The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G.K. Chesterton (1904)

In his prime, between 1910 and into the 1930s, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was a hugely successful ‘writer, poet, philosopher, dramatist, journalist, orator, lay theologian, biographer, and literary and art critic’.

He wrote a vast amount of essays, reviews, columns, articles and literary criticism – notably helping a revival of interest in Dickens with his 1906 biography of the great man – and also wrote extensively about religion, leading up to his own conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1922.

Probably Chesterton’s most enduring legacy is the 53 Father Brown detective stories published between 1910 and 1936, which are regularly dramatised for TV or radio. His next most famous works are probably the novels The Man Who Was Thursday, and The Napoleon of Notting Hill.

Edwardian humour

The Napoleon of Notting Hill is a comic novel, full of satire and high spirits, not all of which are easily understandable. Some of the incidental humour is pretty laboured and dated.

For example, book three (of five) opens with an extended satire on the kind of poetry published around 1904 and the kind of criticism it received, in the form of an extended joke about a volume of poetry, Hymns on the Hill. This fictional book of poetry is described as being reviewed by the king, no less, who uses the pseudonym ‘Thunderbolt’ and is described as being a member of the so-called ‘Hammock’ school of criticism. This ‘hammock’ school of criticism gets its name because so many of their reviews start by referring to the great pleasure the book brought the reviewer as he lazed in his hammock on a seasonal summer’s afternoon.

I understand how this is a gentle satire on the state of literary criticism circa 1904, and it is sort of funny, in its way, but it requires a bit of effort to cast your mind back to that kind of era and worldview.

Similarly, book one opens with a chapter satirising the fashion for ‘prophecies of the future’ which were so popular in Chesterton’s day and which is obviously designed to skewer not only H.G. Wells – by then the leader of a whole school of scientific prophecy – but all the other prophets of socialism and pacifism and vegetarianism and so on which proliferated at the turn of the century. Chesterton mocks them all by describing their prophetic predictions, and then extending them to ludicrous extremes.

Then, having itemised all the individual prophets and their foibles, Chesterton demolishes the lot with one grand fictional gesture. Which is to make this novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, another grand social prophecy, to set it in the far distant remote year of 1984, and then to assert the simple fact that, contrary to all the predictions of all the so-called prophets… nothing whatsoever has changed!

All the great catastrophes and collapses and social revolutions predicted by the prophets… have failed to transpire.

For, as Chesterton writes, with a broad smile on his face, the people – the uneducated, uninterested masses – have listened to the Great Prophets, have read their books and articles and… ignored them, and just got on with their lives.

They have played the traditional game which Chesterton puckishly names ‘Cheat the Prophet’, with the result that:

When the curtain goes up on this story, eighty years after the present date, London is almost exactly like what it is now.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill

In fact the England of 1984 is a despotism but in the nicest possible way. Democracy has faded into the rule of one man, a titular ‘king’, overseeing committees of efficient civil servants. But there have been no devastating wars, society carries on much as it always has, chaps still wear frock coats and top hats, ladies wear elaborate Victorian dresses with corsets and bustles, horse-drawn hansom cabs rumble through the streets. The only change that concerns us is that the ruler of the country, the so-called ‘king’, is chosen at random, from a long list of eligible citizens.

In the first couple of pages we are introduced to a trio of young men – the Honourable James Barker (‘one of the most powerful officials in the English Government’), Wilfrid Lambert (a ‘youth with a nose which appears to impoverish the rest of his face’, ‘a fool’) and their short friend Auberon Quin, who:

had an appearance compounded of a baby and an owl. His round head, round eyes, seemed to have been designed by nature playfully with a pair of compasses.

Some of the early incidents, before the story really gets going and taking up several chapters – are offputtingly inexplicable. In one they bump into the exiled President of Nicaragua in Whitehall, and watch as he goes to mad extremes to recreate the flag of his lost country – first sourcing the colour yellow by tearing a rip in an advertising hoarding for Coleman’s mustard, then the colour red by plunging a knife into his own hand and staining a handkerchief red. After spouting much inconsequential Latin fieriness, the ex-President walks proudly off into the night never to be met again. I found this scene incomprehensible.

Quin, Lambert and Barker are strolling through Kensington Gardens one fine day, Quin infuriating the other two with his latest tom-fool idea which is that the secret of humour is telling elaborate stories which don’t have a point. He is just sticking his head between his legs and making a cow noise when… two equerries walk up and announce that the new King of England, picked by random lot is…. Quin! He will be King Auberon!

While the other two go pale with horror, Quin preens and plumes himself and struts around.He wanders up into Notting Hill, where a serious little boy wearing a toy knight in armour costume, prods him in the tummy with a wooden sword, whereat Quin very seriously tells the young man he must defend his home turf, the Hill of Notting, with all his strength and honour, before strolling off dispensing similar ‘advice’ to puzzled passersby.

But this brief encounter with the little boy sets Quin thinking. What if he used his power to make the rulers of all of London’s boroughs wear medieval armour and halberds and…? And so when his friend Barker visits ‘his majesty’ a few days later, he finds Quin on the floor surrounded by poster paints, playfully sketching out new coats of arms and coloured standards for each of the 32 London boroughs.

The King was happy all that morning with his cardboard and his paint-box. He was engaged in designing the uniforms and coats-of-arms for the various municipalities of London. They gave him deep and no inconsiderable thought. He felt the responsibility. (Book 2, chapter 2)

As the last sentence indicates, the whole thing is told with an amused, tongue-in-cheek drollery.

Ten years later

Cut to ten years later: Quin is still King Auberon and still the joker. the 32 London boroughs really have become self-governing fiefdoms and all their officials forced to wear the ridiculous cod-medieval outfits Quin has designed for them.

One day a building developer (‘Mr Buck, the abrupt North Kensington magnate’) comes to complain about delays in getting a new road and housing development which he is managing. It is intended to go from Hammersmith up through Notting Hill and beyond but the rulers of Notting Hill are being obstructive. Soon he is joined by the Provosts of West Kensington and so on – all dressed in the ceremonial costumes which Quin still childishly insists they all wear, announced by medieval pages and so on.

They’re all complaining to Quin about the hold-ups and delays blocking the project, and the costs and the overheads and profit margins, when a remarkable thing happens — the Provost of Notting Hill arrives and, at a stroke, reveals that he takes all Quin’s nonsense about medieval pageantry perfectly seriously!

He speaks medieval phraseology as if he means it. He says ‘my liege’ and ‘my honour’ and waves his doughty sword and generally takes Quin’s silly joke at face value.

‘I bring homage to my King. I bring him the only thing I have – my sword.’
And with a great gesture he flung it down on the ground, and knelt on one knee behind it.
There was a dead silence.
‘I beg your pardon,’ said the King, blankly.

Stunned, Quin looks closer and realises this chap is none other than the little boy who prodded him in the tummy with a toy sword ten years earlier. His name is Adam Wayne and now, aged 19, he announces that he is prepared to defend the Hill of Notting to the death! Well, well.

The novel then tells us something about Adam Wayne’s character. Never having been out of London – or even Notting Hill – he is a genuine modernist, in the sense that he finds poetic beauty in the urban landscape, finds fairyland in railings and gas lamps and hansom cabs, and in the silhouette of terraced houses against the night sky. (This is, again, satire on what Chesterton takes to be the absurd pretentiousness of modernist poets and writers.)

Above all Wayne takes absolutely seriously the notion that Notting Hill is a precious land, worthy of his patriotism, worthy of defending.

In a comic sequence we are shown Wayne canvassing opinion among the shop-keepers on Notting Hill, visiting a grocer’s, a chemist’s, a barber’s, an old curiosity shop and a toy-shop. The comic premise is simple: Wayne enters each shop and speaks the 15th-century register of patriotism and heroism and defending the Hill – and the (generally) short, round, balding shop-keepers are comically nonplussed.

(It’s interesting to learn just how long short, irascible shopkeepers have been a reliable staple of English humour – from H.G. Wells’s numerous retailers [I’ve just read about Bert Smallways, keeper of a bicycle hire shop in The War In The Air] to Jones the butcher in Dad’s Army and Arkwright in Open All Hours, the blustering, bumbling shopkeeper is a comic staple.)

Anyway, Wayne meets with predictable, and comic, incomprehension until he comes to the sweet and toy shop of Mr Turnbull, who stuns him by revealing that, in his spare time, he plays wargames with his lead soldiers and – has even built a model of Notting Hill which he uses to play wargames!

What a find! A man after Wayne’s own heart!

The Pump Street fight

Anyway, the Provosts of the boroughs affected by Wayne’s refusal to let the new road development cut up through Notting Hill put their case before King Auberon for his approval. Specifically the plans call for the demolition of a few buildings in Pump Street. Wayne says no. Led by Buck, the businessmen offer Wayne three times the properties’ value. But Wayne refuses point blank to see any part of his kingdom despoiled, and leaves the meeting.

At which point Buck and the other speculators say they will simply send men in to knock down the buildings, halbardiers from each of the allied boroughs, Wayne or no Wayne – and the king sadly acquiesces. He had intended to create fun, frivolity and fantasy, and now it’s all got a little out of hand.

The king has only just moved on to begin a champagne dinner, arranged by servants in Kensington Gardens, when things really do get out of hand.

He hears the sound of shouting, footsteps running closer, and then – to his and his courtiers’ astonishment – wounded halberdiers come running and stumbling from Notting Hill, beating down a flimsy wall which separates Kensington Gardens from the public thoroughfare and then, in the gap, appears a god-like figure, blazoned with light – it is Adam Wayne, General of the army of Notting Hill!

A dazed Barker (one of Quin’s friends who we met back at the start of the book), who had been involved in the battle, stumbles south to High Street Kensington where he bumps into the entrepreneur Buck closing up his shop, and tells him what has happened.

Buck is immediately on his mettle, rallies the Provosts of all the nearby London boroughs, quickly assembles a few hundred soldiers from each of them, and leads them on a march converging on Pump Street, which has now become the symbolic epicentre of the war.

But the Notting Hillers take control of the nearby gasworks and turn off the gas supply to the streetlamps, plunging all the roads into darkness. Intimately familiar with their home turf, the Hillers launch devastating attacks, genuinely hurting, maiming and killing their opponents.

Chesterton manages to gloss over the seriousness of injury and death, instead inserting writing a funny chapter where King Auberon storms into the offices of his favourite newspaper, The Court Journal. Here he terrorises the editor into giving him huge placards to write incendiary headlines on, and then sets about concocting an entirely fictional description of the battle – in the manner of a modern newspaper – presumably this is all satire on journalism and newspapers’ readiness simply to invent the stuff they print – when real eye witnesses to the fighting, Barker and Buck, stumble into the offices.

Immediately the whimsical king nominates himself Foreign Correspondent to the paper and sets off ‘for the front’, in his usual, comically histrionic style:

‘I have an idea,’ he said. ‘I will be an eye-witness. I will write you such letters from the Front as will be more gorgeous than the real thing. Give me my coat, Paladium. I entered this room a mere King of England. I leave it, Special War Correspondent of the Court Journal. It is useless to stop me, Pally; it is vain to cling to my knees, Buck; it is hopeless, Barker, to weep upon my neck. “When duty calls”… the remainder of the sentiment escapes me.’

There follows an increasingly complex description of the various battles now being fought across the borough, which climax with man-to-man fighting around the waterworks on Campden Hill.

Meanwhile Buck has sent for reinforcements from the further-flung London boroughs, who have all promptly sent a few hundred men each. He now has a substantial force at his disposal. During a lull in the battle Buck sends an emissary to Wayne pointing out that they now outnumber the Notting Hillers by ten to one. In the manner of confident business men he makes a bet with the king that Wayne will promptly surrender. The king suspects not.

And is proved correct when an emissary from Wayne arrives, arrayed in full medieval gear, and blandly asks the assembled army of the boroughs to surrender.

Buck and his entourage burst out laughing, what a preposterous idea. But the emissary goes on to point out that Wayne has secured Campden Hill reservoir and, if a surrender is not given in ten minutes, will open it, flooding and drowning the entire army which is standing in the valley below.

Astonished, Buck realises they will have to surrender. The mischievous king is delighted with this turn of events. And so the Empire of Notting Hill commences.

The last battle

Now the novel cuts to twenty years later. Notting Hill is an empire to which the other London boroughs pay obeisance. It is entered via nine huge, elaborately carved gateways on which are depicted events from the battle for Independence.

King Auberon is walking its quiet and amazingly prosperous streets. He notes how the five shopkeepers who Wayne visited all those years ago now rule over colourful emporia and use the elaborate diction of medieval merchants. In fact Wayne’s victory is not so much a military conquest of the rest of the London as the discovery that everyone turned out to want to live a life of medieval colour and romance, to want more than the simple Edwardian money-grubbing. Dressing and speaking as medieval burghers and courtiers turns out to be surprisingly liberating.

The king bumps into Barker, who begins explaining that the men of Kensington sometimes get exasperated by the Notting Hillers’ lordliness when… the lights abruptly go out. A local inhabitant tells our puzzled protagonists that this happens every year on the anniversary of the Great Battle. Then the Hillers start singing a martial song of victory — and this pushes the ever-touchy Barker over the edge. He grabs a sword, yells ‘South Kensington’ and leaps at passing revellers. Some of the other passersby turn out to be from other London boroughs, and join in. From nowhere appears Buck, leader of the allied boroughs in the earlier war and so soon there is a massive battle taking place… again.

And these final pages are odd, strange and puzzling. One of the reasons I read older books is because they come from a foreign country, where lots if not most of the assumptions are different – about society, class, technology, gender, race, about language itself – and you find yourself being brought up dead on every page by words, expressions, ideas, things taken for granted by the author and their Edwardian readers which we, a hundred years later, find outlandish or inexplicable – all of which force the modern reader to stop and rethink their prejudices, values and opinions.

I find this approach much more challenging than reading modern fiction, which mostly just confirms our current liberal pieties. It is more bracing to be challenged.

In these last passages the reader is really challenged.

Chesterton descends into a kind of romantic fugue state, the battle becomes a vision of romantic fighting from the period of King Arthur, all swords and halberds, and quickly relinquishes all contact with reality.

At the climax of the battle Wayne stands with his back against a huge old oak tree, symbolic of deep English character. Repeated waves of attackers can’t separate him from it until, in finally pulling him from it, they only manage in pulling the whole tree up by its roots, which promptly falls onto the crowd of soldiers killing all of them.

This is obviously a hugely symbolic moment but… symbolic of what, exactly?

I read in the introduction to the book that Chesterton was criticised, then and now, for glorifying war, for thinking of war as a redeeming cleansing activity. For example, critics quote King Auberon musing as he walks round the empire of Notting Hill:

‘Old Wayne was right in a way,’ commented the King. ‘The sword does make things beautiful.’

But the use of the word ‘sword’ immediately reveals that Chesterton is not really thinking about war as such. The book was written in the aftermath of the Boer War with its barbed wire, concentration camps and machine guns which had very much dominated British culture. No fool glamorises that kind of war. The key is given by the king’s very next remark:

‘It has made the whole world romantic…’

The book doesn’t glamorise war, it praises the life-enhancing qualities of medieval romance – while at the same time richly satirising it. The book tries to have its cake and eat it. Right up until the end, when something much stranger happens.

This strangeness reaches a new height in the very last chapter – titled ‘Two Voices’ – when out of the ruins and grim silence at the end of the last battle, from out of the darkness of the night amid the landscape ruined with corpses, arise two voices.

I’ve read the chapter twice but still don’t really understand what they’re saying. It seems to be a sort of conservative hymn to the notion of undying, unchanging values.

‘If all things are always the same, it is because they are always heroic. If all things are always the same, it is because they are always new. To each man one soul only is given; to each soul only is given a little power – the power at some moments to outgrow and swallow up the stars. If age after age that power comes upon men, whatever gives it to them is great. Whatever makes men feel old is mean – an empire or a skin-flint shop. Whatever makes men feel young is great – a great war or a love-story.

‘And in the darkest of the books of God there is written a truth that is also a riddle. It is of the new things that men tire – of fashions and proposals and improvements and change. It is the old things that startle and intoxicate. It is the old things that are young. There is no sceptic who does not feel that many have doubted before. There is no rich and fickle man who does not feel that all his novelties are ancient.

‘There is no worshipper of change who does not feel upon his neck the vast weight of the weariness of the universe. But we who do the old things are fed by nature with a perpetual infancy. No man who is in love thinks that any one has been in love before. No woman who has a child thinks that there have been such things as children. No people that fight for their own city are haunted with the burden of the broken empires. Yes, O dark voice, the world is always the same, for it is always unexpected.’

The text then takes on a theological tone. Suppose he is God, says one voice, and he made the whole universe as a joke, as a jeu d’esprit, knocked it off for his own amusement and then forgot about it.

At which point dawn begins to lighten the eastern sky (with rather crashing symbolism) and one of the two voices is revealed as that of King Auberon and the other, that of Wayne.

‘Wayne,’ says the king, ‘it was all a joke. I meant it as a joke.’ ‘Then that makes it all the more real,’ says Wayne.

All criticism of Chesterton sooner or later mentions his fondness for paradoxes, for the unexpected, for reversals. And that’s what happens here. Somehow, the very fact that the entire premise of the story was one man’s childish joke — makes its unintended consequences all the more profound and serious.

Wayne says it doesn’t matter what motivated Auberon: all that matters is that the two of them – the two poles of human nature – the over-satirical and the over-earnest – came together to restore humanity to the poetic way of life, vision and diction which it deserves.

It isn’t war as such: it is the romance of human life which Chesterton is asserting, in this strange visionary conclusion to what had been, up until these last few pages, a fairly easy-to-assimilate satire.

‘I know of something that will alter that antagonism, something that is outside us, something that you and I have all our lives perhaps taken too little account of. The equal and eternal human being will alter that antagonism, for the human being sees no real antagonism between laughter and respect, the human being, the common man, whom mere geniuses like you and me can only worship like a god.

‘When dark and dreary days come, you and I are necessary, the pure fanatic, the pure satirist. We have between us remedied a great wrong. We have lifted the modern cities into that poetry which every one who knows mankind knows to be immeasurably more common than the commonplace.

‘But in healthy people there is no war between us. We are but the two lobes of the brain of a ploughman. Laughter and love are everywhere. The cathedrals, built in the ages that loved God, are full of blasphemous grotesques. The mother laughs continually at the child, the lover laughs continually at the lover, the wife at the husband, the friend at the friend.

‘Auberon Quin, we have been too long separated; let us go out together. You have a halberd and I a sword, let us start our wanderings over the world. For we are its two essentials. Come, it is already day.’

In the blank white light Auberon hesitated a moment. Then he made the formal salute with his halberd, and they went away together into the unknown world.

As I say, I read older books because they are so often challenging, not because of their plots or characters, but because of ideological or political or theological or cultural assumptions which underly them are so often hard to understand or sympathise with. Making the effort to do so, in my opinion, whether you agree with them or not (indeed, whether you completely understand them or not) expands your mind.

Better than TV. Better than movies. Better than drugs.


A hint of modernism

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.

Thus T.S. Eliot wrote in The Waste Land, published in 1922 but much of it written much earlier. Accidie and world-weariness were clearly common feelings among Edwardian writers – passages in Conrad and Wells spring to mind – and I was struck how vivid and forceful the same feeling appears in Chesterton.

He is eloquent on the sheer oppressive boredom of London’s long, blank streets. Adam Wayne is a figure of fun, but in his innocence he often speaks truth:

‘I sometimes wondered how many other people felt the oppression of this union between quietude and terror. I see blank well-ordered streets and men in black moving about inoffensively, sullenly. It goes on day after day, day after day, and nothing happens; but to me it is like a dream from which I might wake screaming. To me the straightness of our life is the straightness of a thin cord stretched tight. Its stillness is terrible. It might snap with a noise like thunder.’

Maybe it was Tennyson who introduced this mood of specifically urban despair into English poetry. Here’s a lyric from his long, desolate poem In Memoriam, commemorating his best friend who died young.

Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,

A hand that can be clasp’d no more –
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.

He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.

Dickens knew that long bald street, and so did Chesterton.

The blank white morning had only just begun to break over the blank London buildings when Wayne and Turnbull were to be found seated in the cheerless and unswept shop.

Blankness upon blankness. And:

‘I have walked along a street with the best cigar in the cosmos in my mouth, and more Burgundy inside me than you ever saw in your life, and longed that the lamp-post would turn into an elephant to save me from the hell of blank existence.’

So although most of the book bubbles with (sometimes incomprehensible) satire and good humour, and then metamorphoses into a hymn to medievalism – nonetheless, not far from the surface and bubbling up in random locations, is Chesterton’s awareness of the bleak boredom of city life.


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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 after 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 hat. 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, so sometime in the late 1850s. An uneducated but strikingly beautiful young woman, Trilby, 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 as a consequence of her sweet innocent nature, Trilby 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 rigid control, Trilby 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 1850s 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 that high-spirited setting, boisterous students in the 1850s, and a big part of the book’s appeal for 1890s readers was its nostalgia for what was, by then, 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 is 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) are 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 host Sunday ‘afternoons’ where all sorts of other artists and musicians come round. They own a variety of exercise equipment, notably several sets of fencing gear, so the Sundays generally 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 initially just two of a gallery of characters who appear at these parties, while Trilby is to start with simply 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 strolling round Paris enjoying the sights and stopping at cafés to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner, going to a cabaret, drinking and smoking some more, and generally having a wonderful time. It is all described with high-spirited humour and conviction. Du Maurier lived this life. Lots of it comes over as 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 reads like a holiday brochure.

England versus France

The opposition or thematic polarity in the book which is most often discussed is that between the pure, virginal, white Trilby and dark, swarthy, Jewish Svengali. White Western virgin women threatened by dark, Eastern, wicked men, 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 the book isn’t like that at all. We really don’t see 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. Innocent Little Billee can’t believe he is here, in Paris, city of poets and artists.

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.

Poetic Paris is contrasted throughout with businesslike London – as the humorous, dainty, witty Parisian artists are continually contrasted with ‘Taffy’, 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.

And 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 book 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, 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’.

The book contains all kinds of French dialects. 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.’

And 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 switched into pure French?

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’ Briton would have less difficulty with the occasional Latin tags which du Maurier scatters through his text:

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

But what about the patches of German and Italian, which also appear?

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 conductor of the orchestra at her final concert 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 spent the next two years getting increasingly fed up with the demands from commercial interests and the book’s thousands of fans, before he died in 1896, leaving a long unfinished autobiographical novel to be published posthumously.

The fact that he was primarily an artist – and a book illustrator at that – explains why Trilby 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 gently 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 do finally 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

Trilby so drips with comedy that it is almost a comic novel. The opening setup describing the 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 national characteristics 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, Taffy the Yorkshireman or ‘the Man of Blood’.

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 remains right to the end, well, funny.

Du Maurier as intrusive narrator

Du Maurier intrudes a lot as the first person narrator, either directly or in the mocking persona of ‘the scribe’:

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 also invokes the figure of ‘the reader’, an equally stereotyped source of humour, in the tradition of the 18th century comic novelists and of William 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 collaborator in the essentially light-hearted and frivolous occupation of telling a story.

It is ironic 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, taking the mickey out of his readers, of Victorian society, of churchmen, of the French, of novels and of his own ability as a storyteller.

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.

As a rule these cartoons start with the incredibly realistic scene and setting. There is a wonderfully limned background and then the vividly delineated characters. It is only when you have taken in the substantial amount of visual information the artist is giving you, that the eye progresses to the bottom of the picture, there to discover the humorous caption.

These captions 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 the 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 neophyte expression.

But just as important to the overall effect are the faces of the two women sitting aloofly at table. And that’s before you explore 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 in the background.

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 humour, 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 doesn’t so much mock pianists themselves, as satirise posh society’s fashionable expectations of what they should be, namely dishevelled in appearance in order to stress their ‘Romantic’ sensibility. He mocking 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 journalists, developed the hackneyed phrase and idea that a piece of 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.

So it is that 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 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 to her (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 (Billee’s real name) who promptly turns up in Paris with her teenage daughter and 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 and they 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? Suffice to say, it is not favourable.

Then, at just the right moment, Trilby walks in (‘just as in a play’ as the author comments, tongue in cheek) and has a Grand Confrontation with her fiance’s mother. Long story short, Trilby 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 promptly 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 resenting her for it.

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, himself.

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 at besmirching the name of such a family. Later that day, when Billee reads the goodbye 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 surprisingly pious 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 high-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, 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 also 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 underpinned 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 dreamy depictions of sad-eyed women by Edward Burne-Jones or the stately, half-naked ladies of ancient Rome by Frederick Leighton, Alma-Tadema or Albert Moore.

Wonderful in their way, but eventually destined to hit 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 typical joke about the fact that, once he actually visits Spain and starts to paint 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 sow 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 humour combined, an incomparable ease and grace and felicity of workmanship.

This sounds like the sickly sweet animal paintings of Edwin Landseer, and reminds me of the depiction of the artist Basil Hallward 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, rather surprisingly du Maurier describes himself as being present in the story – telling us 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 Laird listen in amazement, wondering if it can possibly be the same Svengali they knew all those years ago back in Paris.

Darwinism

The novel takes us up to page 200 with a lengthy passage describing Billee’s return from London, where he had attended this party, 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. Think of Landseer’s sentimental dog portraits.)

There's No Place Like Home (1842) by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer

There’s No Place Like Home (1842) by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer

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, as Billee is walking back towards the village, he bumps into Alice’s father, the vicar. 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 is broken off.

Du Maurier being the satirist that he is, then gives a page-long passage describing the way that this redoubtable pillar of the church (the vicar) in later life came into a small fortune due to acquiring shares in a rising company, and found that the financial independence this gave him allowed him to read widely and, like Billee, to lose his faith. He ends up becoming a Positivist (i.e. a believer in science not religion as the source of truth). The vicar 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 middle class peers – but coming over all pious and sentimental at the sight of a young English lady.

Thus du Maurier was quite relaxed and open about the ‘affairs’ of the many 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 well 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 sexual 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 into the narrative 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 in order 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, wrote no fewer than twelve articles about La Svengali) and Théophile Gautier, who is made to write her a poem.

Back to Trilby

These digressions take up about 50 pages of this 300-page book. Only now do we touch back down five more years after the previous events (the vicar and so on).

Little Billee, Taffy and the Laird reunite 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 is 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. This is all the opportunity for much knowing satire and mockery.  Such is life. Sic transit gloria mundi, and other truisms.

Our trio then 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 rhymes, 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 her performance 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 but 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 on the face of it, heart-stoppingly offensive and anti-Semitic. You have to remember that a) plenty of other characters are given the same kind of excessive description based on national stereotypes, especially big strong Anglo-Saxon Taffy – and b) that du Maurier’s style delights in hyperbole and exaggeration and c) that it creates humour by concatenated repetition. So, for example:

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 makes a throwaway generalisation about the French) in a classic example of du Maurier’s technique of comic hyperbole, of overdoing it for comic effect.

Or sentimental hyperbole, as when Svengali’s sidekick 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, which are piled up like this in order to satirise the speaker.

Indeed, all the characters, in their dialogue, and the narrator in his prose, are given to overemphasis and repetition. 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.

So I think the purpose of that ‘Hebrew’ sentence is comic rather than insulting. On some level, now lost to us, the unnecessary repetition of ‘Oriental Israelite Hebrew Jew’ was meant to be humorous. As that last clause – ‘since he couldn’t throttle him to death’ – is also typical of the mocking exaggeration du Maurier applies to all his characters.

Anyway, Little Billee fights back and isn’t getting anywhere, when Taffy, who has witnessed the whole episode, steps up to Svengali who, recognising him, cowers in terror. Tall, strong, manly, Anglo-Saxon Taffy takes ‘Oriental Israelite Hebrew Jew’ Svengali 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 goes 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, the two artists generally making 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.

Back in those bohemian Sunday afternoon sessions, Gecko had often played violin for Svengali and, as Trilby’s singing career took off, Gecko had continued to be lead violin in the orchestra, whose arrangements Svengali wrote himself.

But all through those years Gecko had grown more and more devoted to Trilby. The encounter with Billee and Taffy had put Svengali on edge and tetchy. Several times during the afternoon’s rehearsals he had 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 is manhandled away, doctors are called who patch up Svengali’s throat but tell him on no account must he conduct this evening in case the wound bursts again.

So that evening, at the grand theatre in London, where are assembled the cream of high 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, though still 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?’ The conductor begs and implores her to perform and so she eventually reluctantly gives in and – gives vent to the tuneless, cracked voice the bohemians remember from all those years earlier.

The shocked audience starts 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 sitting 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 show’s 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 first fled Paris to escape Billee – lived miserably in the countryside for a while then,after her kid brother died, came back to Paris, 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. That’s all she can remember.

When they explain to her 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 newsflash. 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 to beg 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. Svengali’s 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 bestil 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 now 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 afflicted him all those years earlier. 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 Taffy to the theatre and notices, down in the orchestra pit, a grey-haired violinist who looks like Gecko, Svengali’s old assistant.

It is Gecko and Taffy invites him out for a meal. And now, for the first time, we hear the full 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 was drilled into her by the painstaking Svengali. 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. Trilby the sweet innocent / Trilby the robot.

Gecko says it was horrible to see Trilby 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. It’s final words are characteristically in French, but the sentiment is piously British and Victorian.

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 Svengali is described in anti-Semitic terms. His first attempt to hypnotise someone is:

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

Du Maurier notes that one of the contemporary music scene’s 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 flavour 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 selected examples from a spectrum of comments based on ideas of racial characteristics which we have, by and large, abandoned.

In fact these four examples demonstrate how du Maurier applied racial stereotypes toall his characters, and invoked a wide range of ‘types’. Svengali has all the threatening stereotypes du Maurier can muster heaped on him but 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 from the other two.

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 of Jews – albeit based on ideas of ‘race’ or ‘blood’ which we now find abhorrent.

Also, anyone angered or horrified by the cruder descriptions of Svengali must also bear in mind that du Maurier also makes him tall and powerful. He is a big threatening man. And credit is repeatedly given to his unquestioned musical genius. Svengali plays the piano to concert level and is credited with arranging the music for Trilby to sing with great taste and precision.

And, after all, 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 itself only part of the broader 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 negative characterisation of Svengali derives not from his Jewishness, but from the (arguably more damning) fact that he is 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).

The point is that the entire book comes from an completely different way of looking at human nature – in terms of the intrinsic values of identifiable categories called ‘races’ – which tried, throughout the 19th century, 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.

These are just the same kind of sweeping generalisations but, because they belong to our time, we take them for granted – just as much as du Mauritier’s readers accepted stereotypes about the English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, French, Germans and Jews.

Reading du Maurier’s racial generalisations doesn’t offend me. It feels as remote from real life as reading the medieval Catholic literature which damned Jews and Muslims to an eternity in Hell. (There is 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 created and structured their values. It’s no different from reading contemporary journalism which blames ‘gammons’ for Brexit and ‘angry white men’ for Trump. A lot less harmful because it is so obviously from a vanished era, and it is done with sympathy and humour.

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.They 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 opponents. To imagine that our own society doesn’t do just the same is naive.


Related links

Reviews of other fiction from 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

Quentin Blake: Arrows of Love @ the House of Illustration

The House of Illustration just north of King’s Cross station, London, contains three exhibition spaces.

The Main Gallery (four rooms) is currently hosting a fascinating exhibition of posters and other everyday products from North Korea, highlighting the distinctive graphic design and colour palette of that most isolated of countries.

In the South Gallery (one room, as big as a church hall) is a generous selection of the graphic journalism of Lucinda Rogers.

And off the corridor between the two is a small L-shaped room which will, apparently, be devoted in perpetuity to a succession of displays by the moving force behind the House of Illustration, the famous children’s illustrator, Sir Quentin Blake. Hence its title – the Quentin Blake Gallery.

Arrows of Love

To coincide with Valentine’s Day this year, Blake selected 18 pencil drawings from a series he’s been developing off and on, depicting women avoiding or embracing Cupid’s arrow.

Arrows of Love 7 by Quentin Blake

Arrows of Love 7 by Quentin Blake

In the charming wall label, Blake explains that, alongside commissioned work and projects, he always has numerous side works on the go – the results of moments of inspiration, or recurring ideas, which he sketches out and then puts to one side to get on with the paid work.

For example, he mentions a series he’s working on which features women on tightropes, sometimes with birds.

And another has been this series of women reacting in different ways to Cupid’s arrow(s).

Arrows of Love 6 by Quentin Blake

Arrows of Love 6 by Quentin Blake

These kind of offshoots and occasional works had nowhere to be shown – until now, with the arrival of the House of Illustration, and the advent of a small gallery devoted just to his work – the perfect venue for stylish little sets and jeu d’esprits!

Blake himself describes the drawings:

Each of them is an outline, an economical way to depict the shapes and gestures that tell us what they are feeling… And of course the arrows are not real arrows, but little flying graphic equivalents, there are only one or two moments when they even slightly real…

All of the women are nude except for one who is wearing a breastplate which the arrows are bouncing off. She might be the start of a sequence on the theme of ‘incongruous things to wear’…

Installation view of 'Arrows of Love' by Quentin Blake at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

Installation view of ‘Arrows of Love’ by Quentin Blake at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

Apart from the obvious charm and whimsy of his light, gawky, one-line style – and the beguiling inventiveness of the drawings, the way they surprise you with new and comic variations on the theme – I’m afraid the thing that struck me most was – the pubic hair!

Blake is of course overwhelmingly known as an illustrator of children’s books, pre-pubescent very innocent children’s books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I have two children who both read their way through all the Roald Dahl books with their Blake illustrations, as well as some of the books he both wrote and illustrated, for example one of our family favourites, the wonderful Cockatoos.

Which is why in my mind I think of Blake as a kind of quintessence of innocence, associating him with the utter sexlessness of The BFG or The Twits or Fantastic Mr Fox.

So I could see the fun and whimsy in the working out of all the variations of the theme, and found almost all the pictures delightful and charming – but was just brought up a little short by, well, the unexpected pubes!

Arrows of Love 5 by Quentin Blake

Arrows of Love 5 by Quentin Blake

Obviously it’s not worth crossing London just to see 18 or so amusing pencil drawings – but it very much IS worth going out of your way to visit the exhibition of North Korean produce, AND the Lucinda Rogers exhibition, and to top them both off with these Blake frivolities – like the cherry on the top of a knickerbocker glory: all three shows are included in the same admission price of £7.50.


Related links

Bouvard and Pécuchet by Gustave Flaubert (1881)

How happy they felt when they awoke next morning! Bouvard smoked a pipe, and Pécuchet took a pinch of snuff, which they declared to be the best they had ever had in their whole lives. Then they went to the window to observe the landscape. (Chapter 2)

Bouvard and Pécuchet was Flaubert’s last work, left unfinished at his death in 1880. However, the first ten chapters seemed complete enough to be published one year after his death, in 1881, and subsequent editions have included the notes found with the manuscript which indicate how the book was intended to be concluded.

These completed ten chapters make up some 260 pages in my Penguin paperback edition and the notes suggest there would only have been one or two further chapters i.e. we have almost all the intended text, and certainly enough material to form a judgement.

The plot

Briefly, Bouvard and Pécuchet are two humble copy-clerks, aged 47, who work in offices in different parts of Paris. One hot summer day in 1838 they happen to sit at the same public bench and notice that they’ve both written their names in the rims of their hats. They quickly find out they have other things in common, lots of other things, the kind of work they do, the things they like, the subjects they like discussing, everything. They take to meeting once a week for dinner and then more often. They fantasise about putting their schemes and ideas into practice, travelling the world, exploring, discovering.

Then Bouvard’s uncle dies – except his ‘uncle’ is in fact his natural father who sired him out of wedlock and ignored him most of his adult life. To make amends for his neglect, his uncle/dad leaves him a fortune. Bouvard and Pécuchet decide to pack in their jobs and go to Live in the Country, Close to the Land, Working the Soil, getting Back to Nature.

So they buy a farm in Normandy, and chapter two is a long, encyclopedic and deeply researched account of how they fail at absolutely everything they turn their hands to. For the book is meant to be a comedy – admittedly a rather dry comedy – and its subject is the irremediable stupidity of the two protagonists, and the blundering obtuseness of the world they live in. Flaubert wrote to one correspondent, as he laboured long and slowly over what he hoped would be his masterpiece, that he intended its sub-title to be: ‘The Encyclopedia of Human Stupidity.’

In many ways Bouvard and Pécuchet is more of a fable than a novel, in the lack of real plot or progression and the laboured making of a fairly straightforward ‘moral’ or point.

It certainly shows the triumph of the schematic, diagram-making Flaubert over the story-teller. Writing it became an obsession with Flaubert, who claimed to have read over 1,500 books in his research for it.

Having now read all of Flaubert’s works I am a bit bored by the repeated claims that he read x number of books to research each of them. Flaubert is famous for the crafting of his style, but pretty much all of that disappears in translation. What you are left with, especially in the historical works, is great sheets of facts and names, like the almost flat surfaces of a carved frieze, as carefully and intricately designed and, often, as lifeless.

In this final book Flaubert’s obsession with facts and research reached new peaks. He first created an overall schema of human knowledge for his incompetent duo to investigate, and then set about filling in each ‘section’ with a pulverising wealth of pedantic detail. As is shown by a summary of the chapters:

Structure (with dates)

Chapter 1. First meeting and birth of their friendship. Bouvard’s inheritance (1838–41)

Chapter 2. Travel to the Normandy village of Chavignolles. Agriculture – landscape gardening, market gardening, crops (March 1841 – autumn 1842)

Chapter 3. Study of chemistry, anatomy, medicine, biology, geology.

Chapter 4. Archaeology, architecture, history (they attempt to write a biography of the Duc d’Angoulême). They set up their own ‘museum of curiosities’, and invite locals to come and visit -uniformly unimpressed.

Chapter 5. Literature, drama, grammar and aesthetics. At one point they take to declaiming great plays in front of their servants and puzzled locals.

Chapter 6. Politics – The events in this chapter coincide with the ‘revolution’ of 1848, the overthrow of King Louis Philippe, the establishment of the Second Republic, the reaction against it, and election of Louis Napoleon, first as president, and then his military coup in 1851. Different from preceding chapters, it shows the psychological impact of these events on the diverse cast of villagers, educated or peasant.

Chapter 7. Love – the hapless duo fall in love – Pécuchet with the local widow, Madame Bordin, and Bouvard with their serving girl, Mélie -and are both bitterly disappointed: Madame Bourdin turns out to be after Pécuchet’s property, and Mélie gives Bouvard the clap.

Chapter 8. Gymnastics and keeping fit, occultism (table turning), using magnetism as a cure (till the local doctor bans them from seeing his patients), spiritualism, Swedenborgism, magic, divination, theology. A lengthy investigation of philosophy leads them to despise all systems and eventually to contemplate suicide. They’re hanging nooses from the ceiling when the bell rings for the Christmas service. They attend and feel a great surge of redemption.

Chapter 9. Religion – lengthy chapter recapitulating all the arguments for and against, in conversation with the abbé, and local notables. After exploring, discussing and experiencing every type of Christian belief from rationalist to mystical, they emerge (as usual) disillusioned. At first they repel the locals for the eccentric fervour of their sudden piety, and then alienate everyone as their questioning of Christianity becomes more subversive. The local aristocrat’s sister has taken in two orphans – Victor and Victorine – who, however, have proved to be tearaways. Accompanying the servant tasked with taking them off to the local orphanage, our heroes are moved by the orphans’ plight and decide to take them in and raise them themselves.

Chapter 10. Education. Bouvard and Pécuchet apply all known theories of pedagogy to the two troublesome teenagers, who prove completely resistant. Victor becomes violent, Victorine develops a penchant for kissing boys. The pair try to dun into the children everything they have learned about physiology, chemistry, astrology, grammar and so on but, because they never understood these subjects themselves, they make a hash of trying to teach the kids, who keep asking awkward questions which expose our pair’s ignorance. Fail.

Right up to the end Bouvard and Pécuchet continue to practice their mad enthusiasms on the locals, trying out phrenology and irritating the barber whose shop they ask to use; telling the farmers how to apply chemistry to their land; angering the old farmer Gouy who has returned to make a success of their farm; criticising the gamekeeper, Sorel, for his brutality; terminally alienating the abbé for their apostasy from Catholicism; and so on.

Eventually Bouvard and Pécuchet’s oddness, immorality and irreligion have alienated pretty much the entire local community. The completed portion of the text ends as the pair are taken to court and tried for insulting the gamekeeper, who had caught a poacher. Bouvard and Pécuchet try to defend the poacher with a motley of half-cocked philosophical and political theory.

From Flaubert’s notes we can work out that in the final chapters the desperate duo narrowly escape being sent to prison by their exasperated neighbours, before eventually abandoning their Quest for Knowledge altogether. They decide to return to being simple copyests, copying out into a vast super-encyclopedia the contents of all the books they’ve gathered in the course of their adventures.

Apparently, Part Two of the book was intended to consist of this vast Copy of World Knowledge which the bumbling pair had cobbled together – of which the Dictionary of Received Opinion was to form a small part.

As they’re such good friends, Bouvard and Pécuchet’s final act was intended to be ordering a special desk-for-two, designed so that they can do their work sitting next to each other.

Satire or schema?

Flaubert’s aim is obviously to satirise 18th and 19th century attempts to catalogue, classify, list, and record all of scientific and historical knowledge. The trouble is that this aim coincides all-too-well to his own habits as an omnivorous reader-and-regurgitator. On every page of Bouvard and Pécuchet you have the feeling that you’re reading a the fleshing out of a static schema rather than a fictional text – what one of Flaubert’s most famous fans, Julian Barnes, describes as ‘a vomitorium of pre-digested book learning.’

His procedure is to list in pedantic detail all the learning about a particular subject, and then painstakingly show his hapless duo misunderstanding it and (if it has any practical application) screwing it up.

Here’s an extended example of the pair following all the best technical advice and then making a mess of market gardening – an excerpt which gives a good flavour of the book’s relentless approach.

Pécuchet was disgusted with gardening, and a few days later he remarked:

‘We ought to give ourselves up exclusively to tree culture – not for pleasure, but as a speculation. A pear which is the product of three soils is sometimes sold in the capital for five or six francs. Gardeners make out of apricots twenty-five thousand livres in the year! At St. Petersburg, during the winter, grapes are sold at a napoleon per grape. It is a beautiful industry, you must admit! And what does it cost? Attention, manuring, and a fresh touch of the pruning-knife.’

It excited Bouvard’s imagination so much that they sought immediately in their books for a nomenclature for purchasable plants, and, having selected names which appeared to them wonderful, they applied to a nurseryman from Falaise, who busied himself in supplying them with three hundred stalks, which he wanted to get rid of. They got a lock-smith for the props, an iron-worker for the fasteners, and a carpenter for the rests. The forms of the trees were designed beforehand. Pieces of lath on the wall represented candelabra. Two posts at the ends of the plat-bands supported steel threads in a horizontal position; and in the orchard, hoops indicated the structure of vases, cone-shaped switches that of pyramids, so well that, in arriving in the midst of them, you imagined you saw pieces of some unknown machinery or the framework of a pyrotechnic apparatus.

The holes having been dug, they cut the ends of all the roots, good or bad, and buried them in a compost. Six months later the plants were dead. Fresh orders to the nurseryman, and fresh plantings in still deeper holes. But the rain softening the soil, the grafts buried themselves in the ground of their own accord, and the trees sprouted out.

When spring had come, Pécuchet set about the pruning of pear trees. He did not cut down the shoots, spared the superfluous side branches, and, persisting in trying to lay the ‘duchesses’ out in a square when they ought to go in a string on one side, he broke them or tore them down invariably. As for the peach trees, he got mixed up with over-mother branches, under-mother branches, and second-under-mother branches. The empty and the full always presented themselves when they were not wanted, and it was impossible to obtain on an espalier a perfect rectangle, with six branches to the right and six to the left, not including the two principal ones, the whole forming a fine bit of herringbone work.

Bouvard tried to manage the apricot trees, but they rebelled. He lowered their stems nearly to a level with the ground; none of them shot up again. The cherry trees, in which he had made notches, produced gum.

At first, they cut very long, which destroyed the principal buds, and then very short, which led to excessive branching; and they often hesitated, not knowing how to distinguish between buds of trees and buds of flowers. They were delighted to have flowers, but when they recognised their mistake, they tore off three fourths of them to strengthen the remainder.

They talked incessantly about ‘sap’ and ‘cambium’, ‘paling up’, ‘breaking down’, and ‘blinding of an eye’. In the middle of their dining-room they had in a frame the list of their young growths, as if they were pupils, with a number which was repeated in the garden on a little piece of wood, at the foot of the tree. Out of bed at dawn, they kept working till nightfall with their twigs carried in their belts. In the cold mornings of spring, Bouvard wore his knitted vest under his blouse, and Pécuchet his old frock-coat under his packcloth wrapper; and the people passing by the open fence heard them coughing in the damp atmosphere.

Sometimes Pécuchet took his manual from his pocket and studied a paragraph of it standing up with his grafting-tool near him in the attitude of the gardener who decorated the frontispiece of the book. This resemblance flattered him exceedingly, and made him entertain more esteem for the author.

Bouvard was continually perched on a high ladder before the pyramids. One day he was seized with dizziness, and, not daring to come down farther, he called on Pécuchet to come and help him.

At length pears made their appearance, and there were plums in the orchard. Then they made use of all the devices which had been recommended to them against the birds. But the bits of glass made dazzling reflections, the clapper of the wind-mill woke them during the night, and the sparrows perched on the scarecrow. They made a second, and even a third scarecrow, varying the dress, but none of them worked.

But they still hoped for plenty of fruit. Pécuchet had just mentioned it to Bouvard, when there was a crack of thunder and rain started to fall – a heavy and violent downpour. The wind at intervals shook the entire surface of the espalier. The props gave way one after the other, and the unfortunate distaff-shaped trees, swaying under the storm, smashed their pears against one another.

Pécuchet, surprised by the shower, had taken refuge in the hut. Bouvard stuck to the kitchen. They saw splinters of wood, branches, and slates whirling in front of them; and the sailors’ wives on the sea-shore ten leagues away, gazing out at the sea, had not eyes more wistful or hearts more anxious. Then, suddenly, the supports and wooden bars of espaliers facing one another, together with the rail-work, toppled down into the garden beds.

What a picture when they went to inspect the scene! The cherries and plums covered the grass, amid the dissolving hailstones. The Passe Colmars were destroyed, as well as the Besi des Vétérans and the Triomphes de Jordoigne. Of the apples, there were barely left even a few Bon Papas; and a dozen Tetons de Venus, the entire crop of peaches, rolled round in the pools of water by the side of the box trees, which had been torn up by the roots. (Chapter two)

The whole book follows this pattern. The dim duo get excited by a new topic – anatomy, chemistry, philosophy – order up as many textbooks as possible (which Flaubert names and summarises with loving care) – and then proceed to misunderstand, misapply and misuse everything they’ve read, failing at everything they turn their hands to, again and again.

So, for example, the chapter on science refers to textbooks by Regnault, Girardin, Alexandre Lauth, the Dictionary of Medical Sciences, the treatises of Richerand and Adelon, the Manual of Health by Francois Raspail, the Manual of Hygiene by Dr Morin, Becquerel’s treatise, Bégin and Lévy on diet. That’s 11 textbooks quoted and summarised in 15 pages, about one every page and a half; elsewhere the ratio is much denser. Hundreds of them.

Futility

Again and again, they generalise from their own inability to really understand a subject that it must the subject which is at fault:

History

To judge impartially they would have to read all the histories, all the memoirs, all the newspapers, and all the manuscript documents, for the least omission might cause an error, which might lead to others and so on ad infinitum. They abandoned the subject.

Grammar

They concluded that syntax is a fantasy and grammar an illusion.

Aesthetics

‘All these people who compose books of rhetoric, poetics and aesthetics seem complete idiots to me.’ (Bouvard)

Politics

‘Progress – what a farce! Politics – what a filthy mess!’ (Bouvard)

Divination

Their search never revealed anything, and each time they were extremely crestfallen.

Philosophy

They both confessed that they were tired of philosophers. So many systems only confuse you. Metaphysics is useless.

As you can see, the ‘novel’ can easily be read as an opportunity for Flaubert to express his own pessimism and universal disgust via the mouths of his dumb duo.

Epistemology

Epistemology is ‘the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope’. For intellectual critics the book amounts to a sustained critique of humans’ ability to know anything. Although they buy all the books on whichever is their latest fad, although they study them carefully and make copious notes, when Bouvard and Pécuchet come to apply this ‘knowledge’ it relentlessly ends in failure. Which suggests that people don’t – and can’t – learn.

1. The tradition of learned wit This scorn for knowledge places the book firmly in the long line of fictions of ‘learnèd wit’ i.e. the tradition of satires on the university-based, book learning of their times which attacked the arcane beliefs of medieval scholars (Rabelais), the conventions of chivalry (Don Quixote), the new 18th century fashion for ‘science’ and ‘experiments’ (Swift) or blind belief in Optimist (Candide).

Like this tradition, Flaubert ridicules knowledge and science, but the great difference is that he does it in a naturalistic style. Whereas the tradition of ‘learnèd wit’ from the later Middle Ages to the 18th century rejoiced in arcane language, out-of-the-way literary references and so on, Flaubert replaces the paraphernalia of quotes from the Bible, classical myths and abstruse theology with modern-day textbooks, guides and pamphlets, presenting the great wealth of current knowledge in a completely deadpan, serious way. (Except for the chapters about philosophy or religion which, by definition, deal with abstruse theology and Biblical quotes).

But such a crudely dismissive attitude to current scientific and cultural knowledge raises an elementary problem which is that a lot of it isn’t risible.

2. People do learn Because in agriculture, physics, chemistry, archaeology, even in the arts, there have been huge, enormous, world-changing strides since Flaubert was doing his slavish research in the 1870s. Sure, in every age lots of people are dim and/or uneducated; but in the last 140 years amazing advances have taken place on all the fronts of human enquiry and knowledge.

Thus the fundamental aim of the book – to imply that human knowledge is useless and the quest for it pointless – is wrong. There have been huge strides in, for example, agriculture. Today we can feed populations undreamed of in Flaubert’s time. In other words, his dismissal of all human knowledge seems glib and superficial, itself wilful and ignorant.

Thus I found it difficult to accept, to buy into, the book’s fundamental premise, and this made it hard to read or enjoy. Instead of someone saying something sharp and insightful about the world or human nature, it feels like an ungainly selection of very out-of-date information, assembled in the name of an untenable premise.

Its strengths

1. Narrative energy Well, there isn’t much, since in each chapter Bouvard and Pécuchet do much the same thing, namely research a topic and fail to understand or apply it. There is a sort of energy created by the narrative scaffold whereby Flaubert manoeuvres them towards each a new subject – the involvement of other characters, in particular – and the events which supposedly spark interest in each new subject though I for one found a lot of them flimsy and contrived. And then there is a sort of interest in finding out what new humiliations the author has in store for his chumps, though many times the disquisition on a particular subject ends with no particular pay-off before they set off on a new subject.

2. Episodic Because Bouvard and Pécuchet are continually abandoning each of their projects, each chapter does open with a sense of novelty (and mild hope for something new) – a bit like watching the latest episode of a long-running sitcom in which you can be confident a set of well-known characters will get themselves into a new pickle within a familiar set of conventions.

But on the down side, each of the chapters is not only long, but exhaustively long and often quite draining to read. Oscar Wilde said that a man who sets out to exhaust his subject invariably ends up by exhausting his listeners, and I think this is more true of Flaubert than any other major writer.

Cast and comedy

It would be incorrect to say the book only features the odd couple. Other characters weave in and out and by the end we’ve probably been introduced to thirty or so characters.

When they decide to buy some land in Normandy (near the village of Chavignolles) it comes with a house and a farm. The farmer, Old Gouy, has been farming it for years, along with his wife. Bouvard and Pécuchet criticise old Gouy so much that he quits, and that’s the start of the several years they spend putting into practice their book learning with such disastrous results. In the manor house they inherit an old housekeeper, Madame Germaine, whose main role is to complain about every request. Later on they acquire a wandering carpenter and his teenage help, Mélie. Late in the book Germaine quits and is replaced by a useless hunchback, Marcel.

Chavignolles supplies a surprisingly varied cast of rural characters, including:

  • Madame Bordin, a middle aged lady who very gently flirts with Bouvard
  • the Abbé Jeufroy, who they exhaust with their enquiries about theology
  • the lawyer, Monsieur Marescot
  • Monsiruer Girbal, superintendent of taxes
  • Captain Heurtaux, a local landowner
  • Beljambe, the innkeeper
  • Langlois, the grocer
  • Monsieur Foureau, the mayor
  • the local landowner, to whom everyone defers, the Comte de Faverges
  • Larsonneur, a local antiquary they write to about their discoveries

There are experts they correspond with, the gamekeeper, Sorel, who brings in a little burst of other characters in the final chapter. This cast turns out to be quite large enough to supply some quite comic scenes, a bit like Last of the Summer Wine, but in French.

With the result that there are quite a few ‘crowd’ scenes: Take the scene in chapter three where the couple accost the abbé in the road and start quizzing him about the Creation, enumerating all the arguments against the Biblical story which they have just read in their latest book. The abbé is joined by his assistant, then the mayor passing by, and then the Comte, so that by the time our duo exclaim that man is descended from apes there is enough of a crowd to respond with exclamations of horror and outrage, reported with deadpan irony by Flaubert.

Or when the couple hold a dinner party for all the worthies of the village to show off their home-grown food (which proves to be inedible) and then proudly display their garden, landscaped according to the latest principles (which the guest find ugly and disturbing).

Or the scene where our couple proudly show invited guests round their ‘museum of curiosities’, filled with interesting historical and geological curios – which is in fact an emporium of broken rubbish and random rocks, the locals treating our heroes with politeness and behind their backs muttering that they’re mad.

So there are scenes of group comedy as well as quite a few moments of out and out absurdity.

On the principle that inflammation can be prevented by lowering temperatures, they treated a woman suffering from meningitis by hanging her from the ceiling in her chair and pushing her to and fro – until her husband arrived and threw them out. (Chapter three)

If at some moments, the relentlessness of their obtuseness, and the inevitability of their failure in every enterprise they undertake, can be rather depressing; at other moments, when they pat each other on the back, take a pull on their pipes, order up a new set of textbooks, and so on, you can’t help liking them.

Details

All the above criticisms see the text at a distance, extracting generalisations about themes and character.

There’s a separate strand or level where Flaubert scores, and that is in the precision of his imagination. Flaubert became famous for the painstaking care he took with his style, agonising for a day about where to place a comma in a sentence etc but, alas, most of this painstaking work is lost in translation.

What is not lost is the clarity of the details he imagines. His ability to zero in and include just the right amount of, particularly visual, detail, is displayed throughout the book.

In the kitchen, bundles of hemp hung from the ceiling. Three old guns stood in a row over the upper part of the chimney-piece. A dresser loaded with flowered crockery occupied the space in the middle of the wall, and the window-panes with their green bottle-glass cast a pallid light over the tin and copper utensils. (Chapter two)

There are many moments like this, scattered among the more turgid reams of technical knowledge, moments when Flaubert conceives a scene and paints it in very visual terms.

The harvest was just over, and the dark masses of the stacks in the middle of the fields rose up against the tender blue of the night sky. Nothing was astir about the farms. Even the crickets were quiet. The fields were all wrapped in sleep.

The pair digested while they inhaled the breeze which blew refreshingly against their cheeks.

Above, the sky was covered with stars; some shone in clusters, others in a row or alone, at great distances from each other. A zone of luminous dust, extending from north to south, parted above their heads. Between these bright patches were vast empty spaces, and the firmament looked like an azure sea dotted with archipelagos and islets. (Chapter three)

Although, to be honest, having struggled through to the end, there are far fewer scenes of acute visual precision than in, say, Madame Bovary. Reviewing all his novels I think Bovary has more of these painted scenes than any of the others, which is one reason why it remains his best book.

Failed purpose

In fact, there is a glaring central issue with the book. Flaubert wrote to numerous friends that he hoped the book would shame the human race, amounted to a great roar of disgust and so on and so forth, but in this respect it is a complete failure. The twentieth century came along and dwarfed anything Flaubert could have imagined. Now when we look back at the tradition of Books Disgusted by Human Existence it might include Kafka, Celine, Camus, Sartre – the existentialist tradition, as well as countless twentieth century novels made ‘scandalous’ by their sexual explicitness or violence.

Seen in the light of these traditions, Bouvard and Pécuchet barely registers. Nobody reads his book in order to be ‘disgusted with humanity’. In fact, Bouvard and Pécuchet has ended up having exactly the opposite effect of what he intended. A modern reader finds it a sweet and gentle novel of rural France and its quaint characters. If you skim over the tedious expositions of mid-nineteenth century phrenology or geology or aesthetics, you are left with a series of comic scenes:

  • Pécuchet hiding in a ditch overhearing the colloquy between the local tough Gorjou and his married mistress
  • the villagers peeking through holes in the fence to watch the couple ludicrously act out scenes from French classical plays
  • the lofty condescension of the local aristocrat, as the pair show him round their ramshackle collection of local curios
  • the irritation of the barber who gives them a corner of his shop to practice ‘phrenology’ in, only for it to become packed out with credulous peasants
  • the ridiculousness of the pair trying to argue the gamekeeper out of shooting animals by invoking the pantheistic philosophy of Spinoza

In fact, if Bouvard and Pécuchet has any value, it is as precisely the opposite of a searing, devastating, world-shaking monster of bourgeois-bating satire – and instead as a gentle, humorous portrait of rural French life and its cast of harmless buffoons.

Brief summary

Its complete lack of psychological development or anything resembling a conventional ‘plot’ – the monotonous effect of the pair’s relentless failures – and the long passages of dusty book learning which are transcribed purely to bring out their contradictions and futility – make Bouvard and Pécuchet in many ways a difficult book to read.

The (occasional) precision of Flaubert’s visual imagination, the (occasional) comic scenes – especially involving exasperated members of the local community – and the warmth of the relationship between the hapless pair – just about make it worth reading.

If I was recommending Flaubert’s books to a friend who hadn’t read them I think I would order them thus:

  • Madame Bovary – the best written, most sensual and pictorial, and the most compelling plot
  • Sentimental Education – for all the flaws of the central character, portrays the social and political life of Paris through an important period in its history
  • Three Tales – short and very readable products of his mature style
  • Salammbô – a richly atmospheric and grisly, though dry and often melodramatic historical novel
  • Bouvard and Pécuchet – difficult, often deadly boring
  • The Temptation of Saint Anthony – very hard to read

The movie

The French made a movie of it.


Related links

Flaubert’s books

A Dictionary of Received Ideas by Gustave Flaubert

Bouvard et Pécuchet

Gustave Flaubert died in 1880 while still working on his last book, Bouvard and Pécuchet. This tells the adventures of two petit bourgeois dunces, born and raised in Paris, where they work as respectable clerks, who meet and realise they share the same, second-hand, trite and clichéd ideas, and the same dim-witted insatiable curiosity, about everything.

Deciding they are The Best of Friends, they set off on a series of adventures designed to highlight not only their own stupidity, but the stupidity of much so-called ‘science’ and ‘knowledge’. So Bouvard and Pécuchet is less a novel than a fable, standing in a long line of books which satirise book learning, which includes Rabelais, Don Quixote, Jonathan Swift and Tristram Shandy.

Except that whereas those books were dominated by what’s been called ‘learnèd wit’ i.e. satires on the university-based, book learning of their times, with a great deal of effort spent ridiculing the arcane beliefs of medieval scholars (Rabelais), or the conventions of chivalry (Don Quixote) or the new fashion for ‘science’ and ‘experiments’ (Swift) – Bouvard and Pécuchet is determinedly modern and realistic in style.

In a letter Flaubert wrote that the novel is:

‘a kind of encyclopedia made into a farce… I am planning a thing in which I give vent to my anger… I shall vomit over my contemporaries the disgust they inspire in me…’

One element of the book is the way its two hopeless protagonists interpret everything in a relentlessly middle-brow way, failing to understand the finer points of every intellectual or practical effort they turn their hands to, but rewriting them, as it were, into their own personal language of clichés and stereotypes. And all the while they cheer themselves up with the irritatingly vacuous catch phrases and platitudes beloved of their type and class.

A Dictionary of Stupidity

This explains why, alongside researching and writing the novel, Flaubert also had a project to collect together all the most clichéd, stupid, vapid truisms, the most wretched commonplaces and inanities, the most hackneyed, trite and pitiful platitudes of his age.

He used some of these in the novel, attributing them to his earnestly second-rate characters. But over the course of decades, he built up quite a collection in its own right. He began sorting them into alphabetical order and found himself creating what he initially called a Dictionary of Stupidity and then toned down into ‘A Dictionary of Received Ideas’.

It is a list of the unthinking slogans and clichés which people prattle out in conversation, the same old opinions you read in the press, the empty formulas politicians make in speeches, the dreary subjects you endure at awful dinner parties. Received opinion, fashionable platitudes, accepted ideas.

As it grew, Flaubert seems to have planned to make the Dictionary of Stupidity form volume two of the completed Bouvard and Pécuchet but died before his plans could be finalised. It was only published in French in 1913, and had to wait till 1954 to be translated into English.

The Dictionary is usually published as an appendix to the larger novel, but Penguin had the bright idea back in the 1990s of publishing it as a stand-alone booklet which I picked up at the time (it seems to be out of print now).

Funny

What’s surprising is how funny it is. I laughed out loud on almost every page. Much funnier that Bouvard and Pécuchet (which is occasionally touching but isn’t, frankly, very funny at all).

This is partly because it is so compressed and pithy. Given half a chance Flaubert will write you a whole page about agricultural techniques or medieval siege machinery or Biblical ointments or whatever pedantic facts he’s come across in his immense background reading and which can be squeezed into one of his long narratives.

But all this verbiage is absent in the Dictionary. Its prose is incredibly compressed. It gives just the most commonplace interpretations of each subject in all their glorious banality. Frequently Flaubert places next to each other two completely contradictory views, both of which are in common circulation, to highlight how unthinkingly stupid we so often are.

I found it helps to imagine some of the phrases being spoken out loud by either a bluff colonel or a delicate maiden aunt (as appropriate).

Examples

ABROAD – Enthusiasm for everything foreign, sign of progressive thinking. Contempt for everything un-French, sign of patriotism.

ACCIDENT – Always ‘deplorable’ or ‘unfortunate’ (as though anyone would find cause to rejoice in misfortune).

AGE, THE PRESENT AGE – Always denounce vigorously.

AMBITION – Always describe as ‘insane’ except when it is ‘noble’.

ANIMALS – If only they could talk. Some of them are more intelligent than humans!

ANTIQUES – All forgeries.

ARCHITECTS – All imbeciles.

ARISTOCRACY – Treat with contempt. Regard with envy.

AUTHOR – Advisable to know a few authors. No need to remember their names.

And so on. In its way, The Dictionary is as much a portrait of the age as Sentimental Education. Sure a lot of it is dated. But the real eye-opener is how many of these clichés of the bourgeois mind, circa 1880, are still clichés of the bourgeois mind in 2018.

BEETHOVEN – Don’t pronounce Beet-hoven. Praise the legato.

TOYS – Should always be educational.

TRAVELLER – Always ‘intrepid’.

WALLS – Good phrase to use in an official speech: ‘Gentlemen, within these very walls…’

WATCH – The only decent ones are made in Switzerland.

WIT – Always ‘sparkling’. Brevity the soul of.

WORKER – Honest and reliable. Except when he’s rioting.

Flaubert wrote that ‘after reading the book, the reader should be afraid to talk, for fear of using one of the phrases in it’ and realising what a mug he is – a splendid ambition. We could do with more silence.

SEALED – Always ‘hermetically’.

PIKESTAFF – Plain as a.

KORAN – Book by Mohammed. Exclusively about repressing women.

INTERVAL – Always too long.

ILLEGIBLE – A doctor’s signature ought to be illegible. So should any official signature. Shows that you are overwhelmingly busy.

GREEK – Anything you don’t understand. ‘It’s all Greek to me.’

A perfect book to dip into for a few minutes and find yourself chortling, then laughing out loud.


Related links

Flaubert’s books

The Art of William Heath Robinson by Geoffrey Beare (2003)

This is a comprehensive coffee-table-sized biography of William Heath Robinson, stuffed with scores of marvellous black-and-white and colour illustrations. It is a joy to hold, read and gaze at.

Heath Robinson has become a byword for preposterous contraptions, but the thing which comes across from this slow, thorough and breezily-written narrative of his life and work, is the extraordinary diversity of his output. He produced a huge variety of types of illustrations, cartoons, commercial art and atmospheric watercolours. In fact at least one of the reviews on Amazon laments that there aren’t enough of the crazy contraption pictures. Well, there are plenty of books devoted solely to Heath Robinson’s absurdist gadgets: this book sets out to present the full range and skilled accomplishment of the man.

Range

Heath Robinson was born in 1870 and died in 1944. His father and brothers were magazine illustrators, so early on doors were opened and contacts arranged. Rather than attempt any kind of overview of his life (which you can get from the Wikipedia article), I am just going to give examples of the types of image he created.

Black and white Illustrations

He did colour and b&w illustrations for Shakespeare and children’s classics e.g. The Water Babies. His edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream shows the influence of the Japanese prints which first arrived in the 1860s and 1870s, and had become commonplace by the turn of the century. White – big white spaces, contrasted with very fine, one-line outlines i.e. not roughed-in or sketched but clinically precise defined lines. And black, the use of solid undifferentiated black for trees, buildings, outlines, whatever – to create extremely clear, classic, crisp images.

Following his illustrated Shakespeare, Heath Robinson suggested an illustrated edition of Rabelais’ late medieval comic masterpiece, Gargantua and Pantagruel (1904), which allowed him full reign to depict grotesque and sometimes scary human figures and faces, unlike anything else he ever did.

Coloured illustrations

Distinctly different from the black and white line illustrations are the fabulously atmospheric colour illustrations he did during the same period. Some of the Shakespeare ones are stunning in their delicate colouring and phenomenal detail.

But my favourites are the extraordinarily vivid colour illustrations he did for Rudyard Kipling’s 15-page poem, A Song of the English, a hymn to the British Empire, its farflung capitals, and the toil and risks taken by the sailors who bind it together through trade and war.

Authored books

Heath Robinson only wrote and illustrated three books of his own, but they are masterpieces of weird imagination. In the earliest, The Adventures of Uncle Lubin (1902), the eponymous uncle falls asleep looking after a baby, which is promptly stolen by the mythical Bag-bird, resulting in Lubin taking trips around the world to find and bring the baby back.

Along the way Uncle Lubin invents a variety of devices from an air-ship to a ramshackle submarine. You can see in these illustrations the seeds of the later career concocting crazy contraptions.

War satire

The advent of the Great War dried up the market for luxury illustrated books like the ones Heath Robinson had been illustrating. Paper was short, tastes had changed. Luckily Heath Robinson had been busy developing a tidy side-line in cartoons and commercial work (adverts), alongside the book illustrations. When one of his early publishers went bankrupt he was able to switch career into providing cartoons for the growing number of up-market weekly magazines. Thus Heath Robinson managed parallel careers as illustrator and humorous artist until the slump in the book trade in the early 1920s killed the market for illustration.

His facility with comic cartoons is exemplified in a series of three books of satirical drawings about the war itself – Some “Frightful” War Pictures 1915), Hunlikely! (1916), and the brilliantly titled The Saintly Hun: a book of German virtues (1917).

Given how grotesque we know he could be from the Rabelais pictures, the notable thing about the war cartoons is their restraint – any animus is completely subdued to the comic end. Although there are sometimes silly contraptions involved, for the most part the cartoons focus on absurd activities, like blowing cold air at British soldiers in the trenches to give them neckache, and so on.

Twenty years later the Hun were back, this time in Nazi uniforms. Heath Robinson embarked on another series of cartoon satirising the enemy. But you can see at a glance what has happened in those twenty years, namely he has become the Heath Robinson of fame and legend, a byword for elaborately home-made machines, for preposterously complex and unnecessarily convoluted devices concocted to carry out simple or absurdist ends.

You can also see how the human figures have evolved. By the 1940s they have become much more standardised. Although often characterful, the figures are far more restrained than the fatter, guffawing figures from the Great War.

The deliberate sameyness of the human figures, their frequent reduction to emotionless ciphers, is to emphasise the craziness of the contraptions. To put it another way, the human figures become more sober and realistic in exactly the degree that the machines become preposterous and improbable.

Heath Robinson is quoted as saying that the comic result is partly achieved by making the people involved take their operations with deadly seriousness. In the Great War cartoons fat sergeants and guffawing sergeant majors are laughing at the silliness of their tactics. In the WWII cartoons, the po-faces  of the participants are part of the point.

Cartoons

It was in the 1920s that Heath Robinson really acquired a wide reputation for the outrageous contraptions which he created in hundreds and hundreds of freelance cartoons for a wide range of magazines.

Adverts

He also applied his by now distinctive style and imagination to create adverts for various products.

How to…

In the 1930s Heath Robinson collaborated with the humorous writer K.R.G. Browne on a set of comic ‘How to…’ books designed to take the mickey out of modern living – How to live in a flat (1936), How to make a garden grow, How to be a perfect husband, How to be a motorist.

These still rely on preposterous exaggeration for their comic effect, but they are notable for having a much cleaner line, much more white space. The amusement is partly in their aerodynamic Art Deco lines.

Just a glance back at the high-contraption works makes you realise he was deploying a completely different, stripped-down style in these books, which relies on a relatively simple (if absurd) idea for its humour – the one-trick idea of his collaborator – rather than the intricately tortuous chain of machinery characteristic of his own invention, such as:

Watercolours

So by the 1920s Heath Robinson had established the cartoon style for which he would become known as ‘the Gadget King’; his name was well on the way to entering the language to describe any jerry-rigged, home-made and bodged-up contraption.

But the tendency of this brilliant book, throughout, is to emphasise the phenomenal technical skills which underlay this achievement, specifically his astonishing gift of linemanship and draughtsmanship, apparent from the earliest of his luxury illustrations of Shakespeare, of Hans Christian Anderson, the Water Babies and so on.

And in particular the book brings out a completely overlooked area of his achievement, Heath Robinson’s astonishing mastery of watercolour. Right at the start of his career Heath Robinson had ambitions to become a landscape artist and, although the need to earn a living drove him into illustrations and then cartoon work, he never ceased painting beautiful, atmospheric watercolours for his own pleasure.

Many of these were published in this 2003 volume for the first time, in large-scale illustrations printed on high quality paper which really bring out their delicate beauty.

Hard not to be thrilled by the delicacy and taste of these sensitive, evocative watercolours. Beare points out how Heath Robinson uses a unity of tone i.e. the colours are mostly from the same part of the colour spectrum in order to convey a subdued but subtly varied impression.

Dulwich Gallery and the Heath Robinson Museum

This beautiful book was originally published to accompany an exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery which I visited, back in 2003. The author says the exhibition and book are designed to encourage support for the idea of establishing a permanent home for Heath Robinson’s work, as cartoonist, illustrator and serious artist.

So it’s lovely to come full circle, because what made me take this book down off my shelf was the fact that I recently visited the new(ish) Heath Robinson Museum in Pinner, north-west London, which was opened as recently as October 2016 and which, despite being rather small, provides a perfect setting to display a surprising amount of this wonderful artist’s inspiring, uplifting and often very funny work.

P.S.

Heath Robinson named his cat Saturday Morning.


Related links

The Wilt Inheritance by Tom Sharpe (2010)

Another Tom Sharpe novel (in fact, the last one) and so another big country mansion full of grotesques – in this case the vast, architecturally bizarre Sandystones Hall in which reside big, roaring Sir George Gadsley – who is partial to very fat lady cooks (like Philomena Jones, who makes him roast pork with all the trimmings) and his long-suffering wife, Lady Clarissa – who has an idiot son by her first marriage, Edward, who has failed every exam ever put in front of him.

Which is why Lady Clarissa, learning that the nice woman who helps out sometimes with one of her charities, Eva Wilt, has a husband who’s a lecturer at the local Uni and might be prepared to tutor Edward during the summer holidays, offers to pay him a generous £1,500 a week, and let the whole family come to stay in a cottage on the estate for the summer.

Thus does Henry Wilt, Head of the ‘so-called Communications Department’ at the former Fenland College of Arts and Technology – now, of course, upgraded to a university – enter the frame, still being harassed by his wife, nowadays nagging him to show some ambition and get a better job so he can pay for his horrible teenage quadruplet daughters to go to private school. Instead he gets disgustingly drunk with his old mate Peter Braintree or goes down the allotment with old Peter Coverdale, who had the sense never to get married.

The book runs multiple plotlines in parallel, told in short, punchy chapters:

  • Lady Clarissa has an Uncle Harold, a retired Colonel, who needs to go into a nursing home but refuses to. He is finally decanted into the ‘Last Post Rest Home’ and hates it, shouting angrily at all the staff until he stumbles on the fact that Lady Clarissa takes advantage of her frequent journeys into town to bonk her chauffeur at the local Black Bear pub/hotel. The manager of the hotel is an old army man and tips the Colonel off. And so the Colonel blackmails Lady C, claiming the room she uses at the pub is fitted with cameras and he has plenty of evidence of her high jinks, plenty to show Sir George. And so Lady C is forced to let the old colonel permission leave the rest home and hole up in the Black Bear itself, where she is wondering what the hell to do next, when he very conveniently drinks himself into having a stroke and dying.
  • At St Barnaby’s school for young ladies Wilt’s daughters, the quadruplets, now around 15, are causing mayhem in true St Trinians manner. They stuff a potato up the exhaust and put sugar in the petrol tank of the car belonging to a teacher they dislike, Miss Young, the multiple complications of which give her a nervous breakdown. They watch a naturist swimming in the nearby lake and have the bright idea of stealing his pants and trousers – and adding a used condom found in nearby bushes – and sneaking them into the bedroom of their headmistress, Mrs Collinson, for her husband to find when he gets home late that night, leading to a massive drunken row.
  • When Wilt finally makes it to Sandystones Hall he is astonished by its raw ugliness, by the way it is stuffed with furniture from Imperial-era India and by the way Lady Clarissa makes a blatant pass at him which, in true Wilt style, he runs away from, red-faced.

After that it gets complex with the endless running on and off stage of different characters getting lost, shouting and swearing at each other, getting drunk and passing out, corpses and coffins and vicars and coppers all increasingly enmeshed in the tangled farce.

Briefly, Uncle Henry’s body is brought to the Hall to be buried but Sir George refuses permission to let it lie in the family chapel. While he and his wife argue, Wilt’s wicked teenage daughters steal the body from the coffin and replace it with a log – which surprises the local vicar when he and a pall bearer open it, and even more so the police who are called in to add to the general confusion.

The quads drag the colonel’s body off to a clearing in the wood, intending to burn it, but are interrupted by Edward the psycho son stalking towards them firing one of his step-father’s many guns, oops. Until one of the quads hits him a lucky blow on the head with a stone, Edward trips, and blows his own head off. Double oops.

So the quads mock up the scene to look as if it was Edward who stole the body in order to do macabre target practice at it, but then stumbled and accidentally killed himself (the last part being more or less true), and then the police – called by the horrified vicar – turn up with sniffer dogs and even Wilt’s old nemesis, Inspector Flint, arrives from Ipford. The bodies are found which leads to an orgy of recriminations in which everyone blames everyone else – Sir George, Lady Clarissa, Wilt, Eva, the quads – until all concerned break for a nice cup of tea served by the housekeeper, Mrs Bale…

And when they reconvene Sir George and Lady C have come to an arrangement. She will testify to Sir George always keeping the gun cabinet locked, but that Edward must have found the keys, stolen a gun, purloined Uncle Henry’s body and been using it for target practice when he had a terrible accident. (In return Sir George allows Edward’s body to be buried in the family crypt and pays for Lady C to take Uncle Henry’s corpse back to Kenya, where he wanted to be buried – and where she stays on for a three-month holiday, being shagged senseless by the chauffeur. While she is away, Sir George takes advantage of her absence to invite the obese cook, Philomena Jones, back into the kitchen and then into his bed where, a few months later, he dies happy, whether from all that pork crackling or from more strenuous exercise or from both, who can say?)

Inspector Flint – who thought he had finally implicated his old enemy, Wilt, in a particularly bizarre murder – is foiled once again. Eva extracts full payment for the tuition to the now-dead Edward from Lady Clarissa and uses it to pay for the quads to return to their private school, having fulsomely apologised to their headmistress. Relieved to have escaped yet another adventure, they drive back to their nice quiet home at 45 Oakhurst Evenue, Ipford.

And Wilt? He goes back down his local, the Hangman’s Arms, for a ruminative pint with his old mate, Peter Braintree, Head of English at the Tech – only to be told that the Tech is finally being closed down and that he and Peter will be made redundant. What does the future hold, for him, for them, for anyone?

Who knows?


Credit

The Wilt Inheritance by Tom Sharpe was published by Hutchinson Books in 2010. All quotes and references are to the 2011 Hutchinson paperback edition.

Related links

Tom Sharpe’s novels

1971 – Riotous Assembly – Absurdly violent and frenzied black comedy set in apartheid South Africa as three incompetent police officers try to get to the bottom of the murder of her black cook by a venerable old lady who turns out to be a sex-mad rubber fetishist, a simple operation which leads to the deaths of 21 policemen, numerous dogs, a vulture and the completely wrongful arrest and torture of the old lady’s brother, the bishop of Basutoland.
1973 – Indecent Exposure – Sequel to the above, in which the same Kommandant van Herden is seduced into joining a group of (fake) posh colonial English at their country retreat, leaving Piemburg in charge of his deputy, Luitenant Verkramp, who sets about a) ending all inter-racial sex among the force by applying drastic aversion therapy to his men b) tasks with flushing out communist subversives a group of secret agents who themselves end up destroying most of the town’s infrastructure.
1974 – Porterhouse Blue – Hilarious satire on the stuffiness and conservatism of Oxbridge colleges epitomised by Porterhouse, as a newcomer tries in vain to modernise this ramshackle hidebound institution, with a particularly cunning enemy in the ancient college porter, Skullion.
1975 – Blott on the Landscape – MP and schemer Sir Giles Lynchwood so loathes his battleship wife, Lady Maud, that he connives to have a new motorway routed slap bang through the middle of her ancestral home, Handyman Hall, intending to abscond with the compensation money. But he reckons without his wife’s fearsome retaliation or the incompetence of the man from the Ministry.
1976 – Wilt – Hen-pecked lecturer Henry Wilt is humiliated with a sex doll at a party thrown by the infuriatingly trendy American couple, the Pringsheims. Appalled by his grossness, his dim wife, Eva, disappears on a boating weekend with this ‘fascinating’ and ‘liberated’ couple, so that when Wilt is seen throwing the wretched blow-up doll into the foundations of the extension to his technical college, the police are called which leads to 100 pages of agonisingly funny misunderstandings.
1977 – The Great Pursuit – Literary agent Frederick Frensic receives the anonymous manuscript of an outrageously pornographic novel about the love affair between a 17-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman, via a firm of solicitors who instruct him to do his best with it. Thus begins a very tangled web in which he palms it off as the work of a pitiful failure of an author, one Peter Piper, and on this basis sells it to both a highbrow but struggling British publisher and a rapaciously commercial American publisher, who only accept it on condition this Piper guy goes on a US tour to promote it. Which is where the elaborate deception starts to go horribly wrong…
1978 – The Throwback – Illegitimate Lockhart Flawse, born and bred in the wastes of Northumberland, marries virginal Jessica whose family own a cul-de-sac of houses in suburban Surrey, and, needing the money to track down his mystery father, Lockhart sets about an elaborate and prolonged campaign to terrorise the tenants out of the homes. Meanwhile, his decrepit grandfather has married Jessica’s mother, she hoping to get money from the nearly-dead old geezer, he determined to screw as much perverse sexual pleasure out of her pretty plump body before he drops dead…
1979 – The Wilt Alternative – After a slow, comic, meandering first 90 pages, this novel changes tone drastically when international terrorists take Wilt and his children hostage in his nice suburban house leading to a stand-off with the cops and Special Branch.
1980 – Ancestral Vices – priggish left-wing academic Walden Yapp is invited by cunning old Lord Petrefact to write an unexpurgated history of the latter’s family of capitalists and exploiters because the old bustard wants to humiliate and ridicule his extended family, but the plot is completely derailed when a dwarf living in the mill town of Buscott where Yapp goes to begin his researches, is killed in an accident and Yapp finds himself the chief suspect for his murder, is arrested, tried and sent to prison, in scenes strongly reminiscent of Henry Wilt’s wrongful arrest in the first Wilt novel.
1982 – Vintage Stuff – A stupid teacher at a minor public school persuades a gullible colleague that one of the parents, a French Comtesse, is being held captive in her chateau. Accompanied by the stupidest boy in school, and armed with guns from the OTC, master and pupil end up shooting some of the attendees at a conference on international peace taking part at said chateau, kidnapping the Comtesse – who turns out to be no Comtesse at all – and blowing up a van full of French cops, bringing down on themselves the full wrath of the French state.
1984 – Wilt On High – Third outing for lecturer in Liberal Studies, Henry Wilt who, through a series of typically ridiculous misunderstandings, finds himself, first of all suspected of being a drug smuggler and so bugged by the police; then captured and interrogated on a US air base where he is delivering an innocuous lecture, on suspicion of being a Russian spy; before, in a frenzied climax, the camp is besieged by a monstrous regiment of anti-nuke mothers and news crews.
1995 – Grantchester Grind – The sequel to Porterhouse Blue, following the adventures of the senior college fellows as they adopt various desperate strategies to sort out Porterhouse College’s ailing finances, climaxing with the appointment of a international drug mafiosi as the new Master.
1996 – The Midden – Miss Marjorie Midden discovers a naked ex-City banker trussed in bedsheets hidden in her rural farmhouse, The Midden, and then the ancestral hall she owns under attack from the demented forces of nearby Scarsgate police force led by their corrupt chief constable Sir Arnold Gonders, in a blistering satire on the corruption and greed of post-Thatcher Britain.
2004 – Wilt in Nowhere – Fourth novel about the misadventures of Henry Wilt in which his wife Eva and the 14-year-old quads ruin the life of Uncle Wally and Auntie Joanie over in the States, while Wilt goes on an innocent walking holiday only to be accidentally knocked out and find himself implicated in a complicated murder-arson-child pornography scandal.
2009 – The Gropes – Driven out of his mind by his wife, Vera’s, sentimental fantasies, timid bank manager Horace Wiley pretends he wants to murder their teenage son Esmond, who is therefore hustled off to safety by Vera’s brother, Essex used-car dealer, Albert Ponson. Albert gets the teenage boy so drunk that his wife, Belinda, leaves him in disgust – locking their bungalow’s internal and external doors so securely that Albert has to call the police to get released, with disastrous results – while Belinda drives with the unconscious Esmond back to her ancestral home, the gloomy Grope Hall in remote Northumberland where – to the reader’s great surprise – they fall in love and live happily ever after.
2010 – The Wilt Inheritance – Sharpe’s last novel, the fifth and final instalment of the adventures of Polytechnic lecturer Henry Wilt, his naggy wife, Eva, and their appalling teenage daughters, all of whom end up at the grotesque Sandystones Hall in North Norfolk, where Wilt is engaged to tutor the lady of the manor’s psychotic teenage son, and Eva gets caught up in complications around burying dead Uncle Henry, whose body the quads steal from the coffin and hide in the woods with dire consequences that even they don’t anticipate.

The Gropes by Tom Sharpe (2009)

Sharpe was 81 when this book was published and had, according to the dedication, survived a serious illness which nearly killed him in 2006. We’re lucky to have the book at all.

Although not one of his best, The Gropes trundles along at a kind of guaranteed basic level of comedy without ever reaching the heights of maniac hysteria which the two South African novels, for example, ahieve in their first chapters. But it is genially amusing.

The Wileys

The book is in two parts, set in two locations. In boring suburban Croydon live timid bank manager Horace Wiley and his sentimental wife Vera. It is a funny idea that Vera lives her life entirely through the prism of the romantic novels she has consumed since childhood, seeing in her mind’s eye dashing heroes with their blouses slashed open to the waist revealing manly chests, while their black locks blow in the wind which is also whipping up the storm-tossed waves of the sea, and so on and so on.

The way Vera forces timid, knock-kneed, big-eared Horace to drive all the way to Beachy Head and propose to her is funny, as is the way he gabbles out his speech and then grasps her to his heaving bosom (i.e grabs hold of her) because he is terrified of being blown over the cliff edge and Vera is, whatever she thinks of herself, very solidly built and a good object to cling onto in a gale at the top of a cliff.

They have a son, Esmond (named after the hero in one of Vera’s simpering romances), who is the spitting image of his dad and who grows into an unprepossessing youth whose habit is lurking in unexpected corners. He looks so exactly like his father that Horace becomes more and more upset at looking at his own mirror image every day and when Esmond takes up the drum, Horace finally snaps, getting drunk one evening and going to attack Esmond with the nearest thing to hand, a carving knife, before tripping over and then bursting into tears. His puzzled wife and son put him to bed.

The Ponsons

Vera calls her brother over to help. Albert Ponson is known in his part of Essex as an extremely dodgy second-hand car dealer, with a reputation for violence. Still, even Albert is horrified when he goes up to Horace’s bedroom and listens to the mild-mannered bank manager raving about chopping up his son and dissolving the body in a vat of acid. In fact, this is a ploy by Horace to achieve precisely what then follows: Albert offers to take the boy off Vera’s hands for a bit till Horace calms down.

The reluctant Esmond is piled into Albert’s swish Aston Martin and driven back to the Ponson bungalow in rural Essex. Sharpe gives a funny description of how it is stuffed from top to bottom with the latest gadgets – plasma TV, microwaves, designer kitchen, swimming pool with jacuzzi – and a slightly more unsettling description of how it is only surrounded by this army of kitchenware that Albert’s wife, Belinda, can manage to keep her sanity, in the wide flat boring landscape of Essex.

Apart from his criminal friends, Belinda knows that Albert is routinely unfaithful to her and she’s been wondering whether young Esmond would make a suitable toyboy lover. With this in mind she not only shows him the jacuzzi moments after he’s arrived, dazed and confused at the new house, but strips off and gets into it, scaring the boy – as timid, knock-kneed and shy as his father – witless.

So when he and Belinda return to the bungalow’s shagpile living room half an hour later, Esmond is grateful to accept a whisky from Albert, even though he’s never drunk spirits before in his life. And then another. And another. When Belinda walks back into the room after preparing dinner it is to find Esmond lying unconscious in his own vomit and Albert only barely capable of talking. That does it. He’s a pig and a bully for getting the boy into this state and she has had enough.

Belinda packs her bags, lugs the unconscious Esmond into the Aston Martin, then locks all the bungalow’s internal and external doors, sets all the alarms, and drives off, leaving her unconscious husband forever. When Albert regains dim consciousness later that night, with an appalling hangover, he finds all the doors and (bullet-proof) windows are locked so is forced to pee into the ornamental pot plant in the corner. Then he starts banging and hammering for release. And eventually uses the handgun he keeps in a drawer to shoot off the lock of the door into the garage. It’s about now that the concerned neighbours call the police, alarmed by the sound of shots.

The police

The police are exactly the same kind of dependably burly, straightforward, easily confused coppers who have populated all Sharpe’s novels – in fact are a vital ingredient in all of them – since Wilt. They are thrilled to be called to the bungalow, since they’ve been looking for an excuse to lock up Albert Ponson for some time.

When Albert yells through the garage door that everything’s locked from the outside and he can’t get out, they reassure him that they’ll get a nearby digger truck to hook a chain over the top of the garage door and wrench it open. ‘Don’t do that,’ he yells, ‘because…’ but – too late! As the digger pulls the garage door open the whole side of the house falls onto it and the house collapses in a pile of rubble, leaving a dazed and dust-covered Albert surrounded by sparking electric wires and spouting broken water pipes. His beautiful house!

The police are always, in Sharpe, not agents of law and order but the opposite – stirrers up of confusoin, misunderstanding and anarchy.

Horace does a bunk

At the same time, and interspersed with Albert’s adventures, Horace the bank manager has decided he’s had enough. He too packs his bags and slips out the back door of his nice semi in Croydon, to elude his distraught wife. He goes to his own bank, rummages through the deposit boxes and steals the passport of a customer who looks vaguely like him. After a few nights in an anonymous London hotel, he pays for a berth on a tramp steamer to Latvia where he thinks his wife will never track him down and he can start a new life, thousands of miles away from her endless yacking about Regency heroes and heroines in tight bodices.

This is all easy to do because Vera is contacted by the police in Essex who tell her about her brother’s plight. Thinking her beautiful son is trapped in the house with Albert she drives across the country to be there.

The Gropes of Grope Hall

But Esmond is miles away. Belinda has abandoned her marriage and life in Essex in order to return to her ancestral home, Grope Hall, stuck away in thousands of acres of inhospitable Northumberland moorland. Because, it turns out, she is herself one of the Grope family, the legendary lords of the manors of this remote fastness. In fact the ‘lords’ of the manor have been female ever since a timid Viking, around 900 AD, feeling seasick after the long voyage from Denmark, was assaulted by the ugliest woman in the Saxon village his mates were looting, one Ursula Grope, and carried off back to her village.

That founding abduction of a feeble man by a strong woman set the tone for a dynasty which is a true matriarchy, where power has been handed down from mother to daughter, and where men have been abducted, used for their sperm to fertilise the Grope women, then kept on as chattels and servants.

For a thousand years the Grope women have ruled the roost, through political and industrial revolutions and Belinda, wondering why she ever left for the boring flatlands of Essex, is back with the latest in a long line of kidnapped men, poor Esmond Wiley.

Parallel storylines

In the second half of the novel these storylines proceed in parallel, in brisk comic chapters dominated by frenzied dialogue:

  • Horace Wiley leaves the tramp steamer at Holland and catches trains to Germany, picking up spare passports and identity papers wherever he goes, sometimes catching local buses, sometimes walking remote tracks, south into Italy and then across into France, all the time driven by a (frankly not very believable) desire to evade his ghastly wife. He ends up blundering more by luck than judgement into Catalonia in northern Spain where he comes to rest in a hotel with a fine view of the beach and the thousands of scantily-clad young women who spend the day sunbathing on it. He buys a pair of binoculars and devotes his days to letching at their nubile bodies then, one night, is accosted in the bar by a middle-aged woman, Elsie, who, improbably has been watching him watching her. She boldly invites herself up to his hotel room, quickly strips and gives Horace the first sexual experience he’s had since the act of love which conceived Esmond, seventeen years earlier. Hooked, intoxicated, they eat a big lunch, then retire for more championship sex but just as he is getting into bed for yet another session, Horace drops dead of a heart attack. Panic stricken, Elsie rummages through Horace’s belongings, tidies up the room as best she can and bolts back to her room.
  • Meanwhile, Esmond has come into his own at Grope Hall. Far away from his fussing mother and hate-filled dad, taken under the wing of Old Samuel the groundsman, Esmond turns out to be a natural at all kinds of practical tasks to do with running the farm, looking after the pigs and even the two enormous bulls, bought years ago, to stop any nosy parkers intruding. Belinda decides that she too (like Horace) needs to elaborately cover her tracks and asks Old Samuel to think of a way of disposing of Albert’s car, the one she drove up north in and, to Esmond’s delight, Old Samuel conceives the idea of driving it into one of the many abandoned coal shafts (source of Grope Hall’s wealth in the Industrial Revolution) and then blowing up the mine with dynamite, which fulfils a lifetime of weedy Esmond’s fantasies of violence and destruction.

Taken together these two plotlines reveal the strengths and weaknesses of the book.

The strength is their absurdity, the lengths to which Sharpe can ravel out lunatic conclusions for initially fairly plausible beginnings.

The weakness is that neither really comes to the explosive climax which characterised his earlier books: In the old days Horace Wiley wouldn’t just have dropped dead of a heart attack, he would have been caught in the middle of some kinky bondage position and his girlfriend would have been hand-cuffed to him, as the wardrobe fell over and the hotel staff smashed the door down – something like that. Whereas in this muted version, Horace just drops dead and Elise sneaks off without even discovering that he has a huge sum in cash stashed in his bags. Here, as on many other occasions, it feels like Sharpe is missing a trick to create the kind of mayhem he used to revel in.

Similarly, as soon as I read the word ‘dynamite’ I imagined that Old Samuel might blow up not just a mine shaft but the whole network of disused mines under Grope Hall, ideally at just the moment the entire Grope Family (of mainly women) was assembled in the main hall, at the climax of a great feast to celebrate the return of long-lost Belinda from the wastes of Essex, etc.

But no. The dynamite causes a little explosion which is just enough to cover the stolen car and then he and Esmond block the entrance with barbed wire and a warning sign. Er, that’s it. Compared to the mayhem of Sharpe’s earlier novels, very disappointing.

  • The blundering police blunder on for quite a while, blaming Albert for murdering his missing wife and nephew, and call in a brace of psychiatrists who have no trouble declaring Vera – now hysterical at the unexplained disappearance of her beloved son and husband – clinically insane. One of the dim coppers mistakenly things he overhears the words ‘al-Qaeda’ and so, for a while, there’s the promise that Albert will somehow get involved or be blamed for acts of Islamic terrorism. But this promising idea is never really developed, and he is just subjected to long, wearing interrogations which have none of the comic energy of, say, the battles of wits between the canny Henry Wilt and the hapless Inspector Flint from the first Wilt novel.

Conclusions

The book dawdles towards the marriage of Belinda and Esmond.

Esmond has grown in stature through working the land and making a genuine friendship with Old Samuel and he goes through with the small wedding ceremony to Belinda despite misgivings about making his new wife a bigamist.

Meanwhile Old Samuel digs up the ancient brass plaque in the church and discovers a big bag of gold sovereigns beneath it and gives it to Esmond – who promptly declares they must both share it.

And when Esmond finally nerves himself to make the big speech to Belinda which he’s been preparing for weeks – saying that he rejects the ancient matriarchal traditions of Grope Hall and that he, Esmond, will refuse to be slipped sleeping pills and treated like a skivvy – she agrees! Belinda agrees that the old traditions are barbaric. They are both equals. If they have a baby girl, so be it. If it’s a boy, fine. Let them live equally and happily ever after.

And so, without anything blowing up or burning down, without the police, army, bomb disposal or the air force being at all involved in a massive firefight and the reckless devastation of the entire neighbourhood i.e. without any of the characteristics of a classic Tom Sharpe climax – the novel ends on a quiet sensible note of domestic happiness. Which makes it by far the weirdest ending of any of Tom Sharpe’s novels.


Credit

The Gropes by Tom Sharpe was published by Hutchinson Books in 2009. All quotes and references are to the 2009 Hutchinson paperback edition.

Related links

Tom Sharpe’s novels

1971 – Riotous Assembly – Absurdly violent and frenzied black comedy set in apartheid South Africa as three incompetent police officers try to get to the bottom of the murder of her black cook by a venerable old lady who turns out to be a sex-mad rubber fetishist, a simple operation which leads to the deaths of 21 policemen, numerous dogs, a vulture and the completely wrongful arrest and torture of the old lady’s brother, the bishop of Basutoland.
1973 – Indecent Exposure – Sequel to the above, in which the same Kommandant van Herden is seduced into joining a group of (fake) posh colonial English at their country retreat, leaving Piemburg in charge of his deputy, Luitenant Verkramp, who sets about a) ending all inter-racial sex among the force by applying drastic aversion therapy to his men b) tasks with flushing out communist subversives a group of secret agents who themselves end up destroying most of the town’s infrastructure.
1974 – Porterhouse Blue – Hilarious satire on the stuffiness and conservatism of Oxbridge colleges epitomised by Porterhouse, as a newcomer tries in vain to modernise this ramshackle hidebound institution, with a particularly cunning enemy in the ancient college porter, Skullion.
1975 – Blott on the Landscape – MP and schemer Sir Giles Lynchwood so loathes his battleship wife, Lady Maud, that he connives to have a new motorway routed slap bang through the middle of her ancestral home, Handyman Hall, intending to abscond with the compensation money. But he reckons without his wife’s fearsome retaliation or the incompetence of the man from the Ministry.
1976 – Wilt – Hen-pecked lecturer Henry Wilt is humiliated with a sex doll at a party thrown by the infuriatingly trendy American couple, the Pringsheims. Appalled by his grossness, his dim wife, Eva, disappears on a boating weekend with this ‘fascinating’ and ‘liberated’ couple, so that when Wilt is seen throwing the wretched blow-up doll into the foundations of the extension to his technical college, the police are called which leads to 100 pages of agonisingly funny misunderstandings.
1977 – The Great Pursuit – Literary agent Frederick Frensic receives the anonymous manuscript of an outrageously pornographic novel about the love affair between a 17-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman, via a firm of solicitors who instruct him to do his best with it. Thus begins a very tangled web in which he palms it off as the work of a pitiful failure of an author, one Peter Piper, and on this basis sells it to both a highbrow but struggling British publisher and a rapaciously commercial American publisher, who only accept it on condition this Piper guy goes on a US tour to promote it. Which is where the elaborate deception starts to go horribly wrong…
1978 – The Throwback – Illegitimate Lockhart Flawse, born and bred in the wastes of Northumberland, marries virginal Jessica whose family own a cul-de-sac of houses in suburban Surrey, and, needing the money to track down his mystery father, Lockhart sets about an elaborate and prolonged campaign to terrorise the tenants out of the homes. Meanwhile, his decrepit grandfather has married Jessica’s mother, she hoping to get money from the nearly-dead old geezer, he determined to screw as much perverse sexual pleasure out of her pretty plump body before he drops dead…
1979 – The Wilt Alternative – After a slow, comic, meandering first 90 pages, this novel changes tone drastically when international terrorists take Wilt and his children hostage in his nice suburban house leading to a stand-off with the cops and Special Branch.
1980 – Ancestral Vices – priggish left-wing academic Walden Yapp is invited by cunning old Lord Petrefact to write an unexpurgated history of the latter’s family of capitalists and exploiters because the old bustard wants to humiliate and ridicule his extended family, but the plot is completely derailed when a dwarf living in the mill town of Buscott where Yapp goes to begin his researches, is killed in an accident and Yapp finds himself the chief suspect for his murder, is arrested, tried and sent to prison, in scenes strongly reminiscent of Henry Wilt’s wrongful arrest in the first Wilt novel.
1982 – Vintage Stuff – A stupid teacher at a minor public school persuades a gullible colleague that one of the parents, a French Comtesse, is being held captive in her chateau. Accompanied by the stupidest boy in school, and armed with guns from the OTC, master and pupil end up shooting some of the attendees at a conference on international peace taking part at said chateau, kidnapping the Comtesse – who turns out to be no Comtesse at all – and blowing up a van full of French cops, bringing down on themselves the full wrath of the French state.
1984 – Wilt On High – Third outing for lecturer in Liberal Studies, Henry Wilt who, through a series of typically ridiculous misunderstandings, finds himself, first of all suspected of being a drug smuggler and so bugged by the police; then captured and interrogated on a US air base where he is delivering an innocuous lecture, on suspicion of being a Russian spy; before, in a frenzied climax, the camp is besieged by a monstrous regiment of anti-nuke mothers and news crews.
1995 – Grantchester Grind – The sequel to Porterhouse Blue, following the adventures of the senior college fellows as they adopt various desperate strategies to sort out Porterhouse College’s ailing finances, climaxing with the appointment of a international drug mafiosi as the new Master.
1996 – The Midden – Miss Marjorie Midden discovers a naked ex-City banker trussed in bedsheets hidden in her rural farmhouse, The Midden, and then the ancestral hall she owns under attack from the demented forces of nearby Scarsgate police force led by their corrupt chief constable Sir Arnold Gonders, in a blistering satire on the corruption and greed of post-Thatcher Britain.
2004 – Wilt in Nowhere – Fourth novel about the misadventures of Henry Wilt in which his wife Eva and the 14-year-old quads ruin the life of Uncle Wally and Auntie Joanie over in the States, while Wilt goes on an innocent walking holiday only to be accidentally knocked out and find himself implicated in a complicated murder-arson-child pornography scandal.
2009 – The Gropes – Driven out of his mind by his wife, Vera’s, sentimental fantasies, timid bank manager Horace Wiley pretends he wants to murder their teenage son Esmond, who is therefore hustled off to safety by Vera’s brother, Essex used-car dealer, Albert Ponson. Albert gets the teenage boy so drunk that his wife, Belinda, leaves him in disgust – locking their bungalow’s internal and external doors so securely that Albert has to call the police to get released with disastrous results, while Belinda drives the unconscious Esmond with her back to her ancestral home, the gloomy Grope Hall in remote Northumberland where – to the reader’s great surprise – they fall in love and live happily ever after.
2010 – The Wilt Inheritance – Sharpe’s last novel, the fifth and final instalment of the adventures of Polytechnic lecturer Henry Wilt, his naggy wife, Eva, and their appalling teenage daughters, all of whom end up at the grotesque Sandystones Hall in North Norfolk, where Wilt is engaged to tutor the lady of the manor’s psychotic teenage son, and Eva gets caught up in complications around burying dead Uncle Henry, whose body the quads steal from the coffin and hide in the woods with dire consequences that even they don’t anticipate.

Wilt in Nowhere by Tom Sharpe (2004)

This is the fourth in the series of novels about hapless polytechnic lecturer Henry Wilt, his wife Eva, and their incorrigible four little girls, now aged 14, at convent school and bubbling over with an unhealthy interest in all things sexual.

The plot gets going when Eva receives an invitation for her and the girls to go visit her Aunt Joanie who lives in the US of A, in the town of Wilma, Tennessee, with husband Uncle Wally, head of Immelmann Enterprises. They own a big town house and an even vaster mansion out by the lake.

On the flight over to America a nice man who introduces himself as Sol Campito stealthily stashes a capsule in Eva’s hand luggage. It contains a super-powerful and super-addictive new narcotic manufactured in Eastern Europe. The US Drug Enforcement Agency, tipped off in advance, stop and search Sol at US Customs, but to their disappointment he is clean, so their suspicions shift to the fat woman and four unruly kids who were sitting next to him on the plane. Their suspicions are confirmed when they contact the cops in Wilt’s home town and examine Eva Wilt’s impressive record of shenanigans, as chronicled in the previous three Wilt novels.

Soon the DEA have staked out and bugged Uncle Wally’s mansion – nicknamed ‘the Starfighter Mansion’ (to the chagrin of the local cops who don’t like being treated like hicks). And since Sol himself had carefully taken down the name and address where Eva would be staying, we can expect him and his colleagues to make a visit. It all promises much mayhem and chaos.

Wilt in Nowhere

Where’s Wilt? Well, our Henry had successfully managed to extricate himself from the invitation and from going to America at all, by pretending he’d been tasked with mugging up revolutionary communist movements in order to teach a new course on it at the Technical College – something they both know would be a red rag to Uncle Wally’s good ‘ole boy, Republican beliefs.

On this flimsy excuse Wilt is left behind and puts into action a much-longed-for fantasy – of putting on walking boots and walking clothes and donning a light backpack, catching a bus to somewhere on the Welsh border and then setting off, without even a map, to follow his instincts and discover the beauties of the English countryside.

At first this goes well, tramping the open country by day and sleeping in village b&bs by night – but on the fourth day he finds himself in an exposed heath just as storm clouds gather and the heavens open. By the time he’s made it to shelter under a copse of trees he is soaked to the skin, so he pulls out the bottle of scotch which he brought along for medicinal purposes and drinks some to warm up. Then some more. Then just another nip. Staggering to his feet as darkness falls, Wilt blunders through the gloom, trips over some roots and falls down into a deep lane, in fact straight into the back of Bert Addle’s pickup truck, where he is knocked unconscious.

Bert Addle, Bob Battleby and Ruth Rottecombe

Bert Addle? Yes, because now The Farce Begins. Bert is the nephew of old Martha Meadows, who was cook and housekeeper to nice General and Mrs Battleby who loved at Meldrum Manor. But when they were killed in a collision with a lorry, the old manor went to their nephew, Bob Battleby, an offensive drunk. Not only that, Bob is having an affair with the wife, Ruth Rottecombe, of a local politician, the Shadow Minister for Social Enhancement, Harold Rottecombe. Not only that, she and ‘Beat-me’ Bob indulge in bondage sessions where Ruth is transformed into ‘Ruth the Ruthless’, ties him up and whips the drunk, sobbing Bob.

What sets the plot going is that Bob has got roaring drunk one too many times and insulted good old Martha to her face and sacked her, leaving her without an income to look after her husband, incapacitated by a stroke. (Although in a different tone and setting, this trope reminds me of the worthy Madge Walker, devoted to looking after her bedridden husband, in Kingsley Amis’s final novel, The Biographer’s Moustache.) Martha tells her sorrows to nephew Bert Addle, recently laid off at a shipyard, and together they cook up a fiendish plan for revenge.

Bert drives over to the Manor one night when they know the Bob’n’Ruth will be out at the Country Club, drinking and playing cards. Bert assembles flammable items in the kitchen bin, and sets fire to it. But he hadn’t reckoned on a bunch of aerosol air fresheners the couple had thrown away, lurking at the bottom of the bin, which explode rather noisily, blowing out the windows with a boom and alerting the neighbourhood to the fire.

When the fire brigade arrive they find Ruth’s car – which Bert has thoughtfully stolen and parked to deliberately block the drive to the house. When the firemen break into it to move it they discover a pile of the vilest S&M magazines, cuffs, whips and equipment on prominent display. (Martha, being their housekeeper, knew all about these and had told Bert where to find the couple’s porn stash in the nearby barn.) But farce in Sharpe must be savage, and so thrown in among the adult porn are photos and magazines about paedophilia – with some particularly grim examples of children being violently raped and abused which Bob kept in his most secret hidey-hole. But now his secret is out.

When the police arrive they conclude that the fire is deliberate arson and, when shown the magazines, arrest Bob – who’s arrived drunk and abusive from his club – along with Ruthless Ruth, who has quickly seized up the situation and – stone cold sober – realises she has to separate herself from her doomed partner-in-lust.

Where’s Wilt?

Where is Henry Wilt in all this? When Bert discovered Wilt unconscious in the back of his pick-up as he was nicking Ruth’s car, he unceremoniously dumped our man in the Rottecombe garage. When Ruth finally gets back from the all-night interrogation of herself and Bob Battleby at the police station to her home, Leyline Lodge, it is to discover her politician husband Harold incandescent with anger at the shitstorm she’s stirred up – the phone is ringing off the hook from journalists following up the story about ‘Shadow Minister’s Wife In Kinky Sex and Arson Scandal’ – but also demanding an explanation for the body of a man he has discovered in their garage: just another one of her and Bob’s pick-ups’, is he? For once Ruth is totally innocent and knows she has to do something drastic!

Comic developments

Having created two pots bubbling over with comic potential and a ripe collection of grotesque characters, Sharpe spends the second half of the book stirring them and adding extra farcical ingredients to maximum comic effect.

1. American grotesque

The most Sharpe-esque is in America, where Uncle Wally and Auntie Joan take Eva and the quads up to their place in the country, a big ‘cabin’ by Lake Sassaquassee, in grounds cleared of trees so no grizzly bears can sneak up on Joanie.

Uncle Wally guilelessly shows the quads his various types of US can-do technology, including an old fashioned reel-to-reel tape tape recorder he has hooked up to a mega sound system which can deafen the neighbourhood with Abba or Frank Sinatra or machine gun fire, depending on his mood.

That evening the quads, with a wickedness nice Uncle Wally couldn’t begin to suspect, hide the tape recorder under his and Joanie’s bed and set the timer to go off after dinner. It starts recording just in time to perfectly capture a prolonged argument the couple have, with drunk Wally insisting he wants to make love to Auntie Joan, who refuses and then heaps all sorts of abuse on Wally, with scornful references to his tiny member and his inability to get it up, before, in a rage, he forcibly mounts her but appears to be prodding the wrong hole – whereat she screams even louder at him, in a diatribe which manages to bring in references to the Bible and even to their lawyer, who happens to be Jewish.

Next day the quads sneak the tape recorder back, stick a label claiming it’s Abba’s Greatest Hits onto the tape which recorded last night’s fight, and carefully put the machine back in place, hooked up to the cabin’s vast loudspeakers system. And set the timer on the whole thing.

A bad-tempered Wally, Joanie, Eva and the quads get in the car and drive back to town. It is only hours after they’ve arrived that the tape automatically starts playing and projects over Wally’s 1,000 decibel sound system his argument about wanting to fuck his wife and her refusal to take it up the back passage, so loudly it can be heard for a distance of over ten miles all around.

The local police are called and drive out to the cabin can’t even get near because the volume shatters their windscreens and deafens them. An Army assault unit tries to clamber over the barbed wire fences into the grounds, but here a typical bit of Sharpe takes place. Earlier we had learned that the country cabin sits amid Uncle Wally’s huge collection of instruments of death, including Sherman tanks, various armoured combat vehicles, even a B-52 – all hideous reminders of America’s ability to hand out mega-death to all and sundry. What the Army assault squad don’t know is that these things are primed to react to intruders. So as they climb over the perimeter fence, deafened by Auntie Joanie’s shrieks of pain as she receives Uncle Wally’s penis in an unnatural place, the machine guns on all the tanks and armoured cars swivel towards them and start firing.

Now this is more like the Tom Sharpe we know and love. This is like the hysterically improbable and wildly violent climax of so many of his other farces. However, oddly, this scene comes half way through the book and, after the troops have backed off, a squad of Army bomb disposal experts, deafened in the Iraq War, manage to make it through the defences and finally turn off the tape. I was expecting something more apocalyptic – at the very least a fleet of helicopters strafing the cabin like in Apolcalypse Now, preferably with Wally, Joanie, Eva and the quads still inside.

Thereafter the narrative switches between America and Britain, but the US storyline winds down after this not-quite-mad-enough climax. Despite bugging his town house, searching his swimming pool and raiding his country cabin, neither the FBI nor DEA find anything to do with Sol’s drugs on Uncle Wally.

Admittedly the broadcasting of the most humiliating drunk sex conversation possible over a radius of 15 miles hits Wally so hard that he has a heart attack and is rushed to hospital. Where he has barely recovered, before he discovers that the quads had, in another quiet moment, hacked into his computer and sent foul-mouthed rants and obscene requests to everyone on his email address list – thus pretty much destroying  his company. Which gives him another heart attack.

So it comes as no surprise that by this time Wally and Joanie have had enough of their English visitors, kick them out and pay for the taxi to the airport and the air fare home.

Harry Rottecombe’s death

Back in England, with the nation’s press moving in on their house, Leyline Lodge, to follow up on her relationship with the disgraced Bob Bartleby, Ruth had set her two Rottweilers (wittily named Wilfred and Pickles) on the most foolhardy pressmen, the so-called Butch Cassidy and the Flashbulb Kid who had been snuck into the garden and were planning to get photos through the windows. They are severely mauled, their screams for help successfully deterring the rest of the pack.

But when she goes back inside the house, Ruth realises that husband Harold has done a bunk. Wise move, she thinks, and gets on with things. While Ruth was supervising the savaging of the journalists, Harold had snuck out the back of the house and down to the local river which runs at the bottom of their garden. But the river is too high and fast-moving to row on (partly due to the very storm which had prompted Wilt to take shelter and get drunk a few days before).

So Harold sets off walking along the river heading for the nearest town and then on to some safe haven for a while. But after a few miles walking he is shattered, his shoes pinching and chafing but, when he stops to examine his feet, one shoe rolls into the river, he scrabbles to retrieve it, the tree stump he’s leaning on snaps, he tumbles into the river and bangs his head on the pier of a nearby bridge. Then drowns. And his supine body is washed out into the Bristol Channel.

Where it is eventually found by the police, who identify it and open a murder case.

All this feeds into the Wilt plotline adding another layer of confusion and complication. The narrative certainly becomes complex but is ultimately disappointing. In fact as you read on you realise the whole book has suffered from having its climax – the armed assault on Wally’s country fortress – in the middle.

Ruthless Ruth loads the still unconscious Wilt into her Volvo estate and drives to a run-down part of the nearest town, Oston, and dumps him there half-naked. A little later some skinheads come by and give his unconscious body a good kicking for no particular reason, then stroll on. Eventually an old lady in the nearby high rise flats – a testament to local authority greed and corruption – phones an ambulance which collects Wilt and takes him to Oston hospital.

And eventually word gets through both to Eva and to Wilt’s old sparring partner, Inspector Flint of Ipford police, that Wilt is somewhere in Oston hospital. There is then a lot of satire about the bureaucracy and incompetence of the National Health Service with Wilt being moved from one department to another faster than Eva and Flint can track him down, hampered by unfriendly or gormless secretaries, receptionists and nurses.

When Wilt finally regains consciousness, he complicates things further by deciding to pretend he’s lost his memory, in order to provoke the shrinks who are treating him. Which also has the effect of winding up his old nemesis, Inspector Flint – who’s finally tracked him down through the vast labyrinthine hospital.

After some initial fencing and sparring between the old foes, Wilt eventually comes clean about the events leading up to his drunkenly tripping over a tree root. But as for the rest, including the mysterious disappearance of a member of the shadow cabinet, he genuinely has no knowledge.

Meanwhile, Ruth has been subjected to days and days of questioning without sleep or a lawyer, both about the fire and the death of her husband. The cloud of suspicion hanging over her is not helped when it is revealed that she is in fact a former prostitute who specialised in bondage, who fled her patch when a client died from a little too much whipping years earlier, adopted a fake identity and then cosied up to the repellent but well-connected Bob Battleby as ‘cover’.

Finally she cracks and tells the cops everything she knows – she was involved in S&M with Battleby but knows nothing about the arson, she found Wilt in her garage with no idea who he was or how he got there, it’s true that she took his body to a nasty council estate and dumped him there but that’s the sum total of her activities regarding him, and she has no idea where her husband the Shadow Minister is or – when his body turns up drowned – how on earth it happened.

A shadow of guilt covers her for a while – after all, Wilt is suffering from a blow to the head very similar to the one on dead Harry’s corpse – but eventually this nexus of circumstantiality unwinds and dissolves. Forensics show Harry probably drowned in an accident (as we know happened). All the evidence (including the empty whisky bottle where he said it would be) exonerates Wilt of any wrongdoing, notably the arson of Meldrum Manor.

Although Wilt and Eva and Flint and various policemen, doctors and nurses all get their knickers in a twist, shouting and insulting and abusing each other at the drop of a hat, in the event the plot fizzles out, all charges are dropped (the true arsonist, Bert Addle, covered his tracks well and gets away scot-free) and the last pages find Wilt happily ensconced back in the family home at 45 Oakhurst Avenue and determined never to leave it again.

From the way it was set up I expected at the very least that Sol and his mafia colleagues would lay siege to Uncle Wally’s house; I expected someone to accidentally consume the vial of new super-powerful narcotic (Auntie Joanie? Eva Wilt?) and go on a demented spree; I expected the DEA and FBI and the local cops – who all resent each other – to break out into fisticuffs if not armed conflict. Disappointingly, none of this happens.

And the climax of the English section is really only caused by Wilt’s stubborn refusal to come clean and give his story to the cops. It is only him faking amnesia and giving deliberately confusing replies to the psychiatrists and police which causes even a whit of farce, and this is limited to him being put into a mental home for a bit – and as soon as he decides to come clean and tell what he knows, he simply walks out.

Author’s message

In this final section, when Wilt has been transferred to a mental home while the psychiatrists try to sort out his amnesia and other confusions, we the readers know that he’s faking, so there’s no risk or charge involved.

When he decides to leave he pretty much simply walks out the door with Eva at his side. The best Sharpe can come up with by way of comic climax is to have one of the quads, Emmeline, do her party trick of slipping her pet rat Freddy under her jumper and encouraging him to move around, thus giving anyone she encounters the impression that she has a mobile breast moving around her chest.

This is all it takes, in this fictional world, to spark an outbreak of panic and hysteria at the mental hospital. Eva and Wilt have only just made it to the car when a crowd of demented patients runs screaming out of the main door, trampling the unfortunate Inspector Flint underfoot.

It is at this point that Flint has in insight into the ways of the universe:

Tripping on the gravel and then being trampled over by a herd of maddened lunatics had given him fresh insight into Wilt’s inconsequential view of life. Things just happened to people for no good reason and, while Flint had previously believed that every effect had to have a rational cause, he now realised that the purely accidental was the norm. In short, nothing made sense. The world was as mad as the inmates of the hospital he had just left. (p.269)

This is a useful, if rather pedestrian, summary of the worldview of Sharpe’s books.

But how much better when an author’s worldview is embodied in the narrative and text, rather than pinned at the end like a post-it note. At his best Sharpe’s novels are full of a genuinely outrageous comic madness, violence, obscenity. This one has moments and ideas which hint at the true Sharpean madness, but nowhere really achieves it.

Contemporary references

As with The Midden, Sharpe sprinkles the text with topical references – to 9/11 and al-Qaeda or to Harold Shipman (the GP who was found guilty of 15 murders in January 2000) and these certainly add to Sharpe’s anger and ferocity, but they don’t really improve the design or effectiveness of the plot. They just show that he reads the papers and is appalled at the same kinds of things the rest of us are.


Credit

Wilt in Nowhere by Tom Sharpe was published by Hutchinson Books by 2004. All quotes and references are to the 2005 Arrow paperback edition.

Related links

Tom Sharpe’s novels

1971 – Riotous Assembly – Absurdly violent and frenzied black comedy set in apartheid South Africa as three incompetent police officers try to get to the bottom of the murder of her black cook by a venerable old lady who turns out to be a sex-mad rubber fetishist, a simple operation which leads to the deaths of 21 policemen, numerous dogs, a vulture and the completely wrongful arrest and torture of the old lady’s brother, the bishop of Basutoland.
1973 – Indecent Exposure – Sequel to the above, in which the same Kommandant van Herden is seduced into joining a group of (fake) posh colonial English at their country retreat, leaving Piemburg in charge of his deputy, Luitenant Verkramp, who sets about a) ending all inter-racial sex among the force by applying drastic aversion therapy to his men b) tasks with flushing out communist subversives a group of secret agents who themselves end up destroying most of the town’s infrastructure.
1974 – Porterhouse Blue – Hilarious satire on the stuffiness and conservatism of Oxbridge colleges epitomised by Porterhouse, as a newcomer tries in vain to modernise this ramshackle hidebound institution, with a particularly cunning enemy in the ancient college porter, Skullion.
1975 – Blott on the Landscape – MP and schemer Sir Giles Lynchwood so loathes his battleship wife, Lady Maud, that he connives to have a new motorway routed slap bang through the middle of her ancestral home, Handyman Hall, intending to abscond with the compensation money. But he reckons without his wife’s fearsome retaliation or the incompetence of the man from the Ministry.
1976 – Wilt – Hen-pecked lecturer Henry Wilt is humiliated with a sex doll at a party thrown by the infuriatingly trendy American couple, the Pringsheims. Appalled by his grossness, his dim wife, Eva, disappears on a boating weekend with this ‘fascinating’ and ‘liberated’ couple, so that when Wilt is seen throwing the wretched blow-up doll into the foundations of the extension to his technical college, the police are called which leads to 100 pages of agonisingly funny misunderstandings.
1977 – The Great Pursuit – Literary agent Frederick Frensic receives the anonymous manuscript of an outrageously pornographic novel about the love affair between a 17-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman, via a firm of solicitors who instruct him to do his best with it. Thus begins a very tangled web in which he palms it off as the work of a pitiful failure of an author, one Peter Piper, and on this basis sells it to both a highbrow but struggling British publisher and a rapaciously commercial American publisher, who only accept it on condition this Piper guy goes on a US tour to promote it. Which is where the elaborate deception starts to go horribly wrong…
1978 – The Throwback – Illegitimate Lockhart Flawse, born and bred in the wastes of Northumberland, marries virginal Jessica whose family own a cul-de-sac of houses in suburban Surrey, and, needing the money to track down his mystery father, Lockhart sets about an elaborate and prolonged campaign to terrorise the tenants out of the homes. Meanwhile, his decrepit grandfather has married Jessica’s mother, she hoping to get money from the nearly-dead old geezer, he determined to screw as much perverse sexual pleasure out of her pretty plump body before he drops dead…
1979 – The Wilt Alternative – After a slow, comic, meandering first 90 pages, this novel changes tone drastically when international terrorists take Wilt and his children hostage in his nice suburban house leading to a stand-off with the cops and Special Branch.
1980 – Ancestral Vices – priggish left-wing academic Walden Yapp is invited by cunning old Lord Petrefact to write an unexpurgated history of the latter’s family of capitalists and exploiters because the old bustard wants to humiliate and ridicule his extended family, but the plot is completely derailed when a dwarf living in the mill town of Buscott where Yapp goes to begin his researches, is killed in an accident and Yapp finds himself the chief suspect for his murder, is arrested, tried and sent to prison, in scenes strongly reminiscent of Henry Wilt’s wrongful arrest in the first Wilt novel.
1982 – Vintage Stuff – A stupid teacher at a minor public school persuades a gullible colleague that one of the parents, a French Comtesse, is being held captive in her chateau. Accompanied by the stupidest boy in school, and armed with guns from the OTC, master and pupil end up shooting some of the attendees at a conference on international peace taking part at said chateau, kidnapping the Comtesse – who turns out to be no Comtesse at all – and blowing up a van full of French cops, bringing down on themselves the full wrath of the French state.
1984 – Wilt On High – Third outing for lecturer in Liberal Studies, Henry Wilt who, through a series of typically ridiculous misunderstandings, finds himself, first of all suspected of being a drug smuggler and so bugged by the police; then captured and interrogated on a US air base where he is delivering an innocuous lecture, on suspicion of being a Russian spy; before, in a frenzied climax, the camp is besieged by a monstrous regiment of anti-nuke mothers and news crews.
1995 – Grantchester Grind – The sequel to Porterhouse Blue, following the adventures of the senior college fellows as they adopt various desperate strategies to sort out Porterhouse College’s ailing finances, climaxing with the appointment of a international drug mafiosi as the new Master.
1996 – The Midden – Miss Marjorie Midden discovers a naked ex-City banker trussed in bedsheets hidden in her rural farmhouse, The Midden, and then the ancestral hall she owns under attack from the demented forces of nearby Scarsgate police force led by their corrupt chief constable Sir Arnold Gonders, in a blistering satire on the corruption and greed of post-Thatcher Britain.
2004 – Wilt in Nowhere – Fourth novel about the misadventures of Henry Wilt in which his wife Eva and the 14-year-old quads ruin the life of Uncle Wally and Auntie Joanie over in the States, while Wilt goes on an innocent walking holiday only to be accidentally knocked out and find himself implicated in a complicated murder-arson-child pornography scandal.
2009 – The Gropes – Driven out of his mind by his wife, Vera’s, sentimental fantasies, timid bank manager Horace Wiley pretends he wants to murder their teenage son Esmond, who is therefore hustled off to safety by Vera’s brother, Essex used-car dealer, Albert Ponson. Albert gets the teenage boy so drunk that his wife, Belinda, leaves him in disgust – locking their bungalow’s internal and external doors so securely that Albert has to call the police to get released with disastrous results, while Belinda drives the unconscious Esmond with her back to her ancestral home, the gloomy Grope Hall in remote Northumberland where – to the reader’s great surprise – they fall in love and live happily ever after.
2010 – The Wilt Inheritance – Sharpe’s last novel, the fifth and final instalment of the adventures of Polytechnic lecturer Henry Wilt, his naggy wife, Eva, and their appalling teenage daughters, all of whom end up at the grotesque Sandystones Hall in North Norfolk, where Wilt is engaged to tutor the lady of the manor’s psychotic teenage son, and Eva gets caught up in complications around burying dead Uncle Henry, whose body the quads steal from the coffin and hide in the woods with dire consequences that even they don’t anticipate.

The Midden by Tom Sharpe (1996)

Thatcher’s legacy

Sharpe is revolted by the power, corruption and lies in British society. Since this book was published in 1996, he’s talking about the power, corruption and lies which rose during Mrs Thatcher’s premiership, 1979 to 1990 and the book contains a number of surprisingly cutting references to her and her policies, specifically the privatisation of public utilities. The Midden is the name of a place in the novel, but it is also a not very subtle reference to the shitheap England has become under Tory rule.

Sir Arnold Gonders had learnt the political catechism of Thatcherism very well indeed: only money mattered and preferably the newest money that talked about little else and cared for nothing. (p.89)

Thus Sharpe looks back at Thatcher’s 1980s as the Triumph of Greed when idiots in the City could earn a fortune, when heads of newly privatised companies found themselves being paid millions of pounds, when a new breed of amoral multi-millionaire arose who could use all the forces of law to silence their critics – exemplified in the figure of Robert Maxwell (died 1991), vilified in this novel as he was in the previous one.

Timothy Bright

It is against this real historical background that we’re introduced to the comic character Timothy Bright, scion of the family of Brights who have undeservedly made fortunes down the ages from the entire catalogue of dodgy British behaviour, starting with the slave trade. Young Timothy is just the kind of cocky dimwit to thrive in the City of London, where he is duly – as per the family tradition – made a Name at Lloyds, and dishes out all kinds of reckless and useless advice to clients while himself prospering obscenely.

Until the train hits the buffers and the Recession of the early 1990s strikes. There are a series of big claims about asbestosis which bankrupt fellow Names he had introduced to Lloyds, and then Timothy himself loses everything: his flat, his car and his job at a big bank. He goes to a casino with his last reserves of cash but loses heavily and is taken to meet the threatening owner: he must pay back the £30,000 he now owes within the week or the boys will be round.

Not coincidentally, Timothy gets a phone call from someone he doesn’t know and is invited to go to a nearby wine bar, where he is astonished to be confronted by a vicious foreign criminal, Mr Markinkus, who tells him the boys are very unhappy at the way his uncle, the High Court judge Benderby Bright, has been locking some of the lads away. Therefore, they are charging Timothy with taking a ‘package’ down to Uncle Benderby’s holiday yacht, moored off the Spanish coast, and taking the ‘package’ aboard and hiding it somewhere. The alternative is… and Markinkus passes over a photo of a pig which has been eviscerated for the abattoir, flesh hanging off, dripping in blood. Shaking with shock, Timothy emerges into the street clutching the ‘package’ and with a down-payment of £5,000 for carrying out the ‘mission’.

OK. So be it. Timothy now steps over the line into criminality y using his position as financial adviser to sell off shares of various aged Bright relatives and draw the cash.

Cornwall

He packs the money in a light bag and drives his motorbike down to Cornwall to stay a night with his uncle Victor Bright en route for Spain (one of the comic ideas is that the Bright clan is so vast it has branches everywhere). Uncle Victor’s house is the bucolic Pud End near Fowey and he just happens to have his jolly decent nephew, Harry Gould, staying with him.

They are both so repelled by Timothy’s boorish selfishness that within 24 hours Harry conceives the naughty plan of lacing Timothy’s special tobacco with ‘Toad’ – essence of Toad, the most powerful hallucinogen known to man – which he happens to have bought on his recent trip to Australia and was bringing back as a favour for a friend who is a toxicologist.

The mad motorbike ride

Thus, without realising it, Timothy smokes a portion of Toad and goes bonkers. Suffering fantastic hallucinations he jumps on his motorbike and drives at 170 mph north up the motorway, off onto a random side road, before crashing into sheep, landing amid fir trees, but surviving all this with the reckless invulnerability of the very stoned, before climbing over some wall – accidentally squelching the snarling guard dog – through the open front door of the nearest building, up the stairs and into a completely strange bed, where he passes out. Quite a funny sequence.

Sir Arnold Gonders

Which is where he is found late that night by the Chief Constable of Twixt and Tween, the very corrupt Sir Arnold Gonders, who runs his police force for the benefit of local property developers and crooks, going to great lengths to frame the innocent and cover the backs of local drug dealers and criminals. The police in his earliest South Africa satires had been brutal and stupid, but Sharpe goes to great lengths to depict the corruption and immorality of these comic policemen. Gonders is a vile, corrupt specimen who placates his conscience by being highly godly and regularly giving the sermon at  his local church – a reference, for those who remember him, to James Anderton, a former chief constable of Greater Manchester, England, sometimes referred to as God’s Cop for his frequent references to the Almighty, who retired in 1991.

Gonders He had been at a piss-up of his police force, complete with numerous strippers, when the jackals of the Press invaded and he stormed out the back, got a patrol car to drive him up to his country house near Scarsgate, and drunkenly stumbled up the stairs only to discover his horrible but posh wife, Lady Vy, in bed with an unconscious naked man (Timothy). He bludgeons Timothy with a heavy bedside lamp – blood everywhere – but in doing so wakes Lady Vy so suddenly with his shouting and raving that she seizes the gun she always keeps at her bedside and lets off potshots at her suddenly terrified copper husband.

Hiding Timothy

When he’s calmed Lady Vy down, the Gonders tie up the unconscious Timothy in bedsheets and manhandle him down to the cellar, grab a few hours’ kip and then dress up to host a party of the revolting nouveaux riches – the crooks and property developers and TV presenters – who they count as friends. One topic of conversation is the persistent refusal to allow local property development by the old fuddy-duddy family, the Middens, who live across the reservoir in the huge monstrous Middenhall, whose main representative is Miss Marjorie Midden, presented as something like an upholder of old-school values and decency (as much as anyone is, in a Sharpe novel).

Pud End

Meanwhile, uncle Victor and Harry Gould, feeling a little guilty at Timothy’s probable fate, discover that he left in such a hurry that he left behind a ‘package’ and bags. These they stash under the stairs, expecting Timothy to return at some stage, eventually, maybe.

The Midden

It’s here, 100 or so pages into this 340-page-long book, that we finally meet The Midden. It is a house belonging to the Middens, a large and ancient family. It is near to the monstrosity named Middenhall which was built by ‘Black’ Midden, so-named because of the techniques he employed and the people he worked to death to build a vast fortune in South Africa at the turn of the century. When Black Midden returned to the north of England at the turn of the century, he sent several architects round the bend with his request for a vast, indestructible and grotesquesly ugly hall plonked down in the middle of the north country fells. As if this wasn’t enough, the long drive was lined with twenty-foot-tall statues of classical characters performing explicit sexual acts on each other. (pp.120-124)

When he died as a result of a fashionable monkey gland operation to restore his flagging virility in 1931, Black Midden’s will stipulated that Middenhall must become a sanctuary for all members of the Midden clan who wished to live there. He hadn’t anticipated the post-war collapse of the British Empire which resulted in all sorts of arrogant colonial shits retreating from abandoned colonies across Africa and the Far East, to seek sanctuary in what rapidly became a kind of multi-roomed madhouse, bullying the staff and calling the local cooks and cleaners ‘kaffir’ and ‘boy’.

However, Black Midden’s great grand-daughter Miss Marjorie Midden put a stop to all this nonsense. Miss Midden restored some order to Middenhall and made the horrible Middens behave with a semblance of decency. She herself preferred to live in a converted cottage in the grounds, known as The Midden, along with a cook and a puny non-Midden character, a Major McPhee. In fact McPhee is given something like a sympathetic back story, explaining that he was always a hopeless small time crook, who was dazzled by the glamour and decisiveness of Army officers he met after running away to sea. And so he set out to copy their manners and dress and slowly succeeded in becoming known as ‘the Major’ despite having never been in the army. (pp.136-140)

Timothy is moved

Middenhall is not far from the Boathouse home which corrupt cop Sir Arnold Gonders has bought and renovated, and where he found Timothy’s drug-blasted body. Now, in the dead of night, Gonders packs the tied-up body of Tim into his Land Rover drives without lights into the grounds of Middenhall and down to the Midden – having rung ahead and established that Miss Midden was away from home – and manhandles Timothy through an open window, up the stairs and under the bed of Major McPhee (also away from home).

Briefly, after some comic misunderstandings, Miss Midden discovers Timothy and forces him to tell his story: the threat to his life, the mission to take the ‘package’ aboard Benderby Bright’s yacht, his stopover at Pud End where it all goes blank.

Puzzled, Miss M motors down to Cornwall to Uncle Victor’s house. Here she masquerades as a nurse at the hospital where (she claims) poor Timothy is recovering from a terrible motorbike crash (putting the willies up Uncle Victor and Henry), and collects Timothy’s clothes and bags, before returning north to Middenhall. (And that’s the last we hear of the Cornish connection.)

When she opens Timothy’s bag, sure enough, there is posts of cash, and the ‘package’ – I wondered if it was a bomb – turns out to be full of drugs i.e. Mr Markinkus and his crew were going to tip off the authorities and get Judge Benderby a taste of his own medicine, either that or blackmail him.

Instead, Miss M travels all the way to London to confront the judge, to give him Timothy’s written deposition of the plot against him, and to hand over the cashed shares stolen from the Bright family members. Order is restored. She sweeps out, leaving the judge speechless.

God’s cop

Meanwhile God’s Cop has not been inactive. There is a richly, disgustingly farcical scene where he is attacked by his wife’s lesbian lover, the shrivelled Auntie Bea, who whisks Lady Vy off down to her posh father’s house in London. In a now permanent state of half-drunk incandescent anger, Sir Arnold comes to the completely erroneous conclusion that the only person who could have placed the body of a naked stoned young man in his wife’s bed must have been that wretched Midden woman from across the reservoir. He’s got his own back a bit by dumping the wrapped-up body of said man in her house. Now he goes one step further to concoct a vicious revenge.

Urnmouth Hydro

First he travels to the nearby seaside town of Urnmouth and to the old hydro building, built by the moralistic Victorians as a health centre and now converted by a sleazy American immigrant, Maxie Schryberg, into a sado-masochistic brothel. Each of the rooms is equipped with an array of bondage equipment but, unknown to the users, also hidden cameras.

Sir Arnold is shown to his usual place, the Video Room, by the servile owner, from which he can watch all the activities going on in each of the rooms. The extent of Arnold’s corruption is rammed home by stories of the various local MPs and dignitaries who have been filmed in the dungeon rooms, being tied up and whipped etc, and who Arnold has then been able to blackmail into framing innocent citizens or to getting crooked drug dealers or property developers off the hook, or letting crooked property deals go by on the nod.

The prolonged visit to the Hydro (pp.202-212) is justified in the plot because Sir Arnold is supposedly looking for ideas with which to frame Miss Midden and stumbles across the idea of framing her for child pornography and pedophilia. But there are three pages or so devoted to the vile Schryberg describing in salacious detail two particularly extreme cases he’s witnessed: the client who asked for a priest to be in attendance while he was actually hanged by the neck by a woman in bondage gear, and another who wanted to be completely wrapped in cellophane and have a whore crap and pee on his face.

Sharpe’s thing is farce, savage farce, extreme farce, farce which seeks out and pushes the sensitive buttons and so which has been devoted from the beginning to depicting the most bizarre and grotesque sexual misadventures. What gives it extra piquancy in this book is the way the nasty brothel-keeper is not only a Yank – like the vile drug dealer and his team in Grantchester Grind – but a keen fan of Mrs Thatcher.

‘You wouldn’t believe it but I am a believer always in family values. Sure, you laugh but it is true. Like the Great Lady say, “What we need is family values like the Victorians.”… Some great lady. I drink to her. The Iron Maiden.’ (p.205)

Something has gone very badly wrong with the whole Thatcherite project if it’s staunchest supporters include corrupt cops and American brothel-keepers.

Operation Kiddywink

So, anyway, Sir Arnold decides to frame Miss M and the inhabitants of Middenhall for child sex abuse. He sets his most devoted and dumbest officer, Superintendant Anscombe on the case, who Sharpe viciously says would have made an excellent supervisor of an Execution Squad when the Nazis invaded Russia. Instead, living in England in the 1990s, he takes his boss’s orders to stage a raid on Middenhall very literally and organises a Rapid Response Unit to creep up on the hall, ready for a raid.

Sir Arnold had prepared the way by anonymously posting to Major McPhee a big package stuffed with child pornography which McPhee opens to his horror – though not as much as Miss Marjorie’s, who is standing by when he opens it.

But reality exceeds Sir Arnold’s wildest dreams because the ‘raid’ happens to coincide with the annual visit to the large grounds of Middenhall by children from the Porterhouse Mission for deprived East End children, set up under Black Midden’s high Victorian ancestors, in co-operation with the very same (fictional) Cambridge college, Porterhouse which is, of course, the subject of Sharpe’s previous novels, Porterhouse Blue and Grantchester Grind. (p.278) (In an intriguing example of recurrence, Lady Mary Godber’s solicitors from that novel, Lapline and Goodenough, recur in this one as Marjorie’s solicitors, p.291).

The officers hiding in the bushes and filming all this report back to Stagstead police HQ that an entire mini-van of children has arrived, that some are skinnydipping in the lake, and that – my God! – there’s a man dressed up as a priest being rowed across the lake to some kind of makeshift altar carrying a kind of cross. Good God! They’re going to perform a black mass! What the officers on the spot fail to convey is that the priest in the rowboat really is a priest and he really is going to try and conduct a Christian service, even though most of the ‘deprived children’ are in fact hulking teenagers who are more interested in bunking off to smoke fags or explore each others spotty bodies in the undergrowth, and the remainder are mostly Muslim so watching in boredom.

But this doesn’t prevent dim, worked-up Inspector Ranscombe of course thinking these demons are about to stake out a helpless child on the ‘altar’, then rip its heart out and drink its blood. So he sends in the Armed Quick Response Team, who grab their guns, race to the hall, and make their way from bush to bush and tree to tree to intervene in the disgusting bloodbath.

Firefight

Nobody knows any of this is happening until old ‘Buffalo’ Midden, legendary hunter back in Africa, spots men in camouflage outfits infiltrating themselves into the grounds and goes up to the roof of Middenhall with his trusty Lee Enfield .303 rifle and start sniping them, at which point all hell breaks loose. He shoots quite a few of the AQRT, whose screams send the vicar and social workers in charge of the deprived children ushering them as far away as possible, while members of the AQRT inevitably start firing back, wounding and indeed killing various harmless old members of the extended Midden menagerie who happen to look out the window to see what’s going on.

In other words, the story reaches a bloody climax in an extravagantly violent shootout, leaving the park strewn with the dead and dying – a climax which powerfully recalls the bloody shootouts which have featured in almost all his best work (Riotous Assembly, Indecent Exposure, Blott on the Landscape, The Throwback).

But that isn’t enough. Because – of course! – cook left several pans full of fat heating on the hob to make breakfast. And it’s around this point that a kind-hearted old lady – Mrs Laura Midden Rayter – realises she ought to put them out and does so by chucking cold water at them. With the result that boiling fat goes everywhere including the flames and – whoosh! – the whole house becomes a raging inferno, rapidly consuming even more Midden hangers-on.

But even this isn’t enough, because Sharpe throws in a convoy of vehicles carrying social workers and Child Abuse Trauma Specialists who had been attending a conference devoted to ‘The Sphincter: Its Diagnostic Role In Parental Rape Inspections’ who had overheard police radio chatter about the break-up of the biggest pedophile ring in a generation and so have come rushing to lavish their hard-faced ‘care’ to the young victims. A couple of pages are devoted to excoriating white-hot anger directed at so-called sex abuse experts, and directly references the Orkney child abuse scandal of 1991 when a load of children were taken from their parents over what turned out, in the end, to be completely baseless allegations. And so Sharpe’s Child Abuse Trauma Specialists include:

witchcraft experts from Scotland, sodomy specialists from south Wales, oral-sex-in-infancy counsellors, mutual masturbation advisers for adolescents, a number of clitoris stimulation experts, four vasectomists (female), and finally fifteen whores who had come to tell the conference what men really wanted. If they were anything to go by, what men wanted was anything, but anything, with two legs, a short skirt and a mouthful of rotten teeth. (p.310)

You can feel Sharpe’s anger and disgust erupting from the page.

The whole point of Sharpe’s style of farce is that wherever he sees a boundary line, a barrier, a limit of decorum or restraint, he is compelled to smash it to pieces and push the destruction, sexual depravity, moral corruption and pointless violence to the max.

In the aftermath of the bloodbath and enormous fire, there are enquiries and post-mortems on the various corpses and:

  • Miss Midden is secretly joyous that the responsibility and the curse of Middenhall has been lifted from her shoulders.
  • She is visited by her patronising neighbour, stout Phoebe Turnbull who is obsessed with traditional field sports, and tells her she knows of a nervous young man, one Timothy Bright, who’s had a nervous breakdown after working too hard in the City. Could she take him to her bosom and relieve his spirit by learning country ways and sports?
  • And Sir Arnold Gonders? Realising the poo he’s landed in he takes drastic steps, deciding to feign illness, misremembering from somewhere that eating lots of toothpaste brings on severe symptoms. It does, but when they rush him to hospital and pump his stomach to reveal pints of Colgate, he emerges as even more of a buffoon than the Middenhall fiasco has painted him. His career is over.

Mrs Thatcher

It is striking the vehemence with which Sharpe links Thatcher’s name with the rise in Greed Culture and public amorality, with the privatisation of public utilities which immediately doubled their prices and the pay of the senior executives, and with numerous other forms of corruption. Making the vilest character, Maxie Schryberg, into her greatest fan is a hard dig. But when Lady Vy’s father – Sir Edward Gilmott-Gwyre (p.238) – thinks about his son-in-law Sir Arnold, he thinks of ‘a man who was as brazenly corrupt as any police officer promoted and protected by Mrs Thatcher’ (p.244). I’m surprised that’s legal.

Then Sir Edward downs a drink in readiness for meeting an old pal to whom he wants to expound his latest theory about why Mrs Thatcher is so keen for the government to arm the Muslim Croats during the Yugoslav civil wars.

Her son was an arms dealer and by backing the Muslims so openly she was bound to help dear little Markie’s standing in Saudi Arabia. (p.246)

Very personal attacks, these. In the final pages, Sir Arnold delivers a two-page sermon to a nearby congregation (blissfully unaware of the holocaust taking place at the Middenhall), ‘a series of admonitions which made God sound like the Great Lady herself at her most mercenary’ and which consists of calls to the congregation to unleash free enterprise and free endeavour, crack down on spongers and beggars, and help the police with their holy work. (pp.329-330) Her successor appears in a cameo scene, too, when news of the disaster obviously hits the Home Office and Prime Minister’s office and they discuss what to do with the now radioactive Sir Arnold. Hang him out to dry, obviously. But we mustn’t rock the boat, cautions the PM. ‘He really was a very weak man.’ (p.336) This can only refer to John Major, Prime Minister from 1990 to 1997.

But there are other contemporary references too. There was an eleven year gap in Sharpe’s novels between Wilt on High (1984) and Grantchester Grind (1995) and it is as if Sharpe has been saving up his rage and despair at the human race for all that time ready for it to burst forth, not only in the gruesome plot, but in a text which is unusually larded with contemporary references.

As well as Mrs Thatcher and Robert Maxwell, and the Orkney child abuse scandal, the book references the utter stupidity of the Oklahoma bombing (April 19, 1995) as a comparison for the boom which can be heard across the county when mad old Buffalo Midden decides to shoot the big propane tank behind Middenhall. And the devastation which greets the solicitor Lennox Midden as he makes his way through the smoking ruins of Middenhall Park is reminiscent of the ‘devastation unnecessarily and barbarously inflicted on the Iraqi convoy north of Kuwait City’ (February 1991).

Conclusion

Though not as gut-wrenchingly outrageously funny as the novels from the 1970s, this is nonetheless a lot funner that Grantchester Grind and something of a return to demented form.

Only when old ‘Buffalo’ Midden starts taking pot shots at the cops in the grounds and they return fire, mortally wounding various ancient members of the Midden family, did I remember how much the we’d been missing by way of Sharpe’s comically insensate violence.


God’s cop

Sir Cyril James Anderton CBE, KStJ, QPM, DL (born 1932) served as chief constable of Greater Manchester from 1976 to 1991. He was nickname ‘God’s cop’ by the popular press for a series of controversial statements he made, most notoriously about gays and AIDS, in which he invoked the authority of God and the Bible. This led the Manchester pop band the Happy Mondays to write a song about him.


Credit

The Midden  by Tom Sharpe was published by André Deutsch in 1996. All quotes and references are to the 1997 Pan paperback edition.

Related links

Tom Sharpe’s novels

1971 – Riotous Assembly – Absurdly violent and frenzied black comedy set in apartheid South Africa as three incompetent police officers try to get to the bottom of the murder of her black cook by a venerable old lady who turns out to be a sex-mad rubber fetishist, a simple operation which leads to the deaths of 21 policemen, numerous dogs, a vulture and the completely wrongful arrest and torture of the old lady’s brother, the bishop of Basutoland.
1973 – Indecent Exposure – Sequel to the above, in which the same Kommandant van Herden is seduced into joining a group of (fake) posh colonial English at their country retreat, leaving Piemburg in charge of his deputy, Luitenant Verkramp, who sets about a) ending all inter-racial sex among the force by applying drastic aversion therapy to his men b) tasks with flushing out communist subversives a group of secret agents who themselves end up destroying most of the town’s infrastructure.
1974 – Porterhouse Blue – Hilarious satire on the stuffiness and conservatism of Oxbridge colleges epitomised by Porterhouse, as a newcomer tries in vain to modernise this ramshackle hidebound institution, with a particularly cunning enemy in the ancient college porter, Skullion.
1975 – Blott on the Landscape – MP and schemer Sir Giles Lynchwood so loathes his battleship wife, Lady Maud, that he connives to have a new motorway routed slap bang through the middle of her ancestral home, Handyman Hall, intending to abscond with the compensation money. But he reckons without his wife’s fearsome retaliation or the incompetence of the man from the Ministry.
1976 – Wilt – Hen-pecked lecturer Henry Wilt is humiliated with a sex doll at a party thrown by the infuriatingly trendy American couple, the Pringsheims. Appalled by his grossness, his dim wife, Eva, disappears on a boating weekend with this ‘fascinating’ and ‘liberated’ couple, so that when Wilt is seen throwing the wretched blow-up doll into the foundations of the extension to his technical college, the police are called which leads to 100 pages of agonisingly funny misunderstandings.
1977 – The Great Pursuit – Literary agent Frederick Frensic receives the anonymous manuscript of an outrageously pornographic novel about the love affair between a 17-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman, via a firm of solicitors who instruct him to do his best with it. Thus begins a very tangled web in which he palms it off as the work of a pitiful failure of an author, one Peter Piper, and on this basis sells it to both a highbrow but struggling British publisher and a rapaciously commercial American publisher, who only accept it on condition this Piper guy goes on a US tour to promote it. Which is where the elaborate deception starts to go horribly wrong…
1978 – The Throwback – Illegitimate Lockhart Flawse, born and bred in the wastes of Northumberland, marries virginal Jessica whose family own a cul-de-sac of houses in suburban Surrey, and, needing the money to track down his mystery father, Lockhart sets about an elaborate and prolonged campaign to terrorise the tenants out of the homes. Meanwhile, his decrepit grandfather has married Jessica’s mother, she hoping to get money from the nearly-dead old geezer, he determined to screw as much perverse sexual pleasure out of her pretty plump body before he drops dead…
1979 – The Wilt Alternative – After a slow, comic, meandering first 90 pages, this novel changes tone drastically when international terrorists take Wilt and his children hostage in his nice suburban house leading to a stand-off with the cops and Special Branch.
1980 – Ancestral Vices – priggish left-wing academic Walden Yapp is invited by cunning old Lord Petrefact to write an unexpurgated history of the latter’s family of capitalists and exploiters because the old bustard wants to humiliate and ridicule his extended family, but the plot is completely derailed when a dwarf living in the mill town of Buscott where Yapp goes to begin his researches, is killed in an accident and Yapp finds himself the chief suspect for his murder, is arrested, tried and sent to prison, in scenes strongly reminiscent of Henry Wilt’s wrongful arrest in the first Wilt novel.
1982 – Vintage Stuff – A stupid teacher at a minor public school persuades a gullible colleague that one of the parents, a French Comtesse, is being held captive in her chateau. Accompanied by the stupidest boy in school, and armed with guns from the OTC, master and pupil end up shooting some of the attendees at a conference on international peace taking part at said chateau, kidnapping the Comtesse – who turns out to be no Comtesse at all – and blowing up a van full of French cops, bringing down on themselves the full wrath of the French state.
1984 – Wilt On High – Third outing for lecturer in Liberal Studies, Henry Wilt who, through a series of typically ridiculous misunderstandings, finds himself, first of all suspected of being a drug smuggler and so bugged by the police; then captured and interrogated on a US air base where he is delivering an innocuous lecture, on suspicion of being a Russian spy; before, in a frenzied climax, the camp is besieged by a monstrous regiment of anti-nuke mothers and news crews.
1995 – Grantchester Grind – The sequel to Porterhouse Blue, following the adventures of the senior college fellows as they adopt various desperate strategies to sort out Porterhouse College’s ailing finances, climaxing with the appointment of a international drug mafiosi as the new Master.
1996 – The Midden – Miss Marjorie Midden discovers a naked ex-City banker trussed in bedsheets hidden in her rural farmhouse, The Midden, and then the ancestral hall she owns under attack from the demented forces of nearby Scarsgate police force led by their corrupt chief constable Sir Arnold Gonders, in a blistering satire on the corruption and greed of post-Thatcher Britain.
2004 – Wilt in Nowhere – Fourth novel about the misadventures of Henry Wilt in which his wife Eva and the 14-year-old quads ruin the life of Uncle Wally and Auntie Joanie over in the States, while Wilt goes on an innocent walking holiday only to be accidentally knocked out and find himself implicated in a complicated murder-arson-child pornography scandal.
2009 – The Gropes – Driven out of his mind by his wife, Vera’s, sentimental fantasies, timid bank manager Horace Wiley pretends he wants to murder their teenage son Esmond, who is therefore hustled off to safety by Vera’s brother, Essex used-car dealer, Albert Ponson. Albert gets the teenage boy so drunk that his wife, Belinda, leaves him in disgust – locking their bungalow’s internal and external doors so securely that Albert has to call the police to get released with disastrous results, while Belinda drives the unconscious Esmond with her back to her ancestral home, the gloomy Grope Hall in remote Northumberland where – to the reader’s great surprise – they fall in love and live happily ever after.
2010 – The Wilt Inheritance – Sharpe’s last novel, the fifth and final instalment of the adventures of Polytechnic lecturer Henry Wilt, his naggy wife, Eva, and their appalling teenage daughters, all of whom end up at the grotesque Sandystones Hall in North Norfolk, where Wilt is engaged to tutor the lady of the manor’s psychotic teenage son, and Eva gets caught up in complications around burying dead Uncle Henry, whose body the quads steal from the coffin and hide in the woods with dire consequences that even they don’t anticipate.

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