The Waning of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizinga (1919)

There is not a more dangerous tendency in history than that of representing the past as if it were a rational whole and dictated by clearly defined interests. (p.91)

I’ve recently been looking at paintings from the ‘northern Renaissance’, namely works by Robert Campin, Rogier van der Weyden and Jan van Eyck. This trio are often credited with introducing a new more realistic and sensual style into painting in the first half of the fifteenth century.

This prompted me to dust off my old copy of this classic text on the period, The Waning of the Middle Ages. The book was originally published in Dutch by the historian Johan Huizinga in 1919, then translated into English in 1924. Its subtitle is: ‘A study of the forms of life, thought and art in France and the Netherlands in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries’.

The most important thing about this book is that it is not a chronological history of the period. Very much the opposite, as it skips from one incident to another, across decades, between countries, taking excerpts from contemporary chroniclers, philosophers, writers and poets as required, to build up a mosaic of sources to exemplify the theme of each of the 23 chapters.

These have titles like ‘The violent tenor of life’, ‘Pessimism and the ideal of the sublime’, ‘The vision of death’, ‘Types of religious life’ and so on. As we process through these themes and ideas, anecdotes and quotes, slowly a composite ‘portrait’ of the culture of fifteenth century northern Europe emerges.

In fact, I’d forgotten that there is a direct connection to van der Weyden et al because, in the Preface to the English edition, Huizinga explains that his study originally started as a systematic attempt to understand the cultural and social background to the art of the van Eyck brothers and their contemporaries – precisely the artists I’ve been reading about in Craig Harbison’s excellent introduction to The Art of the Northern Renaissance (1995).

Burgundy and France

When I first read this book as a student in the 1980s I found it bracing to read a work about the Middle Ages which emphatically wasn’t about England or Britain. Instead the focus is very much on the kingdoms of France and especially the Duchy of Burgundy, and mostly during the 15th century. As it happens, I’ve just read a few pages summarising the history of the Duchy of Burgundy in a book about the Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden. The most obvious thing about it during this period was that it was extremely fragmented, divided roughly into the area which is still called ‘Burgundy’ in modern France and is down towards Switzerland – and a northern coastal region comprising most of modern-day Holland and Belgium.

The other thing I took from my first reading all those years ago was the comedy names of the rulers of Burgundy in this period:

  • Philip the Bold (1363-1404)
  • John the Fearless (1404-19)
  • Philip the Good (1419-67)
  • Charles the Bold (1467-77)
  • Mary (1477 – 1482)
  • Philip the Handsome (1482-1506)

This time round I much more understand the context of Huizinga’s point that one of the purposes of giving these rulers grand surnames was to incorporate them into the only social theory the age possessed – Chivalry; that the names are ‘inventions calculated to place the prince in a nimbus of chivalrous romance’ (p.92).

Permanent war

Europe was almost continually at war. There were no real nation states in the way we’re used to today. Britain, for example, was a very fractious country. For the earlier half of the century the English were in a state of permanent war with the kingdom of France, the latter stages of the so-called Hundred Years War. The cause of the war was simple: successive kings of England claimed the throne of France; successive French kings rejected the claim.

The war’s high point, from the English point of view, was the Battle of Agincourt, fought on 25 October 1415, a famous victory for young King Henry V. Sadly Henry failed in a king’s main duty to rule long and leave a male heir. He died aged 35 in 1422, leaving the kingdom to his baby son who grew up to be the hapless and mentally unstable Henry VI. This explains why, despite rallies and counter-attacks, after Henry V’s death the tide of the war was broadly in favour of the French and they had eventually won back all their territory from the English (with the tiny exception of the coastal town of Calais) by the time a final peace treaty was signed in 1453.

In fact, it was complaints about the huge losses of lands in France suffered by many ‘English’ aristocrats as a result of these territorial losses that helped destabilise the English throne and trigger the series of dynastic disputes which we refer to as ‘the Wars of the Roses’. These were in reality a series of conflicts between dynastic nobles scattered between 1455 and 1487. And also, throughout the fifteenth century, the English (as in centuries before and after) suffered intermittent attacks from the Scots, who periodically invaded and ravaged the North of England – though this doesn’t feature much in this study of the Continent.

Instead Huizinga’s book is dominated by the conflict between the fragmented kingdom of France and the rising Duchy of Burgundy. From 1380 to 1422 France was ruled by Charles VI who, in 1392, went mad, without warning murdering four of his knights and nearly killing his brother. He became convinced he was made of glass and that his enemies were out to shatter him. Power devolved to competing cabals of nobles and France fell into anarchy. (The plight of France helps explain Henry V’s victories.) France’s ongoing misrule was exacerbated by the Hundred Years War which amounted, in practice, to unpredictable attacks and destructive rampages across the land by brutal English armies.

No wonder the Duchy of Burgundy, located away from England in the East, was able to rise to relative power, by allying or at least declaring peace with England, and protecting the trading wealth of its coastal ports in what is now Holland.

Two theories

Medieval society had broadly two theories to explain the world: Christian dogma and the code of chivalry. That was it. No science, no medicine, no economics, no political science, no sociology or linguistics or anthropology, no hard or social sciences at all. Again and again Huizinga emphasises the sheer ignorance of the age.

1. Christianity Christian teaching gave a comprehensive account of the creation of the universe, of the nature of the world, of all life forms and of the human race, along with a timeline which extended back to the Creation and forward to the End of the World when Jesus will rise to judge the dead, who will be consigned to Heaven or Hell for all eternity. In order to escape an eternity of hellfire you had to devoutly follow Christian teaching. It was a complete and imaginatively convincing cosmology.

2. Chivalry As to everything else people saw around them, the behaviour of human society, this could be summarised in the other major theory of the time, Chivalry. Huizinga quotes from a wide selection of 15th century poets, historians and chroniclers, and goes on to point out that:

The conception of chivalry constituted for these authors a sort of magic key, by the aid of which they explained to themselves the motives of politics and of history. The confused image of contemporaneous history being much too complicated for their comprehension, they simplified it, as it were, by the fiction of chivalry. (p.66)

At its broadest chivalry taught that everyone was born into a fixed position in an unchanging society made up of minutely defined orders or ranks or ‘estates’. The peasant majority existed solely to produce the food eaten by the myriad employees of the Church, and by the aristocracy and the king. The ‘middle classes’, the burghers and business men in the newly expanding towns, had no exact place in this ancient schema and were seen as a reluctant necessity of life; to some extent they had forebears in the merchants described in the Bible, but they had to be kept in their place. This was done, for example, by strict sumptuary laws which defined exactly what they and their wives were or were not permitted to wear. Because the best clothes, food, living quarters, art and lifestyle were – self-evidently – restricted to the most noble, virtuous, dignified and deserving in society – the aristocracy and the court.

But, as part of the intricate interlacing of ideas so typical of the late medieval mind, the court, in exchange for these obvious material benefits, had to be paragons of nobility and display for everyone the courtly virtues of dignity, charity, kindliness, forbearance and so on.

As the Middle Ages – say from 1100 to 1500 – proceeded, the depiction and understanding of these virtues (as of so much else in medieval thought) became more and more elaborate, defined in courtly protocols and etiquette which were enhanced and added to by each generation of writers until there were written rules prescribing every possible type of behaviour and clothing and speech which should be used on almost every conceivable occasion.

The lack of theory

Maybe the most though-provoking idea in the book (for me) was this notion that, Chivalry was all they had to think about society with. Lacking any other notions of human nature, lacking our modern ideas of biology or evolution, lacking the post-Enlightenment idea that there have existed numerous and hugely varied societies which themselves have changed and evolved over time, lacking the post-Industrial Revolution idea that technology drives social change with ever-new gadgets leading to ever-rising standards of living — all these modern ideas are predicated on CHANGE. But the central determinant of medieval thought is precisely that THERE IS NO CHANGE. God has made the world as perfect as it can be. Bible chronology explains the entire history of the world right up to its apocalyptic end. Christian teaching is all you need to live well and proceed to Heaven.

This explains why, for example, when medieval artists paint Bible scenes and stories, the characters are always wearing medieval clothes. Because the world HAS NOT CHANGED. The medieval mind can imagine no change, it has no theory of the gradual evolution of society and manners. People must always have dressed like they do today. (Huizinga makes the interesting point that it is only with the Italian Renaissance that artists began to depict the saints in classical togas, thus for the first time setting them aside and apart from the everyday familiarity they had enjoyed during the Middle Ages. In medieval art Roman martyrs and saints had worn medieval costume.)

The one glaring exception to this idea was the age-old one, as popular in the late Classical world as in the medieval world, which is the notion of steady decline from the first, primordial perfection of the Garden of Eden to the present sad and lawless days. The world hasn’t changed but Oh how behaviour and morality has lapsed and decayed!

Profound misunderstanding of their own times

Lacking any modern understanding of human nature and social dynamics, medieval thinkers, artists and writers were astonishingly dim about the world around them. So, for example, Huizinga makes the fascinating point that, lacking any theory of technology, commerce or economics, the chroniclers of the Duchy of Burgundy explained the notable wealth and success of the court of Burgundy not through the (to us obvious) point that the coastal towns of Antwerp and Bruges and so on were at a geographic nexus between Britain to the West, the Baltic to the East and France to the South and so the merchants there made fortunes as middlemen for vast matrices of trade, fortunes which the Duchy then taxed and lived off – none of this could be understood by contemporaries. Instead, every single chronicler accounts for Burgundy’s wealth in terms of the nobility and virtue of its ruler. Chivalry, nobility, Christian morality – these and these alone are what accounts for an entire nation’s rise or fall.

The chroniclers of the fifteenth century have, nearly all, been the dupes of an absolute misappreciation of their times, of which the real moving forces escaped their attention. (p.56)

And this explains why all the chroniclers and historians and priests, in their sermons and pamphlets and books and works have one message and one message only – since the world depends for its continued wealth and stability on the virtue of the prince, of the noble ruler – ALL of these books without exception start, focus on and end with earnest, heart-felt pleas to the ruler and prince to be Noble and Virtuous and to Rule Well. We are all depending on you.

It is the one political idea in the entire culture.

Chivalry as psychological protection

Chivalry was a kind of mass wish-fulfilment, the casting of all human behaviour into stereotyped and idealised patterns, which had tremendous psychological importance for all educated people of the time and many of the commoners. For Chivalry’s exaggerated formality and romantic ideals attempted to hold at bay what most people actually saw around them – which was appalling random acts of violence, sickness and death.

Only by constructing a system of forms and rules for the vehement emotions can barbarity be escaped. (p.105)

With no effective medicine, anybody could fall ill at any time, or suffer a scratch or wound which became infected and they died. Countless women died in childbirth. Countless children died pitifully young. Countless millions starved to death unrecorded and unlamented. Millions died horribly in the repeated epidemics of plague which swept across the known world. And countless millions lived in villages or towns where any day, out of the blue, soldiers in armour arrived and started killing, raping and burning everything, for reasons concocted in the faraway courts of London or Paris or Dijon, and which the victims would never hear about or understand.

For the rude and common people, only the incredibly ornate and complex set of Christian customs, practices, beliefs, festivals, penances, sacrifices, masses, saints and relics was all that stood between them and the constant spectre of complete disaster. Huizinga mentions a host of medieval superstitions – that you couldn’t fall ill on any day when you heard Mass (quite a strong motivation to attend as many as you could) or that any patron saint sighted during the day would protect you for that day (and hence the outside and the porches of churches being crammed full of statuettes of saints.) I particularly liked the idea that you don’t actually age during the time it takes to attend a Mass – the more you attend, quite literally the longer you will live.

The same was of course true for the educated aristocracy, but overlaying the boggling complexity of Christian teaching was this idea that the nobility should also aspire to Perfect Ideals of Gentlemanly and Courtly behaviour. Almost nobody did, and many rulers were instead paragons of greed, unpredictable rage and the most primitive rivalries and revenge. But the increasingly convoluted protocols of Chivalry which came to determine almost every element of an aristocrat’s life and thought and behaviour, were all the ruling class had to call each other to account, and to try and restrain themselves with.

(In a typically illuminating aside, Huizinga points out how the worlds of chivalry and theology overlapped in the figure of the archangel Michael, who is generally portrayed in armour, wielding a sword against the rebel angels. As the leader of the loyal army in heaven, he was the first knight – and thus the two worlds of divine angelology and worldly knighthood were neatly merged.)

Saint Michael Triumphs over the Devil (1468) by Bartolomé Bermejo

Saint Michael Triumphs over the Devil (1468) by Bartolomé Bermejo

Complexity as a defence mechanism

This explains why forms, patterns, orders, ranks and definitions ramified all over medieval society like weeds. Everything had to be nailed down with a meaning and a place in what was aspiring to be the Total System. Numerology played a large role in all this, numbers conveying a potent magic power, especially if they invoked any of the myriad numbers from Holy Scripture: the three of the Trinity recurs in all sorts of contexts: the human body is seen as made of four humours for each of which there is a key bodily fluid which determines one of the four human character types; all of the colours are given multiple religious symbolism, eventually becoming so complicated entire books can be written about them. Saints multiply like rabbits until every day in the year was the Special Day of at least one saint if not several.

I remember laughing years ago when I read an early medieval sermon which asserted that there needed to be two holy testaments (the old and new) because humans have two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, two arms, two legs so – you know, there just have to be. Like so much medieval reasoning, it has a sweet and childish flavour. The Middle Ages took the many numbers present in Holy Scripture and vastly expanded them:

  • the One God who created the world and all things in it
  • the two-persons in the duality of Jesus, man and God together
  • the Holy Trinity, the three theological virtues (Faith, Hope and Charity)
  • the four cardinal virtues (prudence, temperance, fortitude, justice), the four Last Things (Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell), the four points of the cross, the four seasons, the Four Evangelists, the Four Elements and their summation – the fifth or Quintessence
  • The Five Wounds Christ received on the Cross (one each in hands and feet and the spear in his side), the Five Planets of the Solar System (plus Sun and moon makes seven)
  • the seven supplications in the Lord’s Prayer, the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven Beatitudes (from the Sermon on the Mount), the seven penitential psalms, the Seven Deadly Sins which are represented by seven animals and followed by seven diseases, the seven attributes, the Seven Sages of antiquity
  • the Nine Worthies were nine historical, scriptural, and legendary personages who personified the ideals of chivalry, typically divided into three groups of three – three pagans (Hector, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar), three Jews (Joshua, David and Judas Maccabeus) and three Christians (King Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey of Bouillon)
  • the Twelve Disciples, the twelve months of the year, the Twelve Signs of the Zodiac, the twelve companions of Lady Rhetoric (as devised by George Chastelain, historian of Philip the Good in the 1460s)
  • the Fourteen Auxiliary Saints, the 14 Stations of the Cross
  • 33 is the estimated age of Jesus when he was crucified. Stephan Kemperdick’s book about the Netherlandish artist Rogier van der Weyden informs me that one strand of medieval theology thought that 33 is the age that all the dead would be when they are resurrected on the Last Day. If it was the optimum age for the Son of God so, by analogy, it must be the optimum age for a human being.

In fact Huizinga, in his brilliant chapter on ‘Symbolism in decline’, makes the harsh but true point that numerology is actually pretty boring. It is the deeper and often vaguer symbolic correspondences which the medieval mind loved to make between almost every aspect of the natural world and some part of Christian Theology or the Christian story, which are more accessible and more profound.

For example, consider the holly and ivy which grow in northern Europe (I have an abundance of both in my own garden): the prickly leaves represent the crown of thorns that Jesus wore when he was crucified and the berries are the drops of blood they caused. The beauty and simplicity of much of this kind of symbolism lives on to this day, especially when it is about the natural world.

Everyday things like plants and flowers, as well as classical stories and pagan myths, legends and imagery, all of it was easily taken over and incorporated into the vast system of Christian concordances because, to the medieval mind, everything was connected – because it all shines forth the wonder of God. A medieval author explains how the walnut symbolises Christ: the sweet kernel is his divine nature, the green and pulpy outer peel his humanity and the wooden shell between is the cross (p.198): there is no end to the ability of the medieval mind to find a religious symbol or analogy in everything around us.

Thus every day was marked out and divided, for the ever-growing number of religious orders of monks and nuns and so on, by precise hours at which their rituals had to be carried out. On the professional side, this gave rise to countless Rules for the different religious orders prescribing their behaviour for every minute of the day. The secular equivalent is the innumerable ‘Books of Hours’, beautifully illuminated manuscripts whose purpose was to give meaning and resonance to every hour of every day.

Huizinga explains the nature of what was known at the time as ‘Realist’ philosophy (but which we would nowadays called Idealism). This amounts to the notion that every idea is Real, has a precise definition and a place in an infinitely complex hierarchy, all underpinned by theology and, ultimately, God the Creator.

The creative result of this mind-set is a symbolical way of thinking, where almost every everyday occurrence or object can be related to deeper (or higher meanings). His explanation of the internal logic of this approach is fascinating enough – but it is riveting when he then goes on to draw out the connections between this mindset and the prevalence of proverbs (which crystallise everyday behaviour into idealised patterns), to the emblems and mottos chosen by aristocratic households, and their connection of all these with the complexity of heraldry, which had a more-than-decorative purpose for the aristocracy which commissioned it. For them it was a visible embodiment of the ancestors, of their family and its values and achievements. Their world is made up of a dizzying array of vertical hierarchies of meaning.

Wherever it looked the medieval mind constructed a vast and intricate ‘cathedral of ideas’ (p.194). Lacking any ability to genuinely understand the world or to change it, the medieval mind delighted in finding (spurious) patterns everywhere in the natural world, and in creating dizzying edifices of intellectual patterning to fill their (otherwise empty) heads.

Scholasticism

Hence the mind-boggling complexity of medieval theology which, over succeeding generations, set out to codify and order every conceivable thought anyone could possibly have about any aspect of Christian theology, the ceaseless multiplication of saints, feasts and festivals, religious orders, shrines, relics and so on. The late medieval world overflowed with meaning all of it, fundamentally, spurious.

It was this tendency to over-elaboration that later generations satirised with examples of the great debates which were held over ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’, and dismissed as barren ‘scholasticism’. Much of this was gratefully abandoned even by the Catholic Church in light of the great Reformation which came in the early 16th century.

The gap between theory and reality

But for Huizinga what is entertaining is the vast gap between the theory of Christianity as pursued into endlessly remote corners of mental complexity – and the reality of a Church which was in a parlous state. At the top the Catholic Church was tearing itself apart, beginning with the period of the so-called ‘Babylonian Exile’ from 1309 to 1377, when seven successive popes ruled from Avignon in the South of France. When Pope Gregory XI ended the exile and moved back to Rome, half the Curia (most of the French cardinals) refused to go with him and set up a separate Pope of their own. This period became known as the ‘Great Schism’ of 1378 to 1417 when two, and then three, separate popes claimed God-given rule over the church, while merrily excommunicating and damning their opponents.

On the ground all across Western Europe, peasants and town-dwellers, dismayed by this perplexing collapse of central authority, mainly experienced the Church via the immense corruption of an institution devoted to fleecing them with all kinds of religious taxes, penances and indulgences – one of the great themes of the literature of the age.

Courtly Love

The will-to-complexity explains the gorgeous edifice of Courtly Love which grew up intertwined with the complex ideas of Chivalry. Courtly love, or the ars amandi, applied the same medieval technique of intricate elaboration which had produced scholasticism and the codes of chivalry, to relations between the sexes. The cult of Courtly Love grew into a highly complex, ritualised, ornate and delightful cornucopia, a delicate Gothic tracery of manners, behaviours and modes of address.

Just as scholasticism represents the grand effort of the medieval spirit to unite all philosophic thought in a single centre, so the theory of courtly love, in a less elevated sphere, tends to embrace all that appertains to the noble life. (p.105)

Works of courtly love grew bigger, longer and more complex as they redefined all aristocratic behaviour in light of the knight’s reverence for his distant and unattainable Lady. Thousands of books, tens of thousands of poems, were devoted to elaborating and curlicuing this one subject, the more elaborate it became the more remote from the often brutal reality of rulers selling off each other’s daughters in order to make strategic alliances.

Anxiety and hysteria

The terrible realities of a life without any medicine or science were compounded by the awful fear of the living hell awaiting almost everyone after death. Everyone was badly stressed by this appalling plight. And this helps to explain why, when anybody anywhere was seen to threaten the controlling orderliness of Christianity and Chivalry, they acted like a kind of lightning rod to the anxieties of an entire culture. For a threat to any part of the fixed and repressive structures of medieval society was a threat to ALL of it and therefore a threat to the entire mental and psychological paraphernalia which was all these people had to stave off bottomless fear and anxiety. Threatening complete collapse.

It is this extremity of anxiety which they felt all the time which explains the (to us) extraordinary hysteria which was let loose in the various witch hunts and trials. Helpless old women or sassy young women who stepped out of line, or in fact had often done nothing at all, could quickly find themselves short-circuiting the anxiety of an entire culture, instantly blamed for every bad harvest, illness and death which had happened anywhere near them. And not just blamed a little, but immediately transformed into omnipotently evil associates of Satan and his demons, complete with magic spells and malevolent familiars. Huizinga mentions the ‘vauderie d’Arras’ from 1459 to 1461 in which 29 townsfolk were accused of witchcraft (10 of them women) of which 12 were executed (8 women).

The same went for heretics, for anyone who dissented from the crushing orthodoxy of the Catholic Church. Once again a threat to any part was a threat to the whole ornate edifice of belief which sustained everyone and so even a small threat prompted hysterical over-reaction.

And for such a complete subversion of the fragile state of things, only the most extreme form of punishment was suitable – something so terrible that it would terrify anyone who witnessed or heard of it to go anywhere near this kind of transgressive behaviour. Heretics were hunted down, entire communities wiped out, and, like the so-called witches, their leaders very publicly burned at the stake.

Waning and decay

The terrible conditions of life, the almost continual warfare, the terror of hell, the ubiquity of witches, heretics and enemies of society, the only certainty being early death and a strong possibility of an eternity of hellfire – explain Huizinga’s title.

Huizinga doesn’t see this as a society on the brink of the exciting ‘rebirth’ of the Renaissance as we latecomers, looking back over the centuries, are tempted to see it – but as an age which was exhausted with permanent war and religious terror. An era of fathomless pessimism and permanent nostalgia for the olden days which must, must surely have been better than this. And an age, above all, which has thought itself out. Every detail of life has been cemented into the vast cathedral of analogies and concordances, of symbolic types and correspondences which crust the whole thing together so that no new thought is possible.

Early on he makes the brilliant point that the two are connected – that writers of the Middle Ages were so damn pessimistic precisely because they couldn’t see any way out of the dead end of dried-out theology and tired literary forms (all those thousands of allegory and romance).

We ‘moderns’ have two hundred years of accelerating technological change behind us giving us the near certainty that things will always be changing (and at an accelerating rate) – better medicines, laws, technologies, the spread of human rights, equality, feminism etc.

But the medieval mind not only had no theories of social change, their political ideas – such as they were – forbade social change of any kind, because Society – along with its ranks and positions – had been laid down for all time by God. Change was not only subversive, it was blasphemous.

Thus they not only had no mental wherewithal to envision a better future, at a deep level they weren’t allowed to; in their future there was only the certainty of continuing decline from the former Golden Age, combined with fear of the end of the world and the threat of an eternity of hell. No wonder the age was so pessimistic!

Unexpectedly critical

Maybe the biggest surprise about the book is how critical it is of medieval society, thinkers and rulers. You expect a scholar who’s devoted his life to a subject to be enthusiastic about it, but Huizinga is bracingly critical, if not downright insulting, about the culture as a whole and many of its leading thinkers and writers.

The mentality of the declining Middle Ages often seems to us to display an incredible superficiality and feebleness. The complexity of things is ignored by it in a truly astounding manner. It proceeds to generalisations unhesitatingly on the strength of a single instance. Its liability to wrong judgements is extreme. Inexactitude, credulity, levity, inconsistency, are common features of medieval reasoning. (p.225)

The ideal of chivalry tallies with the spirit of a primitive age, susceptible of gross delusion and little accessible to the corrections of experience. (p.125)

Most of the authors of the fifteenth century are singularly prolix. (p.268)

And he has harsh words for many of the writers he quotes so liberally. Eustace Deschamps is only ‘a mediocre poet’ (p.102); most of the poets of the age were ‘superficial, monotonous and tiresome’ (p.262); ‘Froissart is the type of this extreme shallowness of thought and facility of expression’ whose mind is marked by ‘poverty and sterility’ (p.283).

Comparison of late medieval literature and art

It is only towards the end of what feels like a long, dense account of the culture of the late Middle Ages, that Huizinga finally arrives at the subject which, apparently, triggered it – a consideration of the art of van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden and their contemporaries. Why is their art so good, so beautiful, if so much of the rest of late medieval culture is tired, clapped-out and formulaic?

For two reasons:

1. It is newer. Written literature stretched back to the Romans. Literary genres like history, chronicle, play, poetry, epic, lyric, satire and so on had been going for nearly 2,000 years. In medieval hands every logical possibility within these genres had been explored and done to death. Hence Huizinga’s rude comments about the poets and even prose writers of the age. The medieval intellectual system had systematised everything and all that was left was repetition without invention.

By contrast, painting was new. It had only emerged out of flat devotional panels and icons in, say, the 1200s. There was still a great deal of scope for individuals to compose and arrange even the most hackneyed of subjects – the Annunciation, the Crucifixion etc. And in subjects free of Christian content, the world was their oyster, and European painting would continue to develop at an astonishing rate for another 500 years. Thus Huizinga points out that whereas there had been erotic literature for thousands of years, there was little or no genuinely sensual erotic imagery. There’s little or no erotic imagery in the late medieval art (which has survived) but what there is has a fantastic sense of freshness and innocence. We can still sense – 500 years later – the excitement of innovation and experimentation in their paintings.

2. There is (obviously) a fundamental difference between written literature and painting. In the Late Medieval period in particular, both succumbed to the era’s obsession with detail, but with widely different results: so much of the literature, whether religious or secular, routinely turns into lists of vices and virtues – Huizinga really dislikes allegory because it is such a superficial, sterile way to ‘create’ characters out of often flat and empty ‘ideas’, little more than words.

Imagination, both literary and artistic, had been led into a blind alley by allegory. (p.303)

He quotes reams of poets and prose writers whose texts are long lists of the angels or personified Virtues they encounter, and their entirely predictable attributes and oh-so leaden dialogue. Their realism ‘remains enslaved by conventional forms and suffocated under a heap of arid rhetoric’ (p.276).

But in the painters of the day, the obsession with complexity and detail is transformed into the goal of decorating every surface, with rendering every stitch and jewel, with capturing nuances of facial expression and emotion – and this is something entirely new in the history of art.

In a fascinating passage (chapter 20, ‘The Aesthetic Sentiment’) Huizinga quotes one of the few recorded opinions of this art made by a contemporary, the Genoese man of letters Bartolommeo Fazio who admires in the paintings of van Eyck and Rogier the realism and the detail: the hair of the archangel Gabriel, the ascetic face of John the Baptist, a ray of light falling through a fissure, beads of sweat on a woman’s body, an image reflected by a mirror.

It is precisely this love of detail and its exquisitely realistic rendition, which we know aristocratic patrons of the day enjoyed, and which to those of us who love it, is precisely one of the strengths and appeals of medieval culture: its creation of wonderfully rich and decorative patterns in not only the visual arts but all other aspects of intellectual life: the rich detail and dense symbolism to be found in all medieval arts – of tapestry, illumination and painting.

The Crucifixion Triptych by Rogier van der Weyden

The Crucifixion Triptych by Rogier van der Weyden (c.1430)

Fascinatingly, we have the opinion of Michelangelo himself on Netherlandish art, recorded by Francesco de Holanda. Michelangelo credits the technical achievement of the northerners but then criticises them for having too much petty detail and not enough of the grand sculptural simplicity which he, of course, achieved so spectacularly.

Though the eye is agreeable impressed, these pictures have neither art nor reason; neither symmetry nor proportion; neither choice of values nor grandeur. In short, this art is without power and without distinction; it aims at rendering minutely many things at the same time, of which a single thing would have sufficed to call forth a man’s whole application. (Michelangelo, quoted p.254)

What he dislikes is the late medieval tendency to get lost in a maze of details (reflecting the complexities of the mazes of theology and chivalry). For Michelangelo all this has to be swept aside to make way for enormous, grand, simplified and epic gestures.

The Creation of Man by Michelangelo (1512)

The Creation of Man by Michelangelo (1512)

Gone are the flowers, the trees, the landscape, the roofs and towers of the distant town, the colour symbolism and elaborate folds of the stiff clothes, the sweet douceur of the faces and the sentimental tears of the mourners. But these are precisely what I like so much about the art of the northern renaissance.

Conclusion

The above is a summary of just some of the many themes discussed in this brilliant book. It is a really rich, profound and insightful account, which repays repeated rereading, even after all this time still offering up new connections and shedding fresh light on time-honoured subjects.


Credit

The Waning of the Middle Ages was published in 1919 Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen and translated into English in 1924 by Frederik Jan Hopman. All references are to the 1976 Penguin paperback edition as reprinted in 1982.

Related links

Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman (2005)

Relevance of biography for Stevenson

Normally I don’t like biographies of writers, since they take you away from the hard-earned riches of the fictional text, and drag you back down into the everyday world of contracts and illnesses, of gossip and hearsay.

Thus Harman spends some pages trying to decide whether Stevenson’s penis entered the vagina of his older, married friend, Miss Sitwell, or whether the penis of his friend Sidney Colvin had already had that pleasure – or whether neither penis gained entry until Colvin and Sitwell married years later. This concern about who ‘became lovers’ with whom, exactly when and where, is precisely the kind of Hello magazine tittle-tattle I despise, and so I skipped these parts.

But a biography of Stevenson is worth reading because his published writings are so scattered and diverse – plays, poems, ballads, fables, ghost stories, horror stories, short stories, novellas, children’s adventures, adult tales, essays, reviews, appreciations of other writers, travel books – as to be difficult to reconcile and grasp as a complete oeuvre. It helps a lot to make sense of Stevenson’s output to understand the shape of his life and why he produced what he did, when.

An account of his life is necessary to show a) how all the different writings fit together b) what his own attitude towards them was; crucially, for me, how his thoughts about style and approach changed, evolved, or were deployed, for different texts.

Harman’s biography

There have been half a dozen biographies of Stevenson, from the circumspect one by his cousin Graham Balfour in 1901 to Frank McLynn’s magnum opus in 1994. Harman’s is the most recent one and takes advantage of the availability of more manuscript material, and especially the eight volumes of the Yale edition of Stevenson’s letters, which were published in the mid-1990s.

The main ideas which emerge are:

Stevenson the Unfinisher

  • Stevenson wrote a phenomenal amount, some thirty published books as well as scores of short stories and hosts of essays, as well as thousands of letters. This is why the Tusitala edition of his complete works amounts to an impressive 35 volumes.
  • BUT he was a chronic beginner of stories which he never finished. He was a starter not a finisher. Harman describes some stories he wrote for his school magazine, all of which ended with the phrase To be completed… and none of them ever were, and neither were scores of other plans. He was a great maker of lists of projects, Harman details the plans he made at one point at university: plans for thirteen plays, umpteen essays, long epic poems – ideas spurted out of him endlessly.
  • A complete guide to his prose works lists over 300 projects of which only some 30 were ever published. A biography of Hazlitt, a massive history of his own family, various plays, books of essays… the biography is littered with abandoned projects and ideas…

So Stevenson was the possessor of a striking fecundity, but a troubled fecundity, and this sheds immediate light on the works I’ve been reading towards the end of his career:

  • The Bottle Imp intended as just one of a volume of supernatural tales the rest of which were never written
  • Weir of Hermiston unfinished
  • St Ives unfinished.

It also sheds light on the speed and hastiness of many of his finished works, which often seem thrown together, written at tremendous speed, before the afflatus and inspiration fade and he abandons them.

Sometimes the speed is somehow captured in the text itself as energy and excitement – hence Treasure Island, Kidnapped.

Sometimes it isn’t transmuted into the text which feels more like a list of incidents than a narrative which engages and transports you, as with The Black Arrow.

And in his three collaborations with his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, the Osbourne factor amounts to a tremendous slowing down of Stevenson’s usual pell-mell effect – most notable in the grindingly slow first half of The Wrecker, which takes an age to get into gear and move towards the fast-moving and violent climax.

Doubles

Like everyone else who’s ever written about Stevenson, Harman is entranced by the really blindingly obvious idea of ‘doubles’ in his fiction, taking the duality which is blindingly central to Jekyll and Hyde and then detecting it in other ‘double’ stories, like Deacon Brodie or Ballantrae and so on. Of course it’s there to some extent, but an obsessive focus on it obscures the many many other aspects, themes and elements of his work.

Rebellion against parents

His father and his father before him were engineers, members of what became known as ‘the lighthouse Stevensons’, the dynasty which built many of the lighthouses around the notoriously dangerous Scottish coast. Stevenson was a rarity in the extended family, in being an only son, and his father made every effort to force him into the family business, making Stevenson study engineering for three years, touring the lighthouses his family had built and studying the ports and harbours where new ones were planned.

He remained a flop as an engineer, unable to tell one type of wood from another, incapable of the mathematics and physics required, but the extensive travel around the Scottish coast, meeting and staying with poor peasants in remote locations, stood him in very good stead when it came to writing his Scottish fictions.

Bohemian pose

The biography gives a fascinating account of Stevenson’s life as a very reluctant engineering student in dank and foggy Edinburgh, and his student-y predilection for roughing it in low-life pubs and brothels, sitting in the corner of smoky taverns while prostitutes plied their trade and dockers argued and fought. He and his friends were living La Vie Boheme before the term was coined and Stevenson is thought to have slept with one or more of the prostitutes he knew, experimented with hashish, and been a devotee of the debauched poetry of Charles Baudelaire. This taste for low life, again, stood him in good stead when he moved on to Paris, when he imagined life among bandits and outlaws and pirates for his adventure books, when he found himself among emigrants and cowboys in America, and then in his final guise, as friend and defender of South Sea Islanders against the incompetent colonial authorities.

Sick and well

Though always extremely thin and weedy in his young manhood, Stevenson was nonetheless extremely active, playing the gay blade at the artists’ colony in Barbizon, northern France, restlessly pacing up and down rooms, his feverish eyes drinking in his surroundings and his mind pouring forth an endless stream of repartee and humour. He is sent to the south of France and Switzerland to try and cure his lung disorders, but it is far from clear what he actually had. Was it TB or some form of syphilis?

The ill health seems to crystallise during the arduous journey across the Atlantic and then by train across America in 1879. By the time he arrives at Fanny Osbourne’s house he was really unwell, and it was during his stay in California that he experienced his first bad haemorrhage.

At some level, being accepted by Fanny – 10 years his elder – coincided with his official advent to the condition of invalid; somehow their relationship skipped the ‘lovers’ stage directly to ‘mother’ and ‘invalid’, and there it was to stay until his death.

The elusive masterpiece

Harman makes the point that right up to his death (in 1894, aged just 44) Stevenson’s friends and fans were hoping against hope that he would finally deliver The Masterpiece that would cement his place as a Master of English Literature. His precocious essays and stories promised so much, it was hard for everyone, including the man himself, to accept that he just couldn’t produce the kind of solid, consistent, three-volume novel typical of Dickens, Eliot, George Meredith. But he couldn’t and he didn’t. Instead, Stevenson’s oeuvre is a) extremely scattered b) littered with unfinished projects.

Worse than the non-arrival of The Masterpiece, was the way that his entire output from the South Seas was viewed by many as a calamitous abandonment of a conventional career. Instead of a bigger better Kidnapped or Ballantrae his fans were subjected to a pamphlet defending a missionary who worked with lepers, a series of rather boring letters to his friend Sidney Colvin, the long travel book In The South Seas which, unlike his other short witty travelogues, was long and weighed down with pages of local history and culture which quickly became boring. The few fictions seemed desperately diverse and unfocused: was The Bottle Imp the beginning of a series of fables setting a kind of Arabian Nights fantasy in Tahiti? And what to make of the short novel The Ebb-Tide which combined grotesque levels of violence with what seemed to be a sustained attack on Western civilisation in a fiction in which almost every white character is despicable.

Against this backdrop Harman makes the interesting point that the unfinished novel Weir of Hermiston, when it was finally published, was greeted with relief by Stevenson’s fans because it was so obviously a return to the Scottish setting of some of his greatest works and showed, without any doubt, a significant progress in psychological portrayal of character.

Thus Hermiston was enshrined as the pinnacle of his achievement – which involved ignoring the long potboiler, St Ives, which Stevenson had brought much closer to completion but is a regrettable reversion to the smash-bang-wallop style of earlier shockers – and, much worse, I think, involved downplaying or just ignoring the South Sea fictions, The Beach of Falesá and The Ebb-Tide, which are, I think, masterpieces of a completely new realistic-but-grotesque style, something new in his writing and immensely promising.

What I’ve learned

From this time round reading Stevenson, the main findings have been:

1. The travel books are brilliant. I thought they’d be dry and dusty and irrelevant, but they turn out to be short, punchy, engaging, funny and full of fascinating and vivid character studies, as well as providing a fascinating experiment in autobiography in instalments.

2. Stevenson’s emigration to the South Pacific led to a typical explosion of writing in all sorts of genres – travelogue, local history, cultural analysis, essays, pamphlets, letters to the press, letters home to friends, parables and fables. But head and shoulders above them stand the two longer fictions – The Beach of Falesá and The Ebb-Tide – which I wish someone had recommended to me years ago, and I think are among his greatest achievements.


Related links

A Stevenson bibliography

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

2005
Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

The Aspern Papers by Henry James (1888)

I can arrive at the papers only by putting her off her guard, and I can put her off her guard only by ingratiating diplomatic practices. Hypocrisy, duplicity are my only chance.
(Chapter I)

The Aspern Papers was published in three parts in the March to May 1888 editions of The Atlantic Monthly, and published in book form in London and New York later in the same year. It is a novella in nine chapters.

What I know about James

Surprisingly, shamefully, for an English graduate, I’d never read any Henry James before. Tried on various occasions but never managed to make any headway. Obviously I know about his position as, in many people’s opinion, the novelist, the peak and acme of the evolution of the novel as an art form.

One reason for this is that James really thought through the problem of point-of-view in the novel; he reacted against the casually, comically all-seeing authorial voice of the mid-Victorian novelists like Dickens and Thackeray or Wilkie Collins, and experimented in different works with what happens when the narrator’s point of view of the events described in the text is restricted and limited – as, of course, it is in ‘real life’.

Alongside his experiments with the handling of subject matter, I also know James is famous – or notorious – for his convoluted prose style: that it evolved from the already nuanced and crafted style of the 1880s towards its apotheosis of length and complexity in his trilogy of great works – The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904), where a single sentence can sometimes last over a page.

This is the ‘late style’ that many readers find literally incomprehensible. In David Lodge’s two historical novels – Author, Author and A Man of Parts, both of which feature Henry James – even loyal James fans freely admit that they never managed to finish any of his Big Three novels. So I am not alone in finding reading his books a challenging experience.

The Aspern Papers belongs to James’s ‘middle period’, roughly 1885 to 1900, and so significantly before the challenging Late Style had arrived.

Thus my fore-knowledge and what anybody, frankly, could pick up by reading any article about James online.

The plot

The plot, like many of James’s plots, was elaborated from an anecdote he was told at one of the many social occasions he attended (as a confirmed bachelor with a wide circle of friends) and it does have a slightly fleshed-out feel.

An unnamed American narrator is a passionate devotee of a (fictitious) American poet, Jeffrey Aspern who flourished and died in the early part of the 19th century. He and an English colleague, Cumnor, are ‘bringing Aspern’s work to light’ which I took to mean publicising, maybe even editing, his works for a newly interested reading public.

They have learned that a lady to whom Aspern devoted numerous poems is still living, 60 years later, living in a run-down house in Venice, going under the name of Miss Bordereau, with a young lady companion.

Cumnor writes to ask if Miss Bordereau has any memorabilia of the great man and she fobs him off. Whereupon the unnamed narrator picks up the story and describes his campaign to rent rooms in the ladies’ big Venice town house, inveigle his way into their affections, and get his hands, by hook or by crook, on the letters and memorabilia of the Great Poet which he is convinced – without real definite evidence – that she must possess.

He travels to Venice where he takes a middle-aged American lady friend, Mrs Prest, into his confidence about his campaign. Then he takes a gondola to their address, knocks and presents himself. He meets the young miss and the old lady and spins them a line about how he’s fallen in love with the lovely garden attached to the house and it’s just the place for him to spend the summer on his vague and undefined ‘literary projects’. So he persuades them to let him some rooms on the upper floor at an exorbitant rate, gets his people to move in furniture, pays a gardener to overhaul the house’s garden, plant flowers, set up an arbour where he can sit planning his next move.

Their paths rarely cross for weeks, but on several key occasions the narrator encounters young Miss Tita in the newly renovated garden and they have tremulous, vague and sometimes difficult to understand conversations, but which lead the narrator eventually to be invited into the ladies’ rooms where he scans the furniture for hiding places for the much-longed-for Aspern papers.

On a successive occasion he goes down to their rooms expecting to meet with Miss Tita again and, finding their door on the latch, goes into their living rooms unaccompanied and is poised to open wardrobe which is the likeliest hiding place of the papers, when he hears a gasp and turns to see the wizened, witch-like Miss Bordereau standing in her doorway with an accusing stare.

I never shall forget her strange little bent white tottering figure, with its lifted head, her attitude, her expression; neither shall I forget the tone in which as I turned, looking at her, she hissed out passionately, furiously:
‘Ah, you publishing scoundrel!’ (chapter VIII)

She collapses backwards into the arms of Miss Tita. the narrator flees the scene, packs his bags, and spends weeks travelling in a blur of confusion around Italy, viewing grubby pictures in smoky churches and staying in cheap hotels, his mind in a ferment.

Eventually he returns to Venice and revisits the house, only to find that Miss Bordereau has passed away, probably from the shock of his intrusion, and has been buried. Miss Tita greets him and there is a long conversation in which it seems to emerge a) that there definitely are papers, lots of papers, from Miss B’s long-ago relationship with Aspern b) that Miss B asked Miss Tita to burn them but she hasn’t. And then it sort of emerges, from Miss Tita’s stammering, hesitant broken sentences, that she promised Miss B not to give away the papers but that if, somehow, the narrator and she were one, were united, legally, then what was hers would automatically become his and – … and with horror, the narrator realises that Miss Tita is saying she will hand over the papers if he will marry her.

‘I have found nothing of the sort — she destroyed it. She was very fond of me,’ Miss Tita added incongruously. ‘She wanted me to be happy. And if any person should be kind to me — she wanted to speak of that.’
I was almost awestricken at the astuteness with which the good lady found herself inspired, transparent astuteness as it was and sewn, as the phrase is, with white thread. ‘Depend upon it she didn’t want to make any provision that would be agreeable to me.’
‘No, not to you but to me. She knew I should like it if you could carry out your idea. Not because she cared for you but because she did think of me,’ Miss Tita went on with her unexpected, persuasive volubility. ‘You could see them — you could use them.’
She stopped, seeing that I perceived the sense of that conditional — stopped long enough for me to give some sign which I did not give. She must have been conscious, however, that though my face showed the greatest embarrassment that was ever painted on a human countenance it was not set as a stone, it was also full of compassion. It was a comfort to me a long time afterward to consider that she could not have seen in me the smallest symptom of disrespect.
‘I don’t know what to do; I’m too tormented, I’m too ashamed!’ she continued with vehemence. Then turning away from me and burying her face in her hands she burst into a flood of tears. If she did not know what to do it may be imagined whether I did any better. I stood there dumb, watching her while her sobs resounded in the great empty hall. In a moment she was facing me again, with her streaming eyes. ‘I would give you everything — and she would understand, where she is — she would forgive me!’ (Chapter IX)

The narrator is overcome with confusion and rushes out the door, down into his gondola and tells his gondolier to go anywhere, everywhere, to go far away, and he is spirited all over Venice, his mind in a turmoil.

We are right at the end of the story now, for the next day the narrator returns to find Miss Tita oddly transformed and transfigured by his rejection. But they have barely begun speaking before she reveals that, in light of his rejection of her, she has been up all night burning the papers and now every single one has been destroyed!

Impressions

1. Upper class These are very upper-class personages and so their entire upbringing and worldview is very limited and very polite. Having never done manual work or carried out any practical, day to day tasks – they have servants to do all that – the focus of their narrow lives has been on registering minute flickers of meaning in carefully nuanced conversations. And so the text focuses on subtle dialogue, the characters’ interpretations of the dialogue, the characters’ interpretations of each other’s interpretations of the dialogue, and so on.

In our day the internet, twitter and email have accelerated the whole 20th century’s tendency to make communication quicker, more focused, punchier. To give James a chance you have to make a mental effort to cast yourself back to a long lost time of aristocratic leisureliness and the culture of an upper-middle-class which was brought up to be – or at least give the impression of being – untroubled by material concerns.

2. The characters are Americans in Europe and so running through the text is a surprisingly crass keenness to show off their local knowledge and familiarity. The very setting – Venice – makes a statement about the cultural and social expectations of all parties i.e. living at the highest pitch of European culture and civilisation. James is keen to show off his familiarity with the lingo and so almost every page contains Italian vocabulary (carefully noted and translated in the Penguin edition):

  • piano nobile – first floor
  • felze – cabin at the back of a gondola
  • padrona di casa – landlady
  • scagliola – little chips
  • forestieri – foreigners
  • serva – maid
  • contadina – peasant woman
  • pifferaro – piper
  • passeggio – stroll, promenade
  • capo d’anno – New Year’s Day
  • giro – stroll

This keenness to show off reminds me of Ernest Hemingway’s enthusiasm to drop into French or Italian or Spanish forty years later. The American author’s need not to be mistaken for one of those ghastly American tourists, to show that he is infinitely above crude sight-seeing, that he is one of those who knows Italy (Paris, Spain etc) remains consistent over time.

3. Seeing the sights An aspect of tourist anxiety is James’s keenness to show off his knowledge about the sights. ‘I know all about Venice,’ the text says. ‘Darling, I virtually invented Venice.’

I forget what I did, where I went after leaving the Lido and at what hour or with what recovery of composure I made my way back to my boat. I only know that in the afternoon, when the air was aglow with the sunset, I was standing before the church of Saints John and Paul and looking up at the small square-jawed face of Bartolommeo Colleoni, the terrible condottiere who sits so sturdily astride of his huge bronze horse, on the high pedestal on which Venetian gratitude maintains him. The statue is incomparable, the finest of all mounted figures, unless that of Marcus Aurelius, who rides benignant before the Roman Capitol, be finer: but I was not thinking of that; I only found myself staring at the triumphant captain as if he had an oracle on his lips. The western light shines into all his grimness at that hour and makes it wonderfully personal. But he continued to look far over my head, at the red immersion of another day—he had seen so many go down into the lagoon through the centuries—and if he were thinking of battles and stratagems they were of a different quality from any I had to tell him of. (Chapter IX)

The narrator of course drops into Florio’s, the famous café, on St Marks Square. He of course knows what is the best drink to partake of at that time of day. He is, naturally, a connoisseur.

4. Imprecision Although James namedrops the tourist highlights of Venice and the Lido, and knows the Italian word for various things, he is surprisingly unprecise about things. I was very struck by the vagueness of his description of the old palace where the two ladies live, struck at his lack of interest in architectural details. Later the narrator looks out over the rooftops of Venice and gives a general impression of the view. I began to realise that the text focuses on the feelings and impressions of the participants and glosses or floats over the actual details of the external world, the kinds of precise details of build, design, feature and functionality that I enjoy in prose.

5. Lack of ideas I was surprised and then, on reflection, not  so surprised, to come across no ideas at all in the story. This lack of ideas is epitomised in what is presumably an ironic moment in the story where the narrator and the aged Miss Bordereau come face to face for the first time. The naive and simple Miss Tita has settled down to watch an exchange between Giants of Intellect, a distillation of the essences of these two extraordinary souls, a dialogue of superior beings.

Miss Tita sat down beside her aunt, looking as if she had reason to believe some very remarkable conversation would come off between us.
‘It’s about the beautiful flowers,’ said the old lady; ‘you sent us so many—I ought to have thanked you for them before. But I don’t write letters and I receive only at long intervals.’
She had not thanked me while the flowers continued to come, but she departed from her custom so far as to send for me as soon as she began to fear that they would not come any more. I noted this; I remembered what an acquisitive propensity she had shown when it was a question of extracting gold from me, and I privately rejoiced at the happy thought I had had in suspending my tribute. She had missed it and she was willing to make a concession to bring it back. At the first sign of this concession I could only go to meet her. ‘I am afraid you have not had many, of late, but they shall begin again immediately—tomorrow, tonight.’
‘Oh, do send us some tonight!’ Miss Tita cried, as if it were an immense circumstance.
‘What else should you do with them? It isn’t a manly taste to make a bower of your room,’ the old woman remarked. (Chapter VI)

So. The ‘remarkable conversation’ turns out to be bickering about the flowers which the narrator for a while sent the ladies and then got bored and stopped. Not exactly Plato and Socrates.

6. Crudities I was also surprised, in a text which seemed to go to such pains to emphasise its good breeding and aloofness, by other instances of crudity and bathos. The entire story is itself rather crude – young man on the make uses his wiles to cheat and deceive an avaricious old lady and her simple-minded companion. Not a nice story.

There’s an odd rhythmic pattern which I noticed happening several times, whereby pages and pages of static and clotted dialogue or of the narrator’s long-winded ratiocinations, would suddenly be interrupted by an abrupt and surprisingly melodramatic moment. The sudden appearance of the old lady like a ghost in her doorway, startling the intruding narrator – quoted above – is a good example of the text suddenly switching from being a long, rather dreamlike stream-of-consciousness flowing to – bang! – a sudden Edgar Allen Poe-like eruption of apparently corny histrionics.

On a micro level the same is true. From everything I’d read I expected James’s style to have a consistent smoothness of long-drawn-out rumination and ponderousness. So I was surprised that, quite regularly, the prose dropped into rather obvious proverb or cliché. Here the narrator has returned after his week or so away from Venice, is revisiting Miss Tita and has just learned that Miss Bordereau is dead.

It came over me for the moment that I ought to propose some tour, say I would take her anywhere she liked; and I remarked at any rate that some excursion—to give her a change—might be managed: we would think of it, talk it over. I said never a word to her about the Aspern documents; asked no questions as to what she had ascertained or what had otherwise happened with regard to them before Miss Bordereau’s death. It was not that I was not on pins and needles to know, but that I thought it more decent not to betray my anxiety so soon after the catastrophe. (Chapter IX)

‘Pins and needles’? I have no objection to this and the other demotic phrases scattered around the text, just that I was surprised to come across them and discover that it is not at all written on an airlessly high aesthetic note.

If it was all perceived and written in the same slow, long-winded dreamlike style it would be easy to relax into the meandering narrative and drift along with it. But there are these regular moments of suddenness which bring you up short: another example would be when, after pages and pages of the narrator speculating how he will manage his conversation with the old lady at their first meeting, she surprises him by raising the issue of money and quite bluntly asking for a large sum of money in rent. Oh.

So the effect isn’t of a sustained high style – something like Walter Pater’s aesthetic style or Oscar Wilde’s shiny surfaces. It is of a text which moves between a number of registers, sometimes with surprising abruptness, of long dialogues you have to read twice to properly understand them, leading up to someone saying:

‘Did you mean francs or dollars?’ (Chapter III)

It was not the much-vaunted loftiness of his style but the strange mongrel mix of tones and registers which I found most striking and memorable about this story.


Credit

I read it The Aspern Papers in the 1984 Penguin paperback edition but it is freely available online.

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Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94)

In the 17 years of his adult writing career (1877-94) Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a lot, an awful lot – novels, poetry, history, short stories, travel, letters. From all of which posterity remembers just Treasure Island, Jekyll & Hyde and Kidnapped.

Arguably it’s the sheer variety of his writings which hampered his reputation. And also Stevenson’s own uncertainty about what constituted his best work. He spent five years slaving over Prince Otto, a big bid for serious literary credentials – it sank without trace. Jekyll and Hyde went from its original conception in a dream through two rewrites to publication in under 10 weeks, and is there anyone who hasn’t heard of it?

In the 1880s Stevenson represented a break with the bombast of the Victorians – his essays are light and graceful unlike the porridge prose of Carlyle (d.1881) or Ruskin (d.1900).

According to the prolific populariser, Andrew Lang, Treasure Island marked a decisive blow against the serious, analytical novel of character associated with George Eliot (d.1880). It opened the way for an age of ‘Romances’ – the adventure stories and tales of derring-do with which we associate the late Victorians – Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle, Kipling.

But by the same token, as the modernists of the early 20th century began to be published, Stevenson found himself associated with a defunct taste – boyishness, adventure, light style, unquestioning morality – all were overthrown in the 1920s and Stevenson went into the critical darkness, unmentioned in ‘literary’ histories, his big three novels dismissed as books for boys.

But there’s a lot more to RLS, and in the later 20th century, with its interest in post-Modernism, in colonial discourses, in New History, a lot of this scattered oeuvre came back into focus. He’s cooler now than he’s been for a long time and there’ve been three new biographies in the last decade – Frank McLynn (1994), Claire Harman (1995), Ian Bell (1995) – as well as a vast new edition of the collected letters. I’ve always wanted to explore his oeuvre more thoroughly and now’s the chance.


A Stevenson bibliography

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

2005
Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

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