Those Barren Leaves by Aldous Huxley (1925)

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

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

Number of pages in Aldous Huxley’s first four novels

Those Barren Leaves

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

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

Currently staying with her are:

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

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

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

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

Cast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr Calamy, 33, tall, young and handsome.

Mr Cardan, 65, an elderly bon viveur.

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

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

Noble and grand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snobbery about Italy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Huxley’s aim

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

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

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

Or does it?

The plot

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

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

Part one – an evening at Mrs Aldwinkle’s

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

Part two – Fragments from the Autobiography of Francis Chelifer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The loves of the parallels are:

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

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

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

The Elvers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part five – Conclusions (pp.300 – 335)

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

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

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

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

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

Anticipations of Brave New World

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

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

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

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

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

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

More work for the undertaker

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

Credit

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


Related links

Aldous Huxley reviews

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

Antic Hay by Aldous Huxley (1923)

And how did she spend her time?… Well, she read a lot of books; but most of the novels she got from Boots’ seemed to her rather silly. ‘Too much about the same thing. Always love.’ (chapter 12)

‘You bore me,’ said Mrs. Viveash.
‘Must I talk of love, then?’ asked Gumbril.
‘It looks like it,’ Mrs. Viveash answered, and closed her eyes. (chapter 21)

Antic Hay

Antic Hay is a contemporary comedy of manners set in 1922 (p.45) The comic hero is Theodore Gumbril Junior, B.A. Oxon., who is an intellectual young public school and Oxbridge graduate, who has taken a job as a teacher at a public school, like so many before and after him (like Evelyn Waugh did in 1924 and W.H. Auden did in 1930 and Edward Upward did, all hating it).

(After spelling it wrong, I realised that Gumbril is only one transposed letter away from being Grumbil i.e. grumble.)

Theodore Gumbril is a ‘bony starveling’. He is, in other words, yet another iteration of the over-intellectual, under-active, permanent miasma of jealousy, alienation and resentment which populates Huxley and Waugh’s satires. He hates the Head Master of his school, a man with fierce whims – he hates the music master Dr Jolly but most of all, he hates the boys.

He fantasises about living in a fine Italian villa, hosting magnificent parties, having just the right word of wit and intelligence to say to all his famous guests – of beautiful women who fall into his arms naked, of giving money to the composer Arnold Schoenberg, and discussing quantum theory i.e. he is totally up to speed with all the latest trends. And fired by this fantasy, at the end of chapter one Gumbril writes a letter of resignation to the Head.

Thus begin his efforts to ‘make a living’ out in ‘the real world’. In the school chapel, with a sore bottom from sitting on the hard benches, Gumbril conceives the idea of trousers containing an inflatable rubber pad under the bottom. Yes! He can patent it, he’ll call it his Patent Small-Clothes! He’ll make a fortune!

Theodor’s father, who lives in a shabby square in north London, bursts into laughter when his son tells him his plan. ‘Make money?’ ha ha ha. Mr Gumbril senior is a failing architect who has a spare room full of models of cathedrals which would put Brunelleschi and Wren to shame, but to earn his bread is obliged to design huts for the workers at Bletchley Park.

The book presents a series of comic types and characters who then circulate around the bars and restaurants and salons of London, bumping into each other like dodgems at a funfair. They include:

Casimir Lypiatt (40) a Titan of an Artist and Poet, always booming loudly about Art, the need for a modern Michelangelo, who laughs:

with the loud and bell-mouthed cynicism of one who sees himself as a misunderstood and embittered Prometheus

In fact it’s a running joke of the author’s that when Lypiatt laughs, all the elements of his face collapse. Lypiatt is supposedly a caricature of the Vorticist painter and self-proclaimed ‘Enemy’ of bourgeois conformity, Wyndham Lewis, who himself wrote a number of blistering satires on England’s artistic circles during the 1920s and 30s.

Mr Wyndham Lewis as a Tyro (1921) © The Estate of Mrs G A Wyndham Lewis; The Wyndham Lewis Memorial Trust

Jim Shearwater, a scientist, biologist to be precise. It’s a recurring joke that Shearwater seems to take up a lot of space and always blunders into tables and cupboards. He is married to pretty young Rosie who he completely neglects.

Mr Mercaptan, a flourishing aesthete, ‘wherever he was, it was Paris’ – a great exponent of civilisation, a word which he pronounces with great care and definition; he is theatrically and amusingly appalled by all the paintings at Lypiatt’s exhibition. It is a close secret that his first name is Pasteur. He is 34.

Coleman, ‘a huge bearded Cossack of a man’, ‘a young man with a blond, fan-shaped beard stood by the table, looking down at them through a pair of bright blue eyes’ – even louder and more bombastic than Lypiatt, huge strong Coleman never misses an opportunity to mock and satirise Christianity.

Myra Viveash (25), a beautiful socialite who Gumbril hangs around like a dog and who gave herself to him for a few days, then just as quickly dumped him – a haunting memory of brief bliss which makes Gumbril permanently miserable. As the plot develops we realise at least two of the other male characters are ‘in love’ with her. But unbeknown to them, she herself had a great love, gorgeous blue-eyed Tony Lamb, who was killed in the Great War, in 1917. She has never recovered. She cultivates the pose of being an exquisite creature too good for this world, and speaks in a highly mannered style as if every sentence consisted of her final, dying words. This is a fashionable pose and yet, deep inside, she really is broken forever by the death of the only man she ever loved.

Bruin Opps top-hatted, monocled toff, Myra’s current lover.

Lypiatt also loves Myra and, when she goes to his rundown mews and studio to pose for her portrait, it becomes all too clear that 40-year-old Lypiatt loves her too, so much as to burst into tears at her knees, and next moment smash his fist into the wooden dais.

I read this and thought: Love is a boring subject. There is nothing whatever mysterious about it. It is the pre-mating behaviour of Homo sapiens. It is merely a question of how long and tortuous the negotiations will be before the inevitable act of sexual intercourse is undertaken.

In Huxley’s first two novels it takes the same form – the beautiful but unattainable, nubile young woman (Anna in Crome, Myra here) and a little cluster of men all convinced they are head over heels in love with her or that she has broken their hearts. As Anne complains in Crome, men are so boring.

Chapter 7

Lypiatt holds an exhibition of new work at the gallery of the bumptious optimistic salesman, Mr Albemarle. Lypiatt has written the catalogue which rages against everyone else in the arts who he calls ‘the modern impotents’. Numerous art critics attend, including little Mr Clew and the thin, long, skin-covered skeleton of Mr Mallard. Mrs Viveash attends accompanied by Mr Mercaptan, who amusingly poo-poohs everything he sees.

Chapter 8

As mentioned above, Gumbril is pinning his hopes of generating an income on his invention of inflatable ring inside gentlemen’s trousers. In this chapter he visits his tailor who’s been working on a prototype. Well, they look pretty clumsy. His tailor is a comically loquacious character who, the first time we met him, chatted about Lenin and revolution. Now he shares his theory on how political leaders need some kind of identifying symbols or markers.

Chapter 9

On the way home Gumbril – tired of feeling like a weak loser – drops into a costumier’s shop and orders a fan-shaped blonde beard to stick onto his face to try and look more manly. It certainly makes him look bigger, wider, stronger, and more capable of the ‘conquest’ of the fair sex (p.95).

He is transformed from the Mild and Melancholy Man into The Complete Man. As I said, a lot of literature can be reduced to biology.

With the beard on, he goes walking along the Bayswater Road, finds himself looking in the same shop windows as a mysterious slender lady and, acting the role of The Complete Man, chats her up, steers her into Hyde Park, they chat for an hour, he accompanies her back to her flat in Maida Vale.

Huxley lets us see inside her head and understand that she is just as much of a fantasist as Gumbril. She pretends it’s a rented flat and that the ghastly heavy furniture isn’t hers (though it is). She says the real furniture is at her place on the Riviera where she is, of course, used to playing hostess to soirees of poets. She tries to cultivate a Catherine the Great grandeur but, for a moment the conversation flags and they both see who they are and what they are – two sad losers in a shabby flat in Maida Vale. But then Gumbril remembers he is The Complete Man, takes her in his arms and carries her to the bed.

Lying there with her eyes shut, she did her best to pretend she was dead.

Yes. I’ve had that experience too, the young women who think of themselves as madly passionate, excitingly, daringly transgressively sexual, until you try to kiss them and they squeal and freeze. It’s difficult to know what to do next, especially if you’re young and very inexperienced. Make a cup of tea? Make your excuses and leave?

Anyway, the text simply cuts from that sentence, to Gumbril preparing to leave. It seems that they have had sex in the interim, although the censorship prevents it being in any way described. Now he is leaving. During sex (whatever that was like) he has, apparently, discovered her name is Rosie. At the door he asks her full name so he can write to her, and she hands him a card and girlishly closes the door.

On the dark stairs Gumbril peers at the card and realises – she is the wife of his friend Shearwater! She is Rosie Shearwater! He is reeling from this discovery when the front door into the hall opens and Shearwater walks in. Now luckily, he walks into the darkened, shared hallway of the flats and, also, Shearwater is in conversation with a younger man about some experiment – so that Gumbril after a moment’s panic, is able to pull his hat down over his face, rush down the stairs and blunder gruffly between the two men, who both ignore him.

That evening, for the first time in their marriage, Shearwater is happy because his wife is quiet and leaves him to his scientific thoughts, after dinner lying on the sofa quietly. Good little woman. She is of course, remembering Gumbril’s caresses of her smooth, secret, pink body. But the result of her adultery is their first evening of domestic bliss in years.

Chapter 10

Gumbril has several meetings with Mr Boldero, a boosterish business man and master of advertising. His lengthy speeches are, I imagine, intended to be a satirical description of 1920s advertising, more sophisticated and manipulative than ever before, there are paragraphs devoted to how advertisers play on modern people’s ignorance of science, wish not to be left out, wish to be up to date, enjoyment of novelty for its own sake, and the argument from economy.

Mr Boldero’s financial terms for going into partnership are initially risible. Gumbril writes a firm letter and then turns up wearing his beard and a thick greatcoat which makes him look much larger and more threatening. In the guise of The Complete Man. He says the terms are unacceptable and bangs the table. Mr Boldero is genuinely intimidated and Gumbril walks out with a check for £350 down and promise of £800 a year for taking lead responsibilities in the company, namely ‘to act as a managing director, writer of advertisements and promoter of foreign sales’.

Chapter 11

Gumbril spends the afternoon at Rosie’s i.e. having sex. I thought the situation would throw him into utter confusion, as it would have done Denis Stone from Crome Yellow but Theodore Gumbril is obviously made of tougher stuff. He is in his father’s flat composing advertising copy for the Patent Small-Clothes when who should knock at the door by Shearwater himself. For a moment he panics that the man has found out he’s having an affair with his wife, but it soon becomes clear Shearwater has been seeing Myra Viveash of all people and is coming out of his scientific shell and falling love with her. He’s come to ask Gumbril’s advice. Gumbril is jocular and tries not to burst out in hysterical laughter at the absurdity of the situation.

They are interrupted by the return of Mr Gumbril senior. He takes them upstairs to a room which is usually kept locked. Now, he unlocks it and shows them a scale model of London as it would have looked if it had been rebuilt to Christopher Wren’s designs after the Great Fire of London which e describes at some length.

Chapter 12

To our surprise we learn that Gumbril, dressed in his beard as The Complete Man, picked up two young women in the National Gallery (‘Old Masters, young mistresses,’ being the cynical advice Coleman gave him). Molly flirts and rolls her eyes but Emily is more sensitive. The novel risks becoming quite serious when she tells Theodore her story, namely that she gave in to the blandishments of a kindly older man, when she was just 17 but as soon as they married he beat her and assaulted her severely. Doctors took her to a rest home after he ruptured a blood vessel in her throat and she decided not to go back. Gumbril, posing as The Complete Man, feels ashamed. So does the male reader.

In a taxi he tries to kiss her but she is really traumatised, pushes him away, is in floods of tears. He feels dreadful and grovellingly apologises, it takes ages to persuade her to see him again. Next day he takes her to Kew Gardens, they walk easily hand in hand, they sit on the grass, they talk about wildflowers which he used to collect as a boy with his mother, they talk about playing the piano – she likes the opening of Beethoven’s Sonata 32 opus111 – Theodore admires her neck and hair, thinks how beautiful she is (occasionally also remembering Rosie in her pink underwear).

Suddenly Gumbril realises they’re going to be late for the evening he’s planned. The exit the Gardens and grab a taxi and race into London, but are a bit late to arrive at the classical concert he’s bought tickets for. Nonetheless, they get in in time to see the ‘Sclopis Quartet’, plus extra viola, play the Mozart String Quintet No.4. Huxley gives us over a page of prose poetry designed to match or evoke the music (pp.148-9).

But that is nothing compared to the extended lyricism of the passage which describes them going back to his ‘rooms’ in Great Russell Street, where they sit talking by candlelight till it is very late and then, in an ecstasy of expectation, he invites her to stay the night.

Like shy fawns they strip in the night and get into bed, but all he does is stroke her neck and arms while she shivers from cold and fear, gently gently reassuring her till she falls asleep in his arms and then he falls asleep, too.

So the book is not at all played for laughs. In some places it can be as sensitive as D.H. Lawrence.

Chapter 14

Similarly all kinds of new psychological depths are played with in this chapter. Mrs Viveash exits her house weary and bored. She had cancelled all her appointments but now is overcome with futility. At the corner by the London Library she sees a familiar face and haloos Gumbril. He runs up, says hello, tells her he can’t stay as he has an appointment to catch the 2 o’clock train from Charing Cross. Lovely Emily has rented a cottage in Sussex and will be waiting at the station in a cart.

But Mrs Viveash really pressurises him to joining her for lunch, and something in him gives in, and we follow in detail his changing psychology as he says Emily is only a girl, and is seduced by Mrs Viveash’s sophistication, and is led by her to a post office where he sends Emily a telegram saying he’s had a slight accident, will come down tomorrow same time, then lets himself be led off for a heavy lunch of lobster and wine.

Over lunch he is a hilarious clown, quotes poetry and Mozart opera, is very witty. Afterwards in a cab back to her place he is sad, but not as sad as Mrs Viveash who is overcome by memories of Tony Lamb, young and beautiful with blond hair and blue eyes, they shared a glorious week together in 1917, then he went back to the War and was killed. Now she imagines his beautiful face and blue eyes rotting under the ground and is devastated, but is too controlled to weep.

Chapter 15

That evening Theodore and Myra are dancing at a revue or cabaret club to a jazz band of four people of colour (they’re referred to as negroes or blackamoors in the text). They’re dancing to a tune called ‘What’s he to Hecuba?’ with its refrain ‘Nothing at all’ and, once again, the text isn’t really funny, it’s a combination of almost stream-of-consciousness rendition of their thought processes, heavily flavoured by Mrs Viveashe’s depression, her sense that everything is Nil, you can’t escape Nil, nothing can escape Nil.

‘What’s he to Hecuba?’ Lachrymosely, the hilarious blackamoors chanted their question, mournfully pregnant with its foreknown reply. Nil, omnipresent nil, world-soul, spiritual informer of all matter. Nil in the shape of a black-breeched moon-basined Toreador. Nil, the man with the greyhound’s nose. Nil, as four blackamoors. Nil in the form of a divine tune. Nil, the faces, the faces one ought to know by sight, reflected in the mirrors of the hall. Nil this Gumbril whose arm is round one’s waist, whose feet step in and out among one’s own. Nothing at all. (p.167)

Chapter 16

This is a peculiar, and possibly consciously ‘experimental’, chapter.

The band ceases, packs away behind curtains, then the curtains open to reveal the stage is set for a play. In Act I a mother has just died in childbirth and the grieving father, infuriated by the baby that did it, gets a tubercular cow brought on stage and milked into a dirty bucket, which milk he proceeds to feed the baby, or ‘Monster’ as he calls it.

Curtain down, scene change, Theodore and Mrs Viveash make desultory, jaded, cynical conversation. This is all a bit like the Weimar Republic cabaret vibe depicted in the Neue Sachlichkeit artists like Dix and Grosz.

Metropolis by Otto Dix (1928)

Act II: the Monster has grown into a sickly man, bandy-legged from rickets, coughing up lung from TB. He’s just turned 21 and is poetically minded. He looks out the window at a lovely girl and rhapsodises about her.Unfortunately we hear her thoughts and she’s worrying about whether to buy some fabric for new underwear, specially as her fancy man, Roger, might any day now go as far as seeing her underwear and she doesn’t want it to look middle class now, does she? The monster reaches out through his window towards the girl but she flings his hand away, yuk, disgusting at that point Roger strolls up, healthy and fit, his motorbike is on the corner, they both mock the Monster and leave. Another woman comes along, a painted prostitute. ‘Feeling lonely, ducks?’ He asks her in, the curtain descends for the duration of a quick sexual act, then she kicks up a fuss because he tries to write her a check.

During all this onstage action, Mrs Viveash and Theodore make ironic comments. She is appalled, not at its ‘immorality’, but because it is so clichéd and dire.

As in Joyce or Woolf, words and phrases connected with her lost, dead love, her only one true love, Tony Lamb, recur and repeat, broken up and recombined in her half-drunk consciousness.

Then Coleman turns up, punning cynically, accompanied by a very pretty, drunk young man. He wittily introduces himself as Virgil and the young man as his Dante, who he is taking him on a tour of the circles of hell (in fact he found him drunk at some nightclub and about to be fleeced by two prostitutes twice his age).

Back to the onstage play, Act III: The Monster, now bald, sans teeth, with a patch over his eye, is confined in an asylum. He makes a speech certain that there are real men somewhere, living in freedom and beauty, climbs the back of his chair, topples off it and breaks his neck, as verified by the same doctor from Act I, who enters, now terribly old with a long white beard.

Mrs Viveash is relieved the ghastly thing is over. The others want to carry on drinking and so, against his better judgment, Gumbril invites them back to his ‘secret’ rooms in Great Russell Street. they drink heavily and are blasphemous. This is the secret room where he spent that magical evening with Emily, by candlelight, until he coaxed the delicate bruised young faun into bed with him. Now Coleman and his pick-up boy are carousing on the same divan and suddenly the boy is sick all over it. As Gumbril throws them out, the boy tells them all his name is Porteous and boasts about how much money he’s spent drinking and debauching.

This is the last straw as Porteous is the name of one of Theodore’s father’s oldest friends, a poor man who’s had to scrim and save all his life.

So these last couple of chapters have described the complicated frame of mind in which Gumbril has allowed himself to betray Emily’s trust, and led away from his better self to the cynical, sophisticated nightclub roue. It’s a long way from the clever sweetness of Crome Yellow.

Chapter 17

Predictably enough he feels like hell in the morning, and not just in a physical way. He’s barely roused himself at 11.30, planning to catch the 2 o’clock train, when he gets a telegram from Emily, a long, long telegram telling him how upset she was when she got his telegram, after all the plans she’d made for a perfect day, and how, then, thinking about it, she realised their relationship was doomed from the start; for him she was just a nice adventure but sooner or later he’d tire of her and dump her and then she would never recover, whereas he’d get over it. So she says it’s goodbye, she’s packing her bags and leaving the cottage and he’ll never see her again.

Gumbril spends an agonising train journey beating himself up for his stupidity, and casually mentions that this afternoon he had to pass up ‘an afternoon’ with Rosie, and – in a spirit of malicious satire – sent her a note telling her he was indisposed & could she please come and see him at 213 Sloane Street. It is a wicked joke because that’s the address of Mr Mercapton and his rococo boudoir.

Gumbril really seems to have evolved very fast from the frustrated schoolteacher of the first chapter who was shy around girls. He’s metamorphosed into a rake, juggling all these women. I suppose this is the meaning of the book’s epigraph, a quote from Marlowe:

My men like satyrs grazing on the lawns
Shall with their goat-feet dance the antic hay

‘Men like satyrs’, to be precise, Gumbril is the satyr in question, dancing with his clumsy goat-feet.

The chapter returns to a lighter mood because it contains a crusty old gentleman who tut tuts at all the suburban villas the train is passing and when Gumbril sympathises, launches into a long speech about how overpopulated the world is becoming. Gumbril agrees, partly in a satirical spirit of getting the old dog to carry on but then is disarmed when he offers to give Theodore a case of his best brandy. He is just writing Theodore’s name in his notebook when Theodore looks up and realises the train is pulling out of the station he should have got off at. He leaps to his feet, flings open the door and jumps onto the platform, stumbling a few paves then managing to stop. The old man waves inaudibly from the window. Presumably the story is meant to show us just how fickle and superficial Theodore is.

When Theodore finally arrives at the cottage a) it is every bit as beautiful as Emily predicted b) she is long gone c) she left no forwarding address. Miserable, he catches the next train back to London.

Chapter 18

Broad comedy. We find Mr Mercaptan in his exquisite rococo rooms putting the finishing touches to an exquisite essay. In barges Lypiatt who is furious. His exhibition was a failure, he sold nothing, and he was infuriated by Mercaptan’s superior, mocking review which implied his works were insincere.

After a brief exchange, Lypiatt loses his temper and boxes the exquisite dandy about the ears until Mercaptan tells him the cruelest barb in his review – that Lypiatt’s paintings looking like adverts for Cinzano – was actually thought up by Mrs Viveash. The woman Lypiatt adores. He is instantly crushed and quelled.

He is standing silently by the mantelpiece when Rose Shearwater is shown in. She is very confused. She was expecting to meet Theodore who, we now learn, has never told Rosie his real name, preferring to be referred to as ‘Toto’. To cut a long story short, Rosie quickly adjusts to the new surroundings – determined to play the grande dame who nothing flusters – while Mercaptan in his dandyish way proceeds to flatter and impress here.

We are given to understand that they end up having sex on his sofa. Well, Rosie moved on from Theodore easily enough. Later, that evening, she’s at home while boring Shearwater tries to write an essay about kidneys but just can’t, he is so upset at the way Mrs Viveashe picked him up for about three days and now appears to have dropped him.

Plucking up his clumsy courage, Shearwater blurts out a confession to Rosie that he’s had a crush on another woman, that it’s over now, and that he feels guilt about how he’s treated her and will do better in future – and is disconcerted when Rosie is so relaxed as to be indifferent.

Chapter 19

Lypiatt returns to his mews utterly devastated by the news that it was Mrs Viveash who contributed the most telling thrust in Mercaptan’s devastating review of his art exhibition i.e. that they looked like posters advertising Italian drinks. He sits down and writes her an extended soul-searching letter wondering whether his entire life has been a wretched failure.

He is surprised and fearful when he hears steps coming up to his studio. To his surprise it is a funny little man who introduces himself as Mr Boldero (the thrusting businessman who has agreed to take up & promote Theodore’s idea of the Patent Small-Clothes. He listens in a daze as the man explains his silly scheme, but then Boldero makes the mistake of saying that they’d like him to do the art work for their advertising campaign, something in the style of Italian liquor posters, and this triggers a titanic wave of rage and frustration in Lypiatt who rises from his chair, rushes at Boldero, seizes and shakes him till the man wriggles free and makes a run for it down the stairs, out the door and along the mews.

Chapter 20

Coleman lives with Zoe in an atmosphere of violent arguments. One of these ends with her stabbing him in the arm with a penknife and rushing out. Coleman tries but can’t stanch the bleeding. At that moment Rosie arrives. She’s been given Coleman’s address by Mercaptan, on the misunderstanding that her original lover ‘Toto’ had a blonde beard. None of them realise that ‘Toto’ is Gumbril because he never told Rosie his name. Instead Rosie arrives just in time to administer some first aid and bandage the wound.

Coleman is a huge Cossack of a man with a big blonde beard, very loud, talks loudly and tactlessly, quoting the Christian Fathers about women being bags of ordure, and so on, in a way which puts Rosie off, she gets up and runs to the outer door but it won’t open and in a few paces Coleman is upon her. When she starts screaming and crying, he is enraptured and licks her tears. Are we to understand that he ‘ravishes’ her? That he rapes her?

Chapter 21

The taxi chapter. Gumbril turns up to see Mrs Viveash. She is feeling increasingly bilious and unhappy. He accuses her of wrecking her life i.e. persuading him to go for lunch with her so that he missed his date with Emily.

She is tired of men blaming her for everything and, frankly, so am I. Gumbril, Lypiatt, Shearwater, they all blame her for making them fall in love with her. How tiresome men are! (This is precisely the sentiment expressed by Anne in chapter 21 of Antic Hay).

Gumbril tries talking about things other than love and for two pages we are treated to a surreal jumble of facts about the natural world or literature until Mrs Viveash shouts at him to stop. Gumbril announces he’s fed up of everything and is going to leave the country. Mrs Viveash says they must have a going-away dinner. So they decide to go and invite all their friends. This, as it turns out, is a pretext for a kind of survey of the state of play with each of them:

They take a taxi across London to Lypiatt’s studio. Cut to Lypiatt plunged in the deepest melancholy and contemplating suicide. He is just putting a loaded Service revolver against his forehead when he hears the taxi pull up, a knock on the door and the sound of Mrs Viveash’s and Gumbril’s voices outside.

After a few more knocks they decide Lypiatt must have gone out and depart. Lypiatt remains in his darkened studio, in utter misery. It’s a feature of this chapter that Mrs Viveash and Gumbril comment on the lights of Piccadilly twice as they pass through on their to Lypiatt’s and back i.e. a little bit of social history of which adverts were there at the time. And to emphasise the depths of Mrs Viveash’s Weltschmerz.

Mrs. Viveash drew the corners of her mouth down into a painful smile and did not answer. “Aren’t we going to pass through Piccadilly Circus again?’ she asked. “I should like to see the lights again. They give one temporarily the illusion of being cheerful.’

Instead they go to visit Mr Mercaptan but he’s not there (according to his gabbling housekeeper). And we cut to Mercaptan having a delightful time staying with rich Mrs Speegle amid her butlers and staff at the delightful Oxhanger House. She had wittily thrown out the comment that some people have skins as thick as pachyderms whereas you and I, darling, we have painfully thin skins because we are such spiritual and artistic people. And so Mercaptan has worked this up into one his simply adorable little essays, dividing the poor pachyderms into lots of sub-categories, as he amusingly explains to Mrs Speegl and Maisie Furlonger at dinner.

Meanwhile Lypiatt lies at home lost in the void. Gumbril and Mrs Viveash take a taxi to Coleman’s. It’s not too long since Coleman ravished/raped Rosie. He answers the door. Gumbril glimpses past him the open door to his bedroom, and there a bare female back, and as it turns over, for a split second he recognises beyond doubt Rosie! My word! He’s astonished and disgusted.

The text cuts to a little stream-of-consciousness as we dip into Rosie’s mind and see her stream of memories – unhappy domestic scenes with Jim Shearwater, and then memories of being made love to by huge animal Coleman. Which is disconcerting. Anyway, Coleman says he can’t come to any farewell dinner.

They then take the cab to Shearwater’s house in Maida Vale. He’s out and so is the Missus, according to a characteristically uneducated maid (it doesn’t seem to occur to any of the bourgeois characters, when they talk about love and, occasionally, fairness or a better society, that this might include the army of servants and butlers and drivers and cleaners who service their oh-so-sensitive lives).

Gumbril leaves a message for Mrs i.e. Rosie, to tell her that Mr Toto apologises for not having spoken to her when he saw her in Pimlico. I.e. signalling that he saw her at Coleman’s.

Lastly they call on Mr Gumbril Senior, happily sitting on the balcony of his apartment watching his beloved starlings in the plane trees in the square. The text reverts back to Huxley’s Peacockian approach i.e. a character becomes the mouthpiece for a theory, in this case, Mr Gumbril Senior explains to Mrs Viveash his theory that we humans have a capacity for telepathy which we have let go to rust, but we could revive it if we wanted.

Look at the general development of the mathematical and musical faculties only within the last two hundred years. By the twenty-first century, I believe, we shall all be telepaths.

Remember the exquisitely detailed model of London as designed by Christopher Wren which Gumbril’s father had made? Remember how we met Gumbril Senior’s father’s friend, Porteous, and were told how he had scrimped and saved to raise a family and build up a library of precious books. Well, now Theodore’s father takes his son aside to tell him how Porteous’s son has drunk away all the family money and then borrowed more and gambled that away so that Porteous has been forced to sell his library.

That is why, Gumbril Senior explains, he has sold the model to the Victoria & Albert Museum to raise money for his friend. Theodore is touched. So much for the ‘beyond good and evil’, post-war cynicism of his generation. It is a sentimental beacon in an otherwise deliberately cynical narrative.

Mrs Viveashe is touched by Gumbril Senior and his theories about his starlings and telepathy. He is a sweet and kind old man. They get back into the taxi for the last time (this cabby is making a fortune out of them).

Chapter 22

The final chapter describes experiments going on at Shearwater’s laboratory. He is in a sealed room, wearing only a loin cloth, pedalling an early version of an exercise bike. The aim is to find out how long a man sweats for and to catch and analyse his sweat. We enter his head, as we have most of the other characters, and discover he is still tormented by his thwarted passion for Mrs Viveash, is dreaming, as he steadily cycles on, of fleeing her, getting away. Which explains why it is quite a comic moment when he looks up and sees at the porthole looking into his experiment room… none other than Mrs Viveash!  Convinced he is hallucinating a nightmare, he turns back to facing the wall and pedals all the more furiously.

His assistant, Lancing, shows Gumbril and Mrs Viveash around the garish and grotesque biological experiments they’re carrying out in the lab. Animal identity is being tampered with through extensive vivisection. Maybe human beings will be next. They look out a big window across the Thames to St Paul’s illuminated in the night and both are awed into silence by thoughts of time and destiny.

Then are roused back to the present. ‘Come on’, says Mrs Viveash. ‘Let’s go and see Piers Cotton.’ The great issues of time and destiny may stand over us. But most people hide them by getting on with the endless tittle tattle of their busy social lives. We are, according to Aristotle, first and foremost social animals, interested in gossip and tittle tattle. Big Ideas and theories come a looooooooong way back in the queue.


Recurring themes

1. As others see us

The theme which strikes me as recurring most obviously in Crome Yellow and Antic Hay is the panic fear various characters have of realising that they are beings-in-the-world – meaning their horrified realisation of the gap between their own sense of themselves as full of life and ideas and passions which are serious and deep and full – and the terrible realisation that for most other people you barely exist, and even then only as the butt of cheap jokes.

Most other people think that I – the vital, all-important I that lives and moves and loves and feels – is scarcely relevant to their busy lives, or at best the punchline of a crappy anecdote.

Lypiatt stood with folded arms by the window, listening. How lightly they threw his life, his heart, from hand to hand, as though it were a ball and they were playing a game! He thought suddenly of all the times he had spoken lightly and maliciously of other people. His own person had always seemed, on those occasions, sacred. One knew in theory very well that others spoke of one contemptuously – as one spoke of them. In practice – it was hard to believe. (Antic Hay chapter 21)

Thus when I am in love, it is all Wagner and Shakespeare. Whereas other people in love ‘are always absurd’ (p.238).

2. Working classes

It’s so tiny as to be buried, but just now and then the characters meet people from the working classes. None of the characters in these novels has a job: Mrs Viveash doesn’t work, Lypiatt is a poor artist, Mercaptan dashing off his reviews is hardly work, Theodore lives off a legacy from an aunt (£300 a year from ‘the intolerable Aunt Flo’, p.24).

It’s only when members of the working class intrude a little that you realise what a solidly upper-middle-class book this is, set among the owners of manor houses, rich widows and their amusing hangers-on – writers and artists. Thus the dawdling dilettante Pasteur Mercaptan’s housekeeper, Mrs Goldie, is one of the few working class characters and voices in the book:

Mr. Mercaptan, it seemed, had left London. His housekeeper had a long story to tell. A regular Bolshevik had come yesterday, pushing in. And she had heard him shouting at Mr. Mercaptan in his own room. And then, luckily, a lady had come and the Bolshevik had gone away again. And this morning Mr. Mercaptan had decided, quite sudden like, to go away for two or three days. And it wouldn’t surprise her at all if it had something to do with that horrible Bolshevik fellow. Though of course Master Paster hadn’t said anything about it. Still, as she’d known him when he was so high and seen him grow up like, she thought she could say she knew him well enough to guess why he did things. It was only brutally that they contrived to tear themselves away.

Yes, the working classes do have a habit of nattering on so, don’t you find?

There is one place where serious social concern does intrude, a ‘sudden irruption’ into the self-obsessed peregrinations of the narcissistic characters.

After a typical night’s drinking and arguing the Bohemian crew (Lypiatt, Coleman, Shearwater, Gumbril) find themselves at the all-night coffee stand at Hyde Park corner. It’s here that they bump into Mrs Viveash and her monocled posh-boyfriend. But as they gossip and make clever witticisms about Love, they slowly become aware of a pair of hard-core, down and out, unemployed, homeless proletarians slumped up against the railings nearby.

One wrecked specimen is telling a small crowd a hard luck story about how he was leading his rag and bone cart when the cops stopped him and told him the old pony Jerry was too unwell for the job and took him away and now he doesn’t have any work, couldn’t get work, him and the missus heard of work in Portsmouth so they walked there, his missus being heavily pregnant but no money for transport, but there was no jobs in Portsmouth and so they had to walk back.

‘’Opeless,’ ’e says to me, ‘quite ’opeless. More than two hundred come for three vacancies.’ So there was nothing for it but to walk back again. Took us four days it did, this time. She was very bad on the way, very bad. Being nearly six months gone. Our first it is. Things will be ’arder still, when it comes.’
From the black bundle there issued a sound of quiet sobbing.
‘Look here,’ said Gumbril, making a sudden irruption into the conversation. ‘This is really too awful.’ He was consumed with indignation and pity; he felt like a prophet in Nineveh.
‘There are two wretched people here,’ and Gumbril told them breathlessly, what he had overheard. It was terrible, terrible. ‘All the way to Portsmouth and back again; on foot; without proper food; and the woman’s with child.’
Coleman exploded with delight. ‘Gravid,’ he kept repeating, ‘gravid, gravid. The laws of gravidy, first formulated by Newton, now recodified by the immortal Einstein. God said, Let Newstein be, and there was light. And God said, Let there be Light; and there was darkness o’er the face of the earth.’ He roared with laughter.
Between them they raised five pounds. Mrs. Viveash undertook to give them to the black bundle. The cabmen made way for her as she advanced; there was an uncomfortable silence. The black bundle lifted a face that was old and worn, like the face of a statue in the portal of a cathedral; an old face, but one was aware somehow, that it belonged to a woman still young by the reckoning of years. Her hands trembled as she took the notes, and when she opened her mouth to speak her hardly articulate whisper of gratitude, one saw that she had lost several of her teeth. (pp.65-6)

The narrative then swiftly returns to its endless permutations of love affairs and artistic agonising among the educated and unworking classes, but it’s a dark and disturbing moment. Its bleakness puts all the self-obsessed navel gazing of the main characters into perspective. And makes you ask: one hundred years later, have are we any close to solving the issues of homelessness, unemployment and poverty?


Social history

References which indicate what his readers in 1922 had heard of or were thinking about, topics in the news:

Lenin and the Bolshevik revolution. Gumbril’s tailor Mr Bojanus gives his ideas about ‘liberty’, which people resent the rich, and why he’d welcome a revolution, despite thinking it would make no great difference (people will never be ‘free’ because they will always have to work).

Russian famine ‘After you’ve accepted the war, swallowed the Russian famine,’ said Gumbril. ‘Dreams!’

The first famine in the USSR happened in 1921–1923 and garnered wide international attention. The most affected area being the Southeastern areas of European Russia, including Volga region. An estimated 16 million people may have been affected and up to 5 million died (Wikipedia)

Nietzsche ‘Beyond good and evil? We are all that nowadays.’ thinks Theodore. The interesting point is that he frames it in Nietzsche’s terms, i.e. the endurance of Nietzsche’s thought.

Freud Gumbril and friends criticise Lypiatt’s use of ‘dream’ in a poem saying that nowadays ‘the word merely connotes Freud.’ I.e. by 1922 sophisticated urbanites were so over Freud.

Stopes ‘British author, palaeobotanist and campaigner for eugenics and women’s rights… With her second husband, Humphrey Verdon Roe, Stopes founded the first birth control clinic in Britain. Stopes edited the newsletter Birth Control News, which gave explicit practical advice. Her sex manual Married Love (1918) was controversial and influential, and brought the subject of birth control into wide public discourse.’

Schoenberg avant-garde composer and inventor of the twelve-tone system which would come to dominate classical music after the Second World War

Heroin I was surprised by a reference to heroin, I thought cocaine was the fashionable drug of the 1920s:

‘Who lives longer: the man who takes heroin for two years and dies, or the man who lives on roast beef, water and potatoes till ninety-five? One passes his twenty-four months in eternity. All the years of the beef-eater are lived only in time.’
‘I can tell you all about heroin,’ said Mrs. Viveash. (p.224)


Style

Huxley flexes his wings a little. In the two years since he published his first book, T.S. Eliot and James Joyce had brought out The Waste Land and Ulysses, respectively. Huxley doesn’t go mad, but the text includes noticeable linguistic experiments.

Inverted word order

Floating she seemed to go, with a little spring at every step and the skirt of her summery dress—white it was, with a florid pattern printed in black all over it…

Rare vocabulary

  • rachitic – feeble, weak
  • imberb – beardless
  • callipygous – having finely developed buttocks
  • empest – to corrupt or infect
  • priapagogue – an invented word
  • paronomasia – a play on words; a pun
  • disembogue – of a river or stream, to emerge or be discharged into the sea or a larger river
  • inenarrable – incapable of being narrated, indescribable

Onomatopoeia

And in a handful of places he makes the prose onomatopoeically to mimic the action being described. These are all timid baby steps which distantly echo the revolution in writing taking place at the time.

Piranesi

There are recurring references to Piranesi, specifically that the archway into the mews where Lypiatt lives looks like one of the arches in Piranesi’s series of etchings of vast imaginary prisons. As it happens I visited a free exhibition of Piranesi at the British Museum.


Credit

Antic Hay by Aldous Huxley was published by Chatto & Windus in 1923. All references are to the 1984 Panther paperback edition.

Related links

Aldous Huxley reviews

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

The Thirties and After: Poetry, Politics People 1933-75 by Stephen Spender (1978)

Artists always have been and always will be individualists (p.52)

In this book Spender brought together key reviews, essays and other documents from each decade of his writing career. There’s a section of writings from the 1930s, but also from the 1940s, 50s and 60s.

As you know, I don’t have much time for Spender’s poetry, but he has sensible, honest liberal views on a wide range of subjects, and is a fantastic gossip. His very sensibleness seems to have made him a good editor (by all accounts), of Horizon magazine which he co-founded in 1939, and literary editor of Encounter magazine from 1953 to 1967.

As an affable, clubbable fellow, he sat as a judge for various prizes and could be counted to take part in innumerable ‘writers congresses’, with the result that he seems to have met and chatted with just about every important writer from the middle of the twentieth century. The index of this handy little paperback is a who’s who of poets, novelists, artists and playwrights from the 1920s to the 70s.

These are notes on his essays and reviews from, and comments about, the 1930s.

The Thirties

Background

Spender thinks the left-wing feel of literature in the 1930s has deep roots, going back at least to the Fabians (who included H.G. Wells and Bernard Shaw). He points out that the famous war poets Sassoon, Graves and Owen were all, by the war’s end, ‘socialists’ too, based on:

  • hatred of the older generation who had sent out the young to be slaughtered
  • sympathy for the working class men they supervised
  • admiration for revolutionary movements in Europe, political cultural and sexual
  • resentment of the way the British establishment tried to strangle the Bolshevik revolution
  • dislike of the British Empire

That said, all arts undergraduates of the late 1920s revered T.S. Eliot whose masterpiece The Waste Land prophesied the end of all civilisation, an apocalyptic vision which made conventional politics irrelevant.

But although the Modernists (Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Wyndham Lewis) held extreme right-wing views, their young fans still revered them because they were revolutionary in form & content. Also, although right-wing in tendency, the Modernists were heartily loathed by the dead, dull, philistine Conservatives who ran the artistic and literary establishment and thought them dangerous radicals and Bohemians (foreigners, too). The English conservative establishment was, Spender tells us, ‘philistine, stupid, respectable and frightened’.

As an undergraduate Auden held the view that the poet should be utterly unpolitical, in fact that he should be as unemotional and detached as a scientist: his own emotions, the lives around him and society at large were merely a field for his forensic enquiries. The exact opposite of, say, Shelley.

Writing in the 1970s, Spender now sees how that view stems from T.S. Eliot’s famous 1919 essay Tradition and The Individual Talent i.e. was indebted to the detached classicism of the Modernist generation.

Spender thinks he and the Auden Gang initially continued to adhere to the apolitical aesthetics of the Modernists. Only slowly did they let politics enter their work and it felt, to them, like a conscious lowering of standards. They had a ‘we’re only doing this for the duration’ feel about them. MacNeice in particular barely wrote any ‘political’ poetry during the 30s.

Spender sees the real generational break being between his friends – Auden, Day-Lewis, MacNeice – and the genuinely younger generation of fire-eating communist poets – Julian Bell and John Cornford – who were sincerely and utterly political (though he tempers this by pointing out that they were, in every instance, rebelling against the apolitical bourgeois aestheticism of their Bloomsbury parents).

Spender suggest that even when they were writing ‘political’ poems, he and Auden were in a way simply continuing the anti-war attitude of Wilfred Owen. He suggests his own poem, Ultima Ratio Regum, and Auden’s sonnets from China. They are anti-war protests, a kind of ‘anti-fascist pacifist poetry’.

In fact Spender thinks there wasn’t a thirties ‘movement’; movements have meetings and manifestos. But Auden was a ‘leader’ in the sense that he was intellectually in advance of all the rest, had through things through more thoroughly, and had a more highly developed technique.

Spender describes Auden’s advanced knowledge of psychoanalysis and how he used it to psychoanalyse his friends, inviting them to his darkened rooms in Christ Church and exposing them to penetrating psychological investigation. He liked doing this one-on-one, and preferred to keep his friends apart, which partly explains why the members of the so-called ‘movement’ rarely actually met.

In other words people didn’t ‘follow’ Auden because he commanded obedience. He simply was a cleverer, more fully formed and fascinating character than everyone else.

What triggered the ‘political content was simply the extremity of the times, the early 1930s, when it really looked as if the capitalist system might collapse, and the well-heeled literati in the south of England couldn’t fail to notice mass unemployment, squalor, and millions going hungry, their lives going to waste.

Because it was part of every educated person’s consciousness, the social crisis inevitably entered their writing. Overlapping it and extending the sense of crisis was the rise to power of Hitler and the sense, by the mid-30s, that war was inevitable. And they had an H.G. Wells-style horror of what the approaching war would entail. Spender was told by a leading government expert that British cities would be flattened in days by mass bombing.

Adding bite to this mood was the appalling complacency of almost everyone outside the ‘intellectual class’ – the complacency of Stanley Baldwin and the Empire exhibition. You can hear the same note of exasperation in George Orwell’s novels – he wants to shake England out of its myopic slumber. Wake up! so many of those poems say.

Spender sympathises with the critics who point out the 100% private school nature of these lefties. There was something laughable, Spender himself admits, in their attempts to write for the working classes. Spender thinks that, if anyone, their poems were aimed at ‘sixth-formers from their old schools and at one another’ (p.23).

But what else could they have done? Ignored the mass unemployment and economic collapse of the Great Depression? Ignored the rise of Hitler and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War? In a society in crisis every work becomes political.

The essence of the Modernist movement was it created works which centred on themselves, were self contained as art. The next generation, his generation, took Modernist tools and reinjected what the Modernist works had lacked, namely day-to-day subject matter. ‘We were putting the subject back into poetry’.

In his opinion the members of the movement were very varied, never had a manifesto, and had all kinds of doubts about putting politics into poetry – but were made to seem like a movement because of the deep sleep of everyone else around them. Writing about the Slump or Hitler created the impression of a camaraderie among writers who were, deep down, very disparate.

Real political poetry was that written by committed Communists like Christopher Caudwell, Ralph Fox, John Cornford and Tom Wintringham – but the first three of these were killed in Spain and the tradition they might have created, vanished with them.

All these concerns came to a head with the Spanish Civil War which triggered a crescendo of political commitment among the bourgeois poets – and then a collapse of cynicism and disillusion. One way of seeing it is that all the bourgeois writers were brought by the crisis right up against the need to write propaganda, that is, to lie, to write things they doubted or knew were lies (about the unity of the left, about the Moscow show trials, the wisdom of Stalin, and so on). When push came to shove, they all rebelled against this.

In face of Stalinist propaganda and methods it was a reversion to the view that individual conscience is the repository of witnessed truth. (p.29)

Once the scales fell from their eyes, they realised they had let themselves be cajoled into writing in ways, about subjects and reaching conclusions, that they knew to be false or disagreed with. This concern for individual truth-telling explains why many of them, most famously Auden, tried to suppress much of their work from the 30s as ‘dishonest’. Thus he tinkered with Spain, the long poem he wrote trying to support the Republicans, but eventually came to hate its entire tone and banned it.

This notion of individual truth was the reef that the ‘movement’ of political poetry ran aground on.

Review of A Vision by W.B. Yeats (April 1938)

In this book Yeats systematically laid out the complex system of images and ideas which underpinned his later poetry and which, he claimed, had been communicated to his wife by messages from the spirit world. With restrained irony Spender says that, if these complex insights into the meaning of human history, its patterns and recurrences really are true, it is a shame this long and complicated book makes no attempt to prove the fact or to relate it to the world the rest of us live in. More sharply, Spender notes that when Yeats writes that when he read Oswald Spengler’s vast epic about The Decline of the West (1918-22) he found an eerie similarity with his own thought – that is because both of them, along with Stefan George and d’Annunzio, in their attacks on the rotten littleness of modern democratic society and the need for new Caesars to rise up and restore civilisation – all prove ideological and artistic justifications for fascism.

Review of One-Way Song by Wyndham Lewis (December 1933)

Percy Wyndham Lewis was an avant-garde artist who, just before the First World War, founded the short-lived movement of Vorticism, a British response to Italian Futurism. After the war (in which he served) he continued to paint, including marvellous modernist portraits of his chums T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, plus the doyenne of 1920s poetry, Edith Sitwell; but also wrote a lot, novels, huge meditations upon Western Man, and, as in this case, poetry.

One-Way Song is an extended satire written with Lewis’s demonic energy which sets out to flail every cause Lewis can think of, including parliamentary democracy, Progress, relativity, the expanding universe and racial equality. Some of the lines tend towards fascism i.e. saying society can only be saved from its pettiness by a Strong Leader, but on the whole Spender admires Lewis for his vigour and his openness, unlike many a fascist sympathiser who couches their support in suaver support for ‘the corporate state’ etc.

Review of Phoenix by D.H. Lawrence (January 1937)

Lawrence was one of a kind, sui generis. Not many major writers have emerged from the genuine working class, his Dad being a miner in the coalfields outside Nottingham. As Lawrence got educated he moved out of his own class, but was never at home with the smug bourgeoisie which runs English culture (in his day, the Bloomsbury Group).

Despising the middle class for its post-impressionist pusillanimity, but unable to expect anything of a working class he knew was crushed and cowed, he found a solution, a way out – Sex.

In the sexual act two people could transcend the petty restrictions of class and country and rediscover human dignity and authenticity. On this discovery he posited a potential social revolution, and described and wrote about it on countless occasions. He was against crowds, the masses and their filthy representation politics and democracy. In this respect he was anti-democratic and gave way sometimes to brooding images of Dark Power and the Strong Leader. But at its core he revolted against all of society, of whatever shape, in favour of a revolution in the head of individuals, then of men and women in their relationships with each other.

All settlement of the property question must arise spontaneously out of the new impulse in man, to free himself from the extraneous load of possession, and walk naked and light.

This is why he is among the Great Writers – because he took the key subject of the most serious novels – relationships between men and woman, or a man and a woman – to new levels of intensity.

Review of Red Front by Louis Aragon (May 1933)

A review of a zealously communist poem by the French poet, Louis Aragon. Spender is blisteringly critical of its calls for the proletariat to rise up and shoot the bourgeoisie. Why, asks Spender. Why is one lot of people arresting, imprisoning, torturing and executing another group of people terrible if it’s group A, but fabulous and deserving hymns of praise if it’s group B? They’re all people.

Marx had an answer. The proletariat represent Hegel’s Spirit of History. They are not only good and just in themselves, they represent the future of mankind. Spender obviously doesn’t buy this.

Spender says this isn’t a poem it’s propaganda and, what’s more, threatening propaganda. He treats Aragon to about the most withering criticism possible by saying its invocations and threats of violence are directly comparable to Hitler. Compare this poem to any speech by Hitler. Whoosh!

Poetry and Revolution (March 1933)

A poem is complete in itself, it does not reach out and affect the real world. Poetry is idealist in the sense that it is restricted to the world of thought. It is, therefore, the opposite of materialist thought. Individuals locked in their own little worlds is the opposite of the mass movement which the revolutionist calls for.

Basically Spender argues that all literature is middle class. To read it or be able to write it, workers have to get educated enough to lose their working class roots and enter the bourgeoisie. Even rebels against the bourgeoisie tend to be bourgeois, and their ‘rebellion’ tends to be into precisely the kind of visionary individualism which the true revolutionary hates most (he evidences the French poet, Rimbaud).

The bourgeois artist can not rebel against his bourgeois origins. But he can serve revolutionary ends by writing honestly. If he writes honestly his writings will accurately reveal the symptoms of a decaying society.

He defends poetry with these arguments:

  • poetry records the changing meaning of words, it preserves words in their pure and historic meaning
  • poetry saves the language from degenerating
  • poetry is a function of our emotional life
  • ‘poetry is the language of moments in which we see ourselves or other people in their true relation to humanity or nature’
  • poetry expresses compassion for all human beings regardless of race or class

Contemporary writers who wish to be communists cannot join the communist cause because of their economic condition, which forces them to be individuals, alone and alienated. Come the revolution, this will be solved.

(Compare and contrast Spender’s lightweight ideas with the fully worked out theory of Realism in fiction propounded by Marxist philosopher György Lukács.)

The Poetic Dramas of W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood (Autumn 1938)

Spender had written a poetic drama himself, Trial of a Judge, this same year of 1938.

He praises the poetic dramas of W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, specifically The Dog Beneath The Skin and The Ascent of F6, but enters a few typically sensible caveats.

  • Not much of the poetry in them is as good as Auden’s individual poems.
  • None of the characters has the subtlety of the characters in Isherwood’s novels.
  • Lastly, the pop nature of some of the lyrics created a kind of lowest common denominator style which Auden’s younger fans are now copying.

The public figures in F6 are too true to life to be believable. The satire on them is too crude to be believable and therefore effective. In this respect, yes, they are rather schoolboyish, as older critics claimed. Spender considers Dog works in its long journey round Europe, but when the protagonist returns to his English village, the climax of the play is him delivering a sermon indistinguishable from one any ordinary vicar would deliver.

Spender acutely points out the several ways in which the conclusion of The Ascent of F6 is not only unsatisfactory, it is incoherent. I agree with him that lots of it are just chunks of Auden which have been inserted into the play without too much regard for context. But that the chorus poetry of Mr and Mrs A is excellent (the best thing in the play, in my view).

With a touch of the apocalyptic, Spender hopes Auden and Isherwood have laid the foundations of what might be a much wider social change in coming decades which would see ‘the emergence of the theatre as the most significant and living of literary forms’ (p.61). Of course, they hadn’t.

Tangiers and Gibraltar Now (Left Review, February 1937)

Six months into the Spanish Civil War, Spender tried to get into republican Spain but was refused a visa so he did the next best thing which was to travel to Tangiers – where he attended meetings, speeches etc by Republican supporters – then Gibraltar, where he dwells on the revolting Franco sympathies of the British authorities and old British colonels’ mithering about ‘Red atrocities’. Even if these atrocities are true, Spender excuses them as the inevitable excesses of the suffering imposed on the people by the ‘monstrous Spanish system’ (p.64).

Heroes in Spain (New Statesman, May 1937)

Finally Spender got himself into Republican Spain and reports on what he saw and the Unity of the People as he travelled round for six weeks.

Spender takes exception to calling anyone who dies in a war, a ‘hero’, saying this is just a rhetoric people use to hide from themselves the disgusting reality of war. He testifies that the actual soldiers dislike talk of heroes and heroics; in the reports they read they are far more concerned to hear the simple truth.

Spain invites the world’s writers (Autumn 1937)

Being notes on the International Writers Congress held in which Spender attended. He is very impressed by André Malraux (‘a hero’) and his talk of will, how the writer must create an environment which allows them to write. They drive from Barcelona to Valencia and on to Madrid, seeing sights, meeting the People, excited by the social revolution very obviously going on around them. The essay concludes with a conversation with the Spanish poet, José Bergamín who, when asked about his Catholicism, says yes yes yes he believes all the articles of faith, but no no no he believes the Catholic Church in Spain has allied with one particular class and is trying to prevent ‘the spiritual growth of the Spanish people’. Spender optimistically concludes that, within the political revolution sparked by the war, is also taking place a Catholic Reformation. (In both predictions he was, of course, wrong.)

I join the Communist Party (Daily Worker, February 1937)

Spender explains that the motivation of his book Forward From Liberalism, published in 1937, was to show the mindset of a typical bourgeois liberal (i.e. himself) approaching communism, namely his belief in social justice and international peace rather than imperialist aggression.

In this article he announces that he has a) formally joined the communist party b) is setting off to Valencia to support the Republican government.

In fact these three short pages conclude with a description of his whistlestop tour of Tangiers and Gibraltar (mentioned above) and how he found everywhere how a minority of capitalist-imperialists was wedded to the Francoist attachment to property and in doing so seeking to suppress and put down the 80% of the population who wanted revolutionary change to their society.

Everywhere he went he saw Communists leading the fight against fascism, the best and most dignified of the working class were the Communists. And so he’s joined the Party.

When he puts it like that, his decision sounds eminently reasonable.

However, the first half of the little essay indicates a massive problem he faced: even before he joined the Party he had been sharply criticised by a critic in the Daily Worker for passages in Forward From Liberalism in which he had questioned the Moscow Show Trials i.e. Stalin’s word.

This is the crux of this entire section and of Left-wing politics in the 1930s as a whole. In contrast to the rotten, do-nothing democracies, Communism was actively fighting the unambiguous evil of fascism, and everywhere communist workers provided inspiring examples of human heroism and high-mindedness. Plus, to the anxious bourgeois intellectual, the Communist Party provided a wonderful sense of community and acceptance in a greater task. Good.

But, as they all discovered, Communism-in-practice meant lying for Stalin. Lying about the show trials, the deportations, the famines, the labour camps, the murder of opponents and rivals in Russia, and lying about the undermining of the entire Spanish Republican war effort by commissars more concerned with eliminating Trotskyists or Anarchists than with fighting the supposed enemy.

And this was the enormous disillusion which woke Spender, Auden and many other writers from their dream of solidarity with the working class. They would love to show solidarity with the working class and overthrow the rotten old system. But central to membership of the Party was abandoning their individual ‘bourgeois’ consciences and lying for a brutal, murderous dictator. And none of them could do that.

Postscript

With the ending of the Spanish Civil War it became clear that the thirties was being wound up like a company going into bankruptcy. The departure of Auden for America in 1939, whatever personal feelings it aroused, considered as a public act only underlined what most of his colleagues already felt: that the individualist phase was over. From now on, people did not join anti-fascism as individuals who might influence history. They joined armies in which they were expected to forget that they were individuals. (p.85)

With a few exceptions the writer associated with the thirties tried after 1939 to break with their political connections. This was particularly true of Auden who edited out of his works what might be termed the Thirties Connection. His departure for Isherwood in late 1939 dramatised the end of a decade. (p.276)

(In this second passage Spender makes a small but telling mistake. Auden and Isherwood sailed for New York in January 1939, at the start of the year. Spender’s memory has smoothed this out by making it occur in ‘late’ 1939, right at the end of the year and so of the decade – thus making it appear more symbolic and neat. Well, he’s a poet, not a historian.)


Credit

The Thirties and After by Stephen Spender was first published by Macmillan Books. All references are to the 1978 Fontana paperback edition.

Related links

Letters from Iceland by W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice (1936)

A golden age of travel writing

We’ve spoken about the 1930s as the Age of Auden, dominated by the left-wing politics of most of the young writers and poets, who were responding to the Great Depression (1929-33) and then stricken by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).

But it was also a golden age of travel writing. Posh Brits could wave their distinctive British passport and travel anywhere they wanted in what was, between the wars, the largest empire the world had ever seen, at its largest extent. There was a boom in high-end travel writing to cater for the well-heeled tourists who could travel in the new passenger planes or enjoy the new leisure concept of luxury cruises.

Almost by definition, though, the really adventurous types wanted to go beyond the usual itineraries and explore unknown parts. It’s no coincidence that they were buoyed up by the confidence of having gone to a jolly good public school, having networks of contacts and connections everywhere, and so knowing they could probably get themselves out of most scrapes with a quick phone call to cousin Algy at the Foreign Office.

Hence the ripping travel adventures of Peter Fleming (Eton and Oxford) in Brazil, Russia and China, or Robert Byron (Eton and Oxford) in Russia, China, Afghanistan and Tiber, or Patrick ‘Paddy’ Leigh Fermor (King’s School Canterbury) who, aged 18, decided to walk from London to Constantinople.

Hence the journeys Graham Greene (Berkhamsted and Oxford) undertook to Liberia and Mexico, or Evelyn Waugh (Lancing and Oxford)’s jolly journeys to Abyssinia, the Belgian Congo and British Guiana.

(Peter Fleming is actually name-checked twice in this book as the intimidating ideal of the modern travel writer who the authors are haplessly trying to live up to, p.159)

Taking the mickey

In the spring of 1936 a chance conversation with one of his former pupils at the private school where he’d taught in the early 30s revealed that he and friends and a teacher were going to Iceland that summer. Auden was instantly excited at the prospect and suggested to his publishers, Faber & Faber, that they fund him to go there and he’d write a travel book for them. Auden leapt at the chance of going to one of his childhood holy places. His family had Nordic ancestry, his father had read him all the Norse myths, and as a boy he had read lots of Icelandic sagas with their stern unforgiving heroes.

So he made his arrangements – to go by himself for a month or so, then rendezvous with the party of former schoolboys, and he persuaded one of the gang, the Ulsterman Louis MacNeice, to also make the sea voyage and meet him there. So in June 1936 he set off, and spent a little over a month travelling round Iceland, mainly by local bus with jaunts on horseback thrown in, hiring local guides and staying at whatever accommodation existed, often local farmers.

He’d been in the country for some time, fretting about how he was going to write something to repay his publishers’ advance, when he suddenly had the bright idea of making the entire book a collection of letters, letters to friends, containing appropriate content for them (‘so that each letter deals with its subject in a different and significant way’, p.140) – sending some friends straight travelogue, some jokes, some a selection of historic writing about the place, and so on.

And once MacNeice arrived (they rendezvoused in Rejkyavik on 9 August 1936), they developed the idea of poetic letters and of deliberately experimenting with different types of poetic genre (lyric, epic, eclogue etc). Once the third element, the four schoolboys and their master arrived, the party set off for a riding tour of Iceland’s central mountain range, and MacNeice had the idea of describing their rather bizarre party (two scruffy poets, a bespectacled teacher and four keen young boys) into a satirical diary of the trip as if written from one jolly upper-class girl guides leader to another (Hetty to Nancy), complaining about the bullying leader of the trip, and the other teachers and the girls, my dear, the girls! This is either very funny or revoltingly cliquey, according to taste.

Thus the idea evolved to make the book deliberately bitty and fragmented, a collage of different types of text, an anti-heroic travel book, in that it wouldn’t hold back on the realities of the trip i.e. runny noses, smelly barns, recalcitrant ponies and so on.

The original mish-mash effect was enhanced by the authors’s photos which were deliberately amateurish and scrappy, as Auden gleefully points out:

Every exciting letter has enclosures,
And so shall this – a bunch of photographs,
Some out of focus, some with wrong exposures,
Press cuttings, gossip, maps, statistics, graphs;
I don’t intend to do the thing by halves.
I’m going to be very up to date indeed.
It is a collage that you’re going to read.

There’s even a passage where Auden gives us his thoughts on photography, namely that it’s the most democratic art form, specially given all the technical advances of his day (what would he have thought of today’s camera-phones?) (p.139). Alas the authors’ photos aren’t reproduced in the rather cheap-feeling modern Faber paperback version, though you can glimpse them online.

The Letters from Iceland format allowed them to get away from the pompous smoothness of traditional travel writers, although it did tend to add fuel to the fire of the large number of critics who accused the Auden Gang of being a self-satisfied clique of insiders. This is particularly obvious in the Last Will and Testament with its references to their chums:

Next Edward Upward and Christopher Isherwood
I here appoint my joint executors
To judge my work if it be bad or good…

To our two distinguished colleagues in confidence,
To Stephen Spender and Cecil Day Lewis, we assign
Our minor talents to assist in the defence

Of the European Tradition and to carry on
The Human heritage.

For my friend Benjamin Britten, composer, I beg
That fortune send him soon a passionate affair.

Item – I leave my old friend Anthony Blunt
A copy of Marx and £1000 a year
And the picture of Love Locked Out by Holman Hunt.

Too chummy by half, it’s the one part of the book I didn’t like (and not just for this reason; it’s also just boring).

The most impressive letter, and binding the book together, are the five parts of a long poem by Auden titled Letter to Lord Byron. Again he explains his through processes in the text itself, telling us that he’d taken a copy of Byron’s immensely long rambling verse diary of his life, Don Juan, and had the inspiration of writing an updated version for his times. He liked Byron’s free and easy style, his ability to incorporate everything from thoughts about the meaning of life to the fact that he had a hangover that morning. He liked him because he was a townee i.e. urban, and heartily agreed with Byron’s dislike of the Wordsworth, nature-worshipping tradition which Auden cordially detested.

Part one of Letter to Lord Byron is the first thing you read and immediately establishes the chatty, witty tone of the book, starting by apologising to the shade of Lord Byron for bothering him.

Excuse, my lord, the liberty I take
In thus addressing you. I know that you
Will pay the price of authorship and make
The allowances an author has to do.
A poet’s fan-mail will be nothing new.
And then a lord – Good Lord, you must be peppered,
Like Gary Cooper, Coughlin, or Dick Sheppard,

With notes from perfect strangers starting, ‘Sir,
I liked your lyrics, but Childe Harold’s trash,’
‘My daughter writes, should I encourage her?’
Sometimes containing frank demands for cash,
Sometimes sly hints at a platonic pash,
And sometimes, though I think this rather crude,
The correspondent’s photo in the nude.

Light verse is difficult to bring off, but to sustain it over the 160 stanzas of the finished Letter To Lord Byron is a quite staggering achievement. Has anyone else in the entire twentieth century brought off such a sustained comic achievement in verse?

Besides this epic achievement, the book also contains quite a few other poems by Auden, including:

  • Journey to Iceland
  • a poetic letter to Richard Crossman (b.1907: head boy at Winchester then New College Oxford, went onto become a Labour MP and then cabinet member)
  • Detective Story – a sort of verse explanation of why we like and read thrillers
  • ‘O who can ever praise enough’ – a verse meditation on childhood books (note the characteristic us of ‘O’ starting a poem, a really characteristic Auden tic)
  • a free-verse letter to William Coldstream (painted, born 1908: private school, Slade Art School, met Auden at the GPO when they were making documentary films)
  • and a collaboration with MacNeice, ‘W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice: Their Last Will and Testament’

MacNeice’s contributions include:

  • a verse letter to Graham and Anne Shepard
  • an Eclogue from Iceland which contains lines describing the bitter enmities of MacNeice’s native Ireland and why he has fled them, along with speeches by Grettir which capture the spirit of the saga hero, bloody-minded and doomed, and who tells the poets that their task is ‘the assertion of human values’ (p.134)
  • a verse Epilogue

In between all this poetry there are chunks of prose, namely:

  • a prose section ‘For Tourists’, which is quite thorough and might actually have been useful to contemporary tourists
  • a sardonic selection of writings on Iceland by other authors, ‘Sheaves from Sagaland’, addressed to John Betjeman, chosen for their odd surrealist details, the best of which is a page-long description of a huge feast endured by one William Jackson Hooker in 1809, and an eye-witness account of the eruption of an Icelandic volcano in 1727 (incidentally, we learn that the title Letters From Iceland had already been used by Joseph Banks in 1772)
  • Saga Laws, the Formula of Peacemaking, the Law of the Wager of Battle, the Viking Law
  • two prose letters from Auden to ‘E. M. Auden’ (E.M. was Erika Mann: it needs to be explained that Auden – who was gay – agreed to a marriage of convenience with Erika Mann who was the eldest daughter of novelist Thomas Mann, cabaret actress and racing driver, in order to give her a nationality when the Nazis cancelled her German nationalist because of her writings against them: they were married on 15 June 1935, the only time they ever met) – these are some of the most chatty and candid pieces Auden ever wrote, joking about the appalling food but explaining some of the Icelandic verse forms, his dislike of modern art, his fondness for caricatures
  • a prose letter to Kristian Andreirsson, Esq.;

The longest single section is a series of supposed letters sent by the fictional ‘Hetty’ to her friend ‘Nancy’. These were written by MacNeice in a lampoon of contemporary posh girls’ fiction, wherein Hetty moans endlessly about the jolly hockeysticks enthusiasm of the leader of the exhibition, Miss Greenhalge, and her tent-mate, the insufferable Maisie (a girl guide version of Auden) and makes campy comments:

The road to Kleppur suffers from ribbon development and nothing, my dear, can look worse than a corrugated iron suburb if it is not kept tidy.

Letters from Iceland is still hugely enjoyable after all these years, mainly because of the infectious good humour of both the protagonists. The advice for travellers is actually useful, albeit 84 years out of date. Auden says he paid 10 kroner for three days board and lodging and hire of horse at a farm in the north-west, but elsewhere tells us the exchange rate is 24 kroner to the pound sterling. So… did he get all that for 50p! Hiring a horse for the day costs 3 kroner i.e. 12.5p!

Last time I looked at a holiday in Iceland it was ruinously expensive, and packed with pre-arranged tours and photo opportunities by gushing geysers or bathing in hot springs i.e. it has been totally commodified.

There is a diagram of the highest mountains (we learn later that Auden pinched this postcard from an old lady who ran a home for decayed ladies, p.145); an extract from an 1805 parish register; bibliographies and suggested reading; there is a map showing new roads.

MacNeice struggles manfully to keep up with Auden’s super-abundant light verse:

So I came here to the land the Romans missed,
Left for the Irish saint and the Viking colonist.
But what am I doing here? Qu’allais-je faire
Among these volcanic rocks and this grey air?
Why go north when Cyprus and Madeira
De jure if not de facto are much nearer?
The reason for hereness is beyond conjecture,
There are no trees or trains or architecture
Fruits and greens are insufficient for health
And culture is limited by lack of wealth,
The tourist sights have nothing like stonehenge,
The literature is all about revenge.

(from Letter to Graham and Anne Shepard by Louis MacNeice)

10 out of 10 for effort, with some impressive hits:

The tourist sights have nothing like stonehenge,
The literature is all about revenge.

but Macneice can’t fully mask his more thoughtful approach which tends to make for slower reading, a slight air of puzzlement: it is Auden’s poetry which overshadows the enterprise, The Letter To Lord Byron whose five parts tie the ragbag together, but also the short but wonderful Journey to Iceland, which captures in just eleven stanzas the appeal of the cold and bleak north to some of us, so unlike the lotus-eating lure of the sunny Mediterranean where most travellers went.

And the traveller hopes: ‘Let me be far from any
Physician’; and the ports have names for the sea;
The citiless, the corroding, the sorrow;
And North means to all: ‘Reject’.

And the great plains are for ever where cold creatures are hunted,
And everywhere; the light birds flicker and flaunt;
Under a scolding flag the lover
Of islands may see at last,

Faintly, his limited hope; as he nears the glitter
Of glaciers; the sterile immature mountains intense
In the abnormal day of this world, and a river’s
Fan-like polyp of sand.

Wow! If you read my post about the monotonous diction of the poetry inspired by the Spanish Civil War, you can immediately see in these lines the use of novel vocabulary and uncannily imaginative phrasing.

In traditional poetry, birds do not ‘flicker and flaunt’; why are the mountains ‘immature’? why is the day ‘abnormal’? I don’t know, but it seems strange and true, the result of a disconcerted perception, appropriate to the cold and the bleak. And the simple statement that the bare North means to all Reject I find breath-taking.

In the short Foreword he added in 1965 Auden says:

The three months in Iceland upon which it is based stand out in my memory as among the happiest in a life which has, so far, been unusually happy, and, if something of this joy comes through the writing, I shall be content.

It does. It is a wonderful, funny, civilised book.

A few themes

In the pell-mell of poetry and comic prose it’s easy to overlook a couple of themes which emerge:

1. The He-man The concept of the ‘he-man’ was relatively new in pop culture – the muscley, Mr Universe types which came, like so much marketing bs, from America. Because they went to jolly good public schools and went on to have jolly successful careers, it’s easy to overlook how anxious these young men were, particularly about their masculinity.

Peter Fleming is referenced because he had already made a name for himself with his heroic account of his travels in Asia and his newspaper reporting for The Times, whereas Auden is all too well aware that he is short-sighted, he easily gets colds, he likes his creature comforts, and the first time he tries to mount a pony he galls right over its neck and onto the ground, in front of a party of picnickers. He is not made of heroic stuff.

The Auden Gang were, at the end of the day, bookish intellectuals, more at home chatting about Dante than building fires. They’d despised all that Officer Training Corps stuff they’d been forced to do at school and now found themselves having to take it seriously.

It can’t have helped that lots of them were gay or bisexual and so felt doubly alienated from the tough-guy, heterosexual men they saw up on cinema screens, always getting the girl. This helps explain why they couldn’t get over a permanent sense of feeling ridiculous. And then feeling anxious about feeling anxious.

It’s a small by symptomatic moment when Auden finally gets the hang of horse-riding and manages to stay on quite a frisky horse he’s been rented. ‘I was a real he-man after all,’ he says (p.142).

He says it as a joke, but it reveals an anxiety and a theme which crops up throughout his poetry of the 30s, another way in which he captured the anxiety of a generation.

(Similarly, when Auden and Isherwood travelled to China in 1938, Isherwood can’t sleep in a hotel near recently bombed ruins while he listens to Auden snoring ‘the long, calm snores of the truly strong’ – Journey To A War, p.75. The ‘truly strong’. It’s a joke, but still…)

2. Sensitivity Auden writes that traditional travel books are often boring but that there is a different thread to the genre, which consists more of essays on life prompted by things the traveller has seen. For him this is epitomised by the travel writing of D.H. Lawrence or Aldous Huxley, a style, writes Auden, which he is ‘neither clever nor sensitive enough to manage’ (p.140).

Now he’s being disingenuous when he says he’s not clever enough, he was a very clever man and he knew it. But I think he is being honest when he says that he was not sensitive enough. Sensitivity is not a word you associate with Auden. Cold, clinical detachment is his mode. He likes to categorise, he loves reeling off lists of things, from industrial equipment to types of civilian, from literary genres to psychoanalytical symptoms.

Thus it was Byron’s detached, urban and civilised irony which appealed to him, and when he deprecates Wordsworth he’s not joking.

I’m also glad to find I’ve your authority
For finding Wordsworth a most bleak old bore,
Though I’m afraid we’re in a sad minority
For every year his followers get more,
Their number must have doubled since the war.
They come in train-loads to the Lakes, and swarms
Of pupil-teachers study him in Storm’s.

For, oddly enough, although he spent three months travelling round one of Europe’s most unique landscapes, Auden doesn’t like landscapes. He likes people. He likes people and their cultures and ideas and attitudes and minds and histories and cultures. For him the landscape is just a backdrop to all this much more interesting stuff.

To me Art’s subject is the human clay,
And landscape but a background to a torso;
All Cézanne’s apples I would give away
For one small Goya or a Daumier.

It may be worth pointing out that Honoré Daumier (1808-79) was a French artists and printmaker most famous for his caricatures of urban life. The Royal Academy had an exhibition on him not so long ago:

Several other anecdotes reinforce your sense that the human subject came first, second and third with Auden. On a trivial level, he quotes a well-known clerihew in a letter to a friend he’s made on the island, to clarify his position:

The art of Biography
Is different from Geography.
Geography is about maps,
But Biography is about chaps.

Or take a longer anecdote: After quite a gruelling bus journey (Icelanders always seemed to be sick on bus journeys, Auden was told by a bus driver) he arrives at Akureyri to discover all the hotels are full. Fortunately, the young guide he’s travelling with, Ragnar, has a friend who has a brother-in-law who’s a butcher who happens to be out of town, so they’re put up at his house for the night. Next day Auden goes swimming at an open-air pool heated by geysers. So far, so touristy. But that evening, he tells us, he hunkers down for the night with two books.

Borrowed two volumes of caricatures, which are really my favourite kind of picture, and spent a very happy evening with Goya and Daumier and Max Beerbohm.

While others are trying to work themselves up into poetic visions worthy of Wordsworth, Auden doesn’t bother. He’s much more interesting in the sight of the driver of the bus struggling to change a tyre. In the evenings he doesn’t go out roistering like Ernest Hemingway, he much prefers to be snuggled up with books of entertaining cartoons. It’s very sweet and very honest.

I’ve learnt to ride, at least to ride a pony,
Taken a lot of healthy exercise,
On barren mountains and in valleys stony,
I’ve tasted a hot spring (a taste was wise),
And foods a man remembers till he dies.
All things considered, I consider Iceland,
Apart from Reykjavik, a very nice land.


Credit

Letters to Iceland by W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice was first published by Faber and Faber in 1937. References are to the 1985 paperback edition.

Related links

1930s reviews

Reviews of Icelandic sagas

Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins (1998)

Here is another analogy… (p.12)

Although this book is over 20 years old, the issues it addresses (the anti-scientific tendency of much traditional literature and the inappropriate use of poetic writing in bogus pseudo-science – versus the hard scientific fact and clear scientific thinking Dawkins promotes) are still very current, and since Dawkins is still writing books attacking non-scientific ways of looking at the world (such as his most recent tome, Outgrowing God, published just last year) I think it’s still worth reviewing this one as an analysis of his overall style and approach.

The aim

The full title is Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder and the book’s purpose is simple: For thousands of years humans have written poetry or concocted religious myths and symbols to explain the puzzling world around them. But (Dawkins says) the scientific worldview as we now have it explains more or less everything about the world around us from bacteria to supernovas and, if properly understood, is far more beautiful and inspiring than the poetry, myths and legends it supersedes.

My advice

However, in my opinion, if you want to be inspired, watch a David Attenborough documentary about the natural world or a Brian Cox one about the stars, because this book is a hilariously silly, shallow, ragbag of random quotes, fragments of science mixed up with countless personal anecdotes, snippets from newspapers or TV and, above all, a relentless stream Richard Dawkins’s pet peeves and trite opinions.

Do not read this book.

Dawkins shares his opinion of modern journalists (lamentably anti-science)

Dawkins opens the book with a sustained attack on a shopping list of contemporary authors who have written disparagingly about science, including Bernard Levin (who once wrote an article specifically about Dawkins God, Me and Mr Dawkins 11 October 1996 – hence the enmity), Simon Jenkins, A.A. Gill, Fay Weldon (author of a ‘hymn of hate’ against science in the Daily Telegraph) and so on and so on.

Dawkins quotes articles in the newspapers, or letters he has received, or questions he gets asked at the end of his lectures, or anecdotes about students of his, to demonstrate that anti-scientific prejudice and ignorance is everywhere – There are creationists under the bed and anti-evolutionists hiding in the closet. It isn’t safe to turn on the TV or open a newspaper without someone spouting unscientific rubbish or promoting astrology or showing the deepest scientific illiteracy. Fools! Knaves! Dawkins has no patience with error.

This is dramatically, profoundly, hugely wrong. (p.90)

Dawkins shares his opinion of British poets (lamentably anti-science)

And then – oh dear, oh dear – Dawkins takes it upon himself to be the judge of a raft of classic poets including Keats, Coleridge or Wordsworth, Blake or Yeats or Lawrence.

Dawkins has located quotes from all of these luminaries lamenting the ‘death of romance’ and the role science has played in ‘dis-enchanting the world’ so, as usual, Richard loses no time in telling us that they were all dead wrong in thinking science dis-enchants the world: if only they’d understood modern science, they’d have written poetry ten times as good!!

Dawkins then goes on to prove that he has absolutely no feel for poetic writing or for the luminous quality of poetry:

  1. by the way he quotes schoolboy tags and the most obvious ‘greatest hits’ moments from the most obvious Great Poets
  2. by the way he treats poems as rhythmic verse i.e you can do a prose summary, and then evaluate them on whether or not they show the ‘correct’ attitude to the scientific worldview
  3. and by the way he has rummaged through the diaries and letters and table talk of the Great Poets to find quotes of them stating anti-scientific or anti-rationalist opinions

Which he considers case closed. He cannot entertain the idea that poetry might not be written to put forward clearly defined and logical points of view, but might be an alternative way of perceiving and expressing the world and what it is to be human…

He refers to D.H. Lawrence who (allegedly) refused to believe that moonlight is reflected sunlight (that sounds too pat and too stupid to be true), but even if it were, you kind of know what Lawrence is talking about. We have evolved over tens of millions of years to find night-time eerie and the changing shape and movement of the moon uncanny. Is it possible that part of a poet’s role is to respect ancient beliefs, to excavate and re-express deep ancestral feelings, no matter how irrational?

Not in Dawkins’s view. No! They were all wrong wrong wrong about science and deserve to be sent to the back of the class. He speculates that:

Keats, like Yeats, might have been an even better poet if he had gone to science from some of his inspiration. (p.27)

If only the Great Poets were more like, well, like Richard Dawkins!

Dawkins’s bêtes noirs and pet peeves

He fills the book with his own Daily Mail prejudices and bêtes noirs.

Post-modernism is rubbish Once again we get his shallow critique of ‘post-modernism’ and ‘cultural relativism’ – ‘the meaningless wordplays of modish francophone savants‘ – which he dismisses in a sentence as existing merely ‘to impress the gullible’ (p.41).

Now maybe a lot of French post-war philosophy is pretentious twaddle, but, for example, Derrida’s attempt to rethink the entire tradition of writing as a way of encoding authority which constantly undermines itself because of the looseness and deeply unfinishable nature of writing, or Foucault’s histories of how power is wielded by supposedly ‘objective’ academic disciplines and public institutions, or Roland Barthes’ explorations of how texts have lives of their own, determined by structures or levels of activity which have hitherto been overlooked – these are all fascinating intellectual endeavours, certainly more worth spending time reading about than the Daily Mail philistinism of Dr D.

It’s a telling irony that soon after a passage attacking writers and journalists (Bernard Levin, Simon Jenkins et al) for their shallow, ignorant dismissal of science as being a worldview which they don’t like — Dawkins himself carries out just such a shallow, ignorant dismissal of post-modern philosophy, for being a worldview which he doesn’t like.

Could it be that there are multiple worldviews, countless worldviews, and that we get along best by enjoying their diversity? No! Wrong wrong wrong!

Children’s book awards are vulgar Dawkins gives an account of attending an awards ceremony for children’s science books where the audience was encouraged to make insect noises, which he found insufferably ‘vulgar’.

Computer games are vulgar In much the same way, in The Blind Watchmaker, he dismissed ‘vulgar’ arcade computer games (not as dignified and worthy as the computer game he had devised, of course).

The ‘Top 20’ shows how vulgar people are This kind of lofty condemnation of ‘popular’ interests and tastes comes, of course, from a long line of lofty and contemptuous Oxford intellectuals, and sits alongside his fastidious disapproval of the so-called ‘Top 40’ and how easy it is to promote ‘worthless pop singles, an attitude of fastidious elitism which made me laugh at the end of The Blind Watchmaker. Later on he finds the space, for obscure personal reasons, to go out of his way to tell us that the activity of bodybuilding is an ‘odd minority culture’. Possibly. But not as odd as writing a book supposedly about science and going out of your way to include a paragraph disapproving of body building.

The X-Files is anti-scientific Dawkins takes the time to explain why he dislikes the popularity of the TV show The X-Files – namely, because of the way it foregrounds the spooky, irrational explanations for the weird occurrences it depicts (p.28) – which is so frightfully anti-science.

Douglas Adams is masterly By contrast, he wants us to know that he approves of the ‘masterly’ science comedies of Douglas Adams (p.29).

Science fiction is serious literature! Science fiction by the likes of Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov et al:

seems to me to be an important literary form in its own right, snobbishly underrated by some scholars of literature (p.27)

Oh yes, if Dawkins ran literature departments, things would be different! Out with Derrida and Barthes, in with Douglas Adams and Isaac Asimov!

Dr Dolittle is not racist Dawkins finds time to share his opinion that Hugh Lofting’s Dr Dolittle books do have a little racism in them, but then that was the universal worldview of the 1920s, so it is silly for ‘pompously correct librarians’ to ban them. And, anyway, Dolittle’s love of animals is superior to the speciesism which even the most politically correct of our own time are still prey to (p.53).

Ruskin didn’t understand science I was actively upset when Dawkins quotes a passage of Ruskin about how people prefer myths and stories to the cold empirical facts – and then goes on to ridicule Ruskin’s attitude not by countering his views but by retelling the hoary old anecdote about the great critic and social reformer’s disastrous wedding night.

It stood out to me as a moment of gross insensitivity and schoolboy bullying. Ruskin was a genius, who struggled to transform the way the philistine British thought about art and design and handed his cause on to the young William Morris. To drag up this hackneyed anecdote is in the worst possible vein of Daily Mail ad hominem philistinism.

Summary

a) Dawkins is a modern reincarnation of just the kind of literal-minded, unbending, unsympathetic and impenetrably dense philistine who forced so many of the Great Poets – Shelley and Byron and Browning, Lawrence and Auden – to flee claustrophobic, puritanical, judgemental England for hotter, more laid-back climes.

b) There seems to be no subject too trivial or too minor for Dawkins not to be able to use it as the pretext to share with the reader his trite and obvious opinions and prejudices, or to prompt another anecdote from his endless store of ‘fascinating’ encounters.

Imagine if David Attenborough interrupted his voiceover about humming birds or polar bears to share an anecdote about a distinguished professor he had a squabble with over dinner at his Oxford college, or took a minute to explain to his viewers why Star Trek is better than Dr Who, or why Douglas Adams’ novels are criminally under-rated.

You’d think he’d gone mad. But that’s what most of this book is like.

Snobbism

Although Dawkins goes out of his way to sound reasonable he can’t help quite frequently sounding like a snob, fastidiously distancing himself from the ghastly taste of the mob. Richard – alongside the Daily Mail – laments how standards have slipped and once-mighty institutions have pandered to popular taste. O Tempora! O mores!

In his chapter rubbishing horoscopes and astrology, Dawkins quotes surveys in which most people say they read horoscopes just for entertainment:

Their taste in what constitutes entertaining fiction is evidently different from mine!

Indeed. Dawkins has told us several times that he cycles through the streets of leafy Oxford. I wonder if he’s ever thought about people like me who have to fight their way onto over-crowded tube trains, or flop exhausted at the end of the day onto a muggy bus, brain dead and pick up a copy of the Metro or Standard to leaf through, treating the horoscopes as much the same as all the other brainless twaddle in it which helps pass the time if you are very, very tired. Different strokes for different folks. Live and let live, maybe…

I chortled when he referred to the Radio Times as ‘that once-respected organ of the BBC’ (p.124). Could anyone sound more pompous?

After taking part in a BBC programme promoting a faith healer who claimed to be the reincarnation of a 2,000-year-old dead doctor, Dawkins clashed with the commissioning editor of this programme. He was horrified that the BBC should:

lend the weight of its long built-up reputation by appearing to accept the fantasy at face value (pp.125-6)

It’s so often the BBC which draws the ire of the Mrs Angry’s from Tunbridge Wells… and so it is for Dawkins. I smiled when he described David Frost as:

a veteran British television personality whom some government saw fit to knight… (p.126)

‘Whom’. I know it’s technically correct but I don’t like using ‘whom’ precisely because Dawkins is typical of the kind of people who still use it, the kind of people who perpetually think the BBC is going to the dogs.

The long chapter demolishing astrologers and fake magicians is an orgy of supercilious superiority to the immoral tricksters who make money be exploiting a gullible public, aided and abetted by intelligent people in places like the BBC who really should know better!

Dawkins’s personal stories and gossip

I’ll begin with a personal anecdote. (p.138)

The book is jam packed with chatty stories and anecdotes from people he’s met, and letters he’s received, and newspapers articles he’s read, and debates he’s taken part in, and lectures he’s given, and children he’s chatted to, and anecdotes about his wife, and his mother-in-law, and his parents, and uncle and aunt.

  • I am told on good authority that defence lawyers in the United States sometimes object to jury candidates on the grounds that they have had a scientific education (p.83)
  • A colleague tells me of a time when he was up for selection on a jury… (p.84)
  • I had a schoolfriend who claimed that he could recognise any member of the 80-strong residence in which we lived purely by listening to their footsteps. (p.88)
  • I had another friend from Switzerland who claimed that when she walked into a room she could tell, by smell, which members of her circle of acquaintances had just left the room. (p.88)
  • I once received a lawyer’s bill, the last item of which was ‘Time spent making out this bill’ (p.106)
  • My wife Lalla Ward recalls an occasion when an American starlet approached the director of the film they were both working on with a ‘Gee, Mr Preminger, what sign are you?’ and received the immortal rebuff, in a thick Austrian accent, ‘I am a Do Not Disturrrb sign.’ (p.118)
  • I once met a woman who was employed full time to invent these stories [Elvis sighted on Mars-type stories] for an American publication… (p.124)
  • I recall an entertaining dinner with a philosopher who told me the following story: One day in church he noticed that a priest, in a kneeling position, was hovering nine inches above the church floor. (p.133)
  • I remember once trying to amuse a six-year-old child at Christmas time by reckoning with her how long it would take Father Christmas to go down all the chimneys in the world. (p.141)
  • I used a similar illustration in one of my Royal Institution Christmas lectures in 1991. (p.145)
  • My wife once bought for her mother a beautiful antique watch with a pink face. (p.154)
  • During this particular minute, my thoughts have strayed to a schoolfellow called Haviland (I don’t remember his Christian name, not what he looked like) whom I haven’t seen or thought of for 45 years. (p.159)
  • Daniel Dennett has told me of a conversation with a philosopher colleague who had read Wonderful Life as arguing that the Cambrian phyla did not have a common ancestor – that they had sprung up as independent origins of life! (p.207)

He spends a page and a half describing the time his parents persuaded little Richard and his sister to put on blindfolds and led them out to the garden where they sat them in a wooden frame which they persuaded the children was an airplane, trundled it along the ‘runway’ and then lifted it into the air and zoomed it around the garden, sometimes brushing against low-hanging branches of trees.

This anecdote is the basis of a couple of pages of complete speculation about why credulity, the ability to believe anything they’re told, might be an evolutionary advantage in human children – but how adults should grow out of it and apply serious scientific standards of scepticism and an informed understanding of statistics to every aspect of their lives.

But why? Why can’t people believe what they want to? In reality they already do, and always have, and always will. Charming, page-long anecdotes about Richard’s upper-middle-class childhood aren’t going to change anyone’s minds, they just warm the hearts of the upper-middle-class book reviewers who, as a result, shower his books with praise (enthusiastic blurbs on the back of this book come from A.S. Byatt [private school and Oxford] and Matt Ridley [the fifth Viscount Ridley, Eton and Oxford]).

On and on it goes in an endless burbling stream of jolly gossip which is entertaining because it’s so inconsequential and vain, a self-satisfied family album of preening opinions.

Sometimes there are bits of science…

Why rainbows appear like they do, sound waves, how we can read the chemical composition of different stars, DNA fingerprinting – there are interesting fragments of actual science, reasonably clearly explained, buried amid all the gossip and personal prejudices.

There’s another explanation of the structure of the eye (repeated from River Out of Eden), a page about qasars, and 4 or 5 pages about ‘Skinner boxes, and the behaviouralist B.F. Skinner’s experiments rewarding animals (pigeons and rats) which led him to notice that animals, too, appear to develop superstitious rituals i.e. if they happened to be doing something (pecking a particular part of the box, or huddling on one particular corner) when some food pops through the chute into the box, then they will repeat the same behaviour again and again in the hope that lightning strikes twice. Like humans who carry out lucky tics and rituals.

There’s a lengthy passage (pp.193-209) attacking Stephen Jay Gould. It’s typical of Dawkins in that he says he respects the great American populariser of evolution, but then goes on to systematically demolish every aspect of Gould’s book Wonderful Life. Gould uses the fossil discoveries in the Burgess Shale to assert that the Cambrian period when they were laid down saw a spectacular and unprecedented explosion of evolutionary growth and diversity, hundreds of wacky designs for life forms, many of which flourished and disappeared. Dawkins powerfully disagrees that evolution works in such bursts and spurts, and lines up a barrage of critics and authorities to demolish Gould’s position, concluding with a quote from Peter Medawar claiming it was a shame that Gould had (before his death in 2002) become the pre-eminent popular exponent of evolutionary theory in the United States because his ideas are ‘confused’ and totally unrepresentative of the mainstream of evolutionary thought (‘in fact the evolutionary biologists with whom I have discussed his work tend to see him as a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with…’, p.207).

OK so there’s some science in this passage, as Dawkins explains why he disagrees with Gould but, as you can tell, the explication of the facts of what was found in the Burgess Shale take a poor second place to Dawkins’s argufying about it. The point of these fifteen pages or so is not to explain the thing to you, it’s to convince you that Gould was wrong wrong wrong!

The passage I liked best explained how evolution, among other things, has selected for the correct shapes of key proteins – some crucial proteins have multiple shapes and versions: the correct shapes are the ones which allow them to carry out their life-enabling activities, but it explains why things go disastrously wrong if the body, for whatever reason, starts to produce wrong-shaped alternatives: which is what happens in mad cow disease, when an alternative shape of the prion protein occurs and then triggers a cascade of mishapen prions throughout the body, which leads to holes forming in the brain, and madness.

Moments like this are obviously interesting, but they are oases of sense in a book most of whose text is made up of anecdotes, stories, far-fetched analogies, pitifully simplistic opinions about Great Literature, and a wholesale misunderstanding of human nature.

Conclusion

As to Dawkins’s central point that all kinds of people think unscientifically, don’t understand statistics or probabilities or how DNA fingerprinting works or how the rainbow is made, and instead believe gibberish about horoscopes and astrology and magic tricks… well, so what?

People have always been fools, always will be, as John Gray points out (see my review of his most recent book, The Soul of the Marionette). On the whole, people don’t burn witches or lynch strangers or march gaily off to war like they used to, so that’s progress of a sort.

But expecting everyone to suddenly abandon junk TV, sensationalist tabloid journalism, horoscopes and the countless promises of overnight diets and anti-ageing creams, and suddenly, miraculously, become hyper-intelligent, private-school educated, Oxford academic experts in DNA and astronomy is… well… a fatuous fantasy.

Dawkins and Junior

When my son (22 and studying Biology at university) discovered that I was reading Dawkins’s books, he was genuinely outraged. He crossly told me that all Dawkins’s contributions to biology have been discredited, and that his only achievement has been to create in many people’s minds a vision of science and scientists as narrow-minded, intolerant, anti-religious and bigoted – a view which my son has personally found himself having to extricate himself from in student conversations, and which has been extremely socially unhelpful.

P.S.

One last Dawkins anecdote to finish with:

In a previous book I gave away the number of the combination lock on my bicycle. I felt safe in doing so because obviously my books would never be read by the kind of person who would steal a bicycle. Unfortunately somebody did steal it, and now I have a new lock with a new number. (p.147)

This vignette perfectly captures Dawkins’s spirit of winning naivety and complete ignorance of human nature. Maybe you can see why, in my review of The Blind Watchmaker, I dubbed Dawkins the Mr Bean of Biology.

Credit

Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins was published by Penguin in 1998. All references are to the 1999 Penguin paperback edition.


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Chemistry

Cosmology

Environment

Evolution

Genetics

Human evolution

Maths

Origins of Life

Particle physics

Psychology

In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells (1906)

We live now in these days, when the Great Change has been in most things accomplished, in a time when every one is being educated to a sort of intellectual gentleness, a gentleness that abates nothing from our vigour, and it is hard to understand the stifled and struggling manner in which my generation of common young men did its thinking. (Chapter One)

In his earliest stories Wells stuck to describing localised events witnessed and recounted with feverish, first-person intensity by his astonished protagonists.

As he became famous he branched out. He wrote a series of non-science-fiction love stories (Love and Mr Lewisham, Kipps), often featuring whimsical social comedy satirising Edwardian manners and society.

He also began a series of factual articles and books devoted to predicting the future based on likely scientific and technological advances – Anticipations, A Modern UtopiaThe Shape of Things To Come and so on.

And his science fiction stories became more long-winded and discursive, incorporating these other elements to produce stories which were longer, less focused, and contained all kinds of material extraneous to the main plot. In The Days of The Comet is a classic example of this tendency.

In the Days of the Comet

The central event of In The Days of the Comet is easy to describe. A comet passes close to the earth, trailing a cloud of strange chemicals through the atmosphere, which leads to an abrupt and total revolution in human nature and in human affairs, referred to as The Great Change. Everyone becomes peaceful, kind, forgiving and sensible. Here is the narrator telling his contemporary, post-Change audience, about the bad old days:

You must understand – and every year it becomes increasingly difficult to understand – how entirely different the world was then from what it is now. It was a dark world; it was full of preventable disorder, preventable diseases, and preventable pain, of harshness and stupid unpremeditated cruelties; but yet, it may be even by virtue of the general darkness, there were moments of a rare and evanescent beauty that seem no longer possible in my experience. The Great Change has come for ever more, happiness and beauty are our atmosphere, there is peace on earth and good will to all men. None would dare to dream of returning to the sorrows of the former time…

Wells has bitten off a massive theme – the transformation of the entire human race from a jungle of competing individualists, a system which produces misery and exploitation, into a brotherhood of enlightened and caring citizens who treat each other as equals and set about building the Perfect Society. For the fumes of the comet bring about the great Socialist Transformation of the World which Wells and so many of his contemporaries dreamed of.

But Wells has set himself the same challenge he faced in The Food of the Gods, which is to tell the transformation of the entire human race via the tiny story of a handful of individuals – in this case via the recollections of one particular man, Willie Leadford, now aged 71.

The novel is Willie’s autobiography, or more precisely his memoir, of the months leading up to the Great Change 50 years previously, when he was a hot-tempered young man. The minutely narrow scope of the task is made clear in the book’s first line:

I have set myself to write the story of the Great Change, so far as it has affected my own life and the lives of one or two people closely connected with me, primarily to please myself.

Well, that gets Wells off the hook of having to write some kind of global history of this vast transformation. Instead it’s going to be a book about Willie.

The central thread of the novel is Willie’s mismatched love affair with the beautiful but narrow-minded young woman Nettie Stuart. They are both lower class inhabitants of the Four Towns, a region of the industrial Midlands. Here Willie has grown up in extreme poverty, raised by his mother, a devoted and tireless charlady who has almost literally worked her fingers to the bone. Their wretched hovel of a rented cottage is bitterly described numerous times, not least the leaks in the roof which lets rain into his mother’s bedroom, exacerbating her many illnesses.

Against this backdrop, and in the scenery of this grim northern industrial townscape, Willie grows up into a typical angry young man who loses his religious faith and discovers ‘socialism’. He moves in to share a flat with another young man, Parload, who is, however, more taken by the stars and astronomy than socialism.

Anyway, the central spine of the novel is Willie’s forlorn love affair with Nettie. She is the daughter of the gardener to the local lady of the manor, Lady Verrall, and so she and her family regard themselves as a notch or two above Willie and his mother in the social scale. We know from his biography that at one stage of his own adolescence, Wells’s family fell on hard times and his mother went to work as cleaner to a local landowner and Wells was obliged to give up schooling to work in a local shop in Sussex.

You cannot help feeling that the descriptions of a) his good and long-suffering mother b) his smouldering resentment at the patronising, superior attitude of the local landowners and c) his youthful sense of the crazy injustice of the entire social system, are all strongly derived from his own experiences, which he channels into this story of an earnest young working class man falling in love with a beautiful but unimaginative young woman from just a fraction above his own class.

In the hands of a genius like D.H. Lawrence this kind of thing would have been turned into an entire novel registering every flicker of the sensibilities of both the protagonists, and exquisitely marking the rise and fall of their relationship, recording:

the host of dark distressful memories, of darkened childhood, toilsome youth, embittered adolescence.

But in the hands of bumptious Mr Wells it is a good tale, some passages are intensely felt and written but… but… it always feels that Well’s real focus of attention is elsewhere…

Anyway, young Willie becomes even more embittered when he tries to share his ‘socialist’ convictions with Nettie, as well as his loss of religious faith. Being a shallow conformist, all this alarms Nettie, who not only drops him but, in a scene worthy of a Thomas Hardy novel, rejects him for the rich son of a local landowner, the elegant, drawling, upper-class Edward Verrall –

son of the man who owned not only this great estate but more than half of Rawdon’s pot-bank, and who had interests and possessions, collieries and rents, all over the district of the Four Towns.

They argue. Willie departs. He hears from local gossip that she has taken up with young Verrall. When he goes once again up to the grand house where Nettie lives with her mother and father in the gardeners’ quarters, Willie is devastated to discover that… Nettie and Verrall have eloped!

Willie is consumed with psychotic anger, focusing all his personal frustration – the fact that he’s just been ‘let go’ by his employer, Rawdon – the general misery of the industrial proletariat living in the hovels of the local towns – the injustice of the social system – the sight of his poor downtrodden mother – and the (believe it or not) fact that the country seems to be slipping towards war with Germany – all these things come together to make Willie search high and low until he finds a shop where he buys a revolver.

Willie determines to track the couple down and shoot them both, he is that demented with rage, and the remainder of part one of the book follows his efforts to establish where they’ve gone (Norfolk), tracking them to the coast, and then to a little bohemian ‘artist’s colony’ on the seaside.

The industrial Midlands

Partly I’ve thought of D.H. Lawrence because the story is set in the industrial Midlands – Lawrence’s home turf – and a lot of Willie’s youthful energy goes into being outraged by the wretched poverty of the workers and the luxurious lifestyle of the rich.

Wells can certainly write when he wants to and, as you read on, you realise he has made a big effort to capture the miserable topography and lives of the down-trodden miners and other manual workers in the tight little cluster of Midlands mining towns he takes as his setting. I wonder if he had visited the area and made notes. It reads like it. Here’s a description of Willie and his friend and flatmate, Parload, walking round the dirty industrial town of ‘Clayton’:

Then across the allotments, a wilderness of cabbages and evil-looking sheds, past a gaunt abandoned factory, and so to the high road. The high road ascended in a curve past a few houses and a beerhouse or so, and round until all the valley in which four industrial towns lay crowded and confluent was overlooked.

I will admit that with the twilight there came a spell of weird magnificence over all that land and brooded on it until dawn. The horrible meanness of its details was veiled, the hutches that were homes, the bristling multitudes of chimneys, the ugly patches of unwilling vegetation amidst the makeshift fences of barrel-stave and wire. The rusty scars that framed the opposite ridges where the iron ore was taken and the barren mountains of slag from the blast furnaces were veiled; the reek and boiling smoke and dust from foundry, pot-bank, and furnace, transfigured and assimilated by the night. The dust-laden atmosphere that was grey oppression through the day became at sundown a mystery of deep translucent colours, of blues and purples, of sombre and vivid reds, of strange bright clearnesses of green and yellow athwart the darkling sky. Each upstart furnace, when its monarch sun had gone, crowned itself with flames, the dark cinder heaps began to glow with quivering fires, and each pot-bank squatted rebellious in a volcanic coronet of light. The empire of the day broke into a thousand feudal baronies of burning coal. The minor streets across the valley picked themselves out with gas-lamps of faint yellow, that brightened and mingled at all the principal squares and crossings with the greenish pallor of incandescent mantles and the high cold glare of the electric arc. The interlacing railways lifted bright signal-boxes over their intersections, and signal stars of red and green in rectangular constellations. The trains became articulated black serpents breathing fire.

Dickens wrote a vivid description of the Midlands in The Old Curiosity Shop in 1842, and George Orwell was to describe them again nearly a century later. Wells comes in the middle of that period and is as vivid as either:

You cannot see, as I can see, the dark empty way between the mean houses, the dark empty way lit by a bleary gas-lamp at the corner, you cannot feel the hard checkered pavement under your boots, you cannot mark the dimly lit windows here and there, and the shadows upon the ugly and often patched and crooked blinds of the people cooped within. Nor can you presently pass the beer house with its brighter gas and its queer, screening windows, nor get a whiff of foul air and foul language from its door, nor see the crumpled furtive figure – some rascal child – that slinks past us down the steps.

We crossed the longer street, up which a clumsy steam tram, vomiting smoke and sparks, made its clangorous way, and adown which one saw the greasy brilliance of shop fronts and the naphtha flares of hawkers’ barrows dripping fire into the night. A hazy movement of people swayed along that road, and we heard the voice of an itinerant preacher from a waste place between the houses.

There’s a recession – Leadford and his flatmate squabble about the elementary economic causes of recessions in capitalism – some of the miners have come out on strike, there’s stone throwing and minor riots and Leadford manages to get caught up in scuffles and mobs.

This could have been an interesting novel about industrial relations circa 1905, except that… a comet is hurtling towards the earth.

It’s a bit like getting fifty pages into a promising early novel by D.H. Lawrence when the Tardis suddenly materialises and Dr Who steps out!

You are just getting into it, as a realistic novel, when Willie looks up once again to look at the strange green light of the approaching comet. For weeks now the newspapers and their ‘experts’ have been assuring the public that it will miss the earth and have no effect on all of us.

Part two – after the comet

Except that it does have an effect on all of us – a transformative impact.

The first part of the novel rises to a climax as Willie, one fateful night, tracks down the lovers Verrall and Nettie, to their beach hut hideaway, from a hiding place watches them gallivanting on the sand, then steps out and advances towards them, blindly firing his revolver (missing them both, luckily) and, as they turn and run, running after them, blind with impotent rage, anger, frustration, all the emotions of a trapped, trammelled inhabitant of the squalid little earth of 1906.

Absurdly (I haven’t brought it out enough) in the background throughout the story, we have had tips and hints that Britain is stumbling towards war against Germany. Willie has absent-mindedly been reading the newspaper hoardings at the railways stations and towns he passes through on his vengeful pursuit, and now, here on the beach, his own personal demented rage is counterpointed by a battle which suddenly starts up between huge warships taking place way out at sea, off the coast, the flares and booms of the big guns lighting up the beach as Willie chases the lovers through the dunes. All very cinematic!

And then… the green lights of the comet engulf everything. It is as if a thousand pistols are detonating all over the sky and a great mist, a green fog, sweeps in from the sea, and Willie loses consciousness.

When he awakes some hours later he is struck by the beauty of the grass among the sand. He looks up into the beautiful sky. He feels fulfilled and happy. He looks down at the gun at his feet and doesn’t understand it. He stumbles through the fields till he comes to a lane where a man has fallen and sprained his ankle and so he immediately helps him. It seems like the obvious thing to do.

And all over the world every person is waking with the same thought – feeling whole, purified, happy, content, and so brimming with good humour that they need to give of it, help others, make a better life.

In a throwaway bit of science Willie says that he later learned that chemicals in the comet’s tail reacted with the nitrogen in the earth’s atmosphere to create a new element which, when breathed in, gives new energy to blood corpuscles and gives the brain and nervous system a tremendous sense of life and calm.

Part two of the book describes the Great Change in three ways.

1. Very conveniently, the man Willie has found injured in the road turns out to be Melmount, a senior Cabinet Minister. Willie helps him to his holiday home down the coast where, incapacitated and so unable to go back to London, Melmount calls a cabinet meeting to discuss the new world and, since there aren’t any of the usual civil servant secretariesavailable, Willie finds himself being dragooned into acting as secretary and aide de camp to the Prime Minister during these first few weeks after the Change. This allows Wells:

  • to give us satirical portraits of the members of the cabinet
  • to insert his analysis of the British government of his day (it didn’t, in  his opinion, have a clue what to do with its enormous empire or about the numerous social problems at home)
  • and to convey in broad brush terms how all of its members now look back on their narrow, sheltered, blinkered, privileged upbringings and publicly express regret

The politicians set about making radical changes which begin with Wells’s personal hobby horse, land reform, namely nationalising all land and rebuilding society from scratch.

2. After witnessing all this Willie returns to Clayton, and registers the Great Change in the town, his mother, Nettie’s parents and even old Mrs Verrall the landowner. All are now peaceful and calm. The scales have fallen from their eyes. All are now determined to build the New Jerusalem. Willie describes how they knock down all the disgusting old slums, and hold huge bonfires in which they burn their smelly clothes, disgusting furniture, rubbish decorations. Now all the land is jointly owned by the ‘commune’ as it is now called which plans rationally, establishing new workplaces in the best places, rebuilding convenient railway lines to link them, building new homes which are healthy and hygienic, for everyone. In the mornings they all work together, to build a better world. In the afternoons all take place in further education designed to bring out everyone’s potential – everyone’s life becomes a combination of productive labour and creative self-fulfilment.

3. And finally the love affair. This is dealt with in three parts. In the immediate aftermath of the Great Change, Willie comes across Nettie and Verrall again, and they all apologise to each other. In a rather moving passage both Nettie and Verrall reveal their feelings and motivations for running off together: Nettie admits that to some extent, it was Verrall’s clothes: he just dressed so richly and confidently and ably, compared to Willie’s dismal, dirty, threadbare working class suit, that she was bewitched. And Verrall gives what I thought was a powerful half page or so summary of the sheer irresponsible thrill of having an affair, of running away and abandoning all his parents’ fine hopes that he’d become a politician, spurning all society’s rules about not ‘ruining’ the reputation of a virginal young woman. What larks it was!

Anyway, they all sheepishly look at each other and apologise. Nettie says she wants to remain in love with Willie, who was her earliest adult friend and boyfriend but… still wants to remain with Verrall. The two men agree it cannot be and so, regretfully, she leaves with Verrall, leaving Willie to throw himself with energy into building the New Jerusalem in Clayton.

Back in Clayton, his mother is nearing the end of an exhausting long life of hard work, and the commune (in its new enlightened form) allots her a nurse – stocky young Annie – to be her carer through her last months. Distracted with all his new duties Willie is blissfully ignorant of the fact that this devoted, loyal young woman – rather inevitably – falls in love with him. It is only on the day of his mother’s eventual death, that they burst into tears, find each other in each other’s arms, and then kissing and then passionately kissing. Oops.

They marry and have children. Willie emphasises she was always his best friend and helpmeet. But… But Nettie reappears. Nettie has heard about his mother dying and makes a visit. And here she pursues the theme she had broached back in their parting scene at the seaside resort. Here she suggests… that she can be the lover of two men, that Willie can join her and Verrall. And Annie can join them too. And so it transpires. They become a ménage à quatre.

For the Great Change has overthrown even that old shibboleth, that one man shall cleave to one women, and one woman to one man, and that they shall be each other’s all-in-all and never have any surplus love or affection to give to anybody else.

After all the heady themes the book has covered – socialism, social injustice, the squalor of industrial Britain, the unmerited privilege of the rich, the stupidity of war, the absurdity of empire, the incompetence of politicians – this is how it ends, with a hymn to Free Love, a very fashionable, if scandalous, Edwardian topic.

Anybody who knew about Wells’s own love life (i.e. all of literary and artistic and political London) knew that this was in fact a close reflection of Well’s own situation. He was married to the plain and devoted Jane Wells,who bore him several children and managed the home, but had to put up with Wells’s numerous affairs with an impressive list of younger, sexier women, with several of whom he had illegitimate children.

(Wells’s lovers included American birth control activist Margaret Sanger, writer Odette Keun, Soviet spy Moura Budberg, novelist Elizabeth von Arnim, writer Amber Reeves, novelist and feminist Rebecca West, and many more.)

And there the story ends.

Before and after

The story is a variation on the very Wellsian trope of the sleeper who awakes in the distant future.

There is a ‘before’ (the grimy present day) and an ‘after’ (utopia after the Great Change). And the narrator is able to bear witness to both worlds. Thus the narrator is able to contrast a) the social squalor and b) the psychological and emotional constipation, of Edwardian times, with the a) social harmony and b) the relaxed and open relationships, after ‘the Great Change’.

This gives rise to the odd and distinctive feature of the book which is that you can go for pages reading either a) gritty descriptions of the muddy coal-mining town and its surly inhabitants or b) the sometimes genuinely moving, sometimes rather laughable descriptions of Willie’s love affair with Nettie – and both lull you into a false sense of security that you are reading a standard Edwardian novel…

But then Wells will throw in a sentence or two reminding us that this is all before the Change, the protagonist will look up and see the eerie shape of billowing green flaring in the night sky as the comet approaches day after day, thus inviting the reader to view with ridicule the absurd economic system and social conventions of the time – and you realise you are in a completely different type of book.

Or you are in a D.H. Lawrence social realist novel which has been picked up and photoshopped into a scene from Star Wars.

This before-and-after trope explains the prominence in the text of the direct address to the reader. By which I mean that the first person protagonist, Willie, is continually stopping to address his modern readers, the young readers who have grown up since the Great Change, with phrases like ‘You who have grown up since the Change will scarcely believe the silliness of the society I grew up in…’

My point being that the ‘before and after’ trope isn’t a minor aspect of the book, it is something the narrator and Wells are constantly rubbing in our faces.

You will consider those notions of my youth poor silly violent stuff; particularly if you are of the younger generation born since the Change you will be of that opinion.

When I think of that growing proportion of readers who belong entirely to the new order, who are growing up with only the vaguest early memories of the old world, I find the greatest difficulty in writing down the unintelligible confusions that were matter of fact to their fathers.

You cannot imagine the littleness of those former times; their naive, queer absurdities!

And here again I find myself writing in an unknown language, so far as my younger readers are concerned. You who know only the world that followed the Great Change will find much that I am telling inconceivable…

All that previous life of ours had been an ill-lit marionette show, acted in the twilight. . . .

The whole of that old history becomes more and more foreign, more and more like some queer barbaric drama played in a forgotten tongue…

Thus the novel stands in the tradition which includes all the other ‘before and after’ socialist novels of the era, such as Looking BackwardNews From Nowhere and so on.

Was Wells a socialist – or a nihilist?

Wells joined the socialist Fabian Society in 1903 and wrote numerous articles for newspapers, magazines and so on, supporting socialism. And he certainly writes eloquently about the glaring social injustices of his day, in this book giving lengthy and convincing descriptions of the miserable state of slum-dwellers in a Midland industrial town.

He also makes an effort to analyse their causes, attributing most of it to the idea of private property in land i.e. the tradition that had grown up of letting landowners acquire more land, on which mines and other factories could be built, while swarming millions of the proletariat had no land whatsoever. He is particularly upset that this tradition – the crazy, disorganised and blatantly unfair distribution of land – had continued in America which some people had hoped would be a more rational utopia but with which, by 1906, Wells was thoroughly disillusioned.

The implication of the repeated references to unfair land distribution is that nationalising all land, abolishing the private ownership of land, is the only way to creating the basis for equality.

But if you ask whether Wells was a genuine socialist, I think the answer might well be No. What comes over from all his novels is not a careful analysis of the means of production and distribution and a fictional dramatisation of how these can be seized by the working class.

What comes over from his novels are cosmic visions of vast realms of space and time against which humanity is a mere insect. The point of The Time Machine and of The War of the Worlds is how puny and petty our present-day human concerns are compared to the vastness of the solar system and the knowledge that there are countless other life forms in the universe who are completely indifferent to us, to his visions of a future planet earth on which humanity has ceased to exist, and it doesn’t matter.

I picture to myself this thing happening in space, a planetary moment, the faint smudge, the slender whirl of meteor, drawing nearer to this planet – this planet like a ball, like a shaded rounded ball, floating in the void, with its little, nearly impalpable coat of cloud and air, with its dark pools of ocean, its gleaming ridges of land. And as that midge from the void touches it, the transparent gaseous outer shell clouds in an instant green and then slowly clears again. . . .

The Fabians made sensible proposals about to how to improve the lot of the working classes through better building regulations, hygiene, water and gas and electricity provision, shorter working hours and so on. Wells paid lip service to all this but couldn’t help, wherever he turns his eye, being overwhelmed by the sheer futility of human existence. Futility is a word which rings through all these books. Love is futile. Individuals are futile. War is futile. The whole social order is futile.

The golden earth and sky seemed like a little bubble that floated in the globe of human futility.

In The Time Machine the narrator reflects on the futile effort to create civilisations which have vanished, is afflicted by the futile attempts of the pretty young Eloi he befriends to understand him, calls the entire race of Eloi ‘a mere beautiful futility’.

One of the most powerful results of the sojourn of the narrator on The Island of Dr Moreau is the way it leaves him with a crushing sense of the futility of human endeavour. ‘I lost faith in the sanity of the world when I saw it suffering the painful disorder of this island…’

The net effect of The War of the Worlds is both to make you realise what petty, powerless things human beings are, playthings before the mighty powers of the universe – but also that the Martians themselves are prey to the tiniest enemy, the terrestrial bacteria which kill them.

Wells’s fundamental worldview is the heartless, brutal materialism of Darwin, as passed on to him directly by Darwin’s bulldog, Thomas Henry Huxley, who personally taught Wells at the South Kensington Science Institute in the 1880s.

We have come into being through a tumult of blind forces.

We are made for the struggle for existence – we ARE the struggle for existence; the things that live are the struggle for existence incarnate…

This is Darwinism raw.

In The Food of the Gods, Wells helps the reader come to see the entire present order of things as a mere stepping stone to the next level of evolution, to the coming of the giants, epitomised in the character of the uneducated giant, Caddles, who has no idea why he exists or what anybody is doing. Here he is, straddling Piccadilly, looking down at the multitudes of little people, and afflicted with a sense of complete pointlessness:

None of them seemed to see, as he could do, the drink-sodden wretchedness of the painted women at the corner, the ragged misery that sneaked along the gutters, the infinite futility of all this employment. The infinite futility! (The Food of the Gods Book III, Chapter 3)

At the climax of that novel, as the protagonist Redwood argues with the anti-giant Prime Minister, Caterham, ‘The more he talked the more certain Redwood’s sense of stupendous futility grew.’ (Book III, Chapter 4)

So it should come as no surprise to find the same note sounded again and again in In The Days of The Comet. Here is young Willie’s thoughts as he leaves his childhood home:

It was my native valley, and I was going out of it, I thought never to return, and yet in that last prospect, the group of towns that had borne me and dwarfed and crippled and made me, seemed, in some indefinable manner, strange. I was, perhaps, more used to seeing it from this comprehensive view-point when it was veiled and softened by night; now it came out in all its weekday reek, under a clear afternoon sun. That may account a little for its unfamiliarity. And perhaps, too, there was something in the emotions through which I had been passing for a week and more, to intensify my insight, to enable me to pierce the unusual, to question the accepted. But it came to me then, I am sure, for the first time, how promiscuous, how higgledy-piggledy was the whole of that jumble of mines and homes, collieries and potbanks, railway yards, canals, schools, forges and blast furnaces, churches, chapels, allotment hovels, a vast irregular agglomeration of ugly smoking accidents in which men lived as happy as frogs in a dustbin. Each thing jostled and damaged the other things about it, each thing ignored the other things about it; the smoke of the furnace defiled the potbank clay, the clatter of the railway deafened the worshipers in church, the public-house thrust corruption at the school doors, the dismal homes squeezed miserably amidst the monstrosities of industrialism, with an effect of groping imbecility. Humanity choked amidst its products, and all its energy went in increasing its disorder, like a blind stricken thing that struggles and sinks in a morass.

‘Humanity choked amidst its products, and all its energy went in increasing its disorder, like a blind stricken thing that struggles and sinks in a morass.’

That is the true Wellsian note. His vision isn’t of a fair and equal society, to set alongside the utopian views of Edward Bellamy or William Morris. It is of apocalyptic wars, alien invasions, cosmic events and far futurity which make all human effort seem like ‘groping imbecility’.

Poor little angry, miserable creature! Poor little angry, miserable world!

All that said, the second half of the In The Days of the Comet – After the Change – does make a sustained effort to paint a lyrical picture of a socialist paradise in which everyone collaborates to build a better life for everyone else. It is powerfully, forcefully and lyrically described, at length, along with practical aspects of the New World, like the destruction of all the old towns and cities and the building of new, rationally laid out urban centres lined with clean, well-lit, healthy and hygienic dwellings, and the availability of free higher education to all, and the limiting of work to only what is required and only what human beings can enjoyably supply.

The second half of the book does bear comparison with the ‘After’ scenarios painted by Bellamy and Morris in their utopias. But the grip of the book, its bite and punch, come from the narrator’s anger and frustration at the glaring inequality, the poverty and misery, and the million subtle social slights which the poor and lower middle class have to endure from their hoity-toity superiors, which really drive the first half. And then the sense of the vast cosmic transformation which has undertaken mankind.

And the glaring drawback of the book is that, to get to that Ideal Future, the reader has to swallow the notion that the very air we breathe has been transformed by unknown chemicals from a passing comet. Which is not a very practical political policy.

Goodbye Fabians

All of which makes it no surprise to learn that the Fabian Society expelled Wells in 1908.

The other Fabians came to dislike his flashiness, irresponsibility and sexual adventurism. It is typical of his restless magpie mind that a book which was meant to turn into a vision of a socialist utopia instead leads up to a description of the Free Love which very much suited Wells and his philandering ways.

There is always another distraction in a book by Wells, always another shiny new idea or invention which he suddenly wants to share with you, and which leads him wandering away from the book’s ostensible topic.

In response to their criticisms of him, Wells went on to satirise the two leading Fabians, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, in his 1910 novel, The New Machiavelli but, in the event, it was their modest, top-down vision of a soft socialist nanny state which was to triumph – albeit not till after the Second World War.

And although Well’s predictions of worldwide war and disaster did come true, particularly in the inferno of the Second World War, the final verdict on the visionary inconsequentiality of Well’s vast and voluminous writings is the way almost all of them sank into the almost complete obscurity after that war.

He wrote over a hundred books and God knows how many articles. Nowadays only half a dozen of the best sci-fi and four or five of his Edwardian comedies of manners survive.

Relying on comets from outer space to bring about social change turned out not to be a very practical option.


Related links

Other H.G. Wells reviews

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

1901 The First Men in the Moon – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1906 In the Days of the Comet – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end

1914 The World Set Free – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change

Other science fiction reviews

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

1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

Mrs Craddock by Somerset Maugham (1902)

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

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

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

Mrs Craddock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Response

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sex and lust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The battle of the sexes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maugham and women

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

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

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

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

The New Woman

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boldness about marriage

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

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

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

Boldness about religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miss Ley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oscar Wilde

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A tiny Marxist comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Plus ça change

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or again, Edward stoutly declares:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

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

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

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

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

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

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

Queer British Art 1861-1967 @ Tate Britain

Female Figure Lying on Her Back

Female Figure Lying on Her Back

Can you tell whether this painting was done by a man or a woman, lesbian or gay, bisexual or transsexual?

And does it matter?

If by a man, is it a horrible example of the Male Gaze, encouraging male ‘ownership’ and mastery of the female figure, encouraging lascivious thoughts in the male viewer, reducing women to sexualised objects, exploiting women for semi-pornographic purposes?

If by a woman, is it a joyously unashamed celebration of the female body, the lazy posture and yawning stretch of the subject marvellously capturing a moment of real, unvarnished intimacy?

Does knowledge of the painter’s gender or sexual orientation change your ‘reading’ of this picture, your enjoyment of it, your ‘understanding’ of it? And why?

These are just some of the questions raised by this fascinating and thought-provoking exhibition.

Declaration of interest

I was a member of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality back in the 1970s, going on marches, signing petitions, habituating Windsor’s only gay pub, campaigning for gay rights, the central one being getting the age of gay consent brought down in line with the age for straights. In the years since, I’ve supported gay marriage, gay and women priests, and so on. It’s always been obvious to me that LGBT people should be treated absolutely the same as anyone else, and benefit from exactly the same rights and life opportunities. I am not myself gay, but it’s always seemed obvious to me that a) no-one should judge any form of sexual practice among consenting adults b) no-one should be allowed to discriminate in any way against anyone on account of their sexual orientation or sexual practices.

The jargon of desire

In the late 1960s French structuralist literary criticism began to morph into post-structuralist criticism and theory. Reflecting the move from the politicised 1960s into the more narcissistic 1970s, and an ongoing obsession with Freudian psychoanalysis – and also being French and proud of it – a lot of this criticism became more personal, about identity, as constituted in texts and wider society, and a lot more about sex.

The works of literary critics like Roland Barthes (b.1915,  The Pleasure of the Text), the historian Michel Foucault (b.1926 A History of Sexuality), the philosopher Jacques Derrida (b.1930), the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (b.1901), feminist theorists like Hélène Cixous (b.1937) and Julia Kristeva (b.1941 Desire in language), and the pioneer of Queer Studies, Judith Butler (b.1956, Subjects of desireGender trouble, Undoing gender), plus many others have led to the vast proliferation of the ‘discourse of desire’, to countless books and articles and conferences and degree and postgraduate courses about gender and sexuality, demonstrating how this, that or the other work of art or fiction or film ‘subverts’ or ‘challenges’ or ‘confronts’ gender conventions and ‘transgresses’ gender stereotypes and ‘rewrites’ gender narratives.

With the collapse of communism in the early 1990s, young students wanting to prove how rebellious and subversive they were found themselves bereft of an ideological alternative to consumer capitalism, and so found themselves forced towards the only two games in town, anti-sexism and anti-racism, embodied in Women’s Studies/Gender Studies, and Post-Colonial Studies, respectively.

For at least thirty years humanities departments – literature, art, philosophy – have been teaching courses showing how all Western writing, art, philosophy was riddled with racist/sexist assumptions, and built on evil imperialism and slavery. Many graduates of these courses, imbued with this way of thinking, moved on into the media and press, into film and theatre and the art world, where in the pages of the Guardian or the Huffington Post or the Independent, and in galleries and theatres across the West, they can be seen every day writing scandalised articles, producing documentaries, putting on plays angry about the persistence of sexism and racism and homophobia.

But there are more women than immigrants in this country and, as a result, more Feminist Studies, Women’s Studies, Gender Studies courses than Post-Colonial courses – and so books and articles and films and documentaries about the multiple unfairnesses and injustices perpetrated on women throughout the ages by the ever-present Patriarchy, continue to thrive and proliferate.

On one level this exhibition represents a triumph of this kind of discourse, a discourse a) obsessed by sex, conceived of in a rather dry and boring theoretical way b) driven and animated by a fathomless sense of grievance and injustice. Exhibitions about any aspect of sexuality represent a perfect marriage of victim politics with the high-flown ‘discourse of desire’.

Why use the word ‘queer’?

To quote the curators:

Queer has a mixed history – from the 19th century onwards it has been used both as a term of abuse and as a term by LGBT people to refer to themselves. Our inspiration for using it came from Derek Jarman who said that it used to frighten him but now ‘for me to use the word queer is a liberation’. More recently, of course, it has become reclaimed as a fluid term for people of different sexualities and gender identities. Historians of sexuality have also argued that it is preferable to other terms for sexualities in the past as these often don’t map onto modern sexual identities. In addition to carrying out audience research, we took advice from Stonewall and other LGBT charities and held focus groups with LGBT people. The advice from all of these sources was overwhelmingly that we should use it. While we tried other titles, no other option captured the full diversity of sexualities and gender identities that are represented in the show.

What is a queer work of art?

Does it have to portray a homosexual or lesbian act i.e. be pornographic (as a small number of the works here do, some rude sketches by Keith Vaughan and the super well-known big phalluses of Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations to Lysistrata)?

Is queer art any  work by an overtly gay or lesbian or bi or trans artist? But how many Victorian and Edwardian and Georgian painters thought of themselves in those terms? Don’t the curators run the risk of – in fact aren’t they running headlong into – defining, naming and limiting people from the past a) by our own modern 2017 categories of sexuality (Yes); and b) of defining people entirely by their ‘sexuality’, whatever that is. I thought that was precisely what CHE and Gay Rights and their successors were trying to escape from: from being tied down, limited, constrained and defined solely in terms of your sexual preferences, as if that were the only important part of your life, as if society is correct to pigeonhole all of us on the basis of this one attribute.

And what if the queer artist’s subject matter is not only not particularly erotic, what if it’s not even of human body? For example, is this queer art?

Hannah Gluckstein, known as Gluck (1895 – 1978) was a lesbian painter. So is her painting of flowers a work of queer art?

Should queer art also include works which just look ‘sort of’ homoerotic or a bit lesbian, either a) in the eyes of contemporary viewers (in which case it might have caused a ‘scandal’ and ‘shocked Victorian society’), or b) in the eyes of modern curators trained to spot the slightest sign of gender stereotypes being ‘subverted’ and gender norms being ‘transgressed’ and narratives of heterosexuality being ‘questioned’ and ‘interrogated’?

Either way, categorising art in terms of the audience’s response to it, is dicey. What constitutes ‘art’ has changed out of all recognition the past 150 years. People’s responses to ‘art’ have become similarly complex and varied.

Tricky questions. In the event, this exhibition includes works chosen by all these criteria, and more.

The drawbacks of telling history through art

This decade Tate Britain has run a series of exhibitions based not around artists or movements, but on broad themes and topics. Thus they’ve staged exhibitions about: folk art, the aesthetic of ruins, the British Empire, Victorian sculpture, the destruction of art works, the depiction of war. Many of them had an amusingly random element, delicate watercolours of Tintern Abbey placed next to vast photos of Nazi war bunkers (Ruin Lust), or some maps of the Empire next to some flags of the Empire next to random artifacts from the Empire (Artist and Empire).

Although they put a brave face on it, the cumulative impression of visiting all these shows raises the suspicion that the curators are under orders to find pretexts to bring out the more obscure and neglected works languishing in Tate’s vast archives, and display them in exhibitions with eye-catching and ‘controversial’ themes.

While the aim of rotating their (doubtless huge) collection for us to view is laudable, the pretexts the curators come up with are sometimes ambitiously wide-ranging and grand-sounding, while the collection of artifacts actually on display often turns out to be rather patchy and random. The history of the British Empire is an enormous subject: the Tate exhibition about it amounted to a jumble sale of odds and sods from across the huge geographic reach and vast periods of time involved: the Empire used maps, here’s some maps; the Empire had flags, here’s half a dozen flags; the Empire allowed botanists and naturalists to travel the world and see exotic species so here’s a painting of tiger; here’s some native spears; and so on.

Although Tate calls in plentiful loans from other collections to create the exhibitions, the core of these shows tends to be focused on dusting off and displaying many of it hidden assets, themselves bought at various times for various reasons, hence the feeling they give of a patchwork quilt made from odds and ends. Sometimes it feels as if they’re trying do a vast jigsaw without most of the pieces.

Written histories can conjure up anything with words, creating continuities, linking themes and ideas at will: in words, anything is possible. Histories told through objects, however, immediately limit which areas can be covered, and which stories can be told, by virtue of what is available, what has survived. And histories told through works of ‘art’ are even more limited by the random nature of any particular art collection, as well as biases intrinsic in what kind of subjects get turned into ‘art’ and what don’t (the experiences of most ‘ordinary’ people, for example, or the entire world of work, especially housework).

All these limitations apply to this exhibition, with the additional challenge that sex, sexuality, gender, desire – call it what you will – is, by and large, quite a private part of most people’s lives. Artists and performers, by the nature of their work and output, are a kind of exception to the rule that most people keep their sex lives pretty private. And forms of sexuality which were banned by law and subject to harsh punishments are all the more likely to be hidden and suppressed, to not leave traces in the written – and especially the painted – record.

In other words, even more than Tate’s other wide-ranging historical exhibitions, this one feels haunted by gaps and absences.

The dates

In 1861 the death penalty for sodomy was abolished; in 1967 sex between men was (partially) decriminalised. These provide handy end dates.

The exhibition is in eight rooms

Coded desires covers the later Victorian period. This was dominated by the Aesthetic Movement and the group of painters known as the Olympians, who specialised in sensuous paintings of lightly-clad women lounging around in a dreamy ancient Roman baths or terraces. Just thinking about either of these interlinked movements brings to mind the extraordinary sensuality present in so much art of this period, along with a worship of the classical world, in pictures and in words, which stretched towards a feel for the same-sex relationships present in, especially, the writings of the Greeks, where a sexual relationship between an older man and a younger man or boy was socially acceptable. This may or may not be present in the works here, But the bigger story about most late Victorian art is the remarkable extent to which ‘desire’, physical sensuousness, in all shapes and forms, was more openly depicted than ever before in this period.

The exhibition has some striking works by the king of the Olympians, Frederick Leighton, on the basis that he sometimes depicted sensual male nudes – although many of his works are characterised by sensuality for men or women.

Leighton was rumoured to be gay, but then again it’s thought he had an affair with one of his female models. Tricky, therefore, to shoehorn him into modern categories of straight, gay, bi etc. One of the liberating things about studying history, past lives, is they did things differently, thought, wrote, spoke, painted, perceived, differently to us. Don’t fit into our modern categories.

The bulk of works in the room are by Simeon Solomon, who was unfortunate enough to be arrested in a public lavatory off Oxford Street, charged with attempting to commit sodomy and fined £100, then a year later arrested in Paris and sentenced to three months in prison. This makes him a bona fide gay hero. To the viewer, however, his works seem mostly sub-standard examples of the Olympian style done much more smoothly by the likes of Alma-Tadema or Albert Moore.

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene (1864) by Simeon Solomon (Watercolour) Tate

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene (1864) by Simeon Solomon (Watercolour) Tate

William Blake Richmond (1842-1921) is a painter you don’t hear about much. He also painted supremely sensual paintings on sunny classical themes, e.g. Hera in the House of Hephaistos or just sumptuous late-Victorian portraits e.g. Mrs Luke Ionides. Nothing particularly ‘transgressive’ about these, in the way our curators want to see ‘gender norms’ being ‘transgressed’, but they’ve included one big painting The Bowlers.

Apparently, this scandalised the Victorians (didn’t everything ‘scandalise’ the Victorians?) for its inclusion of naked women (you can see some breasts) and naked men in the same scene. And some of the men have their arms round each other. Shock horror. Richmond was married and wasn’t arrested in any toilets, so not a transgressive hero per se. After looking at it for a while I noticed the way a line drawn along the top of the heads of the figures on the right forms a diagonal going down towards the centre of the composition, while the heads of the women on the left line up as a mirror diagonal heading down towards the centre: at the very centre is a black vase against a thick central pillar, to the left of which is a woman in a see-through toga and on the right the zigzagging black trunk of a wisteria tree. Which means or symbolises? Who knows.

My favourite things in this room were the three paintings by the marvellous Henry Scott Tuke (1858-1929). Tuke was one of a group of artists who settled in Newlyn in Cornwall and painted en plein air. Almost all are of young men, nude or half-undressed, by the sparkling sea in the sunshine. In the permanent gallery upstairs they display August Blue (1893), a wonderful composition in terms of the draughtsmanship of the figures, also the figurative accuracy of the rowboat and the ships on the horizon, and also of course the wonderfully clear blues and greens – you can smell the sea, you can feel the sun on your skin. There are three of his paintings here alongside a cabinet showing some of the many photographs he took of gorgeous-looking young men.

The Critics (1927) by Henry Scott Tuke. Warwick District Council (Leamington Spa, UK)

The Critics (1927) by Henry Scott Tuke. Warwick District Council (Leamington Spa, UK)

Public indecency ‘looks at ways in which sexuality and gender identity did – and did not – go public from the 1880s to the 1920s.’

Thus we have the trial of Oscar Wilde (who has not heard of the trial of Oscar Wilde? How many films have been made of it?) the prosecution of Radclyffe Hall for her lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness (1928), and we get some of Aubrey Beardsley’s ‘scandalous’ illustrations for the Greek play Lysistrata thrown in.

This is the kind of thing you should learn in 6th form and certainly early in an English or humanities degree course, so that you can tut and fret and criticise horrible dead white men for repressing ‘transgressive’ sexualities. But it’s worth remembering that this period also saw the persecution of male heterosexual artists as well – James Joyce’s Ulysses went on trial in 1921 because of its description of a man masturbating, the police raided an exhibition of paintings by D.H. Lawrence and (admittedly not in England) the Austrian artist Egon Schiele was arrested and 100 of his art works were confiscated – one of them was burned by the judge in court in front of the artist -for their sexual explicitness.

It was an era when many artists of all persuasions were pushing at the boundaries of what society thought was acceptable depiction of sexuality, and many artists, gay, straight or what-have-you – fell foul of the authorities.

Alongside the Wilde and Beardsley are testaments to the work of the sexologists Richard von Krafft-Ebbing and Havelock Ellis, who collaborated with the gay writer John Addington Symonds on his book Sexual Inversion (1896). These ‘scientific’ works can either be seen (optimistically) as the start of a ‘modern’ liberal attitude to a wide range of sexual practices or (pessimistically) as ‘science’ and the State beginning to move into areas of private life, with a view to defining and categorising all possible practices (or perversions as they’d have been called) and the human ‘types’ which engage in them.

You don’t have to be Michel Foucault to suspect that the ‘liberating’ effects of writing about varieties of sexuality can be accompanied by new types of definition, surveillance and control.

Theatrical types The theatre and performing arts have long offered a refuge for exhibitionists, people who like to dress up, fantasise, play act and generally behave in ways which would not be acceptable in everyday life. So the theatre has long attracted gay men and this room features photos of famous performers who were gay, photographers who were gay, with a special case devoted to cross-dressing entertainers.

There’s a lot of photos by Angus McBean (1904-90) the fabulous b&w photographer, who did lots of semi-surreal fashion shots before the war (his ‘surrealised portraits’), was arrested in 1942 for homosexual acts and served two years in gaol, before emerging to resume his career post-war in a rather more traditional vision. But everything he did is touched by class and style. The show includes a typically weird portrait of the now-forgotten actor Robert Helpmann as Hamlet, though I know him for his appearances in Powell and Pressburger’s two extraordinary films, The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann.

The British have a problem with sex, full stop, whether straight or gay, and have long had a reputation for gross hypocrisy, with the ‘respectable’ classes enforcing repressive laws at home then vacationing in Paris where they could sleep with countless courtesans (as squeaky clean Charles Dickens was reputed to do and the heir to the throne, Prince Albert certainly did) or swanning off to North Africa, to Algeria or Morocco where there was an endless supply of boys for sex.

This nervousness, shame and embarrassment may be part of what lies behind the long tradition of men dressing up as women for vaudeville entertainment, a tradition which goes back a long way, but is certainly present in the Victorian music hall, through the pre-war years and was still going strong in my boyhood in figures like Danny La Rue, Dick Emery (‘Oh you are awful… but I like you!’), Kenny Everett (‘and then all my clothes fell off!’), Dame Edna Everage, Lily Savage. And that’s without mentioning the vast tradition of English pantomime with its Widow Twanky and Ugly Sisters, traditionally played by men and a huge opportunity for all kinds of blue, risqué and ‘transgender’ comedy.

A display case here presents a dozen or so photos and posters illustrating some of the cross-dressing stars of yore, most of which I’d never heard of simply because they were before the days of TV. Here, as elsewhere in the show (and as often in the Tate ‘history’ exhibitions) you feel this is an absolutely vast subject which has been only briefly sketched and hinted at, and possibly not one which is necessarily best approached through the medium of ‘art’ at all.

Douglas Byng (1934) by Paul Tanqueray. Vintage bromide print © Estate of Paul Tanqueray

Douglas Byng (1934) by Paul Tanqueray. Vintage bromide print © Estate of Paul Tanqueray

Bloomsbury and beyond I am prejudiced against Bloomsbury because of their snobbery and their smug, self-congratulatory elitism. They all slept with each other and described each other, in private letters and public reviews, as geniuses. What’s lasted has tended to be the writings of figures on the periphery – the economics of John Maynard Keynes, the novels of E.M. Forster, the novels of Virginia Woolf, though she was a core member. The art work of figures like Dora Carrington, Vanessa Bell (recently featured in a handsome exhibition at the Dulwich Picture House), Duncan Grant, Roger Fry, hasn’t really stood the test of time.

The catalogue says this room is meant to represent:

a generation of artists and sitters exploring, confronting and coming to terms with themselves and their desires.

Which makes it sound much more exciting and dynamic than most of their sleepy decorative pictures. Ethel Sands’s Tea with Sickert symbolises everything pretty, decorative and forgettable which I tend not to like about Bloomsbury art. Perhaps I just can’t slow myself down to this atmosphere of coma-like inaction. The commentary on the other hand, because Sands was in a queer relationship with fellow painter Nan Hudson, claims it is a ‘quietly subversive’ work, with ‘queer undercurrents’. Can you spot the queer undercurrents?

The commentary makes the case that, although not overtly sexual in the least, these tranquil interiors are a) painted by queer artists and b) if you look closely, very closely, you can see small hints and traces of ‘queer lives’ which ‘history has long neglected’. Maybe…

That said, I did find myself, on repeated viewings and to my surprise, warming to the selection of works by Duncan Grant on show here. These ranged from small, explicitly gay pornographic sketches to a vast mural, commissioned to decorate the dining room of the new Borough Polytechnic in 1911.

It’s a huge work – and the more I looked at it the more I admired the mix of abstract and figurative elements to achieve an overall decorative effect, and came to understand that it follows the action of a single diver from standing poised on the shore, at right, through diving in, and swimming to the boat which he clambers into at top left.

Bathing (1911) by Duncan Grant © Tate

Bathing (1911) by Duncan Grant © Tate

Similarly, I was impressed by the sheer size of the massive Excursion of Nausicaa by Dame Ethel Walker. It’s 18 metres wide by almost 4 high and makes a dramatic impact. It’s just as well a bench is provided for you to sit and take it all in. Although, when you look closer, it seems an uncomfortable mix of Gauguin-style primitivism with Art Deco style neo-classical figures, it is still at first sight, an enormous and confident composition.

There is a vibrant portrait by Glyn Warren Philpot (1884–1937) of his servant, Henry Thomas (1935). Note: his servant. In fact there were half a dozen Philpots scattered through the show, though this is the most vivid.

Similarly, the South African artist Edward Wolfe is represented by a portrait of Pat Nelson, his model and thought to be his gay lover.

The Bloomsburyites’ pursuit of ‘unconventional’ sexual arrangements (i.e. being bisexual, living with several lovers at once etc) through the Great War and into the twenties, led in to the cultural dominance of gay writers, poets and artists during the 1930s, given extra bite by the availability of the ‘decadent’ Weimar Republic in post-war Germany, whither trekked a generation of young gay men like Auden, Christopher Isherwood and so on.

Defying convention This room shows how early 20th century British artists ‘challenged gender norms’ i.e. by being lesbians, living with other women, having ‘open marriages’ and so on. For example, Laura Knight, the curators claim, in this picture is laying ‘claim to traditional masculine sources of artistic authority by depicting [herself] in the act of painting nude female models’. It’s another very big painting and very red.

Self portrait and Nude (1913) by Laura Knight. National Portrait Gallery

Self portrait and Nude (1913) by Laura Knight. National Portrait Gallery

There is a factual background to the image in that Knight was prevented from attending the life classes at Nottingham Art College because she was a woman; only when she moved to Newlyn was she able to hire life models, and so this composition is a sort of act of defiance. That changes our attitude to the image. Still, in and of itself, would you know that it lays claims to masculine sources of artistic authority, if it hadn’t been carefully explained. Maybe…

Anyway, on pretexts solid or flimsy, a number of big, colourful and attractive works are on show in this room, especially of the phenomenally posh women who populated early 20th century feminism.

  • Lady with a Red Hat (1918) by William Strang – the lady being the lesbian and gardening writer Vita Sackville-West, the Honourable Mrs Harold Nicholson, Companion of Honour, daughter of the third Baron Sackville. She is holding her recently published book of poems – Poems of West and East – showing the influence of Tennyson’s world-weariness, A.E. Housman’s lad poems, and the childlike orientalism of John Masefield and other Georgians.  They’re sweet and melancholy.
  • Dame Edith Sitwell (1916) by Alberto Guevara – daughter of Sir George Sitwell, 4th Baronet, of Renishaw Hall, and Lady Ida Emily Augusta (née Denison), a daughter of the Earl of Londesborough and a granddaughter of Henry Somerset, 7th Duke of Beaufort.
  • Romance (1920) by Cecile Walton – Walton doesn’t appear to have been gay, having had two marriages (to men) but this self-portrait is ‘challenging’ and ‘subverting’ ‘gender norms’ surrounding birth. Having been present at the birth of my daughter, I can testify that it certainly challenges the reality of childbirth which is a lot less calm and dignified than this static scenario.

Arcadia and Soho ‘London was a magnet for queer artists’.

The most striking works here are by the neglected surrealist artist Edward Burra (1905-76). According to a review of his biography, his sensibility was gay, and his closest friend was a male ballet dancer, ‘but they were never lovers’. Am I alone in finding this modern inquisitiveness about the exact nature of other people’s sexuality, and the precise borders of their sexual activity, prurient and controlling? Who cares? His art is weird and extra, a really stunning, outlandish vision.

  • Soldiers at Rye (1941) Burra incorporates masks from Venetian carnival, fabric from Spanish baroque, with a kind of sado-military hugeness to create this monstrous surreal panorama.
  • Izzy Orts (1937) Burra was introduced to the portside bars of Charleston, with their mix of jazz musicians, pimps and dealers, and sailors in tight-fitting uniforms. Perfect!

The opposite wall is devoted to a trio of gay artists – John Craxton, John Minton and Keith Vaughan – who were loosely described as ‘neo-romantics’ in the 1940s. They were certainly gay. There’s a display case of overtly gay and pornographic pencil sketches by Vaughan, as well as a handful of photos he took of gorgeous young men.

Drawing of two men kissing (1958–73) by Keith Vaughan © DACS, The Estate of Keith Vaughan

Drawing of two men kissing (1958–73) by Keith Vaughan © DACS, The Estate of Keith Vaughan

At an exhibition years ago I saw a whole stand of the b&w photos Vaughan took of beautiful young men lounging around classic 1930s lidos, at Hampstead Pools or the Serpentine, and have been haunted by them ever since.

Next to the figurative sketches are his much more abstract paintings:

In these Vaughan seems to me to have developed a new and exciting way of depicting the (mostly male) figure. Alongside Vaughan are some lighter, more ‘naive’ works by John Craxton.

Head of a Greek Sailor (1940) by John Craxton © Estate of John Craxton. All rights reserved, DACS 2016. Photo credit: London Borough of Camden

Head of a Greek Sailor (1940) by John Craxton © Estate of John Craxton. All rights reserved, DACS 2016. Photo credit: London Borough of Camden

Craxton, Minton and Vaughan are three interesting figures, maybe worthy of a joint exhibition some time.

Public/private lives In the decade leading up to the 1967 Sexual Offences Act gay men lived a strange twilight life. In many places gay relationships among the famous, especially the arty, were permitted – the eminent actor John Gielgud was arrested for indecency in a public toilet in 1953, was fined, released and was roundly applauded the next time he took to the stage. Maybe the most famous example was the close ‘friendship’ between England’s leading composer Benjamin Britten and the singer Peter Pears. The fuzz couldn’t go arresting the nation’s premier composer. But they did continue to arrest and imprison a steady stream of less well-known gay men, creating the trickle of protest which grew louder and more widespread for the law to be repealed or abolished.

This room goes heavy on the lurid relationship of gay playwright Joe Orton and his jealous lover Kenneth Halliwell, because it ended in a garish tragedy. But in the whole room the most powerful image for me was a still from the 1961 movie Victim, a genuinely taboo-breaking work starring Dirk Bogarde as an impeccably upper-middle class lawyer married to the fragrant Sylvia Sims, but who is photographed in a compromising situation with good-looking young Peter McEnery, and blackmailed. I saw this film as a boy and it left a lasting impression of the needless pain and suffering caused by bigots and criminals given license by a stupidly interfering state. It influenced me to join the Campaign for Homosexual Equality.

Francis Bacon and David Hockney I think we all know about these bad boys. This final room gives us the opportunity to marvel again at the bleak power of Bacon’s nihilistic paintings and the scratchy undergraduate humour of Hockney’s early Pop style.

Life Painting for a Diploma (1962) by David Hockney © Yageo Foundation

Life Painting for a Diploma (1962) by David Hockney © Yageo Foundation

Scholarship or prurient gossip?

As I progressed through the exhibition, reading every wall label carefully, a theme began to emerge (above and beyond the obvious ones about ‘gender fluidity’ and ‘same-sex desire’):

  • ‘De Morgan’s repeated images of Hales have encouraged speculation about the nature of their relationship…’
  • ‘There is some evidence that Henry Bishop was attracted to men…’
  • ‘Beardsley does not seem to have had relationships with men…’
  • ‘There has been much speculation about Tuke’s relationships with his Cornish models although nothing has been substantiated…’
  • ‘Little is known about Meteyard’s sexuality, other than the fact that he was married…’
  • ‘Leighton’s sexuality has been the subject of much speculation from his own times to the present, but he guarded his privacy closely…’
  • ‘Glen Byam Shaw had almost certainly been the lover of the poet Siegfried Sassoon…’
  • ‘The exact nature of Thomas and Philpot’s relationship is unknown…’
  • Duncan Grant’s ‘close friend and possible lover Paul Roche…’
  • ‘There has been a lot of speculation about the nature of Walker’s relationship with the painter Clara Christian with whom she lived and worked in the 1880s although little evidence survives…’
  • ‘The poet Edith Sitwell does not seem to have had sexual relationships…’

What does it matter to an appreciation of their work what an artist did or did not do with their penis or vagina, or to someone else’s penis or vagina? Why do scholars obsess about the sexual act being a vital threshold in a relationship? On one level, this breathless fascination with the precise nature of people’s relationships, and whether they ever did the deed together, is just a highbrow form of gutter gossip, an educated equivalent to who’s shagging who in The Only Way Is Essex or Celebrity Big Brother, little different to the tittle-tattle of the tabloid press.

On a more disturbing level, this intrusion of scholarly enquiry into the heart of people’s private lives is because modern art critics and curators need to know precisely who had sex with who and when, so that they can categorise and define artists, writers, poets, photographers, performers and so on according to their tidy definitions. So that artists can be neatly arranged into canons and genres and books and essays and exhibitions about straight or gay or queer or whatever art.

  • ‘[Dirk Bogarde] never publicly affirmed a sexual identity and his personal life has to be inferred from his long relationship with his manager Tony Forwood (1915-88) with whom he shared his home.’

Has to be? Who says it has to be? Why this compulsion? Why must everyone’s sexuality be nailed down and defined?

To be a bit fierce, you could say that modern art scholars and curators talk the talk about gender fluidity and multiple narratives and transgressing this, that or the other – but in practice, it is they more than any other group in British society who are obsessed with tracking down their subjects’ every sexual act and desire in order to categorise, limit, define and control both artists and their works.

I found the obsessive probing into these dead people’s private lives unpleasant and disturbing.

Conclusion

The repetition over and again, in the introductions to each room and on labels for individual works, of the phrases ‘same-sex desire’ and ‘gender norms’, all of which are ‘challenged’ and ‘confronted’ and ‘transgressed’, of artists ‘fearlessly stripping away’ convention and ‘pushing the boundaries’ – all this gets pretty monotonous after a while.

Luckily, the art itself is much more varied, stimulating and unexpected than the ideological monomania of the commentary would suggest. If the downside of these historically-themed Tate exhibitions is that they take on vast subjects which they then struggle to adequately cover, the upside is that they turn up all sorts of unexpected treasures by relatively unknown figures, and make you want to see more.

For example, I’d love to see an exhibition devoted to Craxton, Minton and Vaughan, exploring that strange sensibility of the 1940s, surely the most overlooked of 20th century decades. An exhibition devoted to the late Victorian ‘Olympian’ artists would not only be a feast of sensuality but could explore in more detail the complex areas of sexuality and sensuality which were so present in Victorian art, yet so repressed in Victorian life.

Edward Burra, can we have a show dedicated to him, please, his last retrospective was in 1973. How about a show devoted to Tuke and the Newlyn School, what a wonderful treat that would be for the dark English winter. The more I looked at the Angus McBean photos, the more wonderful they seemed – how about an exhibition of him – or a broader exhibition about Theatre and Photography? Or, as simple an idea as ‘Neglected Women Artists 1860-1960’, showcasing the work of less well-known women artists (Laura Knight, Cecile Walton, Ethel Walker) from this era, gay, straight or whatever.

In conclusion, I was irritated by the curator-speak but I thought it was a wonderful show, went back to see it twice, bought the catalogue, and am still being pleasantly beguiled by many of the wonderful paintings, large and small, brash or quiet. What an extraordinary, and huge, contribution gay/lesbian/queer artists have made to every aspect of British culture.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

%d bloggers like this: