Tuesday 28 November 2017

Review: The Collected Letters of Oliver Goldsmith by Katherine Balderston

One day a really good Goldsmith biography will come out that doesn’t cast him as genius or buffoon. Norma Clark’s ‘Brothers of the Quill’ came closest but wasn’t a biography as such, more a recontextualising of his life within the parameters of an Irish immigrant writer. Until then, collections like Balderston’s one of Goldsmith letters are essential.

It doesn’t matter that most of the interesting letters are copied word for word into those dodgy biographies, nor that the lesser known ones are mainly thank-you or begging notes, it’s important that they stand alone for the reader to pour over and make decisions about Goldsmith’s character.

The main conclusion seems to be that he wasn’t quite as letter happy as the rest of his contemporaries. Johnson’s fill shelves, Walpole’s fill bookcases - Goldsmith’s barely fill a slim volume. A volume that is bulked out with a brief biography and appendices featuring forged letters and a retrospective of him by his sister. 

To make any judgements on Goldsmith based on these paltry works is difficult, but even in his letters he has a habit of making juicy little nuggets. My favourite quote ‘ I shall laugh at the absurdities of the world - and at myself, the most ridiculous one in it’ comes from a letter. His awareness (and playfulness) around his ugly face is one his most pleasing characteristics.

To the author of the Goldsmith biography that pictures him as unfeeling, it’s clear that he does have warmth to some members of his family but a distinct coldness to others. It’s not that he couldn’t feel strong feelings for people, more that he didn’t often. And when he did…he didn’t write many letters. It is clear from things Reynolds have written, that theirs was an extraordinarily strong, yet very quiet relationship that was conducted in person rather then in letter. These letters show how warm and yet how exclusive those relationships were - he’ll be mates with everyone, but only few people will reach that special level.

I have to say that I feel, as I often do, a certain sympathy with Goldsmith. Were I to become a great writer and were historians to ransack my emails and texts, I’m sure they’d discover little that shows the warmth of my relationships or the variety of my connections and communications. Someone reading my texts would find me a very cold person indeed, this is because my awkward fingers aren’t happy manipulating a phone and my messages are terse. I’d need a Boswell available to capture how I really am with my friends - Goldsmith had a Boswell around, but a Boswell who didn’t understand him at all. Poor Goldsmith, he has so little to recommend or explain him but his works, including those few letters, so we have to be thankful for them.

As to the copy of the letters, it seems vigorous in its scholarship, but it did come out in 1924 - has anyone found a cache of useful Goldsmith letters since? Could someone? Please…

Wednesday 22 November 2017

Review: A Trip to Canonbury House

"I bless God for my retreat at CANBURY, as it was the place of the nativity of my children.”
Christopher Smart, Jubilate Agno

I had long wanted to go and visit Islington’s oldest building, Canonbury Tower. It’s not an easy thing to do. Owned by the 7th Marquis of Northampton, who mainly uses it as a storage space for various masonic tat and only opens once a month. Even Susan Hahn, our very knowledgeable guide, wasn’t allowed a key. 

The Tower today

I had mainly wanted to go because of the Newbery link. John Newbery is now famous for his children’s literature (and the literature medal now named for him) but he was a publisher who Johnson described as ‘Jack Twirler', a constantly moving go-getter who can’t sit still for two minutes and helped ‘raise the worth of literature’. He owned the nearby Canonbury House, a modern Georgian mansion which also gave him access to the tower. He would house writers in the tower, including Goldsmith and Christopher Smart. Goldsmith describes himself wandering the fields of Islington trying to be funny ("I have been strolling around the hedges studying jests with a most sorrowful countenance"). Smart even raised his children in the house with his wife, Anna Maria Carnan, Newbery’s stepdaughter. 

I wasn’t expecting those stories to be some of the smaller ones.

The tower in countryside Islington

The tower is the main physical remnant of Canonbury Court, a  medieval manor house owned by the canons of Smithfield. Following the dissolution of the monasteries, the tower was given to Thomas Cromwell, who used it as a comfortable country retreat. He didn’t have it for very long before his downfall where the house, along with his other properties, were used as part of the divorce settlement for Anne of Cleves. She rented it to John Dudley, the Earl of Northampton who was decapitated for trying to install Lady Jane Grey as Queen instead of Mary I…the house doesn’t seem the luckiest of places.

Another rentee was Francis Bacon, a source of many stories in the house. There are bullet holes in one of the tower rooms that are attributed to an argument between him and Walter Raleigh. I’ve also read a novel (A Dead Man In Deptford) where Bacon and Marlowe are doing secretive alchemy-esque things in the tower. If you are one of those people who believe Bacon wrote Shakespeare (I don’t), it is in Canonbury Tower where the original manuscripts are supposed to have been hidden.

The house was later sold to an ex Lord Mayor of London, whose daughter was reportedly locked in the tower to keep her away from the amorous intentions of an improvident Lord. This Lord, being well bred, reputedly disguised himself as a baker’s boy and snuck her out where they had a Fleet wedding. This Lord being a Northampton, the tower passed to that family and has been ever since. The family lived there when they were trying to be quiet during Cromwell’s protectorate but haven’t lived there since.

Irving and Goldsmith's room.

At one point, rooms were rented out and Washington Irving moved in to write his Goldsmith biography and feel close to him but was driven to distraction by the landlady charging people to peek through the keyhole at him. 

The place smells funny, there are some intricately carved walls and the ever-present notion of damp but the view is wonderful, the history fascinating and the atmosphere palpable. I loved it and I recommend it is an unusual and special trip for anyone near Islington.

Wednesday 15 November 2017

Dick Turpin Review 2: The Capture

Dick Turpin gets captured so Swiftnick comes up with a plan with the help of Kevin McCallister.

Wednesday 8 November 2017

'Johnson & Garrick, A Friendship in Constant Repair' An Exhibition

Dr Johnson’s House is always worth going to but they are always finding new ways to lure me back. This new reason is the current exhibition, ‘Johnson & Garrick: A Friendship in Constant Repair’, which is part of the entry ticket and is displayed throughout the house.

The Garricks lived in Lichfield not far from the Johnsons and had enrolled their sons George and David in Johnson’s school in Edial Hall. This was not a hugely successful venture, numbers vary but it seems that Johnson had up to seven pupils, and not at the same time. Johnson and David Garrick set off to London together, sharing a horse and taking turns to ride it. They both had theatrical intentions, Johnson to get his play Irene produced and David to become an actor. David was rather more successful.

Where Johnson took twenty years to really gain success, David Garrick worked in a wine business for four years before finding overnight recognition in a production of Richard III. Audiences were delighted with his emotional and more naturalistic acting style and many artists, including Hogarth, rushed to paint him. 

Six years later, Garrick took over the license of Drury Lane, getting Johnson to write a grand prologue and proceeding to reform how the theatre worked; stopping people being able to come in halfway through to watch the third act and the afterpiece, he took the audience off the stage and other measures to increase theatre’s respectability.

He married a German dancer, where they settled together in a mansion in Twickenham. In 1769 he created a celebration in Stratford to celebrate Shakespeare’s two hundred (and sixth) anniversary. The event was a total washout but was still one of the great set-piece events of the eighteenth century.

His relationship with Johnson was interesting - Johnson had an almost fatherly relationship with him and all Johnson’s circle knew that as much as Johnson dismissed his acting successes, he wouldn’t let anyway else criticise Garrick. It was one of the many faux-pas that Boswell made when he first met Johnson.

I like their teasing relationship. Garrick did impressions of Johnson and told stories of Edial Hall, whereas Johnson laughed at Garrick’s overused and wrinkled face. When Garrick died at sixty-two, outlived by Johnson who said that his death ‘eclipsed the gaiety of nations, and impoverished the public stock of harmless pleasure’. A lovely way to be remembered, certainly.

Now - for the exhibition. Johnson’s House has mainly got together with The Garrick Club and Lichfield’s Johnson Birthplace Museum to assemble a collection of pictures and objects that tell the story of the friendship, room by room.

My particular favourite objects include receipts signed by Hogarth for prints that Garrick bought, including the Richard III one and his Four Stages of Cruelty. There was the original advertisement placed in the Gentleman’s Magazine for the Edial Hall School, which I loved for its positivity and (misplaced) optimism.

Personal objects of Garrick’s included his favourite snuff box, which included a portrait of his beloved brother George in the lid. From the position of a former snuff-taker, I did think it was a rather big box, probably for table use or something similar. There was also the horn Garrick used to powder his wigs before a performance, an item which made every viewer smile when they saw it (and I watched).

There were also a number of brilliant pictures, some I knew and some I didn’t, including a Zoffany which I thought looked strange due to Garrick’s placement in the frame. The information cards also told the story of their friendship well.

Dr Johnson’s House is a must to visit as it is, but it is now crammed with even more interesting things to see and will host a number of events and talks… so, even more worth a visit.

Wednesday 1 November 2017

Review: Piccadilly by Laurence Oliphant

I need to step outside of the eighteenth century for a moment to wade into the swamp that is the nineteenth. 

In one of my habitual jaunts around the remaining desiccated bookshops in Charing Cross, I had to collect five books in order to pay four pounds for them. One of these books was an interesting looking novel called ‘Piccadilly’. It was published in 1870 and my copy was reprinted in 1927. I chose it because it had an interesting and perky first page about a mansion in Piccadilly overlooking Green Park that was chopped up into flats. 

It turned out to be one of the strangest books I have ever read; the tone, the message and the plot are all off-kilter with each other.

The tone is light and fluffy with frequent asides to the reader. The narrating character, Sir Frederick Vanecourt is a rich, idle MP who one day wakes up and decides to write a history of civilisation. Deciding this is too hard, he decides to write an account of his life in Piccadilly and assumes that he will find suitably important things to say within that.

Vanecourt is wealthy, vain and convinced that he was an exceptional personality that gives him special access to the truth. He says things like, “something is upside down; perhaps it is my head, but I rather think it is the world generally.” He hangs around with people with names like Spiffington Goldtip and Lord Larkington. It would seem then, that the humour and satire in the book are to be gained from watching an utterly useless young man and his utterly useless friends, sort of like a Wodehouse book.

However, the theme is that the world is sick because it professes rather than practises religion and that a stripped down, honest look at the life that Christ recommends is the cure of all society’s ills. The agent of these revelations is also Vanecourt. This means that when he is not twitting about, he’s declaiming long and passionate on the fake religion of the ‘worldly-holies’ and expounding the true faith of Jesus.

His actions do not back this up though. Apart from being vacuous and endlessly self-celebrating, he is cruel, deceitful and frequently underhand, brushing those traits off as his eccentricities. 
“As my readers will have perceived, though my intentions are always excellent, my course is occasionally, under any unusual strain, erratic.”

This means that it’s impossible to know how to take the character’s utterances. Are we supposed to be on his side the whole time (because I certainly wasn’t) or are we only supposed to take some of what he says seriously?

The plot, which is supposed to hold all this together, consists of Vanecourt falling in love with Ursula Broadhem, finding out she loves his best friend but will be married to an Indian called Chundango. His job is then to sort out the Broadhem finances and use that stranglehold over Lady Broadhelm, Ursula’s mother, to engineer a marriage between Ursula and his best friend. There are added complications with gossip, electioneering and playing the stock-markets. He then goes to America with a mystic he met on a street for two pages.

This is a perfectly fine plot for the character of Vanecourt to be involved in but it doesn’t leave much room for the religious theme, so various scenes are squeezed in to give rise to those thoughts.

This is not to mention the racism and sexism. Chundango comes from “a heathen land where a pocket handkerchief is sufficient for clothing” and Mrs Broadhem has to learn to stop trying to sort her own finances out and to let a man do it.

The most attractive thing about the novel are the run of the chapter titles, namely;

The World
The Flesh
The “_____”

I think a better novel could be written with them.

Being a little old fashioned with my criticism, I do like to know a little about an author and previous criticism when considering the work. Laurence Oliphant was the son of minor gentry who led an adventure filled, action packed youth as part of the civil service abroad. One particular moment was in Japan where he fought an irate samurai with nothing but a bullwhip. 

Rather like Vanecourt, he became a half-hearted MP living in Piccadilly where he became disenchanted with established religion and it’s deadening effect on real faith. Shortly after publishing ‘Piccadilly’, Oliphant ran off to America with the mystic Thomas Lake Harris, much as Vanecourt does at the end of the book.

Oliphant then tried to form a utopian society, was a journalist in the Franco-German war and became one of the early leaders of the zionist movement. After his wife died, he wrote a book with her ghost, moved to Twickenham and died himself. 

This confusing life doesn’t make much sense of the confused book - but at least I can understand the source of the confusion.

I’m not recommending the book though.