The Magician by William Somerset Maugham (1908)

‘It was the face of a fiend of wickedness.’ (Susie describing Oliver Haddo)

This is, surprisingly from Maugham, a horror story.

The setup

The book begins as a fairly run-of-the-mill love story. Young English surgeon Arthur Burdon knew Margaret Dauncey’s parents. When they died he was named the girl’s executor and guardian, a duty he faithfully performed. When she turned 17 she expressed a wish to go to Paris to study art, which Arthur supported and enabled. But it was at this stage that Margaret discovered her father had died penniless and Arthur had actually paid for entire education and living expenses.

During the tearful conversation where Margaret asks if this is true and Arthur admits it, they both also admit that they’re deeply in love with each other.

‘Don’t you know that I’d do anything in the world for you?’ she cried.

And they admit on the spot that they would like to be married. Nonetheless, Arthur insists that she goes off to Paris, studies art, sees life and so on, before they get wed. He is a thoroughly decent chap.

In Paris Margaret stays in the studio of Susie Boyd (at 30, a lot older and more experienced than Margaret) in Montparnasse and becomes a regular at the local bar, Le Chien Noir, much frequented by poets, writers and artists.

So it’s at this point that the story begins, with Arthur arriving in Paris to meet Margaret and finalise plans for their wedding.

Commenting on the action is a much older man, Dr Porhoët, who was friends with Arthur’s parents and has known him ever since he was born. Dr Porhoët is a wise and bookish old man. He spent most of life as a practicing doctor in Egypt and is now retired, and thus is available to the characters for tea, conversation and advice as required.

Porhoët candidly tells Arthur he is surprised that he and Margaret are in love because Arthur is such an extremely unimaginative, prosaic, practical man who, by dint of working hard, has made himself into a leading surgeon – whereas Margaret is young and fanciful, not only beautiful but highly imaginative.

The magician

So far, so standard. The novel looks like settling down to become another of Maugham’s stories about the trials and tribulations of another mismatched couple. Except that into this fairly run-of-the-mill setup Maugham throws a bomb, in the shape of the tall, monstrously obese, absurdly flamboyant and utterly sinister, self-proclaimed magician and master of the dark arts, Oliver Haddo.

In the introduction to The Magician which Maugham wrote years later, he freely admits to basing the character of Haddo on the notorious black magician, writer, poet and self-publicist Aleister Crowley, who he met in Paris in the mid-1900s when he was living with the painter Gerald Kelly.

In fact not only Haddo-Crowley but many of the other characters and settings are borrowed directly from life. Margaret’s studio is modelled on Kelly’s. Maugham and Kelly were regulars at a bar in Montparnasse called Le Chat Blanc, where local poets and artists congregated almost every evening. In the book this café becomes Le Chien Noir and many of its real-life habitués are coped into Maugham’s book with only slightly altered names. Maugham was notoriously sloppy about this, writing many of his stories almost directly from life and sometimes not even bothering to change people’s names – a habit which got him into trouble especially in classic short stories from south-east Asia a generation later.

The main characters

I enjoy the old-fashioned, detailed, physical and psychological descriptions Maugham gives of his characters. I like the way they’re often unexpected or have unexpected aspects. We’re so culturally conditioned by Hollywood and advertising stereotypes of above all young, physically fit, good-looking protagonists, that it’s a pleasure to go back before the domination of American advertising to be presented with characters who come from a different set of values. Here’s the hero, Arthur:

He was very tall and very thin. His frame had a Yorkshireman’s solidity, and his bones were massive. He missed being ungainly only through the serenity of his self-reliance. He had high cheek-bones and a long, lean face. His nose and mouth were large, and his skin was sallow. But there were two characteristics which fascinated her, an imposing strength of purpose and a singular capacity for suffering.

Margaret is the most stereotypical, being young and beautiful. But I still enjoyed the way the longest description of her is occurs while she and Arthur are looking at a statue of a perfect young woman in the Louvre:

In Arthur’s eyes Margaret had all the exquisite grace of the statue, and the same unconscious composure; and in her also breathed the spring odours of ineffable purity. Her features were chiselled with the clear and divine perfection of this Greek girl’s; her ears were as delicate and as finely wrought. The colour of her skin was so tender that it reminded you vaguely of all beautiful soft things, the radiance of sunset and the darkness of the night, the heart of roses and the depth of running water. The goddess’s hand was raised to her right shoulder, and Margaret’s hand was as small, as dainty, and as white.

Susie:

She was one of those plain women whose plainness does not matter. A gallant Frenchman had to her face called her a belle laide, and, far from denying the justness of his observation, she had been almost flattered. Her mouth was large, and she had little round bright eyes. Her skin was colourless and much disfigured by freckles. Her nose was long and thin. But her face was so kindly, her vivacity so attractive, that no one after ten minutes thought of her ugliness. You noticed then that her hair, though sprinkled with white, was pretty, and that her figure was exceedingly neat. She had good hands, very white and admirably formed, which she waved continually in the fervour of her gesticulation. Now that her means were adequate she took great pains with her dress, and her clothes, though they cost much more than she could afford, were always beautiful. Her taste was so great, her tact so sure, that she was able to make the most of herself. She was determined that if people called her ugly they should be forced in the same breath to confess that she was perfectly gowned.

And a passage to make feminists explode with outrage:

Susie could not prevent the pang that wrung her heart; for she too was capable of love. There was in her a wealth of passionate affection that none had sought to find. None had ever whispered in her ears the charming nonsense that she read in books. She recognised that she had no beauty to help her, but once she had at least the charm of vivacious youth. That was gone now, and the freedom to go into the world had come too late; yet her instinct told her that she was made to be a decent man’s wife and the mother of children.

It is fascinating, chilling, informative, amazing, that at age 30, Susie considers herself an old maid, a spinster, over the hill and on the shelf. It is a vivid insight into social history.

Anyway, Susie plays the well-worn role of friend and confidante to the heroine and secret admirer of the hero. It’s a similar role to that played by Miss Ley in Maugham’s second novel Mrs Craddock, and in just the same way that Miss Ley comments sardonically and insightfully into the story of Bertha and Jim in that marriage, so Susie, at least initially, finds everything in the earnest love affair of Arthur and Margaret funny and mockable. (In a tiny grace not, a ‘Miss Ley’ is mentioned in the letter written to Arthur from a friend who knew Haddo at Oxford: the letter describes the dark rumours which described the man even as a student, but it is this casual reference to a ‘Miss Ley’ which makes the Maugham fan’s ears prick up and wonder whether, at one stage, he was going to create an overlapping universe of characters appearing across all his novels. Intriguing thought. Instead of a Marvel Comic Universe, a Maugham Character Universe. To some extent he did do this, with the character of ‘William Ashenden’ narrating both Cakes and Ale and the book of short stories named after him – and the Kent town of Whitstable appearing in several novels renamed ‘Blackstable.’)

Anyway. Then there is the villain, Haddo, whose main characteristic – as of so many villains throughout the ages – is his gross fatness:

He was a man of great size, two or three inches more than six feet high; but the most noticeable thing about him was a vast obesity. His paunch was of imposing dimensions. His face was large and fleshy. He had thrown himself into the arrogant attitude of Velasquez’s portrait of Del Borro in the Museum of Berlin; and his countenance bore of set purpose the same contemptuous smile.

And:

He was clearly not old, though his corpulence added to his apparent age. His features were good, his ears small, and his nose delicately shaped. He had big teeth, but they were white and even. His mouth was large, with heavy moist lips. He had the neck of a bullock. His dark, curling hair had retreated from the forehead and temples in such a way as to give his clean-shaven face a disconcerting nudity. The baldness of his crown was vaguely like a tonsure. He had the look of a very wicked, sensual priest.

Big fat and evil, Haddo is designed to send shivers of horror through the reader and, as the book proceeds, does so very effectively. So, having created and described these characters in great detail, what does Maugham do with them?

The plot

Through a series of carefully orchestrated events, Haddo becomes an increasing and insidious presence in the lives of the young couple. It is on Arthur’s very first night in Paris that Margaret and Susie take him to Le Chien Noir where he is introduced to the gallery of bohemians, and into which Haddo erupts, fat and grandiloquent and ridiculous and spooky.

At first, as Haddo tells a series of preposterous stories about what a wonderful big game hunter and mountain climber he is at Le Chien Noir he is met with mockery and scorn. It isn’t long before the theme of magic is raised and Haddo prompted to tell at length the lives of the famous magicians and alchemists of old – Paracelsus, Raymon Lull et al. (These are the sections which his critics drew attention to, as feeling like they had been cut and pasted out of the Encyclopedia Britannica and Maugham admits, very candidly, in his introduction to spending weeks in the British Museum researching. I like medieval history, and the voodoo feel of the medieval and early Renaissance world, so I enjoyed the atmosphere of flickering candles in darkened cellars, and mystic shapes drawn on the floor and ritual incantations.)

Haddo intersperses stories about the alchemists with tales of his own encounters with strange men and women who possess second sight, the ability to control animals and to conjure spirits. It helps to reinforce all this that Dr Porhoët chips in, mostly sceptical but admitting that, during his time in Egypt, he also witnessed strange and unaccountable events.

‘I have seen many things in the East which are inexplicable by the known processes of science.’

The same night, after eating at the bar, Haddo ends up tagging along with Susie, Arthur and Margaret to a fair ‘held at the Lion de Belfort’ in Montparnasse. Haddo lays his hands on the mane of the horse which pulls the cab they go to the fair in, and the horse starts whinnying and shivering in fear. As soon as he removes his hand, the horse stops. At the fair they see the usual sights, but then go to a scruffy booth presided over by an oriental woman who has a weird control over the snakes she tends.

Throughout these scenes the core trio of Arthur, Margaret and Susie are generally accompanied by Dr Porhoët, and he has a definite function in the book, which is to provide a plausible support of Haddo’s stories.

If Haddo had been the only one talking about the Zohar and the Clavicula Salomonis and the Pseudomonarchia Daemonorum of Wierus and the Grimoire of Honorius and the Hexameron of Torquemada and the Tableau de l’Inconstance des Démons, by Delancre and Delrio’s Disquisitiones Magicae he would have been isolated and much less believable.

But Maugham has given Dr Porhoët a career in Egypt so that he can position Porhoët as backing up and reinforcing many of Haddo’s claims. A few days later, when the trio visit Dr Porhoët’s apartment they discover it to be lined from floor to ceiling with leather-bound ancient volumes by all the great masters of the dark arts. Porhoët isn’t a magician and is drily ironic about most of the ‘learning’ contained in his books. But he does have one or two stories of weird and inexplicable events he saw occur during his time in Egypt…

So Dr Porhoët is like a straight man to Haddo’s dark magician, not quite believing in magic but helping to establish the fact that there is a vast body of writings on the subject, and that, maybe, you know, there’s something to it… Thus he and Haddo are able to have learned conversations about the old magicians, alchemists and their texts, a dramatic to and fro, spiced with Porhoët’s scepticism, which are much more persuasive than if Maugham had had Haddo just give long monologues covering the same material.

Dr Porhoët is Haddo’s enabler. He is the door which lets Haddo in. Dr Porhoët’s testimony makes Haddo’s belief in ancient magic much more believable. If a man of science who is basically a sceptic believes some of these stories, then maybe…

The crisis of the plot

Out of politeness, after the fair outing, Margaret invites Haddo a few days later to come to tea.

Part one of this tea party is another long disquition between Haddo and Dr Porhoët, touching on the lives and works of Paracelsus, Hermes Trismegistus and Albertus Magnus. It builds up to the long and vivid story of how Paracelsus created and nurtured ten little homunculi or spirits in jars. Silly though it sounds, the telling, amid plenty of detail, and horror-stricken intensity, creates a real atmosphere.

The story ended, Dr Porhoët rises to leave the little party and disaster strikes. Margaret’s little pet dog, which had started whining and gone to hide in a corner when Haddo first arrived, now inexplicably springs at him and bites Haddo in the hand. Without thinking, Haddo brutally kicks the dog right across the room at which Margaret screams and Arthur – who has met all of Haddo’s stories with mockery and disbelief – punches him full in the face then, while he is on the ground, kicks him again and again. For the usually sedate and restrained Maugham, this is a shocking scene. While they all turn their attention to the dog, Haddo staggers to his feet, where he makes a dignified apology for his behaviour, bows and leaves the apartment. But not before Susie has seen a look of implacable demonic hatred on his face!

Haddo’s campaign of seduction

Next day Margaret encounters Haddo in the street who promptly stumbles and collapses. Passersby say he is having a heart attack. Margaret is forced to take him into her apartment, despite her misgivings, to rest, give him a glass of water etc. She is full of dislike but her good manners prevail.

This is a bad mistake because Haddo proceeds to seduce Margaret, but not in a sexual sense, something far worse. He entrances her somehow. He is meek and apologetic, he begs forgiveness, she finds herself touched by the tears in his eyes, she finds herself noticing the beauty of his lips and face. He recites Walter Pater’s famous description of the Mona Lisa and then goes on to spin flowery prose poetry about other paintings, paintings characterised by dark atmosphere and unknown sins… the whole thing sounding very much like the purple prose used by Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray – paintings, art, strange moods, rare emotions, unknown pleasures and so on…

When he commands her to listen to him playing the piano she follows and sits meekly, aware that she can do no other. He has somehow hypnotised her into admiration and submission. He doesn’t take advantage of her body; much more insidiously, she finds him entering her heart and affections.

Haddo performs magic. He scatters a pinch of blue powder onto a bowl of water and, behold! the water burns up and disappears. Haddo elaborates a fantasy in which he scatters enough blue powder over the world to burn up the oceans!

He then scatters dried leaves over the fire to produce a pungent smoke which he tells Margaret to inhale deeply. he takes her hand and suddenly they are transported to a barren cross-roads in a bleak landscape of burnt heather where Margaret sees a sort of witches’ sabbath.

Margaret’s gaze was riveted upon a great, ruined tree that stood in that waste place, alone, in ghastly desolation; and though a dead thing, it seemed to suffer a more than human pain. The lightning had torn it asunder, but the wind of centuries had sought in vain to drag up its roots. The tortured branches, bare of any twig, were like a Titan’s arms, convulsed with intolerable anguish. And in a moment she grew sick with fear, for a change came into the tree, and the tremulousness of life was in it; the rough bark was changed into brutish flesh and the twisted branches into human arms. It became a monstrous, goat-legged thing, more vast than the creatures of nightmare. She saw the horns and the long beard, the great hairy legs with their hoofs, and the man’s rapacious hands. The face was horrible with lust and cruelty, and yet it was divine. It was Pan, playing on his pipes, and the lecherous eyes caressed her with a hideous tenderness. But even while she looked, as the mist of early day, rising, discloses a fair country, the animal part of that ghoulish creature seemed to fall away, and she saw a lovely youth, titanic but sublime, leaning against a massive rock. He was more beautiful than the Adam of Michelangelo who wakes into life at the call of the Almighty; and, like him freshly created, he had the adorable languor of one who feels still in his limbs the soft rain on the loose brown earth. Naked and full of majesty he lay, the outcast son of the morning; and she dared not look upon his face, for she knew it was impossible to bear the undying pain that darkened it with ruthless shadows. Impelled by a great curiosity, she sought to come nearer, but the vast figure seemed strangely to dissolve into a cloud; and immediately she felt herself again surrounded by a hurrying throng. Then came all legendary monsters and foul beasts of a madman’s fancy; in the darkness she saw enormous toads, with paws pressed to their flanks, and huge limping scarabs, shelled creatures the like of which she had never seen, and noisome brutes with horny scales and round crabs’ eyes, uncouth primeval things, and winged serpents, and creeping animals begotten of the slime. She heard shrill cries and peals of laughter and the terrifying rattle of men at the point of death. Haggard women, dishevelled and lewd, carried wine; and when they spilt it there were stains like the stains of blood. And it seemed to Margaret that a fire burned in her veins, and her soul fled from her body; but a new soul came in its place, and suddenly she knew all that was obscene. She took part in some festival of hideous lust, and the wickedness of the world was patent to her eyes. She saw things so vile that she screamed in terror, and she heard Oliver laugh in derision by her side. It was a scene of indescribable horror, and she put her hands to her eyes so that she might not see.

It is preposterous like all horror stories but, if you give yourself permission, if you read sympathetically and let your imagination go, many passages of the book are genuinely visionary and creepy.

Abruptly he leaves, and she comes back to herself. But over the following days she finds herself thinking of him more and more. He had scribbled down his address before he departed and now Margaret finds herself drawn to go and see him, despite her better judgement. Susie returns to the studio, Arthur arrives and takes her in his arms – but she is changed utterly, and walks and talks as in a daze.

The wrong marriage

Long story short – Margaret makes excuses to Susie and lies to Arthur and starts to visit Haddo every afternoon. He shows her more of the Dark Side, explaining more foul mysteries and mysterious sins.

If this was a modern movie I might have expected them to have sex, the camera lingering on the sight of the enormous repulsive slug-like magician ravishing the slender beautiful Margaret in a variety of pornographic postures.

However, two things appear to restrain Maugham. One is the censorship of his day. A whole raft of publishers had refused to publish Mrs Craddock simply because it depicts feelings of arousal and lust, without any actual sex. Here again we have the feeling that Maugham is sailing as close to the wind as he can, but there is a definite line he can’t cross.

But reason two is that it will become important to the plot that Margaret remain a virgin.

In a nutshell, all the time she is making plans for her wedding to Arthur, naming the day, the dress, the cake and so on -she is secretly seeing Haddo and, to the reader’s horror, agreeing to marry him, overcome with horror and revulsion but unable to stop herself.

On the day that she and Arthur are due to catch the boat train from Paris back to London, Margaret sends a note to say that she has married Haddo and left town. Susie spends a day visiting her dressmaker, Haddo’s apartment, the British Embassy, establishing the truth of the story before telling Arthur who is absolutely devastated.

Thus Haddo wreaks the revenge on Arthur that Susie had seen in his face, after Arthur knocked him to the ground after the incident of the dog bite.

Haddo and Margaret’s peregrinations

Arthur returns to London where he throws himself into his work, taking two jobs, delivering lectures and editing a big book of surgery in order to try and blot out his intense emotional pain.

Susie takes up an invitation from a friend to go and stay in Italy for the winter. In the spring she passes on to the Riviera. On both places she discovers Haddo and Margaret have been staying, spreading scandalous behaviour. Haddo gambles intensely, getting Margaret to lay the bets at the tables. They have high society parties but eventually Haddo’s caddish behaviour is found out – he cheats at cards, he tries to pass forged money- and he is blackballed and cold shouldered by Society.

In Monte Carlo Susie actually witnesses Margaret gambling and shudders as she then smiles acquaintance with a notorious courtesan.

Susie returns to London, and meets with Arthur a few times. What Arthur doesn’t realise is that Susie is passionately in love with him. It gives an added intensity to the story that Susie loves Arthur with a pure disinterested love which she knows can never be returned because of Arthur’s total commitment to Margaret.

They go to the opera (music, Susie realises, is a drug Arthur uses to help transport him away from his pain at Margaret’s desertion) and bump into an acquaintance of Arthur’s who invites them to make up a dinner at the Savoy.

Here they are horrified to discover two of the other guests are Haddo and Margaret, with Margaret appearing cold and disdainful while Haddo politely but cruelly mocks Arthur at every opportunity in the conversation, and Susie has to sit watching her beloved suffer, wincing at every one of Haddo’s cruel jibes.

They abduct Margaret

Convinced that Margaret is not happy but somehow hypnotised by the obese bully, Arthur goes to the Savoy the next day and, after a long pleading conversation in which Margaret reveals that she is unhappy, abducts her – marching her out of the room, into a hansom cab, directing it to Euston and fleeing to the country.

There’s a chapter where Arthur tries to detoxify Margaret and where Susie assist. There is an explanation of the type of late Victorian divorce which they will arrange for her. But when Arthur returns to London to resume his work and organise the divorce Margaret becomes more and more restless, and one day Susie goes into her room to find she’s left. She has returned to Haddo.

Susie, by now convinced that Haddo’s hold over Margaret really is irrational and magical, travels back to Paris to see Dr Porhoët. More tales of how ancient magicians exert power and control over their victims (designed to reinforce the plausibility of the situation).

A few weeks later Arthur turns up and tells a long story about how he has visited Haddo’s country seat (apart from everything else, Haddo is posh; he went to Eton and Oxford and is heir to a big estate in Staffordshire, Skene.) He stayed at the local inn and then walked through the bleak and blasted countryside to the spooky old Gothic house. It is protected by a fence surrounding the grounds. Arthur finds a loose plank, wriggles it loose and and – in a spooky scene – stumbles through a dark wood to a clearing with a bench.

After a while Margaret comes and sits at the bench in a spectacularly convenient coincidence – whatever; we left plausibility behind quite a time ago. She initially thinks Arthur is a phantom and explains to Arthur that she knows Haddo is carrying out all kinds of black magic in the house. She quite calmly tells Arthur that she thinks Haddo is going to kill her, using her somehow in some black magic ritual. Terrified, Arthur pleads for her to come with him but she wriggles free and says No, Haddo will punish her if he knew she was speaking to Arthur, she must go she must go now — and runs off into the pitch blackness of the woods. Arthur searches and searches in vain, then retraces his footsteps to the hole in the fence, walks back to the local inn, gets a cab ride the next day to the station, catches the train to London, catches to boat train to Paris and is now standing in front of Susie and Porhoët telling him this narrative.

As it happens Susie and Dr Porhoët had just been having another one of those conversations about black magic and speculating on Haddo’s motives. Now she remembers one of the many black rumours about Haddo that she heard in Monte Carlo.

‘They said there that he was attempting to make living creatures by a magical operation.’ She glanced at the doctor, but spoke to Arthur. ‘Just before you came in, our friend was talking of that book of Paracelsus in which he speaks of feeding the monsters he has made on human blood.’
Arthur gave a horrified cry. (Chapter 13)

Susie, rather inconsequentially, persuades the by-now distraught Arthur to accompany her for a few days to Chartres to calm his nerves. But one day he rushes into her room convinced that something has happened to Margaret. How? Why? He can’t explain. Even staid, boring, unimaginative Arthur is now caught up in the atmosphere of magic and irrationality.

Back to England, back to Skene

They rush back to Paris, co-opt Dr Porhoët (what a hectic retirement he’s turning out to have!), catch the next boat train to London (‘Susie never forgot the horror of that journey to England’), catch a cab to Euston, catch the train to Staffordshire, catch a cab to the local inn at the village of Venning, and hear from the innkeeper’s nosy wife that, Yes, Mr Haddo’s beautiful wife passed away earlier that week. the funeral was the previous day.

Arthur is even more distraught. He takes the others to confront the local doctor, slow provincial Dr Richardson, who claims it was a case of heart disease at which Arthur lets fly a stream of insults and abuse before storming out with a plan. For a moment I thought he might be planning to dig up the corpse which would have made for a grim and compelling scene.

Instead Arthur drags Susie and Dr Porhoët along with him to the gates of Skene House, pushes past the outraged gatekeeper, bangs on the door and loudly asks entrance from the  stroppy doorkeeper. Next thing we know, Haddo himself is there, even more physically repulsive than before.

Dr Porhoët, who had not seen him for some time, was astounded at the change which had taken place in him. The corpulence which had been his before was become now a positive disease. He was enormous. His chin was a mass of heavy folds distended with fat, and his cheeks were puffed up so that his eyes were preternaturally small. He peered at you from between the swollen lids. All his features had sunk into that hideous obesity. His ears were horribly bloated, and the lobes were large and swelled. He had apparently a difficulty in breathing, for his large mouth, with its scarlet, shining lips, was constantly open. He had grown much balder and now there was only a crescent of long hair stretching across the back of his head from ear to ear. There was something terrible about that great shining scalp. His paunch was huge; he was a very tall man and held himself erect, so that it protruded like a vast barrel. His hands were infinitely repulsive; they were red and soft and moist. He was sweating freely, and beads of perspiration stood on his forehead and on his shaven lip. (Chapter 14)

Haddo simply brushes them off and ignores their concerns. Margaret died of a heart attack, the local doctor says so. If Arthur attacks him, Haddo, now, in the doorway of his house in front of witnesses, why he will be compelled to report it to the village constable.

Incensed with frustration Arthur turns on his heel and marches back down the drive with the other two lamely following in his wake. And now there is a stranger plot development which is that Arthur – cool phlegmatic Anglo-Saxon rational scientist Arthur – asks Dr Porhoët to raise Margaret’s ghost from the dead! Without his books, and relying on memory, given a day to buy the basic ingredients from the local store, Porhoët, against all expectations, but in accordance with the book’s by-now dream logic, manages to do this. Out in the blasted heath, miles from any other people, at night, Porhoët arranges bowls, burns incense, says magic spells.

Inexplicably, a sudden terror seized Susie. She felt that the hairs of her head stood up, and a cold sweat broke out on her body. Her limbs had grown on an instant inconceivably heavy so that she could not move. A panic such as she had never known came upon her, and, except that her legs would not carry her, she would have fled blindly. She began to tremble. She tried to speak, but her tongue clave to her throat.

Margaret doesn’t appear like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, in the same shape as in life and speaking clearly to command revenge. Instead they at first only hear her, hear the sound of a woman weeping uncontrollably.

And then, seeming to come out of nothingness, extraordinarily, they heard with a curious distinctness the sound of a woman weeping. Susie’s heart stood still. They heard the sound of a woman weeping, and they recognized the voice of Margaret. A groan of anguish burst from Arthur’s lips, and he was on the point of starting forward. But quickly Dr Porhoët put out his hand to prevent him. The sound was heartrending, the sobbing of a woman who had lost all hope, the sobbing of a woman terrified. If Susie had been able to stir, she would have put her hands to her ears to shut out the ghastly agony of it.

And in a moment, notwithstanding the heavy darkness of the starless night, Arthur saw her. She was seated on the stone bench as when last he had spoken with her. In her anguish she sought not to hide her face. She looked at the ground, and the tears fell down her cheeks. Her bosom heaved with the pain of her weeping.

Then Arthur knew that all his suspicions were justified.

Fiery climax

The die is cast. In the long final chapter two things happen: the fight and the storming of the old house.

Several days go by while Arthur goes for long walks in the countryside and Susie and Dr Porhoët worry about him. One afternoon the sultry air is growing heavy with a storm when Arthur returns to the inn. It is getting dark as Susie and Dr Porhoët beg Arthur to tell them what his plan is: To kill Haddo, he simply replies.

The wind in the darkness outside rises to a howl and then the lamp in the room they’re in is suddenly extinguished. In the darkness they all realise that someone else is in the room with them. Reading this at night I found it genuinely scary. A huge black shape fills a corner and without a word Arthur flings himself on it, identifying arms and head and neck, rolling over, struggling, fighting for a grip.

Arthur seized the huge bullock throat and dug his fingers into it, and they sunk into the heavy rolls of fat; and he flung the whole weight of his body into them.

Arthur fights to the death in the pitch blackness, breaking the thing’s arm and then strangling it to death. He staggers to his feet. ‘I’ve killed him,’ he says hoarsely. Except that, when Susie lights a candle with the rasp of a match… the room is empty. There is nothing there!

It is an uncanny and genuinely eerie touch.

They must go, go now, go immediately to Skene, Arthur insists. And so he force marches Susie and Dr Porhoët  the three or so miles from the inn to the fence of the old Gothic pile. He breaks in through the broken fence. He bangs on the door but there is no answer. They know from the gossipy landlady of the inn, the servants are sent away at night. Confident that the house is empty save for Haddo, Arthur breaks into a ground floor window then comes to the front door to let the other two in.

Room by room the search the house, finding half of it abandoned and cold. They search two floors then are stymied about how to get up to the upper floor, the only rooms which they saw lit, from the outside. Eventually Arthur finds a secret passage concealed behind the wood panelling.

Up they go and discover – chambers of horrors: three long rooms which are a) dazzlingly lit b) immensely hot, warmed by open furnaces. There is a lengthy description of all the alchemical equipment Haddo had gathered and was using, but the climax of the entire novel is a series of glass bowls in which Haddo had been experimenting… to create humans, to create human life – going far beyond the tales of the homunculi created by Paracelsus and into a world of creating and moulding human beings which is reminiscent of H.G. Wells’s horrifying fantasy of a decade earlier, The Island of Dr Moreau.

All of Maugham’s habitual taste and decorum is thrown to the winds as he describes, at nauseating length, a series of half-human abortions and monstrous lumps which are kept in the glass basins, palpitating, or writhing or scuttling on deformed limbs. As a modern reader inured to the disgusting by, for example, the Alien movies I still found the descriptions sickening. God knows what contemporary Edwardian readers must have made of them.

In another [bowl] the trunk was almost like that of a human child, except that it was patched strangely with red and grey. But the terror of it was that at the neck it branched hideously, and there were two distinct heads, monstrously large, but duly provided with all their features. The features were a caricature of humanity so shameful that one could hardly bear to look. And as the light fell on it, the eyes of each head opened slowly. They had no pigment in them, but were pink, like the eyes of white rabbits; and they stared for a moment with an odd, unseeing glance. Then they were shut again, and what was curiously terrifying was that the movements were not quite simultaneous; the eyelids of one head fell slowly just before those of the other.

And then, over in a corner, they see the vast body of Haddo, lying dead, strangled with protruding eyes and tongue. His arm is broken, as Arthur broke the fat body he fought with in the blackout at the hotel. Somehow, by some magic which we are now totally prepared to believe, Haddo transported his body, or a version of himself to the hotel room, and Arthur, killing the phantasm there, also killed the host body.

‘Out, out,’ cries Arthur, ‘We must leave now,’ and hustles them out of the rooms and down the stairs. Aren’t you coming? cries Susie. ‘In a moment,’ he replies. He rejoins them at the door, the run down the drive, then detour into the dark wood, find the hole in the fence and walk the long way back towards the inn.

Dawn comes as they approach the inn. Susie feels an enormous sense of life and colour returning to the landscape. And then she realises there is red in the west too. Arthur set Skene alight. Now it is blazing out of control. The old Gothic ruin, along with the body of its black magician master and the horror of the creatures he made, will all be wiped from the face of the earth.

Arthur puts his arm around Susie to support her and she suddenly feels safe and protected. The warm sun rises over the rejuvenated landscape. All will be well.


The pleasures of the text

Entertainment

Although it’s a preposterous story told in often lurid and over-wrought prose, it is still, like most of Maugham, immensely entertaining and readable.

Escapism

There’s not only the obvious escape any story offers, namely of escaping your present-day concerns into a world where you understand all the characters and what is going on – and where stories have neat beginnings, middles and ends – so very unlike the experience of messy, complicated and often inexplicable life that most of us experience.

There’s also the pleasure of escape into another era, the Downton Abbey syndrome. There are different clothes (for women, an amazing array of rich costumes, gowns, cloaks, dresses, and hats – lots of hats – and fine jewellery). There is the way the streets of London, Paris or the towns they visit are not clogged and poisoned by cars, lorries, buses, taxis and other sources of poisonous toxic fumes.

And, something I noticed in Mrs Craddock and here – all the characters take it fro granted that they can just swan off abroad whenever they like. We are told that Arthur is a busy surgeon at a leading hospital but he can not only pop over to Paris for weeks at a time, but go gallyvanting off to Charters, or spend the latter part of the novel running off to Staffordshire. I wish I had that kind of job.

Even more I wish I led the life of Susie. On the one hand the modern feminist reader might be horrified at the way she – and presumably the society around her – consider her an old maid on the shelf at age 30, and might object to the rather harsh way in which Maugham repeatedly emphasises the plainness of her looks, which verge on ugliness.

But on the upside – she doesn’t have to work! As far as I can tell she has no job because she enjoys a modest allowance. This means she spends all day strolling round Paris, visiting galleries, having little tea parties and, when Margaret leaves with Haddo, simply accepts an invitation from a friend to go and stay in Rome for the winter, going to the opera, going out for dinner, strolling round galleries. When she gets bored of that, she moves on to the Riviera for spring.

If she is meant to be proof of the terrible suffering and oppression which women endured in late Victorian and Edwardian times well, I wish I could have spent my life undergoing the same ‘suffering’. Spring? ‘We’re off to Monte Carlo, darling’. Summer? ‘Probably back for the Season. Shall we meet you at the opera?’

Manners

Everyone is so polite. It is lovely to read about the decorum and manners of a long lost era. Sure, it acted as a terrible restraint on people’s feelings – for example, it is made very clear that Arthur suffers immensely because he feels he cannot speak openly to anyone about his anguish over Margaret, but the general level of exquisite politeness at almost every level of society is so remote from the everyday rudeness and curtness of our own times.

And you have to enter into this world of exquisite manners in order to understand, and enjoy, when they are being deliberately manipulated by the characters. For example, it is one of Haddo’s amusing traits that he is wickedly heartless with the most polished manners, twisting the emotional knife into Arthur with soft words and refined diction. Take the scene on the door of Skene House where our trio have barged their way to find the truth about Margaret’s death. Haddo appears with silky ease and is the soul of politesse.

‘I have come about Margaret’s death,’ said Arthur.
Haddo, as was his habit, did not immediately answer. He looked slowly from Arthur to Dr Porhoët, and from Dr Porhoët to Susie. His eyes rested on her hat, and she felt uncomfortably that he was inventing some gibe about it.
‘I should have thought this hardly the moment to intrude upon my sorrow,’ he said at last. ‘If you have condolences to offer, I venture to suggest that you might conveniently send them by means of the penny post.’

Even in the midst of all the horror, Maugham still has the focus to make Haddo the source of wonderfully cynical jibes, clothed in Eton-Oxford-aristocratic refinement. Here is Arthur shouting at Haddo, and Haddo fending him off with unimpeachable civility.

‘I saw Margaret three weeks ago, and she told me that she went in terror of her life.’
‘Poor Margaret! She had always the romantic temperament. I think it was that which first brought us together.’
‘You damned scoundrel!’ cried Arthur.
‘My dear fellow, pray moderate your language. This is surely not an occasion when you should give way to your lamentable taste for abuse. You outrage all Miss Boyd’s susceptibilities.’ He turned to her with an airy wave of his fat hand. ‘You must forgive me if I do not offer you the hospitality of Skene, but the loss I have so lately sustained does not permit me to indulge in the levity of entertaining.’

Well, if you’re going to be a black magician confronted by the fiancé of the woman you stole from him and subsequently murdered as part of your fiendish experiments – this is the style to do it in.

The movie

The Magician was made into a fabulously melodramatic black-and-white silent film in 1926, directed by Rex Ingram.


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1902 Mrs Craddock
1908 The Magician
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

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

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

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

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

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

Mrs Craddock by Somerset Maugham (1902)

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

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

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

Mrs Craddock

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

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

But when, after torments of separation, and even mad thoughts about going with him to the New World, Gerald finally leaves for New York, Bertha’s spirit snaps and she returns to Court Leys emotionally empty.

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

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

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

On the day of the funeral, there is social comedy about the order of precedence among the various organisations Edward was a leading member of (the freemasons, the county council, the Conservative Party). But quite separate from all that, Bertha doesn’t attend the funeral. Remote and isolated from the hurly burly of the entire world, she lies on her sofa, in the beautifully restored house, admiring the fine view to the sea, and picks up a book.

Response

I enjoyed reading Mrs Craddock but was aware of its numerous faults. For a start, there are several odd passages where Maugham is being ‘experimental’ or giving in to contemporary fashion but which really don’t come off. One half way through occurs where Bertha, still in her infatuation stage, hears tell that Edward is a little injured, and goes off into a peculiar hallucination of him being brought in dead, her washing the corpse, lowering the coffin into the grave and her throwing herself on top of it – at the end of which Edward walks in right as rain and wondering why she’s in such a state.

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

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

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

The characterisation of the stiff local vicar, Mr Grove, his well-intentioned sister, the hearty doctor, the dashing local landowner Branderton, the chorus of snobbish local ladies led by Mrs Branderston, with Mrs Mayston Ryle and Mrs Molsons not far behind, the scenes involving this little community are often very funny. The vicar’s sister Miss Glover is a particularly memorable character, all shiny stiff dress and sincere Christian sympathy. Maugham was always strong on social comedy, and strong on the subtleties and veiled malice of petty snobbery. It reappears in his feel for the thousand and one stupid restrictions on colonial life in the Far East, in his short stories of the 1920s.

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

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

Similarly, Bertha’s anger when she realises that Edward doesn’t much care if she lives or dies or what she does, is vividly described and moving. And so, again, towards the end, is her prolonged mood of depression as she wanders down to the grey Kent sea and fantasises about drowning in it.

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

I’m not sure and I’m not sure if I’m qualified to judge. For a start, maybe only a woman reader or critic could really assess whether Bertha is a ‘realistic’ character. Who am I to say? For seconds, the novel covers a period from the 1880s to the end of the 1890s and… that was so long ago, so far away, in a kind of constipated rural Victorian society which is almost impossible for us to imagine, that I can’t see how any modern reader can make a just assessment of its veracity.

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

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

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

Sex and lust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Later in the book, the same all goes in spades for her infatuation with Gerald. In addition there’s something you don’t quite usually read about at the period, which is the clearly defined moment when Bertha decides to have sex with Gerald, to give him the great gift of her body, to make their union unique and unforgettable. You can almost smell the pheromones radiating off the page as Bertha pursues Gerald across London, towards a final night together when they are just about to do something unforgiveable under Victorian custom – she was, of course, still a married woman and keeps telling us that Gerald is almost young enough to be her son, when… there’s a knock at the door and Aunt Mary appears in the nick of time! Still. These descriptions are almost pornographic in their blood-heating intensity.

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

The battle of the sexes

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

The English novel starts in 1748 with Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, a 500-page battle between a man and a woman about sex and the rest of ‘serious’ literature continued the theme for centuries – the sly marriage markets of of Jane Austen, the earnest character studies of George Eliot, in the American ladies in Europe of Henry James, and the Golden Age snobbery of Edith Wharton, through the endless sex war in D.H. Lawrence, the love comedies of H.G. Wells or Aldous Huxley, and so on.

Literature which doesn’t address the problem of finding the right partner, and holding onto them i.e. of marriage and adultery, tends not to be thought central to the Great Tradition of the English Novel. Thus Sterne, Dickens or Conrad stand slightly to one side of the Wedding theme.

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

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

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

Maugham and women

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

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

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

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

The New Woman

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boldness about marriage

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

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

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

Boldness about religion

And the same goes for his treatment of traditional religion. After his parents died Maugham was brought up an orphan in the home of his father’s brother, the unimaginative vicar of Whitstable in the 1880s (hence the accuracy of the social comedy of provincial Kentish society in this novel). Sometime in his student years his Christian faith just melted away and he experienced a tremendous sense of liberation, liberation (as Selina Hastings’s fabulous biography of Maugham makes crystal clear) to have sex with whoever he wanted, male or female.

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

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

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

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

This powerful scene should take its place in any anthology describing the collapse of Christian belief in the later 19th century. What with the Darwinian view of human reproduction, this forthright atheism, and the implicit theme of the New Woman throughout the novel, along with the numerous natural descriptions which I’ve mentioned, Maugham was clearly making an effort to write a Big Serious Novel. It doesn’t work because the central characters aren’t, in the end, really believable enough to support the weight placed on them.

Miss Ley

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

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

Why? Because she is drily, quietly funny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And she is not only an appealing character in her own right. But at a number of key moments – throughout Bertha’s early infatuation – then slyly noticing her loss of faith in her husband – and then throughout the Gerald affair – her role as onlooker and chorus to the main action pushes her closer to the reader’s perspective. It is as if she was standing next to us in the wings of a theatre, muttering an ironic commentary as we both watch the overwrought romantic heroine fainting and weeping and panting with passion.

Oscar Wilde

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A tiny Marxist comment

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

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

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

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

For this, he is eventually bitterly mocked by his wife:

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

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

This scorn is echoed by young Gerald, himself the wastrel son of rich parents who was kicked out of public school and has got his family’s housemaid pregnant, on he one occasion when Edward comes up to see his wife during her stay with Miss Ley. After he has left, good-for-nothing idler mocks solid, efficient, patriotic Edward Craddock to Miss Ley, who feebly defends him:

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

Thus, one cannot help thinking, Literature’s attitude – whether the author is male or female – to mundane work and to those who do the daily necessary labour which makes their luxurious lives of fine feelings and deep thoughts and carefree travel possible.

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


Plus ça change

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or again, Edward stoutly declares:

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

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

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

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

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

Infest! She says tourists infest parts of Paris.

Politicians are idiots In a funny scene Edward stands for election to the local council and makes a speech riddled with pompous expressions, bad jokes, stories which taper off, and ends with rousingly jingoistic rhetoric. Bertha is more ashamed and embarrassed than she’s ever been in her life. But the speech is greeted with wild applause and Edward is elected by a landslide. People, Bertha concludes, are idiots. And the biggest idiots of all are running the country.

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

Throughout the book the reader finds the same tone, and the same arguments, applied to the same ‘issues’ that we are still discussing and arguing about, 120 years later. Plus ca change…


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

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

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

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

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

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

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

Wandsworth Prison Museum

Wandsworth Prison was opened in 1851. It is an all-male prison and can currently hold 1,628 prisoners, making it one of the largest prisons in Western Europe.

You can only visit the prison itself if you have professional credentials or official business, but out in the forecourt of the prison is what is basically a large garden shed which turns out to be the Prison Museum. This you can visit by appointment or on the occasional open day. Over the weekend of 2-3 June it was open to the public, so I went along.

Wandsworth Prison Museum

Although small, the museum contains over 400 separate items, packed, hung, arranged and displayed densely together to make a kind of Aladdin’s cave of memorabilia, ephemera, all sorts of documents, old photographs, prison equipment, warders’ uniforms and much much more, all with informative and interesting labels which shed light on the history of Wandsworth Prison in particular and, by extension, on the broader development and evolution of British prisons as a whole.

Bird's eye view of the Surrey House of Correction, as it was known when it opened in 1851

Bird’s eye view of the Surrey House of Correction, as it was known when it opened in 1851

The free handout gives a useful overview so I’ll quote it verbatim:

Wandsworth Prison was opened in 1851 as the Surrey House of Correction at Wandsworth. it was owned and run by the County of Surrey until 1978 when the prison was nationalised and became Her Majesty’s Prison, Wandsworth. The prison opened with both male and female prisoners. An original signature piece by the architect, D.R. Hill, a cast iron pillar with the maker’s name plate from the pump house and a letter to Parliament from the first Governor, Richard Onslow, covers the early period of the prison.

The First World War is covered with stories of military prisoners, conscientious objectors, spies, Irishmen of the Easter rebellion, their offences and treatment by the authorities.

The Second World War includes the bombing of the prison, rocket attack, the formation of the Prison Officers Association, spies, traitors and their executions. The conditions for the staff and their duties, including those called up for military service, especially the Deputy-Governor (later Governor) E.J. Paton-Walsh, who attended the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials.

Notable prisoners have included the playwright Oscar Wilde (held at Wandsworth for five months before being transferred to Reading Gaol), James Earl Ray, the assassin of the U.S. civil rights leader, Dr Martin Luther King Jr. The prison was also the location of the escape of the Great Train Robber, Ronnie Biggs, in 1965. Other prisoners have included Train Robber Bruce Reynolds, Reggie Kray, Eddie Richardson and Frankie Fraser.

Events such as the band Hawkwind playing a concert in the 1970s and a visit by musician Elton John are also illustrated with items on display.

The prison was the last to have an operational gallows that had been installed in 1878, re-built, located in three places and finally removed in 1993. An execution box, No.8, is on display and it contains original items including an execution rope. Details of executions including those of Jack the Ripper suspect, George Chapman, William Joyce (Lord Haw Haw), the last man executed for treason, and John Haigh, the ‘Acid Bath Murderer’, are on display. The last execution at the prison (and in London) was in 1961.

Random highlights

There is a chronological order of sorts to the exhibits, but part of the pleasure of the place is the sense of unexpected juxtapositions, strange displays, odd stories, surprising objects and the general air of a Curiosity Shop of wonders.

Wandsworth was the site of 135 executions, between 1878 and 1961. This is an execution box containing some of the equipment required to set up a working gallows.

Execution box

Taking up one corners is a gallows frame complete with rope and tackle. In the background are photos of Albert Pierrepoint, Britain’s last executioner (behind the rope on the right) and, obscured by the chain in the middle, Pierrepoint’s death mask.

The heavy chain suspended from the crossbeam was used to adjust the length of drop given to a prisoner during judicial hanging. The test bag at the bottom was filled with sand to the same weight as the prisoner, and used in pre-hanging tests to ensure the strength of the rope, the gallows trapdoor, and the cross-beam. The two single ropes with knots in were positioned so to allow prison officers to steady themselves while standing on plank bridges over the ‘drop’ during the execution.

Gallows, chain and ropes

Photo of the hanging room.

The execution room

An edition of the Illustrated London news showing the execution of Kate Webster in 1879, the only woman ever executed at the prison. She had been found guilty of the murder of her elderly employer, Julia Thomas, in Richmond.

The hanging of Kate Webster, 1879

British citizen William Joyce, known because of his radio broadcasts from Nazi Germany as ‘Lord Haw Haw’, was the last person to be executed in Britain for High Treason. The sentence was carried out at Wandsworth Prison on 3 January 1946.

William Joyce aka Lord Haw Haw in the custody of British troops at the end of World War Two

This is a photo of anti-capital punishment campaigner Violet van der Elst, outside the prison in 1935, protesting the execution of Percy Anderson. Van der Elst used up her personal fortune campaigning to end capital punishment, and lived long enough to see it finally abolished in 1965.

The photo is crying out for a humorous caption in the style of a Private Eye front cover. ‘Oh not ‘er again. She’s always hangin’ round here.’

Anti-capital punishment campaigner, Violet van der Elst, outside Wandsworth Prison, 1935

Anti-capital punishment campaigner, Violet van der Elst, outside Wandsworth Prison, 1935

 

There were other forms of physical punishment than execution. This is a photo of the last corporal punishment frame at Wandsworth Prison, with the punishment position being demonstrated.

Corporal punishment by either birch rod or cat o’ nine tails whip was a court punishment until 1948 and remained a prison punishment until 1967 when it was abolished under the Criminal Justice Act of that year. Its last use in Wandsworth Prison was in 1961.

The corporal punishment frame at Wandsworth prison

There’s lots to be shocked and outraged by here, if you’re of that turn of mind, starting with capital punishment itself and going on to deplore the whole concept of ‘hard labour’, explained here with a number of contemporary illustrations. There are tales of miscarriages of justice and some horrible examples of the very harsh punishment meted out, as so often, to the poor and hungry and uneducated.

For example, the case of Robert Davey, aged ten and sentenced to three months in Wandsworth for stealing rabbits, in 1874.

Photo of ten-year-old convict, Robert Davey

All this I sort of expected.

But one of the things that genuinely surprised me was the revelation of how much of the Victorian infrastructure of the prison endured right down almost to the present day. The very hospitable and informative curator of the museum (himself a prison officer) explained that after the Second World War Britain was bankrupt and forced to continue with its ageing infrastructure of Victorian prisons, despite calls to rebuild them all.

Then decade after decade went by with one Home Secretary after another continually putting off the enormous cost of rebuilding Britain’s prisons, with the result that many of the older ones, especially in London, continued to contain fixtures and fittings dating from their Victorian origins.

The blue door in the photo below, for example, is Victorian and was painted, repainted and painted again with shiny prison blue, managing to serve its function as a cell door until it was finally replaced in the 2010s. The 2010s!

(Next to it is a mannequin wearing prisoner issue denim jacket and blue striped shirt, a style introduced in the late 1970s, familiar to those of us brought up on the TV sitcom Porridge.)

Prison door and prison uniform

This is a cell card and prisoner information card holder of a design which also dates from the Victorian era, and was still in use as recently as the 1990s. The 1990s!

Prisoner information card holder

This is a blank escaped prisoner reward sheet. Probably the most famous escapee from Wandsworth was Ronald Biggs who escaped by scaling the wall with a rope ladder and dropping onto a waiting removal van. I wonder how much reward was offered for information leading to his arrest. This blank form from the Victorian era is offering a generous £5.

Escaped prisoner reward sheet

In 1932 the Governor of the day, Lieutenant Colonel Rich, invited the film star Charlie Chaplin to visit the prison. Chaplin was given a tour of the prison, including the still-working gallows on F wing. Chaplin had briefly known Jack the Ripper suspect George Chapman, from his boyhood days in Southwark.

Documentation surrounding Charlie Chaplin’s visit to the prison in 1931

James Earl Ray was accused of being the assassin of the Reverend Martin Luther King Junior, shot dead on 4 April 1968. Immediately after the assassination, Ray fled to Canada, then used a fake passport to travel on to Portugal and, finally, to England.

Two months after the assassination he was arrested at Heathrow airport attempting to use a forged Canadian passport to board a flight to Belgium. He was held in Wandsworth prison while arrangements were made to have him extradited back to the US. During this remand period, Ray’s lawyer arranged a plea bargain where, in exchange for pleading guilty, he would avoid the usual sentence for murder, at that time, execution by electrocution – the electric chair.

So Ray was extradited, convicted and sentenced to 99 years in prison without a trial and without the evidence against him being tested in court. Soon afterwards he changed his plea, and then spent the rest of his life (until 1998) trying to prove his innocence and that the murder had been the act of a widespread conspiracy.

Mugshot of James Earl Ray, on remand in Wandsworth prison

Mugshot of James Earl Ray, on remand in Wandsworth prison

This is the view from a gallery of the central atrium of the prison at the centre of its famous radial design. On the right, on the ground floor against a wall, is the old wooden ‘central desk’, which is now in the museum.

The main prison centre

Prisoner food tray and cutlery.

Prison tray and cutlery

Prison issue shaving kit.

Prison issue toilet kit

Implements of restraint – handcuffs, belt, a whistle etc.

Handcuffs and other instruments of restraint

Prison officers’ equipment, including truncheons and radios.

Prison officer equipment

Modern helmets: from left to right an officer cap with Senior Officer’s badge (1990s), a Control and Restraint helmet (1990s), and an Officer issue baseball cap (2000s).

Prison officer helmets

I always imagined prisoners wearing jackets covered in arrows was a cartoon convention. Not so. Just such suits were worn until 1922. Apparently the idea stems from medieval heraldry where the image of the arrow denotes ‘government property’. It was conceived by Sir Edmund Du Cane in the 1870s after his appointment as Chairman of Convict Directors and Surveyor-General of Prisons. He intended the arrows to be a mark of shame and a hindrance to escape insofar as the characteristic outfit was immediately identifiable to anyone who saw an escaped convict. I was surprised to learn that the nails hammered into convicts’ boots were also arrow-shaped so that he left footprints in mud or sand which were also designed to show he was ‘government property’.

A convict wearing the characteristic arrow uniform

And, in amid the hundreds of factual artefacts and objects, what does it actually feel like to be locked away in prison for years? The museum has a number of examples of prisoner art, creative art, of course, being a technique increasingly used in prisoner rehabilitation.

For me this work stood out, not for any technique or sophistication, but for its simple eloquence. It seemed, to me, to be saying ‘Help’.

Prisoner artwork – Open hands, from the 2000s


To find out more about the museum, correspondence should be directed to:

Wandsworth Prison Museum
c/o POA Office
HMP Wandsworth
Heathfield Road
London SW18 3HS

wandsworthprisonmuseum@hmps.gsi.gov.uk

Related links

Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers @ the Photographers’ Gallery

The Photographer’s Gallery is a tall, narrow building on a corner of Ramillies Street (numbers 16-18, to be precise) just behind Oxford Street, a hundred yards east of Oxford Circus. It’s an enjoyable maze, with exhibition spaces on the 5th, 4th and 3rd floors, a café on the ground floor and a shop of photography books and film cameras in the basement.

Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers

I came to see the large exhibition of rare vintage photos of men and women cross-dressing, entitled Under Cover.

The exhibition is drawn from the personal archives of French film-maker and photograph collector Sébastien Lifshitz. For over 20 years he’s been building up an extensive collection of amateur photographs from Europe and the US documenting the surprisingly widespread practice of adult cross-dressing. The very earliest photos are from the 1860s and the collection goes on through to the 1960s.

Man in makeup wearing a ring. Photograph from a photo booth, with highlights of color. United States, circa 1920.© Sébastien Lifshitz Collection courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Man in makeup wearing a ring. Photograph from a photo booth, with highlights of color. United States, circa 1920.© Sébastien Lifshitz Collection courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

The photos are all ‘found’ – meaning none were commissioned or taken by Lifshitz, but are largely anonymous photos of unnamed and unknown figures which he has picked up at flea markets, garage sales, junk shops and on Ebay, among other non-specialist sources. As the exhibition introduction puts it:

These photographs of men and women posing for the camera, using the clothes and gestures traditionally assigned to the ‘opposite sex’ offer a moving and candid view into the hidden worlds of countless individuals and groups who chose to ‘defy gender conventions.’

Lifshitz’s initial impulse was simply to document the act of cross-dressing, limiting his aim to accumulating photographs which showed men dressing as women and vice versa.

But as the collection grew, he began to detect different themes among the images, themes which began to suggest more interesting ways of categorising and explaining cross-dressing culture.

A group of 12 cross-dressing women in America, 1912

A group of twelve cross-dressing women in America, 1912

The historical prevalence of cross-dressing

I’m not all that surprised that lots of men have enjoyed dressing up as women because I was raised on the TV sitcoms It Ain’t Half Hot, MumThe Dick Emery Show and the Kenny Everett Show in which men routinely dressed up as women, albeit for comedic purposes.

Drag queen Danny La Rue was all over the telly in my boyhood. He was awarded an OBE. Later on came the popular success of Lily Savage and the ongoing career of her creator, Paul O’Grady, who was awarded an MBE in 2008. Somewhere in between was Julian Clary who dresses fairly modestly now but was on TV throughout the 1980s wearing in the most outrageous outfits.

As a teenager I read biographies of Oscar Wilde and his gay circle which included cross-dressers. Also accounts of the ‘decadent’ Paris of the Second Empire or the ‘decadent’ Germany of the Weimar Republic, where men dressed as woman, wore lipstick and so on, and women wore men’s clothes, smoked cigarettes. And so on and so on.

In fact it’s a strange thing about the present generation of art curators that they sometimes give the impression of thinking that they’ve invented ‘deviant’ sex – homosexuality, bisexuality and all manner of other sexual practices – as if all these things are somehow new or can ‘only now’ be brought to public attention. This ‘now it can be told’ tone was also apparent in the recent exhibitions of Queer Art at Tate Britain and Outsider Art (featuring plenty of transvestites and transsexuals) at the Barbican.

As if there aren’t records of this kind of thing happening among the ancient Greeks or among the Romans, as if we don’t have records of it in Hindu and Moghul societies, as if Shakespeare’s comedies aren’t packed with cross-dressing gender ambivalence, or as if playing with gender roles hasn’t even been recorded among tribal societies. My point is that there is good evidence for so-called ‘deviant’ sexuality having been a permanent feature of the human race for as long as we have records.

  • From Sappho to Sand: Historical Perspective on Crossdressing and Cross Gender (1981) This paper reviews the history of cross-dressing, commencing with the Great Mother Cult through the Greco-Roman period and Judeo-Christian times, followed by the Renaissance period up to the 19th century to illustrate that cross-gender behaviour and cross-dressing are not new phenomena but have been present since the beginning of recorded history.

What, I suppose, is new about this treasure trove of material which Sébastien Lifshitz has collected is not the fact of extensive cross-dressing – it is that it has been so extensively documented in photographs.

The photographs provide a treasure trove of incontrovertible visual evidence, as opposed to all previous accounts which are based on the more slender and unreliable evidence of written records, anecdote, autobiography etc.

What photography does that written journalism or history or ethnography can’t is to say Here we are: we were real people, we had lives like you, we were short and tall and fat and thin and had freckles and spots and imperfections, we were flesh and blood like you and this is what we liked to do. You can’t deny or block or repress us. We were here and this world is our world, too.

Themes and chapters

The most interesting thing about the exhibition is not the news that for hundreds of years men have liked dressing up as women and women dressing up as men. That in itself is boring. What I found fascinating was the themes or areas into which Lifshitz divides his material.

There are about a dozen of them, each introduced by a lengthy wall label and they are as well-ordered and thoughtful as the chapters of a book.  They include ‘the New Woman’, cross-dressing in prison camps, cross-dressing in cabarets and vaudeville, the phenomenon of ‘drag queens’, cross-dressing in turn-of-the-century in American universities, in circus and travelling shows, and many more.

Cross-dressing prisoners of war

It’s the specificity of many of these sub-sets which grabs the attention. Thus anyone who didn’t realise there is a great deal of homosexual activity in any army is naive, but a wall of photos here demonstrate the existence of cross-dressing cabarets in prisoner of war camps during both the First and Second World Wars, surely a very specialised category of activity and image. It is extraordinary that prisoners were allowed to take photos of each other dressed up, and that so many of these images have survived.

French prisoners of war in the German camp Königsbrück circa 1915 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

French prisoners of war in the German prisoner of war camp Königsbrück circa 1915 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Not a job for a woman

A section deals with the backlash against the ‘New Woman’, a term coined to describe a new vogue for independent and assertive (generally upper-class) women in the 1890s.

The usual type of panic-stricken cultural conservative predicted that if women started taking up masculine habits and activities they would soon stop menstruating, become infertile and Western civilisation would grind to a halt. You can read this kind of thing in any number of histories of feminism.

Lifshitz has found various photos which are designed as a satire on this fashion. They show women posing in the costumes of traditionally ‘male’ roles (the army etc) and are designed to show how ridiculous it is for women to do the work of men – but done in a comically stylish way which suggests the photographer was taking the mickey out of the conservative critics as much as the women. The sequence is titled ‘Women of the Future’.

Women of the Future © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Women of the Future © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

It’s a tiny window on the past and its popular prejudices, but also shows photographers and their audience quite capable of joking about the subject, about traditional gender roles and their ‘subversion’.

Cross-dressing weddings

Apparently, cross dressing was fairly common on women-only university campuses in America in the last decades of the nineteenth century. There were clubs in which women could openly wear mannish dress. What I’d never heard of before is that there was a fashion for carrying out wedding ceremonies with an all-female cast, many of whom – well, at least the groom – were dressed as men.

Mock wedding, United States, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Mock wedding, United States, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Were these a preparation for ‘adult’ life and marriage, or an odd fashion, or a satire on heterosexual norms?

The more of these sub-sets or sub-types of cross-dressing which Lifshitz presents, the more you realise that this apparently simple topic in fact covers or brings together a surprisingly diverse range of activities, attitudes and motives.

The nineteenth century growth of bourgeois conformity

Just to step back and remind ourselves of a little social history. The mid- and later-19th century saw a hardening of gender roles and stereotypes, and a concomitant a loss of psychological and sexual flexibility.

The flamboyant costumes which men commonly wore in the 16th, 17th and 18th century and which had endured into the Regency society which young princess Victoria grew up in – all those silks, ribbons, ruffs and bows – were steadily dropped as the century progressed in favour of increasingly plain, black, stiff and constricting clothes for men, and absurdly big, complex skirts with baffles and corsets, for women.

One of the complaints against Tory Party leader and Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was that he dressed, oiled his hair and perfumed himself like the fashionable dandy which he’d been in the 1830s, long into the 1870s when such looks and behaviour had become frowned upon.

It is only in this particular historical context, in the setting of an increasingly ‘bourgeois’ concern for strict conformity to repressive social appearances, that all manner of previous types of ‘dressing up’ increasingly came to be seen as unfashionable, then undesirable, and then began to be perceived as a threat to social norms and conventions.

Why did all this happen? The conventional explanation is that the industrial revolution made life harder, more embattled and more intense for everyone, and that this was reflected in increasingly repressive cultural and social norms.

In the 18th century there had been the landowner who occasionally came up to Town and saw a small circle of bankers or courtiers, but mostly lived in reasonable agreement with the labourers who worked his land.

All this changed and kept on changing relentlessly throughout the 19th century as the new system of factories and industrialisation swept across the country. This turned rural labourers into an embittered and impoverished urban proletariat living in hastily thrown up terraced hovels, who periodically threatened to march on London or overthrow the entire political order.

In parallel was created a new class of arriviste factory owners who took advantage of their new-found wealth to try to and compete with the land-owning aristocracy in terms of lifestyle and attitude, but nervously aware of the fragility of their wealth and status.

All the classes of Britain felt more threatened and insecure. Britain had more wealth than ever before, but for many (many businessmen, factory owners and the bankers who served them) their wealth was more precarious that the wealth generated from land – as demonstrated by successive economic depressions and banking crashes through the later 19th century. These periodic economic depressions led to the steady sequence of violent socialist revolutions on continental Europe (for example, in France in 1848 and 1870) which put the fear of God into the English bourgeoisie.

In this socio-economic context, culture was permeated by a permanent anxiety, a dread that the existing state of affairs could easily collapse, from any number of causes. (I haven’t mentioned the dark cloud of anxiety created by the writings of Thomas Malthus who speculated that, if unchecked, the poorest of the poor would breed like rabbits and swamp society in illiterate thugs – yet another source for the widespread conviction that the uncontrollable sex instinct must be bridled, restricted and channelled into only the most strict, state-endorsed practices.)

And so the upper sections of society policed their own behaviour with ever-increasing anxiety that any lapse from the impeccably high standards of behaviour they set themselves might be it, the crack, the first tremor of the great social apocalypse they all feared.

The stress and anxiety about sexual deviation which had built up throughout the century into a permanent neurosis helps to explain the viciousness of the gaol sentence given to Oscar Wilde for homosexual behaviour (two years hard labour) since the judge and his class felt that an example must be made to terrify all other homosexuals into abandoning a practice which, according to their history books, had accompanied the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

Imperial dressing up

Speaking of empires, it might be illuminating to take a detour to the big exhibition about the British Empire and Artists which Tate Britain held a few years ago.

This had a section about imperialists dressing up. It made the point that throughout the 18th century and the first half of the nineteenth century, British men, in particular, had a fancy for ‘going native’ and dressing up in the costumes of their colonial subjects. Take, for example, this image of Captain Colin Mackenzie of the Madras Army, wearing traditional Afghan Dress, by the painter James Sant (1842).

Captain Colin Mackenzie of the Madras Army, lately a hostage in Caubool, in his Afghan Dress (1842) by James Sant

Captain Colin Mackenzie of the Madras Army, lately a hostage in Caubool, in his Afghan Dress (1842) by James Sant (Tate Britain)

But the Indian Mutiny (or the First War of Independence as Indian historians call it) of 1857 changed all this. It introduced a new note of bitterness between ruler and ruled. After the British Government took over direct rule of India from the East India Company it enforced far more strict divisions between ‘natives’ and their colonial masters, divisions which, within a generation, had hardened into unbreakable taboos.

My point is that it wasn’t only in the realm of ‘sexuality’ that people (generally well-off, well-educated people) who had once felt free to dress up as natives or women or generally amuse themselves in fancy costumes, felt themselves, in the second half of the nineteenth century, increasingly constricted in all aspects of their behaviour. It became wise to keep quiet about their little hobby or fetish.

The strictness of the taboo reflected the profundity of the anxiety – the anxiety widespread among the ruling, law-making and judging classes that one millimetre of flexibility around these issues of ‘correct’ behaviour would open cracks and fissures, which would quickly see all the ‘civilised’ values of society snap and unravel, the natives throw off their imperial masters, the great mass of impoverished proles rise up and overthrow their frock-coated masters – just as the barbarians had overthrown Rome once it abandoned the high moral principles of the republic and declined into the Tiberius-Caligula-Nero decadence of the empire.

Dressing up, wearing lipstick – isn’t that precisely what the Emperor Nero had done!

More cross-dressing

Back to the exhibition, which continues to entertain and provoke by demonstrating the wide variety of meanings cross dressing can have.

Transvestite entertainers

Take the enormous subject of cross-dressing entertainers. The wall label usefully distinguishes between men dressing as women to entertain and the far more flamboyant tradition of burlesque, which is characterised not just by women dressing as men, but by the outrageous exaggeration of ‘female’ qualities of grandstanding, elaborate dress, vamped-up make-up and so on.

The exhibition has several sets of photos of entertainers from way back at the start of the 20th century, showing how simple, naive and innocent an activity men dressing as women can seem.

Five performers on a platform. Albumen print, Hungary, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Five performers on a platform. Albumen print, Hungary, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

It describes the different forms these entertainments took in different countries, from vaudeville, burlesque and music hall at the turn of the century, on to nightclubs and revue bars between the wars.

But the sweet innocence of the turn-of-the-century is a world away, in style, glamour and bombast, from the really outrageously flamboyant cross-dressing entertainers of the 1950s onwards, a hugely popular form of entertainment in post-War Germany and France, which in England was named ‘drag’ – hence ‘drag queens’ – which continued in English popular entertainment down to my day.

Straight or gay?

Not all these men need have been gay. Many cross-dressers have been happily heterosexual but just enjoyed dressing up as women. There is, quite obviously and supported by the evidence here, a spectrum of cross-dressing behaviours and motivations, from essentially straight men who just liked slipping into a comfortable floral dress and putting on a bit of lippy – all the way to the experience of transgender men who feel from puberty or even earlier that they are inhabiting a body of the wrong gender, and so have gone to various lengths to try and transition to the other gender.

Transgender

On this theme of tansgender – the story of Marie-Pierre Pruvot (born Jean-Pierre Pruvot, 11 November 1935) takes up a couple of walls but is well worth it.

Born a male in Algeria, Marie-Pierre became a French transsexual woman who performed under the stage name ‘Bambi’. Bambi was famous enough by 1959 to be the subject of a TV documentary. When her performing days were over she studied for a degree from the Sorbonne and became a teacher of literature in 1974.

There are several walls full of photos of her here because Lifshitz made an award-winning documentary about her in 2013. There’s no doubting that in her prime she was gorgeous, in that glamorous late 50s, early 60s way.

Bambi (Marie-Pierre Pruvot) in the early 1960s

Bambi (Marie-Pierre Pruvot) in the early 1960s

Bambi undertook her own gender reassignment in an amateur way, buying over the counter hormones, until she had enough money to arrange an operation and help from medical professionals. There are several photos of her nude showing well-formed ‘female’ breasts. She didn’t just want to dress as a woman; she wanted to become a woman.

My point is that the transgender experience of wanting to become another sex is completely different:

  • from the heterosexual who likes dressing up as the opposite sex, for a while, as a hobby or fetish
  • from the homosexual who is likewise happy in his or her own skin, but as part of their character or as occasional role-playing likes dressing mannishly or femininely
  • from the homosexual who makes a living as a flamboyant drag queen

The Washington cross-dressers

Off to one side is a room which exhibits what seem to be the photos taken and shared among a network of rather boring, homely men who lived in 1950s Washington D.C., and who liked to dress up as rather boring, homely women and meet up at each other’s houses for parties – as recorded in a trove of photos Lifshitz has come into possession of and puts on display here.

Nothing loud or garish about it. The opposite. Rather humdrum. ‘Hello Mr Peters’, ‘Hello Mr Philips’ – except that the men passing the time of the day are wearing tasteful 1950s dresses with matching handbags.

Washington cross-dressers © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Washington cross-dressers © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

This sequence immediately reminded me of the section at the Barbican exhibition about the Casa Susanna, a retreat in the Catskill Mountains of New York state, created solely for cross-dressing men.

The more you look, the more you see.

Women dressing as men

As to women dressing as men, some were famous lesbians who made a point of their mannish attire – I can think of a number of Weimar portraits of such aggressively masculine women who cultivated a louche bohemian image.

Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden by Otto Dix (1926)

Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden by Otto Dix (1926)

But for everyone one of these ‘notorious’ literary or artistic figures, there must have been thousands of essentially ‘straight’ women at American campuses who enjoyed dressing up as men (apparently). And then millions and millions of women who were in no way homosexual but just rebelled against wearing the ridiculously encumbering outfits society had assigned to their gender at the turn of the twentieth century, and so – without ceasing to be heterosexual women – just wore more practical, less ‘feminine’ clothes.

What I’m struggling to say is that, the more you look at these photos and the more you study Lifshitz’s fascinating wall labels which draw distinctions and categories and types and flavours of cross-dressing, the more you realise that this apparently ‘simple’ activity has in fact been carried out by a staggeringly wide variety of people, over a long period of time, and for all kinds of reasons, from trivial game-playing to profound identity crisis, from student high jinks to being the basis for a prime-time television career.

The photos

The long section on Bambi is a bit of a spoiler, really, because not many of the other people on display here are quite as drop-dead gorgeous as her.

In this respect the photos serve as a reminder (like most other collections of historic photos) of the way in which sitters for photographs (and the photographers themselves) have become steadily more savvy, more stylish, more self-aware, from the embarrassing lumpishness of 1900 –

Burlesque comedian Crun-Crun in Avignon, France, 1900, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Burlesque comedian Crun-Crun in Avignon, France, 1900, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

to the knowing, rebel fagginess of the 1960s.

Man dressed as a woman, Mannheim, Germany, c.1960, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Man dressed as a woman, Mannheim, Germany, c.1960, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

This latter photograph could have been taken today, a reminder that the world changed out of all recognition in the 60 years from 1900 to 1960, from the Boer War to the Beatles, whereas in the sixty years since then most aspects of culture – sex and drugs and rock and roll, package holidays, blockbuster movies and the ‘rebel’ look – have remained surprisingly static.

Interview with Sébastien Lifshitz

P.S. Size isn’t everything

Contrary to the impression given by the reproductions above, all of the images are quite small, certainly none of them are poster-size or painting size. The biggest ones are postcard-size being themselves old prints made from photographic film in the old-fashioned way.

Some are even smaller than that – there are whole walls of images no more than a few inches wide: for example, the iconic image of the man wearing lipstick at the top of this review is in reality only a few inches across and you have to lean right in to see it properly.

Installation view of Under Cover at the Photographers' Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Under Cover at the Photographers’ Gallery (photo by the author)

Somehow this makes the images seem all the more rare and precious. Not commercially-made images capable of being blown up and sensationalised, but hundreds of small, often intimate, snapshots of secret lives, secret pleasures, secret wishes and secret fantasies, preserved in this fragile format to come back and haunt our brasher, more loudmouth age.

P.S. Floof yourself

A room to one side of the exhibition contains a big fabric blob covered in felt stick-on glasses, beards, moustaches and so on. To quote the instructions:

“Soof the Floof is a genderless, gelatinous, hairy little blob. This installation invites visitors to question ideas of gender, how wear gender, how we can subvert, deconstruct and reimagine gender. Soof the Floof is large felt Floof with felt props you can mix and match and playfully challenge ideas of gender.”

The room was empty. Shame. I’d have liked to watch some gender subversion in action.

Instructions on how to floof yourself

Instructions on how to floof yourself


Related links

Related reviews

Other photography reviews

Our Betters by Somerset Maugham (1923)

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

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

The characters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comedy

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

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

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

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

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

Or:

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

Or:

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

Or:

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

Or:

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

And:

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

Act Two

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

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

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

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

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

Act Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adaptations

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

It was adapted for BBC radio in 1998.

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


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

This is nowhere near a complete bibliography. Maugham also wrote countless articles and reviews, quite a few travel books, two books of reminiscence, as well as some 25 successful stage plays and editing numerous anthologies. This is a list of the novels, short story collections, and the five plays in the Pan Selected Plays volume.

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1898 The Making of a Saint (historical novel)
1899 Orientations (short story collection)
1901 The Hero
1902 Mrs Craddock
1904 The Merry-go-round
1906 The Bishop’s Apron
1908 The Explorer
1908 The Magician (horror novel)
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

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

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

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before the Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1948 Quartet (portmanteau film using four short stories –The Facts of Life, The Alien Corn, The Kite and The Colonel’s Lady)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1950 Trio (film follow-up to Quartet, featuring The Verger, Mr. Know-All and Sanatorium)
1951 The Complete Short Stories in three volumes
1952 Encore (film follow-up to Quartet and Trio featuring The Ant and the GrasshopperWinter Cruise and Gigolo and Gigolette)

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

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

The V&A have spent £55 million on a vast new underground exhibition space, named the Exhibition Road Quarter because you enter it from Exhibition Road. It opened in July 2017.

The angled courtyard you walk across is no great shakes, but once inside you go down white steps between sheer, polished black walls to arrive at the huge new, open exhibition space, all 1,100 square metres of it (‘one of the largest exhibition spaces in Europe’), which is currently hosting a wonderfully enjoyable exhibition on the history of opera.

Installation view showing paintings, wall text, books and pamphlets and a large wall illustration relating to Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea

Installation view showing paintings, wall text, books and pamphlets and a large wall illustration relating to Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (1642)

Opera and me

In my 20s and 30s I developed a passion for opera and, in total, saw about 100 productions, at the Royal Opera House, the Colosseum, at other theatres around the country, at a few experimental venues, and twice at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

In my late 20s I was commissioned to write a libretto, an adaptation of the famous Oscar Wilde novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was set to music by the composer Ron McAllister and performed as part of the Huddersfield classical music festival.

So I have a reasonably good feel for opera, its history and possibilities.

Passion, Power and Politics

400 years of a Europe-wide art form is a big subject to tackle. The curators have taken the neat, practical step of focusing on seven epoch-making or representative works. The huge exhibition space is divided into temporary ‘rooms’ whose walls are plastered with information about the year and city of their premieres, investigating how each one crystallised the history, culture, technology, ideologies and, of course, the music of their times.

Before we get to the specific operas it’s necessary to say something about the layout & content of the show.

The audioguide

First and foremost, all visitors are given a free audioguide which plays wonderful soaring music from each of the featured operas.

As you walk between the ‘rooms’ or sections devoted to each opera, the audioguide automatically senses where you are and changes the music accordingly. It not only plays a popular aria or overture or passage from each opera but also snippets of behind-the-scenes moments from real productions, with orchestras tuning up, the floor manager counting down to curtain up and so on, all of which gives the listener a real sense of being at the theatre.

I think it’s the best use of an audioguide I’ve ever experienced. Not many exhibitions have given me as much pure pleasure as listening to music from Handel’s Rinaldo while looking at paintings showing the London of Handel’s day, or listening to the Venusberg music from Wagner’s Tannhäuser while watching a video installation showing how different directors have staged ‘erotic’ ballets to accompany this deeply sensual music.

Objects, dresses and accessories

Secondly, each section is stuffed with wonderful, rare, precious and evocative objects from each era. Period musical instruments include viols, lutes and cornets from Monteverdi’s time (the 1600s), the very piano Mozart performed on in Prague and a beautifully made pedal harp from the court of Marie Antoinette (both from the 1780s). The Venice section features 400-year-old combs and mirrors used by the city’s courtesans during the annual carnival, and so on.

Each section also features paintings which portray the city or the opera house, the composer, or actual performances. Some of these are really top quality, making it an interesting exhibition of painting in its own right, with works by artists from the late Baroque, some Impressionists (Degas), some of Die Brücke group of German Expressionists and, in the final room, a suite of dynamic Agitprop posters and designs from the early experimental era of the Soviet Union.

The Viola da Gamba Musician by Bernardo Strozzi (1630-40) from the Gemaldegalerie, Dresden, Germany © 2017 Photo Scala, Florence bpk.

The Viola da Gamba Musician by Bernardo Strozzi (1630-40) The Gemaldegalerie, Dresden, Germany © 2017 Photo Scala, Florence

As you might expect from the V&A, there are also sumptuous costumes from each of the key periods, with a luxury hand-sewn coat, waistcoat and breeches from Mozart’s day, a beautiful white dress to be worn by he character of Violetta in La Traviata.

Right at the start there is a risqué courtesan outfit from Venice, made of thick red velvet in the shape of a leotard i.e. only just covering the loins. This was designed to be worn under a long red skirt, split in the middle which could be teasingly parted to reveal… the 18-inch-high chopines or stylised shoes which the city’s better class courtesans wore. Almost impossible to walk in, the wearer had to lean heavily on a consort or male escort. There are tiaras and top hats from the premier of Tannhauser in Paris in 1861.

If you like historic costumes, there are plenty hear to savour and enjoy.

Rooms like sets

Because this huge exhibition space has no formal ‘rooms’, the designers have been free to create room-shaped ‘spaces’ for each period, and to design as they wish, with the result that the spaces sometimes incorporate large elements which help make the spaces themselves seem like stage sets.

The most obvious example is the Handel section, where they have recreated a scale version of the actual stage set of the first production of Handel’s Rinaldo. Visitors are invited to sit on a bench in front of it, listening to the glorious music, and watch the stage magic of the early 18th century – namely the way several tiers of wooden waves are made to move across the stage, while a small model ship bobs among them, representing the journey of the hero to exotic foreign lands.

Installation view showing the mocked-up 18th century theatre set for Handel's Rinaldo (1711)

Installation view showing the mocked-up 18th century theatre set for Handel’s Rinaldo (1711)

This is the most splendid example, but later ‘rooms’ feature an Italian flag, bust and props from Verdi’s time, and an enormous red hammer and sickle dominating the Soviet section.

Referring specifically to the operas and their productions, the show includes original autograph scores, along with stage directions, libretti, set models and costume designs for each of them.

Altogether there are over 300 objects to savour, marvel at, learn about, ponder and enjoy, all the time your head filled with some of the greatest music ever written.

Among these is a new recording of the Royal Opera Chorus singing ‘Va pensiero’ (the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves) from Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco recorded specially for the exhibition. Just – wow!

The operas

1. Venice L’incoronazione di Poppea (1642) by Claudio Monteverdi. Venice was a Renaissance centre of trade and commerce, famous for its glassware and the colourfulness of its textiles and paintings. Unsurprisingly, it was also a centre for entertainment, gambling and disguise, especially at the time of the annual carnival. The earliest operas were staged in the private houses of the very rich.

Monteverdi mostly wrote church music but he composed a few of the very first ‘operas’, basing them on classical stories. L’incoronazione di Poppea is about the notorious Roman Emperor Nero, his wife and mistress. Poppea premiered in Venice’s Carnival season of 1642-3 and represents opera’s transition from private court entertainment to the public realm.

2. London Rinaldo by George Frideric Handel was premiered in London in 1711, one of the first Italian language operas performed in London, just as Britain was emerging as one of the leading empires in Europe.

It is fascinating to read contemporary criticism by conservatives like the artist William Hogarth and the editors of the Spectator magazine, who heartily condemned this importation of a decadent and foreign art form into good old Blighty.

The paintings of early 18th century London on show here are almost as fascinating as the spectacular stage set, and the Handel music emerged as, I think, my favourite of all that on the audioguide – stately, elegant, refined, other-worldly in its elegance.

George Frideric Handel by Louis Francois Roubiliac (1702-62) © Fitzwilliam Museum Bridgeman Images

George Frideric Handel by Louis Francois Roubiliac (1702-62) © Fitzwilliam Museum Bridgeman Images

3. Vienna Le nozze di Figaro (1786) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was premiered in 1786 in Vienna, which had become one of the centres of the European Enlightenment under its liberal Emperor Joseph II.

After the Handel, the Mozart music seemed infinitely more dramatic, concerning itself with recognisably real people and passions: Le nozze di Figaro being a comic story about mismatched love between the classes.

The excerpt on the audioguide synchs up with a scene projected onto an enormous screen on the wall, an aria sung by the pageboy Cherubino who is just coming into adolescence and finds himself flushing and confused among attractive adult women.

On display are a piano Mozart played in Prague, fashionable dresses that would have been worn by the opera’s aristocratic characters, and displays explaining the relationship between the opera’s source – a play by the French playwright Beaumarchais – and the contemporary beliefs of Enlightenment Europe.

4. Milan Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi was premiered in Milan in 1842. Verdi’s operas developed the importance of the chorus, which is often given his most rousing tunes. Verdi was closely identified with the Risorgimento, the political movement to kick out the foreign powers which occupied various parts of Italy (notably Austria) and create a united country.

Hence the big Italian flag draped over this section, the patriotic bust of Verdi, and the choice of the ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’ (‘Va pensiero’) from Nabucco, which became a sort of unofficial national anthem for Italian nationalists.

5. Paris Tannhäuser by Richard Wagner premiered in Paris in 1861. Paris was fast becoming the intellectual and artistic capital of Europe.

Modernists loved the opera with its radical technical innovations: Wagner hated Italian opera which broke the music up into set-piece arias and choruses – by contrast, in a Wagner opera the music flows seamlessly from start to finish in one great engulfing flow. It also shocked because of its daring subject matter, a story about the temptations of sensuality to the high-minded musician of the title. The progressive poet Charles Baudelaire praised it profusely.

The information panels tell us that it was traditional for French composers to arrange a short ballet to start the second or third act. This was because the more aristocratic patrons generally didn’t arrive till after the interval, and mostly came to see pretty girls dancing (many of whom were their mistresses). In a deliberate act of defiance Wagner placed the ballet number right at the start of act one.

6. Dresden The Biblical story of Salome, the sensual step-daughter of King Herod, who dances a strip-tease for him in order to get him to behead St John the Baptist, was a central obsession of the Symbolist movement in all the arts at the end of the 19th century, combining heavy sensuality, perversion, death and the exotic.

Oscar Wilde wrote a play about Salome (in French) for which the wonderful fin-de-siecle artist Aubrey Beardsley created his matchlessly sinuous line illustrations.

Illustration for Salome by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)

Illustration for Salome by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)

In 1905 Dresden saw the premiere of a heavily sensual and violent opera based on Wilde’s play composed by Richard Strauss. It was the era of Expressionism in the arts, and the exhibition features not only a selection of Beardsley’s illustrations (and Strauss’s copy of Wilde’s play, with Strauss’s own hand-written notes and underlinings) but also a selection of powerful woodcuts and paintings by artists from the German art movement, Die Brücke).

There are two large posters on the same subject by Parisian poster designers, including La Loïe Fuller Dans Sa Création Nouvelle, Salomé by Georges de Feure.

Dominating this ‘room’ is a huge screen displaying an excerpt from a modern production of the opera, showing the climax of the action where Salome, in a slip covered in blood, sings an aria to John the Baptist’s severed head, before gruesomely kissing it.

Nadja Michael as Salome at the Royal Opera House, London, 2008 © Robbie Jack Corbis/Getty Images

Nadja Michael as Salome at the Royal Opera House, London, 2008 © Robbie Jack Corbis/Getty Images

7. St Petersburg The blood-soaked theme is continued in the final choice, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk  by Dmitri Shostakovich, which premiered in Leningrad in 1934.

This final section is dominated by a huge model of a red hammer and sickle. Next to it is a blow-up of a woman’s face from a Soviet agitprop poster (the full poster can be seen at the excellent exhibition of Soviet art and posters currently at Tate Modern).

To one side is a mock-up of Shostakovich’s study with writing table and chair. Behind it is projected a clip from a Soviet publicity film showing the great man knocking out a composition at the piano. The walls are decked with fabulously stylish Soviet posters and art works.

Installation view of the Shostakovitch section of Opera - Passion, Power and Politics

Installation view of the Shostakovich section of Opera – Passion, Power and Politics

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is based on a 19th century novel about a woman who is unfaithful to her husband, has an affair with one of his farm workers, poisons her father-in-law, and much more in the same vein.

Unfortunately, the opera premiered just as Stalin consolidated his grip on the Soviet Union and his cultural commissar Zhdanov promulgated the new doctrine of Socialist realism, i.e. that all art works should be optimistic, readily understandable to the proletariat, and show the new Soviet society in an upbeat, positive way.

Very obviously Shostakovich’s opera did the exact opposite and in 1936 was savagely criticised in a threatening article in Pravda which most contemporaries thought had been written by Stalin himself. The production was hurriedly cancelled and Shostakovich not only suppressed it but also cancelled preparations for his huge dissonant Fourth Symphony. He quickly turned to writing more ‘inspiring’ music – specifically the moving Fifth Symphony which was ostentatiously sub-titled ‘a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism’. The opera wasn’t performed again in the USSR until 1961.

In other words, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk not only represents a nexus of violence, lust, revenge and class conflict in its plotline, but stands at a key cultural moment in the development of the twentieth century’s most important event, the Russian Revolution and the Great Communist Experiment. The threat to Shostakovich was in effect a threat to an entire generation of artists and composers.

Opera around the world

Only here at the end do you realise that the exhibition rooms are arranged in a circle around a big empty central area. This big space contains half a dozen huge screens onto which are projected excerpts from 20th century and contemporary operas such as Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, Stockhausen’s Mittwoch aus Licht and George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, all making the point that opera is as alive and kicking as ever.

Summary

This is an enormous, ground-breaking, genuinely innovative exhibition which manages to convincingly cover its enormous subject, shedding light not only on opera and music, but the other arts and the broader history of Europe across an immense sweep of time.

So big, so many beautiful objects, so much inspiring music, that it probably merits being visited more than once to really soak up all the stories, all the passion and all the beauty on display (I’ve been twice and might go again before it closes).


Related links

Other V&A blog posts

Symbolism by Michael Gibson (1995)

The most striking characteristic of Symbolist artists is their withdrawal into the realm of the imagination. It is the solitude of the dreamer, of one who, marooned on a desert island, tells stories to himself. It is the solipsistic solitude of one who is sure of nothing outside himself. (p.35)

This is an enormous coffee-table book, some 31.5 cm tall and 25 cm wide. The hardback version I borrowed from the library would break your toes if you dropped it.

Its 227 pages of text contain a cornucopia of richly-coloured reproductions of symbolist paintings, famous and obscure, from right across the continent, with separate chapters focusing on France, Great Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavia, the Slavic countries, the Mediterranean countries and so on.

The main body of the text is followed by eight pages giving potted biographies of the key symbolist artists, and a handy table of illustrations – all of this textual paraphernalia as well as the end-covers and the incidental pages are lavishly decorated with the evocative line drawings of Aubrey Beardsley.

It is a beautiful book to have and hold and flip through and relish.

Symbolism was a literary movement

So what is Symbolism? A big question which has stymied many art historians. Gibson approaches the problem from a number of angles. For a start Symbolism was a literary movement before it was an artistic one. The Symbolist manifesto published in 1886 was written by a poet, Jean Moreas, and referred to poets of the day such as Verlaine or the young Mallarmé. Moreas suggested that these writers were aiming ‘to clothe the idea in perceptible form.’ In looking for ways to illustrate this point he mentioned the similar aim in several contemporary artists, most notably Gustave Moreau.

What idea? Well, there were eventually hundreds of symbolist painters and, arguably, every single one of them had a different ‘idea’.

Symbolism against the modern world

Gibson takes a different tack and offers a sociological explanation. What they almost all had in common was a rejection of the scientific rationalism and the industrial pragmatism of the age (the late nineteenth century). These latter movements were represented by a writer like Émile Zola, who embraced the modern age in its dirt and squalor and poverty and drunkenness, developing an approach he called ‘Naturalism’.

The influential philosopher Auguste Comte preached a social philosophy called ‘Positivism’, which thought we could use scientific and technological advances to create a new society – a technocratic and utopian ideal which finds its fullest flood in the English-speaking world in the scientific utopias of H.G. Wells.

Symbolists hated all this. They thought it was killing off all the mystery and imagination in life. They went in search of the strange, the obscure, the irrational, the mysterious, the barely articulatable.

Symbolism a legacy of lapsed Catholicism

Gibson makes the profound point that symbolism flourished in a) Catholic countries b) that were affected by industralisation. So the strongly Catholic countries of the Mediterranean (Spain or Italy) were unaffected because they hadn’t suffered the upheavals of widespread industrialisation. Symbolism flourished in the northern Catholic regions of heavily industrialised France, Germany and Belgium.

He explains how the Industrial Revolution, coming later to these countries than to pioneering Britain, seriously disrupted the age-old beliefs, traditions and customs of Roman Catholicism. In particular, huge numbers of the peasant population left the land and flocked to the cities, to become a new industrial proletariat (or fled Europe altogether, emigrating to the United States). In the second half of the nineteenth century Europe saw social disruption and upheaval on an unprecedented scale.

Urban intellectuals in Catholic countries felt that the age-old sense of community and tradition embodied by continent-wide Catholicism had been ruptured and broken. Many lost their faith in the face of such huge social changes, or as a result of the intellectual impact of Darwinism, or the visible triumph of science and technology. But they regretted what they’d lost.

  • The Great Upheaval by Henry de Groux (1893) Gibson reads this confusingly cluttered painting as representing the disruption of traditional values in a society undergoing rapid change – note the broken crucifix in the middle of the composition.

Symbolism, to some extent, represents the mood right across northern Europe, of artists and intellectuals for whom traditional Catholicism has died, but who still dreamed of transcendental values, of a realm of mysteries and hints from ‘the beyond’. As Gibson eloquently puts it, Symbolism is:

the negative imprint of a bygone age rich in symbols and the expression of yearning and grief at the loss of an increasingly idealised past. (p.24)

Hence the widespread movement among intellectuals to set up clubs, new religious ‘orders’, hermetic societies, cabbalistic cults, to turn to spiritualism, clairvoyance, and a wide range of fin-de-siecle voodoo.

Mention of voodoo prompts the thought that, up till now I’ve made it sound like harmless replacement for lost religious certainties. I haven’t brought out the widespread sense of anxiety and nightmarish fear which also dominates much of Symbolist art.

Symbolism and the femme fatale

There’s a lot of threat in Symbolist paintings. In Monet women innocently walk through fields with parasols, in Renoir women are laughing partners in sunlit gardens. But in Symbolist paintings women tend to be depicted as extremes, either as muses dreaming of another world or as sexually threatening and voracious demons.

  • Salome (1909) by Julius Klinger The Biblical story of Salome who persuades King Herod to have John the Baptist beheaded, haunts the fin-de-siecle era. Wilde wrote a play about it, Strauss an opera, and there are scores of paintings. In most of them Salome represents the femme fatale, the woman who uses her sexual attraction to lure men into dangerous or fatal situations. Dr Freud of Vienna would have said the real terror lying hidden in these paintings was the male castration complex. Surely the idea was never made more explicit than in this painting by Julius Klinger which shows Salome carrying – not the traditional head of John – but a severed set of testicles and penis drooling blood, along with the blood-red knife with which she has just cut off a man’s penis.

Why this anxiety? Why, above all, did it present in sexual form?

Maybe because Symbolist artists were almost all men (there were several successful women Impressionists but no female Symbolists that I can see), and that they were dedicated to exploring the irrational aspects of human nature – and not much is more irrational than people’s sex lives, fantasies, desires and anxieties.

And so these men, psyched up to explore the strange, the fantastical, the edgy the socially taboo – projected onto the blank canvas of ‘woman’ a florid range of their own longings and fears. The ‘irrational’ is not the friend of feminism.

  • Sin (1893) by Franz von Stuck The alluring half-naked woman with her pink nipples and her mild smile almost distracts you from the enormous snake draped round her and ready to bite off your… your what? (‘Paging Dr Freud’ as they used to say in Hollywood screwball comedies.) A very Catholic image since, after all, the basis of Catholicism is the snake tempting Eve who in turn tempted Adam into the Fall. In this image Snake and Woman once again tempt the (male) viewer.

Symbolism and death

If Symbolist art often portrays Woman (with a capital W) as femme fatale, it just as often betrays anxieties about Death (with a capital D). But death not as we most of us will experience it (hooked up to beeping machines in a soulless hospital ward), instead encountered like a seductive figure in a folk tale, often handsome and alluring, often female, even sexy.

Symbolism and decadence

Fin-de-siecle art is often identified with ‘Decadence’, the cult of etiolated aristocrats reclining on velvet divans in an atmosphere heavy with incense and debauchery, as epitomised in the classic novel, Against Nature by J.K. Huysmans.

Gibson sheds light on this, too, by saying the Decadence wasn’t fuelled so much by a sense of decline, as by a resolute opposition to the doctrine of Progress, a subtly different idea. This artistically aristocratic sensibility refused to kow-tow to the vulgar jingoism and gimcrack technical advances of the age (telegraphs, telephones, electric lights, early cinema – how ghastly), remaining nostalgic for the imagined superiority of its ancestors in an imaginary, pre-scientific age.

There are always servants in Decadent literature. From a sociological point of view that is one of their most important features. In fact servants feature in the most famous line from the the ‘decadent’ dram Axël by French writer Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, where a typically aloof aristocrat drawls:

As to living, our servants will do that for us.

The Salon de la Rose+Croix

In 1891 the Symbolist Salon de la Rose+Croix published a manifesto in which they declared that Symbolist artists were forbidden to practice history, patriotic and military painting, all representation of contemporary life, portrait painting, rural scenes, seascapes, orientalism, ‘all animals either domestic or connected with sport’, flowers or fruit. On the plus side, they welcomed mystic ecstasy and the Catholic ideal, any work based on legend, myth, allegory or dream (p.56).

It’s an accurate enough snapshot of the Symbolist mentality.

This sensibility locks itself away from the world, cloistered (a Catholic image) in an ivory tower, waking only at night (Symbolism is as fascinated by night, by shades of darkness, as Impressionism is by sunlight and daytime). Rejecting science, the exoteric (obvious), and everyday banality, it retreats into esoteric studies of the past, into alchemy, into the artificial recreation of medieval ‘orders’ (the more artificial, the more delicious), into mesmeric incantations about sin and death and damnation (overlooking the rather more mundane positive elements of Catholicism – charity, good works and so on).

The vast range of Symbolism

The great success of this book is in bringing together a really vast range of works from right across Europe to show how this mood, this urge, this wish for another, stranger, irrational world, took so many weird and wonderful forms, in the paintings of hundreds of European artists.

And it also investigates the shifting borders of Symbolism, where the impulse to ‘clothe the Idea’ shaded off into other schools or movements – of post-Impressionist abstraction, or Expressionist Angst, into Art Nouveau decorativeness, or just into something weird, unique and one-off.

The more I read on and the more examples I saw, the more I began to wonder in particular about the border between Symbolism and ‘the Fantastic’. Despite Gibson’s inclusivity, some of the paintings reproduced here look more like illustrations for fantasy novels than grand gestures towards a solemn mystery world. It’s a tricky business, trying to navigate through such a varied plethora of images.

Here, from the hundreds on offer, are the paintings which stood out for me:

Symbolists against nature

Numerous symbolist writers and artists argued that the world of art is radically separate from the so-called ‘real world’. They thought that the Impressionists (who they heartily disliked) were simply striving for a better type of naturalism. Symbolists, on the contrary, wanted next to nothing to do with the yukky real world. As Gibson puts it:

No longer was nature to be studied in the attempt to decipher its divine message. Instead, the artist sought subjects uncanny enough to emancipate imagination from the familiar world and give a voice to neurosis, a form to anxiety, a face, unsettling as it might be to the profoundest dreams. And not the dreams of an individual, but of the community as a whole, the dreams of a culture whose structure was riddled with subterranean fissures. (p.27)

Symbolists found the idea of the total autonomy of the work of art

No following of nature, then, but, in various manifestos, essays, poems and paintings, the Symbolists claimed the total autonomy of art, accountable to no-one but the artist and the imagination of their reader or viewer. Gibson argues that these claims for the complete autonomy of art lie at the root, provide the foundation of, all the later movements of Modernism.

Maybe.

Symbolism ended by the Great War

What is certain is that the strange otherworlds of Symbolism tended to come to a grinding halt with the Great War, which tore apart the community of Europe more violently than the Industrial Revolution. The movements which emerged just before and during it – the absurdist Dadaists, the violent Futurists, the avant-garde cubists – all tended to despise wishy-washy spiritualism, all guff about another world.

However the irrational mood, the imperative to reject the business-like bourgeois world, was revived by the Surrealists (founded in 1924) and it’s easy to identify a continuity of fantastical imagery from the later symbolists through to the Surrealists.

But the Surrealists’ great secret wasn’t other-worldly, it was other-mindly. Their worldview wasn’t underpinned by lapsed Catholic notions of the divine and the demonic. The Surrealists were students of Freud who thought that if they brought the creatures of the unconscious out into the open – via automatic writings and artfully bizarre imagery – they would somehow liberate the world, or at least themselves, from bourgeois constraints.

But in practice some of the art from the 1920s, and even 1930s, is not that distinguishable from the weirder visions of the 1880s and 1890s.

The conservatism of Symbolism

Reading steadily through the book made me have a thought which Gibson doesn’t articulate, which is that almost all of this art was oddly conservative in technique.

It is overwhelmingly realistic and figurative, in that it portrays human beings (or angels of death or satanic women or whatever), generally painted in a very traditional academic way. There are (as the Rose+Croix wanted) on the whole no landscapes, still lives or history scenes featuring crowds. Instead you get one or two people caught in moments of sombre meaningfulness.

And hardly any of it is experimental in form. Not much of it invokes the scattered brush work of a Monet or the unfinished sketchiness of a Degas or the interest in geometric forms of a Cézanne. Nothing in the book is as outrageous as the colour-slashed paintings by the Fauves, by Derain or Vlaminck.

This art of the strange and the other-worldly was peculiarly conservative. I guess that chimes with the way the belief almost all these artists shared in some kind of otherworld, some meaning or presence deeper than our everyday existence, was profoundly conservative, a nostalgic hearkening back to an imagined era of intellectual and spiritual completeness.

The twentieth century was to blow away both these things – both the belief in some vaporous, misty otherworld, and the traditional 19th century naturalist style which (on the whole) had been used to convey it.

Cars and planes, tanks and bombs, were to obliterate both fields of poppies and séances and spiritualism.


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Queer British Art 1861-1967 @ Tate Britain

Female Figure Lying on Her Back

Female Figure Lying on Her Back

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

And does it matter?

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

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

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

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

Declaration of interest

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

The jargon of desire

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why use the word ‘queer’?

To quote the curators:

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

What is a queer work of art?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The drawbacks of telling history through art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dates

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

The exhibition is in eight rooms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The catalogue says this room is meant to represent:

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

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

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

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

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

Bathing (1911) by Duncan Grant © Tate

Bathing (1911) by Duncan Grant © Tate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scholarship or prurient gossip?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Author, Author by David Lodge (2004)

Lodge (b.1935) taught English literature at university level from 1960 to his retirement in 1987, specialising in classic novels of the 19th century, from Jane Austen to Henry James, explaining and theorising about them in his many works of literary criticism.

Coming towards the end of his writing career, this novel can perhaps be taken as a labour of love – a long (382 densely-printed pages in the Penguin paperback), lovingly detailed account of the life and career of the writer many regard as the novelist, Henry James. The novel focuses on the years during which James tried – and embarrassingly failed – to write for the stage, writing half a dozen plays (The American, Mrs Jasper’s Way, Summersoft) most of which weren’t even staged or were flops, leading up to the public disaster of Guy Domville where James himself, going to take a bow after the first night performance – to cries of ‘author, author’ from the audience – was heartily booed and jeered, a public humiliation which his biographer, Leon Edel, claims he never recovered from.

Lodge the pedagogue

Lodge always writes clearly and logically. He knows where the interest lies for sure – but quite often it is a factual or historical or literary interest. An academic interest. Dry, unemotional. This ability to write clearly, to demystify literary terminology and ideas, explains the success of the articles he wrote for the Independent newspaper in the early 1990s, which were brought together in the book The Art of Fiction: Illustrated from Classic and Modern Texts. He is/was a great teacher.

And this urge to teach and inform explains why, from the beginning, his novels have included plenty of factual information along with the plot:

  • In the early ones, there’s lots of patient explication of Roman Catholic theology and the changes to it brought about by the Second Vatican Council.
  • In his mid-70s comedy classics he uses his in-depth knowledge of literature as the background for hilarious high jinks, stuffed with witty references to Eng Lit classics.
  • The novel before this one, Thinks… (2001), similarly tries – unsuccessfully, in my opinion – to insert a lot of current scientific theory about Artificial Intelligence and the nature of human consciousness into an all-too-predictable story about a randy married university lecturer seducing the new, dim writer-in-residence.

So he’s always been a fact-based novelist.

A historical novel

This is Lodge’s first historical novel, not set during a period he’s lived through and not, to some extent, based on his own life experiences.

The novel starts with Henry James’s final months (he died in February 1916) then flashes back to the mid-1880s and gives a slow patient description of his attempts to write for the stage over the next decade, interspersed with a wealth of detail about James’s densely packed social life and professional activities.

It is all very readable and interesting, very enjoyable, very easy to dip in and out of – but in a completely factual way. I don’t know that much about James and so was interested to learn about his family background, about the two brothers who fought in the American Civil War and were ruined by it, while he and brother William James escaped conscription as students and went on to have eminent careers – as well as about his invalid sister, Alice, her final decline and death, tended to the end by a loyal lady friend in that claustrophobic Victorian style.

Most of all I enjoyed Lodge’s weaving of the lives and biographies of all the men of letters, musicians, artists, actors and theatrical people who the hugely sociable James knew, met, dined and corresponded with. Being unmarried and celibate gave James the time to have an enormous circle of friends and to be invited everywhere. He seems to have known everyone who was anyone during the period and the novel therefore amounts to a panoramic overview of many of the most interesting literary and artistic events of the period.

Interesting anecdotes

For example, we get an interesting account of his long friendship with Punch cartoonist-turned novelist, George du Maurier (nickname ‘Kiki’), whose failing sight leads him to diversify into writing novels and eventually to the popular success of Trilby, the book which gave the world the phrase ‘Svengali’ (meaning ‘a person who completely dominates another, usually with selfish or sinister motives’) as well as the trilby hat. Trilby‘s phenomenal world-wide success and the wealth it brought du Maurier stand as a permanent ironic reproach to James’s own failing fortunes: in the year du Maurier’s novel sells 250,000 copies, some of James’s books barely sell 20.

Another long-term friendship is with the novelist and poet Constance Fenimore Woolson, who he took to referring to as ‘Fenimore’ and whose meetings of mind and imagination, but slight reticences and hesitations, are delicately depicted. It comes as all the more of a shock when, half way through the book, we learn that she committed suicide by jumping from a hotel balcony in Venice. James feels unbearable guilt at the things left unsaid and unfelt in their relationship.

Then there are numerous references to the wider world of letters, particularly to his encounters with contemporary writers such as Oscar Wilde (who he found vulgar and preening), the young Rudyard Kipling (whose bride Caroline ‘Carrie’ Balestier he found himself giving away at their wedding) but who he found beastly and vulgar, accounts of his good friend Robert Louis Stevenson who has travelled to the other side of the world to live in the South Seas – and so on and so on.

We meet the French in the shape of the ageing novelist Alphonse Daudet whose incontinence means he has to keep slipping away from his chair at the banquet called in his honour to take a pee into a chamber pot behind a carefully positioned screen (the toilet is too far away); and Guy de Maupassant who shocks James by asking him to approach a lone woman in a restaurant, because Maupassant ‘needs’ a woman’, hasn’t had a woman for a whole week! In fact the atmosphere of moral turpitude i.e. free love i.e lots of sex, in the French literary world, is the single factor which had decided James not to live in Paris but to settle in more philistine, but more restrained, London.

Thus Author, Author has the feel of a leisurely literary biography, full of interesting grace notes and biographical asides.

The theatrical impresario who takes on James’s first play and puts up with his endless emendations before it flops in London, Edward Compton, is shown being father to a promising little boy, who the alert reader realises will grow up to be Sir Compton Mackenzie, OBE the ‘Scottish writer of fiction, biography, histories and a memoir, as well as a cultural commentator, raconteur and lifelong Scottish nationalist’, most famous for his comic novels Whiskey Galore and Monarch of the Glen.

When James hears that John Addington Symonds has died (April 1893) it gives rise to a couple of pages telling us about Symonds’ privately published pamphlet calling for society to accept sexual love between Uranists (who were, as Lodge helpfully points out, just starting to be described by the new term ‘homo-sexuals’) and James’s own opinion on the matter.

When du Maurier confides that he doesn’t believe in God he is careful to use the newish word ‘agnostic’ and Lodge is careful to let us know it was a neologism recently coined by the Darwin apologist, Thomas Henry Huxley, in 1869.

When James and du Maurier ponder the amazing popularity of Henry Rider Haggard’s debut adventure novel, King Solomon’s Mines (1885), du Maurier is made to remind us how this success was partly due to the blizzard of posters put up all over London the morning the book was published by Haggard’s enterprising publishers, Cassells, in an early example of a mass advertising campaign.

One of James’s young men friends, Henry Harland, is planning to set up a new literary and artistic journal, The Yellow Book, and Lodge (through James) contrasts the style of its main illustrator, the young Aubrey Beardsley, with that of du Maurier’s more traditional Victorian illustrations for Punch magazine.

The historical novelist as tour guide

Fenimore and James happen to be walking through the Place Vendôme in Paris where James takes the opportunity to tell her that the column at its centre is made from 1200 cannon captured at the Battle of Austerlitz, and Fenimore replies that he sounds like a guide book (p.178). In fact the whole text often sounds like a guide book. The hero is strolling across Piccadilly Circus? An opportunity to share with us that the statue of Eros (erected 1893) is made of aluminium so as not to tarnish in the smoggy London atmosphere (p.244). Walking past Buckingham Palace? An opportunity to tell us that Queen Victoria had recently opened some of the royal apartments to visitors. And so on.

Same with people, with the famous personalities of the day. Who is this in the stalls at the first night of Guy Domville, reviewing it for the Saturday Review? Could it be the red-haired figure of George Bernard Shaw, the up-and-coming music critic, rumoured to have written a few plays of his own? And over there, surely that’s the Pall Mall magazine’s new drama critic, Herbert Wells, been in his job all of four days since the PM’s editor Harry Cust promised the thrusting young freelance journalist the first vacancy which came up at the magazine and this turned out to be it. So wet behind the ears he had to rush out to buy a set of evening dress made for him in just 24 hours. When Shaw and Wells get chatting Herbert boasts about the short story he’s just sold to the Pall Mall Gazette for £100, entitled The Time Machine. And so on.

There is a kind of innocence about the exchanges like this which pepper the book, as if a teacher had set his 6th formers a piece of homework to imagine a conversation between the young H.G. Wells and Bernard Shaw. The book evinces a kind of simple-minded excitement at the sheer existence of these writers, a wonderment that Wells and Shaw and, in fact, the young Arnold Bennett, were alive and bumping into each other in the same town, along with Oscar Wilde and Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle, not to mention artists like Singer Sargent, Burne-Jones, Alma-Tadema, Frederick Leighton and so on. What bubbles up off the page is Lodge’s sheer enjoyment of this star-studded era.

A guide not a novel?

There are scores and scores of other examples of interesting and beguiling facts, stories and anecdotes throughout the book, as well as countless titbits about Paris and London, Rome and Venice. Taken together they probably make up the majority of the actual text. Author, Author has plenty of biography of the great man and lots of stories about his (fascinating) life and times, and the world of literature and art as it swirled around him. All very interesting, and Lodge has gathered much be interested and informed about.

But not in the teeniest bit moving or emotional. I didn’t feel anything at all at any part of the book – even at the climax where James takes the stage after the first performance of Guy Domville (5 January 1895) to be publicly booed and humiliated. Well, what of it? We know that James will survive and go on to write the late masterpieces which have secured him a high place in the history of English Literature. Even the scenes where he is called to Venice to help the distraught family of Fenimore dispose of her vast collection of belongings, I found interesting rather than moving. And the final pages which revert to James on his death-bed in 1916 are done very factually and so, I’m afraid, didn’t move me at all. I was more interested in the way the James family nobly offered his loyal servants continued employment after his death.

This is a very enjoyable book but for long stretches it doesn’t feel like a novel at all, more like an old-fashioned literary biography with made-up scenes and conversation added to enliven the basic narrative of events, and plenty of fascinating facts thrown in. It could have been called ‘Henry James and His World’.

On this basis I’m looking forward to reading Lodge’s last novel, A Man Of Parts, which hopefully does much the same thing for H.G. Wells, another pivotal and well-connected figure from a slightly later period.

Credit

Author, Author by David Lodge was published by Secker and Warburg in 2004. All quotes and references are to the 2005 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Penguin paperback edition of Author, Author

Penguin paperback edition of Author, Author

David Lodge’s novels

1960 – The Picturegoers – An ensemble piece following the lives of various characters in the fictional London suburb of Brickley, all linked by their attendance at their local cinema, the Palladium, as they fall in and out of love, practice various degrees of Catholicism and worry about sex.
1962 – Ginger, You’re Barmy – Jonathan Browne is fresh from gaining a First in English when he is plunged into National Service among brutal proles and cruel NCOs in a windswept barracks in Yorkshire. Onto this amiable backdrop is nailed a melodramatic story about his friend at university, Mike the ginger-haired renegade of the title, attacking a cruel NCO, being imprisoned, being spring by the IRA, and then forced to return to make a raid on the barracks which Jonathan, by freakish coincidence, ends up foiling.
1965 – The British Museum Is Falling Down – a day in the life of young academic Adam Appleby, unhappy Catholic father of three, who spends a day at the BM failing to do any research and finds himself embroiled in more and more comic complexities, all the time panic-stricken that his wife might be pregnant for an unbearable fourth time.
1970 – Out of the Shelter – the boyhood and teenage years of Timothy Young, child of very ordinary suburban London parents, who is a toddler during the Blitz, a boy at the end of the war, and a teenager when he goes to stay with his older sister in post-war Germany, where he makes all kinds of discoveries about war and peace and life and love.
1975 – Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses – It is January 1969 and two English Literature professors are swapping jobs for a term: down-trodden Englishman Philip Swallow is heading for the Californian delights of Euphoria State University, and lit crit superstar Morris Zapp is heading towards rundown rainy Rummidge University. How will they cope with the resulting culture shocks? A hilariously knowing romp, a sophisticated comedy classic.
1980 – How Far Can You Go? – The stories of 10 young Catholics in the 1950s and their adventures as they mature during the 1960s and 70s, larded with lots of commentary about the sweeping changes to Catholic dogma during this period, and lots and lots of clinical descriptions of sex, in a surprisingly flat and unentertaining novel.
1984 – Small World: An Academic Romance – a brilliantly conceived comedy of manners satirising the world of modern literary scholarship with its cast of jetsetting, globe-trotting, back-stabbing, vaultingly ambitious and goatishly lecherous academics, led by the protagonists of Changing Places, but with a whole lot more characters added, all travelling, questing and falling in and out of love in the artfully contrived and very funny modern-day equivalent of a medieval romance. (A pilgrimage novel)
1988 – Nice Work – feminist literary academic Robyn Penrose reluctantly takes part in the university’s scheme to shadow figures from local industry, being assigned to the equally reluctant Vic Wilcox, Managing Director of J. Pringle and Sons, a local metal-working factory. Initially antagonistic, they open each other’s eyes to new worlds, rather inevitably, fall in love, but then go beyond that to reach a more mature and realistic friendship.
1991 – Paradise News – Agnostic priest Bernard Walsh is rung up by his dying aunt Ursula who lives in Honolulu (she married an American during the war) asking him to come visit her and bring his father (her brother). Thus begins a ‘holiday’ in ‘paradise’ in which old family secrets are disinterred, old wounds healed, and new life begins. (A pilgrimage novel)
1995 – Therapy – Successful TV scriptwriter Laurence Passmore has it all – hit show, sexy wife, grown-up kids flown the nest, big house, flash car – but is still obscurely unhappy, a problem which turns into a plight when his wife abruptly sues for divorce and he seeks refuge in the past as his life falls apart. (A pilgrimage novel)
2001 – Thinks… – At the (fictional) University of Gloucester, clever, lecherous cognitive scientist Ralph Messenger fancies fucking bereaved novelist Helen Reed, in a story sprinkled with lectures on artificial intelligence which feel as if they’ve been cut & pasted from the popular science books of the 1990s.
2004 – Author, Author – A long and fascinating account of Henry James’s life from the mid-1880s to the mid-1890s as he attempted to branch out from writing novels and short stories with a sustained attempt to write plays for the stage, which proved, in the end, to be a humiliating failure – all told in a text rich with interesting stories and gossip from the era.
2008 – Deaf Sentence
2011 – A Man of Parts

The Decay of Lying: An Observation by Oscar Wilde (1891)

The aim of the liar is simply to charm, to delight, to give pleasure. He is the very basis of civilized society.

Originally published as a magazine article in 1889, Wilde substantially rewrote this essay for inclusion in his volume of four essays, Intentions (1891).

Dialogue form

It is in dialogue form, harking back to the Platonic dialogues Wilde would have studied for his Classics degree, signaling Wilde’s embryonic interest in drama – and his realisation that his ‘ideas’ were maybe less amusing than his taste for paradox, for surprising reversals of expectations, for sudden bon mots and witty phrases – all of which are easier to engineer in dialogue form. Dialogue allows:

  • quick fire interchange
  • one person to develop an idea at length until it is in danger of becoming boring, at which point – the other person interrupts with a deflating remark or a witty summary of the story so far, so
  • treatment of individual notions can be pages long or made in a throwaway one-liner, and
  • the case of the proponent can itself subjected to irony and satire by the interlocutor – Wilde can parody or ironise his own argument

In The Soul of Man Under Socialism Wilde has to go a long distance in his own voice and strains a bit to make a consistent ‘argument’. In Lying, as soon as the dramatic lead (Vivian) tires of one line of witty sophistry, his foil (Cyril) can interrupt, not understanding, or pooh-poohing the idea or asking for clarification: whatever new direction Wilde requires at that moment.

The Argument

All Art is lying, wonderful imaginative lying.

Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art.

However, in Wilde’s time more and more artists were determined to drag the ‘real world’ into their art, making it ‘relevant’, addressing ‘issues’ and thus showing a tragic misunderstanding of what Art is and is for, and – the great crime in Wilde’s eyes – destroying their individuality – so that all the writers end up sounding like Parliamentary reports and all the artists end up creating works which are grim and depressing.

Now, everything is changed. Facts are not merely finding a footing place in history, but they are usurping the domain of Fancy, and have invaded the kingdom of Romance. Their chilling touch is over everything. They are vulgarising mankind.

Art is a form of lying, of rejecting the banality of ‘reality’ and creating something marvellous from our imaginations. Wilde must have had notebooks packed with sentences starting ‘Art is…’:

The object of Art is not simple truth but complex beauty.

Art itself is really a form of exaggeration; and selection, which is the very spirit of art, is nothing more than an intensified mode of overemphasis.

The proper school to learn art in is not Life but Art.

Art never expresses anything but itself. This is the principle of my new a aesthetics; and it is this, more than that vital connection between form and substance, on which Mr. Pater dwells, that makes music the type of all the arts.

Taking this as his point of departure, the entire essay enjoys contradicting the popular view of the day (Wordsworth, Ruskin, Morris), that we must somehow get ‘back to Nature’, that Nature is a cure for modern industrial society. Quite the opposite:

What Art really reveals to us is Nature’s lack of design, her curious crudities, her extraordinary monotony, her absolutely unfinished condition… Art is our spirited protest, our gallant attempt to teach Nature her proper place. As for the infinite variety of Nature, that is a pure myth. It is not to be found in Nature herself. It resides in the imagination, or fancy, or cultivated blindness of the man who looks at her.

If Nature had been comfortable, mankind would never have invented architecture, and I prefer houses to the open air. In a house we all feel of the proper proportions. Everything is subordinated to us, fashioned for our use and our pleasure. Egotism itself, which is so necessary to a proper sense of human dignity’ is entirely the result of indoor life. Out of doors one becomes abstract and impersonal. One’s individuality absolutely leaves one. And then Nature is so indifferent, so unappreciative. Whenever I am walking in the park here, I always feel that I am no more to her than the cattle that browse on the slope, or the burdock that blooms in the ditch. Nothing is more evident than that Nature hates Mind.

Provocation 1 – The incongruous

Wilde enjoys provoking his reader, which takes at least two forms: one is the unexpected and witty application of homely phraseology in an unexpected way, to create a humorously incongruous effect.

Nature has good intentions, of course, but, as Aristotle once said, she cannot carry them out…  Art is … our gallant attempt to teach Nature her proper place.

A great artist invents a type, and Life tries to copy it, to reproduce it in a popular form, like an enterprising publisher.

Thus, as he endeavours to show his friend Cyril how far lying has decayed, the protagonist Vivian makes a humorous survey of the professions, all on the witty assumption that they are and have been professed liars, so that he is in the witty position of lamenting the decay of lying in professions which most Victorians would assume to have been the bedrock of British honesty and probity:

CYRIL. Lying! I should have thought that our politicians kept up that habit.

VIVIAN. I assure you that they do not.  They never rise beyond the level of misrepresentation, and actually condescend to prove, to discuss, to argue [!]…  Something may, perhaps, be urged on behalf of the Bar. The mantle of the Sophist has fallen on its members. Their feigned ardours and unreal rhetoric are delightful…  They …  have been known to wrest from reluctant juries triumphant verdicts of acquittal for their clients, even when those clients, as often happens, were clearly and unmistakeably innocent [!]. But they are briefed by the prosaic, and are not ashamed to appeal to precedent. In spite of their endeavours, the truth will out. Newspapers, even, have degenerated. They may now be absolutely relied upon [!] One feels it as one wades through their columns…

Many a young man starts in life with a natural gift for exaggeration which, if nurtured in congenial and sympathetic surroundings, or by the imitation of the best models, might grow into something really great and wonderful. But, as a rule, he comes to nothing. He either falls into careless habits of accuracy… or takes to frequenting the society of the aged and the well-informed. Both things are equally fatal to his imagination! and in a short time he develops a morbid and unhealthy faculty of truth telling, begins to verify all statements made in his presence, has no hesitation in contradicting people who are much younger than himself, and often ends by writing novels which are so like life that no one can possibly believe in their probability.

Later, he manages to include journalists in his list of the lying professions. The same journalists who would hound him into prison and cackle around his fallen corpse.

Lying for the sake of a monthly salary is of course well known in Fleet Street, and the profession of a political leaderwriter is not without its advantages. But it is said to be a somewhat dull occupation, and it certainly does not lead to much beyond a kind of ostentatious obscurity.

Provocation 2 – Anti-England

Like any man of feeling or imagination, Wilde is depressed by the small-minded, xenophobic, philistine culture of England (something which has always driven our best writers abroad, to escape our stifling conformity and seek out a wider world). An attitude given bite by the fact that he was, of course, Irish and saw himself, as so many literary men of the Modern period (1890s onwards), as an outsider.(1)

Thinking is the most unhealthy thing in the world, and people die of it just as they die of any other disease. Fortunately, in England at any rate, thought is not catching. Our splendid physique as a people is entirely due to our national stupidity.

Nonetheless, one trembles when one reads his casual insults of England and the English. For, as we know, the English were going to have their total and humiliating revenge on Wilde and to drag all his witty paradoxes down into the lowest mud.

A thoughtful young friend of ours once told us that it reminded him of the sort of conversation that goes on at a meat tea in the house of a serious Noncomformist family, and we can quite believe it. Indeed it is only in England that such a book could be produced. England is the home of lost ideas.

But in the English Church a man succeeds, not through his capacity for belief but through his capacity for disbelief. Ours is the only Church where the sceptic stands at the altar, and where St. Thomas is regarded as the ideal apostle.

The solid stolid British intellect lies in the desert sands like the Sphinx in Flaubert’s marvellous tale, and fantasy La Chimere, dances round it, and calls to it with her false, flutetoned voice.

The contemporary scene

Wilde gives a fascinating summary of the contemporary literary scene, of which he laments: ‘the modern novelist presents us with dull facts under the guise of fiction.’

He is to be found at the Librairie Nationale, or at the British Museum, shamelessly reading up his subject. He has not even the courage of other people’s ideas, but insists on going directly to life for everything’ and ultimately, between encyclopaedias and personal experience, he comes to the ground, having drawn his types from the family circle or from the weekly washerwoman, and having acquired an amount of useful information from which never, even in his most meditative moments, can he thoroughly free himself. The loss that results to literature in general from this false ideal of our time can hardly be overestimated.

In his way Wilde is echoing Stevenson’s essay on Romance – a conscious revolt against the gradgrindish obsession with facts, a wish to escape, to soar on the wings of free imagination. Although Stevenson is first in line to be criticised:

  • Mr Robert Louis Stevenson… is tainted with this modern vice [of realism]… There is such a thing as robbing a story of its reality by trying to make it too true, and The Black Arrow is so inartistic as not to contain a single anachronism to boast of, while the transformation of Dr. Jekyll reads dangerously like an experiment out of the Lancet.
  • Mr. Rider Haggard, who really has, or had once, the makings of a perfectly magnificent liar, he is now so afraid of being suspected of genius that when he does tell us anything marvellous, he feels bound to invent a personal reminiscence, and to put it into a footnote as a kind of cowardly corroboration.
  • Mr. Henry James writes fiction as if it were a painful duty, and wastes upon mean motives and imperceptible ‘points of view’ his neat literary style, his felicitous phrases, his swift and caustic satire.
  • Mr George Meredith! Who can define him ? His style is chaos illumined by flashes of lightning. As a writer he has mastered everything except language: as a novelist he can do everything, except tell a story: as an artist he is everything, except articulate.
  • Mr. Hall Caine, it is true, aims at the grandiose, but then he writes at the top of his voice. He is so loud that one cannot hear what he says.
  • Mr. James Payn is an adept in the art of concealing what is not worth finding. He hunts down the obvious with the enthusiasm of a shortsighted detective.
  • The horses of Mr. William Black’s phaeton do not soar towards the sun. They merely frighten the sky at evening into violent chromolithographic effects.
  • Mrs. Oliphant prattles pleasantly about curates, lawntennis parties, domesticity, and other wearisome things.
  • Mr. Marion Crawford has immolated himself upon the altar of local colour. He is like the lady in the French comedy who keeps talking about ‘le beau ciel d’Italie.’ Besides, he has fallen into a bad habit of uttering moral platitudes. He is always telling us that to be good is to be good, and that to be bad is to be wicked. At times he is almost edifying.
  • Robert Elsmere is of course a masterpiece–a masterpiece of the ‘genre ennuyeux,’ the one form of literature that the English people seem to thoroughly enjoy. It is only in England that such a book could be produced.
  • As for that great and daily increasing school of novelists for whom the sun always rises in the East End, the only thing that can be said about them is that they find life crude, and leave it raw.

Wilde prided himself of his knowledge of French culture – their poetry and painting vastly more advanced than their English counterparts. But he dwells on the realist school and is equally as damning:

  • M. Guy de Maupassant, with his keen mordant irony and his hard vivid style, strips life of the few poor rags that still cover her, and shows us foul sore and festering wound. He writes lurid little tragedies in which everybody is ridiculous; bitter comedies at which one cannot laugh for very tears.
  • M. Zola is determined to show that, if he has not got genius, he can at least be dull. And how well he succeeds!.. The author is perfectly truthful, and describes things exactly as they happen. What more can any moralist desire? We have no sympathy at all with the moral indignation of our time against M. Zola. It is simply the indignation of Tartuffe on being exposed. M. Zola’s characters have their dreary vices, and their drearier virtues. The record of their lives is absolutely without interest. Who cares what happens to them? In literature we require distinction, charm, beauty, and imaginative power. We don’t want to be harrowed and disgusted with an account of the doings of the lower orders.
  • M. Daudet is better. He has wit, a light touch, and an amusing style. But he has lately committed literary suicide… The only real people are the people who never existed, and if a novelist is base enough to go to life for his personages he should at least pretend that they are creations, and not boast of them as copies. The justification of a character in a novel is not that other persons are what they are, but that the author is what he is. Otherwise the novel is not a work of art.
  • What is interesting about people in good society – and M. Bourget rarely moves out of the Faubourg St. Germain, except to come to London – is the mask that each one of them wears, not the reality that lies behind the mask. It is a humiliating confession, but we are all of us made out of the same stuff. In Falstaff there is something of Hamlet, in Hamlet there is not a little of Falstaff. The fat knight has his moods of melancholy, and the young prince his moments of coarse humour. Where we differ from each other is purely in accidentals: in dress, manner, tone of voice, religious opinions, personal appearance, tricks of habit, and the like. The more one analyses people, the more all reasons for analysis disappear. Sooner or later one comes to that dreadful universal thing called human nature. Indeed, as any one who has ever worked among the poor knows only too well, the brotherhood of man is no mere poet’s dream, it is a most depressing and humiliating reality!

But he likes Balzac:

  • Balzac was a most wonderful combination of the artistic temperament with the scientific spirit. The latter he bequeathed to his disciples: the former was entirely his own. The difference between such a book as M. Zola’s L’Assommoir and Balzac’s Illusions Perdues is the difference between unimaginative realism and imaginative reality… A steady course of Balzac reduces our living friends to shadows, and our acquaintances to the shadows of shades. His characters have a kind of fervent fierycoloured existence. They dominate us, and defy scepticism… But Balzac is no more a realist than Holbein was. He created life, he did not copy it.

Art does not express the world. Yuk. It expresses the individuality, the genius, of the artist.

Art should be quite detached, quite useless

Where Morris the Marxist argued that Art in an ideal world would be the results of happy men expressing their creativity, especially in decorating the everyday objects of our lives, so that everything a happy fulfilled worker makes is Art – Wilde the hyper aesthete argues that all Art should be quite useless, quite irrelevant to our everyday lives and concerns: that is its point.

The only beautiful things, as somebody once said, are the things that do not concern us. As long as a thing is useful or necessary to us, or affects us in any way, either for pain or for pleasure, or appeals strongly to our sympathies, or is a vital part of the environment in which we live, it is outside the proper sphere of art. To art’s subject matter we should be more or less indifferent. We should, at any rate, have no preferences, no prejudices, no partisan feeling of any kind…

I do not know anything in the whole history of literature sadder than the artistic career of Charles Reade. He wrote one beautiful book, The Cloister and the Hearth, a book as much above Romola as Romola is above Daniel Deronda, and wasted the rest of his life in a foolish attempt to be modern, to draw public attention to the state of our convict prisons, and the management of our private lunatic asylums. Charles Dickens was depressing enough in all conscience when he tried to arouse our sympathy for the victims of the poor law administration; but Charles Reade, an artist, a scholar, a man with a true sense of beauty, raging and roaring over the abuses of contemporary life like a common pamphleteer or a sensational journalist, is really a sight for the angels to weep over.

Life imitates Art

So far, so plausible. Wilde has moved beyond outraging the bourgeoisie to establish his main point: Art is a wonderful kind of lying which, in his age, was everywhere in danger of being hobbled by the mania for Realism. But the essay goes to another level when Wilde pushes the conceit further to say that, not only is vulgar, dull Life bad for Art, but that Life itself actually copies Art.

Paradox though it may seem, it is none the less true that Life imitates art far more than Art imitates life. We have all seen in our own day in England how a certain curious and fascinating type of beauty, invented and emphasised by two imaginative painters [the pre-Raphaelites Rossetti and Burne-Jones], has so influenced Life that whenever one goes to a private view or to an artistic salon one sees, here the mystic eyes of Rossetti’s dream, the long ivory throat, the strange squarecut jaw, the loosened shadowy hair that he so ardently loved, there the sweet maidenhood of The Golden Stair, the blossom-like mouth and weary loveliness of the Laus Amoris, the passion-pale face of Andromeda, the thin hands and lithe beauty of the Vivien in Merlin’s Dream. [See illustration below]

And it has always been so. A great artist invents a type, and Life tries to copy it, to reproduce it in a popular form, like an enterprising publisher. Neither Holbein nor Vandyck found in England what they have given us. They brought their types with them, and Life, with her keen imitative faculty, set herself to supply the master with models.

As it is with the visible arts, so it is with literature. The most obvious and the vulgarest form in which this is shown is in the case of the silly boys who, after reading the adventures of Jack Sheppard or Dick Turpin, pillage the stalls of unfortunate applewomen, break into sweet shops at night, and alarm old gentlemen who are returning home from the city by leaping out on them in suburban lanes, with black masks and unloaded revolvers… The boy burglar is simply the inevitable result of life’s imitative instinct. He is Fact, occupied as Fact usually is with trying to reproduce Fiction.

  • Schopenhauer has analysed the pessimism that characterises modern thought, but Hamlet invented it. The world has become sad because a puppet was once melancholy.
  • The Nihilist, that strange martyr who has no faith, who goes to the stake without enthusiasm, and dies for what he does not believe in, is a purely literary product. He was invented by Tourgenieff, and completed by Dostoieffski.
  • Robespierre came out of the pages of Rousseau as surely as the People’s Palace rose out debris of a novel. Literature always anticipates life. It does not copy it, but moulds it to its purpose.
  • The nineteenth century, as we know it, is largely an invention of Balzac. Our Luciens de Rubempre, our Rastignacs, and De Marsays made their first appearance on the stage of the Comedie Humaine. We are merely carrying out, with footnotes and unnecessary additions, the whim or fancy or creative vision of a great novelist.

At some point this argument begins to overlap with very modern concerns about people imitating violent films or video games. Wilde doesn’t say there is a tendency to copy art: he think sit is an absolute rule:

Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life, and I feel sure that if you think seriously about it you will find that it is true. Life holds the mirror up to Art, and either reproduces some strange type imagined by painter or sculptor, or realizes in fact what has been dreamed in fiction. Scientifically speaking, the basis of life – the energy of life, as Aristotle would call it – is simply the desire for expression, and Art is always presenting various forms through which this expression can be attained. Life seizes on them and uses them, even if they be to her own hurt. Young men have committed suicide because Rolla did so, have died by their own hand because by his own hand Werther died. Think of what we owe to the imitation of Christ, of what we owe to the imitation of Caesar.

This anticipates Raymond Chandler’s 1930s comments about his hoodlums and gangsters modeling themselves on the movies, a sentiment echoed by Alistair MacLean in his thrillers of the 1960s, and of what I know of Auden and his circle modeling their posing, the way they lit and held cigarettes, on the movie stars of the 1930s. It seems to me a very persuasive argument indeed that Art gives us the models and then people enthusiastically set about copying them – except that Wilde probably wouldn’t call movies, TV and pop videos Art: but they are what provide contemporary humanity with our models for behaving and talking.

Nature imitates Art

And Wilde’s comic style, his essential humour, combines wonderfully when Vivian is goaded by Cyril to go one step further and prove that Nature imitates Art – the precise opposite of what most of the nineteenth century has been telling itself:

Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gaslamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows ? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge ? The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to this particular school of Art.

Nature is no great mother who has borne us. She is our creation. It is in our brain that she quickens to life. Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us.

To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing. One does not see anything until one sees its beauty. Then, and then only, does it come into existence. At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist till Art had invented them.

Now, it must be admitted, fogs are carried to excess. They have become the mere mannerism of a clique, and the exaggerated realism of their method gives dull people bronchitis. Where the cultured catch an effect, the uncultured catch cold.

And so, let us be humane, and invite Art to turn her wonderful eyes elsewhere. She has done so already, indeed. That white quivering sunlight that one sees now in France, with its strange blotches of mauve, and its restless violet shadows, is her latest fancy, and, on the whole, Nature reproduces it quite admirably. Where she used to give us Corots and Daubignys, she gives us now exquisite Monets and entrancing Pisaros. Indeed there are moments, rare, it is true, but still to be observed from time to time, when Nature becomes absolutely modern. Of course she is not always to be relied upon.

The fact is that she is in this unfortunate position. Art creates an incomparable and unique effect, and, having done so, passes on to other things. Nature, upon the other hand, forgetting that imitation can be made the sincerest form of insult, keeps on repeating this effect until we all become absolutely wearied of it. Nobody of any real culture, for instance, ever talks nowadays about the beauty of a sunset. Sunsets are quite old fashioned. They belong to the time when Turner was the last note in art. To admire them is a distinct sign of provincialism of temperament.

But I don’t want to be too hard on Nature… That she imitates Art, I don’t think even her worst enemy would deny now. It is the one thing that keeps her in touch with civilized man.

Art doesn’t reflect its society & times – it creates them

In the same spirit, Wilde rejects another cliche, that Art reflects the society and times it was created in. Wrong, says Wilde; the precise opposite: Art doesn’t reflect: Art creates the style and look of its times.

No great artist ever sees things as they really are. If he did, he would cease to be an artist. Take an example from our own day. I know that you are fond of Japanese things. Now, do you really imagine that the Japanese people, as they are presented to us in art, have any existence ? If you do, you have never understood Japanese art at all. The Japanese people are the deliberate selfconscious creation of certain individual artists. If you set a picture by Hokusai, or Hokkei, or any of the great native painters, beside a real Japanese gentleman or lady, you will see that there is not the slightest resemblance between them. The actual people who live in Japan are not unlike the general run of English people; that is to say, they are extremely commonplace, and have nothing curious or extraordinary about them. In fact the whole of Japan is a pure invention. There is no such country, there are no such people.

The Japanese people are, in fact, simply a mode of style, an exquisite fancy of art. And so, if you desire to see a Japanese effect, you will not behave like a tourist and go to Tokio. On the contrary, you will stay at home, and steep yourself in the work of certain Japanese artists, and then, when you have absorbed the spirit of their style, and caught their imaginative manner of vision, you will go some afternoon and sit in the Park or stroll down Piccadilly, and if you cannot see an absolutely Japanese effect there, you will not see it anywhere.

The fact is that we look back on the ages entirely through the medium of Art, and Art, very fortunately, has never once told us the truth.

A new world

The essay ends, with a witty call for a revival of lying at all levels of society, beginning in the nursery and extending through school and into the higher professions. In a kind of satire on the millenial, revolutionary rhetoric of this decade of revolutionaries and nihilists and anarchists, Wilde looks forward to the overthrow of the present dull world of facts and the rebirth of a wonderful world of lying and imagination:

The solid stolid British intellect may not hear the voice of fantasy now, but surely some day, when we are all bored to death with the commonplace character of modern fiction, it will hearken to her and try to borrow her wings. And when that day dawns, or sunset reddens how joyous we shall all be! Facts will be regarded as discreditable, Truth will be found mourning over her fetters, and Romance, with her temper of wonder, will return to the land.

The very aspect of the world will change to our startled eyes. Out of the sea will rise Behemoth and Leviathan and sail round the high-pooped galleys, as they do on the delightful maps of those ages when books on geography were actually readable. Dragons will wander about the waste places, and the phoenix will soar from her nest of fire into the air. We shall lay our hands upon the basilisk, and see the jewel in the toad’s head. Champing his gilded oats, the Hippogriff will stand in our stalls, and over our heads will float the Blue Bird singing of beautiful and impossible things, of things that are lovely and that never happened, of things that are not and that should be. But before this comes to pass we must cultivate the lost art of Lying.

Three principles

And the essay winds up with some more generalisations from Wilde’s books of sentences about Art.

  1. Art never expresses anything but itself.  It has an independent life, just as Thought has, and develops purely on its own lines. It is not necessarily realistic in an age of realism, nor spiritual in an age of faith. So far from being the creation of its time, it is usually in direct opposition to it, and the only history that it preserves for us is the history of its own progress.
  2. All bad art comes from returning to Life and Nature, and elevating them into ideals. Life and Nature may sometimes be used as part of Art’s rough material, but before they are of any real service to art they must be translated into artistic conventions. The moment Art surrenders its imaginative medium it surrenders everything… It is only the modern that ever becomes oldfashioned. M. Zola sits down to give us a picture of the Second Empire. Who cares for the Second Empire now? It is out of date. Life goes faster than Realism, but Romanticism is always in front of Life.
  3. The third doctrine is that Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life. This results not merely from Life’s imitative instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realize that energy.

1. It is a revealing moment when Wilde jokingly says that society must return to its ‘lost leader’, the skilled liar. Mostly this is paradoxical wit – but the phrase ‘lost leader’, by 1891, already referred to Charles Stewart Parnell, whose affair with a married woman split the Home Rule party of which he was leader, and, arguably, set back the cause of Irish independence by a generation. And of course, Wilde’s oblique reference to a man hounded to his death by the British establishment because of his private life has a terrible reverberation for us who know Wilde’s fate.

Related links

The Beguiling of Merlin by Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1874)

The Beguiling of Merlin by Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1874)

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