The Complete Short Stories of Evelyn Waugh

Waugh was a professional writer from the year he published his first short story in 1926 till his death in 1966. During that period he published some 26 short stories. There are several editions of his collected short stories, notable the Everyman one and the Penguin one. I read the Penguin one but the Everyman edition (which includes a few more stories than the Penguin) is the one that’s available online.

What all the editions tend to highlight is that Evelyn Waugh did not, in fact, write many short stories. All the editions include the juvenilia written at school, and the half dozen stories written at Oxford, to bulk up the books. And for real aficionados and completists it’s good to have everything in one volume like this. But the fact remains that in a writing career of 40 years he only published 26 short stories.

Spin-offs from novels or no short stories at all

Not only that, but when you look more closely, you realise that a number of the stories are offcuts of the novels and so closely linked as to be barely standalone narratives.

Thus ‘Incident in Azania’ is set in the fictional country created for the novel Black Mischief and feels very much like an anecdote which could have been included in that novel but was cut as surplus to requirements. ‘Cruise’ is a short squib, a lampoon consisting entirely of postcards written by a gushing, silly, posh young lady on a cruise round the Med, an idea recycled from one of his travel books. ‘Charles Ryder’s Schooldays’ is quite obviously a spin-off from Brideshead Revisited and ‘Basil Seal Rides Again’ is a final flurry for the character at the centre of Black Mischief and Put Out More Flags.

So four of the 26 are direct spin-offs from novels.

More than that, three of the stories are actual extracts from the novels: ‘The Man Who Liked Dickens’ is an early version of the final chapters of A Handful of Dust and ‘By Special Request’ is not a standalone story at all, but the original ending of A Handful of Dust as it first appeared when the novel was serialised in Harper’s Bazaar. ‘Compassion’ was recycled in its entirety into the end section of Unconditional Surrender.

So seven of his adult short stories aren’t really standalone narratives but either rely on the novels they derive from or are actual excerpts from them. Leaving 19.

Two of these 19 aren’t really short stories at all. The post-war narratives ‘Scott-King’s Modern Europe’ and ‘Love Among The Ruins’ are far longer than your normal short story, certainly than the other stories included here, and so are generally categorised as novellas. Leaving 17.

And lastly, by far the longest item in the collection, at around 80 pages, is ‘Work Suspended: Two Chapters of an Unfinished Novel’ which, as the title suggests, is not and was never intended to be a short story, but the first sections of an abandoned novel.

Leaving only about 16 short stories gleaned from a career which lasted nearly 40 years.

Commissions

Finally, the notes in the Penguin edition reveal one more fact about the ‘short stories’, which is that quite a few of them were commissions, not written off his own bat. Now there’s nothing wrong with a story being commissioned – both Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray and Conan Doyle’s The Sign of the Four were commissioned over the same historic dinner (30 August 1889) with the magazine editor, J. M. Stoddart. However, all of Waugh’s commissioned stories only make sense, or make a lot more sense, when you learn they were commissioned as part of series on a set theme:

Thus:

  • ‘A House of Gentlefolks’ was commissioned for a series titled The New Decameron
  • ‘The Kremlin’ was commissioned for a series titled Real Life Stories by Famous Authors (which explains its opening sentence: ‘ This story was told me in Paris very early in the morning by the manager of a famous night club, and I am fairly certain that it is true.’).
  • ‘Too much tolerance’ was commissioned for a series titled The Seven Deadly Sins of Today and only really makes sense in that context
  • and ‘The Sympathetic Passenger’ was written for the Tight Corner series in the Daily Mail, ditto

The short story not Waugh’s metier

So the conclusion I draw from this little statistical analysis is that Waugh was very much not a short story writer, certainly not in the manner of Saki or Somerset Maugham or Kipling or J.G. Ballard, writers who produced a tremendous output of short stories but, more importantly, who suited the short story format. All four of those authors, in their different ways, knew just how to manage their material into artefacts which create maximum artistic and psychological impact and a range of effects. Waugh not so much.

In fact I’m afraid to say I found a lot of Waugh’s stories disappointing. A few I didn’t even understand, I didn’t see the point of them.

In a novel like Vile Bodies Waugh took scores of anecdotes about the shallow, heartless behaviour of his upper class Bright Young Things and combined them in such a way as to produce a kind of group portrait which was much larger than the sum of its parts. But broken down into short, isolated texts, most of these anecdotes feel much weaker, and sometimes pretty lame.

For me the stories’ value was analytical, they gave me a greater understanding of what you could call the ‘mosaic technique’ of Waugh’s novels, what I’ve referred to as the importance of gossip, not only as subject matter of the novels but as a key element of his technique. The way the central events of the novels are always commentated on by the shoals of secondary characters which fill his novels, gossiping at parties and restaurants and balls and dinners, mingling catty comments about the central events of the novel’s narrative with deliberately throwaway mentions of the trials and tribulations of other, unrelated people to give a powerful sense of their ultimate irrelevance; or the way all stories, and all lives in the modern world are swamped and trivialised by the sheer number of people and tragedies and stories we’re meant to pay attention to.

This technique has multiple benefits: from the point of view of literary realism, it helps create the illusion of the throng, of the crowdedness of London High Society, where everyone knows everyone else, goes to each other’s parties and dinners, where everyone spends a lot of time energetically gossiping about each other’s ups and downs and affairs.

Seen in terms of technique it has at least two benefits: it allows Waugh to skip or cut briskly between scenes with great dramatic effect, just as films can cut from one scene to another in a split second. This encourages or suits Waugh’s tendency to be concise and clipped, so that some of his best scenes are only half a page long before they cut away to something completely different. Technique and style are perfectly combined.

(Waugh’s debt to cinema technique becomes overt in some of these texts, not least in ‘Excursion in Reality’ which is a Vile Bodies-era satire about a hapless young writer who gets caught up in the 24/7 crazy world of film production; and the very first text in the collection is a kind of commented-on version of the screenplay of a black-and-white, silent movie.)

Waugh’s understated debt to Modernism

The second benefit of Waugh’s ‘mosaic technique’ is the way this approach subtly incorporates some of the best features of the previous generation’s Modernism. Modernism refers to a movement in literature during and after the Great War which sought to depict the hectic, frantic, fragmented, fractured experience of living in big cities in styles or narrative structures which reflected psychic collapse and disintegration. Thus the disintegration of a highly sensitive mind portrayed in T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land, the extreme fragmentation of Ezra Pound’s Cantos, the collapse of a unified narrative and then of the English language itself in James Joyce’s Ulysses, or the collapse of the patriarchal Victorian tone of voice into the swirling stream of consciousness of Virginia Woolf’s novels.

Waugh swallowed Modernism whole, experimented with it, and then adapted it for his own purposes, keeping only what he needed. The very first story in the collection, ‘The Balance’, published in 1926, is the best example (described below) in the way it is broken up into short snippets headed by the captions of the silent movie it describes. This immediately recalls the clever use of newspaper headlines in the ‘Aeolus’ chapter of Ulysses and anticipates the blizzard of newspaper headlines, advertising slogans, popular songs and so on which litter the classic example of German high Modernism, Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin, published a few years later in 1929.

My point is that this technique of fragments, of consciously breaking up the text of a narrative into a mosaic of short clipped scenes, of cutting away from the main protagonists of an event to a group of their friends heartlessly laughing about their fates, a technique exemplified in Vile Bodies but which appears, with greater or lesser frequency throughout all his fiction, this was Waugh’s version of Modernist fragmentation and alienation.

Waugh and mental breakdown

And although Waugh has the (deserved) reputation of being a great comic writer, actually rereading the novels as I’ve been doing, it has been a shock to realise just how much misery, suffering and pain they include.

There are scores of examples but, focusing literally on mental breakdown, I think of the devastating impact on Tony and Brenda Last of the tragic death of their son in A Handful of Dust. Take the scene where they return from their son’s inquest to big, empty Hetton Hall and Brenda barely makes it into the entrance hall before sitting down in a decorative chair which nobody usually sits on, sitting there and looking around her in a daze. Or immediately after Tony gets news of his son’s death and trembles on the brink of going to pieces, is only saved by the compassion of ‘the Shameless Blonde’, the sturdy American woman aviator who stays with him and forces him to play cards all afternoon. A scene of tremendous psychological power.

Or take Vile Bodies which is all very hilarious up till the racing car crash which precipitates the concussion and nervous collapse and eventual death of the bright, confident heroine Agatha Runcible.

A key strand in the similarly polyphonic novel Put Out More Flags is the psychological decline of Angela Lyne, up to that point a confident, dominating presence in London High Society, whom the advent of war reduces to an alcoholic wreck, hiding out in her serviced apartment, drinking all day in dark glasses with the curtains closed.

A central thread in Brideshead Revisited is the agonising decline of the bright and beautiful young undergraduate Sebastian Flyte into a shambling, poverty-stricken, feverish wreck in the slums of Tunis.

And then, of course, Waugh wrote an entire novel dramatising his own mental breakdown, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold in 1957.

So for a writer who’s (correctly) associated with the reactionary views of England’s moneyed upper classes and (correctly) famous for his high-spirited comedy, it’s worth repeating that Waugh also wrote throughout his career about extreme tragedy, psychological trauma and mental collapse, and did so using his own version of the polyphonic, mosaic narrative technique – both a subject matter and a technique more usually associated with the avant-garde.

Anyway, to return to the short stories, my point is simply that if most of them had been included in one of his novels, they would have made one more hilarious scene amid the general mayhem of the polyphonic, multi-stranded plots and contributed to the complex artistic and psychological impact of the novels. But given here, as standalone short stories, as just one bald anecdote, a surprising number of them come over as lame and flat.

Which is why I wouldn’t really recommend these short stories to anyone. I’d recommend reading pretty much all the novels first, before you bother with them.

Pre and post-war

One last point. The stories can also be divided in chronological order into those written before the Second World War and those written after. At a glance you can see that he was far more prolific in short stories before (21) than after (5). (For the period of the war itself he was either serving in the Army or, from December 1943 to June 1944, entirely busy writing his magnum opus, Brideshead Revisited.)

If we count Scott-King’s Modern Europe and Love Among the Ruins as novellas, then he can only be said to have written three short stories between 1945 and 1966, confirming my feeling that the short story was emphatically not his genre. That said, all three post-war short stories are good.

Short stories 1. Pre-war

1. The Balance (1926)

Born in 1903, Waugh was only 22 when he wrote this, by far his most experimental and avant-garde text.

In the cinema

Very much in the style of Vile Bodies, this fairly long text uses a number of highly experimental narrative techniques. Most of it, the long first part, consists of scenes from an imagined film. It opens with a cook and a house parlour maid (Gladys and Ada) making their way to their seats in a cinema and then making cheerily working class comments on the action of the movie they’re watching. Somewhere behind them (in the more expensive seats) sits a Cambridge student who drawls knowing intellectual comments (pointing out the debt to European Expressionism of some of the shots, explaining what steak tartare is). And the text is punctuated by the captions in CAPITAL LETTERS which are appearing onscreen, as this is a black-and-white, silent film.

Thus the text consists of: capitalised captions, interspersed with the narrator’s description of what is happening onscreen, interspersed with the working class comments of the two servants given in italics, and the occasional sardonic comment from Mr Cambridge.

The ‘story’ is made up of clichés and stereotypes, which allows his working class women to spot in advance what’s going to happen, the Cambridge man to make superior comments, and Waugh to mock all of them.

Adam is at art school. He loves Imogen. Imogen’s mummy tells her she must stop seeing him. They share a cab to Euston where she catches a train to the country. Ada, catches cab to home near Regent’s Park, goes up to room, melodramatically considers suicide by pills, imagines the vulgarity of family breaking down door, calling police, thinks again. Scoops up his best books and takes them to a luxury second-hand bookseller, the fussing about first editions suddenly reminding me of The Picture of Dorian Gray. He gets a tenner for his books, then a cab to Paddington and train to Oxford and goes to see, one by one, his incredibly posh undergraduate friends. Old Etonians, the Bullingdon Club, chaps who hunt, who paint, who drink very heavily.

The window blind has become stuck halfway up the window so that by day they are shrouded in a twilight as though of the Nether world, and by night Ernest’s light blazes across the quad, revealing interiors of unsurpassed debauchery.

Yes, Dorian Gray. Waugh is channeling Wilde turned into a 1920s silent movie. And deliberately elitist or excluding references to aspects of Oxford life. Eights week. Commem. The Bullingdon. The Canning. All the posh young men he tries are busy till he resorts to visiting the rooms of Ernest Vaughan.

They go for dinner at a local pub, get plastered, go on to some rough proletarian pubs, play darts, get into loud arguments, get kicked out, catch a cab back to the colleges, gatecrash a party, pour drinks on the carpet, nearly get into another fight till Ernest walks dignifiedly out into the quad, throws up and passes out.

Cut to the next evening when the pair gatecrash a Liberal Association party at Oxford town hall. Having irritated the guests and got blind drunk they walk outside where Ernest steals a car, drives it haphazardly down St Aldate’s before mounting then kerb and crashing into a shop window. Police close in and arrest him. Adam walks very depressed back to his hotel room. He uncaps the bottle of poison and drinks the contents down in one.

End of film. Glady and Ada and the smart Cambridge graduate and a hundred others exit the film, all chatting about it, the two women to make their way back to their shared rooms in Earls Court where they’ll carry on discussing it over cups of cocoa.

Adam outside the film

At which point the text cuts and changes to a series of three sections of parts. Part one finds Adam in the hotel bedroom piecing together the fragments of the last 24 drunken hours and then remembering standing by the bedroom window in a storm of nausea before throwing up through it into the courtyard, presumably evacuating the poison from his system.

A boyhood memory

In the short part two he has a vivid memory of being a 7-year-old boy and playing a game with the family cat, Ozymandias, which consisted of locking it and himself in his bedroom then chasing it round the room terrorising it at every stop; only then did the real game begin, which was the challenge of trying to coax it back to a state of relaxed affection. And the particular memory which floats into his head as he lies on the bed recovering from his failed suicide attempt, is of the time that Ozymandias escaped to the top of the wardrobe, so the 7-year-old Adam pulled his table over to the wardrobe and put a chair on top of the table and climbed up on both and reached out for the cat and… the whole lot collapsed to the floor and he fell and knocked himself out. Vivid as yesterday he remembers the sensation of slowly ‘regaining consciousness’ and piecing together like a jigsaw the scattered flowing bodily sensations till he had attached particular pains to particular parts of the body and his ego was once again in control.

This early experience of psychological fragmentation, flotation and reassembly recurs at moments of drunkenness, as now. Now he gets up and has breakfast in the hotel still in a hallucinatory state:

He had breakfasted in a world of phantoms, in a great room full of uncomprehending eyes, protruding grotesquely from monstrous heads that lolled over steaming porridge; marionette waiters had pirouetted about him with uncouth gestures. All round him a macabre dance of shadows had reeled and flickered, and in and out of it Adam had picked his way, conscious only of one insistent need, percolating through to him from the world outside, of immediate escape from the scene upon which the bodiless harlequinade was played, into a third dimension beyond it.

Adam talks to his reflection

Adam walks out of Oxford along the towpath. He had written a letter to Imogen begging her to come back. He crosses a bridge over the canal and looks at a swan sailing by whose reflection is broken and fragmented. He tears up the letter and chucks the fragments into the river, then has a brief conversation with himself. He supposes tearing up the letter means he is over Imogen, and the fact that he’s here at all means he’s resolved to go on living. Was there no moral influence on his decision to live, no wish not to burden his loved ones, no profound insight into the meaning of life? No. Simply a rest, a sleep, a change of scenery. Ultimately, those are the small measures which make all the difference. No intrinsic motives from the soul. Just as random as…circumstance.

A shift of perspective

And then in its last two pages the text does what I mentioned so many of them doing: it switches perspective altogether to create a deliberate alienation effect. Suddenly we are at a country house named Thatch and Mrs Hay has invited her undergraduate son Basil and one friend for luncheon but a whole carload has turned up, gossiping and smoking all the time.

The point being, they are all telling each other about the other night when horrible Adam gatecrashed lovely Gabriel’s party with some ghastly man named Vaughan who was offensive to everyone then threw up. Here, right at the start of his career, we find Waugh using a technique which will serve him again and again, which is spending a lot of time on a close account of the incidents and thoughts of one or two protagonists; and then suddenly cutting far away to hear the same events being retold as throwaway gossip by people who don’t give a damn about the characters we’ve just been following and have invested so much time and trouble in.

It’s a very simple technique but very modernist in feeling, pulling the rug from under our feet, suddenly making us realise how silly and trivial the little trials and tribulations we’ve been following are in the great scale of things. Making the entire fictional edifice in which we had been investing time and emotion seem infinitely fragile and inconsequential.

Short conclusion

Arguably, and certainly to someone like myself, soaked in early twentieth century modernism, this is the most interesting of all the stories in the book. It clearly foregrounds three things: one, the very self-conscious modernist technique which Waugh studied, copied and assimilated; two, the interest in altered and extreme psychological states, reflected not only in Adam’s drunkenness but the much more interesting and vivid descriptions of regaining consciousness after his concussion as a small boy; three, the determinedly, almost offensively, upper class nature of the settings and characters – Mayfair, Lord and Lady this, Old Etonians at Oxford etc.

Of course it was this latter strand, the supremely upper class settings and characters, which were to characterise the rest of his writings. But this, Waugh’s first published short story, makes abundantly clear the surprisingly experimental nature of his early literary taste.

And also shows how an interest in morbid or damaged psychology was not just a personal thing, but has its roots in the fin-de-siecle obsession with decadence, its hyper-Gothic interest in altered states and very deeply troubled psyches, epitomised by Wilde’s novel Dorian Gray which leaves stray echoes in some of the self-consciously aesthetic moments this text – but reborn thirty years later in the era of Freudian psycho-analysis, jazz nightclubs and cocktail bars.

For these reasons I found it by far the most interesting, and intellectually stimulating, story in the collection.

A House of Gentlefolks (1927)

Only a year later and Waugh has swallowed, assimilated and concealed his learnings from Modernism (although there is a surprising reference to the famous Modernist author, Gertrude Stein, on the second page).

This is a first-person narrative which, in style at least, is thumpingly traditional, telling a simple narrative in chronological order with no fancy tricks. The narrator arrives by train at a rural station, it is raining, catches a taxi to Stayle, a grand country house surrounded by a wall, entry via umpteen gates, seat of the Duke of Vanburgh.

The narrator tells us his name is Ernest Vaughan, same name as the drunk in the previous story and, as he tells us he was sent down from Oxford for bad behaviour, it is presumably an early example of Waugh’s career-long habit of populating his fictions with recurring characters.

Anyway, sent down from Oxford, Ernest is at a loose end when his godmother tells him the Duke of Stayle is looking for a tutor to take his 18-year-old grandson and heir to the earldom on a tour round Europe. The only snag is the boy is mad. They now introduce him to the young fellow, actual name George, who has, it must be said, odd manners. Ernest feels sorry for him, as he only attended school for a term and is obviously ill at ease with strangers. He decides to take the job on.

Within a few hours they’re on the train to London, Ernest with a check for £150 in his pocket, where they check into a hotel and Ernest takes George on a tour of London’s attractions, revues, nightclubs and parties with his super-posh friends. Plus the very best tailors to get formal suits and travelling clothes made up. Over the next few days Ernest watches George blossom, learning about food, restaurants, fine wine, and party etiquette before his very eyes.

At one point they have a candid conversation in which he suggests that he isn’t mad at all; maybe it’s his grandfather and his great-aunts (who Ernest met in the first scene) who are the eccentrics, and this certainly seems likely to Ernest and to the reader.

Then it all grinds to a halt. In an ending almost as crass as saying ‘and then I woke up and it was all a dream’, Ernest gets a letter from old Lord Stayle saying the family’s thought better of the experiment and are cancelling the trip. George is to come home straight away. A lawyer arrives to cancel all obligations and take him off. George’s parting words are that in 3 years time he’ll come of age and be able to do what he wants.

In a way the most telling moment comes in the final sentence:

Five minutes later Julia rang up to ask us to luncheon.

This has the brisk brevity of Vile Bodies, powerfully conveying the sense that, oh well, that adventure’s over, he’s mad, she’s dead, they’ve gotten divorced, Harry’s married Margot, he died in the war, she’s pregnant, whatever – conveying the dizzy speed of the high society social life Waugh dedicated himself to.

The Manager of ‘The Kremlin’ (1927)

The unnamed narrator likes going to a restaurant in Paris. One night he stays late and the manager, Boris, tells him his story. He was a student when the revolution joined out and joined a white army fighting the Bolsheviks. It was a motley crew which included various foreign nationals including a Frenchman. Boris helped save this man’s life by lending him his Russian uniform when they travelled through the most backward parts of Asiatic Russia. They were forced to flee east. Once in Japanese territory they shake hands and part. Boris took ship to America where he hoped to join his mother who had fled there early in the revolution. He does not thrive and after a couple of years takes ship to France, travelling to Paris where he hears there is a large diaspora. Here he really runs out of money and is down to his last 200 francs. In a very Russian gesture, he decides to blow it on one last luxury meal. As chance would have it the Frenchman he saved those years ago is dining at the next table. He accosts his old colleague and asks him how he’s doing. Boris explains he’s skint. The Frenchman runs a motor car company and toys with offering him a job but reflects that a man who could blow his last francs on an exquisite French meal is really cut out for the restaurant business. And so he loans Boris the money to start a restaurant and Boris employs some Russians he knows and now he is rich. Which is the story he tells the narrator in the early hours, as the ‘Kremlin’ restaurant closes up.

Love in the Slump (1932)

Big gap between the previous story published in 1927 and this one in 1932. During that time Waugh published his biography of Rossetti, Decline and Fall (1928), Vile Bodies (1930), travelled to Abyssinia and produced Remote People (1931).

Originally titled ‘The Patriotic Honeymoon’, this is broad farce. An eligible if unremarkable young couple get married, decide to spend a patriotic honeymoon in England then experience a series of farcical mishaps. The portrait of the young wife is obviously a lampoon but nonetheless interesting social history about just what subjects were lampooned back then – portrait of a frustrated singleton c.1932:

Angela was twenty-five, pretty, good-natured, lively, intelligent and popular—just the sort of girl, in fact, who, for some mysterious cause deep-rooted in Anglo-Saxon psychology, finds it most difficult to get satisfactorily married. During the last seven years she had done everything which it is customary for girls of her sort to do. In London she had danced on an average four evenings a week, for the first three years at private houses, for the last four at restaurants and night clubs; in the country she had been slightly patronising to the neighbours and had taken parties to the hunt ball which she hoped would shock them; she had worked in a slum and a hat shop, had published a novel, been bridesmaid eleven times and godmother once; been in love, unsuitably, twice; had sold her photograph for fifty guineas to the advertising department of a firm of beauty specialists; had got into trouble when her name was mentioned in gossip columns; had acted in five or six charity matinées and two pageants, had canvassed for the Conservative candidate at two General Elections, and, like every girl in the British Isles, was unhappy at home.

It’s interesting that what spurs Angela on to take the initiative and propose to bland, boring, safe, accountant Tom Watch is that he father has announced he has to make economies and will probably be closing the London house in order to retrench to his place in the country, sack a few of the servants, live a simpler life. Angela doesn’t want to live a simple life. So she combines her £200 a year with Tom’s £800 a year which they reckon they’ll be able to live on, just about, though not being able to have a child.

It rains on the wedding. They catch a train to Aunt Martha’s house in Devon. At some remote rural stop Tom gets out to check if they need to change and is buttonholed by an old school acquaintance who insists on buying him a drink then another at the station bar. When they come out on the platform the train’s gone, along with his baggage and bride!

He reluctantly accepts the old school chum’s back to his place and stay over. They drink a lot. He wakes up to discover his host is going hunting. Against his better nature he dons a hunting outfit, is loaned a mare, and has a good day’s run till he’s thrown and the mare trots off. He makes his way across country to an inn, the Royal George Hotel Chagford, where he’s taken in and given a bed for the night. Next morning he discovers the stop for his aunt’s place is no fewer than three changes from his present location so he sets off on slow local stopping trains not arriving at the station till late at night. He has travelled all day in wet clothes. No car is available. He decides to stay the night in the station inn.

Next morning Tom wakes hoarse and feverish. A taxi takes him to Aunt Martha’s where he discovers that… his beloved fiancée has left, having received a telegram from his first host saying Tom had met with an accident, she has travelled to his (the first host)’s house. Tom is too coldy to do anything and goes to bed. Next day, the sixth of the honeymoon, he begins to feel it’s not working our quite as he expected. His aunt’s maid suggests the host’s name will be inside the jacket he lent Tom and so there’s a brief exchange of telegrams with Angela a) saying she’s having a lovely time and b) no point meeting up now, wait till they meet up back in London. Which they do the next day.

And, as so often, the story cuts away from the main protagonists so that we learn from a conversation between Angela’s parents that she’s been given access to a lovely cottage in Devon, quite near the estate of the chap she stayed with. Won’t that lovely? The implication is that, after less than a week of honeymoon, Angela has found someone richer and more exciting than Tom to have an affair with.

Too Much Tolerance (1932)

The narrator is stopping between ships at a stifling little port on the Red Sea. It’s important to know that this ‘story’ was commissioned for a series about the Seven Deadly Sins and as such is a lampoon on the idea of tolerance, too much tolerance. It’s a simple idea. The narrator falls in with the only other European in his hotel, an amiable round-faced moustachioed commercial agent and this man displays the virtue of tolerance to excess. He likes all the races and creeds he meets.

In a gesture towards psychology Waugh explains that he had been brought up by elderly parents, retired from India, who held very fixed beliefs about etiquette and social distinctions. So as a young man he set out to consciously rebel against all that, to be open, and tolerant and accepting.

Slowly the narrator learns how this attitude has led to the man being hopelessly abused and reduced in life. Out of kindness he took a fellow into partnership in the business he’d set up with the legacy from his parents, but while he was serving in the Great War the fellow ran it into bankruptcy. Strange thing, though, almost immediately afterwards, his partner set up a new concern and is now a rich man.

In a similar vein, he reveals he has a 27-year-old son who’s never had a job, wants to be something in the theatre, gads around London with well-off friends. So our chap sends him as much money as he can to support him.

Lastly, he has a wife, or had a wife. His father had strict moral principles about who could and couldn’t be introduced at home, but he thought that was all rubbish and encouraged his wife to have her own friends and go out and about on her own. She liked dancing, he didn’t, she went to dance lessons and then dance clubs and then left him for a chap who was good at dancing and had a bit of a fast reputation.

So here he is. Reduced to ‘selling sewing machines on commission to Indian storekeepers up and down the East African coast’, a victim of his own niceness and credulousness:

a jaunty, tragic little figure, cheated out of his patrimony by his partner, battened on by an obviously worthless son, deserted by his wife, an irrepressible, bewildered figure striding off under his bobbing topee, cheerfully butting his way into a whole continent of rapacious and ruthless jolly good fellows.

Excursion in Reality (1932)

Struggling young novelist Simon Lent, living in a pokey mews flat and managing a relationship with demanding Sylvia, is hired out of the blue by British movie mogul Sir James MacRea. He is collected from his mews flat and plunged into a mad whirligig of meetings, missed appointments, canteen breaks, tours round film studios and sets, a whirlwind affair with Macrae’s secretary, Miss Grits, all based on the nonsensical notion that he should write an updated version of Hamlet, with modern dialogue, with a bit of Macbeth thrown in. Lent demurs. Sir James steamrollers over him:

“Ah, you don’t see my angle. There have been plenty of productions of Shakespeare in modern dress. We are going to produce him in modern speech. How can you expect the public to enjoy Shakespeare when they can’t make head or tail of the dialogue. D’you know I began reading a copy the other day and blessed if I could understand it. At once I said, ‘What the public wants is Shakespeare with all his beauty of thought and character translated into the language of everyday life.’”

For three weeks Lent throws himself into the ridiculous project, working hand in glove with Miss Grits and summoned to meetings at any hour of day or night. And then, as suddenly as he was summoned Lent is dropped by the director and studio, his contract terminated, and returns to the calm life of a struggling novelist, living in a tiny mews flat and having long moody dinners with Sylvia again.

Incident in Azania (1933)

Azania is the name of the fictional African country Waugh invented as the setting for his fourth novel, Black Mischief, loosely based on Zanzibar which he had visited on his 1930 trip to East Africa, recorded in Remote People.

The story is so inconsequential, I wondered if I’d read it right. Into the small colonial society of Matodi, port city of Azania, arrives the strapping blonde Prunella Brookes, attractive feisty daughter of the local oil company agent. Since there are only eight Englishwomen in the entire town, including a 2-year-old and all the rest married, her arrival inevitably causes a stir and soon there is gossip about which of the most eligible bachelors she is likely to date.

Then she disappears, then ransom letters arrive at the club. She has been kidnapped by bandits, led by the notorious Joab! They want £10,000 for her safe return.

The story is picked up by the wider press and a strapping Australian journalist flies in, a reporter for the Daily Excess. In a repetition of the satire on the press which featured in Black Mischief and was to form the central theme of Scoop, this chap writes a series of sensational and utterly invented descriptions of the bandits and their squalid caves and their fearsome leader.

Finally, he collects the ransom money, takes a jeep and the local Armenian businessman and all-round fixed Mr. Youkoumian up in the hills determined to find and confront this Joab, hand over the ransom and free the lovely young virgin. Instead, in a tremendous anti-climax, they encounter Miss Brooks stumbling down the track towards them, apparently freed and unharmed. With complete illogicality, instead of turning and heading back to town, Prunella insists they are surrounded by Joab’s snipers and so Youkoumian had better take the car and ransom and drive further up the hill to the bandit camp.

During the wait Prunella gives the ardent journalist a detailed and obviously completely fictional account of her stay among the bandits. Then Youkoumian returns, Prunella declares the snipers have all withdrawn, they get in the car and return to Matodi.

Much fuss and bother about her, the memsahibs clucking like hens, the chaps congratulating themselves on job well done, the journalist files his last triumphant story and departs, and a couple of months later Prunella quietly sails back to Blighty.

Only slowly does it dawn on some of the senior members of the ex-pat community that they have been diddled. There’s no proof and it isn’t explicitly stated, but the implication is that the entire ‘kidnapping’ was a con set up by Prunella with Mr Youkoumian, who split the £10,000 ransom between themselves.

Bella Fleace Gave a Party (1933)

Miss Annabel Rochfort-Doyle-Fleace or Bella Fleace as she is known to the entire countryside, is a very old lady, ‘over 80’ (p.103), who lives alone in a grand house which somehow survived the upheavals surrounding Irish independence, in a place called Ballingar.

One colourless morning in November she decides to give a Christmas party in the old style. The preparations are elaborate and described in length, along with pen portraits of the house’s staff (butler Riley), the caterers and so on.

The preparations were necessarily stupendous. Seven new servants were recruited in the village and set to work dusting and cleaning and polishing, clearing out furniture and pulling up carpets. Their industry served only to reveal fresh requirements; plaster mouldings, long rotten, crumbled under the feather brooms, worm-eaten mahogany floorboards came up with the tin tacks; bare brick was disclosed behind the cabinets in the great drawing room. A second wave of the invasion brought painters, paperhangers and plumbers, and in a moment of enthusiasm Bella had the cornice and the capitals of the pillars in the hall regilded; windows were reglazed, banisters fitted into gaping sockets, and the stair carpet shifted so that the worn strips were less noticeable.

Bella takes a great deal of trouble writing the invitations by hand and considering who to invite and who to exclude, which leads to more brief portraits of the inhabitants of the grand houses in the area, including the various arrivistes and nouveaux riches.

The great night comes, the mansion is illuminated by candles, decorated by swags of flowers, the staff are ready, the expensive food is cooking but…nobody comes, nobody that is except the two arrivistes she had specifically excluded from inviting, but who are attracted by the lights and music from the old house. Puzzled, then perplexed, the old lady slumps on the sofa in the hall. Next day she dies. Her heir, a distant cousin and Englishman named Banks, arrives to make an inventory of the house and its contents. Tucked away in Bella’s escritoire, beautifully written, stamped and addressed he finds the invitations to the party, unsent.

Cruise, or Letters from a Young Lady of Leisure (1933)

Consists entirely of a series of letters and postcards sent home by a silly young woman on a Mediterranean cruise. Must have seemed very clever when it was published. Still pretty funny.

POSTCARD

This is the Sphinx. Goodness how Sad.

POSTCARD

This is temple of someone. Darling I cant wait to tell you I’m engaged to Arthur. Arthur is the one I thought was a pansy. Bertie thinks egyptian art is v. inartistic.

POSTCARD

This is Tutankhamens v. famous Tomb. Bertie says it is vulgar and is engaged to Miss P. so hes not one to speak and I call her Mabel now. G how S. Bill wont speak to Bertie Robert wont speak to me Papa and Lady M. seem to have had a row there was a man with a snake in a bag also a little boy who told my fortune which was v. prosperous Mum bought a shawl.

The Man Who Liked Dickens (1933)

A version of the story which ends the novel A Handful of Dust namely the man, named Mr McMaster here, Mr Todd in Handful, who lives an extremely isolated life among the Shiriana Indians in the Amazonas for 60 years. One day the Indians bring an Englishman to him who has staggered out of the rainforest, shattered, suffering from shock and exposure, an explorer whose partner Anderson has died.

This Paul Henty has a very similar backstory to Tony Last in Handful i.e. his wife left him for another man and, in the first flush of embitterment he got talking to a chap in his club who was planning an expedition to Amazonia and here he is.

The details of the ‘expedition’ are different. There were initially more members, who are all given pen portraits and to whom various misadventures happened, eventually depriving Henty and Professor Anderson of colleagues and a lot of supplies. And in this version Anderson simply falls ill of malaria and dies, compared to the version in the novel where it is the main hero who falls ill, and the expedition leader, Dr Messinger, who sets off to find help in a canoe and is washed over a waterfall to his death. Here the Indians who had brought him this far overnight abandon Paul, taking the canoe, leaving him to stumble along the river bank, becoming increasingly starved, feverish and hallucinatory. This, also, is less effective than the devastating description of the state of utter, helpless misery Tony Last is reduced to after Dr Messinger disappears.

As in the novel the McMaster/Todd figure has power over the local Indians because he fathered most of them – and he has a gun. He informs Henty that a black man stayed with him and read to him every afternoon. Henty is happy to do the same and is shown the man’s ant-eaten collection of Dickens novels. At first all goes well, but by the time they’re into the second volume of Bleak House Henty is restless. He brings up the idea of him leaving and returning to civilisation and for the first time McMaster becomes slightly menacing. Yes. The black man had the same ideas. Then he died. McMaster says he will get the Indians to build a canoe. The months drag on. Then the rainy season arrives and McMaster says it will be impossible to travel. He tries to communicate with the Indians but they don’t even understand sign language. He finds a token left in Martin Chuzzlewit which is a pledge McMaster gave to the black man, Barnabas Washington, that he would be allowed to leave at the end of reading that book. When Henty insists that McMaste lets him leave McMaster simply tells the Indians to stop making him food, to stop bringing him the same breakfast, lunch and dinner he’s been having as McMaster. Henty is forced to resume.

Then a lonely wandering prospector arrives at the camp. McMaster is vexed, gives him something to eat and sends him on his way in under an hour. But that’s time enough for Henty to scribble his name on a piece of paper and press it into the man’s hand. From that moment he lives in hope that his name will eventually reach civilisation, the towns on the coast, and an expedition will be launched to find and rescue him. Thus encouraged he accepts McMaster’s invitation to a feast given by the Indians. He eats and drinks heartily.

When he wakes up it is days later and his watch has gone. McMaster explains that while he slept a little expedition of three Englishmen arrived looking for him. His wife in England is offering a reward. McMaster shows the men the grave of the black man, saying it was Henty’s, and gave them Henty’s watch as proof that the poor man had gotten ill, died and been buried there. The Englishmen went off well contented with the story, the evidence and the proof. No-one else will come looking for him. Ever. He is doomed to spend the rest of his life reading Dickens to a madman in the depths of the Amazon jungle.

So in all important points it is identical with the text used as the final part of A Handful of Dust. And, as there, the final speech where McMaster explains how he tricked him and that he is now doomed meets with no reply from Henty, no indication of his reaction, making it a thousand times more powerful. In much the same way that there is no response from Basil Seal when the old native in Black Mischief explains he’s just taken part in a cannibal feast and eaten his own girlfriend. None needed. This situation itself is shock enough.

Out of Depth (1933)

This is an oddity, a science fiction story, a time travel story. It starts conventionally enough in Waugh’s usual environment, the posh upper classes. Rip is an ageing American who always dines with Lady Metroland when he’s in London (Margot Metroland having weaved in and out of Waugh’s stories since Decline and Fall). When he arrives for dinner he finds most of the other guests gathered round an unusual figure:

An elderly, large man, quite bald, with a vast white face that spread down and out far beyond the normal limits. It was like Mother Hippo in Tiger Tim; it was like an evening shirt-front in a du Maurier drawing; down in the depths of the face was a little crimson smirking mouth; and, above it, eyes that had a shifty, deprecating look, like those of a temporary butler caught out stealing shirts.

Lady Metroland introduces him as Dr Kakophilos, a magician. She is very proud of the sensation he creates, but Rip finds him a sinister, repellent person with a thin Cockney voice. At the end of the party a very drunk Rip finds himself driving Dr Kakophilos and old friend Alistair Trumpington home. Kakophilos invites them in and in his sitting-room is suddenly dressed in magician’s garb, ‘a crimson robe embroidered with gold symbols and a conical crimson hat.’ He launches on a discourse about time and space, recites words of power, while Rip and Alistair giggle drunkenly. As they get up to leave, the magician asks them both if they have a favourite period in time. Alistair says the time of Ethelred the Unready, Rip prefers to go forwards, to five hundred years in the future, thinking it a load of gibberish then stagger to their car and Alistair drives off very drunk and crashes into a van in Shaftesbury Avenue.

When Rip comes to he finds himself in London five hundred years hence, a deserted city in ruins which has been reclaimed by nature. Piccadilly Circus is covered in hummocky turf and a few sheep.

The entrance of the Underground Station was there, transformed into a Piranesi ruin; a black aperture tufted about with fern and some crumbling steps leading down to black water. Eros had gone, but the pedestal rose above the reeds, moss grown and dilapidated. (p.137)

He walks down to the river, almost all the buildings have gone, it is wild. He finds a cluster of huts built on stilts. At dawn the inhabitants emerge, savage tribal people dressed in skins. He walks forward and they surround him, offering no violence, just puzzled. Rip is convinced this is a drunken hallucination but it just won’t wear off.

Days then weeks pass as he is fed fish and coarse bread and beer. Finally there is a great fuss and some educated people arrive. The big thing in the story is that they are black. For a start the boat they arrive in is mechanically driven i.e. far above the scope of the savages, and they were wearing uniforms of leather and fur and well organised under a commanding leader. They trade with the natives, exchanging manufactured goods for gewgaws the natives have dug up and also taking Rip from them.

In other words, the tables have been turned, the roles reversed, and instead of technologically advanced white men penetrating darkest Africa and trading with primitive blacks, now it is the whites whose society has collapsed and the blacks who penetrate up the wide lazy Thames.

Eventually their ship arrives at a military station on the coast, in the style of the early western outposts in Africa. There is a steamer, a black anthropologist with glasses studies him, they get him to read old books with what is obviously, to them, an ancient accent, they measure his skull with calipers. In every way a reversal of white colonial practice.

Then, described in the briefest way, barely a paragraph, he is in a Christian mission and finds the congregation of illiterate whites staring at an altar where a black priest in the outfit of a Dominican friar conducts a Mass, something Rip remembers from his youth, something which has obviously not changed for 2,500 years.

Then he comes round in a hospital bed to find a priest by his bedside, obviously calling into question the extent to which anything he’s just experienced was ‘real’. But when the priest tells him that Alistair, also in hospital, has woken from a dream of being in the middle ages, Rip in a panic thinks maybe it was true, maybe his consciousness was thrown forward in time.

I have seen this described as Waugh’s most overtly Catholic story, which it might well be. But it was the vision of an England fallen back into uncivilised savagery, and visited by colonising technologically advanced Africans which caught my imagination.

By Special Request (1934)

This was the original ending of A Handful of Dust as it appeared in the original magazine serialisation in Harpers’ Bazaar. It feels very flat and banal compared to the horrifying reading-Dickens ending which he eventually chose. Above all, this original final version of the story is very, very short at just eight pages.

In this version, Tony takes the elaborate steps to secure a divorce which feature in the novel but then, when he realises how avaricious and selfish Brenda has become, he calls off the divorce settlement negotiations and – this is the point of divergence, does not set off on a hair-brained expedition to Brazil, but instead (much more likely) treats himself to a long and leisurely cruise.

The story commences as Tony’s liner returns to Southampton. He is met by his chauffeur but surprised to learn that his estranged wife, Brenda, is in the car. They are frightfully decent and polite to each other. Brenda explains she just had to give up that flat, it smelt so frightfully of hot radiators. He knows this is a Decision Moment: should or should he not take Brenda back and forgive her? But in reality, he falls asleep in the warm soft back of the car and only wakes when they reach Hetton.

Where they are greeted by the butler and the luggage unloaded and then he and Brenda inspect the work which has been done in the renovated bathrooms, checking the taps and so on like a, well, an old married couple.

After dinner they sit in the library and Brenda timidly hopes Tony wasn’t in a rage with her when he left, isn’t in a rage now. Course not, he replies, and asks after Beaver, her one-time lover. Well, it all ends up being about money. Tony cut her off without a cent and Beaver didn’t have any money, was blackballed from clubs, she tried to get a job with Mrs Beaver who turned her down, then working in her friend Daisy’s restaurant but that didn’t last.

Then Beaver met the Shameless Blonde and fell madly in love and chucked Brenda, who was now on the brink, living on scraps from the delicatessen round the corner. But the Blonde wouldn’t have anything to do with him and so his mother eventually sent him off to Europe to be a buyer for her business. And so here she is, penniless and without prospects. During the recitation Tony begins to nod off again and so she says, ‘Come on, let’s go up’, and as simply as that their marriage resumes.

In a 3-page coda months have passed and Tony and Brenda are happily married and have popped up to London to do some shopping. Brenda is on at Tony to do something about the flat she leased a year ago for her affair with John Beaver. So at last Tony goes round to see Mrs Beaver, who owns the apartment block. Only instead of simply cancelling the lease, he comes to a discreet arrangement with Mrs Beaver…to have his name removed from the lease and name board of the block, for a fee. Tony rejoins Brenda after her shopping and they catch the train back their country house.

And the train sped through the darkness towards Hetton.

Clearly that is a metaphorical darkness, for the transaction inaugurates a new era of infidelity and betrayal in their marriage. On the one hand this ending is obviously much more realistic than the reading-Dickens ending. But you can also see why it’s unsatisfactory in several ways.

  1. At a stroke it wrecks Tony’s character, his position as the unchanging moral rock at the centre of the story. And in doing so undermines the… the moral or psychological structure of everything which had preceded it.
  2. And undermines the value of the death of their son. That was such a shocking, staggering event that for the entire story to fizzle out in Tony’s go at having an affair feels cheap and nasty. The reading-Dickens ending may be weird, wildly implausible, bizarre and cruel but it has the great advantage of matching the cruel death of little John. In its madness and cruelty it is a far more fitting ending to the novel.

Period Piece (1936)

Lady Amelia, an old lady, likes having stories read to her by Miss Myers. She likes crime stories, often quite violent ones, American ones with ‘brutal realism and coarse slang’, ‘narratives of rape and betrayal’. I suppose, in Waugh’s circle and for his audience, this idea itself might be quite amusing.

When Miss Myers one day ventures the opinion that the story she’s just finished reading was far fetched, Lady Amelia replies that if you recounted stories from the lives of the people around them, you’d probably call them far-fetched. She then tells the story of ‘the extremely ironic circumstances of the succession of the present Lord Cornphillip.’

Etty a cousin of her mother’s marries Billy Cornphillip, a phenomenally boring man. Lady Amelia was a bridesmaid (p.155). Their marriage upset Ralph Bland who was Billy Cornphillip’s nearest relative and stood to inherit his fortune if he’d died without an heir. He has a wife and children to support and not much money. Over the years, though, Etty fails to become pregnant so Ralph bucks up.

Ralph comes to stay one Christmas but his 6-year-old son gives the game away when he tells Billy that, when he (Billy) inherits, he’ll pull the whole place down. At that point there is a complete breach between the two men and war declared. Billy is a Conservative and Ralph comes down to stand in his constituency as a Radical (and wins). At which point Billy accuses Ralph of corruption during the election and successfully gets him unseated.

Ralph takes this very badly and takes to attending speeches Billy is giving and laughing of clapping in the wrong place, he gets drunk in the local pub and is found asleep on Billy’s terrace. All this is very difficult for skinny Etty who had been friends with Ralph.

One bonfire night Ralph got drunk and made a load of threats against Billy, who called the police and had him up in magistrates court and he was given a banning order but amazed everyone by leaving that very afternoon for Venice with Billy’s wife, Etty! However, the affair was not a success, they stayed in an insanitary palace, Etty fell ill, Ralph ran off with American lady who was much more his type, and so Etty returned to England. She tries to find friends to stay with but, eventually, everyone hears she was back with Billy and about to have a baby. It is a boy i.e. a son and heir.

So this is very broadly the same plot as in Unconditional Surrender – a posh chap accepts the child his wife has had by another man she’s been having an affair with.

But the point of the story, or maybe its literary feature, is the way it veers away at the very end from what might well be the most bombshell part: which is that the boy never knew he wasn’t the son of his father, and which is described only indirectly:

until quite lately, at luncheon with Lady Metroland, when my nephew Simon told him, in a rather ill-natured way. (p.159)

It is very characteristic indeed of Waugh that these kind of bombshell moments are told at one remove or prompt little or no response. Blink and you might miss them. Imagine the impact on the son, his confused feelings, the agonised conversations when he confronts his mother and father. Absolutely none of that is here, all left to the reader to work out, that’s if he or she even notices this revelation, given the way it is tucked away at the end of the little story as a throwaway sentence.

On Guard (1934)

Millicent Blade is a lovely girl but she has a small shapeless nose. In another example of the way Waugh, when reaching for a comparison for anything, thinks first of his prep or public school, his description of Millicent’s nose goes:

It was a nose that pierced the thin surface crust of the English heart to its warm and pulpy core; a nose to take the thoughts of English manhood back to its schooldays, to the doughy-faced urchins on whom it had squandered its first affection, to memories of changing room and chapel and battered straw boaters.

Hector kissed her reverently on the tip of this nose. As he did so, his senses reeled and in momentary delirium he saw the fading light of the November afternoon, the raw mist spreading over the playing fields; overheated youth in the scrum; frigid youth at the touchline, shuffling on the duckboards, chafing their fingers and, when their mouths were emptied of biscuit crumbs, cheering their house team to further exertion…

Hector gazed at her little, shapeless, mobile button of a nose and was lost again . . . “Play up, play up,” and after the match the smell of crumpets being toasted over a gas-ring in his study . . .

A good deal of the upper-class pose in Waugh’s fiction derives from the failure of all these public schoolboys to ever grow up and genuinely confront a wider world; their preference to stay within the safe sanctuaries of Oxbridge colleges or Westminster common rooms or Inns of Court chambers or their gentlemen’s clubs, mentally prisoned in their boyhoods, never growing up.

Anyway, Millicent’s fiancé, Hector, is off to Africa, buying a farm off a chap named Beckthorpe who has consistently bad luck with it. Dining with Beckthorpe at his club, Hector wonders what he can give Millicent as a memento, to make her remember him till he’s well off enough to invite her over. Some jewellery? A photo?

Beckthorpe suggests a dog, and so as to ram the point home, name it Hector. Next day Hector goes to one of London’s largest emporiums and, in rather a panic, buys a poodle. When he leans down to commune, the little perisher takes a snap at him which he adroitly avoids. Hector tells the doggy to prevent any other men getting at Millicent.

Millicent, characteristically, goes to the wrong station so misses seeing Hector off on the train to the port to the ship which will take him to Africa. Hector gives the poodle to Beckthorpe to give to Millicent. Millicent writes to tell him she loves it and it has already bitten a ‘man called Mike.’

The narrative now steps back to reveal that Millicent’s passions for men generally last about 4 months and was reaching that period when Hector’s last minute flurry of activity to find a job slightly renewed it. The comic conceit of the story is the idea that the puppy heard and understood Hector’s injunction not to let other men near Millicent.

The rest of the text develops this idea via mishaps with a series of suitors. Hector the dog adopts strategies to be the centre of attention so no suitor stands a chance: he makes a fuss of the sugar bowl, goes to the door and scratches to be let out then scratches to be let back in, or pretend to be sick, gagging and retching so that Millicent carries him from the room thus destroying any attempt at humour.

As for Hector the supposed fiancé, Millicent soon forgets about him. He writes weekly from the farm in Kenya where things are hard, but Millicent rarely even opens the envelopes and never reads to the end. When friends ask her about Hector, she increasingly thinks they’re referring to the dog not her beloved:

it came naturally to Millicent to reply, ‘He doesn’t like the hot weather much I’m afraid, and his coat is in a very poor state. I’m thinking of having him plucked,’ instead of, ‘He had a go of malaria and there is black worm in his tobacco crop.’

If young men she’s met at parties call, Hector learns to mimic taking a call, cocking his head on one side, so that Millicent gets into the habit of putting the receiver to the dog’s muzzle, deafening the (hungover) young men with a barrage of barks. If men invite Millicent for a walk in the park, Hector goes on ahead, carrying her bag and periodically dropping it so the young man has to pick it up.

Two years pass. Suitors come and go each of them, eventually, foxed by the dog. She has long ago stopped caring about her lover in Kenya. At last Hector meets his match in the person of the middle-aged Major Sir Alexander Dreadnought, Bart., M.P., a man routinely put upon by friends and family from an early age who had developed a forebearing nature.

Hector tries out all his tricks but Dreadnought simply finds him charming. Dreadnought invites Millicent and her mother to his place in the country where Hector does everything he can to be obnoxious, ragging the carpet, rolling in poo in the grounds then coming back and soiling every chair in the house. He howled all night, killed some partridges, hid so the household were up half the night looking for him. Dreadnought takes it all in good part.

Back in London Hector the poodle ponders his options and realises that, all his strategems having failed, there was only one last desperate way for him to keep his promise to his original master, his purchaser, Hector. And so the next time Millicent leans over to nuzzle him, Hector makes one quick snap and bites Millicent’s pretty little snub nose clean off! A plastic surgeon repairs it but creates a new type of nose, strong and Roman. Gone is all Millicent’s schoolboy charm. Hector achieves his aim, and turns her into a suitorless spinster:

Now she has a fine aristocratic beak, worthy of the spinster she is about to become. Like all spinsters she watches eagerly for the foreign mails and keeps carefully under lock and key a casket full of depressing agricultural intelligence; like all spinsters she is accompanied everywhere by an ageing lapdog. (p.171)

Mr. Loveday’s Little Outing (1935)

Has a great comic opening line:

‘You will not find your father greatly changed,’ remarked Lady Moping, as the car turned into the gates of the County Asylum.

Ten years earlier Lord Moping had attempted to hang himself after a particularly distressing annual garden party had been ruined by squally weather. He was taken away and housed in the wing of the asylum reserved for wealthier lunatics where the Lady Moping visited him periodically. This is the first time their grown-up daughter, Angela.

Lord Moping is brought to the doctor’s office where they wait by a kindly old gent with lovely white hair who the doctor tells them is named Mr Loveday. He has become Lord Moping’s assistant in the asylum, patient and kind.

Lord Moping is huffy and busy with all his ‘work’, under the delusion that he needs to do a great deal of research about rivers and fisheries and send off letters to important people such as the Pope. He claims not to recognise or know Angela and hurries back to his room, but Mr Loveday very kindly comes back a few minutes later to see Lady Moping and Angela and assure them that his lordship will like to see them again, it’s just he’s very busy and distracted at the moment.

When he’s gone the governor tells him Loveday is not a warder or nurse, as they thought, but himself an inmate. Why? Twenty years earlier, when a young man, he knocked a young woman off her bicycle and strangled her. Gave himself up immediately.

Angela is a noble spirit, a compassionate soul. She thinks it’s unfair such a sweet kind old man as Mr Loveday should be locked up. She studies the laws surrounding lunacy. She makes an excuse to pop over to the asylum again and asks to ‘interview’ Mr Loveday. When she asks him if he’d like to be free, Loveday replies that, yes, he has one little ambition he’d like to fulfil before he dies.

Angela leaves with the tears of the sensitive in her eyes. She studies more, lobbies the various important personages who come to stay at their house over the summer. Finally she gets her way and it is announced Mr Loveday will be released. There is a big ceremony with the governor, Angela and various lunatics in attendance, then Mr Loveday walks free.

A few hours he is back, handing himself in. He took advantage of his hours of liberty to strangle another young lady who happened to ride by.

Gruesome, in the manner of Roald Dahl’s boom-boom Tales of the Unexpected.

Winner Takes All (1936)

A tale of two brothers, Gervase and Thomas Kent-Cumberland, the first much favoured, feted, celebrated and blessed with all the gifts a grand family can bestow; Thomas an unwanted second child which his mother hoped would be a girl. Throughout their lives Gervase receives all the benefits and gifts:

  • Gervase is born in an expensive nursing home with all the trimmings, his birth celebrated with a bonfire on the beacon hill, his christening with a garden party leading to fireworks; Thomas in a shoddy modern house on the East Coast delivered by a repellently middle class doctor
  • when their uncle buys Thomas the big red model car he’s always wanted for Christmas, their mother assumes he’s got it wrong and changes the labels so Gervase receives the grand toy
  • when their father dies during the Great War their mother becomes extremely parsimonious and obsessed by the threat of Death Duties, cuts are instituted all through the grand household and in their school activities, so that poor Gervase doesn’t inherit the debts – ‘ “It is all for Gervase,” Mrs. Kent-Cumberland used to explain’
  • Gervase is sent to Eton, to save money Tom is sent to a much cheaper, modern school
  • Gervase goes up to Christ Church Oxford where he consorts with other magnificent Etonians in the Bullingdon Club; when Tom goes to visit him he is intimidated and drinks too much in a corner
  • marooned at home after school, his mother sets Tom to reorganising the family library; in it he comes across a manuscript journal kept by a Colonel Jasper Cumberland during the Peninsular War; Tom does a lot of research, identifies maps of the campaign and a picture of the Colonel and writes an introduction and notes to it; all this is taken off him and given to Gervase who publishes it under his own name and gains all the praise and kudos
  • swiftly followed by Gervase’s 21st birthday party whose celebrations are lengthy and elaborate; Tom’s old bedroom is given to a guest and he has to sleep in the local pub
  • meanwhile Tom had been found in a motor manufacturing firm in Wolverhampton and found digs over a fruitshop on the outskirts of town

After a while you realise Waugh has just sat down and made a list of every single humiliation a younger son can be put through, and then inflicted in his fictional Tom. The sequence of humiliations rises to a sort of climax when Tom falls in love with a very ‘common’ girl from the motor manufacturer works, Gladys Cruttwell. When he, finally, reluctantly, takes Gladys home to meet his mother, Mrs Kent-Cumberland is, as you might expect, appalled.

With the result that Tom is swiftly removed from the motor business and dispatched to a farm in Australia! Meanwhile Gervase has come of age and now owns and runs the estate at Tomb with lavish prodigality, extending buildings, buying hunters, contemplating a swimming pool, entertaining lavishly each weekend.

Meanwhile years pass and Mrs Kent-Cumberland does not notice from his letters (which she rarely reads) that Tom has fallen in love with an Australian girl, that he is sailing with her and her father to London, that they have arrived!

She sends Gervase to meet them who reports back that they are a) staying at Claridges (rich and b) going to stay in the country with the Chasms (socially connected). Eventually they arrive, tall Mr MacDougal and daughter Bessie. What quickly emerges is they own vast territories in Australia and are loaded. Bessie is a comically naive and impressionable young woman, impressed by everything she sees. But the more she sees of England the less remarkable Tom seems. The more his brother stands out as a copy of him but with more life. When Mr MacDougal has a confidential chat with Mrs Kent-Cumberland and informs her that his annual revenue is somewhere around £50,000, a twinkle comes into her eye.

She makes plans and carries them out. She encourages Gervase to be very nice to Bessie, drops hints to Bessie about the advantages of being attached to the eldest son and then carries off her masterstroke – she returns from London one day to tell Tom she has just bumped into Gladys Cruttwell! Of course she arranged a luncheon and told Gladys that Tom had never got over him. Now she lies to Tom and tells her Gladys never got over him. She has invited her to come and stay for a few days. She plays on Tom’s sense of guilt and fair play, asking whether he had not, in fact, led on the poor girl and then dumped her.

When they are reunited and left alone they both proceed along these carefully arranged lines with the result that two weeks later Tom and Gladys are married. Mrs Kent-Cumberland explains everything to the MacDougals, not least that Gervase, the taller, handsomer brother is free and available. They are married after 6 weeks engagement. He and Bessie have two children and six racehorses. Tom and Gladys are packed off to Australia where MacDougal gives him a junior management job on a remote ranch in the middle of nowhere.

Not so much a tale of sibling rivalry as of sibling crushing defeat. And the indomitable figure of the scheming upper class mother.

An Englishman’s Home (1939)

Mr Beverley Metcalfe made his pile in the cotton trade in Alexandria and then bought a large acreage and house in the quaint Cotswold village of Much Malcock. He is nouveau riches, he insists on calling the nice Georgian house he’s bought Much Malcock Hall, although all the locals, including his ineffective gardener Boggett, insist on referring to it by its traditional name, the Grumps. The narrative paints a lazy, comic picture of the village and its inhabitants, at least those of the ‘card-leaving class’ aka ‘the gentry’, namely Lord Brakehurst, Lord Lieutenant of the County, his wife Lady Brakehurst had, Lady Peabury (‘a diligent reader of fiction, mistress of many Cairn terriers and of five steady old maidservants’) and Colonel Hodge, and ‘the Hornbeams at the Old Mill were a childless, middle-aged couple who devoted themselves to craftsmanship’, vegetarians and bohemians. Everyone cordially dislikes everyone else. It’s all very English.

Into this placid little world drops a bombshell – a young man has bought one of old farmer Westmacott’s fields and is planning to build an estate of suburban villas there! Now this field abuts at different points the properties of Metcalfe, Peabury, Hodge and Hornbeam and so they convene a series of meetings at which they agree to find out what can be done to prevent the development, contact the local council, the Council for the Preservation of Rural England and so on.

Eventually it becomes clear they are going to have to buy the field off its purchaser in order to keep it undeveloped. Colonel Hodge is sent by the committee to meet the purchaser, Mr. Hargood-Hood at the village’s one pub, the Brakehurst Arms. Here Mr. Hargood-Hood very successfully terrifies the Colonel by showing him what he intends to build: it’s not an estate it’s an experimental industrial laboratory, complete with two great chimneys to emit the poison fumes, a water tower to get high pressures, and six bungalows for his staff.

The text then includes correspondence between Metcalfe and Lady Peabury in which it is revealed that Mr Hargood-Hood wants £500 for the field (and lawyer’s fees and cost of the architect’s drawings). (Back when he bought his Georgian house Metcalfe had been offered the option of buying Westmacott’s field for some £170 but turned it down because of the expense; so this represents a tripling of the asking price.)

Peabury refuses Metcalfe’s offer to go halves on the purchase – the two obstinately refuse to co-operate – with the result it looks like the development will go ahead and both Peabury and Metcalfe begin to make plans to sell their homes and move out of the village when Colonel makes a last-ditch bid to avert building going ahead. He comes up with a solution to the great Peabury-Metcalfe standoff which is to purchase the field in order to build a scout hut on it: Lady Peabury will contribute £250, Metcalfe £500, and the other families a few pounds. This allows the field to be purchased from Hargood-Hood and disaster averted, while Metcalfe gets to have the new building named after him and can swank round the village as a public benefactor.

Only in the last few paragraphs do we learn that it was a scam all along. Hargood-Hood’s ‘lawyer’ is in fact his brother and they make a tidy living by descending on idyllic country villages, buying up a plot with suitably loaded neighbours, then threatening to build their toxic factory and letting the gentry buy back the field at a grossly inflated rate. it’s a scam, a con, although, as ‘Jock’ admits, they cut this one pretty fine. The gentry of Much Malcock squabbled for so long that the brothers were nearly left holding the baby!

The Sympathetic Passenger (1939)

Mr James hates the radio, the endless blare of music from wirelesses owned by his wife and daughter. (Dislike of wirelesses which are on all the time blaring out music being a theme which also crops up ‘Tactical Exercise’ and is prominent in the final volume of the Sword of Honour trilogy)

With relief he leaves his house and sets off to drive to the local train station. On the way he sees a man trying to flag down lifts. He stops and offers him a lift to the station. What follows is the dialogue of these two people in a car. Mr James casually mentions his dislike of the radio and this triggers the hitchhiker into an increasingly demented rant, in which he accuses the BBC of mind control and other wild, delusional accusations. A car overtakes them playing loud blaring music and the hitchhiker orders Mr James to chase it and overtake it so they can kill the heathen driver. Mr James is by now terrified but his car simply won’t go faster at which point the hitchhiker says he will kill Mr James.

They arrive at the station and Mr James leaps out but the other guy is quicker and is closing in on him when…a load of policemen sortie from the station entrance and pounce on the man, Oh yes, he’s a well known lunatic, the policeman tells him cheerily. In fact Mr James is lucky to be alive.

Mr James drives home a chastened man and when he arrives, for once, doesn’t complain about his wife or daughter playing the radio. In fact he now finds it strangely reassuring.

Work Suspended (1942)

This is a long piece and reviewed in a separate blog post.

Charles Ryder’s Schooldays (written 1945, published 1982)

I’ve mentioned the struggle many privately educated writers of Waugh’s generation had in escaping the mental world of their prep and public schools and this is a kind of quintessence of that world and that problem. The thirty or so pages of this fragment are set at a private school named Spierpoint Down which is pretty obviously Waugh’s own public school, Lancing on the South Downs. Crucially, unlike Brideshead Revisited, it is not a first-person narrative told by Charles, but a third person narrative about him. Charles is in the Classical Upper Fifth.

It is the first day back after the summer holidays, Wednesday 24 September 1919. We are treated to an excruciatingly tedious exposition of life at Spierpoint, with its hundred and one stupidly named buildings (Head’s House, Old’s House) and petty regulations and privileges for the different year groups or prefects and so on (the way one is allowed to wear coloured socks or walk arm in arm with a friend once one has graduated to this or that privileged class or clique).

It is a world of private rules designed to create a strong esprit de corps among those who are in the know and exclude everyone outside. It is drenched in hyper-privileged assumption that all the pupils are rich, know London’s restaurants and theatres, belong to a network of extended families which run everything and know each other, and the assumption that all these insufferable fifth formers will, in due course, go on to ‘the university’ meaning Oxford.

Charles likes Art and Drawing. He helps a rather over-confidential master, Mr Graves, assemble a small printing press and sort out the moveable typepieces into different fonts. There is Sunday morning communion with a lavish description of the vast Victorian and unfinished chapel. Charles and two friends are caned for refusing to say their evening prayers when ordered to by their head of house.

The diary of classes, sports, book reading, conversations and petty jealousies continues for another few days until Sunday 28 September and abruptly halts, exhausted by its own tedium. This fat chunk of public school fetishisation lacks any of the wit or humour or fun or lightness which characterises the best of Waugh’s writing. it feels intolerably smug and superior and self-satisfied. You can see why he never published it during his lifetime.

Short stories 2. Post-war

Scott-King’s Modern Europe (1947)

A novella – reviewed in a separate blog post.

Tactical Exercise (1947)

This is good story, in a grim, grand guignol sort of way. John Verney hates his wife Elizabeth. He was wounded in Italy. The pain of the wound leads to outbursts of anger. He returns home to have to live with her family in house in Hampstead. Everything infuriates him: the back garden is a bomb crater, all the glass in the back windows are broken. A grimy life of rationing. John stands as Liberal in a county constituency but loses badly to a Radical who happens to be a Jew. His bitterness against life makes him increasingly antisemitic.

Meanwhile, his wife Elizabeth works in something clandestine in the Foreign Office. She’s clever, she’s a linguist. When John learns her boss is a Jew it crystallises his hatred of his wife. She becomes a symbol of everything he hates with all the resentment and bitterness of the war, his coming down in the world, his political failure. For John his wife becomes a representative of the shabby socialist bureaucracy which shackles him, she is helping communist regimes in eastern Europe, and she works for a Jew!

Still they manage to just about be civil to each other and live together. They both go to see a film, a trite murder mystery in which the wife drugs the husband and throws him out of the window of a holiday home overlooking a cliff. He falls to his death. She inherits his wealth. This gives John the idea of copying it.

A month or so later they go on holiday to a holiday cottage at the edge of a cliff. John thinks he’s being clever by softening up the locals for the crime he plans to commit by telling everyone that his wife sleepwalks, telling chaps at the golf club, down the pub. One of them even recommends him to go talk to the local doctor, a nice chap.

The twist in the tale is that she has been planning to murder John all along. She brought a bottle of whiskey along as a treat and John has been having a glass every evening before supper. Now, when he finishes the glass he starts to feel strangely woozy. She helps him to the sofa, by the window, the window overlooking the cliff, and the long fall to the jagged rocks below…

This macabre little tale is one of several which anticipate the twisted stories of Roald Dahl.

Compassion (1949)

This narrative was recycled in its entirety, and almost verbatim, into the final part of the third novel in the Sword of Honour trilogy, Unconditional Surrender.

In the novel the events involve the trilogy’s protagonist, Guy Crouchback; here they involve a Major Gordon. The basic narrative is identical: Gordon is posted as British Military Mission i.e. liaison with the communist Yugoslav partisans in a place called Begoy in Croatia. He describes the wrecked town and the heavy-handed Partisan authorities who call themselves ‘the Praesidium’. To be precise:

Begoy was the headquarters of a partisan corps in Northern Croatia. It lay in a large area, ten miles by twenty, of what was called “Liberated Territory,” well clear of the essential lines of communication. The Germans were pulling out of Greece and Dalmatia and were concerned only with main roads and supply points. They made no attempt now to administer or patrol the hinterland. There was a field near Begoy where aircraft could land unmolested. They did so nearly every week in the summer of 1944 coming from Bari with partisan officials and modest supplies of equipment. In this area congregated a number of men and women who called themselves the Praesidium of the Federal Republic of Croatia.

Gordon is assigned a creepy interpreter named Bakic who spies on him. The narrative concerns the 108 Jewish displaced persons Major Gordon discovers in the town. Their representative, an anxious young woman named Mme. Kanyi, tells Gordon they want to leave, to get away to Italy. Mme. Kanyi’s husband is an engineer and does his best to keep the struggling power plant going.

Gordon becomes obsessed with helping the Jews but is blocked at every turn, especially by the communist authorities who are very suspicious of his motivation. He manages to get two representatives out on a flight to Bari, but by the time the authorities give permission for the rest to be flown out the autumn fogs and then winter snows prevent planes landing at the airstrip.

When his mission is wound up and he is transferred back to Bari Gordon eventually learns that the Jews were in the end evacuated and sent to a camp for displaced persons near Lecce. When he visits the camp the Jews he helped crowd round but Mme. Kanyi and her husband are not there. All they know is that they were taken off the lorries evacuating them from Begoy at the last moment.

At this point occurs the biggest difference from the narrative as it appears in the novel. Here Gordon gets a cousin in the newly opened embassy in newly liberated Belgrade to do some digging for him. This cousin writes him a letter which is quoted verbatim in which he reports that the Kanyis were executed by the communist authorities. The husband was blamed for sabotaging the power plant and the wife was accused of having an affair with the British liaison officer and for concealing counter-revolutionary propaganda. Now we and Gordon know that the husband was the only person keeping the wretched power plant going, and that the wife was not at all having an affair with him, they just spoke a few times. As for the ‘counter-revolutionary propaganda’ that was a load of old London magazines Gordon left with her to help her while away the long winter nights. Their execution is, in other words, a farcical tragedy and an enormous injustice.

In the story he recounts all this to his regiment’s second in command and the chaplain. When he says it was a complete waste of time, the chaplain gives him a more subtle theological interpretation, saying that no matter how pointless it may seem, the situation a) prompted good works by Gordon but also b) that the Kanyis in some way did him good, drawing out of him a new feeling for compassion and charity which hadn’t been there before. Hmm. Thought-provoking.

In the novel the facts remain mostly the same but the treatment feels completely different. The final scene with the bluff second in command and the chaplain offering words of comfort are completely absent from the novel. But it’s not the absences, it’s the positive additions in the novel which transform the story.

  1. We have known Guy intimately for almost three novels. Everything which happens resonates with his character of sterling integrity and quiet determination.
  2. In the novel Guy has other Brits around him, namely the squadron leader and de Souza who add a kind of variety to his responses, so his obsession with saving the Jews becomes one action among multiple ones carried out by the British Mission.
  3. The final scene with the chaplain is swept away and replaced by a more complex final arrangement: in this, instead of getting a written and therefore rather bland report about the fate of the Kanyis, it is told to him by a lickspittle functionary of the army who we have, through the course of the book, come to realise is a communist fellow traveller or stooge. Unlike the anonymous cousin in Belgrade of the story, this creep, Gilpin, the coward who had to be kicked out of the plane on his first parachute jump then lied to everyone about his ‘bravery’, it is this character who Waugh has gone to great lengths to build up as a representative of the corrupt ‘values’ of the new era, who tells Guy to his face about all the ‘evidence’ of the Kanyis’ counter-revolutionary activity, and smirks that they got the revolutionary justice they deserved. It is a vastly more powerful and disgusting experience to read the version in the novel, and very effectively crystallises all the morel, military, political and social failures and compromises which he sees the end of the war as bringing.

So this is an interesting enough story, but you shouldn’t read it here, you should read The Sword of Honour trilogy where the same basic story acquires multiple extra resonances and meanings from its inclusion in a novel.

Love Among the Ruins (1953)

A novella – reviewed in a separate blog post.

Basil Seal Rides Again (1963)

This was Waugh’s last published work of fiction. All critics quote Waugh’s own description of it in the dedication to old friend Ann Fleming, as: ‘a senile attempt to recapture the manner of my youth’. It certainly contains a roll call of well-loved characters from the 1930s comic novels, including Peter Pastmaster, Parsnip and Pimpernell (the joke names he gave the left-wing 30s writers Auden and Isherwood), Lady Metroland, Sonia Trumpington and numerous others, indeed the narrative opens with Peter and Basil attending a banquet to celebrate the award of the Order of Merit to Ambrose Silk (the lisping aesthete character Waugh based on Brian Howard). Peter and Basil have let themselves go: ‘They were two stout, rubicund, richly dressed old buffers’.

Critics have judged the story harshly but I found some of it funny, for example the opening dialogue between the two old boys as they suffer through long speeches then go for a pee at the same time, gossiping all the time in an amusingly drunken senile way:

‘This Albright married someone — Molly Meadows, perhaps?’
‘I married Molly Meadows.’
‘So you did. I was there. Well, someone like that.’

Returning to his wife, Angela, in their London house, Basil, having caught sight of himself in the toilet mirrors, is more than usually aware that he is fat and unwell. Basil reviews his life and we learn that he blew all the toes off one foot while demonstrating an explosive device during the war, hence his  family nickname of ‘Pobble’ and the need to walk with a cane. Suddenly he realises he is old:

His voice was not the same instrument as of old. He had first assumed it as a conscious imposture; it had become habitual to him; the antiquated, worldly-wise moralities which, using that voice, he had found himself obliged to utter, had become his settled opinions. It had begun as nursery clowning for the diversion of Barbara; a parody of Sir Joseph Mannering; darling, crusty old Pobble performing the part expected of him; and now the parody had become the persona.

He and Angela agree to try out one of those health clinics, sanatorium thingies. They drive down to Kent, check in and have an interview with the presiding doctor:

‘You complain of speechlessness, a sense of heat and strangulation, dizziness and subsequent trembling?’ said this man of science.
‘I feel I’m going to burst,’ said Basil.

For 3 or 4 days they put up with the diet of carrot juice and raw eggs but then, in an entirely predictable bit of comic business, Basil procures some brandy off the young man who runs the resort gym and runs a tidy black market in illicit booze and grub. He drinks it down in one and passes out. The sanatorium  doctor expels him. Basil and Angela return to London.

Here he discovers his daughter, 18 year old Barbara, is in love with a ghastly, uncouth young man, Charles Albright. Late at night Basil discovers the pair rummaging around in his wine cellar, basically stealing some booze to take to a ‘happening’. This is barely into the 1960s so it’s not a psychedelic 60s happening, it’s a beards-and-jazz, beatnik 50s happening.

Basil insists on having an interview with the young man by himself, a solemn occasion for both parties at which Basil is disconcerted to find himself being bested. He looks into the young man’s eyes and face and recognises himself.

After a boozy lunch Basil drops in on Sonia Trumpington who lives alone, with her son, doing charitable works and sewing. He asks Sonia is she knows this Charles Albright, she replies yes, he’s a friend of her son, Robin. When Basil whiningly asks what his daughter can see in the scuffy, beardy young man, Sonia robustly replies, you! He looks, speaks and behaves just like a young Basil.

Sonia says she has photos somewhere of the mother and digs up an old photo album from the 1930s. She identifies the young woman as Elizabeth Stayles, there’s a photo of Basil about to throw her into a lake at some gay 1930s house party.

Seeing the photo awakens an old memory in Basil’s mind. Elizabeth Stayles, yes, didn;t he have an affair with her, all those years ago?

Basil thanks Sonia and returns to his London house whence he invites young Barbara for a chat in Hyde Park by the Serpentine. Here he informs his daughter that her lover is his, Basil’s son. He had a brief fling with Elizabeth Stayles when he got out of hospital after the toes incident, during the Blitz winter of 1940. Only lasted a week then Basil took back up with Angela and Elizabeth (Betty) rooted around for someone else and ended up marrying Clarence Albright, killed in action 1943. Betty herself died young of cancer in 1956. The point is there’s no-one to gainsay his story.

His story being that his daughter, Barbara, has been going out with, and fooling around with, her half-brother. Barbara gets up from the park bench and stumbles across the park. Basil catches a cab to Bellamy’s club for an egg nog, and then onto Claridge’s to meet his wife. She says their daughter returned home looking tragic and locked herself in her room. ‘What she needs,’ says Basil, ‘is a change of scene. I’ve bought all three of us tickets to Bermuda.’

To be honest, from the text I’m not sure whether Charles really is Basil’s son or whether it’s the last in Basil’s long list of outrageous lies and scams. If it is an outrageous lie he has conjured up to scupper his daughter’s relationship with the young man, then it is obviously cruel and heartless. If is isn’t a lie, if it’s true, it’s still a pretty heartless story for Waugh to concoct; told from the father’s point of view it completely ignores the emotional devastation the revelation must have on his daughter.

But I don’t quite understand the handful of critics I’ve read who say the story is ‘disgusting’, as if it was an entirely new note in Basil or Waugh’s career. They seem to forget that Waugh has Basil unknowingly EAT the young woman he fancies in Black Mischief after she’s been caught, killed and cooked by a tribe Basil is staying with. That book was published in 1932, precisely 30 years before this story. Or that in Waugh’s first novel the kindly Mr Prendergast has his head cut off with a hacksaw by a psychotic prison inmate. Or the short story about the polite and docile Mr Loveday who strangles young women to death. Or the devastating ending of Handful of Dust. Or the heartless death of Angela Runcible in Vile Bodies. Or the not one but two suicides in The Loved One.

In other words I wasn’t upset by the story’s apparent cruelty because casual cruelty had been a stock in trade for Waugh’s fiction right from the start.

So: I like the bufferish tone of the story and I liked the old-boy banter between Peter and Basil and especially between 60-something Basil and his wife. It felt both sweet and charitable to the infirmities of age, as was the brief sad interlude where they visit old Margot Metroland and find her sitting in the dark hunched over a television set (as so many lonely old people become addicted to doing).

On the other hand, all the dialogue with his daughter struck me as hopelessly unrealistic, stiff and unnatural, really false although – but how can I know how 60-something posh fathers spoke with their debutante daughters in 1962?

And as to the harsh, cruel sting in the tail, well, it doesn’t feel to me like some sad falling-off of Waugh’s powers at all but entirely in keeping with the cruelty and sadism lurking in the wings of all Waugh’s 1930s novels and of a piece with macabre little horrors such as ‘Mr Loveday’s Little Outing’ (1935) or ‘The Sympathetic Passenger’ (1939).


Credit

The Complete Short Stories by Evelyn Waugh was first published by Chapman and Hall in 1947. All references are to the 2018 Penguin paperback edition.

Related link

Evelyn Waugh reviews

Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint @ the British Museum

‘Thomas is the best doctor for the worthy sick’
(Inscription on a lead ampulla created before 1200 to hold some of the Saint Thomas Becket’s miracle-working blood)

Two years after his murder on 29 December 1170, Thomas Becket was canonised by Pope Alexander III and his tomb at Canterbury cathedral quickly became a site of miraculous healing and wonder cures, and one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations in all of Europe, second only to Rome and Santiago de Compostela.

How appropriate of the British Museum to re-open after the long COVID lockdown with a grand exhibition devoted to one of the greatest healers this country has ever known.

The healing of Ralph de Longeville. Miracle window, Canterbury Cathedral, early 1200s. © The Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral

Thomas’s story

The exhibition is in the central rotunda at the museum, smaller and more intimate than the large Sainsburys gallery at the back. It is laid out in simple chronological order, with key events told in the dozen or so big wall posters and embellished in the labels of over 100 objects brought together for the first time, including rare loans from across the UK and Europe.

Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll quote liberally from the exhibition wall labels:

Becket was born in 1120 in Cheapside, a stone’s throw from St Paul’s Cathedral. He had a comfortable childhood. His parents Gilbert and Matilda were immigrants from Northern France, and part of a wealthy merchant community living in the commercial heart of London.

Around the age of 18 Becket went to study in Paris. After three years in Paris, Becket returned to England. He was offered the chance to work as a clerk for Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, joining a group of ambitious young men. The legal and diplomatic training that Becket received in his nine years with Theobald was life-changing.

In 1154 the archbishop recommended him as royal chancellor to the new king, Henry II, and the two men became great friends. It was the best paid position in the royal household, earning him five shillings a day. As chancellor Becket was responsible for issuing documents in the king’s name.

In 1162 Henry II nominated Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury, following Theobald’s death. It was a controversial appointment. Becket was not a priest and until then had lived a worldly, secular life. The king wanted him to remain chancellor, hoping that having his friend in both positions would increase royal control over Church and State. This plan failed when Becket renounced the chancellorship and began to oppose Henry. In 1164, with tensions escalating, the archbishop escaped across the Channel.

Henry II saw Becket’s rejection of the chancellorship in 1162 as a betrayal. Over the next two years their relationship disintegrated. One issue in particular divided them. The king demanded that churchmen accused of serious crimes be tried in secular rather than religious courts. Becket refused to endorse this infringement of the rights of the Church, provoking the king’s outrage.

Henry II and Becket arguing in a genealogy of the Kings of England, about 1307 to 1327. © British Library Board – Royal MS 20 A II, f. 7v.

With the situation spiralling out of control, Becket was brought before the king and accused of trumped-up crimes. Fearing for his life, on 2 November 1164 the archbishop fled abroad. He spent six years in exile under the protection of Henry’s rival, Louis VII of France, returning on 2 December 1170. Henry II punished Becket for leaving England without his permission, confiscating his land and wealth.

Becket found himself in France at the same time as Pope Alexander III, who was locked in disagreement with Frederick Barbarossa, an emperor with vast territories in central Europe. Like Becket, Alexander was in exile and sought protection from King Louis VII of France. After making peace the pope returned to Rome. This image shows him embracing Becket before their farewell. Alexander was later responsible for Becket’s canonisation as a saint.

Pope Alexander, who had forbidden the Archbishop of York to perform the sacred act, receives a complaint from Becket. He asks for permission to excommunicate the bishops involved in the ceremony, which the pope duly grants.

The coronation of the Young King spurred Becket into action and, after agreeing a fragile peace with Henry II, he decided to return to England. Fatefully, before leaving France he carried out the sentences of excommunication endorsed by the pope.

On 2 December, Becket returned to Canterbury and the cathedral he had not seen for six years. At his Christmas court in Normandy, Henry learned that Becket had excommunicated the English bishops involved in his son’s coronation. He flew into a rage, calling Becket a traitor and ‘low-born clerk’. Four knights, Reginald FitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, Richard Brito and William de Tracy, heard the king’s outburst. They hatched a plan to bring the archbishop to Henry and headed for England to arrest him.

The knights arrived at Canterbury and entered the precincts. They tried to arrest Thomas but he fled into the cathedral itself. Here the knights again tried to seize him but Thomas refused to go with them. The knights had worked themselves up into a rage and also risked major humiliation if they ended up having to leave empty-handed. Although the precise exchanges will never be known the confrontation escalated out of control and finally the knights attacked, one of them raising his sword and bringing it down to shatter Thomas’s skull. There were quite a few eye witnesses including Thomas’s clerk, Edward Grim, who tried to intervene and was injured in the struggle. All the eye witnesses agree that Thomas’s skull was shattered and a fragment of it flew to the ground.

The exhibition contains numerous depictions of the deed, as illustrations in illuminated manuscripts such as the MS containing John of Salisbury’s Life of St Thomas Becket from the British Library, one of the earliest known representations of the murder, or as carved reliefs, as shown below.

Alabaster panel showing the murder of Thomas Becket. England, around 1425 to 1450. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Appalled at what they had done the knights returned to Henry’s court in France where the king immediately grasped the significance of the catastrophe. In the years to come he made not one but two major penances to atone for his guilt and eventually took the extraordinary step of going on pilgrimage himself to Canterbury, where he stripped to a loincloth and shuffled through the cathedral on his bare knees, arriving at the altar where he was flagellated by monks.

To understand the utterly Christian worldview of the Middle Ages, you have to grasp that this was a reasonable and practical thing for a king to do. It cleansed him of his personal guilt and thus enabled his soul to enter heaven. It went a long way to winning back those of his subjects and the hierarchy of the church in Rome which had been scandalised by the murder. And so it, at the same time, fulfilled Henry’s purpose of asserting his authority over the farflung territories of his Plantagenet empire which stretched from Scotland to the Pyrenees.

The personal drama

Complicated story, isn’t it, and I’ve followed the museum’s account so closely because your opinion of the murder has to depend on a good grasp of its context and of the precise chain of events leading up to it.

At the level of personal drama, Henry and Becket had at one time been very good friends. Becket was 13 years older than Henry, better educated and in many ways a mentor to the younger man. The pair worked well together when they were king and chancellor. When Henry raised him to the archbishopric he therefore had every expectation that Thomas would be grateful.

But Thomas was also a flamboyant man, given to grandiloquent gestures as chancellor and, when he became archbishop, there is evidence from contemporary accounts that many other clerics disapproved. He had to be promoted through the hierarchy of clerical positions at top speed which many felt made a mockery of religion.

Therefore Thomas was nervously aware of his lack of deep theological training or of proper clerical experience. Combine that with a tendency to grandstand and you have an accident waiting to happen.

To this day historians debate his motives.

1. When he refused Henry’s demands to reform ecclesiastical law in order to make priests who had committed egregious crimes (for example rape or murder) subject to the secular laws of the land, did Thomas do it because he sincerely felt everyone anointed into the church was only accountable to the church – or because of his awareness that he wasn’t a ‘proper’ churchman so he was trying to curry favour with the English church hierarchy and the distant pope?

2. When he made the dramatic move of excommunicating the bishops who anointed Henry’s young son co-king, did he do it out of purely religious fervour and in order to protect the rights and privileges of the post of archbishop of Canterbury, whose ancient right it was to perform coronations and this undermined his authority. Or was he, once again, grandstanding to curry favour, this time with the pope who he met in exile in France and who explicitly approved his actions?

3. Lastly, why did he insist on staying put when the knights came to arrest him? Chances are he knew they were behaving without Henry’s explicit permission, that arresting an archbishop was illegal, and he knew any confrontation between him and the king would inevitably draw in the pope who was a staunch ally. Why not go with the knights, have it out with the king and be exonerated?

Alabaster panel from an altarpiece showing Becket’s consecration as archbishop on 3 June 1162. England, first half of the 15th century. Private Collection. © Nicholas and Jane Ferguson.

Or, as T.S. Eliot’s play on the subject considers, did Thomas want to be martyred? Facing intractable problems, not least his own sense of inadequacy and illegitimacy (as a man who lacked the deep experience required by an archbishop) did his liking for grand gestures kick in, and he taunted the knights so much they were left with no way out?

This is the view of Paul Johnson in his 1976 History of Christianity who quotes Edward Grim, who was an eye witness:

He who had long yearned for martyrdom now saw that the occasion to embrace it had arrived. (Paul Johnson, History of Christianity, 1990 Penguin edition, page 210)

And one of Thomas’s many hagiographers, William Fitzstephen:

Had he so wished, the Archbishop might easily have turned aside and saved himself by flight, for both time and place offered an opportunity to escape without being discovered.’ (ibid)

Could he have simply walked out peacefully with the knights and accompanied them to France with no fuss? We’ll never know.

The saint and healer

The exhibition really blossoms after Becket was murdered because that’s when he was transformed from one among many squabbling European monarchs and their statesman, into a premier league saint.

News of his murder spread far and wide across Europe and almost immediately people rich and poor, high and low, young and old, male and female, began making the pilgrimage to the cathedral and to the precise steps into the choir where he was hacked down. Relics were many: his clothes, his blood, his bones, his coffin, special prayers, these all helped rain down on pilgrims inestimable blessings, healings and cures.

Not only did Canterbury become by far Britain’s premier pilgrimage site but until the Reformation Thomas was the most frequently portrayed of all saints, had more parish churches named after him than any other saint, and more English boys were called after him than any other namesake.

The exhibition includes many of the precious caskets which were lovingly created to contain this or that relic brought back by pilgrims which are all beautiful examples of medieval craftsmanship, but maybe the most striking is this reliquary casket from Norway. Norway! Because apparently in Norway Thomas’s fame was such that he was second in popularity to St Olaf, the national saint.

(If you look carefully at the bottom panel you can not only see the knight hacking Thomas’s head but also the famous fragment of skull falling to the floor.)

Reliquary casket, c.1220–50 from Hedalen Stave Church, Norway. By kind permission of Hedalen Stave Church

The stained glass

In the decades following his death, the authorities at Canterbury cathedral created a new chapel devoted to Thomas. This included what became a set of 12 tall, narrow stained glass windows over six meters in height and each containing a set of four circular roundels themselves divided into segments depicting scenes not from Thomas’s life, but from the countless miraculous healings which people attributed to his powers. Hence they are collectively known as the Miracle Windows.

Five of the original windows were destroyed over the centuries, so seven survive, and one of these seven has been lovingly dismantled, removed from the cathedral and carefully transported here to the British Museum, where the four sections have been separated and are displayed at head height in a special curving gallery.

So this is a golden opportunity to see some masterpieces of medieval stained glass, really close up, beautifully presented and with the sometimes gruesome stories portrayed in each of the panels carefully described and explained.

Take the roundel which describes the sensational story of Eilward of Westoning.

Miracle window, Canterbury Cathedral, early 1200s. © The Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral

Eilward was a peasant who was accused of stealing in a drunken quarrel. In the panel on the mid-left he stands with the stolen items tied behind his back. A judge in a cap sentences him to trial by ordeal. Eilward fails and is condemned to blinding and castration. At the bottom left, Eilward is reclining in bed, his head bandaged from a blow. Becket appears to him in a vision, emerging from a shrine to bless him. In the middle-right panel Eilward lies bound to a plank as a man holds him by the neck and stabs his eyes while another wields a blade, kneels on his legs and reaches for his testicles.

Becket appears in a vision to Eilward. The saint makes the sign of the cross in front of his face. On waking, Eilward’s eyes and testicles grow back. The top panel shows Eilward riding a horse to Canterbury Cathedral. In the bottom centre panel a crowd gathers round Eilward as he points to his eyes while another man points at his groin to highlight his miraculous healing. The green tree at the centre symbolises his restored fertility. The panel at bottom right shows Eilward giving thanks at Becket’s tomb.

The other roundels describe in similar detail the miracle of Etheldreda who recovers from a fever, Saxeva who recovers from a painful arm and stomach ache, two sisters from Boxley who were lame and are healed, a monk called Hugh from Jervaulx Abbey who is cured, and so on. I particularly liked the story of Hugh who, at one point, suffers a catastrophic nosebleed which is depicted as a vivid flow of red streaming down from his face, on the lower left.

Detail from Miracle window showing the story of Hugh of Jervaulx, Canterbury Cathedral, early 1200s. Note the vivid red nosebleed from the prostrate man’s face © The Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral

Move over, graphic novels!

Thomas and Realpolitik

I was already familiar with the story of Thomas Becket, possibly a little over-familiar with it and not much in the main body of the exhibition told me much I didn’t already know or changed my own personal opinion.

Influenced by secular historians like Paul Johnson, I am inclined to think of Thomas as a deliberately obstructive, showboating and irresponsible man who needlessly set out to make Henry II’s life as difficult as possible. In most accounts I’ve read, the Becket murder was a blip or side issue in the bigger picture of Henry’s lifelong struggle to maintain his Plantagenet empire. It had a seismic impact on popular culture but little or no impact on the diplomatic Realpolitik of the day. After his half-naked atonement Henry restored good relations with the pope who approved his selection for next Archbishop of Canterbury as well as other ecclesiastical posts, as well as his plans to invade and conquer Ireland. In practical, worldly terms, Thomas’s death changed nothing.

(It’s worth pointing out that the curators disagree, and include a treasured manuscript of Magna Carta, signed 45 years after Thomas’s death by Henry’s useless son, King John, in 1215, to make their case. The Charter’s very first clause, probably added at the insistence of Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, states that the English Church must be free from royal interference. In the curators’ opinion this demonstrates how Becket’s dispute with Henry II continued to shape English politics long after his death. In Paul Johnson’s view this struggle between king and church was the central issue of the high Middle Ages, would remain a bugbear for centuries until Henry VIII decisively ended it with victory for the secular authority, and Thomas’s death didn’t really affect the issue one way or the other. Discuss.)

The Canterbury Tales

The exhibition has a section devoted to The Canterbury Tales, one of the key texts of English literature and, with its varied and colourful tales told by a motley cross section of late 14th century personalities all engaged on a horseback pilgrimage from London to Canterbury, as explained in the lovely words of the Prologue.

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye,
So priketh hem Natúre in hir corages,
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

‘That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke’, I love that line. Who doesn’t need holp when that they are seeke?

The exhibition includes one of the earliest manuscripts which contains all 24 of the surviving stories, as well as blow-ups of the original medieval portraits of some of the storytellers (the Wife of Bath, the Yeoman, the Merchant and the Shipman). But none of the stories are actually about Thomas and, if anything, they demonstrate a woefully relaxed attitude to Christian faith and morality which would have appalled the saint and his most zealous devotees.

The suppression of a saint

The one part of the exhibition I found genuinely new and informative came right at the end and deals with Henry VIII’s aggressive erasure of the cult of Thomas.

I knew that, as part of the first steps in the Reformation and linked with the Dissolution of the monasteries, Henry had all pilgrimage sites and saints shrines shut down. I knew from Johnson’s account that Thomas’s shrine was the biggest one in the land and that Henry’s commissioners carried off a vast amount of loot, namely 4,994 ounces of gold, 4,425 of silver-gilt, 5,286 of plain silver and 26 cartloads of treasure. A generation earlier, around 1511, the Dutch reformer Erasmus and the English humanist John Colet had visited the shrine and been disgusted at its tackiness. They were offered the opportunity to kiss a prize relic, the genuine arm of St George, or to touch a manky old rag supposedly stained with the saint’s blood, and Thomas’s genuine original shoe to be kissed.

As the curators observe:

After visiting Becket’s shrine real pilgrims bought similar souvenirs, badges to pin to clothing or little flasks worn around the neck. They were made quickly and cheaply by pouring molten lead or tin into a mould. The range of Canterbury souvenirs is remarkable, from miniature bells inscribed with ‘St Thomas’ to tiny swords with detachable scabbards.

And the exhibition includes no fewer than 24 examples of these multivarious knick-knacks and gewgaws. The medieval cult of saints had degenerated to the level of Blackpool souvenirs.

Pilgrim badge, 14th century, England, showing Becket returning from exile in France.

So I wasn’t surprised to learn the specifics of the demolition of Thomas’s massive and treasure-laden shrine, that:

On 5 September 1538, Henry VIII arrived in Canterbury. During his three-day stay royal agents began demolishing St Thomas’s shrine, prising off the jewels and smashing the marble base. They packed up its precious metal in crates, which were taken to London. Becket’s bones were removed, and a rumour spread that they had been burnt and the ashes scattered to the wind.

What I didn’t know and found fascinating was the way King Henry VIII singled out the cult of Thomas for special suppression. It was because, at a political level, above the level of popular culture and religion, Thomas was a symbol of the independence of the Church and Henry’s reformation was about decisively ending centuries of squabbling, and asserting the paramount authority of the secular monarch.

This explains why, after 1534 when Henry broke with Rome and Parliament appointed him Supreme Head of the Church of England, he could not tolerate Becket’s status as a defender of Church liberty and denounced him as a traitor to the country, or the new notion of ‘nation’ which Henry was creating.

Hence the passage of laws which singled out the cult of Saint Thomas and banned it. The laws banned visual references to the saint and insisted that the very word ‘saint’ was to be expunged from the record. Henceforth he was to be referred to as ‘Bishop Thomas’. A wall label quotes from a Royal proclamation, of 16 November 1538:

…from henceforth the said Thomas Becket shall not be esteemed, named, reputed, nor called a saint, but Bishop Becket, and…his images and pictures through the whole realm shall be put down…

The exhibition closes with some quite fascinating examples of how this erasure from history, this rewriting of history, was carried out, including:

  • a book of hours where the devotional prayer to Becket has been carefully cut out, although the illustration of the martyrdom has been left (intriguingly) undamaged
  • a copy of the Golden Legend, a very popular compendium of the lives of saints, in which the text and image for Becket’s story have been crossed out with black ink
  • a manuscript containing texts for the celebration of mass, once owned by the parish church of St John the Baptist in Bromsgrove, near Worcester, in which thick red ink has been selectively smeared across prayers to St Thomas in order to obliterate them

Manuscript containing mass texts from the parish church of St John the Baptist in Bromsgrove in which prayers to ‘Bishop’ Thomas have been obliterated by red ink. Around 1450. © The Syndics of Cambridge University Library

Curators

  • Lloyd de Beer, curator, Medieval Britain and Europe
  • Naomi Speakman, curator, Late Medieval Europe
  • Sophie Kelly, project curator

Related links

Other medieval reviews

Exhibitions

Books

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

A Piece of Monologue by Samuel Beckett (1980)

Never but the one matter. The dead and gone. The dying and the going. From the word go

A Piece of Monologue is a short play by Samuel Beckett written between 1977 and 1979 specifically for the American actor David Warrilow. It consists of five pages of text in the Faber Collected Shorter Plays edition and lasts about 20 minutes in performance.

A Piece of Monologue contrasts with the immediately preceding plays (That Time, Footfalls, Ghost Trio, …but the clouds…) in that it is, as the title indicates, a remarkably simple monologue, just a block of continuous, uninterrupted text, as if cut whole from The Beckett Trilogy, very unlike the previous three or four plays which – as I’ve shown – had reached a kind of extreme of hyper-detailed, mathematical, almost computer-algorithm levels of precise and numbered stage directions. Obviously there are some stage directions, but they are kept to an unusual minimum. Here they are:

Curtain.
Faint diffuse light.
Speaker stands well off centre downstage audience left.
White hair, white nightgown, white socks.
Two metres to his left, same level, same height, standard lamp, skull-sized white globe, faintly lit.
just visible extreme right, same level, white foot of pallet bed.
Ten seconds before speech begins.
Thirty seconds before end of speech lamplight begins to fail.
Lamp out. Silence. SPEAKER, globe, foot of pallet, barely visible in diffuse light.
Ten seconds.
Curtain.

Note the repetition of the period of ten seconds, the same interval as occurs in other plays, as if a magic number, a luminous interlude of half-lit silence.

A Piece of Monologue consists of yet another solo figure talking, yet another old man, bereft, talking about loss and loneliness, the usual cheerful subject matter, a man facing a blank wall where the photos of his family used to hang – until he tore them all down, and then prey to increasingly feverish memories of endless funerals he’s attended.

Nothing there either. Nothing stirring there either. Nothing stirring anywhere. Nothing to be seen anywhere. Nothing to be heard anywhere…

To quote the YouTube summary, ‘The play dramatises a successive loss of company: firstly, in an account of the destruction of photographs and secondly, in the memories of a funeral in the rain.’

Repetitions

A Piece of Monologue uses the kind of verbal repetitions to structure and anchor it, and give it a mounting ghostly atmosphere,

which had characterised Beckett’s work ever since the Trilogy. Key repeated phrases include:

  • Birth was the death of him
  • From funeral to funeral
  • Hard to believe so few
  • Gropes to window and stares out. Stands there staring out. Stock still staring out
  • Faint light in room. Whence unknown
  • Dwells thus as if unable to move again. Or no will left to move again. Not enough will left to move again
  • Once white. Hair white to take faint light… Once white to take faint light.
  • Thirty thousand lights…
  • Black vast
  • Fade. Gone. Again and again. Again and again gone.
  • Fade

The Beckett Companion points out the opening sentence is itself a variation on a sentence from the short story First Love, ‘What finished me was the birth’. It is what you could call a stock piece of Beckettian paradox.

And it’s obviously not only the words which repeat, but the narrator himself, who seems stuck in an endless cycle of repetitive actions, triggered by the word ‘birth’. Each time the word ‘birth’ is uttered, the speaker is forced, once again (‘Again and again. Again and again gone’), into the routine of noticing the fading light through the window, lighting the lamp with three matches, stepping to the wall and staring at the blank spaces where the photographs used to hang, again and again and again without surcease.

In particular, the word ‘gone’ starts to recur like the clanging of a church bell in a horror film and in fact the piece was originally titled Gone, in line with Beckett’s long established practice of naming pieces after one, talismanic, much-repeated key word for example ‘ping’ in the piece of that name or ‘that time’, named for the repetition of that phrase in the play of the same name.

Stands there stock still staring out as if unable to move again. Or gone the will to move again. Gone.

The increasing focus on the words ‘go’ and ‘gone’ reminds us of the much-quoted end of The Unnamable:

You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.

Back then, in the late 1940s, Beckett’s narrator heroically vows to go on despite the odds. Now, thirty years later, that struggle feels like it is over – his family and all the living, are gone. Past. The play’s keyword (‘gone’) is a past participle, denoting an action finished and over.

The dead and gone. The dying and the going. From the word go. The word begone. Such as the light going now. Beginning to go. In the room. Where else? Unnoticed by him staring beyond. The globe alone. Not the other. The unaccountable. From nowhere. On all sides nowhere. Unutterably faint. The globe alone. Alone gone.

On one level, Beckett’s oeuvre amounts to the adventures of the verb ‘to go’.

Bleakness

Obviously, someone new to Beckett would be most struck by the unremitting negativity of the text, the old man having ripped up the photos of his family, who he dismisses, one by one, as ‘grey voids’ (charming!) and, by the emphasis in the second part on the subject of death and funerals, and throughout by the continual use of nihilistic phrases such as:

  • Dying on. No more no less. No. Less. Less to die. Ever less
  • There alone. He alone. So on. Not now. Forgotten. All gone so long. Gone…
  • Sun long sunk behind the larches. Light dying. Soon none left to die. No…

Readers familiar with Beckett, however, know this is his schtick, like Dickens and comic grotesques, Graham Greene and sin, Somerset Maugham and settlers in Malaya, Franz Kafka and anxiety or T.S. Eliot and Anglicanism. It’s his flavour. It’s his brand.

Beyond that black beyond. Ghost light. Ghost nights. Ghost rooms. Ghost graves. Ghost

It’s part of the pleasure of Beckett, in the same way that anyone who hadn’t tried whiskey before, at their first sip would spit it out for burning their mouth… But a slow, gentle introduction, in moderate sips, with explanations of the different distilleries, with explanation of the flavour given by the local peat and moss, will eventually make anyone into a connoisseur, someone who takes the basic alcoholic ‘hit’ of the thing for granted, but comes to savour and enjoy the subtle differences from malt to malt or – back to Beckett – takes the big central nihilism in their stride, and instead focuses on the differences of construction and emphasis from work to work.

Beckett and counting

And numbers. Numbers are to Beckett what religion or symbolism are to other authors, a permanent, objective system of thought with which to order, structure, calm and console the speaker, the narrator, the text.

  • Two and a half billion seconds. Again. Two and a half billion seconds
  • Thirty thousand nights
  • Thirty seconds. To add to the two and a half billion odd

Beckett’s rule is: If in doubt – count. Putting key aspects of human life into numbers (how many breaths inhaled, how many steps taken) simultaneously highlight the vast futility of human existence and yet is also, somehow, consoling.

You could say that 1) the incantatory repetition of a dozen or so key phrases, and 2) the obsessive counting and enumerating of the most banal activities, are what Beckett has instead of plot.

The Beckett on Film version

Here’s the Beckett on Film version, featuring Stephen Brennan as the Speaker and directed by Robin Lefevre. The obvious thing, as with so many TV adaptations of Beckett, is how much his detailed stage directions are not so much omitted as superseded by the medium of TV or film which can, quite simply, be far more visually and aurally inventive that theatre.

Thus the dominant and dominating image of the filmed version is the rain, introduced from the start drizzling down the outside of the window and so distorting our view of the solitary old man in his room, and sounding very loud, so aurally dominating our perception. Whereas in Beckett’s meticulous stage directions there is no mention of rain or the sound of rain (although there is, obviously, in the text, from which the effect is taken).

It’s also easy to overlook the fact that, like so many of the Beckett on Film productions, it’s in black and white, as Beckett almost always, naturally, feels like it should be.

Thoughts

Performance

I’m afraid I didn’t really like Stephen Brennan’s performance. He’s good but, like Susan Fitzgerald in Footfalls, I just didn’t warm to his voice, his accent or articulation. Compare and contrast with Patrick Magee’s show-stopping performance in Cascando or Niall Buggy in That Time both of which blow me away every time. But the great thing about plays is they live to fight another day. Directors and actors can bend their ingenuity to fail again, fail better, indefinitely, just like Beckett’s characters.

In fact a lot of Beckett’s metaphors about repetition – forcing his protagonists to endlessly perform the same action over and again (and again) – and his scenarios in which a voice is telling someone what to do and how to move – these can both be viewed as extensions of theatrical practice. Many of his prose pieces instantly become more accessible if you reimagine the guiding voice as a director telling his actors just what to say and how to say it, how to move and what to do onstage.

Indeed, half way through A Piece of Monologue, the play makes this subtext explicit and the monologue turns into full-on stage directions, the monologue including the kind of instructions you get in stage directions or a screenplay. The narrating voice turns into a directorial voice, at the moment when, about half way through, the piece starts over again, as if born again, from instance of the much-repeated word, ‘Birth’ which Robin Lefevre chooses to give a big booming echo to, to fade the screen to black, and then restart the film as if it is now being staged by the onscreen protagonist.

… slow fade up of a faint form….

It is a deliberate confusion or mixing of stage directions with content, the latter morphing into the former:

Hand with spill disappears. Second hand disappears. Chimney alone in gloom. Hand reappears with globe. Globe back on. Turns wick low. Disappears. Pale globe alone in gloom. Glimmer of brass bedrail. Fade.

‘Fade’. This is a stage or scrip instruction which, from this point onwards, appears about 20 times, foregrounding the artifice of the piece, making what had previously been monologue now read exactly like the stage directions to the half dozen preceding plays, as do the deliberate inclusions of several other explicit stage directions:

White foot of pallet edge of frame stage left.

The monologue dramatises its own staging.

Beckett’s late prose

I think I don’t like Beckett’s later prose. After a while I’ve realised that the stage directions and the pieces themselves are both written in the same artificially contracted, abbreviated style, deliberately omitting prepositions and pronouns and copulas.

Faint light in room. Whence unknown. None from window.

Morphing the spoken text into stage directions half way through is clever and creates a whole new level of spectral spooky repetition, but has the – for me – negative impact of accentuating its staginess.

Beckett had evolved over 30 years from the Trilogy to this very distinctive style of prose poetry, replacing properly written-out sentences with abbreviated snippet which are compulsively repeated, as a way of conveying meaning – but I think it was more effective in the plays and prose from the mid-1960s through the 70s. Maybe I’ve read too much Beckett, but, to my ear, by this point, in Company and here, it has become a mannerism, and a rather irritating one.

There is no internal logic why sentences such as:

Match goes out. Strikes a second as before. Takes off chimney. Smoke-clouded. Holds it in left hand. Match goes out. Strikes a third as before and sets it to wick. Puts back chimney. Match goes out. Puts back globe. Turns wick low…

Plenty of works of literature foreground their own artifice, but often with style or humour. For me the excitement and verve of the pieces from the 1960s has degenerated into a manner and an irritating one at that. At 4 minutes 50 seconds into the Beckett on Film production, he says:

So stands there facing blank wall.

For me, the omission of ‘a’ – ‘stands there facing a blank wall’ – draws attention to itself. It is not only semantically odd but it is oddly incongruous for any idea of any variety of ‘real’ person speaking. No-one would say ‘So stands there facing blank wall’. That is a stage direction not a piece of speech. As is:

Lamp smoking though wick turned low. Strange. Faint smoke issuing through vent in globe

I don’t mind any kind of experimentalism or stylisation, go for it, try it, see what happens. But in practice, for me, this late style seems pretentious and contrived. There is no rulebook, no right or wrong about these things, the only question is, ‘Does it work?’ and for me, it doesn’t. It doesn’t help build and augment the experience, the elliptical, telegraphese of the prose continually distracts from its aims.

Thinking about it further, I think we can make a distinction between where Beckett uses this style to convey weird, spectral, other-worldly psychological states, for example the final passage:

Treating of other matters. Trying to treat of other matters. Till half hears there are no other matters. Never were
other matters. Never two matters. Never but the one matter. The dead and gone. The dying and the going. From the word go. The word begone. Such as the light going now. Beginning to go. In the room. Where else? Unnoticed by him staring beyond. The globe alone. Not the other. The unaccountable. From nowhere. On all sides nowhere. Unutterably faint. The globe alone. Alone gone.

Here, for me, the style works, because it is creating strange psychological states by its use of clipped sentences which both leap from place to place and also repeat key phrases, as if examining the states from many angles, à la cubism. Applied to psychological states, I still enjoy it and find it weirdly liberating and intoxicating.

It’s when he applies it to physical actions, which you feel ought to be – could be – much more straightforwardly described, that I find it forced, mannered and clumsy. I almost feel embarrassed for Beckett at finding himself constrained to write ‘So stands there facing blank wall’ ‘So he stands there facing a blank wall’.

Ripped from the wall and torn to shreds one by one. Over the years. Years of nights. Nothing on the wall now but the pins. Not all. Some out with the wrench. Some still pinning a shred. So stands there facing blank wall.

For me, the thumping banality of the actual stage directions threatens to destroy much of the spectral, barely perceivable subtlety of the more psychological passages.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Murphy by Samuel Beckett (1938)

‘Unless you want me to call a policewoman,’ said Murphy, ‘cease your clumsy genustuprations.’
(Murphy page 56)

This is Beckett’s first published novel. I expected it to be an improvement on his first published book, the collection of linked short stories, More Pricks Than Kicks, but the essential feel, the worldview and style are very much the same.

Hard to read

It’s a very difficult book to read. Though only 170 pages long it took three days because I was so reluctant to pick it up and quick to put it down to do almost anything else.

The prose is mannered, stilted and extremely repetitive. Quite quickly I realised that its paragraphs rarely move the story along or analyse character: they almost exclusively consist of repetitions, iterated phrases spinning out a handful of ideas or words, sometimes driving you mad with frustration, irritation and boredom.

Take this passage where the lead figure, Murphy, has moved into a garret which he discovers has no form of heating. ‘No heating!!’ he exclaims to the friend, August Ticklepenny, who has fixed him up with a new job and the garret. ‘Why couldn’t someone just extend the electricity or gas up there to fuel a heater?’

He went on to speak of tubes and wires. Was it not just the beauty of tubes and wires, that they could be extended? Was it not their chief characteristic, the ease with which they could be extended? What was the point of going in for tubes and wires at all, if you did not extend them without compunction whenever necessary? Did they not cry out for extension? Ticklepenny thought he would never stop, saying feverishly the same thing in slightly different ways. (p.103)

Repetition

‘Saying feverishly the same thing in slightly different ways’. Now arguably this was to be Beckett’s central contribution to 20th century literature, Repetition, the depiction of characters absolutely paralysed in their physical activities or thought processes and doomed to endless repetition.

In this respect Beckett is obviously undertaking quite radical experiments with the form of the novel, largely throwing out traditional notions of ‘plot’ or ‘character’ or ‘character development’ in order to focus on ‘saying feverishly the same thing in slightly different ways’ to such an extent as to create a new sort of poetic.

But so even the most trivial aspects of the lead character’s life are described with a pedantic thoroughness which are surely on the obsessive-compulsive spectrum.

  • When he stops in a tea room for a cup of tea, Murphy spends at least a page working through a series of ploys he could use to get the reluctant waitress, Vera, to top up his cup for free.
  • When Murphy takes the six biscuits he bought at the tearooms to Hyde Park, he lays them out on their paper bag on the grass, and then elaborately works through all the possible permutations of eating them in different orders, 120 ways, apparently, though it all depends whether he keeps the ginger biscuit fixed as the first choice, or mixes it in with the rest.
  • When Murphy starts work at the lunatic asylum, we are given a grindingly precise description of the layout of the building in every detail, which lacks any warmth or sympathy, is completely irrelevant to the ‘plot’, but pursues the description with obsessive pendantry.

I am probably using the term incorrectly, but it seems to me the narrative has a kind of autistic quality. It doesn’t bother much to describe other people or relationships between people – the ‘dialogue’ mostly just reveals misunderstanding and the ‘characters’ inability to communicate.

Comic?

Now, from some angles this obsession with the most trivial details could be made to seem comic – that a grown man puts so very much thought into how to arrange his six biscuits sounds, in principle, like it could be handled comically. The trouble is that, in practice, I found it grindingly boring, but more than that, brain-inflamingly frustrating.

For page after page the text maintains its obsessive and repetitive focus on the inner workings of the over-educated, under-motivated slob of an antihero as he shuffles round London, not really trying to get a job and surviving on a pittance while he does the only thing he enjoys, which is pore and pick over his own interminable mental lucubrations at gigantic length.

He distinguished between the actual and the virtual of his mind, not as between form and the formless yearning for form, but as between that of which he had both mental and physical experience and that of which he had mental experience only. Thus the form of the kick was actual; that of caress virtual. The mind felt its actual part to be above and bright, its virtual beneath and fading into dark, without however connecting this with the ethical yoyo. The mental experience was cut off from the physical experience, its criteria were not those of the physical experience, the agreement of part of its content with physical fact did not confer worth on that part. It did not function and could not be disposed according to a principle of worth. It was made up of light fading into dark, of above and beneath, but not of good and bad. It contained forms with parallel in another mode and forms without, but not right forms and wrong forms. It felt no issue between its light and dark, no need for its light to devour its dark. The need was now to be in the light, now in the half light, now in the dark. That was all. (p.70)

1. To be fair, this is not a completely characteristic passage, it comes from the four pages of chapter 6 in which the narrative comes to a dead stop while the narrator undertakes to explain to us the nature of ‘Murphy’s mind’. But the basic ‘ideas’ expressed in it underpin the whole book, and the obsession with the inner workings of Murphy’s self-absorbed consciousness is very much the book’s real subject.

2. Spending this much time on the experience of consciousness reminds us that Murphy was published in the late 1930s, when Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology was one of the dominating intellectual themes on the continent, picked up and refracted through the heavyweight existential philosophy of Martin Heidegger.

The phenomenological approach of examining and describing the inner workings of the mind is important to the writings of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. In fact, Sartre’s first novel, Nausea, was published in this same year as Murphy, 1938, and is also about an aimlessly unhappy man (a post-graduate researcher in Sartre’s case), so obsessed with his own thoughts and feelings that the real world becomes intolerably alien and threatening to him, filling him with the nausea of the book’s title.

The plot

Murphy is a shiftless layabout, a ‘seedy solipsist’ (p.53) (much like Belacqua, the male protagonist of Beckett’s previous (and first) book, More Pricks Than Kicks).

He’s living in London. He’s met a streetwalker named Celia on the corner of Stadium Street and Cremorne Road in Chelsea (which nowadays looks like this). Celia is now haplessly trying to look after weird Murphy. His favourite hobby is tying himself to an armchair in dingy flats (in this he foreshadows the various trapped protagonists of Beckett’s later plays) and rocking rocking rocking back and forth, a process described several times in numbing detail.

As with Belacqua, it struck me that Murphy is a glaring epitome of the clever young would-be writer who is full of fluent sentences and feel for language, but has no real subject to write about. He wanders the streets not really looking for a job and feeling mighty superior about it.

For what was all working for a living but a procuring and a pimping for the money-bags, one’s lecherous tyrants the money-bags, so that they might breed. (p.49)

(This vaunting superiority to the bourgeoisie with their regular jobs and pay packets reminds me of the intellectually superior but wretchedly poor protagonist of George Orwell’s 1936 novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying. A common delusion among young layabouts of all ages, that being poor but ‘free’ is superior to having a job, money and a life.)

Celia reports all this to her paternal grandfather, Mr Willoughby Kelly, who suggests she chucks him.

Meanwhile, in faraway Dublin (288 miles as the crow flies), Professor Neary smashes his head against the statue of Cuchulain inside the General Post Office building because he is in love with Celia, how or why, I never understood. He is rescued by one of his students, Needle Wylie who promises to track her down for him, by employing a private detective, Cooper. They meet the very beautiful Miss Counihan. It emerges that Murphy was till recently a student of Prof Neary’s and made all sorts of promises of love to Miss Counihan before leaving for London, after which no-one has heard from him.

Murphy goes to a tea rooms and spends a lot of time finagling to get a free top-up of tea from the reluctant waitress Vera. This process takes a long time. I could quote the several pages it stretches on for. Everything happens with a teeth-pulling slowness.

He is approached by an impecunious Irish poet, Austin Ticklepenny, who bewails his job at a mental home, the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat. ‘Mental Mercyseat’ made me laugh, though it’s more Irish than English-sounding, and is obviously one of the many aspects of the book which are intended to be funny, like most of the characters’ names.

Murphy escapes from Ticklepenny, having dumped him with paying for the tea and biscuits ha ha! much to the frustration of Vera the waitress, and takes a bus to Hyde Park, where he is debating in what order to eat his biscuits when he is asked by a clairvoyant to mind her dachshund while she feeds the sheep (which apparently lived in Hyde Park back in those days) lettuce which she’s brought for them.

After the immense thoroughness of Murphy’s calculations about the biscuit, the dog eats them while he’s not looking! The sheep refuse the lettuce. Murphy falls asleep.

Murphy awakes in the park. It’s night. When he gets back to the flat he shares with Celia he discovers her spread-eagled, face-down on the bed. Why? Well, first we have to read chapter six describing in great detail the tripartite character of Murphy’s cerebellum and sensorium, and then the narrative moves on to more distractions so that we never, in fact, find out.

The old man in the room above is found having slashed his throat with a razor. Celia negotiates with the hard-bitten old landlady, the virgin Miss Carridge, for her and Murphy to move into the dead man’s smaller room and so pay less rent. With his usual punning obscurity, Murphy says to Celia:

‘A decayed valet severs the connexion and you set up a niobaloo as though he were your fourteen children.’

This is typical of the ‘dialogue’ which is not really intended to be communication between human beings in the way you and I are used to. Instead it is a laborious literary in-joke.

Niobe is a figure from Greek legend whose children were slain by the gods and lay unburied while she wept for them. This figure of weeping Niobe is a commonplace classical reference in Elizabethan literature i.e. Shakespeare. Beckett has made it into a very James Joycean joke/pun by combining the words Niobe and hullabaloo into niobaloo. So this apparently gibberish sentence can be explicated as Murphy criticising Celia for weeping for some dead old servant as extravagantly as Niobe did for her children. ‘Severs the connexion’ being a fancy phrase for ‘dying’ which obviously references the severing of the old man’s artery.

Whether you enjoy this book, and a lot of Beckett in general, will come down to whether you found pleasure in that sentence, whether you were able to decode its literary references, and whether you think it was worth the effort.

I can see what he’s trying to do, I can see how he is making his hero into a kind of linguistic car crash and that he is highlighting the absurdity of all communication, and the absurdity of language as a whole, and the ridiculousness of texts themselves.

I think I understand the intention, and appreciate a lot of his strategies of repetition and numbingly detailed analysis of language and thought. And if you read short passages, it has a gladsome liberating effect. But if you try to read it as a novel i.e. to read extended sections at one go, it becomes very wearing.

Murphy goes off to see about starting the job he had discussed with Ticklepenny at the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat (chuckle).

Celia takes the Tube to Hyde Park to see if she can find her wheelchair-bound protector, Mr Kelly, flying his kite, because this is his hobby. Unbeknownst to her, Celia is followed by a man named Cooper who is acting as a private detective for Wylie so as to find Celia so as to reconcile her with his revered Professor Neary.

Maybe I slept through the paragraphs where it was explained but I never did understand why Neary was so besotted with Celia. Anyway, Celia doesn’t find Kelly in the park. Cooper doesn’t speak to Celia, but follows her home to the flat she shares with Murphy in Holloway.

Meanwhile, Murphy is introduced to the head nurse at the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat, Mr Thomas (‘Bim’) Clinch who, it turns out, has staffed the place with his family, including his twin brother Mr Timothy (‘Bom’) Clinch and an aged uncle, ‘Bum’ – obviously humorous names. It is obviously intended at some level as a comedy.

Murphy is enraptured by the place and especially the offer of a garret room on the premises, instantly moving into it and pulling up the ladder up to it in order to prevent anyone else ever entering it. Solipsist heaven! He forgets all about Celia.

Chapter 10 is long. The private eye Cooper joins Neary, Wylie and Miss Counihan (who is convinced she is in love with Murphy) to discuss their plans, and then they all proceed to meet Celia in her flat. The dialogue throughout this chapter is, I think, some kind of satire on all the normal dialogue ever written by novelists and playwrights. It applies Beckett’s overlocution and vocabularical exuberance to every single statement… for twenty pages!

‘One of the innumerable small retail redeemers,’ sneered Miss Counihan, ‘lodging her pennyworth of pique in the post-golgothan kitty.’
But for Murphy’s horror of the mental belch, Celia would have recognised this phrase, if she had heard it. (p.144)

If you recall, Wylie has paid Cooper to find Celia so as to bring her together with his infatuated patron, Professor Neary.

But they all behave so incomprehensibly that I just read the words and sentences for their verbal quality, ignoring the dialogue and so-called ‘plot’ because I suspect both are made complex and/or impenetrable, deliberately to frustrate and provoke the ‘conventional’ reader.

I think the characters all agree to spend the night in Celia’s flat while they wait for Murphy to return there.

But Murphy doesn’t return. He does a night shift at the mental home. Some paragraphs describe his closeness to the dwarfish psychotic Mr Endon. On this night shift Mr Endon somehow gets out of his cell and releases some other inmates but any reader hoping for mayhem or some kind of romantic climax is disappointed, for all the inmates are all locked safely back up – though not without a compulsive-obsessive description of the home’s elaborate security systems and the schedule according to which warders are meant to visit each cell throughout the night.

Murphy plays a game of chess with Mr Endon. The game is laid out in standard chess notation in the text so we can follow it. In fact it includes po-faced comments on particular moves, as if it was annotating a fiendishly clever game between grand masters. But in fact, if you play it out, as I did on my own chess set, you quickly realise it’s gibberish, not played with any serious intent.

In fact there’s a useful video on YouTube which works through the entire chess game in Murphy. After just two moves you can see it’s unorthodox and after four or five you realise it’s a nonsense game, a mockery of a game. On the YouTube video you can hear the (Russian?) guy who made it laughing at the ridiculousness of the moves.

For me this epitomises the book, as Beckett may well have intended it to. In every respect – in terms of narrative, plot, style, dialogue, character and setting, Murphy is – deliberately – a travesty of a mockery of a sham.

From small puns to larger pratfalls to the inconsequence of most of the dialogue, to the silliness of the plot, the entire text is a ‘joke’, or a series of interlocking ‘jokes’, clever, witty and, in some passages actually quite funny – but taken as a whole a very heavy and demanding read.

After the night shift ends Murphy heads back to his garret, stripping off his clothes as he walks through the dark grounds, till he’s naked. He lies in the wet grass trying to remember Celia, his mother, his father, anyone, and failing. He goes up to his garret, sits naked in his beloved rocking chair, rocking rocking rocking back and forth, as usual described in autistic detail. I use this word because several friends have autistic sons and this kind of rocking back and forth, sometimes accompanied by moaning, is a big feature of their behaviour as I have personally witnessed it.

Then the gas heater Murphy’s rigged up explodes and kills him. Oh. That was unexpected.

In the next chapter Celia, Miss Conihoun, Neary, Wylie and Cooper are summoned from Celia’s flat by the head of the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat  Dr Angus Killiecrankie, to learn that Murphy is dead.

They are taken to see his scorched corpse in the refrigerator room. They confirm Murphy’s identity, Celia pointing out the birth mark on his thigh, which gives rise to the bad taste joke that, by being important to the identification, it is also a kind death mark. Birth mark, death mark, I see the play on words, indeed the play on ideas. Maybe someone with a different sense of humour from mine would find this very witty.

One by one the various characters drift off, some pairing off on the way.

In the short final chapter Celia takes her grandad to Hyde Park to fly his kite. She is absent for a while during which she has sex with someone for money. She needs money, after all. Old Mr Kelly dozes off and his kite string falls out of his hand, snaps and the kite flies off into the sky, lost forever. He clambers out of his wheelchair and totters after it yelling in despair till Celia catches him up, with help from passersby restores him to the wheelchair, and pushes him home.

The End.


Superelaborate style

There are far fewer really arcane and obscure words in Murphy than in Pricks, which is a shame because I enjoyed looking them up. But Murphy‘s basic approach is still one of exorbitant super-pedantry and arch contrivance for its own sake.

The blue glitter of Mr Kelly’s eyes in the uttermost depths of their orbits became fixed, then veiled by the classic pythonic glaze. He raised his left hand, where Celia’s tears had not yet dried, and seated it pronate on the crown of his skull – that was the position. In vain. He raised his right hand and laid the forefinger along his nose. He then returned both hands to their points of departure with Celia’s on the counterpane, the glitter came back into his eyes and he pronounced:
‘Chuck him.’ (p.17)

I suppose this might be funny if you have the right sense of humour. Sometimes I do. I found some of it funny, the insistence on a madly pedantic precisionism, the more trivial the gesture or thought the more extreme description is devoted to it. Thus the text is worried and nagged by an obsessive attention to the characters’ precise physical positions and movements. Often it is more modern ballet than fiction.

(This obsession with characters’ precise positions and movements would become central to Beckett’s plays of the 1950s and 60s, where every gesture of the stricken protagonists becomes charged with hypertrophic punctilio.)

And intellectual tricksiness. The adjective ‘pythonic’ in the quote above refers to the oracle at Delphi in ancient Greece, where the supernatural pythia supposedly spoke its prophecies through the mouth of a woman put into a demonic trance. So that one phrase ‘classic pythonic’ is enough to indicate – to those in on the joke – that the text is (absurdly) comparing Grandad Kelly to an ancient Greek oracle – an absurdly mock heroic comparison.

This fact goes some way to explaining the glitter of his eyes and his generally unnatural gestures, notably placing his left hand ‘pronate’ on his skull, pronate meaning “to turn into a prone position; to rotate (the hand or forearm) so that the surface of the palm is downward or toward the back”.

And once you’ve grasped this fact you realise that the whole paragraph is, in its arch, contrived way, an elaborate joke. The joke is in the contrast between the classical epitome and its degraded modern-day embodiment. It is in other words, the classic Modernist trope of holding up the classical world as perfect, as a model of dignity and decorum (implicitly in Eliot’s The Waste Land, more overtly in Joyce’s Ulysses) and contrasting it with the sorry sordid shambles of the modern world.

This is why many critical studies of Beckett describe him as the last of the Modernists, a Johnny-come-lately to the game of contrasting the marmoreal perfection of the classics with the squalid spit and sawdust de nos jours.

The same structural disjunction underlies the boom-boom ending when, after a paragraph making this calculated intellectual parallel, which is leading the (informed) reader to expect a declaration of potency and magnificence – all Grandad Kelly comes out with is the bathetically commonplace output, the pub slang expression: ‘Chuck him’.

Bathos refers to rhetorical anticlimax – an abrupt transition from a lofty style or grand topic to a common or vulgar one (Wikipedia)

I happened to ‘get’ this joke because I had the opportunity of a very literary education, so I spotted the python allusion and thus grasped the overall dynamic of the paragraph and the mock comic intention. But I doubt whether anyone who studied more worthwhile subjects than ancient and modern literature would get the reference or realise the humour.

So is it funny? Yes, to the correct audience.

Humourless humour

Is a joke which isn’t really funny still a joke? Does a joke need humour to be a joke? Can you have an utterly humourless joke, which has the structure of a joke, the shape of a joke, a build-up and a pay-off – but none of the warmth and collusion required for humour? These are some of the questions Murphy raised in my mind.

The modern introduction to the edition I read is by a Beckett scholar who talks breezily about Murphy being a great comic novel but, perhaps wisely, doesn’t give any actual examples of its comedy.

Is there comedy in the sustained mock-heroic tone, the use throughout of ridiculously highfalutin’ language to describe what are in fact very humdrum activities?

At this moment Murphy would willingly have waived his expectation of Antepurgatory for five minutes in his chair, renounced the lee of Belacqua’s rock and his embryonal repose, looking down at dawn across the reeds to the trembling of the austral sea and the sun obliquing to the north as it rose, immune from expiation until he should have dreamed it all through again, with the downright dreaming of an infant, from the spermarium to the crematorium. (p.51)

It’s a very distinct and striking style of writing. But is it funny? Is it meant to be?

Neary arrived the following morning, Cooper threw himself on his mercy, abated not one tittle of the truth and was turned off with contumely. (p.77)

For me this is the central question in reading early Beckett: I can see that much of it is intended to be arch, contrived, dry, bookish, intellectual, rarefied, allusive and ultra-clever humour – but I wonder if many other people do, and I wonder whether any of us should give a damn.

This was a joke that did not amuse Celia, at the best of times and places it could not have amused her. That did not matter. So far from being adapted to her, it was not addressed to her. It amused Murphy, that was all that mattered. (p.88)

‘It amused Murphy, that was all that mattered.’

Since Murphy is transparently another avatar of frustrated, impoverished, unpublished, would-be highbrow writer Beckett, maybe we can simply say, ‘It amused Beckett, that was all that mattered’. Beckett and his tiny number of pre-war readers. The introduction is very long on the book’s textual history, and very short on actual analysis, but it does include its sales figure.

1938 – 568 copies
1939 – 23
1940 – 20
1941 – 7

The remaining stock was destroyed in an air raid. In all, Beckett made £20 out of this book – before income tax. Not Harry Potter, is it?

It was only after Waiting For Godot completely transformed his fortunes in 1953, that publishers rereleased Beckett’s early novels and they quickly found a place in a retrospectively-created canon of his works, now used as evidence to interpret the difficult post-war plays, and to argue for his mock heroic, comedic roots.

Leslie Fiedler

Leslie Fiedler (1917 – 2003) was an American literary critic whose writings about American novelists I really enjoyed as a student. About Beckett, and Murphy in particular, he wrote in the New York Times:

Too much of the merely mannered is present, too much evidence of a desire to twit the bourgeoisie, too many asides, too many heavy-handed cryptic remarks, too much clumsy surrealist horseplay.

Which I agree with. But I can also see that amidst the mechanical verbiage of this over-erudite novel is the core Beckett which will emerge after the Second World War; that once he had abandoned the attempt to have realistic characters or plots or dialogue, he would arrive at grim scenarios where human puppets, trapped in repetitive plights, repeat the same meaningless gestures over and again and speak a speech composed of the inane repetition of shreds and tatters of clichéd, stereotyped, worn-out language.

As Fiedler also points out:

But the eerie deadpan humour is already at work: the gravely mathematical working out of all the possibilities of the most trivial situation, the savage eagerness to find in the disgusting occasions for laughs. It is as vaudevillian of the avant-garde that Beckett especially tickles us, converting its most solemn devices into quite serious gags.

‘Serious gags’. Maybe that phrase encapsulates the difficulty I’m having coming to terms with this book.

Astride the grave

Typical of the stretched humour is a paragraph describing how Murphy’s problems go right back to his vagitus. I had to look up ‘vagitus’ to find out that it means ‘a new-born baby’s first cry’ – and then read on to process the extended ‘joke’ that Murphy’s vagitus was not on the international agreed standard of A (on the musical scale) but a woeful double flat of A, thus missing the correct note by two semi-tones.

Never mind, writes the author – ‘His rattle will make amends’ (p.47), obviously meaning his death rattle. Birth-cry, death-cry. Everything comedic is here, a kind of structural symmetry, a neatness of vision and phrasing – everything except the warmth or the unexpected jolt which characterises a good joke.

Instead, this paragraph’s flat, obvious nihilism reminds me of one of the most famous quotes from the 1953 play which made Beckett’s name, Waiting For Godot:

They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.

This kind of self-pitying, maudlin, depressiveness strikes me as very male. Having been present at the birth of both my children I know that no-one gives birth astride the grave, they give birth in a cluttered operating theatre surrounded by surgeons and nurses, in a welter of blood and other substances. And – contrary to Beckett – it is actually quite a happy moment for all concerned.

Believing in Beckett’s words involves a kind of wilful denial of the world as we know it to be. The focus on the grim and pointless is contrived. I.e. it is not necessary. I.e. it is a choice whether to enter his artificial and gloomy worldview or not. Ditto the style.

Irish

About half way through I had a kind of breakthrough. To keep myself going in what seemed a never-ending slog, I read chapter 9 – the long description of Murphy’s arrival at, and work duties in, the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat (I grant you the name is quite funny) – out loud and in an Irish accent.

Suddenly, it all made a lot more sense. Read – perceived and processed – in a received English, BBC accent, lots of the text seems pretentious and flat. You can hear this in the impeccably English pronunciation of actor Ronald Pickup, reading a clip from Murphy on YouTube. The prose falls dead from his lips.

Read, however, in the accent of a Dublin chancer, with a bit of a brogue and touch of the blarney and comic inappropriateness, as of two peasants discussing the finer points of your man St Augustine, I realised that quite a lot of the time the text is winking at you slyly, out of the corner of its eye.

Here is Murphy reflecting on the notion that the mental cases in the sanatorium are in fact correct to despise the worldly chaos of the scientists and psychiatrists. They are in fact happy to be locked up in their little worlds – as indeed Murphy would love to be completely sealed in his, but keeps falling afoul of the horrible quotidien.

(It’s a separate issue that this is a dangerously childish, misinformed and romantically adolescent view of mental illness which isn’t – as I have witnessed it in my own family – much of a seraphic, Buddhist self-containment.)

Anyway, Murphy thinks:

The melancholic’s melancholy, the manic’s fits of fury, the paranoid’s despair, were no doubt as little autonomous as the long fat face of a mute. Left in peace [by the authorities] they would have been as happy as Larry, short for Lazarus, whose raising seemed to Murphy perhaps the one occasion on which the Messiah had overstepped the mark. (p.113)

‘The Messiah overstepped the mark’. Saying it out loud in a cod Irish accent suddenly recalled the tone of all those characters in James Joyce who discuss religion and politics in floods of high-flown language which are liable at any time to give way to a sly crack or gutter phrase, all the better to puncture the mood.

‘Ah, sweet Jaysus, he was a good man, I’ll grant you that, but not always strictly following the orders of Him Upstairs, if you know what I mean. Ahr, that raising of Lazarus from the dead, sure I think that was overstepping the mark a bit, what do you say, Seamus?’

Maybe as an Englishman I’m not allowed to try on this accent, but it is the mocking sacrilegious tone found in Joyce’s early stories, the Joyce who gave us ‘The Ballad of Joking Jesus’.

From this point onwards it struck me that the prose ought to be declaimed in a larger-than-life Irish accent, as of a Dublin pub politician declaiming with the gift on him of a divine afflatus, giving maximum weight to every rare and toothsome topic, rolling and relishing his fine array of grandee locutions but keen to avoid the accusation of being a preening gobshite by occasionally ducking into street slang for the humour it gives the audience of his erogatory ejaculations.

Murphy meets the improvident drunken Irish poet Augustus Ticklepenny who had been prescribed work at the mental home in a bid by an estimable German doctor to cure him of his alcoholism. Being relieved of the stressful burden of writing poetic epics for the Ole Country turns out to work surprisingly well.

This view of the matter will not seem strange to anyone familiar with the class of pentameter that Ticklepenny felt it his duty to Erin to compose, as free as a canary in the fifth foot (a cruel sacrifice, for Ticklepenny hiccuped in end rimes) and at the caesura as hard and fast as his own divine flatus and otherwise bulging with  as many minor beauties from the gaelic prosodoturfy as could be sucked out of a mug of porter. No wonder he felt a new man washing the bottles and emptying the slops of the better-class mentally deranged. (p.57)

Only in the scenes in the mental home did the book make total sense to me. Here is the appropriate subject for Murphy’s spavined consciousness and it is no coincidence that Murphy surprises Bim, Bom and Ticklepenny by turning out to have a wonderful empathy with the closed-in mental cases, shut up in their own worlds. For that is how he would devoutly love to be, himself.

The fully at home feel of the asylum scenes tend to show up the earlier scenes of being pointless in London for the rather shabby contrivances they are (counting biscuits in Hyde Park!) and when we return to what has now become the travelling gang of Neary, Wylie, Counihan, Cooper and Celia the narrative falls apart, and the dialogue becomes dismayingly divagatory – as presumably intended.

The text – like the lead ‘character’ – is only really at home amid a certain kind of utterly fictional mental illness. Which also points forward to the bleak post-war plays, much shorter, much more focused, than his earlier palaverously periphrastic prose.


Contraptions and contrivances

1. Astrology

The first half of the book is threaded with an elaborate concern for astrology, with Murphy very aware of the position of planets rising and falling in the various star signs and so on, and the narrator similarly concerned to pin down the precise dates, times, and positions of the planets when various events occur. Thus Celia meets Murphy ‘on midsummer’s night, the sun being then in the Crab’ (p.10).

In chapter three Murphy opens a long analysis of his star signs, lucky numbers, days, colours, years and so on that has been generated for him by ‘Ramaswami Krishnasawmi Narayanaswami Suk’.

Is this meant to be a satire on the post-Great War fad for all things spiritual, of the kind that snared W.B. Yeats or Conan Doyle? Murphy periodically relates Suk’s predictions to all the subsequent happenings in the book.

For Chaucer in the 1300s, astrology is a sign of his intellectual delight in the beautiful complexity of God’s wonderful creation. It closely counterpoises lots of events in The Canterbury Tales, notably the long Knight’s Tale which is awash with astrological symbolism.

In Beckett, this transient interest in astrology feels very like a) another elaborate but somehow contentless scaffold, a machine to help generate more reams of prose b) an affectless piss-take.

It is indicative that the astrology theme disappears in the book’s second half. In my opinion this is because the reality of the mental home eclipses it i.e. the text finds its proper subject matter.

2. Timeframe

Much is made in commentary and introduction of the elaborate timeframe of the novel, with characters and narrator carefully referring to specific days, weeks, months in which events occur, referring back to them, calculating the time past or to go before further meetings or activities.

Fine. I can see this generating innumerable PhDs, but, again, it doesn’t really add to any enjoyment of the narrative, unless you accept that the needless becluttering of the text with bootless incunabula is the point of the text. The divagations are the purpose.

Sex

Surprisingly for such an alienated, disconnected narrative, there are regular references to sex. I think that some, maybe all of them, are at least partly there to cause controversy and fuss in the faraway 1930s, the decade when Joyce’s Ulysses and Lady Chatterly’s Lover were still banned.

For example, it is broadly hinted that Celia, the streetwalker enjoys being tied up and ravished, what we might nowadays call BDSM.

She could not go where livings were being made without feeling that they were being made away. She could not sit for long in the chair without the impulse stirring, tremulously, as for an exquisite depravity, to be naked and bound. (p.44)

And it is strongly hinted that Ticklepenny has his job at the sanatorium – and wangles a job for Murphy – because he is the gay boyfriend of the head man there, ‘Bim’ Clinch.

Earlier in the book there is a not-so-subtle reference to kissing and not of the kind which removes the clapper from the bell i.e. French kissing.

In the final stages Miss Counihan emerges as a Baywatch babe:

Miss Counihan rose, gathered her things together, walked to the door and unlocked it with the key that she exiled for that purpose from her bosom. Standing in profile against the blazing corridor, with her high buttocks and her low breasts, she looked not merely queenly, but on for anything. (p.136)

‘On for anything’ another example of bathos, of ending a mock heroic description with a crude, pub locution.

Maybe these deliberately close to the knuckle references are what Fiedler meant by ‘twitting the bourgeoisie’.

The Beckett vision

There may or may not be an absurdist, nihilist, existential, phenomenological, post-Christian or whatever philosophy behind the novel. One thing that is certain is that phrases periodically pop out which certainly do anticipate the monocular and above all repetitive vision of the post-war plays.

So all things hobble together for the only possible (p.141)

So all things limp together for the only possible. (p.146)

Buried amid the textual tapenade, are ripe examples of the tone, the phraseology and the crippled worldview of the plays which made Beckett famous.

Kneeling at the bedside, the hand starting in thick black ridges between his fingers, his lips, his nose and forehead almost touching Mr Endon’s, seeing himself stigmatised in those eyes that did not see him, Murphy heard words demanding so strongly to be spoken that he spoke them, right into Mr Endon’s face, Murphy who did not speak at all in an ordinary way unless spoken to, and not always even then.

‘the last at last seen of him
himself unseen by him
and of himself.’

A rest.
‘The last Mr Murphy saw of Mr Endon was Mr Murphy unseen by Mr Endon. This was also the last Murphy saw of Murphy.’
A rest.
‘The relation between Mr Murphy and Mr Endon could not have been better summed up than by the former’s sorrow at seeing himself in the latter’s immunity from seeing anything but himself.’
A long rest.
‘Mr Murphy is a speck in Mr Endon’s unseen.’
That was the whole extent of the little afflatulence. (p.156)

The poetry of paucity, the prosody of impoverishment.


Credit

Murphy by Samuel Beckett was published in 1938 by G. Routledge and Company. All page references are to the 2009 Faber paperback edition.

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe (1592)

JOHN FAUSTUS: All things that move between the quiet poles
Shall be at my command: emperors and kings
Are but obeyèd in their several provinces;
But his dominion that exceeds in this
Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man;

Title and provenance

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus.

Date Written: c. 1589-1592.

Source: In 1587 a version of the story of Doctor John Faustus was published in Frankfurt-on-Main, in German. Soon after – a 1592 edition is the earliest one extant – an anonymous English translation, containing modifications and additions, was published in England, under the title The Historie of the damnable life of Doctor John Faustus. It is clear from the numerous similarities in plot, episodes and even language that the History was Marlowe’s primary source for his play.

Doctor Faustus exists in two versions: the 1604 (‘A’ text) quarto is shorter; a second, longer version was published in 1616 (the ‘B’ text). Which one is more ‘authentic’ has been exercising Marlowe scholars for four hundred years. The editor of the New Mermaid edition – Roma Gill – thinks the shorter A version likely to be purer Marlowe, and the later B version includes additions by other writers. This is a review of the 1616 ‘B’, long version, as found on the ElizabethanDrama.org website.

Executive Summary

The famous theologian Doctor John Faustus is spiritually unfulfilled with his chosen vocation, teaching and debating at the university in Wittenberg. He reviews all existing forms of human learning, dismissing them one by one as trash, fit only for small minds. He decides occult knowledge and magic is the only thing for him and the climax of part one is when he conjures a devil, an agent of Satan, Mephistopheles, and signs a contract with him, which gives Faustus the gift of sorcery and the secrets of the universe for 24 years, in exchange for his eternal soul.

Then there’s the middle bit where Faustus takes advantage of his magical powers, flying into space in a chariot drawn by dragons, an extended farce scene poking fun at the pope, before the most famous scene where he conjures up the most beautiful woman in all human history, Helen of Troy, with the words: ‘Is this the face that launched a thousand ships…’ Different printed editions of the play give different scenes demonstrating how Faustus uses his powers.

In the final part of this moralising fairy tale Mephistopheles returns and demands Faustus’s soul and, after a lot of pleading, Faustus is dragged down to hell. So let that be a lesson to you, children: Do NOT sign away your soul to the devil, no matter how tempting the short-term offer. ‘What must you not do, Johnny?’ ‘I must no sign my soul away to the devil, miss.’ ‘Good boy, Johnny.’

The play

Prologue

Consciously rejects the grand locations and warlike deeds of his earlier plays (Dido, Tamburlaine and the Jew of Malta) for something more intimate. The prologue introduces Dr John Faustus with a potted biography of his birth, upbringing and education at Wittenberg, where he soon excels in theology.

Till swoln with cunning of a self-conceit,
His waxen wings did mount above his reach,
And, melting, heavens conspired his overthrow;
For, falling to a devilish exercise
And glutted now with learning’s golden gifts,
He surfeits upon cursèd necromancy;
Nothing so sweet as magic is to him,
Which he prefers before his chiefest bliss:
And this the man that in his study sits.

This is very slick and professional, to take us from nothing to having a good grasp of Faustus’s character and biography in just 27 lines before the prologue indicates the scene with his hand, and the play opens. Very impressive.

Act 1

Dr Johann Faustus is sitting in his study reviewing books of learning, the law, medicine, politics, and dismisses them all as superficial trash:

Philosophy is odious and obscure;
Both law and physic are for petty wits;
‘Tis magic, magic, that hath ravished me

Here, right at the start of the play a Good Angel and a Bad Angel appear to Faustus, respectively encouraging him, and telling him not to, study magic. Faustus summons two fellow students of the dark arts who have, apparently, helped him, Valdes and Cornelius. To all these characters, Marlowe allots his trademark booming verse, packed with soaring ambition, studded with stunning images of luxury and power, imagining what it will be like when they have total magical control:

VALDES: As Indian Moors obey their Spanish lords,
So shall the spirits of every element
Be always serviceable to us three;
Like lions shall they guard us when we please;
Like Almain rutters with their horsemen’s staves,
Or Lapland giants, trotting by our sides;
Sometimes like women, or unwedded maids,
Shadowing more beauty in their airy brows
Than has the white breasts of the queen of love:
From Venice shall they drag huge argosies,
And from America the golden fleece
That yearly stuffs old Philip’s treasury;

Faustus gets excited at the images of power and luxury his friends conjure up, and he invites them for dinner and to plan how to practice magic.

Scene 2 Street outside Faustus’s house Two scholars enter and ask Faustus’s servant, Wagner, where his master is. The scene is padded out with comic material, namely that Wagner has picked up scraps of rhetoric and logic and so teases the two scholars by proving their arguments illogical or wrongly formed etc. Eventually he spits out that his master is at dinner with Valdes and Cornelius and the two scholars go away, sad, and tutting and shaking their heads, because that pair have a bad reputation for the dark arts.

Scene 3 A grove This is the scene where Faustus, alone in a grove in the countryside, has drawn a circle and written into it various magical symbols and now recites a Latin spell, there is a crack of thunder, and a devil appears, Mephistopheles. Although he should be terrifying, he proceeds to explain the processes and procedures of devils in relatively bureaucratic terms: when they hear anyone abjure Christ, God and the Scriptures a devil will come speeding, hoping to win a soul.

Faustus’s superficiality, the lack of understanding behind all his fine reading, is amply demonstrated. He says he agrees with the ancient philosophers in thinking hell a children’s fable, of confounding heaven and hell. When Mephistopheles tries to explain that hell isn’t a world of punishments, it is deprivation of the boundless soul-filling job of being in heaven, Faustus mocks him and tells him to ‘learn of Faustus manly fortitude’. In other words, it is plain for everyone in the audience to see that Faustus is not only a blasphemer and infidel, he us stupid when it comes to the only thing in life which matters.

It is Faustus who boastfully makes the offer, telling Mephistopheles to go and tell his master, mighty Lucifer:

FAUSTUS: Say he surrenders up to him his soul,
So he will spare him four and twenty years,
Letting him live in all voluptuousness,
Having thee ever to attend on me,
To give me whatsoever I shall ask,
To tell me whatsoever I demand,
To slay mine enemies, and to aid my friends,
And always be obedient to my will.

You can see how this kind of megalomaniac over-reaching is first cousin to Tamburlaine’s heaven-vaulting ambition, and Faustus’s ambitions are cast in very similar terms:

By him I’ll be great emperor of the world,
And make a bridge thorough the moving air,
To pass the ocean with a band of men;
I’ll join the hills that bind the Afric shore,
And make that country continent to Spain,
And both contributary to my crown.
The Emperor shall not live but by my leave,
Nor any potentate of Germany.
Now that I have obtained what I desired.

Scene 4 A comic scene with Wagner the servant (who speaks in servant prose) who encounter a ‘clown’ or beggar in the street and raises two devils to terrify the clown into serving him (Wagner).

Wagner can raise devils? This scene, in fact all the scenes with Wagner and some of the banter between Faustus and Mephistopheles has a raggedy comedy about it. T.S. Eliot described The Jew of Malta as ‘a savage farce’ and Faustus also has farcical elements, as if Marlowe can’t take his own story seriously.

Scene 5 Faustus’s study He listens to the arguments of the good and bad angel, but is resolved for bad, He realises:

The god thou serv’st is thine own appetite,

And yet he is determined to do it. He argues back against the good angel, and then – it being midnight – conjures Mephistopheles. The devil tells him to stab his arm to draw the blood to sign his pact with great Lucifer.

But something genuinely spooky happens. As Faustus tries to write, his blood keeps congealing, preventing him from continuing to sign away his soul. Mephistopheles hurries offstage and returns with a chafer of flame which they use to prevent Faustus’s blood congealing, and he finishes writing out the contract. But then appears on his arm the words Homo fuge, Latin for ‘man, flee!’ Faustus is momentarily panic-stricken, but Mephistopheles magics up a dancing troupe of devils to distract him. Thus reassured (or dazzled) Faustus reads out the contract he has drawn up: Mephistopheles will be his to command for 24 years to carry out his every wish, and then:

I, John Faustus of Wittenberg, Doctor, by these presents, do give both body and soul to Lucifer, Prince of the East, and his minister Mephistophilis; and furthermore grant unto them, that, four-and-twenty years being expired, and these articles above written being inviolate, full power to fetch or carry the said John Faustus, body and soul, flesh and blood, into their habitation wheresoever.

Mephistopheles again double checks that Faustus is entering into the contract of his own free will. This is important for the very legal pernicketiness which characterises Christian theology. Faustus affirms it. Now commences his 24 years of fun.

Faustus asks Mephisopheles about hell and the latter gives a famous and profound description:

Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
In one self place, for where we are is hell,
And where hell is, there must we ever be.

Hell is the absence of God and of God’s grace which is what saves and redeems humans. It is not so much a place, as a condition we carry round with us. Hence Mephistopheles’ earlier declaration:

Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it:
Think’st thou that I, that saw the face of God
And tasted the eternal joys of Heaven
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells,
In being deprived of everlasting bliss?

Once again Faustus shows his idiocy by saying he doesn’t believe hell exists, it’s an old wives’ tale. Nonetheless, Mephistopheles says he’ll bring him the most beautiful women in the world, each morning, fresh to his bed. And Mephistopheles gives him a book full of magic spells.

Scene 6 Some time later, in Faustus’s house, he accuses Mephistopheles of misleading him, of looking up at the stars and the beautiful heaven he will never see. Mephistopheles tries to talk him round, the two angels appear and the bad won triumphs, hardening Faustus’s heart. Incidentally, there’s an indication of what the pair have been up to:

Have not I made blind Homer sing to me
Of Alexander’s love and Oenon’s death?
And hath not he, that built the walls of Thebes
With ravishing sound of his melodious harp,
Made music with my Mephistophilis?

He quizzes him about the nature of the solar system, the planets and the stars, which knowledge Mephistopheles rattles off but when Faustus asks him who made it all the devil literally cannot bring himself to utter the word God.

When the good angel prompts Faustus to try to repent he is visited by Lucifer and Beelzebub. They tell him not to think on heaven or call on God. To distract him they summon up an allegorical masque of the seven deadly sins. Faustus loves the show and Lucifer gives him a parting gift of a book of magic before exiting.

Scene 7 A comic scene between Robin and Dick, two ostlers or staff at an inn who have got their hands on one of Faustus’s books and appear to be thinking of using it to gain magical powers.

Chorus 1 The chorus describes how Faustus rode a chariot pulled by dragons out into the solar system to behold the planets in their motion. Returned to earth after 8 days, he is now riding a dragon across its surface and will soon arrive at Rome.

Scene 8 Faustus and Mephistopheles review the tour they’ve made through France, Germany and down into Italy. Faustus is loving it:

Whilst I am here on earth, let me be cloyed
With all things that delight the heart of man:
My four-and-twenty years of liberty
I’ll spend in pleasure and in dalliance…

Now they hide in order to watch the annual Festival of St Peter inside the palace of the Pope. A procession enters, the striking part of which is that a ruler named Bruno is in chains, and the Pope orders him to go on all fours so as to act as a footstool for him (the Pope) to ascend his throne.

This Bruno is a fictitious ‘anti-pope’, a role which arose in the 14th century when two different popes were elected for a period of fifty years, who opposed and anathematised each other. But there was never an anti-pope named Bruno, just as the pope in these scenes is referred to as Adrian and depicted as an enemy of the Holy Roman Emperor, whereas the one and only pope named Adrian (the only Englishman to have been pope) ruled from 1154 to 1159 and was an ally of the Holy Roman Emperor. Similarly, the scene features a King Sigismund of Hungary and there has never been a King Sigismund of Hungary. In other words, these names are just handy labels for a scene of broad farce. Similarly, the scene

Faustus and Mephistopheles watch all this then disguise themselves as cardinals of France and Padua in order to give the pope their theological opinion that the antipope Bruno should immediately be burned at the stake and the Emperor excommunicated. The pope hands Bruno over to our disguised pair to carry out the sentence.

Scene 9 The pope’s privy chamber The pope is holding a feast for king Sigismund and his cardinals. Faustus reveals that he and Mephistopheles have magically transported Bruno safely back to Germany. The two real cardinals of France and Padua enter and are perplexed when the pope asks how their imprisoning and punishment of Bruno is going; both deny any knowledge although, of course, the pope’s entire court swears they saw it happen. So the cardinals are dragged off to prison and punishment.

Faustus gets Mephistopheles to say a spell (interesting to compare these spells with the same sort of thing Shakespeare used in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) to make him invisible and proceeds to wreak havoc, whispering insults in the pope’s ear, as if from his neighbour, whisking away the pope’s plates and goblet of wine, etc, eventually slapping the pope. Concluding some evil spirit is loose among them, the pope calls in some friars who solemnly chant magic spells, er, prayers, until Faustus and Mephistopheles set about them, too, beating them and throwing fireworks at them as they run away.

Pantomime.

Scene 10 Street near an inn Back to the serving men Robin and Dick. The vintner accuses them of stealing a cup from the inn. Rather over-reacting, Robin uses Faustus’s book to read and spell and conjure up Mephistopheles. As punishment for dragging him away from more important work, Mephistopheles transforms them into a dog and an ape, who promptly bark and bounce around the stage. Panto.

Scene 11 Court of the Holy Roman Emperor at Innsbruck Two servants, Frederick and Martino, explain that Faustus has arrived at the Emperor’s court, having magically transported Bruno to Germany, and has promised to show the emperor all his historical antecedents.

Scene 12 The emperors ‘presence chamber’ The emperor formally greets Faustus and thanks him for rescuing Bruno, the German anti-pope. Faustus then presents a dumb show in which we all see the figure of Alexander the Great confront and defeat the Persian emperor Darius before setting the latter’s crown on the head of his paramour. The emperor is mightily impressed, though he has to be restrained by Faustus from embracing the dumbshow Alexander.

One of the emperor’s courtiers is a drunken nitwit named Benvolio, and as a result of saying he doesn’t believe in Faustus’s powers, the latter gives him the horns of a stag. Everyone laughs then Faustus menaces him with setting a pack of devils to tear him to pieces as Diana’s hounds tore Actaeon to pieces. The emperor intercedes and so Faustus relents and removes Benvolio’s horns. This is comedy, farce – but what strikes me is the use of classical myth to articulate it. The Greek myths and legends dominate Marlowe’s imagination from start to finish.

Scene 13 A grove near Innsbruck In revenge for his humiliation, Benvolio organises an ambush with Frederick and Martino and, when Faustus comes along, they stab him, knock him to the ground and then chop off his head! They exult over his corpse but are terrified when the headless body gets to its feet. He cannot be killed. Now he conjures up Mephistopheles and two other devils to drag the three conspirators off to dump them in mud and drag them through thornbushes and throw them off steep rocks to break their bones, and they all exit, screaming.

That’s not all. Some soldiers had been included in the assassination attempt and when they now come forward to attack Faustus, the latter conjures up Mephistopheles and other devils in the guise of an army with drums and fife who march against the soldiers and chase them offstage with fireworks.

Scene 14 Show what became of the three conspirators Benvolio, Frederick and Marino, now covered in mud, scratched and bruised and,.. with stags horns on their heads! They conclude there is nothing they can do against such magic and will retreat to Benvolio’s castle, there to live in retirement till their shame has passed.

Scene 15 A convoluted comic scene in which a horse-courser or dealer begs Faustus to sell him his magic horse, which he finally does for 40 dollars but tells the man not to ride it into water. Barely 30 seconds have passed and Faustus has just gone to bed, before the dealer returns to say he did ride the horse into water and it disappeared leaving just a straw behind. Now the dealer goes to pull Faustus out of bed but his leg comes off in his hand, Faustus wakes up shouting Murder, murder’, and the dealer runs off. Faustus’s leg is magically restored (just as his head was in scene 13) and  his servant tells him the Duke of Vanholt wishes to see him.

Scene 16 Robin, Dick, the horse-courser, and a carter are down the pub sharing their reasons for hating Faustus.

Scene 17 The Court of the Duke of Vanholt The Duke thanks Faustus for building him a castle in the air. His wife, the duchess, is pregnant and expresses a fancy for grapes. Although it is midwinter, Faustus dispatches Mephistopheles who returns a few seconds later with a spray of wonderful fresh grapes.

The Duke and Duchess are still marvelling at this when there is a load of rowdy banging at the gate. It is Robin, Dick, the carter, and the horse-courser. They’re drunk, insult Faustus and demand more beer! Faustus asks the duke to indulge him and calls for more beer. This scene takes up an inordinate space, in which the horse dealer drunkenly asks whether Faustus can remember having his leg pulled off, Faustus says yes, the dealer asks where it is, Faustus replies, back here with me, and so on. Presumably the Elizabethan audience found all this very funny.

All four begin to accuse Faustus with their grievances but one by one he strikes them dumb, last of all the hostess who’s come to ask for her bill to be paid, and they exit like zombies. The duke and duchess are very amused.

Scene 18 Back at Faustus’s, Wagner enters to tell us his master is preparing to die, has given Wagner:

his wealth,
His house, his goods, and store of golden plate,
Besides two thousand ducats ready-coined.

Then we see Faustus at dinner with two scholars. They have been discussing who was the most beautiful woman in the world (as wise and learned scholars will, after a few beers) and decided it must be Helen of Troy. Faustus promptly gets Mephistopheles to lead her in, in a dumbshow of the same style as the one where Faustus conjured up Alexander the Great. They are immensely impressed and gratified, thank Faustus and leave.

The tone completely changes as an old man enters and warns Faustus, at length, to save his soul. Faustus is stricken with remorse and tries to repent but Mephistopheles turns savage, accuses him of breaking the bargain, and warns him he will tear his flesh in piecemeal.

Faustus is so terrified he instantly promises to renew his vow, and Mephistopheles hands him a dagger so he can cut his arm and renew the contract in his own blood and then, vengefully, orders Mephistopheles to torment the good old man who just visited him. Faustus asks for just one thing – that he may possess Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world they saw a few minutes ago, to distract him from his vow.

Re-enter Helen, passing over the stage between two Cupids which prompts the famous lines:

FAUSTUS: Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium? −
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
[He kisses her]
Her lips suck forth my soul: see, where it flies! −
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.

What strikes me now about this speech is, again, the way it is drenched in references to Greek myth, and references Troy, Paris, Achilles, Jupiter, Semele and Arethusa.

Scene 19 in which Faustus pays his debt and is dragged down to hell With a crack of thunder Lucifer, Beelzebub, and Mephistophilis enter Faustus’s study. Separately, Faustus finalises his will with Wagner, gifting him all his belongings. Then the scholars visit and Faustus laments and regrets his life of sin, his promise and the threat of eternal damnation.

A scholar tells him to turn to God but the devils hold his tongue, dry his tears, pull down his hands so he cannot pray. Then he for the first time tells them the full story, of how he sold his soul to the devil for 24 years of partying, Horrified, the three scholars retire into the next room.

Now Mephistopheles closes in on him, admitting it was he who drew his taste to books of magic, closed up the books of divinity and steered Faustus’s soul to damnation. The good angel and bad angel appear, the good one showing him the throne in heaven Faustus would have been awarded, the bad one explaining now he will be dragged down to hell and hell appears to be a pretty bad place. Mephistopheles shows it to him:

EVIL ANGEL: Now, Faustus, let thine eyes with horror stare
Into that vast perpetual torture-house.
There are the furies tossing damnèd souls
On burning forks; their bodies boil in lead;
There are live quarters broiling on the coals,
That ne’er can die; this ever-burning chair
Is for o’er-tortured souls to rest them in;
These that are fed with sops of flaming fire,
Were gluttons, and loved only delicates,
And laughed to see the poor starve at their gates:
But yet all these are nothing; thou shalt see
Ten thousand tortures that more horrid be.

It is noticeable how traditional this image is, and how different from the much more subtle, psychological definition of hell (as the absence of God which all damned people carry around within themselves wherever they go) which Mephistopheles expressed at the start of the play. Too subtle for the climax of a tragedy, which requires blood and guts and screaming, or as much garish suffering as possible. And hence the reversion to a traditional fire and pitchforks interpretation here at the play’s climax.

The clock chimes eleven. He has an hour left and delivers a blisteringly intense speech of terrified desperation:

The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damned.
O, I’ll leap up to my God! − Who pulls me down? −
See, see, where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!
One drop would save my soul, half a drop: ah, my Christ! −

The clock ticks relentlessly forward and then strikes midnight. There isn’t, as you might have expected, a big set-piece scene featuring Lucifer, Beelzebub et all gloatingly seizing him. Instead Faustus’s final moments are brief and brutal as a pack of devils enter and drag Faustus offstage as he screams his final lines:

O mercy, Heaven! look not so fierce on me!
Adders and serpents, let me breathe a while!
Ugly hell, gape not! Come not, Lucifer!
I’ll burn my books! − O Mephistophilis!

Even reading this I found genuinely harrowing. Well acted onstage it can be terrifying.

Scene 20 There is a short, half-page-long scene as the three scholars cowering next door, go into Faustus’s study and discover his body all torn to pieces, and recount the terrible screams they heard. Well, they’ll gather up his body and give him a fine funeral at which all the students of the university will wear black.

Chorus 2 Brief and to the point:

Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight,
And burnèd is Apollo’s laurel bough,
That sometime grew within this learnèd man.
Faustus is gone: regard his hellish fall,
Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise,
Only to wonder at unlawful things,
Whose deepness doth entice such forward wits
To practise more than heavenly power permits.

Thoughts

A divided text Clearly there are two completely different types or tones of content sitting cheek-by-jowl in this strange uneven text: the genuinely tragical and sometimes very moving, and the farcical, panto content. Most scholars and indeed readers and audiences can easily see that the comic scenes were almost certainly not written by Marlowe. Marlowe’s humour, as demonstrated in The Jew of Malta, is stylish, cynical and savage. Much of the humour in Faustus’s comic scenes (pulling Faustus’s leg off, cutting his head off, four churls getting drunk down the pub) is just stupid.

Endless theology There’s enough theological issues or problems in the play – the precise status of the good and bad angel, the extent of Faustus’s free will, whether God’s grace could save him up to the last minute – to keep serious-minded scholars in academic papers for the rest of time. After all, Marlowe was himself a scholarship-winning student of divinity at Cambridge and Roma Gill’s introduction informs us that Mephistopheles’ subtle vision of hell as exclusion from the bliss of salvation is in fact closely translated from a text by the 4th century Church Father, Saint John Chrysostom.

Dazzling escapades For us ordinary folk, though, it’s useful to make a list of Faustus’s various escapades: that he rides through the solar system in a chariot pulled by dragons (!), rides across Europe on the back of a dragon, gets to slap the pope and chase friars with fireworks, and that Mephistopheles changes two servants into an ape and a dog. He creates a masque featuring Alexander the Great and builds a castle in the air and, by implication, has Homer sing to him, and has sex with Helen of Troy. On the farcical end of the scale, he sells a horse dealer a horse which is in fact a straw, gives a drunken knight real stags’ horns, survives having his head cut off and his leg pulled off, and strikes four noisy chavs dumb.

Clever critics have pointed out that Faustus’s escapades mark stages on his degeneration: he starts out hymning the infinite power of the mind, associating with Homer and travelling the solar system, before degenerating into a court entertainer for the Duke of Vanholt, calling up historical masques and magicking up fresh grapes, before he becomes involved in the downright stupid escapades involving lost heads and legs and, in the final scenes, wishes to cease having a body altogether, to be buried in the earth or to become as incorporeal as the dew, so as to escape the torments of hell.

It’s a neat idea, but ignores the actual order of some of the adventures, not least that the best one – kissing Helen of Troy – happens at the end. But it does tie together all the adventures and bring out the often tawdry and banal nature of what people actually get when their dreams are fulfilled.

Marlowe’s Greek imagination Shakespeare litters his plays with references to English folklore, dialect words and imagery (the names and symbolism of English flowers, for example). There’s nothing like that in Marlowe. In Marlowe almost every analogy or metaphor references Greek myths or legends. From the masque of Alexander the Great early on through the apparition of Helen of Troy at its climax, through to the best line in the short epilogue mentioning Apollo, and via hundreds of other references, the Greek myths and legends dominate Marlowe’s imagination from start to finish.

Campus tragedy Dr Faustus is a tragedy about an academic. It is a tragedy about the overweening pride which comes from being very learnèd and superior, ‘glutted with learning’s golden gifts… swollen with cunning of a self-conceit’, as the prologue puts it – but lacking wisdom or morality.

In a way, it is a tragedy about the perils of over-education. There’s a modern genre called the campus novel or campus comedy, dating from Kingsley Amis’s novel Lucky Jim and characterising many of David Lodge’s novels. The presence of the three scholars right at the climax of the play highlights the fact that, all the way through, Dr Faustus is a campus tragedy.

Dr Faustus as Marlowe’s psychodrama

Marlowe studied Divinity at university, but also read widely in Latin classical literature. The quote from St John Chrysostom indicates how deeply he knew his theology, and a glance at any of the poems or plays shows how drenched his imagination was in the Greek myths and legends.

It isn’t the most obvious thing about the play, but Dr Faustus can be read as a dramatised debate between these two halves of Marlowe’s education, between the two major cultural traditions of Europe, Christian belief and the enormous cultural heritage of the classical world.

On the whole Faustus’s vision of power and the infinite reach of the human imagination are expressed through metaphors and references to Greek myth – the downsides, the price to pay for overweening ambition, the limits of the purely human, are expressed in theological terms. Man can aspire to the marvellous – but at the end of the day, he is a creature, created by a Creator, to whom he owes an infinite debt.

Obviously this tension is openly expressed throughout the play, most narrowly in the debates between the good and evil angel, or in the warnings of the old man, who wanders in off the street to tell Faustus to repent. It is encoded in the imagery of the play, in the two contrasting sets of symbols and images, one pagan, one Christian.

But you can argue that the debate, the conflict of value systems, comes to a symbolic climax in the figure of Helen of Troy, and her appearance just before Faustus is dragged offstage by the devils.

Helen is maybe the most famous figure from all Greek myth, an image of worldly beauty, of sensual bliss who also epitomises the appeal and attraction of classical culture, and by extension, the world of the Imagination, with its promise of intellectual reward, emotional comfort and psychological reassurance. How many thousands of artists and millions of art-lovers find consolation in turning from the banal, dirty, frail and disappointing realities of the world, to open a book and enter a wonderful world of imaginative consolation.

And yet… Helen has been conjured by a devil. The entire thing is a deception. She is not real, the pleasure she brings is not real. When Faustus says:

Her lips sucks forth my soul: see, where it flies! −

There is a clear and very obvious ambiguity in the line. It is simultaneously a lover’s expression of sensual bliss, the kind of erotic hyperbole common to Renaissance poets and their heirs – but at the same time has a diabolical and theological meaning. The devil who made or is impersonating Helen really is sucking out his soul. The Helen Faustus and the audience sees is a gorgeous mask over a death’s-head skull.

And so, along with being a storming theatrical entertainment, and a satire on the entire notion of the over-ambitious Renaissance Man – Dr Faustus can also be read as dramatising the tensions in Marlowe’s divided mind between the two central traditions of European thought, which he was expert in, which saturated his thinking, and which he never managed to reconcile in his short life.


Related links

Marlowe’s works

A Chaste Maid in Cheapside by Thomas Middleton (1613)

A Chaste Maid in Cheapside is universally agreed to be the best of the half dozen or so comedies Middleton wrote or co-wrote. It is yet another comedy about sex and class and money, about corruption and greed and adultery – all the usual subjects – in fact the oppressively narrow range of subjects which Jacobean comedy dealt with. Elizabethan comedy is generally mirthful, while comedy under James I (came to the throne in 1603) becomes more and more disgusted.

These plays are saturated in an atmosphere of sex – not only are the plots about legal and illegal couplings (i.e. marriage and adultery) but right down at the verbal level, almost every word in Jacobean English was packed with sexual double meanings and innuendo.

This thick fog of sexual meaning radiates from just the cast list, before the play itself has even begun. As a little academic exercise I was going to keep a record of the sexual ambiguities mentioned in the notes, but there are four or five on every page and the play is 100 pages long, so it almost immediately became unmanageable.

Cast

Master YELLOWHAMMER, a goldsmith
MAUDLIN, his wife
TIM, their idiot son
MOLL, their daughter – heroine of the play
TUTOR to Tim
SIR WALTER WHOREHOUND, a suitor to Moll who has, for years, been sleeping with and impregnating Allwit’s wife
SIR OLIVER KIX, and his wife LADY KIX – endlessly argue because they can’t get pregnant
Master John ALLWIT, and his wife MISTRESS ALLWIT, whom Sir Walter keeps i.e. he pays for their entire London establishment on the agreement that he can sleep with the wife whenever he’s in town, and has sired on her no fewer than seven children!
A WELSH GENTLEWOMAN, Sir Walter’s whore, who he brings up to London to marry off to dim Tim
WAT and NICK, Whorehound’s bastards by Mistress Allwit
DAVY DAHUMMA, Whorehound’s man
TOUCHWOOD SENIOR and his wife MISTRESS TOUCHWOOD – helpful older brother to…
TOUCHWOOD JUNIOR – the ‘hero’ of the play, in love with Moll, the two young lovers who feature in all these plays
TWO PROMOTERS i.e. officials paid to police the city’s Lent policy i.e. buying, cooking or eating meat is forbidden
Three or four WATERMEN, who get involved in Moll and Young Touchwood’s attempts to escape the City by river
A WENCH carrying Touchwood Senior’s bastard, who confronts him in the street
Jugg, Lady Kix’s MAID
A DRY NURSE and A WET NURSE for Lady Mistress Allwit’s baby
TWO PURITANS, the first named Mistress Underman
FIVE GOSSIPS, a word which means both middle-aged wives and godmothers
A PARSON – drafted in to hurriedly marry Young Touchwood and Moll in Act 5
SUSAN, Moll’s maid – who is instrumental in the final plot

Smut

The play opens with Moll playing on the virginals – nudge nudge – and her mother, Maudlin, chastising her for missing her dancing classes, commonly associated with sexual opportunity. Page two starts with a pun about the size of women’s vaginas (‘When I was of your bord’, Maudlin tells Moll, where bord derives from ‘bore’ as of a rifle, i.e. when I had a nice young ****), then goes on to talk about imperfections, cracks and rents in smart fabrics, ‘cracks’ which need to be filled up by a husband, fnah fnah…

And on it goes, three hours of unrelenting smut and obscenity. Every mention of entering, before and after, up and down, standing to attention and so on, are drenched in sexual overtones, her mother tells Moll she’ll have to get used to kissing her husband ‘when he enters’ and using her hand ‘before and after’ and ‘waving her body’ i.e undulating up and down as in sex – not to mention the wealth of Jacobean slang terms for aspects of sex which crop up in the oddest places – ‘nock’ was a slang term for the female genitals. I don’t think I’ve ever read the words ‘c***’ and ‘f***’ and ‘penis’ used so often in the notes of any text.

The plot

Critics discern five plots in the play:

1. Young love A straightforward young-couple hampered-love story, namely Moll Yellowhammer (the chaste maid of the title) is the daughter of a wealthy Cheapside goldsmith and his wife. She is in love with dashing Young Touchwood, but her ambitious parents want to marry her off to Sir Walter Whorehound, who has just arrived in town, accompanied by a young woman, his ‘landed niece from Wales’ who they don’t realise is his whore.

2. Tim nice but dim The Yellowhammers have a son, Tim, who returns from Cambridge with his Latin tutor. Much piss is taken out of his low level classical learning, with Tim and the tutor given a scene where they speak to each other in pig Latin (Act 4 scene 1) and later he speaks to the Welsh niece in Latin and she replies in Welsh so they merrily speak at cross purposes for a bit before servants come in and misinterpret both their speeches.

Anyway, the idea is that Tim will be married off to the landed niece, and he is promised 19 mountains and 2,000 runts (there is much unsubtle wordplay on a rude word which rhymes with run) and indeed, at the end of the play dim Tim and his Welsh whore do get married, in an obvious parody of the happy wedding of the heroes Young Touchwood and Moll, and discovering she has no mountains and no runts, although she does have a ….

3. Whorehound’s arrangement In the most interesting because most genuinely original storyline, Whorehound has been paying Allwit and his wife to live in luxury, in a house with all mod cons, with food on the table every day and a bunker full of Newcastle coal, purely and simply so that he can sleep with Allwit’s wife every time he is in London. Allwit doesn’t mind, he’s been kept in very fine style for ten years! He has a soliloquy (Act 1 scene 2) in which he sings the joys of being a kept cuckold, not for him any worries or cares as long as Whorehound carries on shagging his wife. And his wife is quite happy with the arrangement, too, an occasional loaning out to Whorehound in return for a loving marriage and financial security.

In fact she has proceeded to bear no fewer than seven children to Whorehound, some of whom are 12 or 10-years-old and going to school. They are proudly presented to him on his arrival at the Allwit house and he promises them all financial support.

The other plotlines – frustrated young lovers, idiot young man duped into marrying a whore – these are boringly familiar. But the Whorehound-Allwit plotline feels as if it breaks new ground, and takes things into an entirely new realm of (entertainingly) cynical depravity.

4. The prolific Touchwoods Meanwhile, Touchwood Senior (the elder brother of Moll’s true love, Young Touchwood) has a scene (Act 2 scene 1) where he tearfully takes leave of his wife. His problem is that he is prodigiously fertile and impregnates any woman he sleeps with, but he is poor. Thus the couple have had umpteen children each one of which impoverishes them further.

we must give way to need
And live awhile asunder, our desires
Are both too fruitful for our barren fortunes.

Little more is heard of Touchwood Senior’s wife, and most of his energy goes, in the second half of the play, into helping his young brother organise eloping with beautiful Moll.

5. The barren Kixes Finally, there is yet another couple, the Kixes, an aging couple who are the mirror opposite of the Touchwoods in that they have been trying for years but cannot conceive. The result is an endless cycle of recriminations and arguments in which they blame each other for being barren or sterile before bursting into tears and falling into each others’ arms – as Touchwood witnesses on an embarrassing visit to their house.

As so often, fertility is directly connected with money across a web of relationships, because if they die without an heir, Whorehound will inherit their estate. He is so confident this will not happen that he has been living beyond his means for years, banking on inheriting and paying off his debts. Unfortunately for him, the Kixes’ maid, Jugg, tells them that Touchwood Senior has a special fertility potion which will soon see Lady Kix pregnant and in a sly scene (Act 3 scene 3), Touchwood Senior inveigles his way into Lady Kix’s bed, waves his magic wand and lo! she becomes pregnant.

So those are the five storylines which Middleton confidently and stylishly weaves together to make a play which is brilliantly crafted, and benefits from a really confident and mature interweaving of blank verse, rhymed verse and prose – but which I found utterly unfunny and unmoving. It is brilliantly made – but sterile.

The way the five storylines are interwoven becomes very complicated, but the key highlights are:

– There is an immensely long scene after Mistress Yellowhammer has given birth to another baby, her eighth child by Whorehound and – this is what makes it so long – a large retinue of ‘gossips’ i.e. local merchants wives, and several Puritan neighbours, are all called in to attend what we’d nowadays call a baby shower. The mickey is taken out of the gossipy ladies, and of the two Puritans who get blind drunk, at extreme length. Most modern productions of the play cut the entire scene as it isn’t part of any of the five plotlines and a lot of the force of its contemporary satire has evaporated.

– Similarly, seven pages are devoted to two ‘promoters’, officers who were set to enforce the new and more strict laws enacted under James I to ban the buying, cooking or eating of meat during Lent. Their scene exists solely to demonstrate how utterly corrupt they are, as we see them bullying citizens, all the time keeping the meat they confiscate either to sell to rich patrons or for their own families – until they get their come-uppance when a woman pretends to be caught red-handed with a basket full of meat, only for the promoters to discover a crying baby at the bottom of it for which they thereupon become legally responsible (and it is a hanging offence to abandon or kill).

Like the Puritans in the baby shower scene, it feels as if the promoters have been thrown into the play solely to get the audience laughing, mocking and jeering these popular hate figures.

– There’s a cooly cynical scene where Allwit presents himself to Yellowhammer as himself a remote member of the Yellowhammer family and says he has come to visit out of the goodness of his heart because he knows that they plan to marry their fine daughter off to Sir Walter Whorehound and he (Allwit posing as a Yellowhammer) has the sad duty to inform them that Sir Walter has for many years kept a married woman as whore in London and fathered a brace of bastards by her. Yellowhammer acts shocked and Allwit goes his ways rejoicing that he has scuppered Sir Walter’s plans for getting married (which means that he, Allwit, will remain in the life of luxury because Whorehound will continue swiving his wife indefinitely). What he doesn’t realise is that Yellowhammer doesn’t mind – he still thinks the marriage will bring his family social advantage and, after all, he casually tells the audience, he kept a whore when he was young and fathered a bastard on her (Act 4 scene 1).

– After an initial attempt to elope with Touchwood Junior, Moll is locked up in her room until the wedding with Whorehound. The day before the wedding, she manages to escape through a small hole and flee her parents’ home again – hooray! – but is once again caught just as she was getting into a waterman’s boat to go upriver to meet Touchwood Junior – boo!

Moll is dragged onstage by Yellowhammer’s furious wife, Maudlin, half-soaked from his riverside capture, locked up again and falls into a sickness, partly from the cold water, partly from despair (Act 4 scene 2). Eventually, while Touchwood Senior is visiting, she appears to collapse and to actually expire. Touchwood Senior takes her into the other room to tend her along with a maid. Later it will emerge that he has paid the maid a handsome fee to conspire to pretend that Moll is dead, get her laid in a coffin and brought onstage as if dead in the final scene.

– Touchwood Junior and Sir Walter encounter each other in the street and, as rivals for the hand of Moll, draw swords and fight. They manage to wound each other and stagger off in opposite directions.

– Believing he is dying, Sir Walter staggers to Allwit’s house where he surprises the complaisant couple by sincerely repenting his sins and attacking the Allwits for leading him on to damnation (Act 5 scene 1). Whorehound’s repentance is delivered in a long speech in powerful verse, and I found it the most moving thing in the play.

Still my adulterous guilt hovers aloft,
And with her black wings beats down all my prayers
Ere they be half way up; what’s he knows now
How long I have to live? O, what comes then?
My taste grows bitter, the round world all gall now,
Her pleasing pleasures now hath poisoned me,
Which I exchanged my soul for;

Which makes it all the more bitter when news arrives that Lady Kix is pregnant (hang on, didn’t she only have sex with Touchwood Senior about half an hour ago? No-one cares about timeframes or plausibility, this is the theatre). The point is that the advent of an heir to the Kixes spells financial ruin for Sir Walter and so the Allwits, in a gesture of breath-taking cynicism and cruelty, order their servants to kick Whorehound out onto the street, in fact to get him arrested for murdering Young Touchstone (news of whose demise also arrives by messenger). Super-cynically, they coolly plan to rent out the big house (I think the implication is to turn it into a brothel) and themselves move to a smaller one in The Strand.

– As mentioned above, Moll continues very sick and when Touchwood Senior brings word that his brother has died (as a result of wounds incurred in the duel with Whorehound), she faints and appears to die. Her parents are distraught and, with wild improbability, allow Touchstone Senior and her servant to look after the body. This is where they cook up the plan to convey her in a coffin to the same place where the coffin conveying Young Touchwood will go.

– Thus the climax of the play is reached when, to doleful mourning music, the two coffins are borne onstage containing Moll and Young Touchwood and Touchwood Senior asks the assembled cast whether they would do anything and forgive anyone to see the two young people alive again? Like the audience at a pantomime, everyone shouts ‘Yes’ and so Touchwood Senior orders the young couple to arise from their coffins – and the two young lovers spring up large as life. Hooray!

Now to tie up all the loose ends: 1. Young Touchwood and Moll are married and her parents finally give their blessing, as parents in all these plays eventually do. 2. Dim Tim is married to the Welsh niece, discovers she is a whore, and is jokily challenged by his mother to prove his Latin learning and logic to transmute her into a chaste wife. 3. Lady Kix, as we saw, is now pregnant so she and Sir Oliver are so delighted they promptly promise to support the family of Touchwood Senior, so he’s sorted out. 4. Finally, Touchwood announces that Sir Walter has recovered from his wounds but is now confined to the debtors prison where he is likely to say for a very long time.

Which is a shame because the shamelessness with which he carried out his scandalous arrangement with the Allwits – and then the blistering sincerity of his fear of hell and damnation when he thinks he is dying – were, for me, by far the most vivid and memorable moments in the play.

Thoughts

As with The Roaring Girl I don’t know whether it’s me or Middleton, but I didn’t find any of the characters or any moments in the play actually funny, and the whole thing left an acrid, metallic aftertaste. This was caused by at least two things:

1. The extended scene where Sir Walter thinks he’s dying and calls down genuine and powerful curses on the Allwits head is very vivid – and then is compounded when they, hearing he is no longer of financial value to them, kick him out on the street, ordering their servants to fetch officers to arrest him, this adds sulphuric acid onto sump oil.

2. The sad music, the slow procession, the widespread weeping and moaning of the cast, of the many gossips and mothers and bystanders at the double funeral of Young Touchwood and Moll was genuinely doleful and depressing, it had real emotional and dramatic impact. So much so that when the lovers then suddenly sprang to their feet and were reunited in a happy marriage, this seemed somehow trivial and superficial. The bleaker narrative felt more true to the play’s tone of rancid cynicism.

So, for me, a page or so of ‘happy ending’ in no way counters the much harsher and bleaker notes struck earlier in the play. It felt like the harsh vision of human nature demonstrated in Ben Jonson’s plays but without the energising zaniness of the fox or the alchemist which redeems his plays.

Middleton is solicitous to please his audience with what they expect; but there is underneath the same steady impersonal passionless observation of human nature. (T.S. Eliot on Thomas Middleton)

A final, fairly obvious thought is that the play is titled A Chaste Maid in Cheapside but, of course, the chaste maid – Moll, the young lover – is in many ways the most minor of all the characters; she is easily overshadowed by the cynical Allwits, by her dim brother, and by the monstrous but somehow dramatically powerful figure of Sir Walter Whorehound. I realise that that is the intention, to show how a chaste maid in Cheapside is overshadowed and dwarfed by the corruption all round her. Just highlighting how very much that is the case.


Related links

Jacobean comedies

Elizabethan art

17th century history

Restoration comedies

The Roaring Girl, or Moll Cutpurse by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker (1611)

‘Perhaps for my mad going some reprove me:
I please myself and care not else who loves me.’
(Moll Cutpurse, the Roaring Girl)

According to Elizabeth Cook, editor of the New Mermaid edition of The Roaring Girl, Middleton was for centuries dismissed as just another member of the flock of playwrights who swarmed in London between about 1590 and 1630 and who collectively produced over 600 plays of all styles, shapes and sizes.

It was T.S. Eliot’s 1927 essay about Middleton which made a solid claim for him being second only to Shakespeare among the playwrights of the era, not least because he wrote enduring plays in both the major genres, of tragedy (The Changeling and Women Beware Women) and comedy (The Roaring Girl and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside), and which began the 20th century rise of his reputation.

The Roaring Girl stands slightly to one side of Middleton’s comedies, firstly because it was a collaboration (with Thomas Dekker). (It is fascinating to learn that the majority of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays were collaborations, because of the furious demand of theatres which often only staged new plays for a week or two before requiring yet more audience fodder.)

It is also slightly unusual because it is based on contemporary fact, namely the life of Mary Frith, a notorious character of the time, widely known as ‘Moll Cutpurse’, who had gained a reputation for wearing men’s clothes and behaving like a young tough. Contemporary accounts describe her as ‘wearing men’s clothes, appearing on the stage, drinking, swearing, making “immodest and lascivious speeches,” prostitution, pick-pocketing, forgery, and highway robbery’. Frith inspired numerous contemporary accounts, including a chapbook written by John Day titled The Mad Pranks of Merry Moll of the Bankside (1610) and appearing in Nathaniel Field’s Amends for Ladies (1611).

Cast

Moll, the Roaring Girl

The posh men

Sir Alexander Wengrave
Young Sebastian Wengrave, his son – the ‘hero’
Neatfoot, his servant
Gull, his page
Ralph Trapdoor, his spy
Sir Adam Appleton
Sir Davy Dapper
Jack Dapper, spendthrift son to Sir Davy
Sir Guy Fitzallard
(Mary Fitzallard, his daughter, in love with Sebastian Wengrave – the ‘heroine’)
Sir Beauteous Ganymede
Goshawk, a deceiving gallant
Laxton, another deceiving gallant
Greenwit, assistant to Laxton in some scams

Curtilax, a Sergeant
Hanger, his Yeoman (both commissioned by Sir Davy Dapper to arrest his spendthrift son, Jack)

City merchants and their wives

Tiltyard, a Feather-seller
Mistress Tiltyard
Openwork, a Sempster
Mistress Rosamond Openwork – Goshawk tries to seduce her
Hippocrates Gallipot, an Apothecary
Mistress Prudence Gallipot – Laxton tries to seduce her

Act I

Oddly, Moll, the start of the play, doesn’t appear for the entire first act. Maybe one aim was to make her eventual arrival onstage that much more ‘dramatic’. Instead both scenes of act one are set in Sir Alexander Wengrave’s grand house where he is grandly entertaining guests.

Scene 1 is set in the chambers of his son, Sebastian, into which is shown a young woman dressed as a disguise. This is quickly revealed to be Mary Fitzallard who Sebastian is in love with. Why, she asks, has he been ignoring her? Because, he explains, his father is grand and ambitious and is demanding a huge dowry from her parents. But Sebastian has a plan which he now explains: he has not seen Mary for a while because he is pretending to be in love with the notorious man-dressing, roaring girl, Moll Cutpurse. His father will be so worried about that match that he will see marriage to Mary as the preferable alternative.

Scene 2 introduces us to Sebastian’s father, Sir Alexander, who is grandly hosting a party of posh friends who he proceeds to share his sadness that his son is driving him to an early grave by being in love with a ‘man-woman’, Moll Cutpurse. Father and son have a flaring row in front of everything and Sebastian stomps out and the guests leave. At which point a new servant presents himself, one Ralph Trapdoor who has been recommended to Sir Alexander. This is handy. Sir Alexander orders Trapdoor, and to find Moll, inveigle himself into her good books and find some way to destroy her.

Act II

Scene 1: The three shops The gallants who had been Sir Alexander Wengrave’s guests in act 1, are now seen drifting between three London shops, chatting to the shopkeepers, flirting with their wives and ribbing each other. We see  Laxton flirting with Mistress Gallipot of the tobacco shop, borrowing money from her and telling the audience, aside, that he doesn’t like her much but strings her along with promises of a sexual dalliance, meanwhile borrowing money from her to spend on other women.

Finally, enter Moll Cutpurse, chatting and joshing with the shopwomen. Laxton – who has emerged as the randiest and most cynical of the gallants – pesters her to make a date with him and eventually she gives in and agrees to meet him at Gray’s Inn Fields at 3 that afternoon.

Trapdoor then enters, spots Moll, and quickly offers to be her servant, flirts and fawns over her. She’s suspicious but agrees to meet him, also, in Gray’s Inn Fields between 3 and 4. The gallants go off to chase a duck with spaniels on Parlous Pond!

Scene 2: A street Sebastian makes a soliloquy about love during which his father enters, unseen, and spies on him. Sebastian notices this (‘art thou so near?’) and steers his speech round to indicating he is in love with Moll Cutpurse, to his father’s predictable dismay. Moll herself enters, accompanied by a porter carrying a large viol on his back (?) and Sebastian woos her. She is polite but rebuffs him – “I have no humour to marry: I love to lie a’ both sides a’ th’ bed myself” – saying she is chaste and will never marry.

Enter a tailor and there’s some crude joking about him taking her measurements for a pair of breeches, an item of clothing normally worn only by men, which Sir Alexander watches with predictable horror.

Sir Alexander comes forward and rebukes his son, saying that Moll will disgrace him because she is a whore and a thief, throwing in the fact that all the worst women in London are called Moll. Sebastian defends her against these general slurs – ‘Would all Molls were no worse’ and exits.

Sir Alexander is genuinely upset and, on this reading, I began to feel sorry for him. But he resolves to pursue and shame Moll. In a final soliloquy, Sebastian decides that he must share his plan with Moll in hope that she will help him and Mary.

Act III

Scene 1 – Gray’s Inn Fields Laxton is hanging round waiting impatiently for Moll to keep her appointment. When she arrives, dressed as a man, he doesn’t at first recognise her. But when he does, she delivers a brilliantly impassioned speech in defence of women and attacking all lecherous men like Laxton who think that just because she smiles and jests and drinks a toast a woman is hot for sex, whereas she is just being human, and Moll draws her sword and forces him to fight, ferociously wishing Laxton was all men who think like him, so she could punish the entire sex.

LAXTON: Draw upon a woman? Why, what dost mean, Moll?
MOLL: To teach thy base thoughts manners: th’ art one of those
That thinks each woman thy fond, flexible whore
If she but cast a liberal eye upon thee;
Turn back her head, she’s thine, or amongst company,
By chance drink first to thee. Then she’s quite gone;
There’s no means to help her, nay, for a need,
Wilt swear unto thy credulous fellow lechers
That th’ art more in favour with a lady
At first sight than her monkey all her lifetime.
How many of our sex by such as thou
Have their good thoughts paid with a blasted name
That never deserved loosely, or did trip
In path of whoredom beyond cup and lip?

‘Have their good thoughts paid with a blasted name?’ It’s a rousing speech that rings down the ages and is still true. Moll cuts Laxton, he refers to the blood running and needing a surgeon and runs off shocked. — He has demonstrated his lack of manliness, his lack. He lacks stones i.e. testicles.

Enter Trapdoor enters. Moll, still dressed as a man, bumps rudely into him, flicks his face and taunts him to attack her. It’s only when he refuses, that she reveals her identity and he immediately fawns and asks to be her man. She calculatingly agrees, promises to pass on to him her hand-me-downs and they exit off to St Thomas Apostle’s, east of St Paul’s. — Trapdoor also shows himself to be all mouth and no trousers, when he refuses to fight with Moll-as-man.

Scene 2 – Master Gallipot’s house And now to another unmanly man, the nagged ‘apron husband’ Gallipot, whose wife despises him for being weak and feeble. This, we realise, is why she wishes an affair with Laxton (although in act 2 we saw how Laxton, in reality, despises her and only strings her along to extract loans from her).

Laxton has smuggled her a letter in which he blethers her with sweet words before coming to the point that he needs £30. She is just agonising over how to get this for him (and her anxiety about money, pawning some belongings but maybe being found out – in a flash reminded me of Madam Bovary and the horrible mess of debts she gets into 250 years later) when her husband comes in, wondering why she’s left the dinner party they’re hosting for friends.

Gallipot spies his wife reading but as he calls to her (‘Pru’) she tears up the letter and invents a sob story on the spot, saying that she and Laxton were engaged to be married, but he went off to the wars, she heard he was dead, and so she married Gallipot, but now Laxton is back and wants to claim her as his wife. Gallipot is horrified as he loves his wife and has had children by her which us why, when she cunningly suggests buying Laxton off with thirty pounds, he readily agrees.

The dinner party guests come out and comment on Mistress Gallipot’s unhappy appearance with much bawdy and obscene double entendres, some of them guessing that Master Gallipot is having an affair, that’s why she looks so upset. They say their goodbyes.

Whereupon Laxton himself enters, complaining about apothecaries (remember we last saw him being cut and slashed by Moll). In what is presumably a comic scene, Mistress Gallipot quickly conveys the lies she’s told her husband (that she and Laxton were engaged), Laxton picks it up quickly, and they both smile as Master Gallipot begs him to accept £30 to make all right between them. Gallipot goes into his house to organise the money and Laxton genuinely praises her for her quick-witted deceitfulness.

Scene 3 – Holborn Street Sir Alexander with some of his grand friends. Enter Trapdoor who silkily tells him that Sebastian and Moll plan to meet at 3 o’clock in his (Sir Alexander’s) chamber to have sex. So. They will trap the pair. To give a cover to their meetings, he instructs Trapdoor to behave as an angry debtor, and so the spy leaves.

His friends, Sir Adam Appleton and Sir Davy Dapper come over to talk to Sir Alexander and the latter reveals that his own son, Jack, is far worse than young Sebastian, he spends a fortune whoring, drinking, and gambling. Sir Davy explains he has decided to teach young Jack a lesson: he will arrange to have Jack arrested, hoping a few days in the Counter (the debtor’s prison) will make him realise the value of money and hard work.

Alexander and Appleton exit, and two officers enter, namely Sergeant Curtilax and Yeoman Hanger. Sir Davy gives them their commission to arrest young Jack and indicates the pub he’s drinking in, just over there, and leaves the pair to capture him.

Just at this moment Moll and Trapdoor stroll up and, spying Curtilax and Hanger in hiding, realise they’re about to arrest someone, Moll decides to save whoever it is. And so when Jack Dapper and his servant Gull emerge from the pub, and just as Curtilax and Hanger move in, Moll and Trapdoor run forward, holding the officers off and telling Jack and Gull to leg it, which they promptly do. Moll’s thoughts: ‘A pox on ’em! Trapdoor, let’s away.’

Act IV

Scene 1 – Sir Alexander’s chamber Sir Alexander and Trapdoor await Moll and Sebastian. Sir Alexander gets Trapdoor to place various valuables around the room, confident that Moll will steal them and, when they bring constables to catch her with them later, it will guarantee she’s thrown into prison, if not executed. They hide.

But instead, Sebastian enters not only with Moll, but with his true love, Mary Fitzallard, dressed as a pageboy. Moll comments wryly as Sebastian kisses Mary, in a boy’s outfit, and then expresses her gratitude to Moll for helping them. Moll observes the valuables laid out as if on purpose to tempt a thief but says that, since she is no thief, they do not tempt her. Instead Sebastian invites her to play on the viola de gamba which she turns out to be skillful on, and accompanies herself singing a couple of songs.

Sir Alexander steps forward and interrupts the playing but it has no great dramatic effect at all. None of the three seem surprised or worried to see him. The conversation carries on, whereby Sebastian appears to have been securing the money – forty shillings – to pay her (I think; I didn’t understand this passage). His father quizzes Moll who claims to be a music teacher and Sir Alex asks her to play the ballad about the witch.

Then Sir Alexander gives his son four ‘angel’s’, being gold coins worth ten shillings each. He has marked them somehow, maybe pierced them. His Cunning Plan is Sebastian will give the marked coins to Moll and, later, Sir Alex will get the constables to arrest her saying they were stolen.

This is act 4 and, for me, absolutely none of this love plot intrigue is working in the slightest. The Roaring Girl feels less engaging than any of the Restoration comedies I read.

Scene 2 – Openwork’s house Two of the merchants’ wives we’ve meant moan about how pathetic their menfolk are. Mistress Openwork laments that Goshawk told her a pack of lies about her husband being in Brentford with a whore, and told her he’d take her there to prove it. It was all lies, as Openwork discovered when she confronted her husband who is now standing in the shop waiting for Goshawk to arrive so he can give him a beating.

For her part, Mistress Gallipot laments that Laxton turned out to be a lying, unmanly deceiver, ‘a lame gelding’. Men get it in the neck in this play. It’s like a feminist manifesto.

This morphs into a long and really unfunny scene. Goshawk now arrives and wants to hurry Mistress Openwork into the boat he’s got waiting but first she insists on bringing Mistress Gallipot with them, which he reluctantly agrees to, then Master Openwork comes up and she furiously accuses him to his face of having an affair with a whore at Brentford. Master Openwork is vehement that this is a lie and then starts demanding who told her this lie and – to cut a really long story short – she admits it was the (now terrified) Goshawk. Enraged, Master Openwork draws his sword and Goshawk piteously begs for forgiveness.

Now, I suppose this is intended as one more proof that sweet-talking gallants are full of ****, but it took pages to get there and I found none of it either funny, or particularly well written. Master Openwork has a little soliloquy opining that the world is a rotten place full of cheats and liars. Well spotted, mate.

In part two of this scene, a young man dressed as a summoner enters and delivers a summons to Master Gallipot. It claims to be a legal document summonsing the Gallipots to court for breach of contract. This has been arranged by Laxton. We learn that after the thirty pounds he was given a few scenes ago, he asked for a further £15. Now Master and Mistress Gallipot threaten the summoner with violence who quickly takes off his wig and reveals himself to be one of the gallants’ associates, Greenwit.

Mistress Gallipot had gone along with the deceit earlier, but now snaps at the size of the sum being extorted. She turns to her husband and confesses everything – that Laxton led her on, but this was all a lie, she was never betrothed to Laxton. Furious, Gallipot now turns to Laxton who is trembling with fear.

With surprising chivalry, Laxton quickly makes up a version of a ‘confession’ which completely exonerates Mistress Gallipot, claiming he set out to seduce her as a challenge, when she claimed to him and his friends that women were virtuous, but she stood solid and unflinchingly loyal to her husband etc etc, and thus Gallipot is mollified and calmed down.

In fact so calmed down that he promptly forgives Laxton and invites him in for a celebration feast (!?).

So, by the end of Act 4, two merchants’ wives – citizens’ wives – have had their virtue assailed by two upper-class ‘gallants’ – Laxton and Goshawk – who both turn out to be lily-livered eunuchs. The women are smarter than the men and their husbands are made of finer stuff, loving and forgiving. And, it feels like half the play is over, as the forgiving merchants invite the foolish gallants in for a feast – something which generally only happens at the very end of a play.

Act V

Scene 1 – A street Enter Jack Dapper, Moll, Sir Beauteous Ganymede and Thomas Long. Moll tells Jack how it was she who saved him from the sergeants and he thanks her. As a sidenote she explains she spotted Trapdoor was a spy and has disposed of him as a player shoves a halfpenny across the board. They are joined by Lord Noland.

At which point Trapdoor enters, like a poor soldier with a patch over one eye, accompanied by a sidekick, Tearcat, all in tatters. They approach Moll and her friends and, at first, pretend to be poor, maimed soldiers from the wars and beg for money. But the account they give of their foreign fighting and travels is so obviously garbled that Moll and her friends realise they are fakes.

Moll tears to eyepatch off Trapdoor’s face – the kind of stylised gesture which is taken to transform someone’s appearance in these plays and suddenly render someone in disguise, recognisable. Then, in a peculiar passage, Trapdoor shows off his skill at using canting terms, and Moll interprets his stream of canting for the benefit of her educated friends (Jack Dapper, Moll, Sir Beauteous Ganymede, Thomas Long, Lord Noland) so much so that they egg the couple on to a canting duel, telling Trapdoor they’ll give him some alms if he performs for them, and this eventually leads into Moll, Trapdoor and Tearcat singing a song entirely in canting language.

Paradoxically, this was one of the few parts of the play I really understood, because the situation – educated, well-off people patronise beggars – is easily graspable, and because the posh people’s dialogue is remarkably and unusually lucid. Thus after Trapdoor uses the term ‘niggling’, Jack says: ‘Nay, teach me what niggling is; I’d fain be niggling’ and a moment later Sir Beauteous comments: ‘This is excellent.’

Trapdoor is paid off and departs. I rather liked him, he was an honest rogue.

Now enters a gallant cutpurse and four or five followers, who threaten to attack our chaps, but brave Moll a) interprets all the cutpurses are saying in their slang and b) outfaces them i.e. intimidates them into abandoning their plan to rob our chaps. They are scared of her and her swaggering reputation. In fact, they truckle to her. Moll declares a particular purse was recently stolen from a man attending the Swan theatre and demands it be returned. The leader of the cutpurses meekly says he’ll see what he can do and they all exit.

The real-life Mary Frith was, apparently, known for righting wrongs and returning stolen purses (sounds a bit too Robin Hood to me) and this encounter prompts the other characters to say how she has been unfairly criticised by society. Now she gives a long speech declaring her innocence of all crimes, saying she merely is acquainted with criminals and knows their cant and tricks solely to help innocent victims. It is a speech in support of all people calumniated by society, not just her but all the women called whores and men called cuckolds who are entirely innocent. People call her Moll Curpurse and blacken her name because she dresses, does and says what she likes – the implication being that people resent and are jealous of her freedom.

MOLL: Good my lord, let not my name condemn me to you or to the world.

If Mary Frith had commissioned this play it could hardly give a more favourable portrait of her!

And so after this long scene of canting and cutpurses leading up to Moll’s second Great Speech, they all head off to the pub.

Scene 2: Sir Alexander’s house The love plot of the play is resolved, namely Sebastian and Mary’s Cunning Plan works. Sir Alexander is still under the misapprehension that Sebastian is madly in love with and planning to marry Moll Cutpurse. He is at home with some of his friends and advisers when a servant comes in to tell them Sebastian and Moll have been seen landing at the Sluice on the Lambeth side of the Thames. But just as they’re planning to go and intercept them, Trapdoor (so we get a bit more Trapdoor) arrives to say the couple have been seen alighting at the Tower i.e. in the opposite direction. Sir Alexander is stung with indecision.

At this moment enters Sir Guy Fitzallard, mother of Mary Fitzallard that Sebastian is in love with. From the start he is aggressively angry towards Sir Alexander, telling him his (Guy’s) daughter wasn’t good enough for him, he blocked his son and Mary’s romance, well much good it’s done him and he hopes he’s happy that his son is now marrying one of the most disreputable women in London, ‘that bold masculine ramp’, Moll Cutpurse. He mocks him, saying he will soon be grandfather to a ‘fine crew of roaring sons and daughters’ who will stock the suburbs with crime.

Well, Sir Guy says – what would tortured Sir Alexander give if he – Sir Guy – could intervene and prevent it happening? He goes on to say, in front of the other nobles present as witnesses, that bets his entire wealth that he can prevent this marriage and, caught up in his enthusiasm, Sir Alexander, accepts the bet, saying he will immediately give Sebastian all those lands he had planned to, if he simply doesn’t marry Moll.

The authors really drag these final scenes out. Enter Moll (dressed as a man) for just a minute or so, just enough time for Alexander to berate her and her to mock him for his greed and short-sightedness, then exits.

So I wasn’t amused but irritated when the authors drag out Alexander’s and our agony even further by having Sebastian enter, accompanied by Sir Guy as if this is the final version of the wedding, and hand in hand with… Moll… wearing a mask. Sir Alexander is delighted his son has married anyone but Moll… but then she takes off her mask and he collapses prostrate that all his plans lie in ashes. God, get on with it!

Moll delivers a comic speech, telling him how lucky he is to have a roaring girl as a daughter in law, men will fear him, crooks will avoid him, and so on. Sir Guy asks Sir Alexander if he will hold to his bet (all Sir Guy’s estate against half Sir Alexander’s) but Sir Alexander insists – now he’s won the bet (the bet that Guy would be able to prevent the marriage of Sebastian and Moll, and it looks like he’s failed), at which point….

Moll steps aside and Sir Guy introduces the real bride who is, God be praised, Mary Fitzallard after all, ceremonially accompanied by Lord Noland and Sir Beauteous Ganymede, and followed by all the London merchants and their wives, so that all the characters are on stage for the happy finale.

Sir Alexander is in flights of ecstasy and in heroic verse praises his son and gives him half his wealth and lands – as promised – and then his beautiful new daughter-in-law, and they graciously accept. Moll points out that she has done everyone a favour organising this happy outcome and Sebastian says she will be rewarded. Sir Alexander apologises for misjudging her.

Enter Trapdoor (hooray, the only character I really like) who kneels before Moll and abjectly apologises for scheming against her, explaining that he laid out the valuables in Sir Alexander’s chamber, hoping to snare Moll, and that he also gave Moll the four marked gold coins (angels) as part of a scam to have her arrested. Moll is surprised, the onlookers are shocked, Sir Alexander abjectly humiliated, and apologises.

I found Sir Alexander’s explicit and clear statement that he has learned from his experiences not to judge people by their reputations and not to listen to rumour, more effective than the savage punishments which conclude Ben Jonson plays:

Forgive me; now I cast the world’s eyes from me
And look upon thee freely with mine own:
I see the most of many wrongs before thee,
Cast from the jaws of envy and her people,
And nothing foul but that. I’ll never more
Condemn by common voice, for that’s the whore
That deceives man’s opinion, mocks his trust,
Cozens his love, and makes his heart unjust.

Sir Alexander ends the play by saying this happy day will be celebrated every year, and he hopes all who have watched it will go away as pleased as he is.

Thoughts

Not funny

Maybe I read it on an off day, but I didn’t find The Roaring Girl at all funny. It contains scenes which are theoretically humorous, but failed to raise any smile to my lips. It lacks the delightful whimsy of The Shoemaker’s Holiday or, at the other end of the spectrum, the savage farcicality of Ben Jonson and his scheming grotesques.

It inhabits an odd no-man’s-land, in which everyone is a gull or crook of one kind or another but none of them really inspire entertainment. Moll’s speeches about how easily women are calumniated were the only things which really woke me up, that and the character of Trapdoor who I warmed to as the nearest thing to a Jonsonian imp, like Mosca in Volpone.

Overall I felt there was something clever, calculating and rather mechanical about it, and kept returning to T.S. Eliot’s words:

The comedies are long-winded; the fathers are heavy fathers, and rant as heavy fathers should; the sons are wild and wanton sons, and perform all the pranks to be expected of them; the machinery is the usual Elizabethan machinery; Middleton is solicitous to please his audience with what they expect; but there is underneath the same steady impersonal passionless observation of human nature. (Thomas Middleton by T.S. Eliot)

Gender etc

Clearly ‘gender’ is a major theme of the play insofar as Moll is a woman behaving as men are supposed to, and not just men generally, but roistering, swaggering, canting, drinking, fighting men. And the play goes to some lengths to demonstrate how feebly unmasculine just about every other man in the play is, compared to her.

Feminist art and literary critics long ago developed a rhetoric about neglected women artists or authors and female characters who rebel, buck the trend and subvert the patriarchy, which make them all sound the same. They make ‘the patriarchy’ sound as if it was the same thing in 1603 or 2003, and rebel women all sound as if they had the same ‘smash the patriarchy’ mindset as contemporary gender studies professors. In other words, they make the past boring by being so predictably and narrowly ideological about it.

Obviously the figure of Moll is striking but what’s a bit more interesting is the way she was not suppressed by The Patriarchy for wearing men’s clothes and swearing etc. What is hiding in plain sight in the simple existence of this play, is the fact that, far from being in any way suppressed or silenced – as feminists love their heroines from the past to have been – Mary Frith was in fact lionised, widely written about and – in this play at any rate – praised to the heavens, depicted as a moral exemplar, teaching true Christian morality (judge people by their deeds not their reputations).

Feminist critics like to write about Moll ‘subverting gender norms’ and ‘transgressing gender-based rules of clothing and behaviour’ as if it was a thrilling conspiracy which only you and I, paid-up members of the feminist gang, can understand. And yet here she was up on stage in a play written to unstintingly praise her, to the applause of a fee-paying audience, in a play which was widely reprinted through the ages.

In other words, if she was ‘subverting’ anything, that ‘subversion’ was very comfortably accommodated in a best-selling play performed to approving audiences.

In other words, Moll entirely conforms to the deeply entrenched stereotype of the rebel-with-a-heart-of-gold figure which dates from at least Robin Hood through to any number of 20th century ‘rebels’, and which Hollywood has made billions of dollars carefully crafting and presenting to audiences who, for a happy couple of hours, can thrill to the ‘subversive’ exploits of James Dean or Bruce Willis or whoever the rebel-with-a-heart-of-gold figure of the hour happens to be, before going back to their suburban homes and their workaday world.

Yes, the figure of Moll may well ‘transgress’ half a dozen easy-to-list rules of Jacobean England – dresses like a man, swaggers like a man, drinks like a man, familiar with the criminal underworld like a man and this ooh-so-daring audacity gives timid feminist critics multiple orgasms – but at a meta-level I’d have thought it’s pretty obvious that Moll entirely conforms to the enduring stereotype of the naughty boy or naughty girl whose exploits we love sharing for a couple of hours at the theatre or cinema, before the entertainment ends.

In a really deep sense, maybe that’s what entertainment – of all types – actually consists of: whether at the circus or a funfair or the cinema or a theatre – it’s entering into a world of excitement and thrills and kings and queens or cops and robbers or thrilling rides – all of which we pay for because, by definition, they are outwith the reality of our boring everyday lives, shopping, cooking, eating sleeping, and commuting to boring jobs in shops and factories and offices.

So when feminists rhapsodise that Moll ‘subverts’ the social norms of her day, all they’re really saying is that she’s in a play. Macbeth subverts the values of the time by being a king killer. Othello subverts the values of the day by murdering his wife. Volpone subverts the values of the time by being an outrageous crook. All the tricksters in hundreds of these city comedies ‘subvert’ the values of the time by virtue of being crooks and criminals. Is there a play from the period where the lead characters do not subvert one or other ‘social norm’ of the time?

Feminists just valorise and prioritise one among the many, many types of ‘subversion’ which occur in almost all these plays, because it is the one dearest to their heart, the only issue which counts for them, the issue of gender, the ‘issue’ which justifies their existence.

But, not being feminists, we are not constrained and blinded by their ideology, and so can read everything they have to say, assimilate it, take it on board, add it to our perspective, but still see that the play contains many other non-gender ideas and themes and images, as did the society of its day.

One of the most obvious is the language of crime…

Canting

Canting was one of the contemporary words used to describe the prolific growth of slang and argot used by thieves and cozeners. There was a very rich literature describing these, even at the time. Indeed, whenever there was a periodic outbreak of plague, such as in 1603 and the theatres went into lockdown, writers like Dekker and Middleton switched to writing satirical or descriptive pamphlets about London life, mostly concentrating on lowlife and criminals.

Dekker wrote a number of pamphlets about contemporary events, but his ones focusing on criminals or ‘cony-catchers’ include The Belman of London (1608), Lanthorne and Candle-light, Villainies Discovered by Candlelight, and English Villainies and he gives an often-quoted definition of ‘canting’:

‘It was necessary that a people, so fast increasing and so daily practicing new and strange villainies, should borrow to themselves a speech which, so near as thy could, none but themselves could understand; and for that cause was this language, which some call pedlar’s French, invented…. This word canting seems to be derived from the Latin verb canto, which signifies in English to sing, or to make a sound with words, that’s to say, speak. And very aptly may canting take his derivation a cantando, from singing, because amongst these beggarly consorts that can play upon no better instruments, the language of canting is a kind of music, and he that in such assemblies can cant best is counted the best musician…’
(Lanthorn and Candlelight by Thomas Dekker)

Anyway, the point is that this play is stuffed with canting terms and street argot, so much so that not only does the Mermaid edition feature notes at the bottom of each page explaining key words, but also (and unusually) a seven-page appendix devoted to canting terms. Highlights include:

  • darkmans = the night
  • lightmans = the day
  • shells = money
  • stamps = legs
  • curbers = thieves who hook goods out of open windows using a long stick with a hook at the end
  • cheats = the gallows
  • bing = to go
  • nip a bung = steal a purse
  • Rom-ville = London

And Act 5 scene 1 is a festival of canting – it contains the canting exchanges between Moll and Trapdoor-as-beggar, who drops entirely into canting terms to impress and/or confuse his educated interlocutors.

TRAPDOOR: My doxy? I have, by the salomon, a doxy that carries a kinchin mort in her slate at her back, besides my dell and my dainty wild dell, with all whom I’ll tumble this next darkmans in the strommel, and drink ben, and eat a fat gruntling cheat, a cackling cheat, and a quacking cheat.

Before Moll, Trapdoor and Tearcat then deliver a canting song! The footnotes again say that one of the best explanations of the profession or trade of cutpurse is again given by Dekker, who provided a neat explanation of key roles and terms, in this clip from The Bellman of London:

He that cuts the purse is called the nip.
He that is half with him is the snap, or the cloyer.
The knife is called a cuttle-bung.
He that picks the pocket is called a foist.
He that faceth the man is the stale.
The taking of the purse is called drawing.
The spying of this villain is called smoking or boiling.
The purse is the bung.
The money the shells.
The act doing is called striking.

You can look up these and numerous other obscure terms in the online version of the play, linked to below.


Related links

Jacobean comedies

Elizabethan art

17th century history

Restoration comedies

Those Barren Leaves by Aldous Huxley (1925)

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

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

Number of pages in Aldous Huxley’s first four novels

Those Barren Leaves

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

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

Currently staying with her are:

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

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

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

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

Cast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr Calamy, 33, tall, young and handsome.

Mr Cardan, 65, an elderly bon viveur.

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

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

Noble and grand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snobbery about Italy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Huxley’s aim

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

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

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

Or does it?

The plot

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

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

Part one – an evening at Mrs Aldwinkle’s

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

Part two – Fragments from the Autobiography of Francis Chelifer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The loves of the parallels are:

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

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

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

The Elvers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part five – Conclusions (pp.300 – 335)

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

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

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

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

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

Anticipations of Brave New World

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

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

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

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

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

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

More work for the undertaker

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

Credit

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


Related links

Aldous Huxley reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Thirties

Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of Red Front by Louis Aragon (May 1933)

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

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

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

Poetry and Revolution (March 1933)

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

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

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

He defends poetry with these arguments:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tangiers and Gibraltar Now (Left Review, February 1937)

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

Heroes in Spain (New Statesman, May 1937)

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

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

Spain invites the world’s writers (Autumn 1937)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postscript

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

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

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


Credit

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

Related links

The Ascent of F6 by W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood (1936)

Very enjoyable, quite funny at moments, very clever and zips along at speed until the climax which I completely failed to understand.

Act I

A British colony, Sudoland, is troubled, the natives are restless, and our colonial rival, Ostnia, threatens to invade across the border. At  meeting of notables, the Foreign Secretary, Sir James Ransom, explains that there is a legendary mountain, F6, slap-bang on the border between the two colonies. Native tradition has it that a) the mountain is haunted and b) whoever climbs to the top of this mountain will rule over both colonies for a thousand years. Just recently we received a telegram telling us that the Ostnians have sent an expedition to climb the mountain, is on its way now.

The notables Ransom is addressing – General Dellaby-Couch, a fuddy duddy old general; excitable Lady Isabel Welwyn; and cynical newspaper magnate Lord Stagmantle – react with dismay… until Sir James announces that we, the British, are planning a counter-expedition. Who will lead it? Why, his own brother Michael Ransom, one of the world’s leading mountaineers!

But Michael is a completely different kettle of fish from his successful Establishment brother. They appear to have been twins and James was always the brash, confident, favoured one while Michael was slightly smaller, more private.

This explains the opening scene. The curtains rise to reveal Michael at the top of a peak in the Lake District very bitterly and cynically denouncing Dante, who he’s been reading. Michael mocks Dante for his fake high-mindedness, mocking the speech of Ulysses in Dante’s Inferno which mentions ‘Virtue’ and ‘Knowledge’. Michael doesn’t believe in that guff. After a lengthy monologue the voices of his mountaineering mates call him to climb back down with them.

Michael’s cynical, disillusioned attitude explains why, when his brother unexpectedly pays him a visit at the mountaineering hostel (actually a pub, the Lakeland Pub) where he’s hanging out with four of his mountaineering buddies (David Gunn, Teddy Lamp, Ian Shawcross and the Doctor, Tom), and makes him the offer of leading this fully-funded mountaineering expedition to one of the great mountains of the word… Michael turns him down. Michael’s not interested in being anyone’s hero.

Until that is, Sir James plays his trump card, introducing their mother, who walks through the door and asks him to climb the mountain for her. She gives a speech comparing the lives of the two brothers, how he was the smaller, weaker of the twins, but she always loved him best. Michael can’t refuse. He says yes.

Act II

Cut to a monastery on the Great Glacier of F6. Monks are chanting, carrying a funeral coffin. This is where Michael and his team are resting before starting the climb.

There is dissension in the team. Earnest Ian Shawcross is very upset by the way David Gunn is always mucking about and stealing things. Shawcross desperately wants to make sure he gets to the top.

In a strange scene a monk brings in a crystal to the room where the mountaineers are staying. One by one they all go over and look into the crystal and see visions in it, telling the others what they see. Only Michael (who they all jokily refer to as MF) is silent about what he saw.

The Abbot of the monastery enters and has a conversation with Michael. Michael confesses that what he saw in the crystal is the wild adulation which will greet him if he climbs to F6, the first European to do so. It’ll be reported in all the papers, he’ll get home to a hero’s welcome. And he’ll be offered power, people will want him to save the country and save them. He’s terrified by all this and asks the abbot how he can escape it. The Abbott says there is a way to escape: stay in the monastery and renounce his way of life.

This passage brings out what you could call the Christian negativity underpinning the whole play. It comes over in the play’s poor view of human nature, irredeemably corrupted. The Abbott tells Michael: ‘the human will is from the Demon’. From reading even this far you can see why Auden temperamentally could have no truck with communism, which is optimistic, confident that human beings can control their destiny and build a better future.

Michael sees himself as being tempted, like Christ on the mountain, tempted with visions of the adulation he will receive when gets home from the weak and unhappy. Acting on this, when the Abbot has left, Michael asks his comrades to cancel the climb, but they think he’s mad and insist they go on, they’ve come all this way, England expects etc. And so, feeling weak and wretched, he gives in and agrees to the climb going ahead.

In the next scene they’re on a rock ledge and, after various bits of banter, Lamp, the sweet 24-year-old botanist, climbs over the ledge and down a bit to look at some interesting flowers and a sudden avalanche carries him away.

In the next scene the doctor and Ransom are waiting in a tent on a ridge above the previous location for the other two to arrive. They discuss who Ransom is going to choose to make the final ascent with him. Only two men can go. The Doctor reviews MF’s options i.e. who should it be out of Shawcross and Gunn? In a weak moment he asks if he can go, but realises this is foolish, he is by far the oldest of the team and it will require stamina.

Ransom says he’s made his mind up. The other two (Shawcross and Gunn) arrive and Gunn is immediately all fuss and trivial, interested only in the hot chocolate and oatmeal and natters on and even sings a nonsense song… until Shawcross snaps. Shawcross is extremely tense and demands who Ransom has chosen to take to the summit. Is it him? The others try to calm Shawcross, but he is hysterical and demands to know.

Ransom announces he is taking David, the inspired amateur, scrounger, petty thief and irritating joker. Shawcross is distraught. He berates himself as a failure, says he isn’t a man. Ransom tries to explain that: now he recognises his weakness, now he has self knowledge, he is a man. Michael he is sending him back to England to live, to be useful, and not go on this mad cock-and-bull expedition up a bloody mountain precisely because he is a serious man who will do much good. But Shawcross can’t accept it, can’t cope, rising hysteria. Suddenly he breaks free of the others, struggles out of the tent, runs to the precipice and throws himself over the edge.

Scene IV Ransom is supporting Gunn in a blizzard as they struggle towards the summit. Gunn is exhausted, cannot walk, is delirious, has a short speech and dies of exhaustion. Not going well, is it? The extremity of this short scene (barely 2 pages) prompted Auden to write some of the worse verse of the play, sub-Shakespearian bombast.

Scene V I barely understood a word of the final scene. Michael has arrived at the top of the mountain. A veiled figure sites right at the top, is it the legendary Demon of the Mountain? The chorus recites some poetry, then his brother James appears wearing full Foreign Office ceremonial dress.

Michael staggers on stage wearing his mountain climbing gear. Suddenly onto the stage comes a full set of chess pieces. James’s pieces include the General, Lady Welwyn, Lord Stagmantle, Michael’s include Lamp, Shawcross and Gunn.

Mr and Mrs A – two characters who have commented on the action all the way through – ask questions about their miserable lives and the three named characters – then James – answer them in various shades of pompous officialdom.

Then James and Michael play chess with the life-size pieces, without dialogue, occasionally saying ‘Check’. Michael wins and James collapses. Michael appears to have killed him. The General, Lady Welwyn and Lord Stagmantle recite a poem accusing Michael of murdering one of England’s favourite sons, as they jostle each other, leap on each others’ backs and ‘behave in general like the Marx brothers.

A light goes up to illuminate the Abbot at the back of the stage wearing a judge’s wig and bearing the crystal. Monks enter, lift James’s body onto a stretcher and carry him out. Stagmantle and Isabel recite what was to become the most famous poem from the play

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

The Abbott accuses Michael of killing his brother. Michael hysterically points at the veiled figure on the summit of the mountain and says the Demon did it! The Abbott (wearing a judge’s wig, remember) calls his witnesses, and one by one Lamp, Shawcross and Gunn appear, worn and bloody from their deaths, to accuse Michael.

Bewildered Michael ‘appeals to the crystal’ and the Abbott lets him look at it again. Michael looks up and says he didn’t mean it, it’s not his fault. The Abbott tells him it’s too late and says ‘the case is being brought before the Crown’, indicating the veiled figure seated on the summit. A Chorus recites an Auden poem. The Chorus and all the characters cry at Ransom that he must die, die for us, die for England!

Panic-stricken Michael turns to the figure at the top of the mountain as there’s the sound of an avalanche and all the other characters disappear. The figure’s draperies fall away to reveal… Michael’s mother, lovely as a young woman. There follows a cryptic passage of verse alternating between the Chorus and the Mother sort of addressing the meaning of the play and the choice Michael has made.

During this chorus the stage slowly darkens, and then is reillumined by the red light of the rising son. The stage is empty except for the dead body of Ransom on the mountain top.


Thoughts

What was that about? Was it his confused fantasia, was it a stream of consciousness hallucination brought on by his extreme exhaustion? Or the opposite, a ‘realistic’ depiction of a highly modern, self-consciously staged and artificial poetic event?

The first audiences like the play but didn’t understand the ending. Auden and Isherwood revised it not once but twice, with the result that there were three published versions with different endings. Later in life, Isherwood acknowledged that they never did get the ending right. But you can see this is because they didn’t know what they wanted to say.

The first part – the setup taking the mickey out of Establishment types – was easy. The scenes on the mountain, once they’d decided they’d do away with the other mountaineers one by one, almost wrote themselves. But the climax where they had to explain what the play was about? They couldn’t.

Within a year, a critic had suggested that the play dramatised nothing about politics and society but really dramatised Auden’s own personal dilemma: he had become ‘the Voice of a Generation’ and he didn’t want to be. He seemed to be a leader of all these other poets and writers but was, himself, wracked with doubts. He seemed to be leading them along a path (of socially committed poetry) which would lead some to destruction (to betray their talents) and didn’t want the responsibility.

The only way out was to kill the Auden figure amid a welter of Chorus poetry, but unfortunately this personal psychological way out didn’t make for very satisfactory theatre. In fact it doesn’t make sense and invalidates much of the preceding. The heavy symbolism of the Establishment figures, the rivalry with Ostnia and the deaths of his comrades, all these important issues are just waved away.

The strong man and other themes

A recurrent feature of Auden and Isherwood’s writing of the time was anxiety about ‘the truly strong man’ (anxiety about whether they’re being true ‘he-man’ types run through the Letters From Iceland which were written immediately after F6).

Some critics work these up into being a ‘discussion’ of masculinity. In this play you could say Michael Ransom ‘represents’ the conflict in one figure between the idea of doing the Heroic Thing, making a Proud Achievement for the Nation (i.e. climbing F6) – everyone’s stereotype of the Strong Man — but he inside knows that this achievement and giving in to public adulation would be weakness; for him, being truly strong would be to cancel the expedition, not to climb the mountain and to return to a quiet life of anonymity in England.

It’s a sort of interesting issue but I can’t get very worked up about it for three reasons:

  1. it’s obviously such an entirely personal obsession of Auden’s, maybe Isherwood’s too, it feels very close to the other schoolboy obsessions and jokes which pepper their writings
  2. and indeed, from one angle, it feels like a dramatisation of the very common plight of all weedy intellectuals who are in awe of big strong types, the wallflower anxieties of the Rick Moranis character in Ghostbusters
  3. it has been swept away by 80 years of identity and gender politics so as to be barely detectable as an issue

For an up-to-the-minute discussion of masculinity I refer you to the Barbican’s recent enormous exhibition on the subject:

Finally, these issues – a bit like the Christian symbolism which sort of appears, now and then – feel trivial in comparison to the artistic inventiveness of the play – it’s quick and fun, full of special effects, and of dazzling poetry!

Auden’s verse

On one level there’s a plot and there’s some ‘themes’ and ‘ideas’ and ‘issues’ you’re meant to take seriously. Maybe. But on another level, the play amounts to a barrage of Auden’s verse. There’s reams of it. About 30 pages of the 84 pages are in verse, choruses and lyrics. They cover a wide range of subject matter and affects. There are larky lyrics:

The chimney sweepers
Wash their faces and forget to wash the neck;
The lighthouse keepers
Let the lamps go out and leave the ships to wreck;
The prosperous baker
Leaves the rolls in hundreds in the oven to burn;
The undertaker
Pins a small note on the coffin saying, ‘Wait till I return,
I’ve got a date with Love.’

There’s a Chorus which echoes the action in typically elliptical, hieratic verse.

Acts of justice done
Between the setting and the rising sun
In history lie like bones, each one.
Still the dark forest, quiet the deep,
Softly the clock ticks, baby must sleep!
The Pole Star is shining, bright the Great Bear,
Orion is watching, high in the air.

Descriptions of England’s countryside wasted by the Depression.

Let the eye of the traveller consider this country and weep,
For toads croak in the cistern; the aqueduct chokes with leaves:
The highways are out of repair and infested with thieves:
The ragged population are crazy for lack of sleep;
Our chimneys are smokeless; the implements rust in the field
And our tall constructions are felled.

Gossipy descriptions of types of profession and character.

The cat has died at Ivy Dene,
The Crowthers’ pimply son has passed Matric,
St Neots has put up light blue curtains,
Frankie is walking out with Winnie
And Georgie loves himself.

Highly schematic call and response verse reminiscent of T.S. Eliot at his most portentous.

Give me bread   Restore my dead
I am sick   Help me quick
Give me a car   Make me a star
Make me neat   Guide my feet
Make me strong   Teach me where I belong

And Mr and Mrs A with their eternal worrying and complaining:

Mrs A
Give me some money before you go
There are a number of bills we owe
And you can go to the bank today
During your lunch hour.

Mr A
I dare say;
But as it happens I’m overdrawn.

Mrs A
Overdrawn? What on earth have you done
With all the money? Where’s it gone?

Mr A
How does money always go?
Papers, lunches, tube-fares, teas,
Toothpaste, stamps and doctor’s fees,
Our trip to Hove coast a bit, you know?

Theatrical effects

So the play is not enjoyable because of its themes of the public versus the private man, or its garbled treatment of ‘redemption’ but despite them. Despite the garbled plot, the play is packed full of not only a very wide range of types and registers of verse, but this is combined with a load of snappy stage effects.

Central is the idea that the two boxes nearest the stage i.e. not on the stage but set back from all the action, are populated by Mr and Mrs A, a dowdy suburban pair, he with his wretched job as a clerk in a miserable office, she eternally grumbling and complaining.

They appear regularly throughout the play commenting directly or obliquely on the main action (when the newspapers announce Britain is sending an exhibition to climb F6 they spout patriotic pride, when it is announced that Lamb has died they recite a funeral poem). Their appearance is indicated when the lights onstage dim to darkness and lights come up to illuminate their box.

But the box idea is taken further when one of them is populated with a radio which blares out official BBC announcements. And then by the announcer themselves in BBC black tie making announcements which also commentate on the action. Lord Stagworthy even appears in the box to make a pompous radio announcement full of clichés, ‘no more fitting grave for our brave boy etc’.

But this entertaining piece of satire them segues into Mrs A declaiming a relatively serious stretch of verse saying that the dead man (Lamp) is not now subject to age and the slow decay of ideals and mind and body. When the Mother appears she declaims a long passage of Shakespearian blank verse to describe the childhood of the two boys.

There is a secret I have kept so long
My tongue is rusty. What you have said
I knew and have always known. Why do you start?
You are my Michael and I know my own…

This is immediately followed by the stage going to a dead blackout and the voices of a load of newspaper boys hawking the latest editions and shouting their headline.

Evening Moon: Late Night Final!
Young English Climber’s Daredevil Attempt!
The Haunted Mountain: Full Story and Pictures!
Monasteries in Sudoland: Amazing Revelations!

Then lights come up on the Mr & Mrs A stage box to reveal Mrs A who declaims, not in her usual nagging housewife voice, but in a more elevated, ‘poetic’ trance:

I read the papers; there is nothing there
But news of failure and despair:
The savage train-wreck in the dead of night,
The fire in the school, the children caught alight,
The starving actor in the oven lying,
The cashier shot in the grab-raid and left dying,
The young girl slain upon the surgeon’s table,
The poison bottle with the harmless label…

(The sort of thing Auden could rattle off by the yard). Some individual pieces are brilliant and were later published as stand-alone poems (for example the ‘Stop all the clocks’ lyric that became superfamous after Richard Curtis included it in the script of Four Weddings And A Funeral).

But the real point of the play is its imaginative stagecraft – the speed with which it changes scenes and lighting and tone, from naturalistic prose to a whole range of verse, all signalled and highlighted by cunning lighting and sound effects (and the incidental music of Benjamin Britten, impossible to recreate when you silently read the play). Even in a stone cold reading its tremendous energy and inventiveness comes over. it’s a shame Auden and Isherwood couldn’t devise a successful ending to the play but it doesn’t stop the journey through the play to its muddled conclusion from being thrilling and entertaining.


Related links

Works from or about the 1930s

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