Volpone or The Fox by Ben Jonson

Michael Jamieson edited the old Penguin paperback edition of Ben Jonson’s three greatest hits which are Volpone (1606), The Alchemist (1610) and Bartholomew Fair (1614). Jonson is often depicted as Shakespeare’s greatest rival in the second half of his career, as Christopher Marlowe (d.1593) was the leading figure right at the start. Maybe – but there were other notable playwrights around during this period, such as Beaumont and Fletcher.

The real point of linking their names is that Jonson was working in a completely different comic tradition from Shakespeare and so his comedies present the sharpest possible contrast with Shakespearian comedy.

Shakespeare’s comedies are light and graceful, generally set in a fantasy world (Midsummer Night’s Dream) or a faraway land (the fictional Illyria of Twelfth Night) and, although they do include lower-class characters who are clumsy, stupid and bawdy, for the most part the plot is about fine lords and ladies (the Duke of Athens, the Queen of the Amazons and the like), who speak in elegant poetry, and the plays’ comic complications are rounded off by wonderful marriages.

The humour is light throughout. They are Romantic comedies. They aim to delight by transporting you into an often magical otherworld.

By contrast, Jonson’s humour is harsh and satirical. His plays aim to instruct the audience by exposing the errors of city dwellers. They are set very much in the contemporary world – two of his three greatest hits are set in contemporary London. The characters are low lives, thieves and deceivers, frauds and imposters, their gulls and victims, and although they do speak in blank verse, it is a less elegant verse, stuffed with the street argot and slang of the time. And none of his plays end in happy marriage celebrations – the reverse, they end in the exposure and humiliation of the central crooks.

Shakespeare’s comedies have to do with festivals and magic. Jonson’s aim is completely different, he comes from a tradition which, as the poet and courtier Sir Philip Sidney (d.1586) put it, believes that:

Comedy is an imitation of the common errors of our life, which the poet presents in the most ridiculous and scornful sort that may be.

In the prologue to his earlier play, Every Man In His Humour, Jonson very clearly distinguishes between the two traditions, one of wonder and fancy, one of realistic satire. He dismisses the first type as dominated by special effects and impossibilities, where babies are born, grow to manhood and old age all in one play, where huge wars are represented by a couple of actors with rusty swords who nip backstage to get fake blood put on fake wounds, the kind of plays which:

… make a child now swaddled, to proceed
Man, and then shoot up, in one beard and weed,
Past threescore years; or, with three rusty swords,
And help of some few foot and half-foot words,
Fight over York and Lancaster’s king jars,
And in the tyring-house bring wounds to scars.

He [the current author] rather prays you will be pleas’d to see
One such to-day, as other plays should be;
Where neither chorus wafts you o’er the seas,
Nor creaking throne comes down the boys to please;
Nor nimble squib is seen to make afeard
The gentlewomen; nor roll’d bullet heard
To say, it thunders; nor tempestuous drum
Rumbles, to tell you when the storm doth come;

Instead Jonson vows to  portray the everyday world as it actually is, as his audience actually experiences it:

… deeds, and language, such as men do use,
And persons, such as comedy would choose,
When she would shew an image of the times,
And sport with human follies, not with crimes.

To ‘show an image of the times/and sport with human follies, not with crimes’ – this is a handy distinction: comedy deals with folly and stupidity, tragedy deals with crimes. That’s the dividing line. And he repeats the idea in the prose preface to Volpone itself, emphasising:

the doctrine, which is the principal end of poesie, to inform men in the best reason of living.

And he invokes the example of ‘the ancients’,

the goings out of whose comedies are not always joyful, but oft times the bawds, the servants, the rivals, yea, and the masters are mulcted; and fitly, it being the office of a comic poet to imitate justice and instruct to life.

So:Shakespearian comedy exists to enchant and delight; Jonsonian comedy is designed to teach and instruct, that was his often-expressed intention. How well does he achieve it in Volpone?

Volpone

Volpone is set in Venice, associated at the time with mercantile greatness, huge wealth and great corruption. (According to Martin Seymour-Smith’s edition of Every Man In His Humour, Venice was described in another contemporary play as ‘the best flesh-shambles in Italy’ and ‘Venetian whores the best in Europe’).

The central character Volpone, is a monster of greed and duplicity. In fact Jonson provides a verse summary of the plot in the form of a seven-line acrostic poem spelling out his name:

Volpone, childless, rich, feigns sick, despairs,
Offers his state to hopes of several heirs,
Lies languishing: his parasite receives
Presents of all, assures, deludes; then weaves
Other cross plots, which ope themselves, are told.
New tricks for safety are sought; they thrive: when bold,
Each tempts the other again, and all are sold.

I.e. Volpone persuades a series of dupes to make him gifts of gold, jewels etc, leading all of them on to believe they will be made heirs to his fortune when he dies. In other words, they are as greedy and selfish as he is.

Cast

VOLPONE, a Magnifico.
MOSCA, his Parasite.
VOLTORE, an Advocate.
CORBACCIO, an old Gentleman.
CORVINO, a Merchant.
BONARIO, son to Corbaccio.
SIR POLITICK WOULD-BE, a Knight.
PEREGRINE, a Gentleman Traveller.
NANO, a Dwarf.
CASTRONE, an Eunuch.
ANDROGYNO, an Hermaphrodite.
GREGE (or Mob).
COMMANDADORI, Officers of Justice.
MERCATORI, three Merchants.
AVOCATORI, four Magistrates.
NOTARIO, the Register.

LADY WOULD-BE, Sir Politick’s Wife.
CELIA, Corvino’s Wife.
SERVITORI, Servants, two Waiting-women, etc.

Animal imagery in Volpone

Anyone with a smattering of Italian would have realised the main characters have names which are simply Italian words for animals, and in any case each animals name is translated and explained on the character’s first appearance: Volpone = fox, Mosca = fly, Voltore = vulture, Corbaccio = raven, Corvino = crow. Mosca refers at one point to a physician named Signior Lupo = Mr Wolf, Lady Would-Be is at one point referred to as a kite, at another to a she-wolf.

But these are not just any kind of animals, these are all animals which feed on carrion, i.e. other dead animals and rotting meat. Volpone consciously plays the part of an almost dead, already rotting corpse, in order to attract society’s scavengers:

Now, now, my clients
Begin their visitation! Vulture, kite,
Raven, and gorcrow, all my birds of prey,
That think me turning carcase, now they come;

Mention of wolves echoes or maybe deliberately invokes the Latin proverb which dates back at least as far as Plautus in the 2nd century BC, namely: ‘ Homo homini lupus est’ meaning ‘A man is a wolf to another man’, or people are wolves to each other, or simply – humans are like worlves. That is very much the worldview of the play.

Act 1

It opens with Volpone waking up in the big bed which dominates the stage and asking his servant Mosca to throw open the cabinet full of his wealth, a scene in which Volpone explains his situation (parentless, wifeless, childless) and how he has been duping his greedy clients out of precious gifts for three years, by pretending to be at death’s door and implying he will leave them each, everything.

This draws new clients daily, to my house,
Women and men of every sex and age,
That bring me presents, send me plate, coin, jewels,
With hope that when I die (which they expect
Each greedy minute) it shall then return
Ten-fold upon them;

Volpone and Mosca mock people who work for a living, poor fools. Volpone’s way is far better, better even than robbing churches!

Almost immediately Mosca brings on Volpone’s servants consisting of a dwarf, a eunuch and a hermaphrodite, vivid symbols of the unnatural infertility of Volpone’s household, and they perform a ridiculous little masque mocking, of all things, Pythagoras’s theory of the transmigration of souls.

Then visits are paid by some of the greedy scavengers, namely Voltore the lawyer who has brought Volpone a golden plate, and Corbaccio who brings him a bag of bright chequins i.e. Venetian gold coins. The comedy – and it is very funny – derives from the way Mosca plays on the hopes of these deluded fools, and the extent to which he can push them e.g. he persuades doddery old Corbaccio to draw up a will disinheriting his own son, and naming Volpone his heir. Mosca assures him that Volpone will do the same and he is bound to predecease him, at which point Corbaccio will inherit all.

There is plenty of theatrical business such as Volpone hurrying to get dressed in old man’s clothes before he sees Voltore, and psyching himself into the role of an ailing old man at death’s door; or simple gags such as Corbaccio is hard of hearing and keeps comically misinterpreting Mosca who is forced to shout, but which allows him to mutter insults which the audience can hear:

MOSCA [quietly]: Your worship is a precious ass!
CORBACCIO: What say’st thou?
MOSCA [loudly]: I do desire your worship to make haste

This could be a line from panto or Allo Allo, from broad farce four hundred years later.

Next to pay a visit is Corvino, who has brought a precious pearl. To all of them Volpone acts as at death’s door while they chat to Mosca who leads them on and strings them out with a world of false promises. Directly contrary to Jonson’s comedic theory, a lot of the pleasure derives from watching two expert con-men at work.

After Corvino pushes off, Mosca and Volpone rejoice at their morning’s work. Lady Politic Would-be the English nobleman’s wife arrives at the door but Volpone doesn’t want to see her. He wants to drink and revel like the Turk. Conversation turns to Corvino’s wife, a legendary beauty named Celia. Immediately Volpone says he must have her. Mosca warns that she’s protected by a guard of ten spies each. Hmmm. They’ll concoct a plan.

Act 2

Scene 1 Peregrine, an English gentleman abroad and one of the few honest and sensible characters in the play, has bumped into Sir Politic Would-be and quickly realises the latter is a gullible fool, prepared to believe every conspiracy theory, and regales him with ‘wonders’ from back home in England e.g. a whale swimming up the Thames, which Sir Politic knowingly explains to Peregrine is probably a Spanish spy. The man’s an idiot.

Which is confirmed when Volpone turns up with Mosca, dressed up as a famous mountebank or snake-oil salesman, Scoto of Mantua. They set up a bank or bench, raise a crowd, and Volpone proceeds to give an extended and long-winded sales pitch.

Why he’s bothering to do it in this out-of-the-way corner of Venice becomes clear when he calls for money for his wonder, cure-all elixir and the window above him, in the wall against which he’s set up his stall, and the beautiful Celia throws down her handkerchief with money in it. Volpone sings her praises, just as her jealous husband, Corvino, arrives home and tells Volpone to buzz off, beating him as Volpone flees.

Scene 2 Back at his house, Volpone tells Mosca he’s in love. He tells his loyal servant that all his plate and treasure is at his disposal if he can find some way to get him to Celia, and ‘horn’ her husband i.e. make Corvino a cuckold i.e. have sex with Celia.

Scene 3 Enter a furious Corvino dragging Celia behind her and accusing her of being a whore for opening the window and revealing herself to the mob below. Corvino is mad with jealous rage:

First, I will have this bawdy light damm’d up;
And till’t be done, some two or three yards off,
I’ll chalk a line: o’er which if thou but chance
To set thy desperate foot; more hell, more horror
More wild remorseless rage shall seize on thee,
Than on a conjurer, that had heedless left
His circle’s safety ere his devil was laid.

Scene 4 Mosca arrives. Corvino is initially hopeful that Volpone has died and left him his fortune, but Mosca dashes him by telling him it’s the reverse: Volpone has made a recovery after taking Scoto of Mantua’s elixir. This makes Corvino even more furious, seeing as it as Scoto he caught chatting up his wife in front of a vulgar crowd.

Mosca then changes the tune somewhat, explaining that four doctors from the College of Physicians are even now at Volpone’s and, having discussed a range of colourful Renaissance cures, have agreed one common cure – Volpone needs sex with a ravishing young woman! Now, the thing is, whoever provides that young woman and cures Volpone will almost certainly be made his new heir – one of the doctors has already offered his daughter!

So Mosca now explains to Corvino it’s a race against time to remain Volpone’s heir. Corvino makes the obvious suggestion, let’s hire a whore, but Mosca was ready for that. No, he explains, it must be someone without tricks and guile: does he not know a pure simple virginal woman who he can control and guide?

Corvino steps aside to soliloquise: is it a sin? sex is a mere bagatelle, in the end. No-one will know and he stands to inherit a fortune. Mosca watches him agonise and we the audience watch the con-man work his magic.

Corvino returns to Mosca and agrees: hurry back to Volpone and tell him he will send his wife immediately. Mosca tells him to wait till he calls. Yes, dear Mosca, says Corvino, loyal Mosca, good Mosca. And Mosca hurtles off chortling.

Scene 4 Corvino calls Celia back to him. She enters weeping after the terrifying dressing-down she received earlier. Now Corvino amazes her by telling her he was just fooling! He’s not a jealous man at all! And to prove it, he tells her to dress up in all her finest outfit and jewellery and make-up, they’re invited to a feast at Volpone’s that evening.

Act 3

Scene 1 Enter Mosca with a delightful soliloquy about how great it is to be a parasite:

I fear, I shall begin to grow in love
With my dear self, and my most prosperous parts,
They do so spring and burgeon; I can feel
A whimsy in my blood: I know not how,
Success hath made me wanton. I could skip
Out of my skin, now, like a subtle snake,
I am so limber. O! your parasite
Is a most precious thing, dropt from above,
Not bred ‘mongst clods, and clodpoles, here on earth.

Who should come along but Bonario, son of old Corbaccio who we saw Mosca persuading to disinherit in Act 1. He tells Mosca he despises him. Mosca bursts into tears and assures him he has his best interests at heart, why, even at this moment, Mosca knows that Bonario’s father is writing him out of his will. Bonario says: ‘show me’.

Scene 2 Volpone is bored. He gets his three zanies, the dwarf, the eunuch and the hermaphrodite to begin a competition to explain which of them is best and why but hasn’t got very far before a servant announces the arrival of Lady Would-Be.

Lady Would-Be is immensely vain, bullying her two serving women when she discovers even a hair out of place. Volpone is appalled at her arrival and oppressed at her domineering conversation. When he says he feels ill she assails him with a flood of medicines and remedies, then moves on to art and poetry, naming a long list of favourite poets, while Volpone gives us raging asides. Basically she is the stereotype of the unbearably garrulous pseudo-intellectual woman, the bluestocking, letting loose ‘a hail of words’. Her unstoppable verbiage and Volpone’s comic agony at her presence reminds me a bit of Captain Haddock and Madam Castafiore.

Mosca arrives in the nick of time, and relieves Volpone by telling Lady Would-be he has just seen her husband being rowed in a gondola with the most notorious courtesan in Venice towards the Rialto. She hurries out to catch him. Volpone is overcome with gratiturde.

Now Mosca leads Bonario in and hides him with a view to letting him see or overhear his father disinheriting him.

Unfortunately, Corvino chooses this moment to arrive with Celia who, as we have seen, he intends to prostitute to Volpone. Mosca is appalled. He told him to wait till called. Now there’s going to be a train crash of clients. Mosca parks them on another part of the stage, then tells Bonario to walk apart in a gallery, the other end of the gallery, to wait there till called. Bonario does so but, unsurprisingly, is suspicious.

Back to Corvino. He is shown at length persuading Celia that having sex with Volpone is nothing, is good for his health, the man can barely walk, it will be nothing, if he was giving her to a lusty Italian or Frenchman, why, yes, that would be remiss – on he drones making up excuses, while Celia grows more and more horrified and begs for mercy, as he drags her towards Volpone’s bed, says she’d rather drink poison, eat burning coals.

Mosca advises Corvino to leave them, so they both exeunt and it is a tremendous moment when Volpone, who had up till then been lying feebly on a couch coughing, suddenly bounds to his feet, full of energy and life, terrifying poor Celia even more. He proceeds to give a dazzling speech about how they will be true lovers, he will give her all his treasure, they shall eat off gold and dissolve pearls in their wine, and then envisions them recreating all the Greek myths of sex before playing the parts of all the modern nations i.e. acting out a million sexual fantasies.

Celia persists in her honour and begs to be defaced or given leprosy so her beauty ceases to provoke and she can live in virtue. At which point Volpone loses patience and goes to simply rape her. At this critical moment Bonario springs out of his hiding place, throws Volpone to the floor and like a Romantic hero, takes her away from this den of infamy, vowing vengeance on the foul fiend.

On the floor Volpone, bemaons this sudden reversal and possible crushing of all his plans. Enter Mosca who has been beaten up by Bonario on the way out and is bleeding. What shall they do? There is a knocking on the doors and Volpone panics, thinking it is the police sent by Bonario, and says he can already feel a red hot brand as punishment being seared into his forehead.

Enter old Corbaccio who is surprised to see Mosca bruised and bleeding. Quick-witted, Mosca explains his son, Bonario, has heard about the plot to disinherit him and came to murder Volpone and him, Corbaccio, but Mosca fought him off. Corbaccio is taken in and vows even more to disinherit his son.

However, during this explanation, Voltore the lawyer has also entered and overheard part of this, and sneaks up on Mosca and calls him a parasite and liar, leading him on just like he’s leading Corbaccio on. So now Mosca has to think on this feet again and comes up with the story that he is egging on Corbaccio in the hope that his son murders them both i.e. his father Corbaccio and Volpone – at which point Voltore will inherit! He’s doing it for him, honest. In fact he goes on to tell about Bonario being in hiding and grabbing Corvino’s wife – who he had brought on an innocent social visit – and fighting his way out of the house with and cock and bull story about Volpone being about to rape her. If he succeeds, Volpone will be imprisoned and Voltore will never inherit!

Now Voltore is a lawyer, so he immediately starts thinking how to defeat Bonario. He and Corbaccio exit. Mosca collapses exhausted. Volpone congratulates him on spinning such a dazzling tissue of lies!

Act 4

Scene 1 A street in Venice Peregrine, ‘a gentleman traveller’, appears to be a decent honest chap, and we find him being lectured by Sir Politic Would-be who has a whole string of projects afoot, each more preposterous than the next, from a monopoly of herring to a scheme to identify whether the plague is aboard quarantined ships, a wise piece of advice to the Venetian state to ban the use of match boxes, and so on.

Enter the equally verbose Lady Would-be with a servant, escorted by Nano. If you recall, she was told by Mosca that her husband was dallying with a notorious courtesan. Now she storms up to him and accuses him of infidelity, then turns on Peregrine and accuses him of being a woman in disguise! Sir Politic is so outraged he storms off and Peregrine stands his ground in astonishment.

Enter Mosca. When Lady Would-be says she is assailing the courtesan he (Mosca) told her about, Mosca says no no no no it is not this gentleman, he is a man and he saw him land this morning. No, the courtesan in question has been arrested and taken before the Senate. Lady Would-be humbly apologies to Peregrine, in fact overdoes it so much it seems almost like a sexual offer, before Mosca takes her off towards the Senate to see the true culprit. The viewer has a shrewd suspicion this will turn out to be Celia. Peregrine stands there astonished at the bizarre couple he has just met.

Scene 2 The Scrutineo or Senate House Mosca has assembled the three gulls, Corvino, Corbaccio and Voltore, and keeps all the plates spinning by telling them all he’s working just for them. He has briefed them to lie.

Enter judges, Bonario and Celia. The four magistrates discuss what they’ve heard from Bonario and Celia i.e. the plot to prostitute her and how Bonario saved her, and all agree that the youth has a good reputation and she is of spotless virtue.

But then Voltore starts speaking and turns the story upside down, making Bonario a wicked murderer who has been having a licentious affair with the girl and stormed into Volpone’s house expressly to murder his father and claim the inheritance. He lines up his witnesses, namely Corbaccio he swears his son is an unnatural parricide, and Corvino who swears his wife is a hot whore.

It is notable that they both use animal imagery, reinforcing the sense that we are dealing with humans who have sunk to bestial level.

CORBACCIO: I will not hear thee,
Monster of men, swine, goat, wolf, parricide!
Speak not, thou viper.

And:

CORVINO: This woman, please your fatherhoods, is a whore,
Of most hot exercise, more than a partridge,
Upon record… Neighs like a jennet.

Corbaccio, Corvino and Voltore pile calumny on calumny until Celia faints in horror. Mosca is next to give testimony and says his wounds (obviously clearly visible) are proof of the young man’s violent attack. He then says there is yet another witness, this time of Celia’s debauchery, and they call Lady Would-be who enthusiastically points out Celia as a harlot, joining in the animal theme by calling her a chameleon and hyena. (She is not in on the scam; surely this is because she is just stupid and gullible. NB No. In act 5 it is made clear she, too, was briefed and lied against Celia consciously.)

Finally, in is brought Volpone in a stretcher. Voltore makes much of his feeble condition and mockingly asks if this wreck of a man could be a lecher and rapist when he can’t stand and is barely breathing. The magistrates are convinced by Voltore and when they ask Celia and Bonario for their defence the latter say they trust to their innocence and heaven, to which the magistrates, with unconscious satire, reply that that is no proof in this court.

Volpone is carried out and the two young people are sent to the cells while the magistrates tut about young people these days.

Finally, Mosca deals with each of the gulls in turn – Corvino, Corbaccio, Voltore and finally Lady Would-be herself, assuring them, one by one, that they are the sole heirs of Volpone’s riches. And so they all depart.

Act 5

Scene 1 Volpone’s house Enter Volpone and Mosca who can’t believe they got away with it. Volpone has palpitations, they’ve never done ‘the act’ before in public, and in a court of law, God, the stress! Mosca emphasises that it is their masterstroke, they daren’t go any further.

That said, Volpone immediately conceives a new height of knavery. They will pretend he’s died. He’ll get the servants to put it around town that he passed away as a result of the stress of the trial… and that Mosca has inherited it all. Quickly he asks Mosca to hand him one of the standard will templates which are in the closet and scribbles Mosca’s name into it. They cackle over how the three men and woman lied their heads off in the court.

Barely have the servants gone to raise a hue and cry about Volpone’s death than they hear the first knock on the door. Mosca arranges the desk with notes and papers as if he’s reviewing the estate and Volpone hides so he can watch the Humiliation of the Dupes.

This proceeds in a highly structured way with Voltore, Corbaccio, Corvino and Lady Would-be arriving quickly to find Mosca concentrating on going through a long list of possessions. He hands them the will and one by one they pass it round, each in turn asking Mosca, ‘Surely this is a joke?’ and Mosca giving each one quite a lengthy speech describing their greed and vanity and how stupid they’ve been and telling them to go home and repent.

With each humiliation we cut away to Volpone behind the arras clapping  his hands with glee. When they’ve finally all gone, Volpone comes out and congratulates Mosca for a rare entertainment. To cap it, he suggests that Mosca dresses as a commendatoro or court official and walks the streets to find the four victims and twist the knife.

Actually, Mosca says, he knows a commendatoro personally. He’ll get him drunk, pinch his costume and bring it back to Volpone. (This reminds me of Brainworm getting Formal drunk and stealing his clothes in Every Man In His Humour).

Scene 2 At Sir Politic Would-be’s lodgings Suddenly an entirely new sub-plot. Peregrine, irked by his encounter with the Would-bes earlier, has conceived a practical joke. He has dressed up as a merchant and paid three other merchants to join in. Now he pleads hasty admittance to Sir Would-be’s presence and hastily tells him that evidence has been sworn against him that’s he’s been overheard scheming to betray Venice to the Turk. They are coming for him! They will torture him!

At that moment the three merchants Peregrine has recruited start banging on the door and shouting. In a mad panic, Sir Politic begs Peregrine to help him clamber into a giant tortoise shell he keeps in his rooms. He will pretend to be a tortoise! He quickly tells his servant to burn all his notes lest they incriminate him.

The three merchants burst in and ransack the place then come over to the giant tortoise. They play their role of state officials and Peregrine pretends to be an innocent bystander. They start kicking and goading the tortoise. Slowly it moves and in doing so reveals garters and gloves i.e it is a man. They lift the shell off him and fall about with laughter.

Peregrine takes off is disguise, introduces himself as the man he and his wife plagued this morning, says now they are quits, and departs. Sir Politic, by himself, laments that the story will be told in pubs and piazzas and he will become the laughing stock of the town. He will leave Venice.

Scene 3 Volpone’s house I suppose that little sketch gave Volpone and Mosca the stage time they needed to have got hold of their costumes. Now we see Volpone masquerading as a Commendatore and Mosca as a Clarissimo. They congratulate each other on their disguises and Volpone exits. At which Mosca soliloquises that he plans to scam his boss and become owner of all. This final scam is called The Fox Trap.

Scene 4 A street Volpone in disguise encounters and badgers Corvino, Corbaccio and Voltore, guying them by congratulating each in turn on coming into their fortunes now the old fox is dead. Of course this drives them to distraction with chagrin and humiliation. Corvino, for one, threatens to turn violent but, at key moments, Mosca walks across the stage, now wearing the fine clothes of a Clarissimo. The point is that these fine clothes denote his new rank as a member of the aristocracy, putting him on the same rank with the three dupes, he – a former servant – to their vast chagrin.

Scene 5 The Scrutineo The magistrates and most of the cast, being Bonario and Celia, Corvino, Corbaccio and Voltore. His final galling encounter with Volpone-in-disguise seems to have turned Voltore’s brain. It appears to be at that moment that he realises what a fool he’s been.

VOLPONE: When I provoked him, then I lost myself.

Now, in front of the whole court, he recants all his former testimony, says it was a lie and he was put up to it by Mosca. Celia thanks heaven. The other two gulls, Corvino and Corbaccio, swear Voltore’s gone mad, cleaving to their story even when the magistrates question them.

Scene 6 A street Volpone alone curses his stupidity on always wanting to take the joke further.

VOLPONE: To make a snare for mine own neck! and run
My head into it, wilfully! with laughter!
When I had newly ‘scaped, was free, and clear,
Out of mere wantonness! O, the dull devil
Was in this brain of mine, when I devised it…
… These are my fine conceits!…
What a vile wretch was I, that could not bear
My fortune soberly? I must have my crotchets,
And my conundrums!

Indeed. Now he bumps into the dwarf and eunuch and hermaphrodite who tell him that Mosca told them to go and holiday,m and give him the keys. In a flash Volpone realises that Mosca means to seize his house and fortune. And remembers that he gave him a version of the will with his name written into it!

Scene 7 Back at the Scrutineo The magistrates are now inclined to believe Voltore and that Bonario and Celia are innocent, but call for Mosca to be brought. Volpone is still in disguise and makes a few answers about Mosca, but then reveals himself to Voltore – says he is still alive and that Voltore is still his heir.

One of the magistrates had earlier referred to Voltore acting like a man obsessed. Volpone now suggests that he really do act like a man possessed, fall to the floor, froth at the mouth, then return to the original story (Bonario is a would-be parricide, Celia is a whore), save Volpone and be made heir to his fortune.

Quite unbelievably Voltore agrees, promptly falls to the floor, froths, raves etc. The other two desperate liars, Corvino and Carbaccio, egged on by Volpone (in disguise) swear they see a devil fly out of his mouth in the shape of a bat. Then he slowly recovers his wits and, when the magistrates ask if he recognises the paper in which he has written down the (true) series of events says that, Yes, he recognises the hand (Volpone watching all this trembles) but everything written in it is false (Volpone silently cheers) throwing the magistrates into even deeper amazement, and Celia back into despair.

At this point Mosca arrives, dressed very grandly, in fact so grandly that one of the four magistrates makes an aside that he’d make a good husband for his daughter. Volpone has room to elbow his way over to him and whisper in his ear that things are desperately hanging in the balance (‘All’s o’ the hinge’), Voltore spilled the beans once, but now he’s got him safely back onside. Mosca must reveal that Volpone is still alive.

But he doesn’t. Despite Volpone hissing in his ear, Mosca answers the magistrates with the candour of a sad and honest man that, alas, poor Volpone is dead. There follows a furiously frenzied interplay as Mosca dolefully tells the magistrates his master is dead, while Volpone hisses in his ear that he’ll give him half his estate. Not enough, Mosca whispers back.

At that point there’s a further complication because when the magistrates ask who told them that Volpone was still alive, some of them turn to Volpone-in-disguise-as-an-officer and say it was this officer. Well, declare the magistrates, have him taken away and whipped for a liar.

Thus it is, that facing the prospect of an immediate whipping, facing the prospect of Mosca inheriting his entire estate, and overhearing the fourth magistrate musing out loud about marrying his daughter to Mosca, blow it! Volpone decides he might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb and strips off his disguise, revealing to an astonished cast that he is still alive!

Swiftly he accuses Mosca and the three men as being conspirators and gulls. To be honest I don’t think he gives nearly enough of an explanation to clarify the full sequence of events but, be that as it may. the judges proceed to pass swift and exacting justice.

Mosca, as a servant masquerading as a citizen, is ordered to be whipped and condemned to the galleys for life.

Volpone is told that, as a gentleman, he cannot be whipped, but his entire treasure will be confiscated and given to a hospital. And since he has acquired his fortune by faking the symptoms of gout, palsy etc he will be thrown into prison and set in chains until he does actually develop those symptoms.

Voltore will be struck off as a lawyer and exiled.

Corbaccio is deprived of all his estate, which is given to his son, and sent to a monastery to study how to die well.

Corvino will be rowed around the canals wearing a hat with long asses ears before being put in the stocks, and is ordered to send his much-wronged wife back to her father with her dowry trebled.

Let all that see these vices thus rewarded,
Take heart and love to study ’em! Mischiefs feed
Like beasts, till they be fat, and then they bleed.


Thoughts

Volpone is obviously a big leap forward on Every Man In His Humour in terms of dramatic coherence and power. The central figure of Volpone and the trope of his gulling all the ‘clods and clodpoles’ unifies the play, and the double act of Volpone and Mosca has tremendous verve and power.

So much so that the critique I developed for Every Man seems even more true here, the fundamental contradiction which I’ve tried to summarise as Jonson’s Divided Morality. What I mean is that, on the surface – in his prologues and introductions and dedicatory epistles and other critical writing – Jonson insisted that comedy plays a didactic role and should aim to mock and ridicule foolish, crooked behaviour onstage in order to leave the audience feeling chastened by seeing their own foibles and pettinesses taken to extremes.

BUT – everything in the poetry and action and dialogue and gags and scams that you actually see onstage attract you to the baddies, make you laugh or gasp at their outrageous scams and rejoice whenever they reappear after an absence. Imaginatively you are on the side of the huge outrageous liars.

This neat dichotomy is complicated by the fact that, maybe it’s the dupes who are meant to play the role of instructing the audience. I can see how, for example, the audience watching Corvino hot to prostitute his wife for a fortune, or Corbaccio who is constantly on the verge of suggesting to Mosca that they actively murder Volpone – watching either of them, members of the audience might detect in themselves thoughts which have, in some times and places, tended along the same lines and so be horrified to see them taken to such outrageous extremes.

The punishments are very harsh. One way of thinking about them is that Jonson the moralist is overcompensating for the moral laxity and imaginative indulgence which Jonson the playwright has given his characters all along. At some level, he is punishing himself.


Related links

Jacobean comedies

Elizabethan art

17th century history

Restoration comedies

Selected Poems by John Dryden edited by Donald Thomas (1993)

John Dryden was the most successful poet, playwright, critic, translator and man of letters of his time, that time being roughly the late-1660s through to his death in 1700.

Early life

Dryden was born into a Puritan family in Northamptonshire in 1631. He was sent to the prestigious Westminster private school in 1645, the year Charles I’s army was defeated at the Battle of Naseby. In 1649 Charles I was executed in front of the Banqueting House in Whitehall, just a few hundred yards from Dryden’s classroom. He went up to Cambridge in 1650 and four years later returned to London to work as clerk to his cousin, Sir Gilbert Pickering, who was Cromwell’s Lord Chamberlain. When Lord Protector Cromwell died in 1658, Dryden wrote a set of Heroic Stanzas about him, but when Charles II was restored to the throne eighteen months later, Dryden wrote a poem celebrating this event too – Astraea Redux.

To modern eyes this abrupt switching of allegiances might look like hypocrisy, but the editor of this selection of Dryden’s poetry makes two points:

  1. Dryden was merely following the mood of the entire nation which switched, with surprising speed and conviction, in favour of the restoration of Charles II.
  2. Stepping back from the politics, what these two early examples of his work show is Dryden’s natural predilection to be a poet of politics and political power.

Marriage and public poetry

In the mid-1660s Dryden made a fashionable marriage to Lady Elizabeth Howard but he was not making money. He decided to make a conscious career decision to commit himself to ‘the poetry of public life and political argument’, to writing poems on public occasions and poems about political life. The first great example was Annus Mirabilis: The Year of Wonders 1666, 1,200 lines of verse divided into 304 quatrains.

Three points.

1. The obvious one is that the poem deals with major public events – in the first half some of the sea battles which were part of the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665 – 1667), in the second half the Great Fire of London. It isn’t love poetry or elegiacs or pastoral poetry.

2. Second, Dryden rewrote history to cast Charles as the hero of the age. The poem emphasises Charles’s wisdom and strategic prowess during the war, and his heroism during the fire, and how his prayer to God for help was answered. Dryden was a conservative: he believed in hierarchy and the monarch and law and order. All his poetry supports the existing order against the constant threat of factions and politicking which, he feared, would lead to anarchy and civil war. Annus Mirabilis earned Dryden his reward. In 1668 he was made Poet Laureate with an annual salary of £200 and a barrel of sack, and two years later was appointed Historiographer Royal (although he continued to be for many years, relatively hard up). Here’s Dryden sucking up to Charles:

This saw our King; and long within his breast
His pensive counsels ballanc’d too and fro;
He griev’d the Land he freed should be oppress’d,
And he less for it than Usurpers do.

His gen’rous mind the fair Ideas drew
Of Fame and Honor, which in dangers lay;
Where wealth, like Fruit on precipices, grew,
Not to be gather’d but by Birds of prey…

He, first, survey’d the Charge with careful eyes,
Which none but mighty Monarchs could maintain…

His pensive counsels, his grieving for his country (abused by the Dutch), his generous mind, ready to pluck fame and honour from their dangerous precipice, his ‘careful’ eyes (careful in the modern sense but also full of care and responsibility), trademark of a mighty monarch… and so on. Top brown-nosing, Dryden deserved his £200 a year.

3. Thirdly, Annus Mirabilis wasn’t an original work – it was a polemical riposte or reply to an earlier work by someone else. It was part of a literary dialogue. In 1661 a seditious pamphlet titled Mirabilis Annus: The Year of Prodigies had predicted God’s vengeance on a nation which tolerated a sinful king and a wicked government, and was followed by other pamphlets using the same title. Dryden’s poem is a deliberate and polemical response. It isn’t a Wordsworthian inspiration. It is arguing a case about the nature of Charles’s rule and society in the 1660s.

This is what becoming a ‘poet of political argument’ meant – that his works more often than not actively engaged in public debates and controversies, often as direct replies to previous publications by other writers with contrary views.

Drama

But public poetry wasn’t the only string to Dryden’s bow. In 1663 he published his first play, The Wild Gallant, and for the next 20 years produced a stream of comedies (Marriage-a-la-Mode) and heroic tragedies (All For Love, The Conquest of Granada). Some of these were original works but, rather as with the political poems, it’s notable how many weren’t. All For Love is based on Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and The State of Innocence is a dramatised version of Paradise Lost. These are pretty obvious large-scale copyings, but Dryden was also to be criticised throughout his career for plagiarising lines and entire passages from other poets.

This volume includes some of the many prologues and epilogues he wrote to his plays, as well as poems addressed to specific actors and fellow playwrights such as George Etherege and William Congreve.

Satire – Absalom and Achitophel

Writing plays under the Restoration required a thick skin since new works were savaged by scores of wits and self-appointed critics. The plays themselves often contained scabrous satire about the values of the times and sometimes lampooned specific individuals. To write and publish almost anything involved exposing yourself to extremes of ridicule and abuse.

So that by the time the Popish Plot (1678) had evolved into the Exclusion Crisis (in which leading Whig politicians three times tried to pass an Act of Parliament excluding Charles II’s Catholic brother, the future James II, from the succession) Dryden had developed a thick skin and a razor-sharp pen. And he used it, as the king’s Poet Laureate, to savage and ridicule the king’s Whig enemies. The result was his masterpiece, Absalom and Achitophel.

In the Bible (2 Samuel xiv-xviii) handsome young Absalom is encouraged by the sinister old politician Achitophel to rebel against his father, King David. In Dryden’s work scheming old Achitophel is a portrait of the Earl of Shaftesbury, who emerged as leader of the radical Whigs and led the three attempts to exclude James II from the succession. Absalom stands for King Charles’s illegitimate son, James Duke of Monmouthshire, charming but gullible, who was egged on by the canny Shaftesbury to position himself as the rightful, Protestant heir to the throne. Various other key political figures appear under Biblical names and the and poem leads up to a grand speech by King David from the throne which echoes Charles’s final speech to his recalcitrant Parliament before he dissolved it for good in 1681.

Horace versus Juvenal

When it came to satire, Thomas makes the point that Dryden, like many others, drew a distinction between the satires of Horace – which were designed to laugh men out of their follies – and those of Juvenal, which expressed what he called his saeva indignatio, his fierce contempt for the vices of his time.

Horace is often amiable and funny; Juvenal is rarely funny, his satire is full of wit and attack. Absalom and Achitophel is a Juvenalian satire. It is grounded in the grim and bitter reality of the political struggles of the Exclusion Crisis and aims to give insightful, psychologically perceptive and devastating criticisms of its key characters. It is not intended to be funny. But Dryden was just as capable of a completely different style of satire, the laughable and ludicrous.

The mock heroic – Mac Flecknoe

As 17th century literary critics discovered and popularised classical ideas about poetry, so the notion spread that the highest achievement a poet could aspire to was to write a great Epic Poem, in the lineage of Homer and Virgil. Dryden was no exception:

A Heroic Poem, truly such, is undoubtedly the greatest Work which the Soul of Man is capable to perform.

He nurtured ambitions to write some kind of national epic tracing the history of Britain and dedicated to his hero Charles II as Virgil had dedicated the Aeneid to the Emperor Augustus. But it was not to be. His long-meditated epic was never written. Instead Dryden ended up helping to develop the anti-epic, written in the so-called mock heroic style. This consisted in applying all the trappings of the epic poem – lofty diction, elaborate similes, mythological trappings, men mighty as gods – to subjects which were low and pathetic, in order to create a comic disjuntion, to create burlesque and travesty.

Dryden’s early poem, Annus Mirabilis, had already used many of the exaggerated trappings of heroic poetry, notably the extended epic simile and the direct involvement of heavenly powers (or gods or angels).

Heavenly powers

To see this Fleet upon the Ocean move,
Angels drew wide the Curtains of the Skies:
And Heav’n, as if there wanted Lights above,
For Tapers made two glaring Comets rise.

Extended epic simile

So Lybian Huntsmen on some Sandy plain,
From shady coverts rouz’d, the Lion chace:
The Kingly beast roars out with loud disdain,
And slowly moves, unknowing to give place.

But if some one approach to dare his Force,
He swings his Tail, and swiftly turns him round:
With one Paw seizes on his trembling Horse,
And with the other tears him to the ground.

So far, so epic but, as Thomas explains, the mock epic, like the epic itself, needs to address one central theme – and Annus Mirabilis is more of a series of episodes or incidents strung together, impressively so, but it is a scattered work.

It’s this idea of uniting everything in one central theme which is what makes MacFlecknoe Dryden’s masterpiece of the mock-heroic. Basically, it is a hilarious 217-line demolition of one of Dryden’s rivals in the theatre, the poet Thomas Shadwell, renowned for being dull and unimaginative, who is transmuted via Dryden’s mock-heroic style into a monstrous burlesque figure.

The aim of the mock-heroic is to attribute to a trivial person or subject such ludicrously over-inflated actions and qualities as to make them ridiculous. Thus the poem describes the not-very-successful poet Thomas Shadwell in superhuman terms and attributes him a royal progress and coronation, garlanded with biblical and imperial comparisons. But his ‘throne’ is set up among the brothels of Barbican and instead of the royal orb he holds a Mighty Mug of Ale in his hand, and every other detail of the poem is carefully undermined and burlesqued.

The name Mac Flecknoe derives from the comic notion that Shadwell is the son (‘mac’ in Gaelic) of Richard Flecknoe, an even more obscure poet, who appears in the poem declaiming a grand abdication speech, before comically disappearing down through a trapdoor, leaving Shadwell the undisputed ruler of the land of Nonsense. It is all blown up to enormous proportions in order to be mocked and ridiculed.

Dryden was extremely proud of Mac Flecknoe because it was, at that point, the most complete and finished example of its kind in English. Relatively brief though it is, it was to form a template or inspiration for the mock epics of a later generation, most notably Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock (1712) and then his enormous satire on the literary world, The Dunciad (1728).

Poetry of religion 1. Religio Laici

Dryden published two major poems about religion.

Religio Laici or a Layman’s Faith (1682) consists of 456 lines of rhymed couplets arguing against the fashionable Deism of the time and defending the Church of England against Roman Catholicism. It is characteristic of Dryden, as we’ve seen, that many of his works are responses to previous publications and Religio Laici is a good example. An English translation had recently appeared of a theological book by a Frenchman, Father Richard Simon, A Critical History of the Old Testament which laid out the many ways in which the text of the Old Testament is compromised and imperfect. In the Catholic Father’s view, Protestantism relied too heavily on the (highly imperfect) text of the Bible; it was wiser for Christians to base their faith on the unbroken traditions of the (Catholic) church as an institution.

Dryden’s poem directly addresses Father Simon’s ideas and points out that, if the Biblical text can err, so can tradition. Both need to be supplemented or informed by God’s revelation. In this, Dryden was defending the Anglican media via between the extreme reliance on the Bible of the Puritans and deference to a tradition cluttered with saints and absurd legends which characterised Catholicism.

Several things strike me about Religio Laici. For a start it is preceded by an enormous preface which is longer (4,317 words) then the poem itself (3,573 words). And this brings out just how disputatious a poet Dryden was. Even after he has cast his elaborate series of arguments into verse, he cannot stop, but has to repeat or anticipate them in a long prose preface.

Having just struggled through the poem twice, with the help of notes, I think I’ve understood most of its meaning. But when I studied English at university, it was a standard strategy to read any text on at least two levels – on one level for the overt sense or meaning; but at the same time, alert for key words, themes or ideas which recur, and work on the reader at a less logical level, by virtue of their repetition.

So the third or fourth time I read the word ‘safe’, I began to realise that although Religio Laici consists of a series of theological points, at a deeper level it works on a polarity between the twin extremes of safety and danger. To put it more clearly, Religio Laici doesn’t come from an era when a person could speculate about religion and God and the Bible in calm and comfort. On the contrary, Puritan views had, in living memory, contributed to a catastrophic civil war which had led to the execution of the king, the overthrow of traditional institutions and a military-religious dictatorship; and more recently, scare rumours about a Catholic plot to murder the king and seize control of the state had led to a mood of hysterical witch-hunting. Speculation about religious belief was fraught with danger.

Dryden’s use of the word ‘safe’ points to the fundamental message of the poem which is that all speculations on this subject should remain private, personal and moderate, in order to preserve the peace of the realm. He espouses moderation in belief and behaviour because his generation are acutely aware what lack of moderation leads to.

And after hearing what our Church can say,
If still our Reason runs another way,
That private Reason ’tis more Just to curb,
Than by Disputes the publick Peace disturb.
For points obscure are of small use to learn:
But Common quiet is Mankind’s concern.

Poetry of religion 2. The Hind and The Panther

However, just five years later Dryden published The Hind and the Panther, A Poem in Three Parts (1687) a much longer and more complex poem. At 2,600 lines it is much the longest of Dryden’s original poems (i.e. excluding the long translations he made at the end of his life) and it comes as quite a surprise because he now rejects the theological position of the earlier poem and wholeheartedly embraces Roman Catholicism.

Dryden converted to Roman Catholicism in 1687, a couple of years into the reign of the openly Roman Catholic king James II in 1685, much to the disgust and mockery of his many enemies. The Hind and the Panther is divided into three distinct parts and derives its title from part one, which presents an extended allegory or animal fable in which the different religious denominations in the England of the day appear as animals, namely Roman Catholic as ‘A milk-white Hind, immortal and unchanged’, the Church of England as a panther, the Independents as a bear, the Presbyterians as a wolf, the Quakers as a hare, the Socinians as a fox, the Freethinkers as an ape, and the Anabaptists as a boar.

Critics from Dryden’s day to our own praise the skilful use of verse, vocabulary and imagery, but lament the fact that the animal fable was a poor way to convey complex theological arguments and positions, which would have been much more effective if plainly stated. Dr Johnson commented that it was a good poem despite its subject matter.

Translator

Unfortunately for Dryden, his new patron, the Roman Catholic King James II, only lasted three years on the throne before being booted out by the so-called Glorious Revolution. He was replaced by William III who was not just a Protestant but a Calvinist, a humourless man ruthlessly focused on the essentials of international power politics, and completely indifferent to art, culture, plays or poems. All officials in William’s new court were required to take oaths of allegiance including clauses pledging allegiance to the Church of England. As a newly devout Catholic Dryden couldn’t do this and so he was sacked as Poet Laureate and, in one of the supreme ironies of literary history, replaced by the man he had expended such labour ridiculing in Mac Flecknoe, Thomas Shadwell.

Deprived of all public offices Dryden now had to live by his pen and – after the public poems of the 1660s and 70s, his many plays, the satires of the Exclusion Crisis and the poetry of religious debate, in his final decade Dryden turned to literary translation.

In 1693 he published translations of the satires of Juvenal and Persius which he prefaced with a Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire. In 1697 his translation of the works of Virgil, including a complete translation of the Aeneid was published by subscription and brought him the notable sum of £1,400. And in 1700 he published Fables Ancient and Modern which included translations into contemporary English of tales Chaucer, Ovid and Boccaccio.

Heroic couplets

In Thomas’s account, the 1610s and 20s produced poets who liked far-fetched comparisons and irregular verse forms, such as John Donne (d.1631) or George Herbert (d.1633). Later generations dubbed them the ‘metaphysical poets’ (the expression was first used by Dr Johnson in 1780 but in fact Dryden himself had already referred, in an essay, to Donne’s ‘metaphysicals’). The Caroline poets of Charles I’s court similarly wrote lyrics and other forms in sometimes complex metres and forms, although with markedly less convoluted similes and metaphors.

But the future lay with neither of these groups but with the much more open, smooth and regular form of the rhyming couplet. The medium of two rhyming iambic pentameters had long ago been used by Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales.

Bifel that, in that seson on a day,
In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay
Redy to wenden on my pilgrimage
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage,
At night was come in-to that hostelrye
Wel nyne and twenty in a companye,
Of sondry folk, by aventure y-falle
In felawshipe, and pilgrims were they alle,
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde;
(Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, lines 19 to 26)

and couplets were a familiar device in Elizabethan theatre to bring a speech in unrhymed verse up to a kind of boom-boom conclusion.

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
(Claudius in Hamlet, Act 3, scene 3)

Many of Robert Herrick’s short poems from the 1630s are in rhyming couplets, and so on. But the use of nothing but rhyming couplets over extended distances was revived in the mid-17th century by poets like Edmund Waller (1606-87) and Sir John Denham (1615-69). Denham is remembered for his bucolic poem, Cooper’s Hill with its lulling melliflousness. These are its best-known lines, two out of a long series of smooth rhyming couplets:

O could I flow like thee, and make thy stream
My great example, as it is my theme!
Though deep, yet clear, though gentle, yet not dull,
Strong without rage, without o’er-flowing, full.

Relaxing, isn’t it? Dryden’s achievement was to take the rhyming couplet, use it for extended poems, and hugely expand its potential, turning it into a versatile medium for panegyric, satire, political argument, theological debate or straightforward narrative. In the right hands these couplets have all sorts of potential. Individual lines can be used to make sharp distinctions or antitheses:

They got a Villain, and we lost a Fool.

Or in this description of the Duke of Buckingham, who would do anything for amusement.

Beggar’d by fools, whom still he found too late:
He had his jest, and they had his estate.

The couplet lends itself to express maxims or pearls of wisdom, the end-rhyme of the second line giving it a kind of proverbial or didactic power:

What cannot praise effect in mighty minds,
When flattery soothes, and when ambition blinds!

But the obvious risk with the rhyming couplet is that each set of paired lines becomes a unit in itself, the temptation being to provide a boom-boom payoff at the end of the every second line, so that each couplet ends up standing alone, and reading them becomes like having hiccups – every ten seconds another clever rhyme, so that an extended poem comes to feel like a sequence of same-shaped bricks, and that this becomes wearing and tedious over the long haul.

But Thomas demonstrates how Dryden expanded the form’s potential by breaking through this barrier, to create units of meaning across multiple lines, letting the logic of his thought overflow the potential boundaries of the couplet to create what are, in effect, fluid verse paragraphs. These are particularly suitable to argufying and putting a point of view:

What shall we think! Can people give away
Both for themselves and sons, their native sway?
Then they are left defenceless to the sword
Of each unbounded arbitrary lord:
And laws are vain, by which we right enjoy,
If kings unquestion’d can those laws destroy.

They’re still rhyming couplets but the thought, the argument flows through them, so that it no longer feels like a series of stops and starts. Moreover, the way the logic of the argument flows over the cat’s eyes or bumps of each couplet’s end-rhyme creates a complex mental pleasure – the reader processes the cleverness of the rhyme but doesn’t stop at it because the flow of the argument carries you forward. There’s a kind of counterpointing, or two rhythms going on at the same time, which is not unlike musical counterpoint.


Poetry

History

Restoration art

Restoration comedies

Notes on William Congreve

This short post consists of the interesting points from the introduction to the 1985 Penguin edition of Congreve’s plays, introduced and edited by Eric S. Rump. (I’m afraid I find it funny that a man who edited a book full of smutty jokes was called Rump.)

Congreve was born in the West Riding of Yorkshire in 1670. His family moved to Ireland where he was educated at Kilkenny College – where he met fellow student Jonathan Swift, b.1667 – and at Trinity College in Dublin.

Aged 19, in 1689, Congreve left Ireland to travel to London and make his fortune as a wit. Aged 22 he published a novel titled Incognita: or, Love and Duty reconcil’d, whose title sounds like a play.

He befriended John Dryden, the leading literary figure of the age, who supported him through the rest of his career, writing rave reviews and introductions to his plays.

A year later his first comedy, The Old Bachelor, was performed. In all, Congreve write just four comedies, and in a relatively short career of seven years. They are:

  • The Old Bachelor (1693)
  • The Double Dealer (1693)
  • Love for Love (1695)
  • The Way of the World (1700)

And one tragedy:

  • The Mourning Bride (1697)

Congreve abandoned the stage for good in 1700, just as he turned 30.

A ‘good’ run for a play in those days was fourteen nights. Thus The Old Bachelor was a runaway success and played for… fourteen nights! A failure ran for three nights, the bare minimum required to cover its costs, a fact referred to in several of the plays themselves. William Wycherley’s second play, Love In A Wood, was not a success, ran for just 6 nights, and was never revived in his lifetime.

The Old Bachelor is, according to Rump, ‘a play in which a young, talented writer is content to re-explore the comic territory earlier mapped out by writers such as Etherege and Wycherley, but in doing so, is able to bring to the material’. It has freshness and distinctiveness.

It is also notable for the skill with which Congreve gives each character their own speech rhythms. Some critics claim you could be given any bit of dialogue from any of his four plays and be able to identify the character solely from their speech rhythms and idiolect. Rump thinks that’s pushing it a bit, but the fact people suggest this shows the care Congreve took to give each character their own distinctive speech patterns.

Congreve’s fourth and final play, the Way of The World, followed a gap of five years and was much-anticipated. It opened to great expectation and was presented by an all-star cast – but it was a relative failure. Why?

Well, it was by 1700 twelve years since the Glorious Revolution had swept away the Stuart kings and their world of carefree aristocratic hedonism. The new queen, Mary II, was more like Queen Victoria. She was not amused by the stage’s persistent attacks on marriage and conventional morality.

The times had changed. The overthrow of James II in 1688 represented not just a change in monarch but the triumph of the new mercantile class over the libertine aristocrats of Charles’s court.

Did Congreve intend to cease writing for the stage after The Way of the World bombed? He was certainly stung by the criticism of his plays included in the detailed critique of the stage written by Jeremy Collier (A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage), so much so that he wrote a long reply, Amendments of Mr. Collier’s False and Imperfect Citations.

But Collier was merely reflecting what many people felt by the late 1690s. The Society for the Reformation of Manners had been founded in 1692 and began to bring lawsuits against playwrights for outraging public morality. So did Congreve abandon the stage with an aristocratic flourish of disdain? No.

The record shows that Congreve continued his association with the stage after The Way. He shared with Vanbrugh the management of the new Queen’s Theatre in the Haymarket; he wrote the libretto for an opera, Semele, set first by Eccles and a lot later by Handel. He translated the works of Molière, and produced over the next ten years a trickle of poetry and translations of Latin classics for various collections – in other words he continued to be active in the theatre and in literature and letters. But he never again wrote a play.

In 1714, on the accession of the Whig Hanoverian King George, Congreve was given financial security with the award of a sinecure, Secretary to the island of Jamaica. He never married but had dalliances with several aristocratic ladies, most notably Henrietta Godolphin, second Duchess of Marlborough, daughter of the famous general, John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough. They probably met some time before 1703 and the duchess subsequently had a daughter, Mary, who was believed to be his child. Upon his death, Congreve left his entire fortune to the Duchess of Marlborough.

William Congreve died in London in January 1729 and was buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.


Reviews of William Congreve

Reviews of other Restoration comedies

The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith (1766)

The Vicar of Wakefield: A Tale, Supposed to be written by Himself was written by Irish novelist, playwright, poet and critic Oliver Goldsmith (1728–1774). It was immediately praised on publication and went on to become one of the most widely read 18th-century novels, and also one of the most widely illustrated, with hundreds of Victorian paintings depicting key scenes from the story.

The two ladies from London dazzle the family of the Vicar of Wakefield (standing at the centre) with their fashionable stories, by Charles Robert Leslie (1843)

Sentimentalism

Wikipedia puts it best:

The sentimental novel or the novel of sensibility is an 18th-century literary genre which celebrates the emotional and the concepts of sentiment, sentimentalism, and sensibility.

Sentimentalism – which is to be distinguished from sensibility – was a fashion in the poetry and prose fiction of the mid-eighteenth century in reaction to the rationalism of the Augustan Age.

Sentimental novels relied on emotional response, both from their readers and characters. They feature scenes of distress and tenderness, and the plot is arranged to advance both emotions and actions.

The result displays the characters as a model for refined, sensitive emotional effect and flatters the reader who is assumed to be refined and sensitive enough to appreciate the characters’ refinement and sensibility.

The Vicar of Wakefield is often mentioned among the half dozen classic examples of 18th century sentimental novels, and we shall see why.

The plot

The Vicar of Wakefield consists of 32 chapters which fall into three parts:

Chapters 1–3: beginning
Chapters 4–29: main part
Chapters 30–32: happy ending

1. Beginning

Charles Primrose The Vicar of Wakefield is Dr. Charles Primrose. The story opens with him living an idyllic life in a country parish with his wife Deborah, adult son George, marriageable daughters Olivia and Sophia, and three smaller children, the teenager Moses, and toddlers Richard and William. He has brought them all up to be ‘generous, credulous, simple, and inoffensive’.

Legacy Primrose is independently wealthy thanks to a legacy of ten thousand pounds from an uncle George, which he has invested with a ‘merchant in town’. Thus he is in a position to hand over the £35 a year he makes from his living as a vicar to trustees for the relief of the local poor.

George’s marriage Primrose’s eldest son George is all set to wed the beautiful daughter of a local landowner, Arabella Wilmot, when disaster strikes! Primrose is informed that the ‘merchant in town’ has absconded with all his money. Reckoning all his assets, he now has £400 left and, since the £35 income is in trust, he is now without income. Arabella’s father, prudent with his money and daughter, calls off the wedding, and George, who has had some education, is packed off to town with an introduction to a cousin to make his own way in the world.

Moralising about poverty This is the opportunity for some moralising about how they must match their expectations to their new station i.e. poverty, which goes hard with the girls who have got used to fussing about dresses and their appearance.

‘We are now poor, my fondlings, and wisdom bids us conform to our humble situation. Let us then, without repining, give up those splendours with which numbers are wretched, and seek in humbler circumstances that peace with which all may be happy.’

New job Primrose casts around and hears of a curate position going in a parish 70 miles distant and wins the job. He and his family pack their things and set out on the journey (noting that none of them had ever been further than ten miles from their beloved home). At an inn they fall in with an eccentric chap named Mr Burchell who doesn’t stand on ceremony and happily accepts Primrose’s charity when it is revealed that he – Burchell – can’t pay the bill.

Next day they ride on with Burchell who knows about and describes their destination. The new house and church is on the land of young Squire Thornhill, who is known to be a womaniser.

Scarce a farmer’s daughter within ten miles round but what had found him successful and faithless.

Mr Burchell goes on to describe the contrasting character of the young squire’s uncle, Sir William Thornhill, who is known throughout the country for his worthiness and generosity.

Mr Burchell rescues Sophia from drowning As he’s chatting on, there are shouts and the two men turn on their horses to see Sophia being swept away in a torrent they were crossing. While Primrose is paralysed, Burchell jumps into the flood and rescues Sophia from drowning. She is instantly attracted to him, but her ambitious mother does not encourage her feelings.

2. The Middle

Lovely new home The new cottage is plain but attractive and set in lovely countryside near a river, and among simple, unspoiled farmers whose vicar Primrose now becomes. Primrose describes the family’s ‘simple’ daily routine, including morning and evening prayers.

Young squire Thornhill One day a deer leaps past, followed by hunters. The most dashing and handsome fellow stops, dismounts and introduces him as Squire Thornhill, paying special attention to Primrose’s two pretty daughters. Next day he sends them a side of venison, and pays a social visit a day later. To Primrose’s dismay Olivia, who Thornhill pays particular court to, is swayed by his wealth and confident conversation, and so is his wife.

It is interesting the extent to which even in this ‘ideal’ family, and even though the book is written by a man, Deborah Primrose is given a mind and strong opinions of her own.

Mr Burchell drops by regularly, to help the family with their field work and harvesting (all very bucolic), reads them a sentimental ballad, pays court to Sophia.

A country dance There is a kind of rural ball, when Squire Thornhill arrives with his chaplain, two ladies of fashion, and a cold picnic. (The ladies are named Lady Blarney and Miss Carolina Wilelmina Amelia Skeggs.) The dancing goes on into the evening, with Primrose disapproving of the ladies’ attitude, and especially the turn the conversation takes to having his two daughters go up to London to be ‘finished’ for a season.

Over the following weeks, Primrose laments the reawakening of female ‘pride’ in his daughters who dream of fine dresses, London fashion and spurn the friendship of the grown-up daughters of their neighbour, Mr Flamborough, as beneath them.

A gypsy reads the girls’ fortunes and tells them they will marry a squire and a lord.

The Primrose family By about this point I realised that he salient aspect of the character of the narrator, Primrose, is his amused indulgence of his family, most notably his would-be married daughters, his ambitious wife, but also of his would-be learnèd son, Moses, who loses no opportunity to slip references to Greek legends into his conversation.

As a family, they rub along together, disagreeing, joshing, but ultimately getting on. Primrose realises that he himself sometimes comes over as too strict or ridiculous, or reveals the little verbal flourishes he uses to oil the wheels of family.

‘Ay,’ returned I, not knowing well what to think of the matter, ‘heaven grant they may be both the better for it this day three months!’ This was one of those observations I usually made to impress my wife with an opinion of my sagacity; for if the girls succeeded, then it was a pious wish fulfilled; but if any thing unfortunate ensued, then it might be looked upon as a prophecy.

The ride to church When it is announced the two fine London ladies will be at the next Sunday morning church service, there is a comic incident as the womenfolk insist they not just walk to church but ride, foolishly choosing the family’s two carthorses to ride on.

This goes even worse than expected, since the parson a) walks to church and b) takes the service on time without his family ever turning up. Only on his return journey does he discover that the obstinate great horses refused to carry their new burdens anywhere.

Michaelmas celebrations Next day the family goes to neighbour Flamborough’s to celebrate Michaelmas Eve with traditional food and party games. They are playing an innocent game of hunter the slipper but this rural mode is spoilt when the two Grand Ladies arrive and insist on replacing country games with high gossip from London. Uncivil Mr Burchell had been of the party and makes his disagreement known by turning his back on the main company and calling out ‘FUDGE’ at the end of every posh anecdote!

The green spectacles The women decide they must sell their old colt at the market and use the money to buy a fine horse for the daughters to take it in turn to ride. They give young Moses the task of doing all this  – taking the old horse to market, selling it, and buying a new one – but he screws up big-time, selling the colt but letting con-men persuade him to spend the entire profits (three pounds, five shillings and twopence) on… a gross of green spectacles!

Olivia and Sophia fitting out Moses for the fair by Daniel Maclise (1838)

Jobs for the girls The two fine ladies have let slip the notion that they might have vacancies for ‘readers’ and companions at £30 a year. Mrs P immediately proposes her girls for the job. The fine ladies say they must ponder. Mrs P and Mr Burchell have a falling out, he arguing really strongly that the girls should not be allowed up to London to be spoiled.

The Whistonian Controversy Initially it seems like a quirk but develops into a recurring comic motif that Primrose prides himself on being the author of several pamphlets on the all-important subject of clerical monogamy i.e. that a cleric may marry once but never remarry.

In this he supports the learned William Whiston – but his pamphlets have met with opposition and he has discovered himself drawn into theological controversy which was, in these halcyon pre-ideological days, the most venomous of all. He finds himself engaged in the Whistonean Controversy!

This hobby horse of his is reminiscent of the numerous hobby horses on display in Laurence Stern’s magnificent masterpiece Tristram Shandy published a few years before the Vicar (1759). Comparison with that book emphasises how boring and very low-level The Vicar is.

Primrose is diddled out of the second horse Anyway, Primrose himself sets out to sell the second horse and a seasoned con-man is able to play on Primrose’s bookishness – and monogamy hobby horse – to con him out of the money for their only remaining horse.

In fact it is the same con-men who sold Moses the green spectacles. He gives Primrose ‘a bill’ to ‘draw upon’ his neighbour Flamborough, a procedure I didn’t really understand since when he gets back home and presents it to Flamborough, the latter says he has no money and the thing is a con. Primrose has lost his money.

Buchell’s letter Surprisingly, the family discover that Mr Burchell has written a poison pen letter to the two Fine Ladies telling them the two Primrose girls are entirely unsuitable as companions, with the result that the ladies have returned to London without them and their prospects are dashed.

The Primrose family know this because they find Burchell’s copybook lying in a field, open it, and find a copy of a letter apparently written to the fine ladies warning them against the Primroses. They’ve barely finished reading it before Burchell himself arrives for one of his regular visits and first Deborah then Primrose himself accuse Burchell of ingratitude and baseness. Burchell takes it in his stride, says he could have them all hanged for breaking into his pocketbook, and walks off.

The family portrait In another comic moment they discover their neighbours and sort-of rivals the Flamboroughs have had their portraits done by a roving limner.

So the Primroses resolve to have a portrait done of themselves, a group portrait, which they over-excitedly decide should cast them in classical characters, as Venus, an Amazon and so on.

It is done very nicely, in the kitchen as a convenient space – but only when it’s finished do they realise it is too big to get through the doors – to take either into the house proper or outside. And so it becomes an expensive cause of mockery and gossip.

The basic mismanagement of this project, and even more so the ridiculous inappropriateness of much of the imagery (Mrs P as the goddess of Love!) is an easy symbol of the moral and cultural confusion the reader is asked to recognise in Primrose’s character.

Farmer William The womenfolk now conceive a strategem, which is to prompt Squire Thornhill to declare his passion for Olivia by encouraging a local farmer, William, in his hopes for Olivia (who he has been wooing since they moved into their new home).

Despite inviting Farmer William round at the same time as Squire Thornhill, and despite Olivia openly flirting with the farmer, the Squire only sighs and goes away, leaving the family puzzled. Even when the actual date of the young couple’s wedding is announced, the Squire only sighs.

Meanwhile, after Farmer William has left, Olivia goes into a corner and cries – Primrose is impressed at how naturally she keeps up her role of coquette but upset at how upset she is becoming, The reader feels like shouting, ‘Well, call the whole silly scheme off, then!’

Olivia elopes One morning the youngest son comes running in and tells the astonished family that he saw Olivia kissing a fine gentleman who helped her into a carriage, her crying very much and was for going back, but the gentleman hustled her into the carriage and off it swept. She has eloped.

Operatic misery and reproach and anger, Primrose rants against the seducer and vows revenge. He marches over to Castle Thornhill but is disarmed when the young Squire opens it and disclaims any knowledge. Some witnesses claim it was Mr Burchell who helped Olivia into the carriage!

A ‘witness’ says he saw them heading off to ‘the wells’, some 30 miles distant, so Primrose sets off to walk there, finds it full of gentry of Fashion. Here he meets ‘a person on horseback’ who assures him the couple have gone on to ‘the race’ thirty miles hence, so Primrose walks there as well. He doesn’t find them in either place.

Lack of description

It’s worth making a general point which these journeys highlight, which is the almost complete lack of description in the book. Primrose walks thirty miles to the wells, and another thirty miles to the races, and you realise there is absolutely no description whatsoever of the countryside he passes through, of the road or bridges or river or woods. When he gets to both the wells and races there is no description of either.

Now I think about it, there is little or no description of the physical appearance of any of the characters. It’s as if the story happens in a kind of empty space, devoid of shape or colour – is made of moralising conversations and reflections which take place in a big blank. And I think it’s this absence of visual information which makes it quite a difficult read. The modern reader is used to at least some description of setting and clothes and appearances. There’s almost none in The Vicar of Wakefield and that helps to make it feel rather… barren.

Fever The exertion of these long walks brings on a fever, and Primrose is forced to take to a bed in a nearby inn for 4 weeks. Fortunately a friend passing by is able to pay his bill (a more than usually ‘random’ coincidence, as my kids would say). Finally, restored to health, he sets off home.

The travelling players And falls in with a cart of props and equipment for some strolling actors. This gives rise, incongruously, to a couple of pages of pure Goldsmith, giving his low opinion about contemporary theatre i.e. he disapproves of the revival of the Elizabethans, Shakespeare and Jonson, as outlandish and unnatural.

Apparently, Goldsmith wrote a lengthy essay arguing for the strongly moral purpose of theatre, which he tried to embody in his own plays, namely his greatest hit, She Stoops To Conquer (1773).

Politics The entire book takes another unexpected turn when the player in charge of the props and Primrose are invited by a well-dressed gentleman they meet at the inn, to dine at his house. A coach takes them out to a very grand mansion, where they are treated to a tip-top dinner in the company of two fine ladies. But when the host starts toasting Liberty in the manner of John Wilkes, it triggers a long monologue in which Primrose appears to present Goldsmith’s political position, i.e. a staunch justification of Monarchy as the best protection of the middle sort of society (who produce all the arts and economy) against the rabble.

The argument between Primrose and the host is just getting nasty when – in a comic reversal – the real lord and lady of the house return and it is revealed that the fine gentleman and his ladies who are hosting our hero are in fact the house’s butler and maids! Hence their republican principles – they have enacted precisely the social overthrow they were proposing and Goldsmith/Primrose opposing.

Arabella Wilmot In a further comic development, it turns out the true owners are the aunt and uncle of Arabella Wilmot, the handsome young lady who Primrose tutored before the novel began, and who his son George was engaged to (the hosts are a Mr and Mrs Arnold).

We learn that it has now been three years since they lost their money and sent George off to earn his living, and have heard nothing of him since.

George Imagine everyone’s amazement when Primrose and Arabella go to see the first night of the play brought by the travelling players to the nearby town only to discover that the promising new lead actor is none other than… George, his son! George sees them in the audience, burst into tears and retreats from the stage. He ends up being invited out to the Arnolds’ mansion where a general reconciliation is effected.

George’s adventures The longest chapter in the book is George’s rambling picaresque first-person account of trying and failing to make a living in London and beyond. Apparently, these are closely based on Goldsmith’s own long, miserable years of struggle.

George goes to London and meets the cousin his father gave him a letter of introduction to and is inducted into the humiliations of being an usher at a school. He soon quits and tries becoming a hack writer in Grub Street. A hack poet introduces him to the method of whipping up subscriptions for volumes you never actually publish. George tries to write honestly, but is ignored.

He ends up sitting dejected in St James’s Park when he was spied by Ned Thornhill (‘Thornhill!’ his father exclaims) who hires him as a personal assistant up to and including fighting a duel for him (against, it turns out, a pimp in defence of the honour of a whore).

Thornhill gives him a letter of recommendation to his uncle, Sir William Thornhill (who rudely dismisses him as an abettor of his nephew’s dissipation) and to another mighty lord, to whom he has barely gained admittance than an important note calls him away, our George jostling the throng of other supplicants, beggars and hangers-on at his gate.

At his wit’s end, George finds himself at the office of a ‘Mr Cripse’ who he gives a deposit to ship him to America to find a good job as a negotiator with Indians, but bumps into a sailor friend who confirms his suspicion that people shipped to the States by Cripse in fact end up as slaves.

The sailor persuades George to come tomorrow on his ship to Amsterdam and teach the Dutch English. But as soon as he arrives he realises the Dutch don’t understand him and, in order to teach English, he needs to speak Dutch which, of course, he doesn’t.

He bumps into an Irishman who tells him barely anyone at the University of Louvain knows ancient Greek, which George does since he studied Classics at university – why doesn’t he apply to be a professor? But when he gets to Louvain, the existing chancellor confesses he doesn’t know ancient Greek, has never needed to, and so considers it worthless.

George wanders on through Flanders, using his skills as a musician to be a kind of minstrel, busking and begging room and board for the night. Arriving in Paris, he bumps (by outrageous coincidence) into the self-same cousin he had first encountered in London and who now undertakes to turn him into a connoisseur of paintings. There are, apparently, two rules:

  1. observe that the picture would have been better if the painter had taken more pains
  2. praise the works of Pietro Perugino

George witnesses his ‘cousin’ putting on awesome displays of art scholar lying, before the cousin gets him a job as the travelling companion of an immensely wealthy young man who’s been sent out on the Grand Tour. But George quickly discovers that this young ‘gentleman’ turns out to be phenomenally tight and greedy and indifferent to everything he sees.

The said young man, enquiring at an Italian port the cheapest way back to England and finding it was sailing rather than horse and coaching, took the first available boat home, abandoning George. George had to walk from Italy back to England, carrying out disputations at universities along the way, on days when they allowed public debates and rewarded the winner with a night’s board and lodging.

Having finally arrived back in England, he was planning to volunteer for the army when he ran into the players who were looking for a leading man. He joined them on their travels, and thus it was that he walked on stage the night before, only to recognise his father and former fiancée in the audience!

Squire Thornhill So George and Primrose stay a week or so with good kindly Mr and Mrs Arnold, and their niece Arabella. Who should turn up in the first few days but Squire Thornhill? He is initially surprised to see the Primrose males, but immediately becomes the suave soul of friendship. Turns out he has been wooing Arabella and continues to do so over the coming days – although Primrose sees Arabella warming day by day to George.

The army Until the Squire turns up one day with the wonderful news that he has got George the position of ensign in an army regiment which is about to sail to the West Indies, for the bargain price of £100! This is a genuine opportunity and father and son are thrilled and grateful – neither of them realising this is Thornhill’s way of getting George, his love rival, out of the way. The morning George is due to join his regiment, Primrose gives his son his blessing. Then sets out sadly to journey home by easy stages stopping at inns.

Olivia rediscovered In an inn on the way home, he finds the angry landlady kicking out a tenant who’s been holed up for two weeks without paying and discovers that – it is his own sweet Olivia!

Father and daughter fall into each other’s arms, amid much weeping and begging forgiveness. Olivia tells quite a complicated story. For a start it was Squire Thornhill who seduced her and carried her away. The two fine ladies he dazzled the family with were in fact London prostitutes. Good Mr Burchell had been warning the Primroses against them all the time. Thornhill got a Catholic priest to marry him to Olivia (Primrose is relieved at least to find that they are honest man and wife) but then Olivia discovered the same priest had married Thornhill half a dozen times before (Primrose is crushed).

Olivia appears to have lived in Thornhill’s place (Castle Thornhill?) alongside a couple of prostitutes, trying to dress well, dance and converse politely, but crying inside, until Thornhill offered her to a friend, a baronet, like a spare horse – at which point she snapped and ran away, caught a passing coach and dumped herself in this inn.

Fire Primrose takes Olivia a stage nearer home, leaves her at the next inn, and sets out to walk the last five miles to warn the family of her arrival. He is happy to approach the little cottage they call home but, at the precise moment he knocks on the front door, he sees flames leap out of the windows and, to cut a long story short, the family, waked by his cries, rush out and can only stand and watch as their cottage and all their belongings burn to the ground. Kind neighbours provide basic utensils and the family reassemble in the wretched outhouse.

Primrose burned his arm badly when he burst into the inferno to rescue the two smallest children trapped in their cot. So he sends Sophia and Moses to fetch Olivia home. Mrs P is fiercely critical of her shameful behaviour, but Primrose wades in and says they’re all in a hard case now and must pull together and let bygones be bygones.

Thornhill again Olivia continues extremely depressed and miserable, made worse when the family discovers that Thornhill is going to marry Arabella Wilmot. Squire Thornhill pays a visit during which he is casually dismissive of his appalling treatment of Olivia and invites them to his forthcoming wedding. Primrose is calm but incensed, and replies with cold fury. Thornhill calmly declares he was inclined to be forgiving but now finds his steward needs to collect their rent, plus other debts of theirs, and he walks off.

Prison It is winter because everything is buried in snow. Next day Thornhill’s steward comes and impounds their cattle, selling them off at the local town at firesale prices. The day after, through the deep snow, come two officers who arrest Primrose for non-payment of rent and, despite his badly burned arm, fever, and lack of clothes, take him to prison.

He reproves his parishioners A mob of 50 or so parishioners gather and begin to attack the officers and declare they will release Primrose. But, in the classic noble-sentimental style, he begs them to cease and desist and to obey the officers of the law.

(How old is this trope? Does it go all the way back to Jesus telling his disciples not to resist his arresters in the Garden of Gethsemane?)

In prison Thrown into prison, Primrose discovers he is expected to pay for the privilege and that the money is immediately spent on buying booze from the pub so the soldiers can get drunk. In the darkness, a gentlemanly-sounding chap engages him in conversation and there is a comic moment when, from his high-falutin conversation, Primrose realises it is the plausible con-man who took his horse off him at the fair. In the event, his name is Jenkinson and he turns out to be a good-hearted man who regrets having lived a life of trickery.

Prison reform Primrose has strong views about prison reform, a topical subject of the 1760s apparently. He wonders why Britain, the richest country in Europe, has such a high prison population and so many laws which call for capital punishment. He thinks it reflects the over-anxiety of the propertied classes.

He thinks the system is completely wrong: it currently sends malefactors to gaol for even minor infringements like stealing bread, and has hundreds of capital crimes. The result is to make criminals think they might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb and commit worse crimes – and to send the relatively innocent to gaol for one minor crime where they are taught by old lags how to commit a thousand others.

Prison, in his view, should be about helping and reforming the prisoners and setting them on the path to a reformed life once they leave.

I cannot tell whether it is from the number of our penal laws, or the licentiousness of our people, that this country should shew more convicts in a year, than half the dominions of Europe united. Perhaps it is owing to both; for they mutually produce each other. When by indiscriminate penal laws a nation beholds the same punishment affixed to dissimilar degrees of guilt, from perceiving no distinction in the penalty, the people are led to lose all sense of distinction in the crime, and this distinction is the bulwark of all morality: thus the multitude of laws produce new vices, and new vices call for fresh restraints.

(It’s when I read speeches like this, from hundreds of years ago which address issues we still wrestle with 260 years later, that I realise some things will never, ever change.)

Sermon Primrose takes it upon himself to sermonise the prisoners. At first they take the mickey, say Amen in funny voices, spit on his books, swap them for porn and so on. He persists, suggesting they turn their minds to reform, and think of the God they will have to face, eventually. After a week they listen with respect and some have started to repent.

Olivia dies His family move in. His little boys and his wife. Olivia stays outside. Every time she visits she looks worse, more and more gaunt. Jenkinson brings news that she’s wasting away, over a four day period, and then, that she is dead. Primrose is prostrate with grief.

Jenkinson begs him to relent and submit to Thornhill’s demands, for the sake of his family, and because Primrose’s health is beginning to fail – but by the time Primrose dictates a letter of apology to Thornhill the latter has hardened his heart. He will marry Arabella in a few days.

Sophia Then Deborah comes news that Sophia was walking along with her mother when a post-chaise stopped, a man grabbed her round the waist and threw her in, then it drove off. Now he has lost both his girls!!

George in chains Still, at least he comforts himself and his wife with the thought that George is thriving. Their littlest reads out the most recent letter from George declaring the colonel of his regiment loves him and all his going well.

Primrose is just sharing this thought when there is the sound of prison doors being unlocked, fetters and chains rattling, and George himself is thrown into the cell, bloodied and wounded and covered in shackles.

Turns out his mother sent him a letter telling him about Thornhill’s responsibility for Olivia’s decline and so George left his regiment immediately, sought out Thornhill, challenged him to a duel, but instead was set upon by four of his ruffians, some of whom he wounded before being overcome and beaten black and blue.

(Clearly the intention of the story is to reduce Primrose to the absolute nadir of human suffering, to make him a latter-day Job. But it would be interesting to know how many of his readers read this as a parody or pastiche or mockery of this kind of sensationalising sentimental novel. The incidents come pell-mell and occur with absurdly pat timing e.g. the house bursting into flames just as Primrose arrives home, or George being thrown into their cell at the very moment Primrose is explaining how his success is his last prop. Were the original readers meant to weep? Or to burst out laughing at the melodramatic contrivance of it all?)

A sermon Primrose puts a moralising cap to this catalogue of woe by delivering a sermon in which he points out that Jesus came to the ill and weak and criminals and sinners, and that their translation from this life of woe into bliss will be all the more intense.

3. Happy ending

Then Mr. Burchell arrives and solves all the problems:

Firstly, Burchell has rescued Sophia from her abductors. Sophia herself appears and explains the whole story. She was grabbed and hustled into a post-chaise, but she screamed from it, Burchell heard and gave chase, bashed the postilion off his seat with his big stick, chased the abductor off into the fields, then returned to the stationary coach and rescued Sophia (who he also saved from drowning, remember: that’s two pretty big debts).

It emerges that Mr. Burchell is in reality the worthy Sir William Thornhill, who travels through the country in disguise. He inspires awe in the gaoler and other officers, who now jump at his bidding. They fetch a damn fine dinner and bottles of wine from the pub nearby.

Olivia is not dead. She is brought in by Jenkinson. Her being dead was a ruse cooked up by Jenkinson and agreed by her mother. It was because they thought the only way Squire Thornhill could be bought off was i.e. made to forgive and release Primrose – was if they offered him Primrose’s other daughter, Sophia. But Primrose had said he would let Thornhill marry Sophia over Olivia’s dead body. So they pretended Olivia was dead. (What a complicated and preposterous scheme!)

Jenkinson now reveals he is a master of disguise and has worked for Squire Thornhill for many years. He explains how they contrived to beat up George, and how the accusation that George injured one of them – the chief cause for him being imprisoned – is baseless. None of them were injured.

Hearing this, Sir William bids the Gaoler let George go, who exits to clean up.

Arabella walks in more or less by accident since she was staying in the town en route to her wedding. She is astonished to find the entire cast assembled in this cell. She is amazed to discover her fiancé, Squire Thornhill, there too. And even more surprised when George re-enters the cell, now tidied up and wearing his army uniform and looking gorgeous.

She is surprised, because Thornhill had told her George had chucked her for someone else, gotten married and left for America – none of which is true. So Arabella rushes into George’s strong manly arms!

Nonetheless, Squire Thornhill chuckles a wicked evil chuckle because all the deeds and contracts for the marriage have been signed and so he will inherit Arabella’s fortune, anyway. This upsets Arabella’s father who has just walked into the scene, and Sir William enjoys a few minutes of gloating over the way the latter’s greed has been rebuked.

But everyone is wrong about this – for Jenkinson now drops the bombshell that when Thornhill underwent the marriage to Olivia, it was not a sham ceremony performed by a fake Catholic priest (as Thornhill believed) but a real ceremony performed by a real priest!

Thus at one stroke 1. the stain of illegitimacy is removed from Olivia, and 2. Squire Thornhill, being already married, cannot take possession of Arabella’s fortune! It reverts to her and to George who she is now determined to marry!!

In a final twist, there is a minute of comic business while Sir William jocosely tries to pair young Sophia off with Jenkinson, who he says he’ll give £500 a year. But Sophia becomes more and more miserable as Sir William increases his briberies and inducements until… he abruptly gives up and says, ‘Well then, he’ll have her for himself!’ Grabs her, proposes, she accepts, he has been looking for years for a woman who would love him for who he is rather than his riches.

Oh, and Primrose is hereby released from prison, all his debts paid off.

What an incredibly complex tangle of themes and revelations and contrivances!

The prison scene from The Vicar of Wakefield by Ernest Gustave Girardot – wicked Squire Thornhill, seated, is having it explained that he will NOT be getting Arabella’s money, the vicar (standing) embraces his ‘dead’ daughter Olivia, Mrs Primrose seated right, teenage Moses standing behind her, George background right in his smart red army uniform standing with fiancée Arabella

Wedding bells

In the last pages, the wealth of the vicar is restored, as the bankrupt merchant is found in Antwerp, in possession of all Dr Primrose’s money and more.

Then, as in traditional comedy since Roman times, the narrative ends with a wedding, in fact a double wedding: George marries Arabella, as he originally intended, and Sir William Thornhill marries Sophia. The family is restored, renewed and expanded.


Sentiment and improving feelings

You can see from this summary how the plot is designed at almost every turn to provide the 18th century reader with a combination of:

  1. shocks and surprises and sensational moments and incidents (the near-drowning, the house burns down, thrown in prison, duels) worthy of a soap opera
  2. and that all of these extreme events are prompts for displays of Christian stoicism in the face of disaster and noble high-minded sentiments, the over-riding ones being forgiveness and charity and big-heartedness

The narrative provides a steady stream of incidents designed to trigger high-minded sentiments of the kind which could be embroidered and hung on the wall of any good Christian family of the middling sort (much as Dr Primrose – comically – hangs the epitaph he’s written for his wife, in a frame over the main fireplace, in chapter 2).

Autobiography

To begin with I had various thoughts about fictional autobiography as a genre, about how writers like Defoe used it at the turn of the 1700s. About the flood of popular literature, pamphlets and ballads and so on, which all claimed to give the personal biographies of all sorts of figures, especially notorious criminals, especially if they were about to be executed. About the interest in people’s personal lives and quirks and oddities which grew throughout the century.

By the 1760s it was a very well-established genre, and the narrative arc from happiness, down into times of tribulation – a vale of sorrows – and then back up to ultimate vindication – this amounts to a basic human story, deeper than religion, underpinning the Christ narrative itself.

The psychology of details

I was going to write something about the growing interest in details – When you read Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress or 17th century fictions one of the first thing the reader notices is how sparse they are, how lacking in detail, whereas one of the things that makes Daniel Defoe stand out from contemporaries was his realisation that the telling detail can have a dramatic psychological effect.

What makes Robinson Crusoe so gripping is not only the plot, but the accumulation of significant details which make you believe the plot. The gold Crusoe initially leaves in the shipwreck, but then goes back for, is often cited as a particularly acute and lifelike psychological detail.

But, as mentioned above, The Vicar of Wakefield is quite disappointing in this respect – it lacks the uniting of physical detail and psychological importance which you find in Defoe, to some extent in Fielding, and in the brilliant details of Tristram Shandy. It feels much closer to a sermon, or a highly moralising Christian tract, than to those novels.

Although the narrator reflects a bit upon events, the narrative is very exterior – it focuses on a series of events rather than of thoughts. In this respect it is a highly theatrical narrative, which becomes obvious in the denouement which reads like the climax of a comic play.

Idolising rural life

And I was also going to write something about the ancientness of the cliché of the superiority of ‘simple’ rural life over town life. To begin with, the story is premised on the idea that being a simple, kind-hearted country parson who does a bit of farming on the side, is the purest, noblest, most honest and religious vocation possible for a human being.

The hero of this piece unites in himself the three greatest characters upon earth; he is a priest, an husbandman, and the father of a family.

This idea – that simple rural living is purer, more innocent and noble than city living – is at least as old as the Roman Empire (and the Georgics of Virgil), can be found in Chaucer and became a cliché under the Elizabethans (see Spenser’s Faerie Queene).

The paradox is that it is always the opinion of a sophisticated townee (Virgil, friend of the emperor; Chaucer, poet to the king; Spenser, writer for aristocratic patrons).

In Goldsmith’s case, this image of rural content is the product of an urban socialite who made his living by his wits and his writing and steered a precarious course through the dog-eat-dog, hyper-bitchy, gossipy cultural world of Georgian London – and the book was designed to be read by a jaundiced, urban literary elite who enjoyed fancying themselves as simple sensitive souls… if only for the couple of afternoons it took to read the book.

And as the plot unravels, it can be interpreted as indicating the basic instability of the idea. Basically, Primrose’s wife and two daughters both yearn to escape from ‘rural idiocy’ to the bright lights of the city and fashionable living, and George is actually packed off to the city. In other words, this version of rural idyll cannot exist without the city to feed it, or counterbalance it.

The dream of rural contentment is radically unstable and needs constant policing by Dr Primrose to try and maintain, and the whole story is a litany of ways in which he fails to maintain it.

Conclusion

was going to write about those three areas – autobiography, the importance of details and rural life – but the narrative ended up sweeping past all these clever thoughts and obliterating them in the helter-skelter of hyper-theatrical melodrama – capped by the host of reversals and revelations in the final scene.

It is this concatenation of complex plot denouements which is the lasting impression of the book and which swamps the early pages’ gentle evocations of rural life. And it’s these closing scenes which raise the really obvious question about the book which is – Is it meant to be taken seriously? Are you meant to weep sensitive tears of empathy for Olivia and Arabella and feel your heart swell as Primrose expresses a series of noble sentiments about prison reform, and the souls of sinners and so on?

Or are you meant to burst out laughing at the increasingly farcical complexities and improbabilities of the plot?

Or is it both? Are you allowed to feel both, to be genuinely moved by some scenes but find others broadly comic?

Points of interest – the remoteness of 18th century life

Primrose tells us none of his family had ever been further than ten miles from their homestead, so were quite scared at the thought of an epic journey of 70 miles.

A journey of seventy miles to a family that had hitherto never been above ten from home, filled us with apprehension…

Mr Burchell has no money at the inn where he is first encountered, because he gave three guineas to the beadle ‘to spare an old broken soldier that was to be whipped through the town for dog-stealing’.

Floods The countryside round Wakefield is troubled by floods so deep that, in crossing one, Primrose’s daughter is like to be swept away and drowned.

Home-made gooseberry wine The Primrose family are famous for it among the neighbours.


Related links

18th century art

18th century history

Those Barren Leaves by Aldous Huxley (1925)

‘I don’t see that it would be possible to live in a more exciting age,’ said Calamy. ‘The sense that everything’s perfectly provisional and temporary – everything, from social institutions to what we’ve hitherto regarded as the most sacred scientific truths – the feeling that nothing, from the Treaty of Versailles to the rationally explicable universe, is really safe, the intimate conviction that anything may happen, anything may be discovered – another war, the artificial creation of life, the proof of continued existence after death – why, it’s all infinitely exhilarating.’
‘And the possibility that everything may be destroyed?’ questioned Mr. Cardan.
‘That’s exhilarating too,’ Calamy answered, smiling. (Chapter 3)

Huxley’s third novel is twice as long as his first. His early novels got steadily longer and more chewy. The characters’ speeches get longer and Huxley’s descriptions of his characters go from pencil-thin paragraphs to page-long analyses.

Number of pages in Aldous Huxley’s first four novels

Those Barren Leaves

We are in Italy, the perfect unspoilt aristocratic Italy of the English bourgeois imagination, from the Florence of E.M. Foster to the Tuscan villas rented by David Cameron and his class, the land of classical ruins, Chianti and English snobbery. That Italy.

Dominating the town of Vezza from its hilltop location is the enormous palace built by the Cybo Malaspina, some kind of eminent renaissance family. The palace has been bought by an Englishwoman, Mrs (Lilian) Aldwinkle, at least 48, statuesque and Junoesque. She is immensely proud of ‘her’ palace, loves to show off its history and paintings, dreams of it becoming once again a salon for the great artists of the age.

Currently staying with her are:

  • the 30-year-old novelist Miss (Mary) Thriplow, who has elbowed her way into the literary world from the lowly position of governess
  • Mrs Aldwinkle’s niece, Irene
  • Mr Cardan the 60-something bon viveur
  • and Mr Falx, a white haired notable in the Labour movement

The story opens with the arrival of young, handsome Mr Calamy – ‘ Brown, blue-eyed, soldierly and tall. Frightfully upper class and having all the glorious self-confidence that comes of having been born rich and in a secure and privileged position’ – who sets hearts and ovaries a-flutter.

We are in the land of the unworking classes – not the super-rich, maybe, but the very comfortably off, and of the artists and writers who hang around them because they have such lovely houses and host such interesting parties. Huxley’s world – which he loves analysing, anatomising, and satirising.

Mrs. Aldwinkle impatiently cut short the conversation. ‘I want you to look at this ceiling,’ she said to Calamy. Like hens drinking they stared up at the rape of Europa. Mrs. Aldwinkle lowered her gaze. ‘And the rustic work with the group of marine deities.’ In a pair of large niches, lined with shell-work and sponge-stone, two fishy groups furiously writhed. ‘So delightfully seicento,’ said Mrs. Aldwinkle.

Cast

Mrs. Lilian Aldwinkle, 48 or so, has wealth from unnamed sources, has bought this old palazzo in Italy and tends to think she has also bought all Italian art and culture and history along with it. She is obsessed with the idea of art:

‘Art’s the great thing,’ Mrs. Aldwinkle was saying earnestly, ‘the thing that really makes life worth living and justifies one’s existence.’

She, of course, believes herself to be especially sensitive and noble:

‘Sometimes,’ Mrs. Aldwinkle was saying, as she walked with Chelifer on the second of the three terraces, ‘sometimes I wish I were less sensitive. I feel everything so acutely – every slightest thing. It’s like being… like being…’ she fumbled in the air with groping fingers, feeling for the right word… I have an intuition about people. It’s because I’m so sensitive. I feel their character. I’m never wrong.’

But in fact Mrs Aldwinkle doesn’t have an artistic bone in her body, doesn’t understand the visual arts, can’t make out different chords in music. And of course, she is a rentier (defined as: ‘a person living on income from property or investments’), a parasite, her finer (and generally inchoate) feelings enabled by the sweat of thousands of actual workers – as the Labour leader, at one point, reflects:

And at this very moment, Mr. Falx was meditating, at this very moment, on tram-cars in the Argentine, among Peruvian guano-beds, in humming power-stations at the foot of African waterfalls, in Australian refrigerators packed with slaughtered mutton, in the heat and darkness of Yorkshire coal-mines, in tea-plantations on the slopes of the Himalaya, in Japanese banks, at the mouth of Mexican oil-wells, in steamers walloping along across the China Sea – at this very moment, men and women of every race and colour were doing their bit to supply Mrs. Aldwinkle with her income. On the two hundred and seventy thousand pounds of Mrs. Aldwinkle’s capital the sun never set. People worked; Mrs. Aldwinkle led the higher life. She for art only, they – albeit unconscious of the privilege – for art in her.

Irene, Mrs Aldwinkle’s niece, a young 18 who Mrs Aldwinkle bullies into feeling more artistic and sensitive and passionate than she really wants to. She has a doll-like little face peering out a window formed by a copper bell of hair.

Miss Mary Thriplow, a serious young lady novelist very concerned about her feelings, and who considers herself an expert on Life:

‘I can never understand,’ Miss Thriplow went on, meditatively pursuing her Special Subject, ‘I can never understand how it is that everybody isn’t happy – I mean fundamentally happy, underneath; for of course there’s suffering, there’s pain, there are a thousand reasons why one can’t always be consciously happy, on the top, if you see what I mean. But fundamentally happy, underneath – how can anyone help being that? Life’s so extraordinary, so rich and beautiful – there’s no excuse for not loving it always…’

Mr Calamy, 33, tall, young and handsome.

Mr Cardan, 65, an elderly bon viveur.

Lord Hovenden, barely 21, can’t yet pronounce his ‘th’s, ‘immensely rich’, has recently discovered the existence of ‘the poor’ and has become a devotee of –

Mr Falx a Labour Party leader, ‘with his white beard, his long and curly white hair, his large dark liquid eyes, his smooth broad forehead and aquiline nose, he had the air of a minor prophet’.

Noble and grand

‘I won’t let you tease her, Cardan,’ [Mrs Aldwinkle] said. ‘She’s the only one of you all who has a real feeling for what is noble and fine and grand.’

The characters talk a great deal and at great length. But it’s noticeable, and then becomes a little tiresome, how limited their conversational subjects actually are.

Nothing about contemporary science, technology, nothing about the economy or politics, all the things which would have been of enduring interest to the historically-minded reader. (In fact on several occasions the characters do apparently talk about politics – Mr Falx delivers a speech about the Italian Fascist Trade Unions [p.46] and, later, delivers a speech about the working classes [p.170] but both times the narrator cuts sharply away and we don’t hear a word :()

The most tiresome subject is love. All the characters talk at great length about ‘love’. Becomes very tedious as they endlessly discuss the precise state of their finer feelings.

And next to ‘love’, art. Again these conversations are consistently disappointing because, for all their self-conscious cynicism and ‘liberation’ from Victorian values, the characters all still think of art in the most clichéd Victorian terms, as something to do with all that is fine and ‘noble’ and ‘pure’ and ‘uplifting’ in the ‘human spirit’. None of them seem to be aware of the new spirit of Modernism which had, after all, been around since the German Expressionists and the french Fauves nearly twenty years earlier.

As a test I cut & pasted all the references to ‘Art’ (50 mentions) and ‘passion’ (87). Here’s a selection:

  • [he was] intelligent, fundamentally serious, interested in the arts and so on.
  • [she spoke] with that awed and simple reverence for the mysteries of art,
  • [one of the mansion’s former owners] had come to be credited by the present owner with an unbounded enthusiasm for the arts and, what in Mrs. Aldwinkle’s eyes was almost more splendid, an unbounded enthusiasm for love.
  • ‘Such a wonderful…!’ exclaimed Mrs. Aldwinkle, with that large and indistinct enthusiasm evoked in her by every masterpiece of art.
  • Art’s the great thing,’ Mrs. Aldwinkle was saying earnestly, ‘the thing that really makes life worth living and justifies one’s existence.’
  • ‘Through art man comes nearest to being a god… a god….’
  • I have practised the art of literature so long that it comes natural to me to take the pains I have always taken.
  • And then those camp-followers of the arts, those delicious Bohemians who regard their ability to appreciate the paintings of the cubists and the music of Stravinsky as a sufficient justification for helping themselves freely to one another’s wives…
  • ‘My poor friend Calamy would call them more real, would say that they belong to the realm of Absolute Art…’

They talk continually about art and yet have so little to say of any interest at all. All they can manage is endless variations on the same old idea that it is ‘fine’ and ‘uplifting’ and ‘beautiful’ and ‘spiritual’ and ‘soulful’ and connected with passion and life.

One of the frustration of the books is that these characters were living through what we, looking back, think of as the great revolution of Modernism, in which poetry, prose novels, the art of photography, painting, sculpture, theatre and design, all underwent amazing and revolutionary changes and yet…none of the characters seem to realise it. They all still talk about art and passion as if they were friends of Tennyson.

You can see why Wyndham Lewis was driven to distraction by the legions of oh-so-sensitive women in their arts and crafts dresses with their pre-Raphaelite hair drifting oh-so-sensitively from room to room in their exquisitely decorated mansions talking endlessly about art and passion. You can see why T.S. Eliot satirised them:

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

You can see why D.H. Lawrence, trying to forge a new aesthetic, ran as far away as he could, to New Mexico or Australia, to try & escape from this kind of tinkling, gluey, third-rate lucubrations.

And then ‘love’: flocks of the same kind of privileged, shallow people sharing their trite thoughts about Love.

  • Love – it was the only thing. Even Art, compared with it, hardly existed [thinks Mrs Aldwinkle]
  • ‘It’s easy to talk like that,’ said Mrs. Aldwinkle, when [Mr Cardan] had finished. ‘But it doesn’t make any difference to the grandeur of passion, to its purity and beauty and…’ She faded out breathlessly.

And ‘passion’ — mewling on about their weedy, English, virginal idea of ‘passion’:

  • ‘Wasn’t it Bossuet who said that there was something of the Infinite in passion?’ (Irene)

It’s as if the characters are taking part in a Darwinian competition to show off who has the finer nerves, and the most sensitive perceptions – a politely jostling rivalry to be the experiencer of a finer type of love, of a more refined and pure and delicate emotion:

Miss Thriplow meanwhile would have liked to say something showing that she too believed in passion – but in a passion of a rather different brand from Mrs. Aldwinkle’s; in a natural, spontaneous and almost childish kind of passion, not the hot-house growth that flourishes in drawing-rooms. Cardan was right in not thinking very seriously of that. But he could hardly be expected to know much about the simple and dewy loves that she had in mind. Nor Mrs. Aldwinkle, for that matter. She herself understood them perfectly. On second thoughts, however, Miss Thriplow decided that they were too tenuous and delicate – these gossamer passions of hers – to be talked of here, in the midst of unsympathetic listeners.

Too delicate, oh too too delicate! There is an unstated competition to not only have the finest feelings but, because the world is such a cruel place, to be hurt, oh so terribly hurt by this hard, cruel world; to suffer so much because of one’s exquisite sensitivity!

Nobody knew how much she suffered, underneath. How could people guess what lay behind her gaiety? ‘The more sensitive one is,’ she used to tell herself, ‘the more timid and spiritually chaste, the more necessary it is for one to wear a mask.’ (thinks Miss Thripley)

A bit more solidly – and satirically – in Mrs Aldwinkle’s hands this admiration for ‘art’ or ‘passion’ is the opposite of disinterested; it is a naked attempt at self-aggrandisement and egotism.

She liked to think that every one she knew was tremendously complicated; had strange and improbable motives for his simplest actions, was moved by huge, dark passions; cultivated secret vices; in a word, was larger than life and a good deal more interesting.

Mrs Aldwinkle wants to host a salon like the Grand Ladies of the past, in Italy and France, surrounded by the greatest artists, writers, musicians and thinkers of the day, and ruling over them without, herself, contributing anything except – her finer feelings and her delicate insights and her passion.

Beautiful women should swim through the great saloons and the gardens, glowing with love for the men of genius.

Snobbery about Italy

‘Even Nature, in Italy, is like a work of art,’ she added. (Miss Thriplow, chapter 4)

From the Grand Tour of the 18th century to the modern British bourgeoisie renting its Tuscan villas, there is a long tradition of English snobbery about Italy – the notion that simply by going to Italy or being in Italy, one becomes more primal, passionate, nobler of spirit, more artistic.

It runs through Henry James and E.M Foster, reminds me of Mrs Craddock, the 1902 novel by Somerset Maugham in which unhappy Bertha is taken under the wing of Aunt Mary and they set off across the continent, staying at the finest hotels, enjoying the finest art, Venice, Florence, the glory that was Rome!! and so on.

This Italophilia is satirised in Mrs Aldwinkle, who has bought a palace in Italy in order to be more passionate and artistic and – Huxley satirically emphasises – likes to think she has also bought the Italian climate, Italian history, Italian music and even Italian stars!

  • ‘Nights like this,’ said Mrs. Aldwinkle, halting and addressing herself with intensity to Calamy, ‘make one understand the passion of the South.’
  • ‘In this horrible bourgeois age’ – Mrs. Aldwinkle’s vocabulary… contained no word of bitterer disparagement than ‘bourgeois’ – ‘it’s only Southern people who still understand or even, I believe, feel passion.’ Mrs. Aldwinkle believed in passion, passionately.
  • No serious-minded, hard-working man has the time, the spare energy or the inclination to abandon himself to passion. Passion can only flourish among the well-fed unemployed. Consequently, except among women and men of the leisured class, passion in all its luxuriant intricacy hardly exists in the hard-working North. It is only among those whose desires and whose native idleness are fostered by the cherishing Southern heat that it has flourished and continues to flourish…

At bottom all of these wishes – the wish to be artistic, to be sensitive, to have a delicate soul, to understand passion and love and the soul of Italy – they are all symptoms of the human wish to feel special, to feel authentic or loved or precious, a subjective wish common to all of us, which is entirely understandable but is, alas, rather contradicted by the facts. None of us are special. All of us will die. The waters will close over our heads as if we had never existed.

Huxley’s aim

The satirist disappears so completely into his characters that it is sometimes hard to know when they are, and when they aren’t, being ridicul

ed. The novel is so long and wordy that at one point he has the opportunity to give Miss Thriplow a little speech which appears to describe Huxley’s own approach to his fiction.

‘I’m trying to do something new – a chemical compound of all the categories. Lightness and tragedy and loveliness and wit and fantasy and realism and irony and sentiment all combined. People seem to find it merely amusing, that’s all.’ She threw out her hands despairingly.

Or does it?

The plot

Whereas the slender satire Antic Hay was divided into 20 beautifully slim and elegant chapters, the much more bloated text of Those Barren Leaves is divided into five whole parts, to wit:

PART I. An Evening at Mrs. Aldwinkle’s (pp.7 – 77)
PART II. Fragments from the Autobiography of Francis Chelifer (pp.78 – 157)
PART III. The Loves of the Parallels (pp.158 – 241)
PART IV. The Journey (pp.242 – 299)
PART V. Conclusions (pp.300 – 335)

Part one – an evening at Mrs Aldwinkle’s

I have described the participants in the first afternoon, dinner and evening at Mrs Aldwinkles, along with their endless chat about love and passion and art.

Part two – Fragments from the Autobiography of Francis Chelifer

Part two is an interesting experiment – it’s the first bit of first-person narrative in the early novels, a nearly hundred-page-long text done in the voice if this chap, Francis Chelifer, who thinks and writes with a hilariously florid, self-congratulatorily, over-literary style. I liked him for his ludicrousness.

It opens with his wildly over-written description of floating in the warm Mediterranean sea, off a packed tourist beach, as a pedalo approaches and goes by and we can tell, from Francis’s description, that aboard it are Mrs Aldwinkle, Miss Thriplow, Mr Calamy and Lord Hovenden. Aha. So it is to be tied into the characters in part one.

The ludicrousness of his over-written, over-thought content is rammed home when we discover that this would-be litterateur and prose stylist has a job back in London as editor of…The Rabbit Fanciers’ Gazette, with which, as every schoolboy knows, is incorporated ‘The Mouse Breeders’ Record’! He took up the job after seeing an advert in The Times and at a period when rabbit breeding was suffering, after the war. He is personally pleased with the way he revived the magazine’s fortunes by cleverly incorporating a new section about goats! Ha! Nothing unentrepreneurial about Mr Chelifer.

He lives at Miss Carruthers’s boarding house in Chelsea, along with half a dozen other boarders, a tawdry, down-at-heel and annoying crew. Over dinner of roast beef we are treated to snippets of their conversation, about the Wembley Empire exhibition, the merits of Charlie Chaplin, and ‘flappers’.

In a sad chapter he goes home to see his mother in her rundown house in North Oxford. His father was a don. He remembers being a child and witnessing the grown-ups morris dancing in the garden (led by Mr Toft, Miss Dewball and Miss Higlett). Now she is a widow, protrectress of mangy dogs and cats, donator to charitable causes, and vegetarian. He remembers his enormous strong father with a face like a Greek philosophers, who almost never spoke, and about the time he took him walking to the top of Mount Snowden, where he quoted from Wordsworth’s Prelude.

Francis is writing a series of poems on the first six Caesars (which may remind the alert reader of Mr Scogan in Crome Yellow who has a hobby of comparing everyone he meets to one of the six first Caesars [Crome Yellow chapter 16]). Despite these poetic attempts, he has come to believe it is all a waste of time, everything is. He is the Compleat Cynic. It meant a lot when his father recited those Wordsworth lines on Snowden. Later… well, he came to disbelieve in all of it.

‘A sense of something far more deeply interfused.’ Ever since that day those words, pronounced in my father’s cavernous voice, have rumbled through my mind. It took me a long time to discover that they were as meaningless as so many hiccoughs.

We follow his disillusioning love affair with Barbara Waters. As a teenager he glimpsed her among many others on an outing up the River Cherwell in Oxford and she struck him as being an image of Perfect Beauty. Years later, during the war, he bumps into her working as a secretary in the big war office where he’s working (after being injured and invalided out of the army). They start dating, him utterly bewitched to be wining and dining the woman he had dreamed of for so many years (in the interval she had gone to live in South Africa for a bit, then come back). Only slowly and painfully does he realise she’s just a normal human being. In fact she’s self-centred, likes to have worshippers who she can then treat cruelly. She bores him, then disgusts him. Then she migrates towards another lover, a flabby Syrian, and that’s it, the affair is over, leaving Francis heart-broken.

He is floating in the Mediterranean remembering all this when he is hit by a sailing boat going by fast and sinks, can feel himself drowning. Some time later he comes to on the beach being cared for by a doctor and a bronzed man who is massaging his back to empty his lungs of water. Huxley gives a long detailed description of what it’s like to come round form near death, the sense of light-headed euphoria.

Then Mrs Aldwinkle steps forward and offers this stricken Englishman the hospitality of her palazzo. He accepts and is drawn into her world. He is helped into the Rolls Royce and driven up to her palazzo, where she insists on giving him a complete tour of the quadrangles and colonnades and the art work in every room until he faints with exhaustion.

Part three – The loves of the parallels (pp.158 – 241)

The notion of the convenience of parallel lives had been mentioned in Antic Hay.

‘Poor Casimir!’ [Mrs Viveash] said. Why was it that people always got involved in one’s life? If only one could manage things on the principle of the railways! Parallel tracks—that was the thing. For a few miles you’d be running at the same speed. There’d be delightful conversation out of the windows; you’d exchange the omelette in your restaurant car for the vol-au-vent in theirs. And when you’d said all there was to say, you’d put on a little more steam, wave your hand, blow a kiss and away you’d go, forging ahead along the smooth, polished rails. But instead of that, there were these dreadful accidents; the points were wrongly set, the trains came crashing together; or people jumped on as you were passing through the stations and made a nuisance of themselves and wouldn’t allow themselves to be turned off.

This part continues with the same characters we met in part one – we are still at Mrs Aldwinkle’s vast Italian palazzo, with her hen-pecked niece Irene, the earnest lady novelist Miss Thriplow, old Mr Falx the Labour leader, worldly wise Mr Cardan, credulous young Lord Hovenden, and dashing but bored Mr Calamy. Except that now weary and disillusioned Francis Chelifer has been added to the mix.

The loves of the parallels are:

1. In his autobiographical fragments we certainly learned that Chelifer wrote poetry but what didn’t come over so much is that he is quite a well-known poet. As such, Mrs Aldwinkle suddenly realises she is in love with him and sets her cap at him. In her eyes she becomes The Most Important Poet in England and she becomes his Muse and Protector (p.163). Chelifer tunes out while she burbles on about art, and then takes to sneaking off to avoid her.

2. Lord Hovenden pursues Irene, but Irene is conflicted. On that first evening her aunt had made a sniping comment that Irene is cold and frigid; so, on the one hand, Irene wants to prove her aunt wrong, and so she makes an effort to be with Lord Hovenden as often as possible. On the other hand, she discovers that Chelifer is sneaking off to the top of the medieval tower to avoid everyone, and Irene becomes earnestly worried about the impact this sneaking away might have on her beloved aunt if she were to learn this. When Hovenden pushes things so far as to kiss Irene, she bursts into tears and asks how he could be so beastly (p.180).

3. Similarly Mr Calamar, much against his better judgement and out of boredom, finds himself half-heartedly wooing the ‘serious lady novelist’ Miss Thriplow. Frustrated by her stand-offishness, he one day decides to show her his passionate, manly side during a walk on the terrace, seizes her and passionately kisses her. Like Irene, she protests but, secretly, is pleased (p.177).

The Elvers

There’s a peculiar interlude which reminds me of something out of Dickens where Mr Elver a) sets off with Miss Thriplow to find a grocer who claims his cousin has a rare and precious piece of antique statuary. This is the ground for some comedy with the grocer where Mr Cardan impersonates various classical poses in an effort to find out what it looks like. But mostly b) he refuses to take the car home, insists on walking, gets lost in a maze of marshes and canals, and at dusk is surprised by two figures a tall, gloomy man and a dumpy little woman. They take him back to their squalid rented house, after a scrappy meal served by a wizened old woman, the young lady goes to bed and Cardan stays up with tall cadaverous Mr Elver. Turns out he is an embittered impoverished man, brought up poor but with high ambitions who, when his father dropped dead, was forced into the humiliating job of travelling salesman. His imbecile sister (the dumpy one) was taken in by a rich relation who, when she died, left the imbecile a huge fortune of £25,000. As he’s spoken Mr Cardan has plied him with drink until Elver is really drunk and finally admits that he brought his sister here to the muddy marshland so that she’ll get malaria and die and he’ll inherit the money. Mr Cardan laughs loud and long, the punchline of this weird drunken story is so incongruous and ineffectual and Elver stumbles off to bed humiliated. Mr Cardan stays the night in their wretched rented hovel and the next day rescues the ‘simple’ sister, Grace.

Actually it’s the day after next. Next day he has breakfast with wicked old Elver and ponders his moves. He will marry simple-minded Grace and inherit her £25,000. There! He’ll never have to work again. He strolls back to the wretched hovel and tells wicked Elver he’s staying the night again and bluffs his way through the evening. Next morning he persuades simple Grace to walk with him round the lake to the town, where he hires a horse & cart to take him to the Palazzo. She follows him like a dog.

His arrival at the palazzo makes hardly any impression. He had thought he’d have a bit of explaining to do but it coincides with the arrival of Francis Chelifer’s mother, who he has persuaded to give up her damp, draughty house and the stray dogs and cats and local children of Oxford, and come to him so they can go on to Rome together. This throws Mrs Aldwinkle into such a tizzy, which she projects onto all the other guests, that people barely notice Mr Cardan has brought home a tame idiot.

In the last couple of short chapters of this part it is strongly hinted that Calamy and Miss Thriplow have started a physical relationship. Seems unlikely, this is the suggestive passage:

The image of Mary Thriplow presented itself again to his mind’s eye. Limply she lay in the crook of his arm, trembling as though after torment.

Part four – The Journey (pp.242 – 299)

They drive to Rome. To be precise Mrs Aldwinkle, Chelifer, Mrs Chelifer and Mrs Cardan are squeezed into the back of Mrs Aldwinkle’s Rolls Royce, with simple-minded Grace sitting up front next to the chauffeur, Ernest (p.244). Following behind, Lord Hovenden drives his Vauxhall Velox, accompanied by Irene.

There follows a very funny chapter where lisping Lord Hovendon, transformed into a demon by driving his car, drives round and round and round the same lake asking Irene to marry him, until she at last gives in and says she’ll consider it.

But overall, I was disappointed by this part. Huxley’s narrating voice goes to very great lengths to show off his knowledge of the scenery, landscape and all the little towns, and their churches, and their works of art, between Viarreggio and Rome in an unironic way.

I.e the book stops being satirical and begins to show off. This disappointing lapse into earnestness continues in Rome where Huxley disapproves of the vulgarity of ‘the worst sort of international and Italian public’. He disapproves of loud bars. He disapproves of jazz, in one scene comparing the monotonous thump-thump of gramophone jazz to a live version of Wagner being played by a band elsewhere. T

here is a long passage set in a Tuscan tomb whose sole purpose appears to be to allow Huxley to show off his knowledge of that dead language. There is a page-long ridiculing of Freud and psychoanalysis, which he blames for reducing the subtlety of Fra Lippo Lippi’s paintings to examples of anal erotism.

Up to now the satire had been buried in its subject, subtle and very funny. When he comes out into the open like this, Huxley’s own views appear crude and snobbish. The rapier-like satire turns into blundering sarcasm. Very disappointing.

The characters had all gone to Rome to accompany Lord Hovenden who was himself accompanying Mr Falx who was attending an International Labour Conference there. True to form Huxley gives us nothing at all about this conference, merely the fact that after a few days of being bored to tears, Hovenden skives off and rejoins the rest of the crew who’ve begun to make their way back to Vezza and Mrs Aldwinkle’s palazzo.

Miss Elver is now one of the party, completely accepted in her simplicity. At the restaurant she insists on eating fish despite Mr Cardan’s words of caution. Later that night, in the hotel, she has food poisoning and stomach cramps. Her moans wake up Irene who goes to fetch Mrs Aldwinkle, but she’s not in her bed. After a moment’s pause Irene goes and knocks on Mr Cardan’s bedroom door.

There is a reprise of Francis Chelifer’s diary, from which we learn that Mrs Aldwinkle had gone to his bedroom that evening, thrown herself on his mercy, declared that she loved loved loved him and would be his slave and do anything for him. Chelifer is mortally embarrassed. Love bores him. People bore him. Mrs Aldwinkle appals him.

Simple-minded, innocent Miss Grace Elver falls ill with food poisoning! Hovenden and Chelifer drive to Rome to fetch a doctor, but it takes them a whole morning (some of the scenery on the drive to Rome is beautifully described, dawn rising through milky white mist) and by the time they get back, Grace has died!!

Mr Cardan attends the funeral which is performed with indecent haste by a bunch of local peasants and even the priest, who have been out all day picking this year’s grape harvest. Mr Cardan reflects how death is not ennobling to the dying or beholders. There is only one fact, the body and its predestined decay, collapse and death.

Part five – Conclusions (pp.300 – 335)

Calamy and Miss Thriplow are in bed together (so they have had sex – golly!). He is meditating on his hand and the multiple levels of reality i.e. the quantum, the atomic, the molecular, the cellular, nervous system, sensation and feeling and consciousness and will and soul. He can’t hide from Miss Thriplow that he wants to break free. This long conversation in a darkened bedroom marks the end of their affair.

Irene tells Mrs Aldwinkle she is going to marry Lord Hovenden and is astonished at the vehemence of her aunt’s anger and raving recriminations. She doesn’t understand how lonely Mrs Aldwinkle feels, and how, now summer is ending and all her guests are leaving, she feels abandoned, she feels time’s clock ticking, she feels old.

Calamy has rented a cottage up the mountain to live the simple life in. Of course it’s easy to lead the simple philosophical life when you don’t have to work for a living. At all. Chelifer and Mr Cardan come to visit and the last ten pages of the book are quite a serious and thorough dialogue about the nature of reality and of mysticism, and of the layers of reality inside us, inside our minds. I understood all of it, specially Huxley’s bang up to date stuff about quantum theory, the indeterminacy of matter, the arbitrariness with which the human mind creates a world of three spatial dimensions and time because it has to, because it has evolved that way.

But I didn’t warm to Calamy’s determination to spend months and months trying to think it all through. I preferred Chelifer’s point of view, which is flawed (the others call him an ‘inverted sentimentalist’ in the sense that a sentimentalist thinks reality is rosier than it is, whereas an inverted sentimentalist thinks reality is more horrifying than it is) but I liked his idea that you must immerse yourself in the destructive element i.e. society as it is actually constituted, among human beings 99% of whom accept the world at face value.

Calamy’s mysticism is more attractive; but I find Chelifer’s point of view more vibrant and alive (and his character a lot more funny).

Anticipations of Brave New World

Right from the start Huxley’s books contained references to breeding, to eugenics, to perfecting the race, to designing and controlling the process of human birth, which all anticipate Brave New World. And the same theme crops up here, too.

‘And then, Mr. Chelifer,’ he said, ‘we don’t very much like, my fellow directors and I, we don’t much like what you say in your article on ‘Rabbit Fancying and its Lesson to Humanity.” It may be true that breeders have succeeded in producing domesticated rabbits that are four times the weight of wild rabbits and possess only half the quantity of brains–it may be true. Indeed, it is true. And a very remarkable achievement it is, Mr. Chelifer, very remarkable indeed. But that is no reason for upholding, as you do, Mr. Chelifer, that the ideal working man, at whose production the eugenist should aim, is a man eight times as strong as the present-day workman, with only a sixteenth of his mental capacity.

And part of Mr Cardan’s extended conversation with wicked Mr Elver is about vivisection i.e. do animals have rights, any rights? which he slyly brings round to the idea of defective humans, do they have rights? This isn’t the precise subject of Brave New World but it’s in the same ballpark.

Later Chelifer ironically predicts that in the perfect future people will be so bored they’ll kill themselves.

‘The more material progress, the more wealth and leisure, the more standardized amusements–the more boredom. It’s inevitable, it’s the law of Nature. The people who have always suffered from spleen and who are still the principal victims, are the prosperous, leisured and educated. At present they form a relatively small minority; but in the Utopian state where everybody is well off, educated and leisured, everybody will be bored; unless for some obscure reason the same causes fail to produce the same effects. Only two or three hundred people out of every million could survive a lifetime in a really efficient Utopian state. The rest would simply die of spleen. In this way, it may be, natural selection will work towards the evolution of the super-man. Only the intelligent will be able to bear the almost intolerable burden of leisure and prosperity. The rest will simply wither away, or cut their throats–or, perhaps more probably, return in desperation to the delights of barbarism and cut one another’s throats, not to mention the throats of the intelligent.’

He’s turning over ideas of ‘ideal futures’ and its unexpected costs and risks.

More work for the undertaker

At one point Mr Cardan finds himself lost in the plain far away from the palazzo as night falls, becomes worried, and then finds his thoughts taking a morbid turn, and the verse of this macabre little song rattling through his mind (pp.194-5).

Credit

Those Barren Leaves by Aldous Huxley was published by Chatto & Windus in 1925. Page references are to the 1982 Panther paperback edition.


Related links

Aldous Huxley reviews

  • Crome Yellow (1921)
  • Antic Hay (1923)
  • Those Barren Leaves (1925)
  • Point Counter Point (1928)
  • Brave New World (1932)
  • Eyeless in Gaza (1936)
  • After Many a Summer (1939)
  • Time Must Have a Stop (1944)
  • Ape and Essence (1948)
  • Doors of Perception (1954)
  • The Genius and the Goddess (1955)
  • Heaven and Hell (1956)
  • Brave New World Revisited (1958)
  • Island (1962)

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood (1939)

In the introduction to the 1954 edition which combines Goodbye to Berlin with Mr Norris Changes Trains, Isherwood describes the background to his Berlin stories. He lived almost continuously from 1929 to 1933 in Berlin, scraping a living as an English tutor and trying to fit in his writing. Realising that the social crisis he saw around him and the colourful characters he was meeting were solid gold material, Isherwood kept a detailed diary of everyone he met and everything he saw.

Initially he planned to create a huge sprawling masterpiece of interconnected stories in the manner of Balzac, but found it impossible to manage. So in 1934 he had the brainwave of writing solely about the larger-than-life crook and con-man he called Mr Norris and wrote that novel quite quickly, from May to August 1934, in the garden of a pension at Orotava in Tenerife. The other extended stories were published in magazines over the next few years, and then he drew them together into one volume, Goodbye to Berlin, published in 1939

Goodbye to Berlin

Goodbye To Berlin immediately signals its differences from Mr Norris Changes Trains. The main one is that the first-person narrator is not named William Bradshaw but Christopher Isherwood. Partly this is because the ‘novel’ seems much closer to being an actual diary. It gives rise to his landlady, Fraulein Schroeder’s, famous mispronunciation of his name, Herr Issyvoo.

The most famous lines in Goodbye To Berlin are the often-quote statement the narrator makes about being as blank and affectless as a camera.

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.

This has been interpreted and reinterpreted as the basis for an entire aesthetic, of the 1930s combination of man and technology, and so on. On a simpler interpretation, it flags up that the book will basically be a diary of things that happen, with little attempt to shape them into narratives. This became clear to me after reading the very long prose text of Journey To A War by Isherwood which really is a long, detailed transcription of a diary. Reading that made me see the diary just beneath the skin of this book. Hence it is not one sutained narrative but four or five sections, each of which chronicles his relationship with a particular group of people, namely the demi-mondaine Sally Bowles, the dirt poor Nowak family, the rich Landauer family, and his gay buddies Peter and Otto on holiday in the Baltic.

In other words, the famous ‘I am a camera’ lines can be read, not as a manifesto, but as an excuse.

The most important difference, though, between Mr Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye To Berlin is that this book is a lot less funny than its predecessor. In fact it opens on a note of gloom and melancholy which I found it hard to shake off thereafter. Thus Fraulein S loves telling Herr Issyvoo about all his predecessors in the rented rooms, about their foibles and habits. This makes the narrator see himself as just another in an endless procession of meaningless lives.

How much food must I gradually, wearily consume on my way? How many pairs of shoes shall I wear out? How many thousands of cigarettes shall I smoke? How many cups of tea shall I drink and how many glasses of beer? What an awful tasteless prospect! And yet – to have to die… A sudden vague pang of apprehension grips my bowels and I have to excuse myself in order to go to the lavatory.

Not very cheerful, is it? Anyway, the other tenants of Fraulein Schroeder’s boarding house are:

  • Bobby, the barman at the Troika
  • Fraulein Mayr, ‘a music-hall jodlerin’ past her prime, with ‘a bull-dog jaw, enormous arms and coarse string-coloured hair’ who is addicted to tea and tarot cards, she is a Nazi
  • Fraulein Kost, ‘a blonde florid girl with large silly blue eyes’, a prostitute

The first chapter is very bitty. We are introduced to these characters, the narrator swings by the Troika bar and discovers how empty and sad it is until a small group walks in at which point it comes to life with the band suddenly playing and the cigarette boy hurrying over to their table. Or he comes across Frauleins Mayr and Schroeder lying on their tummies with their ears to the floor listening to the woman in the flat downstairs having a furious row with a man she’s contacted via a dating agency.

Sally Bowles

Things perk up in chapter two where we meet Sally Bowles

She was dark enough to be Fritz’s sister. Her face was long and thin, powdered dead white. She had very large brown eyes which should have been darker, to match her hair and the pencil she used for her eyebrows… She was really beautiful, with her little dark head, big eyes and finely arched nose – and so absurdly conscious of all these features.

She is nineteen, been in Berlin two months, came out with a friend who promptly found a rich man who swept her off to Paris. Now Sally sings (badly) in a seedy bar, where Christopher’s friend, Franz Wendel, takes him to see her. She invited Chris for tea. She tells her life story, mother was the Lancashire heiress to a mill fortune, married a feisty businessman, so her real name is double-barrelled, Jackson-Bowles, she got herself expelled from her posh school and Daddy encouraged her to go to London to learn acting. She likes telling him all about this and flows straight into telling him about her numerous love affairs and the man she spent the night with last night.

I had posh women friends like that at university and for a while afterwards. Once it’s clear that you’re not going to make a pass at them – that you are neuter – they treat you like a pet and enjoy seeing if they can shock you – letting you stay while they get dressed and made up for a party for example – and you enjoy finding out whether you are shocked by what they say or do.

Now, about a hundred years since those days, and as the father of a teenage daughter the same age as Sally, I can see her behaviour as nerves and self-consciousness and an endless fishing for compliments and reassurance. I see her as pathetic and in need of help.

It initially seems as if Berlin is going to really focus on this one central figure in the same was Norris focused on Norris, but Sally Bowles is a lot less interesting or funny as a character. There is something sad about her from the start, and she’s just not funny. She mistakes flirting and talking about her lovers for having something interesting to say.

In other ways the book feels secondary. For example, he describes a little New Year’s Eve party at Fraulein Schroeder’s which includes Sally (who’s now moved in) then they move on to a big dance hall with phones on the tables, then he gets really drunk and wakes up in a bed full of paper streamers. The point is this is a pale echo or repetition of the far more vividly written and funnier New Year’s Eve party which occurs early in Norris and which climaxes with the narrator discovering Mr Norris on his hands and knees polishing the knee-length boots of his Mistress who is brandishing a whip!

Now that was something, that was surprising, impressive and very funny. Here the characters just get drunk and Sally ends up sleeping with her piano accompanist, Klaus, and then bragging about it next day to Chris, as she brags about all her conquests to her pet.

Then Klaus decamps to London where he’s got a good job orchestrating music for the movies and a few weeks later Sally gets the inevitable letter from him saying they must part because he’s fallen in love with the most marvellous English society lady and Fraulein Schroeder is scandalised, and Christopher listens loyally while Sally whines and smokes and the reader is bored.

They meet Clive, a big, fabulously rich American, who drinks half a bottle of scotch before breakfast and is full of grand plans. (This event is tied to a specific date when they watch the big state funeral of Weimar politician Hermann Müller, which took place in March 1931.)

If this is 1931, that new year’s even party must have been seeing in 1931. In which case Christopher is not the same character as William Bradshaw, because we saw William attend a completely different new year’s even 1931 party with Mr Norris. Just saying.

After getting their hopes up that he could take them on a round the world fantasmagoria of a travel, Clive does a bunk, Still he leaves some money and he bought Chris some nice shirts.

Sally discovers she’s pregnant. Fraulein Schroeder knows someone who knows an abortionist. It’s a fairly up-class deal, she’s signed into a rest home with a medical notes that she’s too ill to have a baby. Chris visits every day. The couple of days after the operation she’s very low. Bit depressing.

Chris goes to the Baltic, stays a month of more to write. When he comes back Sally has moved out of Frl Schroeder’s and into quite a swanky flat in a modernist block she shares with a girlfriend. She’s more distant, and vague about men. She is, basically, a prostitute, makes money by having sex with men, all the time telling herself she’s going to get her big break and be an actress. They argue. They aren’t friends any more, or not in the same way.

A con-man visits Chris and tries to extract money from him. When Chris says no, the con tells him he does a sideline in face cream for actresses, and out of malice Chris gives him Sally’s address. A few days later she phones to say she was wined and dined and then screwed out of all her money by a beastly conman. Oh dear. Chris goes round and hears the full story, and admits he sent her. They call the police who find the whole thing hilarious. But to their surprise they’re asked to come and identify the conman a week or so later, they’ve spotted him in a restaurant. Christopher instantly sees him and, after a moment’s hesitation, points him out to the cops. Then goes away feeling disgusted and swears he’ll never do anything like that again.

A few days later Sally pops round to tell him the end of the story. She had to identify him and he was terribly upset, said: ‘I thought you were my friend’. Amazingly, he turned out to be just 16 years old, so would have had to be tried in Juvenile Court but instead the doctors certified him and he was sent to a home.

Christopher never saw Sally again. A little later he gets a postcard from Paris, then a brief one-liner from Rome, then that was that. This ‘story’ is his tribute to her and their friendship. But it’s not a story, is it? It’s a series of diary entries written up a bit.

On Rügen Island (May 1931)

According to Wikipedia:

Rügen is Germany’s largest island by area. It is located off the Pomeranian coast in the Baltic Sea. Rügen is 31.9 miles from north to south and 26.6 miles east to west. Its coast is characterized by numerous sandy beaches, lagoons (Bodden) and open bays (Wieke), as well as peninsulas and headlands. In June 2011 UNESCO awarded the status of a World Heritage Site to the Jasmund National Park, famous for its vast stands of beeches and chalk cliffs.

It is to this idyllic and beautiful island that Christopher comes in the summer of 1931 to work on his novel. He’s sharing a holiday house with two others, an Englishman named Peter Wilkinson, about his own age and a German working-class boy from Berlin named Otto Nowak, aged sixteen or seventeen years old.

Peter is the fourth child of an immensely rich Englishman with a big house in Mayfair and a country seat. His sisters are marrying aristocracy while his brother is a successful explorer. Peter is the neurotic failure of the family, who went to Oxford but dropped out, had several nervous breakdowns. He’s been through several expensive psychoanalysts in England and then decided to try one in Berlin, which brings him here.

Peter appears to be in a gay relationship with Otto who, however, torments him by going out by himself every night to flirt with girls in the nearby small town and reeling back drunk to another argument. This long section or short story appears to be a diary recording of the day-by-day activities, sunbathing during the day, Otto and Peter arguing and occasionally having actual fights every night, while Christopher stays out of it and gets his work done.

Creeping in at various points are the Nazis. They meet a ferret-faced Nazi enthusiast who says types like Otto can’t be reformed but should be sent to a labour camp. He points out that one of the beaches (Hoddensee) is full of Jews. It is good to be back among ‘real Nordic types’. Christopher and Peter like going in the evenings to the nearby town of Baabe, although it is full of Nazi youths.

Peter and Christopher go for a row on the sea. Peter asks Christopher what should he do. Only at this point does it emerge that Peter is paying Otto to stay, to be with them, to be his partner. Anyway, it’s hypothetical, when they get back to the house the landlord tells them Otto’s caught the train. He’s ransacked Peter’s room, nicked a couple of ties, three shirts and two hundred marks.

Peter tells Christopher he’ll go back to England, not that he gets on with any of his family. Christopher sees him off then feels lonely in the holiday chalet without the two bickering lovers. He packs up and returns to Berlin.

The Nowaks

Not only does Christopher meet Otto again back in Berlin, he ends up renting a ‘room’ in the cramped, squalid, noisy, smelly apartment of this very working class Berlin family, not unlike George Orwell staying with working folk in the north of England. Herr Nowak the furniture remover, Frau Nowak the worn harassed mother who chars, Otto who thinks he’s a communist, 20-year-old Lothar who’s started going round with Nazis and pudgy 12-year-old Greta.

They live in a cramped, draughty, smelly two-roomed attic five flights up a block in a warren of slums in Wassertorsrasse. It’s never quiet, harassed Frau Nowak makes a dinner of mashed lung, boiled potatoes and brown bread. In the evenings he hangs around the Alexander Casino with rough trade like Piep or Gerhardt. Slowly the smell and the poverty and the arguments, especially between Otto and his poor mother, wear him down. He tells them he’s leaving. On his last afternoon Otto and mother have such a shouting match that Otto retires to his room and tries to cut his wrists.

Some time later, around Christmas, Christopher pays a visit. He can’t believe how squalid, dirty and noisy the street is. Frau Nowak is so ill she’s been sent to a sanatorium. They haven’t paid the bill so the electricity’s been cut off. Lothar and Otto don’t go home very much.

Otto persuades Christoph – they all call him Christoph – to accompany him out to the sanatorium to see his mother. This is a genuinely weird and hallucinatory sequence for Frau Nowak shares a room with three other women, one of whom is a skinny bright-eyed wreck who takes a shine to Christoph, the other is a plump 18-year-old who takes a shine to Otto, and the six of them spend a surreal deranged day together, walking in the grounds, then back to the room to dance to a gramophone and then sit listening to Frau Nowak’s reminiscences as it gets dark and nobody turns on the light and black-eyed skinny trembling Erna puts her wasted arm round Christoph and draws his mouth down for a feverish kiss. Like a horror story. Eventually the nurse comes to say visiting hours are over and Otto and Christoph get back to the coach which is take them back into town.

The Landauers

It is October 1930. In other words, before the events of the Sally Bowles section. In other words Goodbye to Berlin isn’t a continuous narrative but a collection of stories or reminiscences in non-chronological order.

Christopher had been given in England a letter of introduction to the rich, Jewish Landauer family. He takes it up and meets 18-year-old Natalia Landauer, dining several times with her and her mother, before going out to the cinema etc. They are a wealthy, happy, civilised family. On one occasion he has dinner with the father and a cousin as well as Frau and Natalia. The father is intelligent, stayed in London 35 years earlier and did what we’d call sociological research on London slums (so that would be about 1896, year of the bleak novel A Child of the Jago by Arthur Morrison).

The cousin, Bernhard, is incredibly polite, formal, correct, civilised, intelligent, speaks fluent English. Christoph calls on him at his luxury apartment, exquisitely furnished, immaculate luncheon. A few days later calls on him at the vast department store the Landauers own in the centre of Berlin. Bernhard is a beguiling character, one of several in this character-led book.

Christopher makes the experiment of introducing fastidious and tightly-disciplined Natalia Landauer to Sally Bowles at a restaurant. It goes wrong immediately as Sally apologises for being late because

‘I’ve been making love to a dirty old Jew producer. I’m hoping he’ll give me a contract–but no go, so far….’

Christopher kicks her under the table but it is too late, Natalia has gone rigid. Sally breezes on, nattering about the film business but all her stories involve adultery, sex or drugs (funny how little changes in that business) for an excruciating further 20 minutes before the date breaks up. Natalia walks briskly away. From that moment dates the decline in his friendship with her.

Bernhard rings up Christopher and asks if he wants to come to a secret destination. He calls round in his chauffeur-driven car and they drive along a stretch of motorway out to the Wannsee to an astonishingly luxurious built right by the shore, built by Bernhard’s father in 1904. His mother was English, Jewish, she became more interested in Jewish culture and studied Hebrew even as her cancer got worse until the pain was so severe she killed herself. All this and more Bernhard tells him over dinner and as they walk out to the shore in the darkness. The conversation gets bad-tempered when Bernhard explains he is experimenting with himself, he hasn’t had a private conversation with anyone about anything for ten years, he wanted to try it out. Christopher doesn’t enjoy being a guinea pig.

Next day Christopher is driven back into Berlin and dropped off by the chauffeur. He doesn’t speak to Bernhard for six months. Then Bernhard phones him up and invited him out there again. Christopher has cut his foot on some tin at the beach and it has got infected. He imagines it will be a little convalescence so doesn’t bother to dress and so is cross when the car arrives at the house and he discovers it is a posh party like something from The Great Gatsby.

They are waiting for the results of a referendum about the government. Christopher looks around at all these people and thinks they’re doomed.

It’s nine months before he sees Bernhard again. He’s been in effect hiding because he became really hard-up, that’s why he was forced to move in with the Nowaks and live in poverty. They banter in that detached way. Bernhard looks dreadful, overworked. Christopher recommends a holiday in Italy. Bernhard jokes about a trip to China, would he like to come with him to China, now, tonight? Christopher thinks this is a joke and makes a joke about having to wait for his clean linen to be returned from the laundry, but later he comes to think it was a totally serious proposal.

Christopher returns to England for a while, returns to Berlin in Autumn 1932, tries to contact Bernhard a couple of times, but is told he is away on business. Then Hitler is elected, the Reichstag burns down, the Jewish boycott includes the Landauer department store. Christopher leaves Germany for good in May 1933, for Prague. At a restaurant he overhears two fat German business men gossiping and one of them mentions Bernhard is dead. ‘Heart failure’, the kind of heart failure you get with a bullet through it, the kind of heart failure lots of Jews are getting in Nazi Germany.

Christopher’s thoughts and reactions are not recorded, we are left to imagine them and it is a complex imagining because theirs was a complex and strange relationship.

Berlin diary (winter 1932-3)

The text finally comes clean and turns into pure diary, the format which underlay it all the time.

His diary records miscellaneous memories as the political crisis deepens, as Christopher meets up with friends, sits in restaurants, the climate of fear intensifies.

One of his pupils, Herr Krampf, a young engineer, recalls the starvation at the end of the last war. Another, a police chief, announces he is taking up a post in America but worries about his wife who is too ill to make the trip. He goes to the funfair at the end of Potsdamerstrasse and watches the utterly fake, staged matches. Even though they know they’re staged the crowd still bets and argues about the outcome. These people will believe anything. He sees three SA men viciously attack a stranger in the street, beating him to the ground and poking out his eye with their spiked flagpoles. Another time he sees a Nazi fighting with two Jews who’d been kerb-crawling.

Fritz Wendel takes him on a tour of ‘debauched’ bars including one with performers dressed up as women. Christopher finds it tawdry and tacky but this, ironically, is precisely the subject matter people think of when they think of his Berlin stories even though they’re not about that kind of cabaret-nightclub decadence at all. Some American college boys are plucking up the courage to go in. When Fritz tells them the entertainment consists of men dressing as women, they say, ‘What? You mean queer?’

‘Eventually we’re all queer,’ drawled Fritz solemnly, in lugubrious tones. The young man looked us over slowly. He had been running and was still out of breath. The others grouped themselves awkwardly behind him, ready for anything – though their callow, open-mouthed faces in the greenish lamp-light looked a bit scared.
‘You queer, too, hey?’ demanded the little American, turning suddenly on me.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘very queer indeed.’

In fact the really queer thing about Mr Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin is how very, very unqueer they are.

The Nazis come to power, people are beaten up in the streets, publishers are closed down, Jews in all walks of life are arrested and dragged off. When Fritz takes Christopher to a ‘communist’ bar in a cellar, they all pretend to be confident of the future, assuring him this Nazi period in power is just a flash in the pan, but the reader knows they are doomed to lose and lose badly.

The book ends with these scattered, ominous fragments and Christopher’s final confession that, a few short years later (as he wrote), he can barely believe any of it actually happened.


The jarring image

Isherwood’s got a gift for the sudden, startling image, described crisply and clearly. Maybe he got it from Auden:

Birds call with sudden uncanny violence, like alarm-clocks going off.

Yesterday morning I saw a roe being chased by a Borzoi dog, right across the fields and in amongst the trees. The dog couldn’t catch the roe, although it seemed to be going much the faster of the two, moving in long graceful bounds, while the roe went bucketing over the earth with wild rigid jerks, like a grand piano bewitched.

‘It’s only a short time…’ sobbed Frau Nowak; the tears running down over her hideous frog-like smile. And suddenly she started coughing – her body seemed to break in half like a hinged doll.

Old Muttchen had a cold, they said. She wore a bandage round her throat, tight under the high collar of her old-fashioned black dress. She seemed a nice old lady, but somehow slightly obscene, like an old dog with sores. She sat on the edge of her bed with the photographs of her children and grandchildren on the table beside her, like prizes she had won.

Herr Landauer was a small lively man, with dark leathery wrinkled skin, like an old well-polished boot.

When Herr Nowak’s 12-year-old daughter runs to greet him:

Bending, he picked her up, carefully and expertly, with a certain admiring curiosity, like a large valuable vase.

Erna is in the sanatorium:

She had immense, dark, hungry eyes. The wedding-ring was loose on her bony finger. When she talked and became excited her hands flitted tirelessly about in sequences of aimless gestures, like two shrivelled moths.


Related links

Weimar Germany

Novels from or about the 1930s

Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood (1935)

‘I must say, Bill, you’re a nice little chap, but you do have some queer friends.’
(journalist Helen Pratt to the narrator William Bradshaw, page 187)

Christopher William Bradshaw-Isherwood (b.1904) was a key member of the Auden Generation. In fact he first met its leader, W.H. Auden, when they went to the same prep school. Christoper went on to a jolly good public school (Repton – modern boarding fees £37,000 per annum), where he became lifelong friends with the novelist Edward Upward – and then onto Cambridge.

Throughout the 1930s Isherwood wrote novels and essays and collaborated with his friend from prep school, W.H. Auden, on three experimental plays – The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935), The Ascent of F6 (1937) and On the Frontier (1938) – as well as writing an extended prose account of their joint visit to China during the Sino-Japanese War, which was published along with Auden’s poems as Journey to a War (1939).

In January 1939, along with Auden, he sailed for America to make a new life. Auden stayed in New York but Isherwood moved onto California and to a long, successful career as a novelist, critic, screenwriter, devotee of Indian religion, and lived long enough (he died in 1986) to become a gay icon in Reagan’s America.

Right back at the start of his career, though, he wrote the books for which he’s most famous, the autobiographical accounts of his time in Weimar Berlin. (From 1918 until its overthrow by Hitler in 1933, Germany was a parliamentary democracy which came to be named after the town of Weimar where Germany’s new government was formed by a national assembly after Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated in 1918. Thus anything from this era is referred to as ‘Weimar’ Germany, ‘Weimar’ Berlin etc).

Berlin had, by the late-1920s, become a byword for sexual, and especially homosexual, license, offering a freedom of lifestyle and sexuality which couldn’t scarcely be imagined in starchy, repressed, between-the-wars England, and which still hasn’t really arrived in Puritan England nearly a century later.

The first of the Berlin novels was Mr Norris Changes Trains, published in 1935. It is often combined with its 1939 sequel, Goodbye to Berlin into a single volume, The Berlin Stories, and together these formed the basis of the well-known 1972 movie, Cabaret. I remember arriving at them as a schoolboy having already read quite a lot of French literature with its explicit descriptions of sex and drugs, and being bitterly disappointed at their utter tameness and their prissy, public schoolboy tone. Now, returning to them years later, I appreciate them for what they are, hilarious social comedies.

Mr Norris Changes Trains

This is a bloody funny book. For the first 100 or so pages I smiled or laughed out loud regularly.

The narrator is William Bradshaw. He is an English tutor in Berlin. He appears to be 27 when the novel begins, for he is 28 a year later (p.129). It is autumn 1930. He is on a train back into Germany he meets ‘Arthur Norris, gent.’, a much older man, fat, fussy, nervous, who wears an outrageous wig, worries about his passport, his papers, is widely travelled, calls everyone ‘dear boy’.

William returns to his Berlin boarding house and his pupils but we hear next to nothing about them or his work. Instead the narrative focuses almost entirely on the larger-than-life figure of Arthur Norris. He is an eccentric, a posing exponent of out-of-date values and manners, he ‘risks’ the poor wine on the train, orders champagne with everything, delights in gossip and fine art.

Soon after his return to Berlin William goes round to Arthur’s flat (at 168 Courbierestrasse, a real Berlin street) where the eccentricity builds up. Arthur’s apartment has two doors right next to each other, one is the private entrance, one is marked ‘Import/Export’. A sinister young man with a big head opens the door, takes his coat, and visibly disapproves of his visit. Arthur flusters though, takes William by the hand and escorts him round the oddly arranged flat.

Over the course of successive meetings at cafes and restaurants, William learns that Mr Norris is a relic of the legendary Oscar Wilde circle from back in the 1890s. That’s when his beloved mother died and he came into a small fortune which, however, he managed to blow in just two years (p.45). Two years during which he met the divine Oscar and his circle, gossip is made about the scapegrace Frank Harris, and Mr Norris has a fund of stories which date from the late 1890s or the early 1900s, or the glory years just before the war when he had a large apartment overlooking the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, with decorations designed by himself and a unique collection of whips! (p.51)

Now he has very much fallen on hard times and tries to keep up the appearance of a cultured and flamboyant man of business, but in reality he is up to his neck in debt (£5,000!) and Schmidt – the sinister young man who opened the door – is his minder, receiving all the money deriving from Mr Norris’s dubious and mysterious ‘business ventures’, managing the numerous debtors in a blunt brutal manner which Mr Norris could never bring off, and in exchange taking 10% of the transactions.

He was one of those people who have not only a capacity, but a positive attitude for doing their employer’s dirty work. (p.46)

In fact, over scattered conversations in cafes, restaurants or his flat, Arthur slowly reveals he has had quite a few brushes with the law and then that he actually went to prison, Wormwood Scrubs, for 18 months. Something to do with embezzlement or misappropriated funds.

So the humour derives mostly from the outrageous pretensions, lies and evasions of Mr Norris, as well as his humorous turns of phrase. He is, in his way, a sort of Falstaff, pompously fond of all the good things in life while completely unable to afford them. He is a great comic character.

Arthur certainly gave things away with an air. He knew how to play the Grand Seigneur. (p.173)

But the humour is aided by Isherwood’s stone cold, precise and sometimes malicious eye for detail. The narrator reports everything with exceptional lucidity. Not only that but he disarms us with suddenly blunt turns of mind, which are often very funny, and which Arthur comments on:

‘Really William, you’re so unkind. You say such sharp things.’ (p.37)

For example:

As he spoke he touched his left temple delicately with his finger-tips, coughed, and suddenly smiled. His smile had great charm. It disclosed the ugliest teeth I had ever seen. They were like broken rocks. (page 7)

These moments are designed to show us that Isherwood has a kind of unblinking, unflinching clarity of observation. But their tactlessness, and their abrupt surprising appearance are also very funny.

‘This is Olga, our hostess,’ Arthur explained.
‘Hullo, baby!’ Olga handed me a glass. She pinched Arthur’s cheek: ‘Well, my little turtle-dove?’
The gesture was so perfunctory that it reminded me of a vet with a horse. (p.32)

Key to all these effects is the William/narrator persona. He laughs at everyone’s jokes, he gets on with (almost) everyone, he dances, he drinks but doesn’t get angry or maudlin. He knows what to wear, how to eat correctly at smart restaurants, he is tactful and polite. Quite a few paragraphs start with the simple sentences: ‘I smiled’, ‘I grinned’ or ‘I laughed’. He is flattering company. He is the perfect, well-mannered English house party guest and excellent company.

(I took the trouble of counting and the word ‘smile’ appears 80 times in the novel, ‘laugh’ 55, and ‘grin’ 14. The point being that all this smiling and laughing subconsciously nudges you towards reading the book in a good mood — rather as the hundreds of mentions of ‘death’ and ‘blood’ make the Penguin Book of Civil War Verse such a grim read.)

The cast

  • Arthur Norris – ‘I’m generally at my best in the witness box’ (p.42)
  • Schmidt – Arthur’s malicious assistant or minder (p.18)
  • Baron von Pregnitz aka Kuno – a scary drawling nightclub denizen, rimless monocle screwed intimidatingly into his pink face as if by some horrible operation (p.28)
  • Anni with the thigh boots who Arthur likes being whipped by (p.32)
  • Fraulein Schroeder – William’s ancient landlady, who enjoys dressing up and flirting with Arthur
  • Helen Pratt – Berlin correspondent to one of the weekly political magazines, tough as nails, no-nonsense, statistics and Freud, very earnest about Sex (p.38)
  • Fritz Wendel – German-American man about town, likes playing bridge (p.39)
  • Olga – enormous, wobbling hostess of decadent parties i.e. everyone gets blotto, men dance with men

Events, dear boy

Things happen. They have to in a novel. Early on Mr Norris takes William to a New Year’s Eve party to see in 1931 (p.30) at the house of a certain Olga, an enormous good-natured woman. Everyone is very drunk and Isherwood describes being drunk at a party very well. People appear, disappear, he finds himself with his arms round someone, dancing with two or three people at once. He is introduced to the slightly sinister Baron von Pregnitz, then to Anni a bored prostitute wearing leather boots up to her knees. Later on William staggers down the hall, blunders into a room and finds her standing with a whip in hand while fat Mr Norris is on his hands and knees polishing her boots and she is whipping him for being such a naughty boy. Neither of them minds him blundering in, in fact Anni says he can be next.

Anni lives with Otto, her pimp, an enormously strong, good-natured working class man, middleweight champion of his local boxing club (p.57). It is a recurring comic motif that he insists on shaking William’s hand whenever they meet, and crushes it so hard, it takes a while for William to recover feeling in it. Or slaps people so hard on the shoulder that they nearly fall over.

In a surprise development, Mr Norris takes William along to a Communist Party meeting, a hall full of Berlin’s working class, to which he makes a surprisingly impactful plea of solidarity with the poor peasants and workers of China!). William goes along and meets Anni and Otto there (chapter five). It is very funny when all four of them return to Arthur’s flat, open a bottle of wine,m and jovially refer to each other as Comrade Arthur, Comrade Otto and so on.

It is, of course, a scam. Desperate to pay off his debts, Mr Norris has fibbed to the head of the Berlin Communists, a short extremely self-contained man named Bayer, that he has ‘important contacts’ in Paris etc. He never explains it properly to William but the general idea is that he becomes some kind of go-between or messenger.

Mr Norris plans to host a party on his 53rd birthday but William gets there to find everyone gone – Arthur pawned his carpet to pay for it but when Schmidt saw what he’d done and he demanded all the money from the pawnbroker and only left Arthur a few marks.

Arthur tells William that Otto and Anni broke up after they argued about the Party and Otto smacked Anni so hard he knocked her back over the bed and against the wall so hard she dislodged the picture of Stalin which fell to the floor and its glass shattered. Anni runs off and next thing Otto knows she’s shacked up with a guy he knows who quit the Communist Party to join the Nazis. Otto goes right round to the bar or Lokal where this guy, Werner Baldow, and is just being thrown out for the second time when some police passing by and, when he starts attacking them too, arrest him so that he ends up sending a couple of weeks in gaol. (pp.72-73)

As it happens William and Arthur glimpse Otto from a window when Arthur is summonsed to Berlin police headquarters for a, er, meeting. Arthur is so nervous he asks William to accompany him, which our man does. There’s a typically light-hearted / facetious exchange as they emerge from the restaurant where they have a boozy lunch before going into police HQ:

‘Be brave, Comrade Norris, think of Lenin.’
‘I’m afraid, ha ha, I find more inspiration in the Marquis de Sade.’ (page 64)

It turns out to be a friendly enough chat with the authorities but it is just to let Arthur know that they know that he is linked with the Communists and they’re keeping an eye on him.

Half-way hiatus

There is a hiatus half-way through the book, a caesura. Arthur suddenly disappears. William goes round to discover the flat in Courbierestrasse empty and abandoned. A few weeks later William receives a letter from Prague in which he apologises for his sudden disappearance (p.83).

The political situation in Germany deteriorates with more violence in the streets and hysteria in the newspapers (pp.90-92). Nearly six months later William himself goes back to England for an extended break, which includes ‘four months in the country’. He promises to write but doesn’t.

When he finally returns to Berlin in October 1932, and tramps up the familiar stairs of Fraulein Schroeder’s boarding house, he is delighted to discover Arthur has returned! Not only that but he seems to be surprisingly flush and so, being the bon-viveur that he is, insists on immediately taking William to a wildly expensive restaurant. William gives us an amusing description of Arthur’s morning toilette which goes on for some time and involves plucking and make-up.

Mr Norris takes William to dinner at a restaurant where they find Baron von Pregnitz aka Kuno. They’ve had some kind of a fight and Mr Norris rather desperately tries to be the life and soul of the conversation, before making his excuses and leaving, making it clear he’s dumped William for Kuno to seduce, which the latter tries to do in a taxi home, while William successfully fights him off (chapter ten).

(It’s worth remembering that in an earlier chapter, Arthur and William had visited Kuno at a wonderful lakeside mansion he has and discovered it packed with a collection of almost naked, beautiful, tanned and fit young men, who oil themselves, sunbathe, swim in the pool and play practical jokes on Kuno. Gay paradise.)

November 1932. Germany’s confused political situation deteriorates. Everyone is making backroom deals, including Hitler. There is another general election and communist party support increase while the Nazis lose two million votes.

Mr Norris’s murky affairs appear to go downhill. He had been receiving mysterious telegrams from Paris which William and Fraulein Schroeder steamed open. They appeared to come from a woman named Margot and described his presents to her – must be a code, William decides.

One thing leads to another and finally, in a coy and roundabout way, Arthur explains to William that Kuno aka Baron von Pregnitz, now something in the German government, has an interest in a German glass manufacturer. Now his contact in Paris – ‘Margot’ – is interested in going into business with him. What they need to do is to arrange for Margot and Kuno to meet, not on German soil. Slowly Arthur reveals that he himself cannot go because he would find it ‘difficult’ to return to German soil, so, er, would William very much mind accompanying Kuno to Switzerland. Even more suspicious is when Arthur explains that Kuno mustn’t know – the rendezvous when it happens, must appear to be chance.

And so William finds himself kitted out with a new dinner jacket on a train to Switzerland. it didn’t take much persuading to get Kuno to agree to go – after all, we’ve seen that he’s already made one pass at William, he must have thought his chance had come. Their first morning in the sweet Alpine resort is Boxing Day 1932 (p.141).

Here, in chapter thirteen, the book veers into spy thriller / Eric Ambler territory. Over the coming days our duo (William and Kuno) meet several characters – a Mr van Hoorn and his son Piet, tall blond and striking in a Viking way – a French popular novelist Marcel Janin who Isherwood satirises for the brisk superficiality of his research (maybe it’s a lampoon of someone famous – this book has no notes or introduction, it would be nice to know).

The point of the chapter is that William is on tenterhooks trying all the time to guess who ‘Margot’ is that Kuno is supposed to be making contact with. There are various distractions, for example Piet and Kuno seem to form a gay friendship based on athletic skiing, and William has a hair-raising conversation with Piet who explains that Europe needs to be cleansed of its rotten Jews by a strong leader. Eventually, on day three of this mystery, William comes across Mr van Hoorn and Kuno deep in a whispered conversation in a corner of the lounge. Aha. He must be ‘Margot’.

It is just at this moment that William is handed a telegram which triggers the final crisis of the book. It simply reads: ‘Please return immediately’ and is signed Ludwig, an alias used by Bayer, head of the Berlin Communist Party. Something is up. William makes his excuses, packs his bag, catches a train back to Berlin, takes his bags to the flat – Arthur is out – takes a taxi to Communist Party headquarters. Here there is:

The big reveal

Bayer reveals that Arthur has, all this time, been spying for French security – on the communists or anyone else he can information about – sending reports to ‘Margot’ in Paris (p.157). Not only that, but the communists have been using him to send disinformation to the French. Not only that, but the Berlin police know all about it, as they made clear on a visit to Bayer a few days earlier. And now Bayer is, very generously, passing it on to William.

The ‘business’ trip to Switzerland was arranged so that ‘Margot’ – an official from French security – could make an approach to Kuno, not because he is a businessman (I didn’t think he was) but because he is now in the German government. The French are approaching him to see if he wants to spy for them. Bayer calmly lucidly explains that this makes William an accessory to an attempt to suborn an official of the German government. (It’s why Arthur didn’t want to go or be involved.) In other words – William could find himself in a German prison sentenced as a spy.

Listening to this William passes through the gamut of emotions – humiliation, embarrassment, mortification – but with this final revelation blazes with anger. Bayer restricts himself to advising William to be more careful how he picks his friends, and mildly suggests he might want to pass this all on to Arthur and shakes his hand. In a daze in a dream in a dazzle William stumbles down the stairs, out the building, into a taxi and charges up the stairs of Fraulein Schroeder’s boarding house.

Arthur has (conveniently for the theatrics of the situation) returned and William lets him have it with both barrels. Arthur tries to manage it all with his ‘dear boys’ and pooh-poohing but as William reveals that the communists know he’s been betraying them and the police know, too, Arthur’s confidence wilts and then collapses.

Arthur looked up at me quickly, like a spaniel which is going to be whipped. (p.161)

Eventually William’s rage blows over and he starts feeling sorry for the shattered old man before him.

He sat there like a crumpled paper bag, his blue eyes vivid with terror. (p.161)

He says there’s only one thing for it. Arthur has to get out of the country before he’s arrested. Already William’s noticed a detective has been posted outside the boarding house. They discuss it then William packs Arthur along to a travel agency (where the detective follows him) and he returns declaring he has, rather improbably, bought tickets for Mexico. He’ll catch a train to Hamburg, then get the boat.

There is then a Big Psychological Moment – a moment when the scales really drop from the narrator’s eyes:

Mr Norris tentatively asks William whether – given the fact the police don’t know everything yet and that there might be a big reward for more information and William stands to gain from it – whether… he’s going to tell on him…

And in a flash William and the reader realise that Arthur judges everyone by his own standards, thinks everyone can be bought and corrupted, that anyone is willing to betray his friends if the price is right.

William is at first scandalised and insulted by the imputation, by even the suspicion that he might betray his friend. But then he realises… he is the one at fault. All the time he had been projecting his own public schoolboy, English code of honour onto someone who really is from a different time and set of values. His bad. (There is also the deeper implication – that William might not understand anything which is happening around him).

Arthur washes and brushes up and they go for a last meal together but, although they giggle like schoolboys at the detective who so blatantly follows them and even enters the restaurant and has his own meal, the old spirit, the old closeness has gone.

Next morning Arthur liberally gives away those of his belongings he’s not taking with him, dispensing gifts to the porter, the porter’s wife and the porter’s son, and some of his wonderful silk underwear, incongruously, to Fraulein Schroeder.

After a final lunch (these characters and their eating out!) Arthur has packed his bags and moved them into the hall ready to depart when there’s a flurry of excitement. After banging on the door  Schmidt his old minder-bully bursts in, very drunk, looking down at heel, demanding his money and, when he sees Arthur has packed his bags, accusing him of doing a runner. Real violence might have broken out except that, in a moment of Joe Orton farce, it is feeble old Fraulein Schroeder, so angry at having her lovely Herr Norris threatened like this, who runs at Schmidt from behind, taking him unawares, pushing him into the front room (‘like an engine shunting trucks’) and quickly locking the door on him.

William accompanies Arthur to the train station. There is a prolonged and excruciatingly embarrassing farewell during which Arthur pours out wishes and regrets which make William’s toes curl. ‘He was outrageous, grotesque, entirely without shame.’

Coda

The last chapter is a sort of coda or envoi. The Falstaffian figure of Mr Norris departs early in January 1933. His departure disenchants William who for the first time looks around him and sees the dire situation Germany is in. On 30 January 1933 President Paul von Hindenburg, as a result of backroom deals, appointed Hitler as Chancellor. It is William’s acquaintance, the tough journalist Helen Pratt, investigating the uptick in arrests and rumours of torture, who tells William that Bayer, the communist leader, is dead. A Jewish friend suddenly becomes very fearful.

The whole city lay under an epidemic of discreet, infectious fear. I could feel it, like influenza, in my bones.

William realises he’s got various Communist Party papers in his possession, which Bayer had given him to translate into English, and realises how incriminating these would be if the authorities discovered them. He and Fraulein Schroeder hide them. He lies awake at night hearing vans driving past wondering if one will stop and he’ll hear the thunk of Nazi boots on the stairs.

Otto turns up on their doorstep, dirty and dishevelled. His old rival, Werner Baldow, had turned up with six of his stormtroop but Otto escaped through the skylight and has been on the run ever since. They feed and wash him and in a few days he says he’ll leave and try to make his way to the French border. He has a list of comrades who are said to be dead. Of Anni his whore he knows nothing and doesn’t care. Olga the big hostess was protected by having an important Nazi as a client. She’ll be fine.

There is a wonderful bittersweet moment when William shows Otto a postcard from Arthur in Mexico. Otto’s face gleams, he is convinced Arthur is still true to the communist faith, is out there in Mexico making speeches and raising money, old Hitler had better look out when Arthur gets back. ‘Yes of course that’s what he’s doing,’ William lies, with the perfect poise we’ve come to expect of him.

He and Fraulein Schroder give him some food, a penknife and a map of Germany and wave him off. William never hears from him again. Three weeks later William returns to Britain, Helen Pratt comes to visit him, immensely fired up by her award-winning journalism about the new Nazi regime, full of scoops and insider info. She tells him that the police caught Baron von Pregnitz (Kuno) for spying, tailed him to a train station and then chased him into a public lavatory where he locked himself in a cubicle and tried to blow his brains out.

Helen also introduces the final thought and lasting motif of the novel, which is she discovered Pregnitz was being blackmailed by none other than Schmidt, Arthur’s venomous minder-blackmailer. This leads us into the final sequence where the narrator shares with us a series of hilarious-gruesome postcards from Arthur which recount how he moved from Mexico to California where he was hoping to manage a tidy little deal, but who should turn up and ruin it but SCHMIDT. Arthur elopes to Costa Rica – but Schmidt follows him there – ‘may try Peru’ says one brief postcard. But even there Schmidt follows him. He cannot shake him off. By this time the pairing has become allegorical, mythical, the two are tied together like Faust and Mephistopheles, condemned to torment each other for all time. In his very last postcard, Arthur is forced to admit that they are, reluctantly, going into partnership.

And thus the book ends on this complex note, all the preceding frivolity seriously undermined by the final ten pages detailing Nazi brutality and murders, and then this quasi-religious final image of a pair of rascals ‘doomed to walk the earth together’. The very last sentence returns to the comic mode, but now with all kinds of complex overtones.

‘Tell me William,’ his last letter concluded, ‘what have I done to deserve all this?’

Very funny. A comic masterpiece.


Gay culture

Knowing that Isherwood was gay, and would go on to become something of a gay icon, changes the way we read the book. There is the obviously gay character, Baron von Pregnitz and his villa full of tanned half-naked young men. That’s quite a hauntingly sensual image.

Mr Norris himself is a more complex creation. On the one hand he is very associated with the 1890s and the Oscar Wilde circle – what could be more gay? On the other hand Isherwood – presumably because he had to because of the times – makes his peccadilos solidly heterosexual – he may have naughty French erotic literature and he may like to be whipped as he polishes his dominant’s boots – but the naughty books are about schoolgirls and the person holding the whip is definitely a woman (Anni). I.e. the latent homosexuality of the character has been changed into acceptable, if still risqué, heterosexuality.

Despite this camouflage, the book can be seen as a kind of handing on of the torch. Mr Norris educates, shows and displays the camp values and behaviour of that older, late-Victorian and Edwardian, gay generation. William observes and analyses them, and in some measure absorbs them into his good-humoured schoolboy-in-Berlin persona, before taking them with him to sunny California.

The novel stands alone, but can also be interpreted as part of a gay lineage, a tradition, handing on the torch of a subterranean set of behaviours. In his introduction to a recent edition of this book, the gay American novelist Armistead Maupin describes meeting Isherwood at the end of his life, who was kind enough to read the manuscript of his first novel. Like Mr Norris Changes Train, Maupin’s novel rotates around a number of characters in a boarding house and thus, at one remove, invokes the outrageous, camp, very funny and sad persona of Mr Norris. It’s really Maupins idea that he was taking part in a gay lineage or tradition, I’m just pointing out that the entire novel can be read in this light.

Isherwood disowned it

Like many of the 1930s writers, Isherwood came to dislike and even despise his younger self and his early works, for their shallowness and immorality. Not their sexual immorality, the deeper immorality of seeing the real suffering, poverty, prostitution and violence around him in Berlin but thinking it was all frightfully exciting and fun, purely the raw materials for an Englishman’s novels – which is pretty much what the Berlin stories do.

Twenty years later, when Isherwood was invited to write an introduction to a memoir by the real-life person Mr Norris is based on, the memoirist, critic and crook Gerald Hamilton, he took the opportunity to put the record straight:

What repels me now about Mr Norris is its heartlessness. It is a heartless fairy-story about a real city in which human beings were suffering the miseries of political violence and near-starvation. The ‘wickedness’ of Berlin’s night-life was of the most pitiful kind; the kisses and embraces, as always, had price-tags attached to them, but here the prices were drastically reduced in the cut-throat competition of an over-crowded market. … As for the ‘monsters’, they were quite ordinary human beings prosaically engaged in getting their living through illegal methods. The only genuine monster was the young foreigner who passed gaily through these scenes of desolation, misinterpreting them to suit his childish fantasy.

On this reading, the narrator’s endless good humour and incessant laughing is not a sign of his wonderful bonhomie but of his ignorance and superficiality. It encourages us to remember the couple of places where Isherwood explicitly refers to the narrator’s behaviour as immature, callow and schoolboyish.

We sniggered together, like two boys poking fun at the headmaster. (p.168)

Well, maybe this attitude of regret was appropriate enough for Isherwood in later life, but I don’t think we need to be limited by his perspective. Things have moved on since he wrote that. I can think of at least two comic movies about the Nazis which have been well received in our times (Jojo Rabbit and Life is Beautiful) and nobody seems to have questioned the 1972 movie Cabaret for its comic or silly interludes.

And then, the ending of the book, the last chapter, doesn’t at all treat the dangerous times, the Nazis’ arrival in power, the terror of his Jewish friends, at all frivolously. I thought he was being hard on himself.

Lastly, this novel is funny, and funny is good. We need more humour and less anger in the world. For a lot of the book the German background is irrelevant, it could have been set in Paris or any other European capital, any of which would have had communists and fascists fighting against a sense of looming disaster. And wherever it had been set, any novel describing a bunch of posh, amused characters drinking and diletantting against the backdrop of the Great Depression might have prompted the author to later berate himself for not being more sensitive to the poverty and sufferings of the poor, or to the political catastrophe just round the corner.

Don’t beat yourself up, Christopher. It’s a very funny book, Mr Norris is a comic masterpiece and the crisp witty prose it’s written in is a delight to read.


Related links

Weimar Germany

Novels from or about the 1930s

Medieval English lyrics 1200 to 1400 edited by Thomas G. Duncan (1995) Notes on the Introduction

This handy Penguin paperback contains 132 medieval lyrics selected by medieval scholar Thomas G. Duncan. He converted each of them into the south-east England dialect of Chaucer (in my opinion, a highly questionable thing to do), printing them in a format designed to help the reader with pronunciation, giving line-by-line glosses to the meaning of tough words or phrases, with extensive notes on the meaning and imagery of each poem at the back of the book.

Duncan makes a number of interesting points in the introduction, which I wanted to note and remember:

The twelfth century

The twelfth century was the watershed between the heroic warrior code of the Anglo-Saxon world and the chivalrous knightly code of the later Middle Ages

The twelfth century saw the rise of pilgrimages and crusades (First Crusade 1095-99), commercial expansion, ecclesiastical change and revival of the church, flourishing of cathedral schools and the emergence of universities (Bologna 1088, Oxford 1096, Salamanca 1134, Cambridge 1209, Padua 1222, Naples 1224, Toulouse 1229, Siena 1240) Gothic architecture (pioneered at the Basilica of Saint-Denis, near Paris, whose choir was reconstructed with Gothic rib vaults and large stained glass windows between 1140 and 1144).

1. Courtly love and love lyrics

The twelfth century also saw the flourishing and spread of the poetry of courtly love pioneered by the troubadours in the south of France in the period from about 1100 to 1150. The feudal concept of service to a male lord was converted into the idea of service to a lady in the name of love. The troubadours took the idea to extremes, claiming in their poems that service to the Lady was the only thing that made life worth living, while her disdain and scorn made a man want to die.

Most of the love lyrics before Chaucer (active 1360-1400) survive in just one manuscript – MS. Harley 2253 in the British Library. Duncan repeats this fact in another form at the end of the introduction, namely, that if this one manuscript had not survived, then we would have lost half the lyrics – and often the best ones – from the entire Middle Ages before Chaucer. The contingency, the slenderness of fate by which these beautiful things happen to have survived… we live in a world of accidental survivals, chance remnants…

The thirty-five love lyrics in his selection use many of the tropes of courtly love but are distinct from real troubadour poetry for the following reason: troubadour poetry was often intensely intellectual, its poets developing highly sophisticated philosophical concepts of different types of ‘love’. The English lyrics Duncan includes are much less demanding, much more formulaic, because made for public declamation or performance.

They make use of stock ideas: the lover sighs, lies awake at night, feels condemned to death, and pleads for mercy. The lady shines, her hair is golden, her neck is long, her waist slender.

These ideas are expressed in standard phrases, often alliterative indicating their deepness in the language and tradition: the lady is a ‘byrde in a bower’, ‘brightest under bis’, ‘geynest under gore’ and ‘beste among the bolde’. Ladies are sometimes described through elaborate comparisons, often with flowers or precious stones.

Heo is coral of godnesse;
Heo is rubie of ryhtfulnesse;
Heo is cristal of clannesse;
Ant baner of bealte.
Heo is lilie of largesse;
Heo is paruenke of prouesse;
Heo is solsecle of suetnesse,
Ant ledy of lealte.

She is coral of goodness;
She is ruby of uprightness;
She is crystal of chastity;
And banner of beauty.
She is lily of generosity;
She is periwinkle of excellence;
She is marigold of sweetness,
And lady of loyalty.

They do not philosophise or argue. Because they are songs meant to be sung to an audience, the pleasure derives not from the novelty of the thought, but from the familiarity of the tropes and similes.

Some of the love poems are in a genre pioneered by trouvère poets of northern France, the chanson d’aventure which opens with the narrator out riding when he comes across… something or more usually someone, most often a pretty young maiden.

Als I me rode this endre dai
O my pleyinge,
Seih icche hwar a littel mai
Bigan to singe

As I went riding the other day
for my pleasure
I saw where a little maiden
Began to sing.

Or:

Ase y me rod this ender day
By grene wod to seche play
mid herte y thoghte al on a may
surest of all thinge…

As I rode out the other day
By a green wood to seek pleasure
with my heart I was thinking about a  maid
sweetest of all things…

The pastourelle is sub-set of the chanson d’aventure in which the poet encounters a maiden who is sad or pining for love or loss, and proceeds to offer her ‘comfort’. Duncan points out that, in all forms of the chanson d’aventure, the fact that the poet is riding a horse emphasises his knightly or noble status, and also confers a social – and physical – advantage over the poor helpless maiden that he meets.

The reverdie is an old French poetic genre, which celebrates the arrival of spring. Literally, it means ‘re-greening’. Often the poet will encounter Spring, symbolized by a beautiful woman. Originating in the troubadour ballads of the early Middle Ages, reverdies were very popular during the time of Chaucer. They occur in numerous poems, both as a central conceit or metaphor or as preparatory description leading into the main poem. For example, the extended description of the joys of spring in ‘Lenten is come with love to toun’.

Lenten ys come with loue to toune,
With blosmen ant with briddes roune,
That al this blisse bryngeth.
Dayeseyes in this dales,
Notes suete of nyhtegales,
Vch foul song singeth.
The threstelcoc him threteth oo;
Away is huere wynter wo
When woderoue springeth.
This foules singeth ferly fele
Ant wlyteth on huere [wynne] wele
That al the wode ryngeth.

Translation

Spring has arrived, with love,
With flowers, and with birdsong,
Bringing all this joy.
Daisies in the valleys,
The sweet notes of nightingales,
Every bird sings a song.
The thrush is constantly wrangling;
Their winter misery is gone
When the woodruff flowers.
These birds sing in great numbers,
And chirp about their wealth of joys,
So that all the wood rings.

In fact it’s important to realise that the poets of the day intensively categorised and formalised all the types and subject matters of their poems, gave them names, and then did their best to excel each other at a particular type, or to ring changes on it. Duncan mentions other genres such as:

  • the chanson de mal-mariée, a song expressing the grievances of an unhappy wife, traditional in northern and southern France and Italy, reflecting the social reality of customary male dominance
  • the song of the betrayed maiden, who has been made pregnant and abandoned
  • the chanson des transformations in which the wooed lady imagines transforming into all sort of animals and birds to escape her lover (who often imagines changing into the predator of each of her imagined animals, in order to capture her)

Duncan’s selection of love lyrics ends with half a dozen poems by Chaucer or in his style. There is an immediate change in tone, style and form from what went before. Chaucer was a highly sophisticated poet, attendant on the court of Richard II, who had travelled to Italy and knew the leading poets of Italy and France.

Instead of anonymous and stock situations, Chaucer names specific individuals. Whereas the earlier lyrics were made to be sung and so use standardised phrases and familiar ideas, Chaucer’s poems were meant to be recited to a courtly audience which delighted in picking up personal and learned references. Whereas the earlier lyrics are often simple in form, Chaucer’s tend to be far more wordy, and composed in complex rhyme schemes copied from his French contemporaries e.g. so-called rhyme royal in which each stanza consists of seven lines rhyming ababbcc. Chaucer’s poetry is far more wordy, learned and urbane than anything which went before.

2. Penitential and moral lyrics

Duncan contrasts lines from the Anglo-Saxon poem The Wanderer with some of the medieval penitential poems. In the former the sense of desolation is complete. The great hall, the brave warriors, the fire and the feasting have all completely disappeared and the poet is left embattled and alone in a friendless world.

Gemon he selesecgas ond sincþege,
hu hine on geoguðe his goldwine
wenede to wiste wyn eal gedreas!

He remembers hall-warriors and the giving of treasure
How in youth his lord (gold-friend) accustomed him
to the feasting – All the joy has died!

Later the Wanderer speaks a famous lament which gave its name to the whole genre, ‘Where are…?’ he asks about the trappings of lordship and power, which came to be known as the ‘ubi sunt?’ the Latin phrase for ‘where are the…?’

Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu? Hwær sindon seledreamas?
Eala beorht bune! Eala byrnwiga! Eala þeodnes þrym!
Hu seo þrag gewat, genap under nihthelm,
swa heo no wære…

Where is the horse gone? Where the rider? Where the giver of treasure?
Where are the seats at the feast? Where are the revels in the hall?
Alas for the bright cup! Alas for the mailed warrior! Alas for the splendour of the prince!
How that time has passed away, dark under the cover of night,
as if it had never been…

As you can see, it is an apocalyptic vision of the complete destruction of a society.

By contrast the medieval lyrics are much more sophisticated and often much more personal. The whole world hasn’t been destroyed, it lives on but – for the purposes of his lament – the poet may point to the fall of powerful kings, the downfall of the rich and mighty, or his own calamities, or just a general sense that, no matter how bright and shiny, all life ends with death. This is embodied in the ubiquitous image of Fortune’s Wheel, ever turning, ever raising up the hopeful and bringing down the mighty.

Duncan points to a poem from his period which literally uses the ubi sunt formula, but manages – paradoxically – to convey a sense of the wonderful wealth and courtliness of the world the poet is describing.

Where ben they bifore us were,
Houndës ladde and hawkës bere,
And haddë feld and wode?
The richë ladies in here bour
That wered gold in here tressour
With here brighte rode?

The second really big difference is that, although the Anglo-Saxon poems make reference to God and the Almighty, they don’t really give much sense of Christian theology, of a Christian worldview. By contrast the medieval poems have fully incorporated Christian theology and terminology and so the standard lament for falls, declines and ageing, are confidently and beautifully mingled with references to death, judgement, sin and punishment, hell and damnation and so on.

Once again, as in the love lyrics section, the final poems are by Chaucer and of an altogether different level of sophistication, as befits one writing for the court, for the most learned and sophisticated audience in the country. The poems themselves are much chunkier, fuller, the lines are longer and there are more of them. Here’s the opening stanza of The Balade de Bon Conseyl in rhyme royal (ababbcc).

Flee fro the prees, and dwelle with sothefastness;
Suffyse unto thy thing though it be smal,
For hord hath hate and clymbyng tykelness,
Prees hath envye and wele blent overal.
Savour no more thanne thee byhove shal,
Ruele wel thiself that other folk canst rede,
And trouth thee shall delyvere, it is no drede.

Once again, Chaucer’s tone is immensely urbane and worldly wise. He is never hectoring or angst-ridden as some of medieval penitential writing is.

3. Devotional lyrics

Duncan explains that the eleventh century saw a revolution in Christian theology and sensibility. Previous theories of the atonement focused on the notion that God and the Devil were like two feudal lords fighting over the world. Man had mistakenly given his allegiance to the Devil who therefore acquired the rights of a medieval lord over his vassal. God couldn’t abrogate those rights and so resorted to a cunning plan. He sent his son down to earth as a man. The agents of the Devil, denying his divinity, crucified him, but this was a mistake because based on a wrong conception of Christ’s nature and his legal rights. The Devil, in effect, got his law wrong, and this enabled God to reclaim man as his vassal.

You can see how extraordinarily legalistic this conception is. According to Duncan, during the 11th century the theologian Saint Anselm presented a completely new theology of the atonement. In this view Man, by disobeying God, incurred the penalty of Death. Christ volunteered to become a man and pay the penalty in Man’s place.

Thus the story changes from a rather dry and legalistic story to become one which emphasises the humanity of Christ, and which dwells not on legalistic terminology, but instead on the blood, sweat and tears, the suffering and agony of the man Jesus. It is this tremendous humanising of the Jesus story which comes to dominate later medieval sensibility. Duncan quotes the great medievalist R.W. Southern’s account of how the Cistercian monks spread what became a great flood of sensibility and tenderness.

The tenderness is reflected in a host of topoi or standard subjects, for example the sweetness of knowing Jesus and loving him, and the devotion and motherly love of Mary, a figure which also came to dominate later medieval religiosity. Many of the poems describe the sweetness of the love between mother and child, several of them in the form of lullabies, but lullabies touched with the infinite sadness that we know what the fate of the sweet little babe will be.

Lullay, lullay, little grom [lad, boy]
King of allë thingë,
When I think of thee mischief
Me list wel litel sing [I have very little wish to sing]

Another standard topos was to consider Mary standing at the foot of the cross looking up at her dying son. Sometime in the 13th century a Latin poem, the Stabat Mater, was written on this subject and would go on to be set to music by numerous composers. A number of poems in this selection depict this scene, but Duncan singles out the extraordinary ‘Why have ye no routhe’ because in it Mary appears to turn on her son’s persecutors with real anger.

Why have ye no routhe on my child? [pity]
Have routhe on me ful of mourning;
Tak doun o rode my derworth child [rode = cross]
Or prik me o rode with my derling! [nail me up]

More pine ne may me ben y-don [more hurt cannot be done me]
Than lete me live in sorwe and shame;
As love me bindëth to my sone,
So let us deyen bothe y-same. [both die together]

Many poems use sophisticated techniques to achieve deceptively simple effects and Duncan points to the common use of anaphora i.e. the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses. But in among the longer, more calculating poems, you keep coming across short ones which possess a proverbial, primeval power.

Now goth sonne under wode,
Me reweth, Marie, thi faire rode.
Now goth sonne under tre,
Me reweth, Marie, thi sone and thee.

Now goes the sun behind the wood
I grieve, Mary, for your fair face.
Now goes the sun behind the tree.
I grieve, Mary, thy son and thee.

4. Miscellaneous lyrics

These are the most ‘Chaucerian’ of the four categories because they have the least to do with elaborate courtliness or Christian worship, and instead describe more everyday subjects such as imprisonment, poverty, exploitation, bribery and corruption as well as wit and humour.

They also tend to be the longest and most rambling. Duncan singles out ‘Ich herde men upon mold’, a long lament by a farmer oppressed by the endless taxes of the mighty, and describes the harsh taxes, the cruel weather and the petty officials of the manor including the ‘hayward’ (who was responsible for maintaining the fences which separated the common land from enclosed land), the ’bailiff’ (who administered the lord’s land and upheld his rights in law), the ‘woodward’ (who was in charge of forests and forest timber) and the ‘beadle’ (who worked under the authority of the bailiff, here acting as a tax-collector.

The previous three sections – the love poetry and the devotional verse – tend to focus on the individual and his laments over Fortune’s Wheel or his emotional response to Jesus and Mary. In these longer ballads and poems we re-encounter the broader social world in which those feelings took place. Here are the first two stanzas:

Ich herde men upon mold
make muche mon
Hou he ben y-tened
of here tilyinge
Gode yeres and corn
bothe ben a-gon
Ne kepen here no sawe
ne no song singe.

Now we mote werche
nis ther non other won
May ich no lengere
live with my lesinge
Yet ther is a bitterer
bit to the bon
For ever the ferthe peni
mot to the kinge.

Translated:

I hear men upon earth
make much moan
how they are harassed
in their farming
good years and corn-crops
both have gone
they care to hear no tales
nor no song sing.

Now we must work
there is no other choice
may I no longer
live with my losses
Yet there is a bitterer
cut to the bone
for every fourth penny
must go to the king.

This is poignant to read in the context of Dan Jones’s history of the Plantagenet kings which I’ve just finished. Jones shows all the rulers of England, without exception, repeatedly, year after year, mulcting and taxing, fleecing and extorting money from their entire kingdoms, again and again imposing draconian taxes, to fund their violent and generally futile foreign wars.

It’s easy to get blasé about this history and to concentrate solely on the political consequences of monarchs overtaxing their realms. A poem like this redresses the balance and, in the absence of so much information about people’s ordinary lives and livelihoods, amounts to important – and baleful – social history.

Luminarium

If you want to browse further, check out the Luminarium website which has a selection of about 40 medieval poems, giving the original text alongside a translation, almost all of them accompanied by a snippet of the poem in a musical setting, some by modern composers, some reconstructions of medieval tunes.

There’s also a PDF of medieval lyrics, carols and ballads, which Duncan seems to have been involved in publishing and translating.


Related links

Other medieval reviews

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

Collected short stories of Somerset Maugham volume two

‘It’s rather a long story. I’m afraid it’s not a very nice one and I find it rather difficult to tell. I’m going to ask you not to interrupt me, or to say anything, till I’ve finished.’
(The Force of Circumstance)

William Somerset Maugham’s collected short stories were published in four volumes by Penguin in 1963, and have gone through various editions with numerous publishers in the 55 years since then (at one stage available from Pan, the four volumes are currently published by Vintage).

This is volume two, which contains 24 stories in 400 closely-printed pages, all told with the leisurely urbanity for which Maugham is renowned, the texts unfurling like the turbid rivers which flow past the planters’ bungalows in his tales of the Far East.

She was sitting on the veranda waiting for her husband to come in for luncheon. The Malay boy had drawn the blinds when the morning lost its freshness, but she had partly raised one of them so that she could look at the river. Under the breathless sun of midday it had the white pallor of death. A native was paddling along in a dug out so small that it hardly showed above the surface of the water. The colours of the day were ashy and wan. They were but the various tones of the heat. (It was like an Eastern melody, in the minor key, which exacerbates the nerves by its ambiguous monotony; and the ear awaits impatiently a resolution, but waits in vain.) The cicadas sang their grating song with a frenzied energy; it was as continual and monotonous as the rustling of a brook over the stones. (The Force of Circumstance)

24 stories

Here’s a brief summary of each of the stories, with its publication date, setting and whether the story is told by a third or first person narrator.

The Vessel of Wrath (published in 1931 – set in the Alas Islands, Papua New Guinea – told by a 3rd person narrator) In the remote Alas Islands fat, jovial, Dutch governor Evert Gruyter is astonished when the flat-chested, dried-up old missionary’s sister, Miss Jones, manages to persuade the islands’ resident drunk and ne’er-do-well, Ginger Ted, to marry her.

The Force of Circumstance (1924 – Malaysia – 3rd) In a remote station in Borneo, fat red-faced Guy is perfectly happy with the new wife he’s brought back from England, Doris, until he is forced to confess that, before her arrival, he had lived for some years with a native woman and sired three children. Disgusted, Doris asks for six months to recover her feelings for him, but fails and heads off back to England, leaving a devastated Guy to set up house again with his Dyak wife.

Flotsam and Jetsam (1940 – Borneo – 3rd) Skelton an anthropologist is taken in by gruff, poor planter Norman Grange and his slight, withered, tic-ridden wife, Vesta. Terrified of her husband, Vesta tells Skelton her story – a down at heel actress stranded in the east after the theatre company went bankrupt she jumped at the chance to marry a wealthy planter, only to discover Grange’s poverty when it was too late. When a handsome kindly planter buys an estate nearby she starts a passionate affair with him, only for Grange to find out and shoot the man, who topples onto Vesta covering her in blood. Hence her obsessive, Lady MacBeth-like nervous tics of the hand.

The Alien Corn (1931 – Home Counties – 3rd) Set in very high society, the story is about a successful family of Jews who have completely assimilated to English society and pass themselves off as upper-class English family, the Blands. The narrator knows the more openly Jewish brother of the main family and it is via this contact that he observes the family tragedy, namely that the young son, George (21), wishes more than anything else to become a pianist (the family want him to go into the family business, then inherit the family constituency as an MP). Grudgingly they let him go and study piano in Germany for a few years, where the narrator visits him. Back in England, the narrator is present for the denouement, when the family invite the greatest pianist of the age, Lea Markart, down to their country home to hear the young man perform. George plays his heart out whereupon Madame Makart politely but firmly declares that he will never in a thousand years be up to concert standard. George nods, chats politely to the other house party guests, pops out to the gun room and shoots himself through the heart.

The Creative Impulse (1926 – London – I) A satire on the literary world. The novelist Mrs Albert Forrester lives happily with her compliant, weedy husband Albert, and surrounded by adoring acolytes; she has, we are assured, done absolute marvels with the semi-colon! And then, one fine day, out of the blue, Albert leaves her for the cook, Mrs Bullfinch. When Mrs F confronts Albert and Mrs B in their cosy love nest, wailing that she won’t have enough money to live on, Mrs B looks up from her ironing and throws out the suggestion that she write a detective story. Mrs Albert Forrester mulls this idea over on the Tube back to her apartment, where she announces to her adoring fans that this is precisely what she will do. Genius idea, they all crow, and that is the origin of that noted bestseller, The Achilles Shield.

Virtue (1931 – London – I) The narrator bumps into Gerry Morton who he had met in Borneo and invited to come stay when he was back in London. Now he is so obviously lonely that the narrator introduces him to a very happily married couple, the Bishops and to everyone’s amazement the wife, Margery, has a fling with the unprepossessing young man, eventually leaving her husband, who goes through the phases of a) not believing it b) drinking heavily and, when he learns that his wife is going to travel out to Borneo to be with young Morton, he c) kills himself.

The Man with the Scar (1925 – Guatemala – I) A very short story in which the narrator is told the story behind a beggar with a scar who comes into the local hotel every day. Apparently the beggar was a high-ranking opponent of the current regime, arrested, tried and about to be shot by a firing squad. Granted a last wish he asked to see his beloved for one last kiss, they fetched her and he stabbed her in the neck, killing her, for being unfaithful to him. The officer and men of the firing squad were all so awed that they set him free, and here he is begging in a tourist hotel.

The Closed Shop (1926 – South America – I) The President of an unnamed Latin American country passes a liberal law allowing people to divorce in 30 days. This has the unintended result that lots of Americans descend on the city to file for divorce, almost all of them women, staying for the requisite 30 days and, since they’re dumping their husbands anyway, many of them have flings with the local men. This threatens the livelihood of the local prostitutes who form a deputation of three leading (female) brothel-keepers to visit the president. He treats them courteously, listens, agrees, and adjusts the law to stop American women consorting with local men. The prostitutes’ business booms again, and the narrator assures us that the three madams in question now have enough money to fund their children through expensive colleges in America. Very droll.

The Bum (1929 – Vera Cruz, Mexico – I) Very short story in which the narrator is stalled in the Mexican port of Vera Cruz, waiting for a ship, dines in the same town square every lunchtime and is struck by one beggar who stands out from all the others by dint of  his bright red hair. After a few days he realises with a start that it is a man he knew twenty years earlier in Rome, when he was in his early twenties, dashing and handsome who told everyone he was going to become a Great Writer.

The Dream (1924 – Vladivostok – I) Very short story in which the narrator recalls visiting Russia in 1917 (part of Maugham’s real-life MI6 mission to Russia after the March 1917 revolution), being stuck for a day in Vladivostok and dining with a fat ugly Russian who tells him about a recurring dream his wife had of being pushed over the banisters of their 6th floor apartment and plummeting down the stairwell – and which eventually comes true, as the fat Russian describes with an indescribable look of ‘malicious cunning’.

The Treasure (1934 – London – 3rd) Richard Harenger is a successful civil servant. He separates from his wife and goes to live in a flat where he has a cook, a butler, but requires a housemaid. He’s recommended a handsome discreet lady named Pritchard who turns out to be the absolutely perfect servant in every respect, the ‘treasure’ of the title. The story lists the ways she is impeccably turned out, serves at meals immaculately, is always on time and discreet. Eventually, one night at a loose end, Richard comes home to find Pritchard in the flat (she was meant to be going out but had been stood up). On the spur of the moment Richard invites her to the pictures; on a whim invites her for supper; then, as they arrive back at the flat, on an impulse, he kisses her, then… they go to bed. He wakes in the morning thinking what a fool he’s been, how he’s compromised his position for half an hour of fun, how he will have to get rid of her etc. Until Pritchard comes into the bedroom, dressed in formal housemaid uniform, serves his breakfast and lays out his clothes as if nothing had happened. Yes, she really is the perfect housemaid!

The Colonel’s Lady (1946 – 3rd – Country mansion and London) Social satire. George Peregrine is a type of the stiff-upper-lip, Conservative MP, local magistrate, grand landowner and so on, living in his ancestral pile in rural Yorkshire. He discovers that his grey, characterless wife has published a slim volume of verse which has taken London by storm, and he slowly discovers that the book describes a passionate affair between the bored wife of a country landowner and a passionate young man i.e. broadcasts to the world that his wife has been unfaithful to him.

Lord Mountdrago (1939 – London – 3rd) A sort of ghost story. It opens with a portrait of a tall thin cadaverous doctor, Dr Audlin, Maugham’s version of a psychoanalyst, who has discovered an ability to cure and heal troubled people via the talking cure. To his office comes bluff, bullying snob Lord Mountdrago, who happens to be the Foreign Secretary. What slowly emerges is that he’s been having tortured dreams – of attending a grand aristocratic party wearing no trousers, of being ridiculed in the house – and all featuring the vindictive figure of a common, working class Welsh MP. What makes it genuinely eerie is that this same MP appears to know about the dreams and makes smart references to them when Mountdrago bumps into him in Westminster. The tale moves like a dream towards a surprisingly spooky climax. Along the way it allows Maugham, through the character of Audlin, to mull over the way people at large are more surprising, shocking, unexpected, violent and unhappy than any of us realise.

The Social Sense (1929 – London society – I) Tom and Mary Warton are a happily married couple in London’s high society. He is a portrait painter and she a former concert singer. This short story is a profile of their increasingly unhappy marriage, as Tom fails to reach his potential and Mary taunts and humiliates him. For the last 25 years she has in fact being having an affair with ugly but brilliant literary critic, Gerrard Manson. The story, such as it is, finds the narrator sitting next to Mary at a formal dinner while she struggles to conceal her distress at just discovering that Manson has died – while the narrator watches, and helps with small talk, consumed with admiration for her resilience.

The Verger (1929 – a London church – 3rd) A slyly comic, and very short, story about a long-standing verger, Foreman, at a fashionable London church who’s worked himself up from being fourth footman, through various positions with the gentry. The vicar learns that, despite all this, Foreman cannot read and write and, being modern, dismisses him. Foreman goes wandering, dazed through the streets, fancies a fag and finds himself in a long Victorian terrace with no newsagents, and it crosses his mind to open one. Long story short, he gets a loan from the bank, the shop is a success, he finds another London neighbourhood with no convenience shop and opens one, and so on, until ten years later he owns a chain of shops and is worth a mint. Bank manager calls him in to discuss what to do with his fortune and is flabbergasted to learn his best customer can neither read nor write. ‘Why, man, just imagine where you’d be if you could read and write’. ‘I know where I’d be,’ says Foreman with a smile. ‘I would still be verger of St Peter’s church, Neville Square.

In a Strange Land (1924 – Turkey – 1st) opens with a page long meditation on how the narrator/Maugham has found intrepid Englishwomen living in solitude in the most out-of-the-way places. As an example he tells the story of the time he checked into a shabby hotel in Turkey and was surprised to find it kept by a former lady’s maid from England. She had been married to a dashing Italian who had an affair with a Greek girl and had two sons. The Italian died some time ago and the handsome young chaps still adore her. As with much of Maugham it is a short exercise in unexpected psychology.

The Taipan (1922 – Shanghai – 3rd) A very short ghost story, reminiscent of Kipling’s imperial horror stories. A successful Brit, brought up in suburban Barnes and now running a big business in China, living in a mansion with three servants, strolls through the English cemetery and sees two coolies digging a grave. When he asks people in his office and officials they all deny any Brits have died. That evening he drinks to much at the club, wakes in the night in a panic, and is found next morning stone dead. The grave was for him boom boom!

The Consul (1922 – China – 3rd – Interesting to learn that this, The Taipan, and three other stories were published in a volume titled Foreign Devils in Asia.) Another very short and relatively early story, just a few pages long. A working class woman in England marries a Chinese lodger who gives the impression he is rich and lives in a palace. When they arrive at this out of the way town she discovers to her horror that he is fairly poor, lives in a grimy little hut with his domineering mother and – this is the final straw – his first, Chinese wife! She goes to see the vain, pukka British consul with an endless litany of complaints but what drives him to distraction is that, despite the whole situation and endless provocations, she refuses to leave him. The consul offers to arrange accommodation with some missionary ladies and then travel back to England but she refuses. Extremely frustrated the consul asks why, to which she replies:

‘There’s something in the way his hair grows on his forehead that I can’t help liking.’

A Friend in Need (1925 – Japan – I) Edward Hyde Burton is a tiny man in his 60s who has carved out a successful career as a businessman in Japan. After two pages setting the scene where the story is told (gin fizzes at the Grand Hotel in Yokohama) the narrator finds himself listening as Burton tells the story of a white man who arrived in Yokohama, socialised, played cards, and turned up on our Burton’s doorstep one day stony broke after losing all his money at poker. Burton asks if the chap has any talents and the other reveals that he can swim, that in fact he swam for his university. Well, says our man, swim round the cape, about three miles, I’ll meet you with a car and towels at the beach and we’ll see about a job. Surprised and puzzled, the other agrees and leaves the office. Eye witnesses say he arrived at the start beach, stripped to his costume and set off into the water – but never arrived at the finish beach. Drink and dissipation had undermined his constitution. The narrator asks, ‘Didn’t you realise he’d be drowned?’ Little, innocent, white-haired Burton replies: ‘Let’s put it this way: I didn’t have a vacancy in the office.’ The narrator – like the reader – is quietly appalled at the dark depths of even the most inoffensive-seeming people.

The Round Dozen (1924 – a resort on the South Coast of England – I) A broadly comic story in which the narrator is resting at a south coast resort when he meets two sets of people: at the hotel is a very old-fashioned elderly couple, the St Clairs, who he enjoys spending time with because they remind him of his Victorian youth, accompanied by their fifty-something daughter, Miss Porchester, who has a trim figure and silver hair. And out on his rambles, the narrator several times encounters a shabby-looking man who cadges cigarettes off him before revealing, with a flourish, that he is none other than Mortimer Ellis, the famous bigamist. (It is a comic and typical moment when he reveals this and Maugham looks on without changing expression, having never heard of him.)

‘I’ve had eleven wives, sir’, he went on.
‘Most people find one about as much as they can manage.’ I replied.

Ellis gives Maugham the inside dope on What Women Want and how to get them to marry you. He was eventually caught by one of his wives and sentenced to five years in gaol, has only recently got out, hence the shabbiness and the cadging. And, he explains to the narrator, it’s always irked him that he only married eleven wives – such an uneven, lopsided number: twelve would have been much better, like the disciples or signs of the zodiac. To cut a long story short, Ellis ends up persuading the quiet spinster daughter of the Victorian couple to run away with him, much to the narrator’s amusement.

The Human Element (1930 – London and Rhodes – I) In Rome in the off season the narrator bumps into Humphrey Carruthers, a pompous humourless man from the Foreign Office who he is then forced to see socially a few times. To his surprise, on one of these occasions Carruthers breaks down and tells him the long story of his unrequited love for Lady Betty. The story then stops for a long recap of the career of Lady Betty, Maugham’s portrait of an archetypical Bright Young Thing, the young hedonists who filled the gossip columns and celebrity pages after the Great War. (It is bracing to see Maugham pooh-pooh the brainless worship of celebrities, of gossip columns, of the way they endorsed beauty products – all a hundred years ago: nothing changes.)

Our hostess had a weakness for the persons technically known as celebrities.

Carruthers falls heavily for Lady Betty but she is thronged by admirers. She disappoints them all by marrying the very rich son of a northern businessman and, as a result, slowly becomes less of a fixture of wild parties at fashionable nightclubs. However gossip soon spreads that the marriage is failing. The husband goes off to sanatoria on the continent, leaving Lady Betty at home. Eventually they separate and Lady Betty goes to live on the Greek island of Rhodes. But Carruthers has never forgotten her. He wangles an invitation to go and stay with her for a fortnight and this is the core of the story he tells the narrator: he spends the first week of his stay nerving himself to propose to the love of his life, but then, one night, he discovers her swimming naked and giggling with the chauffeur, a rough, brawny, handsome specimen. In a flash Carruthers realises they have been lovers for a decade, that the marriage to the northern businessman was only for his money. As a snob, Carruthers is appalled; as a lover he is prostrate with grief. And this is the story he pours out over cocktails in a Rome restaurant to Maugham who, being the urbane man of the world that he is, keeps it to himself but rather approves of her conduct.

Jane (1923 – London – I) A broadly comic story about two ladies in their fifties – Mrs Tower, the type of London society hostess Maugham is always being invited to parties by, and her plain sister-in-law, Jane Fowler, very straitlaced, traditionally dressed and dull. To everyone’s amazement, Jane becomes engaged to a stylish young man 27 years her junior, Gilbert Napier, who finds her funny and attractive. Gilbert proceeds to completely revamp her appearance, designing dresses to bring out her surprisingly beautiful neck and shoulders, inviting her to parties and so on. The narrator goes on a long trip abroad and when he returns is astonished to discover that Jane has become the talking point of the season, dressed in her astonishing outfits and reducing all and sundry to tears of hilarity with her blunt plain-speaking conversation. Barely have we processed this transformation than there is another one, that Jane separates from hapless Gilbert and elopes with an admiral.

Footprints in the Jungle (1927 – Malaya – I) A fairly long story in which the narrator plays bridge (as so often) with a charming couple, the Cartwrights, and the local head of police Gaze. Later that evening, over drinks, Gaze tells the long story of how the strong sturdy Mrs Cartwright’s first husband, Bronson, was found shot dead in the jungle and how it took him a long time to compile the evidence leading him to think he was murdered by Cartwright who, he thinks, was having an affair with the wife and had impregnated her. The couple murdered Bronson, and then married. And you know what – you couldn’t meet a happier or nicer couple.

The Door of Opportunity (1931 – Malaya – 3rd) A very powerful story, given force by its artful construction. In part one an English couple arrive back in London from service in Malaya, the tall handsome man, Alban, brimming with excitement to be back in London. But we realise that his wife, Anne, is not happy and, once they’ve checked into a hotel and he’s gone off to visit his club, she makes plans to pack her things and leave him. Why?

Now comes the central flashback of the story which details their life in the small remote station in Malaya. Alban is universally disliked because he is tall, handsome, well educated, intellectual and sensitive. Anne doesn’t care; she is, in contrast, short and monkey faced, but they understand each other perfectly. Until the day of the coolie rebellion when the workers on a rubber plantation some distance away in the jungle rise up and murder the owner, Prynne, injuring his manager, who makes it to Anne and Alban’s station more dead than alive.

This is when it happens: Alban tends the injured man, ascertains the facts and then, instead of setting off with the handful of men at his disposal to confront the murdering natives, he announces that he will send a launch to the nearest town for reinforcements and wait. The wounded manager is surprised. Anne is horrified. She looks into his soul and realises he is a coward.

After two tense days, a police man arrives from the town with 20 Sikh soldiers and they set off on a night-time journey upriver. But instead of finding rampaging coolies, they find a jolly fat Dutch planter who has quelled the whole ‘rebellion’ within hours of it occurring with just two assistants. Alban is shown up as being an over-cautious coward.

He is called down to town to answer to the governor: the governor is impressed by the rational lucidity of Alban’s defence, but sacks him nonetheless. The image of the brave, decisive white man must be kept up, and Alban has let the side down. What is fascinating is the accuracy with which Maugham depicts the reactions of all concerned, the other chaps in the club, the wives, the padre, the governor and his wife – sympathetic but all agreed: the chap must go.

So Alban is fired and sails back to England with Anne. In the final pages Anne tells him just what she thinks of him, how he has let not just himself down but everything they believed in, art and intelligence; how she loathes and detests him and is leaving him. Tall, handsome Alban collapses in tears but Anne walks out.


Comments

I shall draw attention to:

  1. Maugham’s prose style, its smooth leisureliness but frequent oddities
  2. his eye for a good figure, male or female
  3. the settings, in the Far East or the Home Counties
  4. the way he changed the titles of the stories
  5. Maugham’s oddly mundane quotability
  6. Maugham’s ‘philosophy’

1. Prose style

Leisurely

‘Excuse me sir, but am I right in thinking that you are the well-known author?’ (The round dozen)

Maugham’s tone and approach is spectacularly leisurely and relaxed. True, it varies a little from story to story, the really short ones being, of necessity, relatively pithy. But, given enough space, Maugham likes to start a story with the kind of long-winded introductions which remind you of Victorian essayists.

Take, for example, the two-page introduction to Virtue, which starts by describing exactly the type of Havana cigar the author enjoys before going on to consider the oddity of the life force which has evolved countless millions of creatures over billions of years so that a lamb cutlet ends up on your plate or a brace of oysters are served on ice. By such oddities and quirks are human lives decided.

The contrast between Maughan’s leisurely style and his often biting narratives

It is only after these leisurely lucubrations that the author finally gets round to describing the random chance by which he bumps into an acquaintance from Borneo in Bond Street and unintentionally sets off the chain of events which the story describes (summarised above). Having got to the end of the tale, and been as surprised and shocked as the narrator by the tragic, drunken suicide of fat jovial Charlie Bishop – it is disconcerting to look back at the opening pages about cigars and sheep from this now bitter perspective; the author’s calm urbane tone seeming incongruous and almost surreal.

The same device is used for The human element where there is a long page and a half of leisurely thoughts about Rome in the off season before we get anywhere near meeting the main character, Carruthers.

I looked around me with satisfaction. It is very agreeable to find yourself alone in a great city which is not yet quite strange to you and in a large empty hotel. It gives you a delectable sense of freedom. I felt the wings of my spirit give a little flutter of delight.

Or in The round dozen which opens with the author’s impression of English seaside resorts. The technique in all these stories is to lull you into the author’s worldview, sedate, civilised, slow and leisurely – to slow you right down to his speed, before introducing any of the characters.

This element of slowing down – more than any of the actual plotlines – may partly account for the stories’ success and enduring appeal. In a world of rush and stress, they are immensely relaxing.

Riverscapes

The Far East stories, of course, contain extended descriptions of the scenery, the jungles and especially the rivers of Borneo and Malaysia, like the excerpt at the top of this review. For practical reasons of transport most of the colonial stations in remote places seem to have been on rivers, but it also occurs to me that this is very convenient from the writer’s point of view, because ‘the river’ is a ready-made symbol. And wide, powerful, slow-moving rivers naturally lend themselves to being similes, metaphors and symbols of the slowly unfolding patterns of human destiny.

And they’re picturesque. After reading only a handful of tales from the East you have the impression of having yourself watched countless poignant sunsets or meaningful dawns breaking over wide muddy rivers. Again – very relaxing.

Oddities

Maugham’s prose aspires to a leisurely graciousness, and yet it is prone to a variety of quirks and oddities which prevent it ever achieving real elegance. There are one or two moments on every page which disrupt the flow or give you pause. No page goes by without you being brought up short by odd phrasing. You are continually reminded that this is not modern prose, that its roots are in Victorian stylistics and yet these moments occur in prose which is happy to use a range of modern idioms and whose characters use (fairly) slangy expressions – resulting in an odd mix of twentieth and nineteenth centuries.

The main feature is his odd ordering of clauses within long sentences, his idiosyncratic word order

‘If you’re going to do that I think to take up any more of your time can only be a waste of mine.’ (Lord Mountdrago)

These men, living for many years with one another lives that were methodically regulated, had acquired a number of little idiosyncracies. (The Taipan)

He paid no attention to his house which was always in great disorder, nor to his food; his boys gave him to eat what they liked and for everything he had made him pay through the nose…

And now, turning out of the street in which was the consulate, he made his way to the city wall… (The Consul)

I was like an archaeologist who finds some long-buried statue and I was thrilled in so unexpected a manner to hit upon this survival of a past era. (The Round Dozen)

He soon ceased to choose every morning from his wardrobe the tie he wanted, for he found that she put out for him without fail the one he would have himself selected. (The Treasure)

I had to read some of these sentences two or three times to be quite certain of the meaning. They’re not grammatically incorrect but his ordering of clauses, his word order, is often pretty idiosyncratic. In fact, reading a bunch of these examples one after the other forces the thought that maybe it’s plain clumsy.

I had not looked forward with any enthusiasm to the probability which I so clearly foresaw that he would favour me with an account of his matrimonial experiences, but now I waited if not with eagerness at least with curiosity for a further observation. (The Round Dozen)

I am an amateur of humour and I sought to discover in what lay her peculiar gift. (Jane)

He was a man who took his work hardly, worrying himself to death over every trifle. (The Consul)

The imagination lingers here gratefully, for in the Federated Malay States the only past is within the memory for the most part of the fathers of living men. (Footprints in the Jungle)

Trivial though it may be, he has a particular way of positioning ‘had’ in the place which makes it stick out unnaturally in a sentence.

It was impossible not to perceive the fineness of her character. It had even nobility.

The hall was large and low, with the same whitewashed walls, and he had immediately an impression of comfort and luxury.

If you were marking an essay by a student learning English, you would say they had got the word order wrong. But after a while, reading Maugham, you come to expect these clunky broken-backed sentences, the odd word order, and the peculiar phraseology – it becomes part of his charm.

He has an elegant tone and attitude and describe elegant characters in elegant settings. But his prose is not elegant or stylish.

2. Fine figures

Slim Maugham likes slender figures, male or female. He admires a fine deportment, a commanding presence. He likes tall and slim.

Jack Carr his name was. He was quite a different sort of chap from Norman; for one thing he was a gentleman, he’d been to a public school and a university; he was about thirty-five, tall, not beefy like Norman, but slight, he had the sort of figure that looked lovely in evening dress; and he had crisp curling hair and a laughing look in his eyes. (Flotsam and Jetsam)

He had been putting on weight lately, but was still a fine figure of a man; tall, with grey curly hair, only just beginning to grow thin on the crown, frank blue eyes, good features and a high colour. (The Colonel’s Lady)

I observed that he was in his way good-looking; his features were regular, his grey eyes were handsome, he had a slim figure. (The Human Element)

The younger woman had her back turned to me and at first I could see only that she had a slim and youthful figure. (The Round Dozen)

She was dressed in white. Her arms, her face, her neck, were deeply burned by the sun; her eyes were bluer than he had ever seen them and the whiteness of her teeth was startling. She looked extremely well. She was very trim and neat. (The Human Element)

I remembered him as a curly-headed youngster, very fresh and clean-looking. He was always neat and dapper, he had a good figure, and he held himself well, like a man who’s used to taking a lot of exercise. (Footprints in the Jungle)

He was just under six feet tall, and slim, and he wore his clothes well, and his clothes were well cut. He had fair hair, still thick, and blue eyes and the faintly yellow skin common to men of that complexion  after they have lost the pink-and-white freshness of early youth. (The Door of Opportunity)

And eyes. Maugham is always alert to the state of his characters’ eyes. They are often large and soulful eyes.

It was not hard to believe that in youth he had been as beautiful as people said. He had still his fine Semitic profile and the lustrous black eyes that had caused havoc in so many a Gentile breast. He was very tall, lean, with an oval face and a clear skin… He had kept his figure and held himself as magnificently as ever. (The Alien Corn)

She had never been handsome and the passing years had changed her little. She had still those fine dark eyes and her face was astonishingly unlined. She was very simply dressed and if she wore make–up it was so cunningly put on that I did not perceive it. She had still the charm she had always had of perfect naturalness and of a kindly humour. (Virtue)

She had a neat figure. That was her best point. That and her eyes. They were very large, of a deep brown, liquid and shining; they were full of fun, but they could be tender on occasion with a charming sympathy. (The Door of Opportunity)

In The human element Lady Betty, a kind of force of nature, an embodiment of youth and enthusiasm, has her deep blue eyes described again and again, shining with joy, radiating a part bantering part tender look, shining with sudden gaiety, and so on. In Footprints in the jungle the pale blue eyes of the protagonist, Mrs Cartwright, are referred to again and again.

Maugham was bisexual, and I think there’s something of that in the way his head is turned equally by a handsome man or a shapely lady. Both have their appeal – so long as they are slim and elegant.

Fat Fat people, on the other hand, are generally also short, red-faced and jovial – Chaucerian publicans until, that is, they collapse in tears, like Charlie Bishop in Virtue or Guy in The Force of Circumstance.

He was twenty-nine, but he was still a school-boy; he would never grow up. That was why she had fallen in love with him, perhaps, for no amount of affection could persuade her that he was good-looking. He was a little round man, with a red face like the fall moon, and blue eyes. He was rather pimply. She had examined him carefully and had been forced to confess to him that he had not a single feature which she could praise. She had told him often that he wasn’t her type at all. ‘I never said I was a beauty,’ he laughed. ‘I can’t think what it is you see in me.’ But of course she knew perfectly well. He was a gay, jolly little man, who took nothing very solemnly, and he was constantly laughing. He made her laugh too. He found life an amusing rather than a serious business, and he had a charming smile. When she was with him she felt happy and good tempered. And the deep affection which she saw in those merry blue eyes of his touched her. It was very satisfactory to be loved like that. Once, sitting on his knees, during their honeymoon she had taken his face in her hands and said to him: ‘You’re an ugly, little fat man, Guy, but you’ve got charm. I can’t help loving you.’

The Vessel of Wrath features the fat, jovial, Dutch governor Evert Gruyter through whose eyes we see the surprising love story of Ginger Ted and Miss Jones. And the final story features another fat Dutchman, Van Hasseldt, who puts down the coolie rebellion almost single handedly`.

It’s not that fat symbolises one particular virtue or that slim and trim is always good – it’s just noticeable that a number of Maugham’s characters do tend to fall into these fairly obvious categories.

3. Painting a scene

Malaya

When the little coasting steamer set them down at the mouth of the river, where a large boat, manned by a dozen Dyaks, was waiting to take them to the station, her breath was taken away by the beauty, friendly rather than awe-inspiring, of the scene. It had a gaiety, like the joyful singing of birds in the trees, which she had never expected. On each bank of the river were mangroves and nipah palms, and behind them the dense green of the forest. In the distance stretched blue mountains, range upon range, as far as the eye could see. She had no sense of confinement nor of gloom, but rather of openness and wide spaces where the exultant fancy could wander with delight. The green glittered in the sunshine and the sky was blithe and cheerful. The gracious land seemed to offer her a smiling welcome. (The Force of Circumstance)

The Far East stories contain yards of this sort of thing. It is extremely restful and relaxing.

London society

Maugham was phenomenally posh. His father and grandfather were eminent lawyers and his elder brother, Frederick, served as Lord Chancellor and was made 1st Viscount Maugham. Thus his gentlemanly characters have no trouble at all dining in the finest restaurants, conversing with lords and ladies, being introduced to cabinet ministers and kings.

Before I began these books I had the impression from summaries that Maugham’s books were about posh planter society in Malaysia. This is misleading on two accounts: 1. The Far East stories seem to concern men in rather desperate straits, men in extremely isolated outposts, rather than ‘society’ in places like Singapore. 2. They are in a minority. The majority of the stories are set in England, most of those in a London of extremely posh dinner parties, parties, cocktail parties and receptions. Or ‘at home’ in the swank country houses of, for example, the Blands in The alien corn or the colonel’s country house in The colonel’s lady.

You’d have thought the unvarying tone of this high society might get a bit stifling, or be plain off-putting, except that the Maugham narrator is so dryly ironic, so observant of human foibles and weakness, and tells his stories so compellingly, that you feel quite at home in these remote and lofty milieu.

There is an element of manners. Maugham is a gentleman and his stories have perfect manners, in the sense that they admit you as an equal to these upper class circles. He never talks down to the reader. Because his ironic attitude to human nature extends to everyone, it is democratic. You feel privileged to eavesdrop on such juicy gossip.

4. Titles

Many of the stories were renamed after their initial appearance. In all cases the titles get shorter, sometimes reduced to just one word. Thus:

  • The Verger was originally The man who made his mark
  • Lord Mountdrago was originally Doctor and patient
  • Neil Macadam was originally The Temptation of Neil Macadam
  • The social sense was originally The extraordinary sex
  • Louise was originally The most selfish woman I knew
  • The Man Who Wouldn’t Hurt a Fly becomes the more teasing A friend in need

And so on. It’s interesting, this trend towards brevity, making things more pregnant with meaning, or symbolism – or just more abbreviated and tight. It’s oddly contrary to the actual approach of the stories which is almost always leisurely, slow and wordy.

5. Quotes

Maugham isn’t Oscar Wilde. He isn’t to do with wit and clever paradox. The opposite, really, his thoughts are rather run of the mill and his style is neither compressed nor stylishly paradoxical; it is wordy and prolix. But nonetheless, precisely because he (and his characters) are given to such lengthy lucubrations on life and its peculiarities, he often ends up expressing general thoughts about human nature which have a sort of ruminative appeal.

It is a funny thing about life, if you refuse to accept anything but the best you very often get it. (The treasure)

Life is really very fantastic, and one has to have a peculiar sense of humour to see the fun of it. (Virtue)

If the folly of men made one angry one would pass one’s life in a state of chronic ire. (Virtue)

People are always a little disconcerted when you don’t recognize them, they are so important to themselves, it is a shock to discover of what small importance they are to others. (The Human Element)

No day is so dead as the day before yesterday. (The round dozen)

Courage is the obvious virtue of the stupid. (The Door of Opportunity)

She managed (as so few people do) to look exactly what she was. (Jane)

See what I mean by not really witty or very insightful. More the calm, steady, civilised reflections of a well-travelled, urbane man of the world.

Women are always sensitive to the self-sacrifice of others. (Virtue)

The worst of having so much tact was that you never quite knew whether other people were acting naturally or being tactful too. (The Human Element)

6. Maugham’s philosophy

Nothing profound, the opposite really. Maugham’s view is that people are really a lot more complex than they let on. There’s more to us than meets the eye.

For thirty years now I have been studying my fellow–men. I do not know very much about them. I should certainly hesitate to engage a servant on his face, and yet I suppose it is on the face that for the most part we judge the persons we meet. We draw our conclusions from the shape of the jaw, the look in the eyes, the contour of the mouth. I wonder if we are more often right than wrong.

Why novels and plays are so often untrue to life is because their authors, perhaps of necessity, make their characters all of a piece. They cannot afford to make them self–contradictory, for then they become incomprehensible, and yet self–contradictory is what most of us are. We are a haphazard bundle of inconsistent qualities. (A friend in need)

What gives this remarkably shallow idea its weight is the narrative that follows, in which an apparently harmless little man turns out to have unsuspected depths of malice in him.

Maugham is right that it is the people who make his stories. There are hardly any intellectual insights, and his occasional tangle with intellectual milieus – his satires on the literary world, his description of a painter or a musician – carry little conviction. But the way he manages to convey the peculiarity of being human, how we are prey to all kinds of odd and contradictory impulses; and how profoundly other people remain unpredictable mysteries to us – that is fascinating, riveting, and what makes every single one of his stories worth reading.


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

This is nowhere near a complete bibliography. Maugham also wrote countless articles and reviews, quite a few travel books, two books of reminiscence, as well as some 25 successful stage plays and editing numerous anthologies. This is a list of the novels, short story collections, and the five plays in the Pan Selected Plays volume.

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1898 The Making of a Saint (historical novel)
1899 Orientations (short story collection)
1901 The Hero
1902 Mrs Craddock
1904 The Merry-go-round
1906 The Bishop’s Apron
1908 The Explorer
1908 The Magician (horror novel)
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

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

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

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before the Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1948 Quartet (portmanteau film using four short stories –The Facts of Life, The Alien Corn, The Kite and The Colonel’s Lady)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1950 Trio (film follow-up to Quartet, featuring The Verger, Mr. Know-All and Sanatorium)
1951 The Complete Short Stories in three volumes
1952 Encore (film follow-up to Quartet and Trio featuring The Ant and the GrasshopperWinter Cruise and Gigolo and Gigolette)

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

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

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