Coming Up For Air by George Orwell (1939)

I shoved my foot down on the accelerator. The very thought of going back to Lower Binfield had done me good already. You know the feeling I had. Coming up for air! Like the big sea-turtles when they come paddling up to the surface, stick their noses out and fill their lungs with a great gulp before they sink down again among the seaweed and the octopuses. We’re all stifling at the bottom of a dustbin, but I’d found the way to the top. Back to Lower Binfield!

This is a surprisingly nostalgic and moving book. It is the only one of Orwell’s novels told in the first person, and it soon becomes clear why. Most of the first half consists of his protagonist’s long and evocative memory of England before the Great War, a loving memory of an England of calm, order and confidence.

The plot

Part one

The narrator is George Bowling. He lives in an anonymous semi in an anonymous street, one of those streets which ‘fester all over the inner-outer suburbs’, in an anonymous London suburb. He is middle-aged and fat (he mentions that he is fat a lot, there are page-long meditations on the condition of fatness).

I haven’t got one of those bellies that sag half-way down to the knees. It’s merely that I’m a little bit broad in the beam, with a tendency to be barrel-shaped.

George is a 45 year-old insurance salesman who makes a respectable seven of so pounds a week, so he is significantly better off – and more comfortable, more at ease with life – than the protagonists of Orwell’s previous novels, A Clergyman’s Daughter and Keep The Aspidistra Flying. He is married to a scrawny nagging wife, Hilda, and has two whiny kids – Billy (7) and Lorna (11) – that he refers to as the bastards.

On the day of the novel George has no work to do and so takes his time washing, shaving, having breakfast, taking the train into London, stopping into pubs for a quick one, and strolling the streets. It is, in fact, the day he is going to his dentist to take possession of his new set of false teeth. So a few things happen but there isn’t that much interaction with other people. For the most part we are inside George’s head listening to him muse about a) the wretched lives of London’s middle-class men, trapped by wage slavery and nagging wives –

Because, after all, what is a road like Ellesmere Road? Just a prison with the cells all in a row. A line of semidetached torture-chambers where the poor little five-to-ten-pound-a-weekers quake and shiver, every one of them with the boss twisting his tail and his wife riding him like the nightmare and the kids sucking his blood like leeches. (p.14)

b) the condition of being fat, how it crept up on him but how he still eyes up women in the street c) the awful shallowness and vulgarity of modern life – all those ads for shiny consumer goods; milk bars; radio – yuk d) overshadowing all his thoughts is his obsession with the shadow of war: bomber planes fly overhead at several points, and his imagination is saturated with the reality of modern war, whole cities bombed flat, refugees in the street, machine guns firing from broken windows. Hitler and Stalin, Stalin and Hitler.

I looked at the great sea of roofs stretching on and on. Miles and miles of streets, fried-fish shops, tin chapels, picture houses, little printing-shops up back alleys, factories, blocks of flats, whelk stalls, dairies, power stations – on and on and on. Enormous! And the peacefulness of it! Like a great wilderness with no wild beasts. No guns firing, nobody chucking pineapples, nobody beating anybody else up with a rubber truncheon. If you come to think of it, in the whole of England at this moment there probably isn’t a single bedroom window from which anyone’s firing a machine-gun.
But how about five years from now? Or two years? Or one year? (p.24)

War is coming soon, he reflects with a kind of grim satisfaction as he looks out the train window at the endless suburban gardens, as he sips his pint as he walks along the Strand.

As I read I kept thinking of James Joyce’s Ulysses, the famous modernist masterpiece describing a day in the life of an average man wandering round a big city, thinking, musing, pondering. But there is none of Joyce’s experimentalism here. The opposite, there is a good deal of repetition. The paragraphs about being fat, becoming fat, how a fat man feels, how a fat man looks and so on, are a bit repetitive, and so are the meditations about the trashiness of modern life (key hate word is ‘streamlined’ – everything ‘streamlined’ is by definition bad) and the visions of war come back every few pages like acid reflux and repeat entire phrases again and again (I got a little bored of envisioning the machine guns ‘squirting’ from the windows.)

Part two

But everything changes as the book enters part two. Triggered by a news story in today’s paper, George’s mind is taken back to the church services of his boyhood in the little village of Lower Binfield. This (fictional) village of around 2,000 inhabitants somewhere in south Oxfordshire, a few miles from the Thames, is where George’s idyllic childhood took place.

It was a wonderful June morning. The buttercups were up to my knees. There was a breath of wind just stirring the tops of the elms, and the great green clouds of leaves were sort of soft and rich like silk. And it was nine in the morning and I was eight years old, and all round me it was early summer, with great tangled hedges where the wild roses were still in bloom, and bits of soft white cloud drifting overhead, and in the distance the low hills and the dim blue masses of the woods round Upper Binfield. (p.58)

His father was a seed merchant who kept a shop off the High Street. George’s older brother, Joe, is a tough, part of a gang which eventually grudgingly lets little Georgie join in (the other members being Sid Lovegrove and Harry Burnes, the errand boy). He remembers that long distant era as a land of perpetual sunshine, endless wheat fields and cool tree-lined pools for fishing in. (Orwell deliberately makes his protagonist older than him: Bowling was born about 1893 – he’s just old enough to remember the Boer War and the argument about it between his father and Uncle Ezekiel, as well as the mad jubilation surrounding the relief of Mafeking.)

This is a long sequence with many passages of great descriptive beauty. It is an unembarrassed wallow in nostalgia for the sweet decency of rural south England (Orwell knows all too well about life in England’s cities and life in the North of England). It is a powerful vision of idealised south of England village life, the same kind of feeling which permeates John Betjeman and goes on into Philip Larkin in the 1950s…

I’m back in Lower Binfield, and the year’s 1900. Beside the horse-trough in the market-place the carrier’s horse is having its nose-bag. At the sweet-shop on the corner Mother Wheeler is weighing out a ha’porth of brandy balls. Lady Rampling’s carriage is driving by, with the tiger sitting behind in his pipeclayed breeches with his arms folded. Uncle Ezekiel is cursing Joe Chamberlain. The recruiting-sergeant in his scarlet jacket, tight blue overalls, and pillbox hat, is strutting up and down twisting his moustache. (p.34)

There are wonderful long descriptions of the wild flowers and weeds which, because of his father’s trade in seeds, he knew were alright to eat. And central to the section, and to the novel, is the long passage about his boyhood obsession with fishing, which involves pages of detailed description of how to make a fishing rod, how to make the flies and the float and the hook from basic household items – and when he’s got a little more experience, a detailed list of the different types of bait you need to catch all the traditional English fish.

Grasshoppers are about the best bait there is, especially for chub. You stick them on the hook without any shot and just flick them to and fro on the surface – ‘dapping’, they call it. But you can never get more than two or three grasshoppers at a time. Greenbottle flies, which are also damned difficult to catch, are the best bait for dace, especially on clear days. You want to put them on the hook alive, so that they wriggle. A chub will even take a wasp, but it’s a ticklish job to put a live wasp on the hook.

It is an astonishingly sensuous, free and delightful memory of boyhood, immensely readable like almost all of Orwell, but unexpectedly happy and carefree.

The still summer evening, the faint splash of the weir, the rings on the water where the fish are rising, the midges eating you alive, the shoals of dace swarming round your hook and never biting. And the kind of passion with which you’d watch the black backs of the fish swarming round, hoping and praying (yes, literally praying) that one of them would change his mind and grab your bait before it got too dark. And then it was always ‘Let’s have five minutes more’, and then ‘Just five minutes more’, until in the end you had to walk your bike into the town because Towler, the copper, was prowling round and you could be ‘had up’ for riding without a light. And the times in the summer holidays when we went out to make a day of it with boiled eggs and bread and butter and a bottle of lemonade, and fished and bathed and then fished again and did occasionally catch something. At night you’d come home with filthy hands so hungry that you’d eaten what was left of your bread paste, with three or four smelly dace wrapped up in your handkerchief.

There is much, much more capturing the quality of boyhood when there is no future and the sunny present stretches on forever. The local girl who looked after him and his brother when they were young. The taste and feel of long-forgotten sweets, bought by the penny. The sights and sounds of market day. His mother and father sitting either side of the fire on a Sunday afternoon, falling asleep over their respective newspapers.

It is not an utterly rose-tinted view. At school he and the rest tease the mentally sub-normal boy. Along with his brother’s gang, George pulls birds’ nests out of trees and stamps on the chicks. As he explains, violence and killing, tormenting and bullying, are part of the sense of power, of immortality which author and character both seem to see as an important part of boyhood.

The section continues past this boyhood into the arrival of puberty and girls, and then on to his first real experience of reading, of entering amazing imaginative worlds from the heat of India to the jungles of the Amazon. His older brother, Joe, always a handful, is co-opted by his dad into helping with the seed shop but is impatient, loafing at the front door, ogling girls, catcalling. One day he disappears from the house, having stolen everything in the till, and is never seen again.

There is a fascinating description of his experiences during the Great War. After being wounded just enough to be sent home from the trenches, Bowling finds himself, through a series of bureaucratic errors, charged with looking after a defunct rations dump in remotest Cornwall. Here he sits out the war in peace and comfort, along with another ne-er-do-well soldier, Private Lidgebird, ‘a surly devil’. Part of the enjoyment of this long memoir is not only Orwell’s prose but the vividness with which he describes the many odd characters his protagonist encounters.

  • Old Hodges, the lodge-keeper who acted as a kind of caretaker to the abandoned grand house on the hill. ‘He had a face like something carved out of a bit of root, and only two teeth, which were dark brown and very long.’ (p.75)
  • Whiskers (his name was Wicksey) the headmaster of the grammar school, a dreadful-looking little man, with a face just like a wolf, and at the end of the big schoolroom he had a glass case with canes in it, which he’d sometimes take out and swish through the air in a terrifying manner.
  • Gravitt, the butcher… was a big, rough-faced old devil with a voice like a mastiff, and when he barked, as he generally did when speaking to boys, all the knives and steels on his blue apron would give a jingle.

Finally, we get to George’s early manhood. After the war he is pushed into a job with the local grocer, before wangling a job as a travelling salesman. Through an extraordinary coincidence he bumps into the senior officer who had allotted him the job at the rations dump, now the head of a modern conglomerate business, and through him is given a much better job in the insurance company.

At around the same time he first meets Hilda. They completely misunderstand each other because, as Orwell elaborately explains, they are from completely different classes. Hilda’s people are ex-army, ex-India but come down in the world, living in a small house stuffed with memorabilia of the Raj. George thinks they are class. Hilda’s people think George is man on the move, going up in the world, and thus push Hilda towards marrying him.

They get married and quite quickly George realises he hates her. As soon as they’re wed she drops every effort to look nice or be comforting. She becomes sharp and shrewish and reveals that she is obsessed with money, penny-pinching at every turn. George is lumbered with her and fathers two brats by her but spends his life scheming how to get away which, fortunately, his life as a travelling insurance salesman makes relatively easy.

Part three

The short part three brings us back to the present. It is the evening of the same day. George allows himself to be persuaded by Hilda to go along to a lecture at the church hall, which turns out to be given by a fierce anti-fascist. George is appalled by the venom and violence in the man’s attitude. Afterwards he joins in good humouredly with a squabble about how to fight fascism with a little group of Labour supporters. The evening ends with George dropping in on a local friend, a public school teacher, Porteous, who is a satirical caricature of the Oxbridge ivory tower intellectual.

But beneath these surface vents, George has been coming to a decision. He will wangle a week’s leave from his firm, tell Hilda he’s got business for a week in Birmingham, and… he will go back to Lower Binfield. He will revisit the scene of his childhood and all its intense happiness, before the war starts, before the war obliterates everything, he will recapture that first fine careless rapture. He will ‘come up for air’.

Part four

Of course it’s all gone. As his car breasts the hill and he looks down into the village of 2,000 he remembers so well, George discovers… it has mutated into a town of maybe 25,000 people. Houses, houses everywhere. In the distance some glass and chrome factories – that explains the population boom. He gets lost trying to find the centre but eventually reaches it, parks up in the old village inn and takes a room for a week.

At which point Orwell sets about destroying every single one of Bowling’s happy memories by showing the present-day reality of all that fond nostalgia. The family home and shop which he remembered with such vivid intensity is now a tacky tea-rooms. He goes down to the Thames, with a newly-purchased fishing rod, determined to recreate those balmy summer days in the green light below the weir – but the towpath is absolutely packed out with screaming kids, ice cream stalls, hundreds of other fishers while the water is stirred up by non-stop pleasure cruisers and the water is filthy with diesel oil and paper cups. The big old house on the hill in whose ground he and the gang used to fish has been turned into a mental home. And the secluded pond, full of legendarily huge fish, has been drained and become a rubbish dump on the edge of a vast new estate.

They’d filled my pool up with tin cans. God rot them and bust them! Say what you like – call it silly, childish, anything – but doesn’t it make you puke sometimes to see what they’re doing to England, with their bird- baths and their plaster gnomes, and their pixies and tin cans, where the beech woods used to be? (p.215)

You can’t go back. George finds himself getting drunk and wittering on to the barmaid, then trying to chat up a single woman who turns out to be posh and dismisses him with a withering glance. One further humiliation is when he bumps into his first real girlfriend, the girl (it is implied) to whom he lost his virginity, sweet honey-haired Elsie. Well, now she’s a shapeless grey-haired frump, and he follows her through the street where he first saw her, back to the frowsy little tobacconists shop she now lives in. Neither her nor husband recognise him. The past is dead.

One thing, I thought as I drove down the hill, I’m finished with this notion of getting back into the past. What’s the good of trying to revisit the scenes of your boyhood? They don’t exist. Coming up for air! But there isn’t any air. The dustbin that we’re in reaches up to the stratosphere. (p.216)

There is an odd scene almost at the end. On his last, disappointed morning, he’s strolling across the market square when there is an almighty explosion. Recognising a barrage when he hears one George drops to the ground, but there is no repeat. Earlier we had learned that there is a new bomber airfield somewhere near the town, and locals had told George that the newish stocking factory had recently been converted to manufacture bombs for the planes. It seems one of the pilots on a test run pushed the wrong lever and dropped a bomb on Lower Binfield! A grocer’s shop was flattened and the three inhabitants killed. See, George thinks, it’s coming, it’s coming and there’s nothing any of us can do to stop it.

In the final scene he motors home to find that Hilda, the suspicious little shrew, had figured out he was never in Birmingham by the simple expedient of writing to the hotel George claimed to be staying at and getting a reply saying the hotel closed two years previously. She knows George has been with another woman and starts to give him a piece of his mind George, faced with the daunting challenge of trying to explain the impulse to rediscover his childhood happiness which took him on a wild goose chase to his boyhood haunts, well, George realises it’ll be easier to admit he spent the week with another woman.


Visions of war

Barely a page goes by without George imagining the bombing or fighting in the street to come, or reflects on the streamlined, Americanised trashiness of modern life. The difference between George’s visions and those of Gordon, in Keep The Aspidistra Flying, is that George keeps these thoughts under control; he is not infuriated or exasperated by them. He sees the world about him, thinks about wars and modern life, and then has another pint which fills him with a glow of well-being. He thinks grim but he actually feels warm and rosy.

I can hear the air-raid sirens blowing and the loud-speakers bellowing that our glorious troops have taken a hundred thousand prisoners… I see it all. I see the posters and the food-queues, and the castor oil and the rubber truncheons and the machine-guns squirting out of bedroom windows. (p.29)

Next moment he’s an affable cheeky chappie, the type you’d meet in the saloon bar of a decent local pub, buying drinks for all and sundry and telling humorous stories. This alternation between Vaughan Williams pastoralism and the violence of the Gestapo, rubber coshes and machine guns is like the good cop/bad cop act. Just as you’re softening up to another vision of lying under a weeping willow beside the Thames’s purling water, a bomber flies overhead and George is off again about Stalin and Hitler.

The book is a work in its own right, and the pastoral passages are beautifully worth reading for their mental and sensual pleasure. But read in the context of Orwell’s political writings about the necessity and the inevitability of Socialism in England, I think there is a clear message. England’s dreamy past is over. We face an entirely unprecedented new threat in the form of totalitarianism. We must wake up and face the reality around us.

George has a particular variation on the widespread war fear of the time – he is more worried about what will come after the war – will it be the triumph of totalitarianism in England, with a secret police, torture chambers and loudspeakers blaring from every corner telling people what to think? Ten years later these fears would be worked up into the monstrous vision of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The modern world

Both Georges hate it. Streamlined, slick, Americanised, tasteless food, chromium bars, clever trite ads, George hates it all. He stops into a ‘milk bar’, epitome of everything flashy, American and revolting.

There’s a kind of atmosphere about these places that gets me down. Everything slick and shiny and streamlined; mirrors, enamel, and chromium plate whichever direction you look in. Everything spent on the decorations and nothing on the food. No real food at all. Just lists of stuff with American names, sort of phantom stuff that you can’t taste and can hardly believe in the existence of. Everything comes out of a carton or a tin, or it’s hauled out of a refrigerator or squirted out of a tap or squeezed out of a tube. No comfort, no privacy. Tall stools to sit on, a kind of narrow ledge to eat off, mirrors all round you. A sort of propaganda floating round, mixed up with the noise of the radio, to the effect that food doesn’t matter, comfort doesn’t matter, nothing matters except slickness and shininess and streamlining. (p.25)

George makes the bad mistake of buying a hot dog. One bite and he feels like retching.

It gave me the feeling that I’d bitten into the modern world and discovered what it was really made of. That’s the way we’re going nowadays. Everything slick and streamlined, everything made out of something else. Celluloid, rubber, chromium-steel everywhere, arc-lamps blazing all night, glass roofs over your head, radios all playing the same tune, no vegetation left, everything cemented over, mock-turtles grazing under the neutral fruit-trees. But when you come down to brass tacks and get your teeth into something solid, a sausage for instance, that’s what you get. Rotten fish in a rubber skin. Bombs of filth bursting inside your mouth. (p.27)

This modern trashiness provides an obvious contrast with the solid food and hearty beer of his childhood. But – the message of the book goes – this is the world today and we must face it.

On being a boy

I had a wonderful feeling inside me, a feeling you can’t know about unless you’ve had it – but if you’re a man you’ll have had it some time. I knew that I wasn’t a kid any longer, I was a boy at last. And it’s a wonderful thing to be a boy, to go roaming where grown-ups can’t catch you, and to chase rats and kill birds and shy stones and cheek carters and shout dirty words. It’s a kind of strong, rank feeling, a feeling of knowing everything and fearing nothing, and it’s all bound up with breaking rules and killing things. The white dusty roads, the hot sweaty feeling of one’s clothes, the smell of fennel and wild peppermint, the dirty words, the sour stink of the rubbish dump, the taste of fizzy lemonade and the gas that made one belch, the stamping on the young birds, the feel of the fish straining on the line – it was all part of it. Thank God I’m a man, because no woman ever has that feeling.

Having been a boy myself, raised in a little village in Berkshire, left to roam through woods and become part of a gang of other 8, 9, 10 year-olds, fishing in Englemere Lake and breaking into the old gravel pit to build dams out of sand, I very heartily respond to these visions of a south-of-England boyhood.


The importance of types and stereotypes in Orwell’s fiction and political writing

One of those…

In reviews of his previous novels I’ve highlighted Orwell’s continual appeal to our supposed common knowledge of various types or stereotypes of English life. He continues this trait in this novel, in fact it sits much better with Bowling’s cheeky-chappy, button-holing personality than it did with the third-person narrator of the earlier novels. But it’s the same habit of mind.

  • Do you know the active, hearty kind of fat man, the athletic bouncing type that’s nicknamed Fatty or Tubby and is always the life and soul of the party? I’m that type. (p.8)
  • She’s one of those people who get their main kick in life out of foreseeing disasters. (p.11)
  • He was one of those people who turn away and then suddenly dart back at you, like a dragon-fly. (p.17)
  • He’s one of these chaps you read about in novels, that have pale sensitive faces and dark hair and a private income. (p.22)
  • Warner is one of these cheap American dentists, and he has his consulting-room, or ‘parlour’ as he likes to call it, halfway up a big block of offices, between a photographer and a rubber-goods wholesaler. (p.25)

Again and again George shows off his ability to place and situate people he sees as characteristic types.

The girl was a kid about eighteen, rather fat, with a sort of moony face, the kind that would never get the change right anyway… He was an ugly, stiff-built little devil, the sort of cock-sparrow type of man that sticks his chest out and puts his hands under his coattails – the type that’d be a sergeant-major only they aren’t tall enough… Two vulgar kind of blokes in shabby overcoats, obviously commercials of the lowest type, newspaper canvassers probably, were sitting opposite me…

What I’m suggesting is that part of what Orwell’s fans and devotees describe as his honesty and his penetrating insight is actually created by this rhetorical habit of seeing the whole world in terms of recognisable and knowable types. This technique makes the world seem rational and susceptible to understanding, as organised, arranged and presented by an author who is a supreme knower of human types and behaviour. You bow before his wisdom.

  • I had one of those sudden inspirations that you get occasionally…
  • She was one of those people who never say much, but remain on the edge of any conversation that’s going on, and give the impression that they’re listening…
  • They had a little dark house in one of those buried back-streets that exist in Ealing.
  • Then they nearly joined one of those women’s clubs which go for conducted tours round factories
  • I could hear their voices cooing away in one of those meaningless conversations that women have when they’re just passing the time of day.

He is a man of the world, he knows all theses types, you know the sort, and he flatters the reader by expecting you to be, too.

Types and sterotypes

  • He looked the perfect professional soldier, the K.C.M.G., D.S.O. with bar type…
  • I’m the type that can sell things on commission…
  • I’m not the type that starves. I’m about as likely to end up in the workhouse as to end up in the House of Lords. I’m the middling type, the type that gravitates by a kind of natural law towards the five-pound-a-week level.
  • He was the usual type, completely bald, almost invisible behind his moustache, and full of stories about cobras and cummerbunds and what the district collector said in ‘93.
  • I knew the type. Vegetarianism, simple life, poetry, nature-worship, roll in the dew before breakfast. I’d met a few of them years ago in Ealing.

Yes, I know the type.

Stereotypes and Socialism

Having paid all this attention to Orwell’s use of types, half way through the book I had an epiphany.

In many ways political beliefs are built on ‘types’ of people, types we represent and speak for, types we oppose, who are our enemies. This was certainly true of the rather simple-minded (to our eye) political beliefs of the 1930s. To the Socialists their enemies are upper-class toffs, bankers, the bourgeoisie, the rentier class. To the Tory the enemy is the Bolshevik, the anarchist, the trade unionist, the stroppy worker. To the feminists of the day (who Orwell routinely lampoons: see the pert librarian who disapproves of Gordon Comstock asking for a book on midwifery, convinced he only wants to look at ‘dirty’ pictures) all men are horrible perverts only interested in one thing.

My questions are:

  1. To what extent is stereotyping your enemy vital to political discourse, in general?
  2. And what part do these types and stereotypes play in the formulation and expression of Orwell’s political beliefs?

Although his work is riddled with defences of ‘democratic socialism’, as even his own publisher, Victor Gollancz, explained in the apologetic preface he inserted before the second part of The Road To Wigan Pier, Orwell nowhere actually defines what Socialism is – except for a few trite phrases about justice and decency. Instead, the second part of Wigan Pier -which was intended as a 100-page long account of his intellectual development towards a belief in Socialism – mostly consists of Orwell setting up a whole series of straw men through the use of types and stereotypes – and then all-too-easily demolishing them. As a political manifesto, it is an embarrassing, almost incoherent failure.

Instead of proposing detailed plans to, say, nationalise key industries, to re-organise the economy, to create a nationalised health and education service – Orwell wastes these hundred pages addressing so-called objections the man-in-the-street might have to Socialism, via stereotypical caricatures of the views of its opponents. Thus he says the average person might be put off socialism because of the association that’s grown up with it and the kind of shiny technological future depicted in so many of H.G. Wells’s novels and tracts and magazine articles. The man-in-the-street doesn’t fancy that kind of technological future and so he (mistakenly) rejects socialism.

My point is that this farrago relies on a) trusting Orwell to know that this is in fact a major objection of the man-in-the-street to socialism b) accepting his much reduced and caricatured summary of Wells’s position and then c) accepting Orwell’s argument that a socialist future need not be a repellent one of glass and chrome.

This entire argument is so eccentric, so beside the point, that there’s something comic about it, and there is always something a little comic about Orwell’s use of human types, whether in his fiction or political essays. Something a little too pat, a little cartoonish. ‘It’s always that way with X.’ ‘They’re the type who Y.’ ‘He’s one of those Z.’ ‘Of course, the real bourgeoisie does A…  the true socialist says Y… the fascist type yells C…’

Look here, he always seems to be saying, I’m a man of the world and these people always say, do, promise, lie or behave in the following ways. It’s one thing when you’re listening to a fat, middle-aged insurance salesman in the pub; quite another when you’re deciding the future of the country.

To some extent, George Bowling is of course a parody of George Orwell’s own instincts, feelings and beliefs. Just as he cranked up his hatred of the modern world and conflicted self-loathing to create the wretched protagonist of Keep The Aspidistra Flying, so in Coming Up For Air he exaggerates both his sentimental nostalgia for a perfect England and his fear for the future.

You know

Backing away from the political implications, there’s no doubt that this button-holing and shoulder-nudging you towards acquiescence in the narrator’s thoughts and experiences is a major part of the rhetorical strategy of Orwell’s fiction.

George is propping up the bar and while the barmaid fetches another round of drinks, launches off on another story about one of those… you know the type… the kind of chap who…

  • You know how these streets fester all over the inner-outer suburbs. Always the same. Long, long rows of little semi-detached houses…
  • You know the smell churches have, a peculiar, dank, dusty, decaying, sweetish sort of smell…
  • You know the kind of kitchen people had in those days…
  • You know the feeling you had when you came out of the line. A stiffened feeling in all your joints, and inside you a kind of emptiness, a feeling that you’d never again have any interest in anything…
  • You know the kind of holiday. Margate, Yarmouth, Eastbourne, Hastings, Bournemouth, Brighton…
  • You know the atmosphere of a draper’s shop. It’s something peculiarly feminine. There’s a hushed feeling, a subdued light, a cool smell of cloth, and a faint whirring from the wooden balls of change rolling to and fro…
  • You know the feeling of a June evening. The kind of blue twilight that goes on and on, and the air brushing against your face like silk…
  • You know how it is with these big business men, they seem to take up more room and walk more loudly than any ordinary person, and they give off a kind of wave of money that you can feel fifty yards away…
  • You know those tennis clubs in the genteel suburbs — little wooden pavilions and high wire- netting enclosures where young chaps in rather badly cut white flannels prance up and down, shouting ‘Fifteen forty!’ and ‘Vantage all!’ in voices which are a tolerable imitation of the Upper Crust…
  • Do you know these Anglo-Indian families? It’s almost impossible, when you get inside these people’s houses, to remember that out in the street it’s England and the twentieth century. As soon as you set foot inside the front door you’re in India in the eighties. You know the kind of atmosphere. The carved teak furniture, the brass trays, the dusty tiger-skulls on the wall, the Trichinopoly cigars, the red-hot pickles, the yellow photographs of chaps in sun-helmets, the Hindustani words that you’re expected to know the meaning of, the everlasting anecdotes about tiger-shoots and what Smith said to Jones in Poona in ‘87…
  • It was rather a gloomy little hall. You know the kind of place. Pitch-pine walls, corrugated iron roof, and enough draughts to make you want to keep your overcoat on…
  • You know the line of talk. These chaps can churn it out by the hour. Just like a gramophone. Turn the handle, press the button, and it starts. Democracy, Fascism, Democracy…
  • Just behind her two old blokes from the local Labour Party were sitting. One had grey hair cropped very short, the other had a bald head and a droopy moustache. Both wearing their overcoats. You know the type…
  • You know the kind of day that generally comes some time in March when winter suddenly seems to give up fighting. For days past we’d been having the kind of beastly weather that people call ‘bright’ weather, when the sky’s a cold hard blue and the wind scrapes you like a blunt razor-blade. Then suddenly the wind had dropped and the sun got a chance. You know the kind of day..
  • You know the look of a wood fire on a still day. The sticks that have gone all to white ash and still keep the shape of sticks, and under the ash the kind of vivid red that you can see into…
  • You know how people look at you when they’re in a car coming towards you…
  • You know the kind of houses that are just a little too high-class to stand in a row, and so they’re dotted about in a kind of colony, with private roads leading up to them…
  • You know those very cheap small houses which run up a hillside in one continuous row, with the roofs rising one above the other like a flight of steps, all exactly the same…
  • I asked her for tea, and she was ten minutes getting it. You know the kind of tea – China tea, so weak that you could think it’s water till you put the milk in…
  • As soon as I set eyes on her I had a most peculiar feeling that I’d seen her somewhere before. You know that feeling…
  • Do you know that type of middle-aged woman that has a face just like a bulldog? Great underhung jaw, mouth turned down at the corners, eyes sunken, with pouches underneath…
  • Do you know the kind of shuffling, round-shouldered movements of an old woman who’s lost something?
  • You know the way small shopkeepers look at their customers – utter lack of interest…
  • Do you know these faked-up Tudor houses with the curly roofs and the buttresses that don’t buttress anything, and the rock-gardens with concrete bird-baths and those red plaster elves you can buy at the florists’?
  • You know the kind of tough old devil with grey hair and a kippered face that’s always put in charge of Girl Guide detachments, Y.W.C.A. hostels, and whatnot. She had on a coat and skirt that somehow looked like a uniform and gave you a strong impression that she was wearing a Sam Browne belt, though actually she wasn’t. I knew her type

Orwell, and his narrators, always know her type. They know all types. They are experts in all types of human and on the entire human condition. It is upon this claim to universal knowledge of human nature, upon this barrage of ‘types’ and ‘you knows’ that we are meant to place our trust in them.

Comments

Orwell wrote Coming Up for Air as soon as he’d finished Homage to Catalonia, the terrifying account of his time in Spain during the early stage of the Spanish civil war. He wrote Coming Up during a six-month stay in North Africa, from September 1938 to March 1939, which was recommended by his doctors on account of his poor health.

What a period to be outside of England and outside of Europe, looking in, looking back. From the Munich Crisis (September 1938) via Kristallnacht (November 1938) to the German annexation of Czechoslovakia  in March 1939.

Pretty obviously these were the twin sources of the powerful nostalgia which is Coming Up For Air‘s ultimate mood:

  • He had seen Soviet-style political terror in Barcelona and it made him re-evaluate the enduring value of the docile freedoms of England.
  • And then he was out of England for six long months, writing a book in which a middle-aged man reminisces about his boyhood in rural England, surely given piquancy at every turn from the fact that it was written under such very alien skies.

Ultimately Coming Up For Air is a dubious achievement as a novel – with little plot, almost no interaction among the characters and too much of a feeling that it is preaching at you – you could say that it dramatises a predicament more than a believable personality. But Orwell’s writing is marvellous throughout: you can open it at any page and immediately be drawn in by the vividness of the imagined details and the clarity of his wonderfully forthright, lucid prose.


Credit

Coming Up For Air by George Orwell was published by Victor Gollancz in 1939. All references are to the 1978 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

A Clergyman’s Daughter by George Orwell (1935)

She did not reflect, consciously, that the solution to her difficulty lay in accepting the fact that there was no solution; that if one gets on with the job that lies to hand, the ultimate purpose of the job fades into insignificance; that faith and no faith are very much the same provided that one is doing what is customary, useful, and acceptable. (p.295)

Orwell’s second novel, published in March 1935, is an oddity. A decade later he wrote it off as a potboiler and it, he even prevented it being republished when the original print run sold out. Along with its fellows Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) and Coming Up For Air (1939), ACD is generally overlooked because readers in a hurry prioritise his world-class classics, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the reportage of Down and OutWigan Pier, and Catalonia, and then brisk no-nonsense of his numerous political and literary essays.

Are these neglected novels worth reading?

A Clergyman’s Daughter

A Clergyman’s Daughter is divided into five distinct parts and, once you’ve finished the book, you realise they don’t fully hang together, both stylistically and in terms of plot.

Part one

introduces us to Dorothy Hare, the only child of the Reverend Charles Hare, Rector of St Athelstan’s Church, Knype Hill, a large village in Suffolk. Dorothy is pushing 28, plain and honest, wakes up every morning around 6am to light the kitchen fire and heat the water for her father to shave in, and makes breakfast for him. They have a lacklustre live-in servant, Ellen, but the atmosphere is of extremely run-down, shabby-genteel poverty. Dorothy is continually berating herself for failing her own religious ideals – exemplified by her habit of sticking her hat pin into her forearm every time her mind wanders off during Holy Communion or she has a wicked thought. Consequently, her arm is a rash of little red marks.

In among a detailed account of her daily routine (visiting the rural poor, shopping with her meagre allowance and trying to manage the rector’s debts with the numerous town merchants) we learn she is sort of friends with the shamelessly immoral local ‘artist’ (who never paints anything), Warburton, who has a mistress and three illegitimate children. Warburton invites Dorothy to dinner to meet a novelist friend and his wife.

The novelist couple never turn up. In fact, they don’t even exist: fat (always the worst crime for tall, skinny Orwell), bald (another no-no) middle-aged Warburton invented them solely to lure Dorothy to his house under a false sense of security so he can seduce her. This consists of standing behind the after-dinner chair she’s sitting in, placing his hands on her shoulders and then running them up and down her bare arms. Dorothy leaps to her feet and tells him to stop, insists on putting on her coat and leaving. At the gate to his garden he tries to kiss her but she averts her mouth, wriggles free of his grasp and walks home to the rectory. Here, as chastisement to herself for getting into such a ridiculous situation, Dorothy carries on preparing costumes for the children’s village play, though it’s midnight and she keeps dozing off…

Part two 

opens with a surprising piece of experimental prose describing a human being slowly waking to consciousness of themselves, as a mind, as a series of sensations, as a body and then of a unified person. It is the nearest Orwell gets to acknowledging the influence of James Joyce or Virginia Woolf among the many other modernist novelists who were experimenting with stream of consciousness prose and other attempts to describe non-normal states of mind.

Dorothy has lost her memory. She slowly comes to awareness, standing on a street in London dressed in shabby black outfit, with no idea who she is or how she got there. If a sympathetic helper had taken her to a police station she might have quickly regained her past, but instead she is almost immediately taken up by three street people, two young lads and a girl, who are off to Kent to pick hops.

Confused and dazzled by their patter (specially when they discover she is the proud owner of half a crown), she finds herself inveigled into the shattering process of walking the thirty or more miles into Kent, which takes three days of hunger and begging. This ordeal is followed by even more penurious traipsing round Kent farms looking for work. Finally they get ‘lucky’ and Dorothy spends a month or so in the extremely demanding and badly-paid work of picking hops by hand, alongside a community of other hop pickers, beggars from London, and bands of gypsies.

The introduction to the modern Penguin edition I’m reading refers to the fact that in Orwell’s original conception of the novel, at the end of part one Warburton successfully seduces or rapes Dorothy, before bundling her into a car and driving her to London, there – presumably – to dump her and abandon her on the street, as we find her in part two. This is in fact the account given to everybody, including the press, by the village gossip, Mrs Semprill, who claims to have seen Warburton driving off at speed in his car, with a scantily-clad woman in the passenger seat. However, apparently due to the risk of prosecution, the whole rape scene had to be dropped and replaced with the weird non-sequitur we now have – in the text as we have it Dorothy resists the seduction and goes safely home to the rectory where she dozes off and then… mysteriously appears in London.

Eventually, right at the end of the hop-picking sequence she comes across a newspaper giving salacious account of ‘Scandal of Rector’s Daughter’, complete with photo, which repeats Mrs Semprill’s salacious account – and Dorothy undergoes the physical shock of realising it is her in the newspaper – this is her name and identity and story!

But even with her memory back, she can’t make sense of the account the newspaper gives of her being seen sitting in a car being driven by Warburton. Did he get her drunk and persuade her to elope with him? That’s certainly not what happens at the end of part one as we have it. Of course, Dorothy’s version – resisting seduction, cycling home, falling asleep – could be explained away as a kind of ‘fake memory’ she concocts to repress the brutal truth, as sometimes happens to trauma victims. But then the third-person narrator who described her cycling home would have been deliberately misleading us, which seems unlikely because part one is narrated in Orwell’s sensible, matter-of-fact voice.

If in doubt, I simply go with what is in the text – so many novels, plays, and especially movies and TV series, have mucked about with time and consecutive narrative, with shock reversals, ‘it was all a dream’ scenarios, that we 21st century readers are very used to all kinds of tricks and sleights of hand. She fell asleep in her rectory. She wakes up in London nine days later having lost her memory. OK. I’ll buy that.

Meanwhile, the detailed description of going ‘on the tramp’ down to Kent, of begging and scrounging on the road, and then of the hard outdoors life of the hop picker, are quite obviously straight from Orwell’s personal experience. It has the scrupulous attention to detail of his other works of reportage, right down to the appearance of individual pickers, details of conditions on the farm, the disadvantages of sleeping in straw as opposed to hay, the slang of the various tramps and beggars, the songs sung by the pickers and the gypsies, and much much more. If you skip part two’s ‘experimental’ woman-with-amnesia opening section, this long passage of reportage could easily have been added into Down and Out in Paris and London.

So: by the end of part two Dorothy has remembered her identity and quit the hop-picking (which was drawing to its end anyway). She makes her way back to London where she pawns her last belongings and spends the money rooming for a week in a filthy, damp room in a run-down lodging house for prostitutes off the Cut, behind Waterloo Bridge. She had written to her father from the hop camp hoping he’d reply, forgive her and take her back. But no reply comes. She writes again from London, but no reply.

Dorothy spends her one week with a roof over her head in public libraries copying out adverts for servants and then traipsing all over London to apply for them. But she finds that a single woman, with an educated accent and no luggage, is instantly perceived as what she in fact is (is she?) – a woman who’s been seduced and dumped. An immoral woman. Her predicament is an opportunity for a characteristic outburst of Orwell’s love of social ‘types’ (and studied dislike of health cranks).

She trudged enormous distances all through the southern suburbs: Clapham, Brixton, Dulwich, Penge, Sydenham, Beckenham, Norwood – even as far as Croydon on one occasion. She was was haled into neat suburban drawing-rooms and interviewed by women of every conceivable type – large, chubby, bullying women, thin, acid, catty women, alert, frigid women in gold pince-nez, vague rambling women who looked as though they practised vegetarianism or attended spiritualist seances. (p.147)

Dorothy can find no work. At the end of the week she is forced out of the lodging house and onto the street.

Part three

continues the vein of stylistic experimentation – confirming the sense from the opening of part two that Orwell is dipping his toe into contemporary modernist techniques. For part three is written entirely in script format, giving brief location settings and then extended passages of the dialogue of various characters. He uses the format to convey the incessant and inane chatter of the down-and-outs, hobos and tramps among whom Dorothy has fallen, congregated one bitter night in Trafalgar Square – namely Charlie, Snouter, Mr Tallboys, Deafie, Mrs Wayne, Mrs Bendigo, Ginger and The Kike.

I find scripts difficult and boring to read and Orwell seems to agree. This is by far the shortest section, making up only 30 pages of this 300-page novel, with a few passages of prose scattered in it to explain the few bits of action, and it soon gets tiresome. I can, however, see that the script format emphasises the way that:

a) Nothing happens; the tramps mostly just lie or sit around near benches in Trafalgar Square in a kind of Samuel Beckett-like stasis.
b) Also, they are each stuck within their own stories and so don’t converse, don’t talk to each other: each one is like a robot or the proverbial cracked gramophone record – the old lady cursing her husband for kicking her out, mad Deafie singing an obscene song over and over, Ginger complaining about how he was set up to organise a robbery where he was caught and sent to prison. Each one is a prisoner of their own consciousness and life story.

Around midnight, Charlie starts stamps up and down giving a rousing performance of the bawdy ballad, ‘Rollicking Bill The Sailor’, evidently a song Orwell has heard, and which I tracked down on YouTube. It certainly is as bawdy as Orwell claims (again, due to publishing law, Orwell doesn’t include any of the lyrics):

Thus we are to imagine the chaste and devout rector’s daughter among this company of obscene automatons, a picture of human misery.

DOROTHY [starting up]: Oh, this cold, this cold! I don’t know whether it’s worse when you’re sitting down or when you’re standing up. Oh, how can you all stand it? Surely you don’t have to do this every night of your lives?
MRS WAYNE: You mustn’t think, dearie, as there isn’t SOME of us wasn’t brought up respectable.
CHARLIE [singing]: Cheer up, cully, you’ll soon be dead! Brrh! Perishing Jesus! Ain’t my fish-hooks blue! [Double marks time and beats his arms against his sides.]
DOROTHY: Oh, but how can you stand it? How can you go on like this, night after night, year after year? It’s not possible that people can live so! It’s so absurd that one wouldn’t believe it if one didn’t know it was true. It’s impossible!

In the end, she is arrested for vagrancy by the – it must be said – not unfriendly policeman who patrols the Square.

Part four

After these experimental episodes the narrative reverts to a traditional third-person voice for a refreshingly humorous passage going back to Knype Hill and describing how the rector was awoken by Ellen the servant, on the morning of Dorothy’s disappearance, and was more shocked by the fact that he had to prepare his own breakfast than by the news that his daughter had eloped.

Being completely hopeless, the rector hands the task of tracking Dorothy down over to his cousin, Sir Thomas Hare, from the moneyed part of the family, who lives in London and so is assumed to have ‘contacts’.

The Sir Thomas sections are done in broad humour for he is a caricature of a Sir Bufton-Tufton type, all ‘what what’ and tugging on his moustachios, while continually forgetting what he is saying.

Sir Thomas Hare was a widower, a good-hearted, chuckle-headed man of about sixty-five, with an obtuse rosy face and curling moustaches. He dressed by preference in checked overcoats and curly brimmed bowler hats that were at once dashingly smart and four decades out of date. At a first glance he gave the impression of having carefully disguised himself as a cavalry major of the ‘nineties, so that you could hardly look at him without thinking of devilled bones with a b and s, and the tinkle of hansom bells, and the Pink ‘Un in its great ‘Pitcher’ days, and Lottie Collins and ‘Tarara-BOOM-deay’. But his chief characteristic was an abysmal mental vagueness. He was one of those people who say ‘Don’t you know?’ and ‘What! What!’ and lose themselves in the middle of their sentences. When he was puzzled or in difficulties, his moustaches seemed to bristle forward, giving him the appearance of a well-meaning but exceptionally brainless prawn. (Chapter 4.1)

He has a manservant, Blyth, who speaks so softly you have to watch his lips carefully to make out what he is saying. This character feels directly descended from Dickens, as Sir Thomas descends from a long line of titled buffoons sprinkled throughout English fiction. The rector sends Sir Thomas some money and asks him to find out Dorothy’s whereabouts. Sir Thomas passes this request onto the silkily efficient Blyth (reminiscent, maybe, of the legendary Jeeves and a thousand other silently capable butlers of popular fiction) who commences his task the day after Dorothy had been arrested and bailed for vagrancy. Blyth swiftly locates Dorothy, approaches her in the street and invites her back to Sir Thomas’s Mayfair house. Astonished at this turn of events, Dorothy goes with him, washes, buys a new outfit of clothes and is transformed.

Kindly Sir Thomas is flabbergasted by how impressive she looks and speaks. What to do next? Somehow it is assumed by everyone that she can’t go back to Knype Hill – ‘the shame my dear’ – and so Sir Thomas’s solicitor suggests she gets a job as teacher in a suburban prep school. Within days it is arranged and she departs for Ringwood House Academy for Girls in Southbridge, ‘a repellent suburb ten or a dozen miles from London’.

There follows a long chapter satirising the shortcomings of minor private schools in the 1930s, reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh’s debut, Decline and Fall (1930). Most of the public school authors of this generation (Auden, Waugh, Greene, Orwell himself) did a spot of private school teaching, Orwell in 1932 and 1932 at a private school in Hayes, West London – an experience this chapter is very much indebted to.

Ringwood House turns out to be a scandalous scam, run by the scheming, bitter, joyless Mrs Creevy who’s made a living dunning money from the uneducated local shopkeeper parents of fifteen or so girls from age 8 or so to 15, who have remained scandalously uneducated. The previous teacher had been sacked for getting paralytically drunk in class. Initially daunted at the responsibility of being ‘a teacher’, Dorothy finds out on the first morning that the children know nothing, have been taught nothing. Their lessons consisted solely of hours practicing their hand-writing – forced to write out over and over a trite ‘essay’ about the joys of spring – of learning a handful of French phrases, and the bare minimum of ‘sums’ i.e. some adding and subtracting.

We remember from part one the love and attention Dorothy lavished on the school play back at Knype Hill and so are not surprised that, first chance she gets, she goes into London to buy a decent atlas, some mathematical tools, some plasticine and a bunch of copies of Macbeth. She sets the girls to building a map of the world out of the plasticine, pins up a frieze of paper round the wall to create a timeline of British history onto which they pin pictures cut out from magazines of historical characters, and so on. The children love her.

But, ‘of course’, it can’t last. The children love their daily joint reading of Macbeth but in the last scene, when MacDuff explains that he was from his mother’s womb untimely ripped, many of the children end up going back home that night and ask their puritanical non-conformist parents what a ‘womb’ is. This causes a rebellion of outraged parents who the next day storm into Ringwood House and subject Dorothy to a humiliating inquisition which brings her close to tears.

That isn’t all. Even when they’ve left, Mrs Creevy starts on Dorothy in her own right, carefully and cynically explaining the situation: the children are not to be educated; they are to be rote taught to perform the basic tricks which their parents expect of them – fancy handwriting, a handful of French phrases, enough maths to be able to help out in the shop. Mrs Creevy throws away the plasticine map of the world, burns the timeline of British history and sells the copies of Macbeth.

Dorothy, in complete misery, has to abandon any hope of genuinely teaching her children: she needs this job; the memory of the nights in Trafalgar Square rises up before her; she has no choice but to obey wretched Mrs Creevy. When the new Dorothy appears before them, the children’s attitude turns from disbelief to devastation to sullen bitter resentment. They taunt her, play up, act rebellious. She has abandoned them; they take every opportunity to rub it in. In the climax of her humiliation, Dorothy finds herself taunted one step too far by the most vicious child and hits her. She has become her own worst nightmare.

She submits to Mrs Creevy’s every whim. She completely abases herself up to and including faking the children’s end-of-year school reports. They have all made ‘outstanding progress’. Dorothy receives small indicators from frosty old Mrs Creevy that she is warming to her. It is a recurrent joke that Mrs Creevy half starves Dorothy but in the last weeks before the end of term she allows her slightly more food and – in a solemnly comic moment – even (reluctantly) allows her access to the marmalade jar at breakfast.

However, it is only the more effectively to trick her. On the very last day of term, when Dorothy expects to have her contract renewed, Mrs Creevy summarily sacks her. A wizened old crone from another wretched private school has agreed to decamp to Mrs Creevy’s establishment, bringing with her half a dozen paying pupils. This is a financial boost Mrs Creevy cannot ignore and so – despite having humiliated herself and stomped all over her better nature and principles in order to please her – Dorothy finds herself out on her ear again. Mrs Creevy turns the screw by promising to forward her luggage once Dorothy is established somewhere – but for a fee of five shillings!

Part five

BUT there is to be a fairy-tale ending, worthy of the the great Charles Dickens who hovers over so much of Orwell’s writing. Just as Oliver Twist spends 400 pages enduring life among thieves and beggars on the streets of London, only to be magically revealed as the heir to a fortune in the final pages – so Dorothy is walking down the street when who should draw up in a taxi but – a beaming chuckling Warburton.

Immediately we are swept out of the world of powerless poverty and into the calm confidence of the amiable man-of-the-world. When he hears that Mrs Creevy has gouged the five shillings out of Dorothy, he turns the cab round and he and the cabman go and retrieve the money – just like that. ‘What a hole’, Warburton comments of the school, calmly and confidently, and away he whisks her.

For the reader, who has accompanied Dorothy on her knees through so many valleys of humiliation, it is an astonishing psychological transformation to be lifted into the bright sunlight. It is also striking that it is effected by a man. There is a sense of re-entering a kind of virile world of power and activity. Warburton, in his way, is every bit as nonchalantly confident and effective as the equally caddish Verrall, in the previous novel, Burmese Days. Maybe this is:

  1. an unconscious prejudice on Orwell’s part – that the feminine is helpless victim and the masculine bold and decisive
  2. or is a deliberate piece of feminist satire, highlighting how helpless and downtrodden a woman can be by patriarchal society
  3. or is simply the structural requirement that there had to be some kind of ‘salvation’ from Dorothy’s apparently endless plight, and ‘poetic justice’ makes it come from the very man who apparently caused it all in the first place
  4. or a combination of all the above

In short order Warburton tells Dorothy that Mrs Semprill’s salacious account of their elopement has been disproved, she is redeemed not only with the good gossips of Knype Hill but with her father, who wants her to return home immediately. He takes her for a slap-up meal and then they catch a train to Suffolk. The topic of conversation turns to Dorothy’s ‘loss of faith’, Warburton disputes that she was ever a Christian, but could never actually face it. Hence her loss of memory  -it was a psychological route out of an impossible situation:

He saw that she did not understand, and explained to her that loss of memory is only a device, unconsciously used, to escape from an impossible situation. The mind, he said, will play curious tricks when it is in a tight corner. Dorothy had never heard of anything of this kind before, and she could not at first accept his explanation.

Neither can we. Why did this tight corner suddenly occur on that night rather than any other? And how did she get to London?

Meanwhile, the train journey turns into a long discussion of faith and its absence i.e. living in a meaningless universe. This is no problem for Warburton, who is an amused hedonist: everything boils down to pleasure. But Dorothy tries to express the strangeness of the feeling she’s experiencing, living in a world newly devoid of faith. Imperceptibly, by steps, Warburton manoeuvres Dorothy into a mood wherein he suddenly takes off his hat (revealing his pink bald head) and proposes marriage to her. The reader is as startled as Dorothy. He follows up by spending two pages painting an extremely biting portrait of what the rest of her life will be like as a skivvy to her increasingly impoverished and gaga father, and then how she’ll be left penniless at his death and have to take a job as a governess or return to school-teaching. This is the fate of the spinster woman in the 1930s.

It is a hypnotically awful prospect and allows Warburton to take Dorothy’s hand, lift her to her feet, and then he’s begun to embrace her and is moving to kiss her before the spell is broken. Dorothy realises it was all yet another attempt of the revolting bald fat old man to seduce her.

a) It’s a strikingly slow-building scene b) It tends, yet again, to completely refute the rape notion.

Dorothy leaps back, revolted. Warburton subsides into his seat, amused and cynical: oh well, it was worth a try. The rest of the journey continues in trivial chat.

Dorothy is delivered back to her father who is delighted that his breakfasts will now be served on time. He accepts her explanation that she ‘lost her memory’ though she sees that he doesn’t really believe her. The final section of the book is a fairly long meditation on Dorothy’s loss of faith. What does it mean to live in a world without God? How can she continue to go through the motions of helping out at communion and other services, of officiating over semi-religious works with the Girl Guides and so on? She is back in the scullery making fancy dress costumes, this time for the big pageant she is organising, on her knees cutting and pasting just as she did when she ‘fell asleep’ in part one. She prays for help, for guidance in her Unbelief – and is suddenly brought back to the present by the smell of the glue heating on a pot on the stove. The glue brings her back to the world of projects and tasks. She really must get on with the costumes. Then there are the village bills to be paid. Dinner tonight to organise. And so on.

She has discovered one of the great truths – that happiness or contentment, ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose’ aren’t things in themselves – they are the by-products of absorption in a task.

She did not know this. She did not reflect, consciously, that the solution to her difficulty lay in accepting the fact that there was no solution; that if one gets on with the job that lies to hand, the ultimate purpose of the job fades into insignificance; that faith and no faith are very much the same provided that one is doing what is customary, useful, and acceptable. She could not formulate these thoughts as yet, she could only live them. Much later, perhaps, she would formulate them and draw comfort from them. (p.295)

And this makes sense of the epigraph to the book, a quote from Hymns Ancient and Modern:

The trivial round, the common task

from the hymn New every morning is the love written by John Keble in 1827. Read as autobiography, the opening and especially the close of the book suggest Orwell’s strong, unbreakable roots within the Anglican tradition.


Conclusion

Rape or memory loss?

There’s a lot to consider and mull over in this book: the biting portraits of poverty among the down-and-outs and the back-breaking work of the hop-pickers; the long section exposing the scandal of fourth-rate private schools; the decision to use ‘experimental’ techniques; the final meditation on the meaning of life. But the central question is, How effective or believable is the character of the clergyman’s daughter – Dorothy – herself?

Certainly Orwell’s aim is to be sympathetic to women. The book is a sort of rake’s progress through 1930s England except the central character is deliberately a woman in order to show the hundred small humiliations as well as a couple of huge central injustices, to which women of the day were liable to be victim.

Nonetheless, there are scores of problems. The whole novel is predicated on the notion that Dorothy is hopelessly shamed by being seduced and dumped – exactly as in the cheesiest Victorian melodrama. But in this bowdlerised/confused narrative, she isn’t raped or seduced, she went home to work on the school play costumes and then… then what? We never really find out why she ends up a week later in London in strange clothes with no memory. In chapter 5 Dorothy herself appears to give the reason to Warburton:

‘And do you think that’s really the end of it? Do you think they honestly believe that it was all an accident — that I only lost my memory and didn’t elope with anybody?’

As to why she lost her memory, there’s Warburton’s explanation that it was something to do with mental conflict, with her realising she was not a Christian — but there had been absolutely no indication of that in the previous text. And anyway, none of this explains how she came to be standing in a London street in someone else’s clothes eight days later.

Lacking this central motor for the plot, all the ancillary circumstances seem forced and gratuitous. Why can’t she go back to her father? Why doesn’t she contact the police and ask them to intervene? Or any other family members? Why doesn’t she go to the nearest church and explain the situation?

It’s hard to work out, but she fails to take any of these steps due to her sense of shame. Isn’t this all a very Victorian motivation for an entire novel? Isn’t it a bit out of place in a woman of the 1930s? It’s difficult to judge.

It is traditional to expect some kind of psychological ‘development’ in a literary novel. It’s not really clear that Dorothy changes at all. For example, if she had been raped or even seduced, lost her virginity and dumped, you’d have expected this to have left quite a psychological mark, but it doesn’t. Maybe Orwell dropped the rape idea not only because it might have led to prosecution, but because he knew he wasn’t up to imagining or describing the psychological consequences.

2. Loss of faith

Similarly, Dorothy is described as ‘having lost her faith’ during her trials and tribulations. A reasonable enough development and Orwell describes it in persuasive terms which probably apply to lots of people throughout the long decline of the Church of England:

There was never a moment when the power of worship returned to her. Indeed, the whole concept of worship was meaningless to her now; her faith had vanished, utterly and irrevocably. It is a mysterious thing, the loss of faith – as mysterious as faith itself. Like faith, it is ultimately not rooted in logic; it is a change in the climate of the mind. But however little the church services might mean to her, she did not regret the hours she spent in church. On the contrary, she looked forward to her Sunday mornings as blessed interludes of peace; and that not only because Sunday morning meant a respite from Mrs Creevy’s prying eye and nagging voice. In another and deeper sense the atmosphere of the church was soothing and reassuring to her. For she perceived that in all that happens in church, however absurd and cowardly its supposed purpose may be, there is something — it is hard to define, but something of decency, of spiritual comeliness — that is not easily found in the world outside. It seemed to her that even though you no longer believe, it is better to go to church than not; better to follow in the ancient ways, than to drift in rootless freedom. She knew very well that she would never again be able to utter a prayer and mean it; but she knew also that for the rest of her life she must continue with the observances to which she had been bred. Just this much remained to her of the faith that had once, like the bones in a living frame, held all her life together.

Good, eh? Insightful into the feel of losing religious faith – but he doesn’t really show its impact on her personality. There’s no real change in perception or thought between the woman who pricked herself with pins for having the slightest unreligious thought and the woman who doesn’t think about God for weeks on end and has completely stopped praying. She’s just a bit sadder, that’s all (as described on page 273).

Something had happened in her heart, and the world was a little emptier, a little poorer from that minute. On such a day as this, last spring or any earlier spring, how joyfully, and how unthinkingly, she would have thanked God for the first blue skies and the first flowers of the reviving year! And now, seemingly, there was no God to thank, and nothing — not a flower or a stone or a blade of grass — nothing in the universe would ever be the same again.

Maybe that’s enough. Maybe this is what ‘loss of faith’ amounts to. Warburton and Dorothy discuss what ‘loss of faith’ means to her on the train to Suffolk but it’s an oddly inconsequential conversation with no real outcome. There’s plenty more at the end of the book, but the whole theme seems very dated, very Victorian.

The meaningless of life in a world without God was exercising many continental writers, of whom Albert Camus (whose first work Christian Metaphysics and Neoplatonism was published the same year as Orwell’s book) and Jean-Paul Sartre (whose first novel Nausea, was published in 1938) spring to mind as the most obvious.

But they were starting from emptiness and then trying to build meaning. Orwell starts from deep within the comforting bosom of the Church of England and, although his heroine goes far beyond its bounds in her physical adventures, the novel shows that she never really leaves its imaginative realm in her mind.

This may or may not present a persuasive imaginative journey, depending on your temperament. I was certainly glad that she didn’t marry Warburton, but chose a life of integrity to herself and of service to religious customs, even if her faith had died. More interesting.

3. Sexual coldness

Another ‘issue’ is the way Dorothy is described early on as being averse to men. After Warburton has met her in the street and managed to kiss her cheek, Dorothy finds a quiet corner and wipes it off so fiercely she draws blood. She hates being mauled and pawed. She is repulsed by the touch of men, ‘like some large furry beast that rubs itself against you’ (p.81), and nauseated at the thought of sex (the word sex appears nowhere in the book, Dorothy refers to it as ‘all that’).

Orwell goes out of  his way to explain that her revulsion was due to witnessing, at age eight, certain scenes between her mother and father. Later, still a child, she was horrified by prints of nymphs and hairy goatish satyrs. For months afterwards she was terrified of going through the woods in case a satyr leaped out on her. Now, on the one hand this seems to me a sympathetic imagining into the mind of a child and then into the mind of the woman the scared child has become. Where Orwell crosses a line which we nowadays would consider reprehensible is where he judges her ‘sexual coldness’ to be ‘abnormal’.

It was her especial secret, the especial, incurable disability that she carried through life. (p.80)

This may or may not have been the way women of the 1930s thought about their aversion to sex, as some kind of ‘abnormality’. It is plausible in the context of the book and the general setting. It echoes how my mother, born in 1932, talked about the attitude to sex of her mother, aunts and other relations.

Then Orwell takes the matter further and makes one of the many generalisations-cum-jibes which litter the book. He concludes of Dorothy’s sexual coldness that the psychological impact of her childhood experiences is too deep to be changed:

It was a thing not to be altered, not to be argued away. It is, moreover, a thing too common nowadays, among educated women, to occasion any sort of surprise. (p.83)

Is Orwell saying that many of the educated women of his day are ‘frigid’? Controversial. (And see my point about Orwell’s sweeping generalisations, below.)

At the end of the book, when Warburton proposes marriage, Dorothy recoils.

She took it for granted that he ‘knew why she couldn’t’, though she had never explained to him, or to anyone else, why it was impossible for her to marry. Very probably, even if she had explained, he would not have understood her.

I don’t understand her. Is this is a continuation of her sexual coldness or – as hovers over the whole subject – is Orwell hinting that she’s a lesbian? Or is that too crude and too modern an interpretation? Discuss…

Recap

To recap: I think the lack of Dorothy’s psychological development – or the way it is described but not really dramatised – is tied up with the massive hole at the centre of the plot i.e. the motivation for her flight and descent into the netherworld. Both undermine the book’s claim to literature or even coherence. However, neither problem prevented me in the slightest from really enjoying reading it.

The hop-picking section is a brilliant piece of reportage which will record for all time in fascinating detail the exact nature of this type of work. My next-door-neighbour in London is an old man, just turned 80, who several times has talked about going hop-picking in Kent as a boy. He loved it. Obviously, if you were a penniless adult and it was your only source of income it was different, and this long section deserves to go into any collection of sociological reporting from the era.

Same for the script-format account of One Night In Trafalgar Square, which really conveys the cold, lack of sleep and insistent presence of other smelly, half-mad humans, the sense of abasement and humiliation, horribly well.

Sitting down, with one’s hands under one’s armpits, it is possible to get into a kind of sleep, or doze, for two or three minutes on end. In this state, enormous ages seem to pass. One sinks into a complex, troubling dreams which leave one conscious of one’s surroundings and of the bitter cold. The night is growing clearer and colder every minute. There is a chorus of varying sound–groans, curses, bursts of laughter, and singing, and through them all the uncontrollable chattering of teeth. (Chapter 3)

And also, although looking at the big picture, the character of Dorothy doesn’t quite add up, there are literally hundreds of details which Orwell describes very persuasively about Dorothy’s thoughts and hopes and feelings and experiences, which do make for very compelling reading. Her daily round in the Suffolk village is extremely believable and so is her sense of daily misery and failure in the school.

So, despite its ‘failure’ as a coherent work of literature (if you like to judge novels in those terms) it is still a brilliant and compelling read. As usual with Orwell, the vividness and immediacy of his prose makes you want to reread entire sections for the pure pleasure of their accuracy and incisiveness.


Some stylistic features

Of course and etc

Orwell often gives the impression of being too impatient to be a novelist. By the 1930s he had very settled opinions and these involved very much seeing people as types, who all conform to type and speak according to type. An Anglican vicar will of course say X, a non-conformist will say Y, a Socialist will reply with Z. Mrs Creevey is the type of head mistress, the philistine parent who criticises Dorothy is the type of half-educated blustering bully, Ellen is the type of the feeble live-in servant. Orwell’s text is full of descriptions of ‘one of those sort of people or schools or days…’

  • Like every Anglo-Catholic, Victor had an abysmal contempt for bishops. (p.66)
  • He was one of those people who say ‘Don’t you know?’ and ‘What! What!’ and lose themselves in the middle of their sentences.
  • She was one of those people who experience a kind of spiritual orgasm when they manage to do somebody else a bad turn. (p.218)
  • It was one of those schools that are aimed at the type of parent who blathers about ‘up-to-date business training’, and its watch-word was Efficiency; meaning a tremendous parade of hustling, and the banishment of all humane studies.
  • It was one of those bright cold days which are spring or winter according as you are indoors or out. (p.271)

This reduction of people (and situations) to types who always say the same kind of thing explains Orwell’s frequent usage of the phrase ‘of course’ and ‘etc etc’.

‘Of course’ indicates that, yes, of course and predictably enough, this is the same old situation and the same old thing happens and the same old person does the same old kind of thing.

And Orwell’s use of ‘etc etc’ at the end of people’s dialogue indicates that he is bored, and he expects the reader to be bored, by listening to the same old predictable rigmarole.

It is an odd attitude for a novelist to take towards his own creations.

Etc

The constant singing round the bins was pierced by shrill cries from the costerwoman of, ‘Go on, Rose, you lazy little cat! Pick them ‘ops up! I’ll warm your a– for you!’ etc., etc.

Some mornings he had orders to ‘take them heavy’, and would shovel them in so that he got a couple
of bushels at each scoop, whereat there were angry yells of, ‘Look how the b–‘s ramming them down! Why don’t you bloody well stamp on them?’ etc.

THE POLICEMAN [shaking the sleepers on the next bench]: Now then, wake up, wake up! Rouse up, you! Got to go home if you want to sleep. This isn’t a common lodging house. Get up, there! [etc.,
etc.]

YOUTHS VOICES FROM THE REAR: Why can’t he —- open before five? We’re starving for our —- tea! Ram the —- door in! [etc., etc.]
MR WILKINS: Get out! Get out, the lot of you! Or by God not one of you comes in this morning!
GIRLS’ VOICES FROM THE REAR: Mis-ter Wil-kins! Mis-ter Wil-kins! BE a sport and let us in! I’ll give y’a kiss all free for nothing. BE a sport now! [etc., etc.]

There was an essay entitled ‘Spring’ which recurred in all the older girls’ books, and which began, ‘Now, when girlish April is tripping through the land, when the birds are chanting gaily on the boughs
and the dainty flowerets bursting from their buds’, etc., etc.

Various of the coffee-ladies, of course, had stopped Dorothy in the street with ‘My dear, how VERY
nice to see you back again! You HAVE been away a long time! And you know, dear, we all thought it such a SHAME when that horrible woman was going round telling those stories about you. But I do hope you’ll understand, dear, that whatever anyone else may have thought, I never believed a word of them’, etc., etc., etc.

Of course

The tell-tale phrase ‘of course’ is liberally scattered throughout the text, indicating the author’s rather tired sense of the inevitability of his own story and the predictability of his own characters.

  • After that, of course, his heart was hardened against Dorothy for ever.
  • Of course, the Rector denied it violently, but in his heart he had a sneaking suspicion that it might be true.
  • But several more days passed before this letter was posted, because the Rector had qualms about addressing a letter to ‘Ellen Millborough’ – he dimly imagined that it was against the law to use false names – and, of course, he had delayed far too long. Dorothy was already in the streets when the letter reached ‘Mary’s’.
  • It was very little use, of course, telling him that she had NOT eloped. She had given him her version of the story, and he had accepted it.
  • Mrs Creevy watched Dorothy’s innovations with a jealous eye, but she did not interfere actively at first. She was not going to show it, of course, but she was secretly amazed and delighted to find that she had got hold of an assistant who was actually willing to work.

But the instance which made me stop and really notice this mannerism comes in the middle of the private school section. After describing at length the steps Dorothy takes to genuinely educate her charges, the text reads:

But of course, it could not last.

Why ‘of course’? Why write ‘of course’? Only if you assume you are sharing with your readers a fatalistic sense that things always turn out for the worse. ‘Of course’ used like this assumes a kind of matey familiarity with stories of this type. I can’t quite put it into words but it is more the approach of a journalist in a newspaper who assumes that everyone shares his or her prejudices. ‘Of course the sexists did this or the racists did that or the wicked imperialists did the other’, if you’re reading the Guardian. Or ‘Of course health and safety did this, or red tape stifled the other, or EU bureaucrats imposed the other’, if you’re reading The Daily Mail. It evinces a long-suffering exasperation at the sheer bloody predictability of most people.

Orwell describes the scene where Dorothy reluctantly explains to the girls who’ve asked her, what a ‘womb’ is, and then editorialises:

And after that, of course, the fun began.

You feel the author coercing your responses. He assumes the odds are stacked against his heroine and expects you simply to fall in with his prejudices about people and life in general. Sometimes the reader bridles at being pushed.

Generalisations

Orwell’s prose is dotted with sweeping generalisations, which I thoroughly enjoy for their air of man-of-the-world confidence, even if I don’t in the slightest agree with them or sometimes even understand them.

  • It is a curious fact that the lure of a ‘good investment’ seems to haunt clergymen more persistently than any other class of man. Perhaps it is the modern equivalent of the demons in female shape who used to haunt the anchorites of the Dark Ages. (Chapter 1.2)
  • It is a fact – you only have to look about you to verify it – that the pious and the immoral drift naturally together. The best brothel-scenes in literature have been written, without exception, by pious believers or impious unbelievers…
  • It is fatal to flatter the wicked by letting them see that they have shocked you. (Chapter 1.3)
  • Like all abnormal people, she was not fully aware that she was abnormal. (p.82)
  • No job is more fascinating than teaching if you have a free hand at it.
  • It was the fourth of April, a bright blowy day, too cold to stand about in, with a sky as blue as a hedgesparrow’s egg, and one of those spiteful spring winds that come tearing along the pavement in sudden gusts and blow dry, stinging dust into your face.
  • Nothing in the world is quite so irritating as dealing with mutinous children.

The generalisations are linked to the ‘of courses’ and ‘etcs’. They all indicate how much the novelist understands and comprehends human nature: he is familiar with all human types and the boring predictability with which they come out with the same old kind of speeches and arguments, and from this lofty vantage point he is able to dispense weighty-sounding generalisations about human nature and the world at large.

  • There are two kinds of avaricious person – the bold, grasping type who will ruin you if he can, but who never looks twice at twopence, and the petty miser who has not the enterprise actually to make money, but who will always, as the saying goes, take a farthing from a dunghill with his teeth. (Chapter 4)
  • Like most ‘educated’ people , she knew virtually no history. (p.207)
  • In these country places there’s always a certain amount of suspicion knocking about. Not suspicion of anything in particular, you know; just generalized suspicion. A sort of instinctive rustic dirty-mindedness.
  • Do you know that type of bright — too bright — spinster who says “topping” and “ripping” and “right-ho”, and prides herself on being such a good sport, and she’s such a good sport that she makes everyone feel a little unwell? And she’s so splendidly hearty at tennis and so handy at amateur theatricals, and she throws herself with a kind of desperation into her Girl Guide work and her parish visiting, and she’s the life and soul of Church socials, and always, year after year, she thinks of herself as a young girl still and never realizes that behind her back everyone laughs at her for a poor, disappointed old maid? (p.281)
  • The fact is that people who live in small country towns have only a very dim conception of anything that happens more than ten miles from their own front door. (p.288)

Although Orwell overtly and explicitly in his writings describes himself as a Socialist and takes every opportunity to ridicule the rich, the exploiters etc, although in other words the content of all his writing is left-wing – its manner and tone are the result of intensive training at Britain’s premier school for its managerial elite, Eton, and then of five years as an officer in the British Empire’s Military Police.

The sweeping generalisations, the bored descriptions of every social type and their oh-so-predictable speeches, all indicate the supreme confidence of the classic public school product. And it is this essentially patrician manner which, ironically, partly accounts for his popularity among his many left-wing fans.

Comedy

Orwell can be very funny, specially when in broad, humorous Dickensian mode. Take the description of Sir Thomas as an ‘exceptionally brainless prawn’. The long section about Dorothy’s humiliations in the school is essentially downbeat and grim but contains comic touches which prevent it being really despairing.

The district pullulated with small private schools; there were four of them in Brough Road alone. Mrs Creevy, the Principal of Ringwood House, and Mr Boulger, the Principal of Rushington Grange, were in a state of warfare, though their interests in no way clashed with one another. Nobody knew what the feud was about, not even Mrs Creevy or Mr Boulger themselves; it was a feud that they had inherited from earlier proprietors of the two schools. In the mornings after breakfast they would stalk up and down their respective back gardens, beside the very low wall that separated them, pretending not to see one another and grinning with hatred. (Chapter 4)

Comedy is itself often rooted in the predictability of social ‘types’. This bitter feud is funny because it is in fact a familiar trope – the embittered neighbours feuding over long-forgotten trivialities. Similarly, Sir Thomas waffling on for so long that he constantly forgets what he set out to say. Or the sly, almost silent man-servant, Blyth. Or Dorothy’s own father’s immense selfishness, more concerned about his late breakfasts than his missing daughter. These are all stock types with expected attributes, which could almost come from a Restoration comedy, certainly from an 18th century comic novel. What lifts them above the level of stereotype is Orwell’s genuinely imaginative turns of phrase.

Mrs Creevy got up from the table and banged the breakfast things together on the tray. She was one of those women who can never move anything without banging it about; she was as full of thumps and raps as a poltergeist. (page 204)

Even in small details Orwell reveals his debt to Dickens’s genius for anthropomorphising objects and giving them a character which slyly contributes to the scene or story. At Mrs Creevy’s penny-pinching school:

In honour of the parents’ visit, a fire composed of three large coals was sulking in the grate.

Pinching

An oddity in Orwell’s novels is the ubiquity of pinching. Apparently men signalled their sexual overtures to a woman by pinching her, particularly her arms and elbow. Thus Elizabeth, in Burmese Days, has to fight off the unwanted attentions of her employer.

  • The bank manager whose children Elizabeth taught was a man of fifty, with a fat, worn face and a bald, dark yellow crown resembling an ostrich’s egg. The second day after her arrival he came into the room where the children were at their lessons, sat down beside Elizabeth and immediately pinched her elbow. The third day he pinched her on the calf, the fourth day behind the knee, the fifth day above the knee. Thereafter, every evening, it was a silent battle between the two of them, her hand under the table, struggling and struggling to keep that ferret-like hand away from her. (Chapter 7)
  • She had come out of her bath and was half-way through dressing for dinner when her uncle had suddenly appeared in her room – pretext, to hear some more about the day’s shooting – and begun pinching her leg in a way that simply could not be misunderstood. Elizabeth was horrified. This was her first introduction to the fact that some men are capable of making love to their nieces. (Chapter 15)
  • Mr Lackersteen was now pestering Elizabeth unceasingly. He had become quite reckless. Almost under the eyes of the servants he would waylay her, catch hold of her and begin pinching and fondling her in the most revolting way. (Chapter 23)
  • Her aunt would be furious when she heard that she had refused Flory. And there was her uncle and his leg-pinching – between the two of them, life here would become impossible. (Chapter 24)

Pinching bums I heard of in the 1960s and 70s, and still gets reported today by scandalised feminists: but pinching a woman’s legs or arms or elbow? Anyway, the practice crops up here again, when the cad Warburton, supposed artist and bohemian, bumps into Dorothy in the village High Street.

  • He pinched Dorothy’s bare elbow – she had changed, after breakfast, into a sleeveless gingham frock. Dorothy stepped hurriedly backwards to get out of his reach – she hated being pinched or otherwise ‘mauled about’. (Chapter 1.3)
  • Dorothy was all too used to it – all too used to the fattish middle-aged men, with their fishily hopeful eyes, who slowed down their cars when you passed them on the road, or who manoeuvred an introduction and then began pinching your elbow about ten minutes later. (Chapter 3.6)

Pinching your elbow?

Social history

So this is the kind of shabby genteel squalor in which a 1930s vicar lived – big cold empty church, a dwindling congregation, a sprawling vicarage he can’t afford to heat or run, gloomy rooms lined with mouldering wallpaper and rickety furniture. So this is what a flophouse in the Cut looked and smelt like – peeling wallpaper, damp sheets, unspeakable toilets. So this is what rural poverty looked like, 70-year-old men and women still having to labour for money, living in small filthy cottages whose windows and doors don’t close, drawing water by hand from a deep well.

Lots of the detail reminds us how very long ago 1935 was. The rectory has no hot water, no electricity, no radio or TV, no shower, no fridge or freezer, washing machine, tumble dryer or dishwasher. All household chores are hard, bloody work which have to be done by hand. Early in the morning and after dark the house is lit only by candlelight. What a life! In many, many ways Orwell’s world is closer to Dickens’s than to ours, and this helps explain the lingering influence of Dickens in his writing, not least in the juxtaposition of brutal social realism with broad humour.

Beauty

And yet, in the midst of all the squalor and poverty, the down-trodden humiliation of shabby-genteel life or plain beggary, Orwell is also capable of noticing and describing beauty.

Dorothy caught sight of a wild rose, flowerless of course, growing beyond the hedge, and climbed over the gate with the intention of discovering whether it were not sweetbriar. She knelt down among the tall weeds beneath the hedge. It was very hot down there, close to the ground. The humming of many unseen insects sounded in her ears, and the hot summery fume from the tangled swathes of vegetation flowed up and enveloped her. Near by, tall stalks of fennel were growing, with trailing fronds of foliage like the tails of sea-green horses. Dorothy pulled a frond of the fennel against her face and breathed in the strong sweet scent. Its richness overwhelmed her, almost dizzied her for a moment. She drank it in, filling her lungs with it. Lovely, lovely scent — scent of summer days, scent of childhood joys, scent of spice-drenched islands in the warm foam of Oriental seas!

Her heart swelled with sudden joy. It was that mystical joy in the beauty of the earth and the very nature of things that she recognized, perhaps mistakenly, as the love of God. As she knelt there in the heat, the sweet odour and the drowsy hum of insects, it seemed to her that she could momentarily hear the mighty anthem of praise that the earth and all created things send up everlastingly to their maker. All vegetation, leaves, flowers, grass, shining, vibrating, crying out in their joy. Larks also chanting, choirs of larks invisible, dripping music from the sky. All the riches of summer, the warmth of the earth, the song of birds, the fume of cows, the droning of countless bees, mingling and ascending like the smoke of ever-burning altars. Therefore with Angels and Archangels! She began to pray, and for a moment she prayed ardently, blissfully, forgetting herself in the joy of her worship. Then, less than a minute later, she discovered that she was kissing the frond of the fennel that was still against her face. (Chapter 1)

This celebration of the natural world is not what most people associate with Orwell, but it is there, along with lots of other unexpected qualities in this strange, uneven, unfinished, wildly uneven but compellingly readable book.

To answer the question I asked myself at the start, Yes, I think it is definitely worth reading, for all sorts of reasons.


Credit

A Clergyman’s Daughter was published by Victor Gollancz in 1935. All quotes are from the Penguin Classics paperback edition of 2000.

Related links

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1940s – Inside the Whale and other essays
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

Abstract Expressionism edited by David Anfam (2016)

This is the catalogue or book of the 2016 Royal Academy exhibition of Abstract Expressionism – ‘arguably the most significant movement of the twentieth century’ (Christopher Le Brun) – the first large retrospective in this country since 1959.

It’s a massive hardback book, 320 pages long, and containing:

  • four long essays – by exhibition curator David Anfam, Susan Davidson, Jeremy Lewison, Carter Ratcliff
  • a twenty-page chronology of the movement
  • followed by 200 pages of illustrations of paintings and sculptures, then a further section of watercolours and sketches, and then key photographs from the era

Several thoughts arise from a slow careful perusal of this enormous tome.

Earlier than realised

Although I associate it with the 1950s, and the style did indeed dominate that decade, the creation, labelling, and publicising of Abstract Expressionism all happened in the 1940s. It was as early as 1946 that the art critic Robert Coates, writing in The New Yorker, first used the term ‘Abstract Expressionism’, perceptively describing how the new school took the anti-figurative aesthetic of modernist French and Dutch artists but combined it with the emotional intensity of the German Expressionists.

It was even earlier, in 1943, that Jackson Pollock was talent spotted by the rich heiress Peggy Guggenheim, signed up to her gallery and given his first one-man exhibition, invited to paint a mural in the entrance to her New York apartment (Mural – ‘the first outstanding large-scale painterly abstraction ever created in America’, p.33). This was seen by umpteen influential visitors including the critic Clement Greenberg who promptly wrote an article declaring Pollock ‘the greatest painter this country had produced.’ To step back a bit, this was all happening in the same year as the Battle of Stalingrad i.e. the first decisive defeat of Nazi Germany, and the Allied invasion of Italy. The Second World War hadn’t even finished yet. Nobody knew about the Holocaust.

It was still only in the 1940s that Abstract Expressionism was reaching a mass audience – August 8, 1949 to be precise – when Pollock was given a four-page spread in Life magazine that asked, ‘Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?’ and which projected him to nationwide superstar-artist fame. The next year he dropped his trademark ‘drip’ technique, which in fact only lasted the short period from 1947 to 1950, in order to explore new styles. Neither the critics nor buyers were interested. They wanted more drips. ‘Play us the old songs, Jackson.’ Given the pressures and the spotlight, it’s surprising that he soldiered on till 1956 before dying in a drunken car crash which might have been suicide.

This all lends support to the revisionist view of Stephen Polcari, that the Abstract Expressionists were not responding to the crises of the Cold War – though that is how they were marketed and perceived at the time – but in fact had their roots in the social, economic, and political crises of the 1930s, when they were all impressionable young men. If they shared a tragic sense it was shaped by the Great Depression, the rise of Fascism, the war in Spain and then the descent into darkness of the entire continent whence ‘civilisation’ supposedly originated.

It was well before the Cold War and the A-Bomb, way back in 1943 that Rothko and Gottlieb wrote a letter published in the New York Times which expressed the kind of doom-laden intensity which all the AEs seem to have shared, asserting that:

the subject matter is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless. (quoted p.21)

Is Abstract Expressionism a good label?

As usual with many art ‘movements’, many of the key players weren’t particularly happy with the label imposed on them – Abstract Expressionism – and others went the rounds, like ‘the New York school’ or ‘Tenth Street painters’. But AE stuck. They never produced a manifesto or exhibited together, and there’s no one photo with the main players together. But people – curators, collectors, galleries, journalists, and us – the poor uninformed public – we all need labels to hang on to, especially in the middle of the century when art movements came and went with such dizzying rapidity.

And the artists certainly all knew each other, lived in the same area of Downtown Manhattan, hung around in the same taverns and bars, and were subject to the same washes of influence as America experienced the Depression, the great influx of refugee artists from the Nazis, reacted (in different ways) against the naive nationalist art of the 1930s, against Regionalism and Social realism, but engaged in highly individual struggles to find a new idiom, new ways of seeing and doing art.

The paintings

This brings us to the actual art and the obvious conclusion that the mature styles of the four or five main players were very different and extremely distinctive. There were a lot of second string artists floating around, who produced good work or influenced the Big Boys in one way or another – and the generous selection in the RA exhibition and this book goes out of its way to include works by Adolph Gottlieb, Richard Pousette-Dart, William Baziotes, Joan Mitchell, Conrad Marca-Relli, Jack Tworkov, Milton Resnick, some 20 artists in all.

But leafing through the beautiful reproductions, again and again the works of five key names stood out for me, emerging as titans above the crowd. (In essay four, the gallery owner Betty Parsons who played a key role in promoting AE, is quoted describing Pollock, Rothko, Still and Newman as ‘the Four Horsemen’.)

A word about aesthetics

It’s challenging and entertaining to try and put into words what it is that makes some paintings canonical and some redundant or not-quite-there. The latter phrase gives a clue to my approach. I find that, for most art or museum objects I see, some give the sense of being finished and completely themselves. Thus among my favourite works of art anywhere are the Benin bronzes at the British Museum. They seem to me to have set out to do something and to do it perfectly and completely. They are completely themselves, impossible to alter or improve. Similarly, the famous helmet from Sutton Hoo completely (ominously, threateningly) says what it sets out to, bespeaks an entire world and civilisation.

So if I have any aesthetic theory it is not the application of any external guidelines of beauty, requiring a work of art to conform to this, that or the other rule. It is something to do with a work coming entirely into its own, its own space and design. Having suggested a certain form or subject or shape, then delivering on that idea, completely. Fulfilling its premises.

Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956)

Pollock’s best drip paintings dominate the era and all his contemporaries as clearly as Andy Warhol dominated Pop Art. Possibly others were better artists, showed more consistent artistic development and certainly others have their fans and devotees – but nobody can deny Pollock and Warhol’s works are immediately recognisable not just as art, but as icons of a particular period and place.

And, in my opinion, they fulfil my theory of completeneness – that an artist has a moment when they crystallise a signature style by fully developing the tendencies implicit in their approach (as discerned in their earlier developing works).

Thus it is very obvious that there is a long run-up of pre-drip Pollock (Male and Female 1942, Eyes in the heat 1946) as he groped his way in the dark from works whose size and shape was influence by his mentor, Thomas Hart Benton the mural-maker, but whose content is often dominated by Guernica-period Picasso — and there is a hangover of post-drip Pollock (when he experimented for a while with just black – Number 7, 1952). Both of them are interesting, but so-so.

But then there is drip PollockBlue Poles (1952) is a masterpiece, a completely immersive experience, as completely itself as the huge lily ponds of Monet. Immersive because it is vast and its size is an important factor. After splatting the surface with a preliminary network of black, white, yellow and red loops, Pollock used the edge of a plank dunked in blue paint to create the eight poles. Like Matisse’s dancing cutouts, this is an example of perfect taste, perfectly ‘getting’ the possibility of a visual rhythm. It isn’t classical or symmetrical or figurative of anything – it is a pure design which, for some reason to do with perceptual psychology, just works. Close up you can appreciate the extraordinary lacework of other colours dripped across the canvas, trademark yellow, red and whites, to create a dense tapestry weave of texture and colour. It is entirely itself. It is a summation of everything implicit in the drip approach to painting. And it is this sense of completing all the potential of the method which gives it its thrilling excitement, which makes it a masterpiece, and also a ‘classic’ of this style.

Along with works like Summertime (1948) and Number 4 (1949) these seem complete expressions of what they’re meant to be, of a certain Gestalt. Once you’ve thought of dripping raw paint across the canvas, then it turns out that certain levels of complete coverage and a certain level of complexity of the interlinking lines is somehow optimum, others less so. Too much and it is just mess; too little and it looks empty. At his peak Pollock produced a string of works which experiment with colours, shape of canvas and so on, but which all display an innate feel for just how to do this kind of painting.

Mark Rothko (1903 – 1970)

Rothko, also, is up there in the recognisability stakes in the sense that his final, achieved style is instantly distinctive. He too struggled to find his way from a sort of blocky blurry realism (Interior, 1936) on a journey via a completely different look in a work like Gethsemane (1944), which looks like washed-out surrealism, before coming to the brink of his mature style with experiments in big blotches of soft-edged colour (No.18 1948, Violet, Black, orange, Yellow on White and Red, 1949).

But then – bang! – he hits it, he finds his voice, he claims his brand, he crystallises his vision, he stumbles upon the formula of big rectangular blocks of shimmering colours which will last the rest of his life, what Anfam calls his ‘chromatic mirages’ (p.21).

Rothko left the murals he’d prepared for the restaurant in the new Seagram building to London’s Tate Gallery. There’s a darkened room containing all of them in Tate Modern and you can sit staring into them for hours. Critics saw in them the same kind of existentialist anxiety (all those massive blocks terrifying threatening the viewer, all the anxiety of those unknown fraying edges) that they saw in Pollock — but these days they are more like aids to calm reflection and meditation, and the audioguide plays very quiet meditative music by American experimental composer Morton Feldman. From Cold War angst to post-modern pleasure.

But however you read them, there’s no denying that Rothko stumbled upon (worked his way through to) an entirely new way of conceiving of coloured paint on canvas, a discovery and a formula – and then spent twenty years working through hundreds of variations, exploring and stumbling across further discoveries. Big, bright, abstract, moody. And a world away from Pollock’s splats. the casual viewer could be forgiven for asking how the two could ever be bracketed together, where the one is very much about the dynamic power of vibrantly interlacing lines and the other is very much about the calming meditative effect of enormous blocks of shimmering colour.

Clyfford Still (1904 – 1980)

The much-told story about Still is that he was prickly and difficult, went his own way, argued with all the other AEs, in the early 1950s terminated his contract with a commercial gallery and ended up neither exhibiting nor selling any of his pieces, but working away steadily in provincial obscurity in Maryland. He died in possession of 95% of everything he’d ever painted and made a will leaving his life’s work to whichever organisation could create a museum dedicated to housing and showing it. After numerous negotiations this turned out to be the City of Denver and it was only in 2011 that there finally opened a museum dedicated to Still, and that this vast reservoir of work was made available to critics and the public. In the short time since then his reputation has undergone a major revaluation and the room devoted to his work at the Royal Academy exhibition was, arguably, even more impactful then the displays of Pollock and Rothko. Still was a revelation.

Like the others, Still took a long journey, and his early work is represented by another semi-figurative work from the 30s, PH-726 (1936). But by 1944 he has stumbled upon his formula – sharp rips or tears against solid fields of colour, PH-235 (1944), all done in a really thick impasto or thick layer of paint which adds to the sense of presence and impact.

What are they? Wikipedia says his mature works ‘recall natural forms and natural phenomena at their most intense and mysterious; ancient stalagmites, caverns, foliage, seen both in darkness and in light lend poetic richness and depth to his work.’ Because the commentary goes heavy on his upbringing in the mid-West and of the associations of Denver, Colorado, I saw in several of them the pattern of cattle hides, the tans and blacks and beiges which you see in some Indian art, teepees, shields. Just a fancy.

Barnett Newman (1905 – 1970)

Newman had his first one-man show in 1948, the year he broke through to his mature style with the Onement series. Again, his was a long journey out of 1930s figurativism, until he made a discovery / stumbled across an idea / achieved a mature style (delete as applicable), creating what Anfam calls his ‘transcendent spatial continuums’ (p.21). Once he’d found it, repeated it through countless iterations.

A classic Barnett Newman has a vertical line – or ‘zip’ as he himself called them – dividing a field of colour – initially drab colour but becoming brighter and brighter as the 1950s progressed. The zip defines the picture plane, separates the composition yet binds it together, sunders it yet gives it a weird tremulous unity.

Why does it work? I’d give good money to read an analysis by a psychologist or expert in the psychology of perception, of shapes and colours, who could explain the effect they have on the mind of the viewer.

According to this book, among the big-name AEs, Newman was rather overlooked in favour of the brasher bolder works of his peers. Also, Pollock and Still, to name two, used highly expressive brushwork and thick or spattered layers of paint. Standing close you can see the thick clots of oil on the surface. Newman’s paintwork is flat and restrained. In fact his colourfulness and geometric designs link him more to the school of ‘post-painterly abstraction’ which emerged in the 1960s and are almost connected to the cool understatement of minimalism.

Franz Kline (1910 – 1962)

Kline’s breakthrough moment is much mythologised. Working as a commercial illustrator in New York while struggling to work his way towards some kind of abstract language, Kline was visited by Willem de Kooning who suggested he use a projector to blow up & project his complicated paintings onto the wall and then select small details to reproduce as full scale canvases. Taking this insight, Kline quickly worked out a style of broad black brushstrokes on white, which continually seem to gesture towards something yet are abstract. Are they fragments of larger designs and shapes? Or references to Japanese calligraphy (which Kline always denied)? Or dramatic actions in themselves?

Like all the other AEs, Kline’s work is big, really really BIG. Whatever the differences in style and approach, the AEs had this one thing in common – their work is huge and immersive. (A sign at Barnett Newman’s second exhibition at the Betty Parson’s Gallery in May 1951 actually requested visitors to stand close up to the picture; visitors had been requested to do the same at the Pollock exhibition which immediately preceded it – p.93.)

Kline is further evidence for my theory that artists often reach a recognisable defining style and produce a number of works which somehow express the quintessence of their voice or vision, only after a journey upwards and, alas, sometimes a later decline or wandering away… Having perfected the black and white calligraphy style – so instantly recognisable – by the time he was just 40, after a while at the top of his game, Kline had nowhere to go except back into colour, and these later colour works, although fine in their own way, represent a really noticeable falling away of the energy which the stark black-and-white contrasts produced. For some reason this style looks terribly dated, very late 50s early 60s, whereas the black and white calligraphic works look timeless to me.

Willem de Kooning (1904 – 1997)

De Kooning is the one big AE I couldn’t get on with at all, and the more I saw the more I disliked his stuff. Partly because I think he never did develop a defined style. To me, all of his stuff looks like messy sketches on the way towards something better, they all look like the dispensable journey works on the way to… nowhere. The same horrible messy scrawl effect is his one signature effect.

All the other AEs strike me as having a purpose, a direction. Pollock’s works are far more artful than they appear, Rothko’s are careful experiments, Newman achieved a kind of classic restraint and Still’s jagged compositions are unerringly ‘right’, conveying something much bigger than the images seem to warrant.

Only de Kooning’s works, out of the whole show and this long book, consistently look to me like a slapdash mess, a dog’s dinner, victims of what Anfam calls his ‘lacerating sweeps’ (p.21). And the series of depictions of women  – his ‘wrenching engagements with the female sex’ (Anfam, p.22) – which are often singled out by the critics for praise, to me could hardly be uglier and more repellent if they tried.

Adolph Gottlieb (1903 – 1974)

Apparently Gottlieb is perceived as a second string AE, his career weaving through a series of styles, including surrealism in the 1930s, a spell in the Arizona desert simplifying images to a primal essence, and the development of ‘pictographs’ representing psychologically charged shapes and patterns. It was as late as 1956 that he developed the ‘burst’ style, dividing the canvas into two halves, with a round sun-like object above and a busy earth-like mass below – creating a dialectic between calm and busy, with the use of bright colours to interfere and resonate.

Hundreds of bursts resulted and I can see why critics looking for world-shattering angst and grand existentialist statements might deprecate them, but I like him for devising a new ‘look’ and then producing fascinating variations on it.

Neglected women

One of the most pressing concerns of our times, in the arts and elsewhere, is restoring the reputations, the overlooked achievements and untold stories, of neglected woman. Four women artists worked in and around Abstract Expressionism and are included here:

Janet Sobel (1894 – 1968) began painting at the mature age of 43 when her son left home leaving behind his copious art materials. She progressed from figurative paintings featuring dreamy rather Chagall-like faces enmeshed in zoomorphic patterns, through to pure abstraction and eventually the technique of dripping paint. Some scholars claim it was Sobel who arrived at the drip technique before Jackson. That’s one for the scholars. All her works have a lightness. Maybe it was the light decorative effect as opposed to the Big Boys’ existentialist histrionics more than the fact she was a woman which wrote her out of the story for so long.

Lee Krasner (1908 – 1984) Krasner evolved through a series of styles. During the heyday of the AEs she tended to be overlooked by virtue of the fact that she was married to the top dog, Jackson Pollock. But the works included here show she had a related but distinct vision of her own.

Just living with Jackson sounds like a demanding job, but creating alongside him, in a related but clearly distinctive style, is little less than heroic. The next two are to one side for the simple reason that they were of a younger generation

Joan Mitchell (1925 – 1992) You can see the importance of the gesture but, a little like de Kooning, I don’t see it going anywhere.

They’re big, one of the simplest criteria for being an abstract expressionist. But arriving at Salut Tom at the end of the exhibition felt like we’d moved a long way from late-40s existentialism into a brighter more decorative world. Same style, different world.

Helen Frankenthaler (1928 – 2011) She painted onto unprimed canvas so that the paint soaked into it, thus creating a very flat surface.

Peggy and Betty

The fourth essay in the book is in many ways the most interesting, telling the complementary stories of two hugely important gallery owners who promoted the work of the Abstract Expressionists from the first – the Jewish millionairess Peggy Guggenheim and the scion of a wealthy WASP family, Betty Parsons. Peggy lived in Paris between the wars, becoming fantastically well-connected among the city’s avant-garde, arranging exhibitions and starting her own staggering collection, before fleeing ahead of the Nazi invasion in 1940, back to New York, where in 1942 she set up The Art of This Century Gallery.

Like Peggy, only without the millions, Betty went to live in Paris, where she herself pursued a career as an artist, taking lessons, before losing her money in the Wall Street Crash and being forced back to the States, to teach, and then to work in commercial galleries. She learned the trade, becoming popular among artists for her good taste and business sense (i.e. selling their pictures and making them money). In 1945 she set up the Betty Parsons Gallery which ran till her death in 1982. When Guggenheim returned to Paris after the war, Parsons took on many of ‘her’ artists, and the article turns into an impressive roster of the exhibitions she put on for one after another of all the key artists of the time, working hard to promote them and get them sales.

The essay is a fascinating insight not only into the achievements of these two vital women, but into the art world in general. It’s shocking to learn how little the artists sold at these shows – they’d display a dozen or 16 new works, for between $250 and $1,400 – and quite frequently none would sell at all. Or only small watercolours would sell to what turn out to be friends of the artist or the gallery owner herself. Works which now fetch tens of millions of dollars at auction.

In a fascinating detail, the book mentions several times that one problem was the paintings’ sheer scale: it was one thing to create a fourteen foot square canvas in the space of a half derelict loft-cum-studio, quite another thing to expect even quite rich people in New York to find enough wall space to hang it, back in the cluttered 1940s and 1950s. It was only well into the 1960s and more so in the 1970s that ideas of interior design changed significantly, that clutter was thrown out and rooms knocked together to create large airy spaces, often painted white, in which the vast canvases of the Abstract Expressionists suddenly made sense.

But by this point the AEs were up against the equally large creations of Post-painterly Abstraction, Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism and so on and New York was established as the centre of a fast-moving, big money art culture.


Related links

Reviews of other American art exhibitions and books

The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross (2007) – the American chapters

Alex Ross’s the Rest is Noise is by far the most comprehensive and accessible introduction to the classical music of the long difficult twentieth century that I know of.

Born in 1968, Alex Ross studied classical composition, but was also a rock DJ at Harvard. He was just 28 when he was appointed classical music critic for New Yorker magazine, combining formidable technical and historical knowledge with a wonderfully clear and expressive prose style. He has a modern, unstuffy, relaxed approach to music of all sorts and sounds.

Having recently visited an exhibition of art from 1930s America and read the book of the exhibition, I decided to reread the relevant chapters of Ross’s masterwork to shed light on the musical highlights of the period. In the event this also requires reading one of the earlier chapters in the book, the one which describes the beginnings of 20th century American music.


Chapter 4 – Invisible men: American composers from Ives to Ellington

African American music

Slavery. Blacks. African Americans. The chapter opens by describing the way prescient critics and composers grasped that the one truly new and different element in American music was the black African element. It’s amazing to learn that when the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák went to New York in 1892 to teach at the new National Conservatory, he met a black composer, Harry T. Burleigh, who introduced him to African American spirituals, prompting the European master to write an article on ‘the Real Value of Negro Melodies’ in 1893 and predict that:

the future music of this country must be founded upon  what are called the negro melodies.

The early part of the chapter lists black composers who struggled to reconcile the European tradition with their background, and coming up against prejudice, racism, the difficulty of getting a full classical training and, if they did, of writing in a foreign idiom and getting performed. Ragtime classic Scott Joplin wrote an opera which was never performed. Harry Lawrence freeman founded the Negro Grand Opera Company and wrote two tetralogies of operas in the Wagner tradition, but which were never performed. Maurice Arnold Strohotte who Dvořák thought the most gifted of his pupils had a piece titled American Plantation Dances performed at the National Conservatory in 1894, but then couldn’t get any subsequent works performed and languished in obscurity. Will Marion Cook managed to get into one of the few colleges which accepted blacks and became a world class violinist, moving to Germany where – surprisingly – he was respected and taken seriously. Back in America he found his career blocked, began work on a classical adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but never completed it, and found himself driven to orchestrating and directing blackface musical revues, and then a bandleader founding the New York Syncopated Review, and hiring the young genius clarinettist Sidney Bechet as star soloist.

Cook’s career shows how the exclusion of black ‘serious’ composers from the mainstream pushed them again and again towards music halls, revues, popular music – and indirectly fuelled the creation of jazz. Once this had crystallised as a form, a completely new style of music, towards the end of the Great War, there was an explosion of long-suppressed talent. The Russian pianist, composer and conductor Anton Rubinstein had predicted, back in 1893, that within 25 years Negro musicians would form ‘a new musical school’.

Neither he nor Dvořák nor many of the wannabe black classical composers could have anticipated just how revolutionary the advent of jazz would be. As Ross puts it, with characteristic eloquence:

The characteristic devices of African-American musicking – the bending and breaking of diatonic scales, the distortion of instrumental timbre, the layering of rhythms, the blurring of the distinction between verbal and nonverbal sound – opened new dimensions in musical space, a realm beyond the written notes. (p.122)

Just reeling off the names of some of the masters of jazz is dizzying – Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Sidney Bechet, Fletcher Henderson, Bix Beiderbecke, Paul Whiteman. As is the list of Broadway masters who came to fame in the 1920s – Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rogers, Cole Porter, George Gershwin. They invented rhythms, styles, timings, structures, tones and timbres, and wrote thousands of compositions which changed the nature of music all round the world.

Charles Ives (1874-1954)

Histories of modern American classical music generally begin with Ives. The son of a traditional marching bandmaster in New England, he grew up surrounded by the music of brass bands and church music but, after a successful university education, decided to work for an insurance company, composing in the evenings and weekends completely revolutionary works which experimented with novel musical techniques including polytonality, polyrhythm, tone clusters, aleatory elements and quarter tones. An immediate flavour is given when you learn that Three Places in New England requires the orchestra to play orchestrated versions of two popular Victorian songs at the same time. That said, compared with most of what follows, a lot of Ives still sounds reassuringly familiar.

Edgar Varèse (1883 – 1965)

Whereas Ives was American through and through and incorporated snatches of hymn tunes, popular songs and classical references in works still titled Violin concerto and so on, Varèse was French and determinedly avant-garde. He travelled to New York during the Great War and pioneering a highly experimental sound, latterly involving tape recordings, which earned him the sobriquet ‘the father of electronic music’.

Coming from the world of Dada and cubism, Varèse was keen to incorporate non-musical sounds in a futurist attempt to capture ‘the sound of the city’ – look out for the fire siren in Amériques. His key works are Amériques (1918–1921), Offrandes (1921), Hyperprism (1922–1923), Octandre (1923), Intégrales (1924–1925), Arcana (1925–1927), Ionisation (1929–1931), Ecuatorial (1932–1934), Density 21.5 (1936), Dance for Burgess (1949), Déserts (1950–1954) Poème électronique (1957–1958).

Varèse broke down language and form into a stream of sensations, but he offered few compensating spells of lyricism. His jagged thematic gestures, battering pulses, and brightly screaming chords have no emotional cords tied to them, no history, no future. (p.137)

I like the YouTube poster who describes Amériques as like The Rite of Spring on crack.

George Antheil (1900 – 1959)

Antheil was born American, to German immigrant parents, who went to Paris determined to be the most avant of the garde, wowed modernist writers with his Dadaist/Futurist ideas, caused a riot at one of his premiers in the approved avant-garde style and brought back to New York his notorious Ballet Mécanique. This was originally intended to accompany an experimental film by Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy with cinematography by Man Ray and which you can see on YouTube. To the kind of fire siren sounds Varèse pioneered Antheil added the use of several airplane propellers onstage. Sadly these tended to blow the audience’s programmes around and wreck ladies’ hairdos. The critics were underwhelmed at his ‘bad boy’ antics, and his reputation went into decline. After a spell in decadent Berlin writing for the stage, by the 1930s he was back in the States, writing film scores in Hollywood. Although it’s loud with four pianos and plenty of percussion, it’s striking how prominent the three xylophones manage to be. Xylophones suddenly appear in modernist music and have never gone away.

The Wikipedia article has a musical analysis of Ballet Mécanique.

Carl Ruggles (1876 – 1971)

A difficult, obstreperous, loudly racist and self-taught composer, Ruggles devised his own form of atonal counterpoint, on a non-serial technique of avoiding repeating a pitch class until a generally fixed number such as eight pitch classes intervened. He wrote painstakingly slowly so his output is relatively small. His longest and best-known work is Sun-Treader (1926–31) for large orchestra, a weighty 16 minutes long. As Ross sums him up:

If Varèse is like early Stravinsky with the folk motifs removed, Ruggles is like Ives without the tunes. (p.138)

Henry Cowell (1897 – 1965)

Cowell was another  highly experimental; American composer. He was the centre of a circle which included Ruggles, Dane Rudhyar, Leo Ornstein, John Becker, Colin McPhee, Varèse and Ruth Crawford. In the 1920s he founded new music magazines and organisations, published much new music, and reached out to incorporate South American composers such as Villa-Lobos. Among his many students were George Gershwin, Lou Harrison and John Cage.

George Gershwin (1898 – 1937)

The most glaring thing about Gershwin is how tragically young he died, aged 38 of a brain tumour. How much he had accomplished by then! A host of timeless songs, a pack of shows and revues, and then some immortal concert hall – Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and An American in Paris (1928) as well as the opera Porgy and Bess (1935). He grew up in a Russian-Jewish immigrant family on the lower East Side of Manhattan, was intrigued by the music-making of some relatives, wangled piano lessons, got a job very young in Tin Pan Alley while the Great War was still on, churning out popular tunes and songs incorporating the latest sounds i.e. the arrival of jazz from the great mash-up of syncopated sounds which were in the air. His biggest money-spinner was the early song Swanee which Al Jolson heard him perform at a party and decided to make part of his black-face act.

As success followed success Gershwin took to the party high life of New York like an elegant swan. And beneath the stylish surface there was an enquiring mind, always questing to improve his musical knowledge. He continued to take musical lessons throughout his life and made several trips to Europe where he sought out the masters. He was particularly impressed by the serialist composer Alban Berg in Vienna. In Paris he studied with Maurice Ravel, who ended their lessons, supposedly by telling him, ‘Why be a second rate Ravel when you can be a first-rate Gershwin?’

Many commentators then and now have noticed how many of the popular ‘composers’ of 20s and 30s America were Jews – Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rogers, Cole Porter, George Gershwin – and how thoroughly they co-opted and expressed the African American idiom. This allowed a field day to anti-Semites like some of the Regionalists and ruralists. Scholars have pointed to the similiarities, both were ‘outsider’ groups liable to harsh discrimination. In our own censorious judgmental times, how would they have avoided the block accusation of ‘cultural appropriation’?

Ross is more relaxed and points to the notion of the Melting Pot – New York in particular was a massive mash-up of hundreds of influences, everyone – writers, poets, painters, composers, singers, comedians – was stealing from, remixing and contributing to a mass explosion of creativity. Also, as I read in a history of jazz decades ago, it is commonplace to say that jazz – and the vast ocean of sounds which come out of it, rock’n’roll, pop and the rest of it – is entirely due to African rhythms, syncopations and the blurring of voices and timbres Ross describes. But this history pointed out another truth so obvious nobody sees it – there isn’t a single African instrument anywhere in a jazz band. All of the instruments were invented by white Europeans as was the system of music notation used by all the big bands. Seen from this point of view, African American music ‘appropriated’ 500 years of European tradition – and gave it a good shake from which it’s never recovered.

Duke Ellington (1899-1974)

One of the prime shakers was Duke Ellington, the jazz big band leader who broadened its style and appeal into a large band capable of projecting a well-organised, full sound while still giving space to many of the greatest soloists of the day. With Ellington jazz moved out of low dives and bars and into the swellest of must-see nightclubs. His impeccable personal taste and style, his good manners and slyly intelligent way with reporters and interviewers made him a star, as did a steady stream of jazz standards. From the 1930s to the 1970s his band undertook wide-ranging tours of Europe and Latin America, helping to make him a household name around the world.


Chapter 8 – Music for All: Music in FDR’s America

A host of things led to decisive changes as the 1920s turned into the 1930s.

1. The Depression wrecked the country, destroying middle class savings and crushing the rural population. Somehow, eerily, there continued to be a market, in fact the market grew, for shiny escapist Hollywood fantasies of the high life, starring a new generation of movie stars Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Jean Harlow. As the country got poorer the Hollywood fantasies got shinier, the stars more glamorous.

2. Talkies And now they were in talking pictures. Sound completely transformed movies, in the obvious respect that you could hear the movie idols speak, but also because they could now carry extended soundtracks. Music. Short songs, extended show pieces or just background music. This music had to be accessible and comprehensible immediately. No place here for modernist experimentation – Varese, Ives, Ruggles, Virgil Thompson – no thank you. Opportunities opened for thousands of hack composers to mash up all the sounds they heard around them, jazz, swing, along with any useful bits of classical music, with a few geniuses standing above the crowd, most famously Erich Korngold (1897-1957), a child prodigy who produced the scores for many of Errol Flynn’s swashbucklers in the 30s, and Bernard Hermann (1911-65) who kicked off his career spectacularly scoring Citizen Kane (1941) before going on to score a host of famous movies, including a clutch of Hitchcocks, most famously the shower scene of Psycho (1960). Both the children of Jewish immigrants.

3. Politics Stalin’s Communist International issued the call for a Popular Front to be formed against the fascist powers at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 but the whole of the 30s are sometimes seen as the Popular Front decade, when working men and women, some politicians, as well as the intelligentsia all became politicised, all asked themselves how such poverty and misery could come to the greatest country on earth and, not irrationally, concluded there was something very wrong with the system. More than one composer decided to reject the intellectual allure of modernism – indelibly associated with ‘abroad’, with the big city specially New York – and realised it was their ‘duty’ to write about their own country, about its sufferings, in music which would be understandable to all.

4. The Exodus Also Europe came to America. The advent to power of Hitler in 1933 drove a wave of European emigrants – Jews or socialists and communists, or just people the Nazis described as ‘degenerates’ – to flee to the Land of the Free. And so half the great composers of the day landed up in America – Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartok, Rachmaninov, Weill, Milhaud, Hindemith, Krenek, Eisler and many others. As Ross puts it, entire communities from Paris or Berlin settled en masse in New York or the Hollywood Hills (p.260). they were all welcomed into the bosom of Roosevelt’s New Deal America although, arguably, in pampered America none of them produced work of the intensity which brought them to fame in troubled Europe. But it had another impact: in the 1920s artists and composers went on pilgrimage to Europe to sit at the feet of the masters and bring their discoveries back to breathless audiences. But now the masters were here, living among us and regularly putting on concerts. The special role of the artist as privileged messenger from the other world evaporated. They had to find another role.

5. The Federal Music Project was set up as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1935. It created employment for a small army musicians, conductors and composers and led to the thousands of concerts, music classes, the establishment of a Composers Forum Laboratory, as well as scores of music festivals and the creation of 34 new orchestras! An estimated 95 million Americans attended presentations by one or other FMP body. A huge new audience was created for a type of accessible culture which increasingly came to be defined as ‘middle-brow’ (p.278).

6. Radio and records These new regional orchestras were able to reach beyond concert halls into the homes of many more people as radio stations were set up across America and mass production made radios available to even the poorest families (like television a generation later). Music (as well as news, drama, features and so on) now reached far beyond the big cities. Radio made stars of some of the big name conductors, namely Leopold Stokowski and Arturo Toscanini, whose regular radio broadcasts brought Beethoven and Brahms to huge numbers of new listeners. Simultaneously the plastic discs, 78 rpm records and then long players, were a whole new medium which could bring recordings of all sorts of music into people’s homes to be played again and again. A massive revolutionary switch from live to recorded music began to sweep the country in this decade.

How as the American composer, struggling to find a voice and a role, to respond to the clamour and confusion of this new world?

Aaron Copland (1900 – 1990)

Copland was another New York Jew who went to Europe to study music and composition for three years, returned and got only small audiences for his advanced pieces until, swayed by the changing social scene around him, and participating in communist meetings and agitation, he realised he needed to devote his talents to the common man, making his music as accessible, as uplifting, as optimistic as possible. His breakthrough came after a visit to Mexico (which often helps American writers, poets, composers, painters see their own country in a new light) and the syncopations of the Spanish tradition helped him escape from both the prison house of modernism but also the sounds of jazz and Broadway which dominated his native New York.

The result was the complex syncopations of El Salón México (1936) and there quickly followed the tide of his most popular works, which used big bold motifs, lots of brass and grandiose percussion, clear harmonies and slow-moving, stately themes which somehow convey the sense of space and openness – Billy the Kid (1938), Quiet City (1940), Our Town (1940), Fanfare for the Common Man (1942), Lincoln Portrait (1942), Rodeo (1942), Appalachian Spring (1944).

(Although he’s associated with soft American landscapes, if you look closely you’ll see that his most programmatic music is actually about the desert and the prairie, a distinctly non-European landscape. For me this echoes the way that Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings inspired by the deserts of New Mexico – for me – emerged as the most distinctive works in the recent exhibition of 1930s art, America after the Fall.)

Copland created a way of sounding big and brash and bold and confident, often poignant and moving, which somehow didn’t seem to owe anything to the stilted European tradition. To this day his sound lives on in the movie music of, for example, John Williams, the most successful Hollywood composer of our day. Copland is always mentioned in the company of other populist composers like:

Samuel Barber (1910-81) remembered for his haunting Adagio for strings (1936)

Roy Harris (1898 – 1979) From Wikipedia: “Johana and Roy Harris were a tour de force in American music. Their collaboration has been compared to that of Robert and Clara Schumann. The Harrises organized concerts, adjudicated at festivals, and in 1959 founded the International String Congress. They promoted American folksong by including folksongs in their concerts and broadcasts.” Harris wrote 18 symphonies in an accessible style and on grand patriotic subjects – Gettysburg Address, West Point, Abraham Lincoln. This passage from Ross gives a good sense of his easy confident often amused style:

The work that won Harris nationwide attention was his Third Symphony of 1938 – an all-American hymn and dance for orchestra in which strings declaim orations in broad, open-ended lines, brass chant and whoop like cowboys in the galleries, and timpani stamp out strong beats in the middle of the bar. Such a big-shouldered sound met everyone’s expectations of what a true-blue American symphony should be. (p.280).

Swing

To most of us the period was dominated by the form of jazz known as swing and the big band jazz of Duke Ellington (formed his band 1923) and Count Basie (formed his big band in 1935) alongside white bandleaders like Ted Lewis (1919), Paul Whiteman (1920) the rather tamer offerings of white band-leaders like Tommy Dorsey (1935), Benny Goodman and latterly Glenn Miller. It was an August 1935 concert at the Palomar Ballroom by Benny Goodman which is sometimes hailed as the start of ‘the Swing Era’ and the band’s ‘s confident smooth big band sound earned Goodman the moniker ‘the King of Swing’, a status when his band went on to play the prestigious Carnegie Hall in new York, previously the domain of the most high-toned classical concerts, and took  it by storm. After twenty years of hard work by black and white musicians across the country, it felt like their music was finally accepted.

The highbrows weren’t immune. Stravinsky, the great liberator of rhythm in classical music, had incorporated sort-of jazz syncopations right from the start and now, in exile in California, wrote a Scherzo a la Russe  for Paul Whiteman’s band (1944) and an Ebony Concerto for Woody Herman’s, Woody later commenting that the Maestro hadn’t made any concessions at all to the idiom of the big band – it was Stravinsky through and through.

But Stravinsky’s adventures in America belong to the next decade, the 1940s (he came from Paris to do a U.S. concert tour in 1940 and then the Germans invaded France, so he was stuck).

Imagine you were a student in 1938, what would you listen to? Copland’s serious but consciously patriotic and possibly left-leaning orchestra panoramas of the Big Country? Would you subscribe to Henry Cowell’s New Music and followed the ongoing experiments of Varese, Ruggles and Ives? Would you dismiss all that as European rubbish and tune into Toscanini’s Saturday night broadcasts of the old classics, dominated by Beethoven and Brahms? Would you know about the efforts of the Seegers and others like them to track down and record the folk songs of rural folk before they died out? Or would save your dollars to take your best girl to go see each swing band which came through your mid-Western city, and have an impressive collection of discs by the Duke, the Count, Benny, Tommy and Woody?

Another world, other tastes, other choices.


Related links

Reviews of books about America

America after the Fall: Painting in the 1930s edited by Judith Barter (2017)

This is the book accompanying the exhibition at the Royal Academy of 45 or so oil paintings from the 1930s designed to give you an overview of the many different, competing and clashing visions of American art during that troubled decade, what the foreword, rather surprisingly describes as ‘aesthetically, perhaps the most fertile decade of the twentieth century.’

It significantly expands your knowledge and understanding of the period by including illustrations of many more paintings than are in the show, along with comparison art works from contemporary and Old Master Europe, as well as photos, sketches, architects plans and related visual information.

The book is structured around five long essays by experts in the period, each of which is fascinating and informative in equal measure (the writers being Judith A. Barter, Sarah Kelly Oehler, Annelise K. Madsen, Sarah L. Burns and Teresa A. Carbone). I picked it up for £15, a snip considering the high quality of the reproductions and the intelligence of the commentary and analysis.

Regionalism versus modernism

The squabble between the Regionalists and the New York-based modernists is only mentioned for a minute or so on the exhibition audioguide, but spills across several of the essays here. This allows you to understand its history, main participants, the arguments on either side, to weigh their merits, as well as considering the whole thing’s relevance to the present day.

Regionalism championed the depiction of realistic scenes of rural and small-town America primarily in the Midwest and Deep South. It was popular and populist. It defined itself against the modernism imported from Europe by New York-based artists, despite the fact that the trio of artists who became most associated with Regionalism – Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry – had all made at least one study visit to Europe and were well aware of developments there.

Regionalism is itself subsumed under a broader term – the American Scene – which also covers ‘Social realism’ paintings, also realistic and figurative in nature, but more committed to the world of urban work than the predominantly rural Regionalist ethos. If it’s about small town life it’s American regionalism; if it’s a realistic work about the city, about industrial workers, and especially if it emphasises class consciousness, then it’s American Social Realism.

The most famous example of Regionalism is Grant Wood’s American Gothic, which depicts in a minutely detailed style reminiscent of early Flemish painters, a romantically unromantic vision of the gaunt, upright honest Mid-Western farmer. In the same spirit, though softer edged, is his Daughters of the Revolution (1932), its unflatteringness easy to confuse with a type of realism. Others of his rural pictures shown here are more gently bucolic:

The most fervent regionalist was Thomas Hart Benton. In the exhibition he’s represented by paintings of rural, especially Southern, life depicted with a distinctive wriggly serpentine style.

  • Cradling wheat by Thomas Hart Benton (1938) Note the wriggly lines in the clouds, the clothes, the distant hill.

But the book adds hugely to our understanding by expanding on his activities as a muralist, works which, by definition, can’t be shown in travelling art exhibitions. The New Deal administration, via its huge Public Works of Art Project, helped fund and commission a vast range of public art for public spaces – city halls, post offices, railway stations – across America. Over 4,000 murals in public buildings were commissioned from a huge range of artists in 1934 and 1935. Benton was a leader in the field, producing works like America Today for New York’s New School for Social Research, The Social History of the State of Missouri and The Cultural & Industrial Progress of Indiana for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. In these he combines his sinewy, sinuous way with the human body with a kind of muscular social realist style to portray a fascinating cross-section of American activity and enterprise.

Benton not only painted, he engaged in a fierce polemic with a leader of the New York modernists, Stuart Davis, decrying modernism as effeminate, chaotic, elitist and un-American. You can see why his Mid-Western sponsors and many left-wing-minded artists and writers (some influenced by the new dogma of Socialist Realism emanating from the Soviet Union) would support his easily accessible, heroic depictions of the working man and woman, as the real America.

But of course they were up against New York, with its sheer size (with a population of 7 million, by far the largest US city) and its entrenched, articulate and well-publicised intellectual and artistic sets, such as the circle around critic and photographer, Alfred Stieglitz (which included the artists Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin and Georgia O’Keeffe) or George L.K. Morris and the American Abstract Artists group.

It was the modernist painter Stuart Davis who ended up defending cosmopolitan modernism against Benton’s Regionalism, in a series of lectures, pamphlets, articles and a few bad-tempered personal encounters – attacking Regionalism as populist, demagogic, conservative even reactionary in form, naive, simple-minded and so on. He was even involved in a petition drawn up by New York art students to have one of Benton’s murals destroyed, because of its alleged stereotyping of African Americans. They hated each other.

Above all, the New York modernists thought Regionalism was holding America back, restraining and imprisoning American art and thought in a utopian fantasy of the past. It was provincial in the worst sense of the word, because it limited American culture to fantasies of a fast-disappearing rural reality while the entire world was urbanising and the great capitals – Paris, London, Rome, Berlin – were developing dazzling new techniques, styles and methods which it would be fatal to ignore.

Why go backwards when the rest of the world was hurtling into the new, they argued. America, above all other countries, should throw off the past and embrace the future.

There are several ways to think about this:

1. On purely personal terms, which do you enjoy most – now? To be honest, I like Grant Wood’s cartoony works and am impressed by Benton’s murals, idealised and muscular representatives of the spirit of the age. Whereas I like the overall impact of Davis’s work – extraordinarily bright and jazzy – but don’t respond to any individual work of his as strongly.

2. In terms of the debate, who do you think was right, at the time? Again, I’m inclined to think the American Scene artists depicted the country and its cultural and political moment better than Davis and the other wannabe modernists. They were right for their time. The Public Works of Art Project wanted art for the broadest mass of the public, which would reflect their local area, their local history, which would provide a unifying focus for thousands of communities across the States. Over 4,000 murals in public buildings were commissioned from a huge range of artists in 1934 and 1935. It seems unlikely that a thousand variations on Davis’s watered-down Paris abstractions could have done that.

3. Who won? With the benefit of hindsight we know that Regionalism had nowhere to go: as America became more fully industrialised during the Second World War, it became more urbanised and rural life became more and more remote from most Americans. The Regionalist artists proved incapable of developing their style: even at the time it was acknowledged to be a romanticised, idealised vision which was actually far removed from the brutal reality of the Dustbowl droughts which were afflicting the southern states. (Captured in one bleak and almost science fiction painting here, Our American Farms (1936) by Joe Jones.) Regionalism proved to be in every way a dead end.

4. Also, in the new atmosphere of the Cold War, the Social Realism of much American Scene art came to look suspiciously like the same kind of thing being churned out by the Soviet Union and her satellites. When the House Un-American Activities Committee got round to investigating artists in the 1950s, it was the Social Realists they accused of being dangerous subversives: in total some 350 artists were accused by the committee of being communists or harbouring unhealthy left-wing tendencies. In the event, the Abstract Expressionism of Jackson Pollock et al was to take the art world by storm at the end of the 1940s and, with government help, transform American aesthetics. Regionalism became an isolated backwater in the history of art.

5. However, studying the debate in some detail throws up surprising insights into our present situation, where a demagogic president has been elected on a platform of appealing to ordinary folk, especially the working class disenfranchised by globalisation, and railing against Big City corruption and cosmopolitanism. There is unemployment – 4.7% (though nothing approaching Depression-era figures, which at their worst had 30% of the workforce without jobs). There’s disillusion with the conventional parties and a rise in racism and xenophobia. Powerful reminders that so many of a country’s political or social issues never really go away but are reborn in each generation in new disguises.

The above is a partial summary of the first of the five essays in the volume. The other four:

  • Transatlantic Expressions
  • 1930s Modernism and the use of history
  • Painting the American wasteland
  • Bodies for the 1930s

are just as in-depth and illuminating, adding to our understanding of a host of other artists of the time.

These include lesser known figures like Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dover, Charles Green Shaw, Millard Sheets, Doris Lee, Helen Lundeberg, Walt Kuhn, Ivan Albright, Peter Blume, Alice Neel, Paul Cadmus, Archibald Motley, Philip Evergood, Reginald Marsh, Paul Sample – as well as, for me, the standout artist of the era – the great Georgia O’Keeffe, with her triumphant marriage of the distinctive New Mexico landscape with an unsettling modernist sensibility.

Cow's Skull with Calico Roses (1931) by Georgia O'Keeffe. Photo Alfred Stieglitz Collection. The Art Institute of Chicago / (c) Georgia O'Keeffe Museum / DACS 2016

Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses (1931) by Georgia O’Keeffe. Photo Alfred Stieglitz Collection. The Art Institute of Chicago / (c) Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / DACS 2016

New names

Presumably familiar to any student of American art, the following were artists who I first learned about at the exhibition and who then especially benefited from the longer treatment and further illustrations provided in this book:

Charles Sheeler

Represented in the show by his wonderful linear depiction of the River Rouge Ford Motor factory – American landscape (1930) – Sheeler is explored in further detail in the book. Not only did he produce these wonderful linear, monumental evocations of pure architecture, but also took many modernist photographs of industrial buildings, interiors and machines. Just my kind of thing.

But Sheeler is also one of the beneficiaries of the well-known phenomenon that some art works which are easy to overlook in the flesh, look much better in reproduction, in book form. Thus the exhibition – divided into 8 or 9 themes – has one devoted to interiors, generally depicting old-fashioned styles and furnishings, and it would be easy to overlook Sheeler’s item in the set, Home Sweet Home. But the book reproduces it in big and lovely colour detail and highlights the continuity between the fascination with geometry and lines evinced in his well-known industrial photos and paintings, and his more recherche interest in traditional fabrics, Shaker furniture and so on, which combine in this quiet but mesmeric interior.

Aaron Douglas

Represented by one work in the show, the impressive mural Aspiration, in the show, the book gives a lot more about his life and work – and searching the internet reveals a brilliantly dazzling talent. Douglas uses a kind of Art Deco silhouette-based style, flooded by geometric washes of pastel colours, to depict an amazingly bold, explicit overview of the African American story, from Africans in Africa dancing and celebrating, their capture into slavery, transport across the seas, to African Americans throwing off their shackles and then Ayn Rand-style monuments of them contributing to the building of the modern (1930s) city with its outline of soaring skyscrapers.

Conclusion

This is a genuinely interesting book, not just about American art but about a pivotal moment in American history. By the end you are ready to believe the claim made at the start (several times) that the 1930s was ‘the most artistically creative and important period of the twentieth century’ (p.24).


Related links

Reviews of other American art exhibitions

Reviews of books about America

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

The Art of the Northern Renaissance by Craig Harbison (1995)

The period covered is 1400 to 1600.

‘Northern’ means north-west of the Alps, excluding Eastern Europe which had its own development, and Spain, ditto. So it includes the many different little German medieval states, France, but especially the northern part of the Duchy of Burgundy (modern-day Netherlands and Belgium). In these rich northern cities the wealth from the wool and textile trade created patrons who wanted paintings of themselves, decorations for their houses, but especially grand altarpieces for the big churches they built.

The Renaissance in Italy was closely linked to a rebirth of interest in classical statuary, architecture and literature, examples of which lay all around its Italian artists. This revival of learning led to new experiments in building in the pure classical style, to the introduction of mathematically precise perspective in painting, along with unprecedented anatomical accuracy in the human form. The paintings, like the architecture, were big, grand, monumental. At its peak, think of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Many Renaissance paintings are vast and use classical architectural features to emphasise their monumentality and to bring out the artist’s clever knowledge of perspective. I often find this art sterile.

By contrast, northern art is more continuous with the medieval art which preceded it. Curly Gothic architecture continues to provide its frame of reference and design. The figures often still have the elongated, willowy S-shape of medieval statuary rather than the new, muscular bodies being pioneered in Italy by the likes of Michelangelo et al. Harbison says that northern art of the 15th century is in many ways a transfer of late-medieval innovations in manuscript illustration to the public spaces of altarpieces, painted boards and frescos.

What I love northern art for is:

  1. its more flattened, less perspective-obsessed images allow for the surface of the work to be covered by gorgeous decorative schemes, particularly sumptuous fabrics and carpets
  2. it is always teeming with life – there are always tiny figures in the distance riding into a wood or firing a crossbow – every time you look you notice something else
  3. the faces – the people in northern art have much more rugged individuality than in Italian art – another way of saying this is that they are often plain and sometimes positively ugly in a way few Renaissance portraits are

As an example of gorgeousness of decorative design, I suggest Virgin among virgins in the rose garden by the unknown artist known from one of his other works as the Master of the St Lucy Legend.

There’s perspective of a sort, in that the wooden pergola covered with climbing roses creates a proscenium arch through which we can see an idealised version of the city of Bruges in the middle distance. But the overall affect of the foreground is more flat than in an Italian work. This brings out the wonderful detail of every leaf and petal of the dense rose hedge behind the characters; and emphasises the decorative layout of those figures, two on either side of the Virgin and in similar poses but with enough variation to please the eye. It allows the eye to rest on the sumptuous gold dress of St Ursula sitting left and contrast it with the plain white dress of St Cecilia sitting right. As to my ‘teeming with life’ point, I love the tiny figures of the two horse riders departing the city in the distance. In this work, I admit, the faces lack the individuality I mentioned, but I like this kind of demure medieval oval facial style.

Harbison contrasts this northern work with a contemporary Italian work, Madonna and child with saints by Domenico Veneziano (c.1445)

For me, all the human figures are dwarfed and subordinated to the ruthless application of the new knowledge of mathematical perspective. I find all those interlocking pillars and arches exhausting. And, ironically, somehow for me this does not give the image the desired depth of field but makes it appear flat and cluttered. The orange trees peeping up over the back wall don’t make up for the clinical sterility of the architectural setting. And although the human figures are obviously individualised and their clothes, the folds of their cloaks and gowns, are done with fine accuracy, these aren’t enough to overcome what I see as the overall flat, arid, washed-out and sterile effect.

As Harbison puts it:

In place of the clear, open, even and often symmetrical Italian representation, northerners envisioned subtly modulated, veiling and revealing light effects, intriguing nooks and crannies, enclosed worlds of privacy and preciousness. (p.35)

As an exemplar of this Harbison gives Rogier van der Weyden’s wonderful three-part St John Altarpiece (1450-60).

The dominant feature in all three scenes in this altarpiece is obviously the Gothic arch. (These repay study by themselves, with a different set of saints and small scenes depicted on each of the three arches.) The three main scenes depict, from left to right, the presentation of the newborn John the Baptist to his father; John the Baptist baptising Jesus; and then John’s head being chopped off and given to Salome.

The figures are given quite a lot of individuation, especially the balding executioner with his stockings half fallen down which gives a bizarrely homely touch. But the foreground scenes are really only part of the composition. Equal emphasis is given to the detailed backgrounds of all three. Perspective is used, but not ruthlessly – with enough poetic license to allow the backgrounds to be raised, tilted upwards, so we can see and savour them better.

In the left panel St Elizabeth being tucked into bed (a typically homely northern detail) is good, but better is the deep landscape behind Jesus in the central panel, with its church perched on cliffs on the right in the middle distance and city on a cliff in the remote distance left. But best of all is the right-hand panel, where our eye is drawn by the steps and tiled floors of King Herod’s palace, complete with a lounger staring out a window, a bored dog lying near the table where courtiers appear to be feasting.

And, as always, at the very bottom, in the corners, the humble, everyday, weedy flowers of northern Europe which I love so much.

The St John Altarpiece is a prime example of the richness of detail which characterises northern art and makes it – to me – so much more enjoyable, homely, decorative and domestic – funny, even, with its wealth of humanist touches.

The Art of the Northern Renaissance

The book is divided into four parts addressing different topics:

  1. Realism
  2. Physical production & original location
  3. Religious behaviour and ideals
  4. Italy and the North.

Within these there are 35 separate sections addressing issues like ‘artist and patron’, ‘manuscript illumination’, ‘the production of a panel painting’, ‘the pilgrimage’, ‘landscape imagery’, ‘the naked body’, and so on. From these sections we we learn lots of detail about specific areas of medieval life and their depiction, but nothing which affects the basic thesis that at the core of northern art is, as Harbison puts it, ‘a love of detailed description’.

It is as if one is always catching sight of something out of the corner of the eye. The ideal is not simple harmony but complex polyphony. (p.39)

Northern art is fragmentary, interested in detail. Italian art is more unified, classical and spare. Take this masterpiece by Rogier van der Weyden.

For a start it was a north European convention to depict the Deposition within an architectural frame (cf. The descent from the cross by the Master of the Bartholomew altarpiece) which gives it a kind of continuity with the Gothic architecture of the church where it is located.

I love everything about this painting, the cleverness with which ten human figures are composed so as to make a polyphony without excessive artifice; the colour of the clothes e.g. the olive green and high cord of the woman holding the fainting Mary, the sumptuous fur-lined cloak of the rich burgher (Nicodemus) on the right. Harbison points out the detail of Christ’s pierced bloody hand hanging parallel to the Virgin’s long white hand, providing a powerful and moving real and symbolic contrast.

And, as always, I love the flowers in the foreground – is that yarrow at bottom left and herb bennet at bottom right? Harbison gives a detailed analysis of another northern masterpiece:

The detail of daily life, the sense of real people in an actual community, is what I love about this art: the unashamed flat-faced ugliness of the three shepherds, the (married?) couple standing by the gate in the background beside the shepherds; the wrinkled face and hands of old Joseph praying on the left.

As always, flowers in the foreground, here the highly symbolic lilies and irises (symbolising the passion), columbine (representing the Holy Spirit) and three small dark red carnations symbolising the nails of the cross.

Harbison makes the interesting point that the shadows of the two vases fall sharply to the right as if the floor of the stable (incongruously tiled) is almost flat; whereas, somehow behind the sheaf of wheat the floor suddenly tips upwards, presenting a much more flattened surface than strict perspective would suggest – which is then ‘decorated’ with the various figures. There are perspective points in it, but the painting ignores a strict rule of perspective in order to create a more effective, colourful and ‘rhythmic’ composition.

Top artists of the northern renaissance

If I summarised every one of Harbison’s analyses this post would be as long as the book. Instead here’s a quick overview of the key players and some major works:

Early Netherlands masters

The weird

From the generation following the deaths of these early fathers of Netherlands painting comes the one-off genius of Hieronymus Bosch.

  • Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450 – 1516) The religious triptych was the most common format of painting in this period, and Bosch produced at least sixteen, of which eight are fully intact, and another five in fragments. The most famous is the weird and wonderful Garden of earthly delights. No one has adequately explained where his bizarre fantasies came from.

The Germans

I find the Germans a lot less pleasing than the Flemish or French painters of this period. They lack grace and delicacy. Their depictions of the human body, especially of the crucified Christ, seem to me unnecessarily brutal. Albrecht Dürer is meant to be the great genius but I like hardly anything that he did.

After the Reformation

The Reformation forms a watershed halfway through the period 1400 to 1600, usually dated with great specificness to 31 October 1517, when the monk Martin Luther sent 95 theses systematically attacking Roman Catholic theology to his superior, the archbishop of Mainz. His arguments became a rallying cry and focus of decades of growing discontent with the corruption and over-complex theology of the Catholic church. His ideas spread quickly and were taken up by other theologians, who were often protected by German princes who had their own secular reasons for rejecting Papal authority, until it had become an unstoppable theological and social movement.

In artistic terms the Reformation’s rejection of the grandeur of Roman Catholic theology and the authority of the super-rich Papacy played to the strengths of the northern artists, who already produced an art often characterised by its relative smallness and intimacy.

Harbison very usefully brings out the fact that fifteenth century art was so dominated by images of the Madonna seated holding the Christ child because such a static image encouraged silent devotion and meditation – in contrast with the more dynamic and emotionally upsetting images of the Crucifixion and Resurrection.

He points out how the corruption of the official church had already alienated many Christians from public worship and created through the 15th century a cult of private devotion. It was onto this fertile ground that the anti-establishment teachings of Luther and his followers fell, and proved so fruitful.

Thus Reformation theology tended to foreground personal piety, meditation and reflection – moving away from bravura displays of big ostentatious public ritual. And so while the Counter-Reformation in Italy (the theological and artistic reaction against the northern Reformation) was marked by the increasing ornateness and vast, heavy, luxury of the Baroque in art and architecture, in northern Europe – although Christian subjects continued as ever – there was also a growth in depictions of ‘ordinary life’, in domestic portraits and still lifes.

It was during the post-Reformation 16th century that landscapes and still lifes came into existence as genres in their own right.

Quentin Matsys

A figure who straddles the pre- and post-Reformation era is Quentin Matsys (1466–1530) (also spelt Massys) founder of the Antwerp school of painting. His mature work dates from the period of the High Renaissance (1490s to 1527) but is the extreme opposite of the vast panoramas of human history being painted in the Vatican (the Sistine Chapel, the Raphael Stanza). Instead, Massys typifies for me the virtues of northern painting, with its small-scale atmosphere of domesticity, its focus on real, living people – not the Prophets and Philosophers of Michelangelo and Raphael – and its portraits not of heroic archetypes, but of plain ordinary and, sometimes, ugly people.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder

This increasing valuing of secular life is one way of explaining the rise of the genre of ‘peasant paintings’, which was, apparently, more or less founded by the teeming peasant panoramas of the wonderful Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Hans Holbein the younger

The northern Reformation was suspicious of religious imagery. In many places it was stripped out of churches and burned; in others merely covered up. Certainly the market for grand altarpieces collapsed, and the period saw a rise in other more specialised subjects. Critics from centuries later define these as genre paintings.

Portraits also became more secular and more frequent, a trend which produced one of the most wonderful portraitists of all time, Hans Holbein the Younger.

Technique

Harbison explains a lot about the technicality of northern Renaissance painting. Some of the most notable learnings for me were:

Panel painting Almost all northern renaissance artworks were painted on wooden panels, ‘panel paintings’ as they’re called. It wasn’t until the 17th century that prepared canvas became the surface of choice for artists. Some works were painted on linen but almost all of these have been lost. A small number were painted directly onto metal and some onto slate.

The rise of oil painting Most 15th century paintings were made with tempera. Tempera, also known as egg tempera, is a permanent, fast-drying painting medium consisting of coloured pigments mixed with a water-soluble binder medium, usually egg yolk. Tempera also refers to the paintings done in this medium. But as the 1400s progressed, northern artists experimented with using oil as the binding material – first mixing colour pigment with oil then applying it to prepared surfaces.

Most of these new ‘oil’ paintings were built up from multiple layers. This required paintings to be put to one side for weeks at a time to fully dry before the next level could be done – a repetitive process which explains the incredibly deep, rich and luminous colours you see in these works.

Most Renaissance sources credited the northern European painters of the 15th century, and Jan van Eyck in particular, with the ‘invention’ of painting with oil media on wood panel supports (‘support’ is the technical term for the underlying backing of a painting). There is ongoing debate about where precisely it originated but it was definitely a northern invention which headed south into Italy.

Destruction and loss

The vast majority of European art has been lost.

  • Much of it was created for ephemeral purposes in the first place – for ceremonies, processions, pageants or plays – and thrown away once the occasion had passed.
  • Thus, much effort and creativity was expended painting on fabrics, such as linen or flags, on backdrops and sets and panels, which have rotted and disappeared.
  • Huge numbers of paintings in the churches of northern Europe were lost forever when they were painted over with whitewash during the Reformation. Outbreaks of popular or state-sanctioned iconoclasm also saw the systematic destruction of statues, wooden tracery and decorative features – all defaced or thrown out and burned in the decades after 1520.
  • Successive wars wreaked local havoc, destroying in particular castles which would have held collections of art sponsored by rich aristocrats. As an example, only ten paintings and thirty-five drawings survive of the entire life’s work of Matthias Grünewald – ‘many others were lost at sea in the Baltic on their way to Sweden as war booty’.
  • The destruction of the Great War – epitomised by the German army’s deliberate burning of the manuscript library at Louvain – was essentially localised to north-west Europe.
  • But the destruction of the second World War ranged all across Europe, deep into Russia and involved the destruction of countless churches, galleries, museums, libraries, stately homes, castles and chateaux where art works could be stored. Dresden. Hamburg. Monte Cassino. The loss was immense.

It’s always worth remembering that the comfortable lives we live now actually take place amid the ruins of an almost incomprehensibly destructive series of wars, religious spasms and conflagrations, and that the art we view in the hushed environments of art galleries is not an accurate reflection of what was painted and created in Europe, but are the scattered remnants and lucky survivors from a continent of incessant destruction and artistic holocaust.

Related links

Where to see some

You can see some masterpieces from this period for free in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery (in London):

You can see the fabulous Seilern Triptych by Robert Campin in room 1 of the Courtauld Gallery, off the Strand, which currently costs £7 admission price, but is worth it for the stunning collection of masterpieces from these medieval pieces through the French post-Impressionists.

Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe 900-1900 by Alfred W. Crosby (1986)

If we seek the roots of the success of European imperialism, we must be off to the Middle East, to Abraham, to Gilgamesh and the cultural ancestors of all of us who eat wheaten bread, smelt iron, or record our thoughts alphabetically… We – you who read and I who write this sentence – are part of that continuity; these words are in an alphabetical form of writing, a very clever Middle Eastern invention produced by peoples even more directly influenced by the Sumerian example than we are. The Sumerians and the inventors of the alphabet, and you and I, no matter what our genetic heritage, are in one category: heirs of post-Neolithic Old World cultures. All Stone Age peoples, including the few living, and all pre-Columbian Amerindians, however sophisticated, are in another. The indigenous populations of the Neo-Europes were in the second category until Europeans arrived from beyond the seams of Pangaea. The transition from one category to another was a harrowing one, and many individuals and even peoples faltered and failed. (Ecological Imperialism, pp.21-22)

Until I started reading it I hadn’t realised this book was published in 1986 (I was brought up short by the references to the Soviet Union and that world population was ‘thrusting towards 5 billion’ – it is, of course, now 7.4 billion). 1986 is a long time ago, especially in science, where new discoveries and perspectives arise each year. A lot of the argument – that European triumph over the rest of the world was as much to do with biological advantages as military skill or morality or civilisation etc – was familiar to me from Jared Diamond’s best-seller Guns Germs and Steel. Now I look closely I see the latter was published in 1998. Maybe it had the advantage of following up ideas Crosby pioneered.

Pangaea

Crosby takes a doggedly chronological approach and starts several hundred million years ago with our knowledge of Pangaea, the supercontinent consisting of all the world’s land surface compacted into one unit that existed during the late Paleozoic and early Mesozoic eras. Pangaea began to break up into our present continental units 175 million years ago, each continent driven apart by fault lines where new molten magma was forced to the earth’s surface, creating new crusts. Life forms on the newly separated continents evolved along different lines.

Some areas remained connected by land bridges for a while, but, after a long sequence of ice ages, the final ice age ended about 13,000 years ago, the ice caps melted, and the land bridges connecting Britain to Europe, Russia to America across the Bering Sea, and New Guinea to Australia, were flooded. The continents were sealed off in their isolation.

By about 100,000 years ago the human brain had evolved to the same size as it is today. By 40,000 years ago our species, Homo sapiens, had arrived. We spread out of Africa, across Asia, walked into Australia and across the land bridge into America. Then the seas flooded.

The Neolithic revolution

Crosby moves swiftly on to the Neolithic revolution(s). This began when humans started to grind and polish rather than chip their stone tools, and went on to include the development of agriculture, the domestication of farm animals, the beginning of food surpluses which gave rise to denser settlements and social hierarchy, eventually to cities with rulers who wanted records of their possessions and so to writing. The revolution was complete as humans learned how to smelt metal and work it into tools that stayed sharper for longer.

To some extent ‘the rest is history’, the history of successive empires which used these technologies to conquer (and generally enslave) their neighbours – the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Persians, the Greek and Roman Empires, the astonishing success of the Islamic caliphates, the long slow growth of the Chinese empires, alongside the rise of a Japanese state and more obscure (to us) empires in Thailand, Burma, the East Indies. Europe, abandoned by the Romans, slowly regrouped with strong leaders carving new empires, notably Charlemagne’s north European empire, crystallised by about 800, with King Alfred and his successors’ efforts to unify England under one king, complete by about 900.

All this is interesting but the key fact for the history of European empire was the fact that all the other human populations not directly linked to the Middle East (where the Neolithic revolution took place, starting in Sumeria, modern Iraq) fell behind and were outstripped. In Saharan Africa the empire of Mali arose and in South Africa several empires, latterly the Zulus. But in Australia and New Zealand, across the Pacific islands and in North America there was no Neolithic Revolution. The people continued the old style of hunter-gatherer living. Only in Central America was there a semi-revolution – when the conquistadores arrived they found the Aztecs could smelt metal – but only to use as decoration, not weapons; and they had invented the wheel – but only as a decorative toy, not to carry heavy weights long distances. Why? Because they had no domesticated large mammals to pull any wheeled vehicle (unlike us Eurasians, blessed with domesticable horses, cattle, oxen and so on).

Thus when the Portuguese, the Spanish, the French, the Dutch and – right at the end – the British set sail in their advanced ships, with highly developed sailing and steering technology, maps, knowledge of the winds, horses, armour, cannons and guns, it was all too often to encounter indigenous peoples who were still living in the Stone Age and were easy to fight, kill, round up and enslave, shoot and loot and dispossess of their land.

Eurasian biology

There is not as much biology as the title suggests, in fact the book is rather disappointing from this point of view, and not as focused and memorable as Diamond’s book. Why was agriculture more successful in the West? Because:

  • There was a broader variety of domesticable edible plant species to begin with e.g. wheat, barley, peas and lentils.
  • Wheat was highly productive of edible seed from the start, encouraging agriculture and surpluses, whereas new World maize was far less productive and took a lot longer to be developed.
  • The growing seasons of a temperate climate are more supportive for arable crops (unlike tropical rainforest or desert).
  • And for the simple but amazing reason that the Eurasian land mass runs East-West with a broadly similar climate all through it – what can be grown in the Caucasus can be grown in France or southern Britain and grown on the Russian steppe. Agriculture, and agricultural innovation, could spread unhindered across this vast area (albeit very slowly). There just wasn’t the same geographic scope for the Central Americans to spread and share innovations because they were blocked by the Mexican desert to the north and Amazon rainforest to the south. North America turned out to be fantastically fertile but having never had a Neolithic/agricultural Revolution the native Americans weren’t in a position to realise this. Similarly, the Aborigenes in Australia remained a relatively small scattered population of doggedly hunter-gatherer tribes in a vast and generally inhospitable land.

Which brings us to animals and the bald fact that Eurasia simply happened to possess more and more easily domesticable animals – horses, sheep, pigs, goats, chickens, reindeer, ducks. At the opposite end of the scale no-one managed to tame Australian fauna – the kangaroo, dingo, koala bear. Native Americans hunted and killed bison but never tried to produce tame populations of them in fenced farms – they didn’t need to.

We had all kinds of advantages. An apparently minor one, which becomes more important the more you think about it, is that Western people have a gene which allows us to digest milk after we’ve stopped being babies. Many other peoples – Amerindians, Aborigenes – don’t.

Few adult black Africans or East Asians, and fewer yet of the adult indigenes of Australasia or the Americas, can tolerate milk in any but small amounts after infancy. In fact, it makes them quite sick. (p.27)

In many times and places the ability to drink cow or goat’s milk in bleak winters or times of dearth made the difference between survival or extinction for all kinds of Western settlements. Just one way in which we had more biological and technological resources than the first peoples we met.

Eurasian disease

The main biological component, however, was disease. For thousands of years Westerners lived in towns and cities large enough to foster urban diseases like smallpox and measles. Not that these were a weapon in any way consciously deployed against native peoples or that only hurt non-Westerners: Crosby shows how waves of plague and other diseases decimated the West again and again and again before any imperial voyages began. Some historians attribute the collapse of the Roman Empire to a deadly plague which decimated its population.

The Plague of Justinian (541–542) was a pandemic that afflicted the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, especially its capital Constantinople, the Sassanid Empire, and port cities around the entire Mediterranean Sea. One of the deadliest plagues in history, this devastating pandemic resulted in the deaths of an estimated 25 million (at least 13% of the world’s population). (Wikipedia)

Plague continued to ravage Europe for centuries, notably the Black Death of the 1340s when up to 200 million Europeans died, the famous recurrence in the 1660s which killed about a quarter of London’s population. Well into the 19th century Londoners were dying of cholera, typhoid and diphtheria and of course the early 20th century witnessed one of the worst pandemics of all time.

The 1918 flu pandemic (January 1918 – December 1920) was an unusually deadly influenza pandemic, the first of the two pandemics involving H1N1 influenza virus. It infected 500 million people across the world, including remote Pacific islands and the Arctic, and resulted in the deaths of 50 to 100 million (three to five percent of the world’s population), making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history. (Wikipedia)

Generations of Eurasians had survived these remorseless plagues and epidemics, and become hardened and immune. But when European explorers arrived at any settlement of humans outside the infection zone, the result was inevitably devastation, and there is a long melancholy list of native peoples in America north and south, in the Pacific islands and Australia who were wiped out by European disease.

Disease was also a major factor in limiting where white Europeans could realistically settle. Crosby gives examples of the high death rates of white people in the Tropics, which complement the accounts I’ve read in John Darwin’s Unfinished Empire and Tom Pocock’s harrowing Battle for Empire. In the early 19th century over half the British troops stationed on the Gold Coast died of disease. Joseph Conrad reported that only about 7% of white men served out their three year contracts in King Leopold’s Congo, the rest dying or being forced home by disease. Of the first freed slaves resettled to Sierra Leone about 40% died from disease. Compare with Pocock’s report that, of the 14,000 British soldiers and sailors who took part in the five-month-long siege of Havana, Cuba in 1762, no fewer than 10,000 died or were disabled by disease. Similarly, between 1793 and 1796 the British Army stationed in the Caribbean lost about 80,000 men, about half to yellow fever alone.

No wonder John Darwin points out that the best survival strategy for white settlers in the Caribbean was to pay local agents to run their plantations for them, and leave as quickly as possible. Even temperate climates were harsh for the first white settlers: in the first winter, half of the original Pilgrim Fathers who landed in New England died of disease, exposure or malnutrition.

Just one more reason why the Neo-Europes are pretty limited geographically, to the more temperate parts of America, southern South America, and Australasia, where not only do diseases not thrive, but the native populations were so thinly spread that they hadn’t incubated and helped evolve vicious strains of communicable disease. The direction of fatal diseases was almost all in the other direction, from Old World to New.

Eurasian biota

And not just disease. Europeans brought the livestock and plants they knew they wanted to farm – horses, cows, sheep; wheat, barley, peas – but also unintended passengers which played havoc with local biota. The most notorious example is the rabbit, which ran rampant in Australia, eating all the crops, but we also took the European rat wherever we went, and the rat is a key vector for disease. And among the seeds of useful crops were seeds of all kinds of European weeds. The common plantain was brought to America by Europeans and, apparently, nicknamed the ‘Englishman’s foot’ by native Americans. That infestive weed the dandelion is now found in all temperate climates around the world.

The spread of European disease, weeds and pests throughout the world is one of the greatest examples of the ‘law of unintended consequences’.

Pre-imperial European colonising attempts

I feel I’ve read quite a lot about the European conquest of India or Africa, therefore I found Crosby’s earlier chapters the most interesting, where he describes in detail the Norse voyages of exploration, to Iceland, Greenland and then onto Vinland, with detailed discussion of the crops and livestock the Vikings took with them, and the reasons for their initial success and ultimate failure, a combination of insufficient numbers, economic unviability (nobody wanted the goods the colonies could produce), conflict with the natives – the skraelings as the Vikings called the inhabitants of America.

He gives an account of the Crusades, again analysing the reasons for their ultimate failure – they came up against well-populated, well-organised native states and cultures, and not enough Europeans wanted to emigrate there. Result: collapse, withdrawal. The last Crusader territory was abandoned in 1202.

He claims that European Imperialism really begins around 1400 with the settlement of the Canary, Azores and Madeira Islands and this is a story I’d never read about before. It set the pattern for everything which followed – including long bloody campaigns against the natives – the Guanches – the eventual extermination of their populations through war but mostly waves of infectious disease, the setting up of sugar cane plantations with their insatiable appetite for manual labour solved by the importing of slave labour (often not black African, but North African Berbers or Jews or heretics from Europe).

This economic, social and technological model was to be exported to innumerable other ‘plantations’ in the centuries ahead. And it shows the general rule: a technologically more advanced society will tend to conquer, enslave and completely re-order a technologically inferior culture remodeling it to supply its economic needs. This rule applies in all times and places: wherever a more powerful population can overpower and dominate a weaker one – it will.

World winds and global exploration

The middle chapters give a highly detailed account of the early explorations by the Portuguese and Spanish pioneers, notably de Gama, Magellan and Columbus, but focusing not on armaments or economics but on winds. The story is told as the slow steady and thorough exploration of the world’s wind systems – in an age of sail, effectively the discovery of the world’s motorway systems – complete with several complex and fascinating maps. Obviously the era of great Explorations was a pre-requisite for European expansion but this chapter has nothing directly biological about it. It’s an example of the way the book has a chatty, discursive feel, and Crosby writes in a relaxed, slangy, sometimes jokey style quite unlike the sensible academic prose of John Darwin or the impassioned opinionating of Niall Ferguson. One of his catch phrases is ‘and what have you’. Thus:

The Asians and their plants and animals had existed in and around thousands of villages and cities for thousands of years, and along with them had evolved many species of germs, worms, insects, rusts, molds, and what have you attuned to preying on humanity and its servant organisms. (p.135)

The Neo-Europes

The second half of the book turns to look in closer detail at its main subject: the success of the ‘Neo-Europes’, lands with temperate climates, inhabited overwhelmingly by whites descended from European settlers and which, in an angle I hadn’t thought about before, are characterised by producing, consistently year after year, surpluses of food, something almost all the rest of humanity fails to do. He’s talking about North America, Australia and New Zealand, and the southerly part of South America.

The timing of these migrations is fascinating because it was slow slow slow – and then a torrent. Thus in 1800, after two centuries of colonisation, North America still only had a population of about 5 million whites and a million black slaves; southern South America only half a million whites; Australia 10,000 white settlers.

Then bang! The nineteenth century is the great century of mass white emigration. Between 1820 and 1930, over 50 million people emigrated to the Neo-European lands, about a fifth of the entire population of Europe! Why? The agricultural revolution fuelled a population explosion which put pressure on land and resources; war and instability; persecution of minorities in increasingly nationalist countries – and the rapid growth of transport, better long distance sailing and then steamships, train networks across the Neo-European lands opening up vast new frontiers for settlement; mass media i.e advertising campaigns giving tantalising pictures of the wealth to be won abroad.

The chapters which follow deal with the fauna and weed we exported – chief among which seems to have been plantain and sow thistle; the animals we exported – cattle, pigs, sheep, rabbits, rats; the illnesses white men took with them, most devastatingly smallpox whose ravages, destroying half or third of entire populations, again and again, rendering populous countrysides empty just as the colonists arrived.

The longest chapter in the book takes New Zealand as a case study of the colonisation of a New Europe, by all the elements discussed – flora, animals, disease, whitey – with the usual baleful impacts on local ecosystems and above all the poor Maori people. But, as Darwin pointed out, the Maori story is a bit different because they were annexed by the British Empire after requesting it themselves, and signing a formal treaty. This Treaty of Waitangi (1841) was later to form the basis of claims against the government and is the subject of dispute to this day.

The final chapter of ‘Explanations’ draws all the previous discussions together. One giant conclusion leaps out. At several places in the text, Crosby had mentioned that fossil and bone records suggest that the original large animals in America, Australia and New Zealand died out at just around the time the first humans arrived in these places. Humans arriving with stone axes and arrow tips came across enormous walking meals which were unafraid of humans – and they devastated them. When Crosby was writing this was still a controversial theory. But if true, it has the supplementary effect of providing a strong additional reason why the Neo-Europes were so vulnerable to invasion from Old World flora, fauna, disease – because all these places were still reeling from a first decimation of large mammals, their predators, their pest and the diseases they carried. Without realising it the Europeans arrived in countries with, biologically speaking, yawning gaps in their ecosystems – and their imported animals – pigs, horses, cattle, sheep, rabbits, rats – as well as the wheat and innumerable weeds – stormed into the vacant slots. From nature’s point of view the Amerindians, Aborigines and Maoris on the one hand, and the European invaders on the other, are not adversaries, with natives passive and whites active: they are both invaders of the same destructive species, the first wave acting as shock troops to clear the way for the second wave which arrived with its complex technologies, economies, biota and overwhelming numbers.

Quite a radically different way of seeing imperial history from the usual “bad white imperialist destroys eco-friendly native paradise” picture.

Rare words

  • endogeny – development or growth from within.
  • helminthic parasites – helminths, also commonly known as parasitic worms, are large multicellular organisms, which when mature can generally be seen with the naked eye. They are often referred to as intestinal worms even though not all helminths reside in the intestines.
  • indigenes – a person or thing that is indigenous
  • ‘Neo-Europes’ – a country or territory with a temperate European-style climate, inhabited by whites descended from European settlers e.g. America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand
  • northing – distance travelled or measured northward, especially at sea.
  • pelagic – Any water in a sea or lake that is neither close to the bottom nor near the shore can be said to be in the pelagic zone.
  • virgin soil epidemic – a term coined by Crosby himself, who defines it as epidemics ‘in which the populations at risk have had no previous contact with the diseases that strike them and are therefore immunologically almost defenseless’ i.e. decimated by illnesses they have never encountered before.
Landscape with an Episode from the Conquest of America by Jan Mostaert (c. 1535)

Landscape with an Episode from the Conquest of America by Jan Mostaert (c. 1535)


Credit

Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe 900-1900 by Alfred W. Crosby was published by Cambridge University Press in 1986. All quotes and references are to the 1993 Canto paperback edition.

Related links

Other blog posts about Empire

Something of Myself by Rudyard Kipling (1937)

At any rate it went into the Weekly, together with soldier tales, Indian tales, and tales of the opposite sex. There was one of this last which, because of a doubt, I handed up to the Mother, who abolished it and wrote me; Never you do that again. But I did and managed to pull off, not unhandily, a tale called ‘A Wayside Comedy,’ where I worked hard for a certain ‘economy of implication,’ and in one phrase of less than a dozen words believed I had succeeded.

I made my own experiments in the weights, colours, perfumes, and attributes of words in relation to other words, either as read aloud so that they may hold the ear, or, scattered over the page, draw the eye. There is no line of my verse or prose which has not been mouthed till the tongue has made all smooth, and memory, after many recitals, has mechanically skipped the grosser superfluities.

Introduction

Kipling began work on this short autobiography in August 1935 as he approached his seventieth birthday. Although he didn’t know it, he had barely six months left to live. In her diary his wife, Caroline (‘Carrie’), wrote that the aim was to ‘review his life from the point of view of his work’. Kipling died in January 1936 but his widow thought the text complete enough to be made public and, after an unknown amount of editing by herself and one of Kipling’s oldest friends, it was published in February 1937.

The Kipling Society have made available online an introductory essay to the book by Thomas Pinney which is very balanced and informative. One of its main points is the way the autobiography completely omits huge areas of his life – not drawing a veil over his early love affairs (as you might expect) but mention of such important events as his young daughter’s tragic death in 1899 (from pneumonia aged just 6) and his 18-year-old son’s death in the Great War.

Pinney points out that Something of Myself contains a number of factual errors, as well as several striking places Kipling gives way to anger and bitterness about corruption, for example (unjustly, apparently) accusing his newspaper proprietors of taking bribes. He also highlights the several places where Kipling really lambasts American culture and society.

Something of Myself is, Pinney concludes, the work of ‘a man writing at the end of a life that had been devoted to so many causes by then defeated or discredited’.

Yes. But there are also many, many revealing passages which shed invaluable light on Kipling’s life, on his formative boyhood experiences and on his own practice as a writer. Foremost among these is the horrifying account of the brutality he was subjected to when his parents left him in England, aged just 6, at the house of a couple who had a track record of looking after Indian ex-pats’ children while they went to English prep school, but who turned out to be sadistic bullies. This was probably the defining experience of Kipling’s life and it is told in grisly enough detail.

For me the two lasting impressions of the book are

a) Wonder – Kipling’s own childish wonder at so many beautiful and fascinating aspects of the world  he moved through, and my wonder at the carefree confidence with which he travelled all round the world, living in India, America, South Africa, seeing sights and sounds and smells, building cabins and observing local animals and people – what a life he had!
b) Compressed On the down side, it has, like so many of his later stories, been worked over and over, sub-edited, pared away and compressed so that quite often it is a little difficult to grasp what he’s talking about: in some places, even after careful rereading, it’s in fact impossible to understand what he’s saying. In works of fiction this has a mysterious, deepening affect; but in a work of fact it repels and distances the reader. You long for the clarity of Charles Carrington’s wonderfully lucid and informative biography.

Something of Myself is divided into eight chapters:

  1. A Very Young Person 1865 – 1878 (toddler years in Bombay and then the horror of being abandoned in England to the ‘care’ of a sadistic landlady)
  2. The School Before Its Time 1878 – 1882 (bumptious account of life at the United Services College, a boarding school for sons of Indian Army officers, and the basis of Kipling’s schoolboy stories about Stalky and Co)
  3. Seven Years’ Hard (return to India where, at age 17, he began gruelling work on a small local newspaper, The Civil & Military Gazette, exposed to the harsh world of British soldiers and the professionals who kept the Empire working)
  4. The Interregnum (arrival back in London in 1889, after his seven years apprenticeship, with a portfolio of stories and poems about India which instantly make his name, the London music halls inspiring the Barrack-Room Ballads)
  5. The Committee of Ways and Means (1892 marriage to Caroline ‘Carrie’ Balestier and move to Vermont in America, where he wrote The Jungle BooksCaptains Courageous and much patriotic poetry)
  6. South Africa (Kipling was very involved in The Boer War 1899-1902, moving to South Africa to work on a newspaper for the troops, distributing goods and treats to soldiers, seeing action, hobnobbing with leading British Imperialist, including Cecil Rhodes)
  7. The Very–Own House (the final move to ‘Bateman’s in Sussex, family home for the rest of his life, with loving details of the local scenery and population)
  8. Working–Tools (a fascinating insight into his methods and techniques of composition)

Themes

As with so many of his later short stories, the telling is so compressed and allusive that you read and reread certain passages but still have the sense that you’ve missed something. So much is implied, and so little explicitly stated. Many of the most repeatable stories are familiar from other books, most notably Charles Carrington’s definitive biography, or have been recycled in introductions or footnotes to various editions. Many themes emerge:

Muslims Being raised in Lahore, in what is now Pakistan, Kipling is much more familiar with Muslims than Hindus. Throughout his work are many Muslim characters who are examples of rectitude and duty. Of all the gods, Allah is mentioned a surprising number of times through the book; the second sentence reads:

‘Therefore, ascribing all good fortune to Allah the Dispenser of Events, I begin’.

And then:

It pleased Allah to afflict H—- in after years…

Our native Foreman, on the News side, Mian Rukn Din, a Muhammedan gentleman of kind heart and infinite patience, whom I never saw unequal to a situation, was my loyal friend throughout.

There were ghostly dinners too with Subalterns in charge of the Infantry Detachment at Fort Lahore, where, all among marble-inlaid, empty apartments of dead Queens, or under the domes of old tombs, meals began with the regulation thirty grains of quinine in the sherry, and ended – as Allah pleased!

There is, or was, a tablet in my old Lahore office asserting that here I ‘worked.’ And Allah knows that is true also!

Those were great and spacious and friendly days in Washington which — politics apart — Allah had not altogether deprived of a sense of humour.

The word ‘Allah’ is clearly used not as by a devout Muslim, but as an indication of ‘God’, of the power that rules the cosmos, in a way which (typically of Kipling) can be ironic, playful, deprecating, but hints at a fundamental seriousness. In fact, throughout the book Kipling takes a fatalistic though optimistic view of his own life, emphasising that many things happened through Fate, with little or no input from himself. He talks again and again about Fate dealing him certain cards, the cards being presented to him, so as to make various decisions (of subject matter and books and ideas) obvious and unavoidable.

Sensual descriptions Not something you associate with Kipling, but richly wrought descriptions are to be found throughout his work, especially in the frame sections of the stories in Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies, and there are sweet touches of it here;

I have always felt the menacing darkness of tropical eventides, as I have loved the voices of night-winds through palm or banana leaves, and the song of the tree-frogs…

There were far-going Arab dhows on the pearly waters, and gaily dressed Parsees wading out to worship the sunset…

Servants Rich Europeans had armies of servants at this time; even a not-very-successful writer like Henry James appears to have had a butler, a housekeeper and a cook. But in the Empire white men were waited on hand and foot in a way which Europeans found astonishing, and which is inconceivable to us today. As a toddler Kipling had an ayah and a bearer, and was raised in an atmosphere where his clothes were held out for him to get into, his baths were run for him, and even doors were opened in front of him and closed behind him by permanently present servants. Kipling was brought up with servants to do everything. As he wrote of his life in India:

Till I was in my twenty-fourth year, I no more dreamed of dressing myself than I did of shutting an inner door or – I was going to say turning a key in a lock. But we had no locks. I gave myself indeed the trouble of stepping into the garments that were held out to me after my bath, and out of them as I was assisted to do. And – luxury of which I dream still – I was shaved before I was awake!

World of wonder Difficult to convey if you haven’t read it, but his autobiography, like his work, gives a fantastic, exciting, boyish sense of the size and scale and wonder of the world. There’s the sights and sounds and smells of India itself; then of the P&O liner back to England; a train journey across the Egyptian desert. Even in grim Portsmouth, the old sea captain in whose care the 6-year-old Kipling was placed, had fought at the naval battle of Navarino (1827) and been disabled by becoming tangled in a harpoon line while whale fishing. He takes the boy to see amazingly romantic old wooden sailing ships at Portsmouth Hard, including one which had sailed up into the Arctic Circle!

Later, in the 1890s, after an apparent nervous breakdown in London, Kipling goes to recuperate on an extraordinary Cook’s tour across the world, sailing in a steamer to Madeira, on to South Africa, then across the Indian Ocean to Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania, back to southern India and by train up to Lahore to see his parents and childhood home one last time, before returning to London.

Here he marries Carrie Balestier (1892) and then – embarks on another awesome honeymoon voyage, sailing west to America, taking trains across Canada to Vancouver, then right across the Pacific to Japan. Wow. And then back to the States and right across the continent to New England where the young couple settle into a primitive one-story cottage, equipped only with an elementary stove and one hot pipe, living in what today would be incredibly primitive surroundings (and in fact sounding strikingly like Robert Louis Stevenson and his bride’s honeymoon in North California, as described in The Silverado Squatters.)

Brilliant details Kipling makes the world seem exciting and strange and full of vivid, standout details. Somehow, not being imprisoned by the clutter of gadgets which hem in our modern lives, Kipling’s boyish imagination seems to have been freer to observe and wonder. Take his description of what he saw as a child roaming the Victoria and Albert Museum with his sister:

We roved at will, and divided the treasures child-fashion. There were instruments of music inlaid with lapis, beryl and ivories; glorious gold-fretted spinets and clavichords; the bowels of the great Glastonbury clock; mechanical models steel – and silver-butted pistols, daggers and arquebusses – the labels alone were an education; a collection of precious stones and rings – we quarrelled over those – and a big bluish book which was the manuscript of one of Dickens’ novels. That man seemed to me to have written very carelessly; leaving out lots which he had to squeeze in between the lines afterwards. These experiences were a soaking in colour and design with, above all, the proper Museum smell; and it stayed with me.

And even the most humdrum accounts are enlivened by the bright detail or the telling phrase.

We parted, my Captain and I, after a farewell picnic, among white, blowing sand where natives were blasting and where, of a sudden, a wrathful baboon came down the rock-face and halted waistdeep in a bed of arum-lilies.

On one trip our steamer came almost atop of a whale, who submerged just in time to clear us, and looked up into my face with an unforgettable little eye the size of a bullock’s.

By pure luck, I had sight of the first sickening uprush and vomit of iridescent coal-dusted water into the hold of a ship, a crippled iron hulk, sinking at her moorings.

Tourists may carry away impressions, but it is the seasonal detail of small things and doings (such as putting up fly-screens and stove-pipes, buying yeast-cakes and being lectured by your neighbours) that bite in the lines of mental pictures.

My verses (The Absent-minded Beggar) had some elements of direct appeal but, as was pointed out, lacked ‘poetry.’ Sir Arthur Sullivan wedded the words to a tune guaranteed to pull teeth out of barrel-organs.

Anti-American All over the world he rambled and admired, except for America. The fifth chapter is striking for its sustained attack on the vulgarity, hypocrisy, violence, bad manners and criminality of American society.

I never got over the wonder of a people who, having extirpated the aboriginals of their continent more completely than any modern race had ever done, honestly believed that they were a godly little New England community, setting examples to brutal mankind.

And always the marvel – to which the Canadians seemed insensible – was that on one side of an imaginary line should be Safety, Law, Honour, and Obedience, and on the other frank, brutal decivilisation; and that, despite this, Canada should be impressed by any aspect whatever of the United States.

His time in Vermont ended badly, harassed by the growing resentment of the locals who just didn’t like a Limey making money and living among them, with anti-British feeling prompted by a political crisis between the two countries over a border dispute in far away Belize (!), and was exacerbated when Carrie and Kipling fell out badly with her alcoholic sponging brother, who lived nearby. The family argument came to a head when the drunk brother threatened to kill Kipling, who unwisely took him to court – an American court. Kipling’s testimony, name and reputation were dragged through the mud by the American gutter press. It was at this point the Kiplings realised they had to leave, and retreated to Britain. But Kipling obviously never forgave America for hounding him out of the house he had helped to build and where he spent the happiest and formative years of his marriage, and where he reached new heights of creativity with the Jungle Books.

The Burne-Jones household It was of vital importance to him as a boy that he was able, once a year at Christmas, to escape from the house of torment and bullying in Portsmouth to the household of his mother’s sister, Georgiana in Fulham. Georgiana was married to the pre-Raphaelite painter, Edward Burne-Jones, and ran a wonderfully bohemian household where the leading artists and writers of the day – Tennyson, Browning, William Morris – would call round and have dinner – where writing and art and story-telling were all encouraged and understood. The Burne-Jones connection provided a psychological and imaginative lifeline to the beaten and abused little boy and he continued his adoration of his uncle and aunt, moving to be near them when they moved to Sussex, until their deaths.

It is a vital component of Kipling’s make-up: on the one hand the violence of the Portsmouth household, and then of a fierce boarding school, and then the harsh realities of work in India – on the other, the very loving, supportive and creative environment of his artist father, and the astonishingly arty Burne-Joneses.

Violence It is hard to comprehend the Dickensian level of violence Kipling was subjected to as a boy. He and his sister were sent to England to board with a Mrs Holloway and her sea captain husband in Portsmouth. From here he was tutored by a series of governesses and then sent to prep school. Mrs H turned out to be a tyrant and beat and thrashed the young Kipling repeatedly for every sin and slightest misdemeanour, a woman of narrow Evangelical beliefs who called on God and the Bible as she whipped the little boy. Then in the evenings, their 12 or 13-year-old son, with whom Kipling shared a room, would also beat the daylights out of him.

I have known a certain amount of bullying, but this was calculated torture – religious as well as scientific.

He refers to her as ‘The Woman’ and the place as ‘The House of Desolation’ and gives examples not only of the countless beatings, but the deliberate humiliations. One day, being caught out concealing a bad school report, he was made to wear a big placard on his back spelling ‘LIAR’ and walk through the streets of Portsmouth. When ‘The Son’ is big enough to get a job, Kipling learns to listen intently to the sounds of his footsteps re-entering the House of Desolation at the end of the day, being able to deduce just from the sound of the tread, whether The Son had had ‘a bad day’ and was therefore liable to beat Kipling. It was systematic child abuse on an awesome scale.

Then there was the boarding school he was sent to at age 13, the United Services College.

My first year and a half was not pleasant. The most persistent bullying comes less from the bigger boys, who merely kick and pass on, than from young devils of fourteen acting in concert against one butt.

Not only was there lots of bullying, and fighting even among friends, but also systematic corporal punishment which readers nowadays find hard to imagine.

The penalty for wilful shirking [of sports] was three cuts with a ground-ash from the Prefect of Games. One of the most difficult things to explain to some people is that a boy of seventeen or eighteen can thus beat a boy barely a year his junior, and on the heels of the punishment go for a walk with him; neither party bearing malice or pride.

But it made him what he was.

Nor was my life an unsuitable preparation for my future, in that it demanded constant wariness, the habit of observation, and attendance on moods and tempers; the noting of discrepancies between speech and action; a certain reserve of demeanour; and automatic suspicion of sudden favours.

It also, according to his critics (especially the mid-century sage Edmund Wilson in his psycho-analytical essay about Kipling) left an enduring stain across Kipling’s work, in a compulsive need to have his characters behave just that bit too violently, too aggressively, too sadistically, too vengefully, even in his ‘comedies’, which often leave an unpleasantly bitter taste of revenge and humiliation.

Craft and art In his last years at school he was grateful to the head for giving him free run of the library and taking him on for extra lessons, especially in précis, the quick summarising of other people’s texts: this was to be invaluable when he returned to journalism aged only 17, and the chapter describing his seven years’ hard labour on the Punjab newspaper emphasises the incredible hard work and long hours and dedication required. Here he gained his lifelong commitment to work, to honest labour, seen as the defining moral virtue. He was, from an early age, attracted by words and rhythms and patterns and sounds… but combined this with a tremendous ability to hold a subject or idea in his head and work it over for days or weeks on end, in his head and on paper.

Most men properly broke to a trade pick up some sort of workshop facility which gives them an advantage over their untrained fellows. My office-work had taught me to think out a notion in detail, pack it away in my head, and work on it by snatches in any surroundings.

There are extended passages about the importance of weighing and judging and deploying words.

My young head was in a ferment of new things seen and realised at every turn and – that I might in any way keep abreast of the flood – it was necessary that every word should tell, carry, weigh, taste and, if need were, smell.

Professionals Chapter three describes the long hours, day after day, working as one of the only two staff on the Civil and Military Gazette, the daily newspaper of the Punjab. The only place of entertainment was the Punjab Club and it was here that the young journalist found himself precociously thrown into the company of professional men, acquiring an admiration for men who do things which never left him.

In that Club and elsewhere I met none except picked men at their definite work — Civilians, Army, Education, Canals, Forestry, Engineering, Irrigation, Railways, Doctors, and Lawyers — samples of each branch and each talking his own shop. It follows then that that ‘show of technical knowledge’ for which I was blamed later came to me from the horse’s mouth, even to boredom.

It is here that Kipling acquired the journalist’s enthusiasm for facts facts facts, for a full grasps of the technical and geographical and administrative background for his stories, which never left him and which critics have been harsh on.

I was almost nightly responsible for my output to visible and often brutally voluble critics at the Club. They were not concerned with my dreams. They wanted accuracy and interest, but first of all accuracy.

The range of experiences he was exposed to was extraordinary and colourful.

Later I described openings of big bridges and such-like, which meant a night or two with the engineers; floods on railways – more nights in the wet with wretched heads of repair gangs; village festivals and consequent outbreaks of cholera or small-pox; communal riots under the shadow of the Mosque of Wazir Khan, where the patient waiting troops lay in timber-yards or side-alleys till the order came to go in and hit the crowds on the feet with the gun-butt (killing in Civil Administration was then reckoned confession of failure), and the growling, flaring, creed-drunk city would be brought to hand without effusion of blood, or the appearance of any agitated Viceroy; visits of Viceroys to neighbouring Princes on the edge of the great Indian Desert, where a man might have to wash his raw hands and face in soda-water; reviews of Armies expecting to move against Russia next week; receptions of an Afghan Potentate, with whom the Indian Government wished to stand well (this included a walk into the Khyber, where I was shot at, but without malice, by a rapparee who disapproved of his ruler’s foreign policy); murder and divorce trials, and (a really filthy job) an inquiry into the percentage of lepers among the butchers who supplied beef and mutton to the European community of Lahore.

Goals and ambitions There is a fascinating account of how his thinking developed in his first year of spectacular success in London. At first it was sufficient for the young man to make a big stir and, in the words of a music hall acquaintance, ‘knock ’em over’. But quite quickly he realised this wasn’t enough and, slowly, it dawned on him that he had a sort of duty to show the ignorant hypocritical English something of the world beyond their shores and something of the men and women to all corners of the earth who laboured long and hard to preserve Little Englanders in their peace and wealth – all those hard-working dedicated professionals back in India.

Their [his parents’] arrival simplified things, and ‘set’ in my head a notion that had been rising at the back of it. It seemed easy enough to ‘knock ’em’— but to what end beyond the heat of the exercise?… In the talks that followed, I exposed my notion of trying to tell to the English something of the world outside England – not directly but by implication… Bit by bit, my original notion grew into a vast, vague conspectus – Army and Navy Stores List if you like – of the whole sweep and meaning of things and effort and origins throughout the Empire.

It is fascinating to learn that the idea of justifying the British Empire, systematically, was an actual conscious thought-out strategy. What an ambition!

The strain of India And yet, among all his other contradictions, there is the constant awareness of the psychological cost of serving abroad. It wasn’t all servants and stiff upper lips. Men went mad from the heat and strain, and there is throughout Kipling’s fiction a sense of men right on the edge of complete nervous collapse.

One must set these things against the taste of fever in one’s mouth, and the buzz of quinine in one’s ears; the temper frayed by heat to breakingpoint but for sanity’s sake held back from the break; the descending darkness of intolerable dusks; and the less supportable dawns of fierce, stale heat through half of the year… Though I was spared the worst horrors, thanks to the pressure of work, a capacity for being able to read, and the pleasure of writing what my head was filled with, I felt each succeeding hot weather more and more, and cowered in my soul as it returned.

It happened one hotweather evening, in ‘86 or thereabouts, when I felt that I had come to the edge of all endurance. As I entered my empty house in the dusk there was no more in me except the horror of a great darkness, that I must have been fighting for some days. I came through that darkness alive, but how I do not know.

In the joyous reign of Kay Robinson, my second Chief, our paper changed its shape and type. This took up for a week or so all hours of the twenty-four and cost me a break-down due to lack of sleep.

The tendency to nervous prostration followed him to England and dogged the rest of his life.

But in all this jam of work done or devising, demands, distractions, excitements, and promiscuous confusions, my health cracked again. I had broken down twice in India from straight overwork, plus fever and dysentery, but this time the staleness and depression came after a bout of real influenza, when all my Indian microbes joined hands and sang for a month in the darkness of Villiers Street.

A lot that is clipped and understated and repressed and tight about Kipling must stem from this constant need to keep a harsh rein on the ever-present threat of hysteria and nervous collapse.

The uncanny Related to this note of psychological strain, is Kipling’s persistent eye for the weird and uncanny. He has an unnerving eye for the tellingly macabre detail.

Nor did I know that near our little house on the Bombay Esplanade were the Towers of Silence, where their Dead are exposed to the waiting vultures on the rim of the towers, who scuffle and spread wings when they see the bearers of the Dead below. I did not understand my Mother’s distress when she found ‘a child’s hand’ in our garden, and said I was not to ask questions about it. I wanted to see that child’s hand.

The dead of all times were about us — in the vast forgotten Muslim cemeteries round the Station, where one’s horse’s hoof of a morning might break through to the corpse below; skulls and bones tumbled out of our mud garden walls, and were turned up among the flowers by the Rains; and at every point were tombs of the dead. Our chief picnic rendezvous and some of our public offices had been memorials to desired dead women; and Fort Lahore, where Runjit Singh’s wives lay, was a mausoleum of ghosts.

[In London] Once I faced the reflection of my own face in the jet-black mirror of the window-panes for five days. When the fog thinned, I looked out and saw a man standing opposite the pub where the barmaid lived. Of a sudden his breast turned dull red like a robin’s, and he crumpled, having cut his throat. In a few minutes — seconds it seemed — a hand-ambulance arrived and took up the body. A pot-boy with a bucket of steaming water sluiced the blood off into the gutter, and what little crowd had collected went its way.

Night walking As a result of his childhood beatings in the House of Desolation in Portsmouth, Kipling thinks he must have had a nervous breakdown, and this turns out to be the first of many. When finally rescued from the House of Desolation and brought by his Mother to a boarding house in West London, he takes to what will become a lifelong habit of insomnia and wandering the streets wide awake through the night till dawn.

I did not know then that such nightwakings would be laid upon me through my life; or that my fortunate hour would be on the turn of sunrise, with a sou’-west breeze afoot.

Often the night got into my head as it had done in the boarding-house in the Brompton Road, and I would wander till dawn in all manner of odd places-liquor-shops, gambling-and opium-dens, which are not a bit mysterious, wayside entertainments such as puppet-shows, native dances; or in and about the narrow gullies under the Mosque of Wazir Khan for the sheer sake of looking. Sometimes, the Police would challenge, but I knew most of their officers, and many folk in some quarters knew me for the son of my Father, which in the East more than anywhere else is useful.

The writing

Style and phrases I dislike Kipling’s lifelong fondness for cod-Biblical or medieval expressions, or just old-fashioned phraseology – ‘whereupon’, ‘verily’, ‘ere’, ‘whereby’, ‘otherwhiles’, ‘forthwith’ – which I think mars lots of his prose:

We possessed a paradise which I verily believe saved me…

Often and often afterwards…

My eyes went wrong, and I could not well see to read. For which reason I read the more and in bad lights…

After my strength came suddenly to me about my fourteenth year, there was no more bullying; and either my natural sloth or past experience did not tempt me to bully in my turn. I had by then found me two friends…

My House-master was deeply conscientious and cumbered about with many cares for his charges. What he accomplished thereby I know not…

I found myself at Bombay where I was born, moving among sights and smells that made me deliver in the vernacular sentences whose meaning I knew not…

Rider Haggard would visit us from time to time and give of his ample land-wisdom… When Rider Haggard heard these things, he rested not till he had made the Colonel’s acquaintance.

Which things are a portent.

Sparkling phrases On the other hand, cheek by jowl with the irritating archaisms, go sudden bursts of verbal life and insight.

… the Uncle got inside the rugs and gave us answers which thrilled us with delightful shivers, in a voice deeper than all the boots in the world….

Hence our speed to our own top-landing, where we could hang over the stairs and listen to the loveliest sound in the world — deep-voiced men laughing together over dinner.

The country was large-boned, mountainous, wooded, and divided into farms of from fifty to two hundred barren acres. Roads, sketched in dirt, connected white, clap-boarded farm-houses, where the older members of the families made shift to hold down the eating mortgages.

Clipped, crabbed and obscure The eighth and final chapter, devoted to the craft of writing, is vital. Lots is conveyed in this chapter, but particularly the power of leaving out. The presence of the omissions, the presence of the absences, is something he learned as early as the writing of the Plain Tales and which characterises all his work, including this very compressed autobiography.

A tale from which pieces have been raked out is like a fire that has been poked. One does not know that the operation has been performed, but every one feels the effect.

He gives a section of clear explicit advice about how to winnow and prune and pare your drafts back to the bone, let them lie, and then do it again, paring away away a\way till you are left with the essentials.

Take of well-ground Indian Ink as much as suffices and a camel-hair brush proportionate to the inter-spaces of your lines. In an auspicious hour, read your final draft and consider faithfully every paragraph, sentence and word, blacking out where requisite. Let it lie by to drain as long as possible. At the end of that time, re-read and you should find that it will bear a second shortening. Finally, read it aloud alone and at leisure. Maybe a shade more brushwork will then indicate or impose itself. If not, praise Allah and let it go, and ‘when thou hast done, repent not.’ The shorter the tale, the longer the brushwork and, normally, the shorter the lie-by, and vice versa. The longer the tale, the less brush but the longer lie-by. I have had tales by me for three or five years which shortened themselves almost yearly.

Which sounds wise and good in theory, but in practice it gives rise to things like the following anecdote.

Occasionally one could test a plagiarist. I had to invent a tree, with name to match, for a man who at that time was rather riding in my pocket. In about eighteen months – the time it takes for a ‘test’ diamond, thrown over the wires into a field of ‘blue’ rock, to turn up on the Kimberley sorting-tables – my tree appeared in his ‘nature-studies’ name as spelt by me and virtues attributed. Since in our trade we be all felons, more or less, I repented when I had caught him, but not too much.

How much of that did you understand? How much are you meant to understand? And any reader of Kipling’s, even devoted fans like Charles Carrington, freely admit that there are some stories which are clipped back so far as to be almost incomprehensible.

Conclusion

Underpinning so much of Kipling’s prose is an irrepressibly exuberant, boyish enthusiasm, even when he’s at his most crabbed and mannered in style, and unpleasant in attitude. It’s the strange combination of all these qualities, the good and the bad, which make the later stories, particularly the ones in Credits and Debits, so powerful and unsettling.

Elusive, crabby, deliberately neglecting huge subjects, dwelling on trivia, you can accuse Something of Myself of various sins – but it was his life and he had a perfect right to write about it as he pleased. And on the plus side, it is full of absolutely vital, irreplaceable biographical information – Charles Carrington confesses that his (definitive) biography would have been incomparably poorer without the hundred telling details which Something of Myself includes.

It’s a relatively short book and required reading for anyone who wants to understand or get a fuller flavour of this strange, unpleasant, jovial, weirdly imaginative and hugely important writer.


Related links

Other Kipling reviews

The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson (1888)

This is unashamedly a children’s book. It was published as a monthly serial in Young Folks; A Boys’ and Girls’ Paper of Instructive and Entertaining Literature from June to October 1883 under the pseudonym ‘Captain George North’ (the same pen name Stevenson used for Treasure Island). Still, I am reading and experiencing it as an adult.

Cover of The Black Arrow illustrated by N.C. Wyeth

Cover of The Black Arrow illustrated by N.C. Wyeth

The Wars of the Roses

The story is set against the backdrop of the Wars of the Roses, a confusing conflict when the weakness and mental illness of King Henry VI allowed a major civil war to develop between followers of two large noble families – York and Lancaster, each fighting for the crown – which dragged on for a generation, from 1455 to 1485. (Hence the novel’s sub-title, A Tale of the Two Roses.)

There is no high-level explanation of any of this in the novel, and no date given to help the reader orientate themself. We see the conflict not from the vantage of courts and kings, but reflected in the microcosm of what seems to be a small area of the Fenland i.e East Anglia, around the fictional village of Tunstall, with its Moat House and nearby Holyrood Abbey.

The novel opens with a confused throng of villagers, the publican, the local parson Sir Oliver Oates, the lord of the manor Sir Daniel Brackley, and his ward the young teenager Dick Shelton, as they get confused reports of a battle, or at least of another nobleman in some kind of warlike trouble, nearby.

Things are further confused when Brackley’s man, Bennet Hatch, takes Dick to go and talk to old Nick Appleyard, the oldest man in the village who saw service under Henry the Fifth. Hatch wants to ask him to form a small troop to defend the village while the other men ride off to the battle. But they’ve barely started talking before out of nowhere a big arrow whizzes past them, embeds itself between Appleyard’s shoulders and, after a few, shudders, he dies. There are enemies in the woods across the valley. But who? Why?

Brackley is rallying his men outside the village pub when some of them spot a figure fleeing from the churchyard across fields and into the nearby woods. Dick runs over to the church and finds a parchment nailed to the door which promises revenge against oppressors and is signed ‘Jon Amend-All of the Green Wood, And his jolly fellaweship’. It is in the form of doggerel verse:

I had four blak arrows under my belt,
Four for the greefs that I have felt,
Four for the nomber of ill menne
That have opressid me now and then.

it goes on to name four specific individuals who it threatens with death for their ‘crimes’.

One is gone; one is wele sped;
Old Apulyaird is ded.

One is for Maister Bennet Hatch,
That burned Grimstone, walls and thatch.

One for Sir Oliver Oates,
That cut Sir Harry Shelton’s throat.

Sir Daniel, ye shull have the fourt;
We shall think it fair sport.

It seems to be blaming all four for taking part in the murder of Harry Shelton (Dick’s father) and the burning down of his house. When, in the next scene, we see the slippery and corrupt Sir Daniel Brackley extracting money with menaces i.e. doubling his tenants’ rents to him or else promising to hang them, we quickly come to suspect the poetic accusation is correct. Brackley has brought Dick up, harsh but fair, but the poem seems to implicate him in the murder of Dick’s father when Dick was a small child, and the burning down of his family’s house, Grimstone. You don’t have to be a genius to suspect that young Dick will find himself falling out with his guardian and in with Jon and the romantic woodland ‘fellaweship’.

Adventure and excitement

Stevenson possesses in abundance the boys adventure skill of creating tense moments which set the pulses racing and inflame the teenage mind in all of us. When Brackley (not suspecting the boy’s growing suspicions) sends Dick on an errand to nearby Tunstall Moat House, he finds himself falling in with another young lad who was at the inn and is (for some reason) also going the same way. Once they’ve identified themselves to each other, they carry on through the snowy woods (the novel is set in the depths of winter).

In this scene, the boys have arrived at the ruins of the burnt-out mansion, only to realise there are other people around in the neighbourhood, then realising it is the ‘woodland fellaweship’. They climb warily through the debris and look out through a ruined windowframe:

Peering through this, they were struck stiff with terror at their predicament. To retreat was impossible; they scarce dared to breathe. Upon the very margin of the ditch, not thirty feet from where they crouched, an iron caldron bubbled and steamed above a glowing fire; and close by, in an attitude of listening, as though he had caught some sound of their clambering among the ruins, a tall, red-faced, battered-looking man stood poised, an iron spoon in his right hand, a horn and a formidable dagger at his belt.
(Chapter IV – A Greenwood Company)

The story is chock full of such moments of suspense, confrontation, escape, fights, battles, storms at sea – Stevenson threw everything he could think of and the kitchen sink into the plot.

Fast-moving plot

This other lad Dick has teamed up with is called John Matcham. They watch the outlaws interrupt their meal in the clearing to go off and attack a line of Brackley’s men who are wending through a different part of the woods. Continuing on their way, they encounter a strange leper slowly ringing a mournful hand bell, who reveals himself to be Brackley in a disguise he’s adopted to navigate the dangerous woods. All three finally make it to the safety of Tunstall Moat, Brackley’s base.

Book II – the Moat House

Here, Dick confronts Brackley with his suspicions and makes him swear he had nothing to do with murdering his (Dick’s) father – which he does with easy fluency. But the parson also named in the doggerel accusation, Sir Oliver Oates, can’t bring himself to take an oath, stuttering and hesitating and turning red, pretty much incriminating himself.

Moreover, one of Brackley’s men brought wounded to the Moat House after the attack on them by the outlaws which Dick and John witnessed, and who is now dying – one John Carter – more or less confesses to the murder and implicates Brackley.

Right. So we have established that Sir Daniel Brackley is the man who helped or was responsible for murdering Dick Shelton’s father and burning down his ancestral home, years ago, but who then adopted and raised Dick. The scales fallen from his eyes, Dick and John decide to escape from the Moat House. But this proves easier said than done since it is a medieval fortress and full of Brackley’s men on high alert for an attack. There is a lot of creeping along spooky, dark castle corridors holding only a rushlight.

Illustration for The Black Arrow by the wonderful N.C. Wyeth

Illustration for The Black Arrow by N.C. Wyeth (1916)

Eventually they are discovered and flee into a vacant room, barricading themselves in against attackers. After repelling an attack through an unsuspected trap door – John Matcham finally reveals that ‘he’ is a maid in disguise. ‘He’ is Joanna Sedley, heir to a fine estate etc etc. whose family are all dead and so has spent her life being held hostage by a number of great lords, all planning marriage deals for her.

Now Brackley has possession of her and wants to marry her off to another lord who will pay a fine price. There is just time for Dick and Joanna to realise they are in love with each other! before the door is forced open by Brackley’s men who seize Joanna and almost grab Dick, who wriggles free, plunges out the window into the moat below, swims across it and scrambles to safety under cover of darkness. Phew!

Book III – My Lord Foxham

Several months have gone by and the House of Lancaster is in the ascendant with the Yorkists defeated – the small port of Shoreby-on-the-Till is full of Lancastrian nobles including Brackley, sucking up to the new masters of the land.  Now we learn that Dick has been hiding out all this time with the outlaws in the forest and that their leader is called Ellis Duckworth. He has loaned Dick some of his cut-throats, criminals and deserters to tail Brackley to Shoreby and now the chapter opens with them hiding out, drinking and grumbling, in a low pub.

One of their spies comes in to report that Brackley is going to a midnight assignation at a house by the sea – Dick and his men follow, Dick climbs over the wall and peers through the window and sees the house contains Joanna Sedley, now magically transformed from the ‘boy’ he shared adventures with in book one into a tall, stately, womanly figure – he is even more in love with her, though a little daunted by her fine womanhood.

Other figures are seen moving suspiciously around the walls and so Dick’s men attack them, leading to a scrappy fight. Dick kills one then tackles a good-sized man in a fight which spills into the sea – Dick manages to trip him, get him under the waves and forces him to yield. It turns out to be Lord Foxham, himself no friend of Brackley, himself come to spy on Joanna. Realising they’re on sort of the same side, Dick and Foxham arrange to meet next day at St Bride’s Cross, just outside Shoreby, ‘on the skirts of Tunstall Forest’. Here Lord Foxham confirms his identity and that he is the rightful protector of the fair Joanna Sedley. Dick’s passionate protestations about her safety persuade Foxham that Dick truly loves her, and he declares that Dick shall marry her. Only the slight problem that she is held captive by Brackly and betrothed to Lord Shoreby stands in the way.

So Dick resolves to rescue fair Joanna from the house by the sea. Since his fight with Foxham’s men the night before was pretty conspicuous, Brackley has doubled his guard, placing armed men round the house and knights on the approach roads, so Dick has the bright idea of approaching by sea. In a series of rather contorted events which are typical of the novel’s contrived storyline, Dick commissions his pack of criminals to steal a ship, which they do by hailing the master of a boat newly arrived in the port of Shoreby, as he comes ashore, then plying him with so much drink that he is easy to lure outside, mug and tie up. Then the gang row back out to the ship – the ironically named Good Hope – take command of it and sail it to a rough pier not far from the isolated house where Joanna is being held.

But when our men leave the ship and walk along the rough pier they find themselves instantly attacked, coming under bow and arrow fire, killing and injuring many, the whole crew panicking and rushing back to the ship, some falling into the water and drowning, others expiring on the deck. Quite a bloody scene.

Even Lord Foxham, who we only met ten pages earlier, is wounded, and carried to a cabin below decks. Here, once the ship has weighed anchor, he tells Dick that he was scheduled to meet the young Duke of Gloucester (the future King Richard III) of the house of York, with notes about the deployment of the Lancastrian forces around Shoreby. Dick must now undertake this mission. And Foxham names Dick the rightful husband of Lady Joanna in the letters he asks Dick to bear – but it is up to him to actually secure her.

In further melodrama the ship is now driven by heavy seas to shipwreck on the sand not far from Shoreby. Once the tide has gone out all the survivors of the vain attack on Brackley’s house struggle ashore and traipse inland, but not without – in yet more action – briefly coming under attack from a platoon of men apparently place there to defend the coast. But they escape without any more casualties.

All of this, by the way, takes place in the depth of winter, with darkening stormy skies, high seas, and snow storms. It is all very atmospheric and well described but the underlying scenario is too far-fetched for the reader to buy into.

Book IV – The Disguise

Dick pays off the motley crew, all too happy to leave their unlucky (and very young) leader, and elects to stick with Lawless. This outlaw has emerged with higher stature then the other cut-throats: it was he who Dick saw in the clearing cooking the outlaws’ meal; it was he who took control of the Good Hope‘s helm, steered it through the storm and ensured it survived the wreck. Now Lawless takes Dick through the snow-struck forest to his secret lair in the woods, a warren created when a tall beech tree was blown over, with the sides shored up with earth and turf and the entrance covered with brushwood.

Lawless leading young Dick to his den in the woods, illustration by N.C. Wyeth

Lawless leading young Dick to his den in the woods, illustration by N.C. Wyeth

It is, in other words, a fantasy version of a boy’s den in the woods. Inside it is surprisingly warm and snug, especially after Lawless lights a fire, they cook and eat some food and share some sweet wine, and Dick tells his story. ‘You want Lady Joan?’ Lawless asks Dick. ‘Let’s go and get her.’ So Lawless opens one of the several trunks stashed round his den and gets out several friar’s cassocks, complete with rope belts. And a tray of make-up pencils (a sort of indication of the theatrical origins or references of much of the language and plot of the novel). He gets Dick to put on the friar’s costume and then applies make-up to make him seem older, a wise old wandering friar. They head off through the snowy woods, back towards Sir Daniel Brackley’s residence in Shoreby.

Here, in the chaos of an over-packed lord’s house, Dick sees two fine ladies heading upstairs and follows them, till he encounters Lady Joan again, in the company of her serving lady. But oh alas and alack! Joanna reveals that she is to be married next day to Lord Shoreby. She and the lady must go back downstairs to the marriage feast while Dick stays hidden. Off they go but only a few minutes later a malevolent dwarf-jester comes snooping around and, as he discovers evidence of Dick hiding, Dick leaps out, they tussle, and Dick stabs him to death with his poniard. (For the hero of a children’s story Dick kills quite a few people – he killed one of Foxham’s men in the fight by the sea, he kills the dwarf – and all this pales next to the slaughter in book V. It’s a surprisingly violent book.)

When the dwarf’s body is discovered by servants there is much alarm and shouting but Dick stays hidden in Lady J’s room, when she returns for a further clasping of hands and bosoms and protestations of love – all watched by the ironic lady-in-waiting, before Dick tries to make his escape.

Since he is still in his disguise as a friar, he tells the house guards that he is going to the nearby church to pray for the dwarf’s soul (his body having been laid in state there), but the guards take him at his word and frog-march him to the church. Here he is no sooner introduced to the parson, Sir Oliver Oates, who begins to recognise him through is disguise than Dick throws himself on his mercy. In an unguarded moment the parson, for his part, admits that he was used as a decoy to lure Dick’s father to his death all those years ago, but swears he didn’t know that was what was going to happen. The soldiers are sitting in the pews watching him suspiciously so there’s no way Dick can escape the church, and so he spends the night next to Sir Oliver, pretending to mutter prayers for the dead dwarf.

Next morning they are woken early by the grand procession for the wedding of Lord Shoreham to Lady Joanna. But barely has the fine lord entered the church, richly caparisoned and accompanied by his fragrant retinue than a brace of arrows ring out, shooting him dead on the spot, injuring Brackley, creating hysteria and panic among the attendants and ladies.

This is stilled by the imperious voice of Lord Risingham, the noblest man present. To Dick’s dismay the parson immediately betrays him and Lawless (his fellow fake friar) and they are dragged before Risingham and all kinds of accusations thrown at them of being in league with the fellowship of the Black Arrow and therefore involved in this sacrilegious outrage.

Brackley is incensed and wants to drag Dick off and torture him to death, but Lady Joanna intercedes to say she never wanted to marry Lord Shoreby and loves Dick, and her (cheeky) lady in waiting backs up the story and so Risingham, who has seniority, has Dick taken by soldiers to his own chambers to judge.

Here Dick saves the day by admitting that he guilty to some extent of falling in with the fellowship of forest crooks, but he only did so after learning that Brackley murdered his father. He clinches his case by handing over to Risingham a letter he had conveniently found on the murdered dwarf in which the villain Brackley plots to overthrow the Yorkist interest – which includes Risingham – and then hand over Risingham’s lands to Lord Shoreby. Risingham is incensed and instantly releases Dick, making him swear to mend his ways.

So Dick finally gets to escape the house and trouble and is walking free across Shoreby when, of all the bad luck, as he is passing one of the inns on the dockside, out of it stumble some very drunk sailors which include Arblaster, the unfortunate captain who Dick’s men got drunk, mugged and then whose ship they stole and wrecked. He doesn’t recognise him but his wretched dog does, coming barking up to him and lawless, still in their silly friar disguises. The drunks grow in suspicion and when he tries to bolt, grab him, tie him up and drag him back into the pub. Here Dick spins a long cock and bull story, admitting he is one of the outlaws but has grudges against them, and that the outlaws have a vast pile of treasure in the woods, and persuading Arblaster and his mates that he’ll lead them to it. In its way this is a curious and flavoursome scene. They are by this stage very drunk and Dick makes them show him the only possession of his which they found and therefore took off him – Lord Foxham’s signet ring with which he was to identify himself to Richard of Gloucester – when Dick snatches it, up ends the tables in their faces, and scarpers out the door and along the quayside into the night. Phew.

Book V – Crookback

Though as convoluted in detail as the others, this is in some ways the simplest book. If you remember, Dick had promised Lord Foxham he would rendezvous with Richard Duke of Gloucester and give him Foxham’s writings on the disposition of enemy (Lancastrian) forces in Shoreby. Now, Dick hid those papers when he was at Lawless’s den in the woods, which is why Arblaster and his drunk shipmates didn’t find them when they searched Dick the night before.

Now, the next morning, Dick is on his way through the woods back to Lawless’s den to get them, when he comes across a man defending himself against several attackers. Dick throws himself into the fray, coming to his defence, and together they beat the men off. At which point the other blows his horn and a brace of horsemen arrive and quickly identify the man he’s saved as Richard Duke of Gloucester, known as Crookback and as every schoolboy in 1888 knew, the man who would become King Richard III, according to legend the most wicked monarch in England’s history.

At this point, if it hadn’t been obvious before, the reader realises that this is a novel not only about two roses but about two Richards. For immediately the duke of Gloucester reveals the manic glint in his eye and the intensity of his ambition.

Gloucester explains to Dick that he is about to attack Shoreby and Dick gives him an eye-witness description of the Lancastrian forces every bit as good as Foxham’s. Gloucester knights Dick on the spot, from this point onwards Sir Richard Shelton. But says now he must command a troop during the forthcoming battle of Shoreby.

The (fictional) Battle of Shoreby is described across two chapters in impressive detail. The reader feels this is what it must be like to attack a medieval town through narrows streets and, as Dick does, command his men to raise a barricade with furniture looted from the rickety houses and then withstand attacks from massed archers and from armoured knights on horseback. It is rip-roaring exciting stuff.

Eventually the battle is won and Richard asks permission to ride and rescue his lady love, and Gloucester gives him a troop of men. Off they go trailing Brackly and his forces through the forest. After various delays and losing of the tracks, Dick and his men creep up on Brackley’s party gathered round a fire which includes Lady Joanna. They gather and attack, but Brackley’s men were waiting for them and mount a a surprise counter-attack. Joanna runs to Dick in the confusion and they escape the confusion of battle into the dense forest.

(It’s worth noting that although the novel is made of clichés, there keep coming unexpected complications and rebuffs, which give it a sort of realistic but also quite a frustrating feel. When Dick and his gang stole the ship and sailed it round to attack Brackley’s house by the sea I thought it would be a storming triumph, so was very surprised when they are beaten back and many killed or injured by bowfire before they’ve barely got off the jetty.)

Briefly, Dick and Joanna make it back to the safety of Lord Foxham’s house. There is a further encounter with Gloucester where Dick displeases the great man with a notable request. Gloucester says he will give Dick anything he desires, and at that moment – as it happens – amid the chaos of post-battle Shoreby, some troops come past hustling some captives who Gloucester, barely bothering to look, orders to be hanged. And Dick recognises among them Arblaster, the wretched sea captain who Richard has twice wronged, stealing his ship and ruining his livelihood, then throwing a table at him in the quayside pub. Now Dick sees a way to atone for his past sins and asks Gloucester to spare this man’s life. Irritated at the triviality of the request, Gloucester agrees to do so – since he has given his word – but fiercely tells Dick that he can’t expect to rise in his army, in his cause, if he throws away favours on trifle. And so Gloucester gallops off.

Next morning Dick is up betimes, accoutred and arrayed in the finest regalia Foxham can provide, ready for his wedding to Lady Joanna. He strolls around the town, surveying the triumphant Yorkist troops, before straying further afield and ends up walking through the (by now very familiar) snowy woods.

And it is here that the psychological climax of the book comes, when Dick disturbs a figure lurking in the woods in disguise and it turns out to be none other than Sir Daniel Brackley. They argue. They nearly fight but Dick refuses to shed blood on his wedding day. In fact he admits – to Brackley, to the reader, to himself – that he has done too many bloody deeds recently, spilled too much blood. Although he has all the justification for it, he will not harm Brackley. He tells him to go before he calls the guards. And so Brackley shuffles off, suspiciously.

At which point there is the twang of a bow and from a nearby thicket an arrow is despatched which embeds itself in Brackley, who falls to the ground. Dick rushes to him and just has time to tell him that, yes, it is a Black Arrow, when Brackley expires. And Ellis Duckworth comes from the thicket holding his bow. He heard Dick forgive Brackley, but he can’t forgive. He asks Dick to pray for his soul. And Dick notes that vengeance hasn’t made Duckworth feel good, in fact he feels sick and guilty. Give it up, says Dick. Hatch died in the Battle of Shoreham. So three of the four mentioned in the original verse threat are now despatched. Dick asks forgiveness for the parson and Duckworth, reluctantly agrees.

‘Be at rest; the Black Arrow flieth nevermore—the fellowship is broken.’

“But be at rest; the Black Arrow flieth nevermore”. Illustration by N. C. Wyeth

‘But be at rest; the Black Arrow flieth nevermore’. Illustration by N. C. Wyeth

In the short conclusion to the book, Dick marries his Joan. Richard Crookback makes a last appearance riding by with the long train of his armed men, going towards the next battle, and parries banter with Foxham, Joan and Dick, offering Joan the husband of her choice. Of course she cleaves to honest Dick, and Gloucester pshaws, turns his horse and gallops off towards his destiny.

And in the last few sentences we learn that Dick and Joan lived out their lives in peace and happiness far from the wars and that two old men – Arblaster the shipman and Lawless the rogue – also live out their lives in peace. Dick has, in some measure, atoned for his youthful bloodthirstiness, by at key moments, interceding and saving both their lives. And with that thought, or moral, the book ends.


Reasons for The Black Arrow’s relative failure

The relative failure and comparative neglect of this novel makes you appreciate the elements which made the classics Treasure Island and Kidnapped such successes. I identify four reasons:

1. In those novels there is one boy hero (Jim Hawkins, David Balfour) – clearly identified in the first sentence – and you are thrown immediately into his plight – which is also described clearly and obviously. In The Black Arrow the picture is much more confused: it takes fifty pages or more to become really clear that the story is about a young lad, Master Richard (‘Dick’) Shelton, the ward of the wicked Sir Daniel Brackley, and this is because quite a few characters are introduced in the confused and busy opening scenes.

2. The successful tales are first-person narratives, throwing you directly and immediately into the adventure at first hand. The Black Arrow has a third-person narrator who is not, for some reason, very believable, partly because of the confusion of plot which dogs a lot of the story.

3. Good guys and bad guys In his classic works you know who they are – the pirates in Treasure Island, the ship’s crew and then the loyalist British army in Kidnapped. In this book it is much harder to tell for several reasons:

a) it’s a civil war so there’s no immediate way of knowing who’s on whose side, except by asking
b) characters change sides, including the hero who is not wholeheartedly for either side

4. A charismatic anti-hero When Richard Crookback appears in the fifth act, the reader realises that this is the fourth reason why this novel isn’t as successful as Kidnapped or Treasure Island – the presence of a charismatic baddy.

Both those stories introduce fairly early on a hugely charismatic, charming, threatening, adult hero who enthrals the boy narrator and comes to dominate the story – namely Long John Silver and Alan Breck Stewart. Their presence, their charming rogueish amorality, lifts both books onto a completely different level.

In this book, the dangerous charismatic adult is Richard Crookback – he immediately captures our attention by his spirited self-defence against four or five attackers, and then with his arrogant nonchalance as soon as he starts talking to Dick. From now to the end of the novel the story lifts and sails whenever he is present – he is a pantomime villain like Alan Rickman’s Sheriff of Nottingham in the movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. But his arrival makes you realise that he is what the preceding four-fifths of the book have been missing.


Medieval vocabulary

Apparently Stevenson used the Paston Letters, a collection of authentic correspondence from the period, as his model, and – as someone who studied medieval literature at university – I did feel it had some of the tang and hempen antiquity of the older language, albeit interlarded with what I thought were Shakespearian useges from 200 years later, and some speeches which had a Scots ring to me. You have to be prepared to enjoy exchanges like this:

She was groping for the bolt, when Dick at last comprehended.
‘By the mass!’ he cried, ‘y’ are no Jack; y’ are Joanna Sedley; y’ are the maid that would not marry me!’
The girl paused, and stood silent and motionless. Dick, too, was silent for a little; then he spoke again.
‘Joanna,’ he said, ‘y’ ’ave saved my life, and I have saved yours; and we have seen blood flow, and been friends and enemies—ay, and I took my belt to thrash you; and all that time I thought ye were a boy. But now death has me, and my time’s out, and before I die I must say this: Y’ are the best maid and the bravest under heaven, and, if only I could live, I would marry you blithely; and, live or die, I love you.’
She answered nothing.
‘Come,’ he said, ‘speak up, Jack. Come, be a good maid, and say ye love me!’
‘Why, Dick,’ she cried, ‘would I be here?’
‘Well, see ye here,’ continued Dick, ‘an we but escape whole we’ll marry; and an we’re to die, we die, and there’s an end on’t.’ (Chapter III The Room Over The Chapel)

On the other hand, one of the pleasures of reading old literature, especially something as conventional in its way as this ripping yarn, is the logical habits of mind of writers brought up in previous ages. There is a lovely logic to the deployment of the material in the opening of the chapter ‘In Mine Enemies’ House’ – the way the place is identified, then described, then the attitude behind its busy state, then a specific setting in time given, and then the weather: the whole impression being rounded up and summarised in the witty sentence about the eye of the modern.

Sir Daniel’s residence in Shoreby was a tall, commodious, plastered mansion, framed in carven oak, and covered by a low-pitched roof of thatch. To the back there stretched a garden, full of fruit-trees, alleys, and thick arbours, and overlooked from the far end by the tower of the abbey church.
The house might contain, upon a pinch, the retinue of a greater person than Sir Daniel; but even now it was filled with hubbub. The court rang with arms and horseshoe-iron; the kitchens roared with cookery like a bees’-hive; minstrels, and the players of instruments, and the cries of tumblers, sounded from the hall. Sir Daniel, in his profusion, in the gaiety and gallantry of his establishment, rivalled with Lord Shoreby, and eclipsed Lord Risingham.
All guests were made welcome. Minstrels, tumblers, players of chess, the sellers of relics, medicines, perfumes, and enchantments, and along with these every sort of priest, friar, or pilgrim, were made welcome to the lower table, and slept together in the ample lofts, or on the bare boards of the long dining-hall.
On the afternoon following the wreck of the Good Hope, the buttery, the kitchens, the stables, the covered cartshed that surrounded two sides of the court, were all crowded by idle people, partly belonging to Sir Daniel’s establishment, and attired in his livery of murrey and blue, partly nondescript strangers attracted to the town by greed, and received by the knight through policy, and because it was the fashion of the time.
The snow, which still fell without interruption, the extreme chill of the air, and the approach of night, combined to keep them under shelter. Wine, ale, and money were all plentiful; many sprawled gambling in the straw of the barn, many were still drunken from the noontide meal. To the eye of a modern it would have looked like the sack of a city; to the eye of a contemporary it was like any other rich and noble household at a festive season.

There is a pleasure and a seduction in the logical disposition of the material, a pleasing old-fashioned storytellingness. As a thread through the reading, I made a note of sundry medieval words which, although I’ve often read before, I don’t actually fully understand.

  • arbalest – a crossbow with a special mechanism for drawing back and releasing the string
  • baldric –  a belt worn over one shoulder to carry a weapon (usually a sword) or other implement such as a bugle or drum
  • brigandine – a cloth garment, generally canvas or leather, lined with small oblong steel plates riveted to the fabric
  • buckler – a small shield, up to 18 inches in diameter, held in the fist with a central handle behind the boss
  • cresset – a metal cup or basket, mounted to a pole, containing flammable substance like oil, pitch or a rope steeped in rosin, burned as a light or beacon
  • gyves – a shackle, especially for the leg
  • losels – a worthless person or scoundrel
  • lout – verb: to bow or stoop
  • murrain – a plague, epidemic, or crop blight
  • poniard – a small, slim dagger
  • pottage – a thick soup or stew made by boiling vegetables, grains, and, if available, meat or fish
  • sallet – a light medieval helmet, usually with a vision slit or a movable visor
  • shaw – a coppice or thicket of trees
  • tippet – a scarf-like narrow piece of clothing, worn over the shoulders
  • tucket – a flourish on a trumpet
  • windac – a piece of equipment to pull back the tight string of a crossbow

Related links

A Stevenson bibliography

1878
An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
1879
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
1881
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
1882
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
1883
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
1885
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
1886
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
1887
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
1888
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
1889
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
1890
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
1891
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
1892
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
1893
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
1894
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
1895
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
1896
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
1897
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

2005
Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

The Wilt Inheritance by Tom Sharpe (2010)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who knows?


Credit

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

Related links

Tom Sharpe’s novels

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

%d bloggers like this: