The Lion and the Unicorn by George Orwell (1941)

In all countries the poor are more national than the rich, but the English working class are outstanding in their abhorrence of foreign habits. Even when they are obliged to live abroad for years they refuse either to accustom themselves to foreign food or to learn foreign languages. Nearly every Englishman of working-class origin considers it effeminate to pronounce a foreign word correctly.

The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius was published in February 1941, well into the Second World War, after Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain. It is a long essay, divided into three parts.

  1. England Your England (35 pages)
  2. Shopkeepers at War (19 pages)
  3. The English Revolution (9 pages)

The three essays 1. describe the essence of Englishness and records changes in English society over the previous thirty years or so 2. make the case for a socialist system in England 3. argue for an English democratic socialism, sharply distinct from the totalitarian communism of Stalin.

Now, at this distance of 76 years, the political content seems to me almost completely useless. After the war, the socialist policies carried out by Attlee’s government, thirty years of ‘Butskellism’ and Britain’s steady industrial decline into the 1970s which was brutally arrested by Mrs Thatcher’s radical economic and social policies of the 1980s, followed by Tony Blair’s attempt to create a non-socialist Labour Party in the 1990s, and all the time the enormous social transformations wrought by ever-changing technology – the political, social, economic, technological and cultural character of England has been transformed out of all recognition.

That said, this book-length essay is still worth reading as a fascinating social history of its times and for its warm evocation of the elements of the English character, some of which linger on, some of which have disappeared.

England Your England

By far the longest section is part one which is an extended evocation of all aspects of English character, so powerful, well-written and thought-provoking that it is often reprinted on its own. In its affection for all aspects of England it continued the nostalgia for an older, less commercialised, more decent England which marked his previous book, the novel Coming Up For Air.

What really marks it out is not the truth or otherwise of Orwell’s statements, but the tremendously pithy lucidity with which he expresses them. If they are not true, many of us older white liberals wish they were true. The essay invites you to play a sort of ‘Where’s Wally’ game of deciding whether you agree or disagree with his generalisations, and why. It has a kind of crossword-y kind of pleasure.

What, he asks, is England?

The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs, the old maids hiking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning – all these are not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene.

Other aspects of Englishness, as Orwell perceived it in 1941, include: solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes, love of flowers and gardening, hobbies and the essential privateness of English life. An Englishman’s home is his castle means he can tell the authorities to buzz off and mind their own business.

We are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans. All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official — the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the ‘nice cup of tea’.

Religion?

The common people are without definite religious belief, and have been so for centuries. The Anglican Church never had a real hold on them, it was simply a preserve of the landed gentry, and the Nonconformist sects only influenced minorities. And yet they have retained a deep tinge of Christian feeling, while almost forgetting the name of Christ.

This strikes me as true. A kind of buried Anglicanism flavours most mid-century English culture, in Auden the Anglican returnee, Vaughan Williams the agnostic Anglican or Larkin the atheist Anglican. This idea of the softening influence of a non-fanatical, non-Catholic, barely believed religion, leads on to the next idea. If you have read his writings of the 1930s it comes as no surprise when he says:

The gentleness of the English civilization is perhaps its most marked characteristic. You notice it the instant you set foot on English soil. It is a land where the bus conductors are good-tempered and the policemen carry no revolvers. In no country inhabited by white men is it easier to shove people off the pavement. And with this goes something that is always written off by European observers as ‘decadence’ or hypocrisy, the English hatred of war and militarism. It is rooted deep in history, and it is strong in the lower-middle class as well as the working class.

This reminds me of a consistent thread in Kipling’s writing which is righteous anger at the hypocrisy with which the general population despise and abuse soldiers – until they need them!

I went into a public ‘ouse to get a pint o’ beer,
The publican ‘e up an’ sez, ” We serve no red-coats here.”
The girls be’ind the bar they laughed an’ giggled fit to die,
I outs into the street again an’ to myself sez I:
O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ” Tommy, go away ” ;
But it’s ” Thank you, Mister Atkins,” when the band begins to play… (Tommy, 1890)

This anti-militarism has a comic side in that the English only seem to remember their terrible defeats: the Somme, Dunkirk. As Orwell puts it with typical pithiness:

The most stirring battle-poem in English is about a brigade of cavalry which charged in the wrong direction.

This anti-militarism goes alongside a profound respect for the law; not necessarily obeying it, but knowing it is there and can be appealed to at all times. ‘Oi, you can’t do that to me, I aven’t done anything wrong’ is a universal cry of the English crook and trouble-maker. The law may be organised to protect the property of the rich but it isn’t as absolutely corrupt as in other countries, and it certainly hasn’t ceased to matter, as it has in the totalitarian states.

Abroad? An old saying had it that ‘wogs begin at Calais’ and the recent Brexit vote confirms the underlying xenophobia of the British who have a proud tradition of never learning a word of a foreign language, even if they’ve lived in France or Spain for decades. This rejection of the foreign partly accounts for English philistinism:

The English are not gifted artistically. They are not as musical as the Germans or Italians, painting and sculpture have never flourished in England as they have in France. Another is that, as Europeans go, the English are not intellectual.

Class?

England is the most class-ridden country under the sun. It is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and silly.

Towards the end of the essay Orwell analyses the role of the ruling class. Basically, they have been unable to get to grips with the modern world and retreated into Colonel Blimpish stupidity.

One of the dominant facts in English life during the past three quarters of a century has been the decay of ability in the ruling class.

The great public schools, the army, the universities, all teach the upper classes to rely on forms and behaviour which was suitable to the 1880s. The fact that Germany was out-producing British industry by 1900, that America was emerging as the strongest economy in the world, that the working classes were becoming organised and demanding a say in the running of the country? Go the club and surround yourself with like-minded cigar-puffing buffoons and dismiss it all as easily as dismissing the waiter.

This refusal to face the world, this decision to be stupid, explains much. It explains the astonishing sequence of humiliating military defeats – in the Crimea, the Zulu War, the Boer War, the Great War the British ruling class, as epitomised by its upper class twit general, consistently failed in every aspect of war-making. In each case initial defeats were only clawed back when a younger, less ‘educated’ cohort of officers took charge.

Orwell continues the sheer stupidity of the ruling class in his description of the terrifically posh Tory politicians who ran British foreign policy during the 1930s. Two things happened: the empire declined and we completely failed to understand the rise of the totalitarian states. To take the second first, upper-class numpties like Lord Halifax (Foreign Secretary 1938-40) and Neville Chamberlain (Prime Minister 1937-40) were paralysed during the 1930s. They were terrified of Stalin’s communism and secretly sympathised with much of Fascist policy, but couldn’t bring themselves to deal with the vulgar little Hitler. Their upbringing at public schools and running an empire where everyone said, Yes sahib, completely unprepared them for the modern world.

They could not struggle against Nazism or Fascism, because they could not understand them. Neither could they have struggled against Communism, if Communism had been a serious force in western Europe. To understand Fascism they would have had to study the theory of Socialism, which would have forced them to realize that the economic system by which they lived was unjust, inefficient and out-of-date. But it was exactly this fact that they had trained themselves never to face. They dealt with Fascism as the cavalry generals of 1914 dealt with the machine-guns – by ignoring it.

(Lord Halifax’s Wikipedia page relates that he almost created a massive scene when he first met Adolf Hitler and handed him his overcoat, thinking him to be the footman. Exactly. To Halifax’s class, everyone who didn’t go to their school must be a servant.)

And what about the British Empire? On the face of it between 1918 and 1945 the British Empire reached its greatest geographical extent, not least due to the addition of the various mandates in the Middle East carved out of the former Ottoman Empire. But despite the razamataz of the 1924 Empire Exhibition and so on, it’s quite clear that for most ordinary people and pretty much all intellectuals, the age of empire was over. it just took the ruling classes another 30 odd years to realise it. Orwell gives a reason for this decline in belief in the empire which I hadn’t heard before.

It was due to the rise of bureaucracy. Orwell specifically blames the telegraph and radio. In the golden age of empire the world presented a vast playground for buccaneering soldiers and ruthless merchants. No more.

The thing that had killed them was the telegraph. In a narrowing world, more and more governed from Whitehall, there was every year less room for individual initiative. Men like Clive, Nelson, Nicholson, Gordon would find no place for themselves in the modern British Empire. By 1920 nearly every inch of the colonial empire was in the grip of Whitehall. Well-meaning, over-civilized men, in dark suits and black felt hats, with neatly rolled umbrellas crooked over the left forearm, were imposing their constipated view of life on Malaya and Nigeria, Mombasa and Mandalay. The one-time empire builders were reduced to the status of clerks, buried deeper and deeper under mounds of paper and red tape. In the early twenties one could see, all over the Empire, the older officials, who had known more spacious days, writhing impotently under the changes that were happening. From that time onwards it has been next door to impossible to induce young men of spirit to take any part in imperial administration. And what was true of the official world was true also of the commercial. The great monopoly companies swallowed up hosts of petty traders. Instead of going out to trade adventurously in the Indies one went to an office stool in Bombay or Singapore. And life in Bombay or Singapore was actually duller and safer than life in London. Imperialist sentiment remained strong in the middle class, chiefly owing to family tradition, but the job of administering the Empire had ceased to appeal. Few able men went east of Suez if there was any way of avoiding it.

And of course, Orwell had seen this for himself, first hand, as an imperial servant in Burma from 1922 to 1928.

Lastly, the final section of part one describes the undermining of the rigid old class system since the Great War by the advent of new technologies, by the growth of light industry on the outskirts of towns, and the proliferation of entirely new types of middle-class work.

Britain was no longer a country of rich landowners and poverty-stricken peasants, of brutal factory owners and a huge immiserated proletariat. New technology was producing an entire new range of products – cheap clothes and shoes and fashions, cheap movies, affordable cars, houses with inside toilets etc, at the same time as the new industries no longer required thick-muscled navvies or exhausted women leaned over cotton looms, but educated managers, chemists, technicians, secretaries, salesmen and so on, who call into being a supporting class of doctors, lawyers, teachers, artists, etc. This is particularly noticeable in the new townships of the south.

In Slough, Dagenham, Barnet, Letchworth, Hayes – everywhere, indeed, on the outskirts of great towns – the old pattern is gradually changing into something new. In those vast new wildernesses of glass and brick the sharp distinctions of the older kind of town, with its slums and mansions, or of the country, with its manor-houses and squalid cottages, no longer exist. There are wide gradations of income, but it is the same kind of life that is being lived at different levels, in labour-saving flats or council houses, along the concrete roads and in the naked democracy of the swimming-pools. It is a rather restless, cultureless life, centring round tinned food, Picture Post, the radio and the internal combustion engine. It is a civilization in which children grow up with an intimate knowledge of magnetoes and in complete ignorance of the Bible. To that civilization belong the people who are most at home in and most definitely OF the modern world, the technicians and the higher-paid skilled workers, the airmen and their mechanics, the radio experts, film producers, popular journalists and industrial chemists. They are the indeterminate stratum at which the older class distinctions are beginning to break down.

It is fascinating to learn that this process, the breakdown of old class barriers due to new industries, new consumer products and a new thrusting classless generation, which I tended to associate with the 1960s – maybe because the movies and music of the 1960s proclaim this so loudly and are still so widely available – was in fact taking place as early as the 1920s.

The effect of all this is a general softening of manners. It is enhanced by the fact that modern industrial methods tend always to demand less muscular effort and therefore to leave people with more energy when their day’s work is done. Many workers in the light industries are less truly manual labourers than is a doctor or a grocer. In tastes, habits, manners and outlook the working class and the middle class are drawing together.

2. Shopkeepers at War

In this part Orwell declares that the old ruling class and their capitalism must be overthrown for the simple reason that

private capitalism, that is, an economic system in which land, factories, mines and transport are owned privately and operated solely for profit — DOES NOT WORK.

The war so far has shown that a planned economy will always beat an unplanned one. Both Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia have states and economies guided from the top downwards towards clearly articulated political ends (winning wars). A capitalist society is made up of thousands of businesses all competing against and undermining each other, and undermining the national good. His example is British firms which right up to the declaration of war were still aggressively seeking contracts with Hitler’s Germany to sell them vital raw materials required for weapons, tin, rubber, copper. Madness!

Only a modern centralised, nationalised economy can successfully fight off other centralised nationalised economies. This, argues Orwell, is why some kind of socialist revolution must take place. In order to win the war, the British government must, in the name of the people, take over central running of all aspects of the economy.

In this section Orwell gives us a good working definition of socialism, the definition which was promised and then so glaringly absent from The Road To Wigan Pier four years earlier. Maybe it took those four years, Spain and distance from England, to be able to define it for himself.

Socialism is usually defined as “common ownership of the means of production”. Crudely: the State, representing the whole nation, owns everything, and everyone is a State employee. This does not mean that people are stripped of private possessions such as clothes and furniture, but it does mean that all productive goods, such as land, mines, ships and machinery, are the property of the State. The State is the sole large-scale producer. It is not certain that Socialism is in all ways superior to capitalism, but it is certain that, unlike capitalism, it can solve the problems of production and consumption. At normal times a capitalist economy can never consume all that it produces, so that there is always a wasted surplus (wheat burned in furnaces, herrings dumped back into the sea etc etc) and always unemployment. In time of war, on the other hand, it has difficulty in producing all that it needs, because nothing is produced unless someone sees his way to making a profit out of it. In a Socialist economy these problems do not exist. The State simply calculates what goods will be needed and does its best to produce them. Production is only limited by the amount of labour and raw materials. Money, for internal purposes, ceases to be a mysterious all-powerful thing and becomes a sort of coupon or ration-ticket, issued in sufficient quantities to buy up such consumption goods as may be available at the moment.

However, it has become clear in the last few years that “common ownership of the means of production” is not in itself a sufficient definition of Socialism. One must also add the following: approximate equality of incomes (it need be no more than approximate), political democracy, and abolition of all hereditary privilege, especially in education. These are simply the necessary safeguards against the reappearance of a class system. Centralised ownership has very little meaning unless the mass of the people are living roughly upon an equal level, and have some kind of control over the government.

Socialism aims, ultimately, at a world-state of free and equal human beings. It takes the equality of human rights for granted.

The nature of the revolution

So what would this English revolution consist of? The complete overthrow of the useless ruling class which is bedevilled by its own stupidity and simply unable to see the genuine threat that Hitler posed, able only to read him as a bulwark against Bolshevism and therefore a defender of all the privileges of England’s entrenched ruling class. Away with it in –

a complete shift of power. New blood, new men, new ideas — in the true sense of the word, a revolution… It is only by revolution that the native genius of the English people can be set free. Revolution does not mean red flags and street fighting, it means a fundamental shift of power… What is wanted is a conscious open revolt by ordinary people against inefficiency, class privilege and the rule of the old… Right through our national life we have got to fight against privilege, against the notion that a half-witted public-schoolboy is better fitted for command than an intelligent mechanic… Although there are gifted and honest individuals among them, we have got to break the grip of the moneyed class as a whole. England has got to assume its real shape. The England that is only just beneath the surface, in the factories and the newspaper offices, in the aeroplanes and the submarines, has got to take charge of its own destiny.

In this section he speaks right to the present moment and lists the agents of defeat, from pacifists through Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts to some Roman Catholics. But the real enemy, he says, is those who talk of peace, of negotiating peace with Hitler, a peace designed to leave in place all their perks and privileges, their dividends and servants. These are the worst, the most insidious enemies, both of the war effort and of the English people as a whole.

3. The English Revolution

We cannot establish anything that a western nation would regard as Socialism without defeating Hitler; on the other hand we cannot defeat Hitler while we remain economically and socially in the nineteenth century.

Orwell gives a sweeping trenchant review of the current political scene in England, 1941. All the parties of the left are incapable of reform, the Labour Party most of all since it is the party of the trade unions and therefore has a vested interest in the maintenenace and flourishing of capitalism. The tiny communist party appeals to deracinated individuals but has done more to put the man in the street off socialism than any other influence.

The Labour Party stood for a timid reformism, the Marxists were looking at the modern world through nineteenth-century spectacles. Both ignored agriculture and imperial problems, and both antagonised the middle classes. The suffocating stupidity of left-wing propaganda had frightened away whole classes of necessary people, factory managers, airmen, naval officers, farmers, white-collar workers, shopkeepers, policemen. All of these people had been taught to think of Socialism as something which menaced their livelihood, or as something seditious, alien, “anti-British” as they would have called it.

Therefore, the revolution must come from below. Sound utopian? It is the war which has made it a possibility. The policy of the ruling class in the run-up to the war, the shameful incompetence of the opening year – Dunkirk – have made obvious to absolutely everyone that change is needed. Now, for the first time in its history, a genuinely revolutionary socialist change is thinkable.

A Socialist movement which can swing the mass of the people behind it, drive the pro-Fascists out of positions of control, wipe out the grosser injustices and let the working class see that they have something to fight for, win over the middle classes instead of antagonising them, produce a workable imperial policy instead of a mixture of humbug and Utopianism, bring patriotism and intelligence into partnership – for the first time, a movement of such a kind becomes possible.

Here, at the climax of the essay, he gives six practical policies:

  1. Nationalisation of land, mines, railways, banks and major industries.
  2. Limitation of incomes, on such a scale that the highest tax free income in Britain does not exceed the lowest by more than ten to one.
  3. Reform of the educational system along democratic lines.
  4. Immediate Dominion status for India, with power to secede when the war is over.
  5. Formation of an Imperial General Council, in which the coloured peoples are to be represented.
  6. Declaration of formal alliance with China, Abyssinia and all other victims of the Fascist powers.

The general tendency of this programme is unmistakable. It aims quite frankly at turning this war into a revolutionary war and England into a Socialist democracy.

Wow! The verve, the intellectual confidence, and the optimism of these passages is thrilling!

In the final pages Orwell guesses what kind of revolution it will be, namely a revolution ‘with English characteristics’, the characteristics he so lovingly enumerated in the first section. He gives a complicated analysis of the many forces against it, including comparisons with Vichy France and guesses about the strategies of Hitler and Stalin, too complicated to summarise. The essays ends by repeatedly attacking the pacifism and defeatism of English intellectuals, left-wing intellectuals and so-called communists. It is an all-or-nothing struggle. We can’t go back. the world has completely changed. We must recognise these changes, grasp them, and take them forward in a sweeping social revolution which alone can guarantee victory.

It is goodbye to the Tatler and the Bystander, and farewell to the lady in the Rolls-Royce car. The heirs of Nelson and of Cromwell are not in the House of Lords. They are in the fields and the streets, in the factories and the armed forces, in the four-ale bar and the suburban back garden; and at present they are still kept under by a generation of ghosts. Compared with the task of bringing the real England to the surface, even the winning of the war, necessary though it is, is secondary. By revolution we become more ourselves, not less. There is no question of stopping short, striking a compromise, salvaging “democracy”, standing still. Nothing ever stands still. We must add to our heritage or lose it, we must grow greater or grow less, we must go forward or backward. I believe in England, and I believe that we shall go forward.

Wow! It must have been amazing to read this at the time.

And then what happened?

Churchill’s government did grasp the need for total war mobilisation on an unprecedented scale. Rationing was introduced and every effort made to quash luxury. If we ‘won’ the war it was because Hitler made the mad decision to invade Russia at the same time as the Japanese foolishly attacked America. Britain became the baby buoyed up between Russia and America.

And the war was barely over (May 1945) when Britain held a general election (July 1945) which to everyone’s amazement swept the victorious war leader Churchill from power and produced a socialist government with a huge majority. For the one and only time in its history the British enacted a sweep of revolutionary policies, nationalising the entire health service, extending free state education, and nationalising the key industries of coal, steel and so on. Within two years India was granted its independence. Surely these fulfilled most of Orwell’s definitions of revolution.

And yet… Private schools weren’t abolished and continued to serve as a beacon for privilege and snobbery. The banks and entire financial system was left untouched to flourish, continuing to orchestrate an essentially capitalist economy and redistribute money upwards towards the rich. Income was in no way controlled and so soon the divide between rich and poor opened up again. Massive social changes took place and yet – as Orwell had clearly seen, England’s essential character remained unchanged. Attlee’s government achieved much in five brief years but then was tumbled from power and England reverted to being ruled by upper-class twits, the twits who, like all their ilk live in the past, thought Britain was still a global power, and so took us into the Suez Crisis of 1956. But by then Orwell was long dead.

Conclusion

This is a brilliant long essay, one of the greatest in all English literature, a wonderful combination of nostalgic description for an idealised England, with a fascinating analysis of the social and political scene of his day, and then onto a stirringly patriotic call to fight not only to defeat fascism but to create a new, fairer society. It is impossible not to be stirred and inspired by the combination of incisive analysis, the novelist’s imaginative evocation of English character, and then a speech-writer’s stirring peroration.

However, it is all too easy, in my opinion, to let yourself get swept along by the unashamed patriotism and the bracing insights into ‘the English character’ so that you end up acquiescing in what turned out to be Orwell’s completely inaccurate predictions of the future and his completely unfounded faith in an English revolution.

A social revolution of sorts did take place during and immediately after the war, but what made it so English was the way that, deep down, it didn’t change anything at all.

London 1940 - seat of a socialist revolution?

London 1940 – seat of a socialist revolution?


Credit

The Lion and the Unicorn by George Orwell was published by Secker and Warburg in 1941. All references are to the 1978 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

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

George Orwell’s books

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

A Clergyman’s Daughter by George Orwell (1935)

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

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

Are these neglected novels worth reading?

A Clergyman’s Daughter

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

Part one

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

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

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

Part two 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part four

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part five

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The trivial round, the common task

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


Conclusion

Rape or memory loss?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Loss of faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Sexual coldness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recap

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

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

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

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

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

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


Some stylistic features

Of course and etc

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

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

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

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

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

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

Etc

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course

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

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

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

But of course, it could not last.

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

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

And after that, of course, the fun began.

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

Generalisations

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comedy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pinching

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

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

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

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

Pinching your elbow?

Social history

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

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

Beauty

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

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

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

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

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


Credit

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

Related links

George Orwell’s books

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

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.

Related links

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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