Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Review: 'Christopher Smart as a Poet of his Time' by Sophia Blaydes

The late sixties seem to have been a good time to have been a Christopher Smart fan. In 1967, Norman Callan created the most complete selection of his works until the Oxford editions, mainly by Katina Williamson in the 80s and 90s. That same year Arthur Sherbo released his biography ‘Scholar of the University’, which cleared up many of the mysteries of his early life and his time in Mr Potter’s madhouse. The year before, Sophia Blaydes published ‘Christopher Smart as a poet of his time’ and I had the pleasure of reading it.

The book is quite a slim one and focuses principally on Smart’s religious poetry and ‘A Song to David’ in particular. It argues that both eighteenth and nineteenth century criticism misinterpreted the Song, gives reasons why this was, argues that its roots lie in his earlier poetry and presents an in-depth analysis of the poem. As such, it presents the Song as the culmination of Smart’s poetry, but as a result of artistic growth and development formed in his confinement.

The Song was not well received on initial publication, while it was reviewed by the larger periodicals, it was seen as having very good moments but to ultimately be a sign of a deranged and damaged mind. The Critical Review called it ‘a fine piece of ruins’. It was not included in later editions of Smart’s poetry and was mostly brushed under the rug of something unfortunate and embarrassing.

The nineteenth century took a different view. With Robert Browning declaring is as ‘straight from the soul’ and Dante Gabriel Rossetti calling it ‘the only accomplished poem of the last century.’ This huge praise was at the cost of his other work, with critics seeing the Song as an almost miraculous blaze of poetry and imagination only possible due to Smart’s madness.

Blayde’s argument in the book is that the Song is no way mad, or indeed any kind of aberration from eighteenth century poetic technique and Smart’s work had shown clear progression to the creation of the Song - and she argues it well.

First, she argues that Smart’s incarceration for madness, especially an ‘enthusiastic’ religious form of madness, was enough to damn the poem to his contemporaries. This is especially the case because the Song deals with the subject of praise to God and Smart was supposedly locked away for incessant praying. The critics at the time were expecting and looking for something madly religious in the poem and so they found it. This story of incarceration worked in exactly the opposite way for the nineteenth century critics, they looked for some of insane inspiration and found that instead. The truth, as she states it, is something both more prosaic and more inspiring.

She finds examples of Smart’s handling of catalogues and lists in his Seatonian poems and describes the Song’s use of such catalogues to be a clear example of his development of a technique which allowed him to accumulate lots of specific details (like the nectarine’s strong tint) into a larger picture. This cataloguing is also the key to ‘Jubilate Agno’ and various ideas in that are polished for the Song.

Her reading of ‘Jubilate Agno’ is particularly interesting. She sees it as a large, ambitious but ultimately failed work of art but saw its failure as the inspiration to Smart to make something more compact, more melodious and more accessible. This revised, tightened and improved vision being the Song itself.

While the early Seatonian poems are in Miltonic blank verse, the Song is a lyric. She uses Smart’s ‘Song to the Supreme Being’, the very personal poem he wrote after recovering from an illness, to show how Smart was liberated by the lyric form and used it to create the joy and musicality lacking in the stodgier, earlier efforts.

Blaydes also relates how Smart’s ideas are not particularly unusual or deviant to the eighteenth century. Despite his reputation for madness, he has a very contemporary love of reason and rationality. However, he departs from the Newtonian, Lockeian view of the material world and tends towards Berkeley’s ideas of immaterialism, especially the notion that our sense impressions come from God - which leads to Smart’s own notions of nature and the world praising God through the act of being perceived by him. Similarly, Smart describes the cosmos, then nature, then the gems underground following the Great Chain of Being - a notion that all life can be ordered from the simplest items of creation through to God.

What’s more, his poetical ideas stem from classical notions of poetry. Smart is very fond of the Horatian fondness for unusual words choices and uses, adapting it to his own theory of his word choice punching ‘impressions’ of ideas into people’s minds the way type punches letters onto paper. In her deeper analysis of the Song (which is beautifully done with a parallel text of the poem to follow along) she shows the clear structure of the poem, with its development of themes and sub-themes and its organisation along the numbers 3 and 7.

As for the weirder stuff…she blames the Masons for that and moves on.

The big take-away from this book for me was the overriding sense that the Song is a carefully and sanely constructed work, whose greatness comes not from mad or divine inspiration but from the hard work and development his period of incarceration gave him. That’s why the truth (of this is it) is more prosaic and more inspirational, Smart took his being locked away from the world and used it to develop an artistic vision. 

I also appreciated how Blaydes found Smart to be rarely mad and concluded that if he ever was, it was only for short moments - a view very much disputed by next week’s Smart scholar Moria Dearnley.

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Some Great Christopher Smart Things...

If anyone were to get their only eighteenth century knowledge solely from this blog (though I doubt that could ever be the case), Christopher Smart is the man who wrote ‘The Midwife’ and ‘Jubilate Agno’. While it’s fair to say that these are my two favourite parts of his work, the first for its brash brio and humour, the second for its heartbreaking attempt to systematise and understand a life that had hit a dead end - he did write many other things that are easy (perhaps easier) to enjoy. Here are some of them.

The Pig
This is a fun little poem in which a man delights a theatre with his impression of a pig. Another man declare he can do a better pig impression and comes the next night and performs his own pig impression. People boo this second impression and the man, with a flourish reveals he in fact has a pig under his coat and that the booed porcine impersonation was actually genuine. 

The purpose of the poem is to shame people in considering how accurate public criticism really is. However, I am more reminded of Boswell’s story of mooing like a cow and being heavily applauded for it. It’s a silly poem, but short and fun.

Hymns for the Amusement of Children
The last book Smart ever wrote whilst living at the King’s Bench prison for debt. A book of hymns may seem a slightly turgid read but these are light, slightly fluffy and dripping in a gentle melancholy. The poetry is simple and clear without Smart’s preferred barnstorming games. There’s the weariness of a life drawing to an end, coupled with the hope and positivity of Smart’s post-madhouse life. It’s probably one of the only hymnbooks I’m ever going to read.

The Monsieur Timbertoe debacle
A one-legged French clog dancer performed at one of the ‘Mother Midnight’ shows but was booed off for being French, and it being the Seven Years War. Smart then published an explanation that he was not a French, clog-dancer but a French-clog dancer… and had actually lost his leg against the French. Calling him Monsieur Timbertoe just seemed sort of funny to Smart, as it does to me. Samuel Foote, the one legged impressionist later jokingly named himself Captain Timbertoe.

On my Wife’s Birthday
I like a lot of his romantic poetry. Smart was not an attractive man; he was short, tended to fat and he described his eyes as ‘amorous’, they love looking at each other. Despite these handicaps, he seems to have been rather lucky with women and his good wit, liberal purse and funny/cute poetry probably had something to do with it.

This is a very sweet poem written for Anna Maria Carnan, his soon-to-be-estranged wife. Most of the poem contains fairly generic classical allusions, comparing his wife to Diana, nymphs, Venus and such but each stanza ends with the repeated phrases of ‘Nancy, who was born for me’ - it’s the simple things that are the most affecting. 

The Author Apologises to a Lady for his Being a Little Man
Another romantic poem, but this one is funnier. The first two lines describe the ‘contumelious fair’ who scorns the ‘mishapen dwarf’ who is Smart. Smart then explains that women of class don’t need tall, strapping men; that masculinity is not measured like apples by the pound and even if it is - a person of taste goes for size of intellect. What’s more, says Smart, a bosom is meant to be pressed, not crushed, and only his little dwarf hands can do that. It’s a good topic fr a silly poem, a sort of ‘revenge of the nerds’ and more fun because his argument comes across as more desperate than anything else.

Hymn to the Supreme Being
Although this sounds like one of his Seatonian prestige poems, it’s actually very personal. Having had his third big fever (and about to fall into the behaviours which have him sent to St Luke’s madhouse) he praises God and reflects on the experience of being ill.

Smart manages to convey the worry of his illness, the panic of his wife and the confused fear of his young children. Most clearly he conveys his own fear of dying. He quickly tells the story of Biblical King Hezekiah, who was God saves from his life-threatening illness because of his history of goodness. Smart sends his own memory back, comparing it to the raven on Noah’s Ark who came back empty-beaked. He finds his own life to be wasted on ‘follies’ but trust in the hope of Jesus and the prayers of his family.

He describes the healing process extremely concretely, the feeling of strength entering back into his limbs, his feet too feeble to carry his weight and his eyes too weak to see daylight. As he gets stronger he dedicates his life to God, letting out a hymn of gratitude and wishing his new piety to be deep rooted.

As well as a moving poem of sickness and gratitude, it gains added poignancy through the fact that his re-dedication to God, particularly his incessant praying were what had him taken away from his family and locked away for seven years. His gratitude ended up putting him through a tougher trial than his folly.

A Song to David

This is the poem he published having emerged from his time in the madhouse. He saw it as his comeback, his most finely-wrought lyric of praise and the glorious result of his years of pain and loneliness. His contemporaries saw it as proof his madness had not ended. Later the poem was regarded as the finest thing he ever wrote, to most Victorian critics it was the only fine thing he ever wrote.

It is pretty marvellous. Starting slower but gaining in momentum and speed until it reaches a crashing crescendo with the words, ‘DETERMINED, DARED and DONE’. A moment of victory for God’s plan for the world but also Smart’s for his poem.

Along the way we have delicate images of light dancing from fishes scales, cool rain falling on limes, nectarines with a strong tint, gems praising God by glowing deep underground and - most oddly - a mermaid suckling her child.

As the poem builds momentum it repeats a word, moving it from the first line in a stanza to the second, to the third and fourth. As it builds up the repetition clusters closer together, appearing in every line but at different points of the sentence until it repeats on the first of every line, striking like a cymbal.

It’s an impressive poem which carries me along as I read it, starting in my head but finding the words have to spill out my mouth - it’s just too fun to not say aloud.

On a Bed of Guernsey Lilies

This is my favourite Smart work that is neither ‘Midwife’ or ‘Jubilate Agno’ and I mentioned its last lines before.

It was written after he had been freed from the madhouse and after he’d probably realised that its taint would overcome his career and reputation. It’s a lonely poem but also one with a message of thankfulness and hope.

It’s written in two, ten-line stanzas. The first celebrates the Guernsey Lilly, which is a late blooming flower. It doesn’t muck around talking about Flora, or comparing them to beauties with coy Latin names but instead compares the joy they bring to visitors on a rainy day. As a sociable man locked away for seven years and then being shunned by many of his friends, it is that simple pleasure of some company that comes to mind when he sees a flower blooming in late November. He also remarks how their colour shines out all the more brightly when no other plants are blooming too.

The second stanza abstracts this. Smart is reminded that as a flower can bloom late in the year, so hope can anchor itself in wintery conditions. It contains one of my favourite lines, ‘we never are deserted, quite.’ Hope and sunshine and good company are almost gone from Smart’s world but not quite and he can seize each moment to bring him through each day thankful for the joys he does have. It’s a lovely poem and a lovely sentiment.

I am reliably informed that Smart’s translations of the psalms are some of his best work and the day I wish to read versified Bible bits, I’ll give my opinion. I am currently reading some analyses of Smart’s poetry from the 60s and will be talking about them in the future.

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Review: Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas de Quincey

I’m not sure what it was that made me pick ‘Confessions of an English Opium-Eater’ up but I very nearly put it down again. I found the voice of Thomas de Quincey to be so instantly unlikeable that  I only continued at first out of morbid curiosity.

The two big problems with De Quincey seem to have been his own huge insecurity and the fact that he was a Romantic without any semblance of genius - the two are pretty linked. 

The insecurity came out in his insistence in reminding the reader of his scholarliness. We are told early on that he was cleverer than his teachers and that lead him to want to run away from a school that wasn’t challenging him intellectually. We are painted a picture of his ‘scholar’s cottage’ where the maid is so impressed with his learning she thinks he knows every language and where he boasts of nearly eight thousand books, ‘the only thing I was richer in than my neighbours’. It is heavily implied that his richness in books reflects his richness in mind. He also feels the need to shove in poetry, Latin and Greek into his text, rarely for any useful reason except to show that he can.

The second problem is that he was a friend of the Lamb, Coleridge and housemate of the Wordsworths. He described his writing as to ‘rather think aloud, follow my own humours, then much to consider who is listening to me.’ This seems to be the Romantic way of doing things and (for me) creates some great stuff and a whole load of crap. De Quincey doesn’t have the strength of character or the will to successfully follow this method and I think this shows in the constant asides to the reader to explain or excuse what he is doing, especially in his later rewrite. I think his insecurity is made larger by his understanding that for all his supposed learning, he can’t do as Wordsworth does.

Why did I not put it down then?

There was a lovely moment, not too far in, when De Quincey takes one last look at his bedroom in Manchester before running away from school. The stillness, quiet and bittersweet nature of this moment drew me in. It was beautifully observed and described and I was ready to run with him. When this was followed up with the difficulty of the suitcase full of books, I knew I’d read the book to the end for other moments like this.

There were a few more. I liked his wanderings around Wales, his strange existence rattling around a huge empty house with nothing to eat but crumbs from the owner’s breakfast, his chaste relationship with a streetwalker. All of this was simple, fairly well told and effective. It wasn’t very much about opium though.

Indeed, I found the book gave into its worst nature when the opium entered. Starting with a slam against other writers on opium, then a description of how it wasn’t like drunkenness, then one of how it ordered the brain and helped him wield his massive cranial instrument - he reminded me of all the up-their-own-arse druggies I have met. He was just like the greasy student in the room next door at university who claimed drugs were keys to his higher self but mainly sat around watching wrestling and playing call of duty. I bet he was insufferable to know.

His talk about the bad side of opium consisted mainly in talking about the pain of withdrawal and the way they made his dreams vivid and frightening. While I was interested in his notions of crocodiles who wanted to snog him, most of the dream bit seemed something of a boast too - a boast that his dreams and nightmares were far more interesting than yours. Incidentally, the sequel to this book ‘Suspira de Profundis’ starts with a boast at how such vivid dreams are a sign of a mind far elevated above the normal humdrum mind - prick. The other night I dreamt about human-penguin hybrids, manguins, and that was without taking opiates.

Essentially this book brings out everything I find most distasteful in Romantic poets and drug addicts, which were often the same thing.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Review: The House of Hanover by Leon Garfield

I was very excited when I discovered that Leon Garfield had written a non-fiction book about the eighteenth century and rushed out to get a copy. It’s not a long book, readable in an evening and it is very…strange.

In some ways it’s structured as a short story. The narrator is taking a trip around the National Portrait Gallery, paying particular attention to the ‘House of Hanover’ corridor and recording his thoughts and feelings as he goes down it. Occasionally he discusses his thoughts with a slightly smarmy gallery attendant who challenges him. The structure makes it seem like an introduction to eighteenth century art and literature, an ‘appetiser’ as it claims, but the reflection and strong opinions of Garfield expressed in the book make it seem like it’s for someone of reasonable knowledge and strong opinions themselves.

Who is this book for and what is it doing exactly?

It’s an interesting idea, using the gallery as a framing device. Even before the eighteenth century, Britain was looked down upon for their culture of ‘phiz-mongers’ and the National Portrait Gallery is an oddity in world galleries, less a gallery of art and more of a national storybook. It provides a different and visual way into the time period but in portraying a national story, the book feels far older than its forty years. With the strong opinions, preference for myths of ‘great men’ over kaleidoscopic lives of little people, it feels like some kind of schoolbook from the 1920s or 30s. Not that the book is imperialistic, Garfield describes the Victorian/Empire galleries as a “bloody inferno of world power” and skips it entirely but the confidence to make such a sweeping generalisation doesn’t feel like it belongs in a modern book.

Best to start at the beginning though, which is the advice the character of the attendent gives to the narrator. For this reason the book starts with iconographic paintings of medieval kings, sweeps through the Tudor courts, lingers a little longer among the Stuarts before emerging into the Hanoverian era. This is so those pesky Georgians don’t feel quaint and remote in their curly wigs but instead feel more vibrant and ‘real’ than the people before them. The journey of the gallery puts them in place.

He then goes down the gallery, describing pictures (even though we have plates), giving tit-bits and stories about the people depicted in them and making huge sweeping value judgements about them also.

Defoe and Hogarth are good, they both used art to open the eyes of people to contemporary life and care about presenting poor subjects. Gay is also good, ridiculing the nonsense of Italian Opera, skewering the criminality of the rich but also giving nobility to the poorer classes.

Pope is bad, he writes prose that rhymes (“If it’s neat, it rhymes, and you’ve heard it before, it’s Pope”). Swift is a weird mix, in hating people in generality but loving them in particular, he’s a bad heart alleviated by a good brain - until the brain deteriorated. 

Johnson is utterly good but Boswell is slimy and bad, fit more to be barrister than anything else. Boswell did manage, however to create something good, the biography, because he had such good material to work with. Joshua Reynolds is bad, even with a face as Johnson’s, he fails to catch any real personality with his portraits, Hogarth should have done it.

Sterne is bad because he made a novel that can only be self-referential. It is also too divisive, good art should unite. Richardson is also bad, a sell out with no real talent who got lucky. His rival, Fielding, is very, very good and ‘Tom Jones’ is a light to all ages.

Gibbon is haunted by the parrallels in Rome’s fall and Britain’s progression. Horry Walpole had a good mind, could recognise the dark gothic heart of people but frittered his intelligence away in fancy and Handel is the ultimate good. His music changes souls and he was good enough to give it to charity.

These aren’t my opinions, they’re Garfields. There’s a little more justification in the full book, but not much. He despairs of the decline of the eighteenth century into the nineteenth, he wonders whether art and literature make any difference at all, he sorts all the portraits on the wall into goodies and baddies - why?

I don’t know. I’ve thought and thought and thought and have decided that this book is essentially Garfield’s GrubStLodger. This is the space where he could talk about what he was interested in and the judgements he makes thereof, a book like this would never be published nowadays (unless it was a celebrity) but it might make a good blog.

Ultimately, Garfield represents the eighteenth-century as an arrogant, over-confident time, with huge pride in its new science and literature blinding it to the squalor that surrounded it and the barbarity of empire to come. Within this he sees sparks of humanity and kindness; artists giving painting and song to the Foundling Hospital, the warm voices of Defoe, Hogarth, Johnson and Fielding, the pleasure of Garrick’s performances and the novels of Jane Austen. Whatever culture is, or what it is for (and there’s no time to answer in such a short book) it might be enough that it has given pleasure and can continue to give pleasure from then into the future. 

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Review: The Elixir of Life by William Harrison Ainsworth

I picked this book up after reading Dickens and it is painfully clear how poor a writer Harrison Ainsworth is in comparison. Where Dickens can’t help describing things in surprising ways, Ainsworth is painfully bogged down by cliche, especially when he tries to make the writing soar.

A few pages in and this doesn’t matter. What Ainsworth does have is a delight in drama and story. Three pages in and we have already had a man half-killed for trying to remove severed heads from London Bridge and a miracle recovery. By the sixth page, the man has discovered that the alchemist who made him better is his grandfather, by the eighth the alchemist has created the elixir of life and by the ninth he has had a sudden heart attack and his grandson has stolen the elixir of life rather than heal his Grandfather, taken it and stepped out into an eternal life… What Ainsworth lacks in skill at words, he makes up for in skill of action.

The writing is so by-the-numbers, an alchemical chamber is simply described by what it has in it and the people speak to themselves in a peculiar stagey dialect that no-one would ever use but this is because they are the simple tools needed to convey the happening in the story, which never lets up.

The dialogue is particularly awful. I’d noticed, but not hated the clunky nature of it in other Ainsworth books but here it really sticks out. The shady characters speak in a pinfull inwented speach vat grates on the eyes. I might have liked the character of Ginger, the dognapper with a couple of Charleys in his pockets, if he hadn’t been so painful to read. (I also thought it weird that in this, of all books, there was an attempt at a message against the law’s indifference to dognapping).

The book has a weird structure. There’s the prologue with the young man, Auriol, his alchemist grandfather and his drinking of the elixir. The next part is about Auriol’s secrets being found out and exploited by ruffians, details his falling in love with Ebba Thorneycroft and his bargain with a mysterious man in a black cloak who demands a woman Auriol loves every ten years. Then there was an interlude set thirty years earlier where the man in the cloak discovers his powers and makes his deal with Auriol. Then the next part, involves a group of people going to rescue Ebba and being trapped in a fiendish house of death before the end of the book when Auriol wakes up and discovers he’s been mad and has dreamed the last three-hundred years.

I didn’t understand why Auriol made a deal with the man in black after he’d been alive for two-hundred years already. My assumption was that the elixir’s downside is that the person would live forever but have no financial luck and the man in black promised to take this downside away for the price of a soul every ten years - but I had no confirmation. 

We never find out what happens to the intrepid rescuers trapped in the house of death, nor the fate of Ebba Thorneycroft and the other women. I was not convinced as a reader that the whole story had been a result of Auriol’s madness, the details of his imagined future were too accurate to not have taken place.

That’s not to mention the chapter in the barber’s that takes four pages describing a barber’s shop to only lead to a character gaining a new master called Loftus, which doesn’t really go anywhere because a few chapters later he is working for the man in black. That’s not to mention the mysterious figure in a mask who helps the rescuers whose identity is revealed in the following deft piece of exposition; “Is it you, Gerard Paston, the brother of Clara, my second victim?” We hadn’t even heard of Gerard or Clara before this moment.

All this moaning is not to say I didn’t love the book - I did. Any book where a man turns a key in a lock, pushes the door and the whole thing falls down is one I want to read. Any book with a bizarre trap with self-imprisoning chairs that give immobilising electric shocks and then huge helmets come from the ceiling to suffocate the sitters, is one worth reading. There was also a moment in the book where an immortal character complained that he’d been drowning for three days but it took that long to untie the stone from him. I loved the book, but it feels threadbare.

Essentially, it feels unfinished, and perhaps it was, although I can’t find any authoritative source to say so. The Dickens I was reading before this was ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’, which has had people writing endings for it since Dickens died half-way through. This similarly feels like half a book, ending on the cliff-hanger of Auriol ‘waking up’ and it would be enormous fun to Drood it up, try and work out the relationships and bring it to a satisfying conclusion. If I had the time, I’d do it myself.

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Review: The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens and completed by Leon Garfield

Spooks, corpses and other creepy things - maybe it's Halloween.

I come to one of the most curious artefacts in my three-year long search through Leon Garfield’s work, one of his only books specifically marketed for adults, and a book that he didn’t even begin.

‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’ was started by Dickens in 1870 who wrote six of a proposed twelve serials before suddenly dying from a stroke. The proposed novel is shorter than many Dickens books and seems to be more focused on a mystery than usual for him. For me, the biggest part of the mystery is, ‘how would Dickens have made a surprise from a solution so obviously telegraphed to the reader?’ Although he didn’t leave many notes, he did send someone a letter where he confirmed that the obvious reading of the clues was the correct one…so how was he going to sustain interest to the end? And how does Garfield manage it?

We open with a very striking image of Cloisterham Cathedral that reveals itself to be a vision undergone by Jack Jasper, the lay precentor, as he lays befuddled in a London opium den. As the chapters proceed, we learn that Jasper is uncle to Edwin Drood, who is only a few years younger than him. Drood is an orphan who will shortly be taking his place in his father’s company and become an engineer in Egypt. He is engaged with Rosa Budd, another orphan of rich inheritance, the engagement was decided by both sets of parents before they die and Drood seems to regard her as another good thing he has coming to him. Rosa is less keen on the arrangement, not because she doesn’t like the young man, but because she resents not being given options. The complicating factor is that Jasper has his own obsession with Rosa, signified by a poorly drawn picture of her he has on the wall.

To be honest, I can’t see why everyone is so hot for Rosa. She is constantly referred to as childlike, she has immature strops, she has been coddled for most of her life in pity of her orphaned status (and in honour of her coming wealth). She is cute but she is also silly and stupid, putting her apron over her head to hide her face like a shy child and only being tempted out by ‘lumps-of-delight’ - a far better name for Turkish delight which I am certainly going to include in my vocabulary.

We then spend some time meeting other delightful Dickens characters like Mr Sapsea, a man so vain he creates an epitaph to his wife that celebrates him; Crisparkle, a kindly clergyman with a good heart, a light touch and a rather too close attachment to his mother; and Durdles, a dusty stonemason who hires a small boy to throw stones at him if he stays out after ten at night.

Then enters Honeythunder, another very apt named character, a do-gooder with no good in his heart who drops Neville and Helena Landless at the Crisparkles. They are also orphans but have had a harder time and are fiercer because of it. Neville also instantly falls in love with Rosa (why?) and finds Drood’s lack of appreciation for her disgusting. They have a huge argument.

The next few chapters follow the life of Cloisterham, with Drood and Rosa’s awkward not-really-courtship but they mainly follow Jasper. Jasper makes great pains to be friends with Sapsea, who becomes mayor. He hangs out with Durdles who knows the secret ways of the Cathedral and he confides his fears of Neville to Crisparkle. Then, during a storm, Edwin Drood disappears. Jasper quickly blames Neville and although not enough evidence is found, the town blame him and he has to run to London.

Jasper confesses his obsession for Rosa, who is already terrified of Jasper and goes straight to her guardian in London, Mr Grewgious. Incidentally, I loved Grewgious, he is often (very often) described as ‘angular’, he is so socially awkward he uses prompt cards to get him through ordinary conversation but he clearly has a good heart. He also has Donald Trump’s hair, “He had a scanty, flat crop of hair, in colour and consistency of some mangy yellow fur tippet; it was so unlike hair, that it must have been a wig, but for the stupendous improbability of anybody sporting such a head.”

In London, Rosa meets Tartar, a retired sailor who makes an almost magical roof garden and who Dickens is obviously very fond of (but doesn’t particularly know what to do with). Also a ‘harmless old buffer’ with a secret agenda called Mr Datchery who moves into Cloisterham… then Dickens died.

SPOILER: (Sort of). It is patently obvious at this point that Jasper is the killer, he’s made friends with Sapsea to smooth the way through court and has buried him somewhere secret in the Cathedral, probably Mrs Sapsea’s tomb. This was also confirmed by Dickens. The big question then, is why is it so obvious? While it’s true that the characters aren’t sure who killed Edwin Drood, it’s blatantly clear to the reader.

His daughter thought that the book was more interested in the mindset of Jasper and exploring his nature than a straight-up mystery. Dickens wrote that the anchor of the text was the Bible verse; “When the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness…he shall save his soul alive.” Perhaps the redemption of Jasper was the point of the second half.

There have been many continuations of the story - some where Drood isn’t dead but is Datchery, some where Neville killed Drood and implicated Jasper and many where it was Jasper and he is found out by various means. One continuation was even written by Charles Dickens himself with the aid of a medium. Being a ghost, it wasn’t his best work and the medium’s Americanisms crept in.

Garfield goes the least resistance, Jasper did it route. He makes the drama of the second half less about how Jasper is redeemed and more to do with how he is captured.

Garfield’s style is a pretty good match for Dickens. They share a fondness for odd simile and his comic set-pieces stand up quite nicely with Dickens own. The reading of a play written by Grewgious’s dour clerk, Mr Bazzard is a particular standout, with the clerk’s high opinion of how the event is turning out being wonderfully set against what we actually see. There’s a brilliant joke about the SnakeBite tribe, who only have sixty-five words in their language because they are much higher minded than things like ‘hansom-cabs’ and ‘street-lights’, a fact that most of the characters regard as more inconvenient than noble. There’s a description of a maid who has second sight which is ‘greatly aided by the application of a keyhole’, very Dickensian in its wryness. Garfield also creates a character, Mrs MacSiddons, a retired actress who now runs a lodging house for the profession and regards all excuses to get out of paying rent, even death, as ‘just acting’.

He feels less at home with some of Dickens’ actual characters. His Grewgious is not as angular, his sentences shorter and less awkward and his mode more expressive. Rosa is backgrounded for the (admittedly more interesting) Helena and is not described as the most beautiful woman in a room. He isn’t as in love with Tartar as Dickens seemed to be and the character also fades into the background.

He does love Datchery though. There are some completions of this book where he is really Mr Bazzard, or even Edwin Drood in disguise but in Garfield’s, he is a former-actor turned detective and lives with Mrs MacSiddons when he isn’t investigating. I liked the characterisation, especially the idea that he was tremendously winning actor who can’t remember lines and keeps the name of his alias in the brim of his hat. The inclusion of the stage element, together with some of Dickens’ own Macbeth chapter titles allow for a plan which is telegraphed a little too clearly but convincingly manages to catch Jasper.

Garfield’s Jasper sees (what he thinks) is the ghost of Neville, murdered in a previous chapter. He follows this ghost when he can and realises that it is a real person of flesh and blood. Delighted that Neville is not dead, he feels himself waking up from a bad dream, convinced all the other terrible acts that he has performed were also hideous dreams occasioned by opium. Going to Mrs Sapsea’s sarcophagus, he opens it up with the key he had stolen from Durdles, convinced that there’ll be nothing in it to distress him. Instead he find the mouldering, quick-lime-eaten body of Drood and is arrested.

When Crisparkle goes to visit him in the condemned hold, Jaspers wits are completely gone. He is physically awkward, subject to weird tremors and a double vision. He has psychologically split himself in two; the evil Jasper and the good Jasper. He feels a little sad that he, as good Jasper, will be hanged for evil Jasper’s crimes but hopes for that good part of him to reach heaven. The moment when the noose and bag go over his head are truly moving and we feel very sorry for confused Jasper as he drops. The other characters pair up as they will and it ends with a (mostly) happy Christmas dinner at Mr Grewgious house. The last character is Datchery, who sneaks out of his London house and sets up permanently in Cloisterham as the ‘old buffer’ he was pretending to be.

While I would have liked a bit more of the proposed Dickens plan of focusing on Jasper and his possible redemption, Garfield’s ‘to catch a killer’ second half manages to fit nicely with what goes before it. Garfield’s style is not quite Dickens, it feels alternatively cramped and puffed up - never quite slipping into the ease or ebullience that Dickens possesses. It is, however, a good enough version of Dickens and means that a reader can enjoy the whole story in a far more satisfying way than if they read only the Dickens portion. Perhaps one day I’ll try more Drood continuations to see other ways to end it but for now I’d like to focus on more Dickens, and maybe get another William Ainsworth Harrison fix.

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Johnson and Boswell's Scottish Books at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle

In 1773, a sixty-two-year-old Johnson and a thirty-odd-year-old Boswell went on a trip they had been playfully imagining for ten years. They travelled up to the Hebrides in an effort to see what was left of the old Highland way of life. Both of them wrote a book –  and Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle read both of them.
Johnson’s A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland was published first. In many ways, it’s a traditional travel book, with Johnson describing the key features on the way and often measuring them. He then makes his conclusions and opinions on what he sees and hears. The book is arranged by location, with the odd gallimaufry of discussion and opinion in various parts.

Coming out after Johnson’s death was Boswell’s The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides. Whereas Johnson talked about Scotland, Boswell talked about Johnson. Written up from his journal of the trip, Bozzy published the book to test the waters and try out the style of his proposed Johnson biography. There’s lots of conversation and little details that would have been lost to time.
Boswell's tour whole book.jpg
Of the two, the group overwhelmingly preferred Johnson’s account and even found it easier to read than Boswell. Discussing things as inconsequential as scenery with Johnson makes his quite a relaxing book to read but there is a wellspring of anger just underneath. Famous for being disparaging to Scots and Scotland, he quickly finds himself warmed (if not always inspired) by the people’s company and flattered by their welcome. What shines through is his disgust at how parts of Scotland were not looked after or developed – not a disgust at the people, but in how they are being let down by their leaders. This disgust comes through his frequent astonishment at the lack of trees, the poor quality of the housing and the huge swathes of people emigrating to America. There is many a deserted village.
Iona Ruins - cropped
There is also the quality that has him called a ‘secret papist’: his dismayed reaction to the seemingly endless array of destroyed churches that he sarcastically describes as ‘a triumph of reformation.’ This is not, I think, out of any real Catholic sensibility, but more from a general reverence for churches and land deemed sacred. His paragraphs about the ruined abbey on Iona are worthy of the praise Boswell gave them in his own book.

Turning to Boswell, there is a problem with his seemingly compromised Scottish identity. Proud of his ‘old blood’ and deeply in love with the romantic ideal of the Highlands as he is, he is also a Lowland Scot and a member of the modern, forward-looking Scotland. Where he has to shift between identities throughout the journey, Johnson can just be himself.  There’s also the element of him ‘auditioning’ his ideas and style for Johnson’s biography to fellow Johnsonians. Boswell sees himself as made greater by this adventure which ties him closer to Johnson’s ‘brand’. There are moments in the book that are painfully, toe-curlingly, embarrassingly, Boswellian.
Imitations at Drury-Lane Theatre crop.jpg
Despite this, we learn a lot we would never have found out otherwise. We learn that Johnson has read Castiglione’s The Courtier; that Johnson has ‘often’ imagined what sort of seraglio he might run and has considered how he would fight a big dog; that Boswell was once encored for his cow impression in Drury Lane, and that Johnson is pretty good on a horse – if it’s a decent size.
We also enjoyed the amount of teasing in the book. Boswell teases Johnson about old lady who thinks Johnson’s question of ‘where do you sleep?’ is a come-on. Johnson teases Boswell for staying up sharing six bowls of punch. They take turns teasing each other over which of them is the wenching ‘young buck’ and which the civilising influence. At night they often share a room and have private conversations in Latin so their discussion can’t be understood through thin walls.
Dr Johnson and Flora MacDonald DJH_142.JPG
Then there is the full description of their visit to Flora MacDonald and the narrative of Prince Charles’ escape from Culloden. This part is worth reading the book for itself.

Taken together, the books present a fading existence with compassion and anger, but also present a long road trip in all of its highs and lows. Whether it is Boswell feeling superior as Johnson is seasick, or Johnson riding the prow of the boat as Boswell is seasick, this journey cemented the friendship of the two men, gave them quality time together and laid the seeds for Boswell’s later biography.

There was a lot of Scottish travel experience amongst the group, with many having been on parts of the journey and one member having undertaken the whole lot. Even in the modern era, roads flood, ferries are cancelled, island supermarkets run out of food and the mizzle, drizzle and rain pour constantly.
Thomas Pennant, A Tour in Scotland in 1772 (3).JPG
Our boys didn’t make their journey alone. As well as meeting helpful lairds, old women, reverends and servants on the way, they were accompanied by a trusty guidebook, Thomas Pennant’s  A Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides (1772) Johnson admired his guide and frequently leaves the descriptions of geographical to him. Currently Dr Johnson’s House have an exhibition, free with entry, that explores the relationship between Pennant and Johnson and includes copies of their books and numerous contemporary artworks of the places visited.

I recommend anyone to give these books a go and to see the accompanying exhibition: there’s much to enjoy as we discovered for ourselves.