Wednesday, 24 May 2023

Fields of Fire by David Constantine at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle

 The Dr Johnson Book Circle met to discuss David Constantine’s book, Fields of Fire, an autobiography of William Hamilton. 

William Hamilton was the youngest son of a noble family who had to make his own way in the world and went into the army. There he didn’t show any particular flair or commitment. Then he became an MP, where he showed absolutely no commitment before become an Emissary to the Court of Naples. It was a small job in an unimportant little kingdom but Hamilton discovered the two great passions of his life; volcanoes and vases.

Presumably like most readers, the members of the Reading Circle largely know Hamilton for being the redundant leg of the relationship featuring Nelson and Emma, so Constantine took a lot of time to flesh Hamilton out before he got to that part. Some members thought this caused pacing issues, as there was a lot to read before the famous relationship entanglements. 

Most of us were surprised that Hamilton had a first wife. If the later Emma was a volcano, Catherine was a vase, or at least, she was at first viewing. Suffering throughout her life from a respiratory illness that was also linked to problems with her nerves, including periods or depression, she seems to be a fragile person. It seems clear she thought of herself like that. However, after leaving England near death’s door, she lived for another twenty years and made several arduous trips between Naples and England. 

During this time, Hamilton turned his collecting instincts to the ‘Etruscan’ vases pouring out of tombs being unearthed around Herculaneum, Pompeii and beyond. Not only did he collect them, he had them recorded, engravings made and lush books created. He helped establish the fact they were Greek vases, not Etruscan, and purposely sent the pictures (and samples) to people like Wedgewood to inspire British craftsmen to adopt the same clean lines. Meanwhile, he was also spent many hours clambering up Vesuvius and making observations which he sent to the Royal Society in London (unlike one associate, he did this fully dressed). In this way he established himself as an authority in both his two passions. Constantine spends a little too long trying to establish this, invested as he is in portraying Hamilton as more than a famous cuckold. 

Despite being a relatively unimportant outpost, Hamilton was successful in integrating in Neapolitan life, becoming firm friends with King Ferdinand and a confidante of his Queen. The town, which Nelson would later describe as ‘a country of fiddlers and poets, thieves and whores’ was certainly a louche place and indifferently run. Ferdinand had been raised to take no interest in politics his principal interest was hunting, which consisted of killing thousands of creatures at a time – he also was fond of a practical joke, like putting marmalade on people’s hats.

Naples only became important when it was on Napoleon’s shopping list. In response, the British Navy sent a fleet headed up by Nelson. By this time Catherine had died and Hamilton had married his second wife, his nephew’s former mistress, Emma. Of astonishing beauty, Hamilton seemed to have appreciated her in the same way as his vases, principally by looking. The two developed her ‘attitudes’ a performance where Emma adopted the poses and emotions depicted in ancient art and theatre and artists flocked to paint her. Eventually, the two had settled into a routine, developing a relationship that was physical but, above all, domestic. Until Nelson.

Both were smitten with the hero of the Nile, or what was left of him. As Emma and Nelson’s relationship grew physical (and obvious, Emma was pregnant), Hamilton became a figure of laughter or pity. Hamilton was recalled to England and the three, rejoicing in the motto of the Order of the Bath ‘tri juncta in uno’ went home the long way, Emma and Nelson revelling in the fame. There’s a town in Germany that still celebrates the visit with the model of an erupting volcano.

Hamilton seemed perfectly fine in his unusual relationship, praising Emma and admiring Nelson to his end. In many ways it encapsulates the difficulties in writing a biography about him, he was a man who was private and rather detached. He observed rather than participated and collected rather than created. He seems to have been very happy letting life wash over him and taking in the things that interested him. It’s probably a nice way to live but it makes for an elusive subject. While the death of Catherine did affect him greatly for a while, it wasn’t long till he was negotiating to have Emma round. When a ship called The Colossus sunk off the British coast with a large portion of his vase collection, he was upset but seems to have shrugged it off easily enough. Perhaps Hamilton was a true stoic, after reading and discussing Fields of Fire, we still weren’t sure.

Fonthill seems to set itself quite a challenge – to get the reader to like and root for a character who inherits obscene wealth, owns hundreds of slaves and a has a more than academic interest in pederasty. William Beckford, author of Vathek and creator of the impossible Fonthill Abbey was also driven out the country for his reported intrigue with titled schoolboy, William Courtenay. 

Wednesday, 17 May 2023

Review: Quality Street - Richmond Theatre, London


This review originally written for The Reviews Hub, I've included it here because the story is some Regency nostalgia - and I need to fill a gap before my Dr Johnson Reading Circle next week. 

Quality Street is a romantic farce set in the Regency period written by Peter Pan writer, J.M Barrie. It has been revived by the Northern Broadsides who have included a running commentary taken from reactions by genuine workers of the Quality Street chocolate factory, the sweets having been named after the play.

It tells the story of Phoebe Throssel who gives up hoping for marriage and becomes a spinster like her older sister Susan when her amor Valentine Brown leaves to join the Napoleonic Wars. Following Waterloo, Valentine returns but finds Phoebe tired and dull after ten years as a schoolmistress so she creates the persona of her spritely niece, Livvy to win him back. Farce ensues.

One of the most interesting elements of the play is how Barrie’s original script evokes a turn-of-the-century nostalgia for the Regency period, a nostalgia that the creator of the chocolate assortment, Mackintosh’s, used to sell sweets. This nostalgia is then wrapped in another layer of nostalgia for the 1970s and ‘80s, provided by the memories and comments originally given by the Mackintosh’s factory workers but played by the cast.

The play begins with these factory workers introducing themselves to the audience, talking about working at the chocolate factory before segueing into Barrie’s play. There’s never a very clear connection established between the two elements, beyond sharing a name and although the reminiscences are fairly charming, they slow down the progression of the play itself. The audience learns that the factory was known as a bit of a “knocking shop”, an interesting titbit, but not very relevant to the main plot. When they do talk about the play itself, their commentary on the action never strays very far from the inane.

This attempt to blend the Regency-set comedy and factory remembrance (it sells itself as a mix between “Bridgerton meets Inside the Factory”) is reflected in the set design. It consists of a house shape created from metal girders and back rooms screened off by industrial PVC strip curtains, which do invoke a factory but never look right as the Throssels’ cosy blue and white parlour. Though the little detail of knitted booties for the furniture legs is a cute one.

The most successful melding of Quality Street (play) and Quality Street (chocolate assortment) comes in the ball scene at the beginning of the second half, where the cast wear ballgowns with the distinctive colours of the famous sweets in a range of shiny fabrics. This is let down by some intentionally silly modern dance moves performed to a light tea-dance number with an inexplicably heavy ‘doof-doof’ beat. This song also plays distractingly in the background during a climactic talking scene.

There are some highlights in this production, however. The community of Quality Street has a warm, Cranford vibe, where the women are the true rulers of their community and the gossipy Willoughby sisters are feared by all. Paula Lane and Louisa-May Parker make a delightful pair of bickering but loveable sisters and Aron Julius is equal parts dashing and goofy as Valentine. A scene where he matter-of-factly solves the main farcical situation while Parker watches on in amazement is very funny. There are also some very comical and jaw-droppingly creepy puppets who portray the pupils in the Throssel sisters’ school and the scenes where the sisters cluelessly try to teach algebra and maintain their stern unflappable teacher-faces are very enjoyable.

At the end, when all the complications are cleared up, the factory workers are asked if the play says anything about love today. Their answer is, “Probably not.” There’s nothing wrong with this, a little escapism is always welcome but trying to meld the play with the history of the chocolate factory and connect it with the modern world, slows the play down and obscures its original brightness.

Wednesday, 10 May 2023

Review: Midwinter by John Buchan

My last book of my mini-look at books with Jacobites in it is Midwinter by John Buchan, a book I was particularly interested to read as a young(ish) Samuel Johnson turns up as one of the key supporting characters.

Initially presented as some lost Boswell papers, Midwinter is the tale of Jacobite agent, Alastair Maclean and his sojourn into England during the ’45 to gain support from the English. There he gets embroiled in the search for a run-away daughter and discovers traitors in the Jacobite ranks whose interference may damn the whole endeavour. 

The pretence at being Boswell’s papers only really exists in the first and last chapters and the novel is told very much as a twentieth century novel, with no attempt to make it sound like a report or even an artefact from its time. This is fine as the novel is essentially a spy behind enemy lines story and extra layers of artifice would have sapped the tension. Impressively, the book does build up considerable tension, despite the fact that it’s a forgone conclusion that Maclean will fail in his mission. This is partly because the audience becomes invested in the fate of Maclean and partly because the characters themselves have no knowledge of how history will pan out and their urgency is infectious.

Maclean is aided by a character called Midwinter and his Naked Men. He is the king of the secret Old England, a shadowland of charcoal burners, woodsman, servants and other forgotten people. At times he seems Puckish, at others a bit like Merlin. He reminded me of Cock Lorrel, the mythical king of the beggars that Chaunting Nick Swain enlisted to aid the Jacobites in The Virtue of this Jest - one of my favourite books. He’s a manifestation of the (dubious) unbroken pagan tradition in England. 

The book’s introduction made a lot of the fact that in this book, the Highlander Maclean goes into England and finds it a strange, wild and barbaric place where people speak in incomprehensible dialect. Usually, it’s the tips of Scotland portrayed as savage and unchristian, but here it’s the snug middle of the country. This alien England shares the same land as the smug, comfortable England which Maclean is trying to prod out of inactivity.

The spy plot of double-crossings, betrayal, capture - and nearly being fed into a huge hole in the ground by a crazy man is a very interesting one and Maclean’s story, of a dedicated soldier and idealist who loses it all, was moving. I was, however, only paying attention to one character.

I was led to believe this was a book that portrays Samuel Johnson as heading up north to join the Jacobite Rebellion. Although he did have some sympathy with the Stuart cause, and was decidedly anti-whig, it would have been very against character to have him march up to join an armed uprising - his main political desire was stability, he’d never have joined in an action to upset it. Johnson in this book has left London (and Tetty, who gets a namecheck) and become a private tutor. His charge, who nicknames him ‘Puffin’, runs away with an a man who is unsuitable for her and he sets out to get her back. He is fiercely loyal to the woman (who everyone seems to fall in love with, for no discernible reason) and her shacking up with a Jacobite supporter is what brings him into Maclean’s company.

The notion of a pre-dictionary, pre-fame Johnson is a wonderful one. We look at Johnson now as this established and semi-revered figure, a source of wisdom and wit. It’s easy to overlook what an unprepossessing figure he cut, and how at odds his first impressions were. Hogarth thought Johnson was ‘an idiot’ when he first saw Johnson. Much is made of his contradictory ‘shabbiness and self possession’, his lanky ungainliness with a surprising athleticism. Johnson in this can hold his own in a fight, can offer wise advice, will cling on tenaciously to help a friend in need and is also uncouth, awkward and something of a joke. The fact that he’s always twitching, tapping his fingers or ‘rolling his head like a marionette’ is never ignored, but nor is his ultimate decency and intelligence. It’s a really nice portrayal (though the quotes from future Johnson lines can be heavy-handed).

The front of the book boasts Midwinter is one of the finest historical novels ever written. It’s not quite that but it is a thrilling spy story set in a very realised historical setting with a cameo from one of my favourite figures from history - so not too shabby.

Wednesday, 3 May 2023

Review: The Bull Calves by Naomi Mitchison

 My journey into novels featuring Jacobites continued with The Bull Calves, a book which also continues my look into the novels of Naomi Mitchison.

It takes place over two days in 1747, when the Haldane family meet in the family home of Gleneagles, a place on the border between the highlands and lowlands. The family themselves are a whiggish one but two of the people who’ve married into it joined in the ’15 Jacobite rebellion. Things are complicated by a man on the run after the ’45 (who joined because he was offered the chance to design the new currency), a Highlander called Lachlan who means the family ill-will and the unexpected arrival of Forbes, Scotland’s first minister. 

The book is essentially about reconciliation, how the family come together, air their grievances and look to a new future for Scotland. Of course, that new future looks different from all the many perspectives of the characters, and that’s where the book shines. There are family members who are highly tied to the British Empire, working in the navy, the army and the East India Company. There’s the improving landlord, adopting new scientific (and English) techniques such as planting trees and using turnips to put nutrients back into the soil. It’s funny how trees and turnips have been key indicators of whiggish tendency in these Jacobite books and adds a lot to Johnson’s discussion of trees in his own travelogue. There’s the Jacobite Highlander, who simply wants to settle down and try the new farming methods for himself. There’s also a sharp divide between the older characters, the weight of history that lies on them and an wisdom born of pain and experience with the younger generation who look to the future in hope. Each character in the book has a strong point of view which informs their actions and a history which explains that point of view - they feel really real.

This old/new, traditional/enlightened, highland/lowland dynamic also includes modes of worship and spirituality. The highlanders having a more formalised, Catholic(ish) Episcopalian belief and the lowlanders with their stricter, free-form prayers, long sermon form of Presbyterianism. There’s also the lingering superstitions of faeries, witches, boggarts and The Sight. 

The Bull Calves spends most time exploring the past of Kirstie and William, a couple deep in love who found each other after painful lives. Kirstie grew up with a deep spiritual sense which led her to marrying a Presbyterian minister who abused her as he preached damnation and hellfire from the pulpit. His job also forced her to move to different communities, a mining one, where the miners were serfs and a weaving one. Her position as preacher’s wife meant that she could never join those communities completely and she grew so bitter with her husband that she joined a coven of witches and believes she murdered him through witchcraft. Her lowest point is when she gives herself up to the devil, who she (amusingly to me) calls The Horny. Instead of The Father of Lies, the man coming into her house is William, who has long held a torch for her. William fled after the ’15 to America, where he failed in running a town for former clan members and instead married a native. This was a charmed life in a society that seemed not so different from the Highland way of life until he saw the torture and consumption of captives. How the two put those painful pasts behind them and create a new future together (as highlander and lowlander) is a microcosm of the ideal Scottish future. 

The book feels utterly authentic, portraying the rapid change of life and the kind of discussions and debates a well-to-do family of that time and place would have. What’s more, everyone seems authentic in the way they think, the conceptions, prejudices and assumptions they would have. There are no twentieth century characters ahead of their time in this book. Each character feels like a genuine result of their upbringing and culture. The range of characters also means that the past presented in the book doesn’t feel narrow or prescriptive. There are strong women and those against slavery, but they are in context - not modern airdrops. It’s probably the realest-feeling historical novel I’ve ever read, where the past has the variety and depth of the present.

The book also contains notes by the author, which are another treat. They aren’t academic notes but thoughts of Naomi Mitchison as related to the writing and conception of The Bull Calves. A descendent of the Haldanes, Mitchison spent WWII in Scotland where she wrote this, as well as working with the community as the wife of a Labour MP. There’s a lot of discussion of Scotland and the Scottish national character, as she sees it. There’s a lot about socialism, her frustration in the lack of a proper class consciousness and her hopes for the future. There’s also a lot about Jung, who she read during this time, which informed her characterisations. It’s like having a book group with the author and having her explain her intentions and processes, which I found really interesting.

Before this, I’ve read four other Naomi Mitchison books and they were all good but this is the first one that’s really great. There may be more fun historical novels out there, but I haven’t yet one that felt this authentic or as deeply and layered in its characterisation and the questions it poses. The Haldanes in the book wondered how they and their country would reconcile and move into the future after Bonny Prince Charlie’s landing, Naomi Mitchison was wondering how people would reconcile and find a new future after WWII. That question of reconciling difference and moving on is still as relevant today as it was then. 

Wednesday, 26 April 2023

Review: An Edinburgh Reel by Iona McGregor

 Iona McGregor was recommended to me by one of my favourite authors, Leon Garfield, in his collection of stories, The Baker’s Dozen. He describes her as “a new writer - and fresh as a daisy” whose works are “as sharp at witty as one could wish.” Her story in the actual collection, Macfadyen’s Shirts wasn’t one of the standout stories but was a fun little thing about a conwoman who steals shirts drying on the bushes outside Edinburgh. It looks like she was set to become a name in children’s literature but her work becomes a succession of study guides.

According to Wikipedia, her career as children’s teacher and writer were hampered by her sexuality and after she quit teaching, she put more of her energies into LGBT advocacy, as well as being able to write a few books with explicit gay content. She wrote study guides because they paid well, lectured for the University of the Third Age and helped form a group called AD - officially called Anno Domini but for those in the know, actually called Aged Dykes. 

I decided to read An Edinburgh Reel because the anniversary of Culloden is coming up and I have a number of Jacobitey books I wanted to get round to.

Set in Edinburgh in 1751, Christine Murray is approaching adulthood and looking forward to a happier future. Her Father, the brother of a Laird, fought in the ’45, escaped to France and has spent six years as a soldier in the court in exile. Having received a pardon, he’s returned to Scotland with the hope of winning his old land back. She hasn’t seen him since she was nine and the cross, bitter old man is not the father she remembers. It turns out that he hadn’t merely escaped after Culloden but had been betrayed by somebody and spent a year in a hulk-prison, before escaping that. He has scores to settle and is obsessed with discovering the identity of his betrayer.

The relationship between father and daughter is really well drawn. It’s clear that they were the apples of each other’s eye before the ’45 but the younger daughter has worked through the trauma and poverty of defeat and is ready to make her way in the new burgeoning Scotland (represented by her fancybit, an idealistic law student). Her Father is stuck in the old ways, convinced that the only work for a gentleman is farming or inn-keeping and also convinced that he is still a gentleman. His bitterness and lingering resentment also serve to pull the man down whenever it looks like he may adjust. He is baffled by her acceptance of the new normal just as she is frustrated by his inability to accept how things are. Even better, these characters aren’t trapped within these world views, she begins to understand how her father must face his past just as he begins to be more flexible and even enjoys making use of his language skills as a clerk. 

Their distant cousin, Lord Balmuir serves as the symbol of the new, Whiggish Scotland. He has a Robert Adams house which “looks as bizarre as if Lord Balmuir had erected a Hindu Temple in his fields.” He also does the signaturely Whiggish thing of growing new trees on his estate, and most English of all, turnips. He has no time for crofters, only wishing to have long-term tenants who’ll farm in the modern, scientific method. He’s also heavily into the linen trade, wishing to grow it on Scottish shores. Remarkably, he’s not the baddy. He offers Christine and her father all the help he can and, when he has very good reasons to punish them, continues to help.

The plot involves a shady agent, who wishes to rope Christine’s father into using Balmuir’s linen contacts as a Jacobite postal service. It also concern’s Christine’s romance with the law student, which is hampered by the subterfuges she must give to protect her father. Finally, it’s about finding the person who betrayed her father, with the main clue being a snuff-box which once belonged to him. The twist is pretty obvious and could be guessed from even this loose recount.

What makes the book great is the depiction of certain things I’ve not seen in other eighteenth century historical fiction. There’s the tense build up and release of a theatre riot, an amateur cockfight, a depiction of the genteel but cramped highlife of an Edinburgh tenement and a game of golf in the snow. (I found the position of the caddy really interesting, similar to the London Porter but hireable for any kind of odd job - including following people in this book). I also loved how the book highlighted what a cultural shift has happened between 1745 and ’51, with a real sense of that earlier conflict being less about English and Scottish, but old ways and new ways - with the new ways clearly in the ascendence.

The book also used a lot of Scottishisms, my favourites being; weesht, tauchle, camsteerie, gey, tirl, fash, quaich, smeddum and (best of all) clishmaclaver. 

A short novel, ostensibly for children, An Edinburgh Reel managed to fit some interesting looks at eighteenth century life and a discussion of the new ‘enlightenment’ Scotland with a group of interesting characters (and one scene-stealing pig). The plot is a little rushed and the twist obvious but it’s exciting and memorable anyway - especially for its length and intended audience.

Wednesday, 19 April 2023

My thoughts on re-reading Tristram Shandy

When I saw that The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman was one of the books on the Dr Johnson Reading Circle list, I rubbed my hands gleefully. I’ve read the book before, even covered it on this site but it’s been a long time and I’ve read a lot since then.

Specifically, I’ve read a lot of the books that influenced Sterne. From Locke’s An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding, which he mainly used as a framework to joke from, to Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, Montaigne’s Essays and Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel. Did any of those books help me reread Tristram Shandy? No. But they did help me understand where he was coming from. 

Locke and Burton are examples of two completely different kinds of knowledge. Burton follows the humanist/scholastic tradition of knowledge by authority. Someone at the Reading Circle explained it best when they said it was knowledge that worked like legal precedent, a thing is true because it can be cited in a former text that is drawn from previous ones. The Slawkenburgis book about noses is just a nasal version of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, a compendium of all the things previously said, synthesised and interpreted by a wise (and frequently funny) curator of knowledge. Locke is the opposite, reasoning some things out from principles but chiefly desiring to observe and test, a version of psychology with a greater empirical emphasis that Burton. 

What Sterne does is expose the flaws in both approaches to knowledge and psychology. He partly does this for the fun to be had but he is not saying that all knowledge is impossible, only that knowledge is limited by out human flaws. Flaws Sterne uses in the book to amuse, but also draw our sympathies.

There’s hardly a kindlier character than Uncle Toby, the man who would literally not hurt a fly despite his obsession with military fortifications (though as Tristram says, Toby is obsessed with the defensive, protective aspects of war, not the aggressive or attacking). He’s so kind that even the genuinely belligerent and insufferably argumentative Walter Shandy can’t help feeling for him. In re-reading, I found Toby’s relationship with Trim to be well-developed and sweet. I liked Trim more in general, how he is no-nonsense and all-nonsense at the same time. How quick he is to cry when he thinks of his brother Tom or the poor soldier Le Fever. When he cries, he asks Toby what’s wrong with him? Toby replies it’s “nothing in the world…but thou art a good natured fellow”. Sometimes Trim and Toby lose a story between them, like the one about the King of Bohemia but they are not only brothers in arms but brothers in spirit and it’s a relationship that heals them both. What’s more, in characters like Toby and Trim that we see Sterne using the flaws, idiocies and limitations of the characters to love them. 

In the Reading Circle, there was an argument that Tristram Shandy is a nihilistic, heartless book, which I found very surprising as to me the book seems to be full of heart. Every character in the book is broken, every action or communication is liable to fall apart or be lost in the gulfs between the character’s interior lives - but this isn’t a source of cruelty. If anything, the message of Tristram Shandy is that the thing that binds us humans together is that we are all broken and lost and flailing. We live small lives full of knots and rusty door hinges and miscommunication and that is what makes us loveable. 

Another accusation that was levelled at Tristram Shandy is that it had a limited view of life, that people should aspire to more than the petty dramas depicted in the book. I’m not sure what’s so wrong with a normal life - it’s not that easy to do, things go wrong, best-laid plans gang aft a-gley, I agree with one of Sterne’s influences, Montaigne, when he said “Life is its own objective” and declared the simple act of living as “not only the basic of employments” but also “the most glorious”. I’d say that Sterne does the same with his group of misfits in Shandy Hall.

What most struck me about re-reading Tristram Shandy is how quickly it moves forward. I know that sounds ridiculous, the book is famously digressive but as Sterne puts it they are ‘progressive digressions’. Yes, a simple linear plot doesn’t really happen but the book is always moving forward, there’s always something new happening or some new silliness to untangle. What’s more, the digressiveness of the book is deeply baked into the meaning of the book. In the first page, Tristram’s ‘animal spirits’ are dispersed - and so Tristram’s nature is one of dispersal, which is reflected in his life and opinions. Each digression shows us the kind of person that Tristram is, someone whose thoughts go down highways and byways - and as someone who often thinks like that myself, I’m happy to get a little representation. What’s more, the teasing at the end of every second volume, the promises of future stories that are always fulfilled, though not always in the most obvious ways and the many callbacks to earlier books in the last one create the feeling of a book which is under control but a dispersed, digressive sort of control. As Sterne asks his reader in the first volume, “only keep your temper”. He knows exactly what he’s doing and what kind of book he wishes to write.

Wednesday, 12 April 2023

Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle


The Dr Johnson Reading Circle met to discuss Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. It’s a book which caused heated debate and discussion in 1759 and continued to do so in 2023.

Some members picked beloved copies off the shelves for a cosy re-read, others clutched fresh, new copies and others finally finished the copy they’d bought for a pound and abandoned sometime in the last millennium. Initial reactions were largely split between people who held it as one of their favourite books and people who found it an unfunny slog, finished out of a sense of duty.

Tristram Shandy purports to be the life story of the title character, who frequently finds himself distracted from his stated purpose by his love of digression. The character is conceived in the first chapter but not born until the second book (of nine). Most commonly, he is drawn from his straight and narrow path by the quibbling of his overbearing father, Walter or the good-natured bumbling of his Uncle Toby. He’s also taken away from his story by legal debates, old curses and creaky compendiums of knowledge about noses. Anything that can lead Tristram away from a topic at hand does so. 

There was discussion over whether the book ever moves forward or not. Some readers found it a static, stuttering book that was determined to waste its reader’s time. Others agreed with Tristram that his were ‘progressive digressions’ which allowed the reader to understand the narrator and his world in ways that would be denied in a more straight-forward narrative. The book is obsessed with minutiae, with tiny items like lead window weights and a creaky door hinge given huge importance. These details that may never have been noticed in an ordinary book, yet in Tristram Shandy they are devoted whole chapters. 

Each (male) character in Tristram Shandy is given a hobbyhorse, an overriding obsession which colours their worldview. One of the clearest is given to Uncle Toby, an injured soldier who has becomes obsessed with the subject of fortification. As such, he frequently finds himself daydreaming and lost in the pseudo-intellectual conversation of his brother until he says a certain word related to fortification, which pulls Toby back in. Discussions of the bridge of a nose will remind him of fortified bridges in European towns or a Doctor’s description of a woman’s anatomy will bring various dykes and culverts to mind. He’s boxed into his own limited understanding, besieged in his own mind. This acts a source of farce and comedy but also irritation - expressed by both the other characters and the reader.

The book is very interested in conversation and communication. Some of the Reading Circle felt the book presents a nihilistic view of connection, with all characters imprisoned by the inadequacies of language and forced into solipsistic cycles where communication is impossible. Others felt that while the book portrays difficulties to connect, there are frequent moments where characters do, despite all the blocks and limitations. There was a big discussion about whether Tristram Shandy uses laughter to cover its bleak view of human life, or is a celebration of those moments when we touch each other across the gulf of our inner lives.

Of course not all communication is verbal and many of the most successful connections in the book are non-verbal. Corporal Trim, a man who likes to hear his own voice, is most effecting when he drops his hat on the floor to symbolise the shortness of life, or waggles his cane to show the difficulties of married life. The brothers communicate by their posture and body language as much (probably more) than the words they use. The book itself mixes verbal conversation, including direct address to imagined readers, with a succession of non-verbal queues, from the frequent dashes and asterisks, to blank and black pages.

One of those pages is a marbled one, which was originally unique in every copy. We reflected on the loss, in a mass produced age, of these individual pages and reflected further on how older books were produced from rag-paper, with each page containing clothes that formally travelled from lords to beggars before becoming a book. It was a suitable digression for a conversation about Tristram Shandy.

The biggest divide about the book was not whether the teasing nature of it’s telling is fun (or even readable) or not, but about whether Tristram Shandy is a heartless book, whistling Lillibullero in the face of a cruel and pointless life, or whether it’s a celebration of the complexity of even small lives. It seems a heavy conversation for a seemingly light book but is a good indication of Tristram Shandy’s unique power that it prompted such discussion. As to an answer of that question, it’s best for the dear reader to decide.