Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Review: Dinarbas by Ellis Cornelia Knight


It was while I was looking for a slimmer, more pocket-comfy version of Rasselas for the Samuel Johnson bookclub that I found an edition that paired it with this book. Imagine my delight when I discovered that it was a sequel written forty years later by a woman Johnson had known as a little girl.
I’d have thought Rasselas was an impossible novel to write a sequel to, aside from the fact that it’s barely a novel, the conclusion in which nothing is concluded is a brilliant way to conclude it. Imagine my surprise when, in the notes, it explained that a sequel to Rasselas was actually Johnson’s intention. What’s more, that he actually planned for a happy ending! Typically, Johnson never finished his own sequel - partly because no booksellers paid him in advance for it, and partly because he couldn’t properly conceive of a truly happy ending - so Ellis Cornelia Knight decided to give it a go instead.
In this sequel, Rasselas, Nekayah, Pekuah, Imlac and the astronomer all go to Abyssinia where they are holed up in a castle run by Amalphis, his daughter Zilia and son Dinarbas. There are shenanigans involving invading Arabs, Rasselas’s brothers breaking out of the Happy Valley and enacting a coup on the Emperor, and a naughty Sultan. At the end, Rasselas becomes Emperor of Abyssinia and marries Zilia. Dinarbas becomes Client-King of Serbia and marries Nekayah… I’m not sure why the book is named after Dinarbas either.
This is a book that is more interesting to think about then it is to read. Knight writes a sequel that never meets the original on the same page. Johnson’s was a slightly ponderous, plot-deficient examination of different modes of life, with the conclusion that none of them can ever be utterly satisfying - Knight’s is a sentimental tale of brave men and patient women which ends off with everyone paired off and happy. At the end, Rasselas wants to warn people against seeing the world as ‘a scene of inevitable misery’, all ills can be borne with a clear conscience and a good spirit and happiness is possible.
I found this the parts that showed that Knight had read and taken in Rasselas, and had disagreed with it most interesting. The characters re-visit their dreams from the previous book. They understand that those dreams will not bring uncomplicated happiness but decided to pursue anyway - only Rasselas achieves his dream (and that through the death of his Father and three brothers). Nekayah and Pekuah declare their former dreams to teach as childish and are very happy with being a wife/Queen of Sebia and her maidservant. 
Knight also criticises Johnson’s inability to talk at a person’s level. At one point, Rasselas is captured by Arabs and as a prisoner finds himself in the company of young men that he upbraided in the first book as well as some shepherds (which Johnson had used to put two barrels through the pastoral dream). 

Rasselas learns that he can’t just bellow people into goodness, nor can he reason them into it but he needs to look at things from their perspective, learn a little kindness and tact - advice Johnson may needed to have heard, (Though to be fair to the man, he was aware he could come off as a little brusque and did make some efforts to fix it, not necessarily with success, but with good intention).
My favourite objection was directed deep into the very heart of Johnson’s project. Rasselas the book is all about ‘The Choice of Life’ where Rasselas the character gets to explore different types of life. Knight sticks it straight in the middle of that, most people don’t have a choice of life, most people are simply plonked into life and have to make the best of it. As Amalphis says, ‘I am amazed how you should have ever imagined that happiness depended on any particular station in life’. 

I have to admit that I found Dinarbas a rather dull book to read. The plot, though tight, is not particularly surprising and the writing style is rather stiff and faux-archaic. I can’t tell whether the stiff writing is supposed to be in imitation of Johnson but if it is, it doesn’t really work. However, I find some of the objections to Rasselas’s lessons to be valid and there is a thrill in having some of Johnson’s assumptions taken to task. I will maintain, however, that the conclusion in which nothing is concluded - is still not concluded.

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