive that many of them still influence us to this day.

A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova descending from an airplane in a still for the film The General Line by Sergei Eisenstein (1926) a very rare appearance of a machine in an exhibition overwhelmingly devoted to bodies and desire. Courtesy Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow

A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova descending from an airplane in a still for the film The General Line by Sergei Eisenstein (1926). A very rare appearance of a machine in an exhibition overwhelmingly devoted to bodies and desire. Courtesy Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow

Some of the exhibition wall labels do refer to the new experience of the modern city, a bit, where absolutely necessary, reluctantly – but overall the exhibition systematically downplays or ignores it in order to focus on its core concern – with relationships, love, ‘desire’ and the female body.

For me, this is simply to ignore, underplay and obscure a vital element in early 20th century avant-garde modernist art and literature.

Moreover, if you think about it, the curators’ unrelenting focus on love, sex and (generally) women’s bodies leads to a deep irony.

By choosing to equate Modernism exclusively with love and desire, an exhibition which sets out to reject sexist stereotypes of women in a subtle way ends up limiting women to – the realm of the emotions, of love and desire.

An exhibition which ostensibly sets out to tell us that women were interested in more than just the stereotypical concerns of love and sex (they were also successful businesswomen and designers), paradoxically goes to great lengths to tell us in sometimes embarrassing detail about the love lives, partners and sensuality and eroticism of these same women.

Which tends to have the cumulative affect of confirming the stereotypical prejudice that women, at the end of the day, aren’t interested in wider ideas, social change, technology, science and engineering, in designing better engines, cars, planes and trains.

No, with a handful of exceptions, most of the women in this exhibition are described as being predominantly interested – in their lives and art and writing – in love and sex. The lesbians, gays and transgender people, too, are defined, categorised and interpreted in the light of their sexual preferences, not in any wider social or intellectual concerns.

[At a more remote level, for people who don’t give a damn about art or artists (90+% of the population), this exhibition confirms every philistine prejudice they’ve ever held about the art world, namely that it’s a Sodom and Gomorrah of sexual perversion, infidelity, adultery and pornography. (There is quite a lot of nudity on display, as you’d expect in an exhibition about desire and the body, lots of bare boobs and one or two naked penises. Visitors are warned that the room about the Surrealists’ ‘Chance Encounter’ has so much explicit content that it might not be suitable for under-16s. Oooh er.)]

Meanwhile, beyond the artists’ studios and bedrooms in the 1910s and 20s, there was an immense and exciting world – the world of motorbikes and racing cars and fast trains and ocean liners and skyscrapers and high speed elevators and escalators and department stores and cinemas and world wars and machine guns and tanks and airplanes, the world where people tested themselves against machines, climbed mountains, did solo flights across the Atlantic.

But all this is ignored, left out, omitted, elided and glossed over, in the curators’ keenness to assert that the essence of Modernism was… love and desire, marriages and mistresses, ‘transgressive sexuality’, ‘the queer citizen’, ‘women’s liberation’, ‘same-sex acceptance’ and so on.

It is difficult to read every word of all the wall labels, not only because there are so many of them, but also because so many of them end up saying the same thing. The circumstantial details of each artist and their relationships maybe be distinct and individual but so many of the labels take us to the same destination – explaining that so and so made ‘the body’ the centre of their practice or ‘the site of transgressive desire’ or an epitome of ‘queer citizenship’, and so on.

The explosively diverse and often fascinating works of many of these artists are time after time reduced, interpreted via the same handful of ideas which rotate obsessively around sex, ‘desire’, the body, and transgressing gender stereotypes.

It is, in my opinion, both a narrow view of Modern Art, and a very narrow view of the female, lesbian and gay achievement of the time, both in the art world and beyond.

A tsunami of information

So much for the core ideas of the exhibition, and my issue with some of them.

The actual experience of visiting Modern Couples is to be completely overwhelmed by a tsunami of names and stories. The two floors of the Barbican Gallery have been divided up into some 23 small rooms, into most of which have been crammed displays about at least two sets of couples, with each couple introduced and explained by sometimes lengthy texts on the wall, as well as scores and scores of key quotes from the respective artists and authors.

It’s a lot to take in – to read the explanation of each couple, and then try and match the quotes to what you’ve just read about their lives – and then to find the energy to look at the actual art works.

To give you a sense of the scale and the deluge of information, here’s the list of the Artist Couples:

  • Aino and Alvar Aalto
  • Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry
  • Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant
  • Lilya Brik and Vladimir Mayakovsky
  • Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore
  • Benedetta and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti
  • Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst
  • Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin
  • Nancy Cunard and Henry Crowder
  • Sonia Delaunay and Robert Delaunay
  • Lili Elbe And Gerda Wegener
  • Emilie Flöge and Gustav Klimt
  • Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dalí
  • Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov
  • Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici
  • Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson
  • Hannah Höch and Til Brugman
  • Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann
  • Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera
  • Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso
  • Alma Mahler and Oskar Kokoschka
  • Alma Mahler and Gustav Mahler
  • Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp
  • Margrethe Mather and Edward Weston
  • Lee Miller and Man Ray
  • Lee Miller and Roland Penrose
  • Tina Modotti and Edward Weston
  • Lucia Moholy and László Moholy-Nagy
  • Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky
  • Winifred Nicholson and Ben Nicholson
  • Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz
  • PaJaMa: Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and Margaret French
  • George Platt Lynes, Monroe Wheeler and Glenway Wescott
  • Lavinia Schultz and Walter Holdt
  • Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko
  • Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Jean Arp
  • Toyen and Jindrich Štyrský
  • Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej von Jawlensky
  • Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West
  • Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf
  • Unica Zürn and Hans Bellmer

That’s a lot of biographies to read and digest, that’s a lot of names to remember.

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell. Swindon Art Gallery

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell. Swindon Art Gallery

Here are the names, careers, art and writing of the ‘Sapphists’ featured in just one room, the one dedicated to ‘The Temple of Friendship’ i.e. the lesbian writers and artists of 1920s Paris:

  • Djuna Barnes and Thelma Wood
  • Natalie Clifford-Barney and Romaine Brooks
  • Natalie Clifford Barney and Rémy de Gourmont
  • Natalie Clifford-Barney and Liane de Pougy
  • Natalie Clifford Barney and Renée Vivien
  • Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier
  • Luisa Casati
  • Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge
  • Tamara de Lempicka
  • Ida Rubinstein
  • Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

And that’s before you get to the artists featured in the Surrealist ‘Chance Encounter’ room, namely:

  • Eileen Agar and Joseph Bard
  • Eileen Agar and Paul Nash
  • Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy
  • Leonor Fini and André Pieyre de Mandiargues
  • Gala and Salvador Dalí
  • Gala, Paul Éluard and Max Ernst
  • Valentine Hugo and André Breton
  • Jacqueline Lamba and André Breton
  • Kiki de Montparnasse and Man Ray
  • Nadja and André Breton
  • Nusch and Paul Éluard
  • Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff
  • Valentine Penrose and Alice Rahon
  • Valentine Penrose and Roland Penrose
  • Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst
Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture, Capricorn, 1947 © John Kasnetsis

Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture, Capricorn, 1947 © John Kasnetsis

Not only must the visitor assimilate this tsunami of names, relationships and diversity of artistic and literary practices, but every visitor to the exhibition is given a free handout, a ‘glossary’, which includes even more themes to think about.

For when the curators had collated this much information about this many people and assembled this many works all in one place – it turns to be an interesting exercise to detect all kinds of further links and connections between the huge diversity of artists, activities or artworks on show.

Thus the free handout suggests that, as you walk round the exhibition, you look out for the following themes:

  • Activism
  • Agency – ‘Feminism, agency and the desire for independence underpins much of the work by women artists in the avant-garde period.’
  • Breaking up
  • Businesswomen – Emilie Flöge, Sonia Delaunay, Aino Aalto
  • Chance encounter
  • Chloe liked Olivia – quote from Virginia Woolf epitomising ‘the new queer citizen of the 20th century’
  • Clandestine
  • Co-authored – or collaboration, one of the show’s central themes.
  • Communicating vessels – ‘Two different bodies, rubbed against one another, attain, through the spark, their supreme unity in fire’ – André Breton, 1932.
  • Collage
  • Daring – ‘What have I dared embark upon by entering your life?’ Dora Maar to Picasso, 1936.
  • Desire
  • Elegy – ‘Butterflies represent a scene of your life in which the dawn awakens on your lips. A star takes shape according to your design.’ Jean Arp remembering Sophie Taeuber-Arp after her death.
  • Escape to the country
  • Feminism – ‘We will be better than the wife, the mother or the sister of a man, we will be the female brother of the man’ – Natalie Clifford Barney
  • Gift
  • Homoeroticism – ‘The work that came out of Monroe Wheeler, Glenway Wescott and George Platt Lynes’s at times uneasy polyamorous relationship opened up a queer utopian space, away from 1930s American conservatism, in which the male subject could be liberated.’
  • Intimacy
  • Liberation – sexual liberation, liberation from Victorian clothing and Victorian morality, liberation from constricting fabrics and dull designs, liberation from boring interiors, liberation from artistic naturalism and even from language
  • Love
  • Mad love
  • Mirroring – ‘I am one, you are the other. Or the opposite. Our desires meet one another.’ Claude Cohun, 1930.
  • Muse – Dora Maar took photos of her lover Picasso in ‘a turnaround of gender expectations‘.
  • Mythology
  • Nest
  • Non-binary – ‘Gender fluidity, sexual empowerment, awakening, and the fight for safe spaces of becoming, were part of the avant-garde currency.’
  • Play
  • Printed word – ‘It could be a political text, a perfect branding platform, a token of love, a site of artistic collaboration or a platform for transgressive or erotic content.’
  • Procreation
  • Publishing – Many modernists experimented with setting up their own publishing company, most notably the Hogarth Press of Leonard and Virginia Woolf.
  • Pygmalion
  • Radical abstraction
  • Reinvention – The importance of the portrait, in art and literature. Claude Cohun and Marcel Moore, life partners for 45 years, and produced a huge body of work playing with ‘gender politics‘.
  • Revolution – Alexander Rodchenko and partner Varvara Stepanova’s revulsion for the West’s cult of ‘Woman as object’ and determination to embrace ‘gender equality‘.
  • Selfie
  • Sidelined – women sidelined by men, obviously
  • Total work of art
  • Triadic
  • Two-people movements – Rayism invented by Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, the Mask Dancer movement of Lavinia Schultz and Walter Holdt, the Tactilism of Benedetta and Filippo Marinetti, the Orphism of Sonia and Robert Delaunay.
  • Utopia
  • War
  • X-rated – ‘Many artists in this exhibition used eroticism in their art as a way of fighting bourgeois conformity, propaganda and artistic censorship.’

Is that enough to think about yet?

A self-portrait by Claude Cahun, subverting gender stereotypes. Courtesy of Jersey Heritage Collections

A self-portrait by Claude Cahun, subverting gender stereotypes. Courtesy of Jersey Heritage Collections

This is what the exhibition is like. Overflowing with texts, quotes, references, biographical data, artistic theory and, underpinning it all, emerging sooner or later in every wall label for every artist – the axioms of modern identity politics and feminism – gender politics, the body, gender fluidity, transgressive art, gender equality, and so on.

Numbers

I counted a total of 103 paragraphs of wall text – sometimes very long, densely factual paragraphs. It would take at least an hour just to read them, and that’s before the 50 or so quotes from artists’ letters, diaries and so on.

There are over 40 couples, but many more ‘couples-plus’ – groups and movements of artists and writers to get a handle on – with the result that the exhibition features more than 80 writers and artists in total.

And there are a staggering 600 objects on display, including paintings, sculptures, models, furniture, personal photographs, love letters, gifts, books – 35 first editions from Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press – magazines, rare archival material and much, much more!

Les deux amies (1923) by Tamara de Lempicka. Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneve

Les deux amies (1923) by Tamara de Lempicka. Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneve. A portrait of two naked women painted by a woman!

In the event, this was simply too much for me to take in. I started off dutifully reading every wall text but quickly got tired, saturated, full up – I started skimming some and then just ignored others. I went round about five times, each time reading at new bits of text, toying with quotes here and there – above all, trying to let the actual art fight its way through the jungle of biography and interpretation and bitty quotations and make its impact.

I came to roughly two conclusions.

1. One is that, if you’re a student or have an educational motivation, this is a spectacular opportunity to see works great and small, by artists famous and obscure, by men, women, gays, lesbians and trans people, from what feels like all the most important art movements of the early 20th century.

(In fact it’s far from being a complete overview of early 20th century art – that would fill ten Barbican galleries – but it is an impressive stab at conveying a really comprehensive overview of important modern art as retold with women, gays and lesbians to the fore.)

2. The second point is that among the 600 paintings, books, photos and furniture on display there are some real masterpieces, many on loan from abroad, and so a rare opportunity to see many beautiful things in the flesh.

Small is not necessarily beautiful

In this respect – my response to the art – I found the smaller, more cramped rooms to be unconducive to aesthetic enjoyment.

For example, the small first room which is shared by the story of Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin, and the story of Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp, included some plaster busts and faces by the former pair, and some bronze casts of Maria’s body parts (her buttocks and vagina) made by Duchamp. But it was so small, cramped and crowded that it felt more like a reading and learning space, than an art space.

The reduction ad absurdum of this shoehorn approach was the way that the no doubt complex and interesting working relationship between modernist designer Lilly Reich and her long-term partner and collaborator, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, was explained via one chrome and black leather chair and three paragraphs of text plonked at the bottom of the stairs to the first floor.

He claimed to be the sole designer of this classic and hugely influential chair. Only decades later did it emerge that she had as least as much input as he did into the design. What a beast!

Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe (1929)

Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe (1929)

Interesting story, but blink and you might miss it altogether.

The show is co-curated by Emma Lavigne, Director of the Centre Pompidou in Metz. The French connection made me think of some of the smaller displays as types of ‘bonnes bouches’ or ‘tasty bites’ – fleeting treats designed to add to the overall argument, but whose main function would be to inspire you to go away and find out more.

Big rooms where art can breathe

By contrast, I only really felt comfortable – and that I was really getting an aesthetic kick (as opposed to processing large amounts of biographical and art information) – in some of the larger rooms. There were plenty of other highlights, but I would single out rooms 14, 15 and 17.

Room 17 displayed the work of two and a half couples: of the English artist Ben Nicholson, who 1. enjoyed a close working relationship with Winifred Nicholson (whom he married) in the early 1930s before 2. then partnering with the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. The wall labels quote letters they exchanged in which they spoke of becoming, literally, one person, with one taste and one artistic motivation.

In this same room, on the opposite wall, was a suite of work by Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp. I found the juxtaposition of the sculptural abstractions of Nicholson and Hepworth with the playful abstracts of Arp really interesting.

But I was transfixed by the four or five 18-inch-high marionettes made by Sophie Taeuber-Arp for a puppet production of a folk tale about King Stagg. These possessed something almost nothing else in the exhibition did – which was charm and humour.

Marionettes by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1918)

Marionettes by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1918)

Room 15 is a rare example of a room devoted to just one couple, in this case the wife-and-husband partnership between Sonia and Robert Delaunay (who were married from 1910 to Robert’s death in 1941). This married couple developed a movement variously titled Simultanism and then Orphism, in which different patterns of colours are set against each other to create disruptive effects.

The Delaunay room benefited immensely from being just about them, with no other couple squeezed in. It had more than twenty works hung around the walls, most of them – from what I could see – the calm, restful abstract designs by Sonia, mostly for fabrics and dresses. This made for a really absorbing and beautiful space.

Design B53 (1924) by Sonia Delaunay

Design B53 (1924) by Sonia Delaunay

But the room I found it literally hard to leave and, even when I’d left it, found myself walking round the entire ground floor in order to visit again with a renewed frisson of delight, was room 14 devoted to the overlapping artistic partnerships of Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky, and Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej von Jawlensky.

This foursome produced German Expressionist paintings of wonderful colour and vivid design at their self-styled artist colony at Murnau in Bavaria, in the years just before the Great War. Wow.

I liked lots of other things in the exhibition (the enormous painting of naked lesbians by Tamara de Lempicka, the thrilling Constructivist photos of Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko, the dazzling photos of Lee Miller done by Man Ray, the couple of small but wonderful paintings by Gustav Klimt, some of the abstract paintings produced by Roger Grant and Vanessa Bell’s Omega Workshop, the wonderfully aloof portraits painted by Romaine Brooks), but for sheer visual pleasure, nothing beat this room of hyper-bright, vivid brushstrokes, bold childlike designs, and colour-drenched splashes and flourishes by this German foursome.

Improvisation III by Wassily Kandinsky (1909)

Improvisation III by Wassily Kandinsky (1909)

Probably I should have been reading up on how their work ‘subverted’ this or that tradition, and ‘challenged gender stereotypes’, or how the two women definitely contributed as much or more to their commune as the men.

But I switched off all that curatorial chatter, and just stood in awe of these wonderful, beautiful, transcendent works of art. No reproductions can do justice to the shiny vibrancy of the real thing in the flesh. Go and see them for yourself.

Conclusion

It must have taken an immense amount of effort by the four co-curators to bring together such an epic collection of objects and art works and to bring order, coherence and meaning to the multiple stories behind them.

If you are a feminist I can see how this exhibition of feminist artists lovingly assembled by feminist curators with scores of texts by feminist scholars would thunderingly confirm all your feminist beliefs. That’s what it’s designed to do.

And I wondered, as I left, whether this exhibition now and in the future, might be seen as a landmark show, a really massive rethinking of early 20th century modern art which reinstates women’s stories in all these important relationships, and often rehabilitates them as being as, if not more, creative than their male partners.

And also for the way it explores the idea that modern art was characterised, more than any previous type of art, by its collaborative nature, by the way it was produced by partnerships, by trios or quartets, by small groups working, thinking and making together.

It is a strong, well-argued, illuminating and very thought-provoking show.

But, that said, it’s hard to imagine that a lot of these artists and their stories won’t already be well known to the average gallery goer – the stories of Picasso and Dora, Frida and Diego, Virginia and Vita and the names of Dali, Ernst, Man Ray, Klimt, Marinetti, Nicholson and Hepworth are hardly unknown, and the notion that, ‘behind every great man there’s a great woman’, is hardly a radical thought – as indicated by the fact that there’s a centuries-old proverb on the subject.

Similarly, it’s hard to imagine that the fact that there were lesbian writers in the 1920s or gay photographers in the 1930s, will come as a great surprise to the average gallery goer. Homosexuality is not really news to most people. Most of the people the exhibition is targeted at will, I suspect, have heard of Virginia Woolf before, and will know she had a lesbian affair with Vita Sackville-West.

My position, after forty years of studying twentieth century art, literature and history, is that the Century of Catastrophes is too diverse and complex to be reduced to any one narrative or interpretation. From about the 1890s onwards there was (and still is) too much going on in an interconnected world of billions of human beings for any one narrative or story to hope to tell any kind of definitive ‘truth’.

For example, this is an exhibition, at bottom, about European and American white women, often very wealthy women (Nancy Cunard, Natalie Barney). You can immediately see that focusing on these often very privileged people tends to omit the stories of working class people of both genders in those continents. You could be forgiven for not realising there were things called the First World War and the Russian Revolution during the period the exhibition covers. Not enough ‘same sex desire’ to merit inclusion.

Similarly, there is precious little (surprisingly) about the black experience of modernity (there is one black person in the exhibition, the jazz musician Henry Crowder, who is included because of his influence over the immensely wealthy patron of the arts and writer, Nancy Cunard).

In fact, now I think about it, jazz is a crashingly obvious and central element of Modernism, from Stravinsky to Eliot, and is depicted in countless modernist art works. But it doesn’t fit with the curators’ insistence that Modernism be defined by couples, love and relationships, sex and partners and gender and desire and so… it isn’t here.

My view is that the ‘Modern’ experience of humanity, the bewildering catalogue of technological, scientific and cultural change which overwhelmed Homo sapiens in the early twentieth century – is too vast and multiform for any one narrative to encompass.

The curators make a powerful and persuasive case that Modernism was characterised above all by new thinking about love, eroticism, desire and relationships, much of which promoted the liberation of women (and trans people and gays).

Lee Miller with a cast of her torso, Downshire Hill, London, England 1940 by Roland Penrose © Roland Penrose

Lee Miller with a cast of her torso, Downshire Hill, London, England 1940 by Roland Penrose
© Roland Penrose

I accept all their points as valid, and the body of evidence they’ve assembled is pulverisingly persuasive. And yet I still think that an equal if not more important element of Modernism was artists’ reaction to the revolution in everyday life caused by new technologies. And everyone’s world was turned upside down by the Great War. And the entire intellectual world was galvanised by the radicalism of the Russian Revolution. And I haven’t mentioned the famously disruptive discoveries of Einstein and others, undermining the static view of the forces of nature held since Newton. Too much was happening. No wonder the art from this period is so excited and effervescent.

Alternative interpretations

But I’m well aware that my own interpretation can itself be trumped by other competing narratives. That there are numerous ways of looking at this period of cultural history.

For example, arguably the most important aspect of the era was the collapse of the old European empires – the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires. The entire art of the period could be interpreted in terms of the breakdown of the ideologies, laws and customs which supported them, of which conventions about relations between the sexes are just a small sub-set.

Or there’s a Marxist interpretation which suggests that the era was characterised by unprecedented wealth derived from the West’s imperialist domination of the rest of the world – wealth which gave rise to a new class of super-rich collectors and connoisseurs who patronised ‘modern’ art and literature and experimented with new ‘decadent’ lifestyles. (Vide Nancy Cunard, Natalie Barney and the numerous other rich American women who populate the 1920s lesbian room).

Or there’s a strong post-colonial interpretation which says that the decisive impetus for Modernism and its revolutionary overthrow of 400 years of realistic art came from the cultural appropriation of the African masks and Oceanic art looted by imperial collectors, which were enthusiastically copied by Picasso and Matisse, and which had a transformative effect on everyone who followed them.

To give just a few of the most obvious interpretations of the art of the period.

This exhibition is an impressive and stimulating attempt to write one particular story about early twentieth century art. But it is only one interpretation among a sea of alternative stories.

The promotional video

P.S. What does ‘modern’ mean?

When I told my wife I was off to see an exhibition titled ‘Modern Couples’ she thought it would be a V&A-style celebration of contemporary celebrity pairs like Elton John and David Furnish, the Beckhams, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, and so on.

No, I explained. When art and literary critics say ‘modern’ what they mean is art from the 1900s, 1910s and 20s. They mean art and literature which is over a hundred years old. That’s what they mean by ‘modern’.

And even as I explained it, I realised how odd this use of the word ‘modern’ is. Eventually this stuff is going to be 150 years old. Will we still be describing it as ‘modern’ in 2050? At what point will someone have to come up with a better name? Or will Modernist art remain ‘modern’ forever?


Related links

Women in art

Reviews of artists featured in this exhibition

Reviews of previous exhibitions & concerts at the Barbican

Mrs Craddock by Somerset Maugham (1902)

‘Entre deux amants il-y-a toujours un qui aime, et un qui se laisse aimer.’

After the success of his first novel, Liza of Lambeth in 1897, the 23-year-old William Somerset Maugham optimistically abandoned his career as a trainee doctor to become a professional writer. Later in life, Maugham considered this to have been a bad mistake, for literary success came only slowly and he spent nearly a decade churning out ten novels which sold little or poorly.

All the time his real ambition was to be a playwright, but none of his plays were accepted either. It was only in 1907, ten years after Liza, that his play Lady Frederick was finally staged and, to his own surprise, became a runaway success, transforming his reputation and fortunes. Within a year he had four plays running in the West End and had arrived.

Mrs Craddock

Mrs Craddock, from 1902, is a product of his lean early years, and you can see why. It is a long and uneven narrative, sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, covering ten or so years in the life of Bertha Leys:

  • from when she is a head-strong, romantic orphan under the guardianship of her aunt Mary living in the family home, Court Leys in Kent
  • through her infatuation for and marriage to the virile local farmer Edward Craddock
  • her slow realisation that Edward is conventional, unimaginative and boring and cares more about his wretched cows and pet dogs than about Bertha’s feelings
  • (something she starts to suspect on their honeymoon in London where he laughs at crude vaudeville and can’t see the point of the art galleries which Bertha adores)
  • she is mortified when he humiliates her at tennis at a big party of the local gentry
  • she hopes that getting pregnant and having a child will bring them close together again, or at least provide a focus for her thwarted love
  • but, inevitably, she has a long, drawn-out miscarriage and the baby is still-born
  • but worse than anything is the calm, sensible way Edward accepts this and its corollary, the doctor’s conclusion that she will never again be able to have children – news at which while Bertha is, understandably, distraught (chapter 17)
  • their married life becomes a series of niggling arguments – like the one about whether the farm workmen should chop down some beech trees which overshadow an important field (Edward) or should not, because they are old and beautiful (Bertha)
  • these escalate into flaring rows and, slowly, Bertha is forced to admit that she can no longer stand her husband
  • so she leaves Edward and Kent to go travelling with Aunt Mary on the Continent for months
  • on her return to London she has an ill-advised but madly passionate fling with a distant cousin, Gerald Vaudrey

But when, after torments of separation, and even mad thoughts about going with him to the New World, Gerald finally leaves for New York, Bertha’s spirit snaps and she returns to Court Leys emotionally empty.

Ironically, throughout the novel, we have watched as Edward’s career has gone from strength to strength. He manages the Ley property superbly, making a hefty profit and buying up surrounding land, restoring the house, building a tennis court in the grounds, and becoming the life and soul of local North Kent society.

It’s just a shame that Bertha loathes and detests local North Kent society for its parochialism and small-minded snobbery. In the final chapters of the book Bertha and Edward live together but utterly separate in spirit. Bertha, bored out of her mind, walks the local countryside, watches the changing seasons, goes down to the sea and stares for hours at its endless waves, dreaming of escape, dreaming sometimes of suicide or some kind of painless dissolution, anything to make the dreary routine of morning, noon and night, boring dinners with her husband or dreary visits to the local vicar or other landowners, all go away.

Then Edward, stubborn and confident to the end, takes out riding a horse which has already thrown him once and broken his collarbone. The horse shies at a fence, falling on top of him and he dies. Stunned, Bertha staggers to her bed and reviews her life. Shocked and dismayed, she realises that she is… free!

On the day of the funeral, there is social comedy about the order of precedence among the various organisations Edward was a leading member of (the freemasons, the county council, the Conservative Party). But quite separate from all that, Bertha doesn’t attend the funeral. Remote and isolated from the hurly burly of the entire world, she lies on her sofa, in the beautifully restored house, admiring the fine view to the sea, and picks up a book.

Response

I enjoyed reading Mrs Craddock but was aware of its numerous faults. For a start, there are several odd passages where Maugham is being ‘experimental’ or giving in to contemporary fashion but which really don’t come off. One half way through occurs where Bertha, still in her infatuation stage, hears tell that Edward is a little injured, and goes off into a peculiar hallucination of him being brought in dead, her washing the corpse, lowering the coffin into the grave and her throwing herself on top of it – at the end of which Edward walks in right as rain and wondering why she’s in such a state.

The book is also heavily garlanded with over-ripe passages describing the Kent countryside or the romantic air of Italy, which go on for pages.

That said, the book has two obvious virtues or strengths.

One is the effectiveness of the social comedy generated by the stiflingly conventional provincial society of Blackstable (the thinly disguised version of Whitstable where Maugham was brought up in the 1880s).

The characterisation of the stiff local vicar, Mr Grove, his well-intentioned sister, the hearty doctor, the dashing local landowner Branderton, the chorus of snobbish local ladies led by Mrs Branderston, with Mrs Mayston Ryle and Mrs Molsons not far behind, the scenes involving this little community are often very funny. The vicar’s sister Miss Glover is a particularly memorable character, all shiny stiff dress and sincere Christian sympathy. Maugham was always strong on social comedy, and strong on the subtleties and veiled malice of petty snobbery. It reappears in his feel for the thousand and one stupid restrictions on colonial life in the Far East, in his short stories of the 1920s.

Another is his knack for beginning or setting his stories in very mundane settings, and often mundane incidents, but from this base working up passages of tremendous emotional intensity, which stay with the reader.

Thus, for example, Bertha’s passionate lust and master-worship of Edward are described with real heat, as is her second great infatuation, the sensuality leading to inflamed lust for young Gerald. You can almost smell the sex.

Similarly, Bertha’s anger when she realises that Edward doesn’t much care if she lives or dies or what she does, is vividly described and moving. And so, again, towards the end, is her prolonged mood of depression as she wanders down to the grey Kent sea and fantasises about drowning in it.

So far so good. But whether all these passages really come together to form a convincing description of a plausible personality, such as literature is meant to, I’m not sure.

I’m not sure and I’m not sure if I’m qualified to judge. For a start, maybe only a woman reader or critic could really assess whether Bertha is a ‘realistic’ character. Who am I to say? For seconds, the novel covers a period from the 1880s to the end of the 1890s and… that was so long ago, so far away, in a kind of constipated rural Victorian society which is almost impossible for us to imagine, that I can’t see how any modern reader can make a just assessment of its veracity.

What can be confidently made is the criticism that the number two figure in the story – Edward Craddock – never really comes alive. Tall, strong and good-humoured he remains throughout the novel – admittedly putting on weight and growing red-cheeked as the years pass – but remaining an unbendingly good, honest, efficient and utterly boring man, the straight man to Bertha’s fireworks display of emotions.

Maybe it’s the failure to bring the man in this novel fully alive which has contributed to it being more or less forgotten.

But what is good, I think, in the novel, is the slow, slow pace at which Maugham describes Bertha’s slow, slow, slow loss of her infatuation, then loss of her love, then her loss of respect for her husband. The book has to be long because Maugham set out to describe the very slow erosion of her love in great detail. In this respect, in the care with which Maugham has plotted the decay of passionate love, I think the novel works.

Sex and lust

Without much by way of introduction or preparation the book launches us straight into the flustered mind of twenty-one-year-old Bertha – living calmly and respectably with her aunt in the family home Court Leys – and her fiercely physical infatuation with the tall, strong, dark local farmer, Edward Craddock who is a tenant farmer on the Ley family land, at Bewlie’s Farm.

He came nearer, a tall fellow of twenty-seven, massively set together, big boned, with long arms and legs, and a magnificent breadth of chest. Bertha recognised the costume that always pleased her, the knickerbockers and gaiters, the Norfolk-jacket of rough tweed, the white stock and the cap – all redolent of the country which for his sake she was beginning to love, and all vigorously masculine. Even the huge boots which covered his feet gave her by their very size a thrill of pleasure; their dimensions suggested a certain firmness of character, a masterfulness, which were intensely reassuring… His cheeks were flushed and his eyes glistened. His vitality was intense, shining out upon others with almost a material warmth.

Although it’s hard to imagine, a number of later writers, in the 1930s and 1940s, paid tribute to the way Maugham broke free of Victorian restrictions about sex, and wrote with a new openness and candour about passionate, physical love.

This fierce physicality was there right from the start, in the powerful descriptions of Liza’s pulse racing and her swooning against the tall, strong, masculine figure of Jim Blakeston in his first novel, Liza of Lambeth (1897), and exactly the same thing is repeated here, as impressionable young Bertha thrills at the touch and swoons against the tall, strong, masculine figure of young Edward.

When he put it round her shoulders, the touch of his hands made her lose the little self-control she had left. A curious spasm passed through her, and she pressed herself closer to him; at the same time his hands sank down, dropping the cloak, and encircled her waist. Then she surrendered herself entirely to his embrace and lifted her face to his. He bent down and kissed her. The kiss was such utter madness that she almost groaned. She could not tell if it was pain or pleasure. She flung her arms round his neck and drew him to her.

When at last he bade her good-bye and shook hands, she blushed again; she was extraordinarily troubled, and as, with his rising, the strong masculine odour of the countryside reached her nostrils, her head whirled.

In a field she saw him, directing some operation. She trembled at the sight, her heart beat very quickly; and when, seeing her, he came forward with a greeting, she turned red and then white in the most compromising fashion. But he was very handsome as, with easy gait, he sauntered to the hedge; above all he was manly, and the pleasing thought passed through Bertha that his strength must be quite herculean. She barely concealed her admiration.

‘I’m rather frightened of you, sometimes,’ she said, laughing. ‘You’re so strong. I feel so utterly weak and helpless beside you.’
‘Are you afraid I shall beat you?’
She looked up at him and then down at the strong hands.
‘I don’t think I should mind if you did. I think I should only love you more.’

‘Let me look at your hands,’ she said. She loved them too. They were large and roughly made, hard with work and exposure, ten times pleasanter, she thought, than the soft hands of the townsman… She stretched out the long, strong fingers. Craddock, knowing her very little, looked with wonder and amusement. She caught his glance, and with a smile bent down to kiss the upturned palms. She wanted to abase herself before the strong man, to be low and humble before him. She would have been his handmaiden, and nothing could have satisfied her so much as to perform for him the most menial services. She knew not how to show the immensity of her passion.

It’s a commonplace enough word but in Maugham’s hands ‘thrill’, more nakedly than in other writers of the time, describes the physical impact of sexual arousal and lust.

Even the huge boots which covered his feet gave her by their very size a thrill of pleasure…

Craddock blushed. Bertha noticed it, and a strange little thrill went through her…

He took her hand and the contact thrilled her; her knees were giving way, and she almost tottered.

His letters had caused her an indescribable thrill, the mere sight of his handwriting had made her tremble, and she wanted to see him; she woke up at night with his kisses on her lips.

It gave her a queer thrill to see him turn white when she held his hand, to see him tremble when she leaned on his arm.

It’s a striking paradox that such an externally polite, formal, correctly dressed, well-mannered and self-contained man as Maugham wrote so obsessively and fiercely, throughout his career, of complete sexual abandonment and the heart-stopping power of sheer physical lust.

Never before had she experienced that utter weakness of the knees so that she feared to fall; her breathing was strangely oppressive, and her heart beat almost painfully.

And the candid way he describes the wish to be mastered, dominated, controlled, owned and directed by a powerful strong man.

For the moment Bertha forgot her wayward nature, and wished suddenly to subject herself to his strong guidance. His very strength made her feel curiously weak.

‘Shut your eyes,’ she whispered, and she kissed the closed lids; she passed her lips slowly over his lips, and the soft contact made her shudder and laugh. She buried her face in his clothes, inhaling those masterful scents of the countryside which had always fascinated her.

Later in the book, the same all goes in spades for her infatuation with Gerald. In addition there’s something you don’t quite usually read about at the period, which is the clearly defined moment when Bertha decides to have sex with Gerald, to give him the great gift of her body, to make their union unique and unforgettable. You can almost smell the pheromones radiating off the page as Bertha pursues Gerald across London, towards a final night together when they are just about to do something unforgiveable under Victorian custom – she was, of course, still a married woman and keeps telling us that Gerald is almost young enough to be her son, when… there’s a knock at the door and Aunt Mary appears in the nick of time! Still. These descriptions are almost pornographic in their blood-heating intensity.

Later, in the 1920s, Maugham met D.H. Lawrence (but then, he met everyone). From the limited knowledge I have, I can’t help thinking that this story about a passionate young woman’s lust for a farmer prefigures Lawrence’s novels of love among the haystacks, and I wonder what the younger man thought of the trail Maugham had blazed with his shocking-for-their-time descriptions.

The battle of the sexes

Arguably the central subject of ‘the novel’ since its birth has been the battle of the sexes, to be precise the struggle to find and keep the perfect partner.

The English novel starts in 1748 with Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, a 500-page battle between a man and a woman about sex and the rest of ‘serious’ literature continued the theme for centuries – the sly marriage markets of of Jane Austen, the earnest character studies of George Eliot, in the American ladies in Europe of Henry James, and the Golden Age snobbery of Edith Wharton, through the endless sex war in D.H. Lawrence, the love comedies of H.G. Wells or Aldous Huxley, and so on.

Literature which doesn’t address the problem of finding the right partner, and holding onto them i.e. of marriage and adultery, tends not to be thought central to the Great Tradition of the English Novel. Thus Sterne, Dickens or Conrad stand slightly to one side of the Wedding theme.

Love, marriage, infidelity, these are the topics which fill vast warehouses of ‘serious’ literature. Madame Bovary. Anna Karenina.

Mrs Craddock is smack bang in the middle of that tradition for which marriage is the sole interest of human life and, in particular, unhappy marriage. Unhappy, mismatched and ill-fated love was to be the central theme of Maugham’s long career.

And Mrs Craddock amounts to a very extended early exploration of this theme.

Maugham and women

And at the heart of these mismatched marriages is the women. Maugham throughout his long career had a special sympathy with women. Take imaginative, free-spirited, if naive, Kitty Gartsin getting bored of her square husband in The Painted Veil. Or Mary Panton, unsuitably married to an alcoholic gambler in Up At the Villa and then seriously considering a second marriage to an eminent diplomat twice her age. Or Julia Lambert, famous actress throwing herself away on a worthless young cad. Or Liza giving her heart and body to rascally Jim Blakeston instead of decent loyal Tom. Mismatches, all of them. And women all.

In his theatrical social comedies, there is a wide array of interesting women characters. There are old and amusingly cynical women (Lady Grayson in Our Betters), younger, powerful women (Constance Middleton in The Constant Woman) and mature, tragic women (Mrs. Tabret in The Sacred Flame).

It is the women, and their often painful emotional journeys, who stick in the reader’s imagination while the callow young men in these plays are often only dramatic ciphers.

Maugham’s subject is the eternal erring of the human heart, but it is nearly always a woman’s heart which is described, and felt, with greatest intensity.

The New Woman

As if the marriage theme wasn’t already central enough in the literary tradition, the 1890s saw a particular interest in the role and experience of women in contemporary society. It was the era of ‘the New Woman’, and a flurry of novels were published examining the issue of women in society, with narratives and characters being created to explore the rights and wrongs of women.

The term ‘New Woman’ was popularized by British-American writer Henry James, who used it to describe the growth in the number of feminist, educated, independent career women in Europe and the United States. Independence was not simply a matter of the mind: it also involved physical changes in activity and dress, as activities such as bicycling expanded women’s ability to engage with a broader more active world. The New Woman pushed the limits set by a male-dominated society, especially as modeled in the plays of Norwegian Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906). (Wikipedia)

The New Woman was in all the papers, in magazines, in articles, on the stage, discussed in Parliament, aired in a thousand short stories and novels. It even percolated through to the provincial backwater of Blackstable where Mrs Craddock is set, and where clever, cosmopolitan Miss Ley enjoys teasing the hide-bound locals.

‘Which do you think is the predominant partner?’ she asked, smiling drily [referring to Edward and Bertha].
‘The man, as he should be,’ gruffly replied the doctor.
‘Do you think he has more brains?’
‘Ah, you’re a feminist,’ said Dr. Ramsay, with great scorn.

Striking that old fuddy-duddy Dr Ramsay knows what a feminist is and uses the term ‘feminist’. Amazing that women arguing with men about the role of women, and both able to joke and josh about it, some 130 years ago. In that 130 years hundreds of novels, plays, films, thousands of factual books and hundreds of thousands of articles have been written about the New Woman, about feminism, women’s liberation and #metoo.

Quite clearly it is an issue, a real and enormous issue – but one like homelessness and poverty and managing the economy and the North-South divide and how to run the railways, which every generation of intellectuals thinks it has discovered, discusses to death, but which is, somehow, never finally solved.

Boldness about marriage

I mentioned Maugham’s surprising candour in describing the physical characteristics of lust. He makes at least one of his characters be just as scandalously blunt about the realities of sex and reproduction. It is Bertha’s aunt, Miss Ley, who is given a speech impatiently telling the dry-as-dust Miss Glover, the vicar’s sister, that the basis of marriage is biological reproduction and nothing more.

‘Yes, I know what you all think in England,’ said Miss Ley, catching the glance and its meaning. ‘You expect people to marry from every reason except the proper, one – and that is the instinct of reproduction.’
‘Miss Ley!’ exclaimed Miss Glover, blushing.
‘Oh, you’re old enough to take a sensible view of the, matter,’ answered Miss Ley, somewhat brutally. ‘Bertha is merely the female attracted to the male, and that is the only decent foundation of marriage – the other way seems to me merely horrid. And what does it matter if the man is not of the same station, the instinct has nothing to do with the walk in life; if I’d ever been in love I shouldn’t have cared if it was a pot-boy, I’d have married him – if he asked me.’
‘Well, upon my word!’ said the doctor.
But Miss Ley was roused now, and interrupted him: ‘The particular function of a woman is to propagate her species; and if she’s wise she’ll choose a strong and healthy man to be the father of her children. I have no patience with those women who marry a man because he’s got brains. What is the good of a husband who can make abstruse mathematical calculations? A woman wants a man with strong arms and the digestion of an ox.’
‘Miss Ley,’ broke in Miss Glover, ‘I’m not clever enough to argue with you, but I know you’re wrong. I don’t think I am right to listen to you; I’m sure Charles wouldn’t like it.’
‘My dear, you’ve been brought up like the majority of English girls – that is, like a fool.’
Poor Miss Glover blushed. ‘At all events I’ve been brought up to regard marriage as a holy institution. We’re here upon earth to mortify the flesh, not to indulge it. I hope I shall never be tempted to think of such matters in the way you’ve suggested. If ever I marry I know that nothing will be further from me than carnal thoughts. I look upon marriage as a spiritual union in which it is my duty to love, honour, and obey my husband, to assist and sustain him, to live with him such a life that when the end comes we may be prepared for it.’
‘Fiddlesticks!’ said Miss Ley.

As with his hot-blooded descriptions of lust, Maugham’s correlation of human reproduction with animal reproduction i.e. as an animal instinct devoid of all moral or religious meaning, strikes me as definitely anticipating D.H. Lawrence.

Boldness about religion

And the same goes for his treatment of traditional religion. After his parents died Maugham was brought up an orphan in the home of his father’s brother, the unimaginative vicar of Whitstable in the 1880s (hence the accuracy of the social comedy of provincial Kentish society in this novel). Sometime in his student years his Christian faith just melted away and he experienced a tremendous sense of liberation, liberation (as Selina Hastings’s fabulous biography of Maugham makes crystal clear) to have sex with whoever he wanted, male or female.

Accompanying Miss Ley’s blunt truth-telling about sex, there is a similar passage in which Bertha brutally attacks the Christian faith. Devout, tightly-laced Miss Glover, the vicar’s spinster sister, has come to ‘comfort’ Bertha after she’s lost her baby in childbirth. Bertha demurs.

‘Oh, Bertha, you’re not taking it in the proper spirit – you’re so rebellious, and it’s wrong, it’s utterly wrong.’
‘I can only think of my baby,’ said Bertha, hoarsely.
‘Why don’t you pray to God, dear – shall I offer a short prayer now, Bertha?’
‘No, I don’t want to pray to God – He’s either impotent or cruel.’
‘Bertha,’ cried Miss Glover. ‘You don’t know what you’re saying. Oh, pray to God to melt your stubbornness; pray to God to forgive you.’
‘I don’t want to be forgiven. I’ve done nothing that needs it. It’s God who needs my forgiveness – not I His.’

The attack continues later, when Miss Glover returns with the vicar as back-up. Bertha initially starts off meekly reading the Prayer Book with them, but then breaks down:

‘I have no wish to “give hearty thanks unto God,”‘ she said, looking almost fiercely at the worthy pair. ‘I’m very sorry to offend your prejudices, but it seems to me absurd that I should prostrate myself in gratitude to God.’
‘Oh, Mrs. Craddock, I trust you don’t mean what you say,’ said the Vicar.
‘This is what I told you, Charles,’ said Miss Glover. ‘I don’t think Bertha is well, but still this seems to me dreadfully wicked.’
Bertha frowned, finding it difficult to repress the sarcasm which rose to her lips; her forbearance was sorely tried. But Mr. Glover was a little undecided.
‘We must be as thankful to God for the afflictions He sends as for the benefits,’ he said at last.
‘I am not a worm to crawl upon the ground and give thanks to the foot that crushes me.’
‘I think that is blasphemous, Bertha,’ said Miss Glover.
‘Oh, I have no patience with you, Fanny,’ said Bertha, raising herself, a flush lighting up her face. ‘Can you realise what I’ve gone through, the terrible pain of it? Oh, it was too awful. Even now when I think of it I almost scream.’
‘It is by suffering that we rise to our higher self,’ said Miss Glover. ‘Suffering is a fire that burns away the grossness of our material natures.’
‘What rubbish you talk,’ cried Bertha, passionately. ‘You can say that when you’ve never suffered. People say that suffering ennobles one; it’s a lie, it only makes one brutal…. But I would have borne it – for the sake of my child. It was all useless – utterly useless. Dr. Ramsay told me the child had been dead the whole time. Oh, if God made me suffer like that, it’s infamous. I wonder you’re not ashamed to put it down to God. How can you imagine Him to be so stupid, so cruel! Why, even the vilest beast in the slums wouldn’t cause a woman such frightful and useless agony for the mere pleasure of it.’

This powerful scene should take its place in any anthology describing the collapse of Christian belief in the later 19th century. What with the Darwinian view of human reproduction, this forthright atheism, and the implicit theme of the New Woman throughout the novel, along with the numerous natural descriptions which I’ve mentioned, Maugham was clearly making an effort to write a Big Serious Novel. It doesn’t work because the central characters aren’t, in the end, really believable enough to support the weight placed on them.

Miss Ley

But all this is to overlook the third major character in the story who is, on one reading, arguably its most successful character – Bertha’s Aunt Mary or Miss Ley as she’s referred to.

In the opening scenes of the novel, Bertha is still living under Miss Ley’s guardianship, we see them often together, and so she is one of the first characters we get to know and like. Although she then disappears from view for long stretches which describe Bertha and Edward’s marriage, whenever she does reappear – when Bertha goes to stay with her for a short break, and then runs away with her to the continent, and in the prolonged sequence when Bertha is staying with Miss Ley while she has her almost-affair with young Gerald – it is to cheers from the reader.

Why? Because she is drily, quietly funny.

Miss Ley sat on the sofa by the fireside, a woman of middle-size, very slight, with a thin and much wrinkled face. Of her features the mouth was the most noticeable, not large, with lips that were a little too thin; it was always so tightly compressed as to give her an air of great determination, but there was about the corners an expressive mobility, contradicting in rather an unusual manner the inferences which might be drawn from the rest of her person. She had a habit of fixing her cold eyes on people with a steadiness that was not a little embarrassing. They said Miss Ley looked as if she thought them great fools, and as a matter of fact that usually was her precise opinion. Her thin gray hair was very plainly done; and the extreme simplicity of her costume gave a certain primness, so that her favourite method of saying rather absurd things in the gravest and most decorous manner often disconcerted the casual stranger.

‘Saying rather absurd things in the gravest and most decorous manner’. Miss Ley emerges as the vehicle for the best of the book’s sub-Jane Austen sly wit, becoming – especially in the first half – the comic and tart centre of the novel, as drily cynical and Bertha is passionately romantic.

Humanity, Miss Ley took to be a small circle of persons, mostly feminine, middle-aged, unattached, and of independent means, who travelled on the continent, read good literature and abhorred the vast majority of their fellow-creatures.

She asked politely after [the doctor]’s wife, to whom she secretly objected for her meek submission to the doctor. Miss Ley made a practice of avoiding those women who had turned themselves into mere shadows of their lords, more especially when their conversation was of household affairs.

[Miss Ley] had already come to the conclusion that he [Craddock] was a man likely to say on a given occasion the sort of thing which might be expected; and that, in her eyes, was a hideous crime.

Miss Ley was anxious that no altercation should disturb the polite discomfort of the meeting.

Miss Ley revels in the embarrassment of other people, especially the uptight, narrow-minded provincials around her. She spends as much time as she can in London, and even more abroad in Italy (in another anticipation of a more famous novelist, this time E.M. Foster with his nice-girls-in-Italy stories). Whenever she appears it is hilarious to watch the locals being affronted and outraged and shocked and tutting and twitching the curtains through Miss Ley’s quiet, tight-lipped, sardonic gaze.

And she is not only an appealing character in her own right. But at a number of key moments – throughout Bertha’s early infatuation – then slyly noticing her loss of faith in her husband – and then throughout the Gerald affair – her role as onlooker and chorus to the main action pushes her closer to the reader’s perspective. It is as if she was standing next to us in the wings of a theatre, muttering an ironic commentary as we both watch the overwrought romantic heroine fainting and weeping and panting with passion.

Oscar Wilde

Moreover Miss Ley gets most of the book’s one-liners. Much of the dialogue of Mrs Craddock contains the sub-Wildean cynical wit which was to characterise Maugham’s later string of extremely successful plays, such Oscarisms as:

‘Marriage is always a hopeless idiocy for a woman who has enough money of her own to live upon.’

‘Marriage is an institution of the Church, Miss Ley,’ replied Miss Glover, rather severely.
‘Is it?’ retorted Miss Ley. ‘I always thought it was an arrangement to provide work for the judges in the Divorce Court.’

‘Mr. Branderton has been to Eton and Oxford, but he conceals the fact with great success.’

‘My dear Dr. Ramsay, I have trouble enough in arranging my own life; do not ask me to interfere with other people’s.’

It is madness for a happy pair to pretend to have no secrets from one another: it leads them into so much deception.

‘I make a point of thinking with the majority – it’s the only way to get a reputation for wisdom.’

‘You wouldn’t rob us of our generals,’ said Miss Ley. ‘They’re so useful at tea-parties.’

And the fact that almost all of them are given to Miss Ley, and that she emerges as in many ways the most loveable character, explains why Maugham begins the book with a dedication – more precisely, a mock ‘Epistle Dedicatory’ – to her. He obviously liked her best of all the characters in the book, and she is the only one you would want to meet.

A tiny Marxist comment

Having just been to an extensive feminist art exhibition, and read numerous articles about the Judge Kavanaugh affair, and read some feminist articles about Maugham and Women and, given that Bertha is quite clearly a heroine who traditional feminist criticism would see as the oppressed, repressed, stifled, stymied victim of the Patriarchy – it is worth pointing out that Bertha never does a day’s work in her life.

Bertha lives her entire life off the labour of the workers on her father’s farms and estates, as does Miss Ley.

Both women live lives full of books and art and travel and galleries and fine feelings, their meals are cooked and served and cleared away by nameless faceless servants (we never learn the names of any of the Craddocks’ household servants or farm workers), their rooms are cleaned, their laundry is washed, trains run for them, boats sail for them, galleries open for them – without them ever lifting a finger to earn it.

They belong to the rentier class. They are social parasites. Edward works hard and is efficient and effective at transforming the fortunes of the Ley estate, at managing its livestock and agriculture, and joins local bodies like the parish council and freemasons, which he also runs with exemplary honesty and thoroughness.

For this, he is eventually bitterly mocked by his wife:

Bertha soon found that her husband’s mind was not only commonplace, but common. His ignorance no longer seemed touching, but merely shameful; his prejudices no longer amusing but contemptible. She was indignant at having humbled herself so abjectly before a man of such narrowness of mind, of such insignificant character. She could not conceive how she had ever passionately loved him. He was bound in by the stupidest routine. It irritated her beyond measure to see the regularity with which he went through the varying processes of his toilet. She was indignant with his presumption, and self-satisfaction, and conscious rectitude. Edward’s taste was contemptible in books, in pictures, and in music; and his pretentions to judge upon such matters filled Bertha with scorn.

Books, art and music – that is how Bertha judges people, not for their character or dutifulness or patriotism or hard work. All these are rather ridiculous qualities in her eyes.

This scorn is echoed by young Gerald, himself the wastrel son of rich parents who was kicked out of public school and has got his family’s housemaid pregnant, on he one occasion when Edward comes up to see his wife during her stay with Miss Ley. After he has left, good-for-nothing idler mocks solid, efficient, patriotic Edward Craddock to Miss Ley, who feebly defends him:

‘His locks are somewhat scanty but he has a strong sense of duty.’
‘I know that,’ shouted Gerald. ‘It oozes out of him whenever he gets hot, just like gum.’

Thus, one cannot help thinking, Literature’s attitude – whether the author is male or female – to mundane work and to those who do the daily necessary labour which makes their luxurious lives of fine feelings and deep thoughts and carefree travel possible.

Maugham pours so much feeling and sentiment and imagination and sympathy into hundreds of pages describing Bertha’s feelings and passions and thoughts and worries and fears and disillusion and unhappiness and despair – that it is easy to forget that she is a leech.


Plus ça change

Reading older literature, I am continually struck at the way that things which bothered the late-Victorians are still bothering us now. The status, roles, rights and women were exercising many of their best minds. Same now. And so was the problem of the poor and the huge inequalities in society. Same now.

But there are other, lesser issues, too, which made me think that some things really never change.

Railways For example, it was only last week that we were hearing about the Labour Party’s plans to renationalise the railways because, in private hands, the level of service given by the railways is shocking, and all the money they raise seems to end up as massive dividends for their shareholders. Well, this is what Maugham thought about British railways in 1902.

Though it was less than thirty miles from Dover to Blackstable the communications were so bad that it was necessary to wait for hours at the port, or take the boat-train to London and then come sixty miles down again. Bertha was exasperated at the delay, forgetting that she was now (thank Heaven!) in a free country, where the railways were not run for the convenience of passengers, but the passengers necessary evils to create dividends for an ill-managed company. (Chapter 23)

Brexit And there’s a passage designed to contrast Edward’s narrow-minded Little Englandism and his simple patriotism with Bertha’s cultured cosmopolitanism and loathing of patriotic symbols (in this case, jingoistic late-Victorian music) which anticipates a lot of the rhetoric of Brexit. Manly thick Edward is talking:

‘I don’t mind confessing that I can’t stand all this foreign music. What I say to Bertha is – why can’t you play English stuff?’
‘If you must play at all,’ interposed his wife.
‘After all’s said and done The Blue Bells of Scotland has got a tune about it that a fellow can get his teeth into.’
‘You see, there’s the difference,’ said Bertha, strumming a few bars of Rule Britannia, ‘it sets mine on edge.’
‘Well, I’m patriotic,’ retorted Edward. ‘I like the good, honest, homely English airs. I like ’em because they’re English. I’m not ashamed to say that for me the best piece of music that’s ever been written is God Save the Queen.’
‘Which was written by a German, dear Edward,’ said Miss Ley, smiling.
‘That’s as it may be,’ said Edward, unabashed, ‘but the sentiment’s English and that’s all I care about.’
‘Hear! hear!’ cried Bertha. ‘I believe Edward has aspirations towards a political career. I know I shall finish up as the wife of the local M.P.’
‘I’m patriotic,’ said Edward, ‘and I’m not ashamed to confess it.’
‘Rule Britannia,’ sang Bertha, ‘Britannia rules the waves, Britons never, never shall be slaves. Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay! Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay!’
‘It’s the same everywhere now,’ proceeded the orator. ‘We’re choke full of foreigners and their goods. I think it’s scandalous. English music isn’t good enough for you – you get it from France and Germany. Where do you get your butter from? Brittany! Where d’you get your meat from? New Zealand!’ This he said with great scorn, and Bertha punctuated the observation with a resounding chord. ‘And as far as the butter goes, it isn’t butter – it’s margarine. Where does your bread come from? America. Your vegetables from Jersey.’
‘Your fish from the sea,’ interposed Bertha.
‘And so it is all along the line – the British farmer hasn’t got a chance!’ (Chapter 12)

Or again, Edward stoutly declares:

‘I’m quite content to be as I am, and I don’t want to know a single foreign language. English is quite good enough for me…. I think English people ought to stick to their own country. I don’t pretend to have read any French books, but I’ve never heard anybody deny, that at all events the great majority are indecent, and not the sort of thing a woman should read… What we want now is purity and reconstitution of the national life. I’m in favour of English morals, and English homes, English mothers, and English habits.’

Cosmopolitan contempt for Britain The cosmopolitan Miss Ley thinks there is something intrinsically pathetic about the English.

‘You’ve never had a London season, have you? On the whole I think it’s amusing: the opera is very good and sometimes you see people who are quite well dressed.’

Tourism When I went to Barcelona recently I couldn’t miss the graffiti everywhere telling tourists to go home and stop ruining their city. I’ve since read articles about other tourist destinations which are struggling to cope with the number of visitors. Miss Ley shared this feeling that tourism was ruining everywhere, in this case Paris:

We have here a very nice apartment, in the Latin Quarter, away from the rich people and the tourists. I do not know which is more vulgar, the average tripper or the part of Paris which he infests: I must say they become one another to a nicety. I loathe the shoddiness of the boulevards, with their gaudy cafés over-gilt and over-sumptuous, and their crowds of ill-dressed foreigners. But if you come I can show you a different Paris – a restful and old-fashioned Paris, theatres to which tourists do not go; gardens full of pretty children and nursemaids with long ribbons to their caps. I can take you down innumerable gray streets with funny shops, in old churches where you see people actually praying; and it is all very quiet and calming to the nerves. And I can take you to the Louvre at hours when there are few visitors…

Infest! She says tourists infest parts of Paris.

Politicians are idiots In a funny scene Edward stands for election to the local council and makes a speech riddled with pompous expressions, bad jokes, stories which taper off, and ends with rousingly jingoistic rhetoric. Bertha is more ashamed and embarrassed than she’s ever been in her life. But the speech is greeted with wild applause and Edward is elected by a landslide. People, Bertha concludes, are idiots. And the biggest idiots of all are running the country.

There is nothing so difficult as to persuade men that they are not omniscient. Bertha, exaggerating the seriousness of the affair, thought it charlatanry [of Edward] to undertake a post without knowledge and without capacity. Fortunately that is not the opinion of the majority, or the government of this enlightened country could not proceed.

Throughout the book the reader finds the same tone, and the same arguments, applied to the same ‘issues’ that we are still discussing and arguing about, 120 years later. Plus ca change…


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1902 Mrs Craddock
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner (novel)
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before The Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

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