Thursday 29 August 2013

I've won a little bit of the eighteenth century.

I have won the following 18th Century print in a caption competition. 

My caption read, 
'She no longer could take the scolding with manners fake and merry.
So extending all her fingers she blew a loud raspberry',

The competition was run by the Dutch 'Silver-Age' printshop (real world and here)

Sunday 25 August 2013

Review: Christopher Smart - Clown of God by Chris Mounsey

A fascinating biography that starts with the supposition that Smart wasn't mad at any point in his life, the problem in telling the life being that he then has to explain what Smart was doing in a madhouse for seven years.

This is done by putting Smart's writings, religious and political feelings in context to show where such views could have come from. Mounsey is brilliant at analysing his works and teasing out the myriad of details, connections and layers within them and to show in action Smart's vision of writing as 'punching meanings' into words. His reading of 'Jubilate Agno' is the most interesting, in depth and dense accounts of a endlessly engaging work.

Mounsey's claim is that Smart was put in and maintained in the madhouse by his step-father-in-law and publisher, John Newbery. He explains in detail how this could have been done, using Smart's alcoholism as a way in. He also talks about how Newbery created the public opinion of 'Mad Kitty Smart' to tarnish is name and reputation and to dissuade people from helping him.

What I could not find was a really good reason why. Mounsey points to Smart's abandonment of his wife and children, a step-daughter who Newbery was not all that fond of and he also points to Smart's dangerous writing in 'The Midwife' and in the shows 'Mary Midnight's Oratory' to show that it was dangerous for Newbery to let Smart run amuck. This is done by looking at The Midwife to reveal the dangerous satirical opinions within.

This last part seems to me the weakness of the book. Having read an edition of volume one of the collected Midwife magazines, they didn't seem particularly more dangerous or subversive then the Grub Street Journal or other C18th magazines I have read. Mounsey says that this is because the dangerous satire is alluded to throughout each edition of the magazine and only when the fragments are put together and interpreted, the full force of the satire is shown.

This fits very well with the style of writing in 'Jubilate Agno' and 'A Song of David' where one word is a placeholder for many different ideas and the ideas can be assembled and re-assembled to create many different meanings but even if Smart did use this complex device to smuggle satire deep within the text, the satire doesn't seem to say anything more dangerous then 'I don't trust the government'; a point made with impunity and far clearer by other people at the time.

Finally, I am deeply suspicious when a writer tries to modernise or energise a mostly forgotten writer by claiming that what we actually thought was pastoral comedy, or sentimental comedy or knockabout comedy is actually very vicious and telling satire. Nokes did it in his John Gay biography, Hopkins in 'The True Genius of Oliver Goldsmith' and now Mounsey in this. 

All these quibbles aside, it truly is a great biography, very meticulously researched and scholarly (though at times tentatively) written. While I am not convinced with the whole story presented here, it produces a much rounder and more interesting picture of Christopher Smart though I think is valuable more for the questions it asks then the answers it gives.

Saturday 3 August 2013

Why Mr Steele is as he is.

A little more of my current book.

The more careful readers of this history may have noticed an interest in Locke and his ideas upon the accumulation of a person’s character as they grow and mature throughout their life; that a person can start life as a blank wall in a prison cell and like that wall can accumulate all manner of graffito, scratched and carved upon it by all those who find themselves living near such a wall. The reader may also be wondering what sort of life Mr Steele had led to impress his own character with the selfish and ruthless traits that he then carved with great force in others characters, nightmares and faces. The reader could then expect me to recite an eternal litany of unfortunate situations which would lead the reader more sensible to the soft emotions to feel a degree of understanding and pity for a much wronged against man. I would need to disappoint this reader. 

To assume that a person must always been driven to acts of cruelty in the manner that a herdsman drives his cattle to the slaughterhouse is to forget one very important fact, that the Devil always tempts. To put it in less theological terms, that cruelty, to the open mind can be a reward in itself. I can only show the reader a life lived in moderate comfort in a small town surrounded by many willing animals, I’m sure the reader can then assemble a childhood of richer aunts looking with disdain upon their slightly less wealthy relations; a constricting obligation to a restrictive community spirit and experiments on dogs that may turn a queasy stomach. The rest tells itself.