Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Review: Beau Nash by Oliver Goldsmith

Prior to a trip to Bath, I wanted to find out a little about how the eighteenth spa town grew and was particularly interested in Richard ‘Beau’ Nash, the Master of Ceremonies (and was succeeded by Samuel Derrick, one of the main people in Hallie Rubenhold’s ‘The Covent Garden Ladies).

Lucky for me, Oliver Goldsmith wrote a biography in 1762, a year after Nash died. As with most Goldsmith works, it came out to slightly snide reviews that stated that the author was a talent but was wasting it on subjects beneath him. More recent biographers have all made the link between this book and Samuel Johnson’s ‘Biography of Savage’ and some writers have declared it an important link in the development of modern biography. Norma Clarke’s ‘Brothers of the Quill’ talks a lot about the friendship between Goldsmith and Nash’s successor, Derrick. Robert Hopkins in ‘The True Genius of Oliver Goldsmith’ thinks it’s a masterpiece of satire and an important step towards ‘The Vicar of Wakefield’ - but of course he does, if Goldsmith sneezed, he say the same thing. I love Robert Hopkins, and think he often has a point but he does go too far sometimes.

There is a good case to make that this biography has a satirical element to it though, I certainly laughed a number of times. Though I think that the laughter is less to do with poking fun at Nash and exposing the emptiness of high society as it is with putting the reader on Nash’s side and getting us to like him for all his foibles. 

Richard Nash was born in Wales to a middle-class family and went to Oxford, where he discovered a talent for romantic intrigue and cards more than study. Going off to London, he joined the army where he ‘dressed to the edge of his finances’ and enjoyed lounging about London parks looking spiffy rather than anything of a more martial bent. Next he took up in Middle Temple where he organised a pageant for King William which the King was flattered enough to offer a knightship to Nash, who turned it down, not having the money to pull off the title. He discovered a knack for cards and found himself in Bath for the gaming.

At the time, the city was beginning to make a name for itself as a spa destination but it was when Nash was made Master of Ceremonies that it started getting the reputation as a fashionable destination. He organised fashionable entertainments, promoted and organised buildings suitable to them, raised money for a grand hospital and helped to create Bath that exists today. All the while, he made a precarious living off cards which eventually declined. He declared that he would write a biography of his life, which he never really started. To most people, this work was a threat to tell secrets and many noble families subscribed far more than they needed to keep him quiet. He died, nearly 90 years old and had a huge funeral. 

Nash’s is not the easiest life for an eighteenth biographer, the public were more used to biographies of saintly people, warlike leaders or great thinkers - biographies that were intended to celebrate the great and inspire the readers. Beau Nash seems sort of silly in comparison. He was a slightly shifty wannabe in a stupid white hat who pompously busied about making sure people didn’t wear boots in the ballroom. As an old man, Goldsmith paints the picture of a cringeworthy Hugh Hefner-esque character, wandering around and slobbering on the shoulders of pretty women. The book re-enforces the fact that Nash was a man of little talent, puffing up his little authority in a little kingdom - but I think Goldsmith makes that the point although he’s a silly man and he represents a silly culture but silliness is not evilness and if people can be silly but polite, they may manage to grow wisdom to match that politeness.

While there is a satirical reflection on the upper-crust for taking their social cues from a busybody with shady connections to gambling, it’s more a celebration of what a foolish, weak person can do with the talent they have. He was an important part in Bath’s development, he gave his own (and plenty of other people’s) money for projects that have made the city a UNESCO world heritage site, he banned swords and duals and he set a standard of behaviour - a standard that may have been too concerned with correct dress and address, but a standard nonetheless.

Goldsmith shows Beau Nash being both generous and stupid at the same time. He has a number of stories where Nash gives money to those who spend it foolishly, come back for more and are given more. When he had money, Richard Nash was generous and not particularly wise in his charity and Goldsmith, the creator of the incomparably foolish and generous Beau Tibbs in ‘The Citizen of the World’ has a slightly wry respect for that.

He gives some examples of the extreme flattery offered to Beau Nash, poems and dedications to his wisdom and generosity. My favourite was the dedication from an imprisoned con artist which served as a handbook on how to grift. Nash was obeyed by royalty, Princess Amelia, considered a tearaway in a family that included the future George IV, meekly accepted when he removed her white apron. To be admitted in the best parties in Bath was to go through Nash, so the great and good had to accept his authority. Naturally this lead him to being pompous and affected, as Goldsmith points out, even a strong mind could buckle under such power and Nash’s was never all that strong.

Nash is a gambler, but he warns people away from hard players and exposes tricks such as loaded dice. He set himself up as a part owner in (essentially) casinos but is tricked out of the winnings by his unscrupulous partners. Even the possible blackmail of his memoirs is waved aside by Goldsmith’s supposition that Nash was too public I man to have any deep secrets, and who is interested in the love lives of our grandmothers anyway? 

My favourite story was the one of Nash deciding to put a massive granite spike in the middle of the new Queen Square as a thanks to Prince Frederick, the figurehead of the Patriot Whigs, who had a big influence in Bath. Nash asked Alexander Pope (presumably through mutual friend, Ralph Allen AKA Squire Allworthy) to write the dedication. Pope repeatedly said that dedications were not really his thing but Nash insisted and paid him well over the odds to do it, so Pope wrote this piece of immortal literature…
"In memory of honours conferred and in gratitude for benefits bestowed in this city by His Royal Highness Frederick Prince of Wales and his royal consort in the year MDCCXXXVIII This obelisk erected by Richard Nash esq”

And that sums up Nash for me, he had the ability to mobilise the most talented people of a talented age and that was his sole talent but such people are needed sometimes.

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Dr Johnson's Reading Circle visit Stratford Upon Avon

Daring to leave the cosy safety of Dr Johnson’s House, the Reading Circle traveled to Stratford-Upon-Avon to visit one of the oldest historic house museums of them all, Shakespeare’s Birthplace. 

On the way, the group were given a Shakespeare related quiz, the results of which would be revealed at the end of the day and confirm that we were not exactly Shakespeare scholars.

The first stop on the tour was Shakespeare’s Birthplace, a site of tourism since the 18th century and an official museum since 1849, when the Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust was set up to stop PT Barnum buying it and shipping it over to the US. Thousands of people have visited it over the years, with a tradition being to carve their names on the walls and windows. We caught the signatures of Henry Irving and Thomas Carlyle scratched amongst a nest of names but other celebrated vandals include Walter Scott and Charles Dickens.

For those less destructively minded there was a visitor book going back to when the building was an inn called the Swan and Maidenhead. Names in there include Thackeray, Byron and Tennyson but was opened up on the page signed by Keats, he’d listed his place of abode as ‘everywhere’, because he was a waggish dude and a mad lad. 

As an eighteenth century inclined group, one of the main interests in Stratford-Upon-Avon were the works and efforts that people like Johnson and Garrick put into establishing him as national icon. The visitor’s centre had a number of objects that related to this, including early souvenirs such as Shakespeare busts and snuffboxes and a collection of items related to Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee. 

Held to celebrate the bicentenary of his birth (though five years late), this was a massive undertaking which swelled the town numbers and caused the creation of a temporary ballroom, racetrack and a huge pageant. Unfortunately the weather disagreed, the ballroom flooded, the pageant cancelled and hundreds of London’s bon ton were left wet, dirty and quite furious. The Birthplace contains a ticket (at a guinea), a souvenir medal and the Jubilee Cup, won by a horse called Whirligig.

Even the enthusiastic Boswell, who turned up to the event in Corsican national dress, felt a little washed out by the end, writing:
“After the joy of the Jubilee came the uneasy reflection that I was in a little village in wet weather and knew not how to get away.”

The house itself is a small, cramped affair with large painted leather covers to insulate the walls. There were the rooms in which John Shakespeare made gloves, a bedroom for girls and one for boys, and the master bedroom where Shakespeare was born. Costumed guides lingered in a number of key rooms, giving little talks and answering questions. There were great efforts to give an impression of how the house could have looked in Shakespeare’s day, with period furniture and reproductions, they even went to the trouble of hiding a walkie-talkie in a little leather bag. 

Outside, the sun was shining brightly and we wandered the garden before sitting down and listening to a little of Johnson’s introduction to his edition of Shakespeare’s plays. He hadn’t gone to the Jubilee, being more interested in Shakespeare’s words than the man himself (and finding the whole idea a little naff). Johnson declares Shakespeare to be the ‘poet of nature’, what’s more, he declares that Shakespeare is not best enjoyed by select quotation, but by whole plays.

“His real power is not shown in the splendour of particular passages, but by the progress of his fable, and the tenour of his dialogue; and he that tries to recommend him by select quotations, will succeed like the pedant in Hierocles, who, when he offered his house to sale, carried a brick in his pocket as a specimen.”

We listened to this recommendation of Johnson’s, as actors in another part of the garden acted out popular speeches.

We next went to the RSC’s gardens besides the river Avon. The sun was still shining, the wasps were wrestling and we supplemented our lunches with huge hunks of cake. While we sat eating, it was pointed out that all the lamp posts were different, this is because the garden contains a collection of lamp posts from around the country.

From the RSC gardens, we walked down the river to the Church of the Holy Trinity, where Shakespeare was baptised and buried. It was a brilliantly quiet place, lit by the sun through stained glass. There we saw the graves of Shakespeare and members of his family and the mediaeval font where they were baptised. The information boards in the church do a great job of explaining the rites and rituals that Shakespeare would have known and compares them with they way they celebrated now. Despite tourists, the church still felt like a living place of worship. As we left, a party of Buddhist monks in saffron robes entered.

The next place on our tour was Hall’s Croft, where Shakespeare’s oldest daughter lived with her husband who was a doctor to the rich. It was home to the most enthusiastic and knowledgable guides, who boasted about the high ceilings, the flagstone floors, superfluous use of expensive timber and multiple windows. The top rooms had an exhibition about Tudor medicine with a collection of trepanning tools and instructions on how to read urine. 

After a little rest in Hall’s Croft gardens, we walked towards New Place, the home which Shakespeare died and we would end our tour. On the way we had a sneaky-peek into the Guild Chapel. Shakespeare’s father had been paid four shillings for "defasyng ymages in ye chapel” but the whitewash has been stripped back and something of them remains. They are wonderfully detailed, disturbing and peculiar paintings of the dead rising from their graves and are well worth popping in for.

When we arrived at New Place, we found it wasn’t there. In 1759 the Reverend Francis Gastrell tore the place down in revenge on tourists who smashed his windows in for tearing down a mulberry tree supposedly planted by Shakespeare. The town were so enraged by his destruction of the house that they run him out. Now it is a beautiful set of gardens; the first a sculpture garden, the second a sunken knot garden and the last a lawn with two mulberry trees. We sat on the lawn, munching on mulberries and enjoyed the last of the sun, grateful for a very good day out.

We all had a fantastic day out and look forward to meeting again in October to tackle Henry Fielding’s ‘Joseph Andrews’.

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Review: The Rapture by Claire McGlasson

It’s not often I read a book the same century it was released, let alone a month later but ‘The Rapture’ by Claire McGlasson is about something that is rising up my list of interests, The Panacea Society. Starting with the peculiar ‘Satan’s Mistress’, then my visit to Bedford, then my reading of ‘Octavia: Daughter of God’, the Panaceans went from something on the fringes of my fascination to somewhere on the inside part of the edge (above Dr Forman but below William Harrison Ainsworth). It is also something I would have wanted to write a novel about some day.

I was a little wary with the book’s title. Not only did the Panaceans not believe in the concept of the Rapture, they believed in the opposite - they believed that their members would live forever and would be part of bringing Jesus down, rather than going up to meet him. (When members did start dying, they thought those members souls would go to Uranus, waiting to come down with the big J). But it became clear that ‘rapture’ did not mean the belief of being snatched away by God, but the emotion of it and its straddling between joy and insanity.

 The story is about Dilys Barltrop, Octavia’s daughter who found herself surrounded and buried by her mother’s religious organisation. Like Octavia, Dilys was prone to melancholic episodes and was sent away from Bedford a number of times, once to a cousin’s house and once to the south of France. She returned and lived back in the society. When her mother died, it was Dilys who organised all of the estate, selling Octavia’s house to the society for a nominal sum and receiving an annuity with which she lived quietly in a society owned house a little away from The Campus. Her main pleasure was to go down to the River Ouse and have an ice cream. 

The novel takes Dilys, her anxieties and the pressure cooker of living with, and being the daughter of, ‘The Daughter of God’ and dramatises it. While it uses many genuine Panacea members, makes extensive us of Panacea archives and includes a number of key moments of the society, it is definitely a work of fiction. The timeline of the society is moved around and squished up, the relationship between Octavia, Dilys and her brother Adrian is changed, there is a whole new character called Grace who is the plot’s catalyst…oh, and there’s an accusation of murder.

This meant that I read the whole book in two minds, one as a person interested in the society and the second as a reader of a novel. As a result, I both love this book and dislike it.

It’s clear that most readers are supposed to come to the novel first and then perhaps find out more about the society, to do it the other way round is a little disconcerting. There are a couple of blatant mistakes, Joanna Southcott is labelled the seventh prophet of ‘The Visitation’ and not the second. There is (what I feel) a negative slant on the notion of Overcoming. As I understood it, the process was more one of confession and self-accusation, whereas in the novel it becomes something of a mini police state. Nor does the book create the feeling of community and belonging that many of the members seemed to get from the society. Another big change is that the novel has scenes with Adrian trying to break into The Campus to visit Dilys when he actually visited with his children. Dilys’s fate at the end of the novel has her taken somewhere which is not the south of France.

And there’s Grace. A character invented for the book, she becomes the housemaid at Number 12, where Octavia and Dilys live. She and Dilys share their doubts, develop a friendship, a love and possibly a relationship, mostly through glances. Dilys herself narrates the novel (in the present tense) and is not the most reliable of narrators, being heavily weighed down and disturbed by her strange life. It may be that the relationship was consummated, it may be that it was consenting or not, the way the book is told leaves it uncertain. She exists in the book as a chance for grace, a chance for escape and a chance for love - as a novelistic conceit, she’s brilliant. Having a character break through Dilys’s shell, tease her out of herself, give her things to hope for and a secret to keep the book motoring along with great tension.

This is a really great novel.

When the novel and historical aspects lined up, I could enjoy it without reserve. The scenes where the members go down to London for the unveiling of Price’s Southcott Box is nail-biting; the bits where the members sneak around Bedford, burying linen squares of protection next to important buildings, are delightful and the dramatisation of Emily Godwin ‘casting out Controls’ by playacting fighting demons with a penknife are far more horrifying and shocking then they should be.

Even the parts that must be made up, like Dilys peeking through a keyhole to see her mother bare-chested, simulating breast-feeding with her closest followers, are deftly and engagingly written. The ending (spoiler) with Dilys going to an asylum, as her mother had been, but believing it was a ship to freedom with her brother, was harrowing and deeply moving - even if it has never happened. For those unencumbered by knowledge of the Panacea Society, this is a gripping and wonderful novel. For those with an interest in such things, it’s a gripping and wonderful novel with some massive liberties taken with the events.

Oh, and the accusation of murder? In the book, Dilys claimed that Emily Godwin poisoned Edgar Peissart, who had been kicked out for seducing a young man, in order to make her prophecy of his death come true. I very much doubt this happened but it did make for a great story, and that sums up this book well.

Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Review: His Last Fire by Alix Nathan

I often read the book reviews on The Guardian website because they aren’t hidden behind a pay wall. On the same day they had a very intriguing novel set in The Panacean Society in Bedford (review coming soon) and a novel called ‘The Warlow Experiment’. This second book seemed very interesting because it was essentially about an experiment on an ornamental hermit. The review also said the novel was a little flabby and the story was told better as a short story in ‘His Last Fire’ - so I got that instead.

All of the stories are set at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. They mostly revolve around the ideas swirling in this age of revolution, whether they be scientific, political or sociological. It’s a patchwork quilt of unrest. Pretty much every character has a copy of ‘The Rights of Man’ nestled in a coat pocket or tucked on a bookshelf. The themes of liberty against order are prominent in many of the stories, whether its children torn from parents after rioting, plotting to kill the king, or accidentally crippling a man in a riot.

I do have some trouble with short stories, I find they end just when I am getting into them and I found that the case in this collection. Many of the stories and many of the paragraphs begin with the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’, it can be up to a page in a five page story till the reader discovers who this ‘he’ or ‘she’ is. By the time the story had introduced who the story was about, I found it was almost time to read the next one.

One of the reason for this plethora of pronouns is the fondness for reoccurring characters. I think the idea is that there’s a little delay in introducing the character so that I, as a reader, feel a little jolt of pleasure when someone from a previous story is revealed to be the protagonist of this one. The trouble is, the book is so coy about introducing its characters, that remembering who’s who takes a fair bit of work.

One of the stories that runs through the collection is the tragedy of Ellen and her son John. Following repercussions after the Gordon Riots, Ellen dresses as a tinker to escape the authorities. Her husband also runs and their son John is left behind. There’s a story where the aged ‘tinker’ Ellen is taken in and cared for by Nancy (who appears or is mentioned in other stories). There’s another story where John takes part in the Spithead Mutiny and later goes in search of the woman he loves who he narrowly misses. Mother, son, lover and all sorts of other characters keep missing each other. We get a picture of a world in mess and disorder with no happy endings for certain.

Nancy also appears in a story about Hadfield, who once tried to assassinate George III at a theatre and was deemed lunatic and sent to Bedlam. In this story, he feigns madness after his plot fails due to some badly cast bullets. His comrades in arms also have stories about them. We also meet Hadfield in another story about a man being sent to a lunatic asylum (in which Hadfield is an inmate). The man is an eccentric peer with a mania for collecting who we were introduced to in a story where he falls in love with two Lapp women he brought back as ‘souvenirs’ from a tour of Lapland. His experience in the lunatic asylum sends him into full madness. 

The interweaving of the stories is both interesting and exhausting, there is simply not enough room to assimilate all the people and plots. I’m not surprised that two of Alix Nathan’s full novels are expansions of characters from this collection, there are hints at a whole career in this book which would be exhilarating if any of it had room to breathe. 

The two stories that inspired ‘The Warlow Experiment’ were probably my favourite. I could relax because they didn’t link in to any of the other stories and I found the subject fascinating. A man called Powyss creates an experiment which reminded me a little of Thomas Day’s attempt to create a perfect wife. This experiment is to isolate a man called Warlow in a suite of rooms under his house and to study human resilience. Warlow is a volunteer and his family are paid well for his participation and there are some really interesting questions raised about how much he can be said to volunteer given the poverty that forces him to accept.

What I found most interesting is that Warlow was essentially an un-ornamental hermit. He has to stay for the standard seven years, can’t cut his hair or nails, is given food and books and left alone. Though literate, he’s not literate enough to understand the books he has been left and essentially is trapped in a windowless room with nothing but his own memories of sun and soil. It’s chilling and well explored.

The title story was probably my least favourite. A man with a love of fire makes a living by torching rich houses, stealing what he can and then rescuing the inhabitants for possible reward. This is a really interesting set-up. He then falls in love with a maid and, when he goes to rescue her, she realises that he started the fire. Telling her that no-one will believe her and that she’ll be out on her own, he blackmails her into marrying him. He justifies it to himself that her marrying him will save him from his arsonist ways - we never learn what happens next.

All in all, this is a very interesting collection and Alix Nathan is an author I will seek out again, if just to see what she can do with the room to develop all the intriguing ideas and characters that feel so rushed and garbled as they are presented here.

Wednesday, 24 July 2019

Review: Amelia by Henry Fielding

‘Amelia’ was a book written by Henry Fielding only two years after the publication of ‘Tom Jones’ but it’s so very different in tone and purpose that it could seem to be from a different author. The book started a paper war which included people like Christopher Smart, Tobias Smollett and John Hill. It’s also a novel which hasn’t had the life of fame of Fielding’s other books. I was a little nervous of this novel, hearing of its grim and dour tone. I also had experience with this book, having tried it twice and not managed to get past the second book (of twelve).

Where the main takeaway from this book tends to be the dramatic shift in tone so shortly after ‘Tom Jones’, what is most interesting are the many experiments that Fielding tries in the novel, the first of which was the reason I had so much difficulty reading the book on my first two attempts. Despite the title, the first book doesn’t feature Amelia at all but introduces us to William Booth, his incarceration in Newgate and his meeting with Miss Matthews, a former lover. The second and third books consist of Booth telling the story of how he met and married Amelia and the people who helped and hindered them on the way. 

The fact is, that these three books consist of one-hundred-and-fifty pages of almost constant telling. Lacking the comic subject matter, the telling is fairly average eighteenth-century storytelling and rather lacklustre compared to the joy that is ‘Tom Jones’. However, in the next few books, we meet the characters we had been told about in Booth’s story and they are not exactly as described. Booth described Amelia as full of emotion but with an inner strength whereas, when she comes ‘on stage’ is a fluttering, flustered and emotional mess; Booth’s best friend is rather more creepy and uncertain than he first appears, and Dr Harrison, the noble advisor, is rather pricklier and more censorious then pictured. Those first pages were not just simple telling but a very interesting form of showing, the reader is being shown how Booth’s ability to read the characters around him is deeply flawed.

From then on, the reader spends the rest of the book in the knowledge that nobody is quite what they seem. We were aware that the book had ideas in this direction from the beginning, as Booth is let into Newgate, the characters inside were equally duplicitous but now we are on the alert for such behaviour outside Newgate as well. Those early chapters in Newgate were really well written as well, the short pen-sketches of the inmates have a vivacity that points to Dickens, it’s such a pity Fielding doesn’t get his Dickens pen out for any of the main characters.

…And that’s the key flaw of the book. Fielding is a comic writer to his very marrow but his worldview has changed so much, and the intention for the novel is so different that he can’t play to his strengths. There is the usual intrusive narrator but it doesn’t intrude enough, and those intrusions don’t have any of the playfulness, bombast or sly wit that they do in Fielding’s other works. An intrusive narrator without those things serves more as a hinderance to the book and serve to drag it down.

The book works better when it is dealing in facades and masks. Fielding is very good at showing a character who seems to have the best intentions but then showing the little slips that reveal something more. Miss Matthews, at the beginning is clearly not following Booth’s story the way he intends it to be heard, Sir James (Booth’s ‘great’ friend) lets slip moments of his selfishness and lasciviousness, the kindly landlady, Mrs Ellinson acts suspiciously erratically - and the reader is trained to watch out for these slips of masks.

What doesn’t work as well are the characters who are supposed to be sincere. Aside from the fact that almost no-one in this world is, the people who are, are mostly uninteresting. Amelia was based on Fielding’s wife Charlotte, just as Sophia in Tom Jones was but Sophia was opinionated and took action whereas Amelia is a sappy, dull swoon machine. Booth is a little more interesting, and I could imagine Tom Jones growing up to be him but like Tom, he’s so very stupid and fails to spot the most obvious traps which makes him hard to root for also.

There are some good little moments; the writer in the sponging house who is lazy because he sometimes only writes for five hours a day (and is also near illiterate), the very surprising praise for dancing masters who teach people who not to make their limbs a burden and Mrs Ellinson’s comment that “I would rather leave out the first two syllables of ‘gentleman’ than the last”. I was amused that Raneleigh was a terrible place of debauch but Vauxhall was almost heaven on Earth - because Fielding was friends with Vauxhall’s owner. I also enjoyed the overtly comic wrap-up informing us what happened to everyone, even if it didn’t fit the overall tone of the book.

In trying to branch out into a serious tale of social issues (and almost universal depravity), Fielding made a bold experiment which didn’t quite come off. Had he lived, this book may be seen as an important transitioning work to a darker, deeper set of novels which made the genre a more complex and flexible form. As he wrote relatively little and died shortly after, this novel only shows a great writer not quite hitting his mark.

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

PC, Politeness, Panaceans and Goldsmith’s ‘Enquiry’.

I might have been dismissive of Goldsmith’s analysis in his ‘An Enquiry Concerning into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe’. To be fair I am dismissive of most grand, overarching theories. I once wrote an essay for my degree in which I ridiculed Hegel, coming up with three different, and increasingly ridiculous ways to explain the changes in tragedy that he explained through his big theory.
Yet, Goldsmith’s notion of an age of poets, philosophers, then critics can (I think) be applied to the eighteenth century notion of politeness. The original idea was that people are like rocks with sharp edges and their rubbing up against each other in polite conversation would smooth them, helping individuals and society.
By the time we meet the Panacean Society and their politeness-based road to heaven, those ideals had been codified into strict and peculiar rules about not scraping forks on plates, avoiding noisy toast-munching and putting lots of cherries in cakes. The aim of this was to be ‘comfortable to live with’, a very similar aim to that espoused by the original enthusiasts of politeness but the rule-makers had come in and sprinkled their magic. For the Panaceans, adhering to the very letter of the laws was vitally important, a key component in the process of Overcoming, the act of self-improvement which would lead to God’s kingdom on Earth.
Political correctness seems to be a renaissance in the original notions of politeness. The aim towards careful thinking about speech to oil the gears and smooth the paths of an increasingly varied and multicultural society seems a necessity in the modern age. Like the increased urbanisation and population density required something like politeness, so globalisation requires something like political correctness. 
But have we reached its critic age? The original poets and philosophers who originated the notions in the seventies and eighties are either dying out or falling foul of the ideas they originated. Are we at the pinkie-out, covering-table-leg stage of political correctness? I have no idea but if it follows the pattern of politeness, that stage is certainly on the way.
One of Goldsmith’s biggest gripes is the effect of critics and rule-bringers on the realm of comedy. From the beginning of his career in the ‘Enquiry’ to the end with ‘She Stoops to Conquer’ he maintained a belief that comedy had been ruined by politeness and the key weapon the critic had against comedy was that it was ‘low’.’By the power of one monosyllable’ any attempt to poke fun at the absurdities and pretensions of life is quashed.
Something similar could be said about the word ‘problematic’. In an earlier age of political correctness, when the desire is to communicate without needless offence and unthinking smallness of vision, then something outside that could indeed be a problem; but in an age of rules, then something problematic is simply outside of those rules. With that simple quadrisyllable a person can be no-platformed.

Goldsmith’s signs of an apocalypse include lengthening books (and I would add to this, lengthening films - does it really take three hours to tell of superheroes twatting each other in the face?) The other signs were the evil tripartite of dictionaries, commentaries and compilations. How many websites, blogs and video series (including this one) consist of these three things? A great many I would say… I think Goldsmith would be very nervous for us.

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Review: ‘An Enquiry Into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe’ by Oliver Goldsmith

‘An Enquiry Into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe’ was Oliver Goldsmith’s first large original work. He’d been serialising Voltaire and writing a few bits and pieces for magazines whilst trying to establish a medical practice (which failed) and working as a teaching assistant (he hated it). 

The book came out to a couple of snide reviews and very little public response. He would later claim that audiences actively made an effort not to know when he had something out. Even today, modern Goldsmith writers tend not to focus on this work and even flag-wavers for him like Robert Hopkins (who wrote a book about his secret genius) don’t have much to say about it. Not the most enticing of books then.

First off, I must say that I didn’t find it as dull as the title makes it sound. The first line kicks off with something true and fun; 
“It has been so long the practice of representing literature as declining, that every renewal of this complaint now come with diminished influence.”

Isn’t that just the truth? I see the democratisation on the internet as pretty analogue to the explosion of print culture in the early-mid eighteenth century. For the first time, many who wouldn’t have had the opportunity to write can make themselves heard, with much of it being absolute rubbish, some of it being absolute gold and the old guard distressed about all of it. Goldsmith is a little disingenuous here though, as he represents himself as that old guard even though he is nothing of the sort.

He goes on to say that while he agrees that there is a lot of bad writing around, invective and diatribe are not going to help as much as reasoned and decent analysis. Again, he’s not being completely honest, this is very much invective and diatribe cunningly(ish) described as analysis. So much emphasis has been put on Goldsmith’s easy readability that I think readers have often missed the little shards of irony that he imbeds in most of his work, including this one.

His ‘analysis’ is that great literature starts at a general stage by people he calls ‘poets’. These people are original thinkers, they obtain their ideas from nature, from the observation of people and the world and they put them down in ways that feel natural to them. 

The next stage features people he calls ‘philosophers’, they systematise the works of poets, develop nascent ideas, expand, expound and generally focus the work of the people before them. 

The third stage is that of the ‘critics’. They take the work of poets and philosophers, split them up, grind them down and turn them into arbitrary rules. An age of critics is one of decline.

He sees the late scholastic period as one of critics, as the bright poets and philosophers of the classical era are chopped up and systematised. He feels that true literature is led by feeling and observation of the real world and that all the rules imposed by critics diluted the original vision. Genius must be allowed to break rules and follow its own inclination.

“The ignorance of the age was not owing to a dislike of knowledge but a false standard of taste was erected”

It’s not that there aren’t geniuses in these declining ages but that their genius is pushed into stale tracks. Ways to spot an age of decline included lengthening books (“Were angels to write books, they would not write folios"), and the evil tripartite of dictionaries, commentaries and compilations. He didn’t yet know Samuel Johnson (who had finished his dictionary four years before) nor did he then know he would spend most of his career writing compilations.

Following his ‘analysis’, he then goes on to cursorily summarise the learning in various European countries, which I will summarise even more cursorily. 

Italy: Not good, and Dante is overrated.
Germany: Keen, but into the wrong stuff. “If criticism could have improved a people, the Germans would have been the most polite nation alive.”
Holland: Copies everyone else.
Spain: Useless.
Sweden: Nothing good yet but maybe soon.
Denmark: One man does all the good work there.
France: Doing well. The French are too arrogant to care too deeply about criticism. They treat writers well, neither starving them or overfeeding them and making them fat and useless. They write wittily with a lot of style but most that only pretties up ugly thinking - he compares it to make-up on a corpse.
The United Kingdom: At the moment, it could go either way. They starve writers when they are unknown but fatten them up to much once they find success. Besides, what writers really need to work best is praise and attention and they (or more particularly, Goldsmith) is not getting enough of that at the moment.

Critics, that sign of the armageddon, are breeding in the United Kingdom, they’ve already killed comedy, declaring comic subjects as ‘low’ and so not worthy of attention. Goldsmith argues that comedy and humour are all about the low, as the chief cause of laughter is recognising where someone is beneath us. That is not to say we should punch down, laughing at something that could happen to anybody is not funny, but seeing how a person lowers themselves through ridiculous behaviour is. His peculiar example is that a man with no nose is not funny (as we could all lose a nose) but a man with no nose who buys an elaborate snuff-box is (as why would a man with no nose want a snuff-box?). Interestingly, this passionate fondness for laughing comedy would last right through his career.

Finally, Goldsmith’s thoughts on theatre - it’d be fine if it wasn’t for actors, audiences and theatres. (To be fair, there was a tradition of reading plays for pleasure that doesn’t really exist anymore).

This isn’t a work of in-depth analysis, though it does have some killer lines and spark some interesting ideas. His view of the purpose of writing, ‘to be either amusing or useful’ is very close to Johnson’s, ‘to enable readers better to enjoy life or better to endure it.” There’s another sentence which caught my eye and I will use for a future ‘Under the Glass’.

Finally, there is one of the best advice I can think of for writers, “Let us, instead of writing finely, try to write naturally.”