Wednesday, 28 September 2022

Review: Anthony Adverse: The Lonely Twin by Hervey Allen


If the first volume of Anthony Adverse was high on charm but a little loose in structure, and volume two was tighter, more exciting but less charming, then volume three was both looser and less charming. In volume three, Anthony repeats many of the mistakes he made in volume two, he neglects his spiritual side, tries to take too much control over his life. He also learns the same lessons again, but more.. then when he does die, he goes out like a punk. 


The book doesn’t begin with Anthony, who has recently returned from a stint as a slaver in Africa in a more chastened and enlightened mood. It actually begins with Don Luis, his mum’s husband, who murdered his dad and dumped him in an orphanage - not that Anthony knows this. Things have moved on for Don Luis, he’s been consolidating his power in Spain what’s more, his driver, Sancho ‘the Cat’ now has a grown up son called the Kitten. Coming to wrap up his business with Bonnyfeather, he goes to the convent where he dumped Anthony and discovers the child is still alive and, improbably, Bonnyfeather’s heir. It’s here we get another glimpse of a more noble Don Luis, who is struck dumb by the beauty of the bronze boy, Anthony’s childhood friend. This flash of nobility is quickly undermined by the way he cons the statue from the nuns.


He meets the grown Anthony, which rather shocks him, leading to a chapter where Don Luis ponders. There have been rants and reflective pages before in this long, and sometimes very inward-looking novel, but this is the first that just seems like words for their own sake. For thirty (rather dull) pages, Don Luis pours metaphor on metaphor in a confusing jumble. I can’t even work out why he was so surprised to bump into Anthony, seeing as it’s in the town he dumped him in - there’s far less likely meetings to come. Don Luis also meets up with Faith, who is now only being referred to by her surname and we are reminded that she’s evil (somehow.. I don’t feel this has been very well established). Interestingly, Don Luis used the phrase ‘mental health’ in this chapter, which I thought was a newer phrase then that.


When we meet Anthony, he’s folding up the Bonnyfeather business and talking to his friend Vincent Nolte, who introduces the main thrust of the book, a deal to sneak silver out of Mexico and launder it through the United States and back to Europe. Much of the book concerns this deal, in all its complexity. While it does give reasons to move Anthony to France and Britain (where the backers are) to New Orleans (where he manages to the laundering) it is not a very interesting thing to drive the plot. Not only is it complicated, it involves Anthony defrauding numerous people and it’s simply not gripping to wonder if the extraordinarily rich Anthony will become even richer.


Much like the other two books, Anthony doesn’t really suffer from his adversity, He quickly makes the right friends, finds himself in the right place and has the right skills to win through. Unlike the first book, there wasn’t the range of warm and charming settings and unlike the second, there wasn’t the huge internal conflict. Much of the book involves Anthony, in a very comfortable position, talking boring banking stuff with dull people. 


At least, in the journey from Italy to France, there is a villain in the person of Don Luis. He is filled with hatred for the living reminder of his cuckoldry and he becomes something like Wile E Coyote, with an elaborate plan to push Anthony and Vincent’s coach off a ravine in the alps. Luckily, Anthony needs a piss at the right moment and spots the trap early and so offs Don Luis’s coach (the first thing in the books the reader is introduced to) and also The Kitten, who was driving it.


The section in France is the longest in the book. It mostly involves boring banking talk and a number of court-like shenanigans surrounding the figure of Napoleon. He’s an interesting character, a charismatic man who forces his personality on the world around him but also something of a nitwit. It becomes clear, especially in a later section where Anthony goes to Spain, that Allen sees the modernising explosion of Napoleon to have swept something important from the world, for all of its hoped for enlightenment. Angela also happens to be in Paris, she’s a super successful opera singer and she has Anthony’s son from their only time together. There’s a little romance but she decides to dedicate herself to singing, living the kid with Anthony, who loves him very much and reluctantly palms him off on someone else.


Anthony visits England, a place where people are not ‘human beings’ but ‘human havings’ and they hold their lips stiff. Anthony often finds he is “frequently suspected and despised, I find, because my expression sometimes changes.” Then it’s back to France, then off to Spain, for a while in the company of a woman breast-feeding a pig.


A tragedy happens there, Anthony goes off fishing and his coach is attacked and Juan, his loyal servant from the second book is killed. He’s too late to join in the fight despite running “with his trousers on backward and the exhilaration of battle in his heart.” There’s a lot of politicking in Spain as well, including a ball where he is set to dance with an elderly woman who is described as “the horse-faced relict of Don Quixote” and “the angel of constipation”. In this ball, he also meets Dolores, his fancy bit from Cuba.


At last, we all get to New Orleans and Anthony does his thing, meeting all the most useful, friendly and trustful people straight away and making a success of all he does. He even finds himself married, to his first fancy piece Florence, and they have a little girl. New Orleans is an interesting setting but the book doesn’t spend long there as he builds a big house called Silver Ho. It seems he hasn’t learned the lessons from the second book, forcing the world to give him even more wealth and running it all on the back of slaves. When his wife jokingly remarks that the nursery door jams, just as he sets off to a meeting, I expect the house to burn down with them in it, which it does. 


Almost mad with grief, he goes into the wilds with a man called Pierre who blows his head off by trying to light his match with a flintlock pistol and a native American called Moosh-Moosh, who talks like the ‘injuns’ from Peter Pan. Eventually, he goes off alone and there’s a whole daft Robinson Crusoe section where he makes a cosy house. Then he kills and skins a bear, wears the skin, is taken for a God and imprisoned as a bear-God by a bunch of native Americans for three months - it seems that Allen has lost the plot for a bit and anything goes.


Through very unlikely circumstances he is captured by Spanish soldiers - his dog kills Sancho ‘the Cat’ and he is taken to Don Luis, who is governor of that area. Don Luis dies of a stroke but not before condemning him to a leper hospital/ mad house. Anthony makes the journey as a prisoner with a bunch of other prisoners and, in doing so, he finally discovers the joy he saw in Father François. The hospital is probably the most interesting setting in this volume. It was started as a church but converted to prison/hospital, the statues with bodies but without faces. There are lepers playing guitar by a hand without enough fingers”. 


Alas, this the shortest chapter in the book, Dolores visits the hospital, gets him out and the two of the escape their respective fortunes and live a quiet life on a mountain where they raise two children. Thus, we follow Anthony to his death… and it’s the most embarrassing death anyone could have. The wife and kids go to a birthday party and he decides to cut a tree down. It just so happens that the tree has a stone in its heart and that causes the axe to slip and plunge into his groin. He then bleeds out through his groin and dies.


It must be said, I didn’t enjoy this volume as much. There simply wasn’t as many of the odd little details I had been enjoying and far too much boring banking chat. Also, there were more rants. Whether it was a pretentious essay about bullfighting, or a positively red-pilled rant about the ‘dangerous’ effects on feminism and female influence. Then there are the unanswered elements, what about little Anthony and all the people left behind? Finally, after all the events, the struggles, the difficulty finding the best way of living and being more than “a mammal that dreamed”, he discovers that it’s to live a simple life - then smacks himself in the groin with an axe. As such, the book does not reach the potential impact of its 1225 pages (and 18 days of reading).



And also… what does Hervey Allen with the word ‘blent?’ Such an odd favourite word to use.




Wednesday, 21 September 2022

Review: Anthony Adverse: The Other Bronze Boy by Hervey Allen

 In Volume One, Anthony was born and dumped in a convent, there he grew into a curious and intelligent boy who unknowingly became the ward of his grandfather, a rich merchant. He had sexual encounters, for better or worse and he had a constant struggle between his inner and outer selves. At the end, Anthony is about to set off on his first voyage, a trip to Cuba to settle a debt with a slaving company.



Volume Two: The Other Bronze Boy


Like the first, the second volume is episodic but the episodes are tighter, faster-paced and more action packed. Part of this is because Anthony is now an adult but also because he is put in situations where he has to act independently and really test his character.


Unable to sail in an official capacity, Anthony must become the first mate on a commercial ship. The most convenient is the Wampanoag, captained by Elisha Jorham and his wife. At first it seems like she’s going to be the obstruction, she’s strictly religious and stands on her dignity as ‘a Putnam’ but it’s Elisha who’s the liability. 


Years before, their three year old daughter wandered off and slipped into some mill machinery and was ground up. Since then, the couple have been wracked by guilt which Elisha drowns in drink. He’s particularly fond of ‘dog’s nose’, a mixture of wine, porter and port (which is nowadays more often a mix of stout and gin). This means Anthony has to step up a little, as the captain is frequently too drunk to navigate and Genoa to Cuba is quite a distance. There’s also the crew’s belief that the baby comes onto the ship as a ghost. 


As a result, this section reads as an almost self-contained ghost story, and to make it creepier, it’s aboard a ship that may or may not be going in the right direction. Allen again uses his skill for the eye-catching and strange, having part of the cargo of the ship being saints strapped into spare bunks. 


When the Wampanoag finally reaches Cuba, Anthony meets up with Carlo Cibo, he’s a semi-retired agent of Bonnyfeather’s and lives a well-fed, well-rested, generally luxurious life surrounded by his many naked children. (It’s odd, how often naked children are mentioned in these books, I think they represent innocence but not all are handled innocently - Cibo’s are though). The biggest problem he has in life is chafing, which he solves with a smooth, silk sash which ‘let’s one fat chop pass another’. 


This section slows to the more leisurely pace of parts of the first book. Anthony must make a good impression on the right people and put together a team which will allow him to claim back the money owed to Bonnyfeather. To that end, he falls in love (yet again), gains a servant and buys a new suit, which ushers in his new self and the new nineteenth century - no more breeches. For the most part, this part of the book is enjoyable for the likeable character of Carlo, who’s ‘mammalian philosophy’ of physical indulgence is paired with his opposite, Father François who is a purely spiritual figure.


For complicated reasons, Anthony has to board the slave ship Ariostatica, legally claim it as his for the length of a voyage and use it to ship slaves and use those profits to pay the debt the slaving company owes to his. Complications on this voyage include a captain who resents him, a crew who distrust him and Father François, who is being exiled from Cuba and has yellow fever. They are also being followed by a hammerhead shark who’s after at least one of them. 


The scenes in Father François’s sickbed are interesting enough, describing the progress of the disease and, in his fever, telling parts of his life. He was a nobleman who became a parish priest, he gave last confessions on the guillotine and also saw some of the events before Anthony’s birth. There’s also a strangely poetic paragraph about the sick man’s ‘fundament gusts’.


More interesting is the story of the captain of the ship, Don Ramon, and his lover El Pollo. The reader is first introduced to them rapidly dressing when Anthony boards the ship. El Pollo is described as being a typical prostitute, showing the captain’s laxity and louche nature, one fully backed up by his spinelessness and apparent deviousness. As if to back up the captain’s deviousness, it is then revealed that El Pollo is a young man, making the ‘disgusting’ captain gay. Then the book tries to humanise the captain, saying that El Pollo is not really his slave or lover, but obsession, and that El Pollo really owns him. Then the crew decide the young man is the reason for hitting a calm and sacrifice El Pollo to the hammerhead shark. The Captain, for all his obsession, is not the least bit bothered and what’s more, the sacrifice works and the ship keeps moving. It was interesting to have a book from the 1930s represent a gay relationship but it was also interesting to see how they followed similar ‘Hay’s Code’-esque conventions, with queer coding as a short hand for weakly, connivingly, evil and to kill off the gay, a trope we’re only growing out of now.


When they reach Africa, Anthony discovers the company’s head has died and there’s a tense gunfight on the ship as it’s being piloted up the river to the company headquarters. There’s death, destruction, another dog murder and the use of random items for grapeshot, decades before it was used in Pirates of the Caribbean.


When the smoke clears, it’s three years later and we are introduced to a new Anthony. He’s now the other bronze boy, sun-tanned but also stiff and unsmiling. He’s a huge success, having claimed the debt and launched on his own successful career as a slaver. He’s callous, referring to people as ‘product’ and encouraging good food and treatment to them because it drives up the price at the other end. He’s built his own dream home and is trying to build a paradise on the backs of others. To those around him, he’s the ‘Master of Gallegos’, a firm and unreadable man who conducts business fairly but strictly. Father François has tried to serve as his conscious, but is ignored by Anthony who wants to be a man of doing and a man of body - in the symbols set up in the first book, a bronze statue and not the reflection in the water. 


It’s interesting, because the strain of being a slaver and a man of action is obviously wearing him down. Although there is more action in this book, a number of gunfights, storms, almost-mutiny, Anthony has the supreme luck of finding exactly the objects and people he needs to withstand any external conflict. It’s the internal conflicts that really injure him and we see Anthony as low as he has been, despite being more successful than ever. 


It’s a bad dose of malaria that brings him back to himself, by stripping off the stiff-bronze self and restoring his more fluid and feeling being. It’s too late to save Father François though, who has been crucified by a witch doctor who saw him as a rival. A chastened but energised Anthony boards the Unicorn, captained by Bittern (who has fond memories of Faith’s sexy chair trick) and back to a Genoa which no longer has Bonnyfeather in it, as he died when Anthony was away.


Volume two is a far more exciting book than volume one but there are still the elements of philosophy with the divide in Anthony between his physical and spiritual selves. The descriptions of the slave trade are frank, delivered in outdated language and reflecting debunked opinions. It’s interesting that Allen only uses the N word in dialogue but never as narrator, maybe it’s becoming a line to not cross even then. Ultimately, Anthony does learn that slavery is bad and rejects it, but he does so as part of his rejection of purely bodily living and he gives the slave business to someone else, so it carries on. More insidious is the character of Ferdinand, the mixed-race chief factor, who seems a decent person at first but is actually a cruel monster - and the explicit explanation is that his seeming decency is his white side and his actual cruelty his black blood. However, it is possible to disagree with a book and enjoy much of it and this section of Anthony’s story was more gripping than the first, though less charming.




Wednesday, 14 September 2022

Review: Anthony Adverse: The Roots of the Tree by Hervey Allen

 I was both high and low when I found Anthony Adverse. Down the basement of a bookshop but up the ladder, looking at the highest shelf. On closer inspection it appeared to be a 1930s bildungsroman set in the late eighteenth century and in three parts. I thought I’d make it my summer challenge read.

Volume One: The Roots of the Tree


Although the book is split into three ‘volumes’ mine was published in two and is supposed to be read as one. Although I’m reading it as one, I’ll review it as three. It’s nice to split these things up, especially when this story takes up so many pages. 


The first volume sets Anthony Adverse up for his big adventure, gives us his backstory, introduces us to the people he loves and who shaped him and sets up his drives, dreams and obsessions. The book doesn’t feel slow but it is deliberately paced, in the style of a film epic from the time. Anthony isn’t born until a hundred pages into the story but his pre-story is an interesting one, filled with forbidden love and a nuanced (ish) and engaging villain. I saw he's nuanced, he does want things other than badness, but Don Luis isn’t a subtle villain, he kills a dog by purposefully telling his driver to run over it with a carriage. All of these melodramatic shenanigans happen so Anthony can be born, lose his parents and be deposited in a convent with nothing but an old Madonna statue and ten pieces of gold.


Allen has this peculiar skill, where he’s able to throw in something arrestingly odd every now and then. This breaks up the slightly inevitable nature of the story (it is playing with some really old tropes and structures) and unsettles any judgements the reader might be making about the book. 


For example, Anthony is the only orphan of a convent which is pivoting from orphan-care to teaching and the Mother Superior can’t decide whether to keep him or let him go, the key event which makes her mind up is that he accidentally walks on her without her headdress and sees that she’s bald. The spark to get him out the convent could have been anything, but it’s a nun’s alopecia that does it.


Another little bolt of strangeness is how Anthony is introduced. In the previous part, Anthony has been dropped off in a hole in the convent wall that was built for that purpose (incidentally, the US are bringing such holes in the wall back). The new part starts with a description of the garden, how the convent started as a temple to Castor and Pollux and how there is now a bronze statue of one of them, repurposed as Jesus, next to an ancient fountain and a huge tree. Then attention is drawn to “a pair of eyes hung on a wall post”. It’s not as macabre as it would seem, those eyes are in fact attached to a baby and the baby is hung in a bag in the courtyard. Nor is the description of the baby as ‘a pair of eyes’ completely inappropriate, hanging in his bag, Anthony can only interact the world with his eyes.


He grows up an odd boy, with a language of Tuscan and church Latin, an outfit of an oversized cassock and a thorough understanding of myth, the classics and church history but no experience of ever standing in a field or playing with other children. His best friend is either his reflection or the bronze statue of Castor or Pollux. He needs some wising up and, this being a novel, he finds himself in the perfect position, the merchant company of the wonderfully named John Bonnyfeather. As well as being a merchant and the descendent of a Scottish nobleman ruined by the ’45, Bonnyfeather also happens to be Anthony’s grandfather. It does seem strange that the crafty Don Luis would deposit the unwanted baby in the same town as that baby’s grandfather but I feel this is a book that will have a few more coincidences as we progress.


Another surprising moment is when Anthony rediscovers Angela, the young love of his life after events have taken her away and make an actress of her. They meet in Signora Bovino’s apartments (astrology upstairs ‘satisfactory amatory entertainment on the first floor’) and sleep together. Then they are treated to a generous and joyful breakfast by her sugar daddy who is simply happy that Angela’s happy. Whilst such arrangements were possible in the eighteenth century, and even matter-of-factly talked about, I found such flexibility of sexual roles surprising to find in a book from the thirties and in so conservative a genre as historical fiction.


So far, sex is one of the main themes of the book. Anthony is himself a product of extra-marital sex and he’s deeply ambivalent about it. He’s frightened of sex when it’s a pure animal pleasure, a young man proudly masturbates in front of him and he’s horrified by the lack of soul. However, he’s delighted by it when he feels it’s a joining of souls and experiences it on almost religious terms - having visions of a strange mashup of Maria, his mother but also the virgin Mary and his ideal self, “the way his soul thought of itself, if only the world would let it be.” There’s also a Jungian element of seeing his true self as a women as well as a confused mother/madonna religious element which runs throughout the book.


The dark sexual element of the book is represented by the provokingly named Faith. She’s first introduced as the faithful lady’s maid to Anthony’s mother, who wasn’t allowed to join her in her new marriage. The implication is that Faith would have been able to solve all the problems at the beginning of the book, that she is capable, kind and loyal. When we meet her, things might not be so straight forward, she’s withdrawn with almost green skin and ‘lemur’s’ hips. These hips are described as, ‘an obstruction to life’ being made for love affair but not pregnancy. It’s revealed more and more that she is a nymphomaniac, and a jealous one at that. She encouraged the ill-fated match of Maria and Don Luis so she could shtup him, she also has her way with Anthony and he hates her for it. That said, as much as the book is trying to set her up as an antagonist, she doesn’t actually do anything particularly evil, it’ll be interesting to see where her character goes next.


Indeed, I’m interested to see where all of the book goes next. Napoleon’s invading and Anthony is off to wrap up some business with a slaving company in Havana. I’m sure there’ll be religious and pagan imagery, I’m sure there’ll be good and bad sex, I’m sure there’ll be crises of identity - it’ll be a fun journey.




Wednesday, 7 September 2022

The Shakespeare Jubilee Special (Featuring 'What Blest Genius?' by Andrew McConnell Stott)

 In 2019, I visited Stratford Upon Avon, a town whose whole identity and industry is based on being the birthplace of national poet, William Shakespeare. That was not always the case. There was a time when Stratford made little of its most famous son and William Shakespeare was a popular and famous author but not a literary demigod. This apotheosis of Shakespeare happened for a number of reasons, but one of the instigators for the birth of Bardolatry was Garrick’s jubilee festival, the eighteenth-century’s own Fyre Festival.

I was excited to discover that Andrew McConnell Stott, the author of The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi, had written about Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee because he’d already shown himself a great picker of stories and an entertaining storyteller. I knew the bare-bones of the story and was hoping that What Blest Genius would add flesh to it, it certainly did.


The Jubilee itself was an idea that started small. Having built a new town hall, the business leaders of Stratford Upon Avon want someone to donate a statue of Shakespeare to put in an alcove. They decide that David Garrick is the perfect person to ask, his career is inextricably linked with the playwright and like, “all great Men, Love to be praised.” They up the ante by giving him a box carved from mulberry wood - reportedly from the tree that Shakespeare planted himself. Garrick then decides to dedicate the statue with an ode and, the actor looking to create some spectacle, this grows into the Jubilee festival. 


Garrick sends his brother George to Stratford to manage the project. He and his team spend more time drinking than working and the people of the town aren’t convinced by the attractiveness of the project. With only a few weeks to go, they’ve only just negotiated the timber to build a temporary performance space. In London, Garrick hasn’t put out any official publicity for the event, though he may have stirred up false bad publicity to get people talking. The tickets don’t go on sale until a week into the event, and what had previously been an all-event-inclusive ticket now only covers the main events, with further expenses for events like the evening masquerade.


Reactions are mixed; Samuel Johnson thinks the whole thing is ridiculous and refuses to go, Samuel Foote decides to go because there might be some comedy in it and Boswell decides not to go but changes his mind at the last minute. Because this book is about a two day event, it is padded out a little and one of the ways it is padded is with more information about James Boswell than the reader needs to know (for example, as a child he liked to rub himself on trees). The given reason is that Boswell is exactly the sort of person the Jubilee was catered for, a literature fan with a fondness for social theatre and self promotion. The unspoken reason is that he was a dorky cringelord, which creates a certain ‘car-crash’ entertainment.



Amazingly, the temporary arena, the Rotunda, was built just in time and was a beautiful and impressive sight. The Drury Lane Company had also managed to bring all the costumes and props up to Stratford for the big parade and they’d even found and trained school children to play fairies and sprites. ‘Transparencies’, paintings on a light gauze, has been created which changed depending on where they were lit and the whole town was lit up like a fairy grotto. Souvenir ribbons and medals were everywhere, booksellers from Birmingham and London ensured that you could pick up your own Shakespeare texts for yourself and there were more items made from Shakespeare’s personal mulberry tree then one tree could ever produce. All that was needed were the visitors.


Despite road improvements, there were huge traffic jams approaching the small town, and that was for those who could find a coach. The roads were also blocked with sedan chairmen, hoiking them up from London and Bath, and one coach had lost its horses, which were running around biting people. Boswell shoved his money and watch in the upholstery of one coach as a clever ruse against potential highwaymen, then changed two coaches before remembering what he’d done. Luckily, the coachman was an honest man and had handed them in at an inn. 


When the visitors arrived into Stratford Upon Avon, they found a town not built for huge crowds, nor staffed with people used to guests who required a little more then a shared and lice-filled bed. Garrick had insisted that no bed would cost more than a guinea a night, so the people of Stratford had become extremely creative about what constituted ‘a bed’ and the fashionable ‘ton’ of London found themselves put up in barns, cupboards and hallways. One guesthouse supplemented these fees by charging guests an extra 18p to use the loo, more for non-guests.

The people of Stratford, rather ambivalent to the Jubilee before, suddenly became quite enthusiastic about the whole thing, charging visitors to tie their horse, borrow a coat or even know the time. It was the sardonic Samuel Foote who was charged for that and paid the 2 shillings to the enterprising citizen, partly so he could tell people when he returned that he’d had to pay for it. However, even he was surprised when he was told the hour and informed that minutes would cost extra.


The celebrations started at 6 am, with cannonfire and musicians wandering the streets playing songs from a specially written collection called ‘Shakespeare’s Garland”. There was a public breakfast in the town hall before some opera, which didn’t even have a Shakespeare theme. There were some more musical performances throughout the day, a communal lunch and a ball till midnight - but it was designated as the quieter of the three day festival.


Day two also started early with cannons, songs in the street and a communal breakfast. There was then supposed to be a parade through the town of actors and townspeople dressed as Shakespeare characters, utilising purpose build floats and all the glitz and glamour the prop and costume departments of the Theatre Royal could muster. Unfortunately, the rain, which had been pouring all day, cancelled the parade and everyone went into the Rotunda for the centrepiece of the event, Garrick’s Ode, dedicating the statue of Shakespeare to the town of Stratford Upon Avon.


This was something of an experiment and Garrick was nervous about it. He spoke the ode, but with backing from the Drury Lane orchestra, interspersed with different songs. Probably not helped that his barber had cut him mouth to chin, he seemed nervous when he started, however the pageantry, the music, his voice and everything came together and spellbound the audience. Not even one of the benches breaking and sending its sitters onto the floor, nor the door blowing off its hinges and knocking the Lord of Carlisle unconscious, could ruin what was the agreed highlight of the festival.


There followed a communal meal of venison or turtle (apparently it tastes sort of like beef) and people went off to prepare for the grand masquerade ball. Like much of the event, it was affected by logistics and price gouging, so the costumes weren’t as grand as they could have been. One man came in his ordinary clothes but with cuckold horns and many came in plain dominoes, the boring choice. Boulton, of Soho factory (and ex-fifty pound note) fame, was dressed as a Sultan but an hour before everyone else, so he just had to kick his heels. Boswell came as a Corsican freedom fighter and planned to bring handbills of a poem he wrote. As the ball continued, the rain did also and water started running around people’s ankles and then their shins. An evacuation was called and men carried women out the Rotunda. One man, dressed as a devil, discovered the woman he had on his shoulders was a man in costume and promptly dropped him. Everyone got safely out, however, and they gathered on high ground and watched the large, wooden edifice begin to float.


The next day was a bit of a communal hangover. The horse-race took place with the horses splashing about in the wet grass, the fireworks happened after a fashion and everyone tried to get home as quickly as possible - bearing many different opinions about the experience they’d just had. I liked the wag who said that if you explained to any highwaymen that you’d just been to Garrick’s Shakespeare Festival, they’d let you alone, knowing how much you’d been robbed already. Some were in raptures about the ode, or the lit up town but Garrick himself was in no way gruntled and had nothing nice to say about the town of Stratford Upon Avon.


However, it wasn’t a complete failure. The rhetoric (much of it near-religious) and the ‘pose’ of the festival had raised Shakespeare from popular writer to national legend, the attendees had been part of something special and the town had started upon its journey of the Shakespeare name as possible. (Something I’ve never really understood, as Shakespeare did everything his reputation hangs on in London, same with the Beatles and Liverpool if I’m honest). What’s more, Garrick’s play The Festival, a celebration of, and good-natured ribbing on the event ran for 91 nights, surpassing even The Beggar’s Opera’s 62 night run. 


This book made me laugh out loud do many times. There were so many other funny anecdotes in this book that I haven’t managed to squeeze into this writeup; the full story of Macklin’s stabbing another actor in the eye (complete with urine and crossdressing), the sheer body of funny things said about the festival afterwards (Samuel Foote’s gag about ‘life-size’ Garrick puppets), the incredible depths of Boswell’s neediness - but I encourage anyone to read this book and discover those elements for themselves.





Wednesday, 31 August 2022

Review: The Scandal of the Season by Sophie Gee



 I picked up Sophie Gee’s The Scandal of the Season shortly after watching the first series of Bridgerton and it looked like similar campy, arch, nonsense with its Aubrey Beardsley cover and a detachable fuchsia face-mask. It’s not that. The blurb implies that the novel is a risky love story tied up with a Jacobite mystery but that’s more the subplot, the main story is about young Alexander Pope.


It’s strange, the story of young Pope, an outsider from high society because of his mercantile and Catholic background, further marked out by his illness and hunch-backed body, is by far the more interesting element in the book and downplayed by its cover. Pope (or simply Alexander, as the book frequently calls him) is a charming character, a little gauche and naive, with a deep ambition to be a great writer but a touching doubt that his talents won’t be enough to secure success. He’s far from the snidey, aggressive author of The Dunciad, having published a few pastoral poems that he’s afraid will lead to him being labelled as a sweet, country-born bard. His Essay in Criticism is about to come out and his principle emotion is worry, particularly that he will be attacked by the critic Dennis, who he’d later eviscerate as ‘The King of Dulness’.


The novel itself starts with a priest being murdered, starting a running sub-plot of Jacobean plotting. It’s frequently off to the side of the novel, with certain characters slipping away during society functions to share warnings and packets of money. Interestingly, this is a plot, but not a Jacobean one. It’s a scam run by a dodgy sometime slave dealer who is playing on the high-emotions of the Jacobites and the need for secrecy to cover the scam. I really enjoyed this little twist, so many books have the Jacobite plot in them, from Moonfleet to The Virtue of the Jest and it was nice to have it play out a little different. 


Ultimately, the book is about recontextualising the event that prompted Pope’s Rape of the Lock. Within that poem, it was a pretty simple act, that a Baron cut off the lock of hair from a beauty because he wanted her so badly. Lord Petrie was the Baron and Arabella ‘Belle’ Fermor was the lady. Throughout the novel they have an illicit affair, starting as public flirting but becoming a private and sexual affair. This also allows Belle to have access to more exclusive social circles, which she revels in but it’s clear the two are in love with each other also. It does also mean this novel does have some fairly explicit love scenes and references to Rochester’s poems and visual pornography. It doesn’t make this book the bonkbuster it seems to have been marketed as, those scenes are few and the focus does seem more on Alexander Pope then this romance. When Petrie’s family discover and disapprove of the affair, they can leverage Petrie’s foolishness with the Jacobite stuff to make him publicly break off their secret engagement by stealing her hair - so the ‘trivial act’ of the poem is not as trivial as it first appears.


I really liked the dramatisation of Pope’s relationship with the Blount sisters, Teresa and Martha. The eldest is trying to ape Belle and enter her circles, the younger is aware that she’s not the kind of person to seek attention. Pope is romantically infatuated with Teresa but he is more drawn to Martha as a person - the three were going to have a complicated relationship for the rest of their lives. 


There’s also depiction of Pope’s first meetings with Swift and Gay, lifelong friends (though largely by letter) and members of the Scriblerus club. There’s even a glimpse of how they bounced ideas off each other as they jokingly create an ‘unlearned’ club while chatting during an Italian-style opera. Swift even points out his own ‘savage indignation’, a description he’d have engraved on his tomb, though he does laugh at one point, something he was never reported to have done. Apparently he barely even smiled.


This book is set in a world where most social encounters involve verbal jousting. It might make the book seem a little odd or stiff at first but once acclimatised, it was interesting how well character was established through these formalised conversations. Pope has a skill at simile and comparison but often pitches his conversation too humbly or boldly, Teresa has a habit of being a little sharp, Arabella a little too insouciant. For the most part Lord Petrie pulls it off perfectly, but he has the confidence of title, cash and good looks to do so. That does mean it is genuinely shocking when a character ditches the social game and says exactly what they thought, and these moments were sprinkled well throughout the book.


Ultimately, I thought this a really decent novel about a young man of talent but little social standing making his first entrance into a highly stratified social world, with some romance, plotting and sex to provide some contrasts. I think it should have been more clearly marketed as what it was, as it would disappoint those expecting a campy sexfest or a thrilling Jacobite novel. 





Wednesday, 24 August 2022

Review: The Rape of the Locke by Alexander Pope


Pope’s The Rape of the Lock is a poem I’d read before but I reread it in advance of reading a novel about its creation called The Scandal of the Season. The version I read was the 1717 one in the student Twickenham edition.


In the introduction to this version, Pope claims the original version was printed against his will when he hadn’t finished writing it. How many times did Pope pull that stunt? With his letters, he even cheated a printer into publishing it before turning on him in print for doing so. He says that in his new version, he has made Belinda less like Arabella, the woman who actually had her hair snipped off. He also says he’s added Machinery, an equivalent to the muses, dryads, Gods and Goddesses of classic poetry. These come in the form of sylphs, a notion he’s nicked from the Rosicrucians. 


Famously, the poem is about “What mighty contests arise from trivial things”, in this case how a man cutting a woman’s hair led to her being upset. The tone is mock-heroic, in which the small details are described in the full lusciousness of epic poetry. I have to admit, I now find this poem extremely camp, and the sylphs don’t help.


We meet them swirling in the air, enacting all the pleasures and wishes of ‘polite’ society. They are Belinda’s dreams of all the things she’s hoping for in life but it’s presented as a grand vision. A vision with a warning of darkness in it. Belinda then gets up and puts on her make up. I many ways this reminded me of a tooling-up scene in an action film, these are her weapons and she plans to leave the house well-armed. There’s also a theme of prayer as she performs the “sacred rites of pride” that “calls forth the wonders of her face”. It’s almost like she, herself is a chief priestess but the vision in the mirror is her goddess.


We are then introduced to the villain, a Baron who is besotted by Belinda’s hair and is determined to take some. It reminded me a little of the episode in Casanova’s life, when he gathered the hair of a woman he was ‘in love’ with and turned them into sweets that he’d eat as he tried to seduce her - he actually failed that time. The Baron has his own altar, one to romance built of twelve French romances. However, if The Female Quixote taught me correctly about those books, they would not have suggested stealing hair, a hero would have been banished from his loved one for decades if he tried that.


There is a lovely (and very camp) description of Belinda going in a boat to the party, surrounded by her sylphs. They are described as fairylike, fluttering in many colours, with butterfly-like wings glistening. There are also hundreds of them guarding her, many around her skirts, many around her head and the chief one keeping an eye on her lapdog, Shock. She arrives like an invisible fairyland.


Those same sylphs then help Belinda win at cards. It’s described as being “combat on a velvet plane” and the cards are anthropomorphised into warriors, battling it out. The image of the cards physically duking it out was fun and seemed almost Alice in Wonderland to me. Belinda is not a quiet winner either, she shouts and hollers when she wins, a hint of her actions to come. Then the Baron approaches with his “two edged weapon” as she is looking into her coffee cup.


It’s actually a tense scene, with Pope repeating the word ‘thrice’ as the Baron steals himself to cut her hair. As he slices, he cuts a sylph, no need to worry though “airy substance soon unites again”. He cuts her hair and Belinda immediately screams, leading Pope to wonder how her hair has the sensation to let her know it’s been cut.


The next canto is the ‘Cave of Spleen’, which is pure camp. I may partly think this as I have a copy of Aubrey Beardsley’s illustration of it on my toilet door but the text does include living teapots and Mrs Potts is a camp icon. It’s essentially a psychedelic representation of a bad mood, especially the bad mood of someone who’s a little dramatic. She complains to her dad, who speaks crossly to the Baron in sweary cliché, a speech described as speaking “so well”. Belinda mourns the lock of hair, wishing she’d never been to the party and had been a hermit. 


The sylph Cassandra then comes and give the moral of the piece, it’s a crap moral. Essentially Cassandra argues that Belinda should cheer up, it’s only a lock of hair and that no men are going to like her is she seems melodramatic and fussy. I, however am rather on Belinda’s side. It really is a terrible invasion of space to cut someone’s hair without warning. I know the title uses the word ‘rape’ as part of its mock-heroic style, but there is a line crossed there for me. Luckily, everyone ignores Cassandra, as people always do.


Belinda goes into battle, first by shouting and giving dirty looks. Men “die in metaphor” in those angry eyes, it’s a massacre.. sort of. Then she takes some snuff and shoves it up the Baron’s nose, incapacitating him, something I definitely stealing for something I write sometime. She gets the pin out of her hair and is prepared to jab him with it when the hair becomes a comet’s tail, being placed in the sky for all to see and admire - like the stories where heroes become constellations. 


I found it odd the poem ends there, we never actually find out the resolution of the conflict. In real life the couple’s engagement was called off. I really enjoyed my re-read of this poem. It has a cartoony, technicolour quality and I enjoyed it as an (inadvertent?) example of high camp. I look forward to seeing what a novel does with the material.




Wednesday, 17 August 2022

Review: The Paper Chase by Joseph Hone


 The Paper Chase by Joseph Hone is a work of thoroughly researched history (with full bibliography, notes and index) that reads something like a thriller. It’s about an incendiary book, the covert way it was created and the huge spy-hunt to track down the people connected with it.

Starting with a woman in a mask delivering a manuscript to publishers, David Edwards and his wife Mary. It’s titled The Memorial for the Church of England and it argues that the dissenters, those protestants who feel the Church of England didn’t go far enough in its reforms, are the real dangerous people in the nation and deserve persecution. This was a particularly dangerous message for the government, which was pursuing a moderate path, which could easily be shaken up by a rise in sectarian strife. The government’s man on the job is Robert Harley (who will incidentally be the person whose library catalogue brought Samuel to the attention of the publishers who’d commission the dictionary).


It was a dangerous time to be a printer. The lapse of press regulation which had given birth to a free press was being clamped down. Publishers found themselves hung-drawn-and-quartered for putting out dangerous works and, at the lower end of punishment, were being put in the pillory, sometimes to be beaten insensible. There was even a version of the pillory where a person’s earlobes were nailed to the wooden board and would be sliced off to free them at the end of the ordeal.


What’s more, the government had a system of officers called messengers, many of them ex-bookmen, who would go under-cover, smash doors down or even use honeytraps to find the publishers of dangerous books. While some were diligent, many were crooked, which could work to a bookseller’s advantage if they had the money for a bribe or well-connected support but also meant they could be damned with planted evidence or paid witnesses.


 The central mystery in the book is an interesting one. There’s clearly a powerful set of people behind the Memorial and Edwards, as humble printer, is peripheral to their plot and an easy fall-guy. He goes on the run as his wife turns detective to find the culprits and force them to provide the safety and support they promised. She’s the best character in this book, putting together clues and creating false personas to get closer to the conspiracy while Harley and his state apparatus get nowhere.


One of the most interesting elements of this book is how it is framed. It’s the story of plucky printers avoiding the nasty government. Harley is frequently described as shifty with ‘little, dark, unfathomable eyes’. No one trusts him and he trusts no one. It’s strange, because the plucky heroes, the printers, put into the world a spite-filled invective that calls for oppression, suppression, persecution and death to dissenters. While the ‘evil’ government is seeking a moderate, centrist and tolerant approach. 


The real villains turn out to be the writers of the book, who are trying to ferment hatred for political ends and have no qualms about throwing poor Edwards and his family under the bus. It’s strange for a history book to have heroes and villains though. This is a very opinionated book, various politicians and writers are variously described as ‘shrieking’ or ‘wearisome’. It’s clear that the author is no Whig, no centrist and has a rather pessimistic view on humanity that is more Hobbes than Shaftesbury. He has the most vicious takedown of Shaftesbury and his view of innate human goodness; “It was abundantly clear that Shaftesbury mixed in exclusive, urbane circles, with fellow Whigs with impeccable and turgid manners”.


This is a well-written and gripping book about the political and religious divides of the early eighteenth century and successfully dramatises it using the case of Edwards and the Memorial. A look under the bonnet of the book shows a lot of research but it’s never dry or slow. While it did wear its own personal opinions a little obviously, they gave a little spice to the book and also reminded the reader that such opinions are in all books.


The book starts in the Edwards' print house in Nevill's Alley, just off Fetter Lane and I wondered if I could find it, as I go down Fetter Lane every week to Dr Johnson's House. To my surprise it turns out I go down Nevill's Alley every week as well but now it's just a gap between two large glass buildings filled with offices. 


I also learned there was a popular coffee house on Fleet Street called Nandos.