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 troubadors 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 troubadors 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 troubador poetry for the following reason: troubador 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 stock 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 stock 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.

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 for the Cistercian monks for spreading 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 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

Literary Life by Posy Simmonds (2003)

Front cover of Literary Life by Posy Simmonds (2003)

I’ve noticed that many of Simmonds’s books are not numbered. This slender hardback contains sixty-four pages of cartoons satirising all aspects of the literary life, from the panic of sitting in an empty room staring at a computer with writer’s block, to the backstabbing and paranoia of literary parties, to the loneliness of book signings, to the plight of small independent bookshops, and so on.

The obvious thing about this subject is its extreme obviousness. They say write about what you know, well what could be more familiar, and more hackneyed, clichéd and done to death, than the subject of a writer writing about writing – about the petty discomforts, the irritations, the niggling jealousy and petty rivalries and bitching and in-fighting and gossiping of the literary world.

What ‘serious’ novelist hasn’t written a book about a novelist writing a book or how tough it is being a writer or how hard it is coming up with new stuff, and so on and self-pityingly, narcissistically on…

Literary Life

  • Writer’s block Six frames showing a woman writer alone in her kitchen (apart from her cat, natch) struggling from 9.05 am to 12.30 pm to produce just one sentence and that one, in the end, one of venom and violence expressing her suppressed frustration.
  • Wintergreenes An independent bookshop which is being threatened because a vast branch of ‘Boulders’ has just opened down the road. Three characters, the plump middle-aged owner, Penny, a skinny girl assistant Zoe, and a stubbly angry young man who swears so much abuse at the new Boulders that Penny calls him in because he’s putting off the customers.
  • Wintergreenes Colin is still moaning about the new branch of Boulders up the road to which optimistic Penny replies that it’s a muzak-filled hypermarket whereas what their little shop offers is intimacy and personal service. Colin jaundicedly replies that what their shop offers is shelter from the rain for a couple of alcoholics and a mum with her shopping.
  • Time goes by… At a book launch a middle aged man tells his companion that when he was young, he used to get turned on by leggy young things dressed in short black skirts but nowadays he remembers they’re just from the publicity department and fantasises about… them selling more copies of his novel.
  • Panel A Q&A session at a literary festival. the joke is the panel consists of a kindly old buffer, a smart young woman, a stubbly dud smoking a fag and a broad serious-looking man, so that when a guy in the audience asks a question about so-and-so’s work being all about extreme violence and sadism and coprophilia and so on, we’re expecting him to be addressing stubbly bloke or broad serious bloke, but it turns out he’s talking about the works of the harmless looking old buffer in the half-rim glasses.

Q&A by Posy Simmonds (2002)

  • The same character in the right of the strip above (Owen), appears at home in a book-lined study reading a newspaper review to his wife and rejoicing because it slaughters the new book of a rival, right up till the moment that his wife points out that the only reason he hates his rival (Denton) is because he slept with her (the wife) at Oxford.
  • One big picture showing four adults on a long train journey trying to read their own books while an enthusiastic schoolgirl gives them a long, detailed explanation of the latest Harry Potter book. (The first book in the series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was published on 26 June 1997.)
  • Wintergreene The rep of a publishers makes his monthly visit and tries to interest Penny in their latest publication. She insists it is garbage, rubbish, with zero cultural value until the rep mentions that the same author’s last book sold 400,000… at which Penny swiftly changes her tune and says, Put me down for six.
  • A man’s soliloquy about moving to the country and joining the village reading group which gives an accurate and withering portrayal of all the petty jealousies and rivalries and irritations it causes.
  • Owen’s booksigning We learn that the rugged-face author we first met in the Q&A panel is named Owen Lloyd and we see him at a booksigning in a bookshop where no one at all stops by to buy a copy of his book. There is some bitter Simmonds satire because what we read is Lloyd’s maundering self pity about nobody coming up, the pity in the eyes of the booksellers and his PR agent, and how nobody, oh nobody, knows what it is like to be ignored, he thinks as… he and the pretty young publishers assistant walk right by a homeless man on the street begging for some change.
  • A teenage couple are in bed asleep when there’s a knocking at the door and they realise her parents have come home early. She opens the door an fraction to the suspicious parents but then completely diverts their attention by assuring them she is doing her revision and quoting from Keats. Mollified, they go away.
  • Enemies of promise A woman writer is trying to write in the stylish open plan house but is completely put off by the sound of her husband upstairs trying to give a bottle to their toddler, with accompanying commentary and chatter. Pity the poor woman writer in her luxury house!
  • Big single cartoon of a drinks party in a big bookshop and a middle-aged writer chatting up one of the short-skirted waitresses with the immortal line: ‘You know, you’re really beautiful… Have you ever thought of being a novelist?’
  • A cool, stubbly author in shades spends ten picture of the strip complaining like mad about how awful it is to be so successful and rich and be recognised everywhere and be bothered by fans all the time – his doleful friend uttering agreement – saying they just won’t leave him alone, take that couple of young women over there, they… they… but in fact the two women get up and simply walk out the bar… at which point the ‘successful’ author says ‘Bitches’.
  • Same young male author who we now learn is named Sean Poker and is ringing his agent because he’s been offered the opportunity to model for a new set of designer pants.
  • A woman writer in a nice Pringle sweater is sitting in a front room festooned with Christmas tree and cards (and accompanied by her cat, natch) as she reads through several paragraphs she’s written about the First World War till she comes to the word stuffing (‘kicked the battered armchair whose stuffing…) at which point she leaps up and runs outside to catch her husband who’s just getting into the car to go shopping, and tells him not to forget the stuffing.
  • At a literary party attended by Owen Lloyd a woman is explaining how she organised a petition to complain about some political cause. ‘And has there been a reaction?’ asks Owen. ‘You know, the usual predictable stuff,’ she replies, and what she means is there’s been a jealous outcry from all the authors who weren’t invited to join the petition.
  • Wintergreene In the local independent bookshop one customer is giving bother, dripping rainwater and coughing and sneezing over the books.

Wintergreene by Posy Simmonds

  • One big illustration showing a confident man leading his reluctant wife and friends on a big walk through the woods and pontificating: ‘… and when, you know, any minute we could all die of smallpox, or anthrax… you think “Why? Why does one write? What a futile occupation! What difference could a bloody book make to anything!?… and then you think, “No, come on… isn’t that something rather magnificent – sitting at one’s PC in the face of Armageddon?” And, that in a nutshell, is the theme of…’
  • Wintergreene Penny the owner tells skinny Zoe to be more polite so the next customer who comes in get the full ingratiating service and Zoe agrees to order three copies of a book which, it turns out, the lady ordering wrote herself and is published by a vanity press – at which pint Penny explodes with swearing and angriness, contradicting her own earlier strictures for Zoe to be polite, at which point… they both realise that trying to give up cigarettes is HELL, so that’s what the strip is really about.
  • Full page cartoon showing a big tall paunchy man in a suit on the phone in an open plan office complaining, at length, about the shoddy production values on a recent book…
  • Ecstasy Featuring the thickset author Owen Lloyd, he is surfing the internet looking to see how much copies of his novels are fetching on ebay and is gratified that first editions are fetching up to $790 until he comes across a copy which bears a personal inscription, which he remembers writing to the love of his life, and so is FURIOUS with her.
  • A big one-page cartoon showing various children’s characters (bears, giraffes, Alice in Wonderland I think) all drinking and smoking in a book-lined room, obviously at a sort of party for children’s book characters and one rabbit is asking another: ‘So how did you get into children’s publishing?’ and the other is replying, ‘Oh, it’s in the family… my father was a Flopsy Bunny’. As so often with Simmonds, you feel it’s clever without being actually funny.
  • A big, page-sized cartoon spoofing magazines aimed at women and their babies: this is called Your new Baby but ‘baby; is metaphor’ for book.
  • The Literary Three Three parody schoolgirls from a 1950s private school receive a book from their time-travelling Uncle Bill. It is a book about schoolgirls in 2003, for some reasons schoolgirls in New York whose parents are frightfully rich if divorced, and she and her friends play truant, nick things from shops, smoke joints and go all the way with boys.
  • A writer sits in a book-lined room with his laptop open, unable to write while he flips through TV channels, which are showing: 10 worst motorway pile-ups, Killer mud-slides, Killer bees, Hitler’s torturers, until he finally comes upon a channel showing Noddy, cheers up, and starts tapping away at his book.
  • A strip satirising a woman writer writing a sex scene who, the more feverish the scene becomes, the more intensely she focuses and writes. More to the point, the more brutal and primal the cartoon becomes, until drawn in wide, thick, primal lines. The couple she’s describing climax, and the writer leans back and lights herself a cigarette.

Writer’s orgasm by Posy Simmonds

  • Wintergreene Zoe is off to the local supermarket. The ‘joke’ is that she can buy books from the supermarket to stock their little independent bookshop cheaper than they can buy them from the publishers.
  • One large cartoon showing a tearful woman walking out on a bespectacled writer sitting in front of his computer, and saying: ‘Wait, Charlotte!.. You can’t leave me now, I haven’t finished my novel – I need your misery!’
  • A young woman tells her frumpy middle-aged mother that she’s packing in writing a book, and even being a reviewer, because she wants to be a full-time, stay-at-home mum. The mum gives a whole list of how horrible it will be to be so isolated and patronised and then cheerfully concludes, there’ll be a good polemical feminist book in it!
  • The national character Successive hikers come across a stand of daffodils and, in succession, fumble to quote the famous Wordsworth poem.
  • Dr Derek’s casebook Spoof advice column in which the twist is that Dr Derek gives ‘literary’ advice to struggling writers. Suzie X spends sits for hours and hours in her little room and nothing comes out. Yes, she has writer’s block!
  • Dr Derek’s casebook Vicki X comes about her husband, who’s developed a swollen head ever since he won the Booker Prize. Yes, he’s suffering from ‘swollen head’.
  • One big cartoon in which a couple well into middle-age are sitting in their book-littered front room and, to his great irritation, his wife is reading some of the old love letters he sent her.
  • Facts and fallacies No.6 Children’s picture books An extended satire on common misconceptions about children’s books i.e. they are written by women in Suffolk cottages, only take five minutes to think of the story, 98% of people who work in children’s publishing are called Emma, everyone who works in picture books are held in the highest esteem. — Reading a strip like this you get the impression that there is no aspect of her life which Posy Simmonds can not feel aggrieved about. It doesn’t strike me as at all funny, but a moan from someone who feels that their own picture books aren’t taken seriously enough.

Facts and Fallacies No. 6 by Posy Simmonds

  • Spot the differences Two large cartoons of a dad in his dressing gown in the family kitchen reading review of his new book in the paper watched by his wife and two little girls (and the cat). We are invited to ‘spot the difference’ between one picture in which ‘They rate it’ and the other picture in which ‘they hate it.’ I looked quite carefully and decided there are no differences except that in the ‘rate’ it one, the author, the wife and daughters and the cat are smiling. At about this point I wondered why I was bothering to read this book.
  • Pride and prejudice Jane Austen is invited to return from the Great Beyond and be given the full media treatment of an author i.e. rude and probing questions and decides, er, no thanks.
  • Facts and fallacies No.11: Publishers’ readers i.e. it is not a cushy little job, 97% of publishers’ readers are not multi-tasking home-makers, there is not a cabal of London writers who reject possible rivals, and so on.
  • A big, single cartoon satirising the vast multi-story, department store-style bookshop.

Department store bookshop by Posy Simmonds

  • Dr Derek’s casebook James X turns up at Dr Derek’s surgery bleeding, it’s one of the worst cases of ‘a critical mauling’ that he’s ever seen.
  • A modern woman is at home on the sofa watching the tennis, for nine frames. On the ninth she hears the front door opening, turns the telly off, and sneaks back into her study, which is where her husband, returning from taking the kids out for a walk, finds her pretending to be hard at work.
  • Dr Derek’s casebook Quite a humorous strip in which Dr Derek counsels novelist Colin X about how to do sex in novels properly i.e. cut the purple passages, don’t feel shy about using a rubber (to rub out embarrassing passages) and… once a chapter is quite normal!

Dr Derek’s casebook by Posy Simmonds

  • Le Déjeuner sur le Sable One big cartoon parodying Manet’s famous painting Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe adapted to show three posy Brits sunning themselves in the South of France, with the main male figure reading Proust. — Simmonds has parodied this painting in at least two previous strips.

Le Déjeuner sur le Sable by Posy Simmonds

  • Dynaglobe’s summer party Once again we are with author Owen Lloyd as he attends the annual party given by publishing congolomerate, Dynaglobe. How he hates it, getting trapped with some stupendously successful airport novelist, who patronises him on his minuscule sales, the coven of women writers, either trying to rope him into discussion groups, or who you shagged last year and can’t remember their names, or a new young nymphet who you just start chatting up when you notice the gaggle of middle-aged women opposite all watching and tittering. He only goes so people know he’s still alive. — Having been to similar London parties of the well-heeled and successful I find this totally accurate and grimly depressing.
  • Nurse Tozer Quite a funny strip which extends the idea of Dr Derek, the literary doctor, over-wrought and on holiday he overhears some bronzed bimbo dismissing a book by Victor Hugo as ‘junk’ and explodes, explaining who Victor Hugo was and calling the woman a moron, until he is hustled away by ever-watchful Nurse Tozer, who then gives quite an interesting speech to the holiday woman about how popular literature comes in bite-sized chunks which wear down your brain. — This was a good strip because it felt like the comedy premise really bore up all the way through the strip.
  • Writer’s problems No.4 How to create a buzz An unnamed male author complains that, although he has written three successful crime novels, he has never created a buzz, his real-life persona is too boring, he doesn’t take drugs or have affairs, he loved his parents etc. The strip then ironically recommends that next time he’s at a literary party he takes a pair of rubber gloves, blows one up, places it over his head, then lets it go and it will blow round the room creating… a tremendous buzz!
  • seasonal traditions in the book trade No.2 Spotting the Christmas turkeys The three staff at the independent bookshop, Wintergreene, which we’ve come to know through several strips – owner Penny, slender sprite Zoe and stubbly earnest young man Colin – are depicted reading the publishers’ catalogues for the upcoming Christmas period and taking the mickey out of the synopses of the direst-sounding books – ‘lifts the lid off media-folk in Alderley Edge…’, ‘… an epistolary novel done in text messages…’, ‘… another bloody book about moving to a Provençal village…’
  • One enormous cartoon showing a disgruntled author (Nat Tarby) in a vast modern bookstore all set and ready to do a book-signing with piles of his books on the table in front of him and… not a customer in sight. — I feel like Simmonds has depicted this scene of the disappointing book-signing at least 3 or 4 times already. She may think it’s endlessly funny, but once was sort of enough.

Murder at Matabele Mansions: A Christmas Mystery

A six-page graphic short story, a murder mystery in which woman Detective Sergeant Stoker phones Detective Inspector Collar from a crime scene at the back of a mansion block. The body of unpopular second-hand book-seller Godfrey Fibone, 58, is found round the back of Matabele Mansions, apparently in the act of carrying a black bin liner out to the dustbins he slipped and cracked his head.

However, Stoker and Collar notice that the contents of the bin-liner are strangely inappropriate for a man who lived alone, including dirty nappies (he had no children), tea bags, a curry TV dinner, and cat food tins (he didn’t own a cat).

So they set about interviewing all the inhabitants of the mansions – which gives Simmonds an opportunity to display here gift for characterisation, not only in drawing but in the very dense text which describes each of the dead man’s neighbours, being:

  • Viv and Chris Collins-Smith, website designers
  • June Tozer, divorcee and masseuse
  • Gavin Boyce, novelist
  • rude Dennis Buttril
  • Mrs Kowalski, entertaining her daughter and son-in-law to dinner
  • Tim Makepeace, a research chemist
  • Ian MacDire, worked for British Telecom

Next day forensics confirm Fibone was murdered, then carried out to where he was arranged as if he’d slipped and had an accident. The detritus n the bin bag, combined with what the two police learned in their interviews, should be enough for the reader to work out who the murderer was. Can you work it out?

Cinderella

Another six-page graphic short story, starts with Desmond Duff, 85, inhabitant of an old people’s home (alert readers will remember that Desmond featured as the man of the month for April in the calendar for 1988 which Simmonds drew for the Spectator).

He and his fellow inhabitant, Joan, learn the owners are throwing a lavish Christmas party to which residents are not invited. As they hear the first sounds of music a fairy god-daughter appears and gives them their wish, giving them back their youths, making Desmond a very smart, svelte 20-something, and Joan a stylish young lady in a ball gown and fur. But they must be back in the home by midnight.

They set off to the party and make quite a splash, Desmond impressing with his suavity, Joan being immediately chatted up by a lothario who invites her out to his car for a bit of slap and tickle. Several guests trigger Desmond into giving a blistering lecture about how miserable it is living in their hosts’ old people’s home, how they’re treated like crap, the accommodation is rotting, the food is dismal, and is in mid-flow when he hears the clock ringing midnight and so runs out into the snow where he transforms back into his 85-year-old body…

Finds himself in the car park where the young Lothario emerges partly unbuttoned and holding a slipper, describes how he was in a passionate clinch with the ravishing young beauty who suddenly wriggled out of his grasp and ran off, leaving only a slipper behind. Clutching the slipper, he stumbles back into the party and old Joan comes out of her hiding place behind a car, embraces Desmond, says ‘Wasn’t it wonderful?’ and they potter slowly back towards the home.

But there is a happy end note. Desmond’s rant in the party, in front of lots of influential guests, has spurred the owners to make improvements, sort out the smell on the stairs and fix Desmond’s radiator etc, and generally fuss over Desmond and Joan. So it’s a happy ending! Cheers!


Thoughts

The subject of writers, authors, novelists agonising, writer’s block, book-signings and endless literary parties – I don’t think any subject could bore me more. A few of the strips or cartoons are amusing, but most are wearing, or positively depressing.

The interest, such as it is, comes from the extraordinary variety of cartooning styles which Simmonds deploys. There’s:

  • the spoof true romance style of the Dr Derek strip, where the characters all have the same kind of chiselled angular outlines
  • the freestanding humorous cartoon of the department story-style book warehouse, where all the figures have softened rounded outlines
  • the facts and fallacies strip which, along with the Owen Lloyd cartoons, has a looser drawing style and is meant to create a much wider variety of faces and characters
  • the sketchy loose, unfinished lines of the Writer’s orgasm strip, which starts loose and then deliberately becomes bold and fragmented to visually make the point
  • the ‘cartoon realism’ of the Wintergreene strips – in the one above look at the tremendous attention to detail paid in the opening picture which depicts the shop frontage in the rain, or the third picture which shows the geography of the shop’s interior, dominated by a stand of books in the foreground which divides the disapproving owner on the left and browsing punter on the right
  • the Le Déjeuner sur le Sable style, which is so loose and scratchy that bits of it could almost be by Quentin Blake
  • and the Writers’ panel at the top of this review which has realism of a sort – witness the microphones in front of the speakers – but a sort of wobbly or wonky realism – the microphones aren’t drawn with the same razor sharp precision as the exterior of the Wintergreene shop – instead it is a realism softened or mollified in order to bring out the variety of human faces in the audience and on the panel – it is just enough realism to create a space in which comic types can exist

These are all distinct drawing or cartooning styles (plus some others I haven’t mentioned) which Simmonds has mastered and can deploy at will. It’s an impressive display of versatility and virtuosity.

So for me, there are half a dozen funny strips in the book (if their aim is to be funny or entertaining) but the real pleasure to be had derives from Simmond’s impressive mastery of the craft of drawing, her fluency and versatility.


Related links

Other Posy Simmonds reviews

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (1962)

I am a mask, concealing the real. Behind me, hidden, actuality goes on, safe from prying eyes. (Mr Tagomi, p.227)

An alternative history

The Man in the High Castle is set in 1962 in an America which lost the Second World War. Through the everyday lives and worries of a bunch of characters in San Francisco, and a couple in Colorado, Dick slowly drip feeds to the reader the story of how this alternative history came about.

Most alternative history have a ‘point of divergence’, the point where the fictional alternative branches off from actual history. Here it is the attempt of Italian immigrant Giuseppe ‘Joe’ Zangara who, on 15 February 1933, to assassinate President Elect Franklin D. Roosevelt. In actual history Zangara got off five shots but missed the President; in Dick’s alternative version, Zangara shoots Roosevelt dead.

In ‘our’ history Roosevelt went on to mastermind the New Deal which helped pull America out of the Great Depression and ensured she was ready to wage war in Europe and the Pacific after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour in December 1941. America’s economic and military might were decisive in beating both the Nazis and the Japanese Empire.

In Dick’s alternative universe, no Roosevelt, no New Deal, America was unprepared for war and so a) the Japanese successfully destroyed the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbour, going on to seize the Philippines, Australia, Hawaii, and then the West Coast of America, leading up to Capitulation Day in 1947.

Meanwhile, Dick’s alternative history of the war in Europe has the Nazis seizing Malta forcing Churchill to resign (p.70). His successors are all non-entities who fail to rally Britain while the Germans a) decisively conquer North Africa before b) turning east to defeat Russia, pushing the surviving Russians far back into Asia and then c) sending a fleet across the Atlantic which conquers the Eastern United States. Due to their slow start, the Americans never develop the atom bomb, the Germans get there first and nuke Washington DC. Now the Germans run a unified Europe under German rule, Festung Europa.

As the novel opens the Japanese are smoothly administering what is now known as the P.S.A. or Pacific States of America, main city San Francisco where most of the action is set. Their rule is mostly benign, if very hierarchical based on race, so that everyone has a ‘place’, above or below everyone else: Japs at the top, Caucasians next, Mediterranean Europeans next, blacks at the bottom.

They rule with relative freedom and civilisation compared to the Eastern Seaboard, where the Nazis have implemented their anti-Jewish policies, which they have also extended into Central and Southern America. The Military Governor of the Eastern states was for a while Erwin Rommel, the victor in North Africa. It was only when he was replaced in 1949 that the full implementation of the race laws and the concentration camps kicked in.

We learn that Hitler is now a disease-raddled recluse and has been succeeded as Führer by Martin Bormann, with much gossip about the other Nazi leaders, Goebbels, Göring and so on.

One character admires the Germans’ technical know-how, exemplified by the way they have sealed and drained the Mediterranean (!), giving them a vast new area to colonise. But several characters are less keen about their attempts to solve ‘the African Problem’, which appears to have consisted in exterminating the entire black population. A high level Japanese briefing states that the Germans’ genocidal policies in Eastern Europe, and Africa, have been an economic catastrophe.

There are some readers for whom just the outlines of alternative histories are thrilling, and I have to admit that I’m one of them. It’s fairly standard procedure, but I’m still a sucker for the way the facts which I’ve summarised above, emerge in the narrative only through hints and casual references in the dialogue or thoughts of the characters. This makes the glimpses and hints of what has happened in this alternative view of world history all the more tantalising and intriguing.

The plot

So that’s the dramatic and large-scale historical background against which Dick sets his handful of more or less humdrum characters, and shares their private worries and concerns.

Robert Childan runs American Artistic Handicrafts Inc, a successful business selling senior Japanese officials authentic Americana and antiques, from Mickey Mouse watches to handguns from the Wild West. He is trying to pull off a deal with a Mr Tagomi and goes with great trepidation to his office in the Nippon Times Building. Childan has completely assimilated the Japanese idea of ‘place’, the notion that everyone knows their place in hierarchical Japanese culture. So Childan is alert to keeping the black porters in their place, trying to gain favour and place by bowing and scraping to the Japanese and so on. This assimilation of Japanese values even extends to thinking in a highly fragmented, truncated, Japanese prose style.

An appointment was made for two o’clock. Have to shut store, he knew as he hung up the phone. No choice. Have to keep goodwill of such customers; business depends on them. (p.10)

Not only Childan’s but numerous other characters think and even speak in the same truncated style. It is a bit weird but gives a verbal coherence to the book which really distinguishes it and which I enjoyed.

He held the squiggle of silver. Reflection of the midday sun, like boxtop cereal trinket, sent-away acquired Jack Armstrong magnifying mirror. Or – he gazed down into it. Om, as Brahmins say. Shrunk spot in which all is captured. Both, at least in hint. The size, the shape. He continued to inspect dutifully. (p.219)

Frank Frink is a Jew whose tour of duty in the army got him out of the East, now controlled by the Nazis. He’s been working at a factory run by a Mr Wyndam-Matson but has just been fired for speaking out of turn. But a colleague, Ed McCarthy, suggests they go into business together, manufacturing fake ‘antique’ guns. They blackmail Wyndam-Matson, threatening to expose the fact that he is himself manufacturing fake antiquities as a side activity to his ostensible metal working factory, unless he gives them $2,000. He coughs up, and the pair set up a workshop in a ramshackle basement and start producing a new style, of contemporary jewelry designs, calling the company Edfrank Productions.

Wyndam-Matson has a mistress or girlfriend who irritates him, especially when she decides to tell him at length about the novel she’s reading, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. It is an alternative history whose author, H. Abendsen, speculates about what might have happened if Roosevelt hadn’t been assassinated, but had brought America out of the Depression and pursued aggressive anti-Nazi policies, such that America and Britain had won the Second World War. Nonsense, Wyndam-Matson snorts.

Frank Frink’s ex-wife Juliana Frink left him some while ago, and now scrapes a living as a judo teacher in the Mountain Zone between the occupied West and East coasts. We are introduced to her as she handles two lippy lorry drivers at a truck stop café. She takes one, an Italian, home to bed. Next morning she discovers he fought for the Italian army during the war and Dick uses the Italian’s wartime experiences to gives us more alternative war history, specifically about the campaign in North Africa. They both agree about how fanatical the British became as it became clear the Allies were going to lose, and about the brutality of their use of phosphorus bombs and napalm once the Germans were advancing across England.

More to the point, this guy, Joe Cinnadella, is also reading The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, and at points in their day Juliana picks it up and reads sections which lead to further comments on whether the right side won the wear, and why. Juliana happens to know that the author of the book, Abendsen, lives in the Rocky Mountain states, somewhere in Colorado, in a heavily fortified encampment which he fancifully calls The High Castle.

The Mr Tagomi that Robert Childan is so anxious to suck up to and sell a good quality piece of Americana to, himself only wants to buy it in order to give it as a gift to, and impress, a visitor from Europe, Mr Baynes. We watch Baynes fly across the Atlantic in one of the new atomic-powered airliners, and wind up a German he gets into conversation with and who turns out to be an unrepentant anti-semitic Nazi.

As the plot proceeds we learn that Baynes is not Swedish, as he pretends to be. His name is Rudolf Wegener, he is a member of the German Abwehr, and he has been sent by a faction of the German Partei to make contact with a retired 80-year-old Japanese general, General Tedeki, former Imperial Chief of Staff, here in San Francisco. Lots of heavy hints are dropped but it’s only at page 190 of this 250-page novel that we find out why.

In the office of Mr Tagomi, Baynes/Wegener reveals to General Tedeki that the German Wehrmacht are planning to create an ‘incident’ in the neutral zone of America, which will lead German forces to intervene, and which will be carefully arranged to draw the Japanese in, escalating diplomatic tension and then – the Wehrmacht are planning a sudden nuclear attack on the Japanese Home Island which will wipe them out. This top secret plan is named Operation Dandelion.

Barely has Wegener handed over a cigarette case full of microfilms proving his assertions when Mr Tagomi’s secretary rings up to announce that a number of Nazi goons are in the lobby throwing their weight around and demanding to be let up to Tagomi’s office. They have come to arrest Wegener. He gave himself away when he made contact with an Abwehr agent in a department store, who was being watched by the Nazi Sicherheitsdienst or SS.

To grasp this plotline it helps to understand that right from the start the Nazi state was divided into mutually loathing sections or departments, which competed and jostled with each other. The Wehrmacht is the army, the Abwehr which Wegener works for is the intelligence service, and the SS is staffed by psychopaths and sadists.

  • Dick has extrapolated the historical tensions which we know about from the history books, on for another 17 years after the end of the war, an intellectually interesting exercise
  • and dramatised these tensions, so that
  • we are witness to the contrasting attitudes of different Nazi officials, often deeply distrustful of each other
  • and, a t a higher level, as it were, we frequently overhear Japanese and American characters expressing their contempt for the endless internecine feuding of the unstable Nazi regime

This is where Freiherr Hugo Reiss, the Reichs Consul in San Francisco, comes in. He cordially dislikes his opposite number in the SS, Kreuz vom Meere, an officious thug. It is vom Meere who is overseeing the trailing and entrapment of Wegener. When he asks for co-operation, Reiss is inclined to delay and obfuscate. Until, that is, he receives a direct personal call from the new Head of the Partei, Kanzler Josef Goebbels. Who orders him to give full co-operation to the SS in the case of Wegener. Jawohl, mein Führer. He puts the phone down, shaking, while vom Meere watches with a brutal smile on his face.

This is the background to the armed goons who come to Mr Tagomi’s office to arrest him. However, they hadn’t bargained with Japanese pride, and in particular with Mr Tagomi’s fondness for authentic American antiques. Now that strand of the plot, which had been introduced right back at the start in Robert Childan’s antiques emporium, comes into play. Mr Tagomi takes an authentic Wild West Colt .44 out of his desk and points it at the door, with the evident approval of General Tedeki. When the SS men smash the door open and saunter towards Wegener, Tagomi shoots them both down. There will be consequences, but this is Japanese territory, so what precisely they will be…

Meanwhile, the scenes with Juliana Frink and her Italian lover, Joe Cinnadella, move on in counterpoint to the San Francisco scenes. First he accidentally on purpose misses the truck he was meant to be part-driving, which leaves without him. Then he suggests they drive to the nearest city, Denver, so he can show his new girl a good time. It’s on the way, in the car (her car), while he’s driving, that Juliana insists on reading out long excerpts from The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which leads to them discussing the national characteristics of the Italians, Germans, Russians, Americans and Japanese. In fact, suddenly and spontaneously she suggests that they drive on the hundred miles or so to the author’s supposed ‘castle’ redoubt up in the hills. Sure, says Joe, after we’ve had a good time in Denver.

But in Denver things turn bad. Joe has a haircut which reduces his hair to a close crop, and has it dyed blonde. He takes Juliana shopping but in a focused mechanical way. He makes sure she buys a low-cut blue dress and half-cup bra. They check into a swanky hotel and she is looking forward to a night on the town, when Joe brutally announces that they are going to dine early, then leave for the High Castle.

Finally, it dawns on Juliana that Joe is not Italian at all. He had been wearing a black hairpiece. He didn’t have a haircut, he simply removed the wig to reveal his blonde Aryan haircut. He is a German agent. He has been sent with a wad of cash to do whatever it takes to assassinate the author of the anti-German novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. ‘So why do you need me?’ Juliana whines pitifully. Because this Abendsen guy has a fondness for sexy black-haired Mediterranean types. Like Juliana. Hence the low cut dress. They’ll get invited in. Abendsen will be attracted to Juliana, while Joe does his dirty work.

Back in San Francisco, someone has reported that Frank is a Jew. He’s having a smoke on the sidewalk outside their workshop when white cops arrest him, take him downtown, confirm that he’s a Jew, and tell him he’s going to be shipped out to the Nazi East Coast.

Probably the biggest event – the one which unifies all the characters in speculating about it – is the death of Martin Bormann, the current Führer. Characters speculate on who will succeed him, with Mr Tagomi’s superiors holding an interesting briefing at which an official runs through the possible successors – including Goring, Heydrich, Goebbels and so on- giving fictitious biographies for what they’ve been doing since the war ended in 1947. For those of us who like actual history, alternative histories like this are always interesting because of the way they shed fresh light and different perspectives on what actually happened.

So:

  • will Wegener and Tedeki escape alive from Mr Tagomi’s office?
  • will Tedeki manage to get the message about Operation Dandelion back to his superiors in time for them to approach the relevant sections of the German state in order to get Operation Dandelion called off?
  • will Frank Frink be deported back to the east Coast and gassed by the Nazis?
  • and will Juliana and Joe find the High Castle of this Abendsen guy, manage to get admission, and murder him?

Madness

In fact, what happens is several of the characters have nervous breakdowns. In response to being told she is being so comprehensively used as cover in an assassination attempt Juliana has a florid breakdown, asking for pills, delirious, getting into the shower fully dressed, stabbing Joe in the neck with a razor blade and wandering down the hotel corridor stark naked, until hustled back to her room by a maid.

Similarly, Mr Tagomi, the day after the unpleasantness in his office, wanders the streets of San Francisco in a daze, fetching up at Robert Childan’s emporium, who rather forcefully sells him one of the new piece of jewelry, which Tagomi takes to a park bench and tries to get to reveal its secrets, shaking it, threatening it, shouting at it, begging it to open the door of the meaning of life.

All the way through the book Robert Childan is on the edge of sweaty-palmed panic. And he only needs to be reminded that he’s a Jew for Frank Frink to fall into a funk of fear, justifiably so, as it turns out.

This is the ground bass of Dick’s fiction. Characters live with gnawing anxiety which sooner or later blooms into goes madness, nervous breakdown, hallucinations. His texts deal you plots and characters but, like an alcoholic sizing up every room for its stash of booze, is constantly manoeuvring the reader to a place where he can let rip with pages of delirious, drug-fuelled, nervous breakdown prose, delirium, bewilderment, hallucinations, confusion, hysteria.

I wish I understood, he said to himself as he moved along the busy evening sidewalk, by the neon signs, the blaring bar doorways of Grant Avenue. I want to comprehend. I have to. But he knew he never would. Just be glad, he thought. And keep moving. (p.232)

Ideas and issues

All the characters are considerably more self-aware, given to long intense internal monologues or to lengthy thoughtful conversations, than most people I’ve met in my life. Much of their thoughts and dialogue is devoted to ideas. They are all much more interested in history than most people I’ve ever met, which is fortunate for it allows Dick, through their conversations, to pass along all kinds of backstory information about the course of events of the previous 15 years or so.

It is a very self-aware book. Dick makes it clear to us he knows what he’s doing, and his lead characters are also painfully self-aware at almost all moments.

Is alternative history a type of science fiction?

Being the very self-aware novelist that he is, Dick has two of his characters debate this very question. When he is invited to dinner with Paul and Betty Kasouras, the trio end up discussing The Grasshopper Lies Heavy (in the clipped verbless style which dominates so much of the text):

‘Not a mystery,’ Paul said. ‘On contrary, interesting form of fiction possible within the genre of science fiction.’
‘Oh no,’ Betty disagreed. ‘No science in it. Not set in future. Science fiction deals with future., in particular future where science has advanced over now. Book fits neither premise.’
‘But,’ said Paul, ‘it deals with alternate present. Many well-known science fiction novels of that sort.’ (p.109)

There’s plenty of alternative history fiction in the world.

Whether some, all, or any of it qualifies as science fiction is a topic for a different essay.

Alternative histories within the story

Given that the main story is set in an alternative universe, and that half the characters in it are reading a book which gives a further alternative history, the novel thus contains or navigates no fewer than three realities:

  1. ‘real’ history – the one we’re living through
  2. the alternative history of the novel
  3. the alternative alternative history described at some length by H. Abendsen

These three realities curl and intertwine throughout the text, a little like a piece of classical music, with its main theme, secondary theme, and variations on both, reappearing throughout like silver threads. Or, alternatively, like the person standing between two parallel mirrors who sees their reflections stretching into infinity in both directions.

Secrets and lies are a central theme. Or truth and falsehood. Or reality and fantasy. At one point Baynes / Wegener reflects:

Perhaps if you know you are insane then you are not insane. or you are becoming sane, finally. Waking up. I suppose only a few are aware of all this. Isolated persons here and there. but the broad masses… what do they think? All these hundreds of thousands in this city. Do they imagine that they live in a sane world? Or do they guess, glimpse, the truth? (p.45)

Which sums up the broad streak of paranoia which runs throughout Dick’s work – that’s if you take his work very seriously. Or, if you are a tad more critical of his troubled worldview – this kind of thing (‘Look at me, see how I suffer, see how special I am!’) could be interpreted as the adolescent sense that I know this is all fake, but what of all the other poor ‘normals’? Immature.

Similarly, Dick and his characters are well aware of the power of fiction to lie and distort. Since almost every character seems to be reading H. Abendsen’s book, quite a few have extended dialogues or thought monologues about the uncanny power of fiction to create its own realities. These could be quoted to form the basis of a disquisition about fiction and fictions but… don’t we already know that? Isn’t that why people buy airport novels, so they can be completely transported on long haul flights or lying by the pool?

If you were an earnest literary type you could work this insight up into a profound discussion of the nature of fiction. Except it is a nature that pretty much everyone who’s ever read a novel is well aware of.

Childan and Kasoura, America and Japan

A prolonged thread is Childan’s on-again, off-again business relationship with a potential pair of Japanese clients, high-place Mr and Mrs Kasoura. He offers them a high value gift,in response to which they invite him to dinner, a scene which is a prolonged tour de force, describing with minute subtlety the wavering atmosphere and tone of the inscrutable orientals, as Childan desperately tries to be polite and submissive. His problems reach a kind of climax when he presents Mr Kasoura with an example of Edfrank’s new, modern, contemporary jewelry.

(In a painful earlier scene we had watched Frank Frink’s shambling, lanky partner, Ed, try to sell some of their new jewelry to Childan, and Childan’s deliberate humiliation of the salesman: here, as in every other aspect of his life, Childan is keen to maintain his place.)

In this ten-page scene (pp.168-179) Childan goes to visit Mr Kasoura at his office, to ask how his wife liked the new contemporary piece he had given him. Kasoura brings the piece from his deskdrawer and reveals that he never passed it on to his wife. He showed it tovarious colleagues who alllaughed at it for being a shapeless blob of metal. Childan feels justifiably humiliated. But then, Kasoura continues, he found himself becoming beguiled by it, attracted to its very formlessness and lack of design. After pondering why, he has come to the conclusion that is contains wu. At which Childan racks his brains to try and remember what the hell wu is. Is it even a Japanese quality or something else they’ve ripped off from the Chinese?

But, Kasoura continues, when he tried to explain this quality to his superiors, they still dismissed it but came up with a suggestion. The general population of South America is still mostly peasant, and they like good luck charms. One of Kasoura’s superiors has contacts with a man who manufactures and ships trinkets to South America by the tens of thousands. This piece might be a model for a new line of good luck charms and trinkets?

Dick is very careful to have Kasoura explain all this as if he himself is aloof and above mere business considerations. Childan, struggling to keep an absolute straight face throughout, suddenly realises he is being humiliated. Doubly humiliated. Not only did Kasoura start the conversation by saying the piece was junk. But then, having withdrawn that a little with the introduction of the concept of wu, has travelled all the way round to a new level of humilation, this time suggesting that not only is the piece junk, but that it would be appropriate for Childan to take part in an enterprise to mass produce and sell junk.

Childan is flooded with mortification and humiliation and begins to make his departure, promising to take up the contact Mr Kasoura has suggested. Does he read contempt in Kasoura’s eyes? Or professional satisfaction? Or lofty disdain for the whole business?

Suddenly his soul revolts at the endless kow-towing and abasement he has to go through and Childan decides to stand up for his country, its artists and manufactures. Abruptly he changes stance and demands an apology from Mr Kasoura. There is a very long silence as both men stand stock still. Then, very slowly, Mr Kasoura apologises. They shake hands. What expression is in his eyes? Even now, Childan doesn’t know. He leaves Kasoura’s office with a shattering sense that he has no idea what just happened. Did he just throw away the business opportunity of his life? Or did he just proudly stand up for American craftsmanship? Was he tricked into making a foolish decision? Or has he just shown a Jap what spine and character mean? Does Mr Kasoura now respect him? Or despise him even more?

I thought this was a really brilliantly calibrated scene, and more than some of the more obviously thriller-ish moments, really drove home Dick’s central theme of anxiety and disorientation.

The I Ching

Several characters – Frank Frink and Mr Tagomi and Juliana – use the I Ching methodology to make decisions, and Dick explains it at some length – the sorting of the forty-nine yarrow sticks whose shape or number indicates a hexagram, which then has to be looked up in The Book of Changes, which then gives a very oblique analysis of your current situation, and obscure advice on what to do next.

I found this whole theme of the book pretty boring, except insofar as it dramatised the intense anxiety of several of the key characters (Childan, Tagomi). They might as well have been examining the innards of chickens or reading patterns in tea leaves or consulting the stars.

Obviously its inclusion adds to the Japanese and generally oriental flavour of much of the prose and subject matter. More interesting, for me, was the several conversations the antique salesman Robert Childan has with Japanese customers. In these Dick very effectively dramatises the vast gap between Anglo-Saxon common sense and the ultra-fastidious and refined tastes and manners of the Japanese.

Finally, Juliana arrives at the Abendsen house which she finds is a perfectly normal suburban stucco-fronted place, with a little drinks party going on. She confronts Abendsen and in particular accuses him of using the I Ching throughout. Eventually he confesses that at every point, the choice of subject matter, characters, plots and development he consulted the oracle extensively.

Juliana then insists on asking for Abendsen’s I Ching equipment and asks the oracle whether The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is true. The oracle says it is.

think what this means is Juliana, Abendsen and his wife all realise that the oracle is communicating to them from an alternative universe, from our universe – and that it has told them what really happened. In other words, the characters know that they are in an alternative, and secondary universe.

What’s odd, in the book, is how calmly everyone takes this, this interpenetration of realities. Juliana walks back to her car and the Abendsens get on with their drinks party, so calmly that I wondered if I’d completely misunderstood the ending.


Related links

Philip K. Dick reviews

Other fictional alternative histories

  • The Alteration by Kingsley Amis (1976) – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe
  • SSGB by Len Deighton (1978) – the Germans conquered England in 1940 and now, amid the ruins of London, Scotland Yard detective Douglas Archer tries to solve a murder which leads him to a massive conspiracy
  • Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis (1980) – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
  • Fatherland by Robert Harris (1992) – it is 1964, Nazi Germany won the Second World War, and in Berlin detective Xavier March investigates a murder which leads him to uncover the horrific fact at the heart of the German Empire

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading the human giants to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke – a thrilling tale of the Overlords who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke – a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of quicksand-like moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke – panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman transformed into galactic consciousness

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War @ the British Library

According to the lady on the door, this has turned out to be one of the most popular exhibitions ever held at the British Library. I got there when it opened at 10 and within fifteen minutes it was so packed it began to be difficult to see some of the exhibits.

Why? Because it is the largest ever exhibition on the history, literature and culture of Anglo-Saxon England, with many manuscripts and objects brought from overseas, some for the first time in centuries, and many others on loan from museums all around England.

Which makes it an unprecedented opportunity to see treasures and texts, manuscripts and swords, carved crosses and coins, which paint the completest ever picture of the mysterious and evocative centuries between the departure of the Romans in 410 and the conquest of the Normans in 1066 – 650 years which saw the formation of the English language, geography (the founding of towns and cities and roads), politics and religion.

A brief recap of Anglo-Saxon history

According to the Venerable Bede, within a generation of the last Roman soldiers leaving Britain, raiders from north Europe came pillaging. They came from tribes Bede names as the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, based in north Germany and Denmark.

From bases in south England these tribes spread out and established kingdoms the length and breadth of the country. By the sixth century the land had stabilised into seven kingdoms, traditionally known as the Heptarchy, consisting of East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex, and Wessex.

Alongside the main entities was a fluctuating set of smaller kingdoms which included, at one time or another, the kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira within Northumbria, Lindsey in present-day Lincolnshire, the Hwicce in the southwest Midlands, the Magonsæte or Magonset, a sub-kingdom of Mercia in what is now Herefordshire, the Wihtwara, a Jutish kingdom on the Isle of Wight, the Middle Angles, a group of tribes based around modern Leicestershire, and the Hæstingas (around the town of Hastings in Sussex.

The main Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (source: Wikipedia)

The main Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (source: Wikipedia)

By 660 Northumbria was the most powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom, and its contacts with both Ireland and Rome produced a golden age of culture.

Mercia began to displace Northumbria as most powerful kingdom in the early 8th century, a process which reached its climax in the long reign of King Offa, from 757 until his death in July 796. Offa controlled London, built the famous dyke along the border with Wales, and conquered Kent, East Anglia, Essex and Sussex.

In 793 Vikings attacked Lindisfarne monastery way up towards the Scottish border, and for the next two hundred years Danish invaders were a constant threat, eventually controlling the east of the country from the Thames to the border with the Scots. This area became known as the Danelaw, with its capital city at Viking-founded York.

England about 900 AD, showing the border between the Danelaw and Wessex

England about 900 AD, showing the border between the Danelaw and Wessex

Alfred the Great (849-899) is remembered because he fought the Danes out of Wessex, recaptured London, and unified all the tribes of England against the foreigner, signing a peace treaty with the Danish leader, Guthrum, in about 880.

But he didn’t manage to expel them. It was only under his grandson, King Æthelstan that, in the 930s, the Danes were completely expelled.

And even this unity was lost when the Danes under Sweyn Forkbeard reinvaded in 1013, leading the throne of England to be seized by his son, Cnut the Great, a Dane who ruled England from 1016 to 1035.

One last Anglo-Saxon king, Edward the Confessor, ruled again, from 1042 to 1066, but it was a dispute over the succession following his death, which led to the invasion of the county by William and the Conqueror and his Normans, and the death of the last Anglo-Saxon king, Harold Godwinson, at Hastings.

The period from 450 to 1066 was, in other words, one of almost constant warfare, in which kingdoms depended for their existence and stability on the military might and strategic canniness of strong rulers. The sophisticated economic systems of the Romans, their agricultural organisation, their towns laid out logically with strong defensive walls – all this was lost within a few generations of the Roman departure in 410.

For most of the next 600 years small communities of peasants eked out a subsistence living, and their surplus was skimmed off by violent kings to fund their high lifestyle and elaborate jewellery and weapons.

The Anglo-Saxon church

But alongside the history of kings and conquest, there is a parallel history, deeply intertwined with it – the history of the Christian Church in England.

There were Christians among the Roman community but their version disappeared when they left. Some missionaries came from Ireland which had a Christian tradition before England. But the main story begins with the mission to Britain of St. Augustine of Canterbury (not to be confused with St Augustine of Hippo, the great 4th century theologian).

Augustine arrived in 597, converted the king of Kent, Æthelberht a, established an episcopal seat at the Kentish capital, Canterbury (which is why we still have archbishops of Canterbury to this day), and established a monastery and seat of learning which could train and educate the monks who would then, themselves, be sent out to convert the various rival warlords to the true faith, throughout the 600s.

We know a lot about the process of conversion because it is described in detail by the monk known as the Venerable Bede, in his masterpiece, A History of the English Church and People, which I have reviewed elsewhere.

Bede was a product of Northumbrian culture, a Benedictine monk who spent his entire life at the monastery of St. Peter and its companion monastery of St. Paul near Jarrow. He wrote some 40 books but his masterpiece, the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum or The History of the English Church and People.

The point is that, although the Anglo-Saxon kings and their people were all pagans they were also illiterate and so all we know about them is filtered through the writings of the literate Christian monks, who all wrote in Latin.

And the little we have of actual Anglo-Saxon, the language these people spoke and recited their histories and legends in, was also recorded by Christian monks.

We have some pagan jewellery, most notably the content of the fantastic burial hoard found at Sutton Hoo, attributed to King Raedwald who lived in the 7th century.

But even carved crosses, much of the remaining jewellery, and all of the remaining texts, are Christian in content, the crosses’ inscriptions in Latin, the jewellery including the cross motif, and even the handful of Anglo-Saxon texts we have – even the great Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf – contain Christian imagery, or subject matter, and were written down by Christian monks.

Beowulf © British Library Board

Beowulf © British Library Board

Alfred the Great’s renaissance

By the 850s most of the kingdoms were thoroughly Christianised. Alfred the Great (d.899) acquired his reputation not only for his military victories against the Danes, but because he saw the need to raise the cultural level of the people he now ruled in the area known as Wessex. He realised he needed educated literate civil servants to administer his kingdom, and – being a good Christian king – he realised the gospels needed to be spread.

Alfred commissioned monks to begin writing a yearly chronicle of events, thus founding the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles which ended up existing in various versions, kept by monks in monasteries around the kingdom. These are an invaluable source of historical information, and for the grammatical structure of the various regional dialects of Anglo-Saxon. Some of which continued for a generation after the Conquest.

Alfred also commissioned the translation of important texts into Anglo-Saxon. These included a translation and copies of Pope Gregory the Great’s book Pastoral Care. He distributed these along with ‘æstels’ or wooden pointer sticks, which were used for following words when reading a book.

Attached to the end of each pointer was a valuable example of Anglo-Saxon jewellery which featured a portrait of the king and, around the sides, the words ‘Aelfred mec heht gewyrcan’, meaning ‘Alfred ordered me made’. The one and only surviving copy of this is usually in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, but has been brought here for this exhibition. It is wonderful, the quaintness of the likeness of the king contrasting vividly with the sophistication of the dragon (snake?)’s head beneath it, from whose mouth pokes the nozzle which is where the wooden pointing stick came out.

Alfred Jewel © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Alfred Jewel © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Anglo-Saxon treasures on display

This exhibition is so blockbusting because just about every single book, every Bible, psalter, breviary, every manuscript letter, poem, deed and legal document which tells and illustrates these tumultuous 650 years has been brought together and assembled in one place.

The Alfred jewel is just one of the inestimable treasures on display at this massive, comprehensive and dazzling exhibition. Other highlights include:

  • the stunningly ornate gold buckle from Sutton Hoo
  • treasures from the Staffordshire Hoard
  • the River Erne horn, a wooden trumpet from the 8th century discovered in the river in the 1950s on loan from National Museums Ireland
  • displayed alongside the Vespasian Psalter, which includes the oldest translation of part of the Bible into English and depicts two musicians playing similar instruments
  • archaeological objects including:
    • the Binham Hoard, the largest collection of gold from 6th century Britain, on loan from the Norfolk
    • the Lichfield Angel, which has never been displayed outside of Lichfield since it was excavated in 2003
    • key objects from the Staffordshire Hoard, discovered in 2009, the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found
  • the Sutton Hoo gold buckle
  • the Fuller Brooch on loan from the British Museum

Layout

The exhibition is beautifully laid out, in mysterious low lighting (obviously, to protect these priceless manuscripts), the walls hung with long, narrow photographs of unspoilt countryside, vividly conveying a sense of what must have been the largely untamed landscape of the times. It is organised into rooms which take us carefully through the period, with rooms and areas devoted to:

  • Kingdoms and Conversion
  • The Rise of the West Saxons
  • Mercia and its Neighbours
  • Language, Learning and literature
  • Kingdom and Church
  • Music making
  • Conquests and Landscape
  • The Empire of Cnut
  • The Cnut Gospels
  • Domesday Book

There are three or four videos scattered throughout, interviewing scholars who explain key moments or ideas in Anglo-Saxon culture, namely curator, Dr Claire Breay, and well-known TV historian Michael Wood.

The video on the Domesday book is simple and interesting. And there’s a longer one showing the process of preparing vellum parchment and then how the ink and pain for the illuminations were prepared.

Vespasian Psalter © British Library Board

Vespasian Psalter © British Library Board

Mostly manuscripts

But the exhibition, as you would expect from its location, focuses mostly on books, on a huge selection of early medieval manuscripts, alongside, letters and other written matter, including:

  • the beautifully illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels
  • the one and only surviving copy of Beowulf
  • a copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History
  • the St Augustine Gospels on loan from Corpus Christi College Cambridge
  • the Book of Durrow on loan from Trinity College Dublin
  • the Echternach Gospels on loan from the Bibliothèque nationale de France
  • the Utrecht, Harley and Eadwine Psalters from Utrecht University Library, the British Library and Trinity College Cambridge respectively
  • the four principal manuscripts of Old English poetry on display together for the first time, with the British Library’s unique manuscript of Beowulf displayed alongside:
    • the Vercelli Book returning to England for the first time from the Biblioteca Capitolare in Vercelli
    • the Exeter Book on loan from Exeter Cathedral Library
    • the Junius Manuscript on loan from the Bodleian Library
  • Domesday Book, the most famous book in English history and the earliest surviving public record, on loan from The National Archives
  • the earliest surviving English charter, issued in 679 and granting land to the Abbot of Reculver;
  • the oldest original letter written in England, from the Bishop of London to the Archbishop of Canterbury, dating from early 8th century
  • the earliest surviving letter in English, the Fonthill letter, from the early 10th century on loan from Canterbury Cathedral
  • the earliest surviving will of an English woman, Wynflæd
  • St Cuthbert Gospel, the oldest intact European book with its original binding, made at the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the north-east of England in the early 8th century
  • and the enormous Codex Amiatinus, the earliest surviving complete Bible in Latin made at the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the north-east of England in the early 8th century and taken to Italy in 716 as a gift for the Pope. It will be returning to England for the first time in more than 1,300 years, on loan from the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence
Codex Amiatinus on loan from Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms at the British Library © Sam Lane Photography

Codex Amiatinus on loan from Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms at the British Library © Sam Lane Photography

Cnut and Emma

I’d expected it to end sometime after the loosely titled Kingdom and Church section, so I was surprised that the exhibition devotes not one but several sections to reign of King Cnut, the Dane who united England with his home territory to form a short-lived North Sea Empire. He was king of England from 1016 to 1035 and the exhibition shows how manuscripts and books, gospels and psalters of great quality continued to be produced.

There is a section devoted just to Cnut’s strong-minded queen Emma, bringing together references in documents and even illustrations which appear to be of the queen.

The Norman Conquest

And then a final section devoted to a massive copy of the Domesday Book, commissioned by William the Conqueror to list in fine detail every scrap of land in his new domain. The exhibition includes not only a hefty copy of the book, but a rare example of one of the preliminary rolls on which data was initially gathered by William’s army of census takers,before being collated and copied into the Big Book.

Domesday © The National Archives

Domesday Book © The National Archives

Thoughts

Several points emerged for me:

  • The distinction between the Northumbrian Golden Age of the 660s onwards, which is all about Iona, Lindisfarne, St Cuthbert, Benedict Biscop and Bede — and the rise of Mercia under Offa about a century later – there are illuminated books from both periods which, to the really scholarly eye, show the difference in date, origin and cultural links.
  • The idea that the rise of Wessex (which led, eventually, to the unification of England) was a product of the Viking invasions: pushed back into the South-West and West Midlands, the remaining Saxon kingdoms were forced to co-operate and coalesce, and Alfred is the symptom of this newfound focus
  • The sense that, once you get to Alfred, the difficulty of trying to remember the kings and rulers of all the scattered other kingdoms disappears; Alfred is succeeded by his son, Edward the Elder (899-924), who is himself succeeded by his son, Æthelstan, who, from 927 to 939 has the right to claim himself to be the first king of all the English. From this point onwards it becomes easier to follow the kingship, and there is a kind of cultural and legal as well as military unification.

Slaves

I was surprised to come across a record of Athelstan freeing a slave. The earliest will made by an Englishwoman, Wynflæd, from the tenth century, records her wish to free her slaves. And the section about Domesday Book, while running through some of the staggering stats included in the book, mentions that it records that there were some 28,325 slaves in England in 1086 (compared with some 288,000 peasants). I.e. around 10% of the work-force was slaves.

A little-known fact about the Norman Conquest is that it was William who formally abolished the (thriving) slave trade in Anglo-Saxon England.

Slight criticism

I had one big caveat. I counted 125 books and manuscripts in the exhibition – books carefully propped open so we could see illuminations and text, manuscripts carefully flattened. These were all, of course, accompanied by information panels explaining what they were, what to look for in the illumination or style of writing, and so on.

BUT – none of them contained a translation of the actual words on show.

Most of the books are in Latin, Latin versions of various books of the Bible, breviaries and psalters, texts of Christian advice, letters from bishops to kings or vice versa, deeds to properties, adjudications in land disputes, and so on, with just a handful of texts in Anglo-Saxon, such as Beowulf, the Exeter Riddles, the Dream of the Rood, wills, charters and so on.

But early medieval writing was highly stylised. Although I studied Latin for GCSE and Anglo-Saxon at university, I always find it next to impossible to read Latin or Anglo-Saxon manuscripts because of the cramped and stylised nature of the handwriting.

So it would have been a very good idea, next to the panel telling you the history of the book, to have had a panel simply laying out the actual words on display, in modern orthography.

And then, logically enough – it would have been a good idea to have translated the words into modern English.

We are presented with a page of Beowulf, or of the Domesday Book. It looks great – but I can’t read a word of it. Not only can I not read it, but even if I could, I wouldn’t understand it.

I think this was a big flaw with the exhibition. The overwhelming majority of objects on display are texts. And although the exhibition gives plenty of help with the manuscripts’ provenance and style and general content – visitors are given no help at all with actually reading or understanding them.

Lindisfarne Gospels f.27r © British Library Board

Lindisfarne Gospels f.27r © British Library Board

Introduction by the exhibition curator


Related links

Related reviews

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

This is an extraordinarily packed, dense and demanding exhibition.

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

Women first

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

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

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

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

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

Emilie Flöge and dress designs c.1900

Emilie Flöge and some of her dress designs c.1900

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

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

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

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

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

And so on.

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

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

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

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

Collaborations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Modernism about Love or the Machine Age?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A tsunami of information

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is that enough to think about yet?

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

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

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

Numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

I came to roughly two conclusions.

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

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

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

Small is not necessarily beautiful

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

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

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

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

Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe (1929)

Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe (1929)

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

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

Big rooms where art can breathe

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

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

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

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

Marionettes by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1918)

Marionettes by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1918)

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

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

Design B53 (1924) by Sonia Delaunay

Design B53 (1924) by Sonia Delaunay

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

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

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

Improvisation III by Wassily Kandinsky (1909)

Improvisation III by Wassily Kandinsky (1909)

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alternative interpretations

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

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

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

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

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

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

The promotional video

P.S. What does ‘modern’ mean?

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

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

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


Related links

Women in art

Reviews of artists featured in this exhibition

Reviews of previous exhibitions & concerts at the Barbican

Mrs Craddock by Somerset Maugham (1902)

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

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

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

Mrs Craddock

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

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

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

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

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

On the day of the funeral, there is social comedy about who should get order of precedence in the funeral parade among the various organisations Edward which was a leading member of (the freemasons, the county council, the Conservative Party).

But quite separate from all that, Bertha doesn’t attend the funeral. Remote and isolated from the hurly burly of the entire world, she lies on her sofa, in the beautifully restored house, admiring the fine view to the sea, and picks up a book. The End.

Response

I enjoyed reading Mrs Craddock but was aware of its numerous faults. For a start, there are several odd passages where Maugham is being ‘experimental’ (or giving in to contemporary literary fashion) but which really don’t come off.

One of them occurs half way through, when Bertha, still in her infatuation stage, hears tell that Edward is a little injured, and goes off into a peculiar hallucination of him being brought in dead, her washing the corpse, lowering the coffin into the grave and her throwing herself on top of it, a bizarre stream-of-consciousness hallucination – at the end of which Edward walks in right as rain and wondering why she’s in such a state.

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

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

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

The characterisation of the stiff local vicar, Mr Grove, his well-intentioned sister, the hearty doctor, the dashing local landowner Branderton, the chorus of snobbish local ladies led by Mrs Branderston, with Mrs Mayston Ryle and Mrs Molsons not far behind, the scenes involving this little community – are often very funny.

The vicar’s sister, Miss Glover, is a particularly memorable character, all shiny stiff dress and sincere Christian sympathy. Maugham was always strong on social comedy, and strong on the subtleties and veiled malice of petty snobbery. It would later reappear in his feel for the thousand and one stupid restrictions on colonial life in the Far East, as described in his short stories of the 1920s.

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

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

Similarly, Bertha’s anger when she realises that Edward doesn’t much care if she lives or dies or what she does, is vividly described and moving.

And so, again, towards the end, is her prolonged mood of depression as she wanders down to the grey Kent sea and fantasises about drowning in it.

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

I’m not sure and I’m also not sure if I’m qualified to judge. For a start, maybe only a woman reader or critic could really assess whether Bertha is a ‘realistic’ character. Who am I to say?

Secondly, the novel covers a period from the 1880s to the end of the 1890s and… that was so long ago, so far away, in a kind of constipated rural Victorian society which is almost impossible for us to imagine, that I can’t see how any modern reader can make a just assessment of its veracity.

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

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

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

Sex and lust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Later in the book, the same thing happens all over again when she becomes infatuated with Gerald. In the course of that affair there takes place something you don’t usually read about at the period, which is the clearly defined moment when Bertha decides to have sex with Gerald, to give him the great gift of her body, to make their union unique and unforgettable.

You can almost smell the pheromones radiating off the page as Bertha pursues Gerald across London, tracking him down to her aunt’s house, her aunt goes out and they are on the verge of doing something unforgiveable according to Victorian custom (Bertha was still a married woman and keeps telling us that Gerald is almost young enough to be her son) when… there’s a knock at the door and Aunt Mary reappears in the nick of time!

Still. The description of Bertha’s heat and arousal as` she gets so close to her goal is almost pornographic in its blood-heating intensity.

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

The battle of the sexes

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

The English novel starts in 1748 with Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, a 500-page battle between a man who wants to ravish his servant girl (Pamela) and the said servant girl who insists that they are married before he takes her ‘virtue’. And the rest of ‘serious’ fiction continued to be centred on this theme for at least 150 years – the sly marriage markets of Jane Austen, the earnest character studies of George Eliot, in the American ladies in Europe of Henry James and the Golden Age snobbery of Edith Wharton, through the endless sex war in D.H. Lawrence, eachoed in the love comedies of H.G. Wells or Aldous Huxley, and so on.

Literature which doesn’t address the problem of finding the right partner, and holding onto them i.e. of marriage and adultery, tends not to be thought central to the Great Tradition of the English Novel. Thus ‘serious’ literary critics for a long time refused to admit Sterne, Dickens or Conrad to the ‘canon’.

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

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

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

Maugham and women

And at the heart of these mismatched marriages is the women. Maugham throughout his long career had a special sympathy with women. Take imaginative, free-spirited, if naive, Kitty Garstin getting bored of her dull husband in The Painted Veil. Or Mary Panton, unsuitably married to an alcoholic gambler in Up At the Villa and then seriously considering a second (and obviously foolish) marriage to an eminent diplomat twice her age. Or Julia Lambert, famous actress throwing herself away on a worthless young cad in Theatre. Or Liza giving her heart and body to rascally Jim Blakeston instead of decent loyal Tom in Liza of Lambeth. Mismatches, all of them. And women all at the centre of the stories.

In Maugham’s theatrical comedies of manners, there is also a wide array of interesting women characters. There are old and amusingly cynical women (Lady Grayson in Our Betters), younger, powerful women (Constance Middleton in The Constant Woman) and mature, tragic women (Mrs. Tabret in The Sacred Flame).

It is the women, and their often painful emotional journeys, who stick in the reader’s imagination, while the callow young men in these plays are often only dramatic ciphers.

Maugham’s subject is the eternal erring of the human heart, but it is nearly always a woman’s heart which is described, and felt, with greatest intensity.

The New Woman

As if the marriage theme wasn’t already central enough in the literary tradition, the 1890s saw a particular interest in the role and experience of women in contemporary society. It was the era of ‘the New Woman’, and a flurry of novels were published examining the issue of women in society, with narratives and characters being created to explore the rights and wrongs of women.

The term ‘New Woman’ was popularized by British-American writer Henry James, who used it to describe the growth in the number of feminist, educated, independent career women in Europe and the United States. Independence was not simply a matter of the mind: it also involved physical changes in activity and dress, as activities such as bicycling expanded women’s ability to engage with a broader more active world. The New Woman pushed the limits set by a male-dominated society, especially as modeled in the plays of Norwegian Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906). (Wikipedia)

The New Woman was in all the papers, in magazines, in articles, on the stage, discussed in Parliament, aired in a thousand short stories and novels. It even percolated through to the provincial backwater of Blackstable where Mrs Craddock is set, and where clever, cosmopolitan Miss Ley enjoys teasing the hide-bound locals.

‘Which do you think is the predominant partner?’ she asked, smiling drily [referring to Edward and Bertha].
‘The man, as he should be,’ gruffly replied the doctor.
‘Do you think he has more brains?’
‘Ah, you’re a feminist,’ said Dr. Ramsay, with great scorn.

Striking that old fuddy-duddy Dr Ramsay knows what a feminist is and uses the term ‘feminist’ in a story set in the 1880s. Amazing that women were arguing with men about the role of women, and both able to joke and josh about it, some 130 years ago. In that 130 years hundreds of novels, plays, films, thousands of factual books and hundreds of thousands of articles have been written about the New Woman, about feminism, women’s liberation and #metoo.

Quite clearly it is an issue, a real and enormous issue – but one like homelessness and poverty and managing the economy and the North-South divide and how to run the railways, which every generation of intellectuals thinks it has discovered, discusses to death, but which is, somehow, never finally solved.

Boldness about marriage

I mentioned Maugham’s surprising candour in describing the physical characteristics of lust. He makes at least one of his characters be just as scandalously blunt about the broader realities of sex and reproduction. It is Bertha’s aunt, Miss Ley, who is given a speech impatiently telling the dry-as-dust Miss Glover, the vicar’s sister, that the basis of marriage is biological reproduction and nothing more.

‘Yes, I know what you all think in England,’ said Miss Ley, catching the glance and its meaning. ‘You expect people to marry from every reason except the proper, one – and that is the instinct of reproduction.’
‘Miss Ley!’ exclaimed Miss Glover, blushing.
‘Oh, you’re old enough to take a sensible view of the, matter,’ answered Miss Ley, somewhat brutally. ‘Bertha is merely the female attracted to the male, and that is the only decent foundation of marriage – the other way seems to me merely horrid. And what does it matter if the man is not of the same station, the instinct has nothing to do with the walk in life; if I’d ever been in love I shouldn’t have cared if it was a pot-boy, I’d have married him – if he asked me.’
‘Well, upon my word!’ said the doctor.
But Miss Ley was roused now, and interrupted him: ‘The particular function of a woman is to propagate her species; and if she’s wise she’ll choose a strong and healthy man to be the father of her children. I have no patience with those women who marry a man because he’s got brains. What is the good of a husband who can make abstruse mathematical calculations? A woman wants a man with strong arms and the digestion of an ox.’
‘Miss Ley,’ broke in Miss Glover, ‘I’m not clever enough to argue with you, but I know you’re wrong. I don’t think I am right to listen to you; I’m sure Charles wouldn’t like it.’
‘My dear, you’ve been brought up like the majority of English girls – that is, like a fool.’
Poor Miss Glover blushed. ‘At all events I’ve been brought up to regard marriage as a holy institution. We’re here upon earth to mortify the flesh, not to indulge it. I hope I shall never be tempted to think of such matters in the way you’ve suggested. If ever I marry I know that nothing will be further from me than carnal thoughts. I look upon marriage as a spiritual union in which it is my duty to love, honour, and obey my husband, to assist and sustain him, to live with him such a life that when the end comes we may be prepared for it.’
‘Fiddlesticks!’ said Miss Ley.

As with his hot-blooded descriptions of lust, Maugham’s correlation of human reproduction with animal reproduction i.e. as an animal instinct devoid of all moral or religious meaning, strikes me as definitely anticipating D.H. Lawrence.

Boldness about religion

And the same goes for his treatment of traditional religion. After his parents died, Maugham was brought up an orphan in the home of his father’s brother, the unimaginative vicar of Whitstable in the 1880s (hence the accuracy of the social comedy of provincial Kentish society in this novel).

Sometime in his student years, Maugham’s Christian faith just melted away and he experienced a tremendous sense of liberation, liberation (as Selina Hastings’s fabulous biography of Maugham makes crystal clear) to have sex with whoever he wanted, male or female.

Accompanying Miss Ley’s blunt truth-telling about sex, there is a similar passage in which Bertha brutally attacks the Christian faith. Devout, tightly-laced Miss Glover, the vicar’s spinster sister, has come to ‘comfort’ Bertha after she’s lost her baby in childbirth. Bertha demurs.

‘Oh, Bertha, you’re not taking it in the proper spirit – you’re so rebellious, and it’s wrong, it’s utterly wrong.’
‘I can only think of my baby,’ said Bertha, hoarsely.
‘Why don’t you pray to God, dear – shall I offer a short prayer now, Bertha?’
‘No, I don’t want to pray to God – He’s either impotent or cruel.’
‘Bertha,’ cried Miss Glover. ‘You don’t know what you’re saying. Oh, pray to God to melt your stubbornness; pray to God to forgive you.’
‘I don’t want to be forgiven. I’ve done nothing that needs it. It’s God who needs my forgiveness – not I His.’

The attack continues later, when Miss Glover returns with the vicar as back-up. Bertha initially starts off meekly reading the Prayer Book with them, but then breaks down:

‘I have no wish to “give hearty thanks unto God,”‘ she said, looking almost fiercely at the worthy pair. ‘I’m very sorry to offend your prejudices, but it seems to me absurd that I should prostrate myself in gratitude to God.’
‘Oh, Mrs. Craddock, I trust you don’t mean what you say,’ said the Vicar.
‘This is what I told you, Charles,’ said Miss Glover. ‘I don’t think Bertha is well, but still this seems to me dreadfully wicked.’
Bertha frowned, finding it difficult to repress the sarcasm which rose to her lips; her forbearance was sorely tried. But Mr. Glover was a little undecided.
‘We must be as thankful to God for the afflictions He sends as for the benefits,’ he said at last.
‘I am not a worm to crawl upon the ground and give thanks to the foot that crushes me.’
‘I think that is blasphemous, Bertha,’ said Miss Glover.
‘Oh, I have no patience with you, Fanny,’ said Bertha, raising herself, a flush lighting up her face. ‘Can you realise what I’ve gone through, the terrible pain of it? Oh, it was too awful. Even now when I think of it I almost scream.’
‘It is by suffering that we rise to our higher self,’ said Miss Glover. ‘Suffering is a fire that burns away the grossness of our material natures.’
‘What rubbish you talk,’ cried Bertha, passionately. ‘You can say that when you’ve never suffered. People say that suffering ennobles one; it’s a lie, it only makes one brutal…. But I would have borne it – for the sake of my child. It was all useless – utterly useless. Dr. Ramsay told me the child had been dead the whole time. Oh, if God made me suffer like that, it’s infamous. I wonder you’re not ashamed to put it down to God. How can you imagine Him to be so stupid, so cruel! Why, even the vilest beast in the slums wouldn’t cause a woman such frightful and useless agony for the mere pleasure of it.’

This powerful scene should take its place in any anthology describing the collapse of Christian belief in the later 19th century.

What with the Darwinian view of human reproduction, this forthright atheism, and the implicit theme of the New Woman throughout the novel, along with the numerous natural descriptions which I’ve mentioned, Maugham was clearly making an effort to write a Big Serious Novel tackling some of the fashionable Issues of the Day.

It doesn’t work because the central characters aren’t, in the end, really believable enough to support the great weight placed on them. But it’s a valiant attempt.

Miss Ley

All this is to overlook the third major character in the story who is, on one reading, arguably its most successful character – Bertha’s Aunt Mary, or Miss Ley as she’s referred to.

In the opening scenes of the novel, Bertha is still living under Miss Ley’s guardianship, we see them often together, and so she is one of the first characters we get to know and like. Although she then disappears from view for the long stretches which describe Bertha and Edward’s marriage, whenever Miss Ley does reappear – when Bertha goes to stay with her for a short break, and then runs away with her to the continent, and in the prolonged sequence when Bertha is staying with Miss Ley while she has her almost-affair with young Gerald – she was greeted with cheers from this reader. Why? Because she is drily, quietly funny.

Miss Ley sat on the sofa by the fireside, a woman of middle-size, very slight, with a thin and much wrinkled face. Of her features the mouth was the most noticeable, not large, with lips that were a little too thin; it was always so tightly compressed as to give her an air of great determination, but there was about the corners an expressive mobility, contradicting in rather an unusual manner the inferences which might be drawn from the rest of her person. She had a habit of fixing her cold eyes on people with a steadiness that was not a little embarrassing. They said Miss Ley looked as if she thought them great fools, and as a matter of fact that usually was her precise opinion. Her thin grey hair was very plainly done; and the extreme simplicity of her costume gave a certain primness, so that her favourite method of saying rather absurd things in the gravest and most decorous manner often disconcerted the casual stranger.

‘Saying rather absurd things in the gravest and most decorous manner’. Miss Ley emerges as the vehicle for the best of the book’s sub-Jane Austen sly wit, acting – especially in the first half – as the tart and comic centre of the novel, as drily cynical and Bertha is passionately romantic.

Humanity, Miss Ley took to be a small circle of persons, mostly feminine, middle-aged, unattached, and of independent means, who travelled on the continent, read good literature and abhorred the vast majority of their fellow-creatures.

She asked politely after [the doctor]’s wife, to whom she secretly objected for her meek submission to the doctor. Miss Ley made a practice of avoiding those women who had turned themselves into mere shadows of their lords, more especially when their conversation was of household affairs.

[Miss Ley] had already come to the conclusion that he [Craddock] was a man likely to say on a given occasion the sort of thing which might be expected; and that, in her eyes, was a hideous crime.

Miss Ley was anxious that no altercation should disturb the polite discomfort of the meeting.

Miss Ley revels in the embarrassment of other people, especially the uptight, narrow-minded provincials around her. She spends as much time as she can in London, and even more abroad in Italy (in another anticipation of a more famous novelist, this time E.M. Foster with his nice-girls-and-their-aunts-in-Italy stories). Whenever Miss Lay arrives back in Kent it is hilarious to watch the locals being affronted and outraged and shocked and tutting and twitching the curtains, under fire from Miss Ley’s dry wit and through Miss Ley’s quiet, sardonic gaze.

And she is not only an appealing character in her own right. But at a number of key moments (throughout Bertha’s early infatuation with Edward, then slyly noticing her loss of faith in her husband, and then throughout the Gerald affair) Miss Ley’s role as onlooker and chorus to the main action pushes her closer to the reader’s perspective.

It is as if she was standing next to us in the wings of a theatre, muttering an ironic commentary as we both watch the overwrought romantic heroine fainting and weeping and panting with passion.

Oscar Wilde

Moreover, Miss Ley gets most of the book’s one-liners. Much of the dialogue of Mrs Craddock contains the sub-Wildean cynical wit which was to characterise Maugham’s later string of extremely successful plays, such Oscarisms as:

‘Marriage is always a hopeless idiocy for a woman who has enough money of her own to live upon.’

‘Marriage is an institution of the Church, Miss Ley,’ replied Miss Glover, rather severely.
‘Is it?’ retorted Miss Ley. ‘I always thought it was an arrangement to provide work for the judges in the Divorce Court.’

‘Mr. Branderton has been to Eton and Oxford, but he conceals the fact with great success.’

‘My dear Dr. Ramsay, I have trouble enough in arranging my own life; do not ask me to interfere with other people’s.’

It is madness for a happy pair to pretend to have no secrets from one another: it leads them into so much deception.

‘I make a point of thinking with the majority – it’s the only way to get a reputation for wisdom.’

‘You wouldn’t rob us of our generals,’ said Miss Ley. ‘They’re so useful at tea-parties.’

And the fact that almost all of these lines are given to Miss Ley, and that she emerges as in many ways the most loveable character, explains why Maugham begins the book with a dedication – more precisely, a mock ‘Epistle Dedicatory’ – to her. He obviously liked her best of all the characters in the book, and she is the only one you would want to meet.

A tiny Marxist comment

Having just been to an extensive feminist art exhibition, and read numerous articles about the Judge Kavanaugh affair, and read some feminist articles about Maugham and Women and, given that Bertha is quite clearly a heroine who traditional feminist criticism would see as the oppressed, repressed, stifled, stymied victim of the Patriarchy – it is worth pointing out that Bertha never does a day’s work in her life.

Bertha lives her entire life off the labour of the workers on her father’s farms and estates, as does Miss Ley.

Both women live lives full of books and art and travel and galleries and fine feelings, their meals are cooked and served and cleared away by nameless faceless servants (we never learn the names of any of the Craddocks’ household servants or farm workers), their rooms are cleaned, their laundry is washed, trains run for them, boats sail for them, galleries open for them – without them ever lifting a finger to earn it.

They belong to the rentier class. They are social parasites. Edward works hard and is efficient and effective at transforming the fortunes of the Ley estate, at managing its livestock and agriculture, and joins local bodies like the parish council and freemasons, which he also runs with exemplary honesty and thoroughness. And for this – he is bitterly mocked by his wife:

Bertha soon found that her husband’s mind was not only commonplace, but common. His ignorance no longer seemed touching, but merely shameful; his prejudices no longer amusing but contemptible. She was indignant at having humbled herself so abjectly before a man of such narrowness of mind, of such insignificant character. She could not conceive how she had ever passionately loved him. He was bound in by the stupidest routine. It irritated her beyond measure to see the regularity with which he went through the varying processes of his toilet. She was indignant with his presumption, and self-satisfaction, and conscious rectitude. Edward’s taste was contemptible in books, in pictures, and in music; and his pretentions to judge upon such matters filled Bertha with scorn.

Books, art and music – that is how Bertha judges people, not for their character or dutifulness or patriotism or hard work. All these are rather ridiculous qualities in her eyes.

This scorn is echoed by young Gerald, himself the wastrel son of rich parents, who was kicked out of public school and has got his family’s housemaid pregnant.

On one occasion Edward comes up to see his wife during her stay with Miss Ley. After he has left, Gerald, the good-for-nothing idler, mocks solid, efficient, patriotic Edward Craddock to Miss Ley, who feebly defends him:

‘His locks are somewhat scanty but he has a strong sense of duty.’
‘I know that,’ shouted Gerald. ‘It oozes out of him whenever he gets hot, just like gum.’

This, one cannot help thinking, is all too often the attitude of high-minded writers and artists – regardless of gender or race – to the actual, physical, hard, demanding labour of making and maintaining the world; the smug condescension of the bookish toward those who do the daily necessary labour which makes their luxurious lives of fine feelings and deep thoughts and carefree travel possible.

Maugham pours so much feeling and sentiment and imagination and sympathy into hundreds of pages describing Bertha’s feelings and passions and thoughts and worries and fears and disillusion and unhappiness and despair – that it is easy to forget that she is a leech.


Plus ça change

Reading older literature, I am continually struck at the way that things which bothered the late-Victorians are still bothering us now. The status, roles and rights of women were exercising many of their best minds. Same now. And so was the problem of the poor, the homeless, and the huge inequalities in society. Same now.

But there are other, lesser issues, too, which made me think that some things really never change.

Railways For example, it was only last week that we were hearing about the Labour Party’s plans to renationalise the railways because, in private hands, the level of service given by the railways is shocking, and all the money they raise seems to end up as massive dividends for their shareholders. Well, here is what Maugham thought about British railways in 1902.

Though it was less than thirty miles from Dover to Blackstable the communications were so bad that it was necessary to wait for hours at the port, or take the boat-train to London and then come sixty miles down again. Bertha was exasperated at the delay, forgetting that she was now (thank Heaven!) in a free country, where the railways were not run for the convenience of passengers, but the passengers necessary evils to create dividends for an ill-managed company. (Chapter 23)

Brexit There’s a passage designed to contrast Edward’s narrow-minded Little Englandism and his simple patriotism with Bertha’s cultured cosmopolitanism and loathing of patriotic symbols (in this case, jingoistic late-Victorian music) which anticipates a lot of the rhetoric of Brexit. Manly if thick Edward is talking:

‘I don’t mind confessing that I can’t stand all this foreign music. What I say to Bertha is – why can’t you play English stuff?’
‘If you must play at all,’ interposed his wife.
‘After all’s said and done The Blue Bells of Scotland has got a tune about it that a fellow can get his teeth into.’
‘You see, there’s the difference,’ said Bertha, strumming a few bars of Rule Britannia, ‘it sets mine on edge.’
‘Well, I’m patriotic,’ retorted Edward. ‘I like the good, honest, homely English airs. I like ’em because they’re English. I’m not ashamed to say that for me the best piece of music that’s ever been written is God Save the Queen.’
‘Which was written by a German, dear Edward,’ said Miss Ley, smiling.
‘That’s as it may be,’ said Edward, unabashed, ‘but the sentiment’s English and that’s all I care about.’
‘Hear! hear!’ cried Bertha. ‘I believe Edward has aspirations towards a political career. I know I shall finish up as the wife of the local M.P.’
‘I’m patriotic,’ said Edward, ‘and I’m not ashamed to confess it.’
‘Rule Britannia,’ sang Bertha, ‘Britannia rules the waves, Britons never, never shall be slaves. Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay! Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay!’
‘It’s the same everywhere now,’ proceeded the orator. ‘We’re choke full of foreigners and their goods. I think it’s scandalous. English music isn’t good enough for you – you get it from France and Germany. Where do you get your butter from? Brittany! Where d’you get your meat from? New Zealand!’ This he said with great scorn, and Bertha punctuated the observation with a resounding chord. ‘And as far as the butter goes, it isn’t butter – it’s margarine. Where does your bread come from? America. Your vegetables from Jersey.’
‘Your fish from the sea,’ interposed Bertha.
‘And so it is all along the line – the British farmer hasn’t got a chance!’ (Chapter 12)

Or again, Edward stoutly declares:

‘I’m quite content to be as I am, and I don’t want to know a single foreign language. English is quite good enough for me…. I think English people ought to stick to their own country. I don’t pretend to have read any French books, but I’ve never heard anybody deny, that at all events the great majority are indecent, and not the sort of thing a woman should read… What we want now is purity and reconstitution of the national life. I’m in favour of English morals, and English homes, English mothers, and English habits.’

Cosmopolitan contempt for Britain The cosmopolitan Miss Ley thinks there is something intrinsically pathetic about the English.

‘You’ve never had a London season, have you? On the whole I think it’s amusing: the opera is very good and sometimes you see people who are quite well dressed.’

To this day there is a broad streak of intellectual literary life which despises the English and worships the literature, climate, fashion and landscape of France or Italy.

Tourism When I went to Barcelona recently I couldn’t miss the graffiti everywhere telling tourists to go home and stop ruining their city. I’ve since read articles about other tourist destinations which are struggling to cope with the number of visitors. Back in 1902 Miss Ley shared this feeling that tourism was ruining everywhere, in this case Paris:

We have here a very nice apartment, in the Latin Quarter, away from the rich people and the tourists. I do not know which is more vulgar, the average tripper or the part of Paris which he infests: I must say they become one another to a nicety. I loathe the shoddiness of the boulevards, with their gaudy cafés over-gilt and over-sumptuous, and their crowds of ill-dressed foreigners. But if you come I can show you a different Paris – a restful and old-fashioned Paris, theatres to which tourists do not go; gardens full of pretty children and nursemaids with long ribbons to their caps. I can take you down innumerable grey streets with funny shops, in old churches where you see people actually praying; and it is all very quiet and calming to the nerves. And I can take you to the Louvre at hours when there are few visitors…

Infest! She says tourists infest parts of Paris. If she had been describing immigrants, the book would be banned.

Politicians are idiots In a funny scene Edward stands for election to the local council and makes a speech riddled with pompous expressions, bad jokes, stories which disappointingly taper off, but still manages to end with rousingly jingoistic rhetoric.

Bertha is more ashamed and embarrassed than she’s ever been in her life by its simple-minded idiocy. But the speech is greeted with wild applause and Edward is elected by a landslide. People, Bertha concludes, are idiots. And the biggest idiots of all are running the country.

There is nothing so difficult as to persuade men that they are not omniscient. Bertha, exaggerating the seriousness of the affair, thought it charlatanry [of Edward] to undertake a post without knowledge and without capacity. Fortunately that is not the opinion of the majority, or the government of this enlightened country could not proceed.

Throughout the book the reader finds the same tone, and the same arguments, applied to the same ‘issues’ that we are still discussing and arguing about, 120 years later. Many superficial details change – but arguments about the rights of women, the idiocy of politicians, the rubbish train system, the philistine patriotism and the snooty snobbery of the book and art world – all of this remains the same as ever.


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

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

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

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

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

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

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

William Morris reviews Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy (1889)

In 1888 the American author Edward Bellamy published his utopian novel, Looking Backward. It tells the story of an upper-class citizen of Boston who falls into a deep sleep in 1887 and wakes up in the same city, one hundred and thirteen years later, in 2000.

Bellamy was a socialist and uses the Perfect Society he describes as existing in 2000 to:

  1. highlight the appalling inequality and inefficiency of the runaway capitalism of his own day
  2. explain very systematically how a centrally planned socialist economy – which has abolished money, gives everyone the same education, requires everyone to work but assigns them jobs best suited to their abilities, and pays everyone the same monthly amount of ‘credits’ – has eliminated the economic chaos, gross waste, and revolting inequality of the society of his day

William Morris was born in 1834 and, despite his privileged upbringing at private school and Oxford, and his lifelong interest in arts and crafts, he became a deeply political figure. During the 1860s he became increasingly disgusted by the appalling exploitation of much of Britain’s working population by the class of factory owners, bankers and lawyers, and the poverty and misery which resulted.

In 1883 Morris joined the newly-founded Social Democratic Federation, the first official socialist party in England, and spent the last years of his life writing pamphlets arguing for socialism, and travelling around the country, making passionate speeches to working class audiences.

Himself the author of a number of medievalising romances, Morris was, therefore, intellectually well-suited to sympathise with the aims and style of Bellamy’s book, and in 1889 he published a review of it in the SDF’s official magazine, The Commonweal.

Bellamy’s main points

The crux of Morris’s short review is a profound disagreement with Bellamy on a central issue.

Bellamy’s future society is profoundly regimented. It’s the kind of utopia in which strict rules and regulations have been introduced and which everyone unquestioningly follows. Everyone is educated till they’re 21, then does exactly three years of manual labour, during which they discover their skills and abilities, at which point they opt for the career which best suits them, from coal mining to cardiology.

A state of ‘equality’ is achieved by ensuring that those who do unpleasant work do so for relatively short hours, while those doing rewarding jobs, work longer hours. But everyone is paid the same regardless of hours, getting paid in ‘credits’ rather than money, credits which only the state can issue and which can only be redeemed at state shops. So there is in effect no money and no private enterprise.

This is all highly organised, specified and regimented.

Bellamy spends quite a few pages describing how the workforce is, in effect, organised like an army, with the world of work divided into ten or so ‘divisions’ representing types of industry, and goes into considerable detail about how people are assessed and ranked within each ‘division’, how they can earn promotion (which doesn’t bring more money, just more responsibility and respect), how their work is assessed, and so on.

At the age of 45 everyone is forced to retire, and is free to devote their lives to whatever pastimes they wish.

At one point, back in 1887, the narrator of Bellamy’s book sees a squad of soldiers march by and observes that how much better the world would be if the world of work was as unified and organised, with a central chain of command and plan, as the army.

Bellamy envisages a socialist future in which work has been militarised.

Morris’s criticism

When I read all this I accepted it, partly because nearly all utopias are like this – that is, they tend to imagine that everyone in a future utopia will be regimented, will live according to a fairly small set of rules. The same is also true of dystopias, like Brave New World or Nineteen Eighty-Four.

But it is this central point which Morris strongly objects to.

For Morris, the whole point of a socialist world would be that nobody is forced to do anything. Bellamy’s notion of militarising the world of work is the exact opposite of Morris’s aspiration. For Morris, Bellamy makes the cardinal error of accepting modern industrial civilisation at face value. He accepts factories and mass production and regimented work forces. Bellamy’s

temperament may be called the unmixed modern one, unhistoric and unartistic; it makes its owner (if a Socialist) perfectly satisfied with modern civilisation, if only the injustice, misery, and waste of class society could be got rid of.

As I understand it, Bellamy incorporates the idea of Marx and Engels that there is an unstoppable tendency in capitalism towards larger and larger monopolies. Already the state has taken over some monopolies such as the Post Office, because everyone realises it’s in their best interest to have just one post office and not a whole load of competing post offices. Well, hopes Bellamy, the population will eventually realise that every industry is better off in state hands. The state will step in and take over the capitalist monopolies at which point you will have state socialism.

Morris thinks that Bellamy relies too much on this notion of monopolies evolving into state socialism. He thinks it too passive, a kind of ‘economical semi-fatalism’ which is ‘deadening and discouraging.’

Also it runs the risk, in terms of short-term political strategy, that, if there is an economic upturn and a return to full employment and people feel well-off again (which is what, in fact, happened as the 1890s proceeded) then people will simply abandon their ‘socialist’ views.

Back to the main point – which is Bellamy’s view of the militarisation of working life. Morris hates it. For Morris, this view simply inherits and intensifies the capitalist view of life in that is mechanical, that focuses on the machinery of life and not its content.

At bottom, Bellamy’s book is about economics and production and attributes the poverty of 1887 to the absurdity of leaving production to ‘private enterprise’, with all its competition and waste and regular crises of over-production leading to recessions and unemployment. Bellamy’s solution is State Communism organised on military lines.

The result is that though he tells us that every man is free to choose his occupation and that work is no burden to anyone, the impression which he produces is that of a huge standing army, tightly drilled, compelled by some mysterious fate to unceasing anxiety for the production of wares to satisfy every caprice, however wasteful and absurd, that may cast up amongst them.

What Morris finds oppressive is Bellamy’s reliance on the machine to solve problems.

A machine-life is the best which Mr. Bellamy can imagine for us.

Morris objects to Bellamy’s central contention that more and better machines will improve life for everyone. Bellamy’s ‘only idea of making labour tolerable is to decrease the amount of it by means of fresh and ever fresh developments of machinery’. Because work, even in Bellamy’s utopia, is acknowledged to be sometimes unpleasant, Bellamy replaces the motive of contemporary capitalism – fear of starvation – with new motives, namely patriotic spirit, altruism and pride engendered by membership of the army of labour.

Morris disagrees. He thinks Bellamy is barking up the wrong tree. He thinks that if you conceive of work this way, you will never be able to eliminate the element of compulsion and alienation in work. Relying on machines to eliminate the unpleasantness of work will just lead to a world of more and more machines, each requiring more boring maintenance.

By contrast, Morris starts from a completely different basic assumption, an assumption summed up in the title of one of his most famous essays, Useful Work versus Useless Toil (1884).

Morris thinks that work itself must be made rewarding.

It cannot be too often repeated that the true incentive to useful and happy labour is and must be pleasure in the work itself.

Morris doesn’t think machine civilisation can be improved: he rejects machine civilisation completely. It is the machine which enslaves workers, turning them into mere ‘hands’; it is the inhuman requirement of machines which alienates people from their work.

Increasing the role of machines in society, indeed relying on machines to solve the central problem of work is, for Morris, a cardinal error. Work must reject machinery altogether. Work must be personal, small-scale, individual. Then it will be its own reward.

Thus, in this essay, we can see two diametrically opposed types of Socialist. The Bellamy type thinks:

  • that the problem of the organisation of life and necessary labour can be dealt with by a huge national centralisation, working by a kind of magic for which no one feels himself responsible
  • that individual workers can shuffle off the business of life on to the shoulders of an abstraction called ‘the State’

The Morris type thinks:

  • that, on the contrary, it will be necessary for the unit of administration to be small enough for every citizen to feel himself personally responsible for its details, and be interested in them
  • that individual workers cannot shuffle off the business of life on to the shoulders of an abstraction called the State, but must deal with it in conscious association with each other

Bellamy’s Socialism is based on a large, urban army of industrial labour who work at often unpleasant tasks from a sense of duty to the nation.

Morris’s Socialism is based on small, scattered, semi-rural villages of craftsmen and women making what they want for themselves, when they want it, and so finding real meaning and reward in their work.

A warning

What’s interesting is that Morris considers the success of Bellamy’s book to be not only noteworthy but actively dangerous. Looking Backward was, indeed, a tremendous, almost unprecedented, publishing success. To quote Wikipedia:

It was the third-largest bestseller of its time, after Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. It influenced a large number of intellectuals, and appears by title in many socialist writings of the day. ‘It is one of the few books ever published that created almost immediately on its appearance a political mass movement’ (Erich Fromm). In the United States alone, over 162 ‘Bellamy Clubs’ sprang up to discuss and propagate the book’s ideas. Owing to its commitment to the nationalization of private property and the desire to avoid use of the term ‘socialism’, this political movement came to be known as Nationalism. (Looking Backward Wikipedia article)

All this clearly unnerves Morris. Throughout his review he worries that casual readers might take this version of Socialism as canonical.

The book is one to be read and considered seriously, but it should not be taken as the Socialist bible of reconstruction…

Because Morris, of course, wishes to promote his own, more or less diametrically opposed, version of socialism. In this respect, the review is less a review than a warning to readers of The Commonweal not to be lured into what Morris considers a profoundly incorrect version of socialism.

The moral

And that, I think, is the real point.

On one level the review is fascinating because of the light it sheds on both Looking Backward and especially on Morris’s own socialist ideals.

But stepping back from the detail, what it also indicates to the modern reader is the profound inability of ‘socialists’ to agree on their programme and their ultimate goals.

Reading any biography of Marx, you are struck by the violent disagreements among the tiny groups of revolutionaries who officially preached brotherhood and unity, yet in all their writings violently attacked and criticised each other.

The same tone dominates the writings of Lenin, the man responsible for splitting the Russian Socialist party into ‘bolsheviks’ and ‘mensheviks’ – and who was extremely prolific in vicious abuse, helping to found that special Soviet rhetoric which generated an apparently endless armoury of terms to vilify anyone who deviated from ‘the party line’.

All this reflects what I take to be a fundamental psychological fact about socialism and revolutionary movements, especially revolutionary writings. Which is that every person’s image of ‘the good place’ is different. Everyone’s image of utopia is unique to them.

If you think about it, the real, actual world of the here-and-now enforces a certain level of uniformity on people who write about it – politicians, commentators, economists and so on – because they are forced to concede most of the facts about currently existing society. Their readers can see it in front of them. (Though even given the ‘hard facts’ it is amazing how much politicians, commentators, economists and so on manage to wildly disagree with each other. Listen to any panel of politicians. Listen to any group of economists.)

So, bearing in mind the ability of intellectuals to disagree about the world which is right in front of their noses, how much infinitely more are they likely to disagree about some ideal future world which they are making up, in which there are no constraints of reality whatsoever.

This fissiparousness of revolutionary or alternative or utopian or socialist thinking goes a long way to explain its persistent failure. Part of the reason radicals have consistently failed to create a better world is because they can’t even agree among themselves what it looks like, let alone persuade other people to sign up to their visions.

As Morris predicted, the economy did indeed pick up in the 1890s and, despite much entrenched poverty, misery and degradation, despite fierce ongoing battles between labour and employers, capitalism in the West survived and flourished.

If Bellamy’s notion of state communism, of the entire workforce mobilised like an army to build the New Jerusalem, triumphed, it was in Stalin’s Russia, with its Five Year Plans. Bellamy’s vision of the militarisation of the workforce came true in the Russia of the late 1920s and 30s.

Unfortunately, the life of grace and leisure lived by the characters in Looking Backward never arrived, what it produced was a world of hunger and fear. And Morris’s vision of the future as scattered hamlets full of contented craftsmen vanished like the morning dew.


Related links

Reviews of other William Morris articles and essays

The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham (1925)

After all they had gone through, when they were living amid these scenes of horror and desolation, it seemed inept to attach importance to the ridiculous act of fornication. When death stood round the corner, taking lives like a gardener digging up potatoes, it was foolishness to care what this person or that did with their body. (Chapter 57)

Love, marriage, infidelity and jealousy are frequently the topics of Maugham’s novels, plays and stories.

This is the story of a frivolous middle-class girl, Kitty Garstin the daughter of a particularly pushy mother (‘Mrs Garstin was a hard, cruel, managing, ambitious, parsimonious and stupid woman’) who, four seasons after ‘coming out’ into society is still not married and beginning to panic about it. When her younger sister announces that she is to marry a baronet, Kitty accepts the next half-decent proposal that comes along, from a short, shy, unprepossessing man, a certain Walter Fane, who is a bacteriologist in Hong Kong and back in England for a long summer break.

He was not her type at all. He was short, but not thick-set, slight rather and thin; dark and clean-shaven, with very regular, clear-cut features. His eyes were almost black, but not large, they were not very mobile and they rested on objects with a singular persistence; they were curious, but not very pleasant eyes. With his straight, delicate nose, his fine brow and well-shaped mouth he ought to have been good-looking. But surprisingly enough he was not. When Kitty began to think of him at all she was surprised that he should have such good features when you took them one by one. His expression was slightly sarcastic and now that Kitty knew him better she realized that she was not quite at ease with him. He had no gaiety.

Kitty marries in haste, ships off to Hong Kong and within months realises it has all been a ghastly mistake. Walter is punctiliously polite and considerate but has no style, dash or adventure. Worse, as a scientist his social standing in the colony is very low.

Which goes to explain why she is easy meat for the tall, handsome Charlie Townsend to pick up and seduce. Charlie is the opposite of Walter in every way, breezy, confident in all social situations, graceful, an excellent dancer, a stylish lover and, above all, Assistant Colonial Secretary with every possibility of one day ending up Governor of the colony. True, he is married with three children, but he keeps telling Kitty he has never loved his wife: it is only Kitty that he loves.

He was tall, six foot two at least, she thought, and he had a beautiful figure; he was evidently in very good condition and he had not a spare ounce of fat on him. He was well-dressed, the best-dressed man in the room, and he wore his clothes well. She liked a man to be smart…  Though he had not said anything very amusing, he had made her laugh; it must have been the way he said it: there was a caressing sound in his deep, rich voice, a delightful expression in his kind, shining blue eyes, which made you feel very much at home with him. Of course he had charm. That was what made him so pleasant.

The book opens dramatically with the adulterous couple caught red-handed in Kitty’s bedroom as they are both surprised to see the bedroom door handle turn. Luckily it is locked, but then the handles of the french windows are tried too, before they hear footsteps going away, and then hurriedly get dressed. Who was it? And do they suspect?

The following pages give us Kitty’s backstory, her pushy mother, her father a not very successful KC, the social environment in which Kitty ‘comes out’, the balls and parties, the ‘Season’, Ascot, Cowes. I felt all this was done with tremendous knowledge of this social milieu and with great psychological insight into the character of Kitty, her mother, her father and sister. It was like stepping into a lost world.

We follow Kitty’s hurried and embarrassed marriage to Walter, then whistle through her seduction by Townsend in order to get back up to date, to the ‘Present’ in which the novel is set. Now the book spends several pages describing Kitty’s psychological agonising as she wonders whether it was a servant sneaking up and trying the door or – was it Walter, her husband, trying the door to her room? Does he know?

To cut a long story short, it was and he does. For the next few days Walter treats Kitty with frigid correctness  (and what is marvellous is the way Maugham describes her changing moods, from panic, to regret, to shame – and then to resentment at the way Walter is being so cold to her, and then to anger that he doesn’t raise the subject directly – until Kitty comes right round to believing that it is she who is being persecuted and Walter who is in the wrong: this is quite marvellously believable).

Finally Walter sits her down for a chat and comes straight to the point. He knows all about her adultery. He has evidence and proof. Now, there is a cholera epidemic going on in mainland China. He has volunteered to go and help. She must come with him.

Kitty hyper-ventilates with terror, and gaspingly asks for a divorce. He laughs coldly, looking at her and talking with clinical logic. He’ll give her a divorce alright, if she can persuade Charlie Townsend to divorce his wife and marry her (Kitty) within a week! He sweeps out leaving Kitty bewildered.

Her head full of Mills and Boon fantasies about how Charlie will hold her to his manly bosom and say, ‘Of course, my dear – at last you can be mine’ etc, Kitty hastens to Charlie’s office to put to him Walter’s ultimatum. Of course Charlie is appalled, blusters and there follows a classic bounder-tries-to-drop-his-inconvenient-mistress scene.

Realising he’s got a hysterical mistress on his hands, Charlie is careful to emphasise his ongoing love for Kitty but also comes up with all kinds of excuses why he can’t leave his loyal wife and children.

Again this is not exactly an original scene, but I thought Maugham does it really persuasively, portraying all too well the interplay of Kitty’s increasingly bitter accusations with Charlie’s red-faced attempts at damage limitation. In a nutshell, No, he will not divorce his wife: she’s been so good to him, it would upset her too much, and then what about the children… etc.

Thoroughly disillusioned, Kitty returns to the family home only to find that Walter had already instructed the Chinese servants to pack her bags. With a new insight, she realises that Walter concocted his deadline purely to get her to see what a snake Charlie Townsend really is. With a heavy heart she agrees to accompany him on his medical expedition into mainland China; she has no real choice.

Part two

The book isn’t actually divided into parts, but it might as well be. Part two more or less jumps to the cholera-infected town of Mei-Tan-Fu. Kitty and Walter are brought to a bungalow on a hill outside and overlooking the actual city. It’s the bungalow of the Christian missionary to the city, who died early in the epidemic.

They immediately meet the short, jolly, clever if permanently tipsy Deputy Commissioner, Waddington. they quickly settle in (with the help of numerous servants) and Waddington becomes a kind of chorus to the action – explaining to Kitty (stuck at home all day in the bungalow) what marvels Walter is working putting into place public health care plans, arranging care of the sick, the burial of the dead and liaising with Colonel Yü of the Chinese military to maintain order.

On another notable occasion, over dinner, when Waddington is tipsily gossiping about the colony back in Hong Kong, Kitty asks a casual question about Charlie Townsend and Waddington needs no further prompting to describe him as a good-looking cad who gets his underlings to do all his work, has the full support of a loving and forgiving wife, and amuses himself by seducing a string of second-rate, silly young colonial wives. Kitty flinches as she realises she was just the latest in a long line of conquests for this heartless beast. Slowly she realises there is a wider world around her and her silly fantasies, and how she fits into it, and how she appears to others.

One day Waddington takes her down into the stricken city to visit the French nuns who are doing sterling work looking after the orphans of parents who’ve died from the epidemic. In the presence of their authority and quiet devotion, Kitty feels like an awkward schoolgirl. They praise Walter to the skies and hope she is taking good care of him. She blushes. The reality is that Walter only comes home late at night and they barely talk. Kitty is ashamed of herself.

By this stage, about half way through this 240-page novel, the reader realises that whatever else is going to happen, the book is describing Kitty’s psychological awakening and maturity. For the first time, here in this disease-ridden town, she is grasping that there are other people in the world, who matter, who have lives and loves of their own, and she begins to learn the nature of work, working for others, devoting your life to others.

She volunteers to work with the nuns, overcomes Charlie’s objections and gets up every morning to be carried down to the ferry over the river, taken by a guide to the convent and there looks after the orphans and little children. She slowly grows to like the Chinese. She gets to know the different nuns with their stories and characters. She is taken out of herself. Small incidents highlight their selfless devotion. Kitty watches and learns.

Waddington, a little unexpectedly, also plays a part in the process. She realises that despite being fat and tipsy, he is in clever and sensitive. Before she started with the nuns they had got into the habit of going on soulful walks, especially up to the ancient monument to a rich man’s dead wife, up on the hilltop overlooking the city. These continue and mark Kitty’s growing understanding of the world as a big, big place and herself as just a tiny atom in it.

They sat on the steps of a little building (four lacquered columns and a high, tiled roof under which stood a great bronze bell) and watched the river flow sluggish and with many a bend towards the stricken city. They could see its crenellated walls. The heat hung over it like a pall. But the river, though it flowed so slowly, had still a sense of movement and it gave one a melancholy feeling of the transitoriness of things. Everything passed, and what trace of its passage remained? It seemed to Kitty that they were all, the human race, like the drops of water in that river and they flowed on, each so close to the other and yet so far apart, a nameless flood, to the sea. When all things lasted so short a time and nothing mattered very much, it seemed pitiful that men, attaching an absurd importance to trivial objects, should make themselves and one another so unhappy. (Chapter 54)

The nuns tell Kitty that Waddington is an immoral man, for he lives with a Chinese wife, and not just any old Chinese: she comes from a super-aristocratic family, from Manchu blood. He tried to escape her several times but she has followed him everywhere. Next time he sees her Kitty hesitantly asks Waddington if he may meet his wife and he says yes. In a vivid and memorable scene Kitty meets this slender, elegant, motionless, painted lady, with her thing fingers and long painted fingernails. East meets West.

But on another morning of working at the convent, Kitty suddenly faints and comes to, being tended by the nuns and feeling hot and flushed. She is terrified that she has finally caught the cholera, but they burst out laughing. No, silly – she’s pregnant! Back at the bungalow she anxiously waits for Walter to come home. We have, by now, spent many pages alone with Kitty and her anxious thoughts – while she was given the cold shoulder by Walter at the start, when she was waiting to see Charlie at his office, when she spent days alone in the bungalow. We have spent a lot of time alone with this woman and come to know here pretty well.

Walter, finally arrived home at the end of another long exhausting day, pours himself a whiskey and Kitty tells him she’s pregnant. He asks the obvious question – Is it mine? – and there is a brilliant page where Kitty realises that all she has to say is Yes. Say yes and it will begin the process of healing their marriage, say Yes and it will make Walter so happy, say Yes and she will go some way to making amends for ruining his life. She thinks this all through carefully and clearly and then says… I don’t know. It is a classic Maugham moment, not exactly brutal but… in the context of these posh, scrupulously polite pukka chaps… unexpectedly hard. It has the helpless clumsiness of real life.

Once she’s said it it’s too late to retract. She regrets but carries on, visiting the convent each day, getting to know the nuns more deeply, and listening to a long explanation from the Mother Superior of the immensely liberating effect of giving yourself to God, of giving away your self, of living entirely for others.

One night she is woken by banging on the door. It is Waddington come to fetch her. Walter hadn’t come home. He is in the army barracks, very ill. Kitty dresses and rushes down the hill, across the river, through the deserted streets of the city (accompanied by Waddington and a few soldiers). Walter is in a rough bed, facing the wall, his face empty and wasted.

‘Walter, I beseech you to forgive me,’ she said, leaning over him. For fear that he could not bear the pressure she took care not to touch him. “I’m so desperately sorry for the wrong I did you. I so bitterly regret it.’ He said nothing. He did not seem to hear. She was obliged to insist. It seemed to her strangely that his soul was a fluttering moth and its wings were heavy with hatred.

He dies. Kitty is numb. The Chinese Colonel Yü is present and weeps more than Kitty. He and Walter had become very close. Waddington helps Kitty back to the bungalow. Next day Walter is buried, Colonel Yü in attendance.

Part three

Kitty continues going to the convent but the Mother Superior gently breaks it to her that she must leave. the epidemic is waning. New sisters are on their way to replace those who have died. They will have no more need for her services. But above all she must think of the baby. She must go back to Hong Kong or even back to her family in London to make sure the baby is safe. With many words of wisdom and tears, Kitty acquiesces. On a human note, the Mother Superior gives Kitty a package of handkerchiefs to post from Marseilles to her family in France.

Waddington arranges for her to be taken back across country to Hong Kong, accompanied by guards and servants. the journey passes in a daze, like one of those long Chinese scrolls showing an unfolding landscape of quiet peasants and lumbering buffalo. It dawns on Kitty that for the first time in her life she is free.

The city of the pestilence was a prison from which she was escaped, and she had never known before how exquisite was the blueness of the sky and what a joy there was in the bamboo copses that leaned with such an adorable grace across the causeway. Freedom! That was the thought that sung in her heart so that even though the future was so dim, it was iridescent like the mist over the river where the morning sun fell upon it. Freedom! Not only freedom from a bond that irked, and a companionship which depressed her; freedom, not only from the death which had threatened, but freedom from the love that had degraded her; freedom from all spiritual ties, the freedom of a disembodied spirit; and with freedom, courage and a valiant unconcern for whatever was to come.

And this is where the Hollywood version would end, with a strong empowered woman facing the future bravely as the credits rolled. But Maugham isn’t like that. When Kitty’s ship across the bay docks in Hong Kong she is greeted by Charlie Townsend’s wife. The whole colony has heard about the tragedy. She has volunteered to look after the martyred wife. Kitty simply must come and stay with her while she recovers. She is more or less forced into it.

At the Townsends’ posh house high on the fashionable Peak Kitty meets Townsend. In deepest China Kitty had slowly persuaded herself he was greying, ageing, fattening and repellent. Unfortunately, seeing him again in the flesh she realises with dismay that he really is tall, dark and handsome, unfailingly polite and considerate. Anyone who’s read much Maugham knows that a good deal of his fiction is about couples who practice adultery with suave smoothness, and Kitty is disconcerted by the way Townsend strikes exactly the right note of polite concern for her in front of his wife, despite having had a passionate affair with her and got her pregnant. He is all concern and, puffing away on a cheroot, assures her that he’ll try his damnedest to get her a good pension. Walter was a splendid fellow, heroic of him to go and help the Chinese like that etc etc.

Only after a week or so do they finally find themselves alone in the house without his wife present. And then he pounces. He listens to her recriminations, he agrees, he laments, he condoles, he holds her hand, she gets up and strides into her bedroom, he follows, puts his arm around her and… she feels herself melting and swooning. they make love. The text cuts to afterwards. he dresses and exists with a jaunty air – and why not?

Kitty stares at herself in the mirror with tear-filled red eyes.

Then, letting her face fall on her arms, she wept bitterly. Shame, shame! She did not know what had come over her. It was horrible. She hated him and she hated herself. It had been ecstasy. Oh, hateful! She could never look him in the face again. He was so justified. He had been right not to marry her, for she was worthless; she was no better than a harlot. Oh, worse, for those poor women gave themselves for bread. And in this house too into which Dorothy had taken her in her sorrow and cruel desolation! Her shoulders shook with her sobs. Everything was gone now. She had thought herself changed, she had thought herself strong, she thought she had returned to Hong Kong a woman who possessed herself; new ideas flitted about her heart like little yellow butterflies in the sunshine and she had hoped to be so much better in the future; freedom like a spirit of light had beckoned her on, and the world was like a spacious plain through which she could walk light of foot and with head erect. She had thought herself free from lust and vile passions, free to live the clean and healthy life of the spirit; she had likened herself to the white egrets that fly with leisurely flight across the rice-fields at dusk and they are like the soaring thoughts of a mind at rest with itself; and she was a slave. Weak, weak! It was hopeless, it was no good to try, she was a slut.

Next morning she goes to the P&O office and books a ticket home on the next liner. The clerk says the ship is full but when she gives his name, says he’s heard about her sad story. Everyone in the colony has. And so he fixes her up a berth of her own. Back at the Townsends’ house she finds Charlie alone again. In their final scene he wants to be reassured that it isn’t he who is driving her away. In other words, he not only wants to seduce her in the family home, but he doesn’t want to feel bad about it. He wants her to leave on good terms. He wants his ego to be completely untouched and spotless. But Kitty, although she ‘fell’, has developed a sense of her higher self.

‘I don’t feel human. I feel like an animal. A pig or a rabbit or a dog. Oh, I don’t blame you, I was just as bad. I yielded to you because I wanted you. But it wasn’t the real me. I’m not that hateful, beastly, lustful woman. I disown her. It wasn’t me that lay on that bed panting for you when my husband was hardly cold in his grave and your wife had been so kind to me, so indescribably kind. It was only the animal in me, dark and fearful like an evil spirit, and I disown, and hate, and despise it. And ever since, when I’ve thought of it, my gorge rises and I feel that I must vomit.’

On the ship home she gets a series of cables announcing that her mother is ill and then, at Marseilles, telling her that she’s died. She arrives back to the pawky flat in London to find her father in mourning. There then follows another psychologically persuasive final scene. Right at the start we’d been told that Mr Garstin was much put upon by his domineering wife. She it was who persuaded him to try for silk (to become a King’s Council or senior barrister) because she wanted the social kudos even though it actually resulted in him getting less work and being poorer. She it was who relentlessly pressurised her daughters into the ‘best society’ and to marry well. And the wife and daughters never paid much attention to Mr Garstin, regarding him simply as a work horse and source of money and position.

Now, as she sits with him in the living room of their flat, Mr Garstin announces to Kitty that he has been offered the job of Chief Justice of the Bahamas and has said yes. To his horror Kitty asks if she can come too. She watches his face crumple and – using her newfound wisdom – she realises why.

For the past thirty years he has sacrificed his life for others, for his wife and girls. Now, finally, he is free, and this move to a distant colony offers him the first breath of freedom in a generation, the opportunity to start again. His pregnant daughter coming with him would mean the same old straitjacket all over again. Kitty realises this in a flash and bursts out crying, saying she understands how he has sacrificed his life to them, how she will not be a burden, how she will let him be free – she just can’t stay in London on her own.

Feminism

And on the final page of the novel she gives a heartfelt expression that the new life she’s bringing into the world will be of a liberated woman who can learn from all her mother’s mistakes:

‘Have you already made up your mind about the sex?’ Mr Garstin murmured, with his thin, dry smile.

‘I want a girl because I want to bring her up so that she shan’t make the mistakes I’ve made. When I look back upon the girl I was I hate myself. But I never had a chance. I’m going to bring up my daughter so that she’s free and can stand on her own feet. I’m not going to bring a child into the world, and love her, and bring her up, just so that some man may want to sleep with her so much that he’s willing to provide her with board and lodging for the rest of her life.’

She felt her father stiffen. He had never spoken of such things and it shocked him to hear these words in his daughter’s mouth.

‘Let me be frank just this once, father. I’ve been foolish and wicked and hateful. I’ve been terribly punished. I’m determined to save my daughter from all that. I want her to be fearless and frank. I want her to be a person, independent of others because she is possessed to herself, and I want her to take life like a free man and make a better job of it than I have.’


China and the Chinese

In Hong Kong there are various servants and ‘boys’ catering to their every whim. Only in Mei-Tan-Fu do you get more of a sense of the real China although even here it’s the French nuns that Kitty gets to know. I don’t think a single one of the Chinese servants even there, is named. In fact the only Chinese person we are introduced to is Waddington’s wife.

Kitty shook hands with her. She was slim in her long embroidered gown and somewhat taller than Kitty, used to the Southern people, had expected. She wore a jacket of pale green silk with tight sleeves that came over her wrists and on her black hair, elaborately dressed, was the head-dress of the Manchu women. Her face was coated with powder and her cheeks from the eyes to the mouth heavily rouged; her plucked eyebrows were a thin dark line and her mouth was scarlet. From this mask her black, slightly slanting, large eyes burned like lakes of liquid jet. She seemed more like an idol than a woman. Her movements were slow and assured. Kitty had the impression that she was slightly shy but very curious. She nodded her head two or three times, looking at Kitty, while Waddington spoke of her. Kitty noticed her hands; they were preternaturally long, very slender, of the colour of ivory; and the exquisite nails were painted. Kitty thought she had never seen anything so lovely as those languid and elegant hands. They suggested the breeding of uncounted centuries.

It would be easy to say that Maugham is remiss for not naming or introducing a single Chinese character (apart from the princess). But then again, even in England, in his plays and novels, only a handful of characters are ever named, set against the teeming multitudes of London or the anonymous fishermen and farmers of the kentish town where Cakes and Ale is set. Even in England Maugham is mostly concerned only with the posh and upper-class characters, with a range of servants, butlers, nurses and maides who only barely have identities.

Similarly, in the Chinese city, the strongest character is the French Mother Superior who, characteristically, isn’t just a good woman but comes from an unbelievably smart aristocratic family – as she tells Kitty in a beguiling chapter.

Though the Mother Superior talked with Kitty not more than three or four times and once or twice for but ten minutes the impression she made upon Kitty was profound. Her character was like a country which on first acquaintance seems grand, but inhospitable; but in which presently you discover smiling little villages among fruit trees in the folds of the majestic mountains and pleasant ambling rivers that flow kindly through lush meadows. But these comfortable scenes, though they surprise and even reassure you, are not enough to make you feel at home in the land of tawny heights and windswept spaces. It would have been impossible to become intimate with the Mother Superior; she had that something impersonal about her which Kitty had felt with the other nuns, even with the good-humoured chatty Sister St Joseph, but with her it was a barrier which was almost palpable. It gave you quite a curious sensation, chilling but awe-inspiring, that she could walk on the same earth as you, attend to mundane affairs, and yet live so obviously upon a plane you could not reach.

In fact, given that Kitty can’t speak a word of Chinese, it’s hard to see how she could have got to know and talked to a Chinese character, even if Maugham had needed one for the kind of morality tale he was aiming to write.

Chinese landscapes

This is a gentle and evocative text. There are quite a few descriptions of landscape, designed to echo and amplify the feelings of the characters, mainly Kitty.

Her eyes travelled over the landscape at their feet. The wide expanse on that gay and sunny morning filled the heart with exultation. The trim little rice-fields stretched as far as the eye could see and in many of them the blue-clad peasants with their buffaloes were working industriously. It was a peaceful and a happy scene.

I wonder if Maugham consciously set out to echo the calm misty feel of traditional Chinese scroll paintings with their idyllically peaceful landscapes and cityscapes. His word pictures certainly achieve a sense of serenity and give the novel a wonderfully dreamy, evocative atmosphere.

Dawn was breaking now, and here and there a Chinese was taking down the shutters of his shop. In its dark recesses, by the light of a taper, a woman was washing her hands and face. In a tea-house at a corner a group of men were eating an early meal. The grey, cold light of the rising day sidled along the narrow lanes like a thief. There was a pale mist on the river and the masts of the crowded junks loomed through it like the lances of a phantom army. It was chilly as they crossed and Kitty huddled herself up in her gay and coloured shawl.

The gaining of wisdom

Whereas the tight little colony of Hong Kong encouraged the characters to magnify their petty affairs and jealousies, the sheer size and scale of China makes them feel small and insignificant

For a moment she thought of the future. She did not know what plans Walter had in mind. He told her nothing. He was cool, polite, silent, and inscrutable. They were two little drops in that river that flowed silently towards the unknown; two little drops that to themselves had so much individuality and to the onlooker were but an undistinguishable part of the water.

Not only its scale, but the sense that its culture is ancient, far older than bumptious Western pretensions. When the ancient Britons lived in mud huts, the Chinese had emperors and palaces. This is the purpose of the Manchu princess figure. In real life Waddington’s mistress would probably have been an anonymous local girl, but Maugham needed an emblematic figure who would epitomise the antiquity and nobility of Chinese culture which he himself responded to so powerfully, and which is another element in Kitty’s education.

Kitty had never paid anything but passing and somewhat contemptuous attention to the China in which fate had thrown her. It was not done in her set. Now she seemed on a sudden to have an inkling of something remote and mysterious. Here was the East, immemorial, dark, and inscrutable. The beliefs and the ideals of the West seemed crude beside ideals and beliefs of which in this exquisite creature she seemed to catch a fugitive glimpse. Here was a different life, lived on a different plane. Kitty felt strangely that the sight of this idol, with her painted face and slanting, wary eyes, made the efforts and the pains of the everyday world she knew slightly absurd. That coloured mask seemed to hide the secret of an abundant, profound, and significant experience; those long, delicate hands with their tapering fingers held the key of riddles undivined.

At the conclusion of her meeting with the Manchu princess, Kitty asks Waddington what these riddles are.

‘I’m looking for something and I don’t quite know what it is. But I know that it’s very important for me to know it, and if I did it would make all the difference. Perhaps the nuns know it; when I’m with them I feel that they hold a secret which they will not share with me. I don’t know why it came into my head that if I saw this Manchu woman I should have an inkling of what I am looking for. Perhaps she would tell me if she could.’
‘What makes you think she knows it?’
Kitty gave him a sidelong glance, but did not answer. Instead she asked him a question.
‘Do you know it?’
He smiled and shrugged his shoulders.
‘Tao. Some of us look for the Way in opium and some in God, some of us in whisky and some in love. It is all the same Way and it leads nowhither.’

And of course, the epidemic raging all around them, the daily burials, the teeming orphans of dead parents who fill the convent – death is all around them. Kitty comes to feel powerfully not the futility of life so much as its insignificance.

The size of China; the ancient nobility of Chinese culture; the epidemic of death sweeping all round her; the selfless dedication of the nuns – these are the factors which educate her, which show her her own insignificance, which show Kitty that pity and charity are the real values – which allow her the insight into her father’s plight – and which fuel her determination to give her daughter a better life.

The movies

It is a powerful book – with a strong central female role, with the power of a fable or morality tale, and with very atmospheric scenery of rural China and the urgency of the plague-filled city. No surprise, then, that it has been adapted for the screen three times:

  • The Painted Veil (1934)
  • The Seventh Sin (1957)
  • The Painted Veil (2006)

The BBC made a radio adaptation in 2012.


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

Our Betters by Somerset Maugham (1923)

This is another of Maugham’s well-made comedies. Apparently it was written during the Great War, in 1915, but not staged in England until 1923 because it was thought that it might alienate American public opinion, which we were trying to persuade to enter the war.

It is set in the cynical but stylish High Society we are used to from Maugham, but this time concerns a group of Americans, not posh Brits – Americans who have married into British or European ‘Society’.

The characters

There is a sort of chorus of three mature American matrons who have married British, French or Italian aristocrats:

  1. Pearl, Lady Grayston who married George Grayston, a baronet
  2. Minnie Hodges who married and then divorced the Duc de Surennes and now is always in love with some beautiful young man or other, currently the gorgeous pouting young Tony Paxton
  3. Flora van Hoog, who married an Italian aristocrat to become the Princess della Cercola but, when he began taking mistresses, abandoned him to come and live in London and now pursues philanthropic causes and charities which she pesters her friends about.

There is also a couple of older American men who have made their way in British society: the brash, loud and over-dressed Thornton Clay, and the corrupt 70-year-old American Arthur Fenwick who made his fortune selling poor quality food to the American working classes and is now opening stores to do the same here in London.

Together these five represent a variety of ways older Americans have integrated and exploited their position. Set against them are the Younger Generation who are trying to make their life decisions, namely whether to marry for love or money (a dilemma which would have been familiar to Jane Austen a century earlier).

Young Bessie Saunders is heiress to an American fortune staying with her older sister, Pearl. Pearl’s husband, Lord George Grayston, very conveniently doesn’t live with her, allowing her to conduct her gay social life and numerous flirtations in London’s High Society without hindrance. All three acts are set in her houses – Act One in her grand town house in Grosvenor Square Mayfair, and Acts Two and Three in Pearl’s country retreat at Abbots Kenton, Suffolk.

Bessie has only recently arrived from America and been swept off her feet by the giddy whirl of London society. Back in the States she was engaged to a nice, unspoilt, young American gentleman, Fleming Harvey when she was 16 and he 18. Soon after arriving in London and seeing the wider world she wrote him a letter breaking off the engagement. She is being wooed by an English aristocrat, Lord Harry Bleane. Now Harvey has arrived in London and, understandably, commences trying to woo her back.

Meanwhile Act One introduces the love triangle between the good looking, slender, immaculately dressed but poor young Brit, Tony Paxton, with whom the ‘Duchesse’ (original name Minnie Hodgson, daughter of a Chicago millionaire who made his money in pork) is besottedly in love. It only slowly emerges that Tony is revolted by the desperation of the Duchesse’s passion and has become smitten with Pearl, precisely because she is so playfully unavailable.

Comedy

Comedy is extracted from the interaction of all these types – the three cynical ladies, the earnest and easily shocked young American boy Harvey, the sincere English Lord Bleane, the spoilt brat Tony Paxton, with Bessie playing her part: only slowly does it emerge that the play hinges on Bessie’s choice of whether to stay in England and marry an English lord in order to join the kind of amoral if stiflingly ‘correct’ lifestyle the three ladies live – or whether to reject European corruption and return to pure and innocent America (the subject of many of Henry James’s novels).

And there is something deeply comic about the way all these amoral characters pursue their cynical schemes against the backdrop of the impeccable formality of the grand house in Grosvenor Square Mayfair and at Pearl’s country retreat at Abbots Kenton, Suffolk, with their silent servants, especially the butler, Pole.

Just the existence of a dutiful and obedient butler, overhearing all their selfish schemes with complete discretion, is itself funny. ‘Very good, m’lady.’

Speaking of Funny, Maugham isn’t Oscar Wilde. His bon mots don’t ring and dazzle. But the play does have quite a few moments of brightly comic dialogue.

Bessie: Does George know?
Pearl: Who is George?
Bessie: Don’t be absurd, Pearl. George – your husband.

Or:

Fleming: Has it occurred to you that he wants to marry you for your money?
Bessie: You could put it more prettily. You could say that he wants to marry me with my money.

Or:

Clay: Some of these American women are strangely sexless.
Fleming: I have an idea that some of them are even virtuous.
Pearl [with a smile]: It takes all sorts to make a world.

Or:

Duchesse: I know he’s lying to me, there’s not a word of truth in anything he says. But he’s so slim I can never catch him out.

Or:

Pearl: You’re the very person we want, Thornton. An entirely strange young man has suddenly appeared on my doorstep and says he is my cousin.
Clay: My dear Pearl, that is a calamity which we Americans must always be prepared for.

And:

Duchesse: He makes me so miserable but I love him… He wants to marry me, Pearl.
Pearl: You’re not going to!
Duchesse: No, I won’t be such a fool as that. If I married him I’d have no hold over him at all.

Act Two

In Act Two, at Pearl’s country house, various interactions give us a deeper sense of the characters – of the three older women’s American backgrounds, the men they married, how they’ve coped with divorce and separation and so on.

Fleming is still really sweet on Bessie but she is agonising over whether to accept Lord Bleane. Fleming would like to hate Bleane but is disappointed to discover that he’s actually a good guy who tells Bessie he was originally attracted to her money (the fact that she was rich being broadcast all over London by her elder sister, Pearl) but that now he really is in love with her.

Their story is, for this middle part of the play, eclipsed by the passion with which pretty young Tony Paxton a) is revolted by the cloying over-attention the lurid Duchesse lavishes on him b) is powerfully attracted to Pearl. Against the latter’s better judgement Paxton persuades her to accompany him to the tea-house in the garden. Duchesse, in her violent jealousy, suspecting something is up, despatches innocent little Bessie to fetch her handbag from the same tea-house where Bessie sees… something so horrible that she rushes back into the drawing room where all the other characters are playing cards (are the couple having just a snog or actually having sex??). When Minnie provocatively asks what on earth is wrong with her, it prompts the tear-filled admission that she has seen Pearl and Tony… together!

When Pearl and Paxton make a nonchalant entrance to the drawing room it is to discover that everybody knows (know what? were they having a snog? a grope? full-on sex? it is never explained).

Tony has blown his relationship with Duchesse. More fatally, the doting old millionaire Fenwick has all his fond illusions about Pearl being pure and romantic utterly burst. ‘The slut, the slut’ he repeats, in angry despair. Given that he substantially funds her lifestyle this is a major blow.

Act Three

Act Three takes place in the same drawing room on the afternoon of the following day. The atmosphere is very strained, Pearl didn’t come down from her bedroom for either breakfast or lunch, the innocent menfolk (Clay and Fleming) and women (the Princess) tiptoed around the furious fuming Duchess while Fenwick was purple with rage. Their conversation informs us that the previous evening turned into a blazing row with words exiting the dementedly angry Duchess’s mouth that none of them had ever heard before, as she screamed her rage at Tony and Pearl.

The Duchess is pouring her heart out to the Princess when Tony sidles in looking for cigarettes. There is a comic scene where she turns on him, all outraged pride and anger, insisting he leave the house immediately and will be booted out of the flat in London which she pays for him to live in, while Tony is all sullen pouting. But the comedy is in the slow insinuating way in which their positions shift until the Duchesse is begging Tony to be nice to her and, eventually, she makes the Grand Concession of relenting and saying she will marry him – to which Tony’s only response is ‘Does that mean I’ll be able to drive the Rolls-Royce?’ By this stage we have grasped the depths of the Duchess’s helpless infatuation and the true extent of Paxton’s shallow selfishness.

The remaining scenes showcase Pearl’s brilliantly scheming to redeem a tricky situation: it will take all her wiles and cunning.

First she makes an entrance looking fabulous. Then she holds tete-a-tetes with Bessie, Clay, the Duchess and Fenwick. She reveals all her cunning ploys to Clay (and thus, to us, the audience).

1. To the Duchess she reveals that she has been phoning all her contacts that morning and has managed to get Tony a job in the government, nothing too demanding. Over the course of feline dialogue she is slowly able to win the Duchess back round to being her friend.

2. Then she explains to Clay how she is going to play the little-girl-lost for Fenwick whose self-image is of a Strong Masterly Man; she will play weak to encourage his narcissistic sense of his own masculine resilience, and so it pans out. After five minutes she has him back eating out the palm of her hand under the delusion that he is magnanimously forgiving her.

Only Bessie, her sister, sees straight through her and indeed through the lifestyle of all these Americans-in-Europe.

She has a big scene where she begs Lord Blaine to release her from their engagement. At the centre of the scene is the Author’s Message: Bessie has seen that English girls are bred up to responsibility and dignity and so know how to handle and manage their wealth; whereas the American women who marry into the British aristocracy have no sense of noblesse oblige or duty, but simply see it as an opportunity for frivolous pleasure, hence their silly flirting and superficial romances. It is not them, it is the niche they move into, which turns them into monsters. As Bessie has seen at close quarters how her beloved elder sister Pearl has become a monster of manipulation. Bessie is determined not to become like that.

The play ends with her witnessing her sister’s pièce de resistance – first thing that morning Pearl had sent her Rolls to London to collect the most fashionable dancing teacher in London and beg him to come down and stay the night. When he enters all the guests who swore they would leave in disgust at her behaviour (Fenwick, the Princess, but especially the Duchesse and Paxton) all confirm that they will stay for dinner and dancing. Despite committing just about the worst social crime imaginable (being caught red-handed being unfaithful to her elderly lover and stealing her best friend’s lover) Pearl has manipulated everyone into forgiving and forgetting.

Bessie watches all this with disgust and, in the last line of the play, vows she will be returning to America at the first opportunity.

So it’s a brittle social comedy of comically amoral, upper-class behaviour among rich American title-hunters in England – with just enough of a sting in the tail to elude the censorship but have the more high-minded critics admitting that it does have a sound moral message. It is, in other words, a clever and entertaining theatrical confection perfectly suited for its times.

Adaptations

The play was turned into a Hollywood movie in 1933, directed by George Cukor. Here’s a clip.

It was adapted for BBC radio in 1998.

It had previously been revived at the Chichester Theatre in 1997, with the throaty American actress Kathleen Turner playing Pearl and Rula Lenska as the Duchesse. The fact that Turner plays the same role in the radio broadcast suggests that one led on to the other. The Daily Telegraph reviewed the stage play. I am puzzled why Patrick O’Connor casually calls Maugham misogynist since a) all the strongest characters are women, the men being just foils and pretexts b) the women themselves cover a wide range from the strong, clever, scheming Pearl to the genuinely innocent but, ultimately decisive, Bessie.


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

The Circle by Somerset Maugham (1921)

Elizabeth: Everyone knows you’re very intelligent.
Clive Champion-Cheney: They certainly ought to by now. I’ve told them often enough.

Maugham wrote 25 plays, the first one, A Man of Honour, performed in 1903, the last one, Sheppey, in 1933. He was spectacularly successful, at one point having four plays on in the West End at the same time.

The Circle was his twelfth play, premiered on 3 March 1921 at the Haymarket Theatre. It’s a social satire in three acts, all of them set in the drawing room at ‘Aston-Adey, Arnold Champion-Cheney’s house in Dorset’.

The setting

Arnold Champion-Cheney is phenomenally upper class, a handsome 35-year-old man who is the local MP and plans to make a career in politics. He is obsessive about collecting and placing antique furniture in his house just so, and woe betide anyone who moves it out of place. He has been married to fresh, young twenty-something Elizabeth for three years and they have no children.

The main plot element in the play is that thirty years previously, when Arnold was a little boy, his mother, Lady Catherine (or ‘Kitty’) ran off with his father’s best friend, Lord Porteous (or ‘Hughie’). They went and settled in Italy, since polite society in England would not have accepted them. As soon as Arnold was of age, his father left the big house to him and moved into a cottage in the grounds from where he often went travelling. This weekend, learning through the grapevine that Hughie and Lady Kitty are visiting England, Elizabeth has invited them down to stay at the old house.

When she tells her husband he is appalled and angry. But they are both disconcerted when Arnold’s father turns up from one of his trips. The stage is set, as they say, for various encounters between old Clive Champion-Cheney (the father), Lady Kitty (his wife who abandoned him), between lady Kitty and her son, and between everyone and gruff bad-tempered Lord Porteous.

The plot

So that’s the setting or set-up. The plot or events which create an action are that Elizabeth herself is unhappy with Arnold’s boring life, with his obsession with antiques, with having no children and being stuck in the country.

A few other guests are down staying for the weekend and they include a dashing young chap, Edward Luton, who’s a planter in the F.M.S. or Federated Malay States. Early on in the play he tells Elizabeth that he’s hopelessly in love with her. Initially reluctant to even listen to him, as the play progresses and Arnold is frequently sharp and angry with her about inviting his mother and Porteous, Elizabeth comes to think she hates her husband and so, finally, in a big scene, agrees with pleading Edward to run away with him.

So that’s why it’s called The Circle, because the disastrous event in the father’s life (his wife Lady Catherine running off) is about to be repeated in the son’s (his wife Elizabeth running off).

The dilemma

The ‘interest’ of the play (such as it is) is whether the example of the bickering and unhappy couple she sees before her will put Elizabeth off, or whether her lover’s ardent (if naive) pleas and Arnold’s abrupt and rather insulting talk, will encourage her to elope. Over the course of the play we get to hear from both Lady Kitty and Lord Porteous about how their elopement ruined both their lives: Lord Porteous, a Cabinet minister at the time, was often mentioned in high-toned circles as a possible next Prime Minister, but the elopement ended his political dreams; while Lady Catherine found herself outcast from upper-class circles in England, and forced to live in much reduced circumstances amid fake Italian princes and people of dubious reputation. Both are eloquently bitter about how one rash decision ruined their lives.

Comedy

The scenario could have been written to bring out the bitterness and unhappiness of almost all concerned, but instead it is played for laughs and is often very funny. The fundamental comic strategy is the way all these upper-class chaps and chapesses are so well bred that they all accept the deeply embarrassing situation with impeccable manners. Or try to. Part of the comedy is in them trying to restrain their feelings and preserve a placid manner even when we know they are provoked or angry.

Combined with the preposterously high opinion they all have of themselves. It is particularly funny when Lady Kitty insists that, had Porteous become Prime Minister he would doubtless have made Clive Governor of some colony: Barbados, Hughie suggests? Barbados!!! Lady Catherine storms –

LADY KITTY: Nonsense! I’d have India.
PORTEOUS: I would never have given you India.
LADY KITTY: You would have given me India.
PORTEOUS: I tell you I wouldn’t.
LADY KITTY: The King would have given me India. The nation would have insisted on my having India. I would have been a vice-reine or nothing.

I imagine the sight of upper-class twits arguing about who should govern which part of Britain’s far-flung empire would have struck a 1921 audience as every bit as preposterous as it strikes us now. Maugham, throughout all his chronicles of Malaya, Borneo and Burma, is repeatedly struck by the ridiculousness of the British Empire.

Plus there’s some basic physical comedy, for example the way that every time Lord Porteous gets angry (which is quite often) his false teeth comes loose and he has to beat a hasty retreat. You can see why this kind of thing would have made a reliable, ludicrous, not-too-demanding night out at the theatre in 1921. At a pinch I can see it being revived today and enjoyed in the same way that P.G. Wodehouse novels continue to sell or be adapted for TV, as absurd period pieces which were well aware of their own absurdity even when they were written.

A BBC radio adaptation

Reading plays in silence is a little dry. Actors and directors always put more expression, stage business, coughs, footsteps and other sound elements which bring dialogue and action to life, so I welcomed the fact that The Circle was made into a radio adaptation by the BBC back in 1993.

However, there’s some kind of digital crackle or interference with a lot of the sound and, worse, following it in the book, I noticed that quite a lot of text has been cut to make the plot more streamlined. What was cut was often a lot of the contemporary satire or social references which are precisely what I read old books for. So I listened to enough of the dramatisation to get an aural sense of the characters, then abandoned it and kept their voices in my head as I finished with just the script.


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

%d bloggers like this: